“That They Will All Be One”

United in Spirit, strengthened by a common bond, equal yet diverse. Sounds like what Christians should be, but obstacles arise. Here is a reminder of what God most desires for us. by Rev. Dr. Jody Fleming

Jesus’ deepest desire is that all those God created be one in Spirit—His Spirit. Realistically, there are times when we focus on our differences rather than what unifies us and what Jesus prays for us. Ideally, we see each other as sisters and brothers united by our faith in salvation through Jesus Christ. Just before Jesus was betrayed and handed over to the Roman authorities, He offered a heartfelt prayer for His disciples and for all believers, knowing that the time for His crucifixion had come, and that He would suffer, die, be resurrected and ascend to the Father.

“I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in Me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as You and I are one—as You are in Me, Father, and I am in You… May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that You sent Me and that You love them as much as You love Me.”

John 17:20-23

The disciples were citizens of the nation of Israel. The heritage they had as descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob marked them as the chosen people of the Most High God. Jesus greatly expanded the concept of the Family of God. He spoke to Jews first and foremost, but in many instances, He went beyond the boundaries of the daughters and sons of Israel. He healed a Roman officer’s servant (Luke 7:6-8), touched lepers, exorcised demons and embraced Samaritans (John 4). Even the lowest classes of society—women, children and beggars—were blessed and held in honor by God’s Son.

Call for Unity and Conformity

The common bond making unity possible is the Holy Spirit indwelling in all believers. No matter what socioeconomic class, race, nationality, ethnicity, or any other of the world’s classifications, as believers in Christ, we are called to unity in the Spirit. As daughters and sons of God through the sacrifice of Christ, we are part of a spiritual family that reaches beyond all other boundaries. Of course, this is easier said than done. Worldly influences draw us into comparisons. We are encouraged to look better or have more than others, which in turn allows us to maintain a level of superiority, at least in our own minds.

The Church has not been immune from such influences. Much of our foreign missional practices have been focused on “westernizing” other cultures. In the not-so-distant past, Christian missionaries were tasked with converting the “heathens” to the saving knowledge of Christ. Too often, this meant embracing Western cultural norms such as dress, worship style and the English language itself. The unity found in the Spirit of Christ came with a set of cultural standards. Instead of embracing differences in cultural practices, conformity to the Western standard was and, in some cases still is, the norm. Although it may not be as evident as it was in the early years of Western missionary work, cultural differences do still divide us.

Jesus does call us to unity, but how?

Unity in the Spirit

On the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples who were gathered. “…all the believers were meeting together in one place. Suddenly, there was a sound from Heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm, and it filled the house where they were sitting. Then, what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each of them. And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages, as the Holy Spirit gave them this ability.

From what we are told in the text, people from all different nationalities who spoke different languages were suddenly one in the Spirit. The text does not go any further than this, but we could safely assume there were people in the group who were not only from different countries, but also from different social classes and economic status. What made them one, as Jesus prayed in John 16, was the infilling of the Holy Spirit. Those present were now part of a larger family that included brothers and sisters in Christ. That unity could only have been achieved through the indwelling Holy Spirit.

This is not to say there weren’t problems. A level of discrimination continued as the disciples, faithful Jews, were still hesitant to associate with gentiles. There were even problems within their own traditions, as squabbles broke out over the different treatment of widows from different Jewish backgrounds (Acts 6). These difficulties in accepting others as equals created challenges for the newly formed Family of God.

Family bonds were pushed beyond the daughters and sons of Israel. It was the unity of the Spirit that brought them back to the common ground as equal members of the Family of God.

Finding Common Ground

As mentioned above, mission activity was often understood as bringing souls to Christ and bringing Western civilization to people who were inferior in some way. Cultural diversity was not embraced, and sadly, racism, sexism and cultural superiority continue in some contexts today. The first disciples struggled with new believers. What they had been taught by the Law of Moses about such things as unclean (forbidden) food and unique customs were now in question. Did new Christians need to become Jews before they were considered part of God’s Family? Their questions could only have been answered as they grew in the knowledge of what it meant to live in the unity of the Spirit and how that affected not only their religious practices but their understanding of their role and place in the world.

The questions about what is and is not acceptable in Christian practice continues. We do well to remember that Jesus said He came to fulfill the law of God as revealed to the nation of Israel, not do away with it. What we often struggle with are cultural differences—things that really are not against the biblical standard of living out our Christian faith. When we accept Christ as Lord and Savior and live according to His holy will, all other differences fall away. The differences within the Family of God create a unique and beautiful tapestry of God’s children who celebrate their faith in Him. These distinctively created individuals are made one through the Holy Spirit. Paul reminds us that “there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). The unity of the Holy Spirit transcends all human boundaries as we embrace the prayer of Jesus “that they will all be one!”

This article was originally featured in the August 2019 issue of The War Cry.