Looking at the Bible…
- Understanding our privilege… 1 Pet. 2:5-9
When God rescued Israel at the Exodus, it was always God’s purpose to create for Himself a people who would be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6); a people who would be dedicated to the service of God and one another. Yet, this task of priestly service was eventually dedicated to the Levites, due to the Levite tribe siding with the Lord during Israel’s idolatrous worship of the golden calf (cf. Ex. 32). In the end, it was the Levites who “may do the service of the LORD” (Num. 8:6-26).
Nevertheless, as history progressed, even the Levitical priesthood failed in its service of God and the people; as Nehemiah laments in Neh. 9:34, “Our kings, our princes, our priests, and our fathers have not kept your law or paid attention to your commandments and your warnings that you gave them.” The priests have, as the prophet Ezekiel points out, “profaned/dishonoured” God’s name (Ezk. 22:26).
Yet, according to Ezekiel 36:20-38, a day will come when God will vindicate His name among the nations, not allowing His people to continually profane His holy name by how they live. He will sprinkle them clean and cleanse them from their idols (v. 25) and will remove their rebellious hearts (v. 26) and place His Spirit within them so that they will follow Him (v. 27). According to Isaiah 61:1-6, the restoration of God’s people will take place with the arrival of the LORD’s Servant. When the LORD’s Servant appears and accomplishes His work of restoration, God’s people, “will be called priests to the LORD, you will be named ministers of our God” (v. 6).
The hope which Ezekiel and Isaiah looked forward to was fulfilled when Jesus took the scroll of Isaiah, read Isaiah 61 and said, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk. 4:21). God’s Servant had come to restore God’s people. Jesus had come as God the Father’s ultimate High Priest who would supersede, complete or fulfil the priesthood of the Levites (Heb. 7-8). And Jesus would accomplish what the priesthood of the Levites never could; by sacrificing His own blood as our High Priest, He “has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Heb. 10:14).
Through Christ’s High Priestly work of presenting Himself as a sacrifice of atonement (Heb. 2:17), He has accomplished what Isaiah looked forward to, “You were slain and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom of priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:9-10). What God revealed in Ex. 19:6, was fulfilled in Christ’s work of creating a kingdom of priests (the church) by His sacrifice. Now, in Christ, we are priests to God and one another, as the Apostle Peter declares, “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ… you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:5, 9). We are, as God’s consecrated people, a holy-royal priesthood who have the joy of entering God’s presence in worship and proclaiming His Word to the nations.
Having this new identity of being God’s priesthood, His church, comes responsibility…
- Our Responsibility… Heb. 10:22-25
Knowing what Christ has accomplished for us as our High Priest (Heb. 10:19-21); the author of Hebrews gives us a series of commands that should form every Christian’s response to the Gospel (Heb. 10:22-25). What should be noted is that these commands are all in the plural, “Let us…” These commands are to the entire church. We should apply them together as God’s people.
- Draw near to God… (v. 22)
If Christ has indeed removed the barrier between us and God through His High Priestly work (vv. 19-21), then the first obvious response is to seize our incredible opportunity of having direct access to God (cf. Heb. 4:16). If indeed we have received a “sincere/true heart” that has complete trust in God the Father’s work in Christ in cleansing us from our sins (Jer. 31:33; Ezk. 36:26-27) then we should use every opportunity to worship God in His presence; whether it be by prayer (Heb. 4:16) or general worship as God’s people together. The Christian life, the life of the church, is a life of “Coram Deo” (living before the face of/in the presence of God).
Yet, as we draw near to God continually in our worship, we should also continually…
2. Hold fast… (v. 23)
Hebrews 10:12-14 reminds us that Jesus’ High Priestly sacrifice is final and complete. His work on the Cross has “made perfect forever those who are being made holy”. Moreover, in Heb. 6:17-18, we are reminded that we can fully trust in God the Father’s word and work in Christ since, “it is impossible for God to lie”. He is “faithful” (Heb. 10:23). The work of Christ is final, complete and unchangeable. Consequently, rather than doubting Christ’s work (Heb. 3:6, 14; 4:14), we should continually together, “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering”. In Christ we have an incredible hope of living our entire lives Coram Deo (in God’s presence). As God’s people, we should never waver in it or let go of it.
3. Encourage… (vv. 24-25)
With our faith in Christ’s work (v. 22) and our hope held unto (v. 23), the final exhortations are for that faith and hope to flow into love (v. 24). The end/goal of our faith and hope is for us as a Christian community to live lives of love (cf. 1 Cor. 13:13). Living in God’s presence (v. 22) is living a life that reflects His character of love (1 Jn. 4:15). Knowing the importance of this, the final command calls the Christian community to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (v. 24; cf. Heb. 3:13). As a church, we should continually be thinking about ways in which we can “stir up/motivate” one another to live lives of love and good works. The idea here is to deeply, passionately move one another to live the Christian life.
The only way we can apply v. 24, is if God’s people continue to meet together, as v. 25 continues, “Let us not give up meeting together”. The context for cultivating lives of love is the community of God’s people. You cannot stir yourself up to live the Christian life of love in isolation from God’s family, the priesthood of believers. You need the Christian community to live the Christian life.
Why are all these commands important? Apart from looking back at what Christ has done (vv. 19-21), we are also encouraged to look forward to what Christ will do (v. 25). We should urgently draw near, hold fast, and spur on, in the context of meeting together as God’s people, because “the Day of the Lord is approaching”. Christ will return to “save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Heb. 9:28). The judgment-salvation that took place at the Cross and the judgment-salvation that will take place at the Second Coming of Christ should motivate us daily to live lives Coram Deo as God’s people together.
Apart from the Sunday services, the goal of Fellowship Groups is to 1) enjoy our new identity of being a priesthood of believers, but also to 2) practice what we are commanded to do in Heb. 10:22-25. It is in the context of Fellowship Groups that we should exercise our priestly service of drawing near to God together, holding fast to our hope together, and always thinking of ways to stir one another in love and good works together.
Why specifically fellowship groups? To answer that we need to take…
A brief excursion in history…
- Reformation: 16th Century… Laying the foundations for Protestant Churches
In Calvin’s Institutes (4.1.1), Calvin explains that although God is our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, God has chosen to work His plan of salvation through the Church. It is into the “church” that “God is pleased to collect his children, not only that by her aid and ministry they may be nourished so long as they are babes and children, but may also be guided by her maternal care until they grow up to manhood, and, finally, attain to the perfection of faith” (cf. Eph. 2:11-22; 4:1-13). This is done by the greatest treasure God has given the church, “the effectual preaching/proclamation of the gospel”, God’s Word, but also the visible word of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, which “helps in fostering and confirming our faith”.
Commenting on Heb. 10:25, Calvin explains that it is the responsibility of every member of the church, the priesthood of all believers, to do the following, “all the godly ought by all means possible to exert themselves in the work of gathering together the Church on every side; for we are called by the Lord on this condition, that everyone should afterwards strive to lead others to the truth, to restore the wandering to the right way, to extend a helping hand to the fallen, to win over those who are without.”
Similar to Calvin, Martin Luther writes in his Larger Catechism that it is through the Church that the Holy Spirit works in forming God’s people into mature Christians, “I believe that the Holy Spirit makes me holy, as His name implies. But whereby does He accomplish this, or what are His method and means to this end? Answer: By the Christian Church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. For, in the first place, He has a peculiar congregation in the world, which is the mother that begets and bears every Christian through the Word of God, which He reveals and preaches, [and through which] He illumines and enkindles hearts, that they understand, accept it, cling to it, and persevere in it.” And as Luther continues, the word “church” should not be understood to be the building or institution, but the community of saints. It is through the community of saints, the priesthood of all believers, sharing God’s Word with one another that God the Holy Spirit works.
To some extent, Calvin and Luther’s position of the priesthood of all believers is summarized in the 1563 Heidelberg Catechism’s Question 55, “What do you understand by the communion of saints? First, that believers, all and everyone, as members of Christ have communion with him and share in all his treasures and gifts (Rom. 8:32; 1 Cor. 6:17; 12:4-13; 1 Jn. 1:3). Second, that everyone is duty-bound to use his gifts readily and cheerfully for the benefit and well-being of the other members (Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 12:20-27; 13:1-7; Phil. 2:4-8).”
- The Pietistic Movement: 17th Century… Refining our belief… The beginning of small groups…
Although Calvin, Luther and other Reformers promoted the “priesthood of all believers”, they did not fully explore all the implications of what they were teaching. Their primary aim was to differentiate between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Yet, it was during the 17th Century that one particular theologian/pastor sought to fully apply the notion of the “priesthood of all believers”, namely Philip Spener (1635-1705). During Spener’s time, Protestantism was embroiled in many doctrinal debates that absorbed much of its energy. Within Spener’s denomination at the time (Lutheran), members were primarily expected only to know their catechisms well, attend the Sunday service and partake in the sacraments. Very little was said regarding how their catechistical instruction impacts day to day life. Yet, being influenced by the writings of Richard Baxter, it was Spener’s aim to motivate true Christian living that matches their doctrinal beliefs. In many ways, Spener sought to apply Heb. 10:24, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds”.
In 1666, Spener became the chief pastor in Frankfurt. Wanting to motivate “Christian piety/devotion”, Spener began to organize his church into small groups of people who would meet to read and study the Bible, pray together and discuss the implications of the Sunday sermon. These gatherings he called “collegia pietatis” (colleges of devotion) and considered them “ecclesiolae in ecclesia” (little churches in a church). It was in this small group context where Spener sought to motivate and apply the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.
- The Impact of Spener’s small groups… 18th Century onwards…
Spener’s desire to see these small groups motivate Christian devotion, groups that would “consider how to spur one another on towards love and good works” (Heb. 10:24), had an incredible impact on Protestant churches for centuries. We’ll look at two examples…
a) Count Zinzendorf and the Moravian Church
Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf was a descendant of an Austrian noble family. His father was a close friend of Spener, who subsequently became Nikolaus’ godfather. When Nikolaus turned 20 (1720), with a part of his patrimony, he purchased his grandmother’s estate Betheldorf, becoming the Count of Betheldorf. While in Betheldorf, Count Zinzendorf was approached by Christian David, a leader of the remnant of John Huss’ followers, known as the Unitas Fratrum (united brethren). Christian David asked Count Zinzendorf for asylum on his estate due to the mass persecution of Huss’ followers. Granting them permission to stay on the Betheldorf Estate, by 1727 several hundred of the Brethren had sought refuge at Betheldorf.
Count Zinzendorf saw it as his life-long mission to reorganize the Unitas Fratrum to become a great missionary enterprise that would reach the world for Christ. On his estate he designated an area where the community established the town “Herrnhut” (the Lord’s Lodge). Being an ardent admirer of Spener, Count Zinzendorf applied Spener’s principle of small groups (ecclesiolae in ecclesia) and renamed the Unitas Fratrum to be the Moravian Church, since most of them came from Moravia.
Ultimately, through the small group structure, the Moravian Church as a whole was captured by the vision to share the Gospel in all the corners of the world, becoming the first Protestant missionary movement. Through their endeavours they planted the first Protestant missions in Africa (being the first missionaries in South Africa), Asia, Greenland, Lapland, Alaska and among the American Indians. They stirred one another up to great works of love.
b) John Wesley’s Methodism
In 1738, both John and Charles Wesley became acquainted with the Moravian Church. In particular, John Wesley spent time with the Moravians and Count Zinzendorf in order to understand their church life and theology. As an evangelist and pastor, John Wesley had a deep desire to conserve and develop the religious life of every person who responded to the call of the Gospel. Knowing his personal limits, John Wesley organized all the converts from his preaching into societies (churches). These societies were divided up into classes of twelve and each class had a class leader (small groups and small group leaders). It was from these “classes” that many lay-preachers arose that John Wesley would use for evangelism as well as pastoral duties in various societies. He also wrote extensive material to equip and instruct his lay-preachers in their duties.
The impact of John Wesley’s societies-classes movement was tremendous. Secular historians have even argued that it was primarily due to John Wesley’s Methodist movement that England was socially transformed and spared from a bloody revolution, not going the route of the French Revolution. Moreover, Wesley’s work would influence men such as John Newton (hymn writer), William Cooper (the greatest English poet of his age), William Wilberforce (instrumental to the abolition of slavery), John Howard (who reformed the English prison system) and Robert Raikes (the father of the Sunday School movement). John Wesley’s societies-classes stirred a nation to love and good works.
Fellowship Groups are not merely “nice-to-have” or something we just do. Fellowship Groups are one of the best ways we can practice our privilege of being a priesthood of believers, drawing near to God together and encouraging one another in love and good works. As history teaches us, if we remain faithful to our identity (priests with Christ as our High Priest), the impact can be immense.
May God the Holy Spirit, through our fellowship groups, stir His people to love and good works, so that God the Father and Son may be glorified in this Valley! “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven!” (Matt. 5:16).