Laying Down Our Lives

Hereby know we love, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren (1 John 3:16).

“I would die for you.”

Such a line makes for a very touching moment in a romantic movie, or an inspiring one if it involved a political leader fighting a worthy cause. It would seem quite strange if used toward one who was evil or vile, an enemy, or someone we otherwise have reasons to dislike.

And yet Jesus laid down His life for us (1 John 3:16); He gave of Himself for those who did evil, who did not understand His work and purpose, and who acted against God and His purposes (Romans 5:6-11).

John is writing to exhort Christians to love one another (1 John 3:11-4:21). Cain is offered up as an example of one who hated his brother: his brother’s works were righteous, and his were not, and in jealousy Cain killed him (1 John 3:11-12; cf. Genesis 4:1-8). For this reason Christians who do what is right should not be surprised when the world which loves the wrong hates them; Christians can know they have passed out of death to life based on their love for one another (1 John 3:13-14). Those who do not love abide in death; whoever hates his brother is a murderer, not having eternal life in them, because they have no concern for the welfare of their brother (1 John 3:15). And so John points to Jesus as the means by which we know love: He laid down His life for us, and therefore we as Christians should lay down our lives for one another (1 John 3:16). He will go on to critique his fellow Christians: if a Christian has the world’s goods, and sees his or her fellow Christian going without, and yet shuts up his or her heart and compassion from them, how can they say they really love their brother (1 John 3:17)? Christian love should be in deed and truth, not with mere words (1 John 3:18).

No doubt early Christians were as convinced as Christians are today regarding love for one another. We all know we are supposed to love one another, right? But do we really and actually love one another, or do we just profess it? That is why John writes as he does in 1 John 3:11-18. Christians are inspired by the lofty ideals of love; they, no doubt, are willing to lay down their lives for one another as Jesus laid down His life for us. But in the very practical matter of seeing a brother in need, then what? It can be easy to excuse or justify why some have an abundance and others have nothing, and nothing is done to assist. That, John emphasizes, is not love; that’s hatred, of the world and Cain and the Evil One. If you are so willing to lay down your life for one another, why not start by providing something for a fellow Christian in need?

Nevertheless 1 John 3:16 proves almost as famous, and just as easily taken out of its context and proof-texted, as John 3:16. It provides a powerful message and a good reminder: as Jesus laid down His life for us and thus manifested His love toward us, we should prove willing to do the same for one another (cf. Matthew 20:25-28). But what does that mean? What did it look like for Jesus to lay down His life for others?

John makes it clear why Jesus laid down His life for His people: to be the propitiation for their sins (1 John 4:10). He loved them; He did not want them to experience hellfire; He wished to reconcile them with Himself and their God (John 13:1-3, 17:20-23, Romans 5:6-11). He suffered the evil; He suffered violence; and in suffering the evil and violence He overcame sin and death (Romans 8:1-8, Colossians 2:15). Jesus was a pure and holy sacrifice; He opened not his mouth, and proved to be the Suffering Servant in every respect (Isaiah 42:13-53:12, 1 Peter 2:18-25). His death was as much for those who crucified Him as those who were devoted to Him (Luke 23:34).

Christians following the Lord Jesus are not sinless, and yet even their sacrifices, up to and including death, have value and standing before God. Paul considered the suffering he experienced as making up for what was lacking in the afflictions of the church; his tribulations were for the glory of those who believed (Ephesians 3:13, Colossians 1:24). Thus, in some way, Christians can suffer for one another; we can imagine that within the early church some Christians suffered mightily so that others might be spared. Yet even then they did not retaliate in kind; they knew they needed to suffer as Jesus suffered if they would obtain the same victory Jesus did (Romans 8:17-18).

This image of sacrifice is so powerful that it is easily taken up and applied in other contexts never intended by the Lord Jesus. In the United States of America, as in many other nation-states, the willingness of a person to go and fight and give up their lives in conflict for the advancement of the nation-state and its ideals is highly commended. In this way a picture is painted of a person who goes down, guns blazing, to protect or defend an ideal, a nation, or a person. We may appreciate what a given nation-state provides, and even appreciate the willingness to give one’s life for the advancement of that nation-state’s purpose, but that person has not laid down their life as Jesus laid down His. Jesus did not die seeking to harm others; He died for the salvation of all mankind. Anyone who dies in combat or in a context in which violence is returned for violence is seeking the harm of others, however merited that harm may seem. One may think one’s sacrifice in war or in defense valorous; it rarely seems as valorous to those on the other side who would have been the ones killed or injured otherwise.

For Christians the cross of Calvary always stands before them, the way forward to find life indeed. It is a path that will involve personal hardship, suffering, and for some, even death for the cause of Christ. Yet the cross of Christ was not an instrument used to harm others; it was the means by which God worked to reconcile the world to Himself in Jesus, the terrible criminal as well as the “good, upstanding” citizen. If called upon, the Christian ought to willingly lay down his or her life for the brethren, as Jesus did; such a calling does not justify harming others in the process. May we love one another as Jesus has loved us, loving in deed and in truth, and thus obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Winners and Losers

And the King shall answer and say unto them, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).

It is a theme which plays out daily in sporting venues across the country. One team gains the victory: its players are jubilant and their fans celebrate. The cameras focus on the pleasant scene. Whether the game was close or a blowout, whether it was played well or poorly, the story is written to describe their great victory. Meanwhile, the other team has lost. They may quickly pay their respects to the winning team and head back to the locker room. Their fans silently file out of the stadium. Their story will not be remembered positively or on its own terms, but only either as a foil to magnify the victory of the winners or as some sort of testament to their failure or ineptitude. These tendencies are only magnified during playoff and championship seasons; the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat are both magnified the closer the teams get to the ultimate championship. The future is kind to the winners: they receive, if nothing else, grudging respect for their accomplishments. History is not kind to the losers: just ask the Chicago Cubs and their fans.

Such winning and losing is not confined to the world of sports. Governments and politics frequently feature winners and losers. A leader may win an election by a lot or a little, but once they have won, they have some room to set the agenda, and the story of the election is written to describe their victory. The one who lost the election recedes in view to some degree, having perhaps even come close to obtaining power, but now the story is written to describe their failings and ultimate failure. The winners get remembered; the losers, again, are either forgotten or remembered as a foil or for their failures. At least in most electoral situations the loser is able to continue to live and pursue success in other ventures: history is full of stories of leaders losing their power by losing their lives. The victors then write the story to elevate their triumph and to justify their behavior. The loser, silent in the grave, loses even greater face: consider Richard III of England.

Winning and losing is a natural part of life “under the sun.” While there may be some circumstances in which it can be said, “a rising tide lifts all boats,” that is, that certain improvements lead to the betterment of everyone, in general, for some to succeed, others must fail. New technologies may provide new opportunities and jobs, yet they will likely replace older technologies and the jobs of those who used them. Globalization has led to the creation of many jobs in foreign nations, allowing them to develop and improve, but has also led to the loss of many jobs in America and other first world nations. At times, the economy grows, job opportunities increase, and many people are able to succeed and prosper; at other times, the economy contracts, job opportunities decline, and many people suffer. Some years bring good crop yields and farmers prosper; other years bring drought and perhaps even famine and farmers go under. A few people are born into a prosperous family and they succeed whether they are competent or not; others are born into far less prosperous circumstances and can never seem to get ahead.

This all seems decidedly unfair, and many people throughout time have attempted to “fix” it. Yet every social experiment to attempt to eliminate such inequality and allow everyone to be equally successful has ended in failure. Reality is far more like the World Cup than pee-wee soccer: there will be winners and there will be losers. Sometimes winners win and losers lose because the former were more talented and executed better than the latter. Sometimes the winners win despite a lack of talent or sloppy execution. Sometimes the losers “deserve” to win or “deserve” to lose. We may not be happy with this situation, but it represents the reality in which we live.

God recognizes this. He has warned us that success is not automatic, and many times those who “should” succeed do not (Ecclesiastes 9:11). Meanwhile, success and victory is not inherently a problem: God has given mankind many good things which they should enjoy, and all should seek to find contentment in their circumstances (Ecclesiastes 8:15, 1 Timothy 4:4, 6:6-8). The big question, however, involves how the “winners” treat the “losers.”

In fact, the best way to understand the character of a person, a team, or even a culture or a nation is how they treat the “losers.” Do they boast over the losers and relish their victory? Do they prove willing to resort to oppression and dishonorable and unethical conduct in order to maintain their advantage over the “losers”? Or do they seek to respect and honor those whom have not been as successful for their endeavors and effort and seek to provide benefits to them?

We do well to remember that God has always sought to make special provision for the “losers” in society. He redeemed Israel while they were lowly and oppressed as slaves in Egypt (Deuteronomy 7:7-10). Under the old covenant He commanded Israel to observe the Jubilee, a restoration of property to its original owners and a remission of debt, so that each generation would be able to make a fresh start if their conditions had deteriorated (cf. Leviticus 25:1-55). The Israelites were not to gather every last bit of crops from their fields and vines, but leave some gleanings for the poor, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow (cf. Leviticus 19:10, Deuteronomy 24:21).

Yet those in Israel who were successful did not honor God’s intentions to provide for the “losers”. The prophets condemn the Israelites for their oppression of the poor and their corruption of justice (e.g. Isaiah 5:7-8, 20-23, Amos 4:1). For these and other transgressions of His will God cast Israel out of its land so that they all would understand what it was like to be the “loser.”

Throughout His life Jesus identified Himself with the “losers” of society: the poor, the marginalized, even eating with sinners (cf. Matthew 9:11-13). During His gestation His mother proclaimed how God humbled princes and exalted those of low estate, filling the hungry while sending the rich away empty (Luke 1:51-52). He pronounced blessings on those who had “lost”: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those persecuted for righteousness’ sake, among others (Matthew 5:3-11). His closest followers were not members of the society’s élite but represented a rag-tag group of fishermen, a tax-collector, a political revolutionary, and other “common, unlearned” men (cf. Matthew 4:18-22, 9:9, 10:2-4, Acts 4:13). At the moment of His death it would have been quite easy to consider Jesus as a “loser” and a failure: He stood up to the religious authorities of the day and they seemed to have prevailed through the exercise of the imperial power which they otherwise could not stand. He was dead and His followers dispersed in distress. Perhaps He had saved others, but, so it seemed, He could not save Himself (cf. Matthew 27:41-42).

Yet, on the third day, God raised this Jesus from the dead, and after His ascension, He was given all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:1-20). Jesus had not failed, nor was He a “loser,” because of His death; instead, through His death and resurrection, He proved successful and victorious over the power of sin and death (Romans 8:1-2). Jesus, who had died, is now Lord and Christ!

Jesus still identifies with the poor, the marginalized, and those who have “lost” in various ways in the game of life. This is why His description of the judgment scene to come in Matthew 25:31-46 should give us pause. We can only gain the victory if we have been of assistance to those who have “lost.” The ones who have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, and visited those imprisoned or ill obtain eternal life; those who did not do such things go away into perdition. How Jesus describes this situation is especially relevant: He tells those who have done the right that they fed Him when He was hungry, gave Him drink when He was thirsty, clothed Him when He was naked, and visited Him when He was sick or in prison (Matthew 25:34-35). When they want to know when or how they did so, He responds by telling them that as they had done it for the “least of these my brethren,” they did so to Him (Matthew 25:37-40). When you help the “losers,” the poor, oppressed, and/or marginalized, you help Jesus; when you dismiss or abuse them, you dismiss or abuse Jesus.

God has no intention of “penalizing” success: it is good to prosper. But God wants everyone who prospers to remember that because of their prosperity others have likely been less successful and are in a poor condition. Success does not mean that the victorious or successful person is any better or more valuable in the sight of God than the “loser” or unsuccessful person: they are all children of God the Father, and He cares for them all (Luke 6:35, Acts 17:24-28). Instead, success is to be considered as a responsibility or trust: you have been given blessings so that you can provide blessings and benefits to others, to give to those in need (Ephesians 4:28, 1 Timothy 6:17-19). But let none be deceived: God identifies with those who are poor, marginalized, and in distress, the “losers” of society, and He hears their cry (cf. James 5:3-4). It is up to us: will we be gracious winners or sore winners? Will we identify with those with whom God in Christ identifies, and seek to provide assistance to those who have “lost” in various ways in the “game” of life? Let us seek to do good to those who are in need, always remembering that we are all equal in God’s sight and that today’s winner might become tomorrow’s loser, and glorify and honor the God who cares for all mankind!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Religion

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

Religion is having quite the public relations nightmare these days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Justice and Righteousness

But let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream (Amos 5:24).

The day of the LORD was coming. He had endured enough from the hands of the Israelites. Their oppressions, their faithlessness, their immorality– it had become too much. Amos explains the only way that Israel can set things right again: they are to let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream (Amos 5:24).

The image was familiar to the Israelites. When the rains came after a dry spell, existing rivers would expand mightily. What had previously been bone dry wadis, or creek beds, would quickly fill with torrents of water. The water would come down from on top of the hills and mountains; it would often break through anything that stood in its way. So justice and righteousness were to be in Israel: in a land parched of them, all of a sudden, from the nobles and élites of Israelite society downward, justice and righteousness should be established. Nothing should get in its way, and it should overpower anything that would try!

Unfortunately, as the history shows, the Israelites did not heed Amos’ message. They persisted in injustice and unrighteousness, and another type of torrent– the judgment of God as executed by the Assyrians– washed their nation away (cf. 2 Kings 17:1-23). The Kingdom of Judah to the south fared little better. And, throughout time, there has been justifiable reason to return to Amos’ words in denunciation of the injustice and unrighteousness of nations. Within our own nation, Martin Luther King Jr. had reason to quote the verse in relation to the existing systems within the United States. Tragically there will always be times when this verse will be only too applicable to all nations in various ways.

Justice and righteousness are terms often paired in the Old Testament (Job 8:3, 29:14, Psalm 37:6, 72:2, 106:3, etc.). In the New Testament, we see more translations of “righteousness” than justice, but that does not mean that the concept of justice has been excised; the Greek word frequently translated as righteousness, dikaiosune, means both righteousness and justice. There are many times in the New Testament when both senses of the word are present (e.g. Romans 3:26). We would do well to mentally remember that “righteousness” in the New Testament also carries with it the idea of “justice”!

Justice and righteousness are terms thrown around quite easily, but what do they really mean? We have the sense that justice involves every action receiving its proper consequence: evil doing should lead to punishment, and right doing should lead to reward. We also have a basic understanding of righteousness as right living. Yet our understanding of these terms gets distorted by our culture and the way we would like for things to be. It is easy to want justice to mean that others get the proper punishment for their evil actions while we receive mercy, failing to understand that we judge others by their performance while we judge ourselves by our intentions (cf. Matthew 7:1-4). Righteousness is often reduced to not doing bad things to other people, and expecting everyone else to not do bad things to us. The scope and scale of justice and righteousness is also easy to distort. Many demand to see justice and righteousness exist on the grand scale– nations, institutions, and corporations– but prove less willing to see justice and righteousness carried out on a personal level. And there are plenty of others who believe that the domains of justice and righteousness primarily involve the individual and less so for government, institutions, and corporations.

We do well to turn to Scripture for an understanding of what is involved with justice and righteousness. And Job is a wonderful example of justice and righteousness in action.

Job has suffered much and, admittedly, he has been presuming more than he ought to presume. But in Job 29:14-25, he declares how he conducted himself in righteousness and justice, and in Job 31:1-39, he sets forth his integrity as he has lived according to justice and righteousness. In these passages we see much that we would understand as just and right conduct: avoiding sexual immorality, lying, deceit, covetousness, idolatry, and other such sins. But what may surprise us is just how much justice and righteousness seemed to require of Job: he fed the hungry, provided shelter to the homeless, encouraged the despondent, actively resisted the oppression done to others, honored the cause of his servants, provided for the widow and orphan, properly used the land, and even that he resisted taking pleasure in the downfall of an adversary!

There is much, much more to justice and righteousness, then, than just trying to be a good person and not grievously sinning against others. To seek to do justice and righteousness also demands that we provide for those in need and actively resist injustice and unrighteousness. Justice and righteousness ought to pervade all of society, from rulers to nobles or the élite down to the common man.

When justice and righteousness flow down as a mighty stream, people are respected and provided for, society is healthy, and real prosperity can be known. But where there is injustice and unrighteousness there is misery, pain, sickness, antagonism, rivalry, and all sorts of other forms of suffering. Ultimately, justice and righteousness cannot be merely private pursuits, and it should impact our work regarding the conditions of others.

Those who truly seek justice and righteousness are always rare in the land; most are out for some form of pseudo-justice and pseudo-righteousness that benefits them without necessarily benefiting others. Let us instead seek to work diligently toward justice and righteousness in our own lives and conduct and on behalf of all of those who find themselves oppressed and downtrodden. May it be said of all of us that we sought for justice to roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Judgment Everyone Wants to Hear

“Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry, and ye gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me.’
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when saw we thee hungry, and fed thee? or athirst, and gave thee drink? And when saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? And when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?’
And the King shall answer and say unto them, ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me'” (Matthew 25:34-40).

The disciples wanted to know what would be the signs demonstrating the end of the age (cf. Matthew 24:3), and Jesus has finally come to the point of obliging them. He has already declared that no one will know when it will be, and thus they are to be ready at all times– prepared, productive in the Kingdom (Matthew 24:36-25:30). Of course, it really is not that cut and dry in the text– Jesus uses the rich imagery of the days of Noah, a contrast between faithful and wicked servants, the foolish and wise virgins, and servants settling accounts with their master. All of these things are signs pointing to the climactic moment of the judgment day.

Jesus the King is on His throne and the nations are before Him, separated out (Matthew 25:31-33). Those on His right will hear the judgment everyone wants to hear– they are blessed of His Father, and they are to inherit the Kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world (Matthew 25:34).

All of the readiness and preparations have paid off. Such people were, no doubt, active in God’s Kingdom, using their gifts to multiply the Lord’s investment. They are the same as those wise and faithful servants who have conducted themselves properly in their Master’s house while He has been away. Yet, in this picture of the Judgment scene, those are not the reasons why they are the blessed of the Father.

Instead, they are the blessed ones of God because they have fed the King when He was hungry, gave Him drink when thirsty, took Him in though a stranger, clothed Him when naked, visited Him when sick, and came to Him while He was in prison (Matthew 25:35-36)!

This proves to be astonishing news even to the blessed– they do not remember doing any such thing for the Lord (Matthew 25:37-39), and He does not disagree. He says that inasmuch as they had done those things to the least of “these my brethren,” they did it for Jesus their King (Matthew 25:40).

A detail question that invariably gets asked involves the identity of “the least of these my brethren.” That it involves fellow believers in God is without a doubt; God demands that believers take care of one another’s needs (Galatians 6:10, 1 John 3:16-18). But does it really stop there? The New Testament demonstrates that believers are to have concern for the needs of all men, not just believers (Galatians 2:20, 6:10); we do well to remember how the lawyer attempted to justify himself by wanting to know who his “neighbor” was, and found himself self-condemned by the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-36). It is the same Jesus telling this story; our concern should be with all our fellow human beings.

Nevertheless, we ought not allow the details of the story to overshadow the greater message. When it is all said and done, according to the presentation of the judgment day in this passage, it comes down to how we helped those who are in need.

Does this mean that everything else is unimportant? Jesus makes no such declaration. He has already emphasized the need for readiness, preparation, and faithful living in previous parables and discussions. Paul demonstrates the need for obedience in order to hear the good news on the judgment day in Romans 2:5-10; he speaks on other occasions regarding those sins which, without repentance, keep people from inheriting the Kingdom in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and Galatians 5:19-21. Jesus is in no way attempting to say that we can be faithless in all other contexts but faithful in charity and somehow be justified on the final day.

Instead, Jesus’ declaration of why those who are blessed of the Father are those who have served others in need is entirely consistent with His previous messages about fruit bearing (e.g. Matthew 7:16-20). What people do is a reflection of their motivations, intentions, and purposes– essentially, what is in their heart (cf. Mark 7:20-23). If the heart and mind are right, the fruit will be right. If the fruit is not there, or the fruit is bad, then there is a heart and mind problem.

Ultimately, that is why Jesus’ declaration about the basis of judgment involves how one treats others. There is a type of religion, exemplified by the scribes and Pharisees, that so entirely emphasizes personal purity and doctrinal dogmas to the detriment of love, compassion, and mercy. They may have an intellectual understanding of many of the true principles of God and His will, but that understanding has not reformed their character– certain aspects of the mind might be right, but there remains a major heart problem. Likewise, there are many who view religion as a means of gain, be it for money, fame, prominence, or a little bit of each, like the false teachers of whom Paul speaks in 1 Timothy 6:3-10 and in other passages. Again we have a major heart problem, and where there is rivalry, covetousness, and a quest for fame, there is not true charity.

True charity, nevertheless, flows from an understanding of the nature of God, His love for mankind, and His character as reflected in Jesus His Son. The love spoken of in 1 Corinthians 13:1-8 finds one of its most sublime expressions in the type of charity that Jesus describes in Matthew 25:35-40. One is inclined to visit the incarcerated and ill, feed the hungry, and so on, despite the fact that the incarcerated, the ill, the hungry, and such like are often hard to love, when one has truly developed the heart and mind of Christ.

Matthew 25:34 represents the judgment everyone wants to hear. But it will only be heard by those who demonstrate love, compassion, and mercy, as expressed in Matthew 25:35-40. And those demonstrations of love, compassion, and mercy come because of the reformation of the heart and mind according to Christ and not according to the world, demanding understanding of and obedience to the truth of God in Christ Jesus. Believers must be prepared for the final day, busy in the Lord’s Kingdom, and God will know them by their fruit– have believers been motivated by God’s love and compassion to show love and compassion to the least of those among them? If we want to hear the best news at the Judgment, we must reflect the heart and mind of Christ in our actions. Let us do so and be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Principle of Work

Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labor, working with his hands the thing that is good, that he may have whereof to give to him that hath need (Ephesians 4:28).

In the midst of various exhortations regarding the righteous life– proper speaking, not being angry, a lack of bitterness and filled with tenderheartedness– Paul has an exhortation to those who formerly lived by stealing.

Stealing has been a challenge in society for as long as society has existed. There is the obvious forms of stealing– taking things from others without proper payment– but there are many other forms. Asserting that work was done that was not done at all or not done properly, personal use of resources that were not designed to be used personally, and dishonest “labor.” Stealing is not limited to the poorer classes; “white collar” stealing may be more complicated and subtle but no less damaging, as we have soberly learned in recent years. All kinds of justifications are given for stealing, everything from stealing to feed children to stealing to inflict vengeance on a corrupt company or system.

Nevertheless, stealing is not acceptable in any form. Those who steal, Paul says, should steal no more.

Instead, such a one is to labor. He is to work with his hands in some good way. Dutiful employment is expected out of believers. In so doing they will have what they need in order to survive. Manual labor is certainly valuable and good, but it would be distorting Paul’s purpose in the passage to mandate that all believers must engage in manual labor. Nevertheless, the work that believers do should provide a beneficial service for those who pay for it. It should go without saying that services that lead people into sin or jobs that provide no benefit or meaningful service to humanity are inconsistent with Christ’s purposes and for the Christian life.

Yet God does not expect the ex-thief here to support only himself. He is to work diligently, not just to have something for himself, but also something for others who are in need.

Perhaps Paul has some kind of penance in mind for the ex-thief here: since he took from others, depriving people of what was theirs, it is right and appropriate for him to now be a blessing to others, in some sense “giving back” to society.

Nevertheless, there is value in understanding what Paul says here as a general principle of work for all believers. What is true for the worker who is a former thief stands true for workers with no such background. Believers, after all, are to do what they can to assist those in need (Galatians 2:10, 6:10)! Therefore, just as it is true that believers are to work, believers must also consider their wages as not just destined for themselves and their own benefit but also find ways to give part to those in need.

This principle is opposed to our society’s values, particularly as they were expressed in the years before the “Great Recession.” We were encouraged to spend our money on all kinds of things. When our incomes were not enough to cover everything we were spending, we were encouraged to use credit and to continue to spend. Marketers and others who profited on sales attempted to persuade us that we deserved the things we were buying and that it was what we should be doing.

What has been the end of all these things? We still have all kinds of things, but may have lost the house in which we stored them. Everywhere we look we see people in economic difficulty and distress– perhaps even in our own mirror! We have learned the hard way that we should not over-extend ourselves on credit and other such things.

But our trouble is still there: now much of our “excess” income is going to cover the indebtedness of the past. People’s needs are still dire, but far too many are stuck in the same paradigm. They have been told that their paycheck is their money, and they find ways to spend all of it.

It should be well known that God tests us. He wants to see how suitable we are as stewards– are we able to handle the responsibilities that come with His blessings (cf. Matthew 25:14-31)? Do we really believe that everything we have comes from Him (James 1:17)? If it is His, what right do we have to claim over it? Perhaps God blesses us with resources beyond our needs to see what we will do with it– whether we will spend it all on our own desires, or whether we will share the blessing with others who are not so fortunate.

If that is the case, how well are we doing in that test? Do we consider our paycheck “all ours,” or have we decided to follow God’s principle of work, that we do our jobs to earn our living not just for our own benefit but also to provide benefits for others? When we have “a little extra,” do we then turn to find some way of spending it on ourselves, or do we also consider how we could help some others in need?

Jesus, Paul, and the other Apostles lived their lives to provide benefits for others. The path of Christ is the path of service (Romans 12:1). Let us find ways of being benefits to others with the resources with which God has blessed us!

Ethan R. Longhenry