Forsake Not… Go Beyond Sunday

For 45 years I’ve been taught some version of “Hebrews 10:25 says don’t skip Sunday church services.” I’m certainly not the first to exegete Hebrews 10:25, and I won’t be the last, and I don’t claim this is definitive, but I have some observations.

In context, Hebrews 10 says “23Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. 24And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, 25not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” (NKJV)

The word translated “assembling” is ἐπισυναγωγή (episunagógé), which is a combination of the prefix “epi-” and “sunagógé”. “Epi-” means “in addition to” or “against” or similar senses of otherness. Sunagógé is immediately recognizable as “synagogue,” the normal spiritual gathering place in Jewish culture.

So in some fashion, this “assembling” word conveys a sense of “going beyond the religious meetings”.

The Scripture word most often translated as “church” is “ἐκκλησία” (ekklesia). That Paul instead uses episunagógé is instructive.

As such, perhaps it helps to consider verses 24-25 as saying this: let’s consider how to encourage one another in love and good deeds, not abandoning our own meeting together outside formal religious services.

So rather than saying “Don’t fail to go to church,” and in context of verse 24, this passage is basically saying “Don’t abandon deep community with those with whom you have been knit together by the Holy Spirit.

Jewish Worship as Context

I’ve been thinking lately about the difference between temple and synagogue in the context of faith practices. I’m not Jewish, but those two terms have been helpful in my thinking. The temple was a place for public liturgical worship, while the synagogues were places of regular public meetings for prayer and teaching and fellowship.

So it’s interesting to me that Paul is basically saying “don’t forsake going beyond synagogue worship.” He wasn’t telling his readers to be steadfast in temple worship, and he wasn’t telling them to be steadfast in synagogue meetings.

Translated into modern church terms, I think he was not telling his readers “Don’t skip the main Sunday services, and don’t skip Sunday School either.” He doesn’t seem to be talking about the liturgy.

Instead, I think he was saying “Don’t skip the small groups and relationships where Christian life happens and where you encourage one another. Go beyond Sunday. Be relational. Encourage one another not to waver in your faith. And as the world gets darker, be even more determined about it.”

Today’s Spiritual Life

I’ve been wrestling with how to respond to my church’s failure to require basic protective measures against COVID transmission. Can I stay away while everyone else attends (unwisely, in my mind)? For 45 years I’ve been taught that Hebrews 10:25 was some version of “don’t skip Sunday church services.” But I begin to wonder, what is Sunday morning anyway? We sing some songs, we hear some announcements, we listen to an edifying or instructive message, we greet each other and shake hands and have mostly lightweight conversations for a bit in the lobby, and we go home. Total time spent in fellowship with any one person: maybe five minutes.

So how can I best fulfill what I think is the true intent of Hebrews 10:25? More importantly, and less religiously, how I can ensure that my connection to the Lord and my fellow believers stays strong and vital and prepares me to handle the increasing challenges facing me in this world?

It’s those small groups in which I meet weekly with other believers – now via Zoom – for edification and relationship and instruction. It’s having them come over for dinner for deep extended heart-to-heart conversations. It’s meeting my spiritual brother for lunch and asking about his life and heart.

It’s not Sunday activities.

Thanks to the nearly miraculous world in which we now live, I hear the Sunday morning worship and announcements and sermon in real-time no matter where in the world I happen to be. I’ve actually been “present” in far more services per year since COVID started, than in any former year. What did I miss? The relational aspect of that 15-30 minutes in the lobby after the services, where (let’s be real) very little real relationship is actually built. Perhaps the most telling thing missing from streaming church is meeting new people.

But in the meantime, I’ve found true deep and abiding community in these small Zoom groups, where I’m encouraged, edified, uplifted, instructed, and expanded every time we meet. I’ve cried, I’ve laughed, and I’ve prayed with them. And I’ve formed new friendships that turned into real relationship in personal meetings.

I suppose I’d argue that I find more Kingdom living going on in these Zoom meetings than I ever did on Sunday morning.

Go Thou and Do Likewise

So I’ll say to you, as I think Paul said, “Stay connected. Keep your relationships vital. Encourage each other. Help each other be vigilant and ready for what’s coming.

These are some good articles for some further thinking.

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