Archive for the ‘Bible Study – Hebrews’ Category

Headline from The Birmingham News in October 1918

Recently a pastor friend of mine called for other pastors to defy their state’s regulations and still hold in-person Church services during our COVID-19 lockdown. His scriptural reason was to make sure we don’t disobey Hebrews 10:25 ‘…not neglecting to meet together…’

I respect his views, and value him and his ministry as a brother and partner in the Gospel, however I respectfully disagree with that view.

The matter of civil disobedience, obeying God rather than man (Acts 5:29), can be a thorny path to tread, since it can so easily slip into becoming political, aligning ourselves with the Right or the Left (either directly, or indirectly), and taking on rhetoric that comes from secular political movements rather than using a Gospel vocabulary. Sadly, it can lead to Christians becoming divided over secondary matters, and becoming distracted from that which unites us – the Gospel of Christ crucified, risen and reigning.

So the way in which we respond (if at all) to our government leaders, and whether or not pastors call their people to obey or disobey civil authorities must always be carefully, prayerfully and Biblically thought through.

It will be helpful to take a closer look at the Hebrews passage in question, seeing the full statement in its context, to see if it does actually require us to keep our churches open during pandemic restrictions.

See the phrase within its immediate literary context:

19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 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. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 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.
26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. (Hebrews 10:19-27, ESV)

See how reading the phrase in its wider context show that the issue at stake here is much more nuanced that simply the matter of whether or not I show up to Church on Sunday?

The main thesis of the book of Hebrews is that we have, because of Jesus our Great High Priest, a confidence to draw near to the throne of God, knowing that the sacrifice of Jesus at the cross was fully sufficient to atone for our sin. The recipients of this letter were (mostly) Jews who had come to faith in Jesus as their Messiah, and in doing so they had suffered great loss – being ostracised by family and community, losing their homes and property, although they had not yet faced a level of persecution that threatened their lives (12:4). But most likely the reason why they had not lost their lives was because they were beginning to cave in to the pressure to return to the old system, represented by the Temple and its sacrifices. They were being told that Christ was not enough; they must still observe the Law, including the Temple rituals, in order to have an assurance that they are justified before God.

But this old system has been made obsolete by Jesus, argues the author. It’s ‘growing old’ and is ‘ready to vanish away’ (8:13). It’s only the shadow of which Christ is the reality (8:5, 10:1). It can never perfect the worshipper nor clear their conscience (9:13-14); it cannot produce true and godly repentance (6:6). Only faith in Christ can bring about the fruit of ‘full assurance’ and a ‘hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience.’ (10:22) that can give us the confidence to approach the Throne of Grace (read: ‘Mercy Seat’) (4:16).

Those Hebrews who are warned several times about ‘falling away’ (3:12, 6:6) were not ‘losing their religion’ in the modern sense of no longer believing in God. They were going back to the old religious system, thinking that the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ was not fully sufficient and needed supplementing by the animal sacrifices and traditions. They were rejecting ‘the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven’ (12:23) – literally ‘the ecclesia of the firstborn,’ what we know as by the english word ‘Church’ – in preference for the ‘assembly’ of the Temple. They had stopped meeting on Sunday with Christians to hear the Apostles’ teaching that pointed them to Christ, and instead had returned to the Synagogue on Saturday where the Rabbis were pointing them to the Temple and the observance of days and sabbaths and rules and traditions.

All of that is behind the call in 10:25 which stresses, albeit in a negative way, the importance of meeting together (interestingly, he uses the verbal form of ‘synagogue’ here rather than of ‘ecclesia’). He confronts those who have ‘neglected’ (or ‘forsaken’) gathering together, such that it has become a ‘habit’ – a way of life. They hadn’t missed a few Sundays here and there. They had abandoned Church and gone back to Temple.

These are those who have effectively said, ‘I don’t need church, because I’m OK on my own. I have my own means of carrying out my relationship with God, and it just so happens that my way is also much more acceptable to the world around me. My way will avoid persecution, it will make me accepted an approved by my community, because it’s really just the status quo. I’d much more prefer that, than having to ‘go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured’ (13:13). Church is just too much effort, too much risk. I prefer the easy, individual path of self-righteousness.’

This is what it means to disobey 10:25; that which is called ‘sinning’ in verse 26, because it’s an attitude that no longer relies on Christ alone, but on other ‘sacrifices’ and ultimately on me and my personal spirituality.

Closing our church doors temporarily during lockdown isn’t the disobedience that Hebrews describes. Closing our doors permanently would be. Saying to our people, ‘Gathering regularly isn’t important; you don’t need the meet with your brothers and sisters to encourage one another or spur one another on to love and good works,’ would be. Downplaying the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice, making people think they can and need to find comfort and assurance in other things and ‘assemblies’ outside of him and his church, would be.

But saying ‘We will stay home, for the time being, as the government has directed (just as every other citizen regardless of their faith has been directed) and in this time we will seek to be creative about how we continue to love one another,’ is not disobedience. It recognises that our God-given government is actually working, in this case, in the best interests of all of its citizens and of the nation. They are not doing this out of a particular political or religious agenda, but under the common-grace wisdom that God tells us he still gives to the authorities of this world:

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. (1 Peter 2:13-15, ESV)

Note how, in this context, ‘doing good’ is something that that was defined, in a civil sense, by governors and even the Emperor (Yes, even the Emperor of that time who was instituting a brutal, state-sanctioned persecution of Christians!). Christians should not exalt what we see as our ‘civil rights’ over and above the command to love our neighbour, or to do anything that might discredit the Gospel. We are told, ‘If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.’ (Romans 12:18) and to pray for our government, ‘that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. (1 Timothy 2:2).

If the time comes when the Church is unreasonably targeted with restrictions that are not placed on the whole community; or if the authorities begin directing when, where and how we are to conduct our worship, or seeking to censor the content of our sermons; or if they require us to call evil good and good evil (beyond simply taking away tax breaks or funding); only then will we need to start having the conversation about civil disobedience.

In the meantime, let’s remain thankful, trusting in our sovereign Father, and being creative in how we may go about encouraging one another ‘all the more as we see the Day drawing near’.