The Tower of Babel and Human Religion

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4).

Humans like to build, and the bigger, the better.

At some point between the Flood and Abraham, all humanity came together on the plain of Shinar, in modern-day Iraq, and decided to build a city and a large tower. The endeavor did not end well: God confused the language of humanity, and they stopped building their tower. The place would be known as Babel, or Confusion, because of these events (Genesis 11:1-9).

Even though the Tower of Babel was not a completely fulfilled project, it still stood there, a monument to human endeavor in Mesopotamia. Meanwhile, those scattered in Mesopotamia built cities: Babel, Erech, Akkad, Calneh, among others (cf. Genesis 10:8-12). Those cities would feature a large building in the middle which we today call ziggurats: large step pyramids which were used, as far as we can tell, as temples and as a high place upon which to make offerings to the gods of Sumer and Akkad. Meanwhile, in Egypt, kings would soon begin to build larger and larger pyramids as tombs for themselves and their families, believing that these large structures would help the soul of the king to reach the heavens.

The ziggurats of Mesopotamia and the pyramids of Egypt would become famous monuments. Everyone in the Bible from Abraham to Malachi would have at least heard of the ziggurats and pyramids, and many saw them. We can only imagine how impressive these monuments would have seemed in their younger days; the pyramids are still magnificent despite the ravages of time. They certainly would have projected strength and an air of magnificence. Surely these nations were mighty; surely their gods were strong.

And yet, how many of the Israelites, when hearing about and/or seeing these monuments, thought of the story of the Tower of Babel, and of its ultimate end?

ziggurats and pyramids were influenced by the Tower of Babel; perhaps the Tower of Babel was even considered the first ziggurat. Understood in this way, we can see how the Tower of Babel both explains and is a critique of human religion.

As Paul explains in Romans 1:18-25, when humans no longer give God the Creator the glory due Him, they become futile in their thinking and their hearts are darkened. They turn and give the creation the honor due the Creator. This mentality is on full display on the plain of Shinar. Humans find themselves in a big, lonely world, and do not want to be scattered over its face. Meanwhile, they still search for meaning and value in life. As opposed to honoring God by fulfilling His commandments and giving Him the honor, they instead stay together contrary to His command and work to build a city and a tower to make a name for themselves, not for God. Even after their original plan was frustrated, they kept at it in their new locations, building towers and other large structures.

These structures took on religious meaning and significance. The logic is the same as the use of the high place: the higher the altitude we reach, we imagine, the closer to the divine we get. The Canaanites would imagine that their gods lived on top of the large mountains in their land; the Greeks believed their gods lived on Mount Olympus. Therefore, it was necessary to get up high to present offerings to them or to reach them. And how better to climb up than to build a structure that climbs high into the heavens?

While these structures had religious significance, the glory and honor still went to the nations who built them. To this day we remember the pyramids more as an astonishing feat of engineering accomplished by the “god-like” kings of Egypt than as anything relating to their religion. The ziggurats of Mesopotamia would have made quite the impression on people as well; we can only imagine how the Israelites in exile would have reacted to see such large buildings and the power being projected by the empires which built them. It suddenly becomes clearer why so many started following after those gods: it certainly seemed as if they and the people who built those structures had all the power.

Therefore, human religion seems so powerful, wonderful, and glorious. But it cannot save and is ultimately futile. All such effort is in vain!

The power of God receives testimony from man’s search for meaning and value in life, but it is vain and futile to imagine that we can discover God “out there.” Paul demolished all such thinking when he declared that God is actually not very far from us at all, for in Him we live, move, and exist (Acts 17:26-28). We reach out in vain, trying to please the divine the best we think we know how, but ultimately that can never be enough: we cannot be justified or made righteous on our own by our own effort (Romans 3:20). Even if God is as close as He is far away, we cannot bridge the divide separating us, no matter how much human religion would like to think it can (Isaiah 59:1-2).

Instead, God bridged the gap in Himself. Man, according to his religion, tries to build up to reach the heavens; God, in humility, came to earth as a man, lived as a man, and died as a man (Philippians 2:5-11). Through the God-man Jesus humans can find true religion through reconciliation with God (Romans 5:6-11); it does not involve any elevation, any building, any attempt to reach up by our own unaided efforts to find what we are seeking. We grope and grasp for truth and discover that it has always been here the whole time, reaching out to us (cf. Revelation 3:20-21).

The Tower of Babel was a monument to human pretension, man’s attempt to make a name for himself. Human religion, in its own way, has the same goal: seeking the divine on man’s terms, creating gods in his own image and according to his own fancy, and it all ultimately is designed to glorify himself. Yet such pursuits are in vain. The Tower of Babel no longer exists. The ruins of the ziggurats were discovered by European archaeologists who believed in the God of Israel, the glory of those empires long faded. The pyramids sit in Egypt as ruins, pillaged for stone in medieval days in order to build the old city in Cairo. Few honor the gods of Egypt and Mesopotamia.

We should not imagine that times are altogether different now. We still have human religion with gods made according to man’s fancy. We have large buildings which stand as testimonies to the gods of today: money, power, fame, and so on. Nations build ever larger buildings, attempting to get greater glory and to seem important, a projection of strength. And it will happen to all these nations, buildings, and gods as it happened to the Mesopotamians and the Egyptians. They will pass away, Their religion will not satisfy and will fail.

Meanwhile, the name of Jesus is still on the lips of untold thousands, heard everywhere. The Gospel remains powerful, the only antidote to human religion. Human religion projects strength; God came as Christ in weakness. Human religion vaunts itself; Jesus was humble (Matthew 20:25-28). Human religion seeks its own end; Jesus gave up all things to glorify His Father and accomplish His purposes (John 5:19-24, 30-47, Philippians 2:5-11). According to human religion, man seeks to use his power to save himself; in Christ, we learn that we cannot do anything to save ourselves, and so we must yield and submit ourselves to God so that we can work in Him according to all that He has prepared for us (Philippians 2:12-13).

We have a choice: the Tower of Babel or the Temple of Jesus. The former seems glorious but fades and collapses; the latter seems weak but is truly strong and will endure. Let us choose to follow Jesus and become part of His body, His temple, and honor and glorify God in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Christian and the Government

Let every soul be in subjection to the higher powers: for there is no power but of God; and the powers that be are ordained of God. Therefore he that resisteth the power, withstandeth the ordinance of God: and they that withstand shall receive to themselves judgment. For rulers are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. And wouldest thou have no fear of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise from the same: for he is a minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is a minister of God, an avenger for wrath to him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be in subjection, not only because of the wrath, but also for conscience’ sake (Romans 13:1-5).

For 1,700 years the controversy has centered on Romans 13.

For all the New Testament teachings regarding Jesus’ spiritual Kingdom, its pages provided precious few declarations regarding earthly nations and their governance. Only in Romans 13:1-7 is earthly government discussed in any substantive and meaningful way. Little wonder, then, that once Christianity gained societal respectability and earthly authorities began professing it, Romans 13:1-7 would feature prominently in justification of and argumentation regarding how governments would act.

To this end the text has been stretched and bended far beyond anything its original author would have intended. In the middle of the seventeenth century, the king of England and loyal political philosophers laid ahold of Paul’s declaration that the earthly government is ordained by God (Romans 13:1-2), and used it to justify the doctrine of the divine right of kings, suggesting that since God ordained the king to be in charge, the commands of the king were as the commands of God. Yet, by the end of that century and into the next, some Enlightenment philosophers laid ahold of Paul’s reasoning behind the existence of the earthly government as the agent of God’s wrath toward those doing evil in Romans 13:3-4, inferred that any ruler terrorizing good conduct and good people and not sufficiently punishing evil has lost their divine mandate, and thus suggested that it was justifiable to overthrow any government which had thus “lost” its divine mandate. Within two centuries the same text could be used to justify both the establishment of a dictatorship as well as its overthrow.

The government and the Christian’s relationship to it is a sensitive topic today. As we can see, the main text describing that relationship has been used to justify all sorts of attitudes toward government for centuries. What shall we do?

We do well to honor one of the most fundamental principles of Biblical interpretation: first understand the text in context. When Paul writes what is found in Romans 13:1-7, he does not have in mind the British monarchy or the American democratic republic per se. Instead, he writes to the Christians living in the capital of the Roman empire in the early days of the Emperor Nero.

When we take a moment to strip away the layers of assumptions and inferences in order to try to get back to Paul’s original premise, we find that Paul’s primary purpose in Romans 13:1-7 is to legitimate the existence of an earthly governmental authority, consistent with what Peter will write in 1 Peter 2:13-17 as well. If we think about it, this concern makes a lot of sense, for one of the principal proclamations of the Gospel is that Jesus is Lord (kurios; cf. Acts 2:36). If Jesus is Lord of all, that means that Caesar is not, and many of the opponents of the Gospel seized upon this (cf. Acts 17:6-7). Meanwhile, the Roman authorities were ambivalent toward or hostile against the faith: the recently dead Claudius had expelled all Jews from Rome, possibly because of the preaching of Jesus as the Christ (cf. Acts 18:2). There were already whispers about the darker side of Nero’s personality and conduct, and that ugliness would only become more evident as time wore on. If Jesus is really Lord, and the government sometimes stands in the way of Jesus’ purposes, why have a government at all? Why obey and submit to these earthly, pagan, ungodly rulers, if Jesus is really Lord?

Paul provides a rebuke to such “Christian anarchism.” Paul declares that God has all power, and therefore earthly governments exist because God has granted them the ability and power to exist (Romans 13:1-2). They have a good reason for existence: government exists to punish evil behavior (Romans 13:3-4). If a Christian is busy doing good, he or she should have little to fear from the governing authorities; therefore, to ask for them to be in subjection to governing authorities is not really asking too much, on account of wrath and conscience (Romans 13:3-5). For the same reason, tax, tribute, and honor should be given to such authorities, since their existence is justified before God (Romans 13:6-7).

While such things are said to the Roman Christians in the context of the Roman empire, it is evident from the way in which Paul speaks that the message is not limited only to such persons. What Paul says is true regarding the Christians of Rome and their relationship to the Roman Empire would be equally true for Christians living under a monarchy, dictatorship, aristocracy, oligarchy, or democracy. Paul says nothing about how the governing authorities obtained their power or how well they adhere to the rules or guidelines which theoretically govern that country. He does not make explicit any of the inferences derived from this passage, either to justify whatever a ruler says or to justify revolution against a government. We do well to wonder why that is.

Paul insists that Christians should be subject to the governing authorities, as does Peter in 1 Peter 2:13-17. Peter will go on to speak about slaves and how they should be subject to their masters, not just the good and gentle ones, but also those who are “froward,” unreasonable or unjust (1 Peter 2:18). Peter goes on to describe the gracious matter of suffering unjustly while doing what is good and right and holy, reminding the Christians of his time how Jesus had done the same for them (1 Peter 2:19-25).

There is quite the lesson to be learned there: in many ways, the Christian’s relationship to the government is like the Christian slave’s relationship to his master. It is for the Christian to submit no matter the type of master, save in that which is against what God has decreed (cf. Acts 5:29). The Christian is never justified in acting according to a rebellious or contrary spirit; the reason for disobedience against any earthly authority is because of obedience toward God. It is not given for the Christian to weigh the fitness of the rulers before deciding to submit to them, contrary to what some have said. It is also not for the rulers to fancy that whatever they say ought to be as if God Himself had said it, contrary to what others have said. God will judge Christians for how well they respected rulers and obeyed them, and the rulers for how well they governed according to the principles of righteousness, as can be seen from Romans 13:1-7.

In Romans 13:1-7 Paul sees a separation between Christians and their government: “you” are the Christians and “he” is the authority in the passage, and we do not see the two meet. How Christians are to relate to a government in which they have the opportunity to voice their beliefs and to shape policy is not explicitly outlined but certainly would not be in opposition to what God has revealed through Paul in terms of how Christians are to relate to any government. Christians are to show proper respect and honor for their rulers and should be subject to them, obeying the laws of the land. Whether the rulers are good and fair or immoral and unjust is irrelevant; Christians are not given the right to treat the rulers differently on the basis of their conduct. There may be times when Christians will find themselves on the wrong side of civil laws because they are obeying God; such does not justify a spirit of rebellion. In all cases of such “civil disobedience” that we find in Scripture, the Christians remained respectful of government and willingly suffered the civil consequences of their behavior. Early Christians never agitated for the overthrow of the government.

Paul could write with such indifference to the fate of any particular government because he understood that Jesus is really Lord, and the only way of salvation was through the message of the Gospel (Romans 1:16). The advancement of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God is all that is really important (Matthew 6:33). Earthly authorities are to be respected and obeyed but they are not our saviors or redeemers. Only Jesus can do that. Let us obey God in all things, including showing proper respect toward and subjection to the earthly authorities!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Not to the Right or to the Left

“Only be strong and very courageous, to observe to do according to all the law, which Moses my servant commanded thee: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest have good success whithersoever thou goest” (Joshua 1:7).

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Such a line will not deviate toward any other direction. But such is really true only in ideal terms; in our reality, there is no such thing as a completely straight line. It is possible to make a line seem very straight indeed, but we cannot make a perfectly straight line. This nicely illustrates the human predicament.

God has provided a standard for living; in the old covenant, it was the Law of Moses. Ideally, Israel would hold firm to the Law, observing everything in it, not deviating at all, or, as God encouraged Joshua, and in turn Joshua the people, “to not turn from it to the right hand or to the left” (Joshua 1:7, 23:6). In the new covenant in Christ, we are to love and know God and keep His commandments, walking as Jesus walked (1 John 2:1-6). This remains the ideal.

And yet none of us can live up to that standard perfectly. Peter and Paul declared as much in regards to Israel and the Law (Acts 13:38-39, 15:10, Romans 3:20). John understands that Christians do not live up to the ideal either (1 John 1:8-2:6). If we cannot perfectly go straight, why would God provide such exhortation to Israel and to Christians today?

The ideal is not worthless or irrelevant simply because no one save Jesus has ever lived up to it perfectly. God has always understood our deficiencies as humans; such is why He established the sacrificial system in the Old Testament, and continues to grant grace and mercy through Jesus in the New Testament (cf. Leviticus, Romans 5:6-11, 8:1-39). And yet we must not become complacent or content by acknowledging our imperfection; it is easy for us to think that since we cannot live up to the ideal perfectly, we should not try! Therefore, we do well to confess that the ideal is ideal: we should be following what God says perfectly. We should walk in God’s ways without any deviation; we should go “straight” and should not go “to the right hand or to the left.” When we do deviate from God’s command, we ought to admit as much, change our minds and ways, and return to the good path (1 John 1:9). In all things we must place our trust in God and His ideal way for mankind (Hebrews 11:6)!

The image of going “straight” and not turning “to the right hand or to the left” also underscores the necessity of balance. While it remains true that many people have deviated from God’s path and purposes on account of rebellion and a desire to sin, many others have deviated from God’s path because they overemphasized certain aspects of God’s truth to the detriment of other aspects.

This proves quite easy to do; we humans easily go to extremes. We rightly see a problem with one side; it is tempting to run far to the other side in response. We see certain groups associated with certain practices; it is tempting to want to go to the other extreme so that no one would confuse “us” with “them.”

This is why it is important for us to remember that God wants us to not deviate to the right hand or to the left; truth is rarely, if ever, found in the extremes. Furthermore, there remain many aspects of the faith that are held in a sort of tension: God’s sovereignty and grace with human freedom, for instance, or the imperative to holiness with the imperative to love, mercy, and grace. The Scriptures are filled with examples of people who have gone to one extreme or another: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the “Judaizers,” the Gnostics, and so on.

God is far greater than ourselves, and His truth remains sublime (Isaiah 55:8-9, Romans 11:33-36). God has set forth His standard for the creation and all mankind; it is up to us to confess its value and make it our goal in life. Whenever we deviate from that standard, either by stumbling into some sin, or by overemphasizing certain aspects of truth to the detriment of other aspects of it, we must change our ways and seek to re-align our will to God’s. God’s ways and God’s truth remain ideally straight, firm, and balanced; we, in our sin and corruption, have turned to the right or to the left. Let us turn away from all deviations and seek to glorify God in spirit and truth in all we think, say, do, and teach!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Word Became Flesh

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

Conventional wisdom declares that only two of the Gospel accounts–Matthew and Luke–tell the story of Jesus’ birth. That the situation surrounding Jesus’ birth and the specific event of Jesus’ birth are more fully narrated in Matthew and Luke and nowhere is is beyond doubt. Yet John has captured, in one verse, what is implied in the birth accounts found in Matthew and Luke, speaking of the power of the Incarnation. He does so simply and elegantly: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).

It is so quickly addressed that one might pass over it without notice if reading somewhat carelessly. Yet these seven words (in Greek; eight in English) are in many ways the pinnacle of the chapter and the driving force behind the rest of John’s Gospel.

It is one thing to speak of the Word, His divinity, His relationship with the Father, His role in creation, and His righteousness, as John does in John 1:1-10. Moses perceived how Israel subsisted on God’s word (Deuteronomy 8:3); the Psalmist understood how the creation came to be through the agency of God’s Word (Psalm 33:6); Solomon personified Wisdom in Proverbs 8:1-36 and spoke of it as present during the creation. All of these, among others, were glimpses of the divine reality about to be fully revealed to mankind, and a lot of people, both among the Jews and the Greeks, would easily accept what John said about the Word in John 1:1-4, 9.

And then John provides the bombshell. This Word, the Agent of Creation, Light of the World, Provider of Life and Sustainer of Creation, God and with God, “became flesh and dwelt among us.”

Yes, Isaiah spoke of the Immanuel child in Isaiah 7:14, “God with us,” but very few understood it that concretely. The idea boggled the mind of the Jews and the Greeks then and plenty of others ever since: how could God become flesh? For that matter, why would God humiliate Himself and decide to become flesh? How could the Creator take on the form of the creation? What is going on here?

It was a challenging statement then, and it remains a challenging statement to this day; many find the concept foolish (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:20-25). Whenever Jesus would speak of His divinity, the Jews would be flabbergasted and sought to kill Him for blasphemy (cf. John 5:18, 8:57-58, 10:30-33). Some of the Greeks who saw value in Jesus’ teachings nevertheless could not tolerate the idea that He actually became flesh; such led to the “docetic” heresy, the suggestion that Jesus was not really flesh and blood, but only seemed like flesh and blood; John roundly denounced this view (2 John 1:7-9). Ever since there have been many who have found it easier to reject or downplay what John is saying about the Word becoming flesh since the idea is so strange and offensive to “realistic” sensibilities.

Yet the questions remain. The “how” questions are completely beyond us; we could dwell upon them to our hurt or be willing to recognize that we do not have all of the answers and that the Creator evidently so created the universe so as to allow the Word to become flesh. As to the “why” questions, we may intellectually understand that the Word was willing to humble Himself to the point of becoming flesh because of His love for mankind (Romans 5:6-11, 1 John 4:7-21), but it still remains an astounding, almost unbelievable idea: God became flesh to save flesh. The Creator took on the form of the creation to redeem the creation. We cannot imagine the depth of the humility this demanded; therefore, we cannot imagine the depth of the love God has toward us which motivated this humility. God became flesh!

The implications and consequences are many. The Incarnation is a powerful antidote to the concept of total depravity: yes, human beings are deeply sinful, but there must be some dignity and integrity left in flesh for God to have become it and dwell among us. To try to carve out an exception for Jesus on the basis of the “Immaculate Conception” is almost insulting to the Incarnation, as if Jesus’ flesh had to be somehow different from all other flesh in order to be God in the flesh. And, beyond all of this, God did not just become flesh, stay aloof, look down on people, enslave others, act arrogantly around them, or any such thing. God became flesh and then dwelt among us. He lived simply and humbly and went about doing good for people, even though He often received evil in return (cf. Acts 10:38-39). God became flesh not because it was some kind of accident, or as if an alien had taken over a human. When God became flesh, He showed mankind all the essential characteristics and attributes of God, so that it could be said that if you saw Jesus, you saw God the Father (John 1:18, 14:6-11); nevertheless, He also lived the perfect life and through His teachings and deeds exemplified true humanity (Hebrews 4:15, 5:7-8). God in the flesh did not just show us who God is; He also shows us what man can and should be. He is not just the perfect God; He is also the perfect Man!

God came in the flesh, presenting the glory of the only begotten from the Father, and He came full of grace and truth. From a human standpoint it is unbelievable; from a godly standpoint, it was inevitable. God loved His creation; God saved His creation by entering it, suffering for it, and overcoming its worst plagues. We may not be able to fully make sense of it; we will never deserve it; yet we can constantly praise God for it. God became flesh; God can understand our difficulties because He experienced them. He overcame them. In Jesus we understand who God is and who we are supposed to be. Let us follow after the God who became flesh and dwelt among us and obtain victory through Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Beginnings

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1).

Beginnings are extremely important: they set the tone and the scene for everything that follows. Is it foreboding? Is it optimistic? What is going on? How will things proceed?

If such is true for the beginning of common stories, how much more significant is the beginning of the story of stories, and, for that matter, the beginning of all beginnings! Even though we humans were not there nor could be there when everything began, how we understand our origins has a profound influence on how we view ourselves and our relationship with our surroundings. Little wonder, then, that every culture has told some sort of story about how everything began. It allows them to understand who they are in the context of their environment.

So many of these stories tell as much about the story-tellers as it does about possible origins. Some, like the Egyptians, understand creation in terms of copulation. The Babylonian creation story, called the Enuma Elish, sees the earth and skies as created from the corpse of the defeated goddess Tiamat (Chaos), and the blood of her husband Kingu was used to create humans to work the soil and provide food-offerings and thus sustenance for the Babylonian gods.

These and many other stories see the universe in terms of different divine forces in strong competition, bickering, arguing, killing, or, for that matter, copulating or other such activities. In many of these stories the gods seem to need humans, but humans are reduced to divine servitude of the lowest order. When these are the stories that one believes explains who they are and why they are here, what will they make of their lives? How will they feel about the divine or about their fellow man?

The Bible’s story of creation stands in stark contrast to all of this. Sure, there is chaos in the beginning, but there is never an argument or a disputation about the events to follow. The story is told simply: God spoke, and it happened (cf. Genesis 1:2-2:3, Psalm 33:6). There is little sense of mythologizing in this early portrayal: God systematically creates light, the expanse we call Heaven, dry land and seas, vegetation, sun, moon, and stars, fish and birds, and then land animals and humans (Genesis 1:2-31). And then He rests, finished with His acts of creation (Genesis 2:1-3, Hebrews 4:1-11). No fighting; no contest; no copulation. A God with power speaking the world into existence!

And yet man knows where he stands: God created him in His image, and is given dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:26-30). God does not need him, but without God, man is nothing and has nothing. God does not want to reduce man into servile bondage; instead, He created man in order to share in relationship with Him as He shares in relational unity within Himself (Genesis 1:26-27, Acts 17:26-28, John 17:20-23). Since God is love, His act of creation is an act of love (1 John 4:8); He does not force people into relationship with Him, following after His will, but provides every opportunity and invitation for them to do so.

Many have tried to show all of the commonalities of many of the stories of creation, but in many ways the differences could not be greater. The different stories provide completely different views of the nature of divinity, the purpose of mankind, and the relationship between the divine, mankind, and the creation. The Bible’s story tells of a God who has all power and has no need for a power trip; He creates in an orderly fashion with complete sovereignty and always acts in love. As humans we are created in love for love as expressed in relationship, both with God and with one another; we are not caught up in a divine power trip or serve as divine minions to keep the gods fed so they can devote their time to leisure.

The Bible’s story of the beginning emphasizes God’s power and the dignity and integrity inherent within mankind as created in the image of God for relationship with God and one another. Let us be thankful for such a beginning, and let us devote ourselves freely to the God who created us, loved us, and worked diligently to redeem us!

Ethan R. Longhenry

When They Ask

“And it shall come to pass, when ye are come to the land which the LORD will give you, according as he hath promised, that ye shall keep this service. And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, ‘What mean ye by this service?’ that ye shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses.'”
And the people bowed the head and worshipped (Exodus 12:25-27).

After so many years, things were proceeding very quickly.

God had been terrifying the Egyptians with plague after plague. The final plague was about to come upon them; Israel would soon be released. Moses is preparing the people for their imminent departure.

One would think, in such circumstances, that there was enough to deal with for the present. Mobilizing a large group of people for a treacherous journey is a daunting proposition. And yet we see Moses providing legislation regarding the Passover and its expected future observance in the land of Canaan! What is going on?

Moses understands the immense significance and meaning involved in what God is doing for Israel. Yes, God is delivering this specific generation of Israelites out of the land of Egypt, out of bondage, and toward deliverance and the land of promise. But this is the story of God and Israel and the basis of everything that will come later. God is the God of Israel because of His promises to their fathers and because He delivered them from the land of Egypt. God loves Israel, and that love was declared powerfully in that deliverance. God is worthy of all honor, praise, glory, and obedience, because He is the Creator and acted powerfully against the Egyptians in ways no other god ever even claimed to act.

Therefore, the Passover was not merely for this generation of Israelites. The Passover was for every generation of Israelites as a way of continuing the story of Israel and its God. Each successive generation, in turn, would come to an understanding of the God of Israel and the acts of deliverance He wrought for their ancestors. For those Israelites enjoying the blessings of the land of Israel, it was a moment to give thanks and to appreciate what was done to allow them to enjoy the life they lived. For those who found themselves cast out from the land of Israel, the remembrance fostered the cherished hope that God would again act powerfully in their generation for their deliverance as He had so long ago.

The observance is very intentional, designed to be full of meaning. It is the perfect means of communicating a message across the generations: children will participate and will want to know what is going on. God has provided Israel with the most important teachable moment for successive generations: if the children do not understand why they should honor the God of Israel as their God, the time will come when they will have no reason not to turn their backs on Him and to follow after other gods. If they do not understand what makes the God of Israel distinctive and special, worthy of all honor and glory, they will not honor or glorify Him.

That generation of Israelites did not prove to be as far-sighted in their understanding; they would end up dying in the wilderness. The next generation would enter the land of Israel; but of the generation afterward it could be said that they did not know the LORD or the work He had done for Israel (Judges 2:10). Little wonder, then, that we read of all the sinfulness, rebelliousness, and idolatry of that and successive generations in the days of the Judges. Far later, in the times of the later kings of Judah, we are told that they observed the Passover in ways not seen since the days of old (cf. 2 Chronicles 30:1-27, 35:1-19). If the Passover is not being observed, then Israel is not remembering the act of deliverance which God wrought for them. If the Passover is not being observed, then the next generation has no opportunity to ask for understanding as to what it means. If the next generation never has that opportunity, they never learn about who God is and what He has done for Israel. All of a sudden, Israel’s idolatrous and rebellious history makes more sense.

Religious experience in activities that are laden with spiritual meaning are extremely important. They remind us of God’s saving acts of deliverance, His goodness, His power, His love. They are designed to help us to keep a proper perspective, always thankful for what God has done, remembering why we honor God as the Lord of our lives and how all things are to flow from that submission before Him. Yet, just as importantly, such experiences give children the opportunity to learn about God and what is really important. God has provided such teachable moments for us so that we may have opportunity to impart such understanding to our children as we have received from those who have gone on before us. This is not a task to be off-loaded upon someone else; we are given the opportunity to explain to our own children the reason why we believe God is Lord and how He has powerfully acted in order to provide deliverance and salvation for all mankind.

But that conversation can only happen if we are participating in God’s work and participate in those actions invested with spiritual significance. That conversation can only happen when we really believe that God is Lord of our lives and that all things should flow from our submission to Him. Our children can only see the power of God’s saving activity when they see it not just explained but lived as well. If we merely pay lip service to God while serving idols, our children will see it. If we live as if we do not know God and what He has wrought for mankind, then our children will more likely than not continue in that same path. But if we honor God as Lord, our children will likely do the same.

Children’s questions are extremely important; that is how they learn about life and what is really important. Let us take the opportunities we are given not only to explain to the next generation what God has said and done, but why we should even follow God in the first place, recounting His glorious saving acts for mankind!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Calling Jesus “Lord”

“And why call ye me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46).

Americans have an ambivalent relationship with authority figures. Many Americans take the principle of a government “for the people, by the people” to the point of having little respect for the government and its power. Police officers and others who are entrusted with keeping the peace and maintaining law and order are often vilified for doing their jobs. Some people think that since they as taxpayers pay the salaries of such people, they should get a pass. Beyond this, as time has gone on, belief in the authority of parents, authority of educators, and the authority of almost everyone else has diminished.

The consequences of this ambivalent relationship are evident. Resistance to authority is often praised. Judgment on many issues is left to the individual, and we find less and less agreement on what is right and good for the people and the state. Without any coherent moral anchor, whatever sells and whatever tickles the fancy wins the day. The toxic effects on our society and culture are legion.

Nevertheless, we should not deceive ourselves by considering this to be a new problem. When Jesus walked the earth, the Roman Empire flexed its might upon the people, but they certainly were not well-respected in Judea. The religious authorities perhaps garnered more respect, but they remained disconnected from the people. And then there was Jesus, proclaiming in His life and words the message of God. In Luke 6:27-45, He teaches His disciples and others who listen to Him to love everyone, including their enemies; to show mercy, forgiving sins and debts, even if there is no repentance or repayment; to not judge hypocritical judgment in order to profess superiority to others. For a people who prided themselves on their superiority to Gentiles, loving their fellow Jews but despising everyone else, this was a challenging message indeed. It would be very tempting to dismiss the message, or attempt to take the edge off of it, as many have tried to do ever since.

Jesus knows this, and so He challenges His disciples. Simon Peter has already declared once that Jesus is Lord (Luke 5:8); Luke’s audience already knows that Jesus has been declared Lord by the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:31-33, 2:10-11), and the primary declaration of the Apostles and the early church is how Jesus is the true kurios, Lord, not Caesar (cf. Acts 2:36). Since He is demonstrating His Lordship, and evidently many already call Him Lord, how can they call Him Lord but not do what He says?

The question is rhetorical, of course, but we know the answer. One cannot call Jesus Lord and not do the things He says to do; the deeds cancel out the declaration. If Jesus is Lord, we must do what He says, including (or perhaps especially!) those things which we find quite challenging, counter-intuitive, and counter-cultural. If our thoughts, feelings, and actions are not consistent with the thoughts, feelings, and actions of Jesus, then we are really serving someone or something else as lord.

It is not surprising, given our cultural environment, how despite a vast majority of Americans professing Jesus as the Crucified and Risen Lord, far fewer are diligently seeking to put His way to work in their thoughts, feelings, and actions. Too many may call Jesus Lord, but their actions betray their service to another lord that has no real legitimacy. Be not deceived: even if we may feel ambivalence to the idea of authority figures exerting real control in our lives, they certainly exist. Even if we rarely see the hand of earthly authority in our lives, our spiritual lives are enmeshed in the struggle between the powers of darkness and the power of Light (Ephesians 6:10-18). Everyone serves some form of power: the only question is whether we are serving Jesus as Lord or whether our lord is a false idol leading to perdition (Romans 6:16-23). If we think we are following our own way, remaining independently minded, we deceive ourselves, for our “own, independent” way of thinking is really dependent on society, culture, upbringing, and such like. Too many are falling for this devilish deception!

We must declare that Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9-10). Yet that declaration is meaningless if we are not acting like it. We know that many will be condemned on the final day despite their profession that Jesus is Lord, and even despite the commission of many spiritual deeds, and all because they did not do the will of the Father (Matthew 7:21-23). As we go through our lives, let us keep Jesus’ question in mind. Why do we call Him Lord if we do not do what He says? Let us establish Jesus as the Lord of our lives, and submit our thoughts, feelings, and actions to Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Enemies in the House

For the son dishonoreth the father, the daughter riseth up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies are the men of his own house (Micah 7:6).

We have the proverb in our society, “blood is thicker than water.” It speaks to the importance that most people place upon their family: for many people, no matter what the challenge might be, they will do all they can to support and assist their family members. Throughout time, in most cultures, the family has been the basic social unit.

That is what makes Micah’s declarations in Micah 7:1-6 so disturbing. He describes a society completely in disarray with no real hope for continuation. All the upright are gone; it seems that everyone is out to hunt one another (Micah 7:2). Princes and judges conspire to perpetuate oppression and evil; everyone is deeply in sin (Micah 7:3-4). Social cohesion has been lost: people cannot trust each other, not even a husband his wife (Micah 7:5). And what is the ultimate expression of this decrepit society? Sons dishonor fathers. Daughters rise up against their mothers, as well as daughters-in-law against their mother-in-law. A man’s enemies are not necessarily outside the gate or in town; they are underneath his roof (Micah 7:6)! What better image could Micah have provided to explain the depravity of Israel in his day?

The end was not long in coming for the Kingdom of Israel; within a generation or two of Micah’s declaration, Israel was no more. The Kingdom of Judah would continue for another 135 years but would meet a similar fate. God’s sentence was just.

Micah’s words, however, were not just appropriate for Israel in his own day. 750 years or so later, Jesus of Nazareth would speak of that generation of Israelites that remained in the land in similar terms. But this time He says that He is the agent of this event– He will be the reason why there would be such severe disturbance within the family unit (Matthew 10:35-36, Luke 12:51-53)!

Wait a second– if Jesus is good and holy, how can it be that He will be the cause of discord and strife? This is why it is good to understand the text He is quoting from Micah. Micah portrays a society in disarray, not drawing near to God, but remaining separate from Him. The society in Micah’s day persecuted the godly and upright in their midst. Everyone joined together in doing evil; they had little use for the good. As it was in Micah’s day, so Jesus is indicating that it is the same in His own day. The people of Jesus’ day could not tolerate the truly godly and the upright any better than the people of Micah’s day. The people of Israel in both Micah’s and Jesus’ day were bent on seeking their own will, to advance their cause as they wanted it advanced, and sought to justify it religiously.

Therefore, it is the very introduction of godliness and uprightness in the life of the first century believer that often would lead to friction within families. There are many testimonies of this from early Christians in the first few centuries after Christ: children bringing charges against their parents, and vice versa, for being Christians; pagan husbands doing all they could to hinder their wives from serving the Lord; and, as well attested in the New Testament, unbelieving Jews bringing fellow Jews who did believe in Jesus before the Jewish or Gentile authorities for punishment.

Have things changed a whole lot over the past two thousand years? For some whose family members are mostly believers, such a picture seems so dark and bleak. But for those who have many family members who do not believe, what Jesus presents is all too real. Today, as before, people want to seek their own will and advance their own causes and justify them religiously. Today, as before, if a family member begins to follow the Lord Jesus, and that light begins to expose the darkness in other family members, conflict will likely ensue. It may come from obvious examples of worldly people; sadly, it often comes from people who profess Jesus but do not act like it. To serve Jesus demands radical changes and a new emphasis in one’s identity; such “extremism” disturbs others.

There are many things in Micah’s portrayal of Israel in his own day in Micah 7:1-6 that resonate in our day as well. Seeking one’s own interest at the expense of others to the point of betraying one’s own family members is not new and not always rare. In a world that would rather justify ungodliness than godliness, and bent ways more than upright ways, anyone who seeks to follow the godly and upright path will be challenging everyone else around them, especially family members. It will be a bitter pill for many to swallow. But we have the encouragement of the message of the prophet and Jesus that this is to be expected. Yes, we might live in an ungodly world. But regardless of what others do, may we be able to say with Micah:

But as for me, I will look unto the LORD; I will wait for the God of my salvation: my God will hear me (Micah 7:7).

Ethan R. Longhenry

To Will and to Work

So then, my beloved, even as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who worketh in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).

There are certain passages of Scripture that seem to juxtapose contradictory principles. In many ways, such passages are the most illuminating for us: they indicate how we put things together.

Paul’s statements in Philippians 2:12-13 certainly fit the bill. He first tells the believers to work out their own salvation; he then tells them that it is God who works in them to will and to work. Little wonder, then, that these verses are used in the battleground regarding God’s work and man’s work.

Many seek to emphasize the first statement: believers are to obey, and this involves working out their own salvation with fear and trembling. They then conclude that it is up to man to follow God’s will, to work out their salvation themselves. Yes, God works in Philippians 2:13, but it is easy for such people to minimize the second statement while emphasizing the first statement.

Others seek to emphasize the second statement: sure, Paul talks about believers working and obeying, but see the conclusion? They work out their salvation with fear and trembling because it is really God who is working in them. They then conclude that God is the only actor involved. Yes, humans should probably follow God, but it is easy for such people to minimize the first statement while emphasizing the second statement.

Believers are to obey, working out their own salvation, but it is God who works in them to will and to work. As we can see, such a statement easily causes fits. Everyone tries to explain it within their system. But Paul is not necessarily working in any such system. He is not confused; he is not suffering from some kind of split personality issue. He knows very well what he is saying. We do well to step back patiently and try to make sense of both statements in harmony, not in opposition.

These verses flow from what Paul has said throughout the chapter. He begins with the exhortation to love, peace, humility, and joint participation among believers (Philippians 2:1-4). The believers are to have the mind of Christ Jesus, who greatly humbled Himself and God glorified Him and highly exalted Him (Philippians 2:5-11). It is because of these things that believers are to obey Jesus, working out their own salvation (Philippians 2:12). This is because it is God working in them to will and to work (Philippians 2:13).

The challenge with this passage is really not with God, Paul, or the passage itself. The challenge is with us. Paul sees no contradiction between believers working and God working. Paul does not think that believers obeying the risen Christ in any way violates God’s sovereignty, nor does it somehow cheapen His grace– it is entirely possible only through God’s grace. Likewise, Paul does not envision God’s working in the believer as compromising the believer’s free moral agency.

How does this work? The order presented in this passage is important. The believer must obey, seeking to “work out” his or her salvation. This obedience is based in trust and rooted in God’s grace, for the believer understands that their standing only exists because of what God has done through Christ (Romans 5:6-11, Ephesians 2:1-10). But what does this obedience look like? How does one “work out” one’s salvation? By unaided moral striving? That did not work before we believed; it will not work now. To obey is to submit to the Lordship of Christ– we are to submit before God. Whatever power we can muster we use to direct our will toward God’s will (cf. Matthew 7:21-23); we must beg God in prayer to give us the strength, power, and grace to be aligned with His will (cf. Ephesians 3:20-21, Philippians 4:13). We must submit as servants for the Lord, no longer seeking our paths, but seeking to live for Him in Him (Galatians 2:20).

Therefore, to obey and to “work out” that salvation, the believer must submit completely and without reservation to God (cf. Romans 12:1). Then God will work in the believer to will and work for His good pleasure. God is not then violating the believer’s free will; instead, He actually accomplishes the will of the believer in a way that the believer could never do through his own unaided effort. All of us fall short; when we directed our own lives, it did not go very well (Romans 3:23, Titus 3:3-8). God is able and willing to provide the strength for us to endure (Ephesians 6:10-18), but we have to want that strength and pray for that strength. It will not be forced upon us. That is not how love works.

Are believers to work? Yes. Is God at work? Yes. We should be seeking to align our will with God’s will, and to allow God to use us as He sees fit for His purposes. Does that mean that we become passive agents? No; God works in mysterious ways, and we are going to have to expend effort if we are going to advance His purposes for His pleasure. Consider all the men of faith in Scripture and all the energies they expended in faith; yet would any of us deny that God worked in them and through them for His good pleasure? So it must be with us.

Let us not be fooled into going to extremes and causing contradiction where none exists. Let us not seek to vaunt our own responsibilities nor seek to abdicate them; instead, let us learn humility and to submit to God and His direction, through His prompting in Scripture and throughout our lives, praying that He may work in us to will and work for His good pleasure for His glory for all time!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Revolution

And when [the Thessalonian Jews] found [Paul and Silas] not, they dragged Jason and certain brethren before the rulers of the city, crying, “These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also; whom Jason hath received: and these all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7).

In the late eighteenth century, a small band of American colonists envisioned a revolutionary way of maintaining government– a nation without monarchy or aristocracy, administered by its citizens for its citizens. It seemed like foolish talk to a world full of kings and aristocrats, but with sufficient determination and a little bit of help from the enemies of their enemies, these colonists defeated their overlords and set the American experiment in motion. The model of that revolution would spread, first to France about a decade later, and then throughout the world over the next two hundred years. Now the constitutional republic of America is held up as an ideal for which other nations aspire. It was a revolution that started small but took over the world.

Around two thousand years ago, a small band of Jews traveled throughout the Roman Empire advancing a revolutionary way of thinking and living. They proclaimed that a Palestinian Jew executed for treason by the Roman procurator in the days of Tiberius Caesar was really king, because God had raised Him from the dead and had declared Him Lord with power. Since God had acted powerfully through this Man, named Jesus of Nazareth, all people, whether Jew or Greek, were to change their ways, no longer following in the paths of their ancestors, but should become more like this Jesus, humbling themselves and serving others. They dared to declare that God had torn down the walls that divide men from each other, and that regardless of ethnicity, race, language, social status, every man and woman were equally precious in the sight of the One True God their Creator, and they could all be one through Jesus. The people did not really need to fear Caesar anymore– sure, they needed to be good citizens, paying taxes and honoring Caesar, but they did not need to worship his Genius. If Caesar had them killed, they would die witnessing that Jesus was really king, and that they would live again. Death had lost its sting; the tyrant had lost his most effective tool for coercion. Little wonder, then, that the Thessalonians declared that these men were turning the world upside down!

The Jesus revolution was not like any other. It was less about political oppression or national aspiration and much more about the greater conflict between the spiritual forces of good and evil (cf. Ephesians 6:10-18). The Jesus revolution was about freedom from the bondage of sin and death so as to obtain life (cf. Romans 6:16-23, 8:1-8). A lot of revolutions lead to societal chaos or rampant immorality; this revolution led to greater love, mercy, and the practice of righteousness. It baffled the authorities of the day, for they perceived that the declaration that Jesus Christ was God and Lord was at least partially subversive, but the Christians did not act like political subversives.

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations (Pliny the Younger, Proconsul of Bithynia, to the Emperor Trajan, ca. 111-113; Letters 10.96-97).

This strange revolution spread; within three hundred years, it would consume the entire Roman Empire.

The call for the Jesus revolution would be diluted over time by tradition, compromise with worldly authorities, and particularly the lack of true zeal and devotion by its adherents for its core principles. It is true that the Jesus revolution did change attitudes regarding many practices; it is impossible to separate the developments of Western civilization from the principles of Christianity.

Nevertheless, the same message that turned the first century world upside down has the capability of turning the twenty-first century world upside down. It is time again for all men to hear the revolutionary message that Jesus is Lord. If Jesus is Lord, the spiritual powers of darkness and the political regimes of today are not. If Jesus is Lord, the message must go out about repentance and turning from the futility of the traditions inherited from our ancestors, and our need to pursue the image of Christ the Son with all devotion and zeal. The revolutionary Jesus message will have no power if it does not lead to a complete change in the way that we think, feel, believe, and act. Yet when we begin to think like Jesus, have the attitude of Jesus, and show love, mercy, and compassion like Jesus, people will take notice. That is how the revolution can spread, and again take the world by storm!

The Jesus revolution is not like any other. It demands the reformation of the heart, soul, and mind. Yet it is the only revolution that can truly change the world. Let us promote the revolutionary message that Jesus is Lord, serve Jesus as Lord, and obtain the glory of the servants of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry