“That They All May Be One”
The Gospel of John provides us with a window into Jesus’ immediate concerns as His betrayal and death loomed on the horizon. In five crucial chapters (John 13–17) we receive Jesus’ last words of instruction, culminating with what has sometimes been called His “highpriestly prayer” (John 17).
“It is a fitting designation, for our Lord in this prayer consecrates himself for the sacrifice in which he is simultaneously both priest and victim. At the same time it is a prayer of consecration on behalf of those for whom the sacrifice is offered—the disciples who were present in the upper room and those who would subsequently come to faith through their testimony.” —F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), p. 328.
At the core of this prayer is Jesus’ concern for unity among His disciples and those who would later believe in Him. This was a key theme in His prayer: “ ‘I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours. And all Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine, and I am glorified in them’ ” (John 17:9, 10, NKJV).
No meaningful discussion of church unity, of our oneness in Christ, can be complete without careful attention given to this prayer. What did Jesus pray for, whom did He pray for, and what does His prayer mean for us today?
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, October 20.
The high-priestly prayer is divided into three parts. First, Jesus prays for Himself (John 17:1–5), then for His disciples (John 17:6–19), and finally for those who would later believe in Him (John 17:20–26).
Jesus intercedes first for Himself. In preceding events in the Gospel of John, Jesus had indicated that His hour had not yet come (John 2:4, 7:30, 8:20). But now He knows the hour of His sacrifice is here. The moment for the dramatic conclusion of His earthly life has arrived, and He is in need of strength to complete His mission. It is a time for prayer. Jesus will glorify His Father by doing His will, even if it means He must endure the Cross. His acceptance of the Cross is not some kind of fatalism; rather, it is in fact how He exercises the authority the Father has given Him. He did not die a martyr’s death, but willingly glorified His Father by fulfilling the reason for His incarnation: His sacrificial death on the cross for the sins of the world.
First and foremost, Jesus tells us eternal life consists in our personal knowledge of God. This is not salvation by works or by knowledge, but rather it is the experience of knowing the Lord because of what Jesus has done for us at the Cross. This knowledge is mediated through a personal relationship with the Father. Our human tendency is to limit knowledge to facts and details, but here Jesus aims at something deeper and more fulfilling: a personal relationship with God. Jesus’ first advent also was for the purpose of guiding humanity in its search for a more meaningful and saving knowledge of God and the unity with each other that such knowledge will lead to.
Jesus prays next for His disciples, who are in grave danger of losing their faith in Him in the days ahead, when He, Jesus, will no longer be with them in the flesh. Thus, He commits them to the care of His Father.
The prayer of Jesus is for their protection in the world. As such, Jesus does not pray for the world, because He knows it intrinsically is opposed to the will of the Father (1 John 5:19). But because the world is the place where the disciples will do their service, Jesus prays that they may be preserved from the evil in the world. Jesus is concerned for the world; indeed, He is the Savior of it. But the spread of the gospel is tied to the witness of those who will go and preach the good news. That is why Jesus needs to intercede for them that the evil one will not defeat them (Matt. 6:13).
One disciple, however, has been defeated. Earlier that evening Jesus had mentioned that one of them had decided to betray Him (John 13:18–30). Even though Jesus refers to the fact that Scripture had predicted Judas’s betrayal (Ps. 41:9), Judas was not the victim of fate. During the Last Supper, Jesus appealed to him in a gesture of love and friendship (John 13:26–30). “At the Passover supper Jesus proved His divinity by revealing the traitor’s purpose. He tenderly included Judas in the ministry to the disciples. But the last appeal of love was unheeded.”—Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 720.
Knowing that envy and jealousies could divide the disciples, as it had done on occasion before, Jesus prays for their unity. “ ‘Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are’ ” (John 17:11, NKJV). Such unity is beyond human accomplishment. It can be the result and gift of divine grace only. Their unity is grounded in the unity of the Father and Son, and this unity is an indispensable prerequisite for effective service in the future.
Their sanctification, or consecration, in the truth also is indispensable for service. The work of God’s grace on the disciples’ hearts will transform them. But if they are to witness to God’s truth, they themselves must be transformed by that truth.
After Jesus prayed for His disciples, He broadened His prayer to include “ ‘those who will believe in Me through their word’ ” (John 17:20, NKJV).
As the Father and Son are one, Jesus prayed that future believers also would be one. In a few places in the Gospel of John, Jesus referred to the unity of the Father and Son. They never act independently of each other, but are always united in everything They do (John 5:20–23). They share a common love for fallen humanity to the extent that the Father was willing to give His Son for the world, and the Son was willing to give His life for it too (John 3:16, 10:15).
The unity Jesus refers to in this prayer is a unity of love and purpose as it is between Father and Son. “ ‘By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another’ ” (John 13:35, NKJV). Manifesting this unity in love will give public confirmation, both of their relationship with Jesus and with the Father. “The display of their genuine unity ought to provide a compelling witness to the truth of the gospel.”—Andreas J. Köstenberger, John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), p. 498. This is how the world will know that Jesus is the Savior. In other words, this unity Jesus prayed for cannot be invisible. How can the world be convinced of the truthfulness of the gospel if it cannot see love and unity among God’s people?
“God is leading out a people to stand in perfect unity upon the platform of eternal truth. . . . God designs that His people should all come into the unity of the faith. The prayer of Christ just prior to His crucifixion was that His disciples might be one, even as He was one with the Father, that the world might believe that the Father had sent Him. This most touching and wonderful prayer reaches down the ages, even to our day; for His words were: ‘Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on Me through their word.’
“How earnestly should the professed followers of Christ seek to answer this prayer in their lives.”—Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 4, p. 17.
Seventh-day Adventists have tended to understand Jesus’ prayer in John 17 as directly applying to the unity of their church denomination. We must be united as a church to fulfill our mission to share the three angels’ messages to the world. On this point, there is little contention.
But what about unity with other Christians? How are we to relate to them in light of what Jesus prayed?
No question, we believe that God has faithful people in other churches besides our own. Besides, the Bible makes it clear that God has His faithful ones, even in Babylon: “ ‘Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues’ ” (Rev. 18:4, NKJV).
At the same time we know that according to the book of Revelation, there is great apostasy among those who profess the name of Christ, and that in the last days many false Christians will unite with each other and with the state in order to bring about the persecution graphically depicted in Revelation 13:1–17. Hence, Adventists always have been very careful about getting involved in calls for unity with other churches, such as seen in the ecumenical movement.
How, then, should we relate to other denominations? Ellen G. White wrote the following in regard to the Seventh-day Adventist Church working together with other Christians, at least on this specific issue: “As the human agent submits his will to the will of God, the Holy Spirit will make the impression upon the hearts of those to whom he ministers. I have been shown that we are not to shun the W.C.T.U. [Woman’s Christian Temperance Union] workers. By uniting with them in behalf of total abstinence we do not change our position regarding the observance of the seventh day, and we can show our appreciation of their position regarding the subject of temperance. By opening the door and inviting them to unite with us on the temperance question we secure their help along temperance lines; and they, by uniting with us, will hear new truths which the Holy Spirit is waiting to impress upon hearts.”—Welfare Ministry, p. 163.
Though she was dealing with a specific issue at a specific time, she does give principles that we can follow regarding how we relate to other Christians, especially on the question of uniting around a cause.
First, we can work with them on common social interests. Second, if we do unite with them, we must do so in a way that will not compromise our beliefs or practices. Third, we can and should use this “unity” to share with others the precious truths with which we have been blessed.
Generally, while people in society today wish to call themselves lawabiding citizens, these same people often will downplay the biblical obligation to keep the commandments of God. Some even argue that God’s grace does away with God’s commandments. But that is not the biblical teaching: “Keeping the commandments is not a condition for knowing God but a sign that we know God/Jesus and love Him. Therefore, knowledge of God is not just theoretical knowledge but leads to action.” —Ekkehardt Mueller, The Letters of John (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press, 2009), p. 39. Jesus Himself emphasized: “ ‘If you love Me, keep My commandments.’ ” “ ‘He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me’ ” (John 14:15, 21, NKJV). “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:2, 3, NKJV).
The command to love one’s neighbor was not new in itself; it can be found in the instructions God gave Moses (Lev. 19:18). What is new is Jesus’ command for His disciples to love one another as He has loved them. Jesus’ example of self-sacrificial love is the new ethic for the Christian community. What a wonderful standard has been set before us! Jesus’ life had been a practical demonstration of love in action. The whole work of grace is one continual service of love, of self-denying, self-sacrificing effort. We can imagine that Christ’s life was an unceasing manifestation of love and self-sacrifice for the good of others. The principle that actuated Christ should actuate His people in all their dealing with one another. What a powerful witness such love would be to the world. And what a powerful force for unity among us such love would provide, as well.
Further Thought: Ellen G. White, “God’s Law Immutable,” pp. 443– 446, in The Great Controversy. Read the articles “Denominations, Relations to Other,” pp. 763, 764, and “Roman Catholic Church,” p. 1110, in The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia.
“Although the Seventh-day Adventist church is a worldwide church with many local churches, Adventists do not claim to be Christ’s universal church. The universal church is broader than any denomination. It is visible and invisible insofar as it consists of those who believe in Jesus and follow him. This particular theological issue is heightened if we take into consideration apostasy among Christians, addressed poignantly in the Book of Revelation. The pure church of Revelation 12 is contrasted with the ‘harlot’ of Revelation 17, Babylon the great city, which in turn is contrasted with the bride of the Lamb, the holy city or the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21 and 22. In the first century, the universal church may have been quite visible[;] it is much more difficult and complex to see it, for instance, during the Medieval Ages.
“Therefore, Adventists do not limit the concept of God’s true church to their own denomination, nor do they automatically extend it to other Christian churches. God’s true church consists of those individuals who truly believe in [H]im. God knows them. Adventists, on the other hand, claim that they are God’s special visible end-time remnant of Revelation 12:17 and chapters 12–14. This remnant has a local as well as a universal character (Rev. 2:24 and 12:17).”—Ángel Manuel Rodríguez, ed., Message, Mission, and Unity of the Church (Silver Spring, Md.: Biblical Research Institute, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2013), p. 37.
Summary: Jesus’ high-priestly prayer in John 17 is a reminder that Jesus still is concerned about church unity today. His prayer should be our prayer, and we should seek ways to solidify our faith in God’s Word. Love for one another also should characterize our relationships to everyone, including other Christians, whatever our theological differences may be.