The topic assigned for me in this series on perseverance is “Christian Fellowship as a Means of Perseverance.” So let me begin with a definition of Christian fellowship. In the New Testament, koinonía signifies having a share in something, or sharing with someone in something, or you could say participation in something or with someone. For example:
“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a fellowship/participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a fellowship/participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16). In other words, when we drink the cup and eat the bread we share in the benefits of the slain body and shed blood of Jesus. We have a share in what death achieved.
“They begged us earnestly for the grace and the sharing/participation in the ministry to the saints” (2 Corinthians 8:4). In other words, they wanted to have a share in sending financial relief to the poor in Jerusalem.
“That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship/sharing of his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). In other words, Paul wanted to have a share in the sufferings of Christ. To participate with him in suffering for the gospel.
So koinonía can be a sharing in the benefits of the death of Jesus, or in the financial relief of the saints, or in the sufferings of Christ. So when we talk about Christian koinonia — fellowship or sharing or participation that is unique to our relationship with other believers — what we are referring to is the shared union, the shared participation that we have together with Christ.
“Fellowship is a mutual bond that Christians have with Christ that puts us in a deep, eternal relationship with one another.”
So Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:9, “You were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Which probably means both (1) sharing vertically in the union each of us has in Christ, and (2) sharing together with other believers the common union we have with Christ and each other.
That sharing together in the Father and the Son is certainly the case in 1 John 1:3:
That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us [that you may share in what we have seen and heard]; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
So when you share with us in the realities we have seen and heard, namely the realities of Jesus, then you share not only with us, but you share with us in our sharing in the Father and the Son.
So when I talk about Christian fellowship as a means of perseverance, the fellowship I have in mind is the mutual bond (and I think mutual would be the adjective form of koinonía in English) that Christians have with Christ that unites us in a profound and eternal relationship of love that should express itself in joyful and affectionate service to for each other’s good.
And that expression of love — that demonstration of Christian fellowship — may be at times bloodearnest as in the moment of martyrdom when Hugh Latimer said to Nicholas Ridley as they are about to be burned at the stake in 1555, “Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” That is Christian fellowship as a means of perseverance!
Or this demonstration of Christian fellowship can be as cheerful as a smiling word to your roommate: “You will survive these final exams. And live to see another day.” Or a word to your friend that you just beat in ping-pong for the fifth time in a row, “You know Joe, I think God made you to preach, and made me to play ping-pong.” This too is Christian fellowship as a means of perseverance!
So, whether you are together facing martyrdom, or final exams, or a ping-pong game, Christian fellowship is aware of a profound, eternal relationship of love governed by Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 4:29:
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion [whether martyrdom or ping-pong], that it may give grace to those who hear.
“Making it to the end in faith shows that we were real — we had indeed come to share in Christ.”
Faith Requires Perseverance
And the grace we are talking about in this message is the grace of perseverance. And what we have seen of the grace of perseverance in these messages is that perseverance is necessary for final salvation (“The one who endures to the end will be saved.” Mark 13:13); and that perseverance is guaranteed for all those who are born of God (“He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:6); and that perseverance is accomplished through means, one of which is Christian fellowship — as I’ve tried to define it.
The most important passage in the Bible to make this point — that Christian fellowship is a means of perseverance in faith — is Hebrews 3:12–14. So I invite you to turn to it. Tom Steller looked at this text briefly in his message on the word of God as means six weeks ago. Let’s spend a few minutes at the level of its logical relationships, and then deal with what I call the reality factor. Then we’ll end with some examples of how this works.
Save Your Brother or Sister from Destruction
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.
First, notice verse 14. This is the ground or the reason for the two imperatives in verses 12 and 13, “Take care!” And “Exhort one another!” And the reason is this (verse 14) — and the tenses are very important: Take care, and exhort each other, “because we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.” It does not say, “If we hold our confidence firm, we will have a share in Christ.” It says, “If we hold our confidence firm to the end, we have shared in Christ.” This means that perseverance to the end in faith is a necessary confirmation that we have been born again. Making it to the end in faith shows that we were real — we had indeed come to share in Christ.
“All sin is a lie because nothing is more preferable than God. Therefore, all sin, which consists in preferring anything to God, is lying to us.”
So that’s the ground of these two imperatives in verses 12 and 13: “Take care!” and “Exhort one another every day.” Why? Because you know that if your brother (and that is what he calls them in verse 12) — does not hold on to his confidence to the end, he will prove himself to have never shared in Christ. He will be lost — whether he is called brother or not. And from that logic between verse 13 and verse 14 you infer, rightly, “My exhortation is one of God’s means for keeping my brother or my sister holding fast to Christ, and thus saving him from destruction.”
Five Realities That Cause Catastrophe
And that inference from the logical connection between the imperative of verse 13 and the truth of verse 14 is confirmed by the way the writer explains the dynamics of falling away from God. And here we turn to what I mean by the reality factor.
Look at the words of verse 12 and 13. Verse 12: Don’t let there be an evil, unbelieving heart leading you to fall away. Then look at the description of that process in verse 13b: Don’t be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
We have at least five huge realities about to create a catastrophe:
- Hardness (verse 13)
- Sin (verse 13)
- Sin’s deceitfulness (verse 13)
- A heart marked by evil (verse 12)
- and by unbelief (verse 12)
And the logic of the clauses — what we see in arcing — does not tell us how these five realities relate to each other. We have to think our way into the realities themselves and what we know about them from the rest of Hebrews and the New Testament and our experience and work that out. I call this the reality factor in preaching or in any application of God’s word.
Here’s my suggestion for how these five realities actually work to bring about the catastrophe warned against here and that Christian fellowship is designed by God to prevent: Sin can be spoken of subjectively, as something that we feel or do, or objectively, as something we are drawn to feel or do. In either case sin, in essence, is a preference for anything over God. Therefore, all sin — whether alluring us or being experienced by us — is deceitful. All sin is a lie because nothing is more preferable than God. Therefore, all sin, which consists in preferring anything to God, is lying to us.
“You are God’s appointed means to keep your brother or sister from falling into sin.”
The Essence of Evil
When that deceit insinuates itself into the human heart, one description of the effect is hardness. And hardness implies not easily touched or not easily penetrated with truth or beauty or preciousness.
And this hardening heart is called in verse 12 “an evil heart of unbelief.” Unbelief, therefore, is another way of describing what happens as the truth and beauty and worth of Christ become less and less desirable — less and less welcome, less able to touch and penetrate the hardening heart. Because faith, in its essence, is not mere assent to truth about Christ, but a heartfelt embrace of all the beauty and value that God is for us in Christ. As the heart is deceived by the lie of sin — that anything is more desirable than God — it hardens, and the superior beauty and worth of Christ are no longer felt. And this is called unbelief.
And the last thing to say about it is that it is evil. It is an evil heart of unbelief (verse 12), because it is in the grip of sin’s delusion that other things are more desirable than God. That is the essence of evil.
And the reason we dig into the reality of what really happens in the heart that is falling away from the living God is so that we know what our job is in Christian fellowship. Our job is to help each other keep this catastrophe from happening. Specifically in verse 13: “Exhort one another every day — while there still is a day — that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” You are God’s appointed means to keep this from happening to your brother or sister!
That is one of the great callings on your life as a Christian — all of you. This is the calling of Christian fellowship — in all its forms.
- Christian friendships exist for this: to say things that will keep each other believing.
- Small groups exists for this: to say things that will keep each other believing.
- Christian College and Seminary classes exist for this: to say things that will keep each other believing.
- Christian counseling exists for this: to say things that will keep each other believing.
- Church planting teams all over the world exist for this: to say things that will keep each other believing.
- Christian marriages and parenting exist for this: to say things that will keep each other believing.
Jesus Is Better
And it is clear, is it not, that, if the essence of the deceit that leads to sin and hardness and unbelief and falling away and the eternal destruction — if the essence of that deceit is making anything look preferable to God, look more desirable than God, more valuable than all that God is for us in Jesus — if that is what leads to destruction, then what will be the essence of these exhortations?
Will it not be, first: God is better! Christ is better! His way is better. And a thousand biblical and experiential descriptions of why his word, his way, his future, his greatness, his guidance, value, his beauty, his friendship is better. The pleasures of even the reproaches of Christ are greater wealth than the pleasures of Egypt. That’s how Hebrews 11:26 says it.
“Every exchange with others counts for eternity. We are either weakening people’s affections for God, or strengthening them.”
And second, will these exhortations not also be the flip side of he is better, his treasures are greater, namely, The pleasures of Egypt are fleeting (Hebrews 11:25)! Don’t throw him away. Don’t shrink back. Don’t commit eternal suicide.
My righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him. But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls. (Hebrews 10:38–39)
You say to your brother, “If you shrink back, if your heart is deceived, and hard and unbelieving, you will be destroyed. That too is part of what Christian fellowship says to a straying friend.
I have a letter here dated 24 August, 1992 from a young woman who grew up as a missionary kid and was going to Bethlehem in the mid-eighties. She had come in to seem me in 1985 and was living in sexual immorality. After a while it seemed right that she needed to hear a serious warning of destruction. Here’s what she wrote to me seven years later.
1985 — I wonder whether you remember a very much younger me, sitting in your office and telling you I was afraid God would have to use a car accident or some other awful event to get my attention. You pointed out that the consequences of my deliberate choice to continue sinning would be nothing short of hell itself. No one had ever before told me I was headed for hell, missionary kid that I was, “saved” at the age of six . . . It was a turning point in my life, and I have wanted to thank you until you that, ever since
I assured mom that a warning such as that 1985 conversation, made me feel all the more loved, after I heard what you really think of hell. That you cared enough to tell me, a stranger at the time, means more than ever with the echo in my ears. Your compassion certainly came through to me.
Sometimes the exhortation is: He is better! He is infinitely better! Other times, or at the same time, the exhortation is: If you leave him you will be destroyed.
I recall one other time in the eighties when Tom Steller and I were trying to help a young woman through a terrible season of depression. She was repeatedly suicidal. So we had a pact with her that she would call us before she hurt herself. She agreed. One night she called. We made her promise to meet us her at church in the middle of the night. Tom and I came together. We exhorted her with countless scriptures. We sat in quiet. We prayed. We waited. The spiritual darkness on her was almost as palpable as if it had been a huge dark blanket causing her whole body to sag under the weight.
After several hours, it lifted. That woman is a fruitful and faithful minister in the church today. She persevered. And I don’t doubt that our exhortations that night, by the power of the Holy Spirit, saved her.
“Every sermon, every conversation, is a means of final salvation. There are no meaningless moments.”
Eternity at Stake
Of course, ninety percent of the interchanges between Christians are not in crisis. But every one of them counts for eternity. We are either weakening people’s affections for God, or strengthening them. We are either building up toward heaven, or tearing down toward hell. And Paul said,
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Ephesians 4:29)
What grace? The grace of perseverance.
Every sermon, every conversation, is a means of final salvation. There are no meaningless moments. Life is awesomely meaningful at every moment.
Be a True Friend
Let me leave you with one more picture. In 1 Samuel 23, David’s life is hanging in the balance. The Lord shows him that people the town of Keilah are going to hand him over to Saul. So David must flee. Later in the chapter, the Ziphites betray David and tell Saul where he is, and Saul comes after him. He escapes by the skin of his teeth. Imagine the pressure, the stress, the tension, the discouragement. Is it worth it to be God’s anointed? You will ask this in your ministry!
Between those two events — the betrayal of Keilah and the treachery of the Ziphites — God gives us a glimpse of how David persevered.
And Jonathan, Saul’s son, rose and went to David at Horesh, and strengthened his hand in God. (1 Samuel 23:16)
The camaraderie of Christian Hedonism: He is better. He is enough. Don’t leave him. Be strong. God has you in his hand. If you’re a Christian you are united to Christ in a mutual bond with all other Christians. You are, therefore, in a profound, eternal relationship of love with all believers. Your calling, therefore, is to be a Jonathan in all those relationships.
Do this for each other. “Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13).
John Piper preached this message at Bethlehem College & Seminary in downtown Minneapolis, where he is chancellor. Students are equipped for joyful lives of high-impact, helping other people be eternally happy, by learning and sharing that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.