It’s time now for us to turn to responsibility, accountability before God that comes from the instruction of His Word. I’ve been very much aware, of course, as our whole church family has, of this biblical counseling conference that begins tomorrow. We are, along with all of you who have come to the conference, equally committed to biblical counseling, to what we would define as encouraging people along the path of sanctification, and using the proper spiritual means to do that, have endeavored to do that through the years here at Grace Church.
In thinking about what subject I might address that would be of some help to you as you contemplate the ministry of biblical counseling, I was drawn to discuss the subject of fellowship. Biblical counseling, after all, is a function of fellowship. Fellowship is the larger category in which biblical counseling operates. Like all other ministry, all other service within the body of Christ, it too is a function of fellowship.
Earlier in the service I read one of the Scriptures that addresses most graphically the matter of fellowship, namely 1 Corinthians 12. And in that Scripture we really find, by the form of an analogy, what fellowship is. It is believers mutually responsible for sharing spiritual ministry among themselves, mutually responsible for sharing spiritual ministry among themselves.
In Ephesians we would find a Scripture which perhaps would add some richness to the 1 Corinthian passage. Ephesians 4 says that, “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 that which 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.” The body is to be built up. It is to be built up in love. It is built up in love as it grows. It grows as each individual part does its proper work.
The church is a fellowship. It is designed by God to be an efficient, functioning fellowship, where there is a mutual ministry of people serving one another on a spiritual level in love. Its purpose is to strengthen Christians so that they become more like Christ. And as they individually strengthened are then put together collectively the whole body of Christ grows to the fullness of the stature of Christ.
I suppose one of the sad commentaries on the life of the church is that it is somewhat preoccupied with other things, and the realities of a true spiritual fellowship go begging. Some years ago Bruce Larson wrote in one of his books a very scathing indictment of the church and the lack of commitment to the processes of fellowship when he wrote this paragraph: “The neighborhood bar is probably the best counterfeit there is to the fellowship Christ wants to give His church. It’s an imitation dispensing liquor instead of grace, escape rather than reality. But it is permissive accepting inclusive fellowship; it is unshockable, it is democratic. You can tell people secrets and they usually don’t want to tell others. The bar flourishes not because most people are alcoholics, but because God has put into the human heart the desire to know and be known, to love and be loved. And so many seek a counterfeit at the price of a few beers.” End quote.
There is, I believe, in the human heart a residual effect of the image of God, namely a desire to know and be known and love and be loved. There’s a longing even in the unregenerate heart for some kind of mutual, meaningful relationship. But within the framework of the body of Christ it transcends whatever kind of human longing, and it becomes a divine mandate and a divine operation and function. If there is a desire for fellowship even among the unregenerate, there is a highly refined and transcendent and Holy Spirit-inspired desire for true spiritual fellowship among the redeemed. The church is to be that fellowship – Christ as the head and all of us as members within a fully functioning body somehow effectively ministering on a spiritual level in love to every other part.
I suppose initially this morning we should ask some questions so we can sort of set you on a personal agenda for the matters at hand. The questions that come to my mind would be like this: What does this fellowship mean to you? You talk about the church as a fellowship, what does it mean to you, anything? Do you view your relationship to the church merely as a matter of attendance, maybe as a matter of socialization, maybe as a matter of culture, maybe as a matter of heritage, maybe as a matter of family responsibility, maybe as a matter of curiosity, maybe as a matter of intellectual stimulation? Do you even understand that you, if you are a believer, fit into the church as a fully functioning part of a fellowship? Is it precious to you that you can join with other Christians who love Jesus Christ and share His common life? Is that precious to you? Is it a treasure to you to be with other Christians?
It never ceases to amaze me how many people I meet in my normal meanderings around to the drug store and the market and the gas station and the Price Club, other places my wife sends me, how many times I run into people who say, “Oh, aren’t you John MacArthur?” And I say, “Yes.” And they say, “Oh, I go to Grace.” And I look again, and I’ve never seen them before. And I say, “Oh, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen you there.” “Well, I don’t come all the time.”
What kind of curiosity is this place that people can take it and leave it so whimsically? What does Christian fellowship mean to you? What is it? Is it of value to you or is it a treasure you deeply, deeply cherish? Is it something that is a possession prized? Or do you take it for granted? Have you forgotten the privilege of being with other believers to be stimulated to love and good works?
In the gray dawn of an April day in 1945 in a Nazi concentration camp at Flossenbürg, a pastor by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed. He was executed by order, special order of Heinrich Himmler, Adolph Hitler’s henchman. He had been arrested to the month two years before, and he had been transferred after his arrest from prison to prison.
Up to that time he had been perhaps the most prominent or one of the most prominent pastors in his nation of Germany. He had been intensely involved in the community of believers, engaged in fellowship. And now all of a sudden taken prisoner and moved from Tegel to Berlin to Buchenwald to Schönberg and finally to Flossenbürg where he died, he had been dispossessed of all fellowship. He had been severed from all contacts with the outside world, and lost the thing which had always been to him the most precious thing, other than the knowledge of Christ, and that was Christian fellowship.
He understood what it meant, because he wrote a book called Life Together, and in the book this is what Bonhoeffer wrote: “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer. Longingly the imprisoned Paul calls his dearly beloved son in the faith Timothy to come to him in prison in the last days of his life. He would see him again and have him near. Paul has not forgotten the tears Timothy shed when last they parted.
“Remembering the congregation in Thessalonica, Paul prays night and day exceedingly that, ‘We might see your face.’ And the aged John knows that his joy will not be full until he can come to his own people and speak face to face instead of writing with ink.”
Bonhoeffer says, “The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a sign of the gracious presence of the triune God. Visitor and visited in loneliness, recognized in each other the Christ who is present in the body, they receive and meet each other as one meets the Lord in reverence, humility, and joy. They receive each other as a benediction. But if there is so much blessing and joy even in a single encounter of brother with brother, how inexhaustible then are the riches that open for those who by God’s will are privileged to live in the daily fellowship of life with other Christians.”
“It is true, of course,” – he says – “that what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trodden underfoot by those who have the gift every day. It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the kingdom of God, that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees, and declare it is grace, nothing but grace that we are allowed to live in fellowship with Christian brethren.” End quote. Now there’s a man to whom the fellowship is precious.
Do you understand the privilege? Do you live in a Christian family? You often hear a young person say, “I had the joy of being raised in a Christian family.” Parents, some of us can say we have the joy of having a Christian family, our children know Christ.
Do you underestimate that privilege? Have you forgotten what it’s like to not have that? Have you forgotten the isolation and the loneliness, the lack of encouragement, admonition, exhortation, comfort, instruction, confrontation that occurs if you as a Christian are in a non-Christian family? Do you understand that not only is there that love of Christ coming to you through those other members in all their mutual positive ministry, but there is none of the constraining of Christ to keep you from sin, which so easily entangles you? Do you take for granted the privilege of being in a Christian place, having a common Christian life on a day-to-day basis?
What a treasure it is to me to have children that love Christ, who seek to minister to their father the love of Christ in encouragement, in comfort, in instruction, in wisdom, in confrontation, in accountability. Christian children in my family and a Christian wife who in sharing her joy and their joy with me give me joy, who in sharing their sorrow with me allow me to bear their burdens, and so fulfill the love, the law of Christ.
Do you underestimate the virtue, the value, the treasure that you have in a Christian environment, and to say nothing of the church? Is this not the most precious time of your week? Is it not the most precious social opportunity that you have? For there’s more than just an external time of fellowship, there’s a spiritual ministry going on.
Christ comes to you in every other Christian. The Spirit ministers to you through every other gift. Every vital member of the body of Christ serves somehow the rest of the body, including you. Yes, fellowship is a precious treasure; biblical counseling or any other ministry is a component of that treasure. It is a spiritual ministry effected only by the Holy Spirit through the means of mutual stimulation in the body of Christ.
I want you to understand fellowship, but I know I can’t exhaust it on one Sunday. I mean, whole, big volumes have been written on it. But I want to give you a little bit of an insight this morning and again tonight.
Remember this: the true church is seen, as we noted in 1 Corinthians, as a body. We are one body, one body. Christ only has one body. He is the head, all Christians are the body. We are all members of that body, and therefore we are all members of each other.
The human body is a wonderful analogy. If we were to push Paul a little further and talk about the body from an analogy point that he doesn’t use, we might use cancer as an illustration. What kills the body is when cells within the body – we could designate them as members of the body – become destructive. Instead of ministering life, they minister death. Instead of fully functioning in harmony, they function out of harmony. Cancer is cells running amuck, cells going out of the confined standard by which they’re supposed to operate, operating at random – whimsically, willy-nilly, out of control, and in overt rebellion.
The same is true in the spiritual body; where you have nonfunctioning members you have atrophy. Where you have aggressive rebellious members you have cancer. In either case, the body cannot function; it is crippled, it is diseased. We are all members of that body; we are all to be fully functioning; we have the responsibility and the privilege.
There are several metaphors given in Scripture to describe the people of God. If you go back into the Old Testament, perhaps the most prominent ones would be these: God looked on Israel, for example, in the book of Hosea, and defined Israel as a wife. That’s a metaphor for God’s relationship to His people. It celebrates love and covenant. God says, in effect, to Israel, “Out of all the world I chose you as a man does a woman. And then I made covenant with you. I made a promise to you, and I vowed My protection and my love and all My resources and all My care, and I gave you all My promises.” And so, the picture of Israel as a wife and God as a husband is a picture of love and covenant.
And then God in, for example, Isaiah chapter 5 identifies Israel as a vineyard, and God says, “I planted you as a vineyard in a very fruitful hill.” And that speaks of blessing and fruitfulness. “I expected you to bring forth grapes.” God says, “I have a relationship with you that goes beyond love and covenant, it goes to blessing and fruitfulness.”
And then if you were to look further into the Old Testament and perhaps come to Isaiah 40 or Isaiah 63 you would see God as the shepherd and Israel as the flock. And that speaks of sustenance: water and food, protection, guidance. And so God is saying, “You’re My flock and I’m your shepherd, and as a shepherd I lead you to still waters, and I lead you to green pastures, and I take you carefully through the valley of the shadow of death, and I protect you there, and I guide you in the right path.”
Each of those images shows the personal quality, the intimacy and the care of God, and His direct dealings with His people Israel. He chose Israel as His bride; that’s love and covenant. He planted Israel as His vineyard; that’s blessing and fruitfulness. He shepherded Israel as His flock; that’s sustenance and protection and guidance. Those are beautiful images of God’s relation to His people.
When you come into the New Testament those images are repeated in reference to the church. The church is also seen as the bride of Christ, Ephesians chapter 5, verses 22 to 33. It talks about the husband and the wife and their relationship, and said, “This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and His church.” The Lord Jesus is the bridegroom, the husband; the church, the bride.
In John 15 you see the church as the branches, the Lord as the husbandman, Christ as the vine, and we again are the branches. So you see there love and covenant, and blessing and fruitfulness again. And then if you go to John 10, Jesus says, “I’m the Good Shepherd, you’re My sheep,” and you see that whole metaphor there. All of these are pictures of the church.
Now as you come further into the New Testament you will note also that the New Testament identifies the church as a kingdom, Colossians 1:13. We are in the kingdom of God’s dear Son; we are subjects of the King, and He is the King. Ephesians 2:19 sees the church as a family. We are the household of God, God’s family. Ephesians 2:20 to 22 sees the church as a building. We are the temple of God in which the Spirit dwells, Christ being the chief cornerstone – a beautiful imagery of the church.
As Christ’s church we are one wife with one husband, we are one set of branches growing out of one vine, we are one flock with one shepherd, we are one kingdom under one King, we are one family with one Father, we are one building with one foundation and one indwelling Spirit. All of this celebrates the unity of the church, but none of those metaphors is as graphic and instructive as the metaphor of the body which, by the way, is not used in the Old Testament to speak of Israel.
There is a sense in which this is the church’s unique identity. We are the body of Christ. And the life of the body, the interchange of that life is what I believe the Bible describes as fellowship, sharing on a spiritual level the commonalities of our spiritual life and resources.
As a kid growing up I heard a lot about fellowship. Every church my father ever pastored had a place called Fellowship Hall. Did you ever grow up with one of those? They were always in the basement. They always had linoleum on the floor and a shuffle board court and metal chairs. And I always remember the noise of fixing the chairs – setting them up, taking them down. They always had little old ladies with gray hair in a bun on the back of their head who served stale cookies and red punch and coffee. And everybody went down there, and that was supposed to be fellowship.
Well, I don’t know how much real fellowship ever went on, because true spiritual fellowship goes past cookies and punch and coffee, goes past anything that could be classified as socialization. It goes all the way to spiritual ministry. This is so essential to our life. Go back to John 17. I want to put you in touch with the prayer of Jesus, the great High Priestly Prayer, just by way of reminder to help you sort of regrip a truth here that is foundational to our discussion.
In John 17, verse 11, Jesus, of course, praying to the Father, is praying in anticipation of His return to heaven. He’s talking as if it is imminent or already happened. In verse 11 He says, “I am no more in the world,” – I’m about to leave – “yet they themselves are in the world,” – all My disciples, those who believe in Me are going to stay,” – I’m going to come to You Holy Father. So keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me,” – now follow this – “that they may be one.” What do You mean by that, “ that they may be one”? I’ll tell you what I mean, “even as we are.” I want them to be one like we’re one.
Go to verse 20: “I do not ask in behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word.” In other words, “Not just for the ones alive when I leave, but all the rest that will come and to follow.” We’re included in that prayer.
“And my prayer is” – verse 21 – “that they may all be one.” What do You mean by that? Well, “Even as Thou, Father, art in Me and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us, that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me. And the glory which Thou gavest Me I have given to them, that they may be one,” – what do You mean by that? He says it again – “just as We are one.”
Well, the point of our unity then is very clearly outlined by the Lord Himself in this discussion, and what He is saying is, “I want them to experience the kind of unity that we experience.”
“What do You mean by that?” Well, it’s a spiritual unity. It’s the unity of a common life; that is true. Every believer possesses the common eternal life. We are partakers of the divine nature, right? Every believer possesses the indwelling Holy Spirit, who is our life; Christ, who is our life,” says Paul. So we share the same common, eternal life. We have the same indwelling Holy Spirit, the same living God, the same Christ dwelling in us. We then have a shared life, as did the Father and the Son.
Jesus prays that we will also have a shared love, of which Paul speaks when He says, “We’re to love each other the same, having the same love. We are to have a shared purpose, and that would be to do the will of God, even as God the Father and God the Son share the same purpose. We’re to have the same shared kind of thought pattern, that is we are to share the same common truth. We are to share the same motives, the same purposes, the same goals, the same action. And we are to share the same power.
This is fellowship. This is real sharing at a spiritual level. We are to share with one another all the essentials of our spiritual life as mediated through our unique spiritual giftedness, and as we are given opportunity in the lives of those that God brings across our path.
When He says, “I want you to be one like We’re one,” He means, “I want you to be one spiritually, not politically, not culturally, not economically, not socially; spiritually. I want you to share life and love and purpose and ministry and action and truth and power.” That’s fellowship.
It perhaps should be noted at this point a little linguistic turn that the word “group” in the New Testament that is basically associated with the term “fellowship” is koinōneō – that’s the verb form. Koinōneō is used eight times in the New Testament in a verb form. The noun form, koinōnos, koinōnia is used about thirty times – koinōnia being the feminine and koinōnos the masculine.
It’s interesting to note that out of the eight verb uses, it’s used eight times, koinōneō – we would translate it to “fellowship.” But out of its eight uses in the New Testament, in the New American Standard translation, none of them is ever translated “fellowship.” The translators felt they needed to get below the surface a little bit of the word “fellowship” maybe to take away its sort acculturated and accumulated definition. And so instead of using the word fellowship, they translate it seven times with the word “share,” and once with the word “participate.”
That’s what it means. It means “to share,” – to share a common power, common truth, common action, common ministry, common purpose, common love, common life. The noun form used about thirty times is sometimes translated “fellowship,” sometimes “sharing,” sometimes “contribution,” sometimes “partnership,” sometimes “participation.” But it always means that: sharing, participating, becoming a partner, contributing.
Fellowship is just that. It is a mutual participation of sharing on a spiritual level in the lives of others in the family of God. That’s how a body works; that’s how your body works and mine. Fellowship is sharing in the realities of spiritual life and power; and that’s where ministry takes place. Now that confines our ministry. If biblical counseling or any other ministry is a sub-category to fellowship, and fellowship is a spiritual dynamic based upon a common eternal life and a common divine power, then biblical counseling or any other ministry has to function within purely spiritual definitions.
Now I want you to understand fellowship as best we can in a brief time, because we desperately need to get back in touch with this, because it’s the basic core of our life together. Some people would satisfy themselves – and you know I’m not good at keeping people satisfied. I like to shake them out of their ill- conceived satisfaction if I can. But some people would satisfy themselves with the fact that they come to church, when they shouldn’t be satisfied unless they’re a fully functioning member of the body of Christ participating in a level of spiritual sharing that brings both spiritual life and power to other believers.
How precious again, I ask you, is this fellowship to you? How much would it mean to you if it were completely cut off? Would its value go up?
Let’s come to grips with the matter of fellowship. I want to give you six component features of true biblical fellowship, six component features. I’ll just give you two of them this morning and give you the other four tonight.
The first one is its basis, its basis. What is the basis of fellowship? You can’t really even get in to the practical outworking of fellowship unless you understand what the ground of fellowship is. What is the established ground of fellowship? Is there really a basis for true fellowship? I mean, in other words, what defines the extent of fellowship? How far does it reach? Who is involved? And how do you participate? What is the basis of it?
It is not emotional. It is not because you feel in your heart such an attraction to this person that you’re just going to minister; that’s not it. It is not denominational. It’s not because you’re in this group and this association, and you belong to that and they belong to that, and therefore because you both belong to that you need to help each other. It is not cultural. It is not, “Well, you know, we all understand life the same way. We’re all in the same age group, we all are sort of in the same social bracket, and we can kind of help each other.” It is not racial. It’s not, “Well, you know, we all come from the same racial background, we understand the idiosyncrasies and difficulties of our own situation, and so we hang together.”
Are you ready for this? It’s not even theological. You say, “Well, I just minister to the folks who believe what I believe, and we sort of stay together because we don’t want to mess with those people who are floating around in error, so we kind of hang together. We’re into third-degree separation, fourth- degree separation, or whatever degree separation you like.
What is the ground of fellowship? Who is involved, and how far does my fellowship extend? First John 1 gives us the answer, 1 John chapter 1. I want to show you some things in this passage, again not being able to exhaust it, but just to touch some things that are germane to this.
In 1 John chapter 1 John begins to talk about the Word of Life. At the end of verse 1 he identifies Christ by the title “the Word of life.” He called Him “the Word,” remember, back in his gospel. And here he calls Christ the Word of Life. And certainly He is. He is the living Word who is alive; He is the living Word who gives life; He is the living Word who is life. So he says, “What was from the beginning concerning the Word of Life” – put the last and the first together and you’ll get the flow of the sentence – “concerning the Word of Life, we have heard, we’ve seen with our eyes, we have literally beheld or gazed deeply on and our hands have handled.”
John’s saying, “Look, I’m going to write you about the Word of Life who is Christ. And this is not a second-hand experience. I’m not offering you something I’d heard about, something I read about. I’m telling you, when I talk about the Word of Life, I have heard Him, I have seen Him, I have gazed intently on Him over a prolonged period of time, and I have handled Him in my own hands.” He might have said, “I have put my own head on His chest. I’m talking firsthand here.”
“And that life” – that Word of Life, that divine life, that eternal life – “was manifested,” – incarnated – “and we have seen and bear witness, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and then was manifested to us.” That’s the Kenosis, the incarnation. “And we heard” – or rather, “We saw” – verse 3 – “and we heard, and now we proclaim.”
What’s he talking about? He’s talking about preaching the gospel. He’s saying, “I saw Him, and I heard Him, and I gazed on Him, and I touched Him; and it was God, and it was God incarnate, and God manifest, God manifest, to give eternal life. And it is that eternal life that we preach to you through the Word of Life who is Christ.” He’s saying, “We’re preaching the gospel. Why are you doing that?”
Here’s why. Here’s the purpose, verse 3, “in order that,” – see the word “that,” purpose clause – “in order that you also may have” – what? – “fellowship.” The point he’s saying is this: “If you come to Christ, you’re in the fellowship. You come to Christ, you’re in the fellowship. And your fellowship is with us, and together our fellowship was with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.”
What’s the basis of the fellowship? One word: salvation. Anybody saved is in the fellowship. Anybody saved is in the fellowship. They may not be in the same denomination as you. They may not be in the same church as you. They may not be in the same theological camp as you. They may not be in the same culture as you, the same race. They may not be in the same spiritual level of maturity as you. They may not even be in the same spiritual condition as you. They may be carnal, you might be spiritual, or vice versa. But anybody who’s saved is in the fellowship.
Sometimes you hear Christians say, “Well, so-and-so is not living for the Lord, they’re out of fellowship.” Impossible. It’s a forever fellowship. God doesn’t do amputations on His own body. Nobody gets on and gets cut off. There aren’t any transplants either. If you’re in the fellowship now, you’re in the fellowship forever. That’s a part of salvation. Salvation is forever, is it not? You can’t be out of fellowship. You’re in the fellowship, you’re in the fellowship.
If you’re a Christian, you’re in the fellowship. This is an amazing thing, because we have a worldwide responsibility to minister to everybody who’s a part of the body of Christ. “He that is joined to the Lord” – 1 Corinthians 6:17 says – “is one spirit.” We’re all one. Everybody who joined to the Lord is one with everybody else. And so, we have this responsibility to participate with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, and every other believer in a mutual spiritual ministry. The object of John’s preaching he says is to make people part of an eternal partnership in which there is a sharing of common spiritual life and power.
This is important to say this, because it means we’re responsible to minister to every believer; and it also on the other hand means that everybody who’s saved is entitled to full involvement in the fellowship. Some people get left out pretty easily: the weak and the frail, the unruly. Nobody should be left out – we’re going to say more about that tonight. Jesus said, “Don’t you dare look down, despise even the least of these little ones who believe in Me.” Everybody has a right to full participation in the fellowship. God is not respecter of – what? – persons. So the basis of fellowship is salvation.
Now to support his point, John draws a contrast. John loves contrasts; they’re all through his gospel, and they’re all through his epistle. But in verse 5 you’ll notice he’s very clear about making a contrast: “This is the message we’ve heard from Him announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there’s no darkness at all.”
What he is saying is, “This is the gospel. The gospel is God is Light.” What does that mean? Light has to do with truth, light has to do with holiness. In the Scripture light sometimes has to do with the illumination of the mind; it also has to do with that which dispels the darkness of iniquity. So it is both intellectual, in one sense, and moral. It is knowing and it is behaving.
“In God,” – he says – “we see absolute truth, the light of truth; absolute holiness, the light of holiness; no darkness.” If we say we are in the fellowship, but we, as a pattern of life, continue in the course in the darkness, we lie. “But if we” – on the other hand – “are walking in the Light as He Himself is in the Light,” – follow verse 7 – “then we are having fellowship.”
So what he is doing here is defining the Christian life as being in the fellowship with God, with Christ, with the Spirit, with every other believer. That’s what heaven’s going to be, it’s just going to be the fellowship perfected. A Christian could never get out of fellowship. That doesn’t mean we don’t sin. We sin, but we just sin in full light, and it’s exposed.
Barnhouse used an illustration that I thought was good. He said, “A man walking along the deck of a ship in a storm, the ship is tossing and rolling, the man might fall. In fact he might fall so hard on the deck that he hurt himself; but it wouldn’t be the same as falling overboard.” And then he went on to say, “The believer, when he sins, falls on the deck, but he’s never lost overboard. Christ has seen to it that no wave and no storm, death, life, angels, principalities, powers, things present, things to come, height, depth shall ever sweep us off the deck.” You’re never going to be out of the fellowship, you’re in it forever.
You see, that’s very important, because even a sinning Christian is in the fellowship. That means I’m still responsible for him. There’s a mutual ministry that I’m obligated to fulfill toward him.
In fact, wouldn’t it be truest of all that the sinning Christian is most in need of what the fellowship brings, isn’t that true, more so than the one who’s living in triumph? Isn’t that what biblical counseling is all about really? Isn’t it all about saying, “You belong to Christ. Christ comes to me in you, and I come to you in Christ to pick you up, because you’re in the fellowship”?
Bonhoeffer again wrote about this and said, “I am a brother to another person through what Jesus Christ did for me and to me. The other person has become a brother to me through what Jesus Christ did for him. This fact that we are brethren only through Jesus Christ is of immeasurable significance. Not only the other person” – follow this – “who is earnest and devout, who comes to me seeking brotherhood must I deal with in fellowship. My brother is rather that other person who has been redeemed by Christ, delivered from his sin, called to faith in eternal life, but is not living piously. It’s not what a man is in himself as a Christian, his spirituality, his piety that constitutes the basis of fellowship. What determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ in him. Our fellowship with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us.”
Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize, it is a reality in which we must participate. And the more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and the strength of our fellowship is salvation, the more carefully we’re going to take responsibility for everybody who belongs to Christ.
There’s a second point, and with this we’ll wrap up this morning: the nature of fellowship. This is evident; we’ve already indicated it.
What is the nature of fellowship? How does it function? What is it? Simply stated, it is sharing in spiritual life and power and truth, sharing in spiritual life and power and truth, on a spiritual level having to do with people’s lives.
Now it can be simple things. Let me give you an illustration. Turn to Acts 4 – I’m sorry, Acts 2:42. We could look at the fourth chapter, but we won’t have time I don’t think this morning. Acts 2.
Now you’ll remember that the time of Pentecost was a time of pilgrimage for Jews from all over the world. They came at the special holiday times to Jerusalem; they were mandated to do that, and they did. Passover time followed forty days later by Pentecost. And there were many Jews there. In fact, in the second chapter of the book of Acts it tells us that when the Spirit of God descended and they spoke in the languages, they spoke the language of the Parthians, the Medes, the Elamites, the residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and there were visitors from Rome. Jews and proselytes had come from all over the world.
Well, they all came back for the events of Passover. They all came back for the events of Pentecost. And, of course, you know what happened on the day of Pentecost; the Holy Spirit came, the gospel was preached, three thousand people were converted. Within a matter of days after that, more people converted, every day the church was seeing people added. And it’s not long till maybe you get a few chapters over here a few days over, they’ve turned the whole world upside-down, and there are maybe twenty thousand converts already in Jerusalem.
Now keep this in mind, this is the only church on the face of the earth. So you understand, don’t you, that not all the people converted at Pentecost and following in those days after were local residents of Jerusalem; many of them were pilgrims. And somebody might say, “Well now, you know, it’s time for you to go back home.” I mean, they just took their suitcase and came to Jerusalem. And you say, “Well, you need to go back to the church in your own town.” There isn’t any. There aren’t any other churches, so what are they going to do? They’re going to stay, right?
So they stayed. So now you have a major problem. You’ve got people with no homes, no clothes, and not the wherewithal to support their families. You’ve got people who don’t have any employment and probably aren’t going to find employment in the city of Jerusalem, because the people who didn’t accept Christ are going to be hostile toward the ones who did. That will obviously develop; and certainly the authorities would be. And we don’t know that there were a lot of available jobs. We do know that the poverty of the Jerusalem church continued for years, and Paul had to address it by taking collections on his missionary journeys years later to help offset the difficulties of the poor who were still there. Some of these people may at one time have been wealthy in their own city and they never went back.
So one of the first things you have to see in the early church from its very inception is how they dealt with the needs of their people. Look at verse 42: “The church” – the redeemed, three thousand of them – “were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” All right, all the time they were learning, learning, learning. They had this hunger for truth, and they were sitting at the feet of the apostles and they were learning. They were also engaged, it says, in the breaking of bread, which I take it to mean the Lord’s Table.
Down in verse 46 you will see that it’s mentioned there, the breaking of bread from house to house, and then adding to that, they were taking their meals together. So I think taking their meals together was in addition to this; this probably has reference to celebrating the Lord’s Table. They may have eaten along with it, but it was a celebration of joy. They were involved in learning. They were involved in worshiping, rejoicing. And then they were involved in prayer, it says, crying out to God, praying to God.
And there’s one other thing: fellowship. What was it? What were they doing? What comes under the category of fellowship? Well if you read a little bit you’ll find out. Verse 44: “All those who believed were together.” That’s the first thing. They were together. They all got together. They met together. They did not forsake the assembling of themselves together. They wanted to stimulate one another on a spiritual level to love and good works – as the writer of Hebrews puts it later on. They were all together, and they had all things – what? – in common.
What does that mean? That means they held everything not as owners, but as stewards. And everything they had – every resource, every possession – everything they had was everybody else’s if they needed it. They suspended their rights of ownership, and everything became available to everyone else, whatever they needed to do; maybe food, maybe housing.
You say, “Is that a spiritual need?” Well, it’s sort of the beginning of spiritual need. Yes, if you don’t eat and you don’t have a place to stay, it becomes a serious spiritual problem, eventually, or soon. They met the most simple needs.
Down in verse 45 it says they were even selling their property. They didn’t all sell it at once. The verb tense here indicates that there was a continual process of evaluating needs. When somebody had a need somebody who had a property or possession would sell it and share. There’s the word “sharing.” They were sharing. They were fellowshipping as anyone might have need. That’s the stuff that real fellowship is made of. Everybody’s together, everybody’s mutually involved in everybody’s life, everybody suspends the right to everything they have and says, “It’s all available for whoever needs it, because I want to meet needs.” That’s how the body functions. That’s how the body functions.
Verse 46 says, “Day by day continuing with one mind” – such unity – “in the temple.” They’re down in the temple worshiping God, worshiping God, proclaiming the gospel. And then they’re going breaking bread, celebrating the Lord’s death from house to house, and they’re taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart.
Verse 47, they’re corporately praising God. And all of a sudden they’re having favor with all of the people. They’re doing everything right. You know how they got favor with all the people? Well, imagine what happened. They got three thousand people. How many of those people do you think had done wrong to somebody? All of them. How many of those three thousand converts do you think set out in the next few days to make it right? Probably all of them. Things were really popping, and the Lord was adding to the number day by day those who were being saved. That’s fellowship; it’s just sharing.
In the first place, all the professors were possessors. Everybody was a real believer, they all continued. They were sharing in spiritual life. They were sharing in spiritual power. They were worshiping collectively; they were praising God collectively; they were praying collectively. They were sitting in learning, and they were evangelizing collectively. And they were meeting needs wherever the need was, whatever the need was. They would make the sacrifice to meet the need. They were expressing their partnership in mutual ministry. This is fellowship. This is what 2 Corinthians 8:4 calls the fellowship of serving: sharing spiritual life and sharing spiritual love daily in the bonds of Christ.
They weren’t demanders, they were grateful recipients. They didn’t want anything. They were so grateful for what God gave them, they just wanted to meet the needs of those they had love for, a new kind of love.
And, you know, even the matters of sin this kind of sharing has to go on, even when sin and misunderstanding burden the fellowship. Is not that sinning brother still a brother? Is not that sinning sister still a sister? And will not his sin or her sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us live under the forgiving love of Christ? Isn’t the very hour of disillusionment with my brother a wonderful thing, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us could ever live apart from the strength of Christ; and both of us desperately need His forgiveness. And wouldn’t I want to rush to my sinning brother and lift him up to enjoy the forgiveness that I enjoy?
This is Christianity. We are not demanders, we are thankful recipients. The members of your body do not demand, they work in perfect harmony to supply the need of every part. And so it is in fellowship.
What is its nature? Sharing spiritual life, love, power, truth daily in Christ. That’s it. That’s it. The basis of it, salvation; the nature of it, sharing to meet spiritual needs. There’s much more, the practical side and how it fleshes out; but that for tonight. Let’s bow in prayer.
We thank You, Lord, that You have saved us and made us a part of the fellowship. Truly our fellowship is with You and with Your Son the Lord Jesus Christ and with all those who love You. Help us to know that we cannot create our own fellowship and isolate those that don’t fit our personal description and requirements.
O God, make us fully functioning, faithful, sharing, loving members of Your body who willingly and eagerly give ourselves to the others. Help us to understand that it isn’t just the beautiful outward parts, but it’s those ugly inner parts that are in Your mind most important. We are attracted by the face and the form; but what really matters are those ugly parts like the heart and the kidneys and the liver and the lungs that have no beauty at all, but are crucial. Help us, Lord, to know that every part, be it outwardly lovely or not, serves a function. And how interesting it is that as Paul has written, the parts which are most necessary are least beautiful; the parts most comely, least necessary. How You’ve balanced that off, so that every part pleases You, and fulfills its intention.
And we ask, Lord, that You will cause us to understand the wideness of the fellowship. It doesn’t mean we tolerate sin or error; we confront that, we speak to that. But we do so as brother to brother, sister to sister, with redemption in mind, a redeeming ministry of love and life on a spiritual level. This You’ve called us to, in order that we might manifest the body of Christ in its fullness, that the world may see what You look like.
We grieve that rebellious cells have created a cancer, and indolent and indifferent members have created atrophy; and the body is sick and diseased and crippled, and the world looks and has a hard time discerning Christ. Forgive us for that, and restore us to faithfulness. And exalt Your Son in and through His church, we pray in His name. Amen.
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