Provoking One Another

Among other things Webster says that to provoke is to “incite to, anger; to incense.” He says much more than that about provoking; but because of this part of the meaning of the word, it always tends to leave a bad taste in our mouths: Therefore the above title, “Provoking One Another” also may provoke some of our readers before they continue and give the matter more thought. 

That the word can be used in a more favorable sense is indicated by the other things that Webster says about the word provoke. He says that it means “to call forth, to summon” It means “to excite (one) as to doing or feeling.” It means “to stir up.” 

Now in Scripture we come across this word many, many times and with different shades of meaning. There are several words, both in the Old Testament and in the New that are translated in our Bibles as provoke. There is, first of all, a word that means to make angry. We find it in Deuteronomy 4:25 and Deuteronomy 9:18. We quote: “When thou shalt beget children and children’s children, and ye shall have remained long in the land, and shall corrupt yourselves, and make a graven image, or the likeness of anything, and shall’ do evil in the sight of the Lord thy God, to provoke Him to anger.” And again, “And I fell down before the Lord, as at the first, forty days and forty nights: I did neither eat bread, or drink water, because of all your sins which ye sinned in doing wickedly in the sight of the Lord, to provoke Him to anger.” 

We find another word in Psalm 78:40 where we read, “How oft did they provoke him in the wilderness, and grieve Him in the desert!” Here the word means to make bitter and is used as Webster presented it, as meaning to stir one up or excite to a feeling of displeasure, here called bitterness. In Isaiah 114 we find the word in this statement, “Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquities, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the Lord, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they have gone away backward.” The word here used means to despise, to contemn. But in I Chronicles 21:1 we find a word that means provoke in its root meaning of persuading or moving when we read, “And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.” 

All these passages speak of provoking in the sense of doing something sinful. And they all except the last refer to the sin of provoking God. It is, however, also used in regard to man, and both in the sense of exciting or moving to anger and to love. As an example of the former we find in Ephesians 6:4 the admonition to fathers, “And ye fathers provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” As an example of the latter we find in Romans 10:19 and Romans 11:11 these words, “But I say, Did not Israel know? First Moses saith, I will provoke you to jealousy by them that are no people, and by a foolish nation will I anger you,” And “I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles for to provoke them to jealousy.” 

But what we have in mind in the theme above is presented to us in the Scriptures as our calling. Wemust provoke one another; and we must not despise or run away from that provoking but appreciate it and be thankful for it. Paul writes to the Galatians in chapter 5:26, “Let us not be desirous of vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another.” Here a provoking is spoken of that must be condemned. But there is a calling which we have to provoke one another presented to us in Hebrews 10:24. We quote, “And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works.” That is the thing concerning which we would now pen down a few lines.

A literal translation of the noun derived from the word we find here in Hebrews 10 124 would be the strong word, paroxysm. We say, “the strong word,” because Webster defines a paroxysm as “2. Any sudden, violent action or emotion; a convulsion or fit.” And he points out the difference between a paroxysm, spasm and convulsion thus, “A paroxysm is a sudden and uncontrollable seizure or emotion or activity and often suggests a recurrence; a spasm is a short-lived and abnormal fit of activity or emotion; convulsion suggests violent and often far-reaching agitation.” It might also be well to point out that the Greek word comes from the verb which means to make sharp or to sharpen. 

You will note, however, that even when we consider the word in this very strong sense of a paroxysm, we do not rule out the fact that it may refer to a very good activity. We can speak, and often we do, of a paroxysm of joy; and then we mean that one has suddenly been overcome with the emotion of joy and in that joy may even weep uncontrollably. The mother, who stands in anguish watching the tongues of fire dancing triumphantly in and out of the billowing smoke of her burning home wherein her child is trapped, will suddenly and uncontrollably weep, gripped by a paroxysm of joy when her child is delivered safely to her by the strong and brave’ hand of a fireman who has dashed in and snatched the child away from a certain death. It is a paroxysm of joy. Well, that is the word which the author of the epistle to the Hebrews uses in this verse when he admonishes us to “consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works.” That is quite different from the way we use the word when we say, “You provoke me.” We mean you irritate me. You trouble me and excite in me an emotion of displeasure. And we may well bear in mind that even in the admonition to provoke unto love and to good works there will be, of necessity, also an emotion of displeasure when we provoke to love and to good works. We say, of necessity, because man can never be neutral. And. when he is provoked unto love and to good works, he will also hate all evil works. And he will be irritated and often filled with great anger when you set out to provoke him unto love and to good works. We will say something about that presently. But that mother, who is suddenly seized with the paroxysm of joy when her child is safely clasped in her arms, does have this paroxysm exactly because she hated and dreaded so intensely that destructive power of the fire and the terrible cruelty and robbery of death. 

But in the admonition that we provoke unto love and to good works, it is evident that the action and emotion which we seek to stir up, unto which we must seek to incite and excite one another is good works and love. The flesh will be irritated and, often may say to the one who is seeking to incite the spirit to this love and to these good works, “You provoke me,” but that is no reason why we ought to cease or why the practice ought to be frowned upon as being evil. Let us take note of the fact that the admonition is not simply to provoke unto love and to good works. The author exhorts us to “consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works.” Very readily we will say to a brother or sister in Christ, “Leave me alone. It is none of your business what I do. You have enough watching your own life for love to God and good works; and this is between me and my God. I know what I am doing. You just watch your own life and that of your family. I will take care of myself and my family.” Or we are inclined to borrow from the wicked and bold speech of Cain and ask, “Am I my brother’s keeper? Let him do his own self examination. Let him take heed to his own walk. What business is that of mine? Am I his keeper? Since when? 

It stands to reason that when we are admonished to consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works that those whom we must consider to provoke are fellow Christians, brothers and sisters in the Lord. No one else can be provoked unto love and to good works. The implication is in the text that these are elect, regenerated children of God. The author is speaking to a very specific audience. He writes to the Christian Hebrews. These are not simply the Hebrews according to the flesh but those who have embraced the truth as, it is in Jesus Christ the only begotten Son of God. They were, according to chapter 6, enlightened, tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost. They tasted the good word of God and the powers of the world to come. And the author continues that he is persuaded that he writes to those who have experienced all this not simply in an intellectual sense but spiritually in their hearts by the power of the Spirit of Christ, and that God will not forget their work and labor of love which they showed toward His name in that they ministered to the saints and do minister. 

To be sure there was a problem amongst these Hebrew Christians. There was a serious error that was making itself manifest in their midst; and this epistle must needs be written to warn them. Although they believed in Christ and in His cross, they had great difficulty in breaking away completely from all the Old Testament types and shadows. And the author of this epistle in several ways and from various viewpoints reminds these children of God of the superiority of Christ’s kingdom, His sacrifice, His priesthood, the covenant promises in Him, and the new and living way which we have through His blood into the very presence of God behind the veil. Plainly he writes to believers, and then, not to new converts who must still learn much of the truth of the word of God, but those who did know and at one time saw very clearly the truth as it is in Christ. These we can consider to provoke unto love and to good works. All others will be provoked unto wrath and hot displeasure when you speak the truth to them and mention even their calling to walk in love and to do good works. The word of God is a savor of death unto death as well as a savor of life unto life. Consider how often it was that those who heard Jesus’ preaching were provoked unto wrath. The disciples at one time felt the need of telling Jesus that the Pharisees were provoked, Matt. 15:12. Indeed, they say that the Pharisees were offended, but the idea is the same. They were moved, excited, stirred up to wrath and to wicked works by these words of Jesus. Jesus declares that Himself when He tells the disciples that as blind leaders of the blind they both shall fall into the ditch. 

With the Church of God in mind, therefore, we write a few lines concerning this calling that each and, every one of us has to consider to provoke one another unto love and to good works. This is not simply the work of the office bearers in the Church, although it surely is their calling. It is not simply the duty of the one who is called to minister the word of God to the flock, although he may not be remiss in this work—and often is wrongly despised and hated for doing his work faithfully before God. Ezekiel 33:1-9 is a solemn warning to him. But in Hebrews 10:24 we have pointed out the calling of all the members of the Church to consider to provoke unto love and to good works. And, the Lord willing, we like to say somewhat more about this next time. 

—J.A.H.