Thoughts on John 17:5

In His prayer just before He was betrayed and arrested in Gethsemane, Jesus said, “And now, O Father, glorify me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was” (John 17:5). Do these words prove that the Son was eternally a divine person distinct from the Father?

When we consider the prayers of Jesus, we must keep in mind that His prayers are unique to the Incarnation. What this means is that we have no biblical record of the Son praying to the Father prior to the Incarnation. Although some prayers of the Messiah are recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures and specifically in the Psalms, these prayers form part of the prophetic content of the Old Testament. In other words, they do not reflect prayers that had been prayed before the text was written, nor do they provide the content of prayers being prayed at the time they were written. Instead, they are prophecies of prayers the Messiah would pray when He came into the world. For example, the words of a messianic prayer are recorded in Psalm 40:6-8a: “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire; My ears You have opened. Burnt offering and sin offering You did not require. Then I said, ‘Behold, I come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do Your will, O my God.’” The writer of Hebrews recorded this prayer, which Jesus prayed “when He came into the world” (Hebrews 10:5). The point is that the words of the prayer were first written by David, a prophet,[1] but they were not actually prayed until Jesus came into the world as God manifest in human existence.[2]

Another example is found in Hebrews 1:6. This demonstrates that not only the prayers of Jesus, but also the words of the Father concerning the Son as they are found in the Old Testament are prophetic. According to Hebrews 1:6, God said, “Let all the angels of God worship Him [the Son[3]].”[4] But these words were not spoken by God prior to the Incarnation; they were spoken “when He again brings the firstborn into the world” (Hebrews 1:6).

John 17:5, like all of Jesus’ prayers, must be read in the context of the Incarnation. It must be taken into account that Jesus was at once both God and man. The deity and humanity of Jesus cannot be divided and considered in isolation from each other. Everything that Jesus did and said He did and said as who He was, God manifest in genuine and full human existence. Thus, when Jesus referred to “the glory which I had with thee before the world was,” these words refer to the glory that He had with His Father not as a distinct person in the Godhead, but to the glory that He had as God manifest in the flesh [human existence]. Since the Incarnation had not yet occurred before the world was, this was an anticipatory glory that was a reality to the extent that it existed already in the mind of God even though it had not yet occurred in time. This is much like John’s description of the Messiah as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). Although the word translated “slain” (esphagmenou) is a perfect passive participle, indicating that the slaying occurred in the past, Bible readers instinctively understand that this does not mean that Jesus was crucified at the time the world was created, but that His crucifixion was anticipated in the mind of God.

If Jesus’ words in John 17:5 do not take into account His humanity, that is, if they do not reflect the reality of the Incarnation, we are left with a Nestorian Jesus whose deity and humanity were not integrated in one person, but who could at one moment speak and act as a mere man with no regard for his deity and who could at the next moment speak and act as God with no regard for His humanity. In other words, when Jesus said, “I,” He referred to Himself as He really was: both God and man or the God-man. Jesus never said “I” to refer exclusively to His deity or to His humanity. In the Incarnation humanity was incorporated into the Godhead and everything Jesus said and did reflected this reality. As it has been said, we are body and soul, but Jesus is God and body and soul.

From the standpoint of Christology, what we have said here reflects the broad teaching of both the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures. But now we must consider whether John 17:5 can be read in a way that does not conflict with the integrity of Christ’s person.

First, even before examining the Greek text, we should ask, If Jesus was truly God, what need did He have of prayer? To some, the prayers of Jesus prove that He was not God. To others, the fact that He was God proves that His prayers were merely meant to be an example to us. But I think it is safe to say that most who believe in both the deity and humanity of Christ also believe that the prayers of Jesus were genuine and that they reflect the fact that Jesus was not only God but also man. It was not because He was God that Jesus needed to pray; it is because He was also human. In other words, Jesus prayed for the same reason we do; human beings need to pray. The fact that He was a human being in whom dwelt the fullness of the Godhead bodily[5] does not detract from the authenticity of His humanity. It did not render it unnecessary for Jesus to eat, sleep, or to participate in the full range of human activities. Neither did it render it unnecessary for Him to pray. This is bound up in the miracle of the Incarnation, and human attempts to explain this mystery will always fail. Miracles must be accepted for what they are; they lie completely outside the range of human understanding or explanation.

There are two words in the Greek text of John 17:5 that some insist prove that Jesus is distinct from the Father as the eternal Son. The first is eichon, translated “I had.” Since eichon is in the imperfect tense, active voice, and indicative mood (literally, “I was having”), and since the active voice means that it is the subject that is acting (in this case, Jesus), and since the indicative mood confirms the reality of the action from the viewpoint of the speaker,[6] it is claimed that this means that Jesus pre-existed the Incarnation as the eternal Son. Since He is the “doer” of the “having,” and since this was before the world was, then the Son must have possessed glory with the Father before the world was as an actual person distinct from the Father.

But if Jesus, who was both God and man, possessed glory with the Father before the world was – and He certainly did, as indicated in John 17:5 – He possessed it as who He was at the moment of His prayer: God manifest in flesh. Jesus could no more pray from the perspective of His deity while ignoring His humanity than we could pray from the perspective of the material part of our existence while ignoring the immaterial. No analogy is sufficient to explain a miracle, but Jesus cannot be bifurcated so that either His deity or humanity is irrelevant to any of His words or deeds. If before the creation of the world Jesus possessed glory with the Father as it relates to His deity, He also possessed glory with the Father at the same time as it relates to His humanity. Few would suggest that Jesus’ humanity pre-existed the Incarnation!

Those who wish to point to the imperfect active indicative form of eichon in John 17:5 to prove the eternality of the Son are reading more into the imperfect tense than is there. Although the imperfect tense expresses continuous action in the past, it says nothing about the origin or termination of the action or about how long the action continued. In other words, the imperfect tense is not an “eternal” tense. Although it does not specify the origin or termination of the action, it describes ongoing action that does indeed have a point of origin; that point is simply not within the scope of the imperfect tense. In this case, Jesus was having glory with the Father before the world was. The imperfect tense does not inform us about the beginning or duration of the possession of this glory.

To say that the imperfect tense indicates continuous action in the past is an incomplete description of its function. The imperfect may be descriptive, in that it vividly presents what was going on in the past. Like a motion picture, it shows the movement of an event. Nothing about this use of the imperfect addresses origin, ending, or even the idea of the lack of an origin or ending. On the other hand, the imperfect may be iterative, showing continual or repeated action in the past. In this case, the action occurs again and again. Then, the imperfect may be inceptive, emphasizing the beginning of the action rather than its progress.[7]

As far as the use of the imperfect is concerned, all that John 17:5 tells us is that at some point in the past, and specifically before the world was, Jesus was having glory with the Father. The verse does not tell us how long He had this glory, nor does it tell us whether He still had this glory after the creation of the world, although it may imply that He did not. Jesus did not say He was having this glory before the Incarnation. If He had said this, we could assume that the Incarnation was the reason He no longer had this glory.[8] But if the Incarnation was the reason Jesus no longer had this glory, how could the glory be restored to Him as long as the Incarnation endured (i.e., forever)?
It seems much more satisfying to understand Jesus to refer to the glory that belonged to Him in anticipation of the full range of His incarnational experiences, including not only His manifestation in the flesh, but also His death, burial, and resurrection. As Paul wrote, Jesus was declared to be the Son of God by the resurrection from the dead.[9]If the glory for which Jesus prayed involved both His deity and humanity, His prior possession of this glory also involved both His deity and humanity, or it would not have been the same glory.

In what sense did Jesus, as God manifest in the flesh, possess glory with the Father before the world was? The answer to this question may be found in the possible range of meaning in the words para soi, commonly translated “with thee.” The preposition para, when used in the dative case, includes the meanings “with” or “beside,” with position implied.[10] But this does not begin to exhaust the range of meaning possible with para in the dative case. Indeed, a red flag goes up immediately with the idea of physical position being indicated in Jesus’ prayer, whether one embraces a trinitarian or oneness view of God. It is widely understood that it is inadequate to think in terms of physical location or position when one thinks of God. For example, biblical scholars commonly explain references to the “right hand of God” in metaphorical terms. F. F. Bruce, for instance, comments on Hebrews 1:3: 

That no literal location is intended was as well understood by Christians in the apostolic age as it is by us: they knew that God has no physical right hand or material throne where the ascended Christ sits beside Him; to them the language denoted the exaltation and supremacy of Christ as it does to us.[11]

To insist that we read para soi with its simplest and limited reference to position is to impose a literally materialistic meaning on the text. When we talk about God – again, from either a trinitarian or oneness point of view – in what sense could it be said that the Son was positioned with or beside the Father before the world was? If we go down this road, we shall soon embrace ditheism or tritheism.

But this choice is not necessary. Para, when used in the dative case, has a wider range of meaning than merely “with” or “beside.” As the Louw-Nida Lexicon points out, para with the dative includes within its range of meaning “in the opinion of,” from the viewpoint of a participant, marking a participant whose viewpoint is relevant to an event. Thus, para can be translated “in the sight of, in the opinion of, in the judgment of.”[12] Certainly Jesus, who understood more clearly than anyone that God is Spirit, did not mean by para soi that the Father has a physical location and that He, Jesus, was positioned beside the Father in that location before the world was. But nothing would prevent the translation “the glory which I had in Your sight” or “in Your opinion,” or “in Your judgment” before the world was. This avoids the problem of physical location within the Godhead and captures the essence of the same idea as Revelation 13:8. Jesus was with the Father before the world was in the same sense that He was slain from the foundation of the world. The slaying of Jesus required the Incarnation. The Incarnation did not occur in time and space until a specific date on the calendar. Yet John declared that the Lamb was slain long before this specific date. Indeed, the New Living Translation renders Revelation 13:8: “And all the people who belong to this world worshiped the beast. They are the ones whose names were not written in the Book of Life, which belongs to the Lamb who was killed before the world was made.” If Jesus, the Lamb, could be killed before the world was made, He could also have glory with the Father before the world was. The one requires the other.

Jesus could say He “was having” this glory in the past just as surely as John could say He was slain in the past. That which exists in the mind of God is reality just as surely that which exists in the material world. The Lord knew Jeremiah before Jeremiah was formed in the womb (Jeremiah 1:5). He declared Cyrus to be His servant over a century before Cyrus was born (Isaiah 44:28; 45:1). He renamed Abram (high father) Abraham (father of many) before Abraham had even one descendant. God can do this because he “gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did” (Romans 4:17). Jesus Himself is God. Therefore, He can say, “And now, O Father, glorify me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was.” But because He is God manifest in human existence, this prayer must be read in the context of His manifestation in the flesh. He had this glory as God manifest in the flesh. Since this did not come into existence in time and space until the Incarnation, it was an anticipated, prophetic glory, no less real than it would be when the anticipation was fulfilled.

If we read the text any other way, we are at best embracing a Nestorian Christology. At worst, we are forsaking the biblical witness to the one God in favor of a materialistic ditheism or tritheism.

When miracles are involved—like the Incarnation—rationalistic explanations can only lead us astray.
[1] See Acts 2:30.
[2] I Timothy 3:16.
[3] See Hebrews 1:2.
[4] This quote is from the Septuagint translation of Deuteronomy 32:43.
[5] Colossians 2:9.
[6] See Ray Summers, Essentials of New Testament Greek (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1995), 11-12.
[7] See Summers, 57.
[8] See Philippians 2:5-11.
[9] Romans 1:4.
[10] To say that para is in the dative case here reflects the five case system. In terms of the eight case system, the meanings “with” and “beside” reflect the locative case.
[11] F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1964), 7.
[12] See Louw-Nida Lexicon, Domain List 90, E, 90.20. BibleWorks 4.