The Mark of True Discipleship

“A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; even as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:34-35).

What is supposed to define a disciple, or follower, of Christ?

For the better part of 1,750 years, one could be forgiven for thinking the answer involved finding and adhering to the right doctrines regarding Jesus. For most of its history Christianity has seemed to focus on determining the nature of God and Christ, how salvation is accomplished, the relationship between the believer and the church, the church and the state, and a whole host of other matters. Upon these matters most of the written records focus; comparatively precious little is said regarding the practice of the faith. Perhaps the practice of the faith was more strongly emphasized in other contexts; perhaps it went unsaid because there was little disagreement regarding it.

The Bible does insist on a good understanding of God in Christ and the substantive message of the faith and the need to stand firm within it (2 Timothy 2:15, Jude 1:3, 2 John 1:7-11). Yet it is worth noting what Jesus Himself emphasizes as the true mark of His followers. He does not say that all men will know we are His disciples by the doctrines we teach, the truths we uphold, or the persuasive arguments we make. The mark of true disciples of Jesus is their love for one another (John 13:35).

The statement seems so simple, so obvious, and yet it is quite compelling and extraordinarily challenging. It is not as if this is the first time that the disciples have been told to love one another; the Law exhorted them to love their neighbors as themselves (Leviticus 19:18), and all Israelites would agree that fellow Israelites were their neighbors (cf. Luke 10:25-29). That aspect of the command is “old,” but Jesus adds a twist which makes it “new”: they are to love one another as He loved them (John 13:34; cf. 1 John 2:7-8). God is love (1 John 4:8); Jesus, God in the flesh, is the embodiment of love (John 1:1, 14, Hebrews 1:3, 1 John 3:16). We can therefore understand the love Christians are to have for one another by understanding the way Jesus conducted Himself among His disciples.

Jesus called His twelve disciples, not because of who they were at the time, but on account of their willingness to follow and because of what Jesus knew they could be (Matthew 10:1-4). He spent a lot of time teaching them; many of Jesus’ teachings were directed to the disciples, even if others were present (e.g. Matthew 5:1-7:28), and would provide further explanation to them in other contexts as well (Mark 4:33-34). Nevertheless, the disciples proved slow to truly perceive and understand what Jesus was saying; He remained patient with them (cf. John 13:36-38, 14:5-8, etc.).

But Jesus went beyond instructing them in word; He also showed them in deed the things He was saying (1 John 3:18). He showed His love for them by serving them, finding no task too humiliating or “beneath” Him (John 13:1-11). He took care of their material needs many times (e.g. Matthew 17:24-27). He prayed to the Father for them (John 17:1-19). In the moment of His greatest need they forsook Him and even denied Him; He loved them anyway, died for them anyway, and welcomed them back joyfully in His resurrection (John 18:1-20:23, 1 John 3:16). Jesus embodied the definition of love toward His disciples: He was patient and kind with them, did not envy or boast, was not arrogant or rude, did not insist on His own way, was not irritable or resentful, did not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoiced with them in the truth, bore their deficiencies and iniquities, continued to believe in them, hoped in them, and endured with them. His love for them never ended (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a).

As we can see, coming to an understanding of the truth of God in Christ Jesus and His Kingdom is part of showing love to one another, but does not and cannot fully embody what it means to love one another. Yes, we are to learn about Jesus, but that learning is not supposed to be merely an intellectual exercise or an end unto itself; we are to learn about Him so that we can be more like Him (Romans 8:29, 1 John 2:6). Doctrine is important: we feel and act based upon what we believe, therefore, we must have the right beliefs if we are going to feel and act as we should. Yet, as Jesus makes abundantly clear, mere intellectual understanding was never the goal; knowledge of God in Christ is designed to inexorably lead to reflecting the characteristics of God in Christ.

Jesus’ phrasing might seem odd to us: how is it that all men will know we are disciples of Jesus by our love for one another? Would they not understand how we are disciples of Jesus by our love for them? It is not as if Christians are to not love those outside the faith (cf. Luke 6:27-36, Galatians 6:10), but Jesus’ emphasis on love toward one another is well-placed and quite poignant. We like to think that people are persuaded to follow Jesus through well-constructed and persuasive arguments. Some are convinced through such apologetics, but God knows us better than we know ourselves, and recognizes that very few people are ever convinced about anything on account of rational argumentation. In the end, God is not interested in just setting up an alternative mental construct through which to see the world; Christianity was never designed to just be the correct philosophy of the world.

The true mark defining a group of disciples is their love for one another. How do they treat each other? If Christians love one another like Jesus has loved them, they will remind each other of the truths of God in Jesus (cf. 2 Timothy 4:1-5). But they will also show great concern for one another, making sure that each other’s material needs are met (Galatians 6:10, 1 John 3:17-18). They are patient and kind with one another; if they sin against each other, they forgive each other and bear with one another (Colossians 3:12-14). True followers of Jesus understand that they have all sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God, and feel comfortable enough with one another to open up and confess their sins, faults, and failures, entrusting themselves to one another, even though they will at times hurt each other and betray each other (James 5:16). They love each other anyway. They share with each other anyway. They build each other up anyway.

Where else in the world can such love be found in true community? People in the world crave that kind of love, acceptance, welcome, and openness. People want to be loved; people want others to be patient with them; people want to be treated kindly and considerately; people want to share life together. People want a greater purpose in life and to share in that mission with others, and so it all is supposed to be in Jesus. If Christ’s followers show love to one another as we have described it, others will want to share in that experience, and they will themselves be inspired to follow Jesus (cf. Matthew 5:13-16)!

But what happens when people claim to follow Jesus but do not manifest that love? The history of “Christianity” is full of examples of such failures, and they have given the faith a bad name and have given reason for the nations to blaspheme. Emphasis on right doctrine alone led to wars, death, misery, and pain for untold thousands; to this day, how many people associate Christianity with the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the people on the street spewing forth messages of condemnation? The world is full of different groups of people who only see each other’s failings, show little patience with one another’s faults, constantly nitpick and judge each other with a view of denigrating them, and feel important or special because of their knowledge or means by which they identify themselves. There’s nothing special or attractive about such groups, and if some such groups try to wear the name of Christ, it’s little wonder why they struggle to grow or be effective in any meaningful way.

Followers of Jesus show love to one another in a number of different ways, and they are all important, but only insofar as they point back to Jesus, glorify Him, and are done with a view to reflecting Jesus to one another and our fellow man. Jesus knows what He is doing; He has good reason to make love for one another the clear identifier of His true followers. Any group of people professing to follow Jesus which does not share in love toward each other has not truly understood Jesus. Any group which professes to follow Jesus and to have the love they should have but do not adhere to the truth of God in Jesus Christ has not really understood all that the love of Jesus requires. But it is just as true that anyone who thinks they have understood the true knowledge of God in Christ but does not show true love to His fellow Christians has not really understood the true knowledge of God in Christ and certainly has not perceived the end to which we are to learn of Christ. Instead, let us follow after Jesus the way He intends. Let us come to a better knowledge of Jesus, understanding how He lived and loved, so that we can love each other as Jesus intends!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Imitation

Beloved, imitate not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: he that doeth evil hath not seen God (3 John 1:11).

Much has been said in a such a short letter: John has spoken to Gaius regarding the support of those who proclaim the Gospel (3 John 1:5-8), warning him about Diotrephes (3 John 1:9-10), and will commend Demetrius as well (3 John 1:12). The core moral instruction and encouragement John has for Gaius is clearly and concisely presented in 3 John 1:11: do not imitate evil, but imitate good; those doing good are of God, while those who do evil have not seen God.

The exhortation is to not imitate evil, but imitate good. Such a declaration assumes there already exists a standard defining good and evil, and the only question left to decide is whether our thoughts, feelings, and actions will be done in imitation of that which is good or if it will imitate evil. We might like to think that there is some form of “originality” in the thoughts and feelings we have or in the actions we do, but we are all just imitators in the end. We go along whatever path we feel like going along; we find it well-worn at every point. Perhaps this is why God thought it best to send Jesus His Son in the flesh to embody that which is good in thought, feeling, and action (John 1:18, Acts 10:38, Hebrews 1:3, 1 John 2:6). We now know whom we are to imitate; we are to conform to the image of the Son (Romans 8:29).

Meanwhile the world does well at promoting evil through imitations of what seems to be good. Very few people are so bold as to imitate evil for evil’s sake; most people imitate evil by imitating things they think will lead to the good or happiness but are, in reality, fraudulent. We are constantly tempted to take God’s good things and make gods of them, to give the honor due the Creator to the creation (cf. Romans 1:18-32). People pursue imitation love, imitation peace, imitation joy, and all sorts of other imitations, all of which do not lead to righteousness and holiness but more often immorality and evil.

We do well to note how little vagary exists in this exhortation. One either imitates good or imitates evil; one manifests whether they know God or whether they have not seen Him. A similar delineation, spelled out in greater detail, is found with the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:19-24. Sometimes we would like to think that there might be some “gray areas” when it comes to good or evil, and yet the Scriptures remain stubbornly black and white about the matter. There is what is good, right, and holy, marked by humility, love, and compassion, full of grace and mercy, exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit: this is the good which we are to imitate, and in so doing recognize that we are of the God who is all of these attributes. There is also that which is evil, sinful, and base, marked by fraudulence, deceit, lust, and worldliness: this is the evil we are to avoid, for no one who has seen God or truly knows of God would continue in such things which are entirely contrary to His nature and purpose. And never shall the twain meet!

There is good, therefore, and there is evil; the two are opposed to each other like the poles of a magnet. If we are to imitate the good, every process of life should be good: our thoughts should be good (2 Corinthians 10:5, Philippians 4:8), our feelings, attitudes, and disposition should be good (Galatians 5:22-24, Colossians 3:12-15), so that our deeds can be good as well (Matthew 7:15-20). This demands that we pay as much attention to the process as we do to the final product. It might be tempting to seek to promote or defend God’s purposes using the Devil’s tactics or playbook, but it cannot work that way; it is impossible to promote good with evil. We must defend and promote God’s purposes in God’s way, with love, humility, grace, and mercy (1 Peter 3:15). Contentiousness, sectarianism, anger, and all such things cannot produce the righteousness of God (cf. Galatians 5:19-21, James 1:20)!

This sharp contrast should remain with us as a good reminder and form of encouragement. It is not always easy to imitate good; there are a lot of forces marshaled against us (cf. Ephesians 6:12, 1 Peter 5:8), everything from lust to temptation to fear to pain to inertia. But if we have encountered the living God through Jesus His Son, how can we do anything else? He thought that which is good, maintained a good attitude and disposition, felt compassion on others, and went about doing good, and we ought to imitate Him. Let us imitate what is good, demonstrating that we know God, in the process as much as in the final product, in our thoughts, feelings, and attitudes as much as in our deeds, and so glorify and honor God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Sacrifice

For Christ entered not into a holy place made with hands, like in pattern to the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear before the face of God for us: nor yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place year by year with blood not his own; else must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once at the end of the ages hath he been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself (Hebrews 9:24-26).

For people today, perhaps one of the strangest and most foreign aspects of the Old Testament is the sacrificial system. Much of Leviticus is devoted to descriptions of various animal sacrifices: what to offer, when to offer it, why to offer it, how it should be offered, and so on and so forth. Many can become quite indignant about the whole matter: why do the poor animals have to suffer? What did they do so as to deserve such a fate?

Then again, the concept of sacrificing animals before a deity is not just found in Israel; it seems that almost all ancient societies engaged in animal sacrifices before their gods. Some, like the Babylonians, did so believing the gods would be fed through the process; if they stopped making sacrificial offerings, their gods would starve! Others believed that whereas their gods had their own food, the smell of the sacrifices would lead the gods to be kindly disposed toward those offering them.

What is the point of all of these sacrifices? We might not clearly understand the idea of animal sacrifices, but we understand what “sacrifice” is. Sacrifice entails giving up something: a suffering of loss. We talk about sacrificing some time or money for a particular person or cause; we frequently hear about those who died in war as having sacrificed everything for their country.

The idea of sacrifice as suffering loss explains animal (and grain) sacrifices in the Old Testament: it represents some level of suffering loss for God. Many such sacrifices were memorial: the first of the grain harvests and the firstborn animals would be sacrificed as a way of thanking God for the blessings of life. Yet when it comes to sin offerings, the sacrifice is not to thank God but as a request for atonement and cleansing from sin (cf. Leviticus 17:11).

This sacrifice for sin was designed for the instruction of Israel: it was costly, requiring the suffering of loss of an important piece of their property (their animal), and provided a means by which Israel could understand the mechanism of atonement. The animal’s life was given so that the one offering the animal could receive atonement, or cleansing, from their sin. This is made evident in the yearly day of atonement for Israel as described in Leviticus 16:1-34.

The Hebrew author spends much time describing the limitations of the Israelite system, especially in regards to the sacrificial system. The priests who took the offerings and presented them before God were themselves imperfect; the blood of animals could not really take away sin; animals had to be continually offered (Hebrews 7:11-28, 9:1-22, 10:1-4). But then the Hebrew author explains how Jesus of Nazareth was the ideal Priest and King: He did not offer the blood of animals but His own blood; His unique sacrifice only needed to be accomplished once in order to be efficacious for all; He was perfect and sinless in life (Hebrews 7:26-28, 9:23-27). Jesus, therefore, is the ultimate sacrifice.

Jesus suffered great loss on our behalf: all the agony He experienced through His arrest, trial, scourging, and crucifixion were not on account of His own sin or any wrong He had done (cf. 1 Peter 2:21-25). He willingly suffered the loss of His life for those whom He loved (1 John 3:16). God the Father was willing to allow such an offering because of His great love for us (John 3:16, Romans 5:6-11).

Animal sacrifices, therefore, pointed to the challenges of mankind which God addressed powerfully through His Son Jesus. Animal sacrifices are no longer necessary because of what Jesus accomplished; in fact, to think to offer animals again would be rather insulting, in a sense trivializing what God has accomplished for us through the sacrifice of Jesus His Son. But just because we do not offer animal sacrifices does not mean that we should no longer sacrifice; quite the contrary! Since God has suffered so much loss for us, we should be motivated to become living sacrifices for Him (Romans 12:1). As Jesus was crucified as a sin offering to atone for our sin, so we should reckon ourselves as crucified with Christ, no longer living for ourselves, but having Christ live in and through us (Galatians 2:20). It can no longer be enough to just suffer the loss of an animal, some other prized object, money, or any other thing; we must freely give of ourselves, mind, body, and soul, for Him and His purposes (Colossians 3:17).

Jesus was the sacrifice to atone for our iniquity and to overcome our deficiencies. We did not deserve it and never will; we should be thankful and be willing to suffer the loss of all things for the Lord. Let us praise and glorify God because He has provided the necessary sacrifice for our sin, and subject ourselves and our will to His!

Ethan R. Longhenry

A God of Peace, Not Confusion

For God is not a God of confusion, but of peace (1 Corinthians 14:33a).

Satan likes to insert a question mark where God has made a period.

From the beginning, God has sought a peaceful relationship and harmony with His creation (Genesis 1:31, 2:25). Ever since, Satan has attempted to challenge what God has established, spreading confusion among mankind (cf. Genesis 3:1-6).

By all accounts, the Evil One has been quite successful. Even if we just investigate into the various groups claiming to follow Christ we find a dizzying array of differing attitudes, doctrines, and practices. Everything from the nature of God to the nature of the relationship between Christians is disputed in some way or another. In such an environment, many despair of ever coming to the knowledge of the truth. It is easy to get discouraged; it is easy to see why many believe that we will always remain in a state of confusion.

But we do well to remember what Paul told the Corinthians. It appears that the Corinthian assemblies were quite the spectacle: different people prophesying at the same time, others speaking in different languages, often with no one to interpret. An outsider could be forgiven for thinking them all quite mad (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:23)! This was not what God intended with the spiritual gifts He provided through the Holy Spirit at this time; the Corinthians needed reminding that God was not a God of confusion, or instability, tumult, or commotion, but a God of peace. He remains the God of the “still, small voice,” and not of “the wind, earthquake, or fire” (1 Kings 19:11-13).

Even though the gifts all came from God, it was up to His servants the Corinthian Christians to use them properly and toward the right ends (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, 14:26). His good gifts could be misdirected toward a confusing commotion that was not of the truth but of worldliness and immaturity. They could use what God had given them to strengthen and build up or to weaken and tear down.

While we do well to keep these things in mind when it comes to our assemblies today, Paul’s reasoning holds true in every aspect of our lives as Christians. God is not a God of instability, confusion, or commotion, but a God of peace, and that remains true outside of the assembly as much as within it.

God is not the author of the confusion of the modern mind, religious or secular, despite what many might claim. God made known His truth through Jesus and His Apostles (Matthew 18:18, John 8:31-32, 14:6). Part of that truth was the confession that many would sow confusion among Christians, promoting the teaching of demons, leading people astray from the truth (1 Timothy 4:1-3, 2 Timothy 4:3-5). This has never been the Lord’s intent, and it never will be. Nevertheless, He does not compel or coerce. He has given us the revelation of His message through Jesus and the Scriptures; it is up to us as to whether we will abide by His message for good or whether we will misdirect His message for selfish, immature, and improper ends.

God communicated His message so that it could be understood and followed (John 8:31-32, Romans 8:29). It is lamentable to see how effective Satan has been at getting people to question and challenge the revelation of God, vaunting their own methods and idols above the ways of the Most High. But God remains a God of peace, not confusion. His message allows us to be reconciled back to Him in sincerity, truth, and love (Romans 5:6-11). Love rejoices with the truth but cannot do so at unrighteousness (1 Corinthians 13:6), and God is love (1 John 4:8). Therefore, let us entrust ourselves to the God of love and peace, finding rest in Him, and not be tossed to and fro by the challenges, questions, and disputations which come from the author of confusion, Satan and his minions. Let us pattern our lives after the God of peace, not the author of confusion and commotion!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Redemption

[Boaz] said, “Who are you?”
And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer” (Ruth 3:9).

The story of Ruth and Naomi is poignant for many reasons: the faith of a foreigner, the devotion of a daughter-in-law, God’s lovingkindness toward those who serve Him despite finding themselves in difficult circumstances, and so on. Yet one of the more mysterious aspects of the story is this matter of redemption: Ruth appeals to Boaz as a redeemer, and Boaz will successfully redeem Naomi’s property and Ruth as well. This is not some interesting yet ultimately irrelevant story, for within it we find a type of which Jesus of Nazareth will be the reality.

One of the most important matters for the ancient Israelites involved maintaining proper tribal and clan control of property in perpetuity through legitimate offspring. This was the concern of the tribe of Manasseh regarding the daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 36:1-12; furthermore, even though looking upon one’s brother’s wife is generally an abomination (Leviticus 18:16, 20:21), Deuteronomy 25:5-6 compels a man to take his brother’s wife to have children to inherit the property of the brother if the brother has died.

Naomi and Ruth find themselves in a most difficult predicament. The men of the family–Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, Mahlon (Ruth’s husband, Ruth 4:10) and Chilion her sons–have died in Moab (Ruth 1:3-5). While it is true that women could inherit their father’s property in the absence of male offspring (cf. Numbers 27:7-11), neither applies to Naomi or Ruth, since they are wives and not blood relatives, and, for that matter, Ruth remains a foreigner (Ruth 1:4). Elimelech’s land near Bethlehem cannot be properly claimed by them.

But Boaz is a “near kinsman,” and thus a “redeemer” according to Ruth 2:20. This means he is a male relative of Elimelech and therefore can redeem both Elimelech’s land and Ruth to provide offspring to perpetuate Elimelech’s and Mahlon’s lineage. There is a nearer relative who has the first right of redemption (Ruth 3:12-13). The legal proceedings before the elders in the gate in Ruth 4:1-10 involve this nearer relative (left unnamed) and Boaz. The nearer relative was interested in redeeming the land but not Ruth, lest he impair his own inheritance (Ruth 4:4-6). Therefore, Boaz was legally granted the opportunity to redeem Elimelech’s land as well as Ruth, solemnly declaring before the elders in the gate that he had “bought” the land of Elimelech’s family and had “bought” Ruth as his wife to raise up children to keep the lineage going (Ruth 4:9-10). Through Boaz and Ruth a son is born to Naomi, Obed (Ruth 4:17); we know Obed’s grandson quite well, for he is David who will be king of Israel (Ruth 4:22). Such is why Boaz and Ruth are mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1:5.

This story helps us understand the idea of redemption and the redeemer in Scripture. Redemption involves some sort of purchase; through some process of transaction, one generally gives up something in order to obtain something else. We might redeem a certificate for its monetary value, or redeem a product with money. So it is that even though no money is transacted, Boaz must nevertheless “buy” the land of Elimelech and to “buy” Ruth in marriage, that is, to redeem them according to proper Israelite protocol, in order to protect the family’s property rights and preserve the name of the family through offspring.

As a redeemer, Boaz is a type of Christ: he comes upon two people in distress who have no legal recourse or standing, and through his compassion and lovingkindness accomplishes their deliverance in ways they would not be able to do for themselves on account of his position of privilege. So it is with Jesus: He has found us in difficult circumstances, alienated from God, unable to be reconciled back to Him by our own power on account of our sin (cf. Romans 3:20, Ephesians 2:1-3). Jesus, through His privileged position of being both God and man, the Son of God and God the Son, and on account of His lovingkindness and compassion, paid for us to be reconciled back to God through His death on the cross (Romans 5:6-11, 1 Corinthians 6:20, Galatians 3:13, 2 Peter 2:1). Through Jesus we can be reckoned as children of God; through Jesus we can receive a portion of the most important “property” or inheritance of all, eternal life (Romans 8:15-17).

It is easy for us today to automatically associate “buying” people with slavery, considering people as “property” to be used. While it remains true that we are to see ourselves as slaves of God in Christ (cf. Romans 6:16-23, 1 Corinthians 7:22), such does not mean that “purchase” should be always and automatically associated with “slavery.” We do well to remember the ever-present theme of redemption in the Bible, in terms of God’s redemption of Israel from Egypt, Ruth’s redemption by Boaz, and other similar examples, understanding how redemption is an act of grace and mercy, a gift from those in more fortunate circumstances to those in less fortunate ones. As Boaz redeemed Ruth out of his graciousness, compassion, and desire to do what was right, so God has shown us extravagant grace and mercy by allowing for our redemption through the death of His Son Jesus. Let us praise God for redemption in Jesus, and let us seek to honor and glorify His name!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Maintaining Good Works

Faithful is the saying, and concerning these things I desire that thou affirm confidently, to the end that they who have believed God may be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men (Titus 3:8).

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of discipleship is maintaining good works. Yes, in many ways, there is a bit of a learning curve in Christianity; when we come to faith in Jesus, we have much to learn and gain from instruction and exhortation regarding how we should live. At that time we are also motivated by early enthusiasm for our faith. But what happens after we have been seeking to follow Jesus for awhile? How will we continue to be motivated toward good works?

Paul is aware of the challenge, and his solution might seem odd to some: further exhortation and reminder of what has transpired in the past (Titus 3:3-7).

It is easy for us to consider preaching and teaching only in terms of instruction; we have been conditioned by our society to associate a lack of proper conduct with a lack of knowledge. If we do not do what we are supposed to do, it is as if we have not been properly instructed. Nevertheless, most of the time we do know what we are to do; any Christian who has read a bit of Scripture and heard it preached frequently should have a decent understanding of what God expects from them. Much of the exhortation in Scripture is provided for Christians as a reminder of things they should already know (cf. 2 Peter 1:12-13). Doing righteousness and avoiding immorality is not “new news” to Christians; the greater danger is a weakening of zeal and developing complacency in one’s spiritual life (cf. Revelation 2:1-10).

Therefore, it is not strange or even surprising for Paul to insist on continual encouragement and exhortation, not to necessarily provide new information, but to constantly reinforce what has already been taught so as to keep such things at the forefront of the Christian’s mind, giving him or her greater strength to resist the deceitfulness of sin (cf. Hebrews 3:12-14). But what is the message the will truly motivate Christians to maintain good works?

Much of Paul’s letter to Titus is toward these ends. Jesus gave Himself up for Christians to redeem them from sin and to purify a people to Himself (Titus 2:11-14). Christians are to be subject to authorities, not speaking evil but being gentle and meek (Titus 3:1-2). But why?

Paul explains more fully in Titus 3:3-7 what he said simply in Titus 2:11-14: Christians were once in a terrible state. The list is unpleasant: foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hated (Titus 3:3). Salvation came through the kindness and mercy of God, not our own works; we were cleansed by the washing of regeneration (baptism) and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, not our own futile efforts (Titus 3:4-5). This allowed us to become heirs of the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:6-7). Paul intends to motivate Christians to good works through this message.

How will such a message motivate? There are three aspects to the message: our sinfulness and inability to save ourselves, God’s love, mercy, and kindness reflected through Jesus in providing the means for our redemption, and our ability to hold to hope of eternity through Jesus. These three put together can encourage the believer to good works!

How can the reminder of our sinfulness and inability to save ourselves motivate us to good works? By itself, it could not; it would lead to despair and paralysis on account of guilt. Without this reminder, however, it is easy to get puffed up and overconfident in our “holiness.” We are easily tempted to develop an “us” versus “them” attitude against those outside of the faith; it is tempting to feel as if “we” are better than “they.” This is why Paul says that we “also” were foolish, led astray by passion, etc.; on our own, we are no better off or superior in any way to those still lost in the world of sin. We were lost too at some point; we were terribly sinful as well. We could not save ourselves; this reality should keep us humble!

Thankfully, God provided the means by which we could be rescued from ourselves. We did not deserve it, nor could we; God has freely displayed love, kindness, mercy, and grace through Jesus and the redemption and reconciliation obtained through His life and death. This is an important piece of the story, but by no means the only one: without a recognition of our sin, we cannot appreciate the redemption we have obtained; without hope for the future, there would not be as much motivation to move forward. Nevertheless, atonement and reconciliation through Jesus is the centerpiece of the Gospel and of this message of encouragement: we could not save ourselves, and no deed can save us, but God has provided the means by which we can obtain cleansing through Jesus’ blood in baptism and the renewal of the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel makes it plain that Jesus’ death without Jesus’ resurrection would have been without power or sufficiency for anything (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). It is through Jesus’ resurrection that we maintain the hope for eternal life in our own resurrection. God wants us to be rescued and preserved now but with a view toward the resurrection of life for eternity (1 Peter 1:3-9)!

It is lamentable how the various truths in Titus 3:3-7 have been distorted and used against each other since Paul speaks with such harmony. We were lost in sin and could not save ourselves; God provided the means of atonement and reconciliation through Jesus; through this believers have hope for eternal life; these truths motivate believers to maintain good works. This pattern does not show contradiction or inconsistency, but balance. If we will honor God in our lives, it is because we maintain humility, understanding that we are no better than anyone else and cannot save ourselves; it is because we remain thankful, always keeping Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins in mind; it is because we can look forward with confidence in the resurrection, which itself infuses the present life with purpose and meaning. When we remain humble, thankful, and forward-looking, we will devote ourselves to the good works for which our Creator made us (Ephesians 2:10).

As humans, we are weak, and constantly in need of exhortation and encouragement. We do well to always keep all aspects of the big picture in mind: our former state, the means by which we obtained our present state, our future hope, and all of those to motivate us toward obedience now. Let us seek to perpetually honor and glorify Christ through our lives!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Beginnings

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1).

Beginnings are extremely important: they set the tone and the scene for everything that follows. Is it foreboding? Is it optimistic? What is going on? How will things proceed?

If such is true for the beginning of common stories, how much more significant is the beginning of the story of stories, and, for that matter, the beginning of all beginnings! Even though we humans were not there nor could be there when everything began, how we understand our origins has a profound influence on how we view ourselves and our relationship with our surroundings. Little wonder, then, that every culture has told some sort of story about how everything began. It allows them to understand who they are in the context of their environment.

So many of these stories tell as much about the story-tellers as it does about possible origins. Some, like the Egyptians, understand creation in terms of copulation. The Babylonian creation story, called the Enuma Elish, sees the earth and skies as created from the corpse of the defeated goddess Tiamat (Chaos), and the blood of her husband Kingu was used to create humans to work the soil and provide food-offerings and thus sustenance for the Babylonian gods.

These and many other stories see the universe in terms of different divine forces in strong competition, bickering, arguing, killing, or, for that matter, copulating or other such activities. In many of these stories the gods seem to need humans, but humans are reduced to divine servitude of the lowest order. When these are the stories that one believes explains who they are and why they are here, what will they make of their lives? How will they feel about the divine or about their fellow man?

The Bible’s story of creation stands in stark contrast to all of this. Sure, there is chaos in the beginning, but there is never an argument or a disputation about the events to follow. The story is told simply: God spoke, and it happened (cf. Genesis 1:2-2:3, Psalm 33:6). There is little sense of mythologizing in this early portrayal: God systematically creates light, the expanse we call Heaven, dry land and seas, vegetation, sun, moon, and stars, fish and birds, and then land animals and humans (Genesis 1:2-31). And then He rests, finished with His acts of creation (Genesis 2:1-3, Hebrews 4:1-11). No fighting; no contest; no copulation. A God with power speaking the world into existence!

And yet man knows where he stands: God created him in His image, and is given dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:26-30). God does not need him, but without God, man is nothing and has nothing. God does not want to reduce man into servile bondage; instead, He created man in order to share in relationship with Him as He shares in relational unity within Himself (Genesis 1:26-27, Acts 17:26-28, John 17:20-23). Since God is love, His act of creation is an act of love (1 John 4:8); He does not force people into relationship with Him, following after His will, but provides every opportunity and invitation for them to do so.

Many have tried to show all of the commonalities of many of the stories of creation, but in many ways the differences could not be greater. The different stories provide completely different views of the nature of divinity, the purpose of mankind, and the relationship between the divine, mankind, and the creation. The Bible’s story tells of a God who has all power and has no need for a power trip; He creates in an orderly fashion with complete sovereignty and always acts in love. As humans we are created in love for love as expressed in relationship, both with God and with one another; we are not caught up in a divine power trip or serve as divine minions to keep the gods fed so they can devote their time to leisure.

The Bible’s story of the beginning emphasizes God’s power and the dignity and integrity inherent within mankind as created in the image of God for relationship with God and one another. Let us be thankful for such a beginning, and let us devote ourselves freely to the God who created us, loved us, and worked diligently to redeem us!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Peacemakers

“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).

In our sin-sick world, conflict seems to be ever-present. Some nations fight against other nations; plenty more maintain strained, tense, and tenuous relationships with each other. People of different clans, tribes, ethnicities, and other such groups of people nurse disagreements and conflicts with other, similar groups. Within extended families there always seem to be some relatives who cannot stand each other and who perpetually fight or remain at odds with each other. Even within immediate families, husbands, wives, and children have plenty over which to fight and maintain tensions and hostilities. For that matter, there is internal conflict between the spirit and the flesh (Galatians 5:17)!

The reality of conflict is sad enough; the promotion and fostering of conflict is even worse. And yet the sad reality is evident: conflict, tension, and difficulty generates interest, money, and power. If you can make a television show where different people are constantly in conflict with each other, you will have an easier time getting a strong viewership than if everyone in the story is at peace with one another. Politicians tend to get more people to vote for them if they can demonize the opposing candidate as “the other,” focusing on the differences and the negatives rather than the similarities and positives. The stronger the rivalry between different teams, groups of people, and the like, the stronger the passions, and thus the greater the interest. In the world, in almost every arena of life, “dividers” receive interest, power, money, and fame; “uniters” may receive lip service for their work, but will never generate the same interest, power, money, or fame as the “dividers.”

And so Jesus, as He continues to pronounce as blessed, fortunate, or happy those who are not normally recognized as such (or, for that matter, recognized at all), declares peacemakers blessed, for such shall be called “sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).

When considering these Beatitudes, as they are often called, it is easy to gloss over the “rewards” which the fortunate ones will receive. They all seem to be some variant of the saved, members of the Kingdom, or those who will obtain the promises God has provided. Yet the “reward” of being called the “sons of God” has great significance: “sons of God,” in the Old Testament, refers most often to spiritual beings in God’s presence (cf. Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7). Jesus will later reckon those who obtain the resurrection of life as “sons of God” (Luke 20:36); it is for their revelation that the creation eagerly waits in Romans 8:19. “Sons of God” is a description indicating close association with both God the Father and Jesus the Son; to be called a “son of God” would be a great honor indeed.

So why do the peacemakers receive such a blessing? We can understand why through Galatians 3:26, in which Paul declares that all believers who seek to obey Christ are sons of God, through faith, in Jesus Christ. How is it possible that we could be sons of God by trusting in Jesus and through what Jesus accomplished? As Paul makes evident in Ephesians 2:11-18, Jesus allowed all of us to be reconciled both to God and to one another by becoming the ultimate Peacemaker: He killed the hostility between the Jews and the Gentiles by bearing the cross and in so doing eliminating the Law and its trappings that served to divide the Jews from the Gentiles, and brought both together in Him in one body.

Those who make peace, therefore, are as Jesus, seeking to kill hostility and reconcile man back together with God and with one another. One can see Jesus’ entire purpose and mission in terms of this reconciliation (cf. Romans 5:6-11): since God is Three in One and One in Three, maintaining relational unity, anything that serves to divide man from God and one another is accursed, but that which reconciles and restores man in relationship with his God and with one another glorifies God (cf. Isaiah 59:1-2, John 17:20-23, Galatians 5:17-24). Therefore, those who work to make peace between opposing parties reflects God and His will within Himself, for mankind, and with mankind. The great honor of being known as “sons of God” makes perfect sense: to make peace among people is to share in close association with the work of God.

This does not mean that peacemaking is easy; all of us have a tendency toward division, hostility, and tension toward others, and when we see different groups feuding with each other for whatever reason, we have a natural tendency to want to stay out of it and get far away. We also must make sure that we do not confuse peacemaking with meddling or being a busybody. We must also recognize the multitude of forces in the world that work against peace: many such forces unabashedly maintain the face of evil and hostility, perhaps even in almost demonic terms (cf. Ephesians 6:12), but plenty of conflict, tension, and division masquerade with “holy” and “pious” facades. The truth of God must never be compromised (Galatians 1:6-9); yet a significant aspect of God’s truth is His desire to reconcile all men to Himself and to one another (John 17:20-23, Romans 5:6-11), and the promotion and maintenance of strife, divisions, and sects are always inconsistent with God’s revealed truth, remaining works of the flesh (cf. Galatians 5:19-21).

Peacemaking has always been a hard thing to do and a tough path to take; there are always plenty of forces that work against it. But the path of peacemaking is the path of Christ; to reconcile mankind with God and with one another is the essence of God’s purpose in Christ. Let us work to promote and advance peace, ever thankful for Jesus’ peacemaking that allows us to be sons of God, reconciled back with the Father!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Serpent’s Deception

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Merciful

“Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

The poor; the mourning; the meek; those hungering and thirsting for righteousness: so far, Jesus has been speaking about many of the downtrodden in society, forcing people to consider the silver lining in some of life’s most difficult circumstances. And now He addresses some of the people who make life livable: those who are merciful, showing compassion to others.

Mercy, properly understood, is not giving what is deserved. Compassion literally involves “suffering with”: one can identify with the difficulties of another, and seeks their benefit.

Both of these concepts underlie the conduct of “the merciful” in Matthew 5:7. Showing mercy is a choice; as human beings, to some extent or another, we can identify with the conditions of our fellow man. When people say bad things about us or do bad things to us we can choose to forgive them and not take it to heart, or we can choose to hold it against them and/or seek revenge. It is not “above anyone” or “beneath anyone,” therefore, to show mercy.

What Jesus is saying can be understood in both physical and spiritual terms. In spiritual terms, since all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (cf. Romans 3:23), all are equally worthy of condemnation (Romans 6:23). God has displayed mercy by allowing the possibility of reconciliation with Him through the death of Jesus (Romans 5:6-11): through Jesus we do not obtain what we truly deserve. God has been most merciful toward us; therefore, we are to be merciful (Luke 6:35-36). As Jesus illustrates in Matthew 18:21-35, those who do not show mercy in forgiving others of their transgressions will not be shown mercy when it comes to their transgressions. The opposite also holds true (Matthew 6:14-15): if we show mercy to others, God will show mercy to us. Thus it is that those who are merciful shall receive mercy.

Yet Jesus’ principle here remains true even in the physical realm. Most people understand that since they are not perfect, no one else is perfect either. Our responses to other people, however, are often conditioned on their general behavior toward others. When people who are known for showing mercy and compassion fall on hard times, finding themselves in need of assistance or forgiveness, others often prove willing to help them or forgive them. But what happens when people who are known to be rather selfish, demanding, and unforgiving find themselves in need of assistance or forgiveness? Sure, the truly merciful may help them, but will such ones find mercy at the hands of most? Hardly!

Since people appreciate the merciful, why is showing mercy such a difficult practice to develop and maintain? Showing mercy is often counter-intuitive. When we feel attacked, our natural response is to attack in return. If we see others in need, and to help them would diminish what we have, it is often hard to let go and to help. This is why those in the world, while appreciating the benefits of mercy shown to them, find it hard to show mercy in return. Showing mercy requires sacrifice: absorbing the pain or freely giving of what one has for the benefit of others.

Yet indeed the merciful are fortunate and happy; they will receive mercy from God and often from others as well, although there will be some who will take advantage and still do evil (cf. 1 Peter 2:18-25). Showing mercy is a challenging habit to develop and maintain, but it is impossible to demonstrate true love toward others without it. We must prove willing to absorb pain and forgive; we must prove willing to help even if we are reviled in return, for so God proved willing to absorb the pain of suffering for us through Jesus on the cross, and God has provided us with every good thing physically and spiritually without repayment or reward. Let us be merciful so that we may obtain mercy!

Ethan R. Longhenry