A God Who Hides Himself

Verily thou art a God that hidest thyself, O God of Israel, the Saviour (Isaiah 45:15).

We have all gone through times in our lives when we have felt that God has hidden His face from us. Perhaps it was in the midst of a trial or challenge and we felt that there was no divine aid. Maybe it was during an entire period in our lives when we admittedly turned our backs upon God. Far too many people, at times, feel as if God has abandoned them and all of us. Some want to know where God has been for the better part of the past two thousand years!

The Israelites living in Babylon toward the end of their exile would have likely felt in similar ways. Many were not quite sure what to make of their experience. Was YHWH really there? Why did He not save us from the Babylonians? Is Marduk really stronger than YHWH? If YHWH is out there, and He is the God of Israel, why are we still in Babylon? It would be easy for them to feel as if they were abandoned by God!

The statement made in Isaiah 45:15 has caused discomfort throughout time. The Greek translator of the text seemingly could not reconcile its substance with the proper understanding of YHWH, and so he translated it, “for thou art God, yet we knew it not, the God of Israel, the Saviour.” Even if we take the text at its face value, we must wonder whether the author is being deadly serious or whether he is lodging an implicit critique or complaint. Are there times when God really does hide Himself, or does Isaiah just feel as if that’s the way it seems sometimes? Or perhaps he means a little bit of both?

Yet we can make some sense of what is being revealed here. The message is consistent with what Paul will say to the Colossians regarding the gospel of Christ: it is the mystery hidden for ages and generations that was manifest in Jesus and revealed to all who will believe from the first century onward (Colossians 1:25-27). While it is true that God comforted Israel with predictions regarding the Christ and His Kingdom (cf. 1 Peter 1:10-12), how it would all work out was hidden until the time when God the Son was manifest in the flesh as Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:1, 14).

So it was for Israel in the exile. God had already comforted His people with the understanding that the exile was temporary. The fortunes of Israel would change quickly– the mighty Babylonian empire fell quickly to Cyrus the Persian, and the Israelites found themselves able to go home (2 Chronicles 36:20-23, Daniel 5:1-31). All of this, Isaiah assures that audience, is from the hand of YHWH (Isaiah 44:24-45:7).

Is God a God who hides Himself? There are times when it may seem like it– but notice the end of the verse. The God of Israel remains the “Savior” (Isaiah 45:15). Sometimes, in His acts of salvation, He does not reveal everything all at once. At times the message is held back so that events can play out. God has infinitely greater understanding and insight than we do (Isaiah 55:8-9), and if He decides to hide Himself in some way, we must trust that it is part of His greater plan for salvation. We may not understand it now, but if we love God and seek to serve His Son, we may rest ourselves in Romans 8:28, knowing that it will all work out for good in the end.

Even though God hid His message of deliverance and salvation to some, it was ultimately accomplished so that all could benefit if they so chose. God has acted definitively against sin and evil to redeem mankind through Jesus Christ (Romans 5:6-11), and we have the opportunity to be saved through Him and to obtain the resurrection of life (1 Corinthians 15:1-58, Philippians 3:12-14). If it seems that God is hiding Himself, it might be our mistaken impression, or perhaps God is working to deliver us in ways we do not understand. Let us rest assured of God’s overwhelming love for us and that He is the Savior indeed!

Ethan R. Longhenry

A Perpetual Ordinance

And ye shall observe the feast of unleavened bread; for in this selfsame day have I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt: therefore shall ye observe this day throughout your generations by an ordinance for ever (Exodus 12:17).

There are a lot of people who read the Bible and learn of all kinds of momentous events that took place in the past. A lot of them are willing to believe that God acted in the ways that the Bible teaches– that He is the Creator of all things (Genesis 1:1-2:3), that He delivered Israel from bondage in Egypt (Exodus 1-14), and that in the first century of our own era, that Jesus His Son lived, died, and was raised again (1 Corinthians 15:3-5). But that was all a long, long time ago. Many people are troubled that God no longer acts in the same way that He did in the past. Surely, they imagine, if God could do great acts 3500 and 2000 years ago, He could do it again now!

Let us consider the Passover for a moment. God commands Moses to instruct the people in regards to the Passover in Exodus 12. Not only will they be slaughtering the lamb and eating bitter herbs and unleavened bread that evening, as they are leaving Egypt, but will be doing so every year for as long as Israel is a people. When they enter the land of Canaan, build houses, and establish themselves, they will still be observing the Passover. They will still be eating with loins girded, shoes on their feet, and their staffs in their hands (Exodus 12:11).

This might seem absurd after a few generations. Imagine, after all, observing the Passover in the days of Solomon. The Israelites are firmly planted in Israel, Solomon is one of the most powerful monarchs of his day, even having a daughter of Pharaoh as wife (1 Kings 3:1). And yet, even at this apex of power, Israel is to annually clean out the leaven from their homes, slaughter the lamb, eat leavened bread and bitter herbs, and be dressed to leave. Even when they are in control, they are to remember and re-enact the days of deliverance from slavery.

While this may seem strange at first, it makes sense when we understand what God is doing. One could argue that the days of Solomon were not terribly different from today– God had not performed any major saving act akin to the Passover and Exodus ever since, 500 or so years earlier. The people were in a very different place than before, with much greater prosperity and independence. The Passover and Exodus would have seemed quite foreign to them. They would easily forget about YHWH and what He had done for Israel. And, functionally, they started to– they served other gods and would eventually pay the penalty (2 Kings 17:7-23).

This is not what God intended. The entire reason behind the Passover and the Feast of the Unleavened Bread was to remember, and to an extent to re-enact, the act of God’s deliverance of Israel, so that Israel would never forget that they were dependent on YHWH for their land, prosperity, and situation. Each generation, in turn, would have the opportunity to vicariously experience what Israel went through in leaving Egypt. They could share in the great drama of YHWH’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt and their establishment as His chosen people. Yes, the later generations would live quite differently– witness the generation in the days of Solomon– but they could still share in the story of YHWH and His people!

While the Passover could become an empty ritual, it was not supposed to be so. It was supposed to be the continual reminder of what YHWH did for Israel.

The Passover feast of 30 CE would lead to a new memorial and a new re-enactment. It was then that Christ, our Passover lamb, was slain, allowing for mankind to be delivered from sin and death and made a part of God’s Kingdom (Romans 8:1-3, Colossians 1:13). Yet, just before His death, we read the following:

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and gave to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.”
And the cup in like manner after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, even that which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:19-20).

In the midst of the remembrance and re-enactment of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, Jesus institutes a remembrance of what He is about to do. While the observance was inaugurated before Jesus’ death, its power derives from His death and resurrection, and was established as a perpetual observance for Christians on each first day of the week (Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). It is not just a remembrance of Jesus’ death for our sin, or it would be taken on Friday; its observance on the first day of the week, the day of resurrection (Luke 24:1-7), is the reminder that He is risen, Lord, and will return again (1 Corinthians 11:26).

Yet the Lord’s Supper is also a re-enactment. We have the opportunity to place ourselves in that upper room on that fateful night, surrounding the Lord’s table, receiving the bread and fruit of the vine. We have the opportunity to take our place in the story of God’s redemption of mankind. We commune with one another, Christ, and the saints in the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 10:16-17), even if 2,000 years may separate us from the saving event. That time melts away as we partake of the bread and the fruit of the vine.

The Lord’s Supper must never become an empty ritual. The One True God acts to save in history and expects His acts to be remembered and re-enacted continually lest the people forget the God who delivered them. In the remembrance and re-enactment, God’s acts become real and fresh for every new generation. As it was with Israel and the Passover, so it is with Christians and the Lord’s Supper. Let us thank God for deliverance through Jesus Christ, remembering and re-enacting that fateful Passover night in the Lord’s Supper!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Messiah: King and Priest

The LORD hath sworn, and will not repent: “Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek” (Psalm 110:4).

It is important for us to remember that while “Jesus Christ” is used as a name today, it was not always so. His name was Jesus. His title, or His office, is that of Christ– the Messiah. Both words (“Christ” is Greek; “Messiah” from the Hebrew) mean “Anointed One.” David was anointed by Samuel as God’s choice for King of Israel (1 Samuel 16:12-13); his promised Descendant would thus also be anointed (Isaiah 61:1, Luke 4:17-21). But Aaron, the High Priest, was also anointed by Moses to reach his office (Exodus 30:30, etc.). The image of the two “anointed ones,” one king, one priest, seems to be behind Zechariah 4:11-14. It also seems to have impacted the author of the Damascus Document, writing within the hundred years before Jesus, who seems to speak of two Messiahs– one of Aaron, one for Israel (CD 9b:10, 29, 15:4, 18:7).

It seems that most Israelites in the first century looked forward to the Messiah who would come as king to defeat the Romans and re-establish the glory and power of Israel. Not a few Israelites also sought some kind of divine reformation and restoration of the priesthood and the Temple, imagined by some as a “Messiah from Aaron.” But there does not seem to be the expectation that the Messiah in the line of David would have the concern for ministry or the priesthood that belonged to the Aaronic line. Furthermore, the Jews had recently experienced the reign of priest-kings with the Hasmoneans– but they certainly were not the fulfillment of the predictions of the prophets, since they were not of David and Judah, but from Aaron and Levi!

Then we come to Jesus of Nazareth. He is without a doubt a descendant of David and Judah according to the flesh (Matthew 1:1-17). The throne of His father David is promised to Him (Luke 1:31-33). But in His life He never raises so much as a finger against Rome and its authority. Instead, He preaches a message of the imminent Kingdom of God and dies on a Roman cross– an event His followers understood as the sacrificial offering for the atonement of sin (Matthew 4:17, 23, Romans 5:6-11, Hebrews 9:1-15). He certainly does not fulfill the expectations of the Jews in terms of the rule of the son of David, but He certainly is engaged in functions of ministry, sacrifice, and atonement, the realm generally reserved for Aaron and his descendants.

This challenge was understood by the author of the letter to the Hebrews. He understood that Jesus was of Judah, a tribe concerning which Moses spoke nothing about the priesthood (Hebrews 7:13-14). But he also understood that the Aaronic/Levitical priesthood was imperfect, offering up animals that could not really atone for sin (Hebrews 7:11, 10:4). Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself, however, was perfect, able to atone for any and all sin, and thus speaks of a better ministry, a better mediation, and thus a better priesthood (Hebrews 7:15-28, 1 Timothy 2:5). But how could Jesus be a priest when He was not from Aaron but from David through Judah?

God’s great plan for salvation was predicted before the events took place, and the Hebrew author highlights a psalm of David to demonstrate how Jesus is a priest– Psalm 110.

That this is a “Messianic” psalm, written by David and inspired by the Spirit is without a doubt; Jesus asks the religious leaders about Psalm 110:1 and how David can say that “YHWH said to my lord…” if the Messiah is David’s son (Matthew 22:41-46/Mark 12:35-37/Luke 20:41-44). And then we have the promise in verse 4: God has sworn, and it will not be revoked– David’s Lord would be a priest forever according to the priesthood of Melchizedek?

Who is Melchizedek? We read of him in Genesis 14:18-20, and the Hebrew author describes him in Hebrews 7:1-10. His name means “King of Righteousness,” and he was king of Salem (“peace”; the city is later named Jerusalem) and priest of God Most High. Abraham gives him a tithe of everything carried back from the victory over the foreign kings, and the Hebrew author points out that thus Levi and the Levites, still in the “loins of Abraham,” gave tithes to Melchizedek. He did not receive his position as priest by genealogy or nepotism, and in him the roles of king and priest were truly intertwined.

Even if the Jews believed that there would have to either be two Messiahs or that the Messiah would focus entirely on his role as King of Israel, David in the Spirit knew better– the Messiah would mean the end of the old system (cf. Hebrews 7:12). The Messiah would be King, yes, but also a priest in the order of Melchizedek. The Messiah would be the King of Righteousness over the City of Peace (cf. Isaiah 61:1-4, Hebrews 12:22-24, Revelation 21:1-22:6). He would accomplish this through His priesthood– the High Priest in the order of Melchizedek, providing Himself as the perfect offering, a ministry in every way superior to what came before (cf. Hebrews 7:11-28).

There would be only one Messiah, and He would provide the satisfaction for everything. Yes, He would reign as King, but only after He accomplished His ministry and His priesthood on the cross. In the resurrection He receives the authority and the throne promised Him, and the message of the prophets is satisfied. Let us praise God for Jesus the Christ, King of Righteousness over the City of Peace, High Priest, our Advocate!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Firstfruits

But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; then they that are Christ’s, at his coming (1 Corinthians 15:23).

Despair turned to excitement on that first day of the week so long ago when Jesus arose from the dead (John 20:1-31, etc.). In the midst of all the excitement, however, there was one theological conundrum that needed to be addressed.

The idea of resurrection was not foreign to the Jews; the Pharisees believed in the resurrection (Acts 23:8), and no doubt many other Jews did also. But “the resurrection” in which they believed was the resurrection on the last day. That is what Daniel 12:2 seemed to indicate. It certainly was the expectation of Martha when Lazarus died (cf. John 11:24).

But someone rising from the dead in the resurrection before the end? This was not something you would automatically take away from a reading of the Old Testament, nor was it something immediately obvious to Pharisees and others. Perhaps this was part of the challenge the disciples faced in not understanding Jesus’ predictions of the event (Mark 9:30-32, etc.). How could it be that One could rise from the dead before everyone was raised from the dead?

The Holy Spirit, through Paul, would make this understandable. Jesus was the firstfruits of the resurrection!

The idea of the firstfruits comes from passages like Deuteronomy 18:4:

The first-fruits of thy grain, of thy new wine, and of thine oil, and the first of the fleece of thy sheep, shalt thou give him.

The firstfruits were the first part of a harvest– the first wheat or barley harvested, the first wine processed, the first of the fleece shorn, and so on and so forth. The Israelites were to devote the firstfruits to God (Exodus 23:19), and God gave them to the Levites for sustenance (Deuteronomy 18:4). After the firstfruits had been offered, the rest of the harvest belonged to the people for their own consumption and use.

The firstfruits image, therefore, helps us understand the relationship between Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection on the final day. Jesus is the firstfruits– the first to rise from the dead, never to die again (1 Corinthians 15:20). He had been given as an offering to God to atone for the people (2 Corinthians 5:21, Hebrews 9:1-15). He paves the way for the resurrection to come, the resurrection of which we all take part (John 5:28-29, 1 Corinthians 15:12-57)!

There is something obvious about the firstfruits that is important for the resurrection. The firstfruits are not different in kind or type from the harvest that comes later. The firstfruits of wheat are wheat just as the “second fruits” or “third fruits” would be; the same goes for barley, wine, fleece, and the like. So it is with the resurrection: we should not believe that our resurrection will be something different from Christ’s resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:23). The difference involves time, not type or kind. As Jesus died in the flesh but remained alive in the spirit (1 Peter 3:18), and was then raised bodily from the dead, the tomb being empty, and His flesh being transformed for immortality (Luke 24:1-49), so it goes with those who serve Him. All who have died, and those who will be dead before His coming, remain alive in the spirit, but will then be raised bodily and transformed for immortality (1 Corinthians 15:35-57, Philippians 1:21-23, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)!

In reality, the resurrection is a challenging concept, for one of the few “guarantees” in the physical realm is that once one dies, one is always dead. We do not see people rising from the dead, never to die again.

Yet that is precisely the hope by which the Christian must live (cf. Romans 8:20-25). And we have confidence in that hope because of Jesus the firstfruits. We do not have to wonder whether God can or will raise the dead, for we know He raised Jesus from the dead. If He is able to raise Jesus from the dead, He is able to raise us from the dead also, and He has promised to do so (Romans 8:11)!

The last enemy, indeed, is death (1 Corinthians 15:26). Through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and lordship, believers now can have confidence in their spiritual regeneration in this life (Romans 6:1-23, 8:1-9). The believer is able to be a new creature in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), yet we are all still cursed with physical death.

But death will be abolished. The day will dawn when we all will have the victory over not just sin but also death through Jesus Christ our Lord, and on that day the rest of the harvest will be brought in to the praise and glory of God in Christ (1 Corinthians 15:53-57, 1 Peter 1:6-7). We can have complete confidence in this because Jesus gained the victory over sin on the cross and over death in the resurrection, and He is the firstfruits! Let us all serve God so that we may attain to the resurrection of life (cf. Philippians 3:11-13)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Christ Crucified

Seeing that Jews ask for signs, and Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified, unto Jews a stumblingblock, and unto Gentiles foolishness; but unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).

When people hear about the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire in the first few centuries of this era, it is easy to think that either there was not much competition or people were just more ready to accept belief in Jesus as the Christ. This is the way that many who wish to look down upon the faith want to present the situation too, promoting a move away from “primitive faith” in our more “enlightened age.”

In reality, however, the first century was a time of great philosophical engagement. The Platonic, Peripatetic (Aristotelian), Stoic, Cynic, Epicurean, and other schools of philosophy flourished, promoted their views, and challenged one another. “Mystery religions” involving exclusive groups and secret rites were popular. There was also interest in the Jewish religion, among others, and the Jews of the first century were very fervent about their religion and their identity.

Christianity, therefore, did not grow without any meaningful opposition. In fact, for many, the only thing that would unify them would be their shared opposition to Christianity!

As Paul indicates, much of the opposition to Christianity came as a result of its central tenets– Jesus as the Crucified and Risen Christ (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). This idea was not wholeheartedly embraced uncritically by the majority establishment of its day– far from it! Such ideas were as “preposterous” then as they are often reckoned now!

To the Jews, Christ crucified is a stumbling-block. The image comes from Isaiah 8:14 and applied by Paul to Jesus in Romans 9:32-33, and it is very appropriate. The Jews were looking forward to the future Messiah as the King of physical Israel who would deliver them from oppression, restore the kingdom of David, and thus defeat the Romans and establish a Jewish world power. But the idea of the Christ– the Messiah– as crucified is entirely contrary to those intentions, especially the Christ crucified on a Roman cross! Thus, while looking forward to the coming Messiah and waiting to see His signs, Jesus came and fulfilled all that was written of the Christ, and the Jews did not receive Him (John 1:11, Matthew 5:17-18, Luke 24:44). The Jews tripped over the Christ they were not expecting, and their impending doom as a nation was sealed (Matthew 24:1-36, Romans 11:7-10).

To the Gentiles, particularly those well-versed in Greek philosophy and Greek thinking, Christ crucified and raised from the dead is foolishness. Many Athenians mocked when they heard of Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 17:32). It was folly because the idea of God coming in the flesh, let alone to die, let alone to be raised again (cf. Philippians 2:5-11), was utterly contrary to everything they believed. If God or gods existed, they certainly would not demean themselves to the point of becoming human. Even if such a possibility were imaginable, no divine being of any standing would suffer to live as a peasant and die as a common criminal on a Roman cross, for humility was no virtue to the Greek. Beyond all of this, the idea of the resurrection of the dead was preposterous. Not only did the dead remain dead, and not only were there no instances of the dead being raised, but why would anyone want to be raised again in the flesh? The Greeks imagined that the state of bliss would be found in a disembodied spirit form; the body was a hindrance, not a help. According to the Gentile worldview, Christ crucified and raised simply did not make any sense.

Notice that Paul does not deny this. Paul understands that to the Jew who thinks like Jews, Christ crucified is a stumbling-block; to a Greek well-versed in their philosophies, Christ crucified is sheer folly. Paul knows and confesses that the Jews look for signs but not according to the nature of Christ; the Gentiles seek after wisdom, but it is not the wisdom rooted in God. The Jew seeks the worldly Messiah; the Greek seeks the wisdom of the world. To both, nothing can be more ridiculous than Christ crucified.

And that is precisely the point: to the ways of the world Christianity always has been, is today, and will always remain ridiculous. God as a Jewish peasant executed by the Romans as a common criminal only to be raised from the dead? It is not as if this story has only recently become difficult for many to accept!

In fact, Paul embraces the “foolishness” of the message of Christ crucified. He speaks of how it was God’s pleasure to save people through this “foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:21).

Unfortunately, this passage is often used to attack Christianity as anti-intellectual: after all, Paul says that Christianity is “foolishness” that militates against those with knowledge and wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18-20), and that only those who are poor and of low station believed (1 Corinthians 1:26). But that is not what Paul is saying! It is true that Christianity was more appealing to those of lower class and lower station, and Paul admits as much in 1 Corinthians 1:26, but there were some of the upper classes and the intelligent who believed. It is not that Christianity is anti-intellectual or truly foolish– instead, it is only anti-intellectual according to the worldly version of intellectualism, and only folly according to the world’s definition of wisdom.

This is why Paul says that God’s foolishness is wiser than men, as God’s weakness is stronger than men (1 Corinthians 1:25)– not that God is really foolish or weak, but that He is so completely superior to mankind that whatever folly and weakness could be perceived in Him is still greater than the wisdom and strength of men!

Intellectualism and worldly wisdom are seductive. Not a few have thought of themselves far more highly than they should have on account of their great learning. Yet, as Paul shows, one can master worldly knowledge and wisdom and yet will still not be able to approach the understanding and strength of God.

We hear the same messages today that Paul no doubt heard in the first century: impressive sounding arguments about the impossibility of Christianity that are, in fact, quite hollow and baseless. Mockery and derision of the faith has been a challenging weapon both then and now. Yet behind all the bluster and the argument remains the fact that the reason Christianity has been vexing to its opponents for all of these years is that it suggests an entirely different way of looking at the world than worldly knowledge or wisdom. Christianity suggests that there is a Creator God to whom we are all subject, and He has established His purposes for mankind in Jesus and the Scriptures (John 1:1-18, 2 Timothy 3:16-17). In Jesus God manifested His qualities– love, humility, compassion, mercy, peace– and they were so disturbing to the establishment of the day that they had Him executed and those who followed Him persecuted. There’s an intractable conflict between the values of God in Christ and the values of the world (James 4:4, 1 John 2:15-17), and one cannot abide in the wisdom of the world and be pleasing to God.

Christ crucified and raised. According to the ways of the world, this is sheer folly. It does not make sense unless one is willing to reject the ways of the world and trust in the ways of God. Those who are willing to have such faith in God understand His power in Christ and will endure the criticisms and the charges of foolishness. Let us not despair because the critics of the faith assail it as folly; they have been doing so for millennia. Let us instead remain humble, recognizing that God is always stronger and wiser than men, and depend on Him and His Son for our deliverance!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Perfected Through Suffering

But we behold him who hath been made a little lower than the angels, even Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that by the grace of God he should taste of death for every man. For it became him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the author of their salvation perfect through sufferings (Hebrews 2:9-10).

The ways of God are certainly inscrutable, and His judgments are unsearchable (Romans 11:33). This is most certainly made evident through His Son.

After all, if humans were in charge, how would someone be perfected? We could probably come up with many answers, but the idea that perfection would come through suffering humiliation, dishonor, and death would likely not come up. In fact, we humans do pretty much whatever we can to avoid pain and suffering.

So how can it be that anyone could be perfected through suffering?

Jesus, the Word made flesh, had all knowledge and insight– He was active in the creation (John 1:1-3), and was present throughout the days of Israel (John 8:58, 1 Corinthians 10:4, 9, Jude 1:5). Yet, as God, He did not personally experience the life humanity experienced. Therefore, in order to be made perfect, He had to go through the one thing that God had not gone through– the human experience.

And it would not be just any human experience. What defines the human experience more than suffering? While we like to focus on the pleasantries of life– the beauty of creation, our successes, our prosperity– it is not as if such truly satisfies and they are always punctured at some point by suffering, pain, misery, or failure. Many can sympathize with Jacob; while they may not have lived 130 years, they can say that “few and evil have been the days of the years of my life” as he did (Genesis 47:9).

We can think about it another way. What would we think if Jesus had lived a charmed life? What if He never knew need, was never maligned, lived an entirely sheltered and prosperous life, and was transported back to Heaven unscathed? It might have made for an interesting story, but it would not be nearly as compelling. We would not believe that Jesus really experienced the true human condition!

And, as the Hebrew author explains in Hebrews 2:14, 17-18, this is why Jesus came to earth to live and experience suffering and temptation. No one can honestly say that God never condescended to know “what it’s like” to be human. Instead, Jesus is completely able to sympathize with the believer in distress. Are they reviled? He was reviled. Are they weak, downtrodden, or humiliated? Jesus experienced the same. Are they sorely tempted to give up and return to the world? Jesus was also. And yet He proved faithful as a Son (Hebrews 5:7-9), and through His suffering was glorified and honored and made perfect!

We see, therefore, that Jesus is made perfect through suffering, and He can now sympathize with the believer. Yet, in saying this, the Hebrew author re-affirms the fact that perfection can only come through suffering. Paul demonstrated that believers will be co-heirs with Christ only if they suffer with Him (Romans 8:17); Peter describes the suffering of Christians as the trial of faith as by fire for purification (1 Peter 1:6-8). James tells Christians to rejoice when experiencing trial on account of the fruit it bears (James 1:2-4). These truths are not convenient, pleasant, or according to our desires, but they remain firm and established. If we want to grow into the fulness of Christ and receive the inheritance, we must partake of the sufferings of which Jesus partook. We must experience that baptism with which He was baptized, to drink from the cup that was poured for Him (Mark 10:38-39).

If Jesus could not attain perfection without suffering, how can any disciple of His expect to avoid it? This is not the way of the world, certainly, but it is the way of the Kingdom. We only come to a strong measure of faith when we are emptied of self, weak, humiliated, and sorely distressed– the training ground that leads to patience, endurance, and true focus on the divine (2 Corinthians 12:7-10, James 1:2-4). Let us stand firm in the midst of trial, knowing that as Jesus experienced suffering in order to receive glory and honor, we look forward to our day of glorification!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Existing in God

“And [God] made of one every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed seasons, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek God, if haply they might feel after him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us: ‘for in him we live, and move, and have our being’; as certain even of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring'” (Acts 17:26-28).

Paul has quite the challenge before him: to explain to pagans obsessed with philosophy the nature of the God of Israel, the One True God, and Jesus His Son. In order to have any level of success, Paul must persuade his audience to look at God differently than they had in the past. There were not a multiplicity of gods who were represented by statues, needing the service of men (cf. Acts 17:22-25). In a brilliant and yet ironic move, Paul speaks regarding the nature of the One True God by quoting a Greek, most likely Epimenides of Crete: in God “we live and move and have our being.” As Aratus said in the Phainomena, “we are His offspring.” God, therefore, is not an image in the likeness of man or animal. God is something quite different. God is the Creator of the earth and all that is in it, and, in truth, God is not far from any of us (Acts 17:26-27).

This is a lesson that needs to be proclaimed again today, for even though people may not think of the pagan deities when they think about “God” anymore, people’s view of God and the way God really is remains different.

Think for a moment about how you consider God. The thinking of the past two hundred years have led many people to think of God as distant and remote. In such a view, perhaps God did create everything– but ever since He has stayed away. Many religious people– many who believe in Jesus– will grant that God actively and personally worked throughout the early part of human history, even within the first century of our era. But ever since God has kept His distance, in a sense. The image of God in the parable of the talents has been taken quite literally– God has gone on a far journey, and we are on our own until He decides to return, and then comes the judgment (cf. Matthew 25:14-30).

This image of God reigns supreme in societal thinking. God, especially the God revealed in the Bible, is portrayed as an old man “up there,” distant and remote. If He does have anything to do with His creation, it involves condemnation and chastisement for wickedness. To not a few, Gary Larson’s portrayal of God sitting at His computer, ready to hit the “smite” button and kill a young man with a falling piano, is not too far off the mark.

Paul would not recognize such a God– neither would any Israelite or Christian of the first century. That might be some pagan view of God, but it is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is not the God who sent Jesus His Son into the world.

The One True God is not distant and remote. Yes, we must seek after Him, but, as Paul says, He is not far from us. We exist in Him. We live and move in Him. We cannot understand this in a concretely physical sense, but it also cannot be seen as true in some remote spiritual context. It is true in a very near spiritual context. When Jesus says, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” in Matthew 18:20, He is talking about a spiritual presence, but a presence that is “present” nonetheless!

The Israelites did not waver in their belief that God was with them; all they had to do was look toward the Tabernacle or the Temple and see the cloud of the Presence and understand that God was there (cf. Exodus 40:34). This same imagery is used to describe the people of God today– Christians (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19-20). If believers, individually and corporately, are the Temple, then God’s presence must be with them, as the Scriptures indeed attest. The same is established in Romans 8:9-11. The message of the New Testament is unambiguous: if we are God’s people, then God is with us. This does not mean that a remote and distant spiritual figure far away in the heavens has accepted us. It means that the Creator of the universe is actively working with us and seeking to benefit us in ways we cannot imagine (cf. Romans 8:31-33, Ephesians 3:20-21). When the New Testament declares that Jesus is Lord, this is not to mean that we have a distant and remote ruler. It means that no matter how terrible it may seem on the surface, Jesus is really in control, and blessings will come to those who obey Him (cf. Revelation 12-19)!

There is much that is mysterious about the nature of God and His Presence. We know that God does not abrogate man’s will, and we understand that speaking of God’s presence in “literal,” “concrete,” or “physical” ways are misguided. Nevertheless, we should not allow the humanistic thinking over the past few hundred years to re-define the nature of God for us. Instead, we must understand who God is on the basis of what He has revealed. He is not far from us. He is not the distant and remote figure that our society has made Him out to be. Instead, in Him we live and move and have our being. If we are His people, His Presence is with us. Let us be thankful that our God is not remote, but is very much near, and praise His name!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Chief of Sinners

Faithful is the saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief: howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me as chief might Jesus Christ show forth all his longsuffering, for an ensample of them that should thereafter believe on him unto eternal life (1 Timothy 1:15-16).

Even though we may live in a society that vaunts the self-worth of the individual, attempting to “empower” people to understand how great they are, many people are constantly bedeviled by guilt and shame. They acutely feel that they are terribly sinful people. In their eyes there can be no rehabilitation for them. They have come to the conclusion that nothing can atone for their sins.

If this belief system had any truth or merit, Saul of Tarsus would have certainly been able to accept it. He had approved of the execution of Stephen (Acts 7:58), worked to lay waste to the church (Acts 8:3, 1 Timothy 1:13), and was heading to Damascus to do more damage (Acts 9:1-2). He then sees a great light, and we can only imagine how he must have felt when he heard that the “Lord” is the Jesus whom he has been persecuting (Acts 9:4-6). The guilt! The shame! How terribly wrong and misguided his work! He had believed that he was doing God’s work; instead, he now understands that he has opposed God’s work and even complicit in murder. Little wonder that he declares himself the “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15)!

Did Saul head back for home, despondent and frustrated, assured of his own sinfulness, dejected and despised? Did he declare that his sin was so great that it could not be forgiven? Absolutely not! He was made to understand the will of the Lord– God’s enemy will now be used to champion God’s cause (Acts 9:15-16). The chief of sinners will be put to work in God’s Kingdom to warn others about their sins (cf. 1 Timothy 1:12-16). When he believed in the Lord Jesus Christ and was immersed in water for the remission of his sins, he obtained that mercy and forgiveness that so many today feel that they cannot obtain (cf. Acts 22:14-16)!

Why is it that so many people believe that they cannot be forgiven of their sins? The problem is really threefold.

The first problem is that people have this innate sense that they must diligently work to atone for sin. They understand that they have done wrong and therefore seek to “make it right” somehow. Nevertheless, there is a recognition that all of this moral striving cannot really cover or atone for sin. The shame and guilt that have come as a result of sin are still there. Such people feel as if they cannot be forgiven, and in a sense they are right– they cannot be forgiven through their works. No one can be made righteous through the works of any law, and no one can atone for sin through their efforts (Galatians 3:11, Ephesians 2:8-9).

The second difficulty involves an implicit challenge to the power and sovereignty of God. For a person to believe that they have sinned so terribly that they cannot be forgiven means that they believe that God is somehow unable to forgive them, that Christ’s blood cannot atone for what they have done. Paul shows how this view is a lie, for few are the people today who have sinned as grievously (in human terms) as Saul of Tarsus, and yet Christ’s blood could cover his sin (1 Timothy 1:12-16). God is greater than our sin, and if we desire to be cleansed through Jesus, then we can be clean!

In the end, the challenge has less to do with God in Christ and more to do with the people themselves. We can see that there is no one who has sinned so terribly that they cannot be forgiven– instead, God really does want to save sinners, and therefore He wants people to be forgiven and saved (1 Timothy 1:15, 2:4). The problem is not even with shame and guilt, for such ought to exist when we have sinned (cf. Genesis 3:10, Isaiah 59:1-2). The challenge often is that even if God is willing to forgive people of their sins, they are not willing to forgive themselves. They cannot envision a time when they have released themselves from the burden of sin and death as God is willing to do for them in Jesus Christ (cf. Romans 8:1-11). They maintain a measure of control while holding onto that shame and guilt, whereas God calls us all to release that control and trust in Him (Galatians 2:20, 2 Corinthians 5:7).

We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). There is nothing we ourselves could ever do to atone for that (Ephesians 2:8-9). We all really deserve condemnation because we have sinned (Romans 6:23). These are all accurate statements of reality, no matter how difficult or challenging they are to swallow. There are too many more people who will not concede these realities than there are who are enslaved to them. Nevertheless, as assuredly as we have sinned and are worthy of condemnation, God has provided the means of reconciliation through the blood of His Son Jesus Christ (Romans 5:5-11). We can obtain mercy and pardon through our obedient faith even though we can never deserve it (cf. 1 Timothy 1:12-16, Romans 6:16-23). Nevertheless, we must place our confidence in trust in God. If God is willing to be for us, we should not be against us (cf. Romans 8:31). If God will justify us, we ought not condemn ourselves (Romans 8:33-34). If God wishes to show His abundant love toward us, cleanse us of sin, and provide eternal life for us, why should we stand in the way (cf. Romans 8:35-39)?

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, no matter how sinful they are. Let us proclaim that truth, praise God for that truth, trust in God, and be willing to be cleansed and healed!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Walking as He Walked

He that saith he abideth in [Jesus] ought himself also to walk even as he walked (1 John 2:6).

Why did Jesus live?

It would be entirely understandable if people got the impression that Jesus lived only to die for our sins. A lot of emphasis in preaching and teaching falls squarely on the death of Jesus for sin and comparatively less on how Jesus lived and the lessons of His life.

This is not to say that Jesus did not die for our sins, or that His death was not part of His life. According to Ephesians 3:11 and John 1:29, Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of sins was understood from eternity and from the beginning of His work on earth. Romans 5:5-11 eloquently expresses the nature of Jesus’ death and its great value for those who would believe in Him. Furthermore, there must be an emphasis on the death of Jesus for sin in the preaching of the Gospel, since it is a significant part of what must be believed, and a good reminder of what was required for us to be redeemed from sin (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Titus 3:3-8).

On the other hand, to believe that the only reason for Jesus to come to earth was to die would be a gross exaggeration and a distortion of what the Scriptures teach. If all Jesus had to do was to die, why did He preach and teach the people for three years? Why not just go quickly to Jerusalem and get it all over with?

Many may point to the fact that Jesus needed to first fulfill the prophecies made regarding Him, and that is certainly true (cf. Luke 24:44-47). Jesus Himself said that all things required fulfillment (Matthew 5:17-18). But are the only reasons why Jesus lived the fulfillment of prophecy and to die?

The Scriptures indicate that Jesus is the Word made flesh– if you see Jesus, it is as if you are seeing the Father (John 1:18, 14:6-11). Jesus came to communicate in word and deed the nature and essence of God. This was not designed to be a mere intellectual exercise or a model attempt!

When we read Scriptures like the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5-7, the various parables in Matthew 13 or Luke 14-16, or the instructions to the disciples in John 13-17, among other passages, it becomes quickly apparent that Jesus in life is interested in making disciples who will follow Him, live by His principles as He did, and to proclaim His message and advance His Kingdom for His purposes and to His glory.

Under both covenants the command is given to be holy as God is holy (cf. Leviticus 11:17, 1 Peter 1:16). We are to love others as God has loved us, and this is expressed most powerfully through Jesus Christ (1 John 4:7-21). When we stop and think about it for a moment, all of the commands, principles, and exhortations of the new covenant– either regarding clinging to the good or abhorring the evil (cf. Romans 12:9)– are grounded and based upon the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

This is why John is able to express the truth simply: if we will abide in Jesus, we must walk as He walked. We must be imitators of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). Granted, there are some aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching that apply to first century Judaism and are not directly relevant for the new covenant, yet this does not change the reality that the foundation of the ethics, principles, and statutes of the New Testament is Jesus and what He accomplished in life.

Did Jesus live to fulfill prophecy and to die for the sins of mankind? Certainly– but His life means so much more. He lived to show us how to live. He became flesh and showed the way through His words and His deeds. He shows us that it is possible to be human and yet be holy and godly, both in what we are doing and in what we avoid.

But how can we walk as Jesus walked if we do not know how He walked? If we believe that we are Christians, then we must claim that we are disciples of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:18-20); how can we be disciples, or learners/followers, of Someone whom we barely know and under whose feet we are not sitting in order to learn? While all Scripture is profitable for spiritual growth (2 Timothy 3:16), the four Gospels should always hold a special place in our hearts, devotions, and study, for they are where we find the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth, our Redeemer, Lord, Master, Teacher, and Friend. Let us walk as Jesus walked, growing in His grace and knowledge (1 John 2:6, 2 Peter 3:18)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Relating the Father

No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him (John 1:18).

In both the Gospel and the first letter that bear his name, John affirms that no man has ever seen God (John 1:18, 1 John 4:12, 20). This seems to be a most baffling statement considering everything else that John is trying to teach, and, for that matter, what has been revealed in the Old Testament. How can John say that no one has ever seen God after saying that the Word was God and the Word became flesh (John 1:1, 14)? Didn’t Jacob wrestle with God (Genesis 32:28-30)? Didn’t Moses see God’s back (Exodus 33:18-23)? This is a conundrum indeed!

We should not believe that John is terribly inconsistent and ignorant of the Old Testament. He understands what he has written earlier in the Gospel, and he knows what is revealed in Genesis and Exodus.

Instead, John is trying to get us to understand a profound truth. As Jesus says, “God is spirit” (John 4:24). In that form, as He truly is, no man has seen Him nor can see Him. Humans have only seen manifestations of God– His glory, His power, and/or His messengers, the angels. Jacob most likely wrestled with an angel. Moses, no doubt, saw God’s glory. Jesus the Word is truly God in the flesh, but no man can see the spirit in Him.

But if no man has ever seen God, how can we know about God? This is the focus of John’s statement in John 1:18– even though we have not seen God, we can know all about God, because we can know about Jesus the Word.

John says that the Son, Jesus, has “declared” God. The word translated “declared” involves the idea of relating or telling a story (cf. Acts 10:8, 15:14, 21:19). According to John, therefore, the very nature and essence of God is related to us through Jesus.

But how can this be so? Jesus explains it for us in John 14:6-11. He boldly declares that if you have seen Him, you have seen the Father (John 14:9). The Father is “in” Jesus, and the words Jesus speaks and the deeds Jesus does are from the Father (John 14:10-11).

As Paul will say, Jesus is the “image of the invisible God,” in whom “dwelleth all the fulness of Godhead bodily” (Colossians 1:15, 2:9). If we want to understand what God is like, all we need to do is consider Jesus. As God is love, so Jesus loved (1 John 4:8, John 13:1). As God is just, so Jesus will be the judge (Matthew 25:31-46, Romans 2:5-10). As God is the Creator, so through Jesus were all things created (Genesis 1:1, John 1:1-3, Colossians 1:15-17).

A lot of people have a very negative picture of God the Father. They imagine Him as a cantankerous old man with a long white beard who sits in Heaven all day trying to figure out new and inventive ways of smiting people and condemning them. Yet many of these people have a much more favorable view of Jesus, picturing Him as the loving Savior of the world, the Good Shepherd laying down His life for the sheep.

We haven’t seen God. Nevertheless, it should be clear that God is not a cantankerous old man, but instead a loving Father who wants to bless His children (cf. Romans 8:1-39). We know this because we can see Jesus through what is revealed of Him in the New Testament, and when we have seen Jesus, we have seen the Father. We know of God because Jesus has made Him known. Let us praise God for His great love and care, and seek to reflect His attributes in our own lives (cf. 1 John 2:3-6)!

Ethan R. Longhenry