“Our church is having a fellowship this weekend. It’s a potluck, so everyone bring something.”
Paul: that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death . . . (Philippians 3:10 NKJV).
“Our Sunday School class needs to plan some fellowships for next year.”
John: But 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 (1 John 1:7 NIV).
Does anyone else see a disconnect here, like there are two definitions for this one word? (And can you even say ‘fellowships’? Isn’t it a non-countable noun?)
Now don’t get me wrong. I like fried chicken, and I like to ‘hang out’ with other believers. There are great blessings to be had in spending time with our brothers and sisters in Christ—especially at this time of year. Bring on the hot chocolate and Christmas carols! But one of the best blessings in the Christ-following community is the encouragement that naturally springs from working together. Thus, the author of Hebrews said, Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together . . . but encouraging one another (Hebrews 10:24-25). I’ve heard this verse used to guilt people into going to church, but our assembling of ourselves together (that’s Hebrews 10:25 NKJV, just because I like the old-fashioned words) doesn’t apply only to Sundays, nor is a meeting the goal. Authentic fellowship is something more than casual get-togethers with a good prayer thrown in. There’s love, good deeds, and encouragement involved. We’re pushing each other in these areas, doing more than we could individually.
God Himself gives us the primary example of fellowship. The Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) exist in fellowship . . . in community . . . even as They are One. He doesn’t NEED us to keep Him company. He doesn’t need our service or our glory. He doesn’t need our praise or our money. The Three-in-One work (works?) together. There’s unity, a common purpose, a mutuality that we, the created, can never duplicate. But like so many aspects of the Christ-life, He calls us to work toward this type of unity/community even though it’s presently unattainable.
The great thing is that He invites us to participate WITH Him even though He doesn’t need us. I say to my son, “Come, help me wash the dishes” not because I need his help. In fact, it goes more quickly and neatly without him. I invite him to join me in the work because I want to spend the time with him; I enjoy his company, and he might learn a little something along the way. That’s what fellowship with God is like. He wants us there with Him—not because He needs us but because He enjoys us and wants to share with us. Consider this scene from John 11.
When Jesus came to the tomb where Lazarus’ body was placed after his death, he paused because there was a stone laid across the entrance. Jesus was about to RAISE A MAN FROM THE DEAD. You think He didn’t have the power to move a big rock out of the way first? After all, He said that if our faith was even the size of a mustard seed, we could move whole mountains (Matthew 17:21), so a rock shouldn’t be any problem for Him. But Jesus never did things just for show, and He never did miracles when muscle would suffice. So He asked some guys to get that stone out of the way. And thus, they became part of the miracle. Could they raise Lazarus? No. Could they fumigate him so he didn’t stink when he walked out? No.
Here’s another example: In John 21, Jesus told the disciples to throw their nets on the other side of the boat, and they pulled in a big catch. He could have just caused the fish to jump into the boat, right? (This is fresh on my mind because I wrote about it recently.) In moving the stone, just like in casting the nets differently, the people near Jesus participated to the full extent of their ability. They could do no more.
Isn’t that beautiful? He says that, on our own, we can never bring that spiritually desolate son or daughter back to Him. The one thing we can do is pray, so do that. He says that we can’t work a miracle in the body of that friend with cancer, but we can fix meals, run errands, love, listen, and pray. So do that. He says that we can’t bring that unreached people group to Christ, but we can _____________ (you fill in the blank). He will do the rest. Whatever the situation, we can’t handle it alone. Our role is to participate to the full extent of our God-given ability (yes, He even gives us that part—like the muscles of the guys who moved the stone) and let Him do the rest. Our first conclusion here is simple: Don’t try to do it on your own. You’ll just fail. But let’s go a step further: God lets us be part of the miracles! Can you believe that? Do you grasp the fact that God Himself says, “Hey! Come over here and help me with this.” Phenomenal. Really. And that’s when we feel closest to Him: a mission trip, a service project, that time when you showed someone how to become a Christ-follower. I’m talking about momentous occasions here, but the same applies to everyday life.
The Greek word for ‘fellowship’ is koinonia. But the same Greek word (or a variation of it) is often translated as partnership, commonality, or participation (e.g. Luke 5:10, Philippians 1:5, Titus 1:4). So we can say that fellowship with God is about partnering with Him, about sharing a common purpose while here on earth.
Back to our earthly get-togethers. The same principle applies to our fellow human beings. (‘Fellow’ . . . ‘fellowship’ . . . hmm . . .) It’s the relationship that comes from working together, especially through something difficult. Real fellowship is that indefinable thing that happens when we join together for a purpose. It’s post-mission trip camaraderie. It’s far-flung teammates from your high school basketball team (regardless of whether you had a winning or losing final season). It’s veterans reunited thirty years after the war. Maybe they eat fried chicken when they get together; maybe they don’t. Yes, there’s a get-together-ness about it, but the characteristic is not the definition.
‘Fellowship’ has to be more than a synonym for ‘social gathering.’ Otherwise, fellowship of his suffering (Philippians 3:10; the NIV says participation in his sufferings) makes no sense. Consider that reference alongside 2 Corinthians 13:14, where Paul blesses his readers with the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. This type of participation—the kind that is difficult or even hurts—is what Jesus asked of Mary and Martha when Lazarus died the first time. (I wrote about that at length *here*.)
Lord, what do you want us to do with this information? How can we move it from knowledge to wisdom?
- Participate in what God is doing around us to the full extent of our abilities . . . and beyond our limits as He equips us for special circumstances. Even if it’s just moving a rock.
- Bring others along. If it’s a mission trip or an opportunity to share Christ with someone or a simple act of service, intentionally create fellowship, which strengthens the Kingdom. Your Sunday School class does not need more potluck dinners in order to grow closer as a class. You need to work together for Kingdom advancement. That’ll change things on Sunday mornings.
- Recognize and seek out authentic fellowship. We build it through shared experiences with believers—especially difficult experiences. We celebrate it (thus increasing His glory) through reviewing what He did through and around us when we see those special believers. Fried chicken optional.