A Singing People

Is any among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise (James 5:13).

The people of God are to be a singing people.

As James began to conclude his letter he set forth a series of exhortations for Christians in their walk with God (James 5:7-20). Christians who are suffering should pray; those who are cheerful should sing praise (James 5:13).

James’ exhortation should not surprise us. While in prison Paul and Silas sang and prayed (Acts 16:25). Christians are to speak, teach, and admonish one another in song (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16). Such exhortations build on the heritage and experience of Israel, singing the psalms before YHWH in the Temple and in their lives (1 Chronicles 25:1-31, Matthew 26:30). Thus, when things went well, the people sang praise; when things were not so well, they sang laments. They sang thanksgivings; they sang prayers. In all this they were singing before God. Thus we do well to consider: are we a singing people?

It seems that the voices of the people of God continue to grow quieter. In the assembly many can barely be heard; Christians will listen to secular and/or “contemporary Christian” music, get used to hearing singing, but do not share in that singing themselves. It is easy to believe that singing is better left to other people.

Bifurcation of life in terms of times of “worship” and the “rest of life,” along with an emphasis on the performative elements of singing, have proven very deleterious. We do well to note that James tells individual Christians to sing praises when cheerful (James 5:13). As there is no authorization for the use of instruments when Christians sing together (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16), there is no authority for them in the individual praises of Christians, either (James 5:13). Attempting to suggest the problem features instruments “in worship” and not in the “rest of life,” as many are wont to do, simply beg the question. From where do these distinctions come? They are not in the pages of Scripture; singing in the assembly is not uniquely defined as “worship” over and against individual singing. No direct association is made in Scripture between singing together and “worship” as commonly understood. Likewise, while we all like to have good singing, and we would all love to sing well, performance should never be the driver when it comes to our singing, individually or collectively; the substantive message of the song should always be the driver. The best performed song that does not speak, teach, or instruct has no share in Ephesians 5:19 or Colossians 3:16; praise can be beautiful, but beauty without substance is not praise (James 5:13).

Abide with MeSinging is designed to build up and encourage (1 Corinthians 14:26); we can only do that when we recognize the profound value in the substance and singing of songs. Science has known for some time that people learn messages better when put to a tune; the best preached sermon can hardly match the visceral power of a well written hymn. Singing can change your mood; singing can help us keep our minds and hearts on Christ as they should be, even in difficult circumstances, just like Paul and Silas in Acts 16:25. We can sing praises when alone; we can join our voices together to praise God in song and instruct each other, audibly demonstrating the unity we share in God in Christ (1 John 1:1-6). From song we can derive strength in the moment of trial and reinforce the joy of more fortunate times.

Singing is not better left to other people; God intends for all of His people to sing. The quality of the performance is never nearly as important as the value of the substance. Singing edifies mind, heart, and soul. In good times we do well to sing; in distress we ought to cry out to God in prayer and sing laments. There is a song for every circumstance if we are only willing to sing it. May we be the singing people of God to His glory and praise!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Do Not Resist the Evil Person

“Ye have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:’
But I say unto you, Resist not him that is evil: but whosoever smiteth thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man would go to law with thee, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away” (Matthew 5:38-42).

It is not surprising that many in history considered Jesus’ instructions in the Sermon on the Mount as virtually impossible to observe.

Jesus has been contrasting what was written in the Law of Moses, and how it was customarily understood and explained by the Pharisees and others, with what He says (Matthew 5:20-48). Many of Jesus’ exhortations demanded His followers to go beyond concern about behavior and show just as much concern about their thoughts and feelings: they were not only not to murder or commit adultery but should not hate their brother in their heart or lust for a woman in their heart (Matthew 5:21-30). Most recently Jesus has encouraged His followers to maintain a personal standard of godliness and righteousness beyond that demanded by the Law: the Law might allow a person to divorce his wife or to swear oaths, but Jesus’ followers should recognize God’s original intentions, allowing divorce only for the sexually deviant behavior of the spouse, and not swearing, allowing one’s “yes” and “no” to stand (Matthew 5:31-37).

Bloch-SermonOnTheMount

Jesus continued in the same strain in terms of the lex talionis set forth in Exodus 21:22-27, Leviticus 24:19-20, and Deuteronomy 19:19-21. The lex talionis (Latin for law of talion) enshrined the right of retaliation but only in terms of the severity of the original injury; it is also known in terms of the first example given in the lex talionis, the principle of “an eye for an eye.” In the Law of Moses the lex talionis maintained a restrictive and restraining function: it is not difficult to imagine an aggrieved party, having suffered the loss of an eye or limb or some such thing, retaliating and causing far more significant damage to the person who inflicted the original wound. Such was reckoned (and is still reckoned) as unjust and unfair; therefore, the Law of Moses restricted retaliation or the expectation of the payment for damages to be commensurate to the original offense. Even though we no longer, in general, demand the loss of an eye for having taken an eye, limb for having taken a limb (with the exception of capital punishment, the loss of life for taking a life), the legal idea at the root of the lex talionis remains important to this day: we feel a punishment should fit the crime.

Jesus recognized all of this; His quibble was not with what the Law allows. The Law might have allowed for retaliation, to resist the one who did evil to another; Jesus exhorted His followers to not demand an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, etc., but should not resist (anthistemi, “stand against”) the one who does evil (Matthew 5:39). Jesus then illustrated the principle with four contemporary and relevant applications: if struck on the right cheek, turn the other also; if any sue and take your coat, give him your cloak also; if compelled to go one mile, go two; give to those who ask and do not turn away borrowers (Matthew 5:39-42).

These four situations would have been very familiar to Jesus’ followers and Jewish audience, yet Jesus’ exhortation would have seemed extremely radical. Striking (rhapisei, sometimes with the palm, often with an object) would normally begin with the left cheek; the right cheek (lit. jaw) is of greater prominence, and thus such striking would have been considered not just violent but also an insult. It is bad enough to be sued and to be deprived of one’s chiton (a tunic; the inner layer of clothing); giving up the himation (the outer garment) would be an even more expensive loss, which normally would take place at the hands of robbers. Compulsion to go one mile features the Greek aggareuse; the word derives from Persian and the Persian public messengers. They were stationed at fixed positions, and any official could demand for any subject passing by the post station to deliver the message to the next post-station a mile away, whether the traveler was going that way or that far or not (Herodotus, Histories 8.98, Xenophon, Cyropedia 8.6.17; cf. also Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus’ cross in Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21). The Jewish people of Jesus’ day were quite acquainted with forced service; Roman soldiers on the march would frequently compel any passing-by subject of the Empire to carry their baggage for one mile, an especially odious burden on Jewish people who already resented and despised what they saw as the oppressive rule of the Romans. Then, as now, plenty of people begged for resources and asked for loans to be given; then, as now, while some such supplicants might be “worthy” of assistance, having fallen into temporary misfortune, and would pay back whatever was borrowed, most would have been considered “unworthy” and most would not pay back. Yet, in all four situations, Jesus exhorted His followers to absorb the loss, suffering, pain, humiliation, or material loss. Injured and insulted with a strike to the right cheek? Do not hit back, but turn the other cheek. Someone sues you for your tunic? Give it, and your more expensive outer garment as well. An agent of an oppressive overlord demands one mile of service? Go two. People want you to give them your money or want to borrow it? Do not turn them away.

Jesus knew well what He was asking; it is not the only time He instructed His followers in this way (Luke 6:27-36, 14:12-14), and He ultimately exemplified the principles in His conduct (John 18:22-23, 1 Peter 2:20-23). This instruction is not unique to Jesus; His Apostles exhorted Christians to do the same (Romans 12:17-21, 1 Corinthians 6:7, 1 Peter 3:9, 1 John 3:16-18). The challenge and radical nature of Jesus’ exhortation in Matthew 5:38-42 is most apparent in how many times and ways those who would claim to be His followers have attempted to countermand or resist it. Some have just written off these demands as impossible to attain ideals; others would like to suggest they only apply to a millennial Kingdom. Even among those who claim to take the Bible seriously as the Word of God attempt to deflect the import of what Jesus exhorted by suggesting He meant it only in terms of “spiritual” and not “secular” or “worldly” opponents, despite the fact that such categories are foreign to Jesus and His context, and the examples all involve very “secular” situations. Resistance is understandable; Jesus is asking us to go against every natural impulse and reaction we have in the face of insult, degradation, and deprivation!

We should not resist Jesus’ exhortation against resisting the evil person. Jesus does not suggest we acquiesce to evil in order to justify it or commend it; as Paul explains, we suffer the indignity because we maintain confidence that God will right all wrongs, and we are called to suffer evil and do good in return (Romans 12:17-21; cf. 1 Peter 2:20-25). Overcoming evil with evil just means evil wins; to truly overcome evil one must suffer it and do good regardless, exemplified by Jesus’ suffering on the cross (Colossians 2:13-15). Thus Christians are not to resist the evil one, whether “spiritual” or “secular”; we must instead suffer the indignity or deprivation. When insulted, we should not insult in return; when pressed into service we should go above and beyond in our service. We should give to those who would deprive us, and be generous, even to those less than “worthy,” and even if we will not be paid back. No one, not even Jesus, said it would be easy; nevertheless, it is part of the difficult road that leads to life, and we can understand why few are those who find it.

We do well to follow Jesus’ example and exhortation and not resist the one who is evil. God will judge the evil in the end; it is for us, in the pattern of our Savior, to suffer the wrong and do good. Such is one of the most difficult things to do; it goes against every natural impulse, and we are constantly tempted to find some reason to justify resisting the evil. When thus tempted, consider ourselves before God. When we insulted God by our words and deeds, did He insult us in turn? When we deprived God of the glory and honor due Him when we selfishly glorified ourselves and our deeds, did He deprive us of life? How many times have we asked of God and He has given freely despite our manifest unworthiness? If we expect God to love us and provide for us despite our own failings and participation in evil, who are we to deny our fellow man the same mercy? May we take the Lord Jesus’ exhortations seriously, cease resisting the one who does evil to us, and glorify God through our suffering for Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Waiting for Judgment

I heard, and my body trembled / my lips quivered at the voice
Rottenness entereth into my bones / and I tremble in my place
Because I must wait quietly for the day of trouble / for the coming up of the people that invadeth us (Habakkuk 3:16).

All has been said. Now the waiting began.

Habakkuk acutely perceived the iniquity and injustice pervasive in Judah in the latter days of the monarchy and wanted to know why YHWH was doing nothing about it (Habakkuk 1:1-4). YHWH responded, making it clear that He was quite aware of the situation and had a most terrifying solution: He was raising up the Chaldeans to overrun and destroy Judah (Habakkuk 1:5-11). Habakkuk attempted to make good theological sense out of this response, asking YHWH how He could have a more wicked nation overrun a comparatively more righteous nation in light of His holiness (Habakkuk 1:12-2:1). YHWH responds by affirming the salvation of the righteous and the end of the arrogant and presumptuous by the very earthly realities in which they trust: as they overpower, so they will be overpowered; the wicked in Judah will be overpowered by the Chaldeans as they overpowered the less fortunate; the Chaldeans in turn will be overpowered by another empire, and so on (Habakkuk 2:2-17).

Opera del duomo (FI), donatello, abacuc (zuccone), 1423-1435 dettaglio 02

Habakkuk responds to YHWH’s declarations as promised (Habakkuk 2:1), yet in the form of a prayer-hymn (Habakkuk 3:1-19). Habakkuk trusted in YHWH because he had heard and believed in the great acts of salvation in Israel’s past: the Exodus, the wanderings in the Wilderness, the Conquest, YHWH’s constant deliverance of the kings (Habakkuk 3:1-15). From those acts of deliverance Habakkuk recognized both YHWH’s great power exercised in His anger and His ability and willingness to deliver His people even from the strongest of foes. Habakkuk was one who was righteous and lived by his faith; he did not doubt for a moment all the devastation about to come upon Judah along with the eventual humiliation of Babylon (Habakkuk 3:16-19). YHWH has decreed; it will take place.

We know that Habakkuk’s confidence is well-placed because we know how it all goes down. Within a few years or decades, depending on when Habakkuk prophesied, the Chaldeans would invade Judah, destroy Jerusalem and the Temple, and exile its inhabitants (586 BCE; 2 Kings 25:1-21). Forty-seven years later Babylon itself would be overrun by the Persians (539 BCE; cf. Daniel 5:25-31). Babylon would be destroyed and rebuilt by the Persians; when the Seleucid Macedonians decided to build a new capital at Ctesiphon up the river, Babylon lost importance and soon faded. By the time the Abbasid caliphs built their capital even further up the river at Baghdad, Babylon was a ruin, lost to the sand until European archaeologists who believed in the name of the God of Israel would excavate it. Yes, Babylon would humiliate Judah, but Babylon would suffer even greater humiliation. YHWH would vindicate His name.

While we know that, and Habakkuk has confidence in it, as Habakkuk puts down his stylus, such is all in the future. For the moment he must wait, and the expectation of terror leads to very physical, and visceral, consequences: Habakkuk’s body trembled, his lips quivered, rottenness entered his bones, and he trembled at the magnitude of what was about to take place (Habakkuk 3:16). Habakkuk knew the terrifying things the Chaldeans would do the people of God and the house of YHWH. It was not yet, but it would be, and soon. Perhaps Habakkuk lived to see the devastation; perhaps not. Regardless, the book of Habakkuk ends with this pregnant expectation: it is going to happen, it will be ugly, YHWH will be vindicated. But it is not yet. When it comes, it will come speedily; but it is not yet (Habakkuk 2:2-3).

As Christians we should be able to sympathize with Habakkuk. We ought to be acquainted with God’s great acts of salvation and judgment: Jesus of Nazareth lived, died, rose again, ascended to the Father, and was given all authority (Acts 2:14-36, 1 Corinthians 15:1-8). Jerusalem was visited again in judgment, this time by the Romans; the Temple was again destroyed, never to be rebuilt (Matthew 24:1-36). The Romans, in turn, would meet their end (Revelation 12:1-19:21). The promise has been made that Jesus will return as He ascended (Acts 1:9-11): all will rise from the dead, the judgment will take place, the righteous will spend eternity in the Lord’s presence, and the wicked will be given over to their desires in hell (Matthew 25:1-46, Acts 17:30-31, Romans 8:17-25, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-5:11, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, Revelation 20:11-22:6). As Christians, we have every reason to maintain confidence that all these things will take place. Yet we find ourselves in the same position as Habakkuk: we are to wait quietly (2 Thessalonians 3:12). It is not delayed nor will it delay; God is exhibiting patience toward all so they can come to repentance (2 Peter 3:1-9). When it comes, it will come quickly; none will escape (2 Peter 3:10-13).

And so we Christians wait for the judgment. We must keep living by our faith and practice righteousness (Habakkuk 2:4, Matthew 24:42-25:13). It may be within a few years, decades, or perhaps centuries; we cannot know. But we can know that it will happen. The Lord will return. But we wait, as Habakkuk waited. Maranatha!

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

Healing Dirt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

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

The Gardener

Jesus saith unto her, “Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou?”
She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, “Sir, if thou hast borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away” (John 20:15).

Whom would you be expecting if you were walking among the tombs at the edge of town?

Mary Magdalene was distraught; she had come to finish anointing the body of Jesus of Nazareth but it was no longer in the tomb (John 20:1-2). Peter and John came, saw the tomb was empty, recognized something was going on, but returned to where they were staying (John 20:3-10). Mary Magdalene, meanwhile, had returned to the area of the tomb; in her distress she sought to discover whom had taken the body and where (John 20:12-15). She asked two angels in white, and then she asked the man she presumed to be the gardener. Yet this man was actually Jesus Himself in the resurrection (John 20:16-18)!

The way John narrates the resurrection morning is compelling, dramatic, and powerful. We are able to sympathize with Mary’s confusion, anguish, and distress; she testifies to the power of Jesus’ resurrection since she displays no expectation of the event. She meets Jesus but thinks He is a gardener! We can feel the astonishment and awe of Mary as she is brought face to face with the Risen Lord. And then we most often move on and consider the other great parts of the narrative: “Doubting Thomas,” Jesus and Peter in Galilee, etc. (John 20:19-21:25). Well and good; but why does Mary Magdalene suppose Jesus to have been the gardener?

Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen - Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalen as a Gardener - WGA05260

It is possible that John is simply trying to relay a factoid which lends credibility to the story: Mary Magdalene was not expecting to see Jesus and so she naturally presumed that a man who was present near the tomb at that time who was not a soldier would have been the gardener keeping the grounds. While that is possible, John’s use of detail is sparse, and when it is present, it most often has greater meaning, weaving the story of Jesus into the greater fabric of Scripture. In this light the description of Jesus as a gardener is most apt, for who else served as a gardener in Scripture?

In Genesis 2:4-25 we are given details about the creation of man and woman. God formed man out of the dust of the earth (Adam), planted a garden in Eden in the east, making out of the ground all good trees for eating, and God put the man in the garden to dress it and keep it (Genesis 2:7-15). Adam was the first gardener; he kept the garden for a time but then violated the one command God had given him, and he was cast out (Genesis 2:16-3:22).

The Apostle Paul reckons Jesus as the “second” or “new” Adam in Romans 5:10-18 and 1 Corinthians 15:19-51. The first Adam sinned; death entered the world through his sin and the effects of sin spread to all; Jesus accomplished one great act of righteousness through His death on the cross, providing forgiveness for sin and allowing all to overcome its effects through that one action (Romans 5:10-18). Through the man Adam death spread to all men; through the man Jesus we have the hope of resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:19-51).

It is therefore highly unlikely that Mary Magdalene just happened to think that Jesus was the gardener, for in a very real way Jesus is a gardener. God made Adam the first gardener of the present creation; he sinned and death spread to all men. Jesus, in His resurrection, is the vanguard of the new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). Through Him all things will be made new; in Him we have the hope of resurrection and the hope John will later see in the imagery of the river of life proceeding out of the throne of God in the midst of the heavenly Jerusalem and the tree of life bearing fruit providing for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22:1-6).

God has raised His Gardener who seeks to keep and tend His Garden, the church, so that it may grow, bear fruit, and multiply. Through Jesus our Gardener God is making all things new (Revelation 21:5). Let us praise God for Christ our Gardener, and may we ever seek to enjoy the produce of His Garden!

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

The Good News

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1).

It comes in all forms; because of it things may never seem to be the same again. Many times we vividly remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when we heard it.

“The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.”

“The President has been shot.”

“The World Trade Center has collapsed.”

It transforms life even without national or international implications.

“Will you marry me?”

“It’s a boy/it’s a girl.”

“This disease is terminal.”

Such is the power of the news.

911-Panel

News is just information; that is true. But we all recognize that the content of the news can change everything. Hopes and dreams can be encouraged or dashed. Expectations are fulfilled or denied. We may find ourselves facing a new and different reality, perhaps better, perhaps worse than what we thought before. In many ways we understand our lives in terms of how various pieces of news has shaped us at various points in time.

Such is perhaps why the greatest events which ever have taken place in this creation are called, simply, the Good News. We are more familiar with the term Gospel, which itself derives from an Old English term meaning exactly what the Greek euangelion does, “good news” (Mark 1:1). Thus, whenever we see “Gospel” in the Bible, we should think of it as “good news.” Evangelists are to be seen as those proclaiming the Good News.

What exactly is the Good News? As we see in Mark 1:1, the Good News is of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The Apostle Paul affirms that the Good News by which the Corinthian Christians were saved if they hold fast to it featured the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1-11). Both Jesus and Matthew testify that the Good News features the Kingdom of Heaven, over which Jesus has been established as Lord and King and over which He reigns (Matthew 4:17, 23; Colossians 1:13). Jesus commanded the Apostles and those who came after them to go and preach the Good News to the whole creation (Mark 16:15), and so we do.

Thus the Good News is that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Son of God: He is the Word made flesh, having humbled Himself to serve mankind and to show them the way and character of God; He died on a cross for the forgiveness of sin and God raised Him from the dead on the third day; He ascended to the Father and has received the Kingdom over which He now reigns as Lord until He returns (Matthew 28:18-20, John 1:1-18, 14:5-10, Acts 1:1-10, 2:36, 17:30-31). This is the news regarding which Christians must bear witness to the whole creation.

No news has the transformative capability as the Good News of Jesus Christ, for it is God’s power to save (Romans 1:16, Hebrews 4:12). As with all news, it is not the news or the message itself, but the contents and the reality which allows for the message to truly be news. Jesus really did live, die, and rise again; He really does reign as Lord right now. These truths demand a response: will you serve the Lord Jesus or will you reject Him? Acceptance demands obedience, renunciation of all worldly things, suffering, and perhaps even death but leads to peace toward God and hope in the resurrection (Romans 6:15-22, Philippians 3:6-12). Rejection of Jesus as Lord may not seem like as big of a deal on earth but leads to hostility toward God and sure expectation of the experience of His wrath (Romans 8:5-8, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10). The New Testament is replete with examples of people whose lives would never be the same once they heard the Good News of Jesus Christ; the 1,900 years since have seen many other people whose lives were completely changed when they heard that Jesus is Lord and Christ.

The Good News may be over 1,900 years old, but it remains as relevant today as ever. Your life is never the same once you have heard it. Will you heed the Good News of Jesus Christ and serve Him? Danger and destruction awaits those who refuse Him! Serve Jesus as Lord while the opportunity remains, and take hold of the promise of eternal life in the resurrection!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Pharisees and Scribes

Then spake Jesus to the multitudes and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses seat: all things therefore whatsoever they bid you, these do and observe: but do not ye after their works; for they say, and do not. Yea, they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:1-4).

The Evangelists consistently speak of mutual antagonism between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. From their presentation alone one might imagine that Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees are miles apart in their understanding of God and Judaism. And yet, of all the various sects of Second Temple Judaism, Jesus has the most in common with the Pharisees. The Sadducees accepted only the Torah as legitimate ground of authority and denied the existence of angels, the soul, and the resurrection (Matthew 22:23, Acts 23:8). The Herodians, by virtue of supporting Herod and his government, would have no love for a rival King of the Jews (Matthew 22:16). One might think that Jesus and the Essenes would have much in common; while they shared an apocalyptic worldview and some “ascetic” practices, the Essenes rejected the present Temple and its authorities as illegitimate and looked forward to the day when the Sons of Light would restore the Temple and its proper service and who withdrew from life in the greater Jewish community. Jesus did not look forward to establishment of a restored Temple in Jerusalem, nor did He withdraw from life among the people of God (Matthew 24:1-36). Meanwhile, Jesus and the Pharisees agreed about the inspiration and authority of the prophets and the writings, angels, the soul, the resurrection, and the hope of Israel in the Messiah. This leaves us with a major challenge: if Jesus and the Pharisees share so many similarities in outlook, why are the Pharisees and the scribes singled out for such strong condemnation by the Evangelists? If Jesus and the Pharisees agree on so much, why are the Pharisees portrayed in such consistently negative ways in the Gospels?

Few places express Jesus’ difficulties with the scribes and Pharisees with as much rhetorical force and denunciation as in the series of woes Jesus sets forth in Matthew 23:1-35. Jesus begins His litany of invective against the scribes and Pharisees by denouncing a form of their hypocrisy in Matthew 23:1-4.

Brooklyn Museum - Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees (Malheur à vous, scribes et pharisiens) - James Tissot

Jesus begins with the recognition that the scribes and Pharisees maintain a pride of place in Second Temple Judaism: they “sit on Moses’ seat” (Matthew 23:2). No actual chair is envisioned; Jesus gives recognition to their claims of serving as the interpreters of the Law of Moses on behalf of the people. For this reason Jesus tells the people to do what the scribes and Pharisees bid them to do (Matthew 23:3a). Some interpreters of this passage suggest that Jesus is being sarcastic and does not actually expect His audience to live according to what the Pharisees teach; such an interpretation is possible but not necessarily warranted. We do well to remember that even though Jewish people put great emphasis on literacy and would have maintained higher literacy rates than seen among the Gentiles, plenty of Jewish people could still not read or write, and even then, scrolls of the Law, Prophets, and Writings were copied by hand on expensive papyrus and parchment and would have been reserved for use in the synagogues and those like the scribes and Pharisees who were trained in the Law (Luke 4:17-20). Previously Ezra and his associates had read the Law and gave an understanding of its meaning (Nehemiah 8:1-8); many Jewish people in the first century looked to the scribes and Pharisees for the same reason, and for the time being, Jesus recognizes their role.

In Matthew 23:1-4 the problem is less with the specific interpretations and explanations given by the scribes and Pharisees and much more their unwillingness to do them (Matthew 23:3b-4)! They say the things faithful Jewish people should do, but they themselves do not do them. They expect Jewish people to adhere to all sorts of laws according to what is written and the traditions of the fathers, denounce as sinners those unwilling to bear them (John 9:16, 24), but provide no assistance to others, show no mercy, and themselves frequently (and flagrantly) violate them. In short, it may be good to do what they say, but do not do as they do.

To say one thing but do another is the essence of hypocrisy. The scribes and Pharisees were respected for their knowledge; no doubt many “average” Israelites looked up to them as holy people because of it. Yet, in practice, they were not very holy. They were just as guilty of violating the Law as other Israelites (Acts 13:39, Romans 3:13-21). Yet such totality begs the question: were not all the Israelites, save the Lord Jesus, hypocrites to some degree? Why are the scribes and Pharisees being singled out for this condemnation?

It is one thing to try and fall short; it is quite another to not even try. It is one thing to teach a given path, try to live it, and stumble at times; we humans are imperfect. It is quite another to act as if one is all holy and righteous, presume to be holier and more righteous than others, and yet substantively are little better than those whom they denounce. Such were the scribes and Pharisees: they acted as if knowing and teaching the Law brought forth its own special kind of holiness. Jesus makes it clear that it does not.

We do well to remember that the scribes and Pharisees were part of the people of God, and of all the people of God at the time, were considered to be the most holy and righteous. Their denunciation by all the Evangelists is, in its own way, a warning for believers: do not be like the Pharisees. The way of Jesus and the way of the Pharisees are quite divergent, yet throughout time Christians, however well-meaning, have fallen prey to the ways of the Pharisees!

The Apostle Paul declares that knowledge puffs up while love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1); it is very easy to obtain knowledge of God and His ways and thus presume one’s holiness based upon one’s superior knowledge. That is the way of the Pharisee and the Gnostic; it is not the way of Jesus or those who truly follow Him (1 Timothy 6:20-21)! We are not made holy by our knowledge; we are not better than others simply because we have come to a better understanding of the will of God than they have. Such is why the first and foremost aspect of the Gospel is our own sinfulness and our inability to solve our sin problem through our own efforts (Ephesians 2:1-3, Titus 3:3). We are entirely dependent upon God in Christ for the hope of salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9); our obedient response in faith, while necessary, does not earn us or merit our salvation!

Every Christian, to some degree or another, is a hypocrite; we proclaim the way of God in Christ but fall short at times (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8). But we must walk the walk of Christ; we must do the commandments (1 John 2:3-6). In seeking to do them we will learn humility, faith, and obedience. We would never imagine to lay heavy burdens on others and let ourselves go free; quite the contrary (Galatians 6:2)!

In Matthew 23:1-4 Jesus begins to set forth the contrast between the condemned ways of the scribes and Pharisees and the righteous way of God in Christ. The way of the Pharisees is always tempting for the people of God; we must resist it, remaining humble and dependent upon God in Christ, seeking to do the will of the Lord in all respects, bearing one another’s burdens and not attempting to make them heavier! Let us serve the Lord Jesus in humble faith!

Ethan R. Longhenry