April 13: John 17:21b, 22c-23a

John 17:20-23, continued

Line 2: John 17:21b, 22c-23a

Following the i%na-clause in line 1 (cf. the previous note), in each of the two stanzas of vv. 21-23 there is an explanatory kaqw/$-clause. The comparative particle kaqw/$ (kata/ + w($) is a bit difficult to translate literally and concisely, but it means something like “just as”. It is used rather frequently in the Johannine writings—31 times in the Gospel (almost always in the Discourses), and 13 in the Letters (9 in 1 John), making up about a quarter of all New Testament occurrences.

Keeping in mind that the clause is epexegetical—that is, it explains the meaning of the initial statement in line 1—here is how it reads in each stanza:

    • “just as you, Father (are) in me and I in you” (v. 21b)
      kaqw\$ su/ pa/ter e)n e)moi/ ka)gw\ e)n soi/
    • “just as we are one, I in them and you in me” (v. 22c-23a)
      kaqw\$ h(mei=$ e%n: e)gw\ e)n au)toi=$ kai\ su\ e)n e)moi/

The point being made is that the unity of believers, which Jesus requests in line 1, is to be explained in terms of the unity between Jesus (the Son) and God the Father. For many orthodox or otherwise pious-minded Christians, this is something of an uncomfortable comparison. Indeed, I would argue that the force of the clause is more than comparative—the unity of believer is not just similar to that between Father and Son, but is the same kind of unity. There is a tendency to soften the implications of this, popularized by the theological distinction between the “natural” sonship of Jesus and the more general (or “adopted”) sonship of believers. However, such a distinction, while made out of a genuinely pious intention, is facile and artificial, and more or less unsupported by the New Testament evidence.

For one thing, the distinction is meaningless in terms of legitimate sonship—the ‘adopted’ son has the same legal rights, status and privileges, as the naturally-born. Moreover, while Paul does make use of the idea of ‘adoption’ (lit. placement as a son, ui(oqesi/a), it is foreign to the Johannine writings, where believers are repeatedly described, in biologic-existential terminology, as ones who have “come to be (born) out of [e)k] God” (1:13, cf. also 3:3-8; 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18). The only clear distinction in these writings is that the noun ui(o/$ (“son”) tends to be reserved for Jesus, while believers are almost always referred to as tekna/ (“offspring, children”). This use of the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”) is applied to believers, rather than to Jesus; however, in 1 John 5:18, the textually difficult verse is best understood as referring both to Jesus and to believers, using the same sort of terminology:

“We have seen that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God [i.e. believer] does not sin, but (that) the (one hav)ing come to be (born) out of God [i.e. Jesus the Son] keeps watch (over) him, and the evil {or, the Evil [One]} does not attach itself to him.”

Thus, we must take seriously that the unity of believers is to be understood in terms of the relationship between Father and Son. Let us consider the kaqw/$-line of the first stanza, where this is established.

Verse 21b

“just as you, Father (are) in me and I in you”

Throughout the Gospel of John, this relationship is described (by Jesus himself, in the Discourses) using the ordinary human imagery of the relationship between parent and child (father/son). This is basic to the Gospel and early Christian tradition; however, the first generation of believers understood this Sonship of Jesus almost entirely in terms of the resurrection—his exaltation to a divine status and position at the right hand of God the Father. The situation is rather different in the Gospel of John, which reflects considerable Christological development; the emphasis is on an ontological (and eternal) relationship that Father and Son have shared from the beginning. In classic theological terms, we would refer to this as an emphasis on the divine pre-existence of Jesus. In the Discourses, this is perhaps expressed most clearly here in the Prayer-Discourse, both in the opening (v. 5) and closing sections (v. 24, right after the passage under discussion).

How is the Father “in” (e)n) the Son, and the Son “in” the Father? Working from the human metaphor, this could be understood using the biological correspondence—the ‘seed’ of the offspring is contained in the parent, while, correspondingly, the genetic nature and makeup of the parent is contained in the child. Or, we could utilize the simple image of an embrace—where interlocking parent and child form a single entity, and each is contained “in” the other. This would be close to the Johannine understanding, with the repeated emphasis on love (a)ga/ph). We are reminded, for example, of the image of the Son resting in the lap (or at the bosom/breast) of the Father (1:18), even as the Son’s beloved disciple rests close to him (13:23, 25). We should also not ignore the aspect of motion that characterizes this relationship, with the Son coming toward (pro/$) the Father (1:1-2, etc), and ultimately returning to Him. Communication takes place along this chain of relationship, with words being sent, and, indeed, the life-giving Spirit being sent as well (the divine Word and Spirit being essentially the same, 6:63). The unifying character of the Spirit is discussed further below.

Verse 22c-23a

“just as we are one, I in them and you in me”

The kaqw/$-clause in the second stanza is more complex, folding believers into this unity between Father and Son (“we are one”). This demonstrates that it is not simply a comparison; rather, the very unity of believers is dependent on the unity between Father and Son. In the first stanza, the Father-Son unity was reciprocal, now it is part of a triadic chain of relationship. This is fundamental to the Johannine Discourses, where Jesus repeatedly indicates that he is giving to his disciples (believers) what the Father has given to him. This will be discussed in more detail when we come to line 5 (vv. 22a, 23d). By reversing the phrases in v. 23a we can illustrate this chain of relationship:

    • You => in me
      • I => in them

In speaking of unity (or oneness), it is worth considering a key passage where the same neuter numeral (e%n) is used—10:30, which happens to be the only other such passage in the Gospel which refers to the Father and Son together:

“I and the Father are one [e%n].”

This climactic declaration lies at the heart of the discourse in 10:22-39. The discourse centers on the relationship of Jesus (the Son) to the Father, with similarities to the long and complex discourses in chapter 5 and 7-8. It may be divided into two portions, the second of which builds upon the first. There are two exposition-sections by Jesus (vv. 25-30, 34-38), each of which concludes with a powerful declaration of the unity of Father and Son; the corresponding declaration in v. 38 is:

“the Father (is) in me and I (am) in the Father”

This is exactly the language Jesus uses in 17:21b (cf. above), and the parallel clause in 22c-23a confirms that the unity (e%n) of believers is based on the unity (e%n) of Father and Son. We will explore this point further in the next daily note, on line 3 (21c, 23b).

Before concluding today, it is worth mentioning again a point made in a prior note, regarding the resurrection of Jesus. As discussed above, the earliest Gospel preaching and teaching tied the divine Sonship of Jesus to the resurrection (and his exaltation to the Father). Paul, in his letters, tended to follow this Christological understanding, though on occasion he evinces an awareness of the idea of Jesus’ pre-existent deity (e.g., Phil 2:6ff) as well. In 1 Corinthians 15:45, Paul makes the striking statement that, with his resurrection, Jesus came to be (e)ge/neto) a “life-making Spirit”. This must be understood in terms of the Spirit of God, in light of how the expressions “Spirit of God” and “Spirit of Christ” could be used interchangeably (by Paul and others) to refer to the (Holy) Spirit. The same interchangeability is found in the Johannine Last Discourse, where the Spirit is said to come from the Father, from Jesus, or (in essence) from both together (14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7). In 1 Cor 15:45, the idea seems to be that the spirit of Jesus was transformed into the Spirit of God, in accord with the early Christology that located his divine Sonship with the resurrection/exaltation. Paul’s words in 6:17 are suggestive of this dynamic:

“the (one) being joined (together) with the Lord is one Spirit [e^n pneu=ma/ e)stin]”

This can be understood of Jesus’ union with God the Father, as well as equally (and properly here) of the believer’s union with Christ, and, through him, with the Father. The same neuter numeral e%n (“one”) is used in 1 Cor 6:17, and tends to confirm what the Johannine context of the Prayer-Discourse already makes clear—that the unity of believers is realized through the presence of the Spirit. This triadic unity of Father, Son, and believers, may be illustrated by a simple diagram, which will be expounded in some measure in the following notes:

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