The Fellowship: Life in the Christian Community
Why Christians Don't Need Support Groups
by Fred G. Zaspel
1That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life— 2the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us— 3that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. 4And these things we write to you that your joy may be full (1John 1:1-4).
The Apostolic Honor
One of the great honors which all the original band of disciples enjoyed was to know Christ in the days of His flesh. We could very quickly become sentimental and nostalgic when we think of what must have been the thrill of that great experience. This One whom they preached was one whom they could see not only with the eye of faith, but also with the eye of memory. For more than 3 years these men spent almost countless hours in His presence. They listened to Him as He taught the great multitudes and as He instructed them in private. They had the privilege of having the Lord Jesus Christ as their own private tutor. Now sometimes that took on a negative flavor, to be sure, and John could no doubt recall those times very well also Jesus correcting his aspirations to greatness in the coming Kingdom as well as his hasty request for fire to consume the people of Samaria.
But even those memories were no doubt blessed ones for him and for the entire apostolic company. These were the men who were with Jesus when He raised the dead and stilled the storm and fed the multitudes with a boys lunch and healed the sick. They were with Him to hear him answer the Pharisees and Sadducees as they tried so embarrassingly to trap Him. Well, I say that was a great privilege and wonderful memory for them, and John makes mention of it in verse 1.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life.
More than an exciting privilege and memory for them, it was also a very important experience for church. What John tells us in verses 1-3, is that he comes to us as an eye witness of the fact that God the Son, the very "Word of Life" was indeed manifest. He can testify to it first hand. He can speak as one who knows personally. He saw Him. He heard Him. He touched Him. He knows.
The Fellowship Extended
But the Apostle John would not be very happy if this were all we saw from this passage. For him what was important was that this fellowship with Christ is great privilege which he continues to enjoy. No, even that's not all. "Our fellowship is with Jesus, yes, but by Him our fellowship is with the Father also. We are brought by Christ into fellowship with the Triune God. This, for John, was the great honor of believing in Jesus. This One Who came to reveal Father, has brought us into Fellowship with Him.
God through the prophet Jeremiah talked about this.
Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, nor let the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows me(Jeremiah 9:23-24).
This, and this only, is a boast worth making. But what John says is that this is a boast he can make. He knows God! Indeed, he has "fellowship" with Him.
It is significant here that John refers to Jesus in this context as "the Word of Life." Jesus said that He is the life (John 14:6) and that He gives eternal life (John 17:2). And he even records Jesus' description of what eternal life is: "This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ Whom You have sent" (John 17:3). What John is saying here in this context is that Jesus has, in fact, done exactly this for him. "Our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ." The glory of being a believer, John reminds us, is his fellowship with God.
But still John is not done. It is not enough to say that "We" (the apostolic company) have this great fellowship. No. "These things I write that you also" may enjoy the same privilege. That is, this great privilege is not something reserved only for those blessed few of us who knew Jesus in days of His flesh. No! This fellowship is for you also.
And at this point it is not John only who speaks, but Jesus Himself and all the New Testament writers unite to tells us that this is precisely the great privilege of every man or woman who believes in Jesus. Every last man or woman who comes to Christ finds in Him the joyous fellowship of the eternal Triune God. Nor is there any rank or status among us in this. We all equally enjoy this same wonderful privilege.
The Scriptures emphasize this by describing Christians in terms of "children" and "sons," the language of access and intimacy. We are the "branches" in Christ Who is the "vine" (John 15:1). We are the "body" of which He is the "head" (1Corinthians 12). This is much more than an abstract, theoretical acquaintance. It is vital, organic union. We are the "bride," and Christ is the "Bridegroom." This is no mere casual acquaintance. This is intimacy. This is fellowship.
As the word "fellowship" (koinonia) implies, there is something we share in common with the Lord Jesus and with the Father. There is common ground. Imagine common ground with God! This is the glory that belongs to every Christian.
Now of course John is building on something. He is taking the next step up from the great doctrine of union with Christ. One of the great and very common themes of the New Testament is this great truth that we are joined to Christ and not in a merely abstract way. As a branch is united to the vine, as a body to the head, as a bride to her groom, so we are joined to the Lord Jesus Christ. We are so joined to Him that whatever is true of Him becomes true of us by extension. Whatever He does has direct bearing on us. Paul loves to talk about this. He not only speaks of being saved "by" Christ and "through" Christ and "for" Christ and "unto" Christ. He speaks further of our being saved precisely because we are "in" and "with" Christ. In fact, Paul coined a whole string of terms to convey the significance of this. Not only are we "crucified with" Christ, but also we "live with" Christ, we are "raised with" Christ, we are "made alive with" Christ, we are "glorified with" Christ, we are "joint heirs with" Christ, and we even "reign with" Christ. So closely are we joined to Him that we are "seated with Him in the heavenlies" (Ephesians 2:6). We are blessed "with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies" precisely and only because we are "in Him" (Ephesians 1:3). This is our union with the Lord Jesus Christ.
But as I said, John here building on this great truth and taking it a step further. Now you may ask, "What could be greater than that?" John answers: there is not only union but communion also. There is saving union, yes. But there is intimacy of fellowship also. And in stressing this, John is merely reiterating what Jesus Himself had taught Him.
I will not leave you orphans. I will come to you! . . . At that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you. . . . And He who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him. . . . and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him (John 14:17-23).
All this kind of talk leads us to think in terms of access to God, the presence of God, supply from God, the love of God. Fellowship.
This is nothing less than a realization of the ancient promise. The very first result of sin was separation. "Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord" (Gen.3:8). With sin there is separation from God. But what we read next is amazing. God did not say in response, "Well then, you can go to hell. Go on and hide!" No, He would have been altogether just in doing that, but He did not do it. Instead God sought them out and made provisions for them. He took the initiative to re-establish the fellowship that had been lost. And of course this is but a paradigm of the rest of the Bible and the rest of history. God is taking initiative to re-establish fellowship with men. Very soon afterwards we start hearing promises like, "I will dwell in the tents of Shem," and "I will be a God to you, and you will be My people," and "You will not need to teach your neighbor, saying, 'know the Lord!' For they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest." "The earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." All that is to say, God is on the move! He is reaching out in grace and taking all the necessary measures to establish fellowship with sinners.
And what John is saying here, is that this is precisely what has been realized in Christ. "Truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ." O yes, there is more to come. There is the fullness of this promise that still awaits us. Revelation 21-22 fill in those details for us. But, here and now we have it in real measure already.
This is the glory that belongs to every Christian. And so it is not surprising that in verse 4 John tells us that this is what gives us a "joy," yes, a joy that is "full." What is a joy that is "full"? Well, it is a joy that has enough. John is speaking of fullness, a completeness of contentment and satisfaction, a joy that is such that it needs nothing else. It is a joy that cannot be transcended. The fellowship we enjoy in Him is such that we are fully content. Of course! What else could we need now that we have Him?
Fade, fade each earthly joy, Jesus is mine!
All that my soul has tried, left but a dismal void:
Jesus has satisfied! Jesus is mine!"
I am resolved no longer to linger, Charmed by world's delight.
Things that are higher, things that are nobler These have allured my sight!
We have but one boast and we love to make it. It is the greatest and highest boast of all. And it is this: "We know God!" And with that, we are completely content.
This is "the fellowship" which John writes of. "Our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ."
The Fellowship Extended Still Further
But did you notice as you read through this passage that there is a sense in which the apostle John is not content? Notice verse 3 again:
That which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.
In other words, it is not enough that we enjoy this fellowship. "I write," he says, "that you also may have fellowship with us."
Did you ever notice that about Christians? They are never content to keep it to themselves! They always want they insist on talking about it all the time. These strange topics of conversation faith, grace, joy, fellowship they are just always bringing them up!
O yes, to our shame, we sometimes get run down by others who reproach us for it. But the reproach that comes is precisely because we want and dare to talk about Christ and share Him with others and extend "the fellowship." And it's not that we ourselves are not content. We are very happy, entirely satisfied, joyful even. It's simply that our joy is of such a nature that we want very much to share it.
Did you ever try to talk to someone about the Lord and get the response, "This is a personal matter. I don't like to talk about it." It happens often, and when it does are you not struck with the thought, "Whatever it is they have, it's not the same as what I have!" No, and it's not the same as what John had either. How could we not want to talk about this? How could we ever want not to talk to someone else about Jesus? There is just something about this fellowship that gives us an insatiable desire to extend it to others.
But once we've noticed that, then still another aspect of this fellowship becomes apparent. There's more to this fellowship than fellowship with the Triune God. There's another dimension to this fellowship besides that.
Now you may ask, "What could add to this?" What else could there be? Answer: In Christ you not only enter fellowship with the Triune God, you enter fellowship with me! Well, not just me all believers, from the apostles right on down to newest believer today.
Notice: "That you also may have fellowship with us." You see, this fellowship which John is so excited to tell us about is not a vertical relationship only. It is a horizontal fellowship also. This is a great company, indeed a great "family" (Ephesians 3:15) of brothers and sisters who with us share in the fellowship of Christ. And John says, "Because we are joined to Jesus Christ and so in vital fellowship with the Triune God, it is a great thing for you to have fellowship with us.
In other words, this is no mere social club, no ordinary kind of comradary. No, our fellowship rests on a much greater one. We are joined together, but the glory of it is that we joined together in Him. We all share in common the blessings of the eternal God. This is a great family. There is "one Shepherd," and we together are all His sheep, all of the same fold.
This is what Paul spoke of as "the fellowship of the gospel" and "the fellowship of the Holy Spirit." "We are His people, the sheep of His pasture," the Psalmist tells us. You see, to be united to Christ is to be united to all who are his. Put another way, to be a member of Christ's body is to be related to others who also are members of that body.
This is symbolized in the Lord's Supper, when we all eat of the same loaf. We are all sharing in and partaking of Him together, and in doing that we express our oneness in Him.
This is why there is such a "one another" emphasis in New Testament. "Love one another." "Exhort one another." "Bear one another's burdens." This why the New Testament writers make so much of "Love" for our brother and a special generosity to "the household of faith." This is why Paul could write, "Concerning brotherly love, you have no need that anyone teach you." There is something so vital, so valued that we all hold in common that we intuitively feel strong sense of belonging and of responsibility to one another.
Paul expounds this in a graphic way in Ephesians 2-3. "Strangers" who were "far off" and "alienated" from one another are now brought together in the closest and firmest of unions. The strong differences that formerly existed differences of race, culture, social class these have all been "abolished." Christ has "broken down that middle wall of partition which was between us." Things that once divided us are no longer! They are abolished. They are gone. In Christ we are all brothers and sisters, part of a new family with a new and higher love.
This is illustrated for us in Galatians 2, when Paul went to Jerusalem and received "the right hand of fellowship." It was no formality. It was an expression of solidarity, a statement that now they held things in common. What a change Christ makes! The Christian apostles in Jerusalem expressing fellowship with Saul! This is startling! Well, maybe it is not so startling when we consider the basis of their fellowship.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life— the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us— that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.
Their fellowship was a gospel fellowship. It was a fellowship in Christ. And now that we are in Christ, what differences could we have that are of any significance? This is "the fellowship of God's Son." He is what we hold in common. Together, we are members of Christ, participating in Him. This is the significance of those Pauline images of the Church "the household of faith," the "family," "one new man." What a great family it is and what a great love it must have, to all share in common this One who is so glorious and precious to us all.
"Fellowship" is a Verb
Now you might wonder, "What so great about that? Why do I need you or anyone else if I have God?"
Well, of course in one sense you don't need anyone else. This is one part of the glory of fellowship with Christ. With Him we have enough, and alone with Him we still are perfectly content. But in another sense there is a real need, both on your part and on the part of the rest of body. The New Testament reveals a very keen sense of "community" among those first believers. Not that there were no problems. There were problems, problems of all kinds. And it's not that they didn't know or weren't concerned with individual salvation. They very obviously were. Salvation and fellowship with Christ is a very individual matter. It's just that with that came a real sense of belonging and community and family.
In fact, this sense of community was so strong that it was impossible to think of salvation apart from it. I don't know, maybe it's one of those strange "advantages" of persecution or of living in a non-welfare state or of just being in the despised minority. But what we see in the New Testament Church is a real sense of interdependence.
Now I love independence politically, nationally, even in some senses individually. I want my son to be "his own man." Some kinds of independence are good. But in this era of "the individual" and of individualism we have lost a sense of ministry, ministry both given and received. We are loners, spiritual lone rangers, and that is harmful to us and to the body of Christ as a whole.
Paul works this out at some length in 1Corinthians 12, with his extended analogy of the church as the "body" of Christ. We each are members of Christ and of one another; and as members of one another we have responsibilities to one another, responsibilities of service. "Ministry" is a two-way street, and we each are given gifts for the purpose of ministry to the body. The gifts of helps, teaching, exhortation, service, giving are all for the purpose of ministry and fulfilling our responsibilities to the rest of the body.
In James as well as John and Paul there is a great emphasis on Love as an intensely practical virtue. Indeed, this is an extension of the fellowship of Christ, and His love for us is anything but theoretical. It is real. It has tangible meaning and noticeable and appreciable results.
It is both interesting and instructive to see the practical ways this worked its way out in the early church. The "one body" with "many members" had such a common interest that one's joy was the rejoicing of all, and one's grief was the suffering of the rest. In the early chapters of Acts we see that the church at Jerusalem had such a sense of solidarity, such a "family" outlook that "all things" were shared in common. In fact, you almost get the sense that they lived together! There was real mutual dependence, spiritually and in every other way. They shared their money, their food, their homes, their love, their prayer, their encouragement, their ministry, their faith, their joys, their sorrows. They lived as though they were one, and in that environment ministry is very natural.
In 2Corinthians 8 the Macedonian Christians are commended for their generous outpouring of love financial love for the Jerusalem believers whom they had never even met. They gave out of their own want so to relieve the suffering of their brothers and sisters far away. And for Paul this was a very important point, something with profound theological implications: this is what Christ has done for us!
He who was rich for our sakes became poor, that we though His poverty might be made rich" (2Corinthians 8:9).
Our love and care and concern for one another is but the extension of the love and care and concern of Christ. Indeed, it is the love and concern of Christ for His Church.
The New Testament model of fellowship is one that is comprehensive and all encompassing. There was the spiritual care of prayer, testimony, witness, encouragement, comfort, exhortation, teaching, mutual edification in the Word, singing. And there was material care as well: a sharing of their food and provisions and even their salaries with one another. So tight was this fellowship that there was a sense of responsibility to ministry. It was not the pastors only who were ministers. "Every man a minister" was evidently their motto. Such was this sense of interdependence and oneness that it could be used as a deterrent to sin; in severe cases there was held out the threat of the loss of this fellowship with the community. The fellowship was such that the threat served as an incentive to faithfulness.
Fellowship & You
But if we stop with this, the study is only theoretical. We can only wonder what blessing we miss when we do not follow this example. It does seem today that even Christians are increasingly absorbed with themselves and their amusements and entertainments and careers and their own little self-centered worlds. And in the process, the church loses out. We are robbed of the blessing of body life, family life. It has become so easy to overlook needs and sufferings and pains. So aloof are we that we are often not even aware of a brother's greatest soul struggle. This ought not so to be. We do this to our shame and to our harm.
Well, how are you doing on this score? Here is a very simple test: How many people in your own fellowship can you even pray for intelligently? Do you know them well enough? How do you fulfill this ministry and responsibility of prayer? Do you know the needs, the burdens, the pains? Do you know the circumstances which they face daily? Are you aware of the struggles they live with? The oppositions? the lack of funds? The loneliness? Are you able to pray for them as you should?
It is in precisely this context that the Bible tells us that love is not theoretical. It is not even merely verbal. Love has real meaning and tangible results. It "seeks not her own." It "looks on the things of others." Love works. And without this, "fellowship" is but a word.
But it is at points such as this we are reminded of that common theme of the Bible: to fail to do as God commands is not only wrong it is stupid. We suffer as a result of our sin. It is to our own loss and harm that we fail in this. The whole church suffers.
O yes, Paul faced selfishness too. He complains of it in Philippians 2:19-21.
But I trust in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you shortly. . . . For I have no one likeminded, who will sincerely care for your state. For all seek their own, not the things which are of Christ Jesus.
Even then it was difficult at times to find one who had so sensed the responsibilities of the fellowship that he would selflessly give himself to the work. But although this problem is old, is no less wrong. And it is no less damaging. Improving Your Fellowship
Do you want to improve in this matter? Here's what to do. First, review the New Testament commands regarding church life, particularly those "one another" passages. "Exhort one another." "Prefer one another." "Love one another." Love one another with a pure heart fervently." "Forgive one another." "Admonish one another." "Provoke one another to love and to good works." "Serve one another." "Edify." "Greet one another with a holy kiss." "Forbear one another." "Comfort one another." "Exhort one another daily." These all make up a significant part of what it is to be "in the fellowship."
Then also, if we want to improve in this, we would do well to review the New Testament examples of church life. We have surveyed some of them in Acts and in 2Corinthians. When we search them out we find that they are the same as the commands. And we find that when this model was followed, the church thrived.
Then also, we must ask God to make us serious about being what a Christian is. We must determine in our minds that this blessed privilege of "fellowship" will be more than theory. Determine that by His grace we will be and experience all the blessing that is available in this great family of Christ.
"That which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly, our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full" (1John 1:3-4).
May God grant it to us, for our good and His glory. Amen.