What should a pastor say when he wants to encourage a Biblical kind of life-together in a large church? That is my goal today. We are a larger church and we are on two campuses. Not only that, but we aim to make multiplication part of our identity in "Treasuring Christ Together." We spoke last week of multiplying congregations, campuses, and independent churches. Which means there are now, and increasingly will be, some members of this church who go for months or even years and never see each other, let alone meet each other. There is nothing unusual or unbiblical about that.
It was already true in the first weeks of the early Church. Three thousand people were added to the church in Jerusalem on Pentecost (Acts 2:41), and then five thousand more men a little while later (Acts 4:4). These believers could not all know each other. What we read in Acts 2:42 and 46 is that "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. . . . And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts." So they were finding fellowship in home gatherings, where they could know each other, and they were going to the large gatherings at the temple where they could not know everybody.
Smaller gatherings within churches was the key to Biblical life together. It has always been the key and will probably always be the key. Worship in larger gatherings with other believers whom we don't know personally can be powerful (the way a whole battalion gathered before battle to hear the commander's challenge is powerful even though the soldiers don't all know each other). And life in smaller house gatherings can be precious and powerful where a very different kind of life-together happens. Most of the spiritual gifts can be manifested and more natural ministry can happen. And, growing out of these and many other connections, there are the more spontaneous friendships of life that nobody plans, but everybody enjoys.
So I ask again, What should a pastor say when he wants to encourage a Biblical kind of life-together in a large church? Here's the problem. There are at least four different kinds of people in this room who probably need four different kinds of messages concerning life-together. Picture them on a continuum. Find yourself on this line if you can.
On one extreme are the people who say, "I don't feel any need for personal relationships and I don't care if I have any." At the other extreme are people who say, "I need personal relationships and you owe me one, and it's your problem if my needs are not met." Both of these extremes are deficient in love, and tarnished with pride - but the form of their loveless pride looks very different. The one expresses loveless pride by feeling above the need to give love or to receive love. This is the way pride looks in the heart of the strong and self-sufficient. The other extreme expresses loveless pride by feeling that people owe him love and then blaming others for not giving it. This the way pride looks in the heart of the weak and self-pitying. Both extremes need to discover what real love is, and why God designed us to give it and to receive it from him and from each other.
The other two kinds of people (and this is most of you, I believe) are moving from these two extremes toward each other on the continuum because they have recognized their deficiencies and want to change by God's grace. (Keep in mind that all of us are on this continuum somewhere and only Jesus was the perfect relationship-giver and seeker.) The first of this second pair of people is moving from self-sufficiency and says, "I don't naturally look for close relationships where I can love and be loved, but I want grow in this area with you. Would you help me?" The other person (in this pair is), moving from self-preoccupation and self-pity and says, "I know that others need true friends as I do, and I would like to try to be one, without thinking about myself and my needs so much. May I be your friend?"
So what does a pastor say when the ears that hear are so different and the needs for growth and change are so diverse? Well, I think what he does is put God's word on display and trust the Spirit to apply it to a thousand different needs. So the way I am going to try to do it is 1) to hold up the prominence of loving, Christ-exalting, personal relationships in the New Testament to simply let it have its impact as normal, essential Christianity, and then 2) make just a few observations from the first letter of the apostle John about how profoundly God-centered and his mutual love is in the church. In other words, what does all this life of human togetherness in the church have to do with God and the work of his ?
The Prominence of Life--Together in the New Testament
Let's start at the beginning with Jesus himself before we get to the church he founded. Jesus modeled something for us. From all his hundreds of followers, he chose seventy- two for a special ministry (Luke 10:1). You can't know seventy people closely. So he also chose twelve for a closer partnership in life and ministry. Mark 3:14, "He appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him . . ."
But even twelve are too many for some kinds of camaraderie. And so Jesus had a closer bond with Peter, James, and John. He took only these three into the house where he raised the Centurion's daughter (Mark 5:37), and onto the mount of transfiguration (Mark 9:2) and out into the Garden of Gethsemane to pray (Mark 14:33).
And even three are more than some kinds of friendship will allow, and Jesus seemed to have a unique bonding with John. Five times in his gospel John refers to himself as "the disciple whom Jesus loved." He was the one who was closest to Jesus at the last supper (John 21:20).
So Jesus had his great crowds, his seventy-two, his twelve, his three, and his one. And as he put his mission and his church in motion he not only modeled all these levels of relationships, he sent his ambassadors out in teams. "The Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town" (Luke 10:1). Life and ministry with Jesus was life and ministry together.
The apostle Paul followed the same pattern because the Holy Spirit himself designed his first mission this way. Acts 13:2, "While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting [in Antioch], the Holy Spirit said, 'Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.'" Not just Saul. And not just Barnabas. But both together. And they went out together. Christian ministry, it appears, is ministry together. I don't think it is any accident that in every church Paul planted he appointed not one elder/pastor, but more than one (Acts 14:23 "when they had appointed elders for them in every church…").
And when Paul and Barnabas had a falling out over how to treat John Mark who abandoned the first mission, these two giants did not head off in isolation, but formed new teams and got the blessing of the church. "Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord" (Acts 15:39-40). And what a camaraderie Paul and Silas had in this great work. Picture them in prison together in Philippi, having been beaten. It is midnight and they are signing! Singing . . . together. Acts 16:25, "About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them." It was a duet. A deadly serious duet. O the sweetness of friendships on the brink of eternity!
To show how urgent Paul felt about his partnerships, when he was run out of town in Berea and sent to Athens by himself leaving Silas and Timothy behind, Acts 17:15 says, "Those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens, and after receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, they departed." He may have to be alone in ministry for a time, but he will not let it be for long. Bring me my friends because we have a great work to do!
When he met Timothy in Acts 16 he asked him to travel with him as a partner and over the next years six of the 13 letters that Paul wrote he addresses to the churches as coming from him and Timothy. Even though Paul wrote the letters himself, he wanted to send them from the team.
Now we turn to a simple overview of the prominence of the connectedness language in the New Testament. Listen to how many ways the writers describe what life together as Christians should look like.
Jesus started it with these words: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34-35).
Then Paul picks up the theme and gives over a dozen ways.
1. "We are . . . individually members one of another" (Romans 12:5).
2. "Love one another with brotherly affection" (Romans 12:10).
3. "Outdo one another in showing honor" (Romans 12:10).
4. "Let us pursue what makes . . . for upbuilding one another" (Romans 14:19).
5. "Instruct one another" (Romans 15:14).
6. "Have the same care for one another" (1 Corinthians 12:25).
7. "Through love serve one another" (Galatians 5:13).
8. "Bear one another's burdens" (Galatians 6:2).
9. "With patience, endure one another in love" (Ephesians 4:2).
10. "Be kind to one another" (Ephesians 4:32).
11. "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Ephesians 5:21).
12. "In humility count others more significant than yourselves" (Philippians 2:3).
13. "Do not lie to one another" (Colossians 3:9).
14. "Encourage one another" (1 Thessalonians 4:18).
15. "Always seek to do good to one another" (1 Thessalonians 5:15).
Then the book of Hebrews joins the chorus: "Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works" (10:24). Then James joins in: "Do not speak evil against one another, brothers" (4:11). "Do not grumble against one another" (5:9). "Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed." (5:16). Then Peter joins in: "Show hospitality to one another without grumbling" (4:9). "Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another" (5:5).
What is obvious from all this - from Jesus' own relationships, to the early Christian missionary camaraderie, to the connectedness of life in the early church - what is obvious is the prominence of loving, Christ-exalting, personal relationships. This was normal, essential Christianity.
What Did the Togetherness of Love Have to Do with God?
As we turn to 1 John to ask what it all had to do with God, let's not miss one of Paul's clearest answers to that question. In Romans 15:5-7 he gives the answer twice: "May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another [NB: God is the source!], in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome [= accept one another] one another as Christ has welcomed you [=accepted you], for the glory of God" (Romans 15:5-7). In Paul's mind, living in unity with one another, accepting and loving each other, is valuable finally because it makes God look good. It is from God and through God and to God. Horizontal relationships matter finally, because the glory of God matters supremely. Our aim in every relationship is ultimately to awaken and strengthen and deepen a joyful, fruitful passion for God through Jesus Christ.
Now let's turn to 1 John briefly to see how John explains what our horizontal relationships of love have to do with God.
1 John 3:10, By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother."
In other words, loving each other is the living evidence that we are born of God. That we are his children. That we share his nature.
1 John 4:7-8, Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love, does not know God, because God is love."
Love is the living confirmation that we have been born of God and that we know God.
1 John 4:12, No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us."
Loving each other is the outworking of God's love within us. It's the work of his saving presence made visible.
1 John 4:16b, God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him."
Loving each other is the fruit of abiding in God and God abiding in us.
In other words our life together in relationships of love in this church, as we grow and multiply together, is massively important because it has totally to do with God: he is the source of it, and the definition of it, and the goal of it. And - let it not be unsaid, because John did not leave it unsaid - this love is the love of Calvary, the love God showed in Christ when he died for our sins, and the love that we can have only because of Christ. 1 John 3:16, "By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers."
Our aim in training small group leaders, and helping you connect with a group that fits your situation, is to honor the prominence of Christ-exalting life together in the New Testament - Jesus' relationships, early missionary camaraderie, shared life and ministry in the early church - in the hope that the same thing would happen in your life. And our aim is to give evidence to the world that we are born of God and know God. "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35).
Is it not just like God that he should design the church so that we get the joy of loving and being loved, and he gets the glory as the sower and goal of it all? For your own soul and for his glory, move in from the extremes of self-sufficiency and self-pity and seek the Christ-exalting joy of life together.