…these things we write, so that our joy may be made complete.
What sort of things must shape the mind and thinking of John to write things such as “if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another,” instead of the seemingly more “appropriate” way to say it, “if we walk in the Light… we have fellowship with Him”?
Part one unpacked some of the implications of John’s mindset; here we will try to begin unpacking the theology driving his thinking. This is the first of three propositions that speak to the significance, no, rather the critical necessity of Christian fellowship.
Proposition 1: Union with Jesus can never be divorced from Union with Brothers
Paul, in love with the phrase, writes, “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation.” The doctrine of union with Christ is a wonderfully sweet, transformative doctrine. It means that those who come to the Father by faith in Jesus are united to Jesus.
United to Jesus doesn’t mean the same as standing beside Jesus. Being “in” Jesus is vastly different than being “next to” Jesus. All of us, perhaps, wrestle with a sense of fear about standing before a holy God, because even if we’re not fully aware of our sinfulness, we’re aware of some of it, and that’s bad enough. But union with Christ means that when we stand before the Father, we’re not standing before Him next to Jesus, we’re standing there in Him. That means God the Father would (or could!) no more reject those in Christ than He would (or could!) reject Jesus Himself, because they are in fact united. To “cast out” (John 6:37) those in Christ, the Father would essentially have to amputate pieces off Jesus.
Ephesians 1 tells us that the church is the body of Jesus. That’s union language. Is your head united to your body? Of course it is. If it wasn’t, you’d be half a person. Paul speaks of Jesus as head, church as body. Calvin says on this point, “This is the highest honor of the Church, that, until He is united to us, the Son of God reckons himself in some measure imperfect. What consolation it is for us to learn, that, not until we are along with Him, does he possess all his parts, or wish to be regarded as complete!”
But there’s more. The love the Father has for the Son, He also has for those united to the Son. Because of the incredible work of Jesus on the cross and the immeasurable grace of God in justification, believers are united to Jesus without diminishing the beauty and glory of Jesus. In Ephesians 5 we find Paul illustrating the relationship between Jesus and the church as one of marriage. The amazing thing to me in that text is this: Jesus doesn’t “marry down.” His bride is holy and blameless; without spot or wrinkle. This isn’t a marriage of pity, and the bride isn’t a mismatch for the groom. So the Father loves the Son, but equally (John 17:23) loves the Son’s bride, not only for the sake of His Son, but also because He has made her incredibly lovely.
That’s union with Christ. And every believer has that. But not only are believers united to Christ, they are also united to each other by bonds just as inseparable and powerful.
Paul has an extended discourse on this in 1 Corinthians 12, but the summation of what he teaches there may be found in v.27, “Now you are Christ’s body (union with Christ), and individually members of it.” In other words, you alone are not the body of Jesus. You’re an individual member of it, but not the whole thing. It’s not as though Christ is the head and you’re the body, it’s more like Christ is the head and you’re a hand. A head and a hand do not a body make! There must be more parts!
Or consider this from Ephesians 4:25, “Speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, for we are members of one another.” Not, “we are friends with one another,” or “we stand beside one another,” but “we are members of one another.” Romans 12:5 says, “we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”
If union with Christ is a reality for you, and you stand “in Christ,” then union with other believers is also a reality. There is only one Jesus. You don’t have your own private Jesus to be in union with. If you’re in union with Jesus, and if the Father would no more separate you from Jesus than amputate Jesus’ arm, you’re in the same union with others who are in union with Jesus; you can no more be divorced from them than Jesus could be divorced from His leg.
And for Paul and for John, this wasn’t just an accidental or a second-degree sort of union-by-default. Rather, union of believers to Christ and to each other is clearly one of the grand glories of the gospel. That is, the gospel is not only about uniting us to Christ, it’s also about uniting us to each other in Christ. You may have heard it said, “If only one person would believe, Jesus would have died for that person.” That’s a nice sentiment, but it’s foreign to the Bible. The Bible says things like this in Titus 2:14-15, “Christ Jesus… gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession…”
Jesus says it this way in Matt. 20:28, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
James said to the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, “God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name…”
Peter, quoting the Old Testament, expresses it this way, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession…”
In other words, Jesus died for more than gathering up a collection of people whose only relationship is to Himself, He died in order to gather His people into a single unified nation, bride, or body. There is only one body; there is only one nation; there is only one bride. You cannot be united to Jesus and not be united to those who are also in Jesus.
And just as our union with Jesus expresses our dependence on Him, in a very real way Jesus has united to each other because we need each other. Consider Paul’s words again from 1 Cor. 12:20ff:
“But now there are many members, but one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary…”
When Paul says that something is necessary, do you really think he means preferable or optional? I have to admit, especially as one in the leadership of a church, I’m far more prone to think of other believers as projects, as hearers of my teaching, or on my worst days, as vacuums sucking out my soul, than I am to think of them as necessary to my spiritual life.
When we begin to understand the significance of Union, not only with Jesus, but with each other, we can begin to understand perhaps why John would say things like in 1John 1:3, “what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us,” because fellowship “with us” is really synonymous with fellowship with Jesus, isn’t it? John says as much going on in v.3, “and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.” Because Christ is the point of our union, we are united with each other, and can no more be divorced from one another than we can be from Christ.
Let me show you this in a negative sense from John’s pen before we leave this idea of union. In 1John 2:18-19, we read this:
Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; this we know that it is the last hour. They (the antichrists) went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.
The logic is simple, if frightening. Those who “go out” are antichrists, and thus not believers, or not in union with Jesus. Those who “remain with us” (and thus “of us”) are in true union with us. If you insert contemporary faces and names of those who have “went out from us,” to most of ears this frankly sounds offensive and judgmental. Those who left the fellowship revealed themselves to be antichrists, isn’t that what John is saying? Now of course we have to remember that in John’s case, people didn’t have the option of leaving one church for another one down the street – our church situation has some complications that John didn’t have to deal with – but the fact remains, those who abandoned their brothers proved they were never united to Christ, because if they had been they would have never divorced, if you will, their brothers. Those who abandon the people of Christ abandon Christ, and vice versa, that’s the logic here.
Part three will pick up on the second proposition: Love for Jesus can never be divorced from love for brother.