Born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1831 Robert Murray McCheyne was an active youth who grew into a lively young man. After giving all his time and attention to playing cards, dancing, and music, his older brother’s sudden death awakened in him an earnest desire for the things of God. Converted shortly after he bought the works of Jonathan Edwards and devoted his ‘lively’ life to preaching the gospel in Scotland. He matured and grew and eventually became the pastor of St. Peter’s church in Dundee and found that Dundee was a ‘dead region’, a ‘city given over to idolatry and hardness of heart.’ In such a city he had a need for courage, to preach the pure gospel message to a people who didn’t want it. After many trials and much suffering for faithfully ministering in Dundee one of the most astounding and powerful quotes came flowing out of his pen one morning. “If I could hear Christ praying for me in the next room, I would not fear a million enemies. Yet distance makes no difference. He is praying for me.”
That we have an enemy who prowls around seeking to devour us can at times fill one with great fear. But even so, what McCheyne said remains true. Perhaps you wonder, where in the Bible he could get such a thought from? Our text today.
Recall the movements of this momentous prayer we’ve seen so far. In v1-5 Jesus prays for Himself, in v6-19 Jesus prays for His disciples, and as we come to v20-26 we ought to be filled with strength and hope as we see Jesus pray for us. We might know some great prayer warriors of Church history who faithfully devoted hours upon hours to prayer. Perhaps Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Charles and Susannah Spurgeon, John Wesley, Martin Luther, and St. Augustine’s mother Monica come into view here, as they were all whole heartedly devoted to prayer. We might even know a few great prayer warriors within our own congregation who do the same for us and our city. For me, the crew that consistently and faithfully attends our Thursday night prayer meeting comes into view. Listening to them pray for me, for my family, and for you gives me great joy.
This morning I’d like to call your attention to one thing: as encouraging as these people are to us in their endeavors in prayer, they all pale in comparison to Christ who prays for us.
It begins in v20, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word…”
No longer is He only praying for the disciples, now He turns to pray for those who will believe in Him through the disciples word. As we’ve seen time and time again in John 17 ‘word’ remains a prominent theme. In v6 we see it’s the word the disciples kept. In v8 we see it’s the word the Father gave the Son that the Son then gave the disciples that the disciples then not only received but believed. In v13 we see it’s His word that leads to His very joy being in them. In v14 we see it’s the word the disciples believed which brought them such hostility from the world. In v17 we see it’s the word that will sanctify, separate, and make them holy while they remain in the world. And in v18 we see Jesus sending the disciples out into the world with the word, just as the Father sent Him into the world with the word. Now in v20 ‘word’ remains prominent but there’s a shift. Before it was Jesus’ word or the Father’s word, now it’s ‘their word.’ This shift from Jesus’ word to ‘their word’ shows Jesus’ intention in entrusting the disciples with His word. We learn in this that all those who will believe in Jesus from this point on until the end of history will do so because they will hear the voice of the Shepherd through the voice of His messengers.And note that this isn’t the language of possibility, as if Jesus is praying in hope that some, possibly, maybe, would believe in Him through the apostles word. No, the language isn’t of possibility, it is language of certainty. God will gather in all who will believe in Him through the apostles word.
What though is their word? It is firstly, the word they heard from Jesus. They heard the word of Jesus, they believed in Jesus, now they will spread out to preach the word of Jesus so that others will also hear and believe in Jesus. We can expand on this a bit. Second, we can say the word of the apostles is truly their word and truly God’s word. As Jesus said, He will very soon send the Spirit to them and the Spirit will lead them into all truth. The result of the Spirit’s work through the apostles is the Spirit inspired, inerrant, and infallible apostolic deposit of truth we call the New Testament Scriptures. This is why the book of Acts speaks of the apostles as those who preached not their own word but the ‘word of God’ or the ‘word of the Lord.’ It’s why we see them devoting themselves to ‘the ministry of the word’ bringing bold witness to the ‘word of His grace’ and then watched as they saw people receive ‘the word of God.’ Therefore, the authority of the apostles word, or the authority of the New Testament, rests on the authority of Jesus Himself, because it was first His word and He gave it to them.
This means while the word is truly ‘their word’, the word of the apostles is also God’s very Word that they believed and preached. And it’s also the very word of God that we have heard and believed and hear still as we gather together here to sing, pray, preach, and see its sacred contents. Contrary to popular opinion then, the Church didn’t create the Bible, the Bible created the Church!
Now, that Jesus prays for us who will believe their word is immensely encouraging, and knowing that He prays for us ought to lead us to the same conclusion it led Robert Murray McCheyne – if we could hear Jesus praying for us, what on earth would we ever fear? This is great, but the text goes further and defines what He prays for us. Of all the things you’d think He’d pray for us, what is most urgent to Him? Unity. In v21-23 we have something of a staircase presented to us here, that expands each step up we take. Let’s take it a step at a time.
Step 1 (v21)
“…that they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You have sent Me.”
This first step in this ascending prayer for our unity begins here in v21 with four parts.
1) It begins “…that they may all be one…” Earlier in v11 He prayed for the unity of the disciples, now here in v21 we see the grand request of unity for us is first made clear by Jesus. He desires that we be one, that we be unified. Unity is by definition when many combine into one harmonious whole. This is something very good, Jesus desires it, but unity can also be something very tragic. It was horrific when white men gathered together and decided it was a good idea to enslave black men and women. It was horrific when Nazi Germany decided to eradicate the Jews. It was also horrific as we saw the news this week coming out of New York, that it has now been legalized to kill a baby in the womb right up to the point of birth. When all these of decisions were made there was strong unity in place, and that unity is wicked through and through. So yes, Jesus desires unity and unity can indeed be wonderful, but what kind of unity does Jesus have in mind here? Is it mere agreement we make about some cause or an arrangement we make to live a certain way together? Perhaps it might even mean that we’re to find the lowest common theological denominator with other Christians and sacrifice all other biblical conviction? No, it’s none of these things. The unity in v21 is a unity built and founded upon the revelation of God in Jesus Christ given to the first disciples and then through them given to us.It is unity in what God has revealed to us through Christ. Specifically, it is a unity intended to resemble the Trinity. We see this next.
2) “…just as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You…” The Father is truly in the Son and the Son is truly in the Father, such that Jesus can truly say it is the Father who performs the His own works in John 14:10, and such that John can say the Father created the world through the Son in John 1:1-3. But while being so perfectly unified the Father and the Son are distinct from one another. They are one, yet they are distinct. So it is to be with us. While our unity in this life comes far short of it, our unity is to truly resemble the perfect unity of the Father and the Son.And while we must seek unity, we must not seek uniformity. When we hear the gospel are believe it and experience the power of the gospel in salvation, we do not receive a uniform that all other Christians have received throughout all time. No, we become new in every sense of the term and while we truly come into the Church catholic, the Church universal, and take our place among the redeemed multitude of saints we remain us. Just as the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father.
So our unity is now more defined, but it keeps getting clearer…
3) “…that they also may be in Us…” See in this phrase that we’re not only to be unified, and that we’re not only to be unified like the Trinity is unified, but that through our unity Jesus desires to bring us up into a heavenly fellowship with the Godhead. Yes our life in this life is earthly, but in redemption have we not also been seated with Christ in the heavenly places already? Yes we have. So yes our unity exists here in this life, but our unity has a heavenly, other worldly, aroma all about it…which stands out in our fallen world, which is why we see the world come into view next in v21.
4) “…so that the world may believe that You have sent Me.” Jesus is praying that our unity would not only bring us up into a heavenly fellowship with the Godhead, but that it would also extend out to the world around us. And when the world sees our gospel-fueled love for one another (John 13:34-35), when the world sees our gospel-fueled willingness to sacrifice for one another (Phil. 2:1-11), and when the world sees people doing life together who would naturally do life apart because of this gospel, when the world sees that, it is only explainable in the gospel.This is what we deeply desire for SonRise and for the every Church, and for the Church as a whole. We don’t want to unite around similar life experience, similar hobbies, similar causes, similar needs, or similar social positions. Those aren’t bad things in and of themselves, but when we build unity in or around those things we’ve made the mistake of building unity around something that would exist even if God didn’t.The unity we desire ought to be the unity Jesus prays for here. A unity in our local assembly that reflects the unity of the heavenly assembly.A unity based in the gospel of God revealed by Jesus Christ, will show the world what Jesus asks for here, that He is truly the divine Son of God.
Now take all of this reality, and turn it up a notch as we enter into v22 where we find step 2 of this staircase of unity.
Step 2 (v22)
“The glory that You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one even as We are one…”
Jesus now prays about our unity in terms of glory. Back in v5 we see Jesus pray “And now, Father, glorify Me in Your own presence with the glory that I had with You before the world existed.” I stated then that Jesus’ desire here in asking the Father to glorify Himself would be answered on the cross, which was simultaneously the hour of His deepest humiliation and the hour of His greatest exaltation. Bring that forward here in v22. When Jesus speaks of glory here, He’s got the same things in mind for us. For Jesus the path of lowly service was the path of true glory, and He says here that this glory He has now given to us. Meaning that as it was for Him it also is for us. The way of lowly service, or the way of the cross, is the way of true glory.For Him it led to death on the cross where He laid down His life to atone for our sin. For us, it leads to a kind of life where we willingly lay down our preferences, our needs, our sins, indeed where we lay down our lives if it comes to it, to honor and serve one another in love. This is the kind of glorious unity He has given us, and notice again, this is the kind of unity present within the Trinity. Lesson? This kind of sacrificial, costly, lay down our all for one another like Jesus did for us kind of life, is the glory that we’re to be unified in. One commentator put it like this, “We must never think of the cross as our penalty; we must think of it as our glory…So when it is hard to be a Christian, we must regard it as our glory, as our honor given to us by God.”
Now we’ve come to last step in the staircase of our passage in v23, where all of what’s come before is present and expanded to it’s highest degree.
Step 3 (v23)
“I in them and You in Me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that You sent Me and loved them even as You loved Me.”
Christ in us, the Father in Christ, us growing into a perfect unity means, while our unity ought to be present in us and robust in us, it must also be growing in us. Which is to say while God pursues and matures us in unity, we’re to pursue and grow our unity. When do we stop pursuing unity? When it’s wonderful? When it’s thick? When it’s vibrant and healthy? No, when it’s perfect. When will it be perfect? In glory. So, our unity in the gospel of Christ revealed by the Father through Christ, given to the apostles, and now given to us, our unity in all of this, is our pursuit until the end of time. Why pursue this? Two reasons given in v23. First, as we’ve seen before in v21, “…that the world may know that You sent Me…” and second, “…that the world may know that You…loved them even as You loved Me.” My oh my! Jesus asks not only that our unity would reveal His divinity to the world, but that the world would see and be stunned by the fact that the Father loves Christians, loves us (!), as He loves His Son. On this verse Charles Spurgeon’s words are higher than Everest, deeper than the ocean, and richer than all the money in the world, “Surely the passage seems to culminate here. These words rise like the peak of a mighty Alp almost out of our sight into the clear brightness of heaven…Now believers, though unable to fully comprehend this but can believe it, are loved by the Father as surely as the Father loves the Son, in the same manner also he loves you: without beginning, without measure, without change, without end.”
Do we dare believe it? That in Christ the Father loves those who believe in Christ with the same love that He loves Christ with? We must not only believe it, we must enjoy it, build our community on it, and labor that the world sees it! Is there a greater evangelistic message than this?That the God we’ve offended in our sin is not only able to save us through His divine Son but will love us as He loves His Son when we believe in His Son!
What a passage this is! In v20-23 we see the power of the apostolic word, our unity stressed three times, the unity of Godhead stressed three times, the mission of the Church twice, and the great love of the Father at the end.
One final thought.
Don’t think of Jesus’ prayer for our unity as something God hasn’t answered already. He has. Listen to Paul explain how. “…remember that you were at one time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that He might create in Himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then, you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:12-19).
God has answered this prayer for our unity in Christ, and now through us His Church He showing the world His wonderful gospel wisdom (Eph. 3:10).
John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad! Vol. 3 – Collected Works of John Piper (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2017) page 606.
Matthew Barrett, God’s Word Alone – The Authority of Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2016) page 219.
Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John – NICNT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1971) page 733.
D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John – PNTC (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1991) page 568.
Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology– Vol. 3 (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, reprinted 1997) page 19.
Carson, page 568.
Mark Dever, Jamie Dunlop, Compelling Community(Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2015) page 19-33.
Ibid., see footnote 1, page 25.
Morris, page 734-735. There are many opinions on what this ‘glory’ is in v22, Morris provides the most helpful explanation.
William Barclay, quoted in Morris, page 735.
Carson, page 569.
Grant Osborne, John – Verse by Verse (Bellingham, Washington: Lexham Press, 2018) page 403.