Shaking the Dust

“And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, as ye go forth out of that house or that city, shake off the dust of your feet” (Matthew 10:14).

At some point we must come to the realization: people have made up their minds. They will not listen. It’s now on them.

In Matthew 10:1-42 Jesus commissioned the twelve disciples to go out and proclaim the Gospel; this event is called the “limited commission” since it lasted for a specific period of time while the disciples remained under Jesus’ tutelage (cf. Mark 6:7-13, Luke 9:1-6). The disciples were to go to the villages and towns of Israel and proclaiming the imminent coming of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 10:5-7); they were to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the unclean, cast out demons, and give freely as they had received (Matthew 10:8). They were not to bring any provisions with them, but instead rely upon the goodwill and hospitality of a house in each village or town they visited; they should pronounce peace upon houses in which they were received favorably, but to hold their peace if received unfavorably (Matthew 10:9-13). If they came upon a village or town in which no one would receive them, or hear their message, they were to shake the dust off of their feet as they left the town; on the day of judgment it would prove more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town (Matthew 10:14-15; cf. Genesis 18:17-19:29)!

Jesus’ call to shake the dust off of their feet proved quite memorable; it remains a feature of the narrative in all three synoptic Gospels (Mark 6:11, Luke 9:5). To shake the dust off the feet is a ritualized act of judgment denoting the separation of all association between the person and that location. They wanted nothing to do with the message; the disciple now has nothing to do with their place. They now stand liable for judgment for not heeding the Gospel message; the disciple wants no share in that judgment, and so removes any trace of connection by removing the dust from his feet. Sodom and Gomorrah had long become proverbial in Israel as a bastion of wickedness and a model of God’s judgment (cf. Isaiah 1:9-10); for any village or town of Israel to be liable to a fate worse than Sodom or Gomorrah was shocking and startling. Jesus meant for His warning in Matthew 10:15 to shock; sure, Sodom and Gomorrah were sinful places, but they never heard the Gospel of the Kingdom, so how much worse off will be those who could have enjoyed all the benefits of the Kingdom but turned aside from it on account of their rebellion against God’s purposes in Christ (cf. 2 Peter 2:20-22)?

Jesus’ followers took His exhortation to shake the dust off of their feet seriously, and well beyond the “limited commission” of Matthew 10:1-42; when the Jewish people of Antioch of Pisidia rejected Paul and his associates, they shook the dust off of their feet and went to Iconium (Acts 13:51). They performed this ritualistic action even though some among the Antiochenes in Pisidia heard the Gospel and accepted it (Acts 13:48, 52).

These days few Christians go about as itinerant proclaimers of the Gospel; few, therefore, would find themselves needing to literally, concretely shake the dust off of their feet. And yet all Christians ought to be proclaiming the Gospel in their own lives to their family members, friends, associates, and others (Matthew 28:18-20); no doubt they will come across people who will reject the message no matter how well presented or embodied (cf. Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23). Thus, even if Christians do not literally remove dirt from feet anymore, they most likely will have opportunity to proverbially knock the dust off of their feet and resign people to the judgment awaiting them.

Many people today might consider this harsh and unloving: how can we just resign people to their doom? If Christians showed absolutely no care or concern for such people, or despised them, then they would indeed by harsh and unloving. But Christians “shake the dust off of their feet” only after they have proclaimed the Gospel message and it was denied or rejected. The Christian has manifested enough love for the person to share with them this good news.

If anything, Christians must learn that the time does come to “shake the dust off the feet” and to move on, so to speak, to the next village. We would understand this if we had a little more distance, very much like the kind of itinerant preaching performed by the disciples and the Apostles. Yet we often seek to convert those to whom we are close and whom we love deeply. We deeply desire their salvation; we do not want to imagine they will be condemned. We are easily tricked into thinking that constant exhortation will move the needle and encourage them to convert.

Yet no one has ever been nagged into the Kingdom of Heaven. To constantly preach to people who have made it clear they do not want to hear speaks toward the insecurities and fears of the preacher, and his or her unwillingness to step back and respect the decision which has clearly been made. We do well to remember that we are to love others as God has loved us in Christ (cf. Ephesians 5:2); God has provided the means of salvation in Christ, and has done everything He can to save us, but does not coerce or compel us into accepting it; we must come to Him in faith, not under compulsion, but willingly. Love does not seek its own (1 Corinthians 13:5).

As God has loved us and therefore allowed us to go our own ways, even to our own harm, so we must love others and allow them to go in their own ways even to their own harm. To shake off the feet does not mean to become indifferent or hostile to people; we must still love them and do good for them as we have opportunity (Galatians 6:10, 1 Peter 4:19). Shaking off the feet is the way we demonstrate our respect for their decision: they have not really rejected us, but the Gospel, and God will hold them accountable for that. We have done what we could. The situation is sad and lamentable, and we wish it were not so; but God does not compel or coerce, and therefore neither do we. As long as people have life they have an opportunity to repent and change, and it might well be that they remember how you had told them of Jesus, and may come to you again to hear the message anew and afresh. If not, the day of judgment will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah than it will be for them.

Proclamation of the Gospel is not about us; it is about what God has done in Jesus and the importance for everyone to know about it. Not everyone will accept it; perhaps we could have presented it in a more winsome way, or could have better manifest its message in our lives, but ultimately God will hold each person accountable for what they did with the message. Those who reject the Gospel, regardless of motivation, will be liable to terrible judgment. God would have them to be saved, and wants us to communicate that message; once the message is communicated, it is no longer on us. If it is rejected, we move on. May we prove willing to shake the dust off of our feet when necessary while doing good to all people as we have opportunity, and glorify God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Molech

And they built the high places of Baal, which are in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire unto Molech; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin (Jeremiah 32:35).

Shame is baked into the name; the horror and the agony endure.

Among YHWH’s greatest concern for His people Israel involved the assimilation of the practices of the Canaanites and other nations whom YHWH would drive out before them. Israel was commanded time and time again to not serve the gods of the Canaanites and their related nations; unfortunately, for generations, Israel would not listen. Of all the idolatrous cults of the Canaanites, none proved as pernicious and wicked as the cult of a god which was known in terms of the Semitic root mlk: Melek / Milcom / Melquart. Later Jewish scribes, embarrassed and ashamed at the deeds of their ancestors, used the consonants mlk but inserted the vowels from the Hebrew boshet, “shameful thing”; thus we know “Melek” as Molech (also Moloch).

Melek is the Hebrew word for “king”; Melek as a god was known as the “Great King.” The cult of Melek was strongly associated with the cult of Baal, as can be seen in Jeremiah’s denunciation in Jeremiah 32:35; among the Ammonites Melek was known as Milcom (Malkam; 1 Kings 11:5, 33, 2 Kings 23:13; cf. 1 Kings 11:7); the Tyrians spoke of him as Melek-Qart, “King of the City,” which would become shortened to Melqart, and remain an important deity for both Tyre and its colony Carthage for generations. We do not know much about Melek; some scholars have even suggested we should understand mlk as a type of sacrifice more than a deity. Whether a god in and of himself, or just a sacrifice to the gods, the awful and terrible fact remains: Canaanites, and Israelites, would make their children pass through the fire to mlk/Melek.

The condemnation of offering children to Melek is found in many places in the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 18:21, 20:2-5, 2 Kings 23:10, Jeremiah 7:31, 32:35). It gave comfort to many to suggest the prophets spoke in hyperbole; that children really were not offered to Melek; who could do such an abominable thing? But Greek and Roman authors spoke of child sacrifices in Carthage, and we have found remains of such sacrifices as well as inscriptions which speak of such sacrifices including the word mlk. It is horrifying; it is terrible; but, by all accounts, it actually happened. People sacrificed their beloved children to Melek.

What would motivate people to do such a terrible and awful thing? We read of its condemnation; we are not explicitly told why people would do so. Nevertheless, we can imagine some possible reasons. For generations the Canaanites had served Melek and offered their children to him, either to placate him or to gain his favor. Perhaps they believed Melek would allow them to maintain some rule or power; perhaps they hoped Melek would give them strength over their enemies, something akin to Mesha’s sacrifice of his son to Chemosh which seemed to change the calculus of the battle for Moab according to 2 Kings 3:27.

We have no reason to believe the Israelites, or the Canaanites for that matter, held their children in derision or contempt. By all accounts, they loved their children like we love ours. Yet they felt obligated to offer some of their children to Melek. It had to be done, after all, to preserve their nation. That was just the way it was in the land of Canaan. The Israelites saw it, and accepted that logic. It had to be done. Melek needed to be satiated. Beloved children would die.

Such sacrifices would go on for years; no doubt many were convinced that it worked somehow. But they “worked” until they didn’t: the Assyrians overpowered the Canaanite states, followed by the Babylonians, the Persians, and the Macedonians, and they did not offer their children to Melek. Carthaginian offerings to Melqart did not grant them victory over the Romans.

The Israelites who returned from their exile had learned their lesson. “Melek” became Molech; the place where children were offered, once considered holy to Melek, was now seen as defiled and haunted. Jeremiah prophetically had pronounced the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom, where people of Judah sacrificed their children to Melek, as the Valley of Slaughter (Jeremiah 7:31-32, 19:6-15); Israelites after the exile filled the Valley of Hinnom with garbage and burned it there; its awfulness inspired the word for hell in the New Testament, Gehenna (cf. Matthew 5:22, 29-30, 10:28).

We are rightly horrified at the prospect of slaughtering children to Molech. We cannot imagine that we would do anything of the sort. Yet we must be careful lest we overly demonize our ancestors in the faith; we might miss how we have made our own forms of Molech, and prove blind to what may condemn us in the end.

We could perhaps discover many forms of Molech in the modern world (confidence in military intervention in other places, corruption of children through abuse or instruction in deviant forms of sexuality, treatment of the poor, marginalized, and the oppressed, etc.), but in the Western world we should grapple with the prospect that we have made freedom a type of Molech in many ways. Every year scores of children are slaughtered in the womb in the name of a woman’s choice regarding her body. Some of the stories are tragic (women coerced into abortion by relatives, either her own or those of the father); others are horrifying in their callousness (women who think nothing of getting an abortion in order to demonstrate their rights). And yet, for those who advocate for women to maintain the right to abort in the name of choice/freedom, such is the necessary sacrifice for the cause. Those children have to die, after all, to preserve reproductive freedom. That is just the way it is done in the Western world. Likewise, every year scores of children and other innocent people are slaughtered with people with guns. Some of the stories are tragic (children coming upon a family member’s gun and accidentally killing someone); others are horrifying in their callousness (mass shooters, especially mass shooters in schools). And yet, for those who advocate an absolute right to maintain whatever arsenal a citizen might desire in the name of choice/freedom, such is the necessary sacrifice for the cause. Those children have to die, after all, to preserve our Second Amendment freedoms. That is just the way it is done in America.

No doubt people today believe their sacrifices to the Molech of freedom are convinced that it is working somehow. It might “work” until it doesn’t. And then it will be our descendants who might well look in horror and astonishment at us for what we justified and did, just as we look at our ancestors in our nation and in the faith in horror and astonishment for what they justified and did.

Israel was wrong from the beginning; Melek did not exist. YHWH, and YHWH alone, would give Israel blessings and victory and strength; setbacks, defeat, and weakness were due to an unwillingness to put that trust in YHWH. Molech’s danger remains, not because Molech exists, but because we are deceived into setting up Molechs and serving them, feeling powerless to do otherwise, while at the same time we give Molech the power over us. We prove willing to put fealty to a principle or an idea over natural care and compassion for people. We become afraid at the prospect of various dangers, and thus prove willing to justify all kinds of awful and terrible behavior so as to maintain the veneer of safety and comfort. We might look to legislation to fix things, but legislation can only try to enforce certain norms of behavior; it does not fix the underlying cultural trends which would justify or commend those behaviors in the first place. If we will stop serving “Molech,” we must repent, and no longer put our confidence in the ways of the world imprisoned by the principalities and powers, but to trust in the God who made us and in His Son who triumphed over the powers and principalities in His death and resurrection. It may lead to our alienation, persecution, and suffering; our vindication will come from God. May we serve the One True God and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Judgment at the House of God

For the time is come for judgment to begin at the house of God: and if it begin first at us, what shall be the end of them that obey not the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17)

A good rule of any communication is to “know your audience.” They are, after all, the ones to whom you are speaking. They are the ones to whom the message should be directed.

Those who speak in the pages of Scripture knew their audience. The prophets spoke the Word of YHWH to the Israelites of their generation, warning them about their sins and transgressions and the impending judgment to come on account of them and yet providing hope for restoration in the future. Jesus spoke to the Israelites of the first century about the impending Kingdom of God. The Apostles wrote to first century Christians about their conditions and situations and what God wanted them to do.

Peter continues in this tradition in 1 Peter 4:12-19. He is encouraging the Christians who live in what we today call Turkey regarding the persecution and suffering they are experiencing or about to experience. They should not find it at all strange that they will suffer for the Name; they should in fact glory in it (1 Peter 4:12-16). He then emphasizes that judgment is coming, but it begins at the house of God (1 Peter 4:17). Such judgment then extends to those outside the house of God, and their condemnation is understood in Peter’s rhetorical questions (1 Peter 4:17-18; cf. Proverbs 11:31). God will judge and condemn those who persecute and cause suffering for the people of God; the people of God are to entrust themselves to their faithful Creator while continuing to do good (1 Peter 4:19).

Albrecht Dürer The Last Judgment circa 1510

We can see, therefore, that God is very much interested in speaking to the condition and situation of the specific audience to which He speaks. That audience is primarily His people from beginning to end. Those who are not His people are not listening to Him; He can do nothing for them while they remain in that condition (Romans 8:1-9). In Scripture God makes it very clear that those who do not know Him and do not obey the Gospel of His Son will be condemned (Romans 1:18-32, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-9, Revelation 20:11-15). They need to hear the Gospel, repent of their sin, and serve the Lord (Acts 17:22-31).

So it will be that the evil, indifferent, slothful, and uncaring will get their just deserts on the final day. Yet our concern must, first and foremost, be with us as the people of God. God is speaking to us through the message of His Word: judgment begins here (1 Peter 4:17)!

As we have seen it has always been so. The people of God may want to continually point to the gross sinfulness and immorality all around them and act as if such justifies their comparatively less sinful behavior. God has never provided any such refuge; He recognizes that the wicked live in wickedness, expects it, and has given them over to their lusts (Romans 1:18-32). He expects better from His people! Many take too much comfort in passages like John 3:18, Romans 8:31-39, and similar passages, interpreting them absolutely and teaching that their salvation is fully secure no matter what. Nevermind passages like Hebrews 10:26-31, 2 Peter 2:20-22; the story of God’s involvement with Israel should disabuse everyone of the notion that being made the elect of God automatically grants salvation! God does not want to condemn us or anyone else (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9); nevertheless, He has never, and will never, justify or commend any who persist in thoughts, feelings, and behaviors contrary to His will and character.

Judgment begins at the house of God, the church (1 Timothy 3:15, 1 Peter 4:17). Too many look into the pages of Scripture to find how everyone else is condemned or judged; if we would be God’s people we must be humble and chastened enough to recognize that the exhortations and warnings found in the pages of Scripture are indeed primarily directed toward us. God will handle the condemnation of those outside (1 Corinthians 5:13). If we would claim to be the people of God we must allow God to point the finger of exhortation and rebuke found in Scripture at ourselves before we dare attempt to ascertain how it may be directed at others (Matthew 7:1-4). Judgment begins at the house of God; are we ready?

Ethan R. Longhenry

Pharisees and Scribes

Then spake Jesus to the multitudes and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses seat: all things therefore whatsoever they bid you, these do and observe: but do not ye after their works; for they say, and do not. Yea, they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:1-4).

The Evangelists consistently speak of mutual antagonism between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. From their presentation alone one might imagine that Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees are miles apart in their understanding of God and Judaism. And yet, of all the various sects of Second Temple Judaism, Jesus has the most in common with the Pharisees. The Sadducees accepted only the Torah as legitimate ground of authority and denied the existence of angels, the soul, and the resurrection (Matthew 22:23, Acts 23:8). The Herodians, by virtue of supporting Herod and his government, would have no love for a rival King of the Jews (Matthew 22:16). One might think that Jesus and the Essenes would have much in common; while they shared an apocalyptic worldview and some “ascetic” practices, the Essenes rejected the present Temple and its authorities as illegitimate and looked forward to the day when the Sons of Light would restore the Temple and its proper service and who withdrew from life in the greater Jewish community. Jesus did not look forward to establishment of a restored Temple in Jerusalem, nor did He withdraw from life among the people of God (Matthew 24:1-36). Meanwhile, Jesus and the Pharisees agreed about the inspiration and authority of the prophets and the writings, angels, the soul, the resurrection, and the hope of Israel in the Messiah. This leaves us with a major challenge: if Jesus and the Pharisees share so many similarities in outlook, why are the Pharisees and the scribes singled out for such strong condemnation by the Evangelists? If Jesus and the Pharisees agree on so much, why are the Pharisees portrayed in such consistently negative ways in the Gospels?

Few places express Jesus’ difficulties with the scribes and Pharisees with as much rhetorical force and denunciation as in the series of woes Jesus sets forth in Matthew 23:1-35. Jesus begins His litany of invective against the scribes and Pharisees by denouncing a form of their hypocrisy in Matthew 23:1-4.

Brooklyn Museum - Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees (Malheur à vous, scribes et pharisiens) - James Tissot

Jesus begins with the recognition that the scribes and Pharisees maintain a pride of place in Second Temple Judaism: they “sit on Moses’ seat” (Matthew 23:2). No actual chair is envisioned; Jesus gives recognition to their claims of serving as the interpreters of the Law of Moses on behalf of the people. For this reason Jesus tells the people to do what the scribes and Pharisees bid them to do (Matthew 23:3a). Some interpreters of this passage suggest that Jesus is being sarcastic and does not actually expect His audience to live according to what the Pharisees teach; such an interpretation is possible but not necessarily warranted. We do well to remember that even though Jewish people put great emphasis on literacy and would have maintained higher literacy rates than seen among the Gentiles, plenty of Jewish people could still not read or write, and even then, scrolls of the Law, Prophets, and Writings were copied by hand on expensive papyrus and parchment and would have been reserved for use in the synagogues and those like the scribes and Pharisees who were trained in the Law (Luke 4:17-20). Previously Ezra and his associates had read the Law and gave an understanding of its meaning (Nehemiah 8:1-8); many Jewish people in the first century looked to the scribes and Pharisees for the same reason, and for the time being, Jesus recognizes their role.

In Matthew 23:1-4 the problem is less with the specific interpretations and explanations given by the scribes and Pharisees and much more their unwillingness to do them (Matthew 23:3b-4)! They say the things faithful Jewish people should do, but they themselves do not do them. They expect Jewish people to adhere to all sorts of laws according to what is written and the traditions of the fathers, denounce as sinners those unwilling to bear them (John 9:16, 24), but provide no assistance to others, show no mercy, and themselves frequently (and flagrantly) violate them. In short, it may be good to do what they say, but do not do as they do.

To say one thing but do another is the essence of hypocrisy. The scribes and Pharisees were respected for their knowledge; no doubt many “average” Israelites looked up to them as holy people because of it. Yet, in practice, they were not very holy. They were just as guilty of violating the Law as other Israelites (Acts 13:39, Romans 3:13-21). Yet such totality begs the question: were not all the Israelites, save the Lord Jesus, hypocrites to some degree? Why are the scribes and Pharisees being singled out for this condemnation?

It is one thing to try and fall short; it is quite another to not even try. It is one thing to teach a given path, try to live it, and stumble at times; we humans are imperfect. It is quite another to act as if one is all holy and righteous, presume to be holier and more righteous than others, and yet substantively are little better than those whom they denounce. Such were the scribes and Pharisees: they acted as if knowing and teaching the Law brought forth its own special kind of holiness. Jesus makes it clear that it does not.

We do well to remember that the scribes and Pharisees were part of the people of God, and of all the people of God at the time, were considered to be the most holy and righteous. Their denunciation by all the Evangelists is, in its own way, a warning for believers: do not be like the Pharisees. The way of Jesus and the way of the Pharisees are quite divergent, yet throughout time Christians, however well-meaning, have fallen prey to the ways of the Pharisees!

The Apostle Paul declares that knowledge puffs up while love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1); it is very easy to obtain knowledge of God and His ways and thus presume one’s holiness based upon one’s superior knowledge. That is the way of the Pharisee and the Gnostic; it is not the way of Jesus or those who truly follow Him (1 Timothy 6:20-21)! We are not made holy by our knowledge; we are not better than others simply because we have come to a better understanding of the will of God than they have. Such is why the first and foremost aspect of the Gospel is our own sinfulness and our inability to solve our sin problem through our own efforts (Ephesians 2:1-3, Titus 3:3). We are entirely dependent upon God in Christ for the hope of salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9); our obedient response in faith, while necessary, does not earn us or merit our salvation!

Every Christian, to some degree or another, is a hypocrite; we proclaim the way of God in Christ but fall short at times (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8). But we must walk the walk of Christ; we must do the commandments (1 John 2:3-6). In seeking to do them we will learn humility, faith, and obedience. We would never imagine to lay heavy burdens on others and let ourselves go free; quite the contrary (Galatians 6:2)!

In Matthew 23:1-4 Jesus begins to set forth the contrast between the condemned ways of the scribes and Pharisees and the righteous way of God in Christ. The way of the Pharisees is always tempting for the people of God; we must resist it, remaining humble and dependent upon God in Christ, seeking to do the will of the Lord in all respects, bearing one another’s burdens and not attempting to make them heavier! Let us serve the Lord Jesus in humble faith!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Dismemberment

“And if thy right eye causeth thee to stumble, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body be cast into hell. And if thy right hand causeth thee to stumble, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:29-30).

If anyone were not yet stunned and shocked by Jesus’ words they certainly would have been by now.

Jesus makes this startling declaration in Matthew 5:29-30 in the midst of what is popularly called the Sermon on the Mount. Since Matthew 5:21 He has been making a comparison and contrast between what the Israelites “had heard” in the Law of Moses and its bare minimum standard of righteousness and what “I say to you,” expressing God’s higher standard of righteousness, the one beyond that of the scribes and Pharisees (cf. Matthew 5:17-20). He first compared and contrasted the command to not kill with the higher standard of not only not hating but even seeking reconciliation and terms of peace (Matthew 5:20-26). Most recently Jesus began contrasting what the Law said about adultery with the higher standard of not even looking upon a woman with lustful intent (Matthew 5:27-28). Then He starts talking about personal dismemberment: if the right eye or hand causes a person to stumble, they should remove them, for it is better for one part of the body to perish rather than the whole to be cast into the Gehenna of fire (Matthew 5:29-30)!

Jesus’ illustration here in Matthew 5:29-30 has been one of the most abused and distorted of all the things He said and did. Some people have gone to the extreme of actually blinding themselves or chopping off their hands. Others use this passage to mock Christians in their devotion to God, declaring that if they really took Jesus literally and seriously, they should be dismembering themselves! Is Jesus serious here? Should people really dismember themselves in order to avoid hellfire?

Let none be deceived: Jesus is not actually suggesting that His followers should dismember themselves. While there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust, and the unjust will be cast into the lake of fire, actually tearing out the eye or cutting off the hand will not effectively help a believer avoid stumbling and temptation (cf. John 5:28-29, Revelation 20:11-15). Paul puts the challenge well in Colossians 2:20-23: asceticism does not intrinsically help us avoid the indulgences of the flesh. Furthermore, neither our right eye nor our right hand cause us to stumble; they are but servants of the mind, and the stumbling into sin which would occur is on account of the mind and its decisions (James 1:13-15). A blind man or armless man can still stumble into lust.

So if Jesus does not actually intend for anyone to dismember themselves, why does He speak as He does in Matthew 5:29-30? He speaks so as to shock people. He speaks so as to make clear the severity of stumbling and the temptations of sin. Does the right eye, on its own volition, compel us to lust and covet and thus sin? No, but it is easy to give into the temptation to look upon a woman to lust and to do so frequently. Does the right hand, on its own volition, lead us to take what is not ours? No, but once we have seen with our eyes and have lusted in our hearts it is much easier to reach out and grab what is not for us to have.

These are easy sins to have. Lust has become no less of a problem 2,000 years later; modern man has no lack of opportunity to commit adultery in his or her heart. We are becoming too easily sexually desensitized; what once was recognized as sexual deviance is far too often becoming acceptable or even the norm, and many forms of sexual behavior once generally deemed sinful is being accepted and normalized as well. Pornography and romance novels abound as channels of escape. “Hookup culture” provides easier access to opportunities for sexual behavior. To stand firm for sexual purity and holiness requires profound effort from both men and women, husbands and wives; it is always far easier to give into lusts and desires just like everyone else.

Yet sexual sin has always been easy to pursue; such is why Paul must speak of it constantly (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:9-20, Galatians 5:19, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8). And in His own way Jesus is also trying to make this clear in Matthew 5:29-30 by setting forth the severity of the consequences of giving in and following the prevalent sexual currents of society. Lusting might be easy; it might seem fun; yet it condemns the whole body to Gehenna, a vivid illustration of hell based upon the burning trash heap outside the walls of Jerusalem. If it would be better for us to dismember ourselves than to find ourselves cast into Gehenna, then we really need to take these challenges, temptations, and causes of stumbling very seriously!

One thing is for certain: few if any have forgotten Jesus’ exhortation in Matthew 5:29-30. It is a very memorable illustration! We should not miss the point: no, Jesus does not want us to dismember ourselves, but Jesus says what He does as He does for very good reasons, and we should not so downplay a literal application that we diminish the force of the illustration. Sin comes with serious consequences, and lust and other sexual sins are certainly no exception. If it is better to pluck out our eye than to give into looking at a woman with lustful intent, then we should recognize how important it is to make the decision to keep our thoughts pure. If it would be better to chop off our hand than to reach out to take what is not ours, then we should certainly understand how important it is to make the decision to be blameless in our interaction with our fellow men and women. Let us strive to serve the Lord Jesus and avoid Gehenna!

Ethan R. Longhenry

To Save the World

“And if any man hear my sayings, and keep them not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world” (John 12:47).

There are many passages of Scripture which many seek to use outside of their context in order to say something quite different from what its author intended. There are also times when students of Scripture over-emphasize context as an attempt to smooth out difficult and challenging statements. Jesus’ declaration in John 12:47 is a demonstration of each.

If we take the statement on its own it seems as if Jesus is saying that He is not going to judge those who hear His sayings and do not keep them. Such a sentiment would be welcome in a time and place where “tolerance” is stretched to the limit and acceptance of all sorts of “lifestyle decisions” is in vogue. Such an interpretation fits nicely in a picture of a Jesus whose love means that all sorts of moral standards can be fudged and truth becomes a take it or leave it proposition.

Such is not what Jesus intends. He speaks quite clearly in Matthew 25:31-46 about the judgment to come and the basis of that judgment; He warns that those who do not do the will of the Father will be condemned in Matthew 7:21-23. While Jesus does love all people, He does not love sin and its corrosive effect on people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions, and never in His life commended any sinful behavior. He warned that all who persisted in sin would perish if they did not repent (Luke 13:1-5).

The fuller statement of Jesus in John 12:44-50 bears this out. Jesus is emphasizing not Himself but His Father: those who believe in Jesus really believe in the Father, and those who see Jesus see the Father who sent Him (John 12:44-45). Jesus came as light so that those who would believe in Him would not abide in darkness (John 12:46): light is all that is right and holy, and darkness is all that is sinful and evil. After Jesus makes His declaration in John 12:47, He continues by saying that the one who rejects His word has a judge on the final day: His word, and that not because He spoke on His own authority, but because He spoke based on the authority of His Father, and His commandment is eternal life (John 12:48-50). Jesus cannot be construed as saying that there will be no judgment; there will be judgment on the final day, and all will be taken into account (Acts 17:30-31, Romans 2:5-11)!

Yet we do well to spend some time considering why Jesus says what He says as He says it. Why would He say that He does not judge those who do not keep His word, since He came not to judge but to save the world (John 12:47)? We can immediately begin thinking of all sorts of statements in Scripture which seem to be in contradiction with this statement: Jesus will be the Judge on the final day in Matthew 25:31-46 and Acts 17:30-31, and by His very life and being the light He manifests a delineation, or judgment, against darkness (cf. John 1:4-5). We can therefore understand why there is a strong impulse to explain this verse away. Yet we can see a similar statement and its antithesis in John 12:44, 46, in which Jesus says that the one who believes on Jesus does not believe on Jesus but on the Father who sent Him, and then in the next breath speaks of those who believes on Him as not abiding in darkness. On the surface, this is also a complete mess: how can Jesus say that those who believe on Him do not really believe on Him and yet do believe on Him? That seems to be a contradictory mess!

When Scripture seems contradictory, God intends for us to stop and think more deeply about what He is trying to communicate. Jesus’ declaration that those who believe on Him do not believe on Him but on the Father who sent Him in John 12:44 is not to be taken to mean that one does not actually believe in Jesus; it is designed to place emphasis in the right place. Jesus is who He is because He has been sent by the Father, and His statement in John 12:44 is designed to give glory to the Father and put the emphasis where it belongs. And so it is with John 12:47 as well: it is not that Jesus has no role of judgment, but a matter of emphasis: Jesus’ primary purpose in becoming flesh and dwelling among us was not to judge the world but to save it.

As Christians we must always remember and be thankful that Jesus is in the “saving business” and not in the “condemning business.” This does not mean that Jesus has thrown out any kind of moral standard or that we should in any way adapt or change the standards as set forth in Scripture. There will be a day of judgment, and on that day, many will be condemned because they did not know God or obey the Gospel and have not done the will of the Father (Matthew 7:21-23, Romans 2:5-10, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). Yet God does not condemn such people with relish; it saddens Him, for He wants all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). If condemnation is what God desired for all of us, there would have been no reason to send Jesus to the earth or to have Him die on the cross; we all stand condemned on the basis of our sin (Romans 3:23, 6:23), and God would not have to take extra or special action to catch us in our iniquity and to condemn us. That is why Jesus did not come to judge the world but to save it: the world was already judged as in darkness, already subject to corruption and decay, and people already facing an unpleasant day of judgment (John 1:4-5, 12:46, Romans 8:19-23)!

Jesus came to save the world: He came to be a light to people, to show them the way of God, to redeem them from their sins, to bring them back into a restored relationship with their Heavenly Father, so as to spend eternity with them in the resurrection (Matthew 20:25-28, Romans 5:6-11, Revelation 21:1-22:6). From the beginning Jesus has been seeking ways to bring people into His Kingdom, not keep them out of it (Luke 14:15-24, Ephesians 3:10-11, Colossians 1:13). In Christ God wants to give all things to His people (Romans 8:31-32)! Therefore, while we must make sure to understand Jesus’ declaration in John 12:47 in its context, we must also allow its emphasis to sink in deep and to keep it in mind. It becomes very easy in Christianity to become as the Pharisees of old and find all sorts of reasons to exclude people and to draw restrictive boundary lines. While there are times when we must stand firm for the truth of God against those who would pervert it, and have no excuse to justify what God has not authorized us to do (cf. Romans 16:17-18, Jude 1:3), we do well to remember that God’s primary purpose in Christ is not to condemn but to save, and may we ever give Him great thanks and praise for it, for if it were otherwise, what would come of us?

Jesus’ primary purpose is not to judge but to save. Let us seek to proclaim that great message of salvation so that many more may be added to His Kingdom and God be glorified!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Just Deserts

For the day of the LORD is near upon all the nations: as thou hast done, it shall be done unto thee; thy dealing shall return upon thine own head (Obadiah 1:15).

Perhaps you’ve heard it said, “they’re getting their just deserts.”

“Deserts” here sounds like “desserts,” and many people insist that it is supposed to be “desserts,” but it is “deserts,” not referring to a parched wilderness, but an older definition otherwise not used: “that which is deserved.”

There has been little love from Edom for Israel from Moses until the exile. It happened according to Isaac’s blessings of Jacob and Esau (cf. Genesis 27:1-45): the Israelites many times ruled over the Edomites, but the Edomites would take advantage of any opportunity to cause difficulties for Israel. Yet the most recent actions prove to be the most reprehensible: when the Babylonians attacked Israel, Edom their brother did nothing to help, but were encouraged at the humiliation of Israel (cf. Psalm 137:7, Obadiah 1:11). When Israel was carried into exile by Babylon, Edom took the opportunity to expand westward into the land of Judah (cf. Ezekiel 35:15). In every respect they rejoiced at the downfall of Israel.

On account of these circumstances, Obadiah receives a vision warning Edom, in effect, that it is about to get its just deserts (cf. Obadiah 1:1-21). As they have rejoiced at Israel’s downfall, so Israel will be given reason to rejoice at their downfall. As they encroached upon Israel’s territory, so Israel will encroach upon their territory; in fact, according to historical records, the (Israelite) Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus conquered the Edomites and forced them all to convert to Judaism (ca. 110 BCE; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 13.9.1). They received their “just deserts.”

Yet Obadiah does not restrict this to Edom: on the day of the LORD, all nations will get their “just deserts.” The Arameans fell to the Assyrians. The Philistines were exiled by the Babylonians, never to return. The Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and the Macedonians ruled and oppressed only to find themselves being ruled and oppressed by nations over which they had exercised authority. None of them remain; as they had done to others, so it was done to them.

This pattern has continued throughout time; God is still likely doing to nations as they have done to others. But what is true on a “national” level remains true on a “personal” level as well. Jesus encourages believers that “as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise” (Luke 6:31). As the “Golden Rule,” it is a wonderful encouragement for us to consider. Yet there is a powerful reason behind this encouragement: God is going to give each person their “just deserts” on the day of the LORD, the day of judgment (cf. Romans 2:4-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). As we have done to others, so will it be done to us. If we treated others as we want to be treated, and showed love, mercy, and compassion to others, we will receive love, mercy, and compassion. But if we have treated others callously and shamefully, exploiting them for our (perceived) benefit, will we not receive callous and shameful treatment as God’s punishment in return?

There are times when people are in distress and experiencing humiliation. There are times when people are prosperous and proud. As with the nations, so with people: all will get their “just deserts.” As Jesus said, those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted (cf. Matthew 23:12). We do well to learn from these examples in the past. Let us maintain humility, whether prosperous or poor, successful or humiliated, and let us always seek to do good for others so that our “just deserts” is the resurrection of life and eternity with God, not the resurrection of condemnation and eternity separated from Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Salvation

“And she shall bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus; for it is he that shall save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

In Hebrew (as well as Aramaic), names mean something. God calls Abram Abraham because He will make him a “father of many nations” (Genesis 17:5). Jacob’s name involves cheating, consistent with his character and tale in Genesis (cf. Genesis 27:36). One can discern the saga among Jacob, Rachel, and Leah based upon the names given to their sons (cf. Genesis 29:31-30:24).

Jesus’ name also has meaning: as Y’shua or Yehoshua, it means “YHWH saves” or “YHWH’s salvation.” Thus the angel Gabriel charges Joseph to name the Child which Mary is carrying from the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:21). His name sets the stage for the one thing with which Jesus is most often associated: “Jesus saves,” or, more properly, God saves people through Jesus. This is one of the most fundamental aspects of the Gospel message.

Accordingly the term is used frequently in “religious” language. Preachers frequently speak of “salvation.” People will often talk about the moment at which they “got saved.” Not a few spiritual songs focus on salvation and how it comes from Jesus. Since the word is so common and so frequently used, it would be natural to assume that people really have a good idea of what it means.

Yet what is salvation, really? From what are people “saved”? Why should they be “saved”? For that matter, how can a person be “saved”?

It is tempting to describe salvation in terms of another description used in the New Testament: sacrifice, redemption, or something of the sort. Yet such really does not tell us what “salvation” means or why Jesus would be named Jesus, “YHWH saves,” and not something akin to “YHWH redeems.”

This challenge is compounded by the fact that the English language also uses the idea of “saving” to describe the preservation of resources: we try to save money, save our computer files, or something like that. It is tempting for many people to think that they save money at the local big box retailer and then go to “get saved” at the local church building!

The idea of salvation in the Bible is akin to deliverance or rescue. We would do well to read in “rescue” when we read about Jesus “saving” or providing “salvation.”

The concept of salvation as rescue helps to explain what it is and why it is necessary. “Rescue” does well at communicating the difficulty of the situation in which people find themselves. After all, no one ever needs “rescuing” when they are in a pleasant situation. One only needs “rescuing” when the situation is dire: they are caught up in a natural disaster, adrift at sea, stuck in a burning house, held prisoner unjustly, or something of that sort. Very few people want to find themselves in a situation in which they would need rescuing! And so it is with humanity: Jesus came to rescue us, as the angel Gabriel says, from our sins (Matthew 1:21). Scripture shows how dire our situation is when we remain in sin: we are separated from God, hostile toward Him and toward each other, and reserved for condemnation (cf. Isaiah 59:2, Romans 6:3, Titus 3:3).

While there may be a few exceptions, in general, we do not talk about “rescue” as something we do for ourselves; if we need rescuing, it normally must come from the energies and resources of others. Thus, salvation as rescue also underscores our inability to save ourselves. We find ourselves in the dire predicament of sin, and we cannot escape through our own efforts or resources (Romans 3:20). If we will be rescued, it will be on account of the resources of God, freely given despite our unworthiness (Romans 5:6-11).

Nevertheless, in all of this, we must want to be rescued! If we do not believe that we are in any danger, we will not think that we need to be rescued. If we think that we can get ourselves out of this mess, we will not think we need rescuing. It is only when we come to the realization of the imminent spiritual danger we face and our inability to fix that problem ourselves that we prove willing to turn to God and find salvation by the rescue accomplished through Christ. God never forces anyone to be rescued/saved; God is love, and love does not insist on its own way (1 Corinthians 13:5, 1 John 4:8)! The opportunity for rescue is provided for us: Jesus died so that our sins could be forgiven. We can obtain that forgiveness, be reconciled back to God, and learn how to serve Him (Romans 5:6-11). The means of rescue is there; we just have to take advantage of it!

Salvation as rescue also nicely illustrates the “now, not yet” aspect of salvation. In the New Testament, many passages speak of salvation as a present condition (cf. Romans 10:10, 2 Corinthians 6:2), but other passages speak of salvation as obtained on the final day (cf. Hebrews 9:28, 1 Peter 1:5, 9). This has caused no end of consternation for many believers: how can salvation be present and yet future? When we understand salvation as “rescue,” the picture is a bit clearer. When we turn to the Lord, we are rescued from the sentence of condemnation and from the penalty of sin (cf. Romans 6:16-23). Nevertheless, we still live in the world with its many temptations to sin; we still remain in spiritual danger (1 Corinthians 5:10, Hebrews 10:26-31, 1 John 1:8-10, 2:15-17). Therefore, we await the day of our final rescue, when “full” salvation will be manifest: the day when there will no longer be any stumbling-blocks or temptations to sin, the day on which sin and death will be fully defeated and destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:22-58, Revelation 20:1-22:6).

Therefore, it is right for the Lord to be called Jesus, “YHWH saves.” Through Jesus we all can be rescued from sin and death, obtaining the victory through Him. Let us praise God in Christ for salvation, be rescued from sin, and be preserved through faith until the day when salvation is fully revealed!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Outer Darkness

“And cast ye out the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness: there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30).

Darkness is not what it used to be. For thousands of years, once the sun set, most light was gone. The moon might provide some light; perhaps one could use a few candles, oil lamps, a fire, or some such thing to provide some light and heat. Otherwise there would be all-encompassing darkness, the absence of light. These days it is hard to find places where such darkness can be experienced: we have light everywhere and seemingly at all times. This makes it more difficult to imagine just how truly “dark” darkness is.

There is a reason that “darkness,” throughout time and in different cultures, represents something painful, distressing, unknown, fearful, or something that causes apprehension. Light is almost never associated with evil or anything negative; darkness seems synonymous with such things. We have a built-in understanding that there is not much good in “dark,” and plenty of which to be afraid and which we do well to avoid.

Jesus understands these things; He knows how God is light, source of all that is good and holy (John 1:4-5). In God there is light and no darkness at all: nothing evil, carnal, leading to misery and despair (1 John 1:5). If God is light, then those who follow after God should be in the light (1 John 1:7); this means that darkness, as the absence of light, is an image for all of that which is apart from and hostile to God (John 1:5, 1 John 1:6). To be in darkness, therefore, is not good; how much worse, then, would it be to find oneself in the “outer” darkness?

Jesus speaks of this “outer darkness” three times in Matthew’s Gospel: Matthew 8:12, Matthew 22:13, and Matthew 25:30. Each instance involves a person or a group of people who have incurred God’s displeasure; each time Jesus says that there “weeping and gnashing of teeth” takes place. What is this “outer darkness”?

Jesus never comes out and explicitly identifies what or where this “outer darkness” is. We gain a clue from the description of weeping and gnashing of teeth: in Matthew 13:42, 50, Jesus says that those who cause stumbling, those that do iniquity, and the wicked will be cast into the furnace of fire after the Judgment, and “there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.”

On a literal level, this makes no sense: fire provides light, and we would expect no light in the “outer darkness.” Then again, the very idea of “outer darkness” seems strange on a literal level! All of this is for good reason; Jesus is not speaking literally. He is using different images to express the same terrible fate: the place we call hell!

When we think of “hell,” we normally associate it with a fiery furnace or some such thing where the disobedient and condemned suffer. These images in Matthew 13:42, 50 certainly suggest such a thing, but we must be careful about literalizing the idea. After all, Jesus speaks of the “outer darkness” as well as the “fiery furnace.” They are both illustrations!

Jesus does well to describe hell in terms of the “outer darkness” for the reasons we’ve already described: darkness is the absence of light, and if God is light, then darkness is the absence of God. We find far too many people presently living in darkness (cf. John 1:4-5, 9-10, 12:46), already in a sense separated from God. At death that separation becomes more acute: they will find themselves, by their own choice, in the “outer darkness,” a representation of full and complete separation from God the Creator, the Source of Light and Life.

It will not be pleasant there, for it is a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Such are the responses to suffering and pain! We must be careful to not allow our imaginations to get the better of us; what the condemned experience and why it leads to weeping and gnashing of teeth is not specified, and much damage has been done by believers who seemingly gleefully describe the sorts of tortures and miseries they imagine await the condemned. No one should feel any joy on account of the existence of the outer darkness or that anyone will dwell there.

Perhaps the greatest surprise about the “outer darkness” are those whom Jesus says are going there. In Matthew 8:10-12, He says that it will be the “sons of the kingdom” who will be cast there, and by that He means those participants in the covenant between God and Israel who were not truly faithful to God. In Matthew 22:9-13, the one cast into the outer darkness was a man invited to the wedding feast without wearing the appropriate garment, understood as one supplied by the one providing the feast. Finally, in Matthew 25:24-30, it is the servant of the Master who was given the one talent and who buried it who is cast into the “outer darkness.”

In all of these examples, it is not pagan unbelievers or loose sinners who are cast into the “outer darkness”; they are people who believe in God, even many who will believe in Jesus as the Christ! Jesus speaks of the “outer darkness” as a way to warn believers against complacency and self-satisfaction. Whoever thinks that merely because they mentally accept the idea that Jesus is the Christ means they will automatically be saved will be sorely disappointed. Whoever feels that since they were raised in a Christian environment and by virtue of their lineage and cultural identity they will enter the resurrection of life will find themselves far from God. Whoever believes that others should work in the vineyard of the Lord but feel they are exempt will receive the censure of Jesus and eternity in the outer darkness!

Such does not mean that pagan unbelievers or loose sinners are off the hook; as we have seen in Matthew 13:42, 50, other passages address the condemnation awaiting others who are disobedient to God. Nevertheless, Jesus’ warning is appropriate. Yes, God is the light; God is the source of good things. We all want to identify with the light and to receive those blessings. But if we want to be in the light, we must walk in the light (1 John 1:7): we need to follow after Jesus, conforming our thoughts, attitudes, and actions to His. If we are not conforming our thoughts, attitudes, and actions (all three; not just one or two) to those of Jesus, the truth is not in us; we’re deceiving ourselves, confident of our presence in the light even though we walk in darkness. If we are found in the darkness on the day of Judgment, we will find ourselves permanently in the outer darkness!

What a terrible fate to go into the outer darkness! It is not something we should wish on ourselves, our loved ones, or even our worst enemies. Thankfully, no one is forced to go to the outer darkness; we all have the opportunity to leave the darkness and share in the light of God in Christ (cf. Ephesians 5:8). Let us heed the Savior’s warning and seek to walk in the light as He is the light!

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