The Spies’ Report

And Caleb stilled the people before Moses, and said, “Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.”
But the men that went up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.”
And they brought up an evil report of the land which they had spied out unto the children of Israel, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature. And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight” (Numbers 13:30-33).

The mission had been completed. But what did it mean?

Moses commissioned twelve spies, one from each tribe of Israel, to go and search out Canaan and ascertain the nature of the land and its inhabitants (Numbers 13:1-20). They went up and saw the land and its inhabitants; they brought back a cluster of grapes, some pomegranates, and figs (Numbers 13:21-26). They even brought back a united assessment of the land: it was a great land, “flowing with milk and honey,” but the people who live there were strong, in great and fortified cities, and the descendants of Anak (the Nephilim, Numbers 13:33) lived there, as well as Amalekites, Jebusites, Amorites, Hittites, and Canaanites (Numbers 13:27-29).

Altdorfer Joshua and Caleb

Caleb, the spy from the tribe of Judah, then encouraged Israel to go and possess the land (Numbers 13:30). But ten of the other spies threw cold water on that suggestion, emphasizing the strength of the adversaries, considering themselves as grasshoppers in comparison (Numbers 13:31-33).

Israel went the way of the ten spies; they went so far as to express the desire to return to Egypt and slavery (Numbers 14:1-4). Caleb, along with Joshua, the spy from Ephraim, begged Israel to reconsider, affirming the goodness of the land and that YHWH would give it to them, confident that if YHWH was with them it would not matter how strong their foes might seem (Numbers 14:5-9). But it was too late; Israelites sought to stone Joshua and Caleb (Numbers 14:10).

Consider Israel’s perspective. The reality “on the ground” is never in doubt: the ten spies recognize that the land is of excellent quality with great produce; Caleb and Joshua recognize that the inhabitants of the land are numerous, strong, and living in well-fortified cities. The Israelites have just left slavery in Egypt; they did not have the resources and strength among themselves to overcome their enemies’ advantages. They, as with the ten spies, assess the situation as it looks on the ground; their response is entirely natural according to such a perspective. If it is their strength versus their opponents’ strength, they will die in battle. Such seems quite realistic.

And then there was the faith motivating Caleb and Joshua. If all Israel could rely on was its own resources and strength then Caleb and Joshua would agree that any invasion was a fool’s errand. But Caleb and Joshua remembered that YHWH had just redeemed them from Egyptian slavery, from the very Egypt which dominated Canaan and boasted the strongest empire of the day. If YHWH could rescue Israel from Egypt, then YHWH could dispossess the strong Canaanite nations from before Israel (Numbers 14:9). No, Israel would not obtain Canaan because of their own abilities. They could only obtain it if they trusted in YHWH.

But Israel was not trusting in YHWH. They were rebelling against Him! He promised that He would bring them into the land; they wanted to go back to Egypt, to abort YHWH’s mission halfway through (Exodus 3:7-9, Numbers 14:1-4). To return to Egypt would be to forsake YHWH and everything which He had done for Israel. They even wished that they had died in Egypt or the wilderness; such is how little they trusted in YHWH or thought of the efficacy of His power in this situation.

To this day there is a place for assessment of the situation “on the ground.” In general there is consensus about the situation of the faith “on the ground.” Its influence, however strong it may have been in the past, seems to be waning. Church membership and participation is declining. More and more people identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Strong secular and spiritual forces attempt to subvert the faith and marginalize those who proclaim it. Following Jesus seems to be a quaint relic of the past, a historical legacy many feel is better to discard. Likewise, there is general agreement that by our own resources and strength it will prove nearly impossible to turn the tide on these trends. We can see the “post-Christian” secular future across the pond in Europe where it has been going on for longer than here. “Realistically” we have reason for lamentation and mourning. “Sober assessments” recognize the seeming futility of our endeavors. “On the ground,” it would seem that we should make sure to ask the last person to leave to turn off the lights.

Yet such assessments, however “realistic” or “sober” they seem to be, do not take into account the existence of God and all He has done for us. They do not take into account that “realistically” Christianity should never have existed, and even if it had been started, by all “realistic” scenarios would have died out a long time ago. Jesus has won the victory; Jesus has overcome the world (John 16:31-33). The forces of darkness in this world are arrayed against us and they are strong (Ephesians 6:12); nevertheless, He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).

Many Christians have fallen into the trap of cynicism and pessimism dressed up as being “honest” or “realistic” about the manifold problems facing Christianity and the church. We do well to remember that the spies and Israel were the people of God, and they were being quite “realistic” and “honest” about the situations they were facing. Yet God punished that generation for rebelling against Him; they ironically got their wish, for they all but Caleb and Joshua would die in the wilderness and would not inherit the land (Numbers 14:10-35). The ten spies died by plague (Numbers 14:36-37). It would be the next generation who would trust in YHWH and obtain the promised land, and Caleb and Joshua would lead them to victory (Joshua 1:1-24:33). We must remember this because what the Israelites thought was “honesty” and “realism” betrayed a lack of faith and rebelliousness (1 Corinthians 10:1-12)! YHWH had already proven Himself by delivering them from Egyptian slavery and providing for them to that moment. Likewise God has proven Himself to us through the life, death, resurrection, and lordship of Jesus His Son (Romans 1:4, Romans 5:6-11, 8:17-25). He is able to do more than we can ask or think (Ephesians 3:20-21). The only reason we have ever had the opportunity to hear the Gospel ourselves is on account of His great power working through His servants; if it were only ever based on the resources and strength of the faithful the message would not get very far!

The world gives many reasons for cynicism, despair, doubt, and pessimism. It always has; it always will. Christians are called to put their trust in God, recognizing that the victory comes through Jesus even in difficult circumstances, and that the ways of the world are folly to God (1 Corinthians 1:19-25, 1 Peter 1:3-9). The decision is up to us. Are we going to give in to the realistic assessment and be driven to cynicism and despair as the ten spies and Israel, proving to have more faith in our perception and the ways of the world than in our Creator and Redeemer, and be found in rebellion? Or will we prove willing to put our trust in God in Christ, aware of the long odds and impossibility of our mission in worldly terms, but ever mindful of God’s strength and faithfulness, and to put our hope in God and His strength, as Caleb and Joshua did? May we maintain faith and hope and not give in to cynicism and despair, and obtain the victory in Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Go and Die With Him

Thomas therefore, who is called Didymus, said unto his fellow-disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16).

Thomas was convinced it was a suicide mission for all of them.

As the third Passover of His ministry drew near Jesus was a marked man if He returned to Jerusalem. He had challenged the existing Temple system (John 2:13-22); He had unrepentantly healed on the Sabbath (John 5:1-18); He taught regarding His relationship with His Father, and the Jews sought to stone Him (John 8:54-59, 10:24-39). Jesus’ disciples saw the writing on the wall: a return to Judea risked stoning or some other form of death (John 11:8).

Yet Jesus insisted. Lazarus had died; He had attempted to communicate this in less direct ways but had to come out with it (John 11:1-15). Jesus knows why He must go down to Judea; His disciples seem less than enthusiastic about the proposition. As He is about to leave Thomas makes this declaration: “let us go also, that we may die with Him” (John 11:16).

021 Apòstols de Santa Maria d'Orcau, sant Tomàs.jpg

Thomas’ declaration is certainly not optimistic. He may have thought it seemed realistic, yet we would rightly call him cynical. Yes, the Jews had threatened Jesus before, yet He had always escaped. Where was Thomas’ faith or confidence in God or in Jesus? It is easy to be hard on Thomas and to question his faith. If we are honest with ourselves, however, we would have to come to the recognition that if we were there and in Thomas’ position, we would probably at least think the same thing if we did not actually say it. Thomas’ sentiment was likely shared among the other disciples as well. The odds did seem long. The way Thomas felt is exactly the way humans feel in those circumstances.

At first it may seem as if Thomas overstated the situation. Yes, Jesus would die during this trip to Jerusalem, but the disciples did not (John 18:8-9, 19:30). They did not physically die with Him. And yet, in a very real sense, the situation happened exactly as Thomas had cynically foretold. The disciples did not die physically, but their lives changed dramatically during their stay in Jerusalem, having seen Jesus not only die but also rise from the dead (John 20:1-29). Thomas would return to Galilee with some of the other disciples and would see the Lord in the resurrection yet again (John 21:1-24). The next time the word of the Lord Jesus came to Galilee it would do so in power to convict and convert people to the Kingdom of God in Christ (Acts 1:8, 8:4). What would be the message that Thomas as well as the other disciples would preach? That people would have to die to the world in Christ so as to rise again and walk in newness of life according to His purposes (Romans 6:1-23). All have to go and die with Jesus!

In a very real sense Thomas and the other disciples went and “died” with Jesus. After Jesus’ death and resurrection they would never be the same; where once was doubt and cynicism there was now faith and hope on account of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Where there was fear there was now boldness to preach the message no matter what resistance was encountered (e.g. Acts 5:17-42). They reckoned themselves as dead to the world and alive to Christ (Galatians 2:20). They took the world by storm. It would never be the same.

Thomas’ story resonates in the 21st century. In the world hope seems like a delusion; we come to the recognition that cynicism and despair prove more realistic and accurate than hope. On a human level our endeavors seem futile and hopeless. This attitude can easily infect and affect the people of God! It is easy to see the spiritual forces of darkness at work all around us and conclude that we are doomed, the situation is hopeless, and decline is inevitable.

If we hope in this life and this world only then these assessments would be realistic. We would have no reason to do anything than be cynical and in despair if we are the only ones at work. Yet we preach Jesus crucified and risen from the dead! We, like Thomas, must go to Judea to die with Jesus. We must die to the ways of the world and to cynicism and despair; we must find hope and new life through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Galatians 2:20, Philippians 3:1-15)! Our hope is not folly but rooted in deep and abiding faith in God as faithful to His promises, confident that He is greater than those who are against us (1 John 4:4). When we look around us we are not to see Satan triumphant; we are to recognize that this is his last gasp as he has gone down to defeat, and that we will overcome him if we hold firm to the Lamb and prove willing to not love our lives even to death, to see victory in what the world would call defeat, for the Lord Jesus reigns in Heaven and He will return to right all wrongs (Revelation 12:1-14:20).

Yet it all begins, as it did for Thomas, by going with the Lord Jesus to Jerusalem to die with Him. Let us put to death the man of sin, the ways of living in this world and the cynicism and despair they engender, and let us find new life through faith, baptism, and obedience to the Lord Jesus in His Kingdom, living in the hope of the resurrection and the fulfillment of all God’s purposes for His people in Christ (Romans 6:1-23, 8:17-25)! Let us die with the Lord so we may live with Him eternally in the resurrection!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Beyond All We Can Ask or Think

Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus unto all generations for ever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3:20-21).

Whereas the reality of human existence is quite firmly fixed in our world and its restrictions, the imagination of mankind has often soared to incredible heights. It often seems that there is no limit to the human imagination, for better or worse. We imagine stories in which we are the heroes and overcome all sorts of trials; we can imagine worlds in which people live in harmony and peace; we imagine all sorts of kinds of technologies and ways of living quite different from our own. We also can imagine in darker and more sinister ways, as modern movies can attest. Yet no matter how much we imagine we remain limited to our current existence. Since reality seems to never match up to our imagination, we cope in one of two ways. We either attempt to make the world fit our imagination, only to discover all sorts of complications and challenges we did not anticipate and only to find that the endeavor leads to the exact opposite result of our intentions, or we give up on the world, living in our imagination, so to speak. No matter which way we might choose to cope the end remains the same: our dreams and imagination are brought low by the cold, icy hand of reality. Therefore so many give up any hope of the greatest goods and content themselves with lesser goods.

Yet Paul, through his prayer for the Ephesians, invites us to question the strength of the grip of the cold, icy hand of reality, on account of the greatness of the God who made us and sustains us, praying for God, who “is able to do far more abundantly than we can ask or think, according to the power at work within us,” may receive the glory in the church and in Christ forevermore (Ephesians 3:20-21).

That seems like a startling declaration, something easily debunked or disproven. It does not require much to ask for or think about all people hearing the Gospel and coming to the knowledge of the truth (Romans 10:17, 1 Timothy 2:4), being healed of all disease and suffering, and all sorts of other audacious possibilities. We have likely asked for such things in the past in prayer, and it is evident that we have not seen them fulfilled. So how can Paul make such a declaration? Is he manifesting a foolish faith?

We do well to consider a very important word in the prayer: “able.” God is able to do well beyond anything and everything that we ask of Him. Not only is He able to do so, it can be done through the power at work within us, the Spirit according to the message of God in Christ (Romans 1:16, 1 Corinthians 3:14-16, 6:19-20, Ephesians 3:16). Through the power at work in us God can accomplish anything He might purpose. Through us the world could hear the Gospel and come to the knowledge of the truth; through us God can advance any of His prerogatives powerfully. As the Creator, He can do all that can be done, what we can imagine and well beyond that (Deuteronomy 29:29, Isaiah 55:8-9, Romans 11:33-36). Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, we must never doubt God’s ability (cf. Daniel 3:17).

Yet just because God can does not automatically mean God will; ability is not automatically actualization. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego knew that even though God was able to deliver them, it may not come to pass, but that did not change their faith (Daniel 3:18). We can think of all sorts of reasons why God, despite His ability, does not act in certain ways: allowance of the consequences of free will decisions to come to pass for both the one acting and those impacted by the action, refusal to overwhelm the choice and will of an individual, and there are more than likely a host of other reasons, far better than we could ever imagine, that explain why God acts as He does. We do not have control over a lot of these reasons. But there is one possible reason over which we do have some control, and that involves our level of faith.

We must be clear that faith, in and of itself, is no guarantee of obtaining the desired result from prayer. We can pray fervently in all faith and still not obtain what we seek; there likely is far more going on in the situation than we can recognize. Too many people use a “lack of faith” as a blunt object to shift “blame” for unfulfilled promises upon those who have the least reason for “blame” in order to continue to justify their theological edifice. Furthermore, God can still find ways to accomplish His purposes in all power through us, despite us, even if we do not maintain the strongest faith, as can be seen in Gideon in Judges 6:1-8:28. Yet, especially when we consider the “hall of faith” in Hebrews 11:1-40, we do well to ask ourselves: is part of the problem our lack of real, substantive confidence in the power of God to accomplish His purposes, and especially that through us?

There is little doubt that we pray good prayers and say many things which are good, right, and expected. We pray for the evangelization of the world; we pray for people to come to repentance and salvation; we pray for healing; we pray for the betterment of the welfare of those in distress. But when we pray these things do we actually expect them to happen? How often do we pray these things, even honestly and sincerely meaning what we say, yet always with a mental asterisk of doubt? “God, please heal this sick person (although I have little expectation for this person to continue to live, since the prognosis is grim).” “Father, we pray that the people of our community learn about You and be saved (yet we know they won’t, because they’re terrible sinners and they like being in sin, or they’ve been seduced by the false teachings of others, and won’t listen to us).” “Father, we pray that all may have food and shelter (but there is so much poverty, a lack of resources, and rampant corruption and war and all sorts of evil in too many parts of the world).”

Those parenthetical asterisks, things we would never imagine saying but are most assuredly thought of, are completely understandable: they derive from our experiences with the cold, icy hand of reality. They represent the despair that gets mixed into our hope and our confidence in God. Theologically we all recognize and agree that God is able to accomplish everything we have mentioned. Yet on a practical level we often maintain skepticism, doubt, and suspicion. Most of the time these prayers get answered according to our doubts; it seems that the grip of the cold, icy hand of reality remains.

It is not for nothing that James warns us against being double-minded in our petitions (James 1:6-8): if we pray but maintain doubt in prayer we have no right to ever expect those prayers to be fulfilled. They do not truly reflect the boldness of faith which we ought to maintain toward God; we have already cut off the hope of fulfillment by having no expectation of fulfillment. This is not the kind of prayer Paul prayed, and it is not the kind of prayer Paul would expect followers of God in Christ to pray. According to the Gospel, God has already accomplished the most difficult task of liberation from sin and death through the death and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 8:1-4) and wishes to freely give us all things (Romans 8:32). He is prepared to provide us a place of glory beyond compare and which make our imaginations seem tame by comparison (Romans 8:18, 2 Corinthians 4:17). Yet the fantastical is not all about the future; Paul’s prayer is a bold declaration of what is possible right here and right now. God is able to strengthen us with power, root and ground us in love, give us the strength to understand the dimensions of the love of Christ which is beyond knowledge, to fill us with the fulness of God, but only if we ask Him to do so fervently and expect it to actually happen (Ephesians 3:16-19). Does God want people to be condemned? Has He proven powerless in the face of ungodliness, secularism, indifference, etc., so that modern man has no hope in the face of the menaces of our society? The first century was just as daunting if not more so and yet the Gospel thrived! Has the Gospel lost its luster? No, no, a thousand times, no! God remains as able to accomplish powerful things through His message today as He was in the first century; perhaps what is lacking is our confidence in God, that He is not only able but willing to accomplish these great things, and if we would only prove willing to stand before Him in prayer, pray the bold prayer for the powerful advancements of His purposes, and to do so without regard to the cold, icy hand of reality, without that mental parenthesis doubting and denying the efficacy of the prayer, and to actually pray and mean to pray for people to come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved, to be healed through the power of God from afflictions, to be strengthened through trials, or for a thousand other things for which we might pray.

God is able to do well beyond anything we can ask or think, and there are many things for which we can ask or about which we can think! We have to maintain greater confidence in God than we do the cold, icy grip of reality, and believe that God can transform reality, else why do we bother with Christianity? Yet we do well to keep in mind the actual prayer Paul makes, for God to receive the glory in the church and in Christ for all generations (Ephesians 3:21). We cannot imagine God as our hitman or our genie; if we put our confidence in Him and He begins to do powerful things to advance His purposes through us, it will not be on account of our own strength, abilities, or any excellence in our own character, but because of His great power and strength, and inevitably despite our person and character. God will not give His glory to us or to anyone else; He will not stand idly by and allow us to be conceited into thinking that somehow “we” have accomplished what was really the work of God all along. He deserves the glory and the praise. He deserves to receive all glory in Christ, His life, death, resurrection, lordship, and return. In all things the church should give glory to God since without Him there is no life, and without His sustaining power the church will prove powerless in the face of its foes. When we recognize that it is not about “us,” but about God and His glory, we can understand that Paul does not have a foolish faith, and does not promise what cannot be delivered, because the parenthetical asterisks of our experiences with the cold, icy grip of reality do not restrict God and His mighty power! God is able to do more than we can ask or think unto His glory; can we maintain that trust in Him and make petitions accordingly?

Ethan R. Longhenry

Think on These Things

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honorable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things (Philippians 4:8).

The human mind is a most wonderful and profound entity. Its depths and its abilities are only now beginning to be plumbed and understood. There is much about the mind that is beyond our understanding; perhaps it will always be that way.

Yet there is one undeniable aspect of the mind– the power of its meditations. We humans have been given the ability to think our way through all kinds of challenges and difficulties. We have the ability to focus on the positive in the worst of times. But we can also focus on the negative even in the best of times. On account of our mental attitude we may survive and endure; we can just as quickly wither and fall apart.

This is why Paul encourages Christians to focus on the positive– that which is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous, and praiseworthy. Paul’s idea is that if we focus our minds on things like that, our attitude, emotions, and actions will conform to those excellent standards. We will be better able to express the love and joy that should mark believers (John 13:35, Philippians 4:4).

We all know what happens when we focus on the opposite. When we think about what is false, dishonorable, unjust, impure, and grotesque, our attitudes and actions easily follow, and we find ourselves tempted in sin (cf. James 1:14-15). If our minds are focused on what has no virtue and can have no praise, it cannot be pleasing to the God Who is excellent, virtuous, and praiseworthy!

Yet there is an even more pervasive and subtle difficulty– the “middle ground.” In the “middle ground,” one might not be thinking of practices that are sinful, but one is surely not thinking about what is good. Instead, the mind is filled with anxiety, worry, and negativity. Cynicism and pessimism dominate such a perspective.

As it is written in Proverbs 23:7a, “for as he thinketh within himself, so is he.” While we may not always choose an instantaneous reflex, and while there are some circumstances when the brain’s chemistry is not properly aligned, in general, we have the choice about that which we focus upon with our minds. We may try to blame our circumstances, our past, or some other external factor in an attempt to justify negative or sinful thinking, but in the end, such is just an excuse.

In times of distress it is easy to focus on the worries and to believe that things will continually fall apart; at such times we must endeavor even more to remember what is of value, honorable, lovely, and praiseworthy, so that we can be sustained through the difficulty. Yet it is no less important to remember the positive when things are going well. Too many spend the good times worrying about the bad ones they know are just around the corner.

What Jesus says about the heart is also true for the mind: “for where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also” (Matthew 6:21). If we know that we are of God, and that we belong to God, then we will direct our minds to God and to all of the blessings and benefits of this life. We will dwell mentally about all the good with which He has blessed us and all the wonderful things that He has provided in the creation and through His Son Jesus Christ. But if our treasure is in the perishing and fading world, then our thoughts will focus on the dark and negative, and will lead to our own fading and perishing.

While not everything is in the mind, the mind controls a lot more of our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being than we would perhaps like to admit. Where have we placed our minds? Let us focus on what is divine, holy, and of benefit, and serve Christ the Lord!

Ethan R. Longhenry