consider Jesus' famous prayer for Christian unity in John
17:21-24, by slightly broadening it out to include a few more
verses to get a sense of what Jesus was discussing;
"As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. And for their sakes, I sanctify Myself, that they may also be sanctified by the truth. I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they may also be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me: for You loved Me before the foundation of the world"
(John 17: 18- 24)
Having prayed for Himself as the 'Author of our salvation', and for the Apostles as the honoured instruments, Jesus now proceeds to pray for the entire body of believers, as those who were to be partakers of His salvation to the end of time. And He is careful to include all of us in His prayer, '...for them also who shall believe through their word'. Indeed, it seems apparent that when Jesus prays for the disciples He sees them as representatives of all believers. But He is quite clear; He explicitly assures us that His words are not only intended for those disciples but for all believers down through the ages yet to come. So no real believer on the Lord Jesus Christ is excluded from this prayer and it is reassuring to know that Jesus wanted to make that plain to us!
And yet - without a doubt - Jesus does assign a special place to the ministry of those apostles, speaking of those who shall believe 'through their word'. He does not recognise any other means of bringing people into a knowledge of the gospel except through The Word. And of course, in a liberal age where many prefer to dilute the teachings of Jesus, it will do us no harm at all to just remind ourselves that 'Word' here would include the vital testimony to the events of Jesus' life, death and resurrection as recorded in the four Gospels!
What is the main thrust in this section of Jesus' prayer?
1. Eternal Glory, verses 22-24, and,
2. Spiritual Unity in the meantime, verse 21-23.
Some misunderstand this. Christ's plea does not concern human organisational or instituitional unity; it goes way beyond that! It has little or nothing to do with Ecumenism. Ecumenism is the desire of some within a few Christian denominations to achieve some sort of instituitional 'oneness'. A few see an ideal of just one Christian organisation wholly united in purpose and doctrine. But the worrying thing is, some of these people are quite open to 'negotiating' Church doctrine. No, it is hardly realistic. Yet some of these people believe that these words of Jesus require it. Is that really so?
Now notice that in verse 21, Jesus wanted the Church to be one in the very sense that there is oneness between Jesus and the Father, and that, through this very 'oneness' the world may believe that God had sent Jesus. Quite obviously the oneness between Jesus and the Father is a oneness of complete unity of purpose and love. Through this unity of purpose, the world was to recognise who Christ was. Now, frankly, Ecumenism believes that this prayer was not answered and that the existence of hundreds of denominations with many differences over doctrine confirms this. It now falls to them, therefore, to make some urgent efforts to get this unity 'up and running' Now, just let me ask; Is it really likely that God the Father did not answer this prayer from His beloved Son? Or is it possible that some are misunderstanding just what Jesus meant? Ecumenism assumes that the prayer went unanswered, and yet most evangelicals believe that the prayer was answered!
Now notice again in verse 22 how this 'oneness' is going to be attained,
'...the glory which You gave Me I have given them, THAT THEY MAY BE ONE JUST AS WE ARE ONE' (my emphasis). So it is the giving of God's glory to the Church (already - in a sense - accomplished - note the past tense) which brings about this oneness among Christians. Now we need to briefly digress;
It would not be correct to say that we do not witness the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament - we certainly do - but the Spirit was only manifested on very rare occasions and usually to spectacular effect. The overall impression is that the Spirit could lead, convict and empower but usually in a more external sense than the more intimate and internal working of the Spirit in the New Testament. We now live in the age where the Prophet foretold that God would pour out His Spirit on all flesh. During this very long prayer, Jesus had already referred to the 'Comforter' (or 'Helper' NKJ) which He would send (John 14: 26, John 15: 26, John 16: 7-14) Read these verses carefully -notice the powerful impression of the need to 'send' the Spirit. Yes, the Spirit is not completely absent from the Old Testament, but the sense of 'send' highlights that the Spirit would now be more widely active, being powerfully present with Christians. But this would be in a new and unique role in order to convict believers and to continually point toward Jesus Christ! Notice this important and vital role. The Holy Spirit seeks to continually illuminate Christ! I'm afraid that there are some charismatics out there who seem to be more interested in the Spirit than the Jesus He seeks to illuminate! There is a modern hymn which invites the Spirit to 'glorify your name' but the Holy Spirit's mission is to glorify Christ!
We note then that the Holy Spirit would become very active among those who God would call, after Jesus returned to heaven. Now it is surely clear that the revelation of Christ and God's generous bestowal of the Holy Spirit upon His Church are the 'glories' which Jesus spoke of. After all, none of us would be anything without God's grace, favour and election. Any 'human righteousness' only has the worth of 'filthy rags', yes, I know that when Jesus uttered those words the Spirit had not yet been sent, yet future realities are often spoken of as present realities in the Holy Bible. Since Jesus had revealed Himself to the disciples, and they, of course, were bound to embrace that revelation being recipients of God's grace, the work was in a sense already done. Likewise Paul could say;
"Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified" (Romans 8: 30)
If we are truly children of God, we are - RIGHT NOW - as good as GLORIFIED!! This should be very encouraging to all of us!
So the point which we here uphold is that it is our glorification which enables the unity we should expect to see among Christians. This has nothing to do with membership of any organisation. This also causes Christ to be recognised. If any should still feel that Christ really meant one huge humanly-organised 'church instituition' which He expected to see, I would recommend a close study of 1 Corinthians 12;
"Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all"
And this theme is elaborated on throughout this chapter. Christ's Body is made up of many parts, not just one!
So we may conclude that it is the true spiritual unification through the work of the Holy Spirit which Jesus surely had in mind, and that this 'oneness' or, unity, was already accomplished when Jesus uttered His prayer. How come? Because Jesus had revealed Himself to His own and His own had accepted Him! Jesus prayed that the Church should be 'perfect in one' (John 17: 23). As God looks down from heaven, He sees One Church, fully unified in Spirit. I'm afraid that those who are not converted are not included in the number no matter how many years they have been 'attenders' and no matter how many church offices they may hold! God cannot be fooled!! It is frightening, perhaps, but we know that the returning Jesus is going to say to a few who believed themselves to be 'Christians', 'Depart from Me - I never knew you' (Matthew 7: 23).
But what of the multitude of denominations? Can God really be pleased with such a situation? Undoubtedly not, but God knew that it would happen! And He has - unquestionably - allowed it! But let us turn the question around; although many causes of division have been regrettable, many other causes have come about because sincere men and women have refused to compromise with their understanding of the Word of God. Is it not, at least to a degree, laudable that they felt impelled to take various stands because of a concern for doctrinal truth? Now, they will not all have been right, of course, since we currently only see through 'a glass darkly', whereas one day we will have a more full understanding. But surely we should admire the sincerity of those for whom nothing is as important as the Holy Bible.
But now what of the attitude of the ecumenical movement? Let me ask the question; is it not incredible that many of those who have expressed a concern to achieve organisational unity among 'Christians' have been those who have been theological liberals and who have accepted all the conclusions of liberal theology? A few would say that it is not surprising that some of these liberals have not recognised that the Spirit already HAS achieved true unity among believers, since some of these people have not exactly appeared to be Spirit-led believers!
The ecumenical movement seeks to cast aside centuries of decisions made by imperfect but God-fearing men and women in order to achieve a 'oneness' which would be purely cosmetic, that is, a oneness which would be 'for appearances only'. Most ecumenists strongly dislike evangelicals, of course, so would presumably be only too happy to leave them out of their plans. While we don't claim that all evangelicals are perfect and we are, frankly, quite often embarassed by some of the things which some evangelicals get up to, it nevertheless remains the case that it is primarily evangelicals - of various hues - who have continued to faithfully uphold the necessity to preach the biblical gospel! It is also interesting how ecumenical types mostly just represent the two or three largest denominations and seek greater influence, power and control for their own group by negotiation. They do not appear to care that they would leave countless thousands of sincere individuals behind. But we say; Do not worry about the ecumenical movement since it will - in all likelihood - come to nothing, powered and driven, as it is by those for whom Jesus was just a Great Teacher and a moral example and for whom Christianity is just one of many routes to God, the resurrection itself being a mere symbol. The ecumenical movement is not powered by the Holy Spirit and is concerned about appearances only. We can reject it.
So, Jesus' prayer WAS answered. Today the Church is One in the Spirit of love and holiness. As God looks down from heaven He sees One Church, made one by the work of His Spirit. Yes, often in many groupings but that is no barrier to the activity of the Holy Spirit. Whether or not the ecumenical movement ever achieves any real success, it fails before God because it is a cosmetic movement apparently mostly unconcerned and disinterested in faithfully upholding the Word of God!
Robin A. Brace