The Nephilim

The Nephilim were in the earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them: the same were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown (Genesis 6:4).

It seemed that everyone in the ancient world looked back to the heroes of their past for inspiration and direction. The Egyptians considered the gods Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Horus to have once ruled the land, and every generation would recreate the story. Assyrians and Babylonians looked back to Gilgamesh, Sargon, and other great kings of the past. Homer and others told the stories of what the Greeks deemed the Golden Age, the age of the heroes, Hercules, Jason, Theseus, Achilles, Agamemnon, Hector, Ajax, and the rest. Roman orators constantly appealed to their countrymen to return to the days of humble civic virtue embodied by Cincinnatus and others.

All of these cultures and societies venerated and highly esteemed their heroes and ancestors, often considering them worthy of emulation. For most the code of conduct by which the heroes of the past lived persevered without question or doubt. When the contemporary world could not sustain the contradictions and difficulties of living by a mythic standard (which the ancient “heroes” themselves no doubt failed to embody!), it would prove to men and women of old just how far civilization and culture had fallen from those glorious days in the past.

Ancient Israelites were well-acquainted with these stories from these other cultures. The Genesis author spoke of the mighty men of old, men of renown; he spoke of them as the Nephilim (Genesis 6:4).

Few things provoke as much contention and disputation as the Nephilim. The Nephilim were the offspring of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men,” interpreted either as certain angels who consorted with women or the descendants of Seth who comingled with the daughters of Cain. The Nephilim lived before the Flood and also afterward. In Numbers 13:33 the Israelite spies of the fifteenth century BCE testified to the existence of the Anakim in the land of Canaan, described as the descendants of the Nephilim. The Anakim all those years later were still reckoned as giants; they would be exterminated from the land of Israel in the days of Joshua (Joshua 11:21-22), and only a few remained in what would become the land of the Philistines, which might explain the height of Goliath four centuries later (1 Samuel 17:4-7).

We could endlessly speculate regarding the nature of the Nephilim and what made them the “mighty men of renown,” but to no avail, for we know nothing else about them from Scripture beyond what has been described above. Whoever they were, and whatever the nature of their power, the Genesis author’s ambivalence toward them is evident: the conjoining of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” led God to limit human life to 120 years, and they flourished in the days when the heart of man was only evil continually (Genesis 6:3, 5).

Much has been made of the parallels between Genesis and Mesopotamian narratives such as Enuma Elish and The Epic of Gilgamesh, generally attempting to diminish what is written in Genesis as a second-rate adaptation of these older stories. Yes, these stories all relate to the distant past and prove parallel, flowing from some sort of shared remembrance. Yet the Genesis author is very consciously standing against the Mesopotamian traditions in many ways; and very much so in terms of the understanding of the “heroic past.”

The Genesis author does not deny the existence of these men in the past who are hailed as “heroes” and “men of renown.” Instead, he contextualizes their situation: they did mighty things because of their origins. Their mighty deeds did not redeem them, however; their origin was not good. It should not have happened. They stand apart from the generations of men and women who followed. Their story is not one to emulate; it is a warning to heed.

What we see with the Nephilim remains consistent throughout the Hebrew Bible. The prophetic retelling of Israel’s story is a warning for future generations to avoid the idolatry and rebellion which led to judgment and exile. The faith of many men and women are held up as exemplary, yet all manifest significant character flaws which cause great distress and grief. The only unalloyed “hero” in the Hebrew Bible is YHWH.

Today Christians live in societies profoundly shaped or influenced by the cultures mentioned above; we may not honor their heroes, but the impulse to find men of some renown and to esteem them as larger than life remains. What the Greeks did to the Mycenaean warriors of the late Bronze Age Americans tend to do with their “Founding Fathers” and other exemplary leaders of the past: their virtues are extolled and magnified beyond historical reality, their vices diminished, and a divine hand is reckoned to have guided them in ways they may not have even understood. Many wish to return to the virtues of a former age and in the process turn the past into a myth, magnifying what may have been good while suppressing what was less than pleasant. Everyone seems convinced today is worse than yesterday.

Christians must look upon such narratives with a skeptical eye, understanding their own past as the Genesis author understood humanity’s shared past. Yes, there were men of renown; yet many of them may not have come from a good place, and even the most exemplary manifested tragic flaws. One man’s “golden age” is another man’s age of decrepitude and decadence. The only unalloyed hero in history is Jesus of Nazareth, the image of the invisible God, the embodiment of the Godhead (Colossians 1:15, 2:9). The things He said and did which have earned Him renown stand in strong contrast against what most “heroes” do in order to gain fame and prominence.

It is good to aspire to virtue in character; despite what the modern world may imagine, it is good to be part of a story involving a people in which one finds his or her place. As Christians, however, we will not be able to find the most compelling such story and find such virtues in any individual society; we find them embodied in Jesus of Nazareth, and ought to seek to be part of the eternal purpose God has purposed in Him. May we follow Jesus the Christ and not the hero narratives of our culture and find salvation in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Body of Christ

Now ye are the body of Christ, and severally members thereof (1 Corinthians 12:27).

Christians not only represent the Lord Jesus Christ; they are to understand themselves as His body.

The Christians in Corinth were able to exercise spiritual gifts; it was evident they handled these gifts with great immaturity, using them to show off and to presume a greater level of spirituality than that of others. Paul attempted to explain to them another way: the way of love, the exercise of spiritual gifts to encourage and build up the whole as opposed to the elevation of the individual (1 Corinthians 12:1-14:40). As part of that exhortation Paul sought to focus the Corinthians on their participation in and as the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31. Paul goes well beyond suggesting the metaphor; he elaborates on the connections and applications at length. A body has many individual parts but remains a coherent whole; so with the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-14). The individual parts of the body have different, unique, and important functions, and each is necessary to the well-being of the whole; so it is with the body of Christ, in which God has put every part according to His pleasure (1 Corinthians 12:15-18). Different parts of the body need each other to work most effectively; so it is with the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:19-21). In fact, many of the most necessary functions of the body are the most hidden and “modest,” and given greater honor on account of their “humility,” and so the body of Christ is to maintain care and concern for its members, with each suffering and rejoicing along with those who suffer and rejoice, so that no division may exist in the body (1 Corinthians 12:22-25). In short, the human body is sustained because its constituent parts perform their individual roles while supporting the roles of others in an organic unity; it could be said that the parts have care for each other, recognizing the importance of all for proper function, and so it must be in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:26).

Paul manifestly used a metaphor to describe the church as a body; we are not physically interconnected with each other. But we should not deprecate what Paul says as “mere metaphor,” as if its metaphorical nature denies its substantive reality: Paul expected the Christians in Corinth to work together as a body, to care for each other as a body, and to give each member the respect and honor in valuation as critical parts functioning to build themselves up as a body. This is not a one-off message, either; Paul elaborated in similar ways in Romans 12:3-8 and Ephesians 4:11-16. In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 Paul spoke of the Lord’s Supper as communion, a joint participation in the body and blood of Christ, because we who consume the one bread and cup are the one body of and in Christ. It is possible to literalize Paul’s metaphor to the extreme in damaging ways, but it is hard to overstate the importance and the power of the image: Christians are the body of Christ. They do well to act like it.

Our age is a hyper-individualist one. Everyone seems to glorify and advance the standing of the individual. Western philosophy has led us to the point in which man is the measure of all things, and his or her individual judgment is elevated above all else. Over the past few hundred years we have seen a consistent pattern of advancing the interests of individuals along with a corresponding denigration and thus weakening of communal bonds and norms. “Middle class values,” especially as expressed in America, exalt the individual’s ability to rise above their station and to carve out a more prosperous life for him or herself and the “nuclear family,” yet without concern for the effects of such elevation on a local community, the larger community, or the environment. Political partisans argue about where individual rights, control, and power are to be exercised, but underneath never truly question the assumption. Likewise, for some reason or another everyone decries and laments the loss of community and shared values, yet none prove willing to question or challenge the cult of the individual to a sufficient extent to stem the tide. Some seek to hold on to both at the same time, and yet time and again we see that such is impossible. One can seek the interests of each individual, or one can seek the best interests of a community as a whole; the two at some juncture will always be at odds.

We are thus stuck in a similar predicament to that of the Corinthian Christians: the glorification and advancement of the individual comes at the cost of the betterment of the whole. The Corinthian Christians could use the spiritual gifts God gave them to exalt themselves and advance their selfish purposes, or they could use them humbly to serve one another and build up the body; they could not do both. This challenge was originally laid at the disciples’ feet by Jesus in Matthew 20:25-28: the world is always about glorification and advancement of one’s individual or small tribal interests to the expense of all others, but in the Kingdom of God in Christ this cannot be so. Those who would be in God’s Kingdom in Jesus must seek to serve and better others, as Christ Himself did. They must put the interest of others before their own (Philippians 2:1-4). One cannot seek the welfare of the body of Christ while seeking to exalt and glorify oneself.

Christians therefore must be careful regarding the elevation and exaltation of the individual. It is true that far too often communities have gone aside to the doctrines and spirits of demons, turning into cults or religious institutions which suppressed and did not advance the truth. As individuals we must come to God in Christ for salvation; we have our individual roles and functions in life that are independent of the work of the corporate collective of the people of God (Acts 2:38-41, 1 Timothy 5:16). But we must not miss the overriding emphasis of the New Testament: salvation is only in the body of Christ; God works through His people, but has always worked through His people for the sake of the whole. We may come to Jesus to be saved as individuals, but we cannot find salvation independent of His body; instead, we are to become one with each other as we become one with God in Christ (John 17:20-23)!

As long as the individual is elevated the community will suffer. As long as the individual insists on his own way, he or she is still of the world, and not acting according to Christ. We are members of the body of Christ; we have our individual efforts, but all our efforts are to be unto the benefit and advancement of the purposes of the whole. We must care for each other and value each other. Such is easier said than done; such is often quite messy and complicated in practice. People are hard to love. But that’s what God in Christ is all about: loving people and bringing relational unity where there has been alienation. May we seek to build up the body of Christ above all else, and sublimate our interests to that of the whole so as to glorify God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Foundations

If the foundations be destroyed / What can the righteous do? (Psalm 11:3)

What are we supposed to do if we feel the ground is being pulled out from under us? Such is the meditation on David’s heart in Psalm 11:1-7.

Someone is setting the situation before David, perhaps a well meaning friend: go and flee for safety (Psalm 11:1c). Such is necessary because the wicked lie in wait to attack the righteous, to overthrow all that is good and to persist in their behaviors (Psalm 11:2); if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do (Psalm 11:3)?

Yet David already has made his decision; YHWH is his refuge (Psalm 11:1b). YHWH is in His holy temple and on His throne in heaven (Psalm 11:4). He examines all men; He tests the righteous; He hates those who live wickedly and love violence (Psalm 11:5). YHWH lays snares for the wicked; the awful consequences of a negative judgment will be theirs, for YHWH is righteous, loves righteousness, and promises that those who live uprightly will see His face (Psalm 11:6-7).

David makes no effort to deny the challenges of the situation which are presented before him. He does not deny that the wicked are devising plans against him; he does not deny that the foundations are being destroyed. Nor does David put much confidence in his culture, even the culture of the people of God, to reform itself; if the foundations are destroyed, he does not tell the people of God to petition their legislature to “fix” them or to begin a major societal campaign to rebuild the foundations. His confidence is not in men whom he knows well will do whatever it takes to obtain and press their advantage (Psalms 36:1-4, 37:7, 12-16, 94:3-7). Instead, David trusts in YHWH as holy, righteous, and ruling from heaven. YHWH will judge. It may not be today, it might not be tomorrow, and it most assuredly will not look like anything we would imagine, but that judgment will come. If nothing else, in the hereafter, the wicked and those who love violence will endure the penalty for their decisions.

The difficulty set before David was not unique to his time and place. The people of God are constantly confronted with the same challenge. The wicked are active and they find ways of getting the powers of the world to bend to their will. Foundational laws, customs, and norms may no longer be honored, and rampant immorality increases. What should the righteous do?

The grass withers and the flower fades (Isaiah 40:6-9). Isaiah has little concern about botany; he speaks about the nations of mankind. Regimes come and go; one generation’s crusade becomes the black eye of the next. Some generations get a front row seat to see the unraveling of the results of their labor; others are in the grave before their work is mostly undone. Such is why David puts no confidence in any attempt to reform society; he knows it is a fool’s errand. Nevertheless, this fleeting temporality goes both ways: the designs of the wicked are often undone before their very eyes. Purveyors of immorality get their comeuppance. They may have it done to them as they had done unto others; they also may see all their wickedness unraveled before their eyes. YHWH’s judgments are often sublime.

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of YHWH endures forever (1 Peter 1:23-25). When the foundations are destroyed, the righteous should take refuge in YHWH. Even when the foundations might seem strong, the righteous must still trust and take refuge in YHWH. YHWH is in His holy temple; YHWH sits on His throne. He has the power to save, not society (Romans 1:16); He maintains all authority and power, not the governments who are so often manipulated by the wicked to the latter’s advantage (1 Peter 3:21-22).

As Christians we are tempted to heed the advice given to David; we are tempted to “circle the wagons,” or attempt to “flee to the mountains,” and try to set up an alternative society or subculture. Yet we do well to consider David’s question: if YHWH truly is our refuge, why would we flee? Is YHWH not able to uphold us or sustain us in the face of wickedness and those who love violence? If we would be righteous, we must recognize that we will be tested and tried (Psalm 11:5): will we continue to trust in God or will we capitulate to the world, either by conforming to its norms or by escaping? If we would be the light of the world, we must recognize how exposed we will stand before the world, the wicked, and those who love violence (Matthew 5:13-16). Are we willing to trust in God so that we can endure those trials and thus reflect Christ to the world?

David was not delusional; he recognized the danger posed by the wicked and those who love violence. But he maintained greater confidence in YHWH as the God of righteousness who loves the righteous and hates the wicked. He made YHWH his refuge; he did not seek to build his own. He knew YHWH would judge the wicked and condemn them; YHWH would vindicate his trust. Will we share in David’s trust? Will we prove willing to make YHWH our refuge and to trust in Him and His power when the foundations are strong or shaken? May we follow the way of God in Christ, trusting in His power and authority, and represent Christ to a lost and dying world!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Expectation of Trial

Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial among you, which cometh upon you to prove you, as though a strange thing happened unto you: but insomuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings, rejoice; that at the revelation of his glory also ye may rejoice with exceeding joy (1 Peter 4:12-13).

It would seem that amazement at suffering for the Name is not only a modern phenomenon.

The first century Christians in modern-day Turkey were experiencing some level of persecution. They were going through trial (1 Peter 1:6-7): they should expect their neighbors to revile them as evildoers (1 Peter 2:12), not understanding why they no longer participate in the same idolatry and immorality as before (1 Peter 4:3-5). The Christians will do good to others and receive harm in return (1 Peter 2:18-20).

Peter tells them these thing so they are prepared for what they are experiencing or will experience. He wants them to know that these difficulties are to be expected. They should not consider it strange that they are suffering for the cause of Jesus (1 Peter 4:12-13). It is par for the course.

We can imagine why people would think suffering for Jesus is strange. Jesus calls upon people to be good to one another and help those in need: how could anyone not like someone who is good and does good to others? Perhaps we expect others to tolerate different religious beliefs, and in such a view, even if people disagree with Christianity, they should at least respect those who seek to practice it. In such a view, suffering because of one’s religion would be strange. These days some feel it is strange to suffer as a Christian because people have paid at least lip service to Christianity and Christian conceptions of the world, ethics, and morality for generations and therefore those views should still be considered as normative.

In an ideal world it would be strange to suffer for following after Jesus. Then again, in an ideal world, we would not have needed Jesus in the first place! We live in a world corrupted by sin (Romans 5:12-18, 8:18-23). Some people consider evil as good, and good as evil (cf. Isaiah 5:20). Yes, people will be more than happy to take advantage of someone who will do good for them, but when they see the contrast between their lives and the life of the righteous, they are faced with a decision: change and be like the righteous, attempt to get the righteous to sin and be like them, or to reject, condemn, and perhaps even kill the righteous so as to feel better about themselves and their condition. A few change to be like the righteous; the majority tempt the righteous or seek to cause them harm. There will always be a level of tolerance in terms of certain subjects, but the exclusive claims of Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, and the standard which He upholds can never be truly or fully tolerated by those who do not seek to adhere to that standard (cf. John 14:6, 15:18-19). In modern America any pretense of being a “Christian nation” has worn away; secular culture now maintains a worldview quite alien and hostile to that of Christianity. Disagreement and conflict are the inevitable result.

Yet it has always been that way. The Apostles did not mince words or attempt to sugarcoat this reality: Paul declared that it is through tribulation that we enter the Kingdom of God (Acts 14:22). He also said that we must suffer with Jesus if we want to inherit glory with Him (Romans 8:17). He declared that all those who live godly in Christ Jesus will experience persecution (2 Timothy 3:12). And Peter says that we must not think it strange to suffer trial, but that we should rejoice as a partaker of Christ’s sufferings (1 Peter 4:12-13). They certainly did not expect Christianity to be a walk in the park or a ticket to easy street; far from it! They wanted Christians to be fully prepared for the onslaught of the Devil which would come, be it through persecution at the hands of others, unfortunate circumstances, illness, and other trials. If anything, Christians should think it strange if they are not experiencing trials or such difficulties: it may well mean that the Devil has no reason to cause them harm because they are his (cf. Luke 6:26)!

Sufferings, trials, temptations, persecutions, and all sorts of troubles come along with the territory in Christianity. We should not be surprised when they come upon us. We could whine, complain, get frustrated, demand answers, and such like, but ultimately such reactions prove unprofitable. If our outlook regarding trial is negative we may not endure. It does seem strange to rejoice in suffering, as Peter suggests; it seems rather sadistic to do so. Peter is not suggesting that we should find pleasure in going through trials, difficulties, and tribulations, but to find joy in the result of those trials, a tested, tried, and purified faith, one that will lead to honor and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ who already suffered so much for us all (1 Peter 1:3-9, 4:12-13). We find joy in suffering for the Name since He suffered great hostility for the joy set before Him (Hebrews 12:1-2). We can only share in His inheritance when we have shared in His sufferings (Romans 6:1-7, 8:17-18).

In a creation subject to futility and decay, suffering and trial are the norm, not the exception. Our preparation and/or response to such trial makes all the difference. When we experience difficulty, especially from our fellow man who persecutes us for our faith, will we want to fight, argue, complain, and be bitter about it? Or will we rejoice inasmuch as we share in he suffering of Christ, and maintain the hope that we will therefore share in His inheritance and glory? Let us maintain that hope firm to the end, come what may, and find a way to glorify God in whatever circumstances we find ourselves!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Itching Ears

For the time will come when they will not endure the sound doctrine; but, having itching ears, will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside unto fables (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

As Paul encourages Timothy to continue on with the work of an evangelist (cf. 2 Timothy 4:1-2, 5), he presents a rather bleak picture for the future. Believers, influenced by their worldly, carnal desires, will no longer endure proper, healthy instruction in the message of Jesus; instead, they will have “itching ears,” seeking to hear what they want to hear, turning away from the truth, and toward fables, or myths (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

This warning is consistent with the message of the previous chapter: Paul spent much time in 2 Timothy 3:1-17 describing how many would conduct themselves in immoral ways despite professing belief in God. Such a distressing picture!

While the picture is distressing, it should not be surprising. We should not imagine that these difficulties are relegated only to these “last days” during which Paul is writing and in which we continue to live or the “time to come” after Paul’s writing. The people of God before Paul found it difficult to endure sound teaching, and often wandered off into myths. While Moses was on Mount Sinai, receiving the Law from God, the Israelites made a golden calf and served it (cf. Exodus 32:1-35). After the Israelites entered the land of Canaan they soon began serving the gods of the neighbors (cf. Judges 2:11-23). They also imagined that they could serve YHWH by bowing down before an image, a myth of their own making, and certainly not what God intended in Exodus 20:4; it would be the cause of ruin and exile for both Israel and Judah (2 Kings 17:7-23). Jesus attests to the fact that the ancestors of the Israelites mistreated the true prophets but honored the false ones (Luke 6:22, 26). Jesus Himself endured persecution by the hands of people who wandered off into myths, those waiting for the Messiah of their own imagination while crucifying the Messiah God sent them (cf. Matthew 23:29-36, Acts 7:51-53). This was not a new problem.

But why? All people have a built-in desire to hear the things that make them feel better. Likewise, all people have built-in defense mechanisms against anything that makes them uncomfortable or exposes difficulties in their thoughts and actions. Hence Paul’s description of “itching ears”: these people have decided to hear only what satisfies their lust. They are looking for relief in ways inconsistent with God’s purposes and at times when they may need exhortation. At such times, it is easier to believe the myth than it is to accept the truth.

The city of Jerusalem presents a great illustration of this principle. In the days before the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians, prophets like Jeremiah declared YHWH’s judgment on Judah for its transgressions at the hands of the Babylonians. Other prophets like Hananiah declared that YHWH would break the yoke of Babylon and would maintain the sanctity of His Temple (cf. Jeremiah 28:1-17). In the days of Jesus, many Jewish people expected YHWH to preserve the Temple and Jerusalem and to destroy the infidel Roman power. Yet Jesus pronounced condemnation upon the Temple and Jerusalem because of their rejection of their Lord (cf. Matthew 24:1-36, Luke 19:41-44). And, lo and behold, most of the people followed after the views of Hananiah and the standard Jewish expectation regarding the Messiah. Few were those who trusted in the word of God as delivered through Jeremiah and Jesus. And when the events took place as the true prophets spoke, being right proved to be cold comfort to those who trusted in God’s word.

Therefore, to what, in particular, is Paul referring in 2 Timothy 4:3-4? The very question will get us into trouble! We can make all sorts of applications of what Paul has said, and that proves the challenge that exists.

2 Timothy 4:3-4 is often quoted and then directly applied to whatever issue exists at a given time. For some it will be modern cultural issues; for others, doctrinal disputations. Those applications are most often apt: we can find plenty of examples of people going astray from the true teachings of God and follow after myths that are more culturally acceptable.

The challenge comes, however, when we ossify the passage and believe it refers only to a given set of issues. The slope is very slippery: warnings are issued about deviations regarding a particular set of issues. There then is preaching and teaching on that set of issues. People who reject the truth on that set of issues are said to be the ones regarding whom Paul warns Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:3-4. And yet, ironically, people can then become guilty of the very thing which they are trying to avoid. They can easily start heaping up for themselves teachers talking only about that set of issues to the exclusion of all else, and that placates their itching ears. Meanwhile, they have neglected other challenging topics, may even resent hearing messages regarding those challenging topics, and lo and behold: they have now wandered off into myths!

Paul’s warning must be taken very seriously in a circumspect way. We must be constantly vigilant to hold firm to healthy, true teachings of God, and not to wander off into myths. We must never develop those itching ears but must seek after God’s healing message of truth. There are always going to be teachings that are difficult, controversial, and contrary to cultural norms. Yet there will also always be teachings that will challenge people’s assumptions and “sacred cows” in uncomfortable and unpleasant ways. Such is why Paul warned Timothy to be ready in season and out of season to exhort, reprove, and rebuke (2 Timothy 4:1-2). The medicine of truth might hurt, but it will always work out for the best. Let us not wander off into any myths, but instead seek after the truth of God in Christ Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Justice and Righteousness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Rejecting God’s Words

And Samuel said, “Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as idolatry and teraphim. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king” (1 Samuel 15:22-23).

The time was right.

The Amalekites were a foul stench in the nostrils of the LORD. While He was trying to lead His people Israel to His mountain, the Amalekites presumed to attack Israel (Exodus 17:8). While Israel was victorious, God made sure that this indignity would not be forgotten (Exodus 17:9-14). It was decreed that day that Amalek would be utterly destroyed (Exodus 17:14-16).

It would take about four hundred years before the day would come when the LORD would fulfill this promise. After Saul the king had defeated the Philistines and many other enemies of Israel (cf. 1 Samuel 14), God told Samuel His will for Saul.

And Samuel said unto Saul, “The LORD sent me to anoint thee to be king over his people, over Israel: now therefore hearken thou unto the voice of the words of the LORD. Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I have marked that which Amalek did to Israel, how he set himself against him in the way, when he came up out of Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” (1 Samuel 15:1-3).

The command, as disturbing as it may seem to modern ears, is quite clear: utterly destroy Amalek. Men, women, children, and animals. Spare nothing.

So Saul went forth and began to carry out the command. He fought with Amalek and defeated them (1 Samuel 15:4-8). Yet, as it is written,

But Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them: but everything that was vile and refuse, that they destroyed utterly (1 Samuel 15:9).

God was not pleased at all. He was sorry that Saul was made king, and Saul would pay dearly for this offense (1 Samuel 15:10-12). And yet what does Saul continue to say?

And Samuel came to Saul; and Saul said unto him, “Blessed be thou of the LORD: I have performed the commandment of the LORD” (1 Samuel 15:13).

And Saul said unto Samuel, “Yea, I have obeyed the voice of the LORD, and have gone the way which the LORD sent me, and have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the chief of the devoted things, to sacrifice unto the LORD thy God in Gilgal” (1 Samuel 15:20-21).

It sounds so holy and pious, and in the eyes of Saul, it was. Saul had gone out plenty of times to fight battles, and when he returned, he would devote all the best things to the LORD. Apparently, in his mind, however rebelliously intentioned or not, “to devote to destruction” meant “destroy the unworthy people and animals, and devote the rest of the spoil and animals to God at the Tabernacle.” Or, perhaps, Saul understood God’s command, but the people assumed that they were to take the best back to God, and Saul did not bother correcting them. Nevertheless, Saul was still convinced that he had done the will of the LORD.

Samuel devastates this view with 1 Samuel 15:22-23. Sacrifices offered in disobedience to God’s commands are vain. God would much rather have obedience than sacrifice. Rebelliousness is just as bad as witchcraft and idolatry. And, in the end, Saul had rejected God’s word. Therefore, Saul and his line were rejected for the kingship.

Yet this seems overly harsh. Rejecting the word of God? Did Saul not go out and fight the Amalekites because God said to do so? Had he not devoted to destruction all the unworthy things because God said to do so? Yes indeed. But God had commanded Saul to devote everything to destruction. By adapting God’s words Saul had invalidated the whole message. By adapting God’s words Saul had really rejected God’s words.

And this is the powerful lesson that we need to consider. It is very easy, when confronted with a difficult command or example, or when a given command seems like other commands but is not exactly the same, to adapt things a bit. It is easier to do all things consistently. When things get tough, and especially when God’s words are in direct opposition to the highly esteemed values and “virtues” of our society and culture, we find it easier to modify or mollify what God has said.

In doing so we may not think much of it. We may still feel that we are obeying the commandment of God. After all, it may be mostly like what He said. It might just be a “little different.” It is just “updated” to fit “our culture” and “our way of doing things.” No matter; it very likely is, in the eyes of God, a wholesale rejection of His Word.

We do well to remember that if we start adding parenthetical comments or force a passage to say something other than what it says to fit our view of other passages, we might very well be entirely changing God’s words. When God’s words get changed, they are no longer God’s words. The serpent in the Garden added one word to God’s two words, and they were no longer God’s words at all– they were a temptation, a snare, and death (cf. Genesis 3:3-4).

God’s words are powerful– they provide life (cf. Deuteronomy 8:3) and are the basis of the creation (Hebrews 11:3). We do well to respect God’s words and not attempt to modify them explicitly or through interpretation. We just might find ourselves in Saul’s position– rejected by God because we, in truth, rejected His words. Let us understand God’s will and not seek to adapt God’s will!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Good Old Days

Say not thou, “What is the cause that the former days were better than these?”
For thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this (Ecclesiastes 7:10).

Who has not heard of– or wished for– the “good old days”?

In the eyes of a lot of people, things were better in those “good old days.” A lot of people are confident that there was less sin and more righteousness in those good old days. People were more friendly, or more respectful, in the good old days. Life was easier and things were simpler in those good old days. There are a lot of people who think that it would be best to return to the “good old days”!

While some of these matters may have some validity– it may be that people were more respectful, or that life was easier in some ways– it misses the overall point. There is a major problem with the “good old days.” The “good old days” do not exist!

Humans have an ingrained tendency to remember the best parts of things and to forget the less pleasant elements of life. The Israelites, for instance, vividly remembered the food and drink they had in Egypt, but not so much the slavery, oppression, and hard bondage (cf. Exodus 16:3, 17:3). When faced with the challenges of the present it is easier to romanticize the past and pine for it, but the past was not nearly as rosy when it took place as it is glorified after the fact.

After all, were there not people in the 1950s who probably thought that things were better in the “good old days”? Would it not be the same in 1920? 1880? 1840? It would never end– things were always, apparently, better in the “good old days.”

All of this shows the wisdom of the Preacher. It is not wise to wonder why things were better in the past than they are in the present. The reason is that things are not inherently better or worse– just different.

Was sin less public in the past? It would seem so. But does that mean that there was really less sin, or that sin was just kept covered up and behind closed doors?

Was life easier in the past? Perhaps in some ways. Yet, then again, there were many diseases that caused great pain and distress that have since been cured, and tasks that used to take people days can now be done more simply.

Do there seem to be serious threats to our welfare today? Certainly; but there were serious threats in the past also. Fear of terrorism has replaced fear of Communism which itself replaced fear of totalitarianism and so on and so forth.

Are there major moral issues in the forefront of our culture? Most certainly. But there always have been. They may change based upon the season, but there is always something that needs to be addressed. Today’s disputes regarding abortion and homosexuality were similarly engaged in the past regarding racism, prohibition, and a host of other moral ills.

Since the Garden people have been sinning. There have been threats to life and happiness. There have always been reasons to believe that society/culture is going to the dogs. And yet there have always been people who have been willing to stand for what is right and good and holy (cf. Romans 11:5). Societies uphold and enforce some of God’s purposes while leaving others to the wayside.

People often take comfort by looking to the past and wishing for the “good old days.” The savage irony is that people in those “good old days” likely looked back to the “good old days” to them, and future generations will look back on these days perhaps as the “good old days.” It is not wise to dwell on what probably never really existed and which, regardless, cannot be resurrected. Instead, we must focus on the here and now. How can we promote the Gospel of Christ and make disciples among those who live in the early twenty-first century (Matthew 28:18-20, Romans 1:16)? How can we be best conformed to the image of the Son in our own time (Romans 8:29)? How can we stand firm for the truth of God in our culture today, not in a culture that may be quite distant in the past (1 Peter 5:7-9)?

Yesterday, for better and for worse, is gone. Tomorrow will come, and it will have its sufficient troubles (cf. Matthew 6:34). Our responsibility is to live today and to serve Jesus today (Romans 6:16-23, Galatians 2:20). Let us do so!

Ethan R. Longhenry

A New Thing

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

New! Improved! Updated! Revised!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Christ, All in All

Where there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bondman, freeman; but Christ is all, and in all (Colossians 3:11).

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” This is the one of the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, but the idea did not originate there. The idea that all men (and women) stand as equals before their Creator comes from Paul and the New Testament.

Paul emphasizes to the Colossians (and to the Galatians in Galatians 3:28) all divisions that keep people apart in the world have no place in the Kingdom of Christ. Rich or poor, slave or free, Greek, Jew, or barbarian, man or woman: all can be in Jesus Christ, and all are one in Christ.

This message was radical in the first century and it remains radical in the twenty-first. Even though it has been the ideal to believe that all men are created equal, there still remains plenty of prejudice in society. Racial disharmony still exists, even though few speak about it openly and plainly. There remains plenty of judgmentalism against those in different economic classes, regions of the country, cultures, and so on and so forth. We can always find plenty of reasons to consider people of other classes, cultures, races, languages, etc., as inferior or worth less than ourselves.

Yet none of this is true in reality. The truth, uncomfortable for many, is that we are all sinners, we are all guilty, and there is no reason for any of us to feel morally superior or inferior to anyone else (Romans 3:23, Philippians 2:1-4). Believers in Christ should actually be thankful for this: after all, if God were going to be prejudicial, He would have favored Israel according to the flesh, and we who are Gentiles would remain excluded from the covenant and condemned (cf. Ephesians 2:1-18)! Jesus of Nazareth was a first-century Palestinian Jew, not a white Anglo-Saxon American, or African-American, or Hispanic, or anything else. Through His death He reconciled us all to Him so that we would not be hindered by these divisions any longer (cf. Ephesians 2:11-18)!

Let us not imagine that it was “different” or “easier” then than it is now. For generations Jews were raised to feel morally superior to Gentiles (cf. Galatians 2:15); in Christ, they were now one. Greeks were bred to feel superior to all the heathen barbarians and their barbarian tongues (the word “barbarian” comes from the “bar,” “bar” sounds that Greeks heard as the language of foreigners); now, in Christ, they were one with those barbarians. In fact, even the Scythians, who defined barbarianism and were the ultimate in unsophisticated, could be one in Christ with Greeks and Romans and Jews!

The situation was similar for masters and slaves and men and women. After all, according to the society of the day, there was a reason that masters were masters and slaves were slaves. Yet now master and slave were both slaves of Christ (cf. Romans 6:18-23), and were now one in Christ. Ancient societies, in general, believed women to be morally and intellectually inferior to men. Yet, in Christ, both have equal standing. Notice that this equality does not change the fact that men and women and masters and slaves have different roles in which they function, and those roles are maintained (cf. Ephesians 5:23-6:9). Yet they all remain equally valuable before God.

Until the Lord returns, people will continue to use the differences that exist among themselves to judge one another, condemn one another, exclude one another, and to dislike one another. After all, it is more comfortable to believe that one is better because of one’s race, nationality, ethnicity, cultural heritage, class, and the like. Nevertheless, Jesus broke down all such barriers when He suffered and died on the cross. The hostility has been killed. God’s manifold wisdom can now shine forth in the church: the assembly of the saints, Jew and Gentile, white, black, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, and east or south Asian, rich and poor, male and female, employer and employee. A group of people who believe that whom you serve is far more important than what you look like or who your ancestors are or how much money you have in the bank. A place where different people with different abilities and perspectives come together to make up for the deficiencies of each other to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 12:12-27).

That is a beautiful vision, and if we believe in Christ, we must work to put that vision into place. We can only do that by killing our own hostility toward other people through reflecting Christ: self-sacrifice, humility, and love (cf. Romans 8:29, 12:1). The barriers we may be tempted to build up against other people based on race, class, or culture must be torn down if we are going to show the love of Christ to all men and women (cf. 1 John 4:7-21)! Our faith and confidence rests on the fact that God no longer shows partiality (Romans 2:11); if we continue to show partiality and prejudice, how can we live godly lives? Let us put to death any hostility and prejudice that may remain in our hearts toward our fellow man, just as we put the man of sin to death (cf. Romans 6:6, 1 Peter 2:24), and glorify God that we can all be one in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry