Since the fall of man, one of the most visible signs of sin in the earth has been the constant conflict between people. Not long after Adam and Eve’s sin, their family was divided when Cain murdered Abel. As time continued and families became separated into people groups and nations division and conflict increased exponentially. To this day our world is divided along national, racial, social, and family lines. Whether it is conflict in families or wars between nations, true unity is elusive and seemingly impossible.
Throughout history the rulers and empires of this age have sought to build a united people capable of accomplishing a common purpose. While some have seen limited success, every attempt to build a unified people has ultimately failed.
Yet, within the human heart is a longing for unity. There is a longing for a purpose greater than ourselves – a purpose that transcends our divisions and ultimately produces a unified people in the earth who achieve far more together than they could have achieved apart from each other. There is a deep desire within us to be part of one people and one family.
Those who do try to achieve unity, usually try to achieve it on the basis of conformity. They set an ideal and then call everyone to conform to that ideal as the basis of unity. However, this is a flawed basis for unity. If people were all the same then unifying them would not be a challenge at all. The challenge of unity is the challenge of people who are intrinsically different from each other being joined together into one people with a common purpose and genuine affection for one another.
The New Testament makes two bold promises related to unity. First, there is the promise that God will have a unified people. Jesus prays for a unified people and throughout the New Testament we see the apostles laboring for a united people. Second, the Bible promises that the God will have a diverse people. The people of God are not only called to be a unified people, they are also called to retain their diversity and their uniqueness. The Bible predicts that God will fulfill both these promises in His people. This seems like an impossible prediction, but the gospel makes it possible.
Jesus’ Glory in our Unity
In His prayer in John 17, Jesus prays that His people will become one:
22The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one (John 17:22 ESV)
Jesus prays that His people will come into unity with one another with the same kind of unity that He has with His Father. When we look at the Trinity we see perfect unity between Father, Son, and Spirit. We see them working together, but also in very unique ways to accomplish a single redemptive purpose. The both function as one and distinctly at the same time and this is part of God’s design for His people. Jesus associates this ability to operate together in unity with His Glory. He gave His people His own glory so that they could come into this same kind of heart unity as they each fulfill their unique role in God’s redemptive purpose. God’s glory will be demonstrated in the earth as His people, across all the nations, both retain their diversity and also come into a unity where they are working together and deeply connected to one another at a heart level.
Not only did Jesus pray for unity, He also predicted that we would come into unity through Him:
21that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:21 ESV)
23I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. (John 17:23 ESV)
According to Jesus, one of the ways the world would know that He was sent by God was the demonstration of unity among His people. This means the unity God intends for His people is so supernatural that it will serve as a sign and a wonder to the nations that Jesus was truly sent by God. It will be such a sign and a wonder because of the genuine love and partnership that exists between people who are very different. Unity in the midst of diversity is one of the things that God intends to use to glorify His Son and demonstrate the power of the gospel. Notice that Jesus says twice in John 17 that the world will believer and know that He came from the Father when it observes the unity of God’s people.
Jesus predicted that the world would know we are His disciples by our love and affection for each other:
35By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35 ESV)
We think of many things that identify the people of God, but Jesus predicts that the nations will know we are His disciples by the love we have for one another. In light of the division and conflict in the earth, this is a profound prediction. While there are many other things we use to measure the effectiveness of the people of God, Jesus evaluates His people by our love for one another because this is something that world can never produce. Genuine love between people who are very different is a sign and a wonder in the earth.
The Bible’s Prediction of Unity
Jesus is so committed to a diverse people that He will not bring this age to an end until disciples are made among all people.
14And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:14 ESV)
19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (Matthew 28:19 ESV)
The book of Revelation predicts that God will have a united people from every people group in the earth:
9And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, (Revelation 5:9 ESV)
9After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, (Revelation 7:9 ESV)
The similarities between these two prophecies indicate just how powerful they are. First, it is significant that the book of Revelation makes this prediction twice. The book of Revelation emphasizes this prediction because Jesus prayed for and predicted this kind of unity among His people. Notice in each case John specifically sees people from every people group. This tells us the value that God has on each people group, and the value He has on diversity among His people. The fact that John sees identifiable people groups among God’s people tells us that their diversity is important. God wants a diverse people, and He so values the diversity of His people that He wants every people group included.
In both predictions in Revelation, we see the people groups before the throne declaring the glory of Jesus. This emphasizes the source of our unity. We retain our diversity as people, but come into unity around the person of Jesus. The source of our unity is our mutual love for Him, not the fact that we all look the same, think the same, or function in the same way. Our diversity finds unity when we focus together as a people on the thing that brings us into unity – the glory and beauty of Jesus.
The book of Revelation predicts that when our diversity comes together to glorify Jesus that it glorifies God. This is the glory that Jesus spoke about in 17:22.
Unity in The Great Commission
The unity of God’s people plays a profound role in the great commission. Not only is unity a sign and a wonder, it is one of the ways in which God fulfills His purposes. Jesus commanded His disciples to take the gospel into every nation (Matthew 28:19) and He repeated His desire for a diverse body in Acts 1. His last instruction to the disciples was that they should take the gospel outside their own ethnic group to other groups.
8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 ESV)
When Jesus told His disciples to be witnesses in Judea, Samaria, and the end of the earth, He gave them His value for diversity in His body. Not only that, the disciples understood that Jesus was asking them to carry the gospel across established social barriers in order to produce a diverse people who at the same time were unified together as the people of Jesus. It was to be one body, consisting of many different people with different cultures, opinions, viewpoints, personalities, and backgrounds.
Jesus commanded us to go to every people group (Matthew 24:14; 28:19; Acts 1:8) and predicted that His body would be known by love and unity (John 13:13; 17:22). In order words, Jesus’ wants a body who is unified and yet maintains their expressions of diversity.
Paul’s Prayers for Unity
The New Testament contains many of Paul’s prayer for the churches. These prayers are important because they are recorded in Scripture for us as an example of how to pray. Paul’s prayers reveal His apostolic heart for the churches and when we look at his prayers in the New Testament we can see Paul’s deep desire for the church to enter into unity.
16that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:16–19 ESV)
In Ephesians 3, Paul prays that we would comprehend and know the love of God with “all the saints.” He was burdened that the churches would know and experience the fullness of God’s love together as a community.
5May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 15:5–6 ESV)
In Romans 15, Paul prayed that the church would live in harmony with one another in accord with Christ Jesus. Paul is praying Jesus’ prayer found in John 17:22. He is praying that we would be one and unity together in agreement with Jesus’ desire for us. In verse 6, Paul tells us that we are to glorify God “with one voice.” Paul understood the church’s call to glorify God with one voice. Paul’s prayer reminds us of the prediction of Revelation 5:9 and 7:9. We are called to glory God together with one voice. One voice means there is a unity among us. We do it together because God values His entire family loving each other and bringing honor to Jesus together. We can glorify God as individuals, but we cannot fulfill the full purposes of God until we glorify Him together as one people. We do that as we gather around the one thing that unifies us – the person of Jesus.
Paul was not only burdened in prayer, he also made an appeal to the church to operate as one body in unity.
10I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. (1 Corinthians 1:10 ESV)
26for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26–28 ESV)
1I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called…3eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1, 3 ESV)
Paul was burdened to pray that the unity Jesus prayed for and that the Bible predicts would come to pass and we should labor for it in the church as well. While we each function in ministry in different ways, Paul was burdened that we find the place of unity be identifying first and foremost with Jesus rather than with different leaders or ministries.
12What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:12–13 ESV)
The Book of Ephesians – God’s Glorious Plan to Use the Entire Body
In the book of Ephesians, Paul lays out plainly the glory of God’s plan to bring different people together into one body. Paul emphasizes God’s glorious plan to make one body and yet preserve the diversity in the body for His purposes. In the book of Ephesians we find that the diversity in the body is actually part of God’s plan and when each part of the body does not contribute their own unique gifts it hinders God’s plan. To demonstrate true biblical unity, each one of us must operate in our own unique gifts, must receive the gift we find in others, and must remain committed to unity as part of the body of Jesus.
The Glory of One New Man
Paul begins the book of Ephesians, by declaring the glorious promise that God has now made us one in Jesus:
14For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility…16and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2:14, 16 ESV)
Jesus has broken down the wall of hostility, or the separation between the races. We are reconciled together as one body through the cross of Jesus. Jesus suffering and death for our sin releases forgiveness into our hearts enabling us to give mercy to others and bring and end to the hostility between us. Paul openly acknowledges that there has been a “dividing wall of hostility” between Jews and gentiles, but that is destroyed in the cross of Jesus. If the long-standing separation and conflict between Israel and the nations is destroyed in the cross, how much more are all the nations to be reconciled together?
Paul tells us that the very mystery of the gospel is how God can bring together very different people groups into one body:
6This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (Ephesians 3:6 ESV)
This is a great mystery because ancient Israel assumed, as many of us do, that the people of God would essentially be on people among the nations. Paul declares the great mystery of God is how He brings together very different people and makes them one. It is a great mystery because it is a task that seems impossible. Paul tells his Jewish readers that the gentiles, a people who are very different, are part of the same body together. This is why unity is mysterious and glorious. The various parts of the body are not made identical. They continue to focus in their own unique ways and yet with a newfound unity of purpose. They are now part of the body of Jesus and as part of that body have the freedom to express who they are in a way that no longer brings division and separation.
Paul urges the body to operate together as one people with an eagerness to maintain unity because God is one and His people are called to be one as well.
1I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1–6 ESV)
The Glory of all the Gifts in the Body
Paul continues in chapter 4 by explaining that God gives diversity in His body in order to produce both unity and maturity:
11And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Ephesians 4:11–14 ESV)
Paul describes maturity as the “unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God.” Unity is part of the maturity of the church. Our unity is found in our faith, which is the knowledge of the Son of God. In other words, we do not need to agree on everything to come into unity. We come into unity through the knowledge of Jesus and what He has done for us. Just as He pursued unity and reconciliation with man when we were against Him, so also the cross liberates us to pursue unity and reconciliation with others who are very different from us.
Paul tells us that God has given different ministry assignments for the purpose of maturing the body into unity. Paul’s emphasis is that we need everyone functioning in their God ordained gift and this diversity actually will mature the body and bring it into God’s vision for unity. As each one demonstrates their gift and the others value and receive from this gift, we grow into God’s intention for the church. When we look at Ephesians 4:11 we see that God established a natural tension in the church that is not designed to prevent unity, but actually produce true unity. The tension of the different gifts in the body produces unity because true unity is found when we are joined to something bigger than ourselves, not when we all become exactly the same.
For example, the shepherds or pastors in the church will also emphasize the need to serve the existing people of God and minister to their needs. This is their God ordained function in the body because that is something God deeply values. At the same time, the evangelists in the church will call the church to reach outside the church and engage the lost with the gospel. One calls the church to serve the existing church and the other calls the church to prioritize reaching others who are not a part of the church. This can create division, but it is designed to create a natural tension when we honor the various gifts. If we are a pastor, when we honor the gift of the evangelist we can hear the voice of God in His call for us to go outside the church walls and engage the lost. In the same way, the evangelist is called to hear the voice of God in the pastor who calls us to minister to those who are already believers.
God gives different parts of His body a burden for different parts of His mission. As individual members of the body we do not have everything that is needed for the church to grow and thrive. Our part is to operate well in the gift God has given us and to receive the gift of God in others even when it is very different from our gift. This is what will bring us into true unity. The glory of unity is that that the pastor becomes an evangelist or the evangelist becomes a pastor. The glory of unity is that the pastor and evangelist function strongly in their gift while also making room for others to function strongly in their gift. As each value the other and are willing to receive from the other and, more importantly, hear the voice of God in the other the church operates in the unity God intended and grows up into the maturity that God intends for the church.
Lessons from Paul’s Ministry – How God uses our Differences to Expand His Kingdom
In Acts 15, a conflict comes up between Paul and Barnabas over a fellow worker called Mark.
36And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” 37Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. 39And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, 40but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. (Acts 15:36–40 ESV)
Barnabas wanted to take Mark with him because he saw potential in Mark and believe he should be a part of their missionary team. Paul refused to take Mark with them because Mark had returned home on the previous journey. Paul was concerned that he would face pressure and persecution on this journey and that Mark would not be able to endure the challenges. Paul was operating in his pioneering gift which valued working in different places and pushing to preach where others had not preached (Romans 15:20).
Barnabas demonstrates a more pastoral gift that values an investment in Mark over and above the extra effort that may be required to bring Mark on the journey. Paul is so set on pioneering that he does not want to be bothered by Mark. Barnabas is so set on discipling Mark that he refuses to go without him. Barnabas is operating in the same grace that caused him to reach out to Paul when the church still believed Paul was an enemy.
Paul continued his way with Silas in order to function in his gift to plant churches in difficult places. Barnabas separated from Paul in order to function in his gift to pastor and disciple immature believers. Later in his life, Paul gives a very different assessment of Mark in his letter to Timothy:
11Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. (2 Timothy 4:11 ESV)
Mark has obviously matured and Paul now recognizes that Mark is “very useful” to him in ministry. Mark’s usefulness to Paul’s mission later in life demonstrates the wisdom of both Paul and Barnabas operating in their calling. Paul had to pioneer in areas that Mark was not ready for. However, Barnabas concern for Mark’s development ensured that Mark was able to mature into a useful servant.
Sadly, Paul and Barnabas allowed a division between them to emerge because of how differently they flowed in their gifts. However, in hindsight we can see the wisdom of God in Paul and Barnabas each operating in their gifts. Both should have been able to recognize the differences in their gifts and how their different gifts could build the body. Paul’s labor and Barnabas labor, though very different, both served to build the church.
Paul and Barnabas’ argument contains a significant message for us. When divisions emerge among us, sometimes what is needed is a recognition of the differences in our own gifts. If we can value the gifts that others have – particularly the gifts that are different from our own gift – and make room for each other to express our God given gifts it will result in the expansion of the kingdom. This is what it means for the body to walk in true unity.