Part one - Introduction
Words are important.
They are not an end in themselves and by defining specific words we will never 'discover' our salvation. But many of the words we use (as taken from the New Testament) convey something different to the original meaning as contained in the Greek word that is used by the NT authors.
One such word is 'koinonia' (Strongs Gk number 2842) which in the AV is used 19 times (excluding its use in Eph 3:9) - it is translated 'Fellowship' (11x), 'Communion' (4x), ‘Communication' (lx), 'Contribution' (lx), ‘Distribution’ (lx), and 'To communicate' (lx).
But the translation 'Fellowship' conjures up a different idea in minds that come from differing backgrounds. Some may hold that the word means when the Church gathers together for a 'meeting', others that it means nothing more than having a chat with a fellow human being over a cup of coffee (or tea - whatever your poison), while still others that it has primarily to do with our relationship with Christ.
Therefore it is important for us to determine, before we look at where this Gk word occurs in the NT, what this word conveys when used - that is, what meaning of the word should we read into its use in the NT.
Below are extracts from a number of 'Christian' writers concerning the word koinonia:
'In classical Greek, koinonia means an association or a partnership...Koinonia is the spirit of generous sharing as contrasted with the spirit of selfish getting. In the contemporary colloquial Greek koinonia has three distinctive meanings.
'i. It means very commonly a "business partnership". In a papyrus announcement a man speaks of his brother "with whom I have no koinonia", no business connection.
'ii. It is used specially of "marriage". Two people enter into marriage in order to have "koinonia of life", that is to say, to live together a life in which everything is shared.
'iii. It is used of a man's "relationship with God". Epictetus talks of religion as ‘aiming to have koinonia with Zeus". So in secular Greek koinonia is used to express a close and intimate relationship into which people enter'
Under 'Communion' - A - Noun:
'Koinonia [is] a having in common, partnership...[It] denotes the share which one has in anything, a participation, fellowship recognised and enjoyed; thus it is used of the common experiences and interests of Christian men...'
Under 'Fellowship' - A - Nouns:
'Koinonia [means] sharing in common (from koinos, common)...’
Gk number 2842 - Koinonia - 'partnership...participation...'
Gk number 2844 - Koinonos - 'a sharer...'
Gk number 2839 - Koinos - '...common, ie (lit) shared by all or several...'
d. Martin - Pages 46-47
'Fellowship, koinonia, is a rich NT word, the precise meaning of which has received a great deal of attentive study in recent years. Basically it denotes "participation in something with someone"; and its meaning that Christians share with one another in a common possession...is far more important than the popular modern idea of a personal association with fellow-Christians as when we use the word of a friendly atmosphere in a public meeting.
‘In this latter sense of a bond joining Christians together it is never found in Paul, according to Lohmeyer. His usual meaning is one of participation in an object outside of subjective experience, an “objective work" as Lohmeyer calls it.
'The precise definition of koinonia in any text will vary with the context. In certain cases...the meaning is that of generosity, but not in an abstract sense. It is a generosity which shows itself in the tangible and realistic expression of giving, and so the word comes to mean a financial contribution...
'For the meaning of "participation in; sharing in", II Cor 8:4 may be quoted, while Acts 2:42, Gal 2:9 seem to use the term absolutely in the sense of partnership'
d. Wright - Page 176
This comment should be read in conjunction with Philemon 6, to which it refers.
'This Greek word koinonia is difficult to translate. "Fellowship" means, for many, simply the enjoyment of the company of other Christians: "sharing” usually implies mutual giving and receiving of material things; "interchange" itself, useful for highlighting the way koinonia functions, seems a bit mechanical. The idea we need to grasp - the theme that dominates the letter - is that, in Christ, Christians not only belong to one another but actually become mutually identified, truly rejoicing with the happy and genuinely weeping with the sad...Koinonia is part of the truth about the body of Christ. All are bound together in a mutual bond that makes our much-prized individualism look shallow and petty. This fundamental meaning of koinonia best explains its other uses, particularly that of "generosity" or "almsgiving"...Christians give to one another because they belong to one another'
e. Stott - Pages 63-64
This comment should once again be read in conjunction with I John 1:4 to which it refers.
"'Fellowship" is a specifically Christian word and denotes that common participation in the grace of God, the salvation of Christ and the indwelling Spirit which is the spiritual birthright of all Christian believers. It is their common possession of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which makes them one. So John could not have written "that ye also may have fellowship with us" without adding "and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ", since our fellowship with each other arises from, and depends on, our fellowship with God.
'This statement of the apostolic objective in the proclamation of the gospel, namely a human fellowship arising spontaneously from a divine fellowship, is a rebuke to much of our modern evangelism and Church life. We cannot be content with an evangelism which does not lead to the drawing of converts into the Church, nor with a Church life whose principle of cohesion is a superficial social camaraderie instead of a spiritual fellowship with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ'
Although Koinonein and koinonos are not, strictly speaking, identical in meaning to koinonia, an excerpt concerning them is reproduced below as both words come from the same 'family' and bear a similar meaning.
'There are two other great NT words in the koinonia group at which we must look. The first is the verb koinonein. In classical Greek koinonein means "to have a share in a thing". It is used, for instance, of two people who have all things in common; it is used of "going shares" with someone, and therefore of having "business dealings” with him. It is used of "sharing an opinion" with someone, and therefore agreeing with him. In the contemporary Greek of the papyri it has three main meanings.
'i. It means to share "in an action" with someone. For instance, when the authorities cannot track down some malefactors they come to the conclusion that those who "share" in their misdeeds are sheltering them.
'ii. It is used of sharing in “a common possession". For instance, all men are said to "share" in human nature.
'iii. It is used of the sharing of "life". A doctor puts up a tablet to a wife who had practised with him, for, he writes, "I shared all life with you alone"....
'Koinonos in classical Greek means a companion, a partner or a joint-owner. In the papyri it has come to be most commonly used of a business partner. For instance, a certain Hermosa takes Cornelius as his koinonos in a fishing lake to the extent of one-sixth of a share. A father complains to his son in regard to their allotment that their koinonos is not doing his share of the work. It is to be remembered that in contemporary secular Greek the word is almost entirely a business word.
'Surely there is no more gracious group of words than this. The Christian shares in the manhood of all men; he shares in the common experience of joy and tears; he shares in the things divine and in the glory that shall be; and all his life he must be a sharer of all he has, for he knows that his true wealth lies in what he gives away.
Because of the word from which Koinonia comes (Koinos = 'common'), it carries the sense of sharing with someone in something, so that the 'something' becomes the common ground by which the two parties are joined together (in 'fellowship' or 'partnership’ or the like).
It will mean different things in different contexts but the underlying concept of 'sharing' will be seen to be present in most, if not all, of the NT occurrences of the word.
Koinonia means 'Fellowship' because we share, with each other, a common ground or experience.
Koinonia means 'Contribution' because we are sharing with others what we ourselves have.
Koinonia means 'Participation' because we are sharing in what others have. In these last two, what is received and/or given becomes the common ground through which 2 come into Koinonia.
With this definition in mind, we now go on to the NT occurrences of the word.
Part two- Koinonia in the New Testament
As you have read the comments of the various commentators in the previous section, you will have noticed that koinonia holds many different shades of meaning. However, in this section, the main aim is to show how koinonia speaks of sharing in the NT usage of the word. Other shades of meaning may be missed out because of this system of interpretation, but it is necessary to emphasise the importance of ‘sharing’ conveyed by the word.
1. The Koinonia of the Early Church
Acts 2:42 - 'And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and koinonia, to the breaking of bread and the prayers'
a. Koinonia is translated 'fellowship' in the RSV and here it is the best translation of the word. Yet, not fellowship as we understand the word, but as koinonia teaches.
b. This verse does not teach the existence of 4 different types of meetings that were in existence in the early Church, ie - Bible Study Meeting (Apostles' teaching), Midweek Fellowship meeting (Koinonia), Communion service (Breaking of Bread) and the prayer meeting (Prayers). Rather, it teaches the existence of 4 different aspects of one meeting, so that whenever the Church came together, teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer were all integral parts of it.
This does not mean that we must 'conform' our meetings to this 4-fold structure, for in each of our meetings we must follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, but we should find that these 4 characteristics will spring from a healthy church - this is not to be confused with imposing them upon a dead or dying one.
Notice also that no 'time of praise using choruses/hymns' is included in the list!!!
c. Koinonia does not mean the same as our word 'fellowship' does. It does not mean that they met to spend time together or that they chatted with each other when they passed in the street.
Among the many aspects of koinonia implied in this verse is that which is found in Acts 2:44-45 and 4:32-37 which also describes what went on in the early Church:
2:44-45 - 'And all who believed were together and had all things in common (koinos, the word from which koinonia comes); and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need'
4:32-37 - '...no-one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common (koinos)...'
This was the koinonia of the early Church - they lived in the reality (they didn't just believe it) that whatever they owned was the common possession of all. Their possessions were the 'common ground' through which 2 different people came into a koinonia experience.
This is the fellowship of the Early Church. All such 'fellowship' that does not have this characteristic of all things belonging to everyone is not the fellowship as lived by them. If there is a teacher amongst us, then what he has been given belongs to all - he has no rights over his gift to withhold teaching from others because what he has is not really his (I Peter 4:10-11, I Cor 12:7). If a person has wealth, then his money is for the benefit of others (James 2:15-17), he has no right over it to withhold it from his brothers in need. Similarly, if one of our brothers needs accommodation (for the night or for longer), then we have no right to withhold the use of our house from him.
In all these things, what we possess belongs to all (because all that Christ is belongs to all - see the next section).
This was the experience and reality of the early Church also with regard
to giving to the poorer brethren:
Rom 15:26 - 'For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some koinonia for the poor among the saints...'
II Cor 8:4 - '...begging us earnestly for the favour of koinonia in the relief of the saints'
II Cor 9:13 - '...you will glorify God...by the generosity of your koinonia for them and for all others'
Heb 13:16 - 'Do not neglect to do good and koinonia what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God'
In Phil 1:5 Paul writes that he is '...thankful for your partnership (Koinonia) in the Gospel from the first day until now'. This refers to what Paul later writes in 4:15-16 (where ‘partnership' in the RSV is koinoneo which is from the same family as Koinonia - see part one) where it is evident that the Philippians repeatedly supported Paul in his work as he travelled outside the area in which they lived. In Thessalonica, where Paul had worked to support himself (I Thess 2:9, II Thess 3:8), the gift was probably not necessary to support God’s work even though it was perhaps used for expanding it and sharing with those less well-off. And through this contribution to the work, they had become 'partners', they had come into a koinonia experience, and become sharers in the work (III John 8). The Philippians were living in the reality that what they possessed was to be used for the common good - they were not concerned with buying better houses, going on holidays to the south of France or obtaining the latest registration of car, but they were concerned to use what they had to promote the proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom.
d. This being one aspect of the early Church with regard to possessions, it is not difficult for us to see that their fellowship was the koinonia that shared themselves with others because being members of one body (I Cor 12:12) they belonged to each other.
When the Church met (whether it be in 2's in the street as they went about their business or when the entire Body in an area came together), they gave themselves to each other - each member was at the service of every other, thereby forming a Body subject to each other (Eph 5:21). If one rejoiced, they could all rejoice together. If one was sorrowful, they all wept together (I Cor 12:26) - because one belonged to another.
2. The Koinonia of the Breaking of Bread
The Breaking of Bread (hereafter referred to as 'communion') can become a god to us. It can become the ceremony that we serve (ie - it becomes the object of our worship) rather than the ceremony that serves us and reminds us of the great truths that lie behind it and leads us to worship God alone.
What does the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the wine teach us? Though there may be many 'extras' that come out of the way in which we celebrate it, there are 3 main areas of proclamation that it speaks to us of:
Mtw 26:26-28, I Cor 11:24-26
It is a proclamatory remembrance of what Christ has done for me (an individual) through His sacrifice on the cross and that I am a participator in it. The bread broken reminds us of Christ's body offered on the cross and the wine reminds us of Christ's blood poured out for the forgiveness of our sins.
I Cor 11:26
It is a prophetic proclamation that Christ is coming again. Although the verse talks about proclaiming the Lord's death ‘until He comes' and does not talk of the Lord's second coming directly, the celebration can serve to remind us of His imminent return.
i. Eph 2:14-16, I Cor 10:16-17 - 'The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a koinonia in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a koinonia in the body of Christ?'
Communion is a proclamation that we are one people in Christ because of our individual koinonia in the death and resurrection of Christ. John 6:53-54 teaches that we are called to feed upon Christ (not feed from Christ but feed upon Him) so that we assimilate His life into ourselves. It is not a natural feeding, but a spiritual one. This is why the taking of the bread and the wine are only symbols reminding us of our spiritual participation in the reality of the blood and body of Christ but, in themselves, they are not ‘it’.
Celebrating this ceremony is a symbol of the Church’s koinonia - Christ's body offered on the cross and His blood shed (that is, the sum total of the provision of Christ's death and resurrection) is the common ground we share so that we come into a union with each other. Communion is therefore a symbol of our unity (1 bread, 1 cup) because of our individual participation (koinonia) in the provision of the cross.
In Phil 2:1 when Paul writes - '...If there is...any koinonia in the Spirit...' he is speaking of people who 'take part' in the Holy Spirit. Paul's argument here is that if we are participators in the Holy Spirit, then '...complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.' (2:2), thereby showing on what grounds they should be in unity.
Paul also writes in II Cor 13:14 '...the koinonia of the Holy Spirit be with you all...' or, better, 'the participation...' where sharing in the benefits of God is in mind through the Holy Spirit. At the conclusion of Paul's 2 letters in which he has had to rebuke the Corinthians for their disunity, this blessing serves as a reminder to the Church that it is through their participation in the Holy Spirit that they are one.
ii. But the early Church saw it as much more than this.
In I Cor 11:20-22,29 we need to ask ourselves why Paul got so upset at the way the Corinthians were celebrating Communion (actually, they celebrated a 'Festive meal' but for the sake of argument we will presume that in their eating together they took bread and wine and shared it among themselves even though I Cor 11 does not say so!!)? Because it is a proclamation that what we have received from Christ, we are sharing with others around us.
The Corinthian Church brought their own food and wine to the meal, then went ahead and ate it themselves resulting in some being drunk while others went away hungry. They did not distribute their food as any had need, thereby 'discerning' the body (that is, the Church). The Corinthians did not perceive that the provision of Christ (symbolised in the bread broken and the wine poured out) given to individuals is to be held in common/shared with the other believers, but in their celebration they kept what they had for themselves.
Koinonia, as symbolised in Communion, is the sharing of the blessings of Christ with one another.
NB - Philemon 6 which talks of the 'sharing (koinonia) of your faith', not at all referring to evangelism, refers to a distribution of those things that have been received from Christ amongst the household of God. And, in the words of Stott (previously quoted) "'Fellowship" is a specifically Christian word and denotes that common participation in the grace of God, the salvation of Christ and the indwelling Spirit which is the spiritual birthright of all Christian believers. It is their common possession of God...which makes them one'
This interpretative proclamation of communion is in harmony with our definition of the word koinonia and reflects the reality of the early Church as outlined in the previous section (part 2 section 1).
What we need to constantly remind ourselves of and live out is:
1. That because of our (spiritual) participation in Christ, we are one body - not because we go to the same church building, belong to the same church fellowship or were brought up in a particular denomination. We are only one body because we are active participators in the provision (yesterday, today and tomorrow) of the cross and of Christ.
2. That whatever we receive from Christ is received on behalf of the body for the benefit of the body. This is a spiritual principal - God gives gifts to men for the benefit of others and it is especially so with regard to the body of Christ.
3. Koinonia in other New Testament passages
a. The koinonia of Christ
II Cor 6:14 reads '...Or what koinonia has light with darkness?'
The question Paul puts is this: 'How can light and darkness be joined into a sharing union?' Darkness and light have no common ground by which they can share - they are diametrically opposed.
Therefore John says that fellowship/participation (koinonia) with Christ is fellowship with Light and if we are walking in darkness then it is quite obvious that we have become liars to the truth and are no longer fellowshipping with Him (I John 1:6).
Similarly, it is because we fellowship with Christ that we have koinonia with each other. Christ is the common ground through whom and by whom we have become one body. If we have koinonia in Christ then we will also have koinonia with the body of Christ (I John 1:7).
A similar interpretation can be drawn from I John 1:3 - John is not saying that the people who he is writing to do not have koinonia in Christ, but he is showing that the means whereby they can fellowship with him and others is on the ground of his and their koinonia of Jesus Christ. I Cor 1:9 also talks of the koinonia of Jesus Christ.
It must be remembered that this koinonia with the Son is not 'fellowship' in the sense that we often interpret it as, but in the true meaning of the word. The koinonia with Jesus is the primary source of the koinonia that the individual believers of the early Church had with each other - namely, that they gave themselves to each other because Christ had made them one.
Christ gives Himself to us and we to Him. It is the koinonia that a husband has with his wife and vice-versa, hence Paul's teaching on the subject (Eph 5:21-33). This is the fellowship of the Son, nothing less can be the koinonia spoken of in the NT.
b. Gal 2:9 - '...James and Cephas and John...gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship [koinonia]; that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised'
Cole writes on this verse 'Clasped right hands were the sign of friendship and trust. The sense here is of a partnership being brought into being because the apostles recognised that Paul and Barnabas shared in the 'doctrine' of the gospel and were not heretical teachers’
As a very brief summary, it should be noticed what koinonia meant to the early Church as outlined in the NT passages quoted in this section:
a. They shared possessions.
b. They shared themselves with one another.
c. They shared in the provision of Christ by the Holy Spirit.
d. They shared the provision of Christ with others.
e. They shared themselves with Christ as in a marriage relationship.
It is good for us to reflect upon what depth of koinonia we have at this moment in time. It is not for us to feel condemned because we do not see the reality of the NT Church in our lives - but we can commit our weaknesses to Jesus so that we may benefit and realise His strength in our lives in the area of koinonia.
APPENDIX 1 - NT occurrences of the word 'koinonia'
Acts 2:42 ------Fellowship----------------------------------
Rom 15:26 -------Contribution---------------------| Offering to help
I Cor 1:9 -----------Fellowship-----------------------------
I Cor 10:16 (x2) Communion Participation Participation Sharing
II Cor 6:14 Communion Fellowship Fellowship Live together
II Cor 8:4 Fellowship Taking part Sharing Having a part
II Cor 9:13 Distribution Contribution Sharing Sharing
II Cor 13:14 Communion |-----------Fellowship-------------|
Gal 2:9 |--------Fellowship---------------------| A sign that we were all partners
Phil 1:5 Fellowship Partnership Partnership Helped
Phil 2:1 Fellowship Participation Fellowship Fellowship
Phil 3:10 Fellowship Share Fellowship Share of sharing
Philemon 6 Communication Sharing Sharing Fellowship
Heb 13:16 To communicate Share Share Help
I John 1:3 (x2) ----------------Fellowship------------------------
I John 1:6 ----------------Fellowship------------------------
I John 1:7 ----------------Fellowship------------------------
To aid your own study of the word 'koinonia', this table shows you how 4 different translations of the NT have interpreted its meaning in the passages where it occurs.
APPENDIX 2 - The fivefold unity of koinonia
If only one of the 5 summary points (all aspects of koinonia in the early Church - section 4 in the main body of notes) exists in a local church then it will be lopsided as will be seen from the diagrammatic explanations set out below:
a. Summary point 4b - They shared themselves with one another (including point 4a, sharing possessions, which are a part of themselves).
(These traits outlined in the two summary points were evident in the early Church but could equally exist apart from Christ to a certain degree, though breakdown in relationships is more likely when Christ is not in control).
Without Jesus, men and women enjoy fellowship on the basis of sharing themselves with others.
Fellowship is not one always giving and the other receiving, but is a two-way set-up, ultimately seen in the union of marriage when what belongs to two individuals becomes the common possession of both.
eg - I Sam 18:1, Gen 2:18,23-24.
b. Summary point 4c - They shared in the provision of Christ by the Holy Spirit.
These are individuals who receive the blessings and provision of Christ in their lives but who do not have a relationship with Him that is koinonia: ie - there is no sharing themselves with Christ.
Like d below, there is no experiencing true fellowship. This set-up does not contain salvation for the individual.
eg - The leper of Mk 1:40-45 and all others that Jesus healed, delivered, etc., who received the benefits of Christ but who did not serve or obey Him.
c. Summary point 4d - They shared the provision of Christ with others.
These are individuals who receive from Christ and relay the provision received to others that need ministry in specific areas; but there does not exist a marriage union with Christ. Meeting the needs of others (ministering healing, deliverance, etc.,) and being in close fellowship with each other is not proof of a relationship with Christ eg - Mtw 7:22-23
d. Summary point 4e - They shared themselves with Christ as in a marriage relationship.
These are individuals who are partakers/part of Christ but not of each other. A Church with this set up will only exist as individuals grouped together in a building without experiencing fellowship with each other. Individual commitment to the Lord will be high but commitment to one another will be non-existent.
It is the same type of relationship with Christ as the marriage union in a above.
eg - John 17:3 - This set-up contains individual salvation.
e. Summary points 4a-e brought together.
This is the threefold cord of koinonia which is God's plan for the world. God created man to be in fellowship with Himself and all other mankind - though the male/female union in marriage was to be a fuller expression of God's relationship with man.
eg - Eccles 4:12b and the total experience of the early Church.
Concluding remark - It is important that all 5 exist throughout a local church for it to be a balanced unit that is experiencing the fulness of koinonia.
NB - Common References listed under the ‘References’ page of ‘The Cross’ series of teachings are not duplicated here.
Barclay - New Testament Words, William Barclay, SCM Press Ltd
Martin - Philippians, Ralph P Martin, IVP/Tyndale New Testament Commentary
Wright - Colossians and Philemon, N T Wright, IVP/Tyndale New Testament Commentary
Stott - Epistles of John, John R W Stott, IVP/Tyndale New Testament Commentary
Cole - Galatians, Alan Cole, IVP/Tyndale New Testament Commentary