Unity: Reading, St. John 17: 21 

The Prayer of Jesus: 

“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” (St. John 17: 21).

The extended prayer of Jn. 17: 1-26 gathers up the themes of the preceding Farewell Discourse (13: 31-16: 33). It is both a final resolution of Jesus’ obedience to the death, which will be his glorification and an intercession for the fruits of his accomplished work after his ascension.

John 17: 1-26 falls into four divisions: (a) Jesus’ offering of himself for his Father’s purposes (vss. 1-5); (b) his concern for the destiny of his disciples after his ascension, that they be kept in unity, with each other, in himself, and in God (vss. 6-19); (c) the outreach of intercession to all future believers until the end of time, they too must be one and their unity will be the means of convincing and persuading the world (vss. 20-23); (d) Jesus reviews the result of his ministry (vss. 24-26).

This prayer emphasizes Jesus’ obedience to the Father, obedience even unto death; the fact that his death is the means by which the glory of God is manifested; the choosing of the disciples out of the world; the revealing to them of God in the person of Jesus; their mission to the world; their ultimate unity in love and their dwelling in Christ and in God.

In verse 21, Jesus prays that the whole church may be one, as he has already prayed that his disciples may be one (v. 11). John has little interest in the church as an institution, the Fourth Gospel in fact adds little to our knowledge of the historical Jesus, there is no straightforward, clear-cut Christology in John because John was not setting out to produce a Christology: he was writing about Jesus in terms of God and, correspondingly, about God in terms of Jesus. He adopted, withSt. Paul, the standpoint of II Cor. 5: 16, namely, that those who are in Christ Jesus no longer think or act according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (cf. Rom. 8: 1-8). John does not appeal for unity in institutional terms. The church’s unity is not merely a matter of unanimity, nor does it mean that the members severally lose their identity. The unity of the church is strictly analogous to the unity of the Father and the Son; the Father is active in the Son – it is the Father who does his works (14: 10) – and apart from the Father the deeds of the Son are meaningless and, indeed, would be impossible; the Son again is in the Father, eternally with him in the unity of the Godhead, active alike in creation and redemption. The Father and the Son are one and yet remain distinct. The believers are to be and, are to be one, in the Father and the Son, distinct from God, yet abiding in God and, themselves, the sphere of God’s activity (14: 12). The kind of unity John has in mind and the means by which it is to be secured, are given by the words of v. 20 “… them also which shall believe on me through their word.” It is, as Bultmann points out, “unity in the tradition of the word and of faith.” He continues: “Such unity has the unity of Father and Son as its basis. Jesus is the Revealer by reason of this unity of Father and Son; and the oneness of the community is to be based on this fact. That means it is not founded on natural or purely historical data, nor can it be manufactured by organization, institution or dogma; these can at best only bear witness to the real unity, as on the other hand they can also give a false impression of unity. And even if the proclamation of the word in the world requires institutions and dogmas, these cannot guarantee the unity of true proclamation. On the other hand the actual disunion of the Church, which is, in passing, precisely the result of its institutions and dogmas, does not necessarily frustrate the unity of the proclamation. The word can resound authentically, wherever the tradition is maintained.”

The unity of the church in God is the supreme testimony to the truth of the claim that Jesus is God’s authorized emissary. The existence of such a community is a supernatural fact which can be explained only as the result of a supernatural cause. Moreover, it reveals the pattern of the divine activity which constitutes the Gospel: the Father sends the Son, and in his works the love of the Father for mankind is manifest, because the Son lives always in the unity of love with the Father; the Son sends the church, and in the mutual charity and humility which exist within the unity of the church the life of the Son and of the Father is reflected. The church’s unity in word and faith means that the world is challenged to decide between faith and unbelief. It seems to be implied here, as Barrett points out, “that the world as a whole will believe and, therefore, be saved. With this apparent universalism contrast 16: 33. John retains the customary New Testament tension between universalism and the predestination of an elect remnant. In fact, the inevitable human imperfection of the church means inevitably an imperfect faith on the part of the world, and church and world alike must ever remain under the judgement and mercy of God.”

The eternally continuing prayer of Jesus (vss. 20-23) is that the unity of love and purpose he has with his Father will be reflected in the unity of the church in himself and that the mission he received and fulfilled from his Father will be the same mission of all who find joy fulfilled in his discipleship throughout all times and ages.



Authorised Version, (King James) Bible,Cambridge. 

Barrett, C. K.: The Gospel According to St.John, An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text, 2nd edition, 1978.

Bultmann, R.: Das Evangelium des Johannes, Kritisch-exegetischer Kommentar uber das Neue Testament, English Translation, 1971.

Richardson, A.: An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament, 1958.

Sanders, J. N.: A Commentary on the Gospel according toSt. John, Black’s New Testament Commentaries, 1968.

Souter, A.: A Pocket Lexicon to the Greek New Testament,Oxford, 1956.

The Rev’d. Geoffrey E. Andow


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