Text Study for John 17:6-19 (Pt. 2); 7 Easter B 2021

2. Speaking of God, or What’s in a Name?

“We believe that God is one of a kind, but beyond that we can’t name what or who God is exactly,” Kaitlin Curtice writes in Native. “Mystery. Other. Sometimes Father, sometimes Mother, and sometimes Neither. Sometimes Friend, sometimes Challenger. When we begin to name God,” Curtice reminds us, “we find that God has suddenly become an image of us, our own cultural understandings” (page 23). We could use more of that theological, epistemological, and spiritual humility in our current discourse in America.

The writer of John’s gospel understands that as soon as we talk about God in any specifics, we are bound to be in error. Human language, concepts, and thinking simply cannot encompass or comprehend the Divine in anything approaching a full sense. So, John’s gospel uses repetition, images, figures of speech, and multiple frames of reference to begin to approximate what we mean when we talk about the God who is revealed in Jesus. John’s gospel is filled with overlapping, interlocking, and even inconsistent language about God in order to make this approximation.

Photo by Miriam Espacio on Pexels.com

That is true, for example, in how John’s gospel uses the tenses of verbs to describe what God is up to in Jesus by the power of the Spirit. You can find verbs in the present tense, the simple past tense, and the past tense continuing in the present – often in the same verse! Is John’s gospel talking about the past, the present, or the future in these descriptions of Jesus?

The real answer is “Yes – all of the above.” John’s gospel describes what has happened for the benefit of listeners in his present time who will convey their witness to future believers. Therefore, all of time meets in Jesus as he is glorified.

“Jesus’ words address his disciples’ concerns, but also speak to the future experience of the reader,” O’Day and Hylen suggest. “One of the key marks of this multilayered address is the fluidity of verb tenses. Jesus declares the fulfillment of the events of his hour in the past, present, and future tenses” (Kindle Location 2964). Jesus’ prayer is for them, and it is for us as well. “The past, present, and future all exist within the moment of Jesus’ hour,” they write. “The words of encouragement and instruction that Jesus speaks are directed to future as well as present disciples” (Kindle Location 2969).

I think we can see this in one of the primary ways Jesus describes himself in John’s gospel – the “I am” statements. It’s not surprising that these statements connect Jesus to the God of Israel, who self-identifies as “I am.” You may recall Moses’ encounter with God at the Burning Bush in Exodus 3. When Moses asks for God’s real name, what he gets is a linguistic riddle. The name really means, “I am what I am; I was what I was; I will be what I will be.” All of time comes to…intersection?…completion?…union?…in this name.

Does the fluid use of verb tenses in John’s gospel reflect this understanding of God’s relationship to time? Is Jesus portrayed in the gospel as Lord of all time – past, present, and future – in this grammatical fashion? I think so. After all, this is the gospel that portrays Jesus as declaring, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). More to the point, however, is that this fluidity of tense is just one way to show that Jesus makes known God’s “name.”

“I have made known your name to the persons whom you gave me from the cosmos,” Jesus prays in John 17:6. “They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have been keeping your Word” (my translation). What is this “name” that Jesus has made known to the disciples? It can be none other than “I am.”

This is Jesus’ most common self-description in John’s gospel. On the one hand, we can find the “absolute” construction with “I am,” as noted in John 8:58 above. “The absolute ‘I AM’ statements are meant to be direct claims of who Jesus really is,” Lewis notes, “the Word was God, the Word made flesh, God incarnated, God revealing God’s self, as God did to Moses (Exod. 3:14), but now in a new and unique way” (page 62).

The other “I am” statements in John’s gospel are “predicate nominative” statements, such as “I am the true vine” in John 15. These predicate nominative statements are “not only unique to John; they are an essential aspect of the primary theological assumption of this Gospel,” Lewis writes, “’and the Word became flesh.’ The fourth evangelist undergirds a theology of incarnation,” she suggests, “by locating a description of Jesus in physical, material, and tangible realities” (page 63).

Jesus has made his name known, in John’s gospel, both through the absolute and unconditional application of God’s proper name to himself, and by using that name along with figures of speech to give depth and meaning to the name.

In John’s gospel, Jesus’ opponents are quite clear about the meaning of that name. In the incident noted above in John 8, Jesus makes the “absolute” identification between God and himself. “The response of the Jews is to pick up stones to throw at him (v. 59),” O’Day and Hylen note, “the punishment prescribed for blasphemy in the Old Testament (Lev. 24:13–16; see John 10:31).

“The accusation of blasphemy, first seen in chapter 5, again comes to the fore as a reason to execute Jesus,” they continue. “Yet the attempt at stoning also indicates that Jesus’ audience recognize the import of the ‘I AM’ saying. They do not attack him because they misunderstand his words,” the authors conclude, “but because they do understand” (Kindle Location 2051).

When Jesus makes known God’s “name,” what he conveys is, in fact, God’s identity for the world. This takes us back to John 1:18 – “No one has ever seen God; the Only-Begotten God, the one who leans into the bosom of the Father –that one has made [the Father] known” (my translation). In John 1:18, the Only-Begotten God “exegetes” the Father – reveals the Father by interpretation and explanation. In John 17:6, Jesus notes that he has made the name of the Father “appear” to the persons placed in his care. He has embodied that name for them.

This knowing is more than information. It is relationship at the deepest level. In fact, this “knowing” is the definition of “eternal life” in John’s gospel. “Now this is eternal life: that they shall know you, the one true God,” Jesus declares in John 17:3, “and Jesus, the Messiah, whom you sent” (my translation and emphasis). Eternal life in John’s gospel is far more than a heavenly insurance policy for the select few. It is knowing God and being known by God in and through Jesus by the power of the Spirit in the here and now.

“Reading verses 1–4 primarily as a reference to believers’ future place in heaven limits what Jesus is saying here,” O’Day and Hylen remind us. “Jesus’ hour creates new possibilities for relationship with God in the present life of the believer” (Kindle Location 3017). Rather than being Christians who are so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good, in John’s gospel, disciples are fed and formed by knowing God in Jesus right here and right now.

That will preach in a time when we need all the help in the here and now we can get.

Of course, we are taken back to John 3:16 and the purpose of God’s sending of the Son into the world – so that all might have eternal life. Jesus reminds us in John 10:10 that he came so that we might have abundant life. In his Farewell Prayer, Jesus declares that he has accomplished – completed – this life-giving work by making God’s being known among the disciples.

“While there is certain promise of life beyond death that is imagined as being at the bosom of the Father at the ascension,” Karoline Lewis notes, “to know abundant life means that abundance is not capable of being delayed. As a result, salvation is present, an eschatological promise that is in the moment as well as in the future. Preaching the meaning of salvation from the particular witness of this moment in John,” she suggests, “will invite a different and perhaps more robust soteriology than what preaching tends to proclaim” (pages 68-69).

Lewis suggests that this proclamation of eternal life will provide a helpful balance to the “escape hatch theology” which encapsulates so much American Christian piety. This description is more mine than Karoline’s, but I think it captures some of her concern. On the seventh Sunday of Easter, we can rejuvenate our cries of “Christ is risen!” by declaring that this life is available and impactful in the here and now – a useful reminder as it seems we are destined for more of the same old stuff.

It is also a welcome boost as we move into the long, green season ahead. “All too often,” Lewis notes, “the resurrection is preached as a culmination rather than an inauguration, the believer’s ultimate reality rather than the penultimate promise, especially for the Gospel of John. A primary theological assumption throughout the Farewell Discourse,” she writes, “is that there is more to being a child of God than being raised from the dead” (page 193).

There’s an interesting sermon theme for this Sunday – life is more than not being dead!

Next time, we look at “glorification” as the further description of this abundant life.

References and Resources

Curtice, Kaitlin B. Native. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Laskey, Dennis A., “Luther’s Exposition of John 17,” Currents in Theology and Mission, 1991. https://www.richardmburgess.com/yahoo_site_admin/assets/docs/jn_17_Laskey_-_Luthers_exposition_of_John_17.115152032.pdf.

Lewis, Karoline M.; Lewis, Karoline M.. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion) . Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

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