Swift to Hear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus With Us

“Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20).

The good news according to Matthew ends with truly great news.

Matthew has set forth Jesus’ resurrection from the dead: the women have come to find the tomb empty, for an angel had rolled the stone away, sat upon it, proclaimed the good news of the resurrection to them, and declared how He went before them to Galilee (Matthew 28:1-8). Jesus then appeared the women and instructed them to tell the rest of the disciples to go to Galilee to see Him there (Matthew 28:9-10). The disciples went to Galilee and saw the Lord Jesus; many believed, but some doubted (Matthew 28:16-17). In His final words in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus gives the “Great Commission”: all authority has been given to Him in heaven and on earth, and so they are to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them (Matthew 28:18-20a). The Great Commission ends with a promise: Jesus is with them always, unto the end of the αιωνος, “age” or “forever,” and thus “world” (Matthew 28:20b).

We can imagine how the disciples would have found this promise very comforting. And yet, within forty days, Jesus would ascend to heaven (Acts 1:1-11); He will only again walk the earth on the day of judgment (Matthew 25:31-46, Acts 1:11). So if Jesus no longer walked with them, or, for that matter, with us, how could He say that He would be “with” us until the end of the world?

Throughout the book of Acts the Apostles seem to interact frequently in some way with the Lord Jesus. Peter declares that Jesus is the one who, on the basis of the Father’s promise, poured out the Holy Spirit on them (Acts 2:33); Peter affirms that faith in Jesus provided the power which healed the lame man in the Temple (Acts 3:16). The Lord Jesus would give Peter a vision and speak with him in it (Acts 10:9-17). Stephen saw Jesus as the Son of Man standing at God’s right hand (Acts 7:55-56). Paul saw the Lord Jesus in the resurrection and heard Him speak (Acts 9:1-8, 22:6-10, 26:12-18), as would Ananias, whom the Lord called to minister to Paul (Acts 9:10-16). Paul would receive further messages from the Lord Jesus, both direct and spoken as well as through circumstance and hindrance (Acts 16:6-9, 18:9-10, 23:11). We do well to remember how Luke begins the book of Acts, speaking of the previous Gospel as “all that Jesus began to do and teach,” implying that the whole book of Acts continues Jesus’ work (Acts 1:1): Jesus is with the Apostles throughout, strengthening them, empowering them, reassuring them. He may not have been present in the way He had been during His ministry, but He was still there, reigning as Lord, sustaining His people to do His work.

Is Jesus still there since the days of the Apostles? Some have suggested that Jesus’ promise extended only to the destruction of Jerusalem, and such “ended the age.” Such is inconsistent with the promises of Jesus and His Apostles and the reality of the faith ever since. It is true that Jesus made Himself known to the Apostles in ways which He no longer does so; they saw Him in life, fully experienced Him, and bore personal eyewitness testimony to His resurrection, and no one since the first century can do so (1 John 1:1-4). There is nothing further to be made known about the good news of Jesus Christ than has already been made known through the Apostles and their associates. And yet Jesus’ promises remain. The universe continues to exist through Him and for Him and is upheld and sustained by Him (Colossians 1:15-17, Hebrews 1:3). Jesus still reigns as Lord (Hebrews 13:8). Where two or three of His people are gathered, He is in their midst (Matthew 18:20). In Revelation 4:1-5:14 John is able to see what goes on in heaven beyond the veil: God is on the throne, and the Lamb with Him, and they reign in glory and honor. We may not be able to see past that veil, yet such makes it no less true and no less real. Furthermore, if we are in Christ, we have His Spirit, the Spirit of God (Romans 8:9-11); by means of the Spirit He maintains His presence in and among His people individually and collectively (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19-20, 2 Corinthians 5:5, Ephesians 1:13-14). Jesus, therefore, remains with us.

The end of the Gospel of Matthew is as its beginning. When narrating Jesus’ birth Matthew directs our minds to the prophecy of Isaiah, that the child born of the virgin would be Immanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:22-25; Isaiah 7:14); Matthew ends the Gospel with Jesus’ own promise that He will remain Immanuel, God with us (Matthew 28:20).

Thus it cannot be said that Jesus merely was Immanuel, human and in the midst of mankind for a short time, only to depart and abandon humanity. Jesus is Immanuel; He still is “God with us.” Is He with us in the exact same form and way He was with the disciples in Galilee and Judea? Not at all; instead, He is with us in more profound and compelling ways, ruling heaven and earth from the right hand of the throne of God, actively sustaining the creation, and strengthening His people through the Spirit. And so we can have the great confidence, as John declares, that He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4); we have hope that as Jesus now is we will be in the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20-58).

We will experience difficult times and wonder if God has abandoned us. At those times we do well to remember Jesus’ final promise in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus is Immanuel; He is with us until we will be with Him in eternity in the resurrection. We may not see Him with our eyes of flesh but we can discern Him through eyes of faith and spirit. We can know that He is there, for in God we live and move and have our being, and Jesus sustains our life (Acts 17:27-28, Hebrews 1:3). It may seem that the forces of darkness are prevailing, but we know that the Lord Jesus truly reigns and will gain the victory over them, having already sealed those who are His (Ephesians 6:12, 1 John 4:4, Revelation 12:1-20:10). May we entrust ourselves to the Lord Jesus and make disciples of all nations as He commanded us, reliant on His strength!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Denying the Resurrection

So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying was spread abroad among the Jews, and continueth until this day (Matthew 28:15).

Stories attempting to deny the truth often take much more faith to believe in than the truth itself.

As Jesus arose from the dead, the Roman guard had trembled and became as dead men (Matthew 28:4); they later report to the Temple authorities the things which had taken place (Matthew 28:11). The chief priests had no desire to believe them; their power and influence were centered on the Temple, and as good Sadducees, they denied even the potential of the dead to be raised (Matthew 22:23). They did not disbelieve the Roman guard, but instead attempted to suppress the evidence, giving them financial incentives to claim that the disciples came and stole the body while the guard slept (Matthew 28:12-14). Thus they did so; Matthew inserts himself into the narrative to declare that this story had circulated among the Jews for years after, even unto the time he was writing his Gospel (Matthew 28:15).

Giotto di Bondone - No. 37 Scenes from the Life of Christ - 21. Resurrection (detail) - WGA09225

Such is the way it has gone ever since among those who would deny Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. For generations many maintain great disincentives from maintaining confidence in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. If Jesus is risen, as Peter would make it clear in Acts 2:14-36, then Jesus is Lord and Christ, the King. If Jesus is King, then Caesar is not as powerful as he would imagine himself to be. If Jesus is King, and His people represent the temple of the living God (1 Corinthians 3:16-18, 6:19-20), then the Temple in Jerusalem has but a short time left, and its authorities are soon to be obsolete. If Jesus is the Christ, the hope of Israel, then His teachings must be true, and all must submit to Him, and not heed the Pharisees, scribes, and other professed teachers of the Law (Matthew 5:17-20). If Jesus is the risen Lord, the one like a Son of Man who received an eternal Kingdom (Daniel 7:13-14, Revelation 1:12-18), then He will bring to nothing the kingdoms of this world, and He is the true and full revelation of the One True God, a light in the darkness to those who persist in idolatry (Colossians 2:9, Hebrews 1:1-3). Those who benefit from the philosophies of men, idolatry, who exercise authority in governments, and who receive honor and respect as teachers, religious or otherwise, have much to lose and little to gain from the truth of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

Throughout time some have maintained their integrity, have conceded their error, and submitted themselves to Jesus as the Risen Lord. We praise God for such good and honest hearts. Unfortunately, far too many have responded to the good news of the resurrection of Jesus like the chief priests did. They have found it easier to make up stories which deny the resurrection, no matter how fanciful or incredible, so that they can persist in living as they had formerly.

Some have claimed that Jesus did not truly die, but only fainted on the cross. They would have us believe that the Romans were not as effective as we might have imagined they were at executing people; that He was pierced in His side but made no movement or provided no indication of life (John 19:33-37); that He was wrapped in linen with many pounds of spices and aloes and remained merely unconscious (John 19:38-40); and then, after all that, to “awake” on the third day in full strength, roll the rock away, and fend off or cause great fear to come upon a whole Roman guard (Matthew 28:1-4). A truly incredible story! It takes far more faith to believe this than to accept the resurrection of the dead.

Some have claimed that the Apostles and others suffered from a mass hallucination. It strains credibility to suggest that more than five hundred people would suffer the same hallucination at the same time (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Beyond this, those who claim to see things in hallucinations persist in them, and yet the Apostles and their associates claimed to see Jesus in the resurrection only over a forty day period, and then no longer (Acts 1:3). Claims of hallucinations cannot make sense of the story as written.

Yet perhaps the most commonly held view is the story circulated by the Roman guards and among the Jews in Matthew 28:13-15: the disciples stole the body of Jesus away while the Roman guard slept. First of all, the Roman army was nothing if not disciplined. Far less serious infractions than sleeping on the job led to decimation; if it were not for the chief priests’ intervention, this entire guard would have no doubt been executed (cf. Acts 12:18-19). The Roman guard would not have been sleeping, and they certainly would not have stayed awake had the disciples come, rolled the rock away, and took the body of Jesus!

Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, let us carry out this “story” to its end. Why would the disciples have taken the body? They would have wanted to do so in order to claim that Jesus was risen from the dead. According to the modern point of view, the death of Jesus would have led these disciples to some kind of religious experience or enlightenment so as to begin to claim that Jesus is actually Lord in heaven, that through their own study and observations they were able to re-tell the story of Israel and its hope in the Messiah along the lines of Jesus the crucified but risen Messiah, and this all on their own.

Such is a fabulous tale, and again takes far more faith than to accept the Gospels as written! Who among the disciples expected Jesus to rise again? They did not understand what Jesus meant when He had told them so beforehand (Matthew 16:21-23, 20:17-28). Simon Peter claimed to be ready to die with and for Jesus, ready to establish the Kingdom on earth, and struck a slave to that end (Matthew 26:30-35, 51-54). The disciples scattered when Jesus was arrested (Matthew 26:56); they even doubted when they saw Jesus in the resurrection (Matthew 28:17). Beyond all this it was apparent to everyone that the Apostles, particularly Peter and John, were “unlearned” and “ignorant” men from Galilee (Acts 2:7, 4:13): are these the men who on their own will devise a most compelling and novel re-imagination of God’s purposes of His Messiah?

The greatest testimony to the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is His disciples. Before the resurrection they are everything you would expect from proud but uneducated Galilean Jews, fervent in zeal, expecting the Christ to come, defeat the enemies of Israel, and ultimately usher in the day of resurrection, and ready to rule with him in that Kingdom. As Jesus is tried, executed, and raised from the dead, the disciples accept the truth of what is going on, yet still do not understand what it is or what it represents (e.g. Acts 1:6). Yet, after the Holy Spirit falls upon them in Acts 2:1-4, they are transformed into proclaimers of the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth, boldly indicting those who crucified Him, standing firm where they had once shrunk back, declaring that God raised this Jesus whom they had crucified from the dead, that He was the Servant of whom Isaiah spoke, He is begotten of God in the resurrection, He has all power and authority and will return one day to judge the living and the dead (Acts 2:17-10:41). The Gospel they preach, the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets in Jesus of Nazareth, is something no human would imagine from the pastiche of messages given in the Law and the Prophets and yet does embody and fulfill them; so it is that Paul can say that God has revealed the mystery of the Gospel in his time (Ephesians 3:1-6).

The Apostles and the Kingdom of Jesus they worked so hard to affirm only make sense in light of Jesus’ resurrection. Denying the resurrection leads only to stories more fabulous and more incredible than the sober testimony preserved in the New Testament. Ultimately no disincentive against belief in Jesus the Risen Lord is worth condemnation and eternal separation from God (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). We do well to trust the testimony of the Apostles, trust in Jesus the Risen Lord, and seek to live according to His will!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Understanding the Times


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And of the children of Issachar, men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do, the heads of them were two hundred; and all their brethren were at their commandment (1 Chronicles 12:32).

Understanding the times and knowing the right thing to do and when to do it are always excellent characteristics to maintain.

Even though the Chronicler overall glosses over the uneasy transition of power from Saul to David as seen in 2 Samuel 1:1-5:5 (1 Chronicles 10:1-11:3), vestiges of the days before David’s reign (and even life!) were secured are present in the Chronicler’s listing of those who came to support David (1 Chronicles 11:10-12:40). Some of these supporters came to David even while he had fled from Saul into the wilderness. The Chronicler tells their story to make it clear that at least some from each tribe of Israel saw that David was favored by YHWH and would become their next king. Those of Issachar are singled out for special commendation: the Chronicler said they had understanding of the times to know what Israel ought to do (1 Chronicles 12:32). These two hundred and their family members under their commandment recognized that God was with David and his house, and not with the house of Saul, and proved loyal before it was obvious to everyone.

As we read the text today we can understand the commendation and praise the men of Issachar for their foresight. Yet we do well to recognize that we have the benefit of hindsight. At the time Ishbaal son of Saul was crowned king in place of his father, maintaining what was understood as proper dynastic succession (2 Samuel 2:8-10). For the men of Issachar to support the upstart David meant that they bucked tradition to a large extent. The behavior was risky; what if Ishbaal and his hero Abner prevailed over David and the sons of Zeruiah? What would the rest of the tribe of Issachar think? And yet these men took stock of the situation, saw that YHWH had been with David and continued to make David prosper, and perhaps saw that Ishbaal was weakening while David grew stronger. They understood the times. They knew what to do.

We can see this principle at work in other times in the history of God’s people. Those who would have listened to Jeremiah the prophet understood the times and would have known what Israel was to do; the majority thought it better to revolt against Nebuchadnezzar and paid the penalty. When Haman plotted to kill the Jews, Mordecai understood the times and knew what Israel, and his niece Esther, ought to do. When Antiochus IV Epiphanes banned adherence to the Law of Moses and defiled the Temple, the Maccabeans understood the times and knew what to do. The twelve Apostles and the Jewish people who obeyed the Gospel in the first century understood the times and knew what Israel ought to do. These decisions were not popular among everyone; they came at great personal risk; failure would have been disastrous. Yet in faith all these did what they were supposed to do.

We can think of so many times, and on so many issues, where many people of God understood the times, stood up, and boldly proclaimed what the people of God ought to do. Meanwhile, we also see many of their contemporaries who were more than content to follow after “Ishbaal,” to maintain convention or to hold on to some tradition or ideal past its expiration. In the twenty-first century we need men and women who have understanding of the times, who know what the people of God ought to do, to rise up and do so. When our descendants read of our exploits, will they see in us an understanding of God’s purposes for our lives and that we sought to manifest it despite opposition and risk? Will we prove willing to make difficult stands, to choose to follow the ways of God even when others mock them, deride them, and seek to shame those who stand up for them? Let us stand firm for the Gospel of Christ, manifest its message in our lives, and proclaim it to others!

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

The Spies’ Report

And Caleb stilled the people before Moses, and said, “Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.”
But the men that went up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.”
And they brought up an evil report of the land which they had spied out unto the children of Israel, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature. And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight” (Numbers 13:30-33).

The mission had been completed. But what did it mean?

Moses commissioned twelve spies, one from each tribe of Israel, to go and search out Canaan and ascertain the nature of the land and its inhabitants (Numbers 13:1-20). They went up and saw the land and its inhabitants; they brought back a cluster of grapes, some pomegranates, and figs (Numbers 13:21-26). They even brought back a united assessment of the land: it was a great land, “flowing with milk and honey,” but the people who live there were strong, in great and fortified cities, and the descendants of Anak (the Nephilim, Numbers 13:33) lived there, as well as Amalekites, Jebusites, Amorites, Hittites, and Canaanites (Numbers 13:27-29).

Altdorfer Joshua and Caleb

Caleb, the spy from the tribe of Judah, then encouraged Israel to go and possess the land (Numbers 13:30). But ten of the other spies threw cold water on that suggestion, emphasizing the strength of the adversaries, considering themselves as grasshoppers in comparison (Numbers 13:31-33).

Israel went the way of the ten spies; they went so far as to express the desire to return to Egypt and slavery (Numbers 14:1-4). Caleb, along with Joshua, the spy from Ephraim, begged Israel to reconsider, affirming the goodness of the land and that YHWH would give it to them, confident that if YHWH was with them it would not matter how strong their foes might seem (Numbers 14:5-9). But it was too late; Israelites sought to stone Joshua and Caleb (Numbers 14:10).

Consider Israel’s perspective. The reality “on the ground” is never in doubt: the ten spies recognize that the land is of excellent quality with great produce; Caleb and Joshua recognize that the inhabitants of the land are numerous, strong, and living in well-fortified cities. The Israelites have just left slavery in Egypt; they did not have the resources and strength among themselves to overcome their enemies’ advantages. They, as with the ten spies, assess the situation as it looks on the ground; their response is entirely natural according to such a perspective. If it is their strength versus their opponents’ strength, they will die in battle. Such seems quite realistic.

And then there was the faith motivating Caleb and Joshua. If all Israel could rely on was its own resources and strength then Caleb and Joshua would agree that any invasion was a fool’s errand. But Caleb and Joshua remembered that YHWH had just redeemed them from Egyptian slavery, from the very Egypt which dominated Canaan and boasted the strongest empire of the day. If YHWH could rescue Israel from Egypt, then YHWH could dispossess the strong Canaanite nations from before Israel (Numbers 14:9). No, Israel would not obtain Canaan because of their own abilities. They could only obtain it if they trusted in YHWH.

But Israel was not trusting in YHWH. They were rebelling against Him! He promised that He would bring them into the land; they wanted to go back to Egypt, to abort YHWH’s mission halfway through (Exodus 3:7-9, Numbers 14:1-4). To return to Egypt would be to forsake YHWH and everything which He had done for Israel. They even wished that they had died in Egypt or the wilderness; such is how little they trusted in YHWH or thought of the efficacy of His power in this situation.

To this day there is a place for assessment of the situation “on the ground.” In general there is consensus about the situation of the faith “on the ground.” Its influence, however strong it may have been in the past, seems to be waning. Church membership and participation is declining. More and more people identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Strong secular and spiritual forces attempt to subvert the faith and marginalize those who proclaim it. Following Jesus seems to be a quaint relic of the past, a historical legacy many feel is better to discard. Likewise, there is general agreement that by our own resources and strength it will prove nearly impossible to turn the tide on these trends. We can see the “post-Christian” secular future across the pond in Europe where it has been going on for longer than here. “Realistically” we have reason for lamentation and mourning. “Sober assessments” recognize the seeming futility of our endeavors. “On the ground,” it would seem that we should make sure to ask the last person to leave to turn off the lights.

Yet such assessments, however “realistic” or “sober” they seem to be, do not take into account the existence of God and all He has done for us. They do not take into account that “realistically” Christianity should never have existed, and even if it had been started, by all “realistic” scenarios would have died out a long time ago. Jesus has won the victory; Jesus has overcome the world (John 16:31-33). The forces of darkness in this world are arrayed against us and they are strong (Ephesians 6:12); nevertheless, He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).

Many Christians have fallen into the trap of cynicism and pessimism dressed up as being “honest” or “realistic” about the manifold problems facing Christianity and the church. We do well to remember that the spies and Israel were the people of God, and they were being quite “realistic” and “honest” about the situations they were facing. Yet God punished that generation for rebelling against Him; they ironically got their wish, for they all but Caleb and Joshua would die in the wilderness and would not inherit the land (Numbers 14:10-35). The ten spies died by plague (Numbers 14:36-37). It would be the next generation who would trust in YHWH and obtain the promised land, and Caleb and Joshua would lead them to victory (Joshua 1:1-24:33). We must remember this because what the Israelites thought was “honesty” and “realism” betrayed a lack of faith and rebelliousness (1 Corinthians 10:1-12)! YHWH had already proven Himself by delivering them from Egyptian slavery and providing for them to that moment. Likewise God has proven Himself to us through the life, death, resurrection, and lordship of Jesus His Son (Romans 1:4, Romans 5:6-11, 8:17-25). He is able to do more than we can ask or think (Ephesians 3:20-21). The only reason we have ever had the opportunity to hear the Gospel ourselves is on account of His great power working through His servants; if it were only ever based on the resources and strength of the faithful the message would not get very far!

The world gives many reasons for cynicism, despair, doubt, and pessimism. It always has; it always will. Christians are called to put their trust in God, recognizing that the victory comes through Jesus even in difficult circumstances, and that the ways of the world are folly to God (1 Corinthians 1:19-25, 1 Peter 1:3-9). The decision is up to us. Are we going to give in to the realistic assessment and be driven to cynicism and despair as the ten spies and Israel, proving to have more faith in our perception and the ways of the world than in our Creator and Redeemer, and be found in rebellion? Or will we prove willing to put our trust in God in Christ, aware of the long odds and impossibility of our mission in worldly terms, but ever mindful of God’s strength and faithfulness, and to put our hope in God and His strength, as Caleb and Joshua did? May we maintain faith and hope and not give in to cynicism and despair, and obtain the victory in Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Linen Cloths

Simon Peter therefore also cometh, following him, and entered into the tomb; and he beholdeth the linen cloths lying, and the napkin, that was upon his head, not lying with the linen cloths, but rolled up in a place by itself (John 20:6-7).

The action is heating up; the story is reaching its climax. The action becomes the focus of the story; extraneous details would just clutter the story, detracting and distracting from the important events taking place. Yet the details that are given prove all the more necessary to ground the story. So it is with John’s narrative of the resurrection.

John relates the events of that Sunday morning in John 20:1-18. In those eighteen verses Mary arrives at the tomb, sees it empty, goes back to tell Peter and John, who themselves run to the tomb, see it empty, then leave, and then Mary (who ostensibly has come back along with Peter and John) looks in again, speaks to angels, speaks to the risen Jesus, and then goes back to the disciples to announce the Lord’s resurrection. This passage is certainly marked by unrelenting action!

Some details are provided despite the fast pace of the story, and one particular detail is associated with Peter and John’s visitation to the tomb in John 20:4-7 (as well as in terms of Peter in Luke 24:12): the othonion, the linen cloths, were lying on the ground, and the soudarion, normally a handkerchief but also used to cover the head of a corpse (cf. Luke 19:20, John 11:44, Acts 19:12), was in its own place and rolled up. They were the only things left in the otherwise empty tomb.

Today we tend to dress up the dead in their best clothing or in some sort of clothing most special to them. In first century Judea it was customary to wrap the dead body in strips of linen cloths (othonion) and covering the face with the soudarion. John pointed out how Jesus’ body was wrapped in the linen cloths with plenty of aloes and spices by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (John 19:40). It is clear that both Peter and John found it odd that the linen cloths and the face-cloth were left behind, and it certainly made an impression on them; John includes the detail in his Gospel, and if Luke had spoken with Simon Peter in writing his Gospel (Luke 1:1-3), it is reasonable to believe that Peter would have also mentioned that detail. But why is it so noteworthy?

The presence of the linen cloths and face-cloth are highly emphasized in defenses of the resurrection of Jesus; it is the reason Peter and John saw and believed Jesus was raised from the dead even though they had not yet understood how the Scriptures had spoken of it (John 20:8). We must keep in mind that a Roman guard was present at the tomb (Matthew 27:64-66); if Jesus’ body had been stolen away from the tomb, it would make no sense to unwrap all the linen cloths and the face-cloth, roll up the face-cloth, and then run away with the body; every additional second of the heist would increase the odds of being seen and/or captured in the act. Grave robbers would just take the body with the linen cloths to their lair and then take it all apart. Even if the story the soldiers said after being paid off to say it had any truth, that the disciples stole the body while they slept (Matthew 28:11-15), it would make no sense for them to leave the linen cloths; how long would it have taken before some of the Roman soldiers would wake up (as if they would ever be caught sleeping, the punishment for which was normally death!)? The best explanation for the presence of the linen cloths is that the One wrapped in it took them off and carefully rolled up the face-cloth and set it aside as He departed. The linen cloths and the face-cloth do provide a wonderful testimony to the resurrection of Jesus!

Thus Jesus left the linen cloths and face-cloth as He departed the tomb in the resurrection. Did He just leave them to prove He is risen from the dead? Or is there perhaps greater meaning and significance to the linen cloths?

And YHWH said unto Moses, “Speak unto Aaron thy brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place within the veil, before the mercy-seat which is upon the ark; that he die not: for I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy-seat. Herewith shall Aaron come into the holy place: with a young bullock for a sin-offering, and a ram for a burnt-offering. He shall put on the holy linen coat, and he shall have the linen breeches upon his flesh, and shall be girded with the linen girdle, and with the linen mitre shall he be attired: they are the holy garments; and he shall bathe his flesh in water, and put them on…And Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting, and shall put off the linen garments, which he put on when he went into the holy place, and shall leave them there: and he shall bathe his flesh in water in a holy place, and put on his garments, and come forth, and offer his burnt-offering and the burnt-offering of the people, and make atonement for himself and for the people” (Leviticus 16:2-4, 23-24).

In Leviticus 16 God provides legislation regarding the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the only day on which the High Priest would enter the Most Holy Place to make atonement first for his own sins and then for the sins of Israel (cf. Hebrews 9:1-7). The High Priest would wear special consecrated linen garments for the occasion, and after he would depart from the Most Holy Place he would take off those consecrated garments, purify himself with water, and then put on other garments to continue to offer sacrifices on behalf of Israel. Therefore the linen garments which the High Priest wore into the Most Holy Place to offer blood for the atonement of Israel were only to be worn there and then taken off.

As the Hebrew author makes clear in Hebrews 7:1-9:28, Jesus is our new High Priest in the order of Melchizedek, having secured atonement through the offering of Himself. Through the details he provides about Jesus’ resurrection John is telling the same story. The angels sat where Jesus’ head and feet lay, evoking the cherubim over the mercy-seat on top of the Ark of the Covenant, placed in the Most Holy Place and where the High Priest would take that blood (John 20:11-12; cf. Exodus 25:18-22, Leviticus 16:11-16, 1 Kings 6:23-28). In this way the empty tomb is as the Most Holy Place; Jesus’ body is not just the sacrifice that makes the rock slab holy since His body lay upon it, but is the fulfillment of the Ark of the Covenant itself, bearing witness to the covenant God is establishing with all mankind through Him, and the One in whom God is communing with mankind (Leviticus 6:26-29, 1 Timothy 2:5, Hebrews 1:1-3, 10:5-10). Therefore, the presence of the linen cloths is fitting; as the High Priest in the order of Aaron would take off his garment once he had provided the blood for atonement in the Most Holy Place, so Jesus as our High Priest in the order of Melchizedek left His linen cloths behind after He had finished making atonement in the fulfillment of the Most Holy Place, the temple of His body (cf. John 2:20-22, Hebrews 9:1-14). The Hebrew author speaks of all of this in terms of Jesus’ death; John reminds us that His resurrection is no less important for our atonement. In the resurrection and upon His ascension He is declared the Son of God, the High Priest in the order of Melchizedek, Lord, and Christ (Romans 1:4; cf. Psalm 110:1-7, Daniel 7:13-14). Jesus’ death for forgiveness of sins remains crucial yet incomplete without “the rest of the story.” John makes this powerfully clear with the details he provides in his account of the resurrection.

The linen cloths were left behind; our High Priest has offered Himself as the atonement for our sins and was accepted before the Father. The tomb is otherwise empty; He is Risen; He is Lord. Let us be ever thankful for the atonement of our High Priest and let us serve Him in His Kingdom!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Speaking for Understanding

But now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, unless I speak to you either by way of revelation, or of knowledge, or of prophesying, or of teaching? Even things without life, giving a voice, whether pipe or harp, if they give not a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped? For if the trumpet give an uncertain voice, who shall prepare himself for war? So also ye, unless ye utter by the tongue speech easy to understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye will be speaking into the air (1 Corinthians 14:6-9).

There are times when people practice something so long or in such depth that the basic point and purpose has been forgotten. This seemed to plague the Christians of Corinth in terms of the assembly.

Difficulties abound in 1 Corinthians 12:1-14:40. From the text we can tell that God has poured His Spirit out upon the Corinthians and they are able to exercise spiritual gifts. God gave those gifts with one specific purpose: to build up the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Ephesians 4:11-16). In order to build up the church, the Body of Christ, those gifts would have to be used in love primarily for the benefit and encouragement of others. Yet it seems that the Corinthians were much more excited about the ability to use and manifest spiritual gifts than to exercise them for profitable functions. Christians would speak in tongues, that is, foreign languages, with none to interpret. More than one would do so at the same time. Perhaps some people were trying to prophesy at the same time as well. It seemed like madness!

Thus Paul is attempting to set the Corinthians straight about how the gifts should be exercised in an orderly and profitable manner. Love for one another should inform everything they do, especially the exercise of spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 13:1-13). Yet Paul feels compelled to spend much time in 1 Corinthians 14:1-26 on one primary point: all things must be done for building up. The only way that such building up can take place is when those who hear actually understand what is being said.

Part of this argument is seen in 1 Corinthians 14:6-9. Paul wants to know: if he comes speaking in a tongue (e.g. German, Scythian, or the like), what benefit will they gain (1 Corinthians 14:6)? He would have to come with some specific message from God which they could understand in their own language. He then provides parallels with instruments: how can one know what a pipe or horn is playing if there is no distinction in the notes? If a trumpet is not sounded out boldly, who will get ready for war (the trumpet being a summons for an army; 1 Corinthians 14:7-8)? The point is emphasized in 1 Corinthians 14:9: the Corinthians need to speak in comprehensible language. They must speak so as to be understood or they are just speaking into the air. Speaking into the air is not edifying.

In their zeal for the exercise of spiritual gifts the Corinthians missed out on the core purpose of what they had come together to do: build one another up. God had not given them spiritual gifts merely for the purpose of using them haphazardly. He certainly did not grant them for them to speak so as to not be understood. He gave them so that Christians could encourage and build one another up. Edification demands understanding.

It is lamentable that many who would claim these gifts remain for the church persist in the same distortion of God’s purposes as the Corinthians did. Nevertheless, Paul envisions the day when that which was prophesied “in part” would be subsumed in its completion and thus see the end of prophecy and speaking in tongues, and so it occurred with the demise of the Apostles (1 Corinthians 13:8-10). Nevertheless there is much for us to gain from this passage; edification and understanding remain high priorities for God’s people to this day!

Even though “speaking in tongues” through supernatural means empowered by the Holy Spirit may be a in the past, many are essentially “speaking in tongues” in the assembly. Some speak in the “tongue” of unnecessarily complicated language or over-reliance on Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, seemingly more interested in impressing fellow Christians with their studiousness, Bible knowledge, or fancy speaking than in actually facilitating comprehension and thus edification. Frequently well-meaning Christians also speak in the “tongue” of “Christianese,” using jargon understood only by their fellow Christians. Who else knows what a “gospel meeting” is? How does the “watery grave of baptism” sound to someone who is not well-versed in the language of the church? It might sound to them like a horror film! Granted, there are times when it is best to use very precise words, refer to Hebrew or Greek, or use “church language,” but whenever we do so we must make sure to explain what we mean so there might be understanding.

Edification demands comprehension: this is the theologically compelling aspect to 1 Corinthians 14:1-25. Far too often “edification” is defined as “a warm fuzzy spiritual feeling received when going through some kind of spiritual experience.” That seems to be the very definition the Corinthians are using, and for that Paul chastises them. True edification demands actual comprehension of God’s message; when God’s message in Christ of salvation, redemption, righteousness, and hope is understood, it builds up to strengthen faith not just in the assembly but throughout life. An experience may feel great on Sunday, but what will sustain your faith on Monday? God intends for us to know Jesus His Son so as to believe in Him and do what He says (John 20:31, 1 John 1:1-2:6); thus, to build one another up demands that we instruct and exhort in His truth.

Paul’s presupposition remains profound: since edification demands comprehension, and all things we do in the assembly are to be unto edification (1 Corinthians 14:3-5, 9, 26), it is clear that God intends for His message to be communicated in comprehensible ways, and thus that all men should understand the truth about God in Christ. This truth must never be taken for granted; far too often in human history some have attempted to keep others from having a full knowledge of what God has made known. In the past people would assemble to hear God’s message proclaimed in a foreign tongue, Latin, and none to truly interpret. To this day some demand Scripture to be understood only in the straitjacket of antiquated language, according to a church tradition, or assume that since they are just “regular” people that the message of Scripture cannot be understood by them but only by specially religiously trained or called individuals. 1 Corinthians 14:6-9 proves that none of this ought to be! God has always intended for His message to be understood. He wants it to be communicated so that the people hearing can understand it and put it to work in their own lives. He communicated to people in the language of their time in ways familiar to them. We do well to take this message to heart, seek to communicate the Gospel to one another and those outside of Christ in ways they are able to understand so that all can be built up in Christ. Let us speak so as to be understood to the glory of God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Son of God

I will tell of the decree: YHWH said unto me, “Thou art my son; This day have I begotten thee” (Psalm 2:7).

Israel found itself in a good land that happened to be the crossroads of the ancient Near Eastern world. To that end Israel was surrounded by enemies: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, larger powers yet further away; Philistia, Phoenicia, Aram, Ammon, Moab, Edom, Amalek, Midian who might be a bit smaller but all quite near. Israel wanted a king to lead their armies onto the field (1 Samuel 8:20); as Israel grew in power and prestige in the days of David and Solomon, many among the nations would conspire against Israel and seek its downfall.

Yet Israel had a benefit not available to these other nations: their God YHWH was the One True God. The nations might rage against YHWH and the anointed king of Israel, and seek to break free from Israelite control, yet YHWH laughts at such designs (Psalm 2:1-4). YHWH in His anger will let the nations know of the decree: the king of Israel is God’s chosen man, adopted as a son, and he will have the strength to break the nations and keep them under subjection (Psalm 2:5-9). The kings and the people of the nations would do well to heed wisdom, serve YHWH with fear, and give proper respect to the king of Israel whom He anointed (Psalm 2:10-12).

In the days of the United Monarchy of David and Solomon the second Psalm would have been a triumphant proclamation in Israel, accurately presenting the state of affairs. David and Solomon, both anointed kings, sat on the throne in succession (1 Samuel 16:12-13, 1 Kings 1:39). God loved both men, and in the ancient Near Eastern world kings were understood to have a special relationship with the divine, and could be seen as (adopted) sons of God (1 Samuel 13:14, 2 Samuel 12:24-25). YHWH had given David victory over all his foes and Solomon peace in his days (2 Samuel 8:1-18, 1 Kings 4:20-25). Thus the nations should have heeded YHWH, respected the King of Israel, and bring relevant tribute.

In the days of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah there were times when the nations were subject to either Israel or Judah but also plenty of instances when the nations rebelled, and often successfully, from Israelite or Judahite rule (e.g. 2 Kings 1:1, 8:20-22). Since Israel and Judah forsook YHWH, YHWH allowed the nations first to rebel, and then despoil, and ultimately destroy both kingdoms (2 Kings 17:1-23, 24:1-25:21). If Israel looked back to the glory days of the past, the second psalm would seem bitter; many looked forward to a day when the nations would learn again that YHWH was God over Israel and they were a force with which to be reckoned.

After the exile Israel understood the second Psalm to be Messianic and waited for YHWH to send His Anointed King to again rule over Israel and the nations. As Israel suffered under the yoke of the Persians, Ptolemies, Seleucids, and Romans in turn, their yearning for the fulfillment of the second Psalm would only grow greater and deeper.

When Jesus of Nazareth ministered among the Israelites there was some excitement about whether He could be the one concerning whom God had spoken. In the end Israelites called Him the “Son of God” in accusation or mockery: He claimed to be so, in their view falsely, and they would only “believe” in Him if He did what they expected their king to do: defeat the Romans and the other nations (cf. Matthew 26:63, 27:40, 43). He did not act according to their expectations, and so they kept looking for another. Within forty years Israel would lose their city and their Temple; they were in a worse place than before. Some in physical Israel still look for the king of the second Psalm to come.

Yet there remained many in Israel, and a growing number among the nations, who confessed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God. Whereas kings like David or Solomon were not actually sons of God, Christians claimed that Jesus was actually the Son of God: God in the flesh, the imprint of the divine character, the fulness of God in bodily form (John 1:1, 14, Colossians 2:9, Hebrews 1:3). They quoted Psalm 2:7 in terms of Jesus (Acts 13:33). In their view the nations did rage against YHWH and His Christ, and one of those nations was physical Israel itself (Acts 4:23-31)! How could this be?

Israel expected the coming King to be like the kings of the past. Yet God was doing something greater with His Son. Previous kings defeated the nations, but the nations were still around and did not give YHWH the glory. Through His Son God overcame the forces of spiritual darkness that empowered the rage of the nations (Ephesians 6:10-18, Colossians 2:14-15, Revelation 12:1-14:20). God granted His Son authority over heaven and earth just as had been promised (Psalm 2:8-9). People near and far from all sorts of nations came to serve the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and to confess His name (Colossians 1:5-6).

Yet how can Jesus be the Son of God? The Apostle Paul focused on the idea that on “this day” God “begat” His Son in Psalm 2:7 and connected it to the resurrection: by raising Jesus from the dead on the third day, God declares Jesus the Son of God in power (Acts 13:30-34, Romans 1:3-4). The Apostle John frequently affirms Jesus as the “only begotten” Son of God (John 1:18, 3:16, 18). In past times many emphasized that Jesus was “begotten not made”: however the Son proceeded from the Father, He was not a created being. Just as humans beget humans but create other things, so God “begets” God, but creates other things. Whether “only begotten” (Greek monogenes) means that the Son is actually begotten of the Father or whether it is a way of speaking of uniqueness in relationship is a matter of discussion and dispute to this day. Regardless Jesus remains God the Word, fully God, co-eternal with the Father and the Spirit, and active in the creation (John 1:1-14).

Israel had some good days with an anointed king, but they did not last, and they would never come in the same way again. God through David was pointing forward to the actual Son of God, manifest in the flesh as Jesus of Nazareth, who would overcome sin and death through His death and resurrection, thus be declared the Son of God in power, and given authority over all the nations for all time. Rome has fallen; so have a hundred other kingdoms; yet Jesus remains Lord. Let us confess that Jesus is the Son of God to the praise of God the Father, put our trust in Him, and be His obedient servants!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Relationships and Sacrifices

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

Authorization is one thing; proper prioritization is quite another.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry