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Posts Tagged ‘context is king’

I’ve said before that I think Richard Bauckham’s little book, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, is the best book I’ve read on what is generally regarded as the most perplexing book in the Bible.  He packs a lot of great information into a relatively small space, offering the reader solid judgments on almost every page.

But, he suggests an odd viewpoint (in my opinion) on the reason why John was on Patmos to begin with.  While the traditional view has been that John was exiled on Patmos, Bauckham presents the possibility that John went there specifically to receive the Revelation that God was about to give him.  So, when John says he “was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus,” he isn’t referring to being punished for those two things at all.  And if you look only at 1:9, this stance has some merit.

But when you look at those two phrases, “the word of God” and “the testimony of Jesus” as they are used in Revelation, it’s hard to come to this conclusion.  See below for how those phrases are used.  I’ve italicized “the word of God” and underlined “the testimony of Jesus Christ” (or something like it, all quotes from the New American Standard).

1:2 [John] who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw
1:9 I, John, your brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus
6:9 When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained
12:11 “And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death.
12:17 So the dragon was enraged with the woman, and went off to make war with the rest of her children, who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.
19:10 Then I fell at his feet to worship him. But [the angle] he said to me, “Do not do that; I am a fellow servant of yours and your brethren who hold the testimony of Jesus; worship God. For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”
20:4 Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.

The first instance is still in the introduction of the book, so we don’t see it expounded just yet.  It does, however, set the stage for what is to come.  You’ll see here that almost every instance of these phrases give reason for suffering or are connected to it.  The exception is 19:10, when the angel is speaking to John.

So, we see the “souls under the altar” in 6:9 had been slain because of “the word of God” and their testimony, and the dragon in chapter 12 wages war on those who maintain their testimony of Jesus, and those in chapter 20 were beheaded because of their testimony.  John, in his self-introduction in 1:9, tells his readers he is their “brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation.”  Given the usage of these two phrases in the rest of the book, I find it hard to see this as referring to anything other than John being exiled or imprisoned on Patmos.

Or let’s look at this from a different perspective, of John the pastor and his readers.  Put yourself in the place of his readers (if possible).  You’re facing persecution for your faith, or at least strongly tempted to compromise by all the Empire has to offer (for these two themes, see here).  In reading/hearing Revelation, you’re given a realistic portrayal of what will happen to those who cling to the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.  You understand that those two things (which aren’t really two separate ideas) will quite possibly lead you to your death.

Then you go back and see at the beginning that John uses those two phrases of himself, who is your apostolic authority and Spirit-empowered prophet.  But for him, maintaining the word of God and the testimony of Jesus leads him not to death, but to a Mediterranean island that was not, contrary to popular opinion, a backwater deserted Gilligan’s island, but a populated, secure destination.

And he has the right to call himself a “fellow partaker in the tribulation?”  It would seem to me to be a pastoral blunder on John’s part, one I have trouble believing he’d make.

The traditional view, that John was exiled on Patmos, is best supported by the rest of the book.  When people hold tightly to the word of God and the testimony of Jesus in Revelation, they are not rewarded with tropical vacations or personal retreats.  They run the risk of losing their very lives.  Only the densest of John’s original audience could have come away from this book with a different understanding, and John, if he truly was exiled, knew it was a strong possibility for himself.

However, that doesn’t mean that despair wins in Revelation.  The hope of those who faithfully testify to Jesus Christ will be the subject of my next post.

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Speaking the Truth in Love

I’m thankful I am a part of a church community that takes sin, holiness and accountability seriously.  We try, as much as possible, to foster a community that facilitates confession of sin, as well as gently confronting someone when a persistent sinful pattern or attitude has been observed.  I know I’ve been helped greatly by others hearing my confessions, as well as calling me out when I’m getting off track.  It’s part of what the body of Christ is supposed to do.

One of the biblical phrases most often quoted in our church regarding this topic is “speaking the truth in love,” from Ephesians 4:15.  The point often made is that it’s important to speak truthfully to others, but we must do so lovingly.  We don’t dangle someone’s sin over them, we don’t rejoice that we’ve caught them in the act.  We try to love as Christ does, not overlooking sin but not condemning someone with it either.  “Speaking the truth in love” is a good phrase to sum up what we teach in these situations.

But once in a while, I run across these phrases or verses in their context, and I realize that we might not be using it properly.  This happens all the time, all of us have done it at one point or another (how many times have you heard “where two or more are gathered, Jesus is there” at the beginning of prayer or worship?).  More often than not, it’s no big deal and we’re not in danger of slipping into some heresy. 

Let’s look at the phrase in its immediate context:

14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

In its original context, this phrase really isn’t speaking about accountability and personal sin.  Notice the contrast between v14 and v15.  “Speaking the truth in love” is the opposite of “cunning,” “craftiness,” and “deceitful scheming.”  The point is that there are always deceitful people infiltrating the body of Christ, spreading their false teaching in a cunning manner.  But rather than speaking lies in a deceitful way, Christians are to speak truth in love.  Lovingly proclaiming truth combats the lies that are spread throughout the body of Christ.  Those who are caught up in deceit are like little infants.  But when truth is spoken in love, the body of Christ grows strong and mature.

So this phrase is not really about personal accountability.  It’s about how we combat lies in the church.  I suppose it could overlap with the area of sin and repentance, but that’s not the heart of the matter.  Truth vs lie- that’s what we’re dealing with here.

This would be an example of what is sometimes called the “right doctrine from the wrong text.”  It is, of course, important that when we confront someone caught in sin, we do so lovingly- with an extra stress on lovingly.  I guess Ephesians 4:15 just shouldn’t be our go-to verse to make that point.  We can, however, refer to Galatians 6:1, “if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.”  Either way, I hope we apply both of these points faithfully in our lives and churches.

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Revelation can be a difficult book to understand.  The are any number of reasons for this, many of which are obvious (you know, stuff like demonic frogs and giant hailstones falling from the sky).  One of the reasons for this difficulty, in my opinion, is that we tend not to read Revelation as a narrative.  I realize that it doesn’t work exactly like most narratives, such as the ones we find in the OT or even in the NT, like Acts.  After all, settings shift without much notice; characters come and go rather quickly, often without identifying themselves; and so on.

Yet, if we allow some features of a narrative to be present, we’ll notice how seemingly disconnected visions can work together.  I want to look at two questions that are posed in Revelation by unbelievers to demonstrate what I’m getting at.

  • As God is pouring out His judgment in 6:12-17 (the 6th seal), the people of the earth “called to the mountains and the rock, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!  For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?'”
  • In chapter 13, the beast is revealed and worshipped.  The people of the earth who follow the beast ask, “Who is like the beast?  Who can make war against it?” (v4- I take the second question as working in tandem with the first.)

These questions were intended to be rhetorical questions by those who ask them, the answer being “no one.”  No one, in their mind, can withstand the judgment of God; and no one can wage war against the mighty beast.

But in the narrative of Revelation, John takes these rhetorical questions and turns them around.  After the sixth seal is opened and the people of the earth ask who can withstand God’s wrath, John has another vision.  After hearing the number of those sealed, he sees a vision of a great multitude (I take these to be referring to one group, but that’s for another discussion) “standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (7:9).  Who can withstand God’s judgment?  Those who remain faithful to the Lamb and refuse to compromise even if it means their death. 

In the same way, the answer to the “rhetorical” question of 13:4 (who can make war against the beast?) is given in chapter 14 in another vision of the 144,000.  I’m following Richard Bauckham (and others) here in seeing the number “144,000” as a wartime census (which helps explain why they are men and not women), although my interpretation doesn’t depend on this point.  These righteous and holy people are the ones who can wage war against the beast; not in the manner that the beast would fight, but in the path of the Lamb himself.  And the Lamb is also the heavenly warrior who ultimately defeats the beast in Revelation 19:11-21.  The point is that there are, in fact, some who can successfully wage war against the mighty beast.  The beast’s power, vicious though it was, was only temporary and ultimately futile.  The irony is that those who suffered at the hands of the beast were actually winning the battle.

There is a purpose in having these rhetorical questions turn out to be not-so-rhetorical in the narrative.  These questions demonstrate the blindness of unbelief.  Those who do not submit themselves to the One who sits on the throne or to the Lamb honestly think they understand “the way things work.”  They think of God’s judgment as comprehensively unavoidable.  It seems capricious and arbitrary to those who do not have eyes to see.  But those who remain faithful will know that God’s judgment is anything but arbitrary.  It is just.  Even worse, their blindness prevents them from seeing the proper response- repentance (see also Revelation 9:20-21).  They seek help from inanimate objects rather than the Creator who is sovereign over all things, who is able and willing to extend mercy.

In the same way, those who followed the beast honestly thought that the beast was unconquerable.  Awed by the brute force of the beast and the signs of the second beast (the “shock and awe” approach, if you will), they were deceived into thinking that they were witnessing the single most powerful entity in existence.  They were blind, however, to the true reality: that those who resist the beast and remain faithful to the Lamb will overcome the beast. 

So in John’s narrative, these rhetorical questions prove a point: that those who do not have eyes to see will be blind to true reality.  When we recognize these questions for what they are- false assumptions of a blind people- we are convicted and encouraged not to capitulate to such a worldview.  We are reminded to seek God, the One who sits on the throne, the One who is the merciful and sovereign King of Creation.

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Whenever I encounter a new (to me) interpretation of a familiar passage of Scripture, I’m generally skeptical of its validity.  I hope that this reticence is due less to my arrogance and more to my understanding that “there is nothing new under the sun.”  That doesn’t mean I’m not open to hearing it out, because something may be new to me but not actually new, but I’ve studied enough to know that novel ideas are generally bad ideas when it comes to biblical interpretation.

But when my friend Lacey came up to me some time ago and mentioned a new take on Luke 21:1-4 that she had heard in a Matt Chandler sermon (date: 8/9/09), I’ll admit I was intrigued.  Let me give you the verses (TNIV):

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury.  He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins, “Truly I tell you, ” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others.  All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

These verses are generally taken as praising the woman for her sacrificial giving.  If you’ve been in church long enough, you’ve heard it preached that way quite a few times.  I’d venture to guess that many a building campaigns have been helped by preaching this passage.

Chandler, however, offered a different take on it.  Rather than praising the widow for her giving, Jesus was actually lamenting that she gave (note: the word “praise” doesn’t show up here).  If you read the passages immediately before and after this one, you’ll see that Jesus denounces the teachers of the law in part because “they devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers” (20:47) and then goes on to predict the destruction of the Temple in chapter 21- the same Temple the woman was supporting with her offering.  Chandler argues that given the surrounding context, Jesus couldn’t have been praising the woman for giving her money to the very Temple he was denouncing.  Instead, he was lamenting.  I don’t remember if Chandler specified if Jesus was upset at her or upset at the Temple authorities for bilking this woman out of what little money she had, though my guess is the latter.

Chandler likens this passage to the televangelists who guilt old ladies into giving up their retirement checks to fund their lavish lifestyle- surely a practice Jesus detests.  (Side note: whether or not his exegesis is right, I’m loving Chandler’s hermeneutics here.)

What do I make of this?  To be honest, I’m not sure.  I’m a huge fan of reading passages in light of the surrounding context.  You can see an earlier post here of how I think the biblical writers can use narrative to make their point rather than stating things explicitly.  So Chandler has that going for him here.  But, I think literary context could possibly work the other way, too.  Is it possible that what we have here is actually a juxtaposition (one of my favorite words in studying the Bible, by the way)?  Is it possible that Jesus is purposely contrasting the widow’s sacrificial life with the greed of the teachers of the law?

Let me address a couple other points Chandler uses in his favor.  One, he states that in Luke’s gospel, when Jesus commends someone for a righteous act, he follows it up with a statement like “go and do likewise” or something along those lines (see the Good Samaritan).  Such a statement is missing here, which Chandler claims works in favor of his interpretation.  However, that isn’t entirely true.  The story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) is one example where Jesus praises someone’s action without telling others to do the same.

Two, while it’s true that Jesus declares the impending destruction of the Temple, he also commanded a man healed of leprosy to go tell the priest and make the proper sacrifices (5:14).  As far as the widow is concerned, the Temple is the place where the righteous go and worship.  The Temple had not been destroyed; Jesus had not died and risen from the dead.  Shoot- even Paul went to the Temple and even intended to make an offering (before he was arrested) in Acts 21:26.

After listening to the sermon I popped open some commentaries to see what they had to say.  I only own 1 Luke commentary, but I own a few on Mark, who records this same story in Mark 12:41-44 along with the same surrounding passages.  None of the commentators took the interpretation that Chandler did.  That doesn’t mean he’s wrong, of course, because commentators are capable of rehashing traditional but wrong exegesis, perhaps especially prone in a case like this where the interpretation seems “obvious”.  It does make me wonder what sources Chandler used, though (side note: I’d love it if pastors shared this kind of information once in a while; I wonder if he ever has).

So, I’m not convinced.   Yet.  I’ll admit that Chandler has successfully convinced me that his interpretation is possible, if not plausible.  The immediate context does lend him support, though as I noted above I think it could (perhaps not ‘should’) be understood differently.  I’d be very interested to hear what others have to say about this, so feel free to leave any comments you might have.  I may very well be missing something that a different set of eyes might pick up.

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Outlining 1 Peter

This post is a practice run at giving a descriptive outline for 1 Peter.  This isn’t an analysis of the grammatical structure or a Semantic Structure Analysis, though I hope I’m not ignoring them.  It’s a simple attempt to understand the flow of 1 Peter and how the parts interrelate.  I stress this is a “practice run” because I’m not entirely convinced of every detail, and as you can see, I’m not making an attempt at outlining every sentence.  Anyway, I’m also giving my rationale so you can understand why I opted for the choices I did.

———————-

Greeting (1:1-2)

Called out of Darkness to be the People of God (1:3-2:10)

Praise God for His salvation (1:3-12)

Live a holy life as one redeemed (1:13-21)

Having been born of God’s eternal word, love one another (1:22-2:3)

God has called you, making you His people (2:4-10)

Living as the People of God in a Hostile World (2:11-4:11)

Submission to others in suffering (2:11-3:12)

Lead others to praise God because of your good deeds (2:11-3:7)

Submit to governing authorities (2:13-17)

Slaves, follow Christ’s example in suffering (2:18-25)

Wives, submit to your husbands (3:1-6)

Husbands, honor your wives (3:7)

Summary: bless others rather than repay evil (3:8-12)

Be blameless in suffering, just as Christ was (3:13-4:11)

You will suffer undeservedly (3:13-17)

Suffer as Christ did, who was victorious (3:18-22)

Suffering is a sign that you are done with your old ways (4:1-6)

Love one another in light of the end of all things (4:7-11)

Suffering in This Life, in Light of the Time to Come (4:12-5:11)

Expect to suffer as Christ did, entrusting your souls to God (4:12-19)

Elders & young men are to live properly, in light of the coming glory (5:1-7)

Stand strong in suffering, for God will uphold you until the end (5:8-11)

Closing (5:12-14)

———————————

So let me make some comments.  The greeting and closing are easy enough to set apart.  That, of course, isn’t to say that they’re unimportant.  One of the difficulties with 1 Peter is that it basically deals with one subject (suffering) throughout the letter, so differentiating sections isn’t always easy.  Basically, you’re dealing with how Peter talks about suffering, not a new topic altogether.  Some letters are relatively easy to outline; 1 Corinthians is a piece of cake.  Others are more difficult; 1 John and James are notoriously tricky (seriously, try to do it sometime).

One thing to note is that you see “dear friends” (TNIV) occur twice in the text, at 2:11 and 4:12.  I’m taking this as a marker of Peter moving on to a slightly different way of handling the topic.  That leaves us with 1:3-2:10 after the greeting and before the first “dear friends.”  I feel good about these 3 main sections in the body of the letter, though how they break down is not as easy to tell.

In my “titles” I tried to be descriptive, summarizing the main point of that section.  I’m not entirely sure I got them all right, or worded them well, but it’s a place to start.  In 1:3-2:10, I broke it down into 4 subsections.  You’ll notice that I indented 1:13-21 and 1:22-2:3 because I wanted to make a point structurally.  I see 1:3-12 and 2:4-10 as “bookending” (or an inclusio) the middle sections.  That is, the bookends focus on what God has done, whereas the middle sections focus on our response.  I don’t think this structure is an accident.

In 2:11-4:11, the beginning is relatively easy to follow.  I think 2:11-12 serves as a “thesis statement” for what is to follow, specifically in 2:13-3:7.  Peter focuses on those under authority and how they should act.  It seems to me that his statement to husbands in 3:7 is not a major focus, evidenced by the short statement to them.  3:8-12 summarizes what comes before, but also provides a transition to what follows.  Instead of focusing on different categories of people (slaves, wives, etc), Peter broadens his focus back to all his readers.  This section includes some of the more confusing portions of the New Testament.  This section ends with an eschatological focus.

This switch back to an eschatological focus provides another transition to our next “dear friends” section beginning in 4:12.  In the first chapter, Peter has a strong emphasis on the coming glory to be revealed, and he returns to this theme again here (4:13; 5:1, 4, 10).  This section is bookended by some quasi-comforting words: some suffering is God’s will (4:19) and Satan is looking to devour you (5:8), but God is the “God of all grace” (5:10) in the midst of all of it.  In the middle of these are Peter’s commands to the elder readers and the younger ones.

So, of the 3 main sections of the body, the 1st and 3rd deal more with an eschatological outlook and with God’s work of salvation (which has both a past and future element that Peter stresses).  The middle section deals a bit more with following Christ as an example of righteous suffering in a hostile world.  As I noted earlier, since there is one main topic of the letter (suffering) there is significant overlap throughout these sections.  But with that said, I think there is a discernable structure.

I’ll stop there.  I’ll give my caveat again- this is a practice run.  I’m not entirely convinced of all of this, and I haven’t checked it with any scholars.  My point in posting this is to show how one can make an attempt to understand the flow of an NT epistle.  Hopefully, in so doing, we can better understand both how Peter encourages his readers in a time of suffering and how we can be encouraged in our own time.

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Prayer is a rather large topic, one I’ve intentionally avoided writing about simply because there’s so much to say.  How in the world do you narrow down the Bible’s teachings on prayer into one post?  Or even a few posts?  That’s a lot to ask.  But last year as I was teaching on the Sermon on the Mount at church, I realized that I could at least narrow it down to cover this particular section of Jesus’ teachings.

 

In Matthew 7:7-11, we read these words of Jesus (TNIV):

 

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives; those who seek find; and to those who knock, the door will be opened.

 

Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?  If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good fits to those who ask him!”

 

I’ve often heard these words used by those in the “prosperity gospel” sector of the church to claim that we can pray for financial blessings and expect that God will grant us our requests.  After all, He loves to give good gifts!

 

However, when you look at these words in light of what precedes it in the Sermon, you’ll find that what we are expected to pray for is narrowed a bit more than many realize. 

 

Consider Jesus’ words in 6:25-34.  Here, Jesus instructs us not to concern ourselves with food and clothing, God will provide those as He sees fit.  In fact, worrying about these things is in line with the pagans, “for the pagans run after all these things…” (v32).  Instead, we are instructed to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (v33). 

 

Immediately preceding these words, Jesus instructs us not to “store up for yourselves treasures on earth” (v19).  I would think this would directly contradict the idea of praying for wealth.  And you can’t take “treasures” to be solely metaphorical, since Jesus in v24 goes on to say that you can only serve God or Money, not both. 

 

In the “Lord’s Prayer” (v9-13), we see the type of physical need that we are to pray for.  In v11, we’re encouraged to pray, “Give us today our daily bread.”  Instead of praying for riches, and all the comforts that come with it, we’re instructed to pray for enough to get through today.  This is a call to trust God to provide us with what we need, not necessarily what makes us comfortable and at ease.

 

But you’ll also notice an alternative focus that is given here, praying for God’s name to be hallowed (the NET Bible translates it “may your name be honored”) and for His kingdom to come here on earth.  Rather than riches, or even a “comfortable living”, we are to pray for God’s kingdom to be made manifest on this earth.

 

So, notice the juxtaposition throughout chapter 6 on what our focus is to be. 

 

1. Pray only for enough “bread” to get through the day.  Pray for God’s kingdom to come to earth.

 

2. Do not store up treasures on earth, because it will one day be destroyed.  Instead, have a mindset that seeks to serve God, rather than Money.

 

3. Do not worry about food and clothing, because providing those is God’s job.  Instead, we are to seek the kingdom of heaven and the righteousness of God.

 

So, when we reach Jesus’ words in 7:7-11, given above, we ought to have it in our minds already that Jesus isn’t talking about money and the luxuries this world offers.  The “good gifts” we are to seek can hardly be said to be wealth, fame, etc.  He just spent most of chapter 6 telling us not to seek those things! 

 

So what are we to pray for?  How about that God’s righteousness and justice be revealed?  How about for His Name to be honored in all that we do?  How about praying for enough to get through the day, so we can have the strength and resources necessary to live these things out?  Even stepping back a chapter earlier, how about we pray for our enemies and for those who persecute God’s people (5:44)?

 

There is, of course, so much more to be said about prayer, even within the Sermon on the Mount, but I hope this quick look gives us some perspective as we pray.  We cannot forget Jesus’ words in chapter 6 when we reach His words in chapter 7.  Jesus had already laid out limits for His followers in terms of their focus, and had already demonstrated the proper way to pray.  When we keep that context in mind, we should find it intolerable to misuse His words in Matthew 7:7-11.

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This post is part of the continuing series known as Resource of the Month, where we highlight one particular resource for Christians and churches and show how it can help us in our walks with the Lord and ministry.  This month Brian and I have chosen to highlight the church, specifically the local church, as a resource.  This post focuses on one particular way the church (the gathering of Christians) can help each other.

In our circles, where not only the Sunday meeting is attended but smaller groups (which we call “Faithgroups”) are also emphasized, you won’t have to wait long before you hear someone quote Hebrews 10:24-25: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another- and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (TNIV).

We apply this in any number of ways, moving beyond the “official” church gatherings (the aforementioned Sunday meeting and Faithgroups), and include meeting together in homes for dinner, discipling others, accountability, etc (many of which happen in our Faithgroups).  All of these fall under the application of the verse above.

But why was the author of Hebrews so intent on his readers meeting together regularly and purposefully? 

I think it’s easy to miss the connection with the verses around Hebrews 10:24-25, specifically what comes after it.  When you read verses 26-31, it seems like the author switches gears and begins a new topic, the problem of believers falling away.  But, the writer didn’t simply move on, these verses are connected.  If you are reading a more dynamic equivalent translation (TNIV, NLT), you might miss this connection (fans of the NASB & ESV cheer loudly). 

In fact, the writer gives us a clue that he is about to tell us why it’s important to continue meeting together when he uses the little word “for” (gar in Greek).  I’ll give verse 26 from the NASB translation: “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins…”  You can read the rest of the section for yourself to get an idea just how bad this “falling away” or “deliberate sinning” can be.  (Note: I’m well aware of the theological debates around these verses and the issue of someone “losing their salvation”, but I’m not going to address this here, since the point of this post stays the same.)

The author of Hebrews lets us know that regularly meeting together to encourage each other to live faithfully is vital in keeping us from falling away from our faith.  He knows, and we should too, that there is a day (or “Day” if you prefer) when God will judge us all, and you do not want to be on the side of those who “trample the Son of God underfoot” or “treat as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them” or “insult the Spirit of grace.”  Such people need to hear the warning in verse 31: “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

But God has not left us alone to fight against sin and temptation.  He has given us each other.  He tells us to assemble together, not to meet a requirement or get a star on our Sunday School attendance chart.  He tells us to meet together so we can build each other up and keep each other from sinning.  We are given the responsibility to restore each other when we do sin (Gal 6:1, I deal with that verse here).

We were not saved so that we could become an “army of one.”  We were saved into a community, bound with other believers by the empowering presence of God, His Holy Spirit.  While this is not the only reason, we do need to continue meeting together so that we do not fall away, so that we can live out the words in Hebrews 10:23: “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.”

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