Prayer

“And when ye pray, ye shall not be as the hypocrites: for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have received their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thine inner chamber, and having shut thy door, pray to thy Father who is in secret, and thy Father who seeth in secret shall recompense thee. And in praying use not vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him” (Matthew 6:5-8).

It should be evident what prayer is all about. Unfortunately, all too often, its primary purpose gets missed.

In the midst of what is popularly called the “Sermon on the Mount” Jesus addressed the three primary religious practices of righteousness in Second Temple Judaism: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting (Matthew 6:1-18). He does so in light of the theme set forth in Matthew 5:17-20: one’s righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees and scribes if they desire to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Therefore, while Jesus is directly addressing His disciples in view of the crowd (cf. Matthew 5:3), He continues to critique the standard of righteousness professed by scribes and Pharisees, elsewhere considered rather hypocritical (Matthew 23:1-36, Luke 11:37-54). Righteousness is not a thing done to be seen by others; if that is one’s motivation, then one gains nothing from his or her heavenly Father (Matthew 6:1).

Jesus began His discussion of prayer by again pointing out the motivation of the “hypocrites”: they stand and pray publicly so as to be seen in both religious venues (the synagogue) and “secular” space (street corners) in order to be seen by men (Matthew 6:5). As with almsgiving, so with prayer: they have their reward; people see them and think they are holy and righteous (Matthew 6:2, 5). Instead Jesus commended going into an “inner chamber,” an inner room, and pray in secret, and the Father who sees in secret would reward them (Matthew 6:6).

Jesus then turned to a concerned rooted in the practices of the pagan nations: the belief that they would be heard by divinity for their battalogesete, literally “stammering,” but here referring to constant repetition of phrases (Matthew 6:7). Jesus assured His disciples and His Jewish audience that God already knows what they would need before they asked (Matthew 6:8).

What are we to conclude from Jesus’ instruction? We do well to note how Jesus brings us back to the original point of prayer: communication with God. When we pray we are making petitions of God; it is not about impressing other people. If in regular conversation with people we prattled on with ceaseless repetition of phrases, those with whom we converse might think us mad. God wants to hear our prayers; God wants to bless us; but God wants us to speak with Him in prayer; God is not some mystic force which requires a certain mantra repeated over and over in order to be summoned.

Is it wrong to pray in public? Jesus does not condemn prayer in the synagogue; prayer will become an important feature of Christian assemblies in the new covenant (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:15-19). Jesus Himself prayed in public at times (John 11:41-42, 12:28). Jesus’ concern is less about location and more about motivation: are we praying so as to impress others or to humbly pour out our souls before God? Granted, much prayer, especially intimate prayer, is best done in the inner chamber; plenty of prayer subjects have no place in the assembly or in the public square. If we pray in the assembly, we do well to focus on how we can build up each other by making thanksgiving, petitions for protection, strength, and need, keeping the focus on God (1 Corinthians 14:15-19, 26). If we pray in public, we do well to pray for the needs of the moment, keeping the focus on God. We easily delude ourselves into justifying praying in such a way as to impress men as opposed to really speaking to God. We must stand firm.

Is it wrong to use the thoughts of others, or to repeat ourselves in prayer? Jesus will go on to provide the Lord’s prayer as a model prayer (Matthew 6:9-13); God gave us the Psalms to this end; the Psalms themselves sometimes feature a repeated phrase (e.g. Psalm 136:1-26). Jesus condemned a pagan practice which did not respect God as god; we must resist any such pagan practices, vainly imagining that if we repeat a phrase over and over again, however substantive, God will listen to us or give us an ecstatic experience because of it. Jesus exhorts us to maintain prayer as a form of effective and meaningful communication with God. God knows what we need; prayer is for our benefit more than His. We can use the words of others, appropriating them for ourselves, and pray in a way that glorifies God; we can pray halfheartedly and absentmindedly with our own thoughts and thus dishonor God. In life we tend to need the same things; our prayers will most likely seem repetitive since life is rather repetitive. We must not sacrifice meaning in repetition; God is not a genie or force we conjure up through some kind of ritual incantation; He is our Creator and the ultimate Power of the universe, and we do well to speak with Him accordingly.

Humans, then and now, are easily tempted to forget about the purpose and meaning of prayer. It is easy to turn prayer into a ritual incantation or a pretense given to manifest holiness; neither practice honors God. Prayer, first and foremost, is communication with our God, the God of the universe, who already knows what we need. We do well to pray in thankfulness and sincerity, meaning what we say, focused on God in prayer, to His glory and honor!

Ethan R. Longhenry

C-Grade Religion

For I desire goodness, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt-offerings (Hosea 6:6).

In school we always had that one class: it featured a subject in which we had little interest, which we perhaps did not understand well, and/or we just did not get into for some reason or another. In that class we would do just enough work to get a passing grade; we would be content with a C as long as we could get out of that course or subject and never have to worry about it again.

This same attitude unfortunately proves pervasive in the world. In so many realms of life people seem more than content to do the least amount possible, to just scrape by, to do just enough to maintain competency or effectiveness but no more. We can consider such things as reflecting C-grade effort: people doing what they do in order to satisfy a requirement, to fulfill a demand, or placate a superior so they can go and do whatever they really want or at least get others off their back.

A C-grade mentality seems to define most of human religion throughout time. It was certainly manifest in Israel. YHWH, through the prophet Hosea, spoke of how He wished to heal His people Israel (Hosea 5:13-6:3). Israel’s and Judah’s love for YHWH was ephemeral, enduring for a moment and then fading away (Hosea 6:4). YHWH wanted goodness, not sacrifice; knowledge of God more than burnt offerings (Hosea 6:6).

The sacrificial cult in Israel proved a magnet for C-grade religion. Israel understood it needed to offer the sacrifices YHWH expected and to observe the festivals He set forth, and they did so. They were then satisfied: they had done their duty. They performed the bare minimum. YHWH should be content; He should leave them alone to do their thing; He should be there for them when they needed Him.

C-grade religion remains extremely popular to this day. People recognize their need for some religion in life, and so they seek opportunities to satisfy the bare minimum necessary to maintain standing before God. The assembly and its acts prove a magnet for C-grade religion. Not a few believe that as long as they assemble on Sunday morning and perform the five acts, all is well. They have done their duty. They performed the bare minimum. God should be content; He should leave them alone to do their thing; He should be there for them when they need Him.

Hosea displayed the fundamental problem with C-grade religion in Hosea 6:6: it treats YHWH like the pagan gods and thereby fundamentally rejects His true nature and purpose. Israel in Hosea’s day was thoroughly paganized; on account of this YHWH was about to bring the Assyrians upon them in judgment (Hosea 4:1-7:16). They believed YHWH was the God of Israel; they also believed that other gods were the gods of the nations, Baal deserved service, and so forth (cf. Hosea 1:2-3:5). People in the ancient Near Eastern and Classical worlds were not expected to love their gods or pattern their lives after them. The gods were supernatural beings who could be benevolent or malevolent; they were to be placated, satisfied, or appealed to, not emulated or necessarily loved. Pagans were content to offer sacrifices to their gods to placate them so they would be left alone to live their lives; if they experienced some distress they expected to be able to provide an extra sacrifice and appeal to cajole the relevant god into helping them. To love any god, or to expect any of the gods to love you, would be a bridge too far.

Yet YHWH expected to have a far different relationship with Israel. YHWH loved Israel and had entered into an exclusive covenant with her (cf. Hosea 1:1-3:5). YHWH set forth instruction to lead Israel in the right way; Israel was to know her God and manifest His character. Such is why YHWH would rather have had mercy and knowledge of Him over sacrifices and burnt offerings: if Israelites really knew who YHWH was, and acted like Him, they would demonstrate the strength of their covenant relationship. To believe that requisite sacrifices were enough to placate YHWH demonstrated a complete lack of real understanding about YHWH and His desires for Israel; Israel acted as if she wanted to go her own way and have YHWH leave her alone (cf. Hosea 6:7-7:16). YHWH would allow Israel to do so; once YHWH left Israel alone, she could not withstand her enemies, and was overcome.

C-grade religion remains fundamentally pagan in nature. C-grade religion presumes that God is to be placated and satisfied by doing certain things, and so a person should do the bare minimum so God will leave him or her alone to do their thing. C-grade religion really is worldliness masquerading as piety: a person recognizes they have spiritual problems, some kind of spiritual wound, and may sincerely want to do something about it, but they are not willing to fully repent and be conformed to the standards of holiness and righteousness. They want to do just enough to get by and no more. They do not really want to leave the world and its desires; they want to find a way to remain as they are but not feel spiritual guilt or pain.

C-grade religion is a fool’s errand, ignorant of the nature of God and His purposes accomplished in Jesus. God does not desire our assembling and service to be placated; God wants us to know Him and be like Him. God sent His Son, the express image of His character, so we could know who He is and what He is like (John 1:1, 14, 18, 14:6). God loves us and desires for us to love Him (John 3:16, 1 John 4:7-21): we have been separated from God by our sin, corrupted in nature, and God wants us to be reconciled to Him so we can learn to be like Him and thus be one with God as God is one within Himself (John 17:20-23, Romans 5:6-21).

If we have truly come to know God as made known in Jesus, we will have no tolerance for C-grade religion. The God Who Is cannot be merely placated and satisfied so as to give people space to go their own way; the God Who Is manifests unity in relationship and desires to have humans made in His image reconciled back to Him in relationship. To know God in Christ is to recognize the imperative of being holy as God is holy, to love God and others as God has loved us (1 Peter 1:13-22). To know God in Christ is to die to self, to be crucified with Christ, so we can turn away from the futile ways of the world and find life indeed in Jesus (Galatians 2:20, Philippians 3:7-14).

Pagans practiced C-grade religion and were condemned (Romans 1:18-32). Israelites practiced C-grade religion, proved to be as pagans, and suffered the fate of pagans (Hosea 6:6ff). C-grade religion remains pagan to this day; it may be tempting, but its end is death. If we wish to find salvation and wholeness we will have to die to self and live to God; we will have to turn aside from the world and our vain imagination and conform to the image of Christ. We will have to know who God is as manifest in Christ and embody His character. Let us find eternal life in Jesus and conform to His image so we may share in relational unity with God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

A God of Peace, Not Confusion

For God is not a God of confusion, but of peace (1 Corinthians 14:33a).

Satan likes to insert a question mark where God has made a period.

From the beginning, God has sought a peaceful relationship and harmony with His creation (Genesis 1:31, 2:25). Ever since, Satan has attempted to challenge what God has established, spreading confusion among mankind (cf. Genesis 3:1-6).

By all accounts, the Evil One has been quite successful. Even if we just investigate into the various groups claiming to follow Christ we find a dizzying array of differing attitudes, doctrines, and practices. Everything from the nature of God to the nature of the relationship between Christians is disputed in some way or another. In such an environment, many despair of ever coming to the knowledge of the truth. It is easy to get discouraged; it is easy to see why many believe that we will always remain in a state of confusion.

But we do well to remember what Paul told the Corinthians. It appears that the Corinthian assemblies were quite the spectacle: different people prophesying at the same time, others speaking in different languages, often with no one to interpret. An outsider could be forgiven for thinking them all quite mad (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:23)! This was not what God intended with the spiritual gifts He provided through the Holy Spirit at this time; the Corinthians needed reminding that God was not a God of confusion, or instability, tumult, or commotion, but a God of peace. He remains the God of the “still, small voice,” and not of “the wind, earthquake, or fire” (1 Kings 19:11-13).

Even though the gifts all came from God, it was up to His servants the Corinthian Christians to use them properly and toward the right ends (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, 14:26). His good gifts could be misdirected toward a confusing commotion that was not of the truth but of worldliness and immaturity. They could use what God had given them to strengthen and build up or to weaken and tear down.

While we do well to keep these things in mind when it comes to our assemblies today, Paul’s reasoning holds true in every aspect of our lives as Christians. God is not a God of instability, confusion, or commotion, but a God of peace, and that remains true outside of the assembly as much as within it.

God is not the author of the confusion of the modern mind, religious or secular, despite what many might claim. God made known His truth through Jesus and His Apostles (Matthew 18:18, John 8:31-32, 14:6). Part of that truth was the confession that many would sow confusion among Christians, promoting the teaching of demons, leading people astray from the truth (1 Timothy 4:1-3, 2 Timothy 4:3-5). This has never been the Lord’s intent, and it never will be. Nevertheless, He does not compel or coerce. He has given us the revelation of His message through Jesus and the Scriptures; it is up to us as to whether we will abide by His message for good or whether we will misdirect His message for selfish, immature, and improper ends.

God communicated His message so that it could be understood and followed (John 8:31-32, Romans 8:29). It is lamentable to see how effective Satan has been at getting people to question and challenge the revelation of God, vaunting their own methods and idols above the ways of the Most High. But God remains a God of peace, not confusion. His message allows us to be reconciled back to Him in sincerity, truth, and love (Romans 5:6-11). Love rejoices with the truth but cannot do so at unrighteousness (1 Corinthians 13:6), and God is love (1 John 4:8). Therefore, let us entrust ourselves to the God of love and peace, finding rest in Him, and not be tossed to and fro by the challenges, questions, and disputations which come from the author of confusion, Satan and his minions. Let us pattern our lives after the God of peace, not the author of confusion and commotion!

Ethan R. Longhenry

I Am in Their Midst

“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).

For generations this verse has been a great comfort to many believers, for it provides confirmation that as they come together, the Lord is in their midst. Sadly, the verse sometimes gets abused and misused, especially when it is taken out of its context and turned into a proof-text. Nevertheless, in context, Jesus’ statement is a poignant reminder about what much of Christianity is all about and the challenge we face in obtaining godliness.

It is not as if God is not present if there are not at least two believers together, for in God we live, move, and have our being, as Paul affirms in Acts 17:27-28. While this message certainly applies to the assembly of believers, and even small groups of believers, we should not assume that somehow the Lord is only in our midst when together. Yes, the church as a whole is the Temple of the Holy Spirit, with Christ as its Head (1 Corinthians 3:9, 16-17, Ephesians 5:22-32); yet this remains true when the church is dispersed and its individual members strive to serve the Lord in their lives as much as when they come together to encourage one another (1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Hebrews 10:24-25).

In order to appreciate Jesus’ emphasis we must turn to the context of this verse. In Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus has made a powerful case for Christians to be reconciled to one another when transgression has separated them. He then confirms the authority that He is granting to the Apostles as a group in Matthew 18:18– what they bind and loose on earth will have been bound and loosed in Heaven. And then, in Matthew 18:19, Jesus declares that when believers pray in accord and agreement, God grants their request.

The substance of these verses is not as disparate as it might seem. All of the issues surround one of the greatest issues in Christianity– the imperative of unity among believers.

This unity certainly includes doctrinal unity but goes far beyond it. In order to be one and to work together, believers must be on the same page about what God has taught and what God wants them to do (1 Corinthians 1:10). Yet, as anyone who has ever worked closely with others in a relationship knows well, just because there is agreement on what is true and what must be done does not necessitate that there will be unity. Unity is something for which believers must work. Unity demands reconciliation when transgressions take place (Matthew 18:15-17). Unity demands agreement on what is true and right so as to put the right into effect (Matthew 18:18).

And, ultimately, God wants to bless Christians in unity, for when Christians are truly unified– in spirit and work as much as belief– they reflect and honor the relational unity present within God. The Scriptures reveal that God is one (Deuteronomy 6:4), yet that there are three Persons in the Godhead– God the Father (John 8:17-18), God the Son (John 1:1, 14), and God the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). God is in three Persons, but God is one, because God is one in essence, nature, substance, will, and purpose. The unity of God is relational unity, and the Lord Jesus wants this relational unity for His followers, as He says in John 17:20-23:

“Neither for these only do I pray, but for them also that believe on me through their word; that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us: that the world may believe that thou didst send me. And the glory which thou hast given me I have given unto them; that they may be one, even as we are one; I in them, and thou in me, that they may be perfected into one; that the world may know that thou didst send me, and lovedst them, even as thou lovedst me.”

God wants believers to be relationally unified, not only with each other, but also with Him. This is why God is so willing to grant the petitions of believers who seek the same advancement of His purposes (Matthew 18:19; yet cf. James 4:3). And this, in a profound way, is how Jesus is in the midst of two or three gathered in His name.

We should not imagine that Jesus is “in the midst of” two or three gathered together in His name in pretense only, smoldering with hostility toward one another. To be gathered together in His name demands that we are truly gathered together– that we confess Him as Lord, seek to do what He says to do, and to do so as one people, one body. The Lord is in our midst as our Head when we come together and work together as His one Body (Ephesians 4:4-6). In short, when we as believers work together as one, we also are one with God, as Jesus intended from the beginning.

Jesus is in our midst when we come together in His name and we act like it– even though we might come from different backgrounds, ethnicities, classes, etc., we ought to come together as one people in the Lord, being one as He and the Father and the Spirit are one, relationally unified with each other and therefore with God also. This takes a lot of effort– humility and reconciliation are demanded, and the spirit of Philippians 2:1-4 must prevail among us. Let us therefore seek to be one as God is one, in belief, doctrine, will, purpose, and thus practice, be one with God, and honor the Lord Jesus Christ in our midst!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Futility in Effort

“Vanity of vanities,” saith the Preacher; “vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit hath man of all his labor wherein he laboreth under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3).

There is nothing quite as futile as shoveling snow.

It does not matter how much snow has fallen. It does not matter how elaborately the mounds of snow are piled up. It may snow again, and then you have to shovel all that snow onto all the previous snow. And then, after a few months or days, it is all gone– melted and drained away.

Then again, mowing the lawn feels a lot like shoveling snow. One goes and mows the lawn and it looks nice and fresh. Then, after a week or a month, depending on location and weather factors, the lawn looks just like it did before mowing. And thus it must be mowed again. And the cycle repeats itself.

When you stop and think about it, pretty much everything seems futile. Clothes are washed only to get dirty again and require washing. Dishes are cleaned only to be dirtied again. Meals are cooked and eaten, and those who ate hunger again.

Sports teams play their seasons. Most teams never make it to the playoffs, and the fans are left believing, “maybe next year.” Some teams make it to the playoffs only to lose then. And then there is the championship game. A winner is crowned. The team and fans exult. And then everyone gets ready for the next year and the next season and the next set of playoffs and the next championship.

There seems to be futility even in the area of spiritual matters. A preacher preaches lessons on one Sunday only to have to work to preach new lessons the next Sunday. The Lord’s Supper is taken one week, and then is taken the next week. The same things are done over and over again, only to need to be done over and over again.

It is very easy to take a step back and ask yourself, “what is the point of it all?” After all, everything seems so pointless! “Why bother?,” one may ask!

The reason that everything seems so “worthless” in this perspective is because we have been raised to expect there to be some great overarching purpose and meaning in life that makes every single event seem important. Ever since the Tower of Babel man has attempted to invest his deeds with great earthly significance (cf. Genesis 11:4). We are raised to go out and “make a difference” in society. We are strengthened and encouraged to believe that our participation in various efforts– employment, volunteerism, politics, etc.– will have lasting value.

Yet, ultimately, the Preacher is correct. All is vanity– futility– emptiness. We may like to think a lot of our efforts have lasting worldly significance, but such is not really true. One of these days everything around us will be thoroughly destroyed by fire and the memory of them will entirely fade (cf. 2 Peter 3:9-12)!

Does this mean that all is lost? Should we all despair of life? Hardly! The problem is not in the activities of snow shoveling, lawn mowing, household chores, and the like, but our perspective on them. We must recognize that everything we do should be means to an end, and not the end in and of itself. We have many functions that are just functions of life, and we should learn to be content with the fact that they will come and go.

As Jesus indicates, there is only one place where moth does not eat and rust does not destroy, and that is Heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). The spiritual realm is the only realm of any permanence. That is why all of our effort, ultimately, must be to the glory of God and to the promotion of His purposes (Matthew 5:13-16, 6:33). The functions of life must be done as a means to the end of glorifying God. Shoveling snow, mowing the lawn, and household chores are the means by which we serve our family members and others, and in so doing, we serve God (Ephesians 5:23-6:4). Doing the best work we can for an employer is as serving the Lord (cf. Ephesians 6:5-9). Our assemblies and the actions therein are accomplished for encouragement and edification, and thus promote God’s purposes (1 Corinthians 14:26, Hebrews 10:24-25).

The Preacher indicates that all things done for their own benefit in their own name are vanity. Paul indicates that all things done “in the Lord” are not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). Let us not allow ourselves to be distracted or to invest our energies in things that lead to no profit, but instead to serve God and promote His purposes on earth!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Man and the Sabbath

And [Jesus] said unto them, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: so that the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28).

Perhaps one of the greatest points of contention between Jesus and the Pharisees and other religious authorities involved the Sabbath. In the Law of Moses, God commanded the Israelites to sanctify the seventh day as a day of rest– the Sabbath day (Exodus 20:8-11). Israelites, their servants, their animals, and sojourners in their midst were to do no labor on that day.

For many years the people profaned the Sabbath and considered it to be just another day of the week (cf. Nehemiah 13:15-22, Amos 8:5). For the most part after the exile, however, the Jews religiously observed the Sabbath day. They would go no more than three-quarters of a mile to go to a synagogue to read from the Law and pray (any further than three-quarters of a mile would be considered “work”).

It would not take long before all kinds of traditions grew up around the Sabbath. The intentions of the traditions were good: they would be a “hedge” around the Sabbath to completely make sure that no one violated it. One could not do anything that remotely looked like it involved labor or effort. Even spitting on the ground was forbidden– the spittle would likely disturb the earth, thus “plowing” it, thus representing an expenditure of effort!

As is evident, the traditions, despite the intentions behind them, became utterly burdensome. One could easily live in fear on the Sabbath day, worried that in some way, somehow, he has violated the Sabbath. By building up that hedge around the Sabbath, the religious authorities drained the life out of the command!

Jesus did not come to break the Law (cf. Matthew 5:17-18, Luke 16:17). Therefore, Jesus does not intend to break the Sabbath, and as far as we can tell from what has been revealed, He never really breaks the Sabbath. He does, however, break the traditions of the Pharisees and other religious authorities regarding the Sabbath, and for that He was condemned by them as a sinner (cf. John 9:16). In the eyes of the Pharisees and the other religious authorities, Jesus did not keep the Sabbath– He healed on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6), and He even allowed His disciples to pluck heads of grain and to eat them on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-26)!

The latter example was quite difficult for the Pharisees: after all, plucking grain heads and crushing them with your hand to get the grain out is certainly “work.” In response, Jesus reminds the Pharisees of how David and his men are the bread of the Presence even though they were not priests (Mark 2:25-26; cf. 1 Samuel 21:1-7). In so doing, Jesus demonstrates that necessity can, in times of distress, lead to a little “wiggle room” in the Law. That “wiggle room” is not there on account of a disobedient or rebellious spirit but on the basis of what Jesus indicates in verse 27: the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). The Son of Man, that is, Jesus, is Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28). The disciples, therefore, are not doing wrong. The Pharisees and their traditions may be offended, but God is not!

This circumstance is quite instructive for us as believers in God today. The parallel to the Jewish Sabbath in the new covenant would be the assemblies of the saints (although it must be stressed that the assemblies of Christians are never explicitly identified with the Sabbath and that the Bible gives us no impression that Sunday is the “new Sabbath”). As God commanded Israel to observe the Sabbath, so God commands Christians to assemble with one another (Hebrews 10:25). God has specified the types of activities that take place in those assemblies: the Lord’s Supper (Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26), a collection for the work of the church (1 Corinthians 16:1-3, 2 Corinthians 8-9), praying (1 Corinthians 14:14-17), singing (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16), Bible study (Acts 2:42), and preaching (Acts 20:7, 2 Timothy 4:1-2).

These things are well and good, but it is also very easy for traditions to be created around these commands. If man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man, then man was not made for the assembly, but the assembly for man. The assembly is designed to lead to the encouragement and edification of the believers (1 Corinthians 14:23, Hebrews 10:24). Yes, this encouragement and edification must be accomplished according to what is written in the Scriptures (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17), but it also means that we must take care so that we do not drain the life out of the assembly like the Pharisees and religious authorities drained the life out of the Sabbath. God established these things for men for their benefit!

The line between truth and tradition is easily blurred. We must never defend tradition as if it is truth. We must never be as casual with truth as we can be with tradition. In the end, we must keep a proper perspective on these matters. Let us assemble with fellow believers to encourage and edify them, and not allow traditions regarding those assemblies to drain the life out of them!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Mercy, not Sacrifice

“But if ye had known what this meaneth, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ ye would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7).

The Pharisees have come out again and have attempted to condemn Jesus and His disciples for violating their strictures regarding the Sabbath. Jesus stands against them because they have entirely missed the purpose of the Sabbath on account of their legalistic perspective.

He charges them with not understanding Samuel’s utterance to Saul in 1 Samuel 15:22, a message also seen in Hosea 6:6, Isaiah 1:11-20, and Jeremiah 6:19-20. This message strikes at the heart of what it means to be a true servant of God versus just going through the motions.

In all of those Old Testament contexts, the people of God were providing the sacrifices which God commanded for them to provide in the Law (cf. Leviticus). Yet God would not accept them. It was not a matter of the technical requirements, as if the sacrifices were themselves offered improperly. God rejected them because the sacrifices were not consistent with the rest of their lives. Sure, they would sacrifice to God, but they were not obeying God otherwise! Saul had brought all kinds of animals to sacrifice for God when God told him to devote Amalek to the ban. The Israelites in the days of Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah brought their requisite offerings yet were also serving idols, committing oppressions and violence in the land, and not following the LORD as commanded.

These Pharisees were doing the same thing. They went to great lengths to understand the Book yet did not actually practice much of what was in it. They devised a series of all kinds of guidelines to keep people from violating the Law– a veritable “fence around the Torah”– and in the process missed its most essential commands (cf. Matthew 23:23-24). Even though they did not commit the exact same sins as their forebears, they fell under the same condemnation!

These are strong warnings for us today. It is good to know what the Bible teaches and to do all one can in order to avoid sin (cf. 2 Peter 3:18, Romans 12:9). On the other hand, Christianity is more than just an intellectual exercise, and its core message discourages any attempt at self-righteousness or sanctimony (James 1:22-25, Luke 18:9-14).

We cannot pride ourselves in having all the details of certain elements of our service to God entirely figured out and then miss the whole of the message. If we assemble with the saints and do all things according to God’s purposes, well and good (Hebrews 10:24-25). But we are to show love, mercy, and compassion to all men at all times, and to serve God as fervently outside of the assembly as we do among the saints (Romans 12:1-2, Galatians 5:22-24). Even if we have great knowledge of the Book, we have no reason to be high on ourselves: we remain profitless servants doing only what is our duty when we learn God’s will and apply it (Luke 17:7-10). In the end, no matter how “righteous” we are, no matter how “mature” in the faith, we must remain humble servants of our Lord, encouraging all men to come to the knowledge of the truth in love, confessing that we are not the judges but our Lord will judge everyone on the last day (Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 7:1-5, James 4:12, Ephesians 2:1-10, 4:11-16).

Let none be deceived: if you assemble with the saints but do not otherwise accomplish God’s will, God will reject your “sacrifice.” If you strive diligently to obey God in the areas of life in which it is convenient, but refuse to repent in the more challenging aspects of the faith, God will reject your “sacrifice.” If you understand God’s Word well and seek to apply it in your life yet you look down on your fellow man and consider yourself better than they, God will reject your “sacrifice.” It is only when we remember our place and completely give ourselves over to the Lord Jesus Christ that our sacrifices will be pleasing to God (Romans 12:1, Hebrews 13:15)! Let us both show mercy and provide sacrifice, and be pleasing to our Lord!

Ethan R. Longhenry