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God as Sender, Jesus as Sent

The relationship between Jesus and God is a prominent concern of the Gospel of John, embodied by the motif of God as “sender” and Jesus as the “sent.”

John the Evangelist
John the Evangelist. Manuscript illumination from an Ethiopian Gospel Book

The motif of God as sender and Jesus as sent reaches its climax in John 17 (and is echoed again in John 20:21). In this chapter, Jesus reports the successful completion of his mission (John 17:1-5) before reporting the successful preparation of the disciples to continue his mission (John 17:18), which forms the bridge between Jesus and successive generations (John 17:6-19).

The Johannine community itself faced the struggle of being a religious minority, and its constituents would have been concerned about the future of the Jesus movement. Their focus on God as loving sender and Jesus as the “sent one” gave succeeding generations of early Christians a way to imagine their mission in communion with God, sent to transform the world through love.

The relationship between Jesus and God is a prominent concern of the Gospel of John, and many readers have noted that this theme is accompanied by a “sending” motif. In the Hebrew Bible, prophets are characteristically sent by God to speak and act for God. Likewise, John the Baptist, who is featured in the Gospel of John but is not its namesake—is described as sent by God (John 1:6). The author of John’s Gospel builds on this, depicting Jesus as sent by God in a unique way: he is the Son, and God is the Father. Jesus’ mission is described as a unique expression of the Father’s love for the world.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus uses the Greek verb pempein to refer to “the Father who sent me” no fewer than 24 times. These references put the focus on the Father, who through this action of sending authorizes and empowers the Son in his mission. In another seventeen passages, however, some form of the verb apostellein is used to focus instead on Jesus, as the one who is sent. This verb invests Jesus’ acts with the full authority of the Father because he seems to do only what the Father wills. Indeed, for John, the Father is present, speaking and acting in Jesus (John 5:17, John 5:19-20). This emphasis on the interrelationship between God the Father and Jesus the Son lays the groundwork for later Trinitarian theology.

In John 3:16-17, the “sending” relationship between the Father and Son frames Jesus as God’s gift for the world. For John, this embodies the nature of God’s love for the world (see also John 3:16; 1John 4:10). The purpose of this giving or sending is to save the world, not to condemn it.

John 3:34-35 further describes the relationship between God and “he whom God has sent” as an expression of the reality that “the Father loves the Son” (John 5:20). The Father’s love for the Son continuously endows and empowers the Son to speak the Father’s words and do the Father’s works (John 3:34-35, John 5:17, John 5:19-20, John 5:30).

  • John Painter

    John Painter is Foundation Professor of Theology at St. Mark’s National Theological Centre, School of Theology, Charles Sturt University, Canberra Campus, Australia. His publications include John Witness and Theologian (SPCK, 1975) and The Quest for the Messiah: The History, Literature and Theology of the Johannine Community (T&T Clark and Abingdon, 1993).