By Pastor Glenn Pease
One of the greatest heroes in Minnesota history was James Root of White Bear. He was the engineer on the No. 4 Limited the day it pulled out of Duluth heading for St. Paul on Sept. 1, 1894. Before that day ended he saved the lives of nearly 400 people. Unknown to him and his passengers they were heading into one of the worse fires in history. It completely destroyed 6 Minnesota villages killing 420 people, and it turned every thing to ashes over an area of 350 square miles.
As Root brought his train to Hinkley he saw masses of people running down the track toward him. He stopped the train and jumped out of the cab. He soon learned that Hinkley was a furnace, and that a tornado of flame was heading their way. He encouraged the 300 people of men, women, and children to get on board. By the time they did the heat was already so intense that it shattered the window of his cab and cut his forehead. He put the train in reverse and headed back to Skunk Lake, a small station 4 miles North.
The heat was so intense that his fire man climbed into the water tank. He was alone and fighting for his own survival. His hands were so burned he feared rubbing them lest he tare off the flesh. The cars were all on fire and the glass was melting. It was torture for the passengers to breathe, but Root kept the train moving and got it to the Skunk Lake bridge where there was a swamp with a few feet of water. He and the passengers got into this swamp and watched the train be destroyed by the flames. Had Root not been strong in his determination all 400 hundred would have perished.
Hero stories are almost always stories of strength where you see exhibited strength of body, mind and will. All the heroes of the Bible were not as strong as Samson, but they were all strong in their commitment to the God of Israel, who was called the Strength of Israel. Habakkuk ends his prophecy with these words, "The Sovereign Lord is my strength." Over and over the Psalms refer to God as the source of strength, and He is named Strength.
Psa. 18:1, "I love you, O Lord, my strength."
Psa. 18:32, "It is God who arms me with strength."
Psa. 22:19, "David cries out to God O my Strength, come quickly to help me."
There are dozens of references to God as my strength and song. The joy of the Lord is my strength, and the purpose of worship is to enter into the beauty of God's presence to be strengthened by his strength. The saints are urged to seek God's strength and to be clothed with it. They are to walk in His strength for a life of joy and victory. All of this becomes the background for our understanding of Paul's concept of Christian worship and fellowship. He writes to the Romans here in chapter 1 verse 11 that he longs to be with them to impart to them some spiritual gift, and why does he feel this is important? He says the purpose of the gift is to make you strong.
Weak Christians are a great problem. Therefore, the greatest solution to this problem is to make Christians strong. That is the point of the gifts of the Spirit. That is the point of worship and Christian fellowship. Strong Christians are obedient Christians, and weak Christians are disobedient Christians. The only the church can fulfill God's purpose in history is to help Christians be strong. Paul is not so proud as to think that he does not need the strength that can come from them. In verse 12 he says that he wants to see them, not just to give strength but to receive it, and that they might be mutually encouraged by each other's faith.
Here is the most powerful reason there is for Christians to get together. It is that they might encourage and make each other stronger. Paul knows what anyone knows who tries to live in full obedience to God. It is hard, and there is an ever present temptation to throw in the towel and take the easy way out, and just drift along with the culture. Swimming against the stream and climbing the mountain of the upward call leads to burn out and discouragement. We need to be renewed and strengthened to keep going. We come together to hear the Word of God in order to charge our batteries so that we can go away saying with Paul, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." We can then resist the devil; resist conformity to the world, and in spite of our weakness be witnesses for Christ.
The point of coming to church is to come out of the world to worship God, and then be strengthened to go back into the world to work for God. You need energy to be a witness. You need to overcome all the natural weaknesses of the flesh, and recognize that every day you touch lives with either that weakness or the power of God. George Elliot wrote,
Every soul that touches yours-
Be it the slightest contact-
Gets therefrom some good;
Some little grace; one kindly thought;
One aspiration yet unfelt;
One bit of courage
For the darkening sky;
One gleam of faith
To brave the thickening ills of life;
One glimpse of brighter skies
Beyond the gathering mists-
To make this life worth while
And heaven a surer heritage.
This is true if you are strong. If you are weak, you are part of the problem and not part of the answer. Weak Christians offend people and make them doubt the value of being saved. They do not attack but repel people because they operate in their own strength, which is weakness, rather than in the strength of Christ which draws men to Himself.
The Roman Christians had to be fairly strong and mature, for the report of their faith had spread all over the known world. Nevertheless, Paul says they still need to be made strong. The implication is that every Christian, including himself, needs to be strengthened. There is no such thing as a Christian who is too strong. There is no level a Christian can reach where he is no longer in need of encouragement and strengthening that comes from other Christians and their gifts.
If anyone could be a lone ranger Christian it would be Paul, but he admits he needed the encouragement of their faith. Anyone who claims to be so strong that they never need the encouragement of others has achieved a level that is no where recognized in the New Testament. Look at verse 13, and you can see Paul admitting to his frustration. He says that he planned many times to come to them but was prevented. Maybe you thought that being an Apostle of Christ was a perpetual joyride where everything worked out and nothing ever went wrong. The fact is, Paul's plans fell through over and over again. He did not get to do what he wanted to do. It is a great disappointment to have your plans not work out when all you want to do is serve the Lord and do good. It is bad enough when the plan goes sour once or twice, but when it happens many times you feel jinxed and begin to wonder if you should just give up.
There are disappointments in serving Jesus, that is why Paul needed the encouragement of others, and that is why we all do. The only way any Christian can be obedient over the long hall, and not get weary in well doing, is to be encouraged by other believers and strengthened to keep running the race. Paul needed it more than most, for he had problems, trials, and burdens that go beyond what most ever have to bear. He writes in II Cor. 1:8-9, "We do not want you t be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death."
In II Cor. 4:8 Paul says that he was perplexed in all his trials. The word means to be at a loss to explain what is happening. Paul could not understand why he had to experience so much disappointment. Here is a man who has more revelation from God than any man who has ever lived, and yet he does not know all the plans of God. He sees through a glass darkly. There is no one who can rise so far above the rest of us in spirituality that they do not need the encouragement of the rest of the body.
Daniel Tayler tells of his father who had a dream come true. He got to be a bat boy for the Chicago Cubs. All was going fine until in a late inning the pitcher came to bat and got a hit. Someone threw him a jacket and said take it to the pitcher. He did not know that in the major leagues the pitcher put on a jacket when he got on base. He only knew one pitcher in the game and so he ran out to the mound to hand the jacket to him. People were shouting at him to take it to the pitcher, but the pitcher was refusing it. He was totally confused. He thought he was doing what he was told to do, but it was not working. He was perplexed and at a loss as to what was happening. The manager finally walked out and pointed him to the right pitcher on first base. He was doing his best but did not understand the plan he was supposed to carry out.
It is too bad that such complexity cannot be limited to the experience of little boys, but the fact is that even an Apostle cannot escape it. Paul's sincere efforts to do the will of God were often dashed to pieces and crushed by circumstances beyond his control. He writes in I Thess. 2:17, "..out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you, for we wanted to come to you-certainly I, Paul, did, again and again-but Satan stopped us." God allows Satan to hinder the plans of his servants. God allows him the freedom of will that he needs to be a valid enemy, for it he had no weapons it would not be an authentic conflict of good and evil. We have to wage real warfare as we serve the Lord, and this means that much can go wrong, or not go at all.
It is bad enough that Satan has power to hinder our efforts, but to make matters worse, even the Holy Spirit can and does hinder our will. In Acts 16:6-7 we read, "Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phyrigia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to." Now when the unholy spirit of Satan and the Holy Spirit of Jesus are both throwing monkey wrenches into your plans, you need a lot of encouragement. That is why Paul is practically begging Christians in all of his churches to pray for him. The battle is real.
Paul was a wise and brilliant man of God, but he did not always understand the will of God. He just did his best and admitted that he needed the encouragement of others. When you need something yourself you are more aware of how others need it also. Paul is fully aware of how all believers need encouragement and strength that comes from the gifts of others in the body. Paul was not so proud that he would not admit his own need.
The church was meant to be a mutual benefit society in which we strengthen each other's weaknesses and meet needs. John Calvin said, "There is not one so void of gifts in the church of Christ who is not able to contribute something to our benefit." Every Christian is a part of the whole process of encouragement. Sometimes all you have to do is just be present to be an encouragement. Just seeing you helps them to press on and resist the temptation to forsake the assembling of themselves together. We can all give this gift of encouragement, and that is why it is so important that we be faithful in our being present to other believers.
Harold Dye, a gifted Christian writer tells of his experience while fishing in the New Mexico mountains. He was climbing to a high stream when he came to a dangerous spot on the trail. The rain and the snow had eroded the trail and left a chasm he would have to leap across. He write, "As I debated making the leap from this side to the other I noticed something on the trail ahead that made all the difference in the world-the fresh imprint of a shoe. Someone had been along this trail before me. He too had faced the same chasm and had safely crossed it. That was all the encouragement I needed. With one strong effort I was safely on the other side and on my way to that inviting stream."
Just the presence of one other person facing the same decision can keep us climbing. That is why support groups are so popular and helpful. They encourage people in whatever battle they face because they know they are not alone. This is the comfort and encouragement that the church is to give to all who want to climb higher in the Christian life, but who face obstacles that hinder them and make they want to give up. Paul is not just concerned with starting new churches, but with helping established churches to be constantly renewed. The Roman church was established, but Paul knew that it needed to keep on growing or it would lead to decay. All believers need to be continuously encouraged and strengthened or they will begin to settle down to mediocrity, and cease to grow in their love for God and the doing of His will.
Our presence, our actions, and our words are all potential gifts of encouragement to make each other stronger. If you go away from church without some gift that makes you stronger you have missed the whole point of being in church. You have missed the gift that God intended you to have by hearing some truth, getting some insight, hearing some inspiration, or feeling loved by some other person. We need to come to church ready to give and to receive some gift of encouragement. We are all called to the ministry of encouragement, and all believers can do this. If you come to church and you and nobody else is encouraged by your presence then something is wrong that needs to be corrected. We need to come prepared to be encouraged and to give encouragement to others. If we miss this goal we are not in the will of God.
God wants us all to be a part of making each other strong in the Lord. The Greek word for strong is sterizo. It is one of Paul's favorite words. He uses it more than all other New Testament authors put together. It was to him the goal of all ministry. He writes in I. Thess. 3:2, "We sent Timothy....to strengthen and encourage you in your faith." He sent Timothy because his letter was not enough to impart sterizo. His letter to Romans was not enough either and so he longed to come to them to impart sterizo. There is a strength that you can only get in fellowship. You cannot get it just by reading the Bible or other Christian writings. You need the fellowship of other personalities to be strengthened. Some believers forsake the fellowship of the church and feel they can make it one their own, but they are weak and ineffective Christians, and often live no higher than a gnats eyelash above the world. God made us to need each other to be strong Christians.
Paul links encouragement and strength because no Christian can become strong without encouragement. Rob a believer of encouragement and you pull the spark plug out of his engine, and he or she will lose power and cease to run the race to new heights. But encourage a believer and they will never cease to press on to new levels of growth and service. That is why Paul ends the second chapter of II Thessalonians with this prayer: "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 your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word." It is not only Paul's idea, but it is God's idea that they bottom line is the need for encouragement.
Paul says here that he longs to see them to make them stronger, and to be encouraged himself. The Greek word for long is epipotheo, and it refers to a very strong emotion. It is translated desire greatly, or desire earnestly, and long after greatly. In one place it is even translated lust. That is how strongly Paul felt the desire to be involved in the ministry of encouragement. He had a lust to strengthen the body of Christ. This is a rare lust. Martin Niemoller had it. He was the German pastor who defied Hitler and spoke out boldly for Christ.
He was arrested and put in solitary confinement for 8 years. He was cut off from his family and church and had no way of serving them. Then one day he came up with an idea. Each day he moved his table under the high window of his cell. He then put his chair on the top of the table and by standing on tip toe on the chair he could get close to the window. There he waited for the scuffling that could be heard as the other prisoners crunched the ground on their daily walk. When he heard them he began to read passages from the Bible that would be an encouragement. He did this day after day with no way to know who, if anyone, was listening. That was a lust to be an instrument of encouragement.
It is not likely you and I will ever be so tested to see how strong our desire is to be an encouragement to other. We are free to do it in hundreds of ways every day. Everything we do and say can make the body stronger or weaker. May God help us be aware of this so that we come to church with this spirit of Paul to help contribute to the goal that we are all established by encouragement.