In his comments on the Lord’s prayer as recorded in John 17, brother Guy N. Woods wrote the following on John 17:20-21,
“When men come to respect God’s word as they ought agreement on the basis of its teaching is easy; but, it will never be possible to unite on the doctrines and commandments of men. Creeds, confessions of faith, church manuals constitute a perpetual barrier to the unity of religious people. The spirit of this prayer is wholly foreign to the factious spirit which often characterizes members of the church; and those who promote parties, factions, and divisions in the Lord’s body are guilty of grievous sin (1 Cor. 1:10).1
In an attempt to justify the many denominational bodies in existence it is said that it is a blessing that there are so many different “options” from which to choose in religion. Many believe that because we are all different (young and old, black and white) there is no possible way that we can all be one. The young need contemporary services, while the old need a traditional setting. Racial differences require more options because, “we are just too different.” Does man need a variety of choices in worship due to his age or race? Is it possible to achieve the unity for which Christ prayed?
Jesus prayed to the Father, “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as Thou, Father, art in me, and I in Thee, that they also may be one in Us: that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me” (Jn. 17:20-21). Notice the following:
The Source of Faith and Unity (v. 20). It is the Word of God alone by which faith comes (Rom. 10:17) and through which unity is accomplished. Isaiah wrote, “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isa. 8:20). As brother Woods noted in his commentary, the doctrines and creeds of men serve only to bring about division and parties, even within the Lord’s church. The inspired word of God is the only source of absolute, objective truth (Jn. 17:17). Was Jesus praying for the impossible? Do the differences of age, race, environment, etc., make His prayer null and void? Absolutely not! Christians today are those who believe on Jesus through their (the apostles) word. Paul commanded, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10). The division that existed within the church at Corinth was based on Christians who were more devoted to men than to Christ (1 Cor. 1:11-12). Paul’s energy was spent in preaching Jesus Christ, and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). This must be the determination of every servant of God today.
The Subjects of Unity (v. 21). Christ prayed that ALL believers be one. This excludes no one! It may seem impossible to the world, but unity among all believers is possible. Consider Paul’s instructions on accomplishing this command. Unity among all believers is accomplished by possessing the proper attitudes. “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness (gentleness, NKJV), with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3). Sadly, there are some in the body of Christ who do not possess these attributes. However, attitude is but one area by which unity is accomplished. One must hold to the correct doctrine in order to realize the unity for which Christ prayed. “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, Who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Eph. 4:4-6). There are those who cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine of Christ because they serve themselves (Rom. 16:17-18). All men are subject to Jesus’ prayer for unity and Paul’s apostolic command for unity (Jn. 17:20-21; 1 Cor. 1:10-13).
The Success of Unity (v. 21). The ultimate goal in Christ’s prayer for unity is “that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me.” In the first century there were Christians who were “biting and devouring one another” (Gal. 5:15). There were “wars and fightings” among Christians (Jas. 4:1). These attitudes and actions are in direct opposition to the desire of Jesus Christ. In the world there is more than enough sin, fighting, and division. We certainly do not need it within the churches of Christ. Paul withstood Peter to the face when he saw that Peter was not walking “uprightly according to the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). How can we convince the world to have peace with God through Jesus Christ if we cannot even have peace among ourselves as believers in Christ?
Division exists in religion today because men refuse to abide in the doctrine of Christ (2 Jn. 9-11). The truth of the matter is that unity has been prayed for by Christ, commanded by Paul, and it is possible to achieve. May God give us the wisdom and may we all have the heart to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
1 Guy N. Woods, A Commentary on the Gospel According to John, Gospel Advocate Commentaries, Vol. 4 (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate Company, 1989) pg. 364.
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