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SCRIPTURAL UNITY

 

By

 

 Douglas F. Bayless

 

This booklet is a transcription of a message preached by the author on March 12, 2004 at a ministers’ meeting held at the Atlanta Church of God, Atlanta , Texas .

 

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious oil upon the head, running down on the beard, the beard of Aaron, running down on the edge of his garments. It is like the dew of Hermon, descending upon the mountains of Zion ; for there the LORD commanded the blessing—Life forevermore. (Psalm 133:1–3, N KJV )

 

The Importance of Unity

 

The importance of unity among brethren is that it is important to God. Psalm 133 is a beautiful word picture showing just what unity means to God. When we understand and appreciate the meaning God places on unity we can then truly understand its importance in God’s plan for His church. We also can understand its importance in God’s plan for all mankind.

Businesses market their products by telling people about the benefits they will receive by buying and using their products. While we can receive many benefits from practicing unity, those benefits are not the reasons why we as Christians should practice unity. Looking at this product, unity, from the benefit side only is materialistic and it is contrary to the scriptural foundations of unity. To truly appreciate and understand scriptural unity we must see it from God’s point of view; and then we must practice unity because it is the right thing to do. Our motive for practicing unity must be to please God. Any benefits we might receive from practicing unity are merely incidental and they should be appreciated because they are blessings from God.

God’s word picture reveals three aspects about scriptural unity: (1) it pleases God; (2) it is rooted in salvation; and (3), what is the nature of unity.

 

Unity Among Brethren Pleases God

 

That unity among brethren pleases God is seen in the opening words of the Psalm, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” Every good thing comes from God and it pleases Him to give us this unity. The absence of unity is not a good thing, it does not come from God, and it does not please God. God would indeed be pleased if all people that profess to be saved from sin and claim to be living for God would practice unity among themselves. When we view the professed Christian world, especially movements and fellowships that call themselves the church of God , and see the lack of unity and even the lack of an interest in practicing unity, we see a circumstance that cannot please God and is in need of correcting.

One of the first things we can learn about unity from the language of Psalm 133 is that practicing unity involves more than just talk. It involves commitment, not just to the teaching of unity, but commitment to the actual practice of unity. In this we also see the people with whom we, as Christians, are supposed to have unity. The literal rendering of verse 1 is “Lo, how good and how pleasant the dwelling of brethren—even together!” (Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible).

The Old Testament nation of Israel could boast of their common ancestry and their unity in Abraham: but in reality they lived in separate tribes throughout the land of Canaan . They could pay lip service to the concept of unity as long as they did not have to live together, that is, in the same place and cooperating with each other as one united people. Biblical history shows that the twelve tribes of Israel had great difficulty coming together as one people when God wanted them to act together for their own. The tribes sometimes fought with each other. Some tribes would not come to the aid of their brother tribes even when their common enemies attacked them. The tribes eventually separated and formed two independent countries over the issue of which tribe should give them their king.

We can say we have unity but it is a meaningless thing if we, as Christians and as the professed church of God, cannot be together—even together. Unity is something at which people have to work at constantly.

 

The Roots of Scriptural Unity

 

Through the pen of David we are shown that at the core of scriptural unity for God’s people is the perfection of salvation.

The first picture we are shown is that unity is as precious to God as was the oil by which Aaron was anointed high priest of the faith of Israel . From this picture we can learn that unity is a picture of salvation. The high priest was important to the faith of Israel because he, and only he, went into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement to make atonement for the sins of Israel . The sins of the people could not be forgiven without the ministrations of this office. Consider these passages concerning this important event and the office of the high priest as related to it.

 

And Aaron shall make atonement upon its horns once a year with the blood of the sin offering of atonement; once a year he shall make atonement upon it throughout your generations. It is most holy to the LORD. (Exodus 30:10, N KJV )

 

For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul. (Leviticus 17:11, N KJV )

 

Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:14–15, N KJV )

 

By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified. (Hebrews 10:10–14, N KJV )

 

Aaron (the high priest) was required to perform this ritual once a year. It was a most holy ritual because it involved the blood of a sacrifice, which was the only means by which atonement could be made to the satisfaction of God. It is the divine right and province of God to set the requirements by which sin can be forgiven; it is not the prerogative of man to set the conditions for his forgiveness. In the mind of God, the blood of the sacrifice that Aaron sprinkled both on the golden altar and before the Ark of the Covenant covered the sins of the entire nation of Israel so that they might be forgiven and be brought into a right relationship with God.

The passages from Hebrews assert that the sacrifices of the Old Testament were insufficient to remove sin from the human condition and that a high priest with greater authority was needed to make a more effectual sacrifice. Jesus Christ is the high priest of the New Testament who made the perfect sacrifice by sacrificing himself so that people would be perfected forever.

The picture of the anointing oil illustrates that unity is rooted in salvation through the perfect sacrifice offered by God’s chosen High Priest. Salvation is the greatest gift God has given to mankind; it pleases God to give it to us. This is one reason why God considers unity among brethren to be so precious: it is founded on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary .

The second picture we are shown is that unity is like the dew of Mount Herman . This picture is a prophetic suggestion of the transfiguration of Jesus Christ, which took place on Mount Herman . Jesus lived the perfect life, “tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus accomplished in human flesh what the first Adam did not and because of this He was eligible to be translated directly from the earthly life to the heavenly life. On Mount Herman Jesus stepped into the glory of eternity for a moment and then turned back, refusing this reward to climb Mount Calvary to offer Himself as the sin sacrifice for the human race. This picture reinforces the importance of salvation and Jesus Christ as the High Priest in the issue of unity.

To make a New Testament application of Psalm 133, it can be said that unity pleases God because it shows once for all that salvation from all sin is the foundation upon which holy people can be brethren dwelling “even together.” Salvation makes God’s people one family over the entire world. Salvation is offered to all people of all nations and backgrounds without discrimination. Although God’s people are saved out of all backgrounds and conditions, often violently opposing backgrounds and conditions, salvation makes them one people with a common heritage in Christ.

 

For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace. (Ephesians 2:14–15, N KJV )

 

Salvation removes the wall of separation erected by sin between peoples. Any claim to salvation that does not abolish this enmity and does not produce unity is a false claim—it is not the salvation made possible through the offering of our High Priest, Jesus Christ.

 

The Nature of Unity

 

Jesus, in His High Priestly prayer recorded in John 17 , prayed for the unity of His people as He was on the way to the cross. In fact, our unity was the last thing for which He prayed before He was crucified.

 

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. (John 17:20–23, N KJV )

 

There are four important things about unity we can learn from this prayer: (1) Jesus prayed for all believers; (2) He prayed that all might be one; (3) He defined the condition of oneness; and (4), the one common purpose for unity.

Jesus did not confine His prayer to His disciples, He prayed for “those who will believe in Me through their word.” This language conveys the concept that the future body of believers actually existed in the thinking of Christ.[1] We can say that Jesus prayed for the church of God for the rest of time but we must properly understand what we mean by the “ church of God .” The church of God is not limited to a movement or to groups of congregations calling themselves the church of God . In His prayer, Jesus defined the church of God and His definition of the church of God ought to be the one His professed followers accept. Jesus’ definition includes all “who believe in Me through their word;” in other words, all who have genuinely accepted the gospel, have repented of their sins and are living holy lives. There are many people that genuinely believe in Christ who are not yet, nor may never be associated with a movement or a congregation called church of God.

Jesus prayed, “That they all may be one.” How many are included in the word “all” and how many are excluded from the word “all.” “All” is the Greek word pas meaning, according to Thayer, each, every, any, all, the whole, everyone, all things, everything.[2] When used as a pronoun, the word “all” includes each, every, any, and all of the class to which it is referring. The antecedent of “all” in verse 21 is “those who will believe” in verse 20. Jesus prayed for each, every, any and all persons who will believe in Him through the teaching of the gospel for the rest of time. Consequently, there is not one believer that is excluded from Jesus’ prayer. Clearly, Jesus intended that all who will believe in Him are to be one. But one what? Psalm 133:1 speaks of unity as “the dwelling of brethren—even together,” a family. Speaking to His disciples in Matthew 23:8 He said, “You are all brethren.” We are called to be one FAMILY. Ephesians 4:4 speaks of one BODY, which Colossians 1:18 say is the church. We are called to be one church. Also in Ephesians 4:5 , it speaks of one FAITH. Faith is the Greek word pistis meaning, according to Thayer, “a conviction or belief respecting man’s relationship to God and divine things, generally with the included idea of trust and holy fervour born of faith and conjoined with it.”[3] In summary we can say that Jesus prayed for all people through the end of time who would believe in Him as their savior from sin to be one family united in one common faith.

In His prayer Jesus also defined the condition of our oneness: “That they may be one, even as we are one.” The oneness, or unity, of God’s people is oneness as the Father and the Son are one. This oneness is not an institutional oneness. While the Father and the Son are one in the mystery of the trinity, they are distinct persons. Hence, God’s people constitute one church but they are yet individual members and it as individual members we are to practice unity: brethren dwelling—even together. The unity exhibited by the Father and the Son is a unity of purpose and that purpose is the salvation of all mankind. The following New Testament passages are just two of many that clearly affirm the unity of the Father and the Son in the work of salvation.

 

Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done. (Luke 22:42, N KJV )

 

This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day. (John 6:39–40, N KJV )

 

As believers on Christ our one common purpose is that the gospel be preached in all the world so that all people may have the opportunity to believe in Jesus Christ. As the people of God, the biblical church of God , our unity is brought about by salvation and has as its end the salvation of all mankind. We have not been called to salvation in Christ to form churches, denominations, or movements. We have wasted far too many centuries being separate and promoting divergent interests and sectarian excuses for the church. If the professed Christian church would have spent as much effort over the centuries to be brethren dwelling—even together, there would not be the confused conglomeration of different churches working against each other, there would be only one united body of Christ working together around the world for the salvation of all mankind. A unity, not of organization so much as a unity of God’s purpose, which is:

And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” (Mark 16:15, N KJV . Bold added for emphasis)

 

The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9, N KJV . Bold added for emphasis)

 

The Commonality of Believers

 

But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21–26, N KJV )

 

Believers in Christ have shared traits and experiences that are the foundation of unity. Romans 3:22 above declares unequivocally that the righteousness of God is available, not just to people that profess to be members of Church of God congregations or who are members of sympathetic movements, but “to all and on all who believe.” The Church of God Reformation Movement and its descendants generally took on the attitude that Church of God people were the only people capable of practicing unity and outside the Movement no other Christian professing peoples practiced or possessed unity as evidenced by their divisions and their denominations. We were blinded by sectarianism when we equated organic unity with the unity Jesus taught. Consequently, we saw ourselves as the only true believers and all other professing Christians as Babylon confusion. We should ask ourselves if the expression “to all and on all who believe” is limited only to professing believers in accepted congregations of the church of God; or, is it possible that there are people that have believed in Jesus Christ and who have received the righteousness of God that are not attending accepted congregations of the church of God.

Notice the scope of the passage in Romans chapter three. Verse 23 declares that ALL have sinned, meaning all mankind. This suggests that since all have sinned, all have the opportunity to be saved through the atonement. If all have the opportunity to be saved, then all can be believers in Christ. Verses 24 and 25 affirm that the blood of Christ purchased redemption and that all who have experienced remission of sins are declared to be righteous. Verse 26 asserts that it is the righteousness of God to justify “the one who has faith in Jesus.” Sin is universal and the offer of salvation and the righteousness of God are also universal and nowhere in this passage is it implied that only people who attend accepted congregations of the church of God are the only people that believe in Christ and possess the righteousness of God.

The first point of commonality among believers is that they all were sinners and they were all justified and given the righteousness of God through faith, believing in Jesus Christ. The second point of commonality is that all believers are born of the Spirit of God.

 

Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God . . .” Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:3, 5–8, N KJV )

 

In this famous encounter with Nicodemus, Jesus unfolds for us the miracle of New Testament salvation: being born again. In His statement to Nicodemus He clearly articulates the truth that the only method by which a person can pass from spiritual death to spiritual life is to be born again. To be born again one must be born of the Spirit. Consider the process of the new birth. 1 Peter 1:23 states that we are born again through the word of God that lives and abides forever. John 1:1 –4 reveals the eternal mystery that the word of God is the Son of God, Jesus Christ, and that life is in Him. 1 John 5:1 , “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God ( N KJV ).”

We conclude from these Scriptures that the second point of commonality is that all who believe in Jesus Christ are born of God and have spiritual life. The third point of commonality is that all who have been born of the Spirit are inducted into the one body of Christ.

 

For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:12–13)

 

Verse 13 clearly states that the Holy Spirit baptizes ALL into ONE BODY. Who is this ALL that is baptized into one body? It is ALL whom the Holy Spirit causes to be born again. Who are the ones caused to be born again? ALL that believe in Jesus Christ; that is, all that believe in the atonement and repent of their sins. The moment a person believes in Christ and repents of his sin his is born again and inducted into the spiritual body of Christ without ritual or the confirmation of any ecclesiastical authority. In verse 27 the Apostle Paul tells believers, “You are the body of Christ, and members individually.” And in the next verse, Paul equates this body of Christ with the church. From this we are to understand that ALL believers are members of the body of Christ, the biblical church of God , even if they have not assembled themselves into congregations called “the church of God .”

So far in this study we have found that unity pleases God and it is important to Him. Through the new birth, all believers in Christ are justified, declared righteous, and baptized into the body of Christ, the church. These things being true, there is a moral imperative that is incumbent on all who profess salvation. This moral imperative is to actually PRACTICE unity with ALL BELEIVERS.

 

The Moral Imperative

 

I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. (Ephesians 4:1–7, N KJV )

 

The Apostle Paul first challenges us to walk worthy of the calling with which we were called, or as rendered in the New International Version, “to live a life worthy of the calling we have received.” The final prayer of our Savior just before He gave His life to make atonement for our sins was “that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us.” We are called to live a life worthy of both that prayer and the blood that was shed to make atonement for sin. If we are not practicing unity with all believers, are we really living a life worthy of this calling?

Paul next tells us to endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. The word “endeavoring” is translated from the Greek word spoudazo, meaning to hasten or to exert one’s self. It implies that we should jump at the opportunity to have unity with other believers; in fact, it appears to suggest that we should be the ones to make the first move towards others for the sake of unity. Also contained in its meaning is the necessity to exert ourselves in the pursuit of unity with other believers. We must be committed to the activity of having unity with other believers and actually to make efforts to be in unity with other believers. We are not commanded to keep the unity of the church of God in a sectarian fashion; that is, to fellowship only people who are worshipping in accepted congregations of the church of God . We are commanded to keep the unity of Spirit and that means for us to keep unity with all people who have the Holy Spirit of God.

The above passage also teaches that the foundation of our unity is centered on the presence of God in the lives of believers. “One Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all.” We are to keep unity with ALL BELIEVERS because God the Father is “in you ALL.” If we refuse to keep the unity of the Spirit with all believers, we refuse to keep the moral imperative required by God and we are in rebellion against the very will of God and the purpose for which Christ went to the cross.

Finally, verse 7 tells us that Christ gives grace to keep the unity of the Spirit. If we cannot exert ourselves to practice unity with all believers, we are fallen from grace.

 

Breaking The Tendency

 

Our tendency as a movement claiming to be the church of God has been to practice unity with congregations within certain church of God fellowships. And even at this we have been quick to sever relationships when other brethren disagree with us over a doctrine, a practice, or a standard.

The specific concern of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane was that by our unity “the world may know that You have sent Me.” The world cannot see the glory the sacrifice of Christ purchased in salvation if we are being sectarian, critical, and offish to other believers.

 

For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. (Ephesians 2:14–16, N KJV )

 

Can we reach our hands in unity to other saints in the church of God that are truly born of the Spirit but may have a difference in doctrine, or practice, or standard? One of the strongest preaching points of the Church of God Movement has been the criticism of the divisions and discord of sectarianism. We look upon these divisions as the Babylon of the Book of Revelation, but yet it seems in the short extent of our history that we have out-babyloned spiritual Babylon in our ability to fight and to divide.

To go one step further, can we reach our hands in unity to other saints that are truly born of the Spirit but may not attend a congregation of the church of God ? We shun spiritual Babylon as an unclean thing, but God reminds us in Revelation 18:44 that He has a host of people in spiritual Babylon . If we understand the Revelation message correctly, we understand that it is our responsibility, a moral imperative, to call these people out of Babylon . How can we who claim to be the representation of both the spiritual and physical body of Christ, the church of God , call those believers out of Babylon if we will not practice unity within the church of God ? How can we call them out if we will not practice unity with other believers who are part of the spiritual body of Christ but not yet part of the physical body? The truth is that we have nothing to which to call them until we endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit will ALL BELIEVERS. Are we willing to accept as born again Christians all who profess salvation and appear to be living holy lives inasmuch as they know to do so?

 

How Long Are We To Endeavor?

 

The language of the Scriptures appears to teach that we are to endeavor to keep unity of the Spirit as long as the Holy Spirit is present in the people with whom we are endeavoring. In fact, the limitation placed on us in Ephesians 4:13 is “till we all come to the unity of the faith.” This means that we have to put up with some things that other believers might believe or do that are different from our positions. There is a learning process through which believers go to arrive at the unity of the faith and not all believers are at the same place in that process at the same time.

How can we know that we have come to the unity of the faith? First, we have to understand what is meant by “the faith.” It is not a sectarian statement of beliefs although the faith consists of teachings to be accepted and believed. The faith is what it takes to be saved from sin: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8, N KJV ) This faith is contained in four simple elements essential for salvation. First, all people are sinners and are separated from God by their personal sins. Second, Christ died on the cross to make atonement for sin and there is no other provision for deliverance from sin than His shed blood. Third, people must repent of their sins and trust in Christ’s sacrifice for forgiveness of their past sins to receive the new birth in the Holy Spirit. Fourth, it is required and it is possible for people to live without committing sin in this life by the grace of God.

 

We know that whoever is born of God does not sin; but he who has been born of God keeps himself, and the wicked one does not touch him. (1 John 5:18 , N KJV )

 

Conclusion

 

The purpose of this message has been to explore the foundations of scriptural unity among brethren. We have found that it pleases God for brethren to practice unity and because of this, practicing unity is the right thing to do. The root of unity is in the very experience of salvation for all true believers come to God the same way, through faith and repentance. God moves on all believers in the same manner causing them to be born of the Holy Spirit and to live a holy life. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit inducts all true believers into the one body of Christ, the church of God .[4]

A moral imperative exists because unity is the right thing to do and because of its roots in the experience of salvation. It may be that believers have some differences in doctrine, practice, and standard but if they have the Holy Spirit of God they are bound by the Word of God to work at keeping the unity of the Spirit in spite of their differences. Since the Bible requires that believers keep the unity of the Spirit until they reach the unity of the faith, it must be that there is a unity of faith and that believers can actually achieve that kind of unity. However, given human nature, intellect, and experience, it is inevitable that all people will not agree on all things at all times, which suggests that the unity of the faith does not mean a total agreement on every doctrinal point but an agreement on the essentials of the faith.

This message does not, neither is it an attempt to answer all the questions believers might raise concerning the current state of division among Christians and how they might go about establishing and maintaining the unity God requires. In fact, this message may beg more questions than it actually answers. What are believers to tolerate and what are they not to tolerate in the quest for the unity of the faith? How are believers scattered in various sects, denominations, and churches to go about building practical unity among themselves where unity does not exist? It is sure that all believers will have to give up or change some of their viewpoints to facilitate a real unity, but can others appreciate their struggles and accept them in good faith while they go through the process? Can true believers agree to disagree and still keep the unity of the Spirit in an attitude of true love and appreciation for one another?

Those are questions that must be addressed in other messages, but based upon the scriptural basis for unity, how are you doing personally and how are we as groups professing to be the church of God doing? If we will be willing to take the first steps and to trust the outcomes to God, then God will bless the efforts and things will change. I do not believe that the entire Christian world will rush to unity, for some divisions are too deeply entrenched. Those who will not move will have to answer to God; it is not our place to judge them. However, as true believers give heed to God’s will, unity will develop and God’s people will come together. It is inevitable. It may not be in the form of a single group called the church of God , but it will definitely reach across and render unnecessary the walls that have been built between the hosts of Gods people.

 

 



[1] Vincent, Marvin R., Word Studies in the New Testament, Volume II, MacDonald Publishing Company: McLean , VA , page 266.

[2] Thayer, Joseph H., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Baker Book House: Grand Rapids , MI , third printing March 1979, pages 491-493.

[3] Ibid, page 512.

[4] “Come out of her my people.” God unmistakably asserts that He has some people who are in this spiritual Babylon .