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

I Am in Their Midst

“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).

For generations this verse has been a great comfort to many believers, for it provides confirmation that as they come together, the Lord is in their midst. Sadly, the verse sometimes gets abused and misused, especially when it is taken out of its context and turned into a proof-text. Nevertheless, in context, Jesus’ statement is a poignant reminder about what much of Christianity is all about and the challenge we face in obtaining godliness.

It is not as if God is not present if there are not at least two believers together, for in God we live, move, and have our being, as Paul affirms in Acts 17:27-28. While this message certainly applies to the assembly of believers, and even small groups of believers, we should not assume that somehow the Lord is only in our midst when together. Yes, the church as a whole is the Temple of the Holy Spirit, with Christ as its Head (1 Corinthians 3:9, 16-17, Ephesians 5:22-32); yet this remains true when the church is dispersed and its individual members strive to serve the Lord in their lives as much as when they come together to encourage one another (1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Hebrews 10:24-25).

In order to appreciate Jesus’ emphasis we must turn to the context of this verse. In Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus has made a powerful case for Christians to be reconciled to one another when transgression has separated them. He then confirms the authority that He is granting to the Apostles as a group in Matthew 18:18– what they bind and loose on earth will have been bound and loosed in Heaven. And then, in Matthew 18:19, Jesus declares that when believers pray in accord and agreement, God grants their request.

The substance of these verses is not as disparate as it might seem. All of the issues surround one of the greatest issues in Christianity– the imperative of unity among believers.

This unity certainly includes doctrinal unity but goes far beyond it. In order to be one and to work together, believers must be on the same page about what God has taught and what God wants them to do (1 Corinthians 1:10). Yet, as anyone who has ever worked closely with others in a relationship knows well, just because there is agreement on what is true and what must be done does not necessitate that there will be unity. Unity is something for which believers must work. Unity demands reconciliation when transgressions take place (Matthew 18:15-17). Unity demands agreement on what is true and right so as to put the right into effect (Matthew 18:18).

And, ultimately, God wants to bless Christians in unity, for when Christians are truly unified– in spirit and work as much as belief– they reflect and honor the relational unity present within God. The Scriptures reveal that God is one (Deuteronomy 6:4), yet that there are three Persons in the Godhead– God the Father (John 8:17-18), God the Son (John 1:1, 14), and God the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). God is in three Persons, but God is one, because God is one in essence, nature, substance, will, and purpose. The unity of God is relational unity, and the Lord Jesus wants this relational unity for His followers, as He says in John 17:20-23:

“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. And the glory which thou hast given me I have given unto them; that they may be one, even as we are one; I in them, and thou in me, that they may be perfected into one; that the world may know that thou didst send me, and lovedst them, even as thou lovedst me.”

God wants believers to be relationally unified, not only with each other, but also with Him. This is why God is so willing to grant the petitions of believers who seek the same advancement of His purposes (Matthew 18:19; yet cf. James 4:3). And this, in a profound way, is how Jesus is in the midst of two or three gathered in His name.

We should not imagine that Jesus is “in the midst of” two or three gathered together in His name in pretense only, smoldering with hostility toward one another. To be gathered together in His name demands that we are truly gathered together– that we confess Him as Lord, seek to do what He says to do, and to do so as one people, one body. The Lord is in our midst as our Head when we come together and work together as His one Body (Ephesians 4:4-6). In short, when we as believers work together as one, we also are one with God, as Jesus intended from the beginning.

Jesus is in our midst when we come together in His name and we act like it– even though we might come from different backgrounds, ethnicities, classes, etc., we ought to come together as one people in the Lord, being one as He and the Father and the Spirit are one, relationally unified with each other and therefore with God also. This takes a lot of effort– humility and reconciliation are demanded, and the spirit of Philippians 2:1-4 must prevail among us. Let us therefore seek to be one as God is one, in belief, doctrine, will, purpose, and thus practice, be one with God, and honor the Lord Jesus Christ in our midst!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Relating the Father

No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him (John 1:18).

In both the Gospel and the first letter that bear his name, John affirms that no man has ever seen God (John 1:18, 1 John 4:12, 20). This seems to be a most baffling statement considering everything else that John is trying to teach, and, for that matter, what has been revealed in the Old Testament. How can John say that no one has ever seen God after saying that the Word was God and the Word became flesh (John 1:1, 14)? Didn’t Jacob wrestle with God (Genesis 32:28-30)? Didn’t Moses see God’s back (Exodus 33:18-23)? This is a conundrum indeed!

We should not believe that John is terribly inconsistent and ignorant of the Old Testament. He understands what he has written earlier in the Gospel, and he knows what is revealed in Genesis and Exodus.

Instead, John is trying to get us to understand a profound truth. As Jesus says, “God is spirit” (John 4:24). In that form, as He truly is, no man has seen Him nor can see Him. Humans have only seen manifestations of God– His glory, His power, and/or His messengers, the angels. Jacob most likely wrestled with an angel. Moses, no doubt, saw God’s glory. Jesus the Word is truly God in the flesh, but no man can see the spirit in Him.

But if no man has ever seen God, how can we know about God? This is the focus of John’s statement in John 1:18– even though we have not seen God, we can know all about God, because we can know about Jesus the Word.

John says that the Son, Jesus, has “declared” God. The word translated “declared” involves the idea of relating or telling a story (cf. Acts 10:8, 15:14, 21:19). According to John, therefore, the very nature and essence of God is related to us through Jesus.

But how can this be so? Jesus explains it for us in John 14:6-11. He boldly declares that if you have seen Him, you have seen the Father (John 14:9). The Father is “in” Jesus, and the words Jesus speaks and the deeds Jesus does are from the Father (John 14:10-11).

As Paul will say, Jesus is the “image of the invisible God,” in whom “dwelleth all the fulness of Godhead bodily” (Colossians 1:15, 2:9). If we want to understand what God is like, all we need to do is consider Jesus. As God is love, so Jesus loved (1 John 4:8, John 13:1). As God is just, so Jesus will be the judge (Matthew 25:31-46, Romans 2:5-10). As God is the Creator, so through Jesus were all things created (Genesis 1:1, John 1:1-3, Colossians 1:15-17).

A lot of people have a very negative picture of God the Father. They imagine Him as a cantankerous old man with a long white beard who sits in Heaven all day trying to figure out new and inventive ways of smiting people and condemning them. Yet many of these people have a much more favorable view of Jesus, picturing Him as the loving Savior of the world, the Good Shepherd laying down His life for the sheep.

We haven’t seen God. Nevertheless, it should be clear that God is not a cantankerous old man, but instead a loving Father who wants to bless His children (cf. Romans 8:1-39). We know this because we can see Jesus through what is revealed of Him in the New Testament, and when we have seen Jesus, we have seen the Father. We know of God because Jesus has made Him known. Let us praise God for His great love and care, and seek to reflect His attributes in our own lives (cf. 1 John 2:3-6)!

Ethan R. Longhenry