Pursuing the Unity of the Gospel: Part Six

Monday, July 23, 2012

Part Six:

True Unity Has a PROGRESSIVE Nature

Farming is not for impatient people.  Fruit farming is especially not for impatient people...like me.  I don't mind vegetable farming for one simple reason: I get to eat what I planted in a few short months.  I DO mind the wait-time on fruit farming for one simple reason: I can't eat any fruit for about three years...since that's how long it takes for a newly planted fruit tree sapling to start producing fruit!

I recall working on my M.Div. while I lived on the Mojave Desert of Palmdale, CA, the farthest city in north Los Angeles county.  The backyard of the house we rented was filled with lush fruit trees.  Apple, plum, peach, cherry, orange, lemon, etc. Our picnic table was covered by a hanging trellis filled with grapes and muscadines.  Our front yard had three cherry trees.  It was heaven for a fruit lover like me.  Then, when I moved, I tried to grow a fruit tree.  But I never got to eat any fruit from it.  The problem was, as I found, is time.  I moved before the tree was three years old.  

Patience has always been a problem for me...probably like most human beings.  Progress can be excruciating in our instant-gratification culture.  It is for me...and for my kids, who'll undoubtedly have this problem compounded exponentially when they're my age.  Microwaves and internet have created an "I want it NOW!" culture.  And when that is applied to the local church, it is destructive.  Programs, ministries, workshops, seminars and sermons are all executed with such great professionalism, but we want results NOW!  We want to see people saved and/or making life-changing decisions immediately following our Sunday morning sermons.  We want to see people making decisions to follow Jesus immediately after we have shared the gospel with them on our visitation night.  We want to teach a class on eldership and see guys being qualified immediately after the class is over.  You could probably fill in the blank with your own experiences at your local church.  

Unity in the body of Jesus does not and will never work like that.  If true unity is supposed to be missional, as Jesus prayed, then that kind of unity - which I call ecumissional - takes time.  It takes...a very......l.....o.....n.....g..... time.  We're talking years, not days or weeks or even months.  It is something that must be pursued, maintained, fought for, and labored in.  The global-evangelical-missional results Jesus prayed for will be the fruit of our pursuit of unity.  But again, we must stop at nothing to pursue it and maintain it.

Therefore, all of this means that being ecumissional is a process.  It doesn’t happen overnight.  All processes have progress.  It’s built into the DNA of a process.  You’re going through motions in a particular order to achieve a particular outcome.  The mission at your local church is no different.  It is about progress.  

Jesus makes that pretty clear in His parables of the Kingdom in Matthew 13.  I’m thinking specifically of the Parable of the Mustard Seed, where the seed is planted and the tree grows so huge over time that eventually all the birds of the air build their nests in it.  This represents the slow, progressive growth of the kingdom which eventually becomes a resting place for all of God’s people.  And this brings me to the final point about the nature of true unity.

To show this to you, I’m gonna have to dive down a little deeper into the Greek, which means you’re gonna have to strap on your Bible study scuba gear and let me take you on a tour of what’s going on beneath the surface of the English here.  

True Unity is a Present & Future Promise from the Father

First, I want you to look at verses 20-21, where Jesus refers to “those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one…”  The Greek verb usage beneath “will believe” is a present active.  This means that the action is an ongoing occurrence in the present time.  

Yet Jesus is making a distinction in this verse from the eleven apostles for whom He’s been praying all along.  (Remember, Judas was already a lost cause.)  Verses 1-19 has contained prayers centered on the eleven.  But Jesus isn’t just concerned about them alone.  They merely represent everyone else whom the Father loves and has given to the Son.

So if all the other people whom the Father has given to the Son will be one with Him, and most of them haven’t even been born yet, then He must be speaking of a future day when this will happen.  

Second, this is where the verb tense beneath “may all be one” comes in.  That is present subjunctive, as we’ve already noted, which means Jesus is speaking of the certainty of an event that is happening in the future and will eventually come to pass.  Jesus is referring to all the rest of the believers who will come to Him in the future and eventually be unified with Him.  

This means that the present active tense verb in verse 20 is actually a special usage of the present tense called the futuristic present which “describes a future event, typically adding the connotations of immediacy and certainty" [2].  The rest of His people WILL believe in Him, according to verse 20, and they WILL be unified with Him, according to verse 21.  As one famous commentator wrote, 
“The eye of Jesus scans the centuries, and presses to His loving heart all his true followers, as if they had all been saved even at this very moment…[T]he standpoint of the prayer is ideal, viewing future events as if they had already happened.” [2]   
Third, look at verse 23, where Jesus prays, “that they may become perfectly one.”  The verb usage in the English doesn’t seem show any change from the other occurrences of the verb “may.”  But in the Greek, there IS a significant change.  

As I just said, in verses 21 and 22, the phrases “may be one” are in the present subjunctive, which essentially means that there is this ongoing present probability of what Jesus is praying for.  And since JESUS is the one praying, and the FATHER is the One listening to HIS OWN SON, I think the percentage of probability is 100%!  

But in verse 23, the verb tense changes to a perfect passive.  This change of verb tense in Jesus’ language, I believe, points to two crucial truths.  

For one, Jesus is using the perfect tense to ultimately envision a future day and time when the unity of believers will be a permanent final result of His prayer.  Normally, a perfect tense verb refers to action completed in the past, yet has results or ripple effects that continue on into the present.  But to what action would Jesus have in mind that would have happened in the past?  He doesn’t explicitly refer to anything.  

BUT…and this is a very important but… if the previous futuristic present in verse 20 showed us anything, it was that Jesus looks at time as a whole unit and sees all of His sheep united under His care.  Could it be then, that Jesus has in mind the “past” action of electing those saints before He ever created the world?  

Perhaps He has in mind the fact that He once had His sheep in His mind before He created the world, and He knows that ALL of His sheep would eventually be united under His care and in His love. It may be speculation, but there’s a great deal of probability in it given the way Jesus talks in other places like John 10:16 where He says, 
“And I have other sheep that are not of this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be ONE flock, ONE shepherd” (emphasis mine).  
At least one commentator agrees with this view when he wrote,
“[Jesus] is speaking, in part, about the oneness that is further perfected as the "other sheep" (10:16) and the "scattered children of God" (11:52) are gathered in.”  [3]
So the Father elected the sheep before He created the world.  And Jesus is prophesying that they WILL BE ONE flock, with ONE shepherd.  Since there are still many “other sheep” who have not yet been born in time and brought to Christ and listened to His voice, not all are unified yet.  So the work of unity that is being done by CHRIST HIMSELF, is not yet completed.  But it’s on its way to being completed.  Which means there’s progress.  Always!  The mission of God in uniting all Christ’s sheep in Him and under His care is a progressive work.  

While an investigation into the original Greek verbs Jesus uses here may have seemed overbearing, I hope you can see how crucial it is.  The English just doesn't show us the whole picture.  There is huge significance behind Jesus’ verb usages here.  

He reaches into the future in verses 20-21
and pulls it back into the present.  

And then He refers to a oneness His people will have with Him and the Father,
in verse 23, and pushes the results out in the future.  

The references, again, to “may all be one” refer to
the certainty of the unity Jesus is praying for here.  

So this time span between Jesus’ prayer and the day when all of His people will be unified is one in which we are progressively experiencing a growing unity toward that final day when it will be accomplished once and for all.

There are still people being gathered into the flock.  This means, again, that true unity is missional.  The fact that this unity has a missional nature, necessarily makes it a progressive then.  The mission will continue until Jesus returns.  And therefore, so will the prayer of unity and its accompanying answer by the Father.  

Now, if you’ll allow me, let me move your attention back to the second part of the crucial issue in Jesus’ usage of the perfect passive in verse 23.  Again, Jesus is talking about the saints becoming “perfectly one” which is a result of His electing work before He created the world.  

But Jesus also uses the perfect tense with the passive voice.  As many of you know, the passive voice indicates that someone else is performing the action here.  And who is that?  Who is performing this action of unifying the sheep of Christ?  

Obviously, it seems to be the Father, if for no other reason than that the Father is the One to whom Jesus is praying and asking for unity.  He’s praying to the Father because the Father is the only One who can enable and enact that kind of unity, reminding us again that true Christian unity has a distinctly heavenly nature.  A

nd this sort of brings us back full circle, doesn’t it, because I believe that’s where we started initially, with true unity having a heavenly nature that can only be accomplished from the Father in heaven.

In the final post, we'll conclude this series with some practical strategies on pursuing the unity of the gospel.

[1] William Hendrickson.  John, Vol. 2.  New Testament Commentary.  (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House: 1953), p. 362.

[2] Daniel Wallace.  Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), p. 752.  See further pages 535-537 for further explanation.  It would seem that the context points to a “Mostly Futuristic” or “Ingressive-Futuristic” usage of this special present tense, since Jesus is praying for “an event begun in the present time, but completed in the future” (p. 537).

[3] Rodney A. Whitacre.  John, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series at http://www.biblegateway.com/resources/commentaries/IVP-NT/John/Jesus-Concludes-Time-Alone.

About the Author: Rob is a entrepreneur in Statesboro, GA, where he envisions and pursues missional-shaped business for the kingdom. He and his wife Sherri have been married for 18 years and together have three sons and a daughter. Rob believes the mission of the gospel is summed up in four simple phrases: know God, obey Jesus, make disciples, and plant churches. This is the pursuit of his life, as well as the point of his blog.

You Might Also Like