In John 17, the High Priestly prayer of Christ, readers are given a first-hand view of what the Lord Himself asked for prior to His crucifixion. His words here reveal His heart for His followers. While all of the requests have their end in the first request Christ makes—that He and His Father be glorified—one request stands out among all the others. The first request Jesus makes in this prayer for His followers is that the Father keeps them in His name in order that they may be one even as Christ and the Father are one. (v.11) Later, in verse twenty-one, this plea for unity is repeated. This time however, it is extended for all of Christ’s followers throughout all of history. The request is mentioned once more in verse twenty-two and then again in verse twenty-three, “that they may become perfectly one.” (ESV) Thus Christ makes this cry for the unity of His followers four times in the course of His prayer. Considering the repetition of this request, it surely must weigh heavily in the heart of Christ. Yet what is it that will actually unite Christ’s followers? In addition, why is Christ so concerned that His followers be unified? Finally, how can this unity be actualized in day-to-day life among Christ’s body, the church?
Verses six and twenty-six form somewhat of an inclusio of the main body of the prayer. The phrases “Ἐφανέρωσά σου τὸ ὄνομα τοῖς ἀνθρώποις οὓς ἔδωκάς μοι ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου” (I manifested Your name to the people whom You gave to Me out from the world) and “ἐγνώρισα αὐτοῖς τὸ ὄνομά σου καὶ γνωρίσω,” (I made Your name known to them and I will continue to make it known) by cluing readers in with the similar verbs “φανεροω” (I manifest, make visible) and “γνωριζω,” (I make known) show that the themes of this prayer are built on knowing the Father through Christ. This of course agrees exactly with what was stated in the first part of the prayer, that they know the Father and Christ whom the Father sent. This is the ultimate reality around which Christ’s followers throughout the ages will be united—that they know Him and the Father. The believers’ common relationship with Christ is a fellowship in which the unlimited love of God should flow freely, destroying man-made, worldly divisions in its path. It is this shared fellowship with the Father and with Christ that fundamentally unifies Christ’s followers. It may be important to clarify here at this point that this knowledge is not merely cognitive. This knowledge is primarily experiential.
Closely related to this is receiving and keeping the words of Christ (v.6-8). In fact, this unifying bond is inseparable from the first, for no one can know the Father without receiving the word of Christ. Those who follow Christ are united through believing and obeying His word. Not simply as individuals are they to fulfill this, but as communities, even as one community. Belief in the Word of God, revealed supremely in Christ, is a unifying force which transcends and overcomes all social, political, and economic constructs. All anthropological barriers must topple over and crumble under the weight and force of the conviction produced by faith in God’s word. Christian unity is rooted in mutual/communal reception of God’s word. A few specific points of belief are mentioned in this chapter as well.
Perhaps what most directly unifies believers is the sustaining power of the Father. Christ’s first request for unity springs from His asking the Father to keep them in His name. (v.11). It is ultimately not the effort of believers themselves or even faith which unites them so closely. Without the power of God keeping them by grace, followers of Christ would not remain so. The power of God should not be minimized as a factor in that which unifies Christ’s followers.
Turning to the question, “why?” one must consider the overarching request which this whole prayer is intended to fulfill. It is also Christ’s first request, found in verse two—that the Father glorify Christ so that He may glorify the Father. The entirety of the prayer which follows (including every subsequent request) flows out of this initial petition. All of the other requests are in the end means of fulfilling this overarching one. Thus the unity of believers plays an integral role in bringing Christ and the Father the glory they deserve. This is the most basic reason why Christ pleads for the unity of His people.
Looking at verses seventeen through twenty, the unity of believers also seems to be related in some way to sanctification. Christ’s request for the sanctification of His followers come after the initial plea for unity (v.11), and it flows right into the next (vv. 20-21). This structure seems to show that sanctification occurs within the community of God’s elect and that with further sanctification comes a strengthening of their unity. Therefore sanctification may be said to be a reason for Christ’s plea for unity.
Verses twenty-one and twenty-three makes it clear that the unity of believers is crucial for the spread of the Gospel. While verses twenty-one only explicitly states the goal that the world may know that the Father sent Christ, it is surely not a theological stretch to say this goal implies a full knowledge of all that Christ was sent for. In other words, this purpose in verse twenty-one has all of the aspects of the Gospel embedded in it. For when is it ever appropriate to separate the knowledge of the mere fact that Christ was sent from the Father from the purposes for which He was sent? This is further confirmed by the next purpose mentioned in verse twenty-three, that the world may know that the Father has loved the followers of Christ just as He loved Christ Himself. For the love of God was most chiefly manifested in Christ’s death on the cross and His resurrection. When the church is not unified, it can make it even more difficult for the blind to see the Gospel, much less believe it. The unity of believers is indispensable in extending the experience of Christ’s love to the lost world.
While the grounds for this unity as well as the purposes for it are abundantly clear, how can this unity actually occur in the life of the church today? Perhaps one basic step is to simply plead with the Lord to establish this unity within the body. Just as Christ prayed for the unity of His followers, so should His elect continue to ask the Father for this today. As has already been said, it is the mighty grace of God which most directly brings unity in the church. If it was important enough for Christ to pray for it, surely it should be dear enough to the heart of the church to pray for it.
Another item to pray for is wisdom in working through theological truth. While theologians often talk of primary, secondary, and tertiary issues within theology, whether or not there are three levels of doctrinal seriousness is up for debate. What is not up for debate however is that there are truths within the Christian faith that must be accepted and adhered to whereas there are other issues which do not “make or break” one being a Christian or not. For instance, issues like Trinitarianism or the divinity of Christ are absolutely not up for debate, whereas believers with differing opinions on the timing of the rapture ought to be able to agree to disagree in a loving manner. While this only represents two issues, the focus here is not to give an exhaustive list of what issues fall where, but to merely give an example. Believers ought to ask God for His wisdom in best interpreting EVERY issue of Scripture, but also for the ability to lovingly disagree. It is important to clarify here that this is not to be a pathway or an excuse for sloppy thinking, nor is it an encouragement to simply ignore theological differences. Rather, followers of Christ ought to carefully and prayerfully think through and articulate their understandings of the finer points of doctrine, but then lovingly come together in spite of their differences once they have considered the various positions.
While there is probably much more that could be done, most basically, believers must focus on exalting Christ and enjoying fellowship with Him together. This mutual enjoyment of the LORD will be the bonds of the fellowship among the saints. May the church of God come to see the fulfillment of her Lord’s prayer. Amen.
Some Reflections on Jesus' Prayer in John 17 and Christian Unity
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