On the last night of his life, Jesus prayed a prayer that stands as a citadel for all Christians: “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, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. . . . I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20-21, 23 NIV).
How precious are these words. Knowing the end was near, Jesus prayed one final time for his followers. Striking, isn’t it? With death breathing down his neck, Jesus prayed not for their success, their safety, or their happiness. He prayed for their unity, as they would fulfill his purpose. He prayed that they would love each other, as they went forward to love the world to him. He prayed for his disciples and for all those who would come to faith in Jesus Christ, becoming his followers. That means you and me. In his last prayer Jesus prayed that you and I be one.
Of all the lessons we can draw from these verses, don’t miss the most important: Unity matters to God. The Father does not want his kids to squabble. Disunity disturbs him. Why? Because “all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35 NIV). Unity creates belief. How will the world believe that God sent Jesus? Not if we agree with each other. Not if we solve every controversy. Not if we are unanimous on each vote. Not if we never make a doctrinal error. But if we love each other.
If unity creates belief, then disunity fosters disbelief. How can the world come to believe the gospel if those who already believe it are battling among themselves? When the world sees Catholics and Protestants dueling over power and territory in Northern Ireland, or young and old members of the same congregation dueling over worship styles, or a church splitting over the color of the new carpet, it says, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Disunity is not merely a scandal for unbelievers; it is also a stumbling block for them coming to faith. Paul Billheimer may very well be right when he says: “The continuous and widespread fragmentation of the Church has been the scandal of the ages. It has been Satan’s master strategy. The sin of disunity probably has caused more souls to be lost than all other sins combined.”
Could it be that unity is the key to reaching the world for Christ?
If unity is the key to fulfilling the God-ordained purpose of spreading the message of Jesus Christ, shouldn’t it have precedence in our churches? If unity matters to God, then shouldn’t unity matter to us? If unity is a priority in heaven, then shouldn’t it be a priority on earth?
Nowhere, by the way, are we told to build unity. We are instructed simply to keep unity. From God’s perspective there is but “one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16 NIV). Unity does not need to be created; it simply needs to be protected.
How do we do that? How do we make every effort to keep the unity? Does that mean we compromise our convictions? No. Does that mean we abandon the truths we cherish? No. But it does mean we look long and hard at the attitudes we carry. Unity doesn’t begin in examining others but in examining self. Unity begins, not in demanding that others change, but in admitting that we aren’t prefect ourselves. Unity grows as we learn to accept others differences and to forgive when wronged. Unity continues as we humbly serve those who are different. Unity is favored as we loving take the message of Jesus Christ to a divided world. Unity is fulfilled as focus on who we believe in rather what we believe in.
I’m reminded of a statement by E. Stanley Jones. “Talk about what you believe and you have disunity. Talk about who you believe in and you have unity.”
May I urge you to focus on Jesus.