Previously, we saw that the author of Hebrews exhorted those who were going through a time of crisis to draw near to God and to hold close to the faith they have confessed. In his final exhortation, he encourages his readers to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb 10:24–25). How does this apply to our own time of crisis?
We are not sure exactly what crisis the author of Hebrews was addressing. However, from the letter, we can gather that he was very concerned that whatever the crisis was would lead to his recipients turning away from their faith. Relatedly, though whether as cause or result, some Christians apparently no longer saw the necessity of gathering together as believers. This is often seen (rightly) as an encouragement not to neglect regular Sunday-morning fellowship and worship with other believers. However, these verses do not simply say that Christians should meet together for the sake of it. There are three things that are to result from Christians meeting: love is stirred up, good works are promoted, and encouragement is provided.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many churches are experiencing a distinct tension. They take the Bible seriously and do not want to go against the explicit command against neglecting to meet. At the same time, the Bible commends seeking wisdom (Prov 1:7; Jam 1:5), and all of the current scientific and medical wisdom says that group gatherings should be avoided. Additionally, the Bible is clear that we should obey those in positions of authority in our government (Rom 13:1–7), and these too have said that churches should not meet. These opposing commands put Christians in a bind, as it almost feels as if obeying one means disobeying the other.
I believe that the results the author of Hebrews says should arise from meeting together offer a way forward. He indicates that one of the primary reasons why we should meet together is to provide an opportunity to stir up love for one another. In this time of pandemic, it can hardly be considered loving to place your friends and neighbors at risk by flaunting the instructions not to gather. (I am aware that some argue that we should meet without concerning ourselves about the risk and let God take care of us. To this I respond that God has also commanded we should not put his protection to the test, as Jesus says in Luke 4:12.) Paradoxically, the way that we can best show our love to one another right now is by refraining from group meetings.
I want to be very careful here about saying this, and why. I am not saying that this is a good long-term solution, or that “loving our neighbor” can be used as an excuse to do things other than church. I am also not saying that we should live in fear of illness and disease and make avoiding it our primary concern. I simply believe that, in this specific instance, it is appropriate to set aside regular Sunday worship for a short time in an act of sacrificial love for those who are at risk of contracting the disease, and especially for those with underlying conditions who are at the greatest risk.
There are two further commands in the exhortation, the next being to stir one another on to good works. Just as with loving one another, a huge host of items can fall under “doing good works.” In times of crisis, however, these works can become much more poignant. When done for a fellow believer, they can contribute to the building up of bonds and act as a tangible expression of the love we are to show to one another. When done for the unbeliever, they can be a powerful witness to the God who has called us to these works—there is no better time than when people are in crisis to act as Christ’s hands and feet towards them.
Finally, we are told to encourage each other, something that is especially necessary at this time. Due to lockdown orders, many are finding themselves lonely. The lack of fresh air and sunlight is certainly exacerbating depression and other mental health challenges. It is an easy time to become worn down. As my wife commented, people are entering “survival mode,” and all are becoming concerned about their own experience and their own welfare without taking the time to listen to and understand those around them who are sharing similar burdens.
In the midst of this, Christians have the opportunity to move away from focusing on themselves and encourage one another. We are blessed to live in a time where communication is instantaneous and varied. Through letters, email, phone calls, and video chats, we can continue to connect with one another, encouraging and praying for our fellow believers as we try to adjust to the reality of living in a time of pandemic. These means of communication and encouragement, though they will never be an adequate substitute for embodied presence and physical meetings, can serve as a stop-gap, allowing us to fellowship with one another spiritually and virtually even when we cannot be together bodily.
As Christians we sometimes get God’s commands backwards. We have often embraced the command not to neglect meeting together while at the same time losing focus of the love, good works, and encouragement that meeting together is meant to bring forth. This time of sacrificial isolation gives us the space to reflect on these virtues and plan new and creative ways of displaying them, and it builds a joyful anticipation of the day when we can again meet with our brothers and sisters to celebrate our bond in Christ and look forward to the day of his return.
 For example, see Hebrews 2:1–4; 3:12–14; 4:14; 5:11–12; 6:4–11; 10:32–35, 39; 12:25.
 There are debates as to how exactly Jesus is using this passage of Scripture, as he is quoting God’s words to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 6:16. This in turn is a reference to Exodus 17:1–7, where the Israelites complained to Moses about not having water in the desert. The passage ends by telling us that the Israelites “tested the Lord saying, “‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” (v. 7). The Israelites wanted proof from God that going out into the wilderness was really his plan for them, and the Lord rebukes them for their lack of faith in Deuteronomy 6:16. In Jesus’ case, the devil tempts him to seek proof of God’s promises by placing himself in a harmful situation, and Jesus replies that this would also be testing God. While they would not say so explicitly, I see those Christians who continue to meet as doing something very similar. They are deliberately placing themselves at risk, and implying that it is ok because God will protect those who follow him. It may not be an explicit request for a sign, but neither was the Israelites’ request for water. In both cases, they imply that they deserve something from God in return for following his commands, and God’s response to the Israelites tells us that is not how God wishes his people to act towards him. I understand that not all of those who continue to meet at this time would agree with this. If they are willing to accept the risk of meeting, I still believe they are behaving unwisely and without concern for “the neighbor,” but they might be said to avoid putting God to the test. However, if they have the attitude at all that expects God’s protection, I think they are on extremely dangerous ground.