As I sit in my study during the week, preparing for Sunday morning, I think a lot about you. As I wrestle with the biblical text, I try to remain mindful of my context. I wonder about how you are all doing. I wonder about what is on your mind. I wonder about those who might be distracted by troubling personal circumstances. I wonder about those who might have come to worship in a state of sheer exhaustion. I wonder about how many might have come eagerly anticipating a service of worship.
Regardless of which situation best describes yours, I suspect that all of you, whether consciously or subconsciously, will silently ask a two-word question this morning: ‘So what?’
So what is the significance and relevance of this text for my life?’
In my mind, a good sermon, having sensibly engaged the biblical text, should always answer the question: ‘So what?’ This should not be a stretch for the preacher because I reckon that the Bible is replete with answers to our ‘So what?’ questions. More specifically, I submit to you that the author of Hebrews is excellent at answering our ‘So what?’ questions.
From the outset of this Book it was explained that Jesus is the One through whom the world was made and that He is “the exact representation of (God’s) nature” (1:2, 3).
No sooner are we are told that God the Father and God the Son are one and the same when the author of Hebrews tells us that Christ “had to be made like (human beings) in all things” (2:17) and, as such, was “tempted in all things as we are” yet He remained without sin (4:15).
The author of Hebrews explains in great detail how Jesus, as both God and man, was able to perfectly fill the role of the High Priest, for the purpose of making intercession for God’s people. We are also told how Jesus, as One without sin, became the unblemished, once and for all, sacrifice through whom we obtain forgiveness for our sins.
Having gained a better understanding of who Jesus is, and what He has purposed to do, many of our ‘So what?’ questions have given way to a new question: ‘Now what?’
So Jesus is both fully God and fully man. So Jesus is our perfect High Priest; so His death on the cross was the definitive sacrifice for our sins—now what? Having gained heavenly riches and privileges, now what are we to do?
The author of Hebrews introduces his answer to this question with the transitional phrase: “Since therefore” (10:19). Since therefore we have access to God because of the sacrifice of Christ; since therefore we have advocacy before God through Christ our High Priest, it follows that you and I should respond in a particular manner. The author summarizes our prescribed response with three exhortations, "let us draw near"(10:22), "let us hold fast the confession of our hope"(10:23), and "let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds"(10:24).
As we look at these exhortations, we should note that each of them is accompanied by a qualification. The first exhortation, "let us draw near" comes with the qualification to do so "with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water"(10:22).
I hear the author saying that it is not enough that we physically draw near to God. It is not enough that we attend Sunday services. It is not enough that we bow our heads in prayer. We are being told that for our drawing near to God to effect any change in us we must do so "with a sincere heart" and with a "full assurance of faith". In other words, the author of Hebrews is insisting that our external ritual must extend to inward reformation.
It seems to me that this is an essential message for every congregation to hear. As I speak to people within the Church, from congregation to congregation, I hear all kinds of ideas about what makes a church grow.
One congregation experiences growth after running an Alpha course and declares that Alpha is the key to church growth. Another congregation experiences growth after changing the style of music for Sunday worship and concludes that this is the key to church growth. Still another congregation experiences growth following a door-to-door campaign in the neighbourhood and concludes that this is the sure-fire method of ‘growing a church’.
First, let me say that none of Alpha, new music, or visiting homes in the neighbourhood are bad ideas. It would not be difficult to make the argument that these are very good things to do. My fear is that we often look to programs and methodology to produce results. But as I look to the Scriptures for help in leading a local congregation what I most commonly find is what I find here in Hebrews 10—that the key to faithful ministry requires a group of people to draw near to God with a sincere heart and a full assurance of faith.
The sense I get is that this must come first. The sense I get is that the success of our initiatives and our programs will be tied, in large measure, to how well we heed this command to walk closely with God. How we do this—how we walk closely with God is expanded in the subsequent exhortations.
The second exhortation, "let us hold fast the confession of our hope", comes with the qualification to do so "without wavering"(10:23). What a pertinent exhortation for our day! In world where values are continually shifting; in an age where truth is often regarded as relative; the Christian Church is to be reminded that our standards are constant. The Gospel does not change.
When the Reformers coined the phrase, ‘Reformed and always reforming’ they were not implying that Christian doctrine is to undergo a change or evolution, but rather, their point was given to address our tendency to depart from sound doctrine. Their phrase, ‘Reformed and always reforming’, addressed our tendency to wander from our starting point, recognizing that we need to be constantly scrutinizing our doctrine to ensure that what we hold to be true is indeed “the faith which was once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
So, while the first exhortation addresses the sincerity with which we engage God, the second exhortation addresses the priority of thinking rightly about God and maintaining those convictions in the face of opposition.
We tend to make jokes about preachers with 3-point sermons, but it seems to me that if we did not have this third exhortation we would be missing an essential priority for Christian living. You see, it is possible to draw near to God with a sincere heart, and it is possible to hold fast the confession of our hope, without ever getting out of bed. It is not necessary to attend Sunday service in order to draw near to God. Neither to we need to attend Sunday service in order to hold fast the confession of our hope. But we do need to gather for corporate worship and fellowship if we are to be obedient to this final exhortation.
The third exhortation calls us to "consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds"(10:24). This is not something we can do in isolation—which explains the qualification given by the author of Hebrews "consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near"(10:24, 25).
Christians seeking to please God must never lose site of the necessity of meeting together. I once read about a churchgoer who doubted this and wrote to his local newspaper complaining, "I've gone to church for 30 years now, and in that time I have heard something like 3,000 sermons. But for the life of me, I can't remember a single one of them. So I think I'm wasting my time and the pastors are wasting theirs by giving sermons at all."
What ended this discussion was a reply from another churchgoer, "I've been married for 30 years now. In that time my wife has cooked some 32,000 meals. But for the life of me, I cannot recall the entire menu for a single one of those meals. But I do know this: They all nourished me and gave me the strength I needed to do my work. If my wife had not given me these meals, I would be physically dead today. Likewise, if I had not gone to church for nourishment, I would be spiritually dead today!"
Gathering together as a congregation is critical for our spiritual nourishment. And, I would submit to you that the more we gather, the more we will be nourished. Gather for Sunday service, and then gather for coffee and fellowship downstairs. Gather for prayer meetings, and gather for small group Bible studies. And when we gather, remember the exhortation: "consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds".
The Greek for stimulate literally means ‘to incite’. We usually hear that word used negatively—we hear that ‘so-and-so’s actions incited a riot.’ The author of Hebrews suggests that the gathering of Christians should incite us to shower our community with waves of love and good deeds.
The idea here is that our intensity and devotion is enhanced in a group setting—negatively, we refer to this as a ‘mob mentality’, but positively I think of how we act at a sporting event. We stand up and we cheer, whistle, and applaud in a way we would not if we were watching the same event at home, alone on our couch.
Now, I admit, the Christian Church is not always an encouraging place to be. I wish I could tell you that we are immune from criticism as we enter through the front doors of this building. But I suspect that the author of Hebrews understood this—otherwise it would have been needless to issue the command to “encourage one another”.
We wish the author were stating a fact, but we recognize that he is setting before us something we must strive for.
Friends, I relish the thought of striving towards becoming a more encouraging church. I delight in the prospect of St. Giles Kingsway serving as a place of refuge for those in crisis. That this would be a place where we would gather around those who are weary; those who are grieving; those who are struggling with their faith, and encourage them—uplift them, assuring them of the love of Christ and the love of the Christian community.
Since therefore, Christ has died for us; since therefore we have access to God and advocacy before God through Christ, let us draw near to God in sincerity; let us hold fast to the confession of our faith, and let us draw near to one another, “encouraging one another; all the more, as you see the day (of the Lord) drawing near” (10:25). Amen.