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John 17:20-26: A Prayer for Unity Print E-mail
Easter Season
Sunday, 09 April 2017
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It is remarkable to think that Jesus was praying for us the night before He was crucified on the cross. We should be awed and humbled by that fact. As we noted a few weeks ago, the idea that Jesus thought of us ‘above all’ on the cross is not true. Even in His prayer in John 17, we see that He begins with the glory of God (see v. 1-5). Yet, that does not mean that Jesus was unaware of or unconcerned about His future followers. His passion for His glory and His love for His people go together. His glorification is tied to our salvation. Thus, His glory and our good are both parts of the High Priestly prayer.

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We see His prayer for us, for the Church, in verses 20-26. We must be careful in thinking that parts of the Bible were written primarily for us, lest we take passages out of their original context and miss the intended meaning. Yet, Jesus’ prayer in verses 20-26 was meant for us. I remember being told by a pastor once to write in my name in verse 20 since this prayer was for me. I am not necessarily encouraging you to do that, after all Jesus is not just praying for William Marshall. But I do understand the thought. This is Jesus praying for the Church. If you have turned from your sins and placed your faith in Jesus’ work at the cross, then that includes you. In that way, Jesus is indeed praying for us in these verses. On the night before He was crucified, He prayed for us. Amazing! What a faithful and loving Savior we serve! So then, what does He pray? Let’s answer that by looking at the two questions that we have been considering on the past few weeks, namely who is He praying for and what does He pray for them?

Who is Jesus praying for?

If Jesus is praying for the future church, which includes us, how does He describe us in His prayer? Let me mention three descriptions.

First, He is praying for those who will believe in Jesus through the Word. Look at verse 20. Jesus has just been praying for the apostles and now He notes that He is not just praying for them. He is also praying for those who will come to believe in Him through their witness. What is their word? Their word is their preaching and teaching about Jesus and what He did at the cross. It includes their individual ministries in their lifetime and the writings that they left behind. It is what we call the New Testament. These men wrote the Scriptures by the inspiration of the Spirit so that future generations could believe in Jesus, believe that He was the Son of God sent by God to save sinners through His death on the cross. If you have heard their witness through their Gospels and letters, and believed in Jesus because of that, then the Lord is praying here for you.

Second, Jesus is praying for those who enjoy the glory of God’s presence. Earlier in this prayer, Jesus has defined eternal life as knowing God (see v. 3). Jesus asks the Father: glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed (v. 5). Eternal life and glorifying God come together. We glorify Him by enjoying His presence and living out that joy in obedience to His Word, just as Jesus did while He was on the earth (see v. 4 and v. 8-10). Now we know that through faith in what the apostles taught about Jesus, we are brought into the enjoyment of that glory. Look at verse 22. Through the work of Jesus on the cross, we are brought into fellowship with the Father and the Son and the Spirit. We are one with God. We can enjoy His presence and experience the glory and eternal life that is knowing God. How amazing is that!? Jesus is praying for those who have been given that glory through faith in Him.

Third, Jesus is praying for those who are loved by God. After what we just said, we might conclude that it goes without saying that God loved these future believers. Yet, the fact that God loves us should never go without saying! Jesus describes us in this way a couple of times in these verses. Look at the end of verse 23. God loves us with the same love that He has for His Son. He loves us like He loves Jesus! In the original language, there is a word (‘kathos’) which can be translated as ‘just as’ or ‘even as.’ There is an amazing reality in that little word. ‘Just as’ the Father loves Jesus, so He loves the Church. And if you have trusted in Jesus as your Savior and Lord, then the Father loves you ‘even as’ He loves His Son. If you belong to Jesus, then God loves you deeply. He is not some distant Father that looks upon you with scorn and disappointment. He loves you like He loves Jesus! Let that truth be a balm to your soul this morning. Let it encourage you and fill you with praise!

What does Jesus pray for them?

We have seen how Jesus describes the future Church in these verses, now let’s consider what He actually prays for them. We can summarize it with three petitions.

First, He prays that we will be unified for mission in the world. He prays for a unified witness. Look again at verses 20-23. Jesus prays that His people will be one just as (‘kathos’ again) He and the Father are one. What does this mean? It means that those who follow Jesus will enjoy fellowship with God. They will be brought into relationship with Father and Son through the  indwelling work of the Spirit. They will be one with God through their faith in the witness of the apostles. It also means that their unity with the Lord will serve a purpose. Jesus prays that we will be one so that the world may believe that you have sent me (v. 21). He says it again in verse 23: 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 love me. We are saved by faith in Jesus, brought into relationship with God through His sacrifice. We are part of His family. And as His family, our unity is for the sake of mission and ministry. Our unity declares the truthfulness of Jesus’ claims, namely that He really is the Son of God sent by the Father to pay for our sins. One of my commentator’s writes: “The oneness of God’s people is a vital ingredient to the credibility of the gospel!” We are one with Father and Son, one with one another as followers of Christ, so that the world might behold the truth and power of the gospel.

Of course, we are not good at this. It is very easy to look at the landscape of Christianity and be critical of our pursuit of unity. On the one hand, I think that such judgments are true. We have a history of division over secondary issues, at best, and over mere preferences at times. Yet, we do need to realize that unity is based on true belief in the witness of the apostles and not just any claim to be Christian. At times, the Church has divided over the gospel and such division is not within God’s people but between genuine followers of Christ and those just claiming the name. Jesus is not praying for unity at the expense of the gospel. He is praying for those who will truly believe in the message of the apostles. And even though genuine believers do struggle, we still fight and hope and pray to perfectly one. I got to see an example of such unity even this week. Glenna and I gathered with over 8,000 believers from diverse backgrounds and denominations to sing and celebrate our Savior together. And it was so encouraging, like a preview of glory, to hear so many voices declaring: “My sin--oh, the bliss of this glorious thought: my sin not in part but the whole is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!” It was a beautiful experience of the type of unity that Jesus is praying for here. May we pray that such unity will increase.

Second, He prays that we will be glorified with Jesus in heaven. Speaking of that preview of heaven, look at what Jesus says in verse 24. He asks the Father that we will be with Him in glory. I love Jesus so much for this prayer. He knew what taking us to glory would cost Him, but He was willing to pay. He was willing to go through hell to get us to heaven. Can you imagine what the Day will be like when this prayer is finally answered? At the end of this long night that we call life will come the blessed morning when Christ will receive us at His table. We will be welcomed into His glory. We will behold and enjoy a love that has existed from before the foundations of the world. What an amazing Savior!

Third, He prays that we will be filled with the Father’s love throughout our lives. Look at verses 25-26. Jesus prays that the Father’s love will be in us until the Day of our glorification. I think this involved two ideas: the Father’s love for us and our love for others. Jesus is praying for us to know that we are loved by God. And from that love there should be an overflow of love for our brothers and sisters in Christ and our fellow man.

On the night before Jesus went to the cross, He spoke a prayer for all who would become of followers of Him. So let me ask you: did He pray for you? Have you believed in Him through the witness of His disciples? Do you enjoy God’s presence through faith in Jesus? Have you experienced His love? The glorious good news is that because Jesus was willing to die and pay for your sins, you can be forgiven today. By turning from your sins and believing in His death and resurrection, you can know and experience the love of God. I plead with you to do that today. For those of you who have placed your faith in Christ, then I encourage you to pray Jesus’ prayer and live out the answer. Ask the Father for unity and glory and love, then labor to live a life of peace and proclamation, self-denial and sacrificial love. Let His prayer be your prayer and let your life be an answer. Amen.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Saturday, 22 April 2017 )

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