“Neither for these only do I pray, but for them also that believe on me through their word; that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us: that the world may believe that thou didst send me” (John 17:20-21).
Jesus’ petition for unity among His followers as part of His “High Priestly prayer” has reverberated throughout the generations. Many who confess the name of Christ seek that unity, even though it has proven to be quite the challenge throughout time.
Normally, when people consider what Jesus is saying regarding unity, they immediately think of matters of doctrine. It is true that God desires for believers to be one in doctrine and judgment (1 Corinthians 1:10). This unity must be real and substantive unity, for the standard of the unity is the Father and the Son. As far as we are aware, the Father and Son are not one despite significant disagreements about the means of salvation, the nature of the church and its work, or regarding other such matters of doctrine! Real, significant doctrinal unity must exist for fellow believers to work together and be one as Jesus intends for them.
Yet it is important for us to recognize that the unity under discussion involves far more than doctrine. Jesus, after all, did not say, “that they all may believe the same things, as You, Father, and I believe the same things.” Instead, Jesus said, “that they may be one, even as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You” (John 17:21). Doctrinal unity is certainly included in that, but just because you have a group of people who believe the same things does not mean you have a truly unified group. As those who enjoy happy and successful marriages know, unity involves much more than belief (cf. Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:4-5)!
How, then, are believers to be “one”? We are given the standard: just as the Father and the Son are one (John 17:20-22).
The Father and Son are one in nature and substance, and we must recognize that as fellow human beings, we are all of the same nature and substance (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11). The Father and Son are one in purpose and will (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:18, etc.), and believers ought to have the same purpose and will: to do the will of God and to be conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:28-29, Galatians 2:20).
This unity was only possible because of the godly characteristics of the Son: He was willing to humble Himself to do the will of the Father, becoming a man and dying on a cross (Philippians 2:5-11). In all things He sought the will of the Father and not His own will (cf. Matthew 26:39). The Son understood His role relative to the Father and did all things for the glory of the Father, because the Son loves the Father (John 14:31). And, lo and behold, the same commandments are given for us so that we may be able to work together. We are to humble ourselves and seek to do good for our fellow man (Philippians 2:1-4). We must be willing to subordinate our own desires and intentions in order to work with others. We must know our role within the group, and be satisfied with it (1 Corinthians 12:12-28). We do all these things because we love God, our fellow man, and especially our fellow believers (Romans 13:8-10, 1 John 4:7-21).
Becoming one as the Father and Son are one, therefore, is a trying task indeed! It does mean that we must all accept God’s truth and be one in our belief. Yet it also requires humility, hard work, seeking the best interest of our fellow Christians, and being content with our place in the whole. If we are able to do those things we will have true unity, and the world will be forced to confess that there is something special and different about those Christians, and realize that there is a greater power at work with them.
Let us work diligently to obtain the unity that God desires– not just in teaching, but also in attitude and conduct– so that the church may be built up, and God be glorified (cf. Ephesians 4:15-16)!
Ethan R. Longhenry