Do you have to go to Church to be a Christian? - Hebrews 10:19-25
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
You'll have heard it - perhaps as often as I have "Oh you don't have to go to church to be a good Christian do you?" or "I can worship God out in the country, I don't need to go to a stuffy old church building." Or as Billy Bragg the left wing folksy Ballard singer put it more eloquently: "I'll be perfectly honest with you : I'm not a great fan of organised religion. I think that your personal relationship with God, in whatever form you see it, is much more important that how often you go to church."
Sometimes these things are said because a person wants to show sympathy for the Christian faith & yet feels a little embarrassed that they've hardly ever darkened the door of the church. Sometimes it's just a lame excuse for a lifetime of having little to do with God's people. Sometimes people genuinely seem to believe they are right - they can be close to God without the need of organised Christianity.
So, what is the truth? Do you need to go to church to be Christian?
To help us this evening we're going to look at what is one of my favourite parts of the Bible in the letter to the Hebrews (a letter we've been learning from up at St Faith's & Riverside recently).
This letter was written to Christians who've been active for a while but who've begun to slip away from their original commitment to Jesus. It seems they were a Church of Christians largely from a Jewish background. They were Jews who (like some Jewish people in our day as well) had realised Jesus was indeed the promised messiah or Christ, they had realised that their old faith was preparation for the one who had now come, & they had put their trust in him.
But things were getting really hot! Many of them were under severe pressure - families had turned against them, they were losing their position in society because they were thought of as having given up the religion of their fathers. Some were facing oppressive persecution & suffering because of their trust in Jesus. And bluntly things were so tough they were tempted to give up on Jesus. (10:32f)
It was all seeming just too much. Why not just return to the old ways of the temple rituals & sacrifices, they were thinking? Then the heat would be off.
Some of them were finding things so bad that, (in our terms) they had stopped going regularly to church.
But the writer of the letter passionately tries to help them remember what they've been given in Jesus. He spends several chapters reminding them that Jesus is the greatest - Greater than the angels in heaven, greater than the OT heroes like rescuer Moses, greater than the crucial OT figures like the temple high priests, whose task was to bring people close to God.
How can you go back, when the Jewish system was designed by God to prepare the way for Jesus who has now come? How can you give up on Jesus who is superior to the angels, who genuinely brings people close to God as our Great high Priest? How can you return to shadows when you have tasted reality, fulfilment not just promise? "Don't give up!" he says, "Don't look back, stick with Jesus!"
In our passage in chapter 10 (P 1208) part of the writers appeal is to remind them firstly of how as Christians they are now truly in touch with the living God through Jesus the messiah & also how this means they need each other as fellow Christians - they can't hope to live for Jesus on their own.
So we see firstly, in answer to the question "Do you have to go to church to be a Christian" the answer is;
1) In one sense "No"; Being a Christian is not 1st & foremost about religious observance but being brought close to God through Jesus. v19-23
These Christians are told v22 to "draw near to God" The idea of being near to God is often part of people's misunderstanding about being a Christian & not going to church - "I feel closer to God in a garden, when I see sunset, when I sit in silence"
But how can people really draw near to God? Well the previous verses show us; v19Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22let us draw near to God..
How can people draw near to God? In a word through, Jesus.
Remember these believers were from a Jewish background so the author reminds them of the good news of Jesus through OT eyes - through the view of the Bible they had been brought up with.
He speaks of the; "Most Holy Place", "Curtain", "Priests", Ceremonial "sprinklings" & "cleansings".
These were all terms relating to how in the OT people got close (or at least relatively close) to God. God got the people to set up a special place where he was understood to be present in a unique way.
At first it was a portable tent carried through the desert ("tabernacle") (Ex33:7-11) later there was a permanent structure built in Jerusalem, the "temple". (1Kings 6,7, 2nd Ezra, 3rd Herod)
The tent or temple was run by officials called "priests". Their task was to bring people into God's presence by offering sacrifices to God - animals (Lambs) that were killed in place of sinful people.
This sounds very gory to our 21st Century ears but the sacrifices were meant to show that sin was serious to God; God is just, & wrong needs to be punished, the price of blood needs to be paid. The sacrifices also showed God was loving as well as just - he was kind & prepared to forgive.
In the temple there were 2 main rooms - holy place & the "Most holy place". They were separated by a strong, thick curtain. Only the High priest could go through the curtain into the Most holy place where God presence was manifested & he could go only once a year & he had to be ceremonially sprinkled & cleansed first (Lev 16:4) & what's more he had to go with blood from the sacrifices!!
Do you get the message?! This elaborate system showed the OT people of God that God was forgiving but access to Him was severely limited. God is pure & holy, he cannot live in the presence of sin. He is very different to human beings.
Now you see how amazing what we read in Hebrews is. You can see that Jesus has made possible what before was impossible. You can see that all this Temple ritual was a visual aid to help people understand what God's messiah King Jesus would bring to fulfilment. You can see how it was all a foreshadowing of a reality Jesus would bring (cf ch9);
Before there was extremely limited access to God's presence. Now, Christians, v19 have "confidence to enter Most Holy Place". The presence of God is now open - but how? V19 again "by the blood of Jesus." Jesus' blood was shed as he became the supreme once for all sacrifice (10:10) in his death on the cross.
Before a barrier to God's presence existed. Now, the curtain blocking the way to the Most Holy Place has been taken away through Jesus' death on the cross. So there is v20 "a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, When Jesus died on that 1st Good Friday we read in Mark's gospel that the temple curtain was "torn in 2 from top to bottom" (Mk15:38) Nothing is now in the way. All Christians aware of their sinfulness can now come into the presence of the holy God!
Before a religious official, a priest, was needed as a go between for people & God & he had to repeat his ritual time & again. Now, Jesus is himself the great high priest who can bring us straight into the presence of God, without human intermediaries; v21 "we have a great priest over the house of God"
Before the temple official needed
to wash himself to perform his duty. Now by believing in Jesus we have had our consciences & hearts cleansed, & sprinkled so we are forgiven & given the gift of the Holy Spirit & pronounced in the clear with God; v22 "having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water."
So, how do we "draw near to God?" It's not about how we feel on a mountain top (people's feelings of spirituality come & go) It's not about performing sacrifices or needing priests as a go between - all that is now obsolete (8:13) - the fulfilment to which they pointed has come in Jesus. Rather God has provided the means to come near to him - Jesus' death on the cross opens the way.
When anyone, whatever their background, whatever their previous behaviour or experience trusts in Jesus & v22 "draws near to God with a sincere heart in ... (whole hearted) faith" they can know God & be in his presence anywhere, any time.
So you see Jesus is what we need - not religious activities & ceremonies. It is faith in him, hope in him that we must hold onto. v23.
Can I ask how do you come to God? Do you come trusting in your own efforts or religious practices? I hope not - come trusting in Jesus & his completed work on the cross. All we need to do is humbly acknowledge our sin & throw ourselves on Jesus who has done everything necessary to give us a relationship with God, everything has been done to bring us close to God whatever our feelings.
So, can I also ask? Are you making the most of your privilege & responsibility in drawing near to God "With a sincere heart in full assurance faith?"
Remember we can do so v22 "having (had) our hears sprinkled (by the blood of Jesus) to cleanse us from a guilty conscienceThe way is fully open! We have complete access to God through Jesus our great high priest, so we must keep drawing near to God: in prayer, in trusting Jesus for rescue, in receiving forgiveness, in persevering in difficulties, in asking for help, in not giving up.
In answer to the question "Do you have to go to church to be a Christian?" the answer is, in one sense "No" (Being a Christian is not 1st & foremost about religious observance but being brought close to God through Jesus).
2) But secondly the answer is "Yes you do!" Those who have genuinely been brought close to God through Jesus need to be with others who share their faith. V24-25
Have you noticed how these people in the passage, are addressed? 19Therefore, brothers (or "dear friends"), since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus21and since we have a great priest over the house of God, v22let us draw near to God (had) our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience 24And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another
It's obvious, but it makes the point I think - Christians are not just individuals brought to God through Jesus, they are people called to be God's people together. (p)
Incredibly enough the football season begins again this week. It doesn't seem 5 minutes ago that Hull City were celebrating their back-to-back promotion to the heady heights of the Championship! But just think of football players for a moment. However much a footballer practices on their own, even if they can balance the ball on their nose, or kick it into a net half a mile away, they still need a team to be real footballers. Football is a team game. So is Christianity!
The team that we are called to belong to is of course the local church.
Sometimes people say they don't need church because they think primarily of church as a building - but of course church is really people, a family. The place where they meet is secondary.
There is a great desire for community these days after the strong individualism that has been championed in recent years. Jarvis Cocker (singer with group Blur) once said "Being in a band is about being in a gang of people who all live in the same housethe same things [&]a certain view of the worldThe truth is we need relationships & community. We need others to be whole human beings. God's solution to this need is not that we all join rock bands (!) but that we know the support of the local church family.
The writer to the Hebrews emphasizes this communal dimension of our faith in Jesus by speaking of the responsibilities we have to each other in the team which is the local church family. v24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 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."
We need each other to "spur one another on" we need each other so that we can "encourage" & be encouraged ourselves. As the great John Wesley put it; "The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion".
You'll remember these Christians were under tremendous pressure. They really needed each other yet some were reacting in the wrong way - the pressure was making them give up church. So the writer says 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."
One day, says the writer, "the Day" when Jesus returns as King & all recognise him as such, the pressure will be off -- but until then
we must keep meeting our fellow believers; you need them & they need you.
If these Hebrew Christians were under pressure, in a different way, we are too. We are bombarded by an increasingly anti-Christian media, the messengers of secularism seem to be given more & more influence - it's getting harder being a Christian. And in our weakness we are tempted to allow our hearts to grow cold & drift from God. (cf 3:12f). It might seem easier in some ways to give in & "go with the flow" but how can we given what God has done for us in Jesus? (v19-23)
How much we need each other then to spur us on to live for Jesus, to keep serving each other, to keep loving our family & friends enough to pray that they come to trust Jesus. How much we need each other to prod us when we get lazy & to give us a boost when we get low?
How much we need our church family so that we can encourage - literally "give courage" to each other to stick with Jesus, to hold onto faith in Jesus despite the struggles, to keep praying, to keep seeking to pass on the good news to others, to keep reading the Bible?
And just like in sport, many things are possible when individuals are not just merely individuals but part of a team effort.
This letter to the Hebrews (cf 12:22f) defines church as happening wherever God's people get together around his son to hear him speak through his word & in order to encourage one another as the Day draws near. These get togethers can be public meetings on Sunday or smaller more informal meetings at other times (Home Groups, Tues gp). A church family is a mixture of all sorts of people meeting together to encourage each other, respond to God's love & share it with others. It is the way that God has provided for His team to be trained & equipped.
That's why we need to learn from the Bible in sermons, why we set time aside to pray together for our needs & the world,
...why we spend time praising God for his goodness using songs which give us words to praise God & to encourage each other as we sing truth to each other as well as to God. (13:15) Why we share bread & wine in HC to remember what God has done for us in Jesus because we so easily forget. That's why we organise events to help pass on the good news. That's why people look out for each other, keeping in touch, visiting & caring (13:16).
How on earth are we going to do these things on our own?
Someone has said "Can I be a Christian without going to church? Well, yes, it's possible, but you could also survive on chocolate cake & Pepsi, sleep in a bed of nettles or sun bathe in the Antarctic! These activities are all possible but highly undesirable" & aren't gong to help you make the most of your life.
Similarly if we are going to be an effective Christian the best option is to be a member of the team which is the local church
Do you need to go to Church to be a Christian? Well not to be brought near to God - that is only possible through Jesus & what he's done in dying on the cross. But surely anyone who has received the benefits of what Jesus has done for themselves will want to thank God with others, they will want to equipped from the Bible with others, they will want to encourage their Christian family & work with their fellow team members to draw others into the team? Trying to be a Christian on your own is very hard indeed.
Let me end with an old story. A Scottish minister went to visit a man who'd drifted away from church. They sat down by an open fire and the minister said, 'We've missed you these last few months.' There was no reply from the rather ashamed man. So the minister picked up the fire tongs, got out a glowing coal and dropped it onto the hearth. They both watched as the coal cooled off from orange, to red, to grey. Then the minister picked it up, put it back in the fire among the other coals and waited for the colour to return. Then he simply said, 'It'd be good to see you on Sunday. And mores to the point, it would be good for you!' And with that he left.
Let us not give up meeting togetherlet us encourage one another, and all the more as you see the day approaching. (v 25)
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