“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” is a familiar phrase within the Christian Church. (“Holy Ghost” is used in more antiquated contexts.) The triune formula is uttered frequently, consistently, in all manner of church contexts (liturgical, catechetical, instructional, devotional), by all manner of church people (ordained and lay, stipended or voluntary, intensely devout or loosely affiliated).
This coming Sunday is the seventh Sunday in the season of Easter. Each year, on this Sunday, the lectionary takes us back to the long prayer attributed Jesus, recorded in John 17, and (by my reckoning) created by the anonymous author of this “book of signs” quite some decades after the lifetime of Jesus. In Year A, we read the first 11 verses. in Year B, we hear verses 6–19. In Year C, we are offered verses 20–26.
It’s a creative and insightful prayer, even if somewhat repetitive (as, indeed, is so much of this Gospel!). However, in my view, it draws together many key ideas that are peppered throughout the narrative of the preceding 16 chapters. And—also in my view—it offers another way for us to conceive of the relationship between Father, Son, and disciples; and because of that, it sets up the groundwork for a new take on “the trinity”.
This section of the book of signs—which we know as the Gospel according to John—that is offered by the lectionary each year, on the Seventh Sunday after Easter, is often called the Great High Priestly Prayer of Jesus (John 17:1–26). It is a prayer reported only in this Gospel, in a style that is distinctive to this Gospel. In this work, it represents the final climactic prayer of Jesus for those who are following him.
This prayer, I contend, sets before us a different trinity. Not the trinity of orthodox doctrine and liturgy. Rather, it is quite another trinity!
Let me explain. My argument has three main parts to it—not surprisingly, because it is, after all, about a three-part entity!
I The Spirit in John’s Gospel
First, let us note that references to the Spirit are few and far between in this Gospel. The Spirit is noted in John’s testimony about the baptism of Jesus (1:32–34) and then is referred to in passing in later statements by Jesus (3:34; 6:63; 7:39; 20:22), but no more expansive exposition of the role or significance of the Spirit is offered in this Gospel.
In three brief discussions during his farewell discourse with the disciples, Jesus refers to the Spirit as the Advocate (parakletos) (14:15–17, 26; 15:26: 16:12–15). In each instance, it is clear that the Advocate steps into the place that will be left empty after the departure of Jesus.
The role of the Advocate is a replacement role, rather than being one of the three personae in interrelationship within the triune Godhead. Other than these brief references, there is no indication of the Spirit as a personal entity in relationship with God or Jesus in this Gospel.
(For more on this figure in this Gospel, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/07/the-paraclete-in-john-15-exploring-the-array-of-translation-options/)
So the third person in the trinity in John’s Gospel: who is it?
II The relationship between the Father and the Son
To get to that point, first, we need to observe the way that this Gospel sets out the intimate relationship between the Father and the Son. There are ten ways by which this relationship is described in this prayer; and indications of these ten ways of connecting can be found scatted throughout the long narrative about Jesus constructed by the author.
The central affirmation about Jesus in this Gospel is claiming the unity of the Son with the Father. “The Father and I are one”, Jesus has dramatically, and provocatively declared (10:30). (These words provoked “the Jews” to pick up stones to stone Jesus, 10:31.)
This affirmation is reiterated as Jesus prays to God: “we are one” (17:22). It is also expressed in the language of intimate and mutual interrelationship: “you, Father, are in me and I am an in you” (17:21; “you in me” is repeated in 17:23).
The intimate relationship of the Father and the Son has been noted already in the chapter where Jesus speaks about the vine and the branches, when he declares that “I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (15:10). The language of abiding recurs in the first letter attributed to John—although most likely from a different author (see 1 John 2:24, 28; 3:6, 24; 4:13–16).
The second way in which the Father and the Son are related is that the Father knows the Son, just as the Son knows the Father. “The world does not know you; but I know you”, Jesus prays (17:25). This mutual knowledge of one another has been affirmed earlier in controversies in Jerusalem (7:29; 8:55). Jesus is perfectly clear: “the Father knows me and I know the Father” (10:15).
Third, the Father loves the Son just as the Son loves the Father. This is expressed three times in this prayer (17:23, 24, 26). This again is a motif that has been expressed earlier, when Jesus affirms that “the Son loves the Father” (14:31) and that “the Son loves the Father” (15:9).
Fourth, there is a persistent theme running through the prayer, that the Father gifts the Son with a number of different gifts. These gifts include “authority over all people” (17:2), work to do (17:4), words to speak (17:8, 14), and glory (17:22, 24). The prayer also twice references “your name that you have given me” (17:11, 12). God’s gifts in the earlier chapters have included, most famously, “his only Son” (3:16), as well as “living water” (4:10), “bread in the wilderness” (6:31), the “true bread from heaven” (6:32), another Helper” (14:16), and “whatever you ask from God” (11:22; 15:16; 16:23)—although these are all directed towards believing humanity, rather than directly to the Son.
Fifth, the Father sends the Son into the world. This is another strong thread running through this prayer (17:3, 8, 18, 21, 23, 25). The motif of sending is equally strong in this Gospel; “him who sent me” is a description of the Father that frequently recurs (1:33; 4:34; 5:23, 30, 36–38; 6:38, 44; 7:16, 28–29; 8:16, 18, 26, 29, 42; 9:4; 10:36; 11:42; 12:44–49; 13:20; 14:24; 15:21; 16:5). The famous verse about God sending the Son (3:16–17) is later alluded to in one of the final words of the risen Jesus: “as the Father has sent me” (20:21).
Sixth, the Son makes known the Father to the world (17:7–8). This function of revealing, or making known, is integral to the role that Jesus has throughout the book of signs. This function is introduced in the majestic opening prologue: “the Father’s only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18).
This theme continues in affirmations that Jesus healed the man born blond “so that the works of God might be manifest in him” (9:3); to those who love the Son “I will love him and manifest myself to him” (14:21); and in the affirmation that those formerly called servants are now called friends, “for a servant does not know what the master is doing” (15:15).
The root word underlying the verb “to make known” (gnōridzō) is the noun gnōsis, which in itself does not appear in the book of signs; however, many interpreters regard this book as being heavily influenced by the emerging movement we label as Gnosticism. In this movement, salvation is attainable not by trusting in a sacrificial action, but rather by gaining knowledge (gnosis). The insight and knowledge that is conveyed by Jesus as he teaches (6:59; 7:28, 35; 8:2, 20, 34; 18:20) is the key for those who follow him.
Seventh, the Father indicates to the Son that he has sanctified the Son him by sending him “into the world” (10:36). Whilst he was “in the world” (17:11), the Son prays to the Father that he has “made your name known” to those he has gathered (17:6), by giving to the Word (1:1-3) the words that are from God (17:8,14). Through this process, the Son is sanctified (17:19).
Eighth, the Father glorifies the Son, just as the Son glorifies the Father (17:1, 4, 5). This has been declared earlier by Jesus, that “my Father is glorified by this” (15:8), and prayed for when Jesus cries out “Father, glorify your name”, to which a voice from heaven responds, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify him at once” (12:28).
Still earlier in the Gospel, Jesus notes that “it is my Father who glorifies me” (8:54). This motif has also been signalled very early on, in the poetic prologue, in which the author claims that “we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son” (1:14). The signs that Jesus performed “revealed his glory” (2:11; 11:4, 40).
The moment in which the full realisation of the glory of Jesus actually manifests in its fullness in the cluster of events that take place in his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension (12:23–24; see also 13:31–32).
Ninth, the prayer indicates that the Son returns to the Father (17:10, 13). Jesus had foretold this quite directly to his followers (14:18–19, 28). This leads to the tenth, final, line of connection and relationship between the Father and the Son: that the Son is now with the Father (17:5, 11, 14, 16, 22), bringing fulfilment to the words uttered earlier by Jesus (14:10–11, 20).
Each of these lines of connection between the Father and the Son are clearly expressed in the prayer of Jesus in John 17. Each of them is signalled at various points earlier in the narrative. And many of them are found within the prayer, and elsewhere in the Gospel, as characterising the relationship between the Son and the Disciples.
III The relationship between the Son and the Disciples
I will offer my considerations of this third part in a subsequent blog …
For other considerations relating to the Trinity, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/10/do-you-believe-in-the-triune-god/