What was the Lord requesting in John 17:21-23?
Most trusted teachers believe Lords words, “that they all may be one,” anticipate the unity that will be displayed at the Rapture. I humbly, hesitantly suggest an alternative.
John 13:31 through 16:33 is the Lords “Ultimate Disclosure,” finally bringing His disciples into eternal counsels, truth uniquely for the Church, the Body. This disclosure is predicated on His being glorified in heaven (13:32), rather than Peters Jewish expectation of the Son of Mans being glorified on earth (13:37). Instead of an earthly prospect, they were to wait for His coming to receive them to heaven (14:1-3). The Lord then disclosed the Spirits coming from heaven (14:16, 17; 16:7), thus embodying the unique provisions of this age.
In Chapter 17, following His delightful pattern in John, the “Revealer of Secrets” requests the Father to accomplish these revelations: the predication of His disclosure (His glorification, 17:1-5); its prospect (the Rapture, 17:24); and its provision (17:21-23). I take this to be accomplished in the Spirits descent at Pentecost (Acts 2). “I in them” (verse 23) points to our past, not our future. Pentecost made believers one with Christ (17:21b; 14:20) and made Jews and Gentiles one Body (17:21a, 23; 10:16).
Whether we interpret this request as being fulfilled at Pentecost or to be fulfilled at His coming, we must conclude that the unity of John 17:21-23 is not external, but spiritual. Since it is compared with the eternal relationship of the Father and the Son in each verse, this unity cannot be effected or destroyed by men. Only God can produce this unity.
What is the meaning of Ephesians 4:3?
“Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” doesnt refer to a manmade unification, but to the unity of the one Body (verse 4) formed at Pentecost. If we recognize the distinction between the Church, the Body (of which there is only one), and the church of God (of which there are many, 1 Corinthians 11:16), we must conclude that groups of congregations do not form this unity. It was formed positionally by the Spirit at Pentecost; it is expressed practically in each assembly. The Body is not Gods testimony in this age; churches of God are (Revelation 2, 3), therefore each assembly displays this truth. Churches are united in their obedience to the Lord (1 Corinthians 11:16) and their accountability to Him (Revelation 2, 3), but each is distinct and complete in itself (Revelation 1:20; 1 Corinthians 14:23).
Paul often stresses unity within the assemblies he addresses. This may be a primary objective in Romans (see 12:4, 5) and Galatians (5:15, 25). The need for unity within the assembly runs through 1 Corinthians (eg., 1:12-24). In Ephesians, Paul declares that God established in the Body a unity between Jews and Gentiles (2:11-18). By their walk, believers maintain unity by living above their natural prejudices (4:25). We are responsible for right behavior toward all believers, but Paul here emphasizes behavior in the assembly because the assembly testifies to the truth of the one Body.
Are we responsible to unify the Body of Christ?
No. The Body has an indissoluble unity. The New Testament deals with unity in only two ways: the unity of the Body, which is positional and perfect; the unity of believers seen in the assembly, which is practical and imperfect. The ecumenical movement pleads for a “unity” that ignores truth. Taking John 17:21 as Christs present desire that His own should be one (John 17:21), the ecumenical voices call for all “Christians” to come together. In this way, we are to ignore error, accept the legitimacy and existence of the names that divide “Christians,” and validate that being a “Christian” in name is the same as being born again. For evangelicals to call for the same result, based on the same scripture, is equally unsound, although they recognize the need for being born again. Obedience to Christ unites believers scripturally. Interdenominationalism may seem broad-minded, but it is actually self-defeating by giving legitimacy to (and thus perpetuating) denominational names that publicly divide Christians.
How can believers be united today?
We can fulfill three responsibilities: to love all believers (1 John 4:21); to be separate and “touch not the unclean thing” (2 Corinthians 6:17, cited from Isaiah 52:11), meaning the religious system; to call believers now, as God will call believers when He judges the religious system, “Come out of her” (Revelation 18:4; compare with Isaiah 52:11). Our testimony will be unified only when believers gather to the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 18:20) and practice the God-given pattern of Scripture (Acts 2:41, 42). Not mystified by the foggy confusion surrounding us, we can humbly, yet confidently, follow the clear guidance of Scripture that gathers believers to Christ alone. This assurance and our love for other believers require us to point them to Gods Word, so they likewise will hear, “This is the way, walk ye in it” (Isaiah 30:21).