16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds,”
17 he also adds,
“I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
19 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach 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. 23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 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 approaching.
An imam, two rabbis and about 45 ministers got together on a Zoom call. That might sound like the set up for a bad coronavirus joke but that’s exactly what happen to me a few months ago. On May 20th my local MPP set up a consultation with ministers, and other religious leaders from across the province to ask us what we thought about reopening religious services.
The government wanted to know what kind of infection control measures would be possible for churches to practice. What measures would be unfeasible? What other challenges were churches and synagogues and mosques facing during this pandemic?
An interesting thread emerged in our one-hour conversation as participants shared their struggles with ministering during a pandemic. While I had not found this to be true, many were under tremendous pressure from their congregations and leadership groups to return to public meetings as soon as humanly possible. There was a considerable anxiety in many of the churches about not being able to gather for worship. Some of the ministers justified this pressure by mentioning the admonition above from the Hebrew writer to not “forsake the assembly” (KJV). Was our provincial government requiring us to do something that the scriptures have forbidden? Should we respond like Peter and John in Acts chapter five, saying “we must obey God rather than men…” (Acts 5:29) Curiously, our mandate to obey governing authorities was conspicuously absent from the conversation (Rom. 13:1–7; Titus 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13–17).
“We are commanded by God to gather together in worship,” one participant argued. “It is our identity; it is who we are. We are the “Ekklesia! The church.” Implied by the rhetoric was the idea that we (at least some of us) are “the called together ones,” the assembly, the church. Also being suggested was a dangerous idea that we are the church when we gather, and without gathering, we are no longer the church.
A much more volatile exchange is still going on in the US with some ministers from a host of denominational churches flouting State and Federal Laws by having worship services in spite of stay-at-home orders resulting in arrests, and ugly exchanges between church goers and law enforcement officers.
But there is something off when people say the provincial government has “cancelling church.” I know what is meant by the statement, but it betrays an impoverished imagination about what the church really is—what it means to be the body of Christ.
Consider the biblical text above. As is always the case, the broader context must be understood before we can take a verse like verse twenty-five and run with it. In this chapter, the Hebrew writer is emphasizing the finality of Jesus sacrifice by contrasting it with the impermanence of the OT sacrificial system. Jesus has once and for all offered the perfect sacrifice and sat down at the right hand (the honoured place) of God (v. 11).
As a result, the Hebrew writer says that we are now in a time where God will write His laws on our hearts (v. 16), and God will permanently forget our sins (v. 17). That is why we have the confidence mentioned in v. 19.
It is helpful at this point to pause and remember that we, as followers of Jesus have done nothing to earn this new standing with God. Paul is emphatic on this point in Ephesians when he says that “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph 2:8-9) We do not instigate this new way of salvation, we receive it from God as a gift. We are called, and we respond.
The Hebrew writer calls salvation a “new and living way that [Jesus Christ] opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh)” (v. 20). Since Jesus Christ is the author and perfecter of our faith (Heb 12:2), our hope and our trust is not in our own compliance but instead is in this new and living way. Christ has called, how should we respond?
The Hebrew writer has three admonitions for us:
First, in verse 22 he writes “Let us draw near…” It is a phrase he has used back in Heb 4:16, and repeats here with two qualifiers: with a sincere heart full of full of faith and with bodies sprinkled clean and washed with water. Both are vivid literary images of the temple sacrificial system that Jesus has ultimately satisfied with his own body and blood.
Secondly, in verse 23 he writes “Let us hold fast …” to our confession of hope without wavering. Not in order to satisfy some necessary requirements but rather in response to the trustworthiness of our great High Priest Jesus. We trust because He is trustworthy.
Finally, in verse 24, he writes “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds,” modified by two subordinate clauses: “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb 10:25).
Here we see that the body of Christ, the community of faith, is not called to assembly but is rather an assembly of the called. It is the call that justifies, not the assembly. It is the call that sanctifies, not our coming together. We gather in faith. We gather in the confidence that the sacrifice of Jesus is sufficient for our atonement, and as a result our redemption is secure. We are called, and so we gather.
The Hebrew writer is not just making gathering mandatory. He is encouraging assembly for the purpose of edification and for spiritual formation. Assembly is not our defining characteristic. Our identity is found in the call of Jesus Christ and we respond when we are called.
In this time of pandemic, we are called to porch visits, we are called to phone calls and ZOOM classes for the purpose of “encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” We are called to reach out to those who are isolated by this pandemic and the measures that help keep sensitive populations safe. These practices are just as important—just as faithful—as a Sunday morning gathering at 11am, perhaps even more in a time like this.
Saying “COVID-19 cancelled church” says more about our poor understanding of what it means to be the church than it does about political oppression. We are called to love and to serve our brothers and sisters as well as our neighbours and coworkers, and even strangers, and a pandemic is as good a time as any to answer that call.