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The KIV translates koinonia as “communion” four times. However, the KJV actually prefers the word “fellowship,” which it uses 12 times.
The word refers to an association or community, partnership, participation, that is, that which people have in common. In the context of the church, koinonia has to do with equal participation in the fellowship as part of the community of saints.
The ministry of the apostle Paul emphasized the equality of koinonia, insisting that gentiles were equal participants in the worship of God and the fellowship of the saints. This was Luke’s primary purpose in recording Peter’s revelation in Acts 10:34, 35,
34 Opening his mouth, Peter said: “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, 35 but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.”
Peter’s vision of the unclean animals in Acts 10:11-16, telling him to “kill and eat,” puzzled him at first. But after being summoned to the house of Cornelius, and seeing how the Roman believers were given the Holy Spirit, he came to understand that “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy” (Acts 11:9). The word translated “unholy” is from koinos, from which koinonia is derived.
Koinos was a word the Jews used to describe that which was “common,” as distinct from “holy.” To be “holy” is to be separated and consecrated for divine service, such as priests (Exodus 22:31). Other Israelites were the “common” people, yet on a national level, they too were to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). In other words, if obedient, they were to be part of a greater fellowship of priests that were distinct from other nations that were full of “common” people—that is, unholy people.
The Jews of that day—and even the disciples and Peter himself—did not fully understand the mind of God in this matter. The common thinking of the day was that gentiles were “common” (unholy) by virtue of their genealogy, and so even converts to Judaism had to remain in the outer court when they came to the temple to worship God. Their faith did not qualify them to go with the Jewish men into the inner court.
Peter’s revelation put an end to this notion that God was partial toward Jews. Christ had come to build the Kingdom community upon the principle of impartiality. All believers, regardless of genealogy, were given full access to God, which, in practice, meant that they were to be given the Holy Spirit. Until that moment, Peter had assumed that the Holy Spirit, being the promise to their fathers, was the exclusive right of genealogical children of Abraham.
Peter’s belief was corrected by practical experience. Acts 10:44, 45 says,
44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. 45 All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.
What may be equally amazing is the fact that these Gentiles were not even baptized yet. We read in Acts 10:47, 48,
47 “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” 48 And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.
On what grounds could God baptize them with the Holy Spirit? In my view, God saw their faith as they believed the gospel that Peter was preaching. Being justified by faith, they could receive the Holy Spirit even before they were baptized. This is a good illustration of how people become believers even before being baptized in water. In fact, it is because they are already believers that they are eligible for water baptism and baptism of the Holy Spirit.
At the Last Supper, Jesus instituted the rite of communion, commemorating His death on the cross. Matt. 26:26-29 says,
26 While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” 27 And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; 28 for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. 29 But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.”
The bread was said to be “My body.” To eat His flesh is the essence of the gospel. The Hebrew word for “gospel” is basar, which also means “flesh.” Hence, Jesus said in John 6:54, 55,
54 “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink.”
To eat His flesh and drink His blood is to believe the gospel. It was not to be taken literally, of course. Yet it should be pointed out that Jesus taught these things during His ministry, as seen in John 6, long before the Last Supper. In other words, when Jesus instituted communion at the Last Supper, the disciples were not taken totally by surprise. It seems that Jesus did not need to explain this principle to them. They were merely instructed to perpetuate this as a church practice in the years to come.
It was customary at the time of Passover to drink four cups of wine.
The first was called the Cup of Blessing.
The second was called the Cup of Plagues.
The third was called the Cup of Redemption.
The fourth was called the Cup of Praise.
According to Jewish tradition, these four cups originated from Exodus 6:6,7, where four words stand out:
6 Say, therefore, to the sons of Israel, “I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver [natsal, “rescue”] you from their bondage. I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. 7 Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.”
God blessed Israel by bringing them out of Egypt at Passover. Paul mentions this in 1 Cor. 10:16, saying, “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ?” The plagues of the second cup referred to their manner of deliverance. God also redeemed Israel and then took them as His people.
It should be noted that the people of Israel came out of Egypt as believers who were justified by faith in the blood of the Lamb. They formed a community, a fellowship with a common unity. This included non-Israelites as well (Exodus 12:37, 38). At this point in their history, Israel was no longer a single family or race but a nation. This is the pattern that was to be duplicated by the One like Moses who fulfilled the feast of Passover on a higher level.
At the last supper when Jesus instituted communion at the time of Passover, He drank only three cups of wine with the disciples, saving the last one for a later time. Matt. 26:29 says,
29 But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.
That fourth cup was the cup of praise, commemorating how God promised to “take you for My people, and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:7). So why did Jesus postpone this cup? Was He not taking the disciples as His people?
The concept of being God’s people is more than just a designation of fleshly people of the nation of Israel. God seemed to take them as His people at Mount Horeb when they vowed obedience to Him, for we read in Exodus 19:5, 6,
5 Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; 6 and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…
Most people assume that this was when the Israelites became God’s people. However, God did not say that they would be His people if they vowed to obey Him. No, being His people was conditioned upon their actual obedience and keeping His covenant. A vow is only as good as one’s ability to fulfill it. Good intentions did not make them God’s people. Did any of them fulfill their vow? Not in a way that would satisfy the perfect standard of a righteous God.
Hence, forty years later God made a second covenant with them (Deut. 29:1), in which God Himself took an oath to do whatever was necessary to make them His people. He told Moses to gather all the people before Him (including aliens), and we read in Deut. 29:12, 13,
12 that you may enter into the covenant with the Lord your God, and into HIS OATH which the Lord your God is making with you today, 13 in order that He may establish you today as His people and that He may be your God, just as He spoke to you and as He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
This second covenant on the plains of Moab differed from the first covenant that was made at the base of Mount Horeb. The first was man’s vow to God; the second was God’s vow to man. The first covenant could make Israel God’s people only if they were truly obedient. But that covenant did not work, because “all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23) and “there is none righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:10).
So God made a second covenant—one that was sure to work, because it was based upon God’s ability to keep His vow, not upon man’s ability to keep vows. This second covenant, Moses said, was like that which had been made previously “to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” God had made promises and vows to them as well.
God’s vow to Abraham was that he would be a blessing to “all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3). Acts 3:25, 26 interprets “blessing” to mean that God will turn them from their wicked ways. Hence, God vowed that Abraham’s “seed” was to bring about worldwide repentance, and God took personal responsibility (by His oath) to ensure that this will indeed take place.
God included non-Israelite aliens in His great oath, including the multitude that had come out of Egypt with the blood-line Israelites. Exodus 12:37, 38 speaks of them, saying,
37 Now the sons of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from children. 38 And a mixed multitude also went up with them, along with flocks and herds, a very large number of livestock.
These are the aliens who were included in both of the covenants that God made with the nation of Israel. Like the Israelites, they failed to keep their vow in Exodus 19:8, but they were included in God’s oath forty years later (Deut. 29:11-13) to make them His people.
In fact, God’s oath applied beyond those who were gathered under Moses. The worldwide scope of blessing that was promised to Abraham was restated and defined specifically in Deut. 29:14, 15,
14 Now not with you alone am I making this covenant and this oath, 15 but both with those who stand here with us today in the presence of the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here today.
God’s covenant and oath, then, was being made with the whole earth, or all families and nations. For this reason, the fourth cup (of praise) was postponed to the time of the great reunion when Jesus drinks it with His people in the Kingdom. That cup prophesied of the day when God would fulfill His oath, the New Covenant in His blood, whereby He promised to turn all men to Himself, to make them His people, and to be their God.
In order to accomplish this, He must perfect them all. Even if all men vowed obedience and proclaimed their faith in Jesus Christ, this would only accomplish good intentions on the order of Israel’s vow at Mount Horeb. Such vows of men do not actually make them God’s people, at least not in the fullest sense of God’s ultimate purpose.
The cup of praise is fulfilled only when men truly praise Him. But praise that is tainted by idols in the heart and imperfect motives and behavior can never satisfy God, nor can it fulfill God’s intent and purpose for all nations. Praise is fully acceptable to God only when it is a “sacrifice” offered with a pure heart—that is, from one who has been transformed fully into the image of Christ. God will not cease His work until every man who has ever lived praises Him fully. Because God has not yet reached that goal, Jesus set aside the fourth cup until a future day.
In essence, the four cups of wine in the original communion prophesied of the divine plan, beginning with our deliverance from the house of bondage to the day when all things are under the feet of Christ and all are restored to Him. Yet because the divine plan has yet to be completed, we have partaken of a partial communion during the Age of Pentecost. The fourth cup has yet to be drunk.
Paul discusses communion in 1 Cor. 10:16-21 shortly after telling us that the Israelites ate and drank “spiritual food” and “spiritual drink” in the wilderness under Moses (1 Cor. 10:3, 4). In doing so, he mentions the first of the four cups of wine normally consumed during the night of Passover. 1 Cor. 10:16, 17 says,
16 Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ. 17 Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread.
In partaking of the blood and body of Christ through the medium of wine and bread, we become one with Christ. It is not that we become Christ, but that we become His body. The body is attached to the Head. Hence, He will always be the Head, yet we too are anointed, that is, “christs,” or Christians. Because the Head is anointed, so is the body.
So Paul says that “we who are many are one body.” Paul says that “the bread which we break” is “the body of Christ.” It is not merely a reference to Christ’s physical body that was “broken” on the cross; we too are His body that is “broken.” We share in that breaking. For this reason, we are crucified with Him (Rom. 6:6), as if we too died with Him on the cross.
This is again illustrated in John 6, where Jesus fed the 5,000. This occurred at the time of Passover (John 6:4), perhaps a year before Jesus was crucified. The timing of this miracle speaks into its meaning. When Jesus broke the bread, He was prophesying of His soon-coming death at a future Passover.
John 6:11 (NASB) reads,
11 Jesus then took the loaves, and having given thanks, He distributed to those who were seated; likewise also of the fish as much as they wanted.
John does not tell us how Jesus distributed the bread and fish to the multitude. The KJV says He gave it to His disciples and that they gave to the people. However, the KJV adds this to the Greek text, probably to align with Matt. 14:19, “He blessed the food, and breaking the loaves He gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.” This clarifies John 6:11.
But Matthew makes it clear that this was a two-step process. Jesus broke the bread first, and then the disciples continued breaking the bread. When Jesus broke the bread, it signified the breaking of His own body on the cross. When the disciples broke the bread, it signified the breaking of their bodies as well.
Communion commits us to this second breaking, because Jesus’ own body does not have to be broken again. When we take communion, we join Him in breaking the bread of our own body (as part of the body of Christ). It signifies that we, like Jesus, are willing to be broken in order to be bread of life to feed the multitude.
This is, in fact, the foundation of fellowship, where we have a common union. Jesus said in John 15:13,
13 Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.
Communion tells our friends, “I am willing to lay down my life for you, even as Jesus laid down His life for me.” This is the nature of fellowship, or communion.
This is the love of God, as we read in 1 John 3:16,
16 We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.
Again, the apostle writes in 1 John 4:19,
19 We love, because He first loved us.
Hence, communion is an act of love, not only for God but also “for the brethren.” In my view, when the bread of communion is passed around at a fellowship meeting, it would be proper to break the bread again and to give one half of it to a neighbor. My wife and I normally exchange broken bread to signal our willingness to die for each other. By extension, we acknowledge that such love applies to all who are in fellowship with Christ.