Monday, January 24, 2011

Unity Through Holiness: Jesus' Prayer For The Church

Jn. 17: 11, 20-23- "Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to you. Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are...I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as you, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given to them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me."

It is human nature to be curious concerning the final moments of the life of a public figure.  We are anxious to discover any clues as to what was uppermost on their minds as they came face to face with eternity.  Sometimes they leave statements addressed to those they leave behind so we may know what their primary concern was for those remaining. Scripture contains many such farewell messages. In the Old Testament we have Deuteronomy, Moses' final address to Israel before Israel's entrance into the Promised Land.  The New Testament contains Pauls final letter to Timothy before Paul's expected execution (2Tim.) as well as Peter's farewell to those who had been under his pastoral care (2Pet.)

Jesus himself did not leave behind any written messages, but all four Gospels do contain written accounts of Jesus' last hours on earth with his disciples prior to his death on the Cross.  In John's Gospel we have the historical account of Jesus' prayer for His Church.  What was His overriding concern for disciples down through the ages as He was facing His death and resurrection?  That his disciples would be one as He and the Father are one.  The relationship between the Father and the Son is to be reflected in the relationship of disciples to each other while they are one in the Father and the Son.  This unity, according to Jesus in the above verses, is to be the primary witness to the world that Jesus was indeed sent to earth by the Father.  In Eph. 3, Paul wrote that the mystery of the ages that had been hidden but was revealed by the Holy Spirit to the Apostles and prophets was "that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel..." (Eph. 3:6) as Jewish believers in the Messiah.  In Gal. 3:28, Paul declares that in Christ the division between Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, had been done away with. The New Testament is filled with imagery illustrating the unity that is to prevail within the Church.  In Jn. 10, Jesus pictures the Church as one flock following Him as the one true shepherd.  In Ephesians, Paul declares the Church to be the family of God (Eph. 3:15) the dwelling place of the Spirit and the Bride of Christ (Eph 5). In 1Tim. 3:15, Paul refers to the Church as the House of the Living God.  Peter refered to individual disciples as living stones being built into a spiritual house, a holy priesthood (1Pet. 2:5).

This unity was exhibited by the early Church. When the 120 were gathered on the day of Pentecost, they were of one accord (Acts 2:1). After Pentecost the disciples were of one accord as they worshiped and fellowshiped with one another (Acts 2: 46). But this unity did not consist of everyone being of the same opinion on all issues.  In Acts 1 the disciples had to seek a replacement for Judas.  Some wanted Joseph, others prefered Matthias.  Matthias won by being chosen by lot. The issue was not permitted to cause division because all were in harmony in their desire to spread the gospel.  At the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), differences were discussed and a consensus reached instead of one faction imposing its will upon others. The early Church's unity did not sweep grievences under the rug.  In Acts 6, Hellenistic Jews complained that the Jewish Christians native to Israel were neglecting the Hellenistic widows in the daily distribution of food.  The Church recognized the problem instead of denying it and rebuking those who complained.  The solution, which pleased all concerned, caused more souls to be added to the Church; even priests became obedient to the faith (Acts 6: 7). Who were these priests? They were the class of people most resistant to the gospel message, the ones Jesus reserved His harshest language for.  Even priests became obedient to the faith.  As Jesus Himself said in John 17, this unity would be the supreme witness to the fact that the Father had sent the Son.

The world is capable of unity as well.  In Acts 7, when Stephen testified that he saw the heavens opened and Jesus standing at the right hand of God (v. 56), those who were about to stone him "...cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord..." (v. 57) The same word used for the disciples being of "one accord" is the same word used in Acts 7 refering to those who stoned Stephen.  Lets not forget the most prominent example of men being of one accord in the Old Testament, the building of the Tower of Babel. God had to intervene or else, as God said, "...Indeed the people are one, and they all have one nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them." (Gen. 11: 6) Yes, the world is capable of unity. Jesus told His disciples that the world loves its own because its own are of the world. Today, the most powerful tool for the creation and maintenence of worldly unanimity of thought is the media. It is so powerful that it is Satan's greatest weapon to cause Christian youths to abandon holiness and the Faith altogether.  It is only through Christian unity that disciples can be made and be trained to endure.

How is this unity achieved?  In Rom. 12 and Eph. 4, Paul uses the unity of the human body as a picture of how unity should operate in the Church.  These verses are usually commented on in terms of the spiritual gifts listed in them and how they are to be exercised harmoniously within the Church.  Yet it is the context in which the verses listing spiritual gifts appear that one finds an answer to the question I have just asked.  Lets take Rom. 12.  The verses concerning spiritual gifts are Rom. 12: 4-8. But let's examine the verses that precede and follow this passage.  Rom. 12: 1-3 reads, "I beseech you therefore, bretheren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.  And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.  For I say, through the grace given to me, that everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith."  In the verses following Rom. 12: 4-8 we read, "Let love be without hypocrisy.  Abhor what is evil.  Cling to what is good.  Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality.  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.  Be of the same mind toward one another.  Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion...If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peacefully with all men...Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Rom. 12: 9-16, 18,21) The key to Christian unity is our attitude and treatment of each other. One can find a similiar context in Eph. 4.  A good biblical word for this kind of unity: holiness.  Where holiness is absent in the Church, it will result in division: "For where there are envy and strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?" 1Cor 3:3. There can be no personal purity without the holiness which produces unity among brothers and sisters.  Not only will personal purity be impossible without holiness, but the entire Church will suffer division as well as backsliding among the redeemed as only a unified Church can encourage one another (Heb. 10:25).

Christian unity is to be fought for.  Paul warns us, "Note those which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which you have learned, and avoid them." (Rom. 16:17)  Yes, right doctrine does divide.  But it appears that the doctrine the Apostles of the early Church taught did not consist solely of orthodox opinions, but also holiness in heart leading to Christian unity. In 19th century America, revivals were not sectarian, but reached beyond denominational boundries.  The Chinese Christian Brother Yun laments divisions within the Chinese Church fostered by Western Christians.  The Underground Church in China had experienced biblical unity until certain Christian groups began sending partisan theological literature along with clandestine shipments of Bibles. Such activity has fostered division in the face of persecution by the Chinese government.  If those sending this literature continue to do so with full knowledge of the divisions they cause, then this is evidence that no matter how theologically orthodox they are, they are not operating in the holiness that produces Christian unity, which is Jesus' will for His Church. 

(All Scripture quotations are taken from the NKJV.)                        

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