When Jesus was to be betrayed and when he would be arrested and when he would be taken and right before he would give his life for all of us, he gathered with his disciples in some of the most tender moments, I'm sure, that ever have been between human beings. We remembered this morning what took place in the upper room as Jesus began the memorial that we have observed this very day. He had other things to say to the disciples that night to try to prepare them for what was going to happen to him and what they would need to do in his service. There are some very instructive conversations that take place on that occasion.
And then after they had finished the conversation and had sung a hymn, they got up and left the upper room and went out to the Garden of Gethsemane at the Mount of Olives. Apparently somewhere between that upper room and Jesus praying by himself in the garden, he paused to pray for himself and for his disciples and for us. It is the longest recorded prayer of Jesus we have in the New Testament, and it is profound in what it says. I want to read just part of that prayer for our study this morning. We are going to begin at John 17 and verse 14. This is about half way through the prayer. The Lord said as he prayed to his Father, "I have given them (that is, his disciples) your word and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth. Your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world, and for their sake I sanctify myself that they also may be sanctified in truth. I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word that they may all be one 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 have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them that they may be one even as we are one."
We assume in reading that passage that all of us who are so deeply grateful for what Jesus did for us and what he gave for us, and all of us who are committed to following him and being his servants in this world today, and all of us who plan and hope to one day be with him in glory, that all of us will want more than anything else what Jesus wants in our lives and for us.
This morning when you think about what Jesus wants for us, what do you think of? There are two particular requests, two petitions, that Jesus makes in the passage that ought to shape our concept of the church and what the church is about. First, Jesus prayed that his people might be sanctified in the truth, according to verse 17. That is, that they may be set apart as belonging to him by their commitment to the truth. And what Jesus meant by that he makes very clear himself back up in verse 14 when he said "I have given them your word." And then when he says at the end of verse 17, "Your word is truth." What Jesus is praying, first then, is that those who belong to him, those who are his people, those who want what he wants, will be marked off as his by the truth of God's word.
Secondly, would you notice that Jesus prayed that these people may be one in him, that they may enjoy the same kind of unity that exists between Jesus and his Father. He prayed in verse 21 that "all may be one," not merely all of us who are here but all of those who belong to him in this world may be one; that those who believe on him through the word of the apostles might experience such a unity that others in the world would know that the Father must have sent Jesus. We might illustrate the impact of this request that Jesus makes just by thinking about another religion in this world. As I have been reading about Islam recently, one of the things that has so impressed me is how much more difficult it is for me to accept some of what they say because of the different sects that their people are involved in, sects which will fight against each other and which will seek to destroy each other and which will exercise violence against each other. That helps me to see what Jesus is saying here. He knew that a lack of unity among his people would make it more difficult for the world to believe that Jesus had been sent from the Father.
He had two requests - he prayed for his people to be set apart in the truth and for his people to be perfectly one. It is interesting that Jesus based both of these requests on his own mission in this world. He said, "I have given them your word (Verse 14) so sanctify them in the truth." And then he said in verse 22, "The glory that you have given me I have given to them, so help them to be one." Both of his requests are based on his own mission in this world. His mission formed the basis of what he was asking his Father for.
Think about that for a moment. Two requests were made - that is for truth and unity. Both of these requests are to be respected. Jesus wanted both of these matters to characterize his people. How do both truth and unity come about in a people? There have been various approaches to the faith down through the years. On the one hand, to just get along would ignore the Lord's petition for truth, wouldn't it? To just insist that all who have any acquaintance at all with the Lord and the Bible have a unity imposed upon them by an organization and not by the truth of what they believe, that model which sometime characterizes the ecumenical movement of our own time which says "Forget about what we believe and let's all merely be one. That is what Jesus wants" leads to the "many different ways" approach that characterizes thinking today. But this would ignore the Lord's "I've given them your word. Your word is truth."
On the other hand, to just split over any point of discussion no matter what it is - anytime anyone doesn't see anything like I see it - to just split over that would ignore the Lord's petition for oneness. If I were to think that if I disagree with you about anything, I'll just go start my own, would make my own desire and my own comfort more important than whether people believe that God sent Jesus, and it would ignore what Jesus wanted. It would neglect his "the glory you have given me I have given to them" statement in this prayer.
But to pursue unity in Christ based on what he wants would honor both of these petitions. The idea of pursuing New Testament Christianity means seeking unity through the restoration of the Lord's truth and his word. It calls for us to seek the truth set forth in the New Testament and to practice it while accepting each other's opinions on all other matters that are not found in the New Testament, that are not spoken to as a part of our relationship to God.
Suppose there were ten families, none of them believers. Suppose there developed within these ten families the desire to know a little bit more about the Bible, just out of curiosity. Suppose that they started meeting on Monday evening of every week and just reading the Bible. They started reading and they read through the gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John - and one fellow says one night, "You know, when I started reading this , I didn't really believe anything at all about Jesus. But I am convinced by what I have been reading that he really is God's Son." And another one of the persons said, "You know, I am coming to that conclusion, too." And suppose they kept reading. And after a while, they read the Book of Acts. And they found Jesus being preached as the Christ, the Son of the living God, and one night they read in Acts, chapter 2, that someone said "what must I do to be saved?" and the answer being given "Repent and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." And suppose after much discussion they all decided that they believed in Jesus, they confessed their belief and suppose they went out to the pool in the backyard and baptized each other into Christ. And suppose as they read the New Testament they began to see that they ought to be meeting on the Lord's Day instead of on Monday night, and they ought to be remembering what Jesus did for us. Suppose they changed their meeting to Sunday afternoon instead of Monday evening. And as they kept reading they found out how a Christian ought to be living and different ones of them quit doing things that they ought not to be doing, and every time they ran across something else that they should be doing, they started doing it. What would they be? They would be just Christians. Suppose they ran across a group of people in the community who were trying to do the same things - to read the scriptures to find out what it calls on them to do, to quit doing anything that they don't find there, and suppose they decided to meet with those people who were trying to do what they were trying to do. They would be honoring the truth and they would be wanting Jesus like this passage says - like Jesus prayed about.
That is the concept of New Testament Christianity. It says to have a unity imposed by an organization of men is not what Jesus wanted. To merely split every time one of us has a preference is not what Jesus wanted. Let's focus on Jesus and respect the truth, be one in Him in order to do what he sent us to do in this world.
Now think about that. We need three qualities in our lives if we want what Jesus wants. We need an authority to respect. we need the truth to guide us in our life, we need the intention to be guided by the Lord's word, and we need to be headed off in that direction in our lives. This means two things, at least. It means that we should take a "what does the Lord say" approach to the scriptures instead of an "it doesn't say not to" approach. A lot of times today we are finding people who insist on being governed by the "it doesn't say not to." Helen brought me a little clipping out of a religious paper in which a guy has written a book in which he claims that Jesus was married. His argument is that it was the custom for Jewish men in those days to be married, and that Jesus was married because the New Testament doesn't say he wasn't. Can you see the folly of trying to be governed by what the New Testament does not say? There are all kinds of imaginations and suppositions that come into play, then. It is happening to us morally in this country. One old line denominational group in our country recently appointed a man to an office in their organization. The man was an openly-practicing homosexual. And when it came into debate, one of the leaders of that group explained to the press: "The apostle Paul could not possibly have known how things would be now, and our tradition allows us to make adjustments and to change with the culture." Does the culture determine what the church should be or does the New Testament determine what the church should be? Sooner or later everyone of us has to confront that question and then to deal with it. We ought to be governed by what the Lord has said and not by "He doesn't say not to."
The other problem with applying this principle to our lives is the thought that it doesn't make any difference anyhow, and that as long as we are all interested and as long as we have beliefs, it doesn't make any difference anyhow. Bro. Bill Jones taught for years at Oklahoma Christian, and he was from the community here. He is known to this congregation. He wrote a statement in a little book he published some years ago that struck me that we have to face up to: "Are two churches equal before God if one denies the bodily resurrection of Christ? Would they be equal if one taught that humans can become gods? Are they equal if one gives as much credence to Buddhism as to Christianity?" And Bro. Bill observed "equality in such cases could not be affirmed in the light of Biblical teachings." You can see that. I can see it. Jesus either was raised up from the dead or he wasn't. And those cannot be equal statements, and so sooner or later we have to decide "Is it true? Or Is it not?"
Bro. Bill McDonnough, who has been involved in missions over the years as much as anybody I have read about, works with what was the Sixth & Izard congregation in Little Rock. He wrote: "Throughout the years I have talked to many people who have left the church and gone to a denomination. Each time, without exception, they have given as their reasons something other than obedience to scripture. They have said the fellowship, the music, the programs, etc. are the reason they have left the Lord's church and gone to a denomination. Never have they said, 'we have studied the Bible and believe that we must go to the chosen denomination in order to be obedient to God and his scripture.'" That is so revealing.
Over the last two months I have had some articles cross my desk which describe congregations of the church which are quitting believing that baptism is essential for forgiveness of sins and have begun to practice instrumental music instead of singing in their assemblies. At the same time I have articles on my desk right now which describe some denominational churches which have been trying to come to grips with where they have been headed and have taken the scriptures and have decided that baptism should be for the forgiveness of sin, and who are beginning to try to have a capella music in their assemblies. It is a struggle for some of them. One music minister in a large denominational group is struggling because he believes that a capella singing would honor the Lord. What he is having to do is just sing one song that way each week. Another group is having one Sunday each week when they sing that way. We have some of us headed this way and some of them headed that way, and we are going to have trouble unless we don't quit trying to put one group against another - What do you believe and teach? What do you believe and teach? - and instead start asking what does the Bible say. We need an authority to respect.
Secondly, we need in our lives if we are going to honor both truth and unity, a spirit to share. Bro. Roy Lanier, Jr. wrote: "A rude, unkind, antagonistic or intolerant attitude must be avoided at all costs. Regardless of how pure one is in doctrine, meekness, gentleness and forbearance must prevail." I refuse to answer when somebody calls me and asked me "What does the Church of Christ teach about so and so?" I don't know. I have brethren with whom you can't ever tell! I will discuss with anybody, though, what does the Bible say. We have no right to announce "Here's what we believe and what we teach." We believe in the Lord and we want to follow his word. Let's never allow ourselves to be caught up in discussions one group against the other.
In the third place, we need not only an authority to respect and a spirit to share, but a mission to accomplish. This is really what Jesus is talking about. He said, "I have given them your word. I have given them your glory." We want to be involved in giving to the world around us those same two things - the Lord's word to set people apart and the Lord's glory to make people one. Jesus said in John 17, verse 4, "I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do." We want to glorify God. That is our mission and our purpose. We want to do it by giving people the Lord's word and by being one in the Lord.
What Jesus wants he made clear at the end of this prayer. In John 17, verse 24, he said, "Father, I desire that they also whom you have given me may be with me where I am to see my glory that you have given me because you love me before the foundation of the world." Jesus wants his people to be with him in eternity. We want to get used to being with him here so we can be with him there.
Are you among the Lord's people today? Have you believed in him to the point that you will confess him before all and you will be baptized into him for the forgiveness of your sins? Are you walking in pursuit of what Jesus wants - loving truth and loving peace at the same time? If you need to come to him, why don't you decide to do it this morning while we stand and sing together?