Images of Unity
As anyone who has studied the Bible knows, it is filled with images and symbols that point to realities greater than those images and symbols themselves. For instance, the essence of the whole biblical sacrificial system is, in a sense, symbolic of the much greater reality: Jesus and the entire plan of salvation.
Many other kinds of images are used in the Bible, and sometimes from the most basic elements, too—such as water, fire, wind. Depending upon the context, these are images for spiritual and theological truths. For example, when Jesus said, “ ‘The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit’ ” (John 3:8, NIV), the wind was used as a symbol for the Holy Spirit.
The Bible uses a number of images to describe the kind of unity we find in the church, the unity that God calls it to manifest before the world. Each individual image is not complete in and of itself. Instead, as a whole, these images reveal many things about church unity, such as the church’s relationship to God, the members’ relationships to one another, and the church’s relationship to the community as a whole.
This week’s lesson will look at some of the images and what they reveal to us about unity in Christ.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, November 10.
The church is about people, but not any kind of people. The church is the people of God, the people who belong to God, who claim God as their Father and Savior, and who have been redeemed by Christ and who obey Him. This image underscores the concept that God has had a people on earth since the introduction of the plan of salvation and that there is continuity between Israel in the Old Testament and the church in the New. From the time of Adam, the patriarchs before and after the Flood, and Abraham, God has made a covenant with His people to be representatives of His love, mercy, and justice to the world.
God’s people are called a “chosen generation,” a “royal priesthood,” and a “holy nation.” These terms indicate that they are set aside for a special purpose: to “proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9, NKJV). This also is an echo of a description of God’s gracious character, as described in Exodus 34:6, 7. “God acquired the church as His own special possession in order that its members might reflect His precious traits of character in their own lives and proclaim His goodness and mercy to all men.”—The SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 7, p. 562.
Perhaps we could ask ourselves, What country today deserves the label of “holy nation” (another image of the church)? None. All nations and ethnic groups are composed of people who do not deserve God’s love and grace. And though the Bible calls us to be a holy people, Scripture also teaches that the selection and establishment of Israel was based entirely on His love and not on any merits that human beings could bring to Him. The formation of God’s people is an act of loving creation and—despite sin and apostasy on a national scale—God kept His promise to Abraham that through his seed, Christ, He would save His people. Just as the election of God’s people was an act of His grace, so is their salvation. This theme reminds us of our common roots in the unmerited grace of God.
Another image of the people of God in the New Testament is the house or household of God. It is a metaphor of stones and buildings that highlights the intricate and interdependent nature of human relationships in the church. Peter refers to Christians as “living stones” (1 Pet. 2:5, NKJV). This metaphor contains a quality of permanency and solidity.
In this passage, Paul combines two images of the church: one inert, a house or building; the other alive, a household of people.
A stone is not very valuable by itself, but when it is bonded with other stones, it becomes a structure that can withstand the storms of life. No Christian can be a stone alone, but must be associated with others in the fellowship of the household of God. For an edifice to be solid, it must rest on a strong foundation. Jesus Christ is this foundation, and the “cornerstone” of the house of God (see also 1 Cor. 3:11). The church also would cease to exist if it did not make Christ the cornerstone of its activities. The church is really about Jesus Christ: His life, death, resurrection, and return. The church forms a community of believers united to share the good news about Jesus to the world. The church’s agenda is Jesus: who He is, what He has done for us and does in us, and what He offers to anyone who will accept Him as Lord and Savior.
The image of a household also is very meaningful. This one rests on the relationships people have among themselves. It is a familiar image of father and mother, brothers and sisters. Ties between family members can be strong, and the accompanying loyalties often transcend all other outside ties. Loyalty is a big part of unity, for how could there be any kind of unity without loyalty, as well?
How does this image relate to the church? Church members also are part of one big family. We are linked, not only because we belong to the human family through our common ancestor Adam, but also because we are related to Jesus, the Second Adam, through our common “new birth” experience. Thus, we become united with each other, not just because of the doctrinal truths that we hold in common, but also in the experience of being converted souls who have a new life in Jesus.
Another building imagery Paul uses is that of the temple of God or of the Holy Spirit. It is the image of a costly and valuable building. Along with 1 Corinthians 6:19, where the image refers to one’s personal body as the temple of the Holy Spirit, Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:16, 17 uses the image to refer to the most holy and precious edifice of the ancient Near East, God’s temple.
Obviously, Paul does not, in referring to the church, have in mind a physical temple or place of residence for God. The Greek of the New Testament makes a distinction between a “you” singular, in order to refer to one person, and a “you” plural, in order to refer to many people. In this case it is the latter. This metaphor refers to a corporate entity: together the Christians in Corinth form the temple of the Holy Spirit, and in a spiritual sense God resides among them.
For Paul, God resides within the Christian fellowship; hence, his warning that anyone who attempts to destroy this fellowship will suffer the consequences of the judgment. The unity of believers is at the core of this fellowship and of God’s presence in this temple. Though this text is often used in the sense of taking care of one’s physical body (which is, of course, what Christians are supposed to do anyway), that’s not the specific point that Paul was making here. His message was, instead, a warning about those who would destroy the unity of the church.
Earlier in the chapter, Paul referred to what he considers as challenges to unity: “for where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you” (1 Cor. 3:3, NKJV). These attitudes and behaviors are real threats to Christian unity and cause the withdrawal of God’s presence from His temple. In other words, conflicts in the church can destroy God’s temple. Thus, he wants members to put away the attitudes and behaviors that do threaten its unity.
When conflicts erupt in the church, Paul’s advice to the Corinthians is still applicable today: “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10, NKJV).
Perhaps the best-known image of the church and one that speaks the strongest about the unity of its varied parts is the body of Christ. “For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. . . . Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually” (1 Cor. 12:12, 27, NKJV).
Just as a body is a single unit that is made up of many different parts, each with its different function and responsibility, this is the church as the body of Christ.
Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 12 conveys the profound reality that authentic Christian unity is not just in diversity, and certainly not despite diversity, but rather through diversity. We should not be surprised that it is the Holy Spirit who is the source of these expressions of diversity. Just as the human body is both incredibly unified and amazingly diverse, so ideally is the body of Christ, which through this diversity expresses the completeness and richness of the body of Christ.
This image speaks directly to us as a church. In the past few decades, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has grown by leaps and bounds. The Seventh-day Adventist Church is composed of people from almost every conceivable background, culture, and environment. Our ethnic, racial, cultural, educational, and age differences must not be permitted to divide us in Christ. If anything, this diversity should be molded by the Holy Spirit as a force for unity, revealing the truth that despite these differences, we are all one in Christ.
As we have seen, at the foot of the cross we are all equal, regardless of who we are or where we come from. As the world around us becomes more and more fragmented, the church must demonstrate that unity in diversity is attainable. God’s people can demonstrate the healing and reconciling power of the gospel.
Amazingly, Paul tells us how this ideal can be accomplished. “Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body” (Eph. 5:23, NKJV). “And He is the head of the body, the church” (Col. 1:18, NKJV). As each believer is spiritually connected to Christ, the entire body is therefore nourished with the same food. We cannot, then, overemphasize the importance of the study of the Word of God, obedience to what we learn in the Word, and the common experiences of worship and prayer for unity in the body of Christ.
In the modern world of large cities, it has become very rare to see animal husbandry of any kind. Most people now know little of the relationship between sheep and shepherds. However, when Jesus told this parable, people understood Him well. When He said, “I am the good shepherd,” they immediately recognized and appreciated His reference to Psalm 23:1, “The Lord is my shepherd.” The image was not only clear but also full of emotional value that made it vivid. In ancient Near Eastern culture, and still today in the Middle East, shepherds are known to be dedicated to the care of their sheep, regardless of the challenges. The figure of shepherd has become one of the dearest images used in Scripture to describe the character of God and His relationship to His people.
The image of God’s people as sheep is an interesting image. One impression we often have of sheep is their harmless and defenseless nature. Thus, they are dependent on a good shepherd for protection and guidance. They are, quite frankly, seen as stupid. Sometimes, inadvertently, sheep get lost, and the shepherd will seek them and bring them back to the fold. Young sheep often need to be carried and require extra care. Patience and understanding is needed to care for sheep. In many ways, this is a perfect image to represent the church. The church member has nothing to fear but everything to gain in a relationship with the Shepherd.
Jesus also emphasized in this parable the importance for the sheep to listen to the voice of the shepherd. When the conditions require it, it is possible to protect a few flocks of sheep by placing them in the same enclosure or sheepfold. How can they be separated later? All that is required is for the shepherd to stand at the door of the enclosure and call. His sheep will recognize his voice and come to him. “ ‘And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice’ ” (John 10:4, NKJV). Listening to the voice of the Shepherd is crucial for the church. In fact, the unity and safety of the people of God depend on their proximity to Him and are directly related to their submissive obedience to His voice.
Further Thought: Ellen G. White, “The Divine Shepherd,” pp. 476– 484, in The Desire of Ages; “The Church on Earth,” pp. 240–243, in Counsels for the Church.
“In the context of the Temple in Jerusalem as well as the ubiquitous Greco-Roman structures, New Testament authors employ the temple metaphor to enable believers to visualize the sanctity of the church, God’s role in founding and growing the church, the defining nature of the work of Christ and the Spirit, and the solidarity of believers within the church. The architecture domain would seem to imply a static image. However, the metaphor is used in conjunction with biological imagery and the process of building is often accentuated. Rather than a static image, ‘we are impelled to visualize a story of the process of construction rather than a completed edifice.’ The church is granted the wondrous privilege of humbly acknowledging in its life and story ‘the temple of the living God’ (2 Cor. 6:16).” —John McVay, “Biblical Metaphors for the Church: Building Blocks for Ecclesiology,” in Ángel Manuel Rodríguez, ed., Message, Mission, and Unity of the Church (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald®, 2013), p. 52.
Summary: The New Testament uses different metaphors to illustrate both the nature and mission of the church. More important, these metaphors teach that God is attentively watching over His people and protects them. These images also teach that God’s people are intricately linked with each other and that we need each other to do the work that we have been called to do.