Valuing the Gathering of the Church

“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 the more, as ye see the day approaching.” Hebrews 10:24-25

Let’s be honest. In the past we’ve all taken church gatherings for granted. We would go away on vacation for a couple of weeks, safe in the knowledge that when we returned the church would still be there. We might have missed church when we were ill, but knew that the doors would always be opened when we recovered. In March 2020 all of our churches took the decision to suspend public assembly. By the time this goes to print, churches will have reconvened gatherings in some form, but others may not. In Malvern FPC there were eight Lord’s Days when sermons were broadcast online, where people met to pray on Skype, but there was no corporate worship properly understood.

On the first of those Lord’s Days, I preached on Hebrews 10:24-25. It was my hope then, as it is now, that the coronavirus shut-down would cause the Lord’s people to have a renewed and elevated esteem for the assembling of the saints. It was my burden that we would never again take public worship for granted.

Public worship is first and foremost about the Lord. The Lord commands and commends public, corporate, united worship. The word “congregation” occurs over 360 times in the Old Testament—the vast majority referring to the gathering of the Lord’s people. The wilderness tabernacle is called the tabernacle of the congregation (Exodus 27:21). The command comes, “Praise ye the LORD. Sing unto the LORD a new song, and his praise in the congregation of saints” (Psalms 149:1). Moving into the New Testament, the lengthiest treatment of corporate church life is found in 1 Corinthians 11-14. The passage deals with head covering, communion, and the public exercise of various gifts. In seven verses the church is said to “come together.” It is apparent that people left their own homes and gathered together as the Lord’s people for public worship.“If therefore the whole church be come together into one place” (1 Corinthians 14:23; compare 1 Corinthians 11:34, 14:35).

Without getting involved in a discussion about the rightness or wrongness of suspending worship due to coronavirus, we acknowledge that there are personal reasons when we might legitimately miss worship. There may also be regional and national events or extreme weather conditions that could cause a church session to suspend the gatherings.

We lament such seasons. We feel the obligation to enjoy the privilege of the worship of our God and Savior. Such times of absence ought to work within our hearts the longing to be together. This longing must not only be a longing to worship but, as we’ll see in Hebrews 10:24-25, it should be a longing to minister as part of the family of God’s people.

The writer of Hebrews brings an exhortation to his readers not to forsake their assembling together. This must refer to the church body gathering together. “Assembling” is translated “gathering together” in 2 Thessalonians 2:1. Some were forsaking the assembly. In the context of Hebrews, it is likely that the writer’s sights are set on those who were apostatizing from Christ. The implication is that the apostate leaves off church attendance as he turns away from Christ. Another implication is that regular church gathering is a means of grace, ordained of God, as a preventative to apostasy.

In order for church assembly to function as ordained of God, the Lord’s people must be conscious of their responsibility. In order for the assembly to be beneficial we need to “consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works.” We “consider one another” when we think carefully about each other. (The word “consider” is used in Luke 12:24, 27 with the idea of careful thought).

The church family is made up of individuals and we all must take steps to think about each other. We ought to have a concern for each other’s spiritual progress. The particular context here is the peril of apostasy. The church, as it gathers, is used by God as a means of preventing the saints from falling away. We’ve already observed that as apostates fall away from Christ, they also forsake the assembling of the saints. But for the church to function as a God-ordained preventative to apostasy there must
be this determination to think, with concern, about each other’s souls. When we gather, this mutual concern will be manifest in our provoking (v24) and exhorting (v25) one another. Exhortation is spiritual encouragement.

It happens when a believer draws alongside another and spurs him on in his Christian work. Provocation carries with it the idea of contact, even conflict. It’s translated “contention” in Acts 15:39. I think the thought is that the Lord’s people will challenge one another in their pilgrimage. These two activities require the Lord’s people to communicate and interact regarding their spiritual condition. Much can be achieved remotely through verbal and written communication, but the assembly of the saints is the place where, ordinarily, week by week, we provoke one another and exhort one another. The believer, as a sheep, has a tendency to weariness and to wandering and the Lord has placed us in flocks for our eternal good.

On several occasions we read of Paul’s desire to see the churches (e.g. Romans 1:11; 1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:6). Paul understood the benefit of his epistles but knew the greater benefit of his presence. He would tell Timothy, “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Timothy 4:2). God calls men to labor in the Word. This must include exhortation. After all, the Scripture is “given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Exhortations don’t just come from the pulpit; they come from pew to pew. The Lord has placed people in my life who were willing to come alongside and encourage me to keep going and not give up.

These exhortations also occur as the church sings together. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Colossians 3:16). We need to remember that when we sing to the Lord, we are also singing to one another! It’s another reminder to sing truth from the heart. Nor do exhortations only occur by word. Our presence can be an encouragement to others around us.

I remember a lady in a church who, by any rule, should have remained at home every Lord’s Day due to ill health. Instead, she determined to spend her Lord’s Days in the Lord’s house. Although she said little, her living testimony exhorted others to persevere in their loyalty to Christ. Hebrews 10:24-25 gives us one explicit aim of church fellowship. When the church gathers, out of concern for each other, we should all seek to provoke each other to love and good works. These are the God-appointed goals
of church fellowship. Our churches are functioning properly when there is mutual increase in the grace of love and the practice of good works. It is reasonable to ask ourselves, “How are we doing in the functioning of our fellowship?” The answer can only come through an honest assessment of the presence of good works out of love for God and man.

Love for God is obedience to the first commandment and love for man is the accompaniment to our love for God. “We love him, because he first loved us. If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also” (1 John 4:19-21). Such love for God and man is the product of the work of the Holy Spirit, but in Hebrews 10 we see that we are to provoke that in our fellow believers. The Lord graciously uses human instruments as a means to promoting Christian growth. It’s a blessing to see the Lord’s people in conversation on the Christian Sabbath. It is the pastor’s prayer that those conversations have, at least in part, the aim of stimulating love for God and man.

Such love is never merely expressed in words but also in deeds (1 John 3:18). Hence, good works are provoked as God’s people are provoked to love. The widow “indeed” of 1 Timothy 5:10 is, “well reported of for good works.” Those works are seen in the home, “if she have brought up children”; in society, “if she have lodged strangers”; and in the church, “if she have washed the saints’ feet, if she have relieved the afflicted.” A biblical understanding of church fellowship will include the desired outcome of a loving people, hard at work for the good of men at home, in the church, and in the wider community.

Just in case we think that functioning church fellowship is of secondary importance, our text brings us to the Lord’s return. “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together… and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25). The Lord is coming back. This is no time for apostasy. This is time to follow Christ fully. This is the time to persevere and to exhort others to persevere in love and good works. Our presence in the assembly of the saints matters in the light of judgment and eternity.

It is a godly response to feel deep sorrow at the absence of public assembly. There is protection and blessing in the church assembling. Therefore, there is spiritual danger when we are not assembling together. May an awareness of this refresh our appreciation for our church family. But may it also be a time to redefine why we “do church.” First and foremost, it’s about the glory of God. But it’s also for the good of God’s people. Let’s make sure that we don’t commit to one and neglect the other. Biblical Christianity is not a social enterprise. But our love for God is not simply an individual experience. Apostates abandon the church family. Saints, on the other hand, serve out of a persevering love for God.

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By Stephen Pollock

Dr. Stephen Pollock is minister of Malvern FPC, Malvern, PA. He is also the present Editor of Current.