The Fellowship Imperative
Fellowship with God and with Other Believers
© C. O. Bishop 9/8/17 THCF 9/10/17
As we completed the first half of Hebrews chapter ten, we saw that Jesus offered one sacrifice forever, obliterating our sin-debt, and imputing eternal righteousness to us, as believers. This is a super-important concept: if our sins have been forgiven, and “taken away” by the blood of Jesus, then there is no more offering for sin. The Old Testament system of blood sacrifices is completely over—obsolete—done. . And we cannot go back to it.
Now, I wonder how the Hebrew believers must have felt, with the temple service closing behind them, and no real understanding of what lay before them This is not a new thing, though: Remember that Abram was called out of the land of his upbringing, to go out to a new place, where God would bless him. But he was not given a road map. He was just told to go. He left, not knowing where he would end up.
When I first became a believer, the question arose, “What about all the other religions? How do you know this one is right?” My only answer, at that time, was, “I don’t know anything about all the other religions. I only know that this is my stop…this is where I get off the bus.” I knew I needed Jesus Christ, and I trusted in Him. Later on, I learned more, and came to realize that, indeed, there was no other way. He said so Himself.
Many years later, I was called to sing in a wedding, in Colorado. They sent me a bus ticket, and I took that Greyhound bus to a place I had never been, arriving far behind schedule, in a snowstorm at 1:00 AM, to a dark crossroad, where I had been told that I would be met. There was no one there…but I had a choice: Get off the bus, now, in faith, and wait in the dark, snowy night for my friends to arrive, or stay on the bus and get off at another stop which would look better, but not be where I was told to expect them, and I would have no way to contact them. (This was years before cell-phones became a reality.) As it turned out, after hours of waiting, they had finally gone home, briefly, and they were coming right back. I waited less than 30 minutes before they came swooping out of the dark to rescue me. The point is that sometimes we have had to take a step of faith, and trust that God knows what He is doing. At that point, frequently, we can’t go back…we have to look forward. But we can go forward, and we are called to do so.
The Call to Fellowship
We have already been transferred out of the darkness of the lost world, into the glorious kingdom of God’s light; we can now take the next step, and enter the holy of holies by his blood. We are not told to just “wait on God to come and fellowship with us.” We are commanded, and exhorted to deliberately seek out His company. We are free to enter His presence, now. There is no barrier, today, for believers. This is the state of affairs, today; He says:
19 Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus,
20 By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh;
21 And having an high priest over the house of God;
We see four points, here:
- We have confidence to enter the holy place of God’s presence.
- We are entering confidently, solely because of the Blood of Jesus that stands between us and God’s judgment.
- We enter by the avenue of the Cross, by faith…through the torn body of the Savior, represented by the veil that was torn, in the temple.
- We enter, knowing that our High Priest, Jesus, had already entered in and made the way for us…and that it is He who invites us to that Fellowship.
With these truths as our basis for confidence, the writer urges us forward. It has taken him nine and one half chapters to “build his case” for the supremacy of Christ, and the efficacy of his blood sacrifice, but now, with that foundation laid, he urges us to take action.
He says for us to draw near to God. We could not do so before, because we were without access to God. Ephesians 2:11, 12 say that “in time past…” we were “…Gentiles according to the flesh…without Christ, aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, strangers from the covenants of Promise, having no hope, and without God, in the World.” We literally had no access to God. But now we have that access through Christ. Over in Romans 5:1, 2 Paul says, “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom also we have access into this Grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the Glory of God.”
We have access by faith in Jesus, and we are invited to join Him there, at the Throne of Grace.
The Invitation to Fellowship with God
22 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.
We are invited to enter in with full confidence. We are not entering as those who have “crashed the party”…we are entering as members of God’s household—His own offspring. We are not even entering as “guilty children” who have misbehaved and who are expecting punishment. The punishment was dealt out at the cross. We are entering, in good standing with the Holy God who created us, and redeemed us. We are entering as those who have been washed, and made holy like Jesus. Do I always “feel” this confidence? No, because my heart is deceitful (God says so), and I am always conscious of my failings. But God says that I have been washed, and made holy! (1st Corinthians 6:11 “But you are washed…sanctified…justified…”). You are arriving clean! All you need to do is clean your feet at the door!
A small child enters into his father’s house with utter confidence that he belongs there…because he does! And he enters in, knowing his father is not too busy to address his concerns and questions. He goes there expecting good things. He wipes his feet because he has been taught to do so, initially, but as he matures, he does it because he does not want to bring dirt into his father’s house.
We may practice confession initially because we have been taught to do so. As we mature, we do so because we do not want Sin to hamper our relationship with our Heavenly Father. Psalm 66:18 says that when I cling to sin in my heart, God closes his ears to me. “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” We learn to cherish that relationship with Him, and develop a hunger for his presence, so we are anxious to not allow sin to keep us from experiencing that fellowship with Him. But there is another aspect to fellowship: fellowship with other believers.
The Exhortation to Fellowship with the Church
He also tells us to hold fast to our faith-relationship with God, and to encourage one another to live the life Jesus died to provide.
23 Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;)
24 And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works:
25 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.
It is easy to allow ourselves to become sidetracked by the “cares of the world”, so to speak:
- money issues,
- health issues,
- relational issues,
- political issues,
- employment issues, etc.
We are exhorted to keep the relationship with God in the forefront of our minds, and to cling to that relationship as being of primary importance. He says to “hold fast without wavering”. We are not to allow anything to come between us and Him. The basis for our faith is the character of the one who made the promises: He is faithful!
Then the writer says something really odd: he says we are to “provoke” one another…we usually think of “provocation” as having only negative connotations, but, in this case, it means to “stir up” one another. We are to consider the best ways to be an encouragement to one another, to stir one another up to Love, and to good works. You may have noticed that there is a whole lot of “one another” references in the church-related scriptures. Why is that so? Can’t we just go in, sit quietly on a pew, listen attentively, sing songs, give money and go home? Isn’t that what church is all about?
Well…no! Actually, it is not! Even the worship is not, in itself, “church.”
So what is “Church?”
Sometimes I hear people say “Well, my ‘church’ is when I am out in the woods” or “when I am out fishing, alone with God!”…or something similar. The poet, Emily Dickinson, wrote a whole poem dedicated to this idea: she considered the birds singing in her yard to be preferable to the presence of other people. On the other hand, she also claimed she knew the way to heaven instinctively, and could get there on her own. This is sad, but quite common. It is the proud, ignorant statement of independence, without the wherewithal to survive the consequences.
The fact is, people who say such things do not understand what the word “church” means: the English word “church” is usually translated from the Greek word “ecclesia”, which means an “assembly.” It literally means the “called out ones”. It requires being together with other believers. It is certainly not the building, nor is it even, specifically, the teaching or worship.
I can listen to the radio, if I know that a very good teacher or preacher is to be speaking. This is not “church.” I can be awestruck by the majesty of a storm, or the breathtaking beauty of the creation as a whole, and respond in genuine worship. But that is not “church”, either. “Church” means the “assembly” of likeminded believers. This does not negate the need for private prayer and worship being experienced by every individual believer: both of these are good and necessary; but we meet together for corporate prayer and worship …which cannot be done alone. We also meet for mutual encouragement, and teaching, and comfort. None of these things can be done alone.
Church is not a place, nor is it a building, nor even a religious experience. It is, literally, the assembly of likeminded believers for the specific purposes listed above. That is why we are not to “forsake the assembling of ourselves together”. The word in this particular passage is the Greek “episunagogen”: which is where we get the word “synagogue,” that the Hebrews used to describe their own assemblies…the assembly—gathering together. The Hebrew Christians were still calling it the synagogue, which was fine—it simply means assembly. But it cannot possibly be “one person alone with God,” although that is also very desirable. In the Jewish culture, it is required that there be ten families, in order to have a “synagogue,” officially. But Jesus said “Where two are three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Is that a church, then?
Well…perhaps it could serve the purpose, to some degree, but the “assembly,” proper, also has some organization to it: it is an intentional meeting together for corporate worship, prayer, teaching, preaching, fellowship, encouragement, and comfort. It would be hard to do all of that with just two or three people. You could encourage one another, pray together for each other’s needs and concerns…possibly even share some teaching. But I doubt you could call that a “church”, because it lacks the structure assigned by God. God says the church possesses elders (always plural) who serve as pastors, shepherds and overseers. It has deacons (again, always plural), who serve as caretakers of the flock at a physical level.
The Universal Church is strictly an organism, not an organization: it is the Body of Christ, and consists of all believers from the day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2, all down through time, until today, with all the believers today, whether alive or dead….and it will be completed at the Rapture. Most of its members, we can safely assume, are already with the Lord …and, until the Rapture, it can never “gather together in one place”…at least not one physical place. (It could be argued that we all meet together at the Throne of Grace…and that is true, but we are not conscious of each other’s presence and cannot function collectively as described in scripture. I can’t encourage Peter, for instance, though I am encouraged by his historical example.)
But every Local Church combines certain aspects of an organism with many aspects of an organization. It does have organization. Things are to be done “decently and in order”…in an orderly fashion. The local church gathers together in one place, wherever that place may be. There are possibly millions of local assemblies, all over the world, meeting at any given time.
We gather for the express purpose of mutual care, encouragement and blessing. We learn to “stir up” one another, to love and to good works. Notice the stark contrast, then, between “fellowship,” which we are commanded to embrace, and “forsaking” which we are commanded to avoid:
“Fellowship” and “Forsaking” are Polar opposites!
We are not called to be solitary creatures, though some of us may feel that we would like to be. God created us to be social creatures. We do better physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, in a corporate experience. Is it healthy to have the capacity to stand alone? Absolutely! God calls us to do so, in fact! All the Old Testament prophets stood alone. We have their example. But, on a lifestyle basis, we are called to be a blessing to others around us…and we can’t do that unless there are “others around us!” Even in the Old Testament, Solomon (Ecclesiastes 4:9-11) stated that “Two are better than one…and a cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”
Conclusion: The Fellowship Imperative
When we choose to exclude ourselves from the flock, we also estrange ourselves from the Shepherd. (Sorry…you may not like the “sheep” idea, but it comes from God, not from me, so please try to understand and appreciate the truth of it.) The more I learn about sheep, the more I see why God refers to people as sheep—and why people rebel against it and claim they are not like sheep. Isaiah said, “All we, like sheep, have gone astray…” Like it or not, that is what we are. We need the Shepherd, and we need the Flock!
The fact is, if a believer chooses to forsake the assembling of himself together with other believers, knowing that he is commanded not to do so, then, because it is deliberate disobedience, we can safely say that it is sin, and it will definitely limit one’s walk with God. There are many who will disagree, saying “I don’t need other people, in order to walk with God.” I can sympathize with them, because there is an antisocial side to my character as well. But, ask yourself this: of ALL the things God calls us to do, as New Testament believers, what percentage have something to do with other people? The answer is, “virtually all of them”, at one level or another.
We cannot “work with God”, without working with people, because all of the work he has called us to do has to do with the flock at large…other people!
We have to choose to submit ourselves to God’s assignment: go where He sends us, stay where He plants us, and do what He commands. It may not be fun: but the reward comes later. Jeremiah had one of the roughest service assignments of any of the prophets. It looked as though there was no fruit and no reward. But he was faithful, and he is enjoying his reward today. Furthermore, there was fruit, eventually. Millions of people have read the books of Jeremiah and Lamentations, and have believed God’s Word, though virtually none of the immediate recipients responded in faith.
We must look to God for direction, but we must meet with others to carry out those directions.
Lord Jesus, encourage our hearts to walk with you and to fellowship with you at the throne of Grace, and to draw near to the brothers and sisters by your Holy Spirit.