And he gave apostles and prophets and evangelists and pastors and teachers for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ, until we all have attained unto the oneness of the faith and the full knowledge of the Son of God, unto a mature man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ… Ephesians 4:11-14 (JHL)
I am writing this on the evening of 9/11, the 18th anniversary of the attacks by Al Qaeda on the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon, and what would have been an attack on the White House if not for the brave passengers onboard Flight 93. As I think back to that time, as I consider the days, months, and years leading up to that fateful day, I remember a country that was divided and fractured in various ways, whether by politics, faith practice, socio-economic status, etc.
In the aftermath of that fateful day, that disunity disappeared and unity among the American people replaced it. None of those things that divided us no longer mattered. The only thing that mattered was being an American. That cowardly attack on this country, designed to divide us and cripple us, had actually served to unite us as a people in such a way that probably had not been seen since World War II.
But unfortunately, that unity has now all but disappeared. Once again, this country is divided in many ways. But for a brief moment, this country was united because we were all Americans and that’s what mattered.
In the same way, the people of God are a divided people and have been for a very long time. Oh, I’m not talking about individual congregations where unity may be more commonplace, but not always. No, I’m talking about the people of God across a local community or region being a divided people.
Just as a fateful event was able to bring together a divided country at least for a short time, Christ and the Spirit of God are “events” that should unite the people of God across the centuries.
Did you see what Paul wrote to the believers in the city of Ephesus? He made a direct connection between their unity, the “oneness of the faith,” and being mature in the faith. And the level of our unity beyond individual congregations and our knowledge of Christ are the two main factors that demonstrate our level of maturity as followers of Christ.
Paul even says that this is measured against the stature of the fullness of Christ. In other words, how much we know Christ is actually revealed by the level of our unity as the people of God, not just as individual congregations. If the level of unity beyond individual congregations is non-existent, as demonstrated by the lack of any tangible evidence otherwise, then we are demonstrating that we don’t know Christ very well.
But unity is possible because of the presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit in and among the people of God. Just as being an American was the only thing that mattered in the days after 9/11, the only thing that matters is the presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit both. It is in and through them that unity is possible, but we as followers must be intentional in growing that unity so that maturity follows and we, thereby, become closer to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.
We must get out of our congregational “bubbles” and start thinking holistically. We must stop thinking of only the specific congregation to which we belong and begin to think as the people of God in a specific community and/or region. To do anything less is to demonstrate our lack of maturity.
What is a defining characteristic of a mature person? How egocentric is the person. A young child typically can have trouble sharing his/her toys because the toys are his/hers. “Mine!” they often scream as they take a toy away from another child. They are egocentric and therefore deemed immature. A mature person takes the other person into account when deciding on actions and words and behaviors. They are other-focused.
When followers of Christ are only focused on their specific individual congregation to which they belong, they are egocentric. They are only thinking about their own group, and not the other congregations. And they are definitely not thinking about the Kingdom of God or as the people of God. In other words, they are being immature.
The mature believer seeks ways to unite individual congregations in a local community and/or region with a view toward the Kingdom of God because s/he realizes that the Kingdom of God isn’t their individual congregation; it is much much larger than that. The mature believer only has the Kingdom of God and being the people of God in mind, not his/her individual congregation.
And it is when our focus is solely on the Kingdom of God and being the people of God that we, as the people of God, will truly become united. And that unity will destroy those things that divide us and will unite us based on the only thing that matters: the presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit.
It’s way past time for us to grow up.
“I beseech you, brothers, through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all say the same thing and that there should no longer be divisions among you, but that you should be perfected in the same mind and the same judgment.” – 1 Corinthians 1:10
A common strategy in military history is that of “divide and conquer.” Many smaller forces have used this strategy successfully against a larger and superior enemy. It is successful because, having divided the larger force, an inferior force can now fight against a force similar in size and power, giving it a better chance of victory.
This strategy has been a “go-to” strategy for the enemy of God and His people – Satan. Satan began to utilize this strategy very soon after the establishment of the Church. Very early in church history it is seen how divisions had become very common. The church in the city of Corinth is a prime example from the New Testament, though not the only one.
This church located at Corinth were made up of many smaller groups of believers, what is known as “house churches.” There were multiple reasons that caused these divisions. Some of those reasons were the following of different teachers, socio-economic, and theological stances, among others, but the result of each reason was the same; the people of God in the city of Corinth were fractured and divided, when what they should have been was united.
When there are divisions present among the people of God in a city, perfection will not occur. It is impossible, for one of the signs of perfection, or maturity, of believers is the level of unity present with other believers in a certain area and region, working together as the body of Christ in order to impact the kingdom of God in both quantity and quality.
Unfortunately, it cannot be said that the problem of disunity ended with the close of the New Testament. Divisions among God’s people are just as common today as in the New Testament. And because that is the case, the enemy is winning the battle for the hearts and souls and minds of people.
Want to know why the church has become irrelevant and often impotent in this country? It’s because, due to these divisions, the church has become just like the rest of the world. The world divides people, because the world is the domain of the enemy. How can a group of people claim to have something different to offer people than the rest of the world when in practice they are no different than the rest of the world? And, hence, the church of God has become irrelevant and impotent in this world.
If we want to see that reality change, the divisions that are present among the people of God in a city/region must be eliminated. Until that happens, nothing will change. Each and every congregation present in a local community must come together, setting aside those things that has divided them, and being of one mind and one judgment, that being of Christ alone, and work together to build the kingdom of God.
Today, Good Friday, is the day we formally remember the crucifixion of Jesus. So, let me ask this question;did Satan want to kill Jesus? Was it Satan’s plan to have Jesus die?
This has often been portrayed as a battle of good vs. evil with evil seeming to be victorious on Friday only to experience defeat on Sunday morning.
Here’s the problem: I don’t believe Satan wanted Jesus to die. I believe he wanted to do everything he could to somehow keep Jesus from that cross.
Why do I believe this?
There are three reasons.
First, Scripture reveals that it was God’s plan to have Jesus die. You read passages like Isaiah 53 and John 3:14-16 and cannot but see that it was God’s plan to have Jesus die.
Second, Satan knows Scripture. He must in order to be able to twist it so finely. Therefore, he would be quite familiar with passages like Isaiah 53 and others that prophetically reveal God’s plan.
And third. The last thing Satan wants to see happen is God’s plan to come to fruition. So, he’ll do anything he can to derail it. That’s why, during his tempting of Jesus, he tried to get Jesus to circumvent the cross to get to the glory on the other side without the shame of the cross. That’s why when we read in John 13 about Satan entering Judas, it wasn’t to have Jesus killed by Judas, but rather as an attempt to force Jesus to become a political messiah in the mold of what the people envisioned. This is why Judas was overcome with grief and threw the money back at the priest – because his plan resulted in Jesus being killed, not resisting.
So, what does this all mean for us? God’s plan can never be thwarted in the long run. It may seem like it is, but it’s not. And that’s something that should embolden us who are believers.
May we remember each day his sacrifice for us and also each day celebrate the resurrection.
What do Christians typically do to demonstrate their faith to the community where they live? And does it work?
It has been my experience what Christians and congregations do is doing good things in a community. They help the schools; they help people in need; they help with a variety of issues found in a community. And while that is a good thing and should be done by people of faith, does doing these things tell people in the community that there must be something different about these people because they are doing these things?
In other words, does it set apart Christians as different from others in the community?
The short answer is, “No.” Why?
It doesn’t set apart Christians or distinguish them as people of faith because there are so many others in the community, groups and individuals, who have no faith basis whatsoever, that are involved in doing good works within the community. There are many people with no faith basis who get involved with helping others in their community. They do this because they have been taught to do good to others.
If there are so many with no faith basis doing the same types of things that Christians are doing in an attempt to distinguish themselves as different from others, then when Christians are doing these things, people will not recognize it as a result of faith in Christ. That is just the reality of the matter. It’s not that Christians should stop doing these things, but there must be something else done to distinguish Christians from others.
What is it?
I believe 1 Corinthians 14:1 & 3 has the answer. Paul writes, “Pursue love and be zealous for spiritual matters, but so that you may prophesy all the more…the one prophesying to people speaks edification and comfort and encouragement.”
Let me first speak to how I have translated verse 1 because there is a difference. Most translations read, “spiritual gifts,” but the word used by Paul is not the word for gifts, but for spiritual things or matters. Certainly spiritual gifts are included in those things, but there is so much more than just them. Paul wants them to be zealous for spiritual matters, to be well-versed in the spiritual realm. And that means being well-versed with what is happening in the spiritual realm and having an insight as to what God is doing. And followers of Jesus, because of having received the Spirit of God becoming adopted sons and daughters of God, have a connection to the spiritual realm.
The prophesying Paul speaks of here is primarily forth-telling, not fore-telling. Paul wants the saints of God to be so immersed in the spiritual that they are able to speak into other people what they are hearing and seeing in the spiritual. This prophesying speaks edification, comfort, and encouragement into the people’s lives through taking what is being received from the spiritual realm through the Holy Spirit and giving it to the person for whom it is meant.
So, how will this set Christians apart? Imagine receiving something from the spiritual realm through the Holy Spirit, because you are sensitive to that realm because you are zealous for spiritual matters, and then speaking it into a person’s life. That is not the norm. That is different. That sets the person doing it apart from others.
Here’s the problem. It takes time and involvement to do this. It takes cultivating a sensitivity that only comes through a continuous zealousness for spiritual matters and things. It takes going deeper and deeper into the spiritual realm and understanding to a deeper level of what God is saying and doing and then speaking that to the person or persons for whom it is meant with the goal of drawing that person closer to God.
But when this is done, there will be a level of amazement in people who receive this message.
I pray that Christians would increasingly prophesy to those within their community because they are truly zealous for spiritual matters.
In Part 1 of “The Forgotten Layer of Unity,” I wrote of how the layer of unity of all believers in a local community/region is often forgotten. I wrote that the layers of unity that are found within a local congregation are rarely forgotten, but, rather, are taught extensively and emphasized greatly. And that is good.
In Part 1, I said that I would get into how I believe the Bible teaches the importance and necessity of the community level of unity among believers. And Paul’s first letter to the believers in Corinth show us both.
In order to truly understand what Paul is saying to these Corinthian believers, it is crucial to understand how these believers were organized. The common practice of believers in any given location was to gather in small groups, (today, we would call them house churches) and then, on occasion, come together for different purposes. Two reasons Paul specifically mentions of why the Corinthian believers come together is worship and observing the Lord’s Supper. But whatever the reason, the normal practice for these believers was to belong to separate groups but then for all of these separate groups from across the city/region to come together for a common purpose.
Now, among the believers in Corinth, there were divisions, things that hurt and disrupted their unity and coming together. One was theological differences. In chapter 1, Paul mentions that there are quarrels among the believers there. “For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I means this, that each one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas,’ and ‘I of Christ.’
Different groups followed the teachings of different apostles or teachers who had been in their midst. And while all taught Christ crucified and risen, there were differences in the teachings. Did you notice the ones who thought they were especially right? “Well, you might follow Paul or Apollos or Cephas, but I follow CHRIST!”Even with these differences (we’d call them theological today), Paul is still urging unity in the overall body of Christ.
Throughout this letter, Paul is exhorting, urging, commanding that these believers get past their differences with each other and focus on what they have in common – being a part of the same body, which is Christ. When they do not, when they are divided, even relishing in and celebrating as good those divisions, they are giving the body of Christ a black eye. They are communicating to the rest of their community that they are no different than the rest of the world.
So, have you forgotten about this important layer of unity of believers? Has the local congregation of which you are a part? Or do you or your local congregation, in spite of present differences, actually seek to foster this unity which crosses denominational lines, political lines, racial/ethnic lines, theological lines, socio-economic lines, and so on.
That is the question. We must not forget this all important layer of unity, because it is this layer of unity that speaks the loudest to the communities in which we live.
This past Wednesday, I had the opportunity to “pinch-hit” at the last moment in teaching a Bible study. I was given about 2.5 hours to prepare. Or course, I taught on the concept of biblical unity among believers. While I didn’t give the Bible study a name, if I had, it would have been, “The Forgotten Layer of Unity.”
What is this “forgotten layer?” To answer that, let me state the layers that are not only remembered, but also taught and emphasized greatly. The first layer is at the small group level of a congregation. If a local congregation has a small group ministry, those groups are encouraged to do things together, which promotes unity in the group. The second layer is at the congregational level. It is often taught in various settings on multiple occasions that it is extremely important for a congregation to be united.
It is good that these 2 layers of unity are taught and emphasized, for they are biblical. But what is either forgotten or intentionally ignored or dismissed is the layer of unity of believers that is above the unity at the congregational layer. What is that layer? It is the unity of the believers in a local community or region. And it was this layer that was the focus of this Bible study lesson that I taught this past Wednesday night.
In Part 2 of this topic, I will get into how I believe the Bible teaches the importance and necessity of this community layer of unity among believers and how doing things to cause division is actually wrong, but for now, let me state some of the reasons why unity among believers in a local community is either ignored or separation is intentionally caused:
- worship style/music preference
- governing paradigm
- philosophy of ministry
- a stance on a cultural issue
- competition/survival of a congregation
I’m sure there are others, but I’ll stop the list there. But whatever the reason, it should not be used to divide believers on the community level. More on that in Part 2.