Christian unity has had a rough go of it in this last year or so. As I talk with Christian pastors and leaders around the country as well as in other parts of the world, many of them report experiencing the tensions and polarization we are seeing in the wider culture in the local church. Disunity is not a new challenge, but one we see addressed by Paul, who was not unaware of the challenge of Christian unity.
On the one hand, as Christians, we are one in Christ. This is a reality. Everyone who is united to Christ is united to everyone who is united to Christ. If we belong to Christ, we belong to one another; we are spiritual kin and part of the same family. Paul even says that we are members of the same body — that’s how one we are.
Paul knows that unity does not just happen, even among Christians. It has to be aimed at, prayed for, cultivated, and preserved.On the other hand, Paul knows that unity does not just happen, even among Christians. It has to be aimed at, prayed for, cultivated, and preserved. As he says in Ephesians 4:3, we are to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Paul’s little letter to the Ephesians gives us a big picture of God’s eternal plan to makes us one in Christ. You see this especially in Ephesians 1 and 2. John Stott explains:
[Paul] began by unfolding God’s purpose, conceived in a past eternity before the foundation of the world, to create a single new human race through the death and resurrection of Christ and ultimately to unite the whole church and the whole creation under Christ’s headship. He has emphasized that a distinctive shape has been given to this divine plan by the inclusion in God’s new society, on an entirely equal footing, of Jews and Gentiles. The old days of division and discrimination have gone. A brand new oneness has emerged, in which through union with Christ Jews and Gentiles are equal members of the same body and equal sharers in the same promise. So now the one Father has one family, the one Messiah–Savior one people, and the one Spirit one body.1
So, Paul is emphasizing what God has done to make us one, and thus, we are one. That’s the “on the one hand” I mentioned earlier. Then, especially from Ephesians 4 on, Paul calls on us to live out the reality of this unity. That’s the “on the other hand” I mentioned. As John Stott says in The Message of Ephesians:
These sure facts of what God has done through Christ and by the Spirit form the basis on which Paul went on to issue his eloquent appeal. His readers must live a life that is ‘worthy’ of their calling and ‘fitting’ to their status as God’s new and reconciled society. They must demonstrate their unity in the Christian fellowship, while at the same time rejoicing in the diversity of their gifts and so of their ministries. They must put away all the uncleanness of their pre-conversion behaviour and live a life of ‘true righteousness and holiness.’ And they must learn to submit to one another in every kind of domestic relationship and so promote harmony in their homes. Unity, diversity, purity and harmony—these the apostle has stressed as major characteristics of the new life and the new society in Christ.
So how do we do live out the reality of our unity? Well, Paul is really answering that question in the whole second half of his letter to the Ephesians (4-6), but his benediction certainly speaks to it as well. He says, in Ephesians 6:23-24, “Peace be to the brothers, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible.”
God’s reconciling work in Christ has given us peace.In other words, Paul prays for God’s blessing of peace (shalom), that we will know the fullness of God’s favor, the enjoyment of the total well-being that only he can bestow. And because of God’s blessing of peace and his gift of saving love, we may experience and express “love with faith” in the Christian life. Again, John Stott says: “Peace and love belong together, for peace is reconciliation and love is its source and outflow.”2
Then, Paul adds “grace” to his benediction. Paul combines grace and peace often in his greetings and benedictions. God’s reconciling work in Christ has given us peace. Peace with him and peace with one another. And the reason why he has done this is simply his grace, and the means by which he has made us one is grace. So, it is wholly appropriate for Paul to invoke these two blessings on us. God’s grace and peace save us, make us to know his love, evoke in us a love for him, and create the basis for our unity.
This is why Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf asks us to sing:
Christian hearts in love united,
resting in God’s holy will.
Let his love, in us ignited,
more and more our spirits fill.
Christ the head, and we his members—
we reflect the light he is.
Christ the master, we disciples—
he is ours and we are his.
Grant, Lord, that with your direction
‘Love each other’ we comply.
Aiming with unfeigned affection,
your love to exemplify.
Let our mutual love be glowing
thus will all men plainly see
that we, as on one stem growing,
living branches are in thee.