I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 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. (John 17:20-21)
Many of us are quite familiar with John 17. Jesus’ time is running short (by man’s standards), and he is hours away from being arrested. Here, we are given a glimpse into the prayer life that, until now, had been a bit mysterious as He went off to a quiet place to pray alone in the early mornings.
Through the pages of our Bible, we “hear” Jesus pray for His disciples, and then we hear Him pray for us as “those who will believe in me through their [the apostles’] word.” What a privilege! What a gift! What a demonstration of Jesus’ love for His own!
Reading through Jesus’ high priestly prayer afresh today, I was struck by the theme found in the above verses. Unity. Jesus prayed for unity among His people.
So that the world may believe that you have sent me.
It might well be said that the purpose of John’s entire gospel is summed up by chapter 20 and verse 31: “…these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
John clearly has evangelism on his mind as he writes. Yet here, in chapter 17, we see what is on our Lord’s mind, and it is a desire to see His children united in Him, for the sake of the proclamation of the gospel and the salvation of many.
Division is a natural part of life on this earth. In many ways it is perfectly acceptable and perhaps even desired. But the members of the body of Christ must be mindful of what we allow to separate us. Denominational differences need not be bad, and many of the reasons for these separations are quite necessary. Still, we ought not anathematize another denomination simply because they do not agree with us on all things. Do we agree on the gospel? That is the ultimate question.
And yet, Christians allow pettiness to divide us, and mark it, my friends, the world is watching. Why should they have any interest in Christ when His own followers cannot cease biting and devouring one another? Is there not enough of that in the fallen world to keep us all sinfully satisfied? Such behavior mustn’t define Christians and yet, everywhere I look, petty division is what I see. It grieves me. I hope it grieves you.
Reflecting on this chapter in John’s great gospel, I turned to one of my favorite commentaries: J.C. Ryle’s Expository Thoughts. Let his words challenge and convict you today as they did me.
We can ask no stronger proof of the value of unity among Christians, and the sinfulness of division, than the great prominence which our Master assigns to the subject in this passage. How painfully true it is that in every age divisions have been the scandal of religion, and the weakness of the Church of Christ! How often Christians have wasted their strength in contending against their brethren, instead of contending against sin and the devil! How repeatedly they have given occasion to the world to say, “When you have settled your own internal differences we will believe!” All this, we need not doubt, the Lord Jesus foresaw with prophetic eye. It was the foresight of it which made Him pray so earnestly that believers might be “one.”
Let the recollection of this part of Christ’s prayer abide in our minds, and exercise a constant influence on our behavior as Christians. Let no man think lightly, as some men seem to do, of schism, or count it a small thing to multiply sects, parties, and denominations. These very things, we may depend, only help the devil and damage the cause of Christ…Let us bear much, concede much, and put up with much, before we plunge into secessions and separations. They are movements in which there is often much false fire. Let rabid zealots who delight in sect-making and party-forming rail at us and denounce us if they please. We need not mind them. So long as we have Christ and a good conscience, let us patiently hold on our way, follow the things that make for peace, and strive to promote unity. It was not for nothing that our Lord prayed so fervently that His people might be “one.” (J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts: John, volume 3)
Jesus prayed that His children might be as one so that the world would believe in Him. Our bickering is not merely unbecoming, it is detracting and damaging. When the world sees us squabble, we tarnish our witness for Christ. Let us go back to our ultimate example: Jesus Himself. Let us strive to live as He lived. Let us be content to be obscure. Let us be pleased to keep peace as much as it is in our power to do so (Romans 12:18). Let us aspire to live quietly, serving the Lord however He has designed for us to do (1 Thessalonians 4:11). Let us be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger (James 1:19). After all, it was not for nothing that our Lord prayed so fervently that His people might be one.