Christian Unity Essential to the Gospel Advance (Philippians Sermon 7 of 24)
October 26, 2003 | Andy Davis
Introduction: The Disintegrating Power of Sin, The Perfect Unity of Heaven
We are looking this morning at Philippians 2:1-4, at the Christian unity that’s essential to the Gospel advance. Now, on December 2nd, 1942, President Roosevelt received this cryptic message, “The Italian navigator has landed in the New World.” Of course, that hearkens back to Christopher Columbus, but that’s not what the message meant. What it meant was that Italian physicist Enrico Fermi had been able to pull off the first controlled nuclear reaction at the University of Chicago. Now, this whole project had come about as a result of a letter from Albert Einstein talking about the incredible, powerful weapons that were just around the corner in physics, in the research of physics, atomic weapons, which were unknown before, the possibility was enlightened by the Theory of Relativity and other things at the beginning of the 20th century, and Einstein felt the responsibility to write to President Roosevelt.
And so the research was done. Now, the controlled nuclear reaction, what we call a chain reaction, fusion, was the breaking apart of atoms that God had put together, releasing little particles that cause other atoms to break apart and release more little particles with the tremendous release of energy, in line with the famous formula E=mc2, the energy that was released was sufficient to destroy an entire city. And so it did less than three years later, when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, an entire city disintegrated because of this power. Now, my wife and I, and our two children that were born at the time we lived in Japan,visited the Museum of Peace and the Atomic Museum in Hiroshima. It’s really quite striking to walk through there as an American, I can assure you, and it’s very sobering, and to see the monument to eternal peace that’s set up there and to see photographs of the power of the atomic weapon.
But as terrible as the consequences were of that weapon, of the atomic blast, the disintegrating power of sin has proved far greater. Sin, in a kind of a chain reaction started in the Garden of Eden with Adam, has been working its disintegrating way through human history ever since. It’s been affecting relationships ever since. It’s been destroying things, and any of you who are old enough and have been alive long enough to feel the disintegrating power of sin, you know what I’m talking about, it affects everything you do, it affects every relationship. Everything that it seems God has put together, sin works to disintegrate.
I. Christian Unity: The Gospel Adorned
Now, the great glory of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of integration, of unity, is far greater than the sin power of disintegration. Amen and amen.
And God is putting back together and making even more glorious a universe, something that we can’t even imagine, which has been blown to bits through sin. Jesus Christ is doing that. Therefore the only true power for unity is not the United Nations, which was started in 1945 with the hope that there would never again be war on the earth. There have been 118 since then. Astonishing, millions and millions of people dying in those 118 conflicts since the beginning of the United Nations and the monument of peace at Hiroshima, however moving, has had no power to transform the hearts of people, none whatsoever, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ does. And therefore, the church of Jesus Christ and the Gospel that we preach is the only true power of unity in the human race, the only true power of unity in this dis-unified universe rocked by sin, and it will succeed. In the end there will be a glorious unity in Heaven. We can’t even imagine it. In the meantime, our practical daily expressions of unity, one with another, are essential to the advance of the Gospel.
They’re essential, however imperfect, they are essential to finishing the task that Christ has given us of taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Our practical daily unity, Christian unity and love adorns the Gospel and makes it look beautiful and makes it look attractive. In the end, perfect unity is the purpose of the Gospel. The perfect unity of the Trinity- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is the pattern for Christian unity. Before the universe was created God existed and has existed, eternally will exist in three persons: Father, Son and Spirit.
The three persons of the Trinity existed in perfect harmony. That means they never once had a different way of looking at things. Think about that. They never once had a disagreement. In matters of principle or strategy, never, and they never will. They see everything alike. There’s not a shade or shadow of disagreement, Father, Son, and Spirit. Not one, never has been, never will be, and they had no need. Father, Son and Spirit, they did not create the universe out of need, but rather as an expression of their perfect relationship, one to another. And so the unity that is reflected in the Trinity was also reflected in the creation. When God spoke over it after all of the ordering and arranging that had been done and said it was very good. And so it was, the universe was beautiful. But then came sin, the destructive, dis-unifying power of sin entered in.
Now, it started not with man, but with the devil. And I think it’s right to ascribe such passages as Isaiah 14 to his devilish ambition. We’ll talk more about that, God willing, next time that I preach. But I think it was the devil spoken of in Isaiah 14, when it says, “You said in your hearts, I will ascend to heaven. I will raise my throne above the stars of God. I will sit enthroned in the mount of assembly on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds. I will make myself like the Most High.” That’s devilish ambition, isn’t it? And he sold us on it. “You will be like God, if you eat that fruit.” And so we became ambitious and sin entered the world and has been blowing to bits things ever since. Disunity and conflict soon characterized every human relationship. First, Cain killed his brother Abel out of jealousy. And it wasn’t long before every familial relationship and every relationship at all, husband and wife, parent and child, neighbor to neighbor, nation to nation was affected by this power, this dis-unifying power of sin and strife has been spreading through the world ever since, and it continues to this very day. Now, Christ’s redeeming work is to bring all things together under one head.
That’s what it says in Ephesians. Ephesians 1:10, it says that the Gospel in all of its power will be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment. Has that happened yet? No. The times have not been perfected yet. But this is the goal. This is what we’re working toward, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment, to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head. That is Christ. Speaking specifically of the saving work of Christ and dying for sinners, in John chapter 11, it says there that in verse 51 and 52, Jesus would die for the Jewish nation. And not only for that nation, but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. That’s the Gospel work, to take the scattered children of God and bring them together and make them one. You see the unifying power of the Gospel, and therefore perfect unity is patterned after the Trinity itself.
The power of Christ’s prayer in John 17
Now, I want you to put your finger in Philippians 2, yes, we will get to it. Be patient, we’ll be there. But just take your finger or a pen, put it in Philippians 2 and go over to John Chapter 17. I’ve referred to this before, but I just really want you to see it right on the page. I have come to believe that this theme of unity, of Christian unity, is bigger than I ever thought it was. Very, very big. It is the goal of the Gospel.
It’s the goal of the saving work of Jesus Christ. It’s one way to state his ultimate final goal, that God would be glorified in our perfect community centered around him. And look what it says in John 17:11, he’s praying. Now, this is, what we call Jesus’s high priestly prayer. This is the longest prayer of Jesus recorded in the Bible. And it has special interest to me, because I’ve said before and I’ll say again, theologically, I believe it is impossible for Jesus to ask for anything he doesn’t get. Let me say that again. It is theologically impossible for Jesus to ask outside the will of his Father. I can’t imagine that. And so therefore, I kind of get a pen and just go through John 17 and say, “Okay, you’ll get that. Yes, you’ll get that too. You’ll get it all.” “Father, I want those whom you have given me to be with me where I am and to see my glory.” He’ll get it. He’s going to get it all. Does that mean he’s going to get unity too? It’s in the prayer. Look at John 17:11, speaking of those that were alive in his own generation, his own Apostles, he says, “Father, Holy Father,” John 17:11, “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name. The name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one.” Do you see that? He wants his own disciples, his apostles, that are around him there to be protected from the devil and from all the attacks, so that they can continue on in their faith in Christ and not fall away, that they might be one as he and the Father are one. Their unity patterned after the Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit. Now, look down at verse 20 and 21. Now he extends his prayer out beyond those of his own time there who were sitting around him at the Last Supper, I think, extending it out to all people, all believers of all time. He said, “My prayer,” in verse 20, “Is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message that all of them may be one, Father. Just as you are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us so that the world may believe that you sent me.” So you see the unity there is patterned after the Trinity, that our unity would be like theirs.
Now, I have heard such sad exegesis on this. “Oh, isn’t it sad that Jesus doesn’t get what he asked for? Now, come on, there are so many denominations we just can’t get along. And Jesus didn’t get what he prayed for, all of those generations of disunited Christians and he didn’t get what he asked for.” Oh, that is so false. Of course, he got what he asked for. He knew what he was praying for. All of those who are truly Christians then are perfectly united now in heaven, are they not? But what I want to tell you, though, is that Jesus’ view is beyond just final perfect unity in heaven. The reason I know that is the outcome of unity. Look what he says again in verse 21, “Father, just as you are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us so that the world may believe that you sent me.” That is powerful, isn’t it? Now, keep going. Look in verse 22 and 23, “I have given them the glory that you gave me that they may be one as we are one.” Again and again, do you see it? The Trinity is the pattern of unity, nothing less. “That they may be one as we are one, I in them, and you in me, may they be brought to complete unity, to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Oh, wow. I’m tempted to just preach on John 17 right now. Well, we’re just looking at it briefly. We’ll go another time but here’s the point, do you see that there is an earthly impact to a process of unification that goes on, which I call sanctification? As we grow more and more like Jesus, as we put to death our sin nature, as we put to death our own feeble and earthly understandings of various texts of the Bible, as we more and more understand the truth as it’s been given to us here, we will be more and more one, one with another. We will not disagree with each other about anything. Little by little, as that gets more and more, however imperfectly reflected here on this earth, it has a great power for evangelizing a lost world. A great power for that. And this is what he has in mind, he wants perfect unity.
Now, we will not be perfect in this world. We will not, but we can strive for perfect unity as the scripture defines it here again and again, “As the Father and the Son are one, so may we also be one.” In our striving for a perfect unity, the world will sit up and take notice. And you know why? Beause the world doesn’t have anything like it. I don’t care how many resolutions are passed by the United Nations or how many peace monuments there will be built, they can’t do it, because they just essentially disagree with each other and are essentially selfish. And so are we, and therefore, only as the transforming power of the Gospel, through the power of the Holy Spirit takes us over, and as we submit our minds to the Word of God and begin to think like he thinks, then little by little there’s a unity that starts to grow up. “By this will all men know, that you are my disciples if you love one another.” There’s a deep love that has a power for unity.
Back to Philippians
Now, go back to Philippians 2. The Philippians had a problem with unity. Now, we’ve talked about there being these two great journeys, the internal journey of holiness, so that we become more and more like Christ; the external, a journey of worldwide evangelization. Well, both of those are greatly hindered by selfishness, selfish ambition, factions, dissensions, arguments, and all those kinds of carnal things. And the Philippians had it, they had it, sadly. Even though this was clearly one of Paul’s favorite congregations, he loved them, this is a tender letter that he writes to them, a great deal of love and affection for them, they had a problem. They had a kind of a tumor at the heart of their fellowship, they had disunity. I think that this entire section from Philippians 1:27, in which he urges them to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel, 1:27 on to the end of Chapter 2:18, that whole section is about unity. The whole thing. And I think they had a problem with unity.
In 1:27-30 he says, “I will know that you stand firm in one Spirit contending as one man for the faith of the Gospel.” This is what we talked about last time. He’s concerned about their unity. Now, here in these verses 2:1-4, clearly he’s just straight out urging them and commanding them to be one with each other, to be united. And so also we see in verses 14-16 of chapter 2. 2:14 and following, he says, “Do everything without complaining or arguing.” They were complaining and they were arguing. Now, I know that you have no problems like that, but this church at least had problems with complaining and arguing. And in effect, the two journeys, the internal journey of working out your salvation with fear and trembling, growth and holiness, together with the external mission of holding out the word of life as you shine like stars in the universe, can’t be done if you’re arguing and complaining. So cut it out, that’s what he was saying.
He’s saying, “You can’t grow in holiness and you cannot evangelize if you’re arguing and complaining with each other.” You can’t, so they’re having a problem. And also in chapter 4:2, we have these two ladies that we’ve talked about before and will talk about again, Euodia and Syntyche. And it says in 4:2, “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord.” So they’re having trouble. There’s a faction there, there’s division, there’s problems. Now, disunity was a constant problem. It’s constantly a problem for human beings, but it’s a problem for the church. It’s always been. The Apostles were always arguing with each other, they really were. You’d think that they would love each other and get along, but it’s so embarrassing when Jesus is right there in the boat and they’re arguing about who forgot to bring the bread. And they’re hiding it from Jesus, because they know in their hearts, their conscience testifying against them, that arguing is sin.
So they’re going to kind of turn their back on Jesus and go, “Da da da da. Jude, your turn to buy.” “Well, I got it last time.” And Jesus is off there praying or whatever he was doing and he says, “What are you talking about?” And they were ashamed because they were arguing. The greatest topic for arguing and conflict was which of them was the greatest. They hit that one again and again. A terrible thing. When James and John’s mother asks that her sons may sit at the right and the other left of Jesus in his Kingdom, the other 10 were indignant and very upset. They had selfish ambition, and then there are dissensions, and it happened.
Where is the end of the conflict?
Well, you think, “Okay, well, maybe after the cross and after the Holy Spirit, it will all end.” Did it? No, it didn’t. They continued to argue, even after that. Acts chapter 6, there was a dispute about the Greek-speaking widows and the daily distribution of food. We believe deacons and the whole servant structure got set up there. And then Acts 11, a dispute about whether Peter should have gone into a Gentile’s house. And Acts 15, a big argument about circumcision. Again and again, they were arguing in Acts. In almost every church you can mention, Galatians 5:15, it says, “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you’ll be destroyed by each other.” That doesn’t sound good, does it? Whatever your exegesis is, that isn’t good, they’re biting each other, arguing. And Corinthians, 1 Corinthians 1:11, “My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.” You’re bickering with each other. And then 1 Corinthians 3:3, “You are still carnal or worldly for since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men?” You should be better than this.
2 Corinthians 12:20, he says, “I’m afraid that when I come, I may not find you as I want you to be and you may not find me as you want me to be. For I fear there may be quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, faction, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder.” There was terrible strife and conflict in the Corinthian church. But then there’s Paul himself, who just couldn’t get along with Barnabas over the issue of John Mark. And they had such a bitter dispute that they parted company, and that was it. And Paul was wrong. So it’s easier to preach it than it is to practice it, apparently. Very, very difficult, the strife and disunity that comes in through sin. And then there’s church history, did it end with the end of the New Testament? No. Bitter conflicts, divisions, startings of whole denominations and churches right across the street from each other, as a result of this kind of strife and conflict. Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli on the issue of the Lord’s Supper, bitter dispute over that. The meal that should unite became a source of conflict and division. Two of the greatest men from church history, George Whitfield and John Wesley, bitter dispute over predestination. Some harsh things happened, they just couldn’t get along on that. And around the world today, still, conflicts.
Now, we know the causes of disunity, the cause is sin. And they come at us in a lot of different ways, but James 3:16 says, “Where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder...” interesting word, “and every evil practice.” It’s the atomization of the world, blown to bits by sin. Disorder comes in when you have selfish ambition. Things that were together, that were harmonious, that were one, get blown apart because of selfish ambition. Sin comes in and destroys things, what’s the cost? Well, it’s difficult to stand there like a star shining in the universe as you hold out the word of life to a lost generation if meanwhile you’re bickering back and forth in the church. And how tough was it for the Philippians in that they were being persecuted? And when you’re being persecuted outside in the world by the non-Christians, and that’s something that’s not going to go away, the more faithful you are in preaching the Gospel, the more it’s going to happen.
What do you need, you need a united church, essentially united, not perfectly united, but a united church so that you can lick your wounds, you can be restored, you can be renewed. That’s what the church is for, not that this would be an even worse place of dissensions and trouble and arguing and conflict, never. This is the place where you come in and get recharged, you can go back out and face a pagan world. They needed unity and so Paul is pleading with them, he’s appealing with them.
II. Paul’s Appeal for Unity
And so he says, verse 1, “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from His love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit but in humility, consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others.” Now, he’s making an appeal here for unity, do you see that?
A. First basis for Paul’s appeal
He’s making a very strong appeal, and what is the basis of his appeal? On what is he building his appeal? A theological basis: unity in Christ. He says it right from the start here, in verse 1, “If you have any encouragement from being...” the NIV gives us, “united in Christ.” That’s not there in the Greek, but the theological concept is certainly there. “If you have any encouragement from being in Christ…” And anyone who knows anything about Paul’s theology realizes how significant the phrase “in Christ” is. That means to be a Christian but it means so much more than a shallow understanding of being a Christian. It means to be perfectly united spiritually with Christ. His death on the cross is your death. His resurrection, your resurrection. His powerful resurrected life in you. And the idea is that if you are united with Christ, I want to tell you, he is united with many other people too. You’re not his only child. And so therefore to be united with Christ, to be in Christ, means to be united with Christians all over the world, that we are one with another because we are united in Christ. And so our union with Christ spiritually, is the theological foundation of appeal to unity. Because we are one with Christ, we are truly one with another. Absolutely.
B. Second basis for Paul’s appeal
So, he makes a theological basis, but he also gives us an experiential basis. They have a rich experience of the Gospel’s blessings at this point. He says, “If you have any encouragements, in Christ, if you have any comfort in His love, if you have any fellowship with the Spirit, if you have any tenderness and compassion…” This is an appeal to the good things they’ve already feasted on from being Christians. You’ve experienced these good things, haven’t you? Haven’t you experienced these things? And so we could really translate, “if you have any encouragement,” really, you could translate it a little bit better, “since there is so much of,” not translate it, but understand it. “Since there is so much encouragement from being united with Christ. Since there is so much tenderness and consolation in his love. And since there is so much fellowship with the Spirit and so much tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like minded.” You see that experiential basis, and he goes through those things. Encouragement in Christ is the same word from which we get the Paraclete, the Comforter, it’s to have the comforts of being in Christ through the Holy Spirit, I believe.
And then he uses the word “consolation,” really, the idea of, if you were deeply grieving and you had a dear friend who understood the situation well, they could come and put their arm around you and console you, and you would be comforted, you would be comforted, “consolation from his love”. The fact that Jesus loves you is a great consolation, isn’t it? And since you have so much of that, he says, and since you have such a perfect fellowship, a Koinonia, a sharing together in the Spirit, and since you have so much tenderness and compassion from Christ. Alright, so that’s the experiential basis.
C. Third basis for Paul’s appeal
He’s given them a theological basis, because you’re in Christ, you should be one. He says, since you’ve feasted so much on the Gospel, experiential basis, part two, and then thirdly he makes a personal appeal, a personal basis. “Please, make my joy complete, by being like minded.” I have a joy, Paul is saying, I really do, I have a joy that I described in Philippians 1, joy in my chains, joy in Christ, joy in suffering. But let me tell you, my joy would be so much greater, if you would stop arguing with each other. Please make my joy complete by being like minded. So, that’s a three-fold basis of his appeal here.
D. The goal of Paul’s appeal
Now what is the goal or nature of his appeal? He says, verse 2, “Make my joy complete by being like minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.” This is unity, and it’s not a superficial unity. Not a superficial or surface unity. This is a deep unity of mind and heart. It goes right to what you really think, what you really believe, what you really love. You have those things in common. Be like minded, he says, have the same love, be one in spirit and purpose. Jot this down on your outline if you’re taking notes, 1 Corinthians 1:10, there is a great definition of unity, and as we’ve gone through struggles as a church, this church, to try to understand true biblical unity, 1 Corinthians 1:10 became just a beacon to me of what it means for a church to be united. 1 Corinthians 1:10 says, “perfectly united in mind and thought”. That’s where we’re heading, folks, the Father and the Son are that way, aren’t they? Perfectly united in mind and thought, no disagreements. They don’t look at anything from different ways. Perfectly united in mind and thought, that is the goal. We will not reach it in this life, as we have our deep-seated convictions that are wrong. It happens, we are absolutely convinced and you’re absolutely wrong and you’ll find out, later.
And I’m absolutely convinced about some things that are wrong. I was telling that to my kids and they said, “Well, why don’t you change, then?” I said, “Well,” I said, “I don’t know what they are. If I knew what they are I’d change them today with the Lord’s help.” But all of us are absolutely convinced about things that are wrong, all of us. And so then we will not be perfectly united in mind and thought, but it is a goal and we should be striving for it. That’s the unity that Paul has in mind here. Now, the focus is on the mind, isn’t it? It’s on the way we think. Everything follows this organ up here, this incredibly complex brain. The pinnacle of God’s physical creation is the human brain, immensely complex. You will not ever understand your own brain, you won’t. And he wants you to be perfectly united in the way you think, to think alike. Now, how can that be? Well, I think it happens as under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, with the theological transformation already occurring, we’re already in Christ, we’re new creations in Christ, we submit this brain constantly to the Bible.
We just say, “Teach me, I’m sure I’m wrong about some things, I want to learn.” And by the Spirit, we just little by little start to see strongholds of misunderstanding get overturned, all of us are doing that, and as that happens we’re all moving toward a beautiful unity of mind, as we submit to the scripture under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. There is an agreeing, “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord.” Don’t just paper it over and not talk about it anymore. That’s not what he asks for. I appeal that you would agree, work on it until you do agree. “Do nothing,” Philippians 2:3, “from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind, consider others better than yourselves.” This is going on in the mind, and therefore the only hope for true unity is the renewing of the mind in the pattern of Christ. “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
It’s a battle for the mind, brothers and sisters. The big difference between a Christian and a non-Christian in their intrinsic nature, not in the way God sees them theologically, their position, that we can talk about, but I mean in who they really are. It has to do with how they think. It’s the big difference between a Christian and a non-Christian. “Those who live according to the flesh have their mind set on what the flesh desires, and those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their mind set on what the Spirit desires. The mind of the flesh is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace.” Now, if you’re a Christian, your mind should be, and it is in many ways, controlled by the Spirit. That’s the basis of the possibility of true unity.
E. The practical steps in fulfilling the appeal
Now, what are the practical steps he gives in fulfilling the appeal? First, he gives them negatively things not to do. “Do nothing,” he says, “out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.” Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Now, selfish ambition is a desire for one’s own things, your own plans, your own goals, your own agenda, your own way of doing it. It’s pure selfishness. Also a desire for advancing your own position of power. That’s selfish ambition, just like the devil, and we’ll talk about that more next time.
There’s a story about a godly monk who had gone out in the desert to fast and pray and grow in godliness and holiness and fight temptation and just conquer the flesh. And he was out there and was doing very well, very well, until the devil tempted him with this thought. And he whispered in his ear, “I just thought you should know your brother has become bishop of Alexandria.” And immediately his heart was filled with jealousy and he was frustrated, “Why not me? I’ve been at it longer than him. I’m a better preacher and I can...” and just it started to consume, that jealousy, selfish ambition, “Why should he get that honor? That was for me. I’m wasting my time out here in this cave. I should get back, play the political game.” Selfish ambition. And vain conceit is vainglory, “I just want you to know what I’ve done for you. I want you to honor me. I want to you to put a plaque up for me or I want you to have... I want some honor, some earthly thing for me so that I could...” Now, nobody would ever just come right out and say that, but isn’t it in there? That vainglory, that conceit, wanting to be recognized, wanting to be esteemed for who you are and what you’ve done. Just that someone would know how good you are. It’s vainglory and it’s the seat of dissensions and factions. So, that’s negatively, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.” Positively, be humble. “Consider others better than yourselves.” Seek the things of others. Again, the focus is on the mind.
Two wonderful illustrations of this
First, again, from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the second half, Christiana and her fellow travelers have come to the Interpreter’s House and they are clothed each one with beautiful linen garments and they look so radiant and they look so beautiful. And Bunyan writes this way, “It was fine linen, white and clean. When the women were thus adorned, they seemed to be a terror one to the other, for that they could not see the glory each one had in herself, which they could see in the other. Now therefore they began to esteem each other better than themselves. ‘For you are fairer than I am,’ said one, and, ‘Oh, you are more comely than I am,’ said the other. The children also stood amazed to see into what fashion they were brought.”
Isn’t that striking? The more you know yourself, the better you know yourself to be the chief of all sinners, no one could sin more than you. Paul thought so. He said, “I am the least of all God’s people and I am the greatest of all sinners.” Do you think he was just posturing? I think he really believed it, because he was so well acquainted with his own wickedness. Meanwhile, the brothers and sisters in Christ were looking really good to him. They were role models, something to be esteemed, something to be patterned after. He loved them and just held them in honor. I think that’s what Paul’s saying here, “Consider others really to be better than you.”
Another illustration, again from George Whitfield. I told you of the conflict he had with Wesley over predestination. It was bitter and difficult, because Whitfield had started preaching out in the fields, he had started field preaching, and had gathered a wonderful congregation of people to come listen to him preach. He went on a mission trip to America and entrusted that congregation in the field to Wesley. Wesley began to preach against Whitfield’s view of predestination and turned their hearts against Whitfield. Bitterness and problems, very public in ad hominem attacks, and it was difficult and it got difficult and it continued to be that way. And it hurt their relationship, as you could well imagine. At one point somebody asked Whitfield, “Do you think you’ll see John Wesley in Heaven?” He said, “No, I don’t.” “Really?” He said, “No, he’ll be so close to the throne and I’ll be so far away that I will not see him.” Now, if you read his journals and you read his letters, you realize that was not merely posturing on his part. He was genuinely a broken and humble man. And that’s what he felt. Now, I actually think he’s wrong. I think we’re all going to see each other in heaven. There’s going to be a perfect unity there. But I understand his point. The point is that this is a godly man, John Wesley, and he’s serving the Lord. Humility, “a gentle answer turns away wrath.” That’s the way to getting two brothers to be friends again. Humility, consider others.
And then he also says, “Think of others’ needs ahead of your own.” Use your time, your energy, your money, your abilities, your gifts totally at the service of others. Set your minds on what they need and what you need, like in Les Miserables when the thief, Jean Valjean, steals silver from the godly bishop. And he’s caught and brought back and the bishop is thinking at that moment, “What does he need?” Not, “What do I need?” “He needs forgiveness from Christ. He needs those candlesticks more than I do.” It’s a way of thinking, “What are your needs?” not, “What’s my need?” That’s the recipe for perfect unity.
Now, what applications can we take from this? First, can I urge you to not be deceived by fake counterfeit unity? Saccharin. I’m not speaking against saccharin, the little pink stuff in the packets, okay? Saccharin was invented about, oh, 100 years ago, maybe more, and became popular around World War I. It’s a sugar substitute. I did some research, apparently it does not in the end cause cancer in people, that keep on using it. The fact of the matter is, saccharin has become in writing and in prose kind of a symbol for a fake sweetness. You know what I’m talking? A saccharin smile. A fake love. Well, there can be saccharin unity too.
Well, if unity never gets farther than the following, you know it’s fake unity:
- First, for example, if Christ, the Bible, spiritual things are hardly ever mentioned, and the churches’ fellowships are mentioned only by form, (for example, prayer before meal,) you’ve got fake unity.
- Second, if there’s superficial affection, back slapping, jokes, flattery, sweet greetings, fake interest in conversations, but meanwhile secret jealousy when any member has an advantage, that’s fake unity.
- Third, if there are merely shallow discussions, such as weather, sports, current events, or even worse, gossip and slander when you get together, that’s fake unity. It’s counterfeit, it’s saccharin. It’s not the real thing.
- Fourth, a superficial activity calendar, in which none of the works have anything to do with the Kingdom of Heaven. They’re all about social times and eating and fun and entertainment, but there’s no genuine focus on Christ and on his work, that’s fake unity.
- Fifth, when there is, a low level of sacrifice for those in need within the body, you have fake unity. When people will sign a card or go to the viewing at a funeral, but they will not sit and grieve, when there are actual financial needs but there’s no sacrifice to meet them, among the body as a whole, it’s a sign of fake unity.
- Sixth, avoidance of hard, theological topics for the sake of the fake unity. Sweep it under the rug, don’t talk about it. Yes, we bitterly disagree, but that’s okay, we just won’t talk about it anymore. Oh, what an inroad to false doctrine the devil has. A huge tool for pouring false doctrine into a church, this fake unity. It’s an enemy of the Gospel and avoidance of anything unpleasant that might ruin the party. Wouldn’t want to do that.
- Seventh, therefore, also, any other disagreements. Not doctrinal but of any sort are quickly papered over, never discussed again but meanwhile there’s a root of bitterness growing up. There’s no genuine forgiveness.
- Eighth, heart characteristics of fake unity are really pride, self-centeredness, selfish ambitions, hostility and a keeping of a record of wrongs.
Therefore, genuine unity is the mirror opposite:
- First, Christ, the Bible, spiritual things are central to everything. A mutual love for Christ is the center of the unity; were it not for Christ, we would know we would have little in common with some of the members of our church. But as a result, we love each other deeply. We’re talking about people from different racial backgrounds, different economic backgrounds. And we think, “How did we get to be such friends?” And the answer is, Christ has brought us together. And isn’t it beautiful? It’s a delightful thing.
- Second, heartfelt love, genuine, sincere love for their brothers and sisters. A deep desire for whatever may benefit them the most, a true delight in being together. I look forward to Sunday morning. I look forward to being with you. I like singing with you, better than I like singing alone. And if you heard me sing alone you’d know why. I like how you sing. And I like to sing together with you.
- Thirdly, discussions are heartfelt, deep and God-centered. We want to know the depths of the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God, his unsearchable judgments.
- Fourth, the activities are centered around Christ and his Kingdom.
- Fifth, there’s a high level of sacrifice for those in need within the group. Like Christ willing to leave a place of comfort and come down and suffer on a cross, so we also are willing not to be comfortable so that somebody who’s discomforted by life can be brought to greater comfort. That’s true unity.
- Sixth, an actual love and attraction for hard theological questions. Roll up your sleeves, let’s get the Bible, let’s love each other and let’s pray it through until we do understand and we do agree. And if everybody checks their egos at the door and says, “I’m sure I’m wrong about some part of this and probably right about some things and you also are in that same condition, let’s put it together and find out what the Lord is saying.”
- Seventh, when there is disagreement, it gets worked on through humility and prayer and genuine forgiveness, not papered over.
- Eighth, heart characteristics, love for God, love for neighbor as self, humility, selflessness, a servant heart. Deep thirst for perfect unity in mind and thought. Arriving at the same kind of heart unity enjoyed by the Trinity. That’s our goal.
Will you pray with me for that in this church? For a genuine unity that adorns the Gospel? Will you search your own heart and ask if there’s any brother or sister in this fellowship that you’re out of fellowship with, that you’re feeling hard feelings toward. If anybody’s popping in your mind right now, it could be that the Spirit is speaking to you, that you need to pray through and bring reconciliation there. A final word to those of you who, there may be in our midst some who don’t know Jesus as your Lord and Savior. You can’t do any of these without being first united to Christ through faith. Come to Christ, let him be your substitute to take away the wrath of God, which you deserve for sin. Let him make you one, perfectly one, with this marvelous, this beautiful body of Christ.