Fairbairn: The Trinity Models Relationship in Community, Part 2

Fairbairn_02112015Donald Fairbairn.  2009.  Life in the Trinity:  An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers.  Downers Grove:  IVP Academic. (Go to part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The centrality of John 13-17 in Fairbairn’s picture of the scarlet thread running through the understanding of the early church fathers of our life in Christ is both obvious and mysterious.  It is obvious because these chapters contain some of Jesus’ last words before his crucifixion.  It is mysterious, in part, because John skips things highlighted in the other Gospels, like Jesus’ prayer in the Garden and the last supper, and includes things, like the washing of the disciple’s feet, not included elsewhere (13-16).  Jesus’ enigmatic discussion in the upper room about his relationship with the Father is probably the most mysterious narrative in the entire New Testament.

The complementary relationship between this upper room discourse and Jesus’ high priestly prayer suggests that John feels it important—a kind of Hebrew doublet. Fairbairn (28) writes:

“In the discourse, Jesus has laid out a picture of life as God intends it, and in the prayer, he asks his father to bring about the kind of life he has just described to the disciples.”

However, these are also some of Jesus’ last words making this a doublet that today would be written in red and underlined, so to speak.  For this reason, these chapters got the attention of early church fathers.  Summarizing, Fairbairn writes:  “our sharing the Father-Son relationship is at the center of what it means for us to participate in God.” (37) And: “the doctrine of the Trinity is the gateway to understanding Christian life.” (50)

If you accept Fairbairn’s conclusions, entering the deep end of the pool theologically is clearly not optional .  Fairbairn suggests that we were created to share in the life of the Trinity as evidenced by the early life of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and by our creation in the image of a Triune God.  Being created in the image of God sets humanity apart from plants, animals, and even angels (60) and sets humanity apart from them even after the fall.

But what does this life in the Trinity look like?  Fairbairn (65) sees 4 obvious benefits to having fellowship with the Trinity:

  1. Significance—our significance lies not in what we do, but to whom we belong (67);
  2. Peace—The peace of God is more than the absence of conflict, it shares a calmness even in the storms of life (69) and includes the tutorage of the Holy Spirit throughout (70);
  3. Work—our attitude towards work is transformed. The apostle Paul writes: “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” (1 Cor 15:10 ESV) To redeem work is to return to the Garden of Eden where our work began.
  4. Human relationships—If God loves humanity, then so should we and we see people differently (81).

Fairbairn (224) writes:

“We are called to reflect the Father’s love for the Son, and part of the way we do that is by serving the least of the believers—the neediest, the ones who are the loneliest, the ones who suffer the most in this fallen world.”

Perhaps the most important contribution Fairbairn makes, in my estimation, is to our understanding the depth that sin has broken our relationship with God and neighbor. Sin, he writes, “is what happens when have two children in the same room with one toy” (87).    This brokenness dominates who we are and how we relation to both God and neighbor. The curse of sin involves two parts:  physical death and spiritual death—separation from God (98).  We are twisted to the point that we do not even recognize our own depravity.  Adam and Eve had no reason to doubt God’s word in the garden and no reason to trust the serpent’s words:  “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen 3:5 ESV)  The word, know, here in Hebrew (yada) means more than simply knowledge, it implies being able to decide (93).  In order words, Adam and Eve not only wanted to understand good and evil, they wanted to determine what is good and evil for themselves—to play god.

It is only by fully understanding the depth of our own depravity, we can appreciate the need for God’s promise, the incarnation of Christ, and the gift of redemption.  The lost sense of sin is accordingly at the heart of the modern and postmodern shamelessness and inattention to faith.

As is always the case with good books, it is not just the interesting details but how they hang together to make the text sing.  This is a text that clearly sings.

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JOHN 17: Intercessory Prayer

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Albrecht Durer, 1508
Albrecht Durer, 1508

Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you…I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours…I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word (John 17:1,9,20 ESV).

Jesus is our role model for prayer.

The Gospel of Luke records the most verses in which Jesus prays.  The first incidence of prayer is during his baptism when Jesus is anointed by the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove (3:21-22).  When crowds gathered following miracles of healing, Jesus retreated to a desolate place to pray (5:15).  When the Pharisee attacked him for healing on the Sabbath, Jesus climbed a mountain and prayed all night—the following day he chose the twelve apostles (6:12).  Jesus, when praying alone among the disciples, posed the question:  “who do the crowds say that I am?” (9:18). While praying with Peter, John, and James on a mountain top, Jesus is transfigured (9:28).  Jesus was praying when the disciples asked him:  “Lord, teach us to pray…” (11:1). On the night before his death, Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane (22:41).

The prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is not found in the Gospel of John.  Instead, in the same time slot in the passion narrative records the prayer in John 17 which is often referred to as Jesus’ high priestly prayer.  Although Jesus is best known for the Lord’s Prayer[1], chapter 17 records Jesus’ longest prayer—true intercessory prayers tend to be long.  In the Luke passage, Jesus prays his passion:  Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done (Luke 22:42 ESV) which is paraphrased in Mark 14 and Mathew 26.  The focus in John’s prayer is on Jesus’ ministry[2].

The prayer in John 17 has three main sections:  an introduction (vv 1-8), prayer for the disciples (vv 10-19), and prayer for the rest of us (vv 20-26).

Introduction.  Verse one begins the prayer with these words:  he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, Father (v 1). This phrasing reminds us of the Lord’s Prayer which begins:  Our Father in heaven (Matthew 6:9 ESV).  Interestingly, the introduction begins with Jesus speaking about himself in the third person and then moves into the first person.  For example in verse 1 it reads—glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you—while verse 4 reads:  I glorified you on earth (v 4).  The two statements both underscore the close relationship between God the Father and God the Son—they glorify each other.  Verse 3 reminds us that eternal life consists in knowing the Father and the Son.

Prayer for the Disciples.  This section of the prayer reads like an ordination service.  Who are the disciples; what is their mission; and how they need protection in the world are all topics addressed.  Interestingly, their sanctification consisted of receiving the word—in other words, scripture! (v 17)

Prayer for the rest of us.  We are identified with these words:  those who will believe in me through their word (v 20).  Our appearance in this prayer is likewise a function of scripture—the word of God written down by the Apostles.

Two themes in Jesus’ prayer are praise (note the repeated use of the word glorify) and focus on the role of scripture.

What themes are found in your prayers?


[1] Matthew 6:9-15 and Luke 11:2-24.

[2] Gary M. Burge. 2000. The NIV Application Commentary:  John.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, page 461.


  1. John 17 is a prayer. What is it about?  (Hint: Three parts:  vv 1-8, 10-19, 20-26)
  2. Where does this prayer take place? What is our expectation from the other Gospels?  (Hint:  Luke 22:39; Mark 14:32)
  3. How is Jesus described as approaching prayer? (v 1)
  4. What does this verse remind you of? (Hint: Matthew 6:9)
  5. What seems different? (Hint: Matthew 6:5-7)
  6. What claims does Jesus make in verse 2?
  7. What is eternal life? (v 3)
  8. What is glory? (ἐδόξασα; v 4) What does Jesus say about it? (vv 4-6).
  9. What does Jesus say about “the name”? (v 6) Who is addressed?
  10. What did Jesus teach? What did it consist of?  Where did it come from?  (vv 6-8)
  11. Who does Jesus pray for? Who not? (v 9)
  12. What does Jesus pray? (vv 11-12, 26) What does he mean by “in the name”?
  13. What is the petition in verse 13?
  14. What brings on hate? (v 14)
  15. What do you understand from Jesus’ references to the world? (κόσμος; vv 14-16, 18, 25)
  16. What is truth? (ἀλήθειά; v 17)
  17. Who sent Jesus? Who sends us? (v 18)
  18. What does Jesus mean by to consecrate? (ἁγιάζω; v 19)
  19. Notice the parallel between verses 18 and 19. What is not parallel?
  20. Who is Jesus praying for in verse 20?
  21. What is his petition? (v 21)
  22. Where does love come from? (v 26)


JOHN 17: Intercessory Prayer

Also see:

JOHN 18: The Arrest and Trials of Jesus 

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Roadmap of Simple Faith

Bothersome Gaps: Life in Tension

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at:http://bit.ly/2018_Trans

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