by Peter J. Leithart
Christians often oppose truth and unity. Evangelicals are inclined to leave unity to the mushy mainline, to eclectic ecumenists, and devote themselves to the rock-hard truth, regardless of its divisiveness.
The New Testament doesn’t permit this opposition. The rock-hard gospel truth is a truth about unity. The gospel announces the fulfillment of God’s plan to reconcile Adamic humanity with God. At the same time, it announces the fulfillment of God’s plan to reconcile Babelic humanity with itself.
From one man God formed all nations (Acts 17:26), but soon after the fall those nations fell into violent rivalries and wars (Genesis 6:1-22). God cleared the earth in the flood, and rebooted humanity through the family of a second Adam, Noah.
Shemites and Hamites gathered at Babel to build a city and a tower reaching to heaven, so the Lord divided and scattered them. The so-called “Primordial History” ends with Noah’s descendants as splintered as Adam’s.
Yahweh was just getting started. In the immediate aftermath of Babel, He called Abram from Ur and promised that he would be God’s agent for the restoration of humanity. In Abram’s seed, the Babelic nations would be united under the blessing of God. In him, all the families of the earth will be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3).
Thus began God’s slow, patient restoration of the human race to itself. At first, little seems to happen, but over centuries, Yahweh nurtured the seedling of Abraham into a regional empire, with a king well-known among the Gentiles for his wisdom. When the monarchy failed, Yahweh scattered His people as the four winds. It was a judgment, but a judgment turned to blessing. As the scattering of the Levites brought Levites to every corner of the land of Israel (Genesis 49:5-7; cf. Genesis 34:1-31), so the exile was a great commission, dispersing the priestly people throughout the eastern Mediterranean.
Through Israel’s booms and busts, prophets held out hope for the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise. Each year at the feast of booths, Israel sacrificed seventy bulls for the seventy nations, a priestly offering of the Gentiles to the God of Israel (Numbers 29:12-38). Isaiah saw nations streaming to Zion to learn the Torah and to turn their swords to ploughshares (Isaiah 2:2-4). Zechariah prophesied that the survivors from God’s devastating judgments would go year by year to celebrate the feast of the ingathering of nations (Zechariah 14:16-21). In Psalm 87, Egypt, Babylon, Philistia, Tyre, and Ethiopia were all registered as home born sons of Zion. Israel never existed for herself. She existed for the sake of the nations, to bless and gather them. Someday, Israel hoped, “all peoples” will feast together at a lavish banquet of marrow and wine on the temple mount (Isaiah 25:8-12).
In these prophetic visions, the nations retain their names and character. Egyptians come to Zion as Egyptians, Ethiopians in all their Ethiopicness. Different as they are and remain, they are united in sharing the blessing of Abraham, one humanity worshipping the one God.
Jesus comes to Israel as the son of Abraham to fulfill the Abrahamic promise. In Him, all God’s promises are Yes and Amen, including the promise that nations will stream to Zion, the promise that Gentiles will be registered as home-born sons, the promise that all peoples will feast before the Lord. Jesus goes to the cross to deliver us from sin, death, and the devil. As His cross tears the veil separating us from God, so it breaks down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2:11-22). Fulfilling Israel’s hopes, the Lamb gathers people from every Babelic tribe and tongue and nation as priests and kings (Revelation 7:9; 11:9).
The Spirit implements the Son’s achievement. Because of the Pentecostal Spirit, Babel’s confusions no longer divide the nations. Babel no longer poses an obstacle to receiving God’s blessing, as Gentile God-fearers hear the good news, each in his own tongue (Acts 2). Each nation retains its language and culture, but Pentecost overcomes the Babelic division of “lip,” the division of nations into conflicting forms of worship, confession, and faith.
By the Spirit, we are baptized into one body, where there is no Jew nor Greek (1 Corinthians 12:12), no Philistine, Egyptian, or Ethiopian. By the Spirit, we commune in Christ, and so are made into one body by sharing one loaf (1 Corinthians 10). Instead of striving against one another, each person and people that passes through baptism to the Lord’s table is called to devote its gifts and resources to the edification of the whole body. Each is called to bear the name of Christ as a badge of identity, rendering national and cultural identity secondary.
The reunion of humanity takes place over time. Everything in creation takes place over time. Yet unity is not a promise for the eschaton. For two millennia, the Son and Spirit have been engaged in the project of reuniting the human race in the Last Adam. It’s as much now as not-yet, and, in any case, the not-yet orients us for what we do now.
The Father sent the Son in flesh so that, by the Spirit, the nations would be gathered into the Son’s one body, to be offered as a living sacrifice of praise to the Father. Jesus died, rose, and ascended to reunite the race.
This is the gospel. Unity is not an optional add-on to the church’s mission. It is the mission, because it is the rock-hard truth of the gospel.
That being the case, we must ask ourselves some tough questions. Can churches that function as ethnic enclaves or boil with tribal hatreds, churches that replicate Babelic rivalry, make this gospel believable? Can we invite the nations to feast on Zion when we refuse to eat and drink together in the Lord’s house? Can we proclaim the gospel of the broken wall when we busily erect and protect fresh walls of our own? Whatever we may confess, do we not say No to the gospel with our actions and institutions?
Peter Leithart is President of the Theopolis Institute in Birmingham, Alabama. To learn more about Theopolis, sign up for the e-newsletter In Medias Res. His most recent book is entitled The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church.