When God inquired into Abel’s whereabouts, Cain famously asked: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9). Cain assumed that the answer was self-evidently: “Of course not.” He was wrong—at least, from the perspective of the early Christian leaders who wrote what has become our New Testament. Against the modern, Western trend to regard our faith and practice as something that we are free to work out privately between ourselves and God, these early Christian leaders would challenge us to lower the privacy screens we place between us and our sisters and brothers in Christ, both so that we can watch over them and so they can watch over us.
The members of the house churches addressed by the Letter to the Hebrews had experienced considerable pressure from their non-Christian neighbors to back off from their commitment to this new “cult” (that is, the Christian faith!). They wanted them to take up again the practices that bound them to their non-Christian neighbors and reinforced the values of the larger society, whether close observance of the Jewish law and the proper boundaries between Jews and Gentiles or a return to the social and religious activities of the Gentile population. The Christ-followers had met this pressure head-on in the earlier days of their faith journey (Heb. 10:32–35), but over time the shaming and sidelining were beginning to take their toll—to the point that some of their number had already visibly drawn back from Christian fellowship and from association with this unpopular movement (Heb. 10:25).
The member of Paul’s team who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews well understood the value of social reinforcement of a believer’s commitment to discipleship within the Christian assemblies for increasing the likelihood of that individual withstanding the social deterrents from without. And so he gives these instructions:
Take care, brothers and sisters, that none of you may have an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partners of Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end. (Heb. 3:12–14)
It’s helpful here if we look a bit behind the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) at the author’s actual words. The opening command is something more like “Watch out,” or “Be on the lookout.” He also uses a plural form of the command, so his audience would hear something along the lines of “Y’all be on the lookout lest any one among y’all” exhibits these symptoms. In other words, he is very clearly commending the spiritual care of each individual member to all the other members of these assemblies. He gives all of us together the responsibility for facilitating the perseverance of any one among us. Though we face different social pressures in North America than those faced by the congregations addressed by Hebrews, the need to watch over one another and the need to “exhort one another”—to keep one another focused on the priorities and goals that God’s work in and through our lives sets before us—remains constant.
In their context, sin’s deceitfulness worked through their neighbors’ attempts to convince them that Christ’s gifts, friendship, and promises were not worth what it was costing to keep them. In our context, sin’s deceitfulness may work by convincing us that religion may have its place in a full life, but shouldn’t distract us from the important matters of business or politics or take over to the extent that we don’t enjoy the lifestyle and entertainments our context affords us. We run less the risk of “turning away from the living God” and more the risk of making the living God into our household god to whom we give the occasional nod so that we might have his blessing as we live our lives. Whatever sin’s means of deceiving, we need one another to help us not lose sight of what the living God merits in terms of our priorities and investments.
The author of Hebrews gives similar instructions toward the end of his sermon, once again commending the perseverance of each individual to the watchful care of the group:
See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled. See to it that no one becomes like Esau, an immoral and godless person, who sold his birthright for a single meal. You know that later, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, even though he sought the blessing with tears. (Heb. 12:15–17)
Once again it may be helpful to look behind the NRSV. The word rendered “See to it” could be better rendered “Exercise watchful care.” It is the word for exercising oversight, for “looking out” for those entrusted to one’s care. And once again it is a plural form, charging all the members of the group to “exercise watchful care” over each individual member—to watch over one another.
The way the author expresses what is at stake is also worth attention. “Failing to obtain God’s grace” is not the most helpful translation. I would suggest we hear this more along the lines of “falling short of God’s gift”—even as the exodus generation, to which the author of Hebrews gave significant attention earlier in his sermon, fell short of entering the promised land because of their lack of trust and commitment to obey (Heb. 3:7–4:11). Alternatively, we might hear it as “not making it all the way that God’s favor would take us,” again because lack of trust and commitment derailed us along the way or, at the very least, slowed our progress. This is especially relevant to disciples swimming in the Wesleyan streams of the faith, for we believe that God’s favor toward us extends well beyond his forgiveness of sin as far as God’s transforming us into people in whom his love flows in such fullness that there is no room left for sin. If we are not to fall short of God’s goal for us, however, we certainly need to “exercise watchful care” over one another, encouraging, motivating, and holding one another accountable to our own better desires for ourselves.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Can you recall one or two episodes when a timely word or conversation with a brother or sister in the Lord helped you to continue in a direction toward godly goals rather than lose heart or, perhaps, even turn in a direction that would not please God?
- Can you recall, similarly, one or two episodes when you intervened healthfully in this way for a brother or sister in the Lord?
- By contrast, can you recall an episode in which, looking back, you would now have wished that a brother or sister was watching out for you more closely—or you for a brother or sister—so as perhaps to have avoided a detour in a faith journey?
The watchful care that we are challenged to exercise regarding one another includes, of course, watching over one another in prayer. The New Testament letters frequently urge believers to pray not just for their own needs and concerns, but specifically for the needs and concerns for their sisters and brothers:
Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me . . . (Eph. 6:18–19)
As for other matters, brothers and sisters, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you. (2 Thess. 3:1 NIV)
Brothers and sisters, pray for us. (1 Thess. 5:25 NIV)
Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. I urge you the more earnestly to do this in order that I may be restored to you the sooner. (Heb. 13:18–19 ESV)
If we are to “persevere in supplication for all the saints,” we must open our eyes and ears to their condition. We must hold them in our hearts as we go before our common Lord. This is a spiritual discipline that, on the one hand, changes us by exercising us in being concerned for the interests of others, of being other-centered in our prayers. It trains us to seek the good of our sisters and brothers, first from the Lord in prayer and, as a corollary, through what the Lord might prompt us to do to advance their good.
We believe, on the other hand, that prayer is truly an effective means of connecting our sisters and brothers with the favor of God. Testimonies abound to prayer being effective in ways that we cannot easily understand. A Russian Christian named Alexander Ogorodnikov was imprisoned for eight years for his faith. At one point he was near breaking. His tormentors used the extreme cold temperature to their advantage. It was making Alexander desperate, but he could find no way to escape the cold or get warm. As he himself went to prayer, he reports: “I felt warm breathing, and the lovely touch of a brother’s hand. I cried like a child, and understood it was a prayer for me. It helped me to survive.” Christians who suffer persecution in countries that also have fairly broad access to the Internet are frequently encouraged as they visit websites that show the prayers posted on their behalf by their sisters and brothers throughout the world. The yearning of the hearts of one’s brothers and sisters before God on one’s behalf communicates strength to endure in the “long obedience in the same direction” that is Christian discipleship.
There is a temptation, however, to think that prayers ought primarily to be focused upon the urgent needs of our bodies or circumstances, focusing on asking God for help in the midst of sickness, surgery, a period of unemployment, relationship challenges, and the like. The prayers we encounter in the New Testament suggest that, while these are indeed suitable subjects for prayer, our yearnings for one another before God penetrate much deeper. The apostle Paul appears to have been ever in prayer before God on behalf of those who had come to faith through his ministry and that of his team. His prayers were often focused on his sisters’ and brothers’ progress in living ever more fully the life into which their trust in Jesus had initiated them, making ever fuller use of God’s provisions for their growth and transformation, and attaining the fullness of God’s goals for them:
And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. (Phil. 1:9–11)
We have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. (Col. 1:9–10)
To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thess. 1:11–12)
Paul’s prayers on behalf of his converts are very informative for the kinds of supplications we might consider bringing into our prayers on our own behalf and on behalf of our sisters and brothers. I can readily imagine the impact that hearing Paul’s reports of his prayers would have had on his audiences. It would have potentially reinforced their own desires to see these same things accomplished in their own lives and those of their fellow disciples. It would have called their attention afresh to these things as pursuits and goals to prioritize among themselves, seeking God’s provision—in unison with their brother Paul—for making progress in these holy directions. How much more, then, would it have helped each member of these house assemblies if, in their prayers together, these petitions lived on as constant reminders of what they ought to be desiring and seeking from God for themselves and for one another, informing the ways in which they would also watch over one another in their day-to-day and week-to-week interactions?
John adds yet another dimension to our watching over one another in prayer. This one might strike us as somewhat strange, for it has to do with asking God to forgive not ourselves, but our sister or brother whom we see committing some sin:
And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him. If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one—to those whose sin is not mortal. (1 John 5:14–16)
The first few sentences remind us of the great assurance that Jesus has given us; namely, that God will hear and grant the prayers we offer. But John reminds us of this privilege specifically to recommend that we pray forgiveness over our sisters and brothers when they commit some sin. The NRSV may not be doing us a favor when it renders “a sin leading to death” as “a mortal sin.” The latter phrase carries the baggage of the Roman Catholic church’s historic division of sins into the categories of “venial” and “mortal” and the requirement of confession and penance if one is to obtain absolution for “mortal” sins. John more likely reflects here a more vivid awareness that there are simply some affronts against God that lead to a person dropping dead. It happened to Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1–11). It appears to have happened to some members of one or more house churches in Corinth, though even there Paul affirmed the possibility of self-examination, confession, and restoration (1 Cor. 11:27–32). Such testimonies to the incompatibility of sin in the community of faith with the holiness of the God who dwells in our midst should motivate us to take sin with the utmost seriousness when it erupts in our own lives or in the lives of our sisters and brothers.
It might be tempting to distract ourselves by trying to answer the impossible question of “How do you know when someone has committed a ‘sin unto death’ for which we are not necessarily to pray?” I would rather that we focus on the extraordinary instruction here that we pray on another’s behalf that God would forgive that person at all. This represents a very different kind of response to seeing a brother or sister moving in a harmful direction than, say, gossiping or complaining to others about their words or actions. John suggests that our intercession on behalf of one another in regard to the sins that don’t make us drop dead is effective before God. Such a practice, moreover, would certainly change our own hearts and inclinations toward one another when we see those among us moving in directions in which the pursuit of God’s favor would not take them.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- How much attention do you give in prayer to the challenges and areas of need facing your Christian brothers and sisters near and far? How might you regularly make more space for such supplication in your life, if more would be appropriate?
- To what extent do your prayers mirror the kinds of prayer Paul offered for his brothers and sisters in the Lord? How might it change your own focus and priorities if you were to give more room to praying for your own and fellow believers’ growth and transformation?
- How would it change the culture of your congregation if people prayed for those whom they believe to have sinned rather than gossip or complain about their actions?
- Using Paul’s prayers (you might also look at Ephesians 1:17–19; 3:14–21), spend some time in prayer for yourself and for three of your fellow disciples. If at all possible, pray these things together with them.
Meeting regularly in small groups provides obvious advantages for fulfilling the scriptural charge to watch over one another. As we grow in our knowledge of one another, we also increase our ability to discern the signs that a sister or brother needs our encouragement to persevere in the direction of attaining all that God, in God’s grace, desires for her or him to attain. Instituting such regular meetings among Christians lay at the heart of John Wesley’s renewal movement. He described these small groups, which he called “classes” (groups of about ten to twelve), as “a company of men [and women] having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their salvation.” The agenda of these groups was simple—to check in with one another and to inquire of each whether he or she was “growing closer to Christ or falling further away.” Sharing this information with a small group opened up the door to the kinds of encouragement of one another and the kinds of prayer with one another that allowed each member to receive God’s grace to persevere. This required a commitment to transparency on the part of each member as well as a commitment to meet the transparency of the other members with a gentleness that proved worthy of such trust, holding one another’s spiritual condition lovingly before the Father.
The rewards of stepping forward together in such mutual trust, moreover, were significant. In his “Plain Account of the People Called Methodists,” Wesley says of these meetings:
Advice or reproof was given as needed, quarrels made up, misunderstandings removed. And after an hour or two spent in this labour of love, they concluded with prayer and thanksgiving. . . . Many now happily experienced that Christian fellowship of which they had not so much as an idea before. They began to “bear one another’s burdens,” and naturally to “care for each another.” As they had daily a more intimate acquaintance with, so they had a more endeared affection for, each other.
Wesley understood what the early Christian leaders knew so well: we need one another if we are to arrive at the fullness of the personal transformation the Holy Spirit seeks to work within us and experience the depth of fellowship, support, and love that God intends to characterize the family that he has brought together in Christ. The more isolationist form of discipleship rarely produces growth and all too often leaves room for “the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13) to stall—if not make shipwreck of—our faith journey.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Have you had the experience of meeting in a small group where you felt that you were genuinely “watching over one another in love”? How did that experience sustain and nurture your faith and transformation? If there was a downside to the experience, what was that?
- How would you feel about being a part of a group such as Wesley’s first Methodists committed to? How might it nurture the quality of connection and interpersonal interactions that we have been exploring throughout our study? What reservations might you have about belonging to such a group?
- If you decide that belonging to such a group would both give you support and allow you to lend support to others in their faith journey, what steps are available to you to finding or starting such a group?
Closing Prayer for Session Seven
Lord Jesus, we thank you for the family that you have given us, that you have entrusted to our care, and to whose care you have entrusted us. Help us to watch over one another in love more and more effectively. Lead us to take the time and make the opportunities to check in with one another and to discover if a sister or brother is in need of some particular help or intervention. Give us the wisdom we need to offer timely counsel, support, and assistance in a manner that can most readily be received. Give us also the humility to accept the same from our sisters and brothers when we stand in need of their care. We ask this in your name. Amen.
If you’re ready to take community life to the next level, get the foundational study that will lead you into this deeper understanding of the Christian life. One Another by David deSilva paints the New Testament vision for our relationships, interactions, and interventions with one another in a local Christian community. This vision impels us to encourage and support one another, offering reinforcement for holy living that, according to the apostles, we owe one another as the people not only welcomed into relationship with God through Jesus Christ, but given as gifts to one another for this very purpose.
- Group leader training
- Small group studies
- Sunday school classes
- Discipleship bands
In these pages you’ll:
- Gain an appreciation for how we thrive in community
- Wrestle with our command to receive from and contribute to others’ faith
- Understand the biblical teaching on God’s people, the body of Christ
- Be challenged to abandon individualistic versions of the Christian faith