There is a clear, consistent, but often overlooked message for the Church in the Epistles. When the Spirit was poured out at Pentecost and the first church was established, there was a deep sense of unity and community around the power and truth of the gospel (Acts 2 and 4). As these first Christians sought to share the Good News and make disciples of Jesus Christ, their work – or rather the work of the Holy Spirit through them – was under constant attack, the defeated Enemy desperately trying to slow the tide of the coming Kingdom. Where did he turn? How did he attack? He sought to undermine the very things the Spirit had established: truth and unity.
We know from the very beginning of the Enemy’s intent to twist the Truth. “Did God really say…?” Before the Almighty, deceit was his only shot. The only way to keep people from a good, loving, and all-powerful God was to undermine His character and/or His existence. To get people to believe they were better off doing things their own way. On the other side of Pentecost, Satan employs the same technique. He undermines and twists the teachings of Jesus. He stirs up controversies among God’s people. Disunity stems from confusion, sinful pride and self-centeredness. The power of the gospel through the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of people creates unity and assurance in the Truth. Unity points to the power and veracity of the gospel. Because we know extravagant love and grace, we can show extravagant love and grace. The way believers relate to one another is one of our primary means of proclaiming the gospel.
So the apostles insist that the first Christians live in unity with one another. Consider a few examples:
12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.
1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
1 Peter 3:8 – Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.
The list could be much longer. So much of the New Testament is concerned with how we relate to one another. Scripture challenges us, “Do our relationships reflect the power of the gospel?” Are we willing to do the work, the really hard work, of forgiveness and reconciliation?
If I’m honest, there are many times when I’m not. I would prefer to avoid or deny conflict or tension. I’m better at not holding grudges than I am at forgiving, but they are vastly different. Not holding a grudge is passive, like avoiding the stinky, dirty room in your house so you don’t have to clean it. But forgiveness, unity, and real peace require great love, intentionality, vulnerability and sacrifice. Forgiveness requires an acknowledgement of hurt and disappointment. Forgiveness is unpacking the stink and filth of our heart and allowing the love of Christ to clean and heal us. It requires humility. It requires the work of the Spirit in us. That’s what makes the church unique: the power of the Spirit. Unity belongs to the Spirit. We have to allow the Spirit to work in us to heal us.
Spiritual work is actually really hard work. We have to “crucify our flesh,” to put our desires and passions to death (Gal. 5:24). It is often painful and forces us to go where we don’t want to, but it is glorious because it is work that only He can do. And so, as we open ourselves to Him, He heals, reconciles, and unites us to one another. It is work that God alone can do.
May the unity we, His Church, share proclaim a gospel of power, peace, and reconciliation to a world longing for real peace.