Good morning, please turn with me in your bibles to John chapter 17. The gospel of John chapter 17.
The doctrine of the church was nicely summarized in the final version Nicene creed, which is an ancient summary of the Christian faith, drawn up by a large group of pastors over 1700 years ago. This doctrinally summary has served for generations, to guide the church’s health and teaching, and preserve it from heresy. Regarding the doctrine of the church, the Nicene Creed reminds us that the church is One, Holy, Catholic (or universal), and Apostolic. One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. And my plan is to address each of those characteristics, one sermon at a time. We’ll begin today by looking at the church as One. The church is one. It is united. It is marked by both its current possession ofunity, and its on-going pursuit of unity. That is, the church of Christ IS united, and it seeks TO BE united.
But the world and Satan would not have it so. The church is always under attack. As you look at the world, Satan has blinded the eyes of the unbelievers to think that the church, and THOSE intolerant CHRISTIANS, are the source of all the problems in this world. The world believes that Christians are nothing but judgmental, hypocritical, bible-thumping, un-educated, bigots.
But the attack is not only from outside the church. Inside churches you can see all sorts of unrest and division. You see political tensions tearing at the seams. You see hostility related to public health and differing estimations about vaccines and masks. You see differences of opinions about protocols and laws and mandates.
And all that is happening while the world is tearing itself apart. Riots related to race and inequality. Protests about this problem and marches about that that problem. Division everywhere: wars overseas and battles at home. Disunity seems to be the standard operating procedure for the world, and sadly that operating procedure has even found its way into churches.
But the bible reminds us that none of this disunity is new. Ever since sin has entered the world, men and women have been demanding what they want, and fighting in order to get it.
James reminds us in his letter: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.” We covet, we desire in our heart, and when we can’t get that thing that we want, we murder to get it. We fight. We devour. We divide.
But the good news of scripture is that it doesn’t have to be that way. We don’t have to have our desires control us. We don’t have to be constantly at war and dividing from our brothers and sisters. We don’t have to persist in a constant state of hostility and enmity. We can have peace.
The gospel of Jesus Christ provides for us Peace. Christ has come and died for the sin, and by his death we can be reconciled to God. We can have peace with God, the forgiveness of sins, and life-everlasting, simply by faith in him. But it doesn’t just stop there. There are many other blessings of this reconciliation with God, one of which is that it brings unity among the people of God.
In fact, one of the most evident proofs of the truthfulness of the gospel is that it RECONCILES former enemies. Paul makes this abundantly clear in the second chapter of Ephesians. Jews and Gentiles, former ethnic enemies with different political views, different customs, different social expectations, different cultures and dress and languages, these desperate groups formerly at enmity, have been made ONE because of the work of Jesus Christ.
And it is that ONENESS that I’d like to examine today. It is that shared oneness that should give us hope, even when the world is disintegrating. It is that oneness that can nurture our faith and encourage our spirits, even though the world is tearing itself apart with divisiveness and hostility.
And this oneness that is found in Jesus Christ alone, the oneness that is a fruit of Christ’s own ministry, is clearly seen in the prayers of Christ himself, which are recorded for us in John 17. These are sweet words that reveal to us the very heart of our savior, the heart of our God and what he desires for each of us, and for his church, his very bride.
Let’s read John 17, where Christ is praying to the Father about his people on the eve before his crucifixion, and I will highlight a few points about the unity that the church possesses in Christ, and the unity that we are to pursue because of Christ. John 17:
17 When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4 I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. 5 And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.
6 “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. 8 For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. 11 And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.12 While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. 13 But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.[a] 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them[b] in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sake I consecrate myself,[c] that they also may be sanctified[d]in truth.
20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. 24 Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me.26 I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
Let’s begin with our first point about the oneness of the church. The first aspect of our unity is that it is based on a revealed name. Based on the revealed name of God.
Look again at verse 5, “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world.” Part of Jesus’s mission is to reveal the name of God to the people of God. And of course, that doesn’t merely mean speaking the name of God, Yahweh, and the mission is over. Biblically speaking, the name of someone reveals something real and significant about their essence, about the character of that person. And therefore, to reveal the name of God, means to reveal something significant about God, which is a major part of the mission of God in Jesus Christ.
Jesus is one with the Father, a fact attested to throughout this gospel of John, and by seeing Christ, we see the Father; believing in the Son is believing in the Father, because to know the Son is to Know the Father.
As it relates to our unity, we need to remember that the name that is revealed to each and every one of us, the name that is spoken into our hearts, the name that brings faith to a hard and stony heart, the name at which every knee will bow and every tongue confess, is a name that we would NOT know, a name that we would not revere, a name that we would not love, if it had not been revealed to us.
This is a supernatural revealing, and it produces a supernatural unity. It is a name and a revealing that comes from outside of us, a name that is alien, foreign to us. And that is what God’s people needed, something outside of themselves to secure for themselves the salvation they needed.
And the unity that is produced by this name is not revealed to us on the basis of anything inside of us. Not on the basis of how great of a preacher we have, or how righteous we are, or how pristine our theology is, or how much pedigree our confession has, or how many missionaries we’ve sent out. Neither is it a unity based upon shared experiences or backgrounds, nor shared political leanings, nor ethnic uniformity.
This unity is based on something that is outside of us, that we would have never had without the sovereign act of God speaking and revealing his name to us in Christ. This unity is based upon the free working of God, not on our merit.
Thus, this unity ought to promote genuine humility within each of us. If WE aren’t the foundation of our unity, if we and our gifts and abilities and our works and our righteousness aren’t the foundation of our unity, then in what ways have we to boast? In fact, if our unity exists IN SPITE of our sinful hearts and only because of Christ’s sovereign work according to HIS good pleasure, then we have even less room to boast.
Churches ought to be full of humble people, because there are NO CHRISTIANS that became so on their own. No Christian has ever saved themselves, brought themselves out of darkness into light, replaced their own stony heart with a heart of flesh. None. If you are a Christian, it is because God has revealed his name to you, according to His sovereign will. Humility is the proper posture for a Christian. And a church full of humble Christians WILL BE a church marked by unity.
May we never boast in our strength, in our purity, in our gifts, in our doctrinal precision, but boast only in the Lord who took the initiative to reveal his name to us, and therefore grant us a unity that we could neither create or maintain if it were built upon the name of any other man.
Our unity is based on the name of God revealed to us in the person and work of Christ, and not in the name of any other man or creation of man.
Second. Not only is the unity that we have in Christ from outside of ourselves and based on the revelation of God according to his sovereign good pleasure, our unity is also word-centered. Our unity is word-centered.
Look again at verse 8: Jesus says, “For I have given them the words that you game me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you have sent me.”
Jesus has given to his people THE WORDS that they need, words that came from the father, and by receiving them, they have confirmed in their minds and hearts the truth that the Son has truly come from the father. It is the word of God that informs God’s people and conforms them to the truth.
We are unified in and through the Word that has been delivered to us. The word of God reveals the truth to us, for without it, we would be left wonder what truth really is. But because we have received the word, and have come to believe in the Son, we have come to know the truth, and to be unified in it.
The word-centered quality of true unity is significant for the churches of God. Our unity is not centered upon any other source of authority. We’re our unity isn’t contingent upon similar political leanings. We’re not united because we share certain conservative values. Our unity is not anchored in any preferences, or strategies, or personalities, or any other human allegiances. Our unity is founded upon the word of God that has been given to us by Christ in his office as our great prophet, proclaiming the words of the Father to us.
Our unity is not only to be centered on the word, it is also grounded on the word, and both those realities of word-centered unity should inform how believers act among one another, and how churches should act among other churches.
If the unity we share is grounded on the word of God, then there will be a stability to the unity. We won’t be swayed and distracted by every wind of change and doctrine. A stable unity is unshaken by political upheaval, or even global pandemic. Word-centered unity is anchored on the unchanging word of God, which is itself founded upon the unchanging character of our creator.
But in addition to stability, word-centered unity will also possess longevity. Longevity. Only unity founded upon the word of God will be able to last the test of time. Fads come and go; well mostly they just go. Fashions and trends change. Technology marches on, and with it, so too does complexity seem to grow. And yet, God’s word is both unchanging and ever-relevant. It is ancient, and yet always-contemporary.
God’s word, and the unity it produces, stands the test of time because it is built on the eternal character of God, who is himself captive to no constraints of time nor fashion. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and so too is his word. Which means that unity built upon his word will also possess longevity.
Third, word-centered unity will be both stable and long lasting, but it will also possess an edifyingquality. Because it is founded upon the Word of God, evangelical unity will be edifying. True, word-based unity will be ever encouraging to the saints of God because God’s word is the spiritual food that nourishes our souls. God’s word is nourishing to every believer, it sustains our souls, because it speaks of our Christ, who is himself our very bread of life.
To go one step further in applying this truth, if God’s word is the center of our unity, then that means that no Christian, and no church has the liberty to adjust the center. We don’t have authority to tamper with God’s word. We should speak where it speaks, and we should give liberty where it is silent.
Many Christians and churches have gotten into dangerous waters when they don’t proclaim clearly what God has made clear. Either out of fear of man or a desire to be liked by the world, they will edit, tweak, soften, and try to otherwise remove the offense from God’s law. I think this is a driving force in the doctrinal shallowness that often characterizes the church and its institutions today.
Brothers and sisters, we have no authority to adjust the word of our great prophet. What he has declared, we must declare, in all of its doctrinal integrity, never shying away from the offense of the cross, which will always be offensive to the world.
But not only that, the other end of the spectrum is also true today. While some shrink from speaking clearly the things that God has made clear, others make to opposite mistake of speaking authoritatively about matters on which God’s word is silent. I believe this to be equally damaging and disrespectful to God. Some would risk constraining the consciences of others in ways that scripture does not constrain, thereby over-stepping their biblical authority, and turn themselves into the very Pharisees that Christ so harshly condemns.
God’s word gives us invaluable principles to help guide our decision making, and we’ve been given the holy spirit to help us walk in wisdom, but the bible does not give us a step-by-step recipe for every decision in life. God’s word doesn’t tell us which particular candidates to vote for. It doesn’t explain which specific medical advice we should take. We’re not told which school to attend, or what job to take.
What we are given is God’s clear law, and guiding principles of wisdom, and outside of that, we’re to pursue and maintain unity by evaluating the decisions of others with charity and love. We’re not to be in the business of binding the consciences of people where scripture has not bound them. That’s not our prerogative, nor do we have that authority.
If our unity is founded upon God’s word alone, then let us never be guilty of speaking authoritatively where God’s word is silent. Let us trust in the sufficiency and authority and Power of our great prophet who has revealed to us the very words of God that we might be fully equipped and united in our battle against sin, Satan, and the world.
Our unity is to be word-centered.
Third, not only is our unity name-based and word-centered, our unity is informed by the godhead. Informed by the godhead. To say it another way, the shape of our unity should be informed by how the 3 persons of the trinity relate to one another. How the Father, Son and Holy Spirit relate to one another informs how we relate.
The three persons are united in their mutual intercession, or mutual inter-penetration, to use a couple of big theological words. That means each person of the Godhead is forever and perfectly loving and delighting in each other, completely honoring and beholding the beauty that each possesses as they each share in the same beautiful divine essence.
In verse 11 of our text, Jesus prays that his people would share in the oneness that the Son has with the Father. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.
Of such unity, John Gill wrote: this unity is “in nature, will, affection and understanding; [this unity is an] abiding together, cleaving to each other, standing fast in one spirit, having the same [desires], and the interest of the redeemer in view, and at heart.” The unity of God’s people, analogous to union with Christ and analogous to the unity of the godhead, grounds Christian community. Heavenly unity is both the source and example for us believers.
Now, we obviously won’t share in exactly the same kind of unity. We don’t share the same perfect divine nature. But there are some principles that we can tease out in an analogous way that I think that help inform our understanding of Christian unity, both in a church and among groups of churches.
First, see how unity is essential. Unity is essential. Just as it is inconceivable for the Father and Son to be divided, so too ought the church of God to be jealous for a unity that mimics God’s own oneness, and in-divisibility. If love-based unity marks the divine essence, then what is proclaimed by an individual or church that can’t stay united?
That means there is some measure of love lacking, some measure of hate that has intruded. That’s why scripture speaks clearly and often against division and disunity. Proverbs 6 tells us that one of the things that God HATES is one who sows discord, or disunity, among the brothers. We have one Lord, one Faith, One Baptist, one Spirit, and we ought to manifest that essential one-ness through unity. Word-centered, love-driven, Unity is essential.
Second, we see in the divine unity an illustration of how unity does not mean uniformity. Unity does not mean uniformity. The goal of a church can’t be to produce more of its own particular brand. We’re not here to make more copies of ourselves, as if we are the standard of what a church ought to be.
Rather, the people of God should see the various gifts, talents, and strengths of its people, and praise God for the diversity of gifts that have come from His Holy Spirit’s work. The diversity found among the people of God is an asset to be leveraged, not a liability to be obscured.
Just as each person of the Godhead shares and possesses the same divine essence, and yet each individual person takes on specific roles, we can analogously see that the church has a unity grounded on shared possession of union with Christ, and therefore can diversely serve God and function in different ways without any decrease in dignity or value. Some lead and some follow. Some teach and some are taught. Some serve and some are served. And yet all are equal in dignity and value in the eyes of God.
None should feel discouraged or devalued among the people of God, for we know that our unity is grounded not in the gifts we have, but in the giver of the gifts, and the Holy Spirit is not a haphazard gifter. He knows what he is doing, and we should rejoice in the diversity of the body, seeking to responsible stewards with what we’ve each been given, while also rejoicing in how God has gifted and worked through the ministries of others.
Do you take time to notice the gifts of others, and thank God for those gifts? I hope you do. For in the diversity of giftings in the body we see more of the nature God that we could ever see merely looking at ourselves alone.
Our unity is informed by the Godhead, or is analogous to the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Finally, a fourth aspect of our unity seen in John 17. Not only is our unity name-based, word-centered, and informed by the Trinity, our unity is to be mission-oriented. Our unity is to be mission-oriented. Or we could say that our unity, the unity of the church, should be aimed toward the world.
Look again at verse 21 where Jesus explicitly connects our unity with our mission. Jesus prays “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, (why?) SO THAT the world may believe that you have sent me.” And again two verse later in verse 23 our Lord says, “I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” I wish I had three days to sit and unpack all the glory bound up in this verse. But, I’ll close with just two brief observations.
First observation is that the effectiveness of any human endeavor is tied to the unity of the participants, and that is no less true for a work of God’s people. Football teams must have a common aim, leaders must have a shared vision, and churches must have a unified vision, a common task, if any lasting kingdom work is to be accomplished.
God has so ordered the world that the proclamation of the gospel is the means through which men may believe that the Son of God has truly been sent from the Father. But, if the church is not united, is full of division and strife, full of anger and bitterness, full of dissention and all kinds of evil, then the gospel can be obscured, overshadowed.
Peoples’ ears can become closed by what they see with their eyes. People will be turned off because of the incongruity between our lives and our message. If we live lives that contradict the truth being proclaimed by our lips, people will see nothing but hypocrisy.
And the question for each of us is clear: Does my life confirm and advance the mission? Or does my behavior impede the mission? Is the testimony of my life an impediment for the mission of the church in the spread of the gospel? Our lives are meant to adorn the gospel message, not distract from it.
Praise God that Christ never spoke a word of truth that he didn’t live out faithfully. He always aligned his actions with the truth of God. There was no bit of hypocrisy or incongruity; no divisiveness or sowing seeds of division. Indeed, Praise God that Christ died on the cross for quarrelsome and divisive hypocrites like us. Even though we fail every day, Christ was willing to die in our stead.
Even though we preach Christ and obedience with our lips, and yet daily fail to love him and keep his commandments, Christ still receives us, forgives us, washes us, restores us, and grants us his holy spirit in order for us grow in our obedience, to more faithfully align the truth of our lips with the testimony of our lives.
May God ever grow us, redeem us from our hypocrisy, so that the eyes of the world would see no contradiction between our message and our lives. That we’d practice what we preach, just as Christ did, SO THAT the world may believe that the Father actually send the Son to redeem sinners.
Second observation from this verse: it’s not about you. It’s not about you. As we have seen in our study of 1 Corinthians, A church that gets distracted by personalities and posturing and politicking and promoting will inevitably diminish the unity of the body, and ultimately undermine the mission. If unity is tied to mission success, then divisiveness is actively undermining the effectiveness of gospel proclamation to the world. Division distracts us from our duty.
Ask yourself: Am I divisive among the body? Am I promoting fights and quarrels, like James says, because I want and do not have? Do I covet and not possess, and then gossip or demand or manipulate in order to get it? If so, then my pride is leading me to sow seeds of division among Christ’s united body.
Too often the mission of the gospel is obscured or impeded because egos get in the way. The emphasis goes from gospel advancement to the advancement of my agenda, from love of neighbor to love of praise and comfort.
May we be ever on guard against such tempting pitfalls. Christ has done everything needed for the oneness of His bride, including giving his own body that she might have a united one. He’s provided forgiveness for the divisive ones, and cleansing for the contentious. And he’s instead filled each of us with the SAME Holy Spirit, so that we might be moved to live together in humble, gentle, kind, loving harmony, thereby proclaiming the truthfulness of the gospel, and advancing the gospel to the lost.
That’s our calling: actively pursuing unity in Christ for the sake of unified mission success. Rather than putting the emphasis on ourselves, let us cast our eyes heavenward, to see again the beauty of our great God, be refreshed again by seeing Christ in all of his resurrected glory, and thereby be rejuvenated to return to our mission, unified, until our earthly labors are complete.
And if you have not yet believed in Christ, today could be your day to be united to him, and united to his bride, the church. No church is perfect, but Christ is. And by being united to him by faith, you too will one day be made perfect, washed of your sin and forever join him in paradise. That can be yours, if you but believe. Trust in him, and be forgiven your sins, and made one with God’s people.
Benediction: Romans 15: “5 May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus,6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7 Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
 John Gill, Commentary on John.
 Sam Tyson, Dependent Independence: Toward a theology of Southern Baptist Associationalism, PhD Diss, SBTS, 2017, pg 172.