The Church Fellowship
Here’s the sermon I preached in chapel this morning. It’s based on an outline by Steven Olford. I welcome your comments.
This month, we are talking about another one of the reasons that we’re here on earth. We are formed for God’s family. In other words, we are not meant to live life on our own; we are meant to live in fellowship with other Christians. And this is one of those areas where I think Filipinos have a naturally far greater understanding than Americans.
Here in the Philippines and, really throughout Asia, there is an emphasis on doing things as a group, in living in cooperation with other people. In the United States, the hero is always the person who goes against everyone else, bravely fighting against all odds for some noble cause. American literature and American movies are full of people like the Lone Ranger and others, who stand alone against the forces of evil.
Courageous independence makes for exciting stories, but it’s not a good pattern for a Christian life. In fact, I would say that it’s almost impossible to live a healthy Christian life in isolation. I know that there are rare occasions where someone is the only Christian in their village or someone is in prison for their faith and can’t meet with other Christians, and I believe that in those cases, God gives them a special grace to live alone. But, if we have the opportunity to meet with other brothers and sisters in Christ and to live and work in fellowship with them, and we refuse to do that, it will almost certainly lead us to spiritual coldness, uselessness and backsliding. I think that’s what the writer to the Hebrews had in mind when he wrote, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25). It is so important that we be in fellowship with other Christians; we were formed for God’s family!
To help us understand this principle of fellowship, I want to look at two passages that show us how it was practiced in the early church. I don’t suppose there’s ever been a more successful and Spirit-filled church than the first century church in the days just after Pentecost, and we can learn a lot from studying the way that church functioned. Let’s get our Bibles out and turn to Acts 2, and read Luke’s description of this early church. Acts 2, starting with verse 41: 41Those who accepted his [Peter’s] message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. 42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
In a few minutes, we’ll look at another passage of Scripture where Paul gives some instructions on fellowship, but let’s stop and notice some things about the fellowship that this early church was practicing.
The first thing I want to notice is the membership of the fellowship of the church. Verse 42 says, “They devoted themselves to the…fellowship.” The Bible tells us that membership in the fellowship of the church is both exclusive and inclusive.
First, the church’s membership is exclusive in its constitution. When I say that the church’s membership is exclusive, I mean that not everyone is a member of the church; some people are excluded. Everyone on earth is God’s creation, but not all people are God’s children. Verse 41 says, “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” The only people who can really have fellowship in the church are those who have accepted Jesus Christ. Our relationship with other Christians is based, first of all, upon our relationship with Christ himself. Only true Christians can enjoy Christian fellowship. We can have unsaved friends, but we can never really have true fellowship with someone who doesn’t know our Savior.
In the early church, we see that all of the members of the church—of their fellowship—had some things in common. First, they all had experienced conviction of sin. Look back at verse 37: “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’” Their membership in the church also required a conversion of life. That means that the members had given up their sins, had placed their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and had received the gift of the Holy Spirit. Verse 38 says: “Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” And all the members had a third thing in common. They had all made a public confession of faith. In verse 41, we read: “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” So, the church’s membership was exclusive; only those who had been convicted of their sin, been converted to Christ and made a confession of faith were included.
But there is another sense in which we could say that the church’s membership is inclusive in its composition. Look at verse 39 to see who is included in the offer of fellowship. “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” Do you remember who Peter was preaching to on the Day of Pentecost? Verse 5 tells us that there were Jewish listeners gathered in Jerusalem “from every nation under heaven.” So when Peter says “you and your children,” he is already being very inclusive. But just to make sure that everyone understands who God is including in his plan of salvation, Peter adds that the promise of the Holy Spirit is also to “all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
Even though the membership and fellowship of the church is only open to those who have accepted Christ, there is no limitation or distinction of class or color. When Jesus died on Calvary he died for all of us, whether we’re white or brown, rich or poor, high society or homeless. In John 6:37, Jesus says, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” He doesn’t turn anyone away from his church, no matter what they look like or where they came from. Romans 2:11 says, “For God does not show favoritism.” All people are the same in his eyes. That’s why we can look forward to that day in heaven when we will see what the apostle John saw. In Revelation 5:9, John witnesses the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders falling down before the Lamb that was slain, and he writes, “And they sang a new song: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.’” And in chapter 7, John says, “After this I looked and there was before me a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” Yes, the fellowship of the church has an exclusive membership in that only Christians can be a part, but I praise God that it’s inclusive enough to include you and me and anyone else who is willing to accept Christ’s offer of grace.
The second thing I want us to look at is the maintenance of the fellowship of the church. How was the early church able to maintain a good spirit and life of fellowship? Again, verse 42 tells us that “they devoted themselves . . . to the fellowship.” As we study the New Testament and the regular habits of the local churches, we discover two important elements that maintained the life and health and growth of the Christian community.
The first element was the fellowship of meeting. You can’t really call yourself a member of a community or a fellowship, if you never get together with the other members of that fellowship. When Paul writes to the Corinthian church, he refers to the occasions “when you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:4). When we look closely at the expression “assembled,” we discover that the main reason for their meeting wasn’t to preach evangelistic messages or to be a public witness to the world. They were gathering together primarily for fellowship in Christ.
Paul describes one of these Christian meetings in 1 Corinthians 14. Let’s see how services were conducted in those early days of the church. 1 Corinthians 14, beginning in verse 26 and continuing through the end of the chapter:
26What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. 27If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God. 29Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 33For God is not a God of disorder but of peace. As in all the congregations of the saints, 34women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. 35If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. 36Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? 37If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. 38If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored. 39Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
In this chapter, Paul is describing what services were like in the first years of the church, at least in the church at Corinth. One person would lead a hymn or a song of praise. Another would come with a word of instruction, some exposition of truth. Yet another would share a revelation, a declaration of some inner and secret experience of Christ. Some person who was going through great suffering would give a testimony of how God had blessed them, and others who were feeling sad would be uplifted. A working man, in his rough, honest speech, would tell of a victory in his life, helping other Christians to see how they could deal with the struggles in their lives. The quiet ministry of some gifted brother or sister would stimulate growth in the things of God.
There seem to have been two principles that were to guide the gatherings of the believers. They are found in verses 26 and 40. First, “all of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.” In other words, every part of the meeting should be conducted in a spirit of helpfulness. As Christians sang or testified or spoke, they should be thinking about how their ministry would benefit the other Christians there. Second, “Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.” In other words, there should be a spirit of harmony; because, as verse 33 reminds us, “God is not a God of disorder but of peace.”
When John Wesley was living and the Methodist church was seeing great growth and revival, the center of the church’s life were fellowship meetings known as “class meetings.” A leader in another denomination once commented that if he could convince his church to start class meetings, he would do it immediately and he would require every member of their church to attend them.
So, meeting together is the first thing we have to do to maintain the health of our Christian community. The second element is the fellowship of serving.
In 2 Corinthians 8:4, Paul talks about “the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints.” Another version calls it the “fellowship of ministering to the saints.” If you were to take a Greek lexicon and trace the word “fellowship” and the other English words that are used to translate that idea, you would find that all of the ministries carried out in the church are ministries of sharing. The Bible does talk about the use of individual spiritual gifts, but it never talks about using those gifts to benefit oneself or using them outside of the context of the fellowship of believers. All gifts and all ministries are designed to work together. Nobody has all of the gifts, so that we all have to depend upon each other and so that no one will be selfish with the gifts that they’ve been given. This is why the Bible uses the human body as a picture of the church. No one member can afford to lose any other members; they are all needed and they all share in the function of the whole body.
We would have no trouble growing our churches, and we would have no trouble maintaining them, if we would develop this spirit of sharing in our meeting together and serving together.
Stephen Olford tells about listening to an African elder, who was preaching about the need for Christian fellowship. As he spoke, he used an illustration that his fellow tribesmen would easily understand. He said, “You know as well as I do that the secret of warmth, light and happiness in our grass huts is to keep the fire in the center of the mud floor burning brightly. This can only be done by keeping the burning logs close to each other. Let one of them roll away from the others and its flame dies out, and it begins to smoke, smell and become useless. That is just like Christian fellowship. As long as we keep close together we are warm, full of light and happiness, but when anyone slips away, we know it at once; there is coldness and uselessness.” It is so important for us to maintain our fellowship, by faithfully meeting together and serving each other.
In our remaining time this morning, I want us to look at some of the manifestations of the fellowship of the church. Verses 42 and 43 say, “They devoted themselves to . . . fellowship . . . and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.” As we look at these verses in the last part of Acts 42, we see several signs or manifestations of what true Christian fellowship should look like. It’s amazing to see the unity and the joy and the effectiveness of this early church! Some commentaries would say that the experience was just a temporary arrangement, made possible by the large number of new Christians in Jerusalem. That may be true, but I think we would have to admit that every part of their love for each other and their pattern of doing life together was created and controlled by the Holy Spirit. And since we still live in the age of the Holy Spirit, and he is still at work in our world, surely we ought to be seeing the same manifestations of fellowship in our churches today. In fact, if we would read this passage alongside Matthew 5 through 7, I think we would see that the fellowship enjoyed by the early church was an outworking of the Sermon on the Mount, which certainly would still apply to us today.
Let’s quickly notice seven distinctive manifestations of fellowship in this early church.
First, there was a distinctive ministry. Verse 43 says, “Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.” There was an unusual kind of ministry taking place in their gatherings. People weren’t just coming to church to sit in their chairs and listen to a sermon. There was a reverence, a sense of awe. When the believers came together for fellowship, they understood that they were meeting with God. And there was good reason for that reverence; the Christians were witnessing the supernatural power of God at work in their services. Miracles were taking place.
It’s sad to say this, but most of us don’t really believe that God can or will show up like that in our service. We say, “Oh, that’s fine for the charismatics and Pentecostals; that’s fine for Jesus Miracle Crusade.” But we don’t really expect God to work supernatural wonders and signs in our local congregations. Brothers and sisters, I think it’s time for us to start expecting God to show up in our services. If there’s nothing going on in our churches that’s unexplainable—if there’s nothing in our churches that can’t be done by human power—then I’m not sure we’re really having church! There should be something miraculous, something supernatural, something Spirit-filled and Spirit-inspired in our fellowship. Every one of us should be able to testify to the miracles we’ve seen in our congregations. I’m not talking about some person who had a cold and started feeling better ten years ago, but something that can’t be explained by anything other than the power of God.
Another sign of the fellowship in the early church was that they experienced a distinctive unity. In verse 44, we read, “All the believers were together and had everything in common.” It’s not natural for people to get along with each other; it’s not easy for people to share everything they have. But that’s what the early church did. And the world around them stood back and said, “See how they love one another!”
In the first verse of Psalm 133, David sings, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity.” The phrase “when brothers live together in unity” is similar to a phrase used in Deuteronomy 25:5 to refer to an extended family living together. This goes beyond smooth interpersonal relations; we ought to live with our brothers and sisters in Christ as though they were our actual biological brothers and sisters living with us. It’s a kind of unity where we never claim any property as our own, but where our attitude is always, “If you need it, it’s yours.”
A third demonstration of the early church’s fellowship was their distinctive charity. In verse 45, we read: “Selling their possessions and goods, [all the believers] gave to anyone as he had need.” As long as the Christians kept their spirit of fellowship, there was no one among them who could be called needy.
A fourth expression of their fellowship was a distinctive dependability. In verse 46, Luke tells us that “every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes.” They were faithful to love each other, and they were faithful to gather for fellowship. They didn’t have to be begged to come to church; they didn’t have to be threatened before they would show love for each other.
I mentioned this earlier, but it is important for us to be faithful in gathering together with other believers in the local church. Hebrews 10:23-25 says: “23Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” If the believers met daily in those early years, and we are supposed to be encouraging each other all the more as we get closer to Christ’s return, how can we expect to have a good fellowship when we only see each other for an hour or two on Sunday morning? And it’s important that, not only are we meeting together, but that we are showing hospitality, opening our hearts and our homes to each other. In Romans 12:13, Paul says, “Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.” Don’t just be willing to accommodate someone when they ask you, but go out of your way to invite them into your home and, more importantly, into your life.
A fifth manifestation of their fellowship was a distinctive radiancy. There was a light of joy that shone out through them. In verse 46, it says “they . . . ate together with glad . . . hearts.” The word “glad” is an important word. It’s the word that the angel used when he announced the birth of John the Baptist to Zacharias in Luke 1:14. It means a natural, uncontainable joy that can’t be made up and can’t be held back. It’s the same quality of joy that we see when the church experiences revival.
C.H. Spurgeon once said, “A genuine revival without joy in the Lord is as impossible as spring without flowers, or day-dawn without light.”
Sixth, the early church fellowship had a distinctive purity. Verse 46 not only says that they ate together with glad hearts but also that they ate together with sincere hearts. The Greek word that is translated “sincere” is an interesting word; it doesn’t appear anywhere else in the New Testament. It was originally used to describe the smoothness of soil that doesn’t have any stones in it. Later, it began to mean an evenness or simplicity of character. These early Christians had the spiritual quality of transparency and openness. There were no hidden stones in the soil of their heart. They wanted God’s best for them, and they wanted to give their best for God. They didn’t hold anything back; there were no secret areas of their lives, no areas where God wasn’t free to move, and no areas where their brothers and sisters weren’t allowed to confront them.
We don’t have time to really explore the basis and the beauty of the purified life, but let’s just take a moment to read 1 John 1:5-10: “5This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. 7But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. 8If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.” You see in verse 7 that purity and fellowship go hand in hand. When we are walking in the light, we have fellowship with each other and we are purified from all unrighteousness.
Finally, we see that this early fellowship of believers had a distinctive liberty. In verse 47, it says that they were “praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” There was nothing holding them back; they had thrown off their limitations and their inhibitions. And spiritually hungry people saw this freedom in Christ—they saw this fellowship in Christ—and it was so attractive that they were drawn to the church and to Jesus. That doesn’t mean that the church compromised in any way. What Luke is saying is that the fellowship of the believers was so convincing and so captivating that people couldn’t help but admire it. And, as a result, “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
Liberty in Jesus will attract the unbeliever. People don’t come to church and to Jesus because they need more rules in their lives. They come because they see other Christians who are experiencing a freedom in their lives, a freedom from sin but also a freedom in Christ to worship God without holding anything back.
My prayer today is that there will be an army of churches that will rise up guarded by the Holy Spirit in their membership, guided by the Holy Spirit in their maintenance, and governed by the Holy Spirit in their manifestations. I pray that, through these churches—through these believers living in fellowship—the world will see that Jesus lives, and that daily we will see added to our churches those who are being saved. We were formed for God’s family; we were made for fellowship.