By Pastor Glenn Pease
No one can doubt that this is an age of ecumenicity. Everybody is talking about getting together with someone else for dialogue or merger. Even those who are opposed to the ecumenical movement are merging and uniting. In other words, wherever you are today you are involved in a complex world where everybody is trying to make it more simple. The Apostle John gives us some guidance by teaching about fellowship. This will help us to know what to do in all relationships of life. If we know what Christian fellowship really is, we will be able to determine which relationships in life are consistent with fellowship with the Father and Son. Verse 3 supplies us with these three things: 1. The essence of fellowship; 2. The essential of Christian fellowship; 3. The extent of Christian fellowship. We will consider them in that order.
I. THE ESSENCE OF FELLOWSHIP.
What does the word fellowship mean apart from any Christian content? This word did not just fall out of the sky into the Bible, nor did John make it up, nor did God give it to him as a new word. It was a Greek word in wide usage long before it became a part of the Bible. Koinonia is the Greek word. It was used to refer to many relationships by the Greeks in which people shared a common bond. Business partners, trade guilds, and burial societies were all called fellowships in the first century. Those who had a common social relationship had fellowship, and those who shared a belief in a common god had religious fellowship.
The basic idea is a relationship persons have because of what they hold in common. This meaning is clearly seen in the New Testament. This verse, for example, has that meaning for John. He is saying, we are declaring what we have seen and heard to you, because once you also know it, then we will have a common knowledge and belief. This is the very essence of fellowship. Without something held in common between two persons there is no possibility for fellowship.
In all four cases of the use of the word communion in the KJV it is a translation of koinonia-the same word translated 15 times as fellowship. There is no distinction between the two at all in the New Testament. Sometimes we hear, "May the fellowship and communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all," as if they were two different words, but they are not, for they are identical. Paul says in II Cor. 6:14, "What communion has light with darkness?" In other words, what koinonia, or fellowship, can there be, for what do they have in common? On the other hand, the Lord's Supper is called communion. The meaning is clear, for when we partake of the elements symbolizing the body and blood of Christ, we remember together the common basis of our salvation. What do believer's have in common? They have salvation through the shed blood of Christ on the cross, and, therefore, this most basic and common factor in our lives is called communion, or fellowship.
II. THE ESSENTIAL OF CHRISTIAN FELLOWSHIP.
John says, "That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you." This is what distinguishes Christian fellowship from all other forms of fellowship. It has one foundation and that is the historical Christ. Nothing else can constitute a basis for Christian fellowship. If we did not have an objective record of what the Apostles saw and heard, we could have no common basis for fellowship. The very reason the Bible is in print is not just to satisfy our curiosity about the past; it is the only way that the revelation of God can be a common factor in the lives of all believers. The Word of God in print makes it available to all men, and thereby increases the basis for fellowship.
The Gnostics, whom John was opposing, had just an opposite attitude. They said, keep the truth in the hands of the elite. Do not make it common knowledge, or it will be contaminated. The truth is only for the intellectuals. The vulgar masses are unworthy of it. But John says, I am putting down in writing what we have seen and heard so that anyone can read and believe, and then enter into a common union with us and God. The basis of Christian fellowship is not locked up in a temple vault. It is not confined to any priestly class or body of intellectuals. It is not composed of mystical or magical incantations learned only by the elite. It is found in the form of paper and ink-the most common means of communication in the world. Christian fellowship is based on fact, and not fantasy, fiction, fallacies, or force. That which was seen and heard is recorded, and this objective factual record is the foundation of true Christian fellowship. By this alone the Christian determines what is, and what is not, Christian fellowship.
Many other things are held in common and provide a basis for fellowship, but only when this essential factor is involved can it be called Christian fellowship. If Jews and Christians have fellowship around the ten commandments, which they hold in common as the Word of God, it would be true fellowship, but it would not be Christian fellowship, for the essential for that is not in the ten commandments. This means there is two levels of fellowship. There is a level based on anything in common, and then there is the Christian level based on the revelation we have in Christ. This means a Christian and a non-Christian can have fellowship based on common interests, but it is not Christian fellowship. It is not even Christian fellowship when two or more Christians get together to watch a game or share in some common secular interests. It is fellowship, but it is not Christian fellowship.
Christians have fellowship with non-Christians in many areas of life. It might be in sports, or music, or culture of all kinds, or hobbies, or clubs, or of a professional nature. Jesus had a great deal of fellowship with unbelievers of all kinds from Publicans to Pharisees. In His manhood He had things in common with each, and He used that common bond to make contacts with all people. This enabled Him to have the opportunity to lead them into a higher fellowship with Himself as Savior and Lord, and not merely as a man and friend.
To criticize someone for having Christian fellowship with an unbeliever is folly, for it is impossible to have Christian fellowship with one who does not have Jesus as their Savior as a common bond. To criticize them for having natural fellowship with them is also folly, for any Christian who does not have natural fellowship with unbelievers is not doing God's will as a child of light. There is no way you can be the light of the world and the salt of the earth without some form of fellowship with unbelievers. This does not mean a Christian can participate in anything sinful with unbelievers, but it does mean they can share in common many interests which are legitimate. Jesus sets the example, for He could fellowship with sinners and yet never be defiled by sin.
A little boy who was lonely said to his mother, "I wish I was two little puppies so I could play together." That was a natural expression of the desire for fellowship. We have a need to have something in common with someone else. The Christian is to take advantage of this natural desire, and use it for the glory of God by finding a common basis for fellowship with an unbeliever, and then introduce him to what you have in fellowship with Christ.
We have seen that the essence of fellowship is the relationship of persons who have something in common. We have seen that the essential of Christian fellowship is the reality of the historical Christ, and one's acceptance of Him as Savior. Now let's consider-
III. THE EXTENT OF CHRISTIAN FELLOWSHIP.
You cannot be a Christian alone. When you enter the kingdom of God you can only do so alone, in the sense that only you can make that decision, but after you enter you become a part of the body of Christ, and are from then on you are not your own, for you belong to Christ. After a person is saved he is in a family where he has many brothers and sisters who share in common with him the same heavenly Father and Savior. John desired to share his experience with Christ that others might enter into this fellowship with him and the other Apostles.
Every picture of the church in the New Testament illustrates the concept of fellowship. It is a body with all cells in the body having a common interest in the life and health of that body. It is a building, and all the stones form a common structure. Jesus said I am the Vine and you are the branches. A branch not connected with the Vine will wither and die. Christian fellowship is not a luxury, it is a necessity, for you cannot be a Christian alone. Jesus says the shepherd leaves the 99 to go after the one lost sheep. The 99 can survive temporarily, but if the one is not found and brought back to the fold, it will parish.
William Morris once said, "The lack of fellowship is hell." This is literally so, for those who do not enter the body; the building; the vine or the fold-that is the church of Christ, will not have fellowship with God but be separated in outer darkness forever alone. A Latin proverb says, "One man is no man at all." You cannot have anything in common without someone to have it in common with. As soon as a person trusts in Christ as Savior they become a part of a vast fellowship of believers from all races where all are equal in Christ. The Gnostics were extremely prejudiced. They felt Christians were contemptible and absurd in treating the riff raff and lower classes as equals, but Christian fellowship is extended to all in Christ. God loves all for whom Christ died and this means all, and so our fellowship goes all the way to what we have in common with God and Christ. We have a common bond with God Himself and so our fellowship extends to the highest heaven and to the ends of the world and to all peoples. Only Christian fellowship leads us to be partners with God, for Jesus, the God-Man, is the common bond between God and man.