One of the most well-known stories in the New Testament must be when Jesus invites Peter to walk on water in Matthew 14:22-33. Peter is often held up as either an example of bold faith in stepping out of the boat or faltering faith in sinking into the waves.
However, there is another part of the story that captures my attention and it has to do with the waves. When this memorable episode from the life of Jesus and the life of Peter takes place, it is surrounded by waves of challenge.
The first type of waves is the waves of people. Immediately before this, Jesus miraculously feeds a crowd of more than five thousand people. This crowd was pressing in around Jesus. Jesus dismissed them, but, even after the walking on water episode, they hunted Him down and asked for more. It is likely, from what we read in parallel accounts, that the crowds actually hoped to make Jesus king. The waves of people surrounded Him.
Along with the waves of people came the waves of emotions. After an exciting yet stressful ministry day with people, the disciples were exhausted. They seem not only exhausted by the work they were doing with Jesus, but also by the fact that Jesus Himself was difficult to understand. This led to a sort of emotional exhaustion and anticipation that always kept the disciples on their toes. They needed to get away. It seems that Jesus also needed to get away. The pressures on Him to live into a human-defined image of Messiah-ship, yet pushing against that in obedience to the Father, lead Him to want to draw away with the Father again.
Of course, along with these waves of human pressure and emotional pressure come a third type: the waves of natural life. The literal winds and waves that beat against the boat threaten everyone in this situation. The natural order was not on their side and could not be easily controlled. This heightened physical circumstance augments the other more subtle waves around Jesus and His disciples.
Attention to the waves in this situation tells me one important thing to keep in focus. The waves – the challenges we face – are a normal part of life.
I want to draw this out because so many of us are waiting for “someday.” We all do this at times. We have that tendency to wait for a day when we believe that everything will become calm or everything will be at perfect peaceful. If not that, many of us are simply looking for the day when everything feels “normal,” even if we have never defined what that is.
When that normal day comes, many of us say, we will then be ready to follow Christ or take some dramatic step of faith. Until then, we are on hold in fear or confusion.
However, the very setting in which Peter makes his bold step of faith is in the waves. This is important to pay attention to because the Lord is reminding us through the context of this story that waves are normal.
The challenges of people and relationships that Jesus and the apostles faced are similar to the waves with people that we face. The challenges of emotions and pressures that Jesus and the apostles faced are similar to the emotional waves that we face. The challenges of the natural things that happen – natural life changes, natural aging, natural circumstances of the environment – are similar to the natural waves that we face.
And this is what strikes me today: these waves are the normal setting in which faith rises up. Because of this, we don’t need to wait for someday. Someday will not come because it does not exist. The waves in which we find ourselves are the setting in which we must take a step of faith.
November 11, 2011, was a historic night in the life of the Egyptian Church. As the Arab Spring unfolded, tensions were rising in Cairo, including the killing of many Coptic Christians in October. In the past, the Orthodox Copts, the Roman Catholics, and the Protestants had not supported one another. In fact, they had at many times stood against each other.
But this time was different. In response to this rising difficulty an invitation went out for Christians from all backgrounds – Coptic, Catholic, & Protestant – to gather for prayer. On that night, 71,000 people gathered to seek the face of God in prayer together. Held at the cave church on Cairo’s largest garbage city, the night began with confession, and continued with the gospel being proclaimed, healings happening through prayer, and one span of about 10 minutes where people merely called out the name of Jesus over and over again. Since that time, there has been an increase in conversions to Christ in Egypt at a number never before experienced in recent history.
Something happens when God’s people stand together in unity. There is power in a unified mission.
Jesus says…(read John 17:21, 23)
- v 21 – “so that the world may believe you have sent me”
- v 23 – “so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me”
Jesus says that the result – the aftereffects – of unity in His people is effectiveness for the mission and purposes of God in the world. Get this: Jesus is talking to the Father about His desire for the church to reach the world – those far from God – and His key request is for unity in the believers.
The implication here is that if we live in disunity, then we will not be effective in joining God in His purposes in the world. Our mission will be short-circuited because of unity.
Jesus Himself was the one who said, “f a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3:25).
There are a couple of implications here:
- We cannot stand the threats of the world without unity. Jesus said, “a house divided against itself will not stand” (Matthew 12:25). If we want to endure in a culture against us then we must seek and pray for unity.
- If we care about the mission of God in the city and in the world, then we must both personally pray for and seek the unity of God’s people. The unity of the church and the mission of the church cannot be divorced from one another. If we think we can pursue the mission without pursuing unity, then we are deceived by the evil one.
The place where positive steps for mission – and the place where positive steps toward unity – occur best is in prayer, as Jesus models for us here in John 17.
Prayer is the pathway to unity, which strengthens the mission of the church.
[This is the fourth in a series of posts on unity through prayer from John 17, which began here.]
Jesus’ journey of prayer for unity continues as He unveils that there is power through transformed relationships…and that power comes through 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—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20-23)
Jesus is plunging ahead in prayer – and we have the high privilege of listening in – to the deep place of God’s relational unity. He prays:
“That all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (17:21)
“that they may be one as we are one – I in them and you in me” (17:22-23)
This is one of the great and mysterious truths of the Christian life: that God is one in the unity of His substance, yet at the same time distinguished as three persons. There is a unified community of being within God that Jesus expresses here in prayer. We see God’s essential unity within diversity and diversity within unity. And this Trinity of being in God is the basis for Jesus’ prayer for the unity of His people.
Many times when we talk about unity, we begin to talk a lot about love. This is important because love is essential to unity, but not always in the way we think. Sometimes, talk of unity and love devolves into a touchy-feely moment where we hold hands and sing songs. At other times that sort of love necessary for unity gets real traction through the tough, real-life, sacrifices people make for one another.
Now, love is incredibly important, and we all must learn to love others more. But Jesus is taking this prayer for unity in a different direction. Jesus does not pray that God would give His people greater capacity or ability to love one another. He prays about something else.
He prays that His glory would flow into His future followers and lead them into transformed relationship with God and, therefore, with one another.
As biblical scholar Raymond Brown so helpfully points out, “unity is not simply human fellowship or the harmonious interaction of Christians.” There is “both a horizontal and a vertical dimension” to unity.
What we need to recognize is that our breakthroughs to unity depend upon our transformed relationship with God that leads to transformed relationship with others.
I don’t want to imply that this is simply up to us getting moved forward with our will power in prayer, because this unity is a mystical, positional reality given us through Jesus Christ and His glory that we need to live into in greater ways.
This is what sanctification is all about: living into the truths of our salvation that we have received because of the positional transformation for humanity that we appropriate by faith into our lives. It’s all grace from God.
In our earthly lives, we will at times falter in the battlefields of conflict. We may find times where we raise our voices against one another. Sometimes we do it to another’s face with harsh words and false accusations, while at other times we quietly pass the sweet morsels of gossip or shards of slander into the ears of another.
No matter how it happens, when we stumble into the lands of conflict, the way back must be infused with prayer. Yes, we must use the best of the wisdom found in the Proverbs of the Bible and the greatest advice of wise counselors, but we must never attempt to achieve unity by our human efforts alone. Brothers and sisters, fall down on your knees and beg the God of the universe, who alone can speak to the hearts of others – and also to your own heart – about the causes of conflict and remedies for unity.
If your heart is bound with bitterness or rolling in rage, now is the time to desert the battlefields of conflict and seek the sweet remedy of the glory of God released in prayer.
As we do this, we may surprisingly find that God not only changes the other person or situation, but He changes us as well. In fact, we may find that we are the one who most needs to be changed.
Prayer is the pathway to unity through transformed relationships.
[This is the third in a series of posts on unity and prayer from John 17, which began here.]
 Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John, AB (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1970), 2: 776.
There’s a common proverb that says “hindsight is 20/20.” This saying means that it’s easy to see the right thing to do after it has already happened. It also admits that it is difficult to predict the future. The reason we say this so often is that, as humans, we often understand what the right thing to do was after it’s too late.
Here are some examples of hindsight being 20/20. The worker who chose the wrong project to spend a lot of time on when another project was more important to their boss. The man who tried to go out on dates on consecutive evenings with two different women, who ended up knowing one other and talking about it. The high school student who didn’t study enough before a key test that ended up shaping their direction for college. Hindsight is 20/20. You can see clearly what you should have done in the past, but it’s harder to see clearly what to do in the future.
Unlike human beings, Jesus does not seem to suffer from this limitation. In John 17, we see Jesus taking proactive steps – doing what needs to be done ahead of time – instead of being reactive to things that are already taking place. In fact, Jesus shows us the power of proactive prayer.
Take a look at Jesus words in John 17:20 with me:
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message.
John 17 is sometimes called Jesus’ high priestly prayer. This is because we find Jesus directly talking with His Father in prayer about the heart of His ministry right before going to the sacrifice upon the Cross.
He is like a high priest in the Jewish religious tradition who comes before God to bring the sacrifice on behalf of the people. For Jesus, that sacrifice is literally Himself, and His prayers are preparing the way for that glorious sacrifice.
As Jesus prays to His Father, He asks for God’s glory to be displayed through Him. This is a glory that can only come through sacrifice, which will be seen with such power and gravity at the Cross.
He also asks for God to strengthen His disciples for the trials they will face. He is asking for those immediate followers, like Peter, James, John, Mary Magdalene, and more, that they might bear up in the face great difficulties.
And He also begins to talk with God about the followers that will come through the message those disciples will speak about Him later. Now, one of the most important things we see in Jesus here is the power of proactive prayer. He is not waiting for troubles to arise or for future followers to come. He is getting ahead of that situation in prayer.
Many of us tend to be reactive in prayer. We pray for provision when our finances get tight or we lose our job. We pray for healing when we get to the hospital or experience emotional trauma. We pray for wisdom when we are already at the crossroads of decision. We respond – or react – to the situations that come. Now, this is an entirely appropriate and powerful way to pray. We see this throughout Scripture, from the early disciples’ prayers when facing arrest by the authorities to Moses’ prayer before the burning bush.
But along with this responsive prayer we need to learn from what Jesus does here in John 17. He proactively prays for things that are yet to come. This is built on the fact that Jesus had both the most realistic view of human life and the most active engagement with the divine life of any person that has ever walked the face of the earth. Jesus prays for all who will come and, in this moment, brings the future people of God – even you and me – into the Holy Presence of God. Just think about the reality that Jesus prayed for you.
I remember a time when I was on a short-term mission trip with a group of students and terrible strife broke out within the group. People were name-calling, tensions were rising, and the leaders on the trip were completely caught off-guard. Of course, we prayed in the moment and asked God to do something powerful, and He graciously righted the direction of the trip so our disunity did not distract from why we were there.
What I learned from that experience is that we should expect the threat of disunity to arise within our life as believers. It arises because of our sin, our human brokenness, our past history, and spiritual attack from the evil one. This should not surprise us.
If we want unity in our relationships – in our church – in churches around our city, nation, and world – then we must pray proactively for God to make us one, not waiting for the divisions to come upon us.
There is power in such proactive prayer. Jesus understood this and He shows us – even as He prays for us – the importance of bringing things to God ahead of time.
Prayer – particularly, here, proactive prayer – is the pathway to unity.
[This is the second in a series of posts on unity through prayer from John 17, which began here.]