God has at times through history commanded His chosen ones to do impossible things. In the book of Genesis we read that Abraham was commanded to leave his homeland and go to a place that God would show him later. In other words, "Abraham begin your trip now and I will let you know where you are going when I choose!" In the book of Exodus we read that Moses was commanded to march single handed against the entire nation of Egypt. What would you think of a modern day parallel where God commanded you to preach against the rampant wickedness of an entire nation? In the book of Joshua we read that Joshua was commanded to attack the city of Jericho simply by marching around the city seven days blowing trumpets and shouting. What would happen today if the church laid aside money, methods, manpower, and materials in the building of Christ's body and relied on God's Word, prayer, and the work of the Spirit? In the book of Jonah we read that God brought Jonah to the bottom of the sea in the belly of a fish to bring about Jonah's cry for help, repentance, and preaching in the city of Nineveh. This story defies every comfortable notion of what it means to serve the living God! Who is this God who takes His chosen servants leagues beyond their feeble strength? What is God's purpose in crushing the strength of man over His impossible plans?
Strangest of all to me is a short little command from Paul to Timothy in Paul's last epistle. Paul commands Timothy and God commands us as well, "You therefore, my child, be strengthened in the grace that is in Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 2:1 WEB). We all know what it means to "be strong." In fact almost everything in the human heart is working towards this objective all day every day. We want to be healthy, to be financially secure, to be right, to win,.....and to hide our weaknesses and failures. Or is it just me?
However, just what does it mean to "be strengthened in grace?" Discipleship by the grace of Jesus Christ teaches us that we cannot even do the most important thing for ourselves. We cannot save ourselves from the destructive nature of our own sin nor from the wrath of God against sin. Grace teaches us that we are sinners who are totally and completely subject to the judgment of God Almighty. So if grace teaches us that we are weak, even powerless, before God almighty, just how are we to "be strong in grace?" Let's consider this question in the remainder of our article.
Old Testament Commands To Be Strong
First we notice that the command to "be strong" is a major theme in the Scriptures. Paul was not the first person to command his pupil to "be strong". The Scriptures have numerous examples of God commanding man to "be strong," and man commanding man to "be strong."
Moses commanded Israel to "Be strong and courageous" (Deuteronomy 31:6 WEB) as they prepared to enter the promised land without his leadership. Moses also commanded Joshua in the presence of all Israel to "Be strong and courageous" (Deuteronomy 31:7 WEB) as he prepared to become Israel's new leader.
The Lord also commanded Joshua, "Be strong and courageous" no less than five times in the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua. Joshua himself commanded the entire Israelite nation to "Be strong and courageous" (Joshua 10:25 WEB).
The judges Deborah and Barak sang to Israel after God defeated Jabin, king of Canaan. They sang, "My soul, march on with strength!" (Judges 5:21 WEB).
God's people were not the only ones familiar with this exhortation. Even the wicked Philistines, Israel's enemy, exhorted one another, "Be strong, and behave like men, O you Philistines, that you not be servants to the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Strengthen yourselves like men, and fight!" (1 Samuel 4:9 WEB).
David also encouraged Israel after the death of King Saul, "Now therefore let your hands be strong, and be valiant; for Saul your lord is dead, and also the house of Judah have anointed me king over them" (2 Samuel 2:7 WEB). Joab, David's captain, also told his brother while fighting the Ammonites, "Be courageous, and let's be strong for our people, and for the cities of our God; and may Yahweh do what seems good to him" (2 Samuel 10:12 WEB). Even Absalom, David's son, when treacherously taking revenge upon his own brother said, "Absalom commanded his servants, saying, "Mark now, when Amnon's heart is merry with wine; and when I tell you, 'Strike Amnon,' then kill him. Don't be afraid. Haven't I commanded you? Be courageous, and be valiant!" (2 Samuel 13:28 WEB). David also sang to God's people, "Wait for Yahweh. Be strong, and let your heart take courage. Yes, wait for Yahweh" (Psalm 27:14 WEB). And again, "Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who hope in Yahweh" (Psalm 31:24 WEB). David also bolstered his son Solomon for the task of building the temple by saying, "Then you will prosper, if you observe to do the statutes and the ordinances which Yahweh gave Moses concerning Israel. Be strong and courageous. Don't be afraid, and don't be dismayed" (1 Chronicles 22:13 WEB). And again, "Take heed now; for Yahweh has chosen you to build a house for the sanctuary. Be strong, and do it" (1 Chronicles 28:10 WEB). And yet again, "David said to Solomon his son, 'Be strong and courageous, and do it. Don't be afraid, nor be dismayed; for Yahweh God, even my God, is with you. He will not fail you, nor forsake you, until all the work for the service of Yahweh's house is finished' " (1 Chronicles 28:20 WEB). Moreover, David's dying words to Solomon were "I am going the way of all the earth. You be strong therefore, and show yourself a man" (1 Kings 2:2 WEB).
Later in Israel's history we also hear the same words from Israel's prophet Azariah. He said to Judah's king Asa, "But you be strong, and don't let your hands be slack; for your work will be rewarded" (2 Chronicles 15:7 WEB).
Judah's king Hezekiah also encouraged Israel while surrounded by Assyria with certain destruction looming, "Be strong and courageous. Don't be afraid or dismayed because of the king of Assyria, nor for all the multitude who is with him; for there is a greater one with us than with him" (2 Chronicles 32:7 WEB).
Ezra the priest was the first to return after 70 years of exile from the promised land. He began the work of restoring people to their walk with the Lord by saying, "Now therefore don't give your daughters to their sons. Don't take their daughters to your sons, nor seek their peace or their prosperity forever; that you may be strong, and eat the good of the land, and leave it for an inheritance to your children forever" (Ezra 9:12 WEB).
Isaiah the great prophet spoke, "Tell those who have a fearful heart, 'Be strong. Don't be afraid. Behold, your God will come with vengeance, God's retribution. He will come and save you' " (Isaiah 35:4 WEB). Yet Isaiah also warns that God mocks men as they encourage one another with useless words to build idols soon to be destroyed, "Everyone helps his neighbor. They say to their brothers, 'Be strong!' " (Isaiah 41:6 WEB).
Ekekiel gravely warns the proud of men that no strength will be able to endure the judgments and discipline of the Lord, "Can your heart endure, or can your hands be strong, in the days that I will deal with you? I, Yahweh, have spoken it, and will do it" (Ezekiel 22:14 WEB).
Daniel, a prophet of visions, was encouraged directly by an angel, "He said, 'Greatly beloved man, don't be afraid. Peace be to you. Be strong. Yes, be strong.' When he spoke to me, I was strengthened, and said, 'Let my lord speak; for you have strengthened me' " (Daniel 10:19 WEB).
God spoke to Zerubbabel through the prophet Haggai to prepare him for the work of rebuilding the temple, "Yet now be strong, Zerubbabel,' says Yahweh. 'Be strong, Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,' says Yahweh, 'and work, for I am with you,' says Yahweh of Armies" (Haggai 2:4 WEB). Zechariah also spoke to those rebuilding the temple, "Yahweh of Armies says: 'Let your hands be strong, you who hear in these days these words from the mouth of the prophets who were in the day that the foundation of the house of Yahweh of Armies was laid, even the temple, that it might be built' " (Zechariah 8:9 WEB). And again, "It shall come to pass that, as you were a curse among the nations, house of Judah and house of Israel, so I will save you, and you shall be a blessing. Don't be afraid. Let your hands be strong" (Zechariah 8:13 WEB).
New Testament Commands To Be Strong
God exhorted the Corinthian church through Paul, "Watch! Stand firm in the faith! Be courageous! Be strong!" (1 Corinthians 16:13 WEB).
Paul also wrote to the Ephesian church, "Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of his might" (Ephesians 6:10 WEB).
And the final occurrence of God's command to be strong is Paul's exhortation to Timothy, "You therefore, my child, be strengthened in the grace that is in Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 2:1 WEB).
The New Testament Advantage - Strength In Grace
With a superficial glance it would appear that we simply have a list of mighty men and women victorious for God who are passing their key to success on to future generations. Moses, Joshua, David and many more exhort their sons and followings with all their strength to "be strong." Without a New Testament faith that may be all that we would have, a hopeless hope in the strength of ourselves. But instead Ephesians 6:10 clarifies how we are to be strong, "in the Lord, and in the strength of his might" And 2 Timothy 2:1 clarifies where we get strength, "in the grace that is in Christ Jesus." The one who has been tamed by the grace of Jesus Christ need no longer look for deliverance by his own strength, but by Jesus Christ.
Most exhortations to "be strong" in the Old Testament concern God's command to His people to fight against their enemies. Israel has always been surrounded by enemies such as Egypt, Assyria, Philistia, Canaan, and Babylon. God's purpose was that Israel would remain separate from these wicked nations and at times fight against them. The advent of Jesus Christ has, however, revealed a whole new battlefield with more dangerous enemies. The grace of Christ has shown to mankind that our own nature is sinful and opposed to God. The enemy is within our own heart. Furthermore, the true enemy that is without is much too great a foe for us to battle without the Lord. Though we may have human enemies from time to time, the true foe behind these contests is the father of lies himself, the devil, who pits man against man in competition, war, and destruction.
The command to "be strong in grace" is essential for the believer to continue to abide in Christ. Drawing near to Christ is sure to reveal to us more and more of our own sinfulness. But how are we to continue on this path of confrontation with the ugliness of our own sin? It may be so painful that it would be easier to deny the truth. But can one run from one's self? Surely the command to "be strong in the grace that is in Jesus Christ" is to encourage the follower of Jesus Christ to continue to draw near to God, painful as it may be when God shows us our sin. What ever the sin, it is not too big for Christ! However scarred from past mistakes, God has a purpose for you!
God's Pleasure - Strength in Weakness
Contrary to man's wisdom, God is pleased to demonstrate his power through our weakness. Paul writes of his weakness, "Concerning this thing, I begged the Lord three times that it might depart from me. He has said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Most gladly therefore I will rather glory in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest on me" (2 Corinthians 12:8-9 WEB). Even in the gospel message itself God pits His foolishness against man's wisdom, "For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are dying, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, 'I will destroy the wisdom of the wise. I will bring the discernment of the discerning to nothing' " (1 Corinthians 1:18-19 WEB). And most strongly stated by Christ, "He said to them, 'He said to them, "You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts. For that which is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God" ' " (Luke 16:15 WEB). It is certainly not a plan of our choosing, but God demonstrates his power in weakness. So be strong in grace!
Strength Without Grace?
But how can so many appear to be strong without a knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ? Only by seeing the crucified Christ can a lost humanity come to know their true weakness and need. Only by seeing Christ's willing sacrifice on their behalf can they rejoice in His salvation.