The Representation of True Unity
even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, … 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 (17:21b–23a)
The unity of nature Christ prayed for reflects that of the Father and the Son, which is expressed in Christ’s words You, Father, are in Me and I in You. Because of His unity with the Father, Jesus claimed in John 5:16ff. to have the same authority, purpose, power, honor, will, and nature as the Father. That startling claim to full deity and equality with God so outraged His Jewish opponents that they sought to kill Him (5:18; cf. 8:58–59; 10:31–33; 19:7).
The unique intra-Trinitarian relationship of Jesus and the Father forms the pattern for the unity of believers in the church. This prayer reveals five features of that unity the church imitates.
First, the Father and the Son are united in motive; they are equally committed to the glory of God. Jesus began His prayer by saying, “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You” (v. 1), as He had done throughout His ministry (v. 4). In verse 5 He added, “Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.” Finally, in verse 24 Jesus expressed to the Father His desire that believers would one day “be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me.” In John 7:18 Jesus declared that He was constantly “seeking the glory of the One who sent Him.” He did not need to seek His own glory (8:50), because the Father glorified Him (8:54). Both Jesus and the Father were glorified in the raising of Lazarus (11:4). In John 12:28 Jesus prayed, “ ‘Father, glorify Your name.’ Then a voice came out of heaven: ‘I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.’ ” Shortly before His High Priestly Prayer, Jesus had said to the disciples, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in Him; if God is glorified in Him, God will also glorify Him in Himself, and will glorify Him immediately” (13:31–32). Jesus promised to answer the prayers of His people “so that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (14:13).
The church is also united in a common commitment to the glory of God. “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do,” Paul wrote, “do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
Second, the Father and the Son are united in mission. They share the common goal of redeeming lost sinners and granting them eternal life, as Christ made clear earlier in this prayer:
Even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life. This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do.… I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. (vv. 2–4, 6)
God chose in eternity past to give believers to Christ as a gift of His love, and Christ came to earth to die as a sacrifice for their sins and redeem them. That the church lives to pursue the one goal of evangelizing the lost is clear from Jesus’ words in verse 18: “As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world” (cf. Matt. 28:19–20).
Third, the Father and the Son are united in truth. “The words which You gave Me,” Jesus said, “I have given to them” (v. 8), while in verse 14 He added, “I have given them Your word.” Earlier that evening Jesus had told the disciples, “The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works” (14:10; cf. 3:32–34; 7:16; 8:28, 38, 40; 12:49).
The church is also unified in its commitment to proclaiming the singular truth of God’s Word. In Romans 15:5–6 Paul prayed, “Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, so that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (cf. Acts 2:42, 46; Phil. 1:27). Far from dividing the church, a commitment to proclaiming sound doctrine is what defines it.
Fourth, the Father and the Son are united in holiness. In verse 11 Jesus addressed the Father as “Holy Father,” and in verse 25 as “righteous Father.” The utter holiness of God is expressed throughout the Old and New Testaments. God’s holiness is His absolute separation from sin. In Habakkuk 1:13 the prophet declared, “Your eyes are too pure to approve evil, and You can not look on wickedness with favor.” In Isaiah’s vision of God the angelic beings cried out, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory” (Isa. 6:3; cf. Rev. 4:8). The writer of Hebrews described Jesus as “holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners” (Heb. 7:26). In Revelation 4:8 the heavenly chorus unceasingly cries out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come.”
When they see believers united in the pursuit of holiness, unbelievers will be drawn to Christ. In Hebrews 12:14 the writer of Hebrews exhorted his readers, “Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.” If a church tolerates sin, it not only obscures the glory of Christ it is called to radiate, but also faces the discipline of the Lord of the church (Rev. 2:14–16, 20–23).
Finally, the Father and the Son are united in love. In verse 24 Jesus affirmed that the Father had “loved [Him] before the foundation of the world.” In John 5:20 Jesus said, “For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself is doing” (cf. 3:35). Both at His baptism (Matt. 3:17) and at the transfiguration (Matt. 17:5), the Father declared Jesus to be His beloved Son. Similarly, love is the glue that binds believers together in unity (Col. 3:14; cf. 2:2), and it is that love for one another that is the church’s ultimate apologetic to the lost world (John 13:34–35).
Though not to the same infinite divine extent, the spiritual life and power that belongs to the Trinity belongs also in some way to believers and is the basis for the church’s unity. This is what the Lord meant when He said, 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. That stunning truth describes believers as those to whom the Son has given glory—that is, aspects of the very divine life that belongs to God. The church’s task is to so live as to not obstruct that glory (Matt. 5:16).
The Fifth Mark of the Church: Unity
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
Considering all the divisions that have plagued Christendom for two thousand years, it is amazing that God has continued to use the church to extend his kingdom.”
This statement by John White, an InterVarsity Chrisitian Fellowship worker and writer, introduces us to the subject of Christian unity in two important ways: first, by portraying the unfortunate lack of unity that has plagued the church throughout its history and, second, by suggesting why Jesus asked that the church might be marked by unity at this particular point in his high priestly petition. The divisions that exist today are too obvious to need comment. They lie both on the surface and within. Battles rage. Highly praised church mergers not only fail to heal these divisions but also usually lead to further breakups involving those who do not like the new union. So far as Christ’s reasons for praying for unity go, it is simply that he foresaw these differences and so asked for that great unity that should exist among his own in spite of them.
Another way of pointing to Christ’s interests is to note that all the marks of the church concern the Christian’s relationship to some thing or some person and that unity is to be the mark of the church in the relationships that exist between its members. Joy is the mark of the Christian in relationship to himself. Holiness is the mark in relationship to God. Truth is the mark in his relationship to the Bible. Mission is the mark in his relationship to the world. In this mark, unity, and the last, love, which in some sense summarizes them all, we deal with the Christian’s relationship to all who are likewise God’s children.
What Kind of Unity?
But what kind of unity is this to be? This is an important preliminary question, for if the unity is to be an organizational unity, then our efforts to achieve and express it will be in one direction while, if it is to be a more subjective unity, our efforts will be expended differently.
One thing for sure—the church is not to be is a great organizational unity; for whatever advantages or disadvantages may be involved in massive organizational unity, this in itself obviously does not produce the results Christ prayed for, nor does it solve the church’s other great problems. Moreover, it has been tried and found wanting. In the early days of the church there was much vitality and growth but little organizational unity. Later, as the church came to favor under Constantine and his successors, the church increasingly centralized until during the Middle Ages there was literally one united ecclesiastical body covering all Europe. But was this a great age? Was there a deep unity of faith? Did men and women find themselves increasingly drawn to this faith and come to confess Jesus Christ to be their Savior and Lord (for that is what Christ promised, namely, that if the church were one, men and women would believe on him)? Not at all! On the contrary, the world believed the opposite. Spurgeon once wrote, “The world was persuaded that God had nothing to do with that great crushing, tyrannous, superstitious, ignorant thing which called itself Christianity; and thinking men became infidels, and it was the hardest possible thing to find a genuine intelligent believer north, south, east, or west.”
Certainly there is something to be said for some form of outward, visible unity (at least in most situations). But it is equally certain that this type of unity is not what we most need, nor is it that for which the Lord prayed.
Another type of unity that we do not need is conformity, that is, an approach to the church that would make everyone alike. Here we probably come closest to the error of the evangelical church, for if the liberal church for the most part strives for an organizational unity—through the various councils of churches, the Consultation on Church Union, denominational mergers, and so forth—the evangelical church for its part seems to strive for an identical pattern of looks and behavior among its members. This is not what Jesus is looking for in this prayer. On the contrary, there should be the greatest diversity among Christians, diversity of personality, interests, lifestyle, and even methods of Christian work and evangelism. This should make the church interesting, not dull. Uniformity is dull, like rows upon rows of Wheaties boxes. Variety is exciting! It is the variety of nature and the character and actions of our God.
But if the unity for which Jesus prayed is not an organizational unity or a unity achieved by conformity, what kind of unity is it? The answer is that it is a unity parallel to the unity that exists within the Godhead; for Jesus speaks of it in these terms—“that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you … I in them, and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity” (vv. 21, 23). This means that the church is to have a spiritual unity involving the basic orientation, desires, and will of those participating. Paul points to this true unity in writing to the Corinthians, saying, “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men” (1 Cor. 12:4–6).
This is not to say that all believers actually enter into this unity as they should. Otherwise, why would Christ pray for it? The actual case is that, like the other marks of the church already considered, unity is something given to the church but also something for which the body of true believers should strive. There is a sense in which we already are one in Christ. But there is also a sense in which we must achieve that unity.
Brothers and Sisters
Here we are helped by the various images used of the church throughout the New Testament, one of the most valuable being that of the family. Christians belong to the family of God, and therefore they are rightly brothers and sisters of one another.
The unique characteristic of this image is that it speaks of relationships and therefore of the commitments that the individuals must have to one another. The relationships are based upon what God has done. Salvation is described in the verses that use this image as God begetting spiritual children, who are therefore made members of his spiritual family through his choice and not through their own. John even says this explicitly in the preface to his Gospel, when he writes of our having become children of God “not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (1:13). There is a tendency in the world to talk about all men and women as brothers and sisters, but while this is true in a certain humanitarian sense it is nevertheless not what the Bible is talking about when it speaks of Christian brotherhood. This is something that God has intervened to establish among his own regenerated children.
This fact has two important consequences. First, if the family to which we belong has been established by God, then we have no choice as to who will be in it or whether or not we will be his or her sister or brother. On the contrary, the relationship simply exists, and we must be brotherly to the other Christian, whether we want to be or not.
The second consequence is related to this, simply that we must be committed to each other in tangible ways. We must be committed to helping each other, for example, for we all need help at times, and this is one clear way in which the special bond among believers can be shown to the watching world. A number of years ago I walked into the bathroom in our home and found one of my children sitting on the floor with a large pile of unrolled toilet paper beside her. She had been spinning the roll and watching it pile up in intricate patterned layers as it settled. I took one look at her and said, with a note of astonishment in my voice, “What in the world are you doing?”
“I’m unrolling the toilet paper,” she answered. There was no questioning the truthfulness of that.
“Why are you being naughty?” I countered.
She said, “Nobody helps me to be good.” I suspect that her answer was a carefully worded excuse (and also not nearly so truthful as her first statement.) But whatever her reasons, the statement did at least point to a true need. We do need help as Christians, and we need it from Christians. Moreover, we must be ready to give help, just as we would to a needy member of our own human family.
The second important image used to portray the unity of the church of Christ is a fellowship, which the New Testament normally indicates by the Greek word koinonia. Unfortunately, neither the word “fellowship” nor the word koinonia is very helpful in conveying what we mean. This is because the English word commonly means only a loose collection of friends, and the Greek word has become something of a theological cliché. Actually, the word has to do with sharing something or having something in common. The common Greek of the New Testament period is called Koine Greek. Partners, as those who hold property in common or share in a business, are koinonoi. In spiritual terms koinonia, or fellowship, is had by those who share a common Christian experience of the gospel. In this respect the New Testament speaks often of our fellowship with the Father (1 John 1:3), with the Son (1 Cor. 1:9), which is sometimes described as a fellowship in the blood and body of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16), and with the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 13:14). This obviously involves the totality of our experience of God’s grace.
But fellowship is not only defined in terms of what we share in together. It also involves what we share out together. And this means that it must involve a community in which Christians actually share their thoughts and lives with one another.
How is this to be done practically? It will probably be done in different ways in different congregations depending upon local situations and needs. Some churches are small and therefore will have an easier time establishing times of sharing. Here church suppers, work projects, and other such efforts will help. Larger churches will have to break their numbers down into smaller groups in various ways. At Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, which I serve as pastor, we have tried to do this in three ways simultaneously. First, we have tried to divide the congregation according to age levels. Thus we have a fully graded Sunday school, and on the upper levels we have tried to establish groups for college students, postcollege students, young couples, other adult classes, and meetings for senior citizens. Part of this is an adult elective program. Second, we have tried to divide the congregation geographically. Tenth Church members come from a large and scattered metropolitan area. Some of them drive twenty, thirty, or more miles to get there. Midweek meetings at the church are impractical for most. Therefore we have established area Bible studies, where people can meet weekly with those in their area. They meet to study the Bible, share concerns, and pray together. These area groups are probably the least structured but also the most profitable of all the church activities. Finally, we have also begun to divide the church according to professional interests. In this area there are regular meetings by groups of artists, musicians (we have a chamber orchestra), medical students and nurses, and ministerial candidates and young pastors.
My own experience in this area conforms to that of John R. W. Stott, who experimented with similar groups in his own London parish. He has written on the grounds of his experience, “The value of the small group is that it can become a community of related persons; and in it the benefit of personal relatedness cannot be missed, nor its challenge evaded. … I do not think it is an exaggeration to say, therefore, that small groups, Christian family or fellowship groups, are indispensable for our growth into spiritual maturity.”
Once again, this is an area in which Christian unity can become a visible and practical thing, and its unique and desirable qualities can be made known to the world.
The third important image used to stress the unity of the church is the body. Clearly, this image has many important connotations. It speaks of the nature of the Christian union—one part of the body simply cannot survive if it is separated from the whole. It speaks of interdependence. It even suggests a kind of subordination involving a diversity of function; for the hand is not the foot, nor the foot the eye, and over all is the head which is Christ. Paul speaks of this in 1 Corinthians saying, “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Now the body is not made up of one part but of many” (12:12–14).
However, the one function of the body that is unique to this image is service, for just as the family emphasizes relationships, and fellowships emphasizes sharing, so does the body emphasize work. The body exists to do something and, since we are talking about unity, we must stress that it exists to enable us to do this work together.
In the book from which I quoted earlier, Stott speaks of this service flowing out of the small groups that his church emphasizes. “It must be admitted that several have been unsuccessful—through lack of time or of enterprise,” he writes. “Others, however, have offered their practical services as a group. … Certainly without some such common concern and service, the fellowship of any Christian group is maimed.”
The question we end with is simply: What is to be your part in this area? What will you do? Obviously you cannot change the whole church, but, as one writer puts it, “You can begin in your own life to be an answer to the high priestly prayer of Christ. You can become a small focus of change.” First, you can become aware of that great family, fellowship, and body to which you already belong, and you can thank God for it. Second, you can join a small group, where the reality of Christian unity is most readily seen and experienced. Third, you can work with that group to show forth Christian love and give service. If you are willing to do that, you will find God to be with you, and you will be overwhelmed at the power with which he works both in you and in others whom he will be drawing to faith.
But perhaps you are not a part of that family, the family of God, in the first place. You may be a Baptist, a Presbyterian, a Roman Catholic, a Pentecostal. But you have never been born into God’s family. If so, do not let pride of denomination (or of anything else) keep you from the reality of Christianity. Run to Jesus and enter in through him, the only true door.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2008). John 12–21 (pp. 290–292). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 1327–1332). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.