A word should be said about Jesus’ prayer in John 17. Some correspondents5 have cited verse 9, where Jesus says, “I pray for them; I pray not for the world, but for them whom thou hast given me; for they are thine,” to prove that Christ loved only the elect and not the world. But does it? Whom did Jesus designate by the words "those whom thou hast given me"? The elect? This is forced exegesis. The entire context, beginning with verse 4, makes it clear that those to whom Jesus referred in verse 9 are those who had come to believe in Him at that time, the actual persons whom the Father had given to Jesus in His earthly ministry up to that point, the ones of whom He said in verse 9. that they had received and believed His words. This interpretation is also supported by verse 20, where Jesus says, “Neither for these only do I pray, but for them also that believe on me through their word.” Evidently right within the same prayer Jesus prayed not only for the limited number who were in view in verse 8, but also for the many who later would come through their word to share their faith.
What, then, did Jesus mean when He said, "I pray not for the world?" In the light of the foregoing, the explanation seems obvious. Surely Jesus did not mean that He did not love the world and under no circumstances would pray for it. We must observe that it was a certain prayer, with specific petitions, which He offered for those whom the Father had given Him, and which He declared He did not offer for the world. What were these specific petitions which He prayed? Chiefly that those who had come to believe in Him would be faithful, joyful, kept from the evil one, sanctified in the truth, and unified with those who would later come to believe through them. Would there have been any point in Jesus praying these things for the unconverted world? Certainly not. That He did not do so proves nothing about His disposition to the world, not even at that moment. He was simply praying in terms of the unique relationship which existed between Himself and His disciples, a relationship which the world did not share. Neither, therefore, could the world share in Jesus’ prayer for the development and fruition of this particular relationship. However, in verses 21 and 23, part of the same prayer, Jesus did indeed pray for the world, He prayed the very thing which was alone appropriate to the world. He prayed that the world might believe–the same world about which John 3:16 teaches us that God loved it with a redemptive love, nothing less than the world of all men. To use the high-priestly prayer of Christ in John 17 as an argument for limitation in divine redemptive love is, it seems to me, clearly to misuse it.
Harold Dekker, “God’s Love to Sinners–One or Two?,” Reformed Journal 13 (March 1963), 14-15. [Footnote value and content original, and underlining mine.]
Credit to Tony for the find.
5See Mr. Jack Arens’s letter in the January Reformed Journal and Rev. P. DeJong’s in this issue.