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The Trinitarian Covenant in John 17

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

Covenantal Exposition of John 17:20-23

Meaning of "in" Phrases

There are four important "in" phrases. Two refer to Jesus and the Father: "Thou, Father, in me" (21, repeated in verse 23) and "I in thee" (21). Two refer to Christians "they also may be in us" (21) and "I in them" (23). The first two phrases refer to the Father and the Son mutually indwelling one another. This mutual indwelling is both the basis for the perfect unity of the Father and the Son and the pattern for the unity of Christians. It is obvious that a fully "ontological" interpretation of the mutual indwelling of the Father and the Son could only suggest a unity of Christians that is vaguely similar. My suggestion is that we should see the ontological mutual inexisting of the Persons of the Trinity as having covenantal implications and, therefore, as being also a pattern for the unity of God's people. Unless the ontological coinherenence of the Persons of the Trinity has covenantal connotations, there could be no real analogy between the relationship between Christ and the Father and the relationship between God and man. The Persons of the Trinity dwelling covenantally in one another offers a theological background for the fact that God makes His covenant with His people by "dwelling in" them.

The other two expressions refer to Christians being "in" the Father and the Son, and Christ being "in" Christians. Once again the immediate context of the farewell discourse contains similar language. Christians are said to be "in" Christ and commanded to abide in that position through covenantal obedience (15:1-10). For believers to be "in" the Father and the Son must have a similar meaning. Believers dwelling in God, in other words, refers to covenantal relationship.

This is also the meaning of Christ dwelling in the believer, referred to in an earlier context when Jesus says, "In 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 unto him. . . . If a man love me, he will keep my word: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him" (14:20-21, 23). Christ dwells in us as covenant Lord. Disobedience to His commandments brings discipline, or even expulsion (15:6). Obedience brings blessing, for obedience to the commandments is an expression of love and loyalty to Christ which He rewards with deeper fellowship and greater blessing, whereas disobedience is a rejection of His Lordship.

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