Acts 14:21-28 shows us the end of the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas as the two men returned to Antioch in Syria via the churches they had founded on their journeying. At Derbe, Lystra, Iconium and Pisidian Antioch, we are told they spent time ‘strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith.’ (Acts 14:22) This remains one of the core tasks of churches, for it is easy for us all to stumble and fall. Both words can be found in other places in Acts (e.g. Acts 9:31, Acts 15:32), showing us the importance of strengthening and encouraging.
To strengthen means to establish alongside, to make something stronger or firmer; to encourage literally means to give courage to someone, to support them. Encouragement is listed as a gift from God (Rom 12:8) and Barnabas (the ‘son of encouragement’) was clearly gifted in this area. God Himself encourages us and gives us hope (Rom 15:5, 2 Thess 2:16), but this encouragement does not exclude warning (Paul and Barnabas reminded the believers that they would have hardships to face in their Christian journey. (Acts 14:22)) We don’t know exactly how Paul and Barnabas strengthened and encouraged the believers to remain true to the faith, but from Paul’s letters, we get clues: how he focussed attention on God and on His redemptive work in Jesus Christ, how he placed our individual stories within the bigger picture of God’s story and thus gave meaning and purpose to our lives and how he made connections constantly between present hardships and eternal glory.
Part of the work of the Holy Spirit is to strengthen and encourage us, but we too can help others by our words and actions. Paul says to the Thessalonians, ‘Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.’ (1 Thess 5:11) and he urges the Corinthians to seek the spiritual gifts which ‘build up the church.’ (1 Cor 14:12) As we work to strengthen and encourage each other, we can then remain true to the faith and stand firm, no matter what. The writer to the Hebrews says, ‘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.’ (Heb 10:24-25) May this be our goal as we interact with each other.