Good and Pleasant Unity

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is / for brethren to dwell together in unity! (Psalm 133:1)

Few joys prove as sweet as harmony in relational unity.

The middle of Book V of the Psalms is dedicated to “psalms of ascent” (Psalms 120:1-134:3). These would be psalms for Israelites to sing as they made the journey up to Jerusalem in general or specifically to the Temple complex on Mount Zion. Most of the psalms of ascent praise YHWH for His greatness and for manifesting Himself among His people on Zion, or represent praises of Zion itself. Yet Psalm 133:1-3, tucked in toward the end of the psalms of ascent, is a meditation on the benefits of unity among brothers.

David proclaimed how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity (Psalm 133:1); he compared its pleasantry to the anointing oil which would run down Aaron’s head, beard, and onto his garments, and the dew of Mount Hermon coming upon Zion (Psalm 133:2-3). In Exodus 30:22-33 YHWH described the oil of anointing and its purpose to Moses; in Leviticus 8:12 Moses actually anoints Aaron as high priest “to sanctify him.” In a semi-arid climate like Israel, mountain dew provides a welcome and relieving form of moisture which allows for plants to grow and flourish; Hermon, in the north, in antiquity maintained snow all year round, and it would have been possible for moist air from Hermon to provide dew on Mount Zion near Jerusalem.

While we may not have chosen these images to illustrate the beauty of relational unity, they remain powerful and profound if we meditate upon them. Through them David asserted the holiness and refreshment which relational unity provides.

Holiness would be on the mind of all those ascending to Jerusalem; the journey would have no doubt been for one of the three annual festivals for which all Israelites were expected to stand before YHWH (Passover/Feast of Unleavened Bread, Feast of Weeks/Shauvot/Pentecost, Feast of Booths; Deuteronomy 16:16-17). Aaron was Moses’ brother and an Israelite; he only became the high priest, set apart from the people to God’s service, once the anointing oil was placed upon his head. The anointing oil as envisioned upon Aaron is the moment of dedication and consecration, the powerful ritual of setting Aaron apart for YHWH’s service, a reminder of YHWH’s covenant with Israel and Israel’s relationship with YHWH.

Aaron was consecrated with oil running down his head; in its own way, YHWH refreshed Zion with dew from Hermon falling upon its crest. Dew can be collected and used for drinking; plants take in the dew and provide their fruit. Dew is a little bit of moisture in a dry place; it is a little bit of refreshment in the midst of bitterness; it is a sign of life in the midst of barrenness.

David spoke of unity among brothers (Psalm 133:1). No doubt the primary and first referent is among brothers in the flesh, and by extension within the family. Such an application makes good contextual sense: Israelites did not go up to Jerusalem by themselves; they would travel in family groups (cf. Luke 2:41-45). We can imagine a caravan featuring an extended family of brothers with their parents, wives, and children negotiating the narrow roads up to Jerusalem; even under the best of family circumstances there would have been moments of friction and conflict, let alone if any previous animosity existed between them. The journey would have provided ample time to have it out, reconcile, or perhaps unfortunately lead to greater division or separation. In such an environment Psalm 133:1-3 is an exhortative reminder of the value of family, the benefit of unity within the group, and would hopefully orient the mind of all on the journey to put aside their differences, contextualize their momentary frustrations, and appreciate the benefits of having each other and maintaining unity among one another. Brothers dwelling in unity can support each other, refresh each other, benefit each other; they can more easily prosper, and their enemies will be put to shame. Brothers fighting each other cause great stress, strain, and perhaps impoverishment or even death. Unity is far more pleasant and desirable!

We can draw similar applications within families today; Ephesians 5:22-6:4 sets forth how husbands and wives, parents and children can dwell in unity. In Christ we can also extend the application to the church, since we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, fellow members of the household of God (Ephesians 2:19-22).

Unity among Christians is holy and refreshing. Christians are supposed to be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3): our unity does not spring from our own striving, but from what God has accomplished in Jesus, making us all into one man (Ephesians 2:11-18). It is a unique and awesome privilege to be made a part of the people of God and invited to share in the relational unity which marks the Godhead (John 17:20-23)! God manifests His plan in Christ in the unity of the church, displaying it before the powers and principalities in the heavenly places (Ephesians 3:10-11). Meanwhile, the world is full of brokenness, alienation, and division; it has ever been, and ever will be. To see people of different backgrounds, socio-economic standing, and abilities loving one another and working together to glorify God in Christ has immense appeal and power. Relational unity is an oasis of joy in a bitter, barren land.

Unfortunately all too often holiness and unity are held in opposition. In the eyes of many, you can have one or the other, but not both: if you want to be holy, unity is out the window; if you seek unity, holiness and integrity must be compromised. And yet God is both the standard of holiness and relationally unified in Himself (John 17:20-23, 1 Peter 1:15-16). God brings holiness and unity together in Himself and yearns for holiness and unity be brought together in His people. Unity is possible if the people of God would only humble themselves, trust in God, seek one another’s benefit, and not insist on one’s own way (Philippians 2:1-4, Philippians 4:1-3).

Unity is rarely comfortable; unity is hard work. Unity demands that we suffer the inadequacies and weaknesses of others in the recognition that others must suffer our inadequacies and weaknesses. But in unity there is love, acceptance, and strength. When we are truly one with each other we know where we belong and we draw strength from our standing and our connection from others. We do well, therefore, to proclaim Psalm 133:1-3, meditate upon it, and allow it to orient our thinking about the blessings of unity. May we enjoy the pleasurable benefits of unity among brethren, holy and refreshing, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Love of the Brethren

Let love of the brethren continue (Hebrews 13:1).

It is always easy to pick on “the brethren” and their problems. For as long as there have been Christians, there have been ways in which Christians have fallen short (Romans 3:23). The letters of the New Testament from Romans through Jude are all written, to some extent or another, on account of the problems of Christians, either rebuking Christians for failures or warning Christians about the dangers that come from false teaching and sin. To this day it does not take long to make a long list of problems we have experienced with “the brethren,” on an individual or “institutional” level. We Christians can always find all sorts of reasons why what “we” think, say, and do sometimes causes problems; “we” can always find difficulties with how “we” operate.

Such critiques clearly have their time and place, as can be seen in the New Testament. Yet we do well to recognize that “the brethren” were never meant to just be a punching bag. Just as the letters of the New Testament from Romans through Jude were written to some extent to deal with the problems of Christians, those same letters were also written to some extent to praise and build up those Christians in what they were doing correctly. While there will always be problems and things “we” are not doing right, we do well to recognize that there is plenty that “we” are doing that is right, and, in fact, reflects the joy, peace, and love which can be found in God in Christ.

The Hebrew author has been quite critical of the Jewish Christians to whom he writes. He is concerned about their spiritual maturity (Hebrews 5:12-6:4); the main argument of the letter presupposes a concern that some would seek to return to the old covenant and no longer persevere in Christ (Hebrews 4:1-9:27). He rebukes them for their inability to recognize God’s discipline and its benefit (Hebrews 12:3-11) as well as their frailness (Hebrews 12:12-16). Yet even here the Hebrew author does not deny the love the Christians have for one another, only insisting that it continue (Hebrews 13:1). He also commends them for their steadfastness in the former days (Hebrews 10:32-36).

The love of the brethren does continue. When Christians find themselves in great need, other Christians are there to assist financially, emotionally, and spiritually. Christians are active in serving other Christians and those in the world around them, be it through volunteering, adoption, hospitality, mentoring, or in other similar ways (Galatians 6:10). Christians remain generous in giving to those in need as well as for the support of those who preach the Gospel in the United States and around the world (1 Corinthians 9:14). Christians young and old yearn to see the Gospel message taken to more people in more places and are willing to support that endeavor any way they can. And Christians still do show hospitality to one another, sharing meals together, opening their homes to each other, and enjoying the conversations and time spent together (1 Peter 4:9).

Are there exceptions to these? Of course. Is everything well? No. But we must remember that we are not alone, that there are other Christians around the world who seek to proclaim the Lord Jesus in their lives (1 Peter 5:9). Christians do seek to apply the life of Jesus to their own lives and appreciate all encouragement, exhortation, and even rebukes given toward that end (2 Timothy 4:1-4). Christians still prove interested in spiritual matters, even among the younger generations. It is imperative that we continue to cultivate these good trends.

There are problems and will always be problems. We cannot avoid those problems nor should we pretend they do not exist. We must call out sin and false teaching (1 Timothy 4:1-4, 2 Timothy 4:1-6); we must warn against conformity to the world (1 John 2:15-17). But it is not all bad and all bleak, and if we maintain such a perspective, we might just make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, we must exhort and rebuke regarding failures, sin, and error, but we must also encourage and appreciate the good, the love, and the faithfulness, and seek to nurture it further. When we do exhort and rebuke, let us do so in love because we want to see our fellow Christians reflecting Christ more accurately so that we no longer have to make such exhortations and rebukes. In all things, let us all continue to love one another and appreciate all endeavors which lead to the glorification of God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Our Common Suffering

Whom withstand stedfast in your faith, knowing that the same sufferings are accomplished in your brethren who are in the world (1 Peter 5:9).

During times of great difficulty– be it physical, emotional, and/or spiritual– it is easy for believers to get the impression that they are alone in what they are experiencing. They may feel that they are alone because it seems that no one else is suffering quite like they are. Others may feel that they are the only ones left who truly stand for God’s purposes and that everyone else has stumbled.

These feelings of isolation are normal and represent part of the temptations that go along with suffering. The Bible is very clear, however, that no matter how we suffer, we are not alone!

Peter demonstrates here in 1 Peter 5:9 that the sufferings the brethren in Asia Minor were experiencing were shared by their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world. Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 10:13 that all the temptations we face are those common to mankind– there is no sin with which we are tempted that has never tempted anyone else before. If we stopped and thought about it– or communicated with fellow believers in other places– we would soon learn that most of the challenges, difficulties, and sources of pain that we experience are quite similar to those experienced by others. We are all in the same boat!

When it comes to feeling like we are the only ones left standing for God’s truth, the example of Elijah in 1 Kings 19 is instructive. After defeating the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, and the message of Jezebel’s wrath, Elijah was distressed and fled. Consider what he says to God:

And he said, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Kings 19:14).

Elijah felt like he was the only one left. Yet consider what God has to say to him:

“Yet will I leave me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him” (1 Kings 19:18).

Elijah might have felt as if he were alone, but God knew that there were seven thousand others who stood for Him and His truth. Just because we are not aware of others who are doing God’s will does not mean that they do not exist. We can be confident that God will always make sure that there is a remnant of His people, and that they are never really alone (Romans 11:5). After all, even if one were the last one standing with God, there is greater power on God’s side than that which is opposed to Him (1 John 4:4)!

Despair, isolation, and feelings of being alone happen quite naturally in times of distress, challenge, and/or suffering. Yet they are lies. We are not alone. There are other Christians out there who are suffering the same things we are. There are others out there striving to serve God. And, regardless of what others may do, if we seek to serve God according to His will, He will provide strength and comfort (cf. Romans 8:31-39). Let us not be deceived into thinking that we suffer alone– let us pray to God for strength and be encouraged by our fellow believers in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry