“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thessalonians. 5:11).
The Apostle Paul had one important concern that was constantly on his mind and heart-to do all he could when he could to build up the body of Christ. And knowing he could only do so much as an individual, his strategy was to transfer this concern to others-to encourage every other Christian to develop the same concern for all other Christians (Colossians 2:2; 4:8).
Paul’s concern, of course, forms the basic purpose of this series of articles: to provide believers with biblical and practical guidelines for developing a functioning church. In short, to help Christians build up and edify one another.
As with Paul in the first century, no one Christian in the 20th century can build up all other believers in a local church. God’s design and plan is that every Christian be a functioning part of the body of Christ; that every Christian contribute to the process. “The whole body,” wrote Paul, must be “joined and held together by every supporting ligament.” And as the body draws strength and direction from its Head, Jesus Christ, it then “grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephsians 4:15-16).
Paul’s directive to the Thessalonian Christians, near the end of his first letter to this dynamic New Testament church, is an appropriate exhortation with which to conclude our study. “Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up.” And then he added, “just as in fact you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
Here was a “functioning” church. Though they were facing severe trials and persecutions (1 Thessalonians 1:6), and though they were yet to face the trauma of, doctrinal disturbance (2 Thessalonians 2:1-4), Paul commended them for their concern and love for one another. They had learned the importance of mutual encouragement, exhortation, and comfort. Thus Paul commended them, but encouraged them to continue.
The basic Greek word, parakaleo, used in 1 Thessalonians 5:1, appears in several forms in the New Testament. At times the word is translated “to exhort, to admonish, or to teach”; at other times, “to beg, entreat, or beseech.” It is also translated “to console; to encourage; to comfort.”
But the basic word is always used for one primary purpose -to describe functions that will help Christians to be built up in Christ, or to help them to build up one another in Christ. It is the latter meaning that is in mind in this final chapter. And it is this meaning that Paul had in mind when he exhorted the Thessalonian Christians to “encourage one another and build each other up.”
The Primary Means for Encouraging One Another
Paul particularly made it apparent what constituted the primary means for mutual encouragement-God’s truth! This is why he wrote to the Ephesian Christians, encouraging them to continue “speaking the truth in love.” Then he said, “we will in all things grow up into Him who is the Head, that is, Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).
Many biblical examples demonstrate that the primary means for encouraging other believers focuses in God’s truth. For example, Paul, giving the qualities for eldership in his letter to Titus, emphasized that a pastoral leader “must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refutethose who oppose it” (Titus 1:9).
When he wrote to Timothy, he charged this young minister: “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage-with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2). Furthermore, when Paul, Silas, and Timothy discipled the new Christians at Thessalonica, they dealt with each one of them, just as a “father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting, and urging [them] to live lives worthy of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12).
Paul went on to make clear what the means was for encouraging them to live lives worthy of God: “We also thank God continually because, when you received the Word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the Word of God, which is at work in you who believe” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
The Thessalonian Example
The Christians in Thessalonica illustrate the process of mutual encouragement by means of God’s Word probably more significantly than any other New Testament church. Let’s look at the specific ways in which this encouragement is demonstrated.
1. The truths regarding the “dead in Christ”
Even though Paul had instructed the Thessalonian Christians specifically regarding the second coming of Christ (2 Thessalonians 2:5), they were still confused about those who had died. Somehow they got the impression that those who had passed away may not go to be with the Lord when He comes again. Thus Paul wrote to clarify the issue: “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who sleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who sleep in Him” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14).
Paul went on to explain thoroughly how this would happen: “The dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
And then Paul added this very important exhortation – “Therefore, encourage each other with these words” (4:18). In other words, build one another up with this marvelous truth. Remind each other of God’s promises. Comfort one another with the fact that all believers will spend eternity with Jesus Christ, even though they may die before He comes again. Use God’s truth to provide one another with assurance and security.
This, of course, was important to these believers. Some of them – along with New Testament believers elsewhere – actually faced the threat of death because of their faith. How frustrating it must have been to be waiting for Christ’s return, not knowing that if they were killed or died naturally before He returned, that they would go to be with Christ just as those who were still alive.
2. The truth regarding the Rapture of the church
The Thessalonians had yet another problem. They knew that the day of the Lord-the day of judgment and wrath was coming upon the earth. And they knew it would “come like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2). But they evidently did not know what would happen to them before this great and terrible time would come. Thus Paul proceeded to clarify God’s truth about the matter. With great assurance in his own heart he wrote: “For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with Him” (1 Thessaloninas 5:9-10). And then he added another significant exhortation: “Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up” (5:11).
Here again Paul encouraged them with God’s divine perspective – with God’s truth. Then he directed them to “encourage one another” with this same truth. It was this truth that would help build up the body of Christ at Thessalonica. It was this truth that would provide them with stability and assurance as they faced their present trials and the uncertainty of their immediate future. And it was this kind of truth that would enable them to “become mature, attaining the full measure of perfection found in Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). And it was no doubt this kind of truth that Paul was referring to when he wrote to the Ephesians: “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14). In other words, false teaching creates instability and insecurity. God’s Word leads to maturity.
3. The truth regarding the day of the Lord
The Thessalonian Christians were very vulnerable in the area of eschatology. Satan made this doctrine a key point of attack in their lives. After Paul wrote his first letter, reassuring them regarding the dead in Christ and the rapture of the church that would deliver them from the wrath of God, a false teacher unsettled them, teaching them that “the day of the Lord” had already come (2 Thessalonians 2:2). Paul immediately wrote a second letter, reassuring them that the day of the Lord had not come. He reminded them of their conversion experience – that God had chosen them “to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.” God had called them to “share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” – that is, in His coming (2:13-14).
Paul ended his exposition of God’s perspective on the matter with a rather familiar ring in his Thessalonian epistle: “So then brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. May our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who loved us and by His grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage and strengthen you in every good deed and word” (2:15-17).
Here again we see Paul using God’s truth to encourage the Thessalonians. Interestingly, he refers to “eternal encouragement.” This, of course, is what makes God’s Word so powerful, so significant, so reassuring. We are not sharing human philosophy or temporal concepts and ideas that are limited to space and time. Rather, Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35). This is why God’s Word is to be the primary means Christians are to use to “encourage one another” and “to build one another up.”
Practical Steps for Helping Christians Encourage One Another
All Christians must realize how important the Word of God is in building up others within the body of Christ. And all Christians must be challenged to learn what God’s Word says. They must be ready to share the Word with others who are in special need of encouragement. In other words, Christians cannot mutually encourage one another with Scripture if they are not familiar with Scripture. Therefore, encourage each believer in your church to study the Word of God – not only for personal growth, but to be able to assist others in their growth.
Evaluate your church structure in view of this New Testament exhortation. Many traditional churches are designed not for “body function” but for “preacher function.” Only the pastor or minister or some other teacher is delegated to share the Word of God with others in the church. Some pastors insist on being the only interpreter of Scripture in the church. The Bible teaches that every Christian must be involved in this process. All Christians are to “speak the truth in love.”
Don’t misunderstand! It is not wrong for a pastor or teacher to open the Word of God through an extended exposition and message. In fact, this is good, right, and necessary. It was one means in the New Testament for teaching and preaching. But it was not the only means. In fact, more emphasis is placed in Scripture on mutual and informal teaching than on individual and formal communication. This probably is what the author of the Hebrew letter had in mind when he wrote “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another-and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Christians in New Testament days met together for the body of Christ to function-to mutually encourage each other. Though there was certainly formal teaching, there was also informal teaching. This is why Paul wrote to the Colossians, “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and counsel one another with all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16).
In many of our 21st century churches, we need to reevaluate our church structures in the light of New Testament principles and exhortations. Many patterns and approaches are so tightly structured that only what is planned can happen. This stifles the creative ministry of the Holy Spirit. It also causes many Christians to become very dependent on a pastor or, at the most, on leaders to take the responsibility for encouragement and exhortation.
What about your church? What are the patterns like? Is there freedom for every member of the body of Christ to function – “to encourage one another” and “to build one another up”?