The Bible does command Christians to gather together, doesn’t it? The gathering of the church is socially, psychically, and spiritually valuable, isn’t it? Above all, when the local body of Christ gathers for worship, it is far more than simply the collective worship of individuals, but the union of individuals in a body where their worship becomes something far more than the sum of the parts, right? In other words, when Christians gather together for worship, something greater than one’s daily worship at home occurs, isn’t that right?
Yes, yes, yes, and yes.
All these things are true.
All Christians should be members of a local church and should faithfully attend every service possible. First, there is the opportunity to serve others, the human reason for church attendance. (The divine, and primary, reason is to worship our God.) There is also the blessing that comes your way, if you attend, as others serve you. But remember, that isn’t so much a reason for attendance as it is an “attendant circumstance,” something extra, something that comes with the territory. The fact is, your biggest blessings come when you attend on purpose to be a blessing.
However, I want to do more with this chapter than simply exhort church attendance. The most well known passage on church attendance is Hebrews 10.24-25.
Heb 10.24-25 and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, 25 not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.
It happens to be one of the “go to” verses in the Christian Covid rebellion. I’d like to take some time to think through the passage so that we can intelligently and Scripturally disagree with the Covid rebels. I believe they at least misunderstand, if not misuse, this passage of Scripture.
I summed up the argument on Hebrews 10 in the first chapter of this study, but I will add a few quotes from proponents here:
“God told us not to stop coming together to worship Him during times of increased illness and persecution”1
“Many in the church take this as a solemn command. To deny a Christian his obligation to gather with his local called out body is to put him at odds with a fundamental tenet of the faith. For a believer in Christ there are few things as essential as the gathering of the body of Christ in the study of God’s Word and worship of His Glory.”2
“The Word of God instructs God’s people to meet for the ministry of the Word, sacrament, worship, laying on of hands, greeting one another with a holy kiss, praying over the sick, and fulfilling the “one anothers” of Scripture (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 11:27-34; Heb. 10:25; Jam. 5:14). These are explicit instructions which cannot be replaced with Zoom church…”3
“We are commanded not to neglect the meeting together of the saints. And we are also then commanded to encourage one another, with the urgency to do so “all the more” as we see the Day drawing near. The implication here is that in order to be able to properly stir one another to love and good works and to encourage each other, we have to meet together. If there’s no gathering, then we cannot fully obey these commands.”4
With these comments, the “Covid rebels” insist that churches are under a divine obligation to gather every Sunday, with no regard to governmental health orders. They also use other passages and some draw inferences from the etymology of ekklesia (Greek word translated “church” in the Bible). However, these are secondary arguments which I won’t address in this chapter. The closest thing to an explicit commandment to assemble is the Hebrews 10 passage. It behooves us, then, to take a close look so to ensure clear understanding. Before we get to the exegesis, however, I would like to look back in church history to see what Christians said about the passage in the past.
The long-standing exhortation of the church for corporate worship
On the importance of gathering, let me start off by agreeing with these pastors. I am strongly in favour of church attendance. I think all believers should attach themselves to a local church and by that attachment commit themselves to faithful church attendance. Christians should rarely skip the services of their local church, unless providentially hindered (as we like to say). That means, unless you are ill, or you have a sick child, or your vehicle breaks down, or a natural disaster happens, or some other event prevents your attendance, you should be there.5 My views of church attendance are not novel. Pastors all over the world think this way, and have thought so for a long time.
To demonstrate this long-held view, we will take a long look back through the pages of church history.
First comes Ignatius of Antioch, the third bishop of this famous church led in its early days by Barnabas and Saul. Ignatius was a disciple of the apostle John and an early Christian martyr. He is famous for seven letters he wrote while on his way to execution in Rome. Ignatius died in ad 117, approximately.
First then, from the letter of Ignatius to Polycarp, another early Christian leader. “Let your meetings be as often as possible. Seek out everyone by name.”6
Ignatius wrote to the Ephesians: “Therefore make every effort to come together as often as possible to give thanks and to glory to God. For when you gather ⌊together⌋ frequently, the powers of Satan are destroyed and his destruction is brought to an end by the unanimity of your faith.”7
Ignatius encourages believers to meet together as often as possible, to make every effort to come together. He issues no commands, just exhorts and encourages. (Note: These comments don’t directly reference Hebrews 10.25 — they couldn’t since versification had to wait until the Middle Ages when someone had the bright idea. For these passages from Ignatius, later editors attach the reference to his remarks.)
John Chrysostom (ad 347-407) was a famous preacher (his nickname, Chrysostom, means “golden-mouthed”). He ended his life as the bishop of Constantinople (not willingly, after he refused the appointment, the emperor had him kidnapped and brought to the city by force!). Many of his sermons (“homilies”) remain, and because of the appeal of his rhetoric I offer you two extended quotations:
From a sermon on John 1.41-42: “When God in the beginning made man, He did not suffer him to be alone, but gave him woman for a helpmate, and made them to dwell together, knowing that great advantage would result from this companionship. What though the woman did not rightly employ this benefit? still if any one make himself fully acquainted with the nature of the matter, he will see, that to the wise great advantage arises from this dwelling together; not in the cause of wife or husband only, but if brothers do this, they also shall enjoy the benefit. Wherefore the Prophet hath said, “What is good, what is pleasant, but that brethren should dwell together?” (Psalm 133:1, LXX.) And Paul exhorted not to neglect the assembling of ourselves together. (Hebrews 10:25) In this it is that we differ from beasts, for this we have built cities, and markets, and houses, that we may be united one with another, not in the place of our dwelling only, but by the bond of love. For since our nature came imperfect from Him who made it, and is not self-sufficient, God, for our advantage, ordained that the want hence existing should be corrected by the assistance arising from mutual intercourse; so that what was lacking in one should be supplied by another, and the defective nature thus be rendered self-sufficient; as, for instance, that though made mortal, it should by succession for a long time maintain immortality.”8
Chrysostom notes man's creation as a social being, meant to enrich each other through social contact. He shows how the Prophet and Paul [modern writers are less certain of Paul authoring Hebrews] both exhort gathering together for fellowship. For Chrysostom, our social interactions distinguish us from "beasts," and shows how our instinct to build civilizations reflects God's design of humanity for our good. Gathering together is good.
Chrysostom preaching on Hebrews 10.25: “‘And let us consider one another,’ he says, ‘to provoke unto love and to good works.’ He knew that this also arises from ‘gathering together.’ For as ‘iron sharpeneth iron’ (Proverbs 17:17), so also association increases love. For if a stone rubbed against a stone sends forth fire, how much more soul mingled with soul!”9
In this direct comment on the passage, Chrysostom shows the point of our gatherings, our religious interaction, to multiply love and to produce spiritual fruit.
Moving forward in time, here is John Calvin:
“It is an evil which prevails everywhere among mankind, that every one sets himself above others, and especially that those who seem in anything to excel cannot well endure their inferiors to be on an equality with themselves. And then there is so much morosity almost in all, that individuals would gladly make churches for themselves if they could; for they find it so difficult to accommodate themselves to the ways and habits of others. The rich envy one another; and hardly one in a hundred can be found among the rich, who allows to the poor the name and rank of brethren. Unless similarity of habits or some allurements or advantages draw us together, it is very difficult even to maintain a continual concord among ourselves. Extremely needed, therefore, by us all is the admonition to be stimulated to love and not to envy, and not to separate from those whom God has joined to us, but to embrace with brotherly kindness all those who are united to us in faith. And surely it behaves us the more earnestly to cultivate unity, as the more eagerly watchful Satan is, either to tear us by any means from the Church, or stealthily to seduce us from it.”10
Calvin points out the benefit of gathering which overcomes the pride of the rich or the “morosity” of “almost all.” I think he means our natural sullen selfishness.
We could collect more examples like these, but these will suffice our purposes.
Our recent experience during the Covid crisis confirms the social and psychological value of human contact. Consider these headlines, copied from an article by a “Covid rebel.”11
These headlines tell a grim tale. Besides the social and psychological trials, most Christians can testify to their own negative feelings and frustration during this long, trying period. The privations of social isolation affect our spirits and cause spiritual problems. Sometimes this shows itself in church strife, spiritual apathy, or even moral lapse by some professing Christians.
By arguing against the “Covid rebels,” I don’t mean to suggest that church attendance, face-to-face in person meeting, is unimportant or unnecessary. Far from it! Church attendance is vital. Our governments, I believe, are making a huge mistake in their approach to the crisis, consequently forcing Christians (and others) into distressing challenges. The answer, however, is not to rebel, rather we need creative and persistent ministry to others in order to mitigate as much as possible the negative effects of the situation we find ourselves in.
The meaning of Hebrews 10.25
Having devoted so much space to a long preamble, let’s turn now to analyzing Hebrews 10.24-25 itself.
Heb 10.24-25 and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, 25 not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.
To set the passage in its context, the writer of Hebrews spends most of the book extolling the superiority of Christ to angels, the Aaronic priesthood, the Levitical sacrificial system, indeed, all the manifestations of the Old Testament foundation. He exhorts, based on the conclusions found in Heb 10.19, “since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus…” and in 10.21 “since we have a great priest over the house of God…,” “let us…”
Let us draw near [to God] (10.22)
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering (10.23)
Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds (10.24)
These exhortations could find expressions as imperatives, commands, (“You there! Draw near! Hold fast! Consider!”) but instead the writer of Hebrews exhorts, saying, “Join with me in drawing near, holding fast, considering how…” There is imperatival force in his language, but he chooses a more inclusive tone, urging his readers forward in their faith. Lest I diminish the urge, let me add that this exhortation can rise very close to the force of a regular imperative.
It is important, however, to emphasize that there are no imperatives in the passage at all.12 When interpreters say, “We are commanded not to neglect the meeting together of the saints,” the reality is, there is no such command. There are exhortations, but even those exhortations don’t directly involve the meeting together.
The governing exhortation for “not forsaking our own assembling together” is the exhortation to “consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds.” Based on the theology of Hebrews, i.e. the superiority of Christ, we need to think long and hard about how we may stimulate one another in the Christian life (“love and good deeds”).
Next comes the qualifying clauses of verse 25.
The clauses of Hebrews 10.25 are participles of means. In relation to a main verb, they answer the question “how?” In this case, “How can I consider my brothers for the purpose of stimulating their Christian walk?”
The first answer to “how” is a negative: “Not by forsaking the assembly.”
We need to do a little word study here to be clear on meanings. The word “forsake” is a strong word, some suggest that the writer warns against apostasy here, but “as is the habit of some,” seems to include the “some” as still within the circle of Christianity, i.e. not apostates. They may be unwise, disobedient, faltering, but they are not apostates.
Still, “forsaking” is a strong word. It is the word used to translate our Lord’s cry on the cross, “Why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27.46, Mk 15.34). The cry quotes David in Psalm 22.1, a cry of deep distress. Quoting another Psalm (16.10), Peter, in his Pentecost sermon, quotes the passage that says, “you will not abandon my soul to Hades.” (Ac 2.27, 31). In his last epistle, Paul laments, “Demas, … has deserted me” (2 Tim 4.10), and “all deserted me” (2 Tim 4.16).
In somewhat less strong usage, the term translates Isaiah in a quotation cited by Paul in Romans 9.29, “unless the Lord of Sabaoth had left to us a posterity…”
The second word to understand is “assembly.” The word isn’t the word usually translated, “church,” in the New Testament (ekklesia). Rather it is a compound based on the word “synagogue” (episunagoge). It is a rare word in the NT, used only here and 2 Thess 2.1:
Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him,
In Hebrews 10.25, “It is most natural to think of the congregation gathered for worship.”15 The idea of the word seems to be that of a local gathering, not a wider word standing in for “the faith.” That is, one can think of the word “church” in a universal sense, which, if used here, could mean “forsaking the church” or “forsaking the faith” altogether. W. Stanley Outlaw comments, “The reference is to the local assemblies of Christians for prayer, praise, worship, reading, and exhortation, wherever they may meet, and not to the church as a whole, the universal church.”16
So much for vocabulary, now we need to put it all together. Recall above, where I explained that the participle (“not forsaking”) answers the question “how?” to the exhortation, “let us consider one another…” Of course, this is the negative, so it instead answers, “how not?”
Let us consider one another (to stimulate to love and good works), NOT by forsaking the gathering of ourselves.
Daniel Wallace, in his Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, translates the participle this way, “not [habitually] forsaking our assembly, as is the habit of some.”17 I like that. If you habitually forsake your local assembly, you cannot fulfill the ministry of considering one another.
This does leave us some room, though, doesn’t it? There are circumstances that might forestall our presence at the assembly, are there not? They will not amount to an abandonment of the assembly, but they prevent our fulfilling our habitual practice. Here I will mention such things as illness, bad weather, broken down transportation, etc. You are not an apostate if you have the flu.
The second answer to “how” is a corresponding and emphatic positive: “But by encouraging one another.”
We will need less time with this part of the answer. The verb here is a familiar one to Bible students. The noun form gives us “Paraclete,” and we are familiar with both the Holy Spirit and Jesus filling this role for us. Here the writer tells us that the we “consider one another” is by coming alongside one another and encouraging each other.
Let us consider one another (to stimulate to love and good works), NOT by forsaking the gathering of ourselves, BUT by coming alongside one another.
One last grammatical point, then we will return to the argument at hand.
The pair of participles in Hebrews 10.25 form a “point/counterpoint set.” They are related to each other with the word “but.” Steven Runge says a writer can do this through “the use of [but] to correct or replace something in the preceding context.”18 What that means is that the second part of the pair takes precedence or is more important or should get more attention than the first part of the pair.
What am I saying with all this?
There is great value in church attendance. I recommend it. I encourage it. As far as within me is, for our own church people, I COMMAND it. (Not that anyone ever listens to me!) However, can we say that the Lord “commands” the gathering of the church?
I don’t think we can say that in this passage. The passage exhorts Christians to support one another and to stimulate them to love and good works. We especially do that by drawing alongside one another in mutual ministry. That goes beyond the assembly, actually. When someone is down and out with illness, what Bible-believing church does not know the phenomenon of fellow believers gathering with food, or helping with needed home maintenance or repairs? When someone is mentally or spiritually down, Bible-believing Christians take time with their brethren, praying with them, studying the Bible with them, encouraging them.
They do this because they have access to the Holy Place, entering the very throne room of God, entreating our High Priest in our affliction, the Lord Jesus Christ. (Heb 10.19-21).
What Bible passage commands the gathering? Doesn’t the New Testament instead assume the gathering? The normal state of affairs for Christians is to gather to minister to one another. We do this because we are Christians, united in faith in Jesus Christ. We are not under the law, nor does the Spirit condemn us when our meetings are providentially hindered.
What does that old phrase, “unless providentially hindered,” mean? Sometimes there are circumstances beyond our control that preclude our regular assembly with the church. I’ve already mentioned some. Illness is our most frequent hindrance, either our own, or the illness of someone in our care. Who begrudges the mother who stays home with her sick child? Or the son or daughter who is caring for an aged or infirm parent? What of the person laid low by a devastating illness? Are they wrong to stay away from the gathering? Of course not. And, to be fair, the “Covid rebels” would agree.
Severe weather, illness, natural disasters, all of these could keep individuals away from the gathering, and no one would complain. If you live on the wrong side of the river from your church and the bridge washes out, no one will condemn you on Sunday afternoon for not making it that morning.
What if, in the providence of God, war breaks out and your city suffers invasion? Bullets are flying, enemy soldiers advancing, and its Sunday morning. Should we hold church as usual? Now, we acknowledge that war will not absolutely shut down all worship. During the Battle of Britain, churches in London continued to meet, even though bombs were falling. Nevertheless, we can imagine a wartime scenario that prohibited gathering, even prohibited it for an extended period.
And, what if, in the providence of God, a disease breaks out, and the government, in its wisdom orders public gatherings to cease or be restricted? What then?
Are Christians in sin if they follow the government orders? Are they violating Hebrews 10.25? I think not.
The exhortation of Hebrews 10.24-25 calls Christians to minister to one another, meeting each other’s needs, caring for and encouraging one another. You aren’t going to fulfill this by running away from your local church body, even if you can’t physically come together for a Sunday service. You will still consider one another, come alongside each other, and care for one another.
And so fulfill the law of Christ.
Gal 6.2 Bear one another's burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.
John MacArthur, 1983:
“The third mark of a positive response to the gospel is love. The particular expression of love mentioned here is fellowship love. The Jewish readers were having a hard time breaking with the Old Covenant, with the Temple and the sacrifices. They were still holding on to the legalism and ritual and ceremony, the outward things of Judaism. So the writer is telling them that one of the best ways to hold fast to the things of God-the real things of God that are found only in the New Covenant of Jesus Christ-is to be in the fellowship of His people, where they could love and be loved, serve and be served. There is no better place to come all the way to faith in Christ, or to hope continually in Him, than the church, His Body.”19
This is the entirety of MacArthur's comment on Hebrews 10.25 in his commentary on the book. Emphasis added.
Grace Community Church, 2020:
The church by definition is an assembly. That is the literal meaning of the Greek word for “church”—ekklesia—the assembly of the called-out ones. A non-assembling assembly is a contradiction in terms. Christians are therefore commanded not to forsake the practice of meeting together (Hebrews 10:25)—and no earthly state has a right to restrict, delimit, or forbid the assembling of believers.20
Did something change?
“A Louisiana Pastor Defies a State Order and Holds a Church Service with Hundreds of People,” CNN, 3/19/2020,https://www.wtva.com/content/news/568926132.html, cited on https://www.rephidimproject.org/misusing-hebrews-1025/
In our church, some of our people travel long distances to attend, so we normally have our services in one block of three services on Sunday with a potluck lunch in between. I don’t expect those who travel the long distances to make it for our Wednesday services. The point is, there are providential exceptions to an absolute requirement to attend all services.
Ignatius to Polycarp, 4.2, in Rick Brannan, trans., The Apostolic Fathers in English (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012).
Ignatius to the Ephesians, 13.1, in Brannan.
Chrysostom, Homily 19.1 on John in Philip Schaff, The Nicene Fathers, electronic ed. (Garland, TX: Galaxie Software, 2000).
Chrysostom, Homily 19, Heb 10.19-23, Schaff.
John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries (Galaxie Software, 2002), Heb 10.24.
Actually, the only imperative in the whole chapter occurs in 10.32, “But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings…” Here, the writer reminds his readers, as an illustration, of their zeal and faithfulness in former days, when persecution was intense.
Wolfgang Schrage, “Συναγωγή, Ἐπισυναγωγή, Ἀρχισυνάγωγος, Ἀποσυνάγωγος,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, vol. 7 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 842.
Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, ed. Frederick W. Danker, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).
Schrage, “Συναγωγή, Ἐπισυναγωγή, Ἀρχισυνάγωγος, Ἀποσυνάγωγος,” 842.
W. Stanley Outlaw, The Book of Hebrews (Nashville, Tenn.: Randall House Publications, 2005), 249.
Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 522.
Stephen E. Runge, Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament: A Practical Introduction for Teaching and Exegesis (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2010), 74.
John MacArthur, Hebrews, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1983), 268.