That They May All Be One
John 17: 20 — 26
Remember the closing few verses of the Gospel according to St Luke, and how the final view the disciples had of the Lord was Jesus in a posture of prayer — with hands lifted up, blessing his followers. The response of those disciples was, as you will also recall, that they were filled with joy, and they prayed and blessed God frequently.
The Church has, ever since, kept this image of the Lord in unceasing prayer, before her. The early Church continued to model herself on this example. Thus she reflected the same unceasing prayer, alert attention, watching and waiting for the Lord to return, crying:
"Maranatha" — Come Lord Jesus.
The Sunday which has this Gospel reading assigned to it occurs during the nine days of special prayer from Ascension Thursday to the festival of Pentecost.
It is during this time that we do what the first Christians did. We gather together for prayer and meditation, and ponder the events which the Gospel account related for us. In this particular case we meditate on the Great Prayer of Jesus on the night of the Last Supper. It is the longest recorded prayer of Jesus and remains an inspiration to the Church he formed to continue his work in the world.
On this occasion the night before he died, the Lord had been instructing his Apostles, at the conclusion of which he would have stood up and in Jewish custom would have sung the Hallel (Psalms 113 to 118). Then, still standing, he would have offered this Priestly Prayer. In it he talked about his mission and the needs of his disciples present. Then he went on to pray for all believers. It is at that point we join the prayer at verse 20.
Some Notes On the Text
We acknowledge that the following notes are unusually detailed. The text we are meditating on is possibly the most profound ever recorded in human history. We will never fully plumb the depths of this great prayer. To be a Christian, is to have the honour to hold this as part of one's spiritual heritage. For this reason we have added extra details to help each reader to treasure it in the depths of their heart, and to return to it often and be renewed and strengthened, and above all, to become more at one with God, with others, and with one's own self.
Verses 20 and 21 (a)
Our Lord prays for all future believers exactly what he prayed for his original disciples.
"that they may be all one
just as you are in me, and I in you".
So his top priority is that all his disciples are to display a very distinctive and unique mark: the unity between the Father and the Son. Our source of unity is therefore is always to be located in heaven. All manner of disintegration will surround the Church, but its members are to manifest an inner unity. But that is not all.
Our Lord goes on to extend and emphasize this idea of unity. The text is usually translated something like, "May they also be in us". Some Greek manuscripts have, "May they also be one in us". Most commentators agree that, in essence, the meaning is the same. It is a mystery that while in this life we cannot be "one" as are the Father and the Son, nevertheless our Lord prays that we will in some way share in their unity. John Ryle points out that this is the basis of any unity among Christians:
"The true secret of the unity of believers lies in the expression "one in us". They can only be thoroughly "one" by being joined at the same time to one Father and to one Saviour. Then they will be one with one another."
Jesus goes on to give a reason for his very focussed and earnest prayer:
"so that the world may believe that you have sent me".
Here, he is harkening back to this teaching about the vine"
"Remain in me and I will remain in you…
I am the vine and you are the branches".
By heeding this call, the followers of Jesus will manifest not only divine unity, but also God's presence. This in turn he says, will help people in the world to see that it was for them that he was sent.
Verses 22 and 23
Jesus continues (if we may paraphrase St John's account):
"So that they may be one:
I in them, and you in me,
I have given them the glory
that you gave me".
It is hardly surprising if we find we have difficulty in understanding this. It is after all, the Lord praying to his Father.
In these two verses, Jesus in a way simplifies his declarations about unity, and expands them more fully, to give the prominence his teaching on unity is to have. We interpret his words to mean:
But, what is this "glory" that God gave his Son, who has handed it on to us? Scholars over the ages have given their opinions which we can reflect on. Some of these are:
Perhaps each of these helps us catch a glimpse of the inexhaustible meaning of this precious gift unequalled in all spiritual writing.
Jesus follows these profound thoughts with even deeper ones.
"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".
The opening words to this verse have always warmed the hearts of our Lord's followers. Christ yearns for the presence of his followers. Elsewhere he has talked of a certain unity, even in this world. Here, he is reaching forward to the final consummation. He is praying for every follower — and remains praying for them, that they will reach their final Homeland and behold Jesus' glory.
To behold the glory of the Lord is most certainly not to look on as a spectator, but to participate in it, share in it, and enjoy it.
The closing words of this verse open up a whole new vista of faith. Talking to his Father, Jesus says, "You loved me before the creation of the world". Thus the glory of Christ in the next world is a glory which had been prepared from all eternity, before time began, and before the creation of man. It was not only something which, like Moses, or John the Baptist, he had obtained by his faithfulness on earth; but something he had, as the eternal Son of the Eternal Father, from everlasting.
Jesus enters into the last stage of his profound prayer by calling on God as his "Righteous Father". This is a very beautiful title and it is the only time anyone witnessed our Lord using it. The word "righteous" can only be represented by a cluster of meanings especially when ascribed to the Father. These include:-
The prayer continues, "though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me".
"I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known". Here, as previously Jesus declares that to make known the Father, was one of the great objects of his ministry. We can take comfort in the fact that he continues to expand our knowledge of the Father as he here promises — but also will continue to make the Father known more widely throughout humanity.
And why, this pledge of commitment to his great mission? The answer lies in the final words of his prayer. Still addressing his Father he says,
"that the love you have for me may be in them,
and that I myself may be in them".
This is indeed a great climax to our Lord's intimate prayer to the Father, which remained an inspiration for the Church down through the ages. What could give greater confidence to Jesus' followers confronted with the most dangerous threats of violence, oppression and satanic torture than these beautiful words. Just as these words of Christ have enabled his followers to die for him, so they continue to help others to live for him.
We give one example here, of the way our forebears were influenced to think and teach by this text.
We can see why Christians who understood this truth of the Lord's teaching about his presence within us, would do nothing to dishonour him no matter how terrible the fury of hell unleashed upon them.
We will all feel humbled as we leave our reflection on this privileged insight into our Lord's prayer life. Hopefully this will help us see that we have but scratched the surface and that it would be in our best interest to return often to it and meditate on its endless riches.
Over as period of time we should reflect on the whole prayer of 26 verses. Meanwhile we can at least pray daily for the four things our Lord upholds in it for us: (a) preservation, (b) sanctification, (c) unity, and (d) final glory in Christ's company.
We conclude with a very fine comment from an old exposition of this chapter by George Newton:
"How earnest and importunate is Christ with God the Father, that we may be one here, and that we may be in one place hereafter! Oh, let us search into the Heart of Jesus Christ, laid open to us in this abridgment of His intercession for us, that we may know it and the workings of it more and more, until at length the precious prayer comes to its full effect, and we be taken up to be for ever with the Lord; and where He is there we may be also!"
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