A Call to Fellowship
Series: Advent 2020
COVID-19 has exposed our need for community, or what the Bible calls “fellowship.” In this passage, the Apostle John calls us into fellowship with the church, ultimately so we will have fellowship with God
Why Should I Join a Local Church?, Mark Dever
No doubt one of the hardest parts of the COVID-19 pandemic has been how it necessarily isolates us. It has given many of us a visceral experience of something we probably already suspected was true: Humans were made for fellowship. Have you heard that word fellowship before? It’s kind of what we might call “Christianese,” a word Christians use, but not many other people do. Communion is another word we might use, but community is probably the most common word the English-speaking world uses today. Fellowship originally meant sharing, so if you had a fellowship of goods, you were keeping your goods in common. In the passage at which we are looking, it meant sharing your very lives. People have “fellowship” or community with one another when they give themselves to one another. And John, the author of the passage at which we’re looking today, says in it that he wants his readers to have fellowship with him and his community. That means he wants those who are already members of it to persevere in love, and he wants those who are not to join it. So also today, we believe, for reasons that will hopefully become clear as we go, that we as a church at Citylight, along with many other churches here in Philadelphia and throughout the world, also have fellowship with John and his community. So have fellowship with us through the Word of Life, for three reasons given in this passage: The Word of Life is true, our fellowship is with God, and it will complete our joy.
The Word of Life is true
The Word of life is the word about eternal life. Of this eternal life, the first thing John says about it is it is from the beginning. Not only is it life with no end; it is life with no beginning. There was never a time when it was not. In verse 2 he also says this eternal life was with the Father. The eternal life of which he’s speaking was there at the beginning and was with the Father. The Gospel of John, written by the same author, begins similarly: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In fact, even there John is alluding to the very first words of the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The eternal life John refers to here, then, is the Word that was with God in the beginning, and was God. It’s the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, Jesus Christ, who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” The only eternal life, the only being who is from the beginning, must be God, and now John says Jesus is that eternal life, no beginning and no end, with God at the beginning, and truly God Himself.
This is the third week in a row now we’ve seen Scripture teach that Jesus is truly God, and each week Michael or I have pointed it out to you. Why? First and foremost, because unless we see Jesus as God, we won’t worship Him and give them the glory He deserves as God. But a second important reason is because there are many people and religions around us that appreciate Jesus but who do not worship Him as God: Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, many mainline Protestant churches, and if you’re watching this and that’s you, I want to speak plainly with you: If you reject Jesus as God, you are rejecting Jesus. His divinity is of the essence of who He is. Like if you were to say you know Mike Anderson (that’s me), and then say, “He’s a really cute dog,” we’d have to conclude you aren’t talking about me, because I’m not a dog. So also if you say you follow Jesus but then say He’s not God, we have to conclude you aren’t talking about this Jesus. And that matters, because if you don’t truly have Jesus, you don’t truly have eternal life. Jesus is eternal life, and as John will later write in this very letter: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” And I tell you that not to exclude you, but because I want to include you. I want you to have this fellowship with God. And Christians, if we interact with neighbors and think, “Hey, they say they believe in Jesus; we all good,” then we may not see the dire need to share the gospel with them. I know it’s a very uncomfortable thought to think that a friend or family member, someone you care deeply about may not have eternal life, but the only person you’re serving if you refuse to think about it is yourself. If you want to have real fellowship with them, it won’t do any good to pretend it’s already there. They need to be called into it by the Word of Life, and that life is from the beginning, as eternal as God Himself, because it is God Himself.
And how do we know that? Or, more to the point of the original text, how does John know that? John goes on in verse 1 to say he and others have heard Him, seen Him with their eyes, looked upon Him, and touched Him with their hands. He’s saying this eternal life, this Word that was with God and was God, this, in the words of verse 2, was “made manifest”. In other words, it was revealed, or to use the language of John’s Gospel again, it became flesh. This is what we celebrate at Christmas: The eternal life being revealed by becoming human. And John says here’s how we know: We saw him.
And in that sense, the “we” does not include you and me; we haven’t seen, touched, and heard the incarnate Christ with the eyes, ears, and hands of our bodies. Don’t be too quick to spiritualize this: There is a sense in which the Bible talks about us hearing God’s voice and even seeing Him, but that’s not the sense John is using those words here. He’s speaking as an eyewitness in a court case. He’s belaboring the point even, repeating three different times that we have seen him, looked upon him; he even specifically mentions seeing with his eyes and touching with his hands. So we, you and I, aren’t part of this we, who have seen, heard, and touched the eternal life that was made manifest. However, the “we” is still important, because it shows us John was not alone. The life was truly made manifest, and anyone with functioning eyes, ears, and hands at that time could have seen, heard, and touched it.
John wrote the Gospel of John, the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. But, you know there are three other Gospel also? Matthew, Mark, and Luke also report what was seen, heard, and touched. There were in fact twelve apostles originally, who were appointed witnesses to testify to things they saw in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Then there was Paul, to whom the risen Christ appeared. He reports that the risen Jesus had first appeared to Peter, then the twelve apostles, then 500 more people. When he’s telling the church in Corinth about this, he adds this statement: “most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.” Why’s he tell them that? He’s saying: Go ask them! They’re alive, and they saw him!
Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, claimed that God the Father and His son Jesus Christ appeared to him, but to no one else. His testimony is, “I saw him.” Muhammad, the founder of Islam, claimed that beginning in about AD 610, he received revelations from God that now make up the Quran. His testimony is, “I saw.” But John says, “We saw him.” Is it really likely that not only John, but Matthew, Mark, Luke, Paul, the other twelve, and 500 more all claimed to see, hear, and touch something they in fact never saw, touched, or heard? Especially when you consider that the overwhelming majority of them were so sure they did see Him, they were willing to die for their testimony? Who dies for something they knew they were lying about?
Many people today don’t believe in eternal life. They think it’s a story Christians and other religious people tell themselves because the thought of a total annihilation of consciousness is utterly terrifying. And that’s certainly plausible, but is it what actually happened? John’s claim, to the contrary, is this: “I’ll tell you why not only I, but many others believe in eternal life: We saw a guy die, and then three days later, we saw Him alive with our own eyes, heard His voice, and touched Him with our own hands.” That’s like, a pretty rational reason to believe in eternal life, right?
And, thankfully, he wrote it down for us, as he says in verse 2, they testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life. So why have fellowship with us through the Word of Life? It’s not most fundamentally because death is scary and eternal life sure sounds better. It’s because eternal life really exists, and John along with many others saw it with their own eyes, heard it with their ears, touched it with their hands, and reported it to us. If you don’t believe, have you ever stopped thinking for a moment about what parts of Christianity you like and don’t like, and instead asked whether it’s true? The most basic reason to have fellowship with us through the word of life is because the Word of Life is true.
And why is John then reporting it to us? He says in verse 3: “that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” He tells us so we can have fellowship with them, but even more so, because their fellowship is with God the Father and the Son.
Our fellowship is with God
Before we jump right into fellowship with God, though, it’s worth noting a couple things about the connection John makes between the Word of Life and fellowship with his community. First, it shows us that the apostolic church is a community united by faith in the Word of Life. It is not a community united by a common earthly citizenship, ethnicity, race, culture, life stage, personality type, income level, etc. It is made up of people who are different from one another in all those ways but who together believe the Word of Life. Therefore, Christians should have fellowship with people who are different from them, but who share with them faith in the Word of Life. On the other hand, Christians cannot pretend to have fellowship with people who do not believe the Word of Life. John has to tell us about the Word of Life so we can have fellowship with them because without the Word of Life, we do not have fellowship with them. Nonetheless, he does tell us, and we should tell all, because we want them to have fellowship with us too.
Second, notice that believing the Word of Life also includes joining the fellowship of the apostolic church. I’m using the word church because that’s what the apostles themselves called their fellowship, and what we’ve historically called it on our creed when we confess we believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. When John says, “that you may have fellowship with us,” he’s saying at least, “that you may join one of our churches,” or “that you may remain a member of one of our churches.” If you’re watching this and you claim to believe the Word of Life, but you aren’t at least really actively moving toward membership in a particular church, that doesn’t make sense. I know there are challenges to it, I know churches aren’t perfect, but there are plenty of good, apostolic churches, right here in the city of Philadelphia, who believe the Word of Life, and I want you to have fellowship with them, the apostle John wants you to have fellowship with them, and since John is writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we can definitely say that God wants you to have fellowship with them. God wants you to join or remain a member at a local church, a fellowship that believes this Word of Life. And God wants you to have real fellowship with the people of that church, to let them really know you and love you, and to seek to really know and love them.
Why? Not because ultimately the church is so special, but because God is so special, and the apostolic church is the people who have fellowship with God the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. Fellowship with God is the end goal of all church fellowship. Sometimes people can hang around a church because the relationships can be so life-giving, while never actually evaluating their standing before God and entering into fellowship with Him. I know multiply of you I’m specifically thinking of here at Citylight who have said publicly that you originally wanted to be involved with our church because you liked the people. And praise God; that’s a good thing, but eventually you realized that more important than your relationship with these people was your relationship with God, and God used that to show you that you weren’t a Christian yet, and to lead you to faith in Christ. My son’s been into bubble baths lately, but last night as I was giving him one, he was actually resisting me cleaning him off with the washcloth. He thought the point of the bath was to play in the tub, and that as long as he was in the tub, he was good. The bubbles are great, but the point of getting in the bathtub is to get cleansed. And the point of church fellowship is to be truly cleansed of our sins and have fellowship with God. Are you just sitting in the tub, or do you have fellowship with God through the Word of Life? Don’t mistake friendship with the church with fellowship with the church, and more importantly, fellowship with God.
On the other hand, don’t try to get fellowship with God while skipping fellowship with the church. Don’t try to get clean without the bathtub. John says he wants us to have fellowship with him because the church’s fellowship is with God. God is everywhere, and God’s Spirit lives in every Christian, but He also promises to uniquely dwell in His church. He calls the church His temple; He says where two or three gather in His name, there is He among them. In other words, there’s a fellowship with God that can ordinarily only be enjoyed if you enjoy it in fellowship with God’s church.
Jackie Hill Perry is a poet, author, and singer who I once heard talk about her relationship with the church. She grew up in church, but identified as gay in her teenage years, at which point she didn’t go near the church. She said the church didn’t treat people like her well. But then she heard the Word of Life, believed, and faced a dilemma: Do I join a church? She had often felt so much more loved and understood by her gay community than her church community, but she joined the church anyway, and the reason she gave was simple: God was there. You can read her story in the book Gay Girl, Good God, which I’d highly recommend. I was talking with a member of our church once who struggles with same-sex attraction, and he told me something very similar: He often feels more understood and accepted in the world, and that’s sad; it’s something we want to grow in as a church. Nonetheless, he hasn’t cut himself off from the fellowship of the church, because he knows these are the people who have fellowship with God, and who are actually going to help him have fellowship with God.
Have fellowship with us not because we’re special, but because God is special, and we do have fellowship with Him, not because we’re good, but because He’s good. The fellowship of the apostles is hard and undesirable in some ways: They were often persecuted, often poor, and so also is the church today. It’s not the cool kids club. It’s made up of sinners, they get stuff wrong, they hurt you, they make mistakes, they’re different from you, but they’ve got this: God is there. Have fellowship with us. I think Citylight is pretty great, but what I’m really sure of is that God is great, and for some odd reason, owing only to the good pleasure of God, He’s here. If you’ve got some beef with Citylight Church, let’s resolve it, or if we can’t, just join another church, but have fellowship with a church that holds to this Word of Life, because if they do, that is a church that has fellowship with God, and that fellowship is worth whatever awkwardness, discomfort, pain, and inconvenience may come from being a member in it.
And now, the final reason to have fellowship with us through the Word of Life: It will complete our joy.
It will complete our joy
Properly speaking, this isn’t really a reason for you to have fellowship with us. It’s not your job to make us happy, so let me take that off of you. That’s not what John is saying here. He’s more so explaining why he’s writing in verse 4: “And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” Don’t you wonder sometimes when people are telling you to join their thing why they are doing it? Maybe you’ve wondered that today about me. We tend to be suspicious of such people: “Hey why do you want me to join this thing so badly anyway?” What’s your end game here? We assume perhaps there’s an ulterior motive. Well John comes out and says his motive: Honestly, it would just give me great joy. In fact, for as much joy as I have in fellowship with God Himself, my joy feels a bit incomplete unless you join me in that joy.
You know this feeling too, right? You watch a hilarious video, find a new TV show, listen to a great sermon, and you can’t help but tell others. At our best, that’s why Christians want everyone else to join us. Not guilt, not shame, not bullying: Joy. If you’re here and you’re a Christian, might that be a reason to share the Word of Life with someone who doesn’t yet believe this Christmas season? One easy opportunity for that this week would be to share the link for our recorded Christmas Eve service that will stream on Christmas Eve.
This fellowship with God, it’s not without its challenges, but it’s really good. Eternal life, knowing the one who was from the beginning; it’s really good. I enjoy it, John enjoyed it, but our joy is a bit incomplete knowing that some of you who do enjoy it are drifting from it or considering leaving it, and some of you watching this don’t enjoy it at all. Won’t you come enjoy it with us? Believe the word of life because it’s true. Join our fellowship, whether here at Citylight or some other church that believes the Word of Life, because our fellowship is with God, and as John says elsewhere, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). There is simply nothing better than fellowship with God; it is eternal life. So come to Him through faith in the Word of Life, and have fellowship with us.