(Last of eight installments)
We have seen how believers in the Messiah in Old Testament times experienced the beauty and joy of Christian fellowship.
Of course, we find such moments of beauty and joy in Christian fellowship in the New Testament also. We have already mentioned the fellowship enjoyed by the post-Pentecost congregation at Jerusalem. The same unity in the fellowship was enjoyed in Antioch of Syria where the followers of Jesus were called Christians for the first time. The congregation at Antioch was not begun by the apostles but by scattered Christians who had fled to that city to escape the persecution in Jerusalem that had brought about the death of Stephen. “Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). Some of them, “when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord”
This was something new: a congregation made up of both Jews and Hellenists (Greeks). The congregation in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to help the congregation, and Barnabas soon found Saul of Tarsus (Paul) to help him. The congregation grew rapidly, and they had five pastors.
What a great picture we have of Christian fellowship here! Jews and Greeks together, freely talking about Jesus Christ to their neighbors and friends, listening to God’s Word as expounded to them by such pastors as Paul and Barnabas, and the Holy Spirit blessing their testimony by adding more persons to their number. The book of Acts goes on to show how this Antioch congregation sent Paul and Barnabas as missionaries to places that had not yet heard of Christ. When they returned, the congregation in Antioch gathered to hear their report. “They reported all that God had done with them, and that He had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27).
Nothing gives Christians more joy than bringing the good news of Christ to others and observing the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing others into the flock. For the circle of Christians gathered around the Word of God is not a closed circle, seeking to keep others away, but in the spirit of Christ wanting to have others experience what God has given them–the beauty and joy of Christian fellowship. Therefore they keep sowing the seed of the Word and watering the soil, trusting that God will give the increase, as He has promised.
As an example of the mutual love and friendship exhibited by the early Christians, consider the scene at Miletus when Paul said farewell to the leaders of the Ephesian congregation. “And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. Then they all wept freely, and fell on Paul’s neck and kissed him” (Acts 20:36-37). A similar incident took place in Tyre a few days later. Luke, Paul’s companion, described it this way: “When we had come to the end of those days, we departed and went on our way; and they all accompanied us, with wives and children, till we were out of the city. And we knelt down on the shore and prayed. When we had taken our peace of one another, we boarded the ship, and they returned home” (Acts 21:5-6).
It is true that there were internal problems among the early Christians because of sin. Even Paul and Barnabas had a serious falling-out when they disagreed in their judgment concerning John Mark. Was Mark qualified to be an associate missionary or not? Barnabas said he was, and Paul said he was not, and so the two went their separate ways, but this disagreement did not terminate their Christian fellowship. Paul continued to consider Barnabas his fellow-missionary, and later he even changed his mind about Mark, writing to Timothy: “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11).
As long as Jesus, their Savior from sin, remained their Head and His Word their infallible guide, their problems could be resolved. When Christians together confess their sins and are willing to bow together to the Word of God in everything that it says, they can and they will experience the beauty and joy of Christian fellowship.
All of us who trust in Christ as our Savior are in the fellowship with God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, and with the Holy Spirit who lives and works within us. This remains true regardless of outward circumstances, whether we are all alone or together with thousands of others. Having fully completed His work of redeeming mankind and having risen from the dead, our Savior ascended to heaven while lifting His hands in blessing. As believers in Christ we are on the receiving end of this blessing, which is ours now and will be ours until we enjoy that perfect bliss with our God in the new Paradise.
It is an added blessing when we are enabled to sit together with other Christians on the hillside of life and as Jesus’ true disciples listen together to the words of our Master: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:3-12).
There was perfect joy and beauty in Eden. We praise God for the momentary glimpses we have of what the new Paradise will be like in the beauty and joy of Christian fellowship that our gracious Lord already now permits us to experience, though imperfectly. We look forward to the perfect joy and beauty in the new heavens and the new earth that God is preparing for His people.
For “thus says the Lord God: ‘Behold, My servants shall eat. … My servants shall drink. … My servants shall rejoice. … My servants shall sing for joy of heart. … For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem as a rejoicing, and her people a joy. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in My people” (Isaiah 65:13-19).