Answering The Lord's Prayer?

"My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." —John 17:20-23 (NIV)

Answered prayer—one of the greatest thrills in a Christian's life! Whether for the healing of a loved one, protection through a frightening situation, or wisdom for a difficult problem, we all love to get positive, clear answers to our prayers.

Yes, we want our prayers answered, and in that we are just like our Savior. He also prayed—He also wanted answers. We usually focus on those parts of scripture that describe the answers to His prayers—healed lepers, calmed seas, withered a fig tree. But the same night He gave the promise to the disciples that their prayers in His name would be answered, He prayed a prayer that has not been answered in almost 2,000 years. That prayer was quoted at the beginning of this article (John 17:20-23).

Notice that this prayer for unity is particularly "so that" the world may believe that the Father sent His Son, Jesus. In one sense, Christianity is the very personal relationship of one person with both the Father and His Son, Jesus. There is no such thing as "group salvation," riding into the Kingdom of God on the coattails of some religious leader or a "package deal" (being a member of a particular church organization). And there is a time in which every individual must "stand alone" for Jesus—a "witness of one" by the evidence of the Holy Spirit in that individual.

But we must also acknowledge that Jesus is here addressing the need for an additional witnessing—a witnessing of the "Body of Christ" as a whole. Perhaps His prayer was answered, in part, in the first century. What about here and now, in the twentieth century? Can the "world" look at any part of what is labeled "The Christian Church" and see a unity in the Spirit by the relationships among the Christians? It certainly can't see that unity if it looks at the various "Christian" denominations since the very existence of denominations denies unity. Nor can the "world" see that unity within any sect. The Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses and the Worldwide Church of God are among the exclusivist groups which tried to "enforce" such a unity through strong central authority and by disfellowshipment of anyone who appeared, to the leadership, to be threatening unity. They have failed. All those groups, and many others, have been rocked by internal dissent, large-scale defections and even scandal in recent years.

Where then, is the witness for which Jesus prayed? There are groups today who claim to be spreading a "witness and warning" message to the world through mass evangelism. They may deal with prophetic warnings about what Jesus said would happen and may proclaim special knowledge about the character and teachings of Jesus, but Jesus didn't pray on His last night with His disciples for an individual or small group to tell the world about Him. He prayed for a witness the world could see—the witness of Christians in unity and love.

J.B. Phillips defined the situation very clearly in his book Your God is Too Small (MacMillan Publishing; 1961):

"The thoughtful man outside the Churches is not offended so much by the differences of denominations.... What he cannot stomach is the exclusive claim made by each to be the "right one".... If he were to observe that the Church which makes the boldest and most exclusive claim to be constituted and maintained according to Almighty God's own ideas was obviously producing the finest Christian character, obviously wielding the highest Christian influence, and obviously most filled by the living Spirit of God—he could perhaps forgive the exclusive claim. But he finds nothing of the kind...the outsider who knows nothing of the mixture of tradition, conviction, honest difference, and hidden resentment, that lies behind the divisions of the Christian Churches sees clearly the advantage of a united Christian front and cannot see why the Churches cannot "get together." the problem is doubtless complicated, for there are many honest differences held with equal sincerity, but it is only made insoluble because the different denominations are (possibly unconsciously) imagining God to be Roman or Anglican or Baptist or Methodist or Presbyterian or what have you. If they could see beyond their little inadequate god, and glimpse the reality of God, they might even laugh a little and perhaps weep a little. The result would be a unity that actually does transcend differences, instead of ignoring them with public politeness and private contempt" (pp. 39,40).

"May they be brought to complete unity..." That is the Lord's Prayer. But it is a prayer God, the Father, cannot unilaterally answer, because all people, including Christians, have free will. In a unique way, we must cooperate with the Father in answering Christ's prayer.

So, let's get busy. Let's call meetings. Let's organize unity committees. Let's write unity pamphlets to pass out at unity rallies and unity songs to sing at unity conventions. We'll pass unity resolutions and make unity speeches. We'll have a great time! However, the only thing we won't have is unity, because unity is not something people can "organize" into existence. Jesus said, "I will build my Church." But most Christians haven't trusted Him with the job. Not satisfied with His progress, they have decided over and over again as the generations pass, "We will build His Church."

In recent years the Christian community, at large, has had an increasing frustration with the reality that unity doesn't seem to exist anywhere (except, perhaps, within small local independent congregations.) We receive numerous newsletters and magazines from a variety of ministries across the country and the word "unity" is appearing more and more in their article titles. Yet, in spite of all the communicating about unity, it seems as elusive as ever. Perhaps one reason is the apparent "American spirit of Christian organization." Whenever a group of individuals in this country becomes disappointed with what is (or isn't) happening in their current church organization, the typical response is to pull out and immediately reorganize.

This is certainly an understandable response and may well be the best for strictly human governments. Unfortunately, when it is applied to the church, it always ends up that Jesus is still not the builder, and unity is as elusive in the new organization as it was in the old. Changing doctrinal statements, church "governmental" structures, membership or ministerial criteria, or anything else men can "tinker" with, does not change the fundamental fact that men are still trying to be the builders, rather than just the tools or workers under the Master Builder.

How Satan Works to Divide

The first recorded example of unity on a large scale was at the Tower of Babel:

"Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech" (Gen 11:6-7 KJV).

God recognized a vast power available through unity among men. Without the Holy Spirit to guide that unity, God saw the potential for disaster and quickly put an end to it.

When Christianity first began, Satan recognized the even greater power of unity guided by the Holy Spirit, and likewise sought to put a quick end to it. At first, he dispersed believers through persecution. Later, he infiltrated through "pretenders or half-hearted followers," and still later by dissension and by breaking up into factions around favorite leaders. Twenty-five years after the Church began, Paul had to write to the Corinthians:

"I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you be perfectly united in mind and thought...some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you...Is Christ divided?" (1Cor 1:10-13.)

By the time he wrote 2 Timothy (perhaps before 70 A.D.), Paul lamented,

"You know that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me..." (2Tim 1:15).

In the past 2,000 years of Church history, it appears that there have been fresh revivals of the Holy Spirit, accompanied by renewed unity among believers, at various periods.

Throughout the Middle Ages there were movements in opposition to the Catholic Church, such as the Waldenses, which promised change. Satan's primary tool at that time was persecution. By the time of the Protestant Reformation and the invention of printing, circumstances were again ripe for spreading the Gospel. Luther, Calvin, and later Wesley and others led reform movements, and there were many possibilities for a revival of first century unity. But they, too, fell to Satan's attacks. Sometimes it was persecution, but more and more frequently his other methods became even more effective (persecution can backfire and lead to increased zeal and proselyting.)

For an example in the last century, see the "Plymouth Brethren" box on page 15.

Three main methods Satan has used, and continues to use, to destroy simple unity in the Holy Spirit within Christian communities are:

1. "Wolves in sheep's clothing" (Or sometimes just goats in sheep's clothing):

In spite of the warning to be "wise as serpents and harmless as doves," most real Christians are terribly naive. Not wanting to harshly "judge" anyone's motives, they are easily taken in by those pretenders with evil motives. You have probably met someone who seems to be a diligent Bible student. But how many of these people become hostile and divisive with others who do not see every doctrine their way? Brethren seem to have an even more difficult time discerning when someone is only half-heartedly interested in "religion"—not really committed to Jesus Christ.

It is one thing to expend considerable effort helping "babes in Christ" or "weak brothers", but it is something else when many Christian fellowships find their unity disrupted by their own attempts to deal indefinitely with a large number of totally un-committed "religious hobbyists." These problems are particularly evident in religious movements that emphasize doctrinal agreement as a basis for fellowship. It does not take the Holy Spirit to either pretend to believe, or even actually believe, most doctrinal statements.

2. Legalism:

Belief in the reality of Jesus' atoning death leads to repentance and faith. The re-sult is conversion with Christ coming to dwell in the new Christian. This indwelling leads to a new life style lived by the power of the Holy Spirit—a spontaneous re-sponse to the hope of salvation. In many such movements in the past, including the birth of the Church in the first century, Satan quickly moves to confuse cause and effect. Instead of introducing new people to Christ, movement leaders begin to feel it would be better to introduce them to the "list" of how a new Christian should live, encourage them to imitate that list, and eventually require adherence to the list by human effort as evidence of repentance.

We are definitely commanded to obey God and we are not trying to minimize its importance, but if we regard our obedience to a humanly devised "list" (even if it's biblically based) while not really helping others and doing good works, then we're not hitting the target either. Obedience is not conversion. Some of these legalists tend to evaluate their lives in terms of their success in not violating this "list" and forget about helping others and doing the "greater works" that Jesus said He would do in us (John 14:12). The role of Christ is reduced to that of paying the penalty owed for sins prior to "conversion" and the role of the Holy Spirit is reduced to "helping" the people obey the "list."

3. Follow the Leader:

Fresh movements of the Holy Spirit have frequently started among those without scholarly credentials. There is usually an egalitarian spirit (a brotherhood of equals) among all, with the only accepted criteria for positions of responsibility being "gifts of the Holy Spirit."

There is usually a simplicity in the belief system, minimal criteria for fellowship beyond simple acceptance of Jesus as Savior and evidence of the fruit of the Spirit. Our Savior can work powerfully in such an environment, but sometimes people begin to place great faith in the human leaders and not in Christ. They assume that anyone with such great works would not believe any doctrinal error. Satan encourages the leaders of the movements to start emphasizing doctrinal details more and more. This soon leads to minor disagreements, then major ones—each point of view usually championed by a different leader.

The leaders become more zealous and/or more polished in the delivery of their arguments, and soon the average member is choosing sides. And, as the arguments become more complicated, a special clergy class again emerges as the only ones able to deal with all the intricacies of the belief system.

The Right Spirit—Not the

Right Group

The word of the Lord came to me [Ezekiel]: "Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: 'This is what the Lord says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourself with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.... Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: "As surely as I live," declares the sovereign Lord, "because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, therefore, O shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: This is what the sovereign Lord says: 'I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them...I myself will search for my sheep and look after them....

I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.'" As for you, my flock, this is what the sovereign Lord says: "I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats. Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet?" Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says to them: "See, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered"'" (Ezk 34:1-12,16-22).

We believe that this passage, in addition to any fulfillment relating to the physical nation of Israel, symbolically refers to spiritual Israel, the Church—and that this is where we are in prophecy as it relates to the mission of the Church as the witness of Christ in the modern world.

The sheep that were in one flock in the first century were soon scattered. Note that they are still His sheep, even if they have been taken in by false shepherds, even if they are lost, injured, or abused by other sheep. Many Christians are "exclusivist." They have a list of doctrines they consider essential to correctly identify fellow sheep. Unfortunately, they may not realize (1) that some true sheep of Jesus may be in organizations that are characterized by false doctrines, and (2) the exclusivists themselves may now be in such an organization, or may have taken in the false doctrines from such organizations in the past. There are two main identifying signs given in the New Testament for believers:

"By this shall all men know that you are my disciples: That you have love one for another" (John 13:35).

"If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ" (Rom 8:8).

There is no evidence of a "creed" in the scriptures which can be used as a yardstick to measure if someone is a Christian.

Consider this analogy: Imagine that you are a builder who specializes in building fine homes. Your firm has a wonderful reputation in your community for craftsmanship, and the homes built under your supervision command a high price. Whenever you are building a home, you place a sign on the lot proclaiming: "Another fine home built by (your firm's name)" as advertising.

One day you are driving down a street in another part of town, you see a building sign that looks just like yours—just a tiny difference in the spelling of the name—in front of a tacky little pre-fab house, one that would barely meet the city building code. You turn down another street—and there is another one! Everywhere you turn is a "shack" with a sign in front that implies you are the builder. You see, some other builders have decided you may build fine homes, but not everyone can afford them. You can't build fast enough to keep up with the demand anyway, so they will just "borrow" your reputation with no harm done. Right? Well, the buyers might notice the inferior craftsmanship when they move in, and your reputation may suffer—but that's all right. Isn't it?

Men have insisted on putting Jesus' name on their organizations down through the ages and then wondered why there is no unity of the Spirit within the organization. They have "recruited" members, just as they might for a club, given all of them the label "Christian", and then wondered why some of them didn't seem to have the Holy Spirit. They have created "spiritual litmus tests" (which are usually not even based on spiritual principles, but rather on superficial matters of doctrine or practice) to decide who is "ready" for admission, and wondered why so many in the organization are more interested in prophecy or hair lengths than in love or mercy.

It is good to reach out to everyone in love, to share the gospel freely with "sinners" and to serve the community, but that doesn't mean that everyone who shows the slightest interest in one's beliefs or accepts an invitation to come to a worship service is a "brother or sister in Christ." The desire for "numbers" in organizations, coupled with humanly-devised "membership" criteria, have totally warped our understanding in the twentieth century of how Christ adds to His church. Even when by accident they "recruit" some who have actually been called by Christ, they try to "frame together" what Jesus said He would "fitly frame together".

So, now what? Are we Christians doomed to keep repeating the same er-rors—succumbing to the same old tricks by Satan generation after generation? There is a time and method in which God intends to answer the Lord's Prayer. We discuss this fulfillment in the article on page 18 titled, "Old Testament Prophecies and Holy Days Answer the Lord's Prayer".

In the meantime, we are admonished to "grow" in truth, not measure up to someone else's definition of truth. This is why only Christ can build His Church, and why only He can go gather up the lost sheep—only He can recognize them in their scattered state as being part of His flock!

—Pam Dewey & Norman S. Edwards

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