Yearning for Oneness: A John 17 Meditation

20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 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. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one,23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” (John 17:20–23)

The sun is rising. The pale and glorious gold is turning whiter behind the swaying arms of the maple trees. The robins—they keep singing, as if their songs were lifting light up from the horizon, pushing it through the tiny windows of the canopy, pouring gold over the green. Above the trees, the clouds are scudding silent and serene, like children content not to speak. They’re going somewhere. My heart wishes it could travel with them, fall into the flock of mist and morning mirth, drift above the rambling Pennsylvania countryside.

       Two blue jays yell over the yard, and a truck engine churns through the quiet. The world is awake. The rhythm of Monday is stepping into the foreground. Soon I’ll be moving. Soon I’ll be speaking. Soon I’ll be lifting and pulling and typing. But before the day gets on, I sit here with my pen, waiting for a thermal.

       I’ve always envied birds. I think it’s because I have a deep-seated belief that souls were meant to soar. I love watching the robins and the wrens dart across the treetops, flapping with their hollow-boned freedom from pine bough to maple limb. But it’s the red-tailed hawks that capture me most. I see them open-armed and circling as they rise up. They don’t even need to flap because thermals lift them. They rise on invisible shoulders. They rise on unseen grace. They rise on gifts.

       As I sit at the table with dawn peering over my shoulders, I realize that’s what I’m waiting for—a thermal. I’m waiting for the unseen Spirit to give me some words. And in that giving, I know I will rise to new heights. I’ll be raised. All I need to do is keep my arms out.

"I want to go so high and so deep that I’m one with the God of red-tails."

       Mystical, isn’t it? I used to think these dreams were the result of a boy’s mind being trapped in a man’s body (maybe that’s still true). But now I believe it’s more than that. It’s about longing. It’s about living. It’s about . . . destiny. I dream of flying with the birds because my heart has tasted the wildness of God. I want him, and he is high. Above the sky. Above the scudding clouds—light beyond light. On this earth, my neck will always be craning upwards. I’ll always stare at the birds because I’m in love with the one who cares for them. I want to get higher, closer. I want to go, as C. S. Lewis said, “further up and further in.”[1] I want to go so high and so deep that I’m one with the God of red-tails. One.

Made for Oneness

       We were made for oneness with God. It’s who we are, not just what we want. Everything in us, as Geerhardus Vos put it, is “disposed for communion.”[2] Communion is relational oneness with God. There’s no running from this, no more than a house could run from its foundation. It’s in the marrow of our bones. It’s silently dwelling among every synapse of thought. It’s in our eyes as we gaze at the teeming world around us. It’s in every knuckle bend and muscle movement. Everything that is you is somehow longing for, reaching for, hoping for oneness with God.

"Our identity is not primarily about us—what we do, what we think, what we like. It’s primarily about the God who made us for himself."

       Our world raves about identity, about the unbound freedom to create and define ourselves. But they have missed this. Our identity is not primarily about us—what we do, what we think, what we like. It’s primarily about the God who made us for himself. Sounds strange, I know. But that’s because most people are what John Calvin might have called letters Cs. They’re curved in on themselves. And when you’re curved in on yourself, you can’t see the horizon your soul is sailing towards. There is something beyond us that defines us. And I believe that thing is oneness with God.

Destined for Oneness

       But being one with God isn’t only about identity. It’s also about destiny, about where we’re going. That’s a hard concept to grasp in the ordinary moments of the day, isn’t it? When you’re folding dish towels. When you’re writing an email. When you’re paying bills. String enough of those routine moments together, and a concept like destiny turns into a vapor, evaporating in the burning light of the immediate. Destiny seems at home in epic fantasy, but a strange ghost in our daily lives.

       That doesn’t mean it’s not there. We need to think of destiny as the sun behind our clouds. Just because we don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there, that it’s not pulling all things toward itself, that it’s not illuminating every blade of grass and every dust fiber of our ordinary moments. Our destiny is like the sun. We’re mostly unaware of it, and yet it engulfs and surrounds all that we do, all that we are.

"Our destiny is to speak with God and see his face without interruption."

       What, more plainly, is our destiny?  It’s oneness with God, but what does that even mean? John 17 doesn’t offer many specifics, that golden passage where Jesus talks about our oneness with him (John 17:11, 21–22), but for now, think of it this way: Our destiny is to speak with God and see his face without interruption. Speech and sight, communion and presence, sharing and staring at the one who is love, the one who knows you better than your mother or father, better than you know yourself. Our destiny is to speak and see our heavenly Father, his eternal Son, and the life-giving Holy Ghost. Here, we search for the three in great frustration. There, we’ll be with them as our destination. It’s a destination with a beginning but no end, a conversation that starts but never stops, a love-gaze with an inception but no conclusion. It’s, as Lewis had it, “Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read.”[3] What could a human imagination do to honor such a Great Story but build a block tower or cover a piece of paper with crayon scribbles? Before this destiny, we’re all children. We’re all tiny. We don’t even know how to dream of it.

       But do we know how to yearn for it anymore? And if not, what are we doing here? How can we walk through the world without gripping our destiny with both hands? The short answer: we create counterfeits.[4] And we’re very good at it. The greatest counterfeiters are masters of deception. They take what isn’t and offer it as what is. And we believe them, even if the counterfeiter is our own soul. John Calvin wasn’t being hyperbolic when he said our hearts are idol factories.[5] He might also have said that we’re master counterfeiters.

"John Calvin wasn’t being hyperbolic when he said our hearts are idol factories.[5] He might also have said that we’re master counterfeiters."

       A counterfeit, spiritually speaking, is anything that absorbs our attention other than God and his work. I say “absorbs” because a counterfeit isn’t designed to be “mostly substitutionary.” It’s designed to take the place of the original. Like a dry sponge, it soaks up all of our attention and energy. There’s no remainder. We’re left without yearning, without a passion for oneness with God.

       Anything can be a counterfeit because anything can be an idol, and counterfeits are the latest in idol technology. With ancient idols, it was obvious people were worshiping something other than the invisible God, that they were giving their lives to something else. But the power of the counterfeit comes in its suggestion of being harmless, of being “just a thing.” Coffee. Exercise. Ambition. Sex. Clothes. These aren’t idols; they’re just things, right? . . . Right?

       If any one of these little things gives you more energy and passion and joy than being one with God does, you have an idol, a counterfeit. And we take idol currency without even checking for authenticity. “It’s just coffee!” we say with an eye-roll. But we spend a great deal of time with our pour-over technique, our coffee bean subscriptions, our routine grinding and brewing. More time, perhaps, than we give to think about the God who grew the coffee plants, who shaped the harvesters after his own image, whose common grace lends us the machinery for roasting and the planes for shipping.

In vs. Elsewhere

       “So, I can’t be a coffee connoisseur?!”  No. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that there’s a difference between in and elsewhere. You can find God in coffee; you can see him in the details—his nature and grace. That is, you can see God’s nature reflected in all the things that he’s made (Rom. 1:20).[6] Or you can decide, even tacitly, that he can only be seen elsewhere. If you decide that God can only be seen elsewhere, then you see your coffee passion as “just a coffee thing.” You see it as detached from or even void of God-reflection. And that’s where the power of the counterfeit lives.

       See, our counterfeits aren’t claiming to be gods, as the ancient idols did. No—they’re claiming instead to be “just things.” But they take from us the exact same resources that ancient idols did: our time, energy, passion, and praise. Do you see it? Do you see how the latest in idol technology pulls us so effectively away from our yearning for oneness with God?

       We take these counterfeits—almost every day—and block our own view of God-given destiny. We say flippantly, deep down in our hearts, “This is why I’m here.” Or, if you think that’s too strong, we keep saying, “I’ll find God elsewhere, not right now. Not in this. I’ll just enjoy this for what it is.”[7]  

       And then two problems take root. First, we never find a place for “elsewhere.” God becomes practically irrelevant to us. We say he’s our destiny, but we don’t live like it. Second, we believe the lie that anything could be what it is apart from God. God has created the world so that everything reflects something of his divine nature (Rom. 1:20; Ps. 19:1–4). Everything. There’s no such thing as “just coffee.” God is revealing himself in every stage of the plant growth, the harvesting, the drying, the roasting, the brewing. God upholds every coffee bean by the word of his power (Heb. 1:3). There’s no such thing as “just coffee.” Do you see the counterfeit now?

"We’re daily counterfeiters. We live for a thousand tiny gods."

       We’re daily counterfeiters. We live for a thousand tiny gods. Throughout the day, we functionally express the little claim, “This is why I’m here.” But “this” never seems to be oneness with God.

The Path to Oneness

       So, how do we get back on the path to oneness with God? Mysteriously, oneness with God doesn’t just tell us who we are and where we’re going. It also tells us how we’ll get there.

       Whenever you’re traveling somewhere, you need a place to stay. You need a home away from home. You need somewhere to dwell, an abode to abide in. And we have that home not in a place but in a person. Jesus said, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (John 15:4). Jesus calls us to live in him. That’s deeply mysterious, isn’t it? He’s not saying, “Think highly of me” or “worship me,” though we’re called to do that, too. He’s saying, “live in me.” If our destiny is oneness with God, Jesus is saying, “Live in me until you get there.” What could this possibly mean? How do we explain this mystery?

       I find myself agreeing with Rankin Wilbourne. “Explaining a mystery is like explaining a joke. If you do that, you kill it.”[8] But he also says, “You are more and most yourself when united to Christ. He covers you, he shields you, he represents you before the Father. He also fills you, illuminates you, and animates you, making you more yourself and more human than you could ever be on your own.”[9] There’s still mystery here. Trying to get away from the mystery of living in another person is sort of like trying to get away from the air while you breathe it. You can almost imagine what that’s like, but even while you try, the air is around you and inside you. Maybe a poem would help.

Christ, you told me that I live in you.

You said you are the vine.

I’m still me, and you’re still you.

I’m still human; you’re divine.

But you are now a home to me.

I live inside your walls.

You shelter as you set me free

To answer holy calls.

Well, maybe that doesn’t help so much, if by “help” we mean “explain.” Help in a deeper sense, however, doesn’t mean rationalization. Help doesn’t mean we wrap our minds around it. Help means we worship. We glory in the truth. We smile in the secret.

       Oneness with God—living in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit—is how we get to oneness with God. See the circularity? The gospel is full of that. Want an example? The Word took on flesh to save us, who rejected God’s words, so that we might live in God’s Word again and be joined with the God who spoke us. Circularity. It’s not ridiculous; it’s mysterious. And there’s a difference. Something ridiculous gets us nowhere and leaves us with nothing. Something mysterious gets us somewhere and leaves us with everything. Think of it as a couplet:

Ridiculous makes no sense and lets us roam.

Mysterious opens a fence and points us home.

       Somehow. the mystery of being one with God is our identity, our destiny, and our path. It’s who we are, where we’re going, and how we’ll get there. Jesus’s high priestly prayer can also be our prayer today. To that end, I offer one of my own.

God, we want you.

Really. Just you.

We want you to illuminate

And define us.

We want you to give us

Passion and purpose for you.

We want to be one with you,

Just as Jesus prayed for.

Give us the eyes to see it,

The ears to hear it,

And the heart to grasp it.

May we never let it go,

As you never let us go.


[1] C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle, book 7 of Chronicles of Narnia (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 761.

[2] Geerhardus Vos, Anthropology, vol. 2 of Reformed Dogmatics, ed. and trans. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2014), 13.

[3] Lewis, The Last Battle, from the final paragraph.

[4] I first came across this term in the work of Vern Poythress. For more discussion, see Redeeming Sociology: A God-Centered Approach (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 112–114.

[5] Calvin discusses idols in his Institutes 1.11.

[6] My attempt to do this is represented in Finding God in the Ordinary (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2018).

[7] “To claim to know something while thinking it to be independent of God (or to deny that there is a God) is to fail to know it for what it really is. Whatever it is, it is created and sustained by God at every moment.” K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of Our Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 44.

[8] Rankin Wilbourne, Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God (East Sussex, England: David C Cook, 2016), 34, Kindle edition.

[9] Wilbourne, Union with Christ, 44.

Pierce Taylor Hibbs (MAR, ThM Westminster Theological Seminary) serves as Senior Writer and Communication Specialist at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is the award-winning author of over 15 books, including Theological English (2019 ECPA Finalist) Struck Down but Not Destroyed (2020 Illumination Book Awards), The Book of Giving (2021 Illumination Book Awards), and The Great Lie (2022 Illumination Book Awards). He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and three kids.

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