The United Church of Christ (John 17:20-21)
After a meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the World Council of Churches said, “Because Christians cannot claim to have a monopoly of truth, we need to meet men of other faiths and ideologies as part of our trust in and obedience to the promise of Christ.”
There is throughout the world an ecumenical movement, a desire for Christian denominations to form one large denomination. The advocates of such a union point to this morning’s text to establish the need for what some have called a “unichurch.” But we need to contemplate if that’s really what Jesus meant when he prayed for the unity of believers.
Jesus does want his disciples to be one, and he prays for that in this morning’s text. We often find the admonition for Christian unity in the New Testament. “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the nae of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor 1:10). “There is one body” (Eph 4:4). “I implore Euodia and I implore Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord” (Phil 4:2).
This morning, we want to focus on Jesus’ prayer for the unity of believers.
Desire for Unity, vv 20-21
“I do not pray for [the apostles] alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one.”
Jesus was desperately concerning about the church’s unity. He prayed this just hours before his crucifixion. Jesus knew that in mere moments he would be betrayed, arrested, unfairly tried, beaten, mocked, and crucified. This knowledge took a toll on Jesus. In the Garden, Jesus told his disciples, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death” (Matt 26:38). “And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Lk 22:44). Even in such great agony, Jesus mustered the strength to pray for the church and specifically that she would be unified.
Should we not desire the unity for the church, too? We honor the dying wish of those we love—If your spouse were about to die, called you to her side, and asked for something special at her funeral or asked that you take care of her children, you’d give everything you had to fulfill that wish. Why not do the same for Jesus? Why not give everything we have to fulfill his dying wish that his church be unified?
How is this unity destroyed?
This unity is destroyed through denominationalism.
1 Corinthians 1:11-13. The Corinthian Christians followed different leaders, and they were condemned for it. We do not need to follow the teachings of men but the teachings of Christ.
This unity is destroyed through favoritism.
The early church struggled with favoritism. In Corinth, the rich refused to associate with the poor (1 Cor 11:18-23). James 2:1-4.
Just as the early church could not play favorites, neither can we. There isn’t anything wrong with having cliques or having special friends. But when we exclude people from our group, we play favorites and destroy the unity of the church.
Basis for Unity, v 21
The basis for the church’s unity is the relationship between the Father and the Son: “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.”
The Father and Son are one. “I and My Father are one” (Jn 10:30). “Though you do not believe Me, believe the works, that you may know and believe that the Father is in Me, an I in Him” (Jn 10:38). “Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works” (Jn 14:10). “Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are” (Jn 17:11).
In what ways are the Father and the Son one?
The Father and Son are one in essence.
The Father and Son are Deity, God. The Son “is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). “Image” means exact likeness or representation. The term was used for the emperor’s head on a coin; it looked just like the emperor.
The Father and the Son are one in purpose.
The Father desires to save mankind, and Jesus came into the world to make it possible for man to be saved.
The Father and the Son are one in teaching.
What Jesus spoke came, not from himself, but directly from the Father. “My doctrine is not Mine, but His who sent Me” (Jn 7:16).
The Father and Son are one in glory.
“And now, O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was” (Jn 17:5). All the glory and splendor of the Father belongs to the Son, as well.
Christians need to be one in the same ways:
- We are one in essence—we are all alike children of God, born of water and the Spirit.
- We are one in purpose—to glorify God and help our fellow man come to know God.
- We are one in teaching—we speak the same thing.
- We are one in glory—we shall all share in the same glory when Jesus is revealed from heaven.
The Need for Unity, v 21
“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.”
The reason that Jesus wanted the church to be unified was so that the world would know that he had been sent from the Father.
Pick up any book advocating atheism, and one reason for unbelief will be the various denominations. They say, “How can there be a God with all this division? If there were a God, he would have made things plainer, and all this division wouldn’t exist.”
We are to be a city set on a hill (Matt 5:14). But can we truly be a city set on a hill with all the division in the world? We need to strive for the unity of God’s people.
How can we strive for the unity for which Jesus here prays?
We could begin a dialogue with those in error.
We would not at all want to compromise the truth for unity. But we would want to seek to come to the same understanding of Scripture: “If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God” (1 Pet 4:11).
We can accept people into our clique.
The Christians in Corinth were condemned, not because they had cliques but because they refused to accept others in their cliques. We dare not repeat that same error.
We need to strive for the unity of the church.
God gave some “to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers . . . till we all come to the unity of the faith” (Eph 4:11-13). The leaders of the church are to help us be a unified body. But you, all of you, have a role to play in the unification of the church. But you can’t help the church be unified if you aren’t a member. Do you need to come this morning and become a member of the church?
This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Alum Creek church of Christ in Alum Creek, West Virginia.