Surprising Unity

March 25, 2014Filed under theology#devotionsMarkdown source

I have made it my goal to write short posts reflecting on my devotional reading every day. These posts are composed off the cuff, in 30 minutes or less. The following is one such post. Before writing this post, I read: Psalm 63, Proverbs 25, and 1 Corinthians 1–3.

The surprising unity1 of the church has been a recurring theme on my mind lately. Reading through 1 Corinthians was sure to bring the notion back to the forefront, of course: the book has several prominent topics, but unity is the one to which Paul returns again and again and the one with which he opens the book. The first few chapters are an indictment of the Corinthians for their factionalism, punctuated2 by a theological grounding for that indictment.

In terms of structure, Paul’s epistles to the Corinthians are fairly unique among his writings. Unlike the normal structure of his letters, in which there are fairly clear divisions between expository and hortatory material (though with the requisite qualification that he is often including some exhortations during the exposition and vice versa), his letters to the Corinthians are constantly jumping back and forth between the two. He makes a point, grounds it in the nature of the gospel, and then repeats. First Corinthians circles back to the theme of unity over and over again in this fashion.

In 1 Corinthians 1:18–2, Paul explains the call to unity he laid out in chapter 1 and to which he returns in chapter 3 in terms of Christ’s and the Spirit’s work. What Christ did looked like an incomprehensible weakness to the Jews who were expecting their messiah to come in power, and incomprehensible folly to the Greeks who expected any true leader to come in a demonstration of wisdom. Both of these Jesus set on their heads. In this surprising inversion—so typical of Christ’s work—is forged the grounds for Christian unity. None of us have cause for boasting; God is our wisdom and our power, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.

All of this is accomplished in our midst by the Spirit. Not only do we have nothing apart from Jesus Christ, but we cannot even rightly appropriate him and what he offers on our own. This strength and wisdom we have in Christ is mediated by the Spirit of God. What Paul taught, he taught not in human wisdom by “by the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:13), and only those who were empowered by the Spirit could understand them. They were (and are) folly to anyone who is operating in human understanding alone.3

The unity of the church, which is one of the ways that the world knows us as Christ’s (per the Gospel of John) is, like everything in our faith ultimately a gift from the Triune God. We must actively obey the call to unity, and it will not happen without our effort, but it is Father-given, Son-mediated, Spirit- empowered obedience to walk in a Father-given, Son-mediated, Spirit-empowered way. In some sense, this is all of our sanctification: learning more and more to obey in humble dependence on God who is our all in all.

  1. A phrase I borrowed from one our pastors at First Baptist Durham, Dr. Andy Davis.

  2. You can almost think of the structure as analogous to a sentence with content set off by an em-dash—like so, with some explanatory comment here in the middle—and then continuing to a conclusion. Yes, that’s an absurdly nerdy comparison.

  3. One might suggest that the issue is fallen human understanding, and this is right so far as it goes… but the reason fallen human understanding fails is because it is not reliant on God. Unfallen, or restored, human understanding is wise precisely because it fears Yahweh (cf. Proverbs 1:7).