By Christopher VanDusen
In my last article, I showed how many of the New Testament commands for the church show how Christians are to maintain unity with one another. In this article, I want to examine many of the New Testament commands that teach how Christians are to increase unity with one another, and live it out in practical ways.
There are at least 5 main types of commands in the New Testament that relate to Christians serving one another in general:
First, we’ll examine commands that urge Christians to love one another. The first passage we’ll look at is 1 Peter 1:22, where the apostle Peter says,
“Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart . . .” (ESV)
Here, Peter says that one of the main purposes that people become Christians by “purifying their souls by their obedience to the truth” is “for a sincere brotherly love”. In other words, it’s inevitable that Christians love one another like family because their souls are purified, and they’re obeying the truth.
Based on that fact, Peter commands his audience to “love one another earnestly from a pure heart”. The word “earnestly”, in the original Greek, has the idea of “stretched out to the max”. To put it another way, Peter’s commanding his audience to love one another with zeal and passion, and to do it “from a pure heart”.
Second, in 1 John 3:16, the apostle John defines Christian love of the brethren like this:
“By this we know love, that he [Christ] laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” (ESV)
So, how are Christians to love one another? In the same way that Christ loved them — by giving up His life for them by letting Himself be hung on a cross to suffocate to death — in their place. Although Christians can’t live “in the place of” other Christians, they can sacrifice themselves and their lives for the spiritual benefit of their brethren, and that’s what John means here.
John further defines this love in verse 18 of the same chapter, where he says,
“Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” (ESV)
Here, he begins by saying what love of the brethren isn’t. It’s not “love in word” or just saying you love someone, and it’s not love in “talk”, or thinking that only being willing to talk to someone shows that you love them.
Rather, love of the brethren is love “in deed and in truth”. First, it’s love “in deed”, or in action. That is, it’s love that expresses itself in practical ways that require physical effort. Second, it’s love “in truth”, or love that’s defined by the truth of God’s Word. By extension, this implies speaking the truth to other Christians.
A final passage that can be considered is Romans 12:10b, where the apostle Paul says,
“Outdo one another in showing honor.” (ESV)
In this verse, Paul says that one way of loving brethren is by honoring them, or treating them as more important than oneself.
So, are you loving your brethren in Christ fervently and purely?
Are you laying down your life for them?
Are you loving them in deed and in truth?
Are you showing them honor?
The second group of commands we’ll consider are those which explain how Christians are to speak to one another.
First, we’ll go to Ephesians 4:15, where Paul says,
“. . . speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, Christ . . .” (ESV)
So, how does Paul say Christians are to speak to one another? First, he says that they are to speak “the truth”. What does this mean? Well, it must mean more than that which is true, since the effect of this speaking is that the church grows up “in every way into him who is the head, Christ”. Simple facts and truthful statements don’t result in the increase of Christlikeness in Christians. So what does? The understanding of God’s Word. In John 17, the Lord Jesus asks the Father to “sanctify”, or make holy, His people, “by the truth”. And how does He define that truth? He says “your Word is truth”. In other words, it’s by the truth of God’s Word that Christians become more like Christ. Thus, “the truth” in Ephesians 4:15 must refer to this. Christians need to speak truthfully to one another, but more than that, they need to speak the truth that God’s Word teaches.
Second, Paul commands the Ephesians in 4:29 of the letter to,
“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” (ESV)
What kind of words does Paul command the Ephesians to say to one another? “Only such as is good for building up”. That is, only such as is good for strengthening the faith of Christians, and promoting their growth in Christlikeness. That’s the effect that giving “grace” through speech has on Christians.
Third, in Colossians 3:16, Paul commands the Colossians to
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs . . .” (ESV)
Here, Paul commands them to speak in two main ways. First, he commands them to “teach” one another. Second, they are to “admonish” one another. The word “admonish” basically means to “warn”.
However, Paul doesn’t simply tell them to do these things by themselves. The reason that “singing” follows these two commands with a comma is that “singing” is one of the ways in which they are to teach and admonish one another.
And what are they to sing? First, “psalms”. This refers to the praise songs of the Old Testament, which the early church sung. Second, they are to sing “hymns”. This refers to songs of praise that aren’t found in God’s Word, but are based on the teaching of God’s Word. Finally, they are to sing “spiritual songs”, which are simply songs that teach spiritual truths found in God’s Word. In these three ways — in addition to other non-musical ways — the early Christians taught and admonished one another.
The final passage we’ll go to to see the general instruction for how Christians are to speak to one another is Hebrews 3:13, which says
“. . . exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (ESV)
The word “exhort” comes from the Greek word parakaleo, which literally means “to call alongside”, but carries the idea of doing this to “help”. It could also be translated “encourage”. However it’s translated, it means to call someone to yourself so you can help them with your words.
And how often does the Holy Spirit say to do this? “Every day”. Why?
“. . . that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
In the context of this letter, the author’s addressing one or more congregations that have many people who are considering whether they should keep practicing Christianity or not. These people aren’t true Christians. That’s why the author’s concerned about them being “hardened”, or becoming unresponsive to God’s Word, and finally coming to the place of believing that it’s a lie. However, most, if not all, churches always have some unbelievers in them, so this command applies as much today as it did at the time it was written.
So, are you speaking truth from God’s Word to your brethren?
Are you only telling them that which is good for building them up, and giving them grace, or benefit?
Do you teach and warn them?
Do you teach and warn them when singing with them or to them?
Do you try to encourage them every day?
The third type of commands we’ll look at are those that explain how Christians are to practically serve one another.
First, here’s Galatians 6:2, where Paul defines the love of the brethren:
“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (ESV)
The word “burdens” refers to a heavy load that obviously requires more than one person to carry it. That’s why Paul commands the Galatians to come alongside and carry the burdens of others.
And what will be the result? They’ll “fulfill the law of Christ”. This law is basically defined in John 15:12, where Christ commands His disciples to “love one another as I have loved you”.
Second, Paul goes on to say in Galatians 6:10,
“. . . as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (ESV)
Who belong to “the household of faith”? Those who are God’s children, and have faith in His Son. Notice that Paul specifically emphasizes that it’s more important to do good to other Christians than non-Christians by using the word “especially”.
Third, Paul commands the Romans in Romans 12:13 to
“Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.” (ESV)
In this verse, Paul obviously tells Christians to meet their brethren’s needs. However, he also commands them to “seek to show hospitality”. The words “show hospitality” could be literally translated “entertain strangers”. It refers to using your home to serve those who don’t live there.
Next, we’ll look at two of the passages that command Christians to use their special spiritual gifts to serve their brethren. The first is Romans 12:6-8, which says,
“Having gifts that differ according to the grace give to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.” (ESV)
There are seven spiritual gifts mentioned here. First, Paul tells those with the gift of “prophecy” to prophesy. The gift of prophecy was the ability to receive direct revelation from God, and to tell it to others. Since Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, that the Scripture we have is sufficient for the equipping of Christians for “every good work”, and that the church has been built on the “foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 4), we can know that no one has the gift of prophecy anymore. However, God does gift certain men to preach His Word. It may be said that such men ought to preach “in proportion to our faith”, or the Christian faith as defined and explained by Scripture.
The second spiritual gift here is “service,” which refers to a supernatural ability to provide material services that contribute to the spiritual well-being and growth of other Christians. Third, Paul tells those who are gifted to teach to teach. This refers to being able to clearly and powerfully teach what God’s Word teaches. Fourth, Paul tells those who “exhort”, or encourage, to encourage. Fifth, he tells those who “contribute”, or “give”, to do it generously. Sixth, he tells those who “lead” to do so zealously, or passionately. Finally, he tells those who show mercy, or compassion, to do so cheerfully.
The second main passage that explains how Christians are to use their spiritual gifts is 1 Peter 4:10-11a, where Peter says,
“As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies . . . ” (ESV)
Here, Peter divides spiritual gifts into two categories — speaking gifts, and serving gifts. It seems reasonable to conclude that any gift that doesn’t require speaking is a serving gift. And how are they to be used? Those who are gifted speakers are to speak “as one who speaks oracles of God”. The word “oracles” basically means “messages”, so that these speakers are to speak as if they are speaking God’s message. As for gifted servers, they are to serve “by the strength that God supplies”, and not their own strength.
So, are you bearing your brethren’s burdens?
Are you doing good to them especially?
Are you helping to meet their needs?
Are you seeking to show hospitality to them?
Are you using your spiritual giftedness to benefit them?
If you’re gifted to preach, do you preach the Word?
If you’re gifted to serve, do you serve?
If you’re gifted to teach, do you teach?
If you’re gifted to encourage, do you encourage?
If you’re gifted to provide money, are you generous?
If you’re gifted to lead, do you lead diligently?
If you’re gifted to help those who are suffering, do you do it cheerfully?
If you’re gifted to speak, do you speak God’s message?
If you’re gifted to serve, do you serve by God’s power?
The fourth type of general “one another” command is the type that explains how Christians are to treat their brethren who fall into sin.
In Galatians 6:1a, Paul gives this instruction to the Galatians:
“. . . if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness . . .” (ESV)
Here, Paul, speaking in the context of the church community, says that if “anyone is caught in any transgression”, spiritual people are to restore them. The word “caught” means to be trapped unexpectedly, and “transgression” refers to a violation of one of Christ’s commands. Hence, Paul’s not speaking of those who deliberately live rebellious lives, but those who are all of a sudden ensnared by a temptation to disobey Christ.
And who are to “restore” them? Those who are “spiritual”. At the end of chapter 5, Paul has just contrasted those who possess God’s Spirit, and those who are controlled by the “flesh”, or sinful physical frame. Those who are characterized by the flesh, he says, “will not inherit the kingdom of God”, or will end up in hell. On the other hand, he says that those in whom God the Holy Spirit lives are characterized by “the fruit of the Spirit”, or the “product” of the Spirit. Therefore, when Paul refers to those who are “spiritual”, he must be using this term in contrast to those who are “fleshly”. Since he’s just said that those who are “fleshly” aren’t true Christians, he must be simply referring to those who have the Spirit when he says “spiritual”. Hence, he’s commanding all the Galatians who are Christians, or have the Spirit, to “restore” the person who’s caught in sin.
When Paul says to restore them, he means to bring them back into the proper relationship with Christ that they had before they were “caught” in their transgression. The Greek word behind “restore” could also be translated “repair” or “mend”. And how does Paul command them to do it? “In a spirit of gentleness.” The word “gentleness” speaks of using just the right approach and behavior to most effectively communicate the truth that needs to be communicated to the sinning person.
A second passage where Paul commands Christians to admonish one another is 1 Thessalonians 5:14, where he says,
“. . . admonish the idle . . . be patient with them all.” (ESV)
Again, the word “admonish” means “warn”, and in this context has the connotation of chastising “the idle”, or those who are deliberately doing something other than working. However, Paul adds that the Thessalonians are to be patient with them, while at the same time admonishing them to work.
Finally, Paul gives this command in 2 Thessalonians 3:6:
“Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.” (ESV)
Here, instead of admonishing these idle people, Paul commands the Thessalonians to avoid associating with them, in order to express disapproval of their sin. The goal of this is that the shunned person will repent of what they’re doing, and start working out of obedience to Christ.
So, do you restore those who are caught in sin in a spirit of gentleness?
Do you admonish Christians who are idle?
Do you avoid associating with Christians who refuse to live according to New Testament standards?
The last type of commands we’ll look at are those which instruct Christians to pray for one another’s needs, or intercede.
The first one is Ephesians 6:18, where Paul continues his last commands for the Ephesians by saying,
“. . . [pray] at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints . . .” (ESV)
First, he gives the general command of praying “in the Spirit”, or by the Spirit’s power, “with all prayer and supplication”. The word “prayer” means talking to God as an act of worship, while “supplication” literally means “petition”, or asking things of Him.
Second, Paul tells them how they are to do this. First, they are to “keep alert with perseverance”. That is, they are to pay attention to the needs of people, and to what God is doing in their lives. Second, while keeping alert with perseverance, they are to ask God for things “for all the saints”. In other words, the main purpose of keeping alert to circumstances, needs, and God’s work is so Christians know how best to pray for their brethren.
The last passage we’ll look at on this topic of interceding for the saints is James 5:14-16a, which says,
“Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (ESV)
In this passage, I want to call attention to the last sentence, but I’ve added the rest to understand the context. James is speaking of those who are “sick”. The Greek word translated “sick” could also mean “weak”, so physical sickness isn’t the necessary meaning. In fact, since the one who is healed is forgiven “if he has committed sins”, sin, or some other problem, has something to do with the sickness. Otherwise, why would James speak of the person disclosing his behavior in the context of being prayed for by the “elders”? Since James speaks like this, and because he then connects “healing” to “confessing sins” and “praying for one another”, I take the sickness here to refer to spiritual weakness of some kind. This leads us to the commands I’m concerned with.
First, he commands his audience to confess their sins to one another. Why? So they know how to pray for one another. Obviously, the prayer he has in mind mainly has to do with sins that believers are struggling with. And what is the intended result of praying for one another’s battles with sin? So that they will be “healed”. Given the context of this phrase, and what comes before regarding the sick person, I take this healing to refer to spiritual healing, so that the person who’s struggling with sin has victory over the particular sin that’s been prayed for.
So, are you keeping alert with all perseverance so you can petition God for your brethren?
Do you confess your sins to your brethren?
Do you pray for your brethren so they’ll be healed of their spiritual sicknesses?
If you aren’t loving, encouraging, serving, warning, and praying for other Christians, then you need to make sure that you have actually “obeyed the truth” and “purified your soul”, since these commands just explain how true Christians are designed and suited to live. In order to obey the truth, or the gospel, you need to understand it, receive it, and stake your life and eternity on it:
God sent His eternal and divine Son to earth to be born of a woman as Jesus of Nazareth, to live the perfect life of doing good and healing people, and to willingly let Himself be hung on a cross, where God punished Him because of our rebellion against Him, treating Him the way we deserve to be treated. Then, He raised Him from the dead, He appeared to His apostles and more than 500 people, and He took Him into heaven as the King of the universe. He’s now commanding everyone to repent, or change their minds about Him, and to trust in Him as their Lord who died for our sins and rose from the dead, as the only grounds of His forgiveness of their sins. He promises to forgive all who repent and trust in the Lord Jesus as their Lord and Savior to be reconciled to Him. Please make sure that you’re hope for life and eternity is only in the Lord Jesus. If you’re trusting only in Him for your peace with God, then He commands those who believe to be baptized by another believer as a public profession of faith in Him.
All Scripture quotations are taken from the:
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.