Fellowship in Christ
Stephen Whitmore, Clacton-on-Sea
The theme of fellowship runs throughout the Epistle to the Philippians. In each chapter there is a direct reference at least once to the idea of fellowship, although not immediately apparent in chapter 4 where the word is translated 'communicated'. In addition the thought is evident with reference to Epaphroditus in chapter 2, and Euodias, Syntyche and Clement in chapter 4.
The subject may be considered under the following headings:
Chapter 1 Fellowship in the Gospel
Chapter 2 Fellowship of the Spirit
Chapter 3 Fellowship of His Sufferings
Chapter 4, vv. 1-5 Fellowship in the Strife
Chapter 4, vv. 10-19 Fellowship of Giving
Chapter 1. Fellowship in the Gospel
As Paul considers the Philippian saints his heart is filled with thanksgiving and joy for their fellowship in the gospel, vv. 3-5. It was a fellowship which began 'from the first day', and had continued to the time of writing, probably more than ten years later. This is a fundamental effect of the gospel in the life of a true believer, showing the work of the Holy Spirit. While profession may be marked by outward signs of interest in the things of God it will not give rise to a steadfast continuation in fellowship with the saints, such as marked these saints and those who repented on the day of Pentecost, Acts 2. 42.
In days of uncertain preaching and shallow professions there is a need for discernment as to the true nature of a profession, so that those who merely profess may be warned before it is to late. There is an equal need for shepherds who will faithfully warn true believers of the dangers of the world, and who will see the evidence of backsliding in heart before this translates into departure, from which recovery is much more difficult. This is especially needed today because we are accustomed to judging by external criteria which may readily be imitated. We need discernment to recognize where, like Judah, Jer. 3. 10, the turning is only feigned and not from the heart.
The basis of true fellowship in the gospel is the common desire to magnify Christ. 'Fellowship' means 'sharing' or 'holding common'. It is only as our Lord is the common object of our affection that we shall truly learn the meaning of the fellowship in the gospel, but where He has His rightful place there is fellowship that continues unmoved by afflictions. The Philippians were not moved by bonds, but had fellowship in the defence and confirmation of the gospel, v. 7. This suggests both reasoned defence and an established faith to withstand an onslaught.
Chapter 2. Fellowship of the Spirit
Here is a reminder that true fellowship only comes by the working of the Holy Spirit. If fellowship in the gospel was linked with Christ as the object for our life, then the fellowship of the Spirit is brought about by the work of the Holy Spirit to conform our minds to the mind of Christ Jesus, v. 5. It is interesting, too, to notice that in the tabernacle, whereas the upper and lower pairs of bars are visible, the central bar of the five runs 'through the boards from one end to the other', Exod. 36. 33. This surely would teach us that while fellowship may be seen to be expressed externally it is the unseen work of the Spirit that is central to its maintenance. As soon as we neglect the externals we are in danger of spoiling the testimony. In Ephesians 4, lowliness, meekness, long suffering and forbearance in love are seen in maintaining the unity of the Spirit. Here there is a reference to an absence of strife or vainglory, a preference for others and a consideration for others in the context of fellowship. Each of these is perfectly exemplified in our Lord as He sets the example, which, if followed, would ensure that this fellowship was maintained.
As we consider these qualities we must surely acknowledge that it is impossible to imitate them. We ought to recognize that each occasion when we fail in any of these respects we are spoiling the testimony, and therefore we need to put away such thoughts before they grow and the damage is evident for all to see. How good to see the divine record concerning Paul, Timothy and Epaphroditus. While the standard is high, the Holy Spirit would point to those who have learned, and thus encourage us to continue to 'grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ', 2 Pet. 3. 18.
Chapter 3. Fellowship of His Sufferings
Here is the next step in true fellowship. This is the cost of fellowship. Paul looks out on a world full of empty boasts and honours. He looks on all that the world has to offer him, vv. 4-6. From thence he turns to look on the Lord, and all that had seemed important pales away to less than nothing in comparison with 'the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord', vv. 7, 8.
As Paul considers this goal, he recognizes that it means following the steps of his Lord, 1 Pet. 2. 21. There is no easy answer. The goal is to enter into all that is ours in Christ Jesus, the fulness of eternal life enjoyed today, v. 12. To achieve this we shall prove the power of His resurrection in our lives here and now, vv. 10, 11. Against such prospects we must go through the sufferings that marked His path. Clearly, this does not suggest that we will suffer for sins as He did. Hebrews 9. 26, 28, and 1 Peter 3. 18 make clear that when He suffered thus it was once for all. We have here a reference to the sufferings which were His lot at all times, especially that which He endured at the cross from the hands of men. He was 'despised and rejected of men', Isa. 53. 3; 'a stranger unto my brethren', Ps. 69. 8. This is the pathway of fellowship. If we look at the cost in these terms we will not continue, but if we look to that which is ours as we learn from the pathway of suffering, we shall learn to be like the apostles who rejoiced 'that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name', Acts 5. 41.
May we look beyond the sufferings of the present to 'the glory which shall be revealed in us', Rom. 8. 18.
Chapter 4. vv 1-5 Fellowship in the Strife
This is surely the saddest part of the epistle. As Paul has written of fellowship how sad to reflect now on two who once 'strove together' with him in the gospel. It appears that energies which were once expended alongside each other, now are used against each other. The emphasis in these verses is on 'the Lord'. Here is the antidote to all strife. As the Perfect Servant He 'threatened not, but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously', 1 Pet. 2. 23; now as Lord, we may leave all matters with Him, 'forbearing one another in love', Eph. 4. 2, because 'the Lord is at hand', v. 5, not as to His coming but as to His presence with us now. If this is realized, then we shall truly strive together and not with each other.
Chapter 4, vv. 10-19 Fellowship of Giving
Here is an aspect of fellowship which is often overlooked. While there is frequent reference made to 'fellowship', often with no more significance than being together at a meeting, or spending time together speaking of a variety of subjects which all too often are not spiritual in content, there is little reference to the very real expression of fellowship conveyed in giving to the Lord.
In 2 Corinthians 8 the true pattern of giving is set by the Macedonian believers. Philippi, being 'the chief city of that part of Macedonia', Acts. 16. 12, no doubt sets an example. The pattern is that they 'first gave themselves unto the Lord', 2 Cor. 8. 5. Here is an example of giving which brings fruit to the account of the believers, v. 17, and 'an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well pleasing to God', v. 18. The earlier example had been out of 'deep poverty', 2 Cor. 8. 2, such that they had to pray 'with much entreaty', v. 4, that Paul would take the gift.
As we consider the matter here, particularly alongside the pattern of 2 Corinthians 8, we see that in this expression of fellowship these saints were reaching heights of sacrifice which were clear evidence that they were in the enjoyment of fellowship as viewed in this epistle.
In considering the subject of fellowship as in this epistle, we can surely see that it is entirely brought about by the working of the Holy Spirit, fixing our gaze on our Lord Jesus Christ, and thence bringing us into conformity to Him. As we learn these lessons, we shall show that fellowship in suffering for His sake, in striving in His name, and in giving sacrificially to this work.