ELDER NEIL PHELAN JR.
The Fellowship of the Saints
"And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers" -Acts 2:42
Last month we considered "the apostles' doctrine", the first of four identifying birthmarks of the New Testament Church recorded by Luke in this verse of scripture. But by the observation of Luke, the brothers and sisters of New Testament church, in its very awakening, were a people who did much more than embrace a particular doctrine. Luke observes the New Testament Church as a place where Christians enjoyed "the fellowship of the Saints".
As we read the New Testament, we become acquainted with many individuals who made up the initial membership of the New Testament Church. We find a composite of people from various walks of life. There were fishermen, tax collectors, doctors, business men and women, soldiers, tent makers, moms, dads, sisters, brothers, children, as well as a host of others who all shared one common bond which drew their hearts and lives together. This bond was their love for Jesus Christ. It was from this relationship that these brethren were brought together to enjoy "the fellowship of the saints".
The New Testament portrays the church as a viable, living embodiment of Christ made up of baptized believers. Each member is an important part of the body connected to all other members "by joints and bands". Paul depicts each member of the church as a vital body part, in just the same manner as the arms, legs and eyes are important anatomical organs and appendages of the natural body. And just as the arm, the leg, or the eye is a living part of the natural body, each member of the church is a living part of the spiritual body of Christ "For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ" -1 Cor. 12:12. This means that each member of the church is useful and of great importance for the proper structure and performance of the body of Christ. The severing of just one body member is painful to the whole body. I believe that many times we fail to realize just how important "the fellowship of the saints" really is.
Satan has sought out many devices to sever the various limbs and organs from the spiritual body of Christ. This fast paced society in which we live has made it extremely difficult for people to communicate and fellowship; both at home and at church. We are constantly bombarded with meetings, sports activities, recreations, clubs, organizations, phone calls, television shows, concerts, movies, hobbies, shopping trips along with a host of modern luxuries, all of which devour our time and attention. Many jobs today require the husband and wife to maintain such a hectic schedule that they meet one another in the carport coming and going. Even though these areas that we have defined can be enjoyable and are not sin, in and of themselves, we must be careful to not allow these privileges to destroy those blessings within our homes and our churches. We are to "walk in wisdom toward them that are without, redeeming the time" -Col. 4:5. These words tell us that we should be very wise concerning the world and our use of those things in the world. We must structure our time in the most profitable way that we can. When fellowship and communication break down, relationships break down, in both the home and the church. It could be possible for a church to have its doctrine down to perfection, but still fall far short in the area of Christian fellowship. In every church there must be some interaction among the members which goes beyond sitting together and listening to a sermon. The saints must have a special time to communicate about the Lord and His word; to share one another's joys and sorrows. For brothers and sisters in Christ to maintain a profitable relationship in the church there must be interaction. They must participate in "the fellowship of the saints".
WHAT IS FELLOWSHIP?
The word 'fellowship' means "partnership, or participation" and carries with it the idea of "communication". From this definition we gain a great deal of insight into Luke's observation of the New Testament Church from its very origin. It should be a place of (1)Partnership, (2)Participation and (3)Communication.
When is the last time that you considered yourself as a partner with your brothers and sisters in the church? In one sense, the brethren in the local assembly are partners. They are partners in Christ. When Paul wrote his second epistle to the church at Corinth, he introduced them to Titus and said "he is my partner and fellowhelper concerning you" - II Cor 8:23. Titus was working together with Paul for the cause of Christ and the benefit of the church. They were partners.
If you were involved in a particular labor, or perhaps a business, and you needed partners, what qualities would you desire in those partners. I believe we all could say that we would like partners who would have a personal interest in the business and cared just as much about the success of the business as we did. We would like to have partners who would labor to see that the business did not fail. A productive partner would do all that they could to get along with the other partners so that the business would run smoothly. Now, if we would do all of this in a natural business setting, how much more should we be willing to do so in the kingdom of our Lord? I also believe that this relationship goes beyond the members of the church. If a new customer entered the doors of your business, would you not be careful to welcome them, wait upon them, answer their questions and see to their needs? How much more should we entertain strangers and visitors when they first enter the doors of our church. Let us "Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares" Hebrews 13:2. Would you help an angel find a seat in your congregation? Would you be a partner?
Fellowship also means "participation": to be present and active. If we are to enjoy the "fellowship of the saints" we must be there and we must be actively involved in the affairs of the church. If we are in true fellowship with the saints, we are participating in every worship service that we can possibly attend. If we can not attend, we should be earnestly striving to find some way that we can alter our schedule to be there and we should be praying that the Lord will bless our efforts to do so. If we are in fellowship with the brethren, our heart is beating with the local assembly; our pulse is the same and most of the time, so is our temperature. We have a feel for what is going on in the church. We are one with our fellow helpers. We are participating!
When I first opened my business, my accountant gave me some very good advice. He told me if I wanted my business to do well, I must be present while the store was open. I found out that he was right. Even when I would take off just one day, many of my customers would come in and want to know where I was, even if I had worked the other 364 days out of the year. But there was more to it than that. I found that it was not only important for the sake of my customers, but also for the proper operation of the business. Being present allowed for me to know what was going on inside of the business; to keep control of the inventory; to encourage and guide my employees; and to see that the business was heading in the direction I had initially planned. I had to participate.
It is certain that we could not be in fellowship with God, nor his people, and spend our Sabbaths and church meeting times in another place. As we have already mentioned, this world has plenty of other places for us to go. Some of our excuses can get to sounding as pathetic as the two men who went fishing one Sunday. After fishing for some time and catching nothing, one of the men began to feel guilty for going fishing instead of going to church. He looked across the boat to his buddy and said "You know, we should have gone to church this morning instead of going fishing". To this remark his friend replied, "Well, I couldn't have gone anyway. My wife is sick." Does this sound familiar? The problems that we face in our lives, our health, the weather, the distance, can sometimes have a greater impact upon our availability at church than at any other place. But beloved, the opposite should be true. The Lord's house should be the place that we would drive the farthest, through the worst weather regardless of the problems that we are facing in our lives; even when the fish are biting. David said "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy" Psalm 137:5-6. I believe that this is the "fellowship" that Luke was observing as he penned these words. He observed people who met to worship the Lord even during the problems and persecution which prevailed around them. They enjoyed fellowship with Jesus Christ and His saints.
As we read the account of the New Testament church in the pages of Acts, as well as the epistles written by Paul, Peter and the other inspired writers of the New Testament, we find that these brethren were people who communicated about many things. The very epistles that they wrote stand as a constant testimony to one of their primary modes of communication: pen and paper. The written letter was one of the chief means of communication between the apostles and the churches.
There were times when a portion of the elders and apostles met for the sole purpose of discussing an issue; times that they met to communicate. In Acts 15, "Paul and Barnabus, and certain other of them", went up unto Jerusalem and met with the church and the apostles and elders, to discuss certain matters of the law and how it should pertain to their Gentile converts. They communicated one with the other and even though there was some disagreement, they continued as partners and worked towards a solution that was acceptable to all. One of the most beautiful things that we observe here, as well as in Acts 11, is that they settled their discussions with "thus saith the Lord". As they met to communicate we find that their conversation was scripturally oriented. They didn't say "this is what I think" or "this is what I feel". They didn't try to discredit a brother because he had done something a little differently than they would have done it. These brethren looked to the scriptures to settle their point of contention. They were men of integrity. They did not twist a scripture to fit their personal desire. Their desire was to fulfill their ministry and please the Lord. In this very chapter, James settles their controversy by bringing to light an Old Testament prophecy concerning the inclusion of the Gentiles into the fellowship of the church. The question at hand was concerning Peter and his preaching the gospel to people they had not formerly been in fellowship with: the Gentiles. The contention was settled when James said "Men and brethren, hearken unto me: Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things. Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world. Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day. Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren" - Acts 15:13-22. Notice how James brings their attention to God and His word by saying "as it is written". The contention was settled by the word of God in love and sincerity, through mutual fellowship and communication. They communicated.
So, I ask you: what is fellowship? Fellowship is people, on the job, working together, communicating and laboring for the benefit of the whole body of Christ and the furtherance of the gospel.
CHRIST CENTERED FELLOWSHIP
There are many things which catch people's attention and draw them together. The magnetism of the New Testament church has always been a crucified and risen Lord who has wrought salvation for his people. Beloved, people who are sincerely hungry for the "sincere milk of the word" will never be fed by anything less than the message of Jesus Christ. In the church, Jesus Christ should be the common denominator of every heart and soul. Our lives should be fused together in bonds of Christian love. John's idea of bringing others into the fellowship of the Saints was not carnal entertainment and worldly pleasure, it was "That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ" - 1 John 1:3. According to John, fellowship with the church was fellowship with the Father and His son, Jesus Christ. And John didn't write these words for personal gain, but rather "that your joy may be full" -v4.
In many places today, this Christ centered fellowship has been replaced and substituted by games, music and frolic. Their joy is not full. Many say they are having church, but in reality they are making their worship service pleasing to the world to gather as many proselytes as they can into their circle. I remember hearing one concerned father tell me that his denomination of people were considering placing a wet bar in their youth hall. His reasoning was that the children would be exposed to it in the world so they may as well keep them within the confines of the church building. It is amazing how far some people will go with their worldly fellowship and still call it church. When our fellowship is predicated upon anything less than Jesus Christ and Him crucified all we are doing is bringing the world into the church. What better thing can we give our children than Jesus? If our children have the proper love for Him, they will be model children, model citizens and model Christians.
Another drawing card that seems to be gathering great crowds today is the humanistic method of dealing with people's problems through worldly fellowship. I will agree that the church should be a place where we share one another's sorrows and burdens, and help one another when the need arises. But how is the church supposed to accomplish this? Are we to promote the church for their well being. No! We are to lead them to Jesus Christ and his word. He is the hiding place. He is our covering. As Isaiah prophesied of the New Testament Church and the blessings to be found therein he wrote that "a man shall be as an hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land" Isaiah 32:2. Who is that man? Is he the M.D., P.D. or the D.D.? No, this man is Christ Jesus "whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus" Col. 1:28. I can think of no better place for a hurting person to be than in the place where Jesus walks amidst the seven golden candlesticks. If His presence is apparent, wounds will be healed and lives will be changed. When problems arise we should be in church every time the opportunity arises seeking the "master physician" who has never lost a patient. He has a cure for every malady. This Christ centered fellowship brings the church of Jesus Christ to a far higher plateau than the world. It attaches our fellowship to Christ, who today sits at the right hand of God the Father and makes intercession for us. Many people are living in a hopeless condition because they have traded their Christ centered fellowship for Satan's substitute of worldly advice, pleasure and entertainment. There is only one hero in the church: Jesus the magnificent. The church is a place to direct people to the true source of help; to the place where we become strong in weakness; where we wax valiant in fight. It is the household of faith. This is the place where we gather our weapons together and fight against the wiles of Satan. Let us grow up in grace and put on the whole armour of God. Let us never turn God's house into anything less than a place where God is worshipped.
If our fellowship is Christ centered, Jesus must be the head, directing every movement of each member of the body. It is from the head that our natural bodies are controlled. When the head does not function as it should, seizures will occur within the natural body. When Christ is not the controlling influence of our fellowship, the body is in disarray. If we are fulfilling our role as the true New Testament church, we have become "salt and light" through our fellowship with Jesus Christ and the mutual "fellowship of the saints".