Sunday Sermons

Sunday Sermons

Prayer for Unity: John 17


“I do not ask in behalf of these alone, but for those who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us; that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me” (John 17:20-21)

God’s Plan for Unity

In the religious and secular realms men have tried different tactics to bring about unity. Some have established a world headquarters or mother-church that everyone is to obey. Others have installed a single human leader to whom all members must submit. Others have created a very rigid authority structure, to the point that all followers throughout the world study the exact same material, and where the followers are told not to read any material from outsiders. Even still, God instituted none of this. In His wisdom, God did not install a human head over the church, and neither did He create a world headquarters for His people. Jesus is the only head of the church (Ephesians 1:22-23), and each congregation is to be self-governing (1 Peter 5:2). God’s incredibly wise, uncomplicated and simple plan for unity was to reveal through His Son, the Holy Spirit, and the apostles, the truth that all could believe and understand (John 16:13; Ephesians 3:4; 5:17). This would be the only basis for unity among His people, or as Jesus stated it, “For those also who believe in Me through their word”. In the context Jesus had been praying for His apostles (17:6-19), thus, “their word” upon which unity is based, would be the gospel message revealed through the apostles.

“Believe in Me Through Their Word”: From this verse we may infer:

  • All those who want to become disciples can both understand this message and be convicted by it (Romans 1:16).
  • All disciples can understand the gospel alike.
  • Religious division is never rooted in a verse or Bible doctrine being too confusing or unclear.
  • The gospel message would always exist and always exist in a pure form so that unity would be possible among God’s people in every generation (1 Peter 1:23-25; Matthew 24:35).
  • The gospel message is not only the basis of unity with other disciples, but is equally the foundation of our fellowship with Jesus and the Father. If we believe what was revealed through the apostles, then we will find unity with other believers and we will also have fellowship with the Father and the Son. Of course, departure from the gospel would bring the end of our fellowship with God (2 John 9), and other believers as well (2 Thessalonians 3:14).

Has This Prayer Failed?

One problem that people have with John 17:20-21 is that they read this beautiful prayer and then look at the division in the religious world, and wonder if this prayer has been a failure. For the following reasons, I do not believe that this prayer has failed:

The Objects of the Prayer

Jesus specifically prayed for “those also who believe in Me through their word”, and then added, “that they may all be one”. This prayer was not, therefore, for people who never become Christians in the first place or people who simply have a religious curiosity. We all know that there has been tremendous division in the denominational world, yet this prayer never applied to human denominations. Denominations are the result of departures from the word (2 Timothy 4:1-3; 2 Timothy 4:2-4); therefore since denominations chose not to remain in the word (17:20), they cannot receive the blessing of 17:21. This prayer applies to disciples, members of the church that Jesus would establish (Matthew 16:18), not churches founded by men. Anytime people depart from Scripture they will lose the unity promised in this prayer.

Jesus Not Only Prayed for Unity, but Also Equally Predicted the Apostasy

The same Jesus who prayed that His followers would be united upon the teachings of the apostles, also predicted through the apostles the coming of error, false teachers, division and apostasy:

  • “Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15).
  • “Many false prophets will arise, and will mislead many” (Matthew 24:11)
  • “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30).
  • “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you…and many will follow their sensuality” (2 Peter 2:1-2).

Yet, while reading the above passages did you notice that often in the same context as these warnings of impending apostasy, that there was always something that the believer could do to avoid being swept away. For example, in Matthew 7:15, I can avoid being deceived by the false prophet by examining their fruits (7:16). Or, in Acts 20, a disciple can avoid being drawn away by being alert (20:31) and holding fast to the word of God (20:32) and remembering everything that Paul had so faithfully taught (20:27).

Churches in the New Testament had Problems

  • The Corinthians had all sorts of problems, yet even among the Christians, there were disciples who were on the right track (1 Corinthians 11:19 “For there must also be factions among you, in order that those who are approved may have become evident among you”).
  • The Corinthians and other congregations had problems (Revelation 2-3), yet the remedy was always very direct, simple, and doable:
  1. “Deliver such a one to Satan” (1 Corinthians 5:5).
  2. “Why not rather be wronged?” (1 Corinthians 6:7)
  3. 1 Corinthians 14:26-35
  4. “Repent and do the deeds you did at first” (Revelation 2:5).
  5. “Wake up and strengthen the things that remain” (3:2).

Error Surrounded God’s People

  • Observing the Law of Moses: Acts 15:4; Galatians 2:4
  • There was no resurrection of the dead: 1 Corinthians 15
  • There was nothing wrong with sexual relations with a temple prostitute: 1 Corinthians 6:13-18
  • The resurrection had already taken place: 2 Timothy 2:18
  • Jesus had not really come in the flesh: 1 John 4:1
  • One can be godly and still live in sin: Jude 4
  • You can know God without having to obey Him: 1 John 2:3-4

How Divided Are We?

I hear people saying that the Lord’s church is extremely divided and I have seen various lists of issues that have divided God’s people in the past or present. Yet allow me to make one observation: There really have been only two major divisions among the churches of Christ since the gospel came to North America centuries ago. One was over instrumental music in worship (which is unauthorized/Ephesians 5:19), and the other was over the unauthorized practice of the church supporting human institutions and making recreation a work of the church. Outside of that, various issues have obviously divided individual brethren or divided a congregation here or there, but it would be inaccurate to say that we have divided over all sorts of things. In fact, in thirty years of being a Christian I have been in congregations that have never had a problem with many of the things that people typically put on a list of issues that Christians have disagree over, such as one cup during communion, no located preacher, the war question, covering question and many other things.

John 17 and Today

I do not believe that Jesus’ prayer in this chapter went unfulfilled. I know that the early church enjoyed unity (Acts 2:42), and it has been my experience in being a Christian that John 17 is still being fulfilled among God’s people today, and I offer two proofs:

  • I have seen the answer to Jesus’ prayer of John 17 when traveling. Even though I had never studied with these Christians or even met them, when I sat down in their Bible classes I found that we were seeing Scripture alike. What had produced agreement was a common allegiance to the word of God. Every time one visits a sound congregation the fact is again enforced that disciples, thousands of miles apart, who had never met each other can understand the Bible alike by simply studying the Bible.
  • In our day of email and websites I see the same truth. I visit the websites of other churches or individuals and find that we agree and that we are both holding to the faith. People email me from time to time with their comments or questions and once again, we see eye-to-eye on the faith revealed in Scripture.

Scripture will remain forever the basis of unity. It had worked for centuries among those who want to serve God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength, and will continue to work for us today.