Last Words for the Last Supper

Unity: The Most Convincing Evidence

John 17:1-26

Teaching t09871

Introduction

We come now to the final chapter of this section of John, which focuses on Jesus’ final interaction with his disciples on the night of his arrest. He began by washing their feet (13). Then he told them that his departure would bring the Holy Spirit, who would usher them into greater spiritual reality than they had enjoyed with him (14-16). Then he told them that the key to appropriating the Holy Spirit is abiding in (depending on) him (15). And now, just before they go to Gethsemane, Jesus prays (17).

This is the longest prayer of Jesus recorded in the gospels. Jesus’ prayer is wide-ranging and profound—far more than I can cover in one teaching. It has three main sections, expanding in range like three concentric circles:

In 17:1-5, Jesus prays for himself, that his Father will glorify him—demonstrate his greatness through his death, his resurrection, and his return to the Father.

In 17:6-19, Jesus prays for his disciples—that as he sends them out as his witnesses into a hostile world, the Father will protect them from the deceptions of the evil one through the truth of his Word.

In 17:20-23, Jesus prays for a much wider group of people (read). He divides all of humanity up into two groups—Christians (“those who believe in me through [my disciples’] word”) and non-Christians (“the world” - those who do not yet believe in him).

Specifically, he prays for non-Christians’ salvation by asking for something for those who do believe in him. Three times in three verses, he makes the same request—that Christians may “be one,” or that we may be “brought to complete unity.” He prays for us to have this unity, because it provides the most convincing evidence to non-Christians that he is who he claims to be—the sole Savior of the world. Our first task is to understand what kind of unity Jesus is (and is not) asking for.

What kind of unity is this?

He is not praying for organizational unity between churches. Although this may come to our minds first, and though the church has often tried to achieve organizational unity over the past 20 centuries, there is no indication in this passage (or any other New Testament passage) that God prioritizes this kind of unity. In fact, attempts to achieve this kind of unity have usually done more harm than good.

Rather, Jesus is praying for a unity that is foundationally spiritual and ultimately relational.

He speaks of a spiritual union between Christians rooted in his union with the Father and our union with him (“I in them and you in me”). This is what theologians call the “mystical union” between Jesus and believers. The moment you receive Christ, you are indwelt with the same Holy Spirit that indwells all other true Christians, and thus you are united with them on a profound spiritual level (1 Cor. 12:13).

But he prays ultimately for a relational unity (based on this spiritual unity) that is observable (something the “world” sees and learns from) and that must be developed (“brought to complete unity”). This relational unity is a loving “community”—characterized by the same unique love that Jesus displayed.

Jesus’ parallel command in Jn. 13:34,35 confirms this (read). Just as Jesus asks one preeminent request in 17:21-23, he gives one preeminent command in this passage. He wants us to love each another in the same way that he loves us so that those who don’t know him will recognize us as his followers, and be drawn by this to believe in him, too.

Why is this unity so convincing?

Why is this kind of unity so convincing and attractive? Consider this quote by John White: “The church that convinces people that there is a God is a church that manifests what only a God can do, that is, unite human beings in love . . . There is nothing that convinces people (that God exists) or that awakens their craving for (him) like the discovery of Christian brothers and sisters who love one another . . . The sight of loving unity among Christians arrests the non-Christian. It crashes through his intellect, stirs up his conscience and creates a tumult of longing in his heart because he was created to enjoy the very thing that you are demonstrating.1

Regardless of what people believe, they are still created in God’s image (made like him in key ways). In what ways are we in God’s image? In many ways—but above all else that we are designed for loving community. Read Gen. 1:26—why “Us” and “Our?” Because God is a community of love relationships! Ultimate reality is not impersonal matter (atheism), not an impersonal oneness (pantheism), not even a solitary personal God (other monotheisms). Ultimate reality is a God in community—the three Persons of the Trinity who always loved one another (see 17:24 >> 17:21a,22b). When God created humans in his image, then, God created us to be in loving community with “himselves” and with other humans.

This is why no amount of sensual experiences or materialistic affluence or worldly power can ever fill the aching hole in your soul.

This is why, no matter how skeptical or cynical or turned off to the church you may be, when you see this kind of community it resonates with you on a very deep level. It strikes a chord at the very core of your being and, unless you are hard-hearted, it arouses your curiosity to learn how to have this.

This truth has two important implications:

If you are here investigating Christianity, your investigation is incomplete unless you “taste” Christian community! By all means, digest the teaching and ask your questions. But don’t stop there. Hang out after the meeting with the people who brought you and their home group friends. Go to their home group meeting, where you can see and feel this community. Ask them about how this kind of community has changed their relational lives (marriage; parenting; friendships; etc.).

The American church will continue to be spiritually impotent in its witness for Christ until it builds real community! BUMPER STICKERS and SLICK MARKETING campaigns are a pathetic substitute. KNOCK-OUT WORSHIP SERVICES and INTELLECTUAL ARGUMENTS are inadequate. No wonder that for all of the above, the American church is stagnant in size and impotent in transforming influence!

How do you get this unity?

How do you get this kind of unity? It must be possible for everyone one of us to have this, because Jesus prayed for and God answers every one of his prayers. Other New Testament passages explain three key steps (in order) you need to take in order to get this kind of unity.

The first thing you need to do is forge your own personal, spiritual union with Jesus. Remember, this is a community that works only as each member loves the other members with the same kind of love that Jesus loves us with (Jn. 13:34). So before you can get this kind of unity with other Christians, you first have to receive this love directly from Jesus. You have to admit to Jesus that you need his sacrificial, forgiving love—and you have to invite him come into your heart (Rev. 3:20).

The second thing you need to do is replace “going to church” with “being in fellowship.” I hate the phrase “going to church” because it implies that the church is a building, when the Bible says the church is the people who know Christ. You can’t “go to church”—you are the church! But you can “be the church” without “being in fellowship.”

“Fellowship” means sharing something in common, being partners. John says, “We proclaim (Jesus) to you . . . so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). To be “in fellowship” with other Christians means regularly sharing your common relationship with Christ with other Christians, partnering to walk with Christ together. According to the New Testament, this entails lots of face-to-face interaction with other Christians: discussing what you are learning from his Word, sharing how he is changing your life, talking to Christ together, challenging each other to stay faithful to Christ, working together to serve others (both outreach and edification), showing appropriate affection toward one another, etc.

In other words, this kind of unity takes time. If you want real Christian community, you have to make this kind of relating a key time priority in your life. You can’t have “drive-through” community! You have to be willing to re-arrange your other priorities in order to “be in fellowship.” If you do this, illegitimate priorities will have to diminish (e.g., ENTERTAINMENT). But you will find that this priority will enable you to be much more productive in your other legitimate priorities (e.g., FAMILY; JOB).

The best way to get in fellowship is to join a home group. Home groups are like healthy, growing families. Older Christians help younger Christians, but everybody helps everybody—and new “children” are constantly being added until it’s time to form two new home groups and do the same thing all over again! Christian community flourishes in home groups in a way that can never happen at a meeting like this. If you know Christ, you should view this meeting as a complement to your involvement in home group, not a substitute for it.

Once you are “in fellowship,” you need to allow God to change your character so you can preserve and perfect this unity. Consider this passage (read Eph. 4:1-3). You can hear Paul echoing Jesus is Jn. 17 as he reminds us of the importance of unity as we seek to represent Christ before a watching world. He is utterly realistic about the difficulty of maintaining this kind of unity between sinful, fallen people—so he reminds us of the character qualities needed to do this.

I need to regularly ask God for the humility to realize that I am here to serve (not just be served). When I have conflict with another brother or sister, I need this humility see my own part in the conflict. And when I see my part, I need humility to apologize for it and ask forgiveness.

Gentleness (“meekness”) is not weakness; it is strength under control to handle something that is precious. I need to regularly ask God for this gentleness to help my brother when he is in the wrong, rather than just hammering him with truth (Gal. 6:2).

I need to regularly ask God for patience and forbearance (and forgiveness) when my brothers and sisters hurt me or disappoint me or don’t change as quickly as I would like. It isn’t as difficult to extend this to others when I remember how much God extends this to me!

Footnotes

1John White, The Fight (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1979), pp. 149,150.

Copyright 2004 Gary DeLashmutt