POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

Jesus' Prayer for Unity...

John 17 contains what has been called “The High Priestly Intercessory Prayer” of Jesus. This prayer, recorded in John’s gospel just before the arrest of Jesus, contains timeless insights to the mission of Jesus and his intimate desires for his followers. A few of the themes in this prayer include the glorification of God the Father by the Son and the culmination of the Son’s mission on the earth. Additional themes are the mission and the sanctification of the church, the desire of the Son for unity among his disciples, and the unity of “those who will believe in me through their message.” In examining Jesus’ desire for unity the following points will be discussed: (1) The high view Jesus has for unity by way of a Trinitarian analogy; (2) The task for the contemporary church to be called out and different than the culture; and finally (3) The opportunity and power of the unified worshipping community.

Jesus’ High View of Unity

The heart of Jesus for the unity of his followers is given two times in this prayer. In John 17:11 (ESV) He says “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. ” In John 17:21-23 (ESV) we see several more statements of Jesus about unity. He says that his prayer is that “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you” He says that the purpose of unity is “so that the world may believe that you have sent me” and it is something that his church must be “brought to,” suggesting unity will be a sustaining process. The prayer of Jesus reveals the following three principles for unity amongst His followers:

  1. Unity requires God’s protection.
  2. Unity is not superficial but should be a reflection in the church of the unity of God himself.
  3. Unity has a purpose to glorify God and bear witness to the world.

Unity Requires God’s Protection

Perhaps an often-overlooked passage on unity in the New Testament is Jesus’ prayer for the protection of his people “so that they can be one as we are one.” Protection is obviously a necessity and precursor for Christian disciples to be brought together in unified love and community. It seems that Jesus reveals to us that though unity is given to us by God, we grow into it as a process. It must be worked towards in his body although it is his gift for the church (Ephesians 4:1-6). The sin of his followers, the lies and attacks of Satan against the church, and the unbelieving world will all threaten the unity of his people. Jesus knew his children would need protection from these strong enemies in order for unity to be actual and maintained. It is a comforting truth that Jesus promises in Matthew 16:18 that the gates of Hades will not overcome his church. This promise brings hope even in the midst of what appears to be a fragmented rather than a unified Christian church.

Unity is not superficial, but a reflection of the unity of God himself

The question of what it means to have unity in the body of Christ is an often-discussed topic in today’s world of denominations, Para-church groups, and unaffiliated or non-denominational churches. What kind of unity is Jesus describing here in John 17? Does he mean unity in purpose? Unity in doctrinal correspondence? In love for one another? Practical sharing of life and mission with other believers? It seems at times that the church can be too quickly satisfied with a conceptual version of unity; a simple statement that we believe that we are unified with our brothers and sisters in spirit and purpose. What makes such a position of conceptual unity without practical outworking difficult to defend is Jesus’ analogy to his own unity with the Father as the model or ideal for his church. The very triune nature of the mysterious God of the Bible is the parallel given for unity among Christians.

A brief survey of some of what we know of the unity of the Trinity makes this parallel all the more profound. The Trinity is an eternal loving community and enjoys an inseparable relational unity. The Trinity is mysteriously a complete unity in essence, while having distinction in persons; the Trinity is one what (unity) comprised of three whos (diversity). The human search for unity in the diversities of life is long and recorded in the history of philosophy. The Greek attempt to bring unity out of the four essences earth, wind, fire, and water gave birth to the word “quintessence.” This word was born out of the search for a “fifth essence” that would unite (unity) all the other essences (diversity). In our own country, America, we find the motto “E pluribus Unum,” out of the many - one. We find the concept of searching for the unity in the diversities of knowledge in the word “University” which gives name to the institution once dedicated to that search.1 It is not surprising then that an ideal so sought after since the dawn of philosophy, this unity in diversity, is present in the very nature of the first cause and Creator of the universe. Listen to how Dr. Ravi Zacharias explains the importance of understanding the Trinity:

A proper understanding of the Trinity not only gives us the key to understanding unity in diversity, but also brings us a unique answer to the great struggle we face between races, cultures, and—and for that matter—even genders. The Trinity provides us with a model for a community of love and essential dignity without mitigating personality, individuality, and diversity.2

Jesus’ allusion to the Trinity as our model for unity does not solve the problem or answer all our questions about what unity means, but it certainly challenges us not to come up with any patronizing or simplistic answers. Our unity must be modeled after the loving community of the Godhead and therefore will not come easily to sinful human beings. With God’s protection the church can and must work for a unity that is not only conceptual, but one that is visible to the lost world around it.

Unity has a purpose to glorify God and be a witness to the world

In Jesus’ teaching we see that unity is a beautiful concept spawned by the union of the Father and Son. However, Jesus shows this is not just theoretical but also practical. It is to be lived out in community with each other and has some powerful purposes in God’s plan for the evangelization of the world. First, God’s glory is given to the church in order that we may be one and reflect praise and honor to God. The glory of God brings unity and the unity that results reflects even more glory to God. Second, Jesus clearly says that the world will believe and know that Jesus was sent from the Father as a result of authentic and visible Christian unity. This powerful apologetic for the truth of the gospel will be examined in detail later in the paper.

The Task for the Contemporary Church

In light of Jesus’ heart and high vision for church unity we must ask ourselves what needs to be done. The local church, denominations, networks and Para-church organizations all must evaluate what it means to be unified with our brothers and sisters in Christ and work towards this ideal. Jesus’ desire for us to be “brought to” complete unity must call Christian leaders to put practical steps in place to work towards unity in the church. Some areas and suggestions for the work in maintaining and restoring unity are as follows: doctrinal unity, unity in mission (evangelism) and unity in compassion.

Doctrinal Unity

Many Christians have pursued unity at all cost, many times at the sacrifice of the doctrines central to Christian belief. This does not necessarily have to be the case. The proverbial saying, “In essentials, unity, in non-essentials liberty and in all things charity,” must be continually taken to a deep level of discussion and worked out incarnationally among believers. The apostle Paul exhorted Timothy to “watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them…” because he knew that many false teachers would come into the church to distort the essence of the revealed message of God. Doctrinal unity should be pursued among denominations, Christian organizations, and seminaries in a spirit of cooperation, but not at the expense of the clear meaning of Scripture. Theological debate on non-essentials is not only possible in the context of Christian love and leadership of the Holy Spirit, but the debate itself can continually draw us together.

Missional Unity

Another area in which Christians need to work together for unity is the area of mission. Jesus gave the job of evangelization and discipleship to his entire church and such a task must bring us together. Today I cannot help but think of the couple of hundred men in our Acts 29 church planting network. Kasey and I just spent time worshipping, resting, laughing and dreaming with this family about the task of gospel mission in our time. There are men and women from many Christian groups and affiliations uniting in gospel mission. Baptists, Presbyterians, Charismatics, Bible Churches and Non denominational churches working together. There are people of various races and backgrounds uniting together around gospel mission. There are urban, suburban, hip hoppers and hipsters uniting around taking the gospel to various people in culture. There are pastors uniting in India, Pakistan, Uganda, Congo, Czech Republic, Great Britain, South Africa, Guatemala and Thailand for the sake of bringing Gospel witness to our world.3 Unity in mission is more effective, more enjoyable and brings God glory. Our unity is in theological conviction, not simply in unity itself and this propels us in the same direction for the glory of God, the good of our cities by extending hope to others in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Unity in Justice and Compassion

A final area that demands unity in effort is Jesus’ call for the church to take care of the poor, the outcast, and the downtrodden. This ministry of compassion has inspired numerous cooperative efforts among those in urban ministry and ministry among the poor. Christian ministries dedicated to urban renewal have shown the power of Christian unity in the cities of America.4 These areas of unity must continue to bring us together because the enemies of unity are numerous and strong. Doctrine, mission, and compassion can bring us together to help us overcome the barriers that develop in the church .

As little Jacob’s Well we are committed to unity in all of these areas. For us to fulfill the call which God has upon us in the Northeast, we must urgently work to maintain unity in each. Our enemy is real, spiritual darkness will persist and push to divide us. Yet in the word’s of Martin Luther’s great hymn we are reminded who must win our battles:

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.5

Unified in Him,

Reid S. Monaghan

Notes

  1. For a more thorough look at the philosopher’s quest for unity in diversity please see Zacharias, Ravi Can Man Live Without God (Dallas: TX, Word Publishing, 1994) pp 147-150.
  2. Ibid, p148
  3. See Bob Thune’s summary of the current state of Acts 29 Network: http://www.cdomaha.com/blog/?p=1366
  4. We will be taking initiative to serve with others in central New Jersey in the upcoming year. Our views on gospel centered social ministry can be read online here: http://www.powerofchange.org/storage/docs/justice_web_jw.pdf
  5. Martin Luther, A Mighty Fortress is Our God—For some reading on this hymn see the wiki at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Mighty_Fortress_Is_Our_God


What is the Church?

Church. A short word, a simple word. Yet it can conjure up all manner of ideas, emotions and imagery. There are book length treatments on the church so today I just want to focus on some simple basics—what the church is. It can be easy to think of church as a building, a religious service, a denomination or formalized institution but the biblical definition of church is a bit simpler and a bit more wonderful. The basic word for church in the New Testament is ekklesia, which simply means an assembly of people. So this gives our first little hint in our exploration. Namely, the church is a group of people gathering together for something…or someone.

In this essay we will only attempt to answer a few questions about church. First, we will look at the nature of the church as a community of people called by Jesus through the gospel. Second, we’ll track a little about this community living with Jesus as a people being transformed to be more like him. Third, we will look at how this community is a sent people into the world with message and mission. Finally, we close by seeing the church as a community that represents and reflects something about the goodness and glory of God.

The Church— A Community Called by Jesus

The first thing we learn in the book of Ephesians is that the church is made up of people who have been called by God through the gospel. God purposed before the world began to save his people and adopt them as his children. This would be accomplished by redeeming a people for himself by the work of Jesus on a cross. This would be a people called by Jesus, given a promise in the Holy Spirit and an inheritance with God forever. The church is reminded that prior to Jesus saving them they were dead in sin, separated from God and under his wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3). Furthermore, they were separated from the promises of God that came through Israel and described as without hope and without God. Yet, in his grace God saves them, Jew and Gentile and makes them into a new community of people. Steve Timmis and Tim Chester describe this well:

We are not saved individually and then choose to join the church as if it were some club or support group. Christ died for his people and we are saved when by faith we become part of the people for whom Christ died. 1

The book of Hebrews also describes these people as those whom God has made a “new covenant” with through Jesus Christ. They become a community of faith comprised of worshippers that the Father has sought out and saved (see John 4). They will worship God together in gratitude because of his great mercy and love for them (Ephesians 2:4). Yet the church is more than just a forgiven people called together by the gospel to sit in seats on Sunday mornings. The church is called together to live life with Jesus and see our lives changed by Him and sent to be active players in his mission and purposes on the earth.

The Church— A Community Together with Jesus

One of the most amazing metaphors in Scripture for the church is that we are the body of Jesus Christ (Romans 12:5, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4:12; 5:23, Colossians 3:15). We live in relational union with Jesus as he works in us to transform us throughout our lives. Ephesians 2:22 talks about us being joined together and growing as the people of God. We are being changed, we are being set apart by God (sanctified) to be made more like Jesus. The biblical doctrine of sanctification is that we are now being changed and conformed into the image of Jesus Christ. This transformation happens as he works in us and as we obediently follow him. We repent of sin, love others, fight temptation, grow in humility, walk in friendship in the church and follow God’s word together.

Furthermore, our the church is shaped by spiritual practices that Jesus left for us as means of his grace and transformation. The church therefore hears the Bible and heeds it together. It reads, studies, preaches , meditates upon God’s holy Scriptures. New members of the family are united with Jesus and his church by the outward sign of baptism and the church continues in fellowship with God and one another at the Lord’s table. The church prays together, sings together, serves together and as she sins—the church repents together. Jesus has given us the Scriptures, spiritual practices and life together to shape us into different people. The church is a transformational community of grace due to its union together as the body of Christ.

Accordingly, the church is a people both saved by the gospel and changed by the gospel and it is also a people sent into the world on gospel mission. To this “sentness” of the church we now turn.

The Church— A Community Sent by Jesus

All too often the church can simply remain a group of huddle followers of Jesus who are AWOL from his mission in the world. The church is not a religious club or cloister but rather a sent people in the world so the world might hear and see the gospel through their lives together. Furthermore, many Christians see “the church” as a dispenser of religious goods and services that accessorize their lives and even shop for these services. Rather than asking “what does this church have to give me” we ought to ask how we might be sent together on Jesus’ mission in the world. We are called together to serve together and be a blessing to others ,not to simply ask “what’s in it for me.” Darrell L. Guder questions this view of the church in his book The Missional Church — A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. He writes the following:

Does this image of church correspond to the cluster of images found for the church in the New Testament? Does it correlate with the New Testament speech about the nature and purposes of the church? At the very least, this producer-consumer model separates its notion of church (a religious firm producing and marketing religious products and services) from its members (potential and hopefully committed customers consuming those products and services). Members are ultimately distanced in this model from their own communal calling to be a body of people sent on mission.2

A metaphor used in the New Testament to describe this “sentness” of our lives as God’s people is that of being Christ’s ambassadors. As ambassadors we have a two fold role as the church sent into the world. First, we proclaim the gospel and urge others to be reconciled to God through Jesus. 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 describes this well:

17Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

2 Corinthians 5:17-21 (ESV)

The church is not out to promote itself or proclaim its own majesty, but rather we “proclaim him” (Colossians 1:29). Second, we represent and announce the reality of the Kingdom of God, the rule and reign of Jesus, in the midst of a dark world. We’ll cover that a bit more in the next section. At the close of the apostle John’s writing about the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus, he records the following words of the Lord:

19On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”

John 20:19-21 (ESV)

Jesus came into the world, sent as a servant from the Father. He gave his life for others and loved them so that they would be reconciled to God. He now sends us to people in the world to model his sacrificial life for others and to proclaim his gospel so that many more will be saved and added to the family. His final words, often called a great commission, gives us instructions as his people:

18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:18-20 (ESV)

To simply come together without the mission of Jesus is to ignore the teaching of Jesus. It is a self-absorbed enterprise that ironically leaves many Christians weary and bored with insular religion. God has called and sent his church—it is our joy to go on his behalf to those in our neighborhoods, in our dorms, in our building, at our work, at the gym, at the pub and wherever he calls us to be.

The Church— A Community that Represents

Ephesians makes it evident and clear that our individual salvation and forgiveness is in Christ is to display the glory of God’s grace (Ephesians 2:7). Furthermore, his creation and calling together of the church is to display his wisdom is to demonic and spiritual powers (Ephesians 3:10). The church is also described in Ephesians as the bride of Jesus which he is making beautiful. In this we see the committed, faithful, covenant love of God (Ephesians 5:22-33) for us in Christ. The ultimate ends of both our salvation and the forming of the church is to represent and praise the glorious grace of God in the gospel.

The church community is itself an in-breaking of the Kingdom of God where we live under the rule and reign of Jesus. We have a different King, a different way, a different calling as we live as sojourners in this world. Jesus is the center and focus of the church, our baptism symbolizes our union with him in the gospel and our remembering at communion is a participation with him in his faithful new covenant . Our fellowship together is in light of his grace so we extend similar love and grace to one another. When we rep him in this way, he told us that people would know we are truly his followers and that others would know that God sent him (John 13 and 17). As such the church is a body of people together that bears witness to the gospel of the crucified and risen Jesus all to the glory of God.

Last word. We don’t just need to “go to church”, but rather we need to presently be the church. A people which gathers in various places for worship, is instructed in the teachings of the apostles and prophets and is then sent to love and preach good news in Jesus name.

Remember, you can’t shop for that—we live it together.

Notes

  1. Steve Timmis and Tim Chester, Total Church—A radical reshaping around gospel and community (Nottingham England: Intervarsity Press, 2007) 37. Now available in the US under the same title, Crossway Books (Re:Lit), 2008.
  2. Darrell L. Guder, Misional Church—A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) 85.