“Now they have come to know that everything You have given Me is from You; for the words which You gave Me I have given to them; and they received them and truly understood that I came forth from You, and they believed that You sent Me. I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours; and all things that are Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine; and I have been glorified in them. I am no longer in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are.”
Although Jesus indeed indiscriminately prayed for people in other prayerful petitions, such as praying for the forgiveness of His crucifiers at Luke 23:34, in this particular petition, Jesus specifically said that He does “not ask on behalf of the world,” but rather asks on behalf of those whom God had given to Him, which based upon the context, was evidently speaking in reference to the apostles, so that through them, “the world may believe that You sent Me.” (John 17:21) The hope reflected there is that God has brought in this remnant of Israel (i.e. the chosen nation) for the divine purpose of making His gospel known, so that through Israel, God uses determinative means to ensure that His message is delivered, even if it takes miracles, blinding lights or a big fish, indeed, whatever it takes to ensure that His message is delivered.
John Calvin: “Now, since Christ prayed only for the elect, belief in election is necessary for us if we want him to plead with the Father for our salvation. Therefore, people who try to blot out the knowledge of election from believers’ hearts do them great harm, for they deprive them of Christ’s support.” (The Crossway Classic Commentaries: John, p.395, emphasis mine)
Calvinists tend to cite John 17:9 as a proof-text that God does not love the world, did not die for the world, and does not pray for the world, but asks only for those given to Him. (The matter of the giving is explained in the article for John 17:2.) However, regarding the matter of prayer, a couple of points need to be made.
Question: Why does Jesus specifically not pray for the eternal life of “the world” at John 17:9?
Answer: First, using John Calvin as a hostile witness, we read: “Christ afterwards prayed for everyone indiscriminately: ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ (Luke 23:34).” (John: Calvin, Crossway Classic Commentaries, pp.394-395, emphasis mine) Secondly, Jesus states: “But Jesus was saying, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they cast lots, dividing up His garments among themselves.” (Luke 23:34)
Those “given” was not in reference to Calvinism’s elect, but in reference to the Lord’s disciples whom He was “with,” among which had included Judas. (John 17:12) The disciples were facing imminent threat from the devil in their impending ministry of the gospel to the world, and so the intent of Jesus’ prayer was for their protection, so that through their ministry, the world may believe: “‘I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.’” (John 17:20-21) If Calvinists wish to maintain that the “world” (with whom Jesus’ prayer was excluded) had signified a non-elect world, then Calvinists will have to admit that Jesus’ prayer was for the intent and purpose of reaching the same non-elect world, or else Calvinists would have two diametrically opposed definitions of the “world” within the same context. It appears that the self-serving hermeneutic of Calvinists is that whenever the “world” is spoken of in context of God’s love and grace, then it must refer to the world of Calvinism’s elect, while whenever the “world” is spoken in any other context, it must imply a world of Calvinism’s non-elect.
John Wesley comments on John 17:9: “Verse 9. I pray not for the world - Not in these petitions, which are adapted to the state of believers only. (He prays for the world at John 17:21, 23, that they may believe - That they may know God hath sent him.)” (John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible) Richard Watson: “It has been urged, indeed, that our Lord himself says, ‘I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me.’ (John xvii 9). But will they here interpret ‘the world’ to be the world of the elect? If so, they cut even them off from the prayers of Christ. But if by ‘the world’ they would have us understand the world of the non-elect, they will find that all the prayers which our Lord puts up for those whom ‘the Father hath given him,’ had this end, ‘that they,’ the non-elect ‘world,’ ‘may believe that thou hast sent me:’ (verse 21) let them choose either side of the alternative. The meaning of this passage is, however, made obvious by the context. Christ, in the former part of his intercession, as recorded in this chapter, prays exclusively, not for his church in all ages, but for his disciples then present with him; as appears plain from verse 12: ‘While I was with them in the world, I kept them in thy name.’ But he was only with his first disciples, and for them he exclusively prays in the first instance; then, in verse 20, he prays for all who, in future, should believe on him through their words; and he does this in order that ‘the world,’ in its largest sense, is not cut off, but expressly included in the benefits of this prayer.” (Great Quotes: Richard Watson on John 17)
One member of The Society of Evangelical Arminians: “Not only does He pray for those who would believe, but He prays for the larger purpose that the world would believe! Therefore, to pray for those who would believe (for the larger purpose of the world believing) is akin to praying for the world. That is simply contrary to Calvinist doctrine, unless they do their funny business with the term ‘world.’ But besides its normal implausibility, it doesn’t work here all the more because the Calvinist argument about Jesus’ prayer is predicated upon the world being unbelievers, since they want to claim Jesus doesn’t pray for them, but of course, He clearly does.”
One member of The Society of Evangelical Arminians: “If ‘world’ means only ‘just the elect’ (as Calvinists otherwise insist upon at John 3:16), then why would Jesus not pray for the ‘the world’? After all, if world means elect, as in an [alleged] elect-world, then Jesus is not praying for the elect. This proves that Jesus thinks that the ‘world’ refers to more than those given to Him.”