"Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near."
When I began my journey toward organic Christianity (which we will define as a relationship with God that is defined by intimacy, rather than structure), this is the text that my close friends asked me about more than any other. Not even in a confrontational way, but in genuine curiosity. It amazes people that I can look at this text and not see the error of my ways. However, when I look at this text, I see something much deeper than "go back to church".
Let's look a little closer together.
"Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for our sins, but a fearful expectation of judgement, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?
For we know him who said, 'Vengeance is mine; I will repay.' and again, 'The Lord will judge his people.' It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God.
But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised."
Hebrews 10:19-36 ESV
I know that many of you may be looking at this giant block of text and wondering if I may have overdone it. But it is important that we approach God's word with a deep respect for what it actually says. When we examine individual texts, it is far too easy to miss, or even completely misrepresent, what the writer intended to communicate. And this text, in particular, is misrepresented on a pretty regular basis. So let's examine the text and ask it a few questions:
If we pull that one isolated sentence out, it seems that he is concerned about Christians thinking it is OK to not go to church. Or, that's what we are told when this text is examined publicly. But really consider the context of this text as a whole. The truth is, the only way we can use this text as a deterrent for abandoning the church (which we will define as an organized church that meets under the regular teaching of a pastor) is if what they were experiencing was, in fact, a church (as defined above).
Which means that, before we can really address this text, we have to understand a few things:
What did Church look like for them?
"...when you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is mad to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace."
1 Corinthians 14:26b-33a
For the early church, one of the key components of their time together was collaborative ministry. Yes, they sat under the Apostle's teaching, but as communities became healthy, those Apostles left them to go continue the work for the most part. And "assembly" became about a group of Christ followers meeting together to love each other and pour into each other's lives. There was not a specific individual whose job it was to raise the church. Mature believers (elders) were all responsible for protecting and raising the church, and all of its members were expected to use the gifts God had given them to pour into their community.
Everyone who could teach was welcome to.
Everyone who could sing was welcome to.
Everyone who could prophesy was welcome to.
Even more so... they were expected to. The idea that hundreds of believers would gather week after week and sit quietly while the same person taught, only talking to the handful of believers they had taken the time to get to know while ignoring everyone who didn't interest them... that would have been completely foreign to the early church, who met together regularly in each others homes to eat and drink, and sold everything they had to make sure no one had need, and openly poured their gifts out whenever they could.
Assembly, for the earliest believers, was always more centered around loving one another than it was any specific activity or structure.
"Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
1 Corinthians 12:4-7
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pas away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.
1 Corinthians 13:1-10
I think the standard of the New Testament is pretty clear here.
1. The primary purpose of the body is to love.
2. Every part of the body has been given gifts that should be being used to bring love and health to the rest of the body.
Which brings up another really important question...
Why were they abandoning that lifestyle, and what did it cost them?
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel - not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
For the sake of context, I feel the need to point out that the writer of Hebrews is writing to an entirely different demographic than Paul was is in his letter to the Galatians. Hebrews was written to Jewish believers who were pulling away from the overall body, while Paul was writing to Gentile believers who were being pushed by Jewish believers to embrace a Jewish lifestyle if they wanted to have real salvation.
Very different stories and very different people, but there is one common thread.
A compromised gospel.
We have reduced the gospel into a message of personal freedom and life. And while that may be true, it is so much more than a cure for our own sad story. In our self-centered upbringing, we've taken a message that calls us to die to ourselves and to blend into a story that is about so much more and made it about "living my best life". For the gentiles in Galatia, they had been called into a gospel that said they were free to know God despite centuries of being left on the outside, and were sacrificing that freedom to embrace a gospel that said they needed to behave like Jews.
For the Hebrews, it was a different story. They were Jewish believers who had walked away from a life of law and effort to embrace community and intimacy in Jesus, and here they were, being confronted by the reality that some of them had begun to abandon that very community Jesus purchased for them.
The issue here was not about them not going to temple enough. It wasn't about them not listening to enough sermons or making enough appearances at church. It was about them walking away from the center of the life Jesus died to give them... a life that is centered around loving Jesus together.
"For just as the body is one has may members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body - Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
For one body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, 'Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,'that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, 'Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,' that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. "
1 Corinthians 12:12-20
I can only speculate what those believers were doing in place of community, but one thing is certain, the writer of Hebrews found it dangerous. Maybe they were watching sermons on YouTube and calling that a good replacement for the assembly. Maybe they were hanging with only their favorite Christians and refusing to associate with the rest of the body because they were "fake". Or maybe they had decided that they don't need the assembly to be "spiritual".
I honestly don't know, but whatever it was, the author of that letter was very clear that it was a very big deal. Go read our opening text again. The writer makes it very clear that, as far as he is concerned, abandoning a lifestyle of intimacy and community is as serious as rejecting the gospel itself.
This is important. And so many of us miss it. Jesus did not just die to forgive you of your sins. He died to take everyone who would believe and to knit them together into himself, where all sin has died and righteousness is more than just possible...but the only possibility.
We aren't just set free from death. We are made one with life... and that means being poured together into one body, where I cease to exist, and all that remains is Christ, alive and enthroned above it all. That means that unity is not just a beautiful aspect of the christian life, it is the christian life.
Really examine what Paul said about the body in the above text. Intimacy is so important because we are not the entire body. The body is made up of every one of its members walking together. So long as we approach the body as if we are a group of individual bodies, we fail to treasure one another the way we were designed to, and we end up failing to see Jesus. And, I think it's fair to say that that is a pretty serious mistake to make. See what Paul said about it:
"But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I belive it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.
When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself , then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgement on himself.
That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.
1 Corinthians 11:17-22a; 27-30
Really take a moment to consider the seriousness of what Paul said here. Unity is not a joke. It’s not something we can afford to get wrong. Because it’s not a matter of depth or preference or denominational structure… unity is a fundamental part of our identity.
Separated, we are nothing. United, we become the image of Jesus.
Which means when we approach this scripture, we need to make sure we are approaching it correctly.
Where is our story comparable?
This blog is already long enough, so I don’t want to take too much more of your time. But I do want to help you understand something incredibly important about studying the word.
Whenever we try to apply scripture to our lives (as we should), we have to remember that those scriptures were written to a specific group of people in order to address specific issues they were facing. If we want to respect the text, we can only apply their teaching to our lives where our lives are comparable to the original recipients.
That doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit will not use scripture to say something it never said, but it does mean that you shouldn’t. Outside of God’s voice, our approach to scripture has to be through the lens of the text itself.
So, when we approach this specific text, I have to challenge you to understand that the writer of Hebrews never envisioned a church that looks like ours today. He would have never considered a body where ninety percent of God’s people sit quietly, and ten percent plan their future. He would have never understood the word “church” to mean weekly sermons, a couple songs on a guitar and a cracker with some juice. It just wasn’t his experience, and it would not have lined up with his understanding of God or the body of Jesus
Which is why I think this text is probably more applicable to the average church goer than it is to those of us who have left the traditional church in order to embrace organic Christianity (e.g., a house church.)
Why do I say that?
Well… because the writer of Hebrews was speaking to a people who had begun to abandon a life of intimacy and collaborative pursuit of God, and was reminding them that their life was found in pursuing Jesus together. Furthermore, he was warning them that abandoning that way of life was not just unwise, but dangerous. Intimacy is not optional for believers. It is our identity.
And, well, if we are being honest, I think we have to admit that intimacy and collaborative pursuit of God is just not what our churches are about. In fact, I would dare to say that regardless of what the Hebrews were replacing intimacy with, they were in a similar boat to the church today. Like them, we have embraced a gospel that has stopped being about us. We have embraced a gospel that caters to our individual needs and expects nothing from us as a corporate body. A gospel that overlooks our responsibility to contribute to the life of the body of Jesus so that we can instead contribute to the growth of a program.
As a whole… we have abandoned the church that Jesus envisioned.
So, when you read this text going forward, please consider what he was envisioning when he gave this dire warning. Consider what it is you put your makeup on for every Sunday morning, or what you wear your good shirt for. Consider why you are content to sit and listen to sermons that you go home and forget about immediately afterward. Ask yourself where your gifts have contributed to the actual life of other people. Consider if you are intimately united with the believers who call you “brother” or “sister”.
And if you examine all of that and find that something just isn’t quite right… chase something different.
It’s as simple as that.