Growing in Grace and Knowledge

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and for ever. Amen (2 Peter 3:18).

Peter’s final written words continue to resonate.

The second letter of Peter features the Apostle’s reminders to his fellow Christians regarding the holiness of their conduct, the behavior and condition of false teachers, and encouragement regarding the end of time (the eschaton) and warnings regarding those who distort the Apostolic witness (2 Peter 1:1-3:17). After his departure Peter does not want his fellow Christians to be carried away by the error of the wicked, falling from their steadfastness in Jesus (2 Peter 3:17); the only way to avoid that is to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, to whom glory belongs from now until forever (2 Peter 3:18).

Peter thus expects Christians to grow. He is not speaking merely to Christians who remain young in their faith; quite the contrary! The Christians to whom Peter wrote could recall and remember the words of the Apostles and prophets regarding the last days (2 Peter 3:2); they had a working knowledge of the faith and thus had “been around the block” for awhile. During this life there is no point at which it becomes acceptable for a Christian to stop growing! Whether we have been Christians for one day, one year, or almost a hundred years, we must continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Chrisme Colosseum Rome Italy

Christians must grow in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior (2 Peter 3:18). This knowledge certainly involves the facts about Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, lordship, and return as established in the New Testament. We also do well to buttress our knowledge of the Lord through gaining understanding of the story of the people of God in the Old Testament (2 Timothy 3:15-16). If we do so we are better equipped to recognize how Jesus would have us think, feel, and act in the twenty-first century as His faithful disciples (1 John 2:3-6).

Yet Christians are also to grow in the grace of Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18). Grace, Greek charis, is “unmerited favor,” obtaining things we do not deserve. The preeminent way in which we have received grace is through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for our sin, the means by which we are offered reconciliation with God (Ephesians 1:7, 2:1-10). But how can we “grow” in that grace? We know it cannot be through greater sin (Romans 6:1-23). But how can Christians grow in the gift of God in Christ?

Christians can grow in grace through more effectively manifesting the fruit of that gift and being that gift toward others. God has displayed grace toward us inasmuch as He has given His Son for our reconciliation and restoration. Yet it is not enough for us to obtain the reconciliation but remain as we are; we must manifest the transformation of the follower of Jesus, no longer walking in the ways of the world, but walking in Jesus’ ways, displaying the fruit of the Spirit (Romans 12:1-2, Galatians 5:22-24, 1 John 2:3-6). When we are transformed to not only be saved by Jesus but also to think, feel, and act like Jesus, we are able to serve others as Jesus did and they will give praise and glory to God as Jesus intends (Matthew 5:13-16, 1 Peter 2:11-12). The Body of Christ ought to be recognized as a gift of God to the world; it is incumbent upon its members to act accordingly (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Ephesians 4:11-16)!

“Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ”; Peter’s final words echo through the centuries (2 Peter 3:18). The Christian must recognize that while in the flesh there is always more to learn, more to do, lessons to obtain, and growth to experience. An important part of that growth involves knowledge, but there is always more to learn, and of the making of books there is no end (Ecclesiastes 12:12). We can, and should, study the Scriptures; are we bearing the fruit of that study through the demonstration of the transformed life, manifesting growth in the grace of the Lord Jesus? Are we trusting less in ourselves and more in Him? Do we continue to rely on our own strength or are we entrusting ourselves to God’s strength in Christ (Ephesians 3:14-21)? Are people better able to see Jesus reflected in us on account of our investment in study and trust in God? We must grow in the knowledge of Jesus Christ but also in His grace; let us learn more of Jesus so as to serve Him more effectively, manifesting the fruit of the Spirit, giving others reason to glorify God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Bread Taken, Blessed, Broken, and Given

And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it; and he gave to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body” (Matthew 26:26).

At the time only One Person understood the significance of what was taking place.

It was customary to share bread at the Passover meal, the annual remembrance of Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian bondage by YHWH (cf. Exodus 12:1-28, 13:3-16). Yet on this Passover in 30 CE Jesus infused this particular bread with far greater significance. He took it, blessed it, broke it, and gave it for His twelve disciples to eat, declaring that it represented His body (Matthew 26:26).

Unfortunately the bread has become a matter of controversy. Some would later claim that Jesus intended for the bread to actually, physically transform into His body, even though He nowhere says or claims as much. Some went too far the other way and claimed that the memory of Jesus’ body was all that was important and no bread was necessary at all. While Jesus never intended for anyone to believe that the bread actually, substantively becomes His body, the association between the bread and His body exists for good reason!

Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to His disciples. As Jesus had done to the bread as representing His body, thus He experienced in His own body over the following 18 or so hours. Jesus was taken, arrested, and brought before first the Jewish and then Roman authorities (Matthew 26:47-27:25). Before His betrayal Jesus prayed to the Father for His will to be done (Matthew 26:42); in the midst of His sufferings He prayed for the forgiveness of those who were crucifying Him, thus seeking to be a blessing to those who were hurting Him (Luke 23:34). While the Evangelists assure us that none of Jesus’ bones were broken, according to what had been prophesied (John 19:32-37; cf. Exodus 12:46, Psalm 34:20), Jesus was most assuredly broken down in other physical, mental, emotional, and even spiritual ways on account of the betrayal, mockery, scourging, abuse, scorn, and crucifixion which He experienced (Matthew 27:26-49). Yet Jesus suffered and experienced it all to give Himself as the perfect sacrifice to defeat evil, to atone for sin, and to allow the restoration of all mankind back to the Father (Matthew 27:50, Romans 5:6-11).

The bread of the Lord’s Supper therefore most assuredly represents Jesus’ body, not just in metaphor but also in the whole experience of what was done to the bread, being taken, blessed, broken, and given.

Christians assemble on the first day of the week, the day of the Lord Jesus’ resurrection, to observe the Lord’s Supper, and, as Paul reminds us, to proclaim His death until He comes again (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). When we break the bread we jointly participate in Jesus’ body (1 Corinthians 10:17). Therefore, in our own lives, we also ought to reflect what is done to the bread in the body.

In Christ God has taken us out of the world to become a peculiar people for His purposes (1 Peter 2:3-9). While God has blessed Christians with all spiritual blessings in Christ (Ephesians 1:3), He also expects Christians to be sources of blessings for all with whom they come into contact (Matthew 5:13-16). Yet, in order to truly serve God, we must be broken: at first, humbled and brought low by the realization of our sin, its consequences, and what was required to secure our redemption (Ephesians 2:1-18, Titus 3:3-8); at times broken by suffering, persecution, and/or trial, suffering as our Lord did, ceasing from sin, having our faith refined as through fire (Romans 8:17-18, 1 Peter 1:3-9, 2:18-25, 4:1-2). Finally, as the Lord Himself declared, if we would be great in His Kingdom, we will secure it only through giving of ourselves for the purposes of others, serving others, seeking the best interest of others (Matthew 20:25-28, Philippians 2:1-11).

Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to His disciples. Jesus’ body was taken, blessed and a source of blessing, broken, and given for the sin of the world. If we would share in His Kingdom and the life that comes through His name, we as Christians must not only observe the Supper of the Lord but also must share in it, being taken by God, blessed and a source of blessing, broken, and given for the service of God and others. We do well to share in the bread and thus the body of the Lord Jesus, but let us always remember that in order to proclaim Jesus’ death we must share in that death and its suffering if we would also share in His resurrection and life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Word of Life

That which was from the beginning, that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we beheld, and our hands handled, concerning the Word of life (and the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare unto you the life, the eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us) (1 John 1:1-2).

This is not your average introduction to a letter. John is also not your average writer.

John began his first letter, like he began the Gospel he wrote of Jesus’ life, with emphasis on Jesus as the Word of God (John 1:1-18, 1 John 1:1-4). In his Gospel John correlates the activity of Jesus as the Word with the creation, writing John 1:1-5 in parallel with Genesis 1:1-5. John wrote that Gospel so that people would believe that Jesus is the Christ, and through their faith in Him might have life in His name (John 20:31).

John writes his first letter to Christians, his “little children,” those whom he loves in the Lord Jesus (1 John 2:1, 5:21). They have already come to believe in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. Yet many false teachers seek to lead Christians astray (cf. 1 John 2:18-27, 4:1-3); John feels compelled to begin his letter by reminding his readers why they have good reason to have confidence in the truth of what he says. John can be trusted because he, along with the other Apostles, have experienced the Word of life: they heard Him, saw Him, touched Him, participated in His work, and now bear witness that He is the Lord, the Son of God, who died but was raised again in power, exactly as the Lord Jesus commissioned them (1 John 1:1-2; cf. Matthew 28:18-20, Luke 24:44-49). As they read what he has to say, the early Christians who received this letter could have every confidence in the truth of its message, since its author had personally experienced Jesus as the Word of life.

Over nineteen hundred years later we also can maintain confidence in what John is saying since he has experienced the Word of life manifest in the Lord Jesus. We do well to make sure that our faith and practice are consistent with Apostolic faith and practice, since the Twelve are the unique witnesses and emissaries of the Lord Jesus, having seen Him in life, death, and in the resurrection, a privilege none since have enjoyed. We have no right to add to what has already been revealed by the Apostles regarding the faith; it cannot be rooted in the actual, physical experience of the Lord Jesus (Jude 1:3).

There is much we can gain by seeing how John presents this testimony and witness. The tendency has existed, especially in the Western world, to put a lot of emphasis on doctrines, teachings, and instructions. The Greeks were enamored with philosophy; it would not take long for many to attempt to reduce Christianity down to a system of precepts, principles, and to put the priority on doctrine and the formulation of intellectual systems of thought. Religions around the world feature books of wisdom handed down from wise men or influential instructors of the past. Many times the examples of those instructors do not live up to what they taught. For so many, religion is akin to philosophy: a bunch of abstractions that may not have much to do with real life, an ideal attempting to come to grips with the real.

This is why John’s emphasis is so important. John does not begin by saying, “we heard Jesus’ instructions.” Instead, he speaks of how he and the other Apostles experienced the Word of life: sure, they heard Him, but they also saw Him, touched Him, and participated in Him (1 John 1:1-3). John does not yet speak of Him as Jesus or Christ; he speaks of Him as the “Word of life.” All of these other religions, philosophies, etc., have focused on a set of written down doctrines and teachings to consider and follow. Christianity is unique in insisting that the message of God was manifest and embodied in Jesus of Nazareth! He did not just say the Word; He was, and is, the Word (John 1:1-18, 1 John 1:1-3)! In Christianity we do not just have many true statements or accurate teachings; we see the teachings lived and practiced by Jesus of Nazareth. No one else–not Abraham, Moses, David, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Buddha, Confucius, or anyone else–has claimed to be the way, the life, the truth, and/or the resurrection (John 11:25, 14:6). Therefore, John is right to make it clear that he did not just hear the correct teachings; he experienced the right teachings. He was not just told how he and others should live; he saw that life lived (John 13:34, 1 John 2:6). Christianity, therefore, is not just a set of abstract principles or doctrines; Christianity is the pursuit of the Life that was in Jesus of Nazareth and given to all who would follow after Him.

It is true that we do not encounter the Lord Jesus as John did, but encounter Him through the written down testimony of the Apostles in the New Testament and through the prophecies of His coming in the Old Testament. If Christianity only involved just another written down story with good ethical principles, it would have no more value than Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or philosophical works. Yet Christians make the radical claim that the Jesus of whom we read in the New Testament is still alive and reigns as Lord to this very day (Ephesians 3:10-11, Hebrews 13:8). Jesus remains the Word of life, and through His message as revealed in Scripture we can have joint participation with the Apostles who proclaimed that message and with Him in God the Father (1 John 1:3-4). We can share in the Word of Life today, and walk today as He walked, and do His commandments, all through the cleansing and strength which He provides, a claim which no other religion or philosophy can make (Philippians 4:13, Ephesians 6:10-18, 1 John 2:3, 6). The Word of life was with the Father, manifested to us, and returned to the Father, and all to provide all who would believe life, even to this day!

We may not be able to experience the Word of life as John did almost two thousand years ago, but we can still share in that life forever. Let us put our trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and take hold of that which is life indeed!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus: The Way, the Truth, and the Life

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

Sometimes it is all a matter of emphasis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Salt of the Earth

“Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men” (Matthew 5:13).

Everyone knows sodium chloride when they taste it.

As far as we can tell, salt was the first flavor additive people used; it also served as the means by which many foods were preserved. Salt plays a critical function for all living creatures: it regulates the water content of the body, and the sodium ion is the means by which electrical signals communicate through the nervous system. It is not found naturally in many foods; it must be added to the diet, and our tongues appreciate the flavor. It is therefore unsurprising to see how important and valuable salt has been for humanity throughout its existence; before modern processing methods, when edible salt was more challenging to find and use, it was highly prized. One word we use to describe someone’s wages, “salary,” comes from the Latin salarium, referring to the money paid to the Roman soldiers so they could purchase salt.

Salt was therefore known as an important preservative and seasoning in the ancient world, considered quite precious and valuable, and prized for its distinctiveness. But not all salt is made equal: one has to have almost pure sodium chloride for what we call “table salt,” and most naturally occurring salt deposits contain other elements as well. To this day the majority of the salt mined and processed is not for human or animal consumption but for industrial processes and for de-icing streets and sidewalks in colder climates.

Jesus understands these things, and He also knows that His audience understands these things. Having declared “the Beatitudes” in His “Sermon on the Mount” (cf. Matthew 5:1-12), He begins a series of metaphors describing how the disciples should conduct themselves among others and to what effect (Matthew 5:13-16). The first image used involves salt and its distinctiveness (Matthew 5:13): Jesus declares that His disciples are the “salt of the earth,” and then wonders what will happen if the salt loses its taste. At that point, its essential properties no longer able to be restored, its only value is to be thrown underfoot in order to be trodden upon by men.

Jesus begins with this declarative statement: “ye are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). There is no doubt or question about it. While Jesus might have the preservative function of salt in mind, suggesting that just as salt preserves food, His disciples are the reason the world is preserved, His expansion on the theme shows how He has the distinctive taste of salt in mind. The disciples are the “salt of the earth” in terms of being that distinctive flavor which is immediately recognizable when perceived. The distinctive flavor of salt is both unique in itself and uniquely satisfying to the palate. Its particular value is in its distinctiveness and difference, and that value exists on account of its purity.

While the disciples are declared to be the “salt of the earth” without any expression of doubt, Jesus goes on to ask what will happen if the salt loses its flavor. Can the saltiness be restored? He declares how it is now useless for food and preserving life and can only be used on the ground, just as we do today in order to keep the roads and sidewalks ice-free. Jesus therefore opens up the possibility that the “salt” may not maintain its “flavor” and will thus be rendered almost useless. What we call “table salt” loses its distinctiveness when it is no longer almost pure sodium chloride and other elements are introduced; when it is impure, it cannot be used for food preparation, and is only good for industrial or street use.

Thus we have the key to understanding Jesus’ imagery. Jesus’ disciples are called, justified, and sanctified, cleansed and made pure through faith (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:11, Ephesians 5:25-27, Titus 3:4-6). Jesus’ disciples are therefore distinctive, bearing the name of the Lord, seeking to serve Him in all they think, feel, say, and do, representing the new creation order even in the midst of the old (cf. Romans 8:29, 2 Corinthians 5:16-19, Colossians 3:17). Such purity, holiness, humility, love, and service is distinctive: it is immediately recognizable when perceived, utterly unique, and ultimately most satisfying both for the one engaged in the practice and those who see and are blessed by it. Such holy and righteous thinking, feeling, and action will draw people toward Jesus the Source of all life, holiness, and righteousness, to the praise of God the Father (cf. Matthew 5:16). When Jesus’ disciples conform to the image of Jesus and present the image of Jesus to their fellow man, their distinctiveness is evident and most satisfying. Perhaps not everyone will agree with Christianity and the Christian lifestyle, but when it is faithfully practiced, it at least garners respect.

But what happens if people profess to believe in Jesus but do not advance in righteousness, holiness, humility, love, and service? Such a “disciple” looks no different from anyone else in the world; there is nothing distinctive about their thinking, feelings, and actions. When there is nothing distinctive about them, of what value do they serve for the Lord’s purposes? Not much: these are the people who bring reproach upon the name of Jesus, besmirching His good name with their worldliness, giving cause for unbelievers to blaspheme. Such people are the “salt” which has lost its flavor; they are thus “thrown out,” to be “trampled upon” like the rest of the world. Impure salt cannot nourish, sustain, strengthen, or provide a distinct flavor; such is only possible with pure salt.

Jesus’ words, therefore, provide assurance and a warning. We cannot be distinctive in holiness or righteousness by ourselves and by our own standing; we must humbly submit in trusting faith before God the Father through Jesus the Son to receive the cleansing that comes through Jesus’ sacrifice in order to begin walking down the path of holiness and righteousness. When we turn to God and begin serving the Lord Jesus we become the “salt of the earth.” But we can only remain beneficial if we remain distinctive, and we can only remain distinctive by maintaining purity. We must seek after pure Christianity through humble service to God, seeking to align our will to His in every way. If we do not maintain that purity, but turn and follow after the lusts of the world, the assumptions and ideologies of the world, or other vain worldly pursuits, then there remains nothing distinctive about us. If there is nothing distinctive about us, we end up suffering the same fate as all of the salt that has always remained impure!

Pursuing justice, righteousness, and holiness is not optional; it is the means by which we maintain our distinctiveness in a world saturated with impurity and vice. Let us remain the distinctive salt of the world, seeking after purity, praising the name of the Lord and being the reason for others to praise the Lord as well!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Living Letters

Are we beginning again to commend ourselves? Or need we, as do some, epistles of commendation to you or from you? Ye are our epistle, written in our hearts, known and read of all men; being made manifest that ye are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in tables that are hearts of flesh (2 Corinthians 3:1-3).

Somehow, things had gotten worse in Corinth.

A cursory reading of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians exposes enough problems: flagrant sexual immorality in their midst, Christians taking other Christians to court, abuse of spiritual gifts, denial of the resurrection of the dead. Nevertheless, the Corinthian Christians still had some respect for Paul and gave him some credence.

Yet by the time of the writing of Paul’s second letter, Paul’s credibility is at stake. We get the impression from comments throughout the letter, but especially in chapters 10 through 12, that certain ones have come to Corinth from among the Jews, perceived to be some type of “super-apostles,” who are undermining the Corinthian Christians’ view of Paul. They challenge his credentials, his manner of speaking, his authority, and thus his message. The Corinthian Christians have clearly been influenced by these people. They begin questioning whether Paul really is who he says he is. They would like to see some sort of commendation for Paul to vouch for his standing.

Paul is thus in quite the predicament. How should he go about justifying who he is and the work he does when the Corinthians should already know better?

Ultimately, Paul decides to highlight the work that has been done among the Corinthians themselves as a demonstration of his commendation (2 Corinthians 3:1-3). What need does Paul have for a letter written by ink on papyrus, one that theoretically could be forged or compromised in some other way? He has a far greater letter of commendation: the Corinthian Christians themselves.

While the Corinthian correspondence highlights the flaws of the Corinthians, it is still good to bear in mind just how far those Corinthians have come. The congregation seems to be made up mostly of Gentiles, people from the Greek world who lived in a city famous for its immorality. Yes, some of them still struggled with the rampant sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 6:12-20); some struggled with balancing the understanding that an idol is nothing with the weaker consciences of other Christians (1 Corinthians 8:1-13); others had difficulties with the doctrine of resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-58). But the amazing thing is that they had been delivered from all such immorality and more through Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 6:11), having turned from dead idols to serve the living God. If you could get Gentiles in Corinth to seek to try to change their ways and to follow God, you could probably get Gentiles anywhere to try to do so!

And so Paul does have reason to feel that the Corinthians themselves represent a letter of commendation. They are a letter of Christ, not of Paul, as he strenuously emphasizes; Paul is the servant, the minister, whose sufficiency is only from God (2 Corinthians 3:4-6). The Corinthians testify to the power of Christ to transform people, even if there are many kinks that still need working out. This letter is not written on papyrus with ink, nor, for that matter, by chisel on stone, but instead by the Spirit of the living God on hearts of flesh (2 Corinthians 3:2-3). Paul and his associates carry this “letter” in their hearts, using their example in their exhortations to others, so that all may know and understand how powerfully God has worked among the Corinthians. With such a testimony and such a “letter,” what good would papyrus and ink, or stone and chisel, really be?

Yes, Paul writes as he does to persuade the Corinthians, and it has strong potential to persuade, since it speaks highly of them, and if nothing else, people always like being spoken of in such glowing terms. Yes, there is also probably a tinge of irony here, since Paul (or Paul’s amanuensis) is writing these words with ink on papyrus. But the point remains powerful: the greatest testimony to the Lord cannot be written down on paper with ink or on tablets with a chisel. The greatest letters of Christ are living letters.

It is the same way today. It is right and appropriate to appreciate Scripture and to use Scripture as the means of coming to a better understanding of who God is and what God would have us to do (2 Timothy 3:16-17). There is great power in the message of God (Hebrews 4:12). Nevertheless, the message loses its force quickly when its contents do not lead to transformation of the mind, heart, and deeds of the believer. One can know the Scriptures intimately, but if one is not actively seeking to conform to the image of Christ, all that knowledge goes for nothing (Matthew 7:21-23, Romans 8:29, James 1:22-25).

There is unparalleled power in the message brought to life; this is why the revelation of the new covenant is centered in the embodiment of the divine in Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:1, 14, 18, Colossians 2:9, Hebrews 1:3). The New Testament Scriptures seek to communicate in words who Jesus was, what Jesus taught, what Jesus did, the message of Jesus as it was communicated by His disciples, and the practical ways in which that message is to be lived and communicated. The message always points to its Source– God in Christ– and exhorts everyone to entrust themselves to that Source (Romans 1:16-17). The message lays forth all the equipment the believer will need in order to entrust himself to Christ and to follow after Him (2 Timothy 3:16-17). But that is not enough. The believer must then seek to put it to practice, to become that living letter of Christ of which Paul speaks.

A lot of people know that there are many good teachings in the Bible. Most people do not have a high tolerance for people who push the message of the Bible without living that message. Yet it is amazing to see how people respond when they see the message not just preached by a believer, but also lived by him or her (Matthew 5:13-16, Romans 10:14-17). There is no greater commendation of God’s message in the Gospel than to see it being lived by believers submitting themselves in all things to God’s will. It is not enough, therefore, to just tell people about Jesus; we must also show Jesus to people. It is not enough to just point to the letter and the ink; we must embody the message that has been recorded for us by letter and ink.

One of the saddest objections to the Bible is when people believe it to be irrelevant to modern life because of its antiquity. The Bible might be 2,000+ years old, but the message of God is supposed to be always alive through the believer who seeks to embody that message in his or her life. It may be that the last letter of an Apostle was written over 1,900 years ago; yet there should be living letters of Christ circulating around the world today, still proclaiming God’s redemptive work in word and deed, in the form of believers seeking to obey the Christ. Let us be those living letters to a sinful world and commend the faith in our words and deeds!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Limits of Study

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Rocky Soil

“And others fell upon the rocky places, where they had not much earth: and straightway they sprang up, because they had no deepness of earth: and when the sun was risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away…And he that was sown upon the rocky places, this is he that heareth the word, and straightway with joy receiveth it; yet hath he not root in himself, but endureth for a while; and when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, straightway he stumbleth” (Matthew 13:5-6, 20-21).

One of the most savage ironies in life is that we learn the most about our character and ourselves when we least expect it. Rare is the person who learns character lessons from winning, success, and prosperity. Just as fire is necessary to remove dross from pure metal, so distress, tribulation, and difficulty are necessary to refine the faith of the believer (cf. 1 Peter 1:3-9).

We have the maxim today that “whatever does not kill you makes you stronger.” But what happens to the one who does not survive their difficulties and challenges? Jesus provides an illustration of such people in the parable of the sower with the rocky soil.

The story is consistent in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8. The sower casts seed on rocky soil. The seed takes root and grows initially, but the roots do not sink down very deeply. Therefore, when the sun rises, or the moisture runs out, the plant withers and dies.

So it is with many people. Many hear the Word of God, and they receive it eagerly. They believe that Jesus is the Christ. They assemble with fellow Christians. By all appearances, they are growing well as disciples. They may be involved with all kinds of spiritual efforts. And yet, all of a sudden, they are gone.

Why? The reasons are many. Some burn out– they acted more on impulse, and perhaps their personalities are the sort wherein they do not keep any practice or commitment up for any significant amount of time. Others find themselves in some spiritually discouraging situation among Christians who do not act as God would have them act. Many more experience some external difficulty– a family member dies suddenly, they or someone they love endure some kind of evil, or their faith is challenged by some unbeliever in person or on some television show. As a result, many such people entirely abandon belief in God. Others will say that they still believe in Jesus, but not the church, or will declare that they are spiritual but not religious, or some other rationalization.

All such circumstances boil down to the same problem: a shallow faith. Faith is the “roots” that people grow as they learn of God. In the physical realm, roots have amazing power as they grow. Over time roots can often find ways to grow, even in inhospitable places. But when the roots dry out, there is not much hope left. So it is with our faith. If our faith has not grown sufficiently, or was not sufficiently founded in Jesus, when some difficulty comes, it is easy to lose whatever faith we had. If the roots of faith did not grow deeply before boredom set in, then we will move on to some new thing in life. If the roots of faith did not grow past the actions of others, then we are likely to abandon Jesus when some of His followers fail us. If our roots of faith did not grow to the point of trusting God’s goodness in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, then we can easily imagine that God is not there when bad things happen and life seems to go wrong, or when we are posed with challenges in life for which there are no easy answers.

The illustration of the rocky soil is designed to be both a declaration of reality and a warning. It declares the reality that many will believe in a shallow way. When such people fall away, it will be discouraging and unfortunate, but it should not shake our faith or cause undue distress. Our Lord knew that many people would follow Him only as long as it was comfortable– in the sports world, those described as “fair weather fans.” And that is the warning– we must not be the rocky soil. We must be prepared for challenges to our faith. There will be times when Christianity will seem boring and/or our zeal for Christ will languish. There will be times when fellow Christians do not act like they should, and it will discourage us. There will be times when evil will confront us head on, and it will lead to questions about the presence and goodness of God. And there will be times when the hope that is in us will be challenged by those who do not accept it. We cannot change that reality– but we can prepare for it. We can decide how we will respond to it. We can understand that such trials are blessings in that they help us to grow in faith (James 1:2-3). They may not be pleasant, but they are necessary for our growth. We can never prove to be the good soil until someone or something tests the depth of the roots of faith we have set down in our lives.

Life is not a bed of roses, and becoming a servant of Jesus does not then somehow make it so. In fact, serving Jesus means to humbly accept challenge, sacrifice, and difficulty (Matthew 16:24, 20:25-28, Romans 12:2, Galatians 2:20). When difficulty comes, will you grow or perish? We pray that you will grow and prove to be good soil, and not rocky soil, and to please the Creator of us all!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Looking Back

And another also said, “I will follow thee, Lord; but first suffer me to bid farewell to them that are at my house.”
But Jesus said unto him, “No man, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:61-62).

Here we have the third vignette in a row instructing us regarding discipleship. Jesus has already indicated how His true disciples never feel completely at home anywhere on earth (Luke 9:57-58), and that latching onto the greater good of the proclamation of the Kingdom must take precedence over all lesser goods (Luke 9:59-60).

The third man is like the first– he volunteers to follow Jesus. But he is also like the second man– he has a “small” request to make first. He wants to bid farewell to those in his household.

The request seems fair enough. At any given moment in life, people have a lot of things going on. The call to discipleship is very important indeed, but there are bills to pay and people to whom we must say goodbye and other matters of business that ideally would be taken care of first.

Jesus makes it evident, however, that discipleship does not work this way. When He called Peter, James, and John, they left their fishing equipment at the boat and followed Him (Luke 5:1-11). Jesus calls Levi (Matthew) to follow Him; Levi leaves the tax collection booth immediately and follows (Luke 6:27-28). And Jesus’ answer to this individual in Luke 9:59-60 is no different: to look back after putting your hand to the plow renders you unfit for the Kingdom!

This seems rather dramatic and overboard at first. The individual seems to just want some closure before entering into a new phase of life. Would it not be good for him to take care of his obligations so as to follow Jesus without hindrance?

This perspective, however, overlooks many pitfalls that may take place. His family may attempt to persuade him out of following Jesus (cf. Luke 12:51-53, 14:26). Once he leaves Jesus’ company, there is no telling how many different factors could weigh down upon him– temptations from Satan, challenges from family and obligations, and simple inertia, falling back into the same patterns as before. He might go home resolute to follow Jesus, and before long, be back at his old habits in his old way of life.

Jesus understands these pitfalls and many others. He calls this man to give up everything already to follow after Him. Jesus does want this man to have closure– the closure must happen right now, as it was for Peter, James, John, and Levi. He must look forward to the advancement of the Kingdom and not be seduced into looking back.

If one has put his hand to the plow, and does not look forward, he will not be able to successfully plow the field. There is great focus necessary in the advancement of the Kingdom, and it requires the discipline and use of all of our faculties (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). We do not have enough resources at our disposal to accomplish God’s purposes while looking back at our past lives.

The danger of looking back is very great. Consider Israel in the wilderness– they were delivered out of Egypt with a mighty hand, but they did not forget about Egypt, and they did not set their faces forward sufficiently. Therefore, at every hint of difficulty, they remembered Egypt and the “benefits” they had there, and wanted to return (e.g. Numbers 14:1-4). Lot’s wife is another example of this– she looked back to Sodom and her life and friends that were just destroyed, and became a pillar of salt herself (Genesis 19:17, 26, Luke 17:32).

All of our resources– physical, emotional, spiritual– must be invested in God’s Kingdom. If we look back, and reflect upon our life when we were in the world, we run the very real risk of falling away when danger or difficulty arise. There will be times when it seems easier to be an unbeliever than to take up the cross and to follow Christ (Luke 14:27). The godly life will lead to persecution– that much is guaranteed– while the ungodly life may not be as troubled in the flesh (2 Timothy 3:2). There will always be temptations to resist following Jesus. Our families may be against us. Satan most certainly is against us, and we may suffer from his temptations directly or through family, friends, associates, or culture in general. The “business” of life can become so overwhelming as to demand all of our energy and time. These are all the dangers that accompany looking back when putting the hand to the plow, the desire to tie up worldly loose ends before we follow Jesus.

Ultimately, we must follow Jesus. We must turn away from the lives of sin we have led. Looking back is counterproductive– whatever “benefits” we had were outweighed by our separation from God in Christ and the sentence of condemnation that came with it (Romans 8:1-10, Ephesians 2:1-11, Titus 3:3-8). Even in Christ we might be tempted to look back to all of our challenges, difficulties, miscues, and deficiencies; better to learn from our past mistakes but keep looking and moving forward, as Paul did (Philippians 3:11-14). The task before us is sufficient to expend our energy, our time, and ourselves (Romans 12:1, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, etc.).

Jesus has made the call: follow Him as His disciple (Matthew 28:18-20). It is time for all of us to put our hands to the plow and work, looking ahead, having made a break with our sinful past. Let us not be tempted to delay or to work halfheartedly; let us expend ourselves for Christ as He gave Himself up for us!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Mary, Mother of Jesus

But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene (John 19:25).

One of the figures in early Christianity that has captivated many is Mary the mother of Jesus. Her legend has steadily grown throughout the past two thousand years to incredible heights. When we think about Mary, it is likely that much of what comes to mind is based on these later legends. We get a picture something akin to one of the ancient icons: a younger woman, holding Jesus as a baby, quiet, serene, seemingly confident.

Yet most of what is believed about Mary comes from pious legends that came far after the New Testament. What can be gained about Mary from Scripture is much more human, and much more compelling.

We meet Mary in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2. She is a young Jewish girl living in Nazareth in Galilee, a teenager, betrothed to the local carpenter Joseph (Matthew 1:18, Luke 1:26-27). The angel Gabriel visits her with a most compelling story: with her consent, she will conceive a child through the power of the Holy Spirit, and the Child will be Jesus, the Son of the Most High, the promised Branch of the house of David who will reign over Israel forever (Luke 1:28-35). Mary consents, exhibiting great faith in the God of Israel, and in so doing she proves to be the first person to suffer shame and indignity for the cause of the Lord’s Christ (Matthew 1:19-24, Luke 1:38). She was now the virgin who would bear the Immanuel child (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:22-23)– a peasant girl from Nazareth! The irony is not lost on her, as is made plain by her song of praise often called the Magnificat– a declaration of how the humble are exalted and the exalted are humbled through the power of God (Luke 1:46-55).

Her wonder only grows as the Child is born. He is born during a visit to Bethlehem, and shepherds come to see the Child after Gabriel declares to them that the Savior, Christ the Lord, was born (Luke 2:6-19). While presenting Him in the Temple, she marveled as Simeon the prophet spoke of the Child as salvation, a Light for the Gentiles, and glory for Israel– and how He would be the cause of fall and rising for many, and will pierce through Mary’s own soul, so the thoughts of many would be revealed (Luke 2:22-35). Magi came from the east, bearing presents of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, fit for a king, and bowed down before the Child (Matthew 2:11-12). It was a very auspicious start. But what did it all mean?

Contrary to what many believe, Mary would go on to have some children with Joseph– James, Joseph (or Joses), Simon, Judas, and some girls (Matthew 1:25, 13:55-56, Mark 6:1-3). We see Mary again when Jesus is 12 at the Passover festival in Luke 2:41-51. The family left town but Jesus stayed behind, and they spent three days looking for Him, and finally found Him in the Temple, sitting with the teachers, asking them questions, and amazing all who saw Him. Mary cries out to Him in her distress: “Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I sought thee sorrowing” (Luke 2:48). His response did not make sense to them: did you not know that I would be in my Father’s house (Luke 2:49-50)? Despite not understanding this, she treasured this– along with all the past events– in her heart (Luke 2:51).

For most of the rest of Jesus’ life and ministry, Mary His mother does not seem to be present often. She is confident of His divine power and prods Him a bit during the wedding feast at Cana (John 2:1-11). After that event He and His disciples stayed with her (John 2:12). A little later we see “those who were of Jesus,” understood to be His family, went out to seize Him because of all of His preaching activity, because they were convinced that “He [was] out of His mind” (Mark 3:21). We can be fairly certain that His brothers were involved, since they did not believe in Him at the time (John 7:2-5). Perhaps Mary was unaware of what they were doing and had no part in it; perhaps Mary was not only aware of it but went with them. There is also the episode where Mary and Jesus’ brothers were attempting to speak with Him, and He took the opportunity to teach how His true family are those who do the will of the Father (Matthew 12:46-49, Mark 3:31-35, Luke 8:19-21). The reason for the visit is entirely unexplained.

There seems to be a disconnect with all of this. Did Mary not receive all of these statements and signs about who her Son would be? How come she did not understand Jesus’ words in the Temple? Even if she had no part in the actions of her other sons, how could it be that they did not believe in Him? Didn’t she tell them about Gabriel, the promises, and everything else? How can all of this be?

Some have speculated that all of this shows that the birth story was a later “add-on” to the Gospel; we need not go to such extremes. Instead, let us again consider the expectations of His brothers, at least, and quite possibly His mother also. As good Jews, they were waiting for the Messiah. They would have imagined the Messiah, the King in the line of David, the One who would rule over Jacob, as doing so in a very physical and concrete way. They expected Jesus to be King in Jerusalem, conquering nations and restoring Israel to its glory. Everything Gabriel told Mary could be understood through this perspective. But Jesus was not doing these things. It was clear that God was with Him, and that He had divine power, but He was preaching and teaching about a very different sort of Kingdom. He made it fairly clear that He did not come to overthrow Rome as much as to overthrow the works of the Evil One and sin.

Perhaps this is why Mary did not expect to find Jesus in the Temple asking questions; she may have imagined Him to be destined for a throne in Jerusalem, and not among those teaching in the Temple. Having an overfilled house in Capernaum, preaching and teaching, seemed as madness. This was not the expected script!

The next time Mary is mentioned is at the crucifixion, when Jesus makes provision for her, commissioning John to care for her (John 19:25-27). We know that Mary is watching her Son die on the cross. It is quite likely that the full effect of Simeon’s words was crashing down upon her (Luke 2:35). As to her faith and confidence in her Son, in the purpose of God for Him, in whether or how the predictions God made were being fulfilled, we know nothing.

The next time we do know something is also the last time Mary is mentioned in Scripture. Mary and the brothers of Jesus were part of the 120 who were gathered in the upper room between Jesus’ ascension and the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:12-15). While she might have doubted before, and she most likely did not fully understand the sort of Messiah her Son would be, by now she fully believes and understands. Jesus her Son did not remove the Roman yoke to rule an empire from Jerusalem. He had done far better– He had defeated sin and death, removing the burdens that no man has ever been able to bear, and was crowned Lord of lords, and King of kings (Romans 5:6-11, 8:1-2, 10:4, Revelation 19:16).

Ultimately, Mary’s story is mostly left up to our imagination. We know that she was full of faith in God, willing to bear the reproach of the Lord’s Christ, and was there for her Son from birth to death and even beyond. She certainly understands that He has power from God, but it seems doubtful that she really understood the plan that God established for her Son. Perhaps her confidence at times wavered; perhaps she persevered in belief, even when she did not understand everything and when her children did not believe. She watches her own beloved Son die on that cross, and we can only imagine the heartache she experienced in so doing, and all the more so if she did not fully understand God’s purpose for Him. Yet, in the end, she is numbered among the disciples of her own Son, and is praying with her now repentant children, no doubt that God’s will through Jesus be fully manifest as it would be on Pentecost.

We would like to know more about Mary, but we must remember that this is the story of Jesus, not His mother. Yet Mary still encourages us in our faith, for no matter how many internal trials and difficulties she experienced, she began with faith in whom her Son would be, and either maintained or returned to that faith by His death and resurrection. Her faith became better informed as He grew, taught God’s purposes, and then fulfilled them. She was, no doubt, not ashamed to be called His disciple, and neither should we. Let us be encouraged by Mary’s example and serve her Son!

Ethan R. Longhenry