Having prayed for his disciples, Jesus turns in these verses to pray for those who would believe in him through their message. Before we look at the burden of Jesus’ prayer for us, two points are worth noting here.
Firstly, Jesus expects the mission of his disciples to achieve success – that is, he expects there to be others who will believe in him as a consequence of his sending out of these men into the world.
Secondly, unless Jesus only has in view those directly evangelised by the disciples, he is speaking of their message as the foundation upon which all other mission is based. And, indeed, that is how Paul then speaks of the ministry of the Apostles, as the foundation in the new temple being constructed by the Lord.
But what of Jesus’ prayer? What is its great burden? The answer clearly is the unity of his people. It’s a big issue in the world and it always has been. Go right back to the society before Abraham and you find people working together in unity to make a name for themselves, defying the Lord and deifying man. It was an issue of real concern before and during the first century – Alexander the Great tried to unify the inhabited world and the Roman Empire tried something similar. And in our own day there have been many attempts to achieve some notion of unity, whether that is at the economic level or between nation states.
No-one would deny that the unity of the human race is something to be desired. To overcome all the fractures of human society would be a wonderful achievement. The great question, however, has always been ‘How?’.
Jesus here prays for the unity of his people and shows us how full and genuine unity between very disparate people can be achieved. We also see what unity looks like and how the unity of his people works to effect a great purpose.
1. Unity through participation in the divine pattern
True unity comes through a participation in the very life of God. Jesus speaks of his people being one “Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” and of them being “in us”. The phrase ‘just as’ gives the idea of pattern (which we will return to) but it also gives the ‘how’ of unity, the cause of it.
Unity among people in this world, true unity, can only come about as people are found to be joined to the Father and his Son, as they are ‘in’ the Son. The people of Israel were told that “the LORD our God, the LORD is one” - he is the original and true unity and all true union comes from him. It does not and can not be achieved through any other means; the genuine healing of the human race can only be experienced through participation in the life God.
In that context, it’s very important to see that Jesus is praying here about the unity of those who believe in him through the witness of the apostles. He is not praying about a unity between members of different religions and none. Nor is this about unity between merely nominal Christians. Jesus is praying about a unity that can only, by its very definition, exist between genuine believers since it derives from a true participation in the life of God through faith in him.
It is for this reason that ventures such as the World Council of Churches and, more recently and locally, Churches Together are flawed. Where you can have as full partners in the process such groups as the RC church and the Quakers, then you are not beginning from a position of agreed Biblical truth.
But it is precisely at that point Jesus does begin. He doesn’t insist on unity on secondary issues but he does insist that unity is only possible among those who are genuinely sharing in his life, which means those whose faith is squarely in Jesus, whose faith is biblical.
Now, it is not possible for an organisation to possess faith so the unity Jesus has in mind is not organisational. However, where organisations exist, it follows that they can only work towards the expression of unity where they are in agreement on matters of foundational truth, on the witness of the apostles to the Lord Jesus Christ and to salvation in him.
But what shape does that unity take? The unity of God’s people flows from, and is fashioned according to, the unity that exists within God himself. As you read the gospels, if you keep an eye out for this theme, especially in John, you’ll see Father and Son united in the deepest possible way, being one in purpose, in love and in action.
And that is the pattern that is set for the church, for us. Paul’s words to the Philippians in Phil. 1:27ff mirror this kind of unity. It can only exist where there is common faith in our Lord Jesus and it can only proceed because of the prayers of Jesus. There is the challenge for us and the encouragement we so badly need to pursue unity.
2. Unity in principle and in practice
But is Jesus praying about unity in principle or in practice? Does he have in mind the fact that in him his people are united or is he praying for that working-out in detail and in experience of that unity?
Looking back to v.11 it would seem that Jesus has the latter more in mind. And that is certainly so when we come to v.20 where Jesus speaks of his people being brought to “complete unity”. When we come into God’s family we share in the unity of the Spirit as a fact but Jesus is praying about the maturing expression of that unity. The whole impetus of his prayer and its profound energy is directed toward the detailed outworking in daily life of the unity of his family.
But it would be a big mistake to think that in order to achieve this unity we have to subsume our personal distinctness. That is not so in the Godhead and it is not to be so in the church. Father and Son are in perfect unity though they are distinct persons. And when you consider the vast diversity that exists within creation, it would be so contrary to find that God wants to work sameness within his family.
Here is part of the glory of the gospel message: it works unity in the midst of real diversity. Without doubt, that diversity makes working out our unity more challenging again but this is what Jesus prays for and this is what his Spirit strives for within the church.
Is there a key to maintaining and maturing the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace? Paul’s words in Phil. 2:1ff would seem to be extremely important.
Having urged these believers to be of one mind and one spirit, he puts them in mind of the great example of Jesus in his humility and condescension. Others come first; always. Humility is the order of the day and self-giving love is the church’s hallmark.
What greater example could we have and what greater incentive to follow it?
3. Unity: the great purpose
But why is Jesus so passionate about praying for the unity of his people? “May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (v.21); “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” (v.23).
The great passion here is Jesus’ mission in the world. He is praying for the world to see the unity of his people so that the world might know that he was truly sent by the Father and that those whose faith is in him are caught up into the love that exists within God himself. And he wants them to see and know that because they, too, are called to submit to him as Lord and they, too, are invited to know the blessings of God’s saving love in him.
All of which makes it imperative that our lives are not in conflict with the clearly-expressed prayers of Jesus. We must seek to be brought to complete unity, to be one in purpose, in love and in action. Primarily the focus of that has got to be within the local church since this is what most people will see most often. Inter-church relations are not unimportant but the unity Jesus is praying for is not organisational but organic, one that is about the life of God’s people.
We cannot say with any sense of truthfulness that we are mission-minded unless we are also fellowship-minded. People who seem to have a passion for evangelism yet have no observable concern for growing unity with their brothers and sisters have failed to grasp the heart of Jesus and the burden of his prayers.
Unity has such powerful evangelistic impact because this broken world desperately needs to be reconciled and healed, restored from its fractured state. It can only happen in and through our Lord Jesus.
It is our privileged calling to so live a life of loving unity before a watching world that the words we speak about Jesus carry with them the authentic aroma of divine love and reconciliation.
May Jesus’ prayers be answered both in and through us. Amen.