Swift to Hear

Ye know this, my beloved brethren. But let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath (James 1:19).

When God made mankind He formed two ears and one mouth. Few are those who use them in such proportion.

James, the brother of the Lord, sought to exhort Christians to faithful and proper conduct in Christ in his letter. As part of these exhortations he encouraged them to be quick to hear but slow to speak and slow to anger (James 1:19); he continued by reminding Christians that the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:20).

There is no real mystery in James’ exhortation. Most people know they should listen more and talk less. A good number of those who do not understand this prove difficult to tolerate and are most likely masking some kind of insecurity or another. We do not want to be “that guy.” Yet it proves all too easy to become “that guy.”

We do well to return to James’ exhortation over and over again in every aspect of our lives, for his message is true wisdom. Too many of us have a strong tendency to speak first and think and ask questions later. How many times have we put our feet in our mouths because we spoke rashly and did not really listen to what others had to say? How many embarrassing or sinful situations could we have avoided if we had stopped long enough to listen so as to be able to speak more effectively and properly regarding the situation?

Why do we do such things? Whether we want to admit it or not, we prove swift to speak and slow to hear because we think quite highly of ourselves, our understanding, and our perspective. We believe we already have enough information to make a judgment. We believe that we already have the standing to say what we are saying. We are sure that we are right and the other person, to some degree or another, is deluded or misinformed.

We therefore must manifest humility if we would be swift to hear. To listen is to recognize the need to give a hearing to the other person; in so doing we might find out that we were not as right or as accurate as we first imagined. For good reason God expects everything to be demonstrated by the mouth of two or three witnesses, not merely one (Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15, 2 Corinthians 13:1); one who pleads his case seems right until his neighbor comes and searches him out (Proverbs 18:17). In reality we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23); not one of us can presume the privilege of being absolutely right and having the exactly right view on things. We all labor under various pretensions, delusions, and misapprehensions. Humility demands that we recognize those limitations and therefore to give others the right to be heard.

Love demands that we be swift to hear. Love does not vaunt itself; it is not puffed up; it does not behave unseemly; it does not seek its own; it does all these things as much as it does not rejoice in unrighteousness but rejoices with the truth (1 Corinthians 13:4-6). Truth has no need to fear investigation, probing, and exploration; if we truly are in the right, listening should not cause us angst or apprehension. To be swift to hear demonstrates a level of care, concern, and consideration not often seen in the world anymore. People appreciate when they feel as if they have been heard, even if that hearing does not lead to complete agreement. Rarely do people feel loved after they have been railroaded and told things without any chance to speak themselves, no matter how accurate the spoken information might be.

When we are swift to hear we are in a better position to understand, and thus be able to speak to, the issue behind the issue. Very few issues in life are clear-cut and entirely above board; most disagreements and difficulties involve unspoken fears and apprehensions as well as different implicit biases and assumptions about the way things are. If we truly seek to communicate so as to be understood and to guide people toward transformation in Jesus, we need to speak to the real issue and not merely the surface issues, as Jesus manifested well in His conversations and discussions during His time on earth.

These principles prove true in all sorts of conversations and relationships. Woe to the husband who so focuses on the substance of his wife’s complaints that he does not hear the anxiety and concerns of her heart. Children are often poorly equipped to express their deepest feelings, fears, and needs, and often act out to make their cry of help; are we quick to hear the difficulty or do we just get angry at the misbehavior? American culture and society seems hopelessly divided because each side wants to speak more than to hear, to condemn the other more than to understand the fears and apprehensions motivating the behaviors. And how can we preach the Gospel to someone whom we refuse to hear? We may have the right message, and they may be operating under all sorts of delusions, but how can we know exactly what they need to hear and how to encourage them until we first hear them and thus perceive their challenges? On what basis have we earned any standing in their lives so as to speak the Gospel message if we have not first proven swift to hear them and show them that love, respect, and humility which interpersonal communication demands?

Swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger is a very hard road for most people; it proves all too easy to “forget” in the heat of the moment and act in the opposite way. We do well to gather ourselves, take a deep breath, make a quick prayer, and deliberately attempt to listen and hear as we have opportunity. We will discover that we are better heard when we first prove willing to hear; our words prove more effective when we give ourselves the opportunity to choose them well by first hearing what the situation demands. May we be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, using our ears and mouths in the proper proportion, and all to the glory of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Worldly Wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Wildfire!

So the tongue also is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how much wood is kindled by how small a fire! And the tongue is a fire: the world of iniquity among our members is the tongue, which defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the wheel of nature, and is set on fire by hell (James 3:5-6).

Those who live in the eastern part of North America can be forgiven for wondering why wildfire might be a great concern; most of the time the east is green and lush. In the West, however, wildfire is an almost ever-present danger. The land is frequently dry. It does not take much to start a wildfire that burns tens of thousands of acres: an unattended campfire. A car accident. Lightning. Wildfires are very dangerous indeed!

James, the brother of the Lord, understood the power of fire and how a great conflagration could start with a small catalyst. Parts of the Levant are not unlike the American West in that way. He speaks of fire in order to help his beloved fellow Christians to understand the great danger behind another element which can start great conflagrations with the smallest of catalysts: the human tongue.

James had begun by warning Christians about not having too many become teachers on account of the stricter judgment teachers will face (James 3:1); he continued by pointing out that the one who does not stumble in word is able to control the body (James 3:2). He explored that illustration further, speaking of how horses are controlled by a small bridle in the mouth, and also introduced the notion of how a large ship is directed by a small rudder (James 3:3-4). He then speaks of the power of the tongue despite its small size (James 3:5-6); he would go on to recognize that while humans have tamed all animals the tongue cannot be tamed, and pointed out that we bless God and curse man with the same mouth, and that such things should not be (James 3:7-12). James therefore has a strong concern with the dangers that come from the use of the tongue.

James does not mince words about the dangers involved. The tongue is small, but boasts greatly. Of all the members of the body it is the tongue that can defile the whole, can set the world on fire, as it itself is set on fire by hell; such is the only use of Gehenna outside of Jesus’ use of the term in the Gospels.

We today know all too well about the dangers of the tongue. We have seen many people whose lives and careers were ruined because of an ill-timed remark or the wide sharing of a thoughtless remark. One is reminded of the story of Justine Sacco, who before departing for Africa made a foolish joke regarding not getting AIDS in Africa because she was white on Twitter. During the flight her tweet was shared many times; when she landed she was informed of the outrage her tweet had instigated and that she had been fired. The Internet proved merciless to Ms. Sacco; people would be foolish for judging her and her character based only on one decontextualized statement. Nevertheless, her example illustrates just how important it is for us to give consideration to what we say.

The danger of the tongue comes from many different sources. It may be, as in the case above, with a poor joke that may reveal more about our thought processes than we would like to admit. It may be the insult or cutting remark uttered in anger; you can claim that you did not really mean it, and ask for forgiveness, and even receive it, but the scars from those words will always remain. It may be gossip spoken and spread, ultimately reaching its subject. As they begin the words may seem very small and insignificant, and perhaps on their own they would be. And yet such messages can take a life of their own; ask any politician whose not well thought out comment would ultimately dog him throughout the campaign and cost him the election.

We do well to recognize how our tongues are always a potential wildfire within us. There are some times and certain contexts in which a foolish or thoughtless word may not cause too much difficulty or distress, as a spark that falls after a wet period in the forest. On the other hand, there are plenty of times and situations in which the ground is dry and the plants desiccated, ready to burn long and hot with only the smallest of sparks; the wrong word in the wrong situation and your life as you know it can be destroyed, your soul in danger of hellfire, and you are left wishing you could just take those words back.

Unfortunately, you can never take back your words. But you and I and all of us in Christ can resolve to not say them in the first place. In many ways wildfire control is dependent on humans using fire properly, and the same goes with our tongues. We must use the tongue to glorify God and bless man made in His image. We must give thought to how we speak for and about others so as to build up and not gossip, slander, or tear down. Foolish jesting is not worth our reputation and standing. May we all seek to control the wildfire in our mouths and seek to restrain our tongues!

Ethan R. Longhenry

A Singing People

Is any among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise (James 5:13).

The people of God are to be a singing people.

As James began to conclude his letter he set forth a series of exhortations for Christians in their walk with God (James 5:7-20). Christians who are suffering should pray; those who are cheerful should sing praise (James 5:13).

James’ exhortation should not surprise us. While in prison Paul and Silas sang and prayed (Acts 16:25). Christians are to speak, teach, and admonish one another in song (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16). Such exhortations build on the heritage and experience of Israel, singing the psalms before YHWH in the Temple and in their lives (1 Chronicles 25:1-31, Matthew 26:30). Thus, when things went well, the people sang praise; when things were not so well, they sang laments. They sang thanksgivings; they sang prayers. In all this they were singing before God. Thus we do well to consider: are we a singing people?

It seems that the voices of the people of God continue to grow quieter. In the assembly many can barely be heard; Christians will listen to secular and/or “contemporary Christian” music, get used to hearing singing, but do not share in that singing themselves. It is easy to believe that singing is better left to other people.

Bifurcation of life in terms of times of “worship” and the “rest of life,” along with an emphasis on the performative elements of singing, have proven very deleterious. We do well to note that James tells individual Christians to sing praises when cheerful (James 5:13). As there is no authorization for the use of instruments when Christians sing together (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16), there is no authority for them in the individual praises of Christians, either (James 5:13). Attempting to suggest the problem features instruments “in worship” and not in the “rest of life,” as many are wont to do, simply beg the question. From where do these distinctions come? They are not in the pages of Scripture; singing in the assembly is not uniquely defined as “worship” over and against individual singing. No direct association is made in Scripture between singing together and “worship” as commonly understood. Likewise, while we all like to have good singing, and we would all love to sing well, performance should never be the driver when it comes to our singing, individually or collectively; the substantive message of the song should always be the driver. The best performed song that does not speak, teach, or instruct has no share in Ephesians 5:19 or Colossians 3:16; praise can be beautiful, but beauty without substance is not praise (James 5:13).

Abide with MeSinging is designed to build up and encourage (1 Corinthians 14:26); we can only do that when we recognize the profound value in the substance and singing of songs. Science has known for some time that people learn messages better when put to a tune; the best preached sermon can hardly match the visceral power of a well written hymn. Singing can change your mood; singing can help us keep our minds and hearts on Christ as they should be, even in difficult circumstances, just like Paul and Silas in Acts 16:25. We can sing praises when alone; we can join our voices together to praise God in song and instruct each other, audibly demonstrating the unity we share in God in Christ (1 John 1:1-6). From song we can derive strength in the moment of trial and reinforce the joy of more fortunate times.

Singing is not better left to other people; God intends for all of His people to sing. The quality of the performance is never nearly as important as the value of the substance. Singing edifies mind, heart, and soul. In good times we do well to sing; in distress we ought to cry out to God in prayer and sing laments. There is a song for every circumstance if we are only willing to sing it. May we be the singing people of God to His glory and praise!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Religion

If any man thinketh himself to be religious, while he bridleth not his tongue but deceiveth his heart, this man’s religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world (James 1:26-27).

Religion is having quite the public relations nightmare these days.

For many, “religion” is associated with various faiths and practices that to them seem antiquated, dull, irrelevant, or even downright dangerous. Some think that “religion” is the biggest problem plaguing mankind. In many aspects of our public dialogue, religion is treated with disdain, contempt, and a patronizing attitude. It is made out to be something backward: an impediment toward progress.

Yet “religion” fares little better among those who would normally be assumed to practice it. Many within Christianity define religion about as negatively as those who have no faith: “religion” is seen as a set of dead practices that one would see in a slowly aging and dying social club type atmosphere. In such a view the Pharisees are the paradigm of religion: obsessed with doctrinal peculiarities, many of which seem to have little relevance or bearing on our lives, a sanctimonious and “holier-than-thou” attitude, a bunch of people with a checklist which they cross off and then move on with their lives. Such people disdain “religion” and instead speak of Christianity as a “personal relationship with God,” a “way of life,” or find some other way to make some kind of contrast between who they are and what they do and “religion.”

We can all think of many good reasons why “religion” has developed its rather bad reputation of late. Yet such vitriolic reactions are just that: reactions. It is easy to paint an “ugly” picture of religion and condemn it. Such things should be expected from unbelievers; while believers might have reason for embarrassment on account of the abuses of religion, does that mean that the concept should be defined in such a way as to condemn it?

We must come face to face with an uncomfortable reality: everyone has a religion. Religion is simply defined as a set of attitudes, beliefs, and practices relating to ultimate reality and/or a divinity. And no matter who we are, we all have some working concept of why things are the way they are and how we should think, feel, and act in response.

We do well to consider what James, the brother of the Lord, had to say about religion. He recognizes that there is a wide gulf between the profession of religion and the substance thereof, warning that anyone who thinks to be religious but does not control their tongue that their hearts are deceived and their religion is in vain (James 1:26). To this day, two of the main reasons why people think poorly of “religion” is sanctimony and hypocrisy. The world does not lack “religious” people who say one thing and do quite another, or who condemn others for certain faults while justifying their own. Matthew 7:1-4 is a lesson which such people should learn; it is not as if God, Jesus, or anyone else truly representing the Christian “religion” would commend sanctimony and hypocrisy, for they condemn it quite strongly in many places (e.g. Matthew 23:1-36, Luke 18:9-14). Everyone could probably do better at controlling their tongue; such self-control is demanded of those who would follow Jesus.

James then speaks of “pure and undefiled” religion: to visit widows and orphans in distress and to keep oneself unstained from the world (James 1:27). James makes it clear that religion need not be something bad or terrible; there is such a thing as “pure” and “undefiled” religion. Such religion focuses on personal holiness and active participation in life among the dispossessed. By mentioning these things James does not explicitly address one’s thoughts and feelings, but it is evident that if one’s care and concern is for holiness while serving the least among him or her, their thoughts and feelings are as pure as the religion which they are practicing (cf. Matthew 7:15-20). Likewise, while Christians can work together at times to help those in need, this kind of “pure and undefiled” religion cannot be corporate: it is something given for “oneself” to do, not to be pawned off to some sort of institution, organization, or government to handle.

We do well to meditate for a moment on James’ description of “pure and undefiled religion.” Most of those who condemn “religion” for all of its excesses and abuses would likely agree that helping those in need is a good thing, and maintaining one’s personal holiness without sanctimony or a holier-than-thou attitude is certainly not a bad thing. Many such persons would probably commend a life full of this “pure and undefiled religion.” And those among Christians who condemn “religion” would certainly approve of helping the needy and maintaining one’s personal holiness.

Religion, therefore, is not the problem. Impure and defiled religion is the problem. Religion used for ungodly purposes, to advance the covetous or bloodthirsty agendas of individuals or organizations or to justify perversions and unholy ideologies is the problem. Sanctimony, hypocrisy, and sectarianism masquerading as religion is the problem. In short, Satan and sin are the problem, as they are with all things that could otherwise be good, holy, and pleasing in the sight of God. Therefore, let us cast off bad religion. Let us maintain personal holiness while seeking the best interest of those around us, especially the most destitute, downtrodden, and dispossessed, and do so to the glory and honor of God the Father in the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us practice pure and undefiled religion thanks to a restored relationship with God through Jesus in His Kingdom to the praise, honor, and glory of God in Christ at His coming!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus’ Cup and Baptism

And [James and John] said unto him, “Grant unto us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and one on thy left hand, in thy glory.”
But Jesus said unto them, “Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink the cup that I drink? Or to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
And they said unto him, “We are able.”
And Jesus said unto them, “The cup that I drink ye shall drink; and with the baptism that I am baptized withal shall ye be baptized: but to sit on my right hand or on my left hand is not mine to give; but it is for them for whom it hath been prepared” (Mark 10:37-40).

The tension finally boiled over.

For some time the disciples jockeyed amongst themselves for standing before Jesus. They argued regarding who was the greatest among them (cf. Mark 9:34). James and John take the dispute one step further, boldly asking Jesus to sit at His right and left hand in His Kingdom (Mark 10:37).

This request may seem strange to us, but in the minds of the disciples it made perfect sense. Jesus had said that He was going up to Jerusalem and His Kingdom would be established; they naturally understood that to mean that this would be the final showdown between Jesus and all the authorities arrayed against Him, He would prove triumphant, and would begin reigning. If He reigned, then they would be His deputies, and it was far better, in their imagination, to be second and third in command than eleventh or twelfth.

Jesus was going up to Jerusalem to establish His Kingdom; the next few days would see the final showdown between Jesus and the authorities arrayed against Him. It just was not going to take place as the disciples expected.

Jesus knows this; He tells James and John how they really do not know that for which they have asked (Mark 10:38). He asks if they can drink the cup He drinks, or be baptized with the baptism with which He was baptized.

James and John believe they are able (Mark 10:39). We can only wonder what it is they believe they will be able to do. Do they think of His cup as a cup of rulership? Do they understand His “baptism” in terms of some physical baptism, a ritual cleansing to prepare for kingship and rule, or some such thing?

Jesus affirms how they will drink the cup He drinks, and they will be baptized with the baptism in which He was baptized. But the “power” they seek, in the way they wish to obtain it, cannot be His to give, but is dictated by the Father (Mark 10:39-40). But before they can obtain any sort of standing in the Kingdom of God, their minds and understanding will have to go through some radical alterations.

This story clearly illustrates the different mentalities and expectations between Jesus and His disciples. The disciples expect power, glory, victory over their physical enemies. Jesus knows the path involves suffering, humiliation, degradation, and then, and only then, victory and the establishment of the Kingdom (Mark 10:32-34).

We understand the cup which Jesus would drink and the baptism with which He was baptized. The cup is a cup of suffering and pain which Jesus will drink to its dregs (cf. Mark 14:35-36). The baptism of Jesus here is full immersion in humiliation, degradation, pain, and suffering on an unimaginable scale through His betrayal, trial, scourging, and execution (Mark 14:43-15:37). Jesus drank the cup to its dregs to rescue humanity from the out-poured cup of the unmixed wrath of God (cf. Romans 2:4-11, 5:9, Revelation 14:10, 16:19). Jesus experienced an immersion in evil and suffering so as to overcome and gain the victory over sin and death, granting us the opportunity to be immersed in water for the remission of sin in His name so as to experience a spiritual death and resurrection out of sin and darkness and into righteousness and the light (Romans 6:1-3, 8:1-4, 1 Corinthians 15:54-57). Yes, He went to Jerusalem to establish His Kingdom. Yes, He endured the final showdown with the forces arrayed against Him. Yes, He gained the victory and His Kingdom was established with power. But He had to experience all sorts of suffering, evil, and death in order to do so. Without His cup and His baptism, there would have been no salvation or Kingdom.

But Jesus tells James and John that they, too, will drink the cup He drinks and will be baptized with His baptism. Every follower of Jesus must expect to experience suffering, humiliation, and degradation on account of the Lord (cf. Acts 14:22, 2 Timothy 3:12). Many will die for Jesus’ sake, as James did (cf. Acts 12:2, 1 John 3:16). There is a cup and a baptism of suffering and pain which we must endure if we wish to gain the victory through Jesus (Romans 8:17-18).

Yes, there is the cup in the Lord’s Supper, the representation of the blood of the Lord Jesus, shed for the remission of sin (Mark 14:23-25). Yes, there is the immersion in water in the name of the Lord Jesus for the remission of sin (Mark 16:16). Yet part of our understanding of the significance of that cup and that baptism involves the recognition that when we drink that cup and are baptized into that baptism, we affirm that we will drink the cup of Jesus and will experience the baptism with which He was baptized. We are signing up for humiliation, degradation, suffering, pain, and perhaps even death, for the name of the Lord Jesus. We do not do so because we are sick or sadistic but because the only way we can obtain the victory over sin and death is to, like Jesus, endure the trials of sin and death, that cup and that baptism, and overcome through Jesus. James and John were called upon to do so; Peter called upon the Christians of Asia Minor to do so (1 Peter 1:3-9); in the Revelation, John sees how the Christians of His time and in the future will do so (Revelation 12:7-17). It is our turn as well.

James and John had no idea for what they signed themselves up when they said they could drink the cup Jesus would drink, and be baptized with the baptism with which He was baptized. Perhaps if they did understand what it meant they would not have been so eager to do so! Today, we have the full story, and can know exactly what it is we are affirming we will do. Are we willing to drink the cup Jesus drank and to be baptized with the baptism with which He was baptized, endure the suffering, misery, humiliation, and trial, so that we can obtain the victory over sin and death and glory beyond comparison with Him? Let us see the shared spiritual cup of suffering and pain in the physical cup we drink on the Lord’s day, and a willingness to endure a spiritual immersion in suffering in the physical immersion in the name of Jesus for the remission of sin, endure, and be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus’ Brothers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Servant Power

But Jesus called them unto him, and said, “Ye know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Not so shall it be among you: but whosoever would become great among you shall be your minister; and whosoever would be first among you shall be your servant: even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).

It was the same old argument with a new and bold twist.

Jesus’ disciples had been jockeying amongst themselves for a long time for power and prestige. They had argued about it before (Mark 9:34/Luke 9:46) and would argue about it again (Luke 22:24). But none of them had ever been so bold as to actually bring the matter up before Jesus Himself.

Yet this time James and John get Salome their mother to ask Jesus for the left and right hand positions in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 20:20-21, Mark 10:35-37). Jesus wonders whether they would be able to drink His cup of bitterness or to experience His baptism of suffering, and on the basis of their confident faith (in what they likely do not understand), declares that they will do so (Matthew 20:22-23, Mark 10:38-39). Yet, in the end, it is not for Jesus to give; it is for those to whom it has been prepared (Matthew 20:23, Mark 10:40).

The other ten are indignant with James and John (cf. Matthew 20:24, Mark 10:41). We should not imagine that their indignation was for spiritual or pious reasons. It perhaps was motivated by envy– they had asked for what they had all wanted, and the others did not have the confidence to do so! Or, perhaps, their indignation was based in feelings of shame– something that had been discussed in “secret” for so long the brothers had now made wide open. Ultimately, however, James and John actually asked for the thing they all really wanted– prominence in the Kingdom.

This is one of those moments where it is evident that the disciples and Jesus have entirely different understandings about the nature of the Kingdom Jesus has been proclaiming. Since the matter had clearly come to a head, and was now causing friction among the disciples, Jesus is compelled to address this misunderstanding in some small way.

The disciples seem to be imagining a Kingdom of the Jewish expectation– the Branch of David back on the throne in Jerusalem, triumphantly defeating Israel’s foes. Since the disciples believed in Jesus more steadfastly it was natural to expect that they would have the positions of prominence normally far beyond the reach of Galilean fishermen. Jesus, they imagined, was their ticket to greatness– the opportunity to get on the “ground floor” of the greatest Kingdom the world would ever know. In short, they expected Jesus to use the standard way the world works in order to surpass all who came before Him.

Yet Jesus’ response devastates such a view. Granted, many of the disciples’ expectations will come true, but not through the means they imagined. Jesus did not come to earth to just surpass the world at its own game. He came to earth to overthrow the world and its standards, and this is prominently featured in His response to His disciples (Matthew 20:25-28).

The disciples were all too familiar with Gentile power. They saw how the Roman Empire flexed its might. They saw the system of patronage and client that re-inforced class divisions. It was a system where might was right and humility was worthless. Courage, strength, and the ability to display power were what really mattered. The more masterful of a game player you were, the higher you could advance.

Jesus makes it abundantly clear that such is not the way the Kingdom of God works. Instead, He says, to be great in the Kingdom you must be a servant to others. If you want to be first in the Kingdom, you must be a slave to the rest. And Jesus sets Himself forth as the example: the One who deserved service did not receive it but instead served others (cf. Romans 15:3, Philippians 2:5-11).

It has been almost two thousand years since Jesus uttered these words, but they are no less earth-shaking. The “Gentile world” still operates pretty much like it did in the Roman world. There is a mad dash to power and those who play the game the best win. It is quite tempting for people to do the same thing in Jesus’ Kingdom, but it is good to remember what Jesus says. No matter how much the world values such attributes, they have no place in the Kingdom. Advancement in the Kingdom can only happen through weakness, suffering, humility, and service. Ironically, advancement can only take place when one has renounced such a view of existence– humility can only develop when pride is removed, and where there is no pride, there is no self-seeking, no impulse to self-advancement in a worldly sense. If one sets off on the road to greater humility and service, one can only find the destination through renouncing self and clinging to Jesus (Galatians 2:20).

The day would come when the disciples understood what Jesus meant. They had to go through the trials of experience and suffering. James would lose his life for Jesus’ cause (Acts 12:1-2); John would suffer with the other Apostles at times and would eventually find himself exiled for the Name in Patmos (cf. Acts 5:40-41, Revelation 1:9). Peter and the others would endure similar trials, and they all did so willingly, calling themselves the slaves of Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:1, etc.). They knew that the Kingdom, while in the world, was not of the world, but of Jesus Christ their Lord (cf. 1 John 2:15-17). Thus their place of authority was reserved for them because they went through the trials, experiences, and travails that taught them the way of Jesus: the way of service (cf. Revelation 4:4).

There remains the way of the world and the way of Jesus. We all, at some point in our lives, look at things as the disciples did, and seek out that glory, fame, and power in some form or another. But are we willing to follow the way of Jesus, the way of humility and service, bitterness and suffering, in order to receive the true commendation and exaltation (cf. Philippians 2:5-11)? We cannot imagine that we will receive it through worldly means and by looking at power as the world understands it. Instead, we must develop servant power, and give up everything for Jesus so that He can be manifest in us (Romans 8:29, Galatians 2:20). Let us be humble so that we may be exalted on that great and glorious day!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Faith Counted as Righteousness

And [Abram] believed in the LORD; and he reckoned it to him for righteousness (Genesis 15:6).

It is lamentable how this verse has become the focal point for the controversy regarding the roles of faith and obedience based on its quotation in both Romans 4:3 and James 2:22-23. Paul uses the incident to show how Abram’s faith here justified him without any works; James speaks of how it is fulfilled when Abram demonstrates his obedience to God by being willing to offer Isaac his son upon the altar (cf. Genesis 22). Abram’s example does not teach either that faith only saves or that works save– Abram’s example shows us that we must have faith and be obedient to God in order to obtain the blessing.

Such controversy often overshadows the great depth of faith put forward by Abram. Abram here is in his eighties; Sarai his wife is in her seventies. She has borne him no children, and he has no biological heir. God has made all of these promises regarding Abram’s offspring inheriting the land, yet Eliezer of Damascus, Abram’s servant, currently stands to inherit what remains to him (Genesis 15:2-3). Yet God promises that he will have a son, and his son will be his true heir (Genesis 15:4-5).

On what basis should Abram believe God? After all, he is well over the age most people have children, and women do not often have children in their seventies! According to the human, earthly perspective, there is no reason to believe God. On a physical level alone, Abram is doomed to have no descendants if he is waiting on Sarai.

But Abram knows that what is impossible with men is possible with God (cf. Matthew 19:26). He and 318 men just defeated four Mesopotamian kings whom the five kings of the valley could not best (Genesis 14). God had brought him from the land of Ur and Haran and had blessed him so far (Genesis 12:1-4). Abram was willing to trust God, and God counted it as righteousness.

Abram’s faith teaches us what faith should be. Faith is trust and confidence, even if there is no good earthly or physical basis on which to base that trust or confidence! The Hebrew author speaks of faith as “assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen,” (Hebrews 11:1), and this was certainly true in relation to Abram and his children. Abram had every reason not to trust in God’s promise, and he trusted anyway.

God proved faithful to Abram even when Abram was not as faithful to God. The very next chapter shows what happens when Abram and Sarai attempt to meddle in God’s purposes– Abram fathers Ishmael through Hagar, but he is not the chosen one (cf. Genesis 16). Instead, God waits another 15 years, and Sarah bears to Abraham a son, Isaac, in his old age, she at 90, he at 100 (Genesis 21, Romans 4:18-22)! What is impossible with man is possible with God.

Are there good earthly, physical reasons to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, crucified for our sin, and raised on the third day in power? Upon what basis should we accept that God will raise us also from the dead and provide glory and eternal life if we are found faithful? Why should we think that God loves us and is willing to give us all things, especially when things do not look so good for us? According to an earthly, human perspective, there are no good reasons. That’s why faith is so critical– no mere intellectual assent to a proposition, but a willingness to trust and cling to God no matter how implausible or impossible His promises may seem.

If God is able to create the universe as we know it and allowed a woman of 90 years to give birth, He is certainly able to redeem us from sin and gather us to Him for all eternity. Will we be willing to believe what is impossible according to men? Can we trust in things hoped for and show conviction despite not seeing? And are we willing to obey and serve, even if it costs us everything? If so, we will have a faith that God will count for righteousness, and we can share in all those “impossible” promises!

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