“Believers are never told to become one; we already are one and are expected to act like it.” Joni Eareckson Tada
Many churches talk a lot about the cross, and I’m thankful for that. A steady diet of the gospel and understanding how Jesus pays for our sin feeds and nourishes our hungry hearts. But we often ignore that Christ’s death unites believers as one. It’s a reconciling, peace-making act bringing people together. It creates a real, objective unity among Christ’s people (the Church) around the globe and across history.
If the cross not only saves us but it also shapes us, then it will propel us to pursue peace and resist division.
Christ’s death should not only affect how we view and relate to God, but it should change how we view and relate to others. And not just people in our church or people who look, think, talk, and act like us. Jesus died to unite people who otherwise would remain at a distance because of their difference.
We live in a divided and hostile society. People choose their camp, they dig in, and they want to shoot at anyone who’s not on their side. Sadly, this happens way too often in the Church, and not just in the world. The Gospel tells us this should not be so. Jesus died not only to forgive our sins as individuals but to heal our fractures and unite us together as a people.
This doesn’t mean we deny disagreements, downplay all differences, or seek unity at the cost of diversity. But it means amidst all these differences, some deeper than others, we have more in common through Christ to bring us together than we have differences to pull us apart.
Oneness through Jesus in John’s Gospel
At least three passages from John’s Gospel emphasize Christ’s priestly work—including his prayers over us and sacrifice for us—to purchase peace and unity.
“He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” (John 11:51-52; see also 1 John 2:2; Isaiah 49:6)
Jesus’ death isn’t only for the Jews, but it’s also for Gentiles all over the world. But it’s not only for both groups but it’s designed to bring these two divided, antagonistic, and opposed groups together. (You can see the aggression and unfriendliness between Jew and Gentile—two different ethnics, religious, and cultural groups—throughout Paul’s letters.) John could have just said Jesus would not only die for this nation but also for those scattered abroad, but he says he dies to gather them as one. Jesus’ cross unites this hodgepodge group of people, bringing them together, winning peace between them, and uniting them as one.
Jesus uses the same language when he talks about being the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.
“And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16)
Jesus isn’t the savior of one group of people but he’s the savior for all people(s). Every nationality, tribe, tongue, and ethnic group find salvation in Jesus alone. Every nation, skin color, and tax-bracket you can fall into, Jesus is the savior for all of us. Jesus says this not only means all these people have one shepherd, but they become one flock. We not only all have in common Jesus as Savior, but we’re knit together.
Jesus overcomes our differences and disagreements. Jesus tears down walls. Jesus is the peace between opposed parties, reconciling strangers into siblings and making friends out of foes.
We also see this in John 17 in the priestly prayer of Jesus. Right before going to the cross, he prays to the Father:
“…that they may be one, even as we are one…that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” (John 17:11, 21-23)
What Jesus prays for as priest, he accomplishes through his sacrifice. He prays for us to live united as one and he dies to make it so.
Jesus dies not only as a substitute for our sins or to reconcile us back to God, but he also dies to unite us with God’s people who we otherwise might be divided and distant from.
Resist Division by Pursuing Peace
If the cross saves us and shapes us, it must move beyond being a symbol tattooed on our arms, worn on necklaces, and hung up in homes. It must even be more than a doctrine we affirm. The cross must change us in day-to-day life. One way the cross shapes us is by making us a peace-making and peace-keeping people who fight against the tides of division, discord, and disunity.
In Philippians 2, Paul talks about resisting division by humbly pursuing peace whenever believers feel divided. He reminds them they should pursue oneness, not to create a false sense of unity, but because Jesus united them as one. Their acts of pursuing peace don’t create the peace but it’s how they live out the peace Jesus purchased.
This applies to our different ethnicities, skin colors, nationalities, our differences as male and female, blue-collar and white-collar workers, married or single, rich and poor, left-brained or right-brained people. These aren’t meant to be areas of division robbing us from unity but areas of diversity within unity. The cross makes us one. The cross has the first and the final word.
This applies as well to how we view one another when we have ethical disagreements in gray areas of liberty, different political leanings, various personalities that struggle to see eye to eye, generational differences they make us seem worlds apart, or when we see something on social media we would never post or support.
In those moments or on those issues, I’m not saying there should never be disagreement—though I think we should seek mutual understanding—but that disagreement in these issues should not create division that undercuts the fact we are one in Jesus. When we do get offended, hurt, or notice a difference between what someone else thinks and what I think, we should guard against distancing ourselves from them and letting division be stirred up.
Put on the peace of Christ and let it rule (Colossians 3:15). Give each other the benefit of the doubt, entering into what are sometimes intimidating conversations, humbly ask questions to listen and learn with empathy, and “bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
As the Church, we should set the tone and model to the world that people with differences don’t have to be divided. Our churches have room to grow in cultivating a culture of conversation that speaks into tough issues with the hope of conformity to Christ and unity within diversity in the Church. We don’t have to end up agreeing, but we can humbly express our thoughts, anchor our convictions in Scripture (and not by ripping it out of context), truly listen, and seek mutual understanding so unity can prevail.
It’s no big deal if people who look the same and see the world the same can get along and be in community together. There are a hundred groups like that in every county. But when people who in the world are normally divided live in unison within the Church, it displays and proves the gospel’s power. Then we have something the world might find compelling and unique (see John 17:23).
Because the cross saves us into one unified people across any dividing lines, to be shaped by the cross we must resist division and pursue peace.
For more NT verses on unity, see: Ephesians 2:11-22; 4:1-16; Galatians; 1 Corinthians 1:10-17; 12:12-13; ; Colossians 3:13-14; Psalm 133:1; 1 Peter 3:8; Romans 12:16.
To understand why diversity displays God’s glory and works for our good, read this article by John Piper.