In 325 AD the Church met at the Council of Nicea to address many things concerning the proper doctrine of Christ and the proper doctrine of the Church. The result of the council is summarized very clearly and concisely in a creed they wrote called the ‘Nicene Creed.’ The first sentence of the last paragraph of this creed reads as follows: “And we believe in One, Holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church…” These four marks of the Church: One, Holy, catholic, and Apostolic define what the Church of Christ is in every age and every generation. Throughout the next four weeks we’ll look at each of these four marks with an aim to understand what the Church is to be today. Our focus this morning is in on the first mark of the Church: unity, or to use the words of the Nicene creed – the Church is ONE.
A Harvard professor named Bill Anderson teaches a class called ‘The Madness of Crowds’ which aims to teach the concept of ‘mass psychology.’ In this class he examines the nature of New England witch hunts, urban legends, and financial panics. His entire life was devoted to teaching this subject. But one day, to further his study, Professor Anderson decided to visit a church. He was not prepared for what he encountered. In his own words he said this, “It was striking from the first moments I came through the door. It was clear that something special was going on. The relationships seemed not so much unnatural as highly uncommon. So I was introduced to the idea of a healthy church – a concept that had before eluded me.” The power of this congregation’s corporate witness provoked this Harvard professor, it undermined and confused his conceptions of Christianity, more so, this moment began the process that would eventually lead to Bill Anderson’s new life in Christ.
But let’s ask the question: where did the corporate witness in this congregation come from? Did it come from the music? Did it come from the pastor’s personality? Did it come from the coffee served there? No, all of these are not enough and fall short. Where did it come from then? Well, when you and I became Christians we underwent a complete identity shift. We were blind (John 3:3), lost (Luke 15), and dead in sin (Eph. 2) but now we’re new creations (2 Cor. 5:17), children of God (1 John 3:1-2), and united to Christ (Rom. 6:1-8). Now being a Christian is more fundamental to our identity than the family we come from, the ethnicity we represent, the job we labor in, it is even more important than our nationality and personality. The unity we share with other Christians is greater than any other bond we have in this world. This means where Christians exist, diversity exists, but the stunning thing about the witness of a healthy church is that in the midst of diversity, there is unity. Therefore, our unity is a visible display of the invisible gospel.
To see the mandate for unity in Scripture we turn to John 17. The context of John 17 is what we call Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. In this prayer Jesus prays for Himself in v1-5, prays for His disciples in v6-19, and then prays for all who will believe in Him through the preaching of the Apostles in v20-26. The first three verses of this last section is where we’ll begin our time today. Follow along as I read John 17:20-23.
Note the following 3 things that stand out in this passage:
1) Unity in Trinitarian Glory: in v20-23 Jesus asks that the future believing community be one. This is not a new request from Jesus, He has already asked His Father to make the Apostles one earlier in v11, and now His first request in behalf of the future community of believers is that they also be in one. Most of us would say being unified is a good thing, but unity isn’t a thing that you only find within the Church, many unbelieving groups strive toward unity also. So what is unique about the kind of unity Jesus is asking His Father for here? Notice that in this passage Jesus isn’t merely asking for unity, He’s asking for a Trinitarian unity.
In v21b after Jesus asks His Father that we would be one He puts a qualifier onto this statement saying, “just as You, Father, are in me and I in You, that they also may be in us…” Those last two words are important to understand the kind of unity being requested here. ‘…in us’ means Jesus wants us to understand that there must be a resemblance between the Church’s unity and the Trinity’s unity, AND more, Jesus is teaching here that the unity within the community of the Trinity is the ground/basis for the unity within the Church. Jesus is asking, ‘Make them one, Father, in us.’ This is Jesus’ goal for His Apostles and His goal for His Church, that we all would be one, as He and His Father are one. So in order to understand the unity of the Church, we must understand the unity between the Father and the Son.
So how are the Father and Son unified? Well, in v21 we see a glimpse of this when Jesus says the Father is in Him and He is in the Father. We see another glimpse of this in v22 when Jesus says the Father gave Him glory, glory that v24 says was given to the Son by Father before the foundation of the world. This glory flowing back and forth between the Father and the Son is what unifies them, it is what makes the one, and it is also this glory that Jesus gives to us in v22. So we see the Father in the Son, the Son in the Father – but if this is to be a Trinitarian glory where is the Holy Spirit? I believe the glory going back and forth between the Father and the Son, the pre-creation glory in v24, the glory given to us in v22, is the Holy Spirit Himself. He is the glory, the effulgence or the radiance of the bond between the Father and the Son. Therefore it is no surprise that upon receiving this Holy Spirit a result is unity, with God and with His Church.
Here we have the unity of Trinitarian glory on display for us. Yet, notice that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are not swallowed up by each other, they stand out distinct as separate Persons within the Godhead. This reality isn’t enjoyed enough in the modern church. We should blow the dust off of those old hymns and songs like the GLORIA PATRI which says, ‘Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen! Amen!’
It is similar with us. When we come to the Son of God in faith we are united to the Son. Because we’re united to the Son, we’re accepted by the Father, and because we’re accepted by the Father v23 tells us that the Father now loves us even as He loves His own Son and because the Father loves us He sends the Holy Spirit to reside in us. So in a very real sense (more real than we know), every believer is in the Father and the Son and the Spirit, yet in our union with the Godhead we don’t lose our own distinctive identity or personality.
2) Unity in Mission: In v21 and v23 we find similar reasons as to why Jesus wants to unify His Church. In the end of v21 Jesus gives a reason for this Trinitarian unity in the Church, namely, “…so that the world may believe that You have sent Me.” Similarly in the end of v23 says, “…so that the world may know that You sent Me and loved them even as You have loved Me.”
This is massive, do not miss this. The unity within the Church is a unity modeled after the unity of God in the community of glory within the Trinity. Thus, when the Church lives in unity with one another something miraculous is seen by the watching world. The character of the Trinitarian God is put on display in the Church, and when the character of God is on display in the Church, people will believe 2 things: 1) v21, that Jesus has come from God, and 2) v23, that in Jesus God has loved us with a Trinitarian love. The unity within the Church exists to be itself a visible representation of the invisible community of the Trinity.
You may not realize how practical this chapter is being right now so let me point it out to you. Because so much is at stake I the unity of the Church, can you now see how vital unity is to the salvation of the lost? Can you see how wicked gossip within the Church is? Can you now see how wicked holding a grudge within the Church is? Can you now see how devastating public sin is within a local church? An un unified local church dishonors God, hurts Christ’s sheep, and tells the world a blatant lie about who God is and what He is all about!
3) We can go further here, and speak of Unity in the Gospel. Most of what I’ve said so far is vertical in nature, between us and God. But can you see that when we’ve been united to and made one with the Godhead in salvation, that this great work of redemption has horizontal effects? Union with Christ leads to unity in Christ. So, true unity begins with the gospel, is upheld by the gospel, lasts by the gospel, and spreads because of the gospel. It begins with the gospel in Ephesians 2:1-10, we were dead in our trespasses and sins’ but God (2:4-5) made us alive together with Christ. By grace we have been saved through faith. This is not our own doing, it’s all the gift of God. This is not a result of our own works, so that no one may boast (2:8-10).
But the gospel doesn’t end with our salvation, it leads to a very disruptive implication, unity. Paul writes of Jews and Gentiles at the end of Ephesians 2, saying that God has “…abolished the dividing wall of hostility that He might create in Himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And He came and preached peace to you were far off and peace to those who were near. For through Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” Did you notice here that it is the gospel alone that upholds unity? How did God get rid of the hostility between Jew and Gentile, two peoples who hate each other? How did He do it? The cross of Christ, where Jew and Gentile are reconciled, given peace, and remade from two separate peoples into one new people. A people who together have access to the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit.
If we continue down in Ephesians, going all the way 3:10 we find the purpose of this disruptive unity. Why did God unite two peoples who didn’t want anything to do with each other? Why does God unite people in His Church today by the blood of His Son? Ephesians 3:10, God’s purpose is “…that through the Church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” What is on display in the unity of the Church? The character of God! This is the principle we just saw in John 17 – the unity within the Church is a reflection of the unity we see in the community of the Trinity.
Let’s make this a more modern parallel than Jews/Gentiles. Consider liberal Democrats and tea party Republicans, or think of the trendy-hip-Broadway singer and the Miller-Lite loving, NRA member NASCAR fan. You bring these groups of people together in a local church, where they would rub shoulders regularly and you’d think things would explode right? No! Because the one thing they have in common just happens to be the most important thing in world – Christ. Union with Christ creates unity in Christ. A unity like this is so unexpected, so contrary to how our world operates, that the ‘rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms’ take notice and get a first hand glimpse at the character and wisdom of God. This is the kind of unity that reveals the gospel, it is this kind of community we must seek to foster at SonRise. Because, to quote Mark Dever ‘When Christians unite around something other than gospel, we create a community that would likely exist even if God didn’t.’ So, true unity in community begins with the gospel, is upheld by the gospel, lasts by the gospel, and spreads because of the gospel.
Let me try to illustrate this for you in an effort to concretely apply this. Suppose you wanted to heart a large room with burning coals, how would you do it? Do you spread the coals evenly throughout the room? No. That would dissipate the heat and eventually each coal would burn out. So how do we heat the room? You push all the individual coals together into one pile in the center of the room, and as they burn together they become one large heat source that’s brighter and hotter, and warmth will fill the room. Such is the unity of the local church. We do not seek to heat a local church with the fire of the gospel by merely getting people inside our doors, no. We seek to heat a local church with the fire of the gospel by unifying the people inside our doors in the truth of the Scripture. The more unified we become the brighter and hotter we’ll burn with the heat of the gospel, and the brighter and hotter we burn with the heat of the gospel, the more compelling our community becomes in its witness to the lost.
Remember, you can’t physically see the gospel; but when we foster and encourage community that is supernatural, it makes the invisible gospel visible. Union with Christ, brings unity in Christ.