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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.