Shaking the Dust

“And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, as ye go forth out of that house or that city, shake off the dust of your feet” (Matthew 10:14).

At some point we must come to the realization: people have made up their minds. They will not listen. It’s now on them.

In Matthew 10:1-42 Jesus commissioned the twelve disciples to go out and proclaim the Gospel; this event is called the “limited commission” since it lasted for a specific period of time while the disciples remained under Jesus’ tutelage (cf. Mark 6:7-13, Luke 9:1-6). The disciples were to go to the villages and towns of Israel and proclaiming the imminent coming of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 10:5-7); they were to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the unclean, cast out demons, and give freely as they had received (Matthew 10:8). They were not to bring any provisions with them, but instead rely upon the goodwill and hospitality of a house in each village or town they visited; they should pronounce peace upon houses in which they were received favorably, but to hold their peace if received unfavorably (Matthew 10:9-13). If they came upon a village or town in which no one would receive them, or hear their message, they were to shake the dust off of their feet as they left the town; on the day of judgment it would prove more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town (Matthew 10:14-15; cf. Genesis 18:17-19:29)!

Jesus’ call to shake the dust off of their feet proved quite memorable; it remains a feature of the narrative in all three synoptic Gospels (Mark 6:11, Luke 9:5). To shake the dust off the feet is a ritualized act of judgment denoting the separation of all association between the person and that location. They wanted nothing to do with the message; the disciple now has nothing to do with their place. They now stand liable for judgment for not heeding the Gospel message; the disciple wants no share in that judgment, and so removes any trace of connection by removing the dust from his feet. Sodom and Gomorrah had long become proverbial in Israel as a bastion of wickedness and a model of God’s judgment (cf. Isaiah 1:9-10); for any village or town of Israel to be liable to a fate worse than Sodom or Gomorrah was shocking and startling. Jesus meant for His warning in Matthew 10:15 to shock; sure, Sodom and Gomorrah were sinful places, but they never heard the Gospel of the Kingdom, so how much worse off will be those who could have enjoyed all the benefits of the Kingdom but turned aside from it on account of their rebellion against God’s purposes in Christ (cf. 2 Peter 2:20-22)?

Jesus’ followers took His exhortation to shake the dust off of their feet seriously, and well beyond the “limited commission” of Matthew 10:1-42; when the Jewish people of Antioch of Pisidia rejected Paul and his associates, they shook the dust off of their feet and went to Iconium (Acts 13:51). They performed this ritualistic action even though some among the Antiochenes in Pisidia heard the Gospel and accepted it (Acts 13:48, 52).

These days few Christians go about as itinerant proclaimers of the Gospel; few, therefore, would find themselves needing to literally, concretely shake the dust off of their feet. And yet all Christians ought to be proclaiming the Gospel in their own lives to their family members, friends, associates, and others (Matthew 28:18-20); no doubt they will come across people who will reject the message no matter how well presented or embodied (cf. Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23). Thus, even if Christians do not literally remove dirt from feet anymore, they most likely will have opportunity to proverbially knock the dust off of their feet and resign people to the judgment awaiting them.

Many people today might consider this harsh and unloving: how can we just resign people to their doom? If Christians showed absolutely no care or concern for such people, or despised them, then they would indeed by harsh and unloving. But Christians “shake the dust off of their feet” only after they have proclaimed the Gospel message and it was denied or rejected. The Christian has manifested enough love for the person to share with them this good news.

If anything, Christians must learn that the time does come to “shake the dust off the feet” and to move on, so to speak, to the next village. We would understand this if we had a little more distance, very much like the kind of itinerant preaching performed by the disciples and the Apostles. Yet we often seek to convert those to whom we are close and whom we love deeply. We deeply desire their salvation; we do not want to imagine they will be condemned. We are easily tricked into thinking that constant exhortation will move the needle and encourage them to convert.

Yet no one has ever been nagged into the Kingdom of Heaven. To constantly preach to people who have made it clear they do not want to hear speaks toward the insecurities and fears of the preacher, and his or her unwillingness to step back and respect the decision which has clearly been made. We do well to remember that we are to love others as God has loved us in Christ (cf. Ephesians 5:2); God has provided the means of salvation in Christ, and has done everything He can to save us, but does not coerce or compel us into accepting it; we must come to Him in faith, not under compulsion, but willingly. Love does not seek its own (1 Corinthians 13:5).

As God has loved us and therefore allowed us to go our own ways, even to our own harm, so we must love others and allow them to go in their own ways even to their own harm. To shake off the feet does not mean to become indifferent or hostile to people; we must still love them and do good for them as we have opportunity (Galatians 6:10, 1 Peter 4:19). Shaking off the feet is the way we demonstrate our respect for their decision: they have not really rejected us, but the Gospel, and God will hold them accountable for that. We have done what we could. The situation is sad and lamentable, and we wish it were not so; but God does not compel or coerce, and therefore neither do we. As long as people have life they have an opportunity to repent and change, and it might well be that they remember how you had told them of Jesus, and may come to you again to hear the message anew and afresh. If not, the day of judgment will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah than it will be for them.

Proclamation of the Gospel is not about us; it is about what God has done in Jesus and the importance for everyone to know about it. Not everyone will accept it; perhaps we could have presented it in a more winsome way, or could have better manifest its message in our lives, but ultimately God will hold each person accountable for what they did with the message. Those who reject the Gospel, regardless of motivation, will be liable to terrible judgment. God would have them to be saved, and wants us to communicate that message; once the message is communicated, it is no longer on us. If it is rejected, we move on. May we prove willing to shake the dust off of our feet when necessary while doing good to all people as we have opportunity, and glorify God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Sowing the Wind, Reaping the Whirlwind

For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind: he hath no standing grain; the blade shall yield no meal; if so be it yield, strangers shall swallow it up (Hosea 8:7).

Sometimes little things can lead to far more severe consequences. Witness the snowball rolling down the hill, becoming an avalanche.

For years, generations even, the northern Kingdom of Israel perpetuated all sorts of transgressions. They had become commonplace by the days of Hosea and Jeroboam II king of Israel; the cult statues of the golden calves in Dan and Bethel had been entrenched for over one hundred and fifty years (cf. 1 Kings 12:25-33, Hosea 8:4-6). The Israelites had negotiated treaties and alliances with all of their neighbors for that long as well; they had been one of the stronger military powers in the Levant in that period, perhaps lesser than the Arameans, but certainly greater than the Judahites, Moabites, Ammonites, Philistines, and others. There were times of deep idolatry, as with Ahab, Jezebel, and the Baals (1 Kings 16:29-33); yet Jehu son of Nimshi exterminated Baal out of Israel, at least for a time (2 Kings 10:28). Thus, Israelites in the eighth century BCE had lived in ways quite consistent with over five generations of their ancestors. Why should they expect anything to change? Why wouldn’t they continue to serve YHWH as the calves in Dan and Bethel as their fathers had done? Why wouldn’t they be able to continue to preserve their kingdom with a robust military and strategic foreign policy just as they had done for years?

For us today, the answer is obvious: Israel had not yet faced the full, unmitigated fury of the Assyrian menace, and they would prove no match for the Assyrian. We can see that with the benefit of hindsight; we can see how they had sown the wind and thus reaped the whirlwind.

To sow the wind and reap the whirlwind is an interesting phrase; it might well already be proverbial when Hosea uttered it, and it certainly has become proverbial ever since. It is an easily understood agricultural metaphor: the whole premise of farming demands a person reaps more than he originally sowed, else he will not be able to survive. Sowing a little and reaping a lot is great when it comes to food; it is terrifying and horrible when it comes to consequences of transgression. “Wind” often denotes vanity or futility (cf. Ecclesiastes 2:11); Israel sowed the vanity of idolatry and would reap the whirlwind of complete devastation and destruction at the hands of Assyria. That did, indeed, escalate quickly!

Sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind is proverbial for good reason. It is not as if it could only apply to Israel in the eighth century BCE. In the United States we are well aware that the American Revolution, or the Civil War, did not just spontaneously come about; plenty of smaller decisions and practices developed over centuries that “snowballed” into those armed conflicts. People still argue about how World War I began in 1914, and probably always will; yet all agree that the seeds of that conflict had been sown over at least the century beforehand, and in some cases likely far earlier. Regardless, we would be hard pressed to explain or even understand why those specific generations were the ones to endure such horrific tragedies like the Civil War, World War I, or World War II and its effects. What had they done that was that much worse than what their ancestors had done?

The answer provides cold comfort: no, those particular generations were not much better or worse than those who had come before. Instead, they were simply the ones around when it came time to reap the whirlwind. What they endured seemed disproportionate compared to what they themselves had done, but in the grand scheme of things, and viewed historically, it seemed all but inevitable. So it was with Israel; so it was in America and in Europe.

And so it will no doubt be again. In how many ways are people today sowing the wind and they, or perhaps their descendants, will reap the whirlwind? We can consider such things on both the individual and societal levels. A person may begin experimenting with drugs, become abusive, suffer terrible trauma, and make decisions which will negatively affect their offspring, who in turn also make poor decisions which perpetuate, and often deepen, the cycle. Whole groups of people exploit others or the environment, turn away from what makes for healthy societies, and the exploitation and brokenness multiplies as the generations continue until it can be sustained no longer. At some point there must be a reckoning, a suffering of terrifying consequences that may not be the fault of one particular generation but nevertheless remains a just consequence. Such is the way it goes whenever wind is sown; the whirlwind will come, and it will be savage!

Christians do well to learn from the lesson of Israel and the many lessons history would have to offer us. There may be concessions we have made to the world which seem to us as a little thing. They may involve flashpoints in the “culture war”; they may be things we believe everyone takes for granted, things “everyone just does,” “the way things are,” etc., all ways to justify things that might be contrary to the purposes of God and which in fact have only existed for less than two centuries. We get lulled into complacency on account of our narrow time frame and the fact that our ancestors did similar things and did not suffer tragic consequences, at least in this life. But what will happen if the whirlwind comes in our generation? What will we say or do then?

Hosea may have been perceived as a cantankerous lunatic in 752 BCE, but after the whirlwind of 722 it was painfully obvious just how accurate he was (Hosea 14:9). The benefit of hindsight we have regarding the failings of the people of the God before us proves relatively useless to us if we do not apply it in foresight of our current situation. May we seek to ascertain those ways in which we are not really trusting in God but trust in our own strength or in the ways of the world, turn and repent, and be saved in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Numbering Our Days

The days of our years are threescore years and ten / or even by reason of strength fourscore years
Yet is their pride but labor and sorrow / for it is soon gone, and we fly away.
Who knoweth the power of thine anger / and thy wrath according to the fear that is due unto thee?
So teach us to number our days / that we may get us a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:10-12).

Moses is trying to do a lot more than just to provide us with a baseline about the average lifespan.

Psalm 90 is the only psalm attributed to Moses; it is a tefillah, a prayer or perhaps prayer-hymn, and the Psalter has placed it at the beginning of the fourth book of psalms (Psalms 90-106). Moses praises God as the dwelling place of His people throughout all generations (Psalm 90:1). He speaks of God’s eternal nature, existing before the mountains and the world, everlasting to everlasting (Psalm 90:2). God who created man also sees his end, returning to dust, for to God a thousand years is as a day when it is past or a watch in the night, a time passed in sleep by most and thus barely perceptible (a four hour period; Psalm 90:3-4, cf. 2 Peter 3:8). In comparison humans are like sleep or grass in the field, alive one morning, cut down by evening (Psalm 90:5-6). The people of God are consumed in God’s anger, for their iniquities are set before them and they pass their days under the wrath of the hand of God (Psalm 90:7-9).

Moses then speaks of the “average” human life of seventy to eighty years (Psalm 90:10). The figures are appropriate; life expectancy these days is on average 67 for the world and closer to 80 for industrialized nations. Yes, average life expectancy was much worse during Moses’ days on account of illness, child mortality, and other factors. Medical technology has allowed modern man to increase the average life expectancy but not nearly as much if one focuses primarily on those who have already reached a level of maturity, that is, those who could hear and understand what Moses is saying in Psalm 90. All things being equal and without significant famine, plague, or war, even in Moses’ day 70 to 80 was the average upper limit to a lifespan, and has perhaps increased by a decade or so since.

The Death of Moses (crop)

Moses did not intend to provide some interesting factoid when he speaks of a lifespan of seventy or eighty years; he says their pride is labor and sorrow, it ends soon, and we fly away (Psalm 90:10). Seventy to eighty years is our lifetime, and it may seem like a lot to us; Moses just said that to God a thousand years, 12 or so times an average lifespan, is but four hours or a day (Psalm 90:4). Moses asks who can know the power of God’s anger according to the reverence due Him (Psalm 90:11). Moses gives voice to God’s people to ask God to teach us to number our days so we can obtain wisdom (Psalm 90:12); such is the real goal of this exploration of life and time.

Yet Moses speaks for God’s people in distress and would like for YHWH to return to His people and to show mercy to them, showing them covenant loyalty so they can rejoice and be glad as many days as they have been afflicted (Psalm 90:13-15). God is asked to have His work appear to His servants, His glory on their children, the favor of the Lord upon His people, establishing the work of their hands (Psalm 90:16-17). Thus ends Moses’ prayer.

We could imagine many circumstances in which Moses is speaking from experience. He led the Israelites out of Egypt after they had suffered deep distress for at least eighty years if not longer (Exodus 12:40, Deuteronomy 34:7). The people of God suffered His wrath on account of their faithless for forty years as they died in the Wilderness (Numbers 14:26-39). Yet Moses also knew that the Israelites would sin again and suffer great distress (Deuteronomy 31:27-32:44), and perhaps is giving them voice through his prayer in Psalm 90.

Israel desperately needed to keep Moses’ prayer in mind during difficult days. The Psalter is aware of this and likely places this psalm in its position as Psalm 90, the introduction to Book IV of the Psalms, but also after the maskilim of Heman and Ethan the Ezrahites (Psalms 88-89), which maintain confidence in YHWH as God of Israel, full of covenant loyalty, but who would really like to know where that covenant loyalty has gone in light of distress and exile. Of all the “lament” psalms they do not end on a note of faith; the questions are left open. In many ways Moses is left to “answer” Heman and Ethan: yes, our days may be full of woe and suffering; we may make it to 70 or 80 but those years are full of pain; but God is eternal, to Him a thousand years is like a night of sleep, and so we must number our days and be wise. God shows covenant loyalty and is faithful to His promises, but sometimes those promises take years to unfold, many more years than the average human life. From Abraham to the Conquest is about 590 years; from David to Jesus is about 950 years; from the hope of the end of exile to the establishment of Jesus’ eternal Kingdom was no less than 570 years. God was not slow as many count slowness; He was patient, and worked according to His purposes.

We also do well to keep Moses’ prayer in mind, not least because Peter quotes Psalm 90:4 in 2 Peter 3:8. It has been almost two thousand years since Jesus ascended to heaven (Acts 1:1-11); that may be 25 times the average lifespan of a human, but it is only as a half a night or two days to God. When we experience great trial and distress, living our seventy or eighty years in labor and sorrow, we may be tempted to wonder where the promise of God’s goodness or covenant loyalty has gone. We must remember that God has promised to give eternity of joy and rest, far more and longer than the days of our sorrow and pain (Romans 8:17-18, 2 Corinthians 4:17). We do well to ask for God to teach us to number our days and get wisdom, to always remember that God’s time-frame is not our time-frame, and it is for us to trust that all things will work together for good for the true people of God (Romans 8:28). May we serve God in Christ and obtain the blessing!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Waiting for Judgment

I heard, and my body trembled / my lips quivered at the voice
Rottenness entereth into my bones / and I tremble in my place
Because I must wait quietly for the day of trouble / for the coming up of the people that invadeth us (Habakkuk 3:16).

All has been said. Now the waiting began.

Habakkuk acutely perceived the iniquity and injustice pervasive in Judah in the latter days of the monarchy and wanted to know why YHWH was doing nothing about it (Habakkuk 1:1-4). YHWH responded, making it clear that He was quite aware of the situation and had a most terrifying solution: He was raising up the Chaldeans to overrun and destroy Judah (Habakkuk 1:5-11). Habakkuk attempted to make good theological sense out of this response, asking YHWH how He could have a more wicked nation overrun a comparatively more righteous nation in light of His holiness (Habakkuk 1:12-2:1). YHWH responds by affirming the salvation of the righteous and the end of the arrogant and presumptuous by the very earthly realities in which they trust: as they overpower, so they will be overpowered; the wicked in Judah will be overpowered by the Chaldeans as they overpowered the less fortunate; the Chaldeans in turn will be overpowered by another empire, and so on (Habakkuk 2:2-17).

Opera del duomo (FI), donatello, abacuc (zuccone), 1423-1435 dettaglio 02

Habakkuk responds to YHWH’s declarations as promised (Habakkuk 2:1), yet in the form of a prayer-hymn (Habakkuk 3:1-19). Habakkuk trusted in YHWH because he had heard and believed in the great acts of salvation in Israel’s past: the Exodus, the wanderings in the Wilderness, the Conquest, YHWH’s constant deliverance of the kings (Habakkuk 3:1-15). From those acts of deliverance Habakkuk recognized both YHWH’s great power exercised in His anger and His ability and willingness to deliver His people even from the strongest of foes. Habakkuk was one who was righteous and lived by his faith; he did not doubt for a moment all the devastation about to come upon Judah along with the eventual humiliation of Babylon (Habakkuk 3:16-19). YHWH has decreed; it will take place.

We know that Habakkuk’s confidence is well-placed because we know how it all goes down. Within a few years or decades, depending on when Habakkuk prophesied, the Chaldeans would invade Judah, destroy Jerusalem and the Temple, and exile its inhabitants (586 BCE; 2 Kings 25:1-21). Forty-seven years later Babylon itself would be overrun by the Persians (539 BCE; cf. Daniel 5:25-31). Babylon would be destroyed and rebuilt by the Persians; when the Seleucid Macedonians decided to build a new capital at Ctesiphon up the river, Babylon lost importance and soon faded. By the time the Abbasid caliphs built their capital even further up the river at Baghdad, Babylon was a ruin, lost to the sand until European archaeologists who believed in the name of the God of Israel would excavate it. Yes, Babylon would humiliate Judah, but Babylon would suffer even greater humiliation. YHWH would vindicate His name.

While we know that, and Habakkuk has confidence in it, as Habakkuk puts down his stylus, such is all in the future. For the moment he must wait, and the expectation of terror leads to very physical, and visceral, consequences: Habakkuk’s body trembled, his lips quivered, rottenness entered his bones, and he trembled at the magnitude of what was about to take place (Habakkuk 3:16). Habakkuk knew the terrifying things the Chaldeans would do the people of God and the house of YHWH. It was not yet, but it would be, and soon. Perhaps Habakkuk lived to see the devastation; perhaps not. Regardless, the book of Habakkuk ends with this pregnant expectation: it is going to happen, it will be ugly, YHWH will be vindicated. But it is not yet. When it comes, it will come speedily; but it is not yet (Habakkuk 2:2-3).

As Christians we should be able to sympathize with Habakkuk. We ought to be acquainted with God’s great acts of salvation and judgment: Jesus of Nazareth lived, died, rose again, ascended to the Father, and was given all authority (Acts 2:14-36, 1 Corinthians 15:1-8). Jerusalem was visited again in judgment, this time by the Romans; the Temple was again destroyed, never to be rebuilt (Matthew 24:1-36). The Romans, in turn, would meet their end (Revelation 12:1-19:21). The promise has been made that Jesus will return as He ascended (Acts 1:9-11): all will rise from the dead, the judgment will take place, the righteous will spend eternity in the Lord’s presence, and the wicked will be given over to their desires in hell (Matthew 25:1-46, Acts 17:30-31, Romans 8:17-25, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-5:11, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, Revelation 20:11-22:6). As Christians, we have every reason to maintain confidence that all these things will take place. Yet we find ourselves in the same position as Habakkuk: we are to wait quietly (2 Thessalonians 3:12). It is not delayed nor will it delay; God is exhibiting patience toward all so they can come to repentance (2 Peter 3:1-9). When it comes, it will come quickly; none will escape (2 Peter 3:10-13).

And so we Christians wait for the judgment. We must keep living by our faith and practice righteousness (Habakkuk 2:4, Matthew 24:42-25:13). It may be within a few years, decades, or perhaps centuries; we cannot know. But we can know that it will happen. The Lord will return. But we wait, as Habakkuk waited. Maranatha!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Judgment at the House of God

For the time is come for judgment to begin at the house of God: and if it begin first at us, what shall be the end of them that obey not the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17)

A good rule of any communication is to “know your audience.” They are, after all, the ones to whom you are speaking. They are the ones to whom the message should be directed.

Those who speak in the pages of Scripture knew their audience. The prophets spoke the Word of YHWH to the Israelites of their generation, warning them about their sins and transgressions and the impending judgment to come on account of them and yet providing hope for restoration in the future. Jesus spoke to the Israelites of the first century about the impending Kingdom of God. The Apostles wrote to first century Christians about their conditions and situations and what God wanted them to do.

Peter continues in this tradition in 1 Peter 4:12-19. He is encouraging the Christians who live in what we today call Turkey regarding the persecution and suffering they are experiencing or about to experience. They should not find it at all strange that they will suffer for the Name; they should in fact glory in it (1 Peter 4:12-16). He then emphasizes that judgment is coming, but it begins at the house of God (1 Peter 4:17). Such judgment then extends to those outside the house of God, and their condemnation is understood in Peter’s rhetorical questions (1 Peter 4:17-18; cf. Proverbs 11:31). God will judge and condemn those who persecute and cause suffering for the people of God; the people of God are to entrust themselves to their faithful Creator while continuing to do good (1 Peter 4:19).

Albrecht Dürer The Last Judgment circa 1510

We can see, therefore, that God is very much interested in speaking to the condition and situation of the specific audience to which He speaks. That audience is primarily His people from beginning to end. Those who are not His people are not listening to Him; He can do nothing for them while they remain in that condition (Romans 8:1-9). In Scripture God makes it very clear that those who do not know Him and do not obey the Gospel of His Son will be condemned (Romans 1:18-32, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-9, Revelation 20:11-15). They need to hear the Gospel, repent of their sin, and serve the Lord (Acts 17:22-31).

So it will be that the evil, indifferent, slothful, and uncaring will get their just deserts on the final day. Yet our concern must, first and foremost, be with us as the people of God. God is speaking to us through the message of His Word: judgment begins here (1 Peter 4:17)!

As we have seen it has always been so. The people of God may want to continually point to the gross sinfulness and immorality all around them and act as if such justifies their comparatively less sinful behavior. God has never provided any such refuge; He recognizes that the wicked live in wickedness, expects it, and has given them over to their lusts (Romans 1:18-32). He expects better from His people! Many take too much comfort in passages like John 3:18, Romans 8:31-39, and similar passages, interpreting them absolutely and teaching that their salvation is fully secure no matter what. Nevermind passages like Hebrews 10:26-31, 2 Peter 2:20-22; the story of God’s involvement with Israel should disabuse everyone of the notion that being made the elect of God automatically grants salvation! God does not want to condemn us or anyone else (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9); nevertheless, He has never, and will never, justify or commend any who persist in thoughts, feelings, and behaviors contrary to His will and character.

Judgment begins at the house of God, the church (1 Timothy 3:15, 1 Peter 4:17). Too many look into the pages of Scripture to find how everyone else is condemned or judged; if we would be God’s people we must be humble and chastened enough to recognize that the exhortations and warnings found in the pages of Scripture are indeed primarily directed toward us. God will handle the condemnation of those outside (1 Corinthians 5:13). If we would claim to be the people of God we must allow God to point the finger of exhortation and rebuke found in Scripture at ourselves before we dare attempt to ascertain how it may be directed at others (Matthew 7:1-4). Judgment begins at the house of God; are we ready?

Ethan R. Longhenry

Cows of Bashan

“Hear this word, ye kine of Bashan, that are in the mountain of Samaria, that oppress the poor, that crush the needy, that say unto their lords, ‘Bring, and let us drink.’
The Lord GOD hath sworn by his holiness, that, lo, the days shall come upon you, that they shall take you away with hooks, and your residue with fish-hooks. And ye shall go out at the breaches, every one straight before her; and ye shall cast yourselves into Harmon,” saith the LORD (Amos 4:1-3).

Amos does not have many kind words for those who were comfortable and wealthy in Israel. The women are no exception.

He begins by calling them “kine,” or cows, of Bashan (Amos 4:1). Bashan is in the northeastern part of Israel across the Jordan, around the Golan area today (cf. Deuteronomy 4:43), and was famous for its pastureland and timber (Jeremiah 50:14, Ezekiel 27:6, 39:18, Micah 7:14). These “cows of Bashan” actually live in Samaria, and so the reference is clearly derogatory: these women are those who “graze” upon the best of the land. It was not a pleasant reference, and it was not meant to be; women have never taken kindly to being compared with cows.

Amos’ accusation is quite specific: these women have oppressed the poor and crushed the needy while demanding more drink from their husbands (Amos 4:1). They enjoy their wealth and prosperity today, but Amos warns them about the days to come when they will be thoroughly humiliated and denigrated: every last one of them will be carried off as exiles (Amos 4:2-3). God has sworn by His holiness that it will take place; it has been firmly decreed; it will not be revoked (Amos 4:2; cf. Hebrews 6:13). Within 50 years of Amos’ prediction, it did come to pass: Assyria overran Israel, and its inhabitants were exiled to Assyria (2 Kings 17:1-41).

We do well to reflect a moment about Amos’ condemnation of the noblewomen of Samaria. He accuses them of oppressing the poor and crushing the needy, and yet it is hard to imagine that any of these women were ever out on the streets actively harming the poor or needy. They would not have engaged in business dealings, court bribery, adaptation of laws to benefit the rich and further impoverishing the poor, or other such behaviors promoting injustice and oppression. Their husbands were the ones doing so! But what was at least part of the reason behind why their husbands, the lords and nobles of Israel, behaved this way? They had the lifestyles of their wives to support; they continually demanded food, drink, and other luxurious items. Their lifestyle was supported on the backs of the poor and needy among them, and so they fall under the same condemnation as their husbands. They stand condemned for oppressing the poor and crushing the needy because they were indirect “beneficiaries” of the proceeds which came as a result of those behaviors.

Most people today are not actively, consciously, and deliberately going out to oppress the poor and crush the needy. Even if we do pass by a lot of homeless people, we might give a little something to a few that seem worthy. Most people give at least a little something to charity, even if it is some promotion at the grocery store or large retailer. Therefore, it would be very easy for most people to not take the charge of oppressing the poor or crushing the needy very seriously.

Yet Amos and his condemnation of the “cows of Bashan,” the noblewomen of Samaria, should give us pause. God does not condemn only those who actively work to oppress the poor and crush the needy, but also those who benefit or have their lifestyles financed by the oppression of the poor and the crushing of the needy! As in Israel, many times government is used by some to reinforce their advantage against others; in some cases, those whose family, friends, or tribe make up the government get the advantages to the detriment of everyone else. Yet this is not just a problem in other places: how much of our lifestyle is subsidized by cheap labor in other places? Workers in other countries are subjected to horrendous, often inhumane conditions, in order to make the products we buy at prices we feel comfortable paying. Their wages would never make it in America, and often barely make it where they live; some are imprisoned and making such products in forced labor camps; meanwhile, how many Americans have lost jobs and find themselves impoverished because their jobs were shipped overseas on account of lower labor costs? With every product there is a cost; the constant pursuit of lower prices hurts people in plenty of places. Multinational corporations exploit legal loopholes and often participate in illegal behavior if it produces sufficient profit; the stock price may go up, but people are harmed in the process. How many times have some governments or companies extracted minerals or other valuable commodities from the land, share the profits with themselves and their owners and shareholders, and disband or look away when it becomes clear that there are lots of environmental costs which are now passed along to the inhabitants of the area? Some people over the short-term made some money; generations living on that land may suffer the consequences.

The noblewomen of Samaria stood condemned for oppressing the poor and crushing the needy even though it was their husbands who actively engaged in that behavior. Their condemnation was secured because they were the beneficiaries of the immoral and unjust behavior. God judged them speedily; they did not escape. We live in a different time and under a different covenant, but God has no less concern for the poor, disadvantaged, and needy (Matthew 25:31-46, James 2:1-7, 5:1-6). If we indirectly benefit from oppressive behavior, will we escape the same punishment? Let us stand against oppression and injustice in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, and seek the welfare of all people, near and far, and live in such a way that our lifestyles are not sustained to the detriment of the poor or needy in the world!

Ethan R. Longhenry

To Save the World

“And if any man hear my sayings, and keep them not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world” (John 12:47).

There are many passages of Scripture which many seek to use outside of their context in order to say something quite different from what its author intended. There are also times when students of Scripture over-emphasize context as an attempt to smooth out difficult and challenging statements. Jesus’ declaration in John 12:47 is a demonstration of each.

If we take the statement on its own it seems as if Jesus is saying that He is not going to judge those who hear His sayings and do not keep them. Such a sentiment would be welcome in a time and place where “tolerance” is stretched to the limit and acceptance of all sorts of “lifestyle decisions” is in vogue. Such an interpretation fits nicely in a picture of a Jesus whose love means that all sorts of moral standards can be fudged and truth becomes a take it or leave it proposition.

Such is not what Jesus intends. He speaks quite clearly in Matthew 25:31-46 about the judgment to come and the basis of that judgment; He warns that those who do not do the will of the Father will be condemned in Matthew 7:21-23. While Jesus does love all people, He does not love sin and its corrosive effect on people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions, and never in His life commended any sinful behavior. He warned that all who persisted in sin would perish if they did not repent (Luke 13:1-5).

The fuller statement of Jesus in John 12:44-50 bears this out. Jesus is emphasizing not Himself but His Father: those who believe in Jesus really believe in the Father, and those who see Jesus see the Father who sent Him (John 12:44-45). Jesus came as light so that those who would believe in Him would not abide in darkness (John 12:46): light is all that is right and holy, and darkness is all that is sinful and evil. After Jesus makes His declaration in John 12:47, He continues by saying that the one who rejects His word has a judge on the final day: His word, and that not because He spoke on His own authority, but because He spoke based on the authority of His Father, and His commandment is eternal life (John 12:48-50). Jesus cannot be construed as saying that there will be no judgment; there will be judgment on the final day, and all will be taken into account (Acts 17:30-31, Romans 2:5-11)!

Yet we do well to spend some time considering why Jesus says what He says as He says it. Why would He say that He does not judge those who do not keep His word, since He came not to judge but to save the world (John 12:47)? We can immediately begin thinking of all sorts of statements in Scripture which seem to be in contradiction with this statement: Jesus will be the Judge on the final day in Matthew 25:31-46 and Acts 17:30-31, and by His very life and being the light He manifests a delineation, or judgment, against darkness (cf. John 1:4-5). We can therefore understand why there is a strong impulse to explain this verse away. Yet we can see a similar statement and its antithesis in John 12:44, 46, in which Jesus says that the one who believes on Jesus does not believe on Jesus but on the Father who sent Him, and then in the next breath speaks of those who believes on Him as not abiding in darkness. On the surface, this is also a complete mess: how can Jesus say that those who believe on Him do not really believe on Him and yet do believe on Him? That seems to be a contradictory mess!

When Scripture seems contradictory, God intends for us to stop and think more deeply about what He is trying to communicate. Jesus’ declaration that those who believe on Him do not believe on Him but on the Father who sent Him in John 12:44 is not to be taken to mean that one does not actually believe in Jesus; it is designed to place emphasis in the right place. Jesus is who He is because He has been sent by the Father, and His statement in John 12:44 is designed to give glory to the Father and put the emphasis where it belongs. And so it is with John 12:47 as well: it is not that Jesus has no role of judgment, but a matter of emphasis: Jesus’ primary purpose in becoming flesh and dwelling among us was not to judge the world but to save it.

As Christians we must always remember and be thankful that Jesus is in the “saving business” and not in the “condemning business.” This does not mean that Jesus has thrown out any kind of moral standard or that we should in any way adapt or change the standards as set forth in Scripture. There will be a day of judgment, and on that day, many will be condemned because they did not know God or obey the Gospel and have not done the will of the Father (Matthew 7:21-23, Romans 2:5-10, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). Yet God does not condemn such people with relish; it saddens Him, for He wants all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). If condemnation is what God desired for all of us, there would have been no reason to send Jesus to the earth or to have Him die on the cross; we all stand condemned on the basis of our sin (Romans 3:23, 6:23), and God would not have to take extra or special action to catch us in our iniquity and to condemn us. That is why Jesus did not come to judge the world but to save it: the world was already judged as in darkness, already subject to corruption and decay, and people already facing an unpleasant day of judgment (John 1:4-5, 12:46, Romans 8:19-23)!

Jesus came to save the world: He came to be a light to people, to show them the way of God, to redeem them from their sins, to bring them back into a restored relationship with their Heavenly Father, so as to spend eternity with them in the resurrection (Matthew 20:25-28, Romans 5:6-11, Revelation 21:1-22:6). From the beginning Jesus has been seeking ways to bring people into His Kingdom, not keep them out of it (Luke 14:15-24, Ephesians 3:10-11, Colossians 1:13). In Christ God wants to give all things to His people (Romans 8:31-32)! Therefore, while we must make sure to understand Jesus’ declaration in John 12:47 in its context, we must also allow its emphasis to sink in deep and to keep it in mind. It becomes very easy in Christianity to become as the Pharisees of old and find all sorts of reasons to exclude people and to draw restrictive boundary lines. While there are times when we must stand firm for the truth of God against those who would pervert it, and have no excuse to justify what God has not authorized us to do (cf. Romans 16:17-18, Jude 1:3), we do well to remember that God’s primary purpose in Christ is not to condemn but to save, and may we ever give Him great thanks and praise for it, for if it were otherwise, what would come of us?

Jesus’ primary purpose is not to judge but to save. Let us seek to proclaim that great message of salvation so that many more may be added to His Kingdom and God be glorified!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Just Deserts

For the day of the LORD is near upon all the nations: as thou hast done, it shall be done unto thee; thy dealing shall return upon thine own head (Obadiah 1:15).

Perhaps you’ve heard it said, “they’re getting their just deserts.”

“Deserts” here sounds like “desserts,” and many people insist that it is supposed to be “desserts,” but it is “deserts,” not referring to a parched wilderness, but an older definition otherwise not used: “that which is deserved.”

There has been little love from Edom for Israel from Moses until the exile. It happened according to Isaac’s blessings of Jacob and Esau (cf. Genesis 27:1-45): the Israelites many times ruled over the Edomites, but the Edomites would take advantage of any opportunity to cause difficulties for Israel. Yet the most recent actions prove to be the most reprehensible: when the Babylonians attacked Israel, Edom their brother did nothing to help, but were encouraged at the humiliation of Israel (cf. Psalm 137:7, Obadiah 1:11). When Israel was carried into exile by Babylon, Edom took the opportunity to expand westward into the land of Judah (cf. Ezekiel 35:15). In every respect they rejoiced at the downfall of Israel.

On account of these circumstances, Obadiah receives a vision warning Edom, in effect, that it is about to get its just deserts (cf. Obadiah 1:1-21). As they have rejoiced at Israel’s downfall, so Israel will be given reason to rejoice at their downfall. As they encroached upon Israel’s territory, so Israel will encroach upon their territory; in fact, according to historical records, the (Israelite) Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus conquered the Edomites and forced them all to convert to Judaism (ca. 110 BCE; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 13.9.1). They received their “just deserts.”

Yet Obadiah does not restrict this to Edom: on the day of the LORD, all nations will get their “just deserts.” The Arameans fell to the Assyrians. The Philistines were exiled by the Babylonians, never to return. The Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and the Macedonians ruled and oppressed only to find themselves being ruled and oppressed by nations over which they had exercised authority. None of them remain; as they had done to others, so it was done to them.

This pattern has continued throughout time; God is still likely doing to nations as they have done to others. But what is true on a “national” level remains true on a “personal” level as well. Jesus encourages believers that “as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise” (Luke 6:31). As the “Golden Rule,” it is a wonderful encouragement for us to consider. Yet there is a powerful reason behind this encouragement: God is going to give each person their “just deserts” on the day of the LORD, the day of judgment (cf. Romans 2:4-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). As we have done to others, so will it be done to us. If we treated others as we want to be treated, and showed love, mercy, and compassion to others, we will receive love, mercy, and compassion. But if we have treated others callously and shamefully, exploiting them for our (perceived) benefit, will we not receive callous and shameful treatment as God’s punishment in return?

There are times when people are in distress and experiencing humiliation. There are times when people are prosperous and proud. As with the nations, so with people: all will get their “just deserts.” As Jesus said, those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted (cf. Matthew 23:12). We do well to learn from these examples in the past. Let us maintain humility, whether prosperous or poor, successful or humiliated, and let us always seek to do good for others so that our “just deserts” is the resurrection of life and eternity with God, not the resurrection of condemnation and eternity separated from Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Can Any Good Thing Come From Nazareth?

Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, “We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
And Nathanael said unto him, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”
Philip saith unto him, “Come and see” (John 1:45-46).

Location factors heavily into our assumptions and judgments about people. Imagine you are told about a group of people: one person grew up in Appalachia, another in Manhattan in New York City, another in south Alabama, another in Texas, another in Wisconsin, and another from rural Nevada. In all likelihood you have already come up with some concept of who these people are based on their location of origin and raising. Yes, there will be times when those assumptions will prove false, yet how much more often do they prove true?

This tendency is nothing new; it went on in first century Israel as well. People would be judged based upon whether they grew up in Judea, Samaria, or Galilee (cf. Acts 2:7), whether in more urbanized areas or more rural areas. And, then as now, the more remote and less urban the location, the more likely people were to look down on those who came from there.

So it is with Nazareth in Galilee. Galilee itself was seen as remote, away from the epicenter of Judaism in Jerusalem, not known for erudition or much civilization. Within Galilee itself, Nazareth barely registers, receiving no mention from Jewish sources before the third century of our era. This insignificance led some skeptics to doubt whether Nazareth existed at all in the first century CE, but archaeological evidence does indicate the place was inhabited. It is now believed that Nazareth was a village of no more than 500 in the days when Jesus grew up there. Nazareth is about 16 miles southwest of the Sea of Galilee; it is not near the Mediterranean Sea and would not be on a lot of travel routes. It is evident why Nazareth would easily be despised in the eyes of others: it is in the backwoods or out in the sticks, a small village. In the eyes of more educated and urban Jews, the Nazarenes would have been judged as ignorant at best and perhaps as simple-minded sinners at worst.

Philip is a Galilean whom Jesus had called, hailing from Bethsaida on the coast of the Sea of Galilee (John 1:43-44). Based upon what he has seen and/or heard, he is immediately convinced regarding who Jesus is: he finds Nathanael and tells him how he has found the “him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote,” otherwise known as the Messiah, which was the hope of all Israel in these days. We can imagine how excited Nathanael would be at the prospect of meeting the One whom God had promised! And then Philip identifies who He is: Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:15).

For Philip, “of Nazareth” is not meant to be degrading or demeaning, but simply a way of identifying which Jesus is being described. Both “Jesus” and “Joseph” were quite popular names among the Jews of the first century; therefore, to say then that Jesus is the Messiah would likely prompt the response, “Which Jesus?”. “Jesus the son of Joseph” would likely accurately describe many other Jewish men of the day. Yet “Jesus of Nazareth” was unique: if nothing else, no other Jesus in Nazareth was known for doing anything that might make him to be considered a possible Messiah.

Nevertheless, all Nathanael now knows about Jesus is that his friend Philip thinks He is the One of whom Moses and the prophets wrote in the Hebrew Bible, and that He is from Nazareth. And so he asks his famous question: can any good thing come out of Nazareth (John 1:46)?

Nathanael’s reaction is honest; perhaps such is what partly prompts Jesus’ declaration that Nathanael is an Israelite “in whom is no guile” (John 1:47). There is some dispute as to whether Nathanael asks the question on account of Nazareth’s relative insignificance or possibly because Nazareth has a reputation for sinfulness or immorality. The answer depends on whether “good thing” should be understood in a “moral” sense or in a more “qualitative” sense. He also might have the prophecy of the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem in view as well (cf. Micah 5:2, John 7:40-52): how can such a good thing as the Messiah come out of Nazareth or even Galilee, since the Messiah is to come from Bethlehem and ostensibly grow up in the environs of Jerusalem? Since we do not know a whole lot about Nazareth’s reputation in the first century, we cannot know for certain, but we can see clearly that Nathanael is judging the situation based upon the stereotype and/or geographic prejudice.

But Nathanael does not allow that prejudice to get in the way: he does not dismiss Philip’s claim out of hand, and he quickly ascertains how special Jesus is, to the point of making similar declarations regarding Him as Philip did (cf. John 1:47-51). Nathanael learned quickly that yes, a good thing can come from Nazareth; in fact, the greatest thing of all has come from Nazareth!

Nathanael’s story provides good reminders for us about judgment. It is easy to fall prey to snap judgments about people based upon many factors, including geography and the culture inherent in geography, but geography need not be destiny. It remains true that stereotypes exist for a reason, but not everyone fits the stereotype. Imagine if we had been in Nathanael’s place so long ago: if we strictly judged everyone by their place of origin, we would have rejected Jesus the Christ, confident in our misguided assumption that no good thing could come out of Nazareth. How terrible would have been our fate!

Jesus warns us about judgment (cf. Matthew 7:1-4), encouraging us not to judge by appearance but to render right judgment (John 7:24). We may not be able to resist every caricature or stereotype, but we have no right to condemn the lot of a group of people on account of superficial factors. Let us maintain a spirit like Nathanael’s, willing to judge on the merits and character of a person, and so honor and glorify God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Two or Three Witnesses

At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is to die be put to death; at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death (Deuteronomy 17:6).

God exhibits concern for fairness and justice as He provides legislation for Israel through Moses. Many of the laws involve serious matters with life-or-death consequences for the defendant. In Deuteronomy 17:2-5, Moses provides a case law regarding anyone who is found guilty of having committed idolatry and served other gods. Such people are to be put to death. But there is one caveat given: there must be at least two or three witnesses. One witness is not sufficient to establish guilt and thus execution. Furthermore, even if there are at least two witnesses, the witnesses must be the first one to throw the stones of execution (Deuteronomy 17:7). All of this serves to underlie the seriousness of not just capital offenses but also any accusations thereof.

This is wise policy. It might be tempting for one person to bear false witness against his neighbor in order to gain some advantage, exact revenge, or on account of some other nefarious purpose. It is not foolproof; situations could be imagined in which two or more people decide to conspire against someone and bear false witness, as some of the Jewish people themselves imagined in the apocryphal story of Daniel and Susanna. Nevertheless, in such circumstances, their stories could be proven as inconsistent to their own detriment (as the aforementioned story attempted to make clear).

Yet it also protects the defendant even in cases where a person gives testimony honestly but not according to reality. Human memory is not like a video camera accurately capturing every moment and then perfectly archiving the information for later use; our memories can change slightly, especially if prompted by suggestion. One person could see something, honestly believe the person was committing a capital crime, but be mistaken. That is far less likely to be true if two or more people saw the same offense.

There is also value in having the witnesses be the ones to begin the execution. It is one thing to make accusations and let others do the “dirty work”; it is quite another to have to take the stone in your hand yourself and throw it at the accused. This is especially true when everyone knows everyone, as was likely the case in most Israelite villages and towns. This was a serious matter: it required strong commitment to the principles God set forth in the Law, but it also required absolute certainty of the guilt of the accused.

This is not a principle abandoned after the end of the Law. Bringing two or three witnesses is the second phase of the attempt to reconcile with a brother who has sinned (cf. Matthew 18:15-17). Paul warned the Corinthians of the matter in 2 Corinthians 13:1; he exhorts Timothy to not hear any accusation against an elder of the church except if there be two or three witnesses in 1 Timothy 5:19. Serious matters require validation by more than one witness!

The principle is not just valid in terms of legal matters and capital offenses: it is a good principle by which to live our lives. Accusations should require validation from more than one source.

We humans have a habit of playing “judge, jury, and executioner” with others. We are tempted to confuse our subjective perceptions with objective reality. It is easy for us to be sure that someone else acts in uncharitable ways, does not like us, does things to injure us, and so on and so forth. Perhaps there are times when such persons actually do harbor ill-will, but many times it is just a matter of mistaken impressions or misunderstandings of intention. But the feelings of jealousy, envy, and hostility engendered by these judgments prove toxic to marriages, friendships, business partnerships, family relationships, etc.

At such times we must remind ourselves how we judge ourselves by our intentions but others by their actual performance, or, as Jesus put it, we see everyone else’s specks in their eye while missing the log in our own (cf. Matthew 7:3-5). There is a reason why people with logs in their eyes are not trusted to provide reliable testimony on the witness stand! It proves too easy to project all sorts of negative motivations and intentions on others when it is quite possible and perhaps likely that no ill will was intended. Just because we feel wronged does not mean that we actually have been wronged; just because we feel as if the other person is not well disposed toward us does not make it so.

Far too often too many people make too much out of quite a little. We do well to consider the wise standard of having two or three witnesses in regards to serious matters, and not be so quick to malign and judge others on the basis of our subjective perceptions. Let us wisely give others the benefit of the doubt, establishing all things by the mouth of two or three witnesses!

Ethan R. Longhenry