Here in the South (the only culture I have lived in), we have a lot of churches teaching vastly different messages about Jesus. We are, currently, not under any life threatening forms of persecution for believing in Jesus. As a result of this, it seems that following Jesus has been reduced to fairly consistent church attendance and a willingness to say “I believe Jesus Christ died and rose again on the third day.”
The majority of believers have certainly fallen into the trap of worshipping the journey of Jesus without accepting His invitation to follow Him on the journey.
There are, however, a few who have taken seriously the teachings of Jesus and have decided to forsake all (whatever that means to them) and follow Him. I have been fortunate enough to find myself surrounded by a lot of these people. The writer of the book of Hebrews, in constructing an entire exhortation on the need for exhortation, presupposes community in his writing.
The reason this is necessary to know is because this essay will not be of much use to you or your church if you are not involved in the mutually submissive, confessional, covenant community of Christ. This essay will be of use to those who have decided to be set apart from the systems of the world, to live in community with the family of God, to no longer be driven by the economic systems of the world, and who have decided to join themselves to the poor and broken.
It is not necessary to establish an exhortative community for people who are casually “walking around the track”. Exhortation is put in place for those who are running “the race” that requires unending amounts of patience and endurance.
When explaining the context of the audience of the book of Hebrews (and the audience that would benefit from this reading), here’s what Thomas Long had to say:
“The Preacher is not preaching into a vacuum; he is addressing a real and urgent pastoral problem, one that seems astonishingly contemporary. His congregation is exhausted. They are tired – tired of serving the world, tired of worship, tired of Christian education, tired of being peculiar and whispered about in society, tired of the spiritual struggle, tired of trying to keep their prayer life going, tired even of Jesus. Their hands droop and their knees are weak (12:12), attendance is down at church (10:25), and they are losing confidence. The threat to this congregation is not that they are charging off in the wrong direction; they do not have enough energy to charge off anywhere. The threat here is that, worn down and worn out, they will drop their end of the rope and drift away. Tired of walking the walk, many of them are considering taking a walk, leaving the community and falling away from the faith.”
The Book of Hebrews is peppered with warnings for the church about the temptation to drift away from the faith. With all of these warnings, though, comes an incredible discourse of solutions. The word for “drift away” (as found in Hebrews 2:1) is the Greek word pararreo.
This word, to its original audience, would have evoked nautical images of a ship that has gotten off its course. Interestingly, this word does not describe a ship that has been wrecked; it only describes a ship that has gotten off its course.
It is obvious, through any reading of scripture, that following Jesus requires incredible endurance. All noble journeys are expected to require longevity; so, presenting the idea of endurance in following Jesus should not come as a shock to us. We may, for a while, enjoy the easy road that requires no strength, wisdom, or patience, but anyone who has ever endured suffering and/or pain, in order to accomplish a goal, will attest to the truth that this is what we are made for.
When following Jesus is reduced to abstaining from vices, instead of pursuing the Way of righteousness, we exchange the need for exhortation to sitting at home and swatting flies.
The call to follow Jesus is not one that looks like us simply not doing the things we were doing before we began the journey; the call to follow Him looks like us learning brand new ways of living out every part of our lives.
This adventure requires a departure from familiarity. The journey away from familiarity can be an incredibly scary thing because of its inherent unpredictability.
When we finally find ourselves on the road to righteousness, following the example of Jesus, we will immediately find the need to be assembled in an exhortative community.
To continue trusting God to provide for us as we give and join ourselves to the poor, to suffer unjustly believing the Judge is just, to trust God to promote us when we do our charitable deeds anonymously, to trust Him to comfort us as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, to trust Him to preserve us as we obey His command to bless those who curse us and not resist the evil person, believing He will raise us to eternal life, to withhold our tongue when we are falsely accused believing He is our defender, to live according to His opinion of us rather than the opinions of man, and to trust Him to deliver us from the fear of death can be incredibly difficult.
The energies of comparison and competition, lust and envy, pride and jealousy are in our lives like a rushing river, ever ready to sweep us up and take us down stream. The very present reality of a temptation that wants us to serve ourselves seems to present itself to us every single day. To drift away – to apostatize, to rebel against the polis of Jesus, to lose faith and become disobedient – is the decision, whether initially or overtime, to give in to the instantly gratifying systems of the world rather than waiting on God’s design for reward that requires the fruit of longsuffering.
Perseverance is not an appointed characteristic of those who inherit salvation. Perseverance is a choice to continue resting in the promises of God even though we may not see any fruit. Rest is the manifest posture of trust. In order to trust, according to the book of Hebrews, we must continually hear the word that has been spoken. Faith (trust) comes through hearing and hearing by the word of God. We walk by faith and not by sight. This journey is not one we can complete because we have eyes, but it is one we can only complete because we have ears.
Exhortation is never the sign or wonder, but it is always the word we have heard with our ears. If we learned anything from the children of Israel’s wandering through the wilderness it was this: signs and wonders can initiate faithfulness, but they cannot sustain faithfulness. Signs and wonders are those things we see that point to the character of God, but they are not the voice of God that we need to continually be listening for in order to remain faithful.
Our faith needs to continually be hearing.
Oftentimes, exhortation gets confused with flattery. Exhortation, however, is not the desperate grasping for words that edify, but the fruit of someone who sees others the way God sees them.
The difference between flattery and exhortation is this: if I am the one who flatters, I am saying good things about someone else in order to benefit me; if I am the one who exhorts, I am saying good things about someone else in order to actually bring benefit to that person.
Exhortative communities do not see the world through the lens of competition and comparison, but they are able to see that we all need one another. They are able to realize that we cannot accomplish the mission God has called us to by ourselves.
Without awareness and intention, though, of the power of exhortation and what it can do for the faith of the believer, it would be very easy for us to assume that people know how they are gifted and what they are doing well. It’s also easy for us, when given over to the whims of carnal thinking and selfishness, to only acknowledge the actions of others when they serve as negative disruptions to our personal journey. As long as people are doing well, as long as they are not negatively disrupting the flow of the community, we typically do not take the time to pull them aside to let them know we appreciate what they are doing.
What if exhortation was our first choice for discipline in the Church? The writer of Hebrews gives a direct link to daily exhortation being the solution to the problem of being “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin”.
“Take care, brothers and sisters, that none of you may have an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today’, so that none of you may he hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Hebrews 3:12-13, NRSV)
To determine if a day is a necessary day for us to exhort our brother, all we need to ask ourselves is the question, “Is it today?”
Every single day we will be presented with the ability to exhort our brothers and sisters. Even if this does not mean that we confront them face-to-face, it may mean that our exhortation is bringing them up in our conversations with God. To be a daily exhorter requires, and also produces, the ability to see the “gold” in the people we share this journey with.
We need help in this journey.
We need one another.
Make it a part of your daily life to become aware of those on the JOURNEY around you, and ask God for the help to know what it looks like to exhort them. What worddoes their faith need to hear today?
Grace and Peace,
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