Over the course of our Christian lives all of us, at one time or another, need encouragement. But where can we find it? One place where it can be found is in the pages of Scripture. In Romans 15:4 Paul makes reference to “the encouragement of the Scriptures” (ESV). There is much in the Bible that can help us. We can gain great encouragement from reading the accounts of both the challenges and victories of the biblical characters. But is that the only option? Is the Bible the only place where we can expect to find encouragement when we find ourselves are in times of need?
The Scriptures answer that very question. The sacred text indicates that there is another source from which we can draw encouragement. We can receive encouragement from the people of God, more specifically, we can receive encouragement from Christians who live in our own time period. In this
Barnabas first appears in Scripture in Acts 4. He is a good person for us to start with as we consider the subject of encouragement. His real name was Joseph, but the apostles called him Barnabas, which we are told means “Son of Encouragement” (Acts 4:36 NIV). Encouragement involves giving to others and this was a characteristic of his life. In fact, it was so much a part of his life that he was given a name that highlighted the fact, and this was in the early days of the Christian church. Barnabas first appears in Scripture as a financial giver. Later, we find that he gave himself to helping people in other ways.
In Acts 9 he helped Saul, whom we know better as the apostle Paul, to be accepted by the believers in Jerusalem. After Paul accepted Jesus as the Messiah, the believers in Jerusalem initially did not believe that he was truly a Christian (Acts 9:26). Barnabas, however, believed Paul’s testimony and took action to help him be accepted by the believers in the city (Acts 9:27). This was a very helpful to Paul and must have been a great encouragement to him. In Acts 11, Barnabas encouraged the new believers in Antioch, even though some of them were different than he was; he was a Jew, and some of them were Gentiles. He acknowledged the grace of God in their lives and then went on to invest his time and gifting in order to help them grow spiritually. And later, in Acts 15, he stood up for John Mark when Paul did not want to include him in their next ministry outing (Acts 15:36-39).
Based on the example of the life of Barnabas we are likely to receive encouragement from people who are genuinely giving, who believe our stories, and seek to help us in ways that are appropriate to our needs. Barnabas seems to have been a real “people person.” He gave encouragement to the people he was with.
Paul is certainly no stranger to those who are familiar with the New Testament, in fact, he was used by God to write a good portion of it! We know about his Jewish background (Acts 21:39; 26:4-5; Phil. 3:4-6), his education (Acts 22:3), his eventual surrender to Jesus Christ as Lord (Acts 9; 22; 26), and his missionary journeys which began in Acts 13. We also know about the many churches he planted, these include churches in Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth, and Ephesus. Paul carried on a very extensive ministry, both in person and by letter.
One characteristic of Paul’s ministry that may get lost in his list of accomplishments was the encouragement that he gave. In Acts he and Barnabas encouraged the believers in the cities of Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch (Acts 14:21-22). In Acts 16:40 we find that he and Silas encouraged the believers at Lydia’s house. After the near riot in Ephesus, he called for the disciples in the city to come to him and he encouraged them (Acts 20:1), he also encouraged the people in the surrounding area (Acts 20:2). Encouragement was a regular part of his ministry. In addition to these texts which specifically use the word “encourage” in some form, a good portion of his letters consists of encouragement for believers to live a good Christian life.
One thing I would like to call to your attention is that in at least some of the cases in which Paul gave encouragement he was in less than ideal circumstances himself; he was in prison. His example shows us that we can receive encouragement from people, who are themselves not in the best place in their lives at the time they help us. Paul was able to encourage both Christians who were near to him geographically and those who were distant from him (he did this through his letters). He also sent other ministers to encourage the believers in various places (Eph. 6:22; Col. 4:8; 1 Thess. 3:2).
We know quite a bit about Timothy. We know that he came from an ethnically mixed family, his mother was a Jew and his father was a Greek (Acts 16:1). We even know the name of his mother was Eunice, and the name of his grandmother was Lois (2 Tim. 1:5). Two letters in the New Testament bear his name, not because he wrote them but because they were written to him. He is perhaps best known as one of Paul’s key traveling companions; he accompanied Paul on some of his missionary journeys.
Timothy also engaged in the ministry of encouragement. Paul wrote about it in his first letter to the church in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 3:2). Though Timothy labored in ground-breaking evangelism with Paul on his missionary journeys, he could also strengthen those who had already placed their faith in Christ. Spiritual growth is in some measure dependent on encouragement. Timothy followed Paul’s example, and Paul, as we have already seen, was an encourager.
Paul had a very high regard for Timothy which he expressed in his letter to the church at Philippi; he said that he had no one like him (Phil. 2:20-22). But it is worth noting that Paul, who gave Timothy such a strong endorsement, also hinted that Timothy may have been a timid or fearful individual (2 Tim. 1:7). If this was in fact the case, the Bible is showing us that people who may not be forceful, or have a strong personality, can also help us. An encourager need not be a person who exudes a lot of confidence. Sometimes more reserved people, or apparently fearful people, can provide great encouragement to those that they interact with.
So far we have looked at three individuals in the first-century church who were encouragers. All of these men were leaders. In fact, they were known to the believers in a number of different locations. As I mentioned above we expect to receive encouragement from our leaders. We expect it from them even if they are in less than ideal circumstances themselves, or have what we might consider to be certain weaknesses. However, encouragement, though it is certainly part of the ministry of a Christian leader, is not a ministry that is solely for Christian leaders.
In his letter to the Romans Paul lists a number of spiritual gifts, the gift of encouragement is one of them (Rom. 12:8). The letter was addressed to the church as a whole (Rom 1:7), not to the leaders, or any specific smaller group within the church. This means that the gift is available to any Christian that the Lord wants to use in this particular way. In addition to the possibility of being used in the gift of encouragement, all Christians are, in a number of places in the New Testament, ordered to encourage one another (1 Thess. 4:18; 5:11; Heb. 10:25). All believers can, and should, participate in this. Please note here as well, that there is no restriction on who may participate, any Christian can be an encourager. There are no ethnic, age, gender, or economic barriers.
Encouragement can take many forms. It may take the form of being present with a person and listening to their struggle, providing for their personal needs, sharing a personal testimony with them, relaying a relevant Scripture, or praying for them. There are many possibilities. Sometimes encouragement can take place on an individual basis and at other times a person may be ministered to by a group. What ultimately makes this ministry effective is the leading and empowering of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit knows the person in need of encouragement and He also knows how best to meet their need. He can do it through each one of us, if we allow Him to.
John P. Lathrop is a graduate of Zion Bible Institute and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is an ordained minister with the International Fellowship of Christian Assemblies. He has written articles and book reviews for a number of publications including: Pneuma Review, the Africanus Journal of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Christian Trends Magazine, in India, and Berita Mujizat and Jurnal Jaffray, both in Indonesia. He is also the author of four books.