Stubbornness in Heart

“Lest there should be among you man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart turneth away this day from the LORD our God, to go to serve the gods of those nations; lest there should be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood; and it come to pass, when he heareth the words of this curse, that he bless himself in his heart, saying,
‘I shall have peace, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart,’
to destroy the moist with the dry. The LORD will not pardon him, but then the anger of the LORD and his jealousy will smoke against that man, and all the curse that is written in this book shall lie upon him, and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven. And the LORD will set him apart unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that is written in this book of the law (Deuteronomy 29:18-21).

Deep down most of us want our cake and to eat it as well. We can’t.

Moses Pleading with Israel (crop)

Moses has established the “words of the covenant” between YHWH and Israel, renewed in the land of Moab (Deuteronomy 29:1). Moses grounds obedience to the Law in terms of the recognition of what YHWH has done for Israel: they saw how YHWH devastated Egypt, rescued them from bondage, etc., but they did not fully perceive what it all meant until the present (Deuteronomy 29:2-4). YHWH has sustained Israel in the wilderness so that they would know He is their God; He gave them victory over Sihon and Og (Deuteronomy 29:5-8). YHWH’s saving and victorious hand is the reason why Israel should keep the covenant so they can prosper (Deuteronomy 29:9). All Israel stands before YHWH that day to enter into that covenant: not just those physically alive and present, but in a real and binding way, those who are not yet alive but will be born or otherwise grafted into that covenant for generations (Deuteronomy 29:10-17). Moses brings up the universality of the moment for good reason: he wants to make sure that no one thinks they have an “out” or an escape, as he explains in Deuteronomy 29:18-21, either in the present or in the future to come (cf. Deuteronomy 29:22-28).

What kind of “out” would people think to have? Moses imagines a person who is standing there at that moment, having seen all YHWH had done for Israel and yet allows his heart to be turned away from Him to serve the gods of the nations (Deuteronomy 29:18). Such a one is imagined to say, in the stubbornness of his heart, that he will have peace (Deuteronomy 29:19). He thinks he will have peace, but Moses says such a one will “destroy the moist with the dry”; a proverbial expression, likely indicating that destruction or difficulty will come to the good as well as the bad in such a circumstance (Deuteronomy 29:19). Moses wants it to be perfectly clear that such attitudes are right out: this person is actually a source of gall and wormwood, toxic to the health of the nation, and upon whom the anger of YHWH will be fully expressed, experiencing the full weight of the curses of the covenant (Deuteronomy 29:18, 20-21). The person may not even be physically present at the moment; even if it is a child of a later generation, the same suffering will take place, and Israel will be as Sodom and Gomorrah, a by-word and parable for the nations (Deuteronomy 29:22-28). Moses wants one thing to be plain: YHWH is not messing around. Do not think that you can present a false front of adherence to YHWH while nursing idolatry and wickedness in the heart. The stubbornness of your heart will be exposed for what it is and it will not go well with you!

Unfortunately all Moses warned about would come to pass: many Israelites pursued the stubbornness of their hearts, served other gods, and it led to exile for Israel and Judah (cf. 2 Kings 17:7-23). The stubbornness of Israel’s heart was evident in the way they treated the prophets YHWH sent to them. They did not listen; they refused to hear; they paid the penalty.

We can all see these things and nod in assent. It is easy to see how they did not hear because they were stubborn in their hearts. But do you really think that they would have really said in their hearts that they would have peace though they walk in the stubbornness of their heart (Deuteronomy 29:19)? Were they really that self-aware?

While there are always exceptions to the rule, in general, most of the Israelites who believed they would have peace despite maintaining rebellion against YHWH through serving idols would not have considered themselves as being stubborn in heart. Moses is “putting words in their mouths” to explain the situation. In reality they are being stubborn in heart, yet they are most likely deceived, thinking that they know better, understand better, or expect that things will be alright because YHWH will surely not abandon His people, etc. (e.g. Jeremiah 7:1-15). They were being stubborn, but they didn’t think that way about themselves!

Walking in the stubbornness of the heart is the perennial danger of the people of God. We easily imagine that “God will understand,” “God surely will not abandon us,” or perhaps even worse, “God will be pleased with this,” despite the fact that what we are doing is contrary to His revealed will and purposes in Jesus Christ. The danger is real; we are easily tempted, when hearing what God has condemned, to try to carve out some exceptions, to make it seem less dangerous, or to otherwise justify our current perspective or behavior. We are tempted to conform to the habits and views of those around us just as Israel was (Romans 12:2); for them it was serving a pantheon of gods and engaging in customs contrary to the Law, while for us it involves the cultural relativism, elevation of empiricism and materialism, and drunkenness through consumerism rampant in our culture. It’s tempting to want to straddle the fence, to act as if we can serve God fully while adhering to these cultural concepts in the stubbornness of our hearts.

God is gracious; we are all dependent on His grace and mercy (Ephesians 2:1-10). But what if God “will not understand”? What if confidence that “God surely will not abandon us” is misplaced? What if we have actually called evil good, and good evil? How will it go for us on the day of the Lord Jesus? Let us learn from the example of Israel, and let us not bless ourselves in our hearts when we should mourn, and seek to perceive the deceptive stubbornness in our hearts so as to root it out and subject ourselves to God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Spies’ Report

And Caleb stilled the people before Moses, and said, “Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.”
But the men that went up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.”
And they brought up an evil report of the land which they had spied out unto the children of Israel, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature. And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight” (Numbers 13:30-33).

The mission had been completed. But what did it mean?

Moses commissioned twelve spies, one from each tribe of Israel, to go and search out Canaan and ascertain the nature of the land and its inhabitants (Numbers 13:1-20). They went up and saw the land and its inhabitants; they brought back a cluster of grapes, some pomegranates, and figs (Numbers 13:21-26). They even brought back a united assessment of the land: it was a great land, “flowing with milk and honey,” but the people who live there were strong, in great and fortified cities, and the descendants of Anak (the Nephilim, Numbers 13:33) lived there, as well as Amalekites, Jebusites, Amorites, Hittites, and Canaanites (Numbers 13:27-29).

Altdorfer Joshua and Caleb

Caleb, the spy from the tribe of Judah, then encouraged Israel to go and possess the land (Numbers 13:30). But ten of the other spies threw cold water on that suggestion, emphasizing the strength of the adversaries, considering themselves as grasshoppers in comparison (Numbers 13:31-33).

Israel went the way of the ten spies; they went so far as to express the desire to return to Egypt and slavery (Numbers 14:1-4). Caleb, along with Joshua, the spy from Ephraim, begged Israel to reconsider, affirming the goodness of the land and that YHWH would give it to them, confident that if YHWH was with them it would not matter how strong their foes might seem (Numbers 14:5-9). But it was too late; Israelites sought to stone Joshua and Caleb (Numbers 14:10).

Consider Israel’s perspective. The reality “on the ground” is never in doubt: the ten spies recognize that the land is of excellent quality with great produce; Caleb and Joshua recognize that the inhabitants of the land are numerous, strong, and living in well-fortified cities. The Israelites have just left slavery in Egypt; they did not have the resources and strength among themselves to overcome their enemies’ advantages. They, as with the ten spies, assess the situation as it looks on the ground; their response is entirely natural according to such a perspective. If it is their strength versus their opponents’ strength, they will die in battle. Such seems quite realistic.

And then there was the faith motivating Caleb and Joshua. If all Israel could rely on was its own resources and strength then Caleb and Joshua would agree that any invasion was a fool’s errand. But Caleb and Joshua remembered that YHWH had just redeemed them from Egyptian slavery, from the very Egypt which dominated Canaan and boasted the strongest empire of the day. If YHWH could rescue Israel from Egypt, then YHWH could dispossess the strong Canaanite nations from before Israel (Numbers 14:9). No, Israel would not obtain Canaan because of their own abilities. They could only obtain it if they trusted in YHWH.

But Israel was not trusting in YHWH. They were rebelling against Him! He promised that He would bring them into the land; they wanted to go back to Egypt, to abort YHWH’s mission halfway through (Exodus 3:7-9, Numbers 14:1-4). To return to Egypt would be to forsake YHWH and everything which He had done for Israel. They even wished that they had died in Egypt or the wilderness; such is how little they trusted in YHWH or thought of the efficacy of His power in this situation.

To this day there is a place for assessment of the situation “on the ground.” In general there is consensus about the situation of the faith “on the ground.” Its influence, however strong it may have been in the past, seems to be waning. Church membership and participation is declining. More and more people identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Strong secular and spiritual forces attempt to subvert the faith and marginalize those who proclaim it. Following Jesus seems to be a quaint relic of the past, a historical legacy many feel is better to discard. Likewise, there is general agreement that by our own resources and strength it will prove nearly impossible to turn the tide on these trends. We can see the “post-Christian” secular future across the pond in Europe where it has been going on for longer than here. “Realistically” we have reason for lamentation and mourning. “Sober assessments” recognize the seeming futility of our endeavors. “On the ground,” it would seem that we should make sure to ask the last person to leave to turn off the lights.

Yet such assessments, however “realistic” or “sober” they seem to be, do not take into account the existence of God and all He has done for us. They do not take into account that “realistically” Christianity should never have existed, and even if it had been started, by all “realistic” scenarios would have died out a long time ago. Jesus has won the victory; Jesus has overcome the world (John 16:31-33). The forces of darkness in this world are arrayed against us and they are strong (Ephesians 6:12); nevertheless, He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).

Many Christians have fallen into the trap of cynicism and pessimism dressed up as being “honest” or “realistic” about the manifold problems facing Christianity and the church. We do well to remember that the spies and Israel were the people of God, and they were being quite “realistic” and “honest” about the situations they were facing. Yet God punished that generation for rebelling against Him; they ironically got their wish, for they all but Caleb and Joshua would die in the wilderness and would not inherit the land (Numbers 14:10-35). The ten spies died by plague (Numbers 14:36-37). It would be the next generation who would trust in YHWH and obtain the promised land, and Caleb and Joshua would lead them to victory (Joshua 1:1-24:33). We must remember this because what the Israelites thought was “honesty” and “realism” betrayed a lack of faith and rebelliousness (1 Corinthians 10:1-12)! YHWH had already proven Himself by delivering them from Egyptian slavery and providing for them to that moment. Likewise God has proven Himself to us through the life, death, resurrection, and lordship of Jesus His Son (Romans 1:4, Romans 5:6-11, 8:17-25). He is able to do more than we can ask or think (Ephesians 3:20-21). The only reason we have ever had the opportunity to hear the Gospel ourselves is on account of His great power working through His servants; if it were only ever based on the resources and strength of the faithful the message would not get very far!

The world gives many reasons for cynicism, despair, doubt, and pessimism. It always has; it always will. Christians are called to put their trust in God, recognizing that the victory comes through Jesus even in difficult circumstances, and that the ways of the world are folly to God (1 Corinthians 1:19-25, 1 Peter 1:3-9). The decision is up to us. Are we going to give in to the realistic assessment and be driven to cynicism and despair as the ten spies and Israel, proving to have more faith in our perception and the ways of the world than in our Creator and Redeemer, and be found in rebellion? Or will we prove willing to put our trust in God in Christ, aware of the long odds and impossibility of our mission in worldly terms, but ever mindful of God’s strength and faithfulness, and to put our hope in God and His strength, as Caleb and Joshua did? May we maintain faith and hope and not give in to cynicism and despair, and obtain the victory in Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Go and Die With Him


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Thomas therefore, who is called Didymus, said unto his fellow-disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16).

Thomas was convinced it was a suicide mission for all of them.

As the third Passover of His ministry drew near Jesus was a marked man if He returned to Jerusalem. He had challenged the existing Temple system (John 2:13-22); He had unrepentantly healed on the Sabbath (John 5:1-18); He taught regarding His relationship with His Father, and the Jews sought to stone Him (John 8:54-59, 10:24-39). Jesus’ disciples saw the writing on the wall: a return to Judea risked stoning or some other form of death (John 11:8).

Yet Jesus insisted. Lazarus had died; He had attempted to communicate this in less direct ways but had to come out with it (John 11:1-15). Jesus knows why He must go down to Judea; His disciples seem less than enthusiastic about the proposition. As He is about to leave Thomas makes this declaration: “let us go also, that we may die with Him” (John 11:16).

Thomas’ declaration is certainly not optimistic. He may have thought it seemed realistic, yet we would rightly call him cynical. Yes, the Jews had threatened Jesus before, yet He had always escaped. Where was Thomas’ faith or confidence in God or in Jesus? It is easy to be hard on Thomas and to question his faith. If we are honest with ourselves, however, we would have to come to the recognition that if we were there and in Thomas’ position, we would probably at least think the same thing if we did not actually say it. Thomas’ sentiment was likely shared among the other disciples as well. The odds did seem long. The way Thomas felt is exactly the way humans feel in those circumstances.

At first it may seem as if Thomas overstated the situation. Yes, Jesus would die during this trip to Jerusalem, but the disciples did not (John 18:8-9, 19:30). They did not physically die with Him. And yet, in a very real sense, the situation happened exactly as Thomas had cynically foretold. The disciples did not die physically, but their lives changed dramatically during their stay in Jerusalem, having seen Jesus not only die but also rise from the dead (John 20:1-29). Thomas would return to Galilee with some of the other disciples and would see the Lord in the resurrection yet again (John 21:1-24). The next time the word of the Lord Jesus came to Galilee it would do so in power to convict and convert people to the Kingdom of God in Christ (Acts 1:8, 8:4). What would be the message that Thomas as well as the other disciples would preach? That people would have to die to the world in Christ so as to rise again and walk in newness of life according to His purposes (Romans 6:1-23). All have to go and die with Jesus!

In a very real sense Thomas and the other disciples went and “died” with Jesus. After Jesus’ death and resurrection they would never be the same; where once was doubt and cynicism there was now faith and hope on account of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Where there was fear there was now boldness to preach the message no matter what resistance was encountered (e.g. Acts 5:17-42). They reckoned themselves as dead to the world and alive to Christ (Galatians 2:20). They took the world by storm. It would never be the same.

Thomas’ story resonates in the 21st century. In the world hope seems like a delusion; we come to the recognition that cynicism and despair prove more realistic and accurate than hope. On a human level our endeavors seem futile and hopeless. This attitude can easily infect and affect the people of God! It is easy to see the spiritual forces of darkness at work all around us and conclude that we are doomed, the situation is hopeless, and decline is inevitable.

If we hope in this life and this world only then these assessments would be realistic. We would have no reason to do anything than be cynical and in despair if we are the only ones at work. Yet we preach Jesus crucified and risen from the dead! We, like Thomas, must go to Judea to die with Jesus. We must die to the ways of the world and to cynicism and despair; we must find hope and new life through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Galatians 2:20, Philippians 3:1-15)! Our hope is not folly but rooted in deep and abiding faith in God as faithful to His promises, confident that He is greater than those who are against us (1 John 4:4). When we look around us we are not to see Satan triumphant; we are to recognize that this is his last gasp as he has gone down to defeat, and that we will overcome him if we hold firm to the Lamb and prove willing to not love our lives even to death, to see victory in what the world would call defeat, for the Lord Jesus reigns in Heaven and He will return to right all wrongs (Revelation 12:1-14:20).

Yet it all begins, as it did for Thomas, by going with the Lord Jesus to Jerusalem to die with Him. Let us put to death the man of sin, the ways of living in this world and the cynicism and despair they engender, and let us find new life through faith, baptism, and obedience to the Lord Jesus in His Kingdom, living in the hope of the resurrection and the fulfillment of all God’s purposes for His people in Christ (Romans 6:1-23, 8:17-25)! Let us die with the Lord so we may live with Him eternally in the resurrection!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Structure in the Creation

For the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David.
The heavens declare the glory of God / and the firmament showeth his handiwork.
Day unto day uttereth speech / and night unto night showeth knowledge.
There is no speech nor language / their voice is not heard.
Their line is gone out through all the earth / and their words to the end of the world.
In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun / which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber / and rejoiceth as a strong man to run his course.
His going forth is from the end of the heavens / and his circuit unto the ends of it / and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.
The law of YHWH is perfect, restoring the soul / the testimony of YHWH is sure, making wise the simple.
The precepts of YHWH are right, rejoicing the heart / the commandment of YHWH is pure, enlightening the eyes.
The fear of YHWH is clean, enduring for ever / the ordinances of YHWH are true, and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold / sweeter also than honey and the droppings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is thy servant warned / in keeping them there is great reward.
Who can discern his errors? / Clear thou me from hidden faults.
Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins / let them not have dominion over me: Then shall I be upright, And I shall be clear from great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart / be acceptable in thy sight, O YHWH, my rock, and my redeemer (Psalm 19:1-14).

“I take [Psalm 19] to be the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world ” (C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 63).

Psalm 19 is justly famous as an ode to YHWH the Creator and how He has made the universe. Psalm 19:1 is famous in its own right as is Psalm 19:7-10, the latter of which is frequently sung as a hymn. It has thus been fashionable to consider Psalm 19 in its various parts; many in fact suggest Psalm 19 is a compilation of two or three separate psalms all put together. Is it really just two or three Psalms put together? What is David attempting to communicate in Psalm 19 as presently arranged?

The three main sections of Psalm 19 are Psalm 19:1-6, Psalm 19:7-11, and Psalm 19:12-14. Psalm 19:1-6 describes how, as Psalm 19:1 says, the heavens declare God’s glory and handiwork. The whole system betrays an intelligent Artificer behind the scenes (Psalm 19:2). God has set all things in their place and has made the course for the sun; the sun is spoken of in terms of a bridegroom leaving the chamber, or rejoicing as a man finishing his task, shining over all the earth with nothing hidden from it (Psalm 19:3-6).

Psalm 19:7-11 commend YHWH’s instruction. David speaks of YHWH’s law, testimonies, precepts, commandments, fear, and ordinances, terms reminiscent of the Torah (Psalm 19:7-9; cf. Deuteronomy 4:45, Psalm 119:4). YHWH’s instruction is perfect, sure, right, pure, clean, and true; they restore the soul, make wise the simple, rejoice the heart, enlighten the eyes, endure forever, and are altogether righteous. The poetry is succinct; the lines are sharp. YHWH’s instruction is more desirable than gold or honey, warning the servant, providing great reward (Psalm 19:10-11).

Psalm 19:12-14 feature David’s response. He rhetorically asks who could discern God’s errors? No mortal can, of course; he therefore wishes to be cleansed of hidden faults and to be kept back from presumptuous sins (Psalm 19:12-13a). He will then be able to stand upright and be clear of transgression, and he prays that his words and meditation are acceptable in the sight of YHWH his Rock and Redeemer, the source of his strength, refuge, and vindication (Psalm 19:13b-14).

It is easy to see why people might think that two or three psalms have been put together here: what does the sun have to do with the Law? What do they have to do with hidden faults? Yet we do well to consider why David and/or the Psalter has prepared Psalm 19 as a whole. Is there anything that might bind Psalm 19 together?

The theme of all of Psalm 19 is found in Psalm 19:1: God’s glory is seen in His handiwork. Of all the things David could have featured when speaking of the heavens he focuses on the sun and how things are in their proper courses (Psalm 19:1-6). The sun, and particularly the way in which the sun is described, expresses not only God’s majestic structure in the heavens but their benevolent function as well. The sun gives light and life, joyful as the man who has just experienced his first copulation or who is about to finish a race (Psalm 19:5). As the heavens and the sun do not speak themselves but show the speech of YHWH and His benevolent structure in the heavens, so the words of YHWH in the Law, in His Torah, provide benevolent structure for the conduct and behavior of His people (Psalm 19:7-11). Keeping YHWH’s Torah provides great reward (Psalm 19:11); what if David actually meant what he said and believed that just as the sun allows for life to exist and flourish so YHWH’s Torah restores the soul, rejoices the heart, and enlightens the eyes? And what would be the appropriate response to seeing YHWH’s benevolent structure in His creation, both in the heavens and in the Torah? Humility and faithfulness: asking for forgiveness from hidden faults and presumptuous sins, trusting in YHWH’s benevolence and beneficence, maintaining YHWH as refuge, strength, and source of deliverance (Psalm 19:12-14).

Thus Psalm 19 can be well understood in its unity: all we are and have are thanks to YHWH’s benevolent structure He established in the creation. He made the heavens so that the earth could be inhabited; He established His Torah, His Law, so that people could live and thrive; in response we do well to give thanks, ask to be kept from thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought, and to trust in YHWH as our Rock and Redeemer. May we allow Psalm 19 to give voice to us to proclaim the greatness of God’s handiwork in the heavens and in His instruction, to ask to be kept from presumption, and trust in our redemption secured by His Son the Lord Jesus Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Tell Us Plainly!

The Jews therefore came round about him, and said unto him, “How long dost thou hold us in suspense? If thou art the Christ, tell us plainly” (John 10:24).

The questions and the suspense had finally boiled over; a confrontation proved necessary. The Israelites wanted clarity. Is Jesus of Nazareth really claiming to be the Messiah? They wanted to hear Him tell them so plainly.

Jesus was yet again in Jerusalem, this time for Hanukkah or the Feast of Dedication, and He was walking in the Temple (John 10:22-23). The Jewish people of Jerusalem had heard Jesus teach them before and had heard of the many miracles which He wrought (John 5:1-10:21). Questions constantly surrounded Jesus and His teachings: is He the Christ? Do the rulers know this? Would the Christ do more miracles than Jesus had done? Is He mad? Yet what about His teachings (cf. John 7:26-27, 31, 10:19-21)? How Jesus was going about doing things led to more questions than answers, and the Jewish people could wait no longer. When they found Him at the Temple in Jerusalem, they confronted Him and asked Him pointedly: are you the Messiah, the Christ, the One God promised to send to redeem Israel? Yes or no? They wanted a plain answer. Was that too much to ask?

Jesus does not just say “yes” or “no”; He points out that He has given them plenty of reason to believe because of the works He has done (John 10:25). He then castigates those Israelites because they are not of His flock since they do not believe; the Jews pick up stones to stone Him because He made Himself out to be God (John 10:26-33). This seems to be a theme in John’s Gospel: some Jews who believe or who directly ask Jesus about who He is become those who pick up stones to stone Him for what they perceive to be blasphemy (cf. John 8:31-59).

Yet this interaction between Jesus and these Jewish people brings up a good question, one asked frequently about Jesus and the way He conducts Himself in the Gospels: why would Jesus not tell them plainly? Is He trying to hide something? If He is the Messiah, the Christ, would He not want all the people to know it and proclaim it upon the rooftops? Why does Jesus seem to be at least somewhat evasive or ambivalent about declaring His Messiahship clearly?

Such questions are understandable coming from us humans; we see things the way we see them and it is often hard for us to consider the matter from another perspective. But Jesus answers as He does and conducts Himself as He does for very good reasons that are sometimes easy to miss. In John 2:24-25 it is said that Jesus did not trust Himself to humans because He knew what humans were about. This is especially true with the question the Jewish people had: “are you the Christ?”

Jesus knew well what they meant by “the Christ”; they had particular expectations about what the Messiah would be and do. Based on their understanding of the prophets they looked forward to a Davidic descendant who would ride into Jerusalem in triumph, raise an army, defeat the pagan Roman forces, and inaugurate a renewed Davidic kingdom centered in Jerusalem. From this perspective we can understand the bafflement of the Jewish people when it came to Jesus; He was not about re-establishing a physical Davidic kingdom as in days past. The Romans were not even His real enemy! But we can also understand why Jesus could not have just simply said, “Yes, I am the Messiah,” for then the people would hail Him as king and attempt to force Him to become the Messiah of their desires and understanding. Yet God’s plan was not the plan of Israel; they had not put the message of the prophets together properly.

Jesus’ response is quite instructive. Jesus points His Jewish questioners back to the things He had done and how they bear witness to Jesus’ Messiahship (John 10:25). If they recognized that the true signs of the Messiah had been done by Jesus, they would have recognized Jesus as the Messiah, and would have adjusted their expectations and understanding of the Messiah’s mission and purpose accordingly. This is the direction in which Simon Peter and the Apostles head in John 6:67-69: they may not have full understanding of what is going on, but they have come to believe that Jesus is the Holy One of God who has the words of eternal life. Jesus’ message to the Jewish people may sound harsh but rings true: they are not of His flock, for they have not proven willing to set aside their expectations so as to be able to see what God is doing through Jesus, and as long as they cannot get past the expectation for all things to be done as they imagine they should, they will never be able to understand Jesus’ true identity and purpose (John 10:26-39).

To this day people frequently make similar demands of God or His people. They expect for God or His people to answer their questions simply and plainly and really are demanding for God and His work to conform to their perspective and expectations. For good reason it is rarely possible to give such questions easy “yes” or “no” answers; the very question itself or the way the question is phrased often belies a improper view or expectation of things. To this day people suffer from the same problem as those Jewish people did so long ago: they see things the way they see them, they have their expectations, and prove rather unwilling to question those assumptions and expectations. Yet whomever we are or whatever we believe we must recognize that God’s ways and thoughts are higher than our ways and thoughts, and therefore we must yield our expectations, perspective, and understanding to His (Isaiah 55:8-9). There are likely many things going on beyond our comprehension, either ever or at least for the time being, and so we are left with the same conundrum as the Jewish people experienced during Jesus’ ministry. Do we put our trust in Jesus of Nazareth on the basis of His works and teachings and in so doing radically revise our expectations of how God is working in the world, or do we continue to find reasons to doubt Jesus’ Messiahship because who He is and what He is doing does not make sense with everything we have ever heard?

At some point we all reach the point of divergence in the path, and we must choose whether we will trust in God or trust in our perception of things, or, as the Apostle Paul put it, whether we will walk by faith or by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). We can come to God and demand that He answer our questions plainly, but we should not expect that answer to be simple or the one we would like to hear. Instead we do better to entrust ourselves to God, confident that even though we may not be able to make sense of everything, He can and does. Let us trust in God in Christ and not ourselves!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Alienation

Wherefore remember, that once ye, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called Circumcision, in the flesh, made by hands; that ye were at that time separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world (Ephesians 2:11-12).

To many loneliness and alienation is a fate worse than death. Who really wants to be entirely alone?

As Paul writes to the Ephesians (and if Ephesians is an encyclical letter, which is plausible, to other congregations of Christians as well), after describing the initial condition of all mankind and how God has acted in Christ to provide salvation (Ephesians 2:1-10), he then turns specifically to the Gentile Christians, of whom there were likely many in Ephesus and Asia Minor, and spoke of how God reconciled Gentiles with Jews, the people of God, to make one new body of God’s people in Christ (Ephesians 2:11-18). As with his description of salvation, so with his description of the in-gathering of the Gentiles: he first describes the condition of the Gentiles before they found reconciliation in Christ in Ephesians 2:11-12, and it is not a pretty picture. They were the “uncircumcision,” used in derogatory ways (e.g. 2 Samuel 1:20). They were separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, having no part of the nation of the people of God; they were strangers, or outsiders, not sharing in the covenant of promise given to Abraham and maintained through Isaac and Israel (Genesis 12:1-50:12). Therefore they found themselves with no hope of resurrection or reconciliation and without God, the source of light and life, in the world (Ephesians 2:12). People of the nations (“Gentiles” meaning “nations”) found themselves in quite a distressing and difficult place: they were out there alienated from God, His people, and therefore all that is good and holy.

Almost two thousand years later we all find ourselves, at some point, in this condition; when we live in sin we are separated from God (Isaiah 59:2), have no hope in the resurrection but a fearful expectation of judgment (Romans 2:6-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, Hebrews 10:26-31), and at a fundamental level find ourselves alienated from the people of God (1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 1 Peter 4:3-5). Is that any way to live or seek to maintain existence?

Modern life and culture have only exacerbated man’s condition of alienation. In the past, for better or for worse, people most frequently spent most of their lives within a few miles of where they were born; everyone knew everybody, and quite often, everybody’s business. It was not that long ago when neighbors actually knew one another and looked out for one another; neighborhood children would play with each other and grow up together. People had to interact with each other when traveling and while shopping. These days many extended families are spread across the country or even the world; many move frequently; technology develops ways to function without interaction. If anything our fellow man becomes a matter of irritation: those other cars on the road leading to traffic delays; other shoppers who are in the way or taking too long at the register. Even the Internet with its great promise of connecting people around the world easily leads to alienation when people choose electronic contact over personal contact. We may have new and better toys, yet they have come at the expense of our relationships with one another. Why are we surprised, then, when so many people are depressed, anxious, and feel quite alone and alienated from their fellow man?

Despite the popular myths of society man was not made to be fully independent and alone. Humans were made in the image of God who is Three in One, One in relational unity (Genesis 1:26-27, John 17:20-23). As humans we need connection with God and with fellow human beings in order to live and thrive! Such is why Paul does not stop with the story at Ephesians 2:12 any more than he did in Ephesians 2:3; the great news of Jesus Christ is that all who were once alienated from God and His people can now be reconciled through the blood shed by Jesus, and we can share in the hope of resurrection and life together with God and one another for eternity through Jesus’ resurrection (Ephesians 2:1-18, Revelation 21:1-22:6). Thanks to Jesus we do not have to suffer from alienation any more. Through Him we can be reconciled to God (Romans 5:6-11). Then we can become the people of God and share in that work and community together (Acts 2:42-47, 1 John 1:7)!

Sadly there are times and places when and where Christians feel alienated and alone. Perhaps they work in difficult places. Perhaps their congregation is not fostering a strong sense of community within itself. Perhaps the Christian has not proven willing to open up so as to be part of the larger group, afraid of getting hurt or burned for the first time or yet again. Perhaps the Christian or the members of the church have believed a bit too much in the American myth of complete independence and self-sufficiency. Regardless of the reason, this ought not be, for how can the people of the God who is One in relational unity survive and thrive when living in alienation, isolation, and loneliness?

The church, as Christ’s body, must reflect the will of its Head, the Author and Finisher of its faith and practice (Ephesians 5:25-32, Hebrews 12:2); as Jesus is One with the Father and the Spirit, so He wills for us to be one with one another in His body (John 17:20-23). Such is why He said that His “mother and brothers” are those who do the will of His Father, privileging the spiritual relationship over all others (Matthew 12:46-50). Such is why Paul exhorts Christians to prefer one another in honor, expecting the members of the body of Christ to have the same care for one another (Romans 12:10, 1 Corinthians 12:24-25). Therefore, building strong relationships and community within the local congregation is not an optional work, but crucial for the spiritual health of all involved. It will not always be pretty; relationships never are. It will require a lot of growth and change on the part of many, yet that is exactly what we are to experience while in this life (1 Peter 1:3-9).

A group of people professing Christ but as alienated from one another as they are from the rest of the people with whom they interact in the world does not reflect the will of God in Christ for His body, and the people of the world know that. Why bother being associated with a group of people who have as little to do with one another as the people they already know, especially when that association comes with additional levels of guilt and shame? When the church looks like the world, then the church has failed. But when people of the world see Christians love each other, care for each other, strengthening the relationships with each other, are there for one another in good times and bad, and that Christians are therefore able to draw strength from one another and are built up in their faith, just as God expects in John 13:34-35, Ephesians 4:11-16, they can see how radically different that is from the alienation present in the world, and all of a sudden being part of the people of God becomes a much more attractive proposition! The orphan can find a family; the introvert can find acceptance; the one who feels like they are always failing find support; and all who are part of the group live in the confidence that whatever may come they have the people of God to hold them up and sustain them no matter what!

Deep down we are all very scared of being alone. Christ has redeemed us from that fear; are we willing to trust in Him and make it a reality for ourselves and our fellow people of God?

Ethan R. Longhenry

Beyond All We Can Ask or Think

Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus unto all generations for ever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3:20-21).

Whereas the reality of human existence is quite firmly fixed in our world and its restrictions, the imagination of mankind has often soared to incredible heights. It often seems that there is no limit to the human imagination, for better or worse. We imagine stories in which we are the heroes and overcome all sorts of trials; we can imagine worlds in which people live in harmony and peace; we imagine all sorts of kinds of technologies and ways of living quite different from our own. We also can imagine in darker and more sinister ways, as modern movies can attest. Yet no matter how much we imagine we remain limited to our current existence. Since reality seems to never match up to our imagination, we cope in one of two ways. We either attempt to make the world fit our imagination, only to discover all sorts of complications and challenges we did not anticipate and only to find that the endeavor leads to the exact opposite result of our intentions, or we give up on the world, living in our imagination, so to speak. No matter which way we might choose to cope the end remains the same: our dreams and imagination are brought low by the cold, icy hand of reality. Therefore so many give up any hope of the greatest goods and content themselves with lesser goods.

Yet Paul, through his prayer for the Ephesians, invites us to question the strength of the grip of the cold, icy hand of reality, on account of the greatness of the God who made us and sustains us, praying for God, who “is able to do far more abundantly than we can ask or think, according to the power at work within us,” may receive the glory in the church and in Christ forevermore (Ephesians 3:20-21).

That seems like a startling declaration, something easily debunked or disproven. It does not require much to ask for or think about all people hearing the Gospel and coming to the knowledge of the truth (Romans 10:17, 1 Timothy 2:4), being healed of all disease and suffering, and all sorts of other audacious possibilities. We have likely asked for such things in the past in prayer, and it is evident that we have not seen them fulfilled. So how can Paul make such a declaration? Is he manifesting a foolish faith?

We do well to consider a very important word in the prayer: “able.” God is able to do well beyond anything and everything that we ask of Him. Not only is He able to do so, it can be done through the power at work within us, the Spirit according to the message of God in Christ (Romans 1:16, 1 Corinthians 3:14-16, 6:19-20, Ephesians 3:16). Through the power at work in us God can accomplish anything He might purpose. Through us the world could hear the Gospel and come to the knowledge of the truth; through us God can advance any of His prerogatives powerfully. As the Creator, He can do all that can be done, what we can imagine and well beyond that (Deuteronomy 29:29, Isaiah 55:8-9, Romans 11:33-36). Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, we must never doubt God’s ability (cf. Daniel 3:17).

Yet just because God can does not automatically mean God will; ability is not automatically actualization. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego knew that even though God was able to deliver them, it may not come to pass, but that did not change their faith (Daniel 3:18). We can think of all sorts of reasons why God, despite His ability, does not act in certain ways: allowance of the consequences of free will decisions to come to pass for both the one acting and those impacted by the action, refusal to overwhelm the choice and will of an individual, and there are more than likely a host of other reasons, far better than we could ever imagine, that explain why God acts as He does. We do not have control over a lot of these reasons. But there is one possible reason over which we do have some control, and that involves our level of faith.

We must be clear that faith, in and of itself, is no guarantee of obtaining the desired result from prayer. We can pray fervently in all faith and still not obtain what we seek; there likely is far more going on in the situation than we can recognize. Too many people use a “lack of faith” as a blunt object to shift “blame” for unfulfilled promises upon those who have the least reason for “blame” in order to continue to justify their theological edifice. Furthermore, God can still find ways to accomplish His purposes in all power through us, despite us, even if we do not maintain the strongest faith, as can be seen in Gideon in Judges 6:1-8:28. Yet, especially when we consider the “hall of faith” in Hebrews 11:1-40, we do well to ask ourselves: is part of the problem our lack of real, substantive confidence in the power of God to accomplish His purposes, and especially that through us?

There is little doubt that we pray good prayers and say many things which are good, right, and expected. We pray for the evangelization of the world; we pray for people to come to repentance and salvation; we pray for healing; we pray for the betterment of the welfare of those in distress. But when we pray these things do we actually expect them to happen? How often do we pray these things, even honestly and sincerely meaning what we say, yet always with a mental asterisk of doubt? “God, please heal this sick person (although I have little expectation for this person to continue to live, since the prognosis is grim).” “Father, we pray that the people of our community learn about You and be saved (yet we know they won’t, because they’re terrible sinners and they like being in sin, or they’ve been seduced by the false teachings of others, and won’t listen to us).” “Father, we pray that all may have food and shelter (but there is so much poverty, a lack of resources, and rampant corruption and war and all sorts of evil in too many parts of the world).”

Those parenthetical asterisks, things we would never imagine saying but are most assuredly thought of, are completely understandable: they derive from our experiences with the cold, icy hand of reality. They represent the despair that gets mixed into our hope and our confidence in God. Theologically we all recognize and agree that God is able to accomplish everything we have mentioned. Yet on a practical level we often maintain skepticism, doubt, and suspicion. Most of the time these prayers get answered according to our doubts; it seems that the grip of the cold, icy hand of reality remains.

It is not for nothing that James warns us against being double-minded in our petitions (James 1:6-8): if we pray but maintain doubt in prayer we have no right to ever expect those prayers to be fulfilled. They do not truly reflect the boldness of faith which we ought to maintain toward God; we have already cut off the hope of fulfillment by having no expectation of fulfillment. This is not the kind of prayer Paul prayed, and it is not the kind of prayer Paul would expect followers of God in Christ to pray. According to the Gospel, God has already accomplished the most difficult task of liberation from sin and death through the death and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 8:1-4) and wishes to freely give us all things (Romans 8:32). He is prepared to provide us a place of glory beyond compare and which make our imaginations seem tame by comparison (Romans 8:18, 2 Corinthians 4:17). Yet the fantastical is not all about the future; Paul’s prayer is a bold declaration of what is possible right here and right now. God is able to strengthen us with power, root and ground us in love, give us the strength to understand the dimensions of the love of Christ which is beyond knowledge, to fill us with the fulness of God, but only if we ask Him to do so fervently and expect it to actually happen (Ephesians 3:16-19). Does God want people to be condemned? Has He proven powerless in the face of ungodliness, secularism, indifference, etc., so that modern man has no hope in the face of the menaces of our society? The first century was just as daunting if not more so and yet the Gospel thrived! Has the Gospel lost its luster? No, no, a thousand times, no! God remains as able to accomplish powerful things through His message today as He was in the first century; perhaps what is lacking is our confidence in God, that He is not only able but willing to accomplish these great things, and if we would only prove willing to stand before Him in prayer, pray the bold prayer for the powerful advancements of His purposes, and to do so without regard to the cold, icy hand of reality, without that mental parenthesis doubting and denying the efficacy of the prayer, and to actually pray and mean to pray for people to come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved, to be healed through the power of God from afflictions, to be strengthened through trials, or for a thousand other things for which we might pray.

God is able to do well beyond anything we can ask or think, and there are many things for which we can ask or about which we can think! We have to maintain greater confidence in God than we do the cold, icy grip of reality, and believe that God can transform reality, else why do we bother with Christianity? Yet we do well to keep in mind the actual prayer Paul makes, for God to receive the glory in the church and in Christ for all generations (Ephesians 3:21). We cannot imagine God as our hitman or our genie; if we put our confidence in Him and He begins to do powerful things to advance His purposes through us, it will not be on account of our own strength, abilities, or any excellence in our own character, but because of His great power and strength, and inevitably despite our person and character. God will not give His glory to us or to anyone else; He will not stand idly by and allow us to be conceited into thinking that somehow “we” have accomplished what was really the work of God all along. He deserves the glory and the praise. He deserves to receive all glory in Christ, His life, death, resurrection, lordship, and return. In all things the church should give glory to God since without Him there is no life, and without His sustaining power the church will prove powerless in the face of its foes. When we recognize that it is not about “us,” but about God and His glory, we can understand that Paul does not have a foolish faith, and does not promise what cannot be delivered, because the parenthetical asterisks of our experiences with the cold, icy grip of reality do not restrict God and His mighty power! God is able to do more than we can ask or think unto His glory; can we maintain that trust in Him and make petitions accordingly?

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

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

Religion

If any man thinketh himself to be religious, while he bridleth not his tongue but deceiveth his heart, this man’s religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world (James 1:26-27).

Religion is having quite the public relations nightmare these days.

For many, “religion” is associated with various faiths and practices that to them seem antiquated, dull, irrelevant, or even downright dangerous. Some think that “religion” is the biggest problem plaguing mankind. In many aspects of our public dialogue, religion is treated with disdain, contempt, and a patronizing attitude. It is made out to be something backward: an impediment toward progress.

Yet “religion” fares little better among those who would normally be assumed to practice it. Many within Christianity define religion about as negatively as those who have no faith: “religion” is seen as a set of dead practices that one would see in a slowly aging and dying social club type atmosphere. In such a view the Pharisees are the paradigm of religion: obsessed with doctrinal peculiarities, many of which seem to have little relevance or bearing on our lives, a sanctimonious and “holier-than-thou” attitude, a bunch of people with a checklist which they cross off and then move on with their lives. Such people disdain “religion” and instead speak of Christianity as a “personal relationship with God,” a “way of life,” or find some other way to make some kind of contrast between who they are and what they do and “religion.”

We can all think of many good reasons why “religion” has developed its rather bad reputation of late. Yet such vitriolic reactions are just that: reactions. It is easy to paint an “ugly” picture of religion and condemn it. Such things should be expected from unbelievers; while believers might have reason for embarrassment on account of the abuses of religion, does that mean that the concept should be defined in such a way as to condemn it?

We must come face to face with an uncomfortable reality: everyone has a religion. Religion is simply defined as a set of attitudes, beliefs, and practices relating to ultimate reality and/or a divinity. And no matter who we are, we all have some working concept of why things are the way they are and how we should think, feel, and act in response.

We do well to consider what James, the brother of the Lord, had to say about religion. He recognizes that there is a wide gulf between the profession of religion and the substance thereof, warning that anyone who thinks to be religious but does not control their tongue that their hearts are deceived and their religion is in vain (James 1:26). To this day, two of the main reasons why people think poorly of “religion” is sanctimony and hypocrisy. The world does not lack “religious” people who say one thing and do quite another, or who condemn others for certain faults while justifying their own. Matthew 7:1-4 is a lesson which such people should learn; it is not as if God, Jesus, or anyone else truly representing the Christian “religion” would commend sanctimony and hypocrisy, for they condemn it quite strongly in many places (e.g. Matthew 23:1-36, Luke 18:9-14). Everyone could probably do better at controlling their tongue; such self-control is demanded of those who would follow Jesus.

James then speaks of “pure and undefiled” religion: to visit widows and orphans in distress and to keep oneself unstained from the world (James 1:27). James makes it clear that religion need not be something bad or terrible; there is such a thing as “pure” and “undefiled” religion. Such religion focuses on personal holiness and active participation in life among the dispossessed. By mentioning these things James does not explicitly address one’s thoughts and feelings, but it is evident that if one’s care and concern is for holiness while serving the least among him or her, their thoughts and feelings are as pure as the religion which they are practicing (cf. Matthew 7:15-20). Likewise, while Christians can work together at times to help those in need, this kind of “pure and undefiled” religion cannot be corporate: it is something given for “oneself” to do, not to be pawned off to some sort of institution, organization, or government to handle.

We do well to meditate for a moment on James’ description of “pure and undefiled religion.” Most of those who condemn “religion” for all of its excesses and abuses would likely agree that helping those in need is a good thing, and maintaining one’s personal holiness without sanctimony or a holier-than-thou attitude is certainly not a bad thing. Many such persons would probably commend a life full of this “pure and undefiled religion.” And those among Christians who condemn “religion” would certainly approve of helping the needy and maintaining one’s personal holiness.

Religion, therefore, is not the problem. Impure and defiled religion is the problem. Religion used for ungodly purposes, to advance the covetous or bloodthirsty agendas of individuals or organizations or to justify perversions and unholy ideologies is the problem. Sanctimony, hypocrisy, and sectarianism masquerading as religion is the problem. In short, Satan and sin are the problem, as they are with all things that could otherwise be good, holy, and pleasing in the sight of God. Therefore, let us cast off bad religion. Let us maintain personal holiness while seeking the best interest of those around us, especially the most destitute, downtrodden, and dispossessed, and do so to the glory and honor of God the Father in the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us practice pure and undefiled religion thanks to a restored relationship with God through Jesus in His Kingdom to the praise, honor, and glory of God in Christ at His coming!

Ethan R. Longhenry