Word Study #197 — Unity: Being/becoming One

In view of all the attention given in the New Testament to the idea of the mutual dependence and community life of the citizens of the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus, it would be reasonable to assume that “unity” would be a common subject of discussion. I expect that many of you will be as surprised as I to realize that the word “unity” itself occurs only twice in the entire New Testament. Maybe if you’re busy “doing it” you don’t spend as much time “talking about it”!
Henotes – (L/S) “union, unity”, a common word in the mathematical works of Aristotle and Pythagoras and the philosophical writings of Epicurus, is used only by Paul, and only in Eph.4:3 of “the unity of the Spirit” and Eph.4:13 of “the unity of the faith [faithfulness]”. These are indeed critical to the life and health of the brotherhood, whose members are urged to work at maintaining the unity that the Spirit is in the process of building. Note that people are not to do the “creating”. No one but the Lord can do that. We are charged only with the maintenance work.
The building process is described in the immediately following paragraphs, and “faithfulness” is presented as both its source and its goal in vv.13-16. Both “the Spirit” and “faithfulness” are cast in the genitive case, of which one of the primary uses is to identify the source or origin of the principal noun (“unity”, in this case). This use of the genitive is second only to possession, which would not make any sense here. These two, together, are essential to genuine unity.

For clarification of specifics, however, we must turn to other vocabulary. In contrast to henotes, the word “one” (heis, mia, hen), which is so prominent in Jesus’ final recorded prayer for his followers in Jn.17, occurs in the New Testament (with varying implications) more than 300 times! The vast majority of these are simply counting (229x), or referring to “someone, a certain – , other, some, another, or simply a/an” (about 50x). It is the outliers with which we are concerned.

Jesus had shocked people earlier, already (Jn.10:30), with the simple statement, “The Father and I are one.” It nearly got him stoned! (v.31). His opponents correctly discerned – but did not understand or accept – the import of his words. Some of the implications of that statement are explored in chapter 2 of Citizens of the Kingdom. The union of Father and Son was so complete that the words, actions, goals, and even personalities of Jesus and the Father were virtually inseparable. And this relationship is the pattern (Jn.17:11) for the object of Jesus’ prayer “that they may be one, as we are”! The same phrase is repeated in Jn.17:21,22,23. Notice, please, that this is not a list of instructions to the disciples! Mere people could never possibly achieve it! It is a prayer for the sovereign action of God, which began to be answered with the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, and has been in process ever since. Ac.4:32 describes the “multitude” being “of one heart and one life [identity, “soul”]”. Paul’s later descriptions of the Body of Christ (see #84, and chapter 7 of Citizens) detail some of the ways this unity found expression. Consult Ac.2:42-47, 4:32-37; Rom.12:4,5; I Cor.10:17, 12 (whole chapter); Gal.3:28, Eph. 2 and 4; Col.3:15.

Second in frequency of New Testament usage is the figure, also initiated by Jesus, in Mt.19:5,6 and Mk.10:8,9, of the union of husband and wife. The idea is repeated in I Cor.6:16,17 and Eph.5:31. This, too, is represented as an act of God – not the whim, desire, custom, or law of people. Only God is able to “out of two create one”, since in the beginning it was he who created “out of one, two” (Gen.2).

Another outstanding aspect is seen in the “breaking down of walls” (Eph.2:14) – the bringing together of folks whose former alienation certainly equaled that of any modern foes, and forming them into a single unit, demonstrating the power and glory of their Lord (Rom.15:6-13, Gal.3:28, Eph.2:13-17, Col.3:12-15). A similar admonition to the folks at Philippi (1:27, 2:2), while not as specifically addressing opposing groups, advocates the same mutuality. (Refer again to #84).

Finally, there are clues to be found in the cases, many of which occur only in Christian writings, where the preposition sun– – “with, together, belonging to, with the help of, in company with” – is prefixed to other words. It is significant that Christian writers needed essentially to create a whole new vocabulary since their Greco-Roman culture was as individualistic as ours, and the principles of mutuality were just as foreign in the first century as they are in the twenty-first! Here is a partial list, with relevant references and lexical information. (Note: the substitution of gamma (g), mu (m), or sigma (s) for the nu (n) in “sun-” , as well as its occasional omission, is due to the written accommodation to phonetic issues, a common practice in the Greek language. It does not change the meaning.)
sugkleronomos – “joint heir, neighbor, one having adjoining property” – Rom.8:7, Heb.11:9 with Christ, Eph.3:6, I Pet.3:7 with each other
sugkoinoneo – “to have a joint share, to take part in, to be in partnership, to have fellowship with” – I Cor.9:23, Phil.4:14, Eph.5:11, Rv.1:9, 18:4. Note that two of these warn against unwholesome partnerships
suzeugnumi – “yoked together, paired, closely united. Commonly refers to marriage.” Used only twice: Mt.19:6, Mk.10:9
sumbibazo – “to be knit together, brought together, reconciled, or taught”. Referring to people: Col.2:2, 19; Eph.4:16. Referring to instructions: Ac.16:10, I Cor.2:16, Ac.9:22
summathetes – “fellow disciple, schoolmate”. Only used in Jn.11:16
sumphoneo – “to fit in or agree with, to fit together, as cut stones in a building, to harmonize”. Mt.18:19, 20:2,13; Lk.5:36, Ac.5:9, 15:15
sumpsuchos – “of one mind, at unity”. Used only once: Phil.2:2
sunagonizomai – “to struggle together” . Used only once: Rom.15:30, of urgent prayer
sunathleo – “to struggle together, to fight side by side, to practice”. Phil.1:27, 4:3, of working together in the interest of the kingdom
sunarmologeo – “to be fitted together like the blocks of a pyramid”. Eph,2:21, 4:16
sunoikodomeo – “to be built up together” . Only use: Eph.2:22
sussomos – does not exist at all in pagan literature, and is used only once in the N.T. Eph.4:6, where Paul speaks of Jews and Gentiles being a part “of the same Body”. This concept would have been foreign to anyone who lacked understanding of the Body of Christ.

Take particular note of the preponderance of instances where the operative verb is passive. The unity described in the New Testament is not and cannot be a do-it-yourself project. Notice that none of these words suggests the “anything goes” or “I’m ok, you’re ok” attitudes which today are often confused with the idea of “unity.” Neither do they suggest the slavish uniformity demanded by folks of more rigid persuasions. The goal is neither a hodge-podge of individuals blithely “doing their own thing” without challenge, nor a collection of identical automatons marching in artificial unison. Quite the opposite: the New Testament concept of unity requires the supernatural transformation of committed individuals into a supernatural unity that can faithfully reflect the image of its Creator!
Faithful individuals need to cooperate with the Builder, but dare not try to usurp his authority. The carefully fitted blocks of the pyramids (see sunarmalogeo, above) did not shape themselves! They were carefully cut and shaped, each to fit in its designated place, by master craftsmen. This is equally true of the building of “God’s dwelling place”.
The remaining, lexically unrelated, word reveals the same need for outside intervention. Katartizo, rendered “framed” in Heb.11:3 and “joined” in I Cor.10 is also used of “mending nets” (Mt.4:21, Mk.1:19) and the “restoration” of a fallen brother (Gal.6:1). Lexically, it also includes “to adjust or put in order, to set a dislocated limb, to learn, to discipline.”

If the unlikely combination of folks representing vastly different cultural backgrounds and assumptions that makes up the mixed multitude who are called into the Kingdom are ever going to be built together as the dwelling place of God and the manifestation of his kingly rule, it will take a lot of fitting and adjustment! But it is beyond the bound of possibility that the prayer of his own Son, asking that his people be “perfectly one, as we are”, should not be answered!
For exactly that purpose, we have been lovingly placed into the hands of the supreme Architect of the universe – and he is certainly equal to the task!

Thanks be to God!


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