Wildfire!

So the tongue also is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how much wood is kindled by how small a fire! And the tongue is a fire: the world of iniquity among our members is the tongue, which defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the wheel of nature, and is set on fire by hell (James 3:5-6).

Those who live in the eastern part of North America can be forgiven for wondering why wildfire might be a great concern; most of the time the east is green and lush. In the West, however, wildfire is an almost ever-present danger. The land is frequently dry. It does not take much to start a wildfire that burns tens of thousands of acres: an unattended campfire. A car accident. Lightning. Wildfires are very dangerous indeed!

James, the brother of the Lord, understood the power of fire and how a great conflagration could start with a small catalyst. Parts of the Levant are not unlike the American West in that way. He speaks of fire in order to help his beloved fellow Christians to understand the great danger behind another element which can start great conflagrations with the smallest of catalysts: the human tongue.

James had begun by warning Christians about not having too many become teachers on account of the stricter judgment teachers will face (James 3:1); he continued by pointing out that the one who does not stumble in word is able to control the body (James 3:2). He explored that illustration further, speaking of how horses are controlled by a small bridle in the mouth, and also introduced the notion of how a large ship is directed by a small rudder (James 3:3-4). He then speaks of the power of the tongue despite its small size (James 3:5-6); he would go on to recognize that while humans have tamed all animals the tongue cannot be tamed, and pointed out that we bless God and curse man with the same mouth, and that such things should not be (James 3:7-12). James therefore has a strong concern with the dangers that come from the use of the tongue.

James does not mince words about the dangers involved. The tongue is small, but boasts greatly. Of all the members of the body it is the tongue that can defile the whole, can set the world on fire, as it itself is set on fire by hell; such is the only use of Gehenna outside of Jesus’ use of the term in the Gospels.

We today know all too well about the dangers of the tongue. We have seen many people whose lives and careers were ruined because of an ill-timed remark or the wide sharing of a thoughtless remark. One is reminded of the story of Justine Sacco, who before departing for Africa made a foolish joke regarding not getting AIDS in Africa because she was white on Twitter. During the flight her tweet was shared many times; when she landed she was informed of the outrage her tweet had instigated and that she had been fired. The Internet proved merciless to Ms. Sacco; people would be foolish for judging her and her character based only on one decontextualized statement. Nevertheless, her example illustrates just how important it is for us to give consideration to what we say.

The danger of the tongue comes from many different sources. It may be, as in the case above, with a poor joke that may reveal more about our thought processes than we would like to admit. It may be the insult or cutting remark uttered in anger; you can claim that you did not really mean it, and ask for forgiveness, and even receive it, but the scars from those words will always remain. It may be gossip spoken and spread, ultimately reaching its subject. As they begin the words may seem very small and insignificant, and perhaps on their own they would be. And yet such messages can take a life of their own; ask any politician whose not well thought out comment would ultimately dog him throughout the campaign and cost him the election.

We do well to recognize how our tongues are always a potential wildfire within us. There are some times and certain contexts in which a foolish or thoughtless word may not cause too much difficulty or distress, as a spark that falls after a wet period in the forest. On the other hand, there are plenty of times and situations in which the ground is dry and the plants desiccated, ready to burn long and hot with only the smallest of sparks; the wrong word in the wrong situation and your life as you know it can be destroyed, your soul in danger of hellfire, and you are left wishing you could just take those words back.

Unfortunately, you can never take back your words. But you and I and all of us in Christ can resolve to not say them in the first place. In many ways wildfire control is dependent on humans using fire properly, and the same goes with our tongues. We must use the tongue to glorify God and bless man made in His image. We must give thought to how we speak for and about others so as to build up and not gossip, slander, or tear down. Foolish jesting is not worth our reputation and standing. May we all seek to control the wildfire in our mouths and seek to restrain our tongues!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Almsgiving

“Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men, to be seen of them: else ye have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. When therefore thou doest alms, sound not a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have received their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: that thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret shall recompense thee” (Matthew 6:1-4).

What motivates our righteousness? Love for God? Love for our fellow man? To be seen as righteous?

Jesus addressed motivation for practicing righteousness as He continues His discourse in what is popularly known as the “Sermon on the Mount.” Whereas Jesus introduced a new subject, and a new chapter has begun according to modern versification, His theme remained unchanged. Ever since Matthew 5:17-20 Jesus has been comparing what had been said in the Law, the standard of righteousness for the scribes and Pharisees with what He had to say, the standard of true righteousness, what would truly be necessary to enter the Kingdom (Matthew 5:21-48). The Pharisees and scribes are no less in view in Matthew 6:1-24 than they were in Matthew 5:21-48; we are to understand that they are these hypocrites who want to seem righteous (cf. Matthew 23:1-36, Luke 16:13-31).

Bloch-SermonOnTheMount

Jesus begun by establishing the principle: do not act righteously to be seen by people (Matthew 6:1). Such is a strong tendency of humanity; one need not travel very far to find some kind of building, park, or other facility emblazoned with the name or names of the people who contributed to it. People love to contribute to causes as long as they get some benefit, normally some publicity, so as to look good and to be seen as a positive asset for the community. It works, at least in terms of humanity; but what about before God?

Jesus applied the principle to the three main realms of what may be considered religious behavior: almsgiving (Matthew 6:2-4), prayer (Matthew 6:3-15), and fasting (Matthew 6:16-18). These three realms cover the whole of one’s service to God: righteous actions for others (almsgiving), development of relationship with God (prayer), and personal acts of devotion and spirituality (fasting). In this way it is evident that Jesus’ principle of Matthew 6:1 applies to Christianity in full. Our motivation must always be to glorify and honor God in all we do, not to be seen by others as holy and righteous.

Almsgiving was expected to be a common practice in Israel; if you had something to give, you gave it to the ill, the infirm, the disabled, the widow, and the orphan (e.g. Job 31:16-20, Isaiah 58:7-12). Such is why Jesus assumes the practice (“when you give”). The scribes and Pharisees gave as well, but when they did so, they had a trumpet blast given, either in the synagogue or on the street (Matthew 6:2).

Such seems too ridiculous to even contemplate; some believe Jesus is exaggerating, but the concept is so clear and compelling that we now speak of someone proclaiming their deeds as “trumpeting” them. These hypocrites, most likely the scribes and Pharisees, are doing their best “acting.” Their standing in society is based upon the commonly held view that they were more studious, righteous, and learned. To maintain that standing they must be seen as performing righteous acts like almsgiving.

Notice that Jesus did not say that these hypocrites internally and consciously intended to do these things to be seen by men; they no doubt justified their behavior by saying that they were doing good and doing what God commanded. No doubt God and benevolence did play into their motivations. But would they have still given those alms if no one was there to notice? Most likely not, and in this way their real intention is made known. It is more important in their minds to keep up appearances than to actually perform righteousness and care for those less fortunate.

Jesus did establish that they did receive their reward: the people continued to think of them as holy and righteous (Matthew 6:2). Yet they have no credit from God. Instead, one is to give so that their left hand does not know what their right hand is doing, and God who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:3-4).

We are again confronted with what seems to be a ludicrous situation: both the left and right hands are controlled by the brain, so how can one do anything so that one hand does not know what the other is doing? Perhaps Jesus intended for us to understand that giving should become so reflexive that we do it without having to think twice about it; then again, His whole concern has been regarding intentions with giving, and to give reflexively does not automatically mean one is giving thoughtfully and benevolently. Jesus is most likely using a potent image so that we understand His main point: our giving is to be in secret (Matthew 6:4).

Does Jesus thus condemn all public forms of giving? No more so than He condemns people seeing Christians giving to others. We do well to remember that Jesus’ primary concern is motivation: why are we doing what we are doing? Are we trying to glorify God or look pious before men? If we prove willing to give in secret, we demonstrate that our righteousness is not a show, but sincerely reflects our love for God and for our fellow man. If we only give when we will get some kind of reward or credit on earth, then our motivations are less than sincere.

We do well to stop and reflect about our motivations. Jesus makes it very clear that two people can do the exact same thing but have two very different outcomes solely on account of their motivations. What we intend informs the purpose and thus value of the act.

Needs for benevolence are no less today than then (Matthew 26:11). We do well to help those in need, especially those in the household of faith (Galatians 6:10). We must remember that we will receive our reward no matter what. If we give to be seen of men, then we will be seen of men, receive their commendation, but gain no standing before God. If we give to glorify God, then God will see what we do, and He who sees in secret will reward us appropriately. May we give abundantly to others so God receives all the glory!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Stronghold

But the salvation of the righteous is of YHWH / He is their stronghold in the time of trouble.
And YHWH helpeth them, and rescueth them / He rescueth them from the wicked, and saveth them / because they have taken refuge in him (Psalm 37:39-40).

When we feel threatened and/or weak, to whom or what do we turn? What do we trust when the situation seems dire and we feel powerless? We do well to go to our Stronghold.

Zin stronghold (4)

In Psalm 37 David sings a wisdom psalm, encouraging faith in YHWH and providing assurance of the demise of the wicked (Psalm 37:1-40). David would not deny that sometimes the righteous are oppressed and downtrodden while the wicked prosper; if he would, Job and the Preacher would have something to say to him. David in fact has seen the wicked in power, seemingly well rooted and planted (Psalm 37:35); and yet, soon after, he existed no longer (Psalm 37:36). The righteous will be exalted in the end (Psalm 37:30-34, 39-40); they must wait, and they will see YHWH’s salvation.

The righteous know that their salvation is of YHWH (Psalm 37:39). Those in the world, and even those opposing them, trust in their own strength, the weapons of this world, or some other power. It would be tempting to try to meet force with force, or use their own forms of force against them. YHWH can deliver, and has delivered, through many means, including armies and nations; nevertheless, the righteous know that YHWH is behind it all, has assuredly brought it all to pass, and it is for them to put their trust in Him and do as He directs them.

YHWH Himself is the stronghold, the One who helps, rescues, and saves the righteous (Psalm 37:39-40). How that deliverance takes place need not be explicitly revealed; to many it may not look much like deliverance, at least in the short term, but God has always ultimately justified all who have put their trust in Him. The full victory may not be accomplished for many years; one may receive vindication in the resurrection more than in this life.

Even so, YHWH saves the righteous because they take refuge in Him (Psalm 37:40). Such is why YHWH is their stronghold; He is the Source of their confidence and hope. They will not turn to worldly wisdom or methods. They will not depend on the forces of the world or the spiritual powers of this present age. Their confidence is not in their stuff, their power, or themselves, but in YHWH; He will see them through whatever trials or tribulations may take place.

It is an easy thing to declare YHWH as one’s stronghold in good times; it is quite another to prove willing to make YHWH one’s stronghold when one really needs a stronghold. Our faith, and our character, are proven in the crucible of trials. When the savage army menaces, to where will we flee? Will we try to defend a fortress of our own making or imagination? Will we try to meet force with force? Or will we seek refuge in God in Christ?

The people of God have always had to suffer the menace of the wicked around them. Danger lurks around every corner. God has called us to trust in all times and in all ways in Him, Him alone, and Him fully. May we establish God as the stronghold of our lives, take refuge in Him, prove to be the righteous, and be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Wrestles With God

And he said, “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed” (Genesis 32:28).

Many stories in Scripture serve as representative concrete examples encapsulating greater truths or development. And so it is with Jacob and the angel.

“Jacob” meant “he cheats”; the name is an apt description for Jacob in his early years. He was quiet, dwelling in tents, not the outdoors type like his older brother Esau (Genesis 25:26-27). He had his mother’s affections, and probably not a little of her personality as well (Genesis 25:28). Esau was willing to give up his birthright for some stew, and was foolish to agree to it, but Jacob was the one who set such an extravagant price (Genesis 25:29-34). When his mother suggests the plot to deceive his father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn, Jacob’s concern is not about ethics or morality but about logistics and challenges (Genesis 27:1-13). He thus cheats his brother out of his birthright and his blessing (Genesis 27:36). Esau, predictably, is not a fan of this turn of events, and conspired to take out his brother Jacob (Genesis 27:41); Rebekah hears of it and makes sure Jacob is sent far away to her brother Laban in Paddan-Aram (Genesis 27:42-28:2). God grants Jacob a vision of the ladder with angels upon it and promises the blessings of the inheritance of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 28:10-19). He promised that if God would keep him and preserve him back to his father’s house, he would build a house for God at Bethel and give a tenth of what he had (Genesis 28:20-22). A cheater who makes demands of God; this is certainly not the story of a mature patriarch!

The cheater is then cheated: he works seven years for Laban’s younger daughter Rachel but is given the older daughter Leah instead; he then must work another seven years for Rachel (Genesis 29:1-30). Jacob had to deal with the contentions among his wives (Genesis 29:31-30:25). Laban continually attempted to cheat Jacob, but the “God of [Jacob’s] father Isaac” preserved him and made him prosper (Genesis 30:26-31:55).

Jacob thus heads toward his father’s land after around twenty years of striving with Laban and others; he sends word to Esau and hears that Esau is coming to meet him with four hundred men with him (Genesis 32:1-6). Jacob has overcome the challenges surrounding Laban but does not know how things will work out with Esau. In the middle of all this an angel of YHWH visits Jacob, and of all things, wrestles with him (Genesis 32:24). Jacob did not give up; neither did the angel. The end came when the angel displaced the hollow of Jacob’s thigh and day had come (Genesis 32:25). Jacob demanded a blessing; his name is changed to Israel, “wrestles with God,” because he strove with men and with God and had prevailed. Only then did Jacob realize he had wrestled with an angel and named the place Peniel (Genesis 32:29-30).

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

Jacob and Esau would then meet and things went well; Jacob return to the land of his father (Genesis 33:1-20); he fulfilled the vow he made to God (Genesis 35:1-7). But it is quite telling, and appropriate, that “Jacob” left the land of his father, never to return; “Israel” is the man who comes back to the land which will bear that name, with a full household who would become the tribes of the land.

Of all the characters we meet in Scripture, Jacob’s is one of the best developed. The Genesis author does so for good reason: Jacob becomes Israel and provides a paradigm for Israel. “Jacob,” as “he cheats,” was in no position to be a patriarch; he had to learn humility, and learned it by receiving plenty of his own medicine. And yet he prevailed. He wrestled with an angel, and yet he prevailed.

There is a little detail that can often be missed but is quite telling within this story of Jacob. Before Jacob becomes Israel by wrestling with the angel, God is never “his” God; YHWH could only be his God if He provided for him (Genesis 28:21). God, to Jacob, was “the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the Fear of Isaac” (Genesis 31:42). But when Jacob/Israel has returned to the land of his father, and he builds an altar near Shechem, he names it El-Elohe-Israel, “God, the God of Israel” (Genesis 33:20). God is not merely the God of his ancestors. God is his God as well.

Such is the lesson of Jacob/Israel. Israel the nation embodied Israel the patriarch constantly throughout its history, striving with God, often falling short of His glory and holiness, and wondering where His promises had gone despite their perceived faithfulness (e.g. Psalms 44, 88-89). We can read the story of many of the men of faith who had to grow into their role, strove with God, and ultimately grew in character, faith, holiness, and in their relationship with Him. Each new Israelite and generation of Israelites had to wrestle with their situation, wrestle with their faith, and in some way wrestle with God so that He would not just be the God of their fathers but their God as well.

And so it is to this day. We are the spiritual descendants of Israel (1 Corinthians 10:1-12, Galatians 3:29, Hebrews 11:1-12:2). Those born to godly parents do well to consider that “Jacob” was born to godly parents as well; “Jacob” as such needed to grow into “Israel” to be the patriarch God intended for him to be, because only “Israel” considered God to be his God. We cannot expect to short-circuit the process, either: we must strive with God and men, wrestle with our faith and our situation, and through the experiences of life, some for good, many perhaps seeming to be to our detriment, we are to come to the recognition that God is not just the God of our fathers but our God as well. May we honor God as our Creator and our God, and serve Him through His Son!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Judgment at the House of God

For the time is come for judgment to begin at the house of God: and if it begin first at us, what shall be the end of them that obey not the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17)

A good rule of any communication is to “know your audience.” They are, after all, the ones to whom you are speaking. They are the ones to whom the message should be directed.

Those who speak in the pages of Scripture knew their audience. The prophets spoke the Word of YHWH to the Israelites of their generation, warning them about their sins and transgressions and the impending judgment to come on account of them and yet providing hope for restoration in the future. Jesus spoke to the Israelites of the first century about the impending Kingdom of God. The Apostles wrote to first century Christians about their conditions and situations and what God wanted them to do.

Peter continues in this tradition in 1 Peter 4:12-19. He is encouraging the Christians who live in what we today call Turkey regarding the persecution and suffering they are experiencing or about to experience. They should not find it at all strange that they will suffer for the Name; they should in fact glory in it (1 Peter 4:12-16). He then emphasizes that judgment is coming, but it begins at the house of God (1 Peter 4:17). Such judgment then extends to those outside the house of God, and their condemnation is understood in Peter’s rhetorical questions (1 Peter 4:17-18; cf. Proverbs 11:31). God will judge and condemn those who persecute and cause suffering for the people of God; the people of God are to entrust themselves to their faithful Creator while continuing to do good (1 Peter 4:19).

Albrecht Dürer The Last Judgment circa 1510

We can see, therefore, that God is very much interested in speaking to the condition and situation of the specific audience to which He speaks. That audience is primarily His people from beginning to end. Those who are not His people are not listening to Him; He can do nothing for them while they remain in that condition (Romans 8:1-9). In Scripture God makes it very clear that those who do not know Him and do not obey the Gospel of His Son will be condemned (Romans 1:18-32, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-9, Revelation 20:11-15). They need to hear the Gospel, repent of their sin, and serve the Lord (Acts 17:22-31).

So it will be that the evil, indifferent, slothful, and uncaring will get their just deserts on the final day. Yet our concern must, first and foremost, be with us as the people of God. God is speaking to us through the message of His Word: judgment begins here (1 Peter 4:17)!

As we have seen it has always been so. The people of God may want to continually point to the gross sinfulness and immorality all around them and act as if such justifies their comparatively less sinful behavior. God has never provided any such refuge; He recognizes that the wicked live in wickedness, expects it, and has given them over to their lusts (Romans 1:18-32). He expects better from His people! Many take too much comfort in passages like John 3:18, Romans 8:31-39, and similar passages, interpreting them absolutely and teaching that their salvation is fully secure no matter what. Nevermind passages like Hebrews 10:26-31, 2 Peter 2:20-22; the story of God’s involvement with Israel should disabuse everyone of the notion that being made the elect of God automatically grants salvation! God does not want to condemn us or anyone else (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9); nevertheless, He has never, and will never, justify or commend any who persist in thoughts, feelings, and behaviors contrary to His will and character.

Judgment begins at the house of God, the church (1 Timothy 3:15, 1 Peter 4:17). Too many look into the pages of Scripture to find how everyone else is condemned or judged; if we would be God’s people we must be humble and chastened enough to recognize that the exhortations and warnings found in the pages of Scripture are indeed primarily directed toward us. God will handle the condemnation of those outside (1 Corinthians 5:13). If we would claim to be the people of God we must allow God to point the finger of exhortation and rebuke found in Scripture at ourselves before we dare attempt to ascertain how it may be directed at others (Matthew 7:1-4). Judgment begins at the house of God; are we ready?

Ethan R. Longhenry

Growing in Grace and Knowledge

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and for ever. Amen (2 Peter 3:18).

Peter’s final written words continue to resonate.

The second letter of Peter features the Apostle’s reminders to his fellow Christians regarding the holiness of their conduct, the behavior and condition of false teachers, and encouragement regarding the end of time (the eschaton) and warnings regarding those who distort the Apostolic witness (2 Peter 1:1-3:17). After his departure Peter does not want his fellow Christians to be carried away by the error of the wicked, falling from their steadfastness in Jesus (2 Peter 3:17); the only way to avoid that is to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, to whom glory belongs from now until forever (2 Peter 3:18).

Peter thus expects Christians to grow. He is not speaking merely to Christians who remain young in their faith; quite the contrary! The Christians to whom Peter wrote could recall and remember the words of the Apostles and prophets regarding the last days (2 Peter 3:2); they had a working knowledge of the faith and thus had “been around the block” for awhile. During this life there is no point at which it becomes acceptable for a Christian to stop growing! Whether we have been Christians for one day, one year, or almost a hundred years, we must continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Chrisme Colosseum Rome Italy

Christians must grow in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior (2 Peter 3:18). This knowledge certainly involves the facts about Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, lordship, and return as established in the New Testament. We also do well to buttress our knowledge of the Lord through gaining understanding of the story of the people of God in the Old Testament (2 Timothy 3:15-16). If we do so we are better equipped to recognize how Jesus would have us think, feel, and act in the twenty-first century as His faithful disciples (1 John 2:3-6).

Yet Christians are also to grow in the grace of Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18). Grace, Greek charis, is “unmerited favor,” obtaining things we do not deserve. The preeminent way in which we have received grace is through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for our sin, the means by which we are offered reconciliation with God (Ephesians 1:7, 2:1-10). But how can we “grow” in that grace? We know it cannot be through greater sin (Romans 6:1-23). But how can Christians grow in the gift of God in Christ?

Christians can grow in grace through more effectively manifesting the fruit of that gift and being that gift toward others. God has displayed grace toward us inasmuch as He has given His Son for our reconciliation and restoration. Yet it is not enough for us to obtain the reconciliation but remain as we are; we must manifest the transformation of the follower of Jesus, no longer walking in the ways of the world, but walking in Jesus’ ways, displaying the fruit of the Spirit (Romans 12:1-2, Galatians 5:22-24, 1 John 2:3-6). When we are transformed to not only be saved by Jesus but also to think, feel, and act like Jesus, we are able to serve others as Jesus did and they will give praise and glory to God as Jesus intends (Matthew 5:13-16, 1 Peter 2:11-12). The Body of Christ ought to be recognized as a gift of God to the world; it is incumbent upon its members to act accordingly (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Ephesians 4:11-16)!

“Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ”; Peter’s final words echo through the centuries (2 Peter 3:18). The Christian must recognize that while in the flesh there is always more to learn, more to do, lessons to obtain, and growth to experience. An important part of that growth involves knowledge, but there is always more to learn, and of the making of books there is no end (Ecclesiastes 12:12). We can, and should, study the Scriptures; are we bearing the fruit of that study through the demonstration of the transformed life, manifesting growth in the grace of the Lord Jesus? Are we trusting less in ourselves and more in Him? Do we continue to rely on our own strength or are we entrusting ourselves to God’s strength in Christ (Ephesians 3:14-21)? Are people better able to see Jesus reflected in us on account of our investment in study and trust in God? We must grow in the knowledge of Jesus Christ but also in His grace; let us learn more of Jesus so as to serve Him more effectively, manifesting the fruit of the Spirit, giving others reason to glorify God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Anxiety or Trust

In nothing be anxious; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God (Philippians 4:6).

The challenges of life are more than sufficient to give anyone an ulcer. It only seems to get worse as we get older.

It seems to start with concern about growing up, how we look, how we are perceived, and what we plan to do with our lives. We may get to the point where we worry less about ourselves but then tend to get anxiety regarding the welfare of friends, spouses, children, parents, grandchildren, and others. Then there are the ever present concerns about acceptance and advancement in our society in general, the direction of our culture, the welfare and prosperity of successive generations, and the constant dangers from physical and spiritual forces which may work against us. This is more than any of us can bear!

As Paul is finishing up his first conclusion to his letter to the Philippian Christians he exhorts them to be anxious in nothing (Philippians 4:6). They are not to allow anything to cause them to worry. Seems like something far easier to say than it is to do, doesn’t it?

Paul does not leave the Philippians without a solution; instead of being anxious they are to let their requests be made known to God in everything through prayer and supplication with thanksgiving (Philippians 4:6). Prayer is the way forward: Christians should not presume to hide anything from God since He can see all things (Matthew 10:26-30). We must always make our prayers and requests with thanksgiving so that we do not presume upon God’s past covenant faithfulness and loyalty as Israel did, acting as if every present challenge has become an existential crisis and forgetting all that our God has done for us in making us, saving us, and blessing us in life (e.g. 1 Corinthians 10:1-12). Thus the Philippians were not to be anxious but to take everything to God in prayer.

How is prayer the solution to anxiety? In order to make sense of it we must first recognize what we are really doing when we worry.

As humans we want to feel in control of situations; we do not handle the feeling of powerlessness very well. In a very real way anxiety and worry are the ways in which we attempt to exert control in situations in which we are afraid we have no control. We worry about the decisions others make because we may not have that much influence over them. We are anxious about the future because we do not know what it portends. When we do not have power over anything else we at least have control over our thinking about it: hence, worry.

By telling the Philippian Christians, and by extension us, to take everything to God in prayer, Paul is really telling them and us to put our trust in God and not in ourselves. We are not in control; such is a hard and sobering truth, but it’s reality. As Jesus makes clear, anxiety and worry do not help us in the least; no situation is made better because we worried or were anxious about it (Matthew 6:27). We do better to relinquish what control we think we have to the One who does have control over the heavens and the earth and who seeks to give us good things (Matthew 28:18-19, Romans 8:31-39).

In terms of anxiety and worry we must “let go and let God”: He can handle it, for we cannot. What will come of us? We should entrust ourselves to God in prayer, submitting in faith so that we can be vessels to be used for His purposes and praise. What about our parents or children? Entrust their care to God who watches over them and who can direct their steps. What about the future? The future will have its own trouble; Jesus is Lord now and will be Lord then, and we have no promise of tomorrow anyway (Matthew 6:34, James 4:14). What about the fate of this nation, or the economy, or our culture? Such are as the grass of the field, here today, gone tomorrow; Jesus is Lord (1 Peter 1:24). What about all the forces of evil, sometimes physical but primarily spiritual, which are arrayed against us? He who is in us is greater than he that is in the world (Ephesians 6:12, 1 John 4:4).

Not much has changed over the years; “in nothing be anxious, but in everything let your requests be made known to God” is as easier said than done today as it was when Paul wrote to the Philippians. But he’s right. We do well to take it to heart. May we not find ourselves paralyzed by the anxiety of the challenges surrounding us but in all things entrust ourselves to God in Christ through prayer!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Lawful vs. Profitable and Edifying


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All things are lawful; but not all things are expedient. All things are lawful; but not all things edify (1 Corinthians 10:23).

“If I can, I should.”

The above statement can never be found in the pages of Scripture but it has been accepted as if it were by many people in the world today. In science rarely are limits imposed on ethical grounds; present levels of knowledge and technology are the major hindrances and there are always researchers seeking to push ahead regardless of potential consequences. It is only when things go horribly wrong that questions are asked in retrospect, yet even then, the impulse to do because it was possible is rarely challenged. This is not only a matter of science; how many times have people decided to exercise a given liberty just because they could? How do most people celebrate their 16th, 18th, or 21st birthdays? They “celebrate” their newly gained freedoms, often to excess. If responsibility is ever learned it is only after many painful experiences of excess.

The same mentality has infected the religious world thanks to the strong American emphasis on freedom. People want to justify what they want to justify; they look to Scripture for “authority” so they can do what they want to do. It is important to have Biblical authority for what we do (Colossians 3:17), but Biblical authority is not an end unto itself as Paul seeks to explain to the Corinthians.

Corinth was a Greek and pagan city. Most of its residents continued to participate in idolatrous observances; its practice was so prevalent that the meat sold in the marketplace had been previously sacrificed to the town’s idols and most everyone had no problem with that. Paul wanted to make it clear that eating the meat was not a problem in and of itself; the problems came in when either a fellow Christian who did not have understanding was tempted to honor idols or if pagans were making an issue of it (1 Corinthians 8:1-13, 10:27-30). Meanwhile Christians must flee from idolatry, not partaking of the table of the Lord and the table of demons as well (1 Corinthians 10:1-22). It is not as if the Corinthians were unaware of these things; they just seemed to feel as if they were fine.

The challenge is laid down in 1 Corinthians 10:23. There is some question as to how the verse should be understood: is Paul actually saying that all things are lawful, or is it a quotation of the statement or premise of the Corinthians? Strong arguments can be made either way. For our purposes we can be confident that such was the basis upon which the Corinthians acted; if Paul is making the statement he does so accommodatingly, always recognizing that matters of sin are not lawful (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Galatians 5:19-21).

Thus “all things are lawful” was the operating mode of the Corinthians: we can do these things, therefore, we should. To the Corinthians eating meat sacrificed to an idol was lawful; the matter was thus settled.

Paul does not argue about the authority or lawfulness of the behavior; he has already affirmed that an idol is nothing (1 Corinthians 8:4-6). Eating meat sacrificed to an idol is thus “lawful.” Yet Paul wishes to go further: is it expedient (or profitable)? Does it build up? He makes one thing evident: just because something is lawful (thus, authorized) does not make it profitable or edifying (1 Corinthians 10:23). After all, Christianity is not about doing whatever one pleases; Christians should be looking out for the good of his neighbor (1 Corinthians 10:24).

Eating meat sacrificed to idols may be lawful, but causing a brother to stumble because of it is not (1 Corinthians 8:1-13). Christians may be able to eat meat sacrificed to idols but should not cause pagans to think they are honoring the idol (1 Corinthians 10:25-33). If eating meat sacrificed to idols brings you back into an idolatrous orbit, it has become a stumbling block, and is no longer lawful (1 Corinthians 10:1-22). Christians cannot just go around doing things just because they can; they have to give consideration to themselves and to their neighbors. Is it profitable? Does it edify?

Paul’s lesson is sorely needed today. We need to have Biblical authority for whatever we do; all must be done in the name of the Lord (Colossians 3:17). But the analysis does not stop there. The goal is not just to find Biblical authority, let alone to invent Biblical authority to do what we feel like doing. It is not enough for something to just be authorized; it must be profitable; it must edify, for all things ought to be done unto edification (1 Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 4:11-16). How will this practice influence my fellow Christians? Will it be a cause of stumbling? Will those outside the church think I have compromised myself by the way I exercise my liberty?

Even if “all things” are lawful, they may not be profitable; they may not edify. We should never do anything just because we can; we should do it because it glorifies God in Christ and is profitable unto edification. Let us seek the good of our neighbor, live under Biblical authority, but seeking to edify the Body of Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Vine

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; so neither can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for apart from me ye can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).

Jesus had spoken of a Kingdom in many figures: a field, fishing, a pearl of great price, a Master entrusting His servants with a stewardship. As He was about to leave His disciples He used a new old illustration: not a full vineyard, but a vine (John 15:1-8).

In John 13:31-16:33 speaks to the eleven disciples; Judas Iscariot has gone off to betray Him, and after the prayer of John 17 Jesus will be betrayed, tried, and crucified in John 18:1-19:37. Whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke move fairly quickly from the Last Supper to the Garden of Gethsemane in Matthew 26:30-36, Mark 14:26-32, and Luke 22:23-39, John spends what would later be delineated into over three chapters on the extended discourse between these events. Throughout Jesus is preparing His disciples so that they might be able to endure and stand through the ups and downs of His death, resurrection, and ascension (John 14:1, 16:1). Jesus, after all, understands perfectly what is about to take place. His disciples have no idea; they will be left to grapple with His death without Him being present physically, and thus Jesus does well to leave them with words of encouragement and exhortation.

Right in the middle of this discourse Jesus introduces the illustration of the vine: He is the vine, His Father the vinedresser, and His disciples the branches (John 15:1, 4). He had previously “updated” Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard of Isaiah 5:1-7 in Matthew 21:33-44 and in parallel accounts, yet the vineyard there is Israel. Jesus compared the Kingdom to a householder hiring workers to work in his vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16; even there the vineyard is incidental, setting up the lesson about receiving what is promised and that the last shall be first and the first last. Here in John 15:1-8 Jesus focuses on a single vine is able to explain through it the relationship between the Son, the Father, and disciples.

The disciples would have understood the basics of grape vines and their maintenance. Grape vines do have roots but one sees the vine and its branches. The branches maintain their health through their connection to the vine from which it can draw water and other nutrients originating in the roots and the soil. A healthy branch bears fruit: grape clusters. The sign of an unhealthy branch is a lack of fruit, and the solution is to prune the vine to get rid of all the dead branches. And so it is in the illustration of the vine: disciples draw strength and sustenance through Jesus the Vine; when connected to Jesus the Vine they can bear fruit; apart from Jesus the Vine they can do nothing; if they do not bear fruit the Father the Vinedresser will prune them and throw them into the fire (John 15:1-8).

Jesus’ main point in the illustration is to emphasize the disciples’ need to bear fruit and to understand how they will be able to bear fruit: through abiding in Him (John 15:3-4, 8). We do well to heed both messages.

This is not the first illustration Jesus has used to emphasize the need for Christians to be obedient and to manifest the fruit of righteousness; Matthew 5:13-16 and 25:14-30 come to mind, among others. It is unfortunate that many in the religious world have settled for cheap grace, the belief that God will save no matter what, and have ignored Jesus’ many warnings about the fate of the unproductive in His midst. Their fate is never left in ambiguity: Jesus denies He ever knew them (Matthew 7:21-23); they are cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 25:14-30), and here in John 15:6 unproductive branches are gathered and burned, reminiscent of the Gehenna of fire (e.g. Matthew 5:29-30). Thus we must bear fruit for the Lord: we must manifest the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-24), do good (Galatians 6:10), proclaim Jesus crucified and risen (Matthew 28:18-20), and remain faithful unto death (Matthew 10:22). Such obedience and faithfulness is not “optional”!

Yet it can be very easy to so emphasize obedience and righteousness that we forget Who is empowering the endeavor. As branches we are to bear fruit for the Lord, but we can do so only when connected and sustained by the Vine, the Lord Jesus. Jesus is very blunt about this in John 15:5: apart from Him we can do nothing. Apart from Jesus we proved disobedient, sinful, children of wrath, living in licentiousness and lusts, hated by others and hating in turn (Ephesians 2:1-3, Titus 3:3). In Christ we were rescued from our hopeless condition and reconciled to the Father (Romans 5:6-11). But we must not imagine that once we are “in Christ” we are then left out “on our own” to do His work. Instead we work and are profitable because we remain in Him and are sustained in Him (Ephesians 2:4-10, Titus 3:4-8). Through the sustenance and strength from our Vine God can work through us beyond all we can ask or think (Ephesians 3:14-21). Let none be deceived: as branches bear fruit but not without the nourishment which comes through the vine, so believers obey and seek righteousness but can only do so through the strength that God supplies. On our own we can do nothing; we can imagine that we can do great things, and try to build great towers of Babel, maybe even adorn such towers with religious and spiritual sentiments, but they cannot succeed and will someday be exposed for what they really are. Every plant not planted by the Father will be rooted up (Matthew 15:13); so it shall be with every religious institution and personal belief system not grounded and empowered by God and the Lord Jesus (cf. Matthew 7:24-27).

Thus asking God to bless or prosper our work is really vain; we do better to ask God to direct us to His work and for Him to bless, strengthen, and sustain it. We are but the branches, responsible for taking the nourishment given by the vine and producing fruit; let us therefore glorify God through the Lord Jesus Christ, serving Him through the strength that He supplies!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Sheep for Slaughter

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or anguish, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Even as it is written,
“For thy sake we are killed all the day long; We were accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”
Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us (Romans 8:35-37).

The quotation looks out of place; it seems to be a discordant note in an otherwise encouraging message.

For generations Christians have taken great comfort in the many promises of God expressed in Romans 8:1-39. Paul assures Christians of their salvation, victory over sin and death, the presence of the Spirit, and their inheritance and hope in Christ (Romans 8:1-30); he concludes with a series of rhetorical questions affirming God’s love for believers and all that He has done for them (Romans 8:31-39). Nevertheless, in the midst of the proclamation of all of this encouragement, Paul quotes Psalm 44:22 in Romans 8:36: we are killed all the day long; we are reckoned as sheep for slaughter. Why would Paul choose to quote something so distressing in the midst of a message of encouragement?

Psalm 44:1-26 is one of the psalms written by the sons of Korah. The sons of Korah begin by affirming their understanding and confidence in the legitimacy of the stories they were told about what YHWH had done for their fathers, no doubt referring to the deliverance from bondage in Egypt and the conquest of the land of Canaan (Psalm 44:1-3). The confidence of the sons of Korah is not just historical: they presently trust in God’s ability and potential willingness to give them victory over their enemies (Psalm 44:4-7). Let none be deceived: the sons of Korah are not lacking in faith, for they have made God their boast and give Him thanks forever (Psalm 44:8).

Yet the reality on the ground is quite different and distressing: they have not obtained deliverance from their enemies. Instead they are a reproach, a byword among nations, a people scoffed at and derided (Psalm 44:9-16). The sons of Korah have not forgotten the sins of their fathers, nor would necessarily deny their own wrongdoing at times, yet feel compelled to powerfully affirm their loyalty to God and covenant faithfulness (Psalm 44:17-21); nevertheless, as they cry in Psalm 44:22, they are killed all the day long for God’s sake, and accounted as sheep for slaughter. They want to know why God seems to be asleep, seemingly unaware of or indifferent to their suffering and shame, pleading for God to rise up, help them, and redeem them for the sake of His lovingkindness (Psalm 44:23-26). Thus ends the psalm; no resolution is given. The sons of Korah cry out to God demanding help and redemption not out of a lack of faith but precisely because they do trust in God, His covenant faithfulness in the past, and expect covenant faithfulness in the present.

So what has Psalm 44 to do with Romans 8? In many ways Paul provides the ultimate answer to and assurance for the hope of the sons of Korah. Redemption for the people of God has been found through the life, death, resurrection, and lordship of Jesus of Nazareth; in Him the people of God are victorious over sin and death, have been made joint heirs of God’s inheritance in Christ, and have been given the hope of redemption from the corruption to which the creation has been made subject (Romans 8:1-25). God has proven faithful to all His covenant promises He made to His people.

Yet we do well to wonder why Paul feels compelled to provide this encouragement for the Christians in Rome. Hints toward a reason can be found in the text itself. In affirming that Christians are joint heirs with Christ in Romans 8:17-18 Paul explicitly and directly associates that glorification with previous suffering with assurance that present suffering is not worthy to be compared with the glory awaiting us. Considering that other encouraging passages, like 1 Peter 1:3-9 and the book of Revelation, are written to those suffering persecution and trial, we can understand exactly what Paul is doing. The Christians in Rome may be presently suffering persecution or trial or perhaps will suffer thus in the near future; nevertheless, trials and difficulties will come.

Paul knows this not only because of his personal acquaintance with persecution and suffering at the hands of both the Jews and the Gentiles but also, and preeminently, on account of Christ, echoed in Psalm 44. In Psalm 44 the sons of Korah attempted to make sense of the disconnect between their great faith in YHWH and the way He expressed covenant faithfulness in past generations with their presently humiliated state; Jesus would go about as God in the flesh, doing good to all, and for it was betrayed, tried, tortured, and executed unjustly, having every right to cry out the substance of Psalm 44 throughout His suffering (1 Peter 2:21-25). Yet on account of that suffering God raised Jesus in triumph on the third day, exalting and glorifying His name above every name (Philippians 2:5-11); because Jesus suffered He was able to accomplish God’s purposes of victory and redemption as described in Romans 8:1-39 and for which the sons of Korah cried out in Psalm 44:26. Paul therefore understands the way forward: if you want to obtain the promises of God, you have to suffer through trials. The way to the heavenly Zion has no detours around the cross or Calvary.

The rhetorical questions of Romans 8:31-39 therefore have a darker side; we may read them as encouraging affirmations, yet Paul writes them in order to clear up doubts. We may experience the hostility of the spiritual forces of darkness, our own doubts and fears, and perhaps even our government or our fellow people; yet if God is for us, will any of these be able to stand (Romans 8:31)? We may feel abandoned, left with a book about things that happened in the past, which we may even affirm as fully true and legitimate, but where is God now and what is He doing for His people? And yet, as Paul asks, if God has really given of His own Son, will He not freely with Him give us all things (Romans 8:32)? We may feel indicted by our own doubts, fears, and sins; if we do not thus indict ourselves, no doubt Satan or even people we know in this world would be happy to do so. And yet who can really lay any charge against God’s elect if God has justified us and His Son is interceding for us (Romans 8:33-34)? There are many times where we may feel quite distant from God and separated from His love, just as the sons of Korah did; such is why Paul asks who can truly separate us from that love (Romans 8:35). Can tribulation, anguish, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, or sword separate us from God’s love? We can be assured the answer is no. Does this mean that we somehow escape the trials of this life? No; that’s not what God has promised.

For God’s sake we may well be killed all the day long; we may be accounted by Satan, the forces of darkness, and even many in this world as sheep for the slaughter. The sons of Korah long ago felt that way quite strongly even though they had remained faithful to God’s covenant and implored God for redemption. Jesus of Nazareth was actually slaughtered. There will be trials and tribulations; of this Paul is quite certain (Romans 8:17-18). In the midst of that darkness we will be tempted to doubt God’s goodness, faithfulness, and/or our hope. Even if we maintained a faith as robust as that of the sons of Korah, we will still find ourselves wondering how it could be that God is faithful and yet our present condition has brought us so low. Yet Paul wishes to encourage us with those rhetorical questions. If God is for us, who can be against us? If God has not spared His own Son, will He not in Him give us all things? Who can separate us from God’s love? As with Christ, so with us: in and through trial we are more than conquerors (Romans 8:37). No external force or trial can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39); only we can if we turn away from Him. The need for encouragement stems from weakness or trial; in those times let us remember that God is faithful to His covenant promises and has provided redemption in Jesus. That means that the path to exaltation first requires humiliation, and suffering must precede glory. Let us maintain our firm trust in God in Christ throughout all trial!

Ethan R. Longhenry