As One Man in Huntsville
A Biblical Model for Christianity
by: Robert (Bob) Somerville
NOTE: Although this article has been written for our local community, Huntsville, AL, it can be applied to any city – YOUR city!
Unity prayer of Jesus
"I have given them the glory that you [father] gave me, that they may be one as we are one: May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me." (John 17:21)
Our response to this passionate prayer of Jesus should be that every Christian believer in Huntsville becomes a committed ambassador for unity among God's people in our fair city.
This unique prayer of Jesus was prayed during the Passover season--actually on the very day before His crucifixion. If His prayer means anything, it must be acknowledged that the ultimate UNITY of believers will be the crowning glory of His messianic mission. Jesus died for our sins and our unity. Knowing we would be challenged with divisions, disunity and distancing of ourselves from each other, Jesus earnestly prayed: "May they [God's people] be brought into complete unity." Regardless of how large or how small your Christian congregation may be in greater Huntsville, none should be found operating as though they are in competition with one another or as though they have no need of one another (1 Corinthians 12:21). We are all a part of God's kingdom!
Would you join Jesus in His beseeching prayer for unity? Better still, would you become part of the answer? The time is now!
Flip-side of the Great Commission
Jesus leaves no room for doubt: Christian unity is essential to fulfilling the "Great Commission" (Matthew 28:19-20). If we are to be successful at evangelizing an unbelieving world, the verbal declaration of the gospel of Christ, by itself, is insufficient. There must be a biblical body language of unity associated with it. Jesus said that Christian unity was essential "to let the world know" that the Father had sent him. It is evident that we have seriously underestimated the vital role that unity plays in the fulfillment of the "Great Commission." Without unity, evangelism suffers, and we will never see God's glory manifested in the earth--or in our wonderful city--as it must.
Ask the average Christian in greater Huntsville what they would like most to see happen in the church (beyond the verbal declaration of the gospel for winning souls to Christ). Almost without fail, they will exclaim: "Unity in the body of Christ!" It seems that they are ahead of leadership in discerning the seriousness of the existing divisiveness, competitiveness, and the ecclesiastical snobbery. They are becoming weary of the exclusivity, denominational separatism, congregational elitism, and turf guarding. Did I just hear someone say a loud "AMEN?"
Everyone is well aware of the frequent disconnect that yet exists between the black Christian community and the white Christian community, as well as other Christian ethnic groups and congregations. It is evident to all how polarized we are along political and social lines. Unfortunately, such polarization contributes to a judgmental spirit in the body of Christ. But what are we to do about it?
Not an Option
First, it must be understood that the UNITY of believers is not some novel option for Christian leadership and the body of Christ to pursue in Huntsville, Alabama. If we look closely at the prayer of Jesus, we find a biblical responsibility to make a public display of Christian UNITY for the purpose of more effective evangelism. We must become the 'answer in action' to our Lord's anxious prayer for us to become "one." He did not pray for the Father to make us individual pockets of unity in little holy huddles. He has a corporate strategy.
Principles vs. Patterns
In times past, noble and commendable efforts have been made for Christian unity in Huntsville, but unfortunately with limited results and of short duration. These efforts have been based on good biblical principles but perhaps fell short by not employing some biblical patterns for demonstrating unity. Some of the more familiar biblical quotes to support unity efforts were found in the words of Jesus' prayer that we have previously referenced from John 17:21,23. Just as familiar is this passage from Psalm 133:1: "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity." But, where is the reality, and where do we find biblical models for the corporate and public display of unity?
Finding the Biblical Models
The writer of the book of Hebrews informs us that the biblical patterns and lessons for divine initiatives were prophetically demonstrated in the Old Testament (Hebrews 10:1). Here, we are told that the law is a "shadow of good things to come." Surely, the unity of believers in Huntsville would be among those "good things." But where in the Old Testament are the shadows of unity demonstrated?
Unity Lessons from Ancient Israel
Three Times a Year in One Accord
Whether you are familiar with them or not, the best examples for teaching corporate unity in the body of Christ are found in Israel's celebration of the Lord's appointed festival days: Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles.
"The feasts of the LORD, which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations, these are My feasts...Three times you shall keep a feast to Me in the year: You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread [Passover] and the Feast of Harvest, [Pentecost] and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year [Tabernacles]." (Leviticus 23:2, Exodus 23:14-15).
The Lord's annual feast days of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles became known as "pilgrimage" festivals, meaning that these were times when every tribe of Israel would often come together and celebrate as one body. It was an expression of their tribal unity rather than just celebrating privately in their distant homes or tribal encampments (in our case – churches).
That is why Psalms 120-134, in Jewish tradition, are called the Psalms of Ascent! The Israelites would recite these Psalms on their way up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Lord's Festivals. The biblical record leaves no room for doubt of the centrality of these feast days in divine worship.
It is noteworthy to remember that it was not an easy task for them to travel for days in the desert to attend these feasts, facing the hazards, and the elements, while carrying enough food and supplies for the journey. Think of the sacrifices they must have made just to obey God's wishes. And we should do no less!
Notice these are not the feasts of the Jews or Christians but the "feasts of the Lord."
Unfortunately, the knowledge of these celebrations is nearly non-existent in many Christian communities today. The biblical feast days are all too often viewed as being strictly Jewish and non-Christian, when in fact the Lord said "these are My feasts" (Leviticus 23:1). It is time to dispense with such ethnic, religious mentality and celebrate the Lord's feasts. The importance of these feasts being celebrated is often discouraged, minimized, or ignored altogether by Christian leadership as though they were irrelevant for Christian celebration. But, as Old Testament shadows, they reflect something quite different. They are all about Jesus/Yeshua! He is the Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7-8). He is our High Priest, who provided the comforting gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (John 15:26), and Jesus was declared to be "Joy to all people" at Tabernacles (Luke 2:10, Isaiah 9:3). This is precisely why the Bible says they must be celebrated "forever" (Passover – Exodus 12:14; Pentecost/Weeks – Leviticus 23:21; and Tabernacles/Booths – Leviticus 23:41). They are divinely appointed celebrations that both Christians and Jews can embrace.
Now, let us take a brief look at each feast for it's a specific lesson in unity.
At the time of the exodus, when Israel was delivered from Egypt's bondage, they left Egypt being many tribes, but as one man (one body). Each tribe had its unique name and identity, but it was the blood of the lamb on the doorpost of their homes that was the common element for corporate bonding - bound together as one by the blood. They did not feud over tribal differences as they marched, nor should we. When they marched in unity to possess the Canaan Land, the knees of their enemies trembled before the army of God. Satan will also fear a church that is united.
Unfortunately, Israel later became victims of tribal dissension. Disunity ultimately set in. Everyone began doing his or her own thing (much like denominations and churches of today). That was because they had forgotten their miraculous bond through the blood of the lamb that resulted in their deliverance from bondage. When they ceased to celebrate in unity, they became a defeated and less effective people for God. Disunity comes at a cost!
The celebration of Passover became the key to restoring unity and trust in the days of Hezekiah, the king of Judah, after the nation of Israel had been divided into two separate nations. The king sent out a special appeal for all of the tribes of Israel to assemble in unity at Jerusalem to keep the Feast of Passover. It had not been celebrated by a unified Israel for forty years. Some scorned the invitation, but a great multitude of God's people responded, and a marvelous spirit of unity was birthed in the hearts of a people who had previously been divided. Even the hearts of the leadership, who had become both negligent and hard, found new life and saw the "good and pleasant" of unity.
"Also in Judah the hand of God was on the people to give them unity of mind...following the word of the LORD." (2 Chronicles 30:12)
This is another biblical "shadow" for our unity efforts to be followed by all believers in greater Huntsville, Alabama. Just imagine it: What if, on Passover week, a unified church in high public profile celebrated Jesus the Passover Lamb of God as Paul instructed (1 Corinthians 5:7-8)? Many in the unbelieving world might just become convicted that Jesus/Yeshua was indeed sent by God to deliver humanity from all sin and from every enslaving condition of mankind.
Christ Our Passover
A Family Reunion
"For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed for us. Therefore let us [Christians] keep the Festival." (1 Corinthians 5:7-8)
Paul, the great missionary, could not have said it any more clearly. The body of Christ should celebrate this memorial day in honor of its deepest meaning in our Lord's death (Exodus 12:14). Jesus died on the day of Passover. He died for two important reasons: 1) the deliverance and forgiveness of personal sins and 2) the unity in the body of Christ.
A Christian celebration of the Passover Day has been conducted in the Von Braun Center in Huntsville, Alabama for many years. It is a wonderful demonstration of Christian unity! As high as three thousand Christians have gathered at one time for this event. It has been reliably reported to be the largest event of its kind in the world. These Christians assemble in the Civic Center in spite of their diversity of doctrinal beliefs. Christ calls us to unity, not uniformity!
Christians from many denominations like the tribes of Israel, embrace one other in the common bond by the blood of redemption through Jesus Christ our sacrificed Lamb (Revelation 13:8). We celebrate together, not as stepchildren and half brothers and sisters in the family of God, but as fellow heirs of the kingdom through the same spiritual bloodline of Messiah Jesus/Yeshua (Romans 8:17). Do we love only those members of our natural family who agree with us on everything? No, we love them all unconditionally in spite of differing opinions, because we are family! Likewise, we should love each other in the body of Christ without regard to our differences. Ultimate and complete doctrinal unity most likely awaits the second coming. In any case, unity of the spirit must precede the unity of the faith. When we become one in the spirit, God will help us resolve our differences.
"And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? Do not even the publicans so?" (Matt 5:47)
Unity without Compromise
Some people fear the ravages of doctrinal compromise in any unity effort, but unity is a good thing when properly defined and conceived. Our deepest unity is in the spirit, rooted in divine love. The biblical feast days celebrate the core values and teachings of the Judeo-Christian faith. Admittedly, unity can become a very corrupting thing if it contains elements that compromise the truth. The preservation and the defense of biblical truth is a noble effort, and no one should be required to compromise their convictions of truth. But compromise is not required for unity at the Christ Our Passover celebration. The unity that Jesus prayed for brings glory and honor to the Father as He said it would, and thwarts Satan's attempts at separatism, division, and disunity.
Denominational conformity has its plus side because people are bonded together for a common purpose, but it is not to be so at the expense of unity through the blood of the lamb! Jesus' prayer clearly states that unity has cause and effect. The cause is for God's glory, and His glory yields the effect of reaching the world. Jesus assures us that a public display of Christian unity will be a highly effective dynamic in convincing the world that the Father has sent Him.
Is God concerned about doctrinal unity and purity of teaching? Of course He is! That fact is made very clear in the same prayer of Jesus, "Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth" (John 17:17). But where does this sanctification through the "truth" begin? It begins with Christ's command for them to "love one another" given at the Passover supper before His crucifixion." Such love and acceptance was demonstrated by Jesus when he washed his disciples feet. Can we wash our brothers' feet - even if they are soiled? Jesus did! Humility is the key to unity!
"And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place." (Acts 2:1)
The key word defining the spirit of Pentecost is anointing. The operative words are "one accord." It is not difficult to see the lesson of unity at Pentecost. It simply and emphatically states that they were in "one accord in one place," meaning in unity! The anointing was given to equip us for witnessing with an incredible power of persuasion! Who could deny the need for this great gift.
"But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." (Acts 1:8)
Nearly thirty years later, the apostle Paul expressed his urgent desire to return to Jerusalem to celebrate this feast day. "Paul had decided against stopping at Ephesus this time, as he was hurrying to get to Jerusalem, if possible, for the celebration of Pentecost" (Acts 20:16 TLB). Obviously, Pentecost was on Paul's annual liturgical calendar. He knew the lessons of anointing and unity associated with this memorial day. He had preached it throughout the province of Asia Minor.
Unfortunately, many who rejoice in the benefits and blessings provided for us on the Day of Pentecost feel no compulsion to include it in their annual days of celebration. However, that is changing with our area-wide annual Feast of Pentecost. At Pentecost/Shavuot we celebrate the giving of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:1) and the birth of the Church in Jerusalem at the Upper Room experience (descent of the Holy Spirit). In Huntsville, we too have purposed to assemble together in one accord and in one place at Pentecost - a witness to the world that Jesus sent the Holy Spirit for all to receive. Will you be guided by the Holy Spirit to go beyond your borders and embrace believers from other congregations and denominations. The time is now!
"Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued [anointed] with power from on high." (Luke 24:49)
Historical time lines and Jewish tradition confirm that the Ten Commandments were given to mankind on the day of Pentecost/Feast of Weeks (Exodus 19:1, Leviticus 23:16). The Ten Commandments are the constitutional law of God's kingdom for divine faith and conduct of His people, yesterday, today, and forever! A city-wide, corporate celebration of these fundamentals alone would undoubtedly advance a greater spirit of unity in the Christian community.
Remember, as with Passover, Pentecost was another pilgrimage feast, a community demonstration of God's people coming before Him as "one man" in unity.
"And when the seventh month was come, and the children of Israel were in the cities, the people gathered themselves together as one man to Jerusalem...They also kept the Feast of Tabernacles, as it is written." (Ezra 3:1,4-5)
Tabernacles was the third and final annual Festival at the end of the agricultural year, which is also called the feast of ingathering (Exodus 34:22). Again, all of the tribes gathered as "one man" into Jerusalem for a thanksgiving celebration! This was a time of great rejoicing over how God had provided their every need in the wilderness journey and in the past year (Jehovah-Jireh). Therefore, the key word to describe the nature of this festival is joy. "They joy before thee according to the joy in harvest" (Isaiah 9:3). It originated from the story of Abraham and how God had provided a ram so he would not have to sacrifice his own son. Today, the Jewish community still remembers how God miraculously provided their every need in a barren land, raining down manna from heaven and bringing forth water out of a stone. Here in Huntsville, the Christian church can rejoice with the Jewish community in this celebration. We can be thankful for God's abundant blessing upon our fair city. Practical activities for this celebration have included Biblical teaching through building the Succot (booths), experiencing biblical foods, helping children learn the biblical story through related crafts, singing, etc.
Also, an increasing, scholarly consensus points to evidence that Jesus was born during the biblical festival of Tabernacles in the fall of the year - yet another great reason for Christians to celebrate Tabernacles (Revelation 21:3, John 1:14).
Again, as with Passover, and Pentecost, Tabernacles was another pilgrimage feast, a demonstration of God's people coming before Him as "one man."
The Great End-Time Harvest
Some Christian leaders often speak of a great end-time spiritual "Harvest," meaning many souls being won to Christ. That truth is based on the words of Jesus in Matthew 13:39: "The harvest is the end of the world." Through these words of Jesus, we can look forward to an accelerated time of winning souls to Jesus Christ/Yeshua as their Messiah and Lord. This ingathering feast day constitutes another biblical model of unity for effective evangelism by the church.
We have seen through Jesus' pleading prayer request, that unity does play a major role in bringing His vision to reality: "May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me."
Been There, Done That!
"Been there, done that" is a familiar cliché often quoted by those who have lost their interest in repetitious events. The feasts of the Lord are not "been there, done that" events, but rather a "go there, do that" directive, somewhat like our cultural repetition of Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. For example: the Jewish people have been celebrating the Lord's Passover for more than 3,500 years. Why? God told them to celebrate it forever! If these feast days are the model for our public display of unity, we should continue celebrating them, and we will, because God never changes. Our continued celebration of these feasts demonstrates to the entire city that we are in reality one body.
Awareness Ministry, a multi-denominational, educational ministry has been sponsoring a Christian Celebration of the Passover for many years in Huntsville. As many as three thousand people at one time have attended this celebration. Sadly, a percentage of these attendees do not return, often with the reasoning, "Oh, I've been there and seen that event, or 'oh I went last year'(done that)." There are those who have also said, "Oh, we are going to celebrate it at our own church this year." While that is commendable, it misses the larger biblical model for displaying corporate Christian unity as foreshadowed in the Old Testament.
Sadly, today's Christian community, desires religious entertainment with an increasing demand for variety and diversity in celebration. But we should learn from our Jewish community who has been celebrating the Lord's Feasts essentially unchanged both in style and message for millennia. How much more should Christians make celebration a learning experience designed to honor Him?
"But this I confess unto thee, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets." (Acts 24:14)
Consistent with the apostle Paul's confession, the Law and the prophets should continue to shape our "worship." Celebrating the feast days is a part of that pattern.
A Shared Responsibility
The body of Christ in greater Huntsville must come to a higher level of spiritual maturity and appreciation of each other. What responsibility does each of us have in fulfilling Christ's prayer for unity? We may all rationalize individually that we are already contributing to the work of unity, but where is the reality, where is the greater fruit of unity?
It is time for the body of Christ in the Huntsville area to walk the talk. Actions speak louder than words! It begins with having a truly humble heart and burden for unity that Christ spoke of and prayed for. The three main feasts of the Lord are without question the biblical models and the occasions for unity celebration. Why not let the image fit the shadow (Hebrews 10:1)? Instead of the shadow of good things remaining in heaven, why not make it a reality of things in the earth (Hebrews 8:5)?
Just as some of the tribes in Hezekiah's day refused to express unity by boycotting the Passover festival (11 Chronicles 30:10) some Christians may stubbornly refuse to celebrate the Lord's Passover in unity with other Christians in greater Huntsville. However it is in the prophetic will of God that His plans prevail over our ideas as they did then, and it is beginning to take place here, across the nation, and around the world.
The Christian unity that is being generated through the Passover celebration is reportedly a phenomenon expressed on its largest scale right here in Huntsville. Our city is internationally known for its technological expertise. Could it be that God has in mind to make Huntsville an extraordinary shining light in this nation for Christian unity in the biblical style – celebrating the unity festivals?
"The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all." (Ecclesiastes 9:11)
Could now be Huntsville's "time" to show the world that celebrating the Lord's feasts together can result in true unity? Could this be our "chance" as Christians in Huntsville to join Jesus in His prayer for unity by bringing substance to it?
"I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him. Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account." (Ecclesiastes 3:14-15)
If not us, who? If not now, when? - Hillel (paraphrased)