It’s amazing how much you notice the reciprocal nature of God’s relationships with people once you start looking for it. I noticed this when I first read Brent Schmidt’s book Relational Grace, and I’m noticing it even more now that I’m reading his follow-up book, Relational Faith. In both these books, Schmidt explains the context for the Greek words charis (grace) and pistis (faith) are relational and reciprocal; they were connected to patron-client relationships, where a more powerful patron creates a covenant relationship with a client who owes them ongoing loyalty in response to their faithfulness and gracious gifts.
Schmidt writes, “in the first century, pistis implied active loyalty, trust, hope, knowledge, and persuasion in the patron-client relationship or within the new covenant brought about through Christ’s Atonement” (Relational Faith, p. 11). Similarly, everyone knew “receiving charis implied entering into reciprocal covenantal relationships” (Relational Grace, p. 63).
So, I’ve been thinking about faith as active trust and the centrality of reciprocal relationship as we went into the Passover this past week. I also took my Tree of Life translation as the Bible I’d be following along with during the Passover service. And I noticed some interesting things. For one, this Messianic translation uses “trust” instead of the more typical “belief” when translating John 14:1. Second (and this is what we’ll focus on today), the words of the New Covenant in John 13-17 have a lot of reciprocal language.
The Importance of Doing Loyal Things
For purposes of this discussion, I’m using “reciprocal” in the sense of “reciprocity.” Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines it as “mutual dependence, action, or influence” and ” a mutual exchange of privileges” (Reciprocity). This dictionary also points out that “Reciprocal and mutual share a good deal of meaning; the former may be defined as ‘shared, felt, or shown by both sides,’ and the latter as ‘shared in common'” (Reciprocal). So when we look at this idea in the Bible, we’re looking at places where God says, “Because I do ___, you respond like ___” or where His followers say something like, “It is right for us to do ___, because the Lord has graciously done ___.”
At Jesus’s last Passover on earth with His disciples, He instituted New Covenant symbols and traditions, including the foot washing. During the evening meal, Jesus got up and washed His disciples feet. Then, He told them to reciprocate by doing the same thing for other people.
If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you too ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example—you should do just as I have done for you. I tell you the solemn truth, the slave is not greater than his master, nor is the one who is sent as a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you understand these things, you will be blessed if you do them.John 13:14-17, NET
The proper response to Jesus serving you is to go out and serve others. Then, when you understand and do the things He teaches, you’ll receive blessings. In sharp contrast stands Judas, who responded to His Master’s selfless service with betrayal. You might remember I’ve also been reading The Heliand, a Saxon retelling of the gospel account in the style of epic poetry like Beowulf. In this version, the disciples are cast as warrior-companions who owe fealty to their thane, the great king Jesus the Healer. Though we feel Judas’s betrayal deeply in modern translations, I think the Saxons might have understood even more deeply what it meant to a first-century Jewish, Greek, and Roman audience to break faith with someone who you’d bound yourself to in a covenant that should have been faithful and reciprocal.
More Reciprocal Instructions
In my church we often refer to the passage of scripture in John 13-17 as the words of the New Covenant. I encourage you to read through that section of scripture and look at how many times the “if you do this, I will do this” or “because I do this, you should do this” pattern repeats. I’ll just quote one of those passages here:
“You are clean already because of the word that I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me—and I in him—bears much fruit, because apart from me you can accomplish nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown out like a branch, and dries up; and such branches are gathered up and thrown into the fire, and are burned up. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you want, and it will be done for you. My Father is honored by this, that you bear much fruit and show that you are my disciples.
“Just as the Father has loved me, I have also loved you; remain in my love. If you obey my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete. My commandment is this—to love one another just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this—that one lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.John 15:3-14, NET
If we live in Jesus, He and His Father will live in us. Because they live in us, we’ll bear much fruit. When we bear fruit, it honors God. And so on. The New Covenant is a reciprocal relationship. Like any healthy relationship, there’s trust and reliance on each other to do things that build up the relationship. And as the far more powerful party in the covenant, God gives far more than we do. In John 13-17, Jesus promises to send the gift of the Holy Spirit. He assures those who are loyal to Him that His Father will hear and respond to their prayers. And the main thing He asks from us in return is love, loyalty and obedience. Over and over we read, “if you love me, keep my commandments,” including the one to love each other (John 13:34-35; 14:15, 21, 23; 15:17).
It’s really amazing to think about. God wants to have a real relationship with us. And not one that’s easily ended when someone decides it’s hard or not what they expected or they don’t “feel like it” anymore. He’s invested in us for the longest-term possible–eternity. He wants us to grow and thrive in this relationship, learning to be like Him since we’re becoming part of His family.
A Real, Mutually Invested Relationship
Now this is eternal life—that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent.John 17:3, NET
Our eternal potential hinges on a meaningful, real, covenantal relationship with God the Father and Jesus the Messiah. We can learn more about the type of relationship they want to have with us by looking at the relationship they share.
Everything I have belongs to you, and everything you have belongs to me, and I have been glorified by them. I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them safe in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are one.John 17:10-11, NET
We belong to God, and He gives us to Jesus, and Jesus leaves us safe with God, and they work together so we can be one as they are one. There’s a beautiful, seamless unity in their relationship and they want to welcome us into that oneness as well (John 17). It’s such an astonishing proposition that the apostle John was still marveling at it decades later.
See how glorious a love the Father has given us, that we should be called God’s children—and so we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know Him. Loved ones, now we are God’s children; and it has not yet been revealed what we will be. But we do know that when it’s revealed, we shall be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. Everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.1 John 3:1-3, TLV
There are expectations connected to this covenant relationship, but they’re expectations that naturally flow from the type of connection we share with God our Father and Jesus our adopted elder brother and betrothed Husband. For example, I expect that my parents will continue loving me as their daughter; they expect I won’t do things to dishonor them or purposefully disgrace the family. My fiancé and I each expect the other to remain faithful to and invest in our relationship now and after we’re married. It’s very similar in our relationship with God–the trust and investment go both ways.
We know God the Father and Jesus Christ are invested in their relationships with people. They’ve “got skin in the game”–they made us in their own image, poured their time and energy into us, and Jesus even died for us. He talked about that at Passover, too: “No one has greater love than this—that one lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:13-14, NET). John brings this up again in his epistles as well, saying, “We have come to know love by this: that Jesus laid down his life for us; thus we ought to lay down our lives for our fellow Christians” (1 John 3:16, NET). There’s even a reciprocal aspect to Jesus’s sacrifice; we can’t pay Him back for such a gift, but there is a proper response we’re supposed to have when we recognize the love that motivated His sacrifice.
Featured image by Claudine Chaussé from Lightstock
Song Recommendation: “Here I am Anyway ” by Josh Wilson