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

Seeking Safe Dwellings

And my people shall abide in a peaceable habitation, and in safe dwellings, and in quiet resting-places (Isaiah 32:18).

In times of distress and turbulence, “normal stability” seems like paradise.

The prophet Isaiah spoke to Israel at the end of the good times and in times of great terror. Israel trusted in her prosperity and in her nimble foreign policy maneuvers yet would soon find out there was no security in them. Before Isaiah’s time was done Israel would experience the full terror of Assyria; the Kingdom of Israel would be no more, and the Kingdom of Judah was humiliated, impoverished, and broken (cf. 2 Kings 17:1-19:37, Isaiah 1:1-9). Furthermore, the time for Judah was short; the Babylonian menace loomed large in the future as Isaiah saw it (cf. Isaiah 39:1-8). Safety proved to be an illusion.

It is this future devastation which Isaiah seems to envision in Isaiah 32:9-14. He speaks to women who are at ease in Judah: they are complacent and ought to repent in light of what will take place (Isaiah 32:9). Isaiah envisions the failure of harvests, an empty palace, cities overrun with animals and weeds, no doubt the result of pestilence, famine, violence, and exile (Isaiah 32:10-14). Everything which seemed stable would fall apart; in the chaos, a return to what was expected as “normal” would seem great!

Yet that is precisely the problem: the Israelites, particularly the wealthy among them, have taken their stability and safety for granted, and have believed that it has come as a result of their own devices. Isaiah provides no message to encourage such a view. In the cutthroat ancient Near Eastern world, safety and security could not come from chariot, sword, gold, silver, or power. They all would fail over time.

Isaiah does speak of a time when stability, safety, and peace will return, and does so in a picturesque and ideal way for all times: the desert becomes fruitful, justice and righteousness abide in the land, all live in peace and confidence, with safe and quiet houses (Isaiah 32:15-18). Yet this does not come because of Israel and anything she has done but because God has poured out His Spirit upon His people (Isaiah 32:15).

Isaiah’s message did not receive much of a hearing while Israel remained prosperous. Yet after the devastation and terrors came to pass, later generations took comfort in the hope of Isaiah’s prophecies. They yearned for the security and stability they did not enjoy in their day. They looked forward to when God would pour out His Spirit and this security would be present.

We find the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in Jesus of Nazareth and His Kingdom. God has poured out His Spirit upon His people (Acts 2:1-41). Yet if we look for the prosperity and security on a physical level, we look in vain, for the promise is for spiritual prosperity and security. In Christ all spiritual riches and blessings are poured out (Ephesians 1:3); in Christ we find true security and refuge (Hebrews 6:18). In Christ we have a great treasure ensured for us for eternity (1 Peter 1:3-9)!

We can therefore find a safe dwelling in God in Christ and among His people (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:14-16, 6:19-20, 1 Peter 2:3-5). Yet we do well to heed the warning provided by the example of Israel in the days of Isaiah: safety will not be found in this world among the tools of this world. We are not guaranteed material prosperity and comfort. In this world we will find danger, distress, trial, and tribulation (Acts 14:21, 2 Timothy 3:12). God has not sent His Son to help us escape the problems of life but to provide us strength so as to endure them (cf. Ephesians 3:17-21, 6:10-18). We may be fortunate enough to find a nice piece of property with a nice house in a nice community with nice neighbors with nice services and a clean, safe, sanitized environment, but we should never confuse that with normalcy or how Christianity ought to be. If our lives are going well and we have relatively safe dwellings, we should be thankful but not complacent, aware that earthly stability may vanish, but Jesus will remain. Days may come when we find ourselves in great distress or trial and we will discover, as Israel did before us, that confidence in earthly forms of stability may fail, and that true security can only be found through God and His loving-kindness.

The desert is now fruitful; righteousness now exists in the Kingdom of God; safe dwellings can be found. We will not find them from the military or the government but only through dwelling in God through His Son in the Spirit. Prosperity, righteousness, and stability do not demand the American dream but instead through quiet confidence in God’s strength unto endurance, humbly living as a faithful servant in the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus, suffering the loss of all things for Him for His eternal glory. Let us not seek safety in the world but through trusting in the Lord Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Christus Victor

Having despoiled the principalities and the powers, [Christ] made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it (Colossians 2:15).

Why did Jesus have to die such a horrendous death?

This question goes beyond a simple matter of, “for the forgiveness of sin” (Matthew 26:28); one can imagine many scenarios in which Jesus still dies for the remission of sin but not in such a terribly grotesque and gruesome way. Why humiliation before the Jewish religious authorities and the Roman governor? Why scourging? Why crucifixion?

The primary way that early Christians made sense of the grotesque and horrendous nature of Jesus’ death was through the concept of Christus Victor, Christ the Victor. This view focuses on the idea that Jesus gains the victory over sin, death, and any and all other principalities through His death and resurrection. This is first seen in Acts 4:24-31 in which the Apostles understand the persecution they receive from the Sanhedrin in terms of Psalm 2:1-2, the opposition of the kings of the nations to God and His Anointed, and making direct application of this as prophecy of Jesus before Herod and Pilate. Paul will go on to explain how Jesus conquered sin and death through His death and resurrection (Romans 8:1-2, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58). John frequently associates “victory,” “overcoming,” and “conquering” with suffering from evils steadfastly and without sin (John 16:33, 1 John 5:4, Revelation 5:5, 12:11). Yet perhaps the clearest statement of Christ the Victor is found in Colossians 2:15 in which Paul declares that Jesus triumphed over the principalities and powers, having despoiled or conquered them.

Who are these principalities and powers? To some extent one can see the existing power structures on earth in them, as Jesus stands before the Jewish religious authorities, then Pilate and Herod, during His trial and period of suffering (Luke 22:47-23:25). Yet Paul will declare that our wrestling is not with flesh and blood in Ephesians 6:12, and in Revelation John “pulls the curtain back,” so to speak, and shows us the real power source for world empires and false religion: Satan the dragon (Revelation 13:1-4, 11-14). While the Jewish religious authorities, Herod, and Pilate act as free moral agents as they indict and execute Jesus of Nazareth, they are influenced and partly motivated by these evil, dark, satanic and demonic powers behind the scenes.

Throughout His ministry Jesus made clear that His opponent was not really Rome nor was His goal the liberation of Israel from Roman oppression: He always understood the Adversary, Satan, as His true opponent, and He did as He did in order to liberate people from the power of darkness and lead them into the Kingdom and rule of God (Matthew 4:1-10, 17, 23, 26:28, Acts 10:38, Colossians 1:13). Early Christians understood that Jesus obtained this victory not with a large army or with great force but by suffering humiliation, degradation, and violence, dying on the cross, and being raised by God in the resurrection with power (Romans 5:6-11, 8:1-2, 1 Corinthians 15:20-57, Revelation 5:1-10). To us this is a strange way of gaining a victory, but the challenge of evil and the forces behind evil are not your average challenge. Evil and the forces of darkness thrive through the forms of violence, devastation, and death that are normally wrought in order to defeat a foe. In this contest, in order to win the victory, Jesus had to endure all that the evil forces could throw at Him. He did: He stood firm and remained steadfast despite unimaginable pain, misery, and suffering of emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual natures. The Evil One and his horde did all they could to Jesus: their human agents conspired against Him, humiliated Him, had Him mistreated and ultimately killed. But He did not give into evil; He did not turn to the forces of darkness; He endured the suffering (Hebrews 5:7-8). That is how He overcame sin, and God granted Him victory over death by raising Him on the third day, never to die again (Romans 6:8-11).

The way Jesus died remains shocking, horrifying, and gruesome to this day. Yet it had to happen as it did, not because Jesus deserved it, but because through His death Jesus was overcoming and triumphing over the powers and principalities of darkness. They did all they could to Him, but He endured. When God raised Him from the dead, Jesus thus entirely despoiled the forces of evil. They could harm Him no more, and He now had full reign over them, and to this day they shudder at the name of Jesus (James 2:19).

Through His victory we can gain victory over sin and death and all the forces of evil arrayed against us (Ephesians 6:10-18, Revelation 12:11). We can endure suffering and thus obtain the crown of victory (Romans 8:17-18, 1 Peter 1:3-9, Revelation 7:9-17). The forces of evil are strong but not as strong as Jesus (1 John 4:4)! Through His gruesome death and powerful resurrection Jesus has gained the victory and now rules as Lord. Let us serve Him always and glorify and honor God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Wrath of Satan

Therefore rejoice, O heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe for the earth and for the sea: because the devil is gone down unto you, having great wrath, knowing that he hath but a short time” (Revelation 12:12).

Even in the best of times people are compelled to stare evil in the face and come to grips with its reality. It is never pretty.

Humans have been enduring evil from almost the beginning, ever since Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden (Genesis 3:1-23). The plague of evil and the Evil One who advanced evil purposes were well-known and decried for generations. The Enlightenment project in western Europe and North America sought to eliminate evil through scientific, philosophical, and technological progress as well as education and the removal of ignorance. The most astonishing matter about this project is how successful it has been: sure, evil still happens in the Western world, but it does not seem as all-pervasive as in past generations. We presume that children, once born, will grow to adulthood; we presume that life will be decent and tolerable. Disasters tend to be the exception rather than the rule.

While evil may be reduced at times, it can never be eliminated, and the Western world has been attempting to come to grips with the pernicious evil of the past hundred years: World War I, Stalinism, World War II, genocides around the world, and now terrorism. Bad things still happen to people. Oppression is rampant in many places around the world. If this is the best we can do in order to eliminate evil in the world, our situation is pretty sad indeed!

Experiencing evil makes us feel weak, helpless, unsafe, and leads to fear. People want to know why evil exists. People want to know how a loving God can allow evil to happen.

We ask questions like that in order to get answers, since we like answers, since answers give us a feeling of satisfaction and a measure of control. That is why there are so few answers when it comes to evil. We are not in control, nor should we operate under the delusion that we really are in control. We do well to recognize that evil forces do exist and they promote evil on the earth (Ephesians 6:12).

Yet this leads to a valid question: how can these evil powers be in control if God is really in control? If the world is full of such evil, does that not mean that evil has actually triumphed, and there is no hope? This question may come especially for those who seek to follow Jesus in righteousness and yet continually experience the distress and pain that comes from various evils. When it seems that human and demonic forces have conspired against you, how can you keep persevering in faith?

In Revelation 12:1-17, the contest between the forces of evil under Satan and the forces of good under God in Christ are elaborately described. Satan, also known as the Devil, is described as the dragon, a terrifying monster which only God could overcome (cf. Isaiah 51:9), attempting to consume the Child of the woman who represents the people of God (Revelation 12:1-4). The Child is born and ascends to His throne; the Child represents Christ (Revelation 12:5; cf. Psalm 2:1-12). There is then a scene of war in heaven, and Michael and his angels overcome Satan and his angels, and they are cast down to earth (Revelation 12:7-9).

Satan, in Hebrew, means accuser, and the angel proclaims the defeat of Satan as the accuser since Christ has died for the forgiveness of sins, thus undercutting any accusation against the brethren (Revelation 12:10). Salvation, the power, and the Kingdom now belong to Christ who rules as Lord (cf. Matthew 28:18). The salvation of believers is then spoken of as having overcome Satan, and it is accomplished through the blood of the Lamb, the word of their testimony, and that they did not love their lives even to death (Revelation 12:11). On account of this victory heaven has every reason to rejoice (Revelation 12:12)!

The earth and the sea, however, have no such reason for rejoicing; instead, they are warned that they will now suffer the wrath of Satan (Revelation 12:12). Just as a defeated child (or adult, or even nation!) attempts to take out their anger and rage at their defeat on someone smaller or weaker than they, so Satan takes out his wrath at his defeat on the earth and those who dwell in it. Yet, as the angel declares, it cannot last: he has but a short time. The victory which Jesus has won in heaven will be brought to the earth in glory. Yet, until then, the earth and those who are on it will feel the full wrath of Satan.

Jesus intends for this message to encourage us. Yes, evil exists. Yes, we will experience evil. It will cause pain, suffering, and misery. It may even lead to our earthly demise. But evil has not won and it cannot win unless we allow it to win. The evil we experience is not some force impossible to overcome but in fact the last gasp of an angry Satan who has lost hold of those who trust in the blood of the Lamb and maintain the word of their testimony. Jesus the Lord has obtained the victory over sin and death; what can Satan really do in comparison to what Jesus has accomplished for us?

The wrath of Satan is horrendous, tragic, and difficult to endure. Yet the wrath of Satan will pale in comparison to the wrath of God which will be poured out on those who follow after Satan and his designs (Romans 1:18-32, Revelation 15:1-16:21). We should not fear the Evil One but revere and honor God who has overcome the Evil One. We should not question God because evil exists but praise Him for gaining the victory over evil, sin, and death through His Son Jesus and what He suffered. Let us overcome evil through the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony, and maintain the hope of eternal life with God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Slaughter of the Innocents

Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the Wise-men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the male children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had exactly learned of the Wise-men.
Then was fulfilled that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, saying, “A voice was heard in Ramah, Weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; And she would not be comforted, because they are not” (Matthew 2:16-18).

On Friday, December 14, 2012, a young man entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and began firing upon staff and children. When it was all over, 26 people were dead, mostly six and seven year old children, along with the shooter and his mother.

The news of this event stunned the nation even though this was far from the first mass shooting or even a mass shooting in a school. Yet this time the horror was incomprehensible since it was mostly perpetrated upon very young and innocent children.

There was, nor is, no truly appropriate response other than silence and the feeling of grief, sorrow, and compassion. Words truly fail in the face of such an evil.

Unfortunately, that rarely stops people from speaking. There have been no end of attempts to figure out what could have stopped this event from happening. For some, the availability of guns with such great magazine capabilities was the culprit; others were convinced that if only the school administrators and teachers had guns they could have stopped the shooter. Some have brought up the state of mental healthcare and its role. Others chalk it up as another result of the growing public secularism and public discomfort with Christianity in the United States.

Such responses tell more about the needs of those giving the response than the situation itself. We desperately want to have some solution, some way of “fixing” this “problem” so that we can return to a feeling of safety and “normalcy.” If we could only find some legislation, some response, some way to make sure that such things do not keep happening, then everything will be well.

But the horror of the slaughter of the innocents in Newtown puts to lie the motivation behind all of these responses. We want to respond so as to get rid of evils such as these, but such evils cannot be removed. We could pass any and every imaginable law and reinforce all kinds of spending on various programs, but none of these things could, in and of themselves, change the fact that this young man woke up on Friday morning and thought it would be a good idea to go and execute children.

Over two thousand years ago another man thought it was a good idea to execute some children. Herod, called “the Great,” was an Idumean, or Edomite, elevated by the Romans as king over Judea. According to Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus, after Herod learned of the birth of the “king of the Jews” in Bethlehem from the Magi, he sent his henchmen to Bethlehem to execute all children two years and younger (Matthew 2:16).

Few, if any, doubt the legitimacy of the story, even though no other historian corroborates Matthew’s account. The darkness in Herod’s mind is well attested in the historical record: ever fearful of any perceived threat to his rule, he had his brother-in-law and three sons, among others, killed (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 16.394, 17.187, 191, Wars of the Jews 1.550-551, 664-665). This paranoia only increased as he grew older: Jesus was born around 5-4 BCE, at the very end of Herod’s life, and therefore Herod proved willing to exterminate any threat to his power, even if those involved were innocent, harmless babies.

Matthew explains these events in terms of a prophecy of Jeremiah originally used to evoke the imagined distress of Rachel over the devastation of her descendants in Israel, Ephraim and Manasseh, leading to God’s promise of restoration (Matthew 2:17-18; cf. Jeremiah 31:15-18). Since Rachel died on the road to Ephrath, or Bethlehem, according to Genesis 35:19, Matthew associates her with the town, even though Bethlehem was populated by the tribe of Judah. The quotation of the prophecy accurately reflects the emotions and experience of the situation: young life extinguished leaving parents left to mourn with inconsolable grief.

“Evil” is the only appropriate word to describe such shocking brutality. All of our attempts to evade evil and pretend evil is someone else’s problem are foiled. Perhaps explanations can be found for why these men have acted as they have; “answers” provide no comfort. Attempts to prevent evil prove feeble: the human heart is terribly sick with sin, and no matter how much we may try, people will suffer evil, and suffer terribly. Safety precautions are well and good, but no one is ever truly safe. As long as we are in this world, evil lurks, and we do not know when or where it will strike.

Evil cannot be solved by legislation or through funding; evil can never be eliminated. Yet, according to the New Testament, evil can be overcome. The slaughter of the innocents, both in Bethlehem and Newtown, are terrible events, made worse in our estimation since those who suffered did not deserve to suffer. So it is with the slaughter of the Innocent One, Jesus of Nazareth: He did not sin, deceit did not come forth from His mouth, and yet He suffered all the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual evil which the forces of darkness could throw at Him (cf. Hebrews 4:15, 5:7-8, 1 Peter 2:21-24). He died, a victim of horrendous evil, as the result of political forces conspiring against Him, yet He overcame through the power of God, was raised on the third day, and took His place at the right hand of the Father as Lord of all (Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 2:14-36, 3:11-26, Philippians 2:5-10). He overcame evil by suffering evil without repaying with evil, and in so doing, provides the way for those who would follow Him to overcome evil as well (John 16:33, Romans 12:19-21, Revelation 12:7-12).

Evil cannot be truly explained away or eliminated. Evil is always there, reminding us that things on this planet are not all well and good, and the vanity of utopia or hope in this present world alone. In the face of evil, we often try to deny the evil within us, and it proves easier to succumb to evil than to overcome through doing good despite suffering evil. The way out of evil is not to perpetuate evil; the way out of evil is following Jesus, suffering in His name, loving all men and seeking their best interest no matter how they are treated in response. Let us stand firm against evil by doing good, and glorify the Lamb slain for the world!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Hung Upon a Tree

“And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree; his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt surely bury him the same day; for he that is hanged is accursed of God; that thou defile not thy land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23).

It was just one more law explained in a series of other laws. At the time it was given, it perhaps did not merit much more thought or consideration than the laws given before it or after it; it might have seemed tame, in fact, compared to the law of stoning a rebellious youth in Deuteronomy 21:18-22. And yet this law would have profound consequences for Israel and all humanity.

The law given by Moses in Deuteronomy 21:22-23 is an example of case law, a frequent feature in this part of Deuteronomy. The law is straightforward enough: if a person has committed a capital crime, and the manner of punishment is hanging on a tree, the body should be taken down and buried the same day. Likewise, if a criminal were executed in some other way, and then his body was hung upon a tree as a public spectacle (cf. Numbers 25:4), the body should not be left up all night. The body should be taken down and buried because anyone who is hanged is accursed of God, and to allow a cursed person’s body to hang around for a few days would defile the land.

The law is understandable and the people would most likely have accepted it without difficulty; most of them, as far as we can tell, were not planning to commit capital crimes. Yes, other methods of execution had their place: stoning (cf. Deuteronomy 13:10), burning (cf. Leviticus 21:9), and stabbing (Exodus 32:27); nevertheless, various forms of suspension (hanging and the like) seemed to be the most common way of executing criminals, particularly in those cases where the Law did not specify stoning or burning. Even in those cases where other forms of execution were used, it served the interest of the executioners to hang the body up on a tree so that all would know what happened to the person and that they would share the same fate if they committed capital crimes. We can understand how such criminals, however executed, were seen as cursed: to be executed for a capital crime means that one must have done something truly terrible so as to deserve such a fate. To leave the body of such a one around would cause contamination!

Years later the Romans took over the land of Israel. The Romans had great confidence in crucifixion as a means of executing insurrectionists and other particularly nasty criminals. It was a horrendous and public way to die; it sent a very strong message to the rest of the inhabitants of the land: obey or suffer the same fate!

Around the year 30 of our era, a Man was brought before the Roman governor Pilate, and accused by the Jewish authorities of insurrection against Rome. At first Pilate did not want to see Him executed; nevertheless, he was more concerned about his own welfare than anything else, and when the crowd looked like it was about to riot, Pilate agreed to the sentence. The Man was crucified with two others outside of the city walls of Jerusalem. Since the time was of the Preparation for the upcoming Sabbath during the feast of Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, in consideration of Deuteronomy 21:22-23, the Jews asked the Romans to have the legs of the criminals broken, so their bodies might be taken away and buried (cf. John 19:31). The legs of two of the men were broken, but the first Man was already dead. His body was taken down and buried before sunset (cf. John 19:32-42).

These three, as well as every other Jewish person crucified, were reckoned as cursed because they hung upon the “tree” of the crucifix. In normal circumstances the reputation of such people were forever tarnished; everyone would know that they were now accursed because they hung on a tree. It was shameful; it was terrible. Even if one were really innocent, one would become accursed because of hanging on that tree!

Yet, within a few weeks of this event, some who believed in this one Man stood up before the Jewish religious authorities and declared how they had hung Him on a tree (Acts 5:30). They did not do so in shame or in defeat; instead, they did it in power and victory! They did so because this one Man was no ordinary person; He was Jesus of Nazareth, whom God had raised up as a means by which Israel (and later, all nations) would receive repentance and remission of sins (Acts 5:30-31). How could this be?

These people who believed in Jesus had earlier established that Jesus suffered death on the cross to fulfill the words of the Law and the prophets (cf. Acts 3:18). On the third day God raised Him up in power and He now rules as Lord (Acts 2:23-24, 36). A lot of people, when confronted with a story such as the one told regarding Jesus, would be tempted to minimize the humiliation, suffering, and shame, or at least not boldly proclaim it. Yet these early Christians did not just say that Jesus was crucified; they spoke about His death on the cross in the very language of Deuteronomy 21:22-23, well expressed in Acts 10:39:

“And we are witnesses of all things which he did both in the country of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom also they slew, hanging him on a tree.”

It would seem as if the early Christians, to an extent, gloried in how Jesus died on the tree, and therefore was accursed!

Another early Christian, Paul, would explain why Jesus’ method of execution, the cross, was so critical for the work which He came to do.

In Galatians 3:10 Paul quotes Deuteronomy 27:26 and declares that all who are of the law are under a curse: they have subscribed to do the law but have actually not kept the law. Therefore, according to the law, they are accursed of God. Then, in Galatians 3:13-14, Paul explains how Jesus Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us as it is written in Deuteronomy 21:21-22!

This is why early Christians talked about Jesus’ death in the way they did: Jesus was not accursed because of anything He did. He took on Himself the curse with which all who have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God are accursed; He who had no sin and did no wrong God made to be sin on our behalf so that we could be forgiven of our sins (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus, in “his own self[,] bare our sins in his body upon the tree” (1 Peter 2:24)!

It might have been just a small detail in one case law among others, but that detail was there for a reason. Jesus became accursed so that accursed humans could be set free from sin and death. Jesus endured capital punishment to redeem and restore sinful humanity. Let us praise God for His wonderful grace and mercy, and let us die to sin and live to righteousness through Him by whose wounds we are healed!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Mark of True Discipleship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Sacrifice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Blood

And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, that eateth any manner of blood, I will set my face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh atonement by reason of the life. Therefore I said unto the children of Israel, No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood. And whatsoever man there be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, who taketh in hunting any beast or bird that may be eaten; he shall pour out the blood thereof, and cover it with dust. For as to the life of all flesh, the blood thereof is all one with the life thereof: therefore I said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall eat the blood of no manner of flesh; for the life of all flesh is the blood thereof: whosoever eateth it shall be cut off (Leviticus 17:10-14).

There certainly seems to be a lot of blood involved in Christianity.

Many of the popular hymns prominently feature blood; many of its uses would be considered graphic and revolting if taken literally. In song people are encouraged to hide in Jesus’ blood, or request to be drawn near to Jesus’ “bleeding side.” But by far the most common imagery is drawn from Revelation 7:13-14: the saints as having white garments after washing them in the blood of the Lamb. Such an image cannot be taken literally, as anyone who has ever attempted to get bloodstains out of white clothing can attest. Such talk of blood is not limited to song; Christians seem to always be talking about the blood of Christ and cleansing that comes from it. How could an image so graphic and almost grotesque as if understood literally become so powerful in Christianity?

We do well to consider what blood is and why it is important to the body. We have discovered that blood is one of the main transport vehicles throughout the body, bringing oxygen and nutrients to cells throughout the body while taking away carbon dioxide, toxins, and the like. The functions of blood are entirely essential to life; if blood is not flowing to and from a given body part, it will die.

The critical value of blood to life is what makes it so powerful as an image, as we see in Leviticus 17:10-14. God commands Israel to not eat blood, and does so with some vehemence. The reasoning behind the prohibition should interest us greatly in both of its dimensions: the life of flesh is in the blood, and it is given upon the altar to make atonement. Blood makes atonement by virtue of the life it represents (cf. Leviticus 17:11).

Blood, therefore, represents life. The great interest in the Bible and in song regarding the blood of Jesus is really a strong interest in the life of Jesus which was offered up and sacrificed for our sins (Hebrews 7:26-28, 9:11-26). This imagery is only possible because of the second aspect of blood as life as declared by God in Leviticus: a life can be given to atone for another life. In the Old Testament, animals were sacrificed upon the altar in order to accomplish this atonement (Leviticus 4:1-35, 17:11). Yet, as the Hebrew author demonstrates, the blood of bulls and goats could not truly atone for sin (Hebrews 10:4). The Hebrew author goes on to explain how Jesus’ life, represented by His shed blood, proved fully sufficient to atone for sin (Hebrews 10:5-18). There is no other offering of blood (thus, life) that needs to be added to what Jesus gave; thus all animal sacrifices are concluded. Jesus’ life can provide atonement and thus life for all mankind (Hebrews 7:24-26)!

Another potent image for atonement is cleanliness; that which has been ritually cleansed is pure and holy and suitable for God. In Leviticus, the holy place (the Tabernacle) and the holy people (the priests) were consecrated and made holy through the sprinkling of anointing oil and blood (Leviticus 8:1-36). This makes no sense literally; oil and blood do not get anything physically clean. But the physical actions are the means by which the spiritual reality can be established: the blood, as representing the life of the slain sin offering, is devoted to God for the atonement of sin, and thus becomes holy, communicating holiness to whatever it touches (cf. Leviticus 6:24-30). This is how blood can provide cleansing power: not on account of any physical property of blood, but through faith in God in the atonement that comes through the offering of a life for a life and the sanctification of first the offering and then the one who provided the offering.

There is, therefore, wonderful working power in the blood, particularly in the life of which the blood is the concrete representation. The power is not found in the physical property of blood, although the centrality of blood to the proper functioning of the body is what gives meaning to the imagery. The power comes from God and the means by which He provides the opportunity for atonement, or cleansing, from sin and its consequences, and the restoration of relationship with Him. When we consider the image of blood in Scripture, in song, or in preaching and teaching, let us think soberly about the life which the blood is representing, and be ever thankful for the gift of life which we enjoy, both now in the flesh and eternally in the spirit and in the resurrection thanks to Jesus and His life which He freely offered for our atonement!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Persecuted for Righteousness’ Sake

“Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets that were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12).

It might seem that Jesus has left the strangest for last.

Most of Jesus’ “beatitudes” have been counter-intuitive or inconsistent with the norm. When we think of who is blessed, happy, or fortunate, the poor, those in mourning, the meek, those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers do not necessarily come to mind (cf. Matthew 5:3-9). We tend to associate happiness with more material prosperity and more favorable circumstances than those. Jesus is aware of this, and such is likely a major driver of why He begins His “Sermon on the Mount” this way. He is attempting to overthrow expectations, helping people to see things in a different and fresh way, and finding the “silver lining” and the true righteousness that can be found in many unpopular positions.

But to consider those who are being persecuted for righteousness’ sake as being happy, fortunate, or blessed is extremely counter-intuitive and entirely inconsistent with the norm. To expect anyone to rejoice and be glad when they are reproached and persecuted unjustly seems extremely loony to a lot of people. It also seems entirely unjust, unfair, and difficult to swallow!

We must first consider the oddity that is persecution for doing what is right. We all have a built-in “fairness meter” governing our lives. When we do good things, we expect to receive good things in return; likewise, when we know we have done bad things, we expect bad things in return. If we face persecution and reproach, we are first likely to wonder if we have done something wrong. If we have done wrong and suffer for it, that seems about right (cf. 1 Peter 2:20). But if we are doing good, and we are standing up for love, mercy, and compassion, living righteously and a benefit to others, and yet we are reviled, persecuted, or reproached for it, we feel doubly wronged: not only are we experiencing the unpleasantness of the persecution, but it is in return for being nice!

This would become a challenge for the Christians of Asia Minor which Peter addresses throughout his first letter, particularly in 1 Peter 2:18-25; in that passage one can clearly hear the echoes of Jesus in the “Sermon on the Mount.” Jesus understands the challenge this particular principle poses for people; of all the “beatitudes,” this is the one whose message is essentially repeated twice, one time in the abstract (“blessed are they that…,” Matthew 5:10), and then again with direct application (“blessed are ye when…,” Matthew 5:11). In fact, it is the only “personalized beatitude,” directly including Jesus’ audience.

Jesus knows how persecution and reproach will come on account of living righteously for His sake, but why? He appeals to the example of the prophets that came beforehand (Matthew 5:12): in Luke 6:22-23, 26, we have the full contrast between the “blessing” of being persecuted for righteousness’ sake as the prophets experienced, and the woe befalling those of whom all speak well as the false prophets experienced.

We do well to consider the prophets. The prophets stood for God’s truth and accomplished amazing things for the people through the power of God. Elijah and Elisha both raised the dead and brought deliverance in various forms to the people of Israel (cf. 1 Kings 16:1-2 Kings 8:6). Prophets like Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel brought the message of God to Israel, exhorting the people to repent while time remained. They did not sin against the people: they did not extort people out of what was theirs, they were not persuaded by a bribe, they did not pervert justice for or against the disadvantaged or the privileged, or any such thing. Nevertheless, very few people paid them any heed. Those in Israel who were extorting from the people, accepting bribes, perverting justice toward the advantaged, and so on worked diligently to undermine these prophets and caused them great harm. Many were mistreated. Some were even killed (cf. Matthew 21:35-36). Yet, in the end, the prophets proved faithful to God, and received their reward (cf. Hebrews 11:32-38).

Such experiences were not pleasant; there are many times in Jeremiah’s writings where we can discern the prophet’s agony and emotional turmoil about the message with which he was sent, its implications, and the reactions of the people. And yet he fully trusted in God despite the actions of the people!

Why did the prophets come to such grief? The message God gave them would be fine and dandy as long as they kept it to themselves and lived their own lives by it. Yet it became a threat the minute it was proclaimed to others: it threatened the existing power systems, it threatened people’s worldviews, underlying assumptions, and much of what they clung to for comfort. It exposed the darkness and evil in their lives. God’s message was uncomfortable, and it was always easier to dismiss, harm, or kill the messenger than it was to endure what was proclaimed, take it to heart, and change.

Therefore, even though it seems counter-intuitive, we can understand how one would be persecuted, reviled, and spoken evil of for being righteous in Jesus’ name. It would be one thing if Christianity is something we keep to ourselves and only seek to apply it to our own lives. But when that life is seen by others, and proclaimed to others, it becomes a threat to existing power structures, worldviews, underlying assumptions, things which people find comfortable, and it exposes the evil and darkness in people. It remains easier to dismiss, injure, or kill the messenger than it is to heed the message, take it to heart, and change.

So how can we find joy in such events? We must be very careful about this; far too many take this principle and distort it toward ungodliness, seeking to proclaim Jesus’ message in adversarial and hostile ways, and using the inevitable “persecution” and reviling that comes as a response as the automatic justification for the behavior. We can experience persecution as easily by sanctimonious, harsh, angry, and inflammatory words and deeds as by truly living righteously, and we are deluded by the Evil One whenever we think that we are experiencing the latter despite having done the former. As in all things, Jesus is to be our example (cf. 1 Peter 2:21-25). He made a firm stand against the religious authorities but taught the regular people with compassion. He went about doing good and was condemned, beaten, and crucified for doing so. And, in the end, the joy was His, since He accomplished God’s purposes and is now the Author and Perfecter of the faith of those who come to Him (cf. Hebrews 12:1-2).

As the Hebrew author said, Jesus despised the shame (Hebrews 12:2), and He could only do that by finding the joy that could come from being persecuted and reviled. If we are humbly living before God, respectfully living and speaking God’s truth, live in righteousness and justice, and receive evil for it, we need not be ashamed. We must despise that shame, and we can only do that by recognizing how fortunate we are to be able to follow in the footsteps of the prophets, Jesus, and the Apostles.

It is no fun to experience persecution, but the reward for suffering despite speaking and living righteously and justly is great. Let us continue to place our trust in God no matter how we appear before men, despise the shame, and glorify God our Savior!

Ethan R. Longhenry