Spiritual unity

Jesus spent the last night of his life celebrating Passover with the twelve apostles that had been a part of his three year ministry on earth and who were expected to carry on his ministry after his death. During what is now referred to as the Upper Room Discourse, Jesus focused his apostles’ attention on the essential elements of spiritual life. Jesus began with a reminder that his followers would spend eternity with him in a place that he was going to prepare for them (John 14:1-3) and then, went on to say that a Helper would come and remain with them forever (John 14:16). Jesus said of the Helper, “You know him for he dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:17). Jesus’ statement that the Holy Spirit would dwell with his apostles and be in them was an indicator that they were going to be united with God in a way that was not possible before. Speaking of the day when his disciples would receive the Holy Spirit, Jesus said, “In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (John 14:20). The Greek word that is translated in, en (en) denotes a fixed position. “Christ is in the believer and vice versa, in consequence of faith in Him (John 6:56; 14:20; 15:4, 5; 17:23, 26; Romans 8:9; Galatians 2:20).” En also refers to “the believer’s union with God (1 Thessalonians 1:1; 1 John 2:24; 3:6, 24; 4:13, 15, 16)” and “of the mutual union of God and Christ (John 10:38; 14:10, 11, 20),” as well as, “of the Holy Spirit in Christians (John 14:17; Romans 8:9, 11; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19)” (G1722).

Jesus’ explanation of how spiritual unity works included the example of a vine and branches. Jesus said, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5). The phrase “bears much fruit” refers to the visible expression of power working inwardly and invisibly (G2590) that causes believers to act not according to their own wills, “but expressing the mind of God in words provided and ministered by Him” (G5342). Jesus used the term fruit in numerous illustrations of both good and bad types of spiritual activity. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stated, “Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-20).

The Apostle Paul talked about the fruit of the Spirit in the context of walking and keeping in step with the Spirit and contrasted it with the works of the flesh. Paul stated:

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. (Galatians 5:16-26)

The Greek word Paul used that is translated keep in step, stoicheo (stoy-khehˊ-o) means “to march, in (military) rank” and is used “in an exhortation to keep step with one another in submission of heart to the Holy Spirit, and therefore of keeping step with Christ, the great means of unity and harmony in the church” (G4748).

Jesus expressed his concern that his apostles would abandon him and become disconnected from each another. After he told them that he was leaving the world and going to his Father, the apostles claimed to be solid in their faith, but Jesus warned them, “Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. I have said these things to you that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:32-33). The Greek word that is translated tribulation, thlipsis (thlipˊ-sis) means “pressure…anything which burdens the spirit” (G2347). Jesus indicated that the pressure of their circumstances would cause the apostles to be scattered, to leave him alone (John 16:32). Therefore, Jesus prayed that God would keep them and that they would be one, even as Jesus and his Father are one (John 17:11).

Jesus’ high priestly prayer began with an acknowledgement that it was time for him to complete his mission. Jesus prayed, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:1-3). Knowing God is an essential part of being united with Him. Jesus equated knowing God with eternal life. The Greek word that is translated know, ginosko (ghin-oce’-ko) in a beginning sense means to come to know, to gain or receive a knowledge of someone. In a completed sense, ginosko means to know and approve or love, to care for someone (G1097). The reason why Jesus equated eternal life with knowing God may have been because God is the source of eternal life and therefore having a connection with him is critical for life to be perpetuated. In the Greek language, life eternal “is equivalent to entrance into the kingdom of God” (G166).

In his prayer to his Father, Jesus openly declared:

I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me that they may be one, even as we are one. (John 17:9-11)

Jesus’ request that his Father keep the disciples had to do with him keeping an eye on them. Because he was leaving the world and would no longer be physically present with them, Jesus wanted his disciples to be protected from the negative influence that the world had on their relationship with him and the evil forces that would try to distance them from each other. Jesus asked that “they may be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11). The one that Jesus was speaking of was an emphatic one, meaning “one and the same” (G1520). The Apostle Paul talked about the oneness of believers in Christ in the context of being a body with many members. Paul said:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. (Romans 12:1-5)

The Greek word that Paul used that is translated body in Romans 12:4-5 is soma (so’-mah) which refers to the body “as a sound whole” as well as “an organized whole made up of parts and members” (G4983). Paul indicated that each member had a function or “practice” (G4234) in the sense of something that is performed “repeatedly or habitually” (G4238). Paul said, “So we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Romans 12:5). The idea that Paul was trying to convey was that believers should not think of themselves as being independent of each other, but as a single entity that is dependent upon each and every part that functions within it.

Jesus’ request that his followers would be one (John 17:11) was not about them being brought together, but the need for God to keep them from breaking apart. The same problem existed when the children of Israel took possession of the Promised Land. The Israelites inherited the land by lot according to their clans (Numbers 33:54) and were expected to occupy the same land continuously throughout their generations. Special provisions were made for the Levites who were not given any land of their own to possess (Numbers 35:2-3) and for men that didn’t have any sons to pass their inheritance to (Numbers 36:2), but ultimately, the families had to stay intact in order for them to remain in the place that they had been assigned to live. Numbers 36:6-9 states:

This is what the Lord commands concerning the daughters of Zelophehad: ‘Let them marry whom they think best, only they shall marry within the clan of the tribe of their father. The inheritance of the people of Israel shall not be transferred from one tribe to another, for every one of the people of Israel shall hold on to the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers. And every daughter who possesses an inheritance in any tribe of the people of Israel shall be wife to one of the clan of the tribe of her father, so that every one of the people of Israel may possess the inheritance of his fathers. So no inheritance shall be transferred from one tribe to another, for each of the tribes of the people of Israel shall hold on to its own inheritance.’” (Numbers 36:6-9)

The Israelites’ inheritance locked them into a particular geographic location within the nation’s boundaries. As long as the family members followed the rules of marriage and didn’t transfer possession of their land to an outsider, the Israelite community remained intact, but over the years, ownership changed (1 Kings 21:3-16) and possession of the land was eventually lost all together (2 Kings 25:1-12). When the exiles returned to the land after being held captive in Babylon for 70 years, only a remnant of the tribes of Israel came back and they occupied a very small portion of the land that was originally given to the Israelites (Ezra 2, Nehemiah 3).

Jesus told his Father that he had kept all of them that had been given to him while he was in the world and said, “I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, the Scripture might be fulfilled” (John 17:12). Jesus’ reference to none of his disciples being lost except the son of destruction was related to his message about the vine and branches. Jesus said, “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (John 15:6). The critical point that Jesus was focusing his apostles’ attention on was the state of abiding or not abiding in him. Abiding in Christ means that we are remaining in a particular state or condition. The state that believers must maintain is holiness. Jesus talked about this in a conversation with Peter when he was washing his disciples feet. John 13:6-11 states:

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

“Jesus did not say, ‘you have no share in me’ (en [1722] emoi), which would indicate Peter lacked salvation, but ‘you have no share with me‘ (met’ [3326] emou), meaning Peter would have no communion and fellowship with him. Christians need constant cleansing and renewal if they are to remain in fellowship with God” (note on John 13:8). Regeneration has two distinct parts; paliggenesia (pal-ing-ghen-es-eeˊ-ah) “(spiritual) rebirth” and anakainosis (an-ak-ahˊ-ee-no-sis) “renovation.” “Anakainosis (G342) is the result of paliggenesia. The paliggenesia is that free act of God’s mercy and power by which He removes the sinner from the kingdom of darkness and places him in the kingdom of light; it is that act by which God brings him from death to life. In the act itself (rather than the preparations for it), the recipient is passive, just as a child has nothing to do with his own birth. Anakainosis, by contrast, is the gradual conforming of the person to the new spiritual world in which he now lives, the restoration of the divine image. In this process the person is not passive but is a fellow worker with God” (G3824).

Jesus used the Greek word katharos (kath’-ar-os), which is translated clean, to signify that someone has been saved. The Apostle Paul identified the ongoing process that Christian’s go through of being cleansed from their sins as sanctification. The Greek word hagiasmos (hag-ee-as-mos’), which is properly translated as purification “refers not only to the activity of the Holy Spirit in setting man apart unto salvation and transferring him into the ranks of the redeemed, but also to enabling him to be holy even as God is holy (2 Thessalonians 2:13)” (G38). Jesus prayed to his Father, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth” (John 17:15-19). Jesus asked that God would sanctify his followers in the truth. What Jesus meant by truth was the divine truth, “what is true in itself, purity from all error or falsehood…In the New Testament especially, divine truth or the faith and practice of the true religion is called ‘truth’ either as being true in itself and derived from the true God, or as declaring the existence and will of the one true God, in opposition to the worship of false idols” (G225). Thus, when we read and study the Bible, the process of sanctification is taking place.

Jesus extended the scope of his prayer to include all the people that would eventually come to believe in him as a result of his gospel message being spread throughout the world. Jesus prayed:

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 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. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 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 17:20-23)

Jesus asked that “they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us” and “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 17:21, 23). Jesus associated becoming perfectly one with being loved by God the Father. The Greek words that are translated become perfectly one have to do with the end result or final outcome of sanctification. What the process of sanctification is actually doing is making all believers into one person, what Paul referred to as the body of Christ (Romans 12:5) of which Jesus is the head (Colossians 1:18).

The King James Version of the Bible translates the phrase become perfectly one as “may be made perfect in one” (John 17:23). The Greek word that is translated made perfect, teleioo (tel-i-o’-o) which means “To complete, make perfect by reaching the intended goal…particularly with the meaning to bring to a full end, completion” was used by Jesus in John 17:4 where he said “I have finished the work” and by Paul in his letter to the Philippians to convey the result of completing his ministry. Paul said, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14). The goal that I believe Paul was referring to in this verse was spiritual unity, the body of Christ becoming perfectly one as a result of everyone being saved and sanctified according to God’s predetermined plan (Ephesians 1:4-5).

Spiritual sacrifices

The Apostle Peter used the metaphor of a spiritual house to describe the structure that the whole body of believers forms as a collective unit (1 Peter 2:5). Peter stated, “As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5). The terms Peter used, living stones, spiritual house, and spiritual sacrifices all pointed to the temple that was the focal point of the Jewish religion. Paul touched on this in his letter to the Corinthians when he addressed the topic of divisions in the church. Paul stated:

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. Do you not know that you, are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. (1 Corinthians 3:1-17)

Paul indicated that building up the body of Christ was a joint effort that no one person could take credit for and said that each person’s work will be tested to see if it was done through human or spiritual effort. Peter may have described believers as living stones because of the effect of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the active nature of God’s word in the human heart. The Greek word that is translated spiritual in 1 Peter 2:5, pneumatikos (phyoo-mat-ik-os’) is used to describe things “pertaining to or proceeding from the Holy Spirit. Of persons who are spiritual, i.e. enlightened by the Holy Spirit, enjoying the influences, graces, and gifts of the Holy Spirit” (G4152).

Peter stated:

For it stands in Scripture:

“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,
    a cornerstone chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,

“The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone,”

and

“A stone of stumbling,
    and a rock of offense.”

They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. (1 Peter 2:6-8)

The word that Peter was referring to was most likely the Ten Commandments that were communicated directly to the Israelites from God on Mount Sinai shortly after they were delivered from bondage in Egypt (Exodus 19-20). The Greek term that is translated word in 1 Peter 2:8, logos (log’-os) was used by the Apostle John to identify Jesus as an eternal being that was present at the beginning of creation. John stated, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:1-3). Peter indicated that those who disobey the word of God were destined to do so and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians revealed that the destiny of every person was established before the foundation of the world. Paul stated, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Ephesians 1:3-4).

Peter indicated that the spiritual house that was being built up by believers was “to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:5). By definition, spiritual sacrifices have to do with God’s divine influence upon the heart. The Greek word “pneumatikos always connotes the ideas of invisibility and of power. It does not occur in the Old Testament or in the Gospels; it is in fact an after-Pentecost word” (G4152). Peter most likely used the term spiritual sacrifices to differentiate between the kind of sacrifices that are made according to our own will and those that are made according to God’s will. When believers offer spiritual sacrifices they are supposed to be doing things that please God. When Jesus was baptized by John, “the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased'” (Matthew 3:16). Likewise, when Jesus was transfigured, “a voice from the cloud said, ‘this is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased'” (Matthew 17:5). The Greek word that is translated well pleased, eudokeo (yoo-dok-eh’-o) means to approve of an act and stresses “the willingness and freedom of an intention or resolve regarding what is good” (G2106).

Peter linked the spiritual sacrifices of believers to God’s original plan to deliver the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. Peter said, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). After the Israelites entered the wilderness and camped at the foot of Mount Sinai, Moses went up to God and “The LORD called to him out of the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:3-6). God’s stipulation that the people obey his voice and keep his covenant was what led to the downfall of the nation of Israel. Peter was letting believers know that they were taking the place of the Israelites that were originally called to serve God. The key to our success being obedience to God’s word.

God described the nation of Israel as his “treasured possession” (Exodus 19:5). The Hebrew word cegullah “signifies ‘property’ in the special sense of a private possession one personally acquired and carefully preserves” (H5459). The descriptors “a kingdom of priests” and “a holy nation” suggest that the kingdom of heaven centers around the spiritual sacrifices of God’s people which are dependent on faith in Jesus Christ. Peter said, “So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (1 Peter 2:7). Jesus also quoted Psalm 118:22-23 after he told the parable of the tenants to the chief priests who wanted to know where his authority came from. Matthew 21:38-44 states:

But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:

“‘The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
    and it is marvelous in our eyes’?

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

The Greek word Jesus used that is translated people in Matthew 21:43 is ethnos (eth’-nos). Ethnos is derived from the word etho (eth’-o) which means “to be accustomed”, signifying a custom or a particular way of doing things (G1486). Ethnos has to do with human nature and in the sense of people producing fruits it refers to born again Christians who are walking by the Spirit (Galatians 5:16). Paul contrasted the works of the flesh with the works of the Spirit and said, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23).

The Ten Commandments were meant to restrain the Israelites from what Paul described as the works of the flesh. Paul said, “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, disensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Galatians 5:19-21). The goal was to make the Israelites a holy nation, but without the help of the Holy Spirit. When the LORD came down on Mount Sinai and spoke with the people directly (Exodus 19:11, 20:1), the people were afraid of him and couldn’t process the information he was communicating to them because they were spiritually dead (Exodus 20:18-19). One of the primary issues that prevented the Israelites from connecting with God was that they couldn’t approach him unless they were consecrated, which meant that they had to be cleansed from all of their sins (H6942). In other words, they needed to be sanctified by the Holy Spirit, something that was impossible on a large scale until after Jesus died and was resurrected.

Exodus 20:1-17 records the discourse that took place between God and the children of Israel on Mount Sinai. The Ten Commandments were in essence a brief synopsis of the rules that God expected his chosen people to follow. They were as follows:

  1. You shall have no other gods before me.
  2. You shall not make for yourself a carved image.
  3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 
  5. Honor your father and your mother.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness.
  10. You shall not covet. 

After hearing these commandments, the people told Moses they didn’t want God to speak to them directly (Exodus 20:19). It says in Exodus 20:22, “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the people of Israel: You have seen for yourselves that I have talked with you from heaven.” The point the LORD was making was that he had already communicated all that was necessary for him to establish his covenant with the people of Israel. He didn’t need to say anything else to them.

The people of Israel understood that the essence of spiritual sacrifice was contained within the Ten Commandments. Hundreds of years later, when Jesus was teaching his disciples the principles of the kingdom of heaven, he was asked to identify “the great commandment in the Law” (Matthew 22:36). Essentially, what the lawyer wanted to know was which of the Ten Commandments was most likely to be broken by every person and would therefore cause everyone in the whole world to go to hell. Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40). The two commandments that Jesus identified were similar in that they both focused on loving others. Jesus likely emphasized that we need to love God with all of our being because we tend to hold back certain parts of ourselves in order to keep a safe distance between us and our Creator. The fact that we are expected to love our neighbor as ourselves suggests that in the spiritual realm there are no boundaries between one soul and another. That’s why we must act like we are responsible for everyone’s happiness.

Shortly before his death, Jesus prayed that all believers would be united in the same way that he was with his Father (John 17:11). Jesus prayed, “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 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 have loved me” (John 17:22-23). The Greek words that are translated “become perfectly one,” teleioo (tel-i-o’-o) eis (ice) heis (hice) and o (o) refer to the joining together that Peter and Paul talked about when they said that believers are to be built up (1 Peter 2:5, Ephesians 4:16). The Greek word oikodomeo (oy-kod-om-eh’-o) means to be a house-builder and oikodome (oy-kod-om-ay’) refers to architecture. Peter and Paul likely used these words to convey the process of edification because believers are joined together in a systematic way that results in an enduring structure somewhat like a home that is passed on from generation to generation which can be remodeled as needed. Peter’s depiction of a spiritual house that was built using living stones (1 Peter 2:5) was probably meant to convey the idea of a community that is in constant motion. If you look at the kingdom of heaven as a state of being as opposed to a physical space that has occupants, you might see that spiritual sacrifices are ones that go beyond the boundaries of physical life and deal with the immaterial needs of human beings.

Jesus’ attempt to convince a rich young man that he didn’t need all the possessions he was depending on was most likely hindered by the young man’s image of the kingdom of heaven as a place that was luxurious and designed to provide comfort. Matthew’s gospel states, “And behold, a man came up to him, saying, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The young man said to him, ‘All these I have kept. What do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. And Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, ‘Who then can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible'” (Matthew 19:16-26).

Jesus indicated there is only one who is good (Matthew 19:17) and suggested that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven one must be perfect (Matthew 19:21). His disciples realized that it would be impossible for anyone to meet God’s standard because giving away one’s possessions went against the very core of human nature. Jesus’ statement, “With man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26) was meant to point out that God doesn’t expect us to go against our nature, but provides a way for us to do what is humanly impossible. Jesus went on to tell them a parable about laborers in a vineyard in order to show them that it wasn’t a matter of giving things up that hinders people from serving God, but the expectation that God will reward our spiritual sacrifices according to how long or hard we work for him. In the parable, everyone was paid the same wages even though some worked all day and others just one hour. Jesus concluded his parable by stating, “‘Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first and the first last” (Matthew 20:16). In other words, God’s goodness isn’t controlled by our human efforts to please him. It is only when we do God’s will that we receive rewards in heaven.

Spiritual fruit

After he identified the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21) and the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), Paul went on to say that all Christians are personally responsible for the outcome of their spiritual lives (Galatians 6:4-5). Paul stated, “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7). Paul intended that the principle of sowing and reaping would link spiritual activity with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. When he said, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance,” Paul meant that these characteristics would be produced by the Holy Spirit and become more and more visible over time in a Christian’s behavior if he or she remained in fellowship with God.

An important aspect of the principle of sowing and reaping was the idea that a particular type of seed produced a specific kind of fruit (e.g. you can’t grow an apple tree from an orange seed). Whatever kind of seed you started with was the only thing you were able to produce. Jesus’ parable of the sower (Matthew 13:3-8) indicated that the seed that needed to be sown in order to reap the fruit of the Spirit was the word of God. In his explanation of this parable, Jesus said:

“When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” (Matthew 13:19-23, ESV)

The Greek word translated understands in Matthew 13:23, suniemi (soon-ee’-ay-mee) is derived from the word sun (soon) which denotes union; “with or together, i.e. by association, companionship, process, resemblance, possession, instrumentality, addition, etc.” (G4862). Another way of describing the Greek word sun would be assimilation, the process of taking in and fully understanding information or ideas. Assimilation also refers to the absorption and digestion of food or nutrients by the body or any biological system (Oxford Dictionary).

The process of assimilating the word of God can take years, sometimes decades, or even an entire lifetime. What is important to note is that it is an intentional process, one that does not happen automatically. Otherwise, there would be no such thing as a carnal Christian, a person that is saved, but does not produce any spiritual fruit (1 Corinthians 3:3). Paul encouraged believers to stick with the process of spiritual growth, even if it seemed like nothing was happening. He said, “And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not” (Galatians 6:9). In other words, your appointed time to be blessed by God may come when you least expect it, when you are past the point of giving up.