Know That I Am YHWH

And the slain shall fall in the midst of you, and ye shall know that I am the LORD (Ezekiel 6:7).

Thus we see the first example of a persistent theme throughout Ezekiel’s prophecies– the LORD (YHWH) has made a decree of violence, pestilence, plague, and famine against Judah and Jerusalem, and when the terrible events of the destruction of Jerusalem and Temple and the Babylonian Captivity come upon the people of Judah, they will know that “I am YHWH.” This phrase– “they/you will know that I am YHWH”– occurs repeatedly throughout Ezekiel (e.g. Ezekiel 6:10, 13, 14, 7:4, 7:27, 11:10, etc.). But why is this such a major theme in Ezekiel?

Is it because the Israelites do not know anything about YHWH? One would be forgiven for receiving such an impression throughout the Old Testament. Yet we see in Ezekiel 8:12 that the people speak about YHWH; false prophets bring messages of peace to the people in the name of YHWH (Ezekiel 13:2, 10). If you were to ask the people of Judah about YHWH, they would agree that YHWH is God, that He is the God of Israel, and even that He delivered the Israelites out of the land of Egypt long before. So how come we have this persistent declaration that the people of Judah will know that “I am YHWH”?

Is it because they do not believe that YHWH is Lord? This again is hard to believe. While other prophets speak in the name of YHWH, Ezekiel often declares that he speaks in the name of “Lord YHWH” (cf. Ezekiel 2:4, 3:11, etc.; this is often missed in translation because it will be rendered as Lord GOD or something of the sort). We never see anyone challenging Ezekiel, declaring that YHWH really is not Lord. Furthermore, we do not see God saying that the people of Judah will know that He is “Lord YHWH.” No; Lord YHWH is speaking to them, declaring that they will “know that I am YHWH.”

So if the people of Judah know that YHWH is God, Lord, even the God of Israel, why do they have to learn that He is YHWH?

The people of Judah do not really accept that He is YHWH, for they have been serving other gods and committing all sorts of abominations (cf. Ezekiel 6:3-13, 8:5-18). They might admit that YHWH is God, and that He is the God of Israel, but that does not stop them from believing in Tammuz the god of the Mesopotamians, the Baals, Molech, the Queen of Heaven, and to do all sorts of things that YHWH condemned.

Ezekiel is rather likely going beyond the surface of the statement to its inner meaning. Sure, Israel believes that YHWH is her God. But YHWH is not just “a” god– He is God, the Existent One. In Ezekiel 8:12 some of the people believe that YHWH does not see them. How can the Existent One not see them? How can they think that the Existent One is not entirely and always aware of their thoughts, intentions, and actions?

Therefore, the Israelites know YHWH only as one god among many; they do not know YHWH as the Existent One, the One, the Only, All-Sovereign God. They will only come to terms with this reality when everything they have is taken from them. Only then can they see clearly that all the other gods are nothing, and in serving them they have offended the Existent One.

Do people today know YHWH? Most people profess to know God the Father and the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Most people believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, that He is Lord, that there is a heaven and a hell– and most believe that they are going to heaven. But do they really know YHWH the Existent One? Not when they go and serve other gods; not when they hold firm to their own views of how God “must be” even if those are contrary to the way that He has revealed Himself; not when they pursue after the things God warns His people to avoid, and run from the things which God tells His people to pursue. We only can demonstrate that we know Lord YHWH when we submit to His Son to seek to accomplish His will and not our own (Romans 12:1, Galatians 2:20).

The day is coming when everyone will know that “I am YHWH” (Acts 17:30-31, Romans 2:5-11, Philippians 2:9-11). And, just as with Israel, when that day comes, it will be too late for the people to come to repentance (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, Hebrews 9:27). It will be a fearful day if we only come to know that “I am YHWH” on the final day, having spent our lives in foolishness that greatly offended the Existent One. Should we think that the Existent One is not entirely and always aware of our thoughts, intentions, and actions? Should we be so foolish as to think that “YHWH does not see us”–or, its modern variant, “God is dead”? The Existent One is always there. It is in Him that we live, move, and have our being (Acts 17:28); nothing will escape His notice. Everything will come under judgment. Therefore, let us submit to the Existent One as He truly is while we still have time– let us serve God the Father through the Lord Jesus Christ and know that He is YHWH!

Ethan R. Longhenry

I Am in Their Midst

“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).

For generations this verse has been a great comfort to many believers, for it provides confirmation that as they come together, the Lord is in their midst. Sadly, the verse sometimes gets abused and misused, especially when it is taken out of its context and turned into a proof-text. Nevertheless, in context, Jesus’ statement is a poignant reminder about what much of Christianity is all about and the challenge we face in obtaining godliness.

It is not as if God is not present if there are not at least two believers together, for in God we live, move, and have our being, as Paul affirms in Acts 17:27-28. While this message certainly applies to the assembly of believers, and even small groups of believers, we should not assume that somehow the Lord is only in our midst when together. Yes, the church as a whole is the Temple of the Holy Spirit, with Christ as its Head (1 Corinthians 3:9, 16-17, Ephesians 5:22-32); yet this remains true when the church is dispersed and its individual members strive to serve the Lord in their lives as much as when they come together to encourage one another (1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Hebrews 10:24-25).

In order to appreciate Jesus’ emphasis we must turn to the context of this verse. In Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus has made a powerful case for Christians to be reconciled to one another when transgression has separated them. He then confirms the authority that He is granting to the Apostles as a group in Matthew 18:18– what they bind and loose on earth will have been bound and loosed in Heaven. And then, in Matthew 18:19, Jesus declares that when believers pray in accord and agreement, God grants their request.

The substance of these verses is not as disparate as it might seem. All of the issues surround one of the greatest issues in Christianity– the imperative of unity among believers.

This unity certainly includes doctrinal unity but goes far beyond it. In order to be one and to work together, believers must be on the same page about what God has taught and what God wants them to do (1 Corinthians 1:10). Yet, as anyone who has ever worked closely with others in a relationship knows well, just because there is agreement on what is true and what must be done does not necessitate that there will be unity. Unity is something for which believers must work. Unity demands reconciliation when transgressions take place (Matthew 18:15-17). Unity demands agreement on what is true and right so as to put the right into effect (Matthew 18:18).

And, ultimately, God wants to bless Christians in unity, for when Christians are truly unified– in spirit and work as much as belief– they reflect and honor the relational unity present within God. The Scriptures reveal that God is one (Deuteronomy 6:4), yet that there are three Persons in the Godhead– God the Father (John 8:17-18), God the Son (John 1:1, 14), and God the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). God is in three Persons, but God is one, because God is one in essence, nature, substance, will, and purpose. The unity of God is relational unity, and the Lord Jesus wants this relational unity for His followers, as He says in John 17:20-23:

“Neither for these only do I pray, but for them also that believe on me through their word; that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us: that the world may believe that thou didst send me. And the glory which thou hast given me I have given unto them; that they may be one, even as we are one; I in them, and thou in me, that they may be perfected into one; that the world may know that thou didst send me, and lovedst them, even as thou lovedst me.”

God wants believers to be relationally unified, not only with each other, but also with Him. This is why God is so willing to grant the petitions of believers who seek the same advancement of His purposes (Matthew 18:19; yet cf. James 4:3). And this, in a profound way, is how Jesus is in the midst of two or three gathered in His name.

We should not imagine that Jesus is “in the midst of” two or three gathered together in His name in pretense only, smoldering with hostility toward one another. To be gathered together in His name demands that we are truly gathered together– that we confess Him as Lord, seek to do what He says to do, and to do so as one people, one body. The Lord is in our midst as our Head when we come together and work together as His one Body (Ephesians 4:4-6). In short, when we as believers work together as one, we also are one with God, as Jesus intended from the beginning.

Jesus is in our midst when we come together in His name and we act like it– even though we might come from different backgrounds, ethnicities, classes, etc., we ought to come together as one people in the Lord, being one as He and the Father and the Spirit are one, relationally unified with each other and therefore with God also. This takes a lot of effort– humility and reconciliation are demanded, and the spirit of Philippians 2:1-4 must prevail among us. Let us therefore seek to be one as God is one, in belief, doctrine, will, purpose, and thus practice, be one with God, and honor the Lord Jesus Christ in our midst!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The God of the Old and New Testaments

Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass (1 Samuel 15:3).

Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10).

How could God command the death of children and animals just because they were not Israelites? How can God be a “God of love” in the New Testament but command so much death and bloodshed in the Old? The Bible seems like it has two different gods– the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament!

These questions and declarations represent a major stumbling-block for many people. They involve very difficult issues. If we are honest with ourselves, we will confess that there have been times when we have been bothered by these matters even if our confidence in God was not terribly shaken by it. There does seem to be quite the disconnect– in the days of Israel, God told Israel to devote many Canaanites and Amalekites, among others, under the ban, meaning that everything– all people and property– was to be devoted to destruction (e.g. 1 Samuel 15). 1000 to 1500 years later, we read that this same God sends His Son to die on a cross for all men to make the greatest display of love (1 John 4:7-21). At one point, He is ordering execution for humanity; the next, His Son is dying for humanity. How can this be?

It does us no good to pretend that we can come up with a completely satisfying answer; there is none. This is a difficulty. While there are things we must keep in mind, and we can find a way through which to look at these events demonstrating how God is at least consistent, many of the Old Testament stories will remain offensive to modern sensibilities. They remain quite uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, we must remember that there is a very big difference between the old and new covenants, and that there are reasons why the first century of this era, and not before, was the “acceptable time” for salvation to come (cf. 2 Corinthians 6:2). The ancient world, especially the ancient Near East, was not a peaceful place. In societal terms, you killed or you were killed; you overran or you were overrun. Today, we read stories of devoting everything and everyone to destruction and we are horrified. Then, they would hear such stories and understand that they simply reflected reality. If you lost the war and the enemy took your land, and you were an adult male, you would likely be executed quickly. If you had a wife, odds are that she would be first raped, then enslaved. If it was your unfortunate lot to have a virgin daughter approaching the age of marriageability, she would become the wife of one of your enemies whether she liked the idea or not. Any young sons you might have would either become slaves or would be executed (cf. Deuteronomy 20:10-14). This was not something unique to Israel; this was consistent throughout the world of the day.

And there was a logic to it. This was a day and time of vengeance and retribution (cf. Judges 13-16). Adult men who had lost the war and had been humiliated might submit outwardly but would remain rebellious inwardly, looking for any opportunity to obtain vengeance for his loss and humiliation. The same is true with young boys. Yes, they are innocent at the moment of death, but what would happen when they grew up? If they maintained a sense of identity based on their ancestry, they would seek vengeance. As for women, Numbers 25:1-6 graphically displays their seductive and idolatrous influence upon men. While this might not have been a concern for other nations in the ancient Near East, it was of preeminent concern in Israel (cf. Exodus 20:1-6). The Canaanites needed to be entirely obliterated because otherwise they would lead Israel into sin through idolatry (cf. Deuteronomy 20:10-18). Notice that Israel ultimately did not devote all of the Canaanites to destruction, and the Israelites ultimately fell prey to the idolatry of Canaan (cf. Judges 1-2; 2 Kings 17:7-23, 2 Chronicles 36:15-21).

The other reason often given is the great sinfulness of the Canaanites: the men and women directly participated in the sin, thus “deserving” the death, and the children were killed to spare their souls from the destruction to which they were headed by following after their parents (cf. Genesis 15:16). Such logic might be appealing as a reason, but there is little consistency in it– by the same logic, God should have devoted everyone on earth under the same ban, even Israel, and all children should be executed to spare them the stain of sin that is inevitably coming (cf. Romans 3:23).

So even if this all represents reality on the ground during the days of Israel, how can we make sense of it in terms of the new covenant? How come God seems to do quite the 180 when it comes to humanity in general?

It depends on the way in which one looks at the situation. If one is looking in terms of those people who died because they were devoted under the ban, sure, it looks pretty bad. But through the lens of Israel– the people of God– how does it look?

God promises to be the God of Israel, and Israel would be His people (Exodus 6:7). Therefore, God has great care and concern for Israel His people and wants to do for them what is in their best interest to keep them secure. The Canaanites represent a significant spiritual threat, tempting the people away from service toward God in order to serve idols. But Amalek was devoted under the ban more because they dared to attack Israel at its weakest, right after they left Egypt, and God promised then to be at war with Amalek for what they had done (cf. Exodus 17:8-16). In short, God commanded Israel to devote some people under the ban in order to protect and cherish Israel His people. That is the logic presented in the Old Testament.

And if we look at the situation through that prism– God commanding a violent and thorough attack on all which is opposed to His people and the destruction of all that is opposed to His people– we find that such remains the case in the New Testament. Under the new covenant, anyone can be part of the Israel of God if they submit to the Lordship of God the Son (cf. Romans 2:25-29, Galatians 6:15-16). What is the enemy that provides a spiritual threat to the people of God today, the enemy tempting people away from serving God and toward serving idols? What is the enemy that threatens the eternal welfare of every person? Satan, sin, and death (Romans 5:12-18, 1 Peter 5:8)! And what has God done regarding Satan, sin, and death? Through Jesus Christ He gained the victory over all of them, and on the last day, Satan, sin, and death will be devoted to destruction (Romans 8:1-8, 1 Corinthians 15:23-28, Revelation 20:10-15)! The conditions and situations are more parallel and consistent than we would perhaps like to admit!

The God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament. God the Son, in fact, can be seen as acting in both (1 Corinthians 10:1-6, Jude 1:5)! In both the Old and New Testaments, God has loved and displayed great mercy toward His people, desiring that they would follow Him while opposing all enemies that would lead them astray. Under both covenants God devoted under the ban all those enemies who threatened the welfare and prosperity of His people. The way that God worked in the Old Testament may offend modern sensibilities, but modern people desperately need the love of God and salvation in Him, and modern people should be as resolutely opposed to Satan, sin, and death as Israel was to be resolutely opposed to Canaan and Amalek. Even though it remains a difficulty, let us appreciate that the essential nature of God does not change, and be thankful that we all can share in His love and be delivered through Him from our enemies!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Choice

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse: therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed; to love the LORD thy God, to obey his voice, and to cleave unto him; for he is thy life, and the length of thy days; that thou mayest dwell in the land which the LORD sware unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).

It was a deal that they should not have refused.

The LORD had been quite faithful to Israel. He delivered them with His strong hand out of the house of bondage and slavery in Egypt. He had led them throughout the parched desert wilderness; He had given them His instruction; He sustained them despite terrible conditions; He had even given them military success against their foes. He was about to fulfill another promise He had made to their ancestors– He was going to give them an inheritance in the land of Canaan.

So much promise; so many blessings. And yet God was willing to give even more– the hope of long and prosperous life in the land which He was giving them. It seemed so wonderful!

But there was a “catch.” Israel had to choose to follow God and His instruction. Over the generations, many would choose God and life. In pretense, most made the same choice. But, in practice, too many acted in ways contrary to God’s purposes and thus chose a curse and death!

But what would we think about God if He did not give them that choice? What if God compelled and coerced them into choosing life and blessing, and they had no real opportunity to refuse? Or what if He compelled them to choose death so as to display His wrath? What kind of God would we think Him to be?

There are many who think that such is the way God really is. To them, humans are really just puppets of some divine force. They feel as if we are all on some kind of supernatural strings and all direction is coming from elsewhere. In such a view humans ultimately have no choice: they are what they are from their genes and from the impulses they follow.

Yet such a view of God is not consistent with the revelation of God throughout Scripture. God wants all men to come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), just as He exhorted Israel to choose to follow Him and to receive life and blessings. God greatly desires for us to choose Him and to walk in His ways, but there is no compulsion or coercion to do so!

Think about it for a moment: if God was going to be the sadistic monster of a divinity that many make Him out to be, why would He make such agonizing pleas to Israel so that they would repent (cf. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea)? Why would He send His Son to experience such terrible cruelty if He just intended to still show people cruelty (cf. Romans 8:32-39)? Why would He bother with the creation after mankind sinned and it was corrupted with decay (Genesis 3, Romans 8:20-25)?

God’s commitment to man’s free will is very strong. Consider everything God has done to facilitate man’s salvation: He has given the creation, He has sent His Son to die for our sins, and through Him He has promised eternity in the resurrection and every spiritual blessing (Genesis 1:1-2:3, Romans 8:1-39, Ephesians 1:3). He has constantly exhorted His people, be it the Patriarchs, physical Israel, or spiritual Israel, to live according to His instruction. Wouldn’t it have been much easier for God to just compel us to do what He wants? How much heartache He would have saved Himself had He just fashioned mankind to do everything He told them to do!

Yet, as we know all too well, God did not make us that way. For whatever reason known to Him and not to us, God wants us to choose to serve Him, not to be forced into doing so. He has been willing to suffer the anguish of seeing His people turn their backs to Him, rebel against Him, and suffer the consequences both here and in the hereafter. Yet He still shows love toward mankind, having sent His Son to manifest His characteristics in the flesh and to provide the way to eternal life (Hebrews 1:3, 1 John 4:7-21)!

We are not pawns or robots in some contrived supernatural machine. For better and worse, we have been created as free moral agents, and the loving Creator God beckons us to choose Him, and in so doing, choose blessings and life. This is not a guarantee that life will be a walk in the park, but is the assurance that if we seek to serve Him, God will always be there for us, will love us, and will ultimately reward us beyond our imagination (Romans 8:17-39). Therefore let us all choose God and thus life, and be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Thou Shalt Not Kill

Thou shalt not kill (Exodus 20:13).

God made human beings distinct from other creatures. Humans, not birds or fish or any other creatures, were made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). Much can be said about the importance of understanding the results of the fact that man is made in the image of God; one aspect of this involves the sanctity of human life.

After sin and death entered the world, an important distinction was made and upheld in Genesis 9:2-6. Humans could kill and eat animals as they wished, but it was not for man to kill another man. The strictest punishment was enacted against those who took the lives of others with malice aforethought– they were to be killed themselves (Genesis 9:6).

It is not surprising, then, that right after God establishes for Israel the importance of honoring father and mother, He declares that the Israelites shall not kill. Capital punishment was required when evidence was sufficient to prove the crime (Numbers 35:30-31).

For the most part, even to this day, we understand why killing other people is not a good idea. First degree and second degree murder is understandably cruel and intolerable for any society. This has been true throughout all societies and cultures throughout the generations. Whenever such murder was rampant, it precipitated or was precipitated by a complete collapse of social order. There can be no real trust among human beings if “you shall not murder” is not a generally accepted law, and without that trust, there cannot be cooperation, and without cooperation, we flounder.

Most people consider involuntary manslaughter and other forms of death at the hands of another person, whether intentional or unintentional, as tragic. Most people understand that such should not be the case.

The great challenge about this command, however, is how many times we see Israelites killing others. Ethnic cleansing was commanded in Joshua; the history of Israel as reflected in Judges through 2 Chronicles is full of episodes of killing, many of them at God’s direction. On account of this, many make the distinction that God is really addressing murder in a civil context in Exodus 20 and not a military context.

Nevertheless, we should emphasize that it was not God’s intent for any person to take the life of any other person for whatever reason (Ezekiel 18:32). The inhabitants of Canaan were slated for destruction because of their great sinfulness (Genesis 15:16, Deuteronomy 20:14-18). Execution was acceptable only when sin had been committed and proven.

In general, therefore, we understand the seriousness of murder. Very, very few of us would ever imagine that we would find ourselves in the position of killing another person. We understand the “Golden Rule,” that we should do to others as we would have them do to us (Luke 16:31), or at least, in this case, the negative version: just as we do not want to be murdered, thus, we know that we should not murder. Killing disrespects the gift of life that God has bestowed upon another.

Ultimately, we are not to kill because we are to love everyone (Matthew 5:43-48, Luke 10:27-39, Romans 13:8). This means that we must love the unlovable just as the one more easily loved. If we take a life, for whatever reason, we have taken it upon ourselves to end that person’s opportunities to repent and change their ways. God was being patient, yet we, if we kill, are not (2 Peter 3:9). Instead, we do well to seek to direct all people toward the Source of that which truly is life so as to avoid the second death (cf. Revelation 20-22). Let us not kill but respect our fellow humans who are made in God’s image!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Second Commandment

“Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them” (Exodus 20:4-5a).

YHWH has delivered His people from slavery and bondage (Exodus 6-14), and has already provided the first command– Israel was to have no other gods before/beside YHWH (Exodus 20:3).

The second command is like it– Israel shall not make a “graven image” or a “likeness of any thing” so as not to bow down to it or serve it (Exodus 20:4-5a).

In the ancient Near Eastern context, of which Israel was a part, this command makes sense and is entirely necessary. Pretty much every culture believed in various gods– and every god had his or her representation. Dagon had his statue (1 Samuel 5:2-4); the Asherah was a wooden pillar (Judges 6:25-26). While some people might have actually believed that the statue was their god, most understood it as a representation of what their god really was.

YHWH, as the One True God, the Creator God, is utterly distinct. His very name– “Yahweh”– does not come with some meaning about power or lordship. Instead, it means “the Existent One.” YHWH does not need to have some “power name.” He exists; that is sufficient. And, as Paul will later explain, since God exists, and in Him all people live and dwell and have their being, God cannot really be represented by any image of any creature or anything of the sort (Acts 17:28-29).

Therefore, as Isaiah will later make very clear, if you can fashion a “god,” it ceases to have any real power (cf. Isaiah 44:9-20). If you can imagine it, build it, or even bow down to it, it’s not really God– it’s an idol of some form or another.

This idea was quite strange to people in the days of Israel. In order to serve God in truth they would have to act differently from every other nation in the world. The pressure of being distinct in this way proved too much– before Israel even makes it to Canaan, they serve Baal of Peor (Numbers 25:1-3). The story of the next five hundred years of Israel often features Israel’s service to other gods, bowing down to statues (cf. 2 Kings 17:7-23). This, in part, led to the exile of Israel and Judah.

Nevertheless, we must notice two things: first, that YHWH already commanded Israel to not have any other gods beside Him, and second, that He does not explicitly mention any other gods in the second commandment. This is due to a much more insidious form of idolatry that also overwhelmed Israel.

It would have been one thing if Israel made statues of other gods and bowed down to them– still wrong, indeed, still a violation of the first commandment– but Israel dared to make images and to call those images YHWH, attempting to represent the incomparable and transcendent Creator of the universe with a statue of a golden calf.

It first took place while Moses was on Mount Sinai (Exodus 32:1-4); it would happen again in the days of Jeroboam son of Nebat king of Israel (1 Kings 12:26-33). And it is precisely this thing which concerns God in the second commandment.

The image of the golden calf became too pervasive, especially in the Kingdom of Israel. Even though Jehu removed the idolatrous service of Baal, he left the golden calves as they stood (cf. 2 Kings 10:26-31). This idolatry is one of the reasons given by God as to why He exiled Israel (2 Kings 17:22-23).

Throughout time many have wondered why people who knew better than to serve other gods still bowed down to the golden calf. The answer is probably a bit more simple than we would like to imagine– once the image is in one’s head, it is very difficult to remove it. Jeroboam makes the golden calves and tells Israel that these are the gods that delivered them from Egypt (1 Kings 12:28). Therefore, when the people hear all the stories about YHWH and His saving acts, they start thinking of the golden calf. The mental association is there throughout time. Even if a prophet stands up in the name of YHWH to speak, when he speaks of YHWH, of what will the people think but that golden calf? And if any declaration is made about destroying the calf, the people will think that you are destroying YHWH, and such is intolerable!

In reality, it would have been stranger had Israel given up the calves and began going to Jerusalem to the Temple to bow down before YHWH there. Images have more power over us than we would like to admit.

And therein is the key to understanding the challenge of the second commandment for us today. While it is true that we are not likely to make an actual, physical image of something and bow down to it, such does not make us immune from making mental images to which we bow down metaphorically.

It is true that we have to have some mental conception about something about God. We obtain that from His Word– God as love, God as holy, God as represented fully in Jesus of Nazareth (1 John 4:8, Leviticus 19:2, Colossians 2:9). But we get ourselves into the same trouble Israel did when we start making up our own definitions of the way God “must be.”

We can imagine that God “must be” a certain way– loving like a grandparent, someone who would never allow us to suffer pain, someone who privileges us and/or our nation, or a thousand other things– but there is no reason at all why God “must be” that way. God only “must be” what He is, and we only understand as much as He has revealed about Himself in that regard. Whenever we limit God by our declarations of how we “must be” we act no differently than Israel did– we have just set up our own “golden calf,” our own view of God to worship.

Therefore, when we think of God, we must seek to understand His nature as best we can from His revelation of Himself in Scripture, and know for certain that God is no thing– no thing we can make, imagine, or devise. Let us understand that God is the Existent One, and serve Him today!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The First Commandment

“Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

The great moment is upon Israel. YHWH has delivered Israel from Egypt and slavery with a strong arm and with mighty deeds (Exodus 6-14). He is physically sustaining them in the desert wilderness, seeking to make them His chosen people (Exodus 15-18). He has brought them to His holy mountain, Sinai; they have consecrated themselves; He is speaking, reminding them regarding who He is and what He has done (Exodus 19:1-20:2). God now begins the commandments that Israel must keep to receive the blessing.

When lists are made there is often emphasis placed on that which comes first. Therefore, what is the first commandment that YHWH gives to Israel? What, of all the commands He will give, does He highlight?

That Israel shall have no other gods “against” or “before” His face, if we attempt to render the command more literally. As is often translated, that Israel will have no other gods before/beside Him.

That might seem a little strange to us today. Of all the plagues and difficulties of humanity, YHWH focuses first on other gods? Is YHWH being megalomaniacal or utterly self-possessed, as the Gnostics would later suggest?

We must first understand the mindset of the people who lived in the ancient Near East. Every nation then had its own specific god– a “national god,” if you will. Moab, for example, had Chemosh (Judges 11:24); the Philistines had Dagon (Judges 16:23). If your nation was prosperous and successful, it was evident that your national god was blessing you. If disaster came upon you, then your national god was angry with you. On top of the national gods were the gods of natural forces and things of that sort– El, the head of the Canaanite pantheon, or group of gods; Baal, the storm and fertility god; Astarte his consort; Yam the god of the sea, and so on and so forth. All the nations believed in these gods– even the gods of the foreign nationalities.

Therefore, the temptation was very great for Israel to see YHWH as their national god and believe in all of the other gods of all the people around them. In turn, everyone else would believe that YHWH was the god of Israel, but in no different way than, say, Chemosh was the god of Moab.

What would be the big deal if this happened? If Israel does not understand that YHWH is distinctive and different from all other “gods,” then they will not understand how the law YHWH is giving them is different from the laws of the nations around them. If they accept the religious views of the people around them, they will follow the customs of the people around them. This concern is entirely justified– and this is precisely what will take place in Israel’s history. They will fall into the trap we have described, always understanding that YHWH is the God of Israel, but acting as if He is just one of the divinities of one of the nations of the ancient Near East. Little wonder, then, that they start engaging in the abominations of the world around them!

We must also understand that God’s concern here– idolatry– is one of the most fundamental dangers of life. Paul will later show in Romans 1:18-32 how man’s depravity begins with the rejection of God as the One True God, the Creator, to whom all creation is subject. This rejection takes place when man begins to serve some aspect of the creation rather than the Creator.

A lot of people, when thinking about this idea, think about Egyptian “gods” and their presentation as animals and the like, or people bowing down in fear before the sun, moon, rivers, and being terrified when eclipses and the like take place. All of those are ways that people, throughout time, have taken the creation and turned it into a god or many gods.

But such idolatry does not stop there. The same impulse that led people to make gods out of sun, moon, fire, wind, and water now leads people to make gods out of themselves, money, desire, power, sex, science, their nation, and a whole host of other “gods.” They are all part of the creation that God made as very good (Genesis 1:1-31), but when they are made to be the reason for life, or absolute, they become gods that people serve.

This is why the first– and highlighted– commandment is for Israel to have no other gods before/beside YHWH. This need not mean that YHWH is legitimizing the existence of other “gods”; far from it (cf. Isaiah 44, 1 Corinthians 8). The problem is not that there actually are other gods out there– the problem is that we humans will either serve the One True God or we will invent a god or gods to serve. And then there are the times when we try to do both– to serve YHWH while serving our idols. This cannot be tolerated, not because YHWH is truly megalomaniacal, but because, as Jesus says, when we have more than one god, we will love the one and hate the other, or hold to the one and despise the other (Matthew 6:24). We cannot love YHWH and therefore the Creator and Source of life while we elevate something He made to a position equal or greater to His in our lives.

As Israel was not to have other gods than YHWH, Christians are to guard themselves from idols (1 John 5:21). We must clear all idols from our hearts to serve the One True God. Let us do so and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Healed by His Wounds

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).

Ever since Isaiah 53 was composed it has been a compelling passage. It had special meaning for its author and then for his original audience. It would be the passage which the eunuch was reading and considering in Acts 8:31-34. All sorts of interpretations have been made ever since.

It is likely that, at least in part, Isaiah has a suffering figure in mind in the latter days of the Babylonian exile. God is redeeming Israel again and will again bring her back to the land He promised them– but a particular suffering one will not make it.

Nevertheless, it is a stretch to argue that Isaiah really and completely has himself or some individual of the 6th century BCE in mind. Atonement requires an unblemished offering (e.g. Leviticus 1:3), and neither Isaiah nor someone two hundred years later were unblemished. Sure, they may have suffered because of sin, but they had their own sins against them, too. They could not really accomplish atonement by themselves.

Yet there was a Man concerning whom it was attested that He was tempted but did not sin (Hebrews 4:15). A Man who learned obedience through suffering, who was able to accomplish the atonement of which the Temple system and the previous servant were but a type (cf. Hebrews 7:23-28, 9:1-15, 10:1-14). This Man was Jesus of Nazareth, of whom Peter testifies:

Who his own self bare our sins in his body upon the tree, that we, having died unto sins, might live unto righteousness; by whose stripes ye were healed (1 Peter 2:24).

Peter explicitly identifies Jesus of Nazareth with the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53. It was by the stripes upon Jesus– His scourging– that we are healed (Isaiah 53:5, 1 Peter 2:24; cf. Matthew 27:26).

When we think about it for a moment, we can perceive that Isaiah 53:5 really sets up a series of absurd statements. He was wounded for our transgressions? The chastisement of our peace was upon Him? We receive healing through His wounding? This does not really make any human sense whatsoever. Wounds injure and cause pain– they do not heal. Peace and chastisement are poles apart. If someone else gets abused because of our misdeeds, we otherwise would call that injustice and oppression, since if anyone deserves abuse for misdeeds, it is those who commit those misdeeds!

Yet this absurdity is precisely the point, for it gets us to the ultimate absurdity: in order to demonstrate God’s love, Jesus had to suffer great pain (Romans 5:6-11).

This concept poses a challenge to some people. What kind of God is this who shows His love by causing someone to suffer? It sounds disconcerting, to say the least!

In other contexts, however, this same impulse is extremely praiseworthy. How many stories have we read, or movies have we seen, that feature some character willing to suffer in order to protect or defend a loved one? Do we not consider it praiseworthy when someone is willing to give up a kidney or bone marrow or some other part of their body to another so that the latter can continue to live? Another compelling story in the Scriptures is found in Genesis 44: Judah, who had previously proved willing to sell Joseph into slavery, is now willing to stand as surety for Benjamin his brother, to suffer the penalty of the latter for the sake of their father.

If we can appreciate all of these examples as expressions of human love for one another, how much more should we appreciate God’s ultimate demonstration of love as expressed through Jesus of Nazareth? God did not want us to have to pay the true penalty for sin– eternal separation from Him and torment (cf. Romans 6:23, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). There is nothing that we humans could ever do in order to redeem ourselves or pay for our sins since we have all sinned, and no law could ever make us righteous once we have broken it (cf. Romans 3:9-20). If redemption were to be accomplished, it would have to be done by God Himself.

Therefore, the Word, the Son of God and God the Son, was willing to humble Himself, taking on the form of Jesus of Nazareth, to learn obedience through His suffering, to pay the penalty for us. He endured the beatings and crucifixion so that we did not have to endure eternal torture for our sin. He suffered chastisement in order to fulfill the demands of the law to set it aside, to kill hostility between people, and make peace between God and man and man with one another (cf. Ephesians 2:11-18). His wounds allow us to be cleansed from sin and to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3-7).

The powerful and compelling message of Isaiah 53:5 is only matched by its fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth. We can only imagine the terrible suffering that He endured on that final day so long ago. Yet we can– and must– at times bring it to mind. We must consider how the whip abused His back, how the thorns pressed deeply into His scalp, and how the nails tore through His wrists and ankles. And, all the while, we must remember that it was accomplished for us. It was by every one of those wounds that we are healed.

A humbling expression of love– and such is its intent. Let us reflect on Christ’s suffering and live for Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Foundation of the Law

“I am YHWH thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2).

The climactic moment was upon them.

YHWH had delivered His people Israel out of Egypt with a mighty hand. The Egyptians now knew that He is YHWH and they feared His name, and for good reason– they saw the devastation of their country with the plagues and the destruction of their army in the Red Sea (Exodus 7-14). As God had promised Moses, He brought the people to serve Him on Mount Sinai (cf. Exodus 3:12). He was sustaining Israel with manna and water from His hand, and brought them victory in war (Exodus 15-18). Furthermore, Israel had been preparing themselves for three days, cleansing themselves, becoming a consecrated people, trembling before the power of God manifest on Sinai (Exodus 19).

And now God begins to speak. And the first thing He declares to all Israel is something they should already know– that He is YHWH, that He brought them out of Egypt, and had delivered them from slavery! Why would this be the way that God begins the declaration of His law for Israel?

First of all, we must remember that while YHWH is speaking directly to the Israelites standing before Him around 1450 BCE, He is also speaking to every Israelite who would follow for 1500 years. While those Israelites who were the ones actually delivered from slavery would remember it, future generations might not.

The statement is not something over which we should just gloss and move on. God’s declaration of being the One who delivered them from Egypt and bondage is, in fact, the foundation of the Law He is about to establish.

Let us think about this for a moment. Why does YHWH wait until this point to give Israel His Law? By all accounts, it would have been more convenient if YHWH had revealed His Law before the Exodus when it was just Moses upon the mountain (cf. Exodus 3-4). Israel would have known everything that God would expect of them before they even left Egypt. As it stands, God has been working with this people for at least a few months without any operating covenant between them.

Yet if God had given the revelation of His Law directly to Moses before the Exodus, how would that have been accepted by the Israelites? Didn’t they, at some level, have the same question about YHWH as Pharaoh did (cf. Exodus 5:2)? Who is YHWH? Why should we believe in Him or follow what He says? If He is God, why are we in bondage and in terrible distress?

The Exodus and the sojourn in the Wilderness represent YHWH’s demonstration of His power and authority, not just to the nations, but especially to Israel (Exodus 7:1-5, 14:4, 14:30-31, Deuteronomy 8:3). God answers their questions in these actions. Who is YHWH? He is the One who devastated Egypt and delivered Israel from their grip. Why should we believe in Him or follow what He says? Because He has proven Himself to be the One True God, superior to all the “gods” of Egypt, and has delivered us and sustained us by His power alone. YHWH orchestrated all of this so Israel could never declare that it was by her own hand, her own power or strength, that delivered her from Egypt and persevered through the Wilderness. There was to be no doubt, in that generation or in any future generation: YHWH is the powerful God without whom Israel would still be slaves in Egypt.

This is why YHWH’s declaration of Himself as the Deliverer of Israel from Egypt and slavery is the foundation of the Law. It is how He proved His power, love, and compassion upon Israel. Israel can have complete confidence in YHWH’s Law because they can have complete confidence in the power and love of YHWH who delivered them.

Today we Christians live under a new covenant enacted on better promises (cf. Hebrews 8:6). Yet the nature of God has not changed (Malachi 3:6, Hebrews 13:8)! He has acted in similar ways in the inauguration of the new covenant.

While it is true that Jesus provides many of the ethical guidelines for the lives of His disciples while He lived (cf. Matthew 5-7, etc.), He does so as a proclamation of the good news of the Kingdom that is coming (cf. Matthew 4:17, 23). In reality, nothing in the old covenant could be changed until the new was inaugurated (Matthew 5:17-18, Hebrews 9:15-22).

Israel could trust the law of YHWH because He brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. So how can we trust in the law of Christ? Because God, in Christ, brings us out of the land of sin, out of the house of death (Romans 8:1-3). This was attested to us through Jesus’ death and resurrection, the ultimate demonstration of YHWH’s love, mercy, and power (Romans 5:6-11, 1 Corinthians 15:54-58). Whatever questions people might have had about who Jesus was or what He was doing before His death should have been finally and decisively answered in His death and resurrection and the resultant proclamation of the Kingdom of God (Acts 2:1-41, Colossians 1:13).

The foundation of the Law of Moses was YHWH’s deliverance of the Israelites from the hand of Egypt. The foundation of the new covenant between God and man through Jesus the Christ is His death and resurrection. In Jesus’ death and resurrection God defeats sin and death and provides us the means of doing the same (Revelation 12:11). The death and resurrection of Jesus are assurances of His Lordship and of His return to judge the living and the dead (Acts 17:30-31, Philippians 2:5-11). God has definitively acted; we should not doubt, for He has proven His love for us and the basis of our hope of eternal life through the death and resurrection of His Son. Let us serve God to the full!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Sinners and Hypocrites

But when [Jesus] saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion for them, because they were distressed and scattered, as sheep not having a shepherd (Matthew 9:36).

“Ye serpents, ye offspring of vipers, how shall [the Pharisees and scribes] escape the judgment of hell?” (Matthew 23:33)

Much is made of how Jesus responds and reacts to people. It is interesting to see how people will go out and treat people in entirely different ways and base it all upon Jesus!

We have all seen the stereotypical “street preacher.” He has taken it upon himself to let everyone in his community know that they are sinning and sinful people. He is often found on street corners or in public places on university campuses and in similar places, and he does well at yelling at people about fornication, drunkenness, worldliness, perhaps consumerism and materialism, and so on and so forth. No one really listens, of course, but the street preacher goes home, justified in his own mind. He told those nasty sinners about their sin, just as Jesus condemned sin– or so he thinks.

There is also the universalist or the politically correct “tolerant” person of our day. If there is condemnation for anyone, it is because they are intolerant. Most everything and anything is acceptable, unless it harms another person, but then again, those who harm others were probably harmed somehow themselves, and so even then God will understand. This person also feels justified, for after all, Jesus Himself had compassion on people– or so he thinks.

These are both extreme positions– and they are extremely misguided. Nevertheless, we can discern from Jesus’ ministry a way forward when it comes to working with different people in our midst.

The first thing we should notice is that sinners sin. This statement should not be too terribly surprising or earth-shattering, since everyone is sinful (Romans 3:23), and sinners are known to sin, but it has been forgotten by many who profess Jesus. Too many have bought into the idea that America is somehow like a “new Israel,” and therefore we need to have “prophets” running around condemning the people for their sins. The New Testament teaches that the church is the new Israel (Galatians 6:16, Philippians 3:3, 1 Peter 2:4-9). There are times when someone does need to take up a “prophetic” style role and warn Christians about complacency and sin (2 Timothy 4:2), but we do not see Jesus or the Apostles out castigating worldly people for their sin in their faces. Quite the contrary– Jesus has compassion toward the multitude of people, those worldly, nasty sinners, even those among God’s chosen people, Israel (Matthew 9:36)! He was lectured by the religious authorities because of His association with the “sinful” of society (Matthew 9:9-13). Jesus our High Priest associated with the sinful!

While this might seem scandalous, we must understand what Jesus is attempting to do. He does not associate with the sinful to promote or justify sin. Even though He does not condemn the woman caught in adultery, He does send her off with the warning to “sin no more” (John 8:11). We never see Him participating in sin or approving of sin (Hebrews 4:15, 5:7-9). Instead, Jesus knows that the sinners know that they have sinned and are sinning, and they know that they need redemption (Matthew 21:28-32). They follow Jesus en masse because He is willing to sympathize with them and point the way out of their sinful misery. This is the message of the gospel that leads to the redemption of sinners to this very day (Romans 1:16)!

Therefore, we should not be surprised when sinners sin. While Christians are to abhor sin (Romans 12:9), they are not to abhor sinners, for they themselves have sinned but have been redeemed (cf. Titus 3:3-8, etc.). Pointing fingers at sinners and declaring to them what they already know is counterproductive: it pushes the sinner away and leaves a very bad taste in his mouth. It makes it that much more difficult to show such a one the way of Christ.

The real challenge came less from those who knew that they were sinful and more from those who thought that they were not. The religious authorities of Jesus’ day thought that they were holy and blameless, and sought to be separate from the “sinners” of the land (cf. John 9:34). They would bring down pronouncements to the dirty masses, but refused to get dirty themselves (Matthew 23:1-4). For such people, Jesus’ message was completely offensive: all of their great pretenses of holiness and sanctity were in vain, their great knowledge and study was being debased, and their authority was being completely undermined. They already had everything figured out; since Jesus’ message did not fit what they already knew, He was the blasphemer (cf. John 7:45-52, 9:24-29). Jesus spoke of them rightly: they were already “healthy.” They had no need of a physician in their haughtiness (cf. Matthew 9:12-13). They were righteous– just ask them (Luke 18:9-14)!

Such people received little compassion from Jesus’ words. His strongest denunciations– even a declaration of condemnation– were poured out against these religious authorities (cf. Matthew 23:1-36). Jesus treated them this way not out of hate or envy but out of love and a desire for them to wake up regarding their true spiritual condition. Jesus did make prophetic denunciations, but it was not to the worldly sinners of His day, but to the religious professionals who had compromised God’s purposes in order to advance themselves and their own agendas!

While many such people exist in churches today, there are some in the world who justify themselves and their conduct. Notice how Jesus did not comfort such people in such delusions. Such attitudes must be rebuked out of loving concern for the soul of someone who thinks they are healthy when they are not, righteous when they are sinful, sanctimonious as opposed to humble (cf. Galatians 6:1-2, 1 Peter 3:15-16).

Jesus’ interaction with people in His own day should be our model for how we work with people today (cf. 1 John 2:6). Yet let us notice how Jesus treated sinners one way and hypocrites in quite a different way. Woe to us if we treat the “sinners” like the “hypocrites,” and the “hypocrites” like the “sinners”! Instead, let us recognize that sinners sin, and we need to help show them that the way of Christ is life and the way of sin is death with all compassion and mercy (Romans 6:23, Titus 3:3-8). Nevertheless, we must oppose those who would justify themselves in their sins or sanctimoniously declare their righteousness apart from the truth of the gospel of Christ. Let us strive to conform to the image of Jesus the Son and point people to Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry