On Penguins and Christian Unity 

Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard,  on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! It is like the dew of Hermon,which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.

— Psalm 133 —

The frozen plains of Antarctica are among the most inhospitable places on earth. For six long months the land is cloaked in darkness. Serrated arctic winds slash temperatures to an impossible -70°F. And yet, the emperor penguin has learned not only to survive there, but to thrive. The penguins’ perseverance depends entirely upon their unity. You see, to combat the deadly cold, they gather by the thousands and huddle tightly together. This feathery phalanx traps their collective body heat and transforms the tundra into a toasty oasis with temperatures soaring to 100°F at the center. Accelerating footage of the icy scrum reveals a gracious waltz. Choreographed waves roll over the bowed heads as those warmest penguins shift and rotate from the center to relieve their frozen friends on the outer wall, making this unity not only lifegiving but also lovely.

In Psalm 133, David extols the same unity in the church. Though we don’t know the specific events that inspired David’s penning of this song, it’s not hard to imagine why its theme would have been painfully precious to him after crawling through the rebarred rubble of a family broken and kingdom divided by his sin. Like David, some of you have learned to savor peace the hard way, for you bear the scars of church strife. Others who haven’t may take unity for granted, assuming it’s made of rubber when it’s actually delicate porcelain that must be protected and cherished. 

David praised unity. He said, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Psalm 133:1) This Psalm of Ascent, sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for one of the three annual feasts, is the only psalm that begins with “behold.” It’s as if David is taking us to the window of his palace to show us the rivers of people streaming through the city streets. The sound of their singing, laughter, and lowing livestock swirl together in a glorious symphony of faith as David exclaims, “How good and pleasant!”

Like peanut butter and jelly, scripture sometimes pairs these two words, “good and pleasant,” together. In Genesis 2:9, Moses wrote, “And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.” In Psalm 135:3 we read, “Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good; sing to his name, for it is pleasant.” While “goodness” relates to the objective nature of a thing in light of God’s will, “pleasantness” relates to our subjective experience of it. Some good things aren’t very pleasant (brussel sprouts, homework, jogging). Conversely, some pleasant things aren’t good. After all, “Stolen water is sweet and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.” (Proverbs 9:17) Sin is, by definition, bad for us though it feels pleasant to us. A friend of mine mused, “If sin doesn’t feel good, you’re doing it wrong!” How splendid then that Christian fellowship is both good and pleasant. How so?

Unity is good because it is agreeable to the will of God. Paul told the Corinthians, “God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33). Thus, Matthew Henry called unity “the conformity of earth to heaven.” God’s desired harmony for the church is expressed in her various titles: “kingdom,” “household,” “people,” “priesthood,” “body,” “family,” “flock,” and “cloud of witnesses.” In his high priestly prayer, it’s evident that unity is one of Christ’s most ardent pleas for his people: “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11). 

Unity is good because it showcases the gospel to the world. Beside my grandad’s recliner was a free-standing magnifying glass. He would position the glass between his dimming eyes and the sports section to see it more clearly. In the same way, believers are the living lens through which the world beholds the gospel of grace. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus said, “if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). So, we will either obscure the gospel through our dissensions or magnify it through biblical solidarity and brotherly affection.

Unity is good because it shields us from the attacks of Satan. As wolves prey upon the lone bison, separated from the herd, so too our enemy pounces when we fall away from the fellowship. Many of you know the spiritual emaciation and sin that accompanies isolation. Therefore, Paul called upon the Galatians to “Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” As it turns out, our sanctification is a community project. We need each other. The Preacher said, “Though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12). Unity is good!

But unity is also pleasant. Most need no convincing of this. Is there anything more pleasant than a congregation of blood-bought sinners, singing at the top of their lungs to their Savior, “Redeeming love has been my theme and shall be till I die”? Is there anything more pleasant than receiving a covenant son or daughter into the church family through the waters of baptism? Is there anything more pleasant than the warm smiles, hugs and laughter exchanged during Wednesday night suppers? Is there anything more pleasant than laboring beside a brother or sister in Christ at VBS, or a church workday or on a mission trip? Unity isn’t just good for us, it feels good to us! Unity is pleasant.

David would have made an excellent preacher, because having praised unity, he then illustrated it. He turns our ears into eyes and shows us the goodness and pleasantness, the beauty and blessing, of unity. “It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes!” (Psalm 133:2) While I was pastoring in Florida, a dear man in my church named Tom, who had suffered long from throat cancer, was near death. So, in light of James 5, the elders went to his house to pray. As we did, I uncorked a vile of oil and in the name of the Triune God anointed him. It was only olive oil! But it was a picture of God’s powerful love for Tom (more powerful than cancer!) and the Spirit’s work in applying the redemption purchased by Christ to Tom’s body and soul. So, I poured the oil liberally. As it flowed through his hair and down his face, it mixed with the tears of a righteous man ready to go home and be with Jesus. 

So too, David wants you to see the oil running down Aaron’s beard and the collar of his robes. What a blessed mess! But this wasn’t just any oil. God had specified a holy recipe of the finest spices, liquid myrrh, sweet-smelling cinnamon, aromatic cane, cassia, and olive oil (Exodus 30:22). Can you smell the perfume as it diffused from Aaron’s beard? That’s the good and pleasant aroma of atonement; the sweet smell of the salvation Christ would win on the cross.

David also likens unity to the dew of Mt. Hermon, a 10,000 foot peak known for its thick, whipped-cream, crown of cloudy precipitation. Mt. Hermon was to Israel geographically, what Aaron was to Israel spiritually. For in the arid Middle East, Hermon’s dew was a fountain of life that converted the desert into a verdant garden. In the very same way, David explains, “For there God has commanded his blessing, life forevermore.” Where? Not social clubs or political rallies. Not the office or athletic arena. Not Mount Hermon or a national park, but the church of Jesus Christ, outside of which there can be no ordinary possibility of salvation. 

That ought to inspire a sense of holy expectancy in us. God commands His blessing in the church where peace is cultivated. But do we expect that blessing? All too often we fall into a religious routine. Our Christianity becomes comfortable and predictable. We don’t really expect people to be converted during the sermon. We don’t really expect to be radically changed during worship. We don’t really expect God to answer our prayers. We don’t expect the Lord to bless our consecration of the Lord’s Day so we play golf instead, or sit in deer stands, go shopping or go to sporting events all the while God is calling out, “The life you’re looking for is right here!” If God commands it, we should expect it and build our lives around His church where he has promised life forevermore. 

When the Dutch bicycle company, VanMoof, realized that many of its customers reported receiving bicycles which had been damaged during shipment, company leaders came up with an ingenious solution. Since the bikes were shipped in boxes with the same dimensions of large flat screen TVs, they began printing a large graphic of a flat screen TV on their bike boxes. Complaints dropped by 80%. Why? Because people will handle with care that which they believe to be valuable. 

If we really believe that Christian unity is good and pleasant, we’ll handle it with care. If we really believe that God commands blessing where his people dwell in peace, we’ll be careful not to gossip. We’ll be careful to give the benefit of the doubt to others and let love cover a multitude of sins. We’ll keep short records of wrong. We’ll repent and forgive quickly and completely. We’ll pray for eyes that see the best and not the worst in each other. Like those emperor penguins, we’ll huddle tightly together, held fast by the blessed tie that binds, so that in this hostile world we might find a good and pleasant oasis of everlasting life among Christians in the church of Jesus Christ.

Jim McCarthy is the Senior Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg, MS

Related Links

"The Sweet Unity of Psalm 133" by Mark Johnson

"On Masks, Vaccines, and Church Unity" by Adam Parker

"Splinter, Split, or Stay in the Fight?" by Brad Isbell

What Is the Church? with Michael Horton, Greg Gilbert, and Robert Norris

The Church: One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic by Richard Phillips, Philip Ryken, & Mark Dever