by Jack Wilkie of Focus Press
Desperate times call for desperate measures, the saying goes.
While there are plenty of varying opinions as to how desperate these times are, there’s no denying that the coronavirus spread must be taken seriously. For this reason, churches far and wide are having to consider how to comply with either laws (for large congregations in some areas) or recommendations (for groups of almost any size, anywhere in America). Such consideration has led many congregations to close their doors for the time being.
In response to this, some have made the claim that churches that cancel are violating the Bible’s command in Hebrews 10:25 to not forsake the assembly. In my experience, those who believe such are greatly outnumbered by those who don’t. It may be that this is one of those cases where the backlash to the backlash outnumbers the actual backlash itself 99-to-1. (Remember the case of the Starbucks cups that didn’t say “Christmas?”)
However, I still wanted to write to address the issue because, coronavirus or not, I believe that verse is one that has been misunderstood and misapplied for a long time.
First, let’s look specifically at the coronavirus-driven cancellations.
Neither biblically nor logically does it hold that such congregations are violating Hebrews 10:25. Biblically, the word “forsaking” has a meaning akin to the idea of desertion, somebody abandoning their church family. The book of Hebrews revisits the idea of falling away a number of times, and in this specific section the writer is heavily emphasizing the need to stand strong in response to all Jesus has done for us. He gives us a list of things we can do to stay strong, and this one that we can’t do if we want to stay strong. That’s why this verse doesn’t apply to our current situation. We aren’t talking about people who are drifting from the Lord. We are talking about people who would love nothing more than to be together worshiping Him. Hebrews 10:25 was not written with such people in mind.
Logically, just think of how often we use this same line of reasoning. Are our shut-ins forsaking the assembly because their medical status is such that they aren’t able to make it each week? Are people who have a decimated immune system due to cancer treatment forsaking the assembly by staying home? Is a healthy parent who stays home with their sick child forsaking the assembly? Of course not. I can’t imagine anyone would claim they are. Therefore we can understand that no one is forsaking the assembly when medical needs insist on our absence. Why, then, would it be a leap to extend that same understanding to our current situation?
Second, let’s look at the deeper misunderstanding of Hebrews 10:25.
It’s because we have a backward, businesslike view of the church that many see attendance “every time the doors are open” as the sign of faithfulness. Church is the location and/or the event that happens on Sunday, so their participation in “church” is centered on attendance. In the New Testament, the sign of a faithful Christian is the fruit they bear. Obviously a fruit bearing Christian is going to want to worship God, gather with their church family, and partake of the Lord’s supper each Sunday unless extreme circumstances prevent them. But that faithful attendance is a natural byproduct of a truly converted heart. It is not the end in itself.
On the other hand, there are those who are there “every time the doors are open” who bear no fruit whatsoever. If we get a person to attend regularly through guilt trips and threats of hell but they don’t love the Lord and don’t bear any fruit, we haven’t accomplished anything. This was why Jesus so heavily emphasized the anti-Pharisaical proposition that we should serve God from the inside out rather than merely performing external acts with a cold heart (see Matthew 23).
The other facet of this conversation is the immediate context of Hebrews 10:25. Because we tend to cite book-chapter-verse to prove points, it’s very easy to separate a verse from its context. If you’ll notice, though, this verse isn’t even a complete sentence, demanding us to read at least the rest of the sentence for context.
In verse 24, we are to “consider one another in order to stir up love and good works.” In other words, we need to be thinking about our church family and looking for ways we can push each other toward greater closeness and involvement. The “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves” phrase is then contrasted with a call to be “exhorting one another.” This is the same terminology used in Hebrews 3:13, where the writer called his audience to “exhort one another daily” so that no one would be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. In other words, the opposite of “forsaking the assembling of ourselves” is not “be there every Sunday” but rather considering your church family, stirring each other up, and encouraging each other.
This isn’t to say that attendance (in regular circumstances) is unimportant. Quite the opposite. These verses set the bar way higher than just “you need to be there on Sunday.” Hebrews 10:25 is not just a call for people to stop skipping church. In fact, Sunday morning attendance really doesn’t even meet the bare minimum. Is it possible that there are those with a perfect attendance record who have done no more to encourage the brethren than a “How are you?” in passing in the hallway? Is it possible that there are those who have perfect attendance but never see or talk to their Christian family outside of the building? If so, have such people truly grasped the point of Hebrews 10:24-25?
Yes, being there when the church assembles together is important. No, church leaders are not being faithless if they choose to limit or cancel Sunday gatherings for a time. Pray for them, trust their judgment, and respect their leadership. And if you’re in that camp of critics, that goes for respecting God’s leaders in other congregations, too. Stop looking over the fence to judge what other Christians are doing and focus on serving your own instead.
But whether or not your church building’s doors are open this Sunday, I encourage you to ponder the true meaning of Hebrews 10:24-25. God wants us to build relationships with each other so we can keep each other from drifting and can help each other grow in the good works He has planned for us. If we have to do that without Sunday morning gatherings for a time, then let’s do so. But carry those habits with you. Once we get back to normal, let’s make sure we don’t fall into the mistake of thinking we’ve “not forsaken the assembly” just by our attendance.
Jack Wilkie is the editor of focuspress.org and author of “Failure: What Christian Parents Need to Know About American Education.” He also preaches for the Forney church of Christ in Forney, TX, where he, his wife, Allison, and their daughter reside. You can find his full bio here.
By Kevin Cauley June 5, 2004
When my wife and I got married close to thirteen years ago and my parents asked us why we wanted to get married, we replied, “because we love each other.” I will never forget the words that my dad told me that day. He said that we had a love, but that we really did not know what it meant to love each other, but that as the years went by, we would learn more and more of what it means to truly love one another. I confess that I did not completely understand what he meant at the time. However, thirteen years later, I think I am beginning to understand. Loving another person doesn’t just mean that you have “positive feelings” toward them all the time. It means that whatever feelings you do have for another person, whether those feelings are positive or negative, you do not forsake that other person; you remain steadfast, loyal, and true regardless of what comes your way, and always seek the best for that person (as God defines “best”) regardless of their circumstances.
This past week, I received e-mail from our web site in which the questioner stated, “I am not in love with my husband.” It was sad for me to read that statement. Part of the reason that such a statement is made is that people in our society today simply do not understand what the word “love” truly means. And so, when they stop having the “feelings” of love, then they assume that they no longer “love” someone. Such does not have to be the case. I don’t have tremendously wonderful feelings for my enemies, but I must love them nonetheless (Matthew 5:44-48). Could we not then love those who, while they do not engender the greatest of feelings, nevertheless are undoubtedly not our enemies? Surely if loving our enemies means being children of our Father in heaven, we can love those who are undoubtedly not our enemies.
Society, however, places a premium not upon this kind of love, but upon the kind of love that is defined by emotion only. If there is no emotion, then there is no love. It is no wonder that we see so many in our society today who seek for divorce due to “incompatibility.” They are “incompatible” because they do not want to be compatible; because they do not want to do what it really takes to love someone else. Jesus’ words on the subject ring loud and true, “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6). I’m convinced that the reason Jesus said this was because if we can love our enemies, then we can certainly love our spouse. There is, therefore, no excuse for divorce, save for the one Jesus himself gave (Matthew 19:9).
Not only, however, does society define love as mere emotion in the marriage relationship, but in many of our relationships today. One is said not to love his friend if he opposes something that his friend desires to have in his life and bad feelings result from that opposition. One is said not to be loving his fellow man if one points out wrong behavior and incorrect attitudes in another person, due to the negative feelings that one has as a result from having to face one’s own problems/mistakes. Even among those who claim to be Christians, if one does not project a positive, sappy, syrupy emotionalism toward his fellow Christian, then one is immediately labeled as being “unloving.”
This “unloving” label often comes as a result of someone pointing out that another is either not living right, or is incorrect in some point of doctrine or religious practice. However, in such a situation, the “unloving” label begs the question, “Should one love his fellow man above God?” The immediate answer to that is, of course, no (Mark 12:30). However, is this not, in essence, what one is saying in response to someone who is seeking to resolve incorrect beliefs or behavior? “If you make me feel bad about my spiritual condition, or practices, then you just don’t love me.” What about loving God first? The very fact that God demands that we love Him above all others means that there are going to be some whose feelings that we have to hurt in order to please God. It doesn’t mean that we intentionally want to hurt other people’s feelings, or that we even like to hurt other people’s feelings. It is merely a matter of doing what is right in the eyes of God.
One cannot sustain love as mere emotion and love God in the way that God demands that we love Him. Sooner or later, God’s will is going to come into conflict with those emotions. If we take, as our foundation, love to be mere emotion, we will end up compromising God’s will in the long run. However, if we understand that true love involves more than mere emotion, then when the emotions come, whether good or bad, we will stay with our commitment to God and His will. It is upon these grounds that Jesus can demand of us, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15, see also 1 John 5:3).
The question might be raised: “What right does God have to demand our respect?” The answer is seen in the following four categories:
1. His Perfect Justice (Deuteronomy 32:4).
God had been true to His covenant with the Jews and their fathers. “Nothing” that He had promised had failed (1 Kings 8:56). If any severe and protracted trials had come upon them, it was because of their own undutiful and perverse conduct; not to any vacillation or unfaithfulness on the part of God (James 1:17). God’s character was marked by justice and judgment, whether they had been exalted to prosperity or plunged in the depths of affliction.
2. His Boundless Power (Psalm 62:11).
The Psalmist pointed to the awesome power of God in creation as a motivation for the earth to fear (respect) Him: “Let all the earth fear the Lord: let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him. For he spake, and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast.” (Psalm 33:8-9). “For the Lord is great, and greatly to be praised: he is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the nations are idols: but the Lord made the heavens” (Psalm 96:4- 5). God’s power is seen not only in the creation, but also in His sovereignty over the nations (1 Chronicles 16:23-26; Isaiah 40:17; Psalm 66:3-7; Psalm 67:4; Psalm 86:9).
The Lord is certainly worthy to be praised and respected simply because He is God, and we are not! As finite creatures we must humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord (James 4:10). The Scriptures provide several examples of the rewards of humbling oneself before God (2 Chronicles 32:26; 2 Chronicles 33:12,19,23; 2 Chronicles 34:27; Proverbs 15:3).
3. His Infinite Wisdom (Psalm 147:5; Proverbs 2:6-7).
God declared through the prophet Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
4. His Matchless Love (1 John 4:8)
Moses reminded the children of Israel that they should fear the Lord out of sheer appreciation for how He had taken care of them in the wilderness and in how He had brought them to the threshold of “a good land” (Deuteronomy 8:1-18). Samuel admonished
the people to fear the Lord and serve Him with all of their hearts. And what reason did he give for motivating them to do so? He said, “for consider what great things he hath done you” (1 Samuel 12:24). The Psalmist gave similar emphasis: “O fear the Lord, ye his saints: for there is no want to them that fear him. The young lions do lack, and suffer hunger: but they that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing. Come, ye children, hearken unto me: I will teach you the fear of the Lord” (Psalm 34:9-11).
God has demonstrated His love to us by sending rain upon the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45). Indeed, God has given us “rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17). Of course, the greatest exhibition of God’s love is the evidence called Calvary. The death of Jesus upon the cross for our sins is the “zenith” of the love of God and its expression (John 3:16; John 12:32; John 15:13; Romans 5:6-10; 1 John 4:9). In view of all that God has given to us, how can we not respect, honor, and adore Him?
When members of the Second Continental Congress signed the remarkable document known as the Declaration of Independence, they plainly declared their belief in God. They realized that the sweeping freedoms they were proposing, could only work in a responsible society where the Creator of the universe is acknowledged.
Thomas Jefferson was distressed by the sin he saw in the society of his day. So much so, that he wrote, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever”.
Just think, if Jefferson “trembled” then, he would more than likely have a violent seizure if he saw our immoral society today.
America has been greatly blessed because it was founded on biblical principles. But we are gradually losing our God-given freedoms, because our society no longer want to include God in their everyday lives and living (Romans 1:21-25).
With a growing refusal to acknowledge Him, it’s no wonder violent crime in the United States has dramatically risen during the past fifty or so years.
True freedom can never be enjoyed by a people or a nation who desire to forget God (Psalms 9:17).
Dear reader, let us pray daily for our great nation and recommit ourselves to living as God would have us live (Proverbs 14:34).
Are we to follow the Ten Commandments? Are they written for us?
This is really two separate questions with which I want to deal with separately. First, let’s ask the question, “Were the Ten Commandments originally written for all mankind?” The answer to this question is, “no.” The Ten Commandments as originally given are found in Exodus 20:1-17. They are part of the covenant that God made with Israel when they came out of Egyptian bondage. We read in at least two places in the Old Testament that the Mosaic Covenant was not intended for all mankind, but for the nation of Israel alone. In Exodus 34:27, 28 we find this explicitly stated. “And the LORD said unto Moses, Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel. And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.” (KJV). Notice that the covenant was with Moses and with Israel specifically. It was not for any other nations. Notice the content of the covenant in verse 28, “the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.” So the Ten Commandments were only given as a covenant to Moses and to Israel. Let’s look at another passage of scripture dealing with this same issue. In fact, this passage is actually a commentary by Moses on Exodus 34:27, 28 because Moses is restating the Ten Commandments for the children of Israel who are about to go into the land of Cannan. We read in Deuteronomy 5:1-3, “And Moses called all Israel, and said unto them, Hear, O Israel, the statutes and judgments which I speak in your ears this day, that ye may learn them, and keep, and do them. The LORD our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. The LORD made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day.” The covenant was made with Israel. This covenant did not apply to their fathers (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), but to them specifically. Now let’s ask some practical questions regarding this first question. If we were to draw up a covenant between two parties today (let’s say between Kevin and Tony) and we were to say that this covenant which we have is between Kevin and Tony, then automatically everyone understands that other people are excluded from the covenant. The same common sense applies to the Old Covenant. God made that covenant between him and the children of Israel. That is the entire scope of the Old Covenant and it does not have application to any other party or group of people outside of that nation of Israel.
Your second question is as follows: “Do the principles and content within the Ten Commandments have application for us today?” The answer to that question is a resounding, “Yes!” There are aspects of the Ten Commandments that are still applicable for mankind because these aspects are against man’s moral nature. In other words, committing these sins would be acting in a way that is against the way in which God created us. Such is the case with murder, adultery, theft, lying, covetousness, and failing to honor father and mother. The principles under-girding the Ten Commandments themselves will never cease to be applicable as long as man walks upon the face of the earth, because man is who God made him to be. The remainder of the Ten Commandments is applicable in principle as well. Don’t worship idols and don’t use God’s name in vain. The one commandment that most people have questions about today is, “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy.” Here is where we must understand the principle undergirding the commandment. God’s principle was for the children of Israel to set aside a day out of the week to rest and to worship. This day was the Sabbath or seventh day; what we today would call Saturday. Is Saturday binding today as the day of God’s worship? No. Must we worship God today on Saturday? No. Has God changed the Sabbath so that it is now Sunday? No. Sunday is NOT the Sabbath day. Is the principle of worshipping God at least one day out of the week still in effect? Yes. Absolutely. Today, God commands us that we worship upon the “first day of the week” (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2) or Sunday.
Now, what is the key to understanding the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament. I would recommend that you study a few passages. First, in Colossians 2:13, 14 Paul writes, “And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross.” The “handwriting of ordinances” is a reference to the Mosaic covenant. This passage clearly teaches that it was “nailed to the cross” along with our sins. Those who suggest that we need to keep the Old Covenant are, according to this passage, making the equal suggestion that we should remain in our sins. That is just a suggestion that cannot be tolerated. Notice also Hebrews 8:13, “In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.” The first covenant is now the “old” covenant. It has decayed, waxed old, and vanished away in its authority. In contrast, the New Covenant is new, young, and visible–it is the one that contains all authority from God. Notice Hebrews 9:15a, “And for this cause he is the mediator of the New Testament….” Jesus mediates for a new covenant now. To try to place oneself under the Old Covenant now is to reject the mediating power of Jesus Christ. Notice Hebrews 10:9b, “…He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second.” The first needed to be done away with in order for the second to contain authority for all mankind.
There are several other passages that one should look at and study: Galatians 4:1-7; Galatians 4:21-31; Romans 7:1-4; Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 10:11; Matthew 5:17, 18; 2 Corinthians 3:11-16. Each of these passages makes it abundantly clear that it was never God’s intention for the Old Covenant to be an authority for all mankind. It was a temporary system for a limited amount of time. When Jesus died on the cross, he fulfilled the Old Law and established the New Covenant. Today, we must hear the words of Jesus
Are the Ten Commandments still in effect? In principle, they are, not as part of the Old Covenant, but rather as part of the New Covenant–the covenant for which Jesus is NOW mediator. Inasmuch as these commandments are restated under the New Covenant, we are to follow them and give our complete allegiance to them, as we would to any part of God’s will for man today.