Paul’s Passion For Unity In The Church
1 Thessalonians 5:25–28 25 Brethren, pray for us. 26 Greet all the brethren with a holy kiss. 27 I adjure you by the Lord to have this letter read to all the brethren. 28 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
The unity of a church is the strength of the church. Unity will affect the church’s effectiveness, piety, maturity and worship (cf. Eph. 4.11-16). Scripture is unrelenting in calling for God’s people to be united. It not only calls for unity but gives us various principles and the path of unity in the gospel. Paul’s closing statements to the Thessalonians is one of those places where the doctrine of unity in the church can be found. These are short, potent, valuable and precious principles for the unity of Christ’s church for every generation.
Unity Through Prayer
Paul’s request for prayer shows us several things about Paul his understanding of prayer, his view of ministry and his faith in the power of God. It is difficult for the church to be divided when we are infused with a spirit of prayer. Prayer makes us vulnerable before God and each other. Prayer is meant to bring us within the veil into God’s presence where we come into an understanding of God’s omniscience and holiness (cf. Ps. 142; Is. 6.1-8). Paul’s prayer request also reveals his view of the body’s spiritual unity. Our unity as a spiritual body, a living organism and holy temple to the Lord is rooted in our universal, mystical, redemptive and vital union to Christ who unites us by His redemption and intercession (cf. Eph. 2.20-22):
John 17:20–21 20 “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; 21 that they may all be one; even 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 sent Me.
Based on Jesus’ prayer for the Church, there should be no division within the church. This was something Paul always maintained. This was his view of the church and passion for the church practically that division not be allowed to creep in and destroy a church’s unity thereby undermining Christ’s will for the church:
1 Corinthians 1:10 10 Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment.
Paul’s request also reminds us of the best kind of unity, gospel-unity or unity for the sake of the furtherance of the gospel. The Philippians were exemplary on this point:
Philippians 1:3–5 3 I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4 always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, 5 in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now.
The unity of the church is not merely so that Christians will get alone; its far more than that. Our unity is a precondition to our effectiveness as a witness. If we do not walk together we will not last (Amos 3.3), a house divided against itself will not last (Mk. 3.25), can the members of the body say to each other “I have no need of you” (1 Cor. 12.21). Paul saw his need for the body. In one sense there is no greater way to stay connected to the church than through prayer. After praying for the Philippians, Paul expresses his sincere love for them, “I have you in my heart” (Phil. 1.7-8; also 1 Th. 2.8).
In one sense, Paul’s prayer, “Brethren, pray for us” (Ἀδελφοί, προσεύχεσθε [καὶ] περὶ ἡμῶν), is a confession. It is a prayer of humility, dependence, and personal inadequacy and weakness (cf. 2 Cor. 3.5-6). Prayer unites the church because it forces us to confess and recognize our spiritual needs before one another (cf. Jam. 5.16), it reminds us of our spiritual adversaries (cf. Eph. 6.10ff.; 1 Pet. 5.8), and forces us to look up to where all the answers are found and from whence our victory comes (cf. Ps. 46.1; 121.1; 124.8; 146.5-6; Is. 40.28-29; 41.13; Jer. 20.11; Hos. 13.9; 2 Cor. 1.8-11). Peter provides us with a very helpful parallel here:
1 Peter 4:7–8 7 The end of all things is near; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer. 8 Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.
Unity Through Affection
When a church is genuinely concerned for one another in prayer, true or genuine an godly affection is not far behind. Paul next expresses his love and affection for the church with a common greeting-gesture (Rom. 16.16a; 1 Cor. 16.20b; 2 Cor. 13.12a; also 1 Pet. 5.14), “Greet all the brethren with a holy kiss” (Ἀσπάσασθε τοὺς ἀδελφοὺς πάντας ἐν φιλήματι ἁγίῳ). The concept of “a holy kiss” (φιλήματι ἁγίῳ) may seem somewhat puzzling to the Western mind, but in the Orient and in the Greco-Roman culture, a “kiss” greeting was simply a cultural gesture— a gesture still practiced today in many cultures around the world. However, it is not the cultural norm that is the most significant point, it’s the affection that lays behind it. Whether it’s a handshake, hug, holding hands, bowing before one another; the real spiritual issue at stake here is the holiness and the affection between the brethren.
Paul had already expressed his deep affection for the church in this letter as he does in many of the letters:
1 Thessalonians 2:7–8 7 But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. 8 Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.
What should be the precise nature of our affectionate love for the brethren? What is the standard, motive and paradigm for such affection? Paul sums it up with his opening greeting to the Philippians:
Philippians 1:8 8 For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.
As it comes to the way that we not only greet one another but overall fellowship and interact with one another; our affection is the affection of Christ. His love and affection is our example. Our affection should be sincere (1 Pet. 1.22), reverent (Phil. 1.9-11), stimulating (Heb. 10.24), gladdening (Phil. 2.17-18), humble (Phil. 2.3), and self-less (Rom. 12.3, 10, 16). Again, to the Philippians Paul is seeking to bring unity to a church through following Christ’s example of love and affection; an example we all can and should follow. In one sense this passage can be called the very Magna Carta of Christian unity because it reveals to us the very mind of Christ:
Philippians 2:1–5 1 Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, 2 make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. 3 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; 4 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. 5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus,
Unity Through Scripture
While the affection of the church may fluctuate between brothers and sisters, the next principle that Paul gives was to be constant and uncompromised, namely the preeminence of Scripture in the church’s unity and worship. Paul brings in a striking tone of authority and sobriety here, “I adjure you by the Lord to have this letter read to all the brethren” (Ἐνορκίζω ὑμᾶς τὸν κύριον ἀναγνωσθῆναι τὴν ἐπιστολὴν πᾶσιν τοῖς ἀδελφοῖς). What makes this exhortation so striking is not just that Paul insists that the letter be “read to all the brethren” (ἀναγνωσθῆναι τὴν ἐπιστολὴν πᾶσιν τοῖς ἀδελφοῖς) but in just how insistent he is about it, “I adjure you by the Lord” (Ἐνορκίζω ὑμᾶς τὸν κύριον).
The word that he uses here, “I adjure” (Ἐνορκίζω), which is used only here in the NT, literally means ‘to put someone under oath’ (see, BDAG). In the LXX the Greek translators supplied that word for the Hebrew word [שׁבע] in Neh. 13.25 when Nehemiah made the Jews “swear by God” that the nation should not engage in marriage between pagan nations. Here Paul is speaking from a mature, spiritual and pastoral concern for the church to be exposed to his commands because the things which he wrote to them were the commands of the Lord (cf. 1 Cor. 14.37-38). This touched upon the church’s view of Scripture and the place that Scripture would come to have among the assembly. Earlier Paul praised the church for its willingness to receive the preaching of the apostles as God’s very word:
1 Thessalonians 2:13 13 For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.
Paul praised them because they had adopted the same view that he himself had consistently held and taught in all of the churches. It was this same emphasis upon Scripture that he imparted to Timothy. Scripture was to be preached (2 Tim. 4.1-2), contemplated (2 Tim. 2.7), protected (1 Tim. 6.20), and obeyed (2 Thess. 3.14). Paul wanted the church to covenant with him by giving Scripture its proper prominence in the church thereby building the church on the proper foundation. Scripture is thus foundational for the church. It formulates the world and life view of the church. Scripture equips the church and reveals God’s mind to the church (1 Cor. 2.14-16). This is why the word of God was to be given such prominence. Paul’s teaching on this is ubiquitous in his letters:
1 Timothy 4:6 6 In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following.
1 Timothy 4:13–16 13 Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching. 14 Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed on you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery. 15 Take pains with these things; be absorbed in them, so that your progress will be evident to all. 16 Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.
2 Timothy 3:16–17 16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
Unity Through Grace
Paul leaves the church with the best possible greeting that he can, with the “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ἡ χάρις τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ). This stresses not only the utter necessity for grace but also the source of that grace. Not only are we in need of God’s grace in terms of His ability to keep us, to build us up spiritually, to save us and sanctify us; with these words Paul reminds us that God’s grace is not available but through Jesus Christ- His person and His work. He is the Mediator of God’s grace. He makes God’s grace accessible and personal.
We dare not personify grace and other virtues, ‘grace is strong enough’, ‘love will find a way’, or everyone’s favorite, ‘the power of faith.’ These virtues do not extend farther than the power of the source to which they are connected. It must be “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” for it to be truly life-changing, powerful, effectual grace in our lives. If not, we will reduce grace to a moral maxim, and moral principle that we expect to work mystically over our lives like a ‘good luck’ charm. When “grace” is not conceived of as the divine virtue that stems from a vital union with Jesus Christ; grace will cease to be grace and it will be indistinguishable from the world’s concept of self-help, self-esteem, or what Michael Horton rightly pointed out in his book Christless Christianity, Moralistic-Therapeutic-Deism.
But there is a difference. The difference is Christ. Christ with the church, and in turn the church seeking Christ, serving Christ, worshiping Christ, thirsting for Christ, longing for Christ, and exalting Christ. But far and above anything we can do for Him is all that He can do for us. He is to us the way to paradise (Lk. 23.43), the living water (John 4.10; 7.37-38; Rev. 7.17; cf. Is. 12.3), the resurrection and the life (John 11.25). He is our peace (Eph. 2.14), safety, security and strength (2 Tim. 4.17).
But an emphasis on the grace of Jesus is an emphasis on the gospel. Just as there is no gospel without grace there is no grace without the gospel. If the church will survive it must do so by daily meditating, receiving and proclaiming “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ἡ χάρις τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ). What we will find in the grace of Christ is Christ’s own loveliness, beauty and glory. His grace will lead us back to the cross where our sins were done away with (Col. 2.14). His grace will humble us with the knowledge of election as we think about the eternal grace of God that predestined us unto adoption to the praise of His grace (Eph. 1.4-6). His grace will magnify our loathsome unworthiness before God reminding us of our proper place in the dust as we prostrate ourselves at the mercy of His grace and confess that we are but worms (cf. Job 25.6; Is. 41.14; 1 Tim. 1.15; see also, Gen. 18.27). His grace is also dignifying, exalting, edifying and encouraging grace reminding us that because of His grace we share in an inheritance of light (Col. 1.12). Because of His grace our inheritance is an everlasting heritage of grace where we will forever sing of His grace, magnify His grace and treasure the grace of God by which alone we have been made to differ (cf. Rev. 5.9-14).
Paul says, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” It is to be taken up, taken with, and taken in to the bosom of our souls and lives. We cannot grow, mature, or live without grace, we dare not strive or battle, or minister, or preach apart from grace (cf. Eph. 3.8), and we will not stand but by the grace of our Lord. Therefore, the grace of God is not to be abused (Rom. 6.1-2), neglected (Heb. 13.9), or taken for granted. In Paul’s words, without the grace of Jesus Christ we would all be heretics, and Christ’s death would be meaningless. I say heretics because the only place to go if we abandon the grace of God is legalism:
Galatians 2:20–21 20 “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. 21 “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.”