“And after he had spent some time there, he departed, and went over all the country of Galatia and Phrygia in order, strengthening all the disciples.” (Acts 18:23, AV)
Some time ago, I was surf-fishing. I am not certain when it happened. It may have been when I ran for my rod when a big ray started to pull it into the water. What happened? I did something to my knee. It was never fully diagnosed, but the presumption was that it was a partial meniscus tear or arthritis. Anyway, the doctor decided that I needed physical therapy, P.T.
I thought that P.T. was going to be ultrasounds, heating and cooling, and something mild. What I discovered that it was all-out physical exercise for about an hour twice per week. They were trying to get my core strengthened in the belief that it would help my knee. I was skeptical, but I continued with sixteen visits. It worked. Today, I have vastly improved balance and flexibility without pain. Strengthening was key, but it was just not strengthening willy-nilly. The physical trainers were experts in their field and knew how to strengthen my core without doing further damage to my knee. It is vital that we are strengthened in the correct way.
After Paul left Ephesus, he traveled to Caesarea and then to Antioch. Then he traveled again through the regions of Galatia and Phrygia. His purpose was to strengthen the disciples. Like the physical trainers I had, Paul also had to strengthen the disciples in the correct way. The question is how did he do this? The broad answer is that he strengthened them in the faith. Yet, there were likely several aspects to this.
A main aspect of this strengthening would have been in the area of encouragement. Earlier in Acts we read that Paul strengthened the disciples through parakaleo (Acts 14:22). In the KJV, the word is translated as “exhortint.”The ESV translates it as “encouraging.” It literally means to call to one’s side, to address or speak in a variety of ways. One way can be to encourage. Encouragement is something that we all need, but it is not always soft. Sometimes, it is an exhortation to press on even when things are tough. Being a Christian in Paul’s day was not a cakewalk. God calls Christians to live under a different set of rules from the world. As such Christians always look a little weird when compared to the world’s standards. Paul likely challenged the churches to hang in there by God’s grace.
Yet, Paul would not have given them exhortation based upon human wisdom and worldly ideals. His exhortation would have been according to the will of God, as seen in the word of God. He likely strengthened them in the word, reminding them or doctrines that they would have been previously taught and expanding their understanding of the Scriptures.
In the strengthening, Paul would also have exhorted them to holiness. The reason is that sin is a weakener of the believer and holiness is a strengthener. Thus, the challenge would have included a call to continual self-examination, confession and repentance.
Last and essential would have been prayer. I am sure that Paul would have spent time with the disciples in the churches praying for God to bless their unity, their walk of faith, and their ministry.
Today, we in the churches need people who will do the work of strengthening. The world system tends to through things at us that will weaken. We need skilled practitioners who will take us through the work of spiritual strengthening.