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The Trinitarian Covenant in John 17

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

Covenantal Exposition of John 17:20-23


If our interpretation of these four basic issues is correct, the meaning of the paragraph in which Jesus prays for the unity of all believers will be something like the following. First, Jesus prays not only for the disciples but also for those who believe through the disciples preaching (20) in order that they all may be one in covenantal faith and obedience (21a).

Second, Jesus takes this to a higher theological plane when He indicates that the covenantal unity of believers has its ground in His dwelling in them and its pattern in the mutual indwelling of the Persons of the Trinity (21b, 23a). Christ speaks of a mutual indwelling of God and man when He says that believers are to be in God (21b) and He will be in them (23a). This mutuality of indwelling points to the deep mystery of covenantal fellowship and oneness that comes to fulfillment in the new covenant in Christ.

In the old covenant era, when God made a covenant with Israel to be their covenant Lord, He came to them and dwelt in the tabernacle and temple, just as He had originally dwelt with Adam in the Garden. This dwelling with man in the old creation was from the beginning a temporary state that pointed forward to the indwelling of the Spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 15:20-28, 35-50). In both, the old creation dwelling "with" man and the new creation dwelling "in" man, there is an analogy to the mutual indwelling of the Persons of the Trinity, not indeed in its ontological meaning, but in its covenantal significance.

Third, Jesus indicates that the purpose of this covenantal indwelling is the extension of covenant blessing to all the world (21c). Abiding in Christ, the covenant picture of Christians united in Him and bearing fruit through obedience, provides the bridge which links indwelling and the conversion of the world, for when the world sees an obedient Church, it will be converted and the Abrahamic promise will be fulfilled.

Fourth, Jesus speaks of the gift of the glory of God, and the Spirit of glory who glorifies Christ and His people (22). As Jesus taught the disciples shortly before He prayed, it is through the indwelling of the Spirit that Christ and the Father are also present (14:15 ff.) and, therefore also, through the Spirit that Christians are one. The same Holy Spirit dwelling "in" all of us, not indeed in any "ontologically" limiting sense, but dwelling in us as He did in the tabernacle, brings all Christians together into one. Through the Spirit, we share the covenant life of God.

Fifth, Jesus implies that His indwelling the Church brings about increased covenantal unity over time ("that they may be perfected in one," 23). There is a process, a covenantal process of pruning the branches so that they bear more fruit, which leads to perfected unity. As the Church matures over time, the world is eventually converted, for it can no longer resist the revelation of the glory of Christ in and through the Church.

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