Considering Context – Matthew 18:19-20

The Context & Interpretation

Matthew 18:19-20 is often quoted in reference to church and prayer meetings.

19 “Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”

This is one of the most quoted verses for used in declaring that Jesus hears the prayers of His people when they are gathered together. When we examine the context a little more closely we find that this verse really isn’t talking about prayer meetings or church gatherings, at least in the realm that most people believe it to be.

The immediate context of our passage goes back to verse 15.


“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (emphasis are mine)

Surprised by Context

Jesus’ address is to one who has sinned within the Church. Verse 15 starts by Him telling the disciples how to handle one who sins. They are to approach the individual alone and confront the person’s sin. If the person refuses to acknowledge and repent of his sin then the first person is to take two or three other brothers with him as witnesses. This practice goes all the way back to Jewish law of having a testimony firmly established.

Deuteronomy 19:15 “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. (emphasis mine)

This is where we need to start reading a little more closely. Note what Jesus is saying. He is instructing the disciples how to perform Church discipline correctly by quoting the law from Deuteronomy 19.

At this point some may object that Jesus is not at all speaking about the Church but only about those sinning against others in a personal manner. However, the fact that Jesus uses the word ‘church’ when speaking to His disciples is evidence that Church discipline is indeed in view at this point. Further, the same law also carries over into the epistles as Paul instructs Timothy not to entertain any accusations brought against another elder unless there are at least two or three witnesses. (1Timothy 1:19). For this reason it is a safe bet to state that the outline of discipline that Jesus gives is specifically for Church discipline. Let’s move on to the actual interpretation of the passage.

What Is Matthew 18 Referencing?

Now that we have examined the context in full it’s time to start interpreting the text as to what it really means. I find the best way to do this is to ask questions of the text. Personally, I love the 5W-H method (who, what, when, where, why, & how). Not all of these elements will be present in all the texts you consider but there will always be enough of them to help interpret a passage correctly.

When we consider the full context of the passage, the first thing we should ask is who are the two or three gathered together in Jesus’ Name? Given the use of Jesus’ quotation of Deuteronomy we must conclude from the context that the two or three are those witnesses first mentioned in verse 16. You will note that I have bolded several portions including every time where the two or three or mentioned. This is to show how they are traced throughout the passage. Understanding the ‘who’ of the passage often aids in understanding the ‘what.’

The next thing to be considered is the ‘what.’ Jesus tells His disciples that if the unrepentant person will not listen to the first or the witnesses that he has taken then that person must be brought before the Church. The entire congregation is to implore his repentance and upon that refusal the instructions are to excommunicate the said individual and treat him as a tax collector and sinner. It is at this point that Jesus makes the mysterious remark about binding and loosing. This is the second part of the ‘what’ question that must be answered.

What exactly is loosing and binding in this context? This requires us to look into the original language to get the answer. The two words, δέω (deō) and λύω (luō) connote an authoritative use. According to the Mishnah, a Rabbinical commentary on the Law of Moses, the interpretations were in fact binding on the people. However, a person could be loosed or even bound under certain circumstances, especially with particular vows made. Consider a small portion of the Mishnah:

He who vows [abstinence] from meat may eat broth and meat sediment. But Rabbi Judah prohibits. Rabbi Judah said: it once happened that Rabbi Tarfon prohibited me from eating [even the] eggs boiled [with the meat]. They replied: That is so. When is this true? When he says “This meat is prohibited to me.” For if one vows [to abstain] from something, and it is mixed up with another thing, if there is a sufficient [amount of the prohibited food] to impart its taste [to the other] it is forbidden.

Mishnah Nedarim 6:6

Jesus uses this same idea of binding and loosing when He gives the apostles the authority to enact discipline on a wayward believer. The idea is that the apostles would “ask in Jesus’ Name” and the discipline of the sinner would be bound (authoritative) on Earth and have the backing of the authority of Heaven. Therefore, if two or three ask in Jesus’ Name He is there in the midst of them with His authority.

Application

How then do we apply this Scripture? It can only be applied by the leaders of the Church universal. That is, as ordained ministers chosen by God they must engage in church discipline whenever the need is presented. This verse cannot be applied in a personal manner or as a promise for Jesus to show up in your prayer meeting.

Dear brothers and sisters, let us always examine Scripture closely that we may be able to apply it in the proper manner. May the LORD continue to bless you as you seek to understand and apply the Truth of His Word.

Long for Truth Podcast: Considering Context

My brother Daniel and I did a podcast together for the first time in over a year. We re-hashed Jeremiah 29:11 and the Considering Context post I did earlier this week. The podcast/vlog is embedded below. Enjoy, and be sure to join us again for the next episode.

Saturday Evening Meditations – Esther

During the Second Temple period Queen Esther was the prized beauty of King Ahasuerus. This book is infamously known as the only book of the Bible that does not mention God a single time. So where can we see the Gospel presented? Join us for this week’s Saturday Evening Meditations.

The Story of Esther

Timeline of Esther

The book of Esther is the story of God’s providential protection of His people. God’s people have been exiled into a foreign land for their persistent rebellion against Him. The land of Persia is strange, their language strange, and their customs vile and ungodly. Yet it is the will of God for them to stay there awhile.

Oddly enough Yahweh or any other variant name of God is found nowhere in the book. But when we read Esther we clearly see He is not absent but working through Esther’s uncle, Mordecai. The book opens as king Ahasuerus throws the feasts of feasts for his statesmen. He gives them permission of no limits in getting drunk and carousing. Over the course of the seven-day feast, Ahasuerus gets pretty drunk and orders his Queen, Vashti, to appear before him. His intention is to show her off and to please his guests. Vashti refuses to be his play toy and rebels against her king. He consults his administrators and they advise him that in order to save face he must dump Vashti and find a more obedient queen (1:10-22).

Of course, after the national wide beauty contest, Esther wins hands down and is chosen by the king as the new queen. She isn’t happy. Her uncle Mordecai, who has raised her tells her to take her place for now. And then the trouble begins…enter Haman. (3:1)

Haman receives a huge promotion from the king and demands that as he passes by that all should bow down to hm. Mordecai refuses—several times. Eventually, Haman decides on a plan. Instead of killing just Mordecai he will wipe out the entire jewish race (3:6). Eventually, he connives the king into making a decree, which was something that could not be overturned by even the king once it was law (3:12-13, 8:8). Of course the king has no idea that his beloved queen is a Jew. And when Mordecai discovers the king’s edict he pleads with Esther to go before the king and plead their case.

Esther pleads before the king

Esther is afraid. And with good cause. Anyone who enters the king’s presence without prior authorization will be put to death. Unless…

There is one chance. If the king is pleased with the person he may extend his golden scepter (4:11). The person who takes hold of the scepter will have the king’s ear. Of course, we know that this is what happened. Esther fasts and prays and invites Haman and the king for a feast. She persuades the king to establish a new decree that the Jews be allowed to defend themselves. The Jews are victorious, Haman is hanged on the very gallows he built for Mordecai, and the Feast of Purim is established for the Jewish nation.

It is exciting reading the book of Esther and seeing God’s hand throughout. Scripture testifies to God’s goodness but more importantly, it attests to the central figure, Jesus Christ. So, where can we find the gospel in Esther? And how can we apply the story of Esther to ourselves?

The Gospel in Esther

Just as Esther interceded for her own people before the king, so also Jesus intercedes for us. Without Christ’s intercession, we are damned to be destroyed by Satan, who, just like Haman has built his hellish gallows that he might doom us. Yet the Father in His goodness has allowed Jesus to enter into His throne room to plead our case before the Father. Ahasuerus’ edict could not be undone. There is nothing that could have reversed the death penalty for the Jews. In the same way, the Law had condemned us to die. It cannot be undone. It has been established by God Himself and He will not overturn it.

But praise be to God! He has given us an intercessor in Jesus Christ, who lives to make intercession for us (Romans 8:34, Hebrews 7:25). Because of Christ’s redemptive work the Father issued a new decree. That whoever looks to the Son and believes in Him shall escape the penalty of the Law (John 3:16-18). What a wonderful thought that we have One who intercedes and protects us with His own blood.

Personal Application

God is holy and transcendent. As natural men, we cannot enter into His presence standing upon our own merit. We will surely die if we do. God has a right to consume us with His wrath because of our sinfulness. Yet in His mercy, His Golden Scepter of Righteousness, Jesus Christ, is our only plea (Psalm 45:6). God freely extends this Scepter to all who will reach out and grasp Him. Then, and only then, may we boldly approach the Throne of Grace to make our petitions before the Father (Hebrews 4:16). Let us thank the Father, Son, and Spirit for their goodness towards us and may we ever be grateful and joyful in His presence.

Christ, The Sinner’s Once-for-All Rest

We may often find ourselves struggling with assurance. Jesus has promised rest for those who take His yoke.

Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)

Here, in the offer of Jesus exists an invitation like no other. Who of us can say that we are not weary? How many can boast that the Law does not make their consciences heavy laden? We are creatures of doing and we pursue that doing, usually until the day we die. But our pursuit of doing something, anything, is detrimental to our spirituality because Jesus has told us, “Come…”

We hear the invitation; yea, we long for it! But at the first, we look for a different way, a harder way, for resting surely cannot be the way to ease the Law’s ever-stinging accusations in our consciences. No! We must work to please God. We must pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and truck on through the muddy sin that continually plagues us. And in all our wanderings and turning aways we still hear, “Come…”

“Come…” is the invitation that Jesus offers. Yet the very next thing He speaks is the imperative of coming: “Take My yoke upon you.” But why a yoke? Will this not give us a burden as well? Jesus’ yoke is not a burden of the Law, but rather the yoke of grace which He freely offers through the Sacraments. As Lenski so eloquently states, Indeed, the gospel and the doctrine of faith are a yoke in that they are full of commands, all of them gospel commands, however, commands to take, to trust, to feast, to inherit, and the like. (Lenski, R. C. H. (1961). The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel. p 457. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House.)


Salvation brought, my weary soul rejoices/the Law, with all its power o’er me hath lost/This Jesus, bless-ed Consolation; His love, His blood, hath nailed it to the cross.

The invitation stands for all. Those who come to Christ and find His rest will surely not be sorry. They will find that, just as He promised, the yoke that so many of us believed to be even heavier than the Law, is quite light as He carries the burden. To quote Lenski one more time, he says of this invitation

Here the good pleasure of the Father’s and the Son’s will is most delightfully voiced. Here the babes receive the revelation which, because it is distasteful to the wise, is lost and hidden from them because of this very folly…Christ is the end of the law to those who believe. He removes the sin and the guilt, he does the saving. All we need to do is to commit ourselves to Him.

Lenski, R. C. H. (1961). The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel, pp.456-457. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House.

Sinners, let us find our once-for-all rest in the offer of Jesus. Until we do our weary souls will be burdened with a burden to heave to bear. May God bring you peace through His Gospel promises.

Hope Cometh

The world is un an upheaval at this moment and in particular the U.S. While some march peacefully for the change they desire, others have chosen to loot, riot, and murder. People have been killed or beaten for simply disagreeing with the current trend of the Social Justice Movement. It’s a sad time. It’s an emotional time. It’s a scary time. I look at what is going on in my country and wonder how it ever got this point. Without a doubt, it is a turning away from God’s word. Even self-confessing Christians are joining protesters, participating in the violence, and justifying their behavior because they feel that Jesus would have done the same.

But hope cometh…

The pure gospel is the solution for the madness taking place. Surely justice needs to prevail in cases where people are truly oppressed.

18 You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:18)

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you (Matthew 5:43–44)

The beauty of the gospel is that it transforms from the inside out (2Corinthians 5:17). All the “change” in the laws will never change the heart of an individual.

But Hope Cometh…

The Father sent Jesus to obey the Law, God’s Law. And He obeyed every single aspect of it in word, thought, and deed. This was so that He could offer Himself as the once-for-all sacrifice for the world’s sins. He took our sins upon Himself. He took the sin of my cursing, blaspheming, adultery, murder, and every other vile thing I had ever committed and He nailed it to the cross. And He did for you and all others. Redemption was purchased for the racist, the angry mob of people protesting, the ANTIFA members that resort to violence to get their point across, and yes, He even did it for the police officer who killed George Floyd. The best part of the whole gospel is that Jesus did not stay dead. He bodily rose from the grave for our justification, proving that God’s stamp of approval was on His atonement.

This is how deep His love runs for His creation The vilest, wicked person can find redemption when they look to the perfect work of the Savior and realize that in all their perceived righteousness they have no footing to stand upon if they are judged. For He has proclaimed, “everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:40).

Considering Context – Jerimiah 29:11

This week’s Considering Context looks at popular verse often quoted as proof that God has a wonderful plan for every believer’s life. Jeremiah 29:11 says,

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future (NIV).

(Note: I purposely quoted from the NIV because this is the version I have heard quoted the most.)

The Perceived Meaning & Actual Context

“God has a wonderful plan for your life, and this verse tells us that!”

This is the interpretation I’ve heard most. People read into this text because of words like ‘plan,’ ‘hope,’ & ‘future,’ and automatically assume that it must be talking about their own individual, personal lives. This false assumption only leads to disappointment as they cling to it, waiting for God to bring them their “breakthrough.” But what does this text actually teach? Let’s look at the full context and unpack it a little bit. The full context of Jeremiah 29:11 is below. Read carefully and pay attention to some key elements, which we will discuss.

Jeremiah 29:1–14 (NIV)

1 This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 (This was after King Jehoiachin and the queen mother, the court officials and the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the skilled workers and the artisans had gone into exile from Jerusalem.) 3 He entrusted the letter to Elasah son of Shaphan and to Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. It said: 4 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” 8 Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord. 10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

There are some general things to be noted about this text:

  1. This is a letter from Jeremiah sent by Elasah to the already exiled Israelites (vv. 1-3). Why is this important? Because it means that this portion of Jeremiah was written to a specific group, (the exiles) at a specific time, (after Nebuchadnezzar came in and conquered Jerusalem), for a specific reason (discussed in v. 4, ff). Context needs to always take precedence when interpreting a passage.
  2. The letter’s contents are concerning the Israelites’ expectations during their captivity (vv. 4-7). Through Jeremiah God was telling His people to basically get comfortable in their new conditions because it would be 70 years before they would be going anywhere. They were told to “seek the welfare” of the nation of their captors because they would benefit from it, as well. In essence, this promise was NOT individualistic prosperity but nationalistic peace.
  3. The lying prophets would declare peace & prosperity (vv. 8-10). Just as we deal with false teachers, so the Israelites dealt with their false teachers. God had warned His people for hundreds of years that judgment was coming. Instead of repenting, false teachers came along saying, “Peace, Peace!” Yet God tells them that He did not send them and that they were lying by saying that they had had dreams and visions (v. 9). This is an important part of the overall context because these false prophets were still declaring God’s favor even after judgment had been rendered.  Jeremiah’s letter ensured his hearers that they were in Babylon for their sins. God’s favor was still on His people but it would not be experienced until the time of the exiled had come to its fruition (v. 10).
  4. The promise of verse 11 is actually a causal condition of verse 10. What does that mean? Simply speaking the word ‘for’ at the beginning of verse 11 is actually the reason or support for God’s statement in verse 10. In other words, the promise that everyone seems to think that verse 11 is based upon is actually dependent upon the seventy years of exile.
  5. The “Ater-promise” is the real promise of this text (vv. 12-14). Verse 11 is not even the centrality of Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles. It is the promise of God once again being their God, dwelling with them, and bringing them back into His presence. We know this because God tells the people at that time they will begin to seek Yahweh once again. Every Israelite’s pride was being part of Yahweh’s covenant people and Jerusalem was Yahweh’s dwelling place. The reason they had been exiled was because they had failed to keep the covenant. Now they would have to endure God’s chastisement for seventy years before true fellowship could be restored. But in all their discipline God would not forsake them because He “knows the plans [He] has for them, declares the LORD…”  

Conclusion

Just like interpretation, application must be kept in its original context. Today, we cannot claim that we have been exiled from the land because of our sins. However, as a church we can recognize that (1) the Church is God’s covenant people (2) God uses his preachers to exhort us to repentance and faith in His Son, (3) He may discipline the Church if we do not heed His word, (4) even if we, the Church, experience His discipline it is not to harm us but to bring us back into fellowship with the Triune God.

What a blessed thought, Christians, that God still loves and honors His promises to His covenant people, even in the midst of our sin. Let us confess and forsake our false views of God and let us return with our whole heart to Him, seeking Him while He may be found.

Christian Martyr Day 2020

Many faithful witnesses have given their lives in service of Jesus. Here is one of those stories.

In 2017 civil war began to ravage the Central Africa Republic. During the first week, six Christian pastors were murdered by an Islamic group, as reported by Voice of the Martyrs, an organization that focuses on Christian persecution. Among the pastors was one, Jean-Paul Sankagui. Years earlier this bold servant of Christ had planted a church smack dab in the middle of a Muslim neighborhood. But the Lord was with him and made his ministry fruitful. According to VOM, the Islamic group surrounded pastor Sankagui’s home and church, shot and killed him, looted the church, and then burnt down both the church and parishioner home.

VOM recognizes this faithful pastor on the Christian Martyr Day 2020. Watch the video below to see pastor Sankagui’s incredible witness to Christ.

Saturday Evening Meditations – Jacob & Esau

Recently, I was reading the passage of Jacob and Esau. If you’re familiar with the story, you may remember that Jacob, at the prodding of his mother, tricked his father, Isaac into blessing himself rather than Esau, who was the elder.

As the story goes, Isaac was old and blind, and near death and asked Esau to hunt and cook him some game in order to bless him before his passing. Rebekkah hears this and instructs Jacob to put on some of Esau’s garments and take some game into him which she would prepare. In this way, Jacob would receive the blessing.

Expectedly, Jacob complies and follows through with it. Isaac is confused at first because he “feels” Esau’s hairy hands (the sheep’s skin) but hears Jacob’s voice. But when he catches a whiff of Esau’s clothes he is convinced that it is his elder son and goes through with the blessing.

In time Esau returns and discovers he has been swindled–again! He vows to kill his twin and Rebekkah, fearing for her son, sends him away under the guise of marrying one of her kinsman rather than the native Caananites.

This is where it gets interesting: Jacob leaves his home and stops for the night in Bethel (at the time it was called Luz). He has his famous dream of the angels ascending and descending from Heaven on a ladder. In the dream God comes to him and makes him this promise:

I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac…Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Gen 28:13, 15). 

Here is where the meditation comes in. God introduces Himself by declaring that He was the God of his fathers. He then follows that up with a covenant. He promises to be with Jacob and fulfill His covenant with him and his offspring.

Think about that for a minute. Jacob had just cheated his brother and yet God was honoring Jacob. Not that God approved of his cheating. But God had intended Jacob to be the heir of promise. He was still honoring that despite Jacob’s past sins. The promise wasn’t conditioned on Jacob’s behavior. No! It was conditioned on God Himself.

Let’s bring that principle home: I am an idolatrous, image-making, God-blaspheming, Sabbath breaking, parent dishonoring, murdering, adulterous, thieving, lying, covetous man.

Yet, God has a covenant with me. His Word has assured me that if I repent of my sins and in faith trust the finished work and Person of Christ for salvation then He, like Jacob, would “be with me and bring me again into [His] land”. He has promised me that His Son has gone to prepare a place for me (John 14:3) and that He will continue to abide with me (John 14: 15-17).

But I fail daily! I sin, I miss the mark, and I defame His Holy Name. Yet, He has even promised that all I must do is to confess and forsake my sin (1John 1:9).

Why does He continue to be good to me? Because it is not up to me or my faithfulness which God basis His promises on. It is upon His own Name and the covenant which He made with His people from eternity past.

Friend, if you are struggling with doubt and fear, and if you have truly trusted in Christ alone for salvation, know that God will lead you to your eternal inheritance. And this is not contingent upon your own faithfulness but in God’s covenant-keeping Name!

Below, you will find a PDF of a brief Text Flow I did of this passage.

Here is the PDF for viewing

Considering Context – Hebrews 10:25 & COVID 19

Note: this post was originally published on Long for Truth March 19. I still believe it is relevant at this time, though most churches are now able to meet. 

In the midst of the ongoing Coronavirus or COVID 19 as is being called by experts, some Christians have already begun taking Scripture out of context in defiance of government sanctions to restrict large gatherings. Some of the verses I’ve seen quoted out of context?

Psalm 91:10 No evil shall befall you, Nor shall any plague come near your dwelling

Amos 4:6 “Also I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities. And lack of bread in all your places; Yet you have not returned to Me,” Says the Lord.

and my personal favorite…

Hebrews 10:25 not 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

The latter of the three is the focus of this post. Recently, I saw a Facebook post from a popular apologist quoting Hebrews 10:25 and adding to the end of it something along the lines of, “unless a virus causes you to close church.” The quote is not exact and could not be obtained as the tweet has been removed since then.

Even though the gentleman apologized (though he stated he adamantly stands by his belief) others have taken up the mantle, using this verse to chide and rebuke other Christians for “forsaking the assembling of [themselves]. They have been accused of abandoning God’s Word in favor of fear or man’s mandate. But is that what is really happening? Are Christians who refrain from going to church temporarily forsaking the Word of God? Let’s put this verse in its full context.

Examining the Scripture in Context

Several things need to be noted about how this verse is used to support the said persons’ views of not obeying the government-mandated orders of no large gatherings.

  1. The historical context of Hebrews is to persecuted Jews. The author of Hebrews is writing to his fellow Jews and admonishing them not to return to the worthless sacrifices of the temple that can no longer cleanse sin or conscience. The entire theme of Hebrews is the superiority of Christ over the Priesthood and the Temple sacrifices. As a result of following Jesus, many Jews had lost their homes, businesses, and had been arrested. This is present just a few verses later (Hebrews 10:32-34). This context is important to keep in mind as our government is not trampling our right to meet as believers; nor or are they persecuting us simply because we are Christians. The mandate, at this point, is simply to control the spread of a deadly virus.
  2. The quoted verse comes in the middle of an exhortation. Verse 25 comes smack dab in the middle of two other exhortations. The author begins chapter 10 by reminding them that the Law was a foreshadowing of the Messiah. He begins verse 19 with the usual inferential οὖν (therefore) demonstrating the logic of the better Christ over the old priesthood. Jesus has made the once-for-all sacrifice and we may now approach God the Father without the aid of a priest. Now come the three exhortations that include our verse. (1) let us draw near, (2) let us hold fast our confession, and (3) let us consider one another. Our verse is found in the last exhortation and is subordinate to the verb, ‘consider’. The verse itself is part of a participial phrase describing the means or the way in which the main verb is carried out, or in this case the way it was not being done. Grammatically this is important because those decrying the temporary closing of churches due to the virus apply it wrongly. The forsaking of the assembling of the Jews was in light of the other two exhortations and especially the last exhortation which was imploring them to stir each other into the action of good works and love This could not be accomplished if they were not meeting together on a regular basis.
  3. The sin of the Jews was forsaking Jesus, not church. Hebrews 10:25 was not written so that we would all continue to “go to church”. The real exhortation is that of not forsaking Jesus, which was the cause of neglecting the assembling of themselves. Because of the persecution, it seems that some of the Jews had decided it would be better to return to the former way of worship and forsake the better way, Jesus, that the author had been stressing from the very beginning of the epistle.
  4. The usage of the word ‘forsake’ in other contexts. It’s important to examine the usage of the word in its other contexts. This gives us a snapshot of sorts to determine how the word is being used in our passage. A quick examination tells us that the Greek word ἐγκαταλείπω is used nine times, 6 of those being translated as ‘forsake’ or ‘forsaken.’

We see two of the occurrences as Jesus’ quote of Psalm 22:1 during his crucifixion. The last four uses indicate the word is used in a bit stronger way, especially in 2Timothy where Paul states that Demas turned his back on him and the work of the gospel for gain. 2Corinthians gives us a picture of God’s faithfulness to Paul by not turning His back on them in times of trouble and persecution. And lastly, we see our passage in Hebrews. Comparing these verses gives us a pretty good idea of what the author had in mind when writing to his Jewish audience. But another interesting thing to note is the usage of this Greek word in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. This would have been the version familiar to Jesus and His disciples, as much of the world was Hellenized at that time.

Above we have the Septuagint version along with the English translation below. This Greek word is used in Judges six times, all of them bearing the definition of complete abandonment of faith in the Living God to idols! The word is never used as a mere failure to “meet together” as many of the so-called Facebook theologians would have you to believe.

Concluding Thoughts

Those who see themselves as spiritually superior seem to be the real antagonists of this debate. We have clearly seen that the Scripture used to shame people into going to church during the time of this outbreak, Hebrews 10:25, is being misapplied. The meaning of this passage is a complete abandonment of the faith not staying away from church in order to stay healthy or keep from passing a sickness on to someone else. If the government was commanding us to stay away permanently or refusing to let Christians meet simply because we are Christians those “super saints” on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like may have a cause and a case. But Christian, you are not in sin if your church decides to cancel services due to this illness, or decides to have a live stream in place of services, or even meet together online temporarily until this thing blows over. Those who would hold you to their standards only think of the good of themselves rather than the good of the entire Body.

Purpose Driven Muck: 5 Reasons Church Growth Strategies Hinder Church Growth

Church growth is all the rage these days. Type it into any search engine and you are sure to yield more results than you can shake a stick at. Church growth has become so popular there are even marketing agencies that will help you.

Much of this movement began in 1995 when popular teacher and pastor, Rick Warren, published his book, The Purpose Driven Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Message and Mission.

The book soared to the best selling list and every pastor that was seeing a decline in their numbers flocked to the bookstores in droves to learn the principles of church growth. Others soon began copying this style and writing their own books, but none saw the same success.  Warren’s premise of church growth was based on five principles which he says he gleaned from Matthew 22:37-40 and Matthew 28:20:

  1. Fellowship
  2. Discipleship
  3. Worship
  4. Ministry
  5. Evangelism

On the surface, these principles seem biblical. These things are certainly in Scripture and we see these things present and real within the early church. For example, Acts 2:42-47 gives us a picture of what the first days of the fledgling church looked like.

 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

The introduction of Warren’s book claims that it is not a formula for church growth but rather a formula for church health. If a church is healthy it will grow. The five principles, then, are the key to having a healthy, growing church. And with Warren recently claiming that Saddleback has matched the growth of the Acts 2 church, more people will now have to run out and invest in the book.

Many pastors jump on board the church growth bandwagon. They reason that if they follow what the early church did, success is certain. All that needs to be done is mimic the same methods that the early church participated in and watch the numbers explode.

But there is something wrong with this way of thinking. There is a lot wrong with this thinking. Specifically, I see five reasons why church growth strategies like the one laid out in Warren’s work hinders church growth rather than aid it.

1. Church Growth Strategies Tend to Focus on the Method

Methods are huge with the church growth crowd. The latest research, demographic dynamics, and what the church down the road is doing seem to be a big focus. While methods can be useful they should never exist as the be-all-end-all for the Church. Many methods are devised specifically to see an increase in numbers, but not always spiritual growth. This means then, that the methods are not Spirit derived but man-made. Anything man-made will not last. Although we are not to sit idly by and do nothing, it is best to remember that God doesn’t need our strategies and methods to grow His church. Jesus has already promised church “growth” to His disciples (Matt 16:18).

2. Church Growth Strategies Often Rely on Guilt-Tripping

Have you ever sat through a sermon where the pastor passionately pounds the pulpit (excuse my alliteration) on the topic of evangelism, all the while pointing his finger at the audience? Most of the time we see this kind of thing in old-fashioned revivals. But many pastors do the same thing when it comes to “growing” the church. ‘Service’ is the keyword. If you’re going to serve then it’s time to get off your duff and do it! Most preachers typically see this as exhorting rather than guilt-tripping. In reality, there is no difference. When service becomes compulsory and obligatory the laity tends to lose interest. Biblical exhortation, on the other hand, is simply an appeal to action rather than compelling. In Paul’s letter to Timothy, he encouraged the young pastor to devote himself to three things: the public reading of Scripture, teaching, and exhortation (1 Tim 4:13). If ever there was a church growth strategy, this would be it.

3. Church Growth Strategies Tend to Focus on Numbers for Success

Most church growth methods that I’ve ever encountered were all about the numbers. No pastor wants to have a small church. Look at any church growth strategy and one of the first things you see is how many people could potentially respond by the church using the latest and greatest method. A numbers-focused method must rely on gimmicks and programs to attract and keep attendance steady. Pastors that become obsessed with numbers eventually give in to the pressure and end up doing silly things like Andy Stanley’s go-go dancers at a Christmas Eve service. The driving force behind any church that claims to worship the true God should be that of holiness and worship (Eph 3:21).

4. Church Growth Strategies Tend To Be Seeker-Sensitive Rather Than Biblically Sound

Seeker-sensitive is commonly described as gently pushing the lost towards salvation. Many of the methods used gear towards a more friendly, non-confrontational form of evangelism. In other words, don’t offend the person. This is often accomplished by refusing to confront people about sin or gradually sharing the gospel with them in pieces. While seeker-sensitive pastors can’t always be called outright heretics, they will compromise the “whole counsel of God” for the sake of keeping up their numbers. This spills over into their church growth ideas and eventually the Scripture messages begin to look more like pep talks on how to have a better marriage, family, well-behaved teens, etc, etc. The worship services begin to mimic secular concerts and entertainment venues, all in the name of making their guests feel “comfortable.” In contrast, even when he was being persecuted in his ministry God encouraged the apostle Paul to keep preaching because He was in control (Acts 18:9-10). Pastors, then, should follow this same example and resolve to preach the Word of God straight even when it isn’t popular (2 Tim 4:2).

5. Church Growth Strategies Often Fail to Prioritize the Preaching of the Word As Primary

In all the articles I examined about church growth strategies there was one thing that commonly missed by all of them: the preaching of the Word of God. The following examples come from the very top hits of church growth. (Example 1, Example 2, Example 3, Example 4) Scripture doesn’t really give us a formula for growing the church, at least not in the modern sense. Therefore, traditional preaching is deemed largely irrelevant to most church growth pastors. When one examines the early church they find the opposite. The Word was front and center. Take our introductory passage, Acts 2:42-47, for example. Luke tells us the laity devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching & fellowship. When the people came to Peter in Acts 6 with a dispute, Peter’s response was not to give up preaching the Word of God, but resolving by appointing others to help with the problem. The early church fathers devoted themselves to preaching and as result church growth exploded within the first three centuries. There was no method or strategy or demographic research. There was just–preaching. Consider the following images below of church growth, taken from Bild.org.

Conclusion

Most pastors that want to grow their church are sincere believers. They love God’s people and they love the Church. In an attempt to prove their dedication they end up sacrificing simplicity (not purposely, in most cases) in the name of numbers. There is one important thing they miss: any time the Bible mentions church growth it always states that God did it. It wasn’t because of a method, or a specific program, or even because of the way they were discipling their people. It was because they feared God and the people took notice of it (Acts 2:43, Acts 9:21).

It’s time for pastors to go back to the simplest form of church growth by preaching the pure word of God and living in holiness so that the laity as well as outsiders will be able to see that we are truly a peculiar people, set apart for God (1Peter 2:1-9).

Although this is not a post to “pick on” Rick Warren please view the video below to see how badly he handles the Scripture. This video is courtesy of Pirate Christian Media, headed by Pastor Chris Roseborough of Kongsvinger Lutheran Church in Oslo, Minnesota.