Last Sunday I began really what is, I think, a two-part series on fellowship, but it could extend a little beyond that, depending on how much we cover today. And we talked about the fact that the true church of the Lord Jesus Christ is a living fellowship, and we were speaking of the most obvious reality that we are not able to enjoy that fellowship in the current situation. So we are missing what is the essential identity of the church.
Yes, we belong to the Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, we are a spiritual body. Yes, we are linked by common eternal life. But the church lives out its life in fellowship with one another. In fact, the Bible lays down a command to “forsake not the assembling of yourselves together, as the manner of some is, but much the more as you see the day approaching.” In other words, don’t ever forsake the fellowship. You need to be together. That is the way the Lord has designed the church, both to strengthen itself and to lay down in the society its corporate testimony.
The true church then of the Lord Jesus Christ is a living fellowship. Christianity’s not a spectator sport. Church is not an event that you go and watch happen. In fact, perhaps most people would assume that the audience sitting in the seats is watching the presentation that’s happening on the stage and they are merely spectators.
That is not what worship is. Worship is an offering of individual and collective praise brought before God Himself. We come as the true worshipers, to bring our praise to the living God. And our shared spiritual life coalesces in worship as we all together lift up our loving adoration to our Lord. The church is designed to be a body, and we’ve talked about that. Our lives are bound together, blended together. We live for each other. We live with each other. The very life of the church is expressed in that fellowship.
Now we remember that Ephesians 1:3 says, “We have been blessed with all spiritual blessings in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus.” So we live as the recipients of spiritual blessing. It’s not an ethnic fellowship. It’s not a cultural fellowship. It’s a fellowship that has no bounds: no bounds ethnically, no bounds racially, no bounds societally, no bounds economically. It is a fellowship of those who have received the precious gift of all heavenly blessings in Christ and who share the riches of those blessings. And we think back to the fact that God is a Trinity, God is triune, He is three persons, and yet one three-Person sharing the same spiritual life, the same eternal life, the same attributes. And so we as the body of Christ, in a sense, are a reflection of the very relationship of the Trinity. We also share the same spiritual life, the same eternal life, and we are given the privilege of sharing the same blessings.
I noticed the other day that when some parts of our country opened up, there was a note on the news that people fled to the bars. That’s not surprising to me. And it isn’t just related to alcohol. One writer said this: “The neighborhood bar is probably the best counterfeit there is to the fellowship Christ wants in His church. It’s an imitation, dispensing liquor instead of grace, escape rather than reality. But is a permissive, accepting, and inclusive fellowship. The bar is unshockable. The bar is democratic. At the bar, you can tell people your secrets and they usually don’t want to tell others or even think about that. The bar flourishes not because most people are alcoholics, but because God has put into the hearts of all people the desire to know and be known, to love and be loved; so people seek a counterfeit for the price of a few beers.”
The deep desire in the human heart is for relationship: loving, lasting, meaningful, satisfying, uplifting relationships, and that finds its way into culture in a myriad of forms. Anybody who looks around knows that people collect in groups. Maybe they collect around rebuilding automobiles. Maybe they collect around coins. Maybe they collect around stamps. Maybe they collect around a certain sport. They’re almost an infinite number of places and issues that gather groups of people. And it isn’t so much the issue itself, it’s the gathering that is the attraction because that’s built into the heart of man.
But the highest and the widest and the richest and the best of all relationship is found in the fellowship of the children of God who are in Christ and belong to Him. The church is the only eternal fellowship. It is the only fellowship that is empowered by God. It is the only fellowship that is the recipient of all heavenly blessings incessantly. It is the only fellowship that lasts forever.
So at this time we’re seeing people rush first to the bar because that is the antidote to the agonies of isolation. And we hear that it is essential that people have the opportunity to do that because otherwise they’re going to find themselves in overwhelming despair and depression, and perhaps end up taking their own lives. This is a reflection of how profoundly man is designed to be loved and to love.
The church satisfies that in a way that nothing can even approach. And yet I think for us as believers we tend to take that for granted until we get into this kind of a situation. This is Sunday Number 11 when we have not been able to enjoy the fellowship, and it’s becoming more painful for all of us, and we feel the loss profoundly. There is no bar, there is no social gathering, there is no collection around a television to watch a sporting event, there is no human event that can substitute for what we miss in the living life of the church.
Now we’ve talked about the church as being defined by God in a series of metaphors. The church is called a bride; and Christ, the Bridegroom. The church is called branches and Christ is the vine, the stalk to which we are attached. The church is a family and God is our Father and Christ is our Brother. The church is a kingdom and the Lord Jesus is our King. The church is a flock and He is our Shepherd. The church is a building, and He is the architect and corner stone. But what speaks most clearly to the issue of fellowship is to see the church as a body. It is the body of Christ. It is the spiritual and visible organism in which we are tied together by eternal spiritual life. We are living spiritual organisms. Just like the human body is a collection of cells that cause the whole to function the way it does, so is the church a collection of spiritual cells, each one playing a very, very important role based upon spiritual DNA coded in every one of us that produces the vision of Christ that the world can see.
In Ephesians chapter 4, we read that apostles and prophets and evangelists and teaching pastors are for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry to the building up of the body of Christ. It isn’t that we’re just a body in the sense that we’re organic, it is that we are the body of Christ, that when the church functions as it should function, Christ is on display, so that we all attain to the unity of the faith, the knowledge of the Son of God to a mature man in the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. We are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. That is just a rich, profoundly rich definition of the church. We are the body of Christ. We put Christ on display by manifest love. We grow up into Christlikeness, and that is marked particularly by love.
Earlier in our service today I read from Colossians chapter 1, and I would draw your attention back to that. It says concerning Christ in chapter 1, verse 18, “He is the head of the body, the church. He is the head of the body, the church.” In chapter 2 and verse 19, it says that, “We are to hold fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God.” Profound spiritual truth. Christians are not just isolated persons who have individually been redeemed and are children of God. No, they are connected by common life. We are held together, holding fast to the head who is Christ, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God.
And back in chapter 1, which I read earlier, Paul says, “My efforts as a servant of Christ are to do my share” – verse 24 – “on behalf of His body, which is the church.” Paul sees the ministry as it indicated in Ephesians 4 as we saw: apostles, prophets, pastor-teachers, evangelists are for the building of the body, to build us up into Christlikeness. Paul says here, “That is my calling. I do my share on behalf of His body, the church, and that includes suffering for your sake. I do this, that I might see every man and every woman complete in Christ.” It’s all about Christ. It’s all about being in Christ. It’s all about growing into Christlikeness, so that we collectively put Him on display.
In Colossians chapter 3 and verse 12, Paul says, “So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called into one body; and be thankful.” And what brings this about is to, “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus.” So, we are the body of Christ, the unique New Testament metaphor for the elect people of God is the Christ. We share common eternal life, common truth, common power, common ministry, and common witness.
So the word “fellowship” really is crucial for us to understand the church. The church is a fellowship. That is a word, by the way, that appears 30 times in some form in the New Testament. And no one can understand the church without grasping the truth that it is a fellowship. Church is not a building, neither is church an event that you go and watch happen. It is an intimate, interwoven, dependent collection of redeemed saints who mutually supply all spiritual blessings to one another in the power of the Spirit. And a human body is a wonderful metaphor to understand that.
Now last time I gave you some of the foundational categories in which we can understand the church as the body of Christ. First of all, we talked about the basis of our fellowship, and it is salvation. It is salvation. You enter into the fellowship at the point of salvation. You will recall that 1 John 1, verse 3 says, “What we have seen and heard” – concerning Christ – “we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.” John says, “I proclaim the gospel so that you can enter the fellowship.” So the basis of our fellowship is the gospel, nothing but that. “In Christ there’s neither Jew nor Greek, bond or free, male nor female.” There is no dividing of any persons from any other persons in the fellowship. Salvation makes us one in the fellowship. The basis then is salvation. If you’re a believer, you’re in the fellowship.
The nature of our fellowship, we talked about that, it is sharing. That’s a simple word, but that’s exactly it. We saw that in acts chapter 2, how immediately when the church was founded on the day of Pentecost, the people were sharing in the Lord’s Supper, they were sharing in personal fellowship, and they were sharing in the Apostles’ Doctrine. The experiential aspect of this shared salvation is mutual commitment to truth and love and ministry with each other.
And then, thirdly, we concluded last time that the symbol of our fellowship is the Lord’s Table. And we had prepared everything to do that today before the plans were changed. The Lord’s Table is a fellowship. First Corinthians 10 lays that down for us very clearly in verses 16 and 17. So the Lord’s Table is the visual picture of our fellowship. We’re all in Christ. We all come at the Lord’s Table to the foot of the cross. We’ve all partaken of His body and His blood. He is our Savior. He is our head. He is our Lord. He is our King, and we declare that openly when we gather around His Table.
How does the Lord’s Table minister grace to us? It does that in the collective worship of the church around the Table. The Lord’s Table is not something that you do as an individual, that’s why we don’t do it over livestream. It’s not an individual experience. It’s not an individual expression. First Corinthians is very clear: “When you come together in one place,” literally in the Greek. “When you come together in one place. When you come together.” It’s repeated three or four times. “Do the Lord’s Table this way.” It is for us to do collectively, and it is that wonderful collective expression of adoration and praise to our Lord for His death that ties us together and ministers grace to our heart.
Now that brings us to a couple of concluding realities in understanding the fellowship. First, the basis is salvation, the nature is sharing, the symbol is the Lord’s Supper. Let me talk about the danger. What is the danger to fellowship? And in a word, the danger to the fellowship is sin. Sin is the danger to the fellowship. Sin interrupts the fellowship. Sin cripples the fellowship. Sin cuts into the effectiveness of witness. Sin intrudes significantly into mutual ministry. Sin interrupts love and puts in its place animosity and bitterness and discord. Sin is the single danger to the fellowship.
Go with me to Matthew chapter 18, that very familiar portion of Scripture, where the Lord sums up the danger to the fellowship categorically in the aspect of sin. That is the danger. That’s why our Lord says in Matthew 18:15, “If your brother sins.” It doesn’t mention any particular one; any sin will have the same effect. “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private.” Now that is how the fellowship operates. It’s that intimate, that you go and privately confront your brother’s sin. That’s the fellowship. That’s required. In fact, that is the first instruction given in the New Testament to believers in the church.
The church has barely been introduced. Back in chapter 16 where the Lord says, “I will build My church.” And here is the first instruction given to the church and it is given to protect the church in its fellowship. “If your brother sins, you have an obligation to go and show him his fault in private. If he listens to you, you’ve won your brother.” That is critical because that is what interrupts the fellowship. And what interrupts the fellowship obviously interrupts our joy, interrupts our love, and damages our collective testimony.
“If he listens, you’ve won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.” If he doesn’t listen to the private response, you get two or three witnesses as basically was established back in the book of Deuteronomy, that things are to be confirmed in the mouth of two or three witnesses. So you’re taking them to confirm either a repentant response or a rebellious response.
“If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” And what is the church supposed to do? The same thing. The church is to go to him. How do we know that? Because the next line is, “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” In other words, sin is so disruptive to the life of the body of Christ, to the fellowship, that you go to the nth degree, and the nth degree is you tell the entire church to go and pursue this impenitent sinner. And if he refuses to listen to the first person, the next three, and the church, then you treat him like an outsider. Gentile and tax collector are just expressions that would indicate someone who’s not a part of the kingdom. You treat them as if they were unbelievers because they may well be unbelievers. You literally put them out of the fellowship.
Now that’s hard. That’s very, very explicit. And so you sort of take a deep breath and say, “But that’s not an easy thing to do.” So to help you with that, in verse 18, our Lord said, “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am their in the midst.”
Do you know what that’s saying? That in this context is saying this: when you confront a sinner and go back with two or three witnesses and when you tell the church to confront that sinner and call that sinner to repent, you are essentially doing on earth what is being done in heaven. You are doing heaven’s work on earth. And if you bind a person earth, you are saying essentially to them, “You’re still in your sin because you won’t repent. Heaven is in agreement with that.” And if you loose on earth a person because they have repented and you say, “You’re loosed from your sin,” you’re simply echoing what has already been said in heaven.
And know this, that as hard as it is when even two or three of you go in that second expression, heaven is in agreement with you. More than that, verse 20, Jesus said, “I am there in your midst.” Never is Christ more present in His church than when His church is confronting sinful behavior and impenitence because sin is such a disastrous danger to the church. Any sin, every sin tolerated, perpetuated in an impenitent way does horrific damage to the church.
Now we’re not talking about the issue of forgiveness. If you’re a true believer your sins are forgiven. That’s made very clear: Ephesians 1:7, Ephesians 4:32, even in Colossians chapter 2, 1 John 2:12. It’s not a matter of forgiveness for true believers, they’re covered by the forgiveness that is extended in Christ. It’s not a matter of love. In John 13:1 you could say as Jesus was looking at His disciples the night of His Last Supper with them that there were sinful attitudes among them. And yet it says in John 13:1 that “having loved them in the world, He loved them, eis telos, He loved them to the end.” He loved them to the max.
Forgiveness for true believers is an issue settled in heaven. Love for true believers is an issue settled in heaven. It’s not a question of forgiveness and it’s not a question of love. It is a question, however, of blessing. It is a question of peace. It is a question of joy. It is a question of power. It is a question of witness because it is an interruption of unity. It interrupts the unity between Christians and other Christians. It shatters. It restricts. It halts. It confuses.
Wherever there is, behind any sin, pride, lust, materialism, you have destructive elements unleased on the fellowship. This is so serious that in 1 Corinthians chapter 11, there is a warning about coming to the Lord’s table, which again as I’ve told you, is the symbol of our fellowship. But at the end of 1 Corinthians 11, still talking about the Lord’s Table, verse 27, “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner.” That mean you come to the Table with sin still alive and operative in your life. You do that in an unworthy manner and you will be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. “But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he doesn’t judge the body rightly.” Not only the body of the Lord, but even the body, the church.
How serious is this? Listen to the next line. If you come to the Lord’s Table entertaining sin in your life, “For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep.” Literally, are dead. You can die in the church, slain by the Lord, for coming to His Table in an unworthy manner, cultivating or holding onto any sin. So the apostle warns, “If we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world.”
In other words, this is discipline of believers, not condemnation. But it is severe discipline. How severe is it? “Some of you are weak. Some of you are sick. Some have died.” You don’t want to come to the Lord’s Table with sin in your life. That is extremely serious. That’s an affront to God. And that’s the symbol of our fellowship. You are shut out from the symbol because you have shut yourself out from the reality.
Sin must be dealt with. That is why, as I said, the first instruction given the church is in Matthew 18:15 and following, where you see sin, you confront it. Let’s go back to that Matthew text and talk about it a little bit: the influence of the church.
We would all say we would like the church to influence the world obviously. The influence of the church does not depend on cultural relevance. It doesn’t depend on marketing savvy. It doesn’t depend on branding. It doesn’t depend on targeting. It doesn’t depend on any kind of commercial or communicative methodology. Where does the influence of the church lie? The influence of the church depends on its holiness. How can the church make an impact?
How can the church make an impact on an increasingly immoral culture? That’s certainly what the early church was dealing with in the New Testament times. How is the church to make an impact? By its holiness. And the Lord emphasized that in the fifth chapter of Acts, and I think we all remember that. There were some people who lied to the Holy Spirit. They pretended to have given everything that they received in proceeds from the sale of some land, pretended to give it all to the Lord when they didn’t actually give it to the Lord, and their names were Ananias and Sapphira.
“And Peter says to them after they had given their hypocritical gift publicly and openly, ‘Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back some of the price of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? You didn’t have to sell it, there was no command to do that. And after it was sold, was it not under your control? You didn’t have to say you were going to give it all, there was no rule about that. Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.’ And as he heard these words, Ananias fell down, breathed his last. Great fear came over all who heard of it.” The Lord literally killed him at church for lying about his giving. The young men got up and covered him, carried him out, buried him.
“And three hours elapsed, and finally his wife showed up. And Peter said to her, ‘Tell me whether you sold the land for such and such a price?’ And she said, ‘Yes, that was the price.’ Peter said to her, ‘Why is it that you have agreed together to put the Holy Spirit’ – or the Spirit of the Lord – ‘to the test? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they’ll carry you out as well.’ And immediately she fell at his feet, breathed her last. The young men came in, found her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear came over the whole church, and over all who heard those things.”
Now you wouldn’t think that that would be a great way to promote a church. The talk in town was, “You don’t want to go there because people die. People die, even people who give to the church, even people who give large sums to the church, even people who sold land and gave the money to the church, and they died there. What kind of a bizarre place is that?” That would be the worst possible way to market your church: “Come to our church, and if you’re a hypocrite you could be slain and buried and never return to your family.”
There are some churches today that I see are very concerned about weight loss – weight loss? – that provide programs for weight loss. They seem to be more interested in weight loss than sin.
In 2 Corinthians chapter 12, just to continue to follow this up a little bit because it is so very important, the apostle Paul is really pouring out his heart in verse 19 of 2 Corinthians 12. “All this time you have been thinking that we are defending ourselves to you. Actually, it is in the sight of God that we have been speaking in Christ; all for your upbuilding, beloved. For I am afraid that perhaps when I come I may find you to be not what I wish and may be found by you to be not what you wish; and perhaps there will be strife, and jealousy, angry tempers, disputes, slanders, gossip, arrogance, disturbances; I’m afraid that when I come again my God may humiliate me before you, and I may mourn over many of those who have sinned in the past and not repented of the impurity, immorality, and sensuality which they have practiced.” That was Paul’s fear: sin in the church. He’d made an incredible investment, and his fear was that he was going to come back to Corinth and find sin.
And chapter 13 begins, “This is the third time I am coming to you,” and he quotes from Deuteronomy. “Every fact to be confirmed by the testimony of two or three witnesses. I’m going to come, I’m going to confront sin,” – as our Lord said in Matthew 18 – “and I’m going to do it according to the prescription of Deuteronomy. I have previously said when present the second time, and though now absent I say in advance to those who have sinned in the past,” – since he had been there – “and to all the rest as well, that if I come again I will not spare anyone, since you’re seeking for proof of the Christ who speaks in me, and who is not weak toward you, but mighty in you.” What is he saying? “You’re questioning whether I represent Christ. You’re questioning whether Christ moves and speaks in me. I’ll prove it to you, because when I come I will find the sin and I will deal with it, and I will spare no one.” My... Paul said, “Look, I’m going to confront sin. It may break my heart to find the sin that’s there. But I will spare no one.
The church’s power and influence is directly connected to its purity, not to its cultural relevance, not to its style, not to its music. The church’s impact on an increasingly immoral culture is tied to its holiness. Media, cleverness gets crowds to come to church. Holiness gets the Lord Jesus to come to church. That’s why Paul says in writing the Corinthians, “Cleanse yourselves from all filthiness of the flesh, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”
Nothing is as serious in the life of the church as sin. And yet in the contemporary evangelical world today, confronting sin is the last thing that popular preachers want to do. They don’t even like to mention the word “sin.” How many churches would you go to before you found a church meeting around the Lord’s Table and talking about a sinner or sinners to whom people had gone and they wouldn’t repent, to whom two or three had gone and they wouldn’t repent, and now they’re telling the church, “How many times have you been to a Communion service and heard from the pastor that the whole church needed to go and call an impenitent sinner back to the Lord?”
How many times have you heard that? It’s a sad reality. There’s no joy in doing it. But most of the time here at Grace Community Church, most of the time when we have Communion we have to do that. The people in the book of Acts didn’t want to go near the church because you could die there. They weren’t about to go in a place where sin is constantly being exposed.
I remember in the early years when I had first come to Grace and I’d never ever seen a church anywhere that was obedient to Matthew 18, and I said, “We’re going to do that.” I was told by a lot of people, “You’re going to empty the church. You’re going to empty the church.” And the truth of the matter is, we filled the church because God’s true children love holiness. They have holy affections. Yes, it kept the hypocrites away largely, but it’s the most attractive reality for the true saints because they long to be everything the Lord would have them be.
I was talking to somebody the other day about Psalm 119. Psalm 119 is just an incredible psalm, the longest chapter in the Bible, and certainly the longest psalm. You’re familiar with it. There are 176 verses. And the psalmist for 175 verses says he loves the law of God one way or another, 175 different ways. “I love Your law. I love Your statutes. I love Your precepts. I love Your testimonies.” And then at the end, his final verse, 176: “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek Your servant.”
What? A hundred and seventy five times you say you love the law of God, and you sign off by saying, “I’ve gone astray like a sheep”? This is reality. All of us need to be in a place where sin is confronted. And we want to be there because we long for holiness. If you have no interest in holiness in your so-called church, hypocrites will be happy there. If you pursue holiness, they will not survive. When the Lord taught us to pray He said, “Pray like this: ‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’” His will in heaven is that no unholy thing ever enters. And that would be His will for the church on earth.
Now that leads to a final category of considerations with regard to fellowship, and that is not only the basis of our fellowship, which is salvation; the nature, which is sharing; the symbol, which is the Lord’s Table; and the danger, which sin; but, the duties. What is our responsibility? In a word: serving, serving. In fact, in 2 Corinthians 8:4, fellowship is identified as the fellowship of serving, the fellowship of serving. This is the church. It’s not a spectator event once a week. That’s just the serving church, the serving fellowship coming together for collective worship. We love collective worship, but that’s not the full expression of the life of the church.
Those of you who are a part of Grace Community Church, you know. You know what the fellowship of serving is like. Just yesterday in anticipation of the fact that we were going to be able to open our church, we’ve been having construction going on all along around here, and we’re grateful that we could it faster because we weren’t being interrupted by lots of events. But when people realized we would, perhaps, be able to open, a small army of people were here serving behind-the-scenes. That’s the way it always is. We serve each other not just on a Sunday when we gather, but we serve each other at every level, starting in marriages serving each other, and families serving each other, and extended families, friendships. Then it extends through Bible studies and various expressions of common fellowship.
The church is the fellowship of servers; we serve each other. And essentially you could divide that kind of service into two categories. The first category would be what we call spiritual gifts, spiritual gifts. They’re referred to in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4, 1 Peter 4. You can look them up on your own.
But to every believer is given a spiritual gift, and that spiritual gift is basically a Holy Spirit-empowered function by which you serve others. And it’s not just isolated to one thing. You could say, “I have the gift of teaching,” or you could say, “Maybe I have the gift of preaching,” or maybe you could say, “I have been given gifts of leadership.” It’s a blend. It’s as if every categories – and there are categories given in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, that don’t even agree with each other, which shows it’s not hard and fast and tight categories. There’s a blending together. It’s as if the Lord paints every believer off of a palette. The categories of giftedness are the various colors. But He dips into various colors and paints you, and you’re a combination of all kinds of things, and your gift expresses many different areas in which the Holy Spirit can use you. You’re a kind of a spiritual snowflake in that sense.
Used to be that there were tests you could take to identify your gift. Well, your gift, Peter divides them into a serving gift and a speaking gift. But that gift can have lots of different elements that are essentially unique to you. And spiritual gifts are for the building up of the body, therefore the sake of the life of the church. I won’t take you to 1 Corinthians 12 or Romans 12, you can look at them yourself and you’ll see the purpose of gifts is for others. My gift is not for me, it is for you, and so I do what the Spirit of God has gifted me to do for the benefit of the life of the church.
The second category that we have to consider when we think about how we are the fellowship of serving, and that is we have to fulfill the one anothers, the one anothers. All throughout the New Testament we are told to act in a certain way toward one another. Before I get to that, look back at Matthew 18 for just a moment because we can set this up, I think, by the instruction of our Lord.
Go back to Matthew 18, verse 6. He says, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me,” – He’s not talking about children, He’s not talking about babies, He’s talking about believers, spiritual children, spiritual children – “who believe in Me, whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and be drowned in the depth of the sea.” That is a frightening thing to hear from the lips of our Lord. “You’d be better off to die an agonizing death by drowning before you would ever cause a believer to stumble.”
Now, verse 7: “Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks It’s inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes!” Listen, people who take a posture against the church of Jesus Christ, whether they be neighbors, whether they be powerless people, or whether they be people in power and politicians and people who have a certain measure of authority. You take a position against the church and you’re in some very dangerous territory.
“Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks!” You want to block the church? “Woe to the man through whom the stumbling block comes! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off, throw it from you; it’s better for you to enter into the life crippled or lame than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire. If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it from you. It’s better for you to enter life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be cast into the fiery hell.”
That is as extreme a language text as came out of the mouth of Jesus, and it relates to those who cause His children to stumble. You’d better take dramatic action – this is hyperbole obviously. He’s not saying that you could solve your problem by hacking off your limb or plucking out your eye. This is an illustration of the extreme reaction you should have to stop yourself from causing His children to stumble. If you don’t take dramatic action to stop that, you’re going to be cast into the fire of hell.
Verse 10: “See to it that you do not despise one of these little ones,” – kataphroneō, that you don’t think little of, look down on – “for I say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father who’s in heaven.” People in the world may be causing believers to stumble. Even people in the church may be causing believers to stumble. But the Father is watching, and the Father will dispatch His angels to the care of His own children.
If you hold any believer in contempt, if you hold any believer in disdain, if you treat a believer with indifference as if they had no value, you fail to understand that you are talking about and you are causing to stumble, according to verse 3, children of the kingdom, verse 4, children of the kingdom, verse 5, children who bear the name of Christ. Better be careful how you treat the church.
The Lord is concerned with how the world does this. We have an expectation of how the world treats believers. It’s confirmed at the end of the eleventh chapter of Hebrews where the writer says, “What shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so they might obtain a better resurrection. Others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated” – then this – “(men of whom the world was not worthy).” The Lord is deeply concerned with how the world treats His children. “You don’t want to cause one of these who believes in Me to stumble.”
Back to Matthew 18 for a moment. Because of their relationship to the angels, their relationship to the angels. The angels, according to Scripture, watch over the saints. The angels, according to the book of Acts, guide. In the Old Testament the angels provided for Hagar and Samuel and Elijah. Psalm 91, the angels protect. Acts 5, Acts 12, the angels deliver. Daniel 9, Acts 12, the angels dispatch answers to prayer. We’re cared for by angels, heavenly angels, angels who stand before God, who look into God’s face in the glory of heaven. Hebrews 1:14 says are designed by God – one of the most wonderful promises – “as ministering spirits, sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation.”
You’d better be careful how you treat believers. And I’m saying this to the world, but I’m also saying it to believers. Careful how you treat another believer because of their relationship to the angels. And then also because of their relationship to Christ. Go back to verse 5, Matthew 18: “Whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me.” However you treat another believer, that’s how you’re treating Christ, that’s how you’re treating Christ.
Jesus says, “Come unto Me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden, I’ll give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me, for My yoke is easy, My burden is light; you’ll find rest for your souls.” The Lord gathers the weary, the weak, and the broken. And in Matthew 12, this is such a beautiful expression of our Lord’s tenderness toward those who come to Him. In verse 20 of chapter 12, He says, “A battered reed He will not break off, and a smoldering wick He will not put out, until He leads justice to victory,” taken from Isaiah 42. What does that mean? The Lord does not blow out a flickering candle. He does not break a weak reed. That means He doesn’t receive the weak and the powerless and the helpless and the suffering and the broken people and do harm to them. He tenderly cares for them. He takes up their sorrows. He takes up their pain. He takes up their suffering. He holds them in His arms as He holds them in His heart.
You’d better be careful how you treat believers because of the angels. You’d better be careful how you treat believers because of the Savior because He is in every believer, and in every believer Christ comes to you. How you’re treating that believer is how you’re treating Christ. You remember what our Lord said: “If you’ve done it unto the least of these, you’ve done it unto Me.”
And then, a third reason to be careful not to cause another believer to stumble is his relation to God Himself, the Father. Verse 12: “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountain and go and search for the one that is straying? If it turns out that he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine which have not gone astray. So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish.”
No matter how insignificant that believer may appear to you, he is the special object of God’s care. He receives the weary and the broken-hearted and He holds them with tender loving compassion, and He is concerned about each one so that if he were to have one of them go astray He would leave the ninety-nine and go find the one. And having found that one he would rejoice than over the ninety-nine who have not gone astray. It’s almost an incomprehensible thing to think about it. Not only does the Father rejoice when the prodigal comes home when someone is saved, but the Father rejoices when a wandering believer comes back.
God is not reluctant to receive a disobedient child. The Shepherd, the divine Shepherd, who never slumbers and never sleeps, who detects every wandering sheep, and in every sheep, every wandering idea goes to find His own. The massive volume of those who belong to Him does not in any sense obscure His intimate knowledge of every single sheep. Patient, loving care: persistent care, seeking care, forgiving care, rejoicing care. It is the most amazing thing to think that God is pleased to have us back from our disobedience and to embrace us. Why? Because He does not want one of these little ones to be marred, scarred, wounded.
The call is clear then. Because of the angels, because of the Lord Jesus Christ, because of the Father, we never look down on any believer. We never cause any believer to stumble at all into any kind of sin, we are never the cause of that. The angels are watching. The Savior is watching. The Father is watching. It’s our responsibility to take care of them on behalf of our Lord, whose they are. That care is expressed in the New Testament through a series of one anothers like, “Confess your sins to one another. Confront one another. Rebuke one another. Restore one another. Edify one another. Pray for one another. Love one another.” And on and on it goes.
This is the life of the fellowship. And in the end when we carry out our spiritual gifts and when we do the one anothers, losing our lives for someone else, teaching one another, admonishing one another, singing spiritual songs to one another, whatever those are, the outcome is, first of all, joy. John says, “I write these things, that your joy may be full.” But there’s something even more at stake than that joy and it’s in John 17, part of our Lord’s prayer down in verse 23 of that great chapter. John 17:23, Jesus said this: “I in them and You in Me,” – talking to the Father – “that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.”
What communicates our relationship to the Lord to the world? What communicates that? It is unity in the fellowship, unity of love that says to the world that “You sent Me,” – Jesus said – “and loved them, even as You loved Me.” The credibility of the whole gospel story from the Father to the Son to the saved is basically demonstrated to the world through the unity of our fellowship. Yes, there’s personal joy in obedience, but there is this massive testimony to the world when the fellowship is truly a fellowship of love. God is on display, Christ is on display in the loving unity of the church. This is the testimony of a living fellowship.
Our Father, we thank You for the Word of God. What can we say? We thank You for the living and abiding Word, the Word of Truth, the Word of God, as we sung earlier. We thank You for the instruction that it brings to bear. But it would all be impossible for us to obey if it were not for the Holy Spirit who takes up residence in us and whose temple we are. So we thank You, O God, blessed Holy Spirit, for living in us. We thank You that we not only have the instruction, the external revelation, but we have the power, the internal Holy Spirit, to live out the fellowship in a way that displays the love of the Father and the Son to the whole watching world.
What an incredible calling. May we have a testimony to this world by our holiness, our humility, and our loving fellowship. And may we be made complete, be comforted, be likeminded, live in peace, so that You the God of love and peace will be with us in fullness. This we pray in the name of our Savior. Amen.
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