A popular topic for discussion and focus of attention and energy today is that of “unity.” In the Bible, there are many passages that speak of this, and our passage for today is one of the most important in this regard. Thousands of sermons have been preached, and books written, on the subject of unity. I received a letter some time ago from a professional colleague who teaches in a seminary run by the United Church of Christ. I was interested to notice the UCC’s insignia, which was on the letterhead stationery: “That they may all be one.”
In other religious traditions, a similar focus can be found. Even such pseudo-religious movements, such as the “New Age” (where God is not spoken of, but where the focus is on getting in touch–even uniting–with nature, and on whatever “god” is within), speak of unity, both with the cosmos and with others of like mind. One of the strongest attractions of the cults is the appeal to the core need to belong and to be needed, and the unity exhibited in cult groups is a powerful draw toward them. Even in the secular world unity within groups is very important, and pysychologists see similar dynamics in effect whether a group is a religious one—Christian or otherwise—or whether it is a secular one.
If secular people and those from other religious traditions see the importance of unity for their groups, so should Christians. Many passages in Scripture deal with unity in the family of believers. Here, I will consider two, one well-known and one not so well-known.
1 Corinthians 12:12-20
The books of 1 and 2 Corinthians were written by Paul to the church at Corinth as “occasional documents.” This means that they were written for specific occasions, to address specific needs and problems within that church. As we read through these two books, we constantly see Paul addressing first one concern then another. One important concern was the issue of unity within the church. At the end of the preceding chapter, we see him addressing the issue of unity and propriety in the taking of the Lord’s Supper (11:17-33).
In chapter 12 (as well as in chapters 13 and 14), Paul addresses the issue of spiritual gifts. Here (in 12:1-11), he is making the point that the same Lord gives gifts to all members of the body, but different gifts. Then, in our passage, he wants to emphasize the point that all of these differences are essential to the proper functioning of the body of Christ. No part of the body may dismiss another as being insignificant. We would have no body at all if it were only one large hand, or even one large heart (important as the heart is)! Even the way that the parts of the body are put together reflect God’s wisdom.
I recall a youth worker when I was young entertaining us all trying to imagine what life would be like if God had created us with noses that pointed up instead of down! It would have been a terrible inconvenience, of course! This goes to show that God knew what he was doing even when he created our noses pointing down!
More seriously, verse 13 emphasizes the unity of the body by pointing out that at our conversion, at our salvation, we are all “baptized” by one and the same Spirit into one body. That is a wonderful and profound truth.
This concern for unity among God’s people is illustrated by a passage in the Old Testament: Joshua 1:10-18. Here we have God’s people, the Israelites, poised to enter the land that had been promised to them hundreds of years earlier. They are about to be led over the Jordan River into this land to possess it. Some military battles lay ahead.
One group of the Israelites was not going to settle across the Jordan, however. This was the group consisting of the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh, often referred to as the “Transjordan tribes.” They had been granted land on this side of the Jordan (v. 13), and this land already had been pacified. Thus, we could easily understand if they had not wanted to cross the Jordan and enter the hostile territory beyond: why should they risk their lives for land that would not belong to them anyways?
However, before they could actually possess the land, the Transjordan tribes needed to demonstrate their commitment to the unity of the nation and to the oath which they had sworn (vv. 14-15). The background to this passage is found in several passages in Numbers and Deuteronomy, particularly Numbers 32 and Deuteronomy 3.
In Numbers 32 we find the story of the Reubenites and Gadites asking for permission to settle in Transjordan, and swearing to help their brothers before they settle down. (Moses grants their request, and gives land to the half tribe of Manasseh, too.)
Note that Joshua’s charge to them in Josh. 1:14 [“your wives, your little ones, and your cattle shall remain in (Transjordan while you help your brothers)”] is couched in the very terms by which these tribes had already committed themselves in Num. 32:26-27 [“our little ones, our wives, our flocks, our cattle shall remain there … (while we help our brothers)”].
In Deuteronomy 3 we find Moses’s review of the same events. Indeed, Josh. 1:13-15 virtually quotes Deut. 3:18-20 word-for-word. Moses here exhorted and reminded them at the end of his life, to keep their oath, also in their own words [vv. 19-20: “your wives, your little ones, your cattle … shall remain (in Transjordan) until the LORD gives rest to your brethren …”].
Joshua 1:16-18 are the Transjordan tribes’s response of commitment to Joshua’s words in vv. 13-15. Verses 16-17a are especially instructive in terms of attitudes of obedience, and they echo the entire nation’s response of commitment to the Law given at Mt. Sinai in Exod. 24:7: “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” In verses 17b-18, these tribes pronounce a beautiful blessing on Joshua himself, echoing God’s own words of vv. 5-6.
The follow-up to this passage is in Joshua 22. Here, in vv. 1-6, Joshua commends these tribes for having been faithful, and exhorts them to keep the Law and to love and serve the LORD (v. 5). Then, in verses 10-34 we see further evidence of this commitment to the LORD: when they returned to possess their own land, the Transjordan tribes built an altar. It was misunderstood at first as a rival altar to the one, legitimate altar sanctioned by God at the Tabernacle (v. 19). However, they had no such intention: rather, they erected it as a sign of their commitment to their brothers west of the Jordan and to the oaths they had taken (vv. 26-29). For them, the unity of the nation was of paramount importance.
We can see in this Old Testament passage, then, the same principle at work that we have seen in 1 Corinthians 12:12-20: the unity of the body of believers is essential to the proper functioning of that body.
David Howard, Ph.D.
Professor of Old Testament
- Pray that we would strive toward unity with the other believers in our lives, thereby witnessing to the world the greatness of our Savior.
- Pray for those preparing for and traveling to Godward Life.
- Pray for the full funding of The Serious Joy Scholarships that support our students and their teachers.