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December 5, 1998

Thrust Statement: Jesus prays that His disciples be united.

Scripture Reading: John 17:20-23

"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. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (John 17:17-23).[1]

Are we a united people?[2] Are we a divided people? What attitude do we exhibit toward other believers in other denominations who also accept Jesus as the Savior of the world? How do we relate to others within our own denomination (Churches of Christ) when there are disagreements over the so-called "five-acts of worship"? How do we relate to one another when others do not dot every "i" or cross every "t" exactly like us? How do we relate to one another in this congregation? Do we love one another in spite of our differences? Do we only love one another if there is complete harmony with my wishes? Do we feel the burden of Jesus’ prayer? Do we emphasize spiritual unity? Just how do we put into practice the unity for which our Lord Jesus prayed? Are we constantly shooting arrows to wound or to kill those for whom Christ died?

One wonders if Jesus, in His priestly prayer, did not have in mind the words of Psalm 133:1 "How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!" One would expect Christians to get along with each other, but this harmony—the unity for which the psalmist celebrates—is not always found among God’s people. Every believer needs to heed Joseph’s advice to his brothers as they were preparing to leave Egypt and enter Canaan: "Don’t quarrel on the way!" (Genesis 45:24). This is still good teaching. On the whole, it appears that God’s people divide when they stop loving one another as Jesus loves us. Jesus loves us with warts and all. Yes, Jesus loves us with imperfection in our lives and in our knowledge.

Disharmony in Corinth

Disunity is not something new to modern times. It abounds throughout the New Testament writings. Since friction appears to be a problem with many Christians, Paul addresses, in his writings, this human tendency for believers to disconnect themselves from other believers. One such example is when Paul faces head on the strife that existed in Corinth by pleading: "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 Corinthians 1:10). The context of this passage seems to indicate that this disharmony existed over preferences for various leaders among God’s servants—not doctrinal issues. In fact, Paul writes: "My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, "I follow Paul"; another, "I follow Apollos"; another, "I follow Cephas"; still another, "I follow Christ" (1 Corinthians 1:11-12).

When Christians allow personalities to interfere in their relationship, then, they are acting like "mere men" and not as spiritual men. Again, Paul chides the Corinthians for their divisive behavior: "For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? (1 Corinthians 3:3). Paul also concludes his second epistle to the Corinthians with an appeal for unity: "Finally, brothers, good-by. Aim for perfection, listen to my appeal, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you (2 Corinthians 13:11).

Disharmony in Philippi

Paul in writing to the Philippians also exhorts two sisters in Christ to reach an understanding with each other: "I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord" (Philippians 4:2). This disagreement between Euodia and Syntyche is serious enough to be mentioned in a letter that is to be read publicly; Paul is confident that these women will work out their differences. In his appeal for unity, he pleads with the congregation to assist these two saints: "Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life" (Philippians 4:3). He does not take sides, but he does encourage others closer to the situation to promote reconciliation. Prior to this plea for unity between Euodia and Syntyche, Paul draws upon Jesus as an example of unity "in spirit and purpose":

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:1-4).

Paul speaks of being "like-minded," having the "same love," and being "one in spirit and purpose." Is this true of us? My prayer is that this congregation, and all congregations of Christ, will always have this spirit of uniformity. Paul is not advancing uniformity in thought about all doctrinal issues but rather the common disposition to work together and to serve one another. May God help each of us to have the attitude of Christ toward one another.

Disharmony in Rome

Unity among believers is something that Paul stresses throughout his writings. For example, after Paul sets forth the scheme of God’s plan of Salvation through Jesus to the Romans, he, then, admonishes them to "Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited" (Romans 12:16). In concluding this epistle, Paul cries out: "May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 15:5-6). A perusal of chapter 14 (Romans) calls for allowances when Christians differ even about some doctrinal matters. Paul bases his appeal for unity of God’s people upon Christ’s acceptance of us: "Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God" (Romans 15:7).

How has Christ accepted you? Is absolute perfection in one’s knowledge and one’s life prerequisite to fellowship or acceptance with Jesus? If so, then no one is acceptable with God. The unity that Paul has in mind is the unity that Jesus prayed for in His priestly prayer (John 17:20-23). This unity is a spiritual unity that comes from within. Jesus compares this unity of believers with the oneness that the Father and Son experience in their relationship in the Trinity. While believers, on the one hand, may disagree on some points of interpretation, nevertheless, they are still one in Christ. It is in this vein that Paul admonishes the Roman Christians to "Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters" (Romans 14:1). Paul reminds each person that no one is in the judging business: "Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand (Romans 14:5).

Disharmony in Ephesus

Even though one cannot be dogmatic about the existence of disharmony in Ephesus, nevertheless, Paul addresses the issue of unity. Paul’s seven ones in the Ephesian epistle are well known (Ephesians 4:1-6). In the eyes of God and Paul the church is not divided. There is "one body" (Ephesians 4:4). The competition among Christians is a dishonor to the name of Christ. The Ephesians were told to "Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:2-3). This unity is that of the Spirit. The Ephesians did not create the unity, but rather, they sought to maintain the unity created by the Holy Spirit. How could unity be achieved? Listen again to Paul as he encourages the Ephesians to "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you" (Ephesians 4:32). As Christians, we need to recapture the big picture of God’s plan of salvation (Jesus is God’s plan of salvation). Our prayer for this congregation should be the prayer of Paul for the Ephesians:

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. 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—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen (Ephesians 3:16-21).

Christians may not agree on every detail of doctrinal interpretation, but if we know Him and share His life, we can experience unity for which our Lord Jesus prayed. John says that "This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another" (1 John 3:11). Again, he writes: "this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us" (1 John 3:23). Once more, John captures the very essence of unity: "And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother" (1 John 4:21). John is only repeating what our Lord related to His disciples during His earthly ministry. For instance, John specifically recalls an occasion in which Jesus says, "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:34-35).

What is your definition of love? Just how do you define love? Is it simply emotionalism? Is love a verb of action? Paul concretizes the meaning of love in his first letter to Corinth. This congregation was riddled with rivalries, jealousies, party spirit, know-it-all mindset type individuals, and so on. Some in the congregation were wrong about certain doctrinal points and some were right. How did Paul deal with this imperfection in one’s knowledge? Listen again to this letter as Paul calls attention to differences over the eating of meats offered to idols:

Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God (1 Corinthians 8:1-3).

Perfection in knowledge is not what matters most; it is crucial, as far as fellowship goes, whether one loves God or does not love God. Paul concludes his review of the differences in the congregation by giving them a concrete definition of love, that is to say, love in action:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).

CONCLUSION

Jesus did not pray for a short-lived, unnatural similarity that would make an impression on people. He prayed for a timeless and heartfelt singleness that would bear witness to Jesus and prove to the cradle of humanity that He was sent by God. We love one another because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). When it comes to our witnessing to a lost and dying world, there must never be competition among God’s people. We must never say or do anything that would make it difficult for another Christian to witness or to win a lost soul. We may not always agree with the methods employed by some saints for the advancement of God’s kingdom; we may not always agree with certain peculiar interpretations placed upon some Scriptures; but, over all, we must never fail to help other Christians to spread the message of God’s plan of salvation, namely, Jesus. Our prayer in this area of oneness should exemplify the mind of Paul to the Romans:

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God (Romans 15:5-7).

One of the major causes of divisions among God’s people is majoring on the externals and neglecting or ignoring the internals. We build on accidentals, not on essentials. God help us to refocus our attention upon that which matters most. The next time we are tempted to declare war on a brother or sister, let us remember that we are going to be in heaven together.


Message delivered at the following congregations:

Oakwood Hills Church of Christ
DeFuniak Springs, FL
Date: 12-6-1998
Time: 10 a.m.


ENDNOTES

[1] All Scripture citations are from The New International Version, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House) 1984, unless otherwise noted.

[2] I am indebted to Warren W. Wiersbe for drawing my attention to certain insights into this intercessory prayer of Jesus. See Warren W. Wiersbe, The Intercessory Prayer of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 119-130.