Servant Power

But Jesus called them unto him, and said, “Ye know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Not so shall it be among you: but whosoever would become great among you shall be your minister; and whosoever would be first among you shall be your servant: even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).

It was the same old argument with a new and bold twist.

Jesus’ disciples had been jockeying amongst themselves for a long time for power and prestige. They had argued about it before (Mark 9:34/Luke 9:46) and would argue about it again (Luke 22:24). But none of them had ever been so bold as to actually bring the matter up before Jesus Himself.

Yet this time James and John get Salome their mother to ask Jesus for the left and right hand positions in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 20:20-21, Mark 10:35-37). Jesus wonders whether they would be able to drink His cup of bitterness or to experience His baptism of suffering, and on the basis of their confident faith (in what they likely do not understand), declares that they will do so (Matthew 20:22-23, Mark 10:38-39). Yet, in the end, it is not for Jesus to give; it is for those to whom it has been prepared (Matthew 20:23, Mark 10:40).

The other ten are indignant with James and John (cf. Matthew 20:24, Mark 10:41). We should not imagine that their indignation was for spiritual or pious reasons. It perhaps was motivated by envy– they had asked for what they had all wanted, and the others did not have the confidence to do so! Or, perhaps, their indignation was based in feelings of shame– something that had been discussed in “secret” for so long the brothers had now made wide open. Ultimately, however, James and John actually asked for the thing they all really wanted– prominence in the Kingdom.

This is one of those moments where it is evident that the disciples and Jesus have entirely different understandings about the nature of the Kingdom Jesus has been proclaiming. Since the matter had clearly come to a head, and was now causing friction among the disciples, Jesus is compelled to address this misunderstanding in some small way.

The disciples seem to be imagining a Kingdom of the Jewish expectation– the Branch of David back on the throne in Jerusalem, triumphantly defeating Israel’s foes. Since the disciples believed in Jesus more steadfastly it was natural to expect that they would have the positions of prominence normally far beyond the reach of Galilean fishermen. Jesus, they imagined, was their ticket to greatness– the opportunity to get on the “ground floor” of the greatest Kingdom the world would ever know. In short, they expected Jesus to use the standard way the world works in order to surpass all who came before Him.

Yet Jesus’ response devastates such a view. Granted, many of the disciples’ expectations will come true, but not through the means they imagined. Jesus did not come to earth to just surpass the world at its own game. He came to earth to overthrow the world and its standards, and this is prominently featured in His response to His disciples (Matthew 20:25-28).

The disciples were all too familiar with Gentile power. They saw how the Roman Empire flexed its might. They saw the system of patronage and client that re-inforced class divisions. It was a system where might was right and humility was worthless. Courage, strength, and the ability to display power were what really mattered. The more masterful of a game player you were, the higher you could advance.

Jesus makes it abundantly clear that such is not the way the Kingdom of God works. Instead, He says, to be great in the Kingdom you must be a servant to others. If you want to be first in the Kingdom, you must be a slave to the rest. And Jesus sets Himself forth as the example: the One who deserved service did not receive it but instead served others (cf. Romans 15:3, Philippians 2:5-11).

It has been almost two thousand years since Jesus uttered these words, but they are no less earth-shaking. The “Gentile world” still operates pretty much like it did in the Roman world. There is a mad dash to power and those who play the game the best win. It is quite tempting for people to do the same thing in Jesus’ Kingdom, but it is good to remember what Jesus says. No matter how much the world values such attributes, they have no place in the Kingdom. Advancement in the Kingdom can only happen through weakness, suffering, humility, and service. Ironically, advancement can only take place when one has renounced such a view of existence– humility can only develop when pride is removed, and where there is no pride, there is no self-seeking, no impulse to self-advancement in a worldly sense. If one sets off on the road to greater humility and service, one can only find the destination through renouncing self and clinging to Jesus (Galatians 2:20).

The day would come when the disciples understood what Jesus meant. They had to go through the trials of experience and suffering. James would lose his life for Jesus’ cause (Acts 12:1-2); John would suffer with the other Apostles at times and would eventually find himself exiled for the Name in Patmos (cf. Acts 5:40-41, Revelation 1:9). Peter and the others would endure similar trials, and they all did so willingly, calling themselves the slaves of Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:1, etc.). They knew that the Kingdom, while in the world, was not of the world, but of Jesus Christ their Lord (cf. 1 John 2:15-17). Thus their place of authority was reserved for them because they went through the trials, experiences, and travails that taught them the way of Jesus: the way of service (cf. Revelation 4:4).

There remains the way of the world and the way of Jesus. We all, at some point in our lives, look at things as the disciples did, and seek out that glory, fame, and power in some form or another. But are we willing to follow the way of Jesus, the way of humility and service, bitterness and suffering, in order to receive the true commendation and exaltation (cf. Philippians 2:5-11)? We cannot imagine that we will receive it through worldly means and by looking at power as the world understands it. Instead, we must develop servant power, and give up everything for Jesus so that He can be manifest in us (Romans 8:29, Galatians 2:20). Let us be humble so that we may be exalted on that great and glorious day!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Walking on the Water

And Peter answered him and said, “Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee upon the waters.”
And he said, “Come.”
And Peter went down from the boat, and walked upon the waters to come to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me.”
And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and took hold of him, and saith unto him, “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” (Matthew 14:28-31).

The five thousand men had just been fed. The disciples were out on the water while Jesus prayed on the mountain. A contrary wind was impeding the boat’s progress; they were still in the middle of the Sea of Galilee in the early morning hours before the dawn. And then the disciples saw a most astounding thing!

A figure is walking across the water, and they quite understandably believe that it is a ghost (cf. Matthew 14:26). Jesus assures them that it is He. Here is One who can feed five thousand with five loaves and two fishes, and He can also walk on water to boot!

Peter then has one of his famous moments as a disciple. It is difficult to read his motivations here. Is he still not quite sure that the figure before him is Jesus, and therefore is indicating a lack of trust in the Voice he hears? And yet he asks Jesus to invite him out onto the water, a request that surely takes some level of faith? If nothing else we see that impetuous Peter has confidence in the powers of Jesus– at least initially.

Jesus tells him to come, and Peter walks on the water. We can only imagine the rush that Peter must have felt as he was doing something that mere mortals had never done. As long as he moved in full confidence of Jesus, all was well.

But then “reality” sank in. Peter sees the wind and experiences a loss of confidence. When the very thing that sustained him collapsed, so did he. He begins to sink and Jesus must rescue him, asking Peter to probe in his heart why his faith wavered.

Recently I have been working with my eldest daughter in trying to help her learn how to ride her bicycle without training wheels. She must learn how to balance herself properly. When she looks forward and keeps focused, she balances. But when she looks down for a moment, the confidence fades, and she lists to one side or the other.

Our faith, therefore, is a lot like bicycle riding. When we look forward, confidently trusting in Jesus and seeking His will, we are able to accomplish things that the conscious mind can barely imagine. But when the eye of our faith strays from the Lord and looks at the “reality” of the world, and our confidence wavers, we find ourselves stumbling, falling over or sinking.

In reality, the circumstances have not changed. The wind was there when Peter was walking on the water. When my daughter is balancing the bicycle the ground is still there. The challenge in such circumstances is being willing to overcome our doubts and our fears through our faith– to triumphantly and confidently trust in and depend on God in Christ no matter how dire the circumstances may seem or how hard it may seem if “reality” begins to set in.

The difference between little faith and great faith does not regard blindness to reality. Instead, the difference between little faith and great faith involves what we do when challenges come. If challenges to our faith come, and we allow those challenges to overcome our faith, then our faith was too little. But if challenges come and we persist in our faith despite those challenges, then our faith proves to be strong.

There are always times of stumbling. Even though my daughter does not want to think about it, the reality is that she will fall plenty of times before she learns how to ride the bike well. This story is not the last time Peter will hear regarding the smallness of his faith. And yet it is through those moments of stumbling that Peter develops the great faith of his apostleship, proving willing to suffer and even die for the Name of Christ (cf. Acts 5:41).

The life of faith is not guaranteed to be easy. Believers will be challenged. Many times they will stumble, and their faith will prove insufficient for the day. Nevertheless, we must continue to persevere and grow in the faith (cf. 2 Peter 3:18). Let us develop strong faith, trusting in the Lord no matter how challenging “reality” might be!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Walking By Faith

For we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).

We walk by faith, not by sight. This verse is justly famous, used plentifully in sermons and articles and in conversation. The statement gets right to the heart of the distinction between the life of the believer and the life of someone in the world.

Yet, in context, it is an aside explanation. Paul has been talking about the resurrection and the desire believers have to be fully clothed and in the presence of God (2 Corinthians 4:16-5:4). We are to be of good courage despite being absent in the Lord while home in the body, even though we are willing to be absent from the body and at home with the Lord (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:6-8). We walk by faith because we are absent from the Lord.

We recognize that Paul is not trying to say that we literally walk by faith and not by sight. Christians should watch where they are going just as much as everyone else, and need their maps and GPS to know where they are going like others do. Paul’s concern is based in one’s perception of life and where they place their trust. Do they trust in God, that is, to walk by faith, or do they trust in appearances, that is, to walk by sight (Greek eidos, better understood in terms of appearance or form; cf. Luke 9:29, 1 Thessalonians 5:22). Where is our trust really founded?

It is good for us to consider the depth of the power of this verse and the idea behind it. It seems almost customary in our reason-worshiping society to minimize faith and maximize what can be “proven.” We try to make the case that believing in God is eminently reasonable. We try to make the “leap of faith” to be as small as we can.

That may have some value when presenting the message of the Gospel to the world. It is true that believing in God and His work as revealed in Jesus the Christ and in Scripture can be defended by reasonable and rational argumentation (cf. 1 Peter 3:15), but tension remains between reason and faith. In the end, we cannot “prove” God’s existence, the resurrection of Jesus, or any such thing according to standards of empirical science. Even the attempt would be sorely misguided! We walk by faith, and there should be no shame in that.

It does not really take a lot of faith to believe in something that goes along with your way of thinking. It really does not even take a lot of faith to believe in God when things are going well and you believe that you are blessed. It is in the midst of trial and difficulty, be it through physical, mental, or emotional distress, or persecution, or some other such thing, that we demonstrate where we have placed our trust.

It may be true that by all appearances there is no God, there is nothing but suffering and misery, and life is pointless. It is in those times that we must remember that we are to walk by faith, not by appearance.

It may be true that by all appearances the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. It is in those times that we must remember that we are to walk by faith, not by appearances.

It is entirely true that by all appearances Christians are old-fashioned, believing in a God and miracles and all kinds of things by faith without much physical evidence at all. And that is right, for we do not walk according to appearances, but by faith.

We must trust that if we love God and do the right thing, all things will work out for good (Romans 8:28).

We must trust that if we suffer for doing good, we are blessed, for we are following in the Master’s footsteps (1 Peter 2:19-25).

We must trust that the God who was willing to suffer the loss of His Son is willing to give us all things (Romans 8:32).

It is easy to say that we walk by faith, but it is something entirely different to actually walk by faith. It is always easier to trust in appearances– to place our trust in our own skills, our own ideas, our own attitudes, our own perspectives. We know that Jeremiah says that it is not within us to direct our own steps (Jeremiah 10:23), and yet what do we do in good times and bad? Do we truly depend on God and trust in His ways or do we first try to accomplish whatever we seek to accomplish by our own strengths and only then turn to God when all else fails? Do we seek to persuade men based on men’s standards or do we proclaim only Christ and Him crucified (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:2)?

Appearance always gives reason for doubt, apprehension, fear, misgivings, and excuses. Faith trusts, emboldens, and, ultimately, liberates. Where will we place our trust? Let us truly walk by faith and serve the Risen Lord!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Is it Vain to Serve God?

“Your words have been stout against me,” saith the LORD.
Yet ye say, “What have we spoken against thee?”
Ye have said, “It is vain to serve God; and what profit is it that we have kept his charge, and that we have walked mournfully before the LORD of hosts?” (Malachi 3:13-14).

People tend to prefer and value instant gratification. Sure, there are some things for which people are willing to wait for a little time, but on the whole, we want results, and we want them now. We do not want to wait in line, we do not want to wait to buy things later, and we certainly do not like being held in suspension.

If humans cannot stand waiting, then it stands to reason that humans have an even harder time tolerating seemingly constant failure. In the minds of many, insanity is defined as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” In many facets of life, that statement is reasonable and accurate.

But what happens when it comes to waiting on God?

Human beings want things right now. They want change to have happened already. Yet God operates in His good time, for He is not bound to time like we are (cf. 2 Peter 3:8). We want everything right now, but God is patiently transforming those who seek to be His obedient servants (cf. Romans 8:29, 12:1-2). It does not happen overnight– but it does happen!

But how do we feel when we look out in the world and think that nothing is going right? What happens when it seems like things are worse for us because we try to serve God? How should we then respond?

We can see how the post-exilic Jews responded to this situation. By all accounts they were less sinful than their fathers, and yet while their fathers lived in a free and independent Judah, they remained under the hand of the Persians. It seemed to them that the wicked and arrogant prospered while the righteous were distressed and humbled (cf. Malachi 2:17, 3:15). Their response was natural: why bother serving God? In their eyes, it was vanity to serve God– they were no better off for it!

This response is as entirely understandable as it is misguided. It is the result of the myopic tunnel vision that we humans often experience– we focus on all of our challenges and difficulties and the oppression and the injustice in the world and declare God unjust, or believe that since we prayed fervently for some noble cause and yet still have failed that God has abandoned us, while all around us the blessings of God in life, both physical and spiritual, abounds (cf. Genesis 1:1-2:4, John 3:16, Ephesians 1:3). If we understand that God is the Author and Sustainer of Life, how could we even begin to think that it is vain to serve Him?

It is important for us to remember that our work in the Lord is never in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). It may not lead to the immediate results we desire, either in terms of our own growth and development or the encouragement of other souls, but its long-term impact may be vast indeed. Even if it has little impact on ourselves or others, it works within God’s greater plan and His great will (Ephesians 1:3-11), and that is glorious. As Jesus indicates in Luke 18:1-8, there is great value in persistence in prayer, and we should not assume that our prayers fail because we do not immediately see changes.

We may find that things seem to go worse for us once we have turned to righteousness and seek the will of God. But we must remember in such circumstances that it is only a reversal on the surface. Consider the image we see in Revelation– if you just read Revelation 13, for instance, you would have good reason to despair if you were one of the members of the seven churches of Asia. The world of Revelation 13 was the “real world” in which you would have inhabited. Nevertheless, the picture is given in Revelation 12, 14-19, of what else is going on, and that perspective changes everything: Satan’s hold on the powers of earth is his desperate last stand, and it too will fail in the end. No matter how bleak it might have seemed on the earth, God was still ruling in heaven.

And so it is with us today. It is easy to get lost in the surface matters and the temporary setbacks, get frustrated and discouraged, and wonder if there is any value in serving God. Yet let us remember that God is still ruler in heaven, that He is accomplishing many great things, and that our work in the Lord is never in vain. Let us be patient and faithful servants of God, knowing that He does all things well (cf. Mark 7:37)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Our Common Suffering

Whom withstand stedfast in your faith, knowing that the same sufferings are accomplished in your brethren who are in the world (1 Peter 5:9).

During times of great difficulty– be it physical, emotional, and/or spiritual– it is easy for believers to get the impression that they are alone in what they are experiencing. They may feel that they are alone because it seems that no one else is suffering quite like they are. Others may feel that they are the only ones left who truly stand for God’s purposes and that everyone else has stumbled.

These feelings of isolation are normal and represent part of the temptations that go along with suffering. The Bible is very clear, however, that no matter how we suffer, we are not alone!

Peter demonstrates here in 1 Peter 5:9 that the sufferings the brethren in Asia Minor were experiencing were shared by their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world. Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 10:13 that all the temptations we face are those common to mankind– there is no sin with which we are tempted that has never tempted anyone else before. If we stopped and thought about it– or communicated with fellow believers in other places– we would soon learn that most of the challenges, difficulties, and sources of pain that we experience are quite similar to those experienced by others. We are all in the same boat!

When it comes to feeling like we are the only ones left standing for God’s truth, the example of Elijah in 1 Kings 19 is instructive. After defeating the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, and the message of Jezebel’s wrath, Elijah was distressed and fled. Consider what he says to God:

And he said, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Kings 19:14).

Elijah felt like he was the only one left. Yet consider what God has to say to him:

“Yet will I leave me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him” (1 Kings 19:18).

Elijah might have felt as if he were alone, but God knew that there were seven thousand others who stood for Him and His truth. Just because we are not aware of others who are doing God’s will does not mean that they do not exist. We can be confident that God will always make sure that there is a remnant of His people, and that they are never really alone (Romans 11:5). After all, even if one were the last one standing with God, there is greater power on God’s side than that which is opposed to Him (1 John 4:4)!

Despair, isolation, and feelings of being alone happen quite naturally in times of distress, challenge, and/or suffering. Yet they are lies. We are not alone. There are other Christians out there who are suffering the same things we are. There are others out there striving to serve God. And, regardless of what others may do, if we seek to serve God according to His will, He will provide strength and comfort (cf. Romans 8:31-39). Let us not be deceived into thinking that we suffer alone– let us pray to God for strength and be encouraged by our fellow believers in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Power of Contentment

Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therein to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know also how to abound: in everything and in all things have I learned the secret both to be filled and to be hungry, both to abound and to be in want. I can do all things in him that strengtheneth me (Philippians 4:11-13).

It has been made beyond clear that we are entering difficult times. Economies are struggling. Jobs are being lost. People are losing their homes. Uncertainty abounds. Fear is not far behind.

Yet it is at this time that the power of contentment is made evident. Learning to appreciate what you have and not to constantly seek after what you do not have, while not easy, is the only path to true peace and stability while sojourning on the earth.

You may lose your job, but you will still have other forms of support. You may lose your house, but you will still have a family. You may lose your health, but you will keep relationships. And even if you were to experience the greatest of cataclysms and lose your job, house, family, other forms of support, and health, you still have your soul and the love of God our Father through the Son Jesus Christ (Romans 8:35-39).

As it is written,

But godliness with contentment is great gain: for we brought nothing into the world, for neither can we carry anything out; but having food and covering we shall be therewith content (1 Timothy 6:6-8).

Contrary to what marketers tell you, you do not “need” a flat-screen television, you do not “need” a cell phone, you do not “need” your own house, two cars, and this, that, and the other. You need God and His strength, and when you seek His way, He will take care of the basic human necessities– food and covering (cf. Matthew 6:33).

When we have the attitude that God, daily bread, and shelter are all we really need, we can be better prepared to appreciate other blessings which God bestows upon us– and better prepared to persevere if they get taken away.

Learning contentment is not easy, but it is the only “recession-proof” attitude. Contentment provides inner peace that transcends the highs of economic prosperity and the lows of economic depression, and stabilizes the faith of those who would believe in God. More importantly, it preserves the soul from overconsumption and the service of the idol of covetousness!

Let us decide to seek contentment in whatever circumstance in which we find ourselves!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Light Momentary Affliction

For our light affliction, which is for the moment, worketh for us more and more exceedingly an eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).

Forty lashes.  Beaten with rods.  Stoned and left for dead.  Shipwrecked three times.  Floated in the sea for a day.  Imprisoned.  Constant danger.  Suffering thirst and hunger.

These are the sufferings enumerated in 2 Corinthians 11:24-28 that Paul personally experienced for the sake of the Gospel.  How many of us can say that we have suffered even one of these difficulties?

In comparison, our sufferings are minor.  We may be derided for our faith.  We may be laughed at or dismissed.  We may even lose a job or two.  Under some circumstances we might be physically beaten.  We suffer setbacks in our finances, relationships, and in our health, and these cause us great distress.

While our sufferings may not compare to Paul’s, nothing prevents us from having his attitude toward them.  He described them as light momentary affliction.

If he can consider being stoned “light,” how should we look at times when we suffer persecution?

If he can consider being lashed and shipwrecked as “light,” how should we look at our own physical difficulties?

If he can consider nearly starving as “light,” how should we look at our financial difficulties?

Paul is not really attempting to diminish the difficulties involved with suffering: suffering poses great challenge and trial of our lives and of our faith.  Yet, in comparison to the glory that awaits us from God, we can understand that we experience is very light.

Therefore, when we go through difficulties in our lives, let us be humbled by the sufferings that others have suffered for their faith, and have yet persevered.  When we go through difficulties, let us be encouraged by recognizing that the glory of the resurrection and being with God and Christ will make our sufferings pale in comparison.  The worse we suffer, the greater that day will seem!

Ethan R. Longhenry