Tell Us Plainly!

The Jews therefore came round about him, and said unto him, “How long dost thou hold us in suspense? If thou art the Christ, tell us plainly” (John 10:24).

The questions and the suspense had finally boiled over; a confrontation proved necessary. The Israelites wanted clarity. Is Jesus of Nazareth really claiming to be the Messiah? They wanted to hear Him tell them so plainly.

Jesus was yet again in Jerusalem, this time for Hanukkah or the Feast of Dedication, and He was walking in the Temple (John 10:22-23). The Jewish people of Jerusalem had heard Jesus teach them before and had heard of the many miracles which He wrought (John 5:1-10:21). Questions constantly surrounded Jesus and His teachings: is He the Christ? Do the rulers know this? Would the Christ do more miracles than Jesus had done? Is He mad? Yet what about His teachings (cf. John 7:26-27, 31, 10:19-21)? How Jesus was going about doing things led to more questions than answers, and the Jewish people could wait no longer. When they found Him at the Temple in Jerusalem, they confronted Him and asked Him pointedly: are you the Messiah, the Christ, the One God promised to send to redeem Israel? Yes or no? They wanted a plain answer. Was that too much to ask?

Jesus does not just say “yes” or “no”; He points out that He has given them plenty of reason to believe because of the works He has done (John 10:25). He then castigates those Israelites because they are not of His flock since they do not believe; the Jews pick up stones to stone Him because He made Himself out to be God (John 10:26-33). This seems to be a theme in John’s Gospel: some Jews who believe or who directly ask Jesus about who He is become those who pick up stones to stone Him for what they perceive to be blasphemy (cf. John 8:31-59).

Yet this interaction between Jesus and these Jewish people brings up a good question, one asked frequently about Jesus and the way He conducts Himself in the Gospels: why would Jesus not tell them plainly? Is He trying to hide something? If He is the Messiah, the Christ, would He not want all the people to know it and proclaim it upon the rooftops? Why does Jesus seem to be at least somewhat evasive or ambivalent about declaring His Messiahship clearly?

Such questions are understandable coming from us humans; we see things the way we see them and it is often hard for us to consider the matter from another perspective. But Jesus answers as He does and conducts Himself as He does for very good reasons that are sometimes easy to miss. In John 2:24-25 it is said that Jesus did not trust Himself to humans because He knew what humans were about. This is especially true with the question the Jewish people had: “are you the Christ?”

Jesus knew well what they meant by “the Christ”; they had particular expectations about what the Messiah would be and do. Based on their understanding of the prophets they looked forward to a Davidic descendant who would ride into Jerusalem in triumph, raise an army, defeat the pagan Roman forces, and inaugurate a renewed Davidic kingdom centered in Jerusalem. From this perspective we can understand the bafflement of the Jewish people when it came to Jesus; He was not about re-establishing a physical Davidic kingdom as in days past. The Romans were not even His real enemy! But we can also understand why Jesus could not have just simply said, “Yes, I am the Messiah,” for then the people would hail Him as king and attempt to force Him to become the Messiah of their desires and understanding. Yet God’s plan was not the plan of Israel; they had not put the message of the prophets together properly.

Jesus’ response is quite instructive. Jesus points His Jewish questioners back to the things He had done and how they bear witness to Jesus’ Messiahship (John 10:25). If they recognized that the true signs of the Messiah had been done by Jesus, they would have recognized Jesus as the Messiah, and would have adjusted their expectations and understanding of the Messiah’s mission and purpose accordingly. This is the direction in which Simon Peter and the Apostles head in John 6:67-69: they may not have full understanding of what is going on, but they have come to believe that Jesus is the Holy One of God who has the words of eternal life. Jesus’ message to the Jewish people may sound harsh but rings true: they are not of His flock, for they have not proven willing to set aside their expectations so as to be able to see what God is doing through Jesus, and as long as they cannot get past the expectation for all things to be done as they imagine they should, they will never be able to understand Jesus’ true identity and purpose (John 10:26-39).

To this day people frequently make similar demands of God or His people. They expect for God or His people to answer their questions simply and plainly and really are demanding for God and His work to conform to their perspective and expectations. For good reason it is rarely possible to give such questions easy “yes” or “no” answers; the very question itself or the way the question is phrased often belies a improper view or expectation of things. To this day people suffer from the same problem as those Jewish people did so long ago: they see things the way they see them, they have their expectations, and prove rather unwilling to question those assumptions and expectations. Yet whomever we are or whatever we believe we must recognize that God’s ways and thoughts are higher than our ways and thoughts, and therefore we must yield our expectations, perspective, and understanding to His (Isaiah 55:8-9). There are likely many things going on beyond our comprehension, either ever or at least for the time being, and so we are left with the same conundrum as the Jewish people experienced during Jesus’ ministry. Do we put our trust in Jesus of Nazareth on the basis of His works and teachings and in so doing radically revise our expectations of how God is working in the world, or do we continue to find reasons to doubt Jesus’ Messiahship because who He is and what He is doing does not make sense with everything we have ever heard?

At some point we all reach the point of divergence in the path, and we must choose whether we will trust in God or trust in our perception of things, or, as the Apostle Paul put it, whether we will walk by faith or by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). We can come to God and demand that He answer our questions plainly, but we should not expect that answer to be simple or the one we would like to hear. Instead we do better to entrust ourselves to God, confident that even though we may not be able to make sense of everything, He can and does. Let us trust in God in Christ and not ourselves!

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

The Bereans

And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Beroea: who when they were come thither went into the synagogue of the Jews. Now these were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of the mind, examining the Scriptures daily, whether these things were so. Many of them therefore believed; also of the Greek women of honorable estate, and of men, not a few (Acts 17:10-12).

The Bereans have received a lot of “press” on the basis of the six verses that mention them in Acts 17:10-15. A few cities have been named after the town; not a few religious groups use “Berean” as the descriptor for various congregations.

They have earned their favorable views for a good reason– as Luke says, they were “more noble” than the Jews of Thessalonica, because they “received the word with all readiness of the mind, examining the Scriptures daily, whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). On account of this attitude, many believed in the Gospel message; even some of the Greek women– many of wealth– and men came to the knowledge of the truth and were saved (Acts 17:12). On account of their example, a “Berean” is one who has a love for what is true, willing to investigate Scripture to determine what is truly accurate according to their message. A “Berean” is one not to be swayed by public opinion or received tradition if they are found at variance with truth. There is a nobility of mind among “Bereans” that is most exemplary and worthy of emulation.

The exemplary nature of the example of the Bereans is both a warning and a sober reminder for us. In the ideal world, the Bereans would not be notable– they would just be doing what everyone automatically should be doing. Everyone should be willing to question their presuppositions and their received understanding of things in light of truth. Everyone should be willing to give the Gospel message a fair hearing. When the Gospel message is given a fair hearing, uncolored by prejudice against the message or the messenger, its truth is hard to escape and easy to obey, as the Bereans demonstrate. The problem is, of course, that we do not live in an ideal world. Luke takes the time to tell us of the example of the Bereans because Paul’s reception there was utterly unlike the reception he received in most synagogues. Yes, it is true that some of the Jews in any given synagogue would come to the understanding of the truth and be saved, but more often than not, the Jews would become fierce opponents of Paul and his message (cf. Acts 13, 14, 17, 20, etc.). The Bereans were not automatically wedded to their traditions– they were willing to hear the word Paul preached, to investigate the Scriptures to see if the message he presented was consistent with what had been revealed, and were willing to change their ways because of that message. That is why Luke tells us– it is a wonderful abnormality, but an abnormality nevertheless. Most of the Jews and Greeks did not prove to be as noble minded as the Bereans.

The same is true today, and it is a sword that cuts two ways. We should not be surprised when we proclaim the Gospel and most people to whom we speak do not share the Bereans’ mindset. The power of cultural skepticism and suspicion of inherited authority still runs deep in American culture, and despite the fact that true Christianity has been rarely lived and properly applied, there is a general feeling that Christianity has been tried and found wanting. Many others will provide lip service to the message of Christianity, but when it comes to the nitty gritty of applying the lessons of Christ to life, prove far less enthusiastic about the whole matter. There is a great lack of the Berean mindset in our culture; very few prove willing and able to give the message a fair hearing, to be willing to question every assumption and every form of skepticism, and to be willing to change their ways when convicted that their views and ways are at variance with the truth. In fact, the very idea that there is something out there that can be called “the truth” is a hotly contested subject in our day!

Yet this is not just true of those who are “out there” in the world. Do you think that the Jews of Thessalonica would have agreed with Luke’s analysis? Of course not! They would have protested strongly. They would have attempted to justify their opposition to Paul and the Gospel which he taught in terms of holding firm to the truths taught by Moses and handed down by their elders ever since. They most likely believed themselves to be noble and holding firm to what is true.

This is not to challenge or dispute Luke’s analysis, for Luke has spoken truly. It is to remind us that, if asked, most everyone would declare that they have the Bereans’ mindset. Everyone thinks they are being noble, objective, and striving to hold firm to truth. But merely declaring oneself to be akin to the Bereans– or to describe one’s congregation as Berean– does not automatically make it so. Even among religious people, the true Berean mindset is depressingly rare. There are still plenty who are wedded to inherited tradition, cultural norms, or some form of experiential lesson that are at variance with truth. A spirit of questioning and investigation is rarely appreciated and, sadly, too often squelched or thrust out.

Truth has no fear of investigation; the Gospel message has always welcomed its detractors to try to show its error, and those detractors have failed for two millennia. Those who are noble minded will maintain the Scriptures as the anchor of truth and will compare any other message to it. Whatever is true according to Scripture they will embrace and promote; whatever is inconsistent with that message will be rejected. The time is well nigh for us all to have the mindset of the Bereans, not in pretense or name, but in deed and truth. Let us be noble as the Bereans, searching the Scriptures to see what is so, and follow after Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Profit of the Many

Give no occasions of stumbling, either to Jews, or to Greeks, or to the church of God: even as I also please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of the many, that they may be saved (1 Corinthians 10:32-33).

To say that we live in a self-aggrandizing world would be an understatement. It certainly seems as if most people are out for “#1,” and “#1” is not God or family. According to worldly standards, we must work toward our own best interest, advancing our own agenda, because if we do not stick up for ourselves or try to get a bigger piece of the pie, then others will come in and take what could be ours. Television is now dominated by oversized personalities, and while they may have certain ideologies or causes, much of what they are attempting to do boils down to self-promotion. The more coverage– positive or negative– the greater the “media personality,” and the greater the benefit.

The world of first century Corinth was probably not much less based upon self-aggrandizement, and therefore Paul’s message to the Corinthians must have sounded as shocking and radical then as it does now. Paul does not call believers to self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, or even concern for one’s own agenda. Instead, Paul calls believers to not cause offense or stumbling to others. They are to be like he is, not seeking his own profit, but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved. Our goal should not be to please ourselves, but to please others.

In context, Paul addresses how the believers in Corinth should handle a situation in which they have been informed by a well-meaning pagan that the food they are eating together was sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 10:14-33). Had the pagan said nothing, there would have been no difficulty– everything belongs to God, idols have no real substantive existence, and food is food (1 Corinthians 10:27). But if he does inform the believer that it is meat sacrificed to an idol, then the believer ought to abstain from eating, not because he would violate his own conscience, but on account of the conscience of the pagan (1 Corinthians 10:28-29). The believer should not be giving the impression that he is honoring any form of pagan idolatry!

But Paul knows that he is walking on a razor thin wire. Jews consider meat sacrificed to an idol abhorrent, no matter the circumstance; Greeks eat it without any concern whatsoever. The church of God at that time is made up of both groups, and 1 Corinthians 8 has already established how the matter of eating meat sacrificed to idols has been contentious there! Therefore, Paul feels compelled to lay down these principles. Yes, his liberty should not be determined by another’s conscience (1 Corinthians 10:29). Since God has not condemned, in truth, Paul should not be denounced for eating meat sacrificed to an idol if he partook with thankfulness (1 Corinthians 10:30). Nevertheless, in all that believers do– eating and drinking, or whatever– all should be done for God’s glory and honor (1 Corinthians 10:31). This is why believers are to act without offense to any, seeking to please everyone in what is done, seeking the profit of many (1 Corinthians 10:32-33).

A word must be given about the idea of “pleasing everyone.” Paul is not saying that we should sin against our own consciences or against God in an attempt to please others; this is not a call for compromising God’s standards at all (cf. Romans 14:23, Galatians 5:17-24, etc.). Instead, Paul is advocating a conciliatory approach toward other people, seeking, whenever possible, the path of least resistance and greatest acceptance, while remaining within the law of Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:21).

In short, we should not be seeking to be ornery or difficult. We must not be obnoxiously asserting our liberties and “rights.” Instead, we must give thought to do whatever we can do seek the spiritual welfare of the many, and not ourselves. As Paul told the Philippians in Philippians 2:3-4, believers should count others more significant than themselves in humility, seeking not only his own good but also that of his neighbor. As Christians, our goal should be the same goal as God’s– that all men may come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). As Christ’s representatives, we reflect upon Him, for good or ill (Matthew 5:13-16). Therefore, we cannot delude ourselves into thinking that all we need to worry about is ourselves and our own salvation. We are expressly charged to seek the profit of as many others as we possibly can.

This seems like a pretty restrictive fence– we must not provide occasions of stumbling for the Jews, the Greeks, or the church. We can understand this today in terms of those who tend to at least look like they are self-righteous and sanctimonious in their knowledge of right and wrong, those who are of the world and who think as the world, and those who are of God. It is very easy to start pointing fingers at any of these groups: the sanctimonious are easy targets because of their hypocrisy, the unbelievers are easy to frown upon because of their ungodliness and immorality, and it is easy to bear down upon God’s people because of our love and our desire for us all to better reflect Christ. Yet, in the end, we must not do so. We must seek the profit of the sanctimonious, the unbeliever, and the fellow believer, and to do so at the same time!

This is quite counter-intuitive and counter-cultural; it always has been, and as long as the earth continues to exist it most likely will be. America’s myths of self-sufficiency, self-reliance, and the icon of the “self made man” do not make this any easier. Ultimately, however, our goals must not be the same as those of the world around us. Many will not understand why we would live thus, but we do it to please the God who redeemed us. We must remember, at all times, that Jesus came not to please Himself but to please others, that He did not seek His own profit, but the profit of us all, and that while His cross is reckoned as a stumbling-block, it is only thus for those who refuse to believe– in truth, the cross kills the hostility and allows the Jew and the Greek to be one in the church of God (cf. Matthew 20:28, Romans 15:2-3, 1 Peter 2:1-8, Ephesians 2:11-18).

It is hard work to please others and not ourselves. It is challenging to not provide occasions of stumbling. But let us remember that as God loved us and gave His Son for us when we were alienated and unlovable, so we must love our fellow man, even if he seems unlovable (Romans 5:6-11). Let us not seek our own interest, but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Willful Blindness

“Therefore speak I to them in parables; because seeing they see not, and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And unto them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, which saith,
‘By hearing ye shall hear, and shall in no wise understand; And seeing ye shall see, and shall in no wise perceive: For this people’s heart is waxed gross, And their ears are dull of hearing, And their eyes they have closed; Lest haply they should perceive with their eyes, And hear with their ears, And understand with their heart, And should turn again, And I should heal them'” (Matthew 13:13-16).

Jesus’ teaching style is not exactly what one might expect out of the Messiah, the Son of God. As the Word, active in the creation, He through whom all things subsist, He understands the greatest mysteries of the universe (John 1:1-3, Hebrews 1:3). He has come to proclaim the coming of the eternal Kingdom of God (Matthew 4:23). One might expect some kind of lofty discourse or some compelling argument. Instead, Jesus talks about farmers, crops, merchants, merchandise, women’s work, and similar things.

While it may seem strange to us, Jesus knows precisely what He is doing. While He speaks of farming, house work, matters of trade, and the like, He is really not addressing those matters. He’s providing marching orders in code: suffer loss of everything for the Kingdom. Not all will hear; not all who hear will endure. Do not be surprised when some doing the Devil’s work are in the midst of the saints. God is more interested in humble repentance than sanctimonious professions of righteousness.

So why does Jesus seem to “beat around the bush” and provide these messages in a figure? Yes, it was predicted that He would do so (Matthew 13:35; cf. Psalm 78:2). But there was even a reason why it was predicted that it would be so, and it involves the sad history of the Jews.

Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah (Matthew 13:13-15; cf. Isaiah 6:9-10). God comissions Isaiah to proclaim the message of deliverance and healing to the people. Yet the preaching of that message will not lead to repentance; God knows that it will only serve to further harden their hearts. In the Hebrew in Isaiah 6:9-10, it is the message being delivered that “makes fat” their hearts, “makes heavy” their eyes, and “makes shut” their ears. And, indeed, the people close off their senses. They do not listen to Isaiah’s message of nonintervention in international affairs and repentance regarding injustice, oppression, immorality, and idolatry at home. And Isaiah– and the people– live to see the wrath of God manifest in the Assyrian juggernaut, devastating Aram and Israel while leaving Jerusalem alone unscathed in Judah (Isaiah 1-10). It was not a pretty picture.

Seven hundred years later things had not changed too much for the better. While the Jews may not have been committing the particular sins of their ancestors, their eyes seemed no more inclined to see God’s work, nor were their ears much more inclined to hear God’s message. Jesus quotes the Isaianic prophecy directly at the Jews of His day (Matthew 13:14-15/Mark 4:10-12/Luke 8:10); Paul will later do so to the Jews at Rome (Acts 28:24-30).

In the Greek now, the prediction involves the condition of the heart. Obviously the Jews can “see” and “hear” what Jesus says and does. But they do not draw the appropriate conclusions. They should understand who Jesus is and the value of the message He proclaims, but it would be foreign to them no matter how it would be presented.

Some think that Jesus’ methodology might be unfair. How can He know whether or not His message would be understood before proclaiming it? Is that not unfair to the Jews?

We must remember that many of the Jews not only have no interest in the type of Kingdom of which Jesus proclaims but are even actively working to destroy Him. Anything He says can and will be used against Him, no matter how much the message is misunderstood or misconstrued. An excellent example comes from John 2:19, where Jesus says, “destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews imagined that He was talking about the edifice in Jerusalem (John 2:20), although He really was referring to His body (John 2:21). Years later, at Jesus’ trial, what is the evidence for the charge against Him? “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another made without hands'” (Mark 14:58). Their testimony in this did not even agree (Mark 14:59), and for good reason: Jesus never said it. He never said He would destroy the “Temple made with hands.” The memory of the event was entirely confused– and the source of the confusion was not Jesus. The confusion came from the worldview and perspective of the Jews hearing Him and their expectations and what they wanted to hear versus what He actually said!

And this is why Jesus speaks in parables. Even if they had an inkling of what He was really talking about– possibly quite doubtful, for even His disciples, who were more sympathetic to Him, needed them all explained (Mark 4:34)– what could they do with it? What kind of case can be made against someone who talks about crops, bread, pearls, fish, and the like? It was the perfect vehicle for Jesus’ messages: innocuous and innocent on the surface, deeply subversive and powerful in application underneath.

It was all necessary because the Jews wanted their Messiah according to their image and following their ideas of who the Messiah would be. As the Israelites of Isaiah’s day had little use for the declarations of the prophet, so many of the Jews of Jesus’ day had little use for a Messiah of a spiritual Kingdom who left Rome’s control of Jerusalem intact. They did not want to hear because it did not meet their expectations.

This challenge is not limited to the Jews, and it is not limited to the ancient world. Far too often people to this day refuse to listen to God in Christ because the message is unwanted, it does not fit their view of the world and how it operates, and it poses unwelcome challenges. Believers can easily fall into this trap themselves, preferring a particular view or perspective on Jesus that is heavily distorted, and dispense the true message of Jesus Christ with trite sayings and misguided arguments. There is no lack of willful blindness and deafness in our world today!

It is better, then, for us to be disciples in the same mold as the disciples present when Jesus spoke these words. Everyone comes to Jesus with their own ideas and expectations; those who will be found to be true servants of God are the ones who are willing to radically change those views and expectations based on what Christ the Lord says (1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Galatians 2:20, Colossians 2:1-9). Let us not reject His words; let us not create a God or a Christ in our own image, with our perspective to serve, but instead allow our image to be conformed to the true and Risen Christ (Romans 8:29)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Christ Crucified

Seeing that Jews ask for signs, and Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified, unto Jews a stumblingblock, and unto Gentiles foolishness; but unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).

When people hear about the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire in the first few centuries of this era, it is easy to think that either there was not much competition or people were just more ready to accept belief in Jesus as the Christ. This is the way that many who wish to look down upon the faith want to present the situation too, promoting a move away from “primitive faith” in our more “enlightened age.”

In reality, however, the first century was a time of great philosophical engagement. The Platonic, Peripatetic (Aristotelian), Stoic, Cynic, Epicurean, and other schools of philosophy flourished, promoted their views, and challenged one another. “Mystery religions” involving exclusive groups and secret rites were popular. There was also interest in the Jewish religion, among others, and the Jews of the first century were very fervent about their religion and their identity.

Christianity, therefore, did not grow without any meaningful opposition. In fact, for many, the only thing that would unify them would be their shared opposition to Christianity!

As Paul indicates, much of the opposition to Christianity came as a result of its central tenets– Jesus as the Crucified and Risen Christ (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). This idea was not wholeheartedly embraced uncritically by the majority establishment of its day– far from it! Such ideas were as “preposterous” then as they are often reckoned now!

To the Jews, Christ crucified is a stumbling-block. The image comes from Isaiah 8:14 and applied by Paul to Jesus in Romans 9:32-33, and it is very appropriate. The Jews were looking forward to the future Messiah as the King of physical Israel who would deliver them from oppression, restore the kingdom of David, and thus defeat the Romans and establish a Jewish world power. But the idea of the Christ– the Messiah– as crucified is entirely contrary to those intentions, especially the Christ crucified on a Roman cross! Thus, while looking forward to the coming Messiah and waiting to see His signs, Jesus came and fulfilled all that was written of the Christ, and the Jews did not receive Him (John 1:11, Matthew 5:17-18, Luke 24:44). The Jews tripped over the Christ they were not expecting, and their impending doom as a nation was sealed (Matthew 24:1-36, Romans 11:7-10).

To the Gentiles, particularly those well-versed in Greek philosophy and Greek thinking, Christ crucified and raised from the dead is foolishness. Many Athenians mocked when they heard of Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 17:32). It was folly because the idea of God coming in the flesh, let alone to die, let alone to be raised again (cf. Philippians 2:5-11), was utterly contrary to everything they believed. If God or gods existed, they certainly would not demean themselves to the point of becoming human. Even if such a possibility were imaginable, no divine being of any standing would suffer to live as a peasant and die as a common criminal on a Roman cross, for humility was no virtue to the Greek. Beyond all of this, the idea of the resurrection of the dead was preposterous. Not only did the dead remain dead, and not only were there no instances of the dead being raised, but why would anyone want to be raised again in the flesh? The Greeks imagined that the state of bliss would be found in a disembodied spirit form; the body was a hindrance, not a help. According to the Gentile worldview, Christ crucified and raised simply did not make any sense.

Notice that Paul does not deny this. Paul understands that to the Jew who thinks like Jews, Christ crucified is a stumbling-block; to a Greek well-versed in their philosophies, Christ crucified is sheer folly. Paul knows and confesses that the Jews look for signs but not according to the nature of Christ; the Gentiles seek after wisdom, but it is not the wisdom rooted in God. The Jew seeks the worldly Messiah; the Greek seeks the wisdom of the world. To both, nothing can be more ridiculous than Christ crucified.

And that is precisely the point: to the ways of the world Christianity always has been, is today, and will always remain ridiculous. God as a Jewish peasant executed by the Romans as a common criminal only to be raised from the dead? It is not as if this story has only recently become difficult for many to accept!

In fact, Paul embraces the “foolishness” of the message of Christ crucified. He speaks of how it was God’s pleasure to save people through this “foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:21).

Unfortunately, this passage is often used to attack Christianity as anti-intellectual: after all, Paul says that Christianity is “foolishness” that militates against those with knowledge and wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18-20), and that only those who are poor and of low station believed (1 Corinthians 1:26). But that is not what Paul is saying! It is true that Christianity was more appealing to those of lower class and lower station, and Paul admits as much in 1 Corinthians 1:26, but there were some of the upper classes and the intelligent who believed. It is not that Christianity is anti-intellectual or truly foolish– instead, it is only anti-intellectual according to the worldly version of intellectualism, and only folly according to the world’s definition of wisdom.

This is why Paul says that God’s foolishness is wiser than men, as God’s weakness is stronger than men (1 Corinthians 1:25)– not that God is really foolish or weak, but that He is so completely superior to mankind that whatever folly and weakness could be perceived in Him is still greater than the wisdom and strength of men!

Intellectualism and worldly wisdom are seductive. Not a few have thought of themselves far more highly than they should have on account of their great learning. Yet, as Paul shows, one can master worldly knowledge and wisdom and yet will still not be able to approach the understanding and strength of God.

We hear the same messages today that Paul no doubt heard in the first century: impressive sounding arguments about the impossibility of Christianity that are, in fact, quite hollow and baseless. Mockery and derision of the faith has been a challenging weapon both then and now. Yet behind all the bluster and the argument remains the fact that the reason Christianity has been vexing to its opponents for all of these years is that it suggests an entirely different way of looking at the world than worldly knowledge or wisdom. Christianity suggests that there is a Creator God to whom we are all subject, and He has established His purposes for mankind in Jesus and the Scriptures (John 1:1-18, 2 Timothy 3:16-17). In Jesus God manifested His qualities– love, humility, compassion, mercy, peace– and they were so disturbing to the establishment of the day that they had Him executed and those who followed Him persecuted. There’s an intractable conflict between the values of God in Christ and the values of the world (James 4:4, 1 John 2:15-17), and one cannot abide in the wisdom of the world and be pleasing to God.

Christ crucified and raised. According to the ways of the world, this is sheer folly. It does not make sense unless one is willing to reject the ways of the world and trust in the ways of God. Those who are willing to have such faith in God understand His power in Christ and will endure the criticisms and the charges of foolishness. Let us not despair because the critics of the faith assail it as folly; they have been doing so for millennia. Let us instead remain humble, recognizing that God is always stronger and wiser than men, and depend on Him and His Son for our deliverance!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus the Temple

Jesus answered and said unto them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
The Jews therefore said, “Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou raise it up in three days?”
But he spake of the temple of his body (John 2:19-21).

The carpenter’s Son seemed to really overdo it this time.

The Temple in Jerusalem was the greatest building project of the age. The second Temple, built in the days of the Persians, was not much of a spectacle (Ezra 3:12), but Herod wanted to project his power, his “Jewishness,” and his glory, and in the eighteenth year of his reign, around 20-19 BCE, began to rebuild the Temple (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 15.11.1). While the Holy Place itself was done after a year and a half, work on other buildings would continue for a long time. As the text in John says, 46 years later, thus around 27 CE, it was still not entirely finished. According to Josephus, it would only be completed in the days of Agrippa and Florus, around 64 CE, 84 years after it had been started (ibid., 20.9.7). It was a marvelous piece of architecture according to all accounts (cf. Mark 13:1).

And yet here is Jesus of Nazareth saying, “destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

It seems so ridiculous– how could such a thing be? The Jews are quite dismissive. His disciples are more than likely confused (cf. John 2:22). Ultimately, a garbled account of this event will be used as an accusation against Jesus at His trial (Mark 14:58).

We know that if He so desired Jesus could have done what everyone around Him had imagined Him saying– through God’s power He could have destroyed Herod’s Temple and to re-establish it three days later. But this is not what Jesus meant. This is not the sign that Jesus will show to indicate His Messiahship (cf. John 2:18). As usual, Jesus is getting to the heart of the matter.

What is a temple, anyway? A temple, as Jesus knew well, is the place where people believe a divinity dwells. The original Temple in Jerusalem was most often called the “House of YHWH,” for it was where God established that His name would dwell (cf. 1 Kings 9:3). The Temple’s value had everything to do with God’s Presence. If God’s Presence was in the Temple, then the Temple served its purpose. If God’s Presence departed from the Temple, it was just another building.

Yet now something greater than the Temple was present (cf. Matthew 12:6). The Word, being with God and God Himself, became flesh and dwelt among mankind (John 1:1, 14). God’s presence was “in” Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:18, Luke 4:1, 14). He was the true Immanuel, “God with us” (Matthew 1:22). The body of His flesh contained the presence of God!

Therefore, Jesus is not speaking of Herod’s Temple when He makes His grand declaration of John 2:19. Instead, He is talking, as John says, about the “temple of His body” (John 2:21). Those very Jews would work to accomplish the sign: they would put Jesus to death, destroying that temple (cf. Matthew 26-27, John 18-19), and three days later, God raised Him up in the resurrection (Matthew 28, John 20). All had come to pass.

John indicates that the disciples remembered His saying after His resurrection and believed firmly in Jesus (John 2:22). They now understood Jesus’ powerful message, echoed in John 4:20-24. Temples were no longer about physical structures– in Jesus we return to the original idea of the temple, the location in which God’s Presence dwells. What Jesus said about His physical body now holds true for His spiritual body. The spiritual Body of Christ is His church (Ephesians 5:23, Colossians 1:18, 24), and the church is described in a figure as a temple (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 1 Peter 2:4-5). This is only possible because the church represents the body of Christ, the dwelling place of God.

Paul goes further in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, declaring that Christians are temples of the Holy Spirit Who is within them, and thus they are to glorify God in their bodies. What was true of Jesus then is now, in a sense, true of us if we are His disciples. God’s Presence is said to dwell with believers (Romans 8:9-11, 1 Corinthians 6:19-20), and thus we are temples ourselves. Let us be sanctified in God’s Presence and seek after His will!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Prophet in His Hometown

And all bare him witness, and wondered at the words of grace which proceeded out of his mouth: and they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
And he said unto them, “Doubtless ye will say unto me this parable, ‘Physician, heal thyself: whatsoever we have heard done at Capernaum, do also here in thine own country.'”
And he said, “Verily I say unto you, No prophet is acceptable in his own country. But of a truth I say unto you, There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and unto none of them was Elijah sent, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”
And they were all filled with wrath in the synagogue, as they heard these things; and they rose up, and cast him forth out of the city, and led him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong (Luke 4:22-29).

Humans have a strange affinity to their place of birth and/or raising. Even though, in truth, dirt is dirt, and all the earth belongs to God, we have an attachment of sorts to the land where we are “from.”

Oftentimes this affinity is a result of the comfort we feel in regards to “home”– a place where we were known by people and things did not seem so scary or daunting or big. While there can be comfort from such familiarity, there is also the other edge of that particular sword– familiarity can breed contempt.

There is in all of our lives a place where we go and we are still a small child– or at least we are made to feel that way. It is entirely natural: when we remember someone at a particular age, it is very easy to keep remembering them as being that age despite the fact that they grew up. It is part of yet another generational cycle.

In these terms Nazareth of the first century was little different than any other community. It would not have been a large community, and there is little doubt that everyone would know everyone else– and, more likely than not, everyone else’s business.

It was in this community that Jesus, the Son of God, was raised (cf. Luke 2:39-40, 51-52). The townspeople would have known Him from the days when He was a baby. They would see Him grow up alongside His half-brothers and half-sisters (Matthew 13:55-56).

Then Jesus began to do mighty works after His baptism and temptation in Capernaum and in other parts of Galilee (Luke 4:14-15). After some time He returns to “home” in Nazareth.

His fellow inhabitants of Nazareth were certainly astounded at what they were seeing and hearing– but it was not, on the whole, paired with true faith. Instead, they marveled that it was Jesus of all people doing these things! The same Jesus who was the son of their carpenter Joseph, the Jesus who grew up before their very eyes. Surely Jesus was not guilty of sin or any malfeasance as many a teenager has done, but nevertheless, when they see and hear the Man Jesus, they remember the Child Jesus. Because they had always known Jesus they did not believe (Matthew 13:58).

Jesus rebukes them sharply for this disbelief, condemning both them and Israel as a whole in the process. Since they would not believe He did not bother demonstrating His power (cf. Matthew 13:58, Luke 4:23-24). He then presents two pieces of evidence to strike at the “soft spot” of Israel– Elijah residing with the widow of Zarephath and Elisha healing Naaman the Syrian (1 Kings 17:8-24, 2 Kings 5:1-27). Jesus rightly points out that there were widows and lepers in Israel in those days, but God only provided relief to those who would trust in Him– and they happened to be outsiders, a Canaanite and an Aramean, respectively.

This is too much for the people of Nazareth– not only has Jesus become “uppity,” He also is speaking in censorious terms to His fellow townspeople. They want to push Him over a cliff, but it is not yet His time.

A prophet is not acceptable in his own country– this is the takeaway from Jesus’ time not just in Nazareth but also with the Jews in general. Jesus attracted large audiences in Galilee in general but not in Nazareth. Many of the poor and dispossessed and sinful would listen to Jesus while the religious authorities despised Him. And as the message of His Gospel would go out into the world it would find softer hearts among the nations than among the Jews (cf. Acts 13:46-48, 28:24-28). There may be “comfort” in home, but that comfort can also lead to contempt!

We believers suffer from such things also. It is often most difficult to reach our closest friends or family with the Gospel, for they remember us as when we were smaller or when we were not acting as we should, and the word is not respected. It is many times difficult for a preacher to preach the Word in the city in which he was raised– the congregation remembers him when he was little and may not give due reverence to the truth of the message he preaches. It is also many times difficult to reach our fellow Americans with the Gospel because they, as the Jews, have believed themselves to be the people of God for so long that there is contempt for any attempt to point out difficulties or challenges or for any attempt to exhort people to return to their Creator God.

A disciple is not greater than his master (cf. Matthew 10:24), and so it is with Jesus and ourselves. There are times when we will not be heard because of people’s familiarity with us as the messengers. And, if we are honest, there have been times when we have held others in contempt or in less respectful manner because we are quite familiar with them. Nevertheless, let us persevere, looking toward Jesus, and always being willing to humble ourselves so as to receive His grace!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Fig Tree Religion

And on the morrow, when they were come out from Bethany, [Jesus] hungered. And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find anything thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for it was not the season of figs.
And he answered and said unto it, “No man eat fruit from thee henceforward for ever.”
And his disciples heard it (Mark 11:12-14).

The long-awaited time had come. Jesus of Nazareth, believed by many to be the Messiah, the Christ of God, had entered Jerusalem in triumph (cf. Mark 11:1-11). He will soon strike at the heart of the religious power structure in Jerusalem by cleansing the Temple of its moneychangers and merchants (Mark 11:15-19). And what do we find in the middle of these great events? Jesus’ rebuke of a fig tree.

It seems rather anticlimactic. Why does Mark interrupt the grand story of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem by telling us about this fig tree?

It may help to understand a bit about the situation. Even in Jerusalem, late March or early April is a bit early for figs to be ready. Most of the trees would not even have their leaves yet. But this fig tree did have its leaves– and when a fig tree has its leaves, it is indicating that it has its fruit hidden underneath. This particular fig tree, however, was false– perhaps it was a different subspecies, or perhaps it was a young tree– for it exposed leaves but had no fruit within it. Highly disappointed, Jesus curses the tree because it made a presentation without its substance.

That may be the clue to understanding the importance of this interaction. Mark very well may have us to understand that there is more to this story than just a fig tree.

The fig tree may represent the Jews and the Judaism of the day. Fig trees are good, and figs are good. Fruitless fig trees that have no leaves are understandable, but what cannot be tolerated is the fig tree that has leaves but no fruit. Thus it is with Israel in Jesus’ day, especially the religious authorities, the chief priests, the elders, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. It was a good thing to be a Jew and to be a part of the covenant with God. It would be understandable if a Jew were learning his faith or recognized in humility how much further he had to go. But to have the outward appearance of religion without its substance– its fruit– was intolerable. And that was precisely what Jesus saw in the Judaism of His day!

Soon after these events He would excoriate the Pharisees for being whitewashed tombs– pretty on the exterior, but full of dead men’s bones inside (cf. Matthew 23:27). They worry about keeping dishes clean, but inwardly are defiled (Matthew 23:25-26). On the exterior their religiosity is beyond a doubt; inwardly they remain unconverted and sinful. There is little hope for such people; they are, like the fig tree, cursed, never to provide fruit for mankind again.

We would do well to learn the lesson of the fig tree and avoid “fig tree religion.” We know from experience and statistics that the vast majority of the people around us in America believe in God and in His Son Jesus Christ. Most people would claim to be Christians. A lot of those people attempt to maintain the exterior of goodness and piety– they seek to look like the “good people” of society, and yet inwardly they may remain unconverted and sinful. Such a faith cannot save (Matthew 7:21-23)!

It is one thing to be as a fig tree without fruit and without leaves– had this fig tree been as such, Jesus would have likely just passed it by. Therefore, it is one thing for people in our society to be sinners and recognize that they are sinners. Such is actually the first step in coming to a real knowledge of the truth (Ephesians 2:1-10, Titus 3:3-8). Jesus, after all, came to save sinners (cf. Matthew 9:11-13).

The real danger comes from providing the pretense of righteousness and/or religiosity without any substantive fruit. These are the “righteous” of Matthew 9:11-13, those who certainly think they are healthy and sound and profitable but really are not. They are self-deceived, and self-deception is the hardest kind of deception to overcome (Galatians 6:3, James 1:22-25, 1 John 1:8). As long as they remain in that condition, nothing can be done for them or with them (cf. Revelation 3:14-22)!

But what of ourselves? Who are we? Are we fig trees without leaves and without fruit? Then let us grow in knowledge and faith to maturity, showing fruit for the Lord (Hebrews 5:14, 2 Peter 3:18). Do we have leaves and fruit, believing in God and obeying Him? Well and good; let us abound all the more (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:1, 9). Or are we the fig tree with leaves but no fruit, having the pretense of religion but not the substantive fruit thereof? We must always be on guard against this danger, considering ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5, Galatians 6:4). If we find ourselves in this condition, we must immediately repent, and work to show the fruit that is in keeping with that repentance (1 John 2:3-6)!

Therefore we can see that the story of the fig tree is quite appropriate in its context. Jesus is about to encounter the superficial piety of the Judaism entrenched in Jerusalem, and it will be cursed. Let us not fall into the same trap, and let us both show leaves and bear fruit for God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

He Does All Things Well

And they were beyond measure astonished, saying, “He hath done all things well; he maketh even the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak” (Mark 7:37).

Jesus has entered the Decapolis and healed a deaf man with a speech impediment (Mark 7:31-36). The Decapolis was a more Gentile region known for Greek culture, and its residents can clearly see the power that is present in Jesus. They declare, quite rightly, that He, Jesus, has done all things well.

The depth of the truth and reality of that statement, however, was not known to them. Jesus is the Word made flesh, the exact image and representation of God on earth (John 1:1-18, 14:9-10). As the Word He is responsible for the whole creation (John 1:3, Colossians 1:15-17), the very thing declared “very good” at its inception (Genesis 1:31). As God, Jesus is all but expected to do things well!

While the Gentiles of Decapolis perceive that Jesus does all things well, the Jews of Galilee and Judea fail to understand that (cf. John 1:11). He has done many more miracles in their midst, and yet so many refuse to believe! They seem convinced that God will act in an entirely different way. What Jesus has done and is doing does not match their desires and expectations. Thus they reject the One who is doing all things well.

It is easy to rail on the Jews about how they did not perceive the Messiah in Jesus, but it is easy to understand why they believed as they did. From their perspective, it was hard to see how God was doing “all things well.” They were God’s chosen people. Their forefathers, despite their idolatrous ways, lived in a free and independent state. They are not committing idolatry anymore, and yet now they suffer under the imperious hand of Rome. As indicated in Psalm 44:1-26, many Jews wanted to know why. It did not seem to make any sense. And then here is Jesus, and He’s not helping the cause they want helped.

Yet God is doing all things well in Jesus of Nazareth. He is doing the Father’s work and accomplishes God’s eternal plan for salvation (cf. Ephesians 3:10-11). Through Him God is setting up the Kingdom that transcends all other kingdoms, even Rome (cf. Daniel 2:36-44). God holds out the promise of eternity in His presence with all good things (cf. Revelation 21:1-22:6).

We have been told in Romans 8:28 that, “we know that to them that love God all things work together for good, even to them that are called according to his purpose.” If we are truly God’s people, even in our lives, God is doing all things well.

It is easy for us to protest this idea, just as the Jews did in terms of Jesus. It can be very, very hard at times to see how the things going on in our lives and in the world around us could be considered “well.” There is suffering, pain, evil, crisis, and distress. In and of themselves, such things are not good. They are here because sin and death are here (Romans 5:12-18). But this does not mean that God is not doing all things well. We reflect Jesus through our suffering since He suffered (1 Peter 2:18-25). The time will come when we will perceive how God has done all things well even when we did not understand it. It will be a time of blessing and praise.

God is Almighty, and He does all things well. It is for us to trust in Him even when we cannot see it. Let us be willing to trust even in the most difficult times, having confidence that in good times and bad, God is doing well!

Ethan R. Longhenry