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

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

Keeping Up Appearances

“But all their works they do to be seen of men: for they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the chief place at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and the salutations in the marketplaces, and to be called of men, ‘Rabbi'” (Matthew 23:5-7).

It is one of the most natural desires of mankind: to be valued and appreciated. Most would rather people have a favorable opinion of them than an unfavorable one. Few are those who revel in being unloved, unappreciated, and completely rejected by others!

This impulse is natural for a reason– we were never meant to be alone. Just as God maintains relational unity– One God in Three Persons, one in will, purpose, essence, substance, and mind– we, having been made in His image, seek after relational unity with God and with others (cf. John 17:20-23, Genesis 1:26-27, Acts 17:27). It is nearly impossible to develop healthy relationships when we show complete disinterest in the ways others look at us. Not a few social customs emerged as ways of living so as to be acceptable to one’s fellow man.

Yet, as with all impulses, the desire to be valued and appreciated can be tragically misdirected. This is Jesus’ concern with the Pharisees as expressed in Matthew 23:5-7. They certainly wanted to be valued and appreciated– and made it their goal and obsession. They received what they wanted. But it did not please God.

It was likely that there were a few Pharisees who were sincere in their approach– they really wanted to serve God through their phylacteries, garments, and wanted to be humble. Sadly, such were hardly the majority. We can be confident that the reason that these charges burned was because they rang true in the hearing of the people. Sure, the Pharisees acted religiously. But far too many did so in order to keep up appearances and to gain favor with the people. We can safely reason that if the Pharisees were offered a chance to receive salvation and eternal benefits but would be despised by their fellow Jews on earth, or to be condemned yet receive the glory and accolades of their fellow Jews on earth, most would take the latter route– because most did, according to Matthew 23, Acts 7, and the testimonies throughout Acts. Jesus’ summons to humility and suffering were too much for them to endure.

When confronted with such a passage, it is quite easy to point fingers at the Pharisees. It is also extremely easy to find opponents, religious or otherwise, and point fingers at them. Yet we must remember that Jesus is speaking to fellow members of God’s covenant people to wake them up and exhort them to repentance. As painful as it might be, it is always best to first point the finger at ourselves before we try to point it at others (cf. Matthew 7:1-4)!

How many works do we do in order to be seen of men? It is less an issue of the types of things that we do and more of an issue of the motivations behind what we do. It was not inherently wrong to have broad phylacteries or long bordered garments. For that matter it is not inherently wrong to be honored by one’s fellow man. It is all about why we do what we do– are we doing it to please others? Are we doing it because we are afraid of what others will think about us if we do not?

There are some obvious applications of this. Not a few give themselves titles or “earn” titles and insist on their use. Jesus condemns this attitude (Matthew 23:8-12). It is one thing to be given the seat of honor; it is quite another to constantly seek it out and love it and cherish it. The world does not lack people who have too high of an estimation of themselves, and who are quite sure that others should also. The world is full of monuments of ambition and glory-seeking; some are physical, some are not; some are magnificent in their glory, and far too many others are tragic in their failure. These all will pass away (1 Peter 1:24-26). These glory-seekers may get their reward on earth, but they are headed for quite the disappointment on the final day!

Nevertheless, this conversation can get personal and painful very quickly. It is one thing to talk about glory-seeking actions like we have; it is quite another to start talking about the appearances we keep up among one another. While no one lives an entirely transparent life, most of us could use a little more transparency and authenticity in the way we present ourselves. We feel like we must “keep it all together” on the outside even though things may be falling apart inside. Yet how willing are we to find some fellow Christians with whom we can discuss our difficulties and confess our sins (James 5:16)? What stops us from “going forward” regarding our difficulties? How many soldiers of Christ have fallen, having rarely or never cried out for help for fear of rejection, finding it easier to say nothing and to keep up the appearance of righteousness?

In Jesus we have the example of the authentic life. He served others, always mindful of His connection with the Father (cf. Matthew 20:28). He humbled Himself greatly (Philippians 2:5-8). He received honor at times but was not acting in order to receive the honor. Yet He also honestly grappled with the sufferings He experienced; He did not hide away from them or act like they were not there, but poured out His anguish before God and His disciples (Matthew 26:37-39). There was nothing to hide.

While propriety does demand that some things ought to remain private among people, we cannot delude ourselves into thinking that anything is hidden before God. We must live transparently before Him and authentically toward others, as Jesus did. We must not live seeking self-glory and honor; we may get it, but we do so at the expense of our relationship with God. We must never do anything just to be seen by our fellow man. That certainly includes any number of public religious acts and “rituals,” but let us not fool ourselves– it includes the very manner of our lives as well. We want to be accepted and appreciated, and yet, in Christ, God is willing to accept and appreciate us more deeply than we can ever imagine, but only if we allow ourselves to be satisfied in Him and Him alone (Romans 8:1-39). Let us not be as the Pharisees; let us be willing to endure the shame and dishonor of humility and discipleship, and serve God in Christ!

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