In the third century, Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage, wrote to his friend Donatus: "It is a bad world, Donatus, an incredibly
bad world. But I have discovered in the midst of it a quiet and good people who have learned the great secret of life. They have found a joy and wisdom which is a thousand times better than any of the pleasures of our sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They are masters of their souls. They have overcome the world. These people, Donatus, are Christians... and I am one of them."
Is Cyprian's description of those third century Christians true of your life? Are you an overcomer? Are you living your Christian life in victory? God has called every believer to live victoriously, but very few believers live in victory. So many Christians are defeated; they have caved in to the pressures of the world, and they are living miserable, sin-racked lives. This isn't how the Christian life is supposed to be! Most believers are borderline Christians, yet God has empowered every believer for victory.
In the tenth chapter of the book of Hebrews, the Lord gives us a divine prescription for spiritual victory. He gives us three specific exhortations that will allow us to walk in victory if we will apply them. These exhortations are "Let us draw near" - worship (10:22); "Let us hold fast" - endurance (10:23); "Let us consider one another" - fellowship (10:24). Last week we looked at the first point which was worship: if a believer is going to live the victorious Christian life he must be a worshiper. The call to draw near to God speaks of our communion or fellowship with God. We saw last week that we draw near to God by spending time with Him through Bible study and prayer. Of those two things, prayer is probably the weaker aspect of our worship.
The second element in the prescription for victorious living is in Hebrews 10:23: "Let us hold fast." This is a call for endurance. The Greek word for hold fast is katecho and it means to
continue in, to hold down, to keep in memory. In nautical circles it means to "hold one's course."
The verse says that we are to "hold fast the confession of our hope." What is hope? For the English speaker, hope usually implies doubt. We might say, "I sure hope that he shows up," and we mean "I wish he shows up." Biblical hope is distinguished from secular optimism because hope is grounded in what God has promised. It is looking forward to things which are not present, but whose coming is certain. Abraham was one who held fast to his hope because of the promise of God:
Romans 4:18 (NKJV) "who, contrary to hope, in hope believed, so that he became the father of many nations, according to what was spoken, "So shall your descendants be."
His situation was beyond human hope: he and his wife were well past child-bearing age, yet God had promised them a son. Abraham had nothing to hold onto except the promise of God. Everything in a natural and physical sense was against God's promise, but Abraham held on to his hope because he had a promise:
And not being weak in faith, he did not consider his own body, already dead (since he was about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah's womb. He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform." (Romans 4:19-21)
The promise of God gave Abraham hope.
Romans 8:23-25 expands on this idea of hope and endurance:
"Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance."
As verse 25 makes clear, the hope of the future gives us endurance. Earlier in the same chapter, Paul said, "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us" (Romans 8:18, NKJV). We can endure a lot when we have hope! Without hope, we easily cave in to pressures and trials, but when we know that someday things will be better, we can hang on through the tough times. The author of Hebrews tells us that hope is an anchor for the soul:
Hebrews 6:18-19 (NKJV) "that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil."
Our hope is an anchor that holds us steadfast in the storms of life just like an anchor holds a ship. Our hope is connected to a promise yet unrealized and when we face trials we can grab the promises and hang on. God has promised to richly reward those who are faithful to Him in this life. We endure the trials and temptations of life by holding on to our hope which comes from the promises of God. "And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose," (Romans 8:28, NKJV).
Believer, if your hope is fading and you seem to be losing your endurance, study God's Word and be reminded of the promises He has made to you. God gave you His Word for this purpose:
Romans 15:4 (NKJV) "For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope."
Believers, we are very forgetful and need to constantly be reminded of what we already know. As we are reminded of God's promises we have hope; our hope gives us endurance in the trials of life.
The first two keys to walking in victory are drawing near to God through Bible study and prayer and holding on to our future hope. In other words, we must learn to worship and to have endurance. The third element in the prescription for victory is found in Hebrews 10:24, "Let us consider one another." This third element is a key to realizing the other two elements. The word consider is from the Greek word, katanoeo. Katanoeo is a compound word composed of kata which means down and noeo which means to exercise the mind. It has the idea of thoroughly and carefully noticing someone or some thing. A good English equivalent would be to contemplate. Paul put it this way in Philippians: "Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others," (Philippians 2:4 NKJV). This is a strong and emphatic exhortation: consider others, contemplate others. This is a theme that we see all through the Scriptures:
John 15:12 (KJV) "This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you."
Romans 15:7 (KJV) "Wherefore receive [Greek: proslambano: to take to oneself] ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God."
Romans 15:14 (KJV) "And I myself also am persuaded of you, my brethren, that ye also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish [Greek: noutheteo: to put in mind, to caution or reprove gently, warn] one another."
1 Thessalonians 4:18 (KJV) "Wherefore comfort [Greek: parakaleo: call near, invite, invoke , beseech, call for, exhort, intreat, pray] one another with these words."
Ephesians 4:2 (KJV) "With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love;"
Romans 12:10 (KJV) "Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another;"
Ephesians 4:32 (KJV) "And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you."
Ephesians 5:21 (KJV) "Submitting [Greek: hupotasso: to subordinate; be under obedience] yourselves one to another in the fear of God."
How can we fulfil any of these commands to receive, love, comfort, and forgive if we don't consider one another? If we are so wrapped up in ourselves that we don't know what others need, then how can we fulfil these exhortations?
Do you realize that individually you and I are personally responsible for the physical and spiritual welfare of each other? This exhortation to consider is not given to the church elders--it is given to all believers. We all are to consider one another. We are to look to the needs, problems, struggles, and temptations of one another. The spirit of rugged individualism so prevalent in America is wholly incompatible with the church of Jesus Christ. American believers think that they have discharged their responsibility to the Lord because they are individually living in holiness, but they are wrong: we are not only to look out for our own lives, but we are to consider others. Christianity is others oriented! But most of us care only about meeting our own needs; we ignore the many instructions in the Bible about our responsibility to others.
Colossians 3:16 (KJV) "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing [Greek: noutheteo] one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord."
1 Thessalonians 5:11 (KJV) "Wherefore comfort yourselves together, and edify [Greek: oikodomeo: to be a house-builder, to construct] one another, even as also ye do."
Galatians 5:13 (KJV) "For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve [Greek: douleuo: to be a slave to] one another."
The kingdom of God is not designed for believers to exist in isolation from each other: we are interdependent. We need each other if we are truly going to be what God has called us to be. Each believer has unique gifts and insights that are invaluable for building up the body of Christ. Christianity is to be lived out in community and God has created us to be dependant both on Him and on one another. God said in Genesis 2:18, "It is not good for a man to be alone." That principle does not only apply to the marriage relationship; none of us has the spiritual wherewithal to go it alone in our Christian lives. Proverbs 27:17 says "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." As we share our lives with each other we sharpen and encourage one another. "Two are better than one, Because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, For he has no one to help him up," (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 NKJV). We need each other because that is how the Lord created us. We are to teach, to serve, and to bear the burdens of one another.
Notice the purpose of our considering one another according to Hebrews 10:25: "to provoke unto love and good works." The word provoke is from the Greek word paroxusmos which is a strong word implying a real effort to prod each other into love and good works. This word appears only one other time in Scripture:
Acts 15:37-40 (NKJV) "Now Barnabas was determined to take with them John called Mark. But Paul insisted that they should not take with them the one who had departed from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work. Then the contention [paroxusmos] became so sharp that they parted from one another. And so Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus; but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of God."
Paroxusmos usually means irritation or exasperation. It is unusual to have it used in a good sense and the choice of the unusual word makes the exhortation more striking. We provoke one another a lot by irritating and exasperating one another. But we do not usually provoke each other to love and good works; we provoke to anger, jealousy, and envy. When is the last time that you were provoked to love and good works by another believer? Or when is the last time that you provoked another believer to love and good works?
How are we to provoke one another to love and good works? He tells us in verse 25 through a negative statement and a positive statement. On the negative side, we should not forsake our assembling together. We can't help each other much if we don't see each other. On the positive side, when we come together we are to exhort one another. The Greek word for exhort is parakaleo which means to encourage, to comfort, beg, or beseech. It is the same word used for the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It speaks of coming alongside to help. When we get together we are to encourage one another, build one another up. Peter and James express it this way:
James 5:16 (KJV) "Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much."
1 Peter 4:9-10 (KJV) "Use hospitality one to another without grudging. As every man hath received the gift, even so minister [Greek: diakoneo: to be an attendant, wait upon menially or as a host, friend or teacher, serve] the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God."
Do confession, intercessory prayer, hospitality, and service happen on Sunday morning when we gather? No! We come in, listen to a message and leave. There are a handful of people who use their gifts on a Sunday morning, but most believers just sit and learn.
What does Hebrews 10:25 mean when it says we are not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together? When I taught through Hebrews I took this to primarily mean Sunday morning. The problem is I don't see this stuff happening on Sunday when we are here. I have exhorted you on numerous occasions to do this, but I don't see it happening to any extent. After much frustration and prayer I have come to two conclusions: first, the assembling called for here is not primarily Sunday morning, because these things just can't happen when we meet on Sunday. The teaching on Sunday morning is very important and we cannot abandon it, but this verse doesn't say we are to assemble to be taught. It says we are to assemble to exhort one another. This can only effectively be done in small groups where we can get to know one another and help one another to live as God would have us to through provoking one another to love and good works, and by confessing our faults to one another and praying for one another.
This has led me to my second conclusion: the primary reason that gathering to provoke one another is not happening is because we elders have not provided a format for you to live this out. The familiar lecture format of Sunday school and Sunday morning services are totally ineffective for exhortation. We must gather together on Sunday morning to be taught God's Word by those who God has gifted to teach, but we need more: we need to have time when we can gather to share what we have learned, to question each other on the progress or failure that we are experiencing, to pray for one another. I am convinced that this needs to happen in small groups. I believe that this missing element is the cause of our shallow
Christianity. The Church has become a traditional institution whose goal is to demonstrate ever larger groups of people coming together in ever expanding buildings. Even when we do come together outside of Sunday morning, we just talk about surface stuff. We don't question each other about our sins or victories. If someone ever should question a person about a sinful practice in his life he gets very defensive and hostile. Our Christianity is very shallow; the writings of the early Methodists contrasts with our shallowness.
In The Rules of the Band Societies (an early Methodist meeting which consisted of no more than twelve, and no less than two) drawn up on December 25, 1738 the following statements give us insight into their groups' transparency.
The design of our meeting is, to obey that command of God, "Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed."
To this end, we intend,--
1. To meet once a week, at the least.
2. To come punctually at the hour appointed, without some extraordinary reason.
3. To begin (those of us who are present) exactly at the hour, with singing or prayer.
4. To speak each of us in order, freely and plainly, the true state of our souls, with the faults we have committed in thought, word, or deed, and the temptations we have felt, since our last meeting.
5. To end every meeting with prayer, suited to the state of each person present.
6. To desire some person among us to speak his own state first, and then to ask the rest, in order, as many searching questions as may be, concerning their state, sins, and temptations.
Any of the preceding questions may be asked as often as occasion offers;
1. What known sin have you committed since our last meeting?
2. What temptation have you met with?
3. How were you delivered?
4. What have you thought, said, or done, of which you doubt whether it be sin or not?
How would you like to be involved in a group like that? To tell you the truth, I have mixed emotions: I would love to be involved in that kind of a group because that is what true Christianity is all about. But on the other hand, it scares me: this is serious stuff, this is not playing church. In a cell group, it is commonplace for the cell leader to ask each person present, "What is the state of your life concerning this or that issue?" This is the type of assembly that I believe the author of Hebrews is talking about rather than the shallowness of our Sunday morning meetings.
Before we can build one another up , there must be an understanding of each other's spiritual needs. Small cell groups provide a context where this can happen. Cell groups are based on the scriptural concept of community. The essence of community is a sense of belonging. There is a powerful Christian camaraderie established when people belong to each other in a cell group, (Acts 2:42-46). There's no real community in the traditional church structure and those who create community must do so in spite of
the organization's schedule. There is some community at our monthly Lord's Supper meeting, but few people are willing to share openly with a group that size. The early church recognized that there cannot be total participation by every member when the gatherings are large and impersonal, so they moved from house to house in small groups.
Let me share with you an incident that Ralph Neighbor recounts in his book, Where Do We Go >From Here?. The incident took place at a cell group meeting.
The pastor asked "Does anyone have a special problem that we might pray for?" The hostess said, "I do. I've had a rash all over my body for months. Fever blisters are on my lips. You can see the rash on my arms and neck. My whole body is like that. I've seen dermatologists who have given me creams and pills, but nothing makes any difference. I'd like you to pray for me."
She moved her chair to the center of the room . We all gathered around her. What would happen now? Would we politely pray for her healing and move on to the next prayer request?
The pastor said, "I sense in my heart the Lord is telling me your problem is the result of great anger. Perhaps it's something you wish to share with us."
(My theology differs from Mr. Neighbor: we disagree on how he came to that conclusion. If the lady had great anger, it should have been evident to a sensitive person. According to James, sickness could be a result of sin; when the sin is dealt with healing results:
James 5:14-15 (NKJV) "Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.")
She was silent for a few moments, and began to weep softly, "Yes, that could be. I am so angry at my husband! He promises us he'll be home for dinner, but night after night we eat without him. I put his food in the fridge, and usually I'm asleep before he comes home to eat it. He's broken his promises to me over and over, and I feel I am a widow as I raise our children."
One of the men cleared his throat and spoke to the husband: "You know, I nearly lost my family doing the same thing you are doing now. In fact, my wife had packed her things to leave me. I felt I was the best husband and father possible because I worked day and night to give them nice things. The Holy Spirit had to deal severely with me. I came to realize that the very thing I was working for was about to go up in smoke. If it did, what would my past or future work be worth? It was then that Paul's writings to Timothy and Titus began to show me I would never be God's man until I managed my own household well. I had one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life. Our marriage and our home have radically changed since the day I put my family after God and ahead of my workaholic lifestyle."
Several others then shared. Scriptures were quoted. The Spirit of God had taken control. The husband fell to his knees and wept, his face buried in his wife's lap. He prayed first -- a personal prayer of confession and repentance. The group prayed along with him. The man who had shared his own personal experience laid his hand on his friend as he prayed for him. Then our prayer time moved to his dear wife. And we all prayed for her.
That's not the end of the story. The following Sunday morning, I was sitting on the front row in the church auditorium, looking over my sermon notes. I could see this group talking in the parking lot area. A few minutes later, they stood in a circle around me. Our cell group hostess drew back the flowing sleeves of her dress and said, "Ralph, look! No rash! No rash anywhere on my body!" Then, with deep love in her eyes, she said, "My husband wants to say something to you." He said, "Ralph, I've cut back my workday to eight hours. I took the kids to the zoo yesterday. We have a new home. I'll never be the same. God did a deep work in my heart in our cell group."
The Spirit of God worked through that small group rather than through the ministry of one man. I have taught many times, often in frustration, that we are to minister to one another. I have felt for a long time that this was a tremendous need that we have. But until now, all I knew to do was to try to encourage you to minister; now I see that the fault lies with the leadership: we have not provided a means for you to do this. This is an area that we are now praying about and working on, we want to develop a vehicle for you to truly live out your Christian lives. I have a vision of this church existing all over Tidewater in small groups that meet during the week and then come together on Sunday. During the week they go out to their communities to pray and reach out to unbelievers.
Believers, we are to assemble together for the purpose of provoking one another to love and good works. The supportive love of Christians for one another is a powerful factor in maintaining our spiritual vigor. If we would follow this prescription, we would be able to live victorious lives to the glory of God:
Hebrews 10:22 "Let us draw near" - Worship
Hebrews 10:23 "Let us hold fast" - Endurance
Hebrews 10:24 "Let us consider one another" - Fellowship
The Church is a body, an organism rather than an organization. Each individual's victorious Christian life depends on the other members of the body caring for him and holding him accountable. When we begin to consider one another, then God will show us what Christianity is all about. Traditional Christianity is ineffective: we must have community and caring.
I would ask that you pray for your elders. We are in the process of studying the concept of small groups. The Lord has given us a common awareness of our need and He is in the process of teaching us how we can meet that need. We have started two small groups and we hope to start others soon. Please be praying about your involvement in a cell group. We strongly desire to do everything possible to help you live your life to the glory of God. Please pray with us as we seek the mind of God.