Below are my notes on John 17:20-23, its really part 1 of a two part series on how Jesus wraps up his prayer to the Father. I hope you enjoy!
17:20-23 “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,  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.
Background on verses 20-23, and 24-26
In this section Lord turns his attention more generally to the universal church and all the elect whom He came to save. Of course many of the things He’s said up until this point could (and do in many ways) apply to believers who came after these 11 standing around Him, but now He makes this clear.
William Hendricksen puts it well:
…engraved upon the breastplate of the great Highpriest are the names not only of those chosen out of the tribes of Israel but also of those drawn from the world of heathendom. In addition to the sheep that are led out of the fold of the Jews there are also “other sheep” (10:16). All must become one flock, with one shepherd (17:21).
Also, a note about verse 22 which states that Jesus has given the disciples “glory” – Carson rightly points out that this is likely addressed to not simply the 11, but to all the elect, the entire church, given the nature and context of where it is mentioned. This is how Carson describes what this “glory” is, “Glory commonly refers to the manifestation of God’s character or person in a revelatory context; Jesus has mediated the glory of God, personally to his first followers and through them to those who believe on account of their message.”
A note about verse 23 which states “perfectly one” – this reminds me of the call to be holy just as Jesus is holy. He is calling us toward perfection and yet this is not something we achieve in this lifetime. This perfection of unity with God is in one sense accomplished in fact at the cross, but the reality of this will not yet be realized fully until Jesus comes back. In this way we ought to understand the call for holiness the same way we see Jesus petitioning the Father for perfect unity – eschatologically. We need to see these things as a comfort that since Jesus has prayed for it, therefore it will happen. So there is still an element of “not yet” here.
The entire section is summed up well by D.A. Carson’s commentary on verse 23:
The unity of the disciples, as it approaches the perfection that is its goal, serves not only to convince many in the world that Christ is indeed the supreme locus of divine revelation as Christians claim (that you sent me), but that Christians themselves have been caught up into the love of the Father for the Son, secure and content and fulfilled because loved by the Almighty himself (cf. Eph. 3:17b-19), with the very same love he reserves for his Son. It is hard to imagine a more compelling evangelic appeal.
Two Main Themes
There are really two main themes in this section (verses 20-26), the first is unity of believers with God and with each other, and the second is the importance and prerequisite assumption that we know God. This knowing of God is enunciated by our Lord in greater detail as He concludes the prayer in vs. 24-26; therefore let me first address this idea of unity.
Unity with God and Each Other
Jesus prays to the Father that “they also may be in us” and the goal is “that the world may believe that you sent me.” In other words, it is unity with Christ and the outflowing of a changed heart and life (actions, words, deeds) that will testify to the world that Jesus has effectively joined us to Himself.
J.C. Ryle says, “The meaning of this sentence I take to be, ‘I pray that both these my disciples, and those who hereafter shall become my disciples, may all be of one mind, one doctrine, one opinion, one heart, and one practice, closely united and joined together , even as Thou, Father, and I are of one mind and one will, in consequence of that ineffable union whereby Thou art in Me and I in Thee.’”
What this means is that when you become a Christian you are going to change – it’s inevitable. You will bear fruit, and you will begin to love God and others more and more until the day Christ returns, or you die and meet Him in heaven. These changes are occurring across the body of Christ, so that He is working universally to conform His bride to how she ought to be. We who believe are all united in the fact especially that God is working within us and we are united by that Spirit who dwells within us.
And so we see that in the deepest prayer we have ever been privileged to encounter in Scripture, Jesus prays for fundamental things having to do with the Christian life: knowledge of God, and unity with God as His body/His church. The glory of this cannot be missed. How can it be that God of very God would be praying that we – human beings – be ushered into an intimate relationship with Him? Yet that is exactly what we see here is it not?
If we look at the testimony of the rest of the NT authors it seems that they also saw the importance of unity with God and with others. Here are just a few references:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28)
Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. (Phil. 2:2)
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. (1 Cor. 1:10)
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. (1 Cor. 12:12)
Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. (1 Peter 3:8)
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)
This list could go on and on. There were so many references that I couldn’t write them all down or go through each one, suffice it to say that in the NT unity of the body of Christ is very important. This is something Christ petitioned the Father for, and something we ought to always keep in mind.
I think its important to note that Jesus’ prayer was/has been/is being realized, and this is happening is ways, but lets examine at least two key ways…
Christ achieved this unity at the cross and sealed it at the Resurrection
In Paul’s letter to the Romans we learn about what Christ achieved for us in terms of us being united to Christ:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3-5)
So the reality of our unity with Christ has been realized, yet we await a day when Christ comes back and we see that reality, that unity with our eyes. We live in what Tom Schreiner calls “the awkward era” of the already/not yet. We are unified with Christ and have all those promises, yet we won’t realize all of them until the day He returns and consummates His kingdom.
We are unified through the Spirit
Another reason we have unity with God and with the body of the church is due to the fact that the Spirit has come and inaugurated this new age. Have you ever thought of that? It is the Spirit of God that birthed us into the kingdom, and brought us into the family of God. We read about this in Romans 8:
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.  For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”  The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:14-17)
John MacArthur notes that when Pentecost happened it was the beginning of Jesus’ prayer being realized.
We have to see then that unity with God is a priori and what flows from it is this like-mindedness with our brothers and sisters in Christ. We should be able to settle disputes, and live harmoniously with each other because we are united with Christ, because of His work, and because of His indwelling presence.
J.C. Ryle remarks, “The true secret of the unity of believers lies in the expression, ‘one in us.’ They can only be thoroughly ‘one’ by being joined at the same time to one Father and to one Savior. Then they will be one with on another.”
I mentioned this earlier, but there are sometimes when the already/not yet reality of this life really rises to the surface, and I believe that in the area of unity we see that clearly. We are filled with the Spirit, yet the flesh still encroaches and keeps us from being in harmony and unity with others. The same goes for our words and thoughts and actions – even though the Spirit of God dwells in us, yet we still behave as though we are our own gods and satisfy our own desires instead of looking to please God first. This is the tension we live with and will continue to live with until our Lord returns.
Now, all of this unity is really important, but it cannot be understood apart from knowledge of God and His message. D.A. Carson puts it so well that it is worth citing his words at length:
This is not simply a ‘unity of love’. It is a unity predicated on adherence to the revelation the Father mediated to the first disciples through his Son, the revelation they accepted (vs. 6, 8) and then passed on (‘those who will believe in me through their message’, vs. 20). It is analogous to the oneness Jesus enjoys with his Father, here fleshed out in the words just as you are in me and I am in you. The Father is actually in the Son, so much so that we can be told that it is the Father who is performing the Son’s works (14:10); yet the Son is in the Father, not only in dependence upon and obedience to him, but his agent in creation (1:2-3) and his wholly concurring Son in the redemption and preservation of those the Father has given him (6:37-40; 17:6, 19). The Father and the Son are distinguishable (the pre-incarnate Word is ‘with’ God, 1:1; the Son prays to his Father; the Father commissions and sends, while the Son obeys), yet they are one.
And therefore in order to be unified with Jesus and with the Father we must first “adhere” to their revelation, we must know God. Indeed that is something we’ll discuss as we look at the next series of verses. But first we need to examine one last glorious truth about what Jesus is saying here…
The Purpose of Unity
In verse 23 we read what Jesus has in mind for all this talk of unity – what His purpose is – and this is what He says, “so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” This is certainly the thrust of John’s gospel is it not? He wants people to know that God sent Jesus and that Jesus is the Lord of all, He is the Messiah.
There are two things Jesus is asking for here:
- That the world will know that He was sent from God
- That the world (and we) will know that God the Father loves us just as He loves the Son
Jesus is saying firstly that when the world sees us united to the Father and the Son through the Spirit they will know that something is different. That something is a supernatural something is it not? Jesus expects that this unity will have such an outward manifestation as to warrant the world coming to the conclusion that He (Jesus) was sent from God. There are obviously several steps logically that people would have to go through in order to make that connection, but the fact remains that here Jesus foresees this, He wants this, He’s praying for this, and this is consequently what our lives are all about.
Jesus is praying that all who come to believe in Him will be united with Him and the Father in such an obvious way that people will look at this, will notice this and will say “those people have a special bond with the God of the universe and His Son whom He sent.” They will know we are Christ followers and have to conclude that Jesus must have been sent from God because only a divine being could affect such a change in John Doe here! There’s no other way they will be able to explain what they see and hear unless somehow these Jesus lovers are really connected to a higher power. That’s the purpose of what Jesus is saying here.
Secondly, we have to note that one of the things the world will notice and we will cherish is that disciples of the Lord Jesus are loved by the Father – the creator of the universe, mind you – as He loves His Son.
Carson rightly says that, “the thought is breathtakingly extravagant.” It is so amazing that its worth pondering and then realizing once again that this is like Jesus’ last will and testament here. He’s about to die, and what does He pray for? For us to have love poured upon us to such a degree that the world will have to conclude that we’ve been taken under the wing of God Himself and because we are united to Christ we are one with Him in receiving the love that the Father has shed abroad on the Son.
It is almost as if (in my mind) a see pitcher of water (the Father) pouring into the cup of the Son and this cup is connected to a wide saucer (the church) which is the beneficiary of the overflow from the pitcher. We receive love certainly because God has set his particular affection upon us individually, but here we see a different picture of our reception of the love of God as a direct consequence to our connection to the Son.