Is it possible that in our passion as Southern Baptists to defend the veracity of the Bible we have ignored one of its most powerful teachings?
We battled and struggled to defend sound doctrine and the perfection of Scripture, but perhaps many of us forgot that the Bible we love proclaims the importance of unity and love in the Body of Christ. To desire and seek unity is not evidence of a lack of biblical conviction, but a desire to obey God’s commands.
We must always be vigilant against the false teachers the Bible promises would come in our midst; the wolves who would walk among the sheep with predatory intent. But there is another enemy, perhaps even more powerful, certainly more prevalent, that we must also be on guard against. We must war against the desires of the flesh. Each of us has natural, fleshly, sinful instincts which manifest themselves daily in our lives.
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy drunkenness, orgies, and things like these… (Galatians 5:19-21)
As good Baptists, we (hopefully) do not indulge in sexual immorality, idolatry, drunkenness or orgies, but the other works of the flesh are on full display. We engage in enmity and strife, in jealousy and envy, in fits of anger, rivalries, in dissension, and in division – these are in abundance among Baptists and among bloggers.
But unity is not the easy way, it is war; war against our natural instincts and desires, against the power of the flesh that tends to divide us. It is our nature to contend, to divide, to involve ourselves in strife. But we are called to battle against the power of the flesh and to seek unity in the Body of Christ. It is war, perhaps the toughest war we will ever engage in.
But those who say they love the Word must engage in this battle for unity, because our Savior commanded it. It is pleasing to him.
But it is not easy.
It is a pitched battle which can only be won by the denial of self, by the power of the Cross and the indwelling Holy Spirit. It is easy to be divisive and schismatic. It comes naturally. But to look beyond our personal differences and preferences and to seek to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace – that requires supernatural strength well beyond the power of mere mortals. It is a work of God.
Divisiveness is the easy way, the natural, human way. Unity is the hard way, the biblical way and only those with the courage of biblical conviction can be “body builders”.
The Heart of Jesus – John 17
If you knew you were about to die, wouldn’t you want to say something important, something that those around you could remember? You would say something that made a difference in the lives of those around you.
That is what Jesus did in his prayer the night before he died. After celebrating the Supper with his disciples, and before they left for Gethsemane, Jesus poured out his heart to the Father on behalf of his disciples, and from this prayer we see that which mattered most to our Savior, those burdens that weighted his heart.
The passage begins, in verses 1-5, with Jesus asking to be glorified through the work of redemption he was performing. He spoke of how he had manifested the Father’s name to the redeemed, in verses 6-8. Knowing that life was about to get very hard for his disciples, in verses 9-16 he prays for the Father’s protection and care over them (and us). Then, in verses 17-19, Jesus asks the Father to sanctify Christ’s disciples with the truth of the Word. God’s Word matters. We must always honor its truth.
In verse 12, Jesus prayed for the Father’s protection over the disciples. “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” This verse provides the key for verses 20-23, revealing two foundational truths. First, it is the desire of Christ’s heart that we, his disciples, be one. Second, the unity of believers is meant to reflect the perfect unity of the Godhead.
Jesus picks up on this in verses 20-23, the culmination of this prayer.
“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. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”
Principles of Unity
Let us examine this passage and draw some principles concerning the unity of the Body of Christ from this passage.
1) Unity is only possible within the Body of Christ
He makes it clear in verse 20 that this prayer is not for the Apostles alone, but for all of us who would believe in Christ through the gospel message the Apostles would preach. Unity is a work of the Spirit in the company of the redeemed, and only the redeemed can experience it.
Christians can be kind to those who are unsaved, and we should be. We can be cordial and respectful to those who adhere to false faiths, but we can never be unified with them. True unity is only possible among those who have repented of their sins, trusted Christ and been made alive in him.
2) Unity is the desire of Christ for all within his Body.
This is the flip-side of the first truth. True unity is only possible within the family of faith, but inside that family, it is required. I must seek to maintain unity with every other person who has received the grace I have.
Let’s be brutally honest here. Christ’s grace has extended to some real stinkers! He has saved some people I really don’t like (and quite a few who do not like me). He has redeemed obnoxious, opinionated jerks. God saves broken people and they bring their dysfunction with them into the body, while the process of transformation works itself out.
But our unity is not based on anything human. It is not that God saves white Americans and unites us around the red, white and blue. He does not simple save people like me. Our unity is based on a common experience of grace and the fact that we are indwelled by the same Holy Spirit who is conforming us to be like the same Christ.
We have spiritual unity that is not based on any human factor.
But here is the point. If God saved them, I must seek to maintain the unity of the Spirit with them. None of us can say, “I don’t like that guy” and be satisfied with division. Jesus died for one body. That may never be a reality here on earth, but it is our goal, and we must constantly be seeking that which Christ desires.
3) The Unity of Christians is meant as a reflection of the Unity of the Godhead.
This was stated in verse 12 and is reiterated in verse 21, “…that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you.” The unity of the redeemed is meant as an earthly demonstration of the unity of the Father and the Son.
Remember that the next time you are tempted to engage in divisive behavior. We are called to walk in a unity that manifests the unity of the Father and Son.
4) The Unity of Christians is a key to effective evangelism.
Perhaps, when we discuss why our evangelism is not as effective as it should be, we could look at second half of verse 21. “so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Think about it. The unity of the diverse Body of Christ is meant to be a signal to the world of the fact that Jesus was sent by God. The early church brought rich and poor, slave and free, Jew and Gentile together as one. That unity was clearly supernatural.
The unity of the Body bears witness to the reality of Christ in this world. If that is so, what does our sniping, our criticism, our grudge-holding, our arrogance, our disunity demonstrate? Is it any wonder the world doesn’t take us seriously when we are as divided as we are.
This is reemphasized in verse 23.
“I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”
We can never expect to win the world to Christ while we, the redeemed of Christ, are walking in division. As long as we are biting and devouring one another, our witness will be in effective in this world.
God redeemed a people from the sinful world by the blood of his Son, Jesus, and intended them as an earthly demonstration of the unity of Father and Son which would reveal the reality of Christ’s message. Unity is not an option; it is central to who we are and to our work in this world.