An excellent book has been produced on this topic, by Ian Johnson and Lauston Stephens, called Our Oneness in Christ. Below is an excerpt by Lauston Stephens.
If you know you are about to undergo an agonizing and humiliating ordeal that will end your life, you measure your words carefully. You do not waste time and energy on passing concerns, but you choose what matters most and what will endure. In as much as He was human, we can expect the same of Christ. In as much as He is God, we expect Him to choose such an occasion to emphasize those things with which we most need to be impressed.
What is referred to as the high priestly prayer of Christ in the seventeenth chapter of the gospel of John takes place just before He goes to Gethsemane. This is the last soliloquy that our Savior offers just before the beginning of his sufferings for us. Of our Lord's many prayers, it is one of the very few for which the content is given to us. If you accept the witness of the Gospel, there can be no question that this prayer is of the highest importance to our Lord and that we should take it to heart.
Throughout the prayer, there is interwoven petition on Christ's part for Himself as He prepares for the suffering ahead. Yet most of the content is for His immediate disciples and, ultimately, for us. Furthermore, since He endured the cross for our sake, even the petitions for Himself are for our benefit, so we might say the entire prayer is for us. Examine the specific petitions our Savior voices for us, beginning with verse 9:
I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours. And all Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine, and I am glorified in them. Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We [are]. While I was with them in the world, I kept them in Your name. Those whom You gave Me I have kept; and none of them is lost except the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. But now I come to You, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth. I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, [are] in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me. And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare [it], that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them. (John 17:9-26 NKJV)
There are several requests voiced here to the Father. We need to look at each of them and to consider how important it is to the life of the Church. Then we need to examine the value we place on them.
In 1972, after twenty seven years of negotiations, the Congregational Church in England and Wales merged with the Presbyterian Church of England, forming the United Reformed Church. In the process, less than 20 percent of the Congregationalists exercised their right to vote on the issue.(1) Why? Is it safe to assume that less than one in five voted because this expression of church unity did not really affect them in their personal day to day lives? How much do we value oneness in the Church? Do we pursue a oneness that does, in fact, impact our day to day lives? Reflect on the different petitions in Christ's high priestly prayer and reflect on how important each one is to you.
I pray for them
How important is it to us that Jesus prayed for us? We believe that the all-powerful, all-knowing, omnipresent, eternal Creator and King of the universe hears and answers prayer. We know that some prayers may be answered with a "Wait."(2) Some may be denied because they are contrary to God's will(3) or are asked with wrong motives(4) or without true faith.(5) But we have total confidence in the prayers of Jesus. He was without sin, therefore if He prayed for us, it was not contrary to the Father's will, it was not with wrong motives and it was with complete faith. We take joy and comfort in the realization that our Savior prayed for us. Of all the prayers that were ever prayed for you, you can be certain that the prayers of Jesus were heard and were or will be answered. That our Lord continues to make intercession for us is integral to the Christian faith. (6)
...keep through Your name those whom You have given Me
How important is it to us that the Father keeps us? It is extreme reassurance to us to know that those that come to God will not be cast out.(7) "And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand."(8) What can our faith be if we have no assurance that our God will keep us?
...that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves
How important is joy to a Christian? It is one of the dimensions of the kingdom of God.(9) It is fruit of the work of God's Holy Spirit in our lives.(10) It was for joy that Christ went to the cross.(11) It is reward to look forward to in heaven.(12) Joy sustains us in great affliction in this world.(13) Remove the words, "joy" and "rejoice" from hymns, songs and choruses and see what kind of worship and church life you have left if you doubt the great value joy is to us.
I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one
We have already reflected on the importance of being kept by God, but this repetition emphasizes the fact that we remain in a world with evil, persecution, affliction, suffering, sickness and death. A curious phenomenon was not rare in the 1970's, perhaps in the wake of the movie, The Exorcist. People who had lived their lives without regard for God, turned to Him and, in the process, became more aware and understanding of the world of the spirit. They then developed a fear that the devil or a demon would take possession of them. While they lived for themselves and in the world of their reason and senses, they gave no thought to such a prospect, but after beginning a journey of discipleship, following Jesus, some fell pray to a fear of demonic possession. The question, "If you were never possessed when living for yourself, what reason would there be for becoming possessed now?" would show the irrational nature of such fears. But it is the promise of God to keep us that brings peace to the heart.(14) It is important to us to know that God protects his people(15) and that he is with them in the midst of danger and suffering.(16) It is inherent to Christianity that God keeps us in all the trials of life.
Sanctify them by Your truth
There is no true Christianity without a message and practice of being set apart to God. The way in which we may be set apart can vary greatly. Some were set apart from birth.(17) Others underwent radical changes in their lives.(18) Some were simply kept from the evils of their day.(19) The way in which each of us is set apart for Christ is important to us and valued by us, but the fact that we are all to be set apart in some way is inherent to Christianity.
...that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am
To be reunited with our God and Savior at his return has been the "blessed hope" of Christians since the first century.(20) Some have wavered in faith on this point, but those that retain faith in Christ desire his presence both in this world and the next. We want Him to be with us where we are and for us to be with Him where he is. "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable."(21) Christianity rests on the resurrection of our Savior and our eventual reunion with Him.
...that they may behold My glory which You have given Me
We worship our God. We are in awe of his holiness and power and greatness. We sense that if we could see our Lord and look on his face, we could better grasp who He is and we could worship Him more fully. Though we are told no man can see God and live,(22) yet the worshipping heart still longs to behold our God.
...that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them
God is Love. It is impossible for us to be Christian, to follow Christ, without love. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves. The true love that is to be found in us conflicts with our own self interest. It is integral to the Christian faith that we have the love of God, indeed, that God Himself indwells us.
...that they may be one as We [are]... also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, [are] in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me... that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.
There are points here which bear examining and understanding: "You, Father, are in Me, and I in You," and "I in them and You in Me," and what it means to be perfect in one and "as We are one." For now, we are not attempting to understand these things but just to weigh how important it is to us that we be one.
All the other petitions our Lord makes on our behalf we have considered and find them to be integral to the Christian faith. We do not embrace a faith wherein our Lord does not make intercession for us. We will not attempt to share faith in an uncaring God. We do not embrace a faith wherein our Savior will not keep us. We will not attempt to share an orphan faith. We do not embrace a faith wherein there is no joy. We will not attempt to share a joyless faith. We do not embrace a faith wherein we are not set apart for our God. We will not attempt to share a faith that does not change lives. We do not embrace a faith wherein our God remains distant from us. We will not attempt to help others to follow God from a distance. We do not embrace a faith in a God with no glory. We will not attempt to share faith in a fallible God. We do not embrace a loveless faith. We will not attempt to share faith without love.
It must be asked, then, do we prize the oneness of our Lord's Church or do we embrace a divided faith? Do we share a faith that inclines or even requires others to embrace division among God's people? If all those other things that Christ desired for us and prayed for: love and security and joy and holiness and glory and closeness with God are essential components of the Christian faith, how can oneness be optional?
We do not all have the same sense of priority for love or joy or holiness or any of the things that Christ stressed in his great prayer. Neither do we all have the same sense of priority for the oneness of the Church. If we did, there might be no need for a call to its pursuit. But there is a need.
Some sincere Christians will counter the opening point that a prayer just before death must be given singular attention. They may well argue that most everyone has a few last words, but only Christ had anything to say after his death. They will claim that the great commission is the most important thing that Jesus said because it is unique in human history. So it is, but we are not excused from giving heed to the heart cry of our Lord. We can not focus on building one church of believers with callous disregard for other true believers in our community. The end that Christ mentions in his prayer for oneness is, "that the world may believe," "that the world may know." We can not hide in the business of evangelism, or feeding the hungry, or healing the sick, to avoid what is required of us to pursue and realize the oneness of Christ's Church.
Perhaps those English Congregationalists referred to above understood that denominational union is not a full or adequate expression of the oneness of the Church. Perhaps only one in five voted on the subject, not because they didn't care, but because they knew that it was neither a guarantee nor a complete expression of unity. Yet perhaps they reflect the view of the Church at large. Are four out of five willing to sit in the pew and wait for it to be announced that the Church of Jesus Christ has realized the oneness for which our Savior prayed, or will our hearts desire those things that our Lord desires? Will we, will you, dear reader, pursue the oneness of the Body of Christ?
Further reading toward oneness in Christ
Biographical sketch of the author
on God Reaching Out
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