The Blessing of Children

Lo, children are a heritage of YHWH / and the fruit of the womb is his reward (Psalm 127:3).

Children are a blessing. We may need a constant reminder of that, especially when they are young, but it remains true.

Psalm 127:1-5 stands among the “psalms of ascent” (Psalms 121:1-134:3); they were sung as Israelites would ascend to Jerusalem and the Temple to present themselves before YHWH during the festivals and feast days as commanded (Deuteronomy 16:16-17). Psalm 127 is the only psalm of ascent attributed to Solomon; he meditated upon YHWH’s provisions for His people. If YHWH has not built a house or kept a city, its builders and watchmen labor in vain (Psalm 127:1); it proved vain to get up early, stay up late, and overwork in worry, for YHWH gives sleep to those whom He loves (Psalm 127:2). Solomon then turned to speak of children: they are a heritage and a reward from YHWH (Psalm 127:3). Children are compared to arrows in the hand of a mighty man (Psalm 127:4); the man who has a quiver full of them is blessed, and will not be put to shame when he or they speak with his/their enemies in the gate (Psalm 127:5).

In context children are reckoned as part of YHWH’s provision of security for His people. Who would want to resist a mighty man with many arrows? A man with few allies may be easily manipulated or bullied by his enemies in the handling of civic affairs in the gate of the town (cf. Job 5:4); if the man has many children who stand up for him, his enemies will find it harder to challenge him. Whole families would have ascended to Jerusalem for the feasts and festivals; such a psalm would reinforce confidence in YHWH for security and protection, and commendation of the value of children in growing a prosperous household.

The covenant between YHWH and Israel was very much a this-worldly covenant: it does speak to certain spiritual things and realities, but the conception of its obligations, blessings, and curses is very much of the physical realm (cf. Leviticus 26:1-46). An Israelite would therefore recognize himself as blessed by YHWH if he maintained his ancestral property and lived to see his grandchildren or even great-grandchildren (e.g. Genesis 50:22-23). An Israelite would reckon himself as cursed by YHWH if his ancestral property was overrun by others, especially non-Israelites, and if he died either childless or if his children died in his lifetime (e.g. Ruth 1:1-5). Hope for the future, therefore, was invested in children: children who would grow up, inherit the land, and provide for his parents in their old age (the meaning of “honor your father and mother”; cf. Matthew 15:4-6). Children, therefore, proved quite important as a hope for a continued share in Israel and as some security against future distress.

Today we live in a very different world than ancient Israel. The individual and his or her fulfillment is exalted above almost every other conception of what is good. People have children if and when they want to have children; if they do not want children, they have many means by which to hinder procreation. Parents are expected to sacrifice for their children, but children are not expected to provide for their parents; that is the job of investment accounts, Social Security, and nursing homes. For these reasons, and others, many in culture have concluded that having children is a lot of work and not a lot of return on investment; therefore, many are not having children at all.

It is nearly impossible to explain the value and benefits of having children to anyone who has made individual, personal fulfillment the highest goal in life: by their very nature children demand a lot of resources and personal sacrifice. Children teach us a lot about ourselves and our role in the world, but at a high cost to ourselves. Not a few in the past have felt the obligation to “pay forward” the energy and investment their parents poured into them; such an “obligation” is not felt as acutely anymore. Perhaps only biological impulse is left to persuade many people to have children, and even then, not for all.

Children, therefore, are no longer considered blessings in society; they are envisioned primarily as dependents, ravenous consumers of time and energy. Our culture thus indicts itself as a culture of death, one doomed to obsolescence; a culture without children is a culture without much of a future.

Christians must affirm the value of children. Yes, it is true that our hope is in the resurrection, and not in propagation of children (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:1-40); yet, in Christ, we recognize that we are all children of our heavenly Father, whom He created as His offspring to enjoy in relationship (John 17:20-23, Acts 17:28, Romans 5:6-11, Ephesians 2:19). God shared love within Himself, and He was therefore moved to create the universe, placing within it man made in His image; God has worked to reconcile mankind to itself, suffering greatly in the process, in love, grace, and mercy extended to His children (Ephesians 2:1-18, 1 John 4:7-11). If God were first and foremost all about His “personal fulfillment,” then we would be condemned, lost in our sins.

Children are to honor their parents (Ephesians 6:1-2); a Christian who does not provide for his or her parents if they need it in their old age has abandoned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8, 16). Yet parents have children to share in life with them, to build and grow relationships with them, and to enjoy the fruit of a good life: grandchildren. Yes, children will be the source of pain and suffering as well as joy; such is the way life goes under the sun.

Ultimately nothing proves as humbling as having children, but few things prove as astonishing and powerful. In parenthood we get to experience life differently; we learn responsibility, love, care, humility, and glad suffering on behalf of another, and in a small way embody the love of God toward mankind. The problem is not with children; the problem is in how we ascertain blessings, our attachment to the fleeting idol of personal fulfillment, and the ultimate futility of the narcissistic, self-absorbed life.

God did not make us to be islands unto ourselves. God did not make us as radical individuals. God did not make us to strive for personal fulfillment above all. God made us to seek relationship with Him and one another. God made us to learn what it means to live by experiencing life as a child, as a young adult, and then as parents. May we affirm children as blessings, both in what we enjoy about them as well as in the humility and perspective we gain through them, and trust in God for protection and salvation!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Worldly Wisdom

This wisdom is not a wisdom that cometh down from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where jealousy and faction are, there is confusion and every vile deed (James 3:15-16).

James, the Lord’s brother, wrote to exhort his fellow Jewish Christians in the Diaspora regarding their conduct in Christ. Having encouraged them to avoid showing partiality (James 2:1-13), to manifest their faith in their works (James 2:14-26), and to give heed to how they speak and avoid hypocrisy in so doing (James 3:1-12), he then challenged the “wise” among them to demonstrate their wisdom through their lives full of good deeds (James 3:13). Wisdom “from above,” from God, is pure, peaceable, open to reason, full of mercy and good works, and is without partiality and hypocrisy; those who are wise make peace and in so doing sow unto a harvest of righteousness (James 3:17-18). But those who have zelos (jealousy or envy) and eritheia (strife, selfish ambition) in their hearts are not truly wise, and they should not glory and lie against the truth (James 3:14). Such people are motivated by a different kind of “wisdom,” that which is of the earth, of this life, and demonic; such wisdom leads to confusion and wickedness (James 3:15-16).

How can there be two different types of wisdom? Is not wisdom automatically good? By no means; wisdom is simply knowledge that “works.” Wisdom can be good; it can be evil. We may want to believe whatever wisdom that “work” must come from God, but it does not take much investigation to recognize just how terribly correct James is about the different sources of wisdom. In the experience of mankind, “might makes right” or “the ends justify the means” certainly seems to “work”: those with power tend to make the rules to benefit them and marginalize others, and not a few terrible deeds have been justified because of the perceived benefits of the outcome. In fact, most of what passes as wisdom about “getting ahead” in life all derives from the two base impulses identified by James: jealousy/envy and selfish ambition. While we may be able to find some morally exemplary persons among the wealthy and the elite, most of them have obtained their wealth because they were driven by jealousy and selfish ambition. It seems almost axiomatic that every ruler, those who actually rule and those who strongly desire to do so, are almost nakedly ambitious in life. Most give lip service to the moral superiority of love and humility, but when it starts hitting the power base or the pocketbook, it is all about fear and winning.

It is crucial for Christians to recognize the contrast between the wisdom from above and “worldly” wisdom, to not confuse the two, and in every respect to purge ourselves of “worldly” wisdom and pattern our lives on the wisdom from above. Christians are easily tempted to use a bit of the Devil’s ways against him; after all, they “work,” and if they “work,” then what would be the problem? James never denied the efficacy of “worldly wisdom”; instead, he pointed to its ultimate fruit. Wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there is disorder and vile practices (James 3:16). If there is jealousy and selfish ambition in the home, there will be fights, distress, stress, and the children will not be able to be fully raised in the Lord’s discipline and admonition and will have much to overcome as adults. If there is jealousy and selfish ambition in the church, there will be strife, divisions, and all kinds of ungodliness, hurting Christians and giving the Gentiles reason to blaspheme (e.g. 3 John 1:9-10). Our culture, society, and nation are under the control of the god of this world; we should not be surprised to see such terrible partisan bickering and division since there is so much jealousy and selfish ambition (2 Corinthians 4:4). We can understand how all of these situations come about, yet we recognize that none of them are really good or truly healthy.

For good reason did our Lord and Master draw a very strong and solid line between the “ways of the Gentiles” and the way it should be among His people in Matthew 20:25-28: the Gentiles live by the earthly, this life, demonic wisdom of this world. It should not be so among us. Christians must live by the pure, peaceable, reasonable wisdom from above, from God, full of good works and mercy, without partiality and hypocrisy. We will be tempted to use the world’s ways of doing things; after all, they “work,” and we do not want to be fully left behind. We will be tempted to use Satan’s tactics to tell people about Jesus, using manipulation, coercion, judgmentalism, or bait-and-switch tactics; such is not pure and peaceable, but derives from jealousy and selfish ambition, and is condemned. Many wish to judge the effectiveness of the Lord’s people in their efforts based on the metrics of the business world; we do well to remember that the business world is motivated entirely by jealousy and selfish ambition, and be very wary of whatever “wisdom” someone wants to derive from it. Whenever God’s people get involved in the economic and political world, they enter a realm dominated by jealousy and selfish ambition; if they are not careful, God’s people may end up finding themselves commending the unjustifiable and approving the unconscionable so as to obtain power or standing, compromising all that is good and lovely on account of fear and/or a will to power.

We do well to remember that God did not save us through economic prosperity or through the power games of the political realm; God has saved us through His Son Jesus who lived, suffered, died, and whom God raised from the dead because He proved willing to bear the shame and the scorn and proved obedient to the point of death (Philippians 2:5-11). We must have the mind of Christ, the wisdom from above; we must love where there is fear, we must remain humble where there is arrogance, we must show mercy where there is judgmentalism, we must remain content where there is jealousy, and we must seek the best interest of the other where there is selfish ambition. This world’s wisdom has not brought lasting peace; it is incapable of doing so. Christians, however, have access to peace toward God through Jesus who Himself killed the hostility by suffering on the cross (Ephesians 2:11-18). Peace does not come through any form of the wisdom of this world; it does not come through fear or projections of strength; it comes from humility, purity, a willingness to show no partiality, and righteous living under the Messiah. If we really believe Jesus is who He says He is, then we shall willingly give up our jealousy and envy, finding contentment in Him, and renounce all selfish ambition, and live for Him (Romans 12:1-2, Galatians 2:20, Philippians 4:10-13, 1 Timothy 6:5-10).

We live in a world saturated with demonic earthly wisdom. We must recognize it for what it is, but as Christians we must not capitulate before it. We cannot advance the Lord’s purposes with the Devil’s wisdom; we cannot will ourselves to power through the wisdom of demons, but must in every respect become the slave of Jesus so His reign can be seen through us. May we seek to purge ourselves of all jealousy and selfish ambition, the wisdom of this world, and find contentment and true life and identity in Jesus the Christ, and obtain the resurrection in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Will of God: Our Sanctification

For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye abstain from fornication (1 Thessalonians 4:3).

“What is God’s will for me in my life?”

Such a question, or a permutation thereof, is on the minds, hearts, and tongues of many sincere Christians. They, as we all, live in a world full of choices. When confronted with all sorts of options, especially about major life decisions like where to pursue education and of what type, where to live, whom to marry and when, when and of what kind of family they should have, and so on, many become afraid that the decision made is not God’s will and that God actually had a better alternative in mind.

It is good to want to seek the Lord’s will in all that is done (Colossians 3:17). We can find examples in the Old Testament of people who sought YHWH’s counsel about specific situations and received specific answers (e.g. 1 Samuel 9:1-21, 23:1-13). It would be easy to see such examples and therefore feel that God has a specific plan for each one of us in terms of our specific decisions and we therefore must pray very hard and often so as to ascertain that specific will.

Yet we do well to notice a distinct difference in communication between then and now: men like David and the prophets received direct and specific answers. God has specifically communicated to us in His Son through the Word found in Scripture (2 Timothy 3:15-17, Hebrews 1:1-3, Jude 1:3); His communication today is manifest in more subtle ways. If a particular path is absolutely not the Lord’s will, a person will be forbidden it, like Paul going into the hinterland of Anatolia (Acts 16:6-7), or warned off of it, or hindered from it in some way. If a particular life choice is a transgression of God’s will, we can know that in advance because it will be in violation of a command of God as revealed in Scripture (1 John 3:4).

In truth God is not playing games with His people in terms of understanding His will; He is not watching from heaven expecting people to guess which path He has in mind for them and laugh when they choose wrongly. The will of God for us is the same will He had for the Thessalonians: our sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3)!

In context Paul is reminding and exhorting the Christians of Thessalonica to continue to pursue the way of Christ and to do so more and more (1 Thessalonians 4:1, 9). He warns them specifically about the danger of porneia, translated as “fornication” in the ASV, “sexual immorality” or just “immorality” in other translations, and best understood as “sexually deviant behavior.” Porneia literally means “that which involves a porne,” and a porne is a prostitute; in the ancient Greek and Roman world it was commonplace for men to cavort with prostitutes and female companions. Such behavior is entirely contrary to the practice of holiness; in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 Paul explains why theologically, and here in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 he does so in terms of using the body in holy, clean, and honorable ways, and to not wrong a fellow Christian in these ways by committing adultery with them or with their spouses.

This specific exhortation is no less relevant to life in 21st century America: we live in a land saturated with sexual sin and we all do well to give attention to our sanctification, possessing our own vessel in sanctification and honor, and not in lustful passions (1 Thessalonians 4:4-5). Yet the general principle of God’s will as our sanctification also has much to commend it in terms of the life decisions we make.

God has given everyone gifts or talents; some have more than others, some are quite general and some quite specific, yet all have value (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28). God expects believers to use those gifts and talents to advance His purposes to His glory and honor, illustrated in Matthew 25:14-30; Peter exhorts Christians to use their gifts to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace (1 Peter 4:10-11). Therefore, God wills for us to live holy lives, which is the definition of sanctification, and He expects us to use all He gives us to His glory and honor, serving one another.

So will God speak to us in a dream and tell us exactly where we should go, whom we should marry, what we should do in our lives, and so on? By no means; God did not provide that specific level of counsel for most everyone even in Biblical times. Instead, God expects for us to make those decisions unto our sanctification and so as to glorify His name. Should a person live in place X or place Y? It is better to consider where sanctification and God’s glory can best be pursued, and ascertain how to live a sanctified life and glorify God while living in place X or Y. Should a person pick career path X or Y? It is better to ascertain where the person’s skills reside so as to best honor and glorify God in their career, how they can pursue sanctification while working in that career, and how they can reflect God in that career. Should a man marry woman X or woman Y, or should a woman marry man X or man Y? It is better to ascertain which person will pursue sanctification themselves and help their spouse pursue sanctification and whether the person wants to glorify and honor God in their life, marriage, and family. In every such circumstance the questions we should ask are not about whether x or y is God’s will, but how we could best pursue sanctification and glorify God in x or y situation. If we can perceive one situation to allow us to pursue sanctification and God’s glory more effectively than another, our decision has been made easier. If we can perceive that we can pursue sanctification and God’s glory in multiple situations, then we should pray for God’s wisdom and make a decision (James 1:5), always knowing that it is better to focus on how to pursue sanctification and God’s glory in our situation than it is to wonder if our situation is the best decision we could make. In the end, pursuing sanctification and God’s glory is always the best decision.

God’s will is for our sanctification. He wants us to live holy lives glorifying Him in all we do. We are called upon to make decisions in light of those imperatives. We will stand before God on the judgment day for those decisions, but God’s concern will be much more about whether and how we pursued sanctification and His glory in our circumstances than the process by which we found ourselves in those circumstances (Romans 14:12). Let us pursue holiness and God’s glory in all of our decisions, and trust that our decisions go well when sanctification and God’s glory are at their center!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Worthy Woman

A worthy woman who can find? For her price is far above rubies (Proverbs 31:10).

Lemuel’s mother’s question is a good one: who can find a woman like this?

The book of Proverbs ends with the description of the worthy, or virtuous, woman (Proverbs 31:10-31). Lemuel’s mother provides the following characteristics of such a woman: her husband’s heart trusts in her, she provides profit through her efforts, spinning wool and linen, shops in the marketplace, makes sure the house is properly organized, staffed, and provisioned, buys a field and plants a vineyard, strengthens herself for labor, makes clothing goods deep into the night, provides benevolence to the needy, has fully clothed her household, maintains great carpets and clothes, is married to a notable man of the city, makes linen clothes as well and sells them, maintains strength, dignity, wisdom, kindness, industrious, receives commendation from husband and family, and fears YHWH (Proverbs 31:10-31). That is quite the résumé! Her worth would be far above rubies (Proverbs 31:10).

We have presented here the ideal élite woman of ancient Israel, handling her responsibilities well, wonderful in every way. When we recognize her as an idealized portrait from which we can derive many good principles, all is well. But when we expect women to use this portrait as a yardstick by which they are to measure their value, worth, or effectiveness, we not only abuse the passage but also cause great grief, distress, and suffering for women. This is especially true today in America, where this idealized portrait is merged with an idealized portrait of the “good Christian wife” and thereby setting a level of expectations which very few, if any, women could reasonably satisfy.

Therefore, before we attempt to derive applications from the description of the “worthy woman,” we do well to consider such a portrait in context. Israel during the monarchical period was a very stratified society featuring a wealthy élite and a large number of poor people living at subsistence level. The “worthy woman” is very much a part of the wealthy élite: she can occupy herself primarily with spinning and clothes manufacturing, she has enough wealth to buy a field, she is clothed in fine linen and purple, and she has servants (Proverbs 31:13-16, 18-19, 21-22). She is in a position to provide benevolence to the poor and needy (Proverbs 31:20). Her husband has high social standing, known in the gates where he sits among the elders, indicating his privileged status (Proverbs 31:23). The “worthy woman” is enterprising because she has the opportunity to be enterprising. Far more women are doing all they can, with their husbands, to keep their family fed and a roof over their heads. Most Israelite families would not have enjoyed the privilege of having servants; poorer Israelite women would still need to make clothing, but would rarely be able to provide clothing for any beyond their family. Notable in its omission is any discussion of childcare; such is likely one of the tasks of some of the female servants (Proverbs 31:15). It goes without saying that female servants, of whom there would be many in Israel at this time, could never fit the portrait of the “worthy woman.” The same is true of most poor Israelite women. If Lemuel’s mother is setting the standard for how a good Israelite woman will function, then she has already set up well over 90% of Israelite women for utter failure.

Lemuel’s mother, therefore, is not setting up expectations for the average Israelite woman; she is talking about the way a woman of the élite class should compose herself. In that sense, in its historical context, there is great value in considering what she has to say. The picture painted of élite Israelite women in the Old Testament is less than ideal. Amos calls them “cows of Bashan,” and they are described as constantly demanding drink (and, we imagine, other dainties; Amos 4:1). Isaiah castigates such women for their lustfulness, softness, and excessive jewelry (Isaiah 3:16-24). While we ought to remember that the prophets have no interest in attempting to speak commendably about such women, and these condemnations may not be representative of the whole, they still demonstrate how many of the élite Israelite women behaved. They were not very industrious unto profitable or productive ends, but enjoyed the high life and desired to spend their time in satisfying their desires. Lemuel’s mother warns Lemuel, and all other men of means, away from such women. Instead, they ought to find wives who will not treat their husbands poorly, but instead will manage the household well. In the ancient world, women ran the household, which involved far more people than just the husband and children, but many slaves and perhaps relatives as well. The husbands would manage the land as well as maintaining social connections and prestige in the gates and in the royal court. A wife who not only maintained a good house but also provided more income through effective resource management and cloth production would have been most excellent for the élite men of Israelite society. They sure beat the “gold-digger” who is nothing but a drain on resources!

Yet even then it would be hard to find many women who would attain to the standard of the “worthy woman.” In the Hebrew ordering of the Old Testament, Ruth comes directly after Proverbs, and many have seen Ruth as an example of the “worthy woman.” She certainly is a virtuous woman, fearing YHWH, industrious, trying to make the best of her situation, marries a man known in the gates, bears a son, yet even then, we do not have any evidence that Ruth did absolutely everything the “worthy woman” was doing (Ruth 1:1-4:22). Esther was a woman of abiding faith in YHWH who sought the welfare of her people and acted wisely, prudently, and shrewdly, but was expected to maintain a high standard of external beauty and would not have manually labored at all (Esther 1:1-10:3). These are good women, godly women, yet even they do not reach the lofty standard of the “worthy woman” of Proverbs 31:10-31.

Therefore, the “worthy woman,” even in context, is an idealized portrait. We do well to derive from it the principles and types of behaviors which made the woman worthy: enterprising, a competent manager of her own and her family’s affairs, benevolent, and reverent toward God. These are great attributes to which all women should aspire. In contrast, an unworthy woman is one who is lazy, a drain on the family’s resources, one who mismanages her own and her family’s affairs so that her husband cannot trust her with any responsibility, selfish, uncharitable, and irreverent toward God. Sadly, such all too frequently define many women of wealth as manifest on celebrity television shows; therefore, even the contextual wisdom is good for men of means to take into consideration as they search for a wife. Nevertheless, the principles of the “worthy woman” remain important for all women regardless of wealth, and women can manifest those principles in their lives and be reckoned as “worthy” women.

Men who find worthy women as wives do well. Women are virtuous when they revere God, prove enterprising, faithfully execute their responsibilities, thus engendering trustworthiness, and are benevolent. We do well to encourage women to manifest these principles and commend them when they do so. Let us all honor and revere God, maintain our responsibilities, and glorify God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Abide as Called

Let each man abide in that calling wherein he was called…Brethren, let each man, wherein he was called, therein abide with God (1 Corinthians 7:20, 24).

If you have much experience in a church, you have seen this situation play out and have likely experienced it yourself. When young men and women reach a marriageable age, they start being asked how the search for that “special someone” is going. If a particular young man takes an interest in a young woman, and vice versa, they will be asked when they will get married. Not long after marriage they will be asked when they will have a child. Soon after having the first child they will be asked if and when there will be a second. Soon afer the second they will be asked whether they will have any more. If they go to three and especially to four they will be asked whether they have figured out how that works and/or if they are possibly done yet. Their children are then put through the same sequence, and so on and so forth.

We can certainly understand why this trend takes place: there is an inherent expectation that young men and women will get married and raise children. The future leadership of the church depends on at least some of them doing this (cf. 1 Timothy 3:1-12)! Yet, while people who engage in this practice likely have good intentions, we must be careful about the implicit message it brings: your value in the church is based on whether you are married and/or the production of children. A man or woman who does not end up marrying, for whatever reason, is made to feel less valuable and important as those who did marry. Couples who are childless for whatever reason feel ostracized or perhaps even judged and condemned for their lack of children.

This is not the attitude of Paul in the New Testament. In the midst of a discussion regarding celibacy, marriage, and slavery in 1 Corinthians 7:1-39, he twice exhorts people to remain in the same calling as when they were called (1 Corinthians 7:20, 24). If one was called in Christ as a slave, he can continue to serve God while a slave, but if he can be freed, he should take that opportunity (1 Corinthians 7:20-23). Was one circumcised when called? He should remain circumcised. Was one uncircumcised when called? He should remain uncircumcised (1 Corinthians 7:18-19). Is one married when called? Stay married. Is one not yet married when called? Do not feel as if you have to get married (1 Corinthians 7:27).

We do need to be careful with Paul’s exhortation here in 1 Corinthians 7:1-39. These exhortations should never be taken absolutely: Paul provides plenty of caveats throughout. As noted, if a Christian slave can obtain his freedom, he should. Timothy was uncircumcised when called but Paul circumcised him on account of their mission among the Jews (cf. Acts 16:3). Paul also makes it clear that there is no sin if a man and woman get married (1 Corinthians 7:9, 28). Furthermore, he writes that they are presently in some time of distress, a tumultuous time where all that seems stable is uprooted (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:26, 29-30). We must keep these matters in mind when we consider what Paul has to say.

These concerns do not negate Paul’s main point: God can use us as we are and where we are. Those who are married with children can glorify God in their relationships. Yet so too can those who are single or married without children. The widows can as well. Those who are free and those who are less than free can also find ways of serving and glorifying God in their condition.

It is easy to develop a mentality in which we are always looking elsewhere to find satisfaction. We may constantly worry whether we are fulfilling God’s will for us in our lives. Those who are single and/or without children are often made to feel as if they are not fulfilling God’s purposes in their lives. And yet here Paul says that we are to abide in the calling in which we were called. We can find ways of doing God’s will wherever we find ourselves and in whatever situation we are placed.

Paul does not condemn traveling to find a better job or to find a better spiritual situation, nor is he condemning looking for a spouse and having children. He is making it very clear, though, that our primary focus in whatever situation we find ourselves is to glorify God. Many may be single and never marry, instead focusing their efforts on the Lord; they should be praised and not criticized. Many may serve the Lord through marriage and children; they also are to be praised and lifted up. Some will never move far from where they were born; others may travel far away. In all things we must seek to glorify and honor the Lord and encourage their fellow Christians not necessarily to seek to change their condition in life as much as encouraging them to serve God in the calling in which they have been called.

Too often we seem to focus on the future of young people in terms of marriage and children when we would do better to focus on how they can presently serve and glorify the Lord in their current condition and calling. Many will, no doubt, marry and have children, but they have not fallen short of God’s purposes if they do not. We do well to remember Paul’s exhortation to abide in our calling and always look to serve God in the present in our circumstances, and let the future take care of itself!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus’ Family

While he was yet speaking to the multitudes, behold, his mother and his brethren stood without, seeking to speak to him.
And one said unto him, “Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, seeking to speak to thee.”
But he answered and said unto him that told him, “Who is my mother? And who are my brethren?”
And he stretched forth his hand towards his disciples, and said, “Behold, my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father who is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Matthew 12:46-50).

One can hardly overstate the importance of family, both in the ancient and modern worlds. Family connections provided the only real “safety net” of the day; one’s standing in one’s family often defined one’s career and marriage prospects, let alone religion and ideology. One of the worst fates a person could experience was to be bereft of family, excluded from family, or to be a part of a family whose name was dishonorable in the community.

One’s family tends to share in commonalities: a common bloodline, and therefore common characteristics. We have latent expectations that children turn out a lot like parents; athleticism, intelligence, skills, and temperaments tend to be inherited characteristics. If one person in a family gains prominence, it tends to be easier for other family members to also gain prominence as well.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that family would have a role in Jesus’ life and teachings. During His life, those who knew Him from His youth had challenges accepting His authority since it seemed so inconsistent with His family’s social place (cf. Matthew 13:54-58). A lot of people put some emphasis on Jesus’ earthly family: Mary His mother is prominent in the eyes of some, and there are no lack of conspiracy theories about Jesus possibly having a wife and family and how His descendants would become kings. There is no legitimacy to any such tale, but it goes to show just how much we associate people with their families; it is easy to assume that whatever made Jesus great would be passed on to other family members as well.

At one point during His ministry, Jesus’ mother and (half-)siblings wished to speak with Him (Matthew 12:46-50, Mark 3:31-35, Luke 8:19-21). Concerning what specifically we are never told; considering Mark 3:21 and John 7:5, it probably was not for good. Nevertheless, Jesus is in the middle of teaching the people, and He takes the opportunity to teach a most profound lesson. He declares that those who are really His brother, sister, and mother are not those who are somewhat biologically related to Him, but those who “do the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

Let us first make it clear what Jesus is not saying. He is not attempting to justify people dishonoring their biological parents; He affirms the commandment to honor one’s father and mother (Matthew 19:19), and puts it into practice by making sure that His mother is provided for after His death (John 19:25-27). We should not assume that He intends any disrespect to His earthly family whatsoever with His declaration, and Jesus is certainly not trying to overthrow the institution of the family.

So why does Jesus make such a strong declaration? He does so in part because of the tendency we noticed above: it would be easy for the people to look to Jesus’ earthly family to provide future leadership and to exalt Jesus’ earthly family in inappropriate ways; this is also seen in Luke 11:27-28. The honor and praise is well-meaning but dangerously wrong-headed.

And its wrong-headedness makes up the bulk of the reason why Jesus says what He does. Families are known for their strong connections and the emphasis on what they share in common; Jesus has come to reveal first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles as well that they should honor their spiritual connection with God as primary in their lives, and thus the common relationship they share as children of their Heavenly Father should be preeminent, far more valuable than any earthly connection (cf. Matthew 6:33). Jesus is not trying to say that anyone can become His spiritual “mother”; He is using the terms on the basis of connecting the physical to the spiritual. Yet all can become spiritual brothers and sisters of Jesus through the reconciliation with the Father made possible through His blood (Romans 5:6-11, 8:1-17). Had His physical brothers and sisters persisted in unbelief, their genetic relationship to Jesus would not have somehow saved them; while James and Jude will take on prominent roles in the early church, it is not because they are Jesus’ brothers, but Jesus’ servants (James 1:1, Jude 1:1). Nepotism may get you somewhere on earth, but physical nepotism will not get anyone anywhere in heaven!

Jesus’ teaching is powerful: yes, there is great value in the physical family, and those commitments should be honored (cf. 1 Timothy 5:1-16), but the earthly family should never be made an idol. Instead, as with all good things that come from God, we should perceive how the physical is a shadow of the real and spiritual: participation in the family of God is of the greatest importance, and that which we share in common in Jesus can overcome anything else that could divide us. No one need be excluded from Jesus’ family; there is not one who cannot become an adopted son/daughter of God and thus brother/sister of Jesus. During His earthly life Jesus did honor His physical family but took every opportunity to more greatly honor His spiritual family, bought by His blood. Let us join together as Jesus’ family and honor our Lord!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Enemies in the House

For the son dishonoreth the father, the daughter riseth up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies are the men of his own house (Micah 7:6).

We have the proverb in our society, “blood is thicker than water.” It speaks to the importance that most people place upon their family: for many people, no matter what the challenge might be, they will do all they can to support and assist their family members. Throughout time, in most cultures, the family has been the basic social unit.

That is what makes Micah’s declarations in Micah 7:1-6 so disturbing. He describes a society completely in disarray with no real hope for continuation. All the upright are gone; it seems that everyone is out to hunt one another (Micah 7:2). Princes and judges conspire to perpetuate oppression and evil; everyone is deeply in sin (Micah 7:3-4). Social cohesion has been lost: people cannot trust each other, not even a husband his wife (Micah 7:5). And what is the ultimate expression of this decrepit society? Sons dishonor fathers. Daughters rise up against their mothers, as well as daughters-in-law against their mother-in-law. A man’s enemies are not necessarily outside the gate or in town; they are underneath his roof (Micah 7:6)! What better image could Micah have provided to explain the depravity of Israel in his day?

The end was not long in coming for the Kingdom of Israel; within a generation or two of Micah’s declaration, Israel was no more. The Kingdom of Judah would continue for another 135 years but would meet a similar fate. God’s sentence was just.

Micah’s words, however, were not just appropriate for Israel in his own day. 750 years or so later, Jesus of Nazareth would speak of that generation of Israelites that remained in the land in similar terms. But this time He says that He is the agent of this event– He will be the reason why there would be such severe disturbance within the family unit (Matthew 10:35-36, Luke 12:51-53)!

Wait a second– if Jesus is good and holy, how can it be that He will be the cause of discord and strife? This is why it is good to understand the text He is quoting from Micah. Micah portrays a society in disarray, not drawing near to God, but remaining separate from Him. The society in Micah’s day persecuted the godly and upright in their midst. Everyone joined together in doing evil; they had little use for the good. As it was in Micah’s day, so Jesus is indicating that it is the same in His own day. The people of Jesus’ day could not tolerate the truly godly and the upright any better than the people of Micah’s day. The people of Israel in both Micah’s and Jesus’ day were bent on seeking their own will, to advance their cause as they wanted it advanced, and sought to justify it religiously.

Therefore, it is the very introduction of godliness and uprightness in the life of the first century believer that often would lead to friction within families. There are many testimonies of this from early Christians in the first few centuries after Christ: children bringing charges against their parents, and vice versa, for being Christians; pagan husbands doing all they could to hinder their wives from serving the Lord; and, as well attested in the New Testament, unbelieving Jews bringing fellow Jews who did believe in Jesus before the Jewish or Gentile authorities for punishment.

Have things changed a whole lot over the past two thousand years? For some whose family members are mostly believers, such a picture seems so dark and bleak. But for those who have many family members who do not believe, what Jesus presents is all too real. Today, as before, people want to seek their own will and advance their own causes and justify them religiously. Today, as before, if a family member begins to follow the Lord Jesus, and that light begins to expose the darkness in other family members, conflict will likely ensue. It may come from obvious examples of worldly people; sadly, it often comes from people who profess Jesus but do not act like it. To serve Jesus demands radical changes and a new emphasis in one’s identity; such “extremism” disturbs others.

There are many things in Micah’s portrayal of Israel in his own day in Micah 7:1-6 that resonate in our day as well. Seeking one’s own interest at the expense of others to the point of betraying one’s own family members is not new and not always rare. In a world that would rather justify ungodliness than godliness, and bent ways more than upright ways, anyone who seeks to follow the godly and upright path will be challenging everyone else around them, especially family members. It will be a bitter pill for many to swallow. But we have the encouragement of the message of the prophet and Jesus that this is to be expected. Yes, we might live in an ungodly world. But regardless of what others do, may we be able to say with Micah:

But as for me, I will look unto the LORD; I will wait for the God of my salvation: my God will hear me (Micah 7:7).

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus’ Brothers

For even his brethren did not believe on him (John 7:5).

For many of us, the one refuge we can count on in life is family. Even if everyone else is against us and berates us, we like to think that our family members will still accept us and believe in us.

Yet, on the other hand, our family tends to know us all too well. They watched us grow up and many have rather “incriminating” stories about our pasts. Sometimes family members refuse to see any growth or change in us; in their eyes we are still quite young, quite inexperienced, or quite mischievous, even if we have grown up and have learned our lessons.

Jesus had no ordinary beginning, and while we are not given much information about His early years, we have little doubt that they were not very ordinary, either. Contrary to certain religious traditions, it does not seem as if the household comprised only of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. We are told that He has brothers and sisters– James, Joseph (or Joses), Simon, and Judas (cf. Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3).

We do not know much about them. It seems as if they are not terribly much younger than Jesus, since they are old enough to have formed beliefs, and they are known in the community of Nazareth. We can imagine, however, what it might have been like to be the younger brothers of Jesus– the One who always seemed a bit different, One with whom they grew up, but now the One who is making rather grandiose claims about Himself and is engaging in work that is well beyond your average Galilean carpenter!

While there is much we do not know, there is one thing that the Gospels make certain– His brothers do not believe in His claims regarding Himself. In Mark 3:21, Mark informs us that “they who were of” Jesus went to Capernaum to seize Jesus because, in their estimation, He was out of His mind. In John 7:3-5, His brothers are all but taunting Him, challenging Him to go up to Jerusalem and prove to be who He claims to be, for they did not believe in Him. Jesus’ responds in ways likely not much less acerbic, declaring that it is not yet His time, and that while the world cannot hate them, it does hate Him (John 7:6-8). Sibling rivalry indeed!

At first, this might seem incredible to us, and it may lead to some doubt. Jesus suffered temptation, and yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15); wouldn’t His brothers have noticed this in His first thirty-four or so years? Did they not understand how their mother had conceived Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit, and did they not hear about all of the signs that accompanied His birth (Matthew 1-2, Luke 1-2)? How could they not believe in Him?

Yet, when we think about it, we can make some sense of it. There is a reason why it is said that familiarity breeds contempt. With the exception of Jesus at the Temple when He was 12, we do not get the impression that Jesus was active in ministration until His baptism and temptation (cf. Matthew 3-4). If you know Jesus as your older brother who lives in Nazareth of Galilee and who works as a carpenter, perhaps even working together with you in that trade, and then all of a sudden He claims to be the Son of God, abandons the trade for at least a portion of the year, gathers twelve fishermen, zealous, tax collectors, and others around Him, and starts proclaiming this message of the impending Kingdom of God, we can see why they would think Him a little crazy. This is Jesus, from the backwaters of Galilee, the carpenter. Who does He think He is? Why is He doing things that very likely will get Him into trouble, and by extension, His mother and brothers? We can see why Jesus spoke as He did in Matthew 13:57/Mark 6:4: “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household”!

So Jesus’ brothers did not believe in Him. That was probably not a good testimony for Him, but we get no indication that He compelled or coerced them into believing. They had as much of a chance to share with Him in the work of God as everyone else did (cf. Matthew 12:49-50).

Jesus’ brothers were good Jews, however, and they would have been in Jerusalem for the Passover in that fateful year when their elder Brother would be crucified. And then we learn something extraordinary.

[The eleven] with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers (Acts 1:14).

Wait a second! Here Jesus’ brothers are listed as in prayer with their mother, the other women, and the eleven disciples. Something clearly happened. But what?

The Gospels do not provide direct testimony, but later on, Paul mentions that when Jesus was raised from the dead, He appeared to over five hundred brethren, and then to James (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-7). James here is the same James who is listed as Jesus’ brother in Matthew 13:55!

How all of this happened is not detailed precisely. It is entirely possible that Jesus’ brothers came around at some point during His ministry, but there’s no evidence of such. They would have seen Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, and we know that at least James, and likely the rest of His brothers, saw Jesus in the resurrection.

And that is the power of the resurrection– unbelievers are often made believers! James will become a prominent elder in the Jerusalem church and the author of the letter bearing his name; according to Josephus, he is martyred at the hands of the Jews (Acts 15:13, 21:18; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20.9). Judas, otherwise known as Jude, is responsible for the letter bearing his name. Both of them refer to themselves as servants of the Lord Jesus Christ (James 1:1, Jude 1:1). Can you imagine? Those who once did not even believe in the claims of their older Brother, who thought Him crazy, now call Him Lord and are willing to be known as slaves of their elder Brother!

Jesus is Lord, and the proof is in the resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection was the difference that changed recalcitrant brothers into willing servants. Has Jesus’ resurrection changed your life? Let us trust Him as Lord and do His will!

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