The Lord’s people recognize the importance and power of coming together as the ekklesia, the assembly, or church, of Christ. By all accounts the earliest Christians learned the value and importance of the assembly from the instruction and example of the Apostles: they set forth what the Lord had decreed, in word and deed, regarding the assembling of God’s people in Christ, and early Christians followed the traditions as given to them (e.g. Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, 14:1-40). Assembling, for Christians, is so normative that we do not even see it given as a command: the Apostles only bring up matters of the assembly as reminders in exhortation, or more generally, to correct unhealthy and sinful patterns of behavior manifest in the assembly (1 Corinthians 11:17-34, 14:1-40). After all, what kind of assembly is there that does not assemble?
Yet this has posed a challenge for Christians as they seek to establish Biblical authority and provide exhortation in the faith; it can be difficult, and wordy, to explain how the assembling of the saints was a regular habit of early Christians, taking place at least weekly on the first day of the week by approved apostolic example, and thus highly encouraged. Therefore, a “shorthand” has developed: the appeal to Hebrews 10:25 as the authority and basis upon which we insist for every Christian to assemble on the first day of the week with their fellow Christians as the local church and participate in the acts of the assembly, and thus that every local church meet every week for an assembly:
Not forsaking our own assembling together, as the custom of some is, but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as ye see the day drawing nigh.
Hebrews 10:25 does represent a very important verse when it comes to the value and power of the assembly, but can it bear the burdens modern application would impose upon it? Are we rightly handling this word of truth in the ways in which we refer to it and apply it (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15)?
Our first task must be to understand Hebrews 10:25 in the context of what the Hebrews author is saying and doing. Hebrews 10:25 comes at the end of the core exhortation the Hebrews author is making based on all the arguments and demonstrations he has made regarding the superiority of Jesus and the covenant in His blood over all that came before:
Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by the way which he dedicated for us, a new and living way, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having a great priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart in fulness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience: and having our body washed with pure water, let us hold fast the confession of our hope that it waver not; for he is faithful that promised: and let us consider one another to provoke unto love and good works; not forsaking our own assembling together, as the custom of some is, but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as ye see the day drawing nigh (Hebrews 10:19-25).
The Hebrews author makes his thesis and provides three points of exhortation in application, and does so in a particular order. Christians have boldness to enter the presence of God in Jesus’ blood through the veil of His flesh and with Him as priest (Hebrews 10:19-21). Christians thus must draw near to God with a true heart in fullness of faith (Hebrews 10:22). Having received cleansing in baptism, Christians must hold fast to their confession in hope, for God who has promised is faithful (Hebrews 10:23). Christians must consider one another as fellow Christians to provoke, or stir up, to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24).
The Hebrews author’s exhortation to not forsake the assembling of ourselves together thus does not stand on its own; it is directly dependent on, and thus a subset of, the exhortation to consider one another to stir one another up to love and good works. His concern about the forsaking of the assembling is intensified by what he says afterward: those who sin deliberately have no hope of redemption, but a fearful expectation of judgment (Hebrews 10:26-31); the recipients of the letter ought to remember the afflictions they endured beforehand, having jointly participated in the sufferings of those reviled for the faith, and ought not cast off the boldness they had, which would provide a great reward (Hebrews 10:32-35); they need patience to receive the promise after having done the will of God, not becoming those who shrink back to perdition, but as those who have faith in the salvation of their souls (Hebrews 10:36-39).
From Hebrews 10:26-39, along with many other aspects of the Hebrews letter, we can perceive how the Hebrews author is deeply concerned about the faith of the recipients of his letter: he is worried they are losing heart and are at risk of apostatizing through backsliding. A sign of this apostasy would be if and when they would abandon the assembling together of themselves, as some already had; they would miss out on exhortations to love and good works, and it might not take long after that for them to renounce their confession and pull away from God in Christ.
Thus the Hebrews author is very concerned that those who read his letter might abandon the faith; based on his choice of term in Hebrews 10:25, such concern begins with the abandonment of the assembly. “Forsaking” is the Greek egkataleipontes, a present participle of the verb that means “to forsake, abandon, leave in the lurch.” It is the same word Paul uses to describe what Demas did when he loved this present world and went to Thessalonica in 2 Timothy 4:10; he would again use it to describe how all abandoned him at his first defense before Caesar in 2 Timothy 4:16. In Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34 it translates the cry of abandonment Jesus cited from Psalm 22:1. All of these examples represent serious forms of abandonment; the use of the present participle would suggest a continuous or repeated action, consistent with the Hebrews author’s concerned about those who had made such forsaking/abandonment a “custom” or habit (Greek ethos). The Hebrews author therefore does not have in mind some Christians who occasionally miss an assembly here or there; he has in mind those who have abandoned the coming together with fellow Christians, and thus in danger of abandoning their confession and their faith.
For that matter, the Hebrews author also does not specify the nature of the coming together of Christians beyond for exhortation: he uses the Greek episunagogein, a “coming together” or “meeting” of Christians; the term “synagogue” comes from that Greek term, used only elsewhere in the New Testament in 2 Thessalonians 2:1 to describe the gathering together of Christians when the Lord Jesus returns. No doubt such a term would include the likely normative weekly assembling of Christians on the first day of the week to remember the Lord’s death in His Supper, along with preaching, giving, singing, and praying (e.g. Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 14:1-40, 16:1-3, Ephesians 5:19), but the term is not limited to such meetings. It could include meetings as often as daily for encouragement and edification (cf. Acts 2:41-46). It may have involved smaller gatherings of Christians for meals and other activities in joint participation in the faith (1 Peter 4:9-11).
To this end we can understand what the Hebrews author attempts to accomplish: if we are going to consider one another, to stir up to love and good works, we must gather frequently to do so in order to exhort one another. Abandonment of such gatherings is a major warning sign that a Christian is disconnecting from his people and might well thus disconnect from his or her confession and faith in Christ.
In application, therefore, we can see that Christians ought to prioritize gathering together: certainly for the first day of the week assembly, but also at other times. Nevertheless, the assembly of the saints is not prioritized as of the greatest importance here: the Hebrews author prioritizes drawing near to God, then holding firm the confession of our hope, and then considering one another, to stir up to love and good works (Hebrews 10:19-24). Gathering together and exhorting one another is a means by which we consider one another (Hebrews 10:25), consistent with Paul’s exhortation for all things in the assembly to be done for building up in 1 Corinthians 14:26. We come together in the assembly to build up and strengthen one another, stirring one another up in faith to love and good works in exhortation, providing substance and strength to empower and equip each other to continue to serve the Lord Jesus in relational unity, hope, and faith in life.
What does it mean to “forsake” the meeting of Christians? The Hebrews author primarily has in mind those who have fully abandoned joint participation with fellow Christians in the assembly or in smaller gatherings. He does not have in mind those who might miss a meeting here or there, or those who are inconsistent in assembling. It might well be that many Christians have an unhealthy view of the assembly and do not appropriately prioritize participation within it; some might well look for excuses to assemble as infrequently as possible in their carnal ways of thinking. Such attitudes are unhealthy, but they are symptoms of a greater problem; to shame and condemn about not assembling does not reach the heart of the matter. If the greater problem, whatever it may be, is addressed, generally the assembling with the saints will become a more regular occurrence.These concerns are not being addressed by the Hebrews author, however, in Hebrews 10:25, for such people have not abandoned coming together with their fellow Christians. At some point they might; but that moment has not arrived yet, and it cheapens the Hebrews author’s concern to suggest otherwise. These concerns are not being addressed by the Hebrews author, however, in Hebrews 10:25, for such people have not abandoned coming together with their fellow Christians. At some point they might; but that moment has not arrived yet, and it cheapens the Hebrews author’s concern to suggest otherwise.
We do well to remember how the gathering of Christians in Hebrews 10:25 is instrumental to a purpose: considering one another. Without a doubt, the normative practice of early Christians was to assemble on the first day of the week to participate in certain acts of the assembly, with perhaps other gatherings at other times, and we do well to honor and observe the same tradition. But we must remember that such assembling is set forth for us as a normative example; in times of particular emergencies, we might not be effectively considering one another by meeting in person. Thankfully, with modern technology, we have means by which we can consider one another, and even in a sense gather together, without being physically proximate. Under normal circumstances, abandonment of physical presence and the sharing of physical space would not glorify God; nevertheless, under distress, some means of communication and sharing together is better than none. We must not confuse the means to an end with the end itself.
It is important for Christians to come together as the church as a demonstration of the relational unity they share in and with God in Christ. It is right, good, and appropriate for Christians to observe the normative example of early Christians in weekly assemblies to that end; it is even better for Christians to gather together more frequently to consider one another. Nevertheless, the assembly is not the most important thing in the faith; Christians were not made for the assembly, but the assembly for Christians, and the assembly is a means by which Christians consider one another, and not an end unto itself. We consider one another as joint participants in Christ to encourage one another, and all the more as the day draws near; we do that so we might strengthen one another to continue to draw near to God in Christ, and to hold firm our confession in hope without wavering. May we properly discern God’s purposes in revealing Hebrews 10:25, encourage one another in Christ, and obtain the resurrection of life in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry