What does John 17 say about unity?

If I was given sixpence every time I heard someone quoted John 17.21 ‘…that they might be one…’ then I’d have a lot of change that I wouldn’t know what to do with. It is commonly suggested that, in this, Jesus’ ‘high priestly prayer’, we see his last desire expressed to his heavenly Father, and that desire is for his people to have visible unity. We must therefore take this seriously, and make it a priority above other issues since, after all, it was so important to Jesus that it formed his final wish.

It is worth looking at the prayer a little more closely, and putting it in its context both in John’s gospel and amongst the gospels as a whole. The prayer forms the climax of the Last Supper discourse in John—but of course John himself mentions no supper, but instead focusses on the washing of the disciples’ feet by Jesus. This reminds us that we need to read John in one hand with the synoptics, and particularly Mark, in the other; the two fill out each other and give each other context. So we read that, after this prayer of John 17, Jesus goes out [to Gethsemane] in John 18.1, but we need to turn to Mark 14.32 to know the name of the place and what happens there.

It is also worth noting from the outset that the longer form of Jesus’ speech in John is not, in itself, a reason to treat the synoptics as more historical, and John more of a theological construction of what Jesus said. Even the speeches in John are relatively short, and all the teaching of Jesus recorded in the synoptics would take mere hours to recite, so we must treat them as (quite possibly reliable) summaries of longer and more extensive teaching.

Turning to the prayer itself, we find many of the earlier themes and ideas in John drawn together. First, we meet the notions of ‘hour’ and ‘glory’; John has from the beginning been interested in days and hours, and in Cana Jesus tells Mary that ‘my hour has not yet come’ (John 2.4) and yet, in the miracle and in anticipation of what is to follow here, ‘Jesus did the first of his signs…and revealed his glory’ (John 2.11).

Then we have the interrelated ideas of life and truth: eternal life is to know the true God, whom Jesus alone reveals. In the prologue in John 1, we have already been introduced to the light who was life for the world from the beginning of creation. And that light is constantly linked with testimony—of John, of Jesus’ disciples, and of Jesus himself. The idea of the work of the Son being aligned with the work of the Father takes us back to the idea that ‘my Father is always working’ in John 5.17 and that the work demanded of us is faith—believing in what Jesus teaches (John 6.29).

The distinction of the disciples from the world touches on John’s ambiguous theology of ‘world’—it is the object of God’s love (John 3.16) but is also opposed to God and the things of God (John 15.18), so that (paradoxically) to love the world is to hate God (1 John 2.15). This contrast between the disciples and the world reflects Jesus’ own relationship with the world (John 17.16); though the world ‘came into being through him, it did not know him’ (John 1.10) and ‘his own people [both the Jews and all humanity] did not receive him’ (John 1.11). His own ministry and kingdom do not have their origin in the world—that is the real meaning of Jesus’ statement to Pilate in John 18.36, often mistranslated as ‘of this world’ rather than ‘from this world’, as if the kingdom did not have an impact on earthly structures of power. The question of where Jesus ‘remains’ or stays or abides has been of interest from the disciples’ first encounter: ‘Rabbi, where are you staying/abiding?’ (John 1.38). We now learn that Jesus abides in the Father, and we need to abide in him, and that he will no longer abide in this world but is going to the Father. (This idea of movement from the Father’s side, down to the incarnation, and up again back to the Father is neither late, not uniquely Johannine, since we find the same movement in Phil 2.5–11 and in 2 Cor 8.9).

Come and join us for the Third Festival of Theology on Tuesday 8th October!

Now we begin to approach the heart of the prayer, where the statement about unity comes. Jesus’ key concern is for the protection of the disciples in the midst of the world in which they remain but to which they do not belong. ‘Make them holy in the truth; your word is truth.’ The language of truth goes to the heart of a key theme in John; as Andrew Lincoln and Mark Stibbe have pointed out, the whole of John can be understood as a form of trial narrative, with witnesses called to testify to the truth of Jesus’ claims and identity, and the Father even called to the witness stand (John 8.18). That is why the conflict is so sharp with the ‘leaders of the Jews’ in chapters 5 to 8, because they are the prosecuting counsel, and that is why John’s account of the crucifixion naturally includes the extended dialogue with Pilate (conveyed to us by one of the servants there) which is not included in the synoptics.

‘Your word’ here cannot refer to Jesus himself, even within the ‘logos’ Christology of John, not least because Jesus has already talked of the cleansing and sanctifying work of his words, that is, his teaching of truth, in relation to abiding in the vine (John 15.3). To be holy involves remaining in the person and work of Jesus, and remaining in his teaching which reveals the truth about us, God and the world. It is into this context that Jesus then longs for the unity of his people. The parallel with the unity between Jesus and the Father cannot be exact, not least with the hindsight we have following the Nicene expressions of our understanding of the Trinity. But it is about the unity of commitment, will and understanding; just as Jesus does the will and work of the Father, and just as the Father’s testimony is completely unified with the testimony of Jesus, so his disciples are to have that one commitment to true testimony which reveals the truth of God—and which will then lead many who have not themselves been witnesses of Jesus also to believe (John 20.31). There is no sense here that the unity of the believers in and of itself, disconnected to the truth, plays any role in the conviction of the world.

Jesus finishes the prayer with an inclusio return to the theme of glory, but does so with a unique address to God as ‘righteous Father’—only the third time John uses the term ‘righteous’ (after John 5.30 and 7.24) and the only time in the New Testament that God is described in this way.

So Jesus’ prayer for unity is tightly bound with concerns for the truth, for holiness, for the distinctive testimony of his people over against the world to which they do not belong, leading to the revelation of the glory of God and by which, through faithful testimony, many in the world will come to believe that Jesus is the only true revelation of the Father who loves them and draws them to himself.

And of course we find very similar inter-relationships between these concerns elsewhere. In the oft-cited example of the Council of Acts 15, it is striking that the understanding of the new experience of seeing the Spirit poured out on the Gentiles is interpreted by means of discerning God’s purposes in Scripture, and (most notably for us) is then recognised by all of God’s people in unanimity. The accord with Scripture and the unified reception by the people both attest to the truth of the interpretation.

Perhaps this is an object lesson in the dangers of the ‘memory verse’ approach to reading Scripture, by which we isolate one phrase from its immediate and wider context, and so lose important elements which it needs in order to be understood properly.

(First published in 2016)

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18 thoughts on “What does John 17 say about unity?”

  1. I’d say that John 17 reveals the pre creation motivation of our Triune God: that we love the Son, as the Father loves the Son – an overflowing, spreading loves and that we love the Father as the Son loves him.
    Oh my, how the Father desire us to love Jesus as much He does, to know that love and likewise to know the love Jesus has for the Father, that we may be one in our Union with Christ in the bonds of love through the Spirit.
    Praise him, let all the nations praise him.

  2. “His disciples are to have that one commitment to true testimony which reveals the truth of God—and which will then lead many who have not themselves been witnesses of Jesus also to believe.”

    The testimony that most overwhelmingly reveals the truth of God is Love.

    The love God shows for us through Jesus Christ, and the opening of our hearts – through the Holy Spirit who dwells within us – to the great flow of God’s love.

    When people are attracted to Christ through a church community, it is so often the love in that community that draws them, and makes them sit up, and listen, and start to believe.

    The gospels and indeed Paul emphasise the absolute priority of Love.

    So when one talks about ‘true testimony’ we are wise to look first for the love… because God IS love, and when we open our hearts to God’s love, and let it flow through us like streams of water pouring forth in givenness to others, that is God in action, reaching to other people, touching them, and that is huge testimony.

    We understand God primarily with our hearts, and in many ways it is God’s love that opens a person’s heart and longings to the possibility of grace, forgiveness, givenness, wholeness, and God’s great love for her.

    We all know, in church, as Christians we have diverse experiences, diverse views, diverse characters… and I caution against thinking that unity is dependent on uniformity. Unity is dependent on givenness to God, and God’s givenness to us.

    There is indeed much in the scriptures that reveals the nature and persons of God. But it is not abstract dogma that Christ seeks primarily, but the opened heart. And how reluctant we are, again and again, to open it (or at least doors and rooms in our souls that we still keep shut).

    Our eternal unity is only, ever, founded in Jesus Christ – and God’s desire to share with us: the eternal household, the love that always flows from God, and indeed streams of God’s mind and consciousness and awareness. God longs to share even that.

    I caution against policing too tightly (on grounds of dogma) what may or may not constitute unity, because that may create division instead. I urge the emphasis always primarily to be on opening to active love, to the flow of God’s love that comes from knowing God in Jesus Christ, and the sharing of that love with others.

    It’s the heart of Christian testimony, epitomised by Jesus Christ, and the extent of his givenness, throughout his life, and even to death on a cross. The givenness of love. Through that we open up to more and more of God, and find conviction of selfishness, and become inhabited in more and more of the rooms of our souls by the Spirit and Mind of God. Following that, God touches, heals, and changes us. It is a lifelong opening up, more and more, to God’s sweet presence and the flow of God’s love.

  3. To me the most interesting aspect of the prayer for unity, whatever kind of unity it is, is that Jesus’ prayer was quite plainly not answered. The church has not been unified, ever. (The disciples may have been fairly unified in Acts, although not entirely so, but we always assume that Jesus is talking about the church through time, and claim His promises for us. )Shouldn’t this be a major component of our theology about “praying in faith and you will receive”?

    • Penelope, if you’re talking about institutional unity, then yes, this prayer is often unanswered but if you consider it to be about organic unity then it has been answered many times in the past and continues to be answered today. As I’ve travelled the world I’ve always discovered a unity and affinity centred on Christ with other Christians even if I can hardly speak their language and they can hardly speak mine –and that has also transcended denominational markers (which won’t be there in the new earth when we have perfect unity). See also: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/september/dana-robert-faithful-friendships-boundary-crossing.html

      • A very good point, Tom. Unity happens because God unifies us, even if we belong to different denominations, through the Holy Spirit who opens our hearts to the love of God. The presence of God in our hearts is the foundation of all unity. In God we have our kinship, even if we sometimes disagree quite strongly with one another. It’s wonderful really.

        • Unity happens because God unifies us, even if we belong to different denominations, through the Holy Spirit who opens our hearts to the love of God

          Question. If you think ‘love’ is the only ‘unity’ and doctrine is unimportant, how far does this extend? Are you united in love with those who have totally different doctrines, like Quakers? Unitarian Universalists? Jehovah’s Witnesses? Mormons? Muslims? Zoroastrians? Atheists? Scientologists?

          Where’s the limit of your unity? Does it even have a limit?

          • Doctrine is not unimportant.

            I find degrees of common ground with people of many religions and none, when it comes to love. Quite a few of them will undoubtedly be more loving than me.

            I don’t want to set limits. I leave that to God.

            My primary task is to love, and I’m not very good at it, but with God’s help and grace I hope I can open up more, and we all should.

            I am undoubtedly “united in love” with anyone else who is loving and kind.

            I am united in Christ, by virtue of Christ’s givenness and grace. And that’s not primarily because of my doctrinal perfection, but because I am tenderly loved by God and God dwells within me. This is my path. My calling. I am a Christian.

            Some people walk different paths. I still think, with regard to them, that their spirituality opens at the point they love selflessly, and show reckless loving kindness.

            Who knows what is truly in anyone’s heart, or what God ordains?

            All I know is that in Jesus Christ, God is inviting us to share in the household and fellowship of the eternal Trinity, and in Christ to discover the unity and community of God.

            It’s in Christ that I find my way to God and the great unity of God. And whether someone is Baptist or Russian orthodox, or Roman Catholic, or Charismatic, or Lutheran, or Calvinist, or Anglican, or many other expressions of Christianity, our unity in God comes through the opening of our hearts to Jesus Christ.

            In short, our unity is not defined by all being uniform and exactly the same doctrinally – though of course doctrine matters to each Christian – but rather, our unity is defined by God, who chooses to call us to the community of the eternal household.

            Is God working, too, in the hearts of the Muslims I see caring for their elderly, or in the Jehovah’s Witness standing on a street corner in the pouring rain, or in the atheist who kicks against the concept of God but visits the lonely neighbour? I leave that answer to God.

            I am happy to share my faith in Christ with any of them, but I believe they are more likely to open and be receptive if I demonstrate the love that Jesus first showed to us, than if I prioritise my own moral self-righteousness in a rigid set of rules. It’s not about our rectitude. It’s about our calling and our opening up to God’s love, and getting on with love, which most of us signally fail at.

            But God is gracious and keeps loving us. Again and again and again. I’m content that I’ve said as much as I’m going to say in this conversation. You know I regard you as kin in God, but if you want to set limits, that’s your call.

          • Good question and one that needs underlining – Jesus in Jn17 specifically states he does not pray for the ‘world’ clearly demarcating his disciples from others. Apostolic teaching tells us in Eph4v3/13 that unity of the Spirit is predicated on unity of the faith in One Lord, one faith, one baptism.
            As you know, none on your list are ‘Christian denominations’ – several are pseudo-christian sects or cults and two are other religions: ‘Quakers? Unitarian Universalists? Jehovah’s Witnesses? Mormons? Muslims? Zoroastrians? Atheists? Scientologists?’

  4. Thanks, Ian. If I have understood you correctly then the unity Jesus prays for is unity in declaring the truth of God as revealed in the gospel and the scriptures. That would clearly unite even Paul and Barnabas and makes much more sense of church history. I suppose being ‘evangelical’ once was an expression of this: different structures but a common message; but the revisionist view of scripture has clouded this somewhat.
    It is better than the vision we were regaled with when the Charismatic Movement was peaking that a sovereign work of God would override differences and make us (robotically?) unified before Christ returns.
    PS the use of world (kosmos) doesn’t have to be paradoxical if one views it as the society or community of created humans. So God is loving that and then redeeming it through the gospel rather than destroying it. This is so much better when reading John 3:16 than the prevalent ‘God loves me, me’ view. This ‘anonymity is wonderfully expressed in Revelation 21&22 where we are part of a redeemed people.

  5. John was an extremely careful writer. There are all sorts of patterns in this passage.

    (1) The play in Greek between the numbers HEIS and HEN and the prepositions EIS and EN.

    (2) The climax of this being 17.23 ‘einai eis hen’ which deliberately reproduces the language of Genesis 2 ‘become one flesh’ (this in the context of hundreds of Genesis 1-6 allusion within this gospel). There has been a build-up of ‘hen’s up until this final ‘hen’ in 17.23.

    (3) The instances of ‘one’ ([oud]eis; hen) total 7 in this passage – but more of this anon.

    (4) They also come in pairs: 17.11-12, 17.21, 17.22, 17.23 [this last if we remember that the text is simply letters without breathings: ‘eis hen’ is deliberate].

    (5) Because the passage centrally talks about none of the disciples being lost as they are gathered together into one, it seems to me that the instances of ‘one’ [hen/[oud]eis] indicate the named disciples in turn.

    (6) The order of disciples (and it is significant that 7 not 12 are named) is determined by the number of their appearances. One appears once, one twice and so on. So:
    1 Judas not Iscariot
    2 Nathanael
    3 Andrew
    4 Philip
    5 Thomas
    6 Simon Peter
    7 John – who is however a composite of ‘the beloved disciple’ (John the Apostle, treated as the first witness) and ‘the other disciple’ [allos = ‘second element of a pair, second of two’] (John the Elder, who is the second of the 2 witnesses and the author).

    (6) Thus in 17.11 we have ‘may be one as we are’. On this occasion, unlike elsewhere, we wait for the second ‘one’ and do not get it. This is because the second of the 2 Judases has gone astray from his position. We find him in the next verse 17.12. Also in 17.12 in close proximity to 17.11 (and keeping the 2 Judases apart) is Nathanael, who is called ‘oud-eis’ [not-one] because he is a representative communal figure addressed in the plural in both 1.50 and 1.51.

    17.21 has Andrew and Philip; 17.22 has Thomas and Simon Peter. 17.23 hints that there are 2 Johns (Elder and Apostle) not 1. The only one that is not referred to as neuter ‘hen’ (besides Nathanael whom we dealt with above) is the still living and breathing one John the Elder.

    (7) These pairs are those we find in the gospel itself. The 2 Judases and the 2 Johns are linked by name. Andrew and Philip appear together to a degree far greater than would happen by chance – Andrew always without fail appears near Philip. Thomas and Simon Peter also appear in close proximity to a degree far greater than would happen by chance: cusp of chs 13-14, ch 20, [cusp of chs 20-21,] start of ch 21.

    (8) The seven instances of ‘one’ (note that the 2 patterns [a] six identical one different and [b] climax at end are both in the 7 ‘light’s of 1.4-9 too) comprise the single small-scale seven of one of John’s large-scale matrices, namely the numerical matrix. The 7 lights are the small-scale 7 of another one of these matrices. One (‘hen’, in particular) is a suitably fundamental number to choose for such a role, probably *the* most natural choice. ‘Hen’ was also the number chosen for the numerical inclusio at 1.3, 10.30, 21.25.

    The disciples’ being gathered into one is (within the pattern devised in advance by John) within the context of some being in the fold and some outside. For the disciples, those outside equals ‘Ioudas’; for the children of God, which is the larger group that is gathered into one, those outside equals ‘Ioudaioi’ which not by coincidence is the plural of ‘Ioudas’ (Ioudas being everywhere, in every John reference, the Gen 3.15 seed-of-the-serpent, and only the Ioudaioi elsewhere being called his offspring, 8.44). Hence the highly symbolic and non-normal use of the term ‘Ioudaioi’ in this gospel. It works very logically within the world and parameters of John’s conception, but is not transferable.

    John speaks of some being in and some out, so cannot possibly be used to justify any bland sort of ecumenism. There is a very positive kind of ecumenism that is found in such contexts as (a) working together in joint mission, (b) the Spirit breaking down denominational boundaries as in the early charismatic movement, resulting in people calling themselves ‘Christians’ first and foremost. Unity in action and relationship and in the sovereign working of God, not in theory or ‘by the will of man’ or within purely diplomatic confines. The latter are the death of conscience and conviction, two things which in healthy circumstances thrive to the max.

    • Omitted to add that although 17.23 looks back to Gen 2.24, the 3 pairs 1+1 (17.11-12, 17.21, 17.22) look back to Isa 6.3.

      Isa 6 is very heavily in John 12, 17, 20. Holy-holy-holy comes in 17.17-19, and glory (doxa) is the main keyword of the passage.

  6. At one level, in John 17, we are privy to a personal prayer. At an altogether stratospheric level we are drawn into an intimacy within the Godhead into knowing by, and only by, revelation into a knowledge of God, a level of demystifying that is unique to Christianity, that is rejected by all those outside and some within unbelieving, badge wearing, flag waving sub- Christianity in a grotesque distortion of the character of our Triune God.
    In our Union with Christ, we are one with each other, at one in the Spirit, in the depths of our being, one in the faith.
    I have more in common with a believer in Borneo, than an unbeliever along the row in Church, more in common with a young believing family in church, from a Baptist background, than the unbelieving community in which I was raised.

  7. Christopher,
    I could be wrong here – I’m not a biblical scholar. It is opposed to nearly everything I’ve read on Isaiah 6, but I’ve been of the of the view for some years, that it records listening in on a conversation within the Trinity that spans forward to the then future.
    Ultimately, the true Isaiah (meaning Yesha’yahu – YAHWEY is Salvation, Salvation is of the Lord – a phrase also found central in the book of Jonah)) that is Jesus (Yeshua), so that there is a dual aspect to being sent, to Isaiah, the prophet, an antitype of the the second Person of the Trinity who saves his people from their sin, and is the true incarnate prophet of God, Word of God and the glory of God:

    “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” 2 Cor 4:6 ESV

  8. Hi, brother Ian. I did a Google search with the photo of Yeshua you have in this article, and it came up. I’m interested in using that image for a book cover. Do you have any info about getting permission to use it? (Btw, I’m not the “copyright Nazi” trying to trap you. I don’t care if you got permission or if you even needed it for that kind of usage.) I would appreciate any info that you have. Thanks! Nolan Lewallen
    [email protected]


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