By Joel Jackson
Friday evening was different. My usual after-work routine includes changing into a comfortable outfit, doing some household chores, and relaxing. Instead I drove to the house of someone I had never met before. I walked up to the door carrying spinach artichoke dip. Other people, who had also never met before, brought a fruit plate, meatballs, and soup. After eating, we divided into groups of five or six. Our host provided questions for us to each ask and answer. And suddenly as I listened to these complete strangers, I realized that I felt at home.
I imagine my Friday sounds uncomfortably awkward. No way am I going to the house of a total stranger. Not a chance that I’d spend MY evening with people that I don’t know. I sympathize. Here in America we have largely forgotten the practice of fellowship that characterized God’s people in the Bible. We have lost a rhythm of connection, support, and love through which God reveals part of himself. God created us to have fellowship with Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:9) and with other believers (1 John 1:7). Fellowship can be a living, breathing experience of God’s love.
Celebrating the Goodness of God
Fellowship is first explained in Leviticus 3. Moses wrote down instructions for a fellowship offering. This was not a required sacrifice. Rather, it was a voluntary offering that anyone could bring to the Lord, either out of thankfulness or to seek friendship with God. An animal without defect was chosen from the flock or the herd—a large animal like a sheep, goat, cow, or ox. The blood was drained and sprinkled on the altar because it was sacred to God. The fat and some of the organs were offered on the altar because they were sacred to God. The rest of the sacrifice, however, was given back to the person making the offering. This was unusual. In all other sacrifices certain portions were burned up and the rest was given to the priests. The fellowship offering, however, ended with most of the sacrifice being given back to the person making the offering.
That’s where things get interesting. Leviticus 7 instructed worshippers who brought a fellowship offering that they could not keep any leftovers from the sacrifice. The meat from the fellowship offering had to either be eaten on the day of the sacrifice or the following day. Since the sacrifice had to be a large animal, this required the worshipper to throw a feast. Anyone who was ceremonially clean could be invited to join this meal celebrating the goodness of God. God designed fellowship offerings to be a time of sacrifice and also a time of celebration.
Many churches in America practice fellowship in a way reminiscent of Old Testament fellowship sacrifices. The church where I grew up coordinates fellowship dinners and shares meals together. Your church might have a fellowship hall. When visiting ministers share a message, you may collect a fellowship offering to help support their ministry. These are all good things. The early New Testament church, however, acted out a more intentional definition; we read of lives intimately bound together through fellowship.
A Common Goal
Zach is an ardent soccer fan. He has a favorite international team. He has a favorite local team. For the three years he lived on Long Island, New York, he became an integral part of his local soccer club. He organized rallies. He ordered soccer scarves in his team’s colors. He coordinated rides to the games, including some cross-country trips. Zach fully supported his team, and it clearly showed in how he lived his life. In the same way, first century Jews who believed in the newly risen Jesus began arranging their lives around their shared belief. According to Acts 2:42 they prayed together and ate together. They listened to the apostles’ teaching. And they devoted themselves to fellowship. This was more than a sacrifice and a meal celebrating the goodness of God. According to the Greek word that stands behind our translation, fellowship is a sharing and a communion. It’s a strong, invigorating connection with other believers.
I experienced this kind of connection with other believers on Friday night. We listened to one another and chose to be vulnerable. I was honest about my fears and the hard things going on in my life. And I discovered that our shared purpose caused me to care for these brand-new friends. Galatians 2:9 recounts Paul’s joy at the common goal Jesus gives to believers: “James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me.” These pillars of the church, personal disciples of Jesus, recognized and welcomed the same driving spirit in Paul. Their relationship with Jesus translated into a deep relationship with each other.
Through fellowship with Jesus we can have surprisingly significant relationships with other believers. We receive encouragement by hearing stories of God’s faithfulness in their lives. They challenge us to cut sin out of our lives. It is impossible to remain in fellowship with Jesus if we continue to walk in the darkness of sin (1 John 1:6). Fellowship with believers helps us identify areas where we are not submitting to the Holy Spirit.
What Does Fellowship Look Like?
Fellowship in the Old Testament involved a sacrifice and a meal celebrating the goodness of God. The New Testament does not have a prescribed format for fellowship because we cannot be vulnerable through a set of rules. Early Christians trusted in Jesus and opened their lives to other believers. We celebrate the goodness of God as he makes us holy like Jesus. Fellowship with Jesus allows us to connect deeply with other believers. It calls us to spend intentional, regular time with people who choose to trust Jesus more than themselves.
Participating in fellowship might look like meeting with a friend over your favorite beverage. It might look like having several people over for a pitch-in dinner and personal discussion. Fellowship is not determined by the event that brings us together; it’s how we choose to interact with other believers that makes all the difference. Friendship is allowed to stay on surface topics like jobs and current events. Fellowship is being vulnerable with other believers and continuing to grow. It takes courage to reveal our deep fears and struggles and expose our inner selves. Being open with other believers is necessary because you and I cannot be fully equipped Christians on our own (Hebrews 10:24, 25). Fellowship communicates God’s truth and love to us through his people.
I am learning to practice fellowship, not just friendship. I am learning to listen intently as I ask, “Where are you struggling?” I am learning to be completely truthful with myself as I allow fellowship to speak the encouragement and wisdom of Jesus into my life. Without fellowship, we miss a living connection to Jesus. God calls us into fellowship to sacrifice our old selves and to celebrate his goodness with each other.
Joel Jackson, once a selfish deceiver and manipulator, is being changed into a man who lives in fellowship.