To provoke, in the sense in which we are using the term at this time, is to incite, to stir up and spur on to certain activity. And it is a thing which the Scriptures demand of us. We are not looking at it now as something to be condemned but as something that ought to be practiced. Then too, it is being viewed as that which is possible only among the children of God. Believers can provoke one another and an unbeliever can never be provoked by a believer to the activity with which we are now dealing.
That activity is presented by the author of the epistle to the Hebrews as good works and love. That is indeed a broad field, and we can comprehend under it our whole life inwardly and outwardly, physically and spiritually. Quite generally good works are considered to be nothing more than works of charity, works whereby man is befriended. That these works are good is not to be denied. However tha4 does not mean that every work whereby a man is befriended and helped is in itself a good work. Solomon says inProverbs 12:10, “A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast; but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.” A thing is good or evil according to God’s opinion of it in its deepest motive. That which looks so good to the eye and which would surely be branded as a good work by us may well be the very deed for which God punishes everlastingly in hell. When Judas protested the spending of a goodly sum of money for the costly ointment wherewith Mary anointed Jesus’ feet, the disciples were greatly inclined to agree with Judas and to consider these words of Judas as evincing a heart of tender compassion for the poor. It looked good to them, so much so that when Jesus announces at the table that one will betray Him, no one thinks that this will possibly be Judas. All readily conceded the best place at the table to John, whom they also knew as the disciple that Jesus loved. But they also agreed that the place of honor on His left side should be for Judas to occupy. And in full confidence of his integrity, they let him carry the bag. He was their trusted treasurer. His works were good in their eyes; and they trusted him with the good work of caring for the poor. But Jesus read the heart and rebuked him. Indeed, his tender mercies were cruel. Or again, if you will, a parade of great pomp and majesty is traveling down the road. Thirty thousand soldiers and the king himself are in the group. A new cart driven by a yoke of oxen and the ark of the covenant are on their way to Jerusalem. The oxen stumble. The ark begins to shake on that cart and appears liable to fall off the cart. A young man walking nearby quickly reaches out to steady that ark. But he falls down in sudden death, smitten by the hand of God with a swift and terrible blow. Even that king, who is none other than David, the man after God’s heart, is perplexed. He was afraid of the Lord that day and said, “How shall the ark of the Lord come unto me?” II Samuel 6:9. That deed looked differently as seen through the holy eyes of God, Who sees into the heart, and through the eyes of man who judges only by the external deed. God never smites and punishes for a good deed. When He punishes, you may be sure it is for sin. And the Scriptures teach us that many shall be told to depart from the presence of God and shall be cast into weeping and gnashing of teeth even though they shall claim to have done this and that in the Lord’s name, Matthew 7:21-23.
In fact that first element of the two explains that good works are only those that are done in love to God. Thus we find it also in the Heidelberg Catechism, question and answer 91. We quote it, “But what are good works? Only those which proceed from a true faith, are performed according to the law of God, and to His glory; and not such as are founded on our imaginations, or institutions of men.” If a man does not consciously and willingly perform a deed for the glory of God, it is not a good work. God will not consider it to be such; and therefore it is not a good work. As we said, a thing is good or evil according to God’s opinion of it in its deepest motive. Those founded on man’s imagination and man’s institutions are wicked in spite of man’s opinion and the judgment of the natural eye.
Now we can and must provoke one another to these works, which are good because they are deeds of love to God, by means of speech. We are to speak to one another. Of course our walk should be such that it does not deny or militate against our words. But the way to stir up, to incite one as to doing or feeling is through words. This is plainly the meaning of that passage wherein we find literally the calling to provoke one another unto love and to good works. We will quote it fully, “And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more as ye see the day approaching,” Hebrews 10:24, 25. You may note that in explanation of this provoking the author commands that we exhort one another. And exhorting is done by means of words. The word “exhort” literally means to call to one, to stand near, alongside and beside one to call to him and thereby either encourage and comfort or instruct. The idea here plainly is that of speaking, using words.
That word which we use is, of course, the Word of God. All other provoking is not only to be condemned but will fail to produce love and good works. Remember that we wrote last time that the root meaning of the word that is translated “provoke” is “to sharpen, to make sharp.” Only the word of God can do that to His people. It is the new man in Christ who can be stirred up to love and to good works. He is spiritually alive; and the old man is spiritually dead. And it is Christ who is revealed in that Word and who incites and stirs up His people unto, love and to good works. Recall that beautiful answer of the Heidelberg Catechism to the question, “What is thy only comfort in life and in death?” The answer is, “That I with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who . . . . makes me sincerely willing and ready henceforth to live unto Him.” Christ is the one who stirs us up to love and to good works. Therefore only as we speak the Word wherein He is revealed to us can we fulfill our calling to provoke one another to love and to good works. By man’s word, by philosophy, by false religions and heresies we may induce and persuade men to love the lie, to love self and the flesh, to do what men call good; but we will in no wise incite any to love to God and to works that are good in His sight by anything less than His Word.
For that reason also we who are being provoked must be careful of our reaction and attitude to this Word of God which comes to us from the mouths of others who seek to provoke us unto good works and to love. It is not at all difficult for us to resent any speech of a fellow citizen of the kingdom of heaven when he seeks to provoke us to love and to good works. Let that be an individual in the congregation, we will’ easily brand him as our enemy and avoid him. That must hale been the case also among the Hebrews who are exhorted in the passage wherein we find this expression, “provoke one another unto love and to good works,” for the author quickly adds, “Not forsaking the assembling of ours elves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more as ye see the day approaching.” O, we do that so easily. We shun; we avoid, we steer clear of those who have spoken a word to us whereby they have sought to turn us from our evil way and to point us in the right direction, seeking by the use of the Word of God to excite in us a walk in love and in good works. Or maybe, instead of receiving the word and being appreciative of the exhortation, we dismiss it from our minds in order to be ready and “under full steam” to turn the tables and tell this one a few things about his walk of life. We, too, quote the Scriptures and show that we have been considering the life of the other. Only our intention is not to stir up and incite unto love and to good works but to get revenge, to defend ourselves in our wickedness and to turn the attention off our sins and on to those of the one who sought to spur us on to a more godly walk. Such are the ways of our flesh. And then we are-not simply doing this brother a gross injustice, we are also rebelling against the Christ who is revealed in that Word that has been presented to us in. the exhortation to walk in love and in good works.
How true is this not when we consider that area of our spiritual life wherein the offices in Christ’s Church are involved! Let a committee be sent from the consistory to provoke one whose way has been that of despising the means of grace, to more faithful church attendance. Let it be because of any other evil work which manifests a lack of love to God and enmity against Him and His law. All too often such a visit is resented. And the work which was meant to serve the purpose of provoking unto love and to good works reveals instead a rebellious attitude over against God. No, such a visit does not provoke to hatred and rebellion. That hatred and rebellion were already there. Forth from them sprang this action for which it became necessary to send a committee with the express desire of inciting, stirring up to love and to good works.
The same is true in the preaching of the Word. Often what is said with the express purpose of provoking to good works and to love is the occasion for the one already walking in sin to rebel-against that Word, to despise and hate the one who has proclaimed it and to consider him to be an enemy. It will become manifest, perhaps, in this that he will no longer assemble with the saints. Either he will stay away from church entirely or he will seek affiliation with a church where there is no interest in provoking to love and to good works and where his sin is tolerated.
Such things ought not to be.
Not only is it so that one who seeks to provoke you unto love and to good works is doing his duty before God and is fully aware of the warning of God in Ezekiel that “if thou dost not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand”; but he is indeed walking as your friend. Do not treat him as an enemy. You do yourself tremendous harm and also all those whom you, by your words, provoke unto evil works of hatred towards God, when they too, are led to deem the one who seeks to stir them up as their enemy.
Fear God and keep His commandments; and welcome the act bf love performed by those who seek to provoke you into love and to good works. And be thankful before God for them.
Do so in His fear