Last week, a friend of mine posted some thoughts on Facebook about the traditional church. The comment thread was pretty interesting. People were engaging in a robust discussion about the form and function of the Church.
One comment referenced the “go to” verse for traditional church attendance:
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 10:25 KJV
What would you say, if I told you that I don’t believe this verse has anything to do with attendance of the traditional, institutional church?
Let’s take a moment to consider the CONTEXT of this oft-quoted verse. The name of the book it is in gives us one obvious clue: Hebrews. It’s pretty safe to assume that this letter was written to the Jewish Believers. That’s important.
Second, we need to consider the purpose of the entire Book of Hebrews. The writer – either Paul or Barnabas according to most scholars – is arguing that the Jewish people’s relationship to the sacrificial system in the Temple had changed, as a result of the fulfillment of the Passover sacrifice of Jesus. The author is also concluding that the remaining sacrifices of the Temple worship were also fulfilled in Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. He’s making the point that the annual and daily slaughter of bulls, rams, lambs, doves, and pigeons is no longer necessary in the life of the Believer. Jesus has fulfilled that rehearsal.
Because we are 2,000 years removed from the Temple service, we miss the significance of this. Add to this that the Gentile Church has decided that the Feasts of YHWH in Leviticus 23 have no relevance, and we’re forced to come to some incorrect conclusions regarding Hebrew 10:25.
The verse in question is about the assembling of God’s people to worship Him. Scripturally, this was done three times a year: at Passover; at Shavuot (Pentecost); and at Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles). These assemblies were required as part of the annual worship of Israel and the sojourners who lived among them. And central to each of these assemblies, was the sacrifices.
But according to the author of Hebrews, these sacrifices were no longer necessary. The time for the slaughter of bulls, rams, lambs, doves, and pigeons had passed. Jesus’ sacrifice was sufficient.
And the conclusion of many of these Jewish Believers was that the Feasts in the Temple – the assembly of the saints that took place three times per year – was also unnecessary.
I’m in the camp that believes that Paul is the author of Hebrews. Even if he isn’t, his example in the Book of Acts is clear: the Feasts in Jerusalem were a priority for him.
…but we sailed away from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread, and in five days we came to them at Troas, where we stayed for seven days. – Acts 20:6 ESV
For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he might not have to spend time in Asia, for he was hastening to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost. – Acts 20:16 ESV
We can deduce two things from these verses. First, Paul’s understanding of how to honor the Feasts had changed. The Feast of Unleavened Bread begins after the Passover meal. Paul wasn’t in Jerusalem for this important Feast. But it is safe to assume that he and Luke (the author of Acts) observed this Feast with other Believers in the Diaspora (the Exile of the Jewish people).
Second, Paul felt that it was important to gather together in Jerusalem for Shavuot. He went out of his way to try to get there in time for the Feast. In light of Paul’s other statements in Acts about the Torah and his love for the worship in the Temple, it’s pretty clear that while the sacrifice of Jesus was sufficient for Paul, the worship in the Temple was also important.
Now, the last bit of CONTEXT that we need to consider is the Greek word for “assembling” used in this verse. It is the word, ”episynagōgē.” It’s the same root word from which we get the Jewish assembly known today as the synagogue. If you’re a First Century Jewish Believer reading this verse, are you going to think about the Sunday A.M. worship service, or the local religious and cultural gathering place that you’ve gone to nearly every day for your entire life?
Looking at Paul, we see it was also his practice of continuing to attending synagogue:
After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent a message to them (Paul and Barnabas), saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, say it.” – Acts 13:15 ESV
Now at Iconium they (Paul and Barnabas) entered together into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed. – Acts 14:1 ESV
Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they (Paul and Silas) came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. – Acts 17:1 ESV
And he (Paul) reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks. – Acts 18:4 ESV
And they (Paul) came to Ephesus, and he left them there, but he himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. – Acts 18:19 ESV
And he (Paul) entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. – Acts 19:8 ESV
Paul’s example was that of a man who functioned within the Jewish religious culture of his day. The Apostle to the Gentiles never separated himself from the Feasts of YHWH, or the synagogue in which the Jewish people studied the Scriptures. And this should come as no surprise.
Paul exhorted the Corinthian Believers to imitate him; to do what he did. And he said the reason they should do this, was because he was imitating the Messiah (1 Cor. 11:1).
Yeshua – Jesus – functioned within the religious culture of the people of Israel. Paul did the same.
And the author of Hebrews, whoever he was, was concerned that the Jewish Believers were separating themselves from these people and this culture. To use a common cliche, they were “throwing the baby out with the bath water.”
Today, the traditional, institutional church has severed itself from culture and people that the author of Hebrews was warning we should never forsake. We may want to use Hebrews 10:25 to provoke our church members to fill the pews on Sunday. But the CONTEXT of the verse is much more important. It’s about staying connected to the people and culture through which God has chosen to reveal Himself to us.
May we not forsake the assembling of the saints.