The term is derived from the Latin word “communio (sharing in common).” The corresponding term in Greek is κοινωνία, which is often translated as “fellowship”. In Christianity, the basic meaning of the term communion is an especially close relationship of Christians, as individuals or as a church, with God and with other Christians.
This basic meaning of the word predates its Christian uses. In Ancient Greek, κοινωνία could apply to a business partnership, to fellowship of life in marriage, to a spiritual relationship with divinity, to comradely fellowship between friends, to a community or society.
The Greek term κοινωνία (koinonia) appears in the New Testament, but nowhere in the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. As a noun, or in its adjectival or verbal forms, it is found in 43 verses of the New Testament. In addition, the noun is found in some manuscripts (used for producing the English translation known as the King James Version, but not for more recent translations) in Ephesians 3:9.
In the New Testament the word is applied, according to the context, to communion, sharing or fellowship with:
- the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), God (1 John 1:6), the Trinity (1 John 1:3), Jesus, Son of God (1 Corinthians 1:9), his sufferings (Philippians 3:10; 1 Peter 4:13), his future glory (1 Peter 5:1), the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 13:14; Philippians 2:1)
- the blood and the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16), pagan sacrifices and gods (1 Corinthians 10:18-20)
- fellow Christians, their sufferings and the faith (Acts 2:42; Galatians 2:9; 1 John 1:3, 1:7; Hebrews 10:33; Revelation 1:9; Philemon 1:6, 1:17)
- a source of spiritual favours (Romans 11:17), the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:23), light and darkness (2 Corinthians 6:14)
- others’ sufferings and consolation (2 Corinthians 1:7; Philippians 4:14), their evangelizing work (Philippians 1:5), their graces or privileges (Romans 15:27;Philippians 1:7), their material needs, to remedy which assistance is given (Romans 12:13, 15:26-27; 2 Corinthians 8:4, 9:13; Galatians 6:6; Philippians 4:15; 1 Timothy 6:18; Hebrews 13:16)
- the evil deeds of others (Matthew 23:30; Ephesians 5:11; 1 Timothy 5:22; 2 John 1:11; Revelation 18:4)
- the bodily human nature all have in common (Hebrews 2:14)
- a work partnership, secular or religious (Luke 5:10; 2 Corinthians 8:23)
Of these usages, Bromiley’s International Standard Bible Encyclopedia selects as especially significant the following meanings:
- Common life in general (only in Acts 2:42)
- Communion between particular groups, the most remarkable instance of which was that between Jews and Gentiles
- Communion in the Body and Blood of Christ.
- Sharing in divine revelation and with God himself (1 John 1:1-7)