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Home > Fathers of the Church > Tractates on the Gospel of John (Augustine) > Tractate 109

Tractate 109 (John 17:20)

1. The Lord Jesus, in the now close proximity of His passion, after praying for His disciples, whom He also named apostles, with whom He had partaken of that last supper from which His betrayer had taken his departure on being revealed by the sop of bread, and with whom, after the latter's departure, and before beginning His prayer in their behalf, He had already spoken at length, conjoined all others also who were yet to believe in Him, and said to the Father, Neither pray I for these alone, that is, for the disciples who were with Him at the time, but for them also, He adds, who shall believe in me through their word. Whereby He wished all His own to be understood: not only such as were then in the flesh, but those also who were yet to come. For all that have since believed on Him have doubtless believed, and shall yet believe till He come, through the word of the apostles; for to themselves He had said, And ye also shall bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning; and by them was the gospel ministered even before it was written, and every one assuredly who believes in Christ believes the gospel. Accordingly, those who He says should believe in Him through their word, are not to be understood as referring only to such as heard the apostles themselves while they lived in the flesh; but others also after their decease, and we, too, born long afterwards, have believed on Christ through their word. For they that were then with Him preached to the others what they had heard from Him; and so their word, that we too might believe, has found its way to us, and wherever His Church exists, and shall yet reach down to posterity, whoever and wherever they be who shall hereafter believe in Him.

2. In this prayer, therefore, Jesus may seem to have omitted praying for some of His own, unless we carefully examine His words in the prayer itself. For if He prayed first for those, as we have already shown, who were then with Him, and afterwards for those also who should believe in Him through their word, it may be said that He prayed not for those who were neither with Him when He so spoke, nor afterwards believed through their word, but had done so at some previous time either of themselves, or in some other supposable manner. For was Nathanael with Him at that time? Was Joseph of Arimathea, who begged His body from Pilate, and of whom this same evangelist John testifies that he was already His disciple? Were His mother, Mary, and other women who, we know from the Gospel, had been prior to that time His disciples? Were those with Him then, of whom this evangelist John frequently says, Many believed on Him? For whence came the multitude of those who, with branches of trees, partly preceded and partly followed Him as He sat on the ass, saying, Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord; and along with them the children of whom He Himself declared that the prophecy had been uttered, Out of the mouth of babes and of sucklings You have perfected praise? Whence the five hundred brethren, to all of whom at once He would not have appeared after His resurrection 1 Corinthians 15:6 had they not previously believed on Him? Whence that hundred and nine who, with the eleven, were a hundred and twenty, when, being assembled together after His ascension, they waited and received the promise of the Holy Spirit? Whence came all these, save from those of Whom it was said, Many believed on Him? For them, therefore, the Saviour did not at this time pray, seeing it was for those He prayed who were then with Him, and for others not who had already, but who were yet to believe in Him through their word. But these were certainly not with Him on that occasion, and had already believed on Him at some previous period. I say nothing of the aged Simeon, who believed on Him when an infant; of Anna the prophetess; Luke 2:25-38 of Zachariah and Elisabeth, who prophesied of Him before He was born of the Virgin; of their son John, His forerunner, the friend of the Bridegroom, who both recognized Him in the Holy Spirit, and preached Him in His absence, and pointed Him out when He was present to the recognition of others; — I say nothing of these, as it might be replied that He ought not to have prayed for such when dead, who had gone hence with their great merits, and having met with a welcome reception were now at rest; for a similar answer is also given in connection with the righteous of olden time. For which of them could have been saved from the damnation awaiting the whole mass of perdition, which has been caused by one man, had he not believed, through the revelation of the Spirit, in the one Mediator between God and men as yet to come in the flesh? But behooved He to pray for the apostles, and not to pray for so many who were still alive, but were not then with Him, and had already at some previous period been brought to the faith? Who is there that would say so?

3. We are therefore to understand that their faith in Him was not yet such as He wished it to be, inasmuch as even Peter himself, to whom, on making the confession, You are the Christ, the Son of the living God, He had borne so excellent a testimony, was disposed rather to hinder Him from dying than to believe in His resurrection when dead, and hence was called immediately thereafter by the same of Satan. Those, accordingly, are found to be the greater in faith who were long since deceased, and yet, through the revelation of the Spirit, had no manner of doubt that Christ would rise again, than those who, after attaining to the belief that He should redeem Israel, at the sight of His death lost all the hope they previously possessed regarding Him. The best thing for us, therefore, to believe is, that after His resurrection, when the Holy Spirit was bestowed, and the apostles taught and confirmed, and from its outset constituted teachers in the Church, others, through their word, attained the proper faith in Christ, or, in other words, that they then got firm hold of the faith of His resurrection. And in this way also, that all those who seemed to have already believed on Him really belonged to the number of those for whom He prayed, when He said, Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also who shall believe in me through their word.

4. But we have still in reserve for the further solution of this question the blessed apostle, and that robber who was a villain in wickedness, but a believer on the cross. For the Apostle Paul tells us that he was made an apostle not of men, nor by man, but by Jesus Christ: and speaking of his own gospel, he says, For I neither received it of man, neither did I learn it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ. How then was he among those of whom it is said, They shall believe in me through their word? On the other hand, the robber believed at the very time when in the case of the teachers themselves such faith as they previously possessed had utterly failed. Not even he, therefore, believed on Christ through their word, and yet his faith was such that he confessed that He whom he saw nailed to the cross would not only rise again, but would also reign, when he said, Remember me when You come into Your kingdom. Luke 23:42

5. Accordingly it remains that if we are to believe that the Lord Jesus, in this prayer, prayed for all of His own who either then were or should thereafter be in this life, which is a state of trial upon earth, we must so understand the expression, through their word, as to believe that it here signified the word of faith itself which they preached in the world, and that it was called their word because it was primarily and principally preached by them. For it was already in the course of being preached by them in the earth when Paul received that same word of theirs by the revelation of Jesus Christ. Whence also it came about that he compared the Gospel with them, lest by any means he had run, or should run, in vain; and they gave him their right hand because in him also they found, although not given him by them, their own word which they were already preaching, and in which they were now established. And in regard to this word of the resurrection of Christ, it is said by the same apostle, Whether it were I, or they, so we preach, and so ye believed; 1 Corinthians 15:11 and again, This is the word of faith, he says, which we preach, that if you shall confess with your mouth that Jesus is the Lord, and shall believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved. Romans 10:8-9 And in the Acts of the Apostles we read that in Christ, God has marked out [the ground of] faith unto all men, in that He has raised Him from the dead. Acts 17:31 Accordingly, this word of faith, because principally and primarily preached by the apostles who adhered to Him, was called their word. Not, however, on that account does it cease to be the word of God because it is called their word; for the same apostle says that the Thessalonians received it from him not as the word of men, but, as it is in truth, the word of God. 1 Thessalonians 2:13 Of God, for the very reason that it was freely given by God; but called their word, because primarily and principally committed to them by God to be preached. In the same way also the thief mentioned above had in the matter of his own faith their word, which was called theirs precisely because the preaching of it primarily and principally pertained to the office they filled. And once more, when murmuring arose among the Grecian widows in reference to the serving of the tables, previous to the time when Paul was brought to the faith of Christ, the reply given by the apostles, who before then had adhered to the Lord, was: It is not good that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Acts 6:1-4 Then it was that they provided for the ordination of deacons, that they themselves might not be drawn aside from the duty of preaching the word. Hence that was properly enough called their word which is the word of faith, whereby all, from whatever quarter they had heard it, believed on Christ, or, as yet to hear it, should thereafter believe. In this prayer, therefore, all whom He redeemed, whether then alive or thereafter to live in the flesh, were prayed for by our Redeemer when, praying for the apostles who were then with Him, He also conjoined those who were yet to believe in Him through their word. But what, after such conjunction, He then proceeds to say, must be reserved for discussion in another discourse.

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Source. Translated by John Gibb. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 7. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1701109.htm>.

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