Arthur Pink, 1935
"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, 21).
There appears to be considerable confusion in the minds of many today, as to the meaning of "that all of them may be one," so much so that some of God's dear children are in danger of espousing a view which is very dishonoring to Christ. Whatever is the real and full meaning of this petition in our Lord's high priestly prayer, it certainly must not be interpreted in any such manner as to repudiate His own words to the Father in John 11:42 "And I know that You hear Me always." Yet, those who constantly emphasize the differences which exist among God's people come perilously near to committing this very sin.
Now it is obvious at the outset that, in order to understand this petition of Christ's, attention needs to be carefully directed unto the following points—first, for whom was He here praying? Second, what was the precise character of the "oneness" for which He here prayed? Once these questions are rightly answered, much uncertainty and mistaken conception will be cleared away. Nor is it at all difficult to discover the right answers to these inquiries—they call for no protracted searching—but lie right on the surface itself; and once they are pointed out, the simplest believer should have no difficulty in perceiving their correctness. It is our desire herein to call attention to what is quite plain, and very satisfying to the hearts of those who desire their thoughts to be formed by what God has revealed in His Word, rejecting those human ideas which are contrary thereto.
First, then, for WHOM was our Lord praying when He asked "that they all may be one?"Let us begin with the negative answer—Christ was not here supplicating for the union or unity of professing Christendom. It seems strange then there should be any need for us to make this assertion, yet for generations past not a few have deplored the divisions in "the professing Church" as being contrary to that upon which the Savior here set His heart; and zealous efforts have been made to unify discordant elements under the idea they were promoting the accomplishment of His desire. But such "zeal" was "not according to knowledge" and therefore we need not be surprised at the absence of God's blessing upon such labors; rather should the lack of His benediction at once make us suspicious of the Scripturalness of their enterprises.
"I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours" (John 17:9). There is no ambiguity about these words, no excuse for not understanding their purpose—they plainly enough define the objects Christ had before Him, when interceding with the Father. Neither the profane world, nor the professing world, came within the scope of His high priestly requests—as He declared by the Spirit of prophecy centuries beforehand, "Their sorrows shall be multiplied, who hasten after another god—their drink offerings of blood will I not offer, nor take up their names into My lips" (Psalm 16:4). Solemn indeed is this—Christendom, as such, never has been the object of Christ's intercession—His petitions are limited unto those whom the Father "gave Him" before the foundation of the world. So it was in the type—on the breastplate of Aaron were inscribed not he names of the nations of Canaan—but only the twelve tribes of Israel.
It should be clear, then, from what has been pointed out above, that the divisions of Christendom, the conflicting systems and parties which claim to be Christian, in no wise clashes with this request of the Redeemer's "that they all may be one," nor is the present "strife of tongues" in the religious realm any proof that His prayer yet remains unanswered. Far from it, for the simple but sufficient reason that it was not for the oneness of Christendom that the Lord Jesus here prayed. We say again, that once this simple and incontrovertible fact be grasped—much uncertainty and error disappears like the morning mists before the rising sun. If the divisions of Christendom were a hundred times more marked and bitter than they are now, that would in no wise conflict with Christ's petition; and if all those breaches were closed and the whole of Christendom united in belief and practice, that would not to the slightest degree evidence the fulfillment thereof.
Secondly, exactly what was the "oneness" for which Christ here prayed?Again we will begin with the negative—certainly not for any external or organized oneness. Christ was not here supplicating for any visible or ecclesiastical union or unity, such as many have supposed is the great desideratum. It is to be deplored that there should be any need for us to assert this, yet, for many years past there have been those who decried the sectarian differences in Christendom, as being opposed to what Christ so much desired; and various devices have been resorted to for breaking down the separating walls—in the belief that this would secure the answer to the Savior's prayer. But this is as far from the truth as is the idea that the Lord was here praying for Christendom as a whole.
"That all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you." (John 17:21). There is nothing dark or uncertain in this language; it clearly signifies the nature of that "oneness" for which Christ is interceding. It was a spiritual and Divine oneness, such as existed between Himself and the Father; a mystical and invisible union. This is brought out with equal explicitness in an earlier verse of the same chapter—"Holy Father, keep through Your own name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one, as we are" (John 17:1). Thus, that union and communion among the elect for which Christ prayed, had for its pattern or similitude, the union and communion which existed between the Mediator and the Father, and that is neither a material nor external one.
"That the world may believe that You have sent Me" (v. 21). It is failure to understand this last clause which has led many to an erroneous interpretation of the whole verse. It has been supposed that the divided state of Christendom, is the principal hindrance in the way of the world's acceptance of the Gospel, and that if only the spirit of sectarianism could be banished from the earth, unbelief would be at an end. Such daydreamers seem to have forgotten that at the beginning of this dispensation there was a manifested unity among all those who bore the name of Christ, "And the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and of one soul—neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common" (Acts 4:32)—yet that was very far from effecting any change in the world's attitude toward God and His Christ.
Let it be carefully noted Christ did not say "that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe in Me," but "that the world may believe that You have sent Me." And when will "the world," (that is, that "world" for which He prays not in verse 9) believe that Christ is the One sent by the Father? when will the ungodly be convicted of the verity of His claims? The only possible answer is—In the last great day, when before an assembled universe Christ shall present His people "faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy" (Jude 24). Then will the enemies of the Lord have such outward proof of the union and communion existing between Himself and the Church as no longer to disbelieve the truth of it—only they will not believe and be saved—but instead believe and be damned.
That union and unity between His people for which the great High Priest prayed was not a visible one—but an invisible one; not a material one—but a spiritual one. It is a union in grace now—and a union in glory hereafter. It was not the unity of churches—but the unity of the Church for which our Lord supplicated the Father. Nor has His prayer remained unanswered all these nineteen centuries. No, indeed. All His blood-bought people are welded together in a way and to a degree which no other company is or can be; as it is written "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female—for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28)—note not "shall be," but "are all one in Christ Jesus."
Nor is the union of the redeemed only a mystical one during this present era—even now there is a oneness among all the truly regenerate, on everything that is vital and fundamental. All real Christians believe firmly in the Divine inspiration and authority of Scriptures, in the unity and trinity of the Godhead, in the Deity and sinless humanity of Christ, in the sufficiency of His atoning sacrifice as the sole ground of their acceptance with God, in His exaltation to the right hand of the Majesty on high, the prevalency of His intercession, of His returning in glory and final judgment of the wicked. Yes, on "the foundations" of the faith, all God's people take their firm stand, and for this He should be fervently praised. Instead of dwelling so much upon minor things—concerning which God's children, most probably, never will all see eye to eye down here—we should be occupied with the major things which we all enjoy in common.
What so many have clamored for, is neither union nor unity—but uniformity— absolute likeness in belief and practice. But such a desire ignores one of the principle characteristics in all God's works, instead of uniformity, there is endless variety in all creatures of His hands. There are no two minds alike, no two faces, no two voices; nay, no two blades of grass. True, there are many species having one common genus; many different sounds or notes which combine in harmony; behind incidental variations there is an underlying unity. So it is in the spiritual realm. The eleven Galileans were equally the Apostles of the Lamb and were loved alike by Him; they all followed, trusted in, and loved the same Lord and Savior, yet each had a distinct individuality, and no two of them were alike in all things.
Whatever blame may or may not rest upon men for the existence of the various evangelical denominations in Christendom, let not the superintending hand of God therein be lost sight of. In our readiness to criticize former leaders—which charity requires us to believe were at least equally devoted to the Lord and as anxious to conform to His Word as we are—we need to be much on our guard lest we be found quarreling with Divine providence. While it is true that a measure of failure marks whatever God entrusted to men—yet let it not be forgotten that "Of Him and through Him, and to Him, are all things—to Whom be glory forever. Amen" (Romans 11:36). We are either very ignorant of history, or superficial readers thereof, if we fail to perceive the guiding hand of God and His "manifold wisdom" in the appointing and blessing of the leading evangelical denominations.
"Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning" (1 Cor. 14:10). Yes, and while those different voices may not all sound the same note, yet if they be pitched to the same key, they harmonize. The present writer is not prepared to hold a brief in defense of every peccadillo in any denomination, system or company of professing Christians; on the other hand, he desires to freely recognize and gladly own whatever is of God in all of them. Though himself unattached ecclesiastically, and a partisan of no single group, he wishes to have Christian fellowship with any and all who love the Lord and whose daily walk evidences a sincere desire to please Him. We have lived long enough and traveled sufficiently, to discover that no one "church," company, or man, has all the truth, and as we grow older we have less patience with those who demand that others must adopt their interpretation of Scripture on all points.
There should be a happy medium between sectarian narrowness—and the world's "broad-mindedness," between deliberately compromising the Truth—and turning away from some of the Lord's people because they differ from us on non-essentials. Shall I refuse to partake of a meal—because some of the dishes are not cooked as I like them? Then why decline fellowship with a brother in the Lord—because he is unable to pronounce correctly my favorite shibboleth? It is not without reason that "Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" is immediately preceded by "bearing with one another in love" (Eph. 4:2, 3). Probably there is as much if not more in me that my brother has to "bear" with—as there is in him which grates upon me. As good old Matthew Henry said, "The consideration of being agreed in greater things, should extinguish all feuds over lesser ones."
In conclusion, let us anticipate an objection. "I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought" (1 Cor. 1:10). More has been built upon this verse than it will legitimately sustain. The next two verses show plainly the scope of this exhortation—it was a word against party strifes which alienated brethren belonging to the same local church. To be "perfectly united" in this verse signifies a union in faith and love, and nothing further than a general and fundamental oneness of judgment can fairly be gathered from it. Where there is, by grace, an agreement in all vital things—there should be a charitable bearing with differences of lesser importance. May the Lord mercifully preserve both writer and reader from aiding Satan and doing his work by fomenting division. "So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves" (Romans 14:22).