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

The Feast of Dedication

And it was the feast of the dedication at Jerusalem: it was winter; and Jesus was walking in the temple in Solomon’s porch (John 10:22-23).

Prophecy was being fulfilled, but no one was celebrating.

Daniel had spoken regarding a “king of the north” whose heart would be set against the holy covenant; he would defile the Temple and the fortress, setting up an abomination that makes desolate (Daniel 11:7-45). Around 375 years after Daniel spoke those words to Darius the Mede, Antiochus IV Epiphanes was king of Seleucid Empire. After a military campaign against the Ptolemies of Egypt, he entered Jerusalem and took all of the silver and gold from the Temple. Two years later, he declared that everyone in his empire must maintain the same Hellenistic customs. On the fifteenth day of the Jewish month of Chislev, which falls somewhere between mid-November and mid-December in our calendar, in 167 BCE, they installed a statue of the Olympian Zeus in the Holy of Holies of the Temple in Jerusalem; ten days later, they offered swine flesh upon the altar. Anyone who would continue to practice the Israelite religion and seek to abide by the Law of Moses would be condemned to death.

Such were trying times indeed. As is often the case, the majority just went along with the new rules: some Israelites were already turning into Hellenists, and the severe consequences for following the Law of Moses were enough to give most people pause. Considering the circumstances, it would not be difficult to imagine Israel going the way of every other nation: absorbed into greater Hellenism, setting aside whatever religious distinctives they might have maintained and becoming good pagans like the rest. This was exactly what Antiochus IV Epiphanes wanted, and he was willing to do whatever it took to get it done.

But not all Israelites just went along with it. The king’s officers began to attempt to enforce the edict outside of Jerusalem, and arrived in Modein, a small village about seventeen miles northwest of Jerusalem. A priest named Mattathias and his five sons had moved there from Jerusalem; when called upon to sacrifice to idols, he refused, and killed a Jew who offered sacrifice along with the king’s official. He and his sons fled the town and went into the wilderness; soon, many others who refused to go along with the king’s edict joined them. After Mattathias died in 166, his son Judah, called the Maccabee (“the Hammer”), took command. He began a war which we would today call an insurgency against Antiochus and the Seleucids. By effectively using guerrilla tactics and making wise strategic decisions, he and his small force defeated the Seleucids time and time again. For a time, the Seleucids retreated in order to obtain reinforcements. Judah and his associates took the opportunity to come to Jerusalem.

They found the Temple in disarray. The sanctuary was desolate; the altar was profaned; its gates were burned. Judah commanded men to cleanse the Temple and re-establish the proper altars and instruments. On the twenty-fifth day of Chislev in the year 164 BCE, exactly three years after the Seleucids had defiled the Temple, this small insurgent band of Jews offered sacrifice on the new burnt altar they had installed. The people then celebrated the re-dedication of that altar for eight days, akin to the time of re-dedication of the Temple in the days of Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 29:17).

The re-dedication of the Temple was an important moment, but the war was far from over. There would be many more battles, more than twenty more years of conflict with the Seleucids, and Judah himself would fall in battle. Ultimately, however, the insurgency led by the five sons of Mattathias would defeat the Seleucid Empire, one of the three great powers of the day; Judah’s brothers and their children after them would rule as priest-kings over an independent Israel for about one hundred years, the only independent Israelite state between the days of the kings of Israel and Judah and 1947 CE.

The Israelites would begin to celebrate the re-dedication of the Temple and the events surrounding it as the Festival of Lights, or the Feast of Dedication (in Hebrew, Hanukkah). The events we have described are narrated in 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, and Josephus; the description of Hanukkah is found particularly in 1 Maccabees 4:36-58, 2 Maccabees 1:7-9, 10:1-9, and in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews 12.7.6-7. A later tradition in the Talmud alleges that, during the re-dedication, there was only enough olive oil to light the lamp (Hebrew menorah) for one day, but it miraculously burned for eight days.

While the Feast of Dedication was not explicitly commanded by God and is not found in Scripture, nor could it be, since there was no prophet in the land at that time (cf. 1 Maccabees 4:46), the reasons for observing it are understandable. Judah and those around him ascribed all glory to God; they knew that their insurgency, on its own, had little hope. Daniel foresaw that not all would go along with the king of the north; a remnant would stand firm and take action, being refined and purified through their experience (Daniel 11:32-36). Judah and his people believed that the God of Israel was the One True God, and He loved His people Israel and would provide for them. It most certainly seemed as if He did; they wanted to celebrate the re-dedication of the Temple and to give honor to God in their newly independent country.

Yet not all was well; Mattathias and his sons were Levites, not of Judah or David. Maccabean priest-kings might have ruled in Jerusalem, but the people knew that God had promised a Messiah from the house of David. After 63 BCE, when the Romans took over from the Maccabean rulers, the Israelites hoped all the more diligently for that promised Messiah.

Almost two hundred years after the re-dedication of the Temple, near the very spot where these events took place, Jesus of Nazareth visited Jerusalem during the Feast of Dedication. He was walking in the same Temple, near the very spot where these events took place. Israelites came to Him, wanting to know if He really was the Christ, the Messiah (John 10:24). Will Jesus be for the Israelites of His day what Judah was for a previous generation? Would Jesus stand up against the oppressive pagan power and be the true fulfillment of Israelite expectation, re-establishing the Davidic monarchy from Jerusalem, ruling there forever?

Jesus would not satisfy the expectations of the Israelites, but He was the promised Messiah of Israel. He would not provide liberation from the Romans, but He would provide liberation from sin and death through His death and resurrection (Romans 5:6-11, 8:1-3). He did not re-dedicate the physical Temple in Jerusalem; in fact, He predicted its downfall (Matthew 24:1-36). He did, however, “re-dedicate” the Temple of His body in the resurrection (John 2:18-22). Jesus did not set up a throne in Jerusalem, ruling over the nations of the earth from there, but He did receive all authority in heaven and on earth, and beginning in Jerusalem His Lordship and Kingdom was proclaimed, and the message would spread to all nations throughout all time (Acts 1:8).

Hanukkah may not be one of the feasts mentioned in Leviticus, but it maintained great importance for the Israelites of Jesus’ day. Without the firm stand of the Maccabees, to whom would Jesus have been able to go two hundred years later? The Hanukkah story of oppression, liberation, and dedication to God connects to God’s whole story regarding Israel, and in so doing, connects to Jesus and the Gospel story as well. Let us praise God for the Christ and the Temple of His body, dedicated for all of us for all time!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Proclamation

And there were shepherds in the same country abiding in the field, and keeping watch by night over their flock. And an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people: for there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this is the sign unto you: Ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men in whom he is well pleased” (Luke 2:8-14).

Thanks to generations of traditions, whenever people think about the birth of Jesus and its meaning, various Christmas themes invariably come to mind. We imagine the stereotypical nativity scenes; movies parody the devotion that many have to the “baby Jesus” that often is not communicated toward the Jesus of the rest of the Gospels. Many others seem to disassociate the “Christmas story” from the “Easter story” regarding Jesus.

Yet, as the angel’s proclamation makes clear, one cannot separate out the “baby Jesus” from the Jesus of the rest of the Gospels. One cannot disassociate the story of Jesus’ birth from the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and lordship. From the beginning, the angels declare Jesus’ identity: the son of David, the Savior, the Christ, Lord. This is a message of good tidings of great joy to all the people; a Gospel message, the beginning of the fulfillment of all the promises God has made to Israel through the prophets. Sure, the “baby Jesus” has not yet done any of these things. But the Incarnation of the Christ is complete; it really is the first miracle surrounding Jesus, and it paves the way for everything moving forward.

There is a strong temptation to minimize the birth story of Jesus; it is only in two of the four Gospels, it is associated with the Christmas observance and all sorts of things that do not come from the pages of Scripture, and there does not seem to be much in the way of redemption in the story. And yet the Incarnation is pivotal for everything that follows: God has taken on flesh and dwells among mankind (John 1:1, 14). He can now live the life He is to lead; He can teach what He must teach, do what He must do, and guide the grand story of God toward its ultimate triumph and the source of hope for all generations. Let none be deceived: there is no Golgotha, no cross, without the manger in Bethlehem. Without the events that transpired in Bethlehem on that evening, there could not have been an empty tomb. since there would never have been a body within it. There is no crucifixion or resurrection without the Incarnation; without the beginning of the Gospel, there really is no Gospel.

The Incarnation is deeply tied into the story, and its details bear this out. The angel’s proclamation does not come to Herod, the chief priests, the Sadducees, the Pharisees, or even city-dwellers; it comes to shepherds, the humble stock from whom Moses and David derived (Exodus 3:1-3, 1 Samuel 16:11-13). As with the shepherds, so with Jesus: He would maintain His ministry mostly on the fringes, amongst the villages of Galilee, speaking the language of rural life. Furthermore, Jesus is not in a palace, or in a crib bedecked with gold, but in a stable, amongst the animals, lying in a manger expropriated for the purpose, born to a carpenter and his peasant wife. His origins could hardly be more humble, and thus was the spirit in Him throughout His ministry (cf. Matthew 20:25-28). He would fulfill all the things spoken about the Christ, but not in the expected ways. He would manifest all spiritual power, but it would not be directed in the standard ways the world would have expected, and particularly toward the ends that Israel would have desired. The Child born in humble surroundings, proclaimed upon by angels to shepherds, would lead by serving, direct in humility, and reign with power on account of sacrifice.

The whole story is presaged at the very beginning; one can preach the whole Gospel message based upon what is found in Jesus’ birth account. God the Son became the Immanuel child and the Immanuel man, and through Him we have hope in the message of good tidings presented in His name. Let us make the same proclamation as the angels did that evening in Bethlehem, and honor Jesus of Nazareth as the son of David, the Savior, Christ the Lord, as thankful for the Incarnation as we are for His life, teachings, deeds, crucifixion, and resurrection that proceeded from it!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Strength in Hope of Deliverance

Strengthen ye the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees. Say to them that are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God; he will come and save you” (Isaiah 35:3-4).

After judgment and loss, despair easily sets in. One can only imagine how the Israelites would feel.

Their city would be utterly destroyed; their king would be blinded, his children executed. The Temple of YHWH would be burned by pagan Babylonians. They would be taken into exile to Babylon, dwelling among pagans vaunting themselves against the God of Heaven. The days would seem bleak; discouragement would be the rule, not the exception. In such an environment, it is easier to give up hope; it is easier to give into the propaganda all around you.

God understands these things, and that is why the message of the prophets was not only doom and gloom. He pointed forward to a day of deliverance; He would avenge Himself on those who acted against God’s people, and He will rescue His people.

It would somewhat come to pass for Israel. The Babylonian Empire was not long for the earth; soon after, the Persians would take over. The Jews would return to their land and would rebuild another Temple. Yet they remained acutely aware of the deficiency of the day: they still did not have the promised King. Their deliverance, and God’s vengeance upon His enemies, was not yet complete.

Notice how Isaiah promises that God will come and save them (Isaiah 35:4). This promise is not truly fulfilled when Israel returns to its land; it finds its fulfillment in the life of the Immanuel, God with us: Jesus of Nazareth.

Israel was looking forward to obtaining vengeance on the Romans and rescue from their pagan rule. Yet God has promised a more profound and deeper form of rescue. God is looking to defeat the enemy that lurks behind Babylon, Rome, and any imperial, oppressive power. He will go after the true enemy, our Adversary, Satan, and the sin and death which enslaves all of us (Romans 5:12-18, 6:23). In His life Jesus showed us the nature of God and righteous living (John 1:18, Hebrews 1:3); through His death, sin was overcome and true forgiveness could be obtained through His blood (cf. Matthew 26:28, Acts 2:38, Romans 5:6-11). In His resurrection He gained the victory over death, extending the hope of victory over death to all men (1 Corinthians 15:54-58).

God most certainly came to obtain vengeance over His enemies, sin and death; God has made recompense, and God came to save. This message of hope, therefore, is as applicable now as it was then.

It is easy to be consumed by despair. Sin and death seem to lurk everywhere; it is easy to imagine that God is far from us at times. It is easy to give in and to believe the propaganda of sin surrounding us. This is why we do well to be strong, not fear, strengthening the weak hands, confirming the feeble knees (cf. Hebrews 12:12). We may experience times of trial or discipline; we must endure. God has not forsaken us. The victory has been obtained; it is only left to be fully realized. We have every reason for hope and joy in our new life through God who came to save us. Let us be strengthened by God’s work and promises, stand firm against the wiles of sin, fear not, and obtain the victory through Jesus Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Serpent’s Deception

And the serpent said unto the woman, “Ye shall not surely die: for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4-5).

Genesis is a fascinating book, especially in its first few chapters. The narrative is elegant in its simplicity; thousands of questions could be asked, even more thousands of details could be given, but the author has a story to tell, and he will tell you what you need to know. This means that we are left with all kinds of questions left unanswered; it also means that when the author does provide detail, the subject matter is quite important, and we do well to pay attention.

The description of the temptation of Eve in Genesis 3:1-6 is such a story. The story is rich in detail, and for good reason: this is where everything goes wrong for God’s creation because of the transgression of mankind. From this point on, creation is subject to futility and decay (Romans 8:20-23); from this point on, man suffers because of sin, following in the path of Adam and Eve’s choice (Romans 5:12-18). Little wonder, then, why the Genesis author places great emphasis on the exchange between the serpent and Eve. The first temptation is as much a model for unfortunate future behavior as is the first sin itself!

Later details have colored our understanding of this event. John equates the serpent with Satan in Revelation 12:9; Jesus declares Satan to be the “father of lies” and that there is no truth in him (John 8:44).

Many have noted how Satan turns truth into a lie: they show how the serpent speaks 80% of God’s words in Genesis 3:4, adding only one word– 20%– as the lie (although in Hebrew it is only three words– hence, 66% truth, 33% lie). Nevertheless, on the surface, everything the serpent says in Genesis 3:5 is true: God knows that on the day Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they will be as God in terms of knowing good and evil. But Jesus says that Satan has nothing to do with the truth, and is the father of lies! How can this be?

In Genesis 3:5, Satan does not lie by what he says; it is what is left unsaid that deceives. He understands the human condition– and the weaknesses of the human spirit– quite well. His temptation is an attempt to undermine Eve’s trust in God’s goodness toward her. His whole intent is to cast aspersions on God’s character and His intentions toward His creation. He succeeds in getting Eve to question God: what is God hiding from us? Why does God not want us to know good and evil? Is He concerned that we will become like Him and thus too powerful? It all appeals to human vanity: I want to know more. I want to be independent. I will not let anyone pull the wool over my eyes.

Notice that the serpent did not say much of this; he is more subtle than that. But he left Eve to think it and let Eve draw the conclusions he wanted her to draw. In so doing he deceived Eve (1 Timothy 2:14): she imagined that the serpent was more trustworthy than God, was willing to question and challenge God’s goodness and character, and the sin was complete before she ever bit into the fruit.

Satan/the serpent knew better. God cared for His creation; God sought to preserve the innocence of the man and the woman, and was really seeking their best interest. Eve really had no good reason to question God: He had made her, He provided the Garden of Eden for her with no lack of food and drink (cf. Genesis 2:4-25). Yet Satan made it all about power and the vanity of being like God; as he is, so he wanted to see God’s creation to be.

We all live with the same challenge as Eve. All sin, when it comes down to it, is rebellion against God, deliberate rejection of His ways, and thus a declaration of a lack of trust in God (Isaiah 59:1-2, Romans 6:16-23). He has made the world and everything in it and wants to bless us with every spiritual blessing in Christ (Acts 17:24, Ephesians 1:3); His standards of right and wrong are holy, profitable, and for our own good (Galatians 5:17-24). God never gives us a reason why we should doubt His goodness and love toward us.

Yet, as with Eve, so with us: we are easily deceived. We often find His standards bothersome, in practice if not in words. We struggle with difficult questions in life, wondering how God could allow us to be in whatever difficult condition in which we find ourselves, wondering how God can allow things to go on as they do, and so on and so forth. These temptations erode our trust in God; in any circumstance in which we stop trusting God and start trusting anything else, the sin is complete before we even act upon the impulse. We have rebelled against our Creator.

Eve would soon learn the folly of her actions; we can be sure that if she really understood the situation and what was at stake, she would not have made the same decision. And, whether we want to admit it or not, we find ourselves in that same position: if we really understood our situation in life, the way sin really is, the consequences of sin, and so forth, we would also likely not make the same decisions as we do.

It all comes down to trust. Do we trust God, that He is the good Creator God who loves us and seeks our best interest? Or do we trust the lie, believing ourselves better than God, trusting what we see and the creation and not the One who created it, willingly deceived by the father of lies? None of us will ever really be “as God”; ultimately, we will have to put our trust into something or someone. Life may not always make sense; there may be times when the circumstances in which we find ourselves are not very conducive to trusting God. But we should always remember what Eve in the Garden forgot: we do not understand the whole situation or our real condition. We are easily prompted to forget God’s goodness and focus on problems and challenges, let alone our propensity toward conceit and vanity.

We do not know everything; we cannot know everything. Our perspectives are slanted, biased, and distorted. Let us resist the voice of the serpent, questioning and challenging God’s character and goodness toward His creation. Let us maintain our trust in God no matter what may come, glorifying His name no matter the circumstance!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Intercession of the Holy Spirit

And in like manner the Spirit also helpeth our infirmity: for we know not how to pray as we ought; but the Spirit himself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered; and he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God (Romans 8:26-27).

People have a tendency to romanticize childhood for many reasons. Many people remember childhood as a time of innocence, a time with far fewer cares. Sure, we thought we had problems, challenges, and difficulties as we grew up, but most of us would gladly trade our present understanding and trials for the “difficulties” of childhood!

Childhood is only care-free when parents and other adults foster an environment in which children can be care-free. Plenty of trials, sufferings, challenges, and responsibilities need to be addressed, but the adults most often handle them. Sadly, many children grow up too quickly because of their circumstances: governmental oppression, loss of parents, divorce, illnesses, or other factors may cause children to learn more about the reality of life than they probably should at their age. Children, therefore, are care-free because they do not know much better; they have not yet been exposed to the challenges of life that their parents take care of for them.

There is only one problem with all of this: we “grow up” and start thinking that we now all of a sudden do understand all of the difficulties, challenges, and issues that surround us. We think we have a handle on reality.

As Paul seeks to encourage the Romans, he makes a startling declaration in Romans 8:26: the Spirit helps us in our infirmity, or weakness: we do not know what to pray for as we ought.

But wait a moment: we know what we should pray for, right? We should pray to thank God for all the blessings with which He has blessed us in Jesus (1 Corinthians 14:16-17). We should pray for all men so that we can live in tranquility and for them to come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved (1 Timothy 2:1-4). We should pray for one another for each other’s welfare (James 5:16). We should always be in constant communication with God our Defender (Ephesians 6:18). How, then, can Paul say that we do not know what to pray for as we ought?

All of these things are well and good, and we should pray for them. Yet, as Paul says, we are weak. For one thing, we are often forgetful and take many things for granted; there are many things for which we know we should pray but we forget or overlook them. For that matter, we do not really understand reality as well as we think we do. There is an entire realm beyond our perception but is very real: the spiritual realm, in which the spiritual forces of good and evil constantly conflict (Ephesians 6:10-18, Revelation 4:1-22:6). There is much to the “secret things” of God, far beyond human understanding (Deuteronomy 29:29, Isaiah 55:8-9). We cannot perceive the spiritual realm all around us; therefore, we are very much like children, oblivious to all sorts of things that may endanger us or cause us difficulty.

But just as parents do all they can to take care of their children and often to shield their children from many of the difficulties and hazards of life, so God provides a way to take care of the needs of believers they neglect to mention or concerning which they are completely ignorant: the Holy Spirit intercedes on their behalf with groanings too deep for words (Romans 8:26). The Father knows the mind of the Spirit, for the Spirit intercedes for believers according to the will of God (Romans 8:27).

There are many who question this understanding of the passage, wondering whether Jesus is the only true intercessor for believers, and that the spirit of the believer, not the Holy Spirit, is under discussion. The challenge cannot be sustained. For one thing, we do not see such a complete contrast between a believer, a believer’s “heart,” and a believer’s spirit as such an interpretation would demand. The solution does not get rid of the perceived problem anyway, since Paul says that the “spirit” intercedes for the saints according to the will of God in Romans 8:27, and so there remains an intercessor for saints beyond Jesus. While it is true that Jesus is the only Mediator (1 Timothy 2:5), mediation and intercession, while similar, are not the same thing. A mediator (Greek mesites) is like an arbitrator, standing between two parties; in this case, Jesus stands between God and man, having partaken of the nature of each. An intercessor (Greek noun enteuxis, verb entugchano) speaks on behalf of another without necessarily taking on the nature of each or the case of each. Yes, Jesus does intercede for us before the Father as well (cf. Romans 8:34, Hebrews 7:25), but intercession is never considered something that only He can do. Believers are to intercede for all men (1 Timothy 2:1); the Holy Spirit, as we see in Romans 8:26-27, intercedes for believers before the Father with groans too deep for words.

What an encouraging and comforting message! There are all sorts of pitfalls, problems, and dangers we happen upon in life; how well do we remember to pray regarding them? There are many times when we get so caught up in ourselves and the way we see things in our weakness; how many times have we forgotten to pray to obtain perspective? There are innumerable details that make up our lives; how many of those details do we take up in prayer before the Almighty? How many times do we feel as if we have been neglected by God? What if God has always been there and the Spirit has always been interceding for us, taking very good care of us, and yet we never had an inkling or an idea since it did not involve things we could see or hear?

We must remain diligent in prayer and never allow any excuse or rationalization to keep us away from praying about anything and everything (Luke 18:1-8, 1 Thessalonians 5:17, 1 Peter 5:7). Nevertheless, we will remain weak, and God knows that. The Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Godhead, intercedes for us before the Father for innumerable and untold concerns, issues, and opportunities. Meanwhile the Son intercedes as well before the Father; two of the three Persons of the Godhead intercede before the other Person on our behalf (cf. Romans 8:34)!

God cares for us. God intercedes within Himself on our behalf. He does not abandon us or forsake us. How much humble pie will we be served on the final day if or when God makes it evident to us just how active He had been in our lives, with the Son and the Spirit interceding on our behalf, seeking our welfare in ways we neglected, took for granted, or could never even understand? Those among us who are parents may have an inkling of it when we look back and see how our parents took care of us and how much that involved concerning which we were entirely ignorant! Let us therefore trust God, ever thankful for His care, praying constantly for those things concerning which we understand, sustained by the intercession of the Holy Spirit for all that which we do not!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus in Acts

“But ye shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit is come upon you: and ye shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

In the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus is physically present with the Apostles for all of eleven verses (Acts 1:1-11). Within those eleven verses, He makes two statements to them: Acts 1:4b-5 and Acts 1:7-8. After this there will be twenty-seven and a half chapters full of action featuring Peter and Paul in Jerusalem, Judea, Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome. No wonder we call it the Acts of the Apostles!

It is true that we see the Apostles working diligently in the book of Acts. But is what is happening throughout Acts really just because of the Apostles?

To believe that would be to say that twelve ignorant Galileans, mostly fishermen with a tax-collector and a political revolutionary thrown in, along with a noted Pharisee and a Cypriot Levite, with a few other characters, took the Roman world by storm, all by their own powers of persuasion and strength? That would be a fantastic miracle indeed!

While it is true that Jesus’ direct physical presence is rarely evident after Acts 1:11, the declaration of Acts 1:8 is quite important to the story. It is often noted that Acts 1:8 presents the paradigm and structure for the rest of the book of Acts: the witness regarding Christ in Jerusalem (Acts 2-7), in Judea and Samaria (Acts 8-12), and to the end of the earth (Acts 13-28). This is well and good, but who is the One who makes this declaration? It is Jesus. Jesus is the One who is directing this enterprise. Yes, the Apostles are the ones providing the testimony, but they are testifying regarding what was done by Jesus of Nazareth!

This emphasis is evident throughout the book. When it comes to appointing someone for Judas’ place, the eleven turn to Jesus (Acts 1:23-26). Peter’s first sermon is all about what God has done through Jesus of Nazareth in His resurrection and now Lordship (Acts 2:22-26). When the lame man is healed, Peter makes it evident that it is not any power within himself, but the power in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, that made him strong (Acts 3:11-16). Time and time again the story is all about Jesus: what He did, His death and resurrection, and His current authority over heaven and earth, as the Scriptures testified to Him.

Therefore, it is evident that Jesus is there throughout the book of Acts, even if He is not physically present. The Holy Spirit is empowering the work of the Apostles, and who is empowering the Apostles with the Spirit but God in Christ (Acts 1:4-8)? Everything the Apostles do is for the glory of God in Christ.

Some people find it difficult to reconcile the Gospels with the book of Acts; after all, what Jesus sets forth in the Gospels is not always what is seen in Acts, and vice versa. But we do well to remember Acts 1:1-11. After Acts 1:11, His Lordship is realized; the message of His life, death, resurrection, and lordship can now go out to Israel and then all the nations, and the Kingdom of which He spoke could now be realized. It is not as if Jesus stops and the Apostles somehow take over in the book of Acts; without Jesus and His Lordship, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles would have no direction or idea of how to proceed. We can be certain, based on the question of the Apostles in Acts 1:6, that if all of this were up to them, the result would be much different than what actually took place. They would not have thought on their own to overwhelm the world through the preaching of Jesus crucified and raised, and they certainly would not have taken that message to the uncircumcised Gentiles!

The Acts of the Apostles are really the Acts of Jesus accomplished through His Apostles by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is there throughout, and Jesus’ power, lordship, and work do not end with Acts 28. He is still Lord; He still should be guiding and directing our lives through the Holy Spirit and His message. Let us honor Christ as Lord, and follow Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Light Over Darkness

In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness apprehended it not (John 1:4-5).

The beginning of John’s Gospel highlights the themes that will pervade its message: Jesus as the Word, the means of creation (John 1:1-3), and now Jesus as life and light (John 1:4-5).

It stands to reason that since the Word was the agent of creation, that the Word provides life. This is not a new message; this is what God intended for Israel to learn in the Wilderness (cf. Deuteronomy 8:3). Man, ultimately, is sustained by his Creator and the words that come from Him.

Nevertheless, the Word is also the light of men. It is not coincidental that the first created thing in the universe is light (Genesis 1:3). Light is more than just a period of time during which people can see; light is the time for life and provides the energy that sustains life. Light and life are inseparable. Little wonder then that light ends up standing for all that is right, good, and beneficial– all the qualities of God.

Yet consider the flashlight. In a bright room, the light of a flashlight is difficult to see. In a dark room, however, the same amount of light emitted all of a sudden is much clearer. And so it is with the Incarnate Word.

Darkness, as the absence of light, is used to describe all that which is the absence of life. Dark days are unpleasant. People experiencing sadness speak of it in terms of darkness; when we feel that evil is ascendant, we associate that with darkness.

And the darkness in the world is vast. We are constantly reminded of the suffering, misery, and pain that is experienced throughout the world. Government agents, people in corporations, and other “institutional” figures are often to blame for such evil. And yet how much evil takes place among individuals? How many times do people hurt each other physically, emotionally, and spiritually? For that matter, as uncomfortable as it may seem, how often have we been the ones to engage in the works of darkness, rebelling against God, causing pain and grief for our fellow man (Romans 3:9-23, Titus 3:3)?

It is easy to be scared of the darkness. It often seems that the darkness wins. We see evils pile upon evils. We see it happen in other countries. We see it happening amongst our own friends, family, and other loved ones. Oppression. Violence. Natural disasters. Famine. Lying. Cheating. Adultery. Betrayal. Anger. Sometimes it is the people we expect; far more troubling is when it is done by the people we least expect to do it, or it is done to those who we believe deserve it least.

The darkness is terrible, and the suffering that exists in the world is indeed vast. But the situation is not hopeless: we are not left entirely in the dark. The Light has shined into the darkness, and try as it may, the darkness has not “apprehended” it (John 1:5). Darkness, try as it may, cannot overcome the Light of God.

This is our strong assurance and sustaining hope. The forces of darkness, however strong, cannot overcome the Light of God in Christ (cf. Ephesians 6:10-18). Love, compassion, goodness, and mercy will prevail. Even though we may experience great personal and collective suffering and loss, such cannot separate us from the light and love of God in Christ (cf. Romans 8:31-39). Therefore, we do not have to be afraid. We must not give up in exhaustion, assuming that the darkness has won. It has not. It cannot.

Our Creator took on the form of the creation and pointed the way forward for humanity. The darkness might be strong; the darkness might seem to be on the verge of swallowing up the light. But it never will. The Light has overcome the darkness; people can be freed from sin and death. We may suffer; we may hurt; but we can win the war and obtain the victory through Jesus Christ. Let us trust Jesus our Light and Life and be sustained in 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