Witness Through Unity

Witness Through Unity

I’ve often been struck by how often Scripture mentions Jesus praying. That Jesus prayed seems surprising at one level because Scripture teaches that he wasn’t simply human but was also God. If then he is God, and therefore is one with God, why would he need to pray in the first place? For isn’t prayer, by definition, directed towards God? Isn’t the very definition of prayer to “address a solemn request or expression of thanks to a deity or other object of worship”? So, again, since Jesus is God, why would he need to pray?

I think the answer to this question can be found in a two-fold mystery we are presented with in Scripture:

First, though Jesus is God, he is God who took on human form. This is the mystery of the Incarnation that on the one hand, in the person of Jesus, God’s Christ, God’s Messiah, the eternal Son of God became flesh. This eternal and divine Son took on a human body, he became embodied, in human flesh in the person of Jesus. And, on the other hand, as the image of God incarnate he lived his earthly life in a fully human fashion. In other words, he was born—and he grew up—and he ate—and he wept—and he laughed—and he slept—and he drank—and he grew tired—and he experienced anger—and he experienced joy—and he was tempted—and he worshipped—and he worked. Jesus underwent the full range of human experience, with the important exception of sinning, of disobeying God.[1] As one who was fully human Jesus experienced the full spectrum of humanity physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And part of this experience is seen in the fact that he prayed. For this is what all people are designed and intended by God to do. Therefore the reason Jesus prayed, even though he was fully God, is that he was also fully human. And as one was fully human he fulfilled God’s design and intentions by ever praying to, ever talking with, God for prayer is an integral part of what he made us for. Yet, again, though Jesus was fully human, he wasn’t merely human but was also God.

If the mystery of the Incarnation helps us better understand why Jesus, though being fully God, nonetheless prayed to God, a second mystery—that of the Trinity, of God being one God in three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—can also help us understand why Jesus prayed. For Jesus prayed to God because being one with him this is how he communicated with the Father and the Holy Spirit with whom he is one throughout all eternity. Therefore since praying is how we speak with God, again, as one who was fully human, Jesus addressed all of his requests and gratitude to God; yet since praying is how we speak with God, as one who was fully God, this is how Jesus communicated with the other members of the Godhead. Therefore the answer as to why Jesus prayed can be found in the mystery of the Incarnation, in God in Christ taking on human form, and in the mystery of the Trinity, in Father, Son, Holy Spirit eternally existing and communicating as one God in three Persons.

Therefore we shouldn’t be surprised to see numerous instances of Jesus praying in the Gospels:

Jesus prayed when he was baptized by John the Baptist;[2]

Mark tells how once, “[v]ery early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.”[3]

Luke notes that “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”[4]

He also tells how Jesus once “went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.”[5]

Another time “when Jesus was praying in private” he asked “his disciples [who] were with him.…‘Who do the crowds say I am?’”[6]

We know, too, that people brought little children to him that he might place his hands on them and pray for them.[7] That’s how known Jesus was for his praying;

And at the time of his Transfiguration, “he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray.”[8]

Too, as we recite together each week at the end at the end of the pastoral prayer, Jesus taught his disciples how to pray;[9]

And he also “told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.”[10]

Additionally, the Gospels also preserve for us the content of some of Jesus’ prayers:

One of the most important is when he went to the Garden of Gethsemane and brought his disciples with him, asking them to sit as he prayed. [11] And we know that in that Garden, as he was facing the enormity of the task for which he had come to earth—to receive God’s judgment on sin and die in the place of those who would believe in him that by his death they might receive his eternal life—is where we are presented with one of his most poignant prayers: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”[12]

And as he followed through with doing not his will but that of his heavenly Father, we hear three brief and heart-breaking prayers uttered while hanging on the cross, the instrument by which he fulfilled his mission:

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”[13]

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[14]

And, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”[15]

As we make our way through the Gospels, we can’t help but be struck by how central prayer was in Jesus’ life.

And as I was reflecting on this week’s passage, it occurred to me how unique this prayer in John 17 is given its length. This chapter is often referred to as Jesus’ high priestly prayer for in it we see him in his role as our priest, praying to his Father in heaven on our behalf. And in this prayer we’re provided a glimpse into Jesus’ selfless and sacrificial heart. For the remarkable thing is that the focus of this prayer, the heart of Jesus’ concern, is his disciples. As our high priest, Jesus prays for all whom our heavenly Father has placed in his charge to the glory of God. Among the things he states earlier in his prayer are:

Starting in verse 2, that the Father who has “granted him authority over all people…might give eternal life to all those [he has] given him.” This eternal life consists in knowing the Father, “the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom [he has] sent” (verse 3);

Then beginning in verse 6 Jesus states how he has revealed the Father “to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me.” These are the ones for whom Jesus is praying for they belong to the Father (verse 9). And what belongs to Jesus belongs to the Father—and vice-versa (verse 10). In other words, we, the followers of Jesus belong to both him and our Father in heaven. And we belong to him because we have believed that the Father has sent his Son;

In verse 11 Jesus asks the Father that he protect these followers he’ll be leaving behind “by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one.” In stating this Jesus has made explicit what has been implicitly indicated all along—that through Jesus Christ, believers become one with him, the Father, and each other;

Starting with verse 13 Jesus prays that his followers “may have the full measure of [his] joy within them” noting that he has “given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world.” And again he asks that the Father “protect them from the evil one.” Jesus prays that the Father’s protection guard those who are his from Satan, the father of lies,[16] and from any evil he might perpetrate by either bringing evil into the lives of believers or tempting them to follow his evil ways. Yet Jesus desires that despite the hatred of the world and of the evil one, that those who belong to him might nonetheless know the full measure of his joy.

In verse 17 he prays that the Father would sanctify these disciples “by the truth” adding that “your word is truth.” In other words, God’s Word is the means of our becoming holy; Scripture is the means God uses to make us more like Christ, setting us aside for his purposes.

So to summarize, let us consider all the things Jesus has asked the Father to give his disciples:

eternal life through knowing the Father and him;

protection that they might be one as Jesus and the Father are one;

joy in knowing Christ and his word and being united with him and, again,

protection from all evil and sanctification by the truth of God’s Word. For, again, it is in Scripture that we learn that we have been set apart for God and his purposes; and it is in Scripture that we learn how to become more like him, holy in our every thought, word, and deed.

This is where we’re going to pick up in our morning’s passage. Starting in verse 20 we see that Jesus is not only a priest but also that he has the heart of an evangelist for he goes on to say to his heavenly Father, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Jesus knew that his family would increase. He knew that through the witness and word of those who know, love, and belong to him, others would also come to believe in him. And so he is already praying for these future believers, specifically that they will be one as Jesus is one with his heavenly Father. What a remarkable thought this is. In and through Jesus all who profess faith in his name can be one with each other as Jesus and his Father are one with each other. And not only that but all who belong to Jesus are in him, are united with him and the Father, to such a degree that it is through his followers that “the world” is able to believe that the Father has sent him. This is the message he desires be made known in the world by means of his disciples.

For all know who know him have received the very same glory, verse 22, that the Father gave Jesus. All who know Jesus have received and know the presence of God in their lives. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the subject of Jesus’ teaching in the previous three chapters focuses upon the Holy Spirit he will send for, ultimately, he is the means of making us one as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one. This oneness is such an important point that Jesus restates it in verse 23. He prays that the oneness his followers experience would be the oneness he and his Father experience, “I in them and you in me.” And, again, it is by the Holy Spirit Jesus sends that we experience this oneness with the Triune God. Since Jesus is one with the Father, to experience oneness with him is to experience oneness with our heavenly Father as well.

Again he reiterates that the purpose for our union with Christ is that we “may be brought to complete unity.” This unity with Father, Son, Holy Spirit and each other is how “the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” By our unity as believers, we will bear witness to the reality of God and his purposes in and for the world. For by our unity as believers we will bear witness to the fact that the Son has come from and been sent by our heavenly Father. And by our unity as believers we will further bear witness to the fact that our heavenly Father has loved us as he has loved his Son. Isn’t this amazing to ponder—that our Father in heaven loves us even as he loves Jesus??! And yet it shouldn’t surprise us because possibly the most well-known verses in Scripture state this very truth. As John records Jesus stating in the third chapter of his Gospel, “16 For God”—that is, the Father—“so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God”—again, the Father—“did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” This is the very same message being emphasized in Jesus’ prayer here. Our heavenly Father loves us so much that he willingly sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to die on our behalf. And all who believe that the Father has sent the Son and place their faith in the Son are enabled to know the profound love their heavenly Father has for them.

Jesus’ desire, his prayer, for his disciples, verse 24 is this: “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.” Jesus doesn’t ever want to leave us, his followers.[17] He wants us to be where he is. He wants us to see his glory. He wants us to see him as he is, not only fully human but also fully God. This is the glory, the manifestation, the divine presence that is his by right, by virtue of being God the Son. This is the glory that has ever been his because his heavenly Father loved him “before the creation of the world.” The fact that Jesus is fully human doesn’t detract from the fact that he is fully God. And as God, he has ever existed even before he brought this world into being.[18]

We, on the other hand, had a beginning in time. Even so our eternal, ever-existing God knew us long before we ever came into being. The language Jesus uses here is reminiscent of what Paul later states in Ephesians about followers of Christ, namely that “…he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.” Whereas the Son was with the Father “before the creation of the world,” those who would come to a saving faith and knowledge through him were similarly chosen by him “before the creation of the world.” That’s how much he loves us. That’s how certain our salvation in him is.

Jesus ends by noting starting in verse 25, “25 Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26 I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” This is a uniquely biblical way of referring to the differences between people. Though we may categorize people as

Democrats or Republicans

Young or old

Male or female

Strong or Weak

Poor or Rich,

Scripturally what distinguishes people is none of these things. Simply put, what matters in God’s eyes is whether or not we know him. Those who don’t believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son sent into the world to save it from all that has gone wrong—from all of its sin; from all of its suffering and selfishness and self-absorption—are what Jesus is referring to here as “the world.” The world doesn’t know Christ. Yet God in Christ came that through him and through those who do believe in him, others might similarly come to a saving faith and knowledge of our heavenly Father by the conviction of his Holy Spirit.

As we continue to see in Scripture, broken vessels though we may be,[19] God in Christ has nonetheless determined that we are the instruments he wants to use to point others to himself. We are the means he will use to help others believe that Christ has been sent by the Father to save the world. And our Lord has determined that this should happen through us not only individually but by the way we live and care for each other as his family. The unity of believers is to be a witness to the truth of our Lord’s love and mission.

And so, dear sisters and brothers, let us follow Jesus, our high priest’s lead and pray that our heavenly Father would help us reach our life’s purpose and help us to pray as Jesus as did: in the morning—and in solitary places—and at night—and in private—and with one another. Let us do as he exhorts by always praying and never giving up. Let us never weary in praying to, in talking with, our loving and kind Father in heaven for he wants to hear from us;

Let us pray that others will believe that the Father has sent Jesus;

Let us pray that we would be one in the way we live with and care for and love one another;

Let us pray that by means of our unity, we would bear witness to the truth of who God is—and to the reason he sent his Son—and to the wonder that all who believe in his Son can similarly become one with him and with all who believe in him by the Holy Spirit he sends.

And so let us now pray.

[1] Hebrews 4:14–15: 14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.

[2] Luke 3:22–22: When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

[3] Mark 1:35.

[4] Luke 5:16.

[5] Luke 6:12. In verse 13 Luke notes that afterwards he chose twelve from among his disciples whom he also designated apostles.

[6] Luke 9:18.

[7] Matthew 19:13.

[8] Luke 9:28. Verses 29–30 go on to note, “29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. 30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus.”

[9] Matthew 6:9–13; Luke 11:1–4.

[10] Luke 18:1.

[11] Matthew 26:36–46; Mark 14:32–42; Luke 22:39–46.

[12] Matthew 26:39. See also verse 39. Mark 14:36: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Luke 22:42:  “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

[13] Luke 23:34.

[14] Matthew 27:46; Mark 16:34. This is a quotation of Psalm 22:1.

[15] Luke 23:46. This is a quotation of Psalm 31:5.

[16] John 8:44:  You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

[17] The end of The Great Commission in Matthew 28 20 makes clear he never does leave his followers for prior to ascending into heaven he declares to them, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

[18] This is attested to elsewhere in the New Testament. See, e.g., John 1:1–3, 10: 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made….10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.; 1 Corinthians 8:6:  yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.; Colossians 1:15–17: 15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.; Hebrews 1:1–2: 1 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.

[19] 2 Corinthians 4:6–7:For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.