I recently delivered the following sermon called “Unified In Purpose”. The message was largely based on the outline written and published by Pastor Rick Ezell on LifeWay.com. The premise is to understand the power of unity as demonstrated by the early church.
“Why does the church exist?”
A number of years ago, members of nearly a thousand churches were surveyed and were asked that question: “Why does the church exist?”
Of the members surveyed, 89 percent said, “The church’s purpose is to take care of my family’s and my needs.” For many, the role of the pastor is simply to keep happy the sheep already in the fold and not lose too many of them. Only 11 percent said, “The purpose of the church is to win the world for Jesus Christ.”
Then, the pastors of the same churches were asked why the church exists. Amazingly, the results were exactly the opposite. Of the pastors surveyed, 90 percent said the purpose of the church was to win the world and 10 percent said it was to care for the needs of the members.
Is it any wonder we have conflict, confusion, and stagnation in many churches today?
Nothing precedes purpose. The starting point for every church should be the question, “Why do we exist?” Until we know what our church exists for, we will have no foundation, no motivation, no direction, and no unity.
The early church knew why they existed. And they were unified about that purpose.
“All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had. The apostles testified powerfully to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God’s great blessing was upon them all” Acts 4:32-33 (NLT).
Jesus had enlisted these followers not to a life of leisure, but to a life of service. While each had a different task they all had the same calling: to fulfill the Great Commission in their generation. They had one leader – Jesus, one purpose – to communicate the gospel to all people. These early disciples did more for the spread of Christianity than any generation of followers since.
What was their secret?
There are four main points, which we’ll cover today, for why the early church was so successful.
1. They had unity in the church of God
All the believers shared in this unity. Not just the apostles. Not just the leaders. All the believers were unified. There was a fundamental solidarity of love and purpose. To be one in heart and mind is to be unified in every fiber of their being.
We see this demonstrated in the letters to the churches, such as from Ephesians 4:1-3, where Paul wrote…
“Therefore I, a prisoner for serving the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God. Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace” Ephesians 4:1-3 (NLT).
Now, the early church was family in relationship – They shared the same spiritual father – God Almighty.
“For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, in all, and living through all” Ephesians 4:4-6 (NLT).
They also shared a spiritual birth – they were born again into the family of God.
“… anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!” 2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT)
“so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other.” Romans 12:5 (NLT)
Not only were they family in relationship, …
They were friends in fellowship – They shared their lives and their possessions with one another. It went beyond a kind word and a pat on the back. They gave priority to meeting the physical and practical needs that were evident in the community.
Returning to our passage in chapter 4 of Acts…
“There were no needy people among them, because those who owned land or houses would sell them and bring the money to the apostles to give to those in need” Acts 4:34-35 (NLT).
Pastor and author, Chuck Swindoll, once wrote the following:
“Churches need to be less like national shrines and more like bars . . . less like untouchable cathedrals and more like well-used hospitals, places to bleed in rather than monuments to look at . . . places where you can take your mask off and let your hair down . . . place where you can have your wounds dressed.”
The early disciples found that in their community of faith.
But, do we have that today?
The early church had unity, because they were a family in relationship, friends in fellowship, and thirdly…
They were followers of Christ in partnership – These men and women shared an enterprise together. They did not assemble merely for family gatherings, or for making sure their physical needs were meet. They came together in order to attain an objective. These men and women were partners in reaching the world for Christ. They linked arms not just for their convenience and their comfort and their support but to reach out to those not yet linked up with them.
In a Peanuts cartoon Lucy demanded that Linus change TV channels, threatening him with her fist if he didn’t. “What makes you think you can walk right in here and take over?” asks Linus. “These five fingers,” says Lucy. “Individually they’re nothing but when I curl them together like this into a single unit, they form a weapon that is terrible to behold.” “Which channel do you want?” asks Linus. Turning away, he looks at his fingers and says, “Why can’t you guys get organized like that?”
Why can’t we get organized like that?
The members of a church are a group of people from various backgrounds with different interests and different perspectives who have been called together for a purpose. That purpose is to cooperate together in reaching out beyond our walls so others can know the love of Jesus Christ.
We are in the life-saving business. That endeavor is accomplished best when we understand that we are a family of friends in partnership with each other.
Okay, so the early church was so successful because–point number one–they had unity. The second point is this…
2. They experienced the power of God
Purpose is the power in the engine of life. (repeat) Purpose assures us that the steering wheel is connected to the engine. Without purpose there is a motion without emotion. There is activity without accomplishment. There is efficiency without effectiveness.
Think of light for a moment. Diffused light has no power at all. But by focusing the power of the sun through a magnifying glass, we can set a leaf on fire. And when light is concentrated at even a higher level, like a laser beam, it can even cut through a block of steel.
The early disciples had a laser-like focus to their purpose and the corresponding result was power – the dynamite of God.
The power was evidenced by the growth of the church – In a matter of weeks, the church went from the Upper Room to every living room in Jerusalem. It is estimated by scholars that during the first twenty-five years of the Jerusalem church, it grew from 120 people to over 100,000 people. That’s power manifested.
“Then Peter stepped forward with the eleven other apostles [and] … Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all … And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.” Acts 2:14a, 41, 47b (NLT)
The power was also evidenced by their ability to withstand satanic assault – As soon as the Spirit came upon the church, Satan launched a ferocious counterattack. Pentecost was followed by persecution. First, there was physical violence as church leaders were thrown into prison (Acts 4:1-3). Second, there was moral corruption, evidenced through Ananias and Sapphira to insinuate evil into the interior life of the church, and thus ruin the fellowship (5:1-11). Third, there was the subtle ploy of professional distraction to deflect the apostles from their priority of prayer and preaching by preoccupying them with social administration, which was not their calling (6:1-7).
The early church, in their brightest moments, also faced some major challenges. But Jesus himself had told them,
“… Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” John 16:33b (NLT).
In each case the church withstood the attack and stayed true to its purpose of reaching people for Christ.
The power was evidenced further by their finding strength in diversity – The early Christians quickly realized that their diversity could either be a source of division or a source of power. They chose the latter. They were not all alike. There was a plethora of opinion, a wide assortment of gifts (as we see in Romans 12:6) …
“In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well” Romans 12:6a (NLT).
… but in all this they found ways to integrate their differences into a symphonic whole – to create a singleness of spirit, of identity, and of purpose whose unifying center was Christ.
“For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus … For you are all one in Christ Jesus” Galatians 3:26, 28b (NLT).
In short, they resembled a symphony. They may have played different notes from the person sitting next to them. But their variety and diversity created a more magnificent sound than if they were all on the same instrument, playing the same note. Unity exists amidst diversity because we all follow the same musical score.
“Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony.” Colossians 3:14 (NLT)
The early church was successful because–point number one–they had unity; point number two, they experienced the power of God and now point number three …
3. They discovered the favor of God
Because the early disciples were unified in purpose, and because they were committed to the task of reaching the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ, God smiled down on them with favor.
“… and God’s great blessing was upon them all” Acts 4:33b (NLT).
Grace, as you know, means unmerited love or favor. Because they were generous God was generous. Because their heart broke over the same things that broke the heart of God, God smiled upon them. Because they held in high esteem the purpose of Jesus, God held them in high esteem.
There seems to exist – both as individuals and a church – a direct correlation between our faithfulness to God’s plan and God’s favor in our lives. If we want to experience God’s blessings we need to first be obedient to his purpose.
In the movie Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell tried to explain to his sister why he chose to prepare for the Olympic games rather than immediately return to China as a missionary: “When I run, I feel his pleasure.” Eric Liddell found his purpose and ran to Olympic stardom. Following his Olympic feat he returned to the mission field in China, there, too, fulfilling his purpose, and there, too, feeling God’s pleasure.
Or, as novelist Robin Jones Gunn said, “If you agree to say yes to God’s purpose for your life, you’ll never be bored again with Jesus Christ.”
The early church was successful because they had unity, because they experienced the power of God, because they discovered the favor of God, and as the fourth and final point…
4. They were the answer to the prayer of God
On the last night of his life, Jesus prayed a prayer that stands as a citadel for all Christians:
“I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me … I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me” John 17:20-21, 23 (NLT).
These words are precious. Knowing the end was near, Jesus prayed one final time for his followers. Striking, isn’t it? With death breathing down his neck, Jesus prayed not for their success, their safety, or their happiness. He prayed for their unity, as they would fulfill his purpose.
He prayed that they would love each other, as they went forward to love the world to him. He prayed for his disciples and for all those who would come to faith in Jesus Christ, becoming his followers. That means you and me.
In his last prayer Jesus prayed that you and I be one. Of all the lessons we can draw from these verses, don’t miss the most important: Unity matters to God. The Father does not want his kids to squabble. Disunity disturbs him. Why?
“Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” John 13:35 (NLT).
Unity creates belief. How will the world believe that God sent Jesus? Not if we agree with each other. Not if we solve every controversy. Not if we are unanimous on each vote. Not if we never make a doctrinal error. But if we love each other.
Unity matters to God, because unity creates belief.
If unity creates belief, then disunity fosters disbelief. How can the world come to believe the gospel if those who already believe it are battling among themselves? When the world sees Catholics and Protestants dueling over power and territory in Northern Ireland, or young and old members of the same congregation dueling over worship styles, or a church splitting over the color of the new carpet, it says, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Disunity is not merely a scandal for unbelievers; it is also a stumbling block for them coming to faith.
Author and minister, Paul Billheimer may very well be right when he says: “The continuous and widespread fragmentation of the Church has been the scandal of the ages. It has been Satan’s master strategy. The sin of disunity probably has caused more souls to be lost than all other sins combined.”
Could it be that unity is the key to reaching the world for Christ?
If unity is the key to fulfilling the God-ordained purpose of spreading the message of Jesus Christ, shouldn’t it have precedence in our prayers? If unity matters to God, then shouldn’t unity matter to us? If unity is a priority in heaven, then shouldn’t it be a priority on earth?
Nowhere in Scripture, by the way, are we told to build unity. We are instructed simply to keep unity. From God’s perspective (in John 10:16) there is but
“. . . one flock with one shepherd” John 10:16 (NLT).
Unity does not need to be created; it simply needs to be protected.
How do we do that? How do we make every effort to keep the unity? Does that mean we compromise our convictions? No. Does that mean we abandon the truths we cherish? No. But it does mean we look long and hard at the attitudes we carry.
Unity doesn’t begin in examining others but in examining self. Unity begins, not in demanding that others change, but in admitting that we aren’t perfect ourselves. Unity grows as we learn to accept others differences and to forgive when wronged. Unity continues as we humbly serve those who are different. Unity is fulfilled as we focus on who we believe in rather than what we believe in. Unity is favored as we lovingly take the message of Jesus Christ to a divided world.
That’s our purpose. Let’s be unified in that.
Vance Havner, a traveling evangelist and speaker from the early 1900s, once said “Christians, like snowflakes, are frail, but when they stick together they can stop traffic.”
Lord and Father, thank you for showing us today the importance you place on unity within the Body of Christ. Please help us to comprehend what that means for us individually, as a family, as a community, and as part of the universal church. Please help us to overcome trivial differences in tradition and preference, so that your Good News would take front-seat and precedence in our lives. We’re not here for us, we’re here for you and your purpose. May your church be so unified, that our message no longer be sullied by foolish pride and pettiness. Heal us, Lord, humble us and so imbue us with Holy Spirit passion that no longer can the world say “no thank you,” but “Yes, Lord, yes.”
To your glory, and in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ – by which all of this possible and to whom all honor is due, Amen.