Sinai and Jerusalem

They then that received his word were baptized: and there were added unto them in that day about three thousand souls (Acts 2:41).

Beginnings set the tone for how everything following will proceed. Not for nothing is it said that you only have one chance to make a first impression.

The beginning of the proclamation of the full Gospel of Jesus Christ by the Apostles, the beginning of the church, the manifestation of Jesus’ Kingdom on earth, is set forth in Acts 2:1-48. The Apostles are baptized with the Holy Spirit and begin to speak in the assorted languages spoken by the diaspora of Jews who have gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13). Peter proclaims what it is the Jewish people are seeing: the Holy Spirit has fallen on them as a fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32, for Jesus of Nazareth, whom they had seen work miracles and had crucified, was raised from the dead by God, and of this David prophesied in the Psalms and Peter and the Apostles had personally eyewitnessed (Acts 2:14-36). About three thousand Jewish people believed, repented, and were baptized in the name of the Lord, and began devoting themselves together to the Apostles’ doctrine, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer, spending time together in the Temple and from house to house, providing for each other as any had need, having favor with the people, full of joy and purpose, and many others were being added to their number (Acts 2:37-48). An auspicious beginning indeed!

St. Peter Preaching 00

But why on Pentecost? Pentecost was the festival of firstfruits of the wheat harvest, established by YHWH as fifty days after the Passover (the Feast of Weeks or Shauvot; Exodus 34:22, Deuteronomy 16:9-11). A festival for firstfruits was by its very nature a celebration; the people would have been subsisting on whatever had remained from previous harvests, and the prospect of new and bountiful food would make them glad. The Feast of Weeks also manifests their confidence in God, for if they gave the firstfruits to Him, they were trusting in Him to give plenty in the rest of the harvest. The Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the Feast of Weeks were all in their own way a reminder of being slaves in Egypt delivered from bondage by YHWH (Deuteronomy 16:12). As one of the three festivals in which all men were to appear before YHWH in the Temple, the Feast of Weeks/Pentecost represented a convenient opportunity to proclaim the good news of Jesus of Nazareth to all Israel (cf. Deuteronomy 16:16-17).

Yet Pentecost, in Jewish memory, was not only the Feast of Weeks, an agricultural celebration; according to the oral tradition of Israel it is also the anniversary of the day on which YHWH spoke the Ten Commandments before Israel on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:1-21).

Thus Pentecost hearkens back to another beginning, the beginning of the covenant between God and Israel as mediated by the Law of Moses. This covenant was established on Mount Sinai; the people were terrified at the thunders, lightning, fire, and the voice of God, and having heard the Ten Commandments, begged for Moses to receive the Law and stand between them and God (Exodus 20:1-21). YHWH then gave Moses the Law and the provisions for the Tabernacle over a forty day period, culminating in receiving the two tables of testimony in stone written by the finger of God (Exodus 20:21-31:18). Meanwhile, the people feared that Moses had met his demise, and persuaded Aaron to make gods for them, and he made a golden calf which they served and before whom they made merry (Exodus 32:1-6). YHWH burned in anger against Israel and sought to strike them down and make of Moses a great nation; Moses talked YHWH down by reminding Him of the promises He had made to their forefathers (Exodus 32:7-14). Moses descended to the base of Mount Sinai, broke the tablets of the testimony, destroyed the golden calf, grinding it into powder, and made Israel to drink it (Exodus 32:15-25). Moses called on those who were on YHWH’s side, and his fellow Levites came to him; he commanded them to strike down their companions and neighbors, and about three thousand of the people fell (Exodus 32:26-28). Moses testified how Israel had committed great sin, and YHWH struck the people further, because of the golden calf they had made (Exodus 32:29-35). YHWH would then command Moses to lead the people away from Mount Sinai (Exodus 33:1); what was supposed to be a sanctified place had been defiled, and what was to be a holy people needed forgiveness. From then on the Levites would be called upon to stand between YHWH and the people, and the Law would be reckoned as a burden that none of the Israelites could properly bear (Exodus 19:6, Numbers 3:12, Acts 15:10). This was a less than auspicious beginning!

In this way Pentecost marks the beginning of two covenants, one in Sinai and the other in Jerusalem. On Sinai great terror came upon the people as they heard the voice of God; they sinned against God there, and about three thousand of them died. In Jerusalem great amazement came upon the people as they heard in their native languages the mighty works of God; they learned about redemption there, and about three thousand of them received salvation and the hope of eternal life. The Law from Sinai would remind them of their faults, failures, and sin; to various degrees Israel sought to live up to what God had decreed, but frequently failed and/or turned aside to other gods. The gift of the Spirit in Jerusalem would provide release from sin, deliverance from bondage, and hope for eternity in the resurrection with the Lord Jesus Christ.

Later on Paul would make a similar contrast in 2 Corinthians 3:6-18: the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life; the old is a ministration of death and condemnation, the new is a ministration of the Spirit and of righteousness. Pentecost provides a great illustration of this principle. When the Law was given, the people turned aside and about three thousand were killed; when the Spirit is given, the people repented and about three thousand found eternal life. The Law set forth right and wrong and in so doing gave life to sin and thus death (Romans 7:5-13); the Spirit set forth deliverance from sin and death through Jesus and the resurrection, and in so doing gives life (Romans 8:1-3).

We do well to praise God that we have not come to a mountain of fear and condemnation, as was Sinai, but to Jerusalem, Mount Zion, wherein life can be found through the Spirit and the message of the good news of Jesus of Nazareth (cf. Hebrews 12:18-24). May we ever live in repentance and hope in the Spirit, serving the Lord Jesus and proclaiming His good news to all nations!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Denying the Resurrection

So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying was spread abroad among the Jews, and continueth until this day (Matthew 28:15).

Stories attempting to deny the truth often take much more faith to believe in than the truth itself.

As Jesus arose from the dead, the Roman guard had trembled and became as dead men (Matthew 28:4); they later report to the Temple authorities the things which had taken place (Matthew 28:11). The chief priests had no desire to believe them; their power and influence were centered on the Temple, and as good Sadducees, they denied even the potential of the dead to be raised (Matthew 22:23). They did not disbelieve the Roman guard, but instead attempted to suppress the evidence, giving them financial incentives to claim that the disciples came and stole the body while the guard slept (Matthew 28:12-14). Thus they did so; Matthew inserts himself into the narrative to declare that this story had circulated among the Jews for years after, even unto the time he was writing his Gospel (Matthew 28:15).

Giotto di Bondone - No. 37 Scenes from the Life of Christ - 21. Resurrection (detail) - WGA09225

Such is the way it has gone ever since among those who would deny Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. For generations many maintain great disincentives from maintaining confidence in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. If Jesus is risen, as Peter would make it clear in Acts 2:14-36, then Jesus is Lord and Christ, the King. If Jesus is King, then Caesar is not as powerful as he would imagine himself to be. If Jesus is King, and His people represent the temple of the living God (1 Corinthians 3:16-18, 6:19-20), then the Temple in Jerusalem has but a short time left, and its authorities are soon to be obsolete. If Jesus is the Christ, the hope of Israel, then His teachings must be true, and all must submit to Him, and not heed the Pharisees, scribes, and other professed teachers of the Law (Matthew 5:17-20). If Jesus is the risen Lord, the one like a Son of Man who received an eternal Kingdom (Daniel 7:13-14, Revelation 1:12-18), then He will bring to nothing the kingdoms of this world, and He is the true and full revelation of the One True God, a light in the darkness to those who persist in idolatry (Colossians 2:9, Hebrews 1:1-3). Those who benefit from the philosophies of men, idolatry, who exercise authority in governments, and who receive honor and respect as teachers, religious or otherwise, have much to lose and little to gain from the truth of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

Throughout time some have maintained their integrity, have conceded their error, and submitted themselves to Jesus as the Risen Lord. We praise God for such good and honest hearts. Unfortunately, far too many have responded to the good news of the resurrection of Jesus like the chief priests did. They have found it easier to make up stories which deny the resurrection, no matter how fanciful or incredible, so that they can persist in living as they had formerly.

Some have claimed that Jesus did not truly die, but only fainted on the cross. They would have us believe that the Romans were not as effective as we might have imagined they were at executing people; that He was pierced in His side but made no movement or provided no indication of life (John 19:33-37); that He was wrapped in linen with many pounds of spices and aloes and remained merely unconscious (John 19:38-40); and then, after all that, to “awake” on the third day in full strength, roll the rock away, and fend off or cause great fear to come upon a whole Roman guard (Matthew 28:1-4). A truly incredible story! It takes far more faith to believe this than to accept the resurrection of the dead.

Some have claimed that the Apostles and others suffered from a mass hallucination. It strains credibility to suggest that more than five hundred people would suffer the same hallucination at the same time (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Beyond this, those who claim to see things in hallucinations persist in them, and yet the Apostles and their associates claimed to see Jesus in the resurrection only over a forty day period, and then no longer (Acts 1:3). Claims of hallucinations cannot make sense of the story as written.

Yet perhaps the most commonly held view is the story circulated by the Roman guards and among the Jews in Matthew 28:13-15: the disciples stole the body of Jesus away while the Roman guard slept. First of all, the Roman army was nothing if not disciplined. Far less serious infractions than sleeping on the job led to decimation; if it were not for the chief priests’ intervention, this entire guard would have no doubt been executed (cf. Acts 12:18-19). The Roman guard would not have been sleeping, and they certainly would not have stayed awake had the disciples come, rolled the rock away, and took the body of Jesus!

Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, let us carry out this “story” to its end. Why would the disciples have taken the body? They would have wanted to do so in order to claim that Jesus was risen from the dead. According to the modern point of view, the death of Jesus would have led these disciples to some kind of religious experience or enlightenment so as to begin to claim that Jesus is actually Lord in heaven, that through their own study and observations they were able to re-tell the story of Israel and its hope in the Messiah along the lines of Jesus the crucified but risen Messiah, and this all on their own.

Such is a fabulous tale, and again takes far more faith than to accept the Gospels as written! Who among the disciples expected Jesus to rise again? They did not understand what Jesus meant when He had told them so beforehand (Matthew 16:21-23, 20:17-28). Simon Peter claimed to be ready to die with and for Jesus, ready to establish the Kingdom on earth, and struck a slave to that end (Matthew 26:30-35, 51-54). The disciples scattered when Jesus was arrested (Matthew 26:56); they even doubted when they saw Jesus in the resurrection (Matthew 28:17). Beyond all this it was apparent to everyone that the Apostles, particularly Peter and John, were “unlearned” and “ignorant” men from Galilee (Acts 2:7, 4:13): are these the men who on their own will devise a most compelling and novel re-imagination of God’s purposes of His Messiah?

The greatest testimony to the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is His disciples. Before the resurrection they are everything you would expect from proud but uneducated Galilean Jews, fervent in zeal, expecting the Christ to come, defeat the enemies of Israel, and ultimately usher in the day of resurrection, and ready to rule with him in that Kingdom. As Jesus is tried, executed, and raised from the dead, the disciples accept the truth of what is going on, yet still do not understand what it is or what it represents (e.g. Acts 1:6). Yet, after the Holy Spirit falls upon them in Acts 2:1-4, they are transformed into proclaimers of the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth, boldly indicting those who crucified Him, standing firm where they had once shrunk back, declaring that God raised this Jesus whom they had crucified from the dead, that He was the Servant of whom Isaiah spoke, He is begotten of God in the resurrection, He has all power and authority and will return one day to judge the living and the dead (Acts 2:17-10:41). The Gospel they preach, the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets in Jesus of Nazareth, is something no human would imagine from the pastiche of messages given in the Law and the Prophets and yet does embody and fulfill them; so it is that Paul can say that God has revealed the mystery of the Gospel in his time (Ephesians 3:1-6).

The Apostles and the Kingdom of Jesus they worked so hard to affirm only make sense in light of Jesus’ resurrection. Denying the resurrection leads only to stories more fabulous and more incredible than the sober testimony preserved in the New Testament. Ultimately no disincentive against belief in Jesus the Risen Lord is worth condemnation and eternal separation from God (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). We do well to trust the testimony of the Apostles, trust in Jesus the Risen Lord, and seek to live according to His will!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Stronghold

But the salvation of the righteous is of YHWH / He is their stronghold in the time of trouble.
And YHWH helpeth them, and rescueth them / He rescueth them from the wicked, and saveth them / because they have taken refuge in him (Psalm 37:39-40).

When we feel threatened and/or weak, to whom or what do we turn? What do we trust when the situation seems dire and we feel powerless? We do well to go to our Stronghold.

Zin stronghold (4)

In Psalm 37 David sings a wisdom psalm, encouraging faith in YHWH and providing assurance of the demise of the wicked (Psalm 37:1-40). David would not deny that sometimes the righteous are oppressed and downtrodden while the wicked prosper; if he would, Job and the Preacher would have something to say to him. David in fact has seen the wicked in power, seemingly well rooted and planted (Psalm 37:35); and yet, soon after, he existed no longer (Psalm 37:36). The righteous will be exalted in the end (Psalm 37:30-34, 39-40); they must wait, and they will see YHWH’s salvation.

The righteous know that their salvation is of YHWH (Psalm 37:39). Those in the world, and even those opposing them, trust in their own strength, the weapons of this world, or some other power. It would be tempting to try to meet force with force, or use their own forms of force against them. YHWH can deliver, and has delivered, through many means, including armies and nations; nevertheless, the righteous know that YHWH is behind it all, has assuredly brought it all to pass, and it is for them to put their trust in Him and do as He directs them.

YHWH Himself is the stronghold, the One who helps, rescues, and saves the righteous (Psalm 37:39-40). How that deliverance takes place need not be explicitly revealed; to many it may not look much like deliverance, at least in the short term, but God has always ultimately justified all who have put their trust in Him. The full victory may not be accomplished for many years; one may receive vindication in the resurrection more than in this life.

Even so, YHWH saves the righteous because they take refuge in Him (Psalm 37:40). Such is why YHWH is their stronghold; He is the Source of their confidence and hope. They will not turn to worldly wisdom or methods. They will not depend on the forces of the world or the spiritual powers of this present age. Their confidence is not in their stuff, their power, or themselves, but in YHWH; He will see them through whatever trials or tribulations may take place.

It is an easy thing to declare YHWH as one’s stronghold in good times; it is quite another to prove willing to make YHWH one’s stronghold when one really needs a stronghold. Our faith, and our character, are proven in the crucible of trials. When the savage army menaces, to where will we flee? Will we try to defend a fortress of our own making or imagination? Will we try to meet force with force? Or will we seek refuge in God in Christ?

The people of God have always had to suffer the menace of the wicked around them. Danger lurks around every corner. God has called us to trust in all times and in all ways in Him, Him alone, and Him fully. May we establish God as the stronghold of our lives, take refuge in Him, prove to be the righteous, and be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Refugees

“And a sojourner shalt thou not wrong, neither shalt thou oppress him: for ye were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21).

“And a sojourner shalt thou not oppress: for ye know the heart of a sojourner, seeing ye were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).

You can tell a lot about a group of people by how they treat The Other.

The Israelites have set up camp beneath Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:1-25); YHWH has spoken the Ten Commandments to them (Exodus 20:1-17); and now Moses has gone up to receive more detailed legislation, often called the “Covenant Code,” to provide for Israel (Exodus 20:18-23:33). By this time, ca. 1450 BCE, the people of Israel have lived in lands not belonging to them to any appreciable degree for over 500 years. Around 2000 BCE God called Abram out of Ur and Haran to dwell in Canaan (Genesis 12:1-7). The only land Abraham ever “owned” in Canaan was the cave of Machpelah which he bought so as to bury his wife Sarah and in which he would later be entombed (Genesis 23:1-20, 25:8-10). Isaac and Jacob in turn lived in Canaan among the Canaanites but as sojourners, owning no land (Genesis 26:2-3, 47:9). It was evident that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not really “from” Canaan, made no attempt to hide it, and often reinforced their difference: Abraham did not want Isaac marrying a Canaanite, Rebekah was exasperated by Esau’s Canaanite wives and thus resolved that Jacob would not marry one, and two of Jacob’s sons would exterminate the men of Shechem on account of Shechem’s treatment of their sister Dinah (Genesis 24:3, 27:46-28:9, 34:1-31). The Hebrew author affirms how all these were sojourners seeking something better than the environment in which they lived (Hebrews 11:8-10, 13-16).

The Israelites were more familiar with the previous four hundred and thirty years in which they lived as sojourners in the land of Egypt, at first welcomed as Joseph’s family, and then feared and despised as Canaanites, a “fifth column” in Egypt, and enslaved (Genesis 45:16-20, 47:1-6, Exodus 1:7-12). They lived among people who thought of them as less than nothing, barbaric, inferior, with contemptuous professions and practices (Genesis 43:32, 46:34, Exodus 8:25-26). The Egyptians did not consider YHWH a God worth respecting, at least at first (Exodus 5:2). Thus it could not be reasonably said that the Israelites had an “enjoyable” sojourn, or that their time as a dispossessed people in Egypt was pleasant. Their sojourn represented, to put it mildly, a very uncomfortable experience, and not one which any reasonable person would want to continue to endure.

1867 Edward Poynter - Israel in Egypt

As part of the Law which YHWH gave to Israel on Mount Sinai, while Israel remained a sojourner in a foreign land, YHWH commands them to not oppress sojourners, because they understood the experience of the sojourner (Exodus 22:21, 23:9). Such charity is extraordinary: while ancient Near Eastern cultures, by necessity, enshrined hospitality as an important function for guests, protections for sojourners were not as strong in other law codes as they are in the Law of Moses. Granted, the sojourner has his own responsibilities: he must not have any leaven in his house during the Passover, he must observe the Sabbath and cleanliness regulations, and he must not blaspheme the name of YHWH, for there is one law for both the native Israelite as well as for the sojourner (Exodus 12:19, Leviticus 17:15, 24:16, 22). Yet the integrity of the sojourner is to be respected and maintained.

Very few people want to be sojourners. Throughout history many people have been displaced from their native lands: some gained disfavor because they stood in opposition to the existing rulers or favored rulers who had been defeated; some were part of minority groups suffering under the regime of a majority ruler (or, in some cases, a majority group suffering under the regime of a minority ruler!); others were forced to leave their homeland by an occupying power. Perhaps they felt a bit alien even in their homeland; such feelings would multiply greatly when they would have to live elsewhere. As sojourners they do not truly “fit” into their new land, for they come from a different culture and place. It is understandable why native born people would look at the sojourner with suspicion and hostility as The Other. What does he want? What will he do to me? Can I trust him?

Since Israel understood what it was like to sojourn among people with varying levels of hostility for about 500 years, so now they were to treat sojourners well and not compound their difficulties and sorrows. As Christians today we can learn from this example, for we are to see ourselves as elect exiles, strangers in a foreign land, as citizens of the Kingdom of God in Christ (Philippians 3:20-21, 1 Peter 1:1). We should know what it is like to live uncomfortably in a land that is really not ours, surrounded by people who do not agree with us, and who may well prove willing to cause us harm (1 Peter 2:19-25, 4:1-6).

There are always “good” worldly reasons to fear and be suspicious of The Other. That’s how Egypt felt toward the Israelites in their midst. That’s how the Romans felt about the Jews and especially about the Christians. Their very differences make them seem strange, alien, “not of us,” and thus a potential threat. Yet, as Israel should have understood the refugee experience from their time in Egypt, so we Christians should understand the refugee experience in our own lives as Kingdom citizens in a “foreign country.” If this world truly is not our home, for our allegiance is elsewhere, we should recognize how we are The Other in the eyes of those in the world, own it, and glorify God in how we treat others!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Hateful and Hating

For we also once were foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another (Titus 3:3).

The story of life outside of Christ is always ugly. And yet Christians must remember what it was like.

Paul has been encouraging Titus in his work of ministry, encouraging Christians and promoting the Gospel. Paul is telling Titus the types of things which he must tell those who will hear him so they may be encouraged and remain faithful in Christ (Titus 3:1-2). Part of that exhortation involves the continual remembrance of who we were outside of Christ and what God has accomplished for us in Christ: we were foolish, disobedient, deceived, pursuing passion, living in malice and envy, being hated, and hating in turn, but God’s kindness was displayed to us in Christ, who saved us through the regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, justifying us, making us heirs with Christ (Titus 3:3-7). Paul wants this explained so that the Christians would be careful to maintain good works (Titus 3:8).

Why would Paul want to bring to light something so dark and ugly as the lives Christians led before they came to a knowledge of the Lord Jesus? In no way does he want to glorify and exult in the types of things regarding which we all should be ashamed (Romans 6:21). He does so regarding himself in order to magnify the great love and mercy displayed to him and to all mankind in Jesus (1 Timothy 1:12-17). Christians are to do so for a similar reason to an extent as well. Paul’s ultimate reason is for Christians to be productive unto good works (Titus 3:8): we are to recognize how dependent we are on God for our salvation, which was entirely undeserved, and should respond with humility and gratitude. It is to remind Christians that we have no basis upon which to boast about being better than others, for our condition has improved only by the grace of God poured out on us (cf. Ephesians 2:1-18). We are not to look down on those still in bondage but to love them and seek their best interest (Matthew 5:44-48, Romans 12:17-21). It also provides Christians with an understanding of the types of attitudes and behaviors from which they have been rescued; such should be a sober warning to no longer return to them again (2 Peter 2:20-22)!

Among the characteristics of life outside of Christ is hate: being hated by others and hating one another (Titus 3:3). Paul accurately assessed a major element in life in this world: fear of the other continually manifests itself as hate toward the other. What is seen as not directly for us is very easily manipulated to look like it is against us. In worldly terms there is only so much that one can motivate people to believe, feel, and do in the name of love, self-interest, greed, etc., but one can get people to think, feel, and do almost anything to preserve themselves against that which they fear. Fear and hate are intertwined; you cannot hate what you do not fear.

Few motivators prove as powerful as fear. The worst atrocities mankind has ever perpetrated have been done in the name of fear. Strong, powerful nations most powerfully exert themselves by doing what is necessary to cause those who would oppose them to be afraid of their arsenal. For many smaller nations and forces the only form of influence they can wield is to inspire fear and terror into the hearts of those with greater resources and strength. Fearmongering is a powerful thing: “be afraid” is always a powerful motivator for action and only rarely can be refuted.

Fear and hate are everywhere. People are afraid that Christians just might be right about the consequences of sinful behavior; the easiest thing to do is to hate Christians and Christianity in response (1 Peter 4:1-6). Nations fear other nations and develop hatreds and hostilities; groups of people within nations, or from different regions or religions or any other number of ways in which humans divide themselves, find reasons to engender fear and hate toward each other. The cycle never ends. In this present world the cycle will never end.

And yet, for the Christian, “hateful” and “hating one another” are to be in the past tense (Titus 3:3). In Romans 8:15 Paul made clear how Christians did not receive a spirit of slavery to be afraid, but received the spirit of adoption as sons of God in Christ. Perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18); Jesus provided the means by which we could break through the fear and hate cycle by enduring fear and hate, dying on the cross, and being raised again in power (Ephesians 2:11-18). In Christ all such hostility is to be killed: Christians are to come together as one people from many different nations and languages and exemplify the only power that could overcome the forces of darkness (Galatians 3:28). If the Lord is our helper, who are we to fear? What can man do to us (cf. Psalm 27:1, Hebrews 13:6). Other people may not like us, hurt us, and even kill us; if God is for us, who can really be against us (Romans 8:31)? We may suffer harsh consequences for following the Lord Jesus; and yet He died, but was raised in power, and in so doing struck the deepest fear into the heart of even the cruelest tyrant.

hate killed

How so? Fear and hate get their power from sin and death. Of what is anyone afraid? That they will be taken advantage of and/or experience loss of life, property, and/or standing. The tyrant attempts to get people to do things for him in fear for their lives; the terrorist tries to get people to listen to them or meet their demands in fear for their lives; the fearmonger attempts to get power or influence by giving the impression that he or she is the one that can be trusted to eliminate the threat. Jesus experienced the shame, was taken advantage of, and lost His life, and in so doing gained the victory over sin and death (Philippians 2:5-11, 1 Peter 2:18-25). The tyrant can never overpower the Christian who does not love his or her life even unto death; the terrorist cannot strike fear into the heart of the Christian who trusts that all is well whether he or she remains in the body or goes to be with the Lord; the fearmonger cannot influence the Christian who understands that the only power which can overcome fear, hate, sin, and death is the all-conquering sacrificial love manifest by God in Jesus.

fear conquered

Fear remains a continual temptation for Christians, but our fear always comes from a lack of trust in God, His goodness, His promises, and the ultimate manifestation of His love for us in Christ and Him crucified. To give into fear is to return to the hateful and hating life from which God has rescued us in Jesus. Therefore, brethren, let us stand firm. May we not give into the voices of fear and hate. Let us not be troubled by any fear or terror. Let us trust in Jesus our Lord, who died and was raised again in power, and prove willing to endure any shame or deprivation so as to obtain His glory in the resurrection!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Love Your Enemies

“Ye have heard that it was said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy’:
But I say unto you, love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you; that ye may be sons of your Father who is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust. For if ye love them that love you, what reward have ye? Do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? Do not even the Gentiles the same? Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).

Jesus had already said many difficult, challenging things. He had only been warming up!

Matthew 5:1-48 recounts the beginning of what is popularly called Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” in which Jesus set forth a protracted discussion of the ethics of the Kingdom. After overthrowing commonly held expectations about who was fortunate, or blessed (Matthew 5:3-12), Jesus established that He came to fulfill, and not abolish the Law, but to enter the Kingdom one’s righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:17-20). In Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus further explicated the point with a series of contrasting statements, first establishing “what had been said” in the Law, both in terms of what was explicitly written and how it was understood and practiced in terms of righteousness, but then turning by establishing what “I say unto you,” ultimately a more exacting and rigorous standard. The Law said to not murder; Jesus exhorted His followers to not even hate, pursuing reconciliation (Matthew 5:21-26). The Law said to not commit adultery; Jesus expected people to not even lust in their heart, turning from temptation (Matthew 5:27-30). The Law granted reasons for divorce; Jesus limited them to sexually deviant behavior on the part of the spouse being put away (Matthew 5:31-33). The Law made provision for oaths; Jesus told His followers to not swear at all (Matthew 5:33-37). The Law enshrined the lex talionis as a means of exacting appropriate recompense for injury; Jesus then said to not resist the one who is evil, suffer the loss and indignity, and prove willing to go further (Matthew 5:38-42). This leads to the final contrast as expressed in Matthew 5:43-48.

Bloch-SermonOnTheMount

The Law explicitly declared for the Israelites to love their neighbor as themselves in Leviticus 19:18. The Law nowhere explicitly states that Israelites were to “hate their enemy”; this has led many expositors to suggest that this is a Pharisaical addition condemned by Jesus and without merit. So far everything Jesus declared “had been said of old” came directly from the Law or paraphrased an idea that was assuredly in the Law; to turn to a Pharisaical invention without mentioning it would seem strange at this point. “You shall hate your enemy,” especially in terms of loving one’s enemy less, is not an unreasonable interpretation of many elements of the Law of Moses. YHWH explicitly excluded the Ammonites and Moabites from His assembly (Deuteronomy 23:2-3); the Israelites were to entirely eliminate and destroy the seven nations in Canaan (Deuteronomy 7:1-2, 5). After at least four hundred years after the original offense YHWH made sure that Saul struck Amalek for what they had done to the Israelites during their time in the Wilderness (1 Samuel 15:1-7; cf. Exodus 17:8-16). An exploration into the prophetic judgment oracles against neighboring nations, seen in Isaiah 13-24, Jeremiah 46-51, Amos 1-2, Obadiah, and Nahum, among others, makes plain how little love was lost among the Israelites and their neighbors, and how YHWH was going to judge those who had sought evil against Israel. We can also see what the Israelites do when they get a chance to overcome their enemies in Esther 8-9, and it leads to many, many deaths.

We can see “hate your enemy” at work throughout the Gospels in terms of how the Jewish people viewed and treated those of other nations. The lawyer’s attempt to justify himself in Luke 10:29 was not entirely out of turn; Israelites had no problem loving (at least most of) their fellow Israelites but had very little love for those of the nations, particularly Romans. John’s aside in John 4:9 is understated: Jews not only had no dealings with Samaritans but also despised them, and that gives the Parable of the Good Samaritan its power (Luke 10:26-37). Peter reminded Cornelius that it is unlawful for Jews to associate with Gentiles (Acts 10:28), and that was the accusation made against him the moment he returned to Jerusalem (Acts 11:2-3). Jews despised those of the nations, the Gentiles; the Gentiles returned the favor. And, as Peter’s declaration makes clear, Jews found plenty of justification for their position towards the Gentiles in the Law of Moses.

Jesus very deliberately overthrows the whole paradigm in His response in Matthew 5:44. He told His disciples to love and do good to their enemies and pray for their persecutors. Few concepts prove as counterintuitive and contrary to all natural inclination as this; we want to harm those who want to harm us, or at least keep them away. We want nothing good to come upon those who want to do evil to us. It can be physically challenging to even turn the tide so as to do what Jesus says, to do good to those who stand against you and everything you are.

Jesus is aware of that; such is why He appeals to the ultimate Authority. Why should Christians love their enemies, do good to them, and pray for their persecutors? So they can manifest how they are children of their Father in heaven (Matthew 5:45). God sends the sun to shine upon the evil and the good; rain falls on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:45). Not only that, but loving those who love you and greeting only those who are your fellow people is not really that extraordinary, for tax collectors (universally hated and reviled as agents of the oppressors) and (those nasty) Gentiles do the same things. Thus, if you really want to be truly righteous, to have a form of righteousness greater than the average person, you need to be more like your heavenly Father and love even those who do not love you and greet those who would have nothing to do with you.

Jesus then concludes this series of contrasting statements, exemplifying the true nature of righteousness in the Kingdom, by declaring that His followers should be perfect as the Father is perfect. “Perfect” is the Greek teleios, “complete, perfect, brought to its end, mature.” If one exemplifies all these forms of righteousness he would prove mature and brought to the complete end of holiness, just as God is.

So much could be said about Jesus’ exposition in Matthew 5:43-48. Through what Jesus says we can see a level of common grace which God provides to all, something Paul will consider as well in Acts 14:16-17, 17:25-30. Jesus’ appeal to the “natural” love and greeting among even sinners is hard to square with any suggestion that humans, in their sinful depravity, are incapable of any good. There are no end to the arguments about Matthew 5:48 and the attainability of perfection, or whether that is even what Jesus is imagining or expecting, or perhaps is showing that all of this is what would be demanded in its exactitude if one attempts to depend on fulfillment of righteousness as the ground upon which one is able to stand before God (cf. Matthew 5:20).

The most important thing is how Jesus lived what He said in Matthew 5:43-48. Jesus came as the one sinless human in a sinful world; all people had turned aside to their own way; all were weak, ungodly, and sinful to some degree or another, and yet Jesus loved them and died for them (Romans 5:6-11). He prayed for Jerusalem while knowing He would be killed there (Matthew 23:37-39); He prayed for those who executed Him while in the very act (Luke 23:34). He visited Saul of Tarsus while he remained a persecutor, and Saul never forgot the greatness of Jesus’ mercy nor the depth of his own sinfulness (1 Timothy 1:12-17). Paul would become a most forceful expositor of the great power of what Jesus accomplished on the cross: He bore the enmity, He killed the hostility, and now Jew and Gentile were to be brought together into one body (Ephesians 2:11-18).

Jesus had no quarrel with loving one’s neighbor. The difficulty, of course, is that we humans see some people as our neighbor, but not everyone. Jesus points out that to God we are all neighbors; we all receive the beneficence of His abundant provision of the earth. God loves despite our unworthiness; we must love despite others’ unworthiness. God even loved those who actively worked against His purposes; what excuse do we have to do otherwise?

As Christians we are to be continually reminded that the only reason we stand before God is because while we were yet weak, ungodly, and enemies, God reconciled us to Himself through the death of Jesus of Nazareth (Romans 5:6-11, Ephesians 2:1-18, Titus 3:3-8). Thus we must love our enemy, just as God did, so that our enemy may become our brother. We must pray for those who persecute us so they may turn from the forces of darkness to which they are subject and join with us in serving the living God (Ephesians 6:12). God loves everyone and wants them to be saved (1 Timothy 4:1-4). If we would be called sons and daughters of the heavenly Father, should we not want the same, and live according to the pattern of our elder Brother Jesus who established the way (1 John 2:3-6)? May we love our enemies and do good to them, pray for those who persecute us, and demonstrate ourselves to be children of our heavenly Father to His glory!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Ground of Complaint

I will sing of the lovingkindness of YHWH for ever / with my mouth will I make known thy faithfulness to all generations.
For I have said, “Mercy shall be built up for ever / Thy faithfulness wilt thou establish in the very heavens.”
“I have made a covenant with my chosen / I have sworn unto David my servant:
‘Thy seed will I establish for ever / and build up thy throne to all generations'” (Psalm 89:1-4).

Ethan begins his psalm with great praise and confidence in YHWH. He does not end that way.

Ethan is famous in Scripture for being wise; not as wise as Solomon, of course, but the comparison shows just how highly Ethan was esteemed (1 Kings 4:31). His wisdom is on full display in the only Psalm ascribed to him.

We have every reason to believe Ethan is serious: he proclaims YHWH’s hesed (lovingkindness, covenant loyalty) and His faithfulness to all generations (Psalm 89:1). He builds up mercy and establishes faithfulness in the heavens (Psalm 89:2). Ethan has as similar confidence in YHWH’s promises to David in 2 Samuel 7:11-16: a covenant was made with David and his house, and his kingdom would be established forever (Psalm 89:3-4). So far Ethan has made a clear confession of faith.

Ethan would continue by extolling God’s power in and over His creation (Psalm 89:5-14) and His care and provision for His people, particularly David and his descendants (Psalm 89:15-28). Ethan recognized the warnings about the consequences of disobedience, but also maintains confidence that YHWH would still maintain His covenant and be faithful to David (Psalm 89:30-37).

solomon

But then the psalm takes a sharp and dark turn. Ethan declared that YHWH had cast off, rejected, and been angry with His anointed, demonstrating how YHWH has reversed Himself at every point in terms of His dealings with the offspring of David (Psalm 89:38-45). Ethan wanted to know how long YHWH would be angry with the house of David; Ethan’s life would not be long (Psalm 89:46-47). Where was YHWH’s covenant loyalty which He swore to David (Psalm 89:49)? Such is the question that resounds at the end of the psalm; Ethan concluded by asking the Lord to remember the reproaches which the enemies of the people of God have reproached them and His anointed (Psalm 89:50-51). While Ethan would not dispute Psalm 89:52, it is most likely added by the Psalter as the conclusion of Book III (so also Psalms 41:13, 72:20, 106:48).

Psalm 89 is most assuredly a psalm of lament, and yet it does not follow the standard lament pattern. Most psalms of lament set forth the difficulty, challenge, or complaint, and internally move toward a declaration of confidence and faith in YHWH and His covenant loyalty (e.g. Psalms 3, 22). Yet Psalm 88 and Psalm 89 end without that “resolution” of at least a declaration of faith; they leave us with their cry unanswered. In many ways the Psalter “answers” their concerns in Book IV (Psalms 90-106) by testifying to God’s faithfulness over time. We can “answer” Ethan’s question in terms of Jesus of Nazareth who received the throne of His father David, has reigned for two thousand years, and continues to reign (Luke 1:31-33, Matthew 28:18-20, Revelation 5:9-14).

But Ethan does not know that, or at least he is giving voice to people who do not know that. He knows what God promised David; from 586 BCE until the days of Jesus in the first century CE one could well ask where YHWH’s covenant loyalty to David and his offspring had gone. He perishes long before the promise is fulfilled.

It is important for us moderns to note the ground upon which Ethan makes his complaint. Many people today, after all, have all kinds of questions, challenges, and complaints for God. Yet today people ask, complain, or demand from a place of doubt; they wonder if God is even there, is a figment of their imagination, or fear He is the god of the Deists who no longer really cares what happens within the closed system he started. Ethan, on the other hand, asked, complained, and questioned from a place of faith. Ethan could not make sense of the condition of Judah and the house of David, not on account of any fears about YHWH’s existence, power, or covenant loyalty, but precisely because he believed firmly and strongly in YHWH as the Creator God of Israel who shows covenant loyalty to His people and proves faithful to His promises. If he did not have such faith he would have no reason to expect anything for the house of David: without God as their protector, Israel could never consistently stand against her adversaries. If YHWH did not care for His people at all, there would be no reason to expect anything less than the devastation of the people. The only way Ethan can really ask God these questions and to air his grievances is because he trusts God and what God has said to His people.

There are many reasons why we might think (if we do not prove open, honest, and faithful enough to actually say and ask) about many disconnects between what God has promised and the situation on the ground. We may wonder why the Lord has not yet returned, or why wickedness prospers while righteousness is set at naught, or why we experience trials and tribulations. In such conditions we do well to learn from Ethan; we can only have such complaints if we remain grounded in our belief that there is a God, that He has created us, maintains covenant loyalty, is faithful, and full of mercy. How can we doubt God’s existence while still expecting the kind of life and universe which only God could have created? After all, if God does not exist, or does not care about us, what does “good” or “evil” mean, anyway? Why should we expect “good” to happen to us but not “evil”? Why should anything in life be pleasant, good, positive, and above all, meaningful? By no means! Without God the universe has no purpose or meaning, and neither do we. Good and evil become human categorizations and are unmoored from any standard beyond human conceptions. We can only expect good to happen, for life to have meaning, or that all of this is going somewhere if God is who He says He is in Scripture.

We all live with unanswered questions, at least if we are honest with ourselves. Ethan the Ezrahite wrote an inspired psalm that ends with an unanswered question. Yet Psalm 89 begins with a powerful declaration of faith. We will have unanswered questions; can we sing of God’s lovingkindness, covenant loyalty, and faithfulness to all generations as well, and trust despite, or even because of, the questions, difficulties, and trials of life?

Ethan R. Longhenry

Wrestles With God

And he said, “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed” (Genesis 32:28).

Many stories in Scripture serve as representative concrete examples encapsulating greater truths or development. And so it is with Jacob and the angel.

“Jacob” meant “he cheats”; the name is an apt description for Jacob in his early years. He was quiet, dwelling in tents, not the outdoors type like his older brother Esau (Genesis 25:26-27). He had his mother’s affections, and probably not a little of her personality as well (Genesis 25:28). Esau was willing to give up his birthright for some stew, and was foolish to agree to it, but Jacob was the one who set such an extravagant price (Genesis 25:29-34). When his mother suggests the plot to deceive his father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn, Jacob’s concern is not about ethics or morality but about logistics and challenges (Genesis 27:1-13). He thus cheats his brother out of his birthright and his blessing (Genesis 27:36). Esau, predictably, is not a fan of this turn of events, and conspired to take out his brother Jacob (Genesis 27:41); Rebekah hears of it and makes sure Jacob is sent far away to her brother Laban in Paddan-Aram (Genesis 27:42-28:2). God grants Jacob a vision of the ladder with angels upon it and promises the blessings of the inheritance of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 28:10-19). He promised that if God would keep him and preserve him back to his father’s house, he would build a house for God at Bethel and give a tenth of what he had (Genesis 28:20-22). A cheater who makes demands of God; this is certainly not the story of a mature patriarch!

The cheater is then cheated: he works seven years for Laban’s younger daughter Rachel but is given the older daughter Leah instead; he then must work another seven years for Rachel (Genesis 29:1-30). Jacob had to deal with the contentions among his wives (Genesis 29:31-30:25). Laban continually attempted to cheat Jacob, but the “God of [Jacob’s] father Isaac” preserved him and made him prosper (Genesis 30:26-31:55).

Jacob thus heads toward his father’s land after around twenty years of striving with Laban and others; he sends word to Esau and hears that Esau is coming to meet him with four hundred men with him (Genesis 32:1-6). Jacob has overcome the challenges surrounding Laban but does not know how things will work out with Esau. In the middle of all this an angel of YHWH visits Jacob, and of all things, wrestles with him (Genesis 32:24). Jacob did not give up; neither did the angel. The end came when the angel displaced the hollow of Jacob’s thigh and day had come (Genesis 32:25). Jacob demanded a blessing; his name is changed to Israel, “wrestles with God,” because he strove with men and with God and had prevailed. Only then did Jacob realize he had wrestled with an angel and named the place Peniel (Genesis 32:29-30).

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

Jacob and Esau would then meet and things went well; Jacob return to the land of his father (Genesis 33:1-20); he fulfilled the vow he made to God (Genesis 35:1-7). But it is quite telling, and appropriate, that “Jacob” left the land of his father, never to return; “Israel” is the man who comes back to the land which will bear that name, with a full household who would become the tribes of the land.

Of all the characters we meet in Scripture, Jacob’s is one of the best developed. The Genesis author does so for good reason: Jacob becomes Israel and provides a paradigm for Israel. “Jacob,” as “he cheats,” was in no position to be a patriarch; he had to learn humility, and learned it by receiving plenty of his own medicine. And yet he prevailed. He wrestled with an angel, and yet he prevailed.

There is a little detail that can often be missed but is quite telling within this story of Jacob. Before Jacob becomes Israel by wrestling with the angel, God is never “his” God; YHWH could only be his God if He provided for him (Genesis 28:21). God, to Jacob, was “the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the Fear of Isaac” (Genesis 31:42). But when Jacob/Israel has returned to the land of his father, and he builds an altar near Shechem, he names it El-Elohe-Israel, “God, the God of Israel” (Genesis 33:20). God is not merely the God of his ancestors. God is his God as well.

Such is the lesson of Jacob/Israel. Israel the nation embodied Israel the patriarch constantly throughout its history, striving with God, often falling short of His glory and holiness, and wondering where His promises had gone despite their perceived faithfulness (e.g. Psalms 44, 88-89). We can read the story of many of the men of faith who had to grow into their role, strove with God, and ultimately grew in character, faith, holiness, and in their relationship with Him. Each new Israelite and generation of Israelites had to wrestle with their situation, wrestle with their faith, and in some way wrestle with God so that He would not just be the God of their fathers but their God as well.

And so it is to this day. We are the spiritual descendants of Israel (1 Corinthians 10:1-12, Galatians 3:29, Hebrews 11:1-12:2). Those born to godly parents do well to consider that “Jacob” was born to godly parents as well; “Jacob” as such needed to grow into “Israel” to be the patriarch God intended for him to be, because only “Israel” considered God to be his God. We cannot expect to short-circuit the process, either: we must strive with God and men, wrestle with our faith and our situation, and through the experiences of life, some for good, many perhaps seeming to be to our detriment, we are to come to the recognition that God is not just the God of our fathers but our God as well. May we honor God as our Creator and our God, and serve Him through His Son!

Ethan R. Longhenry

A Singing People

Is any among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise (James 5:13).

The people of God are to be a singing people.

As James began to conclude his letter he set forth a series of exhortations for Christians in their walk with God (James 5:7-20). Christians who are suffering should pray; those who are cheerful should sing praise (James 5:13).

James’ exhortation should not surprise us. While in prison Paul and Silas sang and prayed (Acts 16:25). Christians are to speak, teach, and admonish one another in song (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16). Such exhortations build on the heritage and experience of Israel, singing the psalms before YHWH in the Temple and in their lives (1 Chronicles 25:1-31, Matthew 26:30). Thus, when things went well, the people sang praise; when things were not so well, they sang laments. They sang thanksgivings; they sang prayers. In all this they were singing before God. Thus we do well to consider: are we a singing people?

It seems that the voices of the people of God continue to grow quieter. In the assembly many can barely be heard; Christians will listen to secular and/or “contemporary Christian” music, get used to hearing singing, but do not share in that singing themselves. It is easy to believe that singing is better left to other people.

Bifurcation of life in terms of times of “worship” and the “rest of life,” along with an emphasis on the performative elements of singing, have proven very deleterious. We do well to note that James tells individual Christians to sing praises when cheerful (James 5:13). As there is no authorization for the use of instruments when Christians sing together (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16), there is no authority for them in the individual praises of Christians, either (James 5:13). Attempting to suggest the problem features instruments “in worship” and not in the “rest of life,” as many are wont to do, simply beg the question. From where do these distinctions come? They are not in the pages of Scripture; singing in the assembly is not uniquely defined as “worship” over and against individual singing. No direct association is made in Scripture between singing together and “worship” as commonly understood. Likewise, while we all like to have good singing, and we would all love to sing well, performance should never be the driver when it comes to our singing, individually or collectively; the substantive message of the song should always be the driver. The best performed song that does not speak, teach, or instruct has no share in Ephesians 5:19 or Colossians 3:16; praise can be beautiful, but beauty without substance is not praise (James 5:13).

Abide with MeSinging is designed to build up and encourage (1 Corinthians 14:26); we can only do that when we recognize the profound value in the substance and singing of songs. Science has known for some time that people learn messages better when put to a tune; the best preached sermon can hardly match the visceral power of a well written hymn. Singing can change your mood; singing can help us keep our minds and hearts on Christ as they should be, even in difficult circumstances, just like Paul and Silas in Acts 16:25. We can sing praises when alone; we can join our voices together to praise God in song and instruct each other, audibly demonstrating the unity we share in God in Christ (1 John 1:1-6). From song we can derive strength in the moment of trial and reinforce the joy of more fortunate times.

Singing is not better left to other people; God intends for all of His people to sing. The quality of the performance is never nearly as important as the value of the substance. Singing edifies mind, heart, and soul. In good times we do well to sing; in distress we ought to cry out to God in prayer and sing laments. There is a song for every circumstance if we are only willing to sing it. May we be the singing people of God to His glory and praise!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Do Not Resist the Evil Person

“Ye have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:’
But I say unto you, Resist not him that is evil: but whosoever smiteth thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man would go to law with thee, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away” (Matthew 5:38-42).

It is not surprising that many in history considered Jesus’ instructions in the Sermon on the Mount as virtually impossible to observe.

Jesus has been contrasting what was written in the Law of Moses, and how it was customarily understood and explained by the Pharisees and others, with what He says (Matthew 5:20-48). Many of Jesus’ exhortations demanded His followers to go beyond concern about behavior and show just as much concern about their thoughts and feelings: they were not only not to murder or commit adultery but should not hate their brother in their heart or lust for a woman in their heart (Matthew 5:21-30). Most recently Jesus has encouraged His followers to maintain a personal standard of godliness and righteousness beyond that demanded by the Law: the Law might allow a person to divorce his wife or to swear oaths, but Jesus’ followers should recognize God’s original intentions, allowing divorce only for the sexually deviant behavior of the spouse, and not swearing, allowing one’s “yes” and “no” to stand (Matthew 5:31-37).

Bloch-SermonOnTheMount

Jesus continued in the same strain in terms of the lex talionis set forth in Exodus 21:22-27, Leviticus 24:19-20, and Deuteronomy 19:19-21. The lex talionis (Latin for law of talion) enshrined the right of retaliation but only in terms of the severity of the original injury; it is also known in terms of the first example given in the lex talionis, the principle of “an eye for an eye.” In the Law of Moses the lex talionis maintained a restrictive and restraining function: it is not difficult to imagine an aggrieved party, having suffered the loss of an eye or limb or some such thing, retaliating and causing far more significant damage to the person who inflicted the original wound. Such was reckoned (and is still reckoned) as unjust and unfair; therefore, the Law of Moses restricted retaliation or the expectation of the payment for damages to be commensurate to the original offense. Even though we no longer, in general, demand the loss of an eye for having taken an eye, limb for having taken a limb (with the exception of capital punishment, the loss of life for taking a life), the legal idea at the root of the lex talionis remains important to this day: we feel a punishment should fit the crime.

Jesus recognized all of this; His quibble was not with what the Law allows. The Law might have allowed for retaliation, to resist the one who did evil to another; Jesus exhorted His followers to not demand an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, etc., but should not resist (anthistemi, “stand against”) the one who does evil (Matthew 5:39). Jesus then illustrated the principle with four contemporary and relevant applications: if struck on the right cheek, turn the other also; if any sue and take your coat, give him your cloak also; if compelled to go one mile, go two; give to those who ask and do not turn away borrowers (Matthew 5:39-42).

These four situations would have been very familiar to Jesus’ followers and Jewish audience, yet Jesus’ exhortation would have seemed extremely radical. Striking (rhapisei, sometimes with the palm, often with an object) would normally begin with the left cheek; the right cheek (lit. jaw) is of greater prominence, and thus such striking would have been considered not just violent but also an insult. It is bad enough to be sued and to be deprived of one’s chiton (a tunic; the inner layer of clothing); giving up the himation (the outer garment) would be an even more expensive loss, which normally would take place at the hands of robbers. Compulsion to go one mile features the Greek aggareuse; the word derives from Persian and the Persian public messengers. They were stationed at fixed positions, and any official could demand for any subject passing by the post station to deliver the message to the next post-station a mile away, whether the traveler was going that way or that far or not (Herodotus, Histories 8.98, Xenophon, Cyropedia 8.6.17; cf. also Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus’ cross in Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21). The Jewish people of Jesus’ day were quite acquainted with forced service; Roman soldiers on the march would frequently compel any passing-by subject of the Empire to carry their baggage for one mile, an especially odious burden on Jewish people who already resented and despised what they saw as the oppressive rule of the Romans. Then, as now, plenty of people begged for resources and asked for loans to be given; then, as now, while some such supplicants might be “worthy” of assistance, having fallen into temporary misfortune, and would pay back whatever was borrowed, most would have been considered “unworthy” and most would not pay back. Yet, in all four situations, Jesus exhorted His followers to absorb the loss, suffering, pain, humiliation, or material loss. Injured and insulted with a strike to the right cheek? Do not hit back, but turn the other cheek. Someone sues you for your tunic? Give it, and your more expensive outer garment as well. An agent of an oppressive overlord demands one mile of service? Go two. People want you to give them your money or want to borrow it? Do not turn them away.

Jesus knew well what He was asking; it is not the only time He instructed His followers in this way (Luke 6:27-36, 14:12-14), and He ultimately exemplified the principles in His conduct (John 18:22-23, 1 Peter 2:20-23). This instruction is not unique to Jesus; His Apostles exhorted Christians to do the same (Romans 12:17-21, 1 Corinthians 6:7, 1 Peter 3:9, 1 John 3:16-18). The challenge and radical nature of Jesus’ exhortation in Matthew 5:38-42 is most apparent in how many times and ways those who would claim to be His followers have attempted to countermand or resist it. Some have just written off these demands as impossible to attain ideals; others would like to suggest they only apply to a millennial Kingdom. Even among those who claim to take the Bible seriously as the Word of God attempt to deflect the import of what Jesus exhorted by suggesting He meant it only in terms of “spiritual” and not “secular” or “worldly” opponents, despite the fact that such categories are foreign to Jesus and His context, and the examples all involve very “secular” situations. Resistance is understandable; Jesus is asking us to go against every natural impulse and reaction we have in the face of insult, degradation, and deprivation!

We should not resist Jesus’ exhortation against resisting the evil person. Jesus does not suggest we acquiesce to evil in order to justify it or commend it; as Paul explains, we suffer the indignity because we maintain confidence that God will right all wrongs, and we are called to suffer evil and do good in return (Romans 12:17-21; cf. 1 Peter 2:20-25). Overcoming evil with evil just means evil wins; to truly overcome evil one must suffer it and do good regardless, exemplified by Jesus’ suffering on the cross (Colossians 2:13-15). Thus Christians are not to resist the evil one, whether “spiritual” or “secular”; we must instead suffer the indignity or deprivation. When insulted, we should not insult in return; when pressed into service we should go above and beyond in our service. We should give to those who would deprive us, and be generous, even to those less than “worthy,” and even if we will not be paid back. No one, not even Jesus, said it would be easy; nevertheless, it is part of the difficult road that leads to life, and we can understand why few are those who find it.

We do well to follow Jesus’ example and exhortation and not resist the one who is evil. God will judge the evil in the end; it is for us, in the pattern of our Savior, to suffer the wrong and do good. Such is one of the most difficult things to do; it goes against every natural impulse, and we are constantly tempted to find some reason to justify resisting the evil. When thus tempted, consider ourselves before God. When we insulted God by our words and deeds, did He insult us in turn? When we deprived God of the glory and honor due Him when we selfishly glorified ourselves and our deeds, did He deprive us of life? How many times have we asked of God and He has given freely despite our manifest unworthiness? If we expect God to love us and provide for us despite our own failings and participation in evil, who are we to deny our fellow man the same mercy? May we take the Lord Jesus’ exhortations seriously, cease resisting the one who does evil to us, and glorify God through our suffering for Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry