In John 17, Jesus makes a very special request to the Father about his disciples and their future impact on the world:
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (vv. 20–23).
In this prayer, known as Jesus’s High Priestly Prayer, Christ prays for the unity of those who believe in him throughout the ages. But the kind of unity he requests is far beyond anything normally experienced here on Earth. Jesus asks that we might experience the same level of unity that he and the Father have known throughout eternity, a unity that can only be described by stretching the boundaries of human language: “Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us . . . .”
We don’t usually speak this way. What does it mean to be “in” each other? I believe Jesus is using the language of extreme unity and intimacy. Let me illustrate what I think he means.
A hug is a normal human way to express intimacy. Through a hug we can get very close to the other person, but we are still limited by physical restrictions. When a man and woman get married, the Bible says the two of them become one flesh, which is far more intimate than a hug, but there are still physical boundaries that limit how close we can get.
But when two spirits unite, there are no physical boundaries. Paul writes, “Whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit” (1 corinthians 6:17).
Because spirits do not have physical boundaries, they can actually merge into one without losing their identity. Jesus asks the Father to grant us that kind of mutual indwelling, so that we might experience the holy, intimate, and loving relationship with God and each other that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have known throughout eternity. Of course, we do not become God; but we do become one with God and other Christians.
Anyone who has been a Christian for any length of time knows that this kind of unity doesn’t come naturally. Sin has turned the great commandments about loving God and our neighbors on their head, so that instead of being God-centered and other centered, we have become self-centered. In other words, sin results in the breakdown of both our divine and human relationships making us incapable of loving the way God intended.
Just watch the evening news, and you’ll see the full impact of how sin has fractured human relationships on a global scale. We see not only scenes of war but also of terrorism, racism, and senseless killings. Families are torn apart through unfaithfulness and divorce.
Author William Mahedy worked closely with college students, many of whom experienced the trauma of abandonment due to divorce, psychological abuse as children, and sexual exploitation. He believed these and other similar factors are responsible for “the widespread problems with stability, self-image, feelings of emptiness, depression, suicidal thinking, fear of the future, and lack of hope among the young.” He wrote:
Abandonment is the fundamental component of these disorders . . . the young have been abandoned by parents, loved ones, teachers, political leaders, even the culture itself. No one is really “there” for them now. . . . More than any of their predecessors, they have been since birth a generation alone.1
Although we wish that Christian churches were exempt from such damaged relationships, that simply isn’t the case. According to the two-volume World Christian Encyclopedia, there are approximately 33,000 Christian denominations in the world today. In most cases new denominations begin when one group splits from the old as a result of painful disputes over various doctrines, practices, sacraments, and a myriad of other factors. This global level of fragmentation is the complete opposite of what Jesus prays for in John 17!
But Jesus knows that he isn’t praying in vain. True unity requires not only the forgiveness of sins but also the inner transformation of the Holy Spirit—the same Spirit that Jesus promised his disciples immediately before his John 17 prayer: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you” (john 14:16–17).
Of course, when the Spirit comes to live within us, we aren’t instantaneously transformed from being self-centered to being God and other-centered. Instead, the process begins at conversion and continues throughout our Christian lives until the Lord returns. But just because our unity is imperfect and incomplete does not mean it isn’t real.
In every church I’ve attended, people have demonstrated many of the qualities of unity Jesus desires. When someone in the congregation is sick, they pray for them, visit them in the hospital or at home, and prepare meals for them. When someone needs financial assistance, they are given money from the benevolent fund. When young couples are expecting a child, the women organize a baby shower. Those facing an emotional crisis are offered Christian counseling. When a loved one dies, the church surrounds the family with tender care.
But the unity seen in these churches isn’t just for special situations. In many churches today, small groups have become a vital component for building unity with other Christians. My wife and I have developed some of our closest friendships with the members of our small group. One of our groups met together for over ten years. We studied the Bible together, went on fun outings as a group, and supported each other in countless ways during our child-rearing years.
Jesus claims that this kind of love and unity can have an astounding impact on our evangelism. He says that when the world observes that we are “one,” then they will believe that Jesus was truly sent by the Father. The late Francis Schaeffer (1912–1984) called this “the final apologetic,” meaning that unity is the ultimate proof that Jesus really is God’s Son and the Savior of the world. While Jesus was on earth, he performed many miracles that demonstrated he was sent from God as the Savior of the world. He healed the sick, fed over five thousand people with a few loaves and fish, gave sight to the blind, and ultimately was raised from the dead. But what about today? What is the best way to convince our friends and loved ones that the gospel is true? According to Jesus, our love and unity are the modern-day miracles people need to see in action.
Christians often paraphrase Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), who claimed that we have a God-shaped hole in our hearts that only the Lord can fill. And Pascal was right. But that’s only half the story. We also have a human-shaped hole in our hearts that craves the kind of love and intimacy that Jesus describes in John 17. Dr. Larry Crabb tells us, “Community matters. That’s about like saying oxygen matters. As our lungs require air, so our souls require what only community provides. We were designed . . . to live in relationship.”2
So when unbelievers see Christians experiencing loving relationships that transcend what the world can offer, many want this kind of relationship for themselves. At first they may not even realize the depth of their longing, wrongly imagining that they only desire loving friendships. But as they are invited into a caring, accepting community of Christians, some eventually realize that our love for each other flows from our union with Jesus Christ, and that he alone can heal our broken and fractured relationships. At that moment of realization, when a non-Christian turns his or her eyes upward toward the source of our unity, Jesus’s words become true in that person’s life: “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (john 17:23).
In order for our evangelism to be effective, we must join together what some evangelistic techniques have separated. We must not only share the gospel message verbally, but also demonstrate the miraculous effects of the gospel in creating loving Christian community—the kind of community that non-Christians crave as much as we do.
1 William Mahedy and Janet Bernardi, A Generation Alone: Xers Making a Place in the World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 28-29.
2 Foreword to the book by Randy Frazee, The Connecting Church: Beyond Small Groups to Authentic Community (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), p. 13.