the weblog of Alan Knox

John 17 and Unity…

Posted by on Jul 2, 2007 in community, scripture, unity | 8 comments

Toward the end of his account of the gospel, John records Jesus’ prayer for himself, for his followers, and for those of us who would follow them. This is part of the prayer that Jesus prayed for us:

I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. (John 17:20-23 ESV)

There are two important features of this prayer that I would like to discuss.

The first important feature concerns our unity. Notice that Jesus prayed that we (all) would be one just as he was one with the Father. Notice that when Jesus prayed for our unity, he used the word “one” to describe our relationships with one another. Jesus had previously used the word “one” to describe his relationship with the Father: “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). For making this statement, the Jews attempted to stone him. Why? They said, “… because you, being a man, make yourself God” (John 10:33). The Jews understood the significance of Jesus being one with the Father. Do we understand the significance of believers being one with other believers?

Similarly, Jesus described our unity as follows: “Just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us” (John 17:21). Just as Jesus was one with the Father and the Father was in Jesus, and just as the Father was one with Jesus and Jesus was in the Father, we are to be one (united) with one another by being in God – Father and Son. Father and Son are one by nature. Our unity comes from being united with God – by finding our commonality and common unity in God Himself, not by finding it in ourselves. Any loss of unity on our part comes from being “out of” (not in) God. Thus, a loss of unity drives us back to the Father through the Son by means of the Spirit, not back to one another. This unity comes through our relationship with God. Our relationships with one another demonstrates whether or not we are relating correctly with God.

Finally, on this first important feature of Jesus’ prayer, notice the sentence that begins in John 17:21 – “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one…” What glory has Jesus given to us? Could it be the same glory that he mentioned when he began this prayer? (“And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” – John 17:5) This glory that God has given to Jesus – the glory Jesus had from the beginning – is now given to us for the purpose of unifying us, for the purpose of perfecting our unity. There has been much talk of glory… the glory of God and the glory of Christ. Here, Christ tells us that at least one reason for his glory is the unity of believers.

This unity is not trivial. It is not something to set against God’s holiness and purity. Holiness, purity, and unity go together, and they cannot be separated. Those who attempt to hold onto holiness while separating from other believers do not understand holiness. Those who attempt to remain pure while not living in unity with other believers are not pure. Those who seek unity apart from the person and character of God do not find unity, holiness, or purity. Jesus prayed for our unity and provided his glory to perfect our unity. If we are not maintaining this unity – by the power of the Spirit – then we are not living holy, pure, or united lives.

The second important feature of Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20-23 concerns the results of our unity. Notice that Jesus said certain things would result from our unity with one another. In verse 21 Jesus says that the result of our unity would be that the would would believe that God sent Jesus. In verse 23, Jesus repeats this result of our unity, then adds another: because of our unity which is being perfected, the world will know that God loves them (the world) just as God loves Jesus. It seems that the world should know much because of our unity with one another.

I think we should think about these results very carefully. Does the world know that God sent Jesus? Why or why not? Based on Jesus’ prayer, could our lack of unity play a part? Does the world know that God loves them? Why or why not? Based on Jesus’ prayer, could our lack of unity play a part?

It is easy to dismiss the world’s response. It is much harder to dismiss what Jesus actually prayed. Jesus prayed that we would be one – united – so that the world would know that God sent him and that God loves them. Does the world know these things? Are we united? So, do we still need to stress holiness and purity above unity?


8 Comments

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  1. 7-3-2007

    Alan,

    Great post! While I believe there is such a thing as “false unity,” that we do well to avoid, I believe that there is also false holiness and purity, that plays down the importance of unity. Truth without love is an oxymoron.

    At the same time, I believe there have been a number of models of supposed “Christian unity” down through history that have made many a bit leery of the concept in general. In the face of this, I believe, we must avoid the temptation to cop out, claiming that Christian unity is merely a spiritual reality that does not play into the way we relate with each other in practical ways here on Earth.

  2. 7-3-2007

    Alan,

    I agree with David, this is a great post and a great study. Jesus has been trying to lead me to be more united with the church, rather than be more distinct/individualized/whatever. I do not see this as an ecumenical movement but in a way I see it as a group of individuals who come together for the same purpose – to glorify Christ. When I meet with the church I think it is important to meet them where they are at, encouraging them and urging them to love and good works so that they might grow in Christ, with Christ. It is not our duty to divide into cliques or denominations. If we do “divide” it should be natural and because we are spreading out.

    As David eluded to, it is not just a “spiritual” reality but rather a practical reality that we need to be confronted with daily.

    Thanks for this post.

    God’s Glory,
    Lew

  3. 7-3-2007

    This is something that God has been showing me lately. For me, unity was only defined as everyone in the local church is on the same page and believes the same things as the leadership. Thank you for pointing me back to what true unity is. I’ve excluded too many brothers and sisters because they didn’t agree with me. How sad. I’m slowly learning…

  4. 7-3-2007

    David Rogers,

    Well said! We don’t want false unity – that is, to me, any unity that is not based in God himself – anymore than we want false holiness. I also agree that unity is not merely spiritual, but that it demonstrates itself continuously in practical ways.

    Lew,

    I agree that what I am talking about here is not an ecumenical movement. This is a fact as real as God himself. We are one in God just as the Father and Son is one. We do not have to work out our differences and compromise in order for God to be one. We do not have to work out our differences in order for us to be one.

    Mary,

    Yes, I have heard that unity in Scripture is always talking about within a particular group of believers, whether they consider themselves a “local church” or a denomination. I’ve even heard people say that separating from other believers demonstrates our unity… I haven’t figured that one out yet. I also have excluded too many brothers and sisters, and look forward to what God teaches me through his church – his body – the whole church and the whole body.

    -Alan

  5. 7-3-2007

    Thought you might be interested in this…

    http://www.1723initiative.org/

  6. 10-11-2011

    This is timely. I was assigned the John 17 passage a couple years back in my Gospels course, and it has stuck with me ever since. Your connection of unity with purity and holiness ought to give us humility dealing with Christians of other traditions while keeping ourselves grounded in the scriptures. Our church is working through the doctrinal statement of our denomination at the moment, and this idea would be a great way to end, reminding us to take our belief seriously, but not to neglect people anywhere to belong to Jesus, because we also belong to each other. Thanks for writing this, Alan.

  7. 10-11-2011

    Is it possible that those who will find and keep unity based on the person and work of Christ alone are the church and those who find any and every reason to divide for each other are simply unregenrate religious folks expressing their fallen nature?

    It’s just a sincere question.

  8. 10-11-2011

    Correction: Is it possible that those who will find and keep unity based on the person and work of Christ alone are the church and those who find any and every reason to divide from each other are simply unregenrate religious folks expressing their fallen nature?

    It’s just a sincere question.