In my study of “The theology of encouragement in Hebrews”, I’ve found it helpful to think of encouragement as trajectory. (For more information on this study, see my posts “Theology of Encouragement in Hebrews“, “Peterson on encouragement in Hebrews“, “Mutuality“, and “A reminder of our priesthood from Hebrews“.) When I speak of a “trajectory”, I am referring to the path followed by a moving object.
In the case of encouragement, the author of Hebrews exhorts his readers along a path. This path includes both a negative trajectory (away from something) and a positive trajectory (toward something). Both parts of this trajectory are important to the author.
The Negative Trajectory of Encouragement
In the book of Hebrews, the author often exhorts his readers to move away from some attitudes and activities. For example, he uses the language of “encouragement/exhortation” in chapter 3:
But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. (Hebrews 3:13 ESV)
In this case, the readers are pointed on a trajectory that takes them away from the deceitfulness which is caused by or composed of sin.
Similarly, in other passages, the author warns his readers to move away from neglecting their salvation (2:2-4), apostasy (6:4-6), forsaking to meet together (10:25), bitterness, sexual immorality, unholiness (12:15-16), failing to show hospitality, and loving money (13:1-6).
The Positive Trajectory of Encouragement
However, the author does not want his readers to simply move away from something (negative trajectory), he wants them to move toward something at the same time. Notice, for example, following the negative trajectory of 3:13 (see above), he gives his readers a positive trajectory in the next sentence:
For we share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. (Hebrews 3:14 ESV)
Even in these two sentences, it is clear that the author does not want his readers to simply move away from the deceitfulness of sin (negative trajectory), he also wants them to move toward firm confidence (positive trajectory).
He gives several examples of positive trajectories throughout the letter: entering rest (4:3), holding fast (4:14; 10:23), drawing near (4:16; 7:19; 10:22), going on to maturity (6:1), love and good works (10:24; 13:1), enduring (12:1), remembering others (10:24; 13:3, 7), and being content (13:5-6).
The author continuously uses examples of both negative trajectories and positive trajectories. He tells his readers to learn from these, and to follow the positive examples. I’ll examine some of those examples of encouragement later.