One of the most important charges given to preachers and Christians in general is found in 2 Timothy 4:2: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” There is obviously an ever-present need to preach nothing more than the truth of God’s Word, and most preachers recognize the great need to always be ready to preach that Word both when it is well received and even when it is not. Yet, a struggle exists within many preachers and teachers of the Bible to accurate apply the last part of 2 Timothy 4:2 to their heralding of God’s Word to others. Many known false teachers both within the brotherhood and in the denominational world infamously shy away from any sort of preaching that would scripturally reprove or rebuke in any fashion. Consequently, it is easy for sound Christians and gospel preachers and teachers to give more reproofs and rebukes than exhortation and encouragement in their sermons, classes, articles, blog posts, social media comments, and one-on-one conversations, all in an effort to “pick up the slack” and give the world the scriptural correction they need and won’t receive anywhere else. It is also easy to do this without the longsuffering and patience God inspired Paul to command Timothy to have.
We must remember that there is just as much value and need for exhortation and encouragement as there is for reproof and rebuke (Ga. 6:2; 1 Th. 5:11, 14; 1 Ti. 5:1; He. 3:12-13; 10:24-25). Spiritually building up and edifying fellow Christians to help them become closer to God and overcome sin in their life requires more than telling them what they need to work on. It equally requires open acknowledgment and appreciation of what we are doing right, and encouragement to keep it up. For every (hopefully scriptural and constructive) critical sermon, lesson, article or comment made, there needs to be another which openly acknowledges the good done by Christians and thanks them for it. Yes, the sermons, articles, and comments which bring out what we need to do better are more times than not correct and they are sure to get numerous “likes” and comments like “Amen!” and “Preach it, brother!” However, after a while of being regularly saturated with lessons and articles which repeatedly say, “We have this problem,” “We’re not doing what we need to do in this area,” and “We could do better here,” a lot of us will get discouraged and begin to wonder if we can do anything right in the sight of God (or the Christian or church leader who regularly shows us our errors.) There is a place for reproof and rebuke, but there’s also a place for exhortation. As Jesus said, “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Mt. 23:23).
This is why I believe 1-2 Corinthians are books which every Christian needs to read at least once a quarter. We typically think of Paul as a no-nonsense, “let ’em have it with both barrels” kind of preacher, especially in his letters to the Corinthian church. This perhaps is due to our human tendency to give more focus on the negative than the positive, which is a big reason why we might be unbalanced with the emphasis on “reproving and rebuking” rather than “exhortation, encouragement, and patience.”
In reality, it is interesting to see how God inspired Paul to both encourage and rebuke the church at Corinth in a balanced way. He would acknowledge and show appreciation for the good the Corinthians were doing and continually state and affirm the great love he and God have for them and the love they have for each other…all while also repeatedly bringing up their shortcomings in very blunt and sometimes sarcastic ways while admonishing them to repent.
Consider the following examples from both of Paul’s inspired letters to Corinth, a church which had so many faults that it makes some of our worst days in our own congregations look like a picnic in comparison!
Beginning in 1 Corinthians, notice how before rebuking them for division (1:10-13) Paul called them God’s church, sanctified, saints, and wished upon them grace and peace (1:2-3). Notice how he told them he thanked God for them, openly acknowledged their strong points, and told them they were in fellowship with God (1:4-9). Brethren, how often do we openly wish God’s grace and peace upon others, even while we “let them have it”? How often do we openly tell our fellow Christians, especially those who have easily perceived faults, that we thank God for them and bring up the good things about them?
Let’s keep reading. After calling them spiritual infants due to their worldliness (3:1-4), Paul then called them God’s field and building (3:9), God’s holy temple (3:17), and told them all things were theirs and they were Christ’s (3:21).
After sarcastically mocking their “high and mighty” attitude (4:3-8), he stressed that his goal was not to shame them (4:14) and told them he considered them to be like his children (4:15). Do we do this when we correct others?
After rebuking them for tolerating fornication amongst them and going to court against each other over trivial matters (5:1-6:8), he reminded them of how they had overcome many grievous sins and were washed, sanctified, and justified (6:9-11). What a great example of balance! How needed are the reminders that all is not lost, that those whom we correct have still done some good and are still in Christ!
Right before rebuking them for their abuse of the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34), he commends them for their obedience to apostolic traditions (11:2). This reminds me of how I’ve yet to find any Christian in need of correction who was not obeying any of God’s commandments.
While rebuking them for their misplaced priorities concerning spiritual gifts (12-14), he reminds them of how they are the body of Christ and each one of them is needed (12:12-27). It’s very easy for some Christians, especially some who have unrepentant sin in their lives and need rebuking, to think they have nothing to offer to the kingdom. There was a time in my life that I felt that way when sin reigned in my life. Nothing could be further from the truth, and when Christians realize this it can be great motivation for them to repent of their sins.
After rebuking them for their error concerning the resurrection (15:1-49), he builds them up by painting them a glorious picture of that wonderful Judgment Day and then reminds them of how their work is not in vain (15:50-58). All of us need reminding of this.
He then ends his first letter to them by sending them “hearty greetings” from brethren elsewhere (16:19-20) before wishing God’s grace upon them and expressing his love for them once more (16:23-24). What a stark contrast from some discussions I’ve seen in which scriptural correction was given!
2 Corinthians is no different. He starts the letter by openly wishing upon them grace and peace from God and Christ (1:2). He then gives them a very uplifting message about comfort (1:3-5), before informing them that they are the reason he and his fellow apostles suffer (1:6) and his hope in them is unshaken (1:7), all before requesting their prayers (1:11). What a stark contrast from sermons, articles, and comments made by myself and others in the past which simply say to Christians, “Shape up!” without also comforting them and telling them, “I care so much about you, and here’s what I’m willing to do to show it. I hope in you. I believe in you, so much that I’m asking you to pray for me.”
Paul then speaks bluntly to them about their need to forgive the penitent among them (1:23-2:11). Yet, even while doing so he goes out of his way to tell them that he didn’t think he was better than them (1:24a), acknowledge that they stand firm in their faith (1:24b), and inform them of how it tore him up to have to rebuke them (2:4a), all before making sure they knew that he didn’t want to hurt them because he loved them very much (2:4b). How much we can learn from this! Rebuking people requires more than telling them to repent while specifying their errors. It also requires telling them that you love them while acknowledging what they are doing right.
Even while defending himself and his companions from the accusation of being “peddlers of God’s Word” (2:12-3:1), he tells the Corinthians that their walk with Christ is such that he could use them as a “letter of recommendation” (3:2-3). What a great example for us, friends!
Instead of complaining about it, Paul then speaks positively about the terrible ordeals he and his companions went through (4:8-11) before informing the Corinthians of how he willingly went through these trials for their sake (4:12-15). Brethren, let’s be honest. We tend to complain to each other about the problems brought upon us in this life, problems quite small when compared to Paul’s (see 11:23-27). Why not speak of how God upholds us even in the midst of our sufferings as Paul did, before informing our brethren that we would go through it all over again if it would help just one soul in that congregation get closer to God?
Notice how Paul says to the church, “We IMPLORE you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (5:20b) and “we APPEAL to you not to receive the grace of God in vain” (6:1). Let’s try IMPLORING brethren to repent and APPEALING to them rather than beating them up over the head about it. Pleading rather than lecturing might produce better results.
Before admonishing them to be different from unbelievers rather than unequally yoking themselves to them (6:14-7:1), notice how Paul went out of his way to tell these Christians that his heart was wide open for them while encouraging them to widen their hearts also (6:11-13). Notice also that while he ends his admonishment for them to cleanse themselves, he calls them “beloved” (7:1) and urges them again, “Make room in your hearts for us” (7:2a). Our brethren need to know how much we care for them and love them while we rebuke them.
Paul then acknowledged that his previous letter brought them grief which led them to repent (7:8-10) before going out of his way to let them know that they were doing a great job repenting (7:11) and that their repentance and subsequent encouraging of Titus comforted Paul (7:13). Notice how Paul told them that he had been boasting about them, and that their actions proved his boasts to be well-founded (7:14). See how he told them that Titus’ affection for them was growing and that Titus remembered how obedient they were (7:15). Paul then told them about his joy over them and that he had “perfect confidence” in them (7:16). This is Corinth, remember…and yet look how Paul is speaking positively of them here. The church in America overall has a lot of problems, but she has a lot of good in her too. We must acknowledge that. It might just help our brethren to become better.
While talking up the Macedonians, Paul told Corinth (of all people!) that they “excel in everything” while encouraging them to excel in their giving also (8:7). He then acknowledged that they had already excelled in their benevolence before urging them to keep it up (8:10-11) and thus prove that Paul’s boasts about them were right (8:24). He talks of their readiness to be benevolent and again informed them of his boasts about them to others, who in turn were inspired by them (9:2), all before exhorting them to give more and in the right way (9:3-11). He then told them of how others were glorifying God because of their generosity (9:12-15). What a great example for us in how to stir up brethren to get more involved in church work!
Take note of how Paul, even while defending himself against his detractors at Corinth, again “entreated” and “begged” them to repent (10:1-2). Notice also how even in the midst of his sarcastic rebuke of them (10-12), he talks of his hope that their faith would increase (10:15), his fear that Satan would lead them astray (11:3), his love for them (11:11), and his anxiety for them and all other churches (11:28). This is before he tells them that he would “most gladly spend and be spent for your souls” (12:15a), that it was “all for your upbuilding, beloved” (12:19b), that he was praying for them (13:7, 9), and that they were more important than him (13:9). He then ended his letter to them in a very positive note (13:11-14).
What a great example of balance that shows us how to rebuke with love and encourage even while admonishing! We can definitely learn from this, friends. Proclaiming God’s truth is a blessing, and those of us who share it with others have a high privilege. Let’s always “speak the truth in love” (Ep. 4:15)! — Jon