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.


big, improbable ideas

This week I read a statistic that troubled me. On the YouVersion app, which populates different Bible reading plans and similar resources, a reading plan covering the theme of “justice” in the Bible has a 70% user completion rate.

The problem? It’s only a three-day plan.

That is, only 70% of people who sign up for a reading plan that will take three days can actually follow through on those three days.

It’s not surprising. We all know that our attention spans are shrinking, our lives are getting busier, and longform content is becoming less and less popular. We’d rather get the one-minute summary video with an eye-catching slideshow than take in the full depth and breadth of a topic. But it is still troubling.

One of the biggest projects I’ve created through this blog so far is a plan to read through the Bible in 180 days. If 30% of people won’t follow through for three days, how many will still be in it at the end of 180? One percent? Less?

Part of me fears that my vision is too big. It’s too much to expect of people, to read through the whole Bible. It takes too long. They don’t want to do it. They’re too busy. They’re too distracted. It’s one of those lovely, big ideas that I should probably pass off as improbable, if not impossible.

And I know that IT IS a hard task. I myself took this year off from Bible180, because it’s a big investment of time, energy, and brainspace to read through the whole Bible in such a concentrated amount of time. But whether you try to read the Bible in seven days, 180 days, or 365 days - it’s still going to be a really big book that requires really big commitment. We can’t distill it down to a one-minute video and still capture the beauty and complexity of who God is and what He has done.

And I know this, too: There are people that have completed Bible180 from beginning to end. Some of them within the 180-day timeframe, some of them taking a bit longer, but they’ve done it. I know who they are. They’ve shared with me how it has impacted them. Even the ones who made it to Deuteronomy, or to Jeremiah, or to the end of the Old Testament - they experienced transformation, too.

There is a pressure to make things easier. Faster. More bite-size, accessible, watered down. There are plenty of voices telling me I have too many big, improbable ideas - that nobody wants to do that much work.

But I contend that some of us are hungry to put in the work.

Some of us are hungry for the dense, nutritious meat of the Word. Some of us - probably more of us than anyone realizes - have been on a diluted diet for far too long, and we long to know God in His richness. His depth.

Maybe it isn’t about whether I can keep 500 people on task to read through the Bible that matters. Maybe it’s about whether the five or ten or twenty of them that were truly starving get fed.

The Bible school that I attended in Florida attracts one, maybe two dozen students every year. Not the hundreds or thousands that other institutions can boast. But the ones that uproot their lives to spend their days marinating in the fullness of the Bible, the ones that put dollars and hours behind their desire to learn from its every page whether they ever reap a tangible return on the investment or not - these are just one example of the truly hungry. And when the truly hungry seek after what can truly satisfy, they will be filled - even as their appetites are whetted for more.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Matthew 5:6

We’re all in different places in our walks with Jesus. Some of us need the milk-based diet - we are babies and we need someone else to hold the spoon. Some of us have been stuck on milk for a bit too long, but haven’t yet identified our real need for something different. Some of us have long outgrown the liquid diet and our souls are crying out for more substantial nutrition - and the skills to feed ourselves - to fuel our growth.

There’s a good place for cutting things up into bite-size pieces. But to the fear that I have too many big, improbable ideas that “no one” will ever want to partake in, I say that’s not true. Because I am someone, and I am starving, and I know that I am not the only one.

Are you one of the hungry ones? I’d love to hear about your experience with the Bible and what you feel is missing from your current spiritual “diet.” Leave me a comment below!

(The photos in this post were taken on a recent hike to McCall Point, Columbia River Gorge.)

biblical vocabulary: faith

We have it. We preach it. We pray for more of it. But do we know what it is?

What is this thing we call “faith”? More importantly, what is it according to the Bible?

A common struggle I see (and have experienced myself) in personal Bible study is the temptation to bring our own definitions and preconceptions to the Bible, interpreting it through the lenses of our own backgrounds and experiences. This can often be subconscious, even automatic, because the reality is, few of us have had occasion to practice and perfect interpreting ancient texts that are surrounded by a context decidedly different from our own. (More on how to study the Bible here!)

This problem is widespread and certainly understandable, but it can also be deadly to a right understanding of Scripture and an obstacle to knowing God, so we must do all we can to eradicate it.

That’s the foundation behind this post, and the ones that will follow it, in a series called “Biblical Vocabulary.” The words we study will be familiar, even basic, but sometimes it’s the most familiar and basic words that are the easiest to misread.

We’ll begin with faith.

Faith is not simply having confidence in a thing; it’s not simply believing something you can’t prove; it’s not simply believing in God or the teachings of Christianity; it is seeing things the way God says they are, and not the way my eyes see them.

What is faith?

The top three definitions of faith on dictionary.com are as follows:

  1. confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another's ability.

  2. belief that is not based on proof: He had faith that the hypothesis would be substantiated by fact.

  3. belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion: the firm faith of the Pilgrims.

Each of these definitions makes up at least a piece of our typical understanding of the word “faith.” When we come across it in Scripture, one of these - or bits of each - likely informs our understanding of the text surrounding it.

And each of these definitions has a place in the Biblical understanding of faith as well. There is an element of faith that requires trust, and belief in that which is not necessarily concrete; and, of course, it is associated for our purposes with God and religion. But none of these captures fully the spirit of the word “faith” as it’s used in the Bible, so we go to the Bible next.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old gained approval.

By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible. . . . And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.

Hebrews 11:1-3, 6

These are the most famous “Faith is” verses in the Bible, especially verse 1. The trouble with this verse is that the language is about as clear as a theological dictionary - it sounds good on paper, but what does it even mean? “The assurance of things hoped for” and “the conviction of things not seen” just sounds like a fancier way of restating the definitions from dictionary.com.

But we miss some key information if we don’t dive into the subsequent verses and allow the author of Hebrews to expand on his words. Verse one is merely his thesis statement; the rest of the chapter shows us what this thesis statement means - what faith is as a reality in the life of a believer.

By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world, and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.

By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going. . . . By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who had promised.

Hebrews 11:7-8, 11

Faith is not simply having confidence in a thing; it’s not simply believing something you can’t prove; it’s not simply believing in God or the teachings of Christianity; it is seeing things the way God says they are, and not the way my eyes see them.

Faith is a new perspective.

We could call it supernatural vision, or God-glasses, or God’s eyes - whichever phrasing we use, the culminating point of Hebrews 11 (corroborated by the rest of Scripture) is that faith is not simply having confidence in a thing; it’s not simply believing something you can’t prove; it’s not simply believing in God or the teachings of Christianity; it is seeing things the way God says they are, and not the way my eyes see them.

When I look out the window, I see solid ground and a world made up of physical things - trees, people, buildings, rocks. But God says that there’s more to this world than that, and that “what is seen was not made out of things which are visible” (Hebrews 11:3). Elsewhere in the Bible I can read of principalities and powers that are invisible to the human eye, and spiritual realms outside of my vision. When I put on faith, the whole world gets a thousand times bigger, and the need to put on my spiritual armor becomes a thousand times more necessary.

Likewise, when Noah began to build the ark, he saw solid ground. He had never seen water fall out of the sky or press up from the fount of the deep to cover the face of the earth. But God said that He was going to cleanse the world with a flood, and Noah made the choice to order his life around what God could see, and not what his own eyes could see. In doing so, he “became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith” (Hebrews 11:7) - along with Abraham, Sarah, and the dozens of other named and unnamed witnesses whose testimonies make up the remainder of Hebrews 11.

Notice that faith is not a feeling. It is not feeling certain or feeling confident. Faith can exist outside of certainty and confidence, and even outside of belief, because faith is an action (see James 2).

One of my pastors uses a helpful illustration for this concept: He fully believes that parachutes work, and that when someone jumps out of a plane and deploys their parachute, they will survive the descent to the ground. But you’ll never find him jumping out of an airplane, because he won’t put his faith in a parachute.

Faith jumps. Not because of any extra-special feelings of confidence, but because of a supernaturally-broadened perspective that relies on God to be who He says He is and to do what He says He will do, even without a clear view of the outcome.

The next time you read a Bible passage that uses the word “faith,” don’t just insert your own definition of the word - use the Biblical definition. When Paul charges Timothy to “[hold] onto faith and a good conscience” (1 Timothy 1:19), how does your understanding change if you read “hold onto God’s perspective and a good conscience”?

For me, using the Biblical definition of faith completely changed how I understood large portions of the Bible and Christianity. I no longer feel guilty when I don’t “believe hard enough,” or wonder if I’m not really saved when I don’t feel fully confident in the tenets of Christian doctrine. I can see the examples of what saving faith looks and acts like in the testimonies of Hebrews 11, and I can look back on my own life and see the times when God said “Jump!” and I jumped.

Incidentally, He’s never failed to catch me. And every time I let Him, my faith is a little stronger the next time.



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