The night before His death, our Lord Jesus prayed for His followers. This includes His longing, quoted here, that they may be one.
This is often taken as a plea for unity between Christians, above everything else. Again and again we hear that because of this, we should put away all arguments – including our current ones about sexuality – for the sake of the unity Jesus prayed for. This is sometimes preached with sorrow – as if many divisions and denominations show that Jesus’ prayer is unanswered, despite His best efforts.
But is this what Jesus was actually praying for?
He starts (verses 6-19) by praying for those followers who were with Him in His years on earth. That He is referring to those who would also be called His Apostles is clear from the personal reference He makes to Judas: “None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that the Scripture would be fulfilled.”
It’s after He’s prayed for them that He includes future generations (verses 20-26). “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”. In context, the unity He prays for is between the original disciples and future generations. In other words, that future generations would walk in apostolic truth.
In other words, His prayer is for unity in Apostolic truth, not just anything-goes unity. He prayed that future generations would be one with the Apostles, those who’d been with Him and who received the Spirit’s help to tell His story (see John 14:25).
I had noticed this in this passage some time ago, but was reminded of it when at GAFCON (the Global Anglican Futures Conference) in Kigali last week, someone gave me a booklet reprint of a talk by Dr John Stott making exactly this point. Stott writes: Jesus is praying that the church down the centuries might believe the same truths, obey the same teaching, and look forward in the same hope as the apostolic church.
It is this coherence between Father, Son, Apostles and us that leads to mission. Jesus continues, “May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” It is His truth, preserved and preached by future generations, standing shoulder to shoulder with the Apostles, which leads to the world believing.
And – by the way – the preaching of this truth does lead to real present unity. At GAFCON I had the joy of being with followers of the Lord Jesus from all over the world – from cultures palpably different from each other – sharing wonderful, united fellowship. One day there will be a great multitude no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne (Revelation 7:9). Jesus’ prayer is being, and will be, answered!