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

In God’s Good Time

And when he had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land for an inheritance, for about four hundred and fifty years: and after these things he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet (Acts 13:19-20).

As Paul begins his exhortation to the Jews and allies in the synagogue of Antioch of Pisidia, he relates some of Israel’s history, emphasizing God’s direction of the people through His leadership and the agents whom He chose, culminating with David and the promise of the Messiah through his lineage (cf. Acts 13:17-23). Having discussed the exodus from Egypt, the wanderings in the wilderness, and the conquest of Canaan, and just before he begins discussing the judges to Samuel, Paul mentions how these events lasted “around four hundred and fifty years” (Acts 13:19 or Acts 13:20, depending on the translation). For that matter, he speaks of the time in the wilderness as forty years (Acts 13:18) and speaks of Saul’s reign for forty years (Acts 13:21). Why does Paul provide these details?

In the Bible, forty years has powerful symbolism: it signifies completeness and fullness. The four hundred and fifty year period is a bit more controversial. Some manuscripts seem to suggest the four hundred and fifty years describes the period between the conquest and Samuel, as the KJV rendering of Acts 13:20 would suggest: “And after that he gave unto them judges about the space of four hundred and fifty years, until Samuel the prophet.” Yet this causes great difficulty, since 1 Kings 6:1 suggests there are 480 years between the Exodus and Solomon’s fourth regnal year; this, and the historical record, do not easily allow for a four hundred and fifty year period for the Judges. There is better evidence for the reading found in the ASV and also in the ESV for Acts 13:20: “All this took about 450 years. And after that he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet”. Four hundred and fifty years for the Exodus through the conquest makes a bit more sense: around four hundred years for the sojourn in Egypt (cf. Genesis 15:13, upward to 430 in Exodus 12:40-41), forty years in the wilderness (Numbers 32:13, Acts 13:18), and thus no more than ten or so years for the conquest described in Joshua 1:1-12:24. Thus it took between 441 and 490 years; “around four hundred and fifty” makes the point well.

But this still does not get to the heart of the matter: why all the numbers? What is Paul trying to communicate?

It is not as if these numbers are new to the Jewish people who have gathered at the synagogue; in fact, if they were new, they would have been detrimental to Paul’s purposes. If the numbers were not familiar to them, they would likely begin mentally questioning the legitimacy of those numbers and therefore get distracted from Paul’s message and what he is really trying to communicate. The Israelites know their story and they know how long it took for the events described to take place. And that is precisely Paul’s point.

When Paul begins his message by speaking about “our fathers” (Acts 13:17), he is not just talking about the Israelites in Egypt, but the Patriarchs who came beforehand. The one to whom all Israelites looked was Abraham and the promises God made to him: he would become the father of many nations, whose offspring would be numerous and inherit the land of Canaan (Genesis 17:4-8). God reiterated these promises to Isaac (Genesis 26:3-5) and Jacob (Genesis 35:10-13) in turn. It would take about four hundred and fifty years, but God would fulfill these promises. Abraham had become the father of the Edomites, Israelites, and many of the tribes of the Arabs; Israel had grown numerous; God was the God of Israel, and had given the land of Canaan to them as an inheritance. It had just been done in God’s good time.

Paul reminds his audience of God’s faithfulness to His promises over time in order for them to accept how God has again proven faithful to His promises over time: of David’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as He had promised (Acts 13:23)! It had taken about a thousand years from the original promise to David (a time-frame which Paul leaves unstated), and actually around four hundred and fifty years from the end of the prophetic period (Malachi 4:5-6). God fulfilled His promise: the throne of David was given to his Offspring forever; the rule of the Messiah had begun; Israel’s hope was satisfied in Jesus. It had just been done in God’s good time.

Forty years; four hundred and fifty years; a thousand years: these are large chunks of time in the eyes of mankind. These days we barely have the patience to wait a few seconds for our technological devices to work! We expect things to be done already; the prospect of having to wait for anything is unpleasant and even provides reason for doubt. We expect God and everyone else to do things according to our time-frame and time scale.

But God has never acted on man’s time scale; time is immaterial to Him (cf. 2 Peter 3:8). He acts in His good time. Things take place within or according to His will, even if we do not understand why or how (cf. Isaiah 55:8-9).

It is good and right for us to seek to align our will to God’s; we do well when we seek to discover what God is doing around us and begin participating in that work (Romans 8:29, Ephesians 3:20-21). But we need to be careful about our interpretation of our actions and our perception of God’s providence and will. We are liable to make snap and hasty judgments; when things do not pan out as we imagine they should, we too easily want to give up or declare that it is all to no avail.

Such is only true according to our time scale. How many times have we been humbled and astounded to see God’s powerful action accomplished in His good time? Sometimes it takes years for fruit to start appearing. Sometimes it takes decades for people to come to an understanding of the truth. Often times we find ourselves under God’s discipline when we thought we were entering His joy, or perhaps vice versa. The list goes on and on.

In all of these things, short-sighted reflection proves less faithful and rather faithless compared to the long-term impact. Such is why we do well to always remember how God works in His good time, and that often takes far longer than we can ever imagine. God is faithful; He makes good on His promises, even if it takes longer than we would like. Let us entrust ourselves to God and seek to glorify Him in His good time!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus in Acts

“But ye shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit is come upon you: and ye shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

In the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus is physically present with the Apostles for all of eleven verses (Acts 1:1-11). Within those eleven verses, He makes two statements to them: Acts 1:4b-5 and Acts 1:7-8. After this there will be twenty-seven and a half chapters full of action featuring Peter and Paul in Jerusalem, Judea, Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome. No wonder we call it the Acts of the Apostles!

It is true that we see the Apostles working diligently in the book of Acts. But is what is happening throughout Acts really just because of the Apostles?

To believe that would be to say that twelve ignorant Galileans, mostly fishermen with a tax-collector and a political revolutionary thrown in, along with a noted Pharisee and a Cypriot Levite, with a few other characters, took the Roman world by storm, all by their own powers of persuasion and strength? That would be a fantastic miracle indeed!

While it is true that Jesus’ direct physical presence is rarely evident after Acts 1:11, the declaration of Acts 1:8 is quite important to the story. It is often noted that Acts 1:8 presents the paradigm and structure for the rest of the book of Acts: the witness regarding Christ in Jerusalem (Acts 2-7), in Judea and Samaria (Acts 8-12), and to the end of the earth (Acts 13-28). This is well and good, but who is the One who makes this declaration? It is Jesus. Jesus is the One who is directing this enterprise. Yes, the Apostles are the ones providing the testimony, but they are testifying regarding what was done by Jesus of Nazareth!

This emphasis is evident throughout the book. When it comes to appointing someone for Judas’ place, the eleven turn to Jesus (Acts 1:23-26). Peter’s first sermon is all about what God has done through Jesus of Nazareth in His resurrection and now Lordship (Acts 2:22-26). When the lame man is healed, Peter makes it evident that it is not any power within himself, but the power in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, that made him strong (Acts 3:11-16). Time and time again the story is all about Jesus: what He did, His death and resurrection, and His current authority over heaven and earth, as the Scriptures testified to Him.

Therefore, it is evident that Jesus is there throughout the book of Acts, even if He is not physically present. The Holy Spirit is empowering the work of the Apostles, and who is empowering the Apostles with the Spirit but God in Christ (Acts 1:4-8)? Everything the Apostles do is for the glory of God in Christ.

Some people find it difficult to reconcile the Gospels with the book of Acts; after all, what Jesus sets forth in the Gospels is not always what is seen in Acts, and vice versa. But we do well to remember Acts 1:1-11. After Acts 1:11, His Lordship is realized; the message of His life, death, resurrection, and lordship can now go out to Israel and then all the nations, and the Kingdom of which He spoke could now be realized. It is not as if Jesus stops and the Apostles somehow take over in the book of Acts; without Jesus and His Lordship, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles would have no direction or idea of how to proceed. We can be certain, based on the question of the Apostles in Acts 1:6, that if all of this were up to them, the result would be much different than what actually took place. They would not have thought on their own to overwhelm the world through the preaching of Jesus crucified and raised, and they certainly would not have taken that message to the uncircumcised Gentiles!

The Acts of the Apostles are really the Acts of Jesus accomplished through His Apostles by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is there throughout, and Jesus’ power, lordship, and work do not end with Acts 28. He is still Lord; He still should be guiding and directing our lives through the Holy Spirit and His message. Let us honor Christ as Lord, and follow Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Suffering for the Name

And to [Gamaliel] [the Sanhedrin] agreed: and when they had called the apostles unto them, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. They therefore departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the Name (Acts 5:40-41).

The pattern was repeating itself yet again.

As it happened during Jesus’ life, so it was happening after His death and resurrection: the proclamation of salvation and life in His name went forth, people heard it gladly, and it earned the jealousy and ire of the Jewish religious authorities. Jesus was delivered into their hands, and they had Him executed (Luke 22:47-23:49). Peter and John had previously been arrested for preaching and teaching in the Temple (Acts 4:1-22); now, on account of the continued popularity of the message of Jesus, all the Apostles are imprisoned (Acts 5:17-19). An angel sets them free and they go preach to the people in the Temple (Acts 5:20-25), but the Apostles do eventually stand before the council– the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:26-39). Wise Gamaliel dissuaded the Sanhedrin from killing them, but that did not stop the Sanhedrin from having the Apostles beaten (Acts 5:40). The call made for them to stop preaching Jesus was in vain; they would soon again be proclaiming the message that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ of Israel (Acts 5:42).

How would we have felt had we been standing there with the Apostles? Ancient beatings were not pleasant– perhaps up to thirty-nine lashings on the back (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:24). Today such behavior would be considered “cruel and unusual punishment”; in ancient times, it was probably understood as cruel, but it was all too usual. The thought today makes us cringe. But what would we have done had we been compelled to experience such abuse?

It would be easy to be angry; we might want some form of retribution. The carnal aspect of us would want to see them beaten in a similar way. It would be tempting to take solace in the idea that they would experience such in the hereafter, if not sooner.

It would also be easy to just deal with the pain and be quiet. Sure, we might not want to break out in anger, but we would not necessarily be cheerful about it either. We would probably want to go home, nurse the wounds, perhaps complain and whine about the pain and the humiliation a little bit, and then move on with our lives.

But how many of us would react as the Apostles reacted– rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor because of the Name of Christ (Acts 5:41)?

Dishonor is not something most of us want to experience. If we have to suffer, then we will suffer, but we will hardly glory in it. The last thing most of us would do is think about suffering in terms of being “worthy” to suffer– if anything, we would equate “worthiness” with a lack of suffering!

Yet the attitude of the Apostles is precisely why their message was turning the world upside down. They had understood not just what Jesus’ death and resurrection meant for the world; they also understood what life should be like because of how Jesus lived. They experienced Jesus’ humiliation, in a way, having had their feet washed by Him (John 13:1-17). They saw through His life and death how the greatest among them was their Servant, since Jesus had come not to be served but to serve and to be the ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28). To be humiliated and to be degraded was to be like Jesus; to suffer unjustly was to follow in the path of Christ (cf. 1 Peter 2:18-25). Even though the Apostles would agree that the beating was unpleasant, they would point to Jesus’ own scourging so that they– as well as us– could be healed from our transgressions (cf. Mark 15:15, 1 Peter 2:24). Suffering with Christ was the means by which they would be glorified with Christ (Romans 8:17); therefore, to be counted worthy to suffer for the Name means that they are counted worthy to obtain glory in salvation.

This is completely foreign to the world; nevertheless, in light of Jesus and the life He lived, it makes some sense. In Christ we can glory in degradation and humiliation; in Christ we can rejoice that we are counted worthy to suffer for His name.

We will suffer; this much is assured (Acts 14:22, 2 Timothy 3:12). How far we have grown in Christ and matured in our faith will be evidenced in our reaction to that suffering. Will we get angry, harbor resentment, and demand retribution, as people of the world would? Will we instead decide to turn inward, nurse the wound, and act as Stoics regarding the whole situation? Or will we rejoice in that we have been counted worthy of suffering for the Name of Jesus, assuming that our suffering is for that cause, and glorify God that we are joining with Christ in humiliation and suffering? Let us grow and mature in our faith and rejoice in God no matter what circumstances may befall us!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Bereans

And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Beroea: who when they were come thither went into the synagogue of the Jews. Now these were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of the mind, examining the Scriptures daily, whether these things were so. Many of them therefore believed; also of the Greek women of honorable estate, and of men, not a few (Acts 17:10-12).

The Bereans have received a lot of “press” on the basis of the six verses that mention them in Acts 17:10-15. A few cities have been named after the town; not a few religious groups use “Berean” as the descriptor for various congregations.

They have earned their favorable views for a good reason– as Luke says, they were “more noble” than the Jews of Thessalonica, because they “received the word with all readiness of the mind, examining the Scriptures daily, whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). On account of this attitude, many believed in the Gospel message; even some of the Greek women– many of wealth– and men came to the knowledge of the truth and were saved (Acts 17:12). On account of their example, a “Berean” is one who has a love for what is true, willing to investigate Scripture to determine what is truly accurate according to their message. A “Berean” is one not to be swayed by public opinion or received tradition if they are found at variance with truth. There is a nobility of mind among “Bereans” that is most exemplary and worthy of emulation.

The exemplary nature of the example of the Bereans is both a warning and a sober reminder for us. In the ideal world, the Bereans would not be notable– they would just be doing what everyone automatically should be doing. Everyone should be willing to question their presuppositions and their received understanding of things in light of truth. Everyone should be willing to give the Gospel message a fair hearing. When the Gospel message is given a fair hearing, uncolored by prejudice against the message or the messenger, its truth is hard to escape and easy to obey, as the Bereans demonstrate. The problem is, of course, that we do not live in an ideal world. Luke takes the time to tell us of the example of the Bereans because Paul’s reception there was utterly unlike the reception he received in most synagogues. Yes, it is true that some of the Jews in any given synagogue would come to the understanding of the truth and be saved, but more often than not, the Jews would become fierce opponents of Paul and his message (cf. Acts 13, 14, 17, 20, etc.). The Bereans were not automatically wedded to their traditions– they were willing to hear the word Paul preached, to investigate the Scriptures to see if the message he presented was consistent with what had been revealed, and were willing to change their ways because of that message. That is why Luke tells us– it is a wonderful abnormality, but an abnormality nevertheless. Most of the Jews and Greeks did not prove to be as noble minded as the Bereans.

The same is true today, and it is a sword that cuts two ways. We should not be surprised when we proclaim the Gospel and most people to whom we speak do not share the Bereans’ mindset. The power of cultural skepticism and suspicion of inherited authority still runs deep in American culture, and despite the fact that true Christianity has been rarely lived and properly applied, there is a general feeling that Christianity has been tried and found wanting. Many others will provide lip service to the message of Christianity, but when it comes to the nitty gritty of applying the lessons of Christ to life, prove far less enthusiastic about the whole matter. There is a great lack of the Berean mindset in our culture; very few prove willing and able to give the message a fair hearing, to be willing to question every assumption and every form of skepticism, and to be willing to change their ways when convicted that their views and ways are at variance with the truth. In fact, the very idea that there is something out there that can be called “the truth” is a hotly contested subject in our day!

Yet this is not just true of those who are “out there” in the world. Do you think that the Jews of Thessalonica would have agreed with Luke’s analysis? Of course not! They would have protested strongly. They would have attempted to justify their opposition to Paul and the Gospel which he taught in terms of holding firm to the truths taught by Moses and handed down by their elders ever since. They most likely believed themselves to be noble and holding firm to what is true.

This is not to challenge or dispute Luke’s analysis, for Luke has spoken truly. It is to remind us that, if asked, most everyone would declare that they have the Bereans’ mindset. Everyone thinks they are being noble, objective, and striving to hold firm to truth. But merely declaring oneself to be akin to the Bereans– or to describe one’s congregation as Berean– does not automatically make it so. Even among religious people, the true Berean mindset is depressingly rare. There are still plenty who are wedded to inherited tradition, cultural norms, or some form of experiential lesson that are at variance with truth. A spirit of questioning and investigation is rarely appreciated and, sadly, too often squelched or thrust out.

Truth has no fear of investigation; the Gospel message has always welcomed its detractors to try to show its error, and those detractors have failed for two millennia. Those who are noble minded will maintain the Scriptures as the anchor of truth and will compare any other message to it. Whatever is true according to Scripture they will embrace and promote; whatever is inconsistent with that message will be rejected. The time is well nigh for us all to have the mindset of the Bereans, not in pretense or name, but in deed and truth. Let us be noble as the Bereans, searching the Scriptures to see what is so, and follow after Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Call

But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many of this man, how much evil he did to thy saints at Jerusalem: and here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call upon thy name” (Acts 9:13-14).

If anyone had the right to do a double-take after hearing from the Lord Jesus, it was Ananias in this circumstance.

Saul of Tarsus had distinguished himself in his opposition to Christianity. He approved of Stephen’s stoning (Acts 7:58-8:1). Saul was “ravaging” the church, imprisoning many, and now headed to Damascus with authority to imprison Christians and bring them back down to Jerusalem (Acts 8:3, 9:1-2).

Ananias has heard about all of this. He has heard about what Saul has done in Jerusalem. He is quite aware of Saul’s journey and his intentions.

And now the Lord Jesus tells him to go to Straight Street and find Saul since the latter has been told that a man named Ananias will help him receive his sight again (Acts 9:10-12).

Can the Lord be serious? Here is the greatest enemy of Christianity! A Christian being sent right into the jaws of danger! Would not Ananias be crazy for going to visit Saul?

Yet Ananias trusts the Lord. Whatever his personal apprehensions, fears, and concerns, he does what the Lord commands him, speaks with Saul, baptizes him, and represents the first Christian to encourage Paul the Apostle in his life’s work (Acts 9:15-19, 22:12-16).

But what would have happened had Ananias said no to the Lord? What if Ananias refused to believe that a guy like Saul could change? What if Ananias did not take courage and expose himself to some risk for the cause of Christ by going to Straight Street? What if every Christian in Damascus and Jerusalem felt the same way?

It is true that Saul received a benefit that most people do not receive. It is also sadly true that many opponents of the faith do not change in their opposition. Nevertheless, God desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). He expects believers to take His message out into the world, cast the seed of the Word of God on all soils, letting the Word work on the hearer rather than judging whether such a one will respond to the message (cf. Matthew 13:3-8, 18-23, 28:18-20, 1 Corinthians 3:5-7).

There are times when the people whom we think will obey the Gospel will not; there are times when opponents of the faith repent and convert. No conversion can happen, however, if believers have already written people off because of their past antagonism toward the faith or because “those types of people” are perceived to “not be interested” in Christianity.

Just as it was not Ananias’ job to judge whether Saul ought to hear the message of Christ or not, and it was not Ananias’ job to judge whether the Lord should show him mercy or not, so it is with us and those with whom we come into contact. It is not for us to automatically judge anyone worthy or unworthy of the Gospel. It is for us to promote the message of Christ and let people decide for themselves. We might just find that we will be doing more double-takes as we see the types of people who prove willing to become obedient to the Lord’s message. Who knows whether we will be able to encourage the next great promoter of the Christian faith? We can only be sure that we will not if we never take the message out. Let us therefore promote the Gospel among everyone!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Felix

But after certain days, Felix came with Drusilla, his wife, who was a Jewess, and sent for Paul, and heard him concerning the faith in Christ Jesus. And as he reasoned of righteousness, and self-control, and the judgment to come, Felix was terrified, and answered, “Go thy way for this time; and when I have a convenient season, I will call thee unto me” (Acts 24:24-25).

His name, in Latin, meant “happy” or “fortunate.” Yet, as procurator of Judea, Marcus Antonius Felix did not have the luckiest or most fortunate job.

But he was a “fortunate” freedman, having been given a position of power thanks to his connections to the Emperor Claudius’ house. Historians attest to Felix’s cruel, licentious, and greedy behavior (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 20.7, Tacitus, Annals, 12.54). That he expected some money as a bribe to release Paul is not terribly surprising (Acts 24:26); he was known for taking bribes, leading to no little crime in Judea, and upon his dismissal, was accused of plundering the city of Caesarea.

He also apparently had a thing for women named Drusilla. His first wife was Drusilla of Mauretania, descended from Mauretanian royalty and a second cousin to Claudius himself. But then, in Judea, he saw the Drusilla mentioned in Acts 24:24, the daughter of Herod Agrippa I, former king of Judea (cf. Acts 12:20-23), and fell madly in love with her on account of her beauty (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20.7.2; Histories, 5.9). She was married to the King of Emesa, but Felix hired a man to persuade her to leave her husband and to marry Felix. Thus Felix divorced the first Drusilla for the second, and Drusilla the Jewess likewise divorced her husband.

This is the Felix to whom Paul is entrusted as a prisoner after his life was threatened in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 23). Felix, for his part, had a “more exact knowledge” concerning Christianity, and wanting neither to offend the Jews nor to act overly unjustly to Paul, chose rather to defer the case rather than to make a decision during the “trial” (Acts 24:1-22). Nevertheless, Felix treated Paul well, giving order to the centurion in charge of him to allow him some liberty and to allow his friends to come and minister to him (Acts 24:23).

Furthermore, despite his sinful ways, Felix is interested in learning more about Christianity– “the faith in Christ Jesus.” He and Drusilla listen to Paul. And then Paul starts talking about righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come (Acts 24:24-25). Felix is terrified by this, and rightly so. He is known as an extortioner, cruel, and adulterous in his behavior. His conduct in life does not conform to the standard of righteousness, he does not exhibit much self-control, and an impending day of judgment would not be pretty for him.

In reality, such is the terror that each and every person should feel when they first learn about the Gospel message. When people see that their conduct is not consistent with God’s holy standard, and that a day of judgment awaits, there is good reason to be afraid (Matthew 10:28, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, 1 Peter 1:17)! That fear should lead to repentance– to renounce the life that led to such a terrible condition, to humbly accept the great grace and mercy of God manifest through Christ, and to serve Him (cf. Ephesians 2:1-18, Titus 3:3-8).

Yet in Felix and Drusilla this terror did not lead to repentance. It was easier to push off the message and the messenger, and so they did, telling Paul that he would call upon him at a more convenient time (Acts 24:25).

As far as we can tell, that moment never really came. Yes, Felix often called for Paul and spoke with him, but more to find a way to get money out of the situation than to really learn of righteousness (Acts 24:26). Two years later, in 58, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus as procurator (Acts 24:27). Despite having an excellent opportunity to pardon Paul, he did not do so– as a favor to the Jews, he left Paul in prison, “passing the buck” to Festus (Acts 24:27).

Drusilla and her son with Felix are reported to have died in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79; Felix is reported to have married his third wife afterward. We otherwise know nothing about them but have little confidence that they ever became obedient to the message they heard from Paul.

Felix’s example serves as a warning for people throughout time. If there were someone whom we would imagine as hard-hearted, it would likely be Felix, but such was not really so. Despite being covetous, licentious, and cruel, he listened to what Paul had to say. He knew, deep inside, that what he was doing was wrong, and the prospect of being called into account for it by God on the Judgment day was a strong enough possibility in his mind that it led to terror. But that feeling of terror was not sufficient to lead to repentance. Perhaps Felix was concerned about how conversion to Christianity would sit with either his fellow Romans or with the Jews or both. He likely did not want to imagine himself without Drusilla #2 or again with Drusilla #1, if that remained possible. Perhaps he just did not want to give up his lifestyle. Regardless, in that critical moment of decision, Felix did not repent; he ran. He sent Paul away, figuratively attempting to escape from the truth and power of the message. Maybe he imagined that there would be a “more convenient day” to hear Paul and to change his ways. Yet it is just as likely that he never imagined that there would be such a day coming– it was just a way of ending the conversation without having to change.

There are likely some people who have so blinded themselves to the truth and have been so hardened by their sins that they do not think that they are doing anything wrong and who truly repudiate everything about the message of Christ. Yet such people are in the minority. Most people who sin know, if nothing else deep down, that they are doing things they should not be doing. The message of righteousness and self-control inherent in the Gospel exposes this shame to the light, and the confirmation of the day of Judgment, made certain by the resurrection of Jesus (cf. Acts 17:30-31), guarantees that justice will be served. Internal terror, the correct and visceral response to these truths, manifests itself.

Our future destiny is entirely dependent on how we respond to that internal terror. If, on seeing our condition, we know that we must change our ways and serve the Risen Lord Jesus, we have the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:3-8). But if we make any other decision– to assault the integrity of the message or messenger in an attempt to rationalize our behavior, to excuse our behavior in some other way, or simply to find a way to physically and/or spiritually “get away” from the message and the messenger, and refuse to repent, then our condition will be very grave– separated eternally from the Creator in torment (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9).

Felix chose the latter. The vainly imagined “more convenient day” never came, as it never comes for the majority of people who are so minded. We can push men off, but the standards of righteousness, self-control, and the imminence of the day of Judgment are fixed and certain. Let us resolve to serve God and not to run away!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus’ Brothers

For even his brethren did not believe on him (John 7:5).

For many of us, the one refuge we can count on in life is family. Even if everyone else is against us and berates us, we like to think that our family members will still accept us and believe in us.

Yet, on the other hand, our family tends to know us all too well. They watched us grow up and many have rather “incriminating” stories about our pasts. Sometimes family members refuse to see any growth or change in us; in their eyes we are still quite young, quite inexperienced, or quite mischievous, even if we have grown up and have learned our lessons.

Jesus had no ordinary beginning, and while we are not given much information about His early years, we have little doubt that they were not very ordinary, either. Contrary to certain religious traditions, it does not seem as if the household comprised only of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. We are told that He has brothers and sisters– James, Joseph (or Joses), Simon, and Judas (cf. Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3).

We do not know much about them. It seems as if they are not terribly much younger than Jesus, since they are old enough to have formed beliefs, and they are known in the community of Nazareth. We can imagine, however, what it might have been like to be the younger brothers of Jesus– the One who always seemed a bit different, One with whom they grew up, but now the One who is making rather grandiose claims about Himself and is engaging in work that is well beyond your average Galilean carpenter!

While there is much we do not know, there is one thing that the Gospels make certain– His brothers do not believe in His claims regarding Himself. In Mark 3:21, Mark informs us that “they who were of” Jesus went to Capernaum to seize Jesus because, in their estimation, He was out of His mind. In John 7:3-5, His brothers are all but taunting Him, challenging Him to go up to Jerusalem and prove to be who He claims to be, for they did not believe in Him. Jesus’ responds in ways likely not much less acerbic, declaring that it is not yet His time, and that while the world cannot hate them, it does hate Him (John 7:6-8). Sibling rivalry indeed!

At first, this might seem incredible to us, and it may lead to some doubt. Jesus suffered temptation, and yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15); wouldn’t His brothers have noticed this in His first thirty-four or so years? Did they not understand how their mother had conceived Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit, and did they not hear about all of the signs that accompanied His birth (Matthew 1-2, Luke 1-2)? How could they not believe in Him?

Yet, when we think about it, we can make some sense of it. There is a reason why it is said that familiarity breeds contempt. With the exception of Jesus at the Temple when He was 12, we do not get the impression that Jesus was active in ministration until His baptism and temptation (cf. Matthew 3-4). If you know Jesus as your older brother who lives in Nazareth of Galilee and who works as a carpenter, perhaps even working together with you in that trade, and then all of a sudden He claims to be the Son of God, abandons the trade for at least a portion of the year, gathers twelve fishermen, zealous, tax collectors, and others around Him, and starts proclaiming this message of the impending Kingdom of God, we can see why they would think Him a little crazy. This is Jesus, from the backwaters of Galilee, the carpenter. Who does He think He is? Why is He doing things that very likely will get Him into trouble, and by extension, His mother and brothers? We can see why Jesus spoke as He did in Matthew 13:57/Mark 6:4: “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household”!

So Jesus’ brothers did not believe in Him. That was probably not a good testimony for Him, but we get no indication that He compelled or coerced them into believing. They had as much of a chance to share with Him in the work of God as everyone else did (cf. Matthew 12:49-50).

Jesus’ brothers were good Jews, however, and they would have been in Jerusalem for the Passover in that fateful year when their elder Brother would be crucified. And then we learn something extraordinary.

[The eleven] with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers (Acts 1:14).

Wait a second! Here Jesus’ brothers are listed as in prayer with their mother, the other women, and the eleven disciples. Something clearly happened. But what?

The Gospels do not provide direct testimony, but later on, Paul mentions that when Jesus was raised from the dead, He appeared to over five hundred brethren, and then to James (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-7). James here is the same James who is listed as Jesus’ brother in Matthew 13:55!

How all of this happened is not detailed precisely. It is entirely possible that Jesus’ brothers came around at some point during His ministry, but there’s no evidence of such. They would have seen Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, and we know that at least James, and likely the rest of His brothers, saw Jesus in the resurrection.

And that is the power of the resurrection– unbelievers are often made believers! James will become a prominent elder in the Jerusalem church and the author of the letter bearing his name; according to Josephus, he is martyred at the hands of the Jews (Acts 15:13, 21:18; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20.9). Judas, otherwise known as Jude, is responsible for the letter bearing his name. Both of them refer to themselves as servants of the Lord Jesus Christ (James 1:1, Jude 1:1). Can you imagine? Those who once did not even believe in the claims of their older Brother, who thought Him crazy, now call Him Lord and are willing to be known as slaves of their elder Brother!

Jesus is Lord, and the proof is in the resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection was the difference that changed recalcitrant brothers into willing servants. Has Jesus’ resurrection changed your life? Let us trust Him as Lord and do His will!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Existing in God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

A New Thing

Now all the Athenians and the strangers sojourning there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell or to hear some new thing (Acts 17:21).

New! Improved! Updated! Revised!

It is no secret that our society praises that which is new. It is exciting and different. Companies devote a good part of their resources to research and development to come up with new or improved products. Marketers are always trying to find ways to make things seem new or fresh.

But why are so many resources devoted to making things seem new? If we twenty-first century Americans prized the old and reliable and put emphasis on those qualities, then there is little doubt that the companies and marketers would follow suit. Yet society at large does not value “old and reliable.” The belief exists that there is constant progress, and to look to the past or to keep something the same for a long period of time, it is believed, leads to stagnation and obsolescence. And no one– young or old– wants to be considered obsolete!

Have we ever stopped to think why that is? In reality, it is a major change in comparison to what was believed in the past, as Luke obliquely indicates in Acts 17:21.

It is very easy to pass over Luke’s commentary in Acts 17:21. He is telling the story of how Paul goes to Athens and begins promoting the Gospel in the marketplace there and how many of the philosophers and townspeople were interested in hearing more about this Jesus. Luke is explaining for us why the Athenians seem to be so eager to learn. It is not because of some noble impulse, as if they knew they were ignorant of the One True God and wanted to learn of Him to serve Him. No– they wanted to learn more because it was something new and different. Paul’s message was the “flavor of the week.” Therefore, it should not surprise us that many mocked, some wanted more information, and only a very few believed (cf. Acts 17:32-34). They only wanted to hear something new.

While it may not be immediately apparent to the modern reader, Luke is in fact censuring the Athenians. Today many would find this life of ease and luxury, discussing the newest theories in science or philosophy, appealing. Yet, in the Greek language, the word for “new,” when used in a context like this, often refers to something dangerous or suspicious. In earlier Greek literature, when people begged their gods to not bring disaster or calamity upon them, they asked that the gods would not bring down to them “anything new.”

The Greeks– along with many other ancient cultures, and most people until rather recently– looked at the world in an entirely different way from ourselves. In their estimation, the best time for humanity– the “golden age”– was in the distant past, and as time wore on, people became less strong and less noble. Their own day was dim in comparison. That which was old was proven, tested, and reliable. That which was new was looked upon suspiciously, for it was unproven, untested, and perhaps unreliable. Thus the early Christians felt that they needed to show the age of their belief system by appealing to the long history of Israel– the Greeks and Romans were naturally suspicious of a religion that was claimed to have begun in the days of Tiberius Caesar!

The Athenians, therefore, are considered strange. They just sit around and talk about the “new things,” that which is suspicious, untested, and unproven.

How attitudes have changed! Today the Athenian attitude is in the majority, and those who go back to what is old, tested, proven, and reliable are considered antiquated and quaint!

In reality, age, on its own, is not necessarily a good standard. There are plenty of newly developed technologies and ideas that are good. There are plenty of old attitudes and functions that are best relegated to the dustbin of history. Nevertheless, we must remember in our youth- and new-loving society that many ideas and functions of the past can still have value today, and just because something can be believed or done does not mean that it should be believed or done. That which is new may have unforeseen consequences and may prove quite unreliable!

The “new” message that Paul had for the Athenians is now considered “old.” In the eyes of many, it is antiquated and obsolete. Nevertheless, the Gospel has held firm for two thousand years and has been tested, proven, and remains reliable (Hebrews 11:6, 13:8). Let us promote the “old” Gospel of Christ in a “new” world, and put it into practice in our lives!

Ethan R. Longhenry