“Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an
evil heart of unbelief in deserting from the living God; but
exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any of
you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:12, 13).
The New Testament consistently emphasizes the responsibility that we Christians have for each other. The command to exhort one another cannot be obeyed by praying. And it cannot be obeyed by any modern, neutered notion of encouragement.
Have we lost the biblical notion of exhortation? Actually, after much neglect, we quietly nudged it out the door. The Spirit of the Times offered us something more palatable: as for kids, something more like that seducer Sugar.
First, let us be clear about what exhort means. As The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology states it, “to exhort means to exert influence upon the will and decisions of another with the object of guiding him into a generally accepted code of behaviour or of encouraging him to observe certain instructions. Exhortation always presupposes some previous knowledge. It consists of reminding a person of this with the intention that he should carry it out. To exhort is to address the whole man.”
So, then, how has our friend Sugar killed the taste of what God requires from us? Encouragement strides onto center stage. But it is not encouragement to do right, to obey God, to follow his word. Rather, it is encouragement without standards, encouragement in a vacuum, encouragement to “be free, do what is right for you;” not encouragement to do God’s will.
Thus, Encouragement says, “We will be here for you, whatever you do.” Going to rob a bank or murder your enemy? “We are here for you.” Absurd? Let us look at the everyday life of the church when facing issues (i.e. sins) like abortion, divorce, and sodomy. The liberal agenda that encourages homosexuality repulses most of us. But many more Christians approach the abortion issue with the “you just do what’s right for you” philosophy. “We are here for you.” Even the evangelical church builds upon this same sure foundation of sand when facing sins like divorce….
This point needs to be absolutely clear in our minds: In exhortation, there is an “emphasis on the demand for right conduct in this life.” And, we do not set the standard, God’s word does. While in the New Testament “exhortation is an almost stereotyped part of the church’s life,” today, the ever-blowing Zeitgeist seeks to suffocate it. But we can gain the victory in that life and death struggle if we regain some lost territory, especially that of our minds with which we are to love God.
One way in which we have lost ground stems from our switching from the word “exhort”—“to advise or warn earnestly” (Webster)—to the word “encourage”—“to inspire with courage . . . cheer on or up” (Webster).
If we have children who compete in sports, we cheer them on in a race, or on the basketball court or football field. But certainly, that differs from an earnest warning to follow the rules of the event or of the game.
Now, in the New Testament, the Greek word (PARAKALEO) does have this range of meanings and a bit more. As always, the meaning depends on the context. We can see this by looking at the various words which the Revised Standard Version uses to translate it. Of the 109 occurrences of that Greek verb, the most often used translation is “exhort” (20 times). But it is also translated as “encourage” and “entreat” (6 times each); as “comfort” (15 times); and “beseech” (14 times). It also has the basic meaning of “call to” which is translated as “beg” (15 times) in such incidents as the petitions of the demons and of the citizens in the country of the Gadarenes, or as in the blind man’s cry for Jesus’ help.
Different contexts reflect different shades of meaning. When we examine the New International Version, probably the most widely used version, we see that in most instances, it uses “encourage” to replace “exhort” (except, inexplicably, in two verses, probably because of their familiarity). It also uses “urge” as a replacement (four times), and “plead” and “appeal” (once each).
But, here, if we lose ground, the responsibility for that loss falls mostly upon us as the readers, rather than upon the translators. We lose ground only when we focus on “encourage” in its popular sense without paying diligent attention to the text—a key weakness which we Christians have. In these verses, “encourage” has a strong focus: “to remain true to the Lord” (Acts 11:23) or “to the faith” (14:22); “to live lives worthy of God” (1 Thess. 2:12; cf. 4:1) and to grow in our love for one another (4:10).
We are encouraged to carry out specific actions: warn, console, or help, depending upon the problem (5:14). And as we encourage others, it is not from the well of our own opinions that we draw water, it is with “careful instruction” (2 Tim 4:2)—that “teaching” of the Apostles which is handed down to us in Scripture. Clearly, this is not that encouragement in a vacuum (without rules) which prevails today, where the focus turns to self as the final authority (that idolatrous individualism mentioned in chapter one).
That is why when we exhort our fellow Christians, we focus on God’s word. He has entrusted us, as stewards, with his revelation. We are to bring the light of his word to bear on the situation without fearfully shrinking back. And by our words we faithfully encourage those who stumble or who are leaving the narrow way to look at what God’s word reveals. We plead with them to conform their lives to Christ’s commands and directions. And if we are the ones doing the exhorting, we must always be mindful that that “demand for right conduct” comes, not from us, but from God.
–From Love, Prayer, and Forgiveness: When Basics Become Heresies.