What can Christians do to bring about the answer to Jesus’ prayer for our unity in John 17? Jesus prayed repeatedly for His followers to be one (Jn. 17:11, 21-23). The Father would never deny His plea; He made us, His Church, eternally one in Him. We are His body. It’s as sure as our salvation and eternal life in Christ. But is this the unity Jesus prayed for? Believers (the Church) were chosen “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4 NKJV). Was not our unity an equally eternal reality? Wasn’t he really praying for a then-future need which we are to strive for throughout our earthly experience?
Premise And Purpose
Jesus based His prayer on His finished work: “I have finished the work” (Jn. 17:4) – though, it was not complete until He died on the cross (Jn. 19:30) The eternal perspective – that all is accomplished and forever settled (including our positional unity) – is the premise of His prayer.
The purpose of His prayer – His immediate, practical, urgent motive – is to plead the Father’s care for us in our ongoing earthly career. He prays the Father to “keep (us) from the evil one” (Jn. 17:15) that is, to protect us from our own human susceptibility to his ploys. Similarly, He does not ask the Father to make us one, but that He would enable us to be one, practically, in our space-and-time world where He has sent us to represent Him in His absence (Jn. 17:11,18).
Love Will Keep Us Together
His high-priority plea is for a oneness that is a convincing witness to an unbelieving world: “that they all may be one … that the world may believe that You have sent Me … that the world may know that You have sent Me and have loved them as You have loved Me” (Jn. 17:21,23).
This godless world can have no perception of an eternal reality unless it is made visible, in the here-and-now, in terms it understands. This is the reason for the Incarnation: God became visible, palpable (Jn. 1:14,18; 3:18-19). The observable unity of believers gives witness both to the truth that the Father sent the Son, and to the Father’s love for us as for His Son, the love that will hold us together (Jn. 17:23). And Jesus pledges His ongoing ministry to reveal the Father to us, so that His love for the Son may be in us, and the Son Himself in us (v. 26).
Earlier, Jesus gave His disciples (and us) the new commandment to love one another as He loved us. Our diligence in doing this tells the world that we belong to Him (Jn. 13:34-35). John, the disciple Jesus loved, insists that the Savior’s love to us must issue in our loving one another (1 Jn. 3:16); it is the proof that we are God’s children (1 Jn. 4:7-12). The unseen God becomes visible as Christians practice love towards one another. Thus, the love the Father lavished on us through the Son is not meant simply to fill and fulfill us; it is the force, the energy source, that pulls and holds us together in a practical, visible unity that is a shining witness to the world. We are responsible to be one practically, and the love of the Father via the Son fully enables us for the challenge.
How Does It Work?
Paul addresses his first Corinthian letter “to the Church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours” (1 Cor. 1:2). This is a powerful declaration both of the Church’s unity and her universality.
God has called us into this highest society in the universe: “the fellowship of His Son” (1 Cor. 1:9), and Paul appeals to the Corinthians, and to us who need it just as much today, “that you all agree, and there be no divisions among you, but you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10 NASB).
God has invited us into a fellowship, a oneness, that the Holy Spirit made, and which we are to “endeavor to keep” (Eph. 4:3 NKJV). How can we prevent division? Experience would argue that we can’t. But Paul’s advice that we agree, that we be united in the same mind and judgment, strongly argues that we can. But must we agree on every detail?
Scripture never says so. The agreement that thwarts division has everything to do with Christ! Notice Paul’s recurring emphasis on Him and Him alone in this and following chapters. We are of the same mind because “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). We do agree about Christ and have no common ground with those who challenge or deny His deity, sinlessness, all-sufficient atonement, virgin birth, or other foundations. But as we look around, we see that most divisions have nothing to do with these essentials, but arise rather from rigid insistence on our own opinions, traditions or interpretations in other areas.
Paul says we should agree on Christ. Are some trying to place Paul, Peter or Apollos above Him? Are they baptizing converts in the name of Paul or some other leader? Are they preaching salvation by another savior or by some means other than Christ’s finished work at Calvary? If so, we mark them as sects. We are separate from them. We who follow Christ agree that such are not Christian, but a cheap imitation, completely apart from the truth. If we do not have the Christ of the Scriptures in common, we have nothing in common spiritually.
Proud Of Our Distinctives
A great obstacle to true Christian unity is pride and the “me first” spirit of self-love, a characteristic of the last days (2 Tim. 3:2). Instead of following the inclination of our human superiority complex, Paul says: “with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself” (Phil. 2:3). That will solve a lot of problems.
In Philippians, Paul again emphasizes the absolute priority for Christians – Jesus Christ and His gospel. “Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ … standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27 NASB) – together proclaiming/living the message that the Father in love sent His Son, so that the world might believe.
“Make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit (the root of many of our togetherness problems), but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:2-4). And to be sure we understand, Paul again lifts our eyes to Christ, who set aside his own privileges as God to look out for our interests (Phil. 2:5-8).
The Unity Of The Spirit
Clearly, Paul is not insisting on organizational, denominational or political unity. He’s talking about attitude, focus and disposition: a spirit of harmony, unity, mutual love and appreciation – of valuing each other as Christ values us. He is talking about eagerly preserving the unity (Eph. 4:3) that the Holy Spirit has made (1 Cor. 1:2,9; 12:13), that transcends human distinctions and differences.
Because the Church is universal, all over the world all the time, its positional body-of-Christ unity cannot be appreciated by the onlooker except as believers in each place practice that spiritual unity in their attitudes and interaction together. This is neither unprincipled ecumenism nor agreement on every detail of practice, custom and tradition. It is an active, practical appreciation of our absolute oneness in Christ and elevating it above horizontal distinctions and labels.
As partners in a spiritual unity, we are responsible to relate to each other in a spirit of harmonious oneness. It’s about attitude. Too often the world looks at the Church and seems to see the same conditions that prevail in its own house – family feuds, infighting and political parties viciously attacking each other. Believers truly occupied with and focused on Christ will have no eyes for another’s faults, failures nor superficial differences. Lest we forget the true essentials of the unity we are to keep and share with all Christians, they are enumerated in Ephesians 4:4-6: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.”
The early Church didn’t need to be taught these things. As the Holy Spirit baptized them into one body, they surrendered to Him, allowing Him to merge them into a unity that amazed onlookers: “All those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need … There was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales, and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45; 4:34-35).
Who told them to do this? Who coordinated it? Only the Holy Spirit. It was His unity and He inspired them to behave according to the eternal oneness He had made. The material sharing was not the essence of their unity, but it gave evidence to all observers of the unseen reality that was its essence: “Those who believed were of one heart and soul; and “not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own; but all things were common property to them” (Acts 4:32; Phil. 2:1-4).
The result: “With great power the apostles were giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:33-34). This power and unity were an incontrovertible witness to Jesus’ resurrection that brought many to faith in Him (Acts 2:47; 5:14; 6:7), the answer to Jesus’ prayer in John 17:21-23.
The Father is just as ready to answer that prayer today. We can cooperate with Him or we can obstruct Him by loveless divisive attitudes and petty disputes and rivalries. The unity of the Spirit can only be kept as we focus, not on each other’s flaws or differences, but on the object the Spirit sets before us – our Lord Jesus Christ.
By Bill Van Ryn
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA.