Church Unity

Archibald G. Brown, June 11th, 1871, Stepney Green Tabernacle


"Behold! How good and pleasant it is for brethren to live together in unity! It is like precious anointing oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron's beard, down upon the collar of his robes. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the LORD commanded his blessing, even life forevermore!" Psalm 133:1-3

Short though this psalm is, it would be difficult to find a sweeter one. Every sentence breathes peace, and the whole is fragrant with love. It is as precious as the anointing oil of which it speaks, and as refreshing as the dew on Hermon's hill. To take any one part away from the whole is an impossibility. The charm of every portion is heightened by its relationship to the remainder.

It is immaterial to us this morning when or why this psalm was written. That it is written, is a blessed fact. May its blessing be ours. It may well be applied to any community, family or church that is found abiding in peace.

The divine imagery of its verses receives additional beauty by being looked at as the representation of spiritual unity in the church.

Heavenly love is the oil of gladness and the dew of Hermon, which, being poured upon the head of Jesus without measure, flows down from Him upon his followers, who are but the skirts of His garment.

May the Lord graciously throw a flood of light upon this psalm, as together we muse upon its verses. We will have three divisions under which I think the whole will be included.

First, the grace that is unity.
Secondly, its illustrations the oil and the dew.
Thirdly, its benefit "there the Lord commanded the blessing."
 

I. The Grace of unity. What is meant here by "brethren dwelling together in unity?" This is the question that is doubtless being asked by many hearts. Before giving the direct and positive answer, I will give you the negative, and show you what it is not. This is necessary in order to address some general mistakes.

1. Notice then, first, that unity is no mere absence of quarreling. Something far higher is intended. The two are not in any way identical, although sometimes they are confounded. Living in unity, will truly prevent the quarrel; but the mere absence of the quarrel, in no way proves the presence of true unity. The former includes the latter but the latter does not necessarily imply the former. Let me show you more clearly what I mean, by an illustration.

In yonder graveyard all classes of society are buried. During life they held the most opposite views, and the party strifes that raged were bitter. There are represented there all the shades of political opinion, and all kinds of religious and irreligious belief. Men who are by nature, education, and circumstances, the very contrasts to each other, lie side by side but I hear no words of strife. The Tory reposes next the Liberal without any denunciation against his neighbor. The Churchman lies next the subscriber to the Liberation Society and yet expresses no horror at the company he is in. Men too, who all their lives had fought over some lawsuit, and managed to beggar each other now rest in contiguous graves without a word of angry reproach. Stand in that graveyard all day and night, and you will hear no discordant sound, no words of strife. The birds sing in the branches and the owl among the tombstones when the evening comes but there is no quarreling among its inhabitants. True! But there is likewise no dwelling together in unity. The quiet is the quiet of death not the love and affection of life.

Yet again, as you ascend the Great St. Bernard Mountain, you come to the convent founded in the year 968. It is situated in the snow region; and every afternoon from November to May, some of the monks go forth with their trusty dogs to search for any travelers that may have lost their way in the trackless wastes. Many a life has thus been saved; but sometimes the support comes too late, and only a frozen corpse rewards them for their toil. This corpse is placed in the dead house attached to the hospice. There are many in it. Frozen stiff and hard, they stand upon their feet against the wall; their bodies are shrouded in drapery but their faces are visible. Some of them have been there for years, awaiting some friend to recognize and claim them. Enter that dead house as the pale moonbeams gleam through the grated window, and fall on the sheeted dead. There is no discord there. Never has an angry word fallen from the lip of any of those ghastly figures since the monks placed them in position. There are no quarrels in the dead house on St. Bernard. Quite true; and it is equally so that there is no dwelling together in unity. They are too frozen and dead to quarrel. It is the cold, not Christ that keeps the silence.

So it is with many churches. There are no particular discords no angry meetings no violent quarrels and yet there is no unity. They are too frozen up by their respectability to show temper. Politeness, not godliness, keeps them from contentions. Besides which, as no one knows anybody else, it is rather difficult to have a difference. The church consists of so many distinct and frozen people where one pewful knows nothing of those before or behind, and does not wish to increase its knowledge.

Now grant that in such a church there has been no quarrel known for years: can we apply this psalm to them and say, "Behold, how good and how pleasant a thing it is for brethren to dwell together in unity"? It would be irony to do so. We might if the text spoke of the blessedness of being frozen together. No! The quiet is the quiet of indifference the calm is that of the icy region the absence of quarreling, is simply the result of the presence of spiritual death. The text means something more than this.

2. Secondly, unity is not dwelling apart in order to have peace. Living asunder is sometimes the only expedient in order to avoid a collision. As early as the days of Abraham, it was resorted to. His herdsmen and Lot's, being unable to agree, he proposed that one should journey one way, and one the other, and so avoid all strife. This is better than contention but it is something infinitely below dwelling together in unity. It is peace at the cost of dwelling together not dwelling together in peace. It is peace at the sacrifice of union if such a thing is possible. Of all modes of obtaining peace, this is certainly the most humiliating. It is a confession that dwelling together in unity is an impossibility.

The chemist has in his possession two explosive compounds: kept apart, they are comparatively harmless; brought together they would annihilate the premises. How carefully they are secured in different receptacles. The plan answers the danger, and for years their destructive powers lie dormant. But you cannot say, concerning them, "how good it is to see them thus dwelling together in unity." The peace and safety arises from the fact that they are not together.

O, do not dear friends, run away with the idea that because you never speak or associate with this or that person for fear of a difference between you, that therefore you come under the blessing of this psalm. The grace spoken of here is dwelling together in unity not apart.

3. Yet once again, the unity spoken of here is something more than being members of the same church, or being engaged in the same work. We have already attempted to show that unity does not consist in frequenting the same sanctuary. We now have to add with sorrow that neither does it necessarily exist among fellow church-members. The names may appear side by side in the church book while the hearts of those two are far apart. If fellow-membership always meant dwelling together in unity, then "church meetings" would be far happier gatherings than some unfortunate pastors find them. There may be unity in doctrine and yet little in spirit.

But closer even than fellow-membership, is fellow-work; and yet this does not always mean what the first verse of this psalm describes. You may be one of a band of Sunday school teachers one of a number of tract distributors and yet not dwell in unity with the teacher who takes the next class, or the brother who visits the other side of the same street. No merely external relationship can guarantee the blessed unity described by the oil and the dew.

What is it then? It is for any number to be as if one soul actuated them all. The very wording of the verse shows it is for the plural to dwell in the singular the many to make but one.

A better illustration of this cannot be found than that which suggested itself, or rather was suggested, to the mind of Paul. The human body composed of many members yet constituting but one man. One soul in many members one life, the life of all. Every muscle obeying one will. The hand the foot the eye all living by the same life current all giving willing obedience to the same soul. This is dwelling together in unity.

O happy, happy church, where . . .
one motive inspires all, and that is the glory of Jesus,
every member is knit to every other by loving life and living love,
however numerous the fellowship may be, only one heart a great heart beats and sends the warm life-stream leaping through every artery to every member. To dwell together in unity, is to serve the Lord with one consent.

In the previous division we were speaking of the unity of life. In this we have the outward manifestation of that life unity in work. When the church of God goes forth to war as one when in every regiment it walks shoulder to shoulder, O how glorious a sight it is to see the church militant thus sweep past to the battlefield. What music is equal to that 'left right, left right,' that makes the ground tremble underfoot. How grand the spectacle, when under one banner and shouting the name of one leader, Jehovah-Jesus the church marches on. No laggard no craven-hearted one no traitors. It would be worth forfeiting five years of life, to see such a sight as this.

Once more. Unity includes serving each other in love. This is distinct from the other two.
The first was the life of unity;
the second was its manifestation in work;
this is its manifestation in sympathy to each other.

While fighting the foe with one hand, unity is helping our comrade with the other hand in the long marches, giving our arm to the one who is ready to sink with weariness carrying the knapsack of the tired soldier, and so fulfilling the law of Christ raising him who has fallen, tripped up by some stone in the path after battle, giving drink and support to the wounded on the field.

Yes, dwelling together in unity includes all these and many other things we have no time to mention. It gleams forth in the eye; it is seen in the hand; and it makes itself evident in ten-thousand little acts of kindness.

This unity will have to be continually cemented by forgiveness. While we are mortal and only partially sanctified, offences will come but they need not remain. Yes, just as some cements make the broken place stronger than before, so forgiveness increases, not deteriorates, the strength of unity. "Be kind one to another, tender-hearted" there is the unity. "Forgiving one another, even as God, for Christ's sake, has forgiven you" there you have the cement to bind it together again when broken.

Let us now consider the high praise passed upon this grace by the psalmist it is good and pleasant. This he introduces by a "Behold!" The language seems to imply that it is impossible to say "how" good or pleasant it is but it is so good and pleasant that wherever it exists that it deserves and calls for special notice.

There are but few things about which both of these words can be employed. The two rarely go together. Many things are good which are not pleasant. Many things are very pleasant but a long way off from being good. Behold then how worthy an object of admiration it must be, that it is as good as it is pleasant, and not more pleasant than it is good. Both words are equally truthful in the description of unity.

First, unity is GOOD. That this is so, may be proved by many an argument. We will only select three or four.

1. It is good because it is in accordance with the will and nature of God. God is love there you have His nature. We should be conformed to His image there you have His will. Now whatever brings my spirit and life into harmony with my God's, must of necessity be good. An unloving heart is opposed to all that is revealed of God. A heart that knows but little compassion, and lives in selfish isolation can never be in harmony with Him "who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son." The sower of strife can never live in sympathy with Him whose whole gospel is one of "reconciliation."

But this blessed unity about which we have been speaking, breathes forth an atmosphere of compassion and it knows nothing of isolation. It never sows strife but seeks to uproot that hateful weed wherever it is found. It must be good, for it is of God, and it is like God, and it brings us into fellowship with God, for "God is love, and he who dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him." 1 John 4.16

2. It is good, for it is obedience to the new command of Christ. The natural man knows but ten commandments the spiritual man knows eleven, and that last extra one embraces all the rest. "A new commandment I give to you," says our Lord, "that you love one another." O how good must that be which Jesus makes the subject of such a commandment!

Unity and love among His disciples seemed ever the great desire of our Master's heart; it formed the chief petition of that which is most truly "The Lord's prayer" John 17.20-21: "Nor do I pray for these alone but for those also who shall believe on me through their word that they may all be one; as you Father are in me and I in you that they also may be one in us."

Unity among brethren has been stamped by our Savior as "very good." Its goodness is also seen in the fact of it being one of the chief evidences of discipleship. In proportion, as anything is of value so the proofs of our possession increase in value. Nothing can compete in worth with being one of the Lord's disciples; how good therefore must that be which sets beyond a doubt the fact of our discipleship.

Let me refer you now to one passage of scripture that explains the argument. You will find it in the First Epistle of John, the third chapter, and the fourteenth verse: "We know that we have passed from death to life because we love the brethren." Here is the grand proof of the possession of spiritual life. It is not that we preach, or teach, or give but that we love. A man may be sound as Calvin, and as eloquent as a Whitefield and yet lack the one thing that proves him to be a child of God. "He who does not love does not know God," whatever his profession or pretensions may be. Good indeed must be that sweet unity that stamps professions as "genuine."

3. Lastly, that must be good which makes the communion of saints good and edifying. It is dwelling in love with the saint, as well as the Savior, that qualifies the soul to enjoy the sweets of fellowship. If you are indeed a child of God, then I defy you to find any real enjoyment at the Lord's table while you are living at variance with a brother in Jesus. The dew of refreshing will not rest upon an angry spirit; it is too hot and dries up the heavenly moisture. Services, prayer meetings, reading of the Word all these lose their sweetness and charm when unity is lacking. If it does not give the blessing, it gives a preparedness of soul to receive it. By precious enjoyments when we have had it, and by bitter memories when we lacked it our own experience adds, "it is good for the brethren to dwell together in unity."

Secondly, unity is PLEASANT. We will not dwell on this point as time forbids it. Suffice it to say, it is pleasant . . .
to God,
to Christ,
to angels,
to saints,
to pastors,
to the world.

On this last point I must just say, that from the deepest depths of my heart, I pity the man who is pastor of any church where unity is lacking. Dreary and heart-breaking must be the work of laboring among a divided people. He can preach the Word with but little expectation of any blessing? No wonder if his hands hang down and his heart bleeds.

But how pleasant, beyond expression, the joy of laboring for souls amidst a church whose life is a living commentary on this psalm. Heaven and earth, Christ and His people, together sing "Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!"
 

II. The illustrations of unity. The psalmist having made the statement upon which we have thus far been meditating, now enforces it by two of the most beautiful illustrations that can be imagined. They are so full of true poetry that I almost fear that anything I can say upon them will but mar their beauty and weaken their force. They commend themselves at once to the mind. One feels their suitability as emblems the moment read. For two or three minutes let us dwell upon the first illustration employed.

1. Unity among brethren is like the anointing oil upon Aaron's head. "Precious anointing oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron's beard, down upon the collar of his robes."

In order to fully understand the allusion, I must ask you to refer to Scripture, "Take the best spices: of liquid myrrh 500 shekels, of sweet-scented cinnamon half as much, 250 shekels, of fragrant calamus 250 shekels. And of cassia 500 shekels, in terms of the sanctuary shekel, and of olive oil a hin. And you shall make of these a holy anointing oil, a perfume compounded after the art of the perfumer; it shall be a sacred anointing oil." Exodus 30:23-25

You will see from this, that the anointing oil was made up of several different compounds, all precious in themselves. Myrrh, cinnamon, cassia, olive oil all these lend their own sweetness to make the one fragrance of the anointing oil.

Just so, the sweet blessing of unity consists not in anyone ingredient but in the blending together of many. Various are the spices, all "principal" in themselves, that make the anointing oil of unity.

There must be the myrrh of love. This takes the precedence. Full measure of this must be found. Whatever other spice may be given by the 250 shekels of this there must be 500 shekels. The shekels must not be of this world, which are always light but of the sanctuary. Without love the anointing oil can never be made; it is the principal of all "the principal spices." With this there must also be . . .
the sweet cinnamon of gentleness,
the sweet calamus of meekness,
the cassia of longsuffering, and
the olive oil of forgiveness.

These all mixed in their respective quantities a good measure of each will make an anointing oil more precious even than that which flowed down Aaron's beard!

The anointing oil was also most fragrant. How could it be otherwise? When so many fragrances blend, the whole must be very aromatic. There was no need to be told that Aaron's head was anointed. The anointing oil made its own presence known.

So it is with unity. There is cause to suspect its absence, when it is greatly advertised. Unity is so fragrant that it can never keep its secret. Not only is it sweet itself but it perfumes all it touches.

Things most distasteful in themselves become fragrant through its influence. Rebukes and reproofs lose all their harshness, when anointed with this oil yes, they even became pleasant and refreshing! David thought so when he said "let the righteous strike me it will be a kindness; and let him reprove me it will be an excellent oil which will not break my head."

Yet again, Aaron was not qualified to minister, until he had been anointed with this anointing oil. You will read in Exodus 30.30, "And you shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may minister to me in the priest's office." Whatever other qualifications he might possess, the lack of this precious and fragrant anointing oil, would be an insuperable barrier in the way of his ministrations. So it is with us. No soul lacking the anointing oil of love is fit for the Master's use. No eloquence, no ability can take its place. "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing!" 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

WHERE is the blessed unction to be obtained? Only from Christ. We, who are but as the skirts of His garments, can only receive as it flows down from Him who is our Head.

2. Secondly, unity is compared to the dew of Hermon. "It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion." It is my purpose on this point only to indicate in general one or two resemblances, and leave to your own meditations the filling in of detail.

The dew of Hermon comes from above. Fogs and mists come from the earth; we always speak of them as "rising." Concerning the dew, we say "it falls."

Evil passions and all that obscures, comes up from the evil of our own hearts they rise. "For from within, out of a person's heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you!" Mark 7:21-23

The heavenly spirit of love the soul's dew descends from God. James in his epistle, very beautifully distinguishes between the two. He says, "If you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such "wisdom" does not come down from Heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from Heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere." James 3:14-17

Dew cools the air and makes fruitfulness abound. Just so, the spirit of loving unity calms the heated passions and gives birth to fruit, as James beautifully adds to the verse just quoted: "And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace."

Dew does not wait for men. Micah speaks of it in his prophecies as the "dew from the Lord, that does not tarry for man, nor wait for the sons of men." Dew comes without being asked for. That is a poor kind of love that needs much pleading to bring it forth. The highest kind is that which will fall, and nothing will hinder coming like the dew upon the unkind and thankless. O marvelous grace that requires two such matchless illustrations to describe unity's beauty and its worth.
 

III. The Benefit of unity. "There the Lord commanded the blessing." Much might be said under this division of the psalm but time forbids.

How precious is that word "commanded"! How full of comfort! Not for us is it to command a blessing we can but beg for it. "Let the blessing come" is our cry. "The Lord commands the blessing" is Heaven's answer.

But where is the happy spot on which a commanded blessing rests like dew? I answer, the spot where unity abounds. Alas, how many a church has had all its prosperity blasted by internal strife and envy! Splits and divisions and anger have turned many gardens of the Lord into howling wildernesses! But where love reigns where the holy oil anoints pastor and people alike; where dew sweeter than Hermon's falls there in spite of every opposition, the blessing comes, because it is "commanded."

May the Lord who has so graciously given it to us as a church and a people, long continue it. May the oil never cease to flow; and may this Hermon never lack its dew. O may the day soon come when enmity shall cease everywhere, and love reign universally when all God's children of every tribe shall be bound together in one bond of sacred and eternal love. Beloved, the day breaks apace, when all the shadows of the church shall flee away, and when saints and angels shall sing together this lovely psalm in glory land! May God grant that we all may be there to swell the song! Amen.