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The Trinitarian Covenant in John 17

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

Legitimacy of Covenantal Interpretation

Context of Scripture

The theme of unity among men is one that finds profound emphasis early in the Bible in passages relevant to the exegesis of John 17. The tower of Babel project was a self-conscious attempt on the part of Nimrod - a spiritual descendent of Cain - to build the city of man in opposition to the kingdom of God. The people were united in evil. They all had "one lip," an expression which includes, but also apparently means more than, one language. It also implies that they had a united "confession of faith," a covenantal unity of thought and commitment. But this was a malevolent unity of covenantal rebellion that roused God's judgment against the race.

From the time of Babel men have been disunited by divine decree. Not only their languages, but their whole way of thinking was made different, necessitating the division into separate nations. Shortly after Babel the distinction between the seventy nations in Genesis 11 was further complicated by God's calling Abraham to be the head of a priestly people. This established the distinction between the seed of Abraham and the rest of the nations (Gen. 12:1-3). Thus, the fundamental disunity of the race from the time of Babel and the necessity of a solution to the problem of man's racial alienation are basic themes of Biblical theology, themes which are vital to understanding the Abrahamic covenant.

It is also essential to note here that the Abrahamic covenant was granted by God in part as a solution to Babel, promising a future restoration of man's unity. In the climactic words of the original promise: "in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed" (Gen. 12:3; the same "in" language is also used in Gen. 18:18 and 28:14). Later, when the prophets foresaw the day the whole world would be blessed in the Messiah, they were expounding the Abrahamic covenant. Zephaniah even alludes specifically to Babel, when he foresees the day when that judgment shall be undone: "For then will I give to the peoples a pure lip, that they may all call upon the name of the LORD, to serve him with one shoulder" (Zeph. 3:8; cf. Psa. 22:27-29; 67:4, 7; 72:8-11; 86:9; Isa. 2:2-3; 11:9; 19:18; 49:6; etc.).

The coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, of which Jesus spoke much in His final discourse, was manifested in the spiritual gift of speaking in unknown languages. Now, whatever else this may mean, the significance of this gift in reference to Babel is clear. The curse of Babel which divided the human race into seventy estranged nations is now done away in Christ. Men still have multiple languages, but those who believe in Christ have been given one "lip," one covenantal confession of faith. They are united in their faith in and worship of the Father, Son, and Spirit. The seed of Abraham who brings blessing to all the families of the earth has come!

If this is the correct Biblical theological context in terms of which Jesus' prayer for unity is to be understood, then it is not unnatural to interpret Jesus' words as covenantal expressions. If unity among men is a covenantal concern from the time of Abraham, then it is most natural that the disciples themselves, as well as modern readers of the Gospel, should interpret Jesus' words in the context of Babel, the Abrahamic promise, and the covenantal gift of the Spirit. Before we can conclude that this is the background theological motif for Jesus' words, however, we must also consider the context of the Gospel according to John, and the more immediate context of the farewell discourse, as well as the most immediate context of John 17.

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