Revisiting John 17 and Jesus’ Prayer for the World
Regarding Jesus’ prayer in John 17, these facts are always alleged, assumed, and asserted, even though they are never supported by any confirming evidence:
1. That this is a specific and effectual high priestly prayer on the part of Jesus.
2. That the “world” of 17: 9 respects the world of the reprobate.
3. That those “given” in verse 9 represent the totality of the elect.
4. That the extent of the high priestly intercession delimits the scope of the satisfaction.
5. That the two parallel clauses in verses 21 and 23 are systemically overlooked or misread.
This short essay will not attempt to answer 1-4, specifically, but focus on 5: That the two parallel clauses in verses 21 and 23 are systemically overlooked or misread.
The verses read:
17:21: “that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe [πιστευω] that You sent Me
17: 23 I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know [γινωσκω] that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.
Or in short:
21 so that the world may believe [πιστευω] that You sent Me.
23 so that the world may know [γινωσκω] that You sent Me.
Some writers, like John Calvin and John Gill attempt to divert the import of believe and know, in verses 21 and 23. It is interesting that Calvin notes that "world" in vs 21 and 13 must be the world of the reprobate, given its usage throughout the chapter. But yet, when it comes to πιστευω and γινωσκω he drops this rule and makes them refer to something other than true saving faith. He says:
The verb, to believe, has been inaccurately [imprecisely; Parker translation] used by the Evangelist for the very to know; that is, when unbelievers, convinced by their own experience, perceive the heavenly and Divine glory of Christ. The consequence is, that, believing, they do not believe, because this conviction does not penetrate into the inward feeling of the heart. And it is just vengeance of God, that the splendor of Divine glory dazzles the eyes of the reprobate, because they do not deserve to have a clear and pure view of it. He afterward uses the verb, to know, in the same sense.
Gill does something similar. After saying that "world" in v21 may mean the rest of the elect, he prefers that it means the remaining Jews and Deists who will be forced to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah at the last day. That has to be a very eccentric and strained reading of the text.
I do not believe that they are warranted to change the normal meanings of believe and know, as used by John in his gospel, such that they mean something other than saving or salvific belief and knowledge.1 That is, anything other than that they should really believe and know, and this for themselves.
It is interesting that there is actually a parallel usage right in the text itself.
17: 8 for the words which You gave Me I have given to them; and they received them and truly understood [γινωσκω] that I came forth from You, and they believed [πιστευω] that You sent Me.
8b truly understood [γινωσκω] that I came forth from You . . .
8c and they believed [πιστευω] that You sent Me
Jesus uses the two verbs believe and know as respecting the same reference. The 11 apostles (at least) had come to know and believe that Jesus had been sent from the Father.
In vs 21 and 23: 21 we see the exact same sentiment repeated but now applied to the world. The order may be reversed but the sentiment is the same, and repeated for emphasis, as with the first instance.
We also see the same exact sentiment in the summary statement of v. 25:
“O righteous Father, although the world has not known You, yet I have known You; and these have known [γινωσκω] that You sent Me.”
25 and these have known [γινωσκω] that You sent Me
What is more, if we look outside of John chapter 17, we find other examples of the same sentiment, with the same verbs, as we find in John 17: 8, 21, 23, and 25.
John 6:69 “And we have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.”
John 16:27 for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from the Father.
John 16:30 "Now we know that You know all things, and have no need for anyone to question You; by this we believe that You came from God."2
Given these verses, it is likely that this expression had a thematic or formulaic meaning for John. Indeed, what we see here is the language of personal confession. As the John 17 comments are part of a wider or general thematic intent in John, it is more likely that the comments in John 17 fit into that theme, rather than just asserting, rather atextually, that with regard to John 17: 21 and 23, either that John incorrectly used the word “believe” (Calvin), or that his intent was to jump to the final eschaton, where it is, alleged, that the “world” (namely Jews and Deists) will finally come to know and believe, against the desire of their hearts, that Jesus was the Messiah after all (Gill).
Both Calvin and Gill have trapped themselves at this point because they have bought into the idea that kosmos in verse 9 denotes the non-elect, rather than the world of mankind, alive, living in rebellion and opposition to God and his church. The sort of equivocation Calvin and Gill call for is not derived from the text but from something outside of the text of Scripture altogether. Certain false lexical and theological constraints have, as it were, hijacked what should have been their correct exegesis and biblical theology.
However, once the meaning of kosmos throughout the chapter is allowed to assume its normal meaning, and once the meanings of the verbs believe and know are allowed to be read consistently (as defined by context and usage rather than atextual interpolations), then according the standard rules of hermeneutics, the strict particularist reading of this passage really has no footing in this chapter. For without doubt, if Christ prays for the world, that they should know and believe, then he has most assuredly died for the world. For how could Christ pray for a man for whom he has not died?
Given that meaning is determined by context and usage, it’s clear that the there is here a prayer that the world truly believe and know that Jesus has been sent from the Father, just as the Apostles now believe and know that Jesus is sent from the Father. This cannot mean bare knowledge of facts or “historical belief” or “historical knowledge,” or a belief in terror or dread at the last judgment, but true and proper saving belief. Furthermore, we know that this is a prayer for the world’s salvation because of the clear presence of the subjunctives (v., 21, ἵνα ὁ κόσμος πιστεύη, and v.,23, ἵνα γινώσκη ὁ κόσμος). Christ prays that future believes be one for the purpose that the world may believe and know that Jesus has been sent from the Father. And having recognized this, we can discern in what sense he does and does not pray for the world. While it is true that Jesus in this prayer does not pray in behalf of the world, as he prays in behalf of present and future believers, nonetheless, his prayer does have regard for the world in that it is a prayer for the benefit of the world, namely their salvation.
Lastly, given the two clauses in John 17, it becomes more doubtful that the prayer of John 17 should considered specifically an effectual “high priestly” prayer. Rather it is a personal prayer of the Son as general mediator between God and mankind.
1Needless to be said, by this I do not mean that all will be saved (Universalism) but that the aim of Christian unity, in this prayer, is that the world similarly come to a true and living faith in Christ.
2Another verse of interest is John 13:35 "By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another. I do not think that either Calvin or Gill’s lines of interpretation would do justice to this verse. More likely the meaning is that “all men” know that Christians are the followers of Jesus in marvel and wonder (not in fear and dread), and that the aim of ‘loving one another’ is the conversion of all men.