THE HEAVENLY FELLOWSHIP
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2-7-65 10:50 a.m.
This is the pastor bringing God’s message from God’s Word, and the sermon is entitled The Heavenly Fellowship. We shall read out of the second chapter, beginning at verse 41, and the text is Acts 2:42. We begin reading at the forty-first verse, “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls” [Acts 2:41]. And this is the text, the same one that the pastor used last Sunday morning:
And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine, and in the fellowship, and in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.
And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles.
And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart,
Praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church day by day those that were being saved.
Now, verse 42 describes the heavenly fellowship: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and in the fellowship, and in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers” [Acts 2:42]. In the twenty-first chapter of the Book of Revelation and the sixteenth verse, John sees by vision the holy Assembly of God, the bride of the Lamb, the saved of the redeemed, and the city which describes their character, and their fellowship and their glory [Revelation 22:9-15]: “The city lieth foursquare” [Revelation 22:16]. By measure it is the length and the breadth and the height and the depth, all the same: a perfect cube; the symbol of a perfect and sublime and celestial fellowship.
You will find in the description of the church here, you will find those four things that make up the perfection, and the glory, and the heaven of the assembly of the Lord, the redeemed of Christ in His church. First, fellowship with God in the prayers; second, fellowship with Christ in the breaking of bread; third, fellowship in the truth, and in the faith, and in the leadership of the house of God, fellowship in the apostles’ doctrine; and fourth, fellowship with one another in the congregation, in the koinōnia, the perfect cube, the sublime assembly of God’s redeemed, His church.
Fellowship first with God: “And they continued steadfastly . . . in the prayers” [Acts 2:42], in the stated and public prayers, in the stated and announced worship of God our Father. There is private communion with God in solitude in a desert all alone, by yourself or out under the starry chalice of God’s sky, where the soul communes with God alone, but there is something more and beyond and beside. There is the meeting of God in the sanctuary of the house and of the home, saying grace at the table, reading the Bible, each member of the family praying; there is the meeting of God in the sanctuary of the home. There is the meeting of God with God; the fellowshipping with God around a study table with an open Bible––a class, a group––and God speaks to us, and we can talk to the Lord.
But there is something over and beside. To meet God in the desert place or under the sky alone is not enough. To meet God in the sanctuary of the home is not enough. To meet God around a study class or a study table is not enough. There is also by the commandment of the Lord, there is also stated, and open, and public, and announced divine worship. In the Old Testament the people gathered in holy convocation at the door of the tabernacle, and for the generations of our forefathers, they came together in what they called divine worship. And the Holy Scriptures admonish us in the tenth chapter of the Book of Hebrews and the twenty-fifth verse, “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” [Hebrews 10:25].
There is private praying, there is also public praying. There is private reading of the Word of God; there is also public reading of the Word of God. There is private testimony of the grace of Jesus; there is also public avowal and public witness of the grace of our Lord. And it is unthinkable and inexcusable and unimaginable that a child of God regenerated, born again, that a child of God would ever forsake public and announced and stated divine worship: this is our fellowship with God the Father.
One of the men whose wife belongs to this church, one of the men was answering me. At the encouragement of his wife, I went to see him. And I was talking to him about the Lord, and I was talking to him about the church; and I was talking to him about all it means to family, and to nation, and to youth, and to children, and the Christian values that accrue from it. And he was very cynical and very sarcastic and very sardonic. He had no use for the church, and he had no use for the idea of God. And he had no use for Christ, and he had no use for the assemblies of the Lord.
So I said, I said, “Why don’t you go and live in Russia? You would like it there. They don’t believe in God either, and they don’t believe in churches either. And they don’t believe in Christ either, and they don’t believe in the assembly of the redeemed either, and they don’t believe in Christian values either! Why, they believe in lying in order to achieve their purpose. They believe in murder for the achievement of their purpose. And when they write a treaty, it’s not worth the ink and the paper that they used to make it and to sign it because they have no Christian values! Truth is not rooted in the character of God, and right and wrong is not rooted in the personality of God; they don’t believe in God. They don’t believe in a church. They don’t believe in a preacher. They don’t believe in the congregation of the redeemed.” And I said, “Why don’t you go live in Russia? You would love it there. They have the same values that you have! And they believe in the same things that you believe in, and you would rejoice in that kind of culture and civilization. Why don’t you go live in Russia?”
“Well,” he said, “I just never had thought about that.” Don’t you think you ought to think about that? All of the foundation principles upon which our government is built came out of the Bible. And all of the great and everlasting foundational principles that guide our culture and civilization; right and wrong, the honoring of the word truthfulness, all of those things, they come out of the Word of God. And the sublimest characteristic of the American Republic is its stated and public worship of the Lord God Almighty. And outside of that, there’s not much to differentiate us from the atheist who live across the seas. When America goes to church, America is attending its finest hour and is rising to its greatest and most significant meaning.
“And they continued steadfastly . . . in the prayers” [Acts 2:42], fellowshipping with God, a stated, open, public service, and you ought to be there. And you who listen on the radio, if you’re sick and can’t come, and you listen on the TV and you’re ill and can’t be present, fine. But if you are able to come, you ought to be in God’s house, at God’s stated time, on God’s day; this holy and sacred hour. Sunday is the brightest day of the week and the most meaningful; that is, if you care about your people, and your family, and your folks, and your nation, and the destiny of your country. Be here. “And they continued steadfastly . . . in the prayers.”
Second: that holy and heavenly fellowship is a fellowshipping with Christ. “And they continued steadfastly…in the breaking of bread” [Acts 2:42], which is the biblical, the New Testament word for the Lord’s Supper. Sharing the table of the Lord, eating bread, reminding us of His body; drinking the fruit of the vine, reminding us of His blood; it is a communion with our blessed Lord, and the fellowship of His sufferings. First Corinthians 10:16: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” We are symbolically entering into the sufferings of our Lord when we gather around the table, and break bread, and drink of the fruit of the vine. So many things like that you’ll find in the New Testament. Paul says that all these things that were gain to me, I count them but as dross, but as dung, that I might win Christ, that I might know Him, and that I might know the power of His resurrection, and that I might know the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death [Summary of Philippians 3:7-10].
And another time, he mentions it in words like this. In the first chapter of Colossians, “That in my sufferings for you, I might fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh” [Colossians 1:24]. You know a theologian would look at that and say, “What an unusual word. What an unusual word.” Paul says, “That in my sufferings I fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh” [Colossians 1:24]. And a theologian looking at that would say, “But how come? How is it possible, for the atonement of Christ was complete?” All of it was done:
Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin hath left a crimson stain–
He washed it white as snow.
[“Jesus Paid It All,” Elvina M.Hall, 1865]
There is nothing lacking in the atonement of Christ. And yet Paul says he is in his afflictions and in his sufferings, filling up that which is behind, that which is lacking. The Greek is “that which is lacking,” in the sufferings of Christ. And when you study that, it becomes very apparent; it is true that the atonement of Christ on the cross was all adequate and all sufficient for the washing away of the sins of the world [John 19:30; 1 John 2:2]. But that atonement of Christ must be mediated to the human heart and the human soul. And between a man and God, there is so much that intervenes; ignorance, and darkness, and indifference, and worldly pleasures, and rejection, and blasphemy, and unbelief, and a thousand things that separate a man’s soul from God. And when a servant of Jesus seeks to mediate what Christ has done on the cross for that man there, to reach that man for Jesus, he enters into the sufferings of his Lord; the fellowship with Christ in His afflictions [Philippians 3:10].
About two weeks ago, after I had preached through the State Evangelistic Conference in Tennessee, I was in the airport in Nashville waiting for a jet plane to arrive, making a non-stop flight to Dallas Love Field. And while I was there in the airport, a tall, gray-headed, fine looking man came up to me and called me by name. And as I shook hands with him, he said, “I am the Oldsmobile-Cadillac dealer in our little city in eastern Tennessee.” And he said, “I want to thank you for something that you did.” He said, “Four years ago, you were here in Nashville preaching through the State Evangelistic Conference for Tennessee.” And he said, “One night, when you got through preaching, you made an invitation, one like I had never heard before. You made an appeal for all the laymen that were present”—you see it’s an assembly of preachers mostly, but many times many laymen are present—and he said, “That night you made an invitation and an appeal for all the laymen who were present, who would open their hearts to receive a burden from God for somebody that was lost, and would pray for them, and try to win them over to Jesus; if the laymen in that congregation, if they would receive such a burden of intercession from God, to come down and get on their knees by your side, and consecrate themselves for the winning of that somebody who was lost.”
That layman said, “I was seated almost on the back seat of the balcony. But when you made that appeal, God put a man’s name on my heart—older man, he’s over sixty-five years of age—God put that man on my heart back there in the city where I live.” And he said, “I came that long distance down to the front, and I got down on my knees, and I offered myself to God to win that man to Jesus. Well, he said, “I went back to my home in eastern Tennessee, and I called the man. And I told him what I’d done.” And he said, “I went to see him, and I testified to him, and I witnessed to him, and I prayed with him, and I pled with him about Jesus.” And he said, “Several years passed, and I did that continually, and he never responded.”
He said, “Finally, I went to him with these words. I said to him, ‘I want to apologize to you.’ And my friend said, ‘Why Jim, apologize to me, what for?’” And the man said, “I’ve made a nuisance of myself. I’ve made a nuisance of myself. I have bothered you and I’ve troubled you. I’ve called you at home, and I’ve talked to you at the business. And I’ve prayed with you, and I’ve witnessed to you, and I’ve been doing it for several years now. And I know you are weary of me, and tired of me, and you hate to see me come! And I recognize now that I have made a mistake, and I have done it wrong. And I want to apologize to you, and I want you to forgive me. And I’ve come to tell you that I’ll not bother you anymore, I’ll not bother you anymore.”
And the fellow said, “Jim, bother me? Why, Jim,” he said, he said, “I know I’m not saved. I know I’m not saved, but I’m going to be saved, I’m going to be saved. And Jim, don’t quit praying for me. Don’t give me up, don’t do it, don’t! Keep praying and keep testifying to me.” And that tall, fine-looking man standing before me in that airport said, “Preacher, a few weeks ago I won him to the Lord. He was saved. And a few Sunday evenings ago, I saw him baptized, and already he’s a pillar for God in the community and a strength to us in the church.”
That’s the fellowshipping with Christ. He died for our sins; that’s right [1 Corinthians 15:3]. And the whole atonement that we might be saved was made by the Savior on the cross; that’s right [Romans 5:11; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2]. But there are fellowships yet and beside in the sufferings of Jesus that are our part, that His truth and His love and His grace might be mediated to somebody else. Ah, when I got on that plane, I was so grateful I made that invitation. And I was so grateful that wonderful layman came down and got on his knees and dedicated himself in response to it: fellowshipping with Christ.
All right there’s a third fellowship: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine” [Acts 2:42], in the apostles’ teaching. And this is the fellowship we have with all of the saints, and the prophets, and God’s servants in days past, and please the Lord until He comes again, in days’ future. This is the fellowship we have with God’s saints and God’s servants through the years; a fellowship in the faith, in the truth, in the teaching. “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine,” in the apostles’ teaching. And in that, we belong to an incomparable company.
Oh, how true, “For God is not the God of the dead, but of the living [Matthew 22:32]. And it is a real and a genuine fellowship! When the Lord was transfigured, there appeared to Him Moses on one side and Elijah on the other side, talking to Him about His death which He should accomplish in Jerusalem for them [Luke 9:30-31]. For they were in heaven because of the promise that Christ would do it, and we’re going to heaven because of the promise Christ has done it. There is a fellowship of the ages past and the ages to come in the great faith and truth of the gospel of the Son of God.
In the twelfth chapter of the Book of Hebrews, the first verse, in the eleventh chapter, he named the heroes of faith: Abel, and Enoch, and Noah, and Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Joshua, and Moses, and all of the prophets [Hebrews 11:4-40]. Then he says in the twelfth chapter, “Wherefore being surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus” [Hebrews 12:1-2]. What a magnificent, what a magnificent and holy idea and revelation! All who have ever gone before us to look to us as we turn and look to them, a great fellowship through the unending centuries; and how so many times do we feel that, who are in this fellowship, and in this faith, and in this communion, and in this church—our great missionaries standing where we stand in the faith who preceded us, William Carey, Adoniram Judson, those incomparable preachers, Baptist preachers who stood up, and with the power of God upon them, witness to the grace of God in Jesus––Balthazar Hubmaier, John Bunyan, Alexander MacLaren, Charles Haddon Spurgeon.
And when we come to this sacred place and to this holy pulpit, how many times in this very house did the congregation here listen to the incomparable doctrinal messages of B.H. Carroll; listen to the great denominational appeals of J. B. Gambrell; listen to the sympathizing and loving portrayals from the lips of Robert Cook Buckner, and, of course and to us most precious and meaningful of all, the forty-seven years that the incomparable prince of preachers George W. Truett stood in this very place and proclaimed with matchless devotion and superlative love, the saving grace of Jesus. Oh, what a fellowship, continuing steadfastly in our generation in the faith and handing it down to these who in God’s sovereign purpose will succeed us.
Now the last and we must hasten; the fellowship with one another in the household of God’s redeemed, the koinōnia: fellowshipping with God in our stated and public worship; fellowshipping with Christ in His sufferings, symbolized by broken bread and the red fruit of the vine; fellowshipping with the saints, and the prophets, and the apostles, and God’s servants through the ages; and last, fellowshipping with one another, in the koinōnia, in the household of faith, in the church of our blessed Savior [Acts 2:42].
In the [thirteenth] chapter of the Gospel of John, the Lord says: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another.” Then He added, “For by this shall all men know ye are My disciples, that ye love one another” [John 13:34-35]. Was it last Sunday, the choir, one of the choirs, sang a pretty song “Love One Another”? Was it? Sometime, don’t tell me you’ve forgotten and I remember it now.
When Jerome translated out of the Greek into the Latin, which became the standard version of all Western Christianity, he came in the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians to the Greek word agapē, agapē [1 Corinthians 13:13]. Agapē in Greek is a beautiful and holy word, love. And the word in Latin was, is, amor. But the Latin’s did with love what America is beginning to do with it: they apply it to the lust of the harlot and the promiscuity of the alley. Love, you’ll see it in cheap films and in sorry television programs, love.
Jerome came to that word in the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, and he didn’t know what to do with it; for amor in Latin had the connotation in it of the same cheap promiscuity that it does it does in our modern American language. And that’s why, in the Latin Vulgate and in the King James Version of the Bible, he put the word caritas in Latin; the old 1611 English word charitas, charity in our language, it means endearment, it means esteem, it means loving respect, it means preciousness. In order preferring one another, my esteemed, my endeared one; he tried to take out of it, like it is in agapē, all of the cheapness of promiscuity; that holy, reverential, kindness that God’s people feel for one another.
And so he wrote, the incomparable paean of praise, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels”––the most brilliant preacher that ever stood in a pulpit––“and have not caritas,” have not charity, have not warm, endearing, tenderhearted affection, “I am nothing . . . And though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains…though I give my body to be burned . . . bestow all I have to feed the poor… and have not caritas, charity, reverential esteem, and affection, it profiteth me nothing” [1 Corinthians 13:1-3].
The first Christian community made such an impression upon the pagan world that one of those Roman writers exclaims, “How those Christians love one another.” Aged John, and this is one of the apocryphal stories of John that the critics say is almost certainly true. Aged John, who lived beyond a hundred years, aged John was brought for the last time to his church at Ephesus. And he was held up by an elder on this side, and by an elder on this side, for his last message. And the aged apostle said, “My little children love one another.” Then he repeated, “My little children love one another.” Then he said it again. Then one of the elders interrupted and said, “But John, we’ve heard you say that, don’t you have something else?” And aged apostle replied, “No, it is enough. It is enough. My little children love one another.”
John Fawcett was pastor of a little Baptist congregation in Wainsgate, Yorkshire, in England. And his fame as a preacher and as a pastor reached London. And the big city church called him again, and then called him again, and then called him again. And he steadfastly refused. But by the time the years had multiplied and they kept that insistent calling, he thought, well, maybe it was his duty to go. So he bid his little congregation goodbye, resigned, and accepted the big city church in London. All of his belongings were on the wagon, and then he was gathering his family and putting them up there on the wagon to drive away to the big city church in London. And when everything was prepared, why, he turned to tell his little congregation goodbye. And they were weeping. The tears falling from their faces like light showers of rain, and he looked at them, remembered them, remembered them, remember this one, this one, this one, this one, and finally said to the driver, “Turn around, turn around, turn around.” And they turned the wagon around, and put all the furniture back in the house. And he went to his study and sat down and wrote the sweet and precious hymn:
Blessed be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.
[“Blessed Be the Tie That Binds,” by John Fawcett]
And he stayed there until he died, pastoring that church at seventy and eight years of age.
Isn’t that like God? The fellowship that binds us together to our Father, to our Savior, to the saints that are past, and to one another who share this ministry in the present. “And he saw the city foursquare” [Revelation 21:16], God’s perfect fellowship, the koinōnia, the church of our blessed Lord.
While we sing this hymn of appeal, somebody you this day coming in faith to the Lord who is able to forgive our sins, who is faithful and just to preserve and to keep us to the end of our way, somebody you this day to accept Jesus as Savior, come and stand by me. I’ll be standing right there to the right, to your right, of this table of broken bread. Come and give me your hand, “Preacher I give you my hand. I have given my heart to the blessed Lord, and here I am.” A couple to put their lives in the church; a family, one somebody you; however God shall say the word and open the door, make it now. Make it now, on the first note of this first stanza, make it this morning. Decide now, right now, “Lord, I decide for Thee, and here I come.” And then when you stand up in the congregation, you step out into that aisle or down one of these stairways, and here to the front, “Here I am preacher, and here I come.” Make it now. Make it today. While we stand and while we sing.