An Encouraging Word: Part 1

Most of us probably remember the famous song about the 1800s American West, “Home on the Range.”

When I was growing up, this song could be heard everywhere—radio, television, elementary classrooms, etc. I guess that is why it’s burned into my brain. As a child, the lyrics conveyed to me a vague sense of place unfamiliar to a girl born and raised in New England, but I really didn’t give the words much thought. It was just a fun tune to sing, especially with friends. But a few years ago, when I was writing a message on encouragement, the chorus of “Home on the Range” came directly to mind:

Home, home on the range,
Where the deer and the antelope play;
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

“…seldom is heard a discouraging word.” Huh … Oh, I get it! With only deer and antelope for company—and very few clouds apparently, which is an alternate reality for someone like me who lives in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York (#cloudcentral)—there isn’t much chatter.

This meant there were few people to dampen the day, disparage your dreams, or fling deprecation your way; all that discouragement tightening ’round your heart like a lasso. No wonder the iconic cowboy, even when he worked in a herd of other cowboys (herd, pack, gang; I have no idea), is often presented in the media as a loner: independent and a man of few words.

As an aside, do we now refer to them as cowpersons? In the drama series, Yellowstone, the work of cowboying—if that’s a verb—remains a man’s world. Rip Wheeler (his job title is somewhat murky; I would call him John Dutton’s fixer, sort of a Michael Clayton in spurs) allows only one female to live and work at the ranch with the other ranch hands, and it is only because she is one tough mother—if you’ll pardon the expression: #sexist.

Women are cowboys, too. Or are they cowgirls?

Discouragement tells us that we can’t do or dream or decide, and it dissuades us from hope. Encouragement, on the other hand, is like that first flicker of persuasion. It gently reminds us that our dream—or even to just get out of bed on a difficult day—is possible.

Some people are gifted in encouraging others, but many of us seem to struggle with this. Perhaps this stems from learned behavior in our families of origin—we may have had parents who were raised by parents during the depression who just expected their children to straighten up and fly right and not get too big for their britches, and that kind of thinking trickled down (no, Mom, I don’t mean you and Dad #wink).

It may also stem from pride and sin: we can’t or won’t offer comfort to others if we are miffed about the latest fissure in our #bestlifenow. Some have a persistent negative perception of life and a compulsive need to give people the old one-two punch of reality instead of a motivational speech. Or, on the receiving end, are we so numb to joy or hope that we interpret a person’s encouraging nature as suspicious or faulty? It’s like there’s a personal radio frequency jammed toward any goodness coming our way.

Every person could do with a good dose of encouragement today. Just look around at your local grocery store—I guarantee there’s someone wandering the produce aisle in need of a smile or some old-fashioned commiseration (Strawberries are $6?!).

I promise you that God wants us to be encouraged. It’s like oxygen. We need it. And there’s good news if you have ever failed as an encourager—it’s a learned behavior as well as a spiritual gift.

Over the next few weeks, I will be writing about encouragement, focusing on Hebrews 10:23-25 and its real-life application. Full disclosure: I’m a person who believes the Word (the Bible) is alive and active (Heb. 4:12) and God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16). Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Word can correct our faulty perceptions about ourselves, others, and God (Rom. 15:4). It changes us.

The comfort derived and interest sparked by novels, articles, and non-fiction are not the same as what I experience when I sit with God and glean from His Word and Spirit (or walk, jog, swim, hike—wherever and however one enjoys being with the Creator). I’m not here to browbeat anyone into believing what I do—my intent is to share the good food and encouragement the Holy Spirit and many brothers and sisters in Christ have shared with me over many years to nourish, encourage, and give hope. That’s all.

Spur One Another On

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:23-25

Someone once told me we can see something new in the Bible every time we crack it open. Well, I just noticed for the first time the word “spur” in Hebrews 10:24 (see verse above), and since I’ve been referencing cowboys … (see image above). Full disclosure: I’m a ham, and humor is my spiritual gift #laughingemoji (we can argue another time about the spiritual gift thing). I also love hashtags.

Enough about me. The entire letter to the Hebrews is meant to encourage its readers. These new Jewish converts were likely being persecuted and feeling battered, perhaps tempted to give up. The author is persuading them to remember who they are as God’s children and to have endurance as they faithfully follow a Gospel of freedom instead of the chains of the fading Old Covenant traditions (Heb. 9). He—or she—is trying to correct the community’s faulty perception.

Who Wrote Hebrews?

The authorship of Hebrews is in dispute: few modern scholars believe the writer to be the Apostle Paul. Every epistle in the canon of scripture from Paul bears his personal greeting. Hebrews does not. And it is different in style and content from his other writings.

I’m not a scholar, but as I see it from the scholarship of others, there are two strong candidates as the authors of Hebrews: 1) Priscilla, who was married to Aquila, taught Apollos, and was Paul’s friend and co-laborer in Gospel ministry; and 2) Barnabas, who took Paul under his wing after the apostle’s conversion. We meet both of these people in the book of Acts and they were instrumental in the founding of the Church, its growth, and its survival.

According to early tradition not recorded in the Bible, Barnabas was one of Jesus’ seventy apostles. We are first introduced to him in Acts 4. After Jesus’ ascension to heaven, Barnabas sold land he owned and gave all the proceeds to the disciples, keeping nothing for himself. His actual name was Joseph (Acts 4:36-37), but the disciples referred to him as Barnabas—this name meant, “son of encouragement.” They saw something so evident in this person, they named him for it.

Barnabas was generous, humble, and had a habit of encouraging people. It was Barnabas who bridged the communication gap between Paul the former persecutor and the fearful, suspicious Jewish believers (Acts 9:26-28). He welcomed Paul into the community, and encouraged others to know him and trust him. It is Barnabas who the disciples sent to Antioch after they heard the intriguing news of many Greek converts there.

He was just the right leader to send:

When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. Acts 11:23-24.

If Barnabas had taken a spiritual gifts inventory, encouragement would be at the top (see Rom. 12:6-8 and 1 Cor. 12:7-11, 27-28 for a list of spiritual gifts. Which one do you have?).

Among the Western Church scholars, the second-century writer Tertullian suggests Barnabas as the author. The Eastern Church theologian Origen doubted Paul wrote Hebrews but thought the letter was similar to Paul’s thinking (Origen thought Luke might be its author).1

As I mentioned above, Acts 4:36 tells us that the name Barnabas means, “son of encouragement.” In Heb. 13:22, the author refers to the letter as his “word of exhortation and encouragement” to them (AMP). The letter to the Hebrews deals exhaustively with the theme of sacrifice, priesthood, and worship—which were the duties of the Levites who were the priestly people of the Israelites. Barnabas was a Levite from Cyprus.

The letter’s author also repeatedly describes the Holy Spirit as the author of scripture, and that human authorship is secondary. In other words, it’s not about him. Barnabas, the “son of encouragement,” could indeed be the humble, anonymous author of this “word of encouragement.” And it makes sense that people who hung out a lot with Paul, serving with him and learning from him (and he, them)—like Barnabas, Priscilla, and Luke—could author a pastoral letter echoing some of Paul’s own teaching or thoughts.

Next time, we will look at Priscilla as a possible author of the letter to the Hebrews.

My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ. Col. 2:2.

All verses are from the NIV unless otherwise noted. Images: Click image for source.
  1. Guthrie, Donald. The Epistle to the Hebrews: An Introduction and Commentary. Ed. by Leon Morris. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983, p. 17.

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