6 – Maintaining Contact

Some people define “church” as a series of ceremonial rituals that are performed on a regular basis, hopefully on a weekly basis on Sunday morning. Others define church as a catechism of doctrines that can be conveniently outlined, or possibly presented in a well-written book that explains all the correct proof text of scripture that validates each point of identity.   There are those who define their particular denomination by a manual of traditions or doctrines. And then there is the definition of church to be a relational interaction of people with one another that is based on the members’ common obedience to the gospel and mutual love of one another. We would agree with the latter.

In one passage of Scripture Jesus defined “church”:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another.   By this will all men know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another (Jn 13:34,35).

This is the definition of the ekklesia (church) that Jesus called out of the world through the gospel. And if this is the definition of church—and it is—then doctrinal outlines fall far short of defining the organic body of Christ.   Manuals of common tradition are worthless.

Love is an action word. Outlines and rituals are inert and impersonal. We may content ourselves to feel good about our correct outline of doctrine or common traditions. But we cannot content ourselves if our behavior is not identified by Jesus’ definition of His disciples. What is scary is that the majority of religious people today who are connected in some way to a particular religious group, maintain their connection (fellowship) with their particular church either on the basis of tradition or theology.   Love takes second place to these customary systems of church identity.

The identity of the disciples of Jesus is known by their relational love they have for one another that is based on their common obedience to the gospel. They simply gravitate to one another and enjoy one another’s presence because they have obeyed the gospel. They realize that their interaction with one another on earth is in preparation to be with one another for eternity. If they cannot work out their differences on earth, then it is questionable that they will enjoy being with one another for eternity. It is imperative, therefore, that there be no “once a month” or “periodic disciples” who refrain from being with other disciples. Nevertheless, there are those members who stay away from the body of believers. By doing such, they manifest their self-deception that they will enjoy the company of the disciples in eternity. If one cannot voluntarily fellowship with other Christians on earth, then certainly God will not force this person to be together with Christians in heaven.

The following are some erroneous beliefs of those who have deceived themselves into thinking that they will have an eternal reward for their unloving relationship with their fellow body of believers:

 I.  Legal justification:

Legal justification is illustrated by contributing a few coins to the function of the body, when at the same time, the contributor has many notes in his pocket. If God would meet him on his exit from the legalized assembly, he could at least say he legally made a contribution. No judgment could supposedly be made against him because he dropped in a few coins.

As with legal contributions, one who practices legal fellowship is seeking to be with his fellow Christians as least as possible, and yet, feel justified before God. A preacher friend of ours several years ago mentioned the name of the presumptuous member who was supposedly a part of his fellowship. He said he saw the name of the member in the local newspaper.   The problem was that the man gave the name of the church for which he preached. He told the newspaper that he was a member of this church. But my friend said the man never showed up at the assembly of the church.

Some people deceive themselves into thinking that they are in fellowship with God, when at the same time they maintain no fellowship with His people. John wrote of these people. “If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 Jn 1:6; see 2:9,10). So the person who claims to be associated with the disciples, but never shows up to be in fellowship with the disciples, has simply deceived himself. The fact would be what Peter and John said to Simon the sorcerer, “You have neither part nor portion in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God (At 8:21).

 II.  Presumptuous relationships:

If one stayed away from his wife for an extended period of time without any reason, then we would question the man’s love for his wife. If one stayed away from his job for an extended period of time without any excuse, then he would be fired. If one seeks to starve his relationship with his brothers in Christ, then he simply has no love for his brothers in Christ. If one would presume to have a relationship with Christ, but fails to be with the body of Christ, then he has deceived himself. He has presumed to have that which does not exist, that is, a relationship with fellow disciples of Christ.

Christianity is about relationships, and relationships depend on being with one another. Some have often used the text of Hebrews 10:24,25 as a legal code to instill guilt in those who forsake the assembly of the saints. But there is something far more important behind the meaning of Hebrews 10:24,25 than the breaking of a legal code of attendance.   In fact, what is stated in the text is the reason why some stayed away.

We must understand the passage in the context of the time in which it was written.

Let us hold firm to the confession of our faith without wavering, for He is faithful who promised. And let us consider one another to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and so much the more as you see the day approaching. For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins (Hb 10:23-26).

At the time the letter was written to the Jewish Christians, there was great intimidation of the Jewish Christians to go back into Judaism. The intensity of the Jewish insurrection was rising in the Roman Empire. What eventually happened was that Rome decided to put down the “Jewish problem” by the destruction of the Jewish state in Palestine, which eventually led to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and finally the destruction of the stronghold of Masada soon after.

Some Jews who were converted out of Judaism were on the verge of returning to their fellow Jews, and thus, were slipping away from their faith in Jesus as the Messiah. The Hebrew letter was written in order to argue against their theological case of returning to a legal system of law under the Sinai law. After the Hebrew writer made his theological case, he concluded in chapter 10, But we are not of those who draw back to destruction, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul” (Hb 10:39).   Hebrews 10:24,25 must be understood in this historical context.

In order not to draw back into Judaism, the Jewish disciples must associate with one another. They must encourage one another to remain faithful to their former commitment that Jesus was the Messiah. The “day” about which the writer spoke, was not the final coming of Jesus at the end of time. The Holy Spirit would not lie to the readers, deceiving them into thinking that Jesus was coming in His final coming in their lifetime. All the early Christians had been told the prophecy of Jesus that is recorded in Matthew 24. National Israel, with the final destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, was coming to a close. Jesus was coming, but He was coming in time in judgment in order to conclude the age of Israel. The Hebrew writer, therefore, wrote to save Christian lives by discouraging them from repatriating with national Israel in Jerusalem. If they drew back into Judaism, indeed they would “draw back to destruction” (Hb 10:39).

As a culture of people, the Hebrew writer thus encouraged the Jewish brethren to assemble with one another in order to encourage one another to remain faithful to Jesus as the Messiah (Hb 10:25). And in order to remain faithful, they had to encourage one another to do two things: (1) stir up loving fellowship with one another, and (2) encourage getting to work for Jesus. Hebrew 10:24,25 is not talking about some “hour of worship” wherein one’s faithfulness is determined by his legal presence.   This may be a convenient passage for preachers to beat people on the heart for not attending, but such an interpretation is certainly shallow in reference to the historical context of what was happening in the lives of the Jewish Christians when the passage was written.

The “sin” to which the Hebrew writer was referring was their apostasy to Judaism. In the book, the writer had earlier stated, “But exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (Hb 3:13). Turning back into “sin” meant turning away from the high priesthood of Jesus. Notice what the writer stated would happen if they turned from the atonement of Jesus: “For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins(Hb 10:26). If they turned away from Jesus, then they would be turning away from the atoning blood of Jesus.

We would understand “the Truth” in the context according to what Jesus said to the Jews during His earthly ministry: “And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32).   Jesus was the revealed Word (Jn 1:1,2,14). He was the Truth. And it was He, through the cross, who set obedient people free from their sins. The Hebrews had obeyed the truth of the gospel because of their “knowledge of the Truth,” which Jesus was. But if they willfully turned away from the Truth (Jesus), then Jesus could do nothing for their problem of sin. This is something far more serious than missing the “attendance of the saints” on Sunday morning. The Hebrew writer was discussing apostasy, not legal attendance to assemblies, though the lack of attendance at the assembly of the saints is the first signal of a backsliding disciple.

It could be understood, however, that if one does not assemble around those who believe that Jesus is the Truth, then certainly he is falling from the faith. Our sweet fellowship that we have in Christ is that all of us have a “knowledge of the Truth.” We have obeyed the truth of the gospel, and thus are in fellowship with one another.   Whoever would not want to be around like-minded people certainly has little knowledge of the Truth (Jesus).   Christianity is not about attendance at legal assemblies, but about being drawn together in assembly as we draw closer to Jesus. It is as Jesus said: “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Me (Jn 12:32).

 III.  Estranged relationships:

 Someone once said, “The difference between opinion and conviction is that you hold one and the other holds you.” It is not a matter of opinion that Christians are in fellowship with one another for the purpose of growing one another spiritually.   It is that we are held together because of our commitment to one another. When in the absence of one another, our feelings should be as those expressed by Paul when he was away from the disciples in Thessalonica.

 So affectionately longing for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own souls, because you had become very dear to us (1 Th 2:8).

And to the Roman Christians, he wrote, “Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor preferring one another (Rm 12:10). To the Ephesians, he continued, “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another …” (Ep 4:32). These are powerful statements in reference to the nature and intensity by which Christians are to desire one another’s presence. Has our digital age of distance communication deprived us of this longing for one another’s personal presence? Have we cheapened fellowship through texting on smart phones?

As we seek Jesus, we seek one another. A missionary friend of ours told of a religious woman in his community who was leprous. He mentioned that in her religious faith and longing for the saints that she crawled for two miles on her crippled hands and knees in order to be with the saints. And then she asked for forgiveness for her unfaithfulness and commitment to them.

We are often in the presence of lukewarm Christians who now define the culture of a lukewarm faith. Such happened to the disciples in the city of Laodicea. But Jesus pronounced judgment on them. “So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of My mouth (Rv 3:16). The Christians in Laodicea may have been comfortable with one another’s lukewarmness, but Jesus was not. There were possibly some in the church of Laodicea as the husband and father identified in the following poetic statement of a lukewarm Christian:

 Take my wife and let her be,

Consecrated, Lord to thee.

Take my children as thine own,

As for me, I’ll stay at home.

 This husband and father had forgotten Ezekiel 18:4: “Behold, all souls are Mine. As the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is Mine. The soul that sins, it will die.”

In the bulletin of a church over a half century ago were the words of an unknown poet.

 His four-year old climbed on his knee,

Intent to have her daddy see,

What she in Sunday school had drawn;

While he stayed home and mowed the lawn.

“See there is Mom and me and Sue,

But Daddy, I could not draw you;

Because you never go with us,

Did you and Jesus have a fuss?”

He bowed his head and felt ashamed,

And found it so hard to explain;

He vowed a vow, and kept it too,

That miss again, he’d never do.

 There is the old Chinese tale of a man traveling through a country. He saw a beggar at the side of the road, and subsequently, gave him six of his seven coins.   While the traveler slept, however, the beggar stole the seventh. We would be harsh with the beggar, but we would do the same with God. He has allowed us to have and use all that we have, but we want to steal the rest.

[Next lecture:  April 20th]


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