Christianity is distinctive from any other religion or lifestyle in numerous ways. One distinguishing mark is found in Philippians 2:4: “Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (NKJV). Outside of the Christian faith, where can you find people who practice such selfless love?
Paul was the author of those challenging words above, and his life showed how committed he was to the principle. The book of Acts often shows him working hard to encourage his brethren. Such statements are not surprising — until we consider the conditions in which Paul exhorted others.
Consider, for example, Acts 14:21,22: “And when they had preached the gospel to that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith …” We are impressed that Paul was concerned about the spiritual strength of others. But we are astonished when we consider what happened to him just before this meeting.
Verse 19 records that in Lystra Paul was stoned to the point that his enemies considered him dead. Imagine Paul’s appearance as he exhorted the brethren: His body likely still bore evidence of the rocks that bruised and tore his flesh. Perhaps his speech was affected because of swelling in his jaw or broken teeth. He might have limped as he walked to the front of the room. Seeing Paul might have argued against continuing in the faith. Thus his words had to be especially compassionate and clear.
Later in Acts, Paul is found in Philippi in a familiar mode: “… and when they had seen the brethren, they encouraged them and departed” (Acts 16:40). But note again Paul’s condition as he attempted to boost their spirits. Earlier in the chapter we are told how Paul and Silas were beaten with many stripes and placed in the inner prison in stocks (Acts 16:23,24). The wounds must have been considerable, for the jailer tended to them before submitting to the command to be baptized (verse 33). Again Paul’s appearance must have been unnerving. How powerful his words had to have been to encourage the brethren! How strong his love for them to make the effort!
It wasn’t just Paul who believed in Christian encouragement. Peter gave this strong command: “And above all things have fervent love for one another, for ‘love will cover a multitude of sins'” (1 Peter 4:8). It’s a theme found in virtually every book of the New Testament, originating in the example and commands of Jesus Christ himself.
This is the Christianity of the New Testament. But is it my Christianity? As I reflect on my interests and on how I spend my time, can I begin to compare myself with the saints of the first century?
Do we have fervent love for the brethren?