As we turn to the Word of God tonight it is for the purpose of studying this matter of fellowship which is before us today. I trust that the message this morning has lingered in your heart, as it has in mine, and that you are endeavoring to discern ways in which you can implement its truth in your life. I know we have a number of our college young people who are with us tonight. I don’t know how many of them, but hundreds of them are away at their retreat over the weekend. We missed them in the service this morning, but we’re glad they’re back tonight. And for those and any others of you who missed this morning, my apologies. But you can always get the tape and fill in the blank.
We’re talking about the matter of fellowship. And we have already discussed the basis of fellowship, which is salvation. We have already discussed the nature of fellowship, which is sharing on a spiritual level, sharing life and truth, sharing power, a mutual kind of stimulation toward righteousness that is always done in the context of love.
Moving on then from the basis of fellowship and the nature of fellowship, I want us to look for a few moments at what we’ll call the symbol of fellowship, the symbol of fellowship. The Lord has given us, I believe, in the church a magnificent symbol of our common eternal life, our common shared life, and it is given to us in 1 Corinthians chapter 10. And you’ll want to turn there because I’ll spend a few moments dwelling on the text. First Corinthians chapter 10, two verses, verses 16 and 17. And here the apostle Paul starts part of his discussion, which runs all the way through chapter 11, on the matter of the Lord’s Table, Communion. He says in verse 16, “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing, or fellowship, in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing, or fellowship, in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread.”
What Paul tells us here is that the symbol of our fellowship, the symbol of our life in the body, the symbol of our unity, the symbol of our union in Christ, our common life is, in fact, the cup and the bread. When we share in the cup we are all affirming that we all share in the blood of Christ. When we share in the bread we are all affirming that we share in the body of Christ. We are all sharing one bread, we are all partaking of one bread, and then that become the symbol of our fellowship.
I think most of the time we look at Communion and the Lord’s Table and we assume that it is primarily a memorial, primarily a point of remembrance. But it is more than that. Yes, it is a way to remember that Jesus died, that He gave His body on the cross, and He shed His blood. Certainly it is that. And Jesus Himself said, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” And He said, “As often as you do it, you do show forth My death.” And so there is the sense in which we are demonstrating and proclaiming and remembering the death of Christ.
But there is also this feature of the Lord’s Table: every time we celebrate the Lord’s Table we celebrate our commonality. We all affirm that we have all come as sinners. We have all had to partake, as it were, in identification with Christ of His blood and His body. The church gathers at the Lord’s Table, and here is the symbol of our fellowship: we all come as sinners; we all come being forgiven by the perfect sacrifice of Christ, His substitutionary death for us.
There is a commonality at the Communion table. Everything in terms of our own achievement is wiped away, and we are all there as sinners. And not only as sinners once in the past saved by grace, but as sinners yet penitent for those iniquities which have been a part of our life even since our salvation, and for which there must be ongoing and continual recognition of the provision of forgiveness in the cross of Christ.
Communion then visualizes the fellowship, symbolizes the fellowship at its more irreducible minimum; that is we are all sinners in desperate need of the redemption provided in the cross of Jesus Christ. We are all equally redeemed by Him, sharing in His life in the indwelling of His Spirit, sustained by Him. And I am a believer with my whole heart in the beauty and the wonder of what we call the ordinances, or what is called the sacraments of the church: baptism and Communion.
Liberal theologian Paul Tillich once wrote, “Fundamentalism has spelled the death of the sacraments.” And there’s some truth in that. In the move away from and the reaction to what would be an overly sacramental religion very often fundamentalism has ignored the wonder and the beauty and the depth and the worship that should be in involved in the ordinances or the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Table.
Certainly at the Lord’s Table there is a vivid celebration of the fact that God has been reconciled to man. We’re all there as common sinners, we all have that in common. No one rises beyond anyone else. We are all there because we are all dependent on Jesus Christ, having borne our sins in His own body on the cross, and granted to us redemption and forgiveness. And so as we are united in our desperate need for the body and the blood of Christ, as we are united in redemption, as we are united in the substitutionary death of Christ, as we are in Christ dying and rising again, all of that is depicted at the Lord’s Table. Here the life of the church under the power of the sovereign, saving Lord is vividly seen.
And I believe that is one of the reasons why Communion is so very much an important part of church life. It isn’t some mindless ritual that we go through in a rote fashion. It isn’t some condescension to tradition. It isn’t some decent into history to hold onto our cultural Christian roots. It is a living and vivid and contemporary and immediately impactful and powerful point of celebrating the true identity that we have as sinners all in need of the same forgiveness.
There at the Lord’s Table the issue of sin is dealt with. It is there that the body of Christ comes together for purification. It is there that we as Christians fall on our knees, fall on our faces, as it were, attesting to the fact that we are still in desperate need of what the cross has provided for us; and it is there that we find the commonest element of our fellowship.
One writer expressed some thoughts that I think give us a vivid illustration of this. He wrote of a certain person, “He was absenting himself from the worship and from the Lord’s Table. The pastor went to see him. And after they had talked over the issues involved, as they were sitting by an open fire, the pastor took the tongs from the hearth and separated all the flaming coals and spread them around the outer circumference of the open grate. In a few moments the flames had died down. In another few minutes the coals had lost their brightness, and grown ashen and dull. The pastor looked at his member and said, ‘Do you understand?’ After the conversation they had just held the man had enough grace and wisdom to say, ‘Yes, pastor, I understand.’
Then he took the tongs again, and taking the coals from the outer edge of the grate, he drew them all together. And you know what happened. They had not been together many moments before they began to glow again; and after they had glowed for a few moments they began to flame, and the fire was strong. And the pastor looked at his erring member and said, ‘Do you understand? Do you? Let nothing divide you in your fellowship with your fellow believer, because you will both be the losers. Not only will you both be the losers, but so will the integrity of the church. The flame will go down, and the fires of revival will depart. We are together in Him; and the Lord’s Table draws us together. The nearer we are to the Lord at His Table, the nearer we must be to one another. That keeps the fellowship aflame.’” It’s a holy table, and a vivid symbol of our fellowship.
Now that leads me to a fourth point, and with this one I want to spend a little more time. We have talked about the basis of our fellowship being salvation, the nature of it being sharing on a spiritual level the life and truth and power of God in us by the indwelling Spirit. We have talked about the symbol, which is Communion, which takes us to the irreducible minimum and flattens us all out as sinners in need of the same saving grace.
Now I want to talk about what should be obvious to you: the danger to fellowship, the danger. And certainly it isn’t hard to discern this. In a word, the danger to fellowship is sin. Sin devastates fellowship. It devastates that spiritual ministry. It devastates that transcendent imparting of life and love and truth and power that we should be giving to one another.
First of all, it goes without saying that sin has the ability to devastate our relationship to the Lord. It has the ability to interrupt our joy, to interrupt our effectiveness, to interrupt our worship, to interrupt our prayer life, to hinder our ability to learn the Word. It interrupts the flow of God’s will and purpose being expressed in our lives. It interrupts God’s intention for our usefulness within the body. It violates our relationship with the Lord. And that is certainly the primary issue.
When David looked at his own sin and confessed it, he said, “Against Thee and Thee only have I sinned.” He recognized the fearful violation that had existed between himself and his God because of his sin.
Now, note this. When you sin, though it violates the things I noted between you and God, it is never a matter of forgiveness in the redemptive sense; for from a redemptive viewpoint forgiveness is already a given. In Ephesians 1:7 it says, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished upon us.” In other words, when you came to the point of redemption, when the Lord’s purchased price of you had accomplished its intended goal and you were moved from simply being the elect to being the redeemed, when God accomplished that in your life there was an abundant disposition of grace on your behalf lavished on you, which covered all your sins – past, present, and future. From a redemptive standpoint sin is not unforgiven.
In Ephesians 4:32 Paul in a practical way says, “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ has also forgiven you.” Forgiveness is a foregone conclusion, it’s part of the package of redemption.
It says in Colossians 3 – pardon me, 2:13, that, “The Lord has made you alive together with Christ, having forgiven us all our transgressions, and He cancelled out the certificate of debt.” Whatever it was we owed Him was cancelled. He forgave it all. And again those wonderful words of 1 John chapter 2 and verse 12, “I’m writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven,” – why? – “for His name’s sake.”
So when you sin, though it devastates your relationship to the Lord in terms of effectiveness and usefulness and fruitfulness and blessing and joy and all of that, it is never a matter of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a foregone conclusion. God has already in Christ forgiven your sins. Why? Because Christ has already paid the penalty for all of them. Now there is a sense in which you will interrupt the communion you enjoy with God. But your sins will be covered.
Secondly, it’s never a matter of love. When you sin, though you devastate the relationship between yourself and God, it is never a matter of love. There isn’t anything that’s going to separate you from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus, absolutely nothing. And that is, of course, the intent and purpose of Romans chapter 8, verses 31 to 39, to lay out for you that nothing can alter God’s predetermined love for you, love granted to you in Christ.
And thirdly, it is never a matter of fellowship, because as I noted for you this morning, you are in the light, you are walking in the light, and God is continually cleansing your sins, and you are in the fellowship. It is a forever fellowship. It becomes then a question of joy, of blessing, of usefulness, of peace, all those things. Sin will interrupt those aspects of our fellowship with God.
Going to a second dimension, sin also devastates relationship between believers, not just between believers and the Lord, but between believers and believers. It shatters unity. It restricts ministry. It halts the power. It confuses the purpose. It literally devastates.
In 1 Corinthians 5 it tells us that Paul wrote to the Corinthians and said, “There is somebody in your congregation living in a continual pattern of sin; get him out. Turn him over to Satan so he’ll learn what he needs to learn, the destruction of the flesh, even though his soul will be saved.” Paul went into the church at Ephesus, as he tells Timothy, and turned over some of the leadership to Satan, getting them out of their leadership role and out of the church, because there’s so much potential to devastate the life of the church.
In 1 Corinthians chapter 11, verses 27 to 31, the apostle Paul says when you come to the Lord’s Table you come there to deal with your sin. Why? Because sin devastates the fellowship. And if you come there and don’t deal with your sin, you’re going to feel the judgment of God. That is very clear. And he says, “Some of you are weak,” – that probably has reference to some kind of disease – “some of you are sick,” – some other form of infirmity – “and some of you are dead.”
God literally has taken their lives because their sin is such a blight on the fellowship. You remember how God struck down Ananias and Sapphira as a lesson for all the churches of all time that He’s very serious about sin and how it violates the fellowship. It is the leaven, it is the evil influence that influences everything.
The Lord Jesus Himself, in Matthew 18, says, “If someone is in sin, you go to him. If he doesn’t repent, you take two or three witnesses. If he doesn’t repent, tell the whole church to go after him. If he still doesn’t repent, put him out.” Why? Because the effect of sin on the fellowship is devastating.
Now Paul – look at 1 Corinthians chapter 11 for a moment – gives us one little statement there, I think, that fits this point. In 1 Corinthians 11, he says, “The problem with people who don’t deal with sin” – verse 29, end of the verse – “is that such a person does not judge the body rightly.” In other words, when you come to the Communion Table you examine yourself, and you’re looking for sin, and you’re looking for anything that is between you and God; and anything between you and God or you and a brother is between you and a God, and it must be resolved. So you examine yourself, and then you eat of the bread and drink of the cup.
So we note here that the symbol of our fellowship, the Lord’s Table, becomes the place where we deal with the danger to our fellowship, which is sin. That’s why when the Lord instructed us to come to His Table frequently, it was in order that we might frequently be dealing with our sin. And people who don’t do that, verse 29 says, eat and drink judgment to themselves because they don’t discern rightly the body of Christ. They don’t understand how devastating this is to fellowship, to the normal course of powerful ministry. And they’re to be shut out – follow this – if they don’t deal with the sin in their life. They are to be shut out of the symbol because they are in violation of the reality. They are not discerning the unity of the church and its fellowship. And if you are in that situation and you go ahead and partake of the symbol, the Lord may choose to discipline you severely, even to the point of death. Now you get the picture here that the Lord’s fairly serious about this.
To partake worthily – we could sum up Paul’s words – to partake worthily you must understand the cross. Verse 26, you must understand you are proclaiming the Lord’s death. You must understand the cup and the bread, how that the cup refers to His blood and the bread refers to His body, as it tells us in verses 23 to 25, and then again even in verse 27. And you must understand your own sin, and that is pointed out to us in verse 28. And you must understand the body of Christ, the fellowship, as in verse 29.
There’s much to grasp at the Lord’s Table. It’s where we deal with sin, which is the danger, the devastation to the fellowship. It is that sin we spoke about this morning that becomes cancer in the body, that causes the body to be sick. It is that sin which becomes atrophy in the body, that causes the body to limp and malfunction. And so, sin must be dealt with. That is absolutely crucial to the fellowship. That’s why it’s such a high priority to preach about sin and to come to the Lord’s Table where we deal with it.
And I would remind you of something you probably are aware of; but the church reaches, I believe, the pinnacle of its worship at the Lord’s Table. Certainly that’s the high point for us here at Grace Church and always has been.
So we talked about the basis and the nature and the symbol and the danger to fellowship, and we just basically touched on those. Now I want to talk about what is really the heart of things, and that’s the responsibilities of fellowship. What are we talking about here? What’s this all about?
We called it, according to 2 Corinthians 8:4, the fellowship of serving. But what is it all about? We’ve hinted at it this morning and even said some specific things. But if you want a simple understanding of it let me see if I can reduce it down to two things. I believe that fellowship in the body of Christ is composed of two things: one, the ministry of spiritual gifts; two, the expression of the one anothers. One, the ministry of spiritual gifts; two, the expression of the one anothers.
Studying spiritual gifts is a study in itself. Now you can read Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4, 1 Peter 4, verses 10 and 11, right in that little section, and you can learn about spiritual gifts. God has placed us all in the body. He has, according to 1 Corinthians 12, by His Spirit gifted each one of us for certain function in the body. That’s how we express our member’s role in the body: spiritual gifts.
But in addition to those spiritual gifts there are all the “one anothers” of the New Testament, and there are many of them. I won’t take the time to list them all; if we have time tonight I’ll give you a few samples. But we have the responsibility to use our spiritual gift.
What is a spiritual gift? It is a Spirit-given, divinely-designed channel through which the Spirit of God ministers to the body of Christ. My spiritual gift of preaching and teaching is a God-given ability through which the Spirit of God ministers to the body of Christ. That’s what all spiritual gifts are. And that, of course, every believer has, and is responsible to use as a part of the expression of fellowship, mutual spiritual ministry.
And then there are all of other one anothers. And you can sometime look in your concordance, find every time you see the word “one another” and just chase around until you’ve exhausted yourself. Make a list, and it’ll give you an approach really to your Christian ministry. All of these spiritual gifts and the operation of the one anothers must function within spiritual love and the truth of the Scripture. It is spiritually serving one another.
Now rather than go into the spiritual gifts and go into all the one anothers and specifics, I want to talk about a general context in which these function, okay, a general attitudinal context in which these function. I want to come at it from a negative and then from a positive viewpoint.
Open your Bible to Matthew chapter 18, Matthew chapter 18, a much misunderstood chapter. But I believe here we have some tremendous teaching. In fact, this is the only chapter in the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – that describes, the only full chapter that describes life in the church. It is our Lord’s practical ecclesiology.
Now, the way the chapter begins is very important. The disciples are arguing. If we compare other gospels they’re arguing about who’s the greatest in the kingdom. And in order to teach them a lesson in humility, Jesus takes a child. He’s in a home, some even believe it would be the home where Peter lived – we don’t know that. But He takes a little child – it’s a baby actually, an infant – and He sits down in the teaching posture, and into His arms He takes this little baby. The little baby then becomes the model in the illustration. He’s going to talk about spiritual life in the church. He’s going to talk about fellowship. He’s going to talk about mutual ministry. He’s going to talk about what we’ve been talking about. But the little baby is going to be His illustration.
He starts in verse 3 by saying, “Truly I say to you, unless you’re converted and become like children, you don’t enter the kingdom of heaven.” You say, “What’s the point there?” Well, the point is very simple. A child is dependent. A child can make no claim to having accomplished anything. And those are the conditions on which you come to Christ: totally dependent, totally without an ability to care for yourself; totally without the ability to feed yourself, clothe yourself, protect yourself. You are, in a sense, naked and vulnerable.
Secondly, you have no list of achievements to parade before God that will impress Him at all. A child has accomplished nothing, achieved nothing, attained nothing. Here is just a little life. It has made no contribution to the world, it just came into the world and sucked dry everything it could get. It just made demands, it provided nothing. It accomplished nothing, totally unable to defend itself, protect itself, feed itself, or care for itself.
Jesus said, “That’s how you come to Me, utterly dependent, and void of any accomplishment.” The word reduces itself to the word “humble” in verse 4, humble. “Whoever then humbles himself as this little child, he’s the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
“You guys are arguing about who’s great. I’ll tell you who’s great: who is humble is great, who realizes he has no capacity to provide for his own needs and who has no accomplishments to offer God. You come into the kingdom as a humble child.”
Now once you get in you’re with a whole lot of other children just like you. It’s all about the childlikeness of the believer. And then in verse 5, this is what He starts to say: “Whoever receives one such little child” – literally – “on the ground of My name, or because of My name, receives Me.” Wow. What is Jesus saying? He’s saying, “How you treat another Christian is how you treat Me.”
Remember what we said this morning about the fact that in fellowship every other believer comes to you as Christ? When I minister my spiritual gift to you, it is Christ ministering through me. When I come to you in any way to give a spiritual ministry, when I come to you to minister truth or love or power, the life of God, when I come to you in true spiritual ministry, it is Christ coming to you through me. And how you receive me then is how you receive Him.
Here we are, all these little children in the family of God, not perfect – we admit that – without accomplishment that would warrant us entering in on the basis of our own merit, and without the ability to sustain ourselves. We are there at the very mercy of the Lord. And yet in that humility, Christ dwells in us, and how we receive each other is, in fact, how we receive Christ.
And then He makes this practical in verse 6 with some absolutely shocking words: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me,” He’s not talking about babies, please. He’s not talking about physical babies, He’s talking about believers; that’s His whole point in this chapter. “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me,” the word there refers to a baby and an infant, and they can’t believe in Christ in a saving sense. He’s talking about a child of God, a true believer. “Whoever causes one of them to stumble, to fall into sin, it would be better for him that a heavy millstone be hung around his neck, and that he was drown in the depth of the sea.” Literally the Greek says, “It would be to his advantage to drown him.” It’s a frightening statement.
In other words, within the framework of the body of Christ as we look at fellowship, we have a serious obligation. First of all, we have to receive other believers as we would receive Christ, for they come to us as Christ. Secondly, we never want to do anything to lead them into sin, directly or indirectly, because to do that is so serious we would be better off to die a frightening and horrible death. The point then is you better be very careful how you treat other Christians.
We talked this morning about the fellowship as a responsibility, and we talked about the fellowship also as a privilege. Now we want to add something to that. Now we’re talking about the fellowship as a command, which if you violate has potentially frightening results. First Corinthians 11 says it could cost you your life. And Matthew 18 says you’d be better off if you did lose your life. What we do in the fellowship is absolutely crucial to the heart of Christ. We don’t ever lead another Christian into sin.
And in effect, in the following verses Jesus is saying, “If your hand is causing you to lead another Christian into sin, cut it off. If your foot is causing you to lead another Christian into sin, cut it off. If your eye is causing you to lead another person into sin, pull it out.” In other words, take some drastic action before you ever do that.
And then He comes to verse 10. And here in verse 10 opens up for us a magnificent portion of Scripture. He starts out by saying, “Here’s the rule.” The first rule was, “Receive every other believer as you would receive Me.” The second rule was, “Don’t ever cause another Christian to sin.” And the third rule comes in verse 10, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones,” not babies, believers. That’s the rule. “Take heed.” That’s another way of saying, “Beware that you despise not,” kataphroneō. For now it means “to think, kata, down.” Don’t think down. It means “to despise,” “to look down on.”
If you’re going to function in the fellowship, if you’re going to do your spiritual gift, and if you’re going to accomplish the one anothers that God gives you opportunity to do, you’re going to have to have this kind of general attitude. This is the context: “One, I want to receive every other believer as Christ; two, I never want to do anything to lead another believer into sin; three, I never will look down on any of these little ones.” What it means is that I have a true commitment to fellowship, and that means I care for every believer. I don’t look down on any of them, I don’t care who they are. Not even one of these little ones is to be demeaned, to be held in contempt or disdain, or to be treated with indifference, or to be treated of no value – as of no value. The world has always done that, always.
I think about Hebrews 11. I’ll just read you a few verses that will be familiar to you. “What more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets,” – pretty wonderful list – “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; others were tortured, not accepting their release, in order that they might obtain a better resurrection. Others experienced mockings and scourgings and chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in half, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, and afflicted, and ill-treated; and they were wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground,” – and then in parenthesis in verse 38 it says – “(men of whom the world was not” – what? – “worthy).” And the world looked down on them, and the world has always looked down on them, and the world still looks down on them.
And verse 7 of Matthew 18 says, “Woe to the world, woe to the world because it looks down on them. Woe to the world because it leads them or tries to lead them into sin.” We expect that from the world. We expect the world to despise the believer and to try to cause the believer to fall into sin. We certainly don’t expect the body of Christ to do that. The Lord is concerned with how we treat each other. He’s going to judge the world, “Woe to the world.”
Contrary to the spirit of the world, which despises the simple and despises the humble and despises the meek, despises those who belong to the family of God, woe to the world for doing that. But contrary to what they do, we are to elevate all these little ones, and we are to do everything we can to treat them as we would Christ, and to make sure we never lead them into sin, and to make sure we never look down on any of them, no matter who they are.
There are lots of ways of despising other Christians. If we had time we could develop them. One way would be by flaunting your liberty. Read Romans 14; start at verse 3, go all the way through the first few verses of chapter 15, and you’ll see how important it is that you not flaunt your liberty, that you not cause someone else to stumble. It is serious with God.
You’re not going to destroy just because of your liberty someone for whom Christ has died. But you can think little of some other believer by flaunting your liberty. Maybe this is a legalistic Christian who’s come out of some kind of Jewish background as in the New Testament time, or come out of some pagan background, and they’re still tied to some of the old things and they don’t yet understand their full freedom in Christ, and you flaunt your liberty before them which they see as a sin. And they act in accord with you, and violate their conscience and sear their conscience; and Paul says it pushes them deeper into their legalism because of the way it attacks their conscience. You’ve done them no good, you have despised them. You have flaunted your liberty before them.
A second way that you can despise another believer is by looking own on their social status. James, you know, really identifies this issue in chapter 2 when he says, “Don’t hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.” Don’t see some guy in with fine clothes and a gold ring coming in and put him up in a prominent place, and the man in humble garb, dirty clothes, tell him to get out of the picture, get out of the way, sit down by the footstool, get on the floor where nobody can see you. Looking down on someone who doesn’t appear to be in your social strata is a way of despising one of the little ones for whom Christ died.
Another way you can do it is by withholding from those in need, by withholding from those in need. John says if you have the claim that the love of God dwells in you and you close up your compassion toward someone else, how does the love of God dwell in you? And we all remember in 1 Corinthians the terrible abuse of the love feast that is recorded by Paul in verses 21 and 22, “For in your eating each one takes his own supper first, one is hungry, another is drunk.” What? “Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink, or you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? You have a potluck and you eat all your own food, and the poor who have nothing go away hungry.”
Another way that you can look down on other Christians is by ridiculing their physical features. Second Corinthians 10:10 records for us that that’s exactly what some people in Corinth did about Paul; they mocked his physical characteristics.
Another way you can despise a little one is by looking with indifference on a Christian who has fallen, and not being what you should be, according to Galatians 6, and lifting that one up. Another way that you can despise another of the ones who belong to the Lord is by rejecting them when they confront your own sinfulness, like the Corinthians did who mocked Paul when he confronted them. Another way that you can despise one of these little ones is by taking advantage of them. First Thessalonians 4:6 talks about taking advantage in a sexual way another believer.
This is serious. It’s so serious that the Scripture reminds us in the words of Jesus, “You’d be better off to be dead than to cause another believer to stumble.” Beyond that, its seriousness is pointed out in verse 10 of Matthew 18. Look at it: “See to it that you do not despise one of these little ones, because I say to you that their angels in heaven continually behold the face of My Father who is in heaven.” Boy, this is really something.
The first reason, He says, that you don’t want to look down on any other Christian is because of that Christian’s relation to the angels. That’s what it says in verse 10. You say, “What do you mean by that?” What I mean by that is that the angels have a unique responsibility to express the caring love of God toward believers. Hebrews 1:14 says, “Angels are sent as ministering spirits to minister for the saints.”
This is very reminiscent, very graphic imagery, reminiscent of the custom in eastern courts, where the king had chosen certain men, highly respected, as his servants. And they were said – and this literally is recorded, for example, in 1 Kings 1, or 1 Kings – maybe it’s not chapter 1, 1 Kings somewhere early in the book. But also in 2 Kings chapter 25, I think it’s around verse 19, what you have there is a statement like this: “Certain men stand before the king.” And in chapter 25 of 1 Kings it says, “There are certain ones who look on the king’s face.”
What does that mean? Well here was the monarch, and around him he had respected men, and they watched his face as things came and went before him, as he was judging and as he was making decisions. As he was ruling the land, they would watch his face. And when he came to a decision, he might say, or he might say, or he might go; and every signal from his face they would pick up. Maybe it was anger, maybe it was vengeance, maybe it was sorrow, maybe it was joy. And they watched the king’s face, and they got their cues from his face.
And Jesus says, “You better be careful how you treat Christians. You better never look down on any Christian, because every one of the little ones who belong to God are a concern; and God’s concern will show up on His face. And there are angels watching His face, and by the response of His face they are dispatched to care for these little ones.”
The angels have a unique ministry. You can find them in the New Testament watching over believers. You can find them guiding believers. You can find them providing. You can find them protecting. You can find them delivering out of trouble. You can find them in the Old Testament even dispatching answers to prayer, and then again in Acts 12, as well as Daniel 9. There they are watching and guiding and providing and protecting and delivering and dispatching as the answer to prayer comes on behalf of the saints.
We’re all cared for. I don’t mean that we have each of us a special angel specifically for us, no. But their angels, that is the angels whose duty it is to stand around the throne and watch the Father’s face to see His reaction as He evaluates His own, their concern ought to become your concern. Listen, if the angels are concerned about every other believer, then you should be as well. And if they’re watching the face of the Father to see how He reacts to how those are being treated, you better be careful how you treat them.
The second relationship that should be noted is that of verse 5, backing up: You better not look down on any other believer, because how you receive them is how you receive Christ. You better not look down on the weak and the helpless and the powerless and the suffering and the poor and the broken people, because how you treat them is how you treat Christ. Jesus, of course, had a special love for them. One of my favorite descriptions of Christ is that magnificent Messianic description of Him in Matthew 12 taken out of Isaiah. It says of Him in verse 20, “A battered reed He will not break off, and a smoldering wick He will not put out.”
Reeds were used for a number of things. One of them that might give you the illustration was for flutes. Shepherds would take a special reed that was hallowed out, and they would carve little holes in it and they would play it. As they blew their little tune into it and played the little notes hour after hour, day after day, the moisture from their mouth would eventually saturate the little reed and it would collapse. And as the center of it began to collapse, or as the end in the mouth began to collapse, they might just break it and throw it away. It couldn’t play a tune anymore, what use was it? Jesus isn’t like that. He doesn’t take a bruised reed, break it and discard it.
And then there were those flickering wicks, you know, where the wick was all the way down almost to the bottom, and all it does is smolder and send up smoke and no light; and you want to reach in and snuff that wick because it doesn’t serve a purpose. Jesus doesn’t snuff those smoldering wicks, He fans them to flame again. This is His heart. He has a concern for all of His own, and so must you; and how you treat them is how you’re treating Him, because He lives in them.
And then thirdly, He says you better not look down on other believers, not only because of their relation to angels and their relation to Christ, but their relation to God. Look at verse 12: “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them is gone astray, doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying? And 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. Thus it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones be devastated.”
No matter how insignificant that believer might seem to you, if he has all these other sheep, and one strays away, God the Father goes after the one. That speaks of His individual care. He knows every one of His sheep, and He knows when one wanders. He is patient with the foolish; He is patient with the wayward. He brings them back and does whatever He has to do to keep them there.
I remember some years back reading about a Scottish shepherd who had a sheep who always wandered away. And he tried everything and he couldn’t figure out any way to keep the sheep from wandering. It was still very young. And so one night in the middle of the night when it was dark, he went over to where that sheep was, because he had followed it to its place of rest; and in the darkness of night he broke its leg. The sheep was startled and awakened, and the shepherd then wrapped the leg. And for days and days and days he carried that sheep. And he tells that when the sheep was finally able to walk again, for the rest of its life it never left his side.
God is like that. Whatever it takes to go get the wandering sheep, even if it means breaking its leg so that it learns intimacy with Him because it can’t leave Him anymore, God will do it. His is an individual care. His is a patient care. It is a seeking care. It is a persistent care. He doesn’t wait for the sheep to come back, He goes after the sheep, He pursues it. It is a forgiving care, He restores it. It is a rejoicing care. In fact, He rejoices more over the one that went away and came back than all the rest who never went anywhere. That’s why in the story of the prodigal son, the party was for the one who went away and came back.
Arnot, the old commentator, wrote, “If it didn’t please Him to get me back, my pleasure would be small. The longing of Christ, the longing of God to get the wanderer into His bosom again for the satisfaction of his own soul is the sweetest ingredient in the cup of a returning penitent’s joy.” He doesn’t want us to have the loss of well-being, doesn’t want us to be devastated, spiritually ruined and marred and scarred and rendered castaways.
So the call to us is clear. Follow the example of the angels; they care. Follow the example of Christ; He cares. Follow the example of God; He cares. And they never look down on any believer, nor should we.
This is the context in which the spiritual gifts and the one anothers function. We treat all believers as we would treat Christ. We never lead any believer into sin. The converse would then have to be true; we lead them in to righteousness by spiritual ministry. And we never disregard, belittle, or think insignificant any of God’s little ones. That’s the attitude of love in which fellowship takes place.
One final point. Fellowship really boils down to dealing with people in sin and moving them to righteousness. That’s really what it’s all about. It’s all about using our gifts. Maybe we have the gift of faith which exercises itself in praying for the virtue and the holiness and the spiritual growth of others. Maybe we have gifts of teaching so that deeper and richer and fuller insight into the Word of God may establish a higher standard of righteousness. All of it is intended to move people toward Christlikeness.
Back to Bonhoeffer whom we quoted this morning: “Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the fellowship. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him; and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person. This can happen even in the midst of a pious community.
“In confession the light of the gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart. The sin must be brought into the light. The unexpressed must be openly spoken and acknowledged, and all that is secret and hidden must be made manifest.
“It’s a hard struggle, until the sin is openly admitted. But God breaks gates of brass and bars of iron. And since the confession of sin is made in the presence of a Christian brother, the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned, and the sinner surrenders, he gives up all his evil. He gives his heart to God, and he finds the forgiveness of all his sin in the fellowship of Jesus Christ and his brother. The expressed and acknowledged sin has lost all its power. It has been revealed and judged as sin. It can no longer tear the fellowship asunder.
“And now the fellowship bears the sin with the brother. He’s no longer alone with his evil, for he’s cast off his sin in confession and handed it over to God; it’s been taken away from him. And now he stands in the fellowship of sinners who live by the grace of God in the cross of Jesus Christ. Now he can be a sinner and still enjoy the grace of God. He can confess his sins, and in this very act, find fellowship.” A sin concealed separated him and made all his apparent fellowship a sham. And the sin confessed has helped him to find true fellowship.
This whole matter of fellowship then is primarily dealing with sin. Yes, the component of the truth is there, but it’s helping believers move down the path of sanctification. That’s our calling, and that is our great challenge.
The last thing I want to say to you is this: What is the result of fellowship? It’s threefold; threefold result. First, I note for you John chapter 17, verse 21, “that they may be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us, in order that the world may believe that You did send Me.”
Listen, the first and primary effect, the first and primary effect of fellowship is evangelism. The world knows that God sent Christ. The world knows that God sent Christ. What does that mean? They know that Christ is divine. If they see true fellowship, they know it is inexplicable humanly; and as we talk about who it is that has transformed us, Christ is put on display.
There’s a second component and it’s in John 13:34 and 35, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you’re My disciples.” First of all, they will know God sent Christ; secondly, they will know we are Christ’s. You see, the whole matter of evangelism is all bound up in this effective fellowship.
There’s one other component. First John 1, verse 3 talks about the fellowship we have with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ, and the fellowship we have with each other. And verse 4 says, “These things we write, so that our” – what? – “joy may be full.” Third result is our joy, our satisfaction. And so, the Lord wants us to participate in the fellowship in order that He might be known, in order that we might be known as His, and in order that we might have joy.
I close with the familiar words of Paul: “Finally, brethren, rejoice, be made complete, be comforted, be like-minded, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.” Let’s bow in prayer.
O Father, it’s so rich to look again at these tremendous truths about the fellowship. Thank You that we’re a part. We don’t deserve it now anymore than we ever did. Thank You that You’ve made us a part of the fellowship, and You’ve given us Your Holy Spirit who is the source of the fellowship and the life of the fellowship and the strength of it, to make it possible for us to fulfill the responsibilities of the fellowship, whether we pray, or teach, or preach, or exhort and admonish, counsel, lead – whatever we do, may we function as You would have us, according to the principles You’ve given us in Your precious Word, that we might come to the fullness of the stature of Christ, that the world might see Him and know You sent Him, that the world might know that we are like Him and thus belong to Him, and that we might know joy. To that end we pray because we know that’s Your desire, in the name of Your Son. Amen.
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