The apostle John, along with others who were eyewitnesses of Jesus Christ, proclaims the joy of experiencing true fellowship with the living God so that Christians who have not seen Jesus might also experience the same fellowship—with God and each other—provided they pass the “fellowship tests”.
Introduction – If I had a dollar for every time Christianity is explained as “a relationship, not a religion,” and every time the listener walked away more confused than before, then I could be your pastor for free! As often as this evangelical mantra gets repeated, you’d think we could at least be clear. Most people just respond, “Huh? What’s that supposed to mean?” We understand how to have a relationship with someone we can see, hear, touch, and talk to. But what does it mean to have a “relationship” (what we sometimes call “fellowship”) with God? How do we know when a relationship with God is authentic? Is it possible to be mistaken about being in relationship with God? Can we be certain we’re not just deluding ourselves about this? Is relationship with God somehow similar to fellowship between Christians? Does one influence the other? How?
I. The Reality and Possibility of Fellowship
A. What we are made for (vv. 3-4)
The joy of koinonia (translated as “fellowship”). There are two aspects to this biblical idea: shared relationship and shared partnership. Both are rooted in our union and communion with God, and are derivatively expressed in Christian community. The relational aspect includes sharing of faith, authenticity, and friendship—all of which promise to bring a kind of joy unique to all other friendships or associations. Since God is the source of all good things in which we can find a measure of joy, it is natural to conclude that the highest joy is found in knowing and experiencing him. The first answer to the Westminster Shorter Catechism says our chief purpose in life is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. We are made to experience joy through shared relationship.
B. With God (vv. 1-3)
People who were close enough to see, hear, and touch Jesus—those to whom Jesus revealed himself—were in fellowship with God. Understand that not every single person who had an encounter with Jesus actually knew him. Only those who believed in Jesus shared a relationship with him. They continued in that eternally living relationship with God even after Jesus ascended to heaven. Those who saw, heard, and touched Jesus also knew that believers without those same experiences could nevertheless share in the same relationship with God. Their joy found completion in sharing this reality and possibility.
Picture the overflowing joy of a newly minted Christian. He cannot help sharing his joy of fellowship with God. Sharing his joy actually increases his joy! To other believers, his joy is contagious and it often bolsters tired relationships in the church—injecting new spiritual energy into the life of Christ’s body.
C. With other Christians (vv. 3, 6-7)
Sharing in a true relationship with God necessarily creates fellowship with other believers. Fellowship is by nature triangular (I fellowship with God, you with God, I with you). Consider the testimony of spiritual fellowship in Scripture and personal experience. Have you ever lived in life-giving fellowship with other believers?
I have some friends who were members of the same church as I was in college. That fellowship of believers at that time and that place was a community where we shared our life together in such a way that attracted disconnected Christians and people inquiring about the Christian faith. That experience of fellowship has become my friends’ benchmark, their elusive goal. And so they move from church to church trying to capture spiritual lightning in a bottle, leaving a little more dissatisfied every time.
I’ve spoken to a number of you about your joyful experiences at previous churches or Christian fellowship groups. I usually hear the same story, that the friendships, the community life, and the love and care were palpable. A taste of heaven on earth. And you lament losing that experience of fellowship. Most of you know what I’m talking about because at some point in your life you’ve had such an experience of deeply shared relationship with other Christians. Some of you might say the fellowship you have with this church brings you great joy. Others might not. And if we’re being honest here, I know some would answer Definitely Not! Is there anything we can do as believers in this church to improve our experience of fellowship, to taste the joy (perhaps for the first time) of intimately knowing God and other Christians? The answer is Yes, but we have to really devote ourselves to pursing God and each other by meeting the Bible’s “tests” of true fellowship. Joyful fellowship never happens without significant life investment.
II. The Tests of Fellowship
A. With God
1. Walking in the light and not the darkness (vv. 5b-7). Some people say they have fellowship with God, even sweet fellowship with him, but they don’t and they know they are lying. Since God is light, anyone who goes on and on about their private prayer time, their personal devotions, or their friendship with God, but is actually habitually living is disobedience to God, that person is not practicing (literally “doing”) the truth, and remains in the darkness stained by his sin. However, if you are walking in the light, habitually seeking to know, love, and obey God, then you’ve passed the first fellowship test. Since God is light absent any darkness, if you walk in his ways, then the Bible says that is a proof you have fellowship with God.
2. Confessing and not denying your sins (vv. 8-10). Because we are sinners, relationship with God requires that we don’t ignore our sins, or just assume that God will ignore them either, but that we bring our sins to him with the right attitude and the right request. You rightly ought to grieve over your sins and hate them. You rightly ought to ask God for pardon from, purification of, and power over your sins. Confession and repentance go together. The Bible says that when you confess your sins to God, it is another proof you have fellowship with him.
B. With other Christians
1. Pursing intimacy and transparency, not isolation and privacy (vv. 5b-7). No one can have true fellowship with other believers without being intentionally and consistently open and available. Fellowship with God requires you walk with him in the light. According to the same pattern, you must walk in the light with others to have fellowship with them. To know other Christians, you must also make yourself known. When you have such a shared relationship with other Christians, you display a mark of true fellowship.
2. Being humble and authentic, not proud and hypocritical (vv. 8-10). Everyone knows that receiving help and encouragement from someone without giving of yourself in return is not true friendship. It’s selfish to receive and not give. That’s not friendship. But it is not as obvious that it’s also selfish to give and not receive. That’s not friendship either. Pride offers to fill another’s relational needs from a position of relational sufficiency. That’s hypocrisy because we are all needy. We need each other because we belong to each other. When you cultivate relational humility and authenticity by giving and receiving, you display a mark of true fellowship.
III. The Practices of Fellowship
A. With God
1. Seeking to know God and be known by him (vv. 3, 5-7). You get to know God by experiencing him over the long haul. Over the years you “see, look upon, and touch” God through his Word of life and his Spirit. This means you pay attention to God as he reveals himself through an ever-growing understanding of who he is, what he has done, and everything he says to us in the Bible. And you respond to God through an ever-growing intimate relationship with him in prayer. You listen and respond in faith and obedience. That is fellowship with God. But what happens when you walk away from the light into the darkness?
2. Confessing you are a sinner in general who still sins in particular (vv. 8-10). Notice the grammatical forms of the word “sin”. As a singular noun (general, nature); plural noun (particular, fruit) and as a verb (action). Most Christians have little trouble confessing a sin nature, but have a hard time confessing sins.
Are you too afraid or proud to do this? If you’re a church member, you’ve already admitted it publicly. That should be the hardest part. In fact, the Church is the only organization in the world that, as a matter of joining, requires you to admit you’re a loser, one of the bad guys. Can you imagine taking such a vow to join the PTA, standing before all your neighbors and coworkers? “Do you acknowledge yourself to be a sinner in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, prone to arguing with other parents, despising children for acting immature, and undermining either the peace or purity of our school, and without hope save in God’s sovereign mercy because you will inevitably sin in all these ways?” How’s that for hazing!
Confessing that you are a sinner doesn’t just mean your great-great-great-grandpa is Adam. It means you recognize you are a religious screw-up, someone who falls down over and over again trying to do the right thing. You’re prone to give God and other Christians a bad name. It means you commit particular sins because you are still fighting your internal sin nature and sometimes, oftentimes, you lose the fight. Just admit it and stop pretending to be more holy than you really are. Name your sins (bad things attached to you and good things not attached to you) as a lack of love and obedience to God. Confess sins obvious to you, and if you want to have the truth in you, dig deep to find sins hidden to you. Read and meditate on God’s word until you realize exactly how every sinner in the Bible is you. Then confess your mess to God.
3. Trusting God to forgive and cleanse your sin in Jesus’ blood (vv. 7, 9; 2:1-2). Sometimes you have a hard time believing God’s grace applies to you personally. This is just a form of unbelief, of walking in darkness. Trust he is faithful and just to forgive.
How do we break our experience of fellowship with God? You might despair of your past (“I can never be forgiven for all the horrible things I did”). Or your present (“God knows how much my private sin ruins my public virtue”). Or your future (“Why would God forgive me this sin today when I will commit the same sin again tomorrow?”). And so you convince yourself that you are somehow more unworthy of God’s grace than other people. Or you give lip service to God’s forgiveness, but you cannot forgive yourself. It’s at bottom pride, because you’re saying your sin is so big even God cannot forgive it. Is your sin is in a special untouchable category—that somehow will return like a boomerang after God casts it as far as the east is from the west? That’s simply prideful unbelief. Why? Because when God promises to forgive and cleanse you by his grace, it is a grace that is faithful and just. God is being faithful to his promise to forgive you, and it right (just) that he do so. God would be unjust if he decided not to forgive and cleanse the sinner who pleads for mercy through Jesus’ blood! By the way, this is why only Christians can have fellowship with God. No other religion can solve the problem of human sin, because only Jesus reveals a God who is both just and merciful. Only Jesus has no sin and therefore has unbroken fellowship with God his Father. Only Jesus can cleanse us from our sin by giving his own life for ours. He sacrificed his perfect fellowship with God so we could have, through faith in him, the shared relationship he has with God. God has provided a way for all sinners to have fellowship with him. Jesus is the way he has graciously provided. All who come to him have fellowship with God.
1. Sharing one another’s beliefs, thinking, and spirituality (Rom 12:16; 1 Cor 1:10; Eph 5:19; Col 3:16). We must be walking together with other Christians in the light of God. This means Christians live a shared life together. Believers possess union and communion with God, and they share union and communion with each other. Their shared life is a shared “Christian life”, which means they are pursuing the spiritual disciplines together. This shared life will manifest itself in the larger corporate body, but it must also manifest itself in smaller, more intimate groups of believers.
2. Serving one another through accountability (Rom 15:14; Eph 4:25; Jas 5:16). We must have the kind of relationships with other Christians in which we are confessing our sins to each other. It can take a long time to become intimate enough to do this. Quality time and quantity time is required. Trust must be built for people to open up their hearts to reveal the junk inside. People have to feel unconditional love to confess sins to another Christian. They have to feel secure enough that the relationship won’t be ruined or changed for the worse if they confess sin to another. They have to feel a reciprocity in the relationship, that the other believer is not a superior but a fellow sinner who feels free to confess his sins in return. We must not walk in darkness alone or with others. We cannot live hypocritical lives, hiding certain sins, keeping them secret from other Christians, while claiming to walk in the light with God. This kind of hypocrisy is spiritual suicide. Secret sins have not been cleansed by the blood of Christ. They will destroy you through either pride or fear. They will rob you of the joy and experience of fellowship with God and with other believers.
3. Serving one another through forgiveness and reconciliation (Mt 5:23-24; 18:15; Gal 5:26; Eph 4:2; Col 3:13; Jas 4:11). We must have the kind of relationships with other Christians in which we are free to forgive those sins committed against us, and to love in such a way to cover a multitude of sins. This only happens if we have Christian friendships that bring us real joy and enrich our experience of fellowship. Otherwise, you’ll forgive, shake hands, and gladly go your separate ways (or at least keep your emotional distance) because you forgave out of duty but with no delight, no love. That’s not real friendship. Real Christian friendship, a fellowship of brothers and sisters, does not come easy or naturally. It is costly, because the one forgiving absorbs the sin debt, which can feel like a heavy burden. Thankfully God provides believers everything they need to experience joyful fellowship, but Christians must devote themselves to practice. It takes time, commitment, scheduling, saying no to other pursuits, and often leads to seasons of frustration, tears, anger, hurt, loneliness, and apathy. But the lasting fruit of devotion to fellowship is joy—shared with God and each other—experienced as eternal life enjoyed now and forever.
Conclusion – The shared relationship aspect of Christianity is of a different sort than what other religions, institutions, and human associations can provide. Christianity is experienced as a relationship between a person and his Creator-Savior. It is not merely like being part of a family. It is being and experientially living in the family of God our Father, his Son Jesus Christ, and all his children. This committed relationship is a Holy Spirit fellowship of shared faith, shared authenticity, and shared friendship. To be in fellowship with God and other Christians is eternal life. So brothers and sisters, go and practice fellowship. Devote yourselves to God and each other. Fellowship: it’s what we’re made for.