Some thoughts on unity

Unity with other Christians is a big deal. We all know Jesus prayed for it in John 17. We also know that Christian unity is even better than oil being poured over Aaron’s head. It’s even better than oil being poured on Aaron’s head, beard, and clothes. I know that sounds a bit odd to us, but we find this example in Psalm 133.

How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robe. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore. [1]

The bottom line is that Christian unity is really good. God really likes it! I am one of three boys. I think as we grew up, we fell out a lot! I now have four daughters, who actually get along really well. It is a blessing! It’s not always perfect by any means, those moments of falling out are always tricky. But when my daughters are united together in love and friendship, it delights my fathers’ heart. Is unity in the Church a big deal? Well, it seemed to be for Jesus. But we live in a world were unity isn’t actually that necessary. We can split, divide, separate into our own homes We don’t need each other, most of us. In the Christian world it is easy to start a YouTube channel tearing apart others. It’s incredibly easy to leave the Church and join another one. It’s easy to tear apart leaders and highlight weaknesses. Gossip, slander, unkindness, they are all very easy. But unity is not easy. There is a cost to it. But we also know that unity doesn’t come at any cost. Some people, in the desire for unity, ditch all common sense. I believe what we need is a unity built upon truth. Unity based upon a common understanding of the Gospel. This is certainly the basis of unity that Paul has in mind in the book of Galatians. As Paul reminds us elsewhere, it’s when we as Christians are striving side by side, in unity with one another, together for the Gospel, then that will be a clear sign to the world of the realities of heaven and hell.

Galatians 3:10-14

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law

Galatians 3-4 is a section in which Paul is tracing the story of Israel’s history from Abraham to Jesus.[2] But within Galatians 3:10-14 the death of Jesus is fundamentally and foundationally important to what Paul is saying.[3] It is equally important to remember that Paul is also discussing concerns about human sin,[4] and that the law functioned as a paidagogos, or guardian until the fulness of Jesus is known.[5] We see in Galatians 3:23-24 the way in which the law operated “for a time”.[6] This is important because Galatians 3:12 begins to talk about “faith” in the Messiah, and so before the Messiah came, faith in the Messiah was not possible.[7] The main thrust of what Paul is saying to us in these verses is that the Old Testament clearly teaches that anyone who does not obey and keep fully the entire Torah, which is every human being, is under God’s curse.[8] But then, Paul reminds us that Jesus came and acted decisively in the situation. Jesus is the ultimate gamechanger, who changed the situation in which we found ourselves and brought us forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption. This is how Paul puts it:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”
– Galatians 3:13

Of course, the thought of Christ being cursed by God was problematic for many Jewish people. They knew the Old Testament scriptures; they knew that anyone crucified as Jesus was became “cursed” according to Deuteronomy 21:23. This Christ that Paul proclaimed was problematic indeed. How could putting your faith in a man cursed by God help us in our plight? John Stott puts Paul’s reasoning in Galatians 10:13-14 superbly when he says:

“The fact that Jesus died hanging on a tree remained for Jews an insurmountable obstacle to faith, until they saw that the curse He bore was for them. He did not die for His own sins; He became a curse ‘for us’”.[9]
– John Stott.

But it is important to remember the flow of Paul’s argument in Galatians 2 and 3. Paul is building an argument that “works of the law” are not a basis for salvation. We see that at the start of Galatians 3:10. But why is Paul arguing this throughout Chapter 3? Well, Paul is explaining why he needed to publicly rebuke Peter. We know in Galatians 2:11 that when Peter (Cephas) came to Antioch, Paul publicly opposed him, because his actions were suggesting that a person could be justified by those “works of the law” rather than through faith alone in Jesus. Critically, we see that Paul is saying that Peter’s actions in not eating with Gentiles is actually not in keeping with the penal substitutionary atonement of Jesus. Rather, Paul argues that the penal substitutionary death of Christ should have a practical and pastoral outworking in this situation. Namely, that Jews and Gentiles should eat together. The critical point to make is that the penal substitutionary death created a fundamental change in the way Jews and Gentiles could and should relate. The death of Jesus brought about a radical horizontal reconciliation that Paul fought vehemently to defend. For Paul, one of the most important practical and pastoral aspects of the Gospel is that of unity amongst believers.

No doubt you are aware of Jesus’ famous prayer in John 17 for his followers to be one. But also Jesus tells us that there is a missional and evangelistic aspect of Church unity.

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” – John 17:20-21

Certainly, Paul is concerned about this in the Churches of Galatia. He is deeply concerned that unity is front and central and important. What would the unbeliever think if Jews and Gentiles don’t eat together? What would new converts think if Jewish Christians would not eat with them? What would Jews think of themselves and the Gospel if they would not eat with Gentiles? Paul says that this hits at the very heart of the Gospel. Jesus became accursed on the cross so that this sort of thing would not happen.

            I remember being a teenager and playing football (soccer). I think I probably thought I was the next Alan Shearer. If you have no idea who Alan Shearer is, that’s fine. He was a big deal when I was 15. But, when I played football, every time I got the ball, no matter where I was on the pitch, I’d try and score. That might mean dribbling past people, it might mean making outlandish shots. Unfortunately, my vision far outstretched my ability, and I often missed or lost the ball. What that meant is that most of the time, people didn’t want to play with me. I was not a team player! One of the core things Paul gets us to think about in Galatians 2 and 3 is the nature of Jesus death. His penal substitutionary death for us is meant to lead to a tangible level of unity in the Church. It’s not all about me, my desires, wants, feelings, and preferences. It’s about the kingdom, striving side by side together for the Gospel. One of the most fundamental practical aspects of the Gospel is Gospel unity.

Now, an important thing to note is that this is not unity at any cost. Actually, when Peter stood condemned and was acting contrary to the Gospel and Church unity, Paul confronted him about it. What we find, though, is Paul appeals to the Gospel as a source of unity. Peter was “not acting in line with the truth of the Gospel”[10] and so Paul rebukes and appeals to the Gospel in order to foster a greater unity between the early Jewish and Gentile believers. I think there are a few things that this incident between Paul and Peter in Antioch may help us with:

  1. The unity of believers is really important. We see this in Paul’s letter to Galatia, and his retelling of the Antioch incident. Unity between Jew and Gentile in both Galatia and Antioch is critical to Paul’s understanding of the practical outworking of the Gospel.
  2. There is a place for gently rebuking those who are, even unintentionally, are fostering disunity. In this passage we find Paul rebukes Peter, but that does not signify the end of the relationship. Peter still goes on to speak incredibly highly of Paul in his own letters.
  3. One person can lead many people into practices that foster disunity in the Church. We see that with the situation in Peter. Some people from James come, then Peter is led astray, then other Jews. Then, even Barnabas is led astray. Surely, they thought, this was no big deal. Perhaps they were succumbing to peer pressure. Perhaps they genuinely thought they were being obedient to the Torah. Perhaps deep seated race issues were at play. Whatever was happening, we see a ripple effect in the Church of growing disunity.
  4. One person can so desire unity in the Church that they can be a catalyst for greater cohesion, love, grace, and Gospel centred togetherness in the local Church.

This overarching concept can be summed up in Paul’s words in the letter to Ephesus when he says “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.”[11] The concept here is just the same. Through the death of Jesus unity can occur. Unity between Jew and Gentile, yes. But also unity between man and woman, young and old, Egyptian and Ukrainian. The Gospel of Jesus breaks down the dividing walls of hostility. Then, into that, we are called each of us, to be unity makers not unity breakers.

            But, it is worth thinking about how that might look. Certainly, the image of unity entailing never speaking up about Gospel issues doesn’t line up with what Paul shows us in Galatians 2. But, at the same time, nor does it advocate a critical spirit. One gets the impression that Paul isn’t doing this all day every day! It’s only when the Gospel is at stake. I think it may mean for some of us, speaking with an elder or Church Leader if there is something majorly wrong in our Church, Network or Denomination. There is a place for those 1:1 conversations. I also think when a Church is consistently either not preaching the Gospel fully, or actively teaching against Gospel principles, then it may well be that separation needs to occur. That is never easy, and I think it should always be a last resort. But, I also think, for others it may need to be asked whether your grievance with a Church, brother, sister or friend is really based around an imposition or distortion of the Gospel, or whether you should instead die to yourself in order to increase unity and grace in the Church. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 6, “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?”[12] The shocking claim Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 6 is it is better to suffer loss, be wronged, be cheated, be hard done to for the sake of the unity of the Gospel, than it is to win an argument and be vindicated by men. This is a challenging tightrope walk, with no easy answers. Each of us must ask ourselves, if we are facing these issues, does the Bible teach that it is wisest to challenge Gospel issues for the sake of unity, or be willing to suffer for the sake of unity. If this is a live issue for you, I thoroughly recommend speaking with the pastor of your Church in more detail.

            This is a hard concept for many of us in the west to live by. But Paul’s main argument in 1 Corinthians 6:1-11 is an appeal for unity. The Christians in Corinth are taking each other to court. Something happens, and rather than Church unity taking priority, the individual people desire their own vindication more than the building up of the Church. Paul is particularly concerned about how this looks to outsiders. Because of this lack of unity the reputation of the Gospel is at stake. Now, I imagine there are relatively few of us actively taking other Christians to court over trivial matters. Of course, there are some issues where it is absolutely necessary for Christians to pursue legal action, but we are not talking about those big, legal problems. In Corinth we get the idea it is a regular problem over slight problems. But, perhaps in our society, instead of taking people to court, we gossip, or slander, or harbour hate and animosity towards someone. Perhaps we feel the compulsion to make sure everyone know who is in the right and who is in the wrong in a given situation.

            I remember the first time I ever preached on Christian unity in a Church. I preached from John 17 with passion and energy about how Christian unity is a sign to the world, a message to the world, about who Jesus is and the power of the Gospel. I thought the sermon went well. After the service I was in the foyer of the Church waiting for a family to come and chat with me about a funeral. As this was happening, many members of the Church were gathering in the next room for coffee. Unbeknown to me, one of the people stood up and asked for quiet. She then went on to say that she had started going to yoga classes and wondered if anyone would like to come or whether they should host them in the Church hall. Immediately, another lady stood up and started to shout, “yoga is of the devil, it’s really dangerous, don’t go.” Another person then joined in and said, “my daughter is a yoga teacher, and its done wonders for her.” Then a fourth voice joined in and began to detail all the problems with yoga and how it is a form of idolatry. Just as all of this was happening, voices were getting louder, and people were becoming more animated, the family I was waiting for arrived! It was not a great demonstration of Christian unity. Now, I’m not trying to sway your opinion on yoga. I’m not sure it’s a great endeavour for a Christian. But that’s by the by. I am trying to encourage you to prioritise unity in the local Church. Unity built around truth and built around the Gospel.

Application Questions

  1. Is unity important to you? Should it be?
  2. Can you identify areas in your life where you could seek after unity in the Church in a deeper way?
  3. Why does the penal substitutionary death of Jesus promote unity in the local Church?
  4. In your mind, what are the limits and extents of Gospel unity.

A Prayer

Gracious Father, I want to be one with my brother and sister, just as you are one with your son, Jesus. Would you do a work in my heart to make me seek after unity, and would you help me to overcome any divisive tendencies in my life. Lord, would you help me to see the link between the death of Jesus and the unity of the local Church. Would you help me to be a part of that, and in so doing would your kingdom come and your will be done. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


[1] The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), Ps 133:1–3.

[2] N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Vol. 4. Christian Origins and the Question of God  (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013),p. 862. Wright also makes this claim in relation to the way that the law is a “παιδαγωγὸς” in Gal 3:24 and how that fits into Paul’s historical narrative in Galatians 3-4. See: Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. 508.

[3] J. R. W. Stott, The Message of Galatians: Only One Way, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1986), pp. 78–82. T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), pp. 34–35. Also, J. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1986), pp. 344-346.

[4] R. Y. K. Fung The Epistle to the Galatians: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1988), p. 146. It is also important to remember the core emphasis within Galatians of Jew-Gentile relations. See: S. Moyise, The Old Testament in the New: An Introduction (London: Continuum, 2001), p. 87.

[5] B. Witherington III, Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), p. 235. See also: R. N. Longenecker, Galatians: Word Biblical Commentary 41 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990), p. 150.

[6] J. Piper, The Future of Justification: A response to N. T. Wright (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2008), p. 195.

[7] Piper, The Future of Justification, p. 195.

[8] R. Alan Cole, Galatians: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 9, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1989), p. 139.

[9] Stott, The Message of Galatians, p. 81.

 

[10] Gal 2:14, NIV

[11] Eph 2:14, ESV.

[12] 1 Cor 6:7, NIV

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