Enemies

Be merciful unto me, O God / for man would swallow me up / All the day long he fighting oppresseth me.
Mine enemies would swallow me up all the day long / For they are many that fight proudly against me.
What time I am afraid / I will put my trust in thee.
In God (I will praise his word) / In God have I put my trust, I will not be afraid / What can flesh do unto me? (Psalm 56:1-4).

No one particularly enjoys having enemies. But they do exist; we are foolish if we think we can navigate through life without them.

Westerners who have lived primarily during the last decade of the 20th century and into the 21st century have enjoyed a period of peace and calm which has been extraordinary in comparison with what came before. Many may find this statement difficult to believe in light of terrorist attacks and the constant specter of jihad; that speaks more to what Westerners expect in life than anything grounded in historical reality.

For the majority of human history everyone was always in some danger of attack by enemies. The Old Testament relates plenty of stories of how people would attack each other’s cities, slaughter the men and their wives, and take unmarried women as war prizes; this was reality in the ancient Near Eastern world. The Classical world was little different; many slaves became as much because they were prisoners of war, and enemy incursions could frequently reach far deeper than might be imagined. The medieval world is infamous for such constant war; the European continent has rarely seen peace in the past 1500 years. When it did for a century from 1815 until 1914, the continent then exploded with unparalleled fury in 1914-1918 and 1939-1945. Safety from enemies may exist for a period of time, but it has never been guaranteed, and it can never be perfectly maintained.

We have been lulled into thinking that we can easily and effectively keep our enemies at bay, maintaining them ensconced “over there” so as not to harm us “here.” We also think that we can somehow enact sufficient measures to provide complete protection from assault by our enemies. Some would even like to pretend that our enemies are too weak to really do anything to us; they pay them no mind at all.

The attacks of 9/11 shattered the myth that America was impregnable. Many have struggled to feel safe or protected since; they are easily scared by the prospect of yet another terrorist attack. In the name of doing things to be kept safe we have seen significant curtailment of personal liberty and the creation of a surveillance state which would have made George Orwell blush. We seem perfectly willing to do anything to feel safe from enemy attack.

David’s perspective is important, for David understands what far too many Westerners do not: none are guaranteed complete safety from enemies. Despite all the efforts of the surveillance state, some may successfully plot and attack. Despite all the security protocols, some may become sufficiently inventive and find a way to get through. Even if the authorities break up a lot of terrorist plots before they can be actualized, law enforcement is highly unlikely to keep a 100% active in perpetuity. There is a danger, indeed, but dangers have always existed. Danger is always present. Safety has never really been guaranteed!

David had plenty of enemies; the superscription of Psalm 56 suggests that he wrote the psalm while living among the Philistines to evade Saul (1 Samuel 27:1-2). At this stage in his life, David has almost no safety or security; at this juncture he has been forced to abide with the lesser of the acute dangers to his life. David knows of what he speaks in Psalm 56:1 when he cries out that man would swallow him up.

If David were to hope in arms or physical strength he would be undone. David knows that his true help is not among man, but from God. David seeks God’s mercy; when David is afraid (and he has good reason to be afraid!), he trusts in God (Psalm 56:1-3). Such is David’s great boldness and confidence: in God I have put my trust, so what can people do to me (Psalm 56:4)?

The events of the past couple of decades should be sufficient to disabuse us of the notion that complete safety and security can be obtained through the projection of force locally and abroad. We likewise should be disabused of the notion that the government, the military, or any other human force is able to keep us entirely safe. This is not cause for despair or discouragement; it is merely recognition of limitations. We want to feel safe and secure; our security cannot be in man who would swallow us up, but instead in God who is our hope, our salvation, and our refuge.

Even heavily secular, “de-Christianized” Western countries seem to be brought to prayer when terrorists strike, for all of their military and technological might and prowess still cannot save them. We will not find complete security in body scanning machines, online surveillance, or an all-out attack on a Middle Eastern country. Our hope and trust must be in the God who made us, who seeks to save us in Christ, and who will in Him deliver us from the bondage of sin and death. Only in God can we find true security, knowing that we will gain the victory no matter what may happen to us. Do you want to stop being afraid of man? Then join David and put your trust in God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Refugees

“And a sojourner shalt thou not wrong, neither shalt thou oppress him: for ye were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21).

“And a sojourner shalt thou not oppress: for ye know the heart of a sojourner, seeing ye were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).

You can tell a lot about a group of people by how they treat The Other.

The Israelites have set up camp beneath Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:1-25); YHWH has spoken the Ten Commandments to them (Exodus 20:1-17); and now Moses has gone up to receive more detailed legislation, often called the “Covenant Code,” to provide for Israel (Exodus 20:18-23:33). By this time, ca. 1450 BCE, the people of Israel have lived in lands not belonging to them to any appreciable degree for over 500 years. Around 2000 BCE God called Abram out of Ur and Haran to dwell in Canaan (Genesis 12:1-7). The only land Abraham ever “owned” in Canaan was the cave of Machpelah which he bought so as to bury his wife Sarah and in which he would later be entombed (Genesis 23:1-20, 25:8-10). Isaac and Jacob in turn lived in Canaan among the Canaanites but as sojourners, owning no land (Genesis 26:2-3, 47:9). It was evident that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not really “from” Canaan, made no attempt to hide it, and often reinforced their difference: Abraham did not want Isaac marrying a Canaanite, Rebekah was exasperated by Esau’s Canaanite wives and thus resolved that Jacob would not marry one, and two of Jacob’s sons would exterminate the men of Shechem on account of Shechem’s treatment of their sister Dinah (Genesis 24:3, 27:46-28:9, 34:1-31). The Hebrew author affirms how all these were sojourners seeking something better than the environment in which they lived (Hebrews 11:8-10, 13-16).

The Israelites were more familiar with the previous four hundred and thirty years in which they lived as sojourners in the land of Egypt, at first welcomed as Joseph’s family, and then feared and despised as Canaanites, a “fifth column” in Egypt, and enslaved (Genesis 45:16-20, 47:1-6, Exodus 1:7-12). They lived among people who thought of them as less than nothing, barbaric, inferior, with contemptuous professions and practices (Genesis 43:32, 46:34, Exodus 8:25-26). The Egyptians did not consider YHWH a God worth respecting, at least at first (Exodus 5:2). Thus it could not be reasonably said that the Israelites had an “enjoyable” sojourn, or that their time as a dispossessed people in Egypt was pleasant. Their sojourn represented, to put it mildly, a very uncomfortable experience, and not one which any reasonable person would want to continue to endure.

1867 Edward Poynter - Israel in Egypt

As part of the Law which YHWH gave to Israel on Mount Sinai, while Israel remained a sojourner in a foreign land, YHWH commands them to not oppress sojourners, because they understood the experience of the sojourner (Exodus 22:21, 23:9). Such charity is extraordinary: while ancient Near Eastern cultures, by necessity, enshrined hospitality as an important function for guests, protections for sojourners were not as strong in other law codes as they are in the Law of Moses. Granted, the sojourner has his own responsibilities: he must not have any leaven in his house during the Passover, he must observe the Sabbath and cleanliness regulations, and he must not blaspheme the name of YHWH, for there is one law for both the native Israelite as well as for the sojourner (Exodus 12:19, Leviticus 17:15, 24:16, 22). Yet the integrity of the sojourner is to be respected and maintained.

Very few people want to be sojourners. Throughout history many people have been displaced from their native lands: some gained disfavor because they stood in opposition to the existing rulers or favored rulers who had been defeated; some were part of minority groups suffering under the regime of a majority ruler (or, in some cases, a majority group suffering under the regime of a minority ruler!); others were forced to leave their homeland by an occupying power. Perhaps they felt a bit alien even in their homeland; such feelings would multiply greatly when they would have to live elsewhere. As sojourners they do not truly “fit” into their new land, for they come from a different culture and place. It is understandable why native born people would look at the sojourner with suspicion and hostility as The Other. What does he want? What will he do to me? Can I trust him?

Since Israel understood what it was like to sojourn among people with varying levels of hostility for about 500 years, so now they were to treat sojourners well and not compound their difficulties and sorrows. As Christians today we can learn from this example, for we are to see ourselves as elect exiles, strangers in a foreign land, as citizens of the Kingdom of God in Christ (Philippians 3:20-21, 1 Peter 1:1). We should know what it is like to live uncomfortably in a land that is really not ours, surrounded by people who do not agree with us, and who may well prove willing to cause us harm (1 Peter 2:19-25, 4:1-6).

There are always “good” worldly reasons to fear and be suspicious of The Other. That’s how Egypt felt toward the Israelites in their midst. That’s how the Romans felt about the Jews and especially about the Christians. Their very differences make them seem strange, alien, “not of us,” and thus a potential threat. Yet, as Israel should have understood the refugee experience from their time in Egypt, so we Christians should understand the refugee experience in our own lives as Kingdom citizens in a “foreign country.” If this world truly is not our home, for our allegiance is elsewhere, we should recognize how we are The Other in the eyes of those in the world, own it, and glorify God in how we treat others!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Hateful and Hating

For we also once were foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another (Titus 3:3).

The story of life outside of Christ is always ugly. And yet Christians must remember what it was like.

Paul has been encouraging Titus in his work of ministry, encouraging Christians and promoting the Gospel. Paul is telling Titus the types of things which he must tell those who will hear him so they may be encouraged and remain faithful in Christ (Titus 3:1-2). Part of that exhortation involves the continual remembrance of who we were outside of Christ and what God has accomplished for us in Christ: we were foolish, disobedient, deceived, pursuing passion, living in malice and envy, being hated, and hating in turn, but God’s kindness was displayed to us in Christ, who saved us through the regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, justifying us, making us heirs with Christ (Titus 3:3-7). Paul wants this explained so that the Christians would be careful to maintain good works (Titus 3:8).

Why would Paul want to bring to light something so dark and ugly as the lives Christians led before they came to a knowledge of the Lord Jesus? In no way does he want to glorify and exult in the types of things regarding which we all should be ashamed (Romans 6:21). He does so regarding himself in order to magnify the great love and mercy displayed to him and to all mankind in Jesus (1 Timothy 1:12-17). Christians are to do so for a similar reason to an extent as well. Paul’s ultimate reason is for Christians to be productive unto good works (Titus 3:8): we are to recognize how dependent we are on God for our salvation, which was entirely undeserved, and should respond with humility and gratitude. It is to remind Christians that we have no basis upon which to boast about being better than others, for our condition has improved only by the grace of God poured out on us (cf. Ephesians 2:1-18). We are not to look down on those still in bondage but to love them and seek their best interest (Matthew 5:44-48, Romans 12:17-21). It also provides Christians with an understanding of the types of attitudes and behaviors from which they have been rescued; such should be a sober warning to no longer return to them again (2 Peter 2:20-22)!

Among the characteristics of life outside of Christ is hate: being hated by others and hating one another (Titus 3:3). Paul accurately assessed a major element in life in this world: fear of the other continually manifests itself as hate toward the other. What is seen as not directly for us is very easily manipulated to look like it is against us. In worldly terms there is only so much that one can motivate people to believe, feel, and do in the name of love, self-interest, greed, etc., but one can get people to think, feel, and do almost anything to preserve themselves against that which they fear. Fear and hate are intertwined; you cannot hate what you do not fear.

Few motivators prove as powerful as fear. The worst atrocities mankind has ever perpetrated have been done in the name of fear. Strong, powerful nations most powerfully exert themselves by doing what is necessary to cause those who would oppose them to be afraid of their arsenal. For many smaller nations and forces the only form of influence they can wield is to inspire fear and terror into the hearts of those with greater resources and strength. Fearmongering is a powerful thing: “be afraid” is always a powerful motivator for action and only rarely can be refuted.

Fear and hate are everywhere. People are afraid that Christians just might be right about the consequences of sinful behavior; the easiest thing to do is to hate Christians and Christianity in response (1 Peter 4:1-6). Nations fear other nations and develop hatreds and hostilities; groups of people within nations, or from different regions or religions or any other number of ways in which humans divide themselves, find reasons to engender fear and hate toward each other. The cycle never ends. In this present world the cycle will never end.

And yet, for the Christian, “hateful” and “hating one another” are to be in the past tense (Titus 3:3). In Romans 8:15 Paul made clear how Christians did not receive a spirit of slavery to be afraid, but received the spirit of adoption as sons of God in Christ. Perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18); Jesus provided the means by which we could break through the fear and hate cycle by enduring fear and hate, dying on the cross, and being raised again in power (Ephesians 2:11-18). In Christ all such hostility is to be killed: Christians are to come together as one people from many different nations and languages and exemplify the only power that could overcome the forces of darkness (Galatians 3:28). If the Lord is our helper, who are we to fear? What can man do to us (cf. Psalm 27:1, Hebrews 13:6). Other people may not like us, hurt us, and even kill us; if God is for us, who can really be against us (Romans 8:31)? We may suffer harsh consequences for following the Lord Jesus; and yet He died, but was raised in power, and in so doing struck the deepest fear into the heart of even the cruelest tyrant.

hate killed

How so? Fear and hate get their power from sin and death. Of what is anyone afraid? That they will be taken advantage of and/or experience loss of life, property, and/or standing. The tyrant attempts to get people to do things for him in fear for their lives; the terrorist tries to get people to listen to them or meet their demands in fear for their lives; the fearmonger attempts to get power or influence by giving the impression that he or she is the one that can be trusted to eliminate the threat. Jesus experienced the shame, was taken advantage of, and lost His life, and in so doing gained the victory over sin and death (Philippians 2:5-11, 1 Peter 2:18-25). The tyrant can never overpower the Christian who does not love his or her life even unto death; the terrorist cannot strike fear into the heart of the Christian who trusts that all is well whether he or she remains in the body or goes to be with the Lord; the fearmonger cannot influence the Christian who understands that the only power which can overcome fear, hate, sin, and death is the all-conquering sacrificial love manifest by God in Jesus.

fear conquered

Fear remains a continual temptation for Christians, but our fear always comes from a lack of trust in God, His goodness, His promises, and the ultimate manifestation of His love for us in Christ and Him crucified. To give into fear is to return to the hateful and hating life from which God has rescued us in Jesus. Therefore, brethren, let us stand firm. May we not give into the voices of fear and hate. Let us not be troubled by any fear or terror. Let us trust in Jesus our Lord, who died and was raised again in power, and prove willing to endure any shame or deprivation so as to obtain His glory in the resurrection!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Written For Our Learning

For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that through patience and through comfort of the scriptures we might have hope (Romans 15:4).

Why do we have the Scriptures, and what benefits can we gain by them?

These are simple questions, and yet the answers we give to them tell a lot about how we view the Scriptures and their role in our lives. To many people, the Bible is a curious relic of an earlier age, treated as mythology. Yet, for most Christians the Bible is truth, representing the revealed Word of God, providing instruction and exhortation in faith and practice (cf. 2 Timothy 3:15-17). The Bible is described variously as a “road map to eternity,” “life’s how-to manual,” and the source of answers to every question. Many then come to the Scriptures in order to find direction in life, solutions to their problems, and answers to questions. These descriptions of the Bible have some accuracy, but they are not the way that the authors of Scripture describe the purpose and value of Scripture.

As Paul concludes a discussion of how Christians are to treat one another, he quotes the Old Testament in Psalm 69:9 and speaks of how it relates to Jesus (Romans 15:3). He then takes the opportunity to explain why he would quote the psalm and apply it to Jesus, even though he has already quoted the Old Testament often in Romans: that which was written before our time was written for our learning, that through patience and through the comfort of the Scriptures we might have hope (Romans 15:4).

According to Paul, therefore, the Scriptures were written for our learning: we are to be taught and gain instruction from what they say. This instruction has an end goal: through patience and through the comfort of the Scriptures we might have hope. Paul’s understanding of Scripture has much to commend it: he gives a very holistic view of its place in life.

Scripture was written for our learning. The Greek word for “learning” is didaskalia, and it refers to learning, teaching, and instruction. From the Scriptures we can learn about God and His interaction with mankind. We can see God’s standards of holiness and how to live by them.

The reader of Scripture quickly discovers, however, that the Scriptures do not represent any sort of systematic treatise. It does not have a “FAQ” (Frequently Asked Questions) section. There is no systematic presentation of a series of true statements describing God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the church, salvation, etc. There are maps added to the Bible to assist in understanding of the locations of various places, but God did not provide a graphic laying out a road map to life. While the Scriptures provide answers for many or even all of our questions, the way in which those questions are answered are not necessarily the way in which we would choose or prefer. Instead, most of the Scriptures are narratives, telling the stories of God and the people of God from creation until the first century of our own era. In Scripture we meet people and learn about their behavior whether for good or ill. We learn about the situation of early Christians in their various local churches, the problems and questions they face, and the direction given them by the Apostles. It all ends with a vision full of fantastic imagery which seems to confuse more than it encourages.

For many of us, the Scriptures are not written in the way we would write it, and its way of communication seems foreign to those with modern, “Western” sensibilities. The Scriptures were not written in the way we wanted them to be written, but according to how God intended to communicate His purposes to mankind. God’s ways are greater than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9), and the way Scripture communicates is masterful. We are different people: we learn in different ways, process in different ways, conceive of the world in different ways, but Scripture can speak to all of us because it speaks through narrative. We all can learn from stories. Systematic analysis is well and good and has its place, but it is also two-dimensional, cold, and leaves unaddressed far more than it could ever address. God, through Scripture, tells us about people and situations, and speaks of divine truth in terms of descriptive imagery. Despite our differences, we all understand in metaphors and communicate in metaphors. We can live at different times in different cultures but understand light versus darkness, scattering seed, and such things. We can understand character studies and learn from examples of what to do and what not to do. We can find among the personalities of the Bible people with whom we relate on account of personality or circumstance. Our learning is to involve far more than just head knowledge; it is designed to change our hearts, minds, and actions!

The end goal is to live in hope. People will live either in hope or fear: they either have reason to look to the future with hope for something better or fear of something worse. Hope is the better decision, but hope can be difficult at times. Hope demands patience: we have to wait for our hopes to be realized, and that kind of patience must be developed (cf. Romans 8:24-25). Yet the Christian has every right to live in hope because of the comfort he or she derives from the Scriptures.

The Scriptures provide comfort because they provide the justification for hope. In Scripture, above all things, we learn of God’s faithfulness to His promises. All He promised Abraham came to pass; Israel received what God had promised; in Jesus all of the things which God had promised and predicted beforehand came to pass. Therefore, when God makes promises in Christ regarding His care, protection, Jesus’ return, the resurrection, and eternity with Him, we have every reason to trust those promises. You cannot get that kind of comfort from a systematic list of truths, a road map, or a FAQ. That comfort comes from learning about people like us in many ways placing their trust in God and not being disappointed and recognizing that God will see us through this life with its problems, challenges, sufferings, and distress.

The Scriptures are written for our learning. Through patience and the comfort of Scripture we can maintain hope. Let us be thankful to God for the Scriptures, learn from them, apply their messages to our lives, and glorify God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Light of the World

“Ye are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a lamp, and put it under the bushel, but on the stand; and it shineth unto all that are in the house. Even so let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).

Light and darkness represent a familiar contrast in Scripture. God is the light, representing all which is good, holy, true, and righteous (John 1:1-5, 1 John 1:5). Darkness, as the absence of light, is the absence of what is good, holy, true, and righteous, and therefore represents evil, sin, unholiness, ungodliness, and unrighteousness (1 Thessalonians 5:1-10, 1 John 1:5-10). This imagery is often extended to people on the basis of their identification and conduct: those who seek after God and His righteousness and holiness are considered part of the light, while those who do not seek God but seek their own interests are considered in darkness (Ephesians 5:7-14, 1 John 1:5-10). Light and darkness also have their representative works (cf. Ephesians 5:9, 11). The early Christians exhort one another to walk in the light, participate in the light, and turn away from the darkness and avoid it (Ephesians 5:3-11, 1 John 1:5-10). Jesus understands this imagery and uses it for full effect in Matthew 5:14-16, but toward a slightly different end.

As with salt in Matthew 5:13, so with light in Matthew 5:14: Jesus declares, without a hint of doubt or qualification, that the disciples are the light of the world. Jesus is not providing blanket approval for anything and everything the disciples will think, feel, or act; He is not attempting to deny the temptation for the disciples to act in darkness, and in a parallel declaration in Luke 11:33-36, will warn about the dangers of the eye and the body being full of darkness. Jesus is in no way seeking to contradict the way the imagery of light and darkness has been used throughout the Scriptures. In Matthew 5:14-16 Jesus takes for granted how His disciples will seek to walk in the light and pursue God and His righteousness. Therefore, they are the light of the world.

But what does that mean? Jesus follows up with another declaration: a city set on a hill cannot be hidden (Matthew 5:14). Most cities in the ancient world were built on a hill or accessible mountain for defensive purposes: if an enemy attacked, the defenders of the city would maintain the higher ground and maintain a slight advantage. A city set in the heights has the advantage of seeing the surrounding territory for some distance, but this also means that people in the surrounding territory can always see the city as well. One cannot camouflage a city on a hill!

Jesus then returns to the imagery of light with an example in the negative: no one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel (Matthew 5:15). “Bushel” is the Greek modios, a dry unit of measure of grain, often translated as “basket” under the assumption that Jesus uses the term to describe that into which a bushel of grain is placed. The point, made in Mark 4:21-23 as well, is clear enough: if it is sufficiently dark to need to light a lamp, it makes no sense to put the lamp under a bushel and hide or cover the light. Instead, the lamp is placed on a stand to illuminate the whole house (Matthew 5:15).

This entire series of illustrations leads up to Jesus’ explanatory conclusion in Matthew 5:16: as the light of the world, the disciples should let their light shine before others so they can see the good works done and thus give glory to God the Father.

Jesus therefore uses the images of light and a city on a hill to describe the “public” nature inherent in following Jesus. If we are in the light as Jesus is the light, our thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and actions will be conformed to Jesus and reflect righteousness and holiness. As light shines in darkness, so our faith must be evident to all men.

Holiness and righteousness cannot be hidden, covered up, or kept private: a holy and righteous life, by its very nature, will be clear and evident to everyone who interacts with it. Followers of Jesus who reflect His light are the light of the world, a city set on a hill: they cannot be hidden or camouflaged. And that is the point: just like a lamp lit and hidden is next to useless, so is a Christian who seeks to hide his Christianity.

Jesus’ exhortations are quite appropriate for us today. While superficial profession of Christianity remains popular in our culture, firm adherence in following Jesus and His truth are not. We are often tempted to downplay our faith and the role it plays in our lives. Religion makes a lot of people very uncomfortable; our secular society puts a lot of pressure on Christians to “play nice” and not seek to offend or trouble anyone by proclaiming the life, death, and resurrection of Christ in word and deed. Nevertheless, we must obey God, not men (cf. Acts 5:29), and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus ought to so completely transform us that we cannot help but talk about it and live transformed lives because of it. That faith cannot be hidden any more than a city on a hill or light in the darkness.

It has always been a challenge to be the light in a world full of darkness (cf. John 1:5); this is not just a modern phenomenon. Christians are always under immense pressure to compromise their faith and “turn on the dimmer switch,” so to speak, regarding their light. Nevertheless, when we truly shine as the light of God in Christ, people will see our good works, and they will have reason to give glory to God the Father. Even in these dark days many people appreciate the blessings which come from Christians reflecting Jesus. People still appreciate knowing that others love them and care for them. People still appreciate it when others do good things for them. Even if people disagree with Christianity, there remains respect for people who maintain convictions, as long as they live by them.

And such is the warning within Jesus’ exhortation. Yes, His disciples are to be the light of the world, a city set on a hill. But that means there can be no hiding. Just as the people around us are given reason to give God glory when we reflect Christ toward them, they are also given reason to blaspheme when we fail to reflect Christ and act little differently from anyone else despite professing to follow Jesus. If the light of the world acts like the darkness, what hope remains for the world?

Christianity has never been nor can it become merely a private affair. Christianity cannot hide in the shadows; such places are for all those forces opposed to Christianity! Our faith, if it is truly alive and reflecting Jesus, will not just change our lives, but has the capacity to draw all around us toward Jesus as well. Neither Christians nor the church were ever called to “circle the wagons” and retreat into some private, “safe” Christian sphere, withdrawn from the world. You might be able to hide in a desert cave or a rural commune, but Jesus never described believers like that. His people are the light of the world, a city set on a hill. Christianity is supposed to be practiced in the sight of others, for the benefit of others even if it sometimes poses challenges or causes difficulties in our lives.

The Christian life is like living in a glass house, open to the eyes of everyone. There is a lot of pressure in that to conform to the world and to compromise the standards of Jesus; there is also a lot of pressure to try to cover up the windows and retreat into private spirituality. Yet, to this day, people put lamps on stands to give light throughout a room or a house, and so it must be with us and our faith. It will be uncomfortable at times, and it will involve a lot of pressure, but we are called to practice our Christianity everywhere and before everyone. We are called to reflect Jesus in the public sphere. Let us so live to give reason for others to glorify God in Christ, and shine as lights in the world!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Not Ashamed of the Gospel

For I am not ashamed of the gospel: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek (Romans 1:16).

Paul’s bold declaration in Romans 1:16 has been popular among Christians for generations. His message is a rallying cry for faith and the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Its message also represents a significant challenge: Paul was not ashamed of the Gospel, but what about us?

V&A - Raphael, St Paul Preaching in Athens (1515)

Few are those who would directly admit that they are ashamed of the Gospel. We know that we should not directly contradict an Apostle! Our attitudes and actions, however, may tell a different story.

Our confidence and strength in the Gospel message is not tested among Christians in the assembly but out in the world. When we are in a group of people and spiritual matters are brought up, do we take the opportunity to speak of the truth or do we remain quiet? If we are around people who do not believe and are hostile to the truth, and they want to know if we are Christians and what we believe, do we boldly confess Jesus or do we make excuses? In our relationships with people of the world, do we ever find opportunities to talk about their spiritual condition, or are we too afraid that we are going to offend or cause discomfort?

Paul can declare that he is not ashamed of the Gospel because he attests to all the antagonism and violence he suffered on account of its message:

Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as one beside himself) I more; in labors more abundantly, in prisons more abundantly, in stripes above measure, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day have I been in the deep; in journeyings often, in perils of rivers, in perils of robbers, in perils from my countrymen, in perils from the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in labor and travail, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Besides those things that are without, there is that which presseth upon me daily, anxiety for all the churches (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).

He stood in the midst of hostile unbelievers and proclaimed the Gospel anyway. He endured beatings and imprisonments because of the message of the Gospel, and he proclaimed the Gospel anyway. Odds are that none of us will experience the kind of persecution that Paul endured; will that lead us to boldness in proclaiming the Gospel or will we become complacent?

Do we really believe that the Gospel is God’s power of salvation to everyone? If we make excuses and justify our fears and do not proclaim the message, we prove that we are ashamed of the message of Jesus Christ.

Consider: what if, during the night, you discover the cure for cancer? You know possess the knowledge that can lead to the end of suffering and death for millions of people around the world! What would you do with that knowledge? Would you keep it to yourself and not be a bother, or would you go out and proclaim it everywhere?

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that you kept it to yourself. What kind of person does such a thing? What would people think of you if they knew that you had, in your possession, the knowledge that would lead to the relief of thousands of people, and yet you did nothing with it? At best, you would be considered heartless and cruel. At worst, you are no better than a murderer!

While it is unlikely that you will discover the cure for cancer, if you are a Christian, you have in your possession the knowledge of how to overcome the most potent illness that has caused the most pain and misery in human history: the problem of sin (Romans 3:23, 6:23). You have the message of the Gospel, the message that can lead to the relief of billions of souls from the pain and slavery of sin and death (cf. Romans 1:16, 8:1-2). What kind of person are you if you keep that message to yourself?

Proclaiming the Gospel message involves personal risk. It will no doubt be uncomfortable at times. It may lead to rejection, insults, or mockery. In some cases, it could lead to physical punishment or even death. Nevertheless, the Gospel message remains the most important message that can be proclaimed, and God seeks people who are not ashamed of that message to send it out to every creature (cf. Mark 16:15-16). While the dangers are great, the rewards are far greater (cf. Romans 8:17-18). Let us boldly affirm and proclaim the Gospel of Christ, and lead those with whom we come into contact to the God who can deliver them!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Do Not Fear; Only Believe

While he yet spake, they come from the ruler of the synagogue’s house saying, “Thy daughter is dead: why troublest thou the Teacher any further?”
But Jesus, not heeding the word spoken, saith unto the ruler of the synagogue, “Fear not, only believe” (Mark 5:35-36).

The dreaded news had arrived.

Jairus knew that the time was short; he hastened to Jesus and implored Him to heal his daughter, sick near death (cf. Mark 5:22-23). Jairus knew that if Jesus got to her before she died she could be delivered from the illness. But the crowd pressed firmly upon Jesus, and He took time out to hear the confession of faith of the woman healed from the issue of blood (cf. Mark 5:24-34).

Too much time had been taken. The girl was dead.

This news is brought to Jairus; according to those who came from his house, there was no more need to bother Jesus the Teacher. And yet, in the midst of this despair and distress, Jesus provides a compelling message for Jairus: do not fear– only believe.

What would Jairus do?

It would be entirely understandable if he went with conventional wisdom and no longer bothered the Teacher. His daughter was dead. One of the few guarantees in life is that once you are dead, you are dead and finished. Sure, Jesus had healed all kinds of sick people and cast out many demons– but He had not yet raised anyone from the dead. It was a great hope while it lasted– but now all hope was gone. The girl was no more.

Yet, on the other hand, why is Jesus so nonchalant about the matter? Did Jesus not know how close she was to death? Why did Jesus delay? Why does He not pay any attention to the terrible news? Jesus is being hailed as the Prophet, the Son of God, with great authority. And now He says to not fear but only believe.

How many times do we find ourselves in a position similar to that of Jairus? There are many times in our lives when our situation seems bleak and hopeless. According to all appearances and conventional wisdom, there is nothing left to do but lose hope and be afraid. Distress encompasses us. Trials beset us. We have all kinds of reasons to no longer trouble the Teacher and to go on our own way.

And yet the voice of Jesus may still call to us to not fear and only believe.

This message should not be distorted or improperly expanded to indicate that all we ever need to do is just believe. Trust and confidence in God and Christ demand that we do what they say to do– if we do not do the Lord’s commandments, we prove that we are not trusting in Him (cf. Romans 6:16-23, James 2:14-26, 1 Peter 1:22, 1 John 2:3-6).

But there are many times in life when, if we were walking by sight/appearance, we would lose hope. It is in those times that we must walk by faith– trusting that the Lord is there, that the Lord is good, and that God is willing to do far more than even what we desire (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:7, Ephesians 3:20-21). God can do the mighty actions; it is our place to trust in Him.

But there have always been and always will be reason to laugh at that trust. There are always reasons to lose all hope and to be afraid. There is never a lack of political uncertainty, economic uncertainty, medical uncertainty, and even environmental uncertainty. There are always various reasons to doubt God, to be afraid of what is happening to us or what we fear is about to happen to us, and to decide to no longer bother the Teacher.

We can read about Jairus’ choice: he believed and Jesus raised his daughter from the dead and restored her to full health (Mark 5:37-43). God was able to do more for him than he could have imagined. And so it is with us. Whenever we are assailed by doubt, fear, uncertainty, and hopelessness, let us remember the words of our Lord.

Do not fear. Only believe.

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Results of Worry

“And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit unto the measure of his life?” (Matthew 6:27).

It starts early and it never has to stop. Getting accepted at school. Making the grade in class. Getting picked at kickball. Surviving middle school. Being liked by at least someone of the opposite gender. Making the sports team. Making it to college. Finding a spouse. Having children. Everything your children go through and will go through. And that just starts the process. Then there is terrorism. Economic uncertainty. Left-wingers. Right-wingers. Healthcare. Unemployment. Natural disasters. Artificial disasters. The ups and downs of the stock market. Suffering. Illness. Death. There seems to be no end to the things regarding which we worry. Hours upon hours are lost as humans agonize over these– and many other– experiences and challenges.

It feels quite natural to worry and to be anxious in life. In the end, it is not a bad thing to have some concern about oneself and how one lives life. We need to be concerned about whether our lives are pleasing to God and how we can improve ourselves in various aspects of life. Nevertheless, humans take worry and anxiety to unhealthy levels. If we humans do not stop and think about our lives for a moment, it is easy to get lost in a perpetual stormy sea of fears, anxieties, doubts, and worry.

Jesus encourages us to take that step back and consider our lives. He asks an excellent question. Who is the person who lived any longer because he had great concern and worry over his existence? A variant to this reading asks if a man can add a single cubit to his stature– the point is the same. No one has ever lived a moment longer or grown any taller because of worry or anxiety. The opposite, in fact, is quite true– people send themselves to an early grave because of the high stress brought upon by worry and anxiety.

But what are we supposed to do? As Jesus indicates throughout this entire instruction, we do better if we seek God first and trust in Him (Matthew 6:25-34). While it seems trite and oversimplified, it is true. Again, if we just stopped to think about it for a moment, we would recognize all that God has done for us. He has provided the creation, having made all things so that life could continue (Genesis 1). As the Creator, He has all power and authority, and knows His creation (cf. Matthew 28:18, Luke 10:28-30). Furthermore, He has provided us with the opportunity for reconciliation with Him through the blood of Jesus His Son and promises us every spiritual blessing in Christ (Romans 5:5-11, Ephesians 1:3). Paul indicates that if God did not spare His own Son, He will surely give us “all things” (Romans 8:32). If God has gone to all of this trouble, can He also not see us through our causes of concern and worry?

We do not want to seem sanctimonious or unfeeling: we understand that there are plenty of reasons for worry, concern, anxiety, and fear these days. When you or a loved one has lost a job, or has been diagnosed with a terrible illness, or have suffered the results of a natural disaster or an accident or any number of difficulties, life is difficult. You may not know how you are going to pay all the bills, or get food on the table, or a roof over your head. You may not see a light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak, and do not know how you will provide for your family. But God is greater than all of those challenges. The life, death, and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ proves to all of us what is really important– that our soul is in a right relationship with God, and that through days of plenty or want, ease or distress, it is well with our souls (cf. Philippians 4:12-13). Our time on this planet is too short to be lost in worries and fears– we need to redeem our time, and make the best use of it for God and His purposes (Ephesians 5:15-17).

The “serenity prayer” has guided many a soul through difficult and anxious times:

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

We should show some concern to do the best we can in those areas of life over which we have some true measure of control. But for that which is beyond our control– which, in large part, includes all of what has been done in the past and what will be in the future– we do best to entrust to our faithful Creator. Being anxious and worrying about them will do us no good and much harm!

Yes, we live in dark and difficult times. But no matter what is going on in life– no matter how well-off or poor we are, how sick or healthy, how fortunate or seemingly cursed– there are always plenty of opportunities for worry and anxiety. Yet, in the end, worry and anxiety are entirely unproductive. Instead, we do well to seek the will of God, and trust Him, for He is wonderful in power and we are but dust. Let us seek His Kingdom and righteousness, cast our cares upon Him, be saved, and live lives of greater peace and tranquility!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Moving Forward

Therefore let us also, seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising shame, and hath sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Moving forward.  It is something we know we ought to do in our lives, and yet it is often quite difficult to do so.

We have so much that can weigh us down.  Sin besets us.  We can become discouraged and despair of our ability to do anything.  Fear can paralyze us.  Even simple inertia can keep us from going forward and making changes.

Yet God calls us to continually and irrepressibly go forward.  We have the great cloud of witnesses of the saints of years gone by: their examples of faith in the face of difficulty can encourage us, and we can view them as cheering us on our own journeys.

This is why we must lay aside the weights that keep us down.  While sin may beset us, we must believe in God, humbly confess our faults before Him, and break through (1 John 1:9).  While discouragement and despair may bring us downward, faith and hope can encourage us (Romans 8:23-25, 1 Corinthians 13:10).  While fear may paralyze, God tells us to no longer fear, but trust in Him and His victory (Revelation 1:17-19).  Even inertia can be overcome in zeal for God and His ways (2 Corinthians 9:2).

Yet the only way we can move forward is to keep our eyes focused on Jesus.  He is the way, the truth, the life, and the resurrection (John 11:25, John 14:6).  He suffered temptation and yet did not sin (Hebrews 4:15).  Our faith is based in who He is and what He accomplished, and He is the one who makes up for our deficiencies through His own atonement.

The Hebrew author does not deny that suffering will come to believers, but shows us that through suffering we can gain exaltation.  He suffered the humiliation and suffering of the cross because of the joy set before Him; thanks to Him, we can persevere through our own suffering, since eternity with God is set before us if we endure (1 Peter 1:3-9, 1 Peter 2:21-24, Matthew 10:22).

The forces of darkness provide every reason to become discouraged, to fall into despair, to suffer in sin, and to go nowhere.  Yet God beckons through the example of Jesus Christ to go forward.  The saints of God can encourage you by their example.  Fellow Christians can encourage you on the journey.  But you can only persevere and move forward by looking to Jesus and following His ways in His might and strength.

If we do not move forward, we fall behind.  Let us constantly press onward and upward toward eternity with God (Philippians 3:13-14)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Spiritual Reality

And when the servant of the man of God was risen early, and gone forth, behold, a host with horses and chariots was round about the city.
And his servant said unto him, “Alas, my master! how shall we do?”
And he answered, “Fear not; for they that are with us are more than they that are with them.”
And Elisha prayed, and said, “O LORD, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see.”
And the LORD opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha (2 Kings 6:15-17).

By all accounts, the situation looked grim.

The Aramean king learned that Elisha was foiling his plans to raid Israel, and sent his army to end the threat.  The Aramean army comes toward Elisha– a terrible sight indeed.  Who can stand against the foe?  The Israelite army has enough problem, let alone some prophets!

We can understand and sympathize with the great concern of the servant.  According to the physical reality on the ground, there was little reason to hope.

Yet Elisha is unperturbed.  He recognizes the spiritual reality in their midst.  He knows that there are more on his side than there are for the enemy– even if such are invisible to man’s eyes.

We can only imagine what the servant felt when he suddenly sees the angelic host with its fiery chariots.  He, no doubt, felt amazement and wonder.  Stupefied is probably more like it.  None of it was visible a moment earlier.  Yet, in the blinking of the eye, everything was different.

Yet nothing was really different.  The angelic host was always there.  The servant simply did not perceive them!

This passage seems to teach us that there is a spiritual reality in our very midst that we do not perceive.  If our eyes were opened, we might feel amazement and wonder, utterly stunned at all that is around us.  Everything would seem different, but nothing would really be different.  It is always there, just past our physical senses.

Let us remember this when we feel alone or discouraged, believing that our situation is hopeless.  We may be struggling with a temptation to sin; we may feel some persecution for our faith; we might be experiencing some kind of trial, physical, spiritual, or otherwise.  It may seem that the forces of evil and darkness are too numerous, and we despair of victory.

Yet, as it is written,

Ye are of God, my little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world (1 John 4:4).

In Jesus Christ we will have the victory.  There is no force greater than His Lordship.  We just need to have faith that an overwhelming spiritual reality is all around us, and that there are more for us than there are for them!

Ethan R. Longhenry