John 17 is one of the greatest chapters of the Bible, and certainly one of the most treasured. It is often referred as “The High Priestly Prayer.” The picture is that of the High Priest entering the innermost sanctuary of the temple, with the names of the 12 tribes of Israel on a breast-piece covering his heart. Here Jesus enters the very presence of the Father, with our names inscribed on his heart, to intercede for us. This is Holy ground. This is sacred terrain. Here is the Son of God bearing his soul before his Heavenly Father. And we get to eavesdrop on what he is saying.
He begins by praying for himself in verses 1-5, that he would be glorified in his cross-bearing work. Then, in verses 6-19 he prays for his disciples. He prays for two things: (1) their spiritual protection and, (2) their sanctification – that they would be set apart for God, put to proper use, by the truth. And then, in verses 20-26, he prays for his church – all who will believe in His Name. The main focus in this part of the prayer is UNITY, but not just any kind of unity. It is unity with a very clear and vital purpose.
If you ask any military specialist, he will tell you there are three essentials for all military endeavours: an objective, a strategy and tactics. The objective is the goal, the hilltop you want to take or the city that needs to be captured. The strategy is the procedure or plan you will follow in order to reach your objective. The tactics are the specific manoeuvres by which the strategy will be carried out.
In this prayer of Jesus, we find all three. This is not a feel-good prayer about Christians holding hands with each other and being friends. This is a highly strategic prayer. He is leaving behind a small band of followers on whom his entire campaign rests. The stakes are astronomically high: the eternal destiny of millions hangs in the balance.
Twice in six verses, Jesus states the great objective. We find it in the two “so that” clauses – in verse 21:
“May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me.” (17:21)
And then in verse 23:
“I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me….” (17:23)
Here we see the great objective. God’s whole redemptive plan is aimed at one target: the world. That’s the ultimate focus of this prayer.
“For God so loved the world,” John 3:16 tell us, “that he gave his one and only Son.” For what great purpose? The next part of the verse tells us – “that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” That is God’s plan. That is what he is after. He’s after the world. It is easy for Christians to forget this isn’t it? We think it’s all about us. Jesus loves US, Jesus died for US, Jesus prays for US. Yes, and Amen to all of that. But it doesn’t end there. We are not the end of God’s plans.
Let’s look at those two important verses again, and placing the emphasis somewhere else:
“May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me.” (John 17:21)
And verse 23:
“I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me….” (John 17:23)
There it is. “That they may be made completely one.” That is the strategy by which God intends to accomplish his great objective. You say, “Well that’s interesting. If God’s great objective is the salvation of the world, how is Christians being one is going to accomplish that?” Because the greatest tool of evangelism is true, authentic, unity. When people see Christians, out of genuine love for each other, putting aside partiality, personal preferences, race, ethnicity and skin colour, status and social standing, and intellectual elitism – they’ll take notice.
And do you know why? Because they don’t experience that in the world. They don’t see that happening in their community or workplace. What they see is racism, elitism, sexism, snobbery, conflict and strife. There’s strife in families, strife in communities, and there’s strife in the workplace. What people need – in order to believe the gospel, to believe supernatural transformation is possible, is to see people – very different people, not just tolerating each other, but genuinely caring for one another.
That’s what Jesus intends for his church. But how will that happen?
His tactics are revealed to us in verses 24 of John 17:
“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, so that they will see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the world’s foundation.” (17:24)
And now look at verse 26:
“I made your name known to them and will continue to make it known, so that the love you have loved me with may be in them and I may be in them.” (17:26)
Jesus says in verse 24 – “I want those you have given me to be with me where I am so that they will see my glory which you have given me” and he says in verse 26 – “the love you have loved me with may be in them and I may be in them”. Obviously, there is a special connection between God’s glory and love. So, what is it? I believe it is this:
The “glory” Jesus speaks of here is the glorious, harmonious union between the Father and the Son – a relationship of love, mutual respect and self-sacrifice. That love was supremely demonstrated when the Son, in full submission to the Father, went obediently to cross in order to atone for our sin. That very love of the Father and the Son is now experienced in the hearts of believers all over the world – through the indwelling Spirit, and results in a profound, supernatural unity.
God’s tactics then – the method he will use for his strategy (making his people one) to fulfil his great objective (bringing the world to himself) is divine, supernatural love operating in the hearts of believers.
Remember Jesus’ words in John 13:34?
“I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another.” (John 13:34)
You see now what is at stake. Church unity is no small issue. It is a major issue. It affects everything. The eternal destiny of people’s souls in our communities – on your street and my street, depend on it.
We must pursue it. We must, like our Saviour, pray for it. We must be on guard against selfish attitudes and petty arguments. We must put aside personal desires and preferences. We must work through problems, humbly confessing sin to one another and asking for forgiveness. We must, as leaders, deal swiftly and firmly with all dissention and power-positioning or sexism or any kind of elitism in our midst, knowing that such activity is the work of the enemy, who seeks to destroy the beauty that God is creating amidst his people. And we must all resolve, without hesitation, to love every single person – especially fellow Christians, unconditionally.
“How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in harmony! It is like fine oil on the head, running down on the beard, running down Aaron’s beard onto his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon falling on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord has appointed the blessing— life forevermore.” (Psalm 133)
Note: this post is based on a message I preached at our Church called “Jesus prays for his church.” You can listen to it on our website here