Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes!
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the LORD has commanded the blessing,
Psalm 133 ESV
Within this penultimate psalm, the Songs of Ascents prepare to conclude. Psalm 132 called us to meditate upon Jerusalem and its king and people. Particularly, it focused upon the beauty of God choosing to dwell among His followers. Psalm 133 now turns our attention toward that God-inhabited community, reminding us of the beauty of being a unified people for God.
THE GOODNESS OF UNITY
This psalm is a poetic meditation upon the sweetness of brotherly unity. It is a psalm of David, who certainly understood from personal experience the damages that strife within a family could cause. Verse 2 is an image of the pleasantness of unity by describing the anointing ceremony of Aaron as the high priest. The anointing oil was meant to represent the Holy Spirit coming upon the person to empower them for their task. The second imagery in verse 3 is of dew from Mount Hermon descending upon the mountains of Zion. The first analogy exemplifies the holiness that must both mark and empower God’s people in unity, while the second emphasizes our dependence on God for our unity. Theses are, therefore, the basic ideas of the psalm; let us now apply them toward the brotherhood that we share in Christ.
We must begin by noting that the New Testament affirms the goodness and pleasantness of God’s people being unified. In the high priestly prayer of John 17, Jesus asked the Father to unify His disciples even as He and the Father are one. Paul similarly upholds the importance of unity within his letters. In Philippians 2:2, he states, “Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” To the Ephesians, he claims that walking in a manner worthy of our calling means being “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:3). In the following verse, the Apostle roots our unity in our worship of one God, by one Spirit, into one body, through one faith, in one baptism, for one Lord. To the Colossians, he wrote, “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (3:14). To the Corinthians, he appealed, “that you may agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1:10). Peter, likewise, urged that “all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8).
Still, the New Testament’s warnings against disunity are just as numerous.
“As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:10-11).
“I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Romans 16:17).
“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21).
It is worth noting that the list of the flesh’s works in Galatians is presented as the opposite of the fruits of the Spirit. While Paul lists fifteen sins, eight of them are sins which directly threaten the unity of the church. Obviously, therefore, the New Testament places a significant importance upon the unity of the church. But why is unity so highly emphasized in the first place?
The unity of the church reflects the power of the gospel to the world. Paul spends a significant time in Ephesians addressing how the gospel destroyed the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles. Indeed, the gospel alone was mighty enough to bridge the gap between those peoples. Similarly, whenever we stand firmly together without anything to link us but Christ, the strength of the gospel is made visible. And given that the gospel message is actively undoing the effects of Babel in the world, we should pray that its power spreads all the more.
Furthermore, unity is an indicator of holiness. God’s people are holy because we belong and imitate our holy God. Those, then, whose lives are marked by God’s grace will be happy givers of grace as well. Those who have been embraced by the Father will be glad to embrace others as well. Those upon whom the peace of God dwells will be peacemakers. When we strive for unity, we image God; we live as His holy people.
This is especially critical because the world cannot duplicate the unifying effects of the gospel. Skim through today’s media, and you will be met with the ideas of diversity and tolerance being held out as some of the supreme dogmas of the day. Yet in practice, uniformity appears to be the actual goal, which is made evident when differing viewpoints are demonized in place of being understood.
Christianity, on the other hand, should be the exemplar of diversity and tolerance. What, after all, could be more tolerant than loving those who hate you and praying for those who persecute you? What could be more tolerant than Jesus healing lepers and demonic mad men in the first century? Yet Christianity exemplifies these ideas precisely by not making them primary. We hold to Jesus alone as supreme, and, because of that joyous truth, we are then able to love others like He did.
Hear this, brothers and sisters, nothing is more unifying than the gospel. The reasoning is twofold.
First, the gospel begins by reminding us that we are all equally damned before God. Ephesians 2 says that before Christ we were dead in our sin. Are there different levels of deadness? Is the one who died five minutes ago less dead than the he who died 500 years ago? No, dead is dead. Likewise, sin condemns. Each sin is an offense against the holy, good, and eternal God, and each one, therefore, earns us a just and eternal punishment.
Second, the gospel makes us children of God by the exact same work. Christians are able to be unified because there is no hierarchy within the body of Christ. The substitutional death of Jesus bought forgiveness for each of us. We, therefore, have no grounds for boasting; our works were worthless. We each have different roles and functions, but we still form just piece of the whole. And we’ve been grafted into the body because of the Christ and Christ alone. We have all been made Christians by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, nothing more, nothing less.
Too often we can begin to believe that being a good theologian makes us a good Christian. We can believe that knowing theology will bring us into a higher form of Christianity. Ben Myers aptly writes against this mentality by revealing the true benefit of a greater theological understanding:
“’All things are yours,’ says Paul: ‘all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God’ (1 Cor 3:21-23). We are not beggars hoping for scraps. We are like people who have inherited a vast estate: we have more than we can take in at a single glance. In the same way, it takes considerable time and effort to begin to comprehend all that we have received in Christ. Theological thinking does not add a thing to what we have received. The inheritance remains the same whether we grasp its magnitude or not. But the better we grasp it, the happier we are. (The Apostles’ Creed, xv-xvi)
Therefore, arguing degrees of sin or righteousness is utterly nonsensical. Gloating that someone is more sinful than you is like being on a sinking ship and rejoicing that someone else went into the water first. Likewise, boasting in your own righteousness is like a man bragging that he has more paperclips than his coworkers. All of our sins, big or small, condemned us to hell, and our good deeds, however great or numerous, were powerless to save us. We are all in the same boat, and that is fertile ground for unity. The gospel is the only solid foundation for true unity. It is the gift of God that He alone rains down upon His people through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ our Lord.
UNITY AT WHAT COST?
But if unity is such a good thing, we must then ask when is (or even whether there is) a proper time for severing that unity? The unity described is between brothers, so at what point does a person who claims Christianity remove themselves from the brotherhood? How can we discern between a true brother with whom we may sharply disagree and someone who has ventured into heresy, leaving behind sound doctrine and abandoning the faith?
These are the kinds of questions that particularly shape how we view ecumenical efforts. Ecumenism is typically understood as attempting to unite the various branches of Christianity together. Sometimes it is used as uniting all religions, which is really just religious pluralism, so we would obviously reject that understanding. But unifying all of Christianity, isn’t that a worthwhile endeavor? Should we pursue ecumenism?
First, we must remember that unity is not maintained at the expense of sound doctrine. A departure from the essential beliefs of Christianity is a denial of Christianity itself. Then, of course, comes the question: what are the essential beliefs of Christianity? We might rightly begin with the sort of proto-creed in 1 Corinthians 15: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” Since Paul calls this statement of first importance, we should conclude that a denial of the atoning death of Jesus and His bodily resurrection is a denial of Christianity.
But still, most Christian groups affirm those verses. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and even Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to believe in the death and resurrection of Christ. Should we, then, all unite under this truth? Very early into church history, Christians began to declare a series of core truths during baptism which revolved around affirming the Trinity. This baptismal confession came to be called the Apostles’ Creed. Although it was not written by the Apostles themselves, Christians readily affirmed it as a summary of the Apostles’ teachings. This creed would go on to form the basis of the more detailed Nicene Creed, which clarified the divinity of Christ. If we hold to the truths expressed within those creeds, Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses are both removed from the stream of orthodoxy.
What about Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox? Both fall into conflict with Protestantism’s declaration of salvation by faith alone. While I have no doubt that there are genuine disciples of Christ within these branches of Christianity, I do not believe that the beliefs themselves align with the truths of Scripture. Our understanding of the gospel is so different that unity under the gospel is virtually impossible. This is especially true of Catholicism, which in the Councils of Trent declared anathema (or eternally damned) everyone who believes salvation by faith alone. By this still standing official doctrine, we cannot be united with Roman Catholicism.
What do we do then with fellow Protestants? We must begin by recognizing the differences between convictions and essentials. This is crucial because a person who denies an essential doctrine of Christianity is a heretic, which means that they are not of the faith, they are not in Christ, and they are still in their sins and under the wrath of God. That is the reality of being a heretic. O brothers and sisters, may we never pronounce that word upon others flippantly. We must remember that God holds unnecessarily dividing His church as a form of heresy in and of itself. To cause divisions within the church over personal convictions is the self-condemning action of a warped and sinful person. We must, therefore, guard ourselves against the extremes of both liberalism and fundamentalism. Liberalism seeks to place all essentials into the realm of conviction, while fundamentalists want to make their convictions into essentials. Both, though in different ways, undermine the essential doctrines of the faith.
But even when we agree on the essentials, we may have deep convictions that make it difficult to be unified. Some of these convictions will certainly run so deep that we are not able to gather together within the same local church each week. Navigating through strong convictions is perhaps made easier if both parties can agree upon the authority of the Scriptures, which is a foundational belief since Paul grounded the death and resurrection of Christ as being “in accordance with the Scriptures.” If we can both agree that Scripture is our final authority, we should at least be able to understand one another’s reasoning. Without the Bible as our authority, we will each appeal to various traditions, philosophies, arguments, and viewpoints, yet if it is, our discussions should have a fairly fixed reference point.
But how exactly do we fight for unity within the church? Peter said it well: by possessing sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Unity is impossible without these qualities.
Sympathy urges us to seek mutual understanding. Perhaps this is the quality most sorely missing in today’s climate. Too often, even within the church, we tend to presume guilt by default instead of actively giving others the benefit of the doubt. Do you actively seek to understand others’ viewpoints? Do you assume the best about your brothers and sisters with whom you disagree?
Brotherly love, then, makes us genuinely seek each other’s good. When you disagree, especially with a fellow Christian, do you seek to win the argument or to build them up in the faith?
A tender heart keeps us sensitive to the needs and weaknesses of others. Consider how a tender heart may be necessary for loving and shepherding someone who is leaving heretical spin on Christianity, such as Mormonism. The indoctrination of those groups is so powerful that a significant length of time might be necessary to help them see the true teachings of Scripture. To label this person who is laboring to leave heretical teachings a heretic could inflict a much deeper wound upon the already wounded. A tender heart, however, keeps us ready to care for the weaker sheep among us.
A humble mind keeps us willing and ready to admit our errors or faults. Note that true humility is ready to concede when necessary. Too often, I am fine with the abstract concept of admitting an error, yet I prove to be unyielding when the time comes. The prideful holding of ground can cause splinters within God’s people, but humility nourishes a church’s unity.
Given that we will continue to wrestle against sin throughout this life, we will need to possess these qualities in abundance. Our unity depends upon them.
Yet ultimately, our unity is reliant upon God. Like dew from Hermon falling upon the mountains of Zion, God must give us the power to remain unified. We must be led and guarded by the Holy Spirit in order to bear with one another in love.
Indeed, whenever unity is present, true and biblical unity, the blessing of God is surely to be found. A people cannot be united by the Living Water and not themselves become fountains of that same Water. A church that is unified both in spirit and in truth becomes a conduit for God’s blessing. We glimpse the glories and goodness of eternal life with God whenever we participate in the blessing of the communion of the saints here.
Unity, indeed, is pleasant. Have you savored it yet?
May we, therefore, strive for unity with one another.
May we earnestly seek unity through sympathy, brotherly love, tender hearts, and humble minds.
May we keep the gospel front and center of our lives, knowing that only it can destroy the walls of hostility caused by our sins.
May Jesus both unify and glorify His church.
 Although, I believe, we should balance this thought with the realities of church life within the New Testament. For example, Jesus told the church of Sardis that they were a dead church with nothing more than a reputation for being alive. For the believers in Sardis, there was no other church for them to move to. They were forced to face the reality that Jesus was speaking to and of them. Their collective repentance would also need to be done as individuals.