Santify Them in the Truth

This is one of the petitions of the so-called High-priestly Prayer of Jesus in John 17. The prayer was spoken (made) before Jesus’s ascension and even before his passion. In church, however, it is heard on the Sunday after the Ascension and before Pentecost. What matters (and seems to be appropriate) is the fact that it is after ascension. At the right hand of the Father, Christ now intercedes for us (Heb 7:25; 9:24). What does his intercession look like? What is Jesus asking on our behalf? There may be different answers, but one answer comes from John 17.

John 17 has been known as Jesus’s High-priestly Prayer since at least the time of the Reformation. David Chytraeus (1530–1600), one of the theologians of the Formula of Concord, is given credit for having coined the title. However, Jesus is not directly identified as High Priest in John 17. Jesus’s priestly office is normally found (rightly, one should add) in the book of Hebrews. And what about John 17?

The language of “sanctification” in John 17 can be seen as pointing in the direction of priesthood. The well-known text of John 17:17 is part of this picture. The text is well-known, but do we know what it means? “Sanctify us in your truth. Your word is the truth”—this liturgical response is engraved in my mind since early childhood. We would sing this response over and over in the Divine Service. I still can “hear” it, but I never was quite sure I knew what we were saying. (By the way, in the liturgy we follow the variant, the longer version in the Majority Text: “your truth.”)

In the third volume of his trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth, theologian Joseph Ratzinger has some insights that I find helpful. He is relying on Feuillet, The Priesthood of Christ and his Ministers. In dealing with John 17, he mentions three texts in particular: John 10:36, John 17:17, and John 17:19. In answer to the question, What does it mean to sanctify?, Ratzinger writes:

According to biblical understanding, sanctity or “holiness” in the fullest sense is attributable only to God. Holiness expresses his particular way of being, divine being as such. So the word “sanctify” . . . means handing over a reality—a person or even a thing—to God, especially through appropriation for worship. This can take the form of consecration for sacrifice (cf. Ex 13:2; Dt 15:19); or, on the other hand, it can mean priestly consecration (cf. Ex 28:41) . . .

Jesus was consecrated by the Father (Jn 10:36). He consecrated himself for the sake of his people, “so that they also may be consecrated in truth” (Jn 17:19, RSV). And Jesus prays, “Sanctify [Consecrate] them in the truth” (Jn 17:17). “The disciples,” says Ratzinger, “are to be drawn into Jesus’ sanctification.” A while later he writes:

The disciples of Jesus are sanctified, consecrated “in the truth.” The truth is the bath that purifies them; the truth is the robe and the anointing they need [in analogy to Ex 29:1–9]. This purifying and sanctifying “truth” is ultimately Christ himself. They must be immersed in him; they must, so to speak, be “newly robed” in him, and thus they come to share in his consecration.

Priestly language (and imagery) is rare in the New Testament. We have 1 Peter 2:9 and Revelation 1:6. Maybe John 17:17 could be added to this short list. And, by the way, you may not agree with everything Ratzinger has to say in his “Jesus of Nazareth,” but I think it his Christology is worth examining.

Dr. Vilson Scholz is a visiting professor of Exegetical Theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis

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