“The Discipline of Fellowship” (Hebrews 10:23-25 sermon)

Cheryl & I are fond of assigning “chapter titles” to different episodes of our life together, as if they would be chapters in a book. We have labeled some of them: “The Great Mouse Caper”, “The Dark Year”, or “Just Then It Began to Snow” (Maybe we can fill you in on some of those some other time!) About a year and a half ago, I gave that chapter of our lives the title, “How Trinity Baptist Saved Our Lives.” As many of you know, I had served as pastor in Southern Baptist churches for almost 30 years before stepping down from our church in Louisiana with an illness. We sold our home, 2/3 of our possessions, and moved to Norman with little hope of a future. It was a difficult time for us. But in the middle of that, we had found a church home, Trinity Baptist in Norman, where the pastor, staff, and people ministered to us, and really helped us through those dark hours. I remember one particularly bad day, when I was in bed with a migraine headache, a rag over my forehead, no job or income, and I was just calling out to God for help. Just then, I could hear the phone ring in the other room, and Cheryl answered it. I would find out later that it was the pastor of Trinity, Ronnie Rogers, calling to offer us help and prayer. And that church did help us: with prayer, financially, with friends and fellowship and so much encouragement, and opportunities to serve and preach as I recovered. I later sent the staff a note which said, “If I were to entitle this chapter of my life, ‘How Trinity Baptist Saved Our Lives” it would not be far from the truth.” Cheryl & I have come out of this experience having learned many lessons; among them an even greater appreciation than ever before for the important place of the fellowship of the church in our lives as believers.

We are continuing our study this morning on “The Disciplines of Disciples.” Jesus calls us, as His followers, to deny ourselves, take up our cross daily, and follow Him. “Taking up the cross” daily includes exercising some disciplines in our lives as His followers, as Paul commanded us in I Timothy 4:7, “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.” Over the past weeks we have looked at the discipline of the word, spending time each day letting God speak to us through “the pure milk of the word”; the discipline of morning prayer, following the outline of the Model Prayer that Jesus gave us, as well as the importance of spontaneous prayer, and the discipline of scripture memory. Many of you came forward last week to get a card to memorize a verse with, and I hope that you have been working on that this past week.

But today I want us to focus our attention in a different direction. The Christian life is not only about our vertical relationship with God, but also our horizontal relationships with other people. In that light, let us turn to Hebrews 10:23-25, and look at “The Discipline of Fellowship”; the importance of disciplining ourselves to fellowship with, and encourage other believers in the church:

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”

I. The Prerequisite for Fellowship: the confession of our hope
:23 “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering …”

To give this verse a little bit of context, the Book of Hebrews is all about the writer encouraging his audience, a group of Christians with a Jewish background, not to forsake their confession of hope in Jesus because of the persecution they saw Christians undergoing. He wrote to tell them that Jesus is God’s final revelation; that Jesus is far greater than the angels, that He is the great high priset, and the final, perfect sacrifice for sins, therefore they should not turn away from Him because of the persecutions. So when he says, “Hold fast the confession of our hope”, he is talking about the confession of the hope we have in Jesus as our Savior.
And it is no accident that this verse leads up to the famous “not forsaking our own assembling together” in verse 25, because our common salvation, the confession of Jesus as our Savior, is the “glue” which unites those us in the church and gives us fellowship with each other.

The word “fellowship” implies that you share something in common with someone else. When you have that “something” in common, there is a bond between you. For example, if you are an OU fan, and you travel to another state, and you are wearing your Sooner t-shirt, and you look over in the airport and see someone else in an OU hat, you wave at them, and may talk to them; you have an instant bond because of that “something” in common you have in that football team.
The same thing is true in the church. Every Christian has something in common which gives them a common “bond” which unites them together, and that “something” is our faith in Jesus: “the confession of OUR hope”; that hope in Jesus is the one thing that binds us together and gives us fellowship.

We are all sinners, every one of us. Ephesians 2 says we were all “dead” in our trespasses and sins, having no hope and without God in this world. But God was rich in mercy, and in the great love with which He loved us, He sent Jesus to die for our sins, and “by grace you are saved through faith, and that not yourselves; it is a gift of God, not of works” lest any of us should boast. We are all sinners, and each us who is truly saved has come to a time when we called out to the Lord who had mercy on us, and forgave us, and saved us, and sent His Holy Spirit into our hearts — and NONE of us deserved it. We are saved by His grace! And every one of who has been so saved has this common bond.

In January of 2009, a U.S. Airways plane which had just taken off from New York ran into a flock of geese in the air, and a few moments later, the plane plummeted into the Hudson River, where the crew led in an emergency evacuation. Rescue boats came from all over the river, to come and snatch the stranded passengers from the freezing waters. Every single passenger on that flight was saved, and the episode was later dubbed, “The Miracle on the Hudson.” I don’t know that they have ever done it, but what if they had a reunion of all those people who were pulled out of the river that day? They would all say things like, “I thought we were going to die, but they came and pulled me out” — and the others would say, “Yes, me too. I was hopeless; I wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t come and rescued me.” You would all have this “bond” of fellowship together because you had all been miraculously saved. THAT is exactly what Christians have together in Jesus. We were all lost; we were all hopeless and headed for hell; and we were all rescued from that by one thing: faith in Jesus, and what He did for us on the cross. So all of us who know Jesus have a bond of fellowship that unites us together because we have a common Savior, Jesus, His Spirit is in our hearts, and HE is the reason for our fellowship.

— we may not all like the same kind of preaching
— we may not all enjoy the same kind of music
— we may not all love the same kind of food
— we may not all practice the same kind of entertainment
But our fellowship in the church cannot ultimately be based on those things; our fellowship in the church should be based on one indispensable thing: and that is our common faith in Jesus as our Savior, and His Holy Spirt who lives in our hearts.

It is just as the opening song we sung today says: “Come People of the Risen King” … The only reason we are together here is because we are the people of God through “holding fast the confession” of Jesus Christ as our Lord & Savior.

II. The Command to Fellowship
:25 “not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some …”

So as the people of God, saved by His grace, and sharing that common salvation, the Lord commands us to fellowship together. He says we are to “not (be) forsaking our assembling together, as is the habit of some.” The word “assembling” there comes from the Greek word “episunagogyn”. The word “synagogue” is related to it. The “synagogue”, of course, was the local Jewish religious assembly of believers, similar to our “church.” He was addressing Jewish Christians in this book, so they knew what he was talking about. He was saying, don’t miss your “synagoging” together — in other words, don’t forsake your assembling together in your local gathering of believers, in your church. So he gives us a command to gather together and fellowship with others who have been saved by faith in Jesus, in our local church.

It is interesting, if you think about it, that the author had to give the command that they were not to forsake their assembling together — and that some evidently DID have the habit forsaking their meetings. This was the early, first century church, and we often idealize it, as if they had no problems, and express sentiments like, “Oh, if we could only get back to being like the church of the 1st Century.” Well, that early church was not as ideal we might think, upon examination from scripture. Here in Hebrews, it was “the habit of some” to not go to their church meetings — hardly ideal! Then look at the church at Corinth — oh my goodness, they had incest, out-of-control worship services, and divisions; all kinds of problems. Even in the the glorious first church at Jerusalem, you don’t even get past chapter 6 in Acts and they are already grumbling because some of the widows are being neglected in the daily serving of food. So that “early church” that so many of us want to be like may not be as ideal as we think!

But “the discipline of fellowship” is an important one. Someone told me not long ago: “I don’t go to church much, but that doesn’t affect me and God.” I said, “Well, that is not entirely true; because God commands you to fellowship with other Christians. If you are not obeying His commands, you cannot be entirely right with Him.” Many of us Americans have a very “individualistic” outlook on religion and Christianity, but the Bible has a more corporate outlook than many of us have adopted. We see that in this verse; there are a lot of “plural” words here: “us”, “our”, “one another”, “you” (plural, read that “you all”, or even “y’all”!) etc. This is so all through the New Testament. There are so many “one another’s”. As I said in the introduction, Christianity is not solely about our vertical relationship with God, but it also deals with our relationships with others as well, and that involves fellowship with others in the church.

Local church fellowship is indeed sometimes a discipline:

— Like any discipline, there are times when you do not “feel” like doing it, and you have to “make” yourself do it. Someone said years ago that if your family has to ask you on Sunday morning, “Are we going to church today”, that you have lost the battle. They should already KNOW that it is your commitment, that if you are in town, you will be going to church that day.

— In order to make this happen, we have to exercise the discipline of not planning things on that day. I’m not saying you can never miss, but I believe we are seeing a great increase over the past generation of people missing church for more and more other activities. I saw some statistics that bear this out, saying that one of the great differences in attendance from a generation or two ago is not that few people are attending church, but that the people who attend church are less frequent — that is, that they are missing more often.
I’m not saying you can never miss church if you take a vacation or go out of town. But missing just to go the lake or some other activity has become more and more common, and it should not be that way.
And of course, sports have taken the place of religion for a lot of people on Sundays, as more and more practices and games, which never used to take place on Sundays, are crowding church out. I can see where this is going. Cheryl & I took a trip to England in 2010, and as we were going to church one Sunday morning, where a small group of 30 or so were meeting, we passed by the park, where literally thousands of English had gotten together with their friends and their children, and were playing. Now, playing in the park is a good thing — but for most of the English, it had taken the place of gathering for worship. England is a dark place right now spiritually, and we are headed in the same direction, and you take the first step down that road by putting sports ahead of God on Sunday.
For many of us, the discipline of fellowship begins by not planning other things on Sundays.

— For others of us, the discipline of fellowship involves making adequate preparation for worship on Sunday. Some of us miss church — or even go to church but do not benefit from it — because we have stayed up so late, or done so much on Saturday that it keeps us from worship, or from enjoying worship, on Sunday. There might be some of us who would say, “Oh I would never schedule anything on a Sunday and miss church” — but the truth is, you stay up so late watching movies or football, or out with friends, or whatever, that when you do go to church you are practically worthless for really worshipping, or hearing anything He wants to do in your life. So part of the “discipline” of Sunday really involves some of your discipline for Saturday: don’t stay up too late; don’t do things that will so drain you physically that you can’t worship Sunday; prepare your lesson or prepare your heart for worship by making sure you have your quiet time on Saturday & Sunday. We have to discipline ourselves on Saturday, in order to have good fellowship on Sunday.

Real fellowship also extends beyond Sunday. If you love someone, you don’t limit your time with them to “scheduled” times; you want to be with them whenever you can. If you all you ever do is fellowship with people from church on Sunday morning from 11-12:00, or some other scheduled church hours, you probably not really “love” the people of God. One of the biggest tests of your love for God’s people, I believe, is how much time you spend with them outside of “church hours.” Do you go out to eat with them? Do you have them in your home? Do you sit with them at ball games?

Ephesians 5 says that Jesus loved the church, and gave Himself for it. One measure of how much we are like Christ is how much we love the church He so loved, and how we discipline ourselves to worship and fellowship with other believers.

III. The Blessings of Fellowship
:25b “but encouraging one another …”

“Encouraging” comes the Greek word “parakaleo” (some of you may remember we looked at this word last Sunday night) it means “alongside” to “call out” — it is the picture of a coach running down the sideline, encouraging and spurring on his players. In fact, I remember seeing a coach on one of the football games on tv last weekend, while his player was running towards a touchdown, sprinting down the sideline, shouting to him to run for that touchdown.

This is what we should be doing for each other in the church. We are be “running alongside each other”, calling out words of encouragement to each other as we run the Christian race:
— we should be running alongside ministers of music like Brian, saying, “Man, that was a good worship song; thank you for leading us in that; keep it up!”
— we should be running alongside youth ministers like Mike, saying: “I see how much you love the students, and hang out with them, influencing their lives; way to go!”
— we should run alongside faithful Bible Study teachers and tell them how much we appreciate their commitment to the word.
— we should run alongside people in our church who are hurting, but who have been faithful in their testimony, and tell them how much we appreciate their testimony to God’s faithfulness during their time of trial.
— we should run alongside those who are working with children, and say, “Do you realize the impact you are having on these children for eternity? Keep it up!”
We are to “run alongside” other believers in the church, and encourage them as they run the Christian race that God has set before them.

Our son Michael has been attending church in Norman, and one of the pastors stopped him the other day and said, “Michael, I appreciate how faithful you are to our services; you are just always here, Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night.” That encouraged him in his faithfulness, that someone — especially a leader — would notice that!

Kathy Herd stuck her head in my office last Thursday and told me about Lloyd Pearson, 92 years old, who was working to memorize Matthew 10:32-33 where Jesus said if you deny Him He will deny you. She said, “He is 92 years old, and he was taking up the challenge to memorize God’s word — your messages are having an impact”! Of course that was so encouraging to me as a minister! And so many of you here at Pauls Valley have been so encouraging to me the past months; I appreciate it greatly!

But perhaps some of you here today might say, “Well, no one encourages ME in church; I am not getting that!” Let me give you the advice I give to married couples. When I counsel them, we talk about some of the responsibilities they each have towards each other. But then I always try to add: But do not focus on the things you think your spouse is supposed to do for you; YOU focus on the things that YOU are supposed to do for them, and then leave their response to God. I think that’s good advice for marriage, and it’s good advice for life in the church as well. If you sit around and catalogue all the things that everybody in the church isn’t doing for you, you are inevitably going to be disappointed and bitter. But don’t focus on what everybody is supposed to be doing for you; instead let your focus be on what YOU can do to minister to others who are here — and you will be a much more joyful person. When it says, “encourage one another”, don’t take that as what others are supposed to do for you; take it as what YOU are supposed to do for others! If we would each really practice that, then the church would be much more of the kind of place that God intends it to be for all of us.

So there are several challenges here in Hebrews 10 regarding “The Discipline of Fellowship”:
1) Make certain that you have “the prerequisite for fellowship”, that Jesus is your Lord & Savior, and that you have been saved by His grace. That’s what really makes you a part of His church.
2) Exercise the discipline of faithfulness in our church attendance and fellowship. It often IS a “discipline.” We don’t always “feel” like going, but we go because we need it, and others need it as well.
3) Ask God to help you BE the person of God you should be to others in the church. Others may not be who they should be to you; but you be the person God has called you to be — that is what you are responsible for.

Someone from another church called me for counseling not long ago, and they were complaining about the church they attend. I encouraged them: don’t look for what you can get out it; look for what you can GIVE to the others who are there. BE the encourager; be the one who says the word that someone needs to hear; be the one who gives the compliment; be the one who spurs someone on to love and good works. If you will do that, then one day somebody who has really been hurting in the church may say of you, and your church: “That person, that church — they saved my life”!

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, provides brief devotions from own personal daily Bible reading, as well as some of my sermons, book reviews, and family life experiences.
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