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Lord God, we ask that the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts will be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our God and our Redeemer. Amen.
Friends, it’s good to be with you here today. Thank you for the witness of this congregation. I thank you for the way we get to partner with you in gospel work in many different ways, not least of which is the fellowship that I enjoy with your pastor, Kevin.
We’re thinking together in the sessions from last night and the Sunday School time this morning before and again tonight about various aspects of a healthy church. This is not really what I asked to speak about; this is what Kevin asked me to speak about. This is what I speak about every time I turn around and this is what Kevin wanted me to speak about here, so I was glad to do it again. I hope it’s helpful. I have absolutely nothing new to say about this. I am saying things that Christians have believed for centuries but just nobody’s talking about it much these days, and I seem to be the one the Lord has elected to talk about this again and again and again.
So here we are. We’re in Hebrews, chapter 10. It’s a great place to go. Let’s begin with verse 19. As you’re turning there, I’m just going to point out to you that choices have consequences. We know this. That turn takes us to Greensboro rather than Atlanta. This click has just purchased a grill. Agreeing to go on that date could lead somewhere. Undertaking this crime could ruin your life.
Well, in Hebrews, we’re looking at a book of fearful choice. It seems that some Christians, likely in Jerusalem, in the middle of the first century A.D., were considering making the choice to give up following Jesus, to forsake the assembly of Christians and head back over to the temple with its sacrifices and laws.
Now why would they make such a fearful choice? Perhaps they were under pressure socially, maybe from the officials. Judaism had an exemption from the Romans to allow the Jews to practice their own religion, including not venerating Roman gods like the Emperor. But what if the Christians now in the first century were growing in number and no longer understood to be just a part of Judaism. What if the Jews themselves were increasingly defining the Christians out? Then that would have the effect of leaving them without the cover before the Roman officials, exposed to the powerful Roman intolerance toward exclusivity.
I’m sure some of us here this morning sense that same intolerance growing in our own culture today.
You see, the Romans were powerfully inclusive of other religions. As they conquered people, they let people keep their religions so long as their religion could make a place for the Roman pantheon, and as I mentioned, especially for the Roman Emperor.
Now the Jews had a longstanding exception. But what about this new group, the Christians? No legal status was granted them by the Romans for centuries. These centuries were marked by intermittent periods of intense persecution, and it seems that one of the realities the letter to the Hebrews addresses is that some Christians were beginning to avoid church gatherings. The whole book argues for the superiority of Jesus over Moses in His person, Jesus’ superiority in His role as the true, eternal, high priest presenting the office of Himself to His heavenly Father, and the lengthy defense of this would suggest that some of these Christians were considering reverting to their earlier, lower, less controversial opinions about Jesus, perhaps that He was no longer to be regarded as the Son of God or the unique atoning sacrifice, but merely as a rabbi, and perhaps not even a very good one at that.
You could summarize Hebrews kind of like this. A bunch of Christians in church looking at Jesus and then looking over at the sacrifice of the temple and wondering if they shouldn’t just head back over there, because the cost of following Jesus was getting too high.
But our writer has argued that that would be pointless. That would be like leaving the movie and going back over to the trailer. The whole point of the trailer is to show the movie that’s going to come, and once the movie has come, there’s no need for the trailer.
So what does this have to do with us? Well, it brings us back to the idea of choices and the reality that choices have consequences.
Now in a gathering this large, I wonder are there some of you who thought of yourselves as Christians who are even now, even this weekend, considering walking away from the faith. Maybe it’s the attraction of the synagogue. You may think, well, Mark, that’s a strange rhetorical thing for the preacher to say here in a Presbyterian congregation in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Well, friends, I said something similar and I’m preaching through Hebrews this year in our own church, I said something similar when we were in Hebrews 10 back in August. I said exactly that. Maybe it’s the attractions of the synagogue, and sure enough I had someone at the door come up and talk to me. They were thinking even that day about leaving Christianity for Judaism.
Friends, it is the kind of thing that people think about. Maybe through a secular school or some reading that you’ve done. There’s some background that you’ve had. Maybe through mocking arguments you’ve heard online or among your family and friends. Behind it all, maybe, there is some pressing sin that is tired of being restrained and held back and it promises you if you will only overthrow Jesus and get rid of Him as your Lord, then all will be well. If you will only walk away from Jesus, the activity which is forbidden by the Church can be celebrated by the world.
Look back at Hebrews in the New Testament. Our passage this morning is Hebrews, chapter 10, verses 19 to 25. I want to start reading a few verses earlier to give us the context. Let me start reading at Hebrews, chapter 10, at verse 11. In our passage, what you’ll see is the writer presents a stark choice that we have on the one hand, the incomparable high priest Jesus Christ, who has brought us real access to God. He tells the Christians the three implications of that, three ways that we should use that access. We see that the neglect of these duties laid out in verses 22 to 25 suggest a far darker path with everlasting consequence.
Listen carefully, friend, about how you can come to God or literally go to hell forever.
Hebrews, chapter 10. Let me begin reading at verse 11 and I’ll read through verse 25.
“And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until His enemies should be made a footstool for His feet. For by a single offering He has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”
“And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” then He adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.”
“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that He opened for us through the curtain, that is, through His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 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 to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
Friends, let’s consider our privilege of having Christ in this paragraph. Look again at verses 19 to 21. It’s really just the opening phrase of a long sentence, but it gives us the basis for the three commands that we get in 22 to 25, the “let us”-es.
Here’s the basis, verse 19 to 21: “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that He opened for us through the curtain, that is, through His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God.” So this is all the “since,” this is the reason, the basis.
And you see what he’s saying here. He’s really summarizing the argument that he’s been making throughout this whole book. He’s saying that since Jesus has brought such an offering, His own blood, His flesh, and since He is such a great priest over the house of God, since these things are the case, then we have these privileges and responsibilities that he outlines here in verses 22 to 25.
Jesus Christ is Himself the great offering and Jesus Christ is Himself the great priest. Such an offering and such a priest give us confidence to enter, as he says here in verse 19, the holy places. The image in verse 20 especially echoing that, of the setting up of the earthly tabernacle and temple in which there was the holy place and then behind a thick curtain, the most holy place where the holy of holies, where only the High Priest could go, and that only once a year. In the holy of holies with the ark of the covenant, crown with a mercy seat representing visually the presence of the sovereign God.
The mention of entering here in verse 19 through the curtain, verse 20, that is into the holy place, is into the presence of God Himself, and this is what we understand that we believers do now through Jesus Christ. We enter into this new and living way that He opened for us through the curtain.
Who opened this way for us? We see in verse 20 Jesus Christ did. It was through His flesh.
This is a difference between God and so many of the pagan deities whose followers frantically try to figure out what to do to appease the god. The true God has done the work that we could never do. The true God has told us about it. The true God has invited us through Jesus Christ to Himself, through this new and living way that He has made.
Mothers and fathers, I pray that you will have confidence as you teach your children to pray in the name of Jesus Christ. What a sweet, short summary of what the writer to the Hebrews is saying here. What more could He have done to gain us entry and favor in the presence of God than by having given His very self for us? For us in our place?
So testify to your family and friends by your confidence to come into God’s presence in the name of Jesus Christ. We’re not commanded in Scripture to use that phrase when we pray, “in Jesus’ name, I pray,” but you see all of the Bible truth it summarizes when we do that as we remind ourselves and as we teach others that we come with confidence into God’s presence to make requests only because of what He has done for us in uniting us to His only Son by grace through faith.
In the local church we have fresh reminders of this regularly. Even in the hymns that Nathan has led us in singing this morning, we’ve been reminded afresh of God’s glory, of His provision for us through the Church. So I pray that today you will join in this confidence, this joyful confidence, that we could have in entering the Lord’s presence by the blood of Jesus.
The house of God there at the end of verse 21, that’s His dwelling place, that’s His people. You realize that’s not fundamentally, say, this building, or the building that our church meets in Washington. No, it’s the people of God.
If you go back to 2 Samuel, chapter 7. That’s a crucial chapter in the story of God’s people. Back in 2 Samuel, chapter 7, the Lord had told David, 2 Samuel, chapter 7, verse 12, “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring.”
Interesting in that’s in the singular. He doesn’t have in mind merely the line of kings that would come from David, but He had in mind one particular person.
“Your offspring after you, who shall come from your body and I will establish His kingdom. He shall build a house for My name.”
Now Christ, great David’s greater Son, has built God a house that will last.
So in Hebrews Christ’s offering, Himself, is the basis of this house that He is building for Himself.
Well, all of this as I say is really the summary, it’s the ¬¬¬protosis in this if/then kind of statement. He’s giving us the basis for our obedience that he’s calling for here in chapter 12. The first of the implications that he draws out that bring with it a responsibility, we see here in verse 22, “Let us draw near to God with a true heart, in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.”
So because Jesus had made Himself the offering that He has for our sins to His heavenly Father, we should come on this new and living way that He has built to God. He says, “Let us draw near.”
Look back in chapter 4, where the writer had said something like this earlier. Chapter 4, verse 14: “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in times of need.”
So Jesus has drawn near and so we can draw near through Him. Drawing near to God is having fellowship with Him. The writer here is describing the Christians continuing relationship with God. The image of sprinkling is from Exodus where Moses made the people ceremonially clean, ready to be in God’s presence by sprinkling them with blood, and then later through Ezekiel, very similarly, the Lord says to His people, “I will sprinkle clean water on you and you shall be clean.”
So this is what God has done with us in Christ. He has prepared, He has repaired us, He’s given us the new birth, so that we can draw near to God. This is one of our privileged responsibilities now.
Christian, I wonder, are you taking advantage of this in your own Bible reading? In your church attendance? In your praying?
I love to lead in the prayers in our congregation on Sunday mornings, even as Kevin got to do here today. I love to hear our congregation pray at our prayer meeting on Sunday evenings, so Sunday evening is our prayer meeting time, that’s when most of the members of our church come back for a second time on Sunday and we pray together.
When we pray, it’s like we’re living out the adoption that we’ve been given in Christ. As we turn to God in confidence, asking things of Him, that’s as much a way of praising God as our prayers of praise are, because like a child who knows the goodness and the willing love of their parent, turning and relying on the parent redounds to the parent’s honor, so you and I going to God for those things that we need shows that we understand the love that He has for us and we rely on that.
Have you thought before about how your praying is actually a living out of your adoption? It’s a living into that relationship. It’s honoring the Lord.
Well, that’s what the writer here is assuming. He urges also on Christians here in verse 23, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.”
Now we often use the language of confessing our sin, so like you did today, so we in our services on Sunday morning, we’ll always have a prayer of confession, and in confession we mean to say what God says about our sins, to agree with God about them, and we speak of confessing our faith also. We used the Apostles’ Creed today, so we often do as well. We use the words of the Creed or some such statement.
But here we read of confessing our hope. Isn’t that interesting? Here in verse 23. Not meaning so much our action of hoping, but the content of the hope, that which we hope in.
Because Jesus Christ has done what He’s done, being the offering and the priest that we need, we are a future-oriented people, that’s what brings us together. It’s not a shared past, which is all the poor racist, or the poor Marxist, can come up with. But a shared future, which is the great hope we have as the people of God.
Instead of spiritual nostalgia, longing for something past, which you wonder if some of these first century Christians were doing, we Christians have a longing for a coming day, something we’ve not yet fully seen, something that we anticipate in times like these times together, on the morning of the Lord’s Day, as we look forward to seeing what God has for us, the great future held out in Christ.
One of the brothers on our pastoral staff is getting married on Saturday, Lord willing. There’ll be a wedding, a celebration. Well, like a bride or a groom longs for a wedding day, so you and I anticipate the great blessings that are ahead and we live through this awkward age of shall we say engagement before the Lord returns. We live with this hope that pulls us on. We hold this hope fast without wavering, for we read here in verse 23, “He who promised is faithful.”
We think of Deuteronomy 32:4.
“The Rock, His work is perfect,
for all His ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
just and upright is He.”
I want us to give a little bit more time to the third of these “let us”-es, these privileges he mentions, that we’re responsible to use.
Look at verses 24 and 25.
“Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
Now we can guess that this urging may have been especially needed during the trial that these Christians were undergoing. I mean, if the pressure is on, what do we do? Should we just look to ourselves and kind of scatter?
But he tells the Christians that because Christ has become an offering and a priest for us, that he has purchased not just us as individuals but He has purchased all of us, and therefore we all, so not just the pastors of the church, but we all have a role to play in each other’s lives because of how Christ has purchased each one of us.
So we’re to stir up, he says, and the best I can understand of the verb he uses there for “stir up” was actually a provocative word. Usually it was used negatively, but he’s taking it to draw attention and emphasize by using it about something positive.
I’ll sometimes refer to I would encourage you to gossip, positively gossip, about others. Say good things about other people that are true behind their backs. My use of the word “gossip” there is to grab your attention. It’s to make you understand and sit up and think about what I’m saying.
I think that’s what the author is doing here with the verb he uses for “stir up.” There’s a way you can stir up that’s negative, stirring up trouble, stirring up dissention, but he’s taking that idea and he’s drawing attention and emphasizing something good. He says we should work to stir up one another to love and good deeds.
So the call here is for Christians to consider, that is to give time to think about something, to give attention to it in our schedules. What is that we are to think about? Well, he says, how to stir up or provoke or motivate one another. Who comprises this “one another?” Fellow Christians that we meet with regularly. What are we to stir them up to? Love and good works.
Now this is interesting. Here is not merely an exhortation for us to do good, but it is for us to do good to a particular set of people, fellow Christians, and a particular good, to stir them up. To what? To love and good works, that is, to do good to others.
So instead of the writer here merely calling for random acts of kindness, he’s calling for a deliberate plan of actions which are intended to provoke other actions which are in turn to affect yet a third circle of people. Hebrews calls them here to catalytic actions, encouraging and ongoing chain reaction of charity among the members of the congregation.
Some may think that religion is a very private matter, and some may be. But Christianity never is. Personal, yes, but private, no. Christianity inevitably involves us in following the pattern of Christ’s own life, and that is a pattern of stunning, self-exhausting love for the good of others.
Especially the way Christians encourage each other was by gathering around the Word of God. This pattern was established from the very first Resurrection Day, when on that first Resurrection Sunday the risen Lord Jesus did what? He met with some of His disciples. We read in Luke 24, verse 1, “On the first day of the week,” and then we have the account of Christ’s resurrection. Then in Luke 24:13 we read “that very day,” Luke wanted us to know it was that same day. Two of them were going to a village named Emmaus and we read about the risen Jesus meeting with them and opening up the Word to them, and then later in the day Jesus established that same pattern with the gathering of disciples in Jerusalem.
So is it any surprise that we read here in Hebrews 10:25 a particular way that we are to stir up one another to love and good deeds is by, verse 25, “not neglecting to meet together as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Whether this neglecting to meet together was directly connected to a number who were no longer coming to church because they were going over to the temple we can’t say. But it seems clear that some, whether out of fear of persecution or simple apathy, were no longer coming regularly to church.
John Gill called forsaking the assembly the first outward visible step to apostasy.
Today the habit of some is to replace meeting together with meeting virtually. But meeting virtually is precisely not meeting together physically. It is done instead of gathering. While there may be something to say for such streaming, a virtual church is about as useful as a virtual spouse, or a virtual body, or a virtual resurrection.
I understand that sometimes God in His providence may hinder us from participating in normal obediences. When I’m sick I don’t think I incur guilt by not going to church. The thief on the cross I don’t think incurred any guilt by not being baptized. Over lunch you could try to come up with some other examples of being providentially hindered from gathering as we were as a church in April and May of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We received that as a time of prayer and repentance as God temporarily removed some of the normal means of grace from us, fundamentally our regular beginning of the week together by meeting together.
But because we understood that the local church is a visible, audible, and tangible gathering, we didn’t attempt to present a webcast or a livestream as a substitute for gathering with God’s people.
Brothers and sisters, you realize that the Church is not only what’s presented from the front, as if it could be captured by a camera. Failing to gather weakens the connection between the members. Our true knowledge of each other declines as struggles that would normally be seen by us are hidden. I know we can share information over e-mail or sights and sounds on the web, but the bodily resurrection is best represented by physical proximity.
Our church back in D.C. is called the Capitol Hill Baptist Church because that is where we normally church. That is where we normally assemble. For a while during the pandemic we had to assemble over in Virginia because the government of the district was not allowing us to assemble. Then after the Lord gave us victory in a lawsuit, we were able legally again to assemble in the district, but outside, so we met over in Anacostia Park, hundreds of us gathering but outside, even in December. But we were assembling. But we’re called the Capitol Hill Baptist Church because normally we congregate in that place.
We are one example of a faithful church. Here at Christ Covenant is another example of a faithful church. You assemble together.
Friend, if you’re visiting here today, my concern is not that you join this church as opposed to another one, but it is that you join some faithful church, that you make yourself known to and accountable to a particular set of Christians that you will work to stir up to love and good works, and that you allow them to do the same in our own life. That’s how you can best love them and they can best love you.
Corporate worship gatherings like this one preview our togetherness in our resurrected bodies. The planned and the unplanned happen when we gather. Some of our most significant interactions are not things that we had planned to do when the morning began. It’s seeing that person singing as they are, or hearing that person near us moved in the sermon or in a prayer. It’s the hug from this person or the quiet conversation with this other one. It’s greeting the first time visitor or seeing this old member who is back. It’s sharing the Gospel with the non-Christian seated next to you after the service, or helping this person from out of town figure out what to do next.
What you see and sound like here in this room together is part of who you are. The unity that we have in Christ by all sharing the same spirit is best represented immediately physically, even in the inconvenience of our physically gathering. We have built in weapons against sneaking selfishness and the inevitable individualism which marks our day and wants to claim each one of us. So we may fall asleep here sometimes in the services, but I promise if all we do is livestream, more of us will do that in our own homes.
Friends, that’s just the way it is. Getting together, even for this meeting this morning, has forced a choice in every person’s schedule. We’ve had to choose between coming to church and our own convenience, or a trip we might take, or a kid’s sporting event. Lots of individual costs are borne to make this assembly happen as it does every week. The various teams of members who are coordinated, nursery workers, sound system workers, preachers preaching, ushers ushering. All of us doing what we do so that we can sing and pray and hear God’s Word in this meeting and before and after it have conversations that are full of opportunities to experience the fullness of the Spirit’s work and to minister to others in the body and to visitors.
Friends, baptism and the Lord’s Supper are inherently not livestream-able. Though you can sing at the same time as the speaker is transmitting sound on your computer, it is not the same thing as being here with the others who are singing. Though it can be inconvenient to gather like this, it is often the joy of the Christian’s week. We start by celebrating Christ’s resurrection together.
I think of 2 John 12, when John said that he could write to them but, he writes, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to come to you and talk face-to-face so that our joy may be complete.
You know the truth of what I’m saying. You have at times been providentially hindered from being at church. When you get back to church after being gone for a week or a month, you know that extra joy you feel in being able to pray with the brothers and sisters and to sing with them and to hear God’s Word preached. That’s of the nature and essence of what it means that Christ has gained this access for us into the presence of God and He calls us together to experience that.
You know, if you’re not here you can’t greet people with a holy hug, or whatever your culturally-appropriate version of the New Testament’s holy kiss is.
So we come together to stir up one another and encourage one another as it says here, mutual edification is embodied in the church’s weekly gathering. It’s of the essence of a church. It’s a foretaste of what we will forever live out when we are with the Lord.
To miss this should normally hurt, just like things being out of place in our physical body causes pain. This is the meeting that God uses to shape us and to prepare us to be personally present with Him forever.
So much more we can say about this, but let me simply ask you as families and as friends to talk over lunch about the difference between a church weekly gathering and anything else we could have, a livestream even, a book club, a smaller group. Friends, virtual church is not church.
So let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together.
John Stott seemed to have a supernatural ability to sum things up both elegantly and accurately. Stott summed all this up saying access to God by faith, waiting for Christ in hope, stirring one another up to love. It’s the familiar triad of faith, hope, and love.
I pray that these may characterize your life in Christ and your life together here in this local church.
Let’s pray together. Lord God, we thank You for every provision You have given to us in Christ. We thank You for the indwelling of Your Holy Spirit. We thank You for Your provision of Your bride, the church. We thank You for the freedom and ability here in this time, in this place, to meet together as your people, anticipating the joy of the final resurrection. So God, give us confidence to hold onto our faith and hope and use these times together on Sunday mornings to build that faith for our good and Your glory. We ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.