In his old age, the former Prime Minister Winston Churchill was invited to address Harrow School on Speech Day. When the time came, he shuffled across the platform, gripped the lectern, leaned out at his audience and said, 'Never, never, never, never, never give up'. And then he sat down again. That was it. That's all he wanted to say to a group of young men setting out on adult life. There was a man who knew that one of our greatest needs is to be encouraged to keep going.
Well Hebrews is the Bible book in which God encourages those of us who believe in Jesus to keep going as Christians. It's God's equivalent of the Winston Churchill speech - except that it doesn't just tell us not to give up; it tells us how not to.
Before we jump in, let me give you a bit of background to why Hebrews was originally written. 'Hebrews' means 'Jews' and the letter was originally written to people who'd come to faith in Jesus from a Jewish background. And as a result they were suffering major opposition. 10.32:
32 Remember those earlier days after you had received the light [ie, received the good news of Jesus and believed], when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. 33 Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. 34 You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. (vv32-34)
I know of a Jewish girl who turned to Christ. Her family disowned her, threw her out and held a funeral service for her. That's the level of suffering these Hebrews knew all about. Which makes you lose heart. And that's what they were in danger of doing. Look over to 12.3:
3 Consider him [ie, Jesus] who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
And one symptom of losing heart as a Christian - ie, of feeling like giving up as a Christian - is giving up meeting with fellow-Christians. And that symptom was already appearing among these Hebrews. 10.25:
Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing…
So that's the background. Now some of us may be saying to ourselves, 'Well, to be honest this doesn't sound that relevant, because it's never occurred to me give up as a Christian.' To which I can only say: it will. Whether because of the opposition of the world outside ourselves; or because of the intensity of the struggle against sin within ourselves here; or because of circumstances which leave you wondering what on earth God is doing with your life. It will occur to all of us, at some stage, to give up. And Hebrews is preventative medicine, telling us not to give up and how not to. I've been asked to take us through 10.24-25, so let's back up to the beginning of the chunk they come in, to 10.19:
19 Therefore, brothers [and sisters], since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place [ie, God's presence] by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, [ie, by being forgiven through Jesus' death on the cross] 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, [ie, since Jesus is risen from the dead and able to help us] 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess [ie, to our belief that we'll ultimately be with Jesus in heaven], for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (vv19-25)
Now some things in those verses we can only do individually for ourselves. Eg, drawing near to God (v22). I can pray for you - and I do. But I can't do your praying for you - can't confess your sins for you, ask forgiveness for you, and so on. The same goes for believing God's promises (v23). Eg, I can serve God's Word up to you as best I can. But only you can believe it for you. But then in vv24-25 we come to things that are not just individual - things we can do for others - and that we need others to do for us, to help us keep going. And we're told three things:
1. Think, 'Others'
2. Meet others
3. Encourage others.
Firstly, THINK, 'OTHERS' (v24)
24 And let us consider [ie, think] how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.
I wonder what you find yourself thinking before coming out to church on a Sunday, or before whatever smaller group you're in. I often think, 'Great. I really want to go.' But I sometimes think, 'I'm too tired/I'm too busy/I don't feel like it/I need some time to myself/They'd do fine without me.' And the thing is: that thinking is all about me. Whereas v24 says, 'Think, 'Others''.
And I find that revolutionises my attitude to meetings and groups I'm involved in. Eg, to think that there will be new faces here on a Sunday who need old faces to look out for them and welcome them. Or, eg, to look down my Home Group list and think what my friends in Christ need. They're all busy and tired and maybe only half-feeling like getting there - but that's precisely whey they need me there encouraging them to keep going as Christians.
What this verse does is to knock on the head the consumer view of Christian meetings, be it Sunday church, smaller groups or CU. Eg, there's the petrol station view of Christian meetings that says, 'They're just there for me to get my spiritual tank filled - I don't really need to get involved with anyone else on the forecourt.' Not true. Because you're part of how God fills other peoples' tanks. Or there's the Warner Cinema view of Christian meetings that says, 'The show will go on whether or not I'm there.' Not true. Because you encouraging others is part of the show.
So can I call on us to think, 'Others'? When you're on the brink of not going to Sunday church or CYFA or your mid-week small group or CU, think of someone else who'll be there. Someone else who'd miss out on you not being there - because you weren't there to welcome them or catch up with them or make a Bible study go with more of a swing or whatever. Don't think in faceless, nameless terms like 'Focus' or 'Music Group'. Think Chris and Sarah and Tom and Anna and so on. Think others.
2. MEET OTHERS (v25)
25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another…
That makes the obvious point that we cannot spur others on - encourage others - unless we actually meet with them.
I like to call myself a Newcastle United supporter - by which I really mean that I call them 'We' when they're doing well (When they're doing badly I call them 'They'). In actual fact, I'm not a supporter at all - for the very simple reason that I'm never actually there. And you cannot support or spur on or encourage people unless you're actually there. Unless you meet.
And as we saw at the beginning, some of these Hebrew - ie, Jewish - Christians were so discouraged that they were giving up meeting together. And in their case it was the non-Christian world that made it hard for them to meet. Non-Christian families and friends were hostile. And it seems that the authorities were also hostile, since v34 tells us that some of them were in prison for their faith.
Now our situation is different, but the non-Christian world can still make it hard for us to meet. Some of us have non-Christian housemates or family members or colleagues who make it harder for us to come. 'Why does church always have to cut across our Sunday?' asks a non-Christian husband or wife. 'You don't go to that church, do you?' asks a disapproving colleague or course-mate. And so on. And down the tracks, who knows? It may become illegal to do what we're doing tonight. The day may come when the police van will be waiting at least to take the preacher away, if not the rest of you. And on top of that kind of opposition, the non-Christian world's structures also make it hard to meet - with it's shift patterns and Sunday working.
So, the world can make it hard for Christians to meet - that was exactly the issue for these Hebrews. But let me extend the application of this verse by adding this: we shouldn't make it hard for ourselves to meet. Eg, a late night film or party on Saturday probably means you won't make church on Sunday morning. Or that you'll be present in body but absent in most other ways. Weekends away can make it hard to get to church at all. Not joining a small group can make it very hard to belong to a church - certainly a church this size. The same goes for heading off straight away at the end of services, rather than staying around to meet people. I know those are chicken-and-egg problems: we don't want to join a group or stay around because we don't know people. But on the other hand, we don't know people because we don't join a small group or stay around. But ultimately we all have to make some of the running in that department - especially when we're new to a church. Both the old hands and the newcomer have got to put in the effort.
Talking of being new to a church, one of the biggest ways of making it hard for ourselves to meet fellow-Christians is being unwise about church when we move places. If and when you're moving on from JPC, I want to say: think church first of all - then job, then house. Or in the case of CYFA or students, think church and CU first - then course, university, and accommodation. What I mean is that it's spiritually irresponsible to choose to move somewhere on the basis of a job or course or house without asking, 'Is there a good church (and in students' case a good CU) there?' Because a job or a degree or a nice house is simply not worth paying the price of spiritually going nowhere - thinking of the worst case scenario. We have a growing database of churches called the Good Church Guide and if you're moving elsewhere temporarily over the university holiday or for a work experience placement, or permanently, please do find out about that at the Welcome Desk or via email@example.com. Again, to students: if you're going back to a situation over the summer where there isn't much Christian support, can I say two things? One: commit with another Christian friend to be in touch at least weekly by phone and/or e-mail; ask one another things like, 'Are you reading the Bible? What are you learning? How are you doing as a Christian? What can I pray for you this week?' And two: commit yourself to some area of Christian service - the JPC Holiday Club, a Scripture Union holiday, a beach mission, whatever - because those were in my experiences the greatest spiritual shot in the arm in what could be a lean time spiritually.
So, we shouldn't make it hard for ourselves to meet. Then can I add: we shouldn't make it hard for others to meet. Eg, over the summer and into the autumn, literally hundreds of new faces will try out our church. And brothers and sisters: we are the Welcome Team. Not (just) the staff; not (just) the few folk at the Welcome Desk with badges. All of us who call this our church are the Welcome Team. And the number one reason I hear from newcomers why they were put off coming a second time was, 'No-one spoke to me.' Now I want to encourage you because I do see a lot of welcoming of new faces going on each Sunday. But we can always do it better. I know a lot of people feel nervous about going up to a new face and saying, 'Hello, are you new here?' (or whatever), but can I say: anything is better than nothing. Especially when tired at the end of a long Sunday I've had some pretty uninspired conversations with students (ie, I've been uninspiring!). I think of one where I remembered his name wrongly twice, his home town wrongly once and then - desperate for a topic of conversation - I asked him where his football allegiance lay (which usually gets you somewhere with blokes). 'I can't stand football,' he said - then after a pause, 'You're not doing very well at this, are you?' That's the nearest I've come to thumping a student as part of my welcome. Now he might have thought I was doing badly but I guarantee you this: he would rather I'd tried badly than that he was another one who went away saying, 'No-one spoke to me.' So in this business of welcoming new faces, just have a go - anything's better than nothing. (By the way, I didn't thump him; and he did come back.)
25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing…
And that doesn't just apply to more formal meetings like Sunday or small groups. Eg, it's good to hear how many informal prayer partnerships or triplets there are going on, where friends meet regularly to pray. And it's good to see how much hospitality is offered among us. Let's not give up on any of that.
3. ENCOURAGE OTHERS (v25)
25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
So vv24-25 are saying: don't just think 'Me', think, 'Others'. Then, don't just think 'Others', meet with them. And once you're meeting with them, don't just be with them - encourage them.
So what exactly does the Bible mean by 'encouragement'? Eg, two Christians meet up at Starbucks for a coffee. Isn't that by definition encouragement - even if you don't talk about anything different from the two non-Christians on the next table? Well, yes, it's better than a lone cappuccino - but if you look through all the references in the New Testament to 'encouragement' (which I've done on your behalf this week), you find it's often linked with reminding one another of the big truths of God's Word. So, I'd suggest this sort of definition of 'encouragement': to encourage is to strengthen others to keep trusting and obeying the Lord by bringing God's Word to bear on the situation.
Let me illustrate. I hardly need remind some of us that it's exam time. And exams are absolutely no fun at all - although they can give rise to some. Here, for example, are some GCSE science answers I came across. Here's one on physics: 'By listening to thunder after lightning, you can tell how close you came to getting hit. If you didn't hear anything, it means you got hit.' Then one on diet: 'There are 26 vitamins in all but most of the letters have yet to be discovered.' And finally one on genetics: 'Genetics explains why you look like your father, and if you don't, why you should.'
But exams are basically no fun at all. And people need encouraging through them. And my standard encouragement is to ask, 'So when are you finished?' Ie, when's it all going to be over? Because there's nothing more encouraging in circumstances like exams than lifting our sights beyond the present to the end. And that's what God's Word does on the grand scale. Verse 25 again:
25Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
And 'the Day' means the day when Jesus returns to wrap up history and judge and divide all people who've ever lived between heaven and hell - depending on whether they were reconciled to God in this life. Look at 10.35:
35 So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. 36 You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. 37 For in just a very little while,
"He who is coming [ie, Jesus] will come and will not delay.
38 But my righteous one will live by faith.
And if he shrinks back,
I will not be pleased with him."
39 But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved (vv35-39)
We need to remind one another of the big truths of God's Word - especially that future truth - because only those big truths are big enough to see us through the present. We need to know that the day will come when we won't face any more opposition or pressure from the world because we're finally in the perfect world of heaven. We need to know that the day will come when the struggle against sin is over because we're finally in sin-free, resurrection bodies. We need to know that the day will come when the painful, perplexing, lonely, frightening circumstances of this fallen world will be gone because Jesus has come and made all things new. I can't keep going unless I believe that. Because being a Christian in this life is like being in exam time or being engaged or being pregnant: it's not a state you can cope with unless you know that it's temporary - that the end is in sight.
So, the writer to the Hebrews encourages them with that big future truth. But he also encourages them by bringing God's Word to bear on their present situation, so as to make sense of the present. You see, they're suffering, and wondering, 'What on earth is God doing with my life?' Well, turn over to 12.5, where the writer says to them:
5 And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons [and he quotes Proverbs 3]:
"My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
6because the Lord disciplines those he loves,
and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son."
7Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? 8 If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. 9 Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! 10 Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (12.5-11)
So he brings God's Word to bear on their situation so that they don't misread it. You see, their reading of circumstances is that God doesn't seem to be caring for them right now; that he's not being a loving heavenly Father right now. But they need to read circumstances in the light of God's Word. And in this case, the word of God says that far from not loving them, God loves them so much that he is prepared to use suffering to make them more like Christ - more holy, more trusting, more dependent on him. And being like Christ is our ultimate good. There is nothing better for us.
So, encouragement is not just the encouragement of meeting. It's the encouragement of reminding one another of the Word of God, bringing the Word of God to bear on the circumstances that discourage us - so that we can make sense of them and keep going. And that's why we put the Bible at the heart of all our meetings and all of our groups. And that's why I'd also want to encourage us as Christians to talk about Bible truths outside formal Bible study time. Ask a Christian friend what God's been teaching them recently. Talk about what he's been teaching you. Be unashamed about putting a Bible verse in a card or letter or e-mail. And so on. Do what the writer to the Hebrews did and bring God's Word into others' situations.
That's Hebrews 10.24-25. Think others. So that you meet others. So that you encourage others. Let me leave you with these questions:
THINK: Put yourself in the shoes of others who come on Sunday or to your small group. What do they need from you?
MEET: Will you make meeting on Sundays/in your small group a non-negotiable commitment (uncontrollable circumstances permitting)? How?
ENCOURAGE: How much does your conversation with fellow-Christians explicitly bring in the Lord and the Bible? How could you make this happen more?