“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.”
- John 17: 20-21a
Jesus makes it very clear that He is praying for all those who do and will believe in Him. This is important to remember because there is within evangelicalism a movement to downplay the importance of belief. What matters, we are told, is not doctrine or belief but ethics and action. I know of no one who disputes the importance of action. Faith without works, after all, is a dead faith. However, it is by grace through the means of faith (belief) that God saves His people. So belief is of supreme importance in the matter of our salvation. Jesus said in John 3, “Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because He has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
So, Jesus is not praying for those who will merely find his ethics appealing or think highly of him as a teacher. He is praying for those who believe. Specifically, He is praying for those who will believe “their message” the message of the disciples – the Gospel. The ground of our unity, the only ground of true spiritual unity is faith in Christ; belief in Gospel.
I can and should be a friend and a good neighbor to a Buddhist or Muslim. I should work to be a blessing to them and make efforts to share with them to the Gospel of Christ. However, I cannot have spiritual fellowship with them in any way. We live in two different kingdoms. We have two entirely different allegiances. We follow different Lords.
Referring to the unity for which Jesus prayed, D.A. Carson writes, “It is a unity predicated on adherence to the revelation the Father mediated to the first disciples through His Son, the revelation they accepted and then passed on” (p. 568). The unity for which Jesus is praying is not achieved by our hunting around for the lowest common theological denominator. It comes about only after we have fully embraced the Gospel of Jesus Christ as it is revealed in the Scriptures.
“Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am…” (v. 24). Jesus prays to the Father specifically for those that “You have given me.” In verses 2, 6, and 9 Jesus refers to those who are saved as those whom the Father has given Him. Everyone who believes is a gift from the Father to the Son. Jesus makes reference to this reality in John 6 when he says, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me. And whoever comes to Me I will never cast out” (v. 37). In chapter 10 Jesus is referring to His own sheep when he says, “No one is able to snatch them from out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all, and no one can snatch them from out of My Father’s hand” (vv. 28-29).
Four times in John 17 Jesus makes it clear that he is praying only for those that His Father has given Him. He is not praying for the world. He is not praying for the mass of humanity. He is praying for His own which, incidentally are those who will come to believe through the instrumentality of the disciples. Some way or another we have all come to know Christ through the means of another believer in Christ. Salvation is entirely God’s doing but He uses the means of people just like you and me. What a humbling thought that the Father gives to the Son His precious people through the instrumentality of you and me. What a privilege. God will use our faithful witness as the primary means by which He brings the lost to faith in Christ.