“I make request . . . that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in union with me.”—JOHN 17:20, 21.
1, 2. (a) What request did Jesus make in his final prayer with his apostles? (b) Why might Jesus have been concerned about unity?
JESUS was concerned about unity during his final supper with his apostles. When praying with them, he spoke of his desire that all his disciples be one, just as he and his Father are one. (Read John 17:20, 21.) Their unity would give a powerful witness, offering clear evidence that Jehovah had sent Jesus to the earth to do God’s will. Love would be a mark of Jesus’ true disciples that would contribute to their unity.—John 13:34, 35.
2 Jesus’ emphasis on unity is understandable. He had noticed a lack of unity or harmony among the apostles, such as during his final meal with them. As had happened before, a dispute arose over “which one of them was considered to be the greatest.” (Luke 22:24-27; Mark 9:33, 34) Another time, James and John requested that Jesus give them prominent places alongside him in his Kingdom.—Mark 10:35-40.
3. What factors may have contributed to a lack of unity among Christ’s disciples, and what questions will we consider?
3 Desire for prominence, however, was not the only potential cause of disunity among Christ’s disciples. The people of the land were divided by animosity and prejudice. Jesus’ disciples would need to overcome those feelings. In this article, we will consider the following questions: How did Jesus deal with prejudice? How did he help his followers learn to treat others impartially and be truly united? And how will his teaching help us to keep united?
PREJUDICE THAT JESUS AND HIS FOLLOWERS FACED
4. Give examples of prejudice shown toward Jesus.
4 Jesus himself was subjected to prejudice. When Philip told Nathanael that he had found the Messiah, Nathanael replied: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46) Apparently, Nathanael knew of the prophecy at Micah 5:2 and considered Nazareth too insignificant to be the Messiah’s hometown. Similarly, prominent Judeans despised Jesus because he was a Galilean. (John 7:52) Many Judeans viewed the people of Galilee as inferior. Other Jews sought to insult Jesus by calling him a Samaritan. (John 8:48) The Samaritan people were ethnically and religiously distinct from the Jews. Both Judeans and Galileans had little respect for the Samaritans and avoided them.—John 4:9.
5. What prejudice did Jesus’ followers experience?
5 Jewish leaders likewise heaped scorn on Jesus’ followers. The Pharisees classed them as among the “accursed people.” (John 7:47-49) Yes, they considered anyone who had not studied at the rabbinic schools or who did not keep their traditions to be contemptible and ordinary. (Acts 4:13, ftn.) The prejudice that Jesus and his disciples suffered was rooted in religious, social, and ethnic divisions. The disciples too were affected by prejudice. To be united, they would have to change their mind-set.
6. Use examples to show how prejudice can affect us.
6 Today, most of us are surrounded by prejudice. We could be victims, or we ourselves might hold some prejudices. “My hatred for white people grew as I focused on the injustice that was inflicted on the Aboriginal people—past and present,” explains a sister who is now a pioneer in Australia. “This hatred was also fueled by the abuse I had personally experienced.” A Canadian brother mentioned the prejudice he once had concerning language. “I thought French-speaking people were superior,” he admits. “And I developed animosity toward English-speaking people.”
7. How did Jesus deal with prejudice?
7 Feelings of prejudice in our time can be deeply ingrained, just as they were in Jesus’ day. How did Jesus deal with them? First, he rejected prejudice, being totally impartial. He preached to rich and poor, Pharisees and Samaritans, even tax collectors and sinners. Second, by his teaching and example, Jesus showed his disciples that they must overcome suspicion or intolerance toward others.
CONQUERING PREJUDICE WITH LOVE AND HUMILITY
8. What fundamental principle underlies Christian unity? Explain.
8 Jesus taught his followers a fundamental principle that underlies our unity. “All of you are brothers,” he said. (Read Matthew 23:8, 9.) Of course, one sense in which we are “brothers” is that all of us have descended from Adam. (Acts 17:26) But there is more. Jesus explained that his disciples were brothers and sisters because they recognized Jehovah as their heavenly Father. (Matt. 12:50) In addition, they had become members of one large spiritual family, united by love and faith. Thus in their letters, the apostles often referred to fellow disciples as ‘brothers and sisters.’—Rom. 1:13; 1 Pet. 2:17; 1 John 3:13. *
9, 10. (a) Why did the Jews not have reason for racial pride? (b) How did Jesus teach a lesson in overcoming racial prejudice? (See opening picture.)
9 After making it clear that we should view one another as brothers and sisters, Jesus stressed the need for humility. (Read Matthew 23:11, 12.) As noted, undue pride among his apostles led to some disunity. And pride of race could also have been a problem. Did the Jews have reason to be proud because they were descendants of Abraham? Many Jews had that deep-seated conviction. But John the Baptist told them: “God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones.”—Luke 3:8.
10 Jesus condemned racial pride. He used an opportunity to do so when a scribe asked: “Who really is my neighbor?” In answer, Jesus gave an illustration of a Samaritan who kindly cared for a traveler—a Jew—who had been beaten by thieves. Passing Jews ignored this unfortunate man, whereas the Samaritan took pity on him. Jesus concluded his story by telling the scribe to be like that Samaritan. (Luke 10:25-37) Jesus showed that a Samaritan could teach the Jews the meaning of true neighborly love.
11. Why did the disciples of Christ need to view foreigners impartially, and how did Jesus help them understand that?
11 To fulfill their commission, Jesus’ disciples needed to conquer the pride and prejudice they had. Before ascending to heaven, he assigned them to bear witness to “all Judea and Samaria, and to the most distant part of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) Jesus had earlier prepared them for such an extensive assignment by drawing their attention to good qualities in foreigners. He praised a foreign army officer for his outstanding faith. (Matt. 8:5-10) In his hometown of Nazareth, Jesus spoke of how Jehovah had favored foreigners, such as the Phoenician widow from Zarephath and the Syrian leper Naaman. (Luke 4:25-27) And Jesus not only preached to a Samaritan woman but he spent two days in a Samaritan town because of the people’s interest in his message.—John 4:21-24, 40.
FIGHTING PREJUDICE IN THE FIRST CENTURY
12, 13. (a) How did the apostles react when Jesus taught a Samaritan woman? (See opening picture.) (b) What shows that James and John did not fully get the point?
12 It was not easy, however, for the apostles to put aside their prejudice. They were surprised to see that Jesus was willing to teach a Samaritan woman. (John 4:9, 27) Jewish religious leaders would not talk to a woman in public, let alone a Samaritan woman with a questionable reputation. The apostles urged Jesus to eat. But his reply indicated that he was so absorbed in the spiritual discussion that his hunger could be ignored. Preaching—even to a Samaritan woman—was the will of his Father, and it was like food for him.—John 4:31-34.
13 James and John did not grasp this lesson. When journeying with Jesus through Samaria, the disciples sought overnight lodging in a Samaritan village. The Samaritans refused to receive them, so James and John angrily suggested calling down fire from heaven to destroy the entire village. Jesus firmly rebuked them. (Luke 9:51-56) We may wonder if James and John would have reacted the same way if the inhospitable village had been in their home region of Galilee. It seems likely that prejudice had kindled their animosity. It could be that the apostle John felt embarrassed about his rash outburst when he later enjoyed a successful preaching campaign among the Samaritans.—Acts 8:14, 25.
14. How was an issue that may have involved language resolved?
14 Not long after Pentecost 33 C.E., an issue of discrimination arose. When distributing food to needy widows, Greek-speaking widows were overlooked. (Acts 6:1) Prejudice about language may have been a factor. The apostles quickly rectified matters by appointing qualified men to handle the food distribution. All these spiritually qualified men had Greek names. This may have made them more acceptable to the offended widows.
15. How did Peter make progress in showing impartiality to everyone? (See opening picture.)
15 In 36 C.E., the disciple-making work became much more international. The apostle Peter had a custom of associating only with Jews. But after God made it clear that Christians should not be partial, Peter preached to Cornelius, a Roman soldier. (Read Acts 10:28, 34, 35.) Thereafter, Peter enjoyed food and association with Gentile believers. Years later, though, Peter stopped eating with non-Jewish Christians in the city of Antioch. (Gal. 2:11-14) In that case, Paul gave Peter a fitting reproof, which he evidently accepted. When Peter wrote his first letter to Jewish and Gentile Christians in Asia Minor, he spoke warmly about the whole association of brothers.—1 Pet. 1:1; 2:17.
16. What reputation did early Christians gain?
16 Clearly, the apostles did learn from Jesus’ example to love “all sorts of men.” (John 12:32; 1 Tim. 4:10) Although it took time, they adjusted their way of thinking. The early Christians gained a reputation of loving one another. Tertullian, a second-century writer, quoted non-Christians as saying: “They love one another . . . They are ready even to die for one another.” Putting on “the new personality,” the early Christians came to view all people as equal in the sight of God.—Col. 3:10, 11.
17. How can we uproot prejudice from our heart? Give examples.
17 Today, we too may need time to uproot prejudice from our heart. A sister in France describes her battle: “Jehovah has taught me what love means, what sharing means, what loving people of all kinds means. But I am still learning to overcome prejudice toward others, and it is not always easy. That is why I continue praying about it.” A sister in Spain faces a similar battle: “I sometimes struggle with my feelings of animosity toward a certain ethnic group, and I succeed most of the time. But I know that I need to keep on fighting. Thanks to Jehovah, I am happy to belong to a united family.” Each of us can make a sincere self-analysis. Might we personally need to fight some feelings of prejudice, as do these two sisters?
PREJUDICE WITHERS AS LOVE GROWS
18, 19. (a) What reasons do we have to welcome everyone? (b) How can we do this in practical ways?
18 It is good to remember that at one time we were all “strangers,” or foreigners, not close to God. (Eph. 2:12) But Jehovah drew us to him “with the cords of love.” (Hos. 11:4; John 6:44) And Christ welcomed us. He opened the door, as it were, so that we could become part of God’s family. (Read Romans 15:7.) Since Jesus has kindly accepted us, as imperfect as we are, it should be unthinkable for us to reject anyone else!
19 Divisions, prejudice, and hostility will doubtless increase in the world as we approach the end of this wicked system. (Gal. 5:19-21; 2 Tim. 3:13) As servants of Jehovah, though, we seek the wisdom from above, which is impartial and promotes peace. (Jas. 3:17, 18) We rejoice as we forge friendships with people from other lands, accepting cultural differences and possibly even learning the languages of others. When we do this, peace flows just like a river, and justice like the waves of the sea.—Isa. 48:17, 18.
20. What happens when love molds our minds and hearts?
20 “The floodgates of true knowledge were opened to me,” says the Australian sister mentioned earlier. She acknowledges how a study of the Bible affected her, saying: “I was molded with a new heart and mind. So all the ingrained prejudice and hatred melted away before my eyes.” And the Canadian brother says that he now realizes that “ignorance is often the mother of racism and that people’s qualities do not depend on their place of birth.” He married an English-speaking sister! Such changes in attitude are a testimony to the fact that Christian love can and does conquer prejudice. It unites us with an unbreakable bond.—Col. 3:14.