************ Sermon on John 17:11 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on October 6, 2002
"Christ's Prayer for Unity"
I Appeals for Unity
A The recent meeting of Classis started with devotions. The chairman of the day read to us from Scripture about our unity in Christ. In his remarks he said a few words about John 17. In his prayer he prayed for unity. We all knew what was expected: we were to treat each other like brothers and sisters in Christ even when we disagree.
B I was at Synod 1995 as a delegate. The President of the GKN (our mother church in the Netherlands) was given the opportunity to speak to us. I will never forget what he said about unity. First, he spoke to us about the uniting of three historic denominations: the Lutherans, the Dutch Reformed, and the GKN. The draft of a new Church Order has so far passed a first reading. And, a start has been made to merge the denominational staff of the three churches. Second, he also spoke to us about the GKN's attitude towards Jews. The President sees room for mutual witness here – in other words, that the Jewish and Christian faiths can witness together to the world. Third, he spoke about the union and oneness that we have in Christ so that "in Christ there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Greek," and, he said, "neither hetero nor homo." He then went on to say that "In my own congregation in Kampen homosexual men or women participate in task-forces, committees, and consistory. When they live with a partner under one roof, they are faithful to each other in love. In faith we accept one another as a gift of God." "I am proud," he said, "that I have a number of same sex couples in my congregation." In saying all of this, one of the passages he referred us to was John 17.
C At Synod 1995 I was on the committee of pre-advice dealing with women in church office. The executive of Synod asked to meet with our committee after they heard we were splitting and coming with two reports. They wanted to speak to us about the importance of unity in the body of Christ in the hope that the two committees would get back together and come to Synod with one report. They referred us to John 17.
D A number of years ago a document was published. It's title: "Evangelicals and Catholics Together." Based upon Ephesians 4 and John 17, its point is that Roman Catholics and Evangelicals should join ranks. Many prominent Roman Catholic and Protestant leaders signed their name to the document. Now, as all of you should know, Roman Catholics and Protestants disagree on the relationship between justification and good works. Roman Catholics teach that justification is by good works AND faith. Evangelicals, on the other hand, believe that justification is by faith alone and that good works always follow genuine faith. This difference is crucial for on it rests our peace with God, our salvation, and our eternal security. Justification by faith is central to us. Even though many Roman Catholics are true and godly believers in Christ can we, then, unite with a Roman Catholic Church that differs with us on such a fundamental issue?
E Some years ago a well-known evangelical preacher switched positions. He always said you can have fellowship with someone only after you agree with him or her about doctrine. Fellowship, he always said, follows agreement about truth. But then he arrived at a new position based upon his study of Ephesians 4 and John 17. He noticed that Paul calls us to "keep the unity of the Spirit," that Paul exhorts us to start with fellowship, that Jesus prayed for unity. So now this preacher says it is through working together, evangelizing together, praying together, and having fellowship together, that we shall ultimately arrive at the unity of faith. In other words, agreement in the faith now follows fellowship rather than fellowship following agreement in the faith.
F So much talk about John 17, unity, fellowship, and brotherhood. So much pressure for us to join together. I want to ask, I need to ask, what does John 17 actually say about all of this? What does Jesus really mean when He says,
(Jn 17:11) I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name--the name you gave me--so that they may be one as we are one.In this verse Jesus lays down a number of principles about unity.
II Principles of Unity
A Jesus prays about "they (who are) still in the world ... that they may be one as we are one." We have to notice that Jesus is not just praying for anyone here. He is praying for a particular people. So we need to ask, who are these people that Jesus is praying for?
In John 17 Jesus has much to say about who these people are. They are the people "given him" by God (vs 2). This point is raised over and over again in John 17, five times to be exact (vs 2, two times in vs 6, vs 9, vs 24). There are certain people who belong to God. We know them as the elect. God has given them to Jesus. Jesus prays for the unity of these people.
Jesus also tells us that these people are different from the world. He says, "I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me" (vs 9). Yet, says Jesus, these people remain in the world (vs 15). So the people Jesus is praying for are in the world but not of the world. They are people who have been set apart from the world.. Jesus prays for their unity. There is no universalism here. There is nothing to suggest that Jesus is praying for the unity of all men everywhere, or even for the unity of all religious folk everywhere.
Jesus tells us something else about those people for whom He prays. He tells us they obeyed the Word (vs 6), they accepted it (vs 8), they believed it (vs 8,20), and they know that Jesus was sent by the Father (vs 8,25).
Finally, Jesus says they are the people for whom He sanctified Himself (vs 19). They are the people, in other words, for whom Jesus died upon the cross, whose sins He paid for, whom He has made right with God.
Jesus prays for unity, but He doesn't pray for the unity of all men. Notice whom He excludes. He excludes those who are not of the elect. He excludes those of the world. He excludes those who do not believe in Him and accept Him. He excludes those who are disobedient. He excludes those for whom He did not die.
Jesus prays for unity, but He doesn't pray for the unity of all men. Notice whom He excludes. He excludes every unbeliever, including those Jews who refuse to accept Jesus as Savior and Lord. He excludes sinners who don't repent but persist in such sins as murder, adultery, theft, homosexuality, and so on. He excludes those who don't believe and practice that Jesus is the one and only way to the Father.
This, then, is the first principle – that Jesus does not pray for all men but only for certain ones.
B The second principle that Jesus lays down concerns the origin of unity. You need to notice that Jesus uses the word "protect" in verse 11. He prays, "Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name ... so that they may be one as we are one." Nowhere does Jesus tell His people to produce a unity, to unite together, as if unity were up to us. Rather, our Lord is saying that the unity is already there. It is something that is ours from God and in Christ. Unity is not from man or of man; never! This is a very important point and principle. Our Lord is not dealing with something toward which we should aim. Rather, He wants us to enjoy something we already have in Him.
Jesus prays, then, that the Father will protect or preserve the unity that is already in existence.
All around us we see the need for such prayer. The study of the Christian Reformed Church, for instance, is a study in schism, disunity, and brokenness. We broke away from the RCA in 1857. In 1925 the Protestant Reformed Church broke away from us. In the early 1980's a number of Orthodox CRC's broke away from us. In the late 1980's many Independent Reformed churches broke away from us; and, in the 1990's many United Reformed congregations broke away from us.
All around us we see the need for such prayer – that the Father will keep and protect and preserve us in the unity that is already ours in Christ. The study of all the Christian church, and not just of the CRC, is a study in schism, disunity, and brokenness.
Topic: SchismBefore you condemn this kind of attitude, you need to realize we had the same kind of discussion in 1916 about infra and supra lapsarianism. Each side called the other heretical. Yet, I doubt if more than one person in this building can tell me the difference between the two viewpoints or what the CRC Synod said about the issue.
Title: Die, Heretic!
Comedian Emo Philips tells this story:
In conversation with a person I had recently met, I asked, "Are you Protestant or Catholic?"
My new acquaintance replied, "Protestant."
I said, "Me too! What franchise?"
He answered, "Baptist."
"Me too!" I said. "Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?"
"Northern Baptist," he replied.
"Me too!" I shouted.
We continued to go back and forth. Finally I asked, "Northern conservative fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1879 or Northern conservative fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912?"
He replied, "Northern conservative fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912."
I said, "Die, heretic!"
Jesus knows that because of sin true believers so quickly and so easily break their unity. So He prays that God will keep or protect us in the unity that we have. That is His second principle.
C The third principle is that our unity needs protecting. The unity of Christians needs the guiding and providential hand of God in order to be preserved.
God needs to protect our unity from Satan and the forces of evil. Satan loves to see the church and Christians have disunity. He loves to see fights and splits and schisms. He loves to see heresies and arguments drive believers apart.
God also needs to protect our unity from our own sin. Let there be no doubt about it – disunity is always caused by sin. And, I must add, there is always plenty of sin and blame to go around; so much, in fact, that neither side is ever blameless in any church fight. In humility we need to recognize this.
This then is the third principle: because of sin and evil and Satan our unity needs protecting.
C The fourth principle that Jesus lays down concerns the nature of the unity. What is our unity supposed to be like?
Topic: UnityThis is not the kind of unity Jesus has in mind.
A grandmother told the following story:
"My granddaughter was telling me that she and her three playmates all attended different churches. Then she added, 'It really doesn't matter if we go to different churches, does it Grandma -- just as long as we're all Republicans?"
Jesus prays "that they may be one as we are one." The unity between Christians is comparable to the unity that exists between the Father and the Son.
The union – the mystical union – between the three persons of the Holy Trinity is the highest mystery of the Christian faith. Theirs is a unity of essence. There are three Persons and yet one God. They are all divine; they are all Godhead; they are all invisible, immortal, eternal, incomprehensible, unchangeable, infinite, and almighty.
If the unity of Christians is like the unity of the Trinity, then it must involve a unity of essence, of being. Deep down, at the core of our being, we are all the same. What is this unity of essence? I can describe it a number of ways. We are all born-again sinners. We are all made new in Christ. We all participate in the divine nature.
Notice what this says about our union: as I said earlier, it is not something we can do, it is not something we can bring about; it is only from God and in Christ. Unity of believers is not like voluntarily joining the National Farmers Association, or the National Association of Doctors, or the National Rifle Association, or Rotary. It is not even a matter of friendship. It is deeper than that. It is like a family relationship. You have no choice about the family you are a part of. You are born into a family. You may disagree with your family, you may not like them, but you cannot get rid of the relationship. It is a matter of blood and genes and chromosomes. In essence you are all the same. So it is with the unity of the Church. It is not something voluntary. It is something from God and in Christ.
Let's consider my opening illustrations. We would have to say there can be no unity between us and a Jew who does not believe in Jesus because there is no unity of essence. There is no unity between a born-again Christian and a practicing homosexual who refuses to repent because there is no unity of being. There is no unity between a good Roman Catholic who believes in salvation by works and us because in essence we are different. There can be no unity between those who accept the full authority of the Bible and those who treat the Bible as a fable. Nor can there be unity between those who believe Jesus died and arose and those who deny His death and resurrection.
As I said before, when it comes to unity Jesus is not telling us to do anything. Rather, He prays that the Father will preserve us in the unity that is already ours. The reason He does that is simple: we need each other.
Topic: ComfortThe parallel between well-rooted trees and well-rooted believers is obvious. We are part of the body of Christ and we all need each other.
You all know that in Sequoia National Park are the largest trees in the world. The huge sequoias tower 360 feet into the sky. The largest tree, the General Sherman, has a circumference at its base of 101 feet. Botanists now know that some of the biggest sequoias are almost 4,000 years old -- which means that at the time of Christ, they were already more than 100 feet tall! Strangely, these giants have unusually shallow root systems that reach out in all directions to capture the greatest amount of surface moisture. Seldom will you see a Sequoia standing alone, because high winds would quickly uproot it. That's why they grow in clusters. Their intertwining roots provide support for one another against the storms.
Right now, rest assured about this, Jesus is praying for those given Him by the Father, who are His own, who believe in His name and obey His commands. He is praying that the Father will keep us in the unity that is already ours. He is praying that the Father will keep unity between true believers everywhere.
But now the question that concerns us: Is He also praying that the Father will keep the Christian Reformed Church together? And, can we pray this too? The answer is yes IF we have a unity of essence, IF we all believe and obey, IF we all submit to the authoritative Word of God.
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
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