Wonderfully Made

I will give thanks unto thee / for I am fearfully and wonderfully made
Wonderful are thy works / and that my soul knoweth right well (Psalm 139:14).

If we step back and think about it, mankind represents a powerful and amazing manifestation of God’s creative genius.

In Psalm 139 David meditates on how God knows him. YHWH has thoroughly searched and known him; He knows the thoughts and the ways in which David walks, and this knowledge is far beyond David’s ability to understand (Psalm 139:1-6). David could not hide from God: God is in heaven, Sheol, the deepest part of the sea, or even the darkness, God is there and sustains him, for God sees whether it is light or dark (Psalm 139:7-12). David confessed how God formed him in his mother’s womb and knew of his ways before they took place (Psalm 139:13-16); in the midst of this observation David exclaimed how he would give thanks to God because of how he was fearfully and wonderfully made, and because of this testified to the wonderful nature of God’s works (Psalm 139:14). David would continue by praising God’s thoughts, how God would judge the wicked, considering YHWH’s enemies as his enemies and asking for them to depart from him, and opening himself up to searching by God so God would lead him in the right and good way (Psalm 139:17-24).

Psalm 139 does set forth God’s formation of a human being in the womb; David does not believe that a human being only becomes as much after birth (Psalm 139:13-16). Yet such meditations about babies in the womb are just one part of David’s greater purpose in praising God for His continual sustenance, care, and direction. In Psalm 139:14 David glorified God for the wonderfully amazing nature of mankind His creation; and yet Psalm 139 on the whole is not about mankind, or even about David, as much as it is about God’s great understanding and perception. God sees all things; we cannot hide from God. We cannot imagine that our thoughts are hidden from Him; He knows all things, and all will be laid bare and we will have to give an account (Acts 17:30-31). God is always watching, but not as a tyrant or as “Big Brother”; God knows, sees, and watches for our care and our benefit. If we associate with God in Christ we have every confidence that God has known our life and plan from beginning to end and will sustain us and see us through as long as we subject ourselves to His examination so as to depart from the ways of wickedness and follow in His right way.

And yet we do well to stop for a moment to consider how fearfully and wonderfully made we are. We inhabit a universe with many constants fine-tuned to allow for the presence of life. We live on a planet in the habitable zone of the solar system with sufficient elements to facilitate life. While many creatures on earth may have certain characteristics which prove superior to what may be found in mankind, no creature measures up to homo sapiens. No one has quite the dexterity and brainpower; coordination and language; the ability to reason and to find much more out of life than just the bare necessities of living. We walk on two legs; can run and jump; and also paint, sculpt, and design. God has made us with all of these skills; indeed, only in mankind do we find the testimony of God’s divinity in the creation (Genesis 1:26-27, Romans 1:18-20). Mankind is made in God’s image, the Three in One and One in Three, able to reason, meditate upon the nature of existence itself, appreciate aesthetics of beauty, uphold truth, and above all things seeks after relational unity with his God and with his fellow man. We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made; we do well to praise God for His wonderful works.

Far too many people anymore deny the truths of Psalm 139:14. Yes, indeed, many deny that God is their Creator; yet far too many others deny that man is fearfully and wonderfully made, and think very little of the value of people. A lot of people find it much easier to love “humanity” than individual human beings. We hear so often that people go to “find God” in the wilderness, as if a place out in nature without any human beings around is the ultimate sanctuary. In such a view people are the biggest problem in the world, and everything would be better off without them.

God’s divine power is manifest in nature (Romans 1:18-20); we can certainly understand the benefit of a place of solitude, meditation, and reflection, which are often difficult to find in the presence of other people (e.g. Matthew 14:13). But God is not present “more” in nature than He is among people. You will search in vain to find the image of God in nature; you only find the image of God in your fellow human beings. If the world is better off without human beings, not only would that include you and me, but it also would mean that God made the most colossal blunder imaginable in creating mankind as a steward of the creation!

What if God felt that way about mankind? We would be utterly lost without hope! Thanks be to God that He loved and cared for mankind enough to continue to provide for and sustain them, as David professes throughout Psalm 139. Thanks be to God that He sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins so we could maintain hope in the resurrection (John 3:16). Thanks be to God that He proved less willing to give up on humanity than we do!

People are often difficult; they are sinners, corrupted by evil, and cause untold suffering, misery, and even environmental degradation (Hosea 4:1-4, Romans 3:23, Titus 3:3-4). In truth, so am I and so are you. There is a lot of ugliness in our own lives we would rather not acknowledge. We are who we are but by the grace of God; so it is with our fellow man.

Therefore, despite the difficulties of sin and evil, we do well to praise God for He has made us in such a fearful and wonderful way. We do well to see the image of God in our fellow man despite all of his sins, weaknesses, and shortcomings, for so God has elected to see us. We do well to recognize that God’s presence is as much among people as it is in nature or other such places, and to seek the image of God not in plants and majestic scenes but among people made in His image, even if they are grubby and dirty and laden with problems. May we uphold the dignity of humanity as made in God’s image, and in the name of Jesus treat each other accordingly!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Seeking Shalom in Exile

And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray unto YHWH for it; for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace (Jeremiah 29:7).

What had possessed Jeremiah to say such things?

Judah and Judahites were rife with unfounded hopes in the days of Zedekiah king of Judah. They held out hope that somehow a rebellion against Babylon would prove successful; somehow YHWH would deliver them from the hand of Nebuchadnezzar and restore all the persons and possessions which Nebuchadnezzar had taken with him to Babylon (2 Kings 24:11-16, Jeremiah 28:1-5). Some “prophets” among those who had been exiled encouraged those in Babylon to maintain similar hopes (Jeremiah 29:8-9, 15-23).

Jeremiah had received the word of YHWH; he knew better. The end of Judah would come soon; the exile would not last a few months but until after the seventy years of Babylon had been accomplished (Jeremiah 29:10). The exiles were being set up for distress on top of distress, hindering them from establishing some sort of life while in exile. Therefore YHWH directed Jeremiah to send a letter to those exiles, the substance of which is seen in Jeremiah 29:4-23. YHWH encouraged His people in Babylon to perpetuate life: build houses, plant gardens, get married, and have children (Jeremiah 29:5-6). They were to seek the shalom of the city in which they have been exiled, praying to YHWH on its behalf, for in its shalom these exiles will find shalom (Jeremiah 29:7). The letter would go on to explain its purpose, to warn against listening to the false prophets, and to set forth the promise that YHWH would restore them to their land and would do good to them, but only after the years of Babylon had been completed; the doom of the false prophets was also foretold (Jeremiah 29:8-23).

Jeremiah, therefore, wrote so as to provide the exiles with a bit of divine context in order to understand their situation. At the time it was less than appreciated (Jeremiah 29:24-32); after the events of 586 BCE it would prove to be the sustaining lifeline of Judah in exile. YHWH would restore them to their ancestral homeland; YHWH would not abandon them in Babylon. Yet, for the time being, they must be nourished and sustained within Babylon.

Ferdinand Olivier 001

While Israel knew they could not sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land, they could at least make a living in Babylon and prepare their descendants to maintain confidence in YHWH, to prove loyal to His covenant with them and their fathers, and to prepare to return to the land when that day would come (Jeremiah 29:5-6). But the shalom of the city? shalom is the word used three times in Jeremiah 29:7. It is translated as “peace” in the American Standard Version (ASV; also in KJV, NKJV), which is its standard definition. shalom, however, goes beyond the idea of peace as the absence of conflict, representing wholeness and blessing as well; such is why the term is also frequently translated as welfare (so ESV, NASB, RSV, NRSV) or prosperity (so HCSB, NIV). Thus YHWH intended for the exiled Judahites to pray for the city of their sojourning for its overall benefit: an absence of conflict, absolutely, but also its welfare or prosperity, so that all would go well for all of them.

Such is why Jeremiah’s letter would seem so scandalous to the exiles. To seek the shalom of Babylon? shalom for the place and the people who had led Judah captive, who tore down the Temple of YHWH, and who had overpowered the people of God? How could they seek such a thing?

Yet Jeremiah pointed out that the shalom of the city would lead to their own shalom. The Judahites, after all, had just experienced 30 years of significant instability; Judah had seen invasions by Egypt and Babylon, many deportations and plundering, and all of that was before the final convulsive end of the Kingdom of Judah, in which the number exiled most likely paled in comparison to the number who suffered and died from war, plague, famine, and lawlessness (cf. Ezekiel 5:1-17). They needed some shalom. YHWH would provide some shalom for Babylon, not because Babylon deserved it, but on account of His people who now dwelt there. YHWH would bless it for their sake. The people of Judah had no need to fear; the condemnation of Babylon had already been decreed (Jeremiah 29:10, 50:1-51:64). Yet it would happen in stages, and its ultimate end would come without harm to the Israelites who still dwelt in Mesopotamia. YHWH judged His people in His anger, but He never stopped loving or caring for them.

Over six hundred years later Peter would write to the chosen “exiles” of his day, the Christians of modern-day Turkey (1 Peter 1:1, 2:9-10). He encouraged them to abstain from the lusts of the flesh, to maintain righteous conduct among the “natives,” to remain subject to the “native” rulers, for husbands and wives to dwell with each other in appropriate and God-honoring ways, and to seek the good of the “natives” in their midst, even if they are reviled in return (1 Peter 2:11-3:18).

Therefore, while Jeremiah did not write his letter to Christians today, we can learn much from his recommendations for Judah in exile, since we are to understand ourselves as exiles of the Kingdom of Heaven in a modern-day Babylon. We may live in the midst of the people who have or would oppress and persecute us for our confidence in the Lord Jesus. We may wonder how we can sing the songs of Zion in such a foreign land, or how we could “get settled” in such a place.

We do well if we carry on our lives while in exile, to work, marry, and raise up children to know the story of the people of God and to perpetuate it (cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:1-15). We do well to seek the shalom of the city in which we reside, to pray to God in Christ for it, so that in its shalom we may have shalom (1 Timothy 2:1-3). Such does not mean God’s judgment will not come against it; the “time of Babylon” will meet its end, and so will that city and its nation-state. Yet we, as sojourners and exiles, know that when those seventy years of life in “Babylon” have come to an end, we will obtain the victory of God in Christ, and will rise triumphantly on the day of resurrection.

The Christian’s hope, therefore, is not in the salvation of the nation-state in which he or she lives. Such a state will fall; its end is decreed; we are to reckon ourselves as sojourners and exiles, citizens of the Kingdom of God, waiting for our ultimate restoration in the resurrection (Philippians 3:20-21, 1 Peter 1:1, 2:11). Yet the Christian is to live in that city, work in that city, and pray for its shalom: we cannot imagine that we can simply escape the problems of the city in which we live, but must do good to all of its inhabitants, and pray on its behalf, both for its peace and for the salvation of its inhabitants (1 Timothy 2:1-4, 1 Peter 3:14-18).

If the Judahites exiled to Babylon could find shalom through YHWH there, we can find shalom in the place where we sojourn. The place in which we sojourn should never feel exactly like home; nevertheless, we must seek its shalom as we await the resurrection of life and a permanent home in the presence of God. May we strive to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God in Christ in the midst of this world, doing good to all, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of YHWH!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Is Christ Divided?

Now this I mean, that each one of you saith, “I am of Paul”; and “I of Apollos”; and “I of Cephas”; and “I of Christ”.
Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized into the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:12-13).

If things got much worse in Corinth there might well have been the Pauline Church, the Apollonic Church, the Petrine Church, and the church of Christ, as opposed to just the singular “Church of God” (1 Corinthians 1:2).

Even though many issues were problematic in Corinth Paul begins with what he had heard from Chloe’s people: the Corinthians were contending amongst themselves and lines were being drawn around various people: Paul, Apollos, Cephas/Peter, and Christ (1 Corinthians 1:11-12). Paul will address this issue in various ways from 1 Corinthians 1:10 until 1 Corinthians 4:21, attempting to emphasize that God is the one who deserves all the glory, that such divisiveness exposes a carnal/fleshly mentality incompatible with the spiritual wisdom of Christ in the Gospel; these growing divisions indicate jealousy and strife, works of the flesh, walking after the manner of men, and not after Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:1-4). The church is God’s building, God’s temple; it is not for man to divide, but, as Paul says, for all to speak the same thing in subjection to Christ (1 Corinthians 1:10, 3:9).

The New Testament is full of warnings about what would happen in the future with many false teachers attempting to lead Christians astray (e.g. Acts 20:18-35, 1 Timothy 4:1-3); while such false teachers existed even in New Testament times, by the end of the first century local churches still maintained the pattern of organization they received from the Apostles and recognized each other as fellow churches seeking to glorify the Lord and hold firm to the faith as delivered by the Apostles (Jude 1:3, Revelation 2:1-3:21). Churches in different towns were not different denominations but local congregation of the Lord’s people in different areas. Nevertheless, we do see the principle of denominationalism strongly condemned here in 1 Corinthians 1:10-13. Paul did not want to see Christians drawing lines against each other on the basis of their favorite preacher; if there were a “Pauline Church” and a “Petrine Church” in Corinth it would be a failure of God’s purposes for unity, not merely in pretense, but in substance: to have the same mind and same judgment (1 Corinthians 1:11). There may not be the “Pauline Church” and the “Petrine Church,” but there are the Lutheran Churches, Mennonite Churches, and the Wesleyan Churches, named after the men whose preaching or teaching influenced those who would follow them. Other churches are denominated by their pretense toward universalism or correctness (Catholicism, Orthodoxy), by church polity (Presbyterians, Congregationalists), or by geographical origins (Anglicans). While many such groups have come to understand the need for unity based in John 17:20-23 none have yet proven willing to uphold Paul’s standard in 1 Corinthians 1:10 to not be divided by party or names of past preachers but instead to be of the same mind and judgment, to be part of the Temple of God, His one church, where Christians work together according to the truth of the Gospel to advance His purposes. In the end, if Paul chastised the Corinthians for their jealousy and strife manifest in following particular preachers, how can such practices and denominations be justified today?

Such “cults of personality”, jealousy, and strife are not limited to “those denominations.” Many more are recognizing that the divided heritage of Christendom is an embarrassment to Christ and the faith, the opposite of the unification of mankind in His blood as was God’s eternal plan (John 17:20-23, Ephesians 2:1-18, 3:10-11). Yet even then many will follow a particular preacher. Among churches of Christ many have spoken strongly against denominationalism and for unity in the Lord’s church in the truth yet delineated themselves along the lines of various publications or movements or trends. In the end “I follow this paper” or “I follow this school” is no better than “I follow Peter” or “I follow Luther”; they are all evidence of division and strife in the church which ought not be!

It is interesting, however, that Paul includes among the various “divisions” or “sects” those who say “I follow Christ.” Some have speculated that these last people were the ones who truly understood God’s purposes, yet the text provides no such indication. Paul identifies these four as the various “sects” developing in Corinth (Paul, Apollos, Cephas, Christ), and then immediately asks, “is Christ divided” (1 Corinthians 1:12-13a)?

One can imagine what those of the “Christ-sect” were thinking as the letter was read aloud. They, after all, could give all the “right” answers. “Was Paul crucified for you” (1 Corinthians 1:13)? No, of course not; neither were Cephas or Apollos. But Christ was (1 Corinthians 1:23). “Were ye baptized into the name of Paul” (1 Corinthians 1:13)? No, nor into Cephas or Apollos, but they were all baptized into Christ (1 Corinthians 1:14-15, Galatians 3:27). So the “Christ-sect” had all the right answers. So how could they be condemned?

The problem is not their answers; the problem is not really in being “of Christ.” The problem is the jealousy, strife, and contention for which Paul chastises all the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1:11, 3:1-4). The sectarian mindset and attitude is the problem: you can have the “right name” and the “right answers” but maintain the wrong attitude.

This is an important warning for members of churches of Christ. We do well to seek to be of the same mind and the same judgment, one in the faith in the truth as Paul exhorts in 1 Corinthians 1:10. Yet the danger of denominating remains ever present, to consider oneself “Church of Christ” as another considers himself a “Baptist” or another a “Lutheran.” If, in the end, the Restoration Movement simply created new denominations, then its energizing spirit has failed and proved a lie. If the Restoration Movement has merely spawned some new denominations it proves little better than that against which it arose.

At its best the Restoration Movement emphasized both unity and truth. Truth without unity is sectarianism headed toward Pharisaism and even Gnosticism, the “enlightened” clearly superior to the “ignorant” masses. Unity without truth is what we can find in the modern ecumenical movement, an attempt to declare victory in failure, seeking to affirm all they agree upon while dismissing the very real remaining divisions as irrelevant, and the goal of 1 Corinthians 1:10 as stated to be a pipe dream. Meanwhile Jesus is the truth and has prayed for unity among those in the truth (John 14:6, 17:20-23). Christians do well to call themselves Christians or believers and to speak of churches in ways seen in the New Testament, honoring God in Christ and not named after men or church polity. Christians do well to follow God according to the New Testament and not the creeds and cults of personality of men as Paul well describes in 1 Corinthians 1:10-4:21. Yet it must always be remembered that sectarianism is a work of the flesh; all division is the result of jealousy and strife, and for good reason all three are reckoned as works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21). When such things take place it hardly matters who is “right” and who is “wrong” doctrinally; the division is wrong, the sectarianism is wrong, and we must do all we can to encourage all who believe in Christ to fully reflect the unity He desires, not merely in pretense, but in truth, having the same mind and judgment, one in Christ. Let us be one as God is one and thus testify to His great power!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Worthy of the Gospel

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ: that, whether I come and see you or be absent, I may hear of your state, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one soul striving for the faith of the gospel (Philippians 1:27).

In our sound-bite saturated world full of sloganeering and the expectation of reducing any worthwhile message to 140 characters or less, you could explain what it means to follow the Lord Jesus in worse ways than “living worthily of the Gospel.”

Paul is imprisoned in Rome somewhere around 59-61 CE (Philippians 1:12-13, 4:22); he writes to the church in Philippi which he had helped begin around a decade earlier (ca. 49-50 CE; Acts 16:11-40). The Philippian church was a source of support and strength for Paul; they provided for his needs many times, he has little need to rebuke them, and generally spends the time in his letter to them encouraging them to persevere and abound in what they are already doing (Philippians 1:3-11, 4:14-20). Having given thanks for their faith and association in the Gospel, speaking of his current situation, and considering his future (Philippians 1:1-26), he provides an important and definitive exhortation in Philippians 1:27: to live as worthy of the Gospel of Christ, to stand firm in one spirit, striving together for the faith of the Gospel with one mind.

Paul uses very specific language in this verse. To “live” is in Greek politeuesthe, literally, to be a citizen or behave as a citizen would, thus, to live in accordance with the polity; therefore, to “live worthily of the Gospel” is really to conduct oneself according to the constitution of the Kingdom of God, following Jesus’ commands, pursuing the Kingdom life God intends under the reign of His Son (1 John 2:3-6). This term would resonate for the Philippians who lived in a Roman colony; they would have seen quite clearly what was expected of Roman citizenry, but here are encouraged to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God. “Striving together” for the faith of the Gospel is the Greek sunathlountes, literally, wrestling, competing, contending at the same time alongside/with another; he uses the same term to describe how Euodia, Syntyche, Clement, and others “labored with” him in Philippians 4:3. This “striving with” evokes teammates working together to win at a sport; so with the “conflict” or “contest” in Philippians 1:30, the same term used in Hebrews 12:1, but also as in fighting the good fight of faith in 1 Timothy 6:12, 2 Timothy 4:7, perhaps showing that a military understanding of comrades fighting together would not be entirely inappropriate for this passage.

Thus Paul exhorts the Christians of Philippi to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God in Christ, in a way worthy of the Gospel. A life worthy of the Gospel is, by definition, worthy of the good news proclaimed regarding Jesus of Nazareth, His birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and the hope of His return (Matthew 1:1-25, Acts 2:14-36, Acts 17:30-31, 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, etc.). A life worthy of the Gospel is consistent with the life of Jesus, manifesting the fruit of the Spirit, having turned aside from the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:17-24, 1 Peter 2:18-25). As the Lord Jesus came not to be served but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many, who humbled Himself by taking on the form of a servant, and proved willing to suffer for the sake of others and to overcome evil (Matthew 20:25-28, Philippians 2:5-11, 1 Peter 2:18-25), so it must be with those who would live according to His life and reign in His Kingdom. The good citizen of the Kingdom of God in Christ will not conduct him or herself as citizens of the Rome would; they are about love, patience, humility, service, consideration of the needs of others, holiness, righteousness, and joint participation in Christ with the fellow people of God; so much of this will be utterly foreign to citizens of Rome or otherwise of this world who lived and continue to live for more selfish and carnal purposes!

It remains important to stress that Paul did not intend for the Christians of Philippi to live lives worthy of the Gospel individually and independently in a bubble. To live as citizens of the Kingdom of God in Christ in such a way so as to be worthy of the Gospel demands perseverance in one spirit, in one soul striving together for the faith of that Gospel (Philippians 1:27). The Philippians must strive together in light of the trials they have and will no doubt be soon experiencing: they have adversaries, they are or are about to suffer on Christ’s behalf, and are involved in same conflict as Paul himself (Philippians 1:28-30). If Acts 16:16-24 are any indication, the Philippian Christians would be accused of practicing and encouraging the practice of customs not lawful for Romans, and experience imprisonment, beatings, and perhaps even martyrdom. Divided they would fall; only if they remained united would they stand firm and strive together through this trial. It is likely not a coincidence that two of the churches born in the midst of persecution, Philippi and Thessalonica, proved notable for their maturity and strength in Christ, while churches which experienced more prosperity and less external harassment, like Corinth and Laodicea, proved more carnal and immature. The faith will either be fully rejected or become quite precious if your life is endangered by it; solidarity and community with your fellow people of God proves necessary when forsaken by worldly family members, friends, co-workers, and the like.

Despite fear-mongering to the contrary, no such significant danger of persecution is on the horizon for twenty-first century Christians in the Western world. There are some parts of the world where Christians do experience this type of persecution, and we do well to pray for them and to seek to encourage them as we have opportunity (1 Peter 5:9-10). Yet our need to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God in Christ, worthy of the good news of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and promise of return, persevering in one spirit, striving together with one soul for the faith of the Gospel is no less acute. Our world today is full of people who claim certain moral standards without living by them; plenty of people live independently in alienation, quite lonely, yearning for connection, but resolutely going to trudge along in their own path. This has never been the way of the God who is One in relational unity, holy and righteous, loving, gracious, and merciful; if we live as hypocrites with a country club or entertainment venue attitude toward the church and thus the fellow people of God, we prove to be citizens of this world, not worthy of the Gospel of Christ and not reflecting the values of His Kingdom. “Lone rangers” cannot remain so in Christ! No; the only way we will make it through is together, standing firm together, striving together, encouraging and edifying one another. Yes, this demands a high level of doctrinal agreement, but doctrinal agreement alone is not true unity. As Paul continues in Philippians 2:1-4, true unity demands considering the needs of one another as greater than our own, seeking out one another’s needs, demanding love, humility, and service. This unity does not come easily or automatically; it demands great effort and constant vigilance. It will lead to hurt, suffering, pain, and agony; consider, after all, all that Jesus endured from the people of God. Yet it remains the only way forward if we really want to participate as citizens in the Kingdom of God in Christ; it is the only way to live worthily of the good news of Jesus who lived, died, and was raised again to reconcile all things back to God (2 Corinthians 5:18).

As God is One in relational unity, so we will only truly find life in God when we strive to be like Him, conformed to the image of Christ, participating as a citizen of the heavenly Kingdom, living worthily of Christ, one with one another and one with God (John 17:20-23, Romans 8:29, Philippians 1:27). To share in the resurrection of life and to jointly participate in eternal life with the fellow people of God in His presence is, after all, the hope of the Christian in Christ; if we do not share in even a glimpse of that life now, how can we share it in the life to come? We do well, therefore, to seek to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God in Christ, living like Jesus, standing firm and striving together with the people of God, becoming ever closer to God and one another just as God intended, and be prepared to participate in the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Love of the Brethren

Let love of the brethren continue (Hebrews 13:1).

It is always easy to pick on “the brethren” and their problems. For as long as there have been Christians, there have been ways in which Christians have fallen short (Romans 3:23). The letters of the New Testament from Romans through Jude are all written, to some extent or another, on account of the problems of Christians, either rebuking Christians for failures or warning Christians about the dangers that come from false teaching and sin. To this day it does not take long to make a long list of problems we have experienced with “the brethren,” on an individual or “institutional” level. We Christians can always find all sorts of reasons why what “we” think, say, and do sometimes causes problems; “we” can always find difficulties with how “we” operate.

Such critiques clearly have their time and place, as can be seen in the New Testament. Yet we do well to recognize that “the brethren” were never meant to just be a punching bag. Just as the letters of the New Testament from Romans through Jude were written to some extent to deal with the problems of Christians, those same letters were also written to some extent to praise and build up those Christians in what they were doing correctly. While there will always be problems and things “we” are not doing right, we do well to recognize that there is plenty that “we” are doing that is right, and, in fact, reflects the joy, peace, and love which can be found in God in Christ.

The Hebrew author has been quite critical of the Jewish Christians to whom he writes. He is concerned about their spiritual maturity (Hebrews 5:12-6:4); the main argument of the letter presupposes a concern that some would seek to return to the old covenant and no longer persevere in Christ (Hebrews 4:1-9:27). He rebukes them for their inability to recognize God’s discipline and its benefit (Hebrews 12:3-11) as well as their frailness (Hebrews 12:12-16). Yet even here the Hebrew author does not deny the love the Christians have for one another, only insisting that it continue (Hebrews 13:1). He also commends them for their steadfastness in the former days (Hebrews 10:32-36).

The love of the brethren does continue. When Christians find themselves in great need, other Christians are there to assist financially, emotionally, and spiritually. Christians are active in serving other Christians and those in the world around them, be it through volunteering, adoption, hospitality, mentoring, or in other similar ways (Galatians 6:10). Christians remain generous in giving to those in need as well as for the support of those who preach the Gospel in the United States and around the world (1 Corinthians 9:14). Christians young and old yearn to see the Gospel message taken to more people in more places and are willing to support that endeavor any way they can. And Christians still do show hospitality to one another, sharing meals together, opening their homes to each other, and enjoying the conversations and time spent together (1 Peter 4:9).

Are there exceptions to these? Of course. Is everything well? No. But we must remember that we are not alone, that there are other Christians around the world who seek to proclaim the Lord Jesus in their lives (1 Peter 5:9). Christians do seek to apply the life of Jesus to their own lives and appreciate all encouragement, exhortation, and even rebukes given toward that end (2 Timothy 4:1-4). Christians still prove interested in spiritual matters, even among the younger generations. It is imperative that we continue to cultivate these good trends.

There are problems and will always be problems. We cannot avoid those problems nor should we pretend they do not exist. We must call out sin and false teaching (1 Timothy 4:1-4, 2 Timothy 4:1-6); we must warn against conformity to the world (1 John 2:15-17). But it is not all bad and all bleak, and if we maintain such a perspective, we might just make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, we must exhort and rebuke regarding failures, sin, and error, but we must also encourage and appreciate the good, the love, and the faithfulness, and seek to nurture it further. When we do exhort and rebuke, let us do so in love because we want to see our fellow Christians reflecting Christ more accurately so that we no longer have to make such exhortations and rebukes. In all things, let us all continue to love one another and appreciate all endeavors which lead to the glorification of God in Christ!

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

The Peacemakers

“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).

In our sin-sick world, conflict seems to be ever-present. Some nations fight against other nations; plenty more maintain strained, tense, and tenuous relationships with each other. People of different clans, tribes, ethnicities, and other such groups of people nurse disagreements and conflicts with other, similar groups. Within extended families there always seem to be some relatives who cannot stand each other and who perpetually fight or remain at odds with each other. Even within immediate families, husbands, wives, and children have plenty over which to fight and maintain tensions and hostilities. For that matter, there is internal conflict between the spirit and the flesh (Galatians 5:17)!

The reality of conflict is sad enough; the promotion and fostering of conflict is even worse. And yet the sad reality is evident: conflict, tension, and difficulty generates interest, money, and power. If you can make a television show where different people are constantly in conflict with each other, you will have an easier time getting a strong viewership than if everyone in the story is at peace with one another. Politicians tend to get more people to vote for them if they can demonize the opposing candidate as “the other,” focusing on the differences and the negatives rather than the similarities and positives. The stronger the rivalry between different teams, groups of people, and the like, the stronger the passions, and thus the greater the interest. In the world, in almost every arena of life, “dividers” receive interest, power, money, and fame; “uniters” may receive lip service for their work, but will never generate the same interest, power, money, or fame as the “dividers.”

And so Jesus, as He continues to pronounce as blessed, fortunate, or happy those who are not normally recognized as such (or, for that matter, recognized at all), declares peacemakers blessed, for such shall be called “sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).

When considering these Beatitudes, as they are often called, it is easy to gloss over the “rewards” which the fortunate ones will receive. They all seem to be some variant of the saved, members of the Kingdom, or those who will obtain the promises God has provided. Yet the “reward” of being called the “sons of God” has great significance: “sons of God,” in the Old Testament, refers most often to spiritual beings in God’s presence (cf. Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7). Jesus will later reckon those who obtain the resurrection of life as “sons of God” (Luke 20:36); it is for their revelation that the creation eagerly waits in Romans 8:19. “Sons of God” is a description indicating close association with both God the Father and Jesus the Son; to be called a “son of God” would be a great honor indeed.

So why do the peacemakers receive such a blessing? We can understand why through Galatians 3:26, in which Paul declares that all believers who seek to obey Christ are sons of God, through faith, in Jesus Christ. How is it possible that we could be sons of God by trusting in Jesus and through what Jesus accomplished? As Paul makes evident in Ephesians 2:11-18, Jesus allowed all of us to be reconciled both to God and to one another by becoming the ultimate Peacemaker: He killed the hostility between the Jews and the Gentiles by bearing the cross and in so doing eliminating the Law and its trappings that served to divide the Jews from the Gentiles, and brought both together in Him in one body.

Those who make peace, therefore, are as Jesus, seeking to kill hostility and reconcile man back together with God and with one another. One can see Jesus’ entire purpose and mission in terms of this reconciliation (cf. Romans 5:6-11): since God is Three in One and One in Three, maintaining relational unity, anything that serves to divide man from God and one another is accursed, but that which reconciles and restores man in relationship with his God and with one another glorifies God (cf. Isaiah 59:1-2, John 17:20-23, Galatians 5:17-24). Therefore, those who work to make peace between opposing parties reflects God and His will within Himself, for mankind, and with mankind. The great honor of being known as “sons of God” makes perfect sense: to make peace among people is to share in close association with the work of God.

This does not mean that peacemaking is easy; all of us have a tendency toward division, hostility, and tension toward others, and when we see different groups feuding with each other for whatever reason, we have a natural tendency to want to stay out of it and get far away. We also must make sure that we do not confuse peacemaking with meddling or being a busybody. We must also recognize the multitude of forces in the world that work against peace: many such forces unabashedly maintain the face of evil and hostility, perhaps even in almost demonic terms (cf. Ephesians 6:12), but plenty of conflict, tension, and division masquerade with “holy” and “pious” facades. The truth of God must never be compromised (Galatians 1:6-9); yet a significant aspect of God’s truth is His desire to reconcile all men to Himself and to one another (John 17:20-23, Romans 5:6-11), and the promotion and maintenance of strife, divisions, and sects are always inconsistent with God’s revealed truth, remaining works of the flesh (cf. Galatians 5:19-21).

Peacemaking has always been a hard thing to do and a tough path to take; there are always plenty of forces that work against it. But the path of peacemaking is the path of Christ; to reconcile mankind with God and with one another is the essence of God’s purpose in Christ. Let us work to promote and advance peace, ever thankful for Jesus’ peacemaking that allows us to be sons of God, reconciled back with the Father!

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

Keeping Up Appearances

“But all their works they do to be seen of men: for they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the chief place at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and the salutations in the marketplaces, and to be called of men, ‘Rabbi'” (Matthew 23:5-7).

It is one of the most natural desires of mankind: to be valued and appreciated. Most would rather people have a favorable opinion of them than an unfavorable one. Few are those who revel in being unloved, unappreciated, and completely rejected by others!

This impulse is natural for a reason– we were never meant to be alone. Just as God maintains relational unity– One God in Three Persons, one in will, purpose, essence, substance, and mind– we, having been made in His image, seek after relational unity with God and with others (cf. John 17:20-23, Genesis 1:26-27, Acts 17:27). It is nearly impossible to develop healthy relationships when we show complete disinterest in the ways others look at us. Not a few social customs emerged as ways of living so as to be acceptable to one’s fellow man.

Yet, as with all impulses, the desire to be valued and appreciated can be tragically misdirected. This is Jesus’ concern with the Pharisees as expressed in Matthew 23:5-7. They certainly wanted to be valued and appreciated– and made it their goal and obsession. They received what they wanted. But it did not please God.

It was likely that there were a few Pharisees who were sincere in their approach– they really wanted to serve God through their phylacteries, garments, and wanted to be humble. Sadly, such were hardly the majority. We can be confident that the reason that these charges burned was because they rang true in the hearing of the people. Sure, the Pharisees acted religiously. But far too many did so in order to keep up appearances and to gain favor with the people. We can safely reason that if the Pharisees were offered a chance to receive salvation and eternal benefits but would be despised by their fellow Jews on earth, or to be condemned yet receive the glory and accolades of their fellow Jews on earth, most would take the latter route– because most did, according to Matthew 23, Acts 7, and the testimonies throughout Acts. Jesus’ summons to humility and suffering were too much for them to endure.

When confronted with such a passage, it is quite easy to point fingers at the Pharisees. It is also extremely easy to find opponents, religious or otherwise, and point fingers at them. Yet we must remember that Jesus is speaking to fellow members of God’s covenant people to wake them up and exhort them to repentance. As painful as it might be, it is always best to first point the finger at ourselves before we try to point it at others (cf. Matthew 7:1-4)!

How many works do we do in order to be seen of men? It is less an issue of the types of things that we do and more of an issue of the motivations behind what we do. It was not inherently wrong to have broad phylacteries or long bordered garments. For that matter it is not inherently wrong to be honored by one’s fellow man. It is all about why we do what we do– are we doing it to please others? Are we doing it because we are afraid of what others will think about us if we do not?

There are some obvious applications of this. Not a few give themselves titles or “earn” titles and insist on their use. Jesus condemns this attitude (Matthew 23:8-12). It is one thing to be given the seat of honor; it is quite another to constantly seek it out and love it and cherish it. The world does not lack people who have too high of an estimation of themselves, and who are quite sure that others should also. The world is full of monuments of ambition and glory-seeking; some are physical, some are not; some are magnificent in their glory, and far too many others are tragic in their failure. These all will pass away (1 Peter 1:24-26). These glory-seekers may get their reward on earth, but they are headed for quite the disappointment on the final day!

Nevertheless, this conversation can get personal and painful very quickly. It is one thing to talk about glory-seeking actions like we have; it is quite another to start talking about the appearances we keep up among one another. While no one lives an entirely transparent life, most of us could use a little more transparency and authenticity in the way we present ourselves. We feel like we must “keep it all together” on the outside even though things may be falling apart inside. Yet how willing are we to find some fellow Christians with whom we can discuss our difficulties and confess our sins (James 5:16)? What stops us from “going forward” regarding our difficulties? How many soldiers of Christ have fallen, having rarely or never cried out for help for fear of rejection, finding it easier to say nothing and to keep up the appearance of righteousness?

In Jesus we have the example of the authentic life. He served others, always mindful of His connection with the Father (cf. Matthew 20:28). He humbled Himself greatly (Philippians 2:5-8). He received honor at times but was not acting in order to receive the honor. Yet He also honestly grappled with the sufferings He experienced; He did not hide away from them or act like they were not there, but poured out His anguish before God and His disciples (Matthew 26:37-39). There was nothing to hide.

While propriety does demand that some things ought to remain private among people, we cannot delude ourselves into thinking that anything is hidden before God. We must live transparently before Him and authentically toward others, as Jesus did. We must not live seeking self-glory and honor; we may get it, but we do so at the expense of our relationship with God. We must never do anything just to be seen by our fellow man. That certainly includes any number of public religious acts and “rituals,” but let us not fool ourselves– it includes the very manner of our lives as well. We want to be accepted and appreciated, and yet, in Christ, God is willing to accept and appreciate us more deeply than we can ever imagine, but only if we allow ourselves to be satisfied in Him and Him alone (Romans 8:1-39). Let us not be as the Pharisees; let us be willing to endure the shame and dishonor of humility and discipleship, and serve God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry