An army advancing with banners. A beautiful bride. A royal priesthood. A new humanity. These phrases have been used to describe the Christian Church. Although the powerful imagery behind these descriptions is drawn from the Bible, this is not always how we imagine our local church. What we see as we gather for worship each week may look more like an ageing bride or a defeated army.
As Reformed Presbyterians we need to think of the Church biblically, theologically, historically and with missionary vision. With this in mind the Global Alliance has prepared a series of articles on the ‘Unity of the Church’ for inclusion in our denominational magazines to stimulate and challenge thinking in these areas. We thank the editors of the RP Witness, the Covenanter Witness, and Good News for having supported this project. Now that the publication of these printed articles is complete we are making them available online for any who may not have access to the one of these magazines.
The contributors to the series are:
- Andrew Stewart (RPCA) – A biblical view of the Church (3 articles)
- Jeff Stivason (RPCNA) – The doctrine of the Church (3 articles)
- Stephen Steele (RPCS) – Encouragement from historical RP cooperation (2 articles)
- Robert McCollum (RPCI) – A worldwide vision of the RP Church (2 articles)
The most basic Christian belief about the Church is found in the Nicene Creed: “We believe …in one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” Reformed Presbyterians are orthodox and catholic in our commitment to this article. Our commitment to the unity of the Church is expressed when we sing Psalm 133. It is often sung at the Lord’s Table as a confirmation of commitment to the unity of the congregation.
A Lofty Ideal (v 1)
In Psalm 133 David describes the lofty ideal of unity among brothers, the family of God. It is also a realistic and realised ideal. The Psalm begins with an exhortation, “Behold…” or “Look!” David is pointing to something real and visible. It may have been:
- one of the great pilgrim festivals when the nation of Israel gathered as one to worship God.
- the time when David was appointed King over all Israel (2 Samuel 5:3).
- the reconciliation after of Absalom’s rebellion, when David appealed to his own tribe of Judah to take him back as king (2 Samuel 19:14).
Whatever the occasion, David exclaims, “… how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity.” ‘Good’ describes that which is pleasing to God. It is our obligation to pursue what pleases God. Moreover, what pleases God will be pleasant to us. Perhaps “pleasant” is too bland a word to describe the unity of God’s people. True unity is beautiful and it makes the heart rejoice. It results in overflowing joy and exuberant praise.
Sadly, David’s delight did not last. Tension between brothers in Israel was a recurring feature of Israel’s history. Greed and hatred shattered what is good. But that did not stop David pursuing the unity of God’s people.
So today there are divisions within the Church. These too are a result of sin. Churches sin by compromising biblical truth and in so doing they fracture the foundations on which they rest. Some who contend for truth do so in crass and cantankerous ways. Even in faithful branches of the Church there are Christians who refuse to speak to each other. They retreat into huddles and show no interest in those who are not part of their ‘tribe’. This ought to grieve us. It challenges us to look afresh at the ideal and recognise that this is good. Our aim is that others will say what Pagans said of Christians in Tertullian’s day (155-240 AD), “Behold (look!!) how these people love one another.”
Two illustrations (vs 2-3a)
- The anointing of the High Priest
David wants us to see and admire the beauty of the unity of God’s people. That is why he uses two illustrations which engage our senses. As well as describing the goodness of this unity, they also describe its source. Both point to the God who gathers and blesses his people.
The unity of brothers is compared, to the ‘anointing of the High Priest’ (v 2). Anointing was a ceremony which set a person apart for a special ministry, as oil was poured on the head. Human hands poured the oil, but God did the anointing. Such anointing empowered that person for the task ahead. The unity of God’s people is like the “precious (or “good”, as in v 1) oil.” It was poured out in such abundance that it ran down over the head and onto his beard and robes and produced a beautiful fragrance. Aaron was, quite literally, saturated with oil, symbolising God pouring out his Spirit freely and generously.
This is significant because Aaron as High Priest, and his successors, types of Christ, were appointed to a unifying ministry in Israel. They represented the nation. When they went into the sanctuary they offered sacrifices for the nation. They wore a breastpiece with twelve precious stones, each bearing the name of one of the sons of Israel (Exodus 28:15-21; 39:8-14). By making atonement they broke down the hostility that had divided the tribes. Christ, our great High Priest, made atonement for his people, reconciling them to their Maker and to one another (Eph. 2:16). Their unity in Christ produces a beautiful fragrance which is Spirit given.
- The dew of Hermon
The unity of brothers is now compared to “the dew of Hermon” (v 3a). Mount Hermon is situated in modern day Lebanon, 130 miles from Jerusalem. It rises almost 3000m above sea level and gets 1352mm of precipitation each year. Much of it falls as snow. As warm air rises from the Mediterranean and meets the cold mountain air, heavy dews fall on its slopes making them fertile and fruitful.
By contrast Jerusalem, in the mountains of Zion, receives much less rain, under 540mm annually. Its slopes are arid, often crying out for rain. When rain fell its people rejoiced. David’s point is that the unity of God’s people is like the abundant dew of Hermon falling in a place noted for its lack of rain, producing spiritual fertility and fruitfulness.
The unity and harmony of God’s people sends a powerful message to a world torn by division and conflict. It also revives the spirits of God’s people. There is nothing more discouraging and draining than living with division and disharmony in the Church. These things are spiritually draining, collectively and individually. But when we gather like the Church in Acts 1:14 who “… with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer,” we find that that the fellowship of God’s people and the ministry of God’s word is like refreshing dew falling on parched ground. It produces a spiritual fragrance which, to God’s people, is a beautiful aroma and to the world has evangelistic impact (John 17:23).
God’s command (v 3b)
So, you say, “Let’s get practical, what are we to do?” Not so fast! Psalm 133 concludes with a command, not a command to do anything. The people of God described by David in Psalm 133 have already responded to God’s invitation to go up to Jerusalem to worship. As they gather unitedly at God’s appointed place of blessing, there God commands blessing.
Mount Zion is the place God had chosen to dwell among his people. There he accepted the sacrifices they offered. These sacrifices made it possible for sinful people to come into God’s presence. It is here that “the Lord has commanded the blessing, life for evermore.” Life forever is the blessing that God commands.
Note that this is not a command to obey. It is a ‘promise‘ to enjoy. As Luther would have put it, this is not law but gospel. God commands the blessing of eternal life to be given to his people when they come to his appointed place, in the way that he has appointed. His command conveys urgency and certainty. Life for evermore is not a vague possibility. It is an absolute certainty. “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life” (John 3:36).
Note too that eternal life is not a blessing which believers enjoy in isolation from others. It is the life of the chosen and redeemed people, in union with Christ and in fellowship with one another.
This Psalm informs us why we are to love the Church. We are connected to her, as by an umbilical cord. We are to love our brothers and sisters in the Church. We are to love those we see each Lord’s Day, as well as those we do not. We are to love those who encourage us as well as those who annoy us. For we are one. That oneness is beautiful. It will also produce in us and through our united witness, fragrance, and fruitfulness to the glory of Christ.
ANDREW STEWART was born into a Reformed Presbyterian family in Northern Ireland. In 1990 he was ordained minister of the Glenmanus congregation where he served for 8 years. Responding to the Call of the Geelong RPC he moved with his family to Australia in 1998. He continues to pastor that congregation as well as lecture at the Reformed Theological College.