Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which 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 an dour 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 as some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
The Call to Comfort One Another
I received a mission news update recently with a picture on the back of a Christian leader in Peru standing beside a widow in the town of Ccano. The caption said, "Lazaro Rojas comforts a widow and helps her place her trust in Christ." That's what verse 25 says we are supposed to do for each other as believers. The word translated "encourage"—"encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near"—is sometimes translated "comfort." "Comfort one another . . . Help each other trust and rest in Christ, day by day."
"As You See the Day Drawing Near"
Probably the reason it says, "and all the more as you see the Day drawing near," is because the end of the days in this age are going to be days of great stress and evil and temptation when we need each other more than ever. Jesus said in Matthew 24:12, "Because wickedness is multiplied, most men's love will grow cold." So if our meeting together is meant to encourage each other and stir us up to love (v. 24), then it is obvious why we must do this all the more as we see the Day—the Day of Christ's appearing—drawing near. The threat against our faith and our love will increase.
While things look rosy in our lives, we think we can get along with a few casual friends, a boom box and a few TV programs each evening. But that's a dream world. The preciousness of close Christian relationships becomes obvious when we recognize what Paul says in Ephesians 5:16—that "the days are evil." The preciousness of comforting, encouraging believers in our lives is felt most when the price of faith is high.
Mutual Encouragement to Press On
Lazaro Rojas was comforting and encouraging the widow in Ccano, Peru because late in the evening on February 28 this year, two cars pulled into that village carrying terrorists of "Shining Path." The local evangelical church was having a prayer vigil. At 11:00 the terrorists burst through the doors and opened fire. The pastor and his wife and 30 people in the village were killed. They piled the bodies in the middle of the floor, put gasoline on them, and set them on fire. (Christian Mission, vol. xvi, no. 4)
The passage of Scripture that Rojas used to comfort the survivors was Romans 8:36–37, "For your sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. But in all these things we are more than conquerors."
The deacons who were left met and decided that all future church meetings would be held between 6 and 8 in the morning. One of them, Isaias Huamani, had lost his wife in the attack. He was appointed the new pastor. Suddenly the church itself had become a "small group" and the preciousness of the encouragement to press on in love and good work was beyond measure.
Small Groups Stirring Up Love and Good Works
For those who have eyes to see and for those who are willing to engage, you know that we are in a warfare just that serious right here in Minneapolis. Jesus said, "The love of many will grow cold. And those who persevere to the end will be saved." And our text sees this coming and says in verse 24, "Let us consider how to stir up one another to love [how to keep it from becoming cold] and to good works [the expression of love] . . . " How? "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 is our biblical foundation for the ministry of small groups at Bethlehem. Just think of it. Love is the premier fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22). Love is the first and great commandment, and the second commandment (Matthew 22:37–39). Love fulfills the whole law (Romans 13:8). Love is the greatest of faith, hope, and love (1 Corinthians 13:13). Yet God has ordained that this love—this all important reality—rise and fall in the church with our willingness to meet with each other and encourage each other and stir each other up. The purpose of every small group—whatever else it is—is to keep the love of its members warm.
We really need to let this grip us. If Jesus said that in the last Day the love of many would grow cold, and if he counsels us how to triumph over that coldness, namely, by not neglecting to meet together but rather meeting and encouraging each other and stirring each other up to love, then we should listen to him. We should follow his counsel. Not to follow his counsel here is very presumptuous and foolish and dangerous (cf. Matthew 24:13).
A Mandate for Regular Gatherings of Small Groups
This text is not so much a mandate for big corporate worship services as it is a mandate for regular small groups of Christians to get together for mutual encouragement. We know this because verse 25 says that the meeting together is for "encouraging one another." It's not just for a pastor to encourage you; that's important and I believe preaching is God's will in the church. But something more than that is implied here in this phrase "one another."
I don't mean to say it only happens in small groups. The fire of love can be ignited with the kindling of encouragement and the match of the Holy Spirit any time and any place that two Christians communicate with each other. But the point of small groups is that this utterly crucial kindling of love ought not to be left to chance. Isn't that why this writer in verse 25 does NOT say, "Hope that you run into a brother or sister to encourage this week," but instead says, "Don't neglect to meet together, but encourage one another"—that is, meet, meet to encourage each other?
So, if we just took these two verses—24 and 25—we could say that the biblical rationale for small groups is that they are meant to stir Christians up to love and good works. The way this stirring up happens is by encouraging each other. And the practical way of insuring this kind of mutual encouragement that stirs up love is meeting together.
The Basic Agenda for Small Groups
But the text has even more to say about small groups. The basic agenda is here also. Suppose you ask: What is the content of this mutual encouraging that is supposed to go on in these groups? What sorts of things do you say to each other that comfort and encourage and send people out fired up to be loving to others and do ministry with good deeds? Is there any difference between this kind of group and secular groups that would say their goal too is encouragement? What does God want us to say to encourage each other? How does God mean for us to stir up love and good deeds?
God-Based Hope as the Freeing Power to love
The answer is given in verse 23. "Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful." So what this is saying is that God has made promises to his people, and that he will keep those promises, and that we should therefore hold fast to hope and be confident in the future that God controls.
Now there is a direct link between that kind of God-based hope and the love and good works that get stirred up in small groups. Look at verses 34–35:
You had compassion on the prisoners [there's the love and good works that got stirred up in a small group], and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property [there's the proof that the love was not legalistic or forced or coerced, it was joyful], since you know that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one [there's the source of the love: confidence or hope in God's promise of reward]. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.
That's just another way of saying verse 23, "Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful."
So what's clear is that the freeing power to love and do good deeds of compassion even when they are inconvenient and costly—and even do them joyfully—the freeing power to love like that is hope. It's the confidence that God is for you and that if you trust him and follow his way of love, he will meet every need according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.
Speaking the Promises of God to Each Other
And if that hope is the freeing power to love, then what do you suppose the encouraging things are that we are to say to each other to stir each other up to love and good works?
Answer: we are to speak the promises of God to each other, and tell each other stories from the Bible and from experience that bolster our faith that God will indeed keep his promises to us.
So, for example, you may want to stir someone up to express his love in working with the boys clubs on Wednesday night. You don't just tell him to do it because it needs to be done. You speak the truth of God's promises to him. You might think back over the last three sermons and say,
Jim, the Lord has brought you to mind several times as I have prayed about the need for men in the kids clubs. I think you have gifts and a personality that the boys need. They need men. I know you've never done anything like this before, but all of Pastor John's last three sermons tell me that God would not let you down. His eyes run to and fro to find people to whom he can show off his strength—he'll do that for you. He sees in secret all our humble efforts and will reward them. Nothing is wasted. If there's opposition or criticism, you can hand it over to him, because he promises to be a just judge. And you can be sure he will make your mouth a fountain of life to feed and heal and protect those boys, because Jesus promises to be your food and your physician and your fortress.
Or you might just say, "My God will supply all our needs according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:19).
Small Groups and Ministries of Love
There is a clear link in this text between small groups and the various ministries of love. Don't neglect to meet together (there's small groups), but stir each other up to love and good deeds (there's ministry to church and world). That is why on this first Sunday of our fall schedule we are calling you to consider signing up for a small group and then considering how you will be invested in ministry this fall.