7 Nov 2020
As we examine the challenges facing the church in the last days, it is of utmost importance for us to look at one of the profoundest chapters of the Bible – John 17. In this chapter, we are introduced into the presence, mind and heart of God. We are permitted to ‘eavesdrop’, as the Son communes with the Father – herein is holy ground and we need to ‘take off our shoes’ in reverence and worship.
Jesus prays first for Himself (vv 1-5) as He approaches the cross; secondly for His apostles (vv6-19) and thirdly for the whole church present and future (vv 20-26), consisting of all those who will believe in Him through the apostles’ teaching. In examining the challenges facing the church, we will concentrate on the second and third sections. From verses 6-11a, Jesus refers primarily to the apostles: they belong to Christ, for the Father has ‘given’ them to Him; they know the Father, for Jesus has revealed the Father to them; they live in the world – Jesus is leaving them behind as His representatives or ambassadors.
Here is Jesus’ threefold characterisation of His people, beginning with His apostles, but including all later disciples, reaching even to us. We live in the world as a people who know God and belong to Christ, and therefore (it is implied) have a unique mission to make Him known.
What constitutes the prayer of Jesus for His people? It is a prayer that the Father will keep us the holy people we are, that He will protect and preserve us from any and every evil influence which might spoil the unique position He has given us. It is a prayer that we may be kept true to who we are, to our essential Christian identity, as a people who know God, belong to Christ and live in the world. More specifically, Jesus prays that His people may have four characteristics, namely truth, holiness, mission and unity.
Truth was the first concern for HIs church which Jesus expressed in HIs prayer (verses 11-13,17). He spoke of revelation, of the disclosure by Him of God’s otherwise hidden name. He made plain His longing that His people would be loyal to this revelation, and that their unity would be based on their common faithfulness to it. Today many church leaders are guilty of serious unfaithfulness. A few are brash enough to deny the fundamentals both of the historic Christian faith and of traditional Christian morality, while others seem unsure of themselves and of their beliefs. Some busk in the ‘cult of popularity’, seeking to build their own ’empires’ without regard for other churches, and without due regard for the truth and revelation of Scripture. An overemphasis on part of the truth or distortion of the whole truth constitutes ‘false’ truth or untruth.
There is no possibility of the church being thoroughly renewed until and unless it is renewed in its faith, in its commitment to God’s revealed truth in Jesus Christ and in the full biblical testimony to Him. Nor is there any chance of the church recovering its unity until it recovers the only authentic basis for unity, which is truth. Jesus prayed first for the truth of the church; we should do the same. For God intends His church to be ‘the pillar and foundation of the truth’ (1 Timothy 3:15).
Jesus, in His prayer to the Father, not only asked that His people be preserved in the truth and kept frome error, also requested that they be protected from the evil one and be established in holiness (vv 14-16). The final destiny of the church is to be presented to Christ as a ‘pure bride’, ‘holy and blameless, without wrinkle or blemish’ (Eph. 5:27). But the holiness of the church must begin now and be ‘perfected’ when Christ comes again.
As far as holiness is concerned, the church tends to go to extremes. On the one hand, it has withdrawn from the world and lost contact with it; on the other hand, it has conformed to the world and become almost indistinguishable from it. But Christ’s desire for the church’s holiness is not either ‘extreme’; He had prayed that, although He wanted His disciples to be protected from the evil one, He did not want them to be taken out of the world (vs. 15).
Withdrawal from the world may arise from a false understanding of holiness; it is associated with the belief that contact with evil and evil people would bring contamination, and a desire to preserve christian culture and ‘holiness’ from destruction by the wicked world. Conformity to the world may arise from a positive motive to break down barriers between the church and the world, and to be friends with ‘sinners’.
Jesus was a friend of publicans and sinners, but He was alo ‘set apart from sinners’ in His values and standards (vv. 11, 14). He calls us to live ‘in the world’, while remaining like Himself ‘not of the world’, that is, neither belonging to the world nor imitating the ways of the world.
Today in the modern world, the danger to conform to the world is a serious threat to the holiness of the church. The compromising values of the believers in the ‘working world’, the increasing rate of divorce, adulteries, premarital sex and the like are not just affecting non-believers, they are becoming rampant among so-called believers.The teachings of ‘hypergrace’, ‘antinominism’ and similar ‘doctrines’ deceive various ones who claim to be believers to conclude that it does not matter how they live their lives – after all, their past sins, present sins and future sins have all been forgiven. This demonstrates distortion of the teaching of Scripture and violates the exhortation ‘You shall be holy as I am holy’. The Apostle Paul warned that those who practice ‘ungodliness’ have no inheritance in the kingdom of God.
Withdrawal from the world was the way of the Pharisees. Anxious to apply the law to the details of everyday life, they had a false understanding of holiness. A form of Christian pharisaism or separatism has lingered in the church. Legalism is one such ‘form’; some have described such believers as ‘too heavenly minded as to be of any earthly use’ in a mocking manner. True holiness is not a matter of religiously following ‘rules’ without reality and discernment.
We are neither to give in to the world, nor opt out. Instead, we are to stay in and stand firm, with the enabling and wisdom of the Holy Spirit.
There is a multi-faceted relationship of the church to the world: living in it, not belonging to it, hated by it and sent into it. Instead of ‘withdrawal’ and ‘conformity’, the right attitude for the church towards the world is ‘mission’. If we withdraw from the world, mission is obviously impossible, since there is no contact. However, if we conform to the world, mission is impossible, since we have lost our cutting edge and ‘witness’. It is very possible for Christians to live in the world without having any share in Christ’s mission. We are to be ‘separated from the world to be of service to the world’. It tells us that mission involves being under the authority of Christ (we are sent); renouncing privilege, safety, comfort, and aloofness, as we actually enter other people’s worlds, as Christ entered ours, humbling ourselves to become servants, as Jesus did; bearing the pain and hostility of the world into which we are sent; and sharing the good news with people where they are.
Let me quote the late John Stott: “The model for mission is His incarnation (identification without loss of identity), its cost is His cross (the seed which dies multiplies), its mandate is His resurrection (all authority is now His), Its motivation is HIs exaltation (the honour of HIs name), its power is His gift of the Spirit (who is the paramount witness), and its urgency is His parousia (we will have to give Him an account when He comes)”.
We are not to conclude that ‘mission’ only involves the missionaries, those sent out by the churches. It is still our duty, when the opportunity is given and in a spirit of humility, to share Christ with people where they are. These may include relatives,friends, colleagues, neighbours who do not yet know HIm. Local church evangelism can claim to be the most normal, natural and productive method of spreading the gospel today. It might be helpful to share that in evangelism, in sharing the gospel, we need not be in bondage to words and formulae, and so become ‘prisoners’ of gospel ‘stereotype’. We need not wrap our message in a nice, neat package as if it is destined for the supermarket. We need to share Christ, because there is no gospel without Him, but we need not tie ourselves in certain phraseology in sharing about Him. We are to share the gospel sensitively to each person and situation, looking to the Spirit for wisdom and discernment. Of course, there is an underlying unity (particularly regarding the saving death and resurrection of Jesus) which binds the different gospel formulations. The gospel has been revealed by God and received by us; we have no right to edit it or tamper with it. However, the gospel must be contextualized, that is, it should be related appropriately to each person or situation. Otherwise it will be received as irrelevant, sometimes received as a ‘nuisance’ when it is shared in such a way that seems to ‘jam it down into somebody’s ‘throat’ in a situation where somebody is irritated and obviously not ready to ‘receive’. We need to recognise that if our life contradicts our message, our sharing of the gospel will lack all credibility. Perhaps, the greatest hindrance to evangelism and mission is lack of integrity in the evangelist and missionary.
In His prayer, Jesus looked into the future, into the post-apostolic era. He saw the coming generations of disciples who would not have seen or heard Him in the flesh, as the apostles had done, but who would believe in Him through the teaching and message of the apostles (note here the significance of Scripture in the teaching and message).
His prayer for believers in post-apostolic era: that all of them may be one, (verses 21a,22b, 23b) becoming perfectly one. Jesus prays for unity – but what is the nature of this unity?
First, He prayed that the believers would enjoy unity with the apostles; that there might be a historical continuity between the apostles and the post-apostolic church, that the church’s faith might not change with the changing years but remain recognizably the same, that the church might remain loyal to the message and mission of the apostles. Over the years, in the history of the church, there have been significant compromises to the faith as well as a turning away from the wholesome message and mission of the apostles. The prayer of Jesus must have kept the church and prevented it from going astray drastically and also in bringing it back to the correct path whenever it tends to veer from the truth, message and mission entrusted to it.
Secondly, Jesus prayed that His people would enjoy unity with the Father and the Son. He actually prayed that the union of His people with God may be comparable to the unity of the Father and theSon with each other in the Godhead! (vs 23). To pray for the structural unity of the church is in order. But what is more important and pleasing to God is unity in truth and in life. It should be the quest for more apostolic truth and more divine life through the Holy Spirit.
Jesus’ prayer is comprehensive – it is a prayer for the church’s truth, holiness, mission and unity. The church today seeks structural unity but often without a comparable quest for the truth and life which constitutes authentic unity. Others have been occupied with truth (doctrinal orthodoxy), sometimes becoming dry, harsh and unloving in the process, forgetting that truth is to be adorned with the beauty of holiness. Holiness seems to be of paramount importance to others, but such ones withdraw into a self-centred piety, forgetting that we have been called out of the world in order to be sent back into it, in ‘mission’. Then there are others who are obsessed with mission but they forget that the world will come to believe in Jesus only when HIs people are one in truth, holiness and love.