Is Christ’s Prayer in John 17 a command for us?

HJ Schilder
HJ Schilder

Prof Dr H.J. Schilder’s  explanation on John 17

Christ’s high-priestly prayer in John 17 is often used to promote unity amongst different church federations. Specifically verse 21 of this chapter: “…that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in you”.  Many see this prayer as a command.  For those Christians this prayer becomes the impetus, the driving force, to set up committees, to appoint deputies, to organise conferences and international gatherings, to promote unity and acceptance amongst different church bodies. Organisations such as the World Council of Churches, The Reformed Eucumenical Synod, The ICC (International Churches of Christ), ICRC (International Conference of Reformed Churches all take their starting point in this prayer of Christ: “…that they may be one as we are”.

In his book Het kerkschip biedt behouden vaart (The church ship provides a safe journey), Prof H.J. Schilder deals with this prayer and argues that the popular use of this prayer in support of church unity movements is totally inappropriate and a serious misreading of this High-Priestly prayer.  There are two reasons for this.

First, the privilege of ‘listening in’ to this prayer (through the apostle John) does not give anyone the mandate to change this into a command. A prayer is just that: a prayer. Second, interpreting this prayer as a command would make the outcome of this prayer and the answer to this prayer depend on our obedience to this command. In other words, if this ‘command’ is not followed up, the prayer itself is not heard! The prayer is spoken by Christ, and heard by the Father, but has not become our experience.  No, Christ allows us to read His prayer, yes impresses it upon us, so that we would fully understand that He, Christ, wrestled for this unity from the Father. Unity is 100% His doing and not at all a result of our ecumenical striving and activities.

It is evident that Christ’s prayer is heard when people live in true covenant fellowship and communion with Him. Yes, Christ is our complete Saviour. This includes the unity He procures amongst those whom the Father has given Him. The unity exists regardless of any ecumenical organisational framework.

Now we understand that this prayer of Christ is heard always and continues to be heard every moment. Already at Pentecost and ever since people believed the apostolic word. This prayer is all powerful. It changes the hearts of people and makes them heartily willing to live, not just according to some, but to all God’s commandments.

This makes us question whether Christ in this prayer really prayed for the sort of unity people tend to link it to. Is it correct to summarise this prayer as a prayer for the unity of the church or the unity of churches? Let’s have a closer look.

John 17: 20-21, often quoted in this context, reads: “I do not pray for these alone but also for those who will believe in Me through their Word, that they all may be one as You,  Father, are in Me.”

The word ‘that’ in the sentence “..that they may be one” is usually interpreted as a purpose, an objective. In other words, the sentence could read “Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom you have given me so that they are able to show this oneness as well. That they may be one as We are”.  Reading it this way the phrases “keep through your name” and “that they may be one” become two stages in a process, stages which can be identified separately. First there is that divine aspect: “keep through Your name”, then follows the human aspect “that they may be one”.

Indeed, this translation from the original Greek is possible and it is this interpretation which motivates many ecclesiastical unity movements. They see in this prayer a clear mandate to do their bit of the process.

Yet this is not what is meant here. Vs 20 is a parallel text to vs 11: “Keep through your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are.”

From this text it is obvious that the Divine preservation includes unity, is part and parcel of it. In other words preservation IS unity. Focus on preservation and you achieve unity. Unity is the inseparable consequence of preservation. This means that in seeking ecclesiastical fellowship the focus ought to be on preservation and not on unity.  Turn these two around and you court disaster. Initially the results may look beautiful and release warm, fuzzy feelings; however the end result is a shaky, man-made structure which from the start has the marks of rot and decay and lacks the fertile soil for growth and fruitfulness. With the emphasis on preservation, however, we put the focus on the Truth: God’s Word and the confessions based on this. Embracing the fullness of His Word enables the Spirit to release the powers of peace and unity and fellowship and joy and praise.

“Lift up your eyes, look around and see; All these gather together and come to you.”
“As I live,” says the LORD, “You shall surely clothe yourselves with them all as an ornament, and bind them on you as a bride does” (Is 49:18ff).

Unity and ecclesiastical fellowship is a matter of:

Receiving, not a result of action,
It is more a promise than a demand,
It is more a gift than a calling.

Unity is not something which is brought about by our activities; on the contrary, from the beginning to end it is a gift from God in His preservation of those given to Christ and for whom Christ prayed in this high priestly prayer. ‘All’ we need to do is exercise, employ and enjoy this gift. We do not even make ‘visible’ what He has provided ‘invisible’. Even the ‘visible’ unity is what Christ has prayed for as gift for His own. Never should we feel compelled to do this or that, to organise a conference or appoint deputies to promote and realise this unity. Our mandate is simply to confess Father’s Name and live accordingly and so ‘use’ what we have been given in Christ. In this way we know ourselves kept in this unity because of this prayer of our Saviour.

Now I can celebrate the Lord’s Supper and echo the words of the Lord’s Supper form where it states: “ we all, incorporated in Christ by faith, ARE together one body.” and since Christ “so exceedingly loved us first; we shall now love one another, and shall show this to one another and not just in words but also in deeds”.

Christ’s prayer was and will always be heard in the church that keeps His Word faithfully and lives accordingly.  Every Reformation is therefore not a crack, a tear or a break in this unity, as is so often said. Reformation is restoration of this unity: visible, audible and verifiable. Each one is duty bound to join this church and so maintain and preserve this unity (Art 28 BC).