John 17 contains the longest prayer that we have from Jesus, and it shows us the intimate relationship between the Father and the Son in a way that few passages do. The prayer lays out the chiastic pattern noted by Athanasius (God became man so that man could become God), but gives it a perichoretic twist: God dwelt in man so that man could dwell in God; God made room for Himself in us, so that He could make room for us in Himself.
In context, the prayer is part of Jesus’ farewell. Jesus is like a new Moses. As Moses faces death in Deuteronomy, he tells Israel that he will not cross over the Jordan river to enter the land with the people and that he is going away to a place where they cannot follow. He prays for them, gives them instructions about how they are to conduct themselves once he’s gone, promises that Yahweh will be present with them, tells them that Joshua will lead them into the promised land. So too, Jesus tells His disciples He is going back to the Father, has warned them about the battles they will face in the persecution of the world. Jesus has been hated, and the disciples will be hated. Jesus has been persecuted, and so will the disciples. Jesus has done great works, and He promises that the disciples will perform similar works.
The disciples are heading out on a conquest, as they leave Jerusalem to be “sent” into the world as Jesus Himself was sent into the world. On this mission, the disciples can be confident that they will succeed because the Lord is also sending the Spirit to be with them. The Spirit is to Jesus as Joshua is to Moses, the successor, the “other paraclete,” who leads the new Israel in a conquest of the land.
This is the context in which Jesus prays for Himself, His disciples, and the later generations that will believe in Jesus because of what the apostles have taught.
Throughout the prayer, it is clear that Jesus claims to have a unique relationship with the Father. He has authority over all mankind (v. 2), which has been given by the Father. He has the authority to give eternal life to whomever He is given (v. 2), which consists in knowing the Father and the Son (v. 3). Jesus asks for glory from the Father, but this glory is not a new experience for Him since He has had this glory before the world was (v. 5). He “came forth” from the Father and “was sent” (v 8).
Though stressing Jesus’ unique relationship with His Father, the focal point of the prayer is that Jesus’ unique position and unique mission opens the way to the Father for all who believe in Jesus to share His position and mission. Jesus is the “only begotten” of the Father, and yet through Jesus the Father has many children. All who believe are called children of God, born not of flesh and blood, not of the will of man, but of God. Jesus’ sonship and mission is unique precisely in its openness to inclusion of others.
Jesus prays that the things that the Father shares with Him and has given Him to do will be given also to the disciples. Jesus has been glorified in the disciples as He has been glorified by the Father (v. 10), and He later asks that the glory that Jesus has received from the Father is shared out with the disciples (v. 22). Those who have received Him are “not of this world” even as Jesus is “not of this world” (v. 16). Jesus is sanctified, and the disciples are going to be sanctified by the Word and Truth of God (vv. 17, 19). The Father sent Jesus, and then Jesus sends out the disciples even as He Himself has been sent (v. 18).
The same pattern applies to mutual indwelling, one of the key themes of Jesus’ prayer. Jesus came to reveal the Father, and claims that He is capable of revealing the Father because “I am in the Father and the Father is in Me” (John 14:6-9). This notion of “mutual indwelling” is an important concern for John’s gospel, and it is one of the key realities manifested in the incarnation.
In John 1:14, John says that the “Word became flesh and tabernacled among us,” showing that the incarnation is the fulfillment of what was pictured in the tabernacle. In the Mosaic tabernacle, the glory of Yahweh “dwelt among” Israel, and in Jesus the Lord dwells among men in an even more intimate way – by taking on flesh. Behind the indwelling of the Son in human flesh, the “tabernacling” and “templing” that John describes, is the reality of the Son’s indwelling of the Father. The Word’s dwelling in human flesh is a manifestation of an eternal indwelling of the Father and the Son. Jesus speaks of this in response to Philip’s request to see the Father, and He speaks of it again in His prayer in John 17. The unity of Father and Son is a unity of mutual indwelling: “Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee” (v. 21). The Father is the Son’s eternal home, His eternal temple; and the Son is the Father’s eternal temple. The Son has eternally “tabernacled” in the Father through the Spirit, and the Father as eternally tabernacled in the Son through the same Spirit.
The incarnation is not merely a revelation of the eternal perichoretic communion of God. Its purpose is to bring human beings into the circle of fellowship. The eternal mutual indwelling of the Father and the Son is now open to humanity. The Son who dwells in the Father, the Son in whom the Father dwells, has now taken up residence in this world, in human flesh. The Father and Son thus dwell in human flesh, so that whoever sees the Son sees the Father. And human flesh has taken up residence in the Son, and therefore in the Father. This is why John can end the book of Revelation repeating the incarnation language of John 1, now applied to the bride who descends from heaven: “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men” (Revelation 21:3). Because the Word tabernacled in flesh, the incarnational indwelling of God in flesh can be replicated in the church.
For Jesus, incorporation into the communion of the Father and Son by the Spirit overflows into the life of the community. The church is not only the tabernacle of God in the Spirit, but each member makes room for every other. Christmas is good news, but like all good news from God it comes with a demand: God dwells with you; dwell with one another. God made room in humanity for Himself to make room in Himself for humanity; therefore, stretch our to make room for others in yourself. God tabernacled among you; stretch your tent curtains so others can pitch near you.
We recoil. Other peoples’ lives are a mess. Not that our lives are tidy, but we become comfortable with the familiar clutter and junk of our own lives. Stepping into someone else’s litter is just gross. But Jesus came to dwell in flesh, to dwell among our junk and clutter and He sends us out in the Spirit to go and do likewise.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House.