Unity of the Spirit

Giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).

God accomplished amazing and stupendous things in order to create and cultivate the Church of His Son Jesus Christ. What will we do with it?

In Ephesians 2:11-3:13 Paul had highly stressed the place of the church in God’s divine economy. In the composition of the church is found the testimony of the manifold witness of God according to the eternal plan purposed in Jesus (Ephesians 3:10-11). The church is the temple of God and His household (Ephesians 2:19-22). And so, after Paul established the importance of walking worthily of the calling in Jesus (Ephesians 4:1), he then emphasized the importance of working together as the church to build it up (Ephesians 4:3-16). If we would work together as the church to build it up, we must give diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).

“Giving diligence” is the Greek spoudazontes, meaning to make haste, exert oneself, give diligence (Thayer’s Lexicon). A more verbal form of the same word is found in 2 Timothy 2:15 in the exhortation to be diligent to present ourselves as approved to God, workmen without needing to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. Many have made much of the King James Version’s use of “study” to translate spoudason in 2 Timothy 2:15, although in the 17th century it meant something more like “give diligence” than the modern “bookish” meaning of study. Thus Christians are as much to “study” to keep the unity of the Spirit as they are to “study” to present themselves as approved by handling the word of truth rightly. The same Apostle makes both exhortations; there is no basis on which to consider one as greater or superior to the other. There is no justification to be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit at the expense of the word of truth: unity in the Spirit is grounded in the truth of what God has accomplished in Jesus, and there can be no unity when the truth of the faith is compromised (Romans 16:18-19, 1 Timothy 4:1, 6:3-10). And yet there is also no justification to be diligent to be unashamed workmen who rightly handle the word of truth at the expense of unity in the Spirit: the “word of truth” in Ephesians 2:11-3:13 declares God’s work in reconciling to Himself and to each other all who would trust in Jesus, and Paul will go on to declare the “word of truth” of the inherent unity of the body and the faith in Ephesians 4:4-6, and so any undermining of Christian unity in the Spirit is undermining the word of truth itself!

Christians are to give diligence to “keep” the unity of the Spirit. “To keep” is the Greek terein, meaning to attend to carefully, guard, keep, preserve (Thayer’s Lexicon). Christians are not the architects of unity in the faith; it is not for us to establish it, impose it, or somehow create it. On our own we hated and were hated in turn, living in the lusts of our flesh as children of wrath (Ephesians 2:2, Titus 3:3). It required Jesus’ death on the cross to kill the hostility and to provide the redemption and reconciliation we did not deserve nor could do anything to earn or merit (Romans 5:6-11, Ephesians 2:11-15). When we believe in Jesus, confess that faith in Him, repent of our sins, and are immersed in water in Jesus’ name, we are in a spiritual sense immersed into the one Spirit into the one body (1 Corinthians 12:13). God has established the unity of Christians in Jesus; God has made us all one man in Jesus through His Spirit (cf. Romans 12:3-8); we therefore cannot create or fabricate that unity. Instead, we must guard diligently the unity we already have. Tribalistic divisions, factions, and wars testify to the enduring power of hostility and hatred to this day; as Christians we are always tempted to compromise with the world, to take up the banner or the flag of various causes, peoples, and nations, and conduct ourselves in such a way as to endanger the unity of the Spirit. Our zeal is far too often misdirected, focused on the chastisement of the people of God, often majoring on the minors, rather than a critique of self and an outward push into the world to proclaim the Gospel of the Christ. Unity in the Spirit is not a default state or what we find natural; only through diligent effort will we keep the unity of the Spirit.

The unity of the Spirit is to be kept in the bond of peace. “Bond” is the Greek sundesmo, that which binds together, like a ligament in the human body (as used in Colossians 2:19), or a bundle (Thayer’s Lexicon). As ligaments connect muscles in the human body, so peace is what connects Christians in the unity of the Spirit. That peace is not the mere absence of hostility, but the elimination thereof: Jesus killed the hostility between God and man and man with man on the cross (Ephesians 2:11-18). True unity can only be nourished and sustain where there is true peace. As long as there is hostility and enmity there will be tension and hostility. If we would be diligent to maintain the unity of the Spirit, we must maintain the bond of peace. If we would maintain the bond of peace, we must strive for that which makes for peace.

How do we strive to make for peace? Paul has already listed the characteristics which lead to such peace in Ephesians 4:2: maintaining humility and meekness, manifesting patience, showing tolerance for one another in love. A similar “recipe” is found in Philippians 2:1-4. When we speak of unity we all too often speak of doctrinal uniformity; while agreement on doctrine is crucial to joint participation in the faith, evident from 1 Corinthians 1:11, doctrinal agreement is not sufficient to establish unity in and of itself. We must agree on the truth of God in Christ, but then we must act like it. We must demonstrate humility, recognizing that all of us are redeemed sinners, prone to mistakes, of equal standing and value before God, and to adjust our opinions and ideas about ourselves and others accordingly. We must be meek, maintaining the strength of conviction and faith, but keeping it under control, exercising it judiciously and with love so as to build up. We must be patient with one another: “long suffering” is the literal meaning of Greek makrothumia, and that is precisely what patience demands. Brethren can be insufferable at times; such is true of you and me as well. We are all different people with different backgrounds and ideas: we can consider that difference as a source of conflict, strife, and difficulty, and try to eliminate it, or we can learn to appreciate the differences which exist among us, focusing on how God is glorified when different people come together as one in faith in Jesus, and thus show tolerance for each other despite each other’s quirks, flaws, and challenges.

We have come to understand the power which exists in the unity of a family. It should be no different for the household of God! God has broken down the walls of hostility in Christ so we can all share in the same faith and obtain the same salvation; should we not now strive to keep and guard this precious unity in the Spirit which was obtained at such terrible cost, and embody God’s purposes for His creation before all those who would resist them? May we keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace to the glory of God in Christ, and share in relational unity for eternity!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Alienation

Wherefore remember, that once ye, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called Circumcision, in the flesh, made by hands; that ye were at that time separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world (Ephesians 2:11-12).

To many loneliness and alienation is a fate worse than death. Who really wants to be entirely alone?

As Paul writes to the Ephesians (and if Ephesians is an encyclical letter, which is plausible, to other congregations of Christians as well), after describing the initial condition of all mankind and how God has acted in Christ to provide salvation (Ephesians 2:1-10), he then turns specifically to the Gentile Christians, of whom there were likely many in Ephesus and Asia Minor, and spoke of how God reconciled Gentiles with Jews, the people of God, to make one new body of God’s people in Christ (Ephesians 2:11-18). As with his description of salvation, so with his description of the in-gathering of the Gentiles: he first describes the condition of the Gentiles before they found reconciliation in Christ in Ephesians 2:11-12, and it is not a pretty picture. They were the “uncircumcision,” used in derogatory ways (e.g. 2 Samuel 1:20). They were separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, having no part of the nation of the people of God; they were strangers, or outsiders, not sharing in the covenant of promise given to Abraham and maintained through Isaac and Israel (Genesis 12:1-50:12). Therefore they found themselves with no hope of resurrection or reconciliation and without God, the source of light and life, in the world (Ephesians 2:12). People of the nations (“Gentiles” meaning “nations”) found themselves in quite a distressing and difficult place: they were out there alienated from God, His people, and therefore all that is good and holy.

Almost two thousand years later we all find ourselves, at some point, in this condition; when we live in sin we are separated from God (Isaiah 59:2), have no hope in the resurrection but a fearful expectation of judgment (Romans 2:6-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, Hebrews 10:26-31), and at a fundamental level find ourselves alienated from the people of God (1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 1 Peter 4:3-5). Is that any way to live or seek to maintain existence?

Modern life and culture have only exacerbated man’s condition of alienation. In the past, for better or for worse, people most frequently spent most of their lives within a few miles of where they were born; everyone knew everybody, and quite often, everybody’s business. It was not that long ago when neighbors actually knew one another and looked out for one another; neighborhood children would play with each other and grow up together. People had to interact with each other when traveling and while shopping. These days many extended families are spread across the country or even the world; many move frequently; technology develops ways to function without interaction. If anything our fellow man becomes a matter of irritation: those other cars on the road leading to traffic delays; other shoppers who are in the way or taking too long at the register. Even the Internet with its great promise of connecting people around the world easily leads to alienation when people choose electronic contact over personal contact. We may have new and better toys, yet they have come at the expense of our relationships with one another. Why are we surprised, then, when so many people are depressed, anxious, and feel quite alone and alienated from their fellow man?

Despite the popular myths of society man was not made to be fully independent and alone. Humans were made in the image of God who is Three in One, One in relational unity (Genesis 1:26-27, John 17:20-23). As humans we need connection with God and with fellow human beings in order to live and thrive! Such is why Paul does not stop with the story at Ephesians 2:12 any more than he did in Ephesians 2:3; the great news of Jesus Christ is that all who were once alienated from God and His people can now be reconciled through the blood shed by Jesus, and we can share in the hope of resurrection and life together with God and one another for eternity through Jesus’ resurrection (Ephesians 2:1-18, Revelation 21:1-22:6). Thanks to Jesus we do not have to suffer from alienation any more. Through Him we can be reconciled to God (Romans 5:6-11). Then we can become the people of God and share in that work and community together (Acts 2:42-47, 1 John 1:7)!

Sadly there are times and places when and where Christians feel alienated and alone. Perhaps they work in difficult places. Perhaps their congregation is not fostering a strong sense of community within itself. Perhaps the Christian has not proven willing to open up so as to be part of the larger group, afraid of getting hurt or burned for the first time or yet again. Perhaps the Christian or the members of the church have believed a bit too much in the American myth of complete independence and self-sufficiency. Regardless of the reason, this ought not be, for how can the people of the God who is One in relational unity survive and thrive when living in alienation, isolation, and loneliness?

The church, as Christ’s body, must reflect the will of its Head, the Author and Finisher of its faith and practice (Ephesians 5:25-32, Hebrews 12:2); as Jesus is One with the Father and the Spirit, so He wills for us to be one with one another in His body (John 17:20-23). Such is why He said that His “mother and brothers” are those who do the will of His Father, privileging the spiritual relationship over all others (Matthew 12:46-50). Such is why Paul exhorts Christians to prefer one another in honor, expecting the members of the body of Christ to have the same care for one another (Romans 12:10, 1 Corinthians 12:24-25). Therefore, building strong relationships and community within the local congregation is not an optional work, but crucial for the spiritual health of all involved. It will not always be pretty; relationships never are. It will require a lot of growth and change on the part of many, yet that is exactly what we are to experience while in this life (1 Peter 1:3-9).

A group of people professing Christ but as alienated from one another as they are from the rest of the people with whom they interact in the world does not reflect the will of God in Christ for His body, and the people of the world know that. Why bother being associated with a group of people who have as little to do with one another as the people they already know, especially when that association comes with additional levels of guilt and shame? When the church looks like the world, then the church has failed. But when people of the world see Christians love each other, care for each other, strengthening the relationships with each other, are there for one another in good times and bad, and that Christians are therefore able to draw strength from one another and are built up in their faith, just as God expects in John 13:34-35, Ephesians 4:11-16, they can see how radically different that is from the alienation present in the world, and all of a sudden being part of the people of God becomes a much more attractive proposition! The orphan can find a family; the introvert can find acceptance; the one who feels like they are always failing find support; and all who are part of the group live in the confidence that whatever may come they have the people of God to hold them up and sustain them no matter what!

Deep down we are all very scared of being alone. Christ has redeemed us from that fear; are we willing to trust in Him and make it a reality for ourselves and our fellow people of God?

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

Honor Father and Mother

Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee (Exodus 20:12).

The fifth commandment brings about a shift in focus. Whereas the first four commandments involved an Israelite’s relationship with his God, the last six involve his relationship with his fellow man. One could say that the first four commandments are the means by which the Israelites would “love the Lord [their] God with all [their] heart, and with all [their] soul, and with all [their] mind” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Matthew 22:37), and the last six commandments are the means by which they would “love [their] neighbor[s] as [themselves]” (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:39).

Therefore, as we turn from man’s relationship with his God toward his relationship with his fellow man, what would we emphasize? What would be the first command that we would establish for how people ought to work with one another? In the Ten Commandments, the first command dictating the relationship of man with his fellow man is to honor his father and his mother (Exodus 20:12).

This might seem strange to us– we would more likely than not emphasize the later commandments to not murder, to not commit adultery, to not bear false witness, and to not covet your neighbor’s goods over the need to honor father and mother. Why, then, is the command to honor father and mother at the head of the list?

We can discern part of the reason in the “promise” noted by Paul as he provides the same command to the Ephesians (Ephesians 6:2-3): “that thy days may be long in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee” (Exodus 20:12). How is it that one’s days are longer if they honor their parents?

In a few circumstances there is a very good reason for it: the person who curses his parents or strikes his parents is to be put to death (Exodus 21:15, 17). If parents have a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey, they are to bring him before the elders, and if the charge is true, the son is to be stoned with stones (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). It is hard to “live long” in a land when you have been executed for rebellion against your parents!

Yet this is not really what God is envisioning when He makes this promise. While it is entirely possible that God provides a supernatural blessing or benefit on children who honor their parents, we can also understand this promise in completely natural ways. A child who listens to his or her parents has some level of respect for them as authorities. When the child becomes an adult, he or she is more likely to respect other authorities, including God and the government, and are more likely to be law-abiding citizens. If, on the other hand, a child does not honor his parents, it most often is due to stubbornness and rebelliousness. As that child grows up and becomes an adult, that stubbornness and rebelliousness continues against authorities. They are more likely to engage in illegal behaviors and have no respect for divine or human authority. Such people are more likely to die on account of their bad habits or at the hand of the law or men. Therefore, those who honor father and mother will have it go better for them and they will have a better opportunity to live long in the land God gave them. There are other factors in play that might hinder that– war, famine, pestilence, accidents, and the like– and there are also times when people live long lives despite being rebellious and stubborn. Nevertheless, the general premise holds weight, even to this day.

Hopefully we can better understand why God places the command to honor father and mother in the forefront of man’s relationship with other people. All of us first learn about life and how we should live from the home. Sadly there are many times when the home is not a good place in which to learn about life– some parents neglect and/or abuse their children, and this is not at all God’s intentions for the conduct of parents (Ephesians 6:4). Thankfully, a good part of the time, parents want the best for their children– to raise them to be good, productive, law-abiding citizens, if nothing else (cf. Hebrews 12:9-11). While some parents may not always have the best understanding of what God expects out of people, and not all parental advice and direction is good, most parents most of the time attempt to direct their children toward what is good and to help them avoid what is evil.

It is in the home where children first learn about authority. They are to understand that their parents have the authority over them to raise them as they see fit, ideally to raise them in the discipline and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). If a child respects his parents’ authority, he or she will be more likely to respect the authority of God and to be law-abiding citizens. If a man or woman honors father and mother, it will be easier for them to avoid committing murder, committing adultery, bearing false witness, and coveting. If a child does not learn about authority, or disrespects the authority of parents, then the temptation to commit those sins will be greater.

We must note, however, that while this command has applicability to children, God is speaking to the adult Israelites at the base of Mount Sinai and throughout their generations (cf. Exodus 19:1-20:2). Respect toward parents is not to end the minute a child is no longer under their authority. The wise man quickly discerns just how important and valuable his parents’ advice and counsel about life can be. Challenges and issues in the world, in the workforce, in marriage, with children– one’s parents have already endured all of these things and have gained experiential knowledge about them. In many instances children end up respecting and appreciating their parents far more as adults than they ever could have when they were younger!

How, then, do we honor father and mother? Honor certainly involves respecting them, appreciating the sacrifices they made for us, and being a source of strength and encouragement for them. But “honoring” father and mother goes much further than this– children are expected to take care of their parents and provide care for them in their older age, as Jesus makes clear regarding this commandment in Mark 7:10-13.

This value is not well understood in our society. Sure, people still understand that parents and grandparents should be honored; if there are reports of parents abusing children or children abusing parents, we understand that such are terrible things and should not be done. Sadly, however, in our push toward individualism and individual fulfillment, far too many children cannot be bothered with the expectation to provide and care for their parents or grandparents. Therefore, far too many parents and grandparents languish in nursing homes and other assisted care facilities, often all but forgotten, seemingly unloved, without comfort or encouragement.

Yes, there are times when the medical needs of a parent or grandparent are too great for their children to provide, and we must be sensitive toward these situations. Nevertheless, we must remember that God has charged children and even more extended family members with the obligation to care for the elderly and widowed within their family (Ephesians 6:1-3, 1 Timothy 5:16). Even if the parents’ medical needs are great, children can still remain involved in their parents’ lives. There is no excuse or justification for parents and grandparents to be physically and emotionally cast off in old age– such is extremely dishonorable!

There may be times when it seems burdensome to care for parents or grandparents; there were times, no doubt, when it was burdensome for them to care for us. God expects His children to honor their earthly father and mother, not just to show them respect, but to take care of them just as their parents had taken care of them. Let us honor God by honoring our parents!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Principle of Work

Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labor, working with his hands the thing that is good, that he may have whereof to give to him that hath need (Ephesians 4:28).

In the midst of various exhortations regarding the righteous life– proper speaking, not being angry, a lack of bitterness and filled with tenderheartedness– Paul has an exhortation to those who formerly lived by stealing.

Stealing has been a challenge in society for as long as society has existed. There is the obvious forms of stealing– taking things from others without proper payment– but there are many other forms. Asserting that work was done that was not done at all or not done properly, personal use of resources that were not designed to be used personally, and dishonest “labor.” Stealing is not limited to the poorer classes; “white collar” stealing may be more complicated and subtle but no less damaging, as we have soberly learned in recent years. All kinds of justifications are given for stealing, everything from stealing to feed children to stealing to inflict vengeance on a corrupt company or system.

Nevertheless, stealing is not acceptable in any form. Those who steal, Paul says, should steal no more.

Instead, such a one is to labor. He is to work with his hands in some good way. Dutiful employment is expected out of believers. In so doing they will have what they need in order to survive. Manual labor is certainly valuable and good, but it would be distorting Paul’s purpose in the passage to mandate that all believers must engage in manual labor. Nevertheless, the work that believers do should provide a beneficial service for those who pay for it. It should go without saying that services that lead people into sin or jobs that provide no benefit or meaningful service to humanity are inconsistent with Christ’s purposes and for the Christian life.

Yet God does not expect the ex-thief here to support only himself. He is to work diligently, not just to have something for himself, but also something for others who are in need.

Perhaps Paul has some kind of penance in mind for the ex-thief here: since he took from others, depriving people of what was theirs, it is right and appropriate for him to now be a blessing to others, in some sense “giving back” to society.

Nevertheless, there is value in understanding what Paul says here as a general principle of work for all believers. What is true for the worker who is a former thief stands true for workers with no such background. Believers, after all, are to do what they can to assist those in need (Galatians 2:10, 6:10)! Therefore, just as it is true that believers are to work, believers must also consider their wages as not just destined for themselves and their own benefit but also find ways to give part to those in need.

This principle is opposed to our society’s values, particularly as they were expressed in the years before the “Great Recession.” We were encouraged to spend our money on all kinds of things. When our incomes were not enough to cover everything we were spending, we were encouraged to use credit and to continue to spend. Marketers and others who profited on sales attempted to persuade us that we deserved the things we were buying and that it was what we should be doing.

What has been the end of all these things? We still have all kinds of things, but may have lost the house in which we stored them. Everywhere we look we see people in economic difficulty and distress– perhaps even in our own mirror! We have learned the hard way that we should not over-extend ourselves on credit and other such things.

But our trouble is still there: now much of our “excess” income is going to cover the indebtedness of the past. People’s needs are still dire, but far too many are stuck in the same paradigm. They have been told that their paycheck is their money, and they find ways to spend all of it.

It should be well known that God tests us. He wants to see how suitable we are as stewards– are we able to handle the responsibilities that come with His blessings (cf. Matthew 25:14-31)? Do we really believe that everything we have comes from Him (James 1:17)? If it is His, what right do we have to claim over it? Perhaps God blesses us with resources beyond our needs to see what we will do with it– whether we will spend it all on our own desires, or whether we will share the blessing with others who are not so fortunate.

If that is the case, how well are we doing in that test? Do we consider our paycheck “all ours,” or have we decided to follow God’s principle of work, that we do our jobs to earn our living not just for our own benefit but also to provide benefits for others? When we have “a little extra,” do we then turn to find some way of spending it on ourselves, or do we also consider how we could help some others in need?

Jesus, Paul, and the other Apostles lived their lives to provide benefits for others. The path of Christ is the path of service (Romans 12:1). Let us find ways of being benefits to others with the resources with which God has blessed us!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Killing the Hostility

And might reconcile them both in one body unto God through the cross, having slain the enmity thereby (Ephesians 2:16).

If there is one thing we can trust about human beings, it is that they can always find a reason to build a barrier between themselves and their fellow men. There is never a lack of potential reasons why “we” will not like “them.”

Think about it for a moment. How many times have we– and/or people we may know– have used some issue or matter as a justification for a snap judgment to keep another person at arm’s length? It might have involved features that are not anyone’s choice– race, ethnicity, culture of origin, class, or place of birth. Or maybe it was about a matter of choice– political preference, language, present geographical location, sports team affiliation, religion, and so on and so forth. In the world, if a reason can be found to dislike someone, odds are it will be found and exploited. It may very well be that the person who is so quickly judged might be a wonderful person and someone worth knowing and befriending, but alas– the wall has been built.

Jesus of Nazareth has the reputation for being a pacifist. In reality, He was more concerned with the spiritual conflict for souls than He was with the vicissitudes of political power (cf. Luke 19:10, John 18:36-37). But it is true that Jesus preached and lived the message of loving enemies and praying for persecutors (cf. Matthew 5:43-44, Luke 6:27-28, 23:34).

There are excellent reasons for this, and they are summed up in the work that Jesus accomplished on the cross. Normally, when the work of Jesus on the cross is considered, we speak of it in terms of atonement for sin, and such is true (cf. Romans 5:5-11). Yet more is going on when Jesus is on the cross than just the shedding of blood that will lead to the forgiveness of the believer.

In the first century one of the great divisions involved the distinction between Jew and Gentile. The Jews believed that they were God’s uniquely chosen people, and therefore despised all others who did not share in that benefit (cf. Acts 10-11). Most of the Gentiles considered the Jews to be rather odd and eccentric with all of their idiosyncrasies. Jews, therefore, did not like Gentiles, and Gentiles really did not like Jews, either.

When Jesus is on the cross, He breaks down that barrier between Jew and Gentile by fulfilling and setting aside the Law of Moses (Ephesians 2:14-16). By fulfilling and setting aside that which led to the barrier, He was able to reconcile both groups to God and to make peace. Jesus was able, through the cross, to kill the most insipid problem among men.

Jesus, the meek and gentle, the Author of Life, killed? Paul reveals that He did kill something– the enmity, or hostility, that exists among different people.

It is a startling execution, and it is ironically accomplished as He is Himself being killed. His killing allows Him to kill the one impulse that leads to that wall building.

This is very significant. The reason behind all that wall building is that we– and/or others– are trying to find ways to keep others out, however consciously or unconsciously we do so. But Jesus is trying to find ways to bring people together. He was able, through the cross, to annihilate one of the strongest prejudices that existed in the first century. And even to this day the cross has the power to annihilate all sorts of divisions that exist among mankind.

Race? Class? Ethnicity? Language? We are to all be one in Jesus Christ, no matter how different we are in these regards (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11). Politics? Sports team affiliation? Geography? All mere trifles in eternity’s view, and it is to our eternal shame if we allow any of these things to meaningfully divide us from our fellow man!

The cross is not to be a symbol of division or wall-building, but a symbol of reconciliation. It is the means by which a man is reconciled to his God (Romans 5:5-11). It is also the means by which men are reconciled to one another (Ephesians 2:14-19). It is where hostility and enmity are killed– enmity between God and man and enmity between man and man. When enmity and hostility are killed, peace can prevail.

There will always be justifications for division, but such things are not from the Father, but are of the world (cf. Galatians 5:19-21, 1 John 2:15-17). It is the way of Jesus to be reconciled to God and to one another through the cross and humble obedience to God. Let us tear down the walls we build against other people, seek ways of loving them and showing them compassion, reflect Christ, and serve Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Adoption

For ye received not the spirit of bondage again unto fear; but ye received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15).

Having foreordained us unto adoption as sons through Jesus Christ unto himself, according to the good pleasure of his will (Ephesians 1:5).

There is a saying that goes, “you can pick your spouse, you can pick your friends, you can pick your nose, but you cannot pick your relatives.” This statement is designed to be humorous and to reflect a reality that exists for most people in regards to their blood relatives: there was no choice in the matter. Parents cannot choose their biological children; children cannot choose their biological parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other relatives. Most of the time, there is a sense of “blood obligation” that exists among family members. Most cultures have respected this sense of obligation– when family needs assistance, you provide that assistance.

There are many in the world, however, who do not have the luxury of family. Perhaps their relatives have died or become incapacitated because of some tragedy. Other times the parent or parents do not feel able to provide for the child. Some, tragically, do not care for their children at all.

And yet, for such children, there is hope in adoption– a family that, despite the fact that there is no blood connection, chooses to bring the child into their family and to consider him or her as one of their own. It is a very special relationship– parents by choice, not by any feeling of compulsion or obligation. A child who did not know love can now experience love.

In spiritual terms, the image of believers as “biological” children of God is present in passages like the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. We also find, however, the image of believers as adopted children of God in Romans 8:15 and Ephesians 1:5. We should not believe that these images are opposed to one another; each image, in fact, highlights a different aspect of our relationship with God.

There is great power in the image of believers as adopted children of God. Adoption is always a choice on the part of the parent, and it is a choice entirely motivated by love. Likewise, God chose to provide the means by which we could be adopted as sons and daughters– He was not forced or compelled to do so– and His motivations were entirely based in love (1 John 4:7-11). It cannot be said that an adopted child “deserved” to be adopted or any such thing; furthermore, we certainly did not “deserve” to be adopted as the children of God (cf. Romans 5:5-11). Likewise, just as adoption can take place across racial, ethnic, linguistic, and any other boundary, so God has adopted into His family people of every race, ethnicity, language, etc. (Galatians 3:28). Finally, just as the adopted child is considered as legitimate as a biological child, so we also stand able to receive the inheritance of sons and daughters on account of our adoption (cf. Romans 8:15-18).

As believers who have been adopted spiritually as sons and daughters of God, we do well, if we have opportunity, to adopt children in their distress (cf. James 1:27), reflecting in our own families what God has done for us. We should not consider adoption to be something strange or something to malign, some type of a “consolation prize” for those who cannot have biological children, or believe that adopted children are any less legitimate than biological children. Instead, we should all be thankful that God has decided to adopt us as His children, despite our various differences and past sinfulness!

Ethan R. Longhenry
written on the occasion of the adoption of his daughter Ella

The Tender Heart

And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, even as God also in Christ forgave you (Ephesians 4:32).

As human beings, we tend to allow our feelings and emotions to color the way we view people. If we are favorably disposed toward someone, we are more likely to be kind to them, trust them, and always give them the benefit of the doubt. If we are unfavorably disposed toward someone, we are not as likely to be as kind to them. We will not trust them, we will look upon them with suspicion and maybe fear, and we certainly will not give them the benefit of the doubt!

This seems rather natural, as Jesus makes clear in Matthew 5:43-48 and Luke 6:31-36. Most people love those who love them, and most people do good for those who do good to them. Most people also hate their enemies. Jesus indicates that there is no substantive virtue in these things, because people do them naturally. In short, it does not take a lot of effort to be kind to those to whom we are favorably disposed.

God calls us to a higher path. Christians are to be kind and tenderhearted toward everyone, even to those to whom they are not favorably disposed. Personal, political, religious, and any other type of enemies or “opponents” should be treated as kindly and as lovingly as relatives and close friends. We must be willing to think the best of everyone and give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

This is extremely challenging and counter-intuitive, and it is clearly part of God’s purposes in the Kingdom. When we no longer act like the world and nurse suspicions and hostilities, we demonstrate that we are no longer of the world (John 15:19). When we demonstrate that we are willing to be favorably disposed toward everyone, others will be more likely to be favorably disposed toward us!

The world thrives on conflict, opposition, hostilities, suspicions, fears, and judgmentalism. The forces active in this world love nothing more than to promote conflict, opposition, hostilities, suspicions, fears, and judgmentalism among those who would profess Jesus Christ, toward those within and without (cf. Ephesians 6:12). When that takes place, Christians lose their savor, and people see the hypocrisy and judgmentalism (Matthew 5:13-16). Since they can get that in the world, why not stay in the world?

The path of kindness, the tender heart, and forgiveness is very difficult. Nevertheless, it is not really an option, for Christians are called to be like their Lord (1 John 2:6). We should show mercy because God has showed us mercy (Luke 6:36). Where would we be if God were unfavorably disposed toward us? If God were suspicious of us, and never gave us the benefit of the doubt, where would we be? God has demonstrated immeasurable kindness and His tender heart by giving us of His Son so that we may have eternal life, and that kindness is shown to all men (John 3:16, Romans 5:5-11). If we want to be as God and Christ, we must show that same kindness to our fellow man. We must allow our heart to be open to them and attempt to get beyond whatever would divide and separate us from them. The love of God must compel us in these matters.

Let us no longer be of the world, but let us show the kindness and tender heart of God to all men!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Our Conflict

For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12).

As Paul concludes the Ephesian letter, he encourages the brethren to resist the powers of evil through the use of the image of war. This passage has been used and abused ever since!

Paul does well at making clear that our conflict is not against “flesh and blood.” Some of the greatest travesties in human history involve men declaring that they were going out and fighting human wars in the name of Christ. Jesus and the Apostles never validated such conduct. We do not see any command or example that would justify any Christian taking up arms in the name of his faith in order to fight with his fellow man.

When believers in Christ start believing that their conflict is with flesh and blood (and this is by no means limited to actual physical war– it can also refer to conflict with governments, human institutions, and the like), the Enemy wins a double victory. First, since the believers are fighting against the wrong “enemy,” the real enemy– the spiritual forces of darkness– have the upper hand in keeping the souls they’ve won along with gaining a few believers’ souls along the way. Furthermore, by alienating souls from Christ or by killing them, potential recruits for the Lord’s cause are lost. This is a sad state indeed!

Nevertheless, despite the abuse of the image, the idea that we are at war with the spiritual forces of darkness in the heavenly realm is a potent one indeed. When we consider the vast power of our true Enemy, we recognize that we are not going to be able to stand against him alone (cf. Jeremiah 10:23). We are going to need all the help we can get, and that is why Paul encourages believers to be “strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might” (Ephesians 6:10). It is only through Christ that we will be able to overcome.

We also recognize that a state of war demands certain perspectives and attitudes. Just as soldiers must be properly trained and equipped for battle, we also must have a proper understanding of God’s word and must wear the armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-18). Just as soldiers fighting alongside each other develop bonds that endure for as long as life continues and are far deeper than most can understand in order to stay alive and keep one another alive, so also Christians are to have tight bonds in the faith, working together in order to stay spiritually alive and to keep each other spiritually alive (Hebrews 10:24-25, Galatians 6:1-3). Just as soldiers on the front lines must be constantly vigilant and singlemindedly devoted to the task before them, so Christians are to be vigilant against the schemes of the devil and devoted to God’s purposes (Ephesians 6:10-18, 1 Peter 4:7).

Yet, in the end, this is no ordinary war. We have not been instructed to make some great forward advance against the enemy. Instead, we are charged to “stand firm” (Ephesians 6:11, 13-14). We are to hold our ground– perhaps not to advance, but certainly not to run away!

We see this situation illustrated in the book of Revelation. Jesus encourages the brethren of the seven churches of Asia, providing understanding of the rewards waiting for those who “conquer” (Revelation 2-3). We are allowed to see that a great and mighty beast has arisen to stand against the believers and to persecute them– the Roman Empire (cf. Revelation 13-18). John does not leave us in doubt as to who stands behind this beast, inspiring and empowering him– it is the dragon, Satan, our enemy (Revelation 13:3-5). What were the Christians to do?

Notice that there is no scene in which the believers take up arms and fight the beast. In fact, we do not even see the brethren protesting the beast! Instead, the believers are more concerned to fight the power behind the beast– Satan, the great dragon– and they fight him and overcome him “because because of the blood of the Lamb, and because of the word of their testimony; and they loved not their life even unto death” (Revelation 12:11)! Believers stand firm, trusting in Jesus Christ, holding fast to the message of God, even to the point of death. That is how they fought the spiritual war with the evil one!

Jesus is the one who will come and cast the beast and the dragon into the lake of fire; sure, great armies follow Him, but they follow without weapons, and are spectators for the event (Revelation 19:11-20:10). Jesus will advance and destroy the power of evil; we must stand firm.

Let no one be deceived: we are in the midst of a great and terrible spiritual conflict. It is not a conflict in which we asked to participate, nor would we ever desire to have such a conflict. Nevertheless, the conflict has gone on long before our time and very well may continue long after we have passed on. Let us arise and fight the good fight of faith, keeping in mind with whom we are to fight and with whom we are not to fight (cf. 2 Timothy 4:7). Let us stand firm against the spiritual forces of darkness while doing all that we can to persuade those deceived by those powers to come out and join the Lord’s side. Let us stand firm, holding fast to the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony, doing all things, so that we may have the victory!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Our Days in Sin

And you did he make alive, when ye were dead through your trespasses and sins, wherein ye once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the powers of the air, of the spirit that now worketh in the sons of disobedience; among whom we also all once lived in the lust of our flesh, doing the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest (Ephesians 2:1-3).

In general, people do not like to dwell upon their failures, mistakes, and sins. When we look back at our past days, we look back at our accomplishments, successes, and good deeds fondly. If we choose to remember some of the bad things we’ve done, or some of the failures we’ve experienced, we have those feelings of despondency and unhappiness return.

Thankfully, in Christ, we can be forgiven of those past sins, and have them stand against us no more (Romans 4:6-9, 5:1-8). We can get a fresh start of sorts. We can become a “new creature,” walking according to Christ and not the flesh (2 Corinthians 5:14-17).

But, if this is the case, why does Paul dredge up our old lives of sin? We were supposed to put that behind us. We’re certainly not supposed to “resurrect” that man of sin (Romans 6:3-7)!

Neither are we to glory in our sinful past. Some people seem to get a little too excited when they talk about their sinful past, as if somehow they are gaining some pleasure in recounting those deeds. Such is itself part of the worldliness under condemnation in 1 Corinthians 2-3, 1 John 2:15-17. It should never give us joy or excitement to talk about our lives of sin; instead, it is something regarding which we should be ashamed.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons for being reminded of our past. Humans have a tendency to “re-imagine” the past to suit their own liking– we like to think of ourselves as a little less sinful, a little better of a person than we really were. While this may be natural, it can become quite dangerous, because it really minimizes the redemption we have gained through Christ Jesus. We more easily forget the value of our salvation when we forget what we were and how badly it was (and still is) needed. Yet, when we keep in mind that we were quite sinful and without hope in the world, and then we learned of the message of salvation in Christ, it will be easier to constantly value the salvation God has wrought on our behalf.

Furthermore, it keeps us humble. The pursuit of holiness is a path constantly fraught with the dangers of sanctimony and Phariseeism. When we keep in mind how sinful we once were, it allows us to sympathize with our fellow man still in his sin. When we remember how sinful we were, we recognize that we have no right to get on any judgment-seat against our fellow man (cf. James 4:12, Matthew 7:1-5). After all, it is only by God’s grace that we are what we are, and that grace can reach our fellow man, also (1 Timothy 2:4). Remembering that we were sinful ought to keep us from being too “righteously indignant” against all of those “sinners,” since we fell under the same condemnation!

Finally, it is to goad us to good works (Titus 3:8, Ephesians 2:10). Why should we serve God, promote the Gospel, show love, mercy, and compassion, abhor sin, and cling to the good? Because we were all once without Christ, without a covenant, without a state, without hope, and without God, but have now gained all these things through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:1-18).

If we are still in our sins, let us come out from them and be reconciled to God through Christ, lest we suffer the eternal consequences of our rebellion. If we have been redeemed from our sinful ways, and yet our zeal for the Lord and His Kingdom wanes, let us return in our thoughts to the days of our sin, and consider our ultimate outcome had we never learned of salvation in Jesus Christ. Then let us be thankful for what God has done for us through Jesus, and seek His will.

But God, being rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace have ye been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us to sit with him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus: that in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus: for by grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man should glory. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God afore prepared that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:4-10).

Ethan R. Longhenry