First Century Christians lived in a time where their government declared war on Christianity. The assaults on people of faith were not done in secret (Heb. 10:32-34). Lands, homes and property were taken by the governing powers. Preachers were regularly interrogated by civil authorities for speaking the truth about Christ (Acts 5:17-18).
Members of the church did not want to assemble because of the government intrusions (Heb. 10:35-39). It just wasn’t safe going to church. Aquila and Priscilla were forced to leave their home in Rome due to the edict of Claudius (A.D. 49) expelling all Jews from the city (Acts 18:1-2). Apparently, many Christians were likewise caught up in the explosions throughout the Roman Empire as history records the “plundering of their possessions” (Heb. 10:34) assumedly as they fled. Philo accounts how Jews in Alexandria were forced to leave their homes and herded together in the city (In Flaccum 8.56). “Their enemies overran the houses now left empty and began to loot them, dividing up the contents like spoils of war.” The incidence was “accompanied by other acts of public outrage and violence (cf. F. F. Bruce, NICNT: Hebrews, 269). 1 Would we blame these Christians for not attending services given their concerns for their personal welfare?
The Hebrew writer records how the early Christians “endured a great fight of afflictions;” became “gazing stock both by reproaches and afflictions,” while implying many were mistreated by simple association with other persecuted Christians (Heb. 10:32-33). Philo (Against Flaccus 72, 74, 84-85, 95, 173) and Josephus (Against Apion 1.43) recorded how Jews were subjected to public humiliation and abuse in a theater during an organized massacre (A.D. 38).
Of course, we know how Paul spent many years in prison for his faith (Col. 4:18; Phil. 1:7; Heb. 10:34). We could reminisce of Stephen’s murder (Acts 7:58ff), John the Baptist’s execution (Matt. 14:6-11), or James death under Herod Agrippa (A.D. 43). Not to mention the persecution lead by Saul that left many Christians injured or dead (Acts 22:4-5).
It is in this environment that the Hebrew writer warns the brethren not to forsake assembling (Heb. 10:25). He immediately conjoins such an act to willful sin (Heb. 10:26-31). After which he implores them not to quit their faith after everything they have been through already (Heb. 10:32-39). The act of forsaking the assembling of saints is indicative of one who draws back to perdition (Heb. 10:39). To further encourage the battered brethren, the author of Hebrews sights many examples of people with the kind of faith that doesn’t draw back (Heb. 11). Endurance becomes the theme as the Hebrew writer returns to the hostility present at that time (Heb. 12:1-4). Ultimately, Christ is the perfect example of faith as one “who endured such hostility from sinners.”
Isn’t it strange how our brethren will often water down the importance of assembling? The early Christians went to church knowing it could mean their arrest, torture or humiliation. To be associated with Christians was enough to ruin one’s life. Yet, the book of Hebrews chronicles the explicit commands and exhortations not to throw their faith away by forsaking the assembling. Forsaking church services is a reflection of our faith.
Imagine our brethren on the judgment day telling Christ on the throne that they thought it better to miss the assembling of the saints for any number of reasons. There were sporting events, family socials, overtime at work, minor health complaints, the need to sleep in, etc. What would the early Christians think of those excuses after all they went through? God wouldn’t excuse their desire to forsake church services just because they were being persecuted! God certainly won’t excuse our forsaking church services for any reason within our control.
In the near future, persecution might be added to our list of reasons to forsake. Will we miss the assembling of the saints just because it could cause us to lose our possessions, our dignity or even our life? Christ “laid down His life for us” (1 Jn. 3:16). Is He asking too much when He requires our attendance in worship to Him?
1Daniel H. King, Sr., The Book of Hebrews, Truth Commentaries, Guardian of Truth Foundation, p.351.
By Steve A. Hamilton