Jesus says farewell – part nineteen (John 17)

We’re continuing in our series through Jesus’ farewell speech in John 14-17. 

So far, we’ve looked at Jesus’ prayer that his church might be one (John 17:20-21) and asked what went wrong? Should we be pursuing unity at all costs – like many would encourage us to do? Before we get to answering that, yesterday we made two important points: that unity doesn’t have to be organisational unity; and that there is a fair amount of functional unity between like-minded Christian groups. Today, we ask an even more fundamental question: must the call to unity take priority over truth?

3. Must the call to unity take priority over truth?

That is, should we sacrifice truth just so we can get together with other denominations? Clear teaching elsewhere in the New Testament tells us a resounding ‘no’.

For example, the Apostle John in his letters refers to those who ‘went out from us, but they did not really belong to us’. They were teaching a lie: that Jesus did not really become human.  John is realistic – he knew that there were people who could not be part of the church because they simply did not believe the true gospel.

The Apostle Paul constantly appeals to his readers not to be led astray by the teachings of various factions – particularly those who want to add ‘works’ to the gospel of grace. In his letters to church leaders – to Titus and to Timothy – he urges them to keep to ‘sound doctrine’, and not to have anything to do with a divisive person.

The Apostle Peter writes:

2 Peter 2:1 But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves.

And even here in John 17, I think we get a hint of this as well. But there’s a bit of a punctuational difficulty that may obscure it. (Warning: nerd content. But it’s important, so stick with me.)

The punctuation you see in your Bibles has been added by the editors and translators. The oldest manuscripts we have contain no punctuation. Mostly, there’s no problem. But sometimes it can be ambiguous as to where one sentence ends and the next begins. Here’s how the NIV (along with many other translations) has decided to punctuate the sentences in question:

John 17:20-21 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 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.”

In other words, the unity of the church should be the same as the unity between Father and Son in the Godhead. That’s a pretty strong call to unity! And I want to affirm that. It’s reiterated in the next two verses in unmistakable fashion:

John 17:22-23 “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

But I don’t think the punctuation in verse 21 best reflects the Greek – which is all one big, run-on sentence (as Greeks are wont to do). The NIV breaks the sentence there for clarity –  which is rather awkward in the Greek -and I think it then misses an important distinction. By contrast, I think the NRSV breaks it at a point where the Greek could be seen as the start of a new sentence or idea:

John 17:20-21 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, 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.”

In this punctuation, it prays firstly for unity among believers: “that they may all be one.” But it doesn’t (at this point) link it to the Father-Son unity. Instead, the second part of the prayer is that the unity between Father and Son might be reflected in the unity the church has with God. And only then (in verses 22-23) does it talk about unity among believers being like the unity of the Godhead.

Or to put it another way, unity in the vertical direction comes before unity the horizontal direction. Believers are to be in the Father and Son. Only then can they truly be one with each other. A shared commitment to truth is a requirement for unity.

Unity with others comes from our shared unity with God. Any other kind of unity is human-dependent, not God-dependent. If we don’t get this right, we end up trying to create unity ourselves. We strive to be united with each other, striving to imitate the unity within God. We try to be like God. It’s the Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel all over again.

We end up with the same atheistic philosophy as John Lennon’s Imagine:

Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try, no hell below us, above us only sky; Imagine all the people living for today. Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do, nothing to kill or die for, no religion too; Imagine all the people living life in peace.

Speaking of anthems for peace, comedian Tim Minchin has decided that the problems in Palestine between Jews and Arabs could all be solved if only they had a peace anthem. So he decided to write one. It starts off like this:

You don’t eat pigs and we don’t eat pigs; seems it’s been that way forever. So if you don’t eat pigs and we don’t eat pigs, why not not eat pigs together?

The problem with much of the ecumenical movement is that they are trying to create unity based on little more than a shared aversion to pig-meat. ‘We all worship the same God.’ But the fact is, we have a vastly different idea of what it means to be in a relationship with that God. Mutually exclusive ideas. Unity can only come from a shared unity with God.

Choosing truth over unity

If you look back over our history that I outlined on Monday, you’ll see that in many cases, each division – each parting of the ways – has come from a choice of truth over unity. At the time of the split, the core message of the gospel was at stake. Truth must prevail. (Of course, many other cases involved cultural or personality clashes, or the raising of “disputable matters” to the status of core belief. Dividing over those kinds of issues is the opposite of what the Gospel calls us to do. More on that tomorrow.)

Yet this isn’t a popular policy at the moment. After all, in our postmodern world, who knows what truth is? Our culture calls for ‘tolerance’ – which really translates ‘unity at the expense of truth.’ At the 1991 conference of the World Council of Churches in Canberra, the ecumenical movement even went as far as to hold prayer meetings with not just different Christian denominations, but with other religions as well.

Again, we can have a role in this by educating those who aren’t believers as you go about your day-to-day interactions with people. Just as yesterday I encouraged you to correct the impression that all denominations are hopelessly divided against each other, you can correct the opposite impression – that all denominations are the same. There are some genuine fault-lines amongst all we who call ourselves Christians. Although many of our differences are minor, there are some big ones, too. We do not preach the same gospel as everyone who claims to follow Jesus. We cannot be united with people who don’t have the same basic understanding of the gospel. So in that sense, we are different religions entirely.

Called to be united, yet also called to hold firmly to the truth. How do we live this tension? More on that tomorrow.

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