Being provoked is not normally something I welcome. Being irritated is likewise a state of being that I stridently try to avoid. One can imagine a scene on a middle school playground in which a bully taunts an underclassman with verbal jabs, pokes, and invitations to a physical altercation. In short, the poor underclassman is being provoked and irritated; he is being called to do something. Amazingly, the Word of God employs the same words when unveiling one of the primary means by which God shepherds his flock and maintains their affections for Christ – affections which are the necessary fuel for final perseverance. To this end, the writer of Hebrews offers us two striking passages:
“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (Heb. 3:12-14).
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 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” (Heb. 10:24-25).
In the first passage, we see the author of Hebrews addressing “brothers,” which are Christians. Strikingly, he goes on to warn them about the danger of nothing less than apostasy: “lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” Compared to the mountain of biblical texts that declare God’s sovereign keeping of his elect, this is a shocking threat to receive! So, the question arises regarding the way in which God plans to keep his blood-bought people from falling away (Phil. 1:6). The answer comes in the next verse: “But exhort one another every day.” Although there is a massive (and primary) vertical reality to our comfort and assurance in Christ, God has also ordained a human, horizontal level to his plans of keeping and guarding his people on their road to final glorification (Rom. 8:30). The word “exhort” has a wide range of meanings in the Greek. Parakaleo can mean: to summon, to address, to admonish, to beg, to console, to instruct. Like a sanctified version of the bully on the playground, to exhort someone is to provoke them to do something. Namely, it is a provocation to doggedly pursue our highest pleasure in God himself. A heart that is satisfied in God is the antithesis of an “evil, unbelieving heart.” Therefore, the provocation that comes from other brothers and sisters in Christ is a fight for final perseverance; it is a fight for our lives.
The second passage tells us much the same: “consider how to stir up one another.” Katanoeo means to study intently. In short, we are to take a proactive approach in the fight for the perseverance in joy of our fellow believers. This is not a passive, take it or leave it kind of attitude – this is studied intent to shove one another closer to Christ and away from the precipice of apathy and unbelief. Paroxysmos refers to incitement or irritation. Putting these two thoughts together, we find that we are to concentrate and study about ways to provoke one another to “love and good works.” Moreover, these acts of provocation are to be done with an eschatological vantage point: “all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” The “Day” is no doubt the final Day of Judgment. In Romans 2:6-11, Paul reveals what the Day will look like: “He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury” (Rom. 2:6-8). After declaring that salvation is “from faith for faith” (Rom. 1:17), Paul points to an often underestimated reality: our salvation by faith alone will always be accompanied by the fruits of sanctification. On the Day, we will be seen for who we really are – our works will declare that our treasure was God, not the applause of men. This is a daunting reality that we should wrestle with on a regular basis as we seek to live all of life before the face of God. However, note the connection between Romans 2 and Hebrews 10: our works manifest our faith which is rewarded with eternal life and our works are often spurred on by fellow glory-seekers (i.e. genuine believers).
Do you see? Provoking other believers to joyfully glorify God in all of life is, in essence, working for their final perseverance and enjoyment of God in eternity. The act of loving, concerned, eternity-minded provocation is a fight for each others’ eternal enjoyment of Christ. Our works do not save us (i.e. justify us), but they do manifest our hearts’ desire: God’s glory or our own. As in Romans 2, it is the direction of our lives that matters, not perfection. Nevertheless, we are commanded to joyfully and proactively play a central role in each other’s progress toward the Celestial City (see Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan). So, with a massive, eternal, eschatological view in sight, I ask you: provoke me, please.