biblical vocabulary: unity

It’s been a little while since our last installment in the Biblical Vocabulary series, but there has been a word on my mind recently that I think deserves a closer look, especially because it’s so easily misunderstood. The word is unity.

The concept of unity (or the lack thereof) seems to have crept into conversations across a broad range of topics in recent years. We are confronted with division and conflict on every side, and in spite of the fact that so many voices in the public square are denouncing that divisiveness, the splits and chasms only seem to broaden. It matters now more than ever that the Church understands unity - what it is, what it isn’t, and why we so desperately need it.

So, what is unity? How does the Bible define it?

What is unity?

Our dictionary defines unity as “the state of being one; oneness.” I think that’s a good starting point, even though it sounds rather elementary; unity is one of those words that’s pretty easy to throw around without remembering its most basic meaning. The prefix “uni-” means “one” - not “same,” not “compromise,” not “fairness,” not “equality.” One.

That’s the word and meaning Jesus used when He prayed, the night before His death, that His followers and all those who would believe in Him be “perfected in unity.”

“I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; 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. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.”

John 17:20-23

Unity, by Jesus’ description, is the ultimate evangelistic tool the Church possesses. It is the ultimate representation of who God is and what He has done for humanity. It was Christ’s unity with the Father that made Him willing to come to earth as the salvation for humanity, whatever the cost. It is the Church’s unity with God and one another that makes us the guiding light toward Jesus in a dismal, dog-eat-dog world.

But we can’t fulfill that mission if we’re striving after a mistaken understanding of unity.

Jesus was one with the Father without being the same as the Father. He desires us to be one with Him, even though we can’t possibly be equal to Him. He asks us to be one with each other even though we all come from different backgrounds, have different opportunities, and experience different wounds. He envisions unity, oneness, among all of His children - even when some of them have absolutely nothing in common beyond Jesus Christ Himself.

Sometimes, we think we’re fighting for unity when we are really fighting for sameness. Or we think we’re fighting for unity when we are really fighting for fairness. Or equality. Or compromise. We often mistake for unity a room in which everyone acquiesces to the status quo, everyone looks and acts and speaks the same, and no one rocks the boat with a hard question, rebuke, or dissent.

But the real power of real unity is only found in oneness, which defies all our natural prerequisites for camaraderie, community, and teamwork to bring together the unlikeliest of human beings and unite them in Christ, the cornerstone.

biblical vocabulary : What is unity?

Unity is a value statement.

True, Biblical unity is reflected best in Christ’s oneness with the Father. Father and Son had very different roles in the mission to redeem fallen humanity; One remained on the throne, holding the universe in His hands, while the other cast off His holy power and royal rights to become a sacrificial Lamb. To accomplish the greatest rescue of all time, these two Persons of the Godhead became unequal. The demands on one of them became unfair. Their actions and experiences became completely different and separate.

Yet they were still One, because they both gave equal, all-important weight to the ultimate goal: the salvation of the world.

In the Church, we frequently get unity backward. We rally together as groups of people who look and act and think the same, but divide based on how we understand and interpret truth. (If you don’t believe me, consider the sheer number of different denominations that exist, and what “kind” of people stereotypically attend each church in your area.) Biblical unity is the opposite: It’s very different people with very different experiences and perspectives coming together to stand on the same truth and pursue the same goal.

The kind of unity that points the whole world to Jesus can’t be accomplished when we select our churches based on whether they serve our similar demographic or cater to our exact interests, or when churches silence the legitimate questions, ideas, changes, and concerns of individuals in an effort to prevent “division.” We all need to keep our eyes on the big picture, and examine the value statements we are making at individual, local, and denominational levels. Do we balance the weights of different issues in a way that’s consistent with the priorities of God’s Word, our foundation - or are we clinging too hard to certain preferences and petty differences?

Is abiding in life with Christ and the sharing of His abundant love with our brothers and neighbors the foremost concern on our hearts?

If we can all become one behind that cause - even if some of us like to sing hymns and some of us like to worship in dance, or if some of us are decades younger in age and experience than the congregation around us, or if some of us are Calvinists and some of us aren’t - then our testimony to the world will be impossible to snuff out.

There is a reason Paul uses the metaphor of a body to describe the Church. Just as a physical body needs all its different parts in order to stay healthy and accomplish its created purpose, the Church body needs a diversity of people that work together in unity toward its common health and common goals.

For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

1 Corinthians 12:12-13

The issues we unite behind are a clear and direct statement to the world about what we believe and value. If we can only unite around our demographics or around secondary theological issues, they’ll notice that in the big picture, we are just as divided as they are. But if we can become one, despite all of our differences, around the ultimate truth of who God is and what He has done? Then, as Jesus said, the world will know exactly who He is, and how He loves.

biblical vocabulary: contentment

I’m not sure if this is anyone’s favorite word. I once attended a women’s retreat where the keynote was centered entirely around this concept, and I must admit it was some of the sharpest conviction I’ve ever experienced. To this day, it’s a word that inspires a little bit of a cringe in me, and it’s something I think most of us try not to think about too much. But what is it?

What is “contentment”? What does the Bible say it is?

This is our fourth lesson in the Biblical Vocabulary series. If you haven’t yet, pause for a moment to read up on faith, joy, and worship, because they’ll all play a role in our understanding of contentment.

What is contentment?

The dictionary definition of contentment is straightforward:

“The state of being satisfied with what one is or has; not wanting more or anything else.”

Now you understand why this word stings the conscience a bit. I don’t know when I last met someone I could freely describe as “contented,” and I certainly don’t think I’ve ever met a contented version of myself.

For all secular intents and purposes, this definition of contentment is pretty good. But there’s one very important thing it’s missing if we want to develop a truly Biblical understanding of what it means to be content, so our next stop needs to be the Bible itself.

But I rejoiced greatly, that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Nevertheless, you have done well to share with me in my affliction.

Philippians 4:10-14

We all know at least one verse in this passage: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Without its context, this verse becomes a mantra for athletes and a slogan for bumper stickers, but it gains a whole new power when we realize this isn’t about what we can achieve, or reaching for the stars. It’s about what we can be satisfied with - even if we never touch the stars.

Notice Paul’s situation as he writes these words to the Philippians. They’ve sent him a gift, something to help sustain him as he continues in the work of ministry, and he rejoices in their care for him. But he does not need their care for him in order to be content. He doesn’t covet their resources; he’s not driven to steal or con his way to accessing them. If God provides through the Philippians, Paul rejoices - and if He does not, Paul is content. It’s nothing about Paul’s circumstances, relationships, or potential that give him this power and freedom; it’s Christ alone (which should sound familiar to you if you studied the definition of joy with us!).

“I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” I am satisfied because Christ is my satisfaction and sustenance.

The dictionary told us that to be content is to be “satisfied with what one is or has; not wanting more or anything else.” The Bible tells us that the only way this state of being is possible, especially when we are truly “suffering need” as Paul said, is to be entirely dependent on Christ.

That’s the piece that our dictionary definition is missing.

We can be content even when we lack basic needs and wants because contentment is a theological acknowledgement statement that “God has done right.”

Contentment is born of surrender.

Biblical contentment is not just about being okay with it if we never get that new car or nicer house or better job. Like faith and joy and worship, true contentment is not a feeling; it is an action, a surrender, a way of living. We can be content even when we lack basic needs and wants because contentment is a theological acknowledgement statement that “God has done right.” It is rooted in the absolute dependence and surrender that can only come from trusting that God is who He says He is: good, sovereign, loving, personally invested in our lives, our provider.

“I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.” That is, I have learned how to acknowledge, in every situation, that God has done right by me. Even in my times of need, I have more than I could possibly deserve. I have a relationship with the living God! And because of who He is, I can remain strong and satisfied in that truth, regardless of my circumstances.

There’s one more important thing I hope you see before we leave this discussion of contentment: Contentment can’t exist without an established foundation of faith (seeing things the way God says they are instead of how my eyes see them) and joy (the resolute assurance that God knows and cares about the details of my life). If my perspective is small and fearful, and I perceive God to be cold and distant, I will never be able to submit my heart to the truth that God has done right. I will always notice what I’m missing out on and become embittered toward God for seeming to not care about my needs. Eventually, this will lead me toward the three core sins of discontentment: covetousness, theft, and disregard for God’s Sabbath (see Exodus 16).

Faith, joy, and contentment are some of the key fruits of a life that is learning who God is and allowing His character to define reality. If you’re not there yet - maybe you don’t really know who God is, or you think you do but He doesn’t seem like someone who would inspire faith, joy, and contentment at all (you are not alone!) - I can only encourage you to spend time in His Word, where He reveals who He really is through the narratives, laws, poems, and prophecies of the Scriptures.

The Bible is a big book. If you need help tackling it or knowing where to begin, I’m leading a challenge to read through the Bible in 180 days again starting January 1 - I’d love to have you join us! You can learn more here.

biblical vocabulary: worship

Some of us love it, some of us hate it. We sometimes name our church gatherings or sanctuaries after it. We try to avoid directing it toward an unworthy subject in the form of idolatry. But do we even know what it is?

What is this thing we call “worship”? More importantly - how does the Bible define it?

In this third installment of the Biblical Vocabulary series, we’re going to try to understand a word that already has a lot of connotations for most of us - some positive, some not, depending on who we are and how we’ve experienced religion and the church. We’ve already covered the basics of faith and joy - now, it’s time to step into worship.

What is worship?

As always, we’ll begin with the dictionary definitions, just to make sure we’re all on the same page:

  1. reverent honor and homage paid to God or a sacred personage, or to any object regarded as sacred.

  2. formal or ceremonious rendering of such honor and homage: They attended worship this morning.

  3. adoring reverence or regard: excessive worship of business success.

These definitions likely don’t fall too far from the ideas that come to our own minds when we think of worship. Having grown up in the church, one of the first things I think of when I hear the word “worship” is singing, because that’s what has always been called the worship portion of the church gathering. That’s how I tend to understand the idea of honoring or adoring God.

And considering the lengths our modern American churches go to create an “experience” around this time of song, with dimmed lights and catchy melodies and emotional lyrics, I don’t think I’m alone in my preconception. For many of us, the word worship brings a lot of feelings to our attention - either positive ones of feeling “spiritually high,” or negative ones like the guilt associated when our worship doesn’t feel genuine enough.

But are these definitions Biblical?

Yes and no.

Factually, yes, worship is the act of honoring and adoring God. I’ve heard worship defined as “ascribing worth” to something or someone - in other words, treating it as if it has value. And that, I think, is a pretty accurate way to think about worship.

It’s in the connotations, not the definitions, that we begin to veer off the Biblical course.

If our picture of worship is a group of Christians singing the latest Hillsong, then our idea of worship is not Biblical. What we are actually thinking of is praise.

There are seven words in Hebrew for praise:

  • Tehillah: The pouring out and surrender through pain (lament-style)

  • Hallal: Celebration or dance

  • Shabach: Shouting out

  • Yadah: Applause or praise with hand motions

  • Todah: Thanksgiving

  • Zamar: To praise using skilled musical talent and instruments

  • Barak: A physical gesture, such as kneeling or bowing

As you can see, just about every praise style you can find in a church on Sunday morning is covered in the Hebrew terminology. The person who prefers to kneel, the person who can’t stop clapping with the beat (or off beat ;)), the person who plays the guitar - all of it is praise. Praise is what happens when we look upon God’s character and respond to Him properly - with delight, thanksgiving, surrender, song, and so forth. It’s a celebration of who God is that comes out of our hearts through music, words, dance, and gesture.

But, though closely related and vitally important, it’s too narrow a category to encompass worship.

Biblical vocabulary: What is worship? Is it the same thing as praise and singing, or is it something more?

So, having established what worship is not, let’s turn to the Bible to find out what it is:

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.

Romans 12:1

And coming to Him as a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 2:4-5

These New Testament passages appear cryptic at first glance, but they are pointing back to a pattern that the original readers surely would have recognized: the long-standing pattern of Jewish worship beginning in the Old Testament. We can’t understand worship Biblically without understanding worship throughout the whole Bible.

When God took Israel into the Promised Land to be His people, He set highly specific guidelines for worship. A huge part of their worship was to consist of animal sacrifices, which had to be carefully prepared and offered where He commanded, when He commanded, and how He commanded. An entire tribe of Israel - the Levites - became the service staff on God’s worship team. It was an enormous job and a central part of Jewish life. It required an immense investment of time and resources.

Paul and Peter are pointing back to this system when they say that our worship involves sacrifice - not of animals, but of our own living bodies, and the time and resources associated with our entire lives.

And yet even sacrifice is not the full extent of worship, as Saul’s example shows us in 1 Samuel 15:

Samuel said [to Saul], “Has the LORD as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He has also rejected you from being king.”

1 Samuel 15:22-23

There is an integral part of worship, then, that is obedience. Saul could not simply sacrifice a few animals and have his worship accepted by God, because he was walking in disobedience to God’s specific commands and purposes. His disobedient efforts at worship were so opposite true worship that Samuel likened them to idolatry!

Worship is an act of obedience as much as an act of sacrifice; only obedient worship is acceptable worship. This means that, unlike praise, there aren’t seven passable ways to do it; we can’t just make it up as we go along or do what feels good to us. God decides how He wants to be worshiped, and then we obey. According to Paul and Peter, worshiping God on His terms requires not merely laying oneself across the altar in God’s temple, but becoming one with God’s temple - becoming a vessel for His presence and His plan, no longer serving one’s own needs or agenda.

Jesus may have summarized it best in His interaction with the Samaritan woman, who asked why the Jews were so attached to Jerusalem as the sole location of their worship - bringing to light, like Samuel, the tension and balance between obedience and sacrifice, between the letter of the law and the heart of the worshiper. Jesus replied,

“An hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

John 4:23-24

Worship is sacrifice and obedience, done in spirit and truth. It is giving God what He has asked for from a heart of reverence and adoration for Him rather than an obsession with the rules. Its manifestation is an action, its guide is the truth, its source is the heart.

What is worship according to the Bible? How can we worship God in the way He desires to be worshiped?

Worship is work. Work is worship.

Perhaps the best way to tie this all together in a way that makes sense is to introduce you to the Hebrew word avodah. In its simplest definition, this means “labor, service.”

We can find this word all the way back in Genesis 2, before the fall of man:

Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.

Genesis 2:15

The word cultivate is the word avodah. Labor and service. Well before God’s perfect creation was tainted by evil, He gave man a purpose: to labor and serve, and to guard what is good.

And it’s the same word used over and over again in the Old Testament to describe the work of the priesthood, the service of the Levitical singers, the builders of the temple, and other acts of obedience to God’s commands regarding the proper worship of Himself.

When we think of worship as singing or praise only, we are thinking far too small, far too passive, far too egocentric. Praise is almost always at least in part about us - about expressing ourselves and responding to our own experience. But worship is work. Worship is active. Worship is not about us - it’s entirely about God, and offering up to Him what He has asked for, no matter how we feel about it.

Worship is avodah. Labor and service.

And this is still our purpose - we were created for this. Worship is work, and work is worship. We are to revere and ascribe worth and bring glory to our God by so much more than just singing! We are called to labor and serve, at high personal cost, in the specific ways He has commanded us: by guarding what is good, by giving and stewarding our resources, by loving one another selflessly, by bearing one another’s burdens, by using our gifts to His glory.

This is worship.

Returning to Paul’s instruction in Romans 12:

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.

Romans 12:1

“Spiritual service of worship” is a phrase that has always mystified me, but it makes so much more sense in light of avodah. The Greek words Paul uses reveal his meaning with a little more clarity: “Spiritual” actually relates to the Greek logikos, meaning reason, and “service of worship” is closely correlated with the idea of sacred, priestly service. In other words, the presentation of our bodies as a living and holy sacrifice is the divinely reasonable sacred service. There is an element of practicality and logic to this worship - it’s not all nebulous emotions and metaphysical experiences. There is labor and service, obedience and sacrifice, spirit and truth.

Worship is work, and our work can be our worship. Whether you work at a desk or in a field, whether you serve under a CEO in a corporation or serve your family in your own home, you have an equal opportunity to share in the spiritual service of worship. God doesn’t demand what you do not have, He only asks for all that you have.