The essence of Christian fellowship is shared relationship committed to gospel partnership for God’s glory. By God’s blessing, a church will grow in her experience of grace as her members thankfully serve each other (and their neighbor) through mission, mercy, and encouragement.
Introduction – Maybe you’ve heard it on the radio. It’s a song from the 1990s by the one-hit wonder Deep Blue Something, called “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” The premise is a girl who wants to end the relationship with her boyfriend because there’s no “there” there. They have no common ground to start from, life circumstances are pulling them apart, and she doesn’t really care. But he does. And so he proposes something that their relationship can be about. “And I said, ‘What about Breakfast at Tiffany’s?’ She said, ‘I think I remember the film and as I recall I think, we both kinda liked it.’ And I said, ‘Well that’s one think we’ve got.’” The song is really catchy (you’re probably humming it in your head right now!), but its message is really pathetic. And we all know why.
A fruitful relationship needs to be about something besides the relationship. Without a solid foundation, an outward-facing purpose, and a self-giving partnership, a shared relationship cannot flourish because it will eventually collapse when confronted with external obstacles or internal divisions. On what should we build the relationship of Christian fellowship to make it about something that flourishes? The gospel is the strongest foundation, the highest purpose, and the most self-sacrificial partnership upon which any relationship can be built.
Last time we learned how one aspect of koinonia (sometimes translated as “fellowship”) is a shared relationship, both with God and with other Christians. But that is not enough for biblical fellowship (koinonia) to flourish. God is not merely a conversation partner, because he is on the move. He is a God of action, accomplishing his plan to bring heaven to earth by preparing a people to be ready for his coming. Therefore if we will have fellowship with God and each other, we must participate, become participants, and exercise our role as partners by sharing in his plan for the world. And we must be united in this partnership. This idea of fellowship as a gospel partnership is the other aspect of koinonia (in this passage translated as “partnership”).
I. The Foundation of Gospel Partnership
A. A shared desire for God’s glory (vv. 2, 11b)
To appreciate the foundation of this gospel partnership, we must understand a little background. The first church Paul founded in Europe was in Philippi (Acts 16). As he brought the gospel to the city, there were a number of dramatic conversions. At one point a riot broke out in the marketplace because Paul’s message was causing such a stir. He was beaten and imprisoned, surely sending the new converts into a panic. But Paul sang God’s praises from his prison cell, giving glory to God despite his suffering. By a miraculous turn of events, the gospel message was publicly vindicated the next day when the city magistrates apologized for his mistreatment and kindly asked him to leave town. In God’s providence, the gospel had entered the city and taken root. Paul and the Philippian Christians rejoiced, and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. This church was his first church plant to partner with him in bringing the world-shaking gospel to other places. They desired to support him in every way so God would be glorified.
B. A shared heart of thankful service (vv. 1, 3)
Paul and his coworker Timothy consider themselves bond-servants of Jesus. They belong totally to Jesus, and thus serve him fully. The term “bondservant” means we are in this gospel partnership together, and we have a shared Master to obey. Moreover, Paul is so thankful for his fellowship with his Philippian brothers. Every time he prays, he remembers them. The mere thought of his longtime partners in gospel ministry, whenever they come to mind, spurs him to thank God. And the feeling is mutual. The Philippians dearly love and care for Paul. Each is thankful for the other, and they seek ways to serve one another, even when they are apart.
II. The Purpose of Gospel Partnership
There is a difference between the commonly held notion of “membership” and the uncommon idea of “partnership”. My in-law’s church in Virginia Beach has ditched the label “membership” altogether because they want to emphasize that every person on the rolls is a partner who shares in the work of ministry. They don’t mean that a partner is a friendly acquaintance (as in “Howdy partner!”), but in the sense that Ebenezer Scrooge made Bob Cratchit a partner in business as a Christmas present. The term “church member” is not wrong, and it has a biblical analogy (1 Cor 12). But we have to be careful with it because in our culture it tends to emphasize the club mentality and deemphasize the idea of partnering in a shared commitment.
A. Evangelistic mission—because we need each other (v. 5)
We need each other for the work of sharing, spreading, and supporting the gospel. This work requires partnering with God’s servants who are called, gifted, and engaged. Not everyone can be a commissioned missionary dedicated to full-time field work. Missionary work of sharing the good news—of God’s kingdom come in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, of the forgiveness of sins, the transformation of lives, and eternal life—whether that work be in this local community, or in some other place near or far, is absolutely necessary. Gospel partnership is for supporting the work of evangelistic mission. But being a missionary and being a missionary sender are two different callings, each dependent on the other. We need each other so that evangelistic mission happens. And we need the gospel to go forth to every inhabited place because we need to be in fellowship with elect brothers and sisters who have not yet come to faith. Our fellowship will remain incomplete and unfulfilled until all of God’s people are included in the fellowship of God.
This means every Christian, including you, needs to think of his life’s purpose in terms of his place in God’s mission. How are you actively participating in God’s evangelistic mission for the world? Are there Christians at your workplace who you partner with regularly in prayer for your coworkers, your customers, for opportunities to informally and formally gain a hearing for the gospel? Do you know believers in this church who share similar life circumstances in terms of your field of work, common social circles, or common interests? Get together and strategize how to bring the gospel to bear upon the unbelievers around you. Brainstorm ways your home group can partner together in God’s evangelistic mission. Maybe our church’s Missions Committee needs to broaden its scope to include equipping the congregation in outreach and evangelism? Start talking about gospel partnerships because we need each other to participate in God’s evangelistic mission to the world.
B. Holistic mercy—because we belong to each other (v. 7)
Since gospel partners belong to one another, we help each other when one partner has a need. Consider the bond between parent and child, or husband and wife. You instinctively provide for the needs of those who belong to you before the needs of your other affections and attachments. Even during seasons when your family relationships are not mutually fulfilling, you extend mercy out of a sense of belonging. The Philippians saw their gospel partner Paul in trouble so they sent one of their own to deliver a gift to him to meet Paul’s needs. They could have reasoned that Paul “the missionary in jail” was no longer a wise investment partner since he was hindered in his work. “He’s on unscheduled furlough and off the field, so take him off the budget.” But instead they showed him holistic mercy (physical, financial, spiritual, emotional, relational) because abandoning their fellow partner was unthinkable. Paul belonged to them, so they felt compelled by love to minister to him.
This is how outward-facing missions and inward-facing mercy are intimately connected. If one partner is struggling, our gospel partnership will necessarily suffer. If you get very sick, you don’t push ahead at your job because your work will suffer. The quality of your work will go down, and if you don’t heal you won’t be able to work at all. Then all your coworkers will suffer the loss of your contribution in the partnership and more importantly the loss of sharing in partnership with you. We take care of each other, extending mercy and sharing in each other’s suffering because we belong to each other. Someone might ask, “Which Christians do I belong to?” This is a little like asking, “Who should I have the fellowship of gospel partnership with?” The answer is very simple: the Church. Your local church, your sister churches (the presbytery), your denomination and other churches of like confession, churches in your town or city, and by extension, the church worldwide. So our belonging to each other and therefore our mercy rightfully extends to all Christians who suffer. From people who worship with us here to our brothers and sisters in the Middle East suffering intense persecution merely for believing in Jesus. We belong to each other so we have mercy on one another, because when one partner suffers, our fellowship suffers.
C. Positive exhortation—because we love each other (v. 6)
We affirm God’s work of grace in one another to encourage greater growth. The idea is not merely to pay compliments to make our gospel partners feel good. Positive exhortation encourages them to abound in love and good works. It is being joyfully gentle in addressing areas where more spiritual growth is necessary, at the same time pointing out how much growth God has already given, and how much confidence we can have in God completing the work he has begun in us. When obstacles such as sin, despair, and lack of opportunity threaten to derail a gospel partner and thus hinder our fellowship, we remind each other of the gospel, of our partnership in it, and of our God who is faithful to finish his work. We perform this duty out of delight, because we love each other.
What does this kind of positive exhortation look like? Here’s a hypothetical but not far-fetched scenario (I’m not going to describe anyone in particular). Let’s say a Christian friend, someone in your home group, someone with whom you’ve served side-by-side, confesses a struggle with pornography, and asks you to be his accountability partner. So you begin meeting together— building your relationship, encouraging each other, asking each other what God has been teaching you, checking on how life is going. So it becomes clear he’s really struggling! Can’t seem to break the habit. And so you both go to work tackling this area of sin—seeking help through prayer and counsel, installing safeguards, and confessing and repenting to appropriate parties. Then after a lot of invested time and tears, he experiences a real measure of victory in this area. Nothing shocking here when you’ve seen God’s grace do miraculous things time and again. But then one day he falls hard. And he’s heartbroken and despondent at his relapse in sin. What do you do as his gospel partner? Do you shame him? “How could you do this to God?! How could you do this to me?!” Do you scare him? “Don’t you know God turns up the furnace in hell for backsliders like you?!” Or do you encourage him? “Praise God at how far you’ve come! I’m sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus. You are dear to my heart, and I won’t leave you or forsake you, because that’s how much Jesus loves you. Your destiny in Christ is to be pure and blameless, filled with the fruit of righteousness. That’s the ‘you’ I see, because that is who you and I will be by God’s grace on the day Jesus returns. And I’m so blessed to partner with God to see you get there.” When you begin to see your Christian friend as vital to the fellowship of gospel partnership, and not just another casualty of war, then you’ll understand why Christians love each other with so much grace. That is how Jesus treats you. Paul as the chief of sinners knew this better than anyone.
III. The Fruit of Gospel Partnership
A. Heartfelt joy in fellowship (vv. 4, 7-8)
Paul’s partnership with the Philippians brings him deep joy. His prayers are joyful. He holds his friends in his heart because they are so dear to him. He yearns for them. Paul swears before God that his affection for them is the same as the affection Jesus has for them! He rejoices in his fellowship with them. As he shares his heartfelt joy, he is hopeful they will also share with him their heartfelt joy. What is Paul joyful about? God’s work in his gospel partners, that assures him of their salvation. How strong is his joy? Sitting in a jail cell cannot squelch it. That is eternal joy.
B. Wise love in fellowship (vv. 9-10a)
The sense of the phrase “approve what is excellent” is loving and discerning the things that really matter. The fellowship of gospel partners helps Christians to understand what really matters. Lots of byproducts of gospel partnership are good in and of themselves. Church unity, a sense of adventure, dear friendships, a network of community support. And these things are indeed valuable. But having disordered loves is idolatry, which is the root of all kinds of sin.
You know this is true. If loving your children becomes more important than loving your spouse, then that will lead to suffering. Why? Because the love you have for your kids is properly founded on marital love. If your loves become disordered, then everyone suffers—your kids, your spouse, you, your friends, your extended family, your church, your neighborhood, your community. Think about it. If you love your country or your job or your ministry or your hobby more than your family, then suffering will result. Not just in your family, but in all your other loves. If you demote the things that matter most and promote other good things to the most important place, then your love has become foolish. If you want your love to abound more and more as Paul prayed for his Philippian gospel partners, then you must make your fellowship about the things that matter most. Only then will your love be wise.
C. Pure righteousness in fellowship (vv. 10b-11)
The day is coming when the work of our gospel partnership will be complete. God by his sovereign grace will finish his work in us and through us on the day Jesus returns or calls us home to heaven. Paul prays that the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus will be ours. That righteousness of Christ is first credited to us. We get the credit for Christ living pure and blameless before God; Jesus gets the credit for our living sinfully before God. But the fruit of that Christ-earned righteousness credited to us are qualities that fill us more and more as our fellowship of gospel partnering becomes more and more pure and blameless. God’s work in and through you now guarantees your growth in grace until he is finished with you. Until the fellowship we share abounds in the fruit of righteousness (Gal 5:22-23).
Conclusion – Do you see that for Christians who need each other, belong to each other, and love each other, gospel partnership is the thing that our shared relationship must be about? Nothing else will sustain our fellowship. As we partner with God and each other in God’s mission to bring his gospel, his mercy, and his spiritual exhortation to his people, we practice true fellowship. This is why fellowship is one of our core values. If the end goal of fellowship is a shared relationship with God and each other, the means God blesses to reach the end goal of fellowship is gospel partnership. Remember, if you have been united to God’s church, you are a partner in the fellowship of the gospel. So start thinking, talking, and living like a gospel partner, not just someone on the membership rolls. But if you sense you’re not really in fellowship with God or his church in any meaningful sense, true fellowship is available to you. If you repent of forsaking fellowship (and every other sin), and put your trust in Jesus to forgive and change you, God will be gracious to make you a full gospel partner in his fellowship. What are you waiting for?