Good and Pleasant Unity

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is / for brethren to dwell together in unity! (Psalm 133:1)

Few joys prove as sweet as harmony in relational unity.

The middle of Book V of the Psalms is dedicated to “psalms of ascent” (Psalms 120:1-134:3). These would be psalms for Israelites to sing as they made the journey up to Jerusalem in general or specifically to the Temple complex on Mount Zion. Most of the psalms of ascent praise YHWH for His greatness and for manifesting Himself among His people on Zion, or represent praises of Zion itself. Yet Psalm 133:1-3, tucked in toward the end of the psalms of ascent, is a meditation on the benefits of unity among brothers.

David proclaimed how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity (Psalm 133:1); he compared its pleasantry to the anointing oil which would run down Aaron’s head, beard, and onto his garments, and the dew of Mount Hermon coming upon Zion (Psalm 133:2-3). In Exodus 30:22-33 YHWH described the oil of anointing and its purpose to Moses; in Leviticus 8:12 Moses actually anoints Aaron as high priest “to sanctify him.” In a semi-arid climate like Israel, mountain dew provides a welcome and relieving form of moisture which allows for plants to grow and flourish; Hermon, in the north, in antiquity maintained snow all year round, and it would have been possible for moist air from Hermon to provide dew on Mount Zion near Jerusalem.

While we may not have chosen these images to illustrate the beauty of relational unity, they remain powerful and profound if we meditate upon them. Through them David asserted the holiness and refreshment which relational unity provides.

Holiness would be on the mind of all those ascending to Jerusalem; the journey would have no doubt been for one of the three annual festivals for which all Israelites were expected to stand before YHWH (Passover/Feast of Unleavened Bread, Feast of Weeks/Shauvot/Pentecost, Feast of Booths; Deuteronomy 16:16-17). Aaron was Moses’ brother and an Israelite; he only became the high priest, set apart from the people to God’s service, once the anointing oil was placed upon his head. The anointing oil as envisioned upon Aaron is the moment of dedication and consecration, the powerful ritual of setting Aaron apart for YHWH’s service, a reminder of YHWH’s covenant with Israel and Israel’s relationship with YHWH.

Aaron was consecrated with oil running down his head; in its own way, YHWH refreshed Zion with dew from Hermon falling upon its crest. Dew can be collected and used for drinking; plants take in the dew and provide their fruit. Dew is a little bit of moisture in a dry place; it is a little bit of refreshment in the midst of bitterness; it is a sign of life in the midst of barrenness.

David spoke of unity among brothers (Psalm 133:1). No doubt the primary and first referent is among brothers in the flesh, and by extension within the family. Such an application makes good contextual sense: Israelites did not go up to Jerusalem by themselves; they would travel in family groups (cf. Luke 2:41-45). We can imagine a caravan featuring an extended family of brothers with their parents, wives, and children negotiating the narrow roads up to Jerusalem; even under the best of family circumstances there would have been moments of friction and conflict, let alone if any previous animosity existed between them. The journey would have provided ample time to have it out, reconcile, or perhaps unfortunately lead to greater division or separation. In such an environment Psalm 133:1-3 is an exhortative reminder of the value of family, the benefit of unity within the group, and would hopefully orient the mind of all on the journey to put aside their differences, contextualize their momentary frustrations, and appreciate the benefits of having each other and maintaining unity among one another. Brothers dwelling in unity can support each other, refresh each other, benefit each other; they can more easily prosper, and their enemies will be put to shame. Brothers fighting each other cause great stress, strain, and perhaps impoverishment or even death. Unity is far more pleasant and desirable!

We can draw similar applications within families today; Ephesians 5:22-6:4 sets forth how husbands and wives, parents and children can dwell in unity. In Christ we can also extend the application to the church, since we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, fellow members of the household of God (Ephesians 2:19-22).

Unity among Christians is holy and refreshing. Christians are supposed to be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3): our unity does not spring from our own striving, but from what God has accomplished in Jesus, making us all into one man (Ephesians 2:11-18). It is a unique and awesome privilege to be made a part of the people of God and invited to share in the relational unity which marks the Godhead (John 17:20-23)! God manifests His plan in Christ in the unity of the church, displaying it before the powers and principalities in the heavenly places (Ephesians 3:10-11). Meanwhile, the world is full of brokenness, alienation, and division; it has ever been, and ever will be. To see people of different backgrounds, socio-economic standing, and abilities loving one another and working together to glorify God in Christ has immense appeal and power. Relational unity is an oasis of joy in a bitter, barren land.

Unfortunately all too often holiness and unity are held in opposition. In the eyes of many, you can have one or the other, but not both: if you want to be holy, unity is out the window; if you seek unity, holiness and integrity must be compromised. And yet God is both the standard of holiness and relationally unified in Himself (John 17:20-23, 1 Peter 1:15-16). God brings holiness and unity together in Himself and yearns for holiness and unity be brought together in His people. Unity is possible if the people of God would only humble themselves, trust in God, seek one another’s benefit, and not insist on one’s own way (Philippians 2:1-4, Philippians 4:1-3).

Unity is rarely comfortable; unity is hard work. Unity demands that we suffer the inadequacies and weaknesses of others in the recognition that others must suffer our inadequacies and weaknesses. But in unity there is love, acceptance, and strength. When we are truly one with each other we know where we belong and we draw strength from our standing and our connection from others. We do well, therefore, to proclaim Psalm 133:1-3, meditate upon it, and allow it to orient our thinking about the blessings of unity. May we enjoy the pleasurable benefits of unity among brethren, holy and refreshing, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Singing in a Strange Land

For there they that led us captive required of us songs / and they that wasted us required of us mirth / “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
How shall we sing YHWH’s song in a strange land? (Psalm 137:3-4)

The agony is palpable.

The historical books of the Bible tell us the story of the people of God, and generally do so in a rather straightforward fashion. So it is in 2 Kings 25:21, tersely declaring that Judah was exiled out of its land. The shock, the agony, the horror, and the astonishment of the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple and the exile of its people would find its voice elsewhere in Scripture. Few places prove as compelling as Psalm 137:1-6.

The Psalter communicated much simply by placing Psalm 137 in its current location. Psalms 120-134 are the “songs of ascent,” which we believe were sung as pilgrims would ascend the hill country of Judah to approach Jerusalem and Zion, where YHWH made His name to dwell. Psalm 135 praises YHWH as Creator, the God of Israel who destroyed their enemies, and the One True God, no dumb and mute idol. Psalm 136 is the grand call and response powerfully affirming YHWH as the Creator God of Israel, who has done great things, who delivered Israel from his adversaries, and who continues to provide, for His covenant loyalty/lovingkindness (Hebrew hesed) endures forever.

But then Israel sat by the waters of Babylon, and cried when they remembered Zion (Psalm 137:1). They hung up their musical instruments upon the willows (Psalm 137:2). The victorious Babylonians, pagans vaunting over their defeat of the people of YHWH, demand to hear the songs of Zion (Psalm 137:3). The Psalmist’s question rang out: how could they sing YHWH’s song in a strange, alien, foreign, and pagan land (Psalm 137:4)? The Psalmist would go on to resolve to never forget Jerusalem; he would rather forget his skill and never speak a word again before he would forget Jerusalem or enjoy anything above it (Psalm 137:5-6).

Ferdinand Olivier 001

We can barely begin to imagine the trauma of exile for those in Israel. Everything they knew and believed about themselves had literally been dashed to pieces in front of their eyes. They watched as thousands of their fellow Israelites, fellow people of God, died from famine, plague, and sword. They watched as the pagans ransacked the holy places of YHWH, whom they had believed to have been the God of Israel, who maintained covenant loyalty, and who overcame Israel’s adversaries. They were led to a distant land as the spoils of war, a land of strange tongues and stranger customs. Nothing could ever be the same again. Who would they become? What happened to YHWH’s promise? How had He let this happen to His people? How could they sing the songs of ascent to Zion when no such ascent proved possible? How could they sing YHWH’s song in a foreign land?

Without a doubt exile began as an extremely disorienting experience for Israel. Many would apostatize, believing the lie that might makes right, buying into the Babylonian propaganda. Yet for many the exile would prove the catalyst unto greater faithfulness; YHWH really was not only the God of Israel but the One True God, the God of heaven. He judged His people on account of their continual rejection of His purposes; Israel deserved far worse than it actually received. YHWH would again visit His people and bring them out of exile; He would again choose Jerusalem and Zion; Israel would again sing YHWH’s song in His land (Isaiah 40:1-5, Zechariah 2:10-12).

When Cyrus overthrew the Babylonian monarchy and took over the empire, Israel was allowed to return to its land (Ezra 1:1-4). And yet the exile was not fully over; Israel was still captive to foreign powers. Their long exile would only find its satisfaction in Jesus of Nazareth, YHWH in the flesh, having returned to His people, defeating sin and death through His death and resurrection, in His ascension establishing a dominion which would have no end (Daniel 7:13-14, John 2:14-22, Acts 2:36). Israel, and all mankind, received access to God through Jesus, and could become a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven, with all the rights and privileges thereof (Ephesians 2:1-18, Philippians 3:20).

Yet before the people of God can inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, they must also experience exile. As Christians we live as exiles and sojourners in this world (1 Peter 1:1, 2:11); we live in its midst, ought to pray for peace and the salvation of all men, and do what is honorable among all, but we cannot love this world, cannot be friends with it, and cannot live according to its customs (Romans 12:1-2, 17, 1 Timothy 2:1-4, James 4:3-5, 1 John 2:15-17). We will be thought strange and consider the ideas and customs around us as strange (1 Peter 4:3-4); no matter how much we may look for a home and security, we will not find it here.

As with Israel, so with us: exile begins as a very disorienting experience. We also are tempted to apostatize, to believe the lie that might makes right, to buy into the propaganda of our nation and our cultural ideology (Romans 12:2). But our exile is designed to prove the catalyst for greater faithfulness, to prove the genuineness of our faith (1 Peter 1:1, 6-7). It is through the crucible of exile that we learn that God is the One True God, who has made Himself known through His Son, and that the only hope of the world is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It is through the crucible of exile that we come to understand that the world is out for its own, does not glorify what God would have glorified, and that whatever we have experienced is far less worse than what we have deserved. It is through the crucible of exile that we learn to anchor ourselves in our great confidence and hope that Jesus will return again to gather His people to Him, that we will rise and forever be with the Lord, and dwell in His presence in the resurrection forever (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17, Revelation 21:1-22:6).

It does seem difficult to sing YHWH’s song in a foreign land. Yet we must remember that God has already obtained the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ, and we will prove more than conquerors if we remain faithful to Him (Romans 8:37, 1 Corinthians 15:54-58). The day is coming on which we will sing a new song and the song of Moses and the Lamb before the throne (Revelation 5:9-10, 15:3-4); until then, we do well to sing the songs of Zion even in a strange land, glorifying God for what He has accomplished for us through Jesus Christ the Lord!

Ethan R. Longhenry

God Will Provide

And Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.”
So they went both of them together (Genesis 22:8).

How do you answer the impossible question in the midst of a most incomprehensible mission?

Abraham had served God faithfully for many years ever since God called him out of Ur and Haran. God had made many promises to Abraham, and so far had proven faithful: Abraham was blessed, wealthy, and miraculously had a son in his old age (Genesis 12:1-21:34). And then, when his son Isaac had grown up some and he was well over 100 years old, God gave him a command which seemingly came out of nowhere and entirely out of character: God told Abraham to take his son, his only son, the one whom he loved, Isaac, and to offer him as a burnt offering on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:1-4).

We can only imagine what was going through Abraham’s mind during that journey. What was God doing? Can I do this? What will Sarah do to me? What will become of God’s promise? And then, as they are going up the mountain, Isaac asks the question. They have everything they need for a sacrifice except the sacrificial victim. Where was the lamb for the burnt offering (Genesis 22:7)?

Abraham og Isak
What would Abraham say? He spoke honestly but not explicitly. He said that God would provide himself the lamb for the burnt offering (Genesis 22:8).

But what did Abraham mean by that statement? For generations people have speculated about how Abraham viewed what was going to take place on Mount Moriah. It is entirely possible that Abraham expected what actually took place, perceiving that God was just testing him and would not actually have him put Isaac to death, and would provide an animal for an offering (Genesis 22:9-14). The Hebrew author understands Abraham’s declaration to his servants as confidence in the resurrection: he was convinced that he and the boy would come back down the mountain even if he had been offered, and the Hebrew author sees the sparing of Isaac as a type of resurrection (Hebrews 11:17-19; Genesis 22:5). Abraham never doubted that Isaac was a gift from God; he could easily have considered Isaac to be the “lamb” for the burnt-offering. Such truly displays Abraham’s faith in God: he recognizes that God gives, and God can take away, and he should still live in subjection to God’s purposes.

In the end Isaac is not killed; God provided a ram, caught in a thicket, and Abraham sacrificed it (Genesis 22:9-13). The Genesis author makes it known that to his day it is said that on the mountain of YHWH it will be provided (Genesis 22:14).

Ultimately, however, Abraham was quite prophetic in his declaration, more than he likely knew. Two thousand years later, on that same mountain (cf. 2 Chronicles 3:1), it would again be provided.

On the morrow [John the Baptist] seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, “Behold, the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

Jesus of Nazareth, born a descendant of Abraham, would be Abraham’s promised Seed through whom God would bless all the nations of the earth (Genesis 22:18, Galatians 3:8-18). He would be betrayed, tried, and crucified on a cross in Jerusalem, even though He had done nothing wrong, and no deceit was found in His mouth. His terrible and horrendous death would be explained by His closest associates as the sacrifice for sin, His holy life paying the ransom for those enslaved by sin and death (Acts 3:13-26, 1 Peter 2:18-25). Such was not an accident; it took place according to the determined counsel and foreknowledge of God the Father (Acts 2:23). Through Jesus God did for us what we could not do: atone for our sin (Romans 5:6-11, 8:1-5, Ephesians 2:1-18).

Thus Abraham was very right: God would provide Himself the lamb for an offering. That Lamb would come to earth two thousand years later and die on that very mountain for all sin, including those of Abraham and Isaac. God did indeed provide the Lamb for Himself; the demands of justice were met, but love, grace, and mercy have triumphed.

In this way we may get a glimpse of exactly what God was doing when He tested Abraham. Abraham, trusting in God, proved willing to go up the mountain and offer his son. On account of that faith, God promised that through his seed all nations of the earth would be blessed. By Abraham’s own words God would accomplish it: God provided Himself the Lamb, His Son, His only Son, the One whom He loved, Jesus, and Jesus willingly offered Himself as the Lamb of God for the sin of the world so Abraham, Isaac, and all those who share in Abraham’s faith would receive the forgiveness of their sins.

And so it is that on the mountain of YHWH it was provided for all of us to receive the forgiveness of our sins. May we ever thank and praise God that He provided Himself the Lamb for an offering so we can be forgiven of sin and reconciled back to God and serve Him in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Prophet Like Moses

“YHWH thy God will raise up unto thee a prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken” (Deuteronomy 18:15).

Hope was given about the future even as the covenant between God and Israel through the Law of Moses began.

In the midst of his final sermon proclaiming, expounding upon, and explaining the Law God have to Israel, Moses speaks regarding prophets in Deuteronomy 18:15-22. At first he provides a promise: YHWH will raise up a prophet like Moses from among the Israelites, and they should listen to this prophet like they listened to Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15). God would use prophets on account of the fear Israel displayed when God spoke the Ten Commandments directly to all Israel (Deuteronomy 18:16-17; cf. Exodus 20:18-21). God through Moses again reiterates the promise that a prophet would come who was like Moses, and he would speak the words God put into his mouth, and those who would not listen to that prophet would be held accountable by God (Deuteronomy 18:18-19). Moses then warns the people against those who would speak a word presumptuously in the name of God when God did not actually speak to him; such a false prophet would die (Deuteronomy 18:20). Moses then assures Israel regarding how they can know whether or not God has spoken to a prophet: if what they say in the name of YHWH comes to pass, God has spoken through him; if not, then not (Deuteronomy 18:21-22).

Therefore, even as God gave the Law to Israel through Moses, there was given an expectation for a future prophet who would again, like Moses, provide legislation and a way forward for the Israel of God.

Yet who would this prophet be? Joshua was appointed leader of Israel after Moses, but he was not considered to be a prophet like Moses: the inspired editor of Deuteronomy, who told the story of Moses’ death and provided some explanations of some of the peoples whom Moses mentioned, declared that there had not been a prophet like Moses in Israel, one whom YHWH knew as face to face, up to his day (Deuteronomy 34:9-12; cf. Deuteronomy 2:10-12). From Deuteronomy 2:23 we can tell that this editor worked no earlier than 1190 BCE when the “Sea Peoples,” the Greeks called Caphtorim, invaded and took over what would be known as Philistia. Thus even though there were prophets in Israel by that time (Deborah the prophetess, Judges 4:4; the unnamed prophet of Judges 6:8), they were not the “prophet like Moses.” Later prophets, like Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, would see or do magnificent things, yet none of them saw YHWH as face to face, and none of them were empowered to provide new legislation or a new way forward for Israel. In the first century most of the Israelites were still awaiting the coming of that prophet like Moses.

And then some Israelites began proclaiming that God had sent that prophet like Moses, and that all the previous prophets from Samuel onwards had spoken of Him: Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 3:22-24, 7:37, 51-53)!

Talking about Jesus as a prophet makes many Christians uncomfortable; they are used to people calling Jesus “just” a prophet to denigrate His claim to be the Son of God, the Messiah, and to relegate Him to the same ranks as Moses, Elijah, and/or Muhammad. Jesus is not “just a prophet”; He is the Son of God, the Son of Man, the Christ, God in the flesh, ruling as Lord (John 1:1-14, 18, Acts 2:36, Romans 1:4). Nevertheless, Jesus is a prophet, and His prophetic ministry is of great importance.

Jesus is the Prophet like Moses because He spoke on His own authority since He was God and with God (Matthew 7:28-29, John 1:1). Moses saw YHWH as face to face, but Jesus is actually God in the flesh, and He consciously declares that He just says and does what He has seen and heard from His Father (John 1:1, 14, 5:19-29). God gave the Law through Moses; Jesus proclaims the Gospel of the Kingdom by His own authority as the Son of God (Matthew 4:17, 23, 5:21-48, 7:28-29). God provided Israel with manna and water in the Wilderness; Jesus is the bread of life, and His body, the Word of God, provides full and eternal sustenance and life (John 6:22-71). God through Moses performed many miraculous signs and acts; Jesus does astonishing signs and wonders and is ultimately raised from the dead, the greatest wonder of all (Matthew 11:27, Romans 1:4). In all these ways, and more, Jesus evokes Moses and his role in Israel and yet goes above and beyond Moses in fulfilling the Law and establishing the Kingdom (Matthew 5:17-18).

Jesus is a prophet: He identified Himself as such (Matthew 13:57, Luke 13:33). As a prophet He denounced the current state of affairs in Israel and warned about the destruction to come (Matthew 21:33-46, 24:1-36). On account of His actions and sayings many in Israel considered Him as a prophet (Matthew 16:13-14).

Many have said or sung that Jesus “came to die.” While Jesus’ death was expected from the beginning and is of great importance for salvation, allowing for reconciliation with God (John 1:29, Romans 5:6-11), the New Testament never says that Jesus “came to die,” and for good reason. In His life Jesus had to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17-18), yes, but the truth of Amos 3:7 remained: YHWH does nothing without first revealing it to His servants the prophets. The prophets had foreseen the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, the exile, the return from exile, and the succession of empires from Persia to Rome. Daniel even envisioned the end of Jerusalem yet again (Daniel 9:24-27). From 68-70 CE the Jewish people rose in rebellion against the Romans; the rebellion was crushed, their cities were left in ruins, and the holy city and Temple in Jerusalem were razed to the ground. Within 70 years, after a second revolt, the Romans would expel Israelites from Jerusalem, re-christened Aelia Capitolina, in which the Emperor Hadrian had built a temple to Zeus. To this day there has been no Israelite Temple in Jerusalem; no sacrifices can be properly offered according to the Law of Moses; no genealogical records remain to ascertain the priesthood; thus the Law of Moses, as written, cannot be satisfied. Did YHWH abandon Israel without warning? No, of course not. He had spoken through the Prophet like Moses, Jesus of Nazareth, and through Him pointed the way forward for the Israel of God: it would no longer be centered around Jerusalem, a Temple, or even a shared genetic legacy, but instead around the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and lordship of Jesus Christ and participation in His Kingdom (Acts 2:14-26, 3:11-26). The Israel of God was now those who shared in Abraham’s faith and obtained the blessing promised to Abraham fulfilled in Jesus (Acts 3:24-26, Galatians 3:7-9, 15-18, 6:16). YHWH could make no greater demonstration of the finality of the end of the covenant between Him and Israel as mediated by the Law of Moses; the only way forward is through participation in the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.

Jesus is not “just” a prophet, but is a prophet, the promised Prophet like Moses. Let us follow and serve Him in His Kingdom to the glory of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Smooth Things

For it is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the LORD; that say to the seers, “See not”;
and to the prophets, “Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits, get you out of the way, turn aside out of the path, cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us” (Isaiah 30:9-11).

The Iraq war of 2003. The economic disaster of 2008. These are but two of many instances in history when certain people warned about dangers and problems with conventional thinking and wisdom that went unheeded but proved to be precisely correct. Such voices often only gain credibility and respect after the fact when “I told you so” proves to be cold comfort.

The reason why this tendency exists in humanity is the same as the origin of the phrase, “don’t shoot the messenger”: humans do not like doom and gloom predictions and warnings about the dangers of their behaviors and the consequences of their actions. In such circumstances most will seek out reassurance that all will be well, to keep on accepting the official line or statement, and carry on with their lives. Meanwhile, the problems continue to grow and develop, and when they become too painfully obvious to ignore, it is too late. Pain and regret follow.

The prophets of Israel understood this tendency only too well. Isaiah laments how the king of Judah and his associates have not put their trust in the LORD but instead seek to make political alliances with Egypt in Isaiah 30:1-17. He has, no doubt, prophesied before them about the dangers of their path, but they did not want to hear it. It is unlikely that the people of Judah would be so bold as to actually tell the prophet to lie, deceive, and say smooth things (cf. Isaiah 30:10-11). Instead, they communicate the same message through their actions, rejecting the message of Isaiah and turning instead to listen to another prophet who would tell them, in the name of the LORD, that their alliance with Egypt would stand, and all would be well with them, just as they would put their trust in the prophets who told them what they wanted to hear in the days of Jeremiah (cf. Jeremiah 28:1-17).

We do well to remember that even though the voice of the false prophets is rarely heard in the Old Testament, they would have been quite prominent and vociferous in ancient Israel (cf. Luke 6:26). The false prophets do not feature prominently in the Old Testament since their deception and error proved evident: after the devastations of 722 and 586 BCE, the remnant of Israel recognized just how accurately the true prophets of God foretold what would happen. This realization helps us to understand why the Israelites did not really listen to prophets like Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel: their messages were dire and harsh, demanding repentance, lest the LORD destroy them and/or exile them away from the land. Meanwhile, these false prophets would tell them that YHWH would destroy their enemies and keep them in their land. If we were there, which one would we rather believe?

We also should keep in mind that the message of the false prophet might seem to better match theological expectations. This was certainly true in Jesus’ day. Jesus prophesied that God would render judgment against Israel and destroy Jerusalem by the hands of the Romans (Matthew 24:1-36). Meanwhile, many in Israel were convinced that God would give them victory over the Roman oppressor just as He gave the Maccabees victory over the Macedonians for His name’s glory and honor. Therefore, to many Jews of the first century, Jesus’ prediction seemed blasphemous and perhaps even demonic, an attempt to weaken resolve in the struggle against an imperious overlord. And then, in 70 CE, Jesus was fully vindicated.

Isaiah is right: people like to hear “smooth things.” Paul warns Timothy of how Christians will no longer endure sound doctrine, but having “itching ears,” will find teachers to satisfy their desires, and turn away to fables (2 Timothy 4:3-4). People still do not like hearing messages that challenge the way they live their lives and ideas or the ideas and philosophies upon which they have built their understanding of their environment. To this day people are still looking for ways to justify their attitudes and behavior rather than changing them in healthy ways.

The Gospel of Christ can never be a “smooth thing.” It convicts and challenges everyone toward greater faithfulness to Christ; it is a hard way to go (cf. Matthew 7:13-14)! There are always temptations to make the message smooth–always. Some might make the message smooth by toning down or compromising those parts of the Gospel which work against conventional cultural thinking. Others might make the message smooth by focusing only on the problems, errors, or challenges of others without having to go through the uncomfortable process of looking in the mirror and confronting their own problems and challenges (cf. Matthew 7:1-5). The whole truth of God’s message in Christ proves difficult for everyone!

It is understandable why so many people attempt to make the message smooth: we can read how the prophets, Apostles, and others who faithfully proclaimed God’s message were persecuted, humiliated, injured, or even killed because the people did not like their message (cf. Hebrews 11:32-38). Meanwhile, those who tell people what they want to hear receive accolades, praise, and other benefits (cf. Luke 6:26). We would rather be liked than disliked; loved rather than hated.

Nevertheless, God’s message proves true. There are many false prophets about, just as there has always been, and many will be led astray by them (2 Peter 2:1-4). Yet a day will come, just like it did for Israel in 722 BCE, Judah in 586 BCE, and Jerusalem again in 70 CE, when God will render judgment on all people, and on that day far too many, both “Christian” and otherwise, will recognize how they have been deceived and that it is too late (Matthew 7:21-23, Romans 2:5-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10). Therefore, we must resist the temptation to preach smooth things or to listen to them, and to be willing to deal with the discomfort and challenge that comes from acceptance of the Gospel of Christ. Let us heed God’s warnings and prove willing to fully repent and follow after Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Theology While Suffering

Thou, O LORD, abidest for ever; Thy throne is from generation to generation. Wherefore dost thou forget us for ever, And forsake us so long time? Turn thou us unto thee, O LORD, and we shall be turned; Renew our days as of old. But thou hast utterly rejected us; Thou art very wroth against us (Lamentations 5:19-22).

The impact of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Babylonians, along with the exile to Babylon, upon the people of God can hardly be overstated. These events would completely rattle every aspect of the common theology and worldview of the day. In the ancient Near East, blessings and conquest meant your god was happy with you; plagues and defeat meant your god was angry with you. And yet here Judah experiences plague, pestilence, violence, complete devastation, and even exile, which to many would have meant as much a separation from the god of their land as much as it mean separation from their country. Formerly, even when things looked bad, the Temple of YHWH in Jerusalem remained; now, even that was gone. The complete humiliation of Judah posed major theological challenges: if YHWH is the God of Israel, how could YHWH allow these things to happen? Was YHWH powerless against the Babylonians and their god Marduk? If YHWH is punishing us, why does He do so in ways that give the other nations reason to blaspheme His name and thoroughly disrespect Him? How can YHWH be our God and care for us when we have been brought so very low?

God provided a lot of warnings to the people beforehand through the prophets; God would again speak to the people to comfort and encourage them after the events took place. There is less written from and about those actually experiencing the event and its immediate aftermath: some of the psalms seem to come from this period (e.g. Psalm 44), and we get some indication of events from the book of Jeremiah (cf. Jeremiah 39:1-44:30). Yet it is the voice of Lamentations which provides a moving and visceral response to these tragic events. The author of Lamentations describes what happens, and understands why the tragedy was necessary. Nevertheless, the author wrestles with the pain, suffering, misery, and the question of God’s presence and concern for His people.

The book of Lamentations is a masterpiece. Its author, over its first four chapters, expresses the pain, anguish, and distress of Jerusalem and its people, and does so using acrostic patterns (each verse or couplet of verses begins with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet). Yet it is in the fifth chapter that the author breaks out of the convention and pours out his soul before God. He pleads for God to see their reproach and describes their humiliation (Lamentations 5:1-18). Yet, in all this, he remains convinced of God’s existence and authority (Lamentations 5:19). He wants to know for how long YHWH will continue to turn away from His people and abandon them to their humiliation; he asks YHWH to turn back to His people so His people will turn back to Him and all may be renewed (Lamentations 5:20-21). The author recognizes the present distress, and concludes with his understanding of the situation: YHWH has rejected His people and remains angry with them (Lamentations 5:22).

It comes as no surprise that Lamentations is not one of the more popular books of the Bible: it is not a happy book. Lamentations is full of the types of things which we humans generally seek to avoid: pain, distress, misery, suffering, and the attempt to try to make some sense out of why it happened and where God is in the midst of the pain. We know that there might be a time when we might experience something of the sort, but we certainly do not look forward to it. We would rather continue to live as we are living, seek to focus on the happier parts of life, hope we avoid as much suffering as we can, and trust that if suffering comes we will somehow find a way through it.

But then moments of suffering come. Perhaps we will be fortunate and be able to endure them without too much distress. But what will become of us if we experience a time of intense suffering far beyond anything we might have imagined? Doubts and fears will arise. Hope might be extinguished; despair may turn to cynicism. The confidence held in one’s view of God and how one looks at the world might be strongly shaken. Many in such a condition, even if they recover physically, never do so emotionally and spiritually.

This is why it is important to understand the value of strong theology even in the midst of suffering, or perhaps even on account of suffering. We can see this from the author of Lamentations. He has seen and experienced terrible evils which most of us can only imagine with dread and terror, terrible things done by the pagan nations against the people of God, and yet his faith is firm and resolute. He recognizes that God remains sovereign and in control. He has perceived that God is angry with His people and punished them and he does not seek to find fault with God because of it. He is able to maintain the hope that God will turn back toward His people and renew them as of old.

When we do not maintain that strong theology while suffering, we will be tempted to fall away. The same distress which the author of Lamentations rightly understands to be God’s chastening is understood by others as the consequence of turning away from the Queen of Heaven (cf. Jeremiah 44:15-19). While many Jews remained faithful to God in Babylon, we will never know how many others could not handle all the distress and pain and the challenge to their worldview and just assimilated into Babylonian culture, assuming that since the Babylonians were successful, their gods and perspective were clearly right, and their former belief in YHWH was wrong. Such people have been made invisible historically, no doubt swept up in every successive change of empire and belief in Mesopotamia. They attached themselves to the way of the world; their fate will be as the world.

Times of suffering will come. Our faith will be tested as through fire (1 Peter 1:3-9). Perhaps our sufferings will be manifestations of God’s discipline (cf. Hebrews 12:4-11). Perhaps our suffering will come on account of our trust in God in Christ (cf. Luke 6:22-23). Or maybe our suffering will not come with an explicit reason; it will just be. That suffering may be so severe as to shake our confidence in everything which we used to believe was true. How will we respond to such distress and calamity? Will we be able to maintain our confidence in God and His goodness toward His people? Will we find a way to maintain our hope despite our distress and pain? At that time we will perhaps gain a better appreciation for the message of Lamentations, and seek to take refuge in the same hope which sustained the author of Lamentations even when it seemed that there was no hope left. Let us stand firm in God and trust in Him in good times and in bad, when suffering or well, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Him Whom They Have Pierced

And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplication; and they shall look unto me whom they have pierced; and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his first-born (Zechariah 12:10).

One of the continual themes of the prophets features God’s desire for Israel to come to some real understanding of what they have done. God has great confidence that when Israel does so, they will deeply mourn and lament all that they have done against Him. In many ways, that is what God wants most from Israel: an understanding of past sins so that they can now serve God again.

Zechariah imagines a day when God will again protect Jerusalem from any and all nations that come against her (Zechariah 12:1-9). On that day, when the inhabitants of Jerusalem understand that God has delivered them yet again, they will have the type of realization that eluded their ancestors in the days of Isaiah (cf. Isaiah 1:1-9): they will perceive all the sins they have committed and how they have pierced God with them. They will mourn deeply for their transgression.

One could perhaps identify some moments in history when something of this sort took place– perhaps in the days of the Maccabees– but Zechariah’s image finds its final, thorough fulfillment in the events that surrounded the death of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Jews therefore, because it was the Preparation, that the bodies should not remain on the cross upon the sabbath (for the day of that sabbath was a high day), asked of Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. The soldiers therefore came, and brake the legs of the first, and of the other that was crucified with him: but when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs: howbeit one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and straightway there came out blood and water. And he that hath seen hath borne witness, and his witness is true: and he knoweth that he saith true, that ye also may believe.
For these things came to pass, that the scripture might be fulfilled, “A bone of him shall not be broken.”
And again another scripture saith, “They shall look on him whom they pierced” (John 19:31-37).

We can easily overlay much of what Zechariah has said over this event. The enemies of Israel– indeed, all of mankind– have surrounded Jerusalem as Jesus, the Lamb of God, drinks the full cup of evil and suffering (cf. Ephesians 6:12, Matthew 26:39). Jesus destroys the power of sin and death through suffering His death and, ultimately, obtaining the glory of the resurrection (Romans 8:1-4). On that day, to testify to His death, a Roman soldier pierced Jesus– the Immanuel, God the Son, God in the flesh– with his spear. The soldiers, the women, and the Apostle John looked upon Jesus who was pierced.

Yet where is the outpouring of grace and supplication? While it may be true that some of the women lamented, where is the city wide lament? And how is it that “they” have pierced Jesus when it was really the Roman soldier who pierced Jesus?

The beauty and the power of Zechariah’s image comes from its complete spiritual understanding. It is not just about that one moment and what the Roman soldier does. We do well to ask ourselves– why exactly is Jesus on that cross? Is it really because of the Romans? As it is written:

But God commendeth his own love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

[Jesus], who his own self bare our sins in his body upon the tree, that we, having died unto sins, might live unto righteousness; by whose stripes ye were healed (1 Peter 2:24).

Jesus is on the cross because of our sin. Jesus was wounded because of our transgressions. We may not have physically pierced His flesh on Golgotha on that April day so long ago, but on account of our sins, we, as Israel, have pierced God.

God has poured out upon mankind grace and supplication through Jesus (cf. Romans 5:6-11) to the end that we mourn for our sins and the cost that they demanded– God being pierced on an object of torture and execution. And we are to look upon Him.

For I received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which he was betrayed took bread; and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you: this do in remembrance of me.”
In like manner also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood: this do, as often as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.”
For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink the cup, ye proclaim the Lord’s death till he come (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

We can be the new Jerusalem; we have the opportunity weekly to look with eyes of faith upon Him whom we have pierced by our sin, and it is appropriate for us to mourn, lament, and experience the bitterness that comes from understanding the pain and suffering our sin caused our Lord. In so doing, we are able to do, as the new Israel, what God always wanted out of Israel according to the flesh: an understanding of just what we have done to Him by our sin so that we can turn from them and serve Him according to His will.

It may have taken place physically almost 2000 years ago, but we are still called upon to look at our Savior with eyes of faith and look upon Him whom we have pierced for our sin. Let us do so in lamentation, turning again to life through the Son!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Watch and Pray

“But of that day or that hour knoweth no one, not even the angels in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father. Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is. It is as when a man, sojourning in another country, having left his house, and given authority to his servants, to each one his work, commanded also the porter to watch. Watch therefore: for ye know not when the lord of the house cometh, whether at even, or at midnight, or at cockcrowing, or in the morning; lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch” (Mark 13:32-37).

Humans have a preoccupation with the prospect of the end of the world– or, if nothing else, the end of their particular world.  People who would not otherwise consider religious messages eagerly watch shows speculating on the end of the world based upon all kinds of different “predictions” and the like.  There always seems to be some cause or another for such speculation.  Not long ago it was the turn of the millennium.  Presently many are focused on the end of 2012.  After that there will most assuredly be some other time.

This type of speculation is not foreign to Christianity, and it is certainly not foreign to interpretations of the so-called “Olivet Discourse,” presented in Matthew 24-25, Mark 13, and Luke 21.  All kinds of postulates are made about exactly when the world will end and how based, at least in part, on Jesus’ words in this discussion.

If there is ever a time when it is good for us to be good Bible students, it is certainly when so much speculation is at hand.  Mark’s version makes the context very clear: Jesus has declared that all the stones of the Temple will be toppled (Mark 13:2).  Some of His disciples utter the same questions that haunt people to this very day–  “when shall these things be, and what shall be the sign when these things are all about to be accomplished?” (Mark 13:4).

In context, “these things” represent the Temple and its destruction.  And here we have the ultimate irony of this whole discussion: Jesus’ answer to the questions is not really what the disciples wanted to know.  And it goes a long way to show us that the questions that people most often ask today cannot be answered to their satisfaction!

Jesus goes on to say that there will be false Christs deceiving the people, wars and rumors of wars, nations and kingdoms rising up against one another, earthquakes, and famines (Mark 13:6-8).  Our immediate impulse is to look into the history books and find the precise events concerning which Jesus speaks, and, no doubt, we can find such things.  And that, of course, is Jesus’ point– at what point in human history have there not been false teachers, wars and rumors of wars, nations and kingdoms rising up against each other, earthquakes, and famines?  They are always happening somewhere!

Later Jesus will provide some specific conditions that will be met, and to “get out of Dodge” when the Roman army comes to town (cf. Mark 13:9-23), and predicts the establishment of the Kingdom and the end of the covenant between God and Israel (Mark 13:24-31).

But when?  We have the classic statement: only the Father knows (Mark 13:32).  Much has been made of this statement in terms of Christology, but that is quite separate from the point.  Jesus tells the disciples, point blank, that they will not know exactly when these things will take place (Mark 13:33).  There is no watering down of this idea, no concept that at the last minute a revelation will be given to them.  They simply will not know.

Attempting to ascertain the precise set of conditions and circumstances that will lead to Jesus’ return, therefore, is utterly futile.  If the disciples were not going to know precisely when Jerusalem would be destroyed, why should we believe that anyone is going to know precisely when Jesus will return?

It may seem unbelievable to many, but Jesus’ main point in the “Olivet Discourse” is not to lay out a road map to the apocalypse.  As Peter will say, all things will continue as “normal” until the moment comes (cf. 2 Peter 3:2-12).  True, Jesus does give His disciples some things concerning which they need to be considering and for which they must prepare.  And that, in the end, is the real message.

In declaring that no one will know precisely when these things will take place, He exhorts the disciples to take heed, watch, and pray (Mark 13:33).  He presents the image of the master leaving the house and instructing the doorkeeper to remain awake, since the master’s return may be at any time (Mark 13:34-36).  And Jesus’ universal message, to first century disciples awaiting the judgment on Jerusalem to twenty-first disciples anxious for His return, is to “stay awake” (Mark 13:37)!

This is the thread that runs throughout the whole discourse (Mark 13:5, 9, 13, 23, 33-37).  In the extended version that Matthew provides, the theme is just as evident (Matthew 24:36-25:30).  This is, in fact, the theme that runs throughout all of New Testament eschatology (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:1-10, 1 Peter 4:7-11, 2 Peter 3:11-12, Revelation 2-3, 22:7, 11-12).

As long as God shows patience toward mankind there will be people who will speculate regarding the times and conditions of the Lord’s return.  Do not be deceived into believing any of them.  The “Olivet Discourse” does pave the way, but not in the expected sense.  It is not for us to know when the Lord will return, but the Lord has made many things evident.  He will return.  There will be judgment.  It will happen in God’s good time.  It is not for us to doubt these things or to speculate regarding them.  Instead, we need to be ready.  We must stay awake.  We must live our lives serving God, ready if the Lord returns tomorrow or after another two thousand years.  We must always be ready for the challenges that come with our walk with God, and to stand firm and endure despite them.  Let us avoid the frenzy of folly, and always be on guard for the Lord’s return!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Prophet Over Jerusalem

And when [Jesus] drew nigh, he saw [Jerusalem] and wept over it, saying, “If thou hadst known in this day, even thou, the things which belong unto peace! But now they are hid from thine eyes. For the days shall come upon thee, when thine enemies shall cast up a bank about thee, and compass thee round, and keep thee in on every side, and shall dash thee to the ground, and thy children within thee; and they shall not leave in thee one stone upon another; because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation” (Luke 19:41-44).

This was absolutely not the expected narrative.

There had been rumblings regarding Jesus of Nazareth ever since He was born. Angels had declared that He would be the Son of David. He would redeem Israel. His life seemed to testify to this charge– He healed the sick, raised the dead, and powerfully refuted His opponents. After all of His work in Galilee, Decapolis, and the surrounding regions, He had come to Jerusalem. As He entered town on a colt, fulfilling all that had been spoken, expectations were at a fever pitch. The showdown with the authorities had to be coming. The vindication of Israel was surely around the corner. Pilate and the Romans would not know what hit them!

But while all the Jews fervently desire– and expect– the downfall of the Roman power and the exaltation of Israel, Jerusalem, and the Temple of God, the Messiah Himself weeps and mourns the upcoming devastation of Israel, sack of Jerusalem, and victory of the Romans.

This was not the first time such things had taken place. And the reactions were about the same.

God raised up Jeremiah as a prophet to Judah at the end of the seventh century BCE. Everything seemed great for Judah. God had delivered Jerusalem from the hand of the Assyrians, and as Assyria was declining in power, Judah was re-establishing itself over the lost lands of Israel. Most of the Jews saw a rosy picture ahead of great prosperity and a powerful king in Jerusalem, all thanks to the One True God, the God of Israel.

Yet Jeremiah predicted destruction by the hands of Babylon because of the sin of the people unless they repented (cf. Jeremiah 7). Jeremiah prophesied the unimaginable: YHWH allowing His enemies to triumph over His people and desecrate His Temple. Jeremiah was reviled, and gained no love from his fellow Jews when his message ultimately proved true. The crisis of belief after the destruction of the first Temple was sufficient for the Jews of the day!

Six hundred years later the situation was little different. How could Jesus of Nazareth, claimed to be God’s Messiah and the Redeemer of Israel, predict that the holy city would be destroyed? How could YHWH allow these uncircumcised brutish Romans to triumph over His people and desecrate His Temple?

And yet Jesus proves to be correct. He was not the Messiah the Jews were expecting or, quite frankly, even wanted. He did not come to deliver them from the Romans– He in fact predicts that because of their rejection of Him the Romans will destroy them. He came to deliver them from their sins so that they could overcome in the spiritual battle– the one of much greater importance than the one they wanted to fight (cf. Ephesians 6:10-18).

The Jews were so fervently desiring the end of Roman oppression that they did not perceive the oppression of the Evil One. The Jews were so focused on their hope for a champion that they missed their Messiah. They paid a heavy price when God declared with power the end of the covenant between Him and Israel and the consequences of killing the Son when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and slaughtered the Jews, just as Jesus foretold (cf. Luke 20:9-18). While Jesus was more than a prophet, He still was a prophet, and the only One to speak of the destruction of Jerusalem for a second time in advance. Such is a powerful testimony to who He really was!

It is easy for us today also to focus on our own battles and the world around us and forget about the spiritual battle of great importance. We would like to imagine that God’s Messiah would be the champion of our causes. For too many, Jesus is not the Messiah that they would expect or even want. But that is not for us to decide. God set forth plainly in the Law, Psalms, and Prophets exactly who Jesus would be and what He would accomplish, and He fulfilled them all (cf. Luke 24:44-47). He came to show us how to live, manifesting the true image of God and died so that we could die to sin and live to righteousness, and was raised in power on the third day, and now reigns as Lord (cf. 1 Peter 2:20-25, 1 John 2:1-6). Let us not make the same mistake as those who have gone on before us and seek a Messiah of our own desire. Let us accept Jesus as the Messiah, and do His will, lest He weep and mourn over us also!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Purpose

And it came to pass, when the days were well-nigh come that he should be received up, he stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51).

The time had come.

For over two years Jesus taught His disciples and provided many demonstrations of His power. They now recognized that He was the promised Messiah, the Christ of God (Luke 9:20). He made known to them what was about to take place: He would go to Jerusalem, suffer many things, be rejected, be killed, and on the third day be raised up (Luke 9:22).

It was time to accomplish God’s ultimate purpose, and Jesus did not shrink from it. He set His face to go to Jerusalem, knowing precisely what would take place.

It is evident that Jesus led a life of purpose. How else could He have accomplished as much as He did during His short time on the earth (cf. John 21:25)? He knew the Father’s will (John 6:44-48), and He made it His purpose to accomplish it (John 4:54, John 5:30). He did not shrink from fulfilling that will, even when it was quite difficult and led to extreme suffering (Matthew 26:38-39). He fulfilled His purposes, and was exalted, and given the name that is above every name (Matthew 5:17-18, John 19:30, Philippians 2:5-11).

As Jesus led a life of purpose, He calls those who would follow Him to also lead lives of purpose. While we formerly might have lived according to our own desires, with our own purposes (or a lack thereof) in mind, now we are to live according to His purpose, which is for us to die to self and live to Him (Romans 6:15-22, Galatians 2:20). When Jesus says to go and show mercy, love, and compassion, we find opportunities to show love, mercy, and compassion (Luke 6:36, Ephesians 4:32). When Jesus tells us to no longer sin, and to avoid and abhor sin, we do so (Romans 12:9, Galatians 5:19-21). When Jesus directs us to take up our crosses, denying ourselves, and to follow Him, we must do so (Luke 9:23-26)! If we desire to share in His glory, we must first share in His purposes and sufferings (Romans 8:17-18).

Jesus’ purpose for our lives is not easy. It is difficult, challenging, and calls for much suffering. It would be easier to live an aimless life, as so many others do. The cost would be a lot less in this life if we rejected Jesus and lived according to our own passions and desires. The end of the purposeless or selfish live is death, condemnation, and torment (Romans 6:23, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9)!

Therefore, just as Jesus set His face toward the earthly Jerusalem, so we must set our face toward the spiritual Jerusalem. Just as Jesus experienced great suffering and trial in order to enter glory, so we will experience suffering and trial to enter glory. It will all be more than worth it in the end, but it will only come for those who have given themselves over to Christ and live for His purposes. Follow Christ’s purpose for you today, set your face toward the heavenly Jerusalem, and be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry