On the last night of his life Jesus prayed a prayer that stands as a citadel for all Christians:
“I pray for these followers, but I am also praying for all those who will believe in me because of their teaching. Father, I pray that they can be one. As you are in me and I am in you, I pray that they can also be one in us. Then the world will believe that you sent me” (John 17:20–21 NCV).
How precious are these words. Jesus, knowing the end is near, prays one final time for his followers. Striking, isn’t it, that he prayed not for their success, their safety, or their happiness.
He prayed for their unity. He prayed that they would love each other. As he prayed for them, he also prayed for “those who will believe because of their teaching.” That means us! In his last prayer Jesus prayed that you and I be one.
Of all the lessons we can draw from this verse, don’t miss the most important: unity matters to God. Why? Because “all people will know that you are my followers if you love each other” (John 13:35 NCV). Unity creates belief. How will the world believe that Jesus was sent by God? Not if we agree with each other. Not if we solve every controversy. Not if we are unanimous on each vote. Not if we never make a doctrinal error. But if we love one another.
Unity creates belief. Disunity fosters disbelief. Who wants to board a ship of bickering sailors? Paul Billheimer may very well be right when he says: “The continuous and widespread fragmentation of the Church has been the scandal of the ages. It has been Satan’s master strategy. The sin of disunity probably has caused more souls to be lost than all other sins combined.”
Could it be that unity is the key to reaching the world for Christ? The world will be won for Christ when the church is one in Christ. If unity is the key to evangelism, shouldn’t it have precedence in our prayers? Shouldn’t we, as Paul said, “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3 NIV)?
Nowhere, by the way, are we told to build unity. We are told simply to keep unity. From God’s perspective there is but “one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16). Unity does not need to be created; it simply needs to be protected.
Where there is faith, repentance, and a new birth, there is a Christian. When I meet a person whose faith is in the cross and whose eyes are on the Savior, I meet a brother or a sister. Wasn’t that Paul’s approach? When he wrote the church in Corinth, he addressed a body of Christians guilty of every sin from abusing the Lord’s Supper to arguing over the Holy Spirit. But how does he address them? “I beg you, brothers and sisters” (1 Corinthians 1:10 NCV).
When the church in Rome was debating whether to eat meat offered to idols, did Paul tell them to start two churches? One for the meat-eaters and one for the non-meat-eaters? No, on the contrary, he urged, “Christ accepted you, so you should accept each other, which will bring glory to God” (Romans 15:7 NCV).
Is God asking us to do anything more than what he has already done? Hasn’t he gone a long way in accepting us? If God can tolerate my mistakes, can’t I tolerate the mistakes of others? If God allows me, with my foibles and failures, to call him Father, shouldn’t I extend the same grace to others? If God doesn’t demand perfection, should I? “They are God’s servants,” Paul reminds us, “not yours. They are responsible to him, not to you. Let him tell them whether they are right or wrong. And God is able to make them do as they should” (Romans 14:4 TLB).
God’s ship is a grand vessel. Just as a ship has many rooms, so God’s kingdom has room for many opinions. But just as a ship has one deck, God’s kingdom has a common ground: the all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Will you pray with me for the day when Jesus’ prayer is answered?
©Max Lucado (taken from In the Grip of Grace, Thomas Nelson, 1999)
Paul Billheimer Love Covers (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1981), 7
Unity in the church is not easy to achieve. In fact, in many ways, the Christian church has been marked by disunity since its very inception. The controversy of Gentile inclusion in the first century, heresy in the early centuries after the days of the apostles, the holocaust in Nazi Germany, slavery and Jim Crow in the U.S. suggest the Church of Jesus Christ has been disunited for too long. Unfortunately, this disunity continues today in many churches over serious, silly, and even unbiblical things. Some churches have split over race, the style of music, minor disagreements with the pastor, or because of cliques within the church.
Christians must remember, however, whenever there is ungodly disunity in the church, it is difficult for the world to see that we love Jesus and that God loves us. Jesus prayed the world would know that we know him by our love for each other, and by our unity with one another in the Gospel. In John 17, Jesus prays for his disciples in the first century, and for future disciples after his death and resurrection. One feature of his prayer was unity amongst his disciples (John 17:11, 21-23—read 17:11, 20- 21).
What is Unity?
Before we dissect Jesus’ prayer for unity in this text, let me define unity. Unity is not unanimity. That is, Jesus does not mean his disciples will always agree on everything. I am a UK fan. Many Christians are not. I am not a dispensationalist, but some Christians are. Yet, I would argue it is possible to disagree on these matters, and still work together in the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace in pursuit of Christian unity. Unity, then, as Jesus prays for it, pertains to the patient pursuit of harmony among his disciples for the good of the church, for the glory of the Father and the Son, and for the salvation of sinners, even as the church might disagree over certain important matters.
Context of John 17
John 17 occurs at the end of Jesus’ ministry in the gospel of John before he’s arrested, crucified, and resurrects. He prays in this chapter for the following things.
1. First, Jesus prays the Father would glorify himself by glorifying his Son, so that those whom the Father has given to Jesus would receive eternal life (17:2-4).
2. Second, Jesus prays the Father would glorify him after the resurrection with the glory that he had with the Father before the incarnation, and before the world was created (17:5).
3. Third, Jesus prays the Father would keep his disciples from falling away from Jesus so that they may be one just as he and the Father are one, so that the world would believe that God sent Jesus into the world to save it from its sins (17:11, 20-23).
4. Fourth, Jesus prays his disciples would have joy (17:13).
5. Fifth, Jesus prays that God would protect his disciples from the devil (17:15-16).
6. Jesus prays that God would sanctify his disciples, i.e., make them holy, by means of his Word (17:17-18).
This is a startling prayer. The Christian’s model for unity is Jesus and the Father. Jesus has mentioned this unity throughout the Gospel. In John 5:19, Jesus says he does whatever he sees his Father doing. In John 6:35, Jesus says everyone who has heard and learned from the Father will come to him. In John 10:30, Jesus says “I and the Father are one.” This does not mean that they’re the same people, because Jesus is the Son and not the Father. But the Father and the Son are unified. There is continuity between the Father and the Son. In a similar way, there should be continuity and harmony amongst the people of God.
The Evangelistic Nature of Christian Unity (17:20-23)
Often, Christians wonder why certain people refuse to trust in Jesus by faith. There are all sorts of complicated answers to that question. But one answer is because of the disunity within the church. To clarify, disunity in the church does not excuse unbelievers from God’s judgment if they refuse to follow Jesus. However, disunity in the church is a reason that some people are pushed away from the Christian faith. When churches fight, bicker, and divide, they provide no incentives for unbelievers to come to faith in Jesus.
What should guide Christians in their pursuit of unity? Answer: (1) the bible, (2) the Spirit, and (3) doctrine. Our preferences are important to us, but they should not be sources of disunity amongst the people of God if they are unbiblical preferences. What about doctrine? Many voices are currently crying out from different directions creating disunity amongst the people of God. I pray God answer Jesus’ prayer and grant unity amongst his followers that will draw unbelievers to faith in Christ.
Photo credit: cogitoergodoleo via VisualHunt.com / CC BY
Dr. Jarvis J. Williams (PhD) is an associate professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. He is the author of numerous books and articles, Christ Died For Our Sins (Pickwick, 2015).
He regularly preaches and lectures throughout the country.
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“That they may all be one” John 17:21
Jesus walked on the earth in perfect unity with his Father’s will. He did whatever he saw the Father doing and he destroyed the works of the enemy everywhere he ministered. He was God made flesh. Can it get any better than that? Yet, Jesus prayed a prayer at the end of his earthly life that has yet to be answered.
At his last supper with his disciples he prayed a prayer for all who would believe in him:
“that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us; that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me.” (John 17:21)
It would seem that in the very beginning of the church there was that unity Jesus prayed for. As they waited for the Holy Spirit to fall on Pentecost, Acts 1:14 tells us:
“These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer.” However, before the rest of the New Testament books were written, we hear of lots of factions and divisions and doctrinal arguments. Letters to the different churches were often written to address conflicts.
Christians at Odds
And in the centuries after that? How many ways have Christians sub-divided themselves? How many denominations and splits do we have? How many doctrinal positions abound on basics such as communion and baptism and the use of the gifts of the Holy Spirit?
So what’s up? Did Jesus miss it somehow in his prayer? Should we slip this one under the rug and forget he ever uttered it? NO WAY. Jesus’ prayer for unity is truly one of the great prayers of the Bible. It holds a particularly honored spot because it was himself, the great I AM who spoke it. And make no mistake – this prayer
will be answered.
At least twice in his prayer Jesus repeated himself by emphasizing WHY unity is important. In Verse 23 he pressed again what he said only a few sentences before:
“that the world may know that Thou didst send Me, and didst love them, even as Thou didst love Me.”
Unity – Tool for Evangelizing
In truth, unity is a tool for evangelizing. Unity promotes the gospel more than we can understand. That’s probably one of the big reasons the early Christians were said to be turning the whole world upside down. (See Acts 17:6) But here is another thing about unity: unity is hard!
The very root of our fallen rebellious and selfish nature discards unity. To top things off, there is one who is in perfect agreement with our disagreements. Satan fans any flames of disunity that he can find. He has also read the scripture and he knows the prayer. He knows that when unity occurs, his kingdom suffers. His strategy is to bring disharmony, suspicion and bickering.
Jesus never uttered a prayer that will not ultimately be answered. The answer is on the way and since it has taken so long so far, we can surmise it will be an answer beyond what we can think or imagine. It’s a GREAT PRAYER and it will have a GREAT ANSWER.
First of all, there is a visible church and an invisible church. True disciples of Jesus Christ reside within all the different denominations and traditions and cultural distinctions present in Christianity. Beyond doctrinal distinctions there is a deeper conviction which resounds in believers everywhere:
“This I command you, that you love one another.” (John 15:17) Every time love triumphs, unity trumps disunity.
Incredibly, for over two thousand years there has continually been a stream (even if sometimes a small one) of the great unity Jesus prayed for. It is present during great revivals when believers band together to present the gospel. It is present when people pray together even if they are from different churches. It is present when Christians decide on joint missionary endeavors and give to mission projects other than their own.
We do not yet see the visible and the invisible church of Jesus Christ becoming one. But the time must be close because the Second Coming of the Lord is fast approaching. The final great outpouring of the Holy Spirit is imminent. What will make the world turn in unprecedented numbers to call on the name of the Lord?
According to the prayer of Jesus, unity is a key. It is what will make the world realize who he is and why he came. It will testify about him and cause people to accept his love. Many feel we are in the generation where
“this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to all the nations, and then the end shall come.” (Matthew 24:14)
If you desire to be on planet earth when Jesus’ prayer is finally answered in full, could there be a greater cause to unite around?
Read next about
Zacharias & Elizabeth’s great prayer.
“JESUS PRAYS FOR OUR UNITY”
JOHN 17:20-26 (NASB)
The billboard shows a little girl sitting on her daddy’s shoulders waving an American flag … and the caption says … WHAT MAKES US GREAT … “Unity, pass it on!”
Since 9/11 – “United We Stand” has been the theme – we want to project a united country.
Jesus also spoke about a unity far beyond patriotism.
On the last night before Jesus went to the cross, He began to do what He now does eternally. A few hours before His arrest, Jesus interceded for His own disciples.
John 17 is a prayer of three sections.
· verses 1-5 Jesus prays for Himself.
· verses 6-19 He prays for that immediate group of eleven disciples gathered around Him.
· verses 20-26, He prays for all believers yet to come.
Beyond His death, Jesus expected a dynamic and growing church that would last throughout the ages.
· When Jesus looked at the face of Peter in that circle of eleven, He saw behind Peter the whole of Pentecost and thousands more behind them.
· When He looked at the face of John, He saw the church of Ephesus and all the churches of Asia Minor.
· And when He saw the gap where Judas Iscariot had been, surely he thought of the face of Paul and all of the churches of Europe.
· And crossing generations and oceans, right down to this very day, He said I pray for every one of them who will believe through the Word of that original eleven.
Jesus prayed just one thing. He prayed for believers unity, so that the unity of Christians would make such an impact that the world would believe He had sent Jesus the Son.
Look with me at this passage in John 17:20-26, and let’s see what Jesus prayed for you and me on that night before the cross.
READ John 17:20-26
I. JESUS PRAYS FOR THE UNITY OF THE CHURCH
What could Christ have prayed for in the final moments before His arrest? He might have prayed for His own strength, that the eleven would support Him that they would not flee from Him and His teachings. Instead, His prayer was dominated by a single great thought — the unity of the disciples.
Jesus knew that the church could never make the impact on the world that He wished it to make unless spiritually the world saw in that church a oneness, a unity. The churches of our world have never taken these words of Jesus with the seriousness they deserve.
Notice first of all in verse 11, that Jesus prayed for the unity of that original disciple group. This was no easy task in itself, and Jesus knew it!
In that original group there were incredible tensions. Tensions created by James and John when not long before that they had asked for the seat at the right and left hand of Jesus in heaven which caused an outrage of jealousy among the other disciples.
Earlier on this same evening, the disciples were fuming with rage because there had been an argument among them as to who was the greatest.
In fact, in that little group there were all kinds of tensions. There was Matthew the Publican who had sold out to Rome and Simon Peter the Zealot who had pledged to kill people like Matthew the Publican. No wonder Jesus prayed for that original eleven, “Lord, make them to be one.”
That wasn’t all though. He moved beyond the eleven and prayed for the generations to come. In verse 21, what He prayed for them, He then prayed for all believers.
We need to note here that Jesus asked God to give us unity as a request. That means that unity is given and not achieved. It is indeed received, or Jesus wouldn’t have urged the disciples to “be one.” Rather, He looked to the Father and said grant to them the gift of unity. The unity of God’s people can never be fabricated by man … it must be generated by the Spirit of God. It can never be organized by the church it must be vitalized by the Spirit of God.
The pattern for the unity of believers is unlike anything else on earth. It is nothing less than the unity of the Father and Son. It is not merely a unity of organization, purpose, feeling, or affection. Just as the Father is in the Son and the Son in the Father, we are to be so related in the church.
Christians are drawn to one another because they are drawn to a common center, Jesus Christ Himself. Jesus prayed that “they would be in us.” For that is the source of the power of that unity.
It’s as if every one of us in the church were a piece of crystal in a beautiful chandelier that God is making. And up at the top of that chandelier are Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three lights in one shining love one toward the other. And every one of us catches a little fragment of that light, and every one of us reflects it and breaks it up, reflecting it to one another, until the world looks at us, it sees shimmering there the unexplainable fact of the unity and love of God in His church. That’s the intention of Jesus Christ for His church.