The Love of the Brethren

Let love of the brethren continue (Hebrews 13:1).

It is always easy to pick on “the brethren” and their problems. For as long as there have been Christians, there have been ways in which Christians have fallen short (Romans 3:23). The letters of the New Testament from Romans through Jude are all written, to some extent or another, on account of the problems of Christians, either rebuking Christians for failures or warning Christians about the dangers that come from false teaching and sin. To this day it does not take long to make a long list of problems we have experienced with “the brethren,” on an individual or “institutional” level. We Christians can always find all sorts of reasons why what “we” think, say, and do sometimes causes problems; “we” can always find difficulties with how “we” operate.

Such critiques clearly have their time and place, as can be seen in the New Testament. Yet we do well to recognize that “the brethren” were never meant to just be a punching bag. Just as the letters of the New Testament from Romans through Jude were written to some extent to deal with the problems of Christians, those same letters were also written to some extent to praise and build up those Christians in what they were doing correctly. While there will always be problems and things “we” are not doing right, we do well to recognize that there is plenty that “we” are doing that is right, and, in fact, reflects the joy, peace, and love which can be found in God in Christ.

The Hebrew author has been quite critical of the Jewish Christians to whom he writes. He is concerned about their spiritual maturity (Hebrews 5:12-6:4); the main argument of the letter presupposes a concern that some would seek to return to the old covenant and no longer persevere in Christ (Hebrews 4:1-9:27). He rebukes them for their inability to recognize God’s discipline and its benefit (Hebrews 12:3-11) as well as their frailness (Hebrews 12:12-16). Yet even here the Hebrew author does not deny the love the Christians have for one another, only insisting that it continue (Hebrews 13:1). He also commends them for their steadfastness in the former days (Hebrews 10:32-36).

The love of the brethren does continue. When Christians find themselves in great need, other Christians are there to assist financially, emotionally, and spiritually. Christians are active in serving other Christians and those in the world around them, be it through volunteering, adoption, hospitality, mentoring, or in other similar ways (Galatians 6:10). Christians remain generous in giving to those in need as well as for the support of those who preach the Gospel in the United States and around the world (1 Corinthians 9:14). Christians young and old yearn to see the Gospel message taken to more people in more places and are willing to support that endeavor any way they can. And Christians still do show hospitality to one another, sharing meals together, opening their homes to each other, and enjoying the conversations and time spent together (1 Peter 4:9).

Are there exceptions to these? Of course. Is everything well? No. But we must remember that we are not alone, that there are other Christians around the world who seek to proclaim the Lord Jesus in their lives (1 Peter 5:9). Christians do seek to apply the life of Jesus to their own lives and appreciate all encouragement, exhortation, and even rebukes given toward that end (2 Timothy 4:1-4). Christians still prove interested in spiritual matters, even among the younger generations. It is imperative that we continue to cultivate these good trends.

There are problems and will always be problems. We cannot avoid those problems nor should we pretend they do not exist. We must call out sin and false teaching (1 Timothy 4:1-4, 2 Timothy 4:1-6); we must warn against conformity to the world (1 John 2:15-17). But it is not all bad and all bleak, and if we maintain such a perspective, we might just make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, we must exhort and rebuke regarding failures, sin, and error, but we must also encourage and appreciate the good, the love, and the faithfulness, and seek to nurture it further. When we do exhort and rebuke, let us do so in love because we want to see our fellow Christians reflecting Christ more accurately so that we no longer have to make such exhortations and rebukes. In all things, let us all continue to love one another and appreciate all endeavors which lead to the glorification of God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

In God’s Good Time

And when he had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land for an inheritance, for about four hundred and fifty years: and after these things he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet (Acts 13:19-20).

As Paul begins his exhortation to the Jews and allies in the synagogue of Antioch of Pisidia, he relates some of Israel’s history, emphasizing God’s direction of the people through His leadership and the agents whom He chose, culminating with David and the promise of the Messiah through his lineage (cf. Acts 13:17-23). Having discussed the exodus from Egypt, the wanderings in the wilderness, and the conquest of Canaan, and just before he begins discussing the judges to Samuel, Paul mentions how these events lasted “around four hundred and fifty years” (Acts 13:19 or Acts 13:20, depending on the translation). For that matter, he speaks of the time in the wilderness as forty years (Acts 13:18) and speaks of Saul’s reign for forty years (Acts 13:21). Why does Paul provide these details?

In the Bible, forty years has powerful symbolism: it signifies completeness and fullness. The four hundred and fifty year period is a bit more controversial. Some manuscripts seem to suggest the four hundred and fifty years describes the period between the conquest and Samuel, as the KJV rendering of Acts 13:20 would suggest: “And after that he gave unto them judges about the space of four hundred and fifty years, until Samuel the prophet.” Yet this causes great difficulty, since 1 Kings 6:1 suggests there are 480 years between the Exodus and Solomon’s fourth regnal year; this, and the historical record, do not easily allow for a four hundred and fifty year period for the Judges. There is better evidence for the reading found in the ASV and also in the ESV for Acts 13:20: “All this took about 450 years. And after that he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet”. Four hundred and fifty years for the Exodus through the conquest makes a bit more sense: around four hundred years for the sojourn in Egypt (cf. Genesis 15:13, upward to 430 in Exodus 12:40-41), forty years in the wilderness (Numbers 32:13, Acts 13:18), and thus no more than ten or so years for the conquest described in Joshua 1:1-12:24. Thus it took between 441 and 490 years; “around four hundred and fifty” makes the point well.

But this still does not get to the heart of the matter: why all the numbers? What is Paul trying to communicate?

It is not as if these numbers are new to the Jewish people who have gathered at the synagogue; in fact, if they were new, they would have been detrimental to Paul’s purposes. If the numbers were not familiar to them, they would likely begin mentally questioning the legitimacy of those numbers and therefore get distracted from Paul’s message and what he is really trying to communicate. The Israelites know their story and they know how long it took for the events described to take place. And that is precisely Paul’s point.

When Paul begins his message by speaking about “our fathers” (Acts 13:17), he is not just talking about the Israelites in Egypt, but the Patriarchs who came beforehand. The one to whom all Israelites looked was Abraham and the promises God made to him: he would become the father of many nations, whose offspring would be numerous and inherit the land of Canaan (Genesis 17:4-8). God reiterated these promises to Isaac (Genesis 26:3-5) and Jacob (Genesis 35:10-13) in turn. It would take about four hundred and fifty years, but God would fulfill these promises. Abraham had become the father of the Edomites, Israelites, and many of the tribes of the Arabs; Israel had grown numerous; God was the God of Israel, and had given the land of Canaan to them as an inheritance. It had just been done in God’s good time.

Paul reminds his audience of God’s faithfulness to His promises over time in order for them to accept how God has again proven faithful to His promises over time: of David’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as He had promised (Acts 13:23)! It had taken about a thousand years from the original promise to David (a time-frame which Paul leaves unstated), and actually around four hundred and fifty years from the end of the prophetic period (Malachi 4:5-6). God fulfilled His promise: the throne of David was given to his Offspring forever; the rule of the Messiah had begun; Israel’s hope was satisfied in Jesus. It had just been done in God’s good time.

Forty years; four hundred and fifty years; a thousand years: these are large chunks of time in the eyes of mankind. These days we barely have the patience to wait a few seconds for our technological devices to work! We expect things to be done already; the prospect of having to wait for anything is unpleasant and even provides reason for doubt. We expect God and everyone else to do things according to our time-frame and time scale.

But God has never acted on man’s time scale; time is immaterial to Him (cf. 2 Peter 3:8). He acts in His good time. Things take place within or according to His will, even if we do not understand why or how (cf. Isaiah 55:8-9).

It is good and right for us to seek to align our will to God’s; we do well when we seek to discover what God is doing around us and begin participating in that work (Romans 8:29, Ephesians 3:20-21). But we need to be careful about our interpretation of our actions and our perception of God’s providence and will. We are liable to make snap and hasty judgments; when things do not pan out as we imagine they should, we too easily want to give up or declare that it is all to no avail.

Such is only true according to our time scale. How many times have we been humbled and astounded to see God’s powerful action accomplished in His good time? Sometimes it takes years for fruit to start appearing. Sometimes it takes decades for people to come to an understanding of the truth. Often times we find ourselves under God’s discipline when we thought we were entering His joy, or perhaps vice versa. The list goes on and on.

In all of these things, short-sighted reflection proves less faithful and rather faithless compared to the long-term impact. Such is why we do well to always remember how God works in His good time, and that often takes far longer than we can ever imagine. God is faithful; He makes good on His promises, even if it takes longer than we would like. Let us entrust ourselves to God and seek to glorify Him in His good time!

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