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The Trinitarian Covenant in John 17

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

Legitimacy of Covenantal Interpretation

Context of the Farewell Discourse

What we find in the farewell discourse, of which the prayer in chapter 17 is the climax and conclusion, confirms our perspective on the Gospel as a whole, for this section of the Gospel includes a concentrated emphasis on the same distinctively covenantal themes. Jesus was sent into the world by the Father (13:20; 15:21; 16:5; 16:27-28; 17:3, 8, 18, 21, 23, 25) to speak certain words (14:10, 24; 15:22-23; 17:8) and accomplish certain deeds (14:10, 11; 15:24; 17:4) for which He is rewarded (17:2, 6, 9, 10, 11, 12, 24). Jesus keeps the Father's commandments because He loves the Father (14:31), and by that same obedience He abides in the Father's love (15:10). Jesus is never alone because the Father is "with" Him now (16:32) even as the Father was "with" Him before the foundation of the world (17:5).

Another remarkable feature of the farewell discourse is that the relationship between Jesus and the Father is repeatedly seen as parallel to the relationship between Jesus and the disciples. In His prayer to the Father, Jesus says "As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world" (17:18; cf. 20:21). He also says that the world will know that the disciples are His followers when they love one another, just as He also says that the world will know that He loves the Father when He keeps the Father's commandment (13:34-35; 14:31). Again, the disciples are to keep Jesus' commandments and so prove they love Him (14:15, 21, 23; 15:9-10), just as He has kept the Father's commandments (15:10). The parallels here are all "covenantal" in nature. In other words, the relationship of Christ and the Father is a pattern for the relationship between Christ and the disciples because they are both covenantal relationships.

An especially important passage in the farewell discourse is the famous allegory of the vine and the branches. Here Jesus employs a well-known Old Testament image of the covenant relationship between God and His people (cf. Deu. 32:32; Psa. 80:8-16; 128:3; Isa. 5:1-7; Jer. 2:21; Hos. 10:1; etc.). Neither Jesus' disciples nor a Biblically educated modern reader can possibly miss the covenantal reference of this symbolic language. Furthermore, and significant for the understanding of John 17:20-21, the expressions "in me" and "in you" are clearly used to describe a covenantal relationship. The branches are "in" Christ (15:2, 4, etc.), but if they do not "abide in" Him, they will not bear fruit and, therefore, be cast away (15:2, 6). Those which do "abide" will "bear fruit" (15:2, 5) To abide "in" Christ means to remain "in" Christ's love, which means obedience to His commandments (15:9-10).

As in the larger context of the farewell discourse, so in this allegory the relationship between Christ and the Father is set forth as the pattern for the relationship between Christ and the disciples. Just as Jesus abides in the Father's love by keeping His commandments, so the disciples are to abide in Christ. This repeats what is said earlier in the farewell discourse: "At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you. He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him. . . . Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him" (14:20-21, 23). Clearly, then, the farewell discourse and especially the covenantal picture of the vine and the branches provides the contextual key for understanding the unusual "in" expressions of Jesus' prayer.

Thus, in the verses that form the immediate context for Jesus' prayer, the covenantal themes found throughout the Gospel are repeated, a parallel is drawn between Jesus' relationship with the Father and His relationship to the disciples, a famous symbol of Israel's covenant relationship with God is used to describe the relationship of Jesus with the disciples, and, finally, in the symbolic language of the covenant picture, as well as in other parts of the farewell discourse, Jesus uses, with a covenantal significance, various "in" expressions like the ones in His concluding prayer. Once again, then, the question is not why we should read the passage covenantally, but how we could possibly read it any other way.

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