A Word of ExhortationFr. Barnabas Powell
Christ is risen!
I love the word “exhort.” We don’t use it much or hear it much today, especially when the very idea of having firm beliefs and settled wisdom is in such disfavor. We live in the day and age where most people much prefer to see “gray” everywhere instead of “black and white.” In fact, the very notion that there could be anything that was that clear, that uncomplicated, that cut and dry is a terrifying thought to most. After all, if there are truths that are “black and white” or actual settled wisdom, then that may mean a change in behavior or an actual cause for real correction.
But, the word “exhort” or “exhortation” occurs 36 times in the New Testament, and comes from two Latin words that mean “thoroughly encourage.” These are not mere suggestions, but speech meant to move people to action immediately. And that can only come from an idea or mindset that says this is true for everyone right now. “The bus is headed toward you! Move! Now!” That’s an exhortation!
Look at our lesson today in Acts 13:13-24:
IN THOSE DAYS, Paul and his company set sail from Paphos, and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem; but they passed on from Perga and came to Antioch of Pisidia. And on the sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. After the reading of the law and the prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent to them, saying, “Brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say it.” So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said: “Men of Israel, and you that fear God, listen. The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. And for about forty years he bore with them in the wilderness. And when he had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance, for about four hundred and fifty years. And after that he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet. Then they asked for a king; and God gave them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years. And when he had removed him, he raised up David to be their king; of whom he testified and said, ‘I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.’ Of this man’s posterity God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised. Before his coming John had preached a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel.”
St. Paul here is invited, as was the custom of the day, to address the synagogue after the reading of the Scriptures. By the way, this is why a normal Orthodox Divine Liturgy has the homily right after the Gospel Lesson. That is the traditional place for the homily, not at the end of the Liturgy as has become custom today.
And what does Paul tell these Jews? He rehearses in their hearing the history of their people and ends with the unequivocal declaration that Jesus is the promised Messiah the Jews had been waiting for. He doesn’t couch it in politically correct terms. He doesn’t attempt to “soften the blow” of this news. And he doesn’t flinch. He exhorts these people to embrace this universe-changing declaration with full expectation that they will now abandon any other notion or belief and embrace the Christian message of Christ. Period. Full stop. End of discussion. This wasn’t an invitation to debate or discuss. This was an exhortation to be faced, believed, and then followed. Exhortations are normal for the Orthodox Christian Faith.
But how can Paul do this? He can because there are some truths that simply aren’t opened to debate. And, when it comes to Jesus Christ, His very Person is Truth. As the Lord said in the Gospel, you will either fall on this rock and be broken or this rock will fall on you and you will be ground to powder (see Matthew 21:44)!
Today, are you able to hear an exhortation, or does the very notion of the priest saying unequivocal truths strike you as scary or disgusting or even inappropriate? Make no mistake, dearest, there are some times when the Truth is meant to be declared and believed, whether you like it or not. That’s how you become Orthodox on Purpose!