At the dinner table with his closest friends on the night he would be betrayed, Jesus took the time to pray aloud, both for them and for us, for all who would come to believe in him through the apostles’ message. He prayed, John 17:20-21 & verse 23:
“My prayer is not for them [the apostles] 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…Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” –John 17:20-21, 23
This has been called the most unanswered prayer of all time. Even as he faced his own deep crisis of the cross, Christ’s concern included us—that we will display a supernatural unity that grabs the attention of the watching world.
But again, as writer Phillip Yancey puts it, “Disunity virtually defines the history of the church. Pick at random any year of history—pick today—and you will see how far short we fall of Jesus’ final request. The church, and the watching world, still await an answer.”
So what will it take for Jesus’ prayer to be answered? That is what we discover in the very next portion of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Ephesians chapter 4 begins…
“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” — Ephesians 4:1
Live a life worthy of being chosen by God. Let there be such a profound difference about you, that others will see the Lord through you. This is what drew me to Christ—two Christians I got to know, where over time I saw they had something I was missing. That got me curious. I wanted what they had.
Today’s Scripture lays out in very practical terms what it looks like to answer Jesus’ prayer. If you’re taking notes, the passage naturally breaks out into four ways live a life worthy of the calling we have received; four ways we answer Jesus’ prayer.
Pursue unity as Jesus did.
Jesus’ prayer is answered when we pursue unity as he did. How did he do that? By inviting a dozen men to do life together with him. Between the twelve were vast differences, yet Jesus was able to bring them together and keep them together, apart from Judas, who counted himself out.
They included a zealot, that is a Jew who was violently committed to overthrowing Roman occupation in Israel, and then next to Simon the zealot stood Levi the tax collector. You couldn’t find a greater difference between two Jews back then if you tried. So how on earth did Jesus bring these men and the others together and have them live a life worthy of the calling they received?
The first answer is that Jesus modeled what it takes to pursue godly unity. It takes Spirit-empowered humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearance. So that’s where Paul begins. As he begins laying out practically what it will take for us to live a life worthy of the calling we have received, he begins with the example of Jesus. Ephesians 4:2…
“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” — Ephesians 4:2
If you’re being honest, you hear this and think, “I can’t do this! It’s too hard!” Correct. It’s impossible—without the power of the Holy Spirit filling you constantly.
The only way you can grow in humility, gentleness, patience and forbearance—the only way—is by getting close to people who are different from you. Marriage and family are the primary “community” God created to shape and mature us in character. Home is where you get the greatest chance to work out godly character, to be stretched and grow stronger.
Real quick, a fun Bible study tip for you. One way to understand what a Bible passage does mean is to reverse what it says. So here, what we could call the New Satanic Version would read, “Be completely arrogant and abrasive; be out of control, putting up with nothing from anyone.”
If you want to prevent Jesus’ prayer from being answered—his prayer for a supernatural, godly unity that makes the world stand up and take notice—if you want to hinder his prayer, just be a jerk. “Be completely arrogant and abrasive; be out of control, putting up with nothing from anyone.”
As Christians, our calling is to actually follow Jesus’ example. What he did to foster supernatural community among a dozen very different men, we are to do as well. He dealt with the twelve with remarkable humility, gentleness, patience, and put up with their character flaws. Let’s touch on each of the ways we’re called to purse unity:
Be Completely Humble
Here’s a shocker: the Greek-speakers of Paul’s time never spoke of humility in a positive light. They despised it. They thought of humility as the crouching submissiveness of a slave. Yet Paul describes in Philippians chapter two that that’s exactly the intentional posture Jesus took. Though he was God, Jesus emptied himself of his rights and privileges, in order to serve…us! It is for that reason that God the Father has now exalted Jesus to the highest place possible. We’re called to follow Jesus’ example.
That will always be counter-cultural. You will never see a sold-out conference traveling the country to tell all about how to be completely humble. You can find plenty of best-selling books and webinars etc on how to be successful, but none on humility.
Jesus flipped on its head how we ought to think about humility. The Greek word itself is about recognizing the worth and value of other people. Instead of maneuvering to try to get the respect of others, where the focus is on you, the call is to give others respect. Serve others. When everyone is all about looking out for number one, we will never become one.
We’re called to pursue humility like we see in Jesus, voluntarily laying aside our rights in order to serve others. Be completely humble.
This word in Greek doesn’t mean be passive. It doesn’t mean be weak. It doesn’t mean be a doormat. It’s a word that describes strength under control. I worked for a time on a friend’s horse farm, where he bred Arabians. His stud was a white Arabian named Sheik. Sheik was frighteningly powerful. But when he was with John, he listened. He trusted. He followed along, knowing John loved him. Sheik displayed massive strength, under control.
One of the greatest needs in American society today, because of the lack of which we are painfully divided, is gentleness.
The Proverbs are filled with positive and negative examples. Here’s one. Proverbs 25:28 cautions…
“A person without self-control is like a city with broken-down walls.”
–Proverbs 25:28 NLT
If your knee-jerk reaction to feeling offended is to act on that knee-jerk reaction, you will hinder the godly unity that Jesus prayed for. Bottom line. We’re called to be gentle, not arrogant, irritable and abrasive. That kind of behavior might get a pass in society at large. There is to be no place for it among us, between Christians. Yet it happens, and Jesus’ prayer is hindered.
There are many thousands of Christians in the Chicago area right now who are hurting and confused because two pastors of mega churches in the past year have been forced out when it finally was exposed that they were anything but humble and gentle.
How do you react when you’re not getting your way? Proverbs 15:1 advises…
“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” — Proverbs 15:1
In a tense conversation, if you will keep your strength under control, your gentleness can disarm intensity, and open enough space to work together towards a solution.
A quick aside: the times when Jesus displayed anger rather than gentleness were when people made it harder for others to get to God—for example, Jesus angrily driving money-changers and merchants out of the temple’s Court of the Gentiles. So we’re to pursue unity as Jesus did: being completely humble, gentle, and third, being…
The Greek comes from two roots meaning distant and anger. Put some space between the situation in front of you, and an angry response. Take a breath. Be patient with people who aggravate you. Be patient toward people who get on your nerves. Be patient with a co-worker who drives you up a wall. Slow down, lest you blow up. Put some distance between you and anger. And fourth…
Bear with one another in love:
We’re called to put up with each other. Another translation speaks of “making allowances for each other’s faults because of your love.” (NLT) 1 Peter 4:8 says the same, that “Love covers a multitude of sins.” If you make an issue out of every little thing, you’re not going to have any friends. You’ll suffer distance in marriage.
In every friendship, one of the essentials is that you are safe. You prove yourself to be a safe place, someone with whom the other person can be themselves, instead of having to walk on pins and needles, afraid of saying the “wrong” thing, something you personally disagree with.
Again, it’s a miracle that Jesus was able to keep the twelve together, from zealot to tax collector. But this is how he did it. He put up with a lot, because he loved them. He calls us to do the same.
We want to live a life worthy of the calling we’ve received. We do that by…
- Pursuing unity as Jesus did.
- Strive for unity like we see in the Trinity.
“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” —Ephesians 4:3-6
Paul speaks of one, seven times. Three times it refers to the three persons of the Trinity, and the remaining four times allude to our experience in relation to the three persons of the Trinity. God the Father heads the one family of God. The Lord Jesus is the one in whom we have believed, in whose name we have been baptized, and he is the one in whose return we have placed our hope. And the Holy Spirit is the one who integrates us into one body.
Lots of detail there. The point is that the kind of unity Jesus prayed for is the kind we see in the Trinity, each working for the oneness of God’s people.
True story: A group of tourists were taking a bus tour in Rome led by an English-speaking guide. Their first stop was a basilica located in the middle of a piazza, a plaza. The piazza was surrounded by several lanes of Rome’s very busy traffic. I’ve been there. You have to just decide when you’re going to take the risk of crossing the street.
After this busload of tourists were dropped off, they climbed the steps for a tour of the church. When they were done with the tour, they came out of the church only to see that the bus was now parked across the street, across all those lanes of traffic. The tour guide shouted at the group to stay together, yelling, “You cross one by one, they hit you one by one. But if you cross together, they think you will hurt the car.” They crossed together.
Walk together, Paul urges. Like the Trinity walks and works together, strive for that kind of supernatural unity within the church.
Barbara Brokhoff, Grapes of Wrath or Grace (CSS Publishing, 1994), page 12
Contribute toward unity using spiritual gifts in their diversity.
“But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says:
“When he ascended on high,
he took many captives
and gave gifts to his people.”
(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors
andteachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…” —Ephesians 4:7-12
At its most basic level, verses 7-12 are a declaration that unity doesn’t mean uniformity. When Christ ascended to heaven after defeating Satan and his demons, he gave gifts of the Holy Spirit to the church. All kinds of gifts. So the focus changes here, from all of us, to each of us. Each Christian is entrusted with at least one gift of the Spirit, to be used in building up and strengthening the church.
The New Testament knows nothing of consumer Christianity, where the primary question is, “What do you have for me and mine?” The biblical answer is, we have God’s Word, we have God’s Son, we have one another (God’s people), and we have God’s calling (to be and make disciples of Jesus). And each one has a part to play.
The New Testament includes five lists of spiritual gifts. Some of them sound more dramatic than others: miracles and healing, for instance. Some sound very ordinary: gifts of administration and helps, for example. Each of them, all of them, contribute together for greater unity in the local church.
The emphasis is that there are many gifts, by the one Spirit, to strengthen the one Church, as we follow the one Savior, each one using our gifts to serve one another. It is a genius strategy God designed.
Do you know what your main spiritual gift is? Are you using it to contribute to the strengthening of this church?
I’ve mentioned before that the largest study ever done of churches around the world came across a surprise discovery. They discovered that Christians who can honestly say, “I know what my spiritual gift is, and I’m using it,” are happier people, compared to those who either don’t know, or aren’t contributing their gifts to the ministry of the local church. Makes sense! If you know what you’re gifted to do, and you’re doing it, you get the satisfaction of knowing that you are making a difference!
Build toward unity marked by ever-deeper maturity.
Sometimes, discussions about unity become a misnomer for realty not wanting to challenge or risk offending anyone, about anything. That’s not the kind of unity Jesus prayed for. Jesus constantly pulled the twelve out of the comfort zone for the sake of maturing, growing, deepening in their faith and obedience to God.
That is precisely where Paul concludes. Living a life worthy of the calling we have received means each one of us is called to build toward unity that is marked by ever-deepening maturity.
“…until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From
himthe whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” —Ephesians 4:13-16
There are two options, Paul says. As a child grows in aged, they either remain immature and suffer the consequences of getting jerked all over the place, or as they age, they also mature. And with increasing maturity, comes deepening stability. It is the same, Paul says, among us in the local church.
There will always be false teachers seducing immature people into believing the newest deception. That was true in the first century, and boy is it true today.
John Stott writes, “[Immature Christians] never seem to know their own mind or come to settled convictions. Instead, their opinions tend to be those of the last preacher they heard or the last book they read, and they fall an easy prey to each new theological fad.”
Stott, God’s New Society, pg. 170
This is nothing new. I remember meeting a 20-something young lady in Manhattan when I first came to Christ. She was trying to win people to Sung Yung Moon’s Unification Church. She explained that she was raised in the Lutheran Church, but in that new cult, she had found what she truly believed to be the truth. Moon claimed that he was the new Messiah. She was deceived, “blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.”
Followers of David Koresh in Waco, Texas were “blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.”
Followers of Jim Jones, whose movement began in Fishers were “blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.”
It matters that the church’s unity be grounded not in mindless uniformity, but in ever-deepening maturity. Get to know your Bible. Get a Bible of your own. Buy one. Bring it to church. Compare what you read up against what I or other teachers claim. Reject claimed new insights into God’s Word that contradict what all the generations before us have held to. Doctrinal instability is a sign of immaturity.
What we’re called to is a unity built on the twin foundation of love and truth: “speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body…”
- Some churches major on love.
- Other churches major on truth.
- God calls us to build on both love and truth, truth as God has revealed it in the Scriptures.
Quoting Stott again, “[Some people] when they think they smell heresy, their nose begins to twitch, their muscles ripple, and the light of battle enters their eye. They seem to enjoy nothing more than a fight. Others make the opposite mistake. They are determined at all costs to maintain and exhibit brotherly love, but in order to do so are prepared even to sacrifice the central truths of revelation. Both these tendencies are unbalanced and unbiblical.”
Let me speak to you from my heart. This kind of unity and maturity as a local church is extremely difficult to achieve. And…this is what God calls us to—a supernatural kind of truth and love that is not passive, and it’s not obnoxious. It is fully anchored in who God is.
For Jesus’ prayer to be answered—that the watching world see supernatural unity among us and be drawn to him—for that to happen, we need to put into practice the wisdom of God our Father, the example of Christ our Savior, and the power of the Holy Spirit.