The privileges of our worship.
Going to church is our greatest joy and highest privilege.
Hebrews chapter 10 is one of the most sublime texts of Scripture, serving as the crescendo of the writer’s fundamental premise. Namely, that Jesus is better. This thirteen-part sermon, of sorts, holds forth the bona fide truth that the Lord Jesus Christ is, in every way, superior to every other system of faith. If the principle assumption of religion is the way into everlasting life, Jesus not only offers a better way, he offers the only way. He is the true and better Prophet, true and better Priest, true and better King who gives his life to stand in the stead of every wretched sinner. He bears the brunt of the law’s demand for justice because of sin — and, in so doing, he serves as the ransom for all our rebellion and wrongdoing, leaving no ounce of iniquity unatoned. There is no measure to the sin which his sacrifice covers. Such is why the church assembles at all.
Let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: 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. (Heb. 10:24–25)
You see, what the writer offers in this section is not merely the commandment for church attendance, but the reason for church attendance along with the command. According to researchers, church attendance is on a step declining trajectory. Barna Group recently reported that 36 percent fewer Americans attend church on a weekly basis today when compared to the 1990s. Covid, of course, has aggravated that statistic. Few churches gather like they used to. Some have closed their doors for good. Some have fallen apart over a piece of cloth. Some churchgoers haven’t darkened a church door in over two years. We can blame the pandemic for some of that, but not all. Even before the pandemic, a general disinterest and disillusionment towards church attendance was already beginning to reveal itself. Even though I concede the “extenuating circumstances,” church attendance is, to be sure, not nearly the priority it once was — or, perhaps, what we pretended it was. Which is just to say that covid didn’t cause the decline of church attendance, it just offered us a more convenient excuse.
Was it always this way?
One of the things I have come to detest is the relative ease with which we blame the pandemic for pretty much everything. Any novel inconvenience or frustration that has come about of late is chalked up to that cursed virus. From that precious Amazon delivery taking longer than expected, to that grocery store shelf being emptier than you anticipated, to that trip to the doctor’s office occupying your entire afternoon, Covid is the cause, or so it seems. It has become a scapegoat for all the things we don’t like, for all the nuisances we can’t seem to remember existed before masks became part of our daily fashion choices. To be sure, however much I loathe the phrase, I don’t mean to be dismissive of our “new normal.” Things have changed, some permanently. There are very real consequences we are just now beginning to feel the effects of, the extent of which won’t likely be fully understood until several years from now. What I am suggesting, however, is that some of the things we blame on that virus were already around before that virus became the topic of every conversation on every headline news channel.
The pandemic has revealed our true colors. Among the many things which it has smugly put on display is our fickle relationship to the church. For good or ill, the veneer on the American church has been washed away, leaving it bare and naked on the corner of the thoroughfare. What’s left is nothing but an embarrassing inconvenience. Perhaps what has resulted, though, in the interminable days since all this burst onto the world is not the creation of something new as much as it is the revelation of what was already there. What might have been relatively dormant or imperceptible before is now unabashedly exposed. To be honest, the pandemic hasn’t made us more impatient, it’s just revealed how impatient we already were. And I think you could say that for almost any of the things which trouble us. Anxiety. Disillusionment. Apathy. Conspiracy. Grouchiness. Anger. Yes, this season in which we have been forced to endure a worldwide virus has, no doubt, exacerbated those stressors, multiplying them exponentially. But, in a more real way, it has revealed just how given we were to those stressors in the first place. It has betrayed how fragile we really are, and none of us are very fond of that.
What’s the answer? Well, I’d hasten to say that the solution is not found in some newfangled way of “doing church.” Solving the problem of church attendance (or lack thereof) doesn’t mean we are required to implement the latest and greatest innovation into our worship services. It’s not a matter of being trendy or relevant, as much as it is about finding renewed enthusiasm for the explosive words of grace which are extended to each and every sinner. It is my estimation that we are lax in our in our attention to, and attendance of, church because we are, likewise, lacking in our apprehension and appreciation of the groundbreaking truths of the gospel. Do we regularly realize what it means to be a worshiper in the house of God? When was the last time you consciously considered the immense privileges you possess as you walk through the church doors simply because you are “in Christ”? Such is what the writer to the Hebrews conveys in verses 19–25 of the tenth chapter of his epistle.
We can worship freely.
Notice the first of the writer’s appeals: “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb. 10:22). What he sets forth, here, is the unblushing freedom with which those who are part of the covenant of faith, those who are “in Christ,” are imbued. This “drawing near” is the approach of the worshiper to the place of worship. We who are “in Christ” enter the place of worship with not trace of trepidation or timidity (Heb. 10:19). We do not come “walking on egg shells.” We come with the unbounded confidence and assurance which emanates from the bruised head and severed side of the crucified One. We don’t draw near on a “hope so,” or a “maybe,” or a “might be.” We don’t enter God’s house with our nerves in a bundled wreck over the possibility of earning God’s favor so long as we doing everything right. On the contrary, we approach the Father boldly because his favor has been poured out on us already through the blood of his only begotten Son.
The cross worked. The tomb is still empty. It really is finished. Such are the facts of the gospel which are announced to us and received by us, unshackling our worship. Sinner, you are free in Christ. Therefore, you can worship freely. Because of who Jesus is and what he has done, you and I are free to approach the sovereign God of all things “with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” That is, with hearts that are really and truly “washed,” cleansed, made whole. Our hearts aren’t turned into some sort of fool’s gold. They don’t merely have the appearance of godliness. We are are what God’s incarnate Word says we are. We aren’t “like” God’s sons and daughters. We are his sons and daughters.
If you believe in Jesus’s atoning work, when you go to church, you do so as a child of the Living God. Stop, re-read that sentence. Let the truth of it sink in. Whereas the saints of old were prohibited from entering the Holy of Holies, save for a specific few on a specific day of the year, you and I are liberated to walk into the very presence of God himself. You are free to come without hesitation or reservation “into the holiest” (Heb. 10:19). With his blood covering your sin, Christ frees you to worship with impunity. The Son absorbs the full weight of your condemnation so that you might exalt the everlasting worth of the Heavenly Father, with voices that have been purified in the crimson font and bodies that have been “washed with pure water.” We don’t sit in a pew week-in and week-out because of some outside chance that if we get everything right we’ll be rescued from sin and death. Rather, we sit and sing and serve and sacrifice because we are free from sin and death, right now.
We can worship fervently.
On top of the freedom with which we can worship is the fervency which animates our worship. “Let us hold fast,” the writer declares, “the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;)” (Heb. 10:23). We ought to take note of the parenthetical words which the writer inserts at this point, since they serve to establish the present exhortation. The reason we can “hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering,” without waffling or trembling, is because our faith is founded upon the sure and certain Word of God. “He is faithful that promised.” God has never uttered a word or a promise that hasn’t come to pass, that wasn’t fulfilled. Furthermore, none of his declarations will ever be revoked.
Christ Jesus, the enfleshed Word of God, came to this world preaching words of repentance and deliverance. He came speaking the forgiveness of sins precisely for those who are lost and sinning. He came as the sinless Lamb who “taketh away the sin of the world” by taking it on himself (John 1:29; 1 Pet. 1:19; Rev. 5:12; cf. Isa. 53:7). He came with arms open, welcoming all the broken and bruised to find mercy and grace in their time of need (Heb. 4:16). He is the true and better Priest who offers “one sacrifice for sins forever” (Heb. 10:9–14). And the sacrifice which he offers isn’t “the blood of bulls and of goats,” it’s his own. The blood which was poured out for you and for me on that ghastly Roman gibbet was none other than the blood of God. And in that crimson flow pulsates the everlasting peace and pardon of the Triune God for every last stinking sinner.
Such proclamations cannot and will not be rescinded. And such is why we can “hold fast.” We might, at first, be inclined to gloss over it, but that word “having” (Heb. 10:19, 21) is worthy of our attention. It carries the sense of “owning” or “possessing.” It denotes the fervent, impassioned grip with which we cling to the truths of God’s gospel. That which we possess by faith alone in Christ alone is indefatigably ours. It is ours forever. It cannot be taken away. Ours is “an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away” (1 Pet. 1:4). As the writer himself affirms, in and through Christ, we “receive the promise of eternal inheritance” (Heb. 9:11–15). We can stand steadfast on what we believe, holding fast to the “profession of our faith,” because it is the Lord Jesus alone upon whom our faith rests and who, as it turns out, is holding on to us. Free worship is fervent worship, and fervent worship emanates from those who are free.
We can worship frequently.
It is interesting to notice how the writer couches his insistence on church attendance as more of a matter of considering the needs of others before your own. “Let us consider,” he asserts, “one another to provoke unto love and to good works: 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” (Heb. 10:24–25). That memorable charge to “not forsake the assembling of ourselves together” comes sandwiched between two reminders about the “one another’s” with whom we “draw near” to worship. Which raises an important truth about going to church we don’t often contemplate. Namely, that church attendance isn’t always about you. To be sure, your attendance and involvement in the ministries and activities of the church can bless and benefit you in a variety of ways. But, in a deeper and truer way, your attendance and involvement in church is itself a blessing and benefit to your neighbor.
When you’re not here, you are missed. At family reunions, relatives near and far gather to rejoice in a common kinship. If one member of the family isn’t there, it’s obvious. It’s the topic of conversation. And I think it ought to be the same for us in the church. Why do we go to church? We go to rejoice in our shared kinship in our Brother Redeemer, King Jesus. When we come into the sanctuary to worship him through praising and preaching, we do so as the family of God. And when a member of that family isn’t there, we should consider them in love and encourage them to rejoin the fellowship. Because there’s power in the assembly of the saints.
The assembling and gathering and fellowshipping of the church is what makes the church, “the church.” When we gather, we take part in that which the Lord promised would never be thwarted or defeated, notwithstanding the intensity of the assault of death and darkness. “Upon this rock,” Jesus declares, “I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). Approaching the place of worship with our with our Christian brothers and sisters, then, isn’t something we ought to take or leave depending on how we feel. Rather, it is the express privilege as those who have been bought “with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:19). Who wouldn’t want to rejoice in that? Who wouldn’t want to take part in that?
In many ways, the pandemic put the church on a Petri dish for cultural examination, with the unmissable verdict being that those who cross its threshold will do so until it’s deemed too difficult or until one part of it isn’t up to our liking. We can take or leave church depending on the (real or metaphorical) weather. But for however much the “Netflix-ing” of church has become the common epistemological perspective among modern churchgoers, the church’s divine resonance and significance has not changed a single degree. The self-evident truth of God and his Word is that the church is not just a privilege you and I enjoy because of the freedoms on which this country was founded. The church is a divine necessity instituted by God himself for his glory and our good.
We like to think that ours is a “Christian nation,” one which has its ecclesiastical ducks all neatly arranged and in order. But I’m not so sure we can make that claim nowadays, especially when Christians themselves will find excuse after excuse to not be in church on a weekly basis. Yes, I know that there are legitimate reasons to miss a Sunday here or there. And I know I might step on some toes with this, but the most loving thing you can do for your family (and for your country) is to be at that assembly. The gathering of God’s people isn’t something we should take lightly or approach flippantly. It is our greatest joy and highest privilege as the sinner-saints of the God of all grace.