Praying for Harmony

John 17:1-26

Since January, we’ve been learning valuable lessons about prayer from the life and teaching of Christ. In this series, we have defined prayer in its most basic, essential sense as “talking deliberately to God,” and we’ve been encouraged to make talking deliberately to God a more meaningful, purposeful, and regular practice in our lives as we follow Christ. It is my prayer that your prayer has become more meaningful, purposeful, and regular as, together, we have learned the following eight truths about prayer:

  • Prayer held a prominent place in the life and teaching of Christ.
  • We should avoid the pitfall of praying to gain attention from God or other people.
  • When we pray, we should focus on those things which matter most to God.
  • We should preserver in prayer so that our hearts adapt more closely to God’s desires.
  • Christ fully authorizes our prayers, especially when they focus on gospel endeavors.
  • We enjoy confidence in prayer when our prayers are rooted in clear Bible teaching.
  • We should come to God in prayer with an attitude of undeserving humility not pride.
  • We should pray for more ministry participants while being active in ministry ourselves.

Which of these lessons have been most inspiring and motivating to you? Which has sparked the best Life Group discussions, and which has helped you most in taking your next steps in following Christ? Today we will consider our ninth and final truth in this series:

  • We should pray for unity in Christian relationships while pursuing unity ourselves.

The concept of “unity” can be both refreshing and unsettling. By refreshing, I mean that the idea in theory sounds incredibly desirable. But by unsettling, I mean that the idea of unity in theory can seem risky and even wrong – if achieving unity requires open-ended, unrestrained tolerance without appropriate prerequisites.

So, what is Christian unity, and what does it mean to experience unity as a follower of Christ? The word Christ uses when he speaks about unity in this prayer of John 17 is the word “one” or “oneness.” By “one” or “oneness,” he envisions people having a shared experience due to a shared belief and purpose.

  • This experience first includes a shared belief, which is faith in the gospel. These are people who have acknowledged their sinfulness and turned away from their sin and wrong religious beliefs to trust in Christ alone as God and Savior.
  • This experience also includes a shared mission. This mission consists both of increasing, progressive obedience and submission to Christ and of helping others come know and follow Christ, as well.

In both these aspects of Christian unity, I’ve used the word “shared” to emphasize that followers of Christ are together in our faith and together in our mission. This means that we not only agree together but we also act together. The key word, then, is “shared” or “together,” and this unity – though worldwide in theory – finds its best, most compelling, most biblical experience and expression, by God’s design, in the community of a church.

In his excellent book, The Compelling Community, Jamie Dunlop describes Christian unity in this helpful way:

“A togetherness and commitment we experience that transcends all natural bonds because of our commonality in Jesus Christ.” (Jamie Dunlop, The Compelling Community)

So then, when we speak about unity as followers of Christ we are speaking of unity among genuine followers of Christ. By saying “among,” I am emphasizing two important factors then. The first is that the unity Christ has in mind is not open-ended but is governed by the gospel. It is exclusive because it limits this experience and expression of unity to people who are born again and have followed Christ by faith.

How can we identify such people? They are people who have given an open, public testimony of faith in Christ and have announced their faith through baptism by immersion, as the NT demonstrates. Such people have also joined themselves to a functioning, gathered church family who, together, is both pursuing increased, progressive obedience and submission to Christ and also actively helping others come know and follow Christ.

And this is a second in Christian unity. Not only is such unity limited to committed followers of Christ, but it includes actual personal cooperation not just intellectual agreement or emotional tolerance. It requires both agreement on the gospel (the shared belief) and activity for the gospel (the shared mission).

If you have believed on Christ alone as your God and Savior (announcing your faith through baptism as Christ commands and joining with a faithful, Bible teaching church as the NT demonstrates), then this message is for you. If not, then let me encourage you to take these initial steps to become a part of what Christ prayed about in his dying moments. This can be a message for you as well!

With these preliminary remarks in mind, let’s remind ourselves of the lesson we are learning today from this occasion of prayer in the life of Christ: we should pray for unity in Christian relationships while pursuing unity ourselves. Are you praying for and working for unity within your church?

Background. In John 17, we hear Christ’s next-to-last formal prayer before his crucifixion. It seems he prayed this aloud in the presence of his eleven disciples (Judas has already went out to betray him), and he prayed this before they walked through the Kidron Valley to the olive grove, where he would pray again. During the later prayer, not John 17, Christ sweat drops of blood, the disciples fell asleep, and Judas came to betray him.

This prayer follows a three-part progression, one which is easy to observe as you read and study the Bible yourself. First, Christ prayed for himself (John 17:1-5). Second, he prayed for his original eleven disciples (John 17:6-19). Third, he prayed for all future disciples, people like you and me who would follow him in the future (John 17:20-26). In this sermon, we’ll take a brief look at each section of this prayer, then we’ll conclude by making seven observations about the nature and value of biblical, Christ-centered unity in the church. Along the way, we should ask ourselves two questions.

  • Am I a genuine follower of Christ who can enjoy this unity with other believers in the church? If no, then I invite you to turn to Christ in faith today.
  • If yes, then are you praying for and working towards the unity which Christ requested in his dying prayer? If no, then what is the next step you must take to do so?

Christ prays for his unity with the Father.

In the opening part of his prayer, Christ focused first upon his own relationship with God the Father (John 17:1-5). In doing so, he focused on the following thoughts:

  • He recognized that the moment of his greatest suffering and crucifixion had arrived.
  • He acknowledged that through this experience, both his identity and mission as God and Savior would be made clear.
  • He also acknowledged that because of this experience, sinful people like you and me would be able to gain, through faith, a close relationship with God forever.

To do what he had come to do – to die this death that he was about to die – Christ, who is God, had to submit himself to the Father, who is God as well and therefore his equal. In his suffering, Christ was in perfect harmony and unity with God the Father. Both agreed for this to happen, and Christ accepted that to make faith, salvation, and gospel unity possible for selfish, sinful people like us, he must and would die. Both submission and sacrifice would be needed.

Though this goes without saying within the Godhead, since the Father, Son, and Sprit exist in perfect cooperation, fellowship, and unity with one another, it must be stated. For it is this kind of unity which brought about our salvation and brings us together as a church. It is also the kind of unity – the sacrificial, submitting kind – which makes genuine unity within a church possible.

He prays for the unity of his disciples.

After deliberately embracing his mission and purpose in the moment, Christ turned his talk with God the Father to another focus, that of praying for the eleven men who had followed him most closely (John 17:6-19).

Who were these men? Mostly fishermen, many of them related as brothers or cousins, many of them from the same rural community. One of them, though, had collected taxes for the Roman government, something Jewish people considered traitorous. Another of them had been quite the opposite, a zealot, someone who engaged in militia-like guerilla activity against the Roman government.

Was this a unified group? No really. Past political differences aside, the NT records multiple occasions of these men arguing with each other about who would be the greatest (Mk 10:35-44; Lk 22:24-30). On other occasions, they argued and debated over interpretations of Christ’s teaching, and they even disagreed with Christ on various occasions, such as when they rebuked him for speaking with children or urged him not to go to the cross. As time would show, these men would – at least for a brief while – back away from following Christ, making it seem as though they didn’t believe in him at all.

Christ had witnessed these disagreements, divisions, and difficulties first-hand, and yet he was resting the entire success of his divine mission upon them. Knowing their personal propensities and weaknesses and knowing the importance of their place in his divine mission, he prayed for them before he died with the following focus:

  • He acknowledged that God the Father had called them and given them to him. They were no mistake, no random assortment of people. These were the very men God the Father had intended for Christ to mentor, train, and send. Were they difficult to manage and surprisingly unstable? Often yes, but God was at work in their lives.
  • He acknowledged that they had believed the gospel, that Christ was indeed their God and Savior. By “they have kept your word” (17:6), he means that they had not only professed to believe in him but had followed through on their profession, which would include public testimony through baptism and continued steps of faith, obedience, and service after that.
  • He leaned heavily upon two things in this part of his prayer. First, that God would preserve their faith and enable them to persevere in faith long after he had (Christ) died and departed from them. Second, that the Word of God would anchor their faith and bring about ongoing change in their lives: “I have given them the words which you have given me” (17:8); “I have given them your Word” (17:14); “sanctify them by your truth, your Word is truth” (17:17); “that they also may be sanctified by the truth” (17:19).

Nestled in the center of this prayer is the heart and center of his concern – that these men “would be one” (17:11). He knew that the forces and pressures of this fallen and ungodly world – even Satan himself – would endeavor to distract and divide them from their faith and mission both of following Christ and of helping others do the same. And he knew that he would no longer be with them in person to correct their wrong behavior and ideas and to mediate their disagreements and disputes.

So, Christ prayed that God the Father would supernaturally intervene to preserve their unity in belief and mission and that the Word of God would be the means by which he would do so. If this would happen, if they would remain unified in their faith and mission, through the changing, keeping power of the Word of God at work in their lives, then Christ’s “joy would be fulfilled in them” (John 17:3). In other words, this is what would make Christ most happy and bring him most pleasure and delight for the suffering he was about to endure. The unified faith and service of his followers!

Paul echoed this prayerful desire when he said this to the church at Philippi:

Fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. (Phil 2:2)

From this corresponding statement by Paul to a local congregation, a church, we can see quite clearly that the kind of unity in gospel faith and mission activity that Christ so deeply desired for his original eleven disciples applies directly to the kind of gospel faith and mission activity that he so deeply desires to see worked out in groups of believers today, which the Bible call churches.

He prays for the unity of future disciples.

This leads to the third and final section of Christ’s prayer (John 17:20-26). We know this because of the clear and unmistakable transitional statement, in which he said:

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. (17:20-21)

From these words, we know that what Christ spoke to God about and so deeply desired from God for his original eleven closest followers, he also spoke to God about and deeply desired for you, if you have believed on him as God and Savior. The words “but also” connect his desire and prayer here to people in the future (“who will”) who would believe on Christ as God and Savior and submit themselves to obeying God’s Word as the original eleven disciples had done.

So, if we ended the message right here, we could conclude by encouraging ourselves to join Christ in praying for unity within our church family and to pursue such unity through the actions of our lives. But we will not conclude so quickly, though this is the central message of the prayer. We must look a little more closely at this prayer and make seven observations about the nature and value of biblical, Christ-centered unity in the church.

Our unity is Christ’s dying desire.

The timing of this prayer is significant. Besides Christ’s later, intense prayer for strength to go through with his suffering and the short prayers he cried out from the cross, this prayer in John 17 was Christ’s final, most formal prayer before the cross. If you knew that you were going to die within 24 hrs., what would your final prayer – your last, extended, deliberate conversation with God – be about? What would you focus on most earnestly?

Here we learn what Christ most deeply desired. What he desired for his life and death to accomplish is a request which we may reduce to one word – unity. Have you embraced this dying desire of Christ as your own, doing whatever you can to bring about more permeating and permanent unity of gospel faith and gospel service within your church? Such unity is not the duty of pastors only to fulfill, but of every church member in a gospel believing church. Such unity includes both believing and serving the gospel together. What are you doing to bring about gospel unity in faith and service in the church?

Our unity reveals the glory of God.

This is a profound reality, that God is most clearly seen and most clearly visible to our children, community, and world when we are unified in our faith and mission, both in our believing and doing for the gospel. In this prayer, Christ reveals that our unity as a church family is the crucial apologetic for and defense of the Christian faith. He said, “that they may be one as we are” (17:11). Did you catch that? Our unity in what we believe and in what we do together as a church family is the way that God intends to show the world what he is like.

I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. (Eph 4:1-6)

So, a unified church will show the world who observes it an accurate, compelling, refreshing, and true view of God. Said another way, what our children, community, and world need most is not an articulate, intelligent, logical, and rigorous defense of the Christian faith (though this is helpful). What is needed most is a unified church. What good is a faith, theology, and God if the group of people who represents that God are distracted and divided? How else will a good yet invisible God be seen by a watching world if the church they know best is disunified, distracted, and divided? A unified church in belief and mission is the greatest apologetic for the goodness and reality of God.

Our unity centers on Scripture.

As we observed earlier, Christ in this prayer relies heavily on the influence of the Word of God, trusting that the truth which he taught would be understood and passed down through his followers, from one generation to the next. As such, our unity does not come from other things, like shared culture, educational level, ethnicity, financial status, hobbies, interests, musical preferences, age and stage of life, career and profession, or any other social factors that bring people together.

The gospel sets aside all natural, normal “sorting” mechanisms that we rely upon as people to determine who we will talk to, befriend, spend time with, get into groups with, etc. As such, it forms a new group (called “a church”) which gathers together because of (a) a shared and declared faith in the gospel and (b) an ongoing commitment to keep on learning and obeying together whatever else Christ taught us. It is the gospel as the heart and foundation and the entirety of Scripture as the frame and structure which draws us together as a church.

This means that a church should avoid building unity around “other things” which we naturally unify around as people but should deliberately unify around the gospel and the teaching of Scripture. This means that we should resist the urge to look for a church or to conform our current church to our own personal set of preference and desires and should rejoice not only when God brings people who are “different” in other ways into our body, but when those differences make their way into the church.

Our unity calls for devoted love.

Such unity as a church body requires devoted love. Christ prayed for this kind of love to be experienced within the church as he concluded this prayer: “that the world may know that you … have loved them as you have loved me” (17:23); “… my glory …. for you loved me before the foundation of the world” (17:24); “that the love with which you loved me may be in them” (17:26).

This love in action (not just in affection or feeling) speaks of a committed, devoted love. A love which is committed to the end, one that doesn’t quit, one that remains faithful through blessing and hardship, good reputation and bad, through suffering and success. This is a love that perseveres through the many stages of church life. A love which is faithful and loyal to one another in the church through failures and successes, through times of doubt and times of courage. Just as Christ himself remained faithful to his original followers, just as Paul urged members of churches in the NT to remain lovingly faithful to one another, so we must do for one another today.

This love in action also means that we will love those with differences whom God brings into our church through the gospel. By “through the gospel,” I must remind us that by “differences” we do not include nonbelievers. We must love nonbelievers of course, but not as brothers and sisters in the family of God. As God places new members into our church through a shared and declared faith in Christ, we must not only accept their differences but lovingly embrace their differences as well.

The early believers had to face this as Gentile believers came into the church, which had begun in a Jewish context. Churches had to become very adept at knowing what Scripture clearly taught and being flexible on things of lesser or little importance. We know this to be true in marriages, right? The more things you require of your spouse, the harder it will be to enjoy a unified marriage. So, make gospel unity and Scriptural authority your baseline and be flexible from there! Learn to apologize and forgive easily and frequently. Believe the best in each other. This is what Christian love does. It does not exalt itself, but exalts Christ and the gospel, minimizing personal preferences which get in the way.

Our unity brings about sanctification.

As we submit ourselves to Scripture and commit ourselves to one another in love, we find that such a shared belief and behavior together has a “sanctifying” effect. Christ prayed:

Sanctify them by your truth. Your Word is truth … And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they may be sanctified by the truth. (17:17, 19)

To be “sanctified” here means to be set apart, dedicated to, and focused increasingly upon something to the exclusion of other possible priorities. In this case, our unity around the gospel and the Word as a church and our commitment to love one another on this basis will require us to focus less upon other things to focus more upon accommodating, accepting, and loving one another so that we can work together in our shared mission as a church.

Think about what Christ would have (or would not have) accomplished if he had remained in heaven as God. We would not have been saved and the world would not have had the opportunity to see and know the love of God. But Christ went into the world to live and die, bringing about indescribable inconvenience and change to his life to bring us into relationship with God.

As followers of Christ in the church, we must do the same and follow his example. We must allow ourselves to be “sanctified” by our shared beliefs and mission. We must resist the urge to hang out with, spend time with, gather with, worship with, serve with, etc. people (even believers) who are just like me. Instead, we should seek to be an intergenerational, multiethnic church with people who’ve come to Christ from all walks of life. This requires us to get out of our comfort zone with people who are different than us so that we can connect with people who may also become followers of Christ.

While age-segregated ministries have a place and a purpose sometimes, for instance, we must deliberately get out of our comfort zone to connect with, build relationships with, and get to know people who are different in Christ. This is why I love congregational worship services, because people who are quite different gather together. This is why I love how our Life Groups also form, gathering together people who are from different stages and backgrounds in life.

Our unity promotes endurance.

Through Christ’s prayer for unity within the church, we find an emphasis on endurance – on persisting in faith and persevering in mission. Of Christ, we hear him say, “I have finished the work…” (17:4). Of his original eleven disciples, we see, “keep through your name those whom you have given men” (17:11), “those whom you gave me I have kept” (17:12), “keep them from the Evil One” (17:15). Of future disciples like us, he prayed for the same things to be accomplished. This idea of endurance or perseverance permeates the NT and implies two things. (1) Not all who profess to believe on Christ will finish their life doing so, and (2) following Christ consists of many difficulties which will challenge the genuineness of a person’s profession.

So, over time, people who profess faith in Christ will have opportunities to fall away for various reasons and this falling away will manifest itself not only in a change of belief but in a withdrawal from a biblical church family. But the opposite is also true. People who persevere in unity of faith and mission with a gospel-preaching, Bible teaching church family to which they have committed themselves will have the opportunity to demonstrate the genuineness of their faith over time.

It is by committing ourselves to working out the unity of our faith as a church family that draws us closer together in Christ, and this deliberate drawing together promotes endurance because it enables us to work through and work out differences, difficulties, and divisions which may arise.

To this end, let me recommend a book to you called “Loving the Ones Who Drive You Crazy: Eight Truths for Pursuing Unity in Your Church” (by Jamie Dunlop). This is an excellent book to read (or listen to on audio). I highly recommend it and you may hear me mention it on occasion in the future. You might even want to get a copy to read and discuss with a friend in the church – or with someone you choose to befriend in the church.

Our unity encourages faith in the gospel.

Finally, the unity of a church in faith and mission has implications outside of fellowship. Notice how Christ envisioned the outcome of such unity:

“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.

From this we see that our unity will make our faith more compelling to nonbelievers and our mission more effective and fruitful in reaching nonbelievers for Christ. When nonbelievers witness followers of Christ, who themselves have many differences and who themselves face the same daily challenges of life as they do, working together in faith and mission as a unified family and church, then they will be more inclined to take our faith seriously and to consider following Christ as well. They will also see that the faith we share and – more importantly – the Christ we trust and serve is the one true Savior from God, for no other faith produces such unity among people. Unity within the church upholds the truth and uniqueness of the gospel. Disunity undermines it.

So, one of the most evangelistic, outreach-minded things you can do for Christ in response to his life and death for our sins is to work towards and pray for a growing, increasing unity within your own church family.

It is said that the influential church leader and reformer of Scotland in the 1500s, John Knox, had this chapter – John 17 – read to him daily in the weeks before he died. Perhaps it would be better if we would not wait until our final days to take this final prayer of Christ so seriously.

How should we respond to this message – to this final prayer of Christ? We should make the desire of Christ’s dying prayer our personal mission.

  • Belief on Christ as your God and Savior.
  • Declare your faith openly through baptism (if you have not done so already) and join yourself as a member to a gospel preaching, Bible teaching church.
  • Submit yourself to the leadership of that church as it applies and teaches the Word of God.
  • Sacrificially serve together in the mission of that church, setting personal priorities aside and working together to help people take their next steps in following Christ.

And of course, if we are indeed pursuing unity together, we must join Christ in praying for unity, too. We should pray for unity in Christian relationships while pursuing unity ourselves. This focus was the final and ultimate focus of Christ’s prayers during his earthly ministry, and this should be our focus as well, both in life and prayer.

Discussion Questions
  • What is one thing you have learned about prayer from the teachings of Jesus? 
  • How does sharing a purpose affect the harmony of a group? 
  • What are we saying about the sufficiency of the Gospel for life in Christ when we use other things to unify His people?
    • What are ways that Christians identify and unify themselves other the Gospel?
  • What part does baptism play in the unity of a church? 
    • With the understanding of the obligations we have to our fellow church family members, does the requirement for formal commitment to Christ and His church make sense? Are baptism and church membership meaningless formalities? 
    • What other groups or relationships require formal commitments in life? 
    • Why is commitment to and identification with a church necessary for being unified in the way that Christ prayed? 
  • Why was Jesus' followers' unity so important to him? 
    • If our unity is based on natural commonalities, how much is the Gospel put on display? 
  • How does a firm grasp on the Gospel in all of life enable our long-suffering in unity with those who are different than us? 
  • In what ways does God sanctify us in difficult unity as opposed to unity that comes easily? 
  • What is the danger of having so many options for a church? What is the danger of the ability to find a "customized" church experience? 
  • What did Jesus know about human nature that would have made this prayer so urgent for Him? 
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