The seventeenth chapter of John concludes a discourse by Jesus at the Last Supper. Chapter 17 is known as the “high priestly prayer” of Jesus, and this is one of the passages where knowledge of Jewish worship and tradition is useful. Because Jesus asks God to “make holy” the disciples, and because Jesus addresses God the Holy Father by lifting up his eyes to heaven, we call the passage a priestly prayer.
Jesus uses a term in verses 17 and 19 rendered in Greek as ἁγιάζω, which means “sanctify” or “consecrate.” Literally, hagiazo means “to make holy.” In Jewish worship, it would be a priest who petitions God to sanctify something. In this passage, Jesus petitions God to make holy his disciples. But this petition needs to be understood in the context of the entire prayer of chapter 17.
Faith and Creation
The priestly prayer establishes a space or relational distance between God and his people. Drawing on old Jewish tradition, some scholars argue that this prayer exemplifies a belief that, for the Jews, the relationship between God and his people is so important that it gives meaning to the cosmos. Creation was made so that man could give glory to God. Put another way, the believer in Jesus does not exist because the universe exists. On the contrary, the universe exists because those who believe in God need a context or space in which to express their faith and belief in God.
This might explain the phraseology of the prayer in verses 14 to 16. Jesus says the world hated the disciples. He says they do not belong in the world any more than I belong in the world. And he says, I do not ask you to take them out of the world, since Jesus sent them into the world.
A Prayer of Atonement Becomes a Prayer of Sanctification
Some scholars believe the prayer of Jesus is a development of the mandate set forth in Leviticus 16, which sets forth a day of atonement (Yom Kippur) for the nation of Israel. Leviticus 16 mandates that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins. It is the priest who is anointed and consecrated in his father’s place [who] shall make atonement. In this priestly prayer in John chapter 17, Jesus does not ask for atonement. Rather, he asks for sanctification. He prays that he himself may be made holy for the sake of his people (verse 19). He then asks God to make his disciples holy, as well as those who hear the word (verse 20). But thematically, sanctification follows and supercedes atonement. Jesus does not simply ask for atonement, which is what a priest of the Old Testament does. No, Jesus asks for something greater: holiness.
The Four Themes of the Priestly Prayer
According to Benedict XVI, there are four major themes in the high priestly prayer of chapter 17. They are, “life” in verse 3; “sanctification” or consecration in verses 17 and 19; that God is “made known” in verses 3, 6, 23 and 25; and that the disciples “may be made one” in verses 11 and 22.
Jesus tells us that eternal life comes about by knowing God. Implicit in his prayer is that to know God is to know the Father through the Son, who rose from the dead. We are saved through that faith – by “knowing” the Father and the Son (verse 17:3); and by living the love that God has for Jesus (verse 15:9) and that he has for us (verse 15:12). By this truth (verse 17:17) (which is the love of God, expressed through Jesus the Word), both Jesus and the disciples are sanctified. Jesus prays that his disciples may be made holy, just as the Son is made holy by offering himself. Finally, Jesus prays that the disciples may be made one, which anticipates Paul’s theology that the church is “one body.”
Love, Sanctification and One Church
If you will recall, in chapter 15 of John, Jesus set up an analogy that states that as God loves the Son, the Son loves the disciples, and the disciples ought to, therefore love one another. In the priestly prayer, Jesus asks God to make the disicples holy – to sanctify them. This of course can only happen if the disciples know of the love of God, of Jesus, and then practice that charity amongst themselves. And it is in that way that the church is made one – by the disciples putting into practice the same love that God has for his Son, and for us.
“Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me,
so that they may be one just as we are one.
When I was with them I protected them in your name that you gave me,
and I guarded them, and none of them was lost
except the son of destruction,
in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled.
But now I am coming to you.
I speak this in the world
so that they may share my joy completely.
I gave them your word, and the world hated them,
because they do not belong to the world
any more than I belong to the world.
I do not ask that you take them out of the world
but that you keep them from the evil one.
They do not belong to the world
any more than I belong to the world.
Consecrate them in the truth. Your word is truth.
As you sent me into the world,
so I sent them into the world.
And I consecrate myself for them,
so that they also may be consecrated in truth.”