The bond of common purpose and devotion that binds Christians together and to Christ. “Fellowship” is the English translation of words from the Hebrew stem hbr and the Greek stem koin-. The Hebrew hbr was used to express ideas such as common or shared house (Proverbs 21:9), “binding” or “joining” (Exodus 26:6;
Ecclesiastes 9:4), companion (Ecclesiastes 4:10), and even a wife as a companion (Malachi 2:14). Haber was used for a member of a Pharisaic society. Pharisees tended to form very close associations with one another in social, religious, and even business affairs. A most important dimension in the life of these heberim was a sharing together in the study of Scripture and law, and table fellowship.
The Greek stem koin- has a base meaning of “common,” out of which a number of shades of meaning emerge. For example, in Jewish literature produced during the intertestamental period, called the Apocrypha, the Greek root koin- was used to express ideas such as friendship (Sirach 42:3) and table fellowship (Sirach 6:10). Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, used the koin- stem for Jewish sectarian groups who held all of their property “in common” (compare
In the larger Greek world the koin- stem was often used to describe the sense of bonding and closeness which the members of social, religious, and philosophical organizations shared with one another. Pagan religions could even use the koin- stem to describe union and communion with their god or gods. Interestingly, we find no place in the Old Testament where the Hebrew root hbr is used to describe one's relationship with God. The New Testament uses the koin- stem to speak of the believer's relationship with Christ and the mutual fellowship among Christians.
The Gospels record no sayings of Jesus in which He used the koin-stem to describe “fellowship” among disciples, though certainly the close association shared by Jesus and His followers laid the foundation for the church's post-Easter understanding of fellowship. Paul actually made the most of this word group in his writings.
Koinonia was Paul's favorite word to describe a believer's relationship with the risen Lord and the benefits of salvation which come through Him. On the basis of faith believers have fellowship with the Son (1 Corinthians 1:9). We share fellowship in the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:23;
Philippians 1:5). Paul probably meant that all believers participate together in the saving power and message of the good news. Believers also share together a fellowship with the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 13:14), which the apostle understood as a most important bond for unity in the life of the church (Philippians 2:1-4).
The tendency of many Christians to refer to the Lord's Supper as “communion” is rooted in Paul's use of the term koinonia in the context of his descriptions of the Lord's Supper. He described the cup as “communion of the blood of Christ,” and the bread as “communion” of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16). Paul did not explain precisely how such “communion” takes place through the Supper. He emphatically believed the Supper tied participants closer to one another and to Christ. Such “communion” could not be shared with Christ and with other gods or supernatural beings. Thus Paul forbad his readers from partaking in pagan religious meals, which would result in sharing “fellowship” with evil, supernatural forces or demons (1 Corinthians 10:19-21).
Immediately after Paul spoke of “fellowship” with Christ through participation in the Lord's Supper (1 Corinthians 10:16), he said, “since there is one bread, we who are many are one body” (1 Corinthians 10:17 NAS). This illustrates clearly Paul's belief that fellowship with Christ was to issue into fellowship between believers. Once we grasp this, it is easy to understand why Paul was so angry over the mockery that the Corinthians were making of the Lord's Supper. While claiming to partake of this sacred meal, many Corinthian Christians ignored the needs of their brothers and sisters and actually created factions and divisions (1 Corinthians 11:17-18), “for when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk” (1 Corinthians 11:21 NRSV). Because the “fellowship” among the Corinthians themselves was so perverted, Paul could go so far as to say “when you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord's supper” (1 Corinthians 11:20 NRSV).
Koinonia with the Lord results not only in sharing His benefits (the gospel and the Holy Spirit), but also sharing His sufferings (Philippians 3:10;
Colossians 1:24). These texts express clearly just how intimate was Paul's perception of the close relationship between the believer and the Lord.
The pattern of self-sacrifice and humility, demonstrated most profoundly through Jesus' suffering on the cross (Philippians 2:5-8), is to mark the current life of the disciple. Just as Jesus gave so completely of Himself for the sake of His people, so, too, are believers to give completely of themselves for the sake of the people of God (2 Corinthians 4:7-12;
Colossians 1:24). The pattern of following Christ in suffering continues for the believer, in that just as Christ entered into glory following His suffering (Philippians 2:9-11), so, too, will the believer in the future share in the glory of Christ “if so be that we suffer with him” (Romans 8:17; compare
Paul believed that Christians were to share with one another what they had to offer to assist fellow believers. Paul used the koin- stem to refer to such sharing. One who has received the word ought to “share” it with others (Galatians 6:6). Though it is not translated “fellowship” in English versions, Paul actually used the term koinonia to denote the financial contribution which he was collecting from Gentile believers to take to Jerusalem for the relief of the saints who lived there (Romans 15:26;
2 Corinthians 8:4;
2 Corinthians 9:13). The reason he could refer to a financial gift as koinonia is explained by
Romans 15:27: “If the Gentiles have come to share in their [the Jewish Christians'] spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material things” (NRSV). In this case, each offered what they were able to offer to benefit others: Jewish Christians their spiritual blessings, Gentile Christians their material blessings. Such mutual sharing of one's blessings is a clear and profound expression of Christian fellowship.
Finally, for Paul, koinonia was a most appropriate term to describe the unity and bonding that exists between Christians by virtue of the fact that they share together in the grace of the gospel. When Paul wished to express the essential oneness of the apostolic leadership of the church he said concerning James, the Lord's brother, Peter, and John, that they “gave to me the right hands of fellowship” (Galatians 2:9). When we realize that this expression of koinonia came on the heels of one of the most hotly debated issues in the early church, namely the status of Gentiles in the people of God (Galatians 2:1-10;
Acts 15:1), we can see how powerful and all encompassing Paul's notion of Christian fellowship actually was.
Like Paul, John also affirmed that koinonia was an important aspect of the Christian pilgrimage. He affirmed emphatically that fellowship with God and the Son was to issue in fellowship with the other believers (1 John 1:3,
1 John 1:6-7). See Lord's Supper; Holy Spirit.