Anthems

Oh give thanks unto YHWH; for he is good / For his lovingkindness endureth for ever (Psalm 136:1).

Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Behold, the first verse of The Star-Spangled Banner by Francis Scott Key: made the United States national anthem. For many it is a stirring song of potential and hope. Admit it: when you read it, the tune played in your head.

Now let us use our imaginations: 3,000 years have passed by. Over time people have forgotten the nature of tunes and music of our times, and controversy exists over what exactly the musical notation found on many old documents means. And yet the first verse of The Star-Spangled Banner have been preserved, as has the story of the song’s origin: Francis Scott Key was imprisoned by the British in 1813 and composed it while watching the shelling of Fort McHenry near Baltimore after Washington, D.C. had already been burned to the ground.

Try to again read the lyrics of The Star-Spangled Banner as just text on a page, without playing the tune in your head, just like our imagined students of the past 3,000 years from now might have to do. A natural reaction might be: what kind of national anthem is that? A dangerous war; bombs bursting in the air; rockets flying around; and oh, by the way, does the United States flag still fly over America? It almost sounds like an existential crisis, which the War of 1812 really was for a time. How would you explain the feeling of perseverance and confidence in the future we have associated with the song without making reference to how the song is sung and how the tune communicates those feelings? It would be very difficult indeed to communicate what The Star-Spangled Banner means to Americans by just looking at its lyrics on a page.

A similar difficulty is very real for us today when it comes to the Psalms. We have the lyrics to the Psalms; some words have been preserved which provide some kind of musical direction, although their exact meaning and nature are in dispute. We know that many were set to tunes which had names and were known to its original audience, but the sound of those tunes has been lost for generations. All we have now are words on a page.

Psalm 136:1-26 might prove exasperating to a reader: it is a call and response psalm, and the response is always the same: literally, “for His hesed to forever,” with hesed meaning “covenant loyalty” and often translated as “lovingkindness” or “steadfast love,” and a verb added for understanding (“endures,” “is”). The call exhorts Israel to give thanks to YHWH as God of gods and Lord of lords (Psalm 136:1-3); declares YHWH as the Creator of all things (Psalm 136:4-9); reminds Israel how God delivered them from Egypt, through the Wilderness, and gave them victory so as to conquer the land (Psalm 136:10-22); assures them how YHWH will remember them in their low estate, will deliver them from their enemies, and cause them to prosper in the land (Psalm 136:23-25); and ends as it began, a call to give thanks to YHWH (Psalm 136:26; cf. Psalm 136:1). The modern reader may see such a psalm, read over it quickly, perhaps even skipping over the repetitive response, and move on without much thought.

Yet what would Psalm 136:1-26 represent for Israel? It looks very much like an anthem, something for them akin to our The Star-Spangled Banner. It is a song of praise and thanksgiving to God for all He has done for Israel, providing a continual reminder of how God’s covenant loyalty has delivered Israel thus far. God has the power above all powers; God is the Creator; God has rescued Israel and sustained Israel. Whether in the days of David, Josiah, Zechariah, or Jesus, Psalm 136:1-26 would remind Israel who they are and their complete dependence on God for all things.

We can only imagine what the tune might have been or how the call and response would have sounded like in ancient Israel. It is possible that it was sung or chanted like a funeral dirge, but that seems unlikely. Perhaps the volume escalated in a crescendo, becoming quite the raucous sound by the end. But we can be sure that it would have been powerful and meaningful for Israel, just like The Star-Spangled Banner is for Americans.

As we read and meditate upon the Psalms, we must never forget how lively and powerful they were for Israel. They deserve better than a quick skimming and moving on. There is deep faith, life, and hope in the Psalms for the people of God, and they remain a deep reservoir for us as we go through the joys and difficulties in life. May we also give thanks to God, for His covenant loyalty endures forever in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Unity of the Spirit

Giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).

God accomplished amazing and stupendous things in order to create and cultivate the Church of His Son Jesus Christ. What will we do with it?

In Ephesians 2:11-3:13 Paul had highly stressed the place of the church in God’s divine economy. In the composition of the church is found the testimony of the manifold witness of God according to the eternal plan purposed in Jesus (Ephesians 3:10-11). The church is the temple of God and His household (Ephesians 2:19-22). And so, after Paul established the importance of walking worthily of the calling in Jesus (Ephesians 4:1), he then emphasized the importance of working together as the church to build it up (Ephesians 4:3-16). If we would work together as the church to build it up, we must give diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).

“Giving diligence” is the Greek spoudazontes, meaning to make haste, exert oneself, give diligence (Thayer’s Lexicon). A more verbal form of the same word is found in 2 Timothy 2:15 in the exhortation to be diligent to present ourselves as approved to God, workmen without needing to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. Many have made much of the King James Version’s use of “study” to translate spoudason in 2 Timothy 2:15, although in the 17th century it meant something more like “give diligence” than the modern “bookish” meaning of study. Thus Christians are as much to “study” to keep the unity of the Spirit as they are to “study” to present themselves as approved by handling the word of truth rightly. The same Apostle makes both exhortations; there is no basis on which to consider one as greater or superior to the other. There is no justification to be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit at the expense of the word of truth: unity in the Spirit is grounded in the truth of what God has accomplished in Jesus, and there can be no unity when the truth of the faith is compromised (Romans 16:18-19, 1 Timothy 4:1, 6:3-10). And yet there is also no justification to be diligent to be unashamed workmen who rightly handle the word of truth at the expense of unity in the Spirit: the “word of truth” in Ephesians 2:11-3:13 declares God’s work in reconciling to Himself and to each other all who would trust in Jesus, and Paul will go on to declare the “word of truth” of the inherent unity of the body and the faith in Ephesians 4:4-6, and so any undermining of Christian unity in the Spirit is undermining the word of truth itself!

Christians are to give diligence to “keep” the unity of the Spirit. “To keep” is the Greek terein, meaning to attend to carefully, guard, keep, preserve (Thayer’s Lexicon). Christians are not the architects of unity in the faith; it is not for us to establish it, impose it, or somehow create it. On our own we hated and were hated in turn, living in the lusts of our flesh as children of wrath (Ephesians 2:2, Titus 3:3). It required Jesus’ death on the cross to kill the hostility and to provide the redemption and reconciliation we did not deserve nor could do anything to earn or merit (Romans 5:6-11, Ephesians 2:11-15). When we believe in Jesus, confess that faith in Him, repent of our sins, and are immersed in water in Jesus’ name, we are in a spiritual sense immersed into the one Spirit into the one body (1 Corinthians 12:13). God has established the unity of Christians in Jesus; God has made us all one man in Jesus through His Spirit (cf. Romans 12:3-8); we therefore cannot create or fabricate that unity. Instead, we must guard diligently the unity we already have. Tribalistic divisions, factions, and wars testify to the enduring power of hostility and hatred to this day; as Christians we are always tempted to compromise with the world, to take up the banner or the flag of various causes, peoples, and nations, and conduct ourselves in such a way as to endanger the unity of the Spirit. Our zeal is far too often misdirected, focused on the chastisement of the people of God, often majoring on the minors, rather than a critique of self and an outward push into the world to proclaim the Gospel of the Christ. Unity in the Spirit is not a default state or what we find natural; only through diligent effort will we keep the unity of the Spirit.

The unity of the Spirit is to be kept in the bond of peace. “Bond” is the Greek sundesmo, that which binds together, like a ligament in the human body (as used in Colossians 2:19), or a bundle (Thayer’s Lexicon). As ligaments connect muscles in the human body, so peace is what connects Christians in the unity of the Spirit. That peace is not the mere absence of hostility, but the elimination thereof: Jesus killed the hostility between God and man and man with man on the cross (Ephesians 2:11-18). True unity can only be nourished and sustain where there is true peace. As long as there is hostility and enmity there will be tension and hostility. If we would be diligent to maintain the unity of the Spirit, we must maintain the bond of peace. If we would maintain the bond of peace, we must strive for that which makes for peace.

How do we strive to make for peace? Paul has already listed the characteristics which lead to such peace in Ephesians 4:2: maintaining humility and meekness, manifesting patience, showing tolerance for one another in love. A similar “recipe” is found in Philippians 2:1-4. When we speak of unity we all too often speak of doctrinal uniformity; while agreement on doctrine is crucial to joint participation in the faith, evident from 1 Corinthians 1:11, doctrinal agreement is not sufficient to establish unity in and of itself. We must agree on the truth of God in Christ, but then we must act like it. We must demonstrate humility, recognizing that all of us are redeemed sinners, prone to mistakes, of equal standing and value before God, and to adjust our opinions and ideas about ourselves and others accordingly. We must be meek, maintaining the strength of conviction and faith, but keeping it under control, exercising it judiciously and with love so as to build up. We must be patient with one another: “long suffering” is the literal meaning of Greek makrothumia, and that is precisely what patience demands. Brethren can be insufferable at times; such is true of you and me as well. We are all different people with different backgrounds and ideas: we can consider that difference as a source of conflict, strife, and difficulty, and try to eliminate it, or we can learn to appreciate the differences which exist among us, focusing on how God is glorified when different people come together as one in faith in Jesus, and thus show tolerance for each other despite each other’s quirks, flaws, and challenges.

We have come to understand the power which exists in the unity of a family. It should be no different for the household of God! God has broken down the walls of hostility in Christ so we can all share in the same faith and obtain the same salvation; should we not now strive to keep and guard this precious unity in the Spirit which was obtained at such terrible cost, and embody God’s purposes for His creation before all those who would resist them? May we keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace to the glory of God in Christ, and share in relational unity for eternity!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Shepherd

YHWH is my shepherd / I shall not want (Psalm 23:1).

Psalm 23:1-6 is by far the most famous Psalm in the Bible, and it may even be the most well-known and beloved passage in all of Scripture. You have likely heard it read at almost every funeral service you have ever attended. But what’s it all about?

David meditated on his relationship with God in Psalm 23:1-6. As a young man he lived as a shepherd, and thoroughly understood that responsibility (cf. 1 Samuel 17:34-36). Thus it was not difficult for David to speak of YHWH as his shepherd (Psalm 23:1).

David set forth what it meant for YHWH to be his shepherd: YHWH would provide what he needed (Psalm 23:1). As a shepherd finds green pastures, calm streams, and good paths for the sheep for their sustenance and development, so YHWH has provided prosperity, peace, and the way of righteousness for David, restoring his soul (Psalm 23:2-3).

Yet the world is a dangerous place, full of evil; the image of the day of difficulty in the world as the “valley of the shadow of death” is haunting yet compelling (Psalm 23:4). David has confidence to persevere on account of YHWH’s presence. David received comfort from YHWH’s rod and staff: a shepherd would have kept a rod or staff, often bent with a hook to form the “crooked staff,” in order to support himself while walking and to provide guidance for the sheep. The presence of the rod/staff indicates the presence of YHWH and discipline to follow the good, right, and healthy way.

David found himself often beset by enemies, and yet YHWH had prospered his way; he praises God for having prepared him a table before his enemies (Psalm 23:5). God had anointed David’s head with oil and his cup overflowed: while David was anointed by Samuel at YHWH’s behest to be made king in 1 Samuel 16:13, both images here refer more to abundant prosperity from God’s hands (“anointed” is literally “to make fat” in the Hebrew; cf. Amos 6:6, Matthew 6:17). YHWH has provided abundantly for David.

YHWH has taken care of David and continues to provide for him; David thus fully expected YHWH to continue to manifest goodness and covenant loyalty toward him for the rest of his life (Psalm 23:6). David’s great hope involved dwelling in YHWH’s house forever, always enjoying His presence.

David did not write Psalm 23:1-6 merely for himself; YHWH inspired him to write to give voice to the people of God throughout time. Countless generations have taken comfort and strength from Psalm 23:1-6, and for good reason. Many have also walked in the valley of the shadow of death. Who would not want abundant prosperity? People like the idea of green pastures and still waters.

We can therefore understand why Psalm 23:1-6 gets appropriated for funerals and other moments of difficulty, and yet the entire psalm is animated by its very first phrase: YHWH is my shepherd. Everything else follows from it, indeed, but also depends upon it.

For YHWH to be my shepherd, however, I must be His sheep (Psalm 23:1). While the image of YHWH as shepherd might have come easily to David, having been a shepherd himself, the implications of the truth of such an image still requires a person to swallow a lot of pride and to exhibit humility. Comparing a person to a sheep is not flattering, then or now: sheep, quite frankly, are dumb. They must be led everywhere they go. Without a leader they wander aimlessly or stay paralyzed in one place. They are defenseless and prove easy prey for wolves and other predators. They are easily scared.

We humans easily fall prey to the pride of life, presuming a level of independence in understanding. We like to think we know how things work, can see through conceits and deceit, and have a good handle on knowing what we should do and how we should go. And yet we all make quite a mess of our lives on our own; whether we want to admit it or not, we are often powerfully motivated by fear, insecurity, and doubt, and prove self-deceived far more often than we would like to believe. In the grand scheme of things, yes, we are like sheep.

Thus, we do well to swallow our pride and to understand ourselves to be as sheep, and to look to YHWH as our Shepherd. We therefore must prove willing to follow Him and the paths He has established for us, even and perhaps especially when we find ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death. We need to recognize our complete and utter dependence on God for all good things and confess our continual struggle to appreciate them and fully trust in Him. David’s final desire must also be our own: to dwell in the house of YHWH forever.

Psalm 23:1-6 is immensely comforting, but it can only be so for those who submit to YHWH as His sheep. God will lead His sheep to good pasture, still waters, and tables of prosperity. Yet His sheep must endure the valley of the shadow of death and perhaps great trial; they must depend upon YHWH their Shepherd for all things and not presume to have gained anything through the unaided work of their own hands. May we all trust in God in Christ and follow Him, the Good Shepherd, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Nephilim

The Nephilim were in the earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them: the same were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown (Genesis 6:4).

It seemed that everyone in the ancient world looked back to the heroes of their past for inspiration and direction. The Egyptians considered the gods Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Horus to have once ruled the land, and every generation would recreate the story. Assyrians and Babylonians looked back to Gilgamesh, Sargon, and other great kings of the past. Homer and others told the stories of what the Greeks deemed the Golden Age, the age of the heroes, Hercules, Jason, Theseus, Achilles, Agamemnon, Hector, Ajax, and the rest. Roman orators constantly appealed to their countrymen to return to the days of humble civic virtue embodied by Cincinnatus and others.

All of these cultures and societies venerated and highly esteemed their heroes and ancestors, often considering them worthy of emulation. For most the code of conduct by which the heroes of the past lived persevered without question or doubt. When the contemporary world could not sustain the contradictions and difficulties of living by a mythic standard (which the ancient “heroes” themselves no doubt failed to embody!), it would prove to men and women of old just how far civilization and culture had fallen from those glorious days in the past.

Ancient Israelites were well-acquainted with these stories from these other cultures. The Genesis author spoke of the mighty men of old, men of renown; he spoke of them as the Nephilim (Genesis 6:4).

Few things provoke as much contention and disputation as the Nephilim. The Nephilim were the offspring of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men,” interpreted either as certain angels who consorted with women or the descendants of Seth who comingled with the daughters of Cain. The Nephilim lived before the Flood and also afterward. In Numbers 13:33 the Israelite spies of the fifteenth century BCE testified to the existence of the Anakim in the land of Canaan, described as the descendants of the Nephilim. The Anakim all those years later were still reckoned as giants; they would be exterminated from the land of Israel in the days of Joshua (Joshua 11:21-22), and only a few remained in what would become the land of the Philistines, which might explain the height of Goliath four centuries later (1 Samuel 17:4-7).

We could endlessly speculate regarding the nature of the Nephilim and what made them the “mighty men of renown,” but to no avail, for we know nothing else about them from Scripture beyond what has been described above. Whoever they were, and whatever the nature of their power, the Genesis author’s ambivalence toward them is evident: the conjoining of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” led God to limit human life to 120 years, and they flourished in the days when the heart of man was only evil continually (Genesis 6:3, 5).

Much has been made of the parallels between Genesis and Mesopotamian narratives such as Enuma Elish and The Epic of Gilgamesh, generally attempting to diminish what is written in Genesis as a second-rate adaptation of these older stories. Yes, these stories all relate to the distant past and prove parallel, flowing from some sort of shared remembrance. Yet the Genesis author is very consciously standing against the Mesopotamian traditions in many ways; and very much so in terms of the understanding of the “heroic past.”

The Genesis author does not deny the existence of these men in the past who are hailed as “heroes” and “men of renown.” Instead, he contextualizes their situation: they did mighty things because of their origins. Their mighty deeds did not redeem them, however; their origin was not good. It should not have happened. They stand apart from the generations of men and women who followed. Their story is not one to emulate; it is a warning to heed.

What we see with the Nephilim remains consistent throughout the Hebrew Bible. The prophetic retelling of Israel’s story is a warning for future generations to avoid the idolatry and rebellion which led to judgment and exile. The faith of many men and women are held up as exemplary, yet all manifest significant character flaws which cause great distress and grief. The only unalloyed “hero” in the Hebrew Bible is YHWH.

Today Christians live in societies profoundly shaped or influenced by the cultures mentioned above; we may not honor their heroes, but the impulse to find men of some renown and to esteem them as larger than life remains. What the Greeks did to the Mycenaean warriors of the late Bronze Age Americans tend to do with their “Founding Fathers” and other exemplary leaders of the past: their virtues are extolled and magnified beyond historical reality, their vices diminished, and a divine hand is reckoned to have guided them in ways they may not have even understood. Many wish to return to the virtues of a former age and in the process turn the past into a myth, magnifying what may have been good while suppressing what was less than pleasant. Everyone seems convinced today is worse than yesterday.

Christians must look upon such narratives with a skeptical eye, understanding their own past as the Genesis author understood humanity’s shared past. Yes, there were men of renown; yet many of them may not have come from a good place, and even the most exemplary manifested tragic flaws. One man’s “golden age” is another man’s age of decrepitude and decadence. The only unalloyed hero in history is Jesus of Nazareth, the image of the invisible God, the embodiment of the Godhead (Colossians 1:15, 2:9). The things He said and did which have earned Him renown stand in strong contrast against what most “heroes” do in order to gain fame and prominence.

It is good to aspire to virtue in character; despite what the modern world may imagine, it is good to be part of a story involving a people in which one finds his or her place. As Christians, however, we will not be able to find the most compelling such story and find such virtues in any individual society; we find them embodied in Jesus of Nazareth, and ought to seek to be part of the eternal purpose God has purposed in Him. May we follow Jesus the Christ and not the hero narratives of our culture and find salvation in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Laodicea

“I counsel thee to buy of me gold refined by fire, that thou mayest become rich; and white garments, that thou mayest clothe thyself, and that the shame of thy nakedness be not made manifest; and eyesalve to anoint thine eyes, that thou mayest see” (Revelation 3:18).

The Christians in Laodicea thought they had everything. In fact, they had nothing.

God had given Jesus a vision to give to John on Patmos; it began with messages directed to the seven churches of Asia, of which Laodicea was the seventh (Revelation 1:1-3:13). Jesus had at least something good to say about the previous six churches; He has nothing good to say about Laodicea.

Laodicea was a prominent city of Asia in the Lycus River valley. Many of the things which made the city famous are spoken of in some way by Jesus: the water which came into town from hot springs outside of the city would be lukewarm by the time it arrived. The city was known for its garment manufacturing, a great medical school and a local powder used as an eyesalve, and for its great wealth, placed on important trade routes. When the city was leveled by earthquake in the 60s it did not obtain Imperial assistance to rebuild; it used its own resources. A lot of people would have considered Laodicea a great place to live; no doubt many would be tempted to hold the church and its members in high esteem. They believed in Jesus; they partook of the wealth of which the city had become famous.

And yet that wealth had blinded, paralyzed, and deformed the Christians of Laodicea spiritually. Jesus indicted them as lukewarm, being neither cold nor hot (Revelation 3:15-16): they provided neither warmth in cold nor refreshment in heat, but wavered in the middle, leading to instant revulsion. How did they manifest lukewarmness? They said to themselves they were rich and thus had need of nothing. Jesus told them they, in truth, were wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked (Revelation 3:17). Jesus brought home the message in a most devastating way: the Christians who had a lot of gold needed to buy from Jesus gold refined by fire; Christians who enjoyed a thriving garment industry needed white garments from Jesus with which to clothe themselves; Christians who had easy access to the best eyesalve of the day needed Jesus’ eyesalve so they could see (Revelation 3:18). Jesus said such things because of His love for them: He reproves and chastens those whom He loves, and so the Laodiceans ought to prove zealous and repent (Revelation 3:19).

What had gone so wrong for the Christians in Laodicea? How could they have reached the point where Jesus could say nothing positive about them? How could they have been so deceived and deluded? By the moment Jesus wrote to them, the Laodicean Christians had become as “thorny” soil, deceived by their wealth (Matthew 13:22/Mark 4:19/Luke 8:14).

Riches and wealth prove alluring for all sorts of understandable but ultimately unprofitable reasons. With wealth we are able to provide for ourselves and others, yes, but we also start putting our confidence in looking toward the future in that wealth. We feel self-sufficient and in charge if we have wealth. Other people start treating us as more valuable and honorable because of that wealth. Soon we might find ourselves seeking to preserve and grow our wealth for the sake of maintaining it. Some people are able to grow wealth without actively harming or oppressing others; far too often, however, wealth is gained by one at the expense of others. With wealth comes decadence in its many forms: often no appetite is left for seeking justice, advocating for those less fortunate, or zeal for a cause, lest these pursuits somehow jeopardize our wealth and standing. We want to please all people; we want to avoid suffering at any cost. With wealth we become fat and happy.

On a spiritual level wealth proves a disaster. God is the Source of all blessings and gifts; without what God has given, there could be no wealth (James 1:17). One’s wealth all too easily displaces God from the center of one’s life; the wealthy tend to serve Mammon more than God (Matthew 6:24). Maintaining wealth works against all of the demands of believers in Christ Jesus toward dependence on God, humility in disposition, zeal in righteousness and justice, and willingness to suffer affliction so as to grow in faith (cf. Ephesians 4:1-5:21, Colossians 3:1-17). Furthermore, even if there are spiritual warning signs to be seen, the great discomfort which would be caused by recognizing the dangers leads to strong resistance to think of them as problematic. In this way the Laodicean Christians presumed themselves rich and sufficient but proved spiritually wretched, poor, and blind.

Thus Jesus counseled them to suffer, buying gold from Him as refined by fire (cf. 1 Peter 1:6-7); they were to again turn to Him in repentance for cleansing, receiving white garments to cover their nakedness and shame; they were to prove willing to open their eyes to see their true condition before God in Christ, anointed with eyesalve so as to see (Revelation 3:18). Only through suffering would they learn true humility and faith; only by repenting could they find a way to trust in God in Jesus; all these things could only take place if they proved willing to see their true condition. And so it continues to be with the wealthy.

Jesus’ message to the church in Laodicea should be heard as a clarion call to repentance for Christians today. In the Western world all of us, even if poor by modern standards, maintain far more wealth than was present in the ancient Roman world, and enjoy far greater security, comfort, and health than even the wealthiest Romans. The church in the modern era has all too often fallen into decadence, like Laodicea, presuming itself wealthy and in need of nothing, but truly wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. The state of the church in the Western world speaks for itself.

And so Christians today do well to turn to the Lord Jesus and buy from Him that gold refined by fire, proving willing to suffer for the Cause. In the New Testament the Christians who suffered more in life and in persecution tended to be more spiritually mature than those who did not suffer. The way of Christ offers no bypass around suffering: if we wish to reach Zion, we must go through Calvary. Christians must repent of their trust in material wealth, entitlement programs, or their own ingenuity, but repent and seek clothing from Jesus. We are exposed in nakedness to all sorts of dangers even if we have nice clothing and comfortable homes; only Jesus can cover our nakedness and shame. Christians must prove willing to see their plight and not turn aside from its ugliness. How many will enter perdition because they were deceived by the riches of this world? May we prove willing to suffer for the Lord Jesus, repent of our confidence in riches, and gain the victory in faith!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Molech

And they built the high places of Baal, which are in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire unto Molech; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin (Jeremiah 32:35).

Shame is baked into the name; the horror and the agony endure.

Among YHWH’s greatest concern for His people Israel involved the assimilation of the practices of the Canaanites and other nations whom YHWH would drive out before them. Israel was commanded time and time again to not serve the gods of the Canaanites and their related nations; unfortunately, for generations, Israel would not listen. Of all the idolatrous cults of the Canaanites, none proved as pernicious and wicked as the cult of a god which was known in terms of the Semitic root mlk: Melek / Milcom / Melquart. Later Jewish scribes, embarrassed and ashamed at the deeds of their ancestors, used the consonants mlk but inserted the vowels from the Hebrew boshet, “shameful thing”; thus we know “Melek” as Molech (also Moloch).

Melek is the Hebrew word for “king”; Melek as a god was known as the “Great King.” The cult of Melek was strongly associated with the cult of Baal, as can be seen in Jeremiah’s denunciation in Jeremiah 32:35; among the Ammonites Melek was known as Milcom (Malkam; 1 Kings 11:5, 33, 2 Kings 23:13; cf. 1 Kings 11:7); the Tyrians spoke of him as Melek-Qart, “King of the City,” which would become shortened to Melqart, and remain an important deity for both Tyre and its colony Carthage for generations. We do not know much about Melek; some scholars have even suggested we should understand mlk as a type of sacrifice more than a deity. Whether a god in and of himself, or just a sacrifice to the gods, the awful and terrible fact remains: Canaanites, and Israelites, would make their children pass through the fire to mlk/Melek.

The condemnation of offering children to Melek is found in many places in the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 18:21, 20:2-5, 2 Kings 23:10, Jeremiah 7:31, 32:35). It gave comfort to many to suggest the prophets spoke in hyperbole; that children really were not offered to Melek; who could do such an abominable thing? But Greek and Roman authors spoke of child sacrifices in Carthage, and we have found remains of such sacrifices as well as inscriptions which speak of such sacrifices including the word mlk. It is horrifying; it is terrible; but, by all accounts, it actually happened. People sacrificed their beloved children to Melek.

What would motivate people to do such a terrible and awful thing? We read of its condemnation; we are not explicitly told why people would do so. Nevertheless, we can imagine some possible reasons. For generations the Canaanites had served Melek and offered their children to him, either to placate him or to gain his favor. Perhaps they believed Melek would allow them to maintain some rule or power; perhaps they hoped Melek would give them strength over their enemies, something akin to Mesha’s sacrifice of his son to Chemosh which seemed to change the calculus of the battle for Moab according to 2 Kings 3:27.

We have no reason to believe the Israelites, or the Canaanites for that matter, held their children in derision or contempt. By all accounts, they loved their children like we love ours. Yet they felt obligated to offer some of their children to Melek. It had to be done, after all, to preserve their nation. That was just the way it was in the land of Canaan. The Israelites saw it, and accepted that logic. It had to be done. Melek needed to be satiated. Beloved children would die.

Such sacrifices would go on for years; no doubt many were convinced that it worked somehow. But they “worked” until they didn’t: the Assyrians overpowered the Canaanite states, followed by the Babylonians, the Persians, and the Macedonians, and they did not offer their children to Melek. Carthaginian offerings to Melqart did not grant them victory over the Romans.

The Israelites who returned from their exile had learned their lesson. “Melek” became Molech; the place where children were offered, once considered holy to Melek, was now seen as defiled and haunted. Jeremiah prophetically had pronounced the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom, where people of Judah sacrificed their children to Melek, as the Valley of Slaughter (Jeremiah 7:31-32, 19:6-15); Israelites after the exile filled the Valley of Hinnom with garbage and burned it there; its awfulness inspired the word for hell in the New Testament, Gehenna (cf. Matthew 5:22, 29-30, 10:28).

We are rightly horrified at the prospect of slaughtering children to Molech. We cannot imagine that we would do anything of the sort. Yet we must be careful lest we overly demonize our ancestors in the faith; we might miss how we have made our own forms of Molech, and prove blind to what may condemn us in the end.

We could perhaps discover many forms of Molech in the modern world (confidence in military intervention in other places, corruption of children through abuse or instruction in deviant forms of sexuality, treatment of the poor, marginalized, and the oppressed, etc.), but in the Western world we should grapple with the prospect that we have made freedom a type of Molech in many ways. Every year scores of children are slaughtered in the womb in the name of a woman’s choice regarding her body. Some of the stories are tragic (women coerced into abortion by relatives, either her own or those of the father); others are horrifying in their callousness (women who think nothing of getting an abortion in order to demonstrate their rights). And yet, for those who advocate for women to maintain the right to abort in the name of choice/freedom, such is the necessary sacrifice for the cause. Those children have to die, after all, to preserve reproductive freedom. That is just the way it is done in the Western world. Likewise, every year scores of children and other innocent people are slaughtered with people with guns. Some of the stories are tragic (children coming upon a family member’s gun and accidentally killing someone); others are horrifying in their callousness (mass shooters, especially mass shooters in schools). And yet, for those who advocate an absolute right to maintain whatever arsenal a citizen might desire in the name of choice/freedom, such is the necessary sacrifice for the cause. Those children have to die, after all, to preserve our Second Amendment freedoms. That is just the way it is done in America.

No doubt people today believe their sacrifices to the Molech of freedom are convinced that it is working somehow. It might “work” until it doesn’t. And then it will be our descendants who might well look in horror and astonishment at us for what we justified and did, just as we look at our ancestors in our nation and in the faith in horror and astonishment for what they justified and did.

Israel was wrong from the beginning; Melek did not exist. YHWH, and YHWH alone, would give Israel blessings and victory and strength; setbacks, defeat, and weakness were due to an unwillingness to put that trust in YHWH. Molech’s danger remains, not because Molech exists, but because we are deceived into setting up Molechs and serving them, feeling powerless to do otherwise, while at the same time we give Molech the power over us. We prove willing to put fealty to a principle or an idea over natural care and compassion for people. We become afraid at the prospect of various dangers, and thus prove willing to justify all kinds of awful and terrible behavior so as to maintain the veneer of safety and comfort. We might look to legislation to fix things, but legislation can only try to enforce certain norms of behavior; it does not fix the underlying cultural trends which would justify or commend those behaviors in the first place. If we will stop serving “Molech,” we must repent, and no longer put our confidence in the ways of the world imprisoned by the principalities and powers, but to trust in the God who made us and in His Son who triumphed over the powers and principalities in His death and resurrection. It may lead to our alienation, persecution, and suffering; our vindication will come from God. May we serve the One True God and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Lord’s Prayer (1)

After this manner therefore pray ye:
Our Father who art in heaven / Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done, as in heaven, so on earth.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one (Matthew 6:9-13).

The Lord’s prayer is extremely familiar to many people, profoundly simple in presentation, yet profoundly compelling in its substance.

Jesus, in the middle of what has been popularly deemed the Sermon on the Mount, condemned those forms of Israelite “religious” behavior, almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, which is done to be seen by men; such people have received their reward, but it does not come from His Father (Matthew 6:1-17). In terms of prayer Jesus warned against both praying so as to be seen as holy by others and using vain repetitions presuming to be heard by uttering many words, the latter of which was a common practice among the Gentiles (Matthew 6:5-8). Jesus commended praying in secret, encouraging people to remember that God knows what they need before they ask Him (Matthew 6:6, 8). He then provided what has become known as the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 as a model prayer.

Jesus offered His prayer as a model prayer: He encouraged His disciples to pray “like” this, not necessarily this precisely (Matthew 6:9). There is no transgression in praying the Lord’s prayer as written or as liturgically set forth (as we will discuss below); but it is not required to pray the exact words of the Lord’s prayer. In many respects Jesus provided the types of things for which we are to pray as much as actual words to pray.

Jesus began His prayer by addressing the Father in heaven and the holiness of His name (Matthew 6:9). Jesus encouraged direct petition and appeal to God in the name, or by the authority, of Jesus Himself (John 16:23-24). He is our “Father in heaven,” not an earthly father, although the parallel account of the Lord’s prayer in Luke 11:2 makes no reference to heaven. To “hallow” is to make or declare something as holy; Christians do well to proclaim God’s name as holy, and to show appropriate reverence before Him (cf. 1 Peter 1:15-17). Prayer demands a balancing act: God would have us speak with Him as our Father, and thus in great intimacy in relationship, but also as the Holy One worthy of honor and reverence, thus not glibly or casually. To emphasize God’s holiness so that people are afraid to even address God in prayer warps what ought to be a strong relationship; to emphasize the intimacy in relationship so as to justify speaking or addressing God as if a good buddy disrespects the sanctity of the Name. In prayer we do well to thank God for all His blessings and provisions for us, and ground our expectations from Him in that light (cf. Colossians 3:17, 1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Jesus asked for God’s Kingdom to come (Matthew 6:10). Matthew has Jesus speak of the “Kingdom of Heaven” throughout (cf. Matthew 4:17, 23); His words here indicate how “heaven” in such verses is a way of speaking about the God who dwells and reigns from heaven (cf. Mark 1:15, Luke 4:43). A kingdom is that over which a king reigns; the Kingdom of God, therefore, would involve the coming of the reign of God. What would it mean for God’s reign to come? As Jesus continued: that the will of God be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). Jesus would thus have Christians pray for God’s will and reign to be manifest on earth as fully as it is in heaven; as long as evil and sin reign on earth, this prayer proves necessary. Yes, the Kingdom was established in Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension (Colossians 1:13, Revelation 5:9-10); and yet it does not take long to recognize that God’s will is not being done on earth as it is in heaven. Christians should pray for more people to hear the Gospel and obey it (Romans 1:16); we should pray for God to strengthen His people to better discern His purposes in Christ and to realize them (Ephesians 3:14-21).

Jesus asked for God to give us our “daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). “Daily” translates Greek epiousion; the term connotes the needful thing, being for today. In this way Jesus expects believers to give voice to ask God for the basic needs of life: food, drink, shelter, etc. Far too often people take these things for granted, or might presume that God is too busy or great to be bothered by such trifles. God is the Creator of all; everything we are and have ultimately came from God, and thus we are totally dependent on God for everything (James 1:17). We should ask God to provide for us the things needful for the day, being careful to delineate what proves needful from what proves superfluous.

Jesus exhorted people to pray for forgiveness as they have forgiven others (Matthew 6:12). Jesus spoke literally of debts (Greek opheilema), yet referred to trespass or transgression (cf. Matthew 6:13-15). Asking God for the forgiveness of sin is a crucial element of prayer: we continually fall short of God’s glory, we continually transgress or not do the right even as we grow in holiness and sanctification, and we remain dependent on God’s forgiveness (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8). God is faithful to forgive us if we truly and fully confess what we have done wrong and when we have not done what is good and right (1 John 1:9). Yet Jesus has also inserted a bit of a “poison pill” in how He framed forgiveness: to ask God for forgiveness of sin as we have forgiven others may prove problematic for us if we have not proven willing to forgive others of their sins against us. We might end up not really praying for forgiveness at all!

Jesus concluded His prayer with an appeal to not be led into temptation but to be delivered from the Evil One (Matthew 6:13). We should not imagine that Jesus suggested God Himself leads people into temptation: God tempts no one in such ways (James 1:13). The appeal instead is for God to not allow us to be led into temptation, to either intervene Himself for us against the forces of evil or to strengthen us to endure them. The traditional liturgical form of the Lord’s prayer asks to be delivered from evil; the presence of the definite article indicates that it is the Evil One, Satan or the Devil, under discussion, not evil in the abstract. In this way Jesus encourages Christians to pray to resist the temptations of sin and for strength to overcome the forces of evil (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:13, Ephesians 6:10-18).

The liturgical form of the Lord’s prayer concludes with “for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen,” present in many manuscripts of Matthew, but not in the most ancient authorities. It is right and appropriate to give God such glory, as it is present in many doxologies throughout the New Testament (cf. Ephesians 3:20-21, 1 Timothy 6:16); but here it is a later addition, inserting into the text a doxology which would have been used when the Lord’s prayer was recited as part of the daily office.

Jesus’ words in the Lord’s prayer are few, but they say quite a lot. They provide a paradigm by which we may understand the types of things for which we ought to pray. May we continually pray to the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus in ways consistent with the Lord’s prayer, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Good and Pleasant Unity

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is / for brethren to dwell together in unity! (Psalm 133:1)

Few joys prove as sweet as harmony in relational unity.

The middle of Book V of the Psalms is dedicated to “psalms of ascent” (Psalms 120:1-134:3). These would be psalms for Israelites to sing as they made the journey up to Jerusalem in general or specifically to the Temple complex on Mount Zion. Most of the psalms of ascent praise YHWH for His greatness and for manifesting Himself among His people on Zion, or represent praises of Zion itself. Yet Psalm 133:1-3, tucked in toward the end of the psalms of ascent, is a meditation on the benefits of unity among brothers.

David proclaimed how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity (Psalm 133:1); he compared its pleasantry to the anointing oil which would run down Aaron’s head, beard, and onto his garments, and the dew of Mount Hermon coming upon Zion (Psalm 133:2-3). In Exodus 30:22-33 YHWH described the oil of anointing and its purpose to Moses; in Leviticus 8:12 Moses actually anoints Aaron as high priest “to sanctify him.” In a semi-arid climate like Israel, mountain dew provides a welcome and relieving form of moisture which allows for plants to grow and flourish; Hermon, in the north, in antiquity maintained snow all year round, and it would have been possible for moist air from Hermon to provide dew on Mount Zion near Jerusalem.

While we may not have chosen these images to illustrate the beauty of relational unity, they remain powerful and profound if we meditate upon them. Through them David asserted the holiness and refreshment which relational unity provides.

Holiness would be on the mind of all those ascending to Jerusalem; the journey would have no doubt been for one of the three annual festivals for which all Israelites were expected to stand before YHWH (Passover/Feast of Unleavened Bread, Feast of Weeks/Shauvot/Pentecost, Feast of Booths; Deuteronomy 16:16-17). Aaron was Moses’ brother and an Israelite; he only became the high priest, set apart from the people to God’s service, once the anointing oil was placed upon his head. The anointing oil as envisioned upon Aaron is the moment of dedication and consecration, the powerful ritual of setting Aaron apart for YHWH’s service, a reminder of YHWH’s covenant with Israel and Israel’s relationship with YHWH.

Aaron was consecrated with oil running down his head; in its own way, YHWH refreshed Zion with dew from Hermon falling upon its crest. Dew can be collected and used for drinking; plants take in the dew and provide their fruit. Dew is a little bit of moisture in a dry place; it is a little bit of refreshment in the midst of bitterness; it is a sign of life in the midst of barrenness.

David spoke of unity among brothers (Psalm 133:1). No doubt the primary and first referent is among brothers in the flesh, and by extension within the family. Such an application makes good contextual sense: Israelites did not go up to Jerusalem by themselves; they would travel in family groups (cf. Luke 2:41-45). We can imagine a caravan featuring an extended family of brothers with their parents, wives, and children negotiating the narrow roads up to Jerusalem; even under the best of family circumstances there would have been moments of friction and conflict, let alone if any previous animosity existed between them. The journey would have provided ample time to have it out, reconcile, or perhaps unfortunately lead to greater division or separation. In such an environment Psalm 133:1-3 is an exhortative reminder of the value of family, the benefit of unity within the group, and would hopefully orient the mind of all on the journey to put aside their differences, contextualize their momentary frustrations, and appreciate the benefits of having each other and maintaining unity among one another. Brothers dwelling in unity can support each other, refresh each other, benefit each other; they can more easily prosper, and their enemies will be put to shame. Brothers fighting each other cause great stress, strain, and perhaps impoverishment or even death. Unity is far more pleasant and desirable!

We can draw similar applications within families today; Ephesians 5:22-6:4 sets forth how husbands and wives, parents and children can dwell in unity. In Christ we can also extend the application to the church, since we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, fellow members of the household of God (Ephesians 2:19-22).

Unity among Christians is holy and refreshing. Christians are supposed to be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3): our unity does not spring from our own striving, but from what God has accomplished in Jesus, making us all into one man (Ephesians 2:11-18). It is a unique and awesome privilege to be made a part of the people of God and invited to share in the relational unity which marks the Godhead (John 17:20-23)! God manifests His plan in Christ in the unity of the church, displaying it before the powers and principalities in the heavenly places (Ephesians 3:10-11). Meanwhile, the world is full of brokenness, alienation, and division; it has ever been, and ever will be. To see people of different backgrounds, socio-economic standing, and abilities loving one another and working together to glorify God in Christ has immense appeal and power. Relational unity is an oasis of joy in a bitter, barren land.

Unfortunately all too often holiness and unity are held in opposition. In the eyes of many, you can have one or the other, but not both: if you want to be holy, unity is out the window; if you seek unity, holiness and integrity must be compromised. And yet God is both the standard of holiness and relationally unified in Himself (John 17:20-23, 1 Peter 1:15-16). God brings holiness and unity together in Himself and yearns for holiness and unity be brought together in His people. Unity is possible if the people of God would only humble themselves, trust in God, seek one another’s benefit, and not insist on one’s own way (Philippians 2:1-4, Philippians 4:1-3).

Unity is rarely comfortable; unity is hard work. Unity demands that we suffer the inadequacies and weaknesses of others in the recognition that others must suffer our inadequacies and weaknesses. But in unity there is love, acceptance, and strength. When we are truly one with each other we know where we belong and we draw strength from our standing and our connection from others. We do well, therefore, to proclaim Psalm 133:1-3, meditate upon it, and allow it to orient our thinking about the blessings of unity. May we enjoy the pleasurable benefits of unity among brethren, holy and refreshing, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Laying Down Our Lives

Hereby know we love, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren (1 John 3:16).

“I would die for you.”

Such a line makes for a very touching moment in a romantic movie, or an inspiring one if it involved a political leader fighting a worthy cause. It would seem quite strange if used toward one who was evil or vile, an enemy, or someone we otherwise have reasons to dislike.

And yet Jesus laid down His life for us (1 John 3:16); He gave of Himself for those who did evil, who did not understand His work and purpose, and who acted against God and His purposes (Romans 5:6-11).

John is writing to exhort Christians to love one another (1 John 3:11-4:21). Cain is offered up as an example of one who hated his brother: his brother’s works were righteous, and his were not, and in jealousy Cain killed him (1 John 3:11-12; cf. Genesis 4:1-8). For this reason Christians who do what is right should not be surprised when the world which loves the wrong hates them; Christians can know they have passed out of death to life based on their love for one another (1 John 3:13-14). Those who do not love abide in death; whoever hates his brother is a murderer, not having eternal life in them, because they have no concern for the welfare of their brother (1 John 3:15). And so John points to Jesus as the means by which we know love: He laid down His life for us, and therefore we as Christians should lay down our lives for one another (1 John 3:16). He will go on to critique his fellow Christians: if a Christian has the world’s goods, and sees his or her fellow Christian going without, and yet shuts up his or her heart and compassion from them, how can they say they really love their brother (1 John 3:17)? Christian love should be in deed and truth, not with mere words (1 John 3:18).

No doubt early Christians were as convinced as Christians are today regarding love for one another. We all know we are supposed to love one another, right? But do we really and actually love one another, or do we just profess it? That is why John writes as he does in 1 John 3:11-18. Christians are inspired by the lofty ideals of love; they, no doubt, are willing to lay down their lives for one another as Jesus laid down His life for us. But in the very practical matter of seeing a brother in need, then what? It can be easy to excuse or justify why some have an abundance and others have nothing, and nothing is done to assist. That, John emphasizes, is not love; that’s hatred, of the world and Cain and the Evil One. If you are so willing to lay down your life for one another, why not start by providing something for a fellow Christian in need?

Nevertheless 1 John 3:16 proves almost as famous, and just as easily taken out of its context and proof-texted, as John 3:16. It provides a powerful message and a good reminder: as Jesus laid down His life for us and thus manifested His love toward us, we should prove willing to do the same for one another (cf. Matthew 20:25-28). But what does that mean? What did it look like for Jesus to lay down His life for others?

John makes it clear why Jesus laid down His life for His people: to be the propitiation for their sins (1 John 4:10). He loved them; He did not want them to experience hellfire; He wished to reconcile them with Himself and their God (John 13:1-3, 17:20-23, Romans 5:6-11). He suffered the evil; He suffered violence; and in suffering the evil and violence He overcame sin and death (Romans 8:1-8, Colossians 2:15). Jesus was a pure and holy sacrifice; He opened not his mouth, and proved to be the Suffering Servant in every respect (Isaiah 42:13-53:12, 1 Peter 2:18-25). His death was as much for those who crucified Him as those who were devoted to Him (Luke 23:34).

Christians following the Lord Jesus are not sinless, and yet even their sacrifices, up to and including death, have value and standing before God. Paul considered the suffering he experienced as making up for what was lacking in the afflictions of the church; his tribulations were for the glory of those who believed (Ephesians 3:13, Colossians 1:24). Thus, in some way, Christians can suffer for one another; we can imagine that within the early church some Christians suffered mightily so that others might be spared. Yet even then they did not retaliate in kind; they knew they needed to suffer as Jesus suffered if they would obtain the same victory Jesus did (Romans 8:17-18).

This image of sacrifice is so powerful that it is easily taken up and applied in other contexts never intended by the Lord Jesus. In the United States of America, as in many other nation-states, the willingness of a person to go and fight and give up their lives in conflict for the advancement of the nation-state and its ideals is highly commended. In this way a picture is painted of a person who goes down, guns blazing, to protect or defend an ideal, a nation, or a person. We may appreciate what a given nation-state provides, and even appreciate the willingness to give one’s life for the advancement of that nation-state’s purpose, but that person has not laid down their life as Jesus laid down His. Jesus did not die seeking to harm others; He died for the salvation of all mankind. Anyone who dies in combat or in a context in which violence is returned for violence is seeking the harm of others, however merited that harm may seem. One may think one’s sacrifice in war or in defense valorous; it rarely seems as valorous to those on the other side who would have been the ones killed or injured otherwise.

For Christians the cross of Calvary always stands before them, the way forward to find life indeed. It is a path that will involve personal hardship, suffering, and for some, even death for the cause of Christ. Yet the cross of Christ was not an instrument used to harm others; it was the means by which God worked to reconcile the world to Himself in Jesus, the terrible criminal as well as the “good, upstanding” citizen. If called upon, the Christian ought to willingly lay down his or her life for the brethren, as Jesus did; such a calling does not justify harming others in the process. May we love one another as Jesus has loved us, loving in deed and in truth, and thus obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Sword

And behold, one of them that were with Jesus stretched out his hand, and drew his sword, and smote the servant of the high priest, and struck off his ear.
Then saith Jesus unto him, “Put up again thy sword into its place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matthew 26:51-52).

The great confrontation had finally come.

The disciples had eagerly awaited the moment when they knew Jesus would inaugurate His Kingdom. They had been promised it would happen in Jerusalem; they had arrived in triumph; and now, finally, Jesus was confronted with the power of the religious authorities and the Romans. Now, they were no doubt certain, Jesus would rise up and defeat the Roman menace.

Peter was ready. He had promised Jesus he would not be offended by Jesus and would even die for Him (Matthew 26:33, 35); at his side was a sword, one of the two swords which Jesus had commended for them not long before (Luke 22:35-38).

And then all of a sudden it was not going according to the plan they had imagined. Judas had betrayed Jesus; the men with him laid hands on Jesus (Matthew 26:50). The disciples wondered: should they attack (Luke 22:49)? But then Peter then did what Peter was good at doing: he acted. Peter unsheathed the sword and cut off the ear of Malchus, the servant of the high priest; he did so perhaps to protect Jesus, or to begin the battle (Matthew 26:51, Mark 14:47, Luke 22:50, John 18:10).

Yet Jesus would have none of it. He had a cup He had to drink; the Scriptures had to be fulfilled (Matthew 26:54, Luke 22:51, John 18:11). Jesus reasoned with Peter: could He not call upon God who would send twelve legions of angels (Matthew 26:53)? Peter well knew the story of Israel: one angel struck down an Assyrian army of 185,000 men (1 Kings 19:35); a Roman legion included around 6,000 men, so how much more could an army of 72,000 angels wreak upon the earth? Jesus then healed the servant of the high priest, and was led away to trial, suffering, and execution (Luke 22:51).

But in Matthew’s Gospel, before Jesus speaks of legions of angels and the need to fulfill Scripture, Jesus stopped Peter with a powerful premise: he ought to put his sword away, for all who take the sword shall perish with the sword (Matthew 26:52). This is not just about this night and this moment. This is about the way of the world and the way of Jesus.

The sword is the way of the world. Ever since the fall of man, people have sought to gain advantage over others through coercive and violent force. Jesus and Peter understood the way of the sword very well: they lived under Roman oppression. Jesus was not wrong to point out that power gained with the sword must be maintained by the sword: He was about to experience the full force of the power of the sword at the hands of the religious authorities and the Romans (Matthew 26:55-27:50). The Romans had overcome the Macedonians; the Macedonians had overcome the Babylonians, who had overcome the Assyrians. A day would come when the Romans would finally be overcome themselves. Peter nursed the hope of many Israelites that God would grant them victory over the Romans, but it would involve that same sword, and would just as easily be lost by that sword. Within forty years of Jesus’ death the Israelites would take up the sword in a vain attempt to gain freedom from the pagan oppressor by it; they would die at the hands of Roman swords. Jesus’ warning became prophecy.

Matthew, throughout his Gospel, contrasts the way of the world, the way of the sword, with the way of Christ. The Pharisees and the Jewish establishment understood the Law in carnal terms; the way of the Kingdom of God in Christ demanded greater righteousness (Matthew 5:1-7:27). The Roman rulers lorded their authority over others; it would not be so among those serving in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 20:25-28). The Israelites would choose the Messiah of their own desire, Jesus Barabbas, an insurrectionist, over the Messiah whom God had sent them: Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 27:17-23). Jesus’ way involved humility, service, suffering, even death (Matthew 16:24-25, 20:25-28). Jesus’ Kingdom would not be inaugurated by His servants wielding the swords against others, as so many other kingdoms had begun; Jesus’ Kingdom would be inaugurated because the sword came for Jesus Himself.

Jesus’ words to Peter ring out to faithful believers in Christ to this day. God has empowered earthly governments to render justice and wield the sword (Romans 13:1-7); they will also all go the way of all kingdoms on the earth. For the most part the people of God attempt to live by peaceful means and seek to advance God’s purposes in ways which glorify Him. But what happens when danger comes upon the people of God? What then?

Peter learned the lesson well. We have no record of Peter ever wielding the sword against another person again, even though his life was endangered on many occasions (cf. Acts 12:1-19). When threatened by the Sanhedrin, he and his fellow Apostles prayed to God for power to continue to boldly proclaim the Gospel (Acts 4:24-30). A few years before the Romans did unto him what they had done unto Jesus, Peter wrote to Christians of Asia Minor, exhorting them to suffer persecution and general evil for having done good, not to revile or repay evil for evil, but bless, because Jesus provided them an example, suffering unjustly but entrusting Himself to God who judges justly (1 Peter 2:18-25, 3:9-16, 4:1-19).

Peter and the Christians of Asia Minor found themselves in far more dangerous circumstances than most of us could even imagine. But they did not resort to violence; Peter vividly remembered what the Lord had told him, and he lived and taught accordingly. One can go far in conversation with words and acts of love and hospitality, but once one turns to the sword and violence, the affair will be decided by violence. In this way those who take the sword shall perish by it. It is not for us to trust in the ways of this world, but to follow the way of God in Christ in His Kingdom, the way of humility, service, and suffering, even, if need be, unto death (1 John 3:16, Revelation 12:11). May we, as Peter, leave the violent coercive force of the world in its sheath, and put our trust in God in Christ and follow Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry