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Properly during the Christmas season, we emphasize Christ’s becoming man (incarnation) and that He is the King. But without denying these appropriate emphases, the Christ of Christmas is fully the Priest (and Prophet) as well as the King.
Old Testament priests, especially the high priests, offered sacrifices and prayed for their people (Lev. 16:15, 21). They were mediators between God and men (Heb. 5:1). The succession of Old Testament high priests foreshadowed the one glorious High Priest, Jesus Christ. He was not simply a man who mediated between God and men; Christ was in fact the God-man who mediated between God and men (Heb. 8:6; see 1 Tim. 2:5). Further, He did not simply offer sacrifices of animals or grain; Christ offered Himself as the one eternal sacrifice (Heb. 7:27; 9:12). Finally, He did not offer up weak and sometime ineffectual prayers for Himself and others; Christ offered up glorious and effective prayers, and He continues to do so (5:7; 7:25).
Christ’s intercessory prayer to the Father in John 17 includes His petitions for the disciples and all subsequent believers. But also, especially in John 17:1–8, Christ reveals aspects of His mediatorial role, which in turn highlight His person as being truly God and truly man, and He highlights the special relationship He has with the Father. In this article, after an exegesis of John 17:1–8, I will expand on the agreement between the Father and Christ as to this mediatorial role and Christ’s being called “the sent one.” Finally, I will exhort us to know and believe in Christ more deeply.
Exegesis of John 17:1–8
Christ begins the prayer with “Father” and refers to Himself as “Son” (17:1). These words wonderfully reflect the close and loving intra-Trinitarian relationship between the persons of the Father and the Son, extending from eternity past and continuing throughout Christ’s life on earth. Given this positive point, however, the first comment brings an ominous note: “The hour has come.” In John’s gospel, this refers to Christ’s crucifixion (2:4; 12:23). Christ then presents His first request or petition: “Glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you” (17:1). This mutual glorification between the Father and Son is on the surface surprising because it is related to the upcoming ugly crucifixion (this mutual glorification also includes the Holy Spirit; 16:14).
Christ’s petition for mutual glorification is then grounded in what was previously given. The Father “has given” the Son both “authority over all flesh” and the elect so that the Son will “give eternal life to all [the elect]” (17:2). In this prayer, “to give” is quite prominent. This giving by the Father to the Son in order that the Son will give to the elect reflects a prior agreement between the Father and the Son. Further, since the Son, as God, has had all authority from all eternity, this giving of all authority must refer to the Son in His mediatorial role as the God-man.
Next, “eternal life” is given a definition. The elect will “know you [Father], the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (17:3). Referring to the Father as “the only true God” is not indicating that Christ is less than fully divine. Why not? Because John elsewhere clearly shows that Christ is fully divine (e.g., 1:1; 5:18; 10:30; 17:5; 20:28). Instead, the point is that to properly know the true divine Father, one has to see His relationship to the true divine Christ. The epithet of Christ is interesting; He is the One “whom you [Father] have sent.”
In 17:4, Christ states what He has done as per the prior agreement: “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.” Although Christ is saying this on Thursday night, He is including Friday’s crucifixion in this statement (“on earth”). Of course, as High Priest, He will also be applying His accomplished sacrificial work while ascended in heaven.
Having just discussed His work while “on earth,” Christ speaks of His future glory upon His ascension. “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (17:5). Again in John’s gospel, Christ’s divinity is shown. Christ was with the Father “before the world existed.” Further, different aspects of glory are hinted at here. There was a glory in eternity past as Christ was the eternal divine Son. There was in some way a different aspect of glory that Christ had in His state of humiliation as the God-man while on earth. Finally, there is a glory of Christ in heaven similar to the one in eternity past, but it will be Christ as the God-man, not as the preincarnate, eternal divine Son.
John 17:9–19 includes petitions explicitly related to Christ’s disciples. John 17:6–8 includes some of the grounds or rationale as to why the Father should grant the petitions. Christ has “manifested your [Father’s] name to the people whom you gave me” (v. 6), and they “have believed that you sent me” (v. 8). There is a progression: “Yours [Father’s] they [the disciples] were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word” (v. 6). That is, the election of the disciples was by the Father; the disciples were given to the Son; and the disciples properly responded. Therefore, part of the agreement was that the Father would give the Son a people and the Father and Son (and Holy Spirit) would ensure that they believed.
As mentioned above, John 17:1–8 contains aspects of an agreement between the Father and the Son related to the salvation of the elect. We see in other places in John that the agreement also involves the Holy Spirit (e.g., 3:34; 14:26; 15:26; 16:13–15). This agreement goes by various names. Reformed theologians have primarily used covenant of redemption, counsel of peace (Zech. 6:13), or pactum salutis to refer to this agreement.
In brief, considering the implications of the whole Bible, the covenant of redemption is an intra-Trinitarian agreement made in eternity past to save the elect. This agreement includes promises, things being given, work that is to be accomplished, senders (Father and Son), and Ones being sent (Son and Holy Spirit), Christ’s agreeing to be incarnate and represent the elect, mutual glorification, etc. Although made in eternity past, the agreement is related to Christ in His mediatorial role as the God-man.
This covenant of redemption is then closely related to the covenant of grace. The covenant of grace is an agreement in time between the triune God and the elect. Some Reformed theologians, however, have preferred not to see two conceptually separate agreements/covenants but one. They consider aspects of the covenant of redemption to be included within the covenant of grace. For the most part, the differences between these two views is semantic.
What do we learn about the intra-Trinitarian agreement from John 17:1–8? The Father gave several things to Christ. They include preeminently the elect (17:2, 6; see also 6:39; 10:29). The Father also has given Him “authority over all flesh” (17:2) and “words” to give to the elect (v. 8; see 3:34). Finally, the Father gave Christ the “work,” which summarizes all Christ had to do “on earth” (17:4; see 4:34; 5:36–37). In addition to giving things to Christ, the Father “sent” Christ (17:3, 8) and promised to glorify Him (v. 1; see 8:54).
In John 17:1–8, Christ receives the elect and properly takes care of them. He also “gives.” He gives the elect “eternal life” (17:2; see also 6:40; 10:28), and He gives them the Father’s “words” (17:6; see 1:1; 3:34). He ensures, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, that the elect will “keep your [the Father’s] word,” “know the truth,” and “believe that you [the Father] sent me [the Christ]” (17:6, 8). As to His specific priestly functions for the elect, Christ’s work included enduring the humiliation of the crucifixion (“the hour has come”; 17:1) and His praying for them (vv. 6–9). Given that Christ must represent the elect as a man and die for them, part of the agreement includes His becoming incarnate. Finally and more directly related to the Father, Christ “glorified” the Father by “having accomplished the work” that the Father gave Him (v. 4; see 9:4) and Christ “manifested your [the Father’s] name” to the elect (17:6; see 10:25).
Jesus Christ, Whom You Have Sent
In the High Priestly Prayer, Christ refers to Himself as “Jesus Christ, whom you [the Father] have sent” (17:3). In John’s gospel, the verb “to send” is used a significant number of times—fifty-eight, to be exact. (Behind the English “to send” are actually two Greek words, pemp [thirty-one times] and apostell [twenty-seven times]. They are virtually synonymous in John.) “To send” is used numerous times among the persons of the Trinity. The Father sends Christ (3:17; 5:36; 7:28; see 1 John 4:9) and the Holy Spirit (14:26; 15:26). Christ, the sent One, also sends the Holy Spirit (15:26; 16:7; cf. Rev. 5:6). If this were not enough, believers are also part of this sending activity. “As the Father has sent me [Christ], even so I am sending you” (20:21; see 13:20; 17:18).
To further drive this home, Christ often gives the epithet to the Father as “him who sent me” (e.g., 5:23–24; 6:38, 44; 8:16; 12:45; 14:24; 16:5). Similarly, Christ four times gives Himself the epithet of the One whom the Father has sent (3:34; 5:38; 6:29; 17:3).
What do we learn about the person of Christ from His self-described epithet “whom you [the Father] have sent” (17:3)? First, we learn that to understand Christ is to understand Him as one person of the Trinity. A non-Trinitarian-related Christ is no Christ at all. A Christ with only a perfunctory connection to the Father and the Holy Spirit is only a perfunctory Christ. The Christ of the Bible is Christ in full communion with and defined by His connection to the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Second, we learn that Christ’s great salvific mission was/is part of a Trinitarian work. Christ was sent by the Father, and Christ sends the Holy Spirit. The plan and execution of our salvation is Trinitarian. Each person of the Trinity does the same work, but each does it in a manner appropriate to His distinct personhood and inseparably from the other two, as there is ultimately only One divine being doing the work. The various “sendings” show this. Who is Christ? The One whom the Father sent and who sends the Holy Spirit. Who is the Father? The One who sent Christ and sends the Holy Spirit. What is the purpose of these sendings? The salvation of the elect.
Third, we understand the sending of Christ better as we contemplate its relationship to the intra-Trinitarian relations. Here we are entering more mysterious territory. First, some background is helpful before getting to an implication concerning the sending of Christ. As the church has long said, the internal relations of the Trinitarian persons are the ground for Their particular external works in creation and redemption. That is, the roles in creation and redemption for each person of the Trinity are analogous to the relations that have always existed within the Trinity between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Hence, since the Bible shows us that this relationship exists, one should cautiously make implications from the internal relations to the external works, and vice versa. However, some caveats are required, especially when considering Christ’s role in redemption. Here, the connection between the internal relations and the external works does exist, but it must be “filtered” through (1) the covenant of redemption and (2) Christ’s being in His mediatorial role as the God-man.
With this background information, how does the connection between the internal relations and external works apply to the “sendings”? In John, there does appear to be a strong correlation between the internal relations and the external sendings. Within the Trinity, the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son. This matches the Holy Spirit’s being externally sent by the Father and the Son (15:26). Within the Trinity, the Son is eternally generated/begotten by the Father (5:26). This matches to the Son’s being externally sent by the Father (7:29; 8:42). Given these correlations, I want to look at only one implication, which corrects a possible misunderstanding about Christ’s being sent. On the surface, one might think that a divine person could not be sent. However, knowing that the eternal generation of the Son by the Father does not affect Christ’s divinity confirms the corresponding truth that Christ’s being sent by the Father does not affect His divinity.
Knowing Christ More Deeply
In John 17:8, there is a parallel between knowing and believing. Christ says to the Father, “[They] have come to know the truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me” (emphasis added). Often in the Bible, as is the case here, knowledge is not simply intellectual information. It is a knowing that is connected to true belief and trust. For a Christian, at one’s best, to learn more (or re-remember or be further confirmed) about aspects of Christ is to know/believe Him more deeply.
The statements and realities in John 17:1–8 are breathtaking. We learn significant truths about intra-Trinitarian reality. There is mutual glorification, a covenant of redemption, and sending relationships. We learn significant truths about the person of Christ. He is the God-man, He is sent by the Father (and sends the Holy Spirit), He willingly died for us, and He prays for us.
We learn significant truths about our salvation. It is here called “eternal life” (v. 3). It is a life with the eternal God. It is a life given to us, the undeserving, by Christ (v. 2). It is a life whereby we happily “keep” and “receive” the Trinitarian “word(s)” (vv. 6, 8; see 16:12–15). It is a life where, at our best, we more and more know/believe Christ and look forward to seeing Him in glory.
One aspect of knowing/believing Christ is imitating Him (13:15). In John 17:1–8, seeing Christ’s involvement with the Father (and the Holy Spirit) provides, with appropriate qualifications, a model for our interaction with other Christians (11:41–42). Christ communicated. He was willing to glorify another. He was willing to be sent and was a sender. He was willing to accomplish difficult work for the benefit of others. He was willing to pray for others. He was willing to be given gifts and to give gifts. He loved others because of, among other reasons, His love for the Father.
May John 17:1–8 be used by the Holy Spirit to have us know/believe more deeply the priestly Son, whom the Father has sent.