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Lesson 29: The Fellowship Of The Saints (Philippians 4:21-23)

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The neighborhood bar is possibly the best counterfeit there is to the fellowship Christ wants to give His church. It’s an imitation dispensing liquor instead of grace, escape rather than reality. But it is a permissive, accepting, and inclusive fellowship. It is unshockable. It is democratic. You can tell people secrets and they usually don’t tell others or want to. The bar flourishes not because most people are alcoholics, but because God has put into the human heart the desire to know and be known, to love and be loved, and so many seek a counterfeit at the price of a few beers. (Source unknown.)

It is clear from the Bible that Christianity is essentially relational. The two greatest commandments call us to be right related to God and to one another: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”; and, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37, 39). Even though we all desire close relationships, because of the fall we tend to act in ways that put distance between us. When sin entered this world, Adam and Eve lost the intimacy they had formerly known. They covered their nakedness and started what continues to this day, blaming the other person for the problem. Their family life was permanently shattered when Cain murdered his brother Abel. And so the human race that longs for fellowship is marked by a breakdown of it.

This means that true fellowship doesn’t just happen; we have to work at it constantly, both in our families and in the church. I’ve said it before, and I’m only half joking, that if you get involved in the life of this church, I can guarantee that you will be offended at some point! I quote again the verse which is not Scripture, but is true to it, “To dwell above with the saints we love, O that will be glory! But to dwell below with the saints we know, well, that’s a different story!”

Paul closes his letter to the Philippians with a few words of greeting and a brief benediction. We tend to skip verses like these. But they show us Paul’s theology in shoe leather. His theology, as I’ve said, was not abstruse intellectual stuff for theologians to debate. It was written to common people to show them how to live godly lives. Even the deepest theology in Philippians, where Paul deals with the kenosis or “emptying” of Christ when He took on human flesh, is written to show us how to be humble and selfless toward one another (2:3-11). So here at the end of the letter we see that his theology was not divorced from real people for whom he cared. These verses tell us,

It is vital that we be committed to the fellowship of the saints.

Someone has written concerning the early church,

What that first century world saw was the phenomenon of people of all walks of life loving one another, serving one another, caring for one another, praying for one another. Slaves and free men were in that community. Rich and poor were in the fellowship; Roman citizens and non-Roman citizens were in that community. Members of the establishment and those violently opposed to the establishment were part of that community. The intelligencia and the illiterate were members of that community. To the utter amazement of the world outside they were bound together in an inexplanable [sic] love and unity. (Source unknown.)

These few verses bring out seven marks of the fellowship of the saints which we must strive for as we seek to grow in love:

1. The fellowship of the saints is an inclusive fellowship where every person matters.

“Greet every saint ....” The NIV mistranslates, “Greet all the saints,” as if it were a blanket greeting. But Paul uses the singular, meaning, “Greet each one individually.” It’s not generic; he doesn’t want anyone excluded. He wants to greet Euodia and those who may have sided with her; but he also wants to greet Syntyche and those who may have sided with her (4:2-3). He wants to greet each of the church leaders, but also each of the slaves who has come to know Christ. Each person counts. None are to be excluded.

Saints are not saved en masse, but one by one. There is no family or group plan to come into the true church, the company of those whose sins are forgiven through faith in Jesus Christ. Your parents may be godly people who raised you in the church. That’s a wonderful advantage, but it won’t get you into heaven. You must come before God and acknowledge your sin and your need for the Savior. You must realize that Jesus Christ shed His blood as the only way that your sins can be forgiven. Throwing off all trust in your own good works or self worth, you must trust in Jesus Christ as the One who by His perfectly righteous life and substitutionary death provided all that is needed to make you right before God. Then you join the fellowship of the saints.

At the moment you trust in Christ, the Holy Spirit baptizes you into the one body of Christ, made up of every person worldwide who believes in Him (1 Cor. 12:13). The Holy Spirit sovereignly places you in Christ’s body as a member with a vital function to perform. Some have more visible gifts, such as preaching or leadership. Others have less noticed gifts, such as helps or encouragement. But as Paul spells out so beautifully (1 Cor. 12:12-31), no member is unnecessary. Just as in the human body, so in the church: Those members we may tend to despise are essential for the proper functioning of the body. You probably haven’t thought much this past week about your pancreas (unless you were having problems with it), but you can’t live if it stops working. Even so in the church, each member is vital for its proper functioning.

2. The fellowship of the saints is a holy fellowship, set apart from the world.

“Saints” means “holy ones.” Due to the wrong teaching of the Catholic Church, we tend to think of saints as super-Christians who have distinguished themselves by their dedication or noble service. “But me? I’m just your average, run-of-the-mill Christian.” But the New Testament is clear that every believer in Jesus Christ is a saint. Paul even addressed the immature Corinthians as “saints by calling” (1 Cor. 1:2). It is important that we view ourselves as such. It means that God has set us apart from the world unto Himself. We are to be in the world, having contact with worldly people. But we are to be distinct from the world, bearing witness by our godly behavior and by our words to the good news of Jesus Christ.

A little boy used to attend a church which had beautiful stained-glass windows picturing St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, St. John, St. Paul, and others. One day he was asked, “What is a saint?” He replied, “A saint is a person whom the light shines through.” Not bad!

Being a saint is a position that is to result in appropriate practice. Our position is in Christ, set apart unto God. Our practice is to grow in godly behavior. Of course, the church is both a fellowship of sinners in need of constant grace (4:23) and of saints. We must hold both truths in tension, that we are saints set apart unto God who are to grow in holiness; and, sinners who must receive God’s grace and show it to others.

3. The fellowship of the saints is a Christ-centered fellowship.

“Greet every saint in Christ Jesus ....” That is to say, we are set apart unto God through our being in union with Christ Jesus. His righteousness is imputed to us when we believe, and we are placed in Him so that all that is true of Him is true of us. Apart from Him we would not be saints at all. He is our Lord, our everything, our all in all. Everything we do must be centered on the Lord Jesus Christ. As we’ve seen throughout our study, Christ was central to Paul, as He must be to us. Bishop Handley Moule observes,

The mere number of mentions of the Saviour’s name is remarkable. More than forty times we have it in this short compass [in Philippians]; that is to say, it occurs, amidst all the variety of subjects, on an average of about once in every two or three verses. This is indeed perfectly characteristic, not of this Epistle only but of the whole New Testament. What the Apostles preached was not a thing but a Person; Christ, Christ Jesus, Christ Jesus the Lord (Philippian Studies [Christian Literature Crusade], pp. 255-256).

The local church is not just to be a social club, where we converse about the same sorts of things worldly people talk about. Our supreme desire and goal is to know Christ more deeply (3:10). When we come together, He should be the focus of our fellowship. The things of Christ draw us together.

4. The fellowship of the saints is a family fellowship.

“The brethren ... greet you.” We have a common Father through the new birth, so that we are now members of the same family. Every person born of God through faith in Christ is a member of this family that transcends social barriers, racial barriers, and national barriers. The saints in Philippi and the saints in Rome were brothers and sisters, even though they may never have met face to face. It included slaves and free-born, poor and wealthy.

Human families are a place where everyone belongs just by virtue of who they are, not by what they do or what they have accomplished. The elderly are in the family, and even though they can no longer work or have a career, they are valuable to the family. They are the ones who begot us and reared us. They have handed off their values and wisdom to us. Babies and young children are in the family. They make for a lot of work, always needing attention and care. But they are the hope of the future. We marvel at each one, uniquely created in the image of God, each with a different bent right from the womb. Everyone in between, from teenagers trying to establish their identity to the middle-aged, who are feeling their bodies beginning to wear out, are a part of the family.

Families aren’t perfect. Everyone is in process. But you hang together and care for one another because of the family bond. Families don’t get together to watch programs; they just get together because they’re family, to find out what’s going on in one another’s lives. The church should be the same. The American church has become too entertainment-oriented. You can draw a crowd if you put on a good program, but if you announce that the church family is just getting together to meet with the Lord and one another, not many show up. It ought to be enough just to gather with the brothers and sisters and share in the things of Christ.

5. The fellowship of the saints is a supportive fellowship.

“The brethren who are with me greet you.” Where was Paul? In prison. It wasn’t a great place to hang out. Besides that, as we saw in chapter 1, some of the Christian leaders in Rome were criticizing Paul and using his imprisonment as a way to put him down and advance themselves. So to be with Paul in his imprisonment meant to expose yourself to the criticisms of these selfishly motivated preachers. But some--Timothy, Epaphroditus, and a few others--were there with Paul, standing with him in his time of need.

Paul was strong and able to stand alone for the Lord when he needed to (2 Tim. 4:16-17). But he also appreciated the ministry of those who sometimes put their reputations or even their lives on the line to minister to him. During his second imprisonment, he wrote to Timothy, “The Lord grant mercy to the house of Onesiphorus for he often refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chains; but when he was in Rome, he eagerly searched for me, and found me--the Lord grant to him to find mercy from the Lord on that day--and you know very well what services he rendered at Ephesus” (2 Tim. 1:16-18). Years before Paul and Barnabas had gone their separate ways because Barnabas wanted to give Mark a second chance after he deserted them on their first missionary journey. But as he sat in prison facing the end, Paul told Timothy, “Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service” (2 Tim. 4:11).

The point is, even though we sometimes have our differences with other Christians, we need each other. We are to bear one another’s burdens. We are to stand with those who are hurting and give support, just as these brethren did with Paul.

6. The fellowship of the saints is a growing fellowship.

“All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.” The term does not necessarily mean Caesar’s immediate family, although it could include such. It refers to those in civil service to Caesar. Some of these could be in the list of Romans 16, which Paul had written a few years earlier (see J. B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians [Zondervan], pp. 171-178). In this case, they would have been Christians before Paul’s arrival. But others, no doubt, were those in the Praetorian Guard and in other positions who had met Christ through Paul’s witness as a prisoner (1:13). But in either case, the gospel was spreading to the most pagan corners of that society.

The emperor when Paul wrote Philippians was the notoriously wicked Nero. He had come to the throne at 17 after his mother had poisoned her third husband Claudius, who also happened to be her uncle. Five years later Nero had his mother killed because she was getting too pushy. Three years after that he had his own wife killed so that he could marry another man’s wife. He murdered many of his top officials in the military and in the Roman senate. With that kind of court intrigue going on, working for Caesar would have been a corrupt environment, to say the least. And yet the gospel spread there.

God may have you working in a wicked environment. You may be thinking, “I wish I could work in a more godly, or at least, a neutral place where I wasn’t surrounded by such raw paganism.” But you need to view it as your mission field, a great opportunity for the light of the gospel to shine into that dark place through your witness. To bear witness effectively, you must live with integrity, not compromising the gospel by joining the world’s ways. You are being watched, and those in the world will try to get you to mar your testimony, because then they have an excuse for not repenting of their sins. When you get opportunities to speak, you must not be ashamed of the gospel, but remember that it is the power of God to salvation to everyone who believes.

The church should always have an influx of new babes in Christ through the faithful witness of its members. But, remember, babies are cute, but they are also totally self-centered. They dirty their diapers, they wake you up in the night when they think they have a need, they throw up on your clean clothes, and they make a total mess out of meals. But no family should be without them. And no church should be without those from Caesar’s household who are coming to faith in Christ.

7. The fellowship of the saints is a grace-oriented fellowship.

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” This is a closing benediction, but it is more than just a nice way of saying, “Good-bye.” The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ is crucial to the entire gospel. Grace means God’s unmerited favor shown to us who deserve His judgment. Without grace, we could not receive the gospel, because none of us can ever earn or deserve it. Without grace, we could not grow in holiness, because we are so selfish and sinful that if God gave us what we deserve, we all would have been wiped out long ago. His grace is the motivation to deny our sinful selves and live to please and glorify Him. We stand daily, constantly in need of God’s grace. Without it, we would be quickly consumed.

God’s grace is something we all want for ourselves, but we don’t want to extend it to others, especially to those who have offended or wronged us. When I get angry, I have good cause and, besides, I’m only human. So I claim God’s grace. But when my wife or children get angry, they need to deal with it and not make excuses! Don’t misunderstand--I’m not suggesting that we take advantage of grace by being sloppy about sin. We all need to judge our sin and turn from it. But I am suggesting that we’re all quick to apply grace to ourselves and to be judgmental toward others, when we need to be quick to judge ourselves and show grace to others.

Grace ministers to the spirit (4:23), or inner person, our essential being. It is in our spirit that we commune with God. So many of our troubles can be traced to being defiled in spirit (2 Cor. 7:1), whether by bitterness, greed, lust, envy, or malice. But if the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ dwells in our spirit, so that we thankfully, joyfully live each day in the sweet awareness of His unmerited kindness toward us at the cross, then we can extend that same sweet graciousness toward others. Our homes and our church should be marked by grace-oriented fellowship.

Conclusion

Three concluding applications:

  1. Commit yourself to the fellowship of the saints by getting involved in some sort of small group. You can’t experience true fellowship if you aren’t connected to other Christians who know you personally and whom you know. It may just be one other believer, but commit to meet and build one another in Christ.
  2. Commit yourself to the fellowship of the saints by working through relational problems. The church isn’t perfect. You will bail out with hurt feelings if you don’t commit to work through problems.
  3. Commit yourself to the fellowship of the saints by ministry to the saints. Every believer is gifted for service. Rather than being self-focused (“Nobody said hello to me; this is an unfriendly church”), be focused on others (“There is a person who seems to need a friend; I’ll go over and reach out to him”). Take the initiative.

Remember, Philippians tells us how to know God’s joy in every circumstance. We will know joy by knowing the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ through the gospel, so that we grow in fellowship with Him; we will know joy by getting our focus off ourselves and onto others, so that we fellowship in God’s grace with other saints; and we will know joy by bearing witness of His glorious gospel to those who are lost, so that they can enter the same joy of fellowship with God and with His saints.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can FCF strengthen true fellowship? Do we need new programs to facilitate it or just a renewed focus?
  2. Friendships tend to be exclusive and yet fellowship is inclusive. How can we promote both without diminishing either?
  3. Must an introverted loner-type be committed to fellowship? How does personality fit in with the biblical mandate?
  4. How can we develop a grace-orientation and yet not grow sloppy about sin?

Copyright 1995, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church), Fellowship