Encouraging Each Other at the End of the Age by John Piper.
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us 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. (Hebrews 10:19-25)
I want to try in this message to awaken in you a deep, joyful, confident sense that being in a small group of Christians for prayer and ministry to each other would be one of the best things you could do for your own soul and for the good of those around you and for the glory of Christ. Hundreds of you know this already. So just enjoy being affirmed in the path you have chosen. But others of you have perhaps grown up in homes or in churches where this simply was not part of what it meant to be a Christian–—to meet regularly with a small group of believers to pray for each other and strengthen each other and help each other grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord. So my aim for you is to introduce you to this normal Christian practice and awaken a deep, joyful, confident sense that this would be a really good and helpful thing to do.
A Bad and False Idea
Let’s start by knocking the props out from under a very bad idea, namely, the idea that God’s commands have the effect of making us miserable. It is a bad idea–—a false idea–—to think that when God commands something, it’s calculated to make us unhappy. Way too many people think that God’s commandments are simply his way of showing who’s in charge. Commandments equal authority. Period. So doing them is sheer submission to authority. And that’s that. Submission and approval. Or insubordination and disapproval. That’s the way too many people think and feel about the commands of God. I want to begin by knocking the props out from under that bad idea.
God’s Commands Are for Our Good
Here’s what the Bible says: God’s commandments are for our good. Everything he tells us to do is good for us. God does not need our service to improve his attitude or his ability. So he doesn’t tell us to do things because he has needs, but because we have needs. Take a few texts as examples of this:
- Deuteronomy 10:12-13: “Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good?” All the commandments of God are for our good. God knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows what will make us deeply and permanently happy. We don’t. We must learn that from him. His commands are for our good.
- When we first find the kingdom of God and renounce all things for Christ, what is that like? Jesus describes it in Matthew 13:44: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” Renouncing the scrap metal of this world in order to have the gold and silver treasure of Christ is such an amazingly good tradeoff that it must be done with joy.
- When God commands us to serve him, what does he say? Psalm 100:2: “Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!” He does not want gloomy servants. His command is joy.
- What about giving? When he commands us to give, what does he say? Second Corinthians 9:7: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” God does not want gloomy giving. His command is joy.
- What about suffering? When our paths lead through the valley of the shadow of death what does he say? Matthew 5:11-12: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” God’s plans for us are so overwhelmingly and everlastingly good that our temporary afflictions here should not destroy our joy. Even in trouble, his command is joy.
- What about grief and loss? What does he say about our grief? First Thessalonians 4:13: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Yes, there is grief in the life of a Christian. But not without hope.
- Which is why Paul can use this amazingly strange and wonderful phrase in 2 Corinthians 6:10: “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” The joy of hope in the midst of misery streams from the future back into our hearts by faith and penetrates our sorrows so that we can say with Paul, “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” That is God’s will for us. His command is joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).
- And in the end, when all our trials are over, what does the Bible say is coming? Isaiah 35:10: “The ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”
The Point of God’s Commands: Joy
So let all the props be knocked out from under the very bad idea that God’s commandments are meant to make us gloomy or bored or sad. They are meant to do the opposite. They are for our good, and God is jealous that we find our supreme joy in him and his ways. And the reason for this is that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. So he gets the glory and we get the joy when we do his revealed will. That’s the point of his commandments.
Elders and the Call to Joy
So when God commands the elders of each church to watch over the people in their charge, he meant it for their good and for the good of the people. So, for example, in Acts 20:28, Paul says to the elders of Ephesus, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” When God commands us to do this, it’s for our good. It’s good for elders to care for the flock, and it’s good for the flock to be cared for by elders.
Or consider 1 Peter 5:1-3: “I exhort the elders among you . . . shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” So God commands us elders to do this. And that means it’s good for us, and it’s good for you.
Elders Equip the Saints for Ministry
One of the ways that elders care for the flock, especially when churches get larger than a few dozen, is by organizing the flock into smaller groups with trained leaders who are overseen by the elders. In other words, the elders equip the members of the church to do the work of the ministry, as it says in Ephesians 4:12, and then the members minister to each other under the oversight of the elders. This is the way we do it at Bethlehem. One of our vocational elders, David Livingston, gives oversight to the entire small group ministry and trains members to be leaders of small groups. Then the elders and small group leaders try to provide the kind of care and accountability the New Testament says is so good for all believers.
One of the texts where this pattern of care is implicit is Hebrews 10:23-25. In the background of this text, keep in mind Hebrews 13:17. It says, “Obey your leaders [elders] and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” So those early churches had elders, and they were charged by God with “keeping watch over the souls” of the members of the church. They will have to give an account to God for this. The people are to submit to this watchful care and help the elders do their work with joy, not with groaning.
The Essential Place of Smaller Gatherings
Now what Hebrews 10:23-25 adds is that this care that the elders give happens in part through the small gatherings of believers where they can help each other hold fast to their hope and stay strong in the Lord. Verse 24-25, “Let us 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.”
1) We Encourage One Another
Notice four things in verses 24-25. First, God calls us to encourage one another. Verse 24b: “encouraging one another.” God’s plan for our good is that much of our encouragement come from other Christians speaking the word of God into our lives and praying for us.
2) We Stir Up One Another to Love and Good Works
Second, God’s purpose is that this mutual encouragement functions to stir us up to love and good works. Verse 24: “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.” In other words, the aim of the mutual encouragement is not just for the good of the members of the group but for the world. And that too is good for us, because Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). It’s like the widow’s jar of flour and jug of oil in the story of Elijah: The more she gave, the more God gave. They never ran out (1 Kings 17:16). So we encourage each other, and we stir each other up to love.
3) We Gather
And third, we gather to do this encouraging and this stirring up to love and good works. Verse 25: “. . . not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some.” This meeting together is not merely the big gathering for corporate worship, as we do on Sunday mornings; it is the kind of gathering where the pattern of ministry is each person ministering to the others. Notice how verse 25 continues: “. . . not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” The meeting, in this case, is the kind of meeting that necessarily implies encouraging one another. So God is telling us that it is good for us to gather in smaller groups and minister to each other. This is his way of caring for us. He calls elders to oversee this, but it is the smaller, one-another ministry of all the members that completes the shepherding work.
4) Especially as the End Approaches
Fourth, notice that this kind of gathering in smaller groups to encourage each other is increasingly urgent as the end of the times draws near. Verse 25 once more: “. . . 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.” Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:1, “In the last days there will come times of difficulty.” Times of stress and tremendous pressure and hardship and darkness and evil. It will not get easier to be a Christian. And God is telling us what we will need to do to hold fast to our confession of hope (v. 23): Meet. Meet. Meet. And encourage one another. And stir each other up to love. Lone-ranger Christians will drop like flies in those days.
God’s Will: Greater Joy
So in summary, God’s commandments are always good for us. His purpose for us, even in our troubles and our sorrows, is joy in him. One of his commandments is that his people be cared for by pastors–—elders, shepherds, overseers–—and these men will give an account for how they cared for the sheep. This is good for the elders and good for the sheep. God’s ways are the ways of greatest joy. Another of his commandments is that the elder equip the members to do the work of the ministry to each other and that they meet in smaller groups to encourage each other and stir each other up to love and good works. This is God’s good plan for you. Not to be a part of such a smaller ministering group is self-defeating. That is not God’s will for your life. His will is your greater joy. And that comes from the benefits of mutual ministry in smaller settings.
Smaller Groups and Spiritual Gifts
Let me close with a reference to the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in these smaller settings. We are a church that believes in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit to give gifts to his people for the sake of other believers. We believe in the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit to heal sicknesses and to deliver from sinful bondages of the soul. It is plain that God bestows these healings and these deliverances through the gifts of other believers. Yes, God meets his children in solitude. No doubt about that. It is sweet. None of us who cherish it would sell it for a billion dollars. But God’s ordinary way of bestowing supernatural healing and deliverance is by giving gifts to other people which then bless us.
Not to seek to be a part of such a praying, ministering smaller fellowship may be like saying to God, “I know you often give supernatural blessings to your people through the ministry of other people, but I will get along without it.”
Or think of it the other way around. When I met with the small group leaders last Sunday night and asked them for ideas for this sermon, one of them said that people need to know that there are often “Esther moments” in small groups, and that they may be the missing Esther. Remember Esther became queen at a time when Haman was trying to kill all the Jews. Her relative Mordecai said to her, “Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” And indeed she had. She said to Mordecai, “If I perish, I perish.” And she approached the king at the risk of her life. The Jews were delivered.
That is a picture of what can happen in small groups. Salvation, rescue, healing, guidance, comfort, provisions–—they may depend on the Esther moments in the small group. Or the Mordecai moments. And you may be the Esther or the Mordecai–—or the missing Esther or the missing Mordecai.
Don’t Miss the Joy
God loves his church. All his commands are for our good and our joy. God’s will for our church is that elders oversee the care of the flock. And his will for our church is that members be equipped to minister to each other in small groups. And his will is that tremendous blessings flow through the saints to the saints and to the world because we do not neglect this ministry. There are Esther moments and Mordecai moments waiting to happen this year. I pray you will not miss being on the receiving and the giving end of these moments.