Laity Sunday celebrates the ministry of all lay Christians (non-clergy.) Our brother, Tom Oh, shared the Word with us in honor of Laity Sunday.
Hebrews 3:12-19 (NIV)
12 See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. 14 We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end. 15 As has just been said:
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion.”
16 Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt? 17 And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies perished in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed? 19 So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.
The title of today’s message is “Encourage one another daily.” This phrase appears in the Bible passage, and it is addressed to all Christians. Encouraging one another is not a task that is relegated to the pastors or clergy, but is specifically addressed to “brother and sisters”, i.e. to all of the church. Hence this is something I wanted to share about for Laity Sunday.
The passage comes from the book of Hebrews, which is in the New Testament, and which might be my favorite book of the Bible.
I want to present the message in the form of three questions. 1) Why is encouraging one another so important? 2) What does it mean to encourage one another? And 3) How can we do this?
Why is encouragement so important?
To answer this question, let’s dive right into today’s text. The passage opens in dramatic fashion, warning us, “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” Right away we see that the writer is raising a weighty issue. Having a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God probably ranks pretty high up there in the list of worst possible problems you could have. And so anything that can be done about that is probably very important.
In the next verse he comes to the topic of today’s message: “But encourage one another daily”. Instead of having sinful and unbelieving and turning-away-from-God hearts, instead of that he calls us to “Encourage one another daily.” And he doesn’t stop at daily, but goes on to say “as long as it is called Today”. How long is it called today? It’s always called Today! It doesn’t matter if you live to be a hundred years old, that day will still be called “Today”.
Encouraging one another is something that needs to be done again and again. It’s not something that we outgrow, like we don’t need it anymore once we’re mature. It’s not something that is reserved for special occasions – for the crisis or for really hard times. In fact most spiritual formation happens on the day-to-day basis in *preparation* ahead of time so we can be ready for the day when crisis strikes: Jesus says to build your house on the rock so that *when* the wind and waves come, the house will stand. Or Ephesians 6 says: “put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground”. So encouraging one another should be be happening on a daily basis.
And why? What is the purpose for encouraging one another daily as long as it is called today? What is the effect or outcome of us encouraging each other? Verse 13 goes on to say: “so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness”. Let me read that again in case you missed it – “encourage one another *so that* none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” Here is what is at stake. We, all of us in the church, must encourage one another daily, so that none of us may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.
Note that it doesn’t say the sin of deceitfulness. It’s not that the people are being deceitful. It says the deceitfulness of sin. Sin is deceiving the people, which causes their hearts to be hardened.
An illustration from Massah and Meribah
To illustrate this, the writer of Hebrews makes a reference to an Old Testament story; an incident that took place at a place called Massah and Meribah. We know this because the quotation there that begins “Today if you hear his voice”, is a quote from Psalm 95, which reads:
“Today, if only you would hear his voice,
Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness.”
The story is described in Exodus 17. It takes place after God, through the prophet Moses, rescues the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. If you’ll remember, God has plans to bring the nation to a promised land, but at the moment they are traveling in the wilderness. During the their travels they camp at a place called Rephidim; however there is a problem. There is no source of water at this campsite.
So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?” 3 But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”
From one perspective, it seems that the people have a valid complaint. Clearly water is a necessity for survival, and having no source, especially for such a large group of people, is a serious problem.
On the other hand, and this is the Biblical perspective, the people are completely in the wrong. And the whole matter hinges on the question of “what is the nature of the living God?” This is why Moses says “Why do you put the LORD to the test?” Because Israel is following God’s instructions as they travel from place to place, what the people are really doing is questioning God’s trustworthiness. God made a mistake in bringing us to this campsite. Or he does not care what happens to his people. Or He is incapable of providing for our needs. Or He cannot be relied upon to do it.
It’s important to note that these people have seen God work His power time and time again. They saw Him break the supposedly invincible Pharaoh and the mighty army of Egypt. They witnessed him open up the Red Sea and speak from a pillar of fire. In just the *previous* chapter, they ate miraculously procured manna and quail that God provided when they got hungry. At this point they really have absolutely no excuse for the type of complaining they are doing.
So the people were hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. The deceitfulness of sin told them that God could not be believed, and so their hearts were hardened. The deceitfulness of sin made them forget everything they should have known about God and His past actions and His character. As the last verse of today’s passage says, because of their unbelief, they were never able to enter the promised land.
A matter of spiritual life and death
If that weren’t troubling enough, the writer of Hebrews makes one other important point in verse 16. He says that those who rebelled were all people who Moses led out of Egypt. The meaning is quite clear – the people who hardened their hearts and turned away from God were people who, at least externally, were “saved”.
So the writer makes very clear the importance of encouraging one another; it is a matter of spiritual life and death. And this awesome responsibility has been entrusted, not just to the pastors or elders or counselors, but to every Christian; to all of us here at Morningside. We all need to encourage one another daily. But this brings us to our second question: what does it mean to encourage one another?
What is encouragement?
One of the reasons we might have a hard time following the command to encourage one another daily is not knowing what exactly that means. Does it mean giving compliments? Hey great job on that thing, Myong! Or telling someone who is having a hard time that things are going to be okay? Is it saying God loves you? Being positive and uplifting?
Words that fight the deceitfulness of sin
We can learn a lot about encouragement from the passage itself. From the context we can see that encouragement is something that fights against our tendency to be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. It fights against the lies of sin, which tells us not to believe God.
They are words that bring to mind the truth – the truth about God, and who we are, and where are going. For the Israelites, they needed to be reminded that God had already provided for them; that He is greater than any other power, that He had a good plan. Yes the wilderness was at times uncomfortable, but God was using this time to prepare them for the promised land. This was not their permanent home.
It’s much the same for us. As Christians, we are also headed for a promised land, a permanent home; but we aren’t there yet. We need encouragement to remind us that God is doing something bigger and greater than career or relationships or having friends or even our own health. We need encouragement that reminds us that God is not going to make a mess up our life, even though He may do things that cause pain or that we cannot understand. At times it may seem more attractive to return to Egypt – life without God and back under the slavery of sin, but we need encouragement to remind us that going back would be the ultimate folly. Regardless of what it costs, making it to the end is worth it all. God’s purpose is not to make us comfortable in the desert, but to form us into to citizens of the promised land.
Parakaleo – call near
As I was studying the text in preparing this message, I thought I would take a look at the original Greek to see if it would give any additional insight into the meaning of encouragement, and I did notice something that I thought was helpful. As we already read, the previous verse says, “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” That phrase, “turns away” translates a single Greek word, aphistemi, literally “stand away” or “stand far”. So the writer is warning us against standing far from the living God.
Instead we should, “encourage one another daily”. The Greek word used for encouragement here is parakaleo – para meaning alongside, and kaleo meaning “call”. Literally, call alongside or call near. Call each other near daily. Parakaleo.
So by his choice of wording, the writer is painting a visual depiction of encouragement: don’t have a sinful heart that stands far from God. But call near to one another.
To encourage one another is to call each other to come near. Parakaleo is in other places translated beckon, urge, plead, or even console. It’s an urgent, yet pleading word. It doesn’t berate and put down, and yet it doesn’t pretend that things are fine when they aren’t. Instead it calls out – Come near! Let’s go together! Come on, don’t stand far from God, come near!
Parakaleo says, don’t fall for the deceitfulness of sin. Don’t believe the lies – that God has forgotten you, that He doesn’t care. Don’t believe the lie that life is better without Him, that things are better back in Egypt, that following Jesus is not worth it. No, come near! There is a better thing. God is not going to make a mistake. His wisdom is perfect. His ways are higher. Come near!
For the sufferings of this present age are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us! Don’t stand far – come near!
Better is one day in His courts, than thousands elsewhere. Come near!
There is in all of us a tendency towards wandering away. There are a million ways, some great and some small, that we could doubt God or grow cynical or forget His greater plan and get caught up in the day-to-day or get distracted by earthly ambition or human recognition. As the hymn says, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” We can see that to encourage each other daily means to call each other near to God every day. The last question then is how can we do this?
How can we do this?
It does seem like I could’ve ended the message here. We’ve talked about how incredibly important it is for all of us to encourage one another and talked about what encouragement looks like – that is to call each other near, to speak against the deceit of sin. But to me the question of “How can we do this” remains because even knowing what it is, encouraging each other is incredibly hard.
It’s incredibly hard for many reasons. It’s hard because we don’t know what to say. It’s hard because we get busy with life and forget. It’s hard because even though we try, people don’t really wanna hear my encouragement. It’s hard because we have problems of our own and why won’t someone encourage me?
Let’s look back at the passage. Verse 13 says encourage one another so that you may not be hardened. But verse 15 says, “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” As much as we call near to one another, the voice that we need to hear is Christ’s.
2 Thessalonians 2:16-17 says “May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, 17 encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.”
The ending of Massah and Meribah
I want to close by telling the rest of the story of Massah and Meribah. After the people brought their complaints to Moses about the lack of water Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, “What am I to do with these people?
5 The Lord answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.”
Picture it with me. God stands on one side, perhaps in the form of a pillar of fire, which is how he often appeared to the people. Next to him is a rock. On the other side, we have the people of Israel who have been complaining against this holy God. In the middle we have Moses. In his hand is the staff. Not just any staff, but the story specifically says the staff with which Moses struck the Nile. It’s the staff of God’s judgement, with which God brought plagues against Egypt. And Moses raises this staff in front of Israel.
Imagine what it would be like to stand in that crowd. I know what I would be thinking. Okay we’re really in big trouble now.
But Moses swings the staff down and strikes the rock instead. And from the rock comes water for the people to drink. Imagine the relief and then celebration as people drank and filled their water jugs for their children and livestock.
We might have a hard time understanding the meaning of this story, but thankfully, the apostle Paul explains it for us when he references this story in 1 Corinthians 10. He says “our forefathers drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ”
That rock was Christ. When we doubt God’s faithfulness, we cast aspersions on an infinitely holy God. We call into question a perfect God’s honor and integrity. Whether we know it or not, we have committed a great offense, and God has every right to bring down the staff of judgment upon us. But God had a different plan and the blow falls on Jesus and instead of judgement we receive life-giving water.
Do you hear His voice? In the wilderness there may be suffering and challenges and every temptation to return to Egypt, to give up on the path God laid out for us. But listen for Jesus’ voice. He says I too have suffered and struggled and have been tempted in every way. I was also tempted to give up on the difficult journey God planned out for me. But for the joy set before me I endured the cross. I am the rock that is with you in the desert, and at the cross I was struck with the staff of God’s judgement. I go to prepare a place for you in my Father’s house, and I will come back and take you to be with me, that you also may be where I am. Hear my voice. Don’t stand far. Come near. Drink this water. And call your brothers and sisters to come near also.