Settling Out of Court

Agree with thine adversary quickly, while thou art with him in the way; lest haply the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou have paid the last farthing (Matthew 5:25-26).

Today we would call this type of scene “settling out of court.”

In the middle of what is popularly called the “Sermon on the Mount” Jesus provides a bit of wisdom in Matthew 5:25-26. He seems to presuppose a situation in which a person owes money to another and has not fully repaid. Jesus encourages such a one to come to an agreement with their adversary, their legal opponent, the one to whom something is likely owed, lest that adversary deliver the person up to the judge, and then to the relevant officer who will imprison the person until they have paid the last kordantes, the smallest unit of Roman money.

Jesus provides wise counsel here for those who find themselves in such a situation. At first glance its placement seems strange; Jesus has begun a series of declarations contrasting “what was said” with what He “sa[id] unto you,” a declaration of the way of the Kingdom which goes far beyond the narrow standard of righteousness expected in the Pharisaic tradition (Matthew 5:20-48); Jesus has just uttered the first such statement regarding murder and hatred (Matthew 5:21-22), and followed up with a man needing to reconcile with his brother before he could properly make an offering before God (Matthew 5:23-24). Jesus will go on to speak about adultery and lust (Matthew 5:27-28). Why, then, does He provide this particular piece of counsel? Is His concern really about settling out of court rather than before the judge?

To understand Jesus’ saying we must consider the force of His teachings so far in Matthew 5:21-24. All would agree that murder was wrong (cf. Exodus 20:13), but Jesus went on to declare that the entire process that would lead to such first-degree murder–hatred, insult, degradation–was just as wrong (Matthew 5:22). In Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus shows how religious behavior cannot be divorced from everyday living and still remain effective; one cannot be reconciled with God while he intentionally remains unreconciled with his brother. Therefore, in His initial contrast Jesus declares the Kingdom way of avoiding hostilities: we are not to hate, degrade, or insult one another, and we must maintain reconciled relationships with our brothers if we want to maintain a reconciled relationship toward God. Whatever Jesus is attempting to say in Matthew 5:25-26 must flow from these principles.

We can immediately discover some parallels and some contrasts. We can see that Jesus continues the theme of coming to agreement, but the “other person” in this situation is far different from those who have come before. Previously Jesus spoke of not insulting one’s “brother” or needing to reconcile with one’s “brother”; this time Jesus is speaking about coming to terms with one’s “adversary.” Jesus finds some virtue in coming to terms with this adversary without going through the whole legal process which will not end up well for the person under discussion. But what does this type of agreement have to do with what Jesus has said before? What is He critiquing, and why?

Jesus’ concern has been about healthy relationships. Murder, of course, is the complete breakdown of a relationship. Hatred, insult, and degradation are corrosive and toxic for relationships. Relationships suffer when someone has something against the other. Likewise, two people going to court indicates a breakdown in communication and agreement in a relationship, especially when the court case involves owed money. At some point the relationship between the parties was sufficiently cordial so that one person felt confident enough to lend money to the other; if such a one must take the other to court in order to get satisfaction, that relationship has clearly broken down. By the time the matter is brought before the judge, the situation is now all about justice and there can be no expectation of grace or mercy. The time for grace and mercy had past; the opportunity to receive that was “on the way” to the courthouse, either literally or figuratively. By the time the case reaches the judge the person will be held accountable for the debt and has no reasonable expectation of having a restored relationship with the one to whom he was indebted.

When seen in this way, Jesus’ counsel here makes much more sense in context. The counsel remains useful for those indebted but is by no means limited to those in debt; it is an appeal for all to agree with those who either are or who might quickly be our adversary on the way, to find agreement so as to find more grace and mercy then as opposed to experiencing nothing but justice at the end. When an agreement is made, a relationship can be restored; when no agreement was made, and justice was demanded, the relationship is in tatters. Jesus wants us to take healthy relationships very seriously: it is not enough to just not murder people but remain insulting, derogatory, full of hate, flippant about unresolved offenses in relationships, and unwilling to find agreement. Instead, we are to seek reconciliation with our fellow man and find agreement so that grace and mercy can triumph over judgment.

Yet, in light of what Jesus will have to say in Matthew 18:21-35, 25:1-46, we would be remiss to miss the connection between relationships between people and the relationship between God and man. God expects people to come to agreement with those to whom they are indebted lest the time of grace and mercy is exhausted and they experience justice before the judge (Matthew 5:25-26); in the same way God appeals to all people to come and make agreement with Him while He extends grace and mercy to receive forgiveness of sin through His Son Jesus Christ before it is too late, for the day is coming when the time of grace and mercy has passed and all that remains is to experience justice before God as our Judge (Romans 2:5-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10). We do well to “settle out of court” with our fellow man so as to preserve some sort of relationship, yet we all must make sure we “settle out of court” with God by trusting in His Son, the Lord Jesus, so as to receive grace and mercy through Him, the forgiveness of sins in His blood, so that we do not have to experience justice on the day of judgment! Let us all put our trust in the Lord Jesus and maintain reconciled relationships both with God and with our fellow man!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Killing, Hostility, and Degradation

“Ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, ‘Thou shalt not kill’; and ‘whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment’:
but I say unto you, that every one who is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment; and whosoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca,’ shall be in danger of the council; and whosoever shall say, ‘Thou fool’, shall be in danger of the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21-22).

This was quite an astonishing way of saying things.

For generations teachers of the Law of Moses would not presume the authority to make their own naked declarations: whatever they would say would involve references to the Law and/or to noted rabbis. Yet here Jesus makes a break with tradition and begins a series of statements comparing and contrasting “what was said” with what “I say unto you” (Matthew 5:21-48). The multitudes proved suitably astonished: they marveled at how He taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes (Matthew 7:28-29).

He begins this extraordinary series of declarations with a well-known commandment: thou shalt not kill (Exodus 20:13, Matthew 5:21). “Whosoever shall kill will be in danger of the judgment” is not explicitly found in that word-for-word form in the Law but its sentiment is a proper conclusion of passages like Exodus 21:12-14, Leviticus 24:21, Numbers 35:16-21, 30-34, and Deuteronomy 16:18. What the Law teaches is rooted in Genesis 9:5-6: murdering another human being is wrong and sinful. Since God created all humans, and is no respecter of persons, all humans have value in God’s sight (cf. Genesis 1:26-27, Romans 2:11): therefore, a man taking the life of another man can never be a trivial matter. Such cases had to be adjudicated and done with the greatest care: justice needed to be done for the one who died, but the severity of the consequence, the death of the one who killed the man, was so serious that it merited a thorough trial. Furthermore, the Law made provision for intention: one who was guilty of what we would call involuntary manslaughter was not to be treated the same way as one who was guilty of first-degree murder (cf. Numbers 35:9-34). While mercy was called for in cases of involuntary manslaughter, there was to be no mercy in cases of first-degree murder: life for a life, blood for blood, was demanded, otherwise the integrity of life would be besmirched.

Jesus has no quarrel with the law regarding murder, the trial process for murder, or the consequences for murder. He in no way is attempting to minimize the need for justice to be done in cases of murder; while murderers, as the rest of us, can receive forgiveness for their sins, they still will have to suffer the civic consequences for their behavior. Jesus is in no way attempting to abrogate or minimize this law; He instead goes further with His warning.

Jesus focuses in directly on the “first-degree” part of “first-degree murder”: murder as an intentional, premeditated act. What motivates anyone to attempt to kill another human made in the image of God? Such an act is never motivated by love or based upon an application of the “Golden Rule.” Every first-degree murder is first committed in the mind, and it can only first be committed in the mind when there is some sort of hostility or enmity which is fostered and cultivated within the mind. This is Jesus’ focus in His “but I say unto you” declaration.

Jesus speaks in absolute terms: everyone who is angry with his brother is in danger of the judgment just as if he had murdered him; the one who says, “Raca,” meaning “empty” or perhaps colloquially “airhead,” is in danger of being brought before the council, or Sanhedrin, and the one who calls his brother a fool is in danger of Gehenna, God’s trash pit. These are very serious warnings and demand the listener’s attention!

There is an understandable desire to temper what Jesus says: He Himself will call the Pharisees and scribes fools in Matthew 23:17, and Paul will tell Christians to be angry and sin not in Ephesians 4:26. Yet we do well to also consider how John considers one who hates his brother as a murderer in 1 John 3:14-15.

The core message of Jesus’ instruction is clear enough: murder is the result of a process, and the process therefore is as dangerous, sinful, and wrong as its result. Murder is the result of everything from anger to insult and, as John will show as perhaps worst of all, indifference, having no concern about the fate of others (hate being understood as lack of active love, or loving less, as is often in the New Testament; so Luke 14:26). Yes, one can be angry with another person without killing them, but one cannot kill another person without having some sort of anger at them. Yes, it is possible to despise or be indifferent to the existence of another human being without murdering them, but murder is often motivated by a careless disregard and contempt for the life of the one killed. These attitudes and thought patterns can lead to the deed, and even when they do not lead to the deed, are still unprofitable, unproductive, and quite toxic to God’s real intent. God is not merely interested in having us not kill each other: He wants us to affirm the value of each person as another made in the image of God and therefore of inestimable value. If we are angry with another human, or show disregard, contempt, or indifference toward another human, we are not honoring him or her as fellow children of God, and thus find ourselves in danger of judgment and condemnation. The works of the flesh are indifferent to, callous of, or even abusive of other people; the fruit of the Spirit cannot help but dignify and honor others as fellow children of God (Galatians 5:17-24).

Jesus therefore uses the ultimate negative in order to point His followers to the ultimate positive: murder is such a big deal because of the surpassing value of human life, and therefore God’s people must think, feel, and do all things in order to maintain the honor, value, and dignity of human life. Such honor, value, and dignity goes well beyond just avoiding ending the lives of others; by necessity it must continue to affirm their value and dignity, and thus our thoughts, feelings, and actions should always express that value and dignity. Anger and its subsequent hostility as well as insult and its subsequent degradation are incompatible with the honor and dignity inherent in the value of life. Jesus makes it clear that it is not enough to just not kill; we must also show love, and to show love demands that we honor and dignify our fellow humans and do all things toward that end. Therefore, let us seek the best interest of others, not only not killing them but also not allowing anger to fester into hostility and resentment, or to act presumptuously and insult and degrade them, and thus honor and glorify God who dignified them with life as He has us!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Winners and Losers

And the King shall answer and say unto them, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).

It is a theme which plays out daily in sporting venues across the country. One team gains the victory: its players are jubilant and their fans celebrate. The cameras focus on the pleasant scene. Whether the game was close or a blowout, whether it was played well or poorly, the story is written to describe their great victory. Meanwhile, the other team has lost. They may quickly pay their respects to the winning team and head back to the locker room. Their fans silently file out of the stadium. Their story will not be remembered positively or on its own terms, but only either as a foil to magnify the victory of the winners or as some sort of testament to their failure or ineptitude. These tendencies are only magnified during playoff and championship seasons; the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat are both magnified the closer the teams get to the ultimate championship. The future is kind to the winners: they receive, if nothing else, grudging respect for their accomplishments. History is not kind to the losers: just ask the Chicago Cubs and their fans.

Such winning and losing is not confined to the world of sports. Governments and politics frequently feature winners and losers. A leader may win an election by a lot or a little, but once they have won, they have some room to set the agenda, and the story of the election is written to describe their victory. The one who lost the election recedes in view to some degree, having perhaps even come close to obtaining power, but now the story is written to describe their failings and ultimate failure. The winners get remembered; the losers, again, are either forgotten or remembered as a foil or for their failures. At least in most electoral situations the loser is able to continue to live and pursue success in other ventures: history is full of stories of leaders losing their power by losing their lives. The victors then write the story to elevate their triumph and to justify their behavior. The loser, silent in the grave, loses even greater face: consider Richard III of England.

Winning and losing is a natural part of life “under the sun.” While there may be some circumstances in which it can be said, “a rising tide lifts all boats,” that is, that certain improvements lead to the betterment of everyone, in general, for some to succeed, others must fail. New technologies may provide new opportunities and jobs, yet they will likely replace older technologies and the jobs of those who used them. Globalization has led to the creation of many jobs in foreign nations, allowing them to develop and improve, but has also led to the loss of many jobs in America and other first world nations. At times, the economy grows, job opportunities increase, and many people are able to succeed and prosper; at other times, the economy contracts, job opportunities decline, and many people suffer. Some years bring good crop yields and farmers prosper; other years bring drought and perhaps even famine and farmers go under. A few people are born into a prosperous family and they succeed whether they are competent or not; others are born into far less prosperous circumstances and can never seem to get ahead.

This all seems decidedly unfair, and many people throughout time have attempted to “fix” it. Yet every social experiment to attempt to eliminate such inequality and allow everyone to be equally successful has ended in failure. Reality is far more like the World Cup than pee-wee soccer: there will be winners and there will be losers. Sometimes winners win and losers lose because the former were more talented and executed better than the latter. Sometimes the winners win despite a lack of talent or sloppy execution. Sometimes the losers “deserve” to win or “deserve” to lose. We may not be happy with this situation, but it represents the reality in which we live.

God recognizes this. He has warned us that success is not automatic, and many times those who “should” succeed do not (Ecclesiastes 9:11). Meanwhile, success and victory is not inherently a problem: God has given mankind many good things which they should enjoy, and all should seek to find contentment in their circumstances (Ecclesiastes 8:15, 1 Timothy 4:4, 6:6-8). The big question, however, involves how the “winners” treat the “losers.”

In fact, the best way to understand the character of a person, a team, or even a culture or a nation is how they treat the “losers.” Do they boast over the losers and relish their victory? Do they prove willing to resort to oppression and dishonorable and unethical conduct in order to maintain their advantage over the “losers”? Or do they seek to respect and honor those whom have not been as successful for their endeavors and effort and seek to provide benefits to them?

We do well to remember that God has always sought to make special provision for the “losers” in society. He redeemed Israel while they were lowly and oppressed as slaves in Egypt (Deuteronomy 7:7-10). Under the old covenant He commanded Israel to observe the Jubilee, a restoration of property to its original owners and a remission of debt, so that each generation would be able to make a fresh start if their conditions had deteriorated (cf. Leviticus 25:1-55). The Israelites were not to gather every last bit of crops from their fields and vines, but leave some gleanings for the poor, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow (cf. Leviticus 19:10, Deuteronomy 24:21).

Yet those in Israel who were successful did not honor God’s intentions to provide for the “losers”. The prophets condemn the Israelites for their oppression of the poor and their corruption of justice (e.g. Isaiah 5:7-8, 20-23, Amos 4:1). For these and other transgressions of His will God cast Israel out of its land so that they all would understand what it was like to be the “loser.”

Throughout His life Jesus identified Himself with the “losers” of society: the poor, the marginalized, even eating with sinners (cf. Matthew 9:11-13). During His gestation His mother proclaimed how God humbled princes and exalted those of low estate, filling the hungry while sending the rich away empty (Luke 1:51-52). He pronounced blessings on those who had “lost”: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those persecuted for righteousness’ sake, among others (Matthew 5:3-11). His closest followers were not members of the society’s élite but represented a rag-tag group of fishermen, a tax-collector, a political revolutionary, and other “common, unlearned” men (cf. Matthew 4:18-22, 9:9, 10:2-4, Acts 4:13). At the moment of His death it would have been quite easy to consider Jesus as a “loser” and a failure: He stood up to the religious authorities of the day and they seemed to have prevailed through the exercise of the imperial power which they otherwise could not stand. He was dead and His followers dispersed in distress. Perhaps He had saved others, but, so it seemed, He could not save Himself (cf. Matthew 27:41-42).

Yet, on the third day, God raised this Jesus from the dead, and after His ascension, He was given all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:1-20). Jesus had not failed, nor was He a “loser,” because of His death; instead, through His death and resurrection, He proved successful and victorious over the power of sin and death (Romans 8:1-2). Jesus, who had died, is now Lord and Christ!

Jesus still identifies with the poor, the marginalized, and those who have “lost” in various ways in the game of life. This is why His description of the judgment scene to come in Matthew 25:31-46 should give us pause. We can only gain the victory if we have been of assistance to those who have “lost.” The ones who have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, and visited those imprisoned or ill obtain eternal life; those who did not do such things go away into perdition. How Jesus describes this situation is especially relevant: He tells those who have done the right that they fed Him when He was hungry, gave Him drink when He was thirsty, clothed Him when He was naked, and visited Him when He was sick or in prison (Matthew 25:34-35). When they want to know when or how they did so, He responds by telling them that as they had done it for the “least of these my brethren,” they did so to Him (Matthew 25:37-40). When you help the “losers,” the poor, oppressed, and/or marginalized, you help Jesus; when you dismiss or abuse them, you dismiss or abuse Jesus.

God has no intention of “penalizing” success: it is good to prosper. But God wants everyone who prospers to remember that because of their prosperity others have likely been less successful and are in a poor condition. Success does not mean that the victorious or successful person is any better or more valuable in the sight of God than the “loser” or unsuccessful person: they are all children of God the Father, and He cares for them all (Luke 6:35, Acts 17:24-28). Instead, success is to be considered as a responsibility or trust: you have been given blessings so that you can provide blessings and benefits to others, to give to those in need (Ephesians 4:28, 1 Timothy 6:17-19). But let none be deceived: God identifies with those who are poor, marginalized, and in distress, the “losers” of society, and He hears their cry (cf. James 5:3-4). It is up to us: will we be gracious winners or sore winners? Will we identify with those with whom God in Christ identifies, and seek to provide assistance to those who have “lost” in various ways in the “game” of life? Let us seek to do good to those who are in need, always remembering that we are all equal in God’s sight and that today’s winner might become tomorrow’s loser, and glorify and honor the God who cares for all mankind!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Religion

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

Religion is having quite the public relations nightmare these days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

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

Persecuted for Righteousness’ Sake

“Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets that were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12).

It might seem that Jesus has left the strangest for last.

Most of Jesus’ “beatitudes” have been counter-intuitive or inconsistent with the norm. When we think of who is blessed, happy, or fortunate, the poor, those in mourning, the meek, those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers do not necessarily come to mind (cf. Matthew 5:3-9). We tend to associate happiness with more material prosperity and more favorable circumstances than those. Jesus is aware of this, and such is likely a major driver of why He begins His “Sermon on the Mount” this way. He is attempting to overthrow expectations, helping people to see things in a different and fresh way, and finding the “silver lining” and the true righteousness that can be found in many unpopular positions.

But to consider those who are being persecuted for righteousness’ sake as being happy, fortunate, or blessed is extremely counter-intuitive and entirely inconsistent with the norm. To expect anyone to rejoice and be glad when they are reproached and persecuted unjustly seems extremely loony to a lot of people. It also seems entirely unjust, unfair, and difficult to swallow!

We must first consider the oddity that is persecution for doing what is right. We all have a built-in “fairness meter” governing our lives. When we do good things, we expect to receive good things in return; likewise, when we know we have done bad things, we expect bad things in return. If we face persecution and reproach, we are first likely to wonder if we have done something wrong. If we have done wrong and suffer for it, that seems about right (cf. 1 Peter 2:20). But if we are doing good, and we are standing up for love, mercy, and compassion, living righteously and a benefit to others, and yet we are reviled, persecuted, or reproached for it, we feel doubly wronged: not only are we experiencing the unpleasantness of the persecution, but it is in return for being nice!

This would become a challenge for the Christians of Asia Minor which Peter addresses throughout his first letter, particularly in 1 Peter 2:18-25; in that passage one can clearly hear the echoes of Jesus in the “Sermon on the Mount.” Jesus understands the challenge this particular principle poses for people; of all the “beatitudes,” this is the one whose message is essentially repeated twice, one time in the abstract (“blessed are they that…,” Matthew 5:10), and then again with direct application (“blessed are ye when…,” Matthew 5:11). In fact, it is the only “personalized beatitude,” directly including Jesus’ audience.

Jesus knows how persecution and reproach will come on account of living righteously for His sake, but why? He appeals to the example of the prophets that came beforehand (Matthew 5:12): in Luke 6:22-23, 26, we have the full contrast between the “blessing” of being persecuted for righteousness’ sake as the prophets experienced, and the woe befalling those of whom all speak well as the false prophets experienced.

We do well to consider the prophets. The prophets stood for God’s truth and accomplished amazing things for the people through the power of God. Elijah and Elisha both raised the dead and brought deliverance in various forms to the people of Israel (cf. 1 Kings 16:1-2 Kings 8:6). Prophets like Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel brought the message of God to Israel, exhorting the people to repent while time remained. They did not sin against the people: they did not extort people out of what was theirs, they were not persuaded by a bribe, they did not pervert justice for or against the disadvantaged or the privileged, or any such thing. Nevertheless, very few people paid them any heed. Those in Israel who were extorting from the people, accepting bribes, perverting justice toward the advantaged, and so on worked diligently to undermine these prophets and caused them great harm. Many were mistreated. Some were even killed (cf. Matthew 21:35-36). Yet, in the end, the prophets proved faithful to God, and received their reward (cf. Hebrews 11:32-38).

Such experiences were not pleasant; there are many times in Jeremiah’s writings where we can discern the prophet’s agony and emotional turmoil about the message with which he was sent, its implications, and the reactions of the people. And yet he fully trusted in God despite the actions of the people!

Why did the prophets come to such grief? The message God gave them would be fine and dandy as long as they kept it to themselves and lived their own lives by it. Yet it became a threat the minute it was proclaimed to others: it threatened the existing power systems, it threatened people’s worldviews, underlying assumptions, and much of what they clung to for comfort. It exposed the darkness and evil in their lives. God’s message was uncomfortable, and it was always easier to dismiss, harm, or kill the messenger than it was to endure what was proclaimed, take it to heart, and change.

Therefore, even though it seems counter-intuitive, we can understand how one would be persecuted, reviled, and spoken evil of for being righteous in Jesus’ name. It would be one thing if Christianity is something we keep to ourselves and only seek to apply it to our own lives. But when that life is seen by others, and proclaimed to others, it becomes a threat to existing power structures, worldviews, underlying assumptions, things which people find comfortable, and it exposes the evil and darkness in people. It remains easier to dismiss, injure, or kill the messenger than it is to heed the message, take it to heart, and change.

So how can we find joy in such events? We must be very careful about this; far too many take this principle and distort it toward ungodliness, seeking to proclaim Jesus’ message in adversarial and hostile ways, and using the inevitable “persecution” and reviling that comes as a response as the automatic justification for the behavior. We can experience persecution as easily by sanctimonious, harsh, angry, and inflammatory words and deeds as by truly living righteously, and we are deluded by the Evil One whenever we think that we are experiencing the latter despite having done the former. As in all things, Jesus is to be our example (cf. 1 Peter 2:21-25). He made a firm stand against the religious authorities but taught the regular people with compassion. He went about doing good and was condemned, beaten, and crucified for doing so. And, in the end, the joy was His, since He accomplished God’s purposes and is now the Author and Perfecter of the faith of those who come to Him (cf. Hebrews 12:1-2).

As the Hebrew author said, Jesus despised the shame (Hebrews 12:2), and He could only do that by finding the joy that could come from being persecuted and reviled. If we are humbly living before God, respectfully living and speaking God’s truth, live in righteousness and justice, and receive evil for it, we need not be ashamed. We must despise that shame, and we can only do that by recognizing how fortunate we are to be able to follow in the footsteps of the prophets, Jesus, and the Apostles.

It is no fun to experience persecution, but the reward for suffering despite speaking and living righteously and justly is great. Let us continue to place our trust in God no matter how we appear before men, despise the shame, and glorify God our Savior!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Justice and Righteousness

But let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream (Amos 5:24).

The day of the LORD was coming. He had endured enough from the hands of the Israelites. Their oppressions, their faithlessness, their immorality– it had become too much. Amos explains the only way that Israel can set things right again: they are to let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream (Amos 5:24).

The image was familiar to the Israelites. When the rains came after a dry spell, existing rivers would expand mightily. What had previously been bone dry wadis, or creek beds, would quickly fill with torrents of water. The water would come down from on top of the hills and mountains; it would often break through anything that stood in its way. So justice and righteousness were to be in Israel: in a land parched of them, all of a sudden, from the nobles and élites of Israelite society downward, justice and righteousness should be established. Nothing should get in its way, and it should overpower anything that would try!

Unfortunately, as the history shows, the Israelites did not heed Amos’ message. They persisted in injustice and unrighteousness, and another type of torrent– the judgment of God as executed by the Assyrians– washed their nation away (cf. 2 Kings 17:1-23). The Kingdom of Judah to the south fared little better. And, throughout time, there has been justifiable reason to return to Amos’ words in denunciation of the injustice and unrighteousness of nations. Within our own nation, Martin Luther King Jr. had reason to quote the verse in relation to the existing systems within the United States. Tragically there will always be times when this verse will be only too applicable to all nations in various ways.

Justice and righteousness are terms often paired in the Old Testament (Job 8:3, 29:14, Psalm 37:6, 72:2, 106:3, etc.). In the New Testament, we see more translations of “righteousness” than justice, but that does not mean that the concept of justice has been excised; the Greek word frequently translated as righteousness, dikaiosune, means both righteousness and justice. There are many times in the New Testament when both senses of the word are present (e.g. Romans 3:26). We would do well to mentally remember that “righteousness” in the New Testament also carries with it the idea of “justice”!

Justice and righteousness are terms thrown around quite easily, but what do they really mean? We have the sense that justice involves every action receiving its proper consequence: evil doing should lead to punishment, and right doing should lead to reward. We also have a basic understanding of righteousness as right living. Yet our understanding of these terms gets distorted by our culture and the way we would like for things to be. It is easy to want justice to mean that others get the proper punishment for their evil actions while we receive mercy, failing to understand that we judge others by their performance while we judge ourselves by our intentions (cf. Matthew 7:1-4). Righteousness is often reduced to not doing bad things to other people, and expecting everyone else to not do bad things to us. The scope and scale of justice and righteousness is also easy to distort. Many demand to see justice and righteousness exist on the grand scale– nations, institutions, and corporations– but prove less willing to see justice and righteousness carried out on a personal level. And there are plenty of others who believe that the domains of justice and righteousness primarily involve the individual and less so for government, institutions, and corporations.

We do well to turn to Scripture for an understanding of what is involved with justice and righteousness. And Job is a wonderful example of justice and righteousness in action.

Job has suffered much and, admittedly, he has been presuming more than he ought to presume. But in Job 29:14-25, he declares how he conducted himself in righteousness and justice, and in Job 31:1-39, he sets forth his integrity as he has lived according to justice and righteousness. In these passages we see much that we would understand as just and right conduct: avoiding sexual immorality, lying, deceit, covetousness, idolatry, and other such sins. But what may surprise us is just how much justice and righteousness seemed to require of Job: he fed the hungry, provided shelter to the homeless, encouraged the despondent, actively resisted the oppression done to others, honored the cause of his servants, provided for the widow and orphan, properly used the land, and even that he resisted taking pleasure in the downfall of an adversary!

There is much, much more to justice and righteousness, then, than just trying to be a good person and not grievously sinning against others. To seek to do justice and righteousness also demands that we provide for those in need and actively resist injustice and unrighteousness. Justice and righteousness ought to pervade all of society, from rulers to nobles or the élite down to the common man.

When justice and righteousness flow down as a mighty stream, people are respected and provided for, society is healthy, and real prosperity can be known. But where there is injustice and unrighteousness there is misery, pain, sickness, antagonism, rivalry, and all sorts of other forms of suffering. Ultimately, justice and righteousness cannot be merely private pursuits, and it should impact our work regarding the conditions of others.

Those who truly seek justice and righteousness are always rare in the land; most are out for some form of pseudo-justice and pseudo-righteousness that benefits them without necessarily benefiting others. Let us instead seek to work diligently toward justice and righteousness in our own lives and conduct and on behalf of all of those who find themselves oppressed and downtrodden. May it be said of all of us that we sought for justice to roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Morality Turned Upside Down

Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20)

Does it ever seem like the idea of morality has become a joke? It seems like one’s social and economic stature determines what is moral. With enough clout and money, it seems, one could get away with anything– even murder at times! The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and no one seems to care. As the wealthy consolidate power thanks to their resources, the situation seems all but hopeless. Either you are rich, and the land is your oyster, or you are poor, and you serve the rich in many ways. If you are poor, the slightest infraction might be your doom; if you have enough resources, you can get your way out of anything.

Does that sound familiar? Many might think that such is true today. It was also quite true of the days of Isaiah. Those with wealth could live with impunity. They could squeeze out the small farmer, bribe any judicial figures, and feast away with the king and others (cf. Isaiah 5:18-24). The poor man was forced to bear all of this. If he had to be sold into debt slavery, so be it; such meant little to the wealthy landowner. They had the luxury of choosing which laws to favor and which laws to neglect. They could call light darkness and darkness light, and mock the expectations of God for equity in dealing with all people.

Isaiah would not stand for this. He proclaimed the message of God’s disfavor with the actions of the rich and influential. He predicted their doom at the hands of first Assyria and then Babylon. They would receive their comeuppance– eventually. Woe, indeed, to them.

While the challenges of today are not as based on income as they were in days past, there is still the sense that the rich and powerful can get away with pretty much everything. If a “regular Joe” steals something, he has a quick trial and goes to prison in a pretty bad environment. If the wealthy extort or embezzle, which is theft, and happen to get caught, and happen to go to trial, and happen to get sentenced, and actually have to serve time, it tends to be in a far more cushy environment– if it ever ended in imprisonment. Different standards abound to this day!

Challenges with morality are not limited to the upper class; everyone has their sins (Romans 3:23). These days, however, the idea of “sin” is on the out. Many believe that “sin” is an artificial construct, an invention of authorities attempting to keep the people down. Things that God has declared to be sinful are re-named to seem less harmful. Arguments are made to appeal to the heart-strings in a misguided attempt to show compassion to that which is, in reality, sinful. And those who dare declare what God has said are labeled “intolerant,” “bigoted,” “narrow-minded,” or “old-fashioned.”

There is little doubt that the Israelites of Isaiah’s day could have done similar things. Idolatry was just “a different theological choice.” Bribes were just “ways to get things done.” Isaiah, no doubt, was considered intolerant, narrow-minded, perhaps even fundamentalistic, a dangerous religious zealot, for declaring the will of the Lord.

Our time is not as “enlightened” as its participants would imagine. As long as there have been people in sin there have been people who have been trying to find ways to justify their sins and demonize anyone who would challenge their justifications. There have always been people who want to bend the rules to their own favor and find any way possible in which to do so. Many will do what they want to do no matter what anyone tells them. The human capacity for self-justification is almost unimaginable in its depth.

Yet, as in Isaiah’s proclamation, so with today. Comeuppance will come, eventually, to such people. Justice may be served in their own lifetimes; it will surely be served on the final day (Acts 17:30-31). God’s patience and longsuffering toward people, hoping for their repentance (2 Peter 3:9), will not last forever, and many will learn the true cost of calling evil good and good evil; of declaring bitter sweet and sweet bitter; of loving the darkness and hating the light.

Believers in God often feel distressed by all of this, and it is understandable. It is much harder to strive to live as God would have us live when it is reviled as being the opposite of what it truly is– the way of life, light, and peace (John 8:12, Romans 8:6). Yet believers should take comfort in knowing that this has been the way people have been acting for centuries; it is not a purely modern phenomenon. It will continue until the Lord returns. It is not fair, it is difficult, and sometimes we get penalized for it. But we know who will ultimately reward the righteous and condemn the wicked (1 Peter 4:12-19). Let us stand for what is just, right, true, and holy, no matter what it is called or how others may abuse us, and receive the ultimate reward in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Where is the God of Justice?

Ye have wearied the LORD with your words.
Yet ye say, “Wherein have we wearied him?”
In that ye say, “Every one that doeth evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and he delighteth in them;” or, “where is the God of justice?” (Malachi 2:17).

The evils and inequalities of life can pose a quandary for people who believe strongly that there is a God and that He loves and cares for His creation. When oppression takes place and injustice seems to rule the day, it is easy to start wondering where the God of justice went! Probably not a few people have turned to Deism in order to make some sense, at least in their own minds, of how it could be that God could create the universe and then allow such things to happen– instead of trusting that God will right the wrong, it is easier to believe that God is an absentee landlord.

Undoubtedly Israel in the days of Malachi wondered whether God was an absentee landlord. It would be quite easy to interpret their statements in Malachi 2:17 as rebellion but they are most likely the result of frustration and despair. They say such things not because they do not believe in God but precisely because they do believe in God and do believe in the promises God made to their forefathers.

What they do not understand is how God can be the God of justice and lovingkindness and allow what was happening to continue. These Jews had their faults and failings– but they were not as guilty as their fathers. They had not established idols of all the gods of the nations around them as their fathers had done. And yet while their fathers lived in a free and independent Israel with their own king, they remain under the hand of the Persian authorities and Persian taxes. How was that just? How was that fair? How could God allow them to remain under the hand of a foreign authority when they were acting more faithfully than their fathers who were free? Where was God in all of this, anyway?

The Jews also perceive how the ways of the wicked, at least for the time being, were prosperous. They had read in the Law and the Prophets how blessings come to those who obey God and curses to those who act wickedly (e.g. Leviticus 26:1-46, Jeremiah 7:1-15). The Psalms and Proverbs are full of such statements (e.g. Psalm 1:6, Psalm 37:17, Psalm 75:10, Proverbs 3:33, Proverbs 10:6). Yet, in the eyes of the Jews, those who were righteous were not gaining favor, but the wicked were increasing and prosperous. In bitterness they declare that God must now be siding with the wicked– how else could they be so successful?

The Jews, however, are not right in this, no matter how justified they might have felt in their despair and criticism. They are wearying God with these words and these ideas. Malachi goes on to promise the day of God’s coming, a day of refining and purification, and it will be painful (Malachi 3:1-6). The message is evident: God is paying attention. God sees what is going on. God remains the God of justice. God does not take pleasure in the sinfulness of the wicked. Yet God is patient, and shall accomplish His will in His good time.

We would do well to learn the same lesson. It is easy to get impatient and impetuous and wonder where the God of justice has gone. One could easily despair and wonder if God is in fact prospering the wicked. But such would be wearisome and unprofitable– God is still here, and God has no pleasure in the sinfulness of the wicked (1 Peter 3:12). God also takes no pleasure in any injustice, especially injustice perpetrated against His elect (cf. Luke 18:1-8). Nevertheless, God’s ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). He is patient when we would be impatient (cf. 2 Peter 3:9). His concept of time is far different from our own (2 Peter 3:8). When God acts, it will be done mightily, and we will be ashamed of ourselves if we wearied God with these types of words– we will see His justice vindicated, and righteousness fully established (cf. 2 Peter 3:10-13). The righteous will be refined as silver (1 Peter 1:6-9); the wicked will perish (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9).

Let us not fear or be distressed. The God of justice has not abandoned His creation. He is paying attention. He will render to each one according to His works. Let us therefore serve Him while we still can, fully confident in His presence and justice, and be prepared for the ultimate Day of the Lord!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Weightier Matters

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye tithe mint and anise and cummin, and have left undone the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy, and faith: but these ye ought to have done, and not to have left the other undone” (Matthew 23:23).

Human beings have a tendency to maintain a narrow focus on various matters in life. It is easy for people to allow a select few criteria be their guide in the world: they decide to see everything through a certain set of lenses.

The Pharisees and scribes were not much different. The New Testament reveals that they were quite focused on preserving the Law of Moses and the traditions developed around that Law down to the last detail. Their hyper-vigilance about the Law led them to overemphasize the more “minor” actions while neglecting the more “significant” ones. By focusing on the “minor” actions and accomplishing them perfectly, they felt a sense of pride and accomplishment that led to a false sense of security and satisfaction, as if being vigilant in doing nothing on the Sabbath, washing of hands, and tithing down to the level of spices would be sufficient to obtain God’s commendation!

Jesus condemns this myopia. Even if they are more quantifiable and “objective,” performing these minor acts of obedience are not sufficient to obtain God’s commendation. Believers must not neglect the “weightier” matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith.

The scribes and Pharisees were certainly guilty of that. The Pharisees especially considered themselves morally superior to their fellow men, as the Pharisee’s prayer in Luke 18:11-12 and the attitudes of the Pharisees in John 9 make evident. They deemed themselves “righteous” and everyone else to be “sinners,” despite the fact that they had sinned also and were certainly not maintaining God’s sense of faith, justice, or mercy. Their condemnation was just.

Nevertheless, this passage also exposes a major fault line within the thought of many religious people. Many take the idea of the “weightier matters of the law” and run with it, coming to the conclusion that since we are under “grace,” we need to get the “big things” right, and can allow the “little things” to slide. Others protest the very idea of “weightier matters,” stressing the need to do all things as God has charged us.

The truth, as usual, is somewhere more in the middle. Jesus tells us that there are some matters that are “weightier” than others. This means that some attitudes/actions have more significance than others. In the examples given, this is rather evident: justice, faith, and mercy are of greater significance than tithing spices. “Tithing spices” is of benefit to God and His Temple, while accomplishing justice, mercy, and faith is of benefit to God, His Temple, and all men. Furthermore, faith, justice, and mercy deal with every aspect of a person: his mind, his attitude, and his actions. One cannot easily have faith or show justice and mercy while internally despising God or his fellow man. While tithing should flow from a heart full of faith, one could tithe without the proper attitudes.

Therefore, there are some matters of greater significance than others. But that does not mean that we can just let matters of less significance slide and be pleasing to God. Notice that Jesus does not condemn the scribes or Pharisees for tithing the spices– in fact, He says that they should have done so! The problem was not that the scribes and Pharisees were tithing spices– the problem was that they were tithing spices while neglecting faith, justice, and mercy. It would be a gross perversion of this text to insinuate that if they had engaged in the “weightier matters” of the Law but had not tithed the spices that Jesus would have justified them. There is no basis for such a claim!

This should not be an “either/or” proposition, but a “both/and” one. The scribes and Pharisees should have accomplished both the “weightier matters of the law” and the tithing of spices. If we are serving God as we ought to serve Him, the latter flows from the former: because we are dedicated to love, humility, faith, and service, the “weightier matters” of the new covenant (cf. Romans 1:16-17, Romans 6:16-21, Romans 13:8-11, Ephesians 2:1-10, Philippians 2:1-11, Hebrews 11:1, 6, 1 Peter 1:22, 1 Peter 5:6-7), we will make sure to accomplish God’s will both in simple, quantifiable, and objective matters along with more substantive and difficult matters. We will assemble to encourage one another (1 Corinthians 14:23, Hebrews 10:25), give as we have prospered, both to the church and to those in need (1 Corinthians 16:1-3, 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15, Galatians 2:10, 6:10), and other such things, while also loving our neighbor as ourselves and seeking his welfare (Romans 13:8-10, Philippians 2:1-4), and offering ourselves to God’s purposes as living and holy sacrifices (Romans 12:1), and the like.

Jesus’ message to the scribes and Pharisees represents a necessary warning against spiritual myopia, focusing on accomplishing certain elements of God’s purpose to the neglect of others. We cannot be justified in taking care of matters of detail and less significance while neglecting the weightier matters of God’s purposes; likewise, we cannot be justified in thinking that if we accomplish the weightier matters of God’s will that we can slide on the matters of less significance. If God has commanded it, there is value in accomplishing it! Let us seek to accomplish the whole will of God, and not neglect any aspect of it!

Ethan R. Longhenry