Fall 1997


Volume 16, Issue 3

Be An Encourager

by Derek Thomas


Hast thou no scar?
No hidden scar on foot, or side, or hand?
...can he have followed far
Who has no wound or scar?

So wrote Amy Carmichael in a poem entitled Gold Scar. It makes the point that all Christians know something of the effects of stress on their lives. Some are hugely vulnerable. Christians become depressed, grow cynical, and occasionally even break down. We recognize the walking wounded in our churches. Realism dictates that we, too, are among them. We should realize that among Christian people today exists a widespread spirit of discouragement.

Let's face it, we are not very good at giving encouragement. We find it easier to criticize, to put down, to dismiss, to find fault. Ask yourself this question: When did I last encourage someone else? Too often, we hurt each other either by an angry, dismissive comment or; perhaps more often, by simply ignoring each other We take each other for granted. The result is that many Christian people are discouraged, including those involved in Christian work: Sunday School teachers, youth leaders, office-bearers, and even preachers. Some Christians are the targets of severe censure; others are the victims of witticism-abuse-that is, the sarcastic joke that often becomes a murderous tool in the hands of experts. Others are ignored and forgotten, their hurts unhealed. This is a million miles away from what the church is meant to be.

THREE MODELS OF ENCOURAGEMENT

The Bible contains at least ten words (five in Hebrew and five in Greek) all of which, in one way or another; convey the thought of giving encouragement. Three models, however, stand out for our attention. First is the name given to the Holy Spirit. He is the Paraklete, the Comforter the Strengthener; the Encourager (John 14:16). It is His ministry to infuse stamina and spiritual vitality into our lives. He convinces us that in Christ we are sinners to be sure, but redeemed sinners. A whole battalion of counselors, analysts, and therapists cannot do what the Holy Spirit does in the hearts of those who are God's redeemed children.

I once was an outcast stranger on earth,
A sinner by choice, and an alien by birth!
But I've been adopted, my name's written down,
An heir to a mansion, a robe, and a crown.

I'm the child of a King, the child of a King!
With Jesus, my Saviour I'm the child of a King.

There is no greater encouragement than to be assured of the esteem in which we are held by God: sinners though we are, unworthy of the least of His mercies, He has chosen to love us and we are thrilled by every reminder of it that the Holy Spirit imparts.

A paraclete is, in the older sense of the word, a 'comforter'(Latin cum forte), i.e. someone who comes to strengthen. But today scholars recognize that in John the term has a forensic connotation. The Spirit witnesses and testifies of Christ. It is here that we come to appreciate something special about the Spirit's witness to Christ: it is a witness which we also are to engage in. "You also must testif9; for you have been with me from the beginning" (John 15:27). The reference is, of course, to the work of the apostles. They too share in the witness-bearing work of the Spirit by pointing to Christ. This is particularly instructive, for, as Sinclair Ferguson has written:

In our Lord's culture, trials were conducted not by lawyers acting for the prosecution and the defence, but by a judge eliciting the truth from witnesses who came forward with evidence (cf. Dt. 17:6). In such a context the 'advocate' or 'defence counsel' sought by an accused person was not a highly-trained professional, but someone who would vindicate him or her by telling the truth. An eye-witness and/or a character witness was what was required; someone whose relationship to the accused enabled him to speak with authority; an intimate friend rather than a person professionally trained in the law. (The Holy Spirit (Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), pp.36-37.)

How instructive, then, that He who knows Jesus best, should be the one who encourages others to know Him. It is precisely here that The Holy Spirit is our model in encouragement: testifying to others of the glory of Christ!

The second model of encouragement is the ministry revealed in the Gospels of the encouragement the Father gives to His Son to fulfill his role as the Divine Mediator; At three crucial points in the Son's ministry the Father steps in and appears to strengthen His Beloved One. At Jesus' baptism, at the beginning of His public ministry, and towards the close of the Transfiguration, the Father seemed to say, "I love you, my Son, and I love what You are doing." And in Gethsemane, wrestling with clarity of the Father's will for Him, Jesus was ministered to by an angel.

The third example of encouragement is Barnabas, called "the son of encouragement" (Acts 4:36). It was Barnabas who sold a piece of land which he owned, giving the proceeds to the church at Jerusalem at a time of financial need (Acts 4:32-37). When the Jerusalem church was deeply suspicious of Saul's conversion, it was Barnabas who stuck his neck out and defended him (Acts 11:22-26). He gave Saul (now Paul) the very place of prominence he had himself occupied! There is no hint of jealousy when the names are suddenly switched from "Barnabas and Saul" (Acts 13:1) to "Paul and Barnabas" (Acts 13:42).

And it is Barnabas who stood up for John Mark's failure on the field of missionary service. When John Mark had gone home in the middle of the first missionary journey, Paul found it difficult to use him again. It was Barnabas who decided to take the risk and encourage him in useful service in Cyprus. Paul was later to see how right Barnabas had been when he asks for John Mark to join him because of his great "usefulness" (2 Tim. 4:11). Think about it: were it not for Barnabas, we would not have Mark’s gospel!

GUARDING THE TONGUE

If we are to become encouragers, what will it involve? The writer to the Hebrews gives the answer: "let us encourage one another" he writes (Heb. 10:25). And how? "And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds" (10:24). This involves letting the needs of others take priority over our own needs. We are to look out for the weak, the hurting, the depressed, and the forgotten. At the very least it will mean having to mortify our tendency to criticize. In an English country churchyard, a gravestone has the following inscription:

Beneath this stone, a lump of clay,
Lies Arabella Young,
Who, on the Twenty-fourth of May,
Began to hold her tongue.

The tongue is a fire, a restless evil full of deadly poison (c.f. Jam. 3:6,8). It can be a lethal instrument. That is why David vowed to muzzle it (Psa.39:1).

But we shall need to do more than muzzle our tongues. We shall need to praise those whom we have, until now, ignored. Paul praised the Christians in Rome for the way their faith was known throughout the world. He does something similar with the Thessalonians when he commends them for their work of faith, their labour of love, and their perseverance inspired by hope (1 Thess. 1:3).

When did you last write a note to someone to thank them for the ministry they perform? Is there someone to whom you should say, "I've not told you this before, but I really appreciate what you do in the church." When did you last think of inviting that Christian who seemed so discouraged to a meal in your home?

Of course, if we are going to encourage others in the church, we will have to be there when they gather together; Empty seats at worship times and prayer meetings was something the writer to the Hebrews knew, too. One of the ways we discourage each other the most is by staying away. Why else did he exhort his readers: "Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another.." (Heb. 10:25). Perhaps it is just here that we need to ask: "Am I an encourager or a discourager?"

WHO NEEDS ENCOURAGEMENT?

One of the most remarkable passages in the New Testament is found in the first chapter of Romans where Paul, writing to a young church to which he had never been, tells them of his burden in prayer that God allow him to make a visit. And why was he anxious to meet them? Because he believed that their fellowship together word prove strengthening: "that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith" (Rom. 1:12). The church at Rome had a reputation for their great faith: it was "being reported all over the world" (Rom. 1:8).

Paul was in need of encouragement! It is not the view of the apostle that we usually have. We imagine him to be self-assured, confident, always helping others but strong enough to stand on his own two feet. "There is no one so void of gifts in the Church of Christ, who is not able to contribute something to our benefit," comments Calvin.

And he was right. We need each other. After all, as the Italians are fond of saying, "We are family!"

 
Originally from Wales, Derek Thomas is the Dean of Students and Dean of Chapel at RTS/Jackson. Before coming to RTS, he pastored for seventeen years in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He brings with him not only years of ministry experience, but also a contagious zeal for the Word of God. The author of numerous books and articles, Thomas has also served as editor of the Evangelical Presbyterian, a monthly denominational magazine. A 1978 graduate of RTS, he is a Ph.D. candidate at the Highland Theological Institute in Scotland, where he is concentrating on Calvin's Old Testament preaching.

 


Reformed Quarterly, Volume 16, Issue 3
Reformed Theological Seminary
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