Swift to Hear

Ye know this, my beloved brethren. But let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath (James 1:19).

When God made mankind He formed two ears and one mouth. Few are those who use them in such proportion.

James, the brother of the Lord, sought to exhort Christians to faithful and proper conduct in Christ in his letter. As part of these exhortations he encouraged them to be quick to hear but slow to speak and slow to anger (James 1:19); he continued by reminding Christians that the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:20).

There is no real mystery in James’ exhortation. Most people know they should listen more and talk less. A good number of those who do not understand this prove difficult to tolerate and are most likely masking some kind of insecurity or another. We do not want to be “that guy.” Yet it proves all too easy to become “that guy.”

We do well to return to James’ exhortation over and over again in every aspect of our lives, for his message is true wisdom. Too many of us have a strong tendency to speak first and think and ask questions later. How many times have we put our feet in our mouths because we spoke rashly and did not really listen to what others had to say? How many embarrassing or sinful situations could we have avoided if we had stopped long enough to listen so as to be able to speak more effectively and properly regarding the situation?

Why do we do such things? Whether we want to admit it or not, we prove swift to speak and slow to hear because we think quite highly of ourselves, our understanding, and our perspective. We believe we already have enough information to make a judgment. We believe that we already have the standing to say what we are saying. We are sure that we are right and the other person, to some degree or another, is deluded or misinformed.

We therefore must manifest humility if we would be swift to hear. To listen is to recognize the need to give a hearing to the other person; in so doing we might find out that we were not as right or as accurate as we first imagined. For good reason God expects everything to be demonstrated by the mouth of two or three witnesses, not merely one (Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15, 2 Corinthians 13:1); one who pleads his case seems right until his neighbor comes and searches him out (Proverbs 18:17). In reality we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23); not one of us can presume the privilege of being absolutely right and having the exactly right view on things. We all labor under various pretensions, delusions, and misapprehensions. Humility demands that we recognize those limitations and therefore to give others the right to be heard.

Love demands that we be swift to hear. Love does not vaunt itself; it is not puffed up; it does not behave unseemly; it does not seek its own; it does all these things as much as it does not rejoice in unrighteousness but rejoices with the truth (1 Corinthians 13:4-6). Truth has no need to fear investigation, probing, and exploration; if we truly are in the right, listening should not cause us angst or apprehension. To be swift to hear demonstrates a level of care, concern, and consideration not often seen in the world anymore. People appreciate when they feel as if they have been heard, even if that hearing does not lead to complete agreement. Rarely do people feel loved after they have been railroaded and told things without any chance to speak themselves, no matter how accurate the spoken information might be.

When we are swift to hear we are in a better position to understand, and thus be able to speak to, the issue behind the issue. Very few issues in life are clear-cut and entirely above board; most disagreements and difficulties involve unspoken fears and apprehensions as well as different implicit biases and assumptions about the way things are. If we truly seek to communicate so as to be understood and to guide people toward transformation in Jesus, we need to speak to the real issue and not merely the surface issues, as Jesus manifested well in His conversations and discussions during His time on earth.

These principles prove true in all sorts of conversations and relationships. Woe to the husband who so focuses on the substance of his wife’s complaints that he does not hear the anxiety and concerns of her heart. Children are often poorly equipped to express their deepest feelings, fears, and needs, and often act out to make their cry of help; are we quick to hear the difficulty or do we just get angry at the misbehavior? American culture and society seems hopelessly divided because each side wants to speak more than to hear, to condemn the other more than to understand the fears and apprehensions motivating the behaviors. And how can we preach the Gospel to someone whom we refuse to hear? We may have the right message, and they may be operating under all sorts of delusions, but how can we know exactly what they need to hear and how to encourage them until we first hear them and thus perceive their challenges? On what basis have we earned any standing in their lives so as to speak the Gospel message if we have not first proven swift to hear them and show them that love, respect, and humility which interpersonal communication demands?

Swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger is a very hard road for most people; it proves all too easy to “forget” in the heat of the moment and act in the opposite way. We do well to gather ourselves, take a deep breath, make a quick prayer, and deliberately attempt to listen and hear as we have opportunity. We will discover that we are better heard when we first prove willing to hear; our words prove more effective when we give ourselves the opportunity to choose them well by first hearing what the situation demands. May we be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, using our ears and mouths in the proper proportion, and all to the glory of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus With Us

“Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20).

The good news according to Matthew ends with truly great news.

Matthew has set forth Jesus’ resurrection from the dead: the women have come to find the tomb empty, for an angel had rolled the stone away, sat upon it, proclaimed the good news of the resurrection to them, and declared how He went before them to Galilee (Matthew 28:1-8). Jesus then appeared the women and instructed them to tell the rest of the disciples to go to Galilee to see Him there (Matthew 28:9-10). The disciples went to Galilee and saw the Lord Jesus; many believed, but some doubted (Matthew 28:16-17). In His final words in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus gives the “Great Commission”: all authority has been given to Him in heaven and on earth, and so they are to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them (Matthew 28:18-20a). The Great Commission ends with a promise: Jesus is with them always, unto the end of the αιωνος, “age” or “forever,” and thus “world” (Matthew 28:20b).

We can imagine how the disciples would have found this promise very comforting. And yet, within forty days, Jesus would ascend to heaven (Acts 1:1-11); He will only again walk the earth on the day of judgment (Matthew 25:31-46, Acts 1:11). So if Jesus no longer walked with them, or, for that matter, with us, how could He say that He would be “with” us until the end of the world?

Throughout the book of Acts the Apostles seem to interact frequently in some way with the Lord Jesus. Peter declares that Jesus is the one who, on the basis of the Father’s promise, poured out the Holy Spirit on them (Acts 2:33); Peter affirms that faith in Jesus provided the power which healed the lame man in the Temple (Acts 3:16). The Lord Jesus would give Peter a vision and speak with him in it (Acts 10:9-17). Stephen saw Jesus as the Son of Man standing at God’s right hand (Acts 7:55-56). Paul saw the Lord Jesus in the resurrection and heard Him speak (Acts 9:1-8, 22:6-10, 26:12-18), as would Ananias, whom the Lord called to minister to Paul (Acts 9:10-16). Paul would receive further messages from the Lord Jesus, both direct and spoken as well as through circumstance and hindrance (Acts 16:6-9, 18:9-10, 23:11). We do well to remember how Luke begins the book of Acts, speaking of the previous Gospel as “all that Jesus began to do and teach,” implying that the whole book of Acts continues Jesus’ work (Acts 1:1): Jesus is with the Apostles throughout, strengthening them, empowering them, reassuring them. He may not have been present in the way He had been during His ministry, but He was still there, reigning as Lord, sustaining His people to do His work.

Is Jesus still there since the days of the Apostles? Some have suggested that Jesus’ promise extended only to the destruction of Jerusalem, and such “ended the age.” Such is inconsistent with the promises of Jesus and His Apostles and the reality of the faith ever since. It is true that Jesus made Himself known to the Apostles in ways which He no longer does so; they saw Him in life, fully experienced Him, and bore personal eyewitness testimony to His resurrection, and no one since the first century can do so (1 John 1:1-4). There is nothing further to be made known about the good news of Jesus Christ than has already been made known through the Apostles and their associates. And yet Jesus’ promises remain. The universe continues to exist through Him and for Him and is upheld and sustained by Him (Colossians 1:15-17, Hebrews 1:3). Jesus still reigns as Lord (Hebrews 13:8). Where two or three of His people are gathered, He is in their midst (Matthew 18:20). In Revelation 4:1-5:14 John is able to see what goes on in heaven beyond the veil: God is on the throne, and the Lamb with Him, and they reign in glory and honor. We may not be able to see past that veil, yet such makes it no less true and no less real. Furthermore, if we are in Christ, we have His Spirit, the Spirit of God (Romans 8:9-11); by means of the Spirit He maintains His presence in and among His people individually and collectively (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19-20, 2 Corinthians 5:5, Ephesians 1:13-14). Jesus, therefore, remains with us.

The end of the Gospel of Matthew is as its beginning. When narrating Jesus’ birth Matthew directs our minds to the prophecy of Isaiah, that the child born of the virgin would be Immanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:22-25; Isaiah 7:14); Matthew ends the Gospel with Jesus’ own promise that He will remain Immanuel, God with us (Matthew 28:20).

Thus it cannot be said that Jesus merely was Immanuel, human and in the midst of mankind for a short time, only to depart and abandon humanity. Jesus is Immanuel; He still is “God with us.” Is He with us in the exact same form and way He was with the disciples in Galilee and Judea? Not at all; instead, He is with us in more profound and compelling ways, ruling heaven and earth from the right hand of the throne of God, actively sustaining the creation, and strengthening His people through the Spirit. And so we can have the great confidence, as John declares, that He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4); we have hope that as Jesus now is we will be in the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20-58).

We will experience difficult times and wonder if God has abandoned us. At those times we do well to remember Jesus’ final promise in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus is Immanuel; He is with us until we will be with Him in eternity in the resurrection. We may not see Him with our eyes of flesh but we can discern Him through eyes of faith and spirit. We can know that He is there, for in God we live and move and have our being, and Jesus sustains our life (Acts 17:27-28, Hebrews 1:3). It may seem that the forces of darkness are prevailing, but we know that the Lord Jesus truly reigns and will gain the victory over them, having already sealed those who are His (Ephesians 6:12, 1 John 4:4, Revelation 12:1-20:10). May we entrust ourselves to the Lord Jesus and make disciples of all nations as He commanded us, reliant on His strength!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Good News

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1).

It comes in all forms; because of it things may never seem to be the same again. Many times we vividly remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when we heard it.

“The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.”

“The President has been shot.”

“The World Trade Center has collapsed.”

It transforms life even without national or international implications.

“Will you marry me?”

“It’s a boy/it’s a girl.”

“This disease is terminal.”

Such is the power of the news.

911-Panel

News is just information; that is true. But we all recognize that the content of the news can change everything. Hopes and dreams can be encouraged or dashed. Expectations are fulfilled or denied. We may find ourselves facing a new and different reality, perhaps better, perhaps worse than what we thought before. In many ways we understand our lives in terms of how various pieces of news has shaped us at various points in time.

Such is perhaps why the greatest events which ever have taken place in this creation are called, simply, the Good News. We are more familiar with the term Gospel, which itself derives from an Old English term meaning exactly what the Greek euangelion does, “good news” (Mark 1:1). Thus, whenever we see “Gospel” in the Bible, we should think of it as “good news.” Evangelists are to be seen as those proclaiming the Good News.

What exactly is the Good News? As we see in Mark 1:1, the Good News is of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The Apostle Paul affirms that the Good News by which the Corinthian Christians were saved if they hold fast to it featured the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1-11). Both Jesus and Matthew testify that the Good News features the Kingdom of Heaven, over which Jesus has been established as Lord and King and over which He reigns (Matthew 4:17, 23; Colossians 1:13). Jesus commanded the Apostles and those who came after them to go and preach the Good News to the whole creation (Mark 16:15), and so we do.

Thus the Good News is that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Son of God: He is the Word made flesh, having humbled Himself to serve mankind and to show them the way and character of God; He died on a cross for the forgiveness of sin and God raised Him from the dead on the third day; He ascended to the Father and has received the Kingdom over which He now reigns as Lord until He returns (Matthew 28:18-20, John 1:1-18, 14:5-10, Acts 1:1-10, 2:36, 17:30-31). This is the news regarding which Christians must bear witness to the whole creation.

No news has the transformative capability as the Good News of Jesus Christ, for it is God’s power to save (Romans 1:16, Hebrews 4:12). As with all news, it is not the news or the message itself, but the contents and the reality which allows for the message to truly be news. Jesus really did live, die, and rise again; He really does reign as Lord right now. These truths demand a response: will you serve the Lord Jesus or will you reject Him? Acceptance demands obedience, renunciation of all worldly things, suffering, and perhaps even death but leads to peace toward God and hope in the resurrection (Romans 6:15-22, Philippians 3:6-12). Rejection of Jesus as Lord may not seem like as big of a deal on earth but leads to hostility toward God and sure expectation of the experience of His wrath (Romans 8:5-8, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10). The New Testament is replete with examples of people whose lives would never be the same once they heard the Good News of Jesus Christ; the 1,900 years since have seen many other people whose lives were completely changed when they heard that Jesus is Lord and Christ.

The Good News may be over 1,900 years old, but it remains as relevant today as ever. Your life is never the same once you have heard it. Will you heed the Good News of Jesus Christ and serve Him? Danger and destruction awaits those who refuse Him! Serve Jesus as Lord while the opportunity remains, and take hold of the promise of eternal life in the resurrection!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Motherly Affection

But we were gentle in the midst of you, as when a nurse cherisheth her own children: even so, being affectionately desirous of you, we were well pleased to impart unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because ye were become very dear to us (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8).

No one could ever accuse Paul of working in the Lord’s vineyard only for the money or just as a job or a way of passing time. He poured his heart and soul into the people who had heeded the Gospel he preached.

The Gospel was received by some in Thessalonica under a cloud of persecution and difficulties as seen in Acts 17:1-9. Within a few weeks Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica after he had heard the report regarding them by Timothy (1 Thessalonians 3:6-10). Paul has been explaining the circumstances under which he arrived in Thessalonica after leaving Philippi and how he preached to them the Gospel not for covetousness nor for seeking men’s glory but for the welfare of their souls (1 Thessalonians 2:1-6).

Mother and childHe appeals to how he treated them and compares his love for them to that of a nursing woman for the child she nurses, explaining that he became affectionately desirous of them, willing not only to proclaim to them the Gospel but to even give of his own life if need be (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8). Paul loved the Christians in Thessalonica, and he expected them to understand as much.

Paul’s love and concern went well beyond the Christians of Thessalonica (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:28), yet the way he expresses his affection for the Thessalonians is extraordinary. The maternal image of the nursing woman expresses great care and concern and is probably not a little influenced by the relative youth of the Thessalonian Christians in the faith. Paul recognized the imperative given to him to preach the Gospel to everyone (1 Corinthians 9:22-23), but that never meant that he had to feel warmly toward any given group like he expressed to the Thessalonians. He developed genuine care and affection for the Christians in Thessalonica; he actually liked them and enjoyed being around them even though it was only for a short time.

We do well to note this love and concern and seek to find ways to feel similarly toward our fellow Christians. We are to be known for our love for one another (John 13:35); while it is true that such does not demand that we feel the “warm fuzzies” about every Christian we know we do well to be kindly disposed to one another and to have Christians in our lives regarding whom we could say that we felt tender affection. “Brother” and “sister” should not be mere titles or pretense but should express genuine brotherly and sisterly love for one another. Christians do well when they actually like one another and enjoy being in one another’s company!

We also should consider the nature of the relationship between Paul and the Thessalonian Christians: not only did they not know each other a few weeks or months before the writing of this letter, but also their relationship was forged in the preaching of and obedience to the Gospel (1 Thessalonians 2:2). We can therefore see how Paul treated those to whom he preached the Gospel: he did not keep them at a distance, as “prospects” or “clients,” but felt warmly toward them as a mother would her child, thus, as fellow family members (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8). While parallels exist between marketing/sales and evangelism we ought not over-emphasize them; the church is not a business but the family of God (cf. 1 Timothy 3:15). Neither Jesus nor the Gospel are “products” to “sell” but the plea for the prodigal and the alienated to come home (cf. Luke 15:11-32). The goal of all evangelism is to lead those outside of Christ to Him so as to become His disciple (Matthew 28:18-19); if they heed the message and obey it our relationship has not ended but has in fact just begun (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28).

Paul loved the Thessalonian Christians tenderly. We ought to have a similar love for our fellow Christians and to seek to share in such relationships with even more people. Let us proclaim the Gospel in our lives so as to lead people to faith in Christ and to share in the household of God and obtain the resurrection of life!

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

The Mark of True Discipleship

“A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; even as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:34-35).

What is supposed to define a disciple, or follower, of Christ?

For the better part of 1,750 years, one could be forgiven for thinking the answer involved finding and adhering to the right doctrines regarding Jesus. For most of its history Christianity has seemed to focus on determining the nature of God and Christ, how salvation is accomplished, the relationship between the believer and the church, the church and the state, and a whole host of other matters. Upon these matters most of the written records focus; comparatively precious little is said regarding the practice of the faith. Perhaps the practice of the faith was more strongly emphasized in other contexts; perhaps it went unsaid because there was little disagreement regarding it.

The Bible does insist on a good understanding of God in Christ and the substantive message of the faith and the need to stand firm within it (2 Timothy 2:15, Jude 1:3, 2 John 1:7-11). Yet it is worth noting what Jesus Himself emphasizes as the true mark of His followers. He does not say that all men will know we are His disciples by the doctrines we teach, the truths we uphold, or the persuasive arguments we make. The mark of true disciples of Jesus is their love for one another (John 13:35).

The statement seems so simple, so obvious, and yet it is quite compelling and extraordinarily challenging. It is not as if this is the first time that the disciples have been told to love one another; the Law exhorted them to love their neighbors as themselves (Leviticus 19:18), and all Israelites would agree that fellow Israelites were their neighbors (cf. Luke 10:25-29). That aspect of the command is “old,” but Jesus adds a twist which makes it “new”: they are to love one another as He loved them (John 13:34; cf. 1 John 2:7-8). God is love (1 John 4:8); Jesus, God in the flesh, is the embodiment of love (John 1:1, 14, Hebrews 1:3, 1 John 3:16). We can therefore understand the love Christians are to have for one another by understanding the way Jesus conducted Himself among His disciples.

Jesus called His twelve disciples, not because of who they were at the time, but on account of their willingness to follow and because of what Jesus knew they could be (Matthew 10:1-4). He spent a lot of time teaching them; many of Jesus’ teachings were directed to the disciples, even if others were present (e.g. Matthew 5:1-7:28), and would provide further explanation to them in other contexts as well (Mark 4:33-34). Nevertheless, the disciples proved slow to truly perceive and understand what Jesus was saying; He remained patient with them (cf. John 13:36-38, 14:5-8, etc.).

But Jesus went beyond instructing them in word; He also showed them in deed the things He was saying (1 John 3:18). He showed His love for them by serving them, finding no task too humiliating or “beneath” Him (John 13:1-11). He took care of their material needs many times (e.g. Matthew 17:24-27). He prayed to the Father for them (John 17:1-19). In the moment of His greatest need they forsook Him and even denied Him; He loved them anyway, died for them anyway, and welcomed them back joyfully in His resurrection (John 18:1-20:23, 1 John 3:16). Jesus embodied the definition of love toward His disciples: He was patient and kind with them, did not envy or boast, was not arrogant or rude, did not insist on His own way, was not irritable or resentful, did not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoiced with them in the truth, bore their deficiencies and iniquities, continued to believe in them, hoped in them, and endured with them. His love for them never ended (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a).

As we can see, coming to an understanding of the truth of God in Christ Jesus and His Kingdom is part of showing love to one another, but does not and cannot fully embody what it means to love one another. Yes, we are to learn about Jesus, but that learning is not supposed to be merely an intellectual exercise or an end unto itself; we are to learn about Him so that we can be more like Him (Romans 8:29, 1 John 2:6). Doctrine is important: we feel and act based upon what we believe, therefore, we must have the right beliefs if we are going to feel and act as we should. Yet, as Jesus makes abundantly clear, mere intellectual understanding was never the goal; knowledge of God in Christ is designed to inexorably lead to reflecting the characteristics of God in Christ.

Jesus’ phrasing might seem odd to us: how is it that all men will know we are disciples of Jesus by our love for one another? Would they not understand how we are disciples of Jesus by our love for them? It is not as if Christians are to not love those outside the faith (cf. Luke 6:27-36, Galatians 6:10), but Jesus’ emphasis on love toward one another is well-placed and quite poignant. We like to think that people are persuaded to follow Jesus through well-constructed and persuasive arguments. Some are convinced through such apologetics, but God knows us better than we know ourselves, and recognizes that very few people are ever convinced about anything on account of rational argumentation. In the end, God is not interested in just setting up an alternative mental construct through which to see the world; Christianity was never designed to just be the correct philosophy of the world.

The true mark defining a group of disciples is their love for one another. How do they treat each other? If Christians love one another like Jesus has loved them, they will remind each other of the truths of God in Jesus (cf. 2 Timothy 4:1-5). But they will also show great concern for one another, making sure that each other’s material needs are met (Galatians 6:10, 1 John 3:17-18). They are patient and kind with one another; if they sin against each other, they forgive each other and bear with one another (Colossians 3:12-14). True followers of Jesus understand that they have all sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God, and feel comfortable enough with one another to open up and confess their sins, faults, and failures, entrusting themselves to one another, even though they will at times hurt each other and betray each other (James 5:16). They love each other anyway. They share with each other anyway. They build each other up anyway.

Where else in the world can such love be found in true community? People in the world crave that kind of love, acceptance, welcome, and openness. People want to be loved; people want others to be patient with them; people want to be treated kindly and considerately; people want to share life together. People want a greater purpose in life and to share in that mission with others, and so it all is supposed to be in Jesus. If Christ’s followers show love to one another as we have described it, others will want to share in that experience, and they will themselves be inspired to follow Jesus (cf. Matthew 5:13-16)!

But what happens when people claim to follow Jesus but do not manifest that love? The history of “Christianity” is full of examples of such failures, and they have given the faith a bad name and have given reason for the nations to blaspheme. Emphasis on right doctrine alone led to wars, death, misery, and pain for untold thousands; to this day, how many people associate Christianity with the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the people on the street spewing forth messages of condemnation? The world is full of different groups of people who only see each other’s failings, show little patience with one another’s faults, constantly nitpick and judge each other with a view of denigrating them, and feel important or special because of their knowledge or means by which they identify themselves. There’s nothing special or attractive about such groups, and if some such groups try to wear the name of Christ, it’s little wonder why they struggle to grow or be effective in any meaningful way.

Followers of Jesus show love to one another in a number of different ways, and they are all important, but only insofar as they point back to Jesus, glorify Him, and are done with a view to reflecting Jesus to one another and our fellow man. Jesus knows what He is doing; He has good reason to make love for one another the clear identifier of His true followers. Any group of people professing to follow Jesus which does not share in love toward each other has not truly understood Jesus. Any group which professes to follow Jesus and to have the love they should have but do not adhere to the truth of God in Jesus Christ has not really understood all that the love of Jesus requires. But it is just as true that anyone who thinks they have understood the true knowledge of God in Christ but does not show true love to His fellow Christians has not really understood the true knowledge of God in Christ and certainly has not perceived the end to which we are to learn of Christ. Instead, let us follow after Jesus the way He intends. Let us come to a better knowledge of Jesus, understanding how He lived and loved, so that we can love each other as Jesus intends!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Imitation

Beloved, imitate not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: he that doeth evil hath not seen God (3 John 1:11).

Much has been said in a such a short letter: John has spoken to Gaius regarding the support of those who proclaim the Gospel (3 John 1:5-8), warning him about Diotrephes (3 John 1:9-10), and will commend Demetrius as well (3 John 1:12). The core moral instruction and encouragement John has for Gaius is clearly and concisely presented in 3 John 1:11: do not imitate evil, but imitate good; those doing good are of God, while those who do evil have not seen God.

The exhortation is to not imitate evil, but imitate good. Such a declaration assumes there already exists a standard defining good and evil, and the only question left to decide is whether our thoughts, feelings, and actions will be done in imitation of that which is good or if it will imitate evil. We might like to think that there is some form of “originality” in the thoughts and feelings we have or in the actions we do, but we are all just imitators in the end. We go along whatever path we feel like going along; we find it well-worn at every point. Perhaps this is why God thought it best to send Jesus His Son in the flesh to embody that which is good in thought, feeling, and action (John 1:18, Acts 10:38, Hebrews 1:3, 1 John 2:6). We now know whom we are to imitate; we are to conform to the image of the Son (Romans 8:29).

Meanwhile the world does well at promoting evil through imitations of what seems to be good. Very few people are so bold as to imitate evil for evil’s sake; most people imitate evil by imitating things they think will lead to the good or happiness but are, in reality, fraudulent. We are constantly tempted to take God’s good things and make gods of them, to give the honor due the Creator to the creation (cf. Romans 1:18-32). People pursue imitation love, imitation peace, imitation joy, and all sorts of other imitations, all of which do not lead to righteousness and holiness but more often immorality and evil.

We do well to note how little vagary exists in this exhortation. One either imitates good or imitates evil; one manifests whether they know God or whether they have not seen Him. A similar delineation, spelled out in greater detail, is found with the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:19-24. Sometimes we would like to think that there might be some “gray areas” when it comes to good or evil, and yet the Scriptures remain stubbornly black and white about the matter. There is what is good, right, and holy, marked by humility, love, and compassion, full of grace and mercy, exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit: this is the good which we are to imitate, and in so doing recognize that we are of the God who is all of these attributes. There is also that which is evil, sinful, and base, marked by fraudulence, deceit, lust, and worldliness: this is the evil we are to avoid, for no one who has seen God or truly knows of God would continue in such things which are entirely contrary to His nature and purpose. And never shall the twain meet!

There is good, therefore, and there is evil; the two are opposed to each other like the poles of a magnet. If we are to imitate the good, every process of life should be good: our thoughts should be good (2 Corinthians 10:5, Philippians 4:8), our feelings, attitudes, and disposition should be good (Galatians 5:22-24, Colossians 3:12-15), so that our deeds can be good as well (Matthew 7:15-20). This demands that we pay as much attention to the process as we do to the final product. It might be tempting to seek to promote or defend God’s purposes using the Devil’s tactics or playbook, but it cannot work that way; it is impossible to promote good with evil. We must defend and promote God’s purposes in God’s way, with love, humility, grace, and mercy (1 Peter 3:15). Contentiousness, sectarianism, anger, and all such things cannot produce the righteousness of God (cf. Galatians 5:19-21, James 1:20)!

This sharp contrast should remain with us as a good reminder and form of encouragement. It is not always easy to imitate good; there are a lot of forces marshaled against us (cf. Ephesians 6:12, 1 Peter 5:8), everything from lust to temptation to fear to pain to inertia. But if we have encountered the living God through Jesus His Son, how can we do anything else? He thought that which is good, maintained a good attitude and disposition, felt compassion on others, and went about doing good, and we ought to imitate Him. Let us imitate what is good, demonstrating that we know God, in the process as much as in the final product, in our thoughts, feelings, and attitudes as much as in our deeds, and so glorify and honor God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Persuading Men

Knowing therefore the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are made manifest unto God; and I hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences (2 Corinthians 5:11).

It’s the plot of many a movie: an unsuspecting person happens upon or discovers some information that might radically change the way things work. Despite all sorts of opposition, the person now has one goal to accomplish– to get this information out, to get people to be aware of it, and to do what is necessary to succeed. Such is a popular theme because we would like to imagine ourselves in that position– perhaps the fate of the whole world rests upon our shoulders, and we just need to get past the bad guys so that we can save the world.

In truth, we do not need to make up such a scenario in our lives, because if we believe that Jesus is the Christ and that His message is true, we are already living in this plot!

Paul understands as much and makes it evident in 2 Corinthians 5:9-11. Paul had been going on his way, persecuting Christians, until he was presented with a radically new way of looking at things on the road to Damascus (cf. Acts 9): this Jesus whom He was persecuting was actually Lord. Not only was this Jesus Lord of Israel, but He was Lord of all– and the pagan Gentiles needed to learn of Him (Acts 26:15-18). God was announcing to everyone everywhere that He had appointed a day of judgment, that man’s ignorance would no longer be an excuse, and the confirmation of this was in the resurrection of His Son Jesus (Acts 17:30-31, 2 Corinthians 5:10). This message had to go out, and Paul was God’s chosen agent to promote it.

Paul first had to understand “the fear of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:11). The One True God, Creator of heaven and earth, is awesome in power and majesty, far superior to all flesh (cf. Isaiah 55:8-9). Therefore, what He says goes. If He has declared that a day of judgment is coming, and everyone will receive back for what they have done in the flesh, then we humans need to get busy and do what is good (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:10). This reverential attitude toward God is not to lead to paralyzing fear; instead, it is designed to be a catalyst toward humility, repentance, and obedience (cf. 1 Peter 1:16-18). All believers, including Paul and ourselves, are to revere the Lord and thus seek to do what He has called upon us to do, even if it seems unpleasant, leads to persecution, and is the cause for great suffering. He suffered for us; it is right for us to suffer for Him (Romans 8:17). We must be doing the good in order to hear the judgment we want to hear (2 Corinthians 5:10).

On the basis of this knowledge of the reverence due to God, Paul works to “persuade men” (2 Corinthians 5:11). Let us first note the strong connection between understanding the honor due to God and the effort to promote His message– because we know the fear of the Lord, we are to work to persuade men. What we know should be explained and promoted among all. How can we say that we truly follow God, truly appreciate what God has done for us, and properly respect God if we do not feel the burden upon us to take that message out to others so that they also can have a restored association with God?

The mechanism is also quite important. Paul does not say that “knowing the fear of the Lord, we introduce legislation into the Senate.” He does not say, “knowing the fear of the Lord, we call for a holy crusade against the infidel.” Likewise, he does not declare, “knowing the fear of the Lord, we browbeat people with the message, screaming at them on street corners.” No– if we know the fear of the Lord, we are to persuade men!

The connection to the fear of the Lord remains important– how did the Lord reveal Himself to us? Did the Lord work to compel and coerce people through political/legislative means? Did the Lord call for forced conversions with threat of the blade of the sword? Did the Lord stand on the street corner and browbeat people? The only people whom Jesus could be said to have browbeaten were the Pharisees and scribes, the “religious good people” of the day (cf. Matthew 23)! By no means; Jesus lived, preached, died, and was raised in order to call and invite (cf. Matthew 11:28-30). God has never compelled or coerced people into believing in Him and obeying Him; that is why to this day we do not see God providing that overwhelmingly obvious supernatural event to “prove” His existence to the unbelievers. That would be using a display of sheer force to do what God expects to be done through softer forms of persuasion, in the power of the message already delivered, its portrayal of reality, the description of man’s problem, God’s desire for association with His creation, and what He has done to reconcile people to Himself.

Look at how seriously Paul takes this burden– he, a Jew, has traveled to the Greek world, and has been preaching a message involving “foreign divinities” to pagans who look at the world through a quite different perspective than he does (cf. Acts 17:16-31). Does Paul just write them off as irredeemable heathens? No. Does he try to coerce or manipulate them into believing in Jesus? No. He just works to persuade them– he finds points of agreement, and on the basis of those points of agreement and the glimpses of truth declared by certain Greek poets themselves, works to explain the points of disagreement and how the creation and the basic impulses of man all point to a Creator God who created mankind to seek Him. No tricks, no gimmicks; he just tries to know those with whom he is speaking so as to get them to give the message of Jesus some honest consideration.

In so doing, he is made manifest to God, as well as to the consciences of those who hear him (2 Corinthians 5:11). He is trying to preach and to live the message, and that provides a powerful testimony. The power of such witness is great– it shows that Christianity is not a ruse, not some pyramid scheme, but a radically new way of looking at the world and life.

We find ourselves living in circumstances quite like Paul’s in many ways. A lot of people around us have perspectives that are quite different from our own; it seems impossible to bridge the gap. Many people, based on some well-meaning yet misguided ideologies, think that political legislation or some other means of coercion is the way to guide people back toward the Lord. Not a few are inclined to write off a lot of people today as pagans, heathens, irredeemable.

These are not the ways of the Lord. Let us never forget the power of Romans 1:16: the Gospel is God’s power for salvation, and we are foolish to think that salvation can come through laws or any form of coercion. We are to spread the Gospel message like Paul did, by working to persuade men (and women). The message cannot be forced; we must work diligently to earn the right to tell people about the message, gaining an audience, and then try to understand something about what those people believe. We need to ascertain points of agreement with our fellow man, and based on that, with glimpses of truth that are found in recognized voices in culture, point to the truths of God in Christ as revealed through Scripture. Meanwhile, we must be putting that message to practice in our own lives, for even if we can find the most effective ways to preach to others, if our lives tell a different story, our witness will be hypocritical and in vain.

It is hard work, and while we must never minimize God’s role in all of this, we must remember that Paul said that “we” are to persuade men; “we” are called to go out and to make disciples (2 Corinthians 5:11, Matthew 28:19). We can only do it through the strength that God supplies in Christ, but we are to go out and do it. Let us understand the fear of the Lord, working to persuade men, preaching and living the message of our Lord, warning all men of the judgment to come, and find eternal life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Call

But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many of this man, how much evil he did to thy saints at Jerusalem: and here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call upon thy name” (Acts 9:13-14).

If anyone had the right to do a double-take after hearing from the Lord Jesus, it was Ananias in this circumstance.

Saul of Tarsus had distinguished himself in his opposition to Christianity. He approved of Stephen’s stoning (Acts 7:58-8:1). Saul was “ravaging” the church, imprisoning many, and now headed to Damascus with authority to imprison Christians and bring them back down to Jerusalem (Acts 8:3, 9:1-2).

Ananias has heard about all of this. He has heard about what Saul has done in Jerusalem. He is quite aware of Saul’s journey and his intentions.

And now the Lord Jesus tells him to go to Straight Street and find Saul since the latter has been told that a man named Ananias will help him receive his sight again (Acts 9:10-12).

Can the Lord be serious? Here is the greatest enemy of Christianity! A Christian being sent right into the jaws of danger! Would not Ananias be crazy for going to visit Saul?

Yet Ananias trusts the Lord. Whatever his personal apprehensions, fears, and concerns, he does what the Lord commands him, speaks with Saul, baptizes him, and represents the first Christian to encourage Paul the Apostle in his life’s work (Acts 9:15-19, 22:12-16).

But what would have happened had Ananias said no to the Lord? What if Ananias refused to believe that a guy like Saul could change? What if Ananias did not take courage and expose himself to some risk for the cause of Christ by going to Straight Street? What if every Christian in Damascus and Jerusalem felt the same way?

It is true that Saul received a benefit that most people do not receive. It is also sadly true that many opponents of the faith do not change in their opposition. Nevertheless, God desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). He expects believers to take His message out into the world, cast the seed of the Word of God on all soils, letting the Word work on the hearer rather than judging whether such a one will respond to the message (cf. Matthew 13:3-8, 18-23, 28:18-20, 1 Corinthians 3:5-7).

There are times when the people whom we think will obey the Gospel will not; there are times when opponents of the faith repent and convert. No conversion can happen, however, if believers have already written people off because of their past antagonism toward the faith or because “those types of people” are perceived to “not be interested” in Christianity.

Just as it was not Ananias’ job to judge whether Saul ought to hear the message of Christ or not, and it was not Ananias’ job to judge whether the Lord should show him mercy or not, so it is with us and those with whom we come into contact. It is not for us to automatically judge anyone worthy or unworthy of the Gospel. It is for us to promote the message of Christ and let people decide for themselves. We might just find that we will be doing more double-takes as we see the types of people who prove willing to become obedient to the Lord’s message. Who knows whether we will be able to encourage the next great promoter of the Christian faith? We can only be sure that we will not if we never take the message out. Let us therefore promote the Gospel among everyone!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Leaven

Another parable spake [Jesus] unto them; “The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till it was all leavened (Matthew 13:33).

When we seek to think about pleasant things, or to find ways of describing people or things positively, fungi rarely make the list of possible comparisons. They are normally something we do not often consider (like yeast, or perhaps mushrooms) or rather unpleasant things (like mold and fungal infections).

Yeast, or leaven, is known for its expansive properties– it multiplies very quickly. A small amount of yeast, in the right conditions, will quickly expand and fill the space it is provided. This has been the secret to bread making for generations– if you want a lump of dough to rise, it must have the right amount of yeast in it. As it bakes, the yeast multiplies and expands, and the entire lump rises. The yeast is also partly responsible for that addictive smell of baking bread!

The image of leaven as an agent that starts small but expands mightily is used a few times in Scripture. Sometimes it is used negatively– Jesus describes the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees as leaven (Matthew 16:6-12), and Paul warns that false teachings and sinful practices “leaven the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6, Galatians 5:9).

But the image need not always be negative, for Jesus uses the image in a positive way in Matthew 13:33. Having described the Kingdom of Heaven as a mustard plant, with a small seed that grows to become a tree in which birds can nest (Matthew 13:31-32), Jesus continues down the same theme by describing the Kingdom as the leaven that a woman hid in three measures of flour that leavens the whole lump.

The general message of both parables are the same: the growth of the Kingdom will be exponential despite its humble origins. Just as a very little amount of yeast filled three measures of flour, so the Kingdom that begins with the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit will expand from 12 to 3000+ to thousands upon thousands all over the earth (Acts 1:8, 2:41, etc.). The proclamation and advancement of the Kingdom is a wonderful story, clearly demonstrating the power and wisdom of God that is greater than anything man can imagine (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-25). If we wanted to get the most important message of life across, sending twelve fairly unreliable and uneducated witnesses would probably not make our list of possible options. Nevertheless, we see how effectively it was done by the power of God!

Nevertheless, there is a bit of distinction between the two parables. A mustard plant, by virtue of necessity, grows out in the open– while there are roots growing underneath the soil, without sun and water, the plant will not prosper. Yeast, however, works entirely behind the scenes. From the outside you can see the effect of the growth of the yeast– the rising lump of dough– but you cannot see how it is working internally.

So it is with the Kingdom. There are times when the growth of the Kingdom happens in a public and spectacular way, like on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. Nevertheless, both in the first century and now, much of the advancement of the Kingdom happens more behind the scenes.

This growth comes about on the basis of many opportunities. It happens when believers go about doing good and living holy and upright lives (Romans 12:9, Galatians 2:10, 6:10). It happens as believers have conversations with friends, associates, relatives, and others about God’s truth in Jesus Christ (Romans 1:16, Colossians 4:5-6, 1 Peter 3:15). It happens as believers trust in and pray to God, as His Word is studied, as believers strengthen and build one another up, and in many other kinds of opportunities (cf. Ephesians 3:20-21, 1 Thessalonians 5:17-18, 2 Timothy 2:15, Hebrews 10:24-25).

We may not always see how this growth happens, but the results will be evident. God is magnified and praised while more and more come to the knowledge of the truth. This is how God expects the Kingdom to grow!

As we seek to serve our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and advance His Kingdom, let us remember the humble leaven. No matter what public proclamation is made, let us remember that much of the way that God’s purposes are advanced are done behind the scenes, imperceptible to most. Let us trust in God and participate in His work of advancing His purposes on earth!

Ethan R. Longhenry