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Living Stones Theology:  The Spiritual Gift of Encouragement / Exhortation

Romans 12:3-13, 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 (NIV)
(c) Copyright 2004 Rev. Bill Versteeg

Romans 12:8
3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. 4 Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. 7 If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; 8 if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.

9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

2 Corinthians 1:1-7
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. 5 For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. 6 If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. 7 And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.

If you remember some months ago, we took what is called the Natural Church Development Survey, and one of the areas where we found we could grow was in the area of encouragement.  Actually, it was specifically in the area of leadership that we need to grow in the skills and gifts of encouragement. So this morning, on Mother’s day, in honour of our mothers, many of which richly encouraged us, we are going to look at the Spiritual gift of encouragement. First a couple of points to remember about Spiritual gifts.

Paul in I Corinthians 12 instructs us to eagerly desire the spiritual gifts. Whereas the scriptures teach us to be content with many things, it tells us to be filled with desire when it comes to the spiritual gifts. Scripture says don’t be content about spiritual gifts, desire them, learn about them.  When we desire something, we take the time to learn about it. When you desire fishing, you become knowledgeable about it.  Those in this congregation who enjoy fishing probably know a lot more about it than I do.  Desire and knowledge go hand in hand. 

Paul also tells us that regarding spiritual gifts we should not be ignorant.  That is because ignorance throughout the scriptures leads to disobedience.  In the are of spiritual gifts, ignorance leads to the disobedience of not using the gifts we have been given by God and as the 'parable of the talents' (Matthew 25) clearly conveys, that angers God.  Ignorance also leads to abusing the gifts God has given us as happened in the Corinthian congregation regarding some of the gifts.

The gift of encouragement / exhortation is one of the spiritual gifts that is often misunderstood. The entire reason has to do with translation.  This gift does not easily translate into one word in the English language. If you have a different translation with you,  you will notice that this gift in the New International Version is called "the gift of encouragement,"  whereas in the Revised Standard Version and some older translations, it is called "the gift of exhortation."

The word for this gift in its verb form in the Greek is Parakaleo  and it literally means to “call toward”, “draw near” or “come alongside.” As a noun it is pronounced Paraklaetos which means “one who comes alongside.”   The verb and the noun are closely related just as they are often closely related in the English language.  Now how do we get encouragement and or exhortation from that one basic word in the Greek which means "to come alongside?"

The answer to that has to do with the use of this word in the Greek language. A person who drew near had a variety of roles in that culture.  A Paraklaetos for example could be a lawyer who in a court of law stood at your side and helped in your defence, strengthening your position before a judge. A Paraklaetos could also be someone who had the guts to approach someone and teach them by means of confrontation, or as our English word suggests, exhorts someone. But at the heart of its meaning is the sense of caring - caring enough to confront someone and correct them in their ways.

Jesus was a Parakleatos. Jesus was "Immanuel," that is "God with us." In the process of his ministry, Jesus was God walking with the disciples, he lived with them for three years, he gave himself to them. When their hearts were troubled, he encouraged them, he said "Do not let your hearts be troubled, believe in God and also in me," he comforted them.  When their unbelief ruled the day, he challenged them to faith, confronted them for their slowness of heart, even suggested at times that they were doing the work of Satan. Jesus was the first Paraklaetos and before he left he promised a second one.  Listen to these words from John 14:15-18

“If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor  (Paraklaetos) to be with you forever - the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans, I will come to you.”

The Spirit, who is the gift of God’s continuing presence in our lives is not only a comforter, he not only encourages us in our journey of faith.  Like Christ, he convicts us of sin, righteousness and judgement. He encourages and exhorts us.  In the process he shows to us that God has not left us as orphans.  Rather in his infinite love God has made us his children - children who inherit the blessings of love, encouragement and discipline.

At the heart then of this gift is the quality of being near to others.   Nearness, or to come near, lies at the heart of both encouragement and exhortation because nearness communicates care.

Some illustrations
When we moved here to Langley, and then again when we moved to our new home, a number of you came out to help us move, making an incredibly large task much more tolerable. It was your presence that encouraged us. It was you willing hands of service that gave us the courage to press on.

When we were building our home in Thunder Bay, the job was significantly larger than we could have anticipated. But of the many people who encouraged us, there was no one who encouraged us more than Murray and Debbie.  During the time that we were clearing our land they spent day after day with us hauling away cut up trees and helping us stack and burn them. It was their willingness to be near us that communicated care and gave us strength to keep on going. They used their gift of encouragement for us.

There was another person who was there for us too.  He was an engineer named Martin, he enjoyed accuracy and precision in workmanship,  in fact, in virtually everything he did.  Martin regularly exhorted me to make sure things where square, plumb and straight, and he would remind me that when you start big projects right, it bears dividends later.  Sometimes I would shudder at those three words "square, plumb and straight!"  I'm a person that says, as long as it works, it doesn't have to be perfect (if you have seen my cars, you know how true that is of me) but that does not work well when building a house. Judy and I are so very thankful to Martin for caring enough not to leave us alone to make mistakes that would have had long term consequences. He did not leave us as house building orphans either.

Both the encouragers and the exhorters were people who expressed their care in coming near, not leaving us alone.
In our lives as Christians,  those with the gift of encouragement / exhortation are people who are able to draw near to us. They do that by listening well,  by listening to our stories, our emotions, our joys and our pains. They choose to spend their time with us, we don’t have to drag it out of them. They communicate by their actions and reactions that they have our best interests at heart. Even when they speak the truth to us,  we have a sense that they do it to us out of love. At the heart of the Paraklaetos is the passion to be there for others.

Now there are many people who have this ability to encourage, and or exhort in helpful ways. But what is it about the gift of encouragement that not only makes this a spiritual gift, it also makes it a gift that is absolutely essential to those who minister and give care in the Christian community?

The Christian gift of being a Paraklaetos uniquely communicates the faithfulness, the grace, and the nearness of God.

You see, it is one thing to help another person in a physical project, it is often another thing to help each other on a spiritual journey. One of the most difficult dynamics for many Christians is that they feel like they are on their journey of faith all by themselves. Their struggles of faith are personal and private.  Their battles with temptation they keep to themselves, their life decisions are theirs to make alone. As Christians, even though we are part of a church, we often feel alone, orphaned, we wish God would speak to us, we wish our personal struggles could be shared.

A working Definition of the Spiritual Gift of Encouragement / Exhortation

"The spiritual gift of encouragement / exhortation is a divine ability to break through another’s spiritual and life loneliness and help them to understand that they are not alone on the journey of life / faith, rather there are flesh and blood people who are willing to walk it with them, and through them, there is a God who no matter how far away he seems, is there for them."

You see, people who have this gift have often learned it in the furnace of experience. They have been through periods in their life where they have wondered weather God dropped them, left them alone to fall, to break apart, to experience times of trouble. Maybe they lost a loved one, had a serious illness, went through times of trial and confusion themselves, but they pulled through and they discovered by experience that God is faithful to his promises.  They discovered that God is a God of immeasurable grace, forgiveness and mercy. And from that experiential knowledge they can strengthen others in their journey. They become for struggling Christians the nearness of God expressed by the body of Christ. They are God's hands on the shoulder that touch and encourage. They are God's voice that warns of the consequence of falling for temptation.   They are the ones who can say with conviction to others from I Peter 5
“And the God of all grace who call you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.”

They are the ones who comfort others with the comfort they themselves have received.
`The God of all comfort, who Comforted us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. (2 Corinthians 1:4)

Every time we read the word comfort in this passage, the Greek word is related to Paraklaetos which means "to draw near." Paul, having been through many struggles, some of which caused him to despair of life itself, discovered that God is faithful and gracious, his promises are all fulfilled in Christ.  Having discovered that, he chose with his gifts of encouragement to share that realization with others who needed that same comfort.

I also want to remind everyone of the encouraging power of prayer. Paul, as he went through his many struggles knew the very real, concrete help he received from those who prayed.  He regarded those who prayed as those who were on the mission field with him, fellow workers, fellow strugglers in the spread of the gospel.   Paul wrote “As you help us with your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.”. II Corinthians 1:11   Many of us here have discovered that same truth. Again and again, as we as a congregation have been made aware of struggles in health or life for different people, we have joined with them in prayer. As I have journeyed with people through times of trouble, I have heard people from hospital beds or even in the deepest parts of their personal struggles say to me: “I can feel the prayers of God’s people.”  They often could not put their finger on how, but by those prayers they had the feeling that they were not in the struggle alone, they had not been left as orphans, God was with them and the Christian community was with them, if not in their physical presence, then powerfully in their prayers.  One of the most significant ways that we can draw near to people is by drawing near to them in prayer, presenting them to God, interceding for them that God do his good, merciful, gracious work in their lives. 

And so the word of God for us this morning is to encourage one another, draw near to each other through physical help, through spiritual help, through prayer and so build one another up.

Now as we come to the Lord’s Supper together, let me remind you that when Christ came, he came as the divine encourager, the Paraclaetos, Immanuel, God who drew near to us, came along side us in every way, died for us, his body given, his blood shed for us as a sacrifice for our sin, in our place. When we partake of the bread and juice, we draw near to the one that encourages us, the one who will never leave us alone as orphans, the one who has sent the Spirit to minister to us.

(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

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