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The Trinitarian Covenant in John 17

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

Legitimacy of Covenantal Interpretation

Context of John's Gospel

As we mentioned above, the Gospel according to John does not use the word "covenant." Therefore, apart from the fact that every book in the Bible is covenantal in a general sense, it might seem that the covenant has no special significance in John's Gospel. It may seem even more unlikely that the idea of the covenant provides the background for our understanding Jesus' words in John 17:20-21. Closer attention to the details of John's Gospel, however discloses its emphatically covenantal character. For it is not the presence or absence of the word "covenant" which is decisive. It is, rather, the "omnipresence" of the broader theology of the covenant, an abundance of covenantal expressions, symbolism which alludes to the covenant, and the elaborate coalition of all these factors which determine our understanding of John's Gospel as "covenantal."

An adequate presentation of the material confirming the importance of the covenant in John requires a commentary on the whole Gospel, but the basic evidence may be briefly cited. First, Jordan's outline of the Gospel of John in terms of the tabernacle suggests that the covenantal presence of God with His people is one of John's central concerns.[8] Second, Meredith Kline draws attention to the fact that John in particular, even more than the other Gospels, presents Christ as the new Moses, the mediator of a new covenant.[9] Third, John's Gospel may justly be called the "Deuteronomic" Gospel, for many of its major verbal themes are imported directly from the book of Deuteronomy.[10] As Pryor points out:

It is especially noteworthy that on many occasions the injunctions to love God and to obey/keep his commands are brought together, so that we can see that love for God is always demonstrated by covenant obedience (Deut 6:5-6; 7:9; 10:12-13; 11:1, 13, 22; 19:9; 30:6-8; Josh 22:5). This Deuteronomic pattern (and note in 30:6-8 the promise of a renewed people, the foundation of the new covenant hopes) has been taken up by Jesus in John. Not only does the Johannine corpus use 'commandment' and 'to command' with greater frequency than the rest of the New Testament, but love for Christ and obedience to his commands are brought together in a way which reminds us of the Deuteronomic covenant obligations.[11]

Fourth, throughout his Gospel John presents the special relationship between Jesus and the heavenly Father in the terms of the covenant. Nothing could be more significant than the fact that the fundamental formula of the covenant, "God with us," finds various forms of expression in John in reference to the relationship between Father and Son. In the very first verse of the prologue, John writes "and the Word was with God," using the Greek "pros" to describe the uniqueness of Jesus' covenantal intimacy with the Father. Later in the prologue, John signifies covenantal fellowship between the Father and the Son as the basis for the Son's revelation of the Father: "No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him" (1:18).

The same theme finds profound, if only infrequently direct, expression in some of the most important passages describing the relationship of the Father and the Son. Confronted with Pharisees who challenge his testimony, Jesus answers that His testimony is true, even if He bears witness of Himself. He then turns the tables on them, condemning them for judging in the flesh and adding a word about His own judgment: "Ye judge after the flesh; I judge no man. And yet if I judge, my judgment is true: for I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me" (8:15-16). Not only are the inherently covenantal ideas of judgment and witness - two of the most important themes in John's Gospel - here linked to the covenantal presence of the Father with the Son, but the often repeated fact of the Father's sending the Son into the world - which can only be called a covenantal commission - is also associated with God's presence with the Son. The Father sent the Son to fulfill a covenantal task and is therefore with Him to bless the Son's labor.

This point finds direct and clear expression later in the same chapter when Jesus says: "And he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him" (8:29; emphasis added). This places the whole idea of Jesus' commission into the world (5:23, 30, 36, 37; 6:39, 40, 44, 57; 8:16, 42; 10:36; 12:49; 14:24) as well as the works He performs (5:17, 20, 36; 10:18, 25, 32, 37, 38; 14:10, 11; 15:24) in an explicitly covenantal context, defined by a typical variation of the quintessential covenantal formula, "God with us."

Not less important than the covenantal idea of God's presence is John's emphasis on the love of the Father for the Son. The Father loves the Son before the foundation of the world (17:24) and, because of that love, He shows all things to the Son (5:20) and has given all things into the Son's hand (3:35). This love is set forth in explicitly covenantal terms, clearly alluding to the language of Deuteronomy: "As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in his love" (15:9-10 cf. Dt. 7:9, 12; 10:12; 11:1 ff.; 11:13 ff.; etc.). Or again: "Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it againc This commandment have I received of my Father" (10:17, 18b). The Father loves the Son because the Son keeps the Father's commandments (15:9-10); the Son does His will (4:34; 5:30; 6:39-40) and fulfills the commission given to Him (17:4). Also, through covenantal obedience, the Son proves His love to the Father for all the world to see: "But that the world may know that I love the Father; and as the Father gave me commandment, even so I do. Arise, let us go hence" (14:31).

Finally, closely associated with the previous language, there is a combination of Johannine themes which together compose a covenant. John presents Jesus as sent by the Father into the world (3:17, 34; 5:36, 38; 6:29, 57; 7:29; 8:42; 10:36; 11:432) to speak specific words (3:34; 12:49; 14:10, 24; and do a specific work (4:34; 5:17, 20, 36; 9:4; 10:25, 32, 37, 38; 14:11, 12) for which He is rewarded (6:37-39; 17:2), which is to say that John has described Jesus' mission as including all the distinctive elements of a covenant in a context that is pregnant with covenantal language.

In the light of the above evidence, partial as it is, it should be clear that a covenantal approach to the words of Jesus in John 17:20-21 is anything but unnatural. On the contrary, given the above understanding of the larger context of John's Gospel, the real questions become: Why should we avoid the term "covenant" in describing a relationship that is presented in language clearly alluding to Deuteronomy? And, why should we avoid the word covenant to describe a relationship that has all the distinctive elements of what the Bible calls a covenant? If we ought not to use the word "covenant" to describe the relationship between the Father and the Son, what other word should we use?

[8] James B. Jordan, Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World (Brentwood, Ten.: Wolgemuth and Hyatt, 1988), pp. 266-269. Of this same idea, John W. Pryor writes, "But of all the covenantal images in John's Gospel, perhaps the most powerful is what is given in 1:14. The motif of divine presence in Israel as the sure sign of their covenant status was a central motif of the Old Testament." John W. Pryor, John: Evangelist of the Covenant People (Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity Press, 1992), p. 158.

[9] Meredith G. Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, revised edition, 1975), pp. 190-95.

[10] John W. Pryor, John the Evangelist of the Covenant People, pp. 161-63.

[11] Ibid., p. 162.

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