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Lesson 91: Understanding Christian Unity (John 17:20-23)

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May 10, 2015

Our subject is Christian unity: Jesus hits it three times in these four verses (John 17:21, 22, 23), so we can’t miss it. Ironically, there are widespread differences of opinion on the subject of unity among those who profess to follow Christ. This is evident by the fact that there are approximately 40,000 Christian denominations, and the number grows annually.

When the subject of unity comes up, I always think of the familiar chorus, “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord,” and why I can’t stand that song. First, the song comes out of the Catholic Charismatic movement, which taints it with all sorts of serious doctrinal problems. Are we really “one” with every group that claims to be Christian, even if they claim that we must add our good works to faith in Christ to be saved? That’s the issue that Paul confronts in Galatians. The Judaizers claimed to believe in Jesus as their Savior. But they also insisted that in addition to faith a man must be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses to be saved. Paul didn’t say, “Let’s set aside the areas where we don’t agree and come together where we do agree.” He said, rather, that those teaching this false gospel were accursed (Gal. 1:8-9).

A second reason I dislike that chorus is more personal. When I was in Coast Guard boot camp, as far as I could tell, none of my fellow recruits in my company were believers. They consistently used foul speech and bragged about their sexual exploits. But every week, they’d march to the chapel and join together, under the liberal chaplain, singing, “We are one in the Spirit.” I attended once, but after what I saw and heard, I couldn’t go again. I’d take my Bible and sit outside the chapel and read, while I listened to them proclaim their unity in Christ. So now you know why that won’t be our closing song today!

I want to try to help you understand what true Christian unity is by answering three questions: What is Christian unity? Why is it important? How is it expressed? To sum up:

Christian unity is based on shared life in Christ; is a major source for witness to the world; and is expressed through common love, purpose, and mission.

What is Christian unity?

1. Christian unity is not organization or external, but rather is based on shared life in Jesus Christ.

It is important to understand that there are two types of unity in the Bible. In Ephesians 4:3, Paul says that we are to be “diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” The unity of the Spirit is already a fact for believers, but we must be diligent to preserve it. Then in Ephesians 4:13, after talking about the ministry of pastors and teachers who equip the saints for the work of ministry, Paul adds, “… until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.” This unity of the faith is not yet a reality, but is attained to as we grow to maturity in Christ. (See, also, Eph. 2:14-22.) We might call these “positional unity,” which is a fact; and “practical unity,” which is a work in progress.

We see the same thing in our text: In verses 21 & 22, Jesus prays that those who believe in Him would be one, even as He and the Father are one. That prayer was answered when the Holy Spirit baptized all believers into the one body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). Yet Jesus also prays that believers may be “perfected in unity” (John 17:23), which implies a process of growth. So it’s much like sanctification: We are positionally sanctified in Christ (1 Cor. 1:30; 6:11); yet, we must grow in sanctification (2 Cor. 7:1; 1 Thess. 4:3).

A. Christian unity is not organizational or external unity.

1) Christian unity is not denominational unity.

Organizations such as the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches are prominent in promoting organizational or external unity among various denominations. The idea is to set aside the areas we differ and come together on common ground. But both councils are notoriously theologically and politically liberal and inclusive of denominations that deny or compromise the gospel. Christ was not praying for a one-world church organized under one leader and church government.

2) Christian unity is not uniformity.

Being one body in Christ does not mean that we all must look alike, talk alike, and enjoy the same kinds of activities. Back in the early 1970’s, I knew many “hippie” young people who got swept up in the “Local Church” movement under the Chinese leader, Witness Lee. Overnight, they cut off their long hair and beards and started wearing white shirts with narrow black ties, just as Witness Lee did. They even gestured and sounded like him when they talked. It was kind of eerie, but it had nothing to do with true Christian unity! The very analogy of being members of Christ’s body implies that all the members do not look the same or serve the same function. The beauty of the body is that it functions as one body although it consists of many different members.

3) Christian unity is not unanimity on every doctrine.

We need to think carefully here! There are three broad levels of Bible doctrines: (1) Essential truths, necessary for salvation. To deny any of these would be heresy and a denial of the faith. All true Christians agree on these truths. These include: The inspiration and authority of Scripture; the Trinity; the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ; His substitutionary death on the cross; His bodily resurrection; His bodily second coming; and, salvation by grace through faith alone, apart from works.

(2) Important, but non-saving, truth. These truths affect how we live as Christians, the way we understand God, man, salvation, the Christian life, etc. But genuine believers differ on these matters. Some examples: Biblical prophecy; Calvinism vs. Arminianism; views of baptism; charismatic gifts; roles of men and women in the church and home; church government; Christians and psychology; and, views of creation. Some of these issues are more important in that they border on essential doctrines (e.g., some issues in Calvinism vs. Arminianism deal with salvation and the gospel). So there are gray areas between each of the categories.

(3) Interesting, but not essential or important matters. These issues won’t affect the way you live your Christian life. They include minor interpretive issues on difficult texts; some methods that are not mandated by Scripture; and other issues. For example: Who were the sons of God in Genesis 6? When does the battle in Ezekiel 38 take place? Did Christ descend into hell (1 Pet. 3:19-20)?

So it’s important to discern the level of importance of a doctrine before you debate it with another Christian or divide from him over it. Paul instructs Timothy (1 Tim. 1:4-5) not to pay attention to myths or endless genealogies, which only give rise to speculation, but to focus on teaching that leads to love from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith. Christian unity is not organizational or external unity. Then, what is it?

B. Christian unity is based on shared life through faith in Christ through the apostolic witness to Him.

If you have put your trust in Jesus Christ, then He is praying for you in these verses. He says (John 17:20), “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word.” Note two things:

1) Christian unity is based on our common salvation in Jesus Christ.

Jesus is not praying for the entire world here (John 17:9). He is not praying for inter-faith unity among all Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims, as promoted by many inter-faith prayer services this past week. Rather, He is praying specifically for those who believe in Him through the apostles’ word. That word is recorded for us in the New Testament, which the Holy Spirit inspired them to write (John 14:26; 16:13, 14).

The core message of the apostolic witness centers on salvation through faith in the life, substitutionary death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As we saw (John 1:12-13), “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” The new birth is the basis of our unity in Christ.

Jesus compares this unity with that which exists between Him and the Father (John 17:21): “that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, …” Jesus and the Father are eternally one in their shared nature as God. When we are born again and become children of God, we share in the divine nature (John 1:12-13; 2 Pet. 1:4). So in this sense, Jesus’ prayer was answered on the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came on all believers, uniting them in the one body of Christ. Since then, all who believe the apostolic witness to Christ share new life in Him (1 Cor. 12:13): “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” This is the unity of the Spirit that Paul talks about (Eph. 4:3). It is a fact, and yet we must be diligent to preserve it.

2) Christian unity is based on our common glory in Jesus Christ.

Jesus prays (John 17:22), “The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one.” What does Jesus mean? Godly commentators differ, so I can’t be dogmatic. We know that Christ has an incommunicable glory, which He did not receive and He does not bestow. In that sense, God does not share His glory with anyone (Isa. 42:8). But we can piece together several verses that steer us in the right direction. John (1:14) testifies, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Then John 1:16 adds, “For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace.” So in part, the glory that Christ has given us is the glory of our salvation, received and sustained by abundant grace.

Also, for Christ, the epitome of His glory was displayed at the cross (John 12:28; 13:31-32), which supremely shows His love, justice, holiness, and grace. This leads Leon Morris (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 734) to interpret the glory that He gives to all of His disciples: “… just as His true glory was to follow the path of lowly service culminating in the cross, so for them the true glory lay in the path of lowly service wherever it might lead them.” (D. A. Carson, The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus [Baker], p. 198, concurs.) Morris (p. 735) and Carson (ibid.) cite William Barclay (The Gospel of John [Westminster], 2:219):

We must never think of our cross as our penalty; we must think of it as our glory…. The harder the task we give a student, or a craftsman, or a surgeon, the more we honour him…. So when it is hard to be a Christian, we must regard it as our glory, as our honour given to us by God.

Also, Jesus explains what this glory entails in John 17:23: “I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” There are two parts to this: First, “I in them and You in Me” points to Christ’s indwelling us through the Holy Spirit, who is given to all who believe. Through the Spirit, the triune God dwells in every believer! Even though the world may not see it very clearly, as we are perfected in unity, they will get a glimpse of the glory of God (e.g. the fruit of the Spirit) in us.

Second, Jesus says that the Father has loved us, even as He has loved Jesus! What a staggering statement! The love of the Father for the Son is eternal and infinite. There is no way to measure it. It surpasses all comprehension (Eph. 3:18). The best picture we have of the Father’s love for us is when He sent Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. Have you experienced the love of God for you in Christ at the cross? That love is your glory and the common glory of every true believer. It brings us together into the one worldwide family of God. Our unity is based on our common salvation in Christ and our common glory in Christ.

Why is Christian unity important?

2. Christian unity is important because it is a major factor in our witness to the world, so that they may believe in Jesus Christ.

Jesus mentions this twice: In John 17:21, He prays that we all may be one … “so that the world may believe that You sent Me.” In verse 23, He prays that we may be perfected in unity “so that the world may know that You sent Me.” Note that faith is not nebulous or subjective. Rather, faith centers on the truth that the Father sent Jesus, His Son, to earth. As John repeatedly emphasizes, He sent Him to be the Savior of all who believe in Him. But, how can the world believe in Jesus? Paul explains (Rom. 10:14-15),

How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!”

We are often the only Bible that people read. By our godly lives, by our verbal witness to the person and work of Christ, and by our visible unity with all true believers, we proclaim to the world the truth that God sent His Son to pay for the sins and give eternal life to all that believe (John 3:16). That leads to the third question:

How is Christian unity expressed?

3. Christian unity is expressed by believers’ common love, common purpose, and common mission.

A. Christian unity is expressed by believers’ common love.

Jesus makes the staggering statement that the Father has loved us even as He loved Jesus! While we will spend eternity trying to fathom the depths of the Father’s love for us, it should be increasingly influencing our daily lives. Perhaps it is nowhere expressed more eloquently than in Paul’s conclusion of Romans 8, where he says that nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I remember holding our firstborn child in my arms and feeling my love for her well up as I gazed into her tiny face. Suddenly, it dawned on me, “My parents must love me as much as I love my baby daughter!” Then it further hit me, “The heavenly Father loves me far more than any earthly father can love his children!”

John applies this wonderful truth (1 John 4:11): “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” The logic of that is so simple, and yet it is often so difficult to obey! But after loving God, the second great commandment is that we love others even as we do in fact love ourselves (Matt. 22:39).

It’s relatively easy to love folks who are just like you. But the church is to show Christ’s love across racial, cultural, generational, and economic divides as we worship together and care for one another. There was no greater divide in Paul’s day than that between Jews and Gentiles. But Paul emphasized that the glory of the church is that Christ removed the barrier between those two diverse groups and made them one (Eph. 2:14-22). He insists (Col. 3:11) that in the church, “there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.” When people who are divided in the world display their love for one another in the local church, the world takes notice.

In the early 1970’s, I had the privilege of visiting the “Body Life” service at Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, California, where the late Ray Stedman was the pastor. There were little white-haired ladies sitting next to long-haired hippies. Through the stories shared, it was evident that although they were from very different segments of American life, both sides loved each other. That display of Christ’s love resulted in many unbelievers coming to see what was going on and eventually coming to faith in Christ.

B. Christian unity is expressed by believers’ common purpose.

Although we have different gifts and different callings, our common purpose is to glorify God in all that we do (1 Cor. 10:31). We glorify Him by living in obedience to His commands and by bearing much fruit (John 15:8, 10). We glorify Him as we are more and more conformed to the image of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 3:18).

C. Christian unity is expressed by believers’ common mission.

In urging the Philippian church toward unity, Paul put it like this (Phil. 1:27): “Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.” Our common mission is to fulfill the Great Commission, to make disciples of all the nations (Matt. 28:19). Again, while we may differ with other believers over secondary matters, as long as they proclaim the truth of the gospel, we should rejoice that Christ is being proclaimed (Phil. 1:15-18).


I could spend several more messages on some of the practical ramifications of our Lord’s teaching here, but I’ll try to list a couple of things that you can explore further (see, also, my article on the church web site, “Separation Versus Cooperation”).

First, while we must strive to love and accept all whom Christ has truly saved, we also must be careful not to compromise essential biblical truth. The more common danger, I think, is not the failure to love, but rather the failure to hold to sound doctrine. This was illustrated in the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” statement that was signed by many prominent Christian leaders in the 1990’s. That statement confused and compromised the essential truth of the Reformation, that we are justified by grace through faith in Christ alone, apart from works. The Catholic Church teaches that we must add our own works or merit to God’s grace to be saved. But that’s the same as the Galatian heresy. We are not one with those who deny the apostolic gospel. As I said, Paul did not come together on common ground with the Judaizers. Neither should we!

Second, while we need walls of separation both as individuals and as a church, those walls may be different on the individual and corporate levels. For example, if in private conversation with a Roman Catholic priest, I determine that he truly has trusted in Christ as his Savior and is not trusting in his own good works, I can have a degree of fellowship with him based on our common salvation. Of course, as our relationship deepened, I would challenge him to leave his affiliation with an apostate church.

But I could never do anything publicly to imply that our church is one with the Roman Catholic Church. I would never endorse a unity or prayer service that included churches that deny the gospel. New life in Christ is the only basis for true unity. Let’s pray for discernment and graciously strive for unity and love with all that know Christ without compromising the gospel or minimizing important truth!

Application Questions

  1. Have you struggled on the personal level with where to draw lines of fellowship? How did you sort through the issues?
  2. Should an evangelical church work with a church that denies the gospel to help prevent abortions? Why/why not?
  3. How do we determine where to draw doctrinal lines for church membership without becoming divisive?
  4. How do we determine which doctrines are essential and which are important, but not essential? What criteria apply?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2015, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life

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