Be the church
Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. But exhort one another daily, while it is called To day; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. Hebrews 3:12-13
We must not privatize the faith. To do so is to subvert one of the purposes of God in creating the church. When we are converted to Christ, we are not converted in order to live out the Christian life in isolation; we are converted in order to grow in the faith in harmony and unity with other believers. In fact, this is the way that the apostle Peter frames conversion: “Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren, see that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently” (1 Pet. 1:22). What is the purpose of conversion (which I take to be referred to by the phrase “purified your souls in obeying the truth”)? It is “unfeigned love of the brethren” – note the word unto. And this is not a merely emotional thing, it is to be worked out in very practical ways. As we “love one another with a pure heart fervently” (1:22), we are to lay aside “all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings” (2:1). We are urged: “be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous” (3:8). We are to “above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins” (4:8). You cannot love the brethren if you are not willing to invest yourself in the spiritual and physical wellbeing of the brethren. As the apostle John would put it, “My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue, but in deed and in truth” (1 Jn. 3:18).
Nowhere is this clearer than in what the apostle Paul writes about the church in Eph. 4. He begins by talking about the unity that we have in Christ (4:1-6), but then he goes on to talk about the gifts given to the church so that the church will grow (4:7-16). Here is how the apostle puts it in verses 15-16: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (ESV). In other words, the body of Christ, the church, grows when “each part is working properly” which means that every believer has a place in the life of the church, and, specifically, in helping the church to grow in grace. This doesn’t mean that the pastor is pointless. In fact, in 4:11-12 we have the purpose of the pastor-teacher given in terms of equipping the saints to do the work of spiritual service. The pastor teaches, and in teaching he equips the saints, so that they can exercise their spiritual gifts for the good of the church. You are probably not going to have one without the other.
Or consider the way Paul puts it to the Corinthians. There he is also talking about the gifts of the Spirit. And the bottom line is this: “But the manifestation of the Spirit [in spiritual giftedness] is given to every man to profit withal” (1 Cor. 12:7). The ESV translates this as: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Who has spiritual gifts? The answer: “every man” or “each (one).” In other words, no one has a monopoly on spiritual giftedness in the church. I don’t have them all, and neither do you! Now why have we been given spiritual gifts? So we can impress others with them? This is apparently what was happening at Corinth, and it was wrecking the church. No, our spiritual gifts are not given so we can strut around like a barn-yard rooster; they are given to us “for the common good.” In other words, the gifts God gives to me, he gives them to me so that I can help others. And the others need them, and I need the gifts of others, which is Paul’s point about the hand and the foot, the ear and the eye, in verses 15-21.
But this purpose of God in the church has often been subverted. It can be subverted in any number of ways. When we begin, for example, to think of church in terms merely of a meeting in which we barely participate, or as a show in which we are only observers, then we cannot do what the apostle envisions for the church in Eph. 4 and 1 Cor. 12. Now I want to make it clear that I am in no way implying that the sermon is not important; it is very important, but it is not the sum and substance of what it means to be a church. If the only place you are being built up in the faith is through the sermon, then something is lacking. Do we need the sermon? Yes (and the epistle to the Hebrews, considered as a sermon, is an argument for its importance). Of course I believe that, or I would not be doing what I am doing! But the point is that this is not all that the church is about. The pastor is not the church; he is simply one member in the church.
This is why the author of Hebrews says what he says here in 3:12-13: “Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. But exhort one another daily, while it is called today; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.” He knows that in order for these embattled saints to persevere, they are going to have to help each other. In other words, they are going to have to be the church. Must we preach to ourselves? Yes. But we must also preach to each other, we must encourage each other in the faith.
This is not just something that the church there at that time was meant to do. It is something that we are meant to do also. Remember that this is an application of the Old Testament passage from Psalm 95. The Holy Spirit wasn’t just speaking to ancient Israel, he was also speaking to the church to which this letter was addressed, hundreds of years later. But Hebrews was inspired by the same Holy Spirit and preserved to be a part of the canon of Scripture, and this means it is just as applicable to us. As a church, brothers and sisters. we need to be doing this.