Imitation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Outer Darkness

“And cast ye out the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness: there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30).

Darkness is not what it used to be. For thousands of years, once the sun set, most light was gone. The moon might provide some light; perhaps one could use a few candles, oil lamps, a fire, or some such thing to provide some light and heat. Otherwise there would be all-encompassing darkness, the absence of light. These days it is hard to find places where such darkness can be experienced: we have light everywhere and seemingly at all times. This makes it more difficult to imagine just how truly “dark” darkness is.

There is a reason that “darkness,” throughout time and in different cultures, represents something painful, distressing, unknown, fearful, or something that causes apprehension. Light is almost never associated with evil or anything negative; darkness seems synonymous with such things. We have a built-in understanding that there is not much good in “dark,” and plenty of which to be afraid and which we do well to avoid.

Jesus understands these things; He knows how God is light, source of all that is good and holy (John 1:4-5). In God there is light and no darkness at all: nothing evil, carnal, leading to misery and despair (1 John 1:5). If God is light, then those who follow after God should be in the light (1 John 1:7); this means that darkness, as the absence of light, is an image for all of that which is apart from and hostile to God (John 1:5, 1 John 1:6). To be in darkness, therefore, is not good; how much worse, then, would it be to find oneself in the “outer” darkness?

Jesus speaks of this “outer darkness” three times in Matthew’s Gospel: Matthew 8:12, Matthew 22:13, and Matthew 25:30. Each instance involves a person or a group of people who have incurred God’s displeasure; each time Jesus says that there “weeping and gnashing of teeth” takes place. What is this “outer darkness”?

Jesus never comes out and explicitly identifies what or where this “outer darkness” is. We gain a clue from the description of weeping and gnashing of teeth: in Matthew 13:42, 50, Jesus says that those who cause stumbling, those that do iniquity, and the wicked will be cast into the furnace of fire after the Judgment, and “there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.”

On a literal level, this makes no sense: fire provides light, and we would expect no light in the “outer darkness.” Then again, the very idea of “outer darkness” seems strange on a literal level! All of this is for good reason; Jesus is not speaking literally. He is using different images to express the same terrible fate: the place we call hell!

When we think of “hell,” we normally associate it with a fiery furnace or some such thing where the disobedient and condemned suffer. These images in Matthew 13:42, 50 certainly suggest such a thing, but we must be careful about literalizing the idea. After all, Jesus speaks of the “outer darkness” as well as the “fiery furnace.” They are both illustrations!

Jesus does well to describe hell in terms of the “outer darkness” for the reasons we’ve already described: darkness is the absence of light, and if God is light, then darkness is the absence of God. We find far too many people presently living in darkness (cf. John 1:4-5, 9-10, 12:46), already in a sense separated from God. At death that separation becomes more acute: they will find themselves, by their own choice, in the “outer darkness,” a representation of full and complete separation from God the Creator, the Source of Light and Life.

It will not be pleasant there, for it is a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Such are the responses to suffering and pain! We must be careful to not allow our imaginations to get the better of us; what the condemned experience and why it leads to weeping and gnashing of teeth is not specified, and much damage has been done by believers who seemingly gleefully describe the sorts of tortures and miseries they imagine await the condemned. No one should feel any joy on account of the existence of the outer darkness or that anyone will dwell there.

Perhaps the greatest surprise about the “outer darkness” are those whom Jesus says are going there. In Matthew 8:10-12, He says that it will be the “sons of the kingdom” who will be cast there, and by that He means those participants in the covenant between God and Israel who were not truly faithful to God. In Matthew 22:9-13, the one cast into the outer darkness was a man invited to the wedding feast without wearing the appropriate garment, understood as one supplied by the one providing the feast. Finally, in Matthew 25:24-30, it is the servant of the Master who was given the one talent and who buried it who is cast into the “outer darkness.”

In all of these examples, it is not pagan unbelievers or loose sinners who are cast into the “outer darkness”; they are people who believe in God, even many who will believe in Jesus as the Christ! Jesus speaks of the “outer darkness” as a way to warn believers against complacency and self-satisfaction. Whoever thinks that merely because they mentally accept the idea that Jesus is the Christ means they will automatically be saved will be sorely disappointed. Whoever feels that since they were raised in a Christian environment and by virtue of their lineage and cultural identity they will enter the resurrection of life will find themselves far from God. Whoever believes that others should work in the vineyard of the Lord but feel they are exempt will receive the censure of Jesus and eternity in the outer darkness!

Such does not mean that pagan unbelievers or loose sinners are off the hook; as we have seen in Matthew 13:42, 50, other passages address the condemnation awaiting others who are disobedient to God. Nevertheless, Jesus’ warning is appropriate. Yes, God is the light; God is the source of good things. We all want to identify with the light and to receive those blessings. But if we want to be in the light, we must walk in the light (1 John 1:7): we need to follow after Jesus, conforming our thoughts, attitudes, and actions to His. If we are not conforming our thoughts, attitudes, and actions (all three; not just one or two) to those of Jesus, the truth is not in us; we’re deceiving ourselves, confident of our presence in the light even though we walk in darkness. If we are found in the darkness on the day of Judgment, we will find ourselves permanently in the outer darkness!

What a terrible fate to go into the outer darkness! It is not something we should wish on ourselves, our loved ones, or even our worst enemies. Thankfully, no one is forced to go to the outer darkness; we all have the opportunity to leave the darkness and share in the light of God in Christ (cf. Ephesians 5:8). Let us heed the Savior’s warning and seek to walk in the light as He is the light!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Burying the Dead

And [Jesus] said unto another, “Follow me.”
But he said, “Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.”
But He said unto him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but go thou and publish abroad the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:59-60).

We can gain an understanding of the critical importance of the Kingdom and its proclamation to Jesus by seeing how He calls people for His purposes.

One of the commands Jesus gives frequently is to be willing to give up family relations for the sake of the Kingdom (cf. Matthew 10:34-39, Luke 14:25-26). Here this principle is on display.

Jesus calls a man to follow Him. According to the account in Matthew, he is already a disciple– not one of the Twelve, but someone else with an interest in Jesus (Matthew 8:21-22). Perhaps he has only recently begun to listen to Jesus; perhaps Jesus knows what is in his heart and is bringing the matter to the surface.

Regardless, the man has a challenge. He needs to bury his father. Perhaps his father has already actually died; it is as likely, if not more so, that he is still alive but near death.

This is not an unbecoming request. Children are to honor their parents (Exodus 20:12, Ephesians 6:1-3). To provide for fathers at the end of life was honorable: this was the comfort God gave Jacob, that Joseph would “put his hands on your eyes” (Genesis 46:3-4), and Joseph makes elaborate preparation to bury his father (Genesis 50:1-14).

Jesus understands this. We do not get the impression that He wishes to cause the elderly gentleman any disrespect or disservice. But the task of burial should be done by another– He says to “let the dead bury the dead” (Luke 9:60).

We understand that He is not speaking literally– no zombies here. Let the (spiritually) dead bury the (physically) dead is the import of the message. Yes, burial preparations must be made– but not by this man. He has been called to something greater and more urgent! There are plenty of other people around who are worldly-minded and able to handle that responsibility.

The proclamation of the message of the Gospel cannot wait. The twelve disciples watching this will learn this message well; as the Apostles, they would not allow the matter of serving tables get in the way of their devotion to God in prayer and His word (Acts 6:1-2). Someone can be found to take care of the burial process. The important thing for this disciple is to proclaim God’s message!

It is easy for us to see various commands of Jesus and initially find a way to blunt its force. This is especially true of the commands about renouncing family relations, ourselves, and our stuff for the Kingdom’s sake. We see what Jesus says about loving God more than family (e.g. Matthew 10:37), and we remind ourselves that we are to honor and respect family. It is true that we are to honor and respect family, as far as that goes. But we must be exceedingly careful lest we be guilty of forsaking God’s word to bury the dead when the dead should be left to bury the dead!

All good things are not created equal. There is not enough time, money, or resources in the world to fulfill every good thing. We must prioritize. There are the “greater goods” in life along with the “lesser goods”. We must do the best we can to keep these in perspective.

Jesus has made it abundantly clear what is the greatest good– the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33, 10:34-37, 13:44-46, 16:24-28). Therefore, every other “good” must be subordinated to this greater good. It will not matter how many good things you have done in life– if you have sacrificed the greater good, the Kingdom, in order to accomplish all of those lesser goods, it leads to condemnation (Matthew 7:21-23)!

This is the lesson that this disciple must learn in a stunning way. To go and bury his father is to sacrifice the greater good for the sake of the lesser good. Therefore, he must allow the dead to bury the dead, and to go himself to accomplish the greater good of proclaiming the message of God’s Kingdom.

So it is with us. If Jesus appeared to you and charged you to follow Him, what would you say? Would you ask Him to suffer you to “bury your father”– provide for parents, spouse, children, finish up some undone business, or the like? If so, what do you imagine He would say? “Let the dead bury the dead.” Let worldly concerns be handled by those whose only hope is in the world. Meanwhile, we must go and do the greater good, proclaiming the message of God’s Kingdom!

Let us be clear: taking care of one’s own is part of one’s responsibility to God (1 Timothy 5:8). But far too often we allow the “lesser goods” of this life (and, far too often, that which is not good at all!) to crowd out the greatest good. We will find time for everything but the advancement of God’s purposes. This should not be. Let the dead bury the dead– but let us proclaim God’s message before it is too late!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Receiving Good and Evil

Then said his wife unto him, “Dost thou still hold fast thine integrity? Renounce God, and die.”
But he said unto her, “Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?”
In all this did not Job sin with his lips (Job 2:9-10).

No one enjoys pain, difficulties, and suffering. We all would much rather enjoy the good life, pleasures, and success. We often believe that we “deserve” to obtain the good things, and we do not “deserve” the bad things.

When pain, difficulties, and suffering come, we have an impulse to blame some higher authority. Many people blame God for their problems and difficulties. They do not understand how God could do evil to them, or, at least, allow the evil to be done to them. Where is God when there is pain and misery and suffering?

But notice, if you will, how one-sided we humans tend to be. While many will blame God for their failures or pain or suffering, who “blames” God for the fact that they are successful and healthy and prosperous? Many will claim that God does not exist on the basis of the existence of suffering, but no one in his right mind will argue that God does not exist because people find success, prosperity, and health. Job’s wife never imagined to tell Job to let go of his integrity, curse God, and die while their children and possessions remained! No– when people obtain prosperity, success, and health, they may very well praise and thank God for it.

It is easy for people to have such “immature” views and ideas about God. We know for certain that God does not tempt anyone with evil (James 1:13), and provides a way of escape from any sinful situation (1 Corinthians 10:13). But there is no guarantee that the life of the believer– or the life of anyone– will be free from pain, suffering, and misery. As we live our lives, we will receive both good and evil. If we are willing to honor and praise God when we receive that which is good, why should that change if we receive evil?

No one is saying that evil is desirable or pleasant, but it has its place in our fallen, broken world. Evil reminds us regarding the fundamental “dis-ease” that we should have while living on earth– this is not what God intends for the creation (cf. Romans 8:19-23). We must feel the “heat” of the law of sin and death at work in the world (Romans 5:12-18). If we did not experience discomfort, we would get rather comfortable on this planet and forget about Jesus and His sacrifice, just as the Israelites forgot about the LORD their God when they received the land of Canaan and enjoyed it!

Furthermore, human character is not developed through success and prosperity. Maturity and growth do not come from success and pleasure but from failure and suffering. Success and prosperity easily lead to belief in self-sufficiency and arrogance; trial leads to patience and growth in faith (James 1:2-4, 1 Peter 1:6-9). Job could only truly learn to appreciate all of God’s blessings when he suffered great misery in life, and it is the same with us. We only appreciate health when we suffer illness and pain. Success is sweeter after experiencing failure. Those best suited to handle prosperity are those who know how to live contented lives in poverty (cf. Philippians 4:11-12, 1 Timothy 6:8).

It can be guaranteed that we will receive both good and evil in life. Let us remember that through times of health or illness, prosperity or poverty, happiness or misery, God is there, He loves us, and desires for us to seek after Him (Hebrews 11:6). Let us hold fast to God whether we receive good or evil!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Imperative of Doing Good

To him therefore that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin (James 4:17).

It is very easy to measure ourselves by the standard of that which we are not doing. If we are not murderers, rapists, adulterers, liars, covetous, drunkards, and so on, we feel like we are doing well. After all, how do most people define a “good, moral person?” If somebody seems nice, is not a bother to anyone, and not living in some obvious sin, they’re “good, moral people.”

We do well if we are able to avoid committing various acts of sin. We should not be murderers, rapists, adulterers, liars, and the like (Galatians 5:19-21). But it is not sufficient for us to simply avoid doing evil– we must also practice what is good and right!

James makes a declaration that is very uncomfortable. To not do the good when we have opportunity is sin, just like committing various unrighteous acts involves sin!

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, we see the terrible sins of the robbers, beating up the poor man and taking all of his things (Luke 10:30). If the priest and the Levite had seen the events take place, they would no doubt have decried the action as terrible. Perhaps they might even complain about the depravity of their generation. Yet they are as guilty of sin as the robbers– they had the opportunity to do good and did not do it (Luke 10:31-32). Even though they themselves did not beat him or take his stuff, they stand equally condemned before God because they simply walked on by and did nothing good for the man!

James’ statement shatters the pretensions of many. To turn aside from helping the needy is no different from plundering them (James 1:27). To refuse to show compassion to the disconsolate is no different from hurting them in the first place (1 John 3:17). Not showing love to others is no different from actually hating them (cf. 1 John 4). While we humans may find an act of omission to be of less concern than an act of commission, sin is sin before God, and it separates us from Him (Isaiah 59:1-2)!

Society may declare that people who do not commit a lot of “major” sins as “good, moral people,” but God is concerned with not only what people do not do, but also with what people are doing. Serving Jesus means both avoiding sin and practicing righteousness– showing love, mercy, compassion, kindness, goodness, patience, and the like. Let us be known as Jesus’ disciples by who we are and what we do, and not by who we are not and what we do not do!

Ethan R. Longhenry