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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Communion

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COMMUNION (Gr. koinônia ). In EV [Note: English Version.] koinônia is tr. [Note: translate or translation.] ‘communion’ in only 3 passages ( 1 Corinthians 10:16 , 2 Corinthians 6:14 ; 2 Corinthians 13:14 ), while it is frequently rendered ‘ fellowship ’ (AV [Note: Authorized Version.] 12, RV [Note: Revised Version.] 15 times), and twice ‘contribution’ or ‘distribution’ ( Romans 15:26 , 2 Corinthians 9:13 [RV [Note: Revised Version.] has ‘contrib.’ in both cases; AV [Note: Authorized Version.] ‘contrib.’ in the first passage, ‘distrib.’ in the second]). But it is ‘communion’ that brings us nearest to the original, and sets us in the path of the right interpretation of the word on every occasion when it is used in the NT.

Koinônia comes from an adj. which means ‘common,’ and, like ‘communion,’ its literal meaning is a common participation or sharing in anything. Similarly, in the NT the concrete noun koinônos is used of a partner in the ownership of a fishing-boat ( Luke 5:10 ); the verb koinônein of sharing something with another, whether by way of giving ( Romans 12:13 , Galatians 6:6 ) or of receiving ( Romans 15:27 , 1 Timothy 5:22 ); and the adj. koinônikos ( 1 Timothy 6:18 ) is rendered ‘willing to communicate.’

1. Koinônia meets us first in Acts 2:42 , where RV [Note: Revised Version.] as well as AV [Note: Authorized Version.] obscures the meaning not only by using the word ‘fellowship,’ but by omitting the def. article. The verse ought to read, ‘And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ teaching and the communion , in the breaking of bread and the prayers.’ And the meaning of ‘communion’ in this case can hardly be doubtful. The reference evidently is to that ‘having all things common’ which is referred to immediately after ( Acts 2:44 f.), and the nature and extent of which St. Luke explains more fully at a later stage ( Acts 4:32 to Acts 5:4 ). It appears that ‘the communion’ was the regular expression for that ‘community of goods’ which was so marked a feature of the Christianity of the first days, and which owed its origin not only to the unselfish enthusiasm of that Pentecostal period and the expectation of the Lord’s immediate return, but to the actual needs of the poorer Christians in Jerusalem, cut off from the means of self-support by the social ostracism attendant on excommunication from the synagogue ( John 9:22 ; John 9:34 ; John 12:42 ; John 16:2 ).

2. The type of koinônia in Jerusalem described in Acts 2:1-47 seems to have disappeared very soon, but its place was taken by an organized diakonia , a daily ‘ministration’ to the poor (6:1, 2). And when the Church spread into a larger world free from the hostile influences of the synagogue, those social conditions were absent which in Jerusalem had seemed to make it necessary that Christ’s followers should have all things common. But it was a special feature of St. Paul’s teaching that Christians everywhere were members one of another, sharers in each other’s wealth whether material or spiritual. And in particular he pressed constantly upon the wealthier Gentile churches the duty of taking part in the diakonia carried on in Jerusalem on behalf of the poor saints. In this connexion we find him in 2 Corinthians 8:4 using the striking expression ‘the koinônia of the diakonia [‘the communion of the ministration’] to the saints.’ The Christians of Corinth might have communion with their brethren in Jerusalem by imparting to them out of their own abundance. Hence, by a natural process in the development of speech, the koinônia , from meaning a common participation, came to be applied to the gifts which enabled that participation to be realized. In Romans 15:26 and 2 Corinthians 9:13 , accordingly, the word is properly enough rendered ‘contribution.’ And yet in the Apostolic Church it could never be forgotten that a contribution or collection for the poor brethren was a form of Christian communion.

3. From the first, however, ‘communion’ undoubtedly had a larger and deeper sense than those technical ones on which we have been dwelling. It was out of the consciousness of a common participation in certain great spiritual blessings that Christians were impelled to manifest their partnership in these specific ways. According to St. Paul’s teaching, those who believed in Christ enjoyed a common participation in Christ Himself which bound them to one another in a holy unity ( 1 Corinthians 1:9 , cf. 1 Corinthians 1:10 ff.). In the great central rite of their faith this common participation in Christ, and above all in His death and its fruits, was visibly set forth: the cup of blessing was a communion of the blood of Christ; the broken bread a communion of the body of Christ ( 1 Corinthians 10:16 ). Flowing again from this common participation in Christ there was a common participation in the Holy Spirit, for it is from the love of God as manifested in the grace of Christ that there results that ‘communion of the Holy Ghost’ which is the strongest bond of unity and peace ( 2Co 13:14 ; cf. 2 Corinthians 13:11 , Philippians 2:1 f.). Thus the communion of the Christian Church came to mean a fund of spiritual privilege which was common to all the members but also peculiar to them, so that the admission of a man to the communion or his exclusion from it was his admission to, or exclusion from, the Church of Christ itself. When the Jerusalem Apostles gave ‘the right hands of communion’ to Paul and Barnabas ( Galatians 2:9 ), that was a symbolic recognition on their part that these missionaries to the uncircumcision were true disciples and Apostles of Christ, sharers with themselves in all the blessings of the Christian faith.

4. We have seen that in its root-meaning koinônia is a partnership either in giving or in receiving. Hence it was applied to Christian duties and obligations as well as to Christian privileges. The right hands of communion given to Paul and Barnabas were not only a recognition of grace received in common, but mutual pledges of an Apostolic service to the circumcision on the one hand and the heathen on the other ( Galatians 2:9 ). St. Paul thanks God for the ‘communion’ of the Philippians in the furtherance of the gospel ( Philippians 1:5 ), and prays on behalf of Philemon that the ‘communion’ of his faith may become effectual ( Philippians 1:6 ), i.e. that the Christian sympathies and charities inspired by his faith may come into full operation. It is the same use of koinônia that we find in Hebrews 13:16 , where the proper rendering is ‘forget not the welldoing and the communion.’ Here also the communion means the acts of charity that spring from Christian faith, with a special reference perhaps to the technical sense of koinônia referred to above, as a sharing of one’s material wealth with the poorer brethren.

5. In all the foregoing passages the koinônia seems to denote a mutual sharing, whether in privilege or in duty, of Christians with one another. But there are some cases where the communion evidently denotes a more exalted partnership, the partnership of a Christian with Christ or with God. This is what meets us when St. Paul speaks in Philippians 3:10 of the communion of Christ’s sufferings. He means a drinking of the cup of which Christ drank (cf. Matthew 20:22 f.), a moral partnership with the Redeemer in His pains and tears (cf. Romans 8:17 ). But it is St. John who brings this higher koinônia before us in the most absolute way when he writes, ‘Our communion is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ’ ( 1 John 1:3 , cf. 1 John 1:6 ), and makes our communion one with another depend upon this previous communion with God Himself ( 1 John 1:7 , cf. 1 John 1:6 ). Yet, though the koinônia or communion is now raised to a higher power, it has still the same meaning as before. It is a mutual sharing, a reciprocal giving and receiving. And in his Gospel St. John sets the law of this communion clearly before us when he records the words of the Lord Himself, ‘Ablde in me, and I in you’ ( John 15:4 ). The communion of the human and the Divine is a mutual activity, which may be summed up in the two words grace and faith . For grace is the spontaneous and unstinted Divine giving as revealed and mediated by Jesus Christ, while faith in its ideal form is the action of a soul which, receiving the Divine grace, surrenders itself without any reserve unto the Lord.

J. C. Lambert.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Communion'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/c/communion.html. 1909.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, August 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20
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