The Upper Room Discourse

Unity: The Most Compelling Evidence

John 17:20-23

Teaching t07674


We come now to the final chapter of the Upper Room Discourse--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 maintaining an attitude of personal dependence on him (15). And now, just before they go into the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays (17).

This is the longest extended prayer of Jesus recorded in the gospels. (Although I normally read from the NASB, I will read from the NIV this morning because the NASB translates this passage into 17th century English. This is ironic, because while people were struck by the personalness and informality of Jesus' communication with his Father, the NASB translators have made it formal.) Even when you read it in modern English, 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 on the cross, 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, and prays for them accordingly.

Generally, he prays for Christians (those who have believed in him because of his disciples' witness) and for the world (those who do not yet believe in him).

Specifically, he prays for salvation of those who don't believe in him by asking for something for those who do believe in him. Three times in three verses, he makes the same request--that we may "be one," or that we may be "brought to complete unity." He prays for Christians to have unity, because this unity will provide the most compelling evidence to the world that he is the Savior of the world.

What kind of unity?

The first order of business, then, is for us to understand what kind of unity Jesus is (and is not) asking for.

He is not asking 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 often done more harm than good in drawing people to Christ (ROMAN CATHOLICISM & ORTHODOXY; PROTESTANT ECUMENCIAL MOVEMENT).

He is not talking primarily about spiritual unity shared by all Christians. I say "primarily" because Jesus does refer to this in this prayer. When he speaks of a union between Christians that is connected to his union with the Father and our union with him, he is talking about the "mystical union" of Christians. 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. This is very important, but it is not what Jesus asks for. This unity is complete and invisible, but the unity Jesus prays for is something that is observable to non-Christians and it is a unity that needs to be completed.

He is talking primarily about relational "community" between individual Christians. This is clear for two main reasons:

Jesus asks for a unity that will somehow show non-Christians that God loves Christians the same way he loved Jesus (17:23). So it is an observable unity that displays God's unique love among Christians.

Jesus' parallel statement 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 compelling?

In order to understand why Christian community is so compelling, you have to understand the relationship between MEDIUM and MESSAGE. In any communication event, there are always four features: the MESSAGE, the SENDER, the RECEIVER, and the MEDIUM. The MEDIUM is the context in which the MESSAGE is communicated. When the MEDIUM is effective, it draws attention to the MESSAGE and makes it attractive. But when the MEDIUM is ineffective, it does the opposite--and is called NOISE.

In song, the MESSAGE is the words/lyrics. The MEDIUM is the music that accompanies the lyrics. A song can have a great MESSAGE--but if its MEDIUM (music) is unattractive, very few will receive and remember the MESSAGE. On the other hand, if its music is outstandingly attractive, people will receive and remember its MESSAGE even if it is mediocre or false.

Consider, for example, this MESSAGE ("Hello, Goodbye"). Not exactly profound--but many of you began to recite it by heart the moment I began to recite the words. Why? Because the MEDIUM was so attractive.

What is true in music is even more true in the communication of Christianity. Its MESSAGE is that greatest news that has ever been announced. God is a loving Person, and he wants to have a love relationship with you that will transform your life for good far beyond your wildest expectations. He sent his Son to take away the only barrier that separated him from you, and he is ready right now to indwell you so you can experience his love--if only you ask him to do this by putting your trust in Jesus.

What if the people who share this MESSAGE are just as alienated and superficial and unsuccessful in their relationships with each other as everyone else? This is NOISE--and no amount of TV time, slick marketing, cute bumper-stickers, etc. will ever make up for it!

On the other hand, what if the people who share this MESSAGE demonstrate the ability to build and enjoy close, healthy love relationships with one another? When this is the MEDIUM, it enhances the credibility of the MESSAGE so powerfully that even people who are consciously resistant to the MESSAGE often become curious and receptive.

"The church that convinces people that there is a God is a church that manifests what only a God can do, that is, to 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."

Over the past ten years, I have been working primarily with singles in college or just out of college. Most of them were raised in unchurched homes, or were turned off to what they thought Christianity is. They are unimpressed by large buildings and slick presentations. They are repelled by evangelistic crusades and other Christian marketing schemes. They have been schooled by relativism which tells them that all religions are equally valid because there is no such thing as absolute truth. But in spite of these barriers, I have had the privilege of seeing dozens of these singles come to Christ. And in almost every case, they have told me that what made them open to the message of Christianity was the quality of relationships they observed among the Christians in our home group. (M.M. TO F.H.: "I have never met so many people who genuinely cared for me and for one another. I just had to be willing to check out what they believed.")

How to practice it

Show love and respect for Christians outside your own church. This is not to imply that we need not show love and respect for non-Christians! It is to say that non-Christians need to also see a special kinship between Christians at work, etc.

We may have important differences with other true Christians over doctrine, how we do church, etc.--differences big enough that we are probably better off being committed to different churches. But we need to remember that what we have in common far outweighs our differences. I worry that many Xenos people do not do this enough. It's great to feel excited about your church, but don't become arrogant and view other Christians and Christian churches as enemies! Not only is this arrogant and cultic--it is also ugly for non-Christians to see.

Instead, we should be warm and affectionate when you run into Christians from other churches that you know. We should also show genuine interest in what God is teaching them and how he is working through them.

One of the best ways to demonstrate this unity is to work with Christians from other churches in some common ministry.

For 16 years I have been teaching a Bible study at a nursing home here in town. It has been great to see many people come to Christ in the last years of their lives. It has also been great to work with other Christians from different churches as we reach out to the people in the nursing home.

You can collaborate with other Christians in your neighborhood to pray for your neighbors and work together in reaching out to them. You can do the same with associates at work.

But as important as this is, the New Testament emphasizes another kind of unity far more. Be "in fellowship" instead of merely "going to church." I hate the phrase "going to church" because it implies the church is a building, when the Bible says the church is the people who know Christ. But even if we change "going to church" to "attending Central Teaching," there is still a big difference between this and being "in fellowship."

"Fellowship" means sharing something in common. To be in fellowship with other Christians means that you are regularly sharing your common relationship with Christ with other Christians: discussing what you are learning from his Word, sharing how he is changing your life, talking to Christ together, urging each other to stay faithful to Christ, working together to serve others, showing appropriate affection toward one another, etc.

If you come here very long, you'll hear this slogan: "Xenos is not a large meeting-based church that also has home-groups; it is home-group-based church that also has large meetings." The reason for this is simple: Christian fellowship 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. Being in fellowship will strengthen and feed your walk with Christ tremendously, and it will help you reach your non-Christian friends for Christ much more effectively.

Another way you know when you're "in fellowship" is when you get hurt, offended, disappointed, etc. When this happens, do you withdraw and dismiss--or do you work hard to maintain these relationships?

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. He is utterly realistic about the difficulty of maintaining this kind of unity between sinful, fallen people--so he reminds us of what we need to cultivate to do this.

I need to ask God for the humility to see my own contribution to the conflict (and apologize for it), instead of just focusing on the other person's.

I need to ask God for the gentleness to treat my brother or sister as precious rather than brutally lashing out at or smashing him. And I need to apologize when I blow it here.

I need to ask God for patience and forbearance (and forgiveness) when they hurt me or don’t change as quickly as I want them to--just as I am thankful that God extends this to me.

For those of us who are "in fellowship," this is a constant challenge. I can't always restore every strained relationship, but I am responsible to do my part as God shows me. This is a great training ground for my own growth, and it safeguards the unity that intangibly affects and attracts non-Christians who interact with us.