Placed in God’s Garden

And YHWH God planted a garden eastward, in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed (Genesis 2:8).

When we think of the Garden of Eden, we tend to do so in terms of paradise lost: man sinned and was forced out (Genesis 3:1-22). Yet we can gain lessons about man’s relationship toward God based on what God sought to accomplish in Eden.

Genesis 2:4-25 provides greater detail regarding the creation of man and woman as mentioned in Genesis 1:26-30. Much is made of Genesis 2:4-25 as a “competing” account of creation; the Genesis author has no such idea in mind, but presents to further explain man’s creation. We make much of God making man from the dust of the ground and breathing into him the breath of life (Hebrew neshama, Greek psyche; Genesis 2:7), and for good reason: such explains how man is both earthly and divine, energized dust. Thus man returns to the dust from which he came (Genesis 3:19); the breath of life in him is a gift and is not to be treated flippantly. Yet what does God then do with the man? YHWH planted a garden, made every tree with fruit good to eat grow there, and He put the man into that garden where he was to work it and keep it (Genesis 2:8-15). God does not just drop the man anywhere in the creation. He places the man in His garden.

“Eden” seems to connote delight and pleasure, as can be seen in the related Hebrew word found in Genesis 18:12, 2 Samuel 1:24, Psalm 36:8, and Jeremiah 51:34; not for nothing does the Greek translator of the Septuagint translate “garden” with paradeison, “paradise,” in Genesis 2:8. The Greek term itself derives from a Persian word describing a “walled enclosure”; a “royal park” is really in view, a well-planned, well-maintained garden, not terribly unlike the gardens of palaces, manors, and estates still visible in Europe, even if reflecting different tastes. Thus Eden was never really “raw nature”; it was a divinely created and organized garden estate, featuring aesthetically pleasing plants, plants good for food, and most likely embodying divine creativity and organization throughout.

A garden, by its very nature, is artificial; if left untended it will become overgrown and lose the properties which distinguish a garden from a forest or other form of natural environment. Man, therefore, was to work and keep God’s garden. Man is made to work; the ultimate futility of the endeavor is the curse of the fall, not the desire for the endeavor itself (Genesis 3:17-18; cf. Ecclesiastes 1:2-11). But man is not made to work in a vacuum: he is made to work and keep God’s garden. Man does not make the garden; man does not innovate in the garden; man is placed in God’s garden to keep it, to enjoy it, and to relish the sublime beauty and truth established in how God has composed that garden.

Since the fall man has been removed from that garden and has lost his innocence; from Eden man will end up at Babel, using his creative energies to make monuments to his own greatness (Genesis 11:1-8). Not much has changed since. Man was made to explore God’s garden and world in wonderment; we have perverted that impulse into a desire to become the masters of the universe. When we “discover” something, we presume some sort of ownership or control over it. In the grand scheme of things such claims seem petty, as a child’s game. It reminds us of the claims of certain Europeans having “discovered” America and other places; the Native Americans of the time were unaware that their lands needed “discovering,” and were quite aware of its existence for millennia without any Europeans around. Likewise, when humans learn about things, they are not really new; they have always existed, testifying to God’s majesty and power (Romans 1:19-21). We could learn about such things and give glory to God; instead, we tend to try to take them back to the Babels which we have built and use them to magnify ourselves. The results are less than aesthetically pleasing.

And yet, ever since the fall, God has called humanity back into restored relationship with Him. We now have opportunity to return to God and seek His purposes through His Son Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1-11). In Jesus we have the hope to return to paradise, to recover what was lost in the fall (Luke 23:43, 2 Corinthians 12:4, Revelation 2:7, 22:1-6). We yearn for full restoration and to bask in the glory of God’s presence without hindrance for eternity (Romans 8:18-25, Revelation 21:1-27). We want to go back to the Garden.

While we do await that full restoration, we are also told that we are a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). God “undoes” the curse of Babel on the day of Pentecost when the assembled Jewish people hear in their own languages the mighty works of God (Acts 2:11). In our lives as Christians we are again invited to participate in the work of glorifying God in His Kingdom, to do His work for His purposes (1 Corinthians 15:58, 2 Corinthians 9:8, Philippians 2:13, Colossians 1:10). Thus, in a real way, Christians are invited to “keep God’s garden” by working in His vineyard, the Kingdom (Matthew 21:33-44).

In many ways God invites us into His garden to enjoy its delights and to work and maintain it. The whole creation is, in a real sense, God’s garden. Through science and technology we learn much about God’s creation; we should not presume to be able to master and manipulate it fully to our own ends, to bring it back into our philosophical boxes to serve our ends, but should glorify God in wonderment for what He has made and how (cf. Psalm 8:1-9). God has given us of His Word (Hebrews 1:1-3, 2 Timothy 3:15-17). We ought to spend time in that Word, diligently applying ourselves to learn it and to accomplish its purposes in our lives (2 Timothy 2:15). Yet, just as Adam could never truly innovate in or master Eden, so we should never presume that we can discover something new through our investigation or mining of the Word, or imagine that we can take God’s Word to our Babel of philosophical ideologies and structures and in that way improve on it or understand it better than all who have come before us (cf. Colossians 2:8). We will never master the Word; we submit to God through the message of the Word and find ourselves mastered by it (Hebrews 4:12). The Word is to be one of God’s gardens of delight for us, a place in which we may find constant surprise which is to lead to confidence in God, adoration of His beauty, and praising and glorifying His name. God has given us important people and relationships in our lives; man was not made to be alone, for God Himself is not alone, but one in relational unity (Genesis 2:18, John 17:21-23). Those people in our lives are not there to be mastered or manipulated; instead, we are to enjoy their presence, seek to encourage them and help build them up, and glorify God for their presence. Every time we are tempted to make a Babel of something which God has made we do well to instead frame it as part of God’s garden, something on which we cannot improve, but something which we can cherish, enjoy, and learn about, all to the glory of God.

God has made us; in Him we live and move and have our being; we are made to seek Him (Acts 17:26-28). It is not for us to master, manipulate, and presume that we can make better than what God has already made. Instead, since the beginning, it has been for us to enjoy with wonderment God’s garden, to work in God’s creation and maintain things, and to give God all the glory. May we seek alignment with God’s purposes, renounce our impulse for mastery and control, submit to the Lord Jesus, and work in His Kingdom to His glory for all eternity!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Power of the Word

By the word of YHWH were the heavens made / and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth.
He gathereth the waters of the sea together as a heap / He layeth up the deeps in store-houses.
Let all the earth fear YHWH / Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.
For he spake, and it was done / He commanded, and it stood fast (Psalm 33:6-9).

God is the Creator. Among God’s people, “everybody knows that.” But did you know that the Psalms are grounded and rooted in what it means for YHWH to be the Creator?

Among the many psalms affirming YHWH’s role as Creator is Psalm 33. The Psalmist considers the implications of not only YHWH’s role as Creator but specifically how He accomplished the creation and what it means for Israel and the universe.

Of special note is the Psalmist’s motivation: the righteous and upright are to rejoice in and praise YHWH (Psalm 33:1-3). The Psalmist has no expectation that he can somehow gain mastery over YHWH by understanding what He has done; instead, he seeks to know more about YHWH and His deeds so as to praise and glorify Him.

In Psalm 33:6-7, 9 the Psalmist affirms that YHWH created the heavens and the earth by His word: He spoke and it happened just as He said. By His word the hosts of heaven came about; through His Word the waters were gathered (Psalm 33:6-7).

Am Anfang schuffF GOtt Himel vnd Erden

The Psalmist is meditating on the way Genesis 1:1-31 explains the means of creation: God spoke and it came forth. At other opportunities he notes the structure of the creation and the structure of God’s instruction (e.g. Psalm 19:1-14), yet in Psalm 33:6-9 he focuses instead on the power inherent in YHWH’s Word. The earth is to fear–to stand in awe–of YHWH (Psalm 33:8). He exercised His power through His Word to create the heavens and the earth; will not the same power energize His Word which He has spoken to Israel to determine right and wrong, to show covenant loyalty to the righteous but condemnation to the wicked? If His Word is what established the heavens, will He not establish the truth of His Word throughout all generations? Yes, as all Israel knows, YHWH is their Creator God. Yet if they recognize that YHWH created by His Word, then they should be all the more diligent to keep the word He gave to Israel, for it comes with no less power.

For Christians this idea takes on more compelling meaning thanks to John 1:1-18; the Word which God spoke, the Word by means of which all things were created, became flesh and dwelt among us as Jesus of Nazareth. God has spoken powerfully through His Son Jesus to establish what is right and wrong, true and false, the way which leads to life, and the way that leads to death (cf. Hebrews 1:1-3). Yet the Word which made the heavens proved willing to suffer and die on a cross for the sin of the world; the breath by which life was given cried out in the agony of death (cf. Matthew 27:46, Romans 5:6-11). In so doing the Word through which all things were made in this creation paved the way for the new creation when He was raised from the dead in power (1 Corinthians 15:20-58). The Word, Jesus of Nazareth, now reigns over His Kingdom; all the earth is to fear the Word of God, and its inhabitants stand in awe of Him (Philippians 2:9-11). The Word spoke, and it is done; He commands, and it stands fast (Matthew 16:16-19, 28:18-20).

We may know that YHWH is the Creator but we do well to meditate on what that means. If this present heavens and earth were created by means of God speaking His Word, then every Word which has proceeded from God maintains the same amount of power. YHWH spoke, and the heavens were established; when YHWH speaks to His people, His Word will be established firmly. The Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us, and we do well to follow Him (John 1:14, 1 John 2:3-6). Let us revere YHWH, stand in awe of the power of His Word, and seek to practice His Word in our lives firmly and wholeheartedly, never doubting its power, since by the same Word all things exist and continue to be sustained!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Distorting Scripture

And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also, according to the wisdom given to him, wrote unto you; as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; wherein are some things hard to be understood, which the ignorant and unstedfast wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction (2 Peter 3:15-16).

As Peter is concluding his letter, describing what will happen at the end of time and exhorting Christians to understand that God is not “slow” or “delayed” but patient and longsuffering toward us so that we might repent and be saved (2 Peter 3:1-15a), he goes out of his way to show that Paul had also written to them regarding “these things” (2 Peter 3:15b-16). Peter says they are written according to the wisdom given to him, and that some things are hard to understand. These difficult matters are “distorted” (Greek streblousin, “to torture, wrest,” thus, to pervert) by those who are “ignorant” (Greek amatheis, unschooled or unlearned) and “unstable” (Greek asteriktoi, unfixed, vacillating, unsteadfast; used also in 2 Peter 2:14; these three Greek terms used only in these instances in 2 Peter in the New Testament). Peter then encourages those Christians to whom he writes to beware lest they also get carried away with the error of the lawless and fall from their own steadfastness, but should instead grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus (2 Peter 3:17-18).

Peter’s affirmation of Paul and his writings is quite important: it represents a strong challenge those who seek to find discontinuity and inconsistency between Peter and Paul, making much of Galatians 2:11-14. Peter affirms that he and Paul have taught the same things; not only that, but Peter proves willing to cite Paul’s writing as further confirmation of the things which he is teaching, giving great credibility and honor to Paul’s writings. Paul is not an outlier in Christian theology and thought: Peter makes that clear.

What are “these things” to which Peter refers (cf. 2 Peter 3:16)? Perhaps Peter refers to “salvation,” the nearest concept (cf. 2 Peter 3:15): Paul has much to say about the nature of salvation in terms of election, grace, faith, obedience, etc., throughout his writings. Yet “these things” are plural, and the final section of the letter, 2 Peter 3:1-15a, has focused on Jesus’ return, the end of time, and the Lord’s patience, another theme regarding which Paul has many things to say (cf. Romans 2:4-11, 8:17-25, 1 Corinthians 15:1-58, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:10, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-2:12, among others). Peter’s letter has also featured encouragement through testimony and warnings about false teachers, other themes which feature in Paul’s writings (cf. Galatians 1:6-2:10, 1 Timothy 4:1-4, 6:3-10, 2 Timothy 2:14-19, 4:3-4, although the parallels are stronger between 2 Peter 2:1-22 and Jude 1:3-23). Peter, therefore, likely has Paul’s warnings about false teachers and particularly discussions of the end of time in mind.

While the tone of the passage is negative in many ways, we can derive positive encouragement from it. Some things in Paul’s teachings are hard to understand: yet many things are more easily understood, and even though some parts may be difficult, it is not impossible to understand them. Yes, the unlearned and unstable distort the Scriptures: but we can be learned and stable, and handle the Scriptures properly (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15, 2 Peter 3:14-15). The Scriptures can be understood; we can gain encouragement from them. We can learn of God’s will and purpose for us.

Yet the focus is undoubtedly on the negative in 2 Peter 3:16: the unlearned and unstable distort and pervert not just what Paul writes but also other parts of Scripture. We do well to consider these matters so that we may not be guilty of them!

Peter warns about the “unlearned” distorting Scripture. “Unlearned” is not synonymous with “a lack of formal or higher education”; Peter himself is reckoned as one without formal education and a common man in Acts 4:13. One can have many degrees in higher education and still be “unlearned” or at least “unstable”; one may not have a lot of formal education but be wise in the Scriptures. Yet Peter’s warning is apt: many people, even good-intentioned people, end up distorting Scripture because they are not familiar with much of the story. Many false doctrines have begun and spread because men with less than stellar understanding of Scripture began teaching what made sense to them and refused to accept correction from those with better understanding of what God has made known through Scripture. We must remember that the sum of God’s word is truth (Psalm 119:160); many times people will focus on some passages or statements in Scripture to the detriment and neglect of others and come out with unbalanced, unhealthy teachings. These days many teachings of Scripture are discussed and attempted to be applied without any consideration of or respect given to their original contexts: this is a particularly relevant concern in light of 2 Peter 3:15-16 and discussions of the “end of time” (apocalypticism or eschatology), when many seek to understand apocalyptic images purely in terms of the present day, as if Ezekiel, Daniel, and John were talking specifically and directly about the early twenty-first century.

Peter also shows concern regarding the “unstable” distorting Scripture. Some perhaps are “unstable” because they are “unlearned”; nevertheless, one could be “learned” yet “unstable.” Few persons prove more dangerous in a congregation than one who has great Scriptural knowledge but is seriously lacking in practicing the message of Scripture and developing in maturity. They are “puffed up” by knowledge, and do not “build up” in love (1 Corinthians 8:1). There is a vast difference between an academic understanding of Christianity and a practical, “full-of-faith” understanding of Christianity. The practice of Christianity leads to proper understanding of love, humility, grace, mercy, and compassion; an academic understanding of Christianity often leads to presumption, pride, division, and often perversion of and departure from the message of Scripture when people begin to think they “know better” than that which has been revealed. So it was with the Gnostics in the first centuries after Christ; so it is to this day.

Peter affirms that Scripture can be understood, but warns that it can be misunderstood and distorted. Let us take Peter’s warning to heart: none of us are “above” or “below” distorting Scripture, however intentional or unintentional. Let us instead continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, derive encouragement from Scripture, and do all things for God’s glory and honor!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Written For Our Learning

For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that through patience and through comfort of the scriptures we might have hope (Romans 15:4).

Why do we have the Scriptures, and what benefits can we gain by them?

These are simple questions, and yet the answers we give to them tell a lot about how we view the Scriptures and their role in our lives. To many people, the Bible is a curious relic of an earlier age, treated as mythology. Yet, for most Christians the Bible is truth, representing the revealed Word of God, providing instruction and exhortation in faith and practice (cf. 2 Timothy 3:15-17). The Bible is described variously as a “road map to eternity,” “life’s how-to manual,” and the source of answers to every question. Many then come to the Scriptures in order to find direction in life, solutions to their problems, and answers to questions. These descriptions of the Bible have some accuracy, but they are not the way that the authors of Scripture describe the purpose and value of Scripture.

As Paul concludes a discussion of how Christians are to treat one another, he quotes the Old Testament in Psalm 69:9 and speaks of how it relates to Jesus (Romans 15:3). He then takes the opportunity to explain why he would quote the psalm and apply it to Jesus, even though he has already quoted the Old Testament often in Romans: that which was written before our time was written for our learning, that through patience and through the comfort of the Scriptures we might have hope (Romans 15:4).

According to Paul, therefore, the Scriptures were written for our learning: we are to be taught and gain instruction from what they say. This instruction has an end goal: through patience and through the comfort of the Scriptures we might have hope. Paul’s understanding of Scripture has much to commend it: he gives a very holistic view of its place in life.

Scripture was written for our learning. The Greek word for “learning” is didaskalia, and it refers to learning, teaching, and instruction. From the Scriptures we can learn about God and His interaction with mankind. We can see God’s standards of holiness and how to live by them.

The reader of Scripture quickly discovers, however, that the Scriptures do not represent any sort of systematic treatise. It does not have a “FAQ” (Frequently Asked Questions) section. There is no systematic presentation of a series of true statements describing God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the church, salvation, etc. There are maps added to the Bible to assist in understanding of the locations of various places, but God did not provide a graphic laying out a road map to life. While the Scriptures provide answers for many or even all of our questions, the way in which those questions are answered are not necessarily the way in which we would choose or prefer. Instead, most of the Scriptures are narratives, telling the stories of God and the people of God from creation until the first century of our own era. In Scripture we meet people and learn about their behavior whether for good or ill. We learn about the situation of early Christians in their various local churches, the problems and questions they face, and the direction given them by the Apostles. It all ends with a vision full of fantastic imagery which seems to confuse more than it encourages.

For many of us, the Scriptures are not written in the way we would write it, and its way of communication seems foreign to those with modern, “Western” sensibilities. The Scriptures were not written in the way we wanted them to be written, but according to how God intended to communicate His purposes to mankind. God’s ways are greater than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9), and the way Scripture communicates is masterful. We are different people: we learn in different ways, process in different ways, conceive of the world in different ways, but Scripture can speak to all of us because it speaks through narrative. We all can learn from stories. Systematic analysis is well and good and has its place, but it is also two-dimensional, cold, and leaves unaddressed far more than it could ever address. God, through Scripture, tells us about people and situations, and speaks of divine truth in terms of descriptive imagery. Despite our differences, we all understand in metaphors and communicate in metaphors. We can live at different times in different cultures but understand light versus darkness, scattering seed, and such things. We can understand character studies and learn from examples of what to do and what not to do. We can find among the personalities of the Bible people with whom we relate on account of personality or circumstance. Our learning is to involve far more than just head knowledge; it is designed to change our hearts, minds, and actions!

The end goal is to live in hope. People will live either in hope or fear: they either have reason to look to the future with hope for something better or fear of something worse. Hope is the better decision, but hope can be difficult at times. Hope demands patience: we have to wait for our hopes to be realized, and that kind of patience must be developed (cf. Romans 8:24-25). Yet the Christian has every right to live in hope because of the comfort he or she derives from the Scriptures.

The Scriptures provide comfort because they provide the justification for hope. In Scripture, above all things, we learn of God’s faithfulness to His promises. All He promised Abraham came to pass; Israel received what God had promised; in Jesus all of the things which God had promised and predicted beforehand came to pass. Therefore, when God makes promises in Christ regarding His care, protection, Jesus’ return, the resurrection, and eternity with Him, we have every reason to trust those promises. You cannot get that kind of comfort from a systematic list of truths, a road map, or a FAQ. That comfort comes from learning about people like us in many ways placing their trust in God and not being disappointed and recognizing that God will see us through this life with its problems, challenges, sufferings, and distress.

The Scriptures are written for our learning. Through patience and the comfort of Scripture we can maintain hope. Let us be thankful to God for the Scriptures, learn from them, apply their messages to our lives, and glorify God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus: The Way, the Truth, and the Life

Thomas saith unto him, “Lord, we know not whither thou goest; how know we the way?”
Jesus saith unto him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life: no one cometh unto the Father, but by me. If ye had known me, ye would have known my Father also: from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him” (John 14:5-7).

Sometimes it is all a matter of emphasis.

John 14:6 is a famous Scripture, and rightly so: in it Jesus neatly encapsulates the essential claim He makes as the Son of God: He is the way, the truth, and the life, and the only way to the Father is through Him. When discussing this Scripture we often emphasize “the”: Jesus is THE way, THE truth, and THE life. This is well and good: since the fulness of Godhead dwells in Jesus bodily, and He is the exact imprint of the divine nature, He truly is the embodiment of God and all God is (John 1:1, 14, 18, Colossians 2:9, Hebrews 1:3). In our day and age the claim seems arrogant but is really the necessary conclusion: if God is life, love, holiness, and truth, and Jesus is God embodied, then He is the way, the truth, and the life, since anything can only be true if it is consistent with Him and His purposes.

But Jesus is not making this statement in a vacuum. He is speaking to His disciples and is trying to encourage them. He encourages them to believe in God and in Him, trusting that He is going away to prepare a place for them and will return to receive them to Himself (John 14:1-3). He assures them that they know the way to where He goes (John 14:4). This sounds strange to the disciples: Thomas speaks up, confessing that they do not know where Jesus is going, and therefore, how can they know the way (John 14:5)? Jesus tells them: I AM the way, and the truth, and the life (John 14:6). He will go on to show them how they have seen the Father through Him since the Father has spoken and worked through Him (John 14:7-11). The Spirit will come to assist them; if they love Jesus, they will do His commandments (John 14:12-19). Therefore, the disciples really do know the way: they have lived with Jesus, they have seen Jesus teach and work, and it is now for them to follow after Jesus and think, act, and feel like Jesus!

So yes, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. But it is also true, as Jesus says, that I am the way, the truth, and the life.

It would be difficult to believe that this I am has no theological undertones. In John 8:58, Jesus declares that before Abraham was born, I am, and the Jews picked up stones to stone Him for blasphemy (John 8:59). I am is the name which God gives to Moses to tell the people of Israel in Exodus 3:13-15; the Divine Name YHWH (likely pronounced Yahweh) is a nominal form of I am and means “The Existent One” or “The One Who Is.” Jesus says that if you have seen Him you have seen the Father; He says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6-7). Jesus is YHWH just as the Father is YHWH! As God, He most certainly is the way, the truth, and the life.

In many ways this declaration is the type of statement on which the entire Christian religion is built. Christianity is based upon the Person of Jesus and the “good news,” the Gospel, of His life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and ultimate return (Acts 2:36, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8). So much of Christianity is tied up within Jesus as a Person: the Gospel is superior to all which came before it because God has now spoken to us through His Son (Hebrews 1:3). Law codes had existed for years; in Jesus we have truth embodied, walking around, teaching, doing, serving (John 1:14, 18). Little wonder, then, that Paul encourages Christians to imitate him as he imitated Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1), and how after saying that we know that we know Jesus if we do His commandments, John says that we know we abide in Jesus if we walk as He walked (1 John 2:3-6).

We do well to remember that Jesus says that He, Jesus, is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). Yes, the Scriptures have been inspired by God, and we do well to know them and to use them to guide our thoughts, feelings, and deeds (cf. 2 Timothy 3:15-17), but we must remember that even the Scriptures confess that they are written so that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing in Him we may have life in His name (John 20:31). The Scriptures are the way by which we learn about Jesus, the Way. The Scriptures tell us the truth about Jesus, the Truth. Through Scripture we are directed to Jesus, the Life. They provide the means to the end and are not the end in and of themselves. One can know the Scriptures from cover to cover, but if that knowledge does not lead to trust and confidence in Jesus the Way, the Truth, and the Life, then it is all in vain, and will not save (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9).

The Bible testifies to the truth that Jesus is Lord, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the only Way to the Father. The Bible is not Lord; Jesus is Lord. As we seek to understand the truth of God in Jesus as revealed in Scripture, and as we affirm our faith in Jesus as the exclusive way to the Father, let us keep in mind that we are serving an actual Person, fully God and fully man, and it is that Person, Jesus, who embodies the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Let us pattern our lives after Jesus, abide in Him, and be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Ezra the Scribe

This Ezra went up from Babylon: and he was a ready scribe in the law of Moses, which the LORD, the God of Israel, had given; and the king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the LORD his God upon him (Ezra 7:6).

Ezra proves to be a pivotal person in the history of Israel.

Ezra is a priest descended from Aaron through Zadok (cf. Ezra 7:1-5), but that is not touted as his claim to fame. Instead, it is his role as a “scribe skilled in the Law of Moses” which is prominently featured in his career (Ezra 7:6). He devoted his life to studying the Law of the LORD so that he could teach it to his fellow Israelites (Ezra 7:10); it was for this purpose that Artaxerxes king of Persia sent him to Jerusalem (cf. Ezra 7:11-28). The community of returned exiles recognizes this authority granted to Ezra and proves willing to change their behavior on account of his teachings and pleadings (cf. Ezra 9:1-10:44). The Israelites are listening to and heeding the message of the Law of Moses as read and taught by Ezra the scribe (cf. also Nehemiah 8:1-8). What is astounding is that such is the first recorded instance of such behavior since the days of Joshua; Ezra is the first person described in the Old Testament as a “scribe skilled in the Law of Moses.” How can that be?

Does this mean that there were no scribes skilled in the Law of Moses before Ezra? This is unlikely; there probably were some such scribes in Israel before the exile. For whatever reason they did not gain sufficient prominence to be noted in the text. They also were likely in the minority; even though God commanded the Levites to continually read the Law before the kings of the land (Deuteronomy 17:18-20) and before all the people at the Feast of Booths every seven years (Deuteronomy 31:10-13), the prophets condemned the priests for their negligence in teaching the people (e.g. Hosea 4:4-10). If priests were reading the Law, it certainly was not being reflected in the behavior of the kings or the people!

Perhaps because the Law was not being read as it should, or perhaps for other reasons, the prophets feature prominently in the days between Joshua and Ezra. God speaks directly to the kings and to the people through the prophets; the prophets were held in somewhat high esteem even though the people often did not heed their messages. God spoke through the prophets throughout the days of the kings, through the exile, and even after some of the people returned to the land. But even then there is a difference: certain questions are put aside until a priest should arrive with Urim and Thummim (cf. Ezra 2:63). The prophets Haggai and Zechariah exhort the people to finish the (second) Temple in 520 BCE; Malachi prophesies to the people at some point afterward. Otherwise we have no other recorded messages from any prophets at this time; by the second century BCE there is admission that there are no prophets in the land.

Ezra stands at this major juncture in Israelite history. The hand of the LORD is upon him in his diligence in studying the Law of Moses to teach the people. He is often reckoned to be the author of 1 and 2 Chronicles and Ezra; if he himself did not write them, someone very much like him or associated with him did. As such, he is one of the final “prophets” of the Old Testament period, yet one whose authority is vested in his understanding and explanation of the Law of Moses. From this point on the prophets fade; in their place come the lawyers and the scribes. Such figures feature prominently in the Gospels; Jesus chides and condemns them for their hypocrisy, their arrogance, and their inconsistencies, but never denigrates the profession itself or considers it unnecessary or unworthy (cf. Matthew 23:1-35). In fact, Jesus and the Apostles validate the role of the text and its interpreters; they are filled with the Holy Spirit, can prophesy, and yet their arguments and discussions throughout are based on texts and the proper interpretation of those texts. Consider any of the messages of the prophets by the “word of the LORD” compared to, say, Peter’s preaching in Acts 2:14-36, or even Paul in Acts 17:16-32. Texts and their interpretation feature much more prominently than they did during the days of the kings.

Ezra’s example should provide us with encouragement today. We also live during a time when there is no prophet in the land (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:8-10). We have not been granted new revelation since the end of the first century, and we have no reason to expect any new revelation until the Lord returns (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Jude 1:3). Yet, as with Israel in the fifth century BCE, so with us today: it is not as if God has left us without guidance or a way forward. We have the revelations regarding God and His purposes for mankind in the Bible; we can set our hearts to seek to know the will of God as revealed through Jesus Christ and His Apostles (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15, 3:16-17). We do not need a prophet to tell us the will of God for us today; we have that will already revealed in the Scriptures. It has been sufficient, is sufficient, and will continue to be sufficient to equip God’s people to conform to the image of Jesus to the glory and honor of God the Father until Jesus returns in triumph. It is for us to learn from the Good Book and seek to live what it says.

It is good to learn the message of the Bible, to seek to properly interpret it, and then put it into practice in life. Let us, like Ezra, set our hearts to understand the will of God, always seeking His wisdom and guidance, so that the hand of God may be upon us for good and that we may live so as to give glory to His name!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Beginnings

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1).

Beginnings are extremely important: they set the tone and the scene for everything that follows. Is it foreboding? Is it optimistic? What is going on? How will things proceed?

If such is true for the beginning of common stories, how much more significant is the beginning of the story of stories, and, for that matter, the beginning of all beginnings! Even though we humans were not there nor could be there when everything began, how we understand our origins has a profound influence on how we view ourselves and our relationship with our surroundings. Little wonder, then, that every culture has told some sort of story about how everything began. It allows them to understand who they are in the context of their environment.

So many of these stories tell as much about the story-tellers as it does about possible origins. Some, like the Egyptians, understand creation in terms of copulation. The Babylonian creation story, called the Enuma Elish, sees the earth and skies as created from the corpse of the defeated goddess Tiamat (Chaos), and the blood of her husband Kingu was used to create humans to work the soil and provide food-offerings and thus sustenance for the Babylonian gods.

These and many other stories see the universe in terms of different divine forces in strong competition, bickering, arguing, killing, or, for that matter, copulating or other such activities. In many of these stories the gods seem to need humans, but humans are reduced to divine servitude of the lowest order. When these are the stories that one believes explains who they are and why they are here, what will they make of their lives? How will they feel about the divine or about their fellow man?

The Bible’s story of creation stands in stark contrast to all of this. Sure, there is chaos in the beginning, but there is never an argument or a disputation about the events to follow. The story is told simply: God spoke, and it happened (cf. Genesis 1:2-2:3, Psalm 33:6). There is little sense of mythologizing in this early portrayal: God systematically creates light, the expanse we call Heaven, dry land and seas, vegetation, sun, moon, and stars, fish and birds, and then land animals and humans (Genesis 1:2-31). And then He rests, finished with His acts of creation (Genesis 2:1-3, Hebrews 4:1-11). No fighting; no contest; no copulation. A God with power speaking the world into existence!

And yet man knows where he stands: God created him in His image, and is given dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:26-30). God does not need him, but without God, man is nothing and has nothing. God does not want to reduce man into servile bondage; instead, He created man in order to share in relationship with Him as He shares in relational unity within Himself (Genesis 1:26-27, Acts 17:26-28, John 17:20-23). Since God is love, His act of creation is an act of love (1 John 4:8); He does not force people into relationship with Him, following after His will, but provides every opportunity and invitation for them to do so.

Many have tried to show all of the commonalities of many of the stories of creation, but in many ways the differences could not be greater. The different stories provide completely different views of the nature of divinity, the purpose of mankind, and the relationship between the divine, mankind, and the creation. The Bible’s story tells of a God who has all power and has no need for a power trip; He creates in an orderly fashion with complete sovereignty and always acts in love. As humans we are created in love for love as expressed in relationship, both with God and with one another; we are not caught up in a divine power trip or serve as divine minions to keep the gods fed so they can devote their time to leisure.

The Bible’s story of the beginning emphasizes God’s power and the dignity and integrity inherent within mankind as created in the image of God for relationship with God and one another. Let us be thankful for such a beginning, and let us devote ourselves freely to the God who created us, loved us, and worked diligently to redeem us!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Letter and the Spirit

Not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory (2 Corinthians 3:6b-9).

One of the marvels of Paul’s writings is the way he is able to powerfully construct his arguments, and those skills are on display as he writes to the Corinthians. 2 Corinthians seems to indicate that the Corinthians are being influenced by a group of Jewish believers who are attempting to discredit Paul. Having declared that the Corinthians themselves are living “letters of Christ,” sufficient testimony in and of themselves of the work that Paul does in the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:1-3), and that Paul would not dream of imagining that he is sufficient of himself, but that his sufficiency is in God through Christ (2 Corinthians 3:4-6b), he then moves on to show the insufficiencies and challenges of the basis of the arguments of the “Judaizers.” It is something he will do as well in the Roman and Galatian letters; it is a hallmark of Paul’s theology and writings. In 2 Corinthians 3:6c-11, he makes this argument with contrasting images: the letter (of stone) and the (ministry of the) Spirit.

He has been leading up to this argument in what he has written before. He has already spoken of the Corinthians as a letter written not with ink or on tablets of stone but with the Spirit on their hearts (2 Corinthians 3:3). The argument is also introduced on the basis of Paul having been made competent by God to be a minister of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:6a). Everything that follows is an explanation of this idea. What does Paul mean that the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life?

The contrast Paul has in mind is between the two covenants: the covenant between God and Israel as indicated in the Law of Moses, and the covenant between God and all mankind through Jesus Christ. The covenant between God and Israel is described as the “ministry of death, carved in letters of stone,” a “ministry of condemnation” (2 Corinthians 3:7, 9). Paul makes reference to Moses’ face which shone with the reflected glory of being in the presence of the glory of God (2 Corinthians 3:7; cf. Exodus 34:29-34). He compares that reflected glory with the full glory of God as made evident in the ministry of the Spirit, deemed the “ministry of righteousness,” indicating how much more superior the new is to the old (2 Corinthians 3:7-11). The glory of the new covenant in the Spirit is so superior, in fact, that the glory of the old covenant is now no glory at all, for it is brought to an end, whereas the new is permanent (2 Corinthians 3:7-11).

This is strong language indeed! How can Paul speak of God’s revelation to Israel as death and condemnation? Is this not impious?

Whereas the language is stronger, the substantive message is not much different than what can be found in Romans 7:1-25 and really throughout Romans 1-8. The Law of Moses is the ministry of death and condemnation not because the law itself had some flaw or was wrong; the Law is the ministry of death and condemnation because it declares what is right and wrong and fixes rewards and penalties. If one were to follow the Law perfectly, doing the right and avoiding the wrong, the Law would not condemn. Yet, as Paul has made evident in Romans 3:23, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; therefore, the Law can only declare them to be transgressors. Thus, no one can be justified by works of the law (Romans 3:20). No one– no Jewish person, no Gentile, no one then, no one now– can make the Law their confidence and put their trust in it to be justified. Instead, then as now, we must place our confidence in God who can forgive our transgressions (cf. Galatians 3:11).

The Law, therefore, by declaring right from wrong, exposes our sinfulness. But it, by itself, cannot save or rescue from that sinfulness. Hence, it is a ministry of death and condemnation. It did have its reflected glory, but as a reflection is never as excellent as the reality, neither can the reflected glory be seen as superior or even equal to the actual glory of God in Christ revealed through the Spirit!

The new covenant is described in terms of the ministry of the Spirit. The Spirit is said to give life and to be righteousness (2 Corinthians 3:6, 9). But what does this mean?

Much violence has been done to this passage by people who have taken it out of its context and have distorted it to serve their own ends. It is imagined that the contrast in the passage is between what is written down in Scripture with the promptings of the Spirit, and therefore this passage is cited to justify why sometimes we can ignore the “details” of Scripture in the name of following the Spirit. Thus, any time that a person takes issue with what Scripture has said at one point or another, he or she thinks that on the basis of 2 Corinthians 3 they can subvert that message by claiming the promptings of the Spirit, “for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

Paul is not making that kind of contrast, and people who make such an argument are missing part of the delicious irony of the passage. Paul is communicating a message about how the “letter kills” but the “Spirit gives life” by writing it down on papyrus with ink and sending it to believers. Paul is not contrasting what is written from what comes from the Spirit; he would argue that the Spirit has directed what has been written (2 Timothy 3:16-17)!

Paul is contrasting covenants, not the Bible and the Spirit. The new covenant in Christ is superior and of greater glory because the prominent feature of the covenant is not a cold law code that just calls out balls and strikes (right behavior and wrong behavior). Instead, the new covenant features the work of the promised Immanuel, God with us in Christ Jesus, our following after Him and our quest to be conformed to His image (cf. 1 John 2:3-6, Romans 8:29). The Spirit has declared this message through the Apostles; we have the recording of that message in the New Testament. The Spirit places emphasis on manifesting the qualities of the fruit that bears His name and has His role in the sanctification of the believer (Galatians 5:17-24, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, 1 Peter 1:2). However the Spirit may work with the believer, we can be sure that He is not going to contradict Himself; He is not going to abandon the message He directed the Apostles and their associates to declare and write (1 John 4:1-6)!

The new covenant provides the hope of eternal life through Jesus Christ; the old covenant declared sin. Thus, the ministry of the Spirit in the proclamation of the new covenant provides life; the ministry of the Law of Moses declared death. The letters written on the stone tablets were cold and unfeeling; the Spirit provides the message of eternal life through Jesus and our trust in Him to be the Lord and Shepherd of our souls. Thus Paul speaks rightly, declaring that the letter of the old Law kills, but the Spirit in the revelation of the new covenant gives life. Let us praise God for the hope of life through Jesus, seeking to be conformed to His image, thankful for the revelation of the Spirit and His work with mankind!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Limits of Study

And furthermore, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh (Ecclesiastes 12:12).

The words of the Preacher had been recorded and presented; the famous conclusion is nearing, declaring that to fear God and to keep His commandments is the end of the whole matter (Ecclesiastes 12:13). Yet, sandwiched between some words about the Preacher and this conclusion we have this declaration regarding books and study. Whatever does it mean, and what is it doing here?

Contextually, we do well to remember the situation of the day. There is no such thing as a printing press yet; a scroll (which was used then) was first hand written and then hand copied. Every time a scroll would begin to wear out it would have to be copied again. If there was a need for additional copies of a scroll, it would have to be hand copied for each. Any text that was not continually copied was destined for the dustbin of history– save for the few texts we have recovered from archaeological excavations, the reason that we have any text before 1450 is due to the copying of manuscripts generation after generation. There would certainly seem to be no end to this process!

As you can imagine, studying scrolls would be a difficult task, and it would not be any easier when sitting in rooms that might be a bit too warm or too cold, bereft of the “comforts” of a lot of modern pieces of furniture. There were no computers for fast searches or even concordances or anything of that sort. There were no swivel leather chairs. To devote oneself to study was going to involve much physical discomfort– that is the warning this man is providing for his son!

But this message is not just true for any other book of the Bible or regarding study in general; in fact, it is probably more true for, say, the 150 psalms, or one of the major prophets, than for the 12 chapter book of Ecclesiastes. So why is this message here of all places?

The whole book of Ecclesiastes does well at showing that no thing, when taken to the extreme, really provides the answers we seek in life. Pleasures– women, money, houses, plantations, servants, drink, etc.– do not ultimately provide any lasting and enduring satisfaction (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11). Knowledge and wisdom has the same end; death comes for the knowledgeable as well as the ignorant, for the fool just as the wise (Ecclesiastes 2:12-15). Many of the challenging questions about the “fairness” of it all and the prevalence of evil are reckoned as absurd, without sufficient answer to be discovered by man (Ecclesiastes 8:14, 17). When it comes to this life “under the sun,” we cannot point to any one thing and say that it will really provide all the answers, solutions, or purpose for life, no matter how hard we try.

It is quite appropriate, therefore, for Ecclesiastes 12:12 to be appended upon Ecclesiastes, for the messages are consistent. Just as there are limits to the value of pleasures, knowledge, etc., so also there are limits to the value of books and study.

We can only imagine what the author of this declaration would think about the world today. How many millions of books are out there on any number of subjects? Books, magazines, papers, and especially electronic media today run the gamut from highly simplified to highly technical, very general to quite specific, regarding any and every subject under the sun. 200 years ago there were many people who could be termed “Renaissance men,” having a conversant understanding of almost every subject. These days it is almost impossible to plumb the depths of the knowledge and studies regarding one particular topic! How many times have we heard that the sum of all knowledge in this world has doubled? And yet how much more is there left to learn?

This is a very important and serious subject on a spiritual level. We constantly hear how important it is for us to study the Scriptures, and indeed, it is very important to study the Scriptures (Acts 17:11, 2 Timothy 3:15-17). Yet what is the point of studying the Scriptures– merely to increase knowledge of what God has said? We can study and study and will never entirely plumb the depths of God’s message. There is always more to learn; our understanding can always improve. Bible study is a critical part of learning about God in Christ, and even though we will never learn everything, we must still keep learning (2 Peter 3:18).

Yet, as with pleasures and knowledge, so with Bible study– it is not the ultimate purpose of our existence, and it can become weariness to the flesh. Learning of God though Scripture is reckoned to be a part of the life of the disciple, the lessons of which are intended to be taken into life and applied (cf. Hebrews 5:14). We are to study the revealed Word to learn more about the Incarnate Word in order that we might look more like Him (cf. Romans 8:29)!

We have unprecedented access to the revealed Word of God today– different Bible versions, Bible computer programs, and an ever growing body of writing that helps to make sense of the Bible. We ought to be thankful and take full advantage of these resources so as to learn the message of Scripture better. But if we learn about God in Scripture and it just remains an academic and intellectual exercise, and it does not lead to a life that better reflects the image of the Son, then the whole exercise has been entirely futile, absurd, and without profit in eternal terms. Let us remember that Bible study is a good thing– but it is not the ultimate thing. Bible study is designed to lead us to godly living and the practice of the Christian life. Let us study so as to live, and not live merely for study!

Ethan R. Longhenry

A Testing Temptation

Then the devil taketh him into the holy city; and he set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and saith unto him, “If thou art the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, ‘He shall give his angels charge concerning thee:’ and, ‘On their hands they shall bear thee up, Lest haply thou dash thy foot against a stone.'”
Jesus said unto him, Again it is written, “Thou shalt not make trial of the Lord thy God” (Matthew 4:5-7).

Satan was not able to get Jesus to “bite” at the temptation of turning stones into bread and to satisfy His great hunger (Matthew 4:1-4, Luke 4:1-4). Next, according to Matthew’s Gospel (the last temptation in Luke’s, Luke 4:9-12), Satan transports Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple for the next temptation.

The temptation this time is for Jesus to again “prove” that He is who He says He is. Satan challenges Him to throw Himself down, for, if He is the Son of God, then the promise of Psalm 91:11-12 would be true regarding Him. After all, it is thus written in the Scriptures!

We have no reason to doubt that the Scripture is true. If Jesus had decided to take up Satan’s challenge and would have cast Himself down, the angels would have protected Him.

Yet Jesus does not take up Satan’s challenge but reminds him of another Scripture that is written– you shall not put the LORD your God to the test (Deuteronomy 6:16). Jesus has already demonstrated His confidence in the Father and Source of His sustenance (cf. Matthew 4:1-4); He now makes it evident that testing that Source is unseemly. He does not have to perform the action to know or to make demonstration that He is the Son of God. He can be confident in His trust in God without such a trial.

Furthermore, the location also plays a role in this. The Temple was not just a large building; it was also the center of Jewish life. There would have been, no doubt, thousands of Jews present who would have likely seen these events played out. While God’s power would have been displayed, it would all be for show, without any substantive benefit or teaching moment. People would have spoken about Jesus in terms of a freak or some kind of stuntman. Worse would be if some were to get it into their heads that He was the Messiah according to their understanding of the Messiah when He had not yet taught about the true nature of the Kingdom!

It is important to note the role of Scripture in this temptation. Satan quotes Scripture against Jesus, and this goes to show that Scripture can be used for malicious purposes and to distract from the greatest good. Jesus’ response demonstrates powerfully that the Bible is not designed merely to be a proof-text for our desires. Just because God has promised to protect the Messiah does not mean that the Messiah needs to test out that promise!

Thus, while we all can agree that quoting Scripture is good, a bad point is not somehow made good because some Scripture has been forced to fit into it. One statement of Scripture may, at times, need to be understood in terms of another Scripture so that the text remains consistent and God’s true will is properly discerned. And let no one be deceived into thinking that the Evil One does not know Scripture or how to use and abuse it!

There is much to gain from the substance of the temptation. Humans have an innate impulse to believe all things by experimentation or observation. It is much more challenging for humans to trust without testing, as evidenced by Thomas (John 20:24-25). This remains true to this day. Humans are always pushing at the edges of knowledge, endurance, and capability. There tends to be an ethic of “if we can, we should,” without necessarily thinking about the implications of what we are doing.

Therefore, there would be the natural, human impulse in Jesus to cast Himself off, just to see what would happen. Many thrillseekers would love to have the opportunity to jump off of large buildings, experience the rush, and know that they would be caught before they fell!

But Jesus reminds the Devil– and ourselves– that we should not put the Lord to the test. Who are we to test God? We are the clay, after all, and He is the Potter (Romans 9:20-21). He has already provided us with life– this creation and the promise of eternity (Genesis 1:1-2:3, Romans 6:23). He has given of His Son and stands willing to give us all things– if we ask in faith (cf. Romans 8:32, James 1:5-8).

And yet we make a bargain. We will say that we will believe in God if He does x or y. If we are believers, we decide that we will re-commit to God if He answers our prayers in the way we expect Him to answer them. We are willing to step out in faith but only after we have a “sign” or some guaranty of what we are about to accomplish.

This is putting God to the test. Perhaps God will answer us in our folly and ignorance; perhaps He will not. A non-answer does not make Him any less God, or, for that matter, any less good.

Instead, we must have confidence in God like Jesus did. We should trust that the Lord will protect us in whatever circumstance we find ourselves if we are His. Even if we die, our souls are in His hands. Thus, we should be willing to believe no matter what. We should commit to God no matter what. We ought to step out in faith no matter what. God has proven His faithfulness and we have no reason to doubt His promises.

The only reason we have to doubt His promises is that impulse to test and examine, and we must understand that we do not need to test God. Instead, let us trust in His goodness and seek His will!

Ethan R. Longhenry