The High Priestly Prayer: A Prayer for Unification

Sermon by David Strain on September 6

John 17:20-26

Well do turn now with me in your Bibles to the New Testament scriptures and to the gospel of John, chapter 17. We’ve been working our way over the last few weeks through the three major divisions of our Savior’s often called great “High Priestly Prayer.” In verse 1 through 5, we found a prayer for glorification. Jesus prayed that the Father would glorify Him in and through the cross. And then last week, we looked at verses 6 through 19, the long central section of the prayer, where Jesus prayed for the Church, for His disciples’ sanctification – that they be kept from the world and from the evil one and that we would be sanctified in the truth, “God’s Word is truth.”

And now in verses 20 through 26, today we come to the concluding focus of this extraordinary prayer. It is first a prayer for glorification, then a prayer for sanctification, and then now it is a prayer for unification. He wants the Church to be one. And that note of Christian unity is not difficult to spot in this part of the prayer. Is it? You see it right away there in verses 20 and 21. “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” Jesus is praying not only for the disciples who were with Him as He prayed these words in the Upper Room on the night in which He was betrayed, but He’s also praying for the whole global Church that would emerge in the days to come in the wake of their preaching and their teaching. And He asks that that Church, across the ages and around the world, might be thoroughly and fundamentally one. This is a prayer for unification.

And although it feels, at least to me, almost sacrilegious to do it, we can break that down a little further and say that in general, verses 20 through 23 show us that our unity is unity in Christ; the source of our unity. Then in verse 24, our unity will be a unity in glory; the goal of our unity. And then in 25 and 26, our unity is a unity in love; the manner of our unity. So the source – we are one in Christ; the goal – we will be one in glory; the manner – we learn to love one another and express our unity in the love of Jesus Christ. That’s where we’re going. Before we turn to consider those themes, let’s pause again and pray and ask for God to help us as we listen to His holy Word. Let us pray together.

O Lord, our prayer is not that You would make the Bible come alive. The Word of God is living and active, sharper than a double-edged sword, penetrating, piercing to the division of joint and marrow, soul and spirit. Instead, our prayer is that the living Word might have its way in our too often dead and cold hearts and that by the Holy Spirit You would give our darkened minds, light, and incline our wills and awaken our appetites for Christ as He comes to us in the Gospel. Hear us then as we pray these things in Jesus’ name, amen.

John 17 at verse 20. This is the Word of God:

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Amen, and we praise God for His holy Word.

The Source of Our Unity

Well I don’t think any of us would dispute the fact that ours is a deeply divided society – race, economics, education, religion, politics; all are subjects that no longer simply provide the grounds of amicable disagreements between us. They are often, very often, open wounds, deep rifts in the fabric of our communities. The tone of our political discourse is bitter and cynical. The cancel culture is tyrannical and aggressive. The radical individualism that’s dominated at least the last century of American life continues to strain at the fabric of our life together. And all of this is only heightened, I think, by the pressures of isolation and the complexity involved in dealing with COVID-19. We’re all worn out by it, aren’t we? Frustrated by it. In many cases we’ve found our fuses have become considerably shorter than they were and our impatience with opinions different to our own wears rather more thin than it used to. We’re all so easily triggered.

Unity, in other words, is a precious and increasingly rare commodity, and that’s why Jesus’ prayer for Christian unity is so very important. The loving fellowship of a united church is a mighty instrument in demonstrating to the world that the Gospel is true. That’s Jesus’ point, isn’t it, in verse 21? He says it again in a slightly different way in verse 23. He prays for Christian unity, notice, “that the world may believe that You have sent Me.” Earlier on in the same night, the night in which He was betrayed, in the Upper Room where He had celebrated the Passover with His disciples, you will remember John 13:35, Jesus told them, “By this will all men know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” Unity is one of the ways in which the Church demonstrates the power of the Gospel to make disparate, often suspicious, natural enemies into family. Jesus takes cacophony and turns it into harmony. He tears down the dividing wall of partition and makes of the two, one new man. He makes believers in Him deeply, everlastingly, supernaturally one, you see.

And in verses 20 through 23 tells us where this unity comes from. Here is the source. Our unity, he says, is in Christ. It is in union with Him. We can unpack that – forgive me with the alliteration – with three “M”s – the model, the motives, and the mechanism of our unity.

The Model of Our Unity

The model of our unity, first of all. Look at the text. This is astounding to me, what Jesus says, about the model of our unity. It is the union of the Father and the Son in the fellowship of the blessed trinity. Do you see that in the passage? Verse 21, Jesus prays that they may “all be one, just as You, Father, are in Me and I in You.” Don’t miss the scale of the claim that Jesus is making here. He shares much more than a unity of common purpose with the Father. Their unity together is more than the unity of shared goals. No, He says, the Father is in Him and He is in the Father. God is one single, indivisible, divine essence; one nature. There is only one God, yet this one God subsists eternally in three distinct, inseparable persons – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. These three each occupy and possess the whole, undivided divine nature without any remainder so that all that is God is the Father, and all that is God is the Son, and all that is God is the Holy Spirit. And yet in such a way that the Father is not the Son nor the Spirit; neither is the Son the Father or the Spirit, and the Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son. But Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all identical to God so that we do not worship three gods, but one only.

Jesus and the Father are one, as verse 21 puts it, because in His divine nature as the eternally begotten Son, He is the same God as the Father, yet the Father is not the same person as the Son. To put it crudely, the space occupied by the Father is the same space occupied by the Son. The Father is in the Son; the Son is in the Father. They interpenetrate and coenhere and dwell in one another in a mysterious and glorious union and communion that stretches all language to its limitations. The best we can do is not merely to analyze, but to adore. Behold, your God! Father, Son and Holy Spirit – one God in three persons, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.

And this union of the Father and the Son, thine which there is nothing more pure and complete, more simply or more singular, this Trinitarian unity, Jesus says, is the paradigm, the model of the unity of believers with one another. And I trust you see at least some of what that means. It means it is just not good enough to rest content with external unity only; a unity that is derived from attending the same congregation or sharing the same commitments or having made the same vows. That is the barest expression of Christian unity. Jesus, here, is calling us to a unity from the heart; a whole souled unity that presses toward one another, that aspires to grow closer and closer till it mirrors, as closely as redeemed creatures and sinners ever can, the profound unity of the Father with the Son in the Holy Spirit in the blessed Trinity. The call of Jesus Christ to you and to me today is not just to go along to get along, but to press towards your brothers and sisters in Christ, to pursue them, to seek them out, to serve them, to love them. The model of our unity.

The Motives of Our Unity

Then notice Jesus gives us in the passage two motives for pursuing unity. First, Jesus says our fellowship, our communion with the Triune God – with the Father and the Son by the Holy Spirit – it rests upon our pursuit of unity amongst ourselves. Do you see that? Look at verse 21 again. Jesus prays that they may all be one, “just as You, Father are in Me, and I in You, that they may also be in us.” That means there is a connection between division in the church and a sense of spiritual distance from God. “Why do my prayers bounce off the ceiling? Where is God in my darkest days? Why do I feel so little of His presence and power in my life?” Well let me ask you, if you’ve asked yourself those questions, when last did you scrutinize the quality of your relationships with other Christians in the fellowship of the local church? Festering resentments and a refusal to forgive, gossip and malicious talk, snobbery and clickishness, staying away from the gathered assembly on the Lord’s Day – not because of safety or care of loved ones, but merely because of indifference or laziness – these are the diseases of division that drive from our hearts the awareness of the presence of Christ. Or let me put it more positively. Our ability to enjoy the reality of union and communion with Jesus Christ – He speaks throughout this passage of being “in us” – our ability to enjoy our union and communion with Christ and our pursuit of unity among ourselves and between us, those things are bound together. Do you see? You cannot press into God and penetrate ever more deeply into the wonderful mystery of our union with Christ while you drift away from the Church of Jesus Christ to which He is joined.

And there’s another motive for pursuing unity here too, of course, we mentioned it already at the beginning. It’s there in verse 21 – “that the world may believe that You have sent Me.” And again in verse 23, “that the world may know that You have sent Me and have loved them, even as You have loved Me.” We need to remember, don’t we, that it’s not just God who sees our divisions and it grieves Him. The world is watching too, isn’t it? The Church offers a mighty apologetic to our angry, divided society when people who would otherwise be divided from one another – black and white, rich and poor, sinners redeemed by the love of God in Jesus Christ – all their many differences notwithstanding are made into family by His extraordinary grace. “The world is watching”, Jesus says, “therefore let us love one another.”

The Mechanism of Our Unity

The model of our unity, the motives for our unity, and notice thirdly what we learn about the mechanism of our unity. Look at verses 22 and 23 again. “The glory that You have given Me, I have given to them that they may be one, even as we are one.” The glory that Jesus is referring to there takes us back, all the way back, to the very beginning of His prayer, doesn’t it? Verse 1, “Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son that the Son may glorify You.” Do you remember when we looked at verse 1 we said where this glory is going to be displayed, by what means this glory that Jesus is speaking about in verse 1 will shine out into the dark world. We said that it shines out from the cross. The glory He’s praying for here is not the glory of exaltation yet to come, but it’s the glory of displaying God most clearly and fully in His own crucifixion. That’s what He meant by “the hour,” remember? “The hour” is the appointed moment of His climactic suffering and sacrifice at Calvary. That’s the glory that He prays the Father would give to Him.

“And now it’s the glory, the same glory,” He says, “that I have given to the Church” – a cruciform, cross-shaped glory. The glory that’s seen most clearly in weakness, in nails in His hands and feet, in suffering servanthood. This glory, Jesus says, is now also to shine from the Church. And when it does, to the degree that it does, it results in ever-deepening unity between us. “That they may be one even as we are one.” It was a slogan of the German reformer, Martin Luther, to declare “crux probat omnia” – “the cross is the test of everything.” The cross is the test of everything. Cruciform churches, churches that embrace weakness, that aren’t interested in displays of power, Christians who serve rather than demand to be given their place, ministry that relies on the improbable preaching of the Word instead of the manipulative techniques of the world, these are churches that will enjoy the blessing of Christian unity. The glory that Jesus gives us here is not the glory that is to come; we’re going to think about that in just a moment in the next verses in the passage. Here, it is the glory of the cross, the glory of Calvary, the glory of the Suffering Servant.

And our unity depends upon it because unity demands, doesn’t it, humble service. It demands long-suffering. It demands sacrifice – not insisting on your own way and your own will, but humbly serving your brothers and sisters. True unity is always cross-shaped. Isn’t it? “Crux probat omnia” – “the cross is the test of everything” in our Christian lives, in our churches. Is our unity formal and superficial only, or is it the real thing? If it is, it will be the fruit of a cruciform glory, a glory that shines from us only as we serve each other in the pattern and the likeness of Jesus Christ to whom we are united. So the source of our unity, you see, is our union with Christ.

The Goal of Our Unity

Then, in the second place, we learn here about the goal of our unity. Our unity in Christ leads to our coming unity, perfect unity in heavenly glory still to come. Look at verse 24. “Father, I desire that they also whom You have given Me may be with Me where I am that they may see My glory that You have given to Me because You loved Me from before the foundation of the world.” It’s an extraordinary statement. The Father is going to glorify Jesus in heaven after His resurrection and ascension and He will do it because He has loved the Son from eternity, from before the foundation of the world. And it’s in the context of the Father’s eternal love of the Son, it is one of the great tokens of the Father’s love for His Son that He gives a gift, a love-gift to His Son of a people for Himself. “The people whom You have given me,” is an expression we’ve seen repeated over and over throughout this prayer. Here it is one more time. And as He thinks about “the people whom You have given Me,” He prays for them, for us, that we may in due course “be with Him where He is and see His glory.”

This is what older theologians call “the beatific vision.” It’s what makes heaven, heaven, you see. The great question for us as we try to think about, “What will heaven be like?” is not whether there will be dogs in heaven or hamburgers in heaven or Handel or Mozart or Bach in heaven. Frankly, these are immodest, even trivial questions. It’s like driving through some staggering landscape on vacation, you know. I think about Glencoe or the Cuillin Mountains on the island of Skye in my homeland. Just amazing landscapes. And you’re staggered at the scenery as you drink it in – the soaring mountains, the crashing waterfalls, the plunging ravines, the shades of light and dark as the clouds scud across the sky. And it takes your breath away and then you turn around to look at the passengers with you and to exclaim in wonder at it all and they’re busy doom-scrolling on their phones and they’re missing majesty. They’re missing majesty.

Why are we so eager to imagine heaven as, as much like here as we can possibly make it? I’ve never understood that. Yes, it’s going to be a new creation, not some vague, ethereal existence, to be sure. There will, no doubt, be much there that we recognize – beaches and barbeque and best friends. No doubt. But our joy will not be in those things for their own sake. Not ultimately. No! There, the glory of Christ blazes with undimmable brilliance, irradiating every inch of the new creation. There, the beatific vision opens before us. Jesus asks the Father that you might be with Him where He is to see His glory. What a destiny belongs to you, child of God – together with Jesus, in His place, face to face with the One who died for us, seeing with new created eyes the light of God shining in His exalted face. And our unity here is designed to help us get there, where unity, our unity at last, will be completed and Jesus’ prayer here will be finally, fully, perfectly answered. I need you and you need me and we need each other if we’re going to get there one day. That’s the point, you see.

The Manner of Our Unity

The source of our unity. Our unity is in Christ. The goal of our unity. Ours will be a unity in glory. The glory of Christ. And finally, the manner of our unity. Our unity is expressed in love. Look at 24 and 25. “O righteous Father, even though the world does not know You, I know You and these know that You have sent Me. I have made known to them Your name and I will continue to make it known that the love with which You have loved Me may be in them and I in them.” In 1 Corinthians 8:1, the apostle Paul says “knowledge puffs up” and “love builds up.” And we know exactly what he means, don’t we? Nobody thinks being called a “know it all” is a compliment. There’s a reason the noun is usually preceded by the adjective “insufferable.” Right? We can’t stand people like that. They’re arrogant; they like nothing so much as to show off what they know or what they think they know. So there’s a kind of knowing that’s the opposite of love.

But in our text, Jesus links together a different kind of knowledge that produces love. Jesus, He says, He knows the Father, even though the world doesn’t know Him. And because Jesus has shown the Father to His disciples, to us, we know the Father too, in Jesus. And the result is that the love that the Father lavishes upon His Son now rests on us as well. So this is a different kind of knowledge that Jesus is talking about. It’s not head knowledge only, is it? It is the knowledge of union and communion. It’s the knowledge of a family. The knowledge a husband and a wife have of one another. It’s the knowledge not just of information but of intimacy. It brings love to bear upon us.

And don’t miss the promise. Did you see the glorious promise in these verses? “I have made known to them Your name and I will continue to make it known that Your love may be in them and I in them.” Jesus has and He will never stop making the Father known to us. Isn’t that good news? He’s not done with us yet. Praise the Lord that He’s not done with us yet! He will show us more and more and teach us more and more. As the great Puritan, Richard Sibbes, once put it, “It is no matter what the capacity or incapacity of the scholar be when there is such a teacher.” Don’t worry that you feel the limits of your understanding. Jesus will give you both the capacity as well as the content and His goal in continually bringing you into the knowledge of God is that you might feel and taste and rejoice in and rest upon the wonder of His love. Which is really another way of saying that you might feel and know and taste and rest upon the wonder of your union with Christ – “that Your love may be in them and I in them.”

When I was a child, the thing that constrained me to love my annoying little brother was not ultimately fear of my parents’ anger; it was their love. They loved me and they loved him and that love called me to love him too. Living in their love created an atmosphere of love, an environment of love, a world of love that made unloving actions toward others seem out of place, inappropriate, alien.

That’s what Jesus is doing when He showers the love of the Father on us, never ceasing to make Him known to us. He’s creating a world of love, an environment of love. The air that we breathe, the atmosphere is love, so that lovelessness between us as Christians will seem to us to be utterly alien, foreign, wrong. The love of Christ for us, 1 John 4:19, “We love because He first loved us,” the love of Christ for us produces love in us in return. Like a struck bell, the notes of His love reverberate in every believing heart with echoes of love to one another. Have you been breathing in, I wonder, the foul, toxic stench of insecurity and pride and self-righteousness so that all you can breathe out to others is judgment and put downs and cynicism. Come to the Lord Jesus Christ. Repent. Fill your lungs with the pure, clean air of His love. He loves you! And then you’ll find it harder and harder not to love those Jesus loves too. Maybe your knowledge has been head knowledge for too long now. You’ve been puffed up; you’ve been an insufferable spiritual know-it-all. Jesus is calling you to burst the bubble of pride and come and taste the true knowledge of God only He can give you. You can’t find it in a book. You have to get it from Him. Not just facts and figures, not just doctrines and principles – God Himself, available in Jesus Christ. Come and drink in the love of Christ and you’ll begin at last, truly, to love one another. Let’s pray together.

Father, we praise You that Jesus has made You known to us and He will never stop. “I have made You known and I will continue to make You known that Your love may be in them and I in them.” How we rejoice and claim that promise now before You. Oh, may He make You known to us in new ways. May new vistas open before our eyes and seeing the wonder of Your love for us in Him, teach us to love one another. For Jesus’ sake, amen.

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