Wonderfully Made

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

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

Dehumanizing Deviance

Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body (1 Corinthians 6:18).

But it doesn’t hurt anyone, or so they say.

Few cultural shifts have proven so stark and happened so quickly as the ethos surrounding sexuality in the Western world. Within a generation ideas and behaviors once generally condemned have been not only tolerated but accepted into the mainstream. Cultural sexual morality has taken its cues from Epicureanism and libertarianism, preferring individual autonomy, privileging consent as the primary basis for justification of conduct, and encouraging whatever one desires to accomplish as long as no harm is done. As a result, among other things, many Westerners have become quite comfortable with frequent sexual behavior outside not only of marriage but even relationships (manifest primarily in “hookup culture”) and the widespread acceptance and even encouragement of the use of pornography.

The Apostle Paul warned the Corinthians about such things. He recognized that porneia (translated “fornication” above, also “sexual immorality”; best as sexually deviant behavior) was a sin different from other sins. Whereas other sins are committed “without” or “outside” the body, the one who commits porneia sins against his or her own body (1 Corinthians 6:18). But how, exactly, can this be?

Does Paul refer to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)? It would seem to make some sense: such diseases are the consequence of sexual behavior, and practicing porneia puts one at higher risk of contracting a STD. Nevertheless many people commit porneia and never get a STD; likewise, many are chaste but contract STD from less-than-chaste partners. Perhaps Paul has something else in mind?

Perhaps we get a clue from an earlier detail: Paul says that one who is joined to a prostitute (Greek porne) becomes one flesh with her, as it is written in Genesis 2:28. The reference to Genesis 2:28 is in the context of marriage; Paul indicates beyond a doubt that “two becoming one flesh” refers to the act of sexual intercourse.

Reveller courtesan BM E44

So what is the difference between marital sexual intercourse and this porneia, that which is done with a porne, or prostitute? In marriage a man and a woman “cling to one another”; God has joined them (Genesis 2:28, Matthew 19:4-6). God intended for that union to be an covenant featuring intimacy, in which a man and a woman, both made in God’s image, can become completely intimate and “naked,” physically for certain, but also emotionally, mentally, and spiritually (Proverbs 5:15-20, Malachi 2:14-16). The importance of the marriage covenant is underscored by its metaphorical use in describing the relationship between YHWH and Israel and Christ and the church (Hosea 2:1-23, Ephesians 5:22-33); as God is one in relational unity, and we are made in God’s image, so we humans are searching for unity in relationship, and the most important such relationship we develop is with our spouse with whom we are joined in a covenant seal by God (Genesis 1:26-27, Matthew 19:4-6, John 17:20-23, Acts 17:26-28, Romans 1:18-20, Ephesians 5:31-32).

Participation in porneia, however, is done outside of the confines of relationship; such is why it is best defined as “sexually deviant behavior,” involving a person becoming one flesh with one with whom God has not joined. The one committing porneia is gratifying desires, impulses, and lusts without reference to relational connection or intimacy. This is especially evident in terms of cavorting with prostitutes, the primary means by which porneia was committed in the ancient world: the behavior features a financial transaction, a bought and paid for experience, without any care at all for the feelings or welfare of the prostitute. The one committing porneia is using the prostitute for his or her gratification.

And so it may well be that such is the means by which the one committing porneia sins against the body: in so doing, he or she has disconnected the satisfaction of physical desires from the emotional/mental/spiritual relational dimensions of sexuality. In gratifying such desires one’s sexuality becomes less recognizably human and more animalistic; sexual behavior is no longer about becoming truly intimate with another person than it is the gratification of physical lust. In most respects, therefore, porneia proves itself a parody of what God intended for human sexuality; it proves to be a dehumanizing form of deviance, separating the physical from the relational, commodifying human connection, and often rendering its adherence incapable of a healthy and intimate sexual relationship within the covenant of marriage. Truly, indeed, a sin against the body!

Prostitution remains a big business in modern Western culture; “hookup culture” is becoming just as prevalent, and we are seeing generation after generation suffering from the disconnect. Many people who have been caught up in “hookup culture” find it difficult to maintain healthy sexuality in a marriage covenant; it proves difficult to bring together what they have separated in their conduct for years. Far too many are settling for a pathetic parody, a counterfeit sexuality, one which hinders them from fully satisfactory sexual relations within the marriage covenant.

These days we see an even more pernicious temptation which is similar to porneia: pornography. Pornography is not strictly porneia since at no time do two become flesh; sadly, the use of pornography is often even worse because of it. The one who searches out pornography is not only divorcing physical gratification from relational connection; they divorce physical gratification from any kind of connection at all! They seek gratification from pixels on a screen and/or vibrations from a speaker; it is all about them and their desires. We are beginning to see a generation of people who have fried out their brains on pornography; many find it almost impossible to even participate in actual sexual intercourse on account of it!

Sadly these sins against the body are not restricted to those in the world; pornography is already an epidemic among the Lord’s people. Statistically speaking it is almost certain that all men middle age and under have seen pornography; by the same standard half of them have seen pornography in the past month. Likewise, statistically speaking, young men are exposed to pornography by age 12. Teenage girls throughout America are frequently pressured to send naked pictures of themselves (called “sexts”) to teenage boys who frequently distribute such pictures to other boys in order to enhance their social standing. A whole generation of young people has learned about sexuality through pornography, and they believe that what they see in pornography is “normal.” Little wonder, then, that their expressions of sexuality tend to degrade and dehumanize women!

We must resist these trends toward dehumanizing deviance. We must treat those damaged and wounded by what they have seen and those whose intimate relationships have been betrayed on account of these things. And we must work diligently to train young men and women to understand the importance of holistic human sexuality incorporating the physical and the relational within the covenant of marriage and warn them that what has been seen cannot be unseen and will profoundly change one’s understanding of sexuality. Porneia and pornography certainly do hurt people: those who participate in them! May we turn away from porneia and pornography and affirm God’s purposes for human sexuality in marriage!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Hateful and Hating

For we also once were foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another (Titus 3:3).

The story of life outside of Christ is always ugly. And yet Christians must remember what it was like.

Paul has been encouraging Titus in his work of ministry, encouraging Christians and promoting the Gospel. Paul is telling Titus the types of things which he must tell those who will hear him so they may be encouraged and remain faithful in Christ (Titus 3:1-2). Part of that exhortation involves the continual remembrance of who we were outside of Christ and what God has accomplished for us in Christ: we were foolish, disobedient, deceived, pursuing passion, living in malice and envy, being hated, and hating in turn, but God’s kindness was displayed to us in Christ, who saved us through the regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, justifying us, making us heirs with Christ (Titus 3:3-7). Paul wants this explained so that the Christians would be careful to maintain good works (Titus 3:8).

Why would Paul want to bring to light something so dark and ugly as the lives Christians led before they came to a knowledge of the Lord Jesus? In no way does he want to glorify and exult in the types of things regarding which we all should be ashamed (Romans 6:21). He does so regarding himself in order to magnify the great love and mercy displayed to him and to all mankind in Jesus (1 Timothy 1:12-17). Christians are to do so for a similar reason to an extent as well. Paul’s ultimate reason is for Christians to be productive unto good works (Titus 3:8): we are to recognize how dependent we are on God for our salvation, which was entirely undeserved, and should respond with humility and gratitude. It is to remind Christians that we have no basis upon which to boast about being better than others, for our condition has improved only by the grace of God poured out on us (cf. Ephesians 2:1-18). We are not to look down on those still in bondage but to love them and seek their best interest (Matthew 5:44-48, Romans 12:17-21). It also provides Christians with an understanding of the types of attitudes and behaviors from which they have been rescued; such should be a sober warning to no longer return to them again (2 Peter 2:20-22)!

Among the characteristics of life outside of Christ is hate: being hated by others and hating one another (Titus 3:3). Paul accurately assessed a major element in life in this world: fear of the other continually manifests itself as hate toward the other. What is seen as not directly for us is very easily manipulated to look like it is against us. In worldly terms there is only so much that one can motivate people to believe, feel, and do in the name of love, self-interest, greed, etc., but one can get people to think, feel, and do almost anything to preserve themselves against that which they fear. Fear and hate are intertwined; you cannot hate what you do not fear.

Few motivators prove as powerful as fear. The worst atrocities mankind has ever perpetrated have been done in the name of fear. Strong, powerful nations most powerfully exert themselves by doing what is necessary to cause those who would oppose them to be afraid of their arsenal. For many smaller nations and forces the only form of influence they can wield is to inspire fear and terror into the hearts of those with greater resources and strength. Fearmongering is a powerful thing: “be afraid” is always a powerful motivator for action and only rarely can be refuted.

Fear and hate are everywhere. People are afraid that Christians just might be right about the consequences of sinful behavior; the easiest thing to do is to hate Christians and Christianity in response (1 Peter 4:1-6). Nations fear other nations and develop hatreds and hostilities; groups of people within nations, or from different regions or religions or any other number of ways in which humans divide themselves, find reasons to engender fear and hate toward each other. The cycle never ends. In this present world the cycle will never end.

And yet, for the Christian, “hateful” and “hating one another” are to be in the past tense (Titus 3:3). In Romans 8:15 Paul made clear how Christians did not receive a spirit of slavery to be afraid, but received the spirit of adoption as sons of God in Christ. Perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18); Jesus provided the means by which we could break through the fear and hate cycle by enduring fear and hate, dying on the cross, and being raised again in power (Ephesians 2:11-18). In Christ all such hostility is to be killed: Christians are to come together as one people from many different nations and languages and exemplify the only power that could overcome the forces of darkness (Galatians 3:28). If the Lord is our helper, who are we to fear? What can man do to us (cf. Psalm 27:1, Hebrews 13:6). Other people may not like us, hurt us, and even kill us; if God is for us, who can really be against us (Romans 8:31)? We may suffer harsh consequences for following the Lord Jesus; and yet He died, but was raised in power, and in so doing struck the deepest fear into the heart of even the cruelest tyrant.

hate killed

How so? Fear and hate get their power from sin and death. Of what is anyone afraid? That they will be taken advantage of and/or experience loss of life, property, and/or standing. The tyrant attempts to get people to do things for him in fear for their lives; the terrorist tries to get people to listen to them or meet their demands in fear for their lives; the fearmonger attempts to get power or influence by giving the impression that he or she is the one that can be trusted to eliminate the threat. Jesus experienced the shame, was taken advantage of, and lost His life, and in so doing gained the victory over sin and death (Philippians 2:5-11, 1 Peter 2:18-25). The tyrant can never overpower the Christian who does not love his or her life even unto death; the terrorist cannot strike fear into the heart of the Christian who trusts that all is well whether he or she remains in the body or goes to be with the Lord; the fearmonger cannot influence the Christian who understands that the only power which can overcome fear, hate, sin, and death is the all-conquering sacrificial love manifest by God in Jesus.

fear conquered

Fear remains a continual temptation for Christians, but our fear always comes from a lack of trust in God, His goodness, His promises, and the ultimate manifestation of His love for us in Christ and Him crucified. To give into fear is to return to the hateful and hating life from which God has rescued us in Jesus. Therefore, brethren, let us stand firm. May we not give into the voices of fear and hate. Let us not be troubled by any fear or terror. Let us trust in Jesus our Lord, who died and was raised again in power, and prove willing to endure any shame or deprivation so as to obtain His glory in the resurrection!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Love Your Enemies

“Ye have heard that it was said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy’:
But I say unto you, love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you; that ye may be sons of your Father who is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust. For if ye love them that love you, what reward have ye? Do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? Do not even the Gentiles the same? Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).

Jesus had already said many difficult, challenging things. He had only been warming up!

Matthew 5:1-48 recounts the beginning of what is popularly called Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” in which Jesus set forth a protracted discussion of the ethics of the Kingdom. After overthrowing commonly held expectations about who was fortunate, or blessed (Matthew 5:3-12), Jesus established that He came to fulfill, and not abolish the Law, but to enter the Kingdom one’s righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:17-20). In Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus further explicated the point with a series of contrasting statements, first establishing “what had been said” in the Law, both in terms of what was explicitly written and how it was understood and practiced in terms of righteousness, but then turning by establishing what “I say unto you,” ultimately a more exacting and rigorous standard. The Law said to not murder; Jesus exhorted His followers to not even hate, pursuing reconciliation (Matthew 5:21-26). The Law said to not commit adultery; Jesus expected people to not even lust in their heart, turning from temptation (Matthew 5:27-30). The Law granted reasons for divorce; Jesus limited them to sexually deviant behavior on the part of the spouse being put away (Matthew 5:31-33). The Law made provision for oaths; Jesus told His followers to not swear at all (Matthew 5:33-37). The Law enshrined the lex talionis as a means of exacting appropriate recompense for injury; Jesus then said to not resist the one who is evil, suffer the loss and indignity, and prove willing to go further (Matthew 5:38-42). This leads to the final contrast as expressed in Matthew 5:43-48.

Bloch-SermonOnTheMount

The Law explicitly declared for the Israelites to love their neighbor as themselves in Leviticus 19:18. The Law nowhere explicitly states that Israelites were to “hate their enemy”; this has led many expositors to suggest that this is a Pharisaical addition condemned by Jesus and without merit. So far everything Jesus declared “had been said of old” came directly from the Law or paraphrased an idea that was assuredly in the Law; to turn to a Pharisaical invention without mentioning it would seem strange at this point. “You shall hate your enemy,” especially in terms of loving one’s enemy less, is not an unreasonable interpretation of many elements of the Law of Moses. YHWH explicitly excluded the Ammonites and Moabites from His assembly (Deuteronomy 23:2-3); the Israelites were to entirely eliminate and destroy the seven nations in Canaan (Deuteronomy 7:1-2, 5). After at least four hundred years after the original offense YHWH made sure that Saul struck Amalek for what they had done to the Israelites during their time in the Wilderness (1 Samuel 15:1-7; cf. Exodus 17:8-16). An exploration into the prophetic judgment oracles against neighboring nations, seen in Isaiah 13-24, Jeremiah 46-51, Amos 1-2, Obadiah, and Nahum, among others, makes plain how little love was lost among the Israelites and their neighbors, and how YHWH was going to judge those who had sought evil against Israel. We can also see what the Israelites do when they get a chance to overcome their enemies in Esther 8-9, and it leads to many, many deaths.

We can see “hate your enemy” at work throughout the Gospels in terms of how the Jewish people viewed and treated those of other nations. The lawyer’s attempt to justify himself in Luke 10:29 was not entirely out of turn; Israelites had no problem loving (at least most of) their fellow Israelites but had very little love for those of the nations, particularly Romans. John’s aside in John 4:9 is understated: Jews not only had no dealings with Samaritans but also despised them, and that gives the Parable of the Good Samaritan its power (Luke 10:26-37). Peter reminded Cornelius that it is unlawful for Jews to associate with Gentiles (Acts 10:28), and that was the accusation made against him the moment he returned to Jerusalem (Acts 11:2-3). Jews despised those of the nations, the Gentiles; the Gentiles returned the favor. And, as Peter’s declaration makes clear, Jews found plenty of justification for their position towards the Gentiles in the Law of Moses.

Jesus very deliberately overthrows the whole paradigm in His response in Matthew 5:44. He told His disciples to love and do good to their enemies and pray for their persecutors. Few concepts prove as counterintuitive and contrary to all natural inclination as this; we want to harm those who want to harm us, or at least keep them away. We want nothing good to come upon those who want to do evil to us. It can be physically challenging to even turn the tide so as to do what Jesus says, to do good to those who stand against you and everything you are.

Jesus is aware of that; such is why He appeals to the ultimate Authority. Why should Christians love their enemies, do good to them, and pray for their persecutors? So they can manifest how they are children of their Father in heaven (Matthew 5:45). God sends the sun to shine upon the evil and the good; rain falls on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:45). Not only that, but loving those who love you and greeting only those who are your fellow people is not really that extraordinary, for tax collectors (universally hated and reviled as agents of the oppressors) and (those nasty) Gentiles do the same things. Thus, if you really want to be truly righteous, to have a form of righteousness greater than the average person, you need to be more like your heavenly Father and love even those who do not love you and greet those who would have nothing to do with you.

Jesus then concludes this series of contrasting statements, exemplifying the true nature of righteousness in the Kingdom, by declaring that His followers should be perfect as the Father is perfect. “Perfect” is the Greek teleios, “complete, perfect, brought to its end, mature.” If one exemplifies all these forms of righteousness he would prove mature and brought to the complete end of holiness, just as God is.

So much could be said about Jesus’ exposition in Matthew 5:43-48. Through what Jesus says we can see a level of common grace which God provides to all, something Paul will consider as well in Acts 14:16-17, 17:25-30. Jesus’ appeal to the “natural” love and greeting among even sinners is hard to square with any suggestion that humans, in their sinful depravity, are incapable of any good. There are no end to the arguments about Matthew 5:48 and the attainability of perfection, or whether that is even what Jesus is imagining or expecting, or perhaps is showing that all of this is what would be demanded in its exactitude if one attempts to depend on fulfillment of righteousness as the ground upon which one is able to stand before God (cf. Matthew 5:20).

The most important thing is how Jesus lived what He said in Matthew 5:43-48. Jesus came as the one sinless human in a sinful world; all people had turned aside to their own way; all were weak, ungodly, and sinful to some degree or another, and yet Jesus loved them and died for them (Romans 5:6-11). He prayed for Jerusalem while knowing He would be killed there (Matthew 23:37-39); He prayed for those who executed Him while in the very act (Luke 23:34). He visited Saul of Tarsus while he remained a persecutor, and Saul never forgot the greatness of Jesus’ mercy nor the depth of his own sinfulness (1 Timothy 1:12-17). Paul would become a most forceful expositor of the great power of what Jesus accomplished on the cross: He bore the enmity, He killed the hostility, and now Jew and Gentile were to be brought together into one body (Ephesians 2:11-18).

Jesus had no quarrel with loving one’s neighbor. The difficulty, of course, is that we humans see some people as our neighbor, but not everyone. Jesus points out that to God we are all neighbors; we all receive the beneficence of His abundant provision of the earth. God loves despite our unworthiness; we must love despite others’ unworthiness. God even loved those who actively worked against His purposes; what excuse do we have to do otherwise?

As Christians we are to be continually reminded that the only reason we stand before God is because while we were yet weak, ungodly, and enemies, God reconciled us to Himself through the death of Jesus of Nazareth (Romans 5:6-11, Ephesians 2:1-18, Titus 3:3-8). Thus we must love our enemy, just as God did, so that our enemy may become our brother. We must pray for those who persecute us so they may turn from the forces of darkness to which they are subject and join with us in serving the living God (Ephesians 6:12). God loves everyone and wants them to be saved (1 Timothy 4:1-4). If we would be called sons and daughters of the heavenly Father, should we not want the same, and live according to the pattern of our elder Brother Jesus who established the way (1 John 2:3-6)? May we love our enemies and do good to them, pray for those who persecute us, and demonstrate ourselves to be children of our heavenly Father to His glory!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Healing Dirt

When [Jesus] had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and anointed his eyes with the clay, and said unto him,
“Go, wash in the pool of Siloam”
(which is by interpretation, “Sent”). He went away therefore, and washed, and came seeing (John 9:6-7).

“Cleanliness is next to godliness,” or so they say.

Humans put a premium on cleanliness. Every morning most of us go through a series of rituals to divest ourselves of all that is reckoned unclean, put on clean clothes, and attempt to make ourselves look, feel, and smell as clean as possible. For the most part we try to limit our interactions with the “contagion” of dirt and uncleanness: we walk or drive on paved sidewalks and streets, we want food preparation and consumption to take place as cleanly as possible, and we have designated facilities to dispose of those bodily functions we find smelly and unclean. Woe to those who do not observe such cleanliness in habit and ritual; they are quickly socially marginalized.

This obsession with cleanliness goes beyond the realm of physical contagion. People these days want everything to be as “clean” as possible. In attempting to “put our best foot forward” we are tempted to whitewash our image and present to the world only that which is good and aesthetically pleasing and attempt to hide the ugliness, pain, and other unseemly parts of life. We may seek relationships with other people but we want those relationships to remain as “clean” as possible; we would rather not deal with other people’s drama and difficulties, especially if those difficulties may cost us in terms of time, energy, and (by no means!) personal reputation. In such an environment too many just want to pretend that the “dirty” or unclean parts of life are not there; whenever they arise we try to suppress them, medicate them away, or otherwise avoid them. We must always put on the impression that we are clean and have it all put together. No one wants to deal with a mess.

Many times cleanliness is justified religiously. God, after all, is pure and holy, without spot or blemish (Leviticus 19:2, Habakkuk 1:13). In the Law He specified all the ways in which Israel was to remain clean and what to do whenever they were rendered ritually unclean (e.g. Leviticus 11:1-15:33). As God is holy, so Christians are to be holy (1 Peter 1:15-16); Christians should be pure (1 John 3:3). All of these statements are true; God is holy, and wants people to be holy. God’s people should never wallow in the mire of sin and death!

And yet none of us are clean by our own merits; we have all sinned, and have all fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). Our society may have phobias about that which is unclean or dirty but they are part of life. As it is written:

And YHWH God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (Genesis 2:7).

God is our Creator; He made man in His image, the image of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Genesis 1:26-27). God made all things through the Word; without the Word nothing was made that exists (John 1:1-3). That Word became flesh and dwelt among us as Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:1-14).

Thus God made man from the dust of the ground; the Word was active in thus making man. None of us were there to see exactly how this took place; nevertheless, as humans, we are tempted to envision the event described in Genesis 2:7 as God using His “hands” to make man out of the dust of the ground. In so doing, by necessity, God would have dirt on those “hands,” and even after making man, His “hands” would have been made dirty in the process.

Furthermore, it would be God the Word who would be getting His “hands” dirty, and would again in the Incarnation. Not for nothing does Paul speak of Jesus as the “second Adam”; granted, he does so in order to show how Jesus, through one act of righteousness, could make right all the sins that had come from the one transgression of Adam (Romans 5:12-18) or make comparisons between this body and the body in the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20-49). Yet it remains true that Jesus became human, and as humans are dust, so we can say that Jesus took on dirt and dwelt among fellow pieces of dirt (Genesis 3:19, John 1:14). Jesus took on dirt and participated in life with mankind, and that life was invariably dirty. Jesus would have gotten dirty while eating, while relieving Himself, while walking down the road, etc. God Himself participated in man’s dirty condition, although without sin (Hebrews 4:15, 5:7-8)!

Jan Luyken's Jesus 14. Healing of a Man Born Blind. Phillip Medhurst Collection

Jesus became dirt and lived among pieces of dirt in order to make us clean, in a sense, to heal the dirt. Therefore it was entirely natural for Jesus to heal a man born blind by spitting on dirt and covering the man’s eyes with the clay (John 9:1-5), even though it may seem strange to us. The healing was by no means sanitary, yet Jesus uses dirt to heal dirt; as the “hands” of God the Word formed and shaped man out of dirt, so now the hands of Jesus of Nazareth use dirt to heal what had gone wrong with this particular man. Later on Jesus will take on the cross and suffer terribly, get extremely dirty and become an object of horror and shame, and in so doing provide a means of healing and cleanliness for all mankind (John 1:29, 19:30, Ephesians 5:25-27, Titus 3:3-8).

We humans put such a premium on cleanliness because of our great shame and disappointment at what is unclean about us, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. We do not become clean because of how well we clean ourselves or how well we try to suppress that which is unclean about us from public view. We can only be made clean through humble faith in Jesus who became dirt and got extremely dirty so that we could be healed and cleansed. He did this not because we were clean and thus deserved a relationship but while we were extremely filthy and unclean (Romans 5:6-11). God was not forced to deal with us in our impurity, defilement, and uncleanness; He could have abandoned us to our own fate. Yet, in love, He chose to get His hands dirty so we could get clean. If we would honor God and reflect Jesus to others we must not presume to be so sanitary and clean so as to have nothing to do with all the dirt out there; far from it! If we would be as Jesus we must work to heal dirt, to love people and seek their best interest no matter how dirty they are, no matter how ugly their problems, no matter how many times they may try and fail, no matter how well or poorly we can relate to their challenges and difficulties. We are not to do such things because they deserve it, because they do not. We do it because we have received that grace from God, were cleansed even though we did not deserve it, and want to reflect the God who gets dirty in order to heal and restore mankind. Let us follow the Lord Jesus, find cleansing in Him, and accomplish His purposes in the world!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Motherly Affection

But we were gentle in the midst of you, as when a nurse cherisheth her own children: even so, being affectionately desirous of you, we were well pleased to impart unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because ye were become very dear to us (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8).

No one could ever accuse Paul of working in the Lord’s vineyard only for the money or just as a job or a way of passing time. He poured his heart and soul into the people who had heeded the Gospel he preached.

The Gospel was received by some in Thessalonica under a cloud of persecution and difficulties as seen in Acts 17:1-9. Within a few weeks Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica after he had heard the report regarding them by Timothy (1 Thessalonians 3:6-10). Paul has been explaining the circumstances under which he arrived in Thessalonica after leaving Philippi and how he preached to them the Gospel not for covetousness nor for seeking men’s glory but for the welfare of their souls (1 Thessalonians 2:1-6).

Mother and childHe appeals to how he treated them and compares his love for them to that of a nursing woman for the child she nurses, explaining that he became affectionately desirous of them, willing not only to proclaim to them the Gospel but to even give of his own life if need be (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8). Paul loved the Christians in Thessalonica, and he expected them to understand as much.

Paul’s love and concern went well beyond the Christians of Thessalonica (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:28), yet the way he expresses his affection for the Thessalonians is extraordinary. The maternal image of the nursing woman expresses great care and concern and is probably not a little influenced by the relative youth of the Thessalonian Christians in the faith. Paul recognized the imperative given to him to preach the Gospel to everyone (1 Corinthians 9:22-23), but that never meant that he had to feel warmly toward any given group like he expressed to the Thessalonians. He developed genuine care and affection for the Christians in Thessalonica; he actually liked them and enjoyed being around them even though it was only for a short time.

We do well to note this love and concern and seek to find ways to feel similarly toward our fellow Christians. We are to be known for our love for one another (John 13:35); while it is true that such does not demand that we feel the “warm fuzzies” about every Christian we know we do well to be kindly disposed to one another and to have Christians in our lives regarding whom we could say that we felt tender affection. “Brother” and “sister” should not be mere titles or pretense but should express genuine brotherly and sisterly love for one another. Christians do well when they actually like one another and enjoy being in one another’s company!

We also should consider the nature of the relationship between Paul and the Thessalonian Christians: not only did they not know each other a few weeks or months before the writing of this letter, but also their relationship was forged in the preaching of and obedience to the Gospel (1 Thessalonians 2:2). We can therefore see how Paul treated those to whom he preached the Gospel: he did not keep them at a distance, as “prospects” or “clients,” but felt warmly toward them as a mother would her child, thus, as fellow family members (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8). While parallels exist between marketing/sales and evangelism we ought not over-emphasize them; the church is not a business but the family of God (cf. 1 Timothy 3:15). Neither Jesus nor the Gospel are “products” to “sell” but the plea for the prodigal and the alienated to come home (cf. Luke 15:11-32). The goal of all evangelism is to lead those outside of Christ to Him so as to become His disciple (Matthew 28:18-19); if they heed the message and obey it our relationship has not ended but has in fact just begun (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28).

Paul loved the Thessalonian Christians tenderly. We ought to have a similar love for our fellow Christians and to seek to share in such relationships with even more people. Let us proclaim the Gospel in our lives so as to lead people to faith in Christ and to share in the household of God and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Magnificat

And Mary said,
“My soul doth magnify the Lord / and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath looked upon the low estate of his handmaid / for behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath done to me great things / and holy is his name.
And his mercy is unto generations and generations / on them that fear him.
He hath showed strength with his arm / He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their heart.
He hath put down princes from their thrones / and hath exalted them of low degree.
The hungry he hath filled with good things / and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He hath given help to Israel his servant / that he might remember mercy
(As he spake unto our fathers) / toward Abraham and his seed for ever (Luke 1:46-55).

God was doing great things; He was worthy of praise. The mother of the Lord Jesus gives God praise for what He was accomplishing through her and the Child who would be born.

maryMary has come to visit her relative Elizabeth who is pregnant with John the Baptist; Elizabeth recognizes that Mary is carrying the Lord because her child leapt in her womb at the sound of Mary’s voice (Luke 1:39-41). Elizabeth declares Mary and her Child blessed (Luke 1:44-45). In response Mary begins this beautiful poem/song of praise to God for what He is accomplishing.

Luke 1:46-55 is frequently called the Magnificat (Latin for “he/she/it magnifies”, the first word of the poem/song in the Latin Vulgate of Luke 1:46). Mary speaks as a mother of promise in the same chord as Hannah sang generations before (cf. 1 Samuel 2:1-10). The composition is in Greek but throughout is constructed in terms of Hebrew poetry and praise.

Mary begins by magnifying and rejoicing in God as Savior; this joy is rooted in recognizing that He has raised her up from her lowly estate so as to be the mother of the Lord, and she recognizes that the generations to come would consider her blessed (Luke 1:46-48). God who has done this is mighty and holy, full of mercy to those who fear Him, a constant refrain regarding the nature of God (e.g. Joel 2:13; Luke 1:49-50).

Mary then perceives what God is doing by lifting up a lowly peasant girl to bear the Christ child: God shows strength and has scattered the proud; He elevates the lowly and brings down princes from their authority; the rich are sent away with nothing while the hungry are filled with good things (Luke 1:51-53). In the greatest sense God is fulfilling His promises to Abraham and Israel through the Child whom she will bear, remembering the mercy He has shown toward them (Luke 1:54-55). Thus ends Mary’s song.

Many have over-emphasized Mary’s role and place in the scheme of God’s redemption of His people, yet we do well to keep in mind that God did do great things through her and that she is blessed for having given birth to Jesus our Savior. Mary can tell that the story is not going the way that many had expected it; most were not thinking of the Christ being born of a peasant girl in the backwoods of Galilee (Luke 1:26-27, 2:21-24). The King would not be raised among nobility in a palace; the Messiah would not be trained by the foremost rabbis of the day. By elevating Mary God already was showing how Jesus would be about exalting the humble and humbling the exalted. The Christ of God would be familiar with common people and would be able to identify with those otherwise marginalized or cast out (Matthew 9:10-14, 11:16-19). As Mary was a “nobody” whom God made “somebody” by choosing her to bear the Lord, so the Lord would make many “nobodies” into “somebodies” and dismiss “somebodies” as truly “nobodies.”

Mary’s song ought to resonate to this day among those who look to her Son as the consolation not only of Israel but of the whole world. In the Kingdom of God in Christ everyone has a place; “nobodies” can be somebody. There is no room for the proud and the self-exalted; the Lord is about humility and service. God will help His people and remembers the mercy He extends to those who share in the faith of Abraham. We do well to magnify God and rejoice in the Savior, for He has showed strength with His arm, has elevated the lowly and brought low the mighty. Such is the prayer and hope truly known and understood only by those who are humble, lowly, brought low, in despair, marginalized, and/or oppressed. Let us come to the Lord with humility and meekness and magnify His holy name!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Love of the Brethren

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Relationships and Sacrifices

“If therefore thou art offering thy gift at the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee, leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way, first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

Authorization is one thing; proper prioritization is quite another.

The book of Leviticus describes the sacrificial system established for Israel under the Law of Moses: the Israelites were to bring sacrifices to atone for sin and guilt or as a thank offering or peace offering to God. The Israelites were most assuredly commanded to bring these sacrifices and to have them properly offered by the priests and Levites. Failure to do so was reckoned as disobedience.

Yet there was much more to the relationship between God and Israel than sacrifices. Many Israelites throughout history, however, proved content with a sacrifice-based relationship: they would offer the requisite sacrifices at the requisite time and thereby felt as if they had secured the goodwill and blessings of God. The prophets had quite a different message for Israel: sacrifice by itself could not atone for sustained, perpetual disobedience to God’s commands, especially as they related to others. Samuel made clear to Saul that obedience was better than sacrifice, and to listen to Him better than the fat of rams (1 Samuel 15:22); through Amos God decries those Israelites who seek the day of the LORD, offering sacrifices despite perpetuating injustice, and rejected their sacrifices until justice rolled down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream (Amos 5:18-24); in the days of Isaiah God could no longer tolerate the sacrifices of Judah because of their persistent pursuit of injustice (Isaiah 1:10-20); Jeremiah was told to go to the Temple and warn the people of Judah to not put their trust in it and its sacrificial system, hearkening back to the days in the wilderness when God did not yet demand sacrifices but yearned for Israel to listen to Him (Jeremiah 7:21-27). All of the sacrifices in the world would not atone for persistent rebelliousness and the perpetuation of injustice!

Jesus returns to this critique in the midst of what is popularly called the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:23-24. He has begun to demonstrate the insufficiency of the standard of righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees by contrasting statements made in the Law of Moses and how they were understood with His declarations about God’s full intentions for His people. He began with the command to not kill, demonstrating that it was not enough to avoid physically killing another, but also involved not degrading or insulting one’s brother (Matthew 5:21-22). Since one’s actions flow from one’s thoughts and feelings, if one avoids having derogatory thoughts and feelings toward others, then one will also avoid killing others.

Jesus continues His discourse by positing a situation: if you are making your offering at the altar, and remember your brother has something against you, leave the gift, first be reconciled, and then offer the gift (Matthew 5:23-24). We do well to remember that Jesus is Jewish and is preaching to Jewish people; we also should not imagine that Jesus is suggesting that non-Levites should be themselves offering gifts directly to God, for the scenario throughout assumes that the gift is being offered to God according to all of the proper protocols. Nevertheless, what does Jesus mean by this scenario, and what is it doing here in the midst of the discussion about killing or hating one’s brother?

The choice of sacrifice is deliberate: throughout the history of Israel sacrifice remains the paradigmatic religious activity. Offering proper gifts to God at the proper times in the proper way was important; no one in Israel would deny that, neither Sadducee nor Pharisee. Yet, to an extent, the same temptation that bedeviled their ancestors remained alluring: since sacrifice was a God-directed, “holy” and “spiritual” activity, it would be tempting to give it priority over interpersonal, “common” and “secular” matters. To provide a charitable example, let us imagine a conscientious Jewish man who came to make an appropriate peace offering before God at the Temple, and just as he was about to hand over the offering, he remembered that he had unintentionally insulted his neighbor who remained embittered toward him. In such a circumstance, it would be easy to imagine that this Jewish man would feel that his obligation toward God should take priority over his relationship with his neighbor and thus should first offer the sacrifice and then go and reconcile with his neighbor. We could imagine many other less charitable situations: a man making his gifts while he continues to exploit or oppress the poor and marginalized among him; the Pharisees themselves, who continue to offer sacrifices and yet treat their fellow Israelites contemptuously; and so on.

Yet Jesus insists that the sacrifice should wait. Reconciliation with one’s brother should come first, and then the sacrifice. In so doing He perpetuates an important message in the prophetic tradition: while sacrifice can atone for sins in life, sacrifices without any consideration of the rest of life are ineffective. Reconciling relationships has a holy, sacred, spiritual aspect to it; God here is prioritizing reconciliation, seeking forgiveness, de-escalation of situations, and the pursuit of justice and righteousness over the offering of sacrifices. Does that mean that sacrifices are unimportant and should not be offered? By no means; neither Jesus nor the prophets ever suggested that the Israelites should stop offering sacrifices. Instead, Jesus makes a sobering truth crystal clear: an Israelite who does not maintain appropriately reconciled relationships with his fellow Israelites cannot expect to offer sacrifices and maintain a reconciled relationship with God. This theme will play out often in Jesus’ preaching: you cannot expect your relationship with God to be properly maintained in reconciliation while you remain unreconciled and in hostility toward your fellow man (Matthew 6:14-15, 18:21-35, Luke 10:25-37). Therefore, it is not enough to just not hate or want to kill your brother; you must also maintain a proper, restored, reconciled relationship with him.

Christians today will not be found offering gifts at altars, but we do well to consider Jesus’ message. We have our own paradigmatic religious activities: assembling with fellow Christians, studying the Bible, telling others about Jesus, praying, and so on. As we go about our lives, if for whatever reason we have acted in such a way as to cause hurt, pain, division, or dissension between ourselves and another or among many, we must stop and seek to reconcile those relationships. We cannot gossip, slander, or engage in backbiting against others yet continue to act as if we are truly representing the people of God. We cannot participate in arguments or fights between ourselves and our parents, children, spouses, friends, fellow Christians, or others, and then act as if we can just pray to God and everything will be fine between us and Him. We cannot treat people with contempt and perpetuate all sorts of injustice and then go assemble with others of like faith and imagine that we are really, truly, and actually faithfully representing the people of God. No: in all these things we must strive to heal relationships, reconcile with others, and seek justice and righteousness, and then we can pray to God, study the Bible, tell others about Jesus, and assemble with fellow Christians, and be able to share in relationship with God and with one another without fear.

We cannot choose sacrifices over relationships; to maintain our relationship with God, we must also give thought to how we maintain our relationships with one another. Let us be reconciled to God and through Him to one another, and seek to maintain reconciled relationships through the power of God in Christ to His eternal glory!

Ethan R. Longhenry