Acts 2:42 “They devoted themselves to . . . the fellowship’
We often hear that there are three marks of a true church, the word of God, the two ordinances or sacraments, and the third is discipline. Dr. Mark Dever has written a useful book entitled Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Crossway, 2000). It includes such additional marks as expositional preaching, and biblical theology, and church leadership. It is a fine book, but I think that the four marks of the church that are set forth in this text before us are the best. You remember the context, that many men had been converted and added to the 120 who were already disciples of Jesus Christ. All of these new converts were members of the church and they were all characterized by four things, in other words by a dedication to four activities, (1) hearing and obeying the teaching of the apostles, (2) knowing the fellowship of the apostles, (3) breaking bread at the Lord’s Supper, and (4) prayer. All four activities are indispensable for a true church to exist. We are to evaluate every congregation by these criteria. So today we come to the second mark of the true church, the fellowship. It is up there with the word and the Lord’s Supper as an indispensable mark of the church.
- THE ORDER IN WHICH LUKE PRESENTS THESE FOUR MARKS OF A REALCHURCH IS IMPORTANT.
In first place comes the apostles’ teaching. There can be no fellowship without first being under the power of their doctrines. Imagine the scene a week after Pentecost and 300 to 400 people are sitting under the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane and they are listening intently to one of the twelve apostles. He is teaching about who the Lord Christ was, and is, and what he’d done and was now doing. Then there was a question time, and some of the questions were antagonistic; men were scoffing and heckling the preacher. They were arguing with the apostle; “Jesus didn’t say that, or mean that.” They don’t think that he raised the dead or gave sight to a man born blind. He never claimed to be God, and so on. There was tension in the meeting, but the young preacher dealt with it very well and he finally silenced his critics. Who were these interrupters? They were spies and agitators sent by the chief priests and Pharisees to disturb the apostles’ meetings. There was no possibility of fellowship with such men. They could not be allowed to attend and disrupt these meetings. Believing the teaching precedes the fellowship
The apostle Paul warns Titus of those who might infiltrate his congregation and he tells him what he is to do; “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him” (Titus 3:10). The apostle John also writes in his brief second letter these words of warning, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work” (2 John 10&11). Our Lord Jesus warned us about false prophets, about wolves coming in sheep’s clothing, and about devils appearing as angels of light. The apostle Paul in his farewell to the Ephesians elders told them, “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!” (Acts 20:29-31). When the truth is being attacked then there is no possibility of communion with those heretics. “What fellowship has light with darkness?” asks Paul. So the indispensable precondition for fellowship is truth. That is why it is in first place.
- BUT FELLOWSHIP ISN’T SOMETHING THAT’S VERY NARROW.
The Pharisees were the men who had no place in their synagogues for anyone who had fallen. Sinners weren’t welcome, even if they’d repented. The Pharisees excommunicated them, and they were never to return. The Pharisees were angry with Christ for healing a paralyzed man on the Sabbath day. He was walking home carrying his stretcher – “Burden bearing on the Sabbath,” the Pharisees cried. They were angry with his disciples for picking ears of corn as they walked through a field. They ate the grain on a Sabbath – “Working on the Sabbath! No fellowship with such sinners,” they cried. No! No! Fellowship is not something narrow.
The church of Christ puts a sign outside its doors, “A warm welcome to all!” So imagine a man who is dressed in women’s clothes climbs the steps and walks into our meeting and the children notice. They giggle and they are afraid. Then you explain to the children that while we don’t approve of that practice we want this muddled man to hear the gospel. That is his greatest need. We are glad that he is there, but not glad that he is breaking the distinction between men and women. You don’t threaten to break fellowship with the whole church and refuse to attend while this man – dressed in woman’s clothes – is present. “Stop him from coming!” We don’t say that. We are not a bourgeois congregation. It may be embarrassing and annoying to some of you, but turn your eyes upon Jesus and pray for the man. Jesus was criticized for sitting down and eating with quisling tax collectors, and other disreputable people. If two men living together with a child they have adopted should turn up in church, if drug addicts, and men smelling of alcohol, and prostitutes (male and female), and criminals walk into our congregation then we welcome them kindly. There is something sick in our church if we exclude them while we are fawning on smartly dressed and well-off unbelievers. Didn’t Jesus say that he didn’t come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance? Our congregation should be rich enough and kind enough and patient enough to welcome all. That doesn’t mean that we condone what they’ve done or that they continue to do in an occasional fit of backsliding, but there but for the grace of God go every one of us. We believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to change every sinner into a saint. We are sure that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses all who repent and who trust in Jesus from all the guilt of their past. We believe that one of the means God uses to change unbelievers into disciples is our kindness, and our forgiveness, and our understanding, and our love that covers a multitude of sins.
- FELLOWSHIP IS NOT SIMPLY CHRISTIANS COMING TOGETHER
I think today there is an obsession with this word ‘fellowship.’ John Stott once rightly said, “’Fellowship’ is an overworked word in the contemporary church, and the image conveyed by it is often a false image. Indeed, the vocabulary of fellowship has become such devalued currency that it seldom means more than a genial mateyness, what Methodists call a ‘P.S.A.’ (Pleasant Sunday Afternoon) or a good gossipy get-together over a nice cup of tea. As a result, we fall sadly short of the rich, deep, full fellowship envisaged in the New Testament.”
Dr. J.I. Packer makes the same point asking, “What does the word ‘fellowship’ suggest to you? A cup of tea in the church hall? Gossip in the porch after the service? Hiking with the youth club? A spell at a Christian holiday centre? Touring Scotland, or the Holy Land, with a coachful of church people? We often say that we’ve ‘had fellowship’ when all we mean is that we’ve taken part in some Christian social enterprise of this sort. But we ought not to talk in such terms. The fact that we share social activities with other Christians does not of itself imply that we’ve had fellowship with them. To say this is not, of course, to deny that there may be a place for these activities. Our point is simply that to equate these activities with fellowship, and fellowship with them, is an abuse of Christian language. And it is a dangerous abuse. It makes for self-deception. It fools us into thinking that we are thriving on fellowship when all the time our souls may be starving for lack of it. It is not a good sign when a person sees no difference between sucking a sweet and eating a square meal. Equally, it is not a good sign when Christians recognize no difference between social activities in Christian company, and fellowship. Fellowship is one of the great words of the New Testament: it denotes something that is vital to a Christian’s spiritual health, and central to the church’s true life. It is of the first importance, therefore, that we should be clear in our minds as to what Christian fellowship really is. Fellowship features in the first description that the New Testament gives us of the life of the young church. ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship’.” (J.I. Packer, God’s Words, IVP, p.191)
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones makes the same point; “People’s ideas as to what constitutes ‘fellowship’ can be quite pathetic. Some people think in purely social terms. This idea is frequently found in the church. I want to ridicule it because it has nothing to do with Christianity. People even think that fellowship just means having a cup of tea and a biscuit together. I have known others who think of fellowship like this, that during a service the minister says, ‘Now you must all have fellowship with one another,’ and he tells everyone to stand and shake hands with the people sitting near them, and they all shake hands. Marvelous fellowship! Those are some people’s ideas of fellowship – a superficial friendliness, a niceness, a joviality. In these ways that great word ‘fellowship’ has been degraded.
Dr. Lloyd-Jones goes on, “I remember an evangelical preacher speaking to me about a certain man who wasn’t an evangelical at all but quite a notorious liberal, and this preacher said, ‘You know, I find I have more fellowship with him than I do with many evangelicals.’ ‘Well,’ I replied, ‘it all depends upon what you mean by fellowship. If you mean that he is a nicer man than many evangelicals, I agree with you, but that is not fellowship. That a man is pleasant and affable and kind doesn’t mean you can have fellowship with him. You can pass the time of day with him, and there will be no disputes and quarrels perhaps, but that is not fellowship.” (D.M. Lloyd-Jones,Authentic Christianity, Volume 1, Banner of Truth, pp. 144&145).
I know a church that has now abandoned its evening service, and they have instead what they call ‘fellowship’ and what do they do? They play table tennis, and pool, and they sit around and talk and laugh and eat snacks. Christians coming together is not ‘fellowship.’
- HOW THE NEW TESTAMENT DEFINES ‘FELLOWSHIP.’
The word for ‘fellowship’ is the same as the word for ‘common.’ To explain this more clearly let me remind you of certain New Testament uses of this concept. For example when God called Peter to go to Cornelius he gave the apostle a vision, and the apostle saw a variety of foods most of them being non-kosher foods, unclean foods. Peter protests and says that he doesn’t eat anything that is ‘common’ or unclean. Now it is that word for ‘common’ that we have behind the fellowship concept of the New Testament. To have fellowship is to have something in common.
Again take the Greek language of the New Testament. It is not classical Greek; it is called koineGreek because it is the ‘common’ Greek; kitchen Greek, how people commonly addressed one another. Fellowship is the Greek word koinonia, and the language spoken and written during the first century was koine Greek. So when we read that the apostles and the new converts had fellowship it simply means that they had certain things in common. They were engaged in a great kind of sharing.
Again we have a ‘common (koine) faith’ (Titus 1:4), and a ‘common (koine)salvation’ (Jude 3), and Paul tells the Philippians ‘all of you share (koine)in God’s grace with me’ (Phils. 1:7). Grace, Paul is saying, is a common denominator of the status of every Christian; it makes us one. So we share in fellowship with these things.
The question then becomes what does that sharing amount to? What do we all have in common? And we can take that to the very highest level. Remember what the apostle John says in his first letter and in the first chapter of that letter, and the third verse – right there at the beginning – that “our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” That is John’s definition of what a Christian is. The person who is not in fellowship with the Father and the Son – however upright and religious he may be – is no Christian at all. In other words, it is fellowship with God that is the source from which fellowship among Christians springs. And Christian fellowship is aimed at a growing fellowship with God.
I learned an unusual phrase from Professor John Murray and I heard him lecture on this concept. The phrase is ‘corporate sanctification.’ It is not a difficult idea, even though those two multi-syllable words seem daunting. It is referring to the mysterious influence Christians have and are called to have with one another. In other words the phrase is referring to the ‘one another’ passages in the New Testament. You are familiar with them. I mean first the negative phrases, like not ‘judging one another’, not ‘biting one another’, not ‘devouring one another,’ not ‘provoking one another,’ not ‘envying one another,’ not ‘lying to one another,’ not ‘speaking evil against one another,’ not ‘grumbling against one another.’ Then the positive phrases, ‘receiving one another,’ ‘being kind and tender-hearted towards one another,’ ‘forbearing and forgiving one another,’ ‘practicing hospitality to one another,’ ‘admonishing one another,’ ‘instructing one another,’ ‘comforting one another,’ ‘submitting to one another,’ ‘praying for one another,’ ‘bearing one another’s burdens,’ ‘loving one another,’ ‘exhorting one another,’ ‘encouraging one another.’ That is Christian fellowship.
Most of us know about personal sanctification, in other words that we have dealings with God personally. There is our personal duty of taking up our cross and denying ourselves and following the Lord Jesus daily. There is our personal responsibility not to be ashamed of the gospel. There is our conviction to affirm, “This one thing I do” because Jesus Christ loved me and gave himself for me, and love so amazing so divine demands my soul, my life, my all. We understand that that is personal sanctification. It is vertical; our own duty to serve God. But there is also our duty to one another, our responsibility both to serve one another, and also to receive service from one another. For example, the writer to the Hebrews tells us, “Let us consider how to stir up one another . . . not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Hebs. 10:24). Or James exhorts his readers, “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). That is fellowship. Fellowship may seem to you to be the happy easy bonus of being a Christian, but it is not invariably easy to have Christians as your friends. Your friend may be garrulous, she may be very lonely, she may have a problem with alcohol. We are under an obligation to help one another, and to receive help from one another to live the Christian life and get to heaven, and that can be costly and time-consuming involving hours of sacrifice. I think of Dr. Machen and all he did for a Christian who struggled for years with alcoholism. Can there be true fellowship without sacrifice? In other words, I am affirming that the congregation is going to flourish, and Christians are going to be strong only where there is this ‘body life’, the corporate sanctification that is the essence of real fellowship. Now it seems to me that three things are involved in it.
i] First, fellowship is a means of grace. It is a holy activity; it is a spiritual activity. Through helping one another, one’s own soul is refreshed and fed. We seek to encourage one another to follow Jesus Christ, and by the effort of communicating one’s knowledge of God to another we ourselves are strengthened as well as our friends. You don’t know what help you can be to other people. You students won’t realise what a help some of the things you’ve said have been to me. Think of it – we have God’s children praying for us! We have Christians caring for us as a fellow-believer! They give us the privilege of sharing in their experience of trial and triumph. What enrichment to our own faith. I spoke to a woman who is caring for her husband who has dementia last week-end. What a humble strong testimony she gave me. How encouraging, and we support others in the way that others have supported us through our lives, and there’s a mutual benefit, Paul’s constant pleas – 7 or maybe 8 times in his letters (if Paul wrote the letter to the Hebrews then it is 8) were this, that Christians would pray for him as he prays for them. Fellowship is a pastor praying for his congregation. Christian fellowship is giving our Tuesday evenings to think about others in need and praying for them. It is a means of grace that we neglect to our poverty and at our peril. So on Sunday nights in the Manse with the students I try generally to develop a discussion of aspects of the Christian life.
ii] Second, fellowship is a test of the life of God that we possess. Fellowship means opening one’s heart to one’s fellow-Christians. As I read the letters of the New Testament I see a very close bond between the Christians. I see a degree of commitment, and concern, and involvement, and intimacy far beyond what many churches display. I see in the New Testament one body of Christ; one flesh and bones. I read of Paul mentioning by name two women, Euodia and Syntyche, telling the whole church that these two were not getting on with one another and he knew it and beseeched them to change. Some of you find that intimate fellowship very difficult, and so whenever someone does, shyly and quietly, talk of her own battles and struggles then it is particularly inspiring. If there is a pretense about being a ‘zealous Christian,’ or a concealment of your failures then fellowship can’t survive. I am just pleading that we be open and honest about our daily dealings with God. I am not asking us to pry, in fact I am saying to you, “Don’t pry, and probe, and interrogate.” We have no right to get in each other’s way, and even less to be in each other’s hair. Let us honour one another’s personalities and respect the modesty of some and be patient with the talkativeness of other people. There is no one in this congregation who does not struggle with the calling of being a daily follower of the Lord Jesus. A man who pretends otherwise is going to destroy himself with that dissimulation. He’s not going to be able to have free fellowship with other believers; indeed, he will shrink from fellowship. He will be afraid that his insincerities will be detected. He is not walking in the light, and so he is not having fellowship with other believers.
iii] Third, fellowship is a gift of God. The New English Bible interestingly translates Paul’s benediction at the end of 2 Corinthians as follows: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and fellowship in the Holy Spirit, be with you all” – and this is probably right. Only in the believer who has the Holy Spirit, is there spiritual life and concern to grow in grace and help others to do the same. It is then that fellowship becomes a possibility. It is only as the Holy Spirit enables us to speak to others, and others to us, in such a way that Christ and the Father are made known through what is said, that fellowship is made a reality. Speak in the Spirit! Walk in the Spirit! Think in the Spirit! Act in the Spirit! Cultivate a dependence on the Holy Spirit. His office is to reveal Christ to us; otherwise, our talk with each other will be empty and profitless, and the goal of fellowship – fuller acquaintance with our common Lord – will not be achieved.
- OUR COMMUNION IS TO BE A REFLECTION OF THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE FATHER, THE SON & THE HOLY SPIRIT.
What Christians most have in common is the Triune God. We share in the life of the Father and the Son. We participate in the life of the Godhead, in the communion, the koinonia, of the Holy Spirit.
i] The foundational idea of fellowship is Trinitarian. In other words, there is the fellowship which God the Son has always enjoyed with God the Father. There is nothing between them that causes any tension or rejection or any problem whatsoever in their relationship. There is freshness in their relationship, and a creativity and a fascination and a joy and an exploration, and there is no alienation whatsoever. They share everything together, the eternal Father and the eternal Son. What do these two have in common? What do they share that constitutes ‘fellowship’?
- A)They share a common being. “I and my Father are one” says Christ. They are the same substance and essence and being. Christ participates fully in the being of God the Father. Fellowship is God the Father and God the Son having one and the same nature, one and the same being. They share the same attributes; they share the same designations; they share the same functions; they share the same prerogatives. They have the same being in common, this Jehovah-ship. This great Jehovah is in fact triune. They share equally in the one being. That is where their fellowship and where all fellowship begins.
- B)They share the same sovereignty. There is one government in heaven, one single monarchy. Father and Son sit on the same single throne. The Lamb is in the very middle of that throne. The river of the waters of life flows out of the throne of God and the Lamb. The government is upon his shoulders, says Isaiah. All authority in heaven and earth is to our Jesus given. Our Lord has the whole world in his hands. There is the fellowship of universal and cosmic dominion and supremacy.
- C)They share knowledge and self-understanding. There is nothing in God’s nature and being that is hidden from God himself. He is not a perplexity to himself. He never has to ask, “Why did I say that? Why did I do that?” He knows himself through and through. Jesus knows himself exhaustively, and he knows his Father in the same way. He never has to plead with his Father, “Why don’t you tell me about yourself? Why don’t you explain who you are and what you are doing?” He knows the Father as comprehensively as the Father knows him. He claims that while God has hidden things from the smartest and cleverest men and women he has delivered everything to his Son. Whatever the Father knows the Son also knows. In other words, God has no secrets from his Son. Any earthly father will hide some things from his son, there are things that he doesn’t want his son to know about him, but the whole life of God, inward and outward, from eternity to eternity, is exhaustively known by the Lord Jesus. There are things that philosophers and theologians don’t know but Christ knows them. All we need to know for salvation, every necessary thing for whatever’s going to happen in our lives, everything needed for us to have fellowship with God and with one another, comes to us through Jesus Christ. I am saying that God the Father has told God the Son all that I need to know in order to have fellowship with all of you and with God.
- D)They share in common their love for the people of God. They have the church in common. They have a commitment to the church in common. Jesus says in his John 17 prayer, “All mine are yours and all yours are mine.” All God’s beloved ones are beloved also to Christ. There is total mutual affection in this eternal commitment to the people Jesus gave his life to save and keep.
So I am saying that it is from the Trinity that this whole Biblical idea of fellowship flows, it comes from the ‘withness’ of God the Father and the Son, and all our Christian fellowship is derivative of that. It is the Lord’s Day, and the hour of worship, and today our fellowship is a pale reflection of the sharing that there is now between God the Father and God the Son. They share everything. And so this is one of the most glorious things about God’s church that it is a reflection of the Trinity, this idea of sharing.
ii] Our fellowship is with the Lord Jesus Christ. He is our mediator with God. The God-man ever lives to intercede for us. So we share certain things in common with him.
- A)We share in Jesus’ status, his standing and his relationship with his Father. We are in the righteousness of Christ. We are God’s righteousness in him. We have kept God’s covenant in him. We have kept the law of God as faithfully as Christ, so that God can also look on us in Christ and say to us, “You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.” We are adopted into the family of God. We are heirs of all the glory of Jesus, joint heirs with him. We have all the privileges of access to our Father, and provision from him and his care and his warnings. What family do you belong to? I belong to the family of God. We enjoy the fellowship of the sons of God.
- B)We share in Jesus’ Spirit. The very Spirit that was in Christ is in every single believer. We are complete in him. How extravagant has been God’s love to us that he has given each believer the same Spirit that is in Christ. We have him in covenant fulness in our hearts and minds and souls and Spirits. There is no no-go area in our lives that is inaccessible to the Spirit of Christ. We enjoy fellowship with the Spirit of Christ.
- C)We share in the sufferings of Christ. In other words as we live in Christ and for Christ so the world treats us as it treated him. What do we expect from the world? What did the world do to Wesley and Whitefield? It pelted them with rocks and dead dogs and manure. Those men suffered enormous abuse. Nothing has changed. Look at the sufferings of Christians in the past year alone, what horrors they have endured inPakistanand North Korea, and Iraq, and Syria and Nigeria, and it is not unexpected. Paul says that he sees himself as crucified to the world, that he no longer matters to the world, that he is dispensable, that he is negligible and contemptible in the eyes of the world. That is a tremendous challenge to ourselves. We are not like that; we want recognition; we want prestige; we want to announce that we have been 50 years as a preacher in this town. We want to call the tune, and yet we think of Christ and our fellowship is with one who made himself nothing, who was prepared to be a nonentity, and we have no right to be treated better. The apostle expected not to share in a single accolade but rather to be the offscouring of all things, to be put in the recycling bin and sent to the dump. Fellowship is being treated in the world as the world treated Christ.
- D)We share in Christ’s inheritance. We are joint heirs with him. And so God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing, and God is working everything for our good, and all things are now ours, and Christ prays that we shall be with him and behold his glory, that we shall be in the midst of the throne exactly where he is. If we’ve suffered with him then we will also reign with him. Christ prays to his Father that he would give us the glory that he would be giving to Jesus, that we be conformed to the image of the Son of God. That is a great inheritance. We shall share the same image as Christ. We shall see him as he is.
iii] Our fellowship is with one another. What are the things that we share in common? What is our common life?
- A)We are all in the body of Christ. We have been baptized by the Spirit into this body and we have all been made to drink from it. In other words, we are irrigated and refreshed by the influence that other Christians have over us, their smiles and greetings, their prayers and kindnesses.
- B)We share our material goods with one another.That is fellowship. I spoke of a family in need at our mid-week meeting this week and immediately people wanted to know how they could help, to whom they made out their cheques. The New Testament pattern is that none of the Christians lacked anything. In the New Testament era the Gentiles overcame their hostility to the Jews by taking a collection and sending the money all the way to Jerusalem at a time of famine.
- C)We bear one another’s burdens, the stress, and the pain and aching heart. That is fellowship. I guess that there are busybodies in the church, but that is better than problems being ignored and burdens carried alone. You can get involved privately, and we simply have to because there are those who are bearing burdens that are too great for themselves.
- D)We can encourage one another in evangelism. In the New Testament they gave to support those who were evangelizing and were suffering because of their evangelism. There was an emotional cost in spreading the gospel and we can help by making sure that there is no financial burden as well.
- E)We worship together. That is fellowship. We cannot survive without being in our place at all the stated meetings of the church. Let us pray together, and let us sing together, and let us hear the reading of the Word of God together, and let us give together, and let us pay attention to the preaching together. Let the children see the old people heeding the word of God and singing from their hearts. Let them sense the power of God in the lives of these older folk and so begin the journey into Christian fellowship that lasts all our lives.
3rd of May 2015 GEOFF THOMAS