I love Jesus’ prayer in John 17 and have ever since I first preached through it in 2006 (side question: does it seem like 2006 should be that long ago?). As Jesus prayed on behalf of all of his followers throughout the ages (17:20), his primary concern was for the glory he and the Father share. The glory of the Father through the Son becomes the blood that pumps through the first five verses of the prayer (indeed, through the whole prayer). Jesus shared glory with the Father before they created the world, he glorified the Father by accomplishing his task upon the earth, and he would culminate this work as he glorified the Father through his sacrifice on the cross.
Within this context of God’s glory, Jesus rooted our salvation and defined eternal life as an active relationship with the Father though the Son. As Paul would later write in Ephesians 1, “To the praise of his glorious grace;” God acts for the sake of his glory, his glory is the greatest good, and his glory bestows unfathomable benefits in grace upon his people through Christ.
Then as Jesus shifted focus in his prayer to the lives of his followers, he prayed for three main things: first, that we would experience the presence of God through knowing and living the transforming truth of his word (17:6-21); second, that we would partake of God’s glory as a unified community of his people (17:9-10, 20-26); and third, that as his community we would continue his mission in the world that he had received from the Father (17:15-18, 23). As we see from the verse breakdown, even though these are three distinct things they overlap and interconnect.
The glory of God in truth, community, and missions.
As Jesus prayed these things on our behalf, I believe they give us a summary for our lives individually as his disciples and corporately as his church. From this, I developed my own personal purpose statement which, early on, I led the church I pastor to adopt as our corporate purpose statement.
We exist to honor Jesus by living the truth, building community, and pursuing missions.
For the past three years, towards the start of the year, I preach a sermon from John 17 with that purpose statement as the outline.
Constantly on my mind as a pastor is the question: How can I best lead God’s people to be a church that seeks to fulfill he Great Commission where we live as disciples who make disciples who make disciples who…? I don’t want to claim that mine is the only good definition of being a disciple, but given how God has placed John 17 in my mind and how he has led me to lead my church to adopt a John 17 purpose statement, I like to define a disciple in the following way:
A disciple is a person who seeks to honor Jesus by living the truth, building community, and pursuing missions.
From this, I have developed the following paradigm for discipleship:
We Honor Jesus by:
Living the Truth: (Word) (Prayer) (Character)
Building Community: (Fellowship) (Accountability) (Praise)
Pursuing Missions: (Living) (Serving) (Sharing)
The first triad of living the truth through the word, prayer, and character finds a root in Jesus’ teachings just before his prayer. In John 15, Jesus spoke about the importance of abiding in him. If you don’t, then you’re like a dried and withered branch cut off from the life-giving vine. In the end, you’re only good to be collected and burned—what I believe to be a picture of the eternal judgment of hell for all who reject Christ. Remain in Jesus, however, and you will have life, you will be cleansed (justification), you will be pruned (sanctification), and you will have fruit that lasts (glorification).
Specifically, however, in John 15:7-8, Jesus said that if we abide in him and his words abide in us then what we ask will be done, and furthermore the Father will be glorified as we bear much fruit. Different commentators say different things about the meaning of fruit, maybe it is more than this but it certainly is not less than the character change brought about through the work of the Spirit in our lives (in other words: the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5). In this, we grow to imitate the character of Christ more fully, first in a love for God that overflows into a love for others. So, in these two verses Jesus brought together his words (Scripture), prayer, and growth in character.
Being in the word and spending time in prayer are communicative aspects of relationship. We talk to God and God talks to us. They are also transformative. We live the word and the word changes us, and we pray to God through the Spirit and God changes us through his Spirit. As Jesus said in John 17, the word is the truth that sanctifies us. The word and prayer fuel our change in character (which, according to places like Ephesians 4&5 and 1 Peter 1, we also have a responsibility to strive to better our character—it is the summary statement of Philippians 2: “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling because God is at work in you”).
The second triad of building community through fellowship, accountability, and praise defines life as a church body. Fellowship as I intend it here is not merely about hanging out together and dining on potlucks, though hanging out and food can certainly be aspects of fellowship. Fellowship is the deep communion between the saints. Fellowship is about Hebrews 10:19-25: having confidence through the blood of Jesus to draw near to God, to hold fast to our hope, and to meet together. Why do we meet together? To encourage one another and stir one another to love and good works.
Here we begin to see the overlap. Such meeting together involves communal time in the word and prayer. Time in the word and prayer should be individual Christian disciplines, but they are incomplete without time spent gathering with the body (Ephesians 3:17-19, where we come to understand God most fully together with all the saints). Such meeting together would also involve the sharing of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 10-11), and songs of praise (which we’ll get to in a moment).
Accountability is also an aspect of community. Yes, we are to confess our sins to God (1 John 1:9), but we are also to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another (James 5:16). Similar in language to Hebrews 10, we have Hebrews 3:13 where we are to exhort one another each day to help each other not be led into the deceitfulness of sin. Such exhortations might include reminders of our gospel hope and rebukes of sinful acts. Then when one does miss the mark and fall to temptation, others in the church are to be there in a spirit of gentleness to help lift him up and restore the repentant sinner (Galatians 6:1-2 and Matthew 18).
Then, of course, praise. Again, this ties back to the word and living the truth, but in a communal way. Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom and insight, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” We see the wonderful beauty of all varieties of church music. I am not trying to have my own experience connecting to God in a style that I prefer; rather in a multitude of styles of songs that teach the truth of his word, I am connecting to God and connecting to other disciples as we thank God and teach one another of his greatness. It is a beautiful part of community.
The final triad of pursing missions through living, serving, and sharing speaks to the reality that we are ultimately in the business of seeking to make other disciples all throughout the world. Living is about the fact that if we are in Christ, we are to be different. His Spirit does transform us, so that individually and corporately we are salt and light to the world (Matthew 5:13-16). This is our character lived consistently in all places and around all people. By our lives, we seek to fight the disease and decay of sin, and we show the world a better story.
Serving is about using our gifts, talents, and resources to make the lives of others better. Again, from Matthew 5:13-16, these are our good works that cause people to glorify the Father. Part of the mission will be internal to the church—we serve one another and help each other grow faithfully in following Jesus (1 Corinthians 12-14 and Titus 2:1-8). Part of it is also external to the world where we seek to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and visit the sick and in prison (Matthew 25:31-46). In serving, we seek to make the world a better place for all people.
Yet good works alone are never enough. Whoever said, “Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words,” is wrong. The gospel is a message. The only way people will be saved is if they hear it proclaimed and respond in faith (Romans 10:8-17). Some will share as missionaries in foreign lands, and when we’re unable to go with them we should happily support their efforts through prayer and giving (Philippians 4:14-16). Yet, we are also missionaries wherever we live, work, and play. We’re to live in wisdom and speak in gracious ways, making the most of every opportunity with those who don’t follow Jesus (Colossians 4:5-6).
Truth, Community, and Missions. These words summarize the focus I believe Jesus gave to our lives in his prayer in John 17 as we seek to live for his glory. They are the words that I strive to teach and model to those God has placed under my care in the hope they will grow as disciples of Jesus who strive to make more disciples of Jesus.