For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him, as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Then Paul picks up the theme and puts over a dozen ways.
1. "We are . . . individually members one of another" (Romans
2. "Love one another with brotherly affection" (Romans 12:10).
"Outdo one another in showing honor" (Romans 12:10).
4. "Let us pursue what makes . . . for upbuilding one another"
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
12. "In humility count others more significant than yourselves"
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
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,
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
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
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 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.