Word Study #12 — “God’s Will”

June 29, 2009

This subject, which has borne the weight of complex “theological” arguments for centuries, is far too broad and deep to be contained in a post of reasonable length. I do not intend to try to settle all the hypothetical questions in which self-styled “experts” delight. An honest encounter with the New Testament will almost always come up with more questions than answers, and this one is no exception.
One can delve into the various deriatives of thelo (classically ethelo)(v.),thelema (n), and boulomai (v.), boule (n), or boulema (n) – none of which make the classical distinctions in which theoreticians delight – i.e., “permissive will,” “eternal will,” “ultimate will,”, “sovereign will,” and so on down the list of doctrinal hobbyhorses.

Thelema and its related words are classically defined simply as: “to be willing, to consent, to delight in, to ordain or decree, to be naturally disposed toward a person, idea, or thing.”
Boulomai, the stronger word, is listed as “the wishes of the gods” (in Homer), “one’s choice or preference, to want to do something, desire, prefer, purpose, intend that something be done.”
Please note that
none of these carry any implicationof direct causation. Both word groups legitimately contain sufficient latitude that people with “an axe to grind” can manipulate them with amazing dexterity. I choose not to join that fray, but rather to call your attention to the handful of places where the statement is plainly phrased: “This isthe will of God …” or, “The will of God is ….” Whatever direction people choose to push (or twist?) the more ambiguous statements, these few are unmistakably clear: and consequently, must inform / govern any conclusion that requires or permits interpretation. Any interpretation that directly contradicts what is plainly stated,must be recognized as being in error.

I am deliberately listing these with only minimal comment: they speak for themselves:
Mt.18:14 – Jesus speaking — “It is NOT the will of my/your Father in heaven that one of these little ones be destroyed/lost.” (note: “mikroi” may refer to actual children, or to newly recruited disciples.)
Jn.6:39 – Jesus speaking — “This is the will of the one that sent me: that I may not lose anyone of all that he has given me, but that I may raise him up in the last day.”
Jn.6:40 – still Jesus – “
This is the will of him that sent me, that every one who sees the Son and is faithful to him may have eternal life, and I will raise him up in the last day.”
I Thess.4:3 — “
This is the will of God” — the faithful being set-apart / “sanctified” / made holy for him – exhibiting exemplary moral and ethical behavior.
I Thess.5:18 —
“This is the will of God in Christ Jesus” — that his people should give thanks continually, IN (
not “for”) everything.
I Peter 2:15 —
“This is God’s will: that by doing good, you should silence the ignorance” of those who make spurious accusations.
Mt.8:3 – Jesus, again — “
I will – his intention to heal the leper.
Mt.9:13 – Jesus, quoting Hosea 6:6 —
“I will have mercy, and not sacrifice.”
I Tim.2:4 – (God), “
who will have [wants] all people to be saved/rescued, and come to understanding of the truth.”

These are completely unequivocal.
Another block of references indicate that “God’s will” is something that his people are expected to DO.
Mt.7:21 – Jesus speaking: “Not everyone who says to me “Lord, Lord!” will come into the kingdom of heaven, but he that keeps on doing the will of my Father in heaven.”
Mt. 12:50 (and parallel, Mk.3:35) – Jesus speaking — “Whoever
does the will of my Father in heaven, this one is my brother, and sister, and mother.”
Jn.4:34 – Jesus in Samaria — “My food is that I continually may
do the will of the one that sent me, and that I may complete his work.”
Jn.6:38 – Jesus again — “I have come down from heaven, not to do what I want, but to
dothe will of the one that sent me.
Eph.6:6 — “as Christ’s slaves,
doing God’s will with your whole self.”
Heb.10:7,9 – quoting Jesus, “I come
to do your will.”
Heb.10:36 — “You all have need of endurance, in order that when/since you have
done God’s will, you may obtain the promise.”
Heb.13:21 — “He will establish you all, in everything good,
for doing his will.”
I Jn.2:17 — “The world is passing away, and so are its passions; but the person who keeps on doing God’s will remains forever.”

Of course, to “do God’s will,” one must know what that “will” is. And this is the key.
God’s will” is not a subject for debates, but a pattern for the life of his people!
Actually, the whole New Testament is the “instruction manual” for that project: the
demonstration – by the people he has called and assembled — of God’s mercy and gracious provision for his creation. The instruction manual is provided for a very simple purpose:
Jn.7:17 — “If anyone
wants to DO his will, he will know about the teaching, whether it is from God.” Might it possibly be a corollary, that a person who does not purpose to “do his will” can not know? (There is a similar flavor in James’ advice about asking for wisdom– 1:5).
Paul described it to the Ephesian brethren (1:9-10), “God
let us in on the mystery of his will – he set it all out in him (Christ) – his plan for the consummation of all time – that absolutely everything be summed up under the headship of Christ – things in heaven and things on earth!” and later reiterated, (5:17) “So don’t be unwise, but keep working to understand what the will of the Lord is!”
He prayed for the Colossians (1:9-10), “asking that you all may be filled with
the certain knowledge of his will …. so that you may behave in a manner worthy of the Lord, in order to please him fully!”
He gave the Roman readers a classic description of what should be integral to
metanoia (W.S.#6) in 12:2 — “Do not continue to pattern yourselves by this age, but be continuously, completely changed by the renewal of your mind, so that you all will recognize what God’s will is – what is good, and pleasing, and complete.”
If that doesn’t send us scurrying back to the textbook (the New Testament), I don’t know what will.

To be sure, incidents of specific individual guidance are occasionally mentioned, as are callings to a particular task. These must not be ignored, but tested and confirmed in the Body. We are called to enable one another’s assignments.
Please note also that the designation “God’s will” is never applied, in any New Testament text, to any form of disaster, disease, or disobedience! Such things will happen in the world we live in – and will affect the lives of the faithful as well as the unfaithful. But in no instance are they represented as caused by “the will of God!” (Please see the previous post — #11) God’s will is that we respond/ react to whatever life brings, in faithfulness.
In I Pet.4:19, for example, “according to God’s will”,
grammatically, could link either to “suffering” or to “entrust themselves.” Contextually, (see vv.12-16), the latter choice seems more consistent with the rest of the passage. This is one of many reasons why one should be extremely wary of quoted “verses” removed from their original context. Isolated “verses” are so easily twisted to win an argument or “prove” a point!

I believe that it is the “will of God” that his people quit wrangling over how that “will” applies to other people, and get about the business of incarnating the answer to Paul’s prayer “asking that you all may be filled with the certain knowledge of his will ….in order to please him fully!”
Amen, Lord! THY WILL BE DONE!!!!

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Word Study #11 — “Test / Trial / Temptation” –Don’t blame God!

June 24, 2009

How many times have you heard – or said — “God is/was testing me/you,” “God won’t give you more than you can handle!”, or “God has put me/you through a heavy trial!”, or something similar? The culturally expected response is usually respectful sympathy, and a few “piety points” to the credit of the speaker. Why does it so seldom occur to anyone to reply, as the apostle James did (1:13-14), “But God doesn’t DO that!” ?

There are four different words that have been translated “trial” — each only once in the entire New Testament. Dokime (also rendered “experience, experiment, or proof”), classically defined “to test or assay, to approve or sanction, to examine and admit to a class” , in Paul’s second letter to Corinth (8:2); dokimion (the means by which a test is made) in I Peter 1:7; peira (trial, attempt, experience) in Heb.11:36; and purosis (burning, cooking, or destruction by fire) in I Peter 4:12 and Rev.18. None of these are represented to be caused or “sent” upon his people by God, although several times he is said to have used them, or turned them to the benefit of the affected individual. Sometimes, with other translations, those same words merely refer to human investigations.

The more common word, peirazo (v.), peirasmos (n), is classically defined as “attempt, test the quality (as the assay of metal or ore), to be experienced, to examine, and to seek to seduce or tempt.” Remember, this is the same word: the only distinction is the context.
In the New Testament, the import leans heavily toward the latter meaning, though not by any means exclusively. It may refer simply to people trying to do something (Ac.16:17, and 9:26); to a person’s credentials for a task (Rev.2:2 and elsewhere); to self-examination (II Cor.13:5); and to people’s attempts to put God to a test (Ac.5:9, 15:10, Heb.3:9).
Only once does it refer to a physical malady – Gal.4:1-4 – to which Paul applies the label “a messenger of Satan” — hardly a justification for the common practice of referring to every illness, inconvenience, or incapacity as a “trial from God”!
The vast majority of New Testament references, however, are to Jesus vs. Satan himself, or the Pharisees and/or Sadducees who opposed him. Another large segment refers to the persecutions endured by the faithful because of their fidelity to Jesus and his Kingdom. The connection to persecution is not accidental. Refer to W.S.#4, where I have noted that persecution could frequently be avoided by a statement that repudiated one’s loyalty to Jesus, and acknowledged “Caesar is Lord” instead. The “temptation” was NOT to “indulge” in some activity on a list of “no-no’s”, but to desert or betray one’s Kingdom citizenship. In both cases, whether the translation is “temptation,” “trial,” or “test,” the perpetrators are either Satan himself (12 x), or people/institutions that have deliberately set themselves in opposition to Jesus (about 15 x) — certainly not God!
There is one reference (Jn.6:6) where in the crowd-feeding incident, Jesus essentially gives the disciples a “pop quiz”: “He said this, testing him (Philip), for he knew what he was about to do,” and several where the source of the test/trial is not specified (James 11-12, I Peter 1:6-8).
The use of
peirasmos in the Lord’s Prayer is interpreted by some as a request for God to refrain from what they mistakenly see as his accustomed practice of “testing” people. However, when it is seen in the context of the other half of that request, phrased in classic parallelism, “but rescue us from the Evil One,”  it reveals exactly the opposite (and more accurate) understanding: that it is the Evil One who causes problems with “temptation.”
Peirazo appears in admonitions to “test” the qualifications of people who claim to speak with authority (Rv.2:2), although a form of dokimazo (dealt with in the discussion of discernment, W.S.#9) is more common in those contexts.
Do you notice anything apparently “missing” here? In all of these references, we have encountered none attributing them to “God’s will” or any deliberate infliction of “trials” or “temptations” by him upon his people! Search the Scriptures, folks. It’s not there.  In no instance is there any hint of any of these situations having been instigated by God! In fact, James clearly declares that allegation to be a fallacy: (1:13-14) “No one must say, when he’s being tested, “I’m being tested by God.” For God is not tested by evil, and he tests no one. But each one is tested by his own desires, drawn out and enticed.” Remember, the choice of whether to use the word “tested” or “tempted” is entirely that of the translator. The word is the same. It is, as James makes clear in the next sentence, a very serious matter: one intimately connected to a person’s own “desires”, and having a very serious effect on his life. Epithumias— “longings, yearnings” — (from thumoo, with an intensifying prefix) — is a very strong word. These intense desires are the artifacts of one’s chosen life-direction, which is expected to have been altered by metanoia (w.s.#6) – a process which, as we have seen, is not necessarily instantly completed. James places the responsibility exactly where it belongs: on the focus of our attention and ambition. In a similar warning, Paul advised Timothy (I Tim.6:9) of the danger of being distracted by competing loyalties – in that case, riches.

The remedy is equally clear. Jesus himself has “been there, done that.” Heb.2:18 tells us, “In that he himself has suffered temptation/testing, he can help those who are being tempted/tested.” Or, as a later writer has put it, “He made himself like us, so that he could make us like himself!” By having experienced severe temptation/testing and triumphed over it, Jesus was enabled to extend his own success to his people!
Paul’s reassurance in I Cor.10:13 is essentially the same. Notice carefully that this passage also attributes to God not the source of the testing, but rather the way out!” These two passages need to be held together, like the two lenses of a binocular, to obtain a proper perspective. And as always, only the Lord Jesus can “hold everything together” as needed. He has had a lot of practice, as Peter reminds us (II Pet.2:4-9) – and has also promised to rescue his people (Rev.3:10) from the greater testing on the horizon – to enable their/our endurance. “He has been tested in everything, just like us – but he didn’t flunk!” (Heb.4:15)

So where do we come out? It is appropriate neither to apply the label “trial/testing/temptation” to every major or minor annoyance of life (although one’s response to those certainly does “prove” — demonstrate – where his loyalties lie!), nor to ascribe all our “troubles” to the “will of God” (another needed word study!) Only when tests/temptations are recognized in their true light – attempts to turn us aside from whole-hearted devotion to the Lord and his Kingdom – and their source is rightly identified – persons or institutions that have set themselves in opposition to that Kingdom, and that malevolent power whose cause they serve – can the battle lines be accurately drawn.

(I Peter 4:12-16) observes, “Don’t be surprised/shocked” when trials/testings come – that is to be expected, if one is faithful to the Kingdom of a King whom the world does not acknowledge. Just make sure, he notes, that the “sufferings” imposed from the outside are not deserved.
And don’t blame God!!! He does not attack his own Kingdom or its citizens. Jesus gave his life in their/our defense!

THY KINGDOM COME!!!!!!


Word Study #10 — “THE Judgment”

June 15, 2009

Please remember that a “word study” must confine itself to passages where the actual word  is  used.  There are other references that may – or may not – bear upon the subject under consideration.  It is important to distinguish, for example, between simple cause and effect, and “the judgment of God.”  Actions do have consequences:  it may be simply a result of the way the world works – do not confuse consequences with overt judgments.

Only in threatening theological rhetoric is talk about the “final judgment” used in an attempt to bludgeon members of an audience into accepting a list of statements about the nature and purposes of God.  There is not a single example in the New Testament record of anything similar being primary – or even present!– in the “evangelistic” message.
While classical uses of krino do include the sense of a legal, judicial verdict, there is no sense of divine retribution, and certainly none of “eternal” duration.  Although that idea does occur – rarely – in the New Testament, implicit references to judgment are found only in 7 of the 68 uses of aionion (“eternal” or “everlasting”), while all the rest refer to “life” and all sorts of “blessedness.”  A related word, krimatos, is only found with one of those seven – Heb.6:2, where it appears on the list of foundational things that need to be “laid aside” in order to move on to maturity (see W.S. #6).

In point of fact, the vast majority of references to the judgment of God are addressed to the faithful, for their encouragement and comfort!  Romans 2:16, Gal.5:10, I Pet.2:23 and 4:5, and Rev.6:10, 11:18, 16:5-6, 17:1, 18:8, and 19:2 all speak of the eventual vindication of the faithful and the destruction of their persecutors.
Another large group of references, Rom.2:16, I Pet.1:17, II Pet.2:1, and Rev. 16:7 and 19:11, emphasize that the judgment of God is consummately fair, and therefore greatly to be desired by folks who have suffered unjust treatment.  Heb.4:13 does not use the word, but characterizes a situation where the faithful have nothing to fear: “There’s no created thing concealed from him: everything is naked and exposed to his eyes, with respect to whom the Word (evaluates) us.”  John 5:22-30 and much of chapter 8 explain that Jesus himself will judge honestly.  Here is a judge that cannot be “bought”!
Of course, judgment that is absolutely just and fair can seem like a threat, to anyone who is trying to hide, or get away with something.  But for all who have struggled to live faithfully, in a world that does not acknowledge its true King, it presents the joyful prospect of deliverance.  I treasure our last conversation with a dear, elderly brother, who, after a lifetime of service to his church, was the victim of vicious false accusations, and had been repudiated by many.  He had stood kindly by us, years earlier, when we had been the victims of false gossip.  Brother John had been able to retain his radiant love and trust in the Lord’s mercy, and told us:  “We can all hold on to this:  the Lord knows the truth, and he is the one that is our final judge.”  That was a joyful statement of trust – not of fear.

On the rare occasions when mention of judgment is directed to the uncommitted – Mt.12:41-42 and parallels, Lk.10:14, Acts 13:46, 17:31, and 24:25, notice that it is usually to people – often religious leaders – who have already deliberately placed themselves in opposition to Jesus – not to those who are unaware of his ways.

Attention should be given, of course, to the two unique occurrences of solemn warnings directed to people within the brotherhood.  The letter to the Hebrews highlights the danger of deliberately ignoring or violating one’s commitment to faithfulness (10:24-31), while urging readers to keep after each other, encouraging one another to “hang in there” in faithfulness, lest any turn and become opponents.  James also (2:12-13) echoes Jesus own warning (previously cited) in Mt.7:2, that one will be “judged” with the same degree of mercy that he has extended to his brethren.  Both admonitions are intended to motivate caution, not terror.

Finally, it may be instructive to revisit a few of the passages that are frequently (mistakenly) used in an effort to frighten listeners into submission with lurid descriptions of torment.
Look at the “sheep and goats” judgment scene in Matthew 25.  Notice the charge brought against the “unfaithful”.  Jesus says nothing about what either group “believed,” or to what creed or doctrine they subscribed (or failed to subscribe).  He passes judgment on their behavior – their neglect of the needs around them.
The same charge appears in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.  Actually, that gentleman probably “believed” all the “right things.”  He probably even ascribed his wealth to the “blessing of God!”  It is his treatment of the beggar that is the focus of his condemnation.
And among those who love to quote the Revelation to strike terror to the hearts of their audience, I have not heard anyone refer Rev.18, the account of the fall of Babylon, to the present economic distress (v.11-19).  I’m afraid more who claim the label “Christian” are weeping with the merchants “who got rich off of her luxurious excesses” (v.15) – note that there are few real necessities listed in the account of the collapse – than are heeding the voice from heaven (v.20), “Celebrate over her, heaven, and God’s people, and apostles and prophets!  God has passed judgment on her for you!

There is a way in which it still all boils down to a case of discernment (see W.S.#9)– of choosing sides.  Paul’s testimony in I Cor.4:3-5 is a classic example of the confidence that a committed disciple can rightfully derive from the prospect of God’s judgment.  “It matters little to me,” he observes, “that I should be examined (judged) by you all, or by any human tribunal.  I don’t even keep examining myself!  For I am not aware of anything (that is a problem) for myself; but that’s not how I have been made just:  the one who examines (judges) us is the Lord.  So don’t pass judgment on anything before the time – until the Lord comes.  He will illuminate the things hidden by darkness and reveal the plans of (people’s) hearts.  And then praise will be given to each one, from God.”
If we are not “hiding anything in darkness,” then there is no cause for panic!
I Jn.3:19-20 seems to anticipate the problem of people being (wrongly) made to feel “guilty”, reminding us that “even if our hearts scold us, God is greater than our hearts” and eminently able to override any criticism.

Our confidence is in the mercy of God, which we have received in Jesus Christ!
Give thanks to the only One we can count on to be consistently merciful and fair!
As in so many other situations, there is only one necessary question:
Whose side are we on?  To whom do we belong?


Word Study #9 — “Judgment” — Commanded, or Forbidden?

June 13, 2009

(I am going to divide the consideration of krino into two postings, since the two major aspects of the word (excluding simple courtroom scenes) are both seriously misunderstood.)

“Do not pass judgment, so that you all will not be judged.” (Matthew 7:1)
“Don’t keep judging according to appearances, but judge just judgment (evaluate things fairly).”  (John 7:24)

These apparently contradictory statements by Jesus use derivatives of the same word, in each instance:  the very same word (krino, krisis) that also refers to God’s final sorting-out  at the “end of the ages.”  (This latter usage will be dealt with in the next post.)  Translating krino is one of those places where a translator must work with extreme caution, and uncommon flexibility, because, frustrating as it is, the Greek words are no more precise than the English.

Historical records show the verb, krino, rendered as “to separate or distinguish, to divide, to pick out, to choose the best, to decide disputes or questions, to contend, to compete in games, to evaluate, to esteem, to decide in favor of, to bring to trial, to pass sentence.”

The noun, krisis, and occasionally krima, is rendered “decision, choice, selection, verdict, interpretation (as of dreams), a trial of skill or strength, a dispute, an event or issue to be decided, the turning point of a disease, a legal decision.”

There is no necessary negative connotation in any of these.  Common, non-theological English uses the word “judge” in many of the same ways.  Contests, legal decisions, debates or disputes, evaluation of persons or situations all require “judgment.”  Please note, consequently, that in neither Greek nor English does the word “judge” automatically imply condemnation – or even disapproval.  It may, in fact, indicate the direct opposite!

The concepts in question are clarified when a form of krino appears with a prefix:
ana (again, or up) creates anakrino, “to examine closely, to interrogate, to  inquire into
dia (through, or toward) creates diakrino,“to distinguish, to separate, to decide, to argue”
epi (upon, over) creates epikrino, “to pass sentence, to assent”
kata (down, against) creates katakrino, “to condemn”
sun (together)  creates sungkrino, “to compare.”
Unfortunately, these compound forms are used comparatively rarely.  Most of the time, we are left to figure out the sense of krino from its context.

Taken in their context, for example, the two quotations with which we began are not contradictory at all.  Consult the rest of the paragraph in the Matthew 7 reference.  The prohibition is directed at self-appointed “perfection police,” who enjoy nit-picking at others without regard to their own need for correction.  This is unacceptable.  However, the give and take of mutual admonition is essential for healthy growth.  Witness Paul’s instructions in I Cor. 5 and 6, and notice that he is concerned (5:12) with the relationships of those within the brotherhood.  This is reinforced in I Cor. 11:31-32:  “If we would be evaluating ourselves, we would not be judged.  When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined, so that we will not be condemned (katakrino) with the world.”  This kind of “judgment” is an act of compassion and protection, not condemnation!

Such an understanding highlights a significant difference between the New Testament and the contemporary church.  The original idea, in the message of both Jesus himself and all the apostles, began with “metanoeite” (see Word Study #6), a call to change one’s entire orientation of life.  Sadly, that no longer seems to be the standard assumption.  We have correctly perceived that the invitation to the new community/kingdom of Jesus’ followers is open to all.  But when the entry points, “repentance” (W.S.#6) and “forgiveness” (W.S.#7), are robbed of their true content, and it is no longer assumed that there will be either a radical change of life or the removal of offending behaviors, and that invitation is reduced to an insipid verbal assent to a prescribed list of “beliefs” or “doctrines,” the life-giving aspect of “judgment” disappears as well.

Look for a moment at a few of the places where “judgment” is advocated – even commanded – in the church!  Notice that in the John 7 passage already quoted, the verbs are plural – not singular (individual).  This is a job for the brotherhood as a whole, as are all the other such admonitions.  That is an important safeguard, to assure that any “judgment” will be “just,” and not capricious. In I Cor.6, Paul goes into considerable detail about the need for disputes in the brotherhood to be settled internally – by Christian standards, and not by those of the outside world. In I Cor.14:9, the whole congregation is to “evaluate” carefully any messages delivered to the group.  Jude (22) calls for “discerning” where mercy is called for.  Even what appears to be an individual responsibility – assuring that one does not cause another to stumble or fall (Rom.14:13) – is addressed in the plural.  And Peter calls for “judgment” to begin in the household of God.  It is the task of the group to “clean up our act!”  Discernment/judgment is essential, if a person or group is to act responsibly as representative of the Kingdom in an alien world.   This is at least one of the reasons why “discernment” is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit to the Body (I Cor.12:10).

At the same time, clearly, “judgment” needs to be exercised with caution.  In many of his epistles, Paul reminds his readers that the mandate for discernment/judgment is not a license to dictate all the minutiae of life, or to catalog and rank the “sins of the world.”  Jesus intends to take those away! Discernment is needed in order to draw lines only where they matter.  The Kingdom is not a new Law.  Its citizens are urged to be considerate, rather than picky, about such things as food and drink, customs and celebrations (Col.2:16 f), and the details of people’s former lives (Rom.2).  James warns against economic discrimination (2:1-7), and obsessing about technicalities of law (ch.4).  Romans 14 is a beautiful treatise on helping one another to find ways of faithfulness.  Don’t forget that a changed life is assumed! But in that context, compassion, not coercion, is the hallmark of faithful “judgment,” remembering that (14:8) “The person who is a slave to Christ — is pleasing to God”!

Rightly understood, judgment/discernment serves as an extremely useful tool, as aspiring followers of Jesus seek to learn his ways.  It is exercised, by common consent, within the brotherhood, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in a mutual effort toward faithfulness.  We have not been called to “reform” the world.  It is our joyful privilege to demonstrate an alternative to its ways, and to invite all who will, to transfer their allegiance from the world to the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus!


Word Study #8 — “Fellowship” is more than a party!

June 2, 2009

My friend’s invitation to an event at her church was kind and gracious.  “It’s just a fellowship meeting,” she explained, “Coffee, some board-games, conversation ….”  Now, I like coffee.  Conversation is pleasant.  I can even occasionally enjoy a board-game with the grandkids.  But is this “fellowship”?  “JUST a fellowship meeting? ”  Has the contemporary church forgotten, or has it deliberately rejected, the “length and breadth and height and depth” of that beautiful word, reducing it to softball games and hot dogs?

“Fellowship” is the most common translation (12 times) of koinonia, which in other contexts has been rendered “communication (2 x), communion (4 x), contribution (1 x), and distribution (1 x).”  Historically, it was quite a versatile word, used of joint business ventures, charitable contributions, the routine associations of human society, and even marriage!  The verb form could refer to almost any sort of a co-operative effort — even crime! –while the adjective refers to things held in common by corporations, willingness to share among members of a group, and partaking of either the suffering or the good fortune of one’s fellows.

In the New Testament, the usage is also varied:  these related words can refer to something as mundane as James and John’s partnership in their father’s fishing business (Lk.5:10), or as amazingly ultimate as Peter’s description of believers’ actually participating in the glory of the Lord Jesus at his coming (I Peter 5:1)!  The word only appears twice in the Gospels — the previously mentioned passage in Luke, and Mt.23:30, where Jesus warns his opponents of “sharing”  (koinonon) in the deeds of those who had stoned the prophets.

Interestingly, the word seems to have acquired broader and deeper meaning in the church after Pentecost.  Might a new slant on koinonia be connected to the power Jesus promised when he instructed the baffled disciples to “wait around” for the coming of the Holy Spirit?  The New Testament usage certainly changes after that momentous occasion.

Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-35 provide detailed descriptions of the “fellowship” (koinonia) of the early believers.  They couldn’t get enough of being together!  (But I don’t think they were playing board-games.)  They eagerly soaked-up the apostles’ teaching, shared their meals and possessions , and prayed together.  Incidentally, please note that there is no hint, in that description, of coerced communalism: the new brethren were just looking out for each other’s welfare, as they shared their whole lives.  That concern also spilled out beyond their immediate associates, as well, in many practical ways:

–When they learned of the famine in Judea, the scattered congregations spontaneously  started a relief-effort for the brethren who were affected (Rom.15:26, II Cor.8:4, 9:13)
–They shared willingly in each other’s sufferings for their faithfulness, as well as in the suffering of the Lord Jesus for them (Phil.3:10, Heb.10:33, II Cor.1:7, I Pet.4:13)
–Various individuals and groups contributed support, not only to Paul’s efforts (the whole epistle to Philippi is a “thank-you note”), but to those of other teachers (Gal.6:6), and also to the needs of the wider brotherhood (Rom.12:13).

Paul speaks of “fellowship” (koinonia) as related to the approval other apostles gave to his work (Gal.2:9), the sharing of the “mystery” of the inclusion of Gentiles in the plan of God (Eph.3:9), and also to individual people who had shared  his labors in various places.  He refers to sharing (koinonia) , personally and as a group, in the very sufferings of Jesus Christ (Phil.3:10), as does Peter (1 Pet. 4:13).  John’s first letter is the most extensive direct treatment of “fellowship” .  Created when folks learn of the Gospel and respond, koinonia is nurtured by honesty, love, mutual confession and forgiveness in the brotherhood.  Both Paul and John also warn against “sharing” (still using koinonia) in the evil of others: both in idol worship situations, and relating to those of their own number who would turn them away from Jesus — frequently for financial gain.

Koinonia is also used –only once, in I Cor.10:16 — of the celebration that has come to be labeled “communion.”  I have treated this subject in greater detail in Citizens of the Kingdom, chapter 12. This is the same word that has been used of all the sharing of life, teaching, resources, joys, and sufferings already detailed.  Paul’s choice of the word koinonia makes abundantly clear that the purpose of the observation is the celebration of the depth of the mutual participation of the members of the Body — NOT some privatistic, esoteric appropriation of an undefined “spiritual” benefit.  Luke records in Acts 2 (previously cited) that they “broke bread from house to house” with JOY.  Nothing is said about a solemn ceremony officiated by a representative of a hierarchy (which, as noted before, Jesus had flatly forbidden.)  As in every other reference to koinonia, the mutuality of the entire brotherhood is paramount.

So yes, dear people!  May all our meetings be “fellowship meetings”!  May we live and breathe the koinonia described so vividly by the New Testament writers!  Building each other up in love, may we continue to grow together into “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ!”  (Eph.4:13).   For “Our fellowship / sharing / participation / koinonia is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.  We’re writing these things to you all in order that our mutual joy may be made complete!” (I John1:3-4).