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A Lesson In Unity

By Armin Gesswein

    Pentecost ushered in a new day, a new era. But before moving too fast into the rushing, mighty winds of Pentecost, let us stop at Acts 2:1 – “When the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.”

    If we take this verse away we might as well forget the whole chapter. Like a watchtower, it holds a commanding view. It has a position of priority.

    Ecumenicity – the promotion of worldwide Christian cooperation – has become a household word in our time. Books have been written and conferences and conventions of all kinds have been held in the quest for a basis of Christian unity. The first Jerusalem congregation gives us fresh insights into ecumenicity. There we see an even greater unity that churchmen have been looking for.

    What was the first great wonder on that day of wonders? Not supernatural power, but supernatural unity! Though less dramatic, this is as dynamic as any of the high-powered explosives demonstrated by the Holy Spirit on that day. It is the first miracle, without which the other miracles could not have been given in the way they were given on that great day: “they [about 120 members] were all [assembled] with one accord in one place.” Dr. Joseph Parker said this is the greatest unity possible on earth.

    Pentecost, then, introduces us not to the Holy Spirit as the first factor – with all the  plentitude of His gifts and power – but to the church, the new ecclesia (assembly, congregation). The Book of Acts consistently proves to be the “Book of the Church.” The big surprise, however, is that the mighty happenings recorded here continue to be dominated largely by the Jerusalem congregation. This praying assembly is God’s golden candlestick, His original lampstand. It lights up “church truth” like a beacon.

    Pentecost does not begin with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit; it begins with a praying congregation. It is born in a prayer meeting. We must not lose sight of this. We simply must account for the fact that there is not a church in old Jerusalem, quite fully formed and fully functioning in powerful praying.

    Why the church? Because God is not going to pour out His Spirit at random. He first makes a container ready. The new congregation is to be His new receptacle, His larger vessel, His agent not only for receiving the Holy Spirit but for fulfilling the Great Commission. He who had given the command “Go” now charges, “Wait – don’t go yet” (Acts 1:4). He first forms and builds the church to embody all His action.

    Too often people get “high” on the Holy Spirit but “low” on the church. People can run wild and loose on “Pentecost” if they are not centered strongly in the doctrine of the church.

    The same thing is true regarding the doctrine of Christ. This is major. Along with Christ goes the church. These two God has forever joined together; they are the master truths of the New Testament. Many other truths are there, but they move around these two: Christ in all His fullness and the church in all its fullness.

    It would save a lot of headaches, heartaches and church splits if we had as strong a view of the church as we claim to have of the power of the Holy Spirit.

Unity Centered in Christ

    We must emphasize: The unifying Christian doctrine is not the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, but the doctrine of Christ.

    The truth of the Holy Spirit is not central in Christian doctrine. It was not then, and is not now, a fact that is often learned the hard way, after various forms of sectarianism and schism. This often comes as a very sobering revelation to those who are drunk with the “new wine” of the Spirit.

    If only Christ unites, nothing else should divide. But this is very difficult to learn, because any later ecstatic and high-powered experience in the Holy Spirit seems greater than one’s earlier experience with Christ. The new “infilling” seems to make the former experience of the “new birth” rather tame by comparison.

    Those to whom the Holy Spirit and “the baptism” now have taken first place do not admit this. They say that Christ is now more real and alive. But far too often a new sectarianism develops right here, with the emphasis more on the Holy Spirit than on Christ.

    The doctrine of Christ and the doctrine of the church are one. This is another checkpoint for testing splits. For example, it means that I must not split a Christ-centered church or separate from it because I have been “filled with the Spirit.” A sectarian split comes not from a new spirituality but from a carnality. It is a work of the “flesh” (Gal. 5:17 ff.). (A congregation may also need to examine itself to see if it is dealing in love with any who have a new experience.)

    Only Christ unites and what is central in God’s plan must never be secondary in our Christian experience or practice. One can never overemphasize the truth of Christ. “I can’t get enough of Christ” is always the testimony of the greatest saints.

    The Pentecost doctrine of the Holy Spirit did not unite the 120-member congregation in Jerusalem. They were already united! (See Acts 1:14; 2:1). What or who brought that about? It was the risen Lord Jesus Christ Himself. After His resurrection Christ spent a period of forty days personally uniting His followers by uniting them to His Person. That was without doubt the most important forty-day period of ministry in all of His life on earth.

    The doctrine of Christ is both deeper and simpler than the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, however ecstatic a person’s experience. It is the only unifying doctrine, the unity already exists. It is ours from the time we receive Christ, God-given, not man-made. It can never be created at any ecclesiastical round table, however scholarly. It is a unity that comes by birth – the new birth. Unity pervaded the entire Jerusalem congregation. Christ was their unity.

Jesus’ Prayer for Oneness

    How did all this happen? It goes back to Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17. The more one ponders that tremendous prayer, the more he becomes aware that the Jerusalem congregation was the answer to that prayer.

    Jesus’ major concern was for “His own” – His future church. His prayer reveals the tremendous depth and range and reach of His heart and the immensity of His Person. It reaches into eternity and at the same time is plain and practical.

    Christ’s uniquely begotten life was to be begotten again in His church. Jesus used organic, rather than organizational language in this prayer. He prayed for oneness – that the same kind of oneness that exists between the Father and Himself, that exists in the holy Trinity, would also exist in His new church. We see the answers in Acts.

    Jesus prayed for this oneness five times: (1) “that they may be one, as we are” (verse 11); (2) “that they all may be one” (verse 21); (3) “that they all may be one in us” (verse 21); (4) “the glory…I have given them…that they may be one” (verse 22); and (5) “that they may be made perfect in one” (verse 23).

    Luke used another word to describe this oneness, one not used in the Scriptures before: “one accord” (Acts 2:1).

    In Jerusalem we see this new oneness at work for the first time in the prayer meeting. It is assembly oneness. It was in prayer that Jesus asked for it, and it was in a prayer meeting that it was first given.

    For years I had a passion for discovering the secrets of true Christian unity. Then suddenly the inward eye began to see what the outward eye could not find. The Lord early led to the development of a Ministers’ Prayer Fellowship, where for years now we have experienced true ecumenicity, despite the fact that denominationally we are varied. The Lord has manifested His glory in our midst many times, and has given us many renewal experiences. “This is true ecumenicity” is often heard at our gatherings.

    There are plenty of differences among us, and if we dwelt on these we could have trouble in a hurry. But we have learned that these do not divide, because our unity does not lie there – it is centered in Christ. Christ unites.

    Acts gives us the full answer to all five phases of Jesus’ prayer for oneness. Five times He prayed for it; five times we find it answered: (1) in the congregational prayer meeting (1:14); (2) on the day of Pentecost (2:1); (3) in the ongoing life of the assembly (2:46); (4) again in a tremendous prayer meeting (4:24); and (5) after a judgment miracle of church discipline (5:12).

    In His prayer (John 17) Jesus had also said that two unusual evangelistic results would come about through this same oneness: the “world” would come to believe and to know that the Father had sent Him. In Acts the demonstration of the congregation’s koinonia (fellowship) did just that! It proved to be a new way of evangelism. Moreover, it would even prove to be a kind of scientific approach.

    Even the skeptic and the atheist would come to “know” the reality of Christ and Christianity from seeing this new loving fellowship. “By this shall all men know that ye are My disciples, if ye have love one to another,” said Jesus (John 13:35).

Oneness and Fellowship

    Thousands of members were added to the Jerusalem congregation. Oneness and koinonia accounted for the new evangelistic thrust the Holy Spirit gave to this assembly. That wonder continued at the heart of it all.

    Later Satan tried to break up this oneness (Acts 5). He had so far not been able to stop the advance and growth of the congregation from the outside; so now he tried to do it from the inside. He did not have to attack their power, only their unity. But he failed again.

    Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, were both removed by an act of God. Great awe filled the entire congregation, and a tremendous new wave of Holy Spirit power followed. The original oneness was kept: “they were all with one accord in Solomon’s porch” (verse 12). People in Jerusalem were now afraid to join that church; and yet they had many new members (verse 14).

    When will we learn this secret of unity? How many painful separations are brought about because we Christians who have entered a new Spirit-filled experience shifted center from Christ to the Spirit. That is being “eccentric” – off-centered. Christology – not pneumatology – unites. How many sad splits come about when Christians separate from Christians because of some strong experience of Spirit-infilling! It is spiritual pride that brings about the split – not the Spirit, not Christ and not the church. The new Spirit-experience only brings this pride out into the open.

    As we move along into the latter writings of the most prominent apostles – Peter, John, Paul – and see that their doctrine of Christ is preeminent. All else, including their earlier, more ecstatic, experiences in the Holy Spirit, recedes into the background. We are “complete in Him [Christ],” says Paul. John outlived Peter and Paul by a whole generation, and for him the new birth seemed to loom larger all the time. This we see in First John.

    For Peter it is all Christ. For Paul Christ is all and in all. For John it is all Christ and our having been “begotten of God.” That is the big miracle for him now, not “the baptism.” When he does speak of the Spirit, it is “the anointing,” not “the baptism.”

    These men are God’s mighty apostles. Our leaders. Our guides. Our examples. Our helpers in learning how to build and regulate congregations!

    It seems to me that Dr. A. B. Simpson was of this company. Who in our time ever centered and majored in Christ more than he? Indeed, he and his colleagues also ministered the Holy Spirit, with all His gifts and graces. Many and mighty were the outpourings of God’s Spirit on their assemblies. The Holy Spirit was not dishonored when they so magnified and honored Christ. They seemed to be able to minister the Spirit in such a way as to major in Christ and to magnify Him.

    For them, Christ united. What an assortment of colleagues Dr. Simpson surrounded himself with! Men of various denominations met together in gatherings of all kinds. This is the meaning of “Alliance!” Was it not on such an “Alliance” that the Holy Spirit came?  Was that not at the heart of the “flavor” so often spoken of about those meetings? These dear people could not get enough of Christ. They, too, found Him to be their “all in all.”

    Koinonia was the heartbeat of this Jerusalem congregation. It was part of the new miracle of oneness. There was no Christian who was not a member, and no member who was an “island.”

    This koinonia life is carried out in two ways: when we are assembled and when we leave the assembly to continue the same in all of our living.

    The total assembly can be lost sight of in the excitement of the new group movements: home Bible study groups, cells, “mini” churches, etc. The entire congregation is still the test, a help, a balance and a corrective for anything else or less. We must not think that groups are the ultimate in power or the highest expression of koinonia. We must not settle for smaller groups, or mini churches. Healthy cells must be part of the larger organism – the body of the congregation. Otherwise such cells can turn out to be cancer cells!

    I do not read of koinonia groups in Jerusalem. I am sure there were plenty of them – in the homes, synagogues and elsewhere. Acts 2:46 implies this, along with other verses in Acts. What is explicit, however, is “the church,” the total assembly. “The Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (verse 47).

    We are making progress today. Some churches have been finding fresh ways of making the entire assembly to be a koinonia fellowship (for instance, with “body life” meetings). The more groups or cells the better, if centered in Christ and in the congregation. They do indeed build up the life of the assembly and the action of the Holy Spirit there, and they can help to build up the entire assembly into a koinonia. Surely this was true in Jerusalem.

    The famous “class meetings” were the secret strength of the great Methodist revival. They were the place for discipleship, training, prayer, instruction, discipline. But the great wonders took place in the larger assemblies. There it was that the Holy Spirit was poured out in mighty power.

    God wants entire congregations to come alive and get on fire in the Holy Spirit. This is the message of the Book of Acts.

    – From With One Accord in One Place by Armin R. Gesswein. Copyrighted 1978 by Christian Publications, Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. Used by permission.