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New Covenant Unity: Exegesis and Theology

“God promised to build David a house (2 Sam. 13-14; cf Act 15:16-17). This house is not the ancient family of David, but the house of God made up of the people of God from all nations and time, a people born of the water and Spirit of God” (Cox, 2012, From Calling to Covenant: The Story of David). Just as Jewish scribes carefully examined jots and tittles joined with Hebrew consonants for detailed meaning throughout ancient text; metaphorically, so too must one turn to these same in Scripture to understand unity in Christ with respect to fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy in the New Testament with the house of the living God, the Church of Jesus Christ, comprised of the called from all tribes and nations. To determine critical biblical exegesis, this essay utilizes the hermeneutical triad method, examining New Testament unity in the context of history-culture, literature and theology in harmony with Scripture.

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Background

Historical Setting

John 17 contains Jesus’ fourth and parting prayer that closes the Johannine Farewell Discourse (Köstenberger, 2007). It occurred during Passion Week, as Jesus sat with His disciples at a meal [1] immediately before His arrest (Matt. 26:17-29). Jesus prays that the “hour is come” (v. 1, cf Matt 26:18; John 7:30; 12:23 and 13:1). He was about to complete His mission. Now, at the threshold of the cross, Jesus submits “as a man to the plan of God through the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension” (Bernard, 1994, p. 113;  cf. Isa. 55:10-11; John 13:1, 3).  It is a mark of transition from His earthly ministry to completion and triumph over the world. Glory is one of the central themes of the Book of John. One sees that His glory fulfills the past and provides a trajectory of future eternal life for those who believe in Him in generations to come (v. 20).

Cultural Background Issues

The Jewish people believed that the “Gentile nations hated them because they were chosen and sent by God and suffered on his account” (Keener, 1993, 302). On the other hand, the Jews resented Jesus grouping most of them with the world. This created great opposition among Jews towards Jesus (cf. John 15:18-19). The author explains that God ‘sanctified’ or “set apart” Israel for himself as holy, especially by giving them his commandments” (Lev 11:44-45). If God had sanctified his people, or set them apart among the nations by giving them the law, how much more are followers of Jesus set apart by his coming as the law made flesh (John 1:1-18 and John 17:17; 1993, p. 305). Unity, and thus covenant, now is extended to those beyond Israel through the glorification of Jesus at the cross. As God and Jesus are one, the disciples and future generations to come are to be one in Him.

Here’s the dilemma, though. Prior to the crucifixion, as related in John 16, the disciples could not fully comprehend what Jesus told them about things to come (John 16:18-19). When Jesus prays, He does so against this backdrop. However, the disciples’ attitude about Jesus as the Messiah changes to that of unity with Him after His ascension. In Acts 1, one reads of them being in one accord, waiting for the Holy Spirit. Further, the disciples speak and witness with boldness and authority to the crowd at Pentecost once they are filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2).

Literary Background

The Book of John contains two main sections which are the Book of Signs (1:19-12:50) and the Book of Glory (13:1-20:31) wrapped in a prologue (1:1-18) and epilogue (21). John 17 is a prayer and part of the Book of Glory (Green, McKnight & Marshall, 1992). Fittingly, the two central themes of this prayer show glory and unity.

Some call this the Farewell Discourse, others the High Priestly Prayer. Both a prayer and discourse, it combines elements of each into a cohesive and powerful whole. When viewing it as the High Priestly Prayer, one sees that Jesus serves as a priestly mediator by interceding for His disciples and those to come who will believe in the disciples’ teachings (cf. Ps 110:1, 4). Jesus, the High Priest, is one “who can boldly and permanently pull back the great curtain that shuts us out from God and invite us all, as brothers and sisters, to come in, to enter into intimacy with the living God” (Long, 1994, p. 96). The Farewell Discourse runs from John 13-17. In this particular portion of the discourse, Jesus, both human and divine, has a serious conversation with the Father through prayer in His humanity.

Linguistically, a discourse is a written or verbal conversation that is serious, lengthy and topic specific (Bing, 2012).  This discourse is in the form of a prayer. It reflects a one-to-one communication between Jesus, the God-man, and the Father on the subjects of glory and unity insofar as the vision for humankind. The action of lifting up your eyes to heaven is an expression commonly used at this time to describe a formal posture for prayer; followed by addressing prayer to “Father, to open” both indicate that the passage is a prayer (Moloney,1989; v.1a). The prayer text verses are either in petitionary or self-focused forms, with one an acknowledgment. [2]

Positioned at the end of the Farewell Discourse, the prayer transitions the reader to forthcoming events. This prayer sums up John’s Gospel account focusing on the unity of believers (MacArthur Bible, p. 1618). Scholars organize this prayer into three or four parts. For the purpose of highlighting the unity of believers, this essay will use Renee Kieffer’s outline of the prayer’s contents: (1) Jesus asked the Father to be glorified (vv. 1-5); (2) Jesus prays for the disciples – chosen, (vv. 6-11a) protected (vv. 11b-16) and sanctified (vv. 17-19); (3) Jesus prays for unity of all believers (vv. 20-23) and (4) Jesus prays for the disciples love (vv.24-26; Oxford Bible Dictionary, 2001).

Jesus anchors His prayer to the setting of 13:1-4. Physically, Jesus still sits at the table with His disciples. Yet, He prays undisturbed, making known publically that His hour has come and He is no longer of the world. Throughout He petitions, discourses and intercedes. Moloney believed this prayer is both a unified literary structure and theological argument (2009).

Consider for a moment the broader purpose and audience for this prayer. While Jesus prays for His disciples, and does so in their presence, the long-term implication is that He addresses unity of the yet formed Christian community of the future (vv. 20-23). In doing so, Jesus lays foundational direction for a unified, greater body of subsequent believers from all tribes and nations. Unity embeds itself within references to oneness for the body of believers found in John 17:20-23: 

Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me. 

Jesus, as a man praying for men, yet at the same time “The AM” (ego eime) come in flesh (13:19; 18:4-5), petitions for oneness four times within this passage (vv.21-23): (1) “That they all may be one” (v. 21a); (2) “that they also may be one in us:” (v. 21b); (3) “that they may be one, even as we are one” (v. 22) and (4) “that they may be made perfect in one;” (v. 23).  

One (G1520, transliterated as hā’s from the Greek εἷς) is a cardinal number, in nominative masculine form. While a number, it connotes different meanings such as one in contrast to many, single to the exclusion to others, one alone, one and the same, union and concord, a certain one, every one and first (Vine’s in Blue Letter Bible, 2012). Since the meaning depends on factors like context within the actual verse, cross reference with other verses and parallel structures, decidedly, one must look at each occurrence of one in John 17:21-23.

Do note that each of the verses in John 17:21-23 begins with the word that, signifying a prayer of petition. Further, the conjunction that, or ἵνα in Greek (transliterated as hina), indicates a subjunctive clause will follow. In a general sense the conjunction ἵνα means “that or in order that” (Dana & Matey, 1955). Further, according to Dana and Matey, when the ἵνα is final, as is in these passages, it translates to “in order that.”  Accordingly, a verb constructed in present subjunctive tense “signals continuous action and a statement of purpose” (Mounce, 1987, p. 187). Each one of the statements referencing oneness in John 21-23 is in hina, subjunctive clause construction. It would appear that these clauses highlight a statement of result that predicates on an issue, need or subject from the preceding sentence.

“That they may be one” (v. 21a).  The hina clause, “that they may be one” (v. 21a) connects to the preceding subjects, “for these alone” and “them also which shall believe on me through their word” (v. 20). Jesus prays for a union of people from the disciples to generations to come (allusion. Deut 29:14-15), consisting of “one fold and one shepherd” (cf John 10:16; 11:51-52; 56:8; Isa. 42:6b), with the result of being joined in “unity of purpose and knowledge through Jesus” (cf John 10:30; Miller, 2011). Beale and Carson parallel Jesus’ concern for unity to “fraternal love and harmony in Jewish testamentary literature” (2007, p.499).

“That they also may be one in us” (v. 21b).  With this hina clause the subjects are the same, “for these alone” and “them also which shall believe on me through their word” (v. 20). This time, Jesus prays for the result “That they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (v. 21b). He petitions that the disciples, as well as those to come abide in the one Shepherd, as one fold to bear unified witness to the identity of Jesus as the Sent One (John 17:5, 24; Zech 2:9).

“That they may be one, even as we are one” (v. 22b). In this hina clause, one sees a need in the preceding sentence that is “And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them;” (v. 22a). It results in “that they may be one, even as we are one” (v.22b) Apostle Paul picks this same up referring to unveiled faces, transformed into His likeness that reflect the Lord’s glory (2 Cor 3:18). Of importance is group solidarity. Jesus asks that they be kept together as one fold, just as he did with the disciples (cf 17:11). Bruce Malina (2009) likened this solidarity to group glue founded on love (in Neyrey, Gospel of John in Cultural and Rhetorical Perspective, p. 469). Just as Jesus “loved his own who were in the world, he loved them perfectly” (13:1). Facing His own departure He gave a new command that “you love one another’ even as I have love you, that you also love one another” (13:34).  Solidarity in maintained when one loves (ἀγαπάω) one another. Love is the glue of solidarity that solidifies relationship.

“That they may be made perfect in one” (v.23b).“The sentence prior to the hina clause shows need: “I in them, and thou in me (v. 23a), so that “they may be made perfect in one” (v.23b). When the fold remains unified, all the while abiding in Christ and Him dwelling within them, He matures them as one and makes them complete His fullness.

Theological Message

One sees the historical, cultural, and literary background of the High-Priestly prayer. Jesus faced great opposition. Strife and conflict among Jews prevailed over the message of the forthcoming Messiah. Even Jesus’ own disciples did not grasp the full implications of His discourse and revealed identity in John 13-16. Consider for a moment the broader purpose and audience for this prayer. While Jesus prays for His disciples, He not only prays that they remain one, but addresses future unity of the yet formed Christian community (vv. 20-23).

This prayer serves the purpose of providing direction for a unified, body of believers from all tribes and nations – The Church of Jesus Christ. An analysis of the result statements (hina clauses) for oneness shows four major premises for unity of the Church in the areas of purpose and knowledge, bearing witness, reflecting His glory and perfecting as one in Him:

  1. That believers may be joined together as “one fold and one shepherd” with “unity of purpose and knowledge through Jesus” (cf John 10:30; 17:21a; Miller, 2011).
  2. That believers abide in the one Shepherd and as one fold to bear unified witness in unity to the identity of Jesus as the Sent One (John 17:21b).
  3. That they may be kept in solidarity as one fold, transformed into His likeness to reflect the His glory (John 17:22; 2 Cor 3:18).
  4. That they may be made complete and full as one, collectively abiding in Christ and Him dwelling within every believer (John 17:23).

Taking into consideration the central theme of unity found in the Book of John and four premises that direct unity in John 17:20-23, one can formulate a theology that informs practice for the local church. With this in mind, the M.O.S.A.I.C. framework for a heterogeneous church was created as a tool to bring to life a user-friendly unity (Paron, 2012). The framework aligns itself to the unity Jesus prayed for in His Church during the High Priestly prayer that would bring His church into oneness. This framework references six scriptural-based elements that support unity of the body [4].

“M” Intentional Ministry to the Multitudes

“Intentional steps to direct the salvation message to different people groups representing God’s elect” (Paron, 2012, Framework PPT) In order to join the called from every tribe and nation into one fold with one Shepherd, one must take intentional steps in ministry to support “unity through opportunities for reconciliation, invitation across cultures, diverse ministry team, brotherhood, cross-cultural relationships, spiritual growth measures, community and culture needs” (Paron, 2012, Framework).

Jesus freely offered the salvation message to the marginalized of society. He broke “down the middle wall of partition between us; by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace”(Eph 2:14-15 KJV). These were intentional acts on His part. Several examples can be found of Him reaching out to the multitudes, and in the process, He tore down the wall that separated people from the salvation message.  You see example of His reach to the multitudes: Jesus evangelized to the Samaritan woman at the well and dwelled with her town people (John 4); ate with sinners and tax collectors, i.e., Levi the publican (Luke 5:29); healed a man with dropsy (14:2); forgave a criminal while He was on the Cross (23:43). After His ascension, Jesus sent power, “after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you” to be witnesses “to the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8) The infilling of the Holy Spirit (cf. 2:38; cf 2:4; 10:46; 19:6) during New Birth, enables believers to show the aspects of forbearance and love from the fruit of the Spirit (Eph 4:2-3) to each other that brings about unity of the multitudes.

“O” Views Others with Openness

 “Invite and embrace the diversity of God’s chosen by extending the love of Christ to people within and outside your community” (Paron, 2012).  One shows openness by “willingly learning and seeking to understand different cultures for the cause of the Gospel; viewing without judgment; honoring all people and showing that each have equal status in the Kingdom; exhibiting cross-cultural servitude; practicing hospitality in the context of another person’s culture;showing love, compassion, care and person hood, connection to brotherhood within community and valuing the diversity of the one human family who God created in His image” (Paron, 2012). As such, you respect other people’s culture and consider their viewpoint as influenced by cultural background.

During Jesus’ earthly ministry, the disciples did not join seamlessly together as a group. They showed sometimes jealously and conflict or judged those within and outside their own circle. Jesus stressed solidarity. One example can be shown in Christ’s ministry that demonstrates His unconditional and unwavering love for His disciples, even under conditions of duress. For “Christ loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end” (John 1:1). Even before the feast of the Passover, Jesus knew His time had come (13:1). The disciples and Jesus finished their supper (13:2), the devil “put into the heart of Judas Iscariot to betray” Jesus (13.2) and Jesus washed the feet of His disciples, “knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands…” (13:3). Yet, Jesus washed the feet of His disciples, including those of Judas. In ancient times, foot washing was deemed a task for slaves. Jesus performed this act, showing the love of a servant’s heart. He did not breach His love, showing the same for each. He also modeled that they should wash each other’s feet in this save type of servitude (John 13:14-16).

“S” Adapt the Method, Keeping the MeSSage

Be open and flexible with people from different backgrounds; while at the same time, have a willingness to examine and change existing perceptions them. In order to adapt to different cultures to bring about unity you have to contextualize the message, yet sift through and practices that do not align with Scripture. You “realize that people perceive communication and interaction differently; adapt ministry to include people, change practices to adapt to different cultures and avoids practices that promote colonialism” to support unity as a body of believers. The goal is to unite the body in Christ and as He within the body to be “made perfect in one” (John 17:23). It is through the process of adaptation that you open doors to reconciliation. If you look again at the foot washing, Peter twice protested to Jesus about it. The second time that Jesus responded to Peter, the answer was stronger and clearer. Jesus had to change the message’s content so Peter could understand that he needed to be washed in a spiritual way and perfected in Christ.

“A” Focuses on the Call to the All

Christ’s vision stretched forward to them who would believe in Him through the disciples’ word, “that they all may be one” (John 17:20.) This means that as a leader, you have the responsibility to carry forward Jesus’ vision and minister to the all of society. You must be in unity with His vision for humankind. The Blue Letter Bible defines all in Matt 28:19, as “each, every, all, the whole, all things, and everything” (2012). As leader then must support impartiality and inclusivity in all aspects of ministry, as well as show actions of acceptance through inclusion and hold attitudes that are impartial or unbiased towards others. Above all, this requires that a leader not move, yield or waver in the call — Endure and stand in calling through Christ.  Other actions associated with the call to the all are to

bring together a diverse congregation; nurture a faith community that supports transformation for all people; negotiate cultural boundaries; create a culture for discipleship to develop leaders across cultures and generations  in an indigenous context; model actions of a peacemaker; prays unity for and with  leaders, believers, and those to come (Paron, 2012).

In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised. Jesus stayed true to this mission, despite great opposition. Likewise, Jesus commanded His disciples to, “Go ye into the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:20).

The Apostle Paul took up this charge and kept his focus as missionary to the Gentiles. Paul did not stray from his purpose despite being shipwrecked, bitten by a snake, beaten, verbally assaulted, run out of town, imprisoned and beheaded. After his conversion, he took missionary journeys, planted churches, wrote letters, disciple leaders and supported established churches. He said, “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain” (1 Cor 9:24). When believers keep to this call across culture, shoulder-to-shoulder as one fold, they to bear witness in unity to the identity of Jesus as the Sent One (John 17:21b).

“I” Shows Inclusion and Impartiality

This type of unity supports actions of acceptance through inclusion and impartiality towards others (Paron, 2012).  This means that there is no room for racial superiority, inaccessibility or partiality. You must  “incorporate methods/activities that give access, invite and welcome a broad base of people groups across cultures; model impartiality and inclusivity across cultures; celebrate and encourage the presence of a variety of people in all activities and recognize differences as diversity rather than inappropriate responses” (Paron, 2012).

 Luke 7:36-49 compares exclusionary and inclusionary attitudes and practices. On one hand is the exclusionary practice of the Pharisee who was concerned about the “woman of the city who was a sinner,” weeping as she wiped, kissed and anointed Jesus feed with ointment (7:37-28). On the other from an inclusive perspective, Jesus commended the woman for her faithfulness and forgave her sins (7:44-48). As a result of the latter, the woman joined the “one fold and one shepherd” (John 10:30).

“C” Uses Value Communication

Communication connects people from different cultural backgrounds to the Gospel message by serving as a bridge.Apostle Peter says to “be of one mind, having compassion on one of another, love as a brethren, be pitiful, be courteous: Not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing; knowing that year are called, that we should inherit a blessing” Cross-cultural communication comes into play to launch and maintain unity. This is not a one-style or one-way type of communication. You

value deep listening with others, seeking to hear the said and unsaid; receptively listen with patience and respect; realize your one’s own expectations and learned experiences serve as a filter to understanding; aim to understand and emphasize with others regardless of denomination, race, ethnicity, socio economics, gender or age, etc.; affirm when communicating and value deep listening with others, seeking to hear the said and unsaid (Paron, 2012).

The apostles used affirming language that showed the love of Christ. For example, Apostle Paul gave Timothy a holy greeting with, “Grace, mercy and peace” (1 Tim 1:2) and the Roman saints, as Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 1: 7). He spoke life into the saints at Ephesus by telling of their identity in Christ (Eph 1, 2). Whether Jew or Gentile, Paul affirmed their identity in Christ, thus, keeping everyone equally valued.

The premises stand the test of time, reminding believers of true unity. The hallmark is to view unity as one whole that leads to “one fold and one shepherd” (John 10:16). Ephesians 4:3-45states, “Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as you are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism.” Simply stated, one is one: one times one equals one and one divided by one still equals one. Believers must unite as one, across all cultural boundaries to fulfill Christ’s petition for His people.

Reprint and Updated, (All Rights Reserved, 2021)

Jan Paron, PhD

3.12.21 (2nd revision)

References

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Endnotes

  1. Each of the synoptic account, indicates that the Last Supper took place “on the night in which he was betrayed” (1 Cor 11:23). Diverse opinions exist, though, whether the meal was part of the Passover. For a detailed account of the Last Supper, I suggest reading M.O.Wise’s commentary on the Last Supper in The dictionary of Jesus and the Gospel.
  2. Malina’s taxonomy of prayer show two basic forms of prayer in John 17: Petitionary and self-focused. Verses 17:2, 5, 9,11,15,17, 20,21and 24 are petionary, while 6, 6-8, 9, 10, 12, 13-14, 16, 18-19, 20-21. 22-23 and 25-26 are self focused. One verse is acknowledgement (v. 3).
  3. Jesus, as a man praying for men, yet at the same time the AM (ego eime) come in flesh (13:19; 18:4-5), petitions for oneness four times within this passage (vv.21-23).
  4.  I created the framework as a means to guide the thought and practices of field practitioners on component of a heterogeneous, multicultural church. Various researchers, most notably Mark DeYmaz, extracted key factors for unity, but none provided a detailed account. This framework launches from John 17:20-23, utilizing the Book of John as a foundation for actions of unity. In turn, these actions cross referenced with those from the rest of the New Testament. So that users remember the key components, I attached these elements to the acronym M.O.S.A.I.C. to give a visual reminder for unity of diversity in the body of Christ. The acronym has six basic elements, with indicators to detail it further: (1) “M” intentionally ministers to the multitudes; (2) “O” views others with openness; (3) “S” adapts the method, not the meSSage; (4) “A” focuses on the call to the all; (5) “I” shows inclusion and impartiality and (f) “C” uses value communication.