Faith Despite Hostility

A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.
YHWH, how are mine adversaries increased! Many are they that rise up against me.
Many there are that say of my soul, “There is no help for him in God.” Selah.
But thou, O YHWH, art a shield about me; my glory and the lifter up of my head.
I cry unto YHWH with my voice; and he answereth me out of his holy hill. Selah.
I laid me down and slept; I awaked; for YHWH sustaineth me.
I will not be afraid of ten thousands of the people that have set themselves against me round about.
Arise, O YHWH; save me, O my God:
For thou hast smitten all mine enemies upon the cheek bone; thou hast broken the teeth of the wicked.
Salvation belongeth unto YHWH: Thy blessing be upon thy people. Selah (Psalm 3:1-8).

David’s world seemed over.

All Israel and Judah had gone over to his son Absalom who had betrayed him and declared himself king. David’s most trusted counselor Ahithophel defected to Absalom. David had just experienced humiliation at the hands of Benjaminites; even Jonathan’s son to whom David had acted in such kindness had turned against him. Nothing would ever be the same; if he lived it meant his son had died. If his son’s rebellion succeeded it would mean his own end. Such was David’s condition during the rebellion of Absalom as recorded in 2 Samuel 15:1-16:23, providing the context for Psalm 3:1-8 according to its superscription.

One might think that such a situation would lead David to despair. David is aware of his difficulties and knows that many believe that he has no hope; nevertheless Psalm 3 maintains a defiant tone of confidence and faith in YHWH despite his circumstances. David knows his enemies have multiplied (Psalm 3:1-2), yet he considers YHWH as his shield and source of strength, the One who answers him when he calls (Psalm 3:3-4). David can lie down in sleep and arise again since YHWH sustains him; he is not afraid of all who arise against him (Psalm 3:5-6). David asks YHWH to rescue him from his plight and to render his foes harmless (Psalm 3:7). Salvation belongs to YHWH; David asks YHWH to spread His blessings over His people (Psalm 3:8).

David’s confidence is well-placed. His forces gain the victory; the rebellion is crushed. Psalm 3 remains. It would give voice and confidence to generations of Israelites who felt surrounded by enemies but who relied upon YHWH for their strength and sustenance.

About a thousand years after David one of his descendants found Himself in a similar situation. He had entered Jerusalem in triumph; within a week He was betrayed by one of His closest associates, condemned to die by the people who once lauded and praised Him, and found Himself surrounded by foes. In that situation Jesus of Nazareth maintained His trust and confidence in God; even though He suffered the taunts of His enemies who were convinced God had abandoned Him, He accomplished God’s purposes for Him in His suffering and death (Matthew 26:1-27:56, Hebrews 5:8-9). Having done God’s will, Jesus laid down and slept in death (Matthew 27:45-66).

Yet, on the third day, Jesus awoke in the resurrection, for YHWH sustained Him (Matthew 28:1-10). Through His death and resurrection Jesus gained God’s victory over the forces of sin and death (Romans 8:1-3, Ephesians 2:11-18). Now through Jesus salvation is freely offered to everyone and the rich spiritual blessings of God available to any and all who call upon His name (Romans 5:6-11, Ephesians 1:3).

Even to this day the people of God frequently find themselves beset by foes. Their enemies are convinced that the people of God have no help coming to them and are finished. Many times God’s people begin to worry that their opponents may have a point. At such times we do well to remember Psalm 3:1-8 and to sing and/or pray it before the LORD our God. In so doing we can remember that David was beset by foes but God gave him the victory, that Jesus gained victory by suffering the evil done to Him by His foes, and take heart and strength and know that through Jesus we will gain the victory as well. God sustains us; we may sleep in death at the end of this life but we know that God will raise us in Christ (Romans 8:9-11, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58). If God is for us, who can be against us (Romans 8:31-39)? If we maintain trust in God, what can our foes do to us? Salvation belongs to our God, and He gives it freely to us in Christ. Let us establish God in Christ as our hope and trust and through Him gain confidence no matter what befalls us!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Expectation of Trial

Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial among you, which cometh upon you to prove you, as though a strange thing happened unto you: but insomuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings, rejoice; that at the revelation of his glory also ye may rejoice with exceeding joy (1 Peter 4:12-13).

It would seem that amazement at suffering for the Name is not only a modern phenomenon.

The first century Christians in modern-day Turkey were experiencing some level of persecution. They were going through trial (1 Peter 1:6-7): they should expect their neighbors to revile them as evildoers (1 Peter 2:12), not understanding why they no longer participate in the same idolatry and immorality as before (1 Peter 4:3-5). The Christians will do good to others and receive harm in return (1 Peter 2:18-20).

Peter tells them these thing so they are prepared for what they are experiencing or will experience. He wants them to know that these difficulties are to be expected. They should not consider it strange that they are suffering for the cause of Jesus (1 Peter 4:12-13). It is par for the course.

We can imagine why people would think suffering for Jesus is strange. Jesus calls upon people to be good to one another and help those in need: how could anyone not like someone who is good and does good to others? Perhaps we expect others to tolerate different religious beliefs, and in such a view, even if people disagree with Christianity, they should at least respect those who seek to practice it. In such a view, suffering because of one’s religion would be strange. These days some feel it is strange to suffer as a Christian because people have paid at least lip service to Christianity and Christian conceptions of the world, ethics, and morality for generations and therefore those views should still be considered as normative.

In an ideal world it would be strange to suffer for following after Jesus. Then again, in an ideal world, we would not have needed Jesus in the first place! We live in a world corrupted by sin (Romans 5:12-18, 8:18-23). Some people consider evil as good, and good as evil (cf. Isaiah 5:20). Yes, people will be more than happy to take advantage of someone who will do good for them, but when they see the contrast between their lives and the life of the righteous, they are faced with a decision: change and be like the righteous, attempt to get the righteous to sin and be like them, or to reject, condemn, and perhaps even kill the righteous so as to feel better about themselves and their condition. A few change to be like the righteous; the majority tempt the righteous or seek to cause them harm. There will always be a level of tolerance in terms of certain subjects, but the exclusive claims of Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, and the standard which He upholds can never be truly or fully tolerated by those who do not seek to adhere to that standard (cf. John 14:6, 15:18-19). In modern America any pretense of being a “Christian nation” has worn away; secular culture now maintains a worldview quite alien and hostile to that of Christianity. Disagreement and conflict are the inevitable result.

Yet it has always been that way. The Apostles did not mince words or attempt to sugarcoat this reality: Paul declared that it is through tribulation that we enter the Kingdom of God (Acts 14:22). He also said that we must suffer with Jesus if we want to inherit glory with Him (Romans 8:17). He declared that all those who live godly in Christ Jesus will experience persecution (2 Timothy 3:12). And Peter says that we must not think it strange to suffer trial, but that we should rejoice as a partaker of Christ’s sufferings (1 Peter 4:12-13). They certainly did not expect Christianity to be a walk in the park or a ticket to easy street; far from it! They wanted Christians to be fully prepared for the onslaught of the Devil which would come, be it through persecution at the hands of others, unfortunate circumstances, illness, and other trials. If anything, Christians should think it strange if they are not experiencing trials or such difficulties: it may well mean that the Devil has no reason to cause them harm because they are his (cf. Luke 6:26)!

Sufferings, trials, temptations, persecutions, and all sorts of troubles come along with the territory in Christianity. We should not be surprised when they come upon us. We could whine, complain, get frustrated, demand answers, and such like, but ultimately such reactions prove unprofitable. If our outlook regarding trial is negative we may not endure. It does seem strange to rejoice in suffering, as Peter suggests; it seems rather sadistic to do so. Peter is not suggesting that we should find pleasure in going through trials, difficulties, and tribulations, but to find joy in the result of those trials, a tested, tried, and purified faith, one that will lead to honor and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ who already suffered so much for us all (1 Peter 1:3-9, 4:12-13). We find joy in suffering for the Name since He suffered great hostility for the joy set before Him (Hebrews 12:1-2). We can only share in His inheritance when we have shared in His sufferings (Romans 6:1-7, 8:17-18).

In a creation subject to futility and decay, suffering and trial are the norm, not the exception. Our preparation and/or response to such trial makes all the difference. When we experience difficulty, especially from our fellow man who persecutes us for our faith, will we want to fight, argue, complain, and be bitter about it? Or will we rejoice inasmuch as we share in he suffering of Christ, and maintain the hope that we will therefore share in His inheritance and glory? Let us maintain that hope firm to the end, come what may, and find a way to glorify God in whatever circumstances we find ourselves!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Rage of the Nations

Why do the nations rage, and the peoples meditate a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together against the LORD and against his anointed (Psalm 2:1-2).

It is a pressing question in almost every generation: why are the powers that be opposed to the purposes of God?

The Psalmist envisions the day of conflict between YHWH and His Anointed One with the rulers of the nations (Psalm 2:1-12). The land of Israel was a tempting target for all sorts of nations: the neighboring Ammonites, Arameans, Canaanites, Edomites, Moabites, Phoenicians, and the Philistines would certainly enjoy more territory and tribute from Israel, while the greater nations of Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, and others understood its value as the main land connection between Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Old Testament is full of discussions of wars between the Israelites and their neighbors both near and far, and how God would often give the king of Israel and/or the king of Judah victory over their enemies.

All of these conflicts and battles are only the shadow of which the reality would be realized in Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of God. Herod the Great conspired against Him at His birth (Matthew 2:1-18). His death brought together Pontius Pilate, Roman procurator of Judea, and Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, who had formerly been at odds with each other (Luke 23:1-12). The cry for His crucifixion came from Jewish men and women who were willing to cry out that their only king was Caesar (John 19:15). The Roman power would fulfill their request (Luke 23:13-49). They all might have thought that such would be the end of Jesus of Nazareth and His mission, but they were quite wrong. God raised Jesus from the dead, and triumphed over the authorities, not just in the flesh on earth, but also the spiritual powers of darkness (Colossians 2:15).

Even though Jesus obtained the victory, His followers continued to understand the conflicts caused by their witness to Jesus in terms of Psalm 2:1-12. After Peter and John were cast into prison and castigated by the Sanhedrin, they and the other Apostles prayed the very words of Psalm 2:1-2 before God, connected it with Jesus before Herod and Pilate, and asked for continued boldness to advance Jesus’ purposes in Jerusalem (Acts 4:24-30). John sees a vision of Jesus being born and then taken to heaven where He rules with a rod of iron (Revelation 12:1-6; cf. Psalm 2:9). John then sees the contest between the people of God and the beast, the world power arrogating against God as empowered by the dragon, the Evil One, and the ultimate victory of the people of God over the forces of evil through Jesus (Revelation 12:7-14:20). When it is all said and done, God is praised, for while the nations raged, His wrath came, and the judgment came: the saints are rewarded, and the destroyers are destroyed (Revelation 11:18).

Opposition to the Kingdom of God is to be expected; the claim that Jesus is Lord, by its very nature, demands that those who would like to presume the highest authority for themselves are not. The kings of Babylon and the Caesars of Rome may have passed on, but nations still seek to be seen as all-powerful and deserving of all loyalty, and they chafe at the idea that people’s loyalty should fully and always be with the Lord Jesus (Matthew 10:34-39). Time would fail us if we were to tell of all the persecutions experienced by the people of God when they dared to stand up for Jesus as Lord against kings and nations who sought glory and honor for themselves. It continues to this day!

The kings of the earth plot against the purposes of God; the nations often rage against Him and His purposes. Their ultimate failure is guaranteed; the Lord Jesus has won the victory (Revelation 1:8, 17-18). Therefore, we should not be afraid of the nations. Sure, they may persecute us, perhaps even to death, but they can never extend the hope of resurrection and eternal life as Jesus has. Let us trust in Jesus as Lord and proclaim His Lordship boldly come what may!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Wrath of Satan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Smooth Things

For it is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the LORD; that say to the seers, “See not”;
and to the prophets, “Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits, get you out of the way, turn aside out of the path, cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us” (Isaiah 30:9-11).

The Iraq war of 2003. The economic disaster of 2008. These are but two of many instances in history when certain people warned about dangers and problems with conventional thinking and wisdom that went unheeded but proved to be precisely correct. Such voices often only gain credibility and respect after the fact when “I told you so” proves to be cold comfort.

The reason why this tendency exists in humanity is the same as the origin of the phrase, “don’t shoot the messenger”: humans do not like doom and gloom predictions and warnings about the dangers of their behaviors and the consequences of their actions. In such circumstances most will seek out reassurance that all will be well, to keep on accepting the official line or statement, and carry on with their lives. Meanwhile, the problems continue to grow and develop, and when they become too painfully obvious to ignore, it is too late. Pain and regret follow.

The prophets of Israel understood this tendency only too well. Isaiah laments how the king of Judah and his associates have not put their trust in the LORD but instead seek to make political alliances with Egypt in Isaiah 30:1-17. He has, no doubt, prophesied before them about the dangers of their path, but they did not want to hear it. It is unlikely that the people of Judah would be so bold as to actually tell the prophet to lie, deceive, and say smooth things (cf. Isaiah 30:10-11). Instead, they communicate the same message through their actions, rejecting the message of Isaiah and turning instead to listen to another prophet who would tell them, in the name of the LORD, that their alliance with Egypt would stand, and all would be well with them, just as they would put their trust in the prophets who told them what they wanted to hear in the days of Jeremiah (cf. Jeremiah 28:1-17).

We do well to remember that even though the voice of the false prophets is rarely heard in the Old Testament, they would have been quite prominent and vociferous in ancient Israel (cf. Luke 6:26). The false prophets do not feature prominently in the Old Testament since their deception and error proved evident: after the devastations of 722 and 586 BCE, the remnant of Israel recognized just how accurately the true prophets of God foretold what would happen. This realization helps us to understand why the Israelites did not really listen to prophets like Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel: their messages were dire and harsh, demanding repentance, lest the LORD destroy them and/or exile them away from the land. Meanwhile, these false prophets would tell them that YHWH would destroy their enemies and keep them in their land. If we were there, which one would we rather believe?

We also should keep in mind that the message of the false prophet might seem to better match theological expectations. This was certainly true in Jesus’ day. Jesus prophesied that God would render judgment against Israel and destroy Jerusalem by the hands of the Romans (Matthew 24:1-36). Meanwhile, many in Israel were convinced that God would give them victory over the Roman oppressor just as He gave the Maccabees victory over the Macedonians for His name’s glory and honor. Therefore, to many Jews of the first century, Jesus’ prediction seemed blasphemous and perhaps even demonic, an attempt to weaken resolve in the struggle against an imperious overlord. And then, in 70 CE, Jesus was fully vindicated.

Isaiah is right: people like to hear “smooth things.” Paul warns Timothy of how Christians will no longer endure sound doctrine, but having “itching ears,” will find teachers to satisfy their desires, and turn away to fables (2 Timothy 4:3-4). People still do not like hearing messages that challenge the way they live their lives and ideas or the ideas and philosophies upon which they have built their understanding of their environment. To this day people are still looking for ways to justify their attitudes and behavior rather than changing them in healthy ways.

The Gospel of Christ can never be a “smooth thing.” It convicts and challenges everyone toward greater faithfulness to Christ; it is a hard way to go (cf. Matthew 7:13-14)! There are always temptations to make the message smooth–always. Some might make the message smooth by toning down or compromising those parts of the Gospel which work against conventional cultural thinking. Others might make the message smooth by focusing only on the problems, errors, or challenges of others without having to go through the uncomfortable process of looking in the mirror and confronting their own problems and challenges (cf. Matthew 7:1-5). The whole truth of God’s message in Christ proves difficult for everyone!

It is understandable why so many people attempt to make the message smooth: we can read how the prophets, Apostles, and others who faithfully proclaimed God’s message were persecuted, humiliated, injured, or even killed because the people did not like their message (cf. Hebrews 11:32-38). Meanwhile, those who tell people what they want to hear receive accolades, praise, and other benefits (cf. Luke 6:26). We would rather be liked than disliked; loved rather than hated.

Nevertheless, God’s message proves true. There are many false prophets about, just as there has always been, and many will be led astray by them (2 Peter 2:1-4). Yet a day will come, just like it did for Israel in 722 BCE, Judah in 586 BCE, and Jerusalem again in 70 CE, when God will render judgment on all people, and on that day far too many, both “Christian” and otherwise, will recognize how they have been deceived and that it is too late (Matthew 7:21-23, Romans 2:5-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10). Therefore, we must resist the temptation to preach smooth things or to listen to them, and to be willing to deal with the discomfort and challenge that comes from acceptance of the Gospel of Christ. Let us heed God’s warnings and prove willing to fully repent and follow after Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Evil and the Cross

And Pilate, wishing to content the multitude, released unto them Barabbas, and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged him, to be crucified (Mark 15:15).

An innocent man scourged and crucified. Such terrible evil!

One of the most challenging questions that people face is the problem of evil. If God is so good, holy, and loving, how can He allow people to suffer pain, misery, and evil? The challenge of this question has only intensified as time has gone on and people show even greater cruelty toward one another. People want to know where God was during the Holocaust and in the genocides that have been committed ever since. Many claim to lose whatever faith they had in God on account of the problem of evil.

It is not as if God cannot create a world without any evil: the New Testament teaches that God intends to do so in the future (2 Peter 3:10-13, Revelation 21:1-22:6). If God can create a world without evil, misery, sin, and pain, why did He not do so the first time around?

Many “answers” are provided. Some declare that evil exists as a consequence for sin. It is true that evil often does occur as a consequence of sin, be it the presence of death in the world (Romans 5:12-18), natural disasters (Romans 8:20-22), condemnation (2 Kings 17:7-23, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9), or even the suffering of innocents (Romans 5:12-18). But this does not describe how evil comes into being. Others will then point to free will: God made mankind not as robots but as free moral agents, and for free moral agency to exist, a choice must exist (Isaiah 7:15-16, Ezekiel 18). Yet God certainly knew what the choice would be (Ephesians 3:11): why allow man to make the choice if it would lead to such great misery and pain?

The problem of evil is also addressed in “apocalyptic” parts of the Bible, such as Daniel 7-12, 2 Corinthians 4:4, Ephesians 6:12, and Revelation 12:9-12. While God maintains overall control of the universe, this world is currently beset by evil cosmic forces, which God will destroy on the last day (Revelation 19-20). While this may explain why God does not necessarily act to stop evil today, it still does not help us understand where these evil forces came from.

Ultimately we come to the answer provided in Job and Ecclesiastes: we humans cannot really know, and it is emptiness to consider the question (Job 38:1-42:6, Ecclesiastes 8:14, 16-17). When many people hear this, they want to protest. How can God “abandon” us without an answer to such a pressing question? What good is the Bible if it does not answer our most difficult question?

Yet maybe the problem is not with the Bible or its answers, but instead with the question itself. Why do people want to know where evil came from, anyway? We humans often believe that if we have knowledge about something, we can gain power over it. This worked with technology and science, so why not evil? The challenge is that even if we were given a most satisfying answer to the problem of evil, it would not make evil any less miserable or painful.

Evil is too challenging and complicated to be so easily dismissed. The problem is more with us: we do not want to really come face to face with the challenge evil presents. Evil pervades everything: we all have committed evil (Romans 3:9-23), and evil or at least the potential of evil exists in every person, corporation, organization, society, and government. When we are confronted with evil, we try to argue our way out of it, legislate it away, or avoid the issue. Yet none of those “solutions” ever works. We cannot, by our own devices, remove evil.

Furthermore, consider the basic message of the New Testament. God the Father told Peter, James, and John that Jesus was “His beloved Son” (Matthew 17:5). We know that Jesus prayed to God in the garden, imploring His Father to remove the evil that He would soon face (Matthew 26:39). We know that the Father heard Him (Hebrews 5:7). Therefore, if God could have somehow removed the problem of evil, or could make it irrelevant, without causing His Son to suffer such terrible pain and anguish, would He not have done so? The very fact that the New Testament teaches that the Son of God had to suffer evil demonstrates that the problem of evil cannot be answered by a philosophical argument. Asking why evil exists provides no benefit; instead, we must consider what God has done about the problem of evil.

The Bible makes it very clear that God deals with the problem of evil through Jesus’ death on the cross. God the Son was willing to take on flesh and to learn humiliation and obedience through suffering (Philippians 2:5-11, Hebrews 5:8). God handles the problem of evil in His own person!

Consider from the Gospel accounts all of the forms of evil that Jesus experiences on the day of His death. He experiences the evils of physical suffering in His scourging and crucifixion (Mark 15:15, Luke 23:33). He suffers political, social, and religious evils by the very “chosen people of God” who should have welcomed Him (Luke 22:63-71, 23:21). Further political evil comes from Pilate and Herod, enemies united in the downfall of Jesus (Luke 23:12). Since Jesus suffers evil without committing sin, He suffers the great moral evil of injustice (cf. Isaiah 53, 1 Peter 2:20-24). He suffers mental, emotional, and spiritual evil through the mockery, taunting, and temptations of the people and the Evil One behind them (Mark 15:29-32, Luke 4:13, 23:32-38).

Political, social, religious, moral, physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual evil: Jesus experienced the full vent of such evils while enduring the cross. All the powers of evil threw all they had against the Son of God. He exhausted all their power in His death and resurrection, and He gained the victory over evil and its forces (Romans 8:2, 1 Corinthians 15:1-20).

The Bible does not provide an answer to the question of why evil exists, but God has definitively acted against evil through Jesus’ death on the cross. For whatever reason, evil cannot be willed away in this world. Instead, we must defeat evil. The only way that we can defeat evil is through the blood of Jesus the Lamb of God and our being willing to suffer as He did (Revelation 12:11, Romans 8:17). If evil stares us in the face and we cannot understand how God would allow evil to exist in the world, let us turn our face toward the cross, and see that God was willing to give His most precious Son in order to defeat evil. Let us follow Jesus’ example that was given for us and learn obedience through suffering evil unjustly (Hebrews 5:8, 1 Peter 2:20-24). Our hope of glorious salvation is dependent on God’s defeat of evil on the cross and our victory through Him (Revelation 12:11). Let us praise God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:57)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Slaughter of the Innocents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Calling Upon the Name of the LORD

And I will show wonders in the heavens and in the earth: blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD cometh. And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the LORD shall be delivered; for in mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those that escape, as the LORD hath said, and among the remnant those whom the LORD doth call (Joel 2:30-32).

A day was coming when momentous events would take place.

Joel looks forward to later days, after the restoration of all that the “locusts” destroyed (cf. Joel 2:25-26), and it is simultaneously a glorious and concerning picture: God will pour His Spirit out on all flesh, and the descendants of the Israelites will prophesy and have visions, even their servants as well (Joel 2:28-29). Signs and portents would be there for those who wished to see them, and then would come the “great and terrible day of the LORD” (Joel 2:30-31). Those who “call upon the name of the LORD” would be delivered; it would only be a remnant that would escape in Zion and Jerusalem (Joel 2:32).

These portents and signs were actually quite ominous. There was another time during which God showed “wonders” in heaven and on earth: the wonders of the plagues which God set against Pharaoh and Egypt, including the Nile being turned to blood, and fire with hail (Exodus 4:21, 7:7, 9:24, Deuteronomy 6:22). Blood, fire, and pillars of smoke are what you would expect to see in the wake of a marauding enemy devastating the land! The sun turning to darkness and the moon to blood evokes the plague of darkness over Egypt (cf. Exodus 10:21), and the prophets spoke of violent transitions in power in such terms in Isaiah 13:10, 34:4, Jeremiah 4:23, Ezekiel 32:1-8, and against Israel itself in Amos 8:9. This is not a description of a peaceful time: war, famine, pestilence, and all sorts of misery accompanied these changes.

So it makes sense how Joel speaks of only a remnant escaping, consistent with Obadiah 1:17, and that remnant escapes not on the basis of their own wisdom or ability but on account of “calling upon the name of the LORD” (Joel 2:32). We can imagine that all sorts of people in such a situation would cry out to YHWH, and clearly not everyone is being heard. Therefore, there is more involved to “calling on the name of the LORD” than just the voice: it involves putting one’s trust in YHWH and nowhere else. YHWH, not the king, satrap, or governor, can deliver.

The Scriptures do not leave us in doubt as to when this day came: in Acts 2:16-21, the Apostle Peter declares that the falling of the Holy Spirit upon the Twelve on the day of Pentecost in the year 30 CE is the fulfillment of what Joel has said. The gift of the Holy Spirit was now available for all who repented and were immersed in water for the remission of sin in the name of Jesus (Acts 2:38-39). The Apostles and those upon whom they laid their hands would prophesy (cf. Acts 8:17, 19:1-9). Yet Peter does not quote everything Joel wrote: he concludes with, “and it shall be, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21; cf. Joel 2:32). Peter does not mention the section about the escaping remnant in Zion and Jerusalem (Joel 2:32). Perhaps we should infer that the whole is under discussion, and Peter stops where he does for emphasis. Perhaps it is a deliberate omission.

Nevertheless, this prophecy of Joel colors the Apostles’ understanding of what Jesus is accomplishing with His Kingdom. In Romans 10:12-13, Joel 2:32 is used to demonstrate that since “whoever” calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved, God is including people of any and every nation. Paul uses the language of Joel 2:32 in 1 Corinthians 1:2 as well. Yet Paul also speaks about the “remnant” of Israel as being saved in Romans 11:5, based primarily in the account of God and Elijah in 1 Kings 19:11-18, but completely consistent with the remnant discussion in Joel 2:32 as well.

Therefore, the whole message of Joel 2:32 relates to God’s redemption available through Jesus, and the “great and terrible day” finds its beginning on the day of Pentecost with the establishment of Jesus’ Kingdom through the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ, and most likely finds its climax in 70 CE, when the judgments and plagues of the day of the LORD came fully and powerfully upon Judea and Jerusalem. At that time a remnant did escape in Zion and Jerusalem: not the earthly Zion and Jerusalem, but through association as part of the heavenly Zion and Jerusalem, the people of God in Christ Jesus (cf. Galatians 4:21-31, Hebrews 12:18-24).

So what does it mean to call upon the name of the LORD in the new covenant? As Paul recounts his conversion to Christianity before his fellow Jews in Jerusalem, he tells of how Ananias had told him to be baptized, for in so doing he would wash away his sins, “calling upon His name” (Acts 22:16). His audience certainly understood his referent, and it reinforces what we have said: there is more to calling upon the name of the LORD than just vocalizing His name. Plenty of people did that in times of distress; for that matter, the Jewish War of 66-70 was entirely based in Jewish confidence in YHWH that He would help them overcome the Romans. Yet, while their mouths called upon the name of YHWH, they had in fact rejected Him when they rejected His Son (cf. Matthew 21:33-45). The only remnant that could escape would be those who trusted in Jesus as Lord and Christ; for all others, the terrors of the day of the LORD awaited (Joel 2:32, Matthew 24:1-36).

Joel’s prophecy remains quite instructive for us. He speaks of the climactic and quite apocalyptic events surrounding the establishment of the Kingdom of Christ and the impending destruction of Jerusalem. For those who call upon the name of the LORD, those who trust in Him, it was a grand day; for those who did not trust in the LORD, because they had rejected Him, it was terrible. So it has always been; so it will always be. Let us put our trust in the LORD God by subjecting ourselves to Jesus the Son, prepared for His return and the day of resurrection, and be part of the remnant of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Theology While Suffering

Thou, O LORD, abidest for ever; Thy throne is from generation to generation. Wherefore dost thou forget us for ever, And forsake us so long time? Turn thou us unto thee, O LORD, and we shall be turned; Renew our days as of old. But thou hast utterly rejected us; Thou art very wroth against us (Lamentations 5:19-22).

The impact of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Babylonians, along with the exile to Babylon, upon the people of God can hardly be overstated. These events would completely rattle every aspect of the common theology and worldview of the day. In the ancient Near East, blessings and conquest meant your god was happy with you; plagues and defeat meant your god was angry with you. And yet here Judah experiences plague, pestilence, violence, complete devastation, and even exile, which to many would have meant as much a separation from the god of their land as much as it mean separation from their country. Formerly, even when things looked bad, the Temple of YHWH in Jerusalem remained; now, even that was gone. The complete humiliation of Judah posed major theological challenges: if YHWH is the God of Israel, how could YHWH allow these things to happen? Was YHWH powerless against the Babylonians and their god Marduk? If YHWH is punishing us, why does He do so in ways that give the other nations reason to blaspheme His name and thoroughly disrespect Him? How can YHWH be our God and care for us when we have been brought so very low?

God provided a lot of warnings to the people beforehand through the prophets; God would again speak to the people to comfort and encourage them after the events took place. There is less written from and about those actually experiencing the event and its immediate aftermath: some of the psalms seem to come from this period (e.g. Psalm 44), and we get some indication of events from the book of Jeremiah (cf. Jeremiah 39:1-44:30). Yet it is the voice of Lamentations which provides a moving and visceral response to these tragic events. The author of Lamentations describes what happens, and understands why the tragedy was necessary. Nevertheless, the author wrestles with the pain, suffering, misery, and the question of God’s presence and concern for His people.

The book of Lamentations is a masterpiece. Its author, over its first four chapters, expresses the pain, anguish, and distress of Jerusalem and its people, and does so using acrostic patterns (each verse or couplet of verses begins with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet). Yet it is in the fifth chapter that the author breaks out of the convention and pours out his soul before God. He pleads for God to see their reproach and describes their humiliation (Lamentations 5:1-18). Yet, in all this, he remains convinced of God’s existence and authority (Lamentations 5:19). He wants to know for how long YHWH will continue to turn away from His people and abandon them to their humiliation; he asks YHWH to turn back to His people so His people will turn back to Him and all may be renewed (Lamentations 5:20-21). The author recognizes the present distress, and concludes with his understanding of the situation: YHWH has rejected His people and remains angry with them (Lamentations 5:22).

It comes as no surprise that Lamentations is not one of the more popular books of the Bible: it is not a happy book. Lamentations is full of the types of things which we humans generally seek to avoid: pain, distress, misery, suffering, and the attempt to try to make some sense out of why it happened and where God is in the midst of the pain. We know that there might be a time when we might experience something of the sort, but we certainly do not look forward to it. We would rather continue to live as we are living, seek to focus on the happier parts of life, hope we avoid as much suffering as we can, and trust that if suffering comes we will somehow find a way through it.

But then moments of suffering come. Perhaps we will be fortunate and be able to endure them without too much distress. But what will become of us if we experience a time of intense suffering far beyond anything we might have imagined? Doubts and fears will arise. Hope might be extinguished; despair may turn to cynicism. The confidence held in one’s view of God and how one looks at the world might be strongly shaken. Many in such a condition, even if they recover physically, never do so emotionally and spiritually.

This is why it is important to understand the value of strong theology even in the midst of suffering, or perhaps even on account of suffering. We can see this from the author of Lamentations. He has seen and experienced terrible evils which most of us can only imagine with dread and terror, terrible things done by the pagan nations against the people of God, and yet his faith is firm and resolute. He recognizes that God remains sovereign and in control. He has perceived that God is angry with His people and punished them and he does not seek to find fault with God because of it. He is able to maintain the hope that God will turn back toward His people and renew them as of old.

When we do not maintain that strong theology while suffering, we will be tempted to fall away. The same distress which the author of Lamentations rightly understands to be God’s chastening is understood by others as the consequence of turning away from the Queen of Heaven (cf. Jeremiah 44:15-19). While many Jews remained faithful to God in Babylon, we will never know how many others could not handle all the distress and pain and the challenge to their worldview and just assimilated into Babylonian culture, assuming that since the Babylonians were successful, their gods and perspective were clearly right, and their former belief in YHWH was wrong. Such people have been made invisible historically, no doubt swept up in every successive change of empire and belief in Mesopotamia. They attached themselves to the way of the world; their fate will be as the world.

Times of suffering will come. Our faith will be tested as through fire (1 Peter 1:3-9). Perhaps our sufferings will be manifestations of God’s discipline (cf. Hebrews 12:4-11). Perhaps our suffering will come on account of our trust in God in Christ (cf. Luke 6:22-23). Or maybe our suffering will not come with an explicit reason; it will just be. That suffering may be so severe as to shake our confidence in everything which we used to believe was true. How will we respond to such distress and calamity? Will we be able to maintain our confidence in God and His goodness toward His people? Will we find a way to maintain our hope despite our distress and pain? At that time we will perhaps gain a better appreciation for the message of Lamentations, and seek to take refuge in the same hope which sustained the author of Lamentations even when it seemed that there was no hope left. Let us stand firm in God and trust in Him in good times and in bad, when suffering or well, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Just Deserts

For the day of the LORD is near upon all the nations: as thou hast done, it shall be done unto thee; thy dealing shall return upon thine own head (Obadiah 1:15).

Perhaps you’ve heard it said, “they’re getting their just deserts.”

“Deserts” here sounds like “desserts,” and many people insist that it is supposed to be “desserts,” but it is “deserts,” not referring to a parched wilderness, but an older definition otherwise not used: “that which is deserved.”

There has been little love from Edom for Israel from Moses until the exile. It happened according to Isaac’s blessings of Jacob and Esau (cf. Genesis 27:1-45): the Israelites many times ruled over the Edomites, but the Edomites would take advantage of any opportunity to cause difficulties for Israel. Yet the most recent actions prove to be the most reprehensible: when the Babylonians attacked Israel, Edom their brother did nothing to help, but were encouraged at the humiliation of Israel (cf. Psalm 137:7, Obadiah 1:11). When Israel was carried into exile by Babylon, Edom took the opportunity to expand westward into the land of Judah (cf. Ezekiel 35:15). In every respect they rejoiced at the downfall of Israel.

On account of these circumstances, Obadiah receives a vision warning Edom, in effect, that it is about to get its just deserts (cf. Obadiah 1:1-21). As they have rejoiced at Israel’s downfall, so Israel will be given reason to rejoice at their downfall. As they encroached upon Israel’s territory, so Israel will encroach upon their territory; in fact, according to historical records, the (Israelite) Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus conquered the Edomites and forced them all to convert to Judaism (ca. 110 BCE; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 13.9.1). They received their “just deserts.”

Yet Obadiah does not restrict this to Edom: on the day of the LORD, all nations will get their “just deserts.” The Arameans fell to the Assyrians. The Philistines were exiled by the Babylonians, never to return. The Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and the Macedonians ruled and oppressed only to find themselves being ruled and oppressed by nations over which they had exercised authority. None of them remain; as they had done to others, so it was done to them.

This pattern has continued throughout time; God is still likely doing to nations as they have done to others. But what is true on a “national” level remains true on a “personal” level as well. Jesus encourages believers that “as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise” (Luke 6:31). As the “Golden Rule,” it is a wonderful encouragement for us to consider. Yet there is a powerful reason behind this encouragement: God is going to give each person their “just deserts” on the day of the LORD, the day of judgment (cf. Romans 2:4-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). As we have done to others, so will it be done to us. If we treated others as we want to be treated, and showed love, mercy, and compassion to others, we will receive love, mercy, and compassion. But if we have treated others callously and shamefully, exploiting them for our (perceived) benefit, will we not receive callous and shameful treatment as God’s punishment in return?

There are times when people are in distress and experiencing humiliation. There are times when people are prosperous and proud. As with the nations, so with people: all will get their “just deserts.” As Jesus said, those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted (cf. Matthew 23:12). We do well to learn from these examples in the past. Let us maintain humility, whether prosperous or poor, successful or humiliated, and let us always seek to do good for others so that our “just deserts” is the resurrection of life and eternity with God, not the resurrection of condemnation and eternity separated from Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry