“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 the assembling of ourselves 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 sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, 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?…
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. For, ‘Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith; and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.’
But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” — Hebrews 10:23–39
The book of Hebrews is one of admonition and exhortation. The authors are calling on the readers to persevere in the faith, to remain loyal to Christ, to not go back on their confession that Jesus is Lord and Messiah, to not forsake Christianity and return to their former ways (3:6, 14; 4:14; 6:18; 10:23; 11:11). And this admonition (to remain resolute and faithful in our allegiance to Christ) is so needed, only because of the tremendous temptation to do otherwise—to give up, to turn back, to seek relief from the hatred and mocking and misunderstanding of the world.
Here in Hebrews 10, we are urged not to neglect the assembling of ourselves together.
As I’ve pointed out elsewhere:
“The apostles instruct us to not forsake the assembly, as is the habit of some, but to encourage and stir one another up to love and good works (Heb. 10:25). This means the weekly assembly of believers is for the encouragement and edification of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and it ought to be a priority in the rhythm of your weekly routine as a family. By neglecting the regular corporate worship of the church we’ve committed ourselves to, we not only become a discouragement to our brothers and sisters, but we inadvertently teach our children to devalue the local church—while also keeping them, during their most formative years, from one of the primary means God has given for the spiritual growth of His people.”
Assembling together is the most fundamental and foundational thing Christians do. The church is called the “church” (which means “assembly,” or “congregation”), because what characterizes us—what we are marked by—is that we have committed to regularly assemble (to congregate) in Christ’s name to declare, uphold, and proclaim the Word and worth of God, and to officially affirm, equip, and oversee one another’s faith in Christ through discipleship, corporate worship, the teaching and preaching of God’s Word, and the observance of the ordinances.
So, with that being said, I wanted to make two brief but crucial notes about this important passage in Hebrews 10, over which there has been much debate and disputation in 2020 because of the immediate relevance of one’s interpretation of the instruction there to one’s approach to the lockdowns.
First, many have made much of the phrase, “as is the habit of some.” I’ve seen a number of churches getting a lot of mileage out of the defense that “we’re not making a habit of not assembling; this is temporary; therefore, we’re not violating the instruction here.” Without taking the time to argue that churches (or individuals) who do not gather with the body of Christ for even mildly extended periods of time—much less staying away from the assembly “indefinitely,” or “until the virus is under control,” as some have put it—indeed are making a habit of it… I want to point out a common interpretive mistake being made here.
Hebrews 10:25 is not primarily (though an a fortiori argument applies) forbidding the making of a habit of skipping church. It’s merely observing that some have done so, and warning of the danger of it. But the prohibition is not specifically of habitually neglecting the assembly; it is a prohibition of neglecting the assembly. It says not to stay away from the assembly, as is the habit of some.
It’s not merely forbidding the making of a habit, it’s forbidding a practice that others have made a habit of. And that leads to a second note I want to make about this passage.
That activity it’s forbidding is: staying away from the assembly because of the danger of attending. The context is the temptation to stay away from the assembly due to the extreme risk involved with attendance.
The verses later in the same chapter make this evident. When the readers had first become Christians, they endured severe trials of their faith, and had proved faithful. In the face of difficult struggles and suffering and, at times, public shame, disgrace, and maltreatment, they had stood their ground, as well as supporting other believers who had undergone persecution. In that context, it would be very tempting to stay away from the gathering of the body.
Think about it… going to church could jeopardize their very lives. It could endanger their family. It could bring steep legal consequences. And their neighbors certainly wouldn’t understand their going to church—these 1st-century Christians.
It’s in that context… it’s with regard to that specific temptation—to stay away form the assembly, to neglect assembling together for the sake of safety and risk-aversion—that the injunction comes: “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 the assembling of ourselves together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
There are a plethora of articles and resources I could share for further edification. For now, I’ll refer you to my list of the best resources here, and just recommend two more recent articles particularly relevant to this post, here, and here.
And, finally, I’ll leave you with a quote (out of the second article above) from a letter written by Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria, “regarding the witness of Christians in contrast to pagans during a fifteen-year plague in the third century:”
“Many terrible things happened to us also before this. At first we were driven out, persecuted, and killed, but we kept our festival even then… But the brightest festival of all was kept by the fulfilled martyrs, who feasted in heaven… Most of our brethren showed love and loyalty in not sparing themselves while helping one another, tending to the sick with no thought of danger and gladly departing this life with them after becoming infected with their disease… The best of our own brothers lost their lives in this way—some presbyters, deacons, and laymen—a form of death based on strong faith and piety that seems in every way equal to martyrdom. They would also take up the bodies of the saints, close their eyes, shut their mouths, and carry them on their shoulders. They would embrace them, wash and dress them in burial clothes, and soon receive the same services themselves. The heathen were the exact opposite. They pushed away those with the first signs of the disease and fled from their dearest. They even threw them half dead into the roads and treated unburied corpses like refuse in hopes of avoiding the plague of death, which, for all their efforts, was difficult to escape.”
The day will declare it.