The Shepherd

YHWH is my shepherd / I shall not want (Psalm 23:1).

Psalm 23:1-6 is by far the most famous Psalm in the Bible, and it may even be the most well-known and beloved passage in all of Scripture. You have likely heard it read at almost every funeral service you have ever attended. But what’s it all about?

David meditated on his relationship with God in Psalm 23:1-6. As a young man he lived as a shepherd, and thoroughly understood that responsibility (cf. 1 Samuel 17:34-36). Thus it was not difficult for David to speak of YHWH as his shepherd (Psalm 23:1).

David set forth what it meant for YHWH to be his shepherd: YHWH would provide what he needed (Psalm 23:1). As a shepherd finds green pastures, calm streams, and good paths for the sheep for their sustenance and development, so YHWH has provided prosperity, peace, and the way of righteousness for David, restoring his soul (Psalm 23:2-3).

Yet the world is a dangerous place, full of evil; the image of the day of difficulty in the world as the “valley of the shadow of death” is haunting yet compelling (Psalm 23:4). David has confidence to persevere on account of YHWH’s presence. David received comfort from YHWH’s rod and staff: a shepherd would have kept a rod or staff, often bent with a hook to form the “crooked staff,” in order to support himself while walking and to provide guidance for the sheep. The presence of the rod/staff indicates the presence of YHWH and discipline to follow the good, right, and healthy way.

David found himself often beset by enemies, and yet YHWH had prospered his way; he praises God for having prepared him a table before his enemies (Psalm 23:5). God had anointed David’s head with oil and his cup overflowed: while David was anointed by Samuel at YHWH’s behest to be made king in 1 Samuel 16:13, both images here refer more to abundant prosperity from God’s hands (“anointed” is literally “to make fat” in the Hebrew; cf. Amos 6:6, Matthew 6:17). YHWH has provided abundantly for David.

YHWH has taken care of David and continues to provide for him; David thus fully expected YHWH to continue to manifest goodness and covenant loyalty toward him for the rest of his life (Psalm 23:6). David’s great hope involved dwelling in YHWH’s house forever, always enjoying His presence.

David did not write Psalm 23:1-6 merely for himself; YHWH inspired him to write to give voice to the people of God throughout time. Countless generations have taken comfort and strength from Psalm 23:1-6, and for good reason. Many have also walked in the valley of the shadow of death. Who would not want abundant prosperity? People like the idea of green pastures and still waters.

We can therefore understand why Psalm 23:1-6 gets appropriated for funerals and other moments of difficulty, and yet the entire psalm is animated by its very first phrase: YHWH is my shepherd. Everything else follows from it, indeed, but also depends upon it.

For YHWH to be my shepherd, however, I must be His sheep (Psalm 23:1). While the image of YHWH as shepherd might have come easily to David, having been a shepherd himself, the implications of the truth of such an image still requires a person to swallow a lot of pride and to exhibit humility. Comparing a person to a sheep is not flattering, then or now: sheep, quite frankly, are dumb. They must be led everywhere they go. Without a leader they wander aimlessly or stay paralyzed in one place. They are defenseless and prove easy prey for wolves and other predators. They are easily scared.

We humans easily fall prey to the pride of life, presuming a level of independence in understanding. We like to think we know how things work, can see through conceits and deceit, and have a good handle on knowing what we should do and how we should go. And yet we all make quite a mess of our lives on our own; whether we want to admit it or not, we are often powerfully motivated by fear, insecurity, and doubt, and prove self-deceived far more often than we would like to believe. In the grand scheme of things, yes, we are like sheep.

Thus, we do well to swallow our pride and to understand ourselves to be as sheep, and to look to YHWH as our Shepherd. We therefore must prove willing to follow Him and the paths He has established for us, even and perhaps especially when we find ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death. We need to recognize our complete and utter dependence on God for all good things and confess our continual struggle to appreciate them and fully trust in Him. David’s final desire must also be our own: to dwell in the house of YHWH forever.

Psalm 23:1-6 is immensely comforting, but it can only be so for those who submit to YHWH as His sheep. God will lead His sheep to good pasture, still waters, and tables of prosperity. Yet His sheep must endure the valley of the shadow of death and perhaps great trial; they must depend upon YHWH their Shepherd for all things and not presume to have gained anything through the unaided work of their own hands. May we all trust in God in Christ and follow Him, the Good Shepherd, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Body of Christ

Now ye are the body of Christ, and severally members thereof (1 Corinthians 12:27).

Christians not only represent the Lord Jesus Christ; they are to understand themselves as His body.

The Christians in Corinth were able to exercise spiritual gifts; it was evident they handled these gifts with great immaturity, using them to show off and to presume a greater level of spirituality than that of others. Paul attempted to explain to them another way: the way of love, the exercise of spiritual gifts to encourage and build up the whole as opposed to the elevation of the individual (1 Corinthians 12:1-14:40). As part of that exhortation Paul sought to focus the Corinthians on their participation in and as the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31. Paul goes well beyond suggesting the metaphor; he elaborates on the connections and applications at length. A body has many individual parts but remains a coherent whole; so with the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-14). The individual parts of the body have different, unique, and important functions, and each is necessary to the well-being of the whole; so it is with the body of Christ, in which God has put every part according to His pleasure (1 Corinthians 12:15-18). Different parts of the body need each other to work most effectively; so it is with the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:19-21). In fact, many of the most necessary functions of the body are the most hidden and “modest,” and given greater honor on account of their “humility,” and so the body of Christ is to maintain care and concern for its members, with each suffering and rejoicing along with those who suffer and rejoice, so that no division may exist in the body (1 Corinthians 12:22-25). In short, the human body is sustained because its constituent parts perform their individual roles while supporting the roles of others in an organic unity; it could be said that the parts have care for each other, recognizing the importance of all for proper function, and so it must be in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:26).

Paul manifestly used a metaphor to describe the church as a body; we are not physically interconnected with each other. But we should not deprecate what Paul says as “mere metaphor,” as if its metaphorical nature denies its substantive reality: Paul expected the Christians in Corinth to work together as a body, to care for each other as a body, and to give each member the respect and honor in valuation as critical parts functioning to build themselves up as a body. This is not a one-off message, either; Paul elaborated in similar ways in Romans 12:3-8 and Ephesians 4:11-16. In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 Paul spoke of the Lord’s Supper as communion, a joint participation in the body and blood of Christ, because we who consume the one bread and cup are the one body of and in Christ. It is possible to literalize Paul’s metaphor to the extreme in damaging ways, but it is hard to overstate the importance and the power of the image: Christians are the body of Christ. They do well to act like it.

Our age is a hyper-individualist one. Everyone seems to glorify and advance the standing of the individual. Western philosophy has led us to the point in which man is the measure of all things, and his or her individual judgment is elevated above all else. Over the past few hundred years we have seen a consistent pattern of advancing the interests of individuals along with a corresponding denigration and thus weakening of communal bonds and norms. “Middle class values,” especially as expressed in America, exalt the individual’s ability to rise above their station and to carve out a more prosperous life for him or herself and the “nuclear family,” yet without concern for the effects of such elevation on a local community, the larger community, or the environment. Political partisans argue about where individual rights, control, and power are to be exercised, but underneath never truly question the assumption. Likewise, for some reason or another everyone decries and laments the loss of community and shared values, yet none prove willing to question or challenge the cult of the individual to a sufficient extent to stem the tide. Some seek to hold on to both at the same time, and yet time and again we see that such is impossible. One can seek the interests of each individual, or one can seek the best interests of a community as a whole; the two at some juncture will always be at odds.

We are thus stuck in a similar predicament to that of the Corinthian Christians: the glorification and advancement of the individual comes at the cost of the betterment of the whole. The Corinthian Christians could use the spiritual gifts God gave them to exalt themselves and advance their selfish purposes, or they could use them humbly to serve one another and build up the body; they could not do both. This challenge was originally laid at the disciples’ feet by Jesus in Matthew 20:25-28: the world is always about glorification and advancement of one’s individual or small tribal interests to the expense of all others, but in the Kingdom of God in Christ this cannot be so. Those who would be in God’s Kingdom in Jesus must seek to serve and better others, as Christ Himself did. They must put the interest of others before their own (Philippians 2:1-4). One cannot seek the welfare of the body of Christ while seeking to exalt and glorify oneself.

Christians therefore must be careful regarding the elevation and exaltation of the individual. It is true that far too often communities have gone aside to the doctrines and spirits of demons, turning into cults or religious institutions which suppressed and did not advance the truth. As individuals we must come to God in Christ for salvation; we have our individual roles and functions in life that are independent of the work of the corporate collective of the people of God (Acts 2:38-41, 1 Timothy 5:16). But we must not miss the overriding emphasis of the New Testament: salvation is only in the body of Christ; God works through His people, but has always worked through His people for the sake of the whole. We may come to Jesus to be saved as individuals, but we cannot find salvation independent of His body; instead, we are to become one with each other as we become one with God in Christ (John 17:20-23)!

As long as the individual is elevated the community will suffer. As long as the individual insists on his own way, he or she is still of the world, and not acting according to Christ. We are members of the body of Christ; we have our individual efforts, but all our efforts are to be unto the benefit and advancement of the purposes of the whole. We must care for each other and value each other. Such is easier said than done; such is often quite messy and complicated in practice. People are hard to love. But that’s what God in Christ is all about: loving people and bringing relational unity where there has been alienation. May we seek to build up the body of Christ above all else, and sublimate our interests to that of the whole so as to glorify God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Pharisees and Scribes

Then spake Jesus to the multitudes and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses seat: all things therefore whatsoever they bid you, these do and observe: but do not ye after their works; for they say, and do not. Yea, they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:1-4).

The Evangelists consistently speak of mutual antagonism between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. From their presentation alone one might imagine that Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees are miles apart in their understanding of God and Judaism. And yet, of all the various sects of Second Temple Judaism, Jesus has the most in common with the Pharisees. The Sadducees accepted only the Torah as legitimate ground of authority and denied the existence of angels, the soul, and the resurrection (Matthew 22:23, Acts 23:8). The Herodians, by virtue of supporting Herod and his government, would have no love for a rival King of the Jews (Matthew 22:16). One might think that Jesus and the Essenes would have much in common; while they shared an apocalyptic worldview and some “ascetic” practices, the Essenes rejected the present Temple and its authorities as illegitimate and looked forward to the day when the Sons of Light would restore the Temple and its proper service and who withdrew from life in the greater Jewish community. Jesus did not look forward to establishment of a restored Temple in Jerusalem, nor did He withdraw from life among the people of God (Matthew 24:1-36). Meanwhile, Jesus and the Pharisees agreed about the inspiration and authority of the prophets and the writings, angels, the soul, the resurrection, and the hope of Israel in the Messiah. This leaves us with a major challenge: if Jesus and the Pharisees share so many similarities in outlook, why are the Pharisees and the scribes singled out for such strong condemnation by the Evangelists? If Jesus and the Pharisees agree on so much, why are the Pharisees portrayed in such consistently negative ways in the Gospels?

Few places express Jesus’ difficulties with the scribes and Pharisees with as much rhetorical force and denunciation as in the series of woes Jesus sets forth in Matthew 23:1-35. Jesus begins His litany of invective against the scribes and Pharisees by denouncing a form of their hypocrisy in Matthew 23:1-4.

Brooklyn Museum - Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees (Malheur à vous, scribes et pharisiens) - James Tissot

Jesus begins with the recognition that the scribes and Pharisees maintain a pride of place in Second Temple Judaism: they “sit on Moses’ seat” (Matthew 23:2). No actual chair is envisioned; Jesus gives recognition to their claims of serving as the interpreters of the Law of Moses on behalf of the people. For this reason Jesus tells the people to do what the scribes and Pharisees bid them to do (Matthew 23:3a). Some interpreters of this passage suggest that Jesus is being sarcastic and does not actually expect His audience to live according to what the Pharisees teach; such an interpretation is possible but not necessarily warranted. We do well to remember that even though Jewish people put great emphasis on literacy and would have maintained higher literacy rates than seen among the Gentiles, plenty of Jewish people could still not read or write, and even then, scrolls of the Law, Prophets, and Writings were copied by hand on expensive papyrus and parchment and would have been reserved for use in the synagogues and those like the scribes and Pharisees who were trained in the Law (Luke 4:17-20). Previously Ezra and his associates had read the Law and gave an understanding of its meaning (Nehemiah 8:1-8); many Jewish people in the first century looked to the scribes and Pharisees for the same reason, and for the time being, Jesus recognizes their role.

In Matthew 23:1-4 the problem is less with the specific interpretations and explanations given by the scribes and Pharisees and much more their unwillingness to do them (Matthew 23:3b-4)! They say the things faithful Jewish people should do, but they themselves do not do them. They expect Jewish people to adhere to all sorts of laws according to what is written and the traditions of the fathers, denounce as sinners those unwilling to bear them (John 9:16, 24), but provide no assistance to others, show no mercy, and themselves frequently (and flagrantly) violate them. In short, it may be good to do what they say, but do not do as they do.

To say one thing but do another is the essence of hypocrisy. The scribes and Pharisees were respected for their knowledge; no doubt many “average” Israelites looked up to them as holy people because of it. Yet, in practice, they were not very holy. They were just as guilty of violating the Law as other Israelites (Acts 13:39, Romans 3:13-21). Yet such totality begs the question: were not all the Israelites, save the Lord Jesus, hypocrites to some degree? Why are the scribes and Pharisees being singled out for this condemnation?

It is one thing to try and fall short; it is quite another to not even try. It is one thing to teach a given path, try to live it, and stumble at times; we humans are imperfect. It is quite another to act as if one is all holy and righteous, presume to be holier and more righteous than others, and yet substantively are little better than those whom they denounce. Such were the scribes and Pharisees: they acted as if knowing and teaching the Law brought forth its own special kind of holiness. Jesus makes it clear that it does not.

We do well to remember that the scribes and Pharisees were part of the people of God, and of all the people of God at the time, were considered to be the most holy and righteous. Their denunciation by all the Evangelists is, in its own way, a warning for believers: do not be like the Pharisees. The way of Jesus and the way of the Pharisees are quite divergent, yet throughout time Christians, however well-meaning, have fallen prey to the ways of the Pharisees!

The Apostle Paul declares that knowledge puffs up while love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1); it is very easy to obtain knowledge of God and His ways and thus presume one’s holiness based upon one’s superior knowledge. That is the way of the Pharisee and the Gnostic; it is not the way of Jesus or those who truly follow Him (1 Timothy 6:20-21)! We are not made holy by our knowledge; we are not better than others simply because we have come to a better understanding of the will of God than they have. Such is why the first and foremost aspect of the Gospel is our own sinfulness and our inability to solve our sin problem through our own efforts (Ephesians 2:1-3, Titus 3:3). We are entirely dependent upon God in Christ for the hope of salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9); our obedient response in faith, while necessary, does not earn us or merit our salvation!

Every Christian, to some degree or another, is a hypocrite; we proclaim the way of God in Christ but fall short at times (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8). But we must walk the walk of Christ; we must do the commandments (1 John 2:3-6). In seeking to do them we will learn humility, faith, and obedience. We would never imagine to lay heavy burdens on others and let ourselves go free; quite the contrary (Galatians 6:2)!

In Matthew 23:1-4 Jesus begins to set forth the contrast between the condemned ways of the scribes and Pharisees and the righteous way of God in Christ. The way of the Pharisees is always tempting for the people of God; we must resist it, remaining humble and dependent upon God in Christ, seeking to do the will of the Lord in all respects, bearing one another’s burdens and not attempting to make them heavier! Let us serve the Lord Jesus in humble faith!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Magnificat

And Mary said,
“My soul doth magnify the Lord / and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath looked upon the low estate of his handmaid / for behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath done to me great things / and holy is his name.
And his mercy is unto generations and generations / on them that fear him.
He hath showed strength with his arm / He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their heart.
He hath put down princes from their thrones / and hath exalted them of low degree.
The hungry he hath filled with good things / and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He hath given help to Israel his servant / that he might remember mercy
(As he spake unto our fathers) / toward Abraham and his seed for ever (Luke 1:46-55).

God was doing great things; He was worthy of praise. The mother of the Lord Jesus gives God praise for what He was accomplishing through her and the Child who would be born.

maryMary has come to visit her relative Elizabeth who is pregnant with John the Baptist; Elizabeth recognizes that Mary is carrying the Lord because her child leapt in her womb at the sound of Mary’s voice (Luke 1:39-41). Elizabeth declares Mary and her Child blessed (Luke 1:44-45). In response Mary begins this beautiful poem/song of praise to God for what He is accomplishing.

Luke 1:46-55 is frequently called the Magnificat (Latin for “he/she/it magnifies”, the first word of the poem/song in the Latin Vulgate of Luke 1:46). Mary speaks as a mother of promise in the same chord as Hannah sang generations before (cf. 1 Samuel 2:1-10). The composition is in Greek but throughout is constructed in terms of Hebrew poetry and praise.

Mary begins by magnifying and rejoicing in God as Savior; this joy is rooted in recognizing that He has raised her up from her lowly estate so as to be the mother of the Lord, and she recognizes that the generations to come would consider her blessed (Luke 1:46-48). God who has done this is mighty and holy, full of mercy to those who fear Him, a constant refrain regarding the nature of God (e.g. Joel 2:13; Luke 1:49-50).

Mary then perceives what God is doing by lifting up a lowly peasant girl to bear the Christ child: God shows strength and has scattered the proud; He elevates the lowly and brings down princes from their authority; the rich are sent away with nothing while the hungry are filled with good things (Luke 1:51-53). In the greatest sense God is fulfilling His promises to Abraham and Israel through the Child whom she will bear, remembering the mercy He has shown toward them (Luke 1:54-55). Thus ends Mary’s song.

Many have over-emphasized Mary’s role and place in the scheme of God’s redemption of His people, yet we do well to keep in mind that God did do great things through her and that she is blessed for having given birth to Jesus our Savior. Mary can tell that the story is not going the way that many had expected it; most were not thinking of the Christ being born of a peasant girl in the backwoods of Galilee (Luke 1:26-27, 2:21-24). The King would not be raised among nobility in a palace; the Messiah would not be trained by the foremost rabbis of the day. By elevating Mary God already was showing how Jesus would be about exalting the humble and humbling the exalted. The Christ of God would be familiar with common people and would be able to identify with those otherwise marginalized or cast out (Matthew 9:10-14, 11:16-19). As Mary was a “nobody” whom God made “somebody” by choosing her to bear the Lord, so the Lord would make many “nobodies” into “somebodies” and dismiss “somebodies” as truly “nobodies.”

Mary’s song ought to resonate to this day among those who look to her Son as the consolation not only of Israel but of the whole world. In the Kingdom of God in Christ everyone has a place; “nobodies” can be somebody. There is no room for the proud and the self-exalted; the Lord is about humility and service. God will help His people and remembers the mercy He extends to those who share in the faith of Abraham. We do well to magnify God and rejoice in the Savior, for He has showed strength with His arm, has elevated the lowly and brought low the mighty. Such is the prayer and hope truly known and understood only by those who are humble, lowly, brought low, in despair, marginalized, and/or oppressed. Let us come to the Lord with humility and meekness and magnify His holy name!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Structure in the Creation

For the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David.
The heavens declare the glory of God / and the firmament showeth his handiwork.
Day unto day uttereth speech / and night unto night showeth knowledge.
There is no speech nor language / their voice is not heard.
Their line is gone out through all the earth / and their words to the end of the world.
In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun / which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber / and rejoiceth as a strong man to run his course.
His going forth is from the end of the heavens / and his circuit unto the ends of it / and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.
The law of YHWH is perfect, restoring the soul / the testimony of YHWH is sure, making wise the simple.
The precepts of YHWH are right, rejoicing the heart / the commandment of YHWH is pure, enlightening the eyes.
The fear of YHWH is clean, enduring for ever / the ordinances of YHWH are true, and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold / sweeter also than honey and the droppings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is thy servant warned / in keeping them there is great reward.
Who can discern his errors? / Clear thou me from hidden faults.
Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins / let them not have dominion over me: Then shall I be upright, And I shall be clear from great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart / be acceptable in thy sight, O YHWH, my rock, and my redeemer (Psalm 19:1-14).

“I take [Psalm 19] to be the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world ” (C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 63).

Psalm 19 is justly famous as an ode to YHWH the Creator and how He has made the universe. Psalm 19:1 is famous in its own right as is Psalm 19:7-10, the latter of which is frequently sung as a hymn. It has thus been fashionable to consider Psalm 19 in its various parts; many in fact suggest Psalm 19 is a compilation of two or three separate psalms all put together. Is it really just two or three Psalms put together? What is David attempting to communicate in Psalm 19 as presently arranged?

The three main sections of Psalm 19 are Psalm 19:1-6, Psalm 19:7-11, and Psalm 19:12-14. Psalm 19:1-6 describes how, as Psalm 19:1 says, the heavens declare God’s glory and handiwork. The whole system betrays an intelligent Artificer behind the scenes (Psalm 19:2). God has set all things in their place and has made the course for the sun; the sun is spoken of in terms of a bridegroom leaving the chamber, or rejoicing as a man finishing his task, shining over all the earth with nothing hidden from it (Psalm 19:3-6).

Psalm 19:7-11 commend YHWH’s instruction. David speaks of YHWH’s law, testimonies, precepts, commandments, fear, and ordinances, terms reminiscent of the Torah (Psalm 19:7-9; cf. Deuteronomy 4:45, Psalm 119:4). YHWH’s instruction is perfect, sure, right, pure, clean, and true; they restore the soul, make wise the simple, rejoice the heart, enlighten the eyes, endure forever, and are altogether righteous. The poetry is succinct; the lines are sharp. YHWH’s instruction is more desirable than gold or honey, warning the servant, providing great reward (Psalm 19:10-11).

Psalm 19:12-14 feature David’s response. He rhetorically asks who could discern God’s errors? No mortal can, of course; he therefore wishes to be cleansed of hidden faults and to be kept back from presumptuous sins (Psalm 19:12-13a). He will then be able to stand upright and be clear of transgression, and he prays that his words and meditation are acceptable in the sight of YHWH his Rock and Redeemer, the source of his strength, refuge, and vindication (Psalm 19:13b-14).

It is easy to see why people might think that two or three psalms have been put together here: what does the sun have to do with the Law? What do they have to do with hidden faults? Yet we do well to consider why David and/or the Psalter has prepared Psalm 19 as a whole. Is there anything that might bind Psalm 19 together?

The theme of all of Psalm 19 is found in Psalm 19:1: God’s glory is seen in His handiwork. Of all the things David could have featured when speaking of the heavens he focuses on the sun and how things are in their proper courses (Psalm 19:1-6). The sun, and particularly the way in which the sun is described, expresses not only God’s majestic structure in the heavens but their benevolent function as well. The sun gives light and life, joyful as the man who has just experienced his first copulation or who is about to finish a race (Psalm 19:5). As the heavens and the sun do not speak themselves but show the speech of YHWH and His benevolent structure in the heavens, so the words of YHWH in the Law, in His Torah, provide benevolent structure for the conduct and behavior of His people (Psalm 19:7-11). Keeping YHWH’s Torah provides great reward (Psalm 19:11); what if David actually meant what he said and believed that just as the sun allows for life to exist and flourish so YHWH’s Torah restores the soul, rejoices the heart, and enlightens the eyes? And what would be the appropriate response to seeing YHWH’s benevolent structure in His creation, both in the heavens and in the Torah? Humility and faithfulness: asking for forgiveness from hidden faults and presumptuous sins, trusting in YHWH’s benevolence and beneficence, maintaining YHWH as refuge, strength, and source of deliverance (Psalm 19:12-14).

Thus Psalm 19 can be well understood in its unity: all we are and have are thanks to YHWH’s benevolent structure He established in the creation. He made the heavens so that the earth could be inhabited; He established His Torah, His Law, so that people could live and thrive; in response we do well to give thanks, ask to be kept from thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought, and to trust in YHWH as our Rock and Redeemer. May we allow Psalm 19 to give voice to us to proclaim the greatness of God’s handiwork in the heavens and in His instruction, to ask to be kept from presumption, and trust in our redemption secured by His Son the Lord Jesus Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Exceeding the Righteousness of the Pharisees

Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:19-20).

Yet another sacred cow slaughtered.

To “slaughter the sacred cow” is an American idiom, most likely a reference to Hindu culture in India in which cows are venerated and to slaughter a cow was therefore a desecrating action, a violation of propriety and custom. Therefore, “to slaughter a sacred cow” is to challenge a matter generally considered as sacred, especially those things normally held as self-evident or in some other way immune from questioning or challenging.

Everyone has their own versions of the “sacred cow”: everyone holds certain concepts to be true, and if anyone dare question or challenge those concepts, it is considered as improper, a desecration, a violation of social norms or customs. And so it was among the Israelites in the first century CE: many of their traditions and customs were held as sacred and were not up for being challenged. The Israelites are the people of YHWH, descendants of Abraham, and YHWH will protect them. YHWH will protect His Temple in Jerusalem. YHWH provides blessings to those who are righteous and punishes those who are unrighteous. The Pharisees and scribes are holy people, skilled in the Law, and righteous.

Throughout what is popularly called the “Sermon on the Mount”, Jesus teaches His disciples and the multitudes who have come out to hear Him, and many of those teachings challenge some of these propositions. In the “Beatitudes” Jesus pronounces blessings on those who are normally considered cursed (Matthew 5:3-12). Now Jesus not so subtly challenges the position of the Pharisees and scribes in the sight of the people (Matthew 5:17-20).

Jesus presents this challenge on the basis of adherence to the Law itself. He declares that He did not come to destroy the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them; not one detail will be changed in them until all is fulfilled (Matthew 5:17-18). Since the Law stands, the Law is to be followed; therefore, Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:19 follows: anyone who breaks the least of the commandments and teaches others to do so shall be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven, but the one who does and teaches them shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. If we isolated this verse from its context, particularly what will follow, we might get the idea that one’s standing in God’s Kingdom is based upon how effectively one performs the Law of Moses and how they teach it to others. Exactitude seems to be greatly praised here.

We should resist drawing such conclusions. Paul will make it very clear that no one is justified before God by works of the Law, since all have transgressed and have fallen short (Romans 3:20, 23). Jesus will later associate “greatness” in the Kingdom with humility and service, and, in so doing, will show that worldly concepts of “greatness” themselves fall short in terms of His Kingdom (Matthew 20:25-28).

Instead, Jesus is continuing to lay the groundwork for His powerful statement in Matthew 5:20. He is speaking about present reality, and His audience will agree with Him to this point: if the Law is still in force, then yes, whoever does and teaches the commandments of God will be considered great in the rule of God. If one breaks the least of the commandments, and teaches others to do so as well, they are least in the reign of God, and if this is the fate of the one who breaks one of the least of the commandments and teaches others to do the same, what will be the fate of those who break more weighty commandments?

So what is Jesus talking about? His conclusion is found in Matthew 5:20: He says to them that unless their righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, they will not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.

We can only imagine what the Israelites thought of this statement. If they were convinced that the Pharisees and scribes were the righteous people in their communities, then Jesus’ statement is quite shocking. If your righteousness does not exceed the righteousness of those whom you think are righteous, then what possible hope do you have of reaching the Kingdom of Heaven? Not much at all!

At this point some perhaps would write Jesus off as crazy, ridiculous, or excessively demanding. And perhaps Jesus us being excessively demanding in order to make His point: if one’s standard of righteousness is based on following the Law of Moses, seeking justification by works of the Law, as it seems many of the Pharisees and scribes imagined, then yes, it would require even greater righteousness than theirs in order to obtain the Kingdom, since the scribes and Pharisees do not fully measure up to the standard of the Law. Yet, then again, neither did anyone else but Jesus (Hebrews 4:15, 5:7-8); this is why it is only Jesus who can fulfill the Law and accomplish all things within it. No one will able to be saved by the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees; yet through Jesus’ righteousness the opportunity for salvation will be granted to all men (cf. Philippians 3:8-11).

Yet Jesus is concerned about not just one’s own deeds and standing before God, but one’s teaching as well. Matthew 5:19-20 does not stand on its own; it concludes and provides the rhetorical punch for Matthew 5:17-18 while introducing the theme which will carry through Matthew 5:21-48. Throughout Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus will highlight common understanding and practice of the Law and contrast it with God’s full expectations and intentions. Jesus will make it clear that God is interested in far more than just exterior conduct and nominal fidelity to the letter of the law; He is just as concerned about one’s thoughts and feelings and expects obedience to flow from faithfulness, love, and trust.

This is why the “righteousness” of the Pharisees and scribes is lacking: it proves to be superficial, obsessed with details to the neglect of the weightier provisions of the law, not properly discerning God’s focus and priorities, as will be made clear in Matthew 23:1-36. The “righteousness” of the Pharisees and scribes is shallow, hypocritical, and does not please God. If anyone maintains that form of “righteousness,” they will not enter the rule of God. In order to obtain the rule of God, one’s righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and scribes: it must be based in the mind and heart and flow through deeds, motivated by faith, love, and trust in God in Christ (Romans 5:6-11, 6:1-23).

Sometimes the sacred cow must be slaughtered in order to shake people out of their present habits and mentalities and force them to reconsider. So it is with Jesus in Matthew 5:19-20: whoever defines “righteousness” in terms of the conduct and teachings of the Pharisees and scribes is not going to make it. “Righteousness” is not about the obsession over a particular set of details to the neglect of the weightier concerns of the Law. “Righteousness” is not about saying one thing and doing another. “Righteousness” is not about finding ways of making yourself seem great and holy while looking down upon others and treating them presumptuously.

Instead, true righteousness is seen in Jesus. True righteousness is rooted not in oneself but in God and the pursuit of seeking His will and good pleasure. True righteousness involves proper priority, respecting the least as well as the great, both in terms of commandments and people. True righteousness cannot be hypocritical or two-faced; it flows from the mind and heart through the hands and feet. True righteousness seeks the best interest of others above oneself.

Salvation is not found in the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees; therefore, we should not follow their example. Salvation does come through Jesus, and we do well to follow after Him and pursue righteousness as He decreed through His example, seeking the will of God to do His good pleasure, concerned with the interest of others before our own, trusting not in ourselves but in God at all times. Let us exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes and so enter into the Kingdom of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Babel as Babylon

Therefore was the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth (Genesis 11:9).

Throughout the Bible, which city or empire is used as an image to describe human power arrogating itself against God and God’s people?

You could make a strong case for Egypt. The Egyptians enslaved the Israelites during the Exodus (Exodus 1:1-15:21). Pharaoh Neko II killed Josiah and considered Judah part of his empire; the final kings of Judah foolishly relied on Egyptian promises of assistance when they revolted against Babylon, and found themselves alone against the might of Babylon (2 Kings 23:28-25:21).

You could also make a strong case for Assyria. The Assyrians were universally feared and hated in the ancient Near East on account of their cruelty. They destroyed the kingdom of Israel and would exile most of its inhabitants; they invaded Judah, destroying all of the walled cities save Jerusalem, leaving Judah in a pitiful state (2 Kings 17:1-19:31, Isaiah 1:1-9).

You could make a case as well for Persia, the Seleucids, and the Romans, all of whom controlled the land of Israel. The Seleucids presented a great existential threat to the existence of Israel; the Romans defiled the Temple and would later destroy it and Jerusalem, making sure that no Jewish Temple would be built there again.

God did declare judgment on all of these nations and cities, but they are not used as images of human power arrogating itself against God and His people. In fact, God extends the promise of reconciliation and blessings upon Egypt and Assyria along with Israel in Isaiah 19:23-25! There is only one city-state empire for whom there is never any redemption in Scripture, only condemnation, and that is Babylon.

Babylon becomes the image of the human power arrogating itself against God and His empire. Isaiah, within his burden regarding Babylon, discusses the “day-star, the son of the morning,” who cut down the nations but was humbled in death (Isaiah 14:12-22; cf. Isaiah 13:1-14:22). Jeremiah, who lived to see when the Babylonians executed judgment against Judah and Jerusalem, thoroughly denounces Babylon and condemns them to their ultimate fate in Jeremiah 50:1-51:64. In the New Testament, the image is most likely attached to Rome, the current city-state empire arrogating against God and His people, rendering judgment on Judea and Jerusalem (cf. 1 Peter 5:13, Revelation 17:1-18:24).

But why Babylon? The Neo-Babylonian Empire under the Chaldeans did not last long, and was not nearly as brutal as the Assyrian menace. The fact that the Babylonians were the ones to destroy Jerusalem and the Temple of YHWH is likely partly behind the choice. Yet perhaps another part of the answer goes far back in time to the beginnings of Babylon.

We are introduced to an individual named Nimrod in Genesis 10:8-12. He is considered a mighty hunter before YHWH, and he is responsible for building cities and ruling over them, particularly the area of the land of Shinar and places northwest. The list of cities are all in Mesopotamia, mostly found in modern-day Iraq, and made up ancient Sumer, Akkad, Assyria, and Babylon: Babel, Erech, Akkad, Calneh, Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah, Resin. He is the first person who has a “kingdom,” and thus is the first “king” described in Scripture. And if he is responsible for building and ruling over Babel, then he very well might have something to do with the Tower of Babel as described in Genesis 11:1-9.

The Tower of Babel is the representation of human effort directed toward his own self-glorification and honor, his quest for unity by his own works and effort independent from and often hostile to the purposes of God (cf. Genesis 11:1-9). God frustrated the effort by confusing the languages of humanity, and from Babel all humanity separated and went their own way (Genesis 11:7-9). From Babel all men spread forth; ever since, man has been trying to use power to control everyone else. The ideals of Babel remain their ideals, and they will seek to achieve a name for themselves and unity by the sword and their own ingenuity. It all started at Babel.

In Hebrew, Babel means “confusion”; hence, Babel’s name is a reminder of the confusion that exists among different groups of people. Our modern Bibles, though, ironically provide a bit of confusion when it comes to the name of Babel. Our Bibles distinguish between “Babel” and “Babylon,” the latter being the Greek word for the city in Mesopotamia. In Hebrew, they are both “Babel.” Babel is Babylon, and Babylon is Babel.

Therefore, Babylon is where man exhibits the desire to glorify himself by his own works and to maintain unity by such an end. All people scatter, confused, from Babylon. It seems likely that Nimrod began his empire-building from Babel/Babylon, and kingship and power exerted over others therefore began at Babylon. Thus, when Babylon will rise as a mighty world power, defeating the Assyrians and the Egyptians, conquering Judah and Jerusalem, destroying the Temple and exiling the Israelites, she is simply re-establishing what she was from the beginning, and to which every empire between and since has aspired. Humans keep wanting to make a name for themselves and to do so together under the pretense of unity, and seek to impose their values and ways as the means of accomplishing that unity through sheer power. Babylon’s power is an extension of the aspiration inherent in the Tower of Babel; it therefore must arrogate itself against God and His people who seek not their own glory, not the advancement of human purposes, but of God and His purposes.

Perhaps many Israelites remembered the story of the Tower of Babylon as they were brought into exile into Babylon; perhaps it gave some of them strength to maintain their faith in God, fully confident that this power arrogating itself against God would fail. The Neo-Babylonian Empire did fall, but the Persian one ruled in its place. Then came the Greeks and the Romans; in the east, then came the Muslims, Turks, Mongols, and Ottomans, and in the west, the German tribes, the “Holy Roman Empire,” the Spanish Empire, the French, the British, Napoleon, Hitler, and Communism, among others. Today there is the United States, China, and other powerful nations. We can seem to find shadows of Babylon in each of them; the human world power arrogating itself against God, His people, and His purposes seems ever-present.

True victory has never come through a world power and never will. The true victory must somehow transcend these human aspirations so as to return to God’s intentions for humanity. The true victory represents the Anti-Babel, and we find Jesus and His Kingdom standing as the Anti-Babel. It is Jesus’ Kingdom which Daniel sees as the rock which smashes world empires to pieces (cf. Daniel 2:31-45). World empires, or “Babylon,” are out for more land; Jesus’ Kingdom has no need for land, for it is not of this world (John 18:36). “Babylon” seeks to unify different nations through force, violence, coercion, or economic interest; Jesus’ Kingdom unifies through the killing of hostility among people, emphasizing their shared purpose in Christ (Ephesians 2:11-18). “Babylon” uses great works to glorify humanity and to exert its own power, draining the resources of other nations to vaunt itself; Jesus’ Kingdom provides benefits for others, seeking not to glorify itself but the God who established it (Matthew 20:25-28, Galatians 2:10, 2:20-21, 6:10). “Babylon” is arrogant and arrogates itself against others; Jesus’ Kingdom is modeled on Jesus who humbled Himself, serving others, and in so doing receiving exaltation and glory (Philippians 2:5-11). “Babylon” keeps changing, with different empires rising and falling; Jesus’ Kingdom has endured for two thousand years and remains strong.

As long as man continues to exist on earth there will be some “Babylon” of a power, arrogating itself against God and His purposes, aspiring to the same goals frustrated on the plain of Shinar so long ago. The endeavor will never really succeed; the power of empire always has its limits, and it uses the wrong means to accomplish the wrong ends. No one finds salvation in “Babylon”; people must flee from “Babylon” to “Zion,” or to God and His purposes reflected in Jesus, to obtain salvation (cf. Jeremiah 51:6, Hebrews 12:22-24). Every “Babylon” and group of people who use the methods of “Babylon” will fail and perish (1 John 2:15-17); only Jesus’ Kingdom will endure for eternity (Daniel 2:44). Let us flee from “Babylon,” not putting our trust in worldly power and its trappings, and let us entrust ourselves to God in Christ, and obtain eternal life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Tower of Babel and Human Religion

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4).

Humans like to build, and the bigger, the better.

At some point between the Flood and Abraham, all humanity came together on the plain of Shinar, in modern-day Iraq, and decided to build a city and a large tower. The endeavor did not end well: God confused the language of humanity, and they stopped building their tower. The place would be known as Babel, or Confusion, because of these events (Genesis 11:1-9).

Even though the Tower of Babel was not a completely fulfilled project, it still stood there, a monument to human endeavor in Mesopotamia. Meanwhile, those scattered in Mesopotamia built cities: Babel, Erech, Akkad, Calneh, among others (cf. Genesis 10:8-12). Those cities would feature a large building in the middle which we today call ziggurats: large step pyramids which were used, as far as we can tell, as temples and as a high place upon which to make offerings to the gods of Sumer and Akkad. Meanwhile, in Egypt, kings would soon begin to build larger and larger pyramids as tombs for themselves and their families, believing that these large structures would help the soul of the king to reach the heavens.

The ziggurats of Mesopotamia and the pyramids of Egypt would become famous monuments. Everyone in the Bible from Abraham to Malachi would have at least heard of the ziggurats and pyramids, and many saw them. We can only imagine how impressive these monuments would have seemed in their younger days; the pyramids are still magnificent despite the ravages of time. They certainly would have projected strength and an air of magnificence. Surely these nations were mighty; surely their gods were strong.

And yet, how many of the Israelites, when hearing about and/or seeing these monuments, thought of the story of the Tower of Babel, and of its ultimate end?

ziggurats and pyramids were influenced by the Tower of Babel; perhaps the Tower of Babel was even considered the first ziggurat. Understood in this way, we can see how the Tower of Babel both explains and is a critique of human religion.

As Paul explains in Romans 1:18-25, when humans no longer give God the Creator the glory due Him, they become futile in their thinking and their hearts are darkened. They turn and give the creation the honor due the Creator. This mentality is on full display on the plain of Shinar. Humans find themselves in a big, lonely world, and do not want to be scattered over its face. Meanwhile, they still search for meaning and value in life. As opposed to honoring God by fulfilling His commandments and giving Him the honor, they instead stay together contrary to His command and work to build a city and a tower to make a name for themselves, not for God. Even after their original plan was frustrated, they kept at it in their new locations, building towers and other large structures.

These structures took on religious meaning and significance. The logic is the same as the use of the high place: the higher the altitude we reach, we imagine, the closer to the divine we get. The Canaanites would imagine that their gods lived on top of the large mountains in their land; the Greeks believed their gods lived on Mount Olympus. Therefore, it was necessary to get up high to present offerings to them or to reach them. And how better to climb up than to build a structure that climbs high into the heavens?

While these structures had religious significance, the glory and honor still went to the nations who built them. To this day we remember the pyramids more as an astonishing feat of engineering accomplished by the “god-like” kings of Egypt than as anything relating to their religion. The ziggurats of Mesopotamia would have made quite the impression on people as well; we can only imagine how the Israelites in exile would have reacted to see such large buildings and the power being projected by the empires which built them. It suddenly becomes clearer why so many started following after those gods: it certainly seemed as if they and the people who built those structures had all the power.

Therefore, human religion seems so powerful, wonderful, and glorious. But it cannot save and is ultimately futile. All such effort is in vain!

The power of God receives testimony from man’s search for meaning and value in life, but it is vain and futile to imagine that we can discover God “out there.” Paul demolished all such thinking when he declared that God is actually not very far from us at all, for in Him we live, move, and exist (Acts 17:26-28). We reach out in vain, trying to please the divine the best we think we know how, but ultimately that can never be enough: we cannot be justified or made righteous on our own by our own effort (Romans 3:20). Even if God is as close as He is far away, we cannot bridge the divide separating us, no matter how much human religion would like to think it can (Isaiah 59:1-2).

Instead, God bridged the gap in Himself. Man, according to his religion, tries to build up to reach the heavens; God, in humility, came to earth as a man, lived as a man, and died as a man (Philippians 2:5-11). Through the God-man Jesus humans can find true religion through reconciliation with God (Romans 5:6-11); it does not involve any elevation, any building, any attempt to reach up by our own unaided efforts to find what we are seeking. We grope and grasp for truth and discover that it has always been here the whole time, reaching out to us (cf. Revelation 3:20-21).

The Tower of Babel was a monument to human pretension, man’s attempt to make a name for himself. Human religion, in its own way, has the same goal: seeking the divine on man’s terms, creating gods in his own image and according to his own fancy, and it all ultimately is designed to glorify himself. Yet such pursuits are in vain. The Tower of Babel no longer exists. The ruins of the ziggurats were discovered by European archaeologists who believed in the God of Israel, the glory of those empires long faded. The pyramids sit in Egypt as ruins, pillaged for stone in medieval days in order to build the old city in Cairo. Few honor the gods of Egypt and Mesopotamia.

We should not imagine that times are altogether different now. We still have human religion with gods made according to man’s fancy. We have large buildings which stand as testimonies to the gods of today: money, power, fame, and so on. Nations build ever larger buildings, attempting to get greater glory and to seem important, a projection of strength. And it will happen to all these nations, buildings, and gods as it happened to the Mesopotamians and the Egyptians. They will pass away, Their religion will not satisfy and will fail.

Meanwhile, the name of Jesus is still on the lips of untold thousands, heard everywhere. The Gospel remains powerful, the only antidote to human religion. Human religion projects strength; God came as Christ in weakness. Human religion vaunts itself; Jesus was humble (Matthew 20:25-28). Human religion seeks its own end; Jesus gave up all things to glorify His Father and accomplish His purposes (John 5:19-24, 30-47, Philippians 2:5-11). According to human religion, man seeks to use his power to save himself; in Christ, we learn that we cannot do anything to save ourselves, and so we must yield and submit ourselves to God so that we can work in Him according to all that He has prepared for us (Philippians 2:12-13).

We have a choice: the Tower of Babel or the Temple of Jesus. The former seems glorious but fades and collapses; the latter seems weak but is truly strong and will endure. Let us choose to follow Jesus and become part of His body, His temple, and honor and glorify God in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Proclamation

And there were shepherds in the same country abiding in the field, and keeping watch by night over their flock. And an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people: for there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this is the sign unto you: Ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men in whom he is well pleased” (Luke 2:8-14).

Thanks to generations of traditions, whenever people think about the birth of Jesus and its meaning, various Christmas themes invariably come to mind. We imagine the stereotypical nativity scenes; movies parody the devotion that many have to the “baby Jesus” that often is not communicated toward the Jesus of the rest of the Gospels. Many others seem to disassociate the “Christmas story” from the “Easter story” regarding Jesus.

Yet, as the angel’s proclamation makes clear, one cannot separate out the “baby Jesus” from the Jesus of the rest of the Gospels. One cannot disassociate the story of Jesus’ birth from the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and lordship. From the beginning, the angels declare Jesus’ identity: the son of David, the Savior, the Christ, Lord. This is a message of good tidings of great joy to all the people; a Gospel message, the beginning of the fulfillment of all the promises God has made to Israel through the prophets. Sure, the “baby Jesus” has not yet done any of these things. But the Incarnation of the Christ is complete; it really is the first miracle surrounding Jesus, and it paves the way for everything moving forward.

There is a strong temptation to minimize the birth story of Jesus; it is only in two of the four Gospels, it is associated with the Christmas observance and all sorts of things that do not come from the pages of Scripture, and there does not seem to be much in the way of redemption in the story. And yet the Incarnation is pivotal for everything that follows: God has taken on flesh and dwells among mankind (John 1:1, 14). He can now live the life He is to lead; He can teach what He must teach, do what He must do, and guide the grand story of God toward its ultimate triumph and the source of hope for all generations. Let none be deceived: there is no Golgotha, no cross, without the manger in Bethlehem. Without the events that transpired in Bethlehem on that evening, there could not have been an empty tomb. since there would never have been a body within it. There is no crucifixion or resurrection without the Incarnation; without the beginning of the Gospel, there really is no Gospel.

The Incarnation is deeply tied into the story, and its details bear this out. The angel’s proclamation does not come to Herod, the chief priests, the Sadducees, the Pharisees, or even city-dwellers; it comes to shepherds, the humble stock from whom Moses and David derived (Exodus 3:1-3, 1 Samuel 16:11-13). As with the shepherds, so with Jesus: He would maintain His ministry mostly on the fringes, amongst the villages of Galilee, speaking the language of rural life. Furthermore, Jesus is not in a palace, or in a crib bedecked with gold, but in a stable, amongst the animals, lying in a manger expropriated for the purpose, born to a carpenter and his peasant wife. His origins could hardly be more humble, and thus was the spirit in Him throughout His ministry (cf. Matthew 20:25-28). He would fulfill all the things spoken about the Christ, but not in the expected ways. He would manifest all spiritual power, but it would not be directed in the standard ways the world would have expected, and particularly toward the ends that Israel would have desired. The Child born in humble surroundings, proclaimed upon by angels to shepherds, would lead by serving, direct in humility, and reign with power on account of sacrifice.

The whole story is presaged at the very beginning; one can preach the whole Gospel message based upon what is found in Jesus’ birth account. God the Son became the Immanuel child and the Immanuel man, and through Him we have hope in the message of good tidings presented in His name. Let us make the same proclamation as the angels did that evening in Bethlehem, and honor Jesus of Nazareth as the son of David, the Savior, Christ the Lord, as thankful for the Incarnation as we are for His life, teachings, deeds, crucifixion, and resurrection that proceeded from it!

Ethan R. Longhenry

To Will and to Work

So then, my beloved, even as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who worketh in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).

There are certain passages of Scripture that seem to juxtapose contradictory principles. In many ways, such passages are the most illuminating for us: they indicate how we put things together.

Paul’s statements in Philippians 2:12-13 certainly fit the bill. He first tells the believers to work out their own salvation; he then tells them that it is God who works in them to will and to work. Little wonder, then, that these verses are used in the battleground regarding God’s work and man’s work.

Many seek to emphasize the first statement: believers are to obey, and this involves working out their own salvation with fear and trembling. They then conclude that it is up to man to follow God’s will, to work out their salvation themselves. Yes, God works in Philippians 2:13, but it is easy for such people to minimize the second statement while emphasizing the first statement.

Others seek to emphasize the second statement: sure, Paul talks about believers working and obeying, but see the conclusion? They work out their salvation with fear and trembling because it is really God who is working in them. They then conclude that God is the only actor involved. Yes, humans should probably follow God, but it is easy for such people to minimize the first statement while emphasizing the second statement.

Believers are to obey, working out their own salvation, but it is God who works in them to will and to work. As we can see, such a statement easily causes fits. Everyone tries to explain it within their system. But Paul is not necessarily working in any such system. He is not confused; he is not suffering from some kind of split personality issue. He knows very well what he is saying. We do well to step back patiently and try to make sense of both statements in harmony, not in opposition.

These verses flow from what Paul has said throughout the chapter. He begins with the exhortation to love, peace, humility, and joint participation among believers (Philippians 2:1-4). The believers are to have the mind of Christ Jesus, who greatly humbled Himself and God glorified Him and highly exalted Him (Philippians 2:5-11). It is because of these things that believers are to obey Jesus, working out their own salvation (Philippians 2:12). This is because it is God working in them to will and to work (Philippians 2:13).

The challenge with this passage is really not with God, Paul, or the passage itself. The challenge is with us. Paul sees no contradiction between believers working and God working. Paul does not think that believers obeying the risen Christ in any way violates God’s sovereignty, nor does it somehow cheapen His grace– it is entirely possible only through God’s grace. Likewise, Paul does not envision God’s working in the believer as compromising the believer’s free moral agency.

How does this work? The order presented in this passage is important. The believer must obey, seeking to “work out” his or her salvation. This obedience is based in trust and rooted in God’s grace, for the believer understands that their standing only exists because of what God has done through Christ (Romans 5:6-11, Ephesians 2:1-10). But what does this obedience look like? How does one “work out” one’s salvation? By unaided moral striving? That did not work before we believed; it will not work now. To obey is to submit to the Lordship of Christ– we are to submit before God. Whatever power we can muster we use to direct our will toward God’s will (cf. Matthew 7:21-23); we must beg God in prayer to give us the strength, power, and grace to be aligned with His will (cf. Ephesians 3:20-21, Philippians 4:13). We must submit as servants for the Lord, no longer seeking our paths, but seeking to live for Him in Him (Galatians 2:20).

Therefore, to obey and to “work out” that salvation, the believer must submit completely and without reservation to God (cf. Romans 12:1). Then God will work in the believer to will and work for His good pleasure. God is not then violating the believer’s free will; instead, He actually accomplishes the will of the believer in a way that the believer could never do through his own unaided effort. All of us fall short; when we directed our own lives, it did not go very well (Romans 3:23, Titus 3:3-8). God is able and willing to provide the strength for us to endure (Ephesians 6:10-18), but we have to want that strength and pray for that strength. It will not be forced upon us. That is not how love works.

Are believers to work? Yes. Is God at work? Yes. We should be seeking to align our will with God’s will, and to allow God to use us as He sees fit for His purposes. Does that mean that we become passive agents? No; God works in mysterious ways, and we are going to have to expend effort if we are going to advance His purposes for His pleasure. Consider all the men of faith in Scripture and all the energies they expended in faith; yet would any of us deny that God worked in them and through them for His good pleasure? So it must be with us.

Let us not be fooled into going to extremes and causing contradiction where none exists. Let us not seek to vaunt our own responsibilities nor seek to abdicate them; instead, let us learn humility and to submit to God and His direction, through His prompting in Scripture and throughout our lives, praying that He may work in us to will and work for His good pleasure for His glory for all time!

Ethan R. Longhenry