We have drastically underestimated the importance and the power of unity. Unity can determine whether or not God will respond, and how He responds, to our prayers.
I was spending time in the book of Acts and discovered a very interesting difference in the first century church compared to many Christian ministries in today’s western culture. We seem to struggle understanding what it means to be unified.
They nailed it.
From the King James Version Dictionary, “Unity” means “The state of being one; oneness. Unity is a thing undivided itself, but separate from every other thing.”
In Acts 2 we read about Pentecost and how 3,000 believers were saved and received the gift of the Holy Spirit. They created an incredible community we see demonstrated in Acts 2:42-49:
They became partners in life, and came together regularly for prayer and shared communion. Miraculous signs and wonders were performed, and every believer shared with one another whatever they had. They even sold what they had to provide for those in need. They met together daily, in the temple and in each others homes. They shared meals together and were continually filled with praises to God.
They were clearly unified in heart, word, and deed.
It was in this season of first-century Christ-followers, shortly after Pentecost, that we find Peter and John walking into a temple. They see a blind beggar sitting by the gate (Acts 3:1-3).
In verses 6-8 Peter tells the man to get up and walk, in the name of Jesus Christ. As Peter pulls him to his feet, power surges into his crippled limbs and he jumps up and starts to walk - a miracle!
A crowd surrounds Peter, John and the healed man. Peter explains what happened. He elevates Jesus Christ, and his preaching upsets the religious people. So they arrest Peter and John and throw them into prison for the night.
Still, in response to their message 5,000 men gave their lives to the Lord (Acts 4:4). Meanwhile, in prison, Peter and John are brought before the council and, when questioned, they share the gospel. Unable to find a crime to charge them with, the authorities threatened them, told them not to preach anymore, and let them go.
Here’s the part that struck me:
“As soon as they were released from custody, Peter and John went to the other believers and explained all that had happened with the high priest and the elders. When the believers heard their report, they raised their voices in unity and prayed. … ‘So now, Lord, listen to their threats to harm us. Empower us, as your servants, to speak the word of God freely and courageously. Stretch out your hand of power through us to heal, and to move in signs and wonders by the name of your holy Son, Jesus!’” (Acts 4:23-24, 29-30, emphasis mine).
What happened when Peter and John were released from prison? They went back to the other believers to share what had happened. And how did the believers respond?
They raised their voices in unity and prayed.
They praised God for who He was, and they recognized that a threat against one of their own was a threat against them all. “So now, Lord, listen to their threats to harm us. Empower us, as your servants, to speak the word of God freely and courageously” (Acts 4:29, emphasis mine).
They didn’t distance themselves from Peter and John. They didn’t blame Peter and John for being too bold or too radical. They didn’t get jealous of Peter and John for the miracle God did through them or the 5,000 men who came to Christ because of their preaching.
They knew Peter and John’s boldness and courage was from Jesus. They saw what happened as evidence of what the Holy Spirit could do through all of them, and the believers asked God to empower them as well because they knew He would.
They didn’t need to be jealous of Peter and John because it wasn’t about Peter and John! It was about Jesus!
What’s so beautiful, is that in response to this incredibly unified prayer, God acted.
“At that moment the earth shook beneath them, causing the building they were in to tremble. Each one of them was filled with the Holy Spirit, and they proclaimed the word of God with unrestrained boldness. All the believers were one in mind and heart. Selfishness was not a part of their community, for they shared everything they had with one another. The apostles gave power testimonies about the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great measures of grace rested upon them all” (Acts 4:32-33, emphasis mine).
I wonder what would have happened if, when Peter and John went back to the believers to tell them what happened, they grumbled in resentment and envy? What would have happened if they criticized Peter and John’s methods? Or complained that Peter and John brought them unnecessary attention, or somehow made things more difficult for the rest of them? What if they tried to steal the glory from Jesus by claiming they somehow deserved credit for what Peter and John did?
“You know, Peter, that never would have happened if I hadn’t woken you up in time to go to temple. You overslept, remember? You would have missed it if I hadn’t helped you out.”
“You know John, I told you guys you should go to that particular temple instead of the one you usually go to. If you hadn’t listened to me, you wouldn’t have met that beggar and none of this would have happened. You’re welcome.”
How ridiculous does this sound! And yet we do it! We try to claim credit or glory for something that has nothing to do with us and everything to do with what Jesus is doing in spite of us!
The first century church was concerned with one thing and one thing only: Jesus. That’s how they managed to be so unified.
Their mission statement: Jesus. Their goal: Jesus. Their motivation: Jesus. Their methods: receiving Jesus, sharing Jesus, talking about Jesus, behaving like Jesus, doing what Jesus did, talking like Jesus did, loving like Jesus did and teaching others how to do the same through their example. They weren’t perfect. They simply had their eyes on Jesus and not on themselves.
We tend to look at one another to compare our hearts and our ministries. “At least we’re not like that.” “At least I’m not that kind of person.” “At least we’re not struggling in that way.”
That was never the standard we were meant to have. Jesus is, and always has been, the only standard we’re to measure ourselves against individually, and collectively. And our ability to live according to that standard is only possible covered by the blood of Jesus.
How do we tell if our ministry is living according to the power of grace, or under the striving of self? Jesus gave a very clear answer:
“‘So I give you now a new commandment: Love each other just as much as I have loved you. For when you demonstrate the same love I have for you by loving one another, everyone will know that you’re my true followers” (John 13:33-34).
Whether there are three people in your ministry or thirty, there is no clearer indicator of the health of a ministry than the love they have for one another. Not others outside the ministry, not their family, not even those they serve: Jesus said it was clear by the love they have for each other.
If you’re truly following Christ, it will be evident by your love for those in your ministry and your efforts for unity. Even if it means addressing difficult topics to bridge gaps created by harm. Even if it means tears are shed because hurt is admitted. Even if it means confessing ugly heart conditions in order to get right again. Praise God, the blood of Jesus covers it all and not even death can stop the restorative power of His love.
The first century church was just as sinful and ordinary as those in your ministry - yet how does your team respond when one or two members are suddenly elevated in honor? Is there envy? Jealousy? Resentment? Glory to God, or pride?
Is credit or honor quickly claimed or passed onto a specific person other than Jesus? When God moves through the hands or mouth of one member, do the others grumble or speak ill of that person in order to “humble” the one through whom God recently used for His glory?
When one person holds their personal life to the standard of scripture do others criticize that person for being “holier than thou” or accuse that person of being righteous as though it were a negative thing?
Does your ministry only meet one another when you’re “doing ministry” or do you meet together other times of the week? Why or why not? When you do spend time together outside of scheduled ministry times, how is the atmosphere? Tense? Joyful? Awkward? Anxious? Peaceful? Divisive? Why do you think that is?
A more important question: how is your heart toward people in your ministry? Does your heart darken when you see a particular person? Do you see the good in that person, or just the things that need work? Do you speak life into and over that person, most importantly TO that person, or do you tend to spend more time criticizing, teaching or correcting them?
An even more personal question: Are you seeking Christ, or are you too busy looking at how others in your ministry are not? As I write this I am convicted by my own pride. I have elevated my own opinions above unity in my ministry, and allowed resentment to take root where love could have covered a multitude of offenses, and I’ve had to repent!
The only ministry that matters, is the one that elevates Christ. However that happens, we can confidently say “yes” and “Amen” to our brothers and sisters who are on this mission.
If Christ is the foundation and love the fertilizer, unity will grow. If you’re lacking unity in your ministry, where is Christ missing in your ministry?