The Feast of Dedication

And it was the feast of the dedication at Jerusalem: it was winter; and Jesus was walking in the temple in Solomon’s porch (John 10:22-23).

Prophecy was being fulfilled, but no one was celebrating.

Daniel had spoken regarding a “king of the north” whose heart would be set against the holy covenant; he would defile the Temple and the fortress, setting up an abomination that makes desolate (Daniel 11:7-45). Around 375 years after Daniel spoke those words to Darius the Mede, Antiochus IV Epiphanes was king of Seleucid Empire. After a military campaign against the Ptolemies of Egypt, he entered Jerusalem and took all of the silver and gold from the Temple. Two years later, he declared that everyone in his empire must maintain the same Hellenistic customs. On the fifteenth day of the Jewish month of Chislev, which falls somewhere between mid-November and mid-December in our calendar, in 167 BCE, they installed a statue of the Olympian Zeus in the Holy of Holies of the Temple in Jerusalem; ten days later, they offered swine flesh upon the altar. Anyone who would continue to practice the Israelite religion and seek to abide by the Law of Moses would be condemned to death.

Such were trying times indeed. As is often the case, the majority just went along with the new rules: some Israelites were already turning into Hellenists, and the severe consequences for following the Law of Moses were enough to give most people pause. Considering the circumstances, it would not be difficult to imagine Israel going the way of every other nation: absorbed into greater Hellenism, setting aside whatever religious distinctives they might have maintained and becoming good pagans like the rest. This was exactly what Antiochus IV Epiphanes wanted, and he was willing to do whatever it took to get it done.

But not all Israelites just went along with it. The king’s officers began to attempt to enforce the edict outside of Jerusalem, and arrived in Modein, a small village about seventeen miles northwest of Jerusalem. A priest named Mattathias and his five sons had moved there from Jerusalem; when called upon to sacrifice to idols, he refused, and killed a Jew who offered sacrifice along with the king’s official. He and his sons fled the town and went into the wilderness; soon, many others who refused to go along with the king’s edict joined them. After Mattathias died in 166, his son Judah, called the Maccabee (“the Hammer”), took command. He began a war which we would today call an insurgency against Antiochus and the Seleucids. By effectively using guerrilla tactics and making wise strategic decisions, he and his small force defeated the Seleucids time and time again. For a time, the Seleucids retreated in order to obtain reinforcements. Judah and his associates took the opportunity to come to Jerusalem.

They found the Temple in disarray. The sanctuary was desolate; the altar was profaned; its gates were burned. Judah commanded men to cleanse the Temple and re-establish the proper altars and instruments. On the twenty-fifth day of Chislev in the year 164 BCE, exactly three years after the Seleucids had defiled the Temple, this small insurgent band of Jews offered sacrifice on the new burnt altar they had installed. The people then celebrated the re-dedication of that altar for eight days, akin to the time of re-dedication of the Temple in the days of Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 29:17).

The re-dedication of the Temple was an important moment, but the war was far from over. There would be many more battles, more than twenty more years of conflict with the Seleucids, and Judah himself would fall in battle. Ultimately, however, the insurgency led by the five sons of Mattathias would defeat the Seleucid Empire, one of the three great powers of the day; Judah’s brothers and their children after them would rule as priest-kings over an independent Israel for about one hundred years, the only independent Israelite state between the days of the kings of Israel and Judah and 1947 CE.

The Israelites would begin to celebrate the re-dedication of the Temple and the events surrounding it as the Festival of Lights, or the Feast of Dedication (in Hebrew, Hanukkah). The events we have described are narrated in 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, and Josephus; the description of Hanukkah is found particularly in 1 Maccabees 4:36-58, 2 Maccabees 1:7-9, 10:1-9, and in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews 12.7.6-7. A later tradition in the Talmud alleges that, during the re-dedication, there was only enough olive oil to light the lamp (Hebrew menorah) for one day, but it miraculously burned for eight days.

While the Feast of Dedication was not explicitly commanded by God and is not found in Scripture, nor could it be, since there was no prophet in the land at that time (cf. 1 Maccabees 4:46), the reasons for observing it are understandable. Judah and those around him ascribed all glory to God; they knew that their insurgency, on its own, had little hope. Daniel foresaw that not all would go along with the king of the north; a remnant would stand firm and take action, being refined and purified through their experience (Daniel 11:32-36). Judah and his people believed that the God of Israel was the One True God, and He loved His people Israel and would provide for them. It most certainly seemed as if He did; they wanted to celebrate the re-dedication of the Temple and to give honor to God in their newly independent country.

Yet not all was well; Mattathias and his sons were Levites, not of Judah or David. Maccabean priest-kings might have ruled in Jerusalem, but the people knew that God had promised a Messiah from the house of David. After 63 BCE, when the Romans took over from the Maccabean rulers, the Israelites hoped all the more diligently for that promised Messiah.

Almost two hundred years after the re-dedication of the Temple, near the very spot where these events took place, Jesus of Nazareth visited Jerusalem during the Feast of Dedication. He was walking in the same Temple, near the very spot where these events took place. Israelites came to Him, wanting to know if He really was the Christ, the Messiah (John 10:24). Will Jesus be for the Israelites of His day what Judah was for a previous generation? Would Jesus stand up against the oppressive pagan power and be the true fulfillment of Israelite expectation, re-establishing the Davidic monarchy from Jerusalem, ruling there forever?

Jesus would not satisfy the expectations of the Israelites, but He was the promised Messiah of Israel. He would not provide liberation from the Romans, but He would provide liberation from sin and death through His death and resurrection (Romans 5:6-11, 8:1-3). He did not re-dedicate the physical Temple in Jerusalem; in fact, He predicted its downfall (Matthew 24:1-36). He did, however, “re-dedicate” the Temple of His body in the resurrection (John 2:18-22). Jesus did not set up a throne in Jerusalem, ruling over the nations of the earth from there, but He did receive all authority in heaven and on earth, and beginning in Jerusalem His Lordship and Kingdom was proclaimed, and the message would spread to all nations throughout all time (Acts 1:8).

Hanukkah may not be one of the feasts mentioned in Leviticus, but it maintained great importance for the Israelites of Jesus’ day. Without the firm stand of the Maccabees, to whom would Jesus have been able to go two hundred years later? The Hanukkah story of oppression, liberation, and dedication to God connects to God’s whole story regarding Israel, and in so doing, connects to Jesus and the Gospel story as well. Let us praise God for the Christ and the Temple of His body, dedicated for all of us for all time!

Ethan R. Longhenry

A King of Their Own Making

Jesus therefore perceiving that they were about to come and take him by force, to make him king, withdrew again into the mountain himself alone (John 6:15).

It seemed as if everything was working out the way it should.

Jesus had come as the Messiah, the Son of God and God the Son (John 1:1-51). The angels spoke of His kingship from His birth (cf. Luke 1:32-33, 2:11). He was going about doing signs and wonders, healing people, and most recently fed five thousand people with five barley loaves and two fishes (cf. John 2:1-6:13). The people perceived that He was the Prophet who was to come into the world: this is the Messiah (John 6:14)! They wanted to make Him their king!

Jesus knew this, and yet Jesus withdrew from them (John 6:15). At what would seem to be the crowning moment of His ministry, He goes alone to the mountain.

So why would Jesus avoid being made king if He came to be the King of the Jews? The answer, in a sense, comes from Jesus’ response: He withdraws to the mountain by Himself, praying to His Father (Matthew 14:23). He is seeking to do the will of His Father, and takes His cues from God, not man.

This is certainly not the way things normally work in the world. Today we see no end of people who try to obtain fame, glory, and honor through almost any means available. Positive publicity, negative publicity, whatever: as long as there is publicity, things seem to be good. We can only imagine how our modern media environment would have handled Jesus, His story, and His work had He come today as opposed to two thousand years ago. Perhaps there was good reason why the first century was the appropriate time!

Yet Jesus acutely understands the main challenge with the way worldly fame and fortune works: when one becomes famous, one loses control. When one obtains a great fortune, in a sense, one loses control. To obtain power may seem like getting control, but in a real sense, one loses control of one’s image and direction. One’s persona starts being fashioned by those who have made them famous, prosperous, and/or powerful.

Had Jesus submitted to the will of the people, He would have become a king in their own making. The Jews were expecting their Messiah to come and rid them of the Romans and re-establish the Davidic monarchy centered in Jerusalem. There would have been little tolerance for Jesus’ real purpose and what the Father sought for Him to do in that environment and with those expectations. He did not come to be the Messiah of the people’s imagination; He came to be the Messiah of whom God had spoken who would fulfill God’s purposes.

God’s path for Jesus and His Lordship would prove much tougher: He lived humbly, served others, was arrested, suffered greatly, and was executed as a common criminal, raised in power on the third day, ascended to Heaven after another forty days, and His rule would be proclaimed by His twelve followers and those who took up their cross to follow after Jesus because of that proclamation. His Kingdom would become more substantial and real because it was not physically substantial; His rule was more certain because it derived from God in Heaven and not from the whim and dictates of man. By withdrawing from the people, He reconnects with the Father and maintains His integrity and the distinctiveness of His purpose and proclamation.

There is much we can gain from Jesus’ example. We find ourselves constantly tempted and pressured to live our lives according to the way the world works. It is tempting to want to gain prominence so as to serve Jesus on a grander scale. But when we try to do so according to the ways of the world, we lose control of our image and the story which we are trying to tell; it becomes the possession of the media, our society and culture, or other forces, and it gets distorted into the story they want to tell. There are moments when it is best for us to withdraw and commune with God in Christ, maintaining our integrity and distinctiveness of the Gospel message which we seek to proclaim. There is always value and wisdom in seeking to proclaim the message of Christ the way He would want us to proclaim it, and to live the Way of Christ according to the way He would have us live it (cf. 1 John 2:1-6). In all things we ought to be rooted in Jesus and take our direction from Him (Colossians 2:1-10).

The Israelites wanted to make Jesus a king of their own making according to their own desires; Jesus resisted this, choosing the harder but ultimately more satisfying path of being the King according to God’s desire. As His servants, let us always proclaim and magnify Him in His own way, and let us not allow ourselves or others to turn Jesus into a king or other figure of their own making for their own purposes. Jesus is Lord, not us, and let us honor Him properly!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Proclamation

And there were shepherds in the same country abiding in the field, and keeping watch by night over their flock. And an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people: for there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this is the sign unto you: Ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men in whom he is well pleased” (Luke 2:8-14).

Thanks to generations of traditions, whenever people think about the birth of Jesus and its meaning, various Christmas themes invariably come to mind. We imagine the stereotypical nativity scenes; movies parody the devotion that many have to the “baby Jesus” that often is not communicated toward the Jesus of the rest of the Gospels. Many others seem to disassociate the “Christmas story” from the “Easter story” regarding Jesus.

Yet, as the angel’s proclamation makes clear, one cannot separate out the “baby Jesus” from the Jesus of the rest of the Gospels. One cannot disassociate the story of Jesus’ birth from the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and lordship. From the beginning, the angels declare Jesus’ identity: the son of David, the Savior, the Christ, Lord. This is a message of good tidings of great joy to all the people; a Gospel message, the beginning of the fulfillment of all the promises God has made to Israel through the prophets. Sure, the “baby Jesus” has not yet done any of these things. But the Incarnation of the Christ is complete; it really is the first miracle surrounding Jesus, and it paves the way for everything moving forward.

There is a strong temptation to minimize the birth story of Jesus; it is only in two of the four Gospels, it is associated with the Christmas observance and all sorts of things that do not come from the pages of Scripture, and there does not seem to be much in the way of redemption in the story. And yet the Incarnation is pivotal for everything that follows: God has taken on flesh and dwells among mankind (John 1:1, 14). He can now live the life He is to lead; He can teach what He must teach, do what He must do, and guide the grand story of God toward its ultimate triumph and the source of hope for all generations. Let none be deceived: there is no Golgotha, no cross, without the manger in Bethlehem. Without the events that transpired in Bethlehem on that evening, there could not have been an empty tomb. since there would never have been a body within it. There is no crucifixion or resurrection without the Incarnation; without the beginning of the Gospel, there really is no Gospel.

The Incarnation is deeply tied into the story, and its details bear this out. The angel’s proclamation does not come to Herod, the chief priests, the Sadducees, the Pharisees, or even city-dwellers; it comes to shepherds, the humble stock from whom Moses and David derived (Exodus 3:1-3, 1 Samuel 16:11-13). As with the shepherds, so with Jesus: He would maintain His ministry mostly on the fringes, amongst the villages of Galilee, speaking the language of rural life. Furthermore, Jesus is not in a palace, or in a crib bedecked with gold, but in a stable, amongst the animals, lying in a manger expropriated for the purpose, born to a carpenter and his peasant wife. His origins could hardly be more humble, and thus was the spirit in Him throughout His ministry (cf. Matthew 20:25-28). He would fulfill all the things spoken about the Christ, but not in the expected ways. He would manifest all spiritual power, but it would not be directed in the standard ways the world would have expected, and particularly toward the ends that Israel would have desired. The Child born in humble surroundings, proclaimed upon by angels to shepherds, would lead by serving, direct in humility, and reign with power on account of sacrifice.

The whole story is presaged at the very beginning; one can preach the whole Gospel message based upon what is found in Jesus’ birth account. God the Son became the Immanuel child and the Immanuel man, and through Him we have hope in the message of good tidings presented in His name. Let us make the same proclamation as the angels did that evening in Bethlehem, and honor Jesus of Nazareth as the son of David, the Savior, Christ the Lord, as thankful for the Incarnation as we are for His life, teachings, deeds, crucifixion, and resurrection that proceeded from it!

Ethan R. Longhenry

When They Ask

“And it shall come to pass, when ye are come to the land which the LORD will give you, according as he hath promised, that ye shall keep this service. And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, ‘What mean ye by this service?’ that ye shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses.'”
And the people bowed the head and worshipped (Exodus 12:25-27).

After so many years, things were proceeding very quickly.

God had been terrifying the Egyptians with plague after plague. The final plague was about to come upon them; Israel would soon be released. Moses is preparing the people for their imminent departure.

One would think, in such circumstances, that there was enough to deal with for the present. Mobilizing a large group of people for a treacherous journey is a daunting proposition. And yet we see Moses providing legislation regarding the Passover and its expected future observance in the land of Canaan! What is going on?

Moses understands the immense significance and meaning involved in what God is doing for Israel. Yes, God is delivering this specific generation of Israelites out of the land of Egypt, out of bondage, and toward deliverance and the land of promise. But this is the story of God and Israel and the basis of everything that will come later. God is the God of Israel because of His promises to their fathers and because He delivered them from the land of Egypt. God loves Israel, and that love was declared powerfully in that deliverance. God is worthy of all honor, praise, glory, and obedience, because He is the Creator and acted powerfully against the Egyptians in ways no other god ever even claimed to act.

Therefore, the Passover was not merely for this generation of Israelites. The Passover was for every generation of Israelites as a way of continuing the story of Israel and its God. Each successive generation, in turn, would come to an understanding of the God of Israel and the acts of deliverance He wrought for their ancestors. For those Israelites enjoying the blessings of the land of Israel, it was a moment to give thanks and to appreciate what was done to allow them to enjoy the life they lived. For those who found themselves cast out from the land of Israel, the remembrance fostered the cherished hope that God would again act powerfully in their generation for their deliverance as He had so long ago.

The observance is very intentional, designed to be full of meaning. It is the perfect means of communicating a message across the generations: children will participate and will want to know what is going on. God has provided Israel with the most important teachable moment for successive generations: if the children do not understand why they should honor the God of Israel as their God, the time will come when they will have no reason not to turn their backs on Him and to follow after other gods. If they do not understand what makes the God of Israel distinctive and special, worthy of all honor and glory, they will not honor or glorify Him.

That generation of Israelites did not prove to be as far-sighted in their understanding; they would end up dying in the wilderness. The next generation would enter the land of Israel; but of the generation afterward it could be said that they did not know the LORD or the work He had done for Israel (Judges 2:10). Little wonder, then, that we read of all the sinfulness, rebelliousness, and idolatry of that and successive generations in the days of the Judges. Far later, in the times of the later kings of Judah, we are told that they observed the Passover in ways not seen since the days of old (cf. 2 Chronicles 30:1-27, 35:1-19). If the Passover is not being observed, then Israel is not remembering the act of deliverance which God wrought for them. If the Passover is not being observed, then the next generation has no opportunity to ask for understanding as to what it means. If the next generation never has that opportunity, they never learn about who God is and what He has done for Israel. All of a sudden, Israel’s idolatrous and rebellious history makes more sense.

Religious experience in activities that are laden with spiritual meaning are extremely important. They remind us of God’s saving acts of deliverance, His goodness, His power, His love. They are designed to help us to keep a proper perspective, always thankful for what God has done, remembering why we honor God as the Lord of our lives and how all things are to flow from that submission before Him. Yet, just as importantly, such experiences give children the opportunity to learn about God and what is really important. God has provided such teachable moments for us so that we may have opportunity to impart such understanding to our children as we have received from those who have gone on before us. This is not a task to be off-loaded upon someone else; we are given the opportunity to explain to our own children the reason why we believe God is Lord and how He has powerfully acted in order to provide deliverance and salvation for all mankind.

But that conversation can only happen if we are participating in God’s work and participate in those actions invested with spiritual significance. That conversation can only happen when we really believe that God is Lord of our lives and that all things should flow from our submission to Him. Our children can only see the power of God’s saving activity when they see it not just explained but lived as well. If we merely pay lip service to God while serving idols, our children will see it. If we live as if we do not know God and what He has wrought for mankind, then our children will more likely than not continue in that same path. But if we honor God as Lord, our children will likely do the same.

Children’s questions are extremely important; that is how they learn about life and what is really important. Let us take the opportunities we are given not only to explain to the next generation what God has said and done, but why we should even follow God in the first place, recounting His glorious saving acts for mankind!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Good Confession

Fight the good fight of the faith, lay hold on the life eternal, whereunto thou wast called, and didst confess the good confession in the sight of many witnesses. I charge thee in the sight of God, who giveth life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who before Pontius Pilate witnessed the good confession; that thou keep the commandment, without spot, without reproach, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 6:12-14).

Confession is one of those concepts that many people think they understand but often miss different aspects of what is involved. Most of the time, when we think of confession, we think of someone making known their transgressions. We might imagine a criminal confessing his crimes before a police officer or judge, or a person declaring their sins before God.

The Greek word for “confession” is homologeo; its parts literally mean “to speak the same thing (as),” and thus a confession or profession. It is used in passages like 1 John 1:9 to describe confession of sin, but it also maintains another powerful meaning in the New Testament, as we see in 1 Timothy 6:12-14: the “good confession” of Jesus and Timothy.

What is the “good confession” of which Paul speaks? In the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus does not say much to Pilate, save “Thou sayest” as a response to the question of whether He was the King of the Jews (Matthew 27:11/Mark 15:2/Luke 23:3). Jesus’ statement is not meant as disrespect; in Greek a statement and a question feature most of the same words with vocal inflection marking the difference between the two. Jesus declares the substance of Pilate’s words to be true.

John reveals a more substantive conversation between Pilate and Jesus. In John’s account Jesus declares that He has a kingdom, and it is not of this world (John 18:36); He is a King, and He has come to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37). In any event, Pilate’s inscription placed above Jesus, declaring Him the King of the Jews, makes it clear that there was little ambiguity involved (John 19:19). Before Pilate Jesus declared that He was a King, the King of the Jews; to any observant Jew, this meant that before the Roman authorities Jesus claimed to be the descendant of David, the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ.

Therefore, Jesus as the Messiah is the good confession which Jesus made before Pilate. Early Christians insisted on every believer making a similar confession before others: many ancient versions record the Ethiopian eunuch doing so (Acts 8:37), Paul speaks about it to the Romans (Romans 10:9-10), the Hebrew author has something similar in mind (Hebrews 3:1, 4:14, 10:23), and Paul here speaks of Timothy’s confession (1 Timothy 6:12-14). As Jesus confessed His identity before Pilate, so believers are to confess Jesus’ identity before others as well.

This confession is not the confession of sin or that one is a sinner; this is “speaking the same thing” as Jesus before Pilate, that He is the Christ, the Son of God (cf. Matthew 16:16). As Jesus spoke His confession before Pilate, so we are to speak our confession before others.

Today this does not seem very controversial or challenging for most people; very few of us have endangered ourselves to any degree by declaring that Jesus is the Christ, especially when doing so before other Christians. Nevertheless, in the first days of Christianity, as well as in some places around the globe to this very day, to declare Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, could easily lead to arrest, torture, and death. For generations many Christians have bravely declared Jesus’ Lordship in the face of oppression and tyranny to the point of death. We should all maintain that level of boldness in faith if we are called upon to do so (cf. 1 John 3:16).

Yet it is evident from what Paul is saying– as well as the Hebrew author’s use of the idea of confession– that there is more to this than merely declaring before other Christians that Jesus is Lord. The expectation is for all of us that what we declare orally we believe firmly in our hearts and minds. All we may say in our confession is, “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” Yet how much is really said in such a confession! If we believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, such demands that we trust in Jesus as Christ. It demands that we adhere to the teachings of Christ of which we learn in Scripture from the Apostles. This adherence to the teaching is not merely an intellectual exercise; it must be practiced, observable by all.

We have good reason to believe that Timothy’s confession took place over twenty years before Paul discusses it in 1 Timothy; a similar period of time (or perhaps even longer) is true for the Hebrew Christians to whom the Hebrew author writes. Their confession was something they were expected to remember; it was part of the moment in which they committed to the cause of Christ. Timothy declared before others that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; it is right for Paul to remind him of that declaration in terms of encouraging him to fight the good fight of faith, to hold firm to the commandment, and to continue to take hold of eternal life.

Merely declaring Jesus as the Christ means precious little, as Matthew 7:21-23 and James 2:19 attest. Instead, we must make the good confession of Jesus as Christ as a statement of confidence and trust, one whose implications we seek to work out throughout the rest of our lives. By confessing Jesus as the Christ, we confess our allegiance to Him and to His standard; by confessing Jesus as the Christ, we confess that we seek to be Christians striving to fight the good fight of faith, keeping His commandments, seeking to lay hold of eternal life. The good confession is as much a call to action and rallying cry as much as the declaration of Jesus’ identity. Let us make the good confession and make good on that confession throughout our lives!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus in Acts

“But ye shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit is come upon you: and ye shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

In the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus is physically present with the Apostles for all of eleven verses (Acts 1:1-11). Within those eleven verses, He makes two statements to them: Acts 1:4b-5 and Acts 1:7-8. After this there will be twenty-seven and a half chapters full of action featuring Peter and Paul in Jerusalem, Judea, Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome. No wonder we call it the Acts of the Apostles!

It is true that we see the Apostles working diligently in the book of Acts. But is what is happening throughout Acts really just because of the Apostles?

To believe that would be to say that twelve ignorant Galileans, mostly fishermen with a tax-collector and a political revolutionary thrown in, along with a noted Pharisee and a Cypriot Levite, with a few other characters, took the Roman world by storm, all by their own powers of persuasion and strength? That would be a fantastic miracle indeed!

While it is true that Jesus’ direct physical presence is rarely evident after Acts 1:11, the declaration of Acts 1:8 is quite important to the story. It is often noted that Acts 1:8 presents the paradigm and structure for the rest of the book of Acts: the witness regarding Christ in Jerusalem (Acts 2-7), in Judea and Samaria (Acts 8-12), and to the end of the earth (Acts 13-28). This is well and good, but who is the One who makes this declaration? It is Jesus. Jesus is the One who is directing this enterprise. Yes, the Apostles are the ones providing the testimony, but they are testifying regarding what was done by Jesus of Nazareth!

This emphasis is evident throughout the book. When it comes to appointing someone for Judas’ place, the eleven turn to Jesus (Acts 1:23-26). Peter’s first sermon is all about what God has done through Jesus of Nazareth in His resurrection and now Lordship (Acts 2:22-26). When the lame man is healed, Peter makes it evident that it is not any power within himself, but the power in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, that made him strong (Acts 3:11-16). Time and time again the story is all about Jesus: what He did, His death and resurrection, and His current authority over heaven and earth, as the Scriptures testified to Him.

Therefore, it is evident that Jesus is there throughout the book of Acts, even if He is not physically present. The Holy Spirit is empowering the work of the Apostles, and who is empowering the Apostles with the Spirit but God in Christ (Acts 1:4-8)? Everything the Apostles do is for the glory of God in Christ.

Some people find it difficult to reconcile the Gospels with the book of Acts; after all, what Jesus sets forth in the Gospels is not always what is seen in Acts, and vice versa. But we do well to remember Acts 1:1-11. After Acts 1:11, His Lordship is realized; the message of His life, death, resurrection, and lordship can now go out to Israel and then all the nations, and the Kingdom of which He spoke could now be realized. It is not as if Jesus stops and the Apostles somehow take over in the book of Acts; without Jesus and His Lordship, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles would have no direction or idea of how to proceed. We can be certain, based on the question of the Apostles in Acts 1:6, that if all of this were up to them, the result would be much different than what actually took place. They would not have thought on their own to overwhelm the world through the preaching of Jesus crucified and raised, and they certainly would not have taken that message to the uncircumcised Gentiles!

The Acts of the Apostles are really the Acts of Jesus accomplished through His Apostles by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is there throughout, and Jesus’ power, lordship, and work do not end with Acts 28. He is still Lord; He still should be guiding and directing our lives through the Holy Spirit and His message. Let us honor Christ as Lord, and follow Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Living Letters

Are we beginning again to commend ourselves? Or need we, as do some, epistles of commendation to you or from you? Ye are our epistle, written in our hearts, known and read of all men; being made manifest that ye are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in tables that are hearts of flesh (2 Corinthians 3:1-3).

Somehow, things had gotten worse in Corinth.

A cursory reading of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians exposes enough problems: flagrant sexual immorality in their midst, Christians taking other Christians to court, abuse of spiritual gifts, denial of the resurrection of the dead. Nevertheless, the Corinthian Christians still had some respect for Paul and gave him some credence.

Yet by the time of the writing of Paul’s second letter, Paul’s credibility is at stake. We get the impression from comments throughout the letter, but especially in chapters 10 through 12, that certain ones have come to Corinth from among the Jews, perceived to be some type of “super-apostles,” who are undermining the Corinthian Christians’ view of Paul. They challenge his credentials, his manner of speaking, his authority, and thus his message. The Corinthian Christians have clearly been influenced by these people. They begin questioning whether Paul really is who he says he is. They would like to see some sort of commendation for Paul to vouch for his standing.

Paul is thus in quite the predicament. How should he go about justifying who he is and the work he does when the Corinthians should already know better?

Ultimately, Paul decides to highlight the work that has been done among the Corinthians themselves as a demonstration of his commendation (2 Corinthians 3:1-3). What need does Paul have for a letter written by ink on papyrus, one that theoretically could be forged or compromised in some other way? He has a far greater letter of commendation: the Corinthian Christians themselves.

While the Corinthian correspondence highlights the flaws of the Corinthians, it is still good to bear in mind just how far those Corinthians have come. The congregation seems to be made up mostly of Gentiles, people from the Greek world who lived in a city famous for its immorality. Yes, some of them still struggled with the rampant sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 6:12-20); some struggled with balancing the understanding that an idol is nothing with the weaker consciences of other Christians (1 Corinthians 8:1-13); others had difficulties with the doctrine of resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-58). But the amazing thing is that they had been delivered from all such immorality and more through Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 6:11), having turned from dead idols to serve the living God. If you could get Gentiles in Corinth to seek to try to change their ways and to follow God, you could probably get Gentiles anywhere to try to do so!

And so Paul does have reason to feel that the Corinthians themselves represent a letter of commendation. They are a letter of Christ, not of Paul, as he strenuously emphasizes; Paul is the servant, the minister, whose sufficiency is only from God (2 Corinthians 3:4-6). The Corinthians testify to the power of Christ to transform people, even if there are many kinks that still need working out. This letter is not written on papyrus with ink, nor, for that matter, by chisel on stone, but instead by the Spirit of the living God on hearts of flesh (2 Corinthians 3:2-3). Paul and his associates carry this “letter” in their hearts, using their example in their exhortations to others, so that all may know and understand how powerfully God has worked among the Corinthians. With such a testimony and such a “letter,” what good would papyrus and ink, or stone and chisel, really be?

Yes, Paul writes as he does to persuade the Corinthians, and it has strong potential to persuade, since it speaks highly of them, and if nothing else, people always like being spoken of in such glowing terms. Yes, there is also probably a tinge of irony here, since Paul (or Paul’s amanuensis) is writing these words with ink on papyrus. But the point remains powerful: the greatest testimony to the Lord cannot be written down on paper with ink or on tablets with a chisel. The greatest letters of Christ are living letters.

It is the same way today. It is right and appropriate to appreciate Scripture and to use Scripture as the means of coming to a better understanding of who God is and what God would have us to do (2 Timothy 3:16-17). There is great power in the message of God (Hebrews 4:12). Nevertheless, the message loses its force quickly when its contents do not lead to transformation of the mind, heart, and deeds of the believer. One can know the Scriptures intimately, but if one is not actively seeking to conform to the image of Christ, all that knowledge goes for nothing (Matthew 7:21-23, Romans 8:29, James 1:22-25).

There is unparalleled power in the message brought to life; this is why the revelation of the new covenant is centered in the embodiment of the divine in Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:1, 14, 18, Colossians 2:9, Hebrews 1:3). The New Testament Scriptures seek to communicate in words who Jesus was, what Jesus taught, what Jesus did, the message of Jesus as it was communicated by His disciples, and the practical ways in which that message is to be lived and communicated. The message always points to its Source– God in Christ– and exhorts everyone to entrust themselves to that Source (Romans 1:16-17). The message lays forth all the equipment the believer will need in order to entrust himself to Christ and to follow after Him (2 Timothy 3:16-17). But that is not enough. The believer must then seek to put it to practice, to become that living letter of Christ of which Paul speaks.

A lot of people know that there are many good teachings in the Bible. Most people do not have a high tolerance for people who push the message of the Bible without living that message. Yet it is amazing to see how people respond when they see the message not just preached by a believer, but also lived by him or her (Matthew 5:13-16, Romans 10:14-17). There is no greater commendation of God’s message in the Gospel than to see it being lived by believers submitting themselves in all things to God’s will. It is not enough, therefore, to just tell people about Jesus; we must also show Jesus to people. It is not enough to just point to the letter and the ink; we must embody the message that has been recorded for us by letter and ink.

One of the saddest objections to the Bible is when people believe it to be irrelevant to modern life because of its antiquity. The Bible might be 2,000+ years old, but the message of God is supposed to be always alive through the believer who seeks to embody that message in his or her life. It may be that the last letter of an Apostle was written over 1,900 years ago; yet there should be living letters of Christ circulating around the world today, still proclaiming God’s redemptive work in word and deed, in the form of believers seeking to obey the Christ. Let us be those living letters to a sinful world and commend the faith in our words and deeds!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Weapons of our Warfare

For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh (for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but mighty before God to the casting down of strongholds), casting down imaginations, and every high thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God, and bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).

The military metaphor is used occasionally in Scripture to describe the conflict in which we find ourselves. It is dangerous to read too deeply into the military metaphor; notice how often Paul emphasizes that our enemies are not flesh and blood and our weapons are not physical (2 Corinthians 10:3-4, Ephesians 6:12). He is making clear what far too many since have confused: there is a conflict, yes, but swords and guns are not going to solve it. Guns and swords are only going to make things worse!

Nevertheless, we are all engaged in a conflict. In Ephesians 6:10-18 Paul speaks of that conflict in terms of the soldier’s full armament. Here, in 2 Corinthians 10:3-5, he briefly describes the weaponry we are to use in this conflict in order to advance the purposes of God in Christ.

There are two aspects to these “weapons”: engagement with the world around us, and engagement within ourselves. They are both used for the “casting down of strongholds” and the weapons are “mighty before God” (2 Corinthians 10:4). We are to imagine the large, walled cities of the ancient world; the weapons we are to use will tear down those walls. Defenses will be compromised!

Paul begins with the engagement with the world around us. Paul says that it is our task to “cast down imaginations, and every high thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God” in the ASV; the ESV renders it, “we destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

This might seem strange to us at first. Some might wonder where there is room for the practice of Christianity. Others may want to know where morality and discussions about moral behavior fit in. But if we stop and think about it for a moment, what Paul says makes perfect sense.

Everyone has a view of the world and how it works. This view is constantly modified by new information; the older we get, the more fossilized it becomes. We have to have some type of worldview/perspective in order to make sense of all the different aspects of existence. It is this worldview that informs our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

As long as a person can remain convinced that the way they see the world is the way it really is, or makes the best sense of the way it really is, it will remain incredibly difficult to change their minds about much of anything. Witness the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Jews in general throughout the New Testament. For that matter, see what it took for Saul of Tarsus to change his mind (cf. Acts 9:1-19)! As long as the person can make sense out of things, they will keep thinking as they always have, and thus keep acting as they always have.

Therefore, as long as the “imaginations” of man stay in place, and as long as people exalt their opinions about the way things work, we cannot get very far with people. People are not blank slates; if they are going to learn of God, they are going to have to “unlearn” some things first. Since everyone already has some type of edifice that they have built in order to understand the world, that edifice will have to first be exposed as faulty before people are going to be willing to concede that they need to change the way they think, feel, and act!

And that is why Paul speaks of casting down imaginations and every opinion exalted over the knowledge of God. Our weapon must be the tool of persuasion, presenting all the evidence that does not fit well into the edifice people have already created yet exhibits the soundness of the revelation of God. These are very deep issues and go to the core of who we think we are as human beings; since they are deep, dealing with the surface issues are not going to get us very far. Unfortunately, most people need to be convinced that the way they see the world is broken before they believe it broken. That is why our “firepower” must be directed to this end– getting people to understand that the way they see things is flawed in order to present to them the better model in Christ.

The other aspect to these “weapons” involves more engagement within ourselves. As Paul says, we must be “bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). How can we work to knock down these strongholds of the world if they maintain a foothold within our own minds? How can we refute an argument if we continue to maintain it within ourselves?

The knowledge of God is firmly rooted in Christ; as Paul says in Colossians 2:1-10, it should be our goal and aim to understand all things through Christ. Worldly philosophies deceive; we can discern what is right from wrong in them when they are subjected before Christ. “Common sense” and the groupthink of culture are seductive ideas; we can only discern what is truly sensible when we subject those ideas to Christ. Idolatry is man’s perennial problem, from the beginning until now (cf. Romans 1:18-32); the only way to eliminate idolatry is to make sure all things are subject to Christ.

There is a prevalent myth about that says that we can all be objectively rational at times and seek to understand things in a disinterested way. This is sheer folly; no matter how hard we try, we are products of our culture, society, upbringing, and time. The best that any of us can do is to be sensitive to those ways in which we are predisposed to understand matters because of our culture, society, upbringing, and time. The only way to do so thoroughly is to subject everything to Christ. What would Christ find commendatory about the spirit of the age? Commend it. What would Christ critique regarding the spirit of the age? Critique it.

The stakes are quite high. As long as the bloated and blustering edifices of worldly thought and philosophy are left unchallenged, people will continue to follow after vanity and justify themselves by the lie. We must challenge these edifices with the knowledge of God, understanding that present ideas must be deconstructed before a godly life can be built instead.

In so doing, we must remember that the worst horror of all is when believers become complicit with those bloated and blustering edifices by just going along with what they have been taught by society, culture, upbringing, and the like, not subjecting these thoughts to Christ, understanding what is commendatory from what is to be challenged. We can look into our past and find many instances when believers did not subject certain societal attitudes to Christ; now, as then, it was always about difficult matters, some of which may not have been automatically evident to the people involved. The Evil One is good at seducing believers into following after many forms of conventional wisdom that are contrary to God’s purposes. Let us resist the temptation. Let us subject every thought, every attitude, everything we might assume is accurate or is according to “common sense,” and subject it to Christ. Then let us praise what is to be commended, and work diligently to tear down through critique all that is to be challenged. In so doing, we will be tearing down those worldly strongholds, casting down everything exalted beyond the knowledge of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Revolution

And when [the Thessalonian Jews] found [Paul and Silas] not, they dragged Jason and certain brethren before the rulers of the city, crying, “These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also; whom Jason hath received: and these all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7).

In the late eighteenth century, a small band of American colonists envisioned a revolutionary way of maintaining government– a nation without monarchy or aristocracy, administered by its citizens for its citizens. It seemed like foolish talk to a world full of kings and aristocrats, but with sufficient determination and a little bit of help from the enemies of their enemies, these colonists defeated their overlords and set the American experiment in motion. The model of that revolution would spread, first to France about a decade later, and then throughout the world over the next two hundred years. Now the constitutional republic of America is held up as an ideal for which other nations aspire. It was a revolution that started small but took over the world.

Around two thousand years ago, a small band of Jews traveled throughout the Roman Empire advancing a revolutionary way of thinking and living. They proclaimed that a Palestinian Jew executed for treason by the Roman procurator in the days of Tiberius Caesar was really king, because God had raised Him from the dead and had declared Him Lord with power. Since God had acted powerfully through this Man, named Jesus of Nazareth, all people, whether Jew or Greek, were to change their ways, no longer following in the paths of their ancestors, but should become more like this Jesus, humbling themselves and serving others. They dared to declare that God had torn down the walls that divide men from each other, and that regardless of ethnicity, race, language, social status, every man and woman were equally precious in the sight of the One True God their Creator, and they could all be one through Jesus. The people did not really need to fear Caesar anymore– sure, they needed to be good citizens, paying taxes and honoring Caesar, but they did not need to worship his Genius. If Caesar had them killed, they would die witnessing that Jesus was really king, and that they would live again. Death had lost its sting; the tyrant had lost his most effective tool for coercion. Little wonder, then, that the Thessalonians declared that these men were turning the world upside down!

The Jesus revolution was not like any other. It was less about political oppression or national aspiration and much more about the greater conflict between the spiritual forces of good and evil (cf. Ephesians 6:10-18). The Jesus revolution was about freedom from the bondage of sin and death so as to obtain life (cf. Romans 6:16-23, 8:1-8). A lot of revolutions lead to societal chaos or rampant immorality; this revolution led to greater love, mercy, and the practice of righteousness. It baffled the authorities of the day, for they perceived that the declaration that Jesus Christ was God and Lord was at least partially subversive, but the Christians did not act like political subversives.

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations (Pliny the Younger, Proconsul of Bithynia, to the Emperor Trajan, ca. 111-113; Letters 10.96-97).

This strange revolution spread; within three hundred years, it would consume the entire Roman Empire.

The call for the Jesus revolution would be diluted over time by tradition, compromise with worldly authorities, and particularly the lack of true zeal and devotion by its adherents for its core principles. It is true that the Jesus revolution did change attitudes regarding many practices; it is impossible to separate the developments of Western civilization from the principles of Christianity.

Nevertheless, the same message that turned the first century world upside down has the capability of turning the twenty-first century world upside down. It is time again for all men to hear the revolutionary message that Jesus is Lord. If Jesus is Lord, the spiritual powers of darkness and the political regimes of today are not. If Jesus is Lord, the message must go out about repentance and turning from the futility of the traditions inherited from our ancestors, and our need to pursue the image of Christ the Son with all devotion and zeal. The revolutionary Jesus message will have no power if it does not lead to a complete change in the way that we think, feel, believe, and act. Yet when we begin to think like Jesus, have the attitude of Jesus, and show love, mercy, and compassion like Jesus, people will take notice. That is how the revolution can spread, and again take the world by storm!

The Jesus revolution is not like any other. It demands the reformation of the heart, soul, and mind. Yet it is the only revolution that can truly change the world. Let us promote the revolutionary message that Jesus is Lord, serve Jesus as Lord, and obtain the glory of the servants of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Relational Unity

“I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).

It is perhaps one of the most sublime and mysterious concepts– the idea of the Triune God. The arguments regarding how it was possible for God to be One in Three Persons consumed much of Christianity for the first three hundred years after the death of the Apostles– and again in the past two hundred. If there is one doctrine that people have difficulty understanding, it is this one indeed!

The challenge is evident. From Deuteronomy 6:4 on, YHWH uniquely identified Himself as God– not just any god, not one of many gods, but the One God. YHWH our God YHWH one is the literal concept behind Deuteronomy 6:4b. The idea of the unity of God is essential to Judaism, Islam, and indeed also to Christianity.

But then we have Jesus making these divine declarations. John speaks of Him as the Word, not just with God, but being God (John 1:1). Jesus will declare Himself the I AM in John 8:58. He declares His unity with the Father in John 10:30 and fully in John 17:20-23. Both Paul and the Hebrew author declare that Jesus represents the fullness of the Godhead in bodily form, the exact imprint of the divine nature (Colossians 2:9, Hebrews 1:3). Peter will also include the Holy Spirit in such a framework (1 Peter 1:2, 2:21). Beyond all this, both Paul and Jude strongly intimate that when the Old Testament speaks of YHWH acting regarding His people in the wilderness, that Christ the Son is involved (1 Corinthians 10:1-9, Jude 1:5). So how can God be One yet Three?

All kinds of answers have been suggested. Some answers try to argue that Jesus really was not God like the Father was God. Other answers try to argue that God really is one person, and just manifests Himself in three modes or forms. Yet when we look at the textual evidence, these answers do not work. All three Persons are present at Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:15-17). Jesus declares that there are two witnesses, Himself and the Father (John 8:17-18). There are too many Scriptures confessing Jesus’ full deity and His unique Personhood.

The problem with these answers is that they assume that when God is One, that unity must be in personhood. But neither Deuteronomy 6:4 nor any other passage so limits the understanding of God’s unity. Instead, we can suggest as a feasible answer that the unity of God is not based in personhood but in other factors– they are unified in substance, essence, and will. In short, God is One in relational unity.

God Himself testifies to this within His creation (cf. Romans 1:19-20). Humans are given a glimpse of this idea of relational unity in marriage. From the beginning God has intended for a man and woman to come together and become one (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:4-6). Paul will later attribute the same unity as existing between Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:31-32). How are people one in marriage? They are of the same substance and essence, for one. And the marriage that lives up to God’s ideal is one where each mutually submits to one another, respecting their roles, but becoming as one in terms of purpose, intention, direction, and whatnot (cf. Ephesians 5:21-33). The goal is to see that while they do remain two people, for all intents and purposes, they are one. They are tied together by their reciprocal, mutual love.

So it would be within the Godhead. We must never emphasize the distinctiveness of the Persons of the Godhead to the neglect of their unity. Think about it for a moment– the Three Persons of the Godhead are so unified in will, intention, and purpose, that we can speak of God entirely in terms of a unity. We speak of God Himself doing, acting, working, even though it is really the Three in One, and that is possible only because of the intense relational unity amongst the Three. This is how God is love (1 John 4:8)– for God to be love as one person would make God the ultimate narcissist. Instead, God maintains sacrificial love within Himself amongst the Three, and the blessing bestowed upon us is that He wants us to join in that love.

And that is why understanding God as the Triune, Three in One and One in Three, is so essential. It is not merely some abstract, academic concept that is irrelevant to life. Quite the contrary– God’s nature informs God’s work and purpose for mankind. And John 17:20-23 describes this perfectly.

As the Father is in the Son (and in the Spirit), and the Son is in the Father (and in the Spirit), so Jesus prays for all believers to be one with the Father and the Son as the Father and the Son are one, and likewise to be one with one another (John 17:20-23). Our existence, redemption, and hope of ultimate glory, therefore, are inextricably bound up in God’s own relational unity amongst the Three.

Why did God create all things and make us in His image? Love’s greatest joy is to share in love, and so the Godhead wished to share the love within Himself with all of us (cf. 1 John 4:8).

Why did God prove so willing to redeem us even though we did not deserve it? It is love’s essence to suffer loss for the advantage of the beloved; as the Son does for the Father, so the Father, Son, and Spirit do for all of us (Hebrews 5:7-8, Romans 5:6-11).

What is God’s ultimate goal? To extend the association, love, and relational unity that exists within Himself with His creation, and to maintain that unity for all eternity in glory (cf. Romans 8:17-24, Revelation 21-22).

We are called to seek after God and that relational unity with Him as it exists within Himself (Acts 17:26-27, John 17:20-23). In so doing, we must develop that unity with one another if we are really going to reflect the image of the Son (Romans 8:29, 1 John 1:4-7). The path is clear: as the Father and Son are one, so must we be one with each other, and that requires not just some level of mutual understanding of truth but also willingness to suffer loss for one another, humbling ourselves so as to seek each others’ advantage, just as the Son did for the Father and for us (Philippians 2:1-8).

God is love; God manifests love within Himself; that love overflows toward the creation; we have the opportunity to share in the blessing of a relationship with God so that we can become conformed to the image of the Son so as to return to the blessed state of full, unbroken association with God. How wonderful! How praiseworthy! Let us always praise and thank God for our opportunity to maintain association with Him and to enjoy that association for all eternity!

Ethan R. Longhenry