The verb paramutheisthai and its cognate nouns paramuthia and paramuthion occur only in Paul’s letters and John’s Gospel within the New Testament. Paul used the verb in 1 Thessalonians 2:12 and 5:14, the noun paramuthia in 1 Corinthians 14:3, while the other noun paramuthion is found in Philippians 2:1. Paul employed these terms in contexts where pastoral encouragement is required. John, in the story of Lazarus’ death and resurrection, described attempts by Jewish friends to console Martha and Mary (11:19,31) with this verb.
This word group only has slight usage in the Greek Old Testament. In the addition to Greek Esther 8:12e King Artaxerxes writes a letter urging his subjects to ignore the malicious instructions sent by Haman, because Artaxerxes has crucified him in Susa for sedition. In his letter Artaxerxes notes that “encouragement (paramuthia) has implicated many of those appointed to places of authority…making them partly responsible for the shedding of innocent blood.” The writer used paramuthiain a negative way, describing people who for various reasons were motivated by Haman to become implicated with evil, even though they have responsibility for maintaining law and order.
Both nouns are used once in Wisdom of Solomon. The neuter form occurs in 3:18 where the author describes the children born in adultery as “of no account” and “having no honour.” In the day of decision or judgment these children, according to that author, have no “comfort (paramuthion).”1 The feminine noun is used in 19:12 as the writer describes Yahweh’s provision of quail in the wilderness as eis paramuthion “to comfort them (i.e. the Israelites)2.”
The only occurrence of the verb in the Septuagint comes in 2 Maccabees 15:9 as Judas Maccabeus prepares his troops for battle with the Syrian general, Nikanor, in which the general was killed. The author used paramutheisthai along with forms of parakaleisthai (exhort) (15:17) to describe the “encouragement” the Jewish soldiers should gather from the Law and the Prophets (“encouraging them from the law and the prophets”3), as well as from visions Judas had seen of the high priest, Onias, and the prophet, Jeremiah, that the Jewish army would be victorious in the face of overwhelming odds if they placed their dependence upon Yawheh. The connection between the idea of exhortation and encouragement is very close. The situation is dire and the Scriptures, as well as other signs, provide courage and encouragement.
Philo did not use the verb, but does employ both nouns. He describes the great consternation the Egyptians experienced when they discovered the consequences of the tenth plague, i.e. the death of the firstborn. As they discerned the widespread devastation, “they lost even the hope of consolation (paramuthias).”4 In another context he describes the method chosen by Moses to instruct Israel concerning the law. Moses decided not to issue orders “without words of exhortation (aneu paramuthias).”5 Philo comments also on Yahweh’s command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. If Abraham possessed many children, surrendering one would have meant others survived and “this is no small solace (ou mikra paramuthia) and mitigation of his grief for the one who has been sacrificed.”6 And then once more in a discussion about rewards and punishments Philo describes the particular agony of a person who commits fratricide, referencing Cain’s experience. This person because of such heinous sin does not experience the comfort (paramuthion) of possible atonement that human beings normally might expect for lesser sins.7
The verb occurs commonly in the writings of the first century Jewish historian, Josephus. For example, in a speech made by Herod the Great during the trial of his son Antipater, accused of conspiracy to assassinate his father, Herod, he says that Antipater “ensured my freedom from care, consoled me (paramuthoumenos) in my sorrow for my victims and sounded the feelings of his surviving brothers.”8 According to Josephus,when Israel demands that Samuel appoint a king, the prophet is so grieved that, “he had no thought of food or sleep” until “the Deity appeared and consoled (paramutheitai) him.”9 Josephus described the tragic end of the Jewish defenders of Masada. The men killed their wives and children “having the thought of the ills they [wives and children] would endure under the enemy’s hands to console (genomenoi paramuthion) them.”10
Within Second Temple Judaism we find a series of texts entitled “Testaments.” Their exact dating is disputed, but generally they seem to originate sometime around the first century BC/AD. In the Testament of Job it says that “kings came…to visit me [Job] and comfort (paramutheisthai) me.”11
The verb and its cognate nouns range along two categories of meaning: comfort/console/soothe; and exhort/encourage/stimulate. These various senses can be documented from pagan Hellenistic and earlier Classical Greek writers. Similarly Greek inscriptions and papyri documents illustrating daily life used these words frequently with similar meanings.
In the New Testament these terms are found only in Paul and John’s writings. In John’s Gospel (11:19,31) the verb is used. The unexpected death of Lazarus motivates many of their Jewish friends to offer comfort in the midst of the grief experienced by Mary and Martha. In 11:19, for instance, we are told that “many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary in order to comfort (paramuth ēsōntai) them concerning their brother.”12 This sense can be paralleled extensively in Greek materials outside of the Bible.
All other uses in the New Testament occur in Paul’s letters. He used the verb twice in 1 Thessalonians 2:12 and 5:14. In the first instance (2:12) Paul rehearses how he had taught these new Christian converts when he established the church in Thessalonica. He employs the simile of a father training his own children to define how he would exhort, encourage (paramuthoumenoi) and testify each one in order that they would walk worthily of God. Such terminology describes Paul’s methods of discipleship.
The second occurrence (5:14) comes as Paul communicates his final instructions to the Thessalonian believers. First he urges them to respect, honour, and love their spiritual leaders (5:12-13). Then, secondly, he seems to address this same group (note the repeated “brothers” in vv.12,14), although it is possible that he is giving attention to the smaller group of leaders in vv.14-15. Regardless, Paul used the verb in conjunction with three other verbs that express the idea of warning, helping, and exercising patience. So it seems that in this context the verb expresses more the sense of encouragement or exhortation. The objects of this activity are described as “timid (oligopsuchos),” although other translation equivalents such as fainthearted, apprehensive, discouraged are also found in contemporary English versions. It may be that Paul used this verb because of the concerns some Christians had about believers who had died before the return of Jesus (1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18). Paul expects his response to “comfort (parakaleite)” them (4:18). So perhaps the sense of “console the apprehensive” would also be a possible rendering.
Paul also used the cognate noun paramuthion in Philippians 2:1 to assert that love has the capacity to give encouragement in the midst of Christians’ struggles to live their faith (1:29-30). Of course, it is a question of whose love Paul is describing. Is it Christ’s love or the Spirit’s love, or the love of other believers? However, we should observe that the items preceding and following refer to the Messiah and the Spirit respectively, so I would tend to think this is God’s love that generates encouragement, perhaps even stimulates the Christian to certain action or behaviour.
The other context where Paul used the noun paramuthia is in 1 Corinthians 14:3. Paul is discussing the appropriate function of prophecy in a local church setting. In this verse he summarizes the pastoral outcomes that any prophetic activity (however Paul may be defining this) in a local church should accomplish. He notes three outcomes specifically: “strengthening, encouragement and comfort (paramuthion).”
Paul always uses this cluster of terms in pastoral contexts with reference to the continuing discipleship of believers. The focus seems to be verbal encouragement that believers receive from hearing and understanding God’s plans for his church and his people. Situations of persecution, tragedies of life, “the cares of this world,” and discovering the implications of faithful obedience may generate fear and discouragement within a believer or a congregation. So encouragement is needed to help them persevere in their faith commitment. Sometimes this encouragement comes through the exposition of God’s word by leaders in the church. In other contexts it is the people of God who minister encouragement to one another. Such encouragement can take the form of “comfort/consolation” or “soothing of fear” or “exhortation to press forward boldly.” I think in Paul’s perspective the foundation of all encouragement exists only in God. It is his word, his sovereign power, his unstoppable plans for salvation, his love, his mercy, his grace — that can bring the only encouragement that fully consoles.
- what “encouragement” do you need today? Where will you find this encouragement to endure in your faithful walk with Jesus?
- what ministry of “encouragement” are you engaging in today? What believer will you help to persist in holiness and love?
- what is the relationship between the Word of God, the work of the Holy Spirit and our “encouragement in the faith?”
- 1Perhaps in this context the term means “address, exhortation”, i.e. the judge has no words to say to them.
- 2The New English Bible translated this phrase “for their relief.”
- 3A New English Translation of the Septuagint, 520.
- 4Philo, De Vita Mosis I, 137.
- 5Philo, De Vita Mosis II, 50.
- 6Philo, De Abrahamo, 196.
- 7Philo, De Praemiis et Poenis, 72.
- 8Josephus, Jewish War I, 627.
- 9Josephus, Jewish Antiquities VI, 38.
- 10Josephus, Jewish War VII, 392.
- 11Testament of Job, 28.2.
- 12My translation. John repeats this verb as a descriptor of the Jews in 11:31.