Pursuing the Unity of the Gospel: Part Two

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Part Two:

True Unity Has a HEAVENLY Nature

I was always amused in high school and college by other students who were always looking to take shortcuts on their reading assignments.  In literature class I recall being assigned hefty classics to read, after which we would be tested on.  The tests would comprise of something along the lines of an essay, multiple choice, or perhaps fill in the blank.

What amused me was the thinking on the part of some students that if they could buy and read the "Cliff Notes", watch the movie version, or use a student's test from last year, that they could muster enough knowledge about the book to at least pass the test.  A few did.  But the others failed miserably.  

That's a great illustration of how so many churches try to promote, stimulate, or experience unity, both within the walls of their fellowship, and outside in the community.  They might have read a great book on unity, thinking it is all about reaching out to other churches or denominations.  Or perhaps they talked to another church to see what they were doing or had done in the past.  And maybe even some were "inspired" by watching a movie about reconciliation and unity, and they wanted to experience similar feelings.

In the end, there is really only one passing grade: obedience.  And in the end, there's really only one way to get it right: read the Bible.  Jesus could not have been any clearer in John 17 on what true unity looks like.  Nor could He have been any clearer on its necessity.  After all, if this is one of the only two instances we have in the Bible of Jesus praying, that seems to make it crucially important for believers, wouldn't you think?

The Source of Unity

The true unity Jesus prays for is a heavenly sort of unity that can only be granted from above, by the Father.  You see, this unity comes from heaven, like all the other things Jesus taught about.  And that’s because true unity can only come from there (James 1:17).  

Mankind has tried for thousands of years to produce a unity that in the end is temporary at best.  Peace accords and treaties hardly work or last. But from heaven the Father sends a divine kind of peace that produces a kind of unity that is not only a certainty, but will also last for eternity.  The Father is the only One who gives, generates, stimulates, and motivates unity among His people.  

This is the source of the unity we must seek in our local churches.  The kind of unity Jesus prays for is a unity based on the revelation of Jesus Christ, who He was and what He did for us.  It is impossible to have any kind of real unity unless people are unified on the person and work of Jesus Christ!  

This kind of unity only comes from the Father who gives revelation and understanding about the Son to begin with.  And this in turn necessitates prayer.  Prayer is seeking the Father to do something we cannot do.  Even Jesus Himself recognized this, which is why He prays in John 17 here.  Likewise, Paul recognizes this fact and writes to the Ephesian church,
“I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him…” (vv. 16-17).
The FATHER is the One who grants wisdom, knowledge, and revelation about Jesus Christ whom every Christian claims to worship and follow.  If we fail to go to the Father enough, we fail to get this revelation of Jesus, who is the glory of the Father.  When we fail to get this revelation of Jesus, we cease to know Him.  When we cease to know Him, we cease to be unified with those who DO know Him.  True unity can only come from the Father, and it will never be something people can manufacture, no matter how good their program or teaching series seems to be.  Prayer, then, is the most essential element here in pursuing the unity of the gospel!

Now, when we pray there is an understanding we ought to have about this unity.  I believe that if and when we understand what all is involved in it, we will be able to pray and believe and act more intelligently.  Allow me to break down for you four important components of the heavenly nature of this true unity: the essence, reason, model, and practice of true heavenly unity.  I'll then follow up on each point with some application, mostly in the form of questions to generate vision and ideas.

The Essence of Unity

The Godhead is in heaven right now.  According to sound doctrine, God is a trinity, which means He is three distinct persons who all share the same essence and substance.  They are three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  But they are also one.  This is a huge mystery that turns away just about every other faith or religion in the world.  None of them have any place for one God in three persons.

But this is what Jesus talks about in this passage, specifically with reference to He and the Father.  They both are “one.”  They are united inseparably.  There is nothing that can come between the persons of the Godhead because they are so interwoven together in their relationship.  There is never even the slightest possibility that anything could ever separate them.  

Application:  So when He prays that believers would be one with each other just like the Father and the Son are one with each other, what does He mean?  And what does that look like?  In short, it means that because believers are inseparably united with each other in the death and resurrection of Jesus, then we should never, ever allow anything to separate us...at all.  And that looks like Paul's crucial truth in Ephesians 4:1-3 where essentially he tells the church to stop at nothing to maintain the spirit of unity in the bond of peace, through forgiveness, gentleness, kindness, patience, and humility to one another.  Words easy to speak, yet actions difficult to follow.

The Reason for Unity

The reason why nothing can ever separate the trinity is because they are somehow, mysteriously, invisibly in each other.  Jesus uses the Greek preposition en an incredible number of times in this text.  This tells us that His concept of what it means to be “in” someone else is extremely crucial and important to understand.  If one doesn’t understand that, they don’t have the basis to understand the other things He’s teaching.  

For example, Jesus prays… “Holy Father, keep them in your name…” in verse 11.  He follows that up by praying, “While I was with them, I kept them in your name…” (v. 12).  This is rooted in a oneness between Jesus and the Father that makes Jesus pray, “just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also be in us…I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one” (vv. 21-23).  

The fact that the Father dwells within the Son, and the Son dwells within the Father provides the basis for our unity together as Christians.  How does it do that?  Because of two truths.  

First, because of the glory that the Father has given to Jesus.  Glory is the reflection of God.  Jesus Himself, in person was the living-color reflection of God.  And Jesus says He also gave that to us.  We then, are the living-color reflection of Jesus Christ, and therefore the reflection of the Father.  God revealed Himself in Jesus.  And Jesus revealed the Father to His disciples.  

Second, because Jesus said that He was in us, in verse 23.  If the Father is within Jesus, and Jesus is within His disciples, then we are just as united to Jesus as Jesus is the Father.  And if we are all united to Jesus and the Father, then we are all united to each other!  It's sort of a divine mathematics lesson!  Yet how strange it is that we let lesser things divide or subtract us from each other!

Application: In your local church it would see that the first thing to do is to begin with God's divine math.  If we assume that we are united together because we are united together with the Trinity, then what would it look like if we started there, as opposed to starting with all the things we think we want everyone else to agree with us about before we can be unified?  I realize that the gospel often needs to be freshly defined in our postmodern culture, since definitions and connotations seem to leak so quickly from the words they define.  But there can come a point at which we seek to define a word so much that we actually make it mean something it does not.  I wonder if too many well-meaning Christians do that today with the gospel.  In their attempts to guard and protect it, I wonder if they are actually redefining it with such complexity that the complexities divide rather than unite.

The Model for Unity

Jesus’ prayer essentially makes the trinity the foundation for understanding Christian unity, as well as the model for putting it into action.  Jesus prays that Christians will be united in the same way He and the Father are united.  He prays that Christians will be inseparable, indivisible.  He prays that nothing will be allowed to come between them.  He prays that we will be so united with the presence of God that nothing can deter us or distract us.

Application: Again, what would it look like for a group of believers to be as united in their plan, purpose and mission as the trinity was and is?  What would it look like for local churches to be so inseparable in their love for one another that no gossip, slander, offense, or disagreement on lesser things could divide them, whether within the local church itself, or among local churches in a community?  

The Practice of Unity

Jesus expects that the model, reason, and essence of unity will all have the result of putting that unity in action, the same way He and the Father put it into action.  In short, the unity of the trinity makes them inseparable, and the unity of the body of Christ will be inseparable.  The unity of the Godhead was put into action through love, and the unity of the body of Christ will be put into action through love.  God sent Jesus into the world out of love for it.  And Jesus sends us into the world out of love for it.  Unity is rooted in and permeated with love.  “…you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (v. 23).

Love is the greatest theme in Jesus' message, especially in His message to His disciples in the Upper Room Discourse, found in John 13-17.  He had shown them true love.  He was about to show them the ultimate action of true love, on the cross.  And He didn't want them to miss the most significant point of His entire mission: to generate love toward God and toward one another.  

That theme does not end there.  Each book in the New Testament bears that out as well, whether you're reading Paul, John, or Peter.  There's just no way that any Bible reader should come away with anything other than love as the most important theme in the entire Bible!  Yet seminaries, Bible colleges, classrooms, churches and small groups seem to be filled with so many lesser themes that do not flow out of or lead back into love.

Application:  How unified do you feel your local church is?  Is there a deep sense of unity among the believers in your church?  How about among the other churches in your community whom you believe hold to the true gospel?  Is there a deep sense of love in your own family?  How about your church family?  Do you feel an intimacy and warmth there?  Is there a deep sense of care for one another?  Or is it just a meet and greet on Sunday mornings, and a few prayer requests at your small group?  Do believers weep with each other and rejoice with each other?  Do they work and give sacrificially to meet each others' needs?  

In the next post, we'll discover the kind of unity which is primarily spiritual in nature.

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.

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