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:
- Unity requires God’s protection.
- Unity is not superficial but should be a reflection in the church of the unity of God himself.
- 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.
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.
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
- 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.
- Ibid, p148
- See Bob Thune’s summary of the current state of Acts 29 Network: http://www.cdomaha.com/blog/?p=1366
- 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
- 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