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Jesus' Final Prayer -- What Christian Unity Really Means (John 17:13-26)

Jesus wants us to experience the joy of His unity with the Father.


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for John 17:13-26

In this "High Priestly Prayer", Jesus offers His ultimate prayer for us -- that we would be so unified with God the Father (experiencing that joy, love, and glory for ourselves) that we could not help but be united with other like-minded Christians, continuously focused on the mission Jesus left to us, guarding against the ills and falsehoods of the world.

Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. (17:17)


Getting Started: Things to Think About

The Experience of Unity in Diversity

This week's passage focuses on the increasing-in-importance idea of unity in diversity. Most of the articles I cite this week are going to highlight ethnic diversity (which, for reasons I hope will be made clear, is a very big deal). However, don't overlook other areas of diversity which also require effort to find unity within -- age, gender, income, hometown, political party, occupation, etc. Jesus calls on Christians to be united in His truth, no matter what they think divides them.


Think about a time you were a part of a diverse group -- maybe an athletic team, a group for a class project, a cohort at work, a committee at a church -- where it really "worked". If you've experienced it, you know what I'm talking about. All of the perspectives, all of the skills, all of the energy, it all gelled together into an unexpectedly effective and cohesive engine of success. You probably had to overcome a few hiccups and hurt feelings, but in the end (to use a cliche), the whole was greater than the sum of the parts.


With that in mind, here are some questions to consider:

  • What kept the group unified?

  • How did the group overcome the difficulties of diversity?

  • How did the diversity improve the group?

  • What did the group gel around?

You could also push this topic in a different direction --

  • When did the diversity present challenges you could not overcome?


I love talking to people who think differently than I do. I love working with people who have skills that I don't have. I try to pay close attention to people whose needs are different from my own. But let's be honest -- it's "easier" to work with people who are like you. [Want to demonstrate this quickly? Put two right-handed people next to each other with pen-and-paper, and then put a right-handed person next to a left-handed one. Which pair has an easier time taking notes?]


We all know that churches in America are some of the least-diverse groups we have. (And ethnic diversity always gets the headlines here: Most Pastors See Racial Diversity in the Church as a Goal but Not Reality - Lifeway Research)


If you want to make this part of the discussion, it would be something like "how would you compare your experiences with diversity in those situations with your experiences in your church?" This big challenge here is the number of churches and how easy it is to move from church to church. Having trouble finding unity in this church? Just try another church where it seems like the members are more like you.


Here's where I'm hoping we can take our discussion, whether it's at the beginning or end of group time: Christians have the most unifying influence in all of human history: the Holy Spirit. What unites us with all other Christians is far greater than what divides us.

There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope at your calling— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Eph 4:5-6)

We should be challenged to come away from this lesson with a commitment to focus on what unites us with other Christians -- our salvation in Jesus Christ and our mission for Jesus Christ. When we do so, we will find ourselves drawn to other born-again Christians and the kinds of behaviors that highlight and promote our joint mission on earth.



Potential Side Topic: But Wait, What About All of These Church Debates??

This topic is guaranteed to come up: if unity is so important, then why are there so many churches and why can't any of them get along?


*sigh*


So here's the thing -- we don't believe in "unity at all costs" because Jesus doesn't believe that. You know from recent headlines that the United Methodist Church tried that, and now they have bishops teaching that Jesus isn't the only way to be saved. Jesus isn't primarily talking about our unity with one another as much as He is our unity with God. When we are united rightly with God, we will be united rightly with one another.


Our unity around the "one faith" means that there is one faith. One true faith. That one true faith cannot be compromised. If you were to have this discussion, you would have to ask something like What are the non-negotiables of the one true faith? Certainly, we can say salvation alone by faith alone in Christ alone. Great. But what about the Bible? What about "sacraments"? What about church structure? We believe that we share enough of that one true faith with (for example) Thomson Presbyterian and Thomson Methodist (but not the Kingdom Hall) that we gladly partner with them for Easter Sunrise and National Day of Prayer. But we have enough major differences of biblical application that we would not propose a church merger with them.


And that's the sneaky-difficult area of diversity Jesus still wants us to see that there is unity. What does unity for Christians look like across denominations? If you have friends in other churches who would never in a million years join your church, then you know that Christians can have relationships across denominations 😊. That's a first step toward experiencing the unity Jesus desires for us.


This Week's Big Idea: Changes in American Christianity

Let me chase the unity rabbit trail for a bit. In this week's passage, Jesus prays for our unity, namely that our unity with God would build our unity with other believers.


Whether or not you do anything else with the following topic, at some point during your group time, you should ask, "Why would Jesus think our unity so important that He would pray for it?"


Hopefully, you'll have a lot of ideas there. Life is hard. The world is hard. We need a safe place where we will be loved and encouraged. But wow, Jesus is talking about a lot more than if we can stop fighting about music choices. Jesus isn't just talking about unity within your church family -- He's talking about unity between all Christians everywhere!


It had better not sound too crazy. One, Jesus said it, so it must be our goal. But two, American Christianity is about to get a lot more diverse. (And I think in the best kind of way.)


You might remember the big Pew Research report from 2018 that American Christians would almost certainly become a minority within 50 years. Plenty of Christian leaders have used it to promote the urgency of our evangelistic mission.

You're welcome to read the entire report, of course:


But I want to go a different direction with that information based on this week's passage. Recently, I've read some articles suggesting that Pew Research didn't take immigration into enough account with their numbers. I'll link you to one representative article that summarizes what I mean:

Global Christianity is growing -- particularly in the "Global South":

By 2050, Africa will be home to almost 1.3 billion Christians, while Latin America (686 million) and Asia (560 million) will both have more than Europe (497 million) and North America (276 million).

As long as America continues to admit immigrants (and let's just say that I'm a big fan of the sonnet on our Statue of Liberty, "The New Colossus"), they will bring with them their Christianity -- often a conservative, evangelical Christianity. The Southern Baptist Convention, for one, has recognized the power of this trend:


In this week's passage, Jesus says something very applicable to this scenario:

May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me. (17:21)

In other words, our unity in the midst of our diversity demonstrates to the world that God is at work among us. The more diverse the group who is united in Christ, the more glory God receives.


The following article, written by an Anglican, points out that global Christianity tends to be conservative and "communitarian". (She uses it as a warning to her progressive peers, that they had better start thinking about the bigger picture.)

Her main conclusion is that the future of Christianity in America is going to be shaped by this generation of immigrants (and their children), and it's going to be very multi-ethnic.


What do you think about that?


Pitfalls and Failures

What's a more important unifying force: the color of our skin, our musical preferences, or our core beliefs about salvation and the Bible? Our inability to set right priorities has led to disastrous consequences. Let me highlight two significantly flawed pursuits happening now among people who call themselves "Christian" in our country:


1. Unity through Rejecting Truth

This is what's happening in the more liberal branches of American Christianity. "Let's bring everyone in under our umbrella regardless of truth. You don't believe what the Bible teaches? Don't worry about it, you're welcome to be a part of our church." I've previously discussed how self-destructive and God-dishonoring that approach is.


2. Unity through Rejecting Diversity

This is the perspective being spouted by the group I guess we're labeling "White Christian Nationalists". "If you don't look like us, we don't want you here. Our church is going to be unified because we're going to prevent anyone who doesn't have a northern European heritage from living nearby." I don't even know what to say about this.


I just want us to be aware that these tendencies are out there, and there may be people we know who fall into them.

 

Where We Are in John

Here's the Visual Bible chapter:

Jesus' "Farewell Discourse" ended in chapter 16. Chapter 17 is often called the "High Priestly Prayer". You can tell from the video that it only takes a few minutes to read out loud. I think you would be well-served by having someone read the whole thing. The prayer itself is such an amazing thing to hear:

  1. Jesus prays about His mission (17:1-5)

  2. Jesus prays for the disciples (17:6-19)

  3. Jesus prays for all future believers (17:20-26)

(Verses 6-8 fit in both sections.)


Now that Jesus has come to the end of His earthly ministry, He asks God to bring Him all the way through it. He asks that God keep the disciples safe. And He asks that God keep all disciples focused on continuing this mission. At the end of this week's lesson, you'll want to go back through this prayer with your group and evaluate "how you're doing" with what Jesus prayed for.

 

Part 1: Sanctified by God's Truth (John 17:13-19)

13 Now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy completed in them. 14 I have given them your word. The world hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 15 I am not praying that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. 19 I sanctify myself for them, so that they also may be sanctified by the truth.

Let's start with this: God the Son doesn't need to pray out loud to God the Father. Why does He? Well, verse 13 clearly says that it's for our benefit. What benefit is that?


Verses 14-16 make up one unit (it's called an inclusio -- see the similarities between verses 14 and 16), and this is probably where the bulk of your discussion will happen. You all know the phrase "in the world but not of the world" (I understand that our church paid such close attention to this verse that they called themselves "The First Baptist Church in Thomson" not "The First Baptist Church of Thomson").


What does that phrase mean?


"In the world" seems pretty simple. This is where we live. "Not of the world" also seems pretty simple. This world is not our home.


However, a lot of Christians have taken this verse to mean that we shouldn't have anything to do with the world. And that's most certainly not what Jesus means. I like the way this article describes it -- we aren't of the world, but we are sent into it:

Let me cite my Klink commentary at length here:

While this [world] is not their eternal home, it is the location of their mission, the place where God is still at work through them. The desire of Christians to remove themselves from the world is actually out of step with the purposes and plan of God. The church is neither to withdraw from the world nor partake in it.

Perhaps it would be easier to translate "not of the world" as "do not belong to the world". Jesus did not belong to the world, but this is where God sent Him on His mission; likewise, we are now sent to continue that mission. Salvation was accomplished in Jesus' earthly lifetime, but the mission to take that good news to everyone continues.


There's so much amazing stuff in these verses -- I hate to skip the "wow" of verse 15. Note that God's ability to remove us from the world is not in question. Nor is His ability to protect us from any harm. Rather, Jesus specifically asks for our protection from "the evil" (which is almost certainly to be personified -- "The Evil One", i.e., Satan, "the ruler of this world" [12:31, 14:30-31, 16:8-11]). Do you see the difference between Jesus asking for us to be "protected from evil" and "protected from Satan"? We can't truly be in the world and never experience effects of the fall, and so Jesus doesn't ask that. But we are no match for Satan -- we need God's intervention for protection from that enemy. Our souls are secured against Satan's attacks.


Verses 17-19 form another inclusio which clearly explains our relationship with the world. We are sent into the world, but we are to remain sanctified. A lot of study materials emphasize the "set apart" meaning of "sanctified" -- as in, we are to remain set apart from the ways of thinking and the lifestyles of the world. And that's true! But the word "sanctified" also means "dedicated to a task". And verse 18 is about our task of being sent into the world. So I think we need to emphasize both aspects of the word "sanctify":

  • keep us set apart from the ways of thinking of the world

  • keep us dedicated to our mission into the world

What are we sent into the world to do? What can distract us from that mission?


Now we need to focus on the means Jesus offers for our sanctification: "the truth". If you had the discussion above about why Christians have a hard time being unified, this helps explain that. What is "the truth"? Well, yes, obviously it is "Your word", but what does that mean? As Baptists, we believe that Jesus is talking about the Bible. The Holy Spirit spoke to the prophets in Old Testament times, and He spoke to the disciples after Pentecost, and He superintended the early church to gather those writings into a single source that would be our guide (as illuminated by the Spirit) until Jesus returns. Anyone who wants to take away from or add to the Bible is violating Jesus' foundational prayer for all Christians. (And that's a line that plenty of professing Christians seem willing to cross these days.) But that doesn't help us agree on how the Bible is to be interpreted and applied.


And so this is the true power of this prayer -- Jesus prays to the Father that He might help us "be sanctified by" this truth, that we would understand what it means for our lives and our mission. How much do we pray individually that God would help us understand what the Bible means?


Oh yeah, this is just the first part of the lesson! You could spend all day in these verses.

 

Part 2: United by God's Love (John 17:20-23)

20 “I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in me through their word. 21 May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me. 22 I have given them the glory you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. 23 I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me.

And then there's this beautiful transition. Jesus knows that His disciples will fulfill their mission, and the church will outlive them. (Aside: how do you think that must have made the disciples feel?) One day, a future church will pick up a copy of these words (which Jesus knows will be preserved and passed down), and they will face a different kind of challenge -- the same mission, but a new world.


What is Jesus' primary prayer for us? It's for our unity. Think about that. Of all the things Jesus could have prayed for us, He started with (and repeated!) our unity. How are we doing with that?


So this begs two questions (that you may have already discussed):

  • What kind of unity is Jesus talking about?

  • Why is this unity so important?

It's the kind of unity that results from all believers being in God the same way Jesus was in God while He was on His mission into the world. What that means with respect to unity is pretty simple: if we are all in God, and there's only one God... But what does that mean with respect to us?


What conclusions did your group come to when you studied chapter 15 ("the vine and the branches")? Jesus and the Spirit Are Our Paracletes -- a study of John 14:15-29 The way that we are "in God" and God is "in us" is what Jesus is talking about here. In other words, we are to pursue unity with God first. Our unity with other Christians comes as a function of our unity with God. In fact, pursuing unity with other Christians independently of our personal relationship with God is contrary to what Jesus prays for us.


[And this is where Christian get in trouble with this verse. We think of Christian unity as itself an end to pursue. "It doesn't matter what that church believes; I need to be unified with them." No, we are to pursue the kind of unity that God the Son had with God the Father -- all other kinds of unity must proceed from that.]


When we were saved, God could have immediately taken us out of the world (as Jesus prayed a few verses ago), but He didn't. He left us here for a purpose. And I believe that Jesus is here focusing on that unity of purpose. Remember how Jesus prayed in the garden "not My will but Yours"? He and the Father had a unity of purpose about Jesus' mission. And that unity of purpose resulted in the availability of salvation to all people.


I believe that Christians can have a unity of purpose. But we have to agree on what that purpose is. Baptists believe our purpose is the Great Commission:

18 Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28)

What parallels do you see between these verses in Matthew 28 and John 17?


The thing to appreciate is that some churches don't believe that Great Commission is our primary purpose for being. As you can imagine, unity and cooperation between churches who don't agree on their purpose is nigh impossible. That's why Jesus prays for our unity of purpose.


But realize that Jesus isn't only concerned with "results" and "duty" -- there's something infinitely beautiful about the Trinity -- that perfect unity of love and purpose. And when Christians are able to display that same kind of unity to the world, the world gets a glimpse of the love that God has for them.


When we've talked about passages on marriage, I always mention Tim Keller's amazing book, The Meaning of Marriage. He says that when husbands and wives love each other sacrificially in the way described in the Bible, it's not only great for that marriage, it also shows the world the kind of sacrificial love God has for everyone. That's what Jesus is talking about here. When we overcome our differences to unite behind God's purpose for leaving us on earth, Christians "help" the Holy Spirit convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment (see last week). Conversely, when we bicker and fight with one another, Christians "help" Satan convince people that they should want nothing to do with God or the church.

 

Part 3: Gathered into God's Glorious Presence (John 17:24-26)

24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, so that they will see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the world’s foundation. 25 Righteous Father, the world has not known you. However, I have known you, and they have known that you sent me. 26 I made your name known to them and will continue to make it known, so that the love you have loved me with may be in them and I may be in them.”

Now things get a little awkward (for modern Americans who have been beaten down by social media). This is not the kind of prayer we hear in church.


And for good reason!


While Jesus wants us to experience the relationship He has with the Father, we will never "be" Jesus. Jesus is God the Son, and this is His prayer (not a "model" prayer).


So let's step back to the opening verses of the prayer:

Jesus spoke these things, looked up to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you gave him authority over all people, so that he may give eternal life to everyone you have given him. 3 This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and the one you have sent —Jesus Christ. 4 I have glorified you on the earth by completing the work you gave me to do. 5 Now, Father, glorify me in your presence with that glory I had with you before the world existed.

There's a lot of glory going on in here. What does Jesus mean by "glory"?


I don't think we could ever really explain this. Anything we say will fall short of what Jesus means. I think we could only experience it. Let me put it this way:

  • Worship is whatever our response would be when put in the presence of God

  • Glory is whatever we would experience of God when in His presence

Light? Awe? Power? Fear? Yes. Sure. Whatever we would experience while in the presence of God, that's the "glory" Jesus speaks of here. In this way, Jesus is Himself quite literally the glory of God -- He is God in the flesh. And now that glory is passed on to us (v. 22), not for our personal benefit but for our joy. Remember how I said that certain ones in Pentecostal traditions were wrong for thinking that the Spirit was a force to be used rather than a Person to know? That similarly applies here. God's glory is not made available to us for our glory; it's because Jesus wants us to have the experience of love and joy with God the Father that He has.


You see, this is not a humble brag from Jesus. This is pure truth. There is nothing greater in the universe than an unbroken relationship with God the Father. Jesus was willing to suffer death and hell so we could have that.


And when we work toward God's mission on earth, we "bring" God even more glory by making His glory more manifest in our world.


So, go back through this prayer. What is Jesus saying to be the most important things in the Christian life? Are we prioritizing those things?

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