Wanted: Plotting and Provoking Church Members
If you’re like most pastors, the last thing you want to hear about is church members who, by all appearances, are continually plotting against unity in the church body. Whatever board they sit on, whatever class they teach, whatever friendships they have, they seem to provoke others to discontentedness, complaining, even bickering.
You might be surprised to learn that the book of Hebrews calls for church members to continually plot and provoke in the church body. It calls them to plot and provoke for good!
At our church in Louisville, Kentucky, the other elders and I often remind our congregation of Hebrews’ instruction. Here’s the sort of thing we say to them.
A LITTLE CONTEXT
Most of the book of Hebrews is an exalted theological treatise about the person and work of Jesus Christ. Through nine chapters, the author of the book takes a long look at the Old Testament sacrificial and priestly system and argues that all of it was fulfilled in Jesus’ life and death. With the tenth chapter, however, the author pointedly brings all this to bear on the lives of his readers. “In light of all these things,” he tells them, “you are to live in a certain way.”
A LITTLE EXEGESIS
Hebrews 10:19-25 lies at the heart of this exhortation. In those verses, the author calls his readers to do three things: First, they are to draw near to God. Since Jesus has won them access to God’s throne by his death on the cross, they are to worship God not with fear and trembling, but with full and joyful confidence. Second, he calls them to hold fast their confession, not to shrink back and be destroyed but to believe, to have faith, and, by these means, to save their souls. With these two exhortations, the author calls on these Christians to keep a close watch on their hearts, minds, and souls. But there is a third exhortation here as well, in which he calls them to look outside themselves and focus their attention on their brothers and sisters in Christ—on the church.
The author writes in verses 24 and 25, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
Because of everything Jesus has done, and because of everything that he is, Christians are to stir one another up to love and good works. But how are we to do this? By what means can Christians spur one another to goodness and holiness? The text itself offers two ways—by not neglecting to meet together and by encouraging one another.
Now that phrase—”not neglecting to meet together”—is perhaps the Bible’s clearest statement of a Christian’s obligation to attend a local church. If we are part of Christ’s body, then we ought, indeed, we must, covenant and share our lives together with a local body of believers. The verse could hardly be more pointed. But notice that the command not to neglect meeting does not stand by itself. It is actually a dependent clause hanging onto the verse’s main clause. The command to meet together is presented as a means to another end. We Christians are to meet together for the purpose of stirring one another up to love and good works.
At the very least, therefore, we have to say that, for every Christian, attendance at church gatherings is not optional. The author of Hebrews—and therefore the Holy Spirit himself—commands Christians to be present when the believers to whom he or she belongs gather.
Very practically, this means that we may have to rearrange our schedules to make time for the gathering of the saints. Work schedules may have to shift. Homework may have to be done at some other time. Reports may have to be filed earlier or later. Most churches meet no more than two or three hours a week, which still leaves somewhere in the area of 145 hours for getting these other things done. According to Hebrews, encouraging and stirring up other believers ought to be at the top of every Christian’s priority list, and that means attending the public gatherings of the church.
BUT DON’T JUST ATTEND
But the author of Hebrews is calling for more than mere attendance. Many times, Christians treat church attendance as one more item on their checklist of “Christian to-dos.” They attend a church service, sit quietly and anonymously in the back of the building, listen half-heartedly to the sermon, slip out during the final hymn without speaking to anyone, and tick their mental box for the week: “Church attended. Hebrews 10:25 obeyed.” But that is not at all what the author of Hebrews has in mind here. He doesn’t simply say, “Attend church.” Rather, he sets attending church very deliberately in the context of knowing, loving, and encouraging other believers. He sets it in the context of stirring one another up to love and good deeds.
The public gathering of a local church involves more than individuals gathering to hear God’s Word preached—though it is certainly, and crucially, about that. It is also about sharing life with other believers who have covenanted to support and encourage one another as Christians. It is in the public gatherings of the church that we pray for one another, weep and rejoice with one another, bear each other’s burdens and sorrows, hear the Word of God together, and work to apply it to one another’s lives. In short, the gathering of the church is the most important time believers have for stirring one another up to love and good works.
PLOTTING AND PROVOKING
Notice two more things in this text. First, the author of Hebrews says to “consider how to stir one another up to love and good works.” He’s telling us, in other words, to think about it! A Christian ought to plot, plan, conspire, contrive, and design how he might stir his brothers and sisters to good works—something he simply cannot do unless his life is tightly intertwined with theirs. How exactly can a Christian plot and plan for the good of his fellow believers if he does not know them?
Second, notice the word “stir,” which the KJV and NRSV translate “provoke.” An individual’s presence in the body should have a visible effect on others, a stirring or provocative effect: love and good deeds begin to abound in the lives of the people around them!
In short, pastor, we want to encourage our church members to plot and to provoke—for good!
This past summer, I started a massive project of laying slate tiles on my front porch and sidewalk. Over to one side, under a tree, I kept a blue Igloo cooler full of water, which I used to wash off the dirty tiles after I cut them to the correct size. After a while, I realized that all the mud I was washing off the tiles would sink to the bottom of the cooler, leaving clear water at the top and a thick layer of mud at the bottom. Now, if I wanted to stir that mud up off the bottom of the cooler and make it explode with life throughout that water, how would I do it? Walk up and bump the cooler with my knee? That wouldn’t do it. The water might ripple, but the mud would stay firmly on the bottom. No, if I really wanted to stir that mud up, I would have to reach down into the water with my hands. I would have to get involved with the water, purposefully and directly stirring up the mud.
It’s not a perfect analogy, to be sure, but the church is a little like that. No true church of Jesus Christ should be the kind of place where believers simply come together once a week, bump into one another, and then go on about their business. What a shame it is when Christians, not to mention non-Christians, think that this is what the church’s gathering is all about! I can think of few things that would make a church more lifeless or less worth the effort.
The exhortation “not to neglect the meeting” is not so lifeless and boring as all that. It does not call Christians to sit passively in a pew. To the contrary, it calls them to a life that crackles with energy. It calls them to live together with other Christians—loving them, encouraging them, stirring them up to good works, and, perhaps most importantly, pointing them always to the Day when their Lord will return. “Going to church” won’t cut it. Only by “being the church” can we fulfill what Christ intends for us as his people.