Throughout the New Testament, the phrase “one another” appears over ninety times and is associated with over thirty-five different verbs, which identify activities in which Christians are to be engaged as part of the body of believers. Implicit in these “one another” passages is the expectation of community. Over the past few weeks we have been investigating some of these “one another” instructions in an effort to identify our responsibilities to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. As we continue this series, we turn our attention to Paul’s instruction to “encourage one another and build one another up” in 1 Thessalonians 5:11.
Why is encouragement so important?
Scripture indicates that encouragement serves two primary purposes for followers of Christ. The first purpose has to do with protection while the second has to do with maturation.
First, we are instructed in Hebrews 3:13 to “encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today,’ so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” This passage indicates that encouragement serves a defensive function by preventing the hardening of hearts. Thus, we are to encourage one another in order to protect each other from becoming spiritually desensitized.
Second, we are instructed in Hebrews 10:24-25 to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” This passage indicates that stirring up one another and encouraging one another serves an offensive function by promoting behaviors associated with love and good works. Thus, we are to encourage one another in order to help each other produce attitudes and actions that are in keeping with the will of God. So, in simplified terms, encouragement is designed to prevent the wrong choices and to promote the right ones, and, as a result, it is essential to our spiritual maturation.
What does encouragement entail?
In order to identify what encouragement entails, let us examine the example of a man named Joseph who was integral to the growth of the church during its infancy. We are introduced to Joseph in Acts 4:36. We tend not to remember him for his surname but for his nickname, Barnabas. The name Barnabas actually means “son of encouragement.” That is a very specific nickname. Obviously, he received this nickname because he possessed the natural ability to encourage others, but how did his encouragement manifest itself?
In some cases Barnabas’ encouragement manifested itself through benevolence. For example, in Acts 4:36-37, he encouraged the church in Jerusalem by benevolently selling his property and giving the proceeds to the apostles for use in God’s kingdom. In other instances, his encouragement manifested itself through a spirit of unity. For example, Barnabas encouraged Gentile converts in the city of Antioch by ministering to them despite his Jewish heritage, according to Acts 11:19-24. In other words, he ignored the cultural and ethnic divides that plagued the church in other first century communities. At other times, Barnabas’ encouragement manifested itself through the responsibilities he was willing to assume. Throughout Scripture we learn that he served, at one time or another, as a teacher (Acts 11:26; 13:1), gift-bearer (Acts 11:30), missionary (Acts 13:2), and delegate (Acts 15:2). Thus, it appears that Barnabas encouraged the church by filling whatever role the church needed him to fill.
However, Barnabas’ greatest contribution as an encourager might have been his uncanny ability to see the best in others despite their shortfalls. For example, it was Barnabas who initially vouched for Paul. After his conversion, Paul “attempted to join the disciples” in Jerusalem, but “they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple” (Acts 9:26). His past as a persecutor was too prevalent for people to look past. While everyone kept their distance from Paul, fearing that he was pretending to be a disciple in order to infiltrate the church, Barnabas willingly escorted him to the apostles in order to present him as a fellow believer (Acts 9:27). Barnabas risked his reputation and safety when he took Paul under his wing. However, that did not phase the Son of Encouragement because he did not see Paul the persecutor; he saw Paul the brother. Thus, the man who the church was too afraid to accept became its greatest missionary largely because an encourager saw the potential rather than the problem in him.
Interestingly, Barnabas’ ability to see the best in others became the source of his separation from Paul (Acts 15:36-40). When it came time to initiate their second missionary journey, Barnabas wanted to invite John Mark to be their partner, even though John Mark deserted him and Paul in the midst of their first missionary journey (Acts 13:13). That desertion had such a lasting impact on Paul that he refused to work with John Mark anymore. However, Barnabas once again saw the potential rather than the problem. So, Barnabas and John Mark went one way, and Paul and Silas went another. In the end, Barnabas’ acceptance of John Mark proved beneficial because Paul requested Mark’s presence with him during his Roman imprisonment saying, “he is useful to me in ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11). This is just another occasion in which the Son of Encouragement saw past someone’s failures and found a bright future, and, as a result, Paul, by requesting Mark’s presence, indirectly acknowledged that Barnabas’ encouragement efforts transformed a deserter into a useful worker.
Our takeaway from Barnabas’ story is that encouragement is a universal need in the church. At some point in time, everyone, from the prolific Pauls to the meager Marks, will need encouragement. The church is desperately in need of encouragers because it exists in a world of put-downs, passivity, and pessimism. So, we need more people who will build others up, contribute their enthusiasm, and combat negativity with positivity. As a result, we are all instructed to “encourage one another and build one another up.” That means we are all instructed to be like Barnabas.