A Time For Lament and Confession

We have sinned with our fathers / we have committed iniquity / we have done wickedly (Psalm 106:6).

Israel understood the importance of a time for lament.

The fourth book of the Psalms began with Moses’ meditation on God’s timetable for the fulfillment of His promises (Psalm 90:1-17); it could be said that the Psalter placed it there as an “answer” to the open questions of Heman and Ethan in Psalms 88 and 89. Most of the fourth book of Psalms praises God; it is quite “theological” for the Psalms (Psalms 91-104). The Psalter closes the fourth book with two parallel psalms primarily about the Exodus and Wilderness wanderings: Psalm 105:1-45 extols YHWH for the mighty signs and wonders He wrought in delivering His people. Psalm 106 seems to begin in a similar vein, praising YHWH for His hesed (steadfast love / covenant loyalty) and mighty deeds for His people (Psalm 106:1-2). The psalmist declares the righteous blessed, and asked YHWH to remember him when YHWH shows favor to His people and gives them prosperity, so he can rejoice and glory with his fellow Israelites (Psalm 106:3-5).

But Psalm 106 is no mere repetition of Psalm 105. The psalmist confesses his sinfulness and the sinfulness of their fathers (Psalm 106:6). A retelling of the events of the Exodus and Wilderness wanderings followed, yet this time emphasizing the people’s disobedience and lack of faith toward YHWH: forgetting His works, desiring meat, making a golden calf, despising the land of the inheritance, yoking themselves to Baal of Peor, and tempting Moses at Meribah (Psalm 106:7-33; cf. Exodus 14:1-Numbers 25:18). The psalmist then confessed Israel’s continued sinfulness when they entered the land: they mixed with the nations, they served other gods, they sacrificed innocent children, and they polluted the land with blood (Psalm 106:34-39; cf. Judges 1:1-2 Kings 25:1). On account of these things YHWH’s anger was kindled, and He gave them into the hands of their enemies who oppressed them; He would deliver them, and yet they would return to rebellion (Psalm 106:40-43).

Yet the psalmist drew encouragement from YHWH’s hesed, remembering His people in their distress, and caused them to be pitied by others (Psalm 106:44-46). The psalmist has confessed the iniquity of his forefathers, identified himself as complicit with them, and ended by calling out to YHWH to be saved, gathered in from all the nations (back to Israel) so they can give thanks to His name and glory in His praise (Psalm 106:47).

In Psalm 105 and Psalm 106 we see a sharp contrast between YHWH’s great love, covenant loyalty, and mighty deeds and Israel’s persistent rebelliousness and sinfulness. The fourth book of the Psalms glorifies and praises YHWH; we can understand why Psalm 105 would be included, but may find Psalm 106 to provide an odd conclusion. Yet, for Israel in exile, the conclusion is appropriate: Israel has learned from its experiences. They have come to understand that the God who did all these mighty deeds for Israel had every right to hand them over to their adversaries; God has not proven untrue to Himself. The psalmist gave voice to Israel to confess the sins of their forefathers, and by extension their own sins, so as to acknowledge their immorality and rebellion in the past, to demonstrate the fruit of repentance, and to beg YHWH for favor so as to obtain full restoration.

It is very easy for us today to find Psalm 106, especially Psalm 106:6, to be a bit unsettling. The author of Psalm 106 is not given but its perspective is consistent with the Exile; therefore, he was not among the generation who perished in the Wilderness, or lived in the days of the judges or early kings. For all we know he may have been born and lived in the days of the Exile, and did not personally participate in any of these sins! Did not Ezekiel establish that people are held accountable only for their own sins, and not the sins of their fathers or children (Ezekiel 18:1-32)?

Ezekiel speaks truth: when we all stand before God on the day of judgment, we will be judged for what we have done in the flesh (Romans 2:5-11, 14:4-12). And yet, from the beginning, Israel understood themselves as fully participating in their own history. Such is why Moses speaks to Israel in the first person plural throughout Deuteronomy 1:1-3:29, even though the people to whom he spoke were not the same individuals who actually experienced the Exodus. YHWH spoke of generational consequences for both righteousness and transgression in Exodus 20:5-6; a person is strongly influenced by their ancestors and cultural environment, a truth being rediscovered in our own day through epigenetic and psychological research. The psalmist of Psalm 106 saw his relationship to Israel and his forefathers very much in the same way: whatever he experiences is directly connected to what his forefathers had done, and therefore he is sharing in its guilt, if nothing else, in terms of its consequences. This psalmist is not alone: Daniel confessed similar sins, identifying himself with his forefathers, in Daniel 9:4-8, and Ezra began his prayer regarding the people’s intermarriages in the same vein in Ezra 9:5-9. Israel lived in a delicate balancing act: yes, each individual would stand or fall before God based on what they had done in the flesh and whether they died in sin or in repentance, even if Israel found that unjust (Ezekiel 18:1-32), but no Israelite lived in a vacuum, shaped by his environment and the inheritance, for good or ill, he received from his ancestors, and in which he or she took part by virtue of living as an Israelite.

As Christians we are invited to look at Israel according to the flesh as our spiritual ancestors; we are to learn from their examples so as to not fall by the same patterns of disobedience (1 Corinthians 10:1-12). But we can also draw strength from more positive examples. Confession and lament are not pleasant or comfortable activities. We may want to claim the positive elements of what we have inherited from our ancestors, but we want to quickly and fully jettison all the uncomfortable and ugly things which were handed down to us. We should indeed want to escape from the iniquity of the past; such is the essence of repentance. But Israel was wise to understand the necessity of sitting in lament, for it is all too easy to suppress the negative parts of our history to the point where it is forgotten, and we presume that we and our forefathers are more righteous than is justifiable. As long as Israel lived in denial about its past and present, Israel persisted in rebellion; Israel only made strides in serving God faithfully when they were willing to confront their sins and the sins of their ancestors, confess them, lament over them, and then appeal to YHWH for His covenant loyalty and favor. So it is for the individual Christian (James 1:22-25); so it is for the people of God individually and collectively (Ephesians 2:1-18, Titus 3:3-7).

For better and worse we are the descendants of our forefathers according to the flesh and according to the Spirit. We do well to uphold their stands of righteousness and persist in it while lamenting their failures in iniquity and turn away from them. We do well to consider ourselves to see what things we may be thinking, feeling, or doing which may bring shame and reproach among future generations of Christians so as to repent of them and give Gentiles past and present no reason to blaspheme (cf. Romans 2:24, 1 Corinthians 10:12). May we confess our sins, lament our iniquity, repent, and find favor in the sight of God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Body of Christ

Now ye are the body of Christ, and severally members thereof (1 Corinthians 12:27).

Christians not only represent the Lord Jesus Christ; they are to understand themselves as His body.

The Christians in Corinth were able to exercise spiritual gifts; it was evident they handled these gifts with great immaturity, using them to show off and to presume a greater level of spirituality than that of others. Paul attempted to explain to them another way: the way of love, the exercise of spiritual gifts to encourage and build up the whole as opposed to the elevation of the individual (1 Corinthians 12:1-14:40). As part of that exhortation Paul sought to focus the Corinthians on their participation in and as the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31. Paul goes well beyond suggesting the metaphor; he elaborates on the connections and applications at length. A body has many individual parts but remains a coherent whole; so with the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-14). The individual parts of the body have different, unique, and important functions, and each is necessary to the well-being of the whole; so it is with the body of Christ, in which God has put every part according to His pleasure (1 Corinthians 12:15-18). Different parts of the body need each other to work most effectively; so it is with the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:19-21). In fact, many of the most necessary functions of the body are the most hidden and “modest,” and given greater honor on account of their “humility,” and so the body of Christ is to maintain care and concern for its members, with each suffering and rejoicing along with those who suffer and rejoice, so that no division may exist in the body (1 Corinthians 12:22-25). In short, the human body is sustained because its constituent parts perform their individual roles while supporting the roles of others in an organic unity; it could be said that the parts have care for each other, recognizing the importance of all for proper function, and so it must be in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:26).

Paul manifestly used a metaphor to describe the church as a body; we are not physically interconnected with each other. But we should not deprecate what Paul says as “mere metaphor,” as if its metaphorical nature denies its substantive reality: Paul expected the Christians in Corinth to work together as a body, to care for each other as a body, and to give each member the respect and honor in valuation as critical parts functioning to build themselves up as a body. This is not a one-off message, either; Paul elaborated in similar ways in Romans 12:3-8 and Ephesians 4:11-16. In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 Paul spoke of the Lord’s Supper as communion, a joint participation in the body and blood of Christ, because we who consume the one bread and cup are the one body of and in Christ. It is possible to literalize Paul’s metaphor to the extreme in damaging ways, but it is hard to overstate the importance and the power of the image: Christians are the body of Christ. They do well to act like it.

Our age is a hyper-individualist one. Everyone seems to glorify and advance the standing of the individual. Western philosophy has led us to the point in which man is the measure of all things, and his or her individual judgment is elevated above all else. Over the past few hundred years we have seen a consistent pattern of advancing the interests of individuals along with a corresponding denigration and thus weakening of communal bonds and norms. “Middle class values,” especially as expressed in America, exalt the individual’s ability to rise above their station and to carve out a more prosperous life for him or herself and the “nuclear family,” yet without concern for the effects of such elevation on a local community, the larger community, or the environment. Political partisans argue about where individual rights, control, and power are to be exercised, but underneath never truly question the assumption. Likewise, for some reason or another everyone decries and laments the loss of community and shared values, yet none prove willing to question or challenge the cult of the individual to a sufficient extent to stem the tide. Some seek to hold on to both at the same time, and yet time and again we see that such is impossible. One can seek the interests of each individual, or one can seek the best interests of a community as a whole; the two at some juncture will always be at odds.

We are thus stuck in a similar predicament to that of the Corinthian Christians: the glorification and advancement of the individual comes at the cost of the betterment of the whole. The Corinthian Christians could use the spiritual gifts God gave them to exalt themselves and advance their selfish purposes, or they could use them humbly to serve one another and build up the body; they could not do both. This challenge was originally laid at the disciples’ feet by Jesus in Matthew 20:25-28: the world is always about glorification and advancement of one’s individual or small tribal interests to the expense of all others, but in the Kingdom of God in Christ this cannot be so. Those who would be in God’s Kingdom in Jesus must seek to serve and better others, as Christ Himself did. They must put the interest of others before their own (Philippians 2:1-4). One cannot seek the welfare of the body of Christ while seeking to exalt and glorify oneself.

Christians therefore must be careful regarding the elevation and exaltation of the individual. It is true that far too often communities have gone aside to the doctrines and spirits of demons, turning into cults or religious institutions which suppressed and did not advance the truth. As individuals we must come to God in Christ for salvation; we have our individual roles and functions in life that are independent of the work of the corporate collective of the people of God (Acts 2:38-41, 1 Timothy 5:16). But we must not miss the overriding emphasis of the New Testament: salvation is only in the body of Christ; God works through His people, but has always worked through His people for the sake of the whole. We may come to Jesus to be saved as individuals, but we cannot find salvation independent of His body; instead, we are to become one with each other as we become one with God in Christ (John 17:20-23)!

As long as the individual is elevated the community will suffer. As long as the individual insists on his own way, he or she is still of the world, and not acting according to Christ. We are members of the body of Christ; we have our individual efforts, but all our efforts are to be unto the benefit and advancement of the purposes of the whole. We must care for each other and value each other. Such is easier said than done; such is often quite messy and complicated in practice. People are hard to love. But that’s what God in Christ is all about: loving people and bringing relational unity where there has been alienation. May we seek to build up the body of Christ above all else, and sublimate our interests to that of the whole so as to glorify God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Darius the Mede

Then [Darius the Mede] commanded, and they brought Daniel, and cast him into the den of lions.
Now the king spake and said unto Daniel, “Thy God whom thou servest continually, he will deliver thee” (Daniel 6:16).

The story in Daniel 6:1-28 is best known as “Daniel and the Lion’s Den.” It could just as easily be called “Darius the Mede and Court Treachery.”

Only in Daniel do we meet Darius the Mede. He features prominently in the final narrative recorded for us in Daniel’s life in Daniel 5:31-6:28; in his first year Daniel perceived the end of the seventy years spoken of by Jeremiah and he also speaks to him words of comfort and protection about the future (Daniel 9:1, 11:1).

Darius the Mede proves to be a source of frustration and vexation for those who correlate the narrative of Daniel with other historical accounts. The author of Daniel presumes Darius the Mede to be a king with authority not only over Babylon but also over other parts of the Empire, and fixes his reign at the point of transition from the Neo-Babylonian Empire to the Achaemenid Persian Empire (ca. 539 BCE; Daniel 5:31-6:5). And yet we have no other sources who attest to such a character. According to other Near Eastern and Greek sources, Nabonidus is the final ruler of Babylon, and he is defeated by Cyrus the Persian, who himself had previously overthrown the Median authority over modern-day Iran. One might imagine that the author of Daniel refers to the Achaemenid emperor Darius I Hystaspes, but he was but an adolescent when these events took place, was Persian and not a Mede, as recognized by other Biblical authors, and only began ruling in 522 BCE (cf. Ezra 6:1-15, Nehemiah 12:22). Some suggest Darius is another name for Astyages the last Median king or perhaps one of his sons, but evidence is lacking. Some would understand Daniel 6:28 to read “Darius, even Cyrus the Persian,” and identify Darius as Cyrus, but we are given no reason why there would be such confusion, and why would the author of Daniel consider him a Mede and a Persian at the same time? Association between Darius the Mede and Ugbaru, Gobyras in Greek, the man made governor of Babylon by Cyrus, may be more compelling. It also remains possible that Darius the Mede existed as a deputy king with great authority for a time who served at Cyrus’ pleasure and is otherwise unknown to history.

But we should not allow the vexation we feel at making sense of Darius the Mede to cause us to miss his compelling story in Daniel 5:31-6:28. The author of Daniel does not share our concerns; the story of Darius the Mede is important for Israel and indeed the people of God in exile.

Darius may be a Mede, a pagan ruler, but he is portrayed sympathetically and as one with great sympathy for Daniel. He stands in strong contrast to the Chaldean kings of Babylon before him: Darius proved humble and held Daniel and his God in great esteem, whereas Nebuchadnezzar had to learn reverence through humiliation (Daniel 2:1-4:37, 6:16); Darius fasted, declined entertainment, and lost sleep over Daniel, while Belshazzar had feasted with the vessels of YHWH’s house (Daniel 5:1-30, 6:18).

Darius the Mede maintained great confidence in Daniel and Daniel’s God: he wanted to rescue Daniel, he trusted that Daniel’s God would rescue him, expressed lamentation, came to the den early in the morning to see if Daniel had survived, took pleasure in Daniel’s vindication, punished Daniel’s enemies, and decreed that all of the Empire should honor and revere the God of Daniel (Daniel 6:14-27). Of all the pagan rulers over Israelites Darius the Mede is portrayed the most sympathetically and as a man of character and virtue. Israel was not going to do much better than Darius the Mede.

But we should not allow this rosy picture distract us from what had transpired: this very Darius the Mede, the one who seemed to love Daniel and was in great distress over him, is the one who signed Daniel’s death warrant. Darius the Mede fixed his seal on the lion’s den (Daniel 6:17). Daniel is brought closest to death by the king who was otherwise the most sympathetically inclined toward him. How could this be?

Daniel was a good man, and thus he made enemies (Daniel 6:3-4). Those who envied his position and power could find nothing against him except on account of the law of his God (Daniel 6:5); they conspired against him and persuaded Darius to make a decree to make it illegal to make a petition to any god or man save himself for thirty days on pains of death by lions (Daniel 6:6-8). Daniel prayed to God anyway as was his custom (Daniel 6:10); the accusation was brought before Darius (Daniel 6:11-13).

We are told that Darius the Mede really wanted to find a way to rescue Daniel (Daniel 6:12), and we have no reason to disbelieve it. But is he not the king? Why could he not have rescued Daniel?

Yes, Darius the Mede could have decided to exempt Daniel from the decree or find some way to invalidate the decree. But decrees were part of the “laws of the Medes and Persians” which could not be broken. If the pretense of inviolability were broken for Daniel’s sake, the entire edifice of authority might collapse.

And so Darius felt as if he had no real choice. Daniel could find no rescue from the laws of the Medes and Persians; he would have to be rescued by his God. Darius no doubt mourned and was in distress over Daniel, but how much of that distress stemmed from guilt? He was the one who had made the decree; he was the one who sentenced Daniel to death. Ultimately, he was alright with that, for the calculation had been made. No exemplary and godly man was worth calling into question the entire edifice of authority. If Daniel were to die it would be tragic; Darius would be devastated; but Darius would remain king, and another would take Daniel’s place, and the Empire could go on as usual.

The author of Daniel wanted the lesson of Darius the Mede to be deeply imprinted in the mind of Israel in exile. As faithful servants of YHWH the Israelites would always be a strange and peculiar people; there would always be opportunity to accuse them based on the law of their God. Even if their pagan ruler were personally a man of character and integrity, and even sympathetic toward them and their plight, if the decision came down to sparing the people of God or maintaining a hold on power and authority, the pagan ruler would always choose the latter. Even in the best of times Israel was only one crisis or one enterprising politician away from getting thrown under the bus; a ruler of integrity might lose a night’s sleep over the death of a man of God, but there was no guarantee that he would lose many more. And if this were true about a sympathetic ruler, what about an indifferent ruler who loved money, like Ahasuerus/Xerxes, who was induced to sentence Israel to extermination by Haman the Agagite (Esther 3:1-15)? And what about an actively hostile and persecuting ruler who could not tolerate Israel’s peculiar identity, like Antiochus IV Epiphanes, one of the greatest existential threats to the nation of Israel in its history?

Christians are well aware of a later pagan ruler over the people of God who decided to sacrifice a righteous man in order to maintain hold of power; such is what Pilate did to Jesus (John 18:28-19:15). The lesson for the people of God in the past remains effective for the people of God today. Christians look to the rulers of this world for rescue in vain, for whenever commitment to the people of God would conflict with the maintenance and expansion of power, power will win, and the people of God will continue to be thrown under the bus. How many times have people of character and integrity been given rule over nations? And yet how many times have they disappointed the aspirations of the people of God? This trend will continue, as it must, until the Lord returns. And if this is true for rulers who might be sympathetic to the people of God, what if they prove indifferent or even hostile to the faith? Peter’s exhortations in 1 Peter 1:3-4:19 prove as relevant as ever.

Darius the Mede is the embodiment of the object lesson of Psalm 146:3: do not put your trust in princes. Darius the Mede was more right than he could have known: there would be no deliverance from the state, for deliverance will only come from God. We do well to have a faith like Daniel’s and trust in God for our vindication in Christ and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Freedom

As free, and not using your freedom for a cloak of wickedness, but as bondservants of God (1 Peter 2:16).

If you know nothing else about Americans you know just how much they love freedom. As Lee Greenwood so famously put it, “I’m proud to be an American / where at least I know I’m free.” Liberty and freedom still prove extremely popular; they remain an important part of the American creed, a point of agreement across the various divides in the country, even if disagreement remains about how said freedom ought to be exercised.

American freedom is of a particular type: freedom from tyranny, and thus freedom to live as one wants. The caricature of the American declaring, “I’m an American, I’m free, so I am gonna do what I want” is not terribly far off the mark. Freedom in America is thus perceived as license, the ability to go and do whatever is desired; any attempt to curb or restrain such desires is seen as tyrannical, despotic, and contrary to the American ethos. Little wonder, then, how freedom has become libertinism among far too many.

Americans also maintain a fondness for Christianity, or at least a version of Christianity which is quite amenable to American philosophies and the American dream. Freedom is offered in Christianity (John 8:32, 1 Peter 2:16); Americans like freedom; therefore, they imagine that the freedom in Christianity must be the same type of freedom they believe they have as Americans. And so freedom in Christ is perceived to be license as well.

The Apostle Peter, however, has a very different conception of what freedom means, and above all things, what the Christian is to do with his or her freedom. He wrote to Christians of modern-day Turkey who lived under the power of the Roman Empire in the days of Nero (1 Peter 1:1). The Christians there were enduring suffering, most likely from some sort of persecution (1 Peter 1:6-9, 2:11-12, 4:19). He encouraged Christians to respect human authorities for the Lord’s sake and to abstain from the lusts of the world (1 Peter 2:11-15). He then expected the Christians to live as free people, not to cover up wickedness, but to live as douloi (often translated as “bondservants” or “servants,” but really “slaves”) of God (1 Peter 2:16).

What Peter meant by “live as free” involves something which we tend to take for granted today: to live as one not enslaved. Many in Peter’s audience were slaves (cf. 1 Peter 2:18), yet even they, in Christ, were to live as if free. Freedom meant freedom from oppression and bondage: freedom from sin and the Evil One (Romans 8:1-8). Even if physically enslaved they remained spiritually free.

But what did such freedom involve? Peter exhorted Christians to not use their freedom as a “cloak of wickedness” (1 Peter 2:16). Such is the dark underbelly of the clarion call to “freedom”: freedom to what end? Many who imagine their freedom to be license use that freedom to participate in hedonism and self-aggrandizement, and often to the detriment of their fellow man. The very reason many covet freedom is so they can do things they know they ought not! Almost invariably freedom is abused not long after it is obtained; most of us can give stories of what happened when we were entrusted with greater freedom, and those stories are rarely pretty.

Instead, Peter encouraged Christians to use their freedoms to serve God (1 Peter 2:16). The Apostle Paul had invited Christians to understand reality in terms of serving God in righteousness or serving the forces of sin and evil in wickedness (Romans 6:16-23). Thus we do have choice, but a very limited one: are we going to serve the right or the wrong? The Christian’s freedom is not to be used as license to do whatever he or she wishes but an opportunity purchased by the blood of the Lord and under His sovereignty in the Kingdom to serve God and His purposes. In this way Christians put to silence the ignorance of the foolish (1 Peter 2:15): doing well in serving the Lord.

We therefore do well to transform the way we view freedom. Yes, we have freedom; it is a precious and valuable freedom, purchased by our Lord at great cost to Himself. In that freedom is a bit of power over ourselves inasmuch as we have the choice to serve good or evil. Such freedom maintains personal volition since it must be a constant choice regarding whom we will serve. Nevertheless, this freedom is not as far-ranging as many would want to imagine; if we exercise our freedom to live as we choose or please, we are not living according to wisdom but folly, and will invariably serve sin and not the Lord (Proverbs 3:5-7, Romans 6:14-23). God has given us freedom in Christ out of the bondage of sin and death so that we might choose to serve the Lord Jesus and submit to His will and purposes in all things (Romans 8:1-8).

We must dismiss any notion of freedom as “license to do whatever I want.” We lived our lives in the flesh according to our desires, and what did we gain at that time but shame and condemnation (Romans 6:20-22)? In Christ we are set free from bondage to sin and death so we can be empowered to live as God would have us to live, but only if we live as free people, using our freedom to submit to the will of God in Christ. May we take Peter’s lesson to heart and serve God in Christ, becoming ever more conformed to His image!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Prayer

“And when ye pray, ye shall not be as the hypocrites: for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have received their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thine inner chamber, and having shut thy door, pray to thy Father who is in secret, and thy Father who seeth in secret shall recompense thee. And in praying use not vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him” (Matthew 6:5-8).

It should be evident what prayer is all about. Unfortunately, all too often, its primary purpose gets missed.

In the midst of what is popularly called the “Sermon on the Mount” Jesus addressed the three primary religious practices of righteousness in Second Temple Judaism: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting (Matthew 6:1-18). He does so in light of the theme set forth in Matthew 5:17-20: one’s righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees and scribes if they desire to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Therefore, while Jesus is directly addressing His disciples in view of the crowd (cf. Matthew 5:3), He continues to critique the standard of righteousness professed by scribes and Pharisees, elsewhere considered rather hypocritical (Matthew 23:1-36, Luke 11:37-54). Righteousness is not a thing done to be seen by others; if that is one’s motivation, then one gains nothing from his or her heavenly Father (Matthew 6:1).

Jesus began His discussion of prayer by again pointing out the motivation of the “hypocrites”: they stand and pray publicly so as to be seen in both religious venues (the synagogue) and “secular” space (street corners) in order to be seen by men (Matthew 6:5). As with almsgiving, so with prayer: they have their reward; people see them and think they are holy and righteous (Matthew 6:2, 5). Instead Jesus commended going into an “inner chamber,” an inner room, and pray in secret, and the Father who sees in secret would reward them (Matthew 6:6).

Jesus then turned to a concerned rooted in the practices of the pagan nations: the belief that they would be heard by divinity for their battalogesete, literally “stammering,” but here referring to constant repetition of phrases (Matthew 6:7). Jesus assured His disciples and His Jewish audience that God already knows what they would need before they asked (Matthew 6:8).

What are we to conclude from Jesus’ instruction? We do well to note how Jesus brings us back to the original point of prayer: communication with God. When we pray we are making petitions of God; it is not about impressing other people. If in regular conversation with people we prattled on with ceaseless repetition of phrases, those with whom we converse might think us mad. God wants to hear our prayers; God wants to bless us; but God wants us to speak with Him in prayer; God is not some mystic force which requires a certain mantra repeated over and over in order to be summoned.

Is it wrong to pray in public? Jesus does not condemn prayer in the synagogue; prayer will become an important feature of Christian assemblies in the new covenant (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:15-19). Jesus Himself prayed in public at times (John 11:41-42, 12:28). Jesus’ concern is less about location and more about motivation: are we praying so as to impress others or to humbly pour out our souls before God? Granted, much prayer, especially intimate prayer, is best done in the inner chamber; plenty of prayer subjects have no place in the assembly or in the public square. If we pray in the assembly, we do well to focus on how we can build up each other by making thanksgiving, petitions for protection, strength, and need, keeping the focus on God (1 Corinthians 14:15-19, 26). If we pray in public, we do well to pray for the needs of the moment, keeping the focus on God. We easily delude ourselves into justifying praying in such a way as to impress men as opposed to really speaking to God. We must stand firm.

Is it wrong to use the thoughts of others, or to repeat ourselves in prayer? Jesus will go on to provide the Lord’s prayer as a model prayer (Matthew 6:9-13); God gave us the Psalms to this end; the Psalms themselves sometimes feature a repeated phrase (e.g. Psalm 136:1-26). Jesus condemned a pagan practice which did not respect God as god; we must resist any such pagan practices, vainly imagining that if we repeat a phrase over and over again, however substantive, God will listen to us or give us an ecstatic experience because of it. Jesus exhorts us to maintain prayer as a form of effective and meaningful communication with God. God knows what we need; prayer is for our benefit more than His. We can use the words of others, appropriating them for ourselves, and pray in a way that glorifies God; we can pray halfheartedly and absentmindedly with our own thoughts and thus dishonor God. In life we tend to need the same things; our prayers will most likely seem repetitive since life is rather repetitive. We must not sacrifice meaning in repetition; God is not a genie or force we conjure up through some kind of ritual incantation; He is our Creator and the ultimate Power of the universe, and we do well to speak with Him accordingly.

Humans, then and now, are easily tempted to forget about the purpose and meaning of prayer. It is easy to turn prayer into a ritual incantation or a pretense given to manifest holiness; neither practice honors God. Prayer, first and foremost, is communication with our God, the God of the universe, who already knows what we need. We do well to pray in thankfulness and sincerity, meaning what we say, focused on God in prayer, to His glory and honor!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Source of Security

Except YHWH build the house / they labor in vain that build it.
Except YHWH keep the city / the watchman waketh but in vain.
It is vain for you to rise up early / to take rest late / to eat the bread of toil;
For so he giveth unto his beloved sleep (Psalm 127:1-2).

From insurance to elaborate building designs, humans continue to seek various sources of security.

Solomon meditated upon the true source of security in Psalm 127:1-5. Psalm 127 is listed among the “songs of ascent,” songs which would be sung as Israelites would make the pilgrimage up to Jerusalem and Mount Zion to the presence of YHWH at a festival. For Solomon, and the Israelites who sang this song as they climbed to stand before YHWH, only YHWH was true security. To build a new house would be vain unless YHWH protected it and provided for it. All the watchmen in the world would prove useless to a city unless YHWH watched over it. Working excessive hours to make a living independent of YHWH’s blessings proved equally vain; YHWH gives reason for those whom He loves to sleep, for they have little need to fear (Psalm 127:1-2).

Solomon will go on to glorify children as the heritage of YHWH, His reward to people (Psalm 127:3). Children are seen as arrows in the hand of a mighty man; a man with many (and ostensibly good) children will not be made ashamed in the gate of a city, the place where the elders would meet and matters were adjudicated (Psalm 127:4-5; cf. Ruth 4:1-12).

It would be easy to consider Psalm 127:3-5 as separate from Psalm 127:1-2, but a connection is there. YHWH provides for His people. He watches over them, protects them, and blesses their endeavors. No endeavor will succeed if it does not come with His blessing. Part of that provision is children who will honor their father and mother in their old age (cf. Matthew 15:4-6). The man who trusts in YHWH and is blessed by Him will have a strong house and descendants; his blessedness will be known to all; he will have no reason to be ashamed among his fellow people.

We can understand why Psalm 127 would prove to be a satisfying song of confidence in YHWH as Israelites went up to stand before Him. Israel is thus reminded that YHWH and YHWH alone is their source of confidence; all feeble human attempts to maintain their own security will fail. You can only hold so much food in barns, and even then an enemy can seize them. Military strength can take you only so far; not a few times a massive force was thoroughly defeated by a smaller one. Foreign policy is a capricious adventure: your ally one day may turn into your foe the next. Other people often prove only as good as their word, and the world has always lacked sufficient people who uphold their word. Israel always needed this reminder; temptations always existed to trust in other presumed sources of security other than God.

Christians today could also use this reminder. Far too often, in the name of worldly wisdom, Christians are tempted to put their trust in anything and everything but God. In the name of worldly wisdom we purchase insurance to mitigate the risks to health, life, and/or property; we invest resources in markets and pay into governmental schemes to provide for life in the present and/or for days of disability or retirement. We are invited to trust in government for security against all foes, domestic and foreign. Many seem to orient their lives around the proposition of risk management.

There is nothing automatically or intrinsically sinful or wrong in buying insurance, investing for retirement, or taking advantage of the social safety net. The Israelites themselves built the houses; walls and watchmen were still needed in the cities of Israel. But we must remember Matthew 6:19-34, Jesus’ message which is not unlike Solomon’s in Psalm 127. It is one thing to use insurance or investments to mitigate risk in a sensible way as one seeks to trust in God and His purposes; it is quite another to fully depend on such insurance or investments, or to orient one’s life around such insurance and investments. In the process we have no right to dismiss God’s intended “retirement program” for His people, providing an opportunity for children to honor their fathers and their mothers (1 Timothy 5:8, 16). As children we should seek to provide for parents in times of need, and to have children ourselves and instruct them in God’s right way (Ephesians 6:1-4).

We almost must take care how we use and consider Psalm 127. Israelites themselves were vexed by the apparent discrepancies between the message of Psalm 127 and its ilk and experienced reality: sometimes the righteous, whom one would imagine YHWH would protect, suffered, and the wicked, which one would imagine YHWH would not bless, nevertheless prospered (cf. Job 21:1-34, Ecclesiastes 8:10-17). It has proven all too easy to take Psalm 127 as prescriptive and to thus judge those who prosper as blessed by YHWH and those who suffer as chastised by YHWH. This might well be the case in some circumstances; it need not be the case in every circumstance.

Can we live in that ambiguity, trusting in God in Christ even though that trust does not guarantee a comfortable middle class existence in this life? Will we give more than mere lip service to Psalm 127:1-2, recognizing that our prosperity might well prove a demonic temptation to trust in the things of this world and not in God the Giver of all good things? Do we trust in YHWH as our real, lasting, and ultimate security, or have we given ourselves over to the pervasive temptation to trust in our possessions, our bank account, our portfolio, our government, our military, or other such things of the world? How much do our children factor into our confidence about our present and future? As we continue in our pilgrimage on this earth we do well to sing this song of ascent as we seek to stand before the throne of God, recognize God is the only true source of security, and seek refuge in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Kingdom Refugees

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the elect who are sojourners of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (1 Peter 1:1).

Peter wrote to the Christians in many Roman provinces of what we today call Asia Minor, or Turkey. He speaks of them as “elect who are sojourners” (ASV) or “elect exiles” (ESV) of the “Dispersion” (1 Peter 1:1). It would be easy to assume that he wrote specifically to Jewish Christians who considered themselves part of the Diaspora, the Jewish community outside of the land of Israel based on this terminology; it is similar to James 1:1, and of all the nations only Israel would see itself in exile as dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. And yet Peter considered his audience as having been redeemed “from [their] vain manner of life handed down from [their] fathers” (1 Peter 1:17); they were a people who had once not been a people, but were made the people of God (1 Peter 2:10). While the latter prophecy was given specifically to Israel (Hosea 1:1-3:5), and Peter himself considered the Law a burden he nor his people Israel could bear (Acts 15:10), no Israelite would presume that his ancestors had lived in a vain matter, or speak of their people as not the people of God; instead, Peter has Christians converted out of the Gentile world in view (cf. Ephesians 2:11-18, etc.).

Peter appropriated Israelite imagery to describe Christians throughout 1 Peter. Christians are the temple and its priests (1 Peter 2:3-5); titles and concepts associated with Israel are now appropriated for Christians in 1 Peter 2:9-10. Peter used the term “Gentiles” with all of its negative connotations of hostile pagans (1 Peter 2:12, 4:3), even though according to ethnic heritage many of the Christians to whom he wrote would be reckoned as Gentiles. Thus Peter envisioned Christians as the people of God, speaking of them in terms of Israel, and spoke of their opponents among the nations in terms of the Gentiles.

And uniquely among all the letters of the New Testament Peter also appropriated the imagery of sojourn and exile experienced by Israel and applied it to the present circumstance of Christians in the world. Peter addressed the Christians as exiles/sojourners (1 Peter 1:1); exhorted them to reverence before God during their sojourn (1 Peter 1:17-21); encouraged them as sojourners and exiles to conduct themselves appropriately before the Gentiles (1 Peter 2:11-12); and spoke of his current location as “Babylon” (1 Peter 5:13). In this way exile and sojourn proves to be a running theme in 1 Peter: as Israel was exiled by Babylon and had to learn to live as exiles and sojourners, so Christians are to see themselves as exiles/sojourners under “Babylon,” or Rome, and live accordingly.

“Sojourners” and “exiles” are terms often used interchangeably and yet maintain important distinctions and nuances. A sojourner is a person who voluntarily leaves his homeland to go and live somewhere else; Abraham is the model sojourner, following God’s call to leave Ur and Haran and live in Canaan, in which he never owned any property beyond a gravesite (cf. Hebrews 11:9-10). An exile is a person who less than voluntarily leaves his homeland to live somewhere else; Israel in the days of Babylon is the model of exile, a people forced to go somewhere else (Psalm 137:1-9). A sojourner often has good reasons for leaving the homeland and has little desire to return; they are tempted to assimilate into their new land and culture. The exile tends to want nothing more than to return to his homeland; they are tempted to have nothing at all to do with their new land and culture and idolize their country of origin.

Christians are to be as both sojourners and exiles in different ways. Christians are as sojourners inasmuch as they should have no desire to return from the “land” of sin and darkness from which they have been redeemed (Romans 6:21, Ephesians 2:1-18). Christians are exiles inasmuch as they should not feel too comfortable in the land, culture, and nation-state in which they reside, always maintaining primary loyalty to their “real home,” the Kingdom of God in Christ (cf. Philippians 3:20-21). Christians must resist the temptation to assimilate to the land in which they live (Romans 12:2); likewise, Christians must resist the temptation to be so focused on separation from the world so as to be no earthly good, not showing the love God would have us show to those around us (Matthew 22:34-40, Galatians 2:10, 6:10).

Peter did well to speak of the life of the Christian in terms of exile and sojourn. We today rarely speak in those terms; instead, our preferred concept is that of the refugee. A refugee feels compelled to flee their homeland because of strife, war, famine, plague, or other ravages; they seek asylum in another land. Some refugees want nothing more than to forget the past and assimilate into a new land; other refugees desperately cling to their identity from their former land. Christians are to have fled to God for refuge in order to lay hold of the hope of resurrection (Hebrews 6:18); their primary citizenship, and thus loyalty, is to the Kingdom of God, even though they are also to obey earthly authorities (Philippians 3:20-21, 1 Peter 2:11-18). There is no land in which they are to feel fully comfortable; it is not for Christians to plant their flag anywhere and declare it their own in the name of God in Christ. The refugee always remains in a precarious situation, the quality of their life dependent on the goodwill and hospitability of their land of refuge; Christians are always likewise in a precarious situation under any nation-state. Christians cannot get too settled; they cannot too closely align with or be identified with earthly power, lest they prove no longer refugees for God’s Kingdom. As refugees we can identify with those who are marginalized, neglected, oppressed, or in danger; we know that God has special concern for such people (Matthew 25:31-46, James 1:27). As refugees we must be skeptical of the nation-states of man even as we prove obedient to rulers, understanding that the principalities and powers of this present darkness empower the nation-states (Matthew 4:8-9, Ephesians 6:12, 1 Peter 2:11-18). Christians must know their comfort must not come from their environment but from their God (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).

We find it difficult to understand ourselves as refugees because we have not physically gone anywhere; we live in a strange tension, remaining the same demographically as before, and often even within the same nation-state, and yet so fully transformed spiritually so as to be a different person than before. Such was true as well for the Christians to whom Peter wrote. It helps us understand and cope with the fractured relationships and hostility we encounter from those whom we knew beforehand who see our new conduct in Christ and prove hostile to it (cf. 1 Peter 4:1-6). But it also helps us develop a mindset and posture that glorifies God in Christ as distinct from that of the nation-state and culture around us. We may maintain friendship and association with people in the world, and yet they remain as “Gentiles.” We may appreciate the privileges of living under a given nation-state, and yet we remain as refugees within it. If we lose our distinctiveness, we prove unprofitable (Matthew 5:13).

Christians are exiles and sojourners on the earth: refugees for the Kingdom of God in Christ. We must flee the world and its ways so as to find refuge for our souls in God and hope for the resurrection and a world of righteousness in Jesus. May we live in the world as refugees of the Kingdom and glorify God in Christ in all things!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Telling History

And in the thirty and eighth year of Asa king of Judah began Ahab the son of Omri to reign over Israel: and Ahab the son of Omri reigned over Israel in Samaria twenty and two years. And Ahab the son of Omri did that which was evil in the sight of YHWH above all that were before him (1 Kings 16:29-30).

Now it came to pass in the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, that Hezekiah the son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign. Twenty and five years old was he when he began to reign; and he reigned twenty and nine years in Jerusalem: and his mother’s name was Abi the daughter of Zechariah. And he did that which was right in the eyes of YHWH, according to all that David his father had done (2 Kings 18:1-3).

What is history?

Most people understand history as “what happened in the past.” We all endured history class while in school; we learned about the rise and fall of successive world empires. We therefore ascertained very quickly that history seemed to be the story of those who gained the most power or made new things or developed this or that. The more prominent and successful a culture, defined by its consolidation of power, wealth, and influence, the more likely we would learn about them.

But what happens when we approach the Scriptures? What history does it tell?

We can compare and contrast the stories of two kings, Ahab and Hezekiah, in terms of how they are presented in Scripture and how they would be presented in a standard historical account.

The portrayal of Ahab king of Israel in Scripture is less than pleasant. He was strongly influenced by his wife Jezebel; he elevated service to Baal in Israel; Elijah the prophet strongly opposed him. The Biblical assessment of Ahab is seen sharply in 1 Kings 16:29-30, as children are taught in Bible classes to this day: he was the most wicked of the kings of Israel.

Yet, if seen in a socio-political perspective, things never seem better for Israel than in Ahab’s day. Ahab maintained control over Moab; he made an alliance with Jehoshaphat king of Judah; his marriage is an indication of a strong alliance with the Phoenicians. He seemed to preside over one of the most prosperous and stable periods in the history of the northern Kingdom. From Assyrian chronicles we learn that Ahab along with other allied kings fought against the Assyrian Shalmaneser III in the Battle of Qarqar and seemed to fight him to a draw; who else among the kings of Israel could make such a claim?

Hezekiah king of Judah is portrayed in Scripture starkly different terms. He attempts to reform the worship and service of Judah toward greater faithfulness to YHWH; he is spoken of in terms of his father David, as seen in 2 Kings 18:1-3. After David only Hezekiah and Josiah are spoken of in glowing terms as kings in Judah in the Scriptures.

And yet Hezekiah’s reign, in socio-political terms, was a complete disaster. He rebelled against the Assyrians and faced the full wrath of the Assyrian war machine. All of Hezekiah’s major cities were destroyed save Jerusalem, which itself was besieged and spared only by divine intervention. Judah’s condition was described well by Isaiah in Isaiah 1:2-9: Judah barely escaped total annihilation, and should not glory in its close call.

We should certainly be able to see why so many modern historians view the Scriptures with cynicism and skepticism: they do not exactly tell the story the way the historians have told stories. We who seek to follow God would do well to consider, however, whether the problem is with the Scriptures or with the way the historians would like to tell the story.

The historical narrative of 1 and 2 Kings is often claimed to be a heavily biased source writing during Israel’s exile. Without a doubt the final author is writing during the exile (cf. 2 Kings 25:27-30); he most assuredly uses court or other records more contemporary of the events described. And yes, he is heavily biased; we should expect nothing less. He has a particular message to tell, and a very particular reason for it.

We today tend to speak of 1 and 2 Kings as part of the “historical books.” The Jews considered 1 and 2 Kings part of the Nevi’im, “the Prophets.” Most of the books we consider to be “historical” they believed to have been written by the “former prophets” (Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings). To the Israelites the way their story was told was itself inspired, the proper way to tell what happened in past days.

They certainly could have told their story in a way a bit more amenable to the expectations of historians; many in Israel in fact told themselves that story. Israel had its heyday in past days; Assyria and Babylon proved too strong, and so Israel was overrun. What did Israel get for attempting to follow YHWH? Hezekiah reforms the worship and the Assyrians overrun the land; Josiah would do a similar act and his death would precipitate the chain of events leading to Judah’s doom. In fact, probably more Jewish people would have agreed with their fellow exiles in Egypt who were offering to the “Queen of Heaven,” believing that things were better when they committed idolatry, than those who were moved to repentance and followed YHWH exclusively (cf. Jeremiah 44:15-18). In the story of history, after all, empires rise and fall. Israel rose and fell. So be it.

But that story, even though it seemed to make sense of some of the historical facts, only led to assimilation, first with the Babylonians and then later with the Greeks and Romans. Such people were carried away by whoever had power. But those who stubbornly held to the story of Israel as told by the former prophets put the story together persevered, and they persevered because they continued to tell the story the way God intended. Great socio-political standing and influence meant nothing if it were not accompanied by faithfulness to God; a dire socio-political situation could be overcome if the people proved faithful to God. The former prophets showed far less concern about the socio-economic implications of royal decisions than the spiritual ones. The story of Israel was told to highlight the people’s faithlessness to warn future generations to not follow in the same pattern of disobedience (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:1-12).

We can learn much from the example of the historical prophets. History is never merely “what happened in the past.” No historian can tell the story of what happened in the past without providing an interpretation and a purpose to those events. They are all understood not only in terms of their believed conclusion but also in terms of the person telling the story. Even when a historical narrative is presented in an entirely factual way, plenty of other facts are left out, not out of denial, but because they do not fit the story being told.

We should not despair; we need not fall into the abyss of full-throated postmodernism, denying our ability to know anything about the past. But we must also be disabused of any notion that history is simply a set of objectively true facts about what people did in the past. History is a great natural resource which we mine in order to tell the story of who we are, from where we have come, and to learn lessons from our ancestors for good or ill. The way we decide to tell that story is as important as the facts which may comprise it.

We have inspired records of the history of Israel and the days of Jesus and the Apostles; we know how God intends for us to understand those stories. We can gain much from that perspective. We may not have an inspired story of the present, but God’s Word remains true: nations will rise and fall, people will acclaim those who gain power, wealth, and influence, but God remains far more concerned with whether people serve the King of kings and Lord of lords or not, and whether people continue to hold firm to the story which He has told in the pages of Scripture. May we tell history in a way that glorifies God and honors His purposes!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Swift to Hear

Ye know this, my beloved brethren. But let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath (James 1:19).

When God made mankind He formed two ears and one mouth. Few are those who use them in such proportion.

James, the brother of the Lord, sought to exhort Christians to faithful and proper conduct in Christ in his letter. As part of these exhortations he encouraged them to be quick to hear but slow to speak and slow to anger (James 1:19); he continued by reminding Christians that the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:20).

There is no real mystery in James’ exhortation. Most people know they should listen more and talk less. A good number of those who do not understand this prove difficult to tolerate and are most likely masking some kind of insecurity or another. We do not want to be “that guy.” Yet it proves all too easy to become “that guy.”

We do well to return to James’ exhortation over and over again in every aspect of our lives, for his message is true wisdom. Too many of us have a strong tendency to speak first and think and ask questions later. How many times have we put our feet in our mouths because we spoke rashly and did not really listen to what others had to say? How many embarrassing or sinful situations could we have avoided if we had stopped long enough to listen so as to be able to speak more effectively and properly regarding the situation?

Why do we do such things? Whether we want to admit it or not, we prove swift to speak and slow to hear because we think quite highly of ourselves, our understanding, and our perspective. We believe we already have enough information to make a judgment. We believe that we already have the standing to say what we are saying. We are sure that we are right and the other person, to some degree or another, is deluded or misinformed.

We therefore must manifest humility if we would be swift to hear. To listen is to recognize the need to give a hearing to the other person; in so doing we might find out that we were not as right or as accurate as we first imagined. For good reason God expects everything to be demonstrated by the mouth of two or three witnesses, not merely one (Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15, 2 Corinthians 13:1); one who pleads his case seems right until his neighbor comes and searches him out (Proverbs 18:17). In reality we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23); not one of us can presume the privilege of being absolutely right and having the exactly right view on things. We all labor under various pretensions, delusions, and misapprehensions. Humility demands that we recognize those limitations and therefore to give others the right to be heard.

Love demands that we be swift to hear. Love does not vaunt itself; it is not puffed up; it does not behave unseemly; it does not seek its own; it does all these things as much as it does not rejoice in unrighteousness but rejoices with the truth (1 Corinthians 13:4-6). Truth has no need to fear investigation, probing, and exploration; if we truly are in the right, listening should not cause us angst or apprehension. To be swift to hear demonstrates a level of care, concern, and consideration not often seen in the world anymore. People appreciate when they feel as if they have been heard, even if that hearing does not lead to complete agreement. Rarely do people feel loved after they have been railroaded and told things without any chance to speak themselves, no matter how accurate the spoken information might be.

When we are swift to hear we are in a better position to understand, and thus be able to speak to, the issue behind the issue. Very few issues in life are clear-cut and entirely above board; most disagreements and difficulties involve unspoken fears and apprehensions as well as different implicit biases and assumptions about the way things are. If we truly seek to communicate so as to be understood and to guide people toward transformation in Jesus, we need to speak to the real issue and not merely the surface issues, as Jesus manifested well in His conversations and discussions during His time on earth.

These principles prove true in all sorts of conversations and relationships. Woe to the husband who so focuses on the substance of his wife’s complaints that he does not hear the anxiety and concerns of her heart. Children are often poorly equipped to express their deepest feelings, fears, and needs, and often act out to make their cry of help; are we quick to hear the difficulty or do we just get angry at the misbehavior? American culture and society seems hopelessly divided because each side wants to speak more than to hear, to condemn the other more than to understand the fears and apprehensions motivating the behaviors. And how can we preach the Gospel to someone whom we refuse to hear? We may have the right message, and they may be operating under all sorts of delusions, but how can we know exactly what they need to hear and how to encourage them until we first hear them and thus perceive their challenges? On what basis have we earned any standing in their lives so as to speak the Gospel message if we have not first proven swift to hear them and show them that love, respect, and humility which interpersonal communication demands?

Swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger is a very hard road for most people; it proves all too easy to “forget” in the heat of the moment and act in the opposite way. We do well to gather ourselves, take a deep breath, make a quick prayer, and deliberately attempt to listen and hear as we have opportunity. We will discover that we are better heard when we first prove willing to hear; our words prove more effective when we give ourselves the opportunity to choose them well by first hearing what the situation demands. May we be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, using our ears and mouths in the proper proportion, and all to the glory of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus’ Transcendent Kingdom

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence” (John 18:36).

Few of Jesus’ declarations have reverberated over time as His confession of the nature of His Kingdom in John 18:36. Few have also proven as contentious.

Jesus had been betrayed by Judas into the hands of the religious authorities; they had already condemned Him to death as a blasphemer (John 18:1-27). Since they had no authority granted to execute Jesus, they brought Him before Pontius Pilate, Roman procurator of Judea, to issue the final condemnation (John 18:28-32). Pilate asked Jesus if He indeed was the King of the Jews based on what had been said of Him by the religious authorities (John 18:32-35). Jesus declared that His Kingdom was not of this world: His servants were not fighting to foment insurrection or rebellion so as to rescue Him, and such was sufficient evidence to show His Kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). Jesus would go on to identify Himself as a King according to what Pilate himself had said; Pilate found no crime or guilt in Him (John 18:37-38).

But what is Jesus really attempting to say to Pilate by this declaration? As is unfortunately the norm in Christianity, people have often gone to extremes. Some fervently expect Jesus to one day make the Kingdom be of this world, and so they emphasize the idea that His Kingdom is not “now” from here, presuming that at some point in the future that will change. Others so emphasize “not of this world” so that it becomes “entirely of another world,” as if His Kingdom has nothing at all to do with this world.

In the contextual moment Jesus is attempting to “clear the air” about Him and His intentions. From the first century until now it has been all too easy to misunderstand Jesus’ purposes in His Kingdom and to conceptualize the Kingdom entirely in earthly terms. The Jews wanted to make Jesus their king; He escaped from them, for His Kingdom was not to be what they desired it to be (John 6:15). Christians were easily accused of sedition against Rome, declaring that Jesus was King, not Caesar (Acts 17:6-7); so both Paul and Peter strongly urge Christians to remain subject to all earthly authorities lest anyone get the wrong idea (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:11-18). Thus, when Pilate heard that Jesus is being called the “King of the Jews,” he perceived Jesus to be a threat to the stability of Roman rule over Judea, because he is aware of the Jewish expectation that their God would send their Messiah who they imagined would liberate them from foreign pagan oppression and would re-establish a Jewish Davidic kingdom in Jerusalem. And so Jesus clarified before Pilate that His Kingdom is not of this world; it would not be an earthly kingdom vying for territory with a man on a throne in a capital. If it were, His servants would be fighting to make that happen.

Such should be a strong warning to any who would imagine that Jesus’ only concern is one of timing and not substance. Jesus is not saying, “my Kingdom is not now of this world, but it will be at some undetermined point in the future”; the work God was accomplishing in Jesus powerfully demonstrated the error in Jewish expectations. Jesus was the King of the Jews, not just a more improved version of David, but as the One like a Son of Man who would soon be given an eternal dominion from the Ancient of Days (Daniel 7:13-14). The Kingdom He would inaugurate would strike in pieces all of the kingdoms who had come before (Daniel 2:43-45). God would give Jesus all authority in heaven and on earth, over all the powers, not merely over some acres of ground on earth (Matthew 28:18, Colossians 1:15-20). Jesus’ Kingdom is too much of a present reality and far too profound to restrict it to a future earthly hope (Colossians 1:12-20, Revelation 1:9).

Yet it is not as if Jesus’ Kingdom has nothing to do with this world. Neither Pilate nor later Roman authorities were entirely wrong to raise an eyebrow at the claims made by Jesus and His later followers. If Jesus is Lord and Savior, then Caesar is not the ultimate authority. Christian claims of God giving authority to whom He will and of Jesus being over all the kings of the earth stand at variance with Caesar’s claims about himself. Even if Christians seek to honor and obey earthly authorities in all things, their loyalties and ultimate commitment lie in God in Christ and His Kingdom, not in Rome (Philippians 1:27, 3:20-21). Jesus’ Kingdom was not envisioned as an alien force; He reigns from heaven indeed but reigns over both heaven and earth, and all peoples and nations are subject to Him (Philippians 3:20-21, Revelation 5:12-14, 7:9-17). Just as Christians ought not imagine that Jesus’ Kingdom is merely awaiting its earthly manifestation, so they ought not imagine that the concerns of the Kingdom have nothing at all to do with the present world.

Jesus’ Kingdom is neither earthly nor otherworldly; it is transcendent. Jesus is Lord of lords and King of kings; His Kingdom reigns above all other principalities and powers (Colossians 1:15-20, 2:11-17, Revelation 19:16). Jesus’ Kingdom absolutely crushed and shattered the empires of the world through God’s judgments upon them and the work of Christians within them proclaiming the Gospel and glorifying God. The Gospel of Jesus and His Kingdom undermines every tyrant and despotic tendency in government, for fear, shame, suffering, and death, the coercive tools of government, are made devoid of power in the life of the one who trusts in the crucified and risen Jesus (Matthew 10:28). Jesus will return one day and will raise our bodies to be like Himself (Philippians 3:20-21); this energizes all believers in Him to uphold the values of the Kingdom no matter what man may try to do to us. The flower of the glory of empire will fade and die; the word of God, the Gospel, will endure forever, as will those who faithfully participate in the Kingdom of God to the end (1 Corinthians 15:51-58, 1 Peter 1:23-25).

Christians live in the world and do well to honor and obey earthly authorities. Yet we must demonstrate that our true affections and loyalty lie in the transcendent Kingdom of God in Christ. We must live as if we truly do eschew the extremes in understanding about the Kingdom. We must not foolishly believe, as so many do, that Jesus’ Kingdom will be established as an earthly Kingdom some day, or that through our efforts we can establish His Kingdom on earth. The Lord Himself considered such things as a fool’s errand; if He did not do so, who are we as His followers to imagine we can succeed where He “failed”? Thus we have no right to imagine that God’s Kingdom is manifest in any given country or any political platform or ideology therein; we likewise have no right to imagine that we will succeed in bringing the Kingdom to earth through benevolent action. At the same time, the Kingdom does have a word to speak to rulers and citizens and how we should live; we must not foolishly believe that Christians are to be so alien as to have nothing to say or do with those who live in the world. We are not given the right to “monasticize” ourselves, withdrawing from society entirely and/or put most of our efforts into creating some sort of Christian subculture. We must serve God in His Kingdom in the world, knowing that all of the kingdoms of the world will ultimately become the Kingdom of our Lord and Christ (Revelation 11:15), and that His transcendent Kingdom, while not of this world, powerfully reigns over it. May we serve the Lord Jesus in His Kingdom to His eternal glory and honor!

Ethan R. Longhenry