"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 17:20-21
In John 17 Jesus first prays for his disciples (the first Apostles) to be one (John 17:11). An application of this prayer being answered could be found in Acts 15 in the Jerusalem council of apostles and elders. At stake was the one Gospel of the Kingdom being proclaimed to Jew and Gentile alike. Paul and Barnabus and Peter and James among others all contended for this one Gospel at this council. Paul in his letter to the Galatians stated that if anyone, even an angel, proclaimed to them any other gospel, then let them be accursed. As the apostles and elders contended in Jerusalem, the Church remained one with the gospel. Even when Paul took Silas and Barnabus took Mark in separate directions after this council, they still proclaimed the one gospel. They both did the right thing to advance the Kingdom while discipling believers along the way!
This One Gospel proclaims the fulfillment of the hope of Israel, who is the Messiah, who came to restore all things in heaven and on earth. This gospel proclaims the King and His Kingdom, the reign and rule of Christ in heaven and on earth through His chosen people, the One holy apostolic Church. The effectiveness of this gospel is based upon the mystery of redemption revealed in Jesus the Christ… his birth, his life, his ministry that includes his miracles and teachings, his death, his descent, his ascent, his resurrection, his purifying the heavenly tabernacle, his enthronement as King and his pouring out of His Spirit. All that Jesus did and said as recorded in the New Testament reveals this Gospel. However, too often we shortchange the Gospel and its demands. For example, evangelicals will often proclaim the gospel as Jesus dying for our sins so that we may believe, be forgiven and go to heaven. While there is truth in these words, this is a truncated version of the gospel that has led a weak, and thus accursed church as we know it!
Today we have thousands of denominations, and many more independent churches, all proclaiming the gospel as they understand it, and we are accursed in our division! And, for the most part we accept this as normal because as far as we know we are preaching the true gospel. Although we may “accept” one another’s gospel under a wider banner… such as “Protestant” or “Evangelical” or “Historical” descriptions, we are still divided while under those banners. For example, we have a Methodist bent Jesus and a Baptist-like Jesus and a Pentecostal kind-of-Jesus… that may have at least some biblical authenticities. However, the sad truth is we each proclaim our version of the gospel as authoritative (as received from our religious traditions) to build our own kingdoms. What do I mean by our own kingdoms? Do we not have a name for each our ministries? Do we not exalt our ministry over and against others, whether intentionally or not?
The Apostle Paul warned about the hijacking of the authentic gospel in Acts 20 when he told the Ephesian elders, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” According to Revelation 2 the church in Ephesus responded to this warning with the successful sorting out of false apostles and doctrines, though at the cost of not maintaining their First Love. So, in the exhortation from Ephesians 4:3 to “maintain the unity of The Spirit,” this “maintenance” includes the love for God and for one another, while at the same time “to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). For almost all of Church history we have not taken on this tall order because it is easier to part ways to work with those who agree with our version of the truth. A more difficult path would be the Jerusalem Council model… and the early Church attempted that in its early councils that produced creeds. However, going forward we have settled for what we have received… not from the original Apostles as found in the canon of scripture but from what others have told us from within our religious traditions and interpretations of scripture.
I heard the call of Christ on my life within a particular Christian religious tradition. Thus, my faith and discipleship was shaped from within that tradition. While I am grateful that my parents influenced me to understand a wider banner of being Christian more than a particular brand of Christianity, I still received my understanding of Christianity from within my Christian religious roots. In response to the call to ordained ministry, I went to Asbury Theological Seminary, today one of the most prestigious seminaries from a Wesleyan Evangelical perspective. And this is my point… I learned from this perspective… and as grateful that I am for it, it is still a far cry from the authentic Christian tradition of “sound words” that Paul exhorted Timothy from which to teach (1 Timothy 6:3). Now, this sounds offensive, insulting, and arrogant; believe me, I have been taught well in my Methodist tradition to not be that at all! However, are we not also arrogant when we think we have it all figure out from our traditions and own personal conclusions? Does not this question our commitment to love God and one another (who believe in Christ), and wrestle with the scriptures together who differ in thinking from us, and to receive the revelation of the scriptures anew? None of us have arrived. All of us need to be reformed to the authentic Gospel of the Kingdom first preached by Jesus and his original apostles. It was lost even within the first century of the Church. How do I know? When we compare this authentic Gospel within the time of the New Testament and then the time that follows, we will see the compromise to this Gospel. I am not alone in this assessment. Matthew 24:10 says that at that time many will fall away. For those who believe that this prophecy of Jesus concerning the destruction of the temple was fulfilled in 70 AD, this “falling away” from the faith once delivered to the saints happened then. In the face of tribulation and persecution, we will find both martyrs and those who compromise the faith to remain alive. As a result, the “Holy Roman Empire” was a compromise between the Church and the Rome that never understood the authentic Gospel of the Kingdom. Apostles and prophets no longer were found in the Church at that time.
The challenge today is to re-discover and re-cover the authentic Gospel of the Kingdom which will lead us towards being one Church. However, that alone will not make us one. At the Jerusalem Council the Apostles and Elders maintained the unity of the Church while contending in love for the faith once delivered to the saints. So we pray for God to raise up the authentic apostles and prophets today who are in line with the foundation of the One Church with Jesus as the Chief Apostle and cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). Such apostles and prophets are responsible to steward this revelation of the Gospel of the Kingdom. With this proper governance that provides the proper stewardship for The Church preaching the One Gospel, the great commission to disciple the nations will happen in “a day” (figuratively speaking) rather than “a thousand years” or more (figuratively speaking) being delayed with our contentment in division. Our faith (collectively speaking) indeed determines our future in acting as One Holy Nation in advancing the Kingdom through the Gospel. This is a tall order that only the zeal of the Lord of hosts can accomplish (see Isaiah 9:7). This describes a strong Church, full of faith and Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, the greatest sin we face today as the church is our contentment to remain divided, and to not believe the scriptures that reveal The Messiah and His restoration of all things through the Gospel. Let us repent from our contentment with this division and lack of faith in the promises of God! Lord, have mercy, and pour out your Spirit to bring true repentance that brings forth the fruit of your Kingdom!