Shutdown

For our citizenship is in heaven; whence also we wait for a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:20).

Early in the morning on 01 October 2013, all non-essential functions of the United States government shut down after no agreement could be made in Congress to continue to fund the government’s operations. Yet another showdown regarding the “debt ceiling” loomed large at the time as well, possibly putting the “full faith and credit” of the United States government at risk. Many people will lose income; many tasks will be left undone. Politicians, pundits, and American citizens argue and debate regarding the process, nature, and wisdom of these events and are concerned about the future.

This particular episode highlights the challenges that come with earthly government. All of us find ourselves as citizens of some earthly government or another; Paul used his privileges as a Roman citizen to his advantage in proclaiming the Gospel (Acts 21:39-40, 22:23-30). Christians have an obligation to honor and respect earthly governments and their officers, obeying all regulations consistent with the purposes of God, and paying appropriate taxes (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17). Therefore, worldly government has its God-given purpose on earth, and we do well to respect that. Nevertheless, for generations, people have put too much confidence and emphasis on government, for good and for ill. The Israelites during the Second Temple period experienced persecution and oppression by pagan governments, but their solution always seemed to involve a Jewish government that would prove equally ruthless against the pagans. In various ways some have looked to earthly rulers to promote and maintain Christianity, from Constantine to almost the present day, leading to the Crusades and the Inquisition. Others are convinced that the Gospel should be advanced through government legislation, as if people will follow after God if the state requires it. Far too many expend a lot of time and energy into politics and political causes, imagining that they will find fulfillment in life by advancing some cause, however truly noble or ignoble, through political channels. For many the ultimate goal is the imposition of their particular views on politics and government to prevail at the expense of others; if they accomplish that, they will be satisfied.

Yet there is one trend that always proves true about any sort of human organization, be it government, corporations, non-profit organizations, and so on: they never can fully deliver on what is promised. They are filled with fallible people who often make mistakes; many are corrupted by the lust for power and money and serve themselves and their associates rather than seeking the welfare of all of their people. Even if one can find good rulers making good laws and seeking the welfare of their people, there is no guarantee that it will last: the next generation of leadership might prove corrupt. One legislator’s life work could be undone quickly by others in the future! Furthermore, in order to make everyone happy, decisions are made that most often make no one happy. Politics demands compromise; no one ever gets all of what they want; it gets messy and complicated, just as the shutdown illustrates. As human endeavors they can lead to some good but never can achieve the ultimate good. We were never supposed to put our faith in them as our saviors and redeemers (Psalms 20:7, 146:3).

In Jesus of Nazareth God invites us to find a higher calling and better citizenship, as Paul indicates in Philippians 3:20. Early Christians suffered all sorts of indignities, even unto death, because they declared that Jesus was truly the Lord, the Savior, the Son of God, and not Caesar (Revelation 13:1-10). On account of His death, resurrection, and ascension, God gave Jesus a Kingdom that would never end, and He would rule in righteousness, mercy, and justice (Daniel 2:44, 7:13-14, Revelation 19:11). Through the proclamation of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and ultimate return, the good news of the Gospel, all men and women are invited to submit to the lordship of Jesus the Christ, the King, and serve Him in His Kingdom, manifest on earth as His church, the congregation of the people of God, and obtain rescue and redemption from sin, death, and all evil (Acts 2:14-41, Romans 1:16, 8:1-15, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Colossians 1:13, 18). We have every reason for confidence in the Lord Jesus and in our service to Him; He has not failed in His promises and will not fail us. If we put His Kingdom and righteousness first, and serve Him, we build up treasure in Heaven (Matthew 6:19-34). It will not fade away or decay. It will not be corrupted by a later generation. It will not suffer a shutdown. It will continue to exist and accomplish the purposes of God who established it. And Jesus will gain the ultimate victory over sin, death, and evil, and all who are His will share in glory forevermore (Revelation 19:1-22:6)!

The United States government might experience a shutdown, but the Kingdom of God in Christ will never shut down. Jesus has shut down the powers of sin and death through His death and resurrection, and on the final day, all of the evil powers will find themselves shut down and condemned (Romans 8:1-23, Revelation 19:1-20:15). On that day Christians will experience glory beyond comprehension, and all their confidence in the Lord Jesus will be more than justified (Romans 8:17-18, Revelation 21:1-22:6). God’s power to save comes through the good news of the life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and return of the Lord Jesus Christ, not by the sword or by gun or by legislation or a non-profit organization or any other such thing. Let us put our trust in God in Christ, become citizens of the heavenly Kingdom, and in all service await the return of our Savior on the final day!

Ethan R. Longhenry

To Save the World

“And if any man hear my sayings, and keep them not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world” (John 12:47).

There are many passages of Scripture which many seek to use outside of their context in order to say something quite different from what its author intended. There are also times when students of Scripture over-emphasize context as an attempt to smooth out difficult and challenging statements. Jesus’ declaration in John 12:47 is a demonstration of each.

If we take the statement on its own it seems as if Jesus is saying that He is not going to judge those who hear His sayings and do not keep them. Such a sentiment would be welcome in a time and place where “tolerance” is stretched to the limit and acceptance of all sorts of “lifestyle decisions” is in vogue. Such an interpretation fits nicely in a picture of a Jesus whose love means that all sorts of moral standards can be fudged and truth becomes a take it or leave it proposition.

Such is not what Jesus intends. He speaks quite clearly in Matthew 25:31-46 about the judgment to come and the basis of that judgment; He warns that those who do not do the will of the Father will be condemned in Matthew 7:21-23. While Jesus does love all people, He does not love sin and its corrosive effect on people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions, and never in His life commended any sinful behavior. He warned that all who persisted in sin would perish if they did not repent (Luke 13:1-5).

The fuller statement of Jesus in John 12:44-50 bears this out. Jesus is emphasizing not Himself but His Father: those who believe in Jesus really believe in the Father, and those who see Jesus see the Father who sent Him (John 12:44-45). Jesus came as light so that those who would believe in Him would not abide in darkness (John 12:46): light is all that is right and holy, and darkness is all that is sinful and evil. After Jesus makes His declaration in John 12:47, He continues by saying that the one who rejects His word has a judge on the final day: His word, and that not because He spoke on His own authority, but because He spoke based on the authority of His Father, and His commandment is eternal life (John 12:48-50). Jesus cannot be construed as saying that there will be no judgment; there will be judgment on the final day, and all will be taken into account (Acts 17:30-31, Romans 2:5-11)!

Yet we do well to spend some time considering why Jesus says what He says as He says it. Why would He say that He does not judge those who do not keep His word, since He came not to judge but to save the world (John 12:47)? We can immediately begin thinking of all sorts of statements in Scripture which seem to be in contradiction with this statement: Jesus will be the Judge on the final day in Matthew 25:31-46 and Acts 17:30-31, and by His very life and being the light He manifests a delineation, or judgment, against darkness (cf. John 1:4-5). We can therefore understand why there is a strong impulse to explain this verse away. Yet we can see a similar statement and its antithesis in John 12:44, 46, in which Jesus says that the one who believes on Jesus does not believe on Jesus but on the Father who sent Him, and then in the next breath speaks of those who believes on Him as not abiding in darkness. On the surface, this is also a complete mess: how can Jesus say that those who believe on Him do not really believe on Him and yet do believe on Him? That seems to be a contradictory mess!

When Scripture seems contradictory, God intends for us to stop and think more deeply about what He is trying to communicate. Jesus’ declaration that those who believe on Him do not believe on Him but on the Father who sent Him in John 12:44 is not to be taken to mean that one does not actually believe in Jesus; it is designed to place emphasis in the right place. Jesus is who He is because He has been sent by the Father, and His statement in John 12:44 is designed to give glory to the Father and put the emphasis where it belongs. And so it is with John 12:47 as well: it is not that Jesus has no role of judgment, but a matter of emphasis: Jesus’ primary purpose in becoming flesh and dwelling among us was not to judge the world but to save it.

As Christians we must always remember and be thankful that Jesus is in the “saving business” and not in the “condemning business.” This does not mean that Jesus has thrown out any kind of moral standard or that we should in any way adapt or change the standards as set forth in Scripture. There will be a day of judgment, and on that day, many will be condemned because they did not know God or obey the Gospel and have not done the will of the Father (Matthew 7:21-23, Romans 2:5-10, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). Yet God does not condemn such people with relish; it saddens Him, for He wants all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). If condemnation is what God desired for all of us, there would have been no reason to send Jesus to the earth or to have Him die on the cross; we all stand condemned on the basis of our sin (Romans 3:23, 6:23), and God would not have to take extra or special action to catch us in our iniquity and to condemn us. That is why Jesus did not come to judge the world but to save it: the world was already judged as in darkness, already subject to corruption and decay, and people already facing an unpleasant day of judgment (John 1:4-5, 12:46, Romans 8:19-23)!

Jesus came to save the world: He came to be a light to people, to show them the way of God, to redeem them from their sins, to bring them back into a restored relationship with their Heavenly Father, so as to spend eternity with them in the resurrection (Matthew 20:25-28, Romans 5:6-11, Revelation 21:1-22:6). From the beginning Jesus has been seeking ways to bring people into His Kingdom, not keep them out of it (Luke 14:15-24, Ephesians 3:10-11, Colossians 1:13). In Christ God wants to give all things to His people (Romans 8:31-32)! Therefore, while we must make sure to understand Jesus’ declaration in John 12:47 in its context, we must also allow its emphasis to sink in deep and to keep it in mind. It becomes very easy in Christianity to become as the Pharisees of old and find all sorts of reasons to exclude people and to draw restrictive boundary lines. While there are times when we must stand firm for the truth of God against those who would pervert it, and have no excuse to justify what God has not authorized us to do (cf. Romans 16:17-18, Jude 1:3), we do well to remember that God’s primary purpose in Christ is not to condemn but to save, and may we ever give Him great thanks and praise for it, for if it were otherwise, what would come of us?

Jesus’ primary purpose is not to judge but to save. Let us seek to proclaim that great message of salvation so that many more may be added to His Kingdom and God be glorified!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Terror on Every Side

Go not forth into the field, nor walk by the way; for the sword of the enemy, and terror, are on every side (Jeremiah 6:25).

God has given Jeremiah a tall order: to proclaim a warning of imminent danger and doom to a people presently enjoying safety and security. It is not going well.

In order to awaken Judah from its spiritual stupor God, through Jeremiah, warns the people of the army which will come from the north–Babylon–and the devastation and destruction which will come upon them (Jeremiah 6:22-30). As part of that message, Jeremiah assumes the voice of people in the midst of that terrible trial, warning everyone to not go into the field or on the road since the sword of the enemy and terror are on every side (Jeremiah 6:25). Jeremiah is emphasizing the great danger in which the people of Judah will find themselves on that great and terrible day: they will look for safety, as they had while Jeremiah spoke, but will not find it. They will seek refuge and shelter and only find pestilence, the sword, or exile. The illusion of safety would be forever shattered.

People seek after safety, security, and refuge. If people find danger on one side, it is easy to come to the belief that the other side will be less dangerous. But what if we, as Judah, are beset by “terrors on every side”?

The New Testament speaks of the spiritual forces of darkness which are arrayed against us (Ephesians 6:12) and warns us regarding those who teach falsely, having been seduced by deceptive spirits and demonic doctrines (1 Timothy 4:1). When we encounter such doctrines and practices and recognize their danger we are often tempted to run to the other side to seek refuge and safety against those errors. Yet such a viewpoint presumes that we always can establish the truth by contrasting it with its opposite. Yet what if there are just as many seductive spirits and demonic doctrines on the “other side” as on the side on which we have seen the danger? What if the doctrines of demons and seductive spirits are all around us and therefore represent terrors on every side?

The Bible is clear where our true safety and security is found: in Christ and in the faith given once for all in His name (Romans 8:1-39, 2 Corinthians 10:3-6, 2 Timothy 3:15-17, Jude 1:3). Jesus has overcome the forces of darkness through His death and resurrection and guards us through our faith until the final day (Colossians 2:15, 1 Peter 1:3-9).

We should not imagine that Jesus stands on the extreme of one side and opposes the other in terms of many of the doctrinal and practical disputations in Christianity; more often than not the extremes have both gone too far and have fallen prey to the opposite deceitful spirit and demonic doctrine than the one they are opposing. Instead we do well to consider that Jesus and the faith in His name are beset by these “terrors on every side,” false doctrines going to opposing extremes, each taking some aspect of the truth in Christ yet distorting it well beyond anything which Jesus and the Apostles intended. We cannot remain in Christ and His truth by simply reacting to one set of errors; we remain in Christ and His truth when we are rooted in Christ and circumspect about all doctrine, as concerned about our flank as we are about our advance, so to speak (Colossians 2:1-10).

To find dangers on every side is disconcerting, yet it represents the spiritual reality in which we live. The spiritual forces of darkness are pervasive, powerful, deceptive, and very good at leading people away from Jesus and the faith in His name. By our own strength or ability we would never be able to stand; that is why we must always seek to be rooted in Jesus, ever seeking to understand what He has revealed as true and remain rooted in Him, not merely reacting to one extreme by going to another. Let us remain in Christ and obtain the victory over the terrors on every side!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Confession

But [Jesus] held his peace, and answered nothing. Again the high priest asked him, and saith unto him, “Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”
And Jesus said, “I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:61-62).

It was one of the only things He said, but it was all they needed.

It was really a show trial; the final decision had already been reached, and it was only a matter of formality when it came to how to get there. The Jewish religious authorities had conspired to have Jesus arrested and fully intended to hand Him over to the Roman authorities for execution (cf. Mark 14:1-2). The trial was not going well; the testimony of the witnesses were not only false but did not even agree (Mark 14:55-59). Jesus had not answered His accusers, and the time came when the High Priest again asked Him whether He was the Christ, the Son of the Blessed (Mark 14:60-61). Jesus then gave His confession, and it was all they needed: He said He was, and that they would see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven (Mark 14:62). All of a sudden they had everything they needed; the High Priest rent his clothes, indicating mourning and shame on account of the “blasphemy” just heard, and they all summarily condemned Jesus to death for what He had said (Mark 14:63-64). The next morning He was delivered over to Pilate; He was dead that evening (Mark 15:1-39).

Jesus was right, of course. On the third day God raised Him with power; forty days later Jesus ascended to the Father, exalted and given all authority, and as long as the religious authorities remained authorities they had to reckon with the sect of the Nazarene (cf. Mark 16:1-8, Acts 1:1-5:42). The religious authorities thought they were doing God’s will, and they were, but just not as they had thought or had expected (cf. Acts 2:23-24, 3:13-17); in attempting to eliminate Jesus’ threat to their existence, they unwittingly accomplished the very mechanism by which God would redeem mankind, rescue many from Israel, and ultimately to seal the condemnation of all they treasured in Jerusalem (Matthew 24:1-36, Romans 5:6-11).

Thus we understand that Jesus made His confession knowing quite well that it would be the basis of the charge of blasphemy and for His execution. And yet He says everything He says in that confession for good reason: it has been, in fact, one of the primary means by which He has attempted to make clear who He is and what He is doing throughout His ministry.

Jesus’ confession is saturated with prophetic references. And of all the various prophecies regarding the Christ, He focuses on Daniel’s vision in Daniel 7:13-14 in terms of Psalm 110:1: the “one like a son of man” receiving dominion, glory, and a kingdom from the Ancient of Days, thus sitting at the right hand of God, the right hand of power. Thus here, toward the end of His life, we are given the key to understanding what He has been saying throughout His life: His self-description as “Son of Man.”

Jesus also provides the key to understand what will happen: He will reign over His Kingdom (Colossians 1:13). His Kingdom will not be like any other in history: it has no capital, no defined physical boundaries, no army with physical weapons. It certainly was not about re-establishing the Davidic monarchy in Jerusalem and overthrowing the Romans as the Jews had fervently hoped! Instead, it is as Daniel saw in Daniel 7:27: the Kingdom of the Son of Man is an everlasting Kingdom, and all dominions will serve and obey Him.

So it is that Jesus confesses before Pilate the good confession that His kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36-37). Christ’s Kingdom is spiritual, able to encompass people of all nations (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11). It has one ruler perpetually: Jesus of Nazareth, raised from the dead, ruling from heaven (Matthew 28:18, Hebrews 13:8). Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess His name, thus saying what He declared before the religious authorities whether they affirmed it in life or not (Philippians 2:9-11).

Throughout His life Jesus proclaimed the coming Kingdom of God (Matthew 4:17). He is its Ruler; we are His subjects. As Peter preached on the day of Pentecost, God has made Him both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36); it is incumbent upon us to heed His word and do what He says (1 John 2:3-6). Will we affirm Jesus’ confession in our own lives, recognizing that He is the Christ, and sits at the right hand of Power, and then act like it? Or will our confession come too late and with great bitterness?

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Rage of the Nations

Why do the nations rage, and the peoples meditate a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together against the LORD and against his anointed (Psalm 2:1-2).

It is a pressing question in almost every generation: why are the powers that be opposed to the purposes of God?

The Psalmist envisions the day of conflict between YHWH and His Anointed One with the rulers of the nations (Psalm 2:1-12). The land of Israel was a tempting target for all sorts of nations: the neighboring Ammonites, Arameans, Canaanites, Edomites, Moabites, Phoenicians, and the Philistines would certainly enjoy more territory and tribute from Israel, while the greater nations of Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, and others understood its value as the main land connection between Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Old Testament is full of discussions of wars between the Israelites and their neighbors both near and far, and how God would often give the king of Israel and/or the king of Judah victory over their enemies.

All of these conflicts and battles are only the shadow of which the reality would be realized in Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of God. Herod the Great conspired against Him at His birth (Matthew 2:1-18). His death brought together Pontius Pilate, Roman procurator of Judea, and Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, who had formerly been at odds with each other (Luke 23:1-12). The cry for His crucifixion came from Jewish men and women who were willing to cry out that their only king was Caesar (John 19:15). The Roman power would fulfill their request (Luke 23:13-49). They all might have thought that such would be the end of Jesus of Nazareth and His mission, but they were quite wrong. God raised Jesus from the dead, and triumphed over the authorities, not just in the flesh on earth, but also the spiritual powers of darkness (Colossians 2:15).

Even though Jesus obtained the victory, His followers continued to understand the conflicts caused by their witness to Jesus in terms of Psalm 2:1-12. After Peter and John were cast into prison and castigated by the Sanhedrin, they and the other Apostles prayed the very words of Psalm 2:1-2 before God, connected it with Jesus before Herod and Pilate, and asked for continued boldness to advance Jesus’ purposes in Jerusalem (Acts 4:24-30). John sees a vision of Jesus being born and then taken to heaven where He rules with a rod of iron (Revelation 12:1-6; cf. Psalm 2:9). John then sees the contest between the people of God and the beast, the world power arrogating against God as empowered by the dragon, the Evil One, and the ultimate victory of the people of God over the forces of evil through Jesus (Revelation 12:7-14:20). When it is all said and done, God is praised, for while the nations raged, His wrath came, and the judgment came: the saints are rewarded, and the destroyers are destroyed (Revelation 11:18).

Opposition to the Kingdom of God is to be expected; the claim that Jesus is Lord, by its very nature, demands that those who would like to presume the highest authority for themselves are not. The kings of Babylon and the Caesars of Rome may have passed on, but nations still seek to be seen as all-powerful and deserving of all loyalty, and they chafe at the idea that people’s loyalty should fully and always be with the Lord Jesus (Matthew 10:34-39). Time would fail us if we were to tell of all the persecutions experienced by the people of God when they dared to stand up for Jesus as Lord against kings and nations who sought glory and honor for themselves. It continues to this day!

The kings of the earth plot against the purposes of God; the nations often rage against Him and His purposes. Their ultimate failure is guaranteed; the Lord Jesus has won the victory (Revelation 1:8, 17-18). Therefore, we should not be afraid of the nations. Sure, they may persecute us, perhaps even to death, but they can never extend the hope of resurrection and eternal life as Jesus has. Let us trust in Jesus as Lord and proclaim His Lordship boldly come what may!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Wrath of Satan

Therefore rejoice, O heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe for the earth and for the sea: because the devil is gone down unto you, having great wrath, knowing that he hath but a short time” (Revelation 12:12).

Even in the best of times people are compelled to stare evil in the face and come to grips with its reality. It is never pretty.

Humans have been enduring evil from almost the beginning, ever since Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden (Genesis 3:1-23). The plague of evil and the Evil One who advanced evil purposes were well-known and decried for generations. The Enlightenment project in western Europe and North America sought to eliminate evil through scientific, philosophical, and technological progress as well as education and the removal of ignorance. The most astonishing matter about this project is how successful it has been: sure, evil still happens in the Western world, but it does not seem as all-pervasive as in past generations. We presume that children, once born, will grow to adulthood; we presume that life will be decent and tolerable. Disasters tend to be the exception rather than the rule.

While evil may be reduced at times, it can never be eliminated, and the Western world has been attempting to come to grips with the pernicious evil of the past hundred years: World War I, Stalinism, World War II, genocides around the world, and now terrorism. Bad things still happen to people. Oppression is rampant in many places around the world. If this is the best we can do in order to eliminate evil in the world, our situation is pretty sad indeed!

Experiencing evil makes us feel weak, helpless, unsafe, and leads to fear. People want to know why evil exists. People want to know how a loving God can allow evil to happen.

We ask questions like that in order to get answers, since we like answers, since answers give us a feeling of satisfaction and a measure of control. That is why there are so few answers when it comes to evil. We are not in control, nor should we operate under the delusion that we really are in control. We do well to recognize that evil forces do exist and they promote evil on the earth (Ephesians 6:12).

Yet this leads to a valid question: how can these evil powers be in control if God is really in control? If the world is full of such evil, does that not mean that evil has actually triumphed, and there is no hope? This question may come especially for those who seek to follow Jesus in righteousness and yet continually experience the distress and pain that comes from various evils. When it seems that human and demonic forces have conspired against you, how can you keep persevering in faith?

In Revelation 12:1-17, the contest between the forces of evil under Satan and the forces of good under God in Christ are elaborately described. Satan, also known as the Devil, is described as the dragon, a terrifying monster which only God could overcome (cf. Isaiah 51:9), attempting to consume the Child of the woman who represents the people of God (Revelation 12:1-4). The Child is born and ascends to His throne; the Child represents Christ (Revelation 12:5; cf. Psalm 2:1-12). There is then a scene of war in heaven, and Michael and his angels overcome Satan and his angels, and they are cast down to earth (Revelation 12:7-9).

Satan, in Hebrew, means accuser, and the angel proclaims the defeat of Satan as the accuser since Christ has died for the forgiveness of sins, thus undercutting any accusation against the brethren (Revelation 12:10). Salvation, the power, and the Kingdom now belong to Christ who rules as Lord (cf. Matthew 28:18). The salvation of believers is then spoken of as having overcome Satan, and it is accomplished through the blood of the Lamb, the word of their testimony, and that they did not love their lives even to death (Revelation 12:11). On account of this victory heaven has every reason to rejoice (Revelation 12:12)!

The earth and the sea, however, have no such reason for rejoicing; instead, they are warned that they will now suffer the wrath of Satan (Revelation 12:12). Just as a defeated child (or adult, or even nation!) attempts to take out their anger and rage at their defeat on someone smaller or weaker than they, so Satan takes out his wrath at his defeat on the earth and those who dwell in it. Yet, as the angel declares, it cannot last: he has but a short time. The victory which Jesus has won in heaven will be brought to the earth in glory. Yet, until then, the earth and those who are on it will feel the full wrath of Satan.

Jesus intends for this message to encourage us. Yes, evil exists. Yes, we will experience evil. It will cause pain, suffering, and misery. It may even lead to our earthly demise. But evil has not won and it cannot win unless we allow it to win. The evil we experience is not some force impossible to overcome but in fact the last gasp of an angry Satan who has lost hold of those who trust in the blood of the Lamb and maintain the word of their testimony. Jesus the Lord has obtained the victory over sin and death; what can Satan really do in comparison to what Jesus has accomplished for us?

The wrath of Satan is horrendous, tragic, and difficult to endure. Yet the wrath of Satan will pale in comparison to the wrath of God which will be poured out on those who follow after Satan and his designs (Romans 1:18-32, Revelation 15:1-16:21). We should not fear the Evil One but revere and honor God who has overcome the Evil One. We should not question God because evil exists but praise Him for gaining the victory over evil, sin, and death through His Son Jesus and what He suffered. Let us overcome evil through the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony, and maintain the hope of eternal life with God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Signet Ring

And the word of the LORD came the second time unto Haggai in the four and twentieth day of the month, saying,
“Speak to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, saying,
‘I will shake the heavens and the earth; and I will overthrow the throne of kingdoms; and I will destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations; and I will overthrow the chariots, and those that ride in them; and the horses and their riders shall come down, every one by the sword of his brother.’
‘In that day,’ saith the LORD of hosts, ‘will I take thee, O Zerubbabel, my servant, the son of Shealtiel,’ saith the LORD, ‘and will make thee as a signet; for I have chosen thee,’ saith the LORD of hosts” (Haggai 2:20-23).

The late sixth century BCE was a perilous time in Judah.

The Persians had allowed the Jews to return to their land; the Jews, through the encouragement of the word of the LORD through Haggai and Zechariah, had rebuilt the Temple (Ezra 5:1-6:22). Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, son of Jeconiah (also known as Jehoiachin, one of the final kings of Judah before the exile), was governor of Judea (cf. 2 Kings 24:6-16, 25:27-30, 1 Chronicles 3:17, Haggai 1:1).

And yet things were not entirely right. The Persians ruled over the land of Judea. The Jews did not govern themselves. Their taxes went to provide for a foreign king and a foreign army, one that might oppress and persecute them at any time. Sure, they were back in their homeland, but it also still seemed as if many of God’s promises of restoration were yet to be fulfilled.

Zerubbabel represented a great hope. The author of 1/2 Kings ends his chronicle with the elevation of Zerubbabel’s grandfather Jehoiachin out of prison and in the midst of Evil-merodach king of Babylon (2 Kings 25:27-30), no doubt nourishing the hope of the reinstatement of the Davidic dynastic monarchy in Judah. And, behold, Zerubbabel is now in charge of Judah! No doubt many secretly (or less than secretly) wished for Zerubbabel to rule as his grandfather and more distant ancestors ruled. Haggai does talk about the overthrowing of kingdoms when God shakes the earth and Zerubbabel as His signet ring. We can certainly understand the hope and expectation of the Jews.

But it was not to be that way: the Persians themselves were well aware of Zerubbabel’s ancestry, and we do not get the impression that Zerubbabel acts or presumes in any way to seek independence from Persia and to re-establish the Davidic monarchy. Haggai and Zerubbabel will both pass away, and Judah is still under the control of the Persians.

Yet Haggai did not prophesy falsely. In fact, Haggai’s prophecy is of the greatest importance, not just to the Jews and Judah, but to all mankind as well.

Jehoiachin, also known as Jeconiah or Coniah, was not one of the good kings. In fact, Jeremiah roundly condemns and denounces him as a terrible king in Jeremiah 22:1-30. We must note Jeremiah’s specific prophecy in Jeremiah 22:24-30: Jeconiah will be cast out of his land and will die in another land, will not prosper, nor will any of his descendants prosper, and will no longer sit on the throne of David. Of particular significance is the image in Jeremiah 22:24-25: the LORD says that if Jeconiah were a signet ring on His hand, He would cast it off and give it over to those who seek his life, Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians!

A signet ring is of great importance for a king: it is a mark of his authority. The signet ring would be used to make impressions in clay to demonstrate that the king had authorized a decree or message, as can be seen in Daniel 6:17 when Darius king of Persia seals the stone in front of the cave in which Daniel has been thrown with his signet ring. If Jeconiah is God’s form of authority in the land of Judah, he will be cast off and given over to his enemies, and will no longer have that authority. As God’s decree in Jeremiah 22:24-30 stands, no descendant of Jeconiah will sit on the throne of David, and in many respects that is precisely what happens: none of Jeconiah’s children sat on the throne of David. When Jeconiah was taken away, his uncle Mattaniah was made king over Judah as Zedekiah (2 Kings 24:17-20), and Zedekiah would be the last descendant of David to sit on a throne in Jerusalem and rule over the physical nation of Judah (cf. 2 Kings 25:1-21).

God was in the right to be angry with Jeconiah. Yet Jeconiah’s grandson Zerubbabel finds favor in the eyes of God, and this is what makes Haggai 2:20-23 so important: God chooses Zerubbabel and will make him as a signet, a sign of authority. Consequences remain for the troubles of the past; Zerubbabel will not be king and will only have authority because it is granted by a foreign power. But the promise Haggai makes is of great importance, less for Zerubbabel, and far more for a later generation.

Ten generations after Zerubbabel, a man named Joseph is born in his lineage. Joseph will be supposed to be the father of one Jesus of Nazareth, who will claim Davidic heritage through Joseph, Zerubbabel, and Jeconiah (Matthew 1:11-16). If Jeremiah’s curse upon Jeconiah’s descendants continued to stand fully, then Jesus would have been disqualified on account of this lineage. To this day, in fact, some, especially among Jewish people, will argue that Jesus of Nazareth could not be the Messiah since He is a son of David through Jeconiah.

Yet this is when we see why Haggai’s prophecy is so important. Jesus can be the Branch of David and rule over a great Kingdom because God again chose His great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Zerubbabel as a signet ring. And through Jesus God did shake the world, and destroyed the strength of the kingdoms of the nations (cf. Matthew 27:51, Acts 2:16-20, Revelation 6:12-17). Jesus would reign over a Kingdom above all kingdoms, one that would never end, featuring servants from all nations (cf. Daniel 2:44, 7:13-14, Luke 1:31-33)!

Jesus, through His life, death, and resurrection, was given all authority in heaven and on earth, and thus sat on the throne of His father David and rules over the people of God for all time (cf. Matthew 28:18-20, Luke 1:31-33). Because Jeconiah sinned the physical throne was taken from his descendants; yet, since Zerubbabel served the LORD, God chose him, and we all can be the beneficiaries of that choice through Jesus. Let us praise God for His provision for all of us, and serve Jesus as the Risen Lord!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Ezra the Scribe

This Ezra went up from Babylon: and he was a ready scribe in the law of Moses, which the LORD, the God of Israel, had given; and the king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the LORD his God upon him (Ezra 7:6).

Ezra proves to be a pivotal person in the history of Israel.

Ezra is a priest descended from Aaron through Zadok (cf. Ezra 7:1-5), but that is not touted as his claim to fame. Instead, it is his role as a “scribe skilled in the Law of Moses” which is prominently featured in his career (Ezra 7:6). He devoted his life to studying the Law of the LORD so that he could teach it to his fellow Israelites (Ezra 7:10); it was for this purpose that Artaxerxes king of Persia sent him to Jerusalem (cf. Ezra 7:11-28). The community of returned exiles recognizes this authority granted to Ezra and proves willing to change their behavior on account of his teachings and pleadings (cf. Ezra 9:1-10:44). The Israelites are listening to and heeding the message of the Law of Moses as read and taught by Ezra the scribe (cf. also Nehemiah 8:1-8). What is astounding is that such is the first recorded instance of such behavior since the days of Joshua; Ezra is the first person described in the Old Testament as a “scribe skilled in the Law of Moses.” How can that be?

Does this mean that there were no scribes skilled in the Law of Moses before Ezra? This is unlikely; there probably were some such scribes in Israel before the exile. For whatever reason they did not gain sufficient prominence to be noted in the text. They also were likely in the minority; even though God commanded the Levites to continually read the Law before the kings of the land (Deuteronomy 17:18-20) and before all the people at the Feast of Booths every seven years (Deuteronomy 31:10-13), the prophets condemned the priests for their negligence in teaching the people (e.g. Hosea 4:4-10). If priests were reading the Law, it certainly was not being reflected in the behavior of the kings or the people!

Perhaps because the Law was not being read as it should, or perhaps for other reasons, the prophets feature prominently in the days between Joshua and Ezra. God speaks directly to the kings and to the people through the prophets; the prophets were held in somewhat high esteem even though the people often did not heed their messages. God spoke through the prophets throughout the days of the kings, through the exile, and even after some of the people returned to the land. But even then there is a difference: certain questions are put aside until a priest should arrive with Urim and Thummim (cf. Ezra 2:63). The prophets Haggai and Zechariah exhort the people to finish the (second) Temple in 520 BCE; Malachi prophesies to the people at some point afterward. Otherwise we have no other recorded messages from any prophets at this time; by the second century BCE there is admission that there are no prophets in the land.

Ezra stands at this major juncture in Israelite history. The hand of the LORD is upon him in his diligence in studying the Law of Moses to teach the people. He is often reckoned to be the author of 1 and 2 Chronicles and Ezra; if he himself did not write them, someone very much like him or associated with him did. As such, he is one of the final “prophets” of the Old Testament period, yet one whose authority is vested in his understanding and explanation of the Law of Moses. From this point on the prophets fade; in their place come the lawyers and the scribes. Such figures feature prominently in the Gospels; Jesus chides and condemns them for their hypocrisy, their arrogance, and their inconsistencies, but never denigrates the profession itself or considers it unnecessary or unworthy (cf. Matthew 23:1-35). In fact, Jesus and the Apostles validate the role of the text and its interpreters; they are filled with the Holy Spirit, can prophesy, and yet their arguments and discussions throughout are based on texts and the proper interpretation of those texts. Consider any of the messages of the prophets by the “word of the LORD” compared to, say, Peter’s preaching in Acts 2:14-36, or even Paul in Acts 17:16-32. Texts and their interpretation feature much more prominently than they did during the days of the kings.

Ezra’s example should provide us with encouragement today. We also live during a time when there is no prophet in the land (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:8-10). We have not been granted new revelation since the end of the first century, and we have no reason to expect any new revelation until the Lord returns (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Jude 1:3). Yet, as with Israel in the fifth century BCE, so with us today: it is not as if God has left us without guidance or a way forward. We have the revelations regarding God and His purposes for mankind in the Bible; we can set our hearts to seek to know the will of God as revealed through Jesus Christ and His Apostles (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15, 3:16-17). We do not need a prophet to tell us the will of God for us today; we have that will already revealed in the Scriptures. It has been sufficient, is sufficient, and will continue to be sufficient to equip God’s people to conform to the image of Jesus to the glory and honor of God the Father until Jesus returns in triumph. It is for us to learn from the Good Book and seek to live what it says.

It is good to learn the message of the Bible, to seek to properly interpret it, and then put it into practice in life. Let us, like Ezra, set our hearts to understand the will of God, always seeking His wisdom and guidance, so that the hand of God may be upon us for good and that we may live so as to give glory to His name!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Commands and Appeals

Wherefore, though I have all boldness in Christ to enjoin thee that which is befitting, yet for love’s sake I rather beseech, being such a one as Paul the aged, and now a prisoner also of Christ Jesus (Philemon 1:8-9).

“Speak softly, and carry a big stick.”

Theodore Roosevelt made this “proverb” famous as a way of describing his governing policy. He preferred diplomacy so as to resolve differences but made it clear how he could use force to accomplish his purposes.

In the short letter Paul wrote to Philemon, a letter which raises more questions than it answers, Paul wishes to use the spiritual equivalent of speaking softly while carrying a big stick in order to persuade Philemon regarding the condition of Onesimus. Paul is an Apostle of Jesus Christ, one granted power and authority (cf. Colossians 1:1). All of the province of Asia would have heard of the mighty acts which Paul had accomplished in the name of Jesus in Ephesus (cf. Acts 19:1-20). The authority granted him by the Lord Jesus and his personal commitment to the Lord’s purposes were unquestioned in Colossae (the likely home of Philemon; cf. Colossians 4:12-16, Philemon 1:1-2). Paul would have been entirely in the right to issue a command to Philemon to act as Paul believed he should (Philemon 1:8).

Yet Paul has great respect for Philemon. Paul thanks God for him in his prayers, having heard of his love and faith for Jesus and the Christians (Philemon 1:3-5). Many Christians have been refreshed by him, and he is likely hosting the assemblies of the church in Colossae in his house (Philemon 1:2, 7). By all accounts, Philemon is seeking to please the Lord Jesus and to do His will in all respects.

Therefore, Paul does not think it best to enjoin, or command, what Philemon should do; instead, for love’s sake, he will beseech, or appeal to, Philemon to act as he should (Philemon 1:9). Paul will go on to make his request: to not penalize Onesimus the slave of Philemon in any way on account of his departure and time spent with Paul, but instead to receive his slave as a fellow brother in Christ (Philemon 1:10-17). Paul wishes for whatever would be charged against Onesimus to be charged against him instead (Philemon 1:17-19).

We have so many questions to ask regarding this situation and especially about the aftermath of the letter and what happened among Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus. Even though we will not come to a complete answer to these questions in this life, we can share in the same trust which Paul maintained: since Philemon seeks to live for Christ and glorify Him, and Philemon seems to be aware of the “debt” which he owes Paul (cf. Philemon 1:19), we can have confidence that Philemon did the right thing on the basis of Paul’s appeal. Yet we must ask: if Paul had instead decided to maintain his boldness in Christ and command what was necessary, would we feel as confident that Philemon would have done the right thing? If Paul had not first so commended Philemon for his faith and manner of life, thereby giving us confidence in his faith, would we have any basis upon which to believe that Philemon would be well-disposed to do the right thing?

As Christians, when we consider what is written in the New Testament for our instruction, it is easy to conflate commands and appeals and consider the two as completely synonymous. This is understandable: as servants of God in Christ, we should seek to follow after both what has been commanded in the name of the Lord as well as the appeals made toward thinking, feeling, and acting in holiness and righteousness (Colossians 3:17, 2 Peter 3:11-12, 1 John 2:3-6). If anyone comes away from Scripture thinking that what is commanded is all that is required and therefore anything regarding which an appeal is made is less than required and thus optional is still thinking in worldly, carnal ways, and has not fully imbibed the mind of Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:6-16). Appeals can be made because there are commands and the Lord Jesus behind them!

While we ought to follow after both those things which are commanded and concerning which appeals are made (and, to be fair, many things regarding which appeals are made are also commanded in other places, and vice versa), in terms of communication, there can be a big difference between a command and an appeal. A command is more forceful, and might rub someone the wrong way. To have to make something a command, at times, could imply a lack of trust and confidence in the one being commanded. An appeal, especially when made in a way that appreciates the faith of the one to whom the appeal is made, can often lead to the same desired end more effectively. If the appeal does fail, then the “big stick” can be used.

Another “proverb” of our time which speaks to the same reality is that one can catch more flies with honey than vinegar. We should not compromise the Gospel message or God’s standard in order to make the message more palatable to people. There will be times when people are going to be offended and rubbed the wrong way no matter what we say or do. Yet everyone appreciates being appreciated. Every Christian is sustained in their faith by encouragement (Hebrews 10:24-25). People often do not mind being encouraged toward a higher goal or better service toward God but do not respond as well when they are berated, denounced, or denigrated because they have not done as well as they could. None of us are perfect; all of us fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). Sometimes people do need a wake-up call, but how many times are commands dictated and rebukes blasted when a loving appeal would be more accurate and effective?

There is a time for commands, but there are also times for appeals. We might carry the “big stick” of the Word of God, but that does not mean that we do well to use it constantly to beat up on other people. Instead, let us seek to persuade men through appealing to them by the message of God. Let our presentations of the Gospel really be good news, not bad news. Let us make sure that we are truly encouraging one another, exhorting each other toward greater faithfulness to God in Christ, growing together in the Way!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Mark of True Discipleship

“A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; even as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:34-35).

What is supposed to define a disciple, or follower, of Christ?

For the better part of 1,750 years, one could be forgiven for thinking the answer involved finding and adhering to the right doctrines regarding Jesus. For most of its history Christianity has seemed to focus on determining the nature of God and Christ, how salvation is accomplished, the relationship between the believer and the church, the church and the state, and a whole host of other matters. Upon these matters most of the written records focus; comparatively precious little is said regarding the practice of the faith. Perhaps the practice of the faith was more strongly emphasized in other contexts; perhaps it went unsaid because there was little disagreement regarding it.

The Bible does insist on a good understanding of God in Christ and the substantive message of the faith and the need to stand firm within it (2 Timothy 2:15, Jude 1:3, 2 John 1:7-11). Yet it is worth noting what Jesus Himself emphasizes as the true mark of His followers. He does not say that all men will know we are His disciples by the doctrines we teach, the truths we uphold, or the persuasive arguments we make. The mark of true disciples of Jesus is their love for one another (John 13:35).

The statement seems so simple, so obvious, and yet it is quite compelling and extraordinarily challenging. It is not as if this is the first time that the disciples have been told to love one another; the Law exhorted them to love their neighbors as themselves (Leviticus 19:18), and all Israelites would agree that fellow Israelites were their neighbors (cf. Luke 10:25-29). That aspect of the command is “old,” but Jesus adds a twist which makes it “new”: they are to love one another as He loved them (John 13:34; cf. 1 John 2:7-8). God is love (1 John 4:8); Jesus, God in the flesh, is the embodiment of love (John 1:1, 14, Hebrews 1:3, 1 John 3:16). We can therefore understand the love Christians are to have for one another by understanding the way Jesus conducted Himself among His disciples.

Jesus called His twelve disciples, not because of who they were at the time, but on account of their willingness to follow and because of what Jesus knew they could be (Matthew 10:1-4). He spent a lot of time teaching them; many of Jesus’ teachings were directed to the disciples, even if others were present (e.g. Matthew 5:1-7:28), and would provide further explanation to them in other contexts as well (Mark 4:33-34). Nevertheless, the disciples proved slow to truly perceive and understand what Jesus was saying; He remained patient with them (cf. John 13:36-38, 14:5-8, etc.).

But Jesus went beyond instructing them in word; He also showed them in deed the things He was saying (1 John 3:18). He showed His love for them by serving them, finding no task too humiliating or “beneath” Him (John 13:1-11). He took care of their material needs many times (e.g. Matthew 17:24-27). He prayed to the Father for them (John 17:1-19). In the moment of His greatest need they forsook Him and even denied Him; He loved them anyway, died for them anyway, and welcomed them back joyfully in His resurrection (John 18:1-20:23, 1 John 3:16). Jesus embodied the definition of love toward His disciples: He was patient and kind with them, did not envy or boast, was not arrogant or rude, did not insist on His own way, was not irritable or resentful, did not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoiced with them in the truth, bore their deficiencies and iniquities, continued to believe in them, hoped in them, and endured with them. His love for them never ended (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a).

As we can see, coming to an understanding of the truth of God in Christ Jesus and His Kingdom is part of showing love to one another, but does not and cannot fully embody what it means to love one another. Yes, we are to learn about Jesus, but that learning is not supposed to be merely an intellectual exercise or an end unto itself; we are to learn about Him so that we can be more like Him (Romans 8:29, 1 John 2:6). Doctrine is important: we feel and act based upon what we believe, therefore, we must have the right beliefs if we are going to feel and act as we should. Yet, as Jesus makes abundantly clear, mere intellectual understanding was never the goal; knowledge of God in Christ is designed to inexorably lead to reflecting the characteristics of God in Christ.

Jesus’ phrasing might seem odd to us: how is it that all men will know we are disciples of Jesus by our love for one another? Would they not understand how we are disciples of Jesus by our love for them? It is not as if Christians are to not love those outside the faith (cf. Luke 6:27-36, Galatians 6:10), but Jesus’ emphasis on love toward one another is well-placed and quite poignant. We like to think that people are persuaded to follow Jesus through well-constructed and persuasive arguments. Some are convinced through such apologetics, but God knows us better than we know ourselves, and recognizes that very few people are ever convinced about anything on account of rational argumentation. In the end, God is not interested in just setting up an alternative mental construct through which to see the world; Christianity was never designed to just be the correct philosophy of the world.

The true mark defining a group of disciples is their love for one another. How do they treat each other? If Christians love one another like Jesus has loved them, they will remind each other of the truths of God in Jesus (cf. 2 Timothy 4:1-5). But they will also show great concern for one another, making sure that each other’s material needs are met (Galatians 6:10, 1 John 3:17-18). They are patient and kind with one another; if they sin against each other, they forgive each other and bear with one another (Colossians 3:12-14). True followers of Jesus understand that they have all sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God, and feel comfortable enough with one another to open up and confess their sins, faults, and failures, entrusting themselves to one another, even though they will at times hurt each other and betray each other (James 5:16). They love each other anyway. They share with each other anyway. They build each other up anyway.

Where else in the world can such love be found in true community? People in the world crave that kind of love, acceptance, welcome, and openness. People want to be loved; people want others to be patient with them; people want to be treated kindly and considerately; people want to share life together. People want a greater purpose in life and to share in that mission with others, and so it all is supposed to be in Jesus. If Christ’s followers show love to one another as we have described it, others will want to share in that experience, and they will themselves be inspired to follow Jesus (cf. Matthew 5:13-16)!

But what happens when people claim to follow Jesus but do not manifest that love? The history of “Christianity” is full of examples of such failures, and they have given the faith a bad name and have given reason for the nations to blaspheme. Emphasis on right doctrine alone led to wars, death, misery, and pain for untold thousands; to this day, how many people associate Christianity with the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the people on the street spewing forth messages of condemnation? The world is full of different groups of people who only see each other’s failings, show little patience with one another’s faults, constantly nitpick and judge each other with a view of denigrating them, and feel important or special because of their knowledge or means by which they identify themselves. There’s nothing special or attractive about such groups, and if some such groups try to wear the name of Christ, it’s little wonder why they struggle to grow or be effective in any meaningful way.

Followers of Jesus show love to one another in a number of different ways, and they are all important, but only insofar as they point back to Jesus, glorify Him, and are done with a view to reflecting Jesus to one another and our fellow man. Jesus knows what He is doing; He has good reason to make love for one another the clear identifier of His true followers. Any group of people professing to follow Jesus which does not share in love toward each other has not truly understood Jesus. Any group which professes to follow Jesus and to have the love they should have but do not adhere to the truth of God in Jesus Christ has not really understood all that the love of Jesus requires. But it is just as true that anyone who thinks they have understood the true knowledge of God in Christ but does not show true love to His fellow Christians has not really understood the true knowledge of God in Christ and certainly has not perceived the end to which we are to learn of Christ. Instead, let us follow after Jesus the way He intends. Let us come to a better knowledge of Jesus, understanding how He lived and loved, so that we can love each other as Jesus intends!

Ethan R. Longhenry