(June 5, 2017) Dr Jim McClure, noted theologian, continues his series on selected Greek words…
One of the words that often finds its way into Christian vocabulary is ‘fellowship.’ It is one of the great New Testament words but is has been used so often to describe such a variety of Christian groups that it has become devalued!
What is ‘fellowship’?
Is it just a term given to differentiate Christian groups from non-Christian groups, such as, Men’s Fellowship, Women’s Fellowship, Youth Fellowship and so on? Or does the New Testament use the word in a different way? That is what we are going to explore.
In the KJV the Greek noun koinonia has been translated by the words…
- fellowship (12 times)
- communion (4 times)
- communication (once)
- contribution (once)
- distribution (once).
The verb koinoneo has been translated partake of, communicate and distribute. It is clear that it is a much more significant word than is suggested by the way we frequently use it.
Before it became a New Testament word, it was often found in secular classical Greek in reference to the world of commerce to indicate, for example, partnership in a business. It was also used in the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, to translate the Hebrew word chabar which means to bind or join together in any context. For example, the Greek word is used in the Exodus 26:6 to describe the fastening together of curtains, in Ecclesiastes 4:10 it refers to companions, and in Psalm 119:63 it is used for those who are one in worshipping God. Interestingly it is never used in the Old Testament to describe a relationship between man and God, clearly because the holiness and transcendence of God was being preserved.
Let us now consider the New Testament’s use of the word. The first Christians put a fresh emphasis on it to describe various aspects of the Christian life. The basic concept that lies at the heart of the word is ‘sharing.’
1. Sharing of friendship
The New Testament uses koinonia in reference to the sharing of friendship among Christians. The common factor of such friendship is our friendship with God. ‘… that you also may have fellowship (koinonia) with us. And our fellowship (koinonia) is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ’ (1John 1:4).
Friendship is a human necessity and there are many whose lives have not been able to develop because they have lacked this basic need. In the church no one should experience aloneness for friendship should be a core aspect in the church’s life. In fact our bonding with Jesus Christ inevitably needs to be expressed in friendship with others – and not just within the little circle of those whom we like best!
In truth, the practice of friendship can often be neglected and even be largely missing in churches; how important it is, therefore, chose to practise friendship and be practitioners of friendship that we may truly discover afresh the challenge and blessings of koinonia in the life of the church.
2. Sharing of practical things
There is a practical flow-on from the ‘friendship’ concept of koinonia.
If it is genuine, it will be expressed in practical ways. Koinonia is not just about ‘talking the talk’ but more particularly about ‘walking the walk’! It is not just about having friendly feelings about those in our Christian family – it is also about doing practical things for that family as an expression of our friendship. It involves sharing with others in a concrete way. Ten out of forty-five references to the word in the New Testament clearly refer to this aspect of the sharing of material things.
Paul, for example, used the word three times when he wrote about the financial gift Gentile Christians had given him for the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem who were experiencing hardship.
- In Romans 15:26 he wrote, ‘For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution (koinonia) for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem.’
- In 2 Corinthians 8:4 He wrote, ‘… they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing (koinonia) in this service to the saints.’
- And also in 2 Corinthians 9:13, ‘…your generosity in sharing (koinonia) with them and with everyone else.’
So the word has been expressed in these three ways – contribution, privilege of sharing, and sharing. In Hebrews 13:16 we also read, ‘And do not forget to do good and to share [KJV ‘communicate’] (koinonia) with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.’
That spirit of practical friendship is seen in Acts 2:44-45 where the Christians in the early church shared their belongings with each other and although the word koinonia is not used in this passage, the principle behind it is clearly seen. The Good News Bible catches the spirit of the act: ‘All the believers continued together in close fellowship and shared their belongings with one another’ (Act 2: 44).
3. Sharing with and supporting each other in Christian work
In Philippians 1:5 Paul writes lovingly of that church for their ‘… partnership (koinonia) in the gospel from the first day until now.’
This was a church which shared in Paul’s ministry through their loving encouragement and support. Their koinonia therefore, was truly a ‘partnership,’ a joint venture with Paul, in bringing the gospel to the world. Though they were not able to do what Paul was doing, by their support they enabled Paul to fulfil his ministry. Paul elsewhere refers to this church as an example for others.
4. Sharing in the life of faith
Although our faith is personal, it is not private. The New Testament knows nothing of individualised Christianity. The word ‘fellowship’ in fact indicates that fact, because one cannot have fellowship with oneself! Fellowship requires more than one!
The New Testament lets us see that when we become Christians, we become part of a group of people, a body, where all the parts are indivisibly joined. ‘We, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another’ (Romans 12:5). Also in Hebrews 10:24 we read, ‘… and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.’
The need for koinonia is expressed in Galatians 2: 9 where the apostles, who at first were suspicious of Paul’s motives in becoming a Christian, now accepted him as a brother in the Lord and brought him into relationship with them. ‘James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship (koinonia) when they recognised the grace given to me.’
5. Sharing in the things of the Holy Spirit
It is the Holy Spirit who brings us to faith in Christ and who enables us to live the Christian life. Everyone then, who is a Christian, is united in this – we are dependent on the Holy Spirit sharing with us and, as a consequence, we need to share the things of the Spirit with each other.
Both the gifts and the fruit of the Spirit are given to us for sharing. Thus Paul wrote to the Philippians, ‘If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship (koinonia) with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion …’ (Philippians 2:1).
This participation of the generous and gracious influence of the Holy Spirit on our lives should enable us to such lives that the unbelieving world will take notice of and want to have!
6. Sharing in the life of Christ
John wrote, ‘And our koinonia is with … Jesus Christ’ (1John 1:3). What does that mean? In Philippians Paul made an unusual statement about koinonia. He wrote that ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship (koinonia) of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death’ (Philippians 3:10 NIV).
Sharing in the life of Christ is two-fold…
- First, it means the sharing of all the benefits that Christ has secured for us – ‘I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share (koinonia) …’ (Jude 3); ‘… one who also will share (koinonia) in the glory to be revealed …’ (1 Peter 5:1); ‘… you may participate (koinonia) in the divine nature …’ (2 Peter 1:4). These and many more are the benefits that we have through Christ.
- But it also means ‘the (koinonia) of his sufferings’ (Philippians 3:10). In Greek there is just one word for the phrase rendered in the NIV as ‘fellowship of the sharing’ – koinonia. The NIV unnecessarily multiplies the words.
What did Paul mean when he wrote, ‘I want to know Christ and … the fellowship of his suffering?’ He meant that in fully identifying with Jesus, in truly getting to know him, one must be willing to take the good with the bad! To know the koinonia of his suffering does not, of course, mean that we choose to be crucified as he was. But it does mean that we are willing to suffer and be rejected and even to die for him.
This is a far cry from the prosperity gospel that appeals to many Christians today! A W Tozer scornfully comments, ‘We want to be saved but we insist that Christ do all the dying. No cross for us, no dethronement, no dying.’ But to know Christ means that we also take on board his cross!
7. Sharing in a unique relationship with God
I began the last segment with a part of a quote from 1John 1:3. The full quote is, ‘…our fellowship (koinonia) is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.’ We have considered what fellowship with the Son involves. But what does having fellowship with the Father mean?
First of all it means something amazing – that we are able to have a close relationship with Almighty God, the Creator of the world!
But that relationship is not for everyone; it is conditional. In verse 1 John 1:6 we find that condition, ‘If we claim to have fellowship (koinonia) with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.’ So the condition for experiencing koinonia with God is not to ‘walk in the darkness.’ ‘Walking in darkness’ means living in a way that denies or rejects the moral and spiritual requirements of a life in close relationship with God.
The word translated ‘walk’ would be better translated ‘walk about,’ which would refer to deliberately living in sin as a lifestyle, rather than the committing of sins because of our fallen humanity. John is not arguing for ‘sinless perfection’ because he comments in verse 8 that we are self-deceived if we claim to be without sin. If we say that we are Christians and yet choose to ‘walk about’ in sin’s darkness, we make a pretence of our profession of faith for the condition for koinonia with God is not in place. What a challenge this is!
The very heart of Christianity!
These then are some of the meanings of this wonderful New Testament word. It is a word which, when rightly understood, gets to the very heart of what it means to be a Christian.
It is so much more than a word to describe a Christian gathering; koinonia is seen in the New Testament as a fundamental requirement for the health and spiritual growth of both the individual Christian and the church.
In essence it means that we authentically share the life of Christ with each other.
Dr Jim McClure, author of several books and Bible study series, welcomes questions from Christians seeking enlightenment on biblical perspectives.
His new book, Looking for Answers in a Confusing World, has just been released and is available in electronic version in EPUB, Kindle and PDF formats with hyperlinks and offered free. Link for orders and questions: firstname.lastname@example.org