The High Priestly Prayer of Jesus recorded in John 17 can be divided into three basic sections: Jesus’ prayer for Himself (vv. 1–5), Jesus’ prayer for His first disciples (vv. 6–19), and Jesus’ prayer for the wider church (vv. 20–26). In today’s passage, we see Jesus begin to pray for His first disciples, revealing two chief truths.
First, Jesus indicates in John 17:6 that the disciples were a gift to Him “out of the world,” and that they were given to Him by His Father. Though the disciples—and Jesus—lived in the world during His earthly ministry, neither He nor they could be characterized as belonging to the world. Obviously, Jesus is not using the word “world” to refer to creation in general but to creation in rebellion against God. The disciples were taken out of the world and yet remained in the world—they were redeemed from the fallen system of mankind in its enmity against the Creator but still lived in God’s creation. Fundamentally, they did not belong to this fallen world but, like the old covenant heroes of faith, were “strangers and exiles on the earth” (Heb. 11:13).
Note also that Jesus’ disciples were a gift to Him from His Father (John 17:6). It is possible that the stress here is on the Father’s choosing Jesus’ original disciples to attend Him during His earthly ministry; however, this cannot be separated from their election to salvation. After all, in the same context, Jesus speaks of their having kept His word—their having believed in Him—as well as their not being lost (vv. 6, 12). He also speaks of those who will come to believe through their word (v. 20). Given this use of salvation language, we are right to see in today’s passage a reference also to the Father’s choice of a particular people—in this case, the disciples, but by extension all believers—out of the world for redemption.
Second, in John 17:6, Jesus says that the disciples “have kept” the Father’s word. He is not saying that the disciples obeyed Him perfectly or understood the gospel in all its fullness, for at this point, the first disciples clearly did not grasp everything (16:12). But despite their failures, the disciples (except Judas) remained with Jesus, knowing that He is the source of eternal life (6:66–69). And ultimately, they did this because God had chosen them, for many heard Jesus preach and yet did not believe. John Calvin comments, “The word of God flows out to the reprobate, but it takes root in the elect, and hence they are said to keep it.”