One in Christ: The Unity of the Church
October 11, 2020 Speaker: Rodrigo Sanchez Series: In Him: How Our Union with Christ Transforms Who We Are
Passage: John 17:6–17:11
One in Christ: The Unity of the Church
"That they may be one, even as we are one." Unity. That is the goal of Jesus’ prayer in John 17. Christian unity is of outmost importance and so it has a central place in Jesus’s final words to his disciples.
When we think about church unity, the question we are asking is this: what makes a church and what holds the church together? Or, in more specific terms to the local church we ask, what is it that compels a group of people to join together in church membership and to stay together in faithful covenant keeping?
These are important questions for our day because although Christian unity is essential to the witness of the God’s people, the church at large is profoundly divided. Christian unity, especially in the context of the local church, is what makes the gospel visible. Division, on the other hand, obscures the gospel and undermines its power.
Now, to think rightly about church unity, it is essential that we think rightly about the nature of the church as well. For what makes the church is also what holds the church together.
So, what is church unity and where does it come from? In our text this morning, we see at least three truths about the nature of church unity. Church unity is:
1. Spiritual: Unity in Union with Christ
2. Confessional: Unity in the Words of Christ
3. Eternal: Unity in the Love of Christ
Spiritual Unity in our Union with Christ
We begin with the first truth: Church unity is a Spiritual Unity in our Union with Christ. Jesus prays to the Father in v6, "I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word." Brothers and sisters, this is how the church is created, by God’s own initiative in taking a people out the world. The church is given birth in the Father’s giving of his people to the Son.
The Father gives a people to the Son, and the Son reveals the Father to them so that they keep his word. Jesus came to manifest the name of God to his people. And God’s name is nothing less than his glory manifested. It refers to his essential nature and character shown forth in his revelation of himself. The people of God are those to whom the true nature of God has been revealed in Jesus Christ. You can sum up the nature of the church in the words of Isaiah 52:6, "Therefore my people will know my name." Out of everyone else in the world, the church is the people to whom God has revealed himself in Christ.
"I have manifested your name" to the people you gave me, Jesus says. And this means that if you want to know God, the Son, Jesus Christ, must reveal him to you. If you want to know God, you must know him by faith in Christ, the one who reveals the Father. "No one has ever seen God,” Jesus says earlier in the Gospel of John, “The only God, who is at the Father's side, he [that is, Christ] has made him known." The Son is one with the Father and reveals him to us.
The church is the people of God. Those whom God, by his gracious initiative, has taken from the world and given them to Christ, and to whom the name of God has been revealed in the Son. “Yours they were, and you gave them to me,” Jesus says. So that belonging to God is belonging to the Son by faith. Union with Christ defines what and who the church is.
And what I want to you see this morning is that what makes the church is also what keeps the church together. The church is one in Christ. As Paul says in Ephesians 4, there is one body, one Lord, and one faith. Our identity as the people of God and our unity as covenant members of the local church do not depend on outward circumstances but on the inward spiritual reality of our union with Christ, as we share together as one body in one Lord. This means that the church unity is not defined by outward identities, whether be ethnic, cultural, or political, but by our spiritual identity as the people of Christ.
This is why the preamble of our church covenant reads like this, “Having, as we trust, been brought by divine grace to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ… we do now… solemnly and joyfully renew our covenant with each other.” God’s grace in Jesus precedes our commitment to one another. We recognize that what makes us and keeps us together is God's gracious initiative in saving his people in Christ. And it is God’s gracious act that calls us together in covenant membership here at Midtown Baptist.
We do not join a church in response to superficial preferences but as a response of faith to the inward reality of God’s saving work. And we stay in covenant membership in the church as an expression of our common union in Christ. And in doing so we declare to the world, that the people of God are not defined by the world but by God himself who has saved us according to his grace.
The church exists and is kept by God's saving initiative as he calls us out of the world and gives us to the Son. The unity of the church is a spiritual unity in our common union with Jesus Christ by faith.
Confessional Unity in Keeping the Words of Christ
The second truth about church unity is that it is a Confessional Unity in the Words of Christ. Look there again at the end of verse 6. The Father gives his people to the Son and they keep his Word. “Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.” The hearing and keeping of the Word of God is essential to the corporate life and unity of the church. The church exists and is sustained by the Word of God. The Word is the agent by which God calls us out of the world and gives us to the Son.
In other words, the church is kept in Christ as the church keeps the Word of God. V7, “Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you.” Now, everything that the Father has given to the Son refers back to the Father’s word in verse 6. The Father not only gives the Son a people but he also gives him his word. So that the Word of God and the words of Christ are one and the same.
The words of the Son are of divine origin and carry divine authority because they come from the Father. John 12:49, Jesus says, "I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak." More than that, all of God’s Word is summed up in Jesus. John chapter 5, Jesus tells his opponents, "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me… If you believed Moses, you would believe me; for [Moses] wrote of me." God speaks not only through the Son but also in the Son so that the Word of God is fulfilled and summed up in him.
Jesus continues in verse 8, "For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me." Notice how keeping God’s word in verse 6 is paralleled here with believing that the Father has sent the Son. Jesus sums up the Word of God as the truth concerning himself. That the Father has sent him. To keep God’s Word is to believe in the Son, the one sent from heaven, fully divine and fully human, who speaks the Father’s words and does the Father’s work.
Not only is the word of God summed up in whom Jesus is, but also in what he has come to do. Jesus continues praying in v9, "I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. I am no longer in the world. But they are in the world, and I am coming to you." As we mentioned earlier, Jesus’s prayer anticipates the work he is about to accomplish. He is soon to be taken away so that he will no longer be in the world with his disciples. He is going to the Father.
In less than two chapters, we find him hanging on the cross, shedding his blood to atone for the sins of God’s people. However, death does not have the final word in the Gospel of John, and so we read that on the first day of the week Jesus is gloriously risen from the dead. He appears to his disciples and he ascends to heaven. From where, by the way, he will one day return to judge the living and the dead.
That entire scheme of Christ’s redemptive work in his death, resurrection, and ascension, is summed up here in verse 10 when Jesus says that he is about to be glorified. Everything that the Father has given to the Son includes the Father’s testimony or word concerning both Jesus’s identity as the one sent from the Father, and the one who comes to be glorified by doing the Father’s work. And church, it is in receiving, believing, and keeping the Father’s testimony about Christ that the church is formed and sustained. The church is shaped and kept as we keep God’s Word which we have received in Christ.
In this way, the church is and has always been a confessional people. Meaning that what makes the church is her confession concerning the person and work of Christ. That is why, for example, our church’s statement of faith is not an ornament, but a living declaration of who we are as a people who identify themselves with the truth of God's Word.
We have adopted as our statement of faith an adaption of a document called the Abstract of Principles, which was written in 1858. We adopted an older confession because we acknowledge that we are not the first ones to be here. We did not make these things up but have received them from those who came before us. And in doing so, we recognize that it is God’s Word itself that endures from one generation to the next. As you have heard from this pulpit before, it is not the church that makes God's truth, but God's truth that makes, sustains, and outlives the church.
Brothers and sisters, we are committed to giving our lives to the work of holding fast to and holding forth the gospel of Jesus Christ. And we want this work to outlive us, so that our children and grandchildren would have a solid rock to stand firm on. And we have the surety of God’s promise that his Word will not failed. "The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever." Therefore, we continue to give our lives for the sake of the gospel. We build our lives and the life and worship of this church, not on the passing fads of our current culture, but on our confession concerning the Lord Jesus Christ. Hashtags will come and go, but the word of the gospel remains. And so, we unite around it, that together we “may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
What then should bring a people together in covenant membership at a local church and what should keep them together? Most foundationally, brothers and sisters, the answer is the confession of our faith. However, you will hear sometimes Christians saying something like this about a church, “Well, I love the preaching, but I didn’t really like the community.” And what we have found is that what people usually mean by this is that although they thought the sermons and the doctrine were good, they were not able to bond with people around other common concerns or interests. Confessional togetherness wasn’t enough.
But this kind of thinking betrays a lack of understanding concerning the nature of the church and therefore misses completely what Christian community is about. Community in the local church, is not about creating bonds of friendship but about guarding the deposit of the faith entrusted to us as the people of God. It is not about you and me. It is about the glory of Christ preserved in the confession of the gospel. To be sure, friendship is commonly a byproduct of Christian community, but it is not equal with community. The word community is simply that, the communal or corporate unity of the body, which as we have seen, is created, shaped, and sustained by the Word of God, and nothing else. The church is not a clubhouse of friends, but "a pillar and buttress of the truth." We are the people God entrusted with the Word of God. And we are called to band together in keeping his Word as both preservers and ambassadors of his truth.
The unity of the church is spiritual in our union with Christ and also confessional in our receiving, believing, and keeping the truth of God’s Word as summed up in the gospel.
Eternal Unity in the Love of Christ
Finally, the third truth about church unity is that it is an Eternal Unity in the Love of Christ.
Jesus now anticipates his departure. He will no longer be with his disciples in the world. And so, he prays that the Father may keep them. Look there again in verse 11, "I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which [those whom] you have given me, that they may be one, even as you and I are one." Here again we see the purpose of Jesus's prayer. It is through Christ’s glorification that the Father will keep Christ’s people in his name, and the result is that they will be one even as the Father and the Son are one. The unity of the church reflects the unity between the Father and the Son. In other words, the people of God will be one in the same way, at least in part, as the Father and the Son are one. This begs the question, what kind of unity do the Father and the Son have, that the Son now prays his own people will also have?
Now, to see what Jesus means by this unity, at least here in the Gospel of John, we need to look a little further in the chapter. Look there starting in verse 20, Jesus continues to pray, "I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may be one [there is our phrase again], just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me." So we have here the same request we get in verse 11. Now, Jesus will go on to explain what kind of oneness the Father and the Son enjoy. Look there in v22, "The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one as we are one." This oneness includes the sharing of glory between the Father and the Son, and now through the Son, between Christ and his people. The Father gives his glory to the Son, and the Son in return gives it to those who are his. So that we are one in the sharing of glory.
Not only do the Father and the Son share in glory, they also share in mutual love. Look there in verse 23, "I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me." The love of the Father for the Son is now mediated through the Son so that his people come to share in it. And that is the essence of Christian unity in the church. Through our union with Christ in response to the words of Christ, we have come to share in the glory and love of God.
If anything else, brothers and sisters, this means that church unity is not merely spatial and temporal. In other words, it is not tied to this present world in an ultimate sense. Church unity is eternal because we have come to share in the eternal glory and love of the Triune Godhead. And any view of church unity that is limited to what we can attain to or hope for in this world is insufficient. By the very nature of it, the call to maintain the unity of the church is a call to look away from this world forward together unto eternity. In his letter to the Philippians, which deals mostly with admonishing this church in Christian unity, Paul encourages them to strain toward their eternal goal, “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” That is how church unity looks like, it is a corporate straining forward to what lies ahead as we presently share together in the glory and love of God.
And brothers and sisters, this is how God will keep us to the end. Twice Jesus refers to the name of the Father. The Son has revealed the name of the Father to his people and the Father will keep them in that name. The church is created through union with Christ as we have come to share in the glory of God’s name, and the church is kept as one in the corporate sharing of this glory and love through Jesus Christ.
Our hope for church unity is not in our own effort but in the keeping power of God himself. Our unity is spiritual as a people belonging to the Father and united to the Son. Our unity is confessional as we have received, believed, and kept, the Father’s Word concerning the Son. And our unity is eternal as we have come to share in the glory and the love in which the Father and the Son share, which endures forever.