This is the abbreviated text of the Pre-Synodical Sermon that Rev. Key preached on June 10, 2013.
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!
Psalm 133 is fitting for our consideration as we gather as the Synod of 2013. The Psalm celebrates the unity of brethren, a unity that we enjoy as churches, which unity extends beyond our own denomination even to those of like precious faith with us in other countries, some of whom are represented here.
The unity that is our great blessing compels us to thank God. Unity is never to be taken for granted— though we often do so, to our shame. Unity calls for celebration. It calls for the grand exclamation Behold, which points to the lovingkindness of our God and to grace undeserved but richly bestowed in Christ Jesus.
David himself observed that same blessedness and wrote this Psalm as a song of celebration. As the songs of degrees or ascent were the songs of those who were preparing to worship, ascending as it were the staircase to the fellowship of God’s loving presence, it would appear that this song was written as David had in view the long-awaited gathering of Israel’s tribes for worship before the Lord. Those days had been suspended for a long time. The restoration of that fellowship began many years before with the setting up of the tabernacle in Zion. But it had been interrupted during the entire time that the ark of the covenant had been held in Kirjath-jearim and, for a brief period of time, in the house of Obededom. Now that long-awaited unity was to be observed in the gathering of Israel upon the mountains of Zion.
In a small way, that same unity is reflected here tonight. It is a unity that calls for rejoicing, for looking to Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of David’s type, the One who alone is our peace and who has reconciled us “unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby” ().
How gladly does the Son of David sing this song, rejoicing in the work of His Spirit!
A Blessed Relationship
The Psalm speaks of something very uncommon.
The term unity is found only three times in Scripture, twice in Ephesians chapter 4. This is the only place in the Old Testament where the term unity is found, although the Hebrew word is found in a few other places where it is translated together, in the sense of the people being gathered together. Perhaps the limited number of times the Bible speaks of unity is indicative of the rarity of its coming to expression in this fallen human race.
We realize that the most difficult aspect of our labors as pastors and elders, even as parents, is dealing with strife. Even when the spiritual condition of a congregation is characterized by unity, peace, and love, we recognize that such a condition is always fragile because of the sinfulness of our natures. We are reminded of that repeatedly with the sins of individual members or families who break unity with the congregation, walking in ways of sin, and sometimes even striving with those who bring them the Word of God, whether it be parents, family members, fellow church members, elders, or pastors in the faithful preaching of the gospel.
Such cases, besides making our labors difficult and grievous, are humble reminders of how sin disrupts the fellowship that ought to be ours in the body of Christ. They are healthy reminders, too—because we all carry with us the sinful nature that would break unity with God Himself.
Unity is ours only by the wonder of God’s grace. As was symbolized in the trek to Zion, that unity is found only in the ark of the covenant, and particularly in what was signified by that ark. To be taken into the fellowship of the Holy One is possible only by our being reconciled to Him through the shed blood of the Lamb of God. It is by that wonder of God’s sovereign, particular grace that we gather and rejoice in the unity God has given us in the fellowship of His covenant life. “Behold, how good and how pleasant!”
That unity, therefore, is not something forced, but something vital! It is not a superficial camaraderie or general feeling of friendship. This unity is, for us, a true, spiritual unity. Because that unity is the Spirit’s work, it is established in the truth by Him who is the Spirit of truth.
Within the parameters of biblical truth, God’s truth, that unity embraces diversity. How many are the differences found among us! We come from different areas in North America, as well as from Singapore, the Philippines, the British Isles, different cultures—yet bound together by the same language of Holy Scripture and our Reformed confessions, united in the truth. One body with many different members, with different gifts, and with different functions, yet all united by one Head, who is Christ—so the Bible describes the unity for which we extol God! “Behold, how good and how pleasant!”
The unity of which the psalmist speaks as a blessed relationship is defined in verse 1 by two things—the word brethren and the expression to dwell together.
We have to be careful not to confine that term brethren to those descended from the same parents. Certainly family harmony is delightful, good, and pleasant. But David’s family, partly as the consequences of his own sins, was deeply torn by strife—strife that would not be covered over by the gathering on Mount Zion. Rather, speaking as the type of Christ, David was making reference to the same brethren as Jesus would later define in the last two verses of: “And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.”
David is referring to true brethren, those who traced their lives not merely to the genealogy of Abraham, but to the spiritual lineage of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They were brethren, therefore, because of their lives in God’s family, the covenant of grace (). Faith united them with Christ, the promised Messiah, in whom alone they were justified before God and through whom alone they had access into the fellowship of His covenant life. That is how we ourselves also are numbered among the brethren.
As such we dwell together. That expression immediately brings to mind the marriage relationship. Peter, in, exhorts husbands to dwell with their wives. That is far more than simply to live in the same house. Dwelling together reveals a covenant relationship of fellowship and communion. That same idea is emphasized in the glorious unity for which the psalmist praises Jehovah. There is to be in the expression of our unity a seeking of one another, caring for one another. Not only do we delight in each other’s fellowship, but with one heart and one mind we glorify God, serving each other in love, bearing one another’s burdens, sympathizing with each other in times of trial, praying one for another, being willing to forgive one another when offenses come to expression by the weakness of our sinful flesh, but also encouraging one another to love and to good works. In other words, there is to be, for the sake of all the brethren, a perseverance in the calling God has given us as stewards of the treasures He has entrusted to us as churches.
In our homes we have often witnessed disturbances among our children over the most trivial matters. We ourselves were often guilty of the same. We have addressed our children in those times, recognizing the issues as expressions of sin. Should brethren cease dwelling together over trifles? Satan would always seek to disturb the church’s unity over trifles. If he cannot stir up some to break the unity of the church with false doctrine and by schism, breaking the fellowship of love, the expression of truth, he would disrupt unity by trivial matters. But with our focus on Christ, or, in terms of what David observed, on the ark of the covenant at the center of our life, and therefore on the great sacrifice that was offered for our being reconciled unto God, we confess, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” Unity is a rare occurrence in the church world of our day. It is a blessed relationship expressing the wonder work of God’s grace.
A Peculiar Excellency
The peculiar excellency of this unity is expressed in this psalm with the use of two figures of speech.
In verse 2 we read, “It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments.”
By this reference the text once again points us to the riches of Christ. Exodus 30 records the divine instruction given concerning the precious ointment, the holy anointing oil, with which the tabernacle and its furnishings were to be anointed, as well as Aaron and his sons.
That oil, prepared according to the Lord’s command with four principal spices and olive oil, was a heavily perfumed oil, which symbolized the power and grace of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon the object anointed, to sanctify them (in the case of the tabernacle and the furnishings), setting them apart for the Lord’s service, as was the case also with Aaron and his sons.
But in the case of Aaron, that oil also symbolized the divine influence poured upon him in abundance, thus qualifying him to serve Jehovah in the priestly office in such a way that through the ministry of his office the Lord’s blessings would rest upon His people. So the Lord had commanded in: “And thou shalt anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may minister unto me in the priest’s office.” Apart from that sanctifying and qualifying work of the Holy Spirit, as symbolized in the pouring of that holy anointing oil upon the head, it would have been impossible for the priests to carry out their calling faithfully and with divine blessing.
That oil was poured upon Aaron’s head. In Leviticus 8, where that anointing is recorded, we find that Moses sprinkled the furnishings and vessels of the tabernacle. But “he poured of the anointing oil upon Aaron’s head, and anointed him, to sanctify him” (Lev. 8:12). David now testifies that the precious ointment, that holy anointing oil, ran down upon Aaron’s beard, even to the skirts of his garments. In Hebrews we are reminded that the high priestly office of Aaron was only typical of the One who would fulfill the high priestly office. Christ had to come, a priest forever, perfectly qualified with an unchangeable priesthood, to accomplish the salvation of His people. “But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us” ().
David, in speaking of the anointing of Aaron as symbolic of the peculiar excellency of the church’s unity, not only points to the historic event of the symbolism in Aaron’s anointing, but also prophesies of the fulfillment in the Messiah. All the graces of the Spirit, in rich abundance, centered in the high priestly office and flowed through the exercise of that office into the church, making the brethren blessed partakers of the heavenly gifts. That abundant anointing of Aaron pictured the grace of Christ being dispersed so richly that it flows from the head to the skirts, that is, over all its members.
By the riches of Christ, by the bountiful outpouring of the Holy Spirit’s gifts, we brethren dwell together in unity. And our unity itself reflects the riches of God’s grace. There is nothing we have done to deserve these blessings, no more than Aaron deserved the office that he occupied and in which he was able to minister effectively. It was entirely God’s grace, and the ministry of His Holy Spirit. So it is also with us. And therefore, with our eyes upon Him in Christ Jesus, we say of this unity, “Behold, how good and how pleasant!”
The second figure of speech that describes the peculiar excellency of this unity is found in verse 3: “[It is] as the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion.”
Once again David points to a familiar figure of rich abundance. It is a figure that is all too easily taken for granted. Dew, after all, is quite common; and it does not seem to provide any great benefit. We look for rain, not just dew. But Mount Hermon was the towering peak of the mountain range, and was noted for its moisture, its heavy dew. The heaviness and freshness of that dew was invigorating and brought pristine beauty to the edify vegetation. The same dew fell upon the mountains of Zion as the mist of the morning.
David compares this figure to that good and pleasant unity that is God’s handiwork in the midst of the church. This unity is cause for tremendous gratitude, because it comes from the Giver of every good and perfect gift, even as does the dew.
But worth noting is the fact that dew falls gently in cooling temperature and moderate air, not in stormy and blustery weather. When we think of the preciousness of the unity of the church, we do so not ignoring the fact that there will be differences that often rise among us. There are times in the church when there must be contention for the sake of the truth once delivered to the saints. We face that even now, but thankfully not amidst ourselves. Even when there are differences among us, and even should it be necessary to contend over against the introduction of false doctrine, the preciousness of the church’s unity moves us to guard ourselves against being stormy and blustery in the pride of our sinful natures. Just as the dew cools, so our rejoicing in the unity of brethren subdues our intensity and reduces our severity, as we seek to preserve and strengthen the church, contributing that which builds rather than destroys. So David is inspired to use these two figures of speech to demonstrate the peculiar excellency of this unity that is God’s rich blessing upon His church.
A Wonderful Fulfillment
The wonderful fulfillment of this unity is found in the Zion that God loves. There in that church, the dwelling place of Christ, the Lord records His blessing. Christ is the One through whom we have been made brethren, members of God’s family. By Jesus Christ we have been adopted, and in Him we have obtained an inheritance. That all comes to expression in this worship gathering tonight, as well as in the fellowship of each faithful congregation of Jesus Christ, and in the labors of synod, where the blessed unity of our own denomination and our sister churches and mission fields is also acknowledged to the glory of God.
As David says, this unity comes as a fruit of this wonder of God’s grace: “For there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore.”
Jehovah is at work, in faithfulness to His covenant.
But the day is soon coming when the unity, so feebly expressed and so faintly experienced by us now, shall be brought to its full realization, even life forevermore. Then, at the marriage feast of the Lamb, we shall not only recognize how blessed we were, but we shall see the perfection of that for which we longed. Unity—how good and how pleasant!