“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.” —John 17:20, 211
As Jesus poured out His heart to the Father in prayer, the disciples were about to face the greatest crisis of their lives. They had already declared their implicit faith in their Lord as Messiah. Peter, speaking for all of them, said, “ ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’ ” (Matt. 16:16). They may have been confused about Christ’s mission, but the disciples had no doubts about His identity—until now.
They watched in amazement as Jesus allowed Himself to be arrested; He who had escaped so many times before to be taken into custody. They were stunned into silence as they beheld His hands tied behind His back—hands that had cured leprosy and raised the dead. And to their shame, they were frightened into abandonment as He was spat upon and beaten. All this lay before them as the great test of faith, but they did not know it.
Jesus knew what they would face and how it would overwhelm them. He had told them, quoting the prophecy of Zechariah, “ ‘This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: “I will strike the shepherd and the sheep of the flock will be scattered” ’ ” (Matt. 26:31).
What would Jesus say to His disciples on a night like this? What words of instruction could prepare them? He did not ask the Father to give them more knowledge or even increase their faith. Jesus prayed for them to be one in love. This, the expression of God’s love toward each other, would keep them in the hour of temptation. And if the disciples had answered Jesus’ prayer, the bond of love between them would have preserved them.
The importance of loving one another
At the inception of the Christian church, the believers were organized into a community so that the Son of God would have a body through which to demonstrate His life on earth. The body is not an illustration; the life of Christ is the life of the body.2 But under the influence of individualism, the church has become more devoted to personal rights and freedom than to the mandate of God’s Word. In my own personal life, I have detected this rebellion in me. I once was the type of person that, if I walked up to an establishment and saw a sign on a door that read “Do not open,” I would open that door.
The heroes of our culture are the rebels and individualists who go their own way and keep their own counsel; we take pride in their resistance to conformity. But is this the posture we want to be in when Jesus speaks to us? Is it not far better to give up our individual rights to Christ that we might be His servants for a holy purpose? And His purpose for us is that we should come into complete oneness as members of His body.
It is interesting to notice the emphasis of various renderings of John 17:23:
- “'Be brought to complete unity’” (NIV).
- “‘Be perfected in unity’” (NASB).
- “Be made perfect in one” (KJV).
- “Be as one as we are one” (The Clear Word).
- “‘Be completely one’ ” (NCV).
- “Become one heart and mind” (The Message).
In John 17, the command is given, but in John 13, the standard is set: “ ‘As I have loved you, so you must love one another’ ” (verse 34). And we are severely challenged. Who is equal to such a calling, to love as Jesus loved (and still loves)? This is one of those things God must do in us for it is not in our nature to love this way. But this high and holy standard reaches beyond our capability.
No love reaches the pinnacle of Christ’s love until it willingly sacrifices itself for the other. This is the distinction of divine love; it is self-sacrificing love. How many of us can say that we have this kind of love, not for our spouse, our children, but for the members of the body of Christ? And one of the greatest challenges of this love in community is to exercise it across racial and cultural lines. Not only in Jesus’ prayer but throughout the New Testament, the biblical authors clearly express the imperative of communal love.
“And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (Eph. 3:17–19; emphasis added).
“Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart ” (1 Pet. 1:22; emphasis added).
Then Peter puts it into the context of the end time: “The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:7, 8; emphasis added).
There are at least four levels of a relationship that could exist between people groups at the communal level.
1. Rejection. This we cannot truly call a relationship at all; rather, a lack of relationship or a refusal to be in relationship. When rejection occurs, for example, based on someone’s race or culture, it is usually because of stereotyping, pre-judging, or ignorance. None of these characteristics do we like to admit to or have attributed to us, even by implication. But, if we search our hearts, we will have to admit that we have been guilty of “antipathy toward a racial or cultural group based on a faulty and inflexible generalization.”3 Theologically, racial prejudice—or any other type of prejudice—is a form of idolatry, a faith that does not rest on facts nor need facts.4 And when this behavior is not repented of, it leaves unresolved guilt in the heart of the perpetrator and a barrier between the parties involved that prevents a genuine relationship from ever forming.
2. Tolerance. Our attitude may be “I will put up with you, but I will not like it, my heart will not be in it. I will grit my teeth and bear it, but I will never truly relax around you. I may even overcompensate with undue familiarity and unwarranted compliments to mask my discomfort.”
Unlike rejection, tolerance is a form of relationship, but not a positive one. The most we can say in favor of this kind of relationship is that tolerance is better than rejection, but not by much. “When I tolerate you, I will not do anything to harm you, but I will not do anything to help you, either. I may have been offended by someone from your group at some time in the past, and I hold it against your entire group.” Your discomfort comes through no matter how you try to mask it. We cannot fake our way into genuine relationship; we must pray for changed hearts.
3. Acceptance. “I realize I have been wrong in keeping you at a distance, in not even attempting to get to know you, in treating you as a category instead of a unique person. I acknowledge you as a son or a daughter of God. I accept you as you are, not just when you comply with my cultural values. I accept your differences and will learn to appreciate your culture. I will sit beside you, share a meal with you, listen to your music, and let you speak in your own language. I will relax and stop trying to impress you with my openmindedness and truly open my mind to you and what I can learn from you.” If that is our attitude, a genuine relationship appears. Acceptance is a big step in the Christian relationship, but as important as it is, acceptance still does not answer Jesus’ prayer. Even acceptance does not reach the zenith of the oneness our Lord has in mind for us. It is a start, but it is not the finish. There is one category of relationship that is higher still.
4. Nurture. Nurture is an expression of love that does not merely receive, it pours itself out. It does not simply accept; it seeks. Nurturing love not only acknowledges the other, it sacrifices itself for the other. This is the place to which we seldom go across racial lines. We will tolerate, we will accept, but we will not nurture the way we do our own. “When I love in nurture, I do not just sit beside you, I sit with you; I do not just share in a meal, I learn about your food; I do not just open my mind to you, I open my heart. I am not color blind; I see your color, but I do not judge you based on color. I see you as so much more.”
And this is important: “When I love you in a nurturing way, I do not keep silent when someone from my group maligns you because of your race or culture. I stand up for you as my brother or sister in Christ even when you are not around to hear it. I even stand up to my own family members when they are wrong. But I never leave you to fend for yourself. I take your part against those who are threatening the body with their bias.”
Jesus set a high and holy standard for us in His passionate prayer to the Father. Then He sacrificed His life to make it possible. Jesus did not die so that we could love our own family and show kindness to our friends, even unbelievers do that (see Matt. 5:47). The love of Jesus takes us to a place where natural affection cannot go. The love that John calls for in John 17 does not come from human nature; only by the life of Christ in us, preserved by constant prayer, can we ascend to this kind of love.
On so many levels we have made progress toward racial and cultural reconciliation within the body of Christ—but not enough to answer Jesus’ prayer. We sometimes pretend to be one in love when we know we are not. We mean well, we want to be more loving, but we try to achieve community cheaply by suppressing the issues instead of dealing with them. There is no way to achieve true community without honestly addressing the issues that create division—without speaking the truth in love.
This is the time of the outpouring of God’s Spirit; and as a church we desperately need it. But how can we receive the latter rain if we have not fulfilled the conditions of the early rain? “When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place” (Acts 2:1, NKJV). By God’s grace we possess the power to answer Jesus’ prayer— and it is a mandate to all who belong to the body of Christ.
1 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from
the New International Version.
2 Watchman Nee, The Normal Christian Life (Wheaton, IL:
Kingsway Publications, 1977), 210, 217.
3 Sakae Kubo, The God of Relationships (Hagerstown, MD:
Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1993),19.
4 Ibid., 19, 20.