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The Trinitarian Covenant in John 17

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

Covenantal Exposition of John 17:20-23

Meaning of Glory

The idea of glory, one of the main themes of John's Gospel, surprisingly, often has reference to Jesus' death (7:39; 12:16, 23; 13:31-32). However, in the present context it seems to be resurrection glory that is in view, for the glory in consideration here is the glory that Jesus shared with the Father before the world began and the glory to which He is returning (17:1, 5, 24).

If that assumption is correct, we are again faced with the difficulty of unusual language. What does Jesus mean when He says "And the glory which thou hast given me I have given unto them" (22a)? My suggestion is that Jesus is referring here to the blessings of salvation in general but especially the gift of the Holy Spirit, the one who will glorify Christ in and through the disciples (16:14). This is in accord with Jesus' earlier promise that the Holy Spirit would be given to those who believe in Him transforming believers into Edenic gardens that bring the water of life to the world: "He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, from within him shall flow rivers of living water. But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believed on him were to receive: for the Spirit was not yet given; because Jesus was not yet glorified" (7:38-39).

If it is the gift of the Spirit that is especially in mind, we understand also how the gift of this glory is related to the unification of believers and the salvation of the world. For whatever the gift of glory here is, it brings a unity to the people of God that is analogous to the unity between Christ and the Father (22b) and it is this unity that persuades the world that Christ has been sent of the Father (21, 23). The theology here seems to demand that the glory given by Christ is to be associated especially with the Spirit.

Idea of Unity

We are now ready to consider the unity spoken of in verses 21 and 23. This is a unity brought about by the gift of glory. It must be observable to the world since it is a means for the salvation of the world (21, 23). Visible unity of this sort, especially in the context of John's Gospel, must mean the unity of covenant life. There is no reference here to an institution as such. When the unity here is said to be like the unity of the Father and the Son, it can only mean a unity of love and purpose grounded in the eternal covenant.

Covenant unity is included in the figure of speech Jesus used to describe covenantal life as branches abiding in the vine through obedience to God's commandments. When the people of God live in obedience to God's word, their lives governed by a single covenantal standard, they will manifest unity of fellowship and purpose, just as Jesus kept the Father's commandments and walked in perfect unity with Him.

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