Many Christ-followers could quote the Lord’s Prayer (or “the Our Father,” depending on your background) in their sleep. Sadly, we’re much less familiar with the prayer the Lord actually prayed.
John 17 gives us remarkable insight into what was on Jesus’ heart and mind at the pivotal point of all human history. John 17 is what Jesus prayed on Thursday night before Good Friday. Minutes before the climactic events that led to his crucifixion and resurrection, this is what he prayed. Sound important?
Would the strategic importance of John 17 grow if you knew that this is what Jesus is praying right now for you and your city? I believe he is. Hebrews 7:25 says that Jesus “always lives to intercede for us,” and Hebrews 13:8 says that Jesus is the “same yesterday, today, and forever.” It would make sense to conclude that what he prayed then is what he’s praying now. But we don’t have to guess… He tells us in John 17:20-21 that this is His prayer for every subsequent generation of believers.
Jesus is incredibly focused as He prays, as three times in the prayer He specifically mentions what He’s not praying. Jesus is strategic and intentional, because “the time has come,” as the prayer begins, and because all heaven and earth are watching. This prayer matters.
In Part 2, next month, we’ll look at how the unity Jesus prays for is actually achieved. But in Part 1, today, we’ll glimpse at what this unity is and isn’t. It will be easier to pray what Jesus prays, and see it happen in our homes and cities, if we first know the content.
The overarching purpose – unity
If you’ve read John 17 even once, it would be hard to miss the central theme. Four times in Jesus’ prayer, he prays that Jesus’ followers would be one as He is one with His Father in heaven. Of all the burdens on Jesus’ mind minutes before the cross, Christian unity takes center stage. That’s phenomenal to me. How’s that working out for us?! Perhaps we shouldn’t just hope unity happens and celebrate it when it does, but resign to “oh well, it was nice while it lasted” when unity fails. Jesus apparently thought it was the most important thing for which to be praying.
unity is not uniformity (verse 11 and elsewhere in John 17)
The first freeing observation comes from taking Jesus’ own words seriously. How is Jesus one with the Father? Well, at the moment he prayed this prayer, Jesus was fully human, with human limitations – the ultimate one, death, looming on the horizon. The Father He was praying to had zero human limitations. So “one as Jesus and the Father are one” is clearly not a prayer for uniformity, or for all parties to be identical.
Understanding this is enormously freeing, and probably explains away one of the subconscious reasons why unity hasn’t been as attractive to us as it is to Jesus. Who wants the body of Christ to look like a clone army? Not even Jesus Himself. Jesus doesn’t pray that we all look alike, act alike, have the same strengths and weaknesses and perspectives, and worship the same way. Jesus prays that we be fully aligned, and that we act like we’re on the same team because we are.
unity is not private (verse 15)
Jesus says that He refuses to pray that the Father would take us out of this world. That implies that the unity Jesus prays for is not supposed to be separate from this world, either. Unity within congregations is a sweet, sweet thing, and can usually be discerned a few minutes after walking into a building or gathering. Person after person would pay a lot to experience the love that flows so freely and frequently within a local body of believers. But as long as that unity stays just within that local body of believers, the vast majority of the neighbors will never experience it. Jesus prays that this unity would extend to the whole city, so that those outside any local congregation would have a chance to see and experience it.
unity is not watered down (verse 17)
This truth, especially, could be an article all by itself, but let me summarize with an observation. The world advocates or at least settles for a least-common-denominator unity. “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere,” and “Can’t we all just get along” are common statements from our culture. Jesus, however, prays for a unity that partners with truth, that is based in truth. Unity and truth are friends and partners for Jesus, and once that connection is separated, both are lost. Unity at the expense of truth is little more than a surface “niceness”, which can’t last. Truth at the expense of unity probably has more to do with pride than Jesus, who is Truth.
unity is not just a first-century prayer (verse 20-21)
Since I already referenced this above, I’ll merely add that we are the people Jesus is talking about, the ones who believe through the message of those Jesus was near while praying. One of those, John, recorded Jesus’ prayer, and we’re now the ones praying it. I love telling congregation after congregation – “You’re in Jesus’ prayer!”
unity is not the end-goal, but the means to the end (verse 23)
As a city gospel movement, is there anything you’d rather see happen than people in your city come to know who Jesus is, and how much God loves them? If I had to start from scratch and list my top goals for my neighbors or family, those two items would be at or near the top of the list. Both are byproducts, according to Jesus, of a citywide, public, substantive, multi-faceted unity. It’s actually THAT important.
Let’s join Jesus in praying what He’s praying for us and our cities. Nothing could be more important.