The Unity of the Church

Tom Groelsema, Speaker

Psalms 133 | December 11 - Sunday Evening,

Sunday Evening,
December 11
The Unity of the Church | Psalms 133
Tom Groelsema, Speaker

Please turn with me in your Bibles tonight to Psalm 133. If you’re visiting with us tonight, we have at Christ Covenant in the evening services been working our way through what are known as the Songs, or Psalms, of Ascent. Psalm 120 to 134. We’re nearing the end. Next week’s our final sermon in that series. But these are psalms that the Israelites used to sing together as they made their way to Jerusalem for the annual pilgrimage feasts. So we’re looking tonight at Psalm 133.

As we read this together, remember that this is the Word of God.

“A Song of Ascents. Of David.

Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes!
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing,
life forevermore.”

Let’s join together in prayer as we pray for God to help us as we study.

We do pray, Father, for Your Holy Spirit to take Your Word and Father to carry it to our hearts that we might be encouraged by what this psalm teaches, that we might be challenged by what this psalm has to say, and that we would see Christ here, and Father, that You would strengthen us as a church, to be more unified, even than what we are today. We pray these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Well, dear people of God, it was the Puritan George Swinnock who said this about the communion of the saints. He said, “Next to communion with God, there is no communion like the communion of the saints.” Next to communion with God, there is no communion like the communion of the saints.

Now I would suspect that that is a statement that many of us would agree with, that the communion of the saints, unity and fellowship in the body of Christ, is amazingly sweet. It is one of the sweetest kinds of fellowship that we can enjoy here on earth. But I also suspect that it is something that we might say about I wish there was more of it, or I wish that it was more true than it is. In other words, disunity and dissension are all too common amongst members of the church, or in the church, between individuals within the church, between congregations within denominations.

We might note especially in the last couple of years that there are many, many things that at one time didn’t seem to bother the Church at all but today are dividing the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.

It may be true, as Stephen Yuille in a commentary on the Psalms of Ascent says, “There was a church that was in the midst of its monthly business meeting. The finances were in better shape than usual, and so the moderator asked if there were any special needs in the congregation. One lady stood and slowly proceeded to explain that she felt that the church needed a better chandelier. Before she was finished, a deacon jumped to his feet and shouted, ‘I’m against it for three reasons. Nobody knows how to spell it, nobody knows how to play it, and what this church really needs is better lighting.'”

Now, I’m going to tell you that I led a congregational meeting like that once. Thankfully, only one time.

But we understand, right? That those kinds of things are far too common within the Church of Jesus Christ and we can thank God that these are things that are not really true at all at Christ Covenant Church. We are not uniform, we are not unanimous, but we are united and we ought to be humbled by that and never take it for granted. It is something to always be thanking God for and it ought to be one of our chief prayers for the church, that God would unite His Church, that God would allow us both here at Christ Covenant, and if you belong to another church or belong to another denomination, that God would grant a unity among the people of God.

Friends, this is what Psalm 133 is about. This psalm says what a blessing when brothers dwell in unity. Of course, not just men in the church, it’s talking about sisters, too, but that word “brothers” simply means that we’re talking tonight about Christian unity. We’re talking about unity among the saints of God.

There are three things that this psalm highlights about this unity. First of all, it is something to be celebrated. Secondly, this unity is described in the psalm. Third, it is defined in the psalm.

So first of all, the psalm describes unity celebrated. You see it at the very beginning. This psalm opens with a celebratory statement. Verse 1 – Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity.

It’s really an emphatic statement. You might see in the ESV that there’s a note there that you can read this first verse “when brothers dwell in unity” or “when brothers dwell together in unity.” There’s almost a doubling up on the emphasis of unity and togetherness, how privileged we are when there is unity in the church. The psalm says it is good, it is pleasant, when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity.

The psalm almost puts it like it’s a surprise, like unity is something that we don’t expect very often. So the psalm begins with that simple word “behold.” Look. See how good, how pleasant it is when unity exists. Pay attention to it. There’s an imperative here – Look, see, take note of how wonderful unity is when it exists among God’s people. It says this because it is difficult, and sometimes it is rare among God’s people.

It’s true, isn’t it? That there’s so much in our hearts that pushes us away from unity and pushes us out toward division. This is true even within the church. Selfishness, envy, pride, arrogance, and many other things are things that push us apart rather than drawing us together. Behold, then, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity.

This psalm celebrates this, and because of the context of the psalm itself, you note that this was a psalm that was written by David. Many believe that the psalm was written early on in David’s reign. Before his reign, you’ll remember how divided Israel was, that in the years before David came to rule, in the period of the Judges there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in his own eyes. That’s not unity, right? That’s chaos. People doing this, people doing that, people not united together but going their own way.

Even in the period just before David as Saul reigned, some were aligned with David, others were opposed to him. Finally, all of the tribes came together under David’s rule and under David’s reign and even then it didn’t last. Absalom rebels, divides the country. David reflecting upon all of these things and during his reign how Israel had come together in a period of unity and peace, at least for a time, begins to pen out the psalm. How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity.

You can even see this in this Psalm of Ascent. Again, this psalm that Israel sang as they made their way to Jerusalem towards the temple. A psalm you’ll remember as we’ve thought about it, these Psalms of Ascent, this psalm, too, a psalm for us as we are heading home. We’re not going to Jerusalem, we’re not heading to an earthly temple, we’re heading to the heavenly temple, we’re heading to glory.

Imagine the scene. Israelites from all over the country making their pilgrimage. 12 different tribes from 12 different environments, 12 tribal cultures. All these things that would have separated them, divided them, made them different from one another, yet they all come together as one to worship God at the temple.

People of God, unity in the Church, among God’s people, is something to celebrate, something to rejoice in, something to praise God for. Behold it, wonder at it, when God does His gracious work of unity in our midst.

But secondly, unity is not only celebrated in this psalm, it is also described in the psalm. It’s not described here with a dictionary definition, but it’s described with a picture, or a portrait. This is a psalm that is something like a painting because at the very heart of the psalm, really the main body of the psalm, there are two different illustrations of what unity is like. The psalm says unity is like this, and unity is like that. Picture it in your mind.

That’s important for us to realize here. This unique feature of the psalm, these illustrations that are found at the heart of the psalm because it reminds us that unity is to be admired. Unity is beautiful. It’s like looking at a masterpiece. You stand there in awe of it and examine it and study it and take delight in it and that’s what this psalm does for us as it describes unity.

Let me give you five descriptors that the psalm gives us of what unity among God’s people is like.

First of all, it is Spirit-created. Created by the Spirit of God. Verse 2, that first illustration, unity is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron. This oil described here as the oil of priestly anointing. Exodus 30 describes the whole process of anointing Aaron and his sons as priests. Exodus 30:30 – You shall anoint Aaron and his sons and consecrate them that they may serve Me as priests.

So this oil is poured upon Aaron and the priestly line. This anointing oil symbolized spiritual gifting for serving God. A sign of the Spirit resting on you. A sign that you were equipped by the Spirit for your office. Maybe something akin to what we do today when we have new officers or a new pastor who just gets ordained and we lay hands on them. Setting them apart for the office that they are about to serve in. Anointed by the Spirit to lead and to serve.

This is what happened to priests when Aaron and his priestly line to become priests, they’re anointed, but it wasn’t just priests. Kings were anointed, prophets were anointed as well. When this psalm tells us that the unity of believers is like the oil that was put on Aaron, it’s reminding us that unity is created by the Spirit of God. The bond or unity of believers that we share is in the anointing of the Spirit of Christ. In fact, that is where our name “Christian” comes from – we are believers, we are Christians. We get that name because we have been anointed. Of course, it’s a derivative of the name of Christ, meaning “Anointed One.” But we are Christians. We, too, have been anointed, like prophet, priest, and kings, like our Lord Jesus Christ, who is our heavenly high priest, who is our eternal king, who is our chief prophet.

We have been anointed to be prophets, priests, and kings. That is our identity and that is our unity, as we all share in the one Spirit.

Second descriptor. Our unity is supernatural. Unity in the body is not something that we create, it is something that God gives. Yes, we are to strive for it, but without God gifting it to us, it is going to be elusive. God must give it.

How does the psalm remind us that unity is from the Lord? Well, it does it a number of ways, but one simple way it does it is in the words that it uses, the verb that it uses. That verb you see in verse 2, “running down.” This oil on the head runs down on the beard, it runs down on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes. Or verse 3 – it is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on, or runs down, the mountains of Zion.

Three different times “running down, running down, running down,” down, down, down, falling down, descending. Friends, this reminds that unity in the body of Christ, it comes from above. It comes down upon us. It is from God.

There’s even a supernatural picture from nature in this psalm. It’s pictured in the dew of Mount Hermon, falling down on the mountains of Zion around Jerusalem. That’s something that only God can do, causing the dew of Hermon to reach and fall upon Mount Zion, 120 mile distance between the two. If Hermon’s dew is to fall on Zion, God is in it.

So also in the Church when unity occurs in the Church, it is because the Lord is there, because the Lord is at work, because God is creating it.

Third descriptor. This unity is refreshing and life-giving. Hermon’s dew is known for being especially heavy, a heavy dew that would fall upon the mountain. It makes sense. If you think about this geographically, Mount Hermon is over 9200 feet tall. The cool air on top of the mountain admits the arid climate of Israel made for a heavy dew to fall. Dew that was refreshing. Dew that could water the landscape.

Thinking about the summers, every once in a while I kind of think about this in the summertime, when you wake up in the morning and there’s heavy dew on the grass or upon the ground, I’m often thinking, you know, it hasn’t rained for a long time, so the ground hasn’t been refreshed by rainfall, but in the mornings God refreshes. God sends the dew and that dew waters the grass and helps plants to grow. It refreshes.

This psalm is telling us that unity is like that. Unity is like this dew that falls upon Hermon, this heavy dew that refreshes and gives life. Unity creates joy and peace. Unity binds God’s people together in relationships, and those back and forth relationships among the people of God bring blessing and encouragement. Unity breathes life into us.

We understand that when we just simply think about what dis-unity and division creates. It steals energy and life. It creates trouble. It brings us down.

I just think about, I of course wasn’t here to experience it, but one of the tales that I was told when first coming to Christ Covenant Church by Bernie Lawrence was some of the difficult years that existed a number of years ago, quite a long time ago. I was thinking about those because his title for those years was this – they were the “distressed years.” That’s what he calls them. The “distressed years.”

Division does that, doesn’t it? It distresses us. It brings distress to a congregation, to the people of God. That is why unity is to be celebrated when God grants it to us.

Number 4 – it’s attractive and pleasant. This oil is called precious oil, verse 2. It’s like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard. You can see it’s very lavish. There’s a stream of oil running down from Aaron’s head, running down upon the collar of his robes. It seems kind of like an oily mess, doesn’t it? When you picture it in your mind. But it wasn’t. This was precious oil. Fragrant oil.

In the same passage that we read before about this oil that consecrated Aaron and his sons for priestly work, in Exodus chapter 30, there’s also the sacred oil, anointing oil, recipe. It’s kind of interesting. The Bible describes what this oil was like, what it was made up of. Made up of sweet-smelling cinnamon, myrrh, aromatic cane, cassia, all of this blended, the Bible says, by the perfumer. When this oil was poured upon Aaron, running down his hair, down to the collar his robes, you can bet it also let out a fragrance. Something sweet-smelling.

Unity among God’s people, this psalm says, is good. How good it is, brothers dwell in unity. But you also notice what the psalm says here, it says how pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity. It is attractive. We have that unity in body/life, we call it community. The oneness of life together. In worship, maybe a Sunday school class. Experienced it in a small group, or youth group or choir or prayer group.

We put words to it like this, don’t we? Belonging, fellowship, friendship. People long for that, and it attracts. It’s something that we want to be a part of. It’s something that we want to experience, something that we want to know in relationships in the church.

Sometime back, quite a number of years ago now, Sheri and I and our family went to Scotland for a month and we had a sabbatical. The first Sunday we were in Edinburgh we were looking for a church and said let’s go to Charlotte Chapel. So we figure out to use the bus and rode to Charlotte Chapel that morning. I can remember that first Sunday that we were there as we sat in the pew and began to sing with God’s people and worship with them, and saying to ourselves, these are our people. Didn’t know them, had never met them before, not familiar to us, but as we began to worship and sing and give our gifts and all that is part of worship, just sensing these are our people. We belong. We are united. Experiencing fellowship with them.

James Montgomery Boice said, “A people who are united are a blessing wherever they go. They tend to win people to their unity and spread it.”

That’s right, isn’t it? When a church experiences unity, people sense it. They know it. I want to be a part of that. Let me in. I want to enjoy that unity with you. It’s attractive, it’s pleasant.

Finally, one last descriptor, it’s extensive. So unity cuts across layers that sometimes otherwise might divide us. This psalm points that out. As it gives a description of Aaron’s anointing, but it’s a unity that’s not just experienced at that level, it’s from the priest to the people in this psalm. There’s unity there. It’s unity from rural Hermon to in the north to Mount Zion in the south. There’s oneness.

Unity in the body of Christ extends to many different layers. From age to race to culture to economic standing, to gender, to high church, to low church, to big steeple church, to house church. Unity in the Lord brings people who are different in culture, race, and class together.

There is something miraculous about it. I’ve already said it’s supernatural, it’s God-given, He creates is. But it is amazing. It is astounding when you get to experience it and see it in God’s people, that God can bring all of these folks together. We all have differences among us in different ways, but God creates and builds unity among God’s people.

When you think about unity outside the Church, outside the body of Christ, it happens so often simply because of similarities. I know that you like the same sport that I like, so we have unity. Or you cheer for the same team that I cheer for, so there’s unity. Or we have a common language, or we do the same job, we live in the same neighborhood, our kids go to the same school… All of those things are factors in unity, yes. But what is amazing about the Church of Jesus Christ is the unity of the Church crosses those kinds of natural boundaries.

Don Carson said it like this – What binds us together in the body of Christ is not a common education, common race, common income levels, common politics, common nationality, common accents, common jobs, or anything else of the sort. Christians come together because they have all been loved by Jesus Himself.

We may speak a different language, but we love Christ together. There’s unity. We might not do the same kind of job or have the same kind of interests, but because we have been loved by Jesus Himself, there is oneness in the body.

You see, people of God, that is what ultimately then defines our unity, this third point. Our unity is defined by unity in the Gospel, our unity in the cross, our unity in Christ. Shared loyalty to an institution may create unity, but biblical unity is much more than that. It’s loyalty to Christ. Loyalty to a shared history may give people something to have in common with each other, but it doesn’t create biblical unity. Rather a common experience of grace does.

Here were all the tribes, traveling to Jerusalem, singing this song, going to the temple, going up for the feast, for sacrifice. Do you notice how the psalm ends? For there at the mountains of Zion, there at the temple, there in Jerusalem, “there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.”

How was life forevermore found in Zion? Well, simply because Zion was the place where God lived. Zion was the place where sacrifices were made. Zion was the place where covenant with God was found.

Friends, it is through our sacrificial lamb, and His bloodshed on the cross, that we are united as one. It’s in Christ that we have the hope of an eternal unity, isn’t it? An eternal oneness, an eternal togetherness. Life forevermore as the psalm ends, life that has no end, that we are going to experience when we reach home.

Don’t have it in perfection now, but we can look forward to it when we are with Christ together.

Let me end with three quick pieces of application, three P’s for us to think about as we think about unity in the church.

Number one – Unity is to be preserved.

We need to protect it. We need to guard it. We need to be eager for it. That’s what Paul reminds us of. Ephesians 4:3 – Be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace. We get eager about a lot of things in the Church. We should. But how eager are we to maintain the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace? It ought to grieve us when unity among brothers and sisters in the Lord is broken. We ought to be eager for it. That’s what I want, that’s what I’m striving for.

Secondly, not only should it be preserved, it also needs to be promoted. We need to promote it by promoting the truth of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s how we promote unity. We should never settle for a false unity that’s built on something other than the truth of God’s Word. Of course, we are never to be content with the unity that diminishes or denies the truth of God’s Word, where people come together and say, “Well, let’s just have unity. Whatever it is that we stand upon, let’s just have unity.” We understand and we know that it can’t work that way.

God’s Word is the bedrock of our unity. It is also the transforming power that shapes and changes us, individually, that shapes and transforms our hearts, putting in place the things that build unity, like cultivating humility, nurturing love, attitudes that are crucial if we are going to enjoy unity in the body of Christ. The Gospel shapes how we approach others, how we receive others, and how we view others. We need to stand upon God’s Word in order for unity to be promoted.

Then finally, unity is something to pray for. Jesus prayed for it, didn’t He? In His high priestly prayer on the night before He was crucified. John 17:11 – Holy Father, keep them in Your name, which You have given Me that they may be one, even as we are one.

If Jesus prayed for that, for oneness, then shouldn’t that be one of our chief prayers, something that we pray for often, frequently, fervently, to God? God, grant us oneness. Grant us unity in the truth, in Christ, by Your Spirit, God, would You gift that to us?

Let’s close with Spurgeon. Spurgeon said about this psalm, he said, “Oh, for more of this rare virtue. Not the love which comes and goes, but that which dwells. Not that spirit which separates and secludes, but that which dwells together. Not that mind which is all for debate and difference, but that which dwells together in unity. Lord, lead us into this most precious spiritual unity for Thy Son’s sake. Amen.”

Let’s pray together. Father in heaven, we thank You for the vision that the psalm gives us, the picture that it paints for us, of brothers united together in unity. Father, we do pray that You would grant that to us, more and more. We are so thankful, Father, for how you’ve gifted it to us already, that Father, here at Christ Covenant Church we enjoy such a great measure of oneness and unity. Father, we pray that You’d keep us from things that divide, things that tear the body of Christ up. Father, we see that in many different places. Father, we often don’t see it coming, so protect us, guard us, keep us in this rare virtue of unity, as Spurgeon said. We pray this in the powerful name of Jesus. Amen.