Monday, August 03, 2015

That They May Be One (John 17:20-23)

In Exodus 28:29, we read that Aaron, the high priest, was required to come before God wearing the special breastplate which had been crafted for his use, inscribed with “the names of the sons of Israel … over his heart when he enters the holy place, for a memorial before the Lord continually.” We have a high priest who is greater than Aaron. Our High Priest is the Lord Jesus Himself. In John 17, we have a prayer that we refer to as the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus. Here we find Him interceding for His disciples – not only for the eleven original faithful disciples but, as verse 20 says, “for those also who believe in Me through their word.” God the Son, our High Priest, comes before God the Father, bearing the names of those whom He has redeemed upon His heart to intercede for us before the eternal throne of grace.[1]

For several weeks we have considered what He prays for during this prayer. We come now to a petition that is so close to His heart that He prays not once, nor even twice, but three times in this chapter. This petition is repeated in verses 11, 21, and 22. As Rainsford writes, “He was willing to ask the best things for them, and He merited that they should obtain any blessing He might be pleased to demand for them of His Father. Yet He doth not ask for worldly riches, nor long life, nor great influence; … He doth not ask that they should be exempt from trial, and difficulties, and temptations, and disappointments.”[2] So what does He ask for so repeatedly in this magnificent prayer? He prays that they “may be one.” His great longing and desire to see His followers, His church, stand together in unity.

As we look at these few verses today, we will examine three components of this prayer for unity in the church. He prays about the pattern of our unity, the basis of our unity, and the result of our unity. It is fitting, and entirely in the sovereign providence of God, that we take up this text on a Communion Sunday, for when we come to the Lord’s Table and take the bread and the cup, we are celebrating our union with Christ and with one another. We drink one cup and eat one bread as a testimony to being one body under the headship of one Lord. But even as we celebrate this truth, we also recognize that our unity is often flawed and imperfect, coming short of what the Lord Jesus has prayed for us to experience and manifest. So, in the Word set before us today, let us also be prayerful that we might “be perfected in unity” as Jesus prays in verse 23. Let us follow the pattern, stand on the basis, and see the results of this unity for which our High Priest has prayed for us.

I. The pattern of our unity.

When instructions were given in the Law for the building of the Tabernacle, the Lord said that it must be constructed “according to all that I am going to show you, as the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furniture, just so you shall construct it” (Ex 25:9). Had God simply told His people to build for Him a sanctuary where He would dwell among them and meet with them, it could have taken any shape imaginable. But He did not leave the design up to the imaginations of men; He gave them a precise pattern of what this place was to look like. In a similar way, when Jesus says that His prayer for His people is that they may be one, there are many ways that we could interpret and imagine this sort of unity. But, as with the Tabernacle, Jesus provides us with a pattern for our unity. It is not to look as we envision or imagine it, but as He has designed it and prayed for it to be.

The pattern for our unity in the church is the unity that is found in God Himself. Jesus prays in verse 21, “that they may all be one, even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You.” Again in verses 22-23, He prays, “that they may be one, just as we are One; I in them, and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity.” So the unity for which Jesus prays is one that is patterned after the unity of God Himself – our Triune God who is One God, existing eternally, indivisibly, and concurrently as three distinct Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When God acts in the world, it is an act of all three Persons of the Godhead. Jesus says that the Father is in Him, and He is in the Father, and in John 10 He says that He and the Father are One. In John 5, as Jesus was fielding accusations that He had violated the Sabbath by healing a lame man, He attested that He does the work of the Father, and that the Father has given Him the work that He is to do. He claimed “to have the same authority, purpose, power, honor, will, and nature as the Father.”[3] Again, in John 14:10, Jesus says that this unity is so thorough, that His words and deeds are actually those of the Father. The Father, and the Son, and the Spirit have unique roles and responsibilities in creation, redemption, providence, consummation and judgment, but each One operates in perfect harmony with the other, acting as the One God who He is. No Person of the Trinity is more or less important than the other, and none of the roles or works of Father, Son or Spirit is any less significant than any other. But as Father, Son, and Spirit work in unified harmony in the world, God’s work is done as only He can do it.

There is, of course, a sense in which we – finite and fallen human beings – can never attain to the kind of unity that exists within the perfect self of the Triune God. But Jesus is praying that even our imperfect unity will be perfected (v23) according to the pattern of God Himself. This means that we come to see one another in terms of our identity in Jesus Christ. As Jesus says in verse 21, “that they also may be in Us,” and in verse 23, “I in them.” We need to view one another as equals before God because of our position in Christ. Just as there are distinctions and diversity among the Persons of the Trinity, so there will be distinctions and diversity among us. But this diversity ensures that where one lacks gifts, another has them; where one is weak, another is strong. We are not called to a uniformity in which we are all cookie-cutter clones of one another, but a unity in which we are all uniquely being shaped into the likeness of Christ in ways that complement one another. We will have different roles and different responsibilities, but when we work together in a unified way, we will advance the work of God together in the world.

Nowhere is this kind of unity more thoroughly described than in the second chapter of Philippians. There Paul says,

Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion,  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, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Php 2:1-4)

As we consider one another in this way, we will see the beauty of unity that can only arise in right relationship with God, and which reflects the pattern of His own unity.

II. The basis of our unity.

Unity is important, but it is not ultimate. If all we had was Jesus praying that His followers might be one, we might be tempted to think unity was ultimate. But, in all of His prayers for unity, He mentions the foundation of this unity. It is never unity for unity’s sake, or unity around the issue of unity. This has been the flaw of many ecumenical movements in the history of Christianity. Surely, it is admirable to seek to unite Christians as one body in the world, and much of the division we see among denominations and movements in Christianity break God’s heart. But in so many of the attempts to unite the global Church of Jesus Christ over the centuries, the strategy has been to remove all that divides us from the discussion in order to unite us around nothing more than unity. A unified church is like a towering skyscraper for Christ in the world. But like all skyscrapers, it has to be built on a firm foundation. Unity itself is no foundation. There are divisions in the church, and there always will be. Some of those divisions are over issues that really matter. To remove them from the table in the name of unity is to build on shifting sand. Christ has given us a rock-solid foundation on which to build a unified church. Like the solid and stable structure of a three-legged stool, our unity is here described in terms of a three-fold basis on which it rests. Think of them like the legs of a stool.

First, a church can only be unified as it rests upon the common confession of faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus says that this prayer is for “those … who believe in Me.” Simply put, there is no unity to be found where there is not this common faith in Christ. Where there is this common faith, there can be unity that transcends every other aspect of life: ethnicity, generation, gender, socioeconomics, education, and so on. This is why the church in our day must be mobilized as a testifying force in a fragmented world. For 50 years, Immanuel has been a pioneer as a church for all people, and the larger Christian community has still not caught up with where Immanuel was a half-century ago. People come in here and wonder how it is that young and old, rich and poor, and people of all ethnicities, can be united in the fellowship of a single church. The answer is simple: the Gospel of Jesus Christ has torn down all the barriers that might threaten to divide us. If we are one body, it is only because we are one body in Him. It is also the case that many of the divisions between Christian movements, churches, and denominations, and within many churches, the root cause is that there are some involved who have not been genuinely born again by faith in Jesus. Satan wreaks havoc on a church and a Christian movement by planting unregenerate unbelievers in the midst of it, and where that is the case, there is always a threat to unity. For a church to be unified, there must be a common confession of faith in Jesus Christ.

The second leg that we find to this basis of unity is the Word of God. Jesus said that He is praying for those “who believe in Him through their word.” Who are the “they” of “their word”? They are His apostles, the ones whom He chose to complete the written revelation of the Word of God that we have in the New Testament. He gave the Word to them (v8), and He will give the Spirit to them, that they might be able to write the inspired revelation of God’s Word for us (14:26 ;16:12-14). Our unity in the church must have a common foundation of confidence in the Bible as the Word of God. We cannot stand together under the Lordship of Christ if we are not in agreement about who He is, what He has said, what He has done, and what He has called us to do in the world. Those things, and much more, are disclosed to us in the Scriptures. As Carson writes, our unity is “a unity predicated on adherence to the revelation of the Father mediated to the first disciples through His Son, the revelation they accepted (vv6, 8), and then passed on” to us.[4] Where there is disunity in the church, there is an obvious malfunction in our understanding, our confidence, or our conviction in God’s truth. To be unified, we must stand together on that firm foundation that is laid for our faith in His excellent Word.

The third leg of this unity that Jesus mentions in His prayer is that of His own glory. In verse 22, Jesus says, “The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one.” So unity somehow grows out of the glory of Christ. Glory speaks of God’s nature, or in this sense, Christ’s nature – His character and person. He is the radiance of the Father’s glory, as Hebrews says. As God’s glory was present, at work, and on display in Christ in the world, so now His glory is manifested in the lives of His people. Christ, in calling us to know and serve Him, has given us His glory. But just as Jesus’ glory was ultimately displayed in His self-sacrifice, so the glory of God will be seen most clearly in the lives of His people as we lay ourselves down in sacrificial service to one another and to the world. God promised through Jeremiah that He would gather a people together for Himself, and give them “one heart and one way,” or as another translation has it, “singleness of heart and action” (Jer 32:39, NASB, NIV). As we become increasingly aware that we are the people through which God seeks to make His glory and the glory of His Son known in the world, we will unite together and labor together toward this aim. Let us ask ourselves, how would our lives look different if we lived in such a way to make the glory of God-in-Christ known through our service to Him and our relationships with our brothers and sisters in the Church? How would our church look different if our singular aim was making the glory of God-in-Christ manifest in this community and to the ends of the earth? Where other aims and other pursuits enter into a church, division ensues because everyone has their own idea of what our priorities and activities ought to be. But where we can agree together that, whatever we do, whatever we desire, and whatever we decide, our singular aim is to make the glory of God-in-Christ known, there is a great unity that will arise in our fellowship that will be unmistakably evident to all.

So, our unity is to be a unity that rests upon this three-legged stool, as it were: a basis consisting of a common confession that Christ is Savior and Lord; a common conviction that His Word is truth; and a common commitment to pursue and demonstrate His glory in and through our lives individually and together as the church.

This brings us to the final element of Jesus prayer for the unity of His people …

III. The results of our unity. 

Why should we, as a church, pursue unity? Why should we take threats against it seriously? Why should we be concerned if it is lacking? First we should say that unity is not an end unto itself. Remember, it is important, but it is not ultimate. We do not pursue it apart from the three-fold basis we have just outlined. But we also do not pursue it apart from a passionate desire to see the results that Jesus prayed would come from our unity. The aim is not to have unity for unity’s sake, but unity for the sake of our global mission.

In verse 21, Jesus prayed that His followers “may all be one … so that the world may believe that You sent Me.” For reasons we will only understand in heaven, Jesus Christ has chosen to anchor the world’s perception of His claims on the unity of His church. That is mind-boggling. How will the world become convinced that He is who He says He is – the One who was sent by the Father to redeem the world? The church will prove it, not through argumentation, but through a demonstration of unity.

He goes further in verse 23, praying that His people “may be one … so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” The claim of the Christian church is that we who follow Jesus have been adopted into the family of God as sons and daughters through our faith in Him. We claim that we are the special objects of God’s love, unequaled by any affection other than the love of the Father for the Son. We tell the world that they can experience God’s love in this way too, if they will come to call upon Christ to save them. But Jesus says here that if we are not unified, the world will never believe our testimony. An absence of unity in the church will undermine, not only our witness, but the integrity of His own claims in the world.

We all know people, I imagine, who once professed to be followers of Christ and were active in their churches, but who today have drifted away from Christ and His Church. Surely among those we know, there are many who would say that the reason they turned their backs on the Lord and the church is because of the turmoil that they witnessed and experienced in the church. We also know people who have never professed Christ who, when we witness to them, are quick to throw in our faces the failures and follies of some church they have known about. Friends, we have to come to grips with the fact that when the world judges Christ and the church on the basis of our failures, it is because Jesus Himself has given them the right to do so. He said that the world’s belief in Him, and the world’s belief in our claim to be God’s specially loved people would be based on the unity that they see in us.

Because we are God’s sons and daughters that have been adopted into His family, brothers and sisters to one another, we have to take the bond of family unity seriously. Because we believe that Jesus is mighty save, that salvation is His free gift, and that heaven and hell are real places where real people go for a real eternity, we must take unity seriously. A short time ago, we adopted a “conflict resolution policy” here at Immanuel, and several people asked why it was necessary. They asked if we were trying to force people to comply with things they didn’t agree with, or demand uniformity or silence. No friends, there is a time for disagreements, room for diversity of opinions, and freedom to agree to disagree. But the policy was put into place so that we can address, confront, and protect the unity of the church in a way that honors Christ and protects the witness of this church for Christ in the community and the world. But that policy can only do so much. It comes down to a daily determination on the part of each of us that we will humble ourselves and elevate our brothers and sisters and serve them, that we will unite with one another on the basis of God’s word, faith in Christ, and a commitment to pursue His glory, that the world will believe and know who Christ is and who we are as His people.

Do you know what will impress the world about the church? It will not be our size, our prosperity, or our sense of self-importance. It will be, according to the prayer and promise of Jesus, the unity that the world sees among the members of His Church who stand together by faith in Him, upon His word, committed to serving one another and the world for His glory.

In the second century, Tertullian wrote a defense of the Christian faith to a culture that despised the church. He said,

We are a body knit together as such by a common religious profession, by unity of discipline, and by the bond of a common hope. … But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another, for they themselves are animated by mutual hatred. See, they say about us, how they are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves would sooner kill.

What impressed the world in that day is what will impress the world in our day. Let the world look upon the church and see unity, and say of us as was said of the church centuries ago: “See how they love one another.”

[1] Marcus Rainsford, Our Lord Prays for His Own (Chicago: Moody, 1950), 372.
[2] Ibid., 372.
[3] John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: John 12-31 (Chicago: Moody, 2008), 290.
[4] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 568. 

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