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Literary Background and Theological Message

Continuing with the mandate for unity, this post uncovers New Covenant unity (Part I) with the focus on the literary background and theological message of John 17:20-23…

Jan Paron/October 15, 2012

Part I of the series of New Covenant Unity, delves into the history background and cultural setting of the concept of New Testament unity described in John 17:20-23. The second part of this series completes the interpretative triad with literary and theological analyses. The triad completed provides premises for unity of the Body. These premises serve as guiding principles that give purpose to leadership in a multicultural environment within the local church – a biblical framework behind it and particulars for supporting it.

All Nations Leadership Institute, 2012

Literary Background

Some call John 17 the Farewell Discourse, others the High-Priestly Prayer.[1] Regardless, it reflects personal communication between Jesus, as the God-man, and the Father on the subjects of glory and unity. Jesus prays first for His disciples and second for future believers from the yet formed Christian community (17:20; cf., Ps 110:1, 4).

In John 17:20-23, Jesus petitions four times that the Body be one. Each petition begins with the word, that (meaning in order that).” [2] When a Greek language clause begins with the word that, it signals a hina clause immediately follows. A hina clause refers to “a continuous action and a statement of purpose”[3]  from the next sentence’s issue, need or subject, and gives the rationale for the clause before it.  The following sentence contains a hina clause, which I underlined. “People from diverse cultures must worship in harmony and side-by-side within the local church that the Body shows the outside world Jesus Christ is Lord through its unity. This hina clause gives an ongoing purpose for a culturally diverse population worshipping side-by-side and with one voice within the local church. The sentence makes a clear statement on its own without the hina clause. By adding the hina clause after it, though, the sentence becomes a mandate with an exclamation point. Let’s take close look at each verse from John 17:20-23 to peel back meaning of each of the four oneness hina clauses in their immediate literary context to the original audience.

Verse 17:20 “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word;” (NKJV). Think of it as a book preface that introduces a snippet of what’s to come. Jesus sets up the next three verses. Jesus prays for two different populations: His disciples (17:20a) and people of whom the disciples will persuade through their teachings (17:21c) that Jesus is the Sent One (17:20b). Did the audience grasp that future believers would include Gentiles?[4] My guess is that they did not, but see division among Jews towards the acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah. The prayer took place in the context of a Jesus community. It was not until after the Day of Pentecost that the circle of believers was expanded to include Gentiles. (cf. The spreading of Christianity in the Book of Acts.)

Verse 17:21that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” John 17:23 contains two hina clauses about oneness “that they may be one” (“as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You”) and “they they may be one in Us” (“that the world may believe that You sent Me”). The two hina clauses join with a two-fold purpose for the disciples and believers across the ages. That purpose reflects a seamlessly unified people of one fold under one shepherd” (cf., John 17:11; See also John 10:16; 11:51-52; 56:8; Isa. 42:6b; allusion, Deut 29:14-15), whose unification as one in Christ bears witness to the identity of Jesus as the Messiah (John 17:5, 24; Zech 2:9). This verse holds significance to challenges the disciples face. Jesus says that the world “has hated them because they are not of the world,” just as Jesus as the God-man was not of this world (17:14).  The same detracters, the world, who hated or doubted Jesus as the Sent One, past and present, will show the same attitude to the disciples. Likewise, the disciples “will have tribulation” in the world (John 17:33c).

Verse 17:22And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one:”  This third hina clause about oneness might be restated to, that they may be kept in solidarity as one fold, transformed into His likeness to reflect His glory (John 17:22; 2 Cor 3:18). Group solidarity is of importance — Jesus asks that they be kept together as one fold, just as he did with the disciples (cf 17:11). Bruce Malina likens this solidarity to group glue founded on love.[5] Just as Jesus “loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.” The Amplified version states, “He loved them to the last and to the highest degree” (13:1). Facing His own departure He gave a new command that “you love one another’ even as I have love you, that you also love one another” (13:34). Solidarity is maintained when one loves (ἀγαπάω) another. Love is the glue that binds solidarity in relationship. In an ancient society dominated by kinship and status, loving one another did not come easy.

Verse 17:23 “I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.” The sentence prior to the hina clause shows need: “I in them, and thou in me (17: 23a), so that “they may be made perfect in one” (17:23b). When the fold remains unified, all the while abiding in Christ and Him dwelling within them, He matures them as one and makes them complete in His fullness.

Theological Message. Jesus’ prayers provide direction that believers from all tribes, nations and tongues would be unified. You see from the historical and cultural background that Jesus faced great opposition. Strife and conflict among Jews prevailed over the message of the forthcoming Messiah. Even Jesus’ own disciples did not grasp the full implications of His discourse and revealed identity in John 13-16. Consider for a moment the broader purpose and audience for this prayer. While Jesus prays for His disciples, He not only prays that they remain one, but addresses future unity of the yet formed Christian community (17:20-23).

This prayer serves the purpose of providing direction for a unified, Body of believers from all tribes and nations – The Church of Jesus Christ. An analysis of the result statements (hina clauses) for oneness shows four major premises for unity of the Church in the areas of purpose and knowledge, bearing witness, reflecting His glory and perfecting as one in Him:

  1. That believers may be joined together as “one fold and one shepherd” with “unity of purpose and knowledge through Jesus” (cf John 10:30; 17:21a; Miller, 2011).
  2. That believers abide in the one Shepherd and as one fold to bear unified witness in unity to the identity of Jesus as the Sent One (John 17:21b).
  3. That they may be kept in solidarity as one fold, transformed into His likeness to reflect the His glory (John 17:22; 2 Cor 3:18).
  4. That they may be made complete and full as one, collectively abiding in Christ and Him dwelling within every believer (John 17:23).

Next, the M.O.S.A.I.C. framework for leading in a heterogeneous church — six scriptural-based elements that support unity of the Body…

To ponder…

  • How do you see the theological message applied in the North American church?


  • Dana, H. E. & Mantey, Julius, S. A manual grammar of the Greek New Testament. Toronto: MacMillan Company, 1955.
  • Elowsky, Joel D. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2007.
  • Köstenberger, Andreas. John: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004.
  • ___________________. An Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical triad of History, Literature      and Theology. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2011.
  • ____________________. Encountering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary and Theological perspectives. Grand      Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999.
  • ____________________. A Theology of John’s Gospels and Letters: A Biblical Theology of the New Testament. Grand      Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009.
  • Metzger, Paul. The Gospel of John: When Love Comes to Town. Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2010.
  • Moloney, Francis. (1989). Sacra pagina: The Gospel of John. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1989.
  • Neyrey, Jerome. The Gospel of John. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Neyrey, J. The Gospel of John in Cultural and Rhetorical Perspective. Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2009.

[1] Jerome Neyrey, The Gospel of John, (Cambridge: University Press, 2007), 276. Neyrey says that the prayer has a long tradition of being called high priestly. He explains that it label roots itself in two items. “First the seamlessness of Jesus’ garment (19:23-24) has been compared to the high priest’s robe…Second, the Letter to the Hebrews shaped Christian understanding of the crucified Jesus as high priest.”

[2] Dana, H. E.. & Mantey, Julius, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, (Toronto: MacMillan Company, 1955).

[3] Dana & Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament.

[4] Joel C Elowsky, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press) 256. Origen Adamantius, an Alexandrian theologian ca AD184/185 that the human race has been appointed in order that in the future world—ages to come, when there shall be the new heavens and the new earth spoken of by Isaiah–that unity may be restored that was promised by the Lord Jesus in his prayer to God the Father, on behalf of His disciples.” Jerome, a theologian and Roman Catholic priest AD347, looked at Jesus’ petition as a reminder that God’s beloved children are one in God, partakers of His divine nature.

[5] Jerome Neyrey,The Gospel of John in Cultural and Rhetorical Perspective, (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2009, 469.