And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works:
Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one
another: and so much more, as ye see the day approaching. (Heb 10:23-24)
As a pastor and father and a life-long church attendee, I have always taken these verses from Hebrews seriously. I’m not one who makes Sunday a Christian Sabbath but I do believe that Scripture gives the pattern of New Testament worship, including attending church on Sunday, “the Lord’s day,” the “first day of the week.” I believe we should go to church at those times that our church has decided to meet together. For most of us that has been twice on Sunday and again on Wednesday night for mid-week prayer and study. Even around the world that pattern seems to work well. To meet on Sunday I think is imperative from biblical example whereas the times and other days are more negotiable. What cannot be excused is a neglect of the church services because we have fallen into a pattern of life like the world around us whether that is work, play, laziness, disorderliness, or simply lack of interest in the things of God.
Let me give a few comments on the verses themselves. As the writer of Hebrews begins the concluding half of the book, he gives three applications from the fact that we have a High Priest (Jesus Christ) over the House of God. These three subjunctive participles are translated in the older version with “let us” (what I like to call the “lettuce” patch): “let us draw near” (vs 22), “let us hold fast” (vs 23), and “let us consider one another” (vs 24). A.T. Robertson says these are volitive which gives them an imperative sense (Grammar, 930). In fulfilling our obligation to “consider one another” in our own local assembly is the admonition (a present active participle with the negative) not to forsake assembling together with the church. This was the “manner” (ethos, custom) of many in those days for various reasons not the least of which were embarrassment and harassment and ultimately unbelief.
“To forsake” is a unique but serious word. Jesus used it on the cross when He cried, My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Mt 27:46). Peter quoted David from Psalm 16, Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell (Ac 2:27). Paul used it of Demas, For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world (2 Tim 4:10). With similar seriousness the writer of Hebrews was warning against forsaking the assembly times of the Christian congregation.
Interestingly, the word translated “assembling” is not our familiar ekklesia but the less frequent epi-sunagoge (appearing only twice in this compound form). It is used also in 2 Thes. 2:1 of our gathering together unto him. Where ekklesia might denote more of a business-related gathering, the root sunagoge denotes merely the fact of gathering together. In other words, it is the fact of assembling that we are not to forsake, not simply making a choice to miss certain types of meetings. He didn’t warn them to quit picking and choosing which services to attend, he admonished them not to miss the church services at all!
The local church assembly is important for a number of reasons, of which a few are mentioned in these verses. We need to “consider” one another. If we would do this more often we would like each other more. This considering or thinking of one another will help us “provoke” each other to love and good works. It will also help us to “exhort” or come along side one another in times of need. All of this ought to be done with even more regularity as we see the day of Christ’s coming drawing near. But none of this can be done unless we assemble together. This isn’t an online chat room where we manipulate an image of ourselves but never face the realities about ourselves. No, this is ultimate reality about ourselves and our Christian condition. This makes us face our own spiritual growth every time we come together and rejoice that we have such a place that “provokes” us in this way.
In case you haven’t noticed, these kinds of churches are becoming rare even in our own persecution-free country. Whereas there was a push away from them in biblical times due to persecution and hardship, now there seems to be a pulling away from them due to self-centeredness, gratification, and entertainment. R. Kent Hughes wrote, “It is my considered belief that those who do not have the local church at the very center of their lives are likely not to make it as Christians through the opening decades of the third millennium.”1 Here are a few reasons why I think these admonitions are needed now more than ever.
We really don’t love the brethren.
John’s first epistle admonishes us to love “the brethren” (1 Jn 3:14). Peter says we are to “love as brethren” (1 Pet 3:8). These are not isolated statements that describe a misfit whom the church won’t love. These are common biblical admonitions for worldly professing believers to stop forsaking the rest of the assembly. Those who “went out from us” (1 Jn 2:19), as John describes them, are those who loved the world more than the church.
We have a generation today which simply does not love God’s church or, more specifically, those who make up the church. They are too pious; they are too boring; they are too heavenly-minded to be any earthly good; they just aren’t cool enough for this generation to love.
We are guilty of respect of persons.
James gave the perfect example of those who want beautiful people around them but shun those who aren’t acceptable (James 2:1-13). To be partial toward those who are advantageous to us is to be guilty of this warning. Jude describes them as murmurers, complainers, walking after their own lusts; and their mouth speaketh great swelling words, having men’s persons in admiration because of advantage (Jude 16). Peter said of them, And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you (2 Pet 2:3).
The contemporary churches have targeted audiences that are acceptable and advantageous to them. Perhaps a generation ago (or two) people in suits and ties or dresses looked down at those who had less, but this has now been entirely turned around. Now the young, rich and beautiful, with their designer jeans, tattooed, and pierced bodies, have taken over the churches and pushed thousands of their elders and less appealing believers off the platforms and out of the pews.
We have lost our conviction about Scriptural commands.
Not only have we forgotten how to provoke and exhort one another to love and good works, we have specifically decided to keep on loving the world, to keep on forsaking the church for the concert hall, theater or other diversions. We have decidedly ignored biblical commands to public decency, modesty, manners and meekness in favor of belly buttons and cleavage, profanity and sourness, noisiness and brashness. Just try to confront such worldly behavior in the church and see where it gets you! You will be met with instant scorn not only from that person but also from a “protective” parent or even staff person!
We have forgotten how NOT to be entertained.
We are in what Neil Postman called “the Sesame Street Generation.” “Entertain me and I’ll learn.” Today’s kids are raised with wall-papered noise and images. It is never quiet around them and they seldom read and couldn’t stop long enough to pray. Even expressions and imaginations are done for them by TV, radio, i-Pods, or monitors. They may not be couch potatoes but they certainly are ear phone junkies!
The question over this generation has been one of expediency and pragmatism: how far can we change the biblical pattern of the church in order to meet their demands? Evidently, many can change it quite a bit! The problem is that God didn’t! How do I know? Because the same Book said the same thing before this generation and It will say the same thing after this generation. The truth is, no amount of “success” in any form gives us the right to change the Word of God.
We have decided to love the world.
John plainly says that a person cannot love the world and love God (1 Jn 2:15). James calls one an adulterer and an adulteress who thinks being a friend of the world is not being an enemy of God (Jas 4:4). This is truly the apostasy of our day. A postmodern generation really believes that if they say something often enough that it will be true, at least for them! If they say that they love God even though they love the world, their “sincere” and “heart-felt” belief will therefore be true. Even the Bible can’t negate what they really “believe.”
The fact that this is truly what we see around us makes this so strikingly sad. Take one short trip on your computer to MySpace.com. Start with the site of a Christian young person and see what is only a click or two away. Read the language that is used among so-called Christian young people. Listen to the sounds that are played and look (only if you can) at the graphics that are displayed. Then ask yourself, can I love this and love God also? But you may have to do the same thing with your local Christian bookstore or your own local church! But don’t try to persuade anyone to actually walk away from it. You will be the bad guy for even suggesting such a thing! But, of course, we must try, for they are “forsaking” the assembly of the saints by either leaving it, changing it into what they want it to be, or by lying to themselves about the possibility of loving God and the world.
We have lost our urgency about the gospel.
The writer of Hebrews saw clearly the decline of the last days. Not only must Christians always be assembling together, but it will be even more urgent and necessary as we see the day approaching. Read again Paul’s description of the perilous times that shall come (2 Tim 2:1-7). Almost every description in the paragraph is true of today: lovers of their own selves; boasters; disobedient to parents; heady; high-minded. But perhaps most dangerous of all: Having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof. If one cannot live it, he has denied the power of it. Paul’s remedy was simple: From such turn away. Within the previous 14 verses, Paul uses these words: shun; depart; purge; flee; avoid. The reason those Words of God will not be heeded is because a generation that has forsaken the pure, biblical pattern of the New Testament local church has no urgency left. Jesus said of the end times, Many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold (Matt 24:11-12). At the Bema Seat of Christ we will not be asked, “How many?” — only “How?” Then we will see that God’s way has always been the best way.
Notes: R.Kent Hughes, Set Apart: Calling a Worldly Church to a Godly Life (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2003) 137.