Persecution or Obedience

“Remember the word that I said unto you, ‘A servant is not greater than his lord.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also” (John 15:20).

Whenever you see a passage of Scripture providing great comfort and encouragement, look out; someone is going through trial, suffering, or persecution, or will be doing so shortly. And so it is for Jesus and His disciples.

Most of the last “half” of John’s Gospel is dedicated to Jesus’ final discourse with the eleven disciples: the discourse covers John 13:31-17:26, with the last supper before it (John 13:1-30) and His betrayal, trial, death, and resurrection covered over the last four chapters (John 18:1-21:25). This discourse has no real parallel in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke; its prominent place and detail exist for a reason. These are the final words Jesus will speak to His disciples before His death and resurrection. This is His final chance to speak a word of encouragement and exhortation to them, and He took full advantage of the opportunity.

Jesus explained the reason for His departure and assured and comforted the disciples with the promise of the Comforter and the ability to ask of God (John 13:31-15:17). This comfort and assurance would prove necessary, for within a matter of hours the disciples would see Jesus led away in betrayal; He would be humiliated in a show trial; He would endure derision, scourging, and crucifixion, the most agonizing form of execution imaginable (John 18:1-19:30). The disciples would be scattered and left to sort out just what happened.

Such is what would happen to their Lord; and, as Jesus had told them, a servant is not greater than his lord (John 15:20; cf. John 13:16). Such was not intended to be a news flash; the disciples were perfectly aware that servants are not greater than their lord. Jesus did not speak of hierarchies; He spoke of associations and connections. The disciples of Jesus should not expect to receive better treatment than Jesus. And they would see how their people and the world would treat Jesus, and that would give plenty of room for concern and fear at a time when Jesus would no longer be with them.

And so Jesus gave them warning in advance. Those who would persecute Jesus would persecute His disciples as well (John 15:20), and it would come to pass. The disciples would be hauled before the same Sanhedrin which condemned Jesus (Acts 5:17-42); many would suffer humiliation, violence, and ultimately death from Jewish and Gentile authorities alike (e.g. Acts 7:54-60, 12:1-5). This was not exactly the fate they would have thought they signed up for when beginning to follow Jesus as the Christ; they were more likely expecting prime seats and power in Jesus’ new government. Yet Jesus was not the Christ they, or the Israelites, were really expecting; nevertheless, He was the Christ sent from God, and the Messiah Israel, and the whole world, truly needed.

The Apostles would be first in line to proclaim what God had accomplished in Jesus, and those who did or would have listened to Jesus would listen to them (John 15:20). After Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, His Kingdom movement numbered around 120 (cf. Acts 1:15); at this point, no one would consider this mission to be much of a success. Yet, within days, 120 would become over 3,000; within a few years, tens of thousands of Israelites had come to believe the Gospel of Jesus proclaimed by the Apostles and submitted to the doctrines taught by the Apostles (cf. Acts 2:41-9:31). The Gospel would then be proclaimed, and believed upon, by people of the nations around the Roman world, ultimately overcoming the mighty Roman Empire. The preaching of the Apostles set off a movement which would turn the world upside down, but a servant is not greater than his lord. All of it was only made possible because Jesus is Lord and Christ (Matthew 28:18-20).

Christians today did not follow Jesus as He lived in Galilee and Judea, yet we have put our confidence and our hope in Jesus as our Lord (Acts 2:36). If Jesus is our Lord, and we are His servants, then we also are not greater than our Lord. Powerful forces conspired to marginalize Jesus, and failing that, humiliated and killed Him. If they did so to Jesus, they will do the same to us. Through tribulation Christians enter the Kingdom of God (Acts 14:22); if we are truly godly in Christ Jesus, we will encounter persecution (2 Timothy 3:12). We must always be prepared to endure persecution for confessing the name of Jesus and embodying His life and truth. We must also be prepared to embody Jesus in that persecution: not in immaturity wondering how it could be, lash out in anger or fear, or put our hope and confidence in some kind of strongman to wrestle back some cultural supremacy, but to absorb the humiliation, suffering, and pain without responding in kind, entrusting ourselves to a faithful Creator and doing good, just as our Lord did (1 Peter 2:18-25, 4:19). We can only hope to be glorified like Jesus if we have suffered like Jesus; the way to Zion is through Calvary, and we have no reason to believe God will build us a bypass around Calvary to get to Zion.

While we must always be prepared to endure persecution, we cannot treat everyone with whom we come into contact as if they are going to be a persecutor. Not everything called persecution is actually persecution; not all disagreement and resistance is automatically persecution. Some will persecute; others will hear. How can those who would hear listen if we have assumed they would be persecutors and treated them accordingly? Jesus knew what the persecutors would do to Him, and yet He still preached and served among the Israelites, seeking to save whoever would come to Him (cf. Luke 19:10). Those who would follow Him must embody the same attitude: persecutors may come. Yet others would hear, if only someone would tell them.

Jesus worked not only to assure and comfort His disciples in His final discourse, but also to prepare them for their commission as Apostles. We are not the Apostles, but we have been commissioned to bear witness to the testimony of the Apostles regarding Jesus (2 Timothy 2:2). Those who would persecute Jesus and the Apostles will most likely persecute us, and we must be prepared for that. Yet those who would keep Jesus’ word, and the word of the Apostles, will most likely hear us and keep the word of God which is proclaimed to them. May we seek to embody faithfulness to Jesus whether before those who would persecute us or those who would obey Jesus, bear witness to Jesus, and obtain the victory in Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Laodicea

“I counsel thee to buy of me gold refined by fire, that thou mayest become rich; and white garments, that thou mayest clothe thyself, and that the shame of thy nakedness be not made manifest; and eyesalve to anoint thine eyes, that thou mayest see” (Revelation 3:18).

The Christians in Laodicea thought they had everything. In fact, they had nothing.

God had given Jesus a vision to give to John on Patmos; it began with messages directed to the seven churches of Asia, of which Laodicea was the seventh (Revelation 1:1-3:13). Jesus had at least something good to say about the previous six churches; He has nothing good to say about Laodicea.

Laodicea was a prominent city of Asia in the Lycus River valley. Many of the things which made the city famous are spoken of in some way by Jesus: the water which came into town from hot springs outside of the city would be lukewarm by the time it arrived. The city was known for its garment manufacturing, a great medical school and a local powder used as an eyesalve, and for its great wealth, placed on important trade routes. When the city was leveled by earthquake in the 60s it did not obtain Imperial assistance to rebuild; it used its own resources. A lot of people would have considered Laodicea a great place to live; no doubt many would be tempted to hold the church and its members in high esteem. They believed in Jesus; they partook of the wealth of which the city had become famous.

And yet that wealth had blinded, paralyzed, and deformed the Christians of Laodicea spiritually. Jesus indicted them as lukewarm, being neither cold nor hot (Revelation 3:15-16): they provided neither warmth in cold nor refreshment in heat, but wavered in the middle, leading to instant revulsion. How did they manifest lukewarmness? They said to themselves they were rich and thus had need of nothing. Jesus told them they, in truth, were wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked (Revelation 3:17). Jesus brought home the message in a most devastating way: the Christians who had a lot of gold needed to buy from Jesus gold refined by fire; Christians who enjoyed a thriving garment industry needed white garments from Jesus with which to clothe themselves; Christians who had easy access to the best eyesalve of the day needed Jesus’ eyesalve so they could see (Revelation 3:18). Jesus said such things because of His love for them: He reproves and chastens those whom He loves, and so the Laodiceans ought to prove zealous and repent (Revelation 3:19).

What had gone so wrong for the Christians in Laodicea? How could they have reached the point where Jesus could say nothing positive about them? How could they have been so deceived and deluded? By the moment Jesus wrote to them, the Laodicean Christians had become as “thorny” soil, deceived by their wealth (Matthew 13:22/Mark 4:19/Luke 8:14).

Riches and wealth prove alluring for all sorts of understandable but ultimately unprofitable reasons. With wealth we are able to provide for ourselves and others, yes, but we also start putting our confidence in looking toward the future in that wealth. We feel self-sufficient and in charge if we have wealth. Other people start treating us as more valuable and honorable because of that wealth. Soon we might find ourselves seeking to preserve and grow our wealth for the sake of maintaining it. Some people are able to grow wealth without actively harming or oppressing others; far too often, however, wealth is gained by one at the expense of others. With wealth comes decadence in its many forms: often no appetite is left for seeking justice, advocating for those less fortunate, or zeal for a cause, lest these pursuits somehow jeopardize our wealth and standing. We want to please all people; we want to avoid suffering at any cost. With wealth we become fat and happy.

On a spiritual level wealth proves a disaster. God is the Source of all blessings and gifts; without what God has given, there could be no wealth (James 1:17). One’s wealth all too easily displaces God from the center of one’s life; the wealthy tend to serve Mammon more than God (Matthew 6:24). Maintaining wealth works against all of the demands of believers in Christ Jesus toward dependence on God, humility in disposition, zeal in righteousness and justice, and willingness to suffer affliction so as to grow in faith (cf. Ephesians 4:1-5:21, Colossians 3:1-17). Furthermore, even if there are spiritual warning signs to be seen, the great discomfort which would be caused by recognizing the dangers leads to strong resistance to think of them as problematic. In this way the Laodicean Christians presumed themselves rich and sufficient but proved spiritually wretched, poor, and blind.

Thus Jesus counseled them to suffer, buying gold from Him as refined by fire (cf. 1 Peter 1:6-7); they were to again turn to Him in repentance for cleansing, receiving white garments to cover their nakedness and shame; they were to prove willing to open their eyes to see their true condition before God in Christ, anointed with eyesalve so as to see (Revelation 3:18). Only through suffering would they learn true humility and faith; only by repenting could they find a way to trust in God in Jesus; all these things could only take place if they proved willing to see their true condition. And so it continues to be with the wealthy.

Jesus’ message to the church in Laodicea should be heard as a clarion call to repentance for Christians today. In the Western world all of us, even if poor by modern standards, maintain far more wealth than was present in the ancient Roman world, and enjoy far greater security, comfort, and health than even the wealthiest Romans. The church in the modern era has all too often fallen into decadence, like Laodicea, presuming itself wealthy and in need of nothing, but truly wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. The state of the church in the Western world speaks for itself.

And so Christians today do well to turn to the Lord Jesus and buy from Him that gold refined by fire, proving willing to suffer for the Cause. In the New Testament the Christians who suffered more in life and in persecution tended to be more spiritually mature than those who did not suffer. The way of Christ offers no bypass around suffering: if we wish to reach Zion, we must go through Calvary. Christians must repent of their trust in material wealth, entitlement programs, or their own ingenuity, but repent and seek clothing from Jesus. We are exposed in nakedness to all sorts of dangers even if we have nice clothing and comfortable homes; only Jesus can cover our nakedness and shame. Christians must prove willing to see their plight and not turn aside from its ugliness. How many will enter perdition because they were deceived by the riches of this world? May we prove willing to suffer for the Lord Jesus, repent of our confidence in riches, and gain the victory in faith!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Left Your First Love

“But I have this against thee, that thou didst leave thy first love. Remember therefore whence thou art fallen, and repent and do the first works; or else I come to thee, and will move thy candlestick out of its place, except thou repent” (Revelation 2:4-5).

Many would have reckoned the church in Ephesus to be sound.

On a Lord’s day while in exile on Patmos John received a vision of the Lord as one like a Son of Man and the Ancient of Days (Revelation 1:9-20). John was commissioned to write what he saw and send it to the seven churches of Asia; before the vision would proceed Jesus, in the Spirit, would communicate specific messages to each of those seven churches (Revelation 2:1-3:22). Ephesus, the main city of Asia, would be the first destination; therefore, Ephesus was addressed first.

Jesus had many good things to say about the church in Ephesus: the Christians there had worked hard. They had maintained patience in general but did not endure evil men; they had put so-called apostles to the test and found them to be false; they hated the works of the Nicolaitans, which Jesus also hated (Revelation 2:2-3, 6). The Christians in Ephesus had manifestly taken Paul’s warning to heart: they were on the lookout for the wolves that would not spare the flock; they stood firm for the truth and resisted all those who taught doctrines contrary to it (cf. Acts 20:29-31). The church in Ephesus was strong for the truth.

But Jesus had something against the church in Ephesus: they left their first love (Revelation 2:4). Jesus summoned them to repentance, to remember where they had fallen, and to do the works they had done before, or else He would come and remove their candlestick/lampstand from its place (Revelation 2:5)!

The Ephesian Christians were battle hardened, but they also proved battle weary. The passion and zeal which had marked their lives when they first heard the Gospel had cooled. They did not abandon the truth; they did not deny the Lord; but the love, the fire, the passion, and the zeal were no longer really there.

And so Jesus called upon them to “backslide,” to change their hearts and minds and to reignite the passion and zeal they once relished. The consequences for not doing so were strong: Jesus would remove their candlestick, their presence before Him.

Jesus went on to write to many other churches regarding situations which most of us would deem far more dire than what transpired in Ephesus: Christians practicing sexual immorality, idolatry, or so wealthy they thought they had need of nothing from the Lord (Revelation 2:8-3:22). And yet, even in the midst of all of those difficulties, it is only the church in Ephesus which is explicitly warned about the removal of their candlestick.

How could that be? It is not as if sexual immorality or idolatry can be justified; God would judge and condemn all who would persist in immorality, and Jesus warned explicitly as much (e.g. Revelation 2:22-23). And yet in those churches some lived faithfully before God; thus, their candlestick would remain. Why would the Ephesians be in such danger? Such is the power, and importance, of love.

God is love (1 John 4:8); His love has motivated His creation of the universe and His disposition toward it. Jesus embodied the love of God for humanity, dying on the cross for our sins (John 3:16, 14:6, 1 John 4:7-11). The foundational command of Christianity is to love one another as God has loved us (John 13:35, 1 John 4:7-21). Thus, it is no hyperbole when Paul said that if he knew all the mysteries and had all knowledge but did not have love, he was nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2).

True sacrificial love is the fuel of any healthy relationship; husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25). The marriage relationship in which love has gone cold is in danger of fraying and being destroyed; the only solution is for each person in the marriage to repent and renew the fires of love. Thus it is within the church: any Christian whose love for the Lord and/or His people has gone cold is in danger of falling away from the Lord and being cut off from His body; the only solution is to repent and renew the fire.

Jesus knew of the faith of the Ephesian Christians; but He could do nothing with them as long as their love remained cold; He could do more with lukewarm Laodicea than He could with loveless Ephesus! We hope and pray they renewed their passion for the Lord’s purposes and remained in good standing in His presence for some time.

While Jesus speaks in the Spirit to seven real and specific churches in Asia, we should not imagine the messages are restricted to those specific seven churches. In many respects the seven churches of Asia are paradigmatic churches; over time many other local congregations will manifest many of the same characteristics.

This is especially true in terms of Ephesus, and it is a danger we do well to consider. It is easy for Christians to make Christianity all about the truth: the acceptance of the truth, adherence to the truth, and chastisement for any variation from the truth. In such an absolutist perspective the only thing that becomes important is where people stand in relation to truth. It is all about obedience to the truth. “Sound churches” hold to a firm doctrinal stance; everyone else is apostate.

Christianity is about Jesus, who is the truth (John 14:6); we must obey the truth of the Gospel (Romans 1:5). We must be on guard against the dangers of false teaching (1 Timothy 4:1). But Christianity, in the end, is about speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:16); the church in Ephesus is our warning sign that a church can make a firm stand for the truth and yet still apostatize because they have abandoned the love of God in Christ.

Truth, therefore, is necessary, but not sufficient in and of itself. It never has been and never will be. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, because He is the embodiment of the God who is love (John 3:16, 14:6, 1 John 4:8). Health in a local congregation can never be defined merely by doctrinal positions; Ephesus would pass that test, but was about to be removed from its place before Jesus! There is more hope for a church with misdirected passion than one who accepts the truth but has no zeal for the Lord’s purposes; it is much easier to channel passion properly than to revive cold hearts.

Thus, even though many would have reckoned the church in Ephesus to be sound, it was on the verge of apostasy. The church in Ephesus had the truth, but they did not have love, and so they were nothing. Faithfulness in the truth only has benefit if it is motivated by deep love and passion for God and His purpose. May we stand firm in the truth of God, zealous for His purposes, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Laying Down Our Lives

Hereby know we love, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren (1 John 3:16).

“I would die for you.”

Such a line makes for a very touching moment in a romantic movie, or an inspiring one if it involved a political leader fighting a worthy cause. It would seem quite strange if used toward one who was evil or vile, an enemy, or someone we otherwise have reasons to dislike.

And yet Jesus laid down His life for us (1 John 3:16); He gave of Himself for those who did evil, who did not understand His work and purpose, and who acted against God and His purposes (Romans 5:6-11).

John is writing to exhort Christians to love one another (1 John 3:11-4:21). Cain is offered up as an example of one who hated his brother: his brother’s works were righteous, and his were not, and in jealousy Cain killed him (1 John 3:11-12; cf. Genesis 4:1-8). For this reason Christians who do what is right should not be surprised when the world which loves the wrong hates them; Christians can know they have passed out of death to life based on their love for one another (1 John 3:13-14). Those who do not love abide in death; whoever hates his brother is a murderer, not having eternal life in them, because they have no concern for the welfare of their brother (1 John 3:15). And so John points to Jesus as the means by which we know love: He laid down His life for us, and therefore we as Christians should lay down our lives for one another (1 John 3:16). He will go on to critique his fellow Christians: if a Christian has the world’s goods, and sees his or her fellow Christian going without, and yet shuts up his or her heart and compassion from them, how can they say they really love their brother (1 John 3:17)? Christian love should be in deed and truth, not with mere words (1 John 3:18).

No doubt early Christians were as convinced as Christians are today regarding love for one another. We all know we are supposed to love one another, right? But do we really and actually love one another, or do we just profess it? That is why John writes as he does in 1 John 3:11-18. Christians are inspired by the lofty ideals of love; they, no doubt, are willing to lay down their lives for one another as Jesus laid down His life for us. But in the very practical matter of seeing a brother in need, then what? It can be easy to excuse or justify why some have an abundance and others have nothing, and nothing is done to assist. That, John emphasizes, is not love; that’s hatred, of the world and Cain and the Evil One. If you are so willing to lay down your life for one another, why not start by providing something for a fellow Christian in need?

Nevertheless 1 John 3:16 proves almost as famous, and just as easily taken out of its context and proof-texted, as John 3:16. It provides a powerful message and a good reminder: as Jesus laid down His life for us and thus manifested His love toward us, we should prove willing to do the same for one another (cf. Matthew 20:25-28). But what does that mean? What did it look like for Jesus to lay down His life for others?

John makes it clear why Jesus laid down His life for His people: to be the propitiation for their sins (1 John 4:10). He loved them; He did not want them to experience hellfire; He wished to reconcile them with Himself and their God (John 13:1-3, 17:20-23, Romans 5:6-11). He suffered the evil; He suffered violence; and in suffering the evil and violence He overcame sin and death (Romans 8:1-8, Colossians 2:15). Jesus was a pure and holy sacrifice; He opened not his mouth, and proved to be the Suffering Servant in every respect (Isaiah 42:13-53:12, 1 Peter 2:18-25). His death was as much for those who crucified Him as those who were devoted to Him (Luke 23:34).

Christians following the Lord Jesus are not sinless, and yet even their sacrifices, up to and including death, have value and standing before God. Paul considered the suffering he experienced as making up for what was lacking in the afflictions of the church; his tribulations were for the glory of those who believed (Ephesians 3:13, Colossians 1:24). Thus, in some way, Christians can suffer for one another; we can imagine that within the early church some Christians suffered mightily so that others might be spared. Yet even then they did not retaliate in kind; they knew they needed to suffer as Jesus suffered if they would obtain the same victory Jesus did (Romans 8:17-18).

This image of sacrifice is so powerful that it is easily taken up and applied in other contexts never intended by the Lord Jesus. In the United States of America, as in many other nation-states, the willingness of a person to go and fight and give up their lives in conflict for the advancement of the nation-state and its ideals is highly commended. In this way a picture is painted of a person who goes down, guns blazing, to protect or defend an ideal, a nation, or a person. We may appreciate what a given nation-state provides, and even appreciate the willingness to give one’s life for the advancement of that nation-state’s purpose, but that person has not laid down their life as Jesus laid down His. Jesus did not die seeking to harm others; He died for the salvation of all mankind. Anyone who dies in combat or in a context in which violence is returned for violence is seeking the harm of others, however merited that harm may seem. One may think one’s sacrifice in war or in defense valorous; it rarely seems as valorous to those on the other side who would have been the ones killed or injured otherwise.

For Christians the cross of Calvary always stands before them, the way forward to find life indeed. It is a path that will involve personal hardship, suffering, and for some, even death for the cause of Christ. Yet the cross of Christ was not an instrument used to harm others; it was the means by which God worked to reconcile the world to Himself in Jesus, the terrible criminal as well as the “good, upstanding” citizen. If called upon, the Christian ought to willingly lay down his or her life for the brethren, as Jesus did; such a calling does not justify harming others in the process. May we love one another as Jesus has loved us, loving in deed and in truth, and thus obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Bring It to Jesus

But Jesus said unto them, “They have no need to go away; give ye them to eat” (Matthew 14:16).

Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand is one of His best documented and compelling miracles. The event is attested in all four Gospels (Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:10-17, John 6:1-15). It becomes the springboard for Jesus to speak of Himself as the bread of life which proceeded from the mouth of God (John 6:16-71); it demonstrated, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the power of God present in Jesus, providing food out of nothing, just as God had sent manna to Israel in the wilderness (cf. Exodus 16:1-36).

Yet it is worth exploring how Jesus set up the situation. Jesus had withdrawn to the mountains; the crowds had followed Him, and He healed many (Matthew 14:13-14). They had come out in faith to Him and were not disappointed. As it became late the disciples, as seemed to be the custom, encouraged Jesus to dismiss the crowds to the neighboring villages to find food (Matthew 14:15). But this day would not take place according to usual custom; nevertheless, Jesus told the disciples to give the people something to eat.

The reaction of the disciples is telling. In Matthew 14:17, they saw that they have but five loaves and two fishes; in Mark 6:37, they asked if they themselves should go into town and buy two hundred denarii (1 denarius was the average day’s wage for a laborer) of bread; Luke combined these themes in Luke 9:13. We can share their astonishment. Five loaves and two fishes could not feed so many people; they would need a lot of money to buy a lot of bread to satisfy such a group!

We know the rest of the story: Jesus has them bring the five loaves and two fish to Him; He blesses and breaks the bread; the people eat and are satisfied; twelve baskets of bread remnants, no doubt more than the original mass of bread, was taken up afterward (cf. Matthew 14:18-21, etc.).

Jesus has accomplished a powerful miracle; we often speak of how all would have seen the “original” five loaves and two fish, and then would have seen the greater amount taken up in the end; it is a very public, and manifest, miracle. For many this narrative has great apologetic potential.

Yet, as Matthew tells the story, Jesus tells the disciples to feed the people (Matthew 14:16). He does this knowing quite well how they have but five loaves and two fish. He does this knowing they are not able to do this by their own strength or through their own efforts.

And yet He tells them to do it anyway.

As we have seen, the disciples react as you or I would react. First they assess the situation: they have five loaves and two fish. They would need to buy 200 denarii of bread to feed the multitude. They should get going if they are going to buy that much food.

But no, Jesus says. Feed them with what you have.

How can they do that? They must first give the loaves and fishes to Jesus. Jesus could then bless what they had and distribute it so that everyone’s needs were satisfied.

Matthew (as well as Mark and Luke) could have told the story in the way John does, speaking of it as a collaborative effort (John 6:5-9). But they did not; perhaps they had a reason to do so. Maybe they have a lesson they want to teach us.

What happened in this story? Jesus asked the disciples to do something which was impossible for them to do. They assessed the situation, recognized what would need to be done, and saw that it was beyond their present resources. They had to give Jesus the resources they had, and then and only then could Jesus make sufficient the resources they had given Him.

What would happen throughout the rest of the Gospel story as told in Acts? Jesus told the disciples to go and bear witness around the world (Acts 1:8). They assessed the situation, recognized what needed to be done, and saw that it was beyond their present resources. They gave themselves over to Jesus, and then and only then did Jesus make sufficient the resources they had given Him, and the Gospel message spread powerfully throughout the known world (cf. Colossians 1:6).

This proves to be the pattern for all followers of Jesus, for what is impossible with man is possible with God (Matthew 19:26). Jesus has called on all of us to do impossible things: be perfect as the Father is perfect; take up our cross and follow after Him; suffer loss for the Kingdom’s sake; refuse all the works of the flesh and manifest the fruit of the Spirit; proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation (Matthew 5:43-48, 16:24, 28:18-20, Mark 16:15, Galatians 5:17-24). We hear Jesus’ commands; we assess our situation; we recognize what needs to be done; we see it goes beyond our present resources.

At this stage we might despair; we might try to fight through using our own strength; yet in all these ways we are doomed to fail. It is only when we offer up to Jesus the few resources we have that He can take them and make them sufficient in us to accomplish His purposes (2 Corinthians 3:5-6, 9:8, 12:9-10, Philippians 2:12-13). We can then look back and see how the power of God worked through us to accomplish His good pleasure.

In this way the means by which Jesus fed the five thousand is instructive. He fed them through the work of His disciples even though He was right there the whole time; this was not by necessity but by means of instruction. The day would come when Jesus would no longer be physically present with the disciples, and yet the pattern would remain the same. That pattern remains to this day. We must bring to Jesus what God has given us so that He can make it sufficient to accomplish God’s purposes. We will not succeed through our own strength alone; may we learn to depend on the strength of God in Christ, fulfill His purposes, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus’ Transcendent Kingdom

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence” (John 18:36).

Few of Jesus’ declarations have reverberated over time as His confession of the nature of His Kingdom in John 18:36. Few have also proven as contentious.

Jesus had been betrayed by Judas into the hands of the religious authorities; they had already condemned Him to death as a blasphemer (John 18:1-27). Since they had no authority granted to execute Jesus, they brought Him before Pontius Pilate, Roman procurator of Judea, to issue the final condemnation (John 18:28-32). Pilate asked Jesus if He indeed was the King of the Jews based on what had been said of Him by the religious authorities (John 18:32-35). Jesus declared that His Kingdom was not of this world: His servants were not fighting to foment insurrection or rebellion so as to rescue Him, and such was sufficient evidence to show His Kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). Jesus would go on to identify Himself as a King according to what Pilate himself had said; Pilate found no crime or guilt in Him (John 18:37-38).

But what is Jesus really attempting to say to Pilate by this declaration? As is unfortunately the norm in Christianity, people have often gone to extremes. Some fervently expect Jesus to one day make the Kingdom be of this world, and so they emphasize the idea that His Kingdom is not “now” from here, presuming that at some point in the future that will change. Others so emphasize “not of this world” so that it becomes “entirely of another world,” as if His Kingdom has nothing at all to do with this world.

In the contextual moment Jesus is attempting to “clear the air” about Him and His intentions. From the first century until now it has been all too easy to misunderstand Jesus’ purposes in His Kingdom and to conceptualize the Kingdom entirely in earthly terms. The Jews wanted to make Jesus their king; He escaped from them, for His Kingdom was not to be what they desired it to be (John 6:15). Christians were easily accused of sedition against Rome, declaring that Jesus was King, not Caesar (Acts 17:6-7); so both Paul and Peter strongly urge Christians to remain subject to all earthly authorities lest anyone get the wrong idea (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:11-18). Thus, when Pilate heard that Jesus is being called the “King of the Jews,” he perceived Jesus to be a threat to the stability of Roman rule over Judea, because he is aware of the Jewish expectation that their God would send their Messiah who they imagined would liberate them from foreign pagan oppression and would re-establish a Jewish Davidic kingdom in Jerusalem. And so Jesus clarified before Pilate that His Kingdom is not of this world; it would not be an earthly kingdom vying for territory with a man on a throne in a capital. If it were, His servants would be fighting to make that happen.

Such should be a strong warning to any who would imagine that Jesus’ only concern is one of timing and not substance. Jesus is not saying, “my Kingdom is not now of this world, but it will be at some undetermined point in the future”; the work God was accomplishing in Jesus powerfully demonstrated the error in Jewish expectations. Jesus was the King of the Jews, not just a more improved version of David, but as the One like a Son of Man who would soon be given an eternal dominion from the Ancient of Days (Daniel 7:13-14). The Kingdom He would inaugurate would strike in pieces all of the kingdoms who had come before (Daniel 2:43-45). God would give Jesus all authority in heaven and on earth, over all the powers, not merely over some acres of ground on earth (Matthew 28:18, Colossians 1:15-20). Jesus’ Kingdom is too much of a present reality and far too profound to restrict it to a future earthly hope (Colossians 1:12-20, Revelation 1:9).

Yet it is not as if Jesus’ Kingdom has nothing to do with this world. Neither Pilate nor later Roman authorities were entirely wrong to raise an eyebrow at the claims made by Jesus and His later followers. If Jesus is Lord and Savior, then Caesar is not the ultimate authority. Christian claims of God giving authority to whom He will and of Jesus being over all the kings of the earth stand at variance with Caesar’s claims about himself. Even if Christians seek to honor and obey earthly authorities in all things, their loyalties and ultimate commitment lie in God in Christ and His Kingdom, not in Rome (Philippians 1:27, 3:20-21). Jesus’ Kingdom was not envisioned as an alien force; He reigns from heaven indeed but reigns over both heaven and earth, and all peoples and nations are subject to Him (Philippians 3:20-21, Revelation 5:12-14, 7:9-17). Just as Christians ought not imagine that Jesus’ Kingdom is merely awaiting its earthly manifestation, so they ought not imagine that the concerns of the Kingdom have nothing at all to do with the present world.

Jesus’ Kingdom is neither earthly nor otherworldly; it is transcendent. Jesus is Lord of lords and King of kings; His Kingdom reigns above all other principalities and powers (Colossians 1:15-20, 2:11-17, Revelation 19:16). Jesus’ Kingdom absolutely crushed and shattered the empires of the world through God’s judgments upon them and the work of Christians within them proclaiming the Gospel and glorifying God. The Gospel of Jesus and His Kingdom undermines every tyrant and despotic tendency in government, for fear, shame, suffering, and death, the coercive tools of government, are made devoid of power in the life of the one who trusts in the crucified and risen Jesus (Matthew 10:28). Jesus will return one day and will raise our bodies to be like Himself (Philippians 3:20-21); this energizes all believers in Him to uphold the values of the Kingdom no matter what man may try to do to us. The flower of the glory of empire will fade and die; the word of God, the Gospel, will endure forever, as will those who faithfully participate in the Kingdom of God to the end (1 Corinthians 15:51-58, 1 Peter 1:23-25).

Christians live in the world and do well to honor and obey earthly authorities. Yet we must demonstrate that our true affections and loyalty lie in the transcendent Kingdom of God in Christ. We must live as if we truly do eschew the extremes in understanding about the Kingdom. We must not foolishly believe, as so many do, that Jesus’ Kingdom will be established as an earthly Kingdom some day, or that through our efforts we can establish His Kingdom on earth. The Lord Himself considered such things as a fool’s errand; if He did not do so, who are we as His followers to imagine we can succeed where He “failed”? Thus we have no right to imagine that God’s Kingdom is manifest in any given country or any political platform or ideology therein; we likewise have no right to imagine that we will succeed in bringing the Kingdom to earth through benevolent action. At the same time, the Kingdom does have a word to speak to rulers and citizens and how we should live; we must not foolishly believe that Christians are to be so alien as to have nothing to say or do with those who live in the world. We are not given the right to “monasticize” ourselves, withdrawing from society entirely and/or put most of our efforts into creating some sort of Christian subculture. We must serve God in His Kingdom in the world, knowing that all of the kingdoms of the world will ultimately become the Kingdom of our Lord and Christ (Revelation 11:15), and that His transcendent Kingdom, while not of this world, powerfully reigns over it. May we serve the Lord Jesus in His Kingdom to His eternal glory and honor!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Healing Dirt

When [Jesus] had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and anointed his eyes with the clay, and said unto him,
“Go, wash in the pool of Siloam”
(which is by interpretation, “Sent”). He went away therefore, and washed, and came seeing (John 9:6-7).

“Cleanliness is next to godliness,” or so they say.

Humans put a premium on cleanliness. Every morning most of us go through a series of rituals to divest ourselves of all that is reckoned unclean, put on clean clothes, and attempt to make ourselves look, feel, and smell as clean as possible. For the most part we try to limit our interactions with the “contagion” of dirt and uncleanness: we walk or drive on paved sidewalks and streets, we want food preparation and consumption to take place as cleanly as possible, and we have designated facilities to dispose of those bodily functions we find smelly and unclean. Woe to those who do not observe such cleanliness in habit and ritual; they are quickly socially marginalized.

This obsession with cleanliness goes beyond the realm of physical contagion. People these days want everything to be as “clean” as possible. In attempting to “put our best foot forward” we are tempted to whitewash our image and present to the world only that which is good and aesthetically pleasing and attempt to hide the ugliness, pain, and other unseemly parts of life. We may seek relationships with other people but we want those relationships to remain as “clean” as possible; we would rather not deal with other people’s drama and difficulties, especially if those difficulties may cost us in terms of time, energy, and (by no means!) personal reputation. In such an environment too many just want to pretend that the “dirty” or unclean parts of life are not there; whenever they arise we try to suppress them, medicate them away, or otherwise avoid them. We must always put on the impression that we are clean and have it all put together. No one wants to deal with a mess.

Many times cleanliness is justified religiously. God, after all, is pure and holy, without spot or blemish (Leviticus 19:2, Habakkuk 1:13). In the Law He specified all the ways in which Israel was to remain clean and what to do whenever they were rendered ritually unclean (e.g. Leviticus 11:1-15:33). As God is holy, so Christians are to be holy (1 Peter 1:15-16); Christians should be pure (1 John 3:3). All of these statements are true; God is holy, and wants people to be holy. God’s people should never wallow in the mire of sin and death!

And yet none of us are clean by our own merits; we have all sinned, and have all fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). Our society may have phobias about that which is unclean or dirty but they are part of life. As it is written:

And YHWH God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (Genesis 2:7).

God is our Creator; He made man in His image, the image of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Genesis 1:26-27). God made all things through the Word; without the Word nothing was made that exists (John 1:1-3). That Word became flesh and dwelt among us as Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:1-14).

Thus God made man from the dust of the ground; the Word was active in thus making man. None of us were there to see exactly how this took place; nevertheless, as humans, we are tempted to envision the event described in Genesis 2:7 as God using His “hands” to make man out of the dust of the ground. In so doing, by necessity, God would have dirt on those “hands,” and even after making man, His “hands” would have been made dirty in the process.

Furthermore, it would be God the Word who would be getting His “hands” dirty, and would again in the Incarnation. Not for nothing does Paul speak of Jesus as the “second Adam”; granted, he does so in order to show how Jesus, through one act of righteousness, could make right all the sins that had come from the one transgression of Adam (Romans 5:12-18) or make comparisons between this body and the body in the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20-49). Yet it remains true that Jesus became human, and as humans are dust, so we can say that Jesus took on dirt and dwelt among fellow pieces of dirt (Genesis 3:19, John 1:14). Jesus took on dirt and participated in life with mankind, and that life was invariably dirty. Jesus would have gotten dirty while eating, while relieving Himself, while walking down the road, etc. God Himself participated in man’s dirty condition, although without sin (Hebrews 4:15, 5:7-8)!

Jan Luyken's Jesus 14. Healing of a Man Born Blind. Phillip Medhurst Collection

Jesus became dirt and lived among pieces of dirt in order to make us clean, in a sense, to heal the dirt. Therefore it was entirely natural for Jesus to heal a man born blind by spitting on dirt and covering the man’s eyes with the clay (John 9:1-5), even though it may seem strange to us. The healing was by no means sanitary, yet Jesus uses dirt to heal dirt; as the “hands” of God the Word formed and shaped man out of dirt, so now the hands of Jesus of Nazareth use dirt to heal what had gone wrong with this particular man. Later on Jesus will take on the cross and suffer terribly, get extremely dirty and become an object of horror and shame, and in so doing provide a means of healing and cleanliness for all mankind (John 1:29, 19:30, Ephesians 5:25-27, Titus 3:3-8).

We humans put such a premium on cleanliness because of our great shame and disappointment at what is unclean about us, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. We do not become clean because of how well we clean ourselves or how well we try to suppress that which is unclean about us from public view. We can only be made clean through humble faith in Jesus who became dirt and got extremely dirty so that we could be healed and cleansed. He did this not because we were clean and thus deserved a relationship but while we were extremely filthy and unclean (Romans 5:6-11). God was not forced to deal with us in our impurity, defilement, and uncleanness; He could have abandoned us to our own fate. Yet, in love, He chose to get His hands dirty so we could get clean. If we would honor God and reflect Jesus to others we must not presume to be so sanitary and clean so as to have nothing to do with all the dirt out there; far from it! If we would be as Jesus we must work to heal dirt, to love people and seek their best interest no matter how dirty they are, no matter how ugly their problems, no matter how many times they may try and fail, no matter how well or poorly we can relate to their challenges and difficulties. We are not to do such things because they deserve it, because they do not. We do it because we have received that grace from God, were cleansed even though we did not deserve it, and want to reflect the God who gets dirty in order to heal and restore mankind. Let us follow the Lord Jesus, find cleansing in Him, and accomplish His purposes in the world!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Gardener

Jesus saith unto her, “Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou?”
She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, “Sir, if thou hast borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away” (John 20:15).

Whom would you be expecting if you were walking among the tombs at the edge of town?

Mary Magdalene was distraught; she had come to finish anointing the body of Jesus of Nazareth but it was no longer in the tomb (John 20:1-2). Peter and John came, saw the tomb was empty, recognized something was going on, but returned to where they were staying (John 20:3-10). Mary Magdalene, meanwhile, had returned to the area of the tomb; in her distress she sought to discover whom had taken the body and where (John 20:12-15). She asked two angels in white, and then she asked the man she presumed to be the gardener. Yet this man was actually Jesus Himself in the resurrection (John 20:16-18)!

The way John narrates the resurrection morning is compelling, dramatic, and powerful. We are able to sympathize with Mary’s confusion, anguish, and distress; she testifies to the power of Jesus’ resurrection since she displays no expectation of the event. She meets Jesus but thinks He is a gardener! We can feel the astonishment and awe of Mary as she is brought face to face with the Risen Lord. And then we most often move on and consider the other great parts of the narrative: “Doubting Thomas,” Jesus and Peter in Galilee, etc. (John 20:19-21:25). Well and good; but why does Mary Magdalene suppose Jesus to have been the gardener?

Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen - Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalen as a Gardener - WGA05260

It is possible that John is simply trying to relay a factoid which lends credibility to the story: Mary Magdalene was not expecting to see Jesus and so she naturally presumed that a man who was present near the tomb at that time who was not a soldier would have been the gardener keeping the grounds. While that is possible, John’s use of detail is sparse, and when it is present, it most often has greater meaning, weaving the story of Jesus into the greater fabric of Scripture. In this light the description of Jesus as a gardener is most apt, for who else served as a gardener in Scripture?

In Genesis 2:4-25 we are given details about the creation of man and woman. God formed man out of the dust of the earth (Adam), planted a garden in Eden in the east, making out of the ground all good trees for eating, and God put the man in the garden to dress it and keep it (Genesis 2:7-15). Adam was the first gardener; he kept the garden for a time but then violated the one command God had given him, and he was cast out (Genesis 2:16-3:22).

The Apostle Paul reckons Jesus as the “second” or “new” Adam in Romans 5:10-18 and 1 Corinthians 15:19-51. The first Adam sinned; death entered the world through his sin and the effects of sin spread to all; Jesus accomplished one great act of righteousness through His death on the cross, providing forgiveness for sin and allowing all to overcome its effects through that one action (Romans 5:10-18). Through the man Adam death spread to all men; through the man Jesus we have the hope of resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:19-51).

It is therefore highly unlikely that Mary Magdalene just happened to think that Jesus was the gardener, for in a very real way Jesus is a gardener. God made Adam the first gardener of the present creation; he sinned and death spread to all men. Jesus, in His resurrection, is the vanguard of the new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). Through Him all things will be made new; in Him we have the hope of resurrection and the hope John will later see in the imagery of the river of life proceeding out of the throne of God in the midst of the heavenly Jerusalem and the tree of life bearing fruit providing for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22:1-6).

God has raised His Gardener who seeks to keep and tend His Garden, the church, so that it may grow, bear fruit, and multiply. Through Jesus our Gardener God is making all things new (Revelation 21:5). Let us praise God for Christ our Gardener, and may we ever seek to enjoy the produce of His Garden!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Go and Die With Him


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Thomas therefore, who is called Didymus, said unto his fellow-disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16).

Thomas was convinced it was a suicide mission for all of them.

As the third Passover of His ministry drew near Jesus was a marked man if He returned to Jerusalem. He had challenged the existing Temple system (John 2:13-22); He had unrepentantly healed on the Sabbath (John 5:1-18); He taught regarding His relationship with His Father, and the Jews sought to stone Him (John 8:54-59, 10:24-39). Jesus’ disciples saw the writing on the wall: a return to Judea risked stoning or some other form of death (John 11:8).

Yet Jesus insisted. Lazarus had died; He had attempted to communicate this in less direct ways but had to come out with it (John 11:1-15). Jesus knows why He must go down to Judea; His disciples seem less than enthusiastic about the proposition. As He is about to leave Thomas makes this declaration: “let us go also, that we may die with Him” (John 11:16).

Thomas’ declaration is certainly not optimistic. He may have thought it seemed realistic, yet we would rightly call him cynical. Yes, the Jews had threatened Jesus before, yet He had always escaped. Where was Thomas’ faith or confidence in God or in Jesus? It is easy to be hard on Thomas and to question his faith. If we are honest with ourselves, however, we would have to come to the recognition that if we were there and in Thomas’ position, we would probably at least think the same thing if we did not actually say it. Thomas’ sentiment was likely shared among the other disciples as well. The odds did seem long. The way Thomas felt is exactly the way humans feel in those circumstances.

At first it may seem as if Thomas overstated the situation. Yes, Jesus would die during this trip to Jerusalem, but the disciples did not (John 18:8-9, 19:30). They did not physically die with Him. And yet, in a very real sense, the situation happened exactly as Thomas had cynically foretold. The disciples did not die physically, but their lives changed dramatically during their stay in Jerusalem, having seen Jesus not only die but also rise from the dead (John 20:1-29). Thomas would return to Galilee with some of the other disciples and would see the Lord in the resurrection yet again (John 21:1-24). The next time the word of the Lord Jesus came to Galilee it would do so in power to convict and convert people to the Kingdom of God in Christ (Acts 1:8, 8:4). What would be the message that Thomas as well as the other disciples would preach? That people would have to die to the world in Christ so as to rise again and walk in newness of life according to His purposes (Romans 6:1-23). All have to go and die with Jesus!

In a very real sense Thomas and the other disciples went and “died” with Jesus. After Jesus’ death and resurrection they would never be the same; where once was doubt and cynicism there was now faith and hope on account of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Where there was fear there was now boldness to preach the message no matter what resistance was encountered (e.g. Acts 5:17-42). They reckoned themselves as dead to the world and alive to Christ (Galatians 2:20). They took the world by storm. It would never be the same.

Thomas’ story resonates in the 21st century. In the world hope seems like a delusion; we come to the recognition that cynicism and despair prove more realistic and accurate than hope. On a human level our endeavors seem futile and hopeless. This attitude can easily infect and affect the people of God! It is easy to see the spiritual forces of darkness at work all around us and conclude that we are doomed, the situation is hopeless, and decline is inevitable.

If we hope in this life and this world only then these assessments would be realistic. We would have no reason to do anything than be cynical and in despair if we are the only ones at work. Yet we preach Jesus crucified and risen from the dead! We, like Thomas, must go to Judea to die with Jesus. We must die to the ways of the world and to cynicism and despair; we must find hope and new life through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Galatians 2:20, Philippians 3:1-15)! Our hope is not folly but rooted in deep and abiding faith in God as faithful to His promises, confident that He is greater than those who are against us (1 John 4:4). When we look around us we are not to see Satan triumphant; we are to recognize that this is his last gasp as he has gone down to defeat, and that we will overcome him if we hold firm to the Lamb and prove willing to not love our lives even to death, to see victory in what the world would call defeat, for the Lord Jesus reigns in Heaven and He will return to right all wrongs (Revelation 12:1-14:20).

Yet it all begins, as it did for Thomas, by going with the Lord Jesus to Jerusalem to die with Him. Let us put to death the man of sin, the ways of living in this world and the cynicism and despair they engender, and let us find new life through faith, baptism, and obedience to the Lord Jesus in His Kingdom, living in the hope of the resurrection and the fulfillment of all God’s purposes for His people in Christ (Romans 6:1-23, 8:17-25)! Let us die with the Lord so we may live with Him eternally in the resurrection!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Vine

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; so neither can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for apart from me ye can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).

Jesus had spoken of a Kingdom in many figures: a field, fishing, a pearl of great price, a Master entrusting His servants with a stewardship. As He was about to leave His disciples He used a new old illustration: not a full vineyard, but a vine (John 15:1-8).

In John 13:31-16:33 speaks to the eleven disciples; Judas Iscariot has gone off to betray Him, and after the prayer of John 17 Jesus will be betrayed, tried, and crucified in John 18:1-19:37. Whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke move fairly quickly from the Last Supper to the Garden of Gethsemane in Matthew 26:30-36, Mark 14:26-32, and Luke 22:23-39, John spends what would later be delineated into over three chapters on the extended discourse between these events. Throughout Jesus is preparing His disciples so that they might be able to endure and stand through the ups and downs of His death, resurrection, and ascension (John 14:1, 16:1). Jesus, after all, understands perfectly what is about to take place. His disciples have no idea; they will be left to grapple with His death without Him being present physically, and thus Jesus does well to leave them with words of encouragement and exhortation.

Right in the middle of this discourse Jesus introduces the illustration of the vine: He is the vine, His Father the vinedresser, and His disciples the branches (John 15:1, 4). He had previously “updated” Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard of Isaiah 5:1-7 in Matthew 21:33-44 and in parallel accounts, yet the vineyard there is Israel. Jesus compared the Kingdom to a householder hiring workers to work in his vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16; even there the vineyard is incidental, setting up the lesson about receiving what is promised and that the last shall be first and the first last. Here in John 15:1-8 Jesus focuses on a single vine is able to explain through it the relationship between the Son, the Father, and disciples.

The disciples would have understood the basics of grape vines and their maintenance. Grape vines do have roots but one sees the vine and its branches. The branches maintain their health through their connection to the vine from which it can draw water and other nutrients originating in the roots and the soil. A healthy branch bears fruit: grape clusters. The sign of an unhealthy branch is a lack of fruit, and the solution is to prune the vine to get rid of all the dead branches. And so it is in the illustration of the vine: disciples draw strength and sustenance through Jesus the Vine; when connected to Jesus the Vine they can bear fruit; apart from Jesus the Vine they can do nothing; if they do not bear fruit the Father the Vinedresser will prune them and throw them into the fire (John 15:1-8).

Jesus’ main point in the illustration is to emphasize the disciples’ need to bear fruit and to understand how they will be able to bear fruit: through abiding in Him (John 15:3-4, 8). We do well to heed both messages.

This is not the first illustration Jesus has used to emphasize the need for Christians to be obedient and to manifest the fruit of righteousness; Matthew 5:13-16 and 25:14-30 come to mind, among others. It is unfortunate that many in the religious world have settled for cheap grace, the belief that God will save no matter what, and have ignored Jesus’ many warnings about the fate of the unproductive in His midst. Their fate is never left in ambiguity: Jesus denies He ever knew them (Matthew 7:21-23); they are cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 25:14-30), and here in John 15:6 unproductive branches are gathered and burned, reminiscent of the Gehenna of fire (e.g. Matthew 5:29-30). Thus we must bear fruit for the Lord: we must manifest the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-24), do good (Galatians 6:10), proclaim Jesus crucified and risen (Matthew 28:18-20), and remain faithful unto death (Matthew 10:22). Such obedience and faithfulness is not “optional”!

Yet it can be very easy to so emphasize obedience and righteousness that we forget Who is empowering the endeavor. As branches we are to bear fruit for the Lord, but we can do so only when connected and sustained by the Vine, the Lord Jesus. Jesus is very blunt about this in John 15:5: apart from Him we can do nothing. Apart from Jesus we proved disobedient, sinful, children of wrath, living in licentiousness and lusts, hated by others and hating in turn (Ephesians 2:1-3, Titus 3:3). In Christ we were rescued from our hopeless condition and reconciled to the Father (Romans 5:6-11). But we must not imagine that once we are “in Christ” we are then left out “on our own” to do His work. Instead we work and are profitable because we remain in Him and are sustained in Him (Ephesians 2:4-10, Titus 3:4-8). Through the sustenance and strength from our Vine God can work through us beyond all we can ask or think (Ephesians 3:14-21). Let none be deceived: as branches bear fruit but not without the nourishment which comes through the vine, so believers obey and seek righteousness but can only do so through the strength that God supplies. On our own we can do nothing; we can imagine that we can do great things, and try to build great towers of Babel, maybe even adorn such towers with religious and spiritual sentiments, but they cannot succeed and will someday be exposed for what they really are. Every plant not planted by the Father will be rooted up (Matthew 15:13); so it shall be with every religious institution and personal belief system not grounded and empowered by God and the Lord Jesus (cf. Matthew 7:24-27).

Thus asking God to bless or prosper our work is really vain; we do better to ask God to direct us to His work and for Him to bless, strengthen, and sustain it. We are but the branches, responsible for taking the nourishment given by the vine and producing fruit; let us therefore glorify God through the Lord Jesus Christ, serving Him through the strength that He supplies!

Ethan R. Longhenry