I was reading in Jesus’ prayer from John 17 this morning and came across a phrase my Reformed friends often use to point to election, “For you (the Father) grant him (Jesus) authority over all people* that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him.” (NIV)
I’ve heard John Piper and others talk about this phrase as incontrovertible evidence that the writer of John’s gospel was, indeed, a Calvinist.
I think this verse can be read that way. And in that sense, I wan to be respectful to my Reformed friends.
Nevertheless, I don’t think it has to be read that way. I fact, I think this very verse helps us see an alternative interpretation.
The sentence is divided into 2 phrases: 1. For you grant him authority over all people, and 2. that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him.
If I understand them right, my Reformed friends essentially say that phrase 2 refers to a specific subset of phrase 1. In other words, there’s almost a sort of contrast between the two phrases. They could paraphrase the verses like this, “For you, Father, gave him, Jesus, authority over all people, but specifically, Jesus will give eternal life to only those the Father gave him.”
In this sense, my Reformed friends can maintain that Jesus is the lord of the world, while only being the savior of those whom God unconditionally elected.
…as I said, I don’t think this has to be the only option. In fact, I see no reason to see these phrases as contrasting. Nor do I think phrase 2 refers to a specific subset of phrase 1. And I see no reason to assume the “all” in phrase 2 refers to anything less (qualitatively or quantitatively) than the “all” in phrase 1.
Instead of a contrast, I see a synonymous parallelism.
The parallelism is established by the usage of two key words used in both phrases: “gave/di,dwmi,” and (as already noted) “all.”**
If the statements are synonymous parallels and not in contrast, then the two phrases essentially become equal: God gave all flesh = all those the Father gave Jesus.
Let me paraphrase John 17:2 like this, “For you, Father, gave him, Jesus, authority over all flesh in order that he might give eternal life to those over whom the Father gave him authority.”
Or, let me say it one other way…
“For you, Father, gave Jesus authority over all flesh in order that he might give eternal life to all flesh.”
The authority Jesus has is SPECIFICALLY FOR THE PURPOSE of bestowing eternal life. That’s the point Jesus is making. And assuming I’m right in this, why in the world would God give him authority to give eternal life to all, but then not give him all for the purpose of eternal life? That just would not make sense.
In other words, I think this verse only makes coherent sense of Jesus’ authority and God’s gifting if, and only if, the statements are intended to by synonymous parallels.
So, there you go. I’m not sure if I’m right. I haven’t found a commentator to agree with me…which is always a good sign and a bad sign. So, tell me what you think.
* “People” is not John’s word in the Greek. John’s word is sa,rx – flesh.
*Two different Gk. words are used for “all,” but both refer to an all encompassing or holistic reality. In other words, I don’t see any exegetical significance to the word choice here. I think it’s just to break up the monotony. John does that sometimes.