Words are POWERFUL. Take for example the words spoken by Robert Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia, speaking in 1939. “It is my melancholy duty to inform you officially that, in consequence of a persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her, and that, as a result, AUSTRALIA IS ALSO AT WAR”.
Just like that. A few simple words is all it took. Millions of lives affected. Lives lost. Economies ruined. Homes destroyed. Children orphaned. Borders re-drawn. History pages written.
The right person, speaking the right words, at the right time, has immense power.
It was 25 years ago. I was nineteen. Halfway through uni. Dad and I were walking the Overland Trail in Tasmania. From Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair. We were lying in our tent one night trying to get to sleep, and he said to me, “Son, I’m very PROUD of you.” And then he mentioned a few specifics.
It wasn’t the FIRST time Dad had said an encouraging thing to me. Nor the LAST. And they were only A FEW words. But they stuck in my mind. Dad had obviously been thinking about it for a while. There was nothing in the immediate context that caused him to say it. But it was obvious he’d been THINKING about it. And then gone to the trouble to SAY it. That meant a lot to me. And I can still remember it.
Powerful words like that can keep you going when you feel like giving up. They can confirm that you’re making the right decisions. Or standing up for the right things. They can be as simple as encouraging you that someone NOTICED what you did. That you made a difference WITH SOMEONE.
I wonder whether YOU can remember POWERFUL WORDS someone’s spoken to YOU. Perhaps face to face, or over the phone. Even in a letter or a card. I know people who’ve kept cards for DECADES because THE WORDS mean so much to them.
But not all powerful words have a POSITIVE effect. Words are just as powerful TO HURT. And these are often the hardest to forget of all.
“You’ll never amount to anything!”
“Who would want to be friends with you?”
“I don’t want you on my team”
“I’ve found someone else. I want a divorce.”
Hurtful words like these are perhaps even MORE powerful than GOOD ones. Which is all the more reason to THINK CAREFULLY about the words we use.
Communicating with words is part of what it means to be human. Some of us like talking a lot, others are quieter. But using WORDS is part of what it means TO LIVE LIFE. To REMOVE words COMPLETELY is un-natural. It’s cruel and painful.
People stranded on their own can go crazy with no one to talk to. Tom Hanks ended up talking to his volleyball Wilson in the movie Castaway. In prison, solitary confinement for long periods of time is cruel, inhumane punishment. Interacting with other people – hearing and speaking words – is a large part of what makes us human.
And God’s MADE us that way because that’s what GOD is like TOO. He’s made us IN HIS IMAGE. To be RELATIONAL because GOD is relational.
And we communicate with words because GOD communicates with WORDS. The God of the Bible is a God who SPEAKS. Who speaks with intelligible, self-revealing words. Who communicates to us about what he’s like. What his WORLD is like, including US. And how we can PLEASE him.
In fact, we KNOW that God’s like that only because he’s TOLD US. He’s given us his WORD, the Bible. So we can KNOW him.
We almost take that idea for granted. But when we compare OUR God with how other religions think about God, we realise how DISTINCTIVE that is. He’s not a god you can only feel or sense from nature, in some sort of fuzzy, unclear way. He’s SPOKEN. In WORDS. To prophets. In dreams. By angels. In his written word, the Bible.
And he’s not a god who HIDES himself from people, playing cosmic hide-and-seek. Who makes it difficult. Who only the most holy and dedicated can find. Who only reveals himself after pilgrimages or holy retreats or special sacrifices. In fact, he bridged the gap between heaven and earth. Sending his Son – the ULTIMATE Word, to communicate and to bring change.
And he’s not a god who’s harder to pin down than jelly. A post-modern elephant in a roomful of blind men. With everyone arguing about what he’s like. He’s not ONE thing to ONE person. And SOMETHING else to ANOTHER. Because he’s TAKEN OFF THE BLINDFOLDS. He CAN be known. Because he’s SPOKEN to us in WORDS.
This is a series of talks about ENCOURAGEMENT. About using the words we speak to each other. TO BUILD EACH OTHER UP.
But it’s not just ANY nice words. For ANY purpose: to talk about the weather, or pets, or the cricket. We’re not simply about making each other FEEL BETTER. To feel warm and fuzzy. We’re interested in CHRISTIAN encouragement. BIBLICAL encouragement. Which I want to define as SPEAKING THE TRUTH IN LOVE WITH THE GOAL OF BUILDING UP PEOPLE IN CHRIST-LIKENESS.
SPEAKING THE TRUTH IN LOVE WITH THE GOAL OF BUILDING UP PEOPLE IN CHRIST-LIKENESS.
Notice there’s a WHAT, a HOW, and a WHY in that definition.
The “What” is we speak THE TRUTH. Christian encouragement NEVER involves lying, or sugar-coating the truth. It’s saying what’s RIGHT even if it’s DIFFICULT. It’s NOT Christian encouragement to tell someone continuing in sin “That’s ok. Whatever you think is right. It’s up to you to make your choices. I’ll support you whatever you do.”
Encouragement is saying “No, that’s WRONG. God says it’s SIN. It’s going to lead to your HARM.”
That’s the WHAT. Encouragement is speaking the TRUTH. There’s also a HOW in Christian encouragement. Remember our definition? SPEAKING THE TRUTH IN LOVE WITH THE GOAL OF BUILDING UP PEOPLE IN CHRIST-LIKENESS.
The HOW is “IN LOVE”. Love is saying to your friend who’s continuing in sin “You’re WRONG. I love you ENOUGH to tell you. Enough to RISK losing your FRIENDSHIP to keep you from harm. Let me HELP you make a different choice. I’ll support you as you make the changes.”
Speaking the truth might sometimes be difficult for the person to hear. But if we do it IN LOVE. Because we’re genuinely seeking THEIR GOOD, then it will be ENCOURAGEMENT. Even if the hearer may not appreciate it at the time.
And that brings in the THIRD aspect of our definition of encouragement. The WHY. Christian encouragement always HAS A GOAL. Speaking the truth in love WITH THE GOAL OF BUILDING UP PEOPLE IN CHRIST-LIKENESS.
That’s why we’re here on earth. To give glory to Jesus, and TO BECOME LIKE HIM. So that’s the goal of all our conversation with people.
And it’s such an important goal for God that he hasn’t left us to make it up on our own. He’s given us HIS WORDS to do the job. Because while our words are powerless, unreliable, and foolish. GOD’S words are always powerful, trustworthy and wise. They ALWAYS achieve what he intends.
The whole Bible is about how God is A SPEAKER. How he communicates with power. About how his words bring CHANGE. Change to his world. And change to the lives of people. He’s changed US. God’s word has the power to change US.
And God’s made it so that THROUGH US, his word can change the lives of others. We can be CO-WORKERS with God in bringing CHANGE to people.
So, CHRISTIAN encouragement is based on the power of GOD’S word to change lives, not OUR words. And so, primarily, our words of encouragement should be based on, focussed on, directed towards, God’s word in the Bible. Most of our interactions together should have the opportunity to hear words from GOD. Because they’re the ones that have the POWER to encourage us, to build us up in Christ-likeness
(And, just as an aside we’ll come back to in following weeks, that definition for Christian encouragement applies equally to NON-Christians as it does to Christians).
(Our goal in speaking to non-Christians is ALSO to build them up in Christ-likeness. They’ve got to be INTRODUCED to Jesus FIRST. And so our words have THAT goal. Which is only the first step. After THAT, they continue that process of growing more like Jesus. So Christian encouragement applies just as much to EVANGELISM as it does to FELLOWSHIP.)
In the next five weeks we’re going to look in more detail at HOW we use God’s words to encourage each other. But today, we’re going to build the foundation.
If we’re going to have CONFIDENCE that God’s words have power to change. And that we can USE them to change people. We’ve got to look at GOD the SPEAKER.
God the Speaker
God’s Words are Self-revealing
The FIRST thing to say about God the speaker is that his words are self-revealing. God speaks for the purpose of telling us what he’s LIKE.
When he first spoke to Moses in the desert at the burning bush, he told him to take off his sandals because he was standing on holy ground. And then he said (Exod 3:6) “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”
Then he goes on to tell Moses that he’s SEEN the misery of his people. That he’s going to RESCUE them. And that he’s SENDING Moses. All words that reveal something about what God’s like.
And then some time later, over in Ch 34, when Moses wants to see God’s glory, we’re told
5 Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. 6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”
Or we could jump over to the New Testament, and hear how the writer to the Hebrews summarises all of God’s self-revealing words through history. Heb 1:1
1:1 In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being,
God used words to communicate to HUMANS. But his GREATEST self-revelation was in THE HUMAN WORD. The LIVING Word. When he sent Jesus, fully God, fully man. To show humans what God was like. A perfect visible, finite, containable HUMAN representation of an invisible, infinite, uncontainable God. The radiance of God’s glory. The exact representation of his being.
I can be CONFIDENT when I speak to others about what God’s like because he’s TOLD ME HIMSELF. And through his Son, I KNOW him PERSONALLY.
If I want to know what Barak Obama’s like, I don’t ask Ben or Belinda or Bruce, just because they’ve seen him on TV, or read an article in the paper. I can only REALLY know Barak Obama if I hear him TALK about himself.
But even THAT’S not enough. A HUMAN can give a deceitful picture of himself. Pretend to be something he’s not. Not that a POLITICIAN would ever do that.
But God’s words are reliable. They’re trustworthy. Because he’s not like humans. In Numbers 23:19 God says this about himself through the prophet Balak
19 God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?
Or again, in Ps 33. Verse 4
4 For the word of the LORD is RIGHT and TRUE; he is FAITHFUL in all he does.
When God SPEAKS, we can TRUST what he says.
Powerful to create and sustain
And when God SPEAKS, things HAPPEN. His words are POWERFUL. The Bible begins with God SPEAKING, and the world is created out of nothing. Gen 1:3
3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
Ps 33:6 puts it this way:
6 By the word of the LORD were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth. 7 He gathers the waters of the sea into jars; he puts the deep into storehouses.
And then it concludes with how we should RESPOND to a God like that.
8 Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the people of the world revere him. 9 For he SPOKE, and it came to be; he COMMANDED, and it stood firm.
And he wasn’t just active BACK THEN. He CONTINUES to sustain the world by his word. “Sun, keep burning. Earth, keep orbiting. Gravity keep working. Heart, keep firing. Plants keep growing!”
Command and Bless
And God doesn’t just command HIS WORLD to keep working, he commands US AS WELL. He speaks to his creatures to command and bless.
That’s really the story of the WHOLE BIBLE, but we can follow the next few points through with Adam and Eve. God’s just created his world, with Adam and Eve as the cherry on the top. And then he Gen 1:28 we read,
28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Blessing and command.
But the story of Genesis, as well as the rest of the Bible, is that humans chose NOT to obey God’s commands. We choose NOT to trust the words of the trustworthy God. That’s exactly the way the snake tempted Adam and Eve. “Did God REALLY say…?”
And when we distrust God, and disobey him. When we choose OUR way over HIS. God speaks to JUDGE. To pronounce JUSTICE. Gen 3:17
17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. 18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground,
And while things are TOUGH for Adam, and the rest of us who followed him, God doesn’t leave us on our OWN. He speaks to PROMISE us. To promise us protection, and life, to promise us a RELATIONSHIP.
The whole Old Testament is about God’s PROMISES. To Adam himself, then to Noah, then to Abraham. Promises to be his God, to make him the father of a nation, and to make him a blessing to ALL the nations.
And when we get to the New Testament God DELIVERS on his promises. He sends Jesus, a descendent of Abraham to bless the nations. To bring people from EVERY country back to God.
And God gives US promises that we wait for. Promises of an eternity with him in paradise. Without pain or crying or shame or blame or guilt or sin.
And we can wait with CONFIDENCE because we’ve seen that God keeps his word. The writer of Ps 33 finishes THIS way. V20.
20 We wait in hope for the LORD; he is our help and our shield. 21 In him our hearts rejoice, for WE TRUST IN HIS HOLY NAME. 22 May your unfailing love rest upon us, O LORD, even as we put our hope in you.
Trusting God’s name is trusting his CHARACTER. That he’ll DO what he SAYS. And that’s what the Christian life is about. Trusting God’s word. Waiting in hope. Walking through whatever life brings in dependence on God, who PROMISES to be WITH us, and provide what we need.
Powerful to save
And one final thing God’s words do. They’re POWERFUL TO SAVE. More on this NEXT week. But just to touch on it. All through the Bible we see God’s word being powerful to SAVE people.
And it worked that way with many of us HERE. SOMEBODY spoke God’s words to us. Explained his offer of forgiveness instead of judgment, of life instead of death, of friendship instead of being enemies.
It might have been a parent, or a friend, or a Sunday school teacher, or a camp leader, or a Youth Group leader. But SOMEONE spoke those words to us. And God USED those words to CHANGE us. To make us ALIVE.
In 2 Cor 4:6 we see the connection between the words God spoke to CREATE, and the words he speaks to make us ALIVE. To CHANGE us.
6 For God, who SAID, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
God makes a CHANGE when his word does its powerful work in us when we come to know his Son Jesus. Jesus himself back it up. In John 5:24 he promises
24 “I tell you the truth, whoever HEARS MY WORD and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.
God’s word has the power to CHANGE us. And through us, it can change others, too. Do you BELIEVE that? Are you willing to PUT THAT INTO PRACTICE?
One of the challenges in the small group studies is to invite someone from church to meet up with you once a week for about half an hour. To read a bit of the Bible together, to talk about what you’ve learned. And then to PRAY for each other. That God’s word would CHANGE you.
(There’s some booklets distributed this morning to help you)
It could be a spouse, a friend, or someone in your Home Group. Even someone you don’t know very well yet. It might be someone younger than you, or older than you. Or new Christian, or one who’s been a Christian for DECADES.
Why not ask someone? Do you TRUST God’s promise that his word has the power to change? Put that trust to the test.
God’s spoken in a way we can TRUST. His word has the power to CHANGE us. And through us, it can change others, too. Let’s SPEAK God’s word to each other, encouraging each other, with the goal of building each other up in Christ-likeness!