Christian fellowship is a key aspect of the Christian life. Believers in Christ are to come together in love, faith, and encouragement. That is the essence of koinonia.
Koinonia is a Greek word that occurs 20 times in the Bible, and its primary meaning is “fellowship, sharing in common, communion.” The first occurrence of koinonia in the Bible is in Acts 2:42:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
Acts 2:42 (NIV)
Koinonia is what we were made for. It expresses a relationship of great intimacy and depth, and became to be used to describe the marital relationship – the most intimate of human relationships. It describes a life in which everything is shared, and several writers in the New Testament use it to describe our intimate relationship with God.
In one of his letters John wrote,
We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.
1 John 1:3-4 (NIV)
But not only does it describe our relationship with God, it should also describe our relationship with each other. We should be able to have the type of relationship where we can be ourselves, without any mask or image. We should be ourselves in front of both God and other people. That level of connection with each other can be summed up in the word “fellowship”.
Paul’s Letter to Philippi (Philippians 1:27 – 2:16)
One of Paul’s recurring themes was how we can glorify God by becoming like Jesus. In chapter 2 of Philippians he wrote,
Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself.
Philippians 2:5 (The Message)
Paul’s wrote his letter to the church in Philippi around 61 AD, probably from prison, as a thank you for the gift that they had sent to him in prison in Rome. While he was writing to them he took the opportunity to encourage them as the race was not yet won. Paul founded this church and it was clearly very close to his heart. Even though the majority of the letter is one of encouragement there were also some signs of division in the church and so Paul urges them to remain united in purpose and to serve one another with humility.
Working out what this means is not to be taken lightly, and Paul described it as a matter of ‘fear and trembling’. We shouldn’t be scared of it, but we do need to take it seriously, and to do our utmost to shine with the light of Christ.
When I was a student at university I cycled a fair bit, and the Halls of Residence, where I lived for the first two years, were at the top of a very steep hill. Going out in the morning was no problem, but coming back later in the day had more than just a steep hill to climb. Not only did you have to get up the hill, and I could never go more than at a snail’s pace, but there was also a handful of stray dogs at the bottom who always liked to come to bark and snap at your ankles! I was always determined to keep going, without showing any fear – irrespective of how I was actually feeling! This is just what Paul was saying to the Philippians in v28 – “striving together as one for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you.”
When we face trouble, and as Christians in a largely non-Christian world we will, we need to stand firm. Paul used the language of the Roman army – a phalanx. That was a very formidable military approach. With shields together and spears out front, the soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder in files eight men deep. Providing they didn’t break rank, they were virtually invincible. Paul says we are to stand firm, in unity with our brothers and sisters, in a similar invincible way.
There were many in the time of the early church who would have loved to stamp out and destroy Christianity, and they still exist today in many parts of the world. It can be very easy for Christians to feel intimidated, but Paul insists that we mustn’t. As Jesus said, they can kill the body but not the soul. From Paul’s point of view, the whole business of being a Christian is about living by the belief that Jesus is already the Lord of the world. That’s why our behaviour, particularly in public, should be beyond reproach. Paul says that the Philippians’ behaviour must match up to the gospel.
Where is it important for us to hold our nerve and remain unafraid in the face of opposition? Which gospel issues is our community facing right now? You might want to discuss these questions in your own fellowship groups.
Paul goes on, in chapter 2, to urge his readers to imitate Christ:
Being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.
Philippians 2:2-5 (NIV)
How can we even begin to think how to live like Paul commands? The answer lies in focussing on something other than ourselves. We need to focus on Jesus Christ himself, the king, the Lord, and the good news which has come to take over the world in his name.
This passage is all about unity – the motivation for unity, the inner life of unity, and the practical application of unity. We should want to be united because, Paul says, we are united with Christ (v1). There should be a growing sense of love within the family of Christ, a love to sustain us day to day (v2). Then as the Spirit works within us, directing and strengthening us, we should see that we should work together in a single direction. All this should produce the natural human emotions of affection and sympathy. If, after all this, we still don’t want to work at living in unity with other Christians, something is seriously wrong.
All this, though, is only possible if we keep focussed on the person in the centre – Jesus Christ. That’s why Paul quotes one of the very early Christian hymns at this point in his letter. By focussing on Christ, Paul says, quoting from Daniel, we are to shine like lights in the world (v16); beacons of hope and signs of God’s beauty in a world that has defaced it.