As we continue with our discussion of scriptural principles by which we can, in harmony with the witness of God’s Spirit to our hearts, examine ourselves we come to what we might call “The Test of Fellowship.” This test is much more critical than you might think. After all, salvation is not just about “you and God.” There is more to God’s plan than that. There are a lot of deluded individuals running around claiming a private relationship with God who would fail this test in a minute.
You may remember what John said in I John 1:3 concerning his reason for writing his letter: “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.”
Please also recall the wonderful promise of 1 John 1:7: “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” Thank God that we can be made pure from all sin by the blood of Jesus! But note that there is another fruit of walking in the light: “We have fellowship with one another.”
This word “fellowship” lies near the heart of Biblical salvation. There is no such thing as one without the other. And so it is very important that we understand what is meant.
I have often heard Christians —and professing Christians— speak of “having fellowship.” They might say something like, “We’re going over to So-and-So’s house to “have fellowship.” They might be planning to share a meal, sit and talk, have a prayer meeting, or even watch a ball game. The point, I fear, is that too many think of “fellowship” as basically an “activity.” It is seen as something that happens only when people get together to do something. When they go their separate ways after the activity then the fellowship is over.
It certainly is true that fellowship can and ought to be EXPRESSED through shared activity but that is not what it is. At its heart, fellowship is not simply an activity but a living RELATIONSHIP. It is a relationship that exists between any two genuine believers whether or not they ever meet, let alone share an activity.
If this were not so then some believers would be all but barred from the fellowship of which John speaks because of their circumstances. I would not be at all surprised if there were some readers who are essentially alone in their faith. In the providence of God they find themselves in places where there are few, if any, other believers and no opportunities for “fellowship,” as the word is so often used. Their relationship with God is, of necessity, private and personal. Are they cut off from what John was talking about? Of course not!
They may have little or no opportunity for many of the practical expressions of fellowship such as worship services or just “getting together,” yet they are just as much a part of the fellowship of the saints in the earth as are those who are blessed with an abundance of fellowship activity. I believe there are heroes of the faith who are simply called to stand faithfully in places of great spiritual darkness and opposition to Christ. It is not that they have an independent spirit and prefer to walk alone; it is simply that they lack opportunity. Such people are our brothers and sisters and we should pray for them.
No, fellowship is more than an activity; it is a relationship that exists among all believers. Of course, religiously speaking, people are brought into many kinds of relationships and engage in a wide variety of activities called “fellowship” but such fellowships are not necessarily what John was talking about. The relationship John speaks of is not based on creed. It is not based on nationality or race. It is not based on whether or not you are a Baptist — or any other brand you may care to name. It is not based on earthly interests we have in common. It is based on one thing and one thing alone: being literally born into God’s family by His Spirit.
God has a family. In Ephesians 3:15, Paul speaks of the Father’s “whole family in heaven and on earth.” And so this family, this fellowship, includes not only every genuine born-again Christian on earth but also every believer who has preceded us to glory. What a reunion awaits those who love Christ’s appearing!
The relationship of those who are part of God’s family is greater than any other relationship that may exist. Those in God’s family have been called out of the world, separated in spirit from every other earthly tie that they might become a part of a family that will live forever.
As I write this paragraph we have just come through another Christmas season. So often at this season we hear people express their hope for “peace on earth” as though that is what Christ came to bring. Listen to these words of Jesus: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law — a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
“Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Matt 10:34-39.
On one occasion during his ministry the natural mother and half-brothers of Jesus came to see him. When this was brought to his attention he said, “‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” Matt. 12:48-50. Jesus knew that the only relationship that counts is the heavenly one. All merely earthly relationships are temporary.
Far too many people have “family religion.” They would never allow the gospel sword to divide them from their earthly families. They are born, live, and die in the family church, the family denomination. They have no concept of what Jesus meant in Luke 14:26 when he said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.”
Now it should be obvious that Jesus was not insisting that his followers hate their natural families in the sense in which we generally use the English word “hate” today. He wasn’t advocating that we have a malicious hateful spirit towards them. Not at all! However, he WAS teaching that we should hate them in the sense that we “love them less” than we love him. Anytime there is a test of love and loyalty that pits Christ against our earthly family, Christ must come first. That will surely seem like hate to a worldly family member, one that doesn’t know Christ.
What an example Abraham, the father of faith, has set for us! Listen to God’s call to him (Gen 12:1-3): “The LORD had said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’”
Notice that the first step in God’s plan was for him to leave family (and, no doubt, friends) behind and to set out for an unknown destination — unknown to him, at least. So real were God and faith to him that he willingly went. I’m sure many of those he left behind thought he was crazy. But God had a different destiny in mind for Abraham, as he later came to be known. The path to that destiny necessarily involved separation from all earthly ties.
Before it was over Abraham had stood firm in his faith toward God to the point of demonstrating his willingness to sacrifice the very son of promise at God’s command. Genesis 22. Of course, it was only a test but what a test! Giving up father, mother, brothers and sisters is one thing. But surely when it came to Isaac, the son of promise, Abraham would sooner have given up his own life than to kill his beloved son.
Was he a fool? Was his faith in God justified? You tell me: in place of a small, temporary family that lived and died in ancient Mesopotamia Abraham is today the father of all those who believe, the greatest family that has ever been or ever will be, a family that will honor his earthly walk of faith throughout the ages to come.
Consider Moses. In the providence of God he grew up as a member of Pharaoh’s household in the palaces of Egypt. His was a life of luxury and privilege. The riches and pleasures of Egyptian royalty were his to enjoy. Since the Egyptian Pharaoh was believed to be a god his household lacked for nothing the world had to offer.
But Moses was not an Egyptian. He was of the seed of Abraham, heirs of God’s covenant of promise. And even though the Hebrews, Abraham’s descendants, languished under Pharaoh’s yoke of slavery, Moses still felt the kinship of his true heritage.
Still, who would have blamed him had he stayed in the palace. Surely, he could have rationalized, he would be able to do more good for his people by staying near the seat of power than by openly identifying himself with them and giving up any potential influence he might have had. How noble that would have seemed—not to mention how convenient and self-serving!
No, the plight of God’s people demanded something different. It demanded a total commitment, a clean break from the heathen idolatry of Egypt. And so we read in Heb. 11:24-27, “By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible.”
This is characteristic of God’s people. Their eyes have been opened to realities beyond the capacity of worldlings to see. They are able to see beyond this present evil world. They know that their eternal destiny lies with the people of God, however hated and despised they might be here.
Remember the words of Jesus in John 3:3 where he said, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” God’s kingdom is no less real because most men are blind to it. It takes a miracle of God’s grace for a man to be born into that kingdom and gain the kind of sight that Moses had.
And the separation that takes place as a result is no less real. Just as Moses turned his back on Egypt and was joined to his fellow Hebrews, so does every born-again believer turn his back on this present world to be united to the eternal family of God. Nothing—and no one—of this earth can be set above God and His kingdom.
That is why John wrote as he did in 1 John 2:15-17, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.”
A man, however religious he may be, who has nonetheless stopped short of the new birth, is still dominated by the basic principles of this world. And his fellowship will reflect it. You will not find him seeking out the company of those whose hearts have been turned heavenward and who love the things of God. He will rather be drawn to those Paul described in Phil 3:18-19, “For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things.”
People are naturally drawn to their own spiritual kind. Darkness and light are incompatible. My mind goes to the testimony I often heard Bro. Thomas relate. Before he was saved he had a circle of friends who enjoyed the same things. They ran around together, drinking, partying, hanging out at various “joints” and generally chasing what they considered to be a “good time.” But when the Lord came in and he tried to tell his friends about Him they quickly said, “See you later.” Of course they never did. The gospel sword had made a clean division.
His interests, his values, his very reason for living had all changed. It wasn’t that he had simply “turned over a new leaf” and adopted a “Christian Lifestyle.” Rather, he had been given a new heart. Christ had come in to live and the presence of Christ in his life radiated a light that they would not stay around.
In John 3:19-21, Jesus said, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”
The love and the reality Bro. Thomas had experienced in Christ did not result in just a private, vertical relationship with Jesus in heaven. It also caused him to seek out the fellowship of others who had come to know Him and to share in the “horizontal” love of Christ that His people know.
One of the great themes of I John is “love.” Remember that John was there when Jesus said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34-35. It is no wonder then that he devotes so much attention to the subject. It is a distinguishing characteristic of God’s children.
In I John 3:11-15 we read, “This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.”
Earlier we noted that Christ had not come to bring peace but division. Wherever and whenever men and women have come into contact with God a division has resulted. They have been forced to choose between surrendering and serving God or continuing in rebellion against Him. This fact is readily seen in the first two children born into the world, Cain and Abel.
Cain and Abel were probably like most human brothers who experience natural sibling rivalry. However, prior to the incidents recorded in Genesis 4:3-16, there is no reason to believe that there was any serious conflict between them. The real difference between them came out when they interacted with God.
It is obvious that God was aware of that difference before it became evident to others because He received Abel’s offering but rejected Cain’s. Notice that John referred to Cain’s actions as “evil.” And it wasn’t the murder itself that John had in mind but the actions that LED to the murder. In other words, even his offering to God was included in those “evil” actions!
God does not judge men based on their outward actions alone but on the condition of their hearts. As God told Samuel when he went to anoint David to be king, “The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” 1 Sam 16:7. Cain’s heart was evil and the hatred that whelmed up in his evil heart caused him to commit the first murder, and that against his own innocent brother. It just takes the right circumstances to bring out what is in people.
Notice Cain’s reply when the Lord questioned him about Abel’s whereabouts: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Genesis 4:9. What a reply! Think about it. Here he is talking with the Lord and he essentially REBUKES the Lord for asking such a question! No fear of God. How clearly is the utterly self-centered and wicked heart of ungodly men revealed in his words.
Notice also how John says that Cain “belonged to the evil one.” How easy it is in considering mankind to forget the spiritual dimension: all men either belong to God or they belong to the devil. See how Paul described salvation in Colossians 1:13: “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.”
There are no other choices; it is one or it is the other. A man has either been supernaturally rescued and brought into God’s kingdom or else he remains under the dominion of darkness. Cain and Abel represented two different kingdoms and even as Satan rose up against God, so his servant, Cain, rose up against Abel.
All self-centeredness, hatred, murder, and wickedness of every kind ultimately comes from Satan and is reflected in the hearts and lives of lost mankind. All genuine love and righteousness comes from God and is reflected in those who abandon the service of Satan and serve God from their hearts.
This love of God, the love John speaks of so much, is as different from any kind of human “love” as day is different from night. In one way or another self-love and creature-love are at the center of human “love.” We “love” those who “love” us or are like us. We “love” our own — children, family, friends. This kind of “love” can be very strong, so strong in fact that it keeps many people out of the kingdom of God since they set earthly love ahead of love for God.
This kind of love is really an expression of what Paul was talking about in Romans 1:25. It was in the context of describing how men had turned away from a true knowledge of God in order to pursue earthly lusts that Paul said, “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator — who is forever praised.”
Earthly love can even be sacrificial in some ways but it always remains a form of “creature love” that actually stands in direct opposition to God and His love. Cross it just right and watch how quickly it turns to hate.
How different is God’s love as demonstrated in Christ! Now only did He unswervingly seek the welfare of those who could not have been more unlovely and undeserving but He did it at an unimaginable cost!
Watch our Savior as He patiently endured every form of insult, humiliation, suffering and agony the devil could inspire in his followers and then listen as He prays, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34. Here He was, the divine creator (John 1:10), willingly submitting to unspeakable cruelty at the hands of his sin-blinded creatures, yet His love was unswerving. Has there ever been an earthly “love” that has even been of the same kind, let alone to the same degree? Of course not! The two kinds of love are different, right down to the roots.
No man is born with this kind of love in his heart. It only comes from God. If a man is to possess it God must give it to him. I John 4:19 says simply, “We love God because he first loved us.” Paul said, “...God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Rom 5:5-8.
One of the great marks of the change brought about through the new birth is God pouring out his love into hearts. It changes everything. It changes how we see everyone. Those changes don’t always happen all at once but they do happen. There is no way that we can be conformed to the image of God’s Son (Romans 8:29) without becoming like Him in love.
This is why John is able to say, “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers.” I John 4:14. In I John 4:20 he says, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.” In I John 5:1 he says, “...everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.”
In 1 Peter 1:22-24, we read, “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.”
Notice the word “sincere.” In the King James it is “unfeigned” or not pretended. Only true born-again believers are capable of this kind of love. It comes from the heart because Christ is there. As He does with us, it looks beyond fault and sees need.
Religious men may appear to “love” — in a human sense — but it is, as we have said, rooted in self. What then, is true love? How can we tell? Hear John’s answer in I John 3:16-20: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?
“Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts and he knows everything.”
I remember an incident that happened when I was in high school. I had a friend at that time who was vehemently opposed to the things of God. His emotions ran strong and his words were often hot yet we talked many times about God. During our talks it came out that he had once responded to an invitation given in a church that apparently preached “easy-believism.” This is the kind of message that simply says, just come down to the altar, pray a little prayer inviting Jesus into your heart and everything will be settled.
Unfortunately in most instances that kind of preaching has become an empty form. It is one thing if God is present and at work with hearts but all too often such a message leaves its hearers empty and that is what happened to him. He felt betrayed and angry and thereafter he wasn’t shy about expressing that anger.
We often debated about different Bible-related subjects. I’m sure it was a source of wonderment to him how I, as a reasonably intelligent person, could actually believe such things! After all, he had “tried it” and it hadn’t worked. One day was a little different, however. For some reason I found myself reading to him from I John 4:7-12.
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”
When I read those words God touched a nerve. He became very agitated. It was one thing to debate intellectually whether the gospel was true, whether the Bible was the Word of God, whether other religions were valid ways to God, and so forth, but when I just read the simple truth about God’s love and the difference between those who know God and those who don’t it bothered him greatly. I saw firsthand the truth that scripture contained. He knew nothing of that love and he knew it. I wish I could say that he turned around and surrendered to it but at least on that one occasion I saw God press that simple truth home to his heart.
When the love of God is shed abroad in a human heart by His Spirit that love connects us to everyone who belongs to God. We may have a lot of spiritual growing up to do and we may need someone, as Peter did, to exhort us to properly express that love but the connection is there. It is there simply because we have been born of God. That makes us part of His family.
Most people never come to know His love and they remain in Adam’s family. Which family are you a part of? Adam’s family will perish. God’s family will live forever. Has His love been shed abroad in your heart?
Where is your true fellowship? Is it with the people of this world and centered in earthly things or are you more connected to those whose hearts are set on things above? Col. 3:1-4. Are you a Christian from the inside out or are you just religious?
One thing I’ve observed over the years concerns some among God’s people who appear to the casual observer to be very much in fellowship with them. However, when you look a little closer you discover that their fellowship is not really on the basis of spiritual things at all but rather on carnal things. The connection is purely natural. It is based on things like compatible personalities or common interests.
The sad fact is that most people in churches are merely religious so “fellowship” with church people is no guarantee that one knows God. But even where there are real Christians many of them are so immature that it is possible for someone who doesn’t know God at all to have a considerable amount of “fellowship” with them. It might revolve around things like sports or hunting or gardening or children or books or most anything that pertains to this life.
But let God really get ahold of that immature Christian and stir him to begin to “grow up” spiritually and you will see a separation begin to take place. Just as their destinations are completely opposite so it is that their roads will necessarily diverge.
Which road are you on? Are you walking in true fellowship with those whose hearts have been turned heavenward? Or is your heart here in the things of this life? This is a real test. It is impossible to know God without becoming one with His people.