No other nation has ever done such a thing. But Yahweh commanded that Israel, essentially a nation of small farmers, should come together in a special place where His Name dwelt, three time a year. There are great lessons for ecclesial life here as we contend with the apathy of the latter days.

There can hardly be a more inspiring occasion than to see God’s ecclesial family gathered together “as one man” for the purpose of rejoicing before Him in anticipation of that great day when the decree will have gone out “Gather my saints together unto me” (Psa 50:5).

Paul’s appeal to the Thessalonians was inspired by this concept, “Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him” (2 Thess 2:1).

The Greek word chosen here by the Apostle is episunagōgē, “a complete assembly of the people”; the only other occurrence is found in Hebrews 10:25: “Forsake not the assembling of ourselves together.”

What a day when all God’s people out of every nation and tongue, and from all ages, will come before him who died that we may be “the general assembly and ecclesia of the firstborns” (Heb 12: 23).

A Larger Gathering a Blessing

Throughout our world-wide brotherhood, there are held from time to time those occasions we call “fraternal gatherings”. They are inspiring gatherings, especially for those smaller ecclesias, or those who live in isolation, who experience a sense of belonging to the larger community.

One is the poorer if the occasion is missed.

And there are those who do miss them. There have always been the individuals who avoid “crowds” and this is understandable where there exists a legitimate difficulty. It is sad where no such reason exists, except the lack of desire to join in combined worship. It is even sadder when certain ecclesias adopt this attitude, being perfectly happy to confine their activities to their own meeting with little regard for the greater brotherhood of Christ.

Such parochialism grows out of a selfish contentment with their own ecclesia’s affairs, very often signalling, perhaps unintentionally, a certain superiority, and by inference, the inferiority of those who choose to join together. It is this perception which can cast a shadow of disappointment over what should be an encouraging experience for all.

“Ecclesial autonomy” is the cry which justifies a lack of co-operation between the ecclesias. Autonomy is certainly meant to safeguard the unwelcome interference into what is the business of any one ecclesia, but no such term can exempt any ecclesia from its obligation to co-operate with matters which affect the ecclesias as a whole. Autonomy has its limits, which is the subject of the excellent article written by Brother John Carter.

God’s Opinion Beyond Dispute

Whatever the various opinions may be as to the advisability of combined ecclesial gatherings, one thing is absolutely beyond dispute—Yahweh stamped His approval on them! Even among the most enthusiastic “once-a-year-is-enough”, God Almighty saw the necessity of three (Deut 16:16)!

But then there are the difficulties. In some cases distance is an issue—“it’s too far”. In others it’s a question of the wrong time and the inconvenience that is created—“it’s not convenient at this time”. As to the distance, Israel were scattered from “Dan to Beersheba”, a distance of three hundred and thirty kilometres. But, of course, the central location being Jerusalem, they did not all have to travel the total distance. It was only two hundred and ten kilometres from Dan and even less from Beersheba—only one hundred and twenty from Beersheba!

Then, of course, comes the question of their mode of travel. At the best on the back of a donkey!

Where do we live? How far is it to the central location? What is our mode of travel? In the area where I live the answer to the question “how far” is about fifteen kilometres. “How do we travel”? In most cases in a modern car, equipped with air conditioning for the summer months and heating in the winter.

As to the inconvenience, consider the following. Each of the three annual feasts under the Law were held to celebrate the various harvests. “Passover” celebrated the barley harvest, “The feast of weeks” the reaping of the wheat, and “Tabernacles” the final ingathering of all the summer fruits, culminating in the vintage. Israel had not experienced the “industrial revolution” and was an agricultural society. Ask any farmer if it would create any difficulties to leave for the fraternal gathering to travel, say, fifty to a hundred kilometres on a donkey, when the crop at home was ripe for harvest!!

Why Yahweh Commanded This

Yahweh’s law made no concessions for the disadvantaged! It now begs the question as to why God saw fit to so order their lives that they should come together in such circumstances. Our question is largely answered by a consideration of Psalm 122.

This Psalm, written by David, is about their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem (v4). The first thing we note is that David expressed his delight to accept the invitation to go (v1)! Here was a brother thrilled with fraternal gatherings, and at the end of the Psalm he reveals his motive as to why he is so enthusiastic about his attendance. “For my brethren and companions’ sakes, I will now say, Peace be within thee” (v8). We all appreciate the term “brethren” and all that it implies in the Truth. “Companions” comes from a Hebrew word indicating “a very close friend” and is rendered “husband”, “neighbour”, “lover”, from a root word raah “to tend a flock”. Nothing selfish or parochial here, but a genuine love of the brotherhood and its communal welfare.

All venues are identified by name. Our venues may have a somewhat unrelated title to the purpose of the gathering. It matters not. What matters is the spirit that takes us there! For David, he was to go up to “the house of God” (v1). “House” here signifies not only a building but rather a family, and despite the seeming inappropriateness of some of the names of the buildings we temporarily occupy, it is God’s family that gathers there. Family gatherings are enjoyed by all who have families in which to congregate. There are many brothers and sisters who are bereft of all kith or kin in accepting the Truth. Think what these occasions mean to such! If for no other reason, should we not be glad to go “for our brethren and companions’ sakes”? It may even be that attendance could affect some family arrangement, yet by accepting to alter the arrangement are we not putting God’s family above our own and, by so doing, will He not be pleased to bless our own immediate earthly family (Matt 12: 47–49)?

Yahweh saw that such gatherings of His people were necessary for the practical demonstration and fostering of their unity of the spirit. Even the surrounding topography added its geographical lesson—“Jerusalem is builded as a city that is compact together” (v3). The expression here “compact together” is elsewhere rendered “to have fellowship” (Psa 94: 20), and is also used for the coupling together of the curtains of the Tabernacle (Exod 26:3). Jerusalem is surrounded by mountains, separated by narrow ravines. As the pilgrims made their way via more spacious valleys, the very topography would crowd them together the closer they got to Zion: “as the mountains are round about Jerusalem, so Yahweh is round about his people” (Psa 125: 2).

Without such contact three times a year, the twelve tribes would quickly settle into separate units and when the unity of the nation disintegrated it was the easiest thing to declare “every man to his tent” (2 Chron 25:22).

Branching Off!

So it was imperative, periodically, to call them together—“Whither the tribes go up, the tribes of Yahweh” (v4). The Hebrew term for “tribes”, shebet, has the meaning “to branch off” and Biblical history illustrates the parochial attitude of the tribe of Ephraim, and that of Benjamin, who at times were happy to “branch off”. Though there were the twelve tribes, each with its allotted territory, they were collectively known as “the tribes of thine inheritance” (Isa 63:17), it was always Yahweh’s purpose that they remain united, interdependent on one another. In the finality of things, when he comes whose right it is, the “Sticks” of the various tribes will be joined together into one stick, never again to “branch off” (Ezek 37: 15–22).

Hezekiah king of Judah was an outstanding example of one who valued the unity of the nation. In the north, the kingdom of Israel was at the bottom of its downward slide to ruin and captivity. This did not stop Hezekiah sending invitations, from “Beersheba even to Dan”, to the national gathering around the Passover Lamb (2 Chron 30: 1–9). The fact that the directions are stated in the reverse order than they normally appear (ie Dan to Beersheba), indicates Hezekiah’s intention to ensure that the feast would be properly based. All are invited to come to worship “Ýahweh Elohim of Israel”, the God of the covenant made with their fathers (2 Chron 30:5).

All are encouraged to rededicate themselves to the hope of Israel and to “enter into his sanctuary, which he hath sanctified forever” (2 Chron 30:8). It would appear that Hezekiah had prepared a special song, known as “the song of Yahweh” (2 Chron 29:27) to be sung on these special occasions. Isaiah was the contemporary Prophet who encouraged Hezekiah in all this, and in the context of 2 Chronicles 30 the prophet’s words are very relevant.

“In that day shall this song be sung in the land of Judah; We have a strong city;

Salvation will God appoint for walls and bulwarks.

Open ye the gates, that the righteous nation which keepeth the truth may enter in.”

Christadelphians Worldwide

What of today? There are ecclesias scattered all over the globe, light-stands springing up in countries where the Truth was not known. Brethren and sisters in the mission fields going to preach to those “afar off” take with them that aura of belonging to a wider family, and bring back the message of new family members craving news and contact with their new-found community.

In the larger cities, where a number of ecclesias exist, co-operation is just as vital to our survival in a vicious society, dedicated to its own interests, without regard for others. Experience has shown that when there were fewer ecclesias, in relative proximity, it was easier to maintain a healthy spirit of co-operation and oneness of purpose. Those older in years will readily recall the time when it was the custom to attend the opening fraternal of another ecclesia’s special effort, the hall packed with visitors, many times outnumbering those of the ecclesia sponsoring the effort!

Vision and Effort Needed!

As ecclesias multiply and expand with the growth of the city, communication becomes increasingly difficult. There is less personal contact and we know less about each other, with the consequent loss of unity of thinking on issues. There needs to be a more determined effort to bridge the gaps. Phrases coined about unity need to be ‘cashed in’ with practice. If it is true that “we are all really one big ecclesia”, then that’s how it ought to be. If it’s true that our particular ecclesia is but just “one corner of the vineyard”, then we ought to act as if all the grapes are of one variety, and that there are no hedges between the rows.

Our Lord addressed his last messages to just seven ecclesias, all clustered in a tight circle in Asia Minor. It was clearly obvious that the letters were meant to be universal, and he said as much: “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the ecclesias” (Rev 2:7 etc).

There may have been the symbolic “seven ecclesias”, “the twenty four elders”, “the twelve Apostles of the Lamb”, “the four living creatures”, “the hundred and forty four thousand”, “a great multitude that no man can number”—but in reality they all constituted the one body of Christ.

Next time the opportunity is presented to attend a combined gathering of the saints, let us in the same spirit of faith, say with the sweet psalmist of Israel, “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of Yahweh.”