Relational Unity

“I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).

It is perhaps one of the most sublime and mysterious concepts– the idea of the Triune God. The arguments regarding how it was possible for God to be One in Three Persons consumed much of Christianity for the first three hundred years after the death of the Apostles– and again in the past two hundred. If there is one doctrine that people have difficulty understanding, it is this one indeed!

The challenge is evident. From Deuteronomy 6:4 on, YHWH uniquely identified Himself as God– not just any god, not one of many gods, but the One God. YHWH our God YHWH one is the literal concept behind Deuteronomy 6:4b. The idea of the unity of God is essential to Judaism, Islam, and indeed also to Christianity.

But then we have Jesus making these divine declarations. John speaks of Him as the Word, not just with God, but being God (John 1:1). Jesus will declare Himself the I AM in John 8:58. He declares His unity with the Father in John 10:30 and fully in John 17:20-23. Both Paul and the Hebrew author declare that Jesus represents the fullness of the Godhead in bodily form, the exact imprint of the divine nature (Colossians 2:9, Hebrews 1:3). Peter will also include the Holy Spirit in such a framework (1 Peter 1:2, 2:21). Beyond all this, both Paul and Jude strongly intimate that when the Old Testament speaks of YHWH acting regarding His people in the wilderness, that Christ the Son is involved (1 Corinthians 10:1-9, Jude 1:5). So how can God be One yet Three?

All kinds of answers have been suggested. Some answers try to argue that Jesus really was not God like the Father was God. Other answers try to argue that God really is one person, and just manifests Himself in three modes or forms. Yet when we look at the textual evidence, these answers do not work. All three Persons are present at Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:15-17). Jesus declares that there are two witnesses, Himself and the Father (John 8:17-18). There are too many Scriptures confessing Jesus’ full deity and His unique Personhood.

The problem with these answers is that they assume that when God is One, that unity must be in personhood. But neither Deuteronomy 6:4 nor any other passage so limits the understanding of God’s unity. Instead, we can suggest as a feasible answer that the unity of God is not based in personhood but in other factors– they are unified in substance, essence, and will. In short, God is One in relational unity.

God Himself testifies to this within His creation (cf. Romans 1:19-20). Humans are given a glimpse of this idea of relational unity in marriage. From the beginning God has intended for a man and woman to come together and become one (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:4-6). Paul will later attribute the same unity as existing between Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:31-32). How are people one in marriage? They are of the same substance and essence, for one. And the marriage that lives up to God’s ideal is one where each mutually submits to one another, respecting their roles, but becoming as one in terms of purpose, intention, direction, and whatnot (cf. Ephesians 5:21-33). The goal is to see that while they do remain two people, for all intents and purposes, they are one. They are tied together by their reciprocal, mutual love.

So it would be within the Godhead. We must never emphasize the distinctiveness of the Persons of the Godhead to the neglect of their unity. Think about it for a moment– the Three Persons of the Godhead are so unified in will, intention, and purpose, that we can speak of God entirely in terms of a unity. We speak of God Himself doing, acting, working, even though it is really the Three in One, and that is possible only because of the intense relational unity amongst the Three. This is how God is love (1 John 4:8)– for God to be love as one person would make God the ultimate narcissist. Instead, God maintains sacrificial love within Himself amongst the Three, and the blessing bestowed upon us is that He wants us to join in that love.

And that is why understanding God as the Triune, Three in One and One in Three, is so essential. It is not merely some abstract, academic concept that is irrelevant to life. Quite the contrary– God’s nature informs God’s work and purpose for mankind. And John 17:20-23 describes this perfectly.

As the Father is in the Son (and in the Spirit), and the Son is in the Father (and in the Spirit), so Jesus prays for all believers to be one with the Father and the Son as the Father and the Son are one, and likewise to be one with one another (John 17:20-23). Our existence, redemption, and hope of ultimate glory, therefore, are inextricably bound up in God’s own relational unity amongst the Three.

Why did God create all things and make us in His image? Love’s greatest joy is to share in love, and so the Godhead wished to share the love within Himself with all of us (cf. 1 John 4:8).

Why did God prove so willing to redeem us even though we did not deserve it? It is love’s essence to suffer loss for the advantage of the beloved; as the Son does for the Father, so the Father, Son, and Spirit do for all of us (Hebrews 5:7-8, Romans 5:6-11).

What is God’s ultimate goal? To extend the association, love, and relational unity that exists within Himself with His creation, and to maintain that unity for all eternity in glory (cf. Romans 8:17-24, Revelation 21-22).

We are called to seek after God and that relational unity with Him as it exists within Himself (Acts 17:26-27, John 17:20-23). In so doing, we must develop that unity with one another if we are really going to reflect the image of the Son (Romans 8:29, 1 John 1:4-7). The path is clear: as the Father and Son are one, so must we be one with each other, and that requires not just some level of mutual understanding of truth but also willingness to suffer loss for one another, humbling ourselves so as to seek each others’ advantage, just as the Son did for the Father and for us (Philippians 2:1-8).

God is love; God manifests love within Himself; that love overflows toward the creation; we have the opportunity to share in the blessing of a relationship with God so that we can become conformed to the image of the Son so as to return to the blessed state of full, unbroken association with God. How wonderful! How praiseworthy! Let us always praise and thank God for our opportunity to maintain association with Him and to enjoy that association for all eternity!

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