Jesus Prays for All Believers

The unity Christ prayed for is not an outward, organizational unity, but the inward, spiritual unity based on believers' life in Christ. Because of their union with Jesus Christ, all believers are one with each other as well. How does that spiritual unity manifest itself in practice? In the name of love, many work hard to achieve a superficial, false, sinful unity that is broad enough to embrace false Christians and even those who deny the central truths of the Christian faith. Genuine biblical love, however, cannot be divorced from biblical truth. The true church of Jesus Christ cannot unite with those who deny the essential truths of the gospel, or who affirm a false gospel. True unity is the reality among true Christians.

As he concluded his magnificent High Priestly Prayer, the unity of his followers was very much on the heart of the Lord Jesus Christ. Having prayed for his glory (vv. 1-5) and for his disciples (vv. 6-19), the Savior expanded his prayer to include all future believers-those who would come to him through the power of the Word (v. 17), the witness of the disciples (v. 18), and the sacrifice of the cross (v. 19). The Lord made two requests on their behalf: that they would be united in the truth, and that they would be reunited with him in eternal glory. The first of those requests is the subject of this article.

The opening words of verse 20 introduce the third thing for which Christ said he was not praying. In verse 9 he made it clear that he was not interceding on behalf of the unbelieving world, while in verse 15 He said that he was not asking for the disciples to be removed from the world. His words "I do not ask on behalf of these alone" introduce another group distinct from the then-living disciples for whom he had just prayed (vv. 6-19). Jesus looked ahead through the centuries and prayed for all the believers who were to come in the future. Although the vast majority had not yet been born, they nevertheless were and had been for eternity on the heart of the Savior. Christ's intercession for us, which began with this prayer 2,000 years ago, continues to this day.

Jesus further identified these future believers as those who would believe in him, reminding all again that salvation comes through faith alone. The Lord's reference to believing in him again preserves the biblical balance concerning salvation. On the one hand, only those given by the Father to Christ will come to him. But on the other hand, their salvation does not take place apart from personal faith. In much the same way, the reality that the Lord will draw those whom he chooses to himself does not obviate the church's responsibility to evangelize the lost.

The disciples at that point hardly seemed ready to turn the world upside down. One of them, Judas Iscariot, had turned traitor, and was at that moment preparing to lead those who would arrest Jesus to Gethsemane. Their brash, bold, seemingly fearless leader, Peter, would soon cower before the accusations of a servant girl, and repeatedly deny the Lord. The rest of the disciples would abandon Jesus after his arrest and flee for their lives. But Christ's prayer ensures that the apostles' ministry would be successful. In his omniscience, Jesus knew that they would fulfill their role in redemptive history. The gospel would prevail, despite the apostles' weakness, the world's hatred, and Satan's opposition. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, those early disciples would begin the chain of witnesses that continues unbroken down to the present day. All of the church's evangelistic success is the result of the Lord's request in verse 20 for those who would believe in the future. This request guaranteed the successful establishment of the church, and the success of its evangelistic ministry from apostolic times to the present.

Despite their outward denominational differences, all true Christians are spiritually united by regeneration in their belief that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, in Christ alone, and their commitment to the absolute authority of Scripture. All those who savingly believe in the Lord Jesus Christ "are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another" (Rom 12:5). By the power of God, believers, united in spiritual life, are also united in purpose, share the same mission, proclaim the same gospel, and manifest the same holiness.

The actual fulfillment of Christ's prayer began with the birth of the church on the day of Pentecost. Suddenly, sovereignly, supernaturally, believers were united by the Spirit into the body of Christ and made one positionally. All who have been saved since then have immediately received the baptism of the Holy Spirit, by which they were placed into the body of Christ. Consequently, there is an extraordinary, supernatural unity in the universal church.

The unity of nature Christ prayed for reflects that of the Father and the Son, which is expressed in Christ's words, "You, Father, are in Me and I in You." Because of his unity with the Father, Jesus claimed in John 5:16 and following to have the same authority, purpose, power, honor, will, and nature as the Father. That startling claim to full deity and equality with God so outraged his Jewish opponents that they sought to kill him.

The unique intra-Trinitarian relationship of Jesus and the Father forms the pattern for the unity of believers in the church. This prayer reveals five features of that unity the church imitates. First, the Father and the Son are united in motive; they are equally committed to the glory of God. Jesus began his prayer by saying, "Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You" (v. 1), as he had done throughout his ministry (v. 4). In verse 5, he added, "Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was." Finally, in verse 24, Jesus expressed to the Father his desire that believers would one day "be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me." In John 7:18 Jesus declared that he was constantly "seeking the glory of the One who sent Him." He did not need to seek his own glory (8:50), because the Father glorified him (8:54). Both Jesus and the Father were glorified in the raising of Lazarus (11:4). In John 12:28 Jesus prayed, "'Father, glorify Your name.' Then a voice came out of heaven: 'I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.'" Shortly before his High Priestly Prayer, Jesus had said to the disciples, "Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in Him; if God is glorified in Him, God will also glorify Him in Himself, and will glorify Him immediately" (13:31-32). Jesus promised to answer the prayers of his people "so that the Father may be glorified in the Son" (14:13).

The church is also united in a common commitment to the glory of God. "Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do," Paul wrote, "do all to the glory of God" (1 Cor 10:31). Second, the Father and the Son are united in mission. They share the common goal of redeeming lost sinners and granting them eternal life, as Christ made clear earlier in this prayer:

Even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life. This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do. . . . I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. (vv. 2-4, 6)

God chose in eternity past to give believers to Christ as a gift of his love, and Christ came to earth to die as a sacrifice for their sins and redeem them.

Third, the Father and the Son are united in truth. "The words which You gave Me," Jesus said, "I have given to them" (v. 8), while in verse 14 he added, "I have given them Your word." Earlier that evening Jesus had told the disciples, "The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works" (14:10). The church is also unified in its commitment to proclaiming the singular truth of God's Word. Far from dividing the church, a commitment to proclaiming sound doctrine is what defines it.

Fourth, the Father and the Son are united in holiness. In verse 11, Jesus addressed the Father as "Holy Father," and in verse 25 as "righteous Father." The utter holiness of God is expressed throughout the Old and New Testaments. God's holiness is his absolute separation from sin.  When they see believers united in the pursuit of holiness, unbelievers will be drawn to Christ.  

Finally, the Father and the Son are united in love. In verse 24, Jesus affirmed that the Father had "loved [Him] before the foundation of the world." In John 5:20 Jesus said, "For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself is doing" (cf. 3:35). Similarly, love is the glue that binds believers together in unity, and it is that love for one another that is the church's ultimate apologetic to the lost world. Though not to the same infinite divine extent, the spiritual life and power that belongs to the Trinity belongs also in some way to believers and is the basis for the church's unity. This is what the Lord meant when he said, "The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as we are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity" (vv. 22-23). That stunning truth describes believers as those to whom the Son has given glory-that is, aspects of the very divine life that belongs to God. The church's task is to so live as to not obstruct that glory.

The observable unity of the church authenticates two important realities. First, it gives evidence to the world so that it may believe that the Father sent the Son. That familiar phrase summarizes the plan of redemption, in which God sent Jesus on a mission of salvation "to seek and to save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10).  Jesus prayed that the visible unity of his church would convince many in the world concerning his divine mission of redemption. The church's unity is the foundation of its evangelism; it demonstrates that Christ is the Savior who transforms lives.

The church's unity also authenticates the Father's love for believers. When unbelievers see believers' love for each other, it offers proof to them that the Father has loved those who have believed in his Son. The loving unity of the church made visible is used by God to produce a desire on the part of unbelievers to experience that same love. On the other hand, where there are carnal divisions, strife, backbiting, and quarreling in the church, unbelievers are driven away. Why would they want to be part of such a hypocritical group that is at cross-purposes with itself?

The effectiveness of the church's evangelism is devastated by dissension and disputes among its members. It must be the goal of everyone who is part of the body of Christ through faith in him to do their part in maintaining the full visibility of the unity that believers possess, as Paul wrote:

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Eph 4:1-3)

This article originally appeared in Expositor Magazine, No. 14, Nov/Dec 2016.