Seeing God in Christ as the Means to the Unity of the Church
“Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”
– John 17:11
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Oneness is Important to Christ
Jesus’ prayer to His Father in John 17 is one of the highest, most mysterious peaks in the entire mountain range of scripture. In this chapter we are invited into the heart of reality as God the Son prays to God the Father by God the Spirit in reference to the climax of creation (the cross) and the eternal destiny of the Church. It is difficult to find a weightier chapter in all of scripture. And what rises to the surface as we read through these verses is a particular request that is often on Christ’s lips, namely, that the Church would be one (17:11, 21, 22, 23).
What is this “oneness” that the Lord is so desirous for His Church to experience? Is it simple unity? Freedom from divisions and factions? Is it rallying around a single belief? Is it united action for a good cause? I wouldn’t rule any of those answers completely, but I would say that none of them get at the heart of Christ’s request for “oneness.” Think about it, human institutions can be “one” in the ways I mentioned above….human movements can have unity, musicians and artists can rally a devoted group of common followers around themselves, science fiction conventions can create a community of like-minded individuals seeking the same cause…….there is nothing of the supernatural in these unities, so we know that this is not the kind of oneness that God the Son calls for God the Father to create in the Church.
The Cause of Oneness
I think we begin to see a glimpse of the sort of oneness Christ is calling for as we examine verse 11 a bit more closely:
“Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, THAT they may be one, even as we are one.”
The “that” is important to notice. It indicates the purpose of what comes before. In other words, Jesus is asking the Father to keep the Church in His (the Father’s) name so that they would be one. This is clarifying, it means that the oneness Jesus is asking for requires and is a result of His people being kept “in the name” of the Father which He has given to Christ. Being kept in the name results in being one.
The next question, then, is “what does it mean to be kept in the name?” Let’s address this in two parts
What Does it Mean to be Kept in the Name?
First: The Name
In John 17:6, Jesus seems to sum up His entire earthly ministry by saying “I have manifested your name…” In other words, all that Christ did and said on earth (climaxing in His sacrificial death on the cross, as is made clear by 17:26) was a manifestation/revelation/communication of the name of God to the world. But when Jesus uses the word “name,” He is not thinking of it in the way we often do in today’s culture. In scripture, someone’s “name” encapsulates their essential nature, it is who they are.
We see this use of “name” very clearly in Exodus 33:18-19. In this passage, Moses asks to see God’s glory (that is to know Him in the beauty and holiness of His character), and God responds by telling Moses that He will pass by and declare His name. In Exodus 34:6-7, the Lord proclaims His name, and in doing so, actually communicates the fullness of His nature, i.e., who He is. So, we ask to know God and to see His glory and He responds by speaking His name, because to know His name is to know Him and to know Him is to see His glory. Name = Fullness of who someone is, and in God’s case, this fullness is His glory.
So, with this in mind, when Jesus says that His earthly ministry is a manifestation of the name of God, we can understand Him to be saying that His earthly ministry is a manifestation of the character and nature of God Himself. And this is, of course, what John tells us again and again all throughout His gospel! Jesus is the image and revelation of the invisible God to mankind (John 1:14,18, 8:28, 14:9, etc.)…to see Jesus is to see God. So the name of the Father that Christ has manifested to us is simply (and staggeringly) God Himself.
Therefore, the name in which Christ prays that we will be kept, is the manifestation of God that has come to us in the person and work of God incarnate.
Second: Kept in the Name
What does it mean to be “kept in” this name? I would quickly submit two possibilities.
1) It means that we would be continually receiving and believing and feeding upon and drinking in God as He is manifest to us in Christ. It means that Jesus Christ becomes the definitive and controlling communication of God to our soul such that when we want to see God we look primarily to Him as He is revealed to us in Christ.
2) It means that we emulate the name that we have seen in Christ. It is impossible to truly know God in Christ and yet not be conformed to that Name. We cannot perceive the beauty of the holy, sin-hating, self-outpouring, grace-giving God without become like Him ourselves.
So, to be “kept in” the name means – at least – to cling to the image of God as manifest in Jesus Christ and to be conformed to that image as we behold it in Christ.
Drawing a Conclusion
Ok, let me lay out what we have said thus far and then consolidate them into a single answer to the question, “what is the oneness that Jesus is praying for?”
- We have asserted that the name of God is His character/nature/glory (Exodus 33:18-19, 34:6-7).
- We have asserted that Christ’s earthly ministry – climaxing at the cross – is the supreme manifestation of that name (17:6, 26).
- We have asserted that being kept in this name leads to the oneness that Christ is seeking.
- We have asserted that being kept in this name means – at least – an enduring belief in God as He is manifested in Christ and a progressive conformity in our own lives to that manifestation.
With these things in mind, I would argue that the oneness Jesus is praying for is this: That the Church would see the glory and nature of God in the person of Jesus Christ, especially in His work at the cross, that they would receive and believe and love God in Christ, and that in beholding His glory as manifest in the Son, they would be increasingly conformed to that glory. To put it succinctly, beholding and being conformed to the glory of God in Christ results in the oneness of the Church.
The heart of the oneness of the Bride of Christ is that she would see her God in the face of Her Bridegroom, especially as manifest in His dying and rising Love. The unity of the people of God is not primarily an issue of what (i.e., Church government or doctrinal nuances or liturgy or history, etc.), it is primarily an issue of who. WHO is our God? WHO has captured our souls? WHO is the beloved one of our hearts? WHO is our life? As the answer to these questions increasingly becomes “Jesus Christ as revealed in scripture,” the Church will – I believe – move increasingly toward the oneness for which Christ prayed.
This is not simple. It demands humility, community, and dependence on the Spirit to reveal Christ to us (John16:14), but Christ has prayed for it so we know that it is and will increasingly be true. May God give His global Church the grace to turn her eyes to Christ, the slain and risen radiance of the Father, and in Him, may she know the Name of her God and so be one just as He is one.