D.A. Carson will lead tonight’s session, the second to last at this conference. He will speak about “The Supremacy of Christ and Love in a Postmodern World.”
Carson began by reading all of the seventeenth chapter of John (a passage commonly known as Jesus’ High Priestly prayer). My generation, he said, was taught to sing “what the world needs now is love sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.” This song is remarkably vague when it deals with love. Love for whom? Motivated by what? It fails to acknowledge holiness, joy in the Lord, obedient hearts, recognition of our creatureliness. The song has just enough truth that we can feel good about ourselves as we give advice to the Almighty but not enough to reflect on what God teaches about love. By contrast, in John 17 Jesus utters five specific petitions for His followers, including one that deals with love and two or three others related to love. These five specific petitions are interwoven and awesomely grounded in God and the gospel. They are grounded in God’s intratrinitarian love—the love of the members of the godhead for each other. There are give principles but they are so interwoven that pulling one will destroy the whole. They are bound up with the truth that God is love.
We will trace out these five petitions and in each case will note the petition itself and the reason or ground behind this petition and then the purpose for this petition. After we’ve surveyed these five we’ll thinking theologically and pastorally about them.
1. Jesus prays that God will keep His followers safe (verses 11, 12 and 15) while they live out their lives in this world, and in particular protect them from the devil. The reason for this petition is that Jesus is going away. He had protected them Himself to this point but He now is about to go to the cross. Who will protect them then? In the farewell discourse that task is assigned to the Holy Spirit who will be given to them. Despite knowing what is coming, His thoughts are not for Himself but for His followers. He wants them to be kept safe from the world to which they no longer belong. He wants them to be one as the godhead are one. The danger is that they will hate each other, that they will divide and devour each other. That is part of the onslaught of the evil one.
2. Jesus prays that His disciples may be one (verses 21-23). The purpose of the first petition becomes a petition of its own (proving that these petitions get intermingled), that the people of God may be one even as God is one. The purpose is that so the world may believe that Jesus was sent by God. This is clearly, at one level, missiological. If we reflect something of the glory of God by our oneness, then we are gradually teaching the world a bit of what God is like. But the way it is worded is fascinating. The way it is worded shows that Jesus is interested in the vindication of God; of Christ. It is not “that the world may believe and be saved,” but that the world may believe the truth about Jesus—so that His claims are vindicated.
3. That God would sanctify Jesus’ followers (verse 17). The reason or standard by which they are sanctified is by the truth. This is a common theme in Scripture. Jesus offers a pattern, using Himself as the example of one who sanctified Himself. What does Christ mean by this? Surely it does not mean that He has grown in sanctification! No, for He knew no sin. He was never sanctified in a progressive sense, but rather He so set Himself to do God’s will that by sanctifying Himself He goes to the cross and affects our sanctification. Now Jesus prays “sanctify them by the truth of the gospel.”
4. That Jesus’ disciples would experience the full measure of His joy (verse 13). It is remarkable that Jesus said this as He was going to the cross. He wanted this because He was going to the Father and His disciples would no longer see Him. He wanted them to know that His joy and delight and pleasure was doing the Father’s will. He wants them to find their pleasure in the same, in their enthusiastic conformity to the Father’s will. He is saying these things now so they will remember and know why He went to the cross.
5. Jesus prays that His followers will be with Him forever (verse 24). In the Old Testament God promises to dwell with His people. The ultimate goal now is for God to dwell with His people in an even more complete way. Jesus is going away to prepare a place and now we can go and dwell with Jesus. What is the reason for this? Because “You loved Me before the foundation of the world.” The purpose is not simply to go to heaven to be with friends, but to be with Jesus and to see His glory. It is profoundly Jesus-centered. When they are there they discover all the more that the reason Jesus’ glory is being displayed is because the Father has loved Him before the creation of the world and determined that His glory would be displayed. We go to heaven not to be saved, but to see Jesus’ glory! Today even heaven itself has become domesticated by assumptions that we are at the center of everything. But it is Jesus who is at the center of everything because God loved Him before the foundation of the world.
Now we must focus on what is said about love. It will be helpful to trace out how the themes of John’s gospel work into this prayer.
The supremacy of Jesus Christ in the mediation of God’s love. Begin with verses 25 and 26. All the purpose of this redemptive plan is bound up with the glorious prospect of knowing this love which Christ has already known. These verses at the end of the chapter harks back to the beginning of the chapter, repeating the same themes in different words. This cannot be unpacked without seeing the theme of glory in John’s gospel. John 1:14-18 have six references back to Exodus 32-34. One of these references is to glory. John picks up this theme again in the next chapter and in chapter 12 (verse 23 and following). The very revelation of Jesus Christ is out of the matrix of the Father’s love for the Son, including going to the cross and returning to the glory He had before the world began. All of God’s love for us is precisely mediated by all of His love for the Son on the cross. In very practical terms, how can you demonstrate God’s love? We can talk about the beauty and goodness of creation, but to see the clearest display of the goodness and glory of God we must look to the cross, for all of God’s love is mediated to us by His love for His Son.
The role of Jesus Christ in the Trinitarian experience of God’s love. We can turn here to John 5:15 and following where we see Jesus doing something that the pharisees considered a desecration of the Sabbath. Jesus could have come along and explained that the Pharisees’ interpretation was, to quote Carson, “screwball.” They could have had a nice spiritual conversation. Instead Jesus ups the ante by saying “God is working and I am working too.” Whatever justification works for God working on the Sabbath works also for Jesus. Jesus is not seeking to make Himself equal and alternate to God, but to be one with God. What follows, then, is a discussion of Jesus’ sonship. His sonship is bound up with love. For us, sonship is bound up with genes. But in the first century, sonship had another set of associations because it was bound up in another world where the overwhelming majority of sons did vocationally what their fathers did. You got your education and formation from your father. You learn the tricks of the trade from your father. Out of this is the fact that Jesus is not only the son of the carpenter, but is called the carpenter. He is identified with the family business. Jesus has been accused of making Himself equal with God, and now in verse 19 He says that the Son can only do what His Father is doing, for He can only do what the Father is doing for the Father loves the Son and shows Him all He is doing. This passage shows Jesus’ functional dependance on His Father. This concept is repeated in verse thirty. It comes again in chapter 8:29. There is a remarkable subordination of the Son to the Father in John’s gospel. But there is simultaneously a coordinated action in which they act together. The Son may petition the Father, but He does not command the Father.
The exclusiveness of Jesus Christ in our experience of God’s love. It follows that the ultimate purpose of Jesus going to the cross is to obey His Father. The reason why God has given everything for the Son to do is that He loves the Son and He is determined that everyone worship the Son. The first thing that drives the Son to the cross is His love for the Father. The doctrine of justification, when it is clearly defined, is that God is vindicated. God is glorified. God’s ways are acknowledged as right. All of this comes from the intra-trinitarian love of God. And then you are prepared to love John 3:16. God gave the Son whom He had loved in eternity past and whom He was determined that all should honor. He gave His Son. “This is past finding out. That is just…past finding out.”
The grounding of all that Jesus prays for in John 17 is this oneness of Jesus and the Father. When we respond to the love of God, we must respond as the eternal Son did in the perfection of obedience. We are to be perfectly one because we are modelling our oneness on the very triune God. The perfection of love for the Son to the Father is to be mirrored in the love of Christian to Christian, that the world may know the Father sent the Son.
There are many scholars who say that John’s gospel is unseemly and sectarian. What they say is that in Matthew’s gospel we are told to love our enemies, but in John’s gospel we are to love each other as fellow believers. There is a decline in the quality of love as the Scripture is written. That is utterly blaspemous, because this love from believer to believer is to be a reflection of the love of the members of the Trinity.
So what does this have to do with postmodernism? There have recently been quite a number of books that say the essence of the gospel is in the first and second great commandments. Some books now also want to say we need to study the teaching of Jesus and find out what the gospel is. “This is tragic beyond utterance.” We now speak of “the gospel of John” and “the gospel of Mark” but this is something new. In the first century they said “the gospel according to Mark or John.” They each bring their own perspective to the one gospel.; they do not each bring their own. There is no good news without the cross and the resurrection. If you start thinking the gospel is the two great commandments and don’t think it necessary to also speak of the cross and the resurrection, you have missed the gospel of the Bible.