Summary: Don't miss the forest for the trees: Jesus is praying for his disciples! This fact alone is worth preaching on! One translation that perhaps opens up a door for preaching is found when Jesus speaks of the καταβολης of the world. This is often translated "creation", but could just as easily be translated "foundation." "Foundation" seems like a concept can be preached! Not simply does it provide an easy real world illustration (foundations of buildings are everywhere), but it speaks about God's creative intent for the world. The world was not complete in the beginning -- no foundation is complete! God intended and intends to see creation unfold. As humans we take our place on stage, unaware that it is an eternal stage with a clear destination -- union with Christ, in God's eternal love and joy.
Lastly, I hesitate to call this is a prayer for unity because that sounds too vague. Jesus does pray for unity, but he also prays for love, faith and the preaching of the Word. And moreover, this unity is set in the midst of humble servant-hood, betrayal, suffering, injustice, death and resurrection. If you decide to preach on unity, don't overlook the context of the passage.
Key Words and Concepts
λογος ("word"; 17:20) The Greek says here, "Those who are believing in me on account of their word." The word here for "word" is λογος (logos); NIV translates this as "message"; NET as "witness." This is a tricky matter of translation. Logos does not simply mean "words" but has a more lofty significance, both practically and theologically. It means more like "message" or "explanatory words" or "account" or "reason" or "communication." The NIV and NET are seeking here, by their translation, to capture this sense of the word as message/account/communication.
However, λογος is also crucial in John's theology (In the beginning was the λογος is how his Gospel starts out!). The λογος is the divine word of God that communicates God's love, both as it judges but also redeems. In this sense Jesus is saying, I would argue, that our preaching, our witness, our account becomes the living Word, the λογος. To translate it simply as "message" leaves out the explicit connection Jesus is asserting here between our words and the true divine word of God.
Side grammar note that is worth paying attention to: "Those who are believing" is a great and easy example of a substantive participle. However, the particular word order, I maintain, is of theological significance. The actual clause reads, "Those who are believing because of their word in me." This is quite clumsy in English but it drives home the point. In the middle of our believe in Jesus is the received and heard word.
παντες ("all", 17:21) The translation of 17:21 cannot be "They might be one." The subject of this sentence is not "they" but actually, "all." One could argue that "all" here refers to "all of the disciples." But it seems more natural, especially in light of the second half of the verse, that Jesus is not simply praying for unity among the disciples, but finally unity of all things (including the God-hating world) as he later attests in this verse.
τελειοω ("finish" or "complete," 17:23) The verb, "teleoi-oo" or its sibling, "tele-oo" mean "to finish, complete, or even make perfect." These are used throughout John as Jesus discusses his need to "telo-oo" his task; finally, the task is "telo"-ed on the cross (19:30). The construction of the participle here is rather strange here. It basically links being perfected with union into one. The goal of Jesus is ultimately to make us all one -- reconciled to the Father!
καταβολης ("foundation", 17:24) The word for creation/foundation is "καταβολης," literally meaning "thrown down." Two thoughts on this:
First, I like translating καταβολης as foundation because Jesus uses a more specific word than "create" here; he uses the word that means, "that which is thrown down." John is sophisticated of a writer if he wanted to use "creation" he would have.
Second, I think John - dare I say Jesus! - is making a point about how creation by using the word foundation. Foundations are built on. Creation is in itself incomplete, waiting for humanity to take their place in the story, finally in the consummation of all creation in union with Christ.
εν ("ιν", 17:26) The key word here is "εν" a basic preposition that can be translated a couple of ways. Jesus wants his love to be "en" them. If you translate this "in" then end up with a rather (American) looking individual understanding of Jesus -- in my heart. But if you translate this word, "among" then you get a more helpful understanding of Jesus intent: He wants to be among us to intimately that there is love in the community, a love that reveals something about the fundamental character of God to the world!
ινα ("in order", "that", 17:21) How to translate "ινα"? The
question is -- does a "ινα" clause, which demands a subjunctive,
actually signify purpose or result? This is a big grammar debate in
which I have no skin. I offer it because it allows for an interesting
theological possibility as I suggest later here:
a) Purpose (ie, translate this word as "in order that"):
-John 6:30 "What sign will you do (ινα) that we might believe"
-John 3:16 "For God so loved the world that he gave...(ινα) that whoever believes in him, would have eternal life"
(These purpose clauses can be divided up into all sorts of levels of how hypothetical the condition is...)
b) Result (ie, translate the word as "that"):
-John 9:2 "Who sinned (ινα) that this man was born blind?
-John 9:22 "The Jews had agreed (ινα) that whoever believed would get kicked out of the church"
In fact, the second example here probably better belongs to an entirely different category where the word "ινα" almost has no real purpose at all other than to say, "expect another verb to complete the thought."
In other words, ινα
doesn't necessary have much subjunctive function, as we as English
speakers think about the subjunctive. So is Jesus praying with the
purpose that we might be one or praying with the result that we are in
fact, already one!
BDAG does solve our dilemma, "In many cases purpose and result cannot be clearly differentiated, and hence ινα
is used for the result that follows according to the purpose of the
subject or God. As in Semetic and Gr-Rom thought, purpose and result
are identical in declarations of the divine will."
the point here is that actually, if Jesus is praying then this is
established. Jesus Word is active! (Going back to the word logos!)