Jesus’ prayer for unity: 5 ways it reveals hope for flourishing

John 17 records a beautiful summary of Jesus’ intercession for his immediate disciples and the many who will believe in the future as a result of the faithful witness of the church. This prayer is often called the High Priestly Prayer as Christ summarizes his mission and asks for divine favor on those born through faith in him, and the proclamation of the church.

Jesus prays that his followers would be holy, yet engaged in the world, united as a community, and they would know the eternal love of the triune God. These three prayers reflect three of God’s absolute attributes: holiness, unity, and love. The identity of God’s people is aptly encapsulated here — we are a holy nation from all nations (1 Pet 2:4-10), united across class, gender, race, and cultural divides through Christ (Gal 3:28; Eph 2:11-21). We are now a community characterized by love — our chief virtue and evidence of the reality of Christ (John 13:34-35).

In the turbulence of our current pandemic and public protests, there is much anger and division, even among professing Christians. It is noteworthy that in John 17 Jesus prayed four times for our unity. In verse 11, Jesus prays for protection so that unity may be realized. Jesus asks for spiritual protection from the evil one, even as believers remain engaged in the world (verse 15). In verse 21, Christ prays for unity that the watching world will believe. In verse 22, our unity is rooted in the glory of God. And in verse 23, Jesus prays for complete unity grounded in the love between the father and the son.

Christians have the awesome privilege and responsibility to be an answer to the prayer of Jesus! Christ’s pleas for unity in this prayer will become the provision of the cross, forgiving our sins and removing all barriers to fellowship with God and friendship across human divides (2 Cor 5:14-6:2; Col 3:1-17). God’s grace declares us holy and united…and now we need the Holy Spirit’s help to live out this new identity with peace and love (Eph 4:1-16).

Jesus’ prayer offers us a way forward amidst the anger and polarization that infects our culture and often the church. Pastors and leaders I speak with are concerned about congregation members being quick to judge those who disagree and even leaving a church if it does not line up with certain ideas. Here are five insights that offer hope:

Jesus died and rose again to establish unity.

Our task is maintaining unity and maturing in our expressions of holy love (Eph 4:1-16). Our unity is a divine covenant sealed in blood, not a human artifice of formulas and self-interest. Our first choice is clear: We must do the hard work of understanding, praying, and even living with diverse perspectives.

The unity of the gospel is the starting place for repentance.

And the painful process of reconciliation and repair concerning historical and systematic injustices, especially racism. We must own the history of our mothers and fathers in the faith, and, like Daniel and Ezra before us, humble ourselves and ask God for favor and healing.

The unity Jesus prayed for is a process.

And not mere pronouncements or an instant perfection. This is why John 17:23 is a gracious invitation for us to keep perfecting unity. The word here is a similar one to Jesus’ cry of, “It is finished” as he atoned for our sins, and bore our sicknesses and sorrows, unjust suffering and unanswered questions.

This unity includes living peaceably with our deep differences.

Hoping that humility, love, and mutual respect may yield both maturity and wisdom. The glory of the church is not cultural or ideological uniformity, but harmony born of dignity and respect.

Our unity in Christ will also lead to innovative expressions of compassion.

And economic and social change rooted in transformed hearts and minds. Real unity cannot ignore the distress of our immediate neighbor (James 2; 1 John 2) and institutional injustice around us (Is 58; Amos 5).

Through the gospel, the Holy Spirit has created a new humanity. Class and culture, ethnicity and gender, religious and political backgrounds still exist, but they are not to hinder unity and the mission of being the people of God in a world steeped in darkness (Phil 2:1-18). Sadly, the church has often reflected the sinful sociology of her surroundings instead of the Spirit’s new community of faith, hope, and love. Classism, racism, sexism, and perverted ethnic and political agendas too often efface the purity of Christ. Sinful sociology must give way to compassion and community around the table of the Lord (1 Cor 10:14-17; 11:17-33).

We are either enhancing or subverting the unity established by Jesus. May the Lord help us be an answer to the intercession of our great high priest and savior.

Topics: Church and Ministry, Current Events, Discipleship, Theology

About the Author

Charlie Self serves as director of learning communities at Made to Flourish. Charlie is an ordained minister with the Assemblies of God. He has served as an associate and senior pastor in several congregations in California, Oregon and Washington, D.C., and has served as an interim pastor six times. He currently also serves as professor of church history at The Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri, where he teaches courses in apologetics, church history, mission history, leadership development, and discipleship. He is also co-developer of discipleship dynamics, a new research-based tool for churches and individuals to assess the effectiveness of their discipleship programs. Charlie is the author of three books: The Divine Dance, The Power of Faithful Focus (with co-author Les Hewitt) and his most recent work with The Acton Institute, Flourishing Churches and Communities: A Pentecostal Primer on Faith, Work and Economics for Spirit-Empowered Discipleship. He has an M.A. in history on the church and social change in Latin America (1992) and Ph.D. in modern european history, with foci on Belgian Protestantism and studies in virtue ethics and the holocaust (1995), from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He also has an M.A. in philosophical and systematic theology from The Graduate Theological Union and Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California. Charlie is married to Kathleen, a professional artist, and they have been married and on mission for 36 years. They have three adult children.