The story is told about an old synagogue in Eastern Europe. When a particular prayer was said during their service, half the people in the congregation stood up and half of them remained seated. The half that was seated started yelling at those who were standing to sit down, and the ones who were standing started yelling at the ones who were sitting to stand up.
There was a new rabbi in this synagogue who had studied the Law of Moses and he had read all the commentaries, but he didn’t have a clue as to what to do about this situation. So he decided to consult with a 98-year-old man in a nursing home who was one of the original founders of this synagogue. The rabbi went to him, hoping that this elderly man could tell him what the actual tradition was.
He asked the old man, “Is it the tradition of this synagogue to stand during this prayer?”
The old man said, “No, that is not the tradition.”
He said, “Then the tradition is to sit during the prayer.”
The old man said, “No, that is not the tradition.”
The rabbi said, “But everyone in the congregation is fighting all the time, yelling at each other about whether they should sit or stand.”
The old man said, “THAT is our tradition!”
Sadly, for far too many of us, that has been our tradition. And so, what Jesus prays for in our text this morning is so very relevant. We’ve already looked two parts of Jesus’ prayer in John 17. We first looked at Jesus’ prayer for himself, and then last week we looked at Jesus’ prayer for his disciples who were with him. This morning, we look at Jesus’ prayer for all of us.
Beginning in verse 20, Jesus prayed, “I do not ask for these only [he’s talking about his apostles], but also for those who will believe in me through their word [that’s us], 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.
“Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:20-26)
As I’ve mentioned the past couple of weeks, this prayer in John 17 is often referred to as the high-priestly prayer of Jesus. In ancient Israel, whenever the High Priest entered the Holy Place, he wore a breastplate. This breastplate had twelve precious stones embedded in it, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Exodus 28 tells us, “In this way, Aaron will carry the names of the tribes of Israel on the sacred chestpiece over his heart when he goes into the Holy Place. This will be a continual reminder that he represents the people when he comes before the LORD.” (Exodus 28:29, NLT)
Whenever the High Priest came before God in the tabernacle (and then later in the temple), he represented all of God’s people. And that’s what Jesus does in his prayer here. As Jesus comes before his Father, he carries our names on his heart, representing us before his Father, praying on our behalf.
And he begins this portion of his prayer by praying, “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.”
There are several things here that I want us to notice in this passage.
1. Jesus prayed that all Christians would be united
Unity. That’s what Jesus prayed for his church. That we may all be one. Remember I said last week that what a person prays for tells you what they really want for you. More than anything else, Jesus wants us all to be one. Of all the things that Jesus could have asked for on our behalf in the final hours before he died, I find it significant that he prayed for our unity.
But I want you to see that this isn’t a command. Jesus never commanded us, “You must be one.” Rather, he prayed to his Father, “May they all be one.” This is an important distinction, because if Jesus prayed that we would all be one, and if the Father hears the prayer of his Son, then we need to acknowledge that our unity is not a goal, it’s a reality.
Or, to put it another way, unity is not something we have to strive for, rather unity is something that is already true. So, we don’t have the responsibility of trying to unite ourselves. Rather, we have the opportunity to be a part of the unity that already exists.
Now, your reaction to that might be to say, “Well, that sounds well and good, but let’s face it. Have you ever actually seen the church? There seems to be far more division than unity. If we really are one in Christ, then why don’t we see it?”
And that’s a valid objection. If we actually are one in Christ, then why are we so divided in the church? From New Testament times until now, the church has struggled with division. It was one of the problems in the church of Corinth in the first century. Paul wrote to them and said, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.” (I Corinthians 1:10, NIV)
And as you read through the New Testament letters, you see just how much of those letters deal with issues of unity — theological disagreements, members fighting, ethnic disputes, leaders abusing their powers, members gossiping and dealing with matters in a way that divides the church. You could say that one of the major themes of the New Testament is pleading with Christians for them to be united. It’s so important for Paul that in his letter to Titus, he says that a divisive member — someone threatens the unity of the church — should be kicked out.
But century after century, those divisions have continued. And today, you can’t pick up a book listing the Churches of Christ without all the differences being noted – Here are the churches that don’t believe you can have a preacher, here are the churches that believe you have to use one cup in the communion, here are the churches that oppose having Bible classes, here are the churches that oppose supporting orphan homes out of the church budget. And none of these have much to do with any of the rest.
Dividing is part of our heritage. So, how can we say that our unity is already a reality when what we see is far more division than oneness?
And the truth is, I don’t know why it is that we are actually one in Christ and yet we sometimes live as if it weren’t so. Because when we live as one – brothers and sisters united in Christ – we are living out what is already true. But, when we divide and we put up walls between each other, we are living in a way that doesn’t match up with reality.
Now, this is important, because if we think our unity is something that doesn’t yet exist, that means we’ve got to try to figure out how to unite ourselves. And how that is usually accomplished is by coming up with something that we have in common with each other.
And the result is often that we try to create unity by exclusion. For example, if we focus on one particular doctrine (such as the use of one cup in communion) and we decide that’s going to the foundation of our unity, then we have to exclude everybody else who doesn’t agree with us.
Or if we put the focus on not supporting orphan homes out of the church treasury and we decide that’s is going to the foundation of our unity, then we have to exclude everybody else who doesn’t agree with us.
And if that’s how we unite ourselves, then people can only be one with us if they agree with us in every matter. But that means that we have now to become judges, because our unity is based on standards that wehave set and we have to enforce unity by excluding anybody that might not meet our standards.
And I get it. We think people around us are wrong. I’m right. Why can’t everybody else get it? That’s why unity is so difficult. If you would just see that I am right about everything and you would agree with me on everything, then all of our unity problems would be over! Just do things my way and there won’t be any divisions between us. We say that jokingly, of course, but the problem is that many people actually believe it.
But, in his prayer here in John 17, Jesus gives us the only possible solution to this problem. We need to become so centered in Jesus Christ that we become one. We will not achieve unity by trying to come closer to one another. Not directly. We achieve the kind of unity Jesus prayed for by coming closer to the cross.
As people all around the world take steps from different directions toward the cross, we come closer to Jesus and his glory. But we’re not only coming closer to the cross, in the process, we’re also getting closer to one another. That’s where unity is to be found. That was Jesus’ solution. That’s what he was praying for. Jesus says, if you let me be the center, there is a oneness that is possible that you will never have if you’re all trying to get your own way.
And so, for us as a church, the most important thing for us is this — Jesus needs to be at the center. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.” (1 Corinthians 10:17). Paul says we have unity because we all partake of the same thing, and that is, the one bread. That bread is Jesus Christ.
Jesus is the source and the strength and the center of our unity. And what a difference it makes when we realize that we don’t have to create unity – it’s already been established in Christ. And we don’t need to fear diversity in the church, because we know it’s not a threat to the oneness we have in Christ. It’s all about living according to reality, as opposed to trying to make unity a reality.
The best example I can think of to demonstrate this is marriage. If you have ever been married, you know that when you get married, you become one flesh. You speak your vows, you exchange rings, you get a certificate, and it’s done. And ten years later, you don’t have to figure out how to create marriage, because the reality is that you’re already married, you’re already one flesh. It’s not your job to try to create oneness in your marriage. It’s simply your job to try to live out that reality, to act like you’re one flesh.
In the same way, our unity as brothers and sisters in Christ is a reality. We are one in Christ. When we were baptized into Christ, the Lord added us to his church. As Paul put it in I Corinthians 12:13, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.”
We don’t have to figure out how to become one body – we’re already one. We’re already united with every other believer who has been baptized into Christ. And it is becausewe are united that we need to learn to live in a way that we demonstrate that reality.
That’s why Paul said in Ephesians 4:3 that should be “endeavoring to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.” Paul doesn’t say we need to create the unity, he says we need to keep the unity. We can’t create it because it’s already a reality. It’s our job to live out what we already are – if we are Christians, we are one in Christ.
So, Jesus prayed for the unity of his followers. But why would Jesus be so concerned about unity? He gives us two answers. First…
2. Our unity is an image of the unity between the Father and the Son.
In verse 21, “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us.” And in the next verse: “that they may be one even as we are one” (v. 22).
What we learn here is that the unity of the church should follow the example of the unity between the Father and the Son. Our unity has its origin in the eternal oneness of God.
Let me give you another example from marriage. If you have kids, you probably want them to love one another. Now, some of you may have lowered the standard at times and all you ask that they just not kill each other. But, really, what your desire is is that they love one another.
And you can tell them to love each other, but the best way they’ll learn how to do that is by seeing how much you love them, and by seeing how much you love each other as husband and wife. The unity of the husband and wife now becomes the foundation of unity for the whole family.
In the same way, the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is the foundation for our oneness. Our unity in the church is not based on a common interest, but it is based in the eternal unity of the Father and the Son.
Now I don’t know if you grasp what an amazing truth this is – that we are invited into the very fellowship of God. We are invited to participate in the very life of the Trinity. Now I don’t pretend to understand everything that that means, but one of the things that it does mean is that wecan understand something about our oneness with God and our oneness with each other by looking at the oneness of the Father and the Son.
And Jesus tells us in this prayer that one of the essential elements of that unity is love.
In verse 23, Jesus prayed, “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 17:23)
Verse 26, “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
This love that God the Father has for the Son and the Son has for the Father unites them, and they have that same love for us. So, when we love God in return and when we truly love one another, our unity is modeled after their unity.
That’s why, in I Corinthians, when Paul addresses the problem of division in the church, he talks so much about love. Because the more we love, the more we are like Christ and the closer we get to one another.
And that’s why when Paul talks about marriage in Ephesians chapter 5 and he says that a man must leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh, the basis of that oneness is found in love. “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself for her.” (Ephesians 5:25).
That kind of sacrificial love will unite husbands and wives, and it will unite God’s people, just as it unites the Father and the Son.
So, Jesus wants us to be united because our unity is an image of the unity between the Father and the Son. But, more than that…
3. Jesus prayed for our unity for the sake of others
Again, in verse 21, “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….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 17:21,23).
Jesus prayed for the unity of the church so that the world would know that Jesus was sent here by the Father, that they would know that Jesus was who he said he was, that the world would know that this groups of disciples is truly from God. What is significant about this is that our ability to reach this world for Christ is connected to our unity.
One of the primary ways we bear witness to the world about Christ is by being united with one another. If you want to make a list of all the failings of Christianity for the past two thousand years, not bearing witness because of our disunity belongs at the very top of that list. And it’s not surprising that when the world looks at Christianity and they see division, they don’t want anything to do with Christ. It is living out our unity that will draw people to Christ.
Because we not only proclaim the gospel, it’s our responsibility to display that gospel before the world. We are to be living examples of the power of God to bring restoration to this world. Jesus doesn’t just want us just to tell people who he is, he wants us to show people who he is.
Because Jesus is no longer in this world, but we are in this world. And when we are one with the Father and the Son and one with each other, we become the presence of Christ here on this earth. It is our mutual love and unity, which comes from the love and unity of the Father and the Son, which manifests the presence of Christ.
Colossians 1:15 says that “[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God.” Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” In a similar way, the church is the image of Christ. And when we have the kind of unity that Jesus is talking about, we can say that whoever has seen the church has seen the Son and the Father
It is only when we are united in Christ, and when that unity is expressed in mutual love for one another, that we show the world who Jesus is. That’s why Jesus said in John 13, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).
One of the most important things that we can do to spread the gospel is to maintain our unity. If we are going to live out our mission, then any obstacle to our unity in Christ has got to be torn down and destroyed.
What that means is that God is calling you to pursue peace with any Christian with whom you are angry or feuding, with whom you refuse to speak or spend time around. The most mission-focused thing you can do this week is to put an end to any contempt, resentment or hostility for another Christian, and to ensure that your relationships within the church are filled with the peace, love, and grace of God.
We so often stay divided because we value our preferences, or our pride is hurt, or we hold a grudge. And those things become more important to us than our unity with other Christians. But living like that will never show the world what Christ is all about. Your preference for a particular kind of song in worship isn’t more important than the unity of God’s people. Neither is your anger at what someone told you that someone else said about you. Neither is your disagreement about insignificant theological matters.
Because it doesn’t matter how amazing you are at teaching the Bible or organizing an event or sharing the gospel with your co-worker…it doesn’t matter how amazing our worship services are or how efficient our ministry programs are. We will never further the mission of God if we allow divisions to dominate.
All along the coast of northern California are great redwoods—the giant sequoias. Redwoods are noted for their age and their beauty. But one unusual characteristic of redwoods is their tendency toward unity. Two redwoods may grow up together several feet apart, and then after fifty or one hundred years the trees begin to touch. Quite often the bark begins to overlap and fill out so that the two trees ultimately become one. There are cases where as many as a dozen trees have grown together so that outwardly they appear as a single giant tree!
According to Jesus’ prayer here in John17, our goal as the body of Christ should be to grow into that kind of unity, so that the world will see us as one, and our unity will be a testimony to the world of who Jesus is. So may it be our desire to draw closer and closer to Jesus, so that we can live out the reality of the unity that already exists because of the cross.
I look forward to the day when the unity of all believers will no longer need to be a sermon, because it will be a reality that we all live out.