The Surprising Reality of Disunity: insights from Philippians

In Philippians we see Paul do something rarely seen in any other letter. Near the end Paul specifically names two individuals, exhorting them toward unity. He writes in Philippians 4:2-3:

“I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.”

Here is the challenge: we are one in Christ, but we often don’t live like it. And that challenge grips the church in Philippi.

We do not know exactly who these two women, Euodia and Syntyche, were, but they were evidently pillars in the Philippian church. Because of how Paul earlier addresses the various pressures believers in Philippi faced, it is most likely these two Christian leaders were in disagreement about how to live out the gospel in the face of external pressures or even persecution.

This situation also highlights something else about conflict and unity in the church: disunity is not just a problem for those who are young or immature in the faith, but also for those who are mature in the faith.

These two women were leaders within the church—even deemed co-workers with Paul—as it says in verse 3: “they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel.” They were friends and co-workers called by name by Paul who knows them and cares for them, as well as the entire church in Philippi.

Friends, this is not that different from our own day. Because of the pressures on us during this incredibly divisive time, as Christians we are struggling to figure out what it looks like to live out the gospel in our day and time. We wrestle with what that means and sometimes we disagree with one another about that. This is not necessarily a maturity issue…but it is a real unity issue.

We are one in Christ, but we often do not live as one. The situation in Philippi, a church which Paul joyfully thanked God for daily, should not be surprising to us. Challenges to unity are normal… …but we must actively uphold unity with love.

[This post was drawn from my message, “Becoming One: the developing unity of the church as the community of Christ.”]

The Heart of God’s Deliverance: a word from John Oswalt on Isaiah 9

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
    will accomplish this.
(Isaiah 9:6-7)

I came across this eye-catching word from John Oswalt while studying for an upcoming message from Isaiah 9:6-7:

How will God deliver from arrogance, war, oppression, and coercion? By being more arrogant, more warlike, more oppressive, and more coercive? Surely, the book of Isaiah indicates frequently that God was powerful enough to destroy his enemies in an instant, yet again and again, when the prophet comes to the heart of the means of deliverance, a childlike face peers out at us. God is strong enough to overcome his enemies by becoming vulnerable, transparent, and humble—the only hope, in fact, for turning enmity into friendship.

John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, chapters 1-39, NICOT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 245.

The Son of Man and the Hope of the Nations

The prophet Daniel speaks of both judgment and hope to a people exiled in foreign kingdoms. His prophetic oracles are situated within the exile in Babylon and the following Persian kingdoms.

In chapter 2, Daniel offers an interpretation of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a giant statue made of different materials that is eventually struck by a giant rock that destroys it. Daniel tells of how one earthly kingdom will supplant another, tracing events we know from history after Daniel’s time. However, the culmination of Daniel’s interpretation—the stone that destroys this statue of kingdoms—he says represents God’s kingdom. These are his exact words:

“In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever.” (Daniel 2:44)

The theme of the vision is the humbling of earthly rulers because God is king and only God’s kingdom will endure through time, as it eventually supplants all other kingdoms.

Later in the book, in chapter 7, Daniel has a vision that has many similarities to this vision from Daniel 2. This time, however, the kings and kingdoms of earth are represented as ghoulish beasts that afflict the earth. Amidst this vision of terrifying vision, Daniel has a theophany—a vision of God—which puts perspective on the passing kingdoms of earth. In Daniel’s vision of God, there is a unique element, which connects with the messianic expectations of Isaiah:

“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14)

This Son of Man figure surpasses all the earthly kings and kingdoms, even rising in victory over all the competing kingdoms that bring pain and corruption upon the earth. The Son of Man is the One who brings true hope, healing, and the kingdom of God upon earth. He is our hope, not the passing kings and kingdoms of earth.

A Pilgrim Prayer for Nomads

For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:10)

Abraham the nomad for God and His purposes is also Abraham the pilgrim. At one level, Abraham and Sarah’s journey feels random and strange. They leave their homeland and their extended support network. They leave what is known for what is unknown. From the outside, it could seem that they are merely wandering nomads.

But the eyes of faith see something else. Abraham and Sarah hear God and respond. They live each day, aware of God’s guiding hand and watchful for God’s interrupting grace that will point them toward what is next. Abraham and Sarah wait. They step forward and step back They works and rest. They succeed and they fail. They travel and they are still. And all of this happens in relation to the leading of God. This is the blessed way of those, as Psalm 84:5 says, “whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.”

Lord, lead me into the pilgrim way of faith seen in Abraham and Sarah. Though my ways sometimes feel more like nomadic wanderings than anything else, help me to discern Your hand in the midst of my day. And so, Lord, give me Your vision and guide me into Your purposes for my life that I every day and hour might draw me closer to You than to anything or anyone else. Open my ears to hear and my eyes to see. Strengthen my mind to understand and my heart to yearn for You. In this earthly way be my eternal home both for now and always.

What Happens When the Church is Activated on Mission?

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

In the book of Acts we see the Holy Spirit set the early believers ablaze for the work of God. We encounter Peter, who steps forth with boldness to preach the good news and thousands come to believe Jesus is the Messiah. We see bold people like Stephen, who speaks of Christ and it costs him his life, and Philip, who shares across cultural and religious barriers to bring the Samaritans to Jesus. We see an enemy of Christ, Saul of Tarsus, become a passionate evangelist and bold church planter, the Apostle Paul.

Acts is an active book where we see the church activated on mission. What does it look like when individual believers and church communities are activated by God for His work? Suffice it to say that things happen.

But let’s look at something we could miss here. Acts is an active book but we also see two things in Acts that Christianity is not about.

Christianity—following Jesus—does not leave us much space for being boring or apathetic. Sometimes in the midst of the world, with all the needs, all the challenges, all the serious situations, we can become overwhelmed by the needs. This sometimes leads us to turn away from the needs of the world, focusing on our own lives and challenges. Essentially, we become apathetic. But activated churches and Christians are not apathetic or boring. They are engaged with the needs of the world because God cares about people and the needs of the world. God is an active, giving missionary God.

At the same time, even though Acts is an active book, it is not a busy book. In fact, there is a big difference between being busy and being active. The early church was activated by the Holy Spirit to join in with God in a focused way for God’s mission. But the early church was not meaninglessly busy. Some of us, when we become Christians, think that we are to become busy for the kingdom. But there is not a lot of space for busyness in the activated church. Some of us need to remember that God is not all that interested in uncommanded work. He wants us to join in with His kingdom mission but not to be aimlessly rushing around with whatever captures our attention in the moment. In fact, what captures our attention may lead us away from the activated mission God has for us. As a wise mentor once shared with me: we may need to consider whether we are more in love with the work of the Lord than we are in love with the Lord of the work.

Activated Christianity is not about being boring and neither is it about being busy. Activated Christianity is not about apathy to the world’s need nor is it about frenzied activity. The book of Acts shows us that the church is activated by the power of the Holy Spirit for the mission of God in the world.