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

The Judgment No One Wants to Hear

“Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry, and ye did not give me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me not in; naked, and ye clothed me not; sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.’
Then shall they also answer, saying, ‘Lord, when saw we thee hungry, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?’
Then shall he answer them, saying, ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not unto one of these least, ye did it not unto me.’
And these shall go away into eternal punishment: but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:41-46).

For modern readers this passage might come as a bit of a shock. People are not accustomed to a presentation of Jesus in which He consigns people to eternal punishment; they expect Him, as an embodiment of love, to find some way to let most people or perhaps even everyone into eternal life. Yet that is not the case, and Jesus provides reason for it. This is the judgment that no one wants to hear, but sadly, many will hear it (Matthew 7:13-14).

Jesus has already warned about the fate of the wicked servant who abuses others and lives for him or herself (Matthew 24:48-51), the foolish virgins who were not ready for the Bridegroom’s arrival (Matthew 25:1-13), and the “one talent servant,” the one who did not advance the cause of His Master (Matthew 25:14-30). And yet now, in this presentation of the judgment scene, a different aspect of the situation emerges.

Everything said in Matthew 25:41-46 contrasts with what was said in Matthew 25:34-40. There were those who fed Jesus when hungry, clothed Him when naked, and so on; these people did not do so. The first group wanted to know when they did such things; this group wants to know when they saw Jesus and did not do such things. Ultimately, they either did them, or did not do them, for Jesus when they did or did not do them for “one of these least” (Matthew 25:31-46).

As before, so now: the big picture of this judgment scene involves whether or not we helped people in their time of need. The negative portrayal of Matthew 25:41-46 illuminates and highlights the positive portrayal of Matthew 25:34-40.

We should first note that the people who hear this judgment are cursed and to be cast into the fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). Notice that Jesus does not say that the fire was prepared for them– it was prepared for the spiritual powers of darkness, and there was no need for those hearing this sentence to join them in that fire. And yet they are going there because of the decisions they made in life (cf. Romans 1:18-32). They went down the path of the devil and his angels; they thus reap the same consequences as the devil and his angels!

A very surprising detail about this judgment scene is found in Matthew 25:44: those hearing this sentence ask when it was that they saw Jesus hungry, thirsty, sick, in prison, etc., and did not help Him. It seems to be presented as an honest question– we get the impression that at least some of these people, had they known that it was Jesus who was hungry, thirsty, sick, etc., that they would have provided what was necessary. This is doubtless not true for many of those who will be condemned on the final day, but it will be true for many who will be!

This is consistent with Jesus’ description of “sinners” in Matthew 5:46-47 and Luke 6:32-34. It is not as if Jesus thinks that sinners have no natural affections at all. No, He declares– even sinners love those who love them. Sinners do good to those who do good to them. Sinners will lend to sinners. Sinners greet and are friendly toward those who are friendly to them.

Therefore, there will be on that final day people who were benevolent toward some other people who will yet be condemned. Sure, those people did good things to those who were just like them, who liked them and appreciated them, and who gave back to them. These things are assumed to be true of almost everyone. Jesus raises the bar higher for those who seek eternal life.

These people are condemned in this presentation because they did not help the least of those amongst them– the outcasts, the dispossessed, the widow, the orphan, the homeless, those with a radically different view of things, those whom society or culture or (sadly enough) religious authorities taught them to despise. They, like the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), just walked on by. They may not have actively contributed to the destitution of the least among them, but they certainly did not do anything to make it any better. And for that they are condemned.

We imagine that many “heathens,” unbelievers, and others will be in this crowd, and they most likely will be (cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). But what might be shocking is just how many “religious” people will comprise this crowd. Sure, they might have seemed pious enough. They probably did all they could to avoid certain sins, and might even have done some charitable work. Yet, like the Pharisees and scribes, they harbored a sense of superiority; in their pursuit of holiness, they forgot about love, mercy, justice, and faithfulness (Matthew 7:20-23, 23:23-24). They were more than ready to help their coreligionists and their middle- to upper-class neighbors; the cry of the truly needy amongst them, however, went unheeded. They heard the cries of those with whom Jesus associated, and did nothing.

Yes, there is more that will go into the sentence of condemnation than just one’s lack of charity– sin, disobedience, rebellion, lack of knowledge of God, and so forth (Romans 2:5-10, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Galatians 5:19-21, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). And yet, just as true charity exemplifies that one has been truly conformed to the image of Jesus the Son in thought, attitude, and deed (Matthew 25:34-40, Romans 8:29), the lack of true charity demonstrates a parallel lack of conformity to the image of Jesus the Son. As long as anyone does not show true charity toward the outcast and dispossessed, there remains conformity to the world and not to Christ.

No one wants to hear the judgment of Matthew 25:41, but it will be the eternal condemnation of far too many souls. It will come to all those who reject the reality that the image of God can be found in even the least among us, and for those who prove willing to harden their hearts toward their fellow man and carry on as they always have. It is a sentence for people in self-absorbed lives, content with avoiding the big sins without proper concern for practicing righteousness (cf. James 4:17). And it will be distressing declaration to many religious people who worried so much about so many religious things that they forgot about their fellow man, or who were too enamored with the view of religiosity to be bothered to get their hands dirty in the difficult and challenging work of true religiosity. Ultimately, it is a sentence representing the great humbling of many people who were too high on themselves and too dismissive of others. Dear friend, do not let this be the sentence you hear. Change your ways, follow after Jesus of Nazareth, humble yourself, and prove willing to serve the least among you, conforming to the image of Christ in holiness, faithfulness, love, and mercy, and obtain eternal life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Judgment Everyone Wants to Hear

“Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry, and ye gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me.’
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when saw we thee hungry, and fed thee? or athirst, and gave thee drink? And when saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? And when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?’
And the King shall answer and say unto them, ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me'” (Matthew 25:34-40).

The disciples wanted to know what would be the signs demonstrating the end of the age (cf. Matthew 24:3), and Jesus has finally come to the point of obliging them. He has already declared that no one will know when it will be, and thus they are to be ready at all times– prepared, productive in the Kingdom (Matthew 24:36-25:30). Of course, it really is not that cut and dry in the text– Jesus uses the rich imagery of the days of Noah, a contrast between faithful and wicked servants, the foolish and wise virgins, and servants settling accounts with their master. All of these things are signs pointing to the climactic moment of the judgment day.

Jesus the King is on His throne and the nations are before Him, separated out (Matthew 25:31-33). Those on His right will hear the judgment everyone wants to hear– they are blessed of His Father, and they are to inherit the Kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world (Matthew 25:34).

All of the readiness and preparations have paid off. Such people were, no doubt, active in God’s Kingdom, using their gifts to multiply the Lord’s investment. They are the same as those wise and faithful servants who have conducted themselves properly in their Master’s house while He has been away. Yet, in this picture of the Judgment scene, those are not the reasons why they are the blessed of the Father.

Instead, they are the blessed ones of God because they have fed the King when He was hungry, gave Him drink when thirsty, took Him in though a stranger, clothed Him when naked, visited Him when sick, and came to Him while He was in prison (Matthew 25:35-36)!

This proves to be astonishing news even to the blessed– they do not remember doing any such thing for the Lord (Matthew 25:37-39), and He does not disagree. He says that inasmuch as they had done those things to the least of “these my brethren,” they did it for Jesus their King (Matthew 25:40).

A detail question that invariably gets asked involves the identity of “the least of these my brethren.” That it involves fellow believers in God is without a doubt; God demands that believers take care of one another’s needs (Galatians 6:10, 1 John 3:16-18). But does it really stop there? The New Testament demonstrates that believers are to have concern for the needs of all men, not just believers (Galatians 2:20, 6:10); we do well to remember how the lawyer attempted to justify himself by wanting to know who his “neighbor” was, and found himself self-condemned by the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-36). It is the same Jesus telling this story; our concern should be with all our fellow human beings.

Nevertheless, we ought not allow the details of the story to overshadow the greater message. When it is all said and done, according to the presentation of the judgment day in this passage, it comes down to how we helped those who are in need.

Does this mean that everything else is unimportant? Jesus makes no such declaration. He has already emphasized the need for readiness, preparation, and faithful living in previous parables and discussions. Paul demonstrates the need for obedience in order to hear the good news on the judgment day in Romans 2:5-10; he speaks on other occasions regarding those sins which, without repentance, keep people from inheriting the Kingdom in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and Galatians 5:19-21. Jesus is in no way attempting to say that we can be faithless in all other contexts but faithful in charity and somehow be justified on the final day.

Instead, Jesus’ declaration of why those who are blessed of the Father are those who have served others in need is entirely consistent with His previous messages about fruit bearing (e.g. Matthew 7:16-20). What people do is a reflection of their motivations, intentions, and purposes– essentially, what is in their heart (cf. Mark 7:20-23). If the heart and mind are right, the fruit will be right. If the fruit is not there, or the fruit is bad, then there is a heart and mind problem.

Ultimately, that is why Jesus’ declaration about the basis of judgment involves how one treats others. There is a type of religion, exemplified by the scribes and Pharisees, that so entirely emphasizes personal purity and doctrinal dogmas to the detriment of love, compassion, and mercy. They may have an intellectual understanding of many of the true principles of God and His will, but that understanding has not reformed their character– certain aspects of the mind might be right, but there remains a major heart problem. Likewise, there are many who view religion as a means of gain, be it for money, fame, prominence, or a little bit of each, like the false teachers of whom Paul speaks in 1 Timothy 6:3-10 and in other passages. Again we have a major heart problem, and where there is rivalry, covetousness, and a quest for fame, there is not true charity.

True charity, nevertheless, flows from an understanding of the nature of God, His love for mankind, and His character as reflected in Jesus His Son. The love spoken of in 1 Corinthians 13:1-8 finds one of its most sublime expressions in the type of charity that Jesus describes in Matthew 25:35-40. One is inclined to visit the incarcerated and ill, feed the hungry, and so on, despite the fact that the incarcerated, the ill, the hungry, and such like are often hard to love, when one has truly developed the heart and mind of Christ.

Matthew 25:34 represents the judgment everyone wants to hear. But it will only be heard by those who demonstrate love, compassion, and mercy, as expressed in Matthew 25:35-40. And those demonstrations of love, compassion, and mercy come because of the reformation of the heart and mind according to Christ and not according to the world, demanding understanding of and obedience to the truth of God in Christ Jesus. Believers must be prepared for the final day, busy in the Lord’s Kingdom, and God will know them by their fruit– have believers been motivated by God’s love and compassion to show love and compassion to the least of those among them? If we want to hear the best news at the Judgment, we must reflect the heart and mind of Christ in our actions. Let us do so and be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Dragnet

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind: which, when it was filled, they drew up on the beach; and they sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but the bad they cast away. So shall it be in the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the righteous, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:47-50).

As Jesus is preaching and teaching in Galilee near the Sea of Galilee, it is all but expected that He would use some kind of image from the fishing industry in His parables. And as Matthew finishes the presentation of a good number of Jesus’ parables in Matthew 13, we have a fishing parable to show us the significant consequences that will come on the basis of what we will do or not do with Jesus and His Kingdom.

We find that parallelism among the parables is maintained in Matthew 13. The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23) stands at the fore of the parables, perhaps understood as the parable of parables. We then find the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13:24-30, 37-43), which is parallel to the Parable of the Dragnet we are considering (Matthew 13:47-50). The Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31-32) and the Parable of the Leaven (Matthew 13:33) are paired together and are parallel, as are the Parables of the Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:44-46).

The dragnet is a time-honored fishing technique, one that would be well known to Peter, Andrew, James, and John (cf. Luke 5:1-11). A large net is lowered into the water and pulled along, catching within it anything that gets in its way. When full– or whenever desired– the net is pulled back up into the boat and its contents emptied out. Ideally, one would have made a good catch of fish that could fetch a nice income from the marketplace. Regardless, many things will get caught in the net that are not desired– smaller fish, perhaps some other creatures, and the like, and those are best cast back into the water or as refuse.

So we have the Parable of the Dragnet: the fish are people, the net is the Kingdom and its upcoming day of Judgment, and the fishermen are the angels. Those who are worthy shall be kept; all others shall be reckoned as refuse, cast into the hell described as the “furnace of fire,” where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:47-50). As it was with wheat and weeds, so now it is with fish: some will be preserved, and others will be burned with fire.

Therefore, we see that the basic message of the Parable of the Dragnet is the same as the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. Yet there are some differences in detail and explanation, and then there is the question of placement.

There is a qualitative difference between wheat and weeds: they are different types of plants. Fish, however, are fish; we are not given the impression that the “good fish” are one species of fish, and the “bad fish” are another species, but that the fish might very well be of the same species but of different quality. In the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, the “tares” are to be harvested first; the Parable of the Dragnet vividly describes the separating of the good fish from the bad fish. The tares are to be burned; the bad fish are “cast away.”

We should not press these distinctions in detail too far; we must remember that these are images designed to help us understand the spiritual reality behind the image, and not to get too enamored with the images themselves. Nevertheless, Jesus is not simply repeating Himself with the Parable of the Dragnet.

The fact that the fish are not really described has significance. It is not as if people are inherently divided into different classes, with one group of people who begin well, remain well, and end well, and another group of people who begin as refuse, remain as refuse, and end as refuse. Just as the fish are fish, so people are people. There is no distinction made between people based upon their birth, class, ethnicity, gender, or any other similar measure (Galatians 3:28). Put another way, God does not show partiality toward some and not others (Romans 2:11). No one is irrevocably destined to be a “weed” or a “bad fish.” Instead, in this parable, the distinction is based on the value of each fish, which in the spiritual reality can be understood as the character of each person. Is our character bad, evil, and natural, or does our character have Jesus and His Kingdom impressed upon it (cf. Romans 8:1-11)? The Judgment is not based in who we are; it is based on what we have become and what we have done (Romans 2:5-11)!

The day of Judgment will come at once for everyone– it will not be that the wicked go before the righteous, or vice versa (Matthew 25:1-46). The sorting does not happen in this life; it will happen on the day of resurrection when Jesus is glorified in His Kingdom (1 Corinthians 15).

There is also some significance to the idea of the wicked as refuse– as something thrown away as no good. On the spiritual level, there is no distinction between the “tares” and the “bad fish”: Matthew 13:42 and 13:50 are precisely the same. Nevertheless, in the parables themselves, the tares were destined for fire (Matthew 13:30). The bad fish are to be thrown away (Matthew 13:48). This “casting away,” what is done to garbage, evokes the Valley of Hinnom as a place where garbage was collected and burnt, and the “inspiration” behind Gehenna as hell (Matthew 5:22, 29-30, 10:28, 18:9, 23:15, 33). Just as people would take garbage to the Valley of Hinnom to be burned, since it had no use, those who have not served God and who remained evil and in rebellion will be taken to hell– Gehenna– for burning, since they were no good and provided no profit.

In that “furnace of fire” there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, images of great suffering and torment otherwise associated with the “outer darkness” (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30). Thus we see all kinds of images of hell brought together: the fiery furnace, the place for refuse, a place of suffering, separated far from God and the righteous with Him.

Yet one question remains: if the other parallel parables came right next to each other, why does the separation exist between the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares and the Parable of the Dragnet?

Perhaps this was just the order Jesus used, and there was not much thought put into it. Such, however, is highly unlikely; Jesus is very deliberate with His words and how He presents His message of the Kingdom.

Perhaps the Parable of the Dragnet is designed to be some sort of conclusion; its ultimate message, however, is quite consistent with the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, even ending on the same note (Matthew 13:42, 50).

Yet if we look in more detail at the presentation, we see a type of order. The Parable of the Wheat and Tares is presented (Matthew 13:24-30), but its explanation comes only after the Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven (Matthew 13:31-43). We then see the Parables of the Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:44-46), and then we have the Parable of the Dragnet (Matthew 13:47-50).

What could this mean? It seems as if there is a deliberate “sandwiching” of the parable sets, with the Parable of the Wheat and Tares and the Parable of the Dragnet providing the overall structure. Perhaps we are to understand these parables as representing some kind of structure within the Kingdom: the righteous and the wicked will remain together until the end of time. The Kingdom will start small and grow large; the Kingdom is worth more than anything else, and therefore costs more than anything else. Not everyone will appreciate the growth of the Kingdom. Not everyone will appreciate its value, and even more will not want to pay the cost. Yet, in the end, God is going to separate people based on whether they participated in Jesus’ Kingdom as His servants.

Let us not miss the force of this parable and the way that the parables are laid out in Matthew 13. The message of the Kingdom goes out to all sorts of people, many of whom hear, many of whom fall away. We must understand that the Kingdom starts with humble beginnings, and that just as the Kingdom is of supreme value, so there is great cost involved in obtaining the Kingdom. We must persevere and obey, for we know that the day is coming when God will judge everyone, and those who serve Christ in His Kingdom will be redeemed and honored, while those who did not serve Him will be bound up, cast off as refuse, and burned in eternal suffering. There can be no sitting on the fence; let us make our decision and follow after our Lord!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Morality Turned Upside Down

Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20)

Does it ever seem like the idea of morality has become a joke? It seems like one’s social and economic stature determines what is moral. With enough clout and money, it seems, one could get away with anything– even murder at times! The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and no one seems to care. As the wealthy consolidate power thanks to their resources, the situation seems all but hopeless. Either you are rich, and the land is your oyster, or you are poor, and you serve the rich in many ways. If you are poor, the slightest infraction might be your doom; if you have enough resources, you can get your way out of anything.

Does that sound familiar? Many might think that such is true today. It was also quite true of the days of Isaiah. Those with wealth could live with impunity. They could squeeze out the small farmer, bribe any judicial figures, and feast away with the king and others (cf. Isaiah 5:18-24). The poor man was forced to bear all of this. If he had to be sold into debt slavery, so be it; such meant little to the wealthy landowner. They had the luxury of choosing which laws to favor and which laws to neglect. They could call light darkness and darkness light, and mock the expectations of God for equity in dealing with all people.

Isaiah would not stand for this. He proclaimed the message of God’s disfavor with the actions of the rich and influential. He predicted their doom at the hands of first Assyria and then Babylon. They would receive their comeuppance– eventually. Woe, indeed, to them.

While the challenges of today are not as based on income as they were in days past, there is still the sense that the rich and powerful can get away with pretty much everything. If a “regular Joe” steals something, he has a quick trial and goes to prison in a pretty bad environment. If the wealthy extort or embezzle, which is theft, and happen to get caught, and happen to go to trial, and happen to get sentenced, and actually have to serve time, it tends to be in a far more cushy environment– if it ever ended in imprisonment. Different standards abound to this day!

Challenges with morality are not limited to the upper class; everyone has their sins (Romans 3:23). These days, however, the idea of “sin” is on the out. Many believe that “sin” is an artificial construct, an invention of authorities attempting to keep the people down. Things that God has declared to be sinful are re-named to seem less harmful. Arguments are made to appeal to the heart-strings in a misguided attempt to show compassion to that which is, in reality, sinful. And those who dare declare what God has said are labeled “intolerant,” “bigoted,” “narrow-minded,” or “old-fashioned.”

There is little doubt that the Israelites of Isaiah’s day could have done similar things. Idolatry was just “a different theological choice.” Bribes were just “ways to get things done.” Isaiah, no doubt, was considered intolerant, narrow-minded, perhaps even fundamentalistic, a dangerous religious zealot, for declaring the will of the Lord.

Our time is not as “enlightened” as its participants would imagine. As long as there have been people in sin there have been people who have been trying to find ways to justify their sins and demonize anyone who would challenge their justifications. There have always been people who want to bend the rules to their own favor and find any way possible in which to do so. Many will do what they want to do no matter what anyone tells them. The human capacity for self-justification is almost unimaginable in its depth.

Yet, as in Isaiah’s proclamation, so with today. Comeuppance will come, eventually, to such people. Justice may be served in their own lifetimes; it will surely be served on the final day (Acts 17:30-31). God’s patience and longsuffering toward people, hoping for their repentance (2 Peter 3:9), will not last forever, and many will learn the true cost of calling evil good and good evil; of declaring bitter sweet and sweet bitter; of loving the darkness and hating the light.

Believers in God often feel distressed by all of this, and it is understandable. It is much harder to strive to live as God would have us live when it is reviled as being the opposite of what it truly is– the way of life, light, and peace (John 8:12, Romans 8:6). Yet believers should take comfort in knowing that this has been the way people have been acting for centuries; it is not a purely modern phenomenon. It will continue until the Lord returns. It is not fair, it is difficult, and sometimes we get penalized for it. But we know who will ultimately reward the righteous and condemn the wicked (1 Peter 4:12-19). Let us stand for what is just, right, true, and holy, no matter what it is called or how others may abuse us, and receive the ultimate reward in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Firstfruits

But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; then they that are Christ’s, at his coming (1 Corinthians 15:23).

Despair turned to excitement on that first day of the week so long ago when Jesus arose from the dead (John 20:1-31, etc.). In the midst of all the excitement, however, there was one theological conundrum that needed to be addressed.

The idea of resurrection was not foreign to the Jews; the Pharisees believed in the resurrection (Acts 23:8), and no doubt many other Jews did also. But “the resurrection” in which they believed was the resurrection on the last day. That is what Daniel 12:2 seemed to indicate. It certainly was the expectation of Martha when Lazarus died (cf. John 11:24).

But someone rising from the dead in the resurrection before the end? This was not something you would automatically take away from a reading of the Old Testament, nor was it something immediately obvious to Pharisees and others. Perhaps this was part of the challenge the disciples faced in not understanding Jesus’ predictions of the event (Mark 9:30-32, etc.). How could it be that One could rise from the dead before everyone was raised from the dead?

The Holy Spirit, through Paul, would make this understandable. Jesus was the firstfruits of the resurrection!

The idea of the firstfruits comes from passages like Deuteronomy 18:4:

The first-fruits of thy grain, of thy new wine, and of thine oil, and the first of the fleece of thy sheep, shalt thou give him.

The firstfruits were the first part of a harvest– the first wheat or barley harvested, the first wine processed, the first of the fleece shorn, and so on and so forth. The Israelites were to devote the firstfruits to God (Exodus 23:19), and God gave them to the Levites for sustenance (Deuteronomy 18:4). After the firstfruits had been offered, the rest of the harvest belonged to the people for their own consumption and use.

The firstfruits image, therefore, helps us understand the relationship between Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection on the final day. Jesus is the firstfruits– the first to rise from the dead, never to die again (1 Corinthians 15:20). He had been given as an offering to God to atone for the people (2 Corinthians 5:21, Hebrews 9:1-15). He paves the way for the resurrection to come, the resurrection of which we all take part (John 5:28-29, 1 Corinthians 15:12-57)!

There is something obvious about the firstfruits that is important for the resurrection. The firstfruits are not different in kind or type from the harvest that comes later. The firstfruits of wheat are wheat just as the “second fruits” or “third fruits” would be; the same goes for barley, wine, fleece, and the like. So it is with the resurrection: we should not believe that our resurrection will be something different from Christ’s resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:23). The difference involves time, not type or kind. As Jesus died in the flesh but remained alive in the spirit (1 Peter 3:18), and was then raised bodily from the dead, the tomb being empty, and His flesh being transformed for immortality (Luke 24:1-49), so it goes with those who serve Him. All who have died, and those who will be dead before His coming, remain alive in the spirit, but will then be raised bodily and transformed for immortality (1 Corinthians 15:35-57, Philippians 1:21-23, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)!

In reality, the resurrection is a challenging concept, for one of the few “guarantees” in the physical realm is that once one dies, one is always dead. We do not see people rising from the dead, never to die again.

Yet that is precisely the hope by which the Christian must live (cf. Romans 8:20-25). And we have confidence in that hope because of Jesus the firstfruits. We do not have to wonder whether God can or will raise the dead, for we know He raised Jesus from the dead. If He is able to raise Jesus from the dead, He is able to raise us from the dead also, and He has promised to do so (Romans 8:11)!

The last enemy, indeed, is death (1 Corinthians 15:26). Through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and lordship, believers now can have confidence in their spiritual regeneration in this life (Romans 6:1-23, 8:1-9). The believer is able to be a new creature in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), yet we are all still cursed with physical death.

But death will be abolished. The day will dawn when we all will have the victory over not just sin but also death through Jesus Christ our Lord, and on that day the rest of the harvest will be brought in to the praise and glory of God in Christ (1 Corinthians 15:53-57, 1 Peter 1:6-7). We can have complete confidence in this because Jesus gained the victory over sin on the cross and over death in the resurrection, and He is the firstfruits! Let us all serve God so that we may attain to the resurrection of life (cf. Philippians 3:11-13)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The End of the Beginning

And the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them (Genesis 2:1).

When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, “It is finished”: and he bowed his head, and gave up his spirit (John 19:30).

We humans seem to be hard-wired for stories. We like stories with beginnings and endings. We often feel cheated or in despair when we engross ourselves in a story that may not have much of a beginning and provides little, if any, resolution in the end.

As readers or hearers we try to be expecting the “beginning of the end” of a story. But what about the end of the beginning?

The end of the beginning is the moment of great hope in a story. In some way, the reader or listener is now introduced to the main characters and/or theme. Possibilities here abound; soon enough, the story will be fixed into a given channel toward its ultimate end.

We have that pause at the “end of the beginning” of the creation. In six days God created all that exists– He provided the beginning for everything (cf. Genesis 1:1-31). The sixth day was the culmination of creation– the creatures of the land and the man and woman in God’s image (Genesis 1:24-31). The possibilities abounded. God rested on the seventh day (Genesis 2:1-3), and soon enough the story of His creation would unfold.

And then, in a darker semblance, we have the “end of the beginning” with the death of Jesus the Son of God. Jesus had been active in His earthly ministry, healing the sick, casting out demons, and proclaiming the message of the upcoming Kingdom (cf. Matthew 4:23-24). He did this for approximately three years. Over a six day period Jesus was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, teaching about the Kingdom while the hopes and dreams of Israel burst forth (cf. Matthew 21-27). The culmination of His time in Jerusalem and His entire ministry came again on the sixth day– scourging, a crown of thorns, derision and mockery, and ultimately death on a cross (Matthew 27:1-50, etc.). And then, on the seventh day, God the Son rested (Luke 23:56).

While there is some controversy over the day of Jesus’ death, the evidence from Luke 23:54-56 and John 19:31 provide strong indications that Jesus did indeed die on what has often been called “Good Friday.” In the Jewish calendar, Friday (really Thursday sunset to Friday sunset) is the sixth day of the week. God created the heavens and earth in six days, with the creation of humans on the sixth day, and rested on the seventh (cf. Genesis 1:1-2:3); Jesus completed His task of fulfilling the Law and the prophets and reconciling God and man on the sixth day (John 19:1-30). In each case, we have the end of the beginning.

Since God rested on the seventh day, so Israel was commanded to rest on the seventh day (cf. Exodus 20:10-11). It should not be surprising to us that the full day of Jesus’ rest in the tomb would be on such a Sabbath.

But then the sun would rise on a new week, the first day of the week. In Genesis this meant the real beginning of God’s Lordship over His newly-formed creation; He would not again be active in the work of creation, but He would rule over what is His and seek its best interest.

God’s reign over the creation continued as it were week after week, year after year, millennium after millennium, until that fateful Passover week in 30 CE. When the sun arose on the first day of the week after Jesus’ death, the end of the beginning had its full consummation: Jesus had been raised from the dead in power by God, now to rule over the heavens and earth as Lord (Matthew 28:1-18).

While it may have seemed as if nothing had changed in the way that the world operates, in reality, everything had just changed. In many respects, it was the “eighth” day of the week: a breaking out from the old paradigm and the beginning of a new creation (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17). The Kingdom and Reign of God was coming to earth through those who would follow Jesus Christ. As the Resurrected Lord, He represents the firstfruits, the basis of the hope and expectation we all share in Him for resurrection and rebirth (cf. Romans 8:17-25, 1 Corinthians 15:1-58). Jesus’ followers would no longer rest on the seventh day, for the work of God in advancing the Kingdom and bringing in the new creation is not satisfied until we obtain the resurrection (Hebrews 4:1-11). Our greatest loyalty is to the new creation, not the old, and thus Christians came together– and should still come together– on the first day of the week, commemorating the end of the new beginning: remembering the death of the Lord on the day when He arose (Matthew 28:1-10, Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

God has told us the beginning of the story of creation, and He has forecast for us the picture of the end (cf. Matthew 25:1-46, Revelation 21:1-22:6). Those who are willing and obedient will obtain the ultimate reconciliation with God (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Revelation 21:1-22:6). In doing so, according to God’s most profound story, believers will find themselves back at the end of the original beginning thanks to the end of the new beginning– man living in full association with God as in the Garden (cf. Genesis 2:4-24, Revelation 21:1-22:6), all thanks to the reconciliation that was made possible through Jesus’ death on the cross (Romans 5:5-11) and the new life that is found in the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20-57).

We have heard the story of the beginning, both old and new; the beginning has ended, the end may be upon us soon. Our lives, physical and spiritual, are sustained by the beginning of the stories and the end of those beginnings. Let us participate in God’s story so that we may obtain life in the end, be reconciled to God, and enjoy eternal life in the Son!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Watch and Pray

“But of that day or that hour knoweth no one, not even the angels in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father. Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is. It is as when a man, sojourning in another country, having left his house, and given authority to his servants, to each one his work, commanded also the porter to watch. Watch therefore: for ye know not when the lord of the house cometh, whether at even, or at midnight, or at cockcrowing, or in the morning; lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch” (Mark 13:32-37).

Humans have a preoccupation with the prospect of the end of the world– or, if nothing else, the end of their particular world.  People who would not otherwise consider religious messages eagerly watch shows speculating on the end of the world based upon all kinds of different “predictions” and the like.  There always seems to be some cause or another for such speculation.  Not long ago it was the turn of the millennium.  Presently many are focused on the end of 2012.  After that there will most assuredly be some other time.

This type of speculation is not foreign to Christianity, and it is certainly not foreign to interpretations of the so-called “Olivet Discourse,” presented in Matthew 24-25, Mark 13, and Luke 21.  All kinds of postulates are made about exactly when the world will end and how based, at least in part, on Jesus’ words in this discussion.

If there is ever a time when it is good for us to be good Bible students, it is certainly when so much speculation is at hand.  Mark’s version makes the context very clear: Jesus has declared that all the stones of the Temple will be toppled (Mark 13:2).  Some of His disciples utter the same questions that haunt people to this very day–  “when shall these things be, and what shall be the sign when these things are all about to be accomplished?” (Mark 13:4).

In context, “these things” represent the Temple and its destruction.  And here we have the ultimate irony of this whole discussion: Jesus’ answer to the questions is not really what the disciples wanted to know.  And it goes a long way to show us that the questions that people most often ask today cannot be answered to their satisfaction!

Jesus goes on to say that there will be false Christs deceiving the people, wars and rumors of wars, nations and kingdoms rising up against one another, earthquakes, and famines (Mark 13:6-8).  Our immediate impulse is to look into the history books and find the precise events concerning which Jesus speaks, and, no doubt, we can find such things.  And that, of course, is Jesus’ point– at what point in human history have there not been false teachers, wars and rumors of wars, nations and kingdoms rising up against each other, earthquakes, and famines?  They are always happening somewhere!

Later Jesus will provide some specific conditions that will be met, and to “get out of Dodge” when the Roman army comes to town (cf. Mark 13:9-23), and predicts the establishment of the Kingdom and the end of the covenant between God and Israel (Mark 13:24-31).

But when?  We have the classic statement: only the Father knows (Mark 13:32).  Much has been made of this statement in terms of Christology, but that is quite separate from the point.  Jesus tells the disciples, point blank, that they will not know exactly when these things will take place (Mark 13:33).  There is no watering down of this idea, no concept that at the last minute a revelation will be given to them.  They simply will not know.

Attempting to ascertain the precise set of conditions and circumstances that will lead to Jesus’ return, therefore, is utterly futile.  If the disciples were not going to know precisely when Jerusalem would be destroyed, why should we believe that anyone is going to know precisely when Jesus will return?

It may seem unbelievable to many, but Jesus’ main point in the “Olivet Discourse” is not to lay out a road map to the apocalypse.  As Peter will say, all things will continue as “normal” until the moment comes (cf. 2 Peter 3:2-12).  True, Jesus does give His disciples some things concerning which they need to be considering and for which they must prepare.  And that, in the end, is the real message.

In declaring that no one will know precisely when these things will take place, He exhorts the disciples to take heed, watch, and pray (Mark 13:33).  He presents the image of the master leaving the house and instructing the doorkeeper to remain awake, since the master’s return may be at any time (Mark 13:34-36).  And Jesus’ universal message, to first century disciples awaiting the judgment on Jerusalem to twenty-first disciples anxious for His return, is to “stay awake” (Mark 13:37)!

This is the thread that runs throughout the whole discourse (Mark 13:5, 9, 13, 23, 33-37).  In the extended version that Matthew provides, the theme is just as evident (Matthew 24:36-25:30).  This is, in fact, the theme that runs throughout all of New Testament eschatology (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:1-10, 1 Peter 4:7-11, 2 Peter 3:11-12, Revelation 2-3, 22:7, 11-12).

As long as God shows patience toward mankind there will be people who will speculate regarding the times and conditions of the Lord’s return.  Do not be deceived into believing any of them.  The “Olivet Discourse” does pave the way, but not in the expected sense.  It is not for us to know when the Lord will return, but the Lord has made many things evident.  He will return.  There will be judgment.  It will happen in God’s good time.  It is not for us to doubt these things or to speculate regarding them.  Instead, we need to be ready.  We must stay awake.  We must live our lives serving God, ready if the Lord returns tomorrow or after another two thousand years.  We must always be ready for the challenges that come with our walk with God, and to stand firm and endure despite them.  Let us avoid the frenzy of folly, and always be on guard for the Lord’s return!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Victory!

But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:57).

The thrill of victory. The agony of defeat. So much of what takes place in life involves “winners” and “losers.” We see it most clearly in sports games or in armed conflicts. It is also present in competitions in business, school, and in life in general. Everyone wants to win and be part of the winning team. No one wants to lose, and few have patience with constant loss.

Winning is sweet. Far too often, winning goes unquestioned. Everyone is happy when there is victory. But when people begin to lose, everything is questioned. Flaws and challenges come to the surface. Discord often rears its ugly head.

Losing, however, is not always such a bad thing. Humans tend to learn only by making mistakes. Losing tests endurance and resolve. Losing forces people to confront the difficult questions, and either continue to lose or to find a way to win.

So much of victory and defeat is mental and emotional– or, as it is said in sports so many times, games are most often won or lost before the players take the field. Some teams win because of talent and skill– others just have a stronger desire to win. Yes, many teams lose because of a lack of skill or poor execution, but far too often, such teams lack the will to win. It is not as if there is ever a perfect team or a perfect situation– challenges, flaws, and discord can always exist. Somehow, in some way, people find ways to be successful and victorious despite those flaws. And yet there are also times when people with so much talent, opportunity, and ability fail to achieve the victory that would seem to come to them, either through indolence or someone else just wanting it more!

These matters are profitable for Christians to consider, for the Christian life is compared to sporting competitions (1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Hebrews 12:1-2), spiritual conflict (Ephesians 6:10-18, 2 Timothy 2:4-5), and even in terms of business success (Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 19:11-27). We run the most important race there is; we fight the most important battle in history; we earn the most valuable profits. If we ever must pursue victory with everything we have, it must be in the spiritual arena!

When things go well in our lives as Christians, we do not question a lot of things. We are happy. It is when our lives begin to fall apart and/or we begin to fail that we begin to question. Our flaws, challenges, and discord are made evident. And yet those flaws and challenges were always there. Discord is always just around the corner. We must endure difficulties and struggles in our faith in order to be refined and to be made ready for the ultimate victory (James 1:2-4, 1 Peter 1:6-9). These are not pleasant, and we always wonder why we are not always successful in God. Character does not develop and mature through complete success– it is only when we are forced to confront our difficulties that we prove our mettle and whether we will shrink away and fail or endure and overcome (cf. Revelation 2:7, 12:11).

Victory and success is also an important mindset. It is too easy for us to expect failure so as to never be disappointed. This is precisely what losers do, and such losers, while rarely disappointed, do not amount to much. Instead, we must believe that we can and must win, trusting in God’s firm Word to us that we shall have the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord. That victory may not seem very possible at times, and the situations we find ourselves in may be bleak. This is when we must have the most fervent resolve to win no matter the circumstances, and trust in God’s power that we shall win.

A day is coming when the results of the ultimate contest will be made evident. Those who have failed through their ignorance, desire to lose, or failure to serve God will obtain eternal condemnation (Romans 2:5-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). Those who trusted in Jesus for victory, who wanted that victory more than anything else, and devoted everything in their power to obtain that victory will share in that victory (Matthew 6:33, Romans 8:17-18, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, 15:54-58)– and the taste of victory will never have been sweeter (cf. Revelation 21:1-22:6). How much do we desire to win it all? Let us trust in God through Christ and devote all of our energies to His cause so as to gain the ultimate victory!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Where is the God of Justice?

Ye have wearied the LORD with your words.
Yet ye say, “Wherein have we wearied him?”
In that ye say, “Every one that doeth evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and he delighteth in them;” or, “where is the God of justice?” (Malachi 2:17).

The evils and inequalities of life can pose a quandary for people who believe strongly that there is a God and that He loves and cares for His creation. When oppression takes place and injustice seems to rule the day, it is easy to start wondering where the God of justice went! Probably not a few people have turned to Deism in order to make some sense, at least in their own minds, of how it could be that God could create the universe and then allow such things to happen– instead of trusting that God will right the wrong, it is easier to believe that God is an absentee landlord.

Undoubtedly Israel in the days of Malachi wondered whether God was an absentee landlord. It would be quite easy to interpret their statements in Malachi 2:17 as rebellion but they are most likely the result of frustration and despair. They say such things not because they do not believe in God but precisely because they do believe in God and do believe in the promises God made to their forefathers.

What they do not understand is how God can be the God of justice and lovingkindness and allow what was happening to continue. These Jews had their faults and failings– but they were not as guilty as their fathers. They had not established idols of all the gods of the nations around them as their fathers had done. And yet while their fathers lived in a free and independent Israel with their own king, they remain under the hand of the Persian authorities and Persian taxes. How was that just? How was that fair? How could God allow them to remain under the hand of a foreign authority when they were acting more faithfully than their fathers who were free? Where was God in all of this, anyway?

The Jews also perceive how the ways of the wicked, at least for the time being, were prosperous. They had read in the Law and the Prophets how blessings come to those who obey God and curses to those who act wickedly (e.g. Leviticus 26:1-46, Jeremiah 7:1-15). The Psalms and Proverbs are full of such statements (e.g. Psalm 1:6, Psalm 37:17, Psalm 75:10, Proverbs 3:33, Proverbs 10:6). Yet, in the eyes of the Jews, those who were righteous were not gaining favor, but the wicked were increasing and prosperous. In bitterness they declare that God must now be siding with the wicked– how else could they be so successful?

The Jews, however, are not right in this, no matter how justified they might have felt in their despair and criticism. They are wearying God with these words and these ideas. Malachi goes on to promise the day of God’s coming, a day of refining and purification, and it will be painful (Malachi 3:1-6). The message is evident: God is paying attention. God sees what is going on. God remains the God of justice. God does not take pleasure in the sinfulness of the wicked. Yet God is patient, and shall accomplish His will in His good time.

We would do well to learn the same lesson. It is easy to get impatient and impetuous and wonder where the God of justice has gone. One could easily despair and wonder if God is in fact prospering the wicked. But such would be wearisome and unprofitable– God is still here, and God has no pleasure in the sinfulness of the wicked (1 Peter 3:12). God also takes no pleasure in any injustice, especially injustice perpetrated against His elect (cf. Luke 18:1-8). Nevertheless, God’s ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). He is patient when we would be impatient (cf. 2 Peter 3:9). His concept of time is far different from our own (2 Peter 3:8). When God acts, it will be done mightily, and we will be ashamed of ourselves if we wearied God with these types of words– we will see His justice vindicated, and righteousness fully established (cf. 2 Peter 3:10-13). The righteous will be refined as silver (1 Peter 1:6-9); the wicked will perish (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9).

Let us not fear or be distressed. The God of justice has not abandoned His creation. He is paying attention. He will render to each one according to His works. Let us therefore serve Him while we still can, fully confident in His presence and justice, and be prepared for the ultimate Day of the Lord!

Ethan R. Longhenry