In the sports world a common chant is: “We’re number one! We’re number one!” Various teams, cheerleaders, and fans will extend their index finger skyward and proclaim their own greatness. Such players and fans want everyone to know their team is the best team. The chant, “We’re number one,” fires up players and fans. Supposedly, it even intimidates the opposing team, who is usually chanting the very same claim. Of course, there can be only one true number one. This is especially evident during football season (i.e., college football bowl games and the Super Bowl). When the dust settles, there can only be one number one.
In the church of Jesus Christ, there can only be one. The goal of truly being “one” is incredibly important. But instead of chanting, “We’re number one! We’re number one!” we should be chanting, “We are one! We are one!” In John 17:20-26, Jesus shares His greatest burden for His followers . . . oneness . . . unity. When Christians are “one,” we provide a visible, tangible witness to the world. As we read these final seven verses in John 17, we can almost hear the chant: We are one! We are one!
In 17:20-21 Jesus prays, “I do not ask on behalf of these alone [my eleven disciples], but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even 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 sent Me.” Jesus has prayed for Himself (17:1-5) and His original disciples (17:6-19). Now He prays for those who will believe His message through His disciples. This illustrates perfectly a vision of “transferring truth to the next generation.” One great way to build unity is to model Jesus’ heart. On the last evening of Jesus’ earthly life, He prayed for future generations of believers like you and me.
What about you? Are you praying for your children? Are you praying for your grandchildren or even your great grandchildren? Are you praying for the children and youth in our church? Are you praying for our daughter church and other churches that we may plant? Are you praying about the continuation of our church long after you leave this world? How future-oriented are your prayers? If the only prayers you pray deal with urgent and immediate needs, your prayer life is not all that it could be. As an individual Christian, your vision must transcend the present, reaching those who will come after you. As a church, our vision must transcend the present, reaching those who will come after us. We must be deeply concerned about future generations of believers. We must long for oneness and fruitfulness so that the world will believe in Christ.
It’s worth noting that Jesus makes three requests in 17:21 that begin with the conjunction “that” (hina). All these requests are sub sequential. The second request depends on the first and the third depends on both the first and second. The first request: “that they may all be one” is repeated in 17:11 and 22. This is the dominant emphasis of this entire chapter. In 1776, the Latin phrase e pluribus unum (“out of many—one”) was suggested by Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson as aptly describing the creation of one nation out of thirteen colonies. Since 1873, federal law has required that the phrase appears on every coin minted by the U.S. Treasury. We often see it with the emblem of the eagle, our national bird. The phrase e pluribus unum is a perfect description of the unity shared by the members of the body of Christ.
While there are many members, we are joined into a spiritual entity—the church. We are not many but are one. The purpose of this unity is at least twofold: (1) that believers may be in the Father and the Son and (2) that the world may believe that the Father sent Jesus. Jesus prays that we may have the same oneness that He and the Father have. As we experience this God-like intimacy with one another, the world will believe that the Father sent the Son. In other words, Christian unity enables the world to see and understand that Jesus is divine in His origin and is God Himself. After all, one of the greatest miracles known to humankind is when Christians get along. Generally, this is so unusual that the world might die of shock! Instead, we need to ensure that they see this greatest possible witness —unified Christians.
In 17:21, Jesus asked us to be in the Father and Son. Now in 17:22-23, He asks that the Father and the Son may be in us. Jesus puts it like this: “The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, 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 that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” The “glory” (doxa) that Jesus received and gives to us refers to the servanthood of His incarnation—leaving the glory of heaven and coming to earth as a man. Jesus’ servanthood includes the cross and He invites us to share in His sufferings. This is the glory that He gives us. Jesus indicates that the purpose of our servanthood is that we may be “perfected” (teleioo) in unity. The Greek concept of “perfect” does not mean “flawless perfection”; rather, it carries the sense of maturity and completeness.
Ephesians 4:3 says that we must be diligent to “preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” The key word is “preserve.” We must maintain what God has already instilled in the body of Christ. We don’t have to create unity, it is His Work. We are simply responsible to preserve what He has put into place. So while we possess unity; it isn’t “perfected,” unless we grow in it.
Along the coast of northern California are great forests of redwoods—the giant sequoias. Redwoods are noted for age, beauty, and fine wood. 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 a dozen trees have sprung up from the outer roots of a tree that has fallen and have formed a perfect circle. After several centuries these trees have grown together so that outwardly they appear as a single giant tree! In keeping with Christ’s prayer, the goal of the body of Christ should be to grow into such unity that the world will recognize us as one. The display of such unity in our individualistic society will be a testimony to the world of the divine Person and work of Christ.
Unity is paramount! Unity will win the day! Thomas Manton (1620-1677), the great Puritan preacher said, “Divisions in the church breed atheism in the world.” The converse is also true: Unity in the church builds belief from the world. Is the unity that you are experiencing impacting your community? Can you tell your neighbors, coworkers, classmates, family, and friends that you are one with your church? You I need to be able to say, We are one! We are one!
In 17:24, Jesus prays that we would receive another type of “glory” (cf. 17:22). He says, “Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.” Jesus’ use of “glory” refers to the future glorification of believers when we shall see Jesus as He is (1 John 3:2-3). Jesus wants us to see Him in all His glory. In Matthew 17:1-8, Peter, James, and John witnessed Jesus’ glory when He was transfigured before them, but this was merely a dress rehearsal, a preview of eternity. The glory that Jesus desires to give us will not be momentary, it will be permanent. The word “given” is in the Greek perfect tense, meaning a past action with abiding results. In other words, Jesus has always possessed “glory,” but the unveiled expression of His glory is present now and will last for all eternity. Here, Jesus is deliberately contrasting His glory with the world’s glory which comes and goes. For the final time, He also emphasizes that we are those whom God the Father has “given” to Him. This is Jesus’ version of the unbreakable golden chain in Romans 8:30 where Paul states that God has foreknown, predestined, called, justified, and glorified us.
Since we have been given to Jesus from the Father, He will ensure that we are kept for glory. In that day, we will be given a new body and will be made just like Jesus. We will see the full expression of Jesus’ glory and we will fall down before Him, much like the apostle John in Revelation 1:17. What a day that will be! When we see Jesus in all His glory, we will worship Him like never before and truly be able to say: We are one! We are one! In that day, our unity will finally be truly “perfected.”
Verses 25-26 mark the final verses of this chapter and the entire Upper Room discourse. In these two verses, Jesus summarizes all that He has prayed in John 17: “O righteous Father, although the world has not known You, yet I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me; and I have made Your name known to them, and will make it known, so that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.” Jesus uses the word “known” five times in these two verses. He closes His prayer with a vow to the Father, but it is also a promise to us. He will continue to make His name (i.e., all that He is) known to us and also will be increasing the Father’s love in us. That is His sovereign vow, and it will be our continuing experience. Jesus concludes with the phrase, “I in them.” At the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus promises His disciples that He will be with them all their days (28:20b), but here is an even greater promise: “I in them.” We are one because Jesus is in us!
I think after studying Jesus’ words it would be safe to say that Jesus wants unity—oneness among His followers. I would like to challenge us to do three things as we complete this series. These things can be simple prayers or commitments that you make to Jesus.
#1: I will focus on what unites rather than on what divides. You may have heard someone say, “keep the main thing the main thing.” This is especially critical in the local church. We must major on the majors not minor on the minors. We must focus our hearts and our minds on Christian essentials. We must always remember that as Christians, we agree on far more than we disagree. Thus, it is helpful to identify those areas on which we do agree. A few examples will suffice: The Bible is God’s Word, Jesus Christ is God, salvation is by faith through Christ alone, and Jesus will return. These beliefs are worth dying for, but many others are not. E. Stanley Jones (1884-1973), missionary to India, once said, “Talk about what you believe and you have disunity. Talk about Who you believe in and you have unity.” May we be a church that is all about Jesus and the essentials of our faith.
#2: I will agree to disagree with grace. It’s been said, “We can agree to disagree—until the Lord shows you that I’m right!” Seriously, I’m undoubtedly wrong in some of the non-essential tenants I believe. It is acceptable to disagree on issues such as the structure of church government, the role of women in the church, the charismatic gifts, and timing of creation and Christ’s return. These are non-essential issues that we can discuss and disagree agreeably on until Jesus’ returns. While doctrine is important, we must recognize the distinction between membership and fellowship. Local churches can and should have doctrinal distinctives, but these distinctives should pertain to church membership. They should not result in breaking fellowship with any regular attendee or brother and sister in Christ in the community. After all, we are one!
In every biological family some family members will be closer than others, but all should be one. In the same way, we must come together as a spiritual family and declare to the world, “We are one!” If we are functioning in conflict and disunity rather than unity, God will limit His work in our lives. If we have time to be blessed but not be a blessing; if we are selfish saints who want things from God but don’t want to mess with being a functioning member of a local church; or if we are causing disruption in the church by our attitudes and tongues, then we are wasting our time getting on our knees and asking God to do something for us. If we don’t want to hang with His children, what makes us think that our Dad in heaven will support our rebellion?
In Africa, a two-year-old child wandered off into the forest. The entire tribe spent the day searching for this youngster but could not find him. The next day, they decided to join hands and cover the entire area. They found the boy, but unfortunately, he was dead after having spent the night outside. The distraught mother cried, “Why didn’t we hold hands sooner?”
As brothers and sisters in Christ, we need to come together, join hands, and pursue a common kingdom goal. Since we are going to enjoy the same place, the same presence, and the same Person, we need to all learn to enjoy one another. When we cooperate in Christianity unity, the world will see Jesus clearly revealed through His bride.
#3: I will validate not vilify. I want you to think about a believer with whom you disagree with doctrinally, philosophically, or practically. What are some positive things you can say about this person? This may require you to think hard, but this can be done. There are always positive things that we can say about other believers. It may take a conscious effort to think through a believer’s strengths, but we can all accentuate the positive and minimize the negative.
George Whitefield (1714-1770) and Charles Wesley (1707-1788) were constantly at odds over their theology. Whitefield believed that God alone was responsible for our salvation. There was nothing man could do to bring it to pass. He affirmed God’s absolute Sovereignty over every aspect of life. Wesley agreed that God made our salvation possible in a way we could never do. However, Wesley contended that the salvation of the individual rested on the choice of man. It was a sometimes strong disagreement (as it continues today).
One day Whitefield was asked by one his followers, “Do you think that when we get to heaven we shall see John Wesley there?” “No,” said Whitefield, “I don’t think we shall.” The questioner was very delighted with that answer, but Whitefield added, “I believe that Mr. John Wesley will have a place so near the throne of God that such poor creatures as you and I will be so far off as to be hardly able to see him.” Whitefield understood the words of Jesus. He knew that regardless of their disagreements on theology, they were brothers in Christ and he loved Charles Wesley. We are called to do likewise. We must not let denominational, theological, socio-economic, race or gender labels get in the way of our love for fellow members of God’s family.
If Christians are unloving, uncompassionate, selfish, argumentative, and divisive, they contradict the Lord they profess to serve. Nonbelievers won’t be convinced of Christianity’s claim to truth. Apologist Francis Schaeffer wrote, “In John 13, the point was that if an individual Christian does not show love toward other true Christians, the world has a right to judge that he is not a Christian. In John 17, Jesus is stating something else which is much more cutting, much more profound: We cannot expect the world to believe that the Father sent the Son, that Jesus’ claims are true, unless the world sees some reality of the oneness of true Christians. The greatest testimony that we can possibly offer is not quoting Bible verses or providing some cutting edge outreach, it is loving our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and showcasing Christian community.
Spartacus is a classic movie that retells the historical account of the great Roman slave rebellion in 71 B.C. Spartacus was a highly trained gladiator who escaped and led other slaves to freedom. As news of his rebellion grew, thousands of slaves joined his cause and followed him through victories and defeats. Near the end of the movie, a massive Roman army under the command of Senator Crassus (Laurence Olivier) captures the rebels. Although Crassus does not know what Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) looks like, he suspects that Spartacus is among the prisoners under guard. In full Roman uniform, Crassus gallops up to the mouth of the valley where the prisoners are being held and shouts an offer to them: they can escape death by crucifixion if they turn Spartacus over to him. Spartacus studies the ground for a moment and then nobly gets to his feet, intending to turn himself in. But before he can do so, his comrade to the left stands and calls out, “I am Spartacus!” Then his comrade to the right also stands and calls out, “I am Spartacus!” As the real Spartacus looks on, comrade after comrade in his slave army rises to their feet and calls out, “I am Spartacus!” until there is a chorus of thousands united.
As slaves of Jesus Christ, we need to stand as one and identify with our Lord Jesus even though it could mean our own end. Oneness can change the world. Will you promote Christian unity as your greatest witness?