Unity of the Spirit

Giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).

God accomplished amazing and stupendous things in order to create and cultivate the Church of His Son Jesus Christ. What will we do with it?

In Ephesians 2:11-3:13 Paul had highly stressed the place of the church in God’s divine economy. In the composition of the church is found the testimony of the manifold witness of God according to the eternal plan purposed in Jesus (Ephesians 3:10-11). The church is the temple of God and His household (Ephesians 2:19-22). And so, after Paul established the importance of walking worthily of the calling in Jesus (Ephesians 4:1), he then emphasized the importance of working together as the church to build it up (Ephesians 4:3-16). If we would work together as the church to build it up, we must give diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).

“Giving diligence” is the Greek spoudazontes, meaning to make haste, exert oneself, give diligence (Thayer’s Lexicon). A more verbal form of the same word is found in 2 Timothy 2:15 in the exhortation to be diligent to present ourselves as approved to God, workmen without needing to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. Many have made much of the King James Version’s use of “study” to translate spoudason in 2 Timothy 2:15, although in the 17th century it meant something more like “give diligence” than the modern “bookish” meaning of study. Thus Christians are as much to “study” to keep the unity of the Spirit as they are to “study” to present themselves as approved by handling the word of truth rightly. The same Apostle makes both exhortations; there is no basis on which to consider one as greater or superior to the other. There is no justification to be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit at the expense of the word of truth: unity in the Spirit is grounded in the truth of what God has accomplished in Jesus, and there can be no unity when the truth of the faith is compromised (Romans 16:18-19, 1 Timothy 4:1, 6:3-10). And yet there is also no justification to be diligent to be unashamed workmen who rightly handle the word of truth at the expense of unity in the Spirit: the “word of truth” in Ephesians 2:11-3:13 declares God’s work in reconciling to Himself and to each other all who would trust in Jesus, and Paul will go on to declare the “word of truth” of the inherent unity of the body and the faith in Ephesians 4:4-6, and so any undermining of Christian unity in the Spirit is undermining the word of truth itself!

Christians are to give diligence to “keep” the unity of the Spirit. “To keep” is the Greek terein, meaning to attend to carefully, guard, keep, preserve (Thayer’s Lexicon). Christians are not the architects of unity in the faith; it is not for us to establish it, impose it, or somehow create it. On our own we hated and were hated in turn, living in the lusts of our flesh as children of wrath (Ephesians 2:2, Titus 3:3). It required Jesus’ death on the cross to kill the hostility and to provide the redemption and reconciliation we did not deserve nor could do anything to earn or merit (Romans 5:6-11, Ephesians 2:11-15). When we believe in Jesus, confess that faith in Him, repent of our sins, and are immersed in water in Jesus’ name, we are in a spiritual sense immersed into the one Spirit into the one body (1 Corinthians 12:13). God has established the unity of Christians in Jesus; God has made us all one man in Jesus through His Spirit (cf. Romans 12:3-8); we therefore cannot create or fabricate that unity. Instead, we must guard diligently the unity we already have. Tribalistic divisions, factions, and wars testify to the enduring power of hostility and hatred to this day; as Christians we are always tempted to compromise with the world, to take up the banner or the flag of various causes, peoples, and nations, and conduct ourselves in such a way as to endanger the unity of the Spirit. Our zeal is far too often misdirected, focused on the chastisement of the people of God, often majoring on the minors, rather than a critique of self and an outward push into the world to proclaim the Gospel of the Christ. Unity in the Spirit is not a default state or what we find natural; only through diligent effort will we keep the unity of the Spirit.

The unity of the Spirit is to be kept in the bond of peace. “Bond” is the Greek sundesmo, that which binds together, like a ligament in the human body (as used in Colossians 2:19), or a bundle (Thayer’s Lexicon). As ligaments connect muscles in the human body, so peace is what connects Christians in the unity of the Spirit. That peace is not the mere absence of hostility, but the elimination thereof: Jesus killed the hostility between God and man and man with man on the cross (Ephesians 2:11-18). True unity can only be nourished and sustain where there is true peace. As long as there is hostility and enmity there will be tension and hostility. If we would be diligent to maintain the unity of the Spirit, we must maintain the bond of peace. If we would maintain the bond of peace, we must strive for that which makes for peace.

How do we strive to make for peace? Paul has already listed the characteristics which lead to such peace in Ephesians 4:2: maintaining humility and meekness, manifesting patience, showing tolerance for one another in love. A similar “recipe” is found in Philippians 2:1-4. When we speak of unity we all too often speak of doctrinal uniformity; while agreement on doctrine is crucial to joint participation in the faith, evident from 1 Corinthians 1:11, doctrinal agreement is not sufficient to establish unity in and of itself. We must agree on the truth of God in Christ, but then we must act like it. We must demonstrate humility, recognizing that all of us are redeemed sinners, prone to mistakes, of equal standing and value before God, and to adjust our opinions and ideas about ourselves and others accordingly. We must be meek, maintaining the strength of conviction and faith, but keeping it under control, exercising it judiciously and with love so as to build up. We must be patient with one another: “long suffering” is the literal meaning of Greek makrothumia, and that is precisely what patience demands. Brethren can be insufferable at times; such is true of you and me as well. We are all different people with different backgrounds and ideas: we can consider that difference as a source of conflict, strife, and difficulty, and try to eliminate it, or we can learn to appreciate the differences which exist among us, focusing on how God is glorified when different people come together as one in faith in Jesus, and thus show tolerance for each other despite each other’s quirks, flaws, and challenges.

We have come to understand the power which exists in the unity of a family. It should be no different for the household of God! God has broken down the walls of hostility in Christ so we can all share in the same faith and obtain the same salvation; should we not now strive to keep and guard this precious unity in the Spirit which was obtained at such terrible cost, and embody God’s purposes for His creation before all those who would resist them? May we keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace to the glory of God in Christ, and share in relational unity for eternity!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Left Your First Love

“But I have this against thee, that thou didst leave thy first love. Remember therefore whence thou art fallen, and repent and do the first works; or else I come to thee, and will move thy candlestick out of its place, except thou repent” (Revelation 2:4-5).

Many would have reckoned the church in Ephesus to be sound.

On a Lord’s day while in exile on Patmos John received a vision of the Lord as one like a Son of Man and the Ancient of Days (Revelation 1:9-20). John was commissioned to write what he saw and send it to the seven churches of Asia; before the vision would proceed Jesus, in the Spirit, would communicate specific messages to each of those seven churches (Revelation 2:1-3:22). Ephesus, the main city of Asia, would be the first destination; therefore, Ephesus was addressed first.

Jesus had many good things to say about the church in Ephesus: the Christians there had worked hard. They had maintained patience in general but did not endure evil men; they had put so-called apostles to the test and found them to be false; they hated the works of the Nicolaitans, which Jesus also hated (Revelation 2:2-3, 6). The Christians in Ephesus had manifestly taken Paul’s warning to heart: they were on the lookout for the wolves that would not spare the flock; they stood firm for the truth and resisted all those who taught doctrines contrary to it (cf. Acts 20:29-31). The church in Ephesus was strong for the truth.

But Jesus had something against the church in Ephesus: they left their first love (Revelation 2:4). Jesus summoned them to repentance, to remember where they had fallen, and to do the works they had done before, or else He would come and remove their candlestick/lampstand from its place (Revelation 2:5)!

The Ephesian Christians were battle hardened, but they also proved battle weary. The passion and zeal which had marked their lives when they first heard the Gospel had cooled. They did not abandon the truth; they did not deny the Lord; but the love, the fire, the passion, and the zeal were no longer really there.

And so Jesus called upon them to “backslide,” to change their hearts and minds and to reignite the passion and zeal they once relished. The consequences for not doing so were strong: Jesus would remove their candlestick, their presence before Him.

Jesus went on to write to many other churches regarding situations which most of us would deem far more dire than what transpired in Ephesus: Christians practicing sexual immorality, idolatry, or so wealthy they thought they had need of nothing from the Lord (Revelation 2:8-3:22). And yet, even in the midst of all of those difficulties, it is only the church in Ephesus which is explicitly warned about the removal of their candlestick.

How could that be? It is not as if sexual immorality or idolatry can be justified; God would judge and condemn all who would persist in immorality, and Jesus warned explicitly as much (e.g. Revelation 2:22-23). And yet in those churches some lived faithfully before God; thus, their candlestick would remain. Why would the Ephesians be in such danger? Such is the power, and importance, of love.

God is love (1 John 4:8); His love has motivated His creation of the universe and His disposition toward it. Jesus embodied the love of God for humanity, dying on the cross for our sins (John 3:16, 14:6, 1 John 4:7-11). The foundational command of Christianity is to love one another as God has loved us (John 13:35, 1 John 4:7-21). Thus, it is no hyperbole when Paul said that if he knew all the mysteries and had all knowledge but did not have love, he was nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2).

True sacrificial love is the fuel of any healthy relationship; husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25). The marriage relationship in which love has gone cold is in danger of fraying and being destroyed; the only solution is for each person in the marriage to repent and renew the fires of love. Thus it is within the church: any Christian whose love for the Lord and/or His people has gone cold is in danger of falling away from the Lord and being cut off from His body; the only solution is to repent and renew the fire.

Jesus knew of the faith of the Ephesian Christians; but He could do nothing with them as long as their love remained cold; He could do more with lukewarm Laodicea than He could with loveless Ephesus! We hope and pray they renewed their passion for the Lord’s purposes and remained in good standing in His presence for some time.

While Jesus speaks in the Spirit to seven real and specific churches in Asia, we should not imagine the messages are restricted to those specific seven churches. In many respects the seven churches of Asia are paradigmatic churches; over time many other local congregations will manifest many of the same characteristics.

This is especially true in terms of Ephesus, and it is a danger we do well to consider. It is easy for Christians to make Christianity all about the truth: the acceptance of the truth, adherence to the truth, and chastisement for any variation from the truth. In such an absolutist perspective the only thing that becomes important is where people stand in relation to truth. It is all about obedience to the truth. “Sound churches” hold to a firm doctrinal stance; everyone else is apostate.

Christianity is about Jesus, who is the truth (John 14:6); we must obey the truth of the Gospel (Romans 1:5). We must be on guard against the dangers of false teaching (1 Timothy 4:1). But Christianity, in the end, is about speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:16); the church in Ephesus is our warning sign that a church can make a firm stand for the truth and yet still apostatize because they have abandoned the love of God in Christ.

Truth, therefore, is necessary, but not sufficient in and of itself. It never has been and never will be. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, because He is the embodiment of the God who is love (John 3:16, 14:6, 1 John 4:8). Health in a local congregation can never be defined merely by doctrinal positions; Ephesus would pass that test, but was about to be removed from its place before Jesus! There is more hope for a church with misdirected passion than one who accepts the truth but has no zeal for the Lord’s purposes; it is much easier to channel passion properly than to revive cold hearts.

Thus, even though many would have reckoned the church in Ephesus to be sound, it was on the verge of apostasy. The church in Ephesus had the truth, but they did not have love, and so they were nothing. Faithfulness in the truth only has benefit if it is motivated by deep love and passion for God and His purpose. May we stand firm in the truth of God, zealous for His purposes, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Word of Life

That which was from the beginning, that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we beheld, and our hands handled, concerning the Word of life (and the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare unto you the life, the eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us) (1 John 1:1-2).

This is not your average introduction to a letter. John is also not your average writer.

John began his first letter, like he began the Gospel he wrote of Jesus’ life, with emphasis on Jesus as the Word of God (John 1:1-18, 1 John 1:1-4). In his Gospel John correlates the activity of Jesus as the Word with the creation, writing John 1:1-5 in parallel with Genesis 1:1-5. John wrote that Gospel so that people would believe that Jesus is the Christ, and through their faith in Him might have life in His name (John 20:31).

John writes his first letter to Christians, his “little children,” those whom he loves in the Lord Jesus (1 John 2:1, 5:21). They have already come to believe in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. Yet many false teachers seek to lead Christians astray (cf. 1 John 2:18-27, 4:1-3); John feels compelled to begin his letter by reminding his readers why they have good reason to have confidence in the truth of what he says. John can be trusted because he, along with the other Apostles, have experienced the Word of life: they heard Him, saw Him, touched Him, participated in His work, and now bear witness that He is the Lord, the Son of God, who died but was raised again in power, exactly as the Lord Jesus commissioned them (1 John 1:1-2; cf. Matthew 28:18-20, Luke 24:44-49). As they read what he has to say, the early Christians who received this letter could have every confidence in the truth of its message, since its author had personally experienced Jesus as the Word of life.

Over nineteen hundred years later we also can maintain confidence in what John is saying since he has experienced the Word of life manifest in the Lord Jesus. We do well to make sure that our faith and practice are consistent with Apostolic faith and practice, since the Twelve are the unique witnesses and emissaries of the Lord Jesus, having seen Him in life, death, and in the resurrection, a privilege none since have enjoyed. We have no right to add to what has already been revealed by the Apostles regarding the faith; it cannot be rooted in the actual, physical experience of the Lord Jesus (Jude 1:3).

There is much we can gain by seeing how John presents this testimony and witness. The tendency has existed, especially in the Western world, to put a lot of emphasis on doctrines, teachings, and instructions. The Greeks were enamored with philosophy; it would not take long for many to attempt to reduce Christianity down to a system of precepts, principles, and to put the priority on doctrine and the formulation of intellectual systems of thought. Religions around the world feature books of wisdom handed down from wise men or influential instructors of the past. Many times the examples of those instructors do not live up to what they taught. For so many, religion is akin to philosophy: a bunch of abstractions that may not have much to do with real life, an ideal attempting to come to grips with the real.

This is why John’s emphasis is so important. John does not begin by saying, “we heard Jesus’ instructions.” Instead, he speaks of how he and the other Apostles experienced the Word of life: sure, they heard Him, but they also saw Him, touched Him, and participated in Him (1 John 1:1-3). John does not yet speak of Him as Jesus or Christ; he speaks of Him as the “Word of life.” All of these other religions, philosophies, etc., have focused on a set of written down doctrines and teachings to consider and follow. Christianity is unique in insisting that the message of God was manifest and embodied in Jesus of Nazareth! He did not just say the Word; He was, and is, the Word (John 1:1-18, 1 John 1:1-3)! In Christianity we do not just have many true statements or accurate teachings; we see the teachings lived and practiced by Jesus of Nazareth. No one else–not Abraham, Moses, David, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Buddha, Confucius, or anyone else–has claimed to be the way, the life, the truth, and/or the resurrection (John 11:25, 14:6). Therefore, John is right to make it clear that he did not just hear the correct teachings; he experienced the right teachings. He was not just told how he and others should live; he saw that life lived (John 13:34, 1 John 2:6). Christianity, therefore, is not just a set of abstract principles or doctrines; Christianity is the pursuit of the Life that was in Jesus of Nazareth and given to all who would follow after Him.

It is true that we do not encounter the Lord Jesus as John did, but encounter Him through the written down testimony of the Apostles in the New Testament and through the prophecies of His coming in the Old Testament. If Christianity only involved just another written down story with good ethical principles, it would have no more value than Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or philosophical works. Yet Christians make the radical claim that the Jesus of whom we read in the New Testament is still alive and reigns as Lord to this very day (Ephesians 3:10-11, Hebrews 13:8). Jesus remains the Word of life, and through His message as revealed in Scripture we can have joint participation with the Apostles who proclaimed that message and with Him in God the Father (1 John 1:3-4). We can share in the Word of Life today, and walk today as He walked, and do His commandments, all through the cleansing and strength which He provides, a claim which no other religion or philosophy can make (Philippians 4:13, Ephesians 6:10-18, 1 John 2:3, 6). The Word of life was with the Father, manifested to us, and returned to the Father, and all to provide all who would believe life, even to this day!

We may not be able to experience the Word of life as John did almost two thousand years ago, but we can still share in that life forever. Let us put our trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and take hold of that which is life indeed!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Terror on Every Side

Go not forth into the field, nor walk by the way; for the sword of the enemy, and terror, are on every side (Jeremiah 6:25).

God has given Jeremiah a tall order: to proclaim a warning of imminent danger and doom to a people presently enjoying safety and security. It is not going well.

In order to awaken Judah from its spiritual stupor God, through Jeremiah, warns the people of the army which will come from the north–Babylon–and the devastation and destruction which will come upon them (Jeremiah 6:22-30). As part of that message, Jeremiah assumes the voice of people in the midst of that terrible trial, warning everyone to not go into the field or on the road since the sword of the enemy and terror are on every side (Jeremiah 6:25). Jeremiah is emphasizing the great danger in which the people of Judah will find themselves on that great and terrible day: they will look for safety, as they had while Jeremiah spoke, but will not find it. They will seek refuge and shelter and only find pestilence, the sword, or exile. The illusion of safety would be forever shattered.

People seek after safety, security, and refuge. If people find danger on one side, it is easy to come to the belief that the other side will be less dangerous. But what if we, as Judah, are beset by “terrors on every side”?

The New Testament speaks of the spiritual forces of darkness which are arrayed against us (Ephesians 6:12) and warns us regarding those who teach falsely, having been seduced by deceptive spirits and demonic doctrines (1 Timothy 4:1). When we encounter such doctrines and practices and recognize their danger we are often tempted to run to the other side to seek refuge and safety against those errors. Yet such a viewpoint presumes that we always can establish the truth by contrasting it with its opposite. Yet what if there are just as many seductive spirits and demonic doctrines on the “other side” as on the side on which we have seen the danger? What if the doctrines of demons and seductive spirits are all around us and therefore represent terrors on every side?

The Bible is clear where our true safety and security is found: in Christ and in the faith given once for all in His name (Romans 8:1-39, 2 Corinthians 10:3-6, 2 Timothy 3:15-17, Jude 1:3). Jesus has overcome the forces of darkness through His death and resurrection and guards us through our faith until the final day (Colossians 2:15, 1 Peter 1:3-9).

We should not imagine that Jesus stands on the extreme of one side and opposes the other in terms of many of the doctrinal and practical disputations in Christianity; more often than not the extremes have both gone too far and have fallen prey to the opposite deceitful spirit and demonic doctrine than the one they are opposing. Instead we do well to consider that Jesus and the faith in His name are beset by these “terrors on every side,” false doctrines going to opposing extremes, each taking some aspect of the truth in Christ yet distorting it well beyond anything which Jesus and the Apostles intended. We cannot remain in Christ and His truth by simply reacting to one set of errors; we remain in Christ and His truth when we are rooted in Christ and circumspect about all doctrine, as concerned about our flank as we are about our advance, so to speak (Colossians 2:1-10).

To find dangers on every side is disconcerting, yet it represents the spiritual reality in which we live. The spiritual forces of darkness are pervasive, powerful, deceptive, and very good at leading people away from Jesus and the faith in His name. By our own strength or ability we would never be able to stand; that is why we must always seek to be rooted in Jesus, ever seeking to understand what He has revealed as true and remain rooted in Him, not merely reacting to one extreme by going to another. Let us remain in Christ and obtain the victory over the terrors on every side!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Unity

“Neither for these only do I pray, but for them also that believe on me through their word; that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us: that the world may believe that thou didst send me” (John 17:20-21).

Jesus’ petition for unity among His followers as part of His “High Priestly prayer” has reverberated throughout the generations. Many who confess the name of Christ seek that unity, even though it has proven to be quite the challenge throughout time.

Normally, when people consider what Jesus is saying regarding unity, they immediately think of matters of doctrine. It is true that God desires for believers to be one in doctrine and judgment (1 Corinthians 1:10). This unity must be real and substantive unity, for the standard of the unity is the Father and the Son. As far as we are aware, the Father and Son are not one despite significant disagreements about the means of salvation, the nature of the church and its work, or regarding other such matters of doctrine! Real, significant doctrinal unity must exist for fellow believers to work together and be one as Jesus intends for them.

Yet it is important for us to recognize that the unity under discussion involves far more than doctrine. Jesus, after all, did not say, “that they all may believe the same things, as You, Father, and I believe the same things.” Instead, Jesus said, “that they may be one, even as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You” (John 17:21). Doctrinal unity is certainly included in that, but just because you have a group of people who believe the same things does not mean you have a truly unified group. As those who enjoy happy and successful marriages know, unity involves much more than belief (cf. Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:4-5)!

How, then, are believers to be “one”? We are given the standard: just as the Father and the Son are one (John 17:20-22).

The Father and Son are one in nature and substance, and we must recognize that as fellow human beings, we are all of the same nature and substance (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11). The Father and Son are one in purpose and will (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:18, etc.), and believers ought to have the same purpose and will: to do the will of God and to be conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:28-29, Galatians 2:20).

This unity was only possible because of the godly characteristics of the Son: He was willing to humble Himself to do the will of the Father, becoming a man and dying on a cross (Philippians 2:5-11). In all things He sought the will of the Father and not His own will (cf. Matthew 26:39). The Son understood His role relative to the Father and did all things for the glory of the Father, because the Son loves the Father (John 14:31). And, lo and behold, the same commandments are given for us so that we may be able to work together. We are to humble ourselves and seek to do good for our fellow man (Philippians 2:1-4). We must be willing to subordinate our own desires and intentions in order to work with others. We must know our role within the group, and be satisfied with it (1 Corinthians 12:12-28). We do all these things because we love God, our fellow man, and especially our fellow believers (Romans 13:8-10, 1 John 4:7-21).

Becoming one as the Father and Son are one, therefore, is a trying task indeed! It does mean that we must all accept God’s truth and be one in our belief. Yet it also requires humility, hard work, seeking the best interest of our fellow Christians, and being content with our place in the whole. If we are able to do those things we will have true unity, and the world will be forced to confess that there is something special and different about those Christians, and realize that there is a greater power at work with them.

Let us work diligently to obtain the unity that God desires– not just in teaching, but also in attitude and conduct– so that the church may be built up, and God be glorified (cf. Ephesians 4:15-16)!

Ethan R. Longhenry