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The Trinitarian Covenant in John 17

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

Covenantal Exposition of John 17:20-23

When we interpret John 17, we must keep in mind the fact that we are approaching perhaps the most theologically profound author of the New Testament, quoting what may be the most theologically profound of all of Jesus' words. While it is not possible to do justice to this passage, we may suggest the contours of a covenantal interpretation. The important elements to be considered are the following four: 1) the purpose of the prayer as stated in verse 21 and verse 23; 2) the meaning of the glory given to the disciples in verse 22; 3) the idea of unity in verses 21 and 23; 4) the meaning of the "in" phrases.


Purpose of Prayer

That the purpose of Jesus' prayer was the unity of His disciples is emphasized by repetition, with slight variation, in verses 21 and 23: "that the world may believe that thou didst send me," "that the world may know that thou didst send me," and "[that the world may know that thou] lovedst them, even as thou lovedst me." On any interpretation of the exact meaning of the three phrases employed, it is probably best to view them as envisioning a single purpose. But what exactly does Jesus mean by this petition?

In the previous verses, Jesus has already made a clear distinction between the world and His disciples. Even more He specifically denied that He prayed for the world (vs. ). He described the world as hostile to Himself and His followers (11, 14, 15, 16). Given this context, we have to ask, whether there has been a change and He is now praying for the world, or whether the threefold petition for the world is to be understood as a prayer for judgment in accordance with the previous context?

A prayer for judgment seems highly unlikely. It not only forces the language of Jesus' prayer into a peculiar straightjacket consistency, it ignores the important transition in verses 17-19, the contextual key to the meaning of Jesus view of the world in verses 21-23. The transition is clear. After first praying that the disciples would not be overcome by the world (14-16), Jesus prays for their sanctification and refers to their being sent into to the world with a mission like His. This is where the perspective on the world changes. Rather than being the place of evil for which Jesus refuses to pray, the world is now seen from the perspective of Jesus' mission. It is the place Jesus was sent to save: "For God sent not the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through him" (Jn. 3:17).

It is, therefore, in terms of the mission of the Church as a continuation of the mission of Christ that Jesus prays for the world in words that recall the earlier prayer for His disciples: "And this is life eternal, that they should know thee the only true God, and him whom thou didst send, even Jesus Christ. . . . [they] knew of a truth that I came forth from thee, and they believed that thou didst send me." (17:3, 8). A prayer for the world to know and believe that Jesus was sent by the Father, and to know that the Father loves the Church as He loves Christ can only be a prayer for the salvation of the world - a prayer, in other words, for the fulfillment of the promise of the Abrahamic covenant.

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