Mystery

Whereby, when ye read, ye can perceive my understanding in the mystery of Christ; which in other generations was not made known unto the sons of men, as it hath now been revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; to wit, that the Gentiles are fellow-heirs, and fellow-members of the body, and fellow-partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Ephesians 3:4-6).

A lot of people enjoy a good mystery.

When most people today think of a “mystery,” they tend to think of some sort of problem or conundrum to solve. Books and television programs in the “mystery” genre involve complex stories which some enterprising detective or group of people must sort out in order to find the truth; Sherlock Holmes is the paragon of this kind of “mystery.” For years one of the most popular shows on television was Unsolved Mysteries, featuring stories about everything from ghosts to fraud, murder to lost treasures, and all with the conceit that maybe you, the viewer, had the piece of evidence needed to solve the mystery.

We can understand, therefore, why many people come to the Bible, read about the “mystery of Christ,” and conclude that it, too, is a problem or conundrum for us to solve, and seek to go about trying to figure out how to make sense of it all using reason, deductive logic, and exploration. In the Bible, however, a “mystery” is something of a very different nature.

In his letter to the Ephesians Paul has been setting forth the overwhelming and humbling blessings and power which God has displayed toward us through Jesus in the Spirit (Ephesians 1:1-2:22). He had previously declared that God had made known the mystery of His will to Christians (Ephesians 1:9), and he decided it was important to take a moment to explain this mystery in more detail (Ephesians 3:1-3). In Ephesians 3:4-6 Paul came out with it: the mystery of Christ is that Gentiles are fellow-heirs, fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers in the promise of Jesus in the Gospel. This is a mystery which was not made known to people in previous generations, but now has been revealed to the apostles and prophets in the Spirit.

The substance of the mystery may seem dull and obvious to us; such is the case only because we have learned to take it for granted. It was not at all obvious, dull, or evident to anyone in the first century. Welcoming Gentiles as joint participants in Jesus while still Gentile caused great controversy among many of the Jewish Christians, and many Jewish Christians refused to accept it as true, and strove diligently to convince Gentile Christians to submit to circumcision and the Law of Moses (cf. Acts 15:1-29, Galatians 1:6-5:16).

For that matter, it was not even immediately apparent or obvious to the apostles and prophets of Christianity in the first century that the message of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and imminent return should be proclaimed among the nations as it was in Israel. It required an angel visiting Cornelius, a vision from the Lord Jesus to Simon Peter, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius and his associates to convince Peter and the Jewish Christians with him that God intended for the Gentiles to receive the repentance that leads to life, and that only after the Gospel had been proclaimed to the Israelites for a time (Acts 10:1-11:18). The deliberations of the council in Jerusalem required Peter’s witness regarding these previous events, the report of Paul and Barnabas regarding the powerful signs and miracles God wrought in Christ among the Gentiles of Asia Minor, and the interpretation of the prophetic message by James the Lord’s brother to secure the agreement among all that indeed, the Gentiles were to be accepted and welcomed as Gentiles, and they did not have to submit to the customs of the Law of Moses to enter God’s covenant in Christ (Acts 15:1-29).

Paul’s whole point in Ephesians 3:4-6 is how nobody figured out the Gospel on their own. We have yet to find any evidence within Second Temple Judaism of the expectation of a Messiah to arise in Israel, growing up in Galilee, serving and doing good, dying on a cross, being raised on the third day, and ascending to receive an eternal dominion from God to fulfill all of what God had promised, let alone that the message of said Messiah would also be proclaimed among the Gentiles to allow Jewish and Gentile people to become reconciled into one body in God in the Christ (cf. Ephesians 2:1-22). Not only did no one think it would happen this way, no one would have wanted it to happen this way. This was not the deliverance for which Israel sought; this was not the way of redemption which those among the nations imagined.

The impoverishment of the modern mind is evident in the claim of many scholars that Christianity is the innovation of the earliest followers of Jesus, as if somehow the despondent disciples of Jesus suddenly came up with this whole narrative about resurrection, ascension, and proclamation to all the nations on their own. Such is a fabulous tale, without any kind of warrant from anything that came before, and indeed requires more faith to believe than to accept the story as written!

The “mystery” of the New Testament and the “mysteries” of books and television shows all do share a common origin: they are things that are veiled. Yet the means of unveiling could hardly be more different. In the world, mysteries are unveiled through human discovery, reason, logic, and exploration; in Christ, mysteries are unveiled when God reveals their substance to His servants.

As Christians we have much for which to be thankful regarding the mystery of Christ. Most of us today come from the nations, and not Israel according to the flesh, and our ability to have access to God and stand before Him is entirely dependent on not only what God has done in Jesus but also in the revelation that God’s work in Christ was equally effective for us among the nations if we would put our trust in Him (Ephesians 2:11-3:13).

Yet this mystery of God in Christ is instructive for us, and it is a lesson we must learn and proclaim today: we humans will never figure out God’s mysteries on our own without Him making them known through His apostles and prophets. This message was set forth and proclaimed in the first century; it has been revealed once for all (1 Corinthians 13:8-10, Jude 1:3). Whatever is difficult to understand will remain difficult to understand until the Lord’s return. Whatever has been left without a lot of detail will remain without a lot of detail. Whatever questions were left unanswered will remain unanswered. As humans we can learn about what God has made known through the apostles and prophets; we can use reason and logic, paired with humility, faith, and prayer for strength, to come to a better understanding of what God has made known through the apostles and prophets regarding the Gospel. We can even learn more about the historical and cultural contexts of the Scriptures so as to provide more depth and color to why God spoke as He did, but that never means that we could add to what God has already made known.

Ever since the Lord arose from the dead there have been many who have claimed to have obtained special knowledge, either through esoteric interpretations of Biblical texts, cunning schemes involving human innovation and worldly wisdom, or the belief in some kind of conspiracy which has hindered people from knowing the truth. All such people treat the mystery of God in Christ as a problem or conundrum to be solved, when in fact the mystery of God in Christ is something God has made known through His apostles and prophets. If God wanted something to be made known, He would have clearly made it known through His apostles and prophets. If there is something which God has not made known through His apostles and prophets, it is something which is not for us to know. Perhaps it is beyond our capacity of knowledge; perhaps it serves no good purpose.

God’s power is made evident in His work of liberating everyone from the forces of sin and death through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and imminent return; this is not a story people would make up on their own, but something God has made known through His apostles and prophets. God’s mysteries are not for us to solve; it is for us to trust in God’s goodness, power, and love so that we can humbly learn and accept what He has made known, and let be all that remains the secret things of God. God has made provision for all people to become one in Jesus through the Spirit; may we participate in God’s work in Christ and take hold of that which is truly life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Growing in Grace and Knowledge

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and for ever. Amen (2 Peter 3:18).

Peter’s final written words continue to resonate.

The second letter of Peter features the Apostle’s reminders to his fellow Christians regarding the holiness of their conduct, the behavior and condition of false teachers, and encouragement regarding the end of time (the eschaton) and warnings regarding those who distort the Apostolic witness (2 Peter 1:1-3:17). After his departure Peter does not want his fellow Christians to be carried away by the error of the wicked, falling from their steadfastness in Jesus (2 Peter 3:17); the only way to avoid that is to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, to whom glory belongs from now until forever (2 Peter 3:18).

Peter thus expects Christians to grow. He is not speaking merely to Christians who remain young in their faith; quite the contrary! The Christians to whom Peter wrote could recall and remember the words of the Apostles and prophets regarding the last days (2 Peter 3:2); they had a working knowledge of the faith and thus had “been around the block” for awhile. During this life there is no point at which it becomes acceptable for a Christian to stop growing! Whether we have been Christians for one day, one year, or almost a hundred years, we must continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Chrisme Colosseum Rome Italy

Christians must grow in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior (2 Peter 3:18). This knowledge certainly involves the facts about Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, lordship, and return as established in the New Testament. We also do well to buttress our knowledge of the Lord through gaining understanding of the story of the people of God in the Old Testament (2 Timothy 3:15-16). If we do so we are better equipped to recognize how Jesus would have us think, feel, and act in the twenty-first century as His faithful disciples (1 John 2:3-6).

Yet Christians are also to grow in the grace of Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18). Grace, Greek charis, is “unmerited favor,” obtaining things we do not deserve. The preeminent way in which we have received grace is through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for our sin, the means by which we are offered reconciliation with God (Ephesians 1:7, 2:1-10). But how can we “grow” in that grace? We know it cannot be through greater sin (Romans 6:1-23). But how can Christians grow in the gift of God in Christ?

Christians can grow in grace through more effectively manifesting the fruit of that gift and being that gift toward others. God has displayed grace toward us inasmuch as He has given His Son for our reconciliation and restoration. Yet it is not enough for us to obtain the reconciliation but remain as we are; we must manifest the transformation of the follower of Jesus, no longer walking in the ways of the world, but walking in Jesus’ ways, displaying the fruit of the Spirit (Romans 12:1-2, Galatians 5:22-24, 1 John 2:3-6). When we are transformed to not only be saved by Jesus but also to think, feel, and act like Jesus, we are able to serve others as Jesus did and they will give praise and glory to God as Jesus intends (Matthew 5:13-16, 1 Peter 2:11-12). The Body of Christ ought to be recognized as a gift of God to the world; it is incumbent upon its members to act accordingly (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Ephesians 4:11-16)!

“Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ”; Peter’s final words echo through the centuries (2 Peter 3:18). The Christian must recognize that while in the flesh there is always more to learn, more to do, lessons to obtain, and growth to experience. An important part of that growth involves knowledge, but there is always more to learn, and of the making of books there is no end (Ecclesiastes 12:12). We can, and should, study the Scriptures; are we bearing the fruit of that study through the demonstration of the transformed life, manifesting growth in the grace of the Lord Jesus? Are we trusting less in ourselves and more in Him? Do we continue to rely on our own strength or are we entrusting ourselves to God’s strength in Christ (Ephesians 3:14-21)? Are people better able to see Jesus reflected in us on account of our investment in study and trust in God? We must grow in the knowledge of Jesus Christ but also in His grace; let us learn more of Jesus so as to serve Him more effectively, manifesting the fruit of the Spirit, giving others reason to glorify God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Deep Knowledge

And the man knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD” (Genesis 4:1).

On account of the private nature of sexuality, euphemisms for sexual behavior have been developed throughout time in many cultures. One such euphemism in Hebrew is the use of the verb normally meaning “to know” to describe sexual intercourse, used from the very beginning of time to describe the copulation of the first couple, Adam and Eve (Genesis 4:1). This euphemism is used frequently in the Old Testament, for licit sexual relations (Genesis 4:17, 25, 1 Samuel 1:19), and illicit (Genesis 19:5, Judges 19:22, 25), and even to describe the lack of such behavior (Genesis 38:26, Judges 11:39, 1 Kings 1:4).

Some association between knowledge and sexuality therefore exists in Hebrew, although there are other euphemisms for sexual behavior, particularly the general “lay with,” as in Genesis 30:16, 34:2, and the rather brute “come into” of Genesis 30:16, 38:16. Therefore, it remains entirely possible that the euphemism “to know” for “to have sexual intercourse” just happens to exist in Hebrew as a particular idiom in the language without a whole lot of meaning behind it. Nevertheless, since Paul in Ephesians 5:22-33 lays the groundwork for understanding the (legitimate) sexual relationship as the physical shadow of the spiritual reality of the intimacy which should exist between Christ and His people, and since Hebrew is the language in which God communicated with His people, we also must be open to the strong possibility that there is something behind this particular euphemism.

If nothing else, the euphemism of knowledge to describe sexual behavior does well at reminding us that “knowledge,” in the Bible, tends to involve far deeper matters than the way we generally use the term in our language today. Modern ideas of “knowledge” derive from science and philosophy: knowledge is the set of facts comprising human understanding of reality, past and present. Knowledge, therefore, is primarily a matter of mental cognition: to “know” something is to mentally understand and master it. We “know” that 2+2=4; yes, this information does matter materially, but it first and foremost remains something we mentally recognize and accept. If we “know computers,” for instance, we know how to use a computer: we have cognitive mastery over its functions, nature, and processes. Whatever experience would be involved in this knowledge must flow from mental understanding and mastery.

Yet the euphemism of “to know” for “to have sexual intercourse” demands a much more expansive view of “knowledge,” one that involves at least the physical body and its experience, and ideally, the emotions as well (as per Genesis 2:24). It is not as if the mind is uninvolved in such “knowledge,” but this knowledge certainly goes beyond just what the mind can conceive, understand, and master: it is a knowledge to be felt, experienced, and in its proper sphere, enjoyed. We intuitively understand this when it comes to our relationships: one can mentally recognize as true a set of facts about a given person, but that does not automatically mean that you really know that person. To truly know a person, we must experience the presence of that person. Hence the euphemism of “to know” for “to have sexual intercourse” proves rather appropriate, since sexual intercourse is an extremely intimate experience with another person. People who have had such a relationship “know” each other in ways that they can not (and should not!) “know” of others.

This is important to keep in mind in terms of passages like John 8:32. We are called to know the truth in Christ, but this knowledge is not merely what passes for “knowledge” today. One can mentally understand and even master the sum of all facts regarding the Person and work of Jesus of Nazareth, and yet not be changed or transformed by it (cf. Matthew 7:21-23); such a one may “know” Jesus cognitively, but mere cognition of Jesus cannot save (James 2:19). To “know” the truth in Jesus demands more than mere cognition; this truth must be experienced. It is through constant practice of the faith that we grow to maturity (Hebrews 5:14); the imperative of knowing Christ is never just about learning the facts about Christ but always aimed toward following after Him thus being transformed into His image (Romans 8:29, 1 John 2:6). This knowledge cannot remain merely in the mind if it will save; if it is only mental, it will at best only remain until persecution or tribulation, and at worst, it leads to arrogance and hypocrisy (Matthew 13:20-21, 1 Corinthians 8:1). To know Jesus is to come to grips with the reality that He is the Lord and Christ, and therefore we must follow after Him, subjecting not only the mind but also the emotions and the body to His will (Galatians 2:20, 5:17-24). This “deep” knowledge is the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ!

It can never be enough to just know about Jesus. We must know Jesus, to develop the intimate spiritual relationship with Him which leads to the spiritual oneness which He seeks according to John 17:20-23. Let us therefore recognize that mere mental cognition is not true knowledge; true knowledge must go deeper, demanding the experience and subjection of mind, body, emotion, and soul. Let us truly know the Lord Jesus Christ so as to be saved by Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Distorting Scripture

And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also, according to the wisdom given to him, wrote unto you; as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; wherein are some things hard to be understood, which the ignorant and unstedfast wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction (2 Peter 3:15-16).

As Peter is concluding his letter, describing what will happen at the end of time and exhorting Christians to understand that God is not “slow” or “delayed” but patient and longsuffering toward us so that we might repent and be saved (2 Peter 3:1-15a), he goes out of his way to show that Paul had also written to them regarding “these things” (2 Peter 3:15b-16). Peter says they are written according to the wisdom given to him, and that some things are hard to understand. These difficult matters are “distorted” (Greek streblousin, “to torture, wrest,” thus, to pervert) by those who are “ignorant” (Greek amatheis, unschooled or unlearned) and “unstable” (Greek asteriktoi, unfixed, vacillating, unsteadfast; used also in 2 Peter 2:14; these three Greek terms used only in these instances in 2 Peter in the New Testament). Peter then encourages those Christians to whom he writes to beware lest they also get carried away with the error of the lawless and fall from their own steadfastness, but should instead grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus (2 Peter 3:17-18).

Peter’s affirmation of Paul and his writings is quite important: it represents a strong challenge those who seek to find discontinuity and inconsistency between Peter and Paul, making much of Galatians 2:11-14. Peter affirms that he and Paul have taught the same things; not only that, but Peter proves willing to cite Paul’s writing as further confirmation of the things which he is teaching, giving great credibility and honor to Paul’s writings. Paul is not an outlier in Christian theology and thought: Peter makes that clear.

What are “these things” to which Peter refers (cf. 2 Peter 3:16)? Perhaps Peter refers to “salvation,” the nearest concept (cf. 2 Peter 3:15): Paul has much to say about the nature of salvation in terms of election, grace, faith, obedience, etc., throughout his writings. Yet “these things” are plural, and the final section of the letter, 2 Peter 3:1-15a, has focused on Jesus’ return, the end of time, and the Lord’s patience, another theme regarding which Paul has many things to say (cf. Romans 2:4-11, 8:17-25, 1 Corinthians 15:1-58, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:10, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-2:12, among others). Peter’s letter has also featured encouragement through testimony and warnings about false teachers, other themes which feature in Paul’s writings (cf. Galatians 1:6-2:10, 1 Timothy 4:1-4, 6:3-10, 2 Timothy 2:14-19, 4:3-4, although the parallels are stronger between 2 Peter 2:1-22 and Jude 1:3-23). Peter, therefore, likely has Paul’s warnings about false teachers and particularly discussions of the end of time in mind.

While the tone of the passage is negative in many ways, we can derive positive encouragement from it. Some things in Paul’s teachings are hard to understand: yet many things are more easily understood, and even though some parts may be difficult, it is not impossible to understand them. Yes, the unlearned and unstable distort the Scriptures: but we can be learned and stable, and handle the Scriptures properly (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15, 2 Peter 3:14-15). The Scriptures can be understood; we can gain encouragement from them. We can learn of God’s will and purpose for us.

Yet the focus is undoubtedly on the negative in 2 Peter 3:16: the unlearned and unstable distort and pervert not just what Paul writes but also other parts of Scripture. We do well to consider these matters so that we may not be guilty of them!

Peter warns about the “unlearned” distorting Scripture. “Unlearned” is not synonymous with “a lack of formal or higher education”; Peter himself is reckoned as one without formal education and a common man in Acts 4:13. One can have many degrees in higher education and still be “unlearned” or at least “unstable”; one may not have a lot of formal education but be wise in the Scriptures. Yet Peter’s warning is apt: many people, even good-intentioned people, end up distorting Scripture because they are not familiar with much of the story. Many false doctrines have begun and spread because men with less than stellar understanding of Scripture began teaching what made sense to them and refused to accept correction from those with better understanding of what God has made known through Scripture. We must remember that the sum of God’s word is truth (Psalm 119:160); many times people will focus on some passages or statements in Scripture to the detriment and neglect of others and come out with unbalanced, unhealthy teachings. These days many teachings of Scripture are discussed and attempted to be applied without any consideration of or respect given to their original contexts: this is a particularly relevant concern in light of 2 Peter 3:15-16 and discussions of the “end of time” (apocalypticism or eschatology), when many seek to understand apocalyptic images purely in terms of the present day, as if Ezekiel, Daniel, and John were talking specifically and directly about the early twenty-first century.

Peter also shows concern regarding the “unstable” distorting Scripture. Some perhaps are “unstable” because they are “unlearned”; nevertheless, one could be “learned” yet “unstable.” Few persons prove more dangerous in a congregation than one who has great Scriptural knowledge but is seriously lacking in practicing the message of Scripture and developing in maturity. They are “puffed up” by knowledge, and do not “build up” in love (1 Corinthians 8:1). There is a vast difference between an academic understanding of Christianity and a practical, “full-of-faith” understanding of Christianity. The practice of Christianity leads to proper understanding of love, humility, grace, mercy, and compassion; an academic understanding of Christianity often leads to presumption, pride, division, and often perversion of and departure from the message of Scripture when people begin to think they “know better” than that which has been revealed. So it was with the Gnostics in the first centuries after Christ; so it is to this day.

Peter affirms that Scripture can be understood, but warns that it can be misunderstood and distorted. Let us take Peter’s warning to heart: none of us are “above” or “below” distorting Scripture, however intentional or unintentional. Let us instead continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, derive encouragement from Scripture, and do all things for God’s glory and honor!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Sight and Blindness

And Jesus said, “For judgment came I into this world, that they that see not may see; and that they that see may become blind.”
Those of the Pharisees who were with him heard these things, and said unto him, “Are we also blind?”
Jesus said unto them, “If ye were blind, ye would have no sin: but now ye say, ‘We see’: your sin remaineth” (John 9:39-41).

All five senses are important, yet we attach great significance to sight. We live in a world full of images, signs, books, and all sorts of material which need to be seen to be understood and/or appreciated. Sure, it is possible to survive without vision, but it is a hard road indeed.

Humans naturally connect vision and sight to “insight” or understanding. How many times, upon figuring out some problem, challenge, or difficulty, have we exclaimed, “I see it now!”? How many times, after having explained something to someone, have we asked them whether they can “see” it? We don’t exclaim that we’ve heard it, or tasted it, touched it, or smelled it; we “see” it.

This tendency to explain understanding in terms of vision is not new to us; we see it presented in the Scriptures as well. Jesus fully exploits this tendency in an exquisite double entendre at the conclusion of John 9.

John 9:39-41 is based on the interactions among Jesus, a physically blind man, and the Pharisees throughout John 9:1-38. Jesus comes upon this man born physically blind and heals him of his blindness (John 9:1-7). This event is made known to the Pharisees, and they bring in the formerly blind man for questioning (John 9:8-15). The Pharisees insist that such a thing could not be of God because it was done upon the Sabbath; others find it hard to deny the obvious evidence before them (John 9:16). The Pharisees question this man’s parents and then the man again: they demand that he give God the glory, since they “knew” that the Man who did this was a “sinner” (John 9:17-27). The Pharisees are “disciples of Moses,” and they know that God spoke to Moses, but they do not know where “this Man,” that is Jesus, is from (John 9:28-29). The formerly blind man stands boldly in faith, logically refuting the Pharisees’ argument: if He was really a sinner, God would not hear Him, and yet until that time there had been no example of anyone’s eyes ever being opened as his eyes were (John 9:30-32). He quite rightly concludes that Jesus could do nothing if He were not of God (John 9:33). The Pharisees were offended at this boldness, declaring that such a man was “altogether born in sins,” and yet dared to try to teach them, and therefore cast him out of the synagogue, in effect banning him from the Jewish community (John 9:34). Jesus then found the man born blind and asked him if he believed in the Son of God (John 9:36); after asking who He is and being informed that Jesus is, in fact, the Son of God, he declared his belief in Jesus and prostrated before Him (John 9:36-37).

The conclusion of the matter is found in John 9:39-41. The whole situation has provided evidence for His claim: He came for judgment, allowing the blind to see and blinding those who see. It is not as if the statement is to be taken literally; as far as we can tell, Jesus never caused anyone who could physically see to become physically blind (although Paul does in Acts 13:4-12). Yes, Jesus heals this blind man’s eyes, and he now can physically see. Jesus’ emphasis, however, is not on his physical vision but his spiritual insight: he now believes that Jesus is the Son of God. He now “sees” in a way he did not “see” while blind. He, once a blind man in the midst of those who could see, now finds himself as one who sees in the midst of blind men.

Jesus does not blind those who “see” physically, nor does He even really intend to do so spiritually. The problem is not with Him; the problem is in those who claim to “see,” evidently the Pharisees from John 9:41. Jesus’ statement there is stark: if they admitted their blindness, they would be without sin, but since they say they see, their sin remains. This again has less to do with physical sight and more to do with internal insight: the Pharisees are convinced they know Moses, they know what Moses taught, they know what Sabbath observance looks like, and they certainly know what Sabbath violations look like. They are blinded by their complete conviction of their vision! They find themselves declaring that the work of God really did not come from God because it did not happen in the way they would have expected it to according to their understanding of the Law.

Let us not be deceived into thinking that the Pharisees’ views come from some kind of humble conservatism: it is based in their claim of being Moses’ disciples and separated from the “sinners.” They refuse to listen to anything which goes against their understanding; if it contradicts their tradition or the way they’ve always been taught, it clearly must be wrong. They find themselves denying the obvious to attempt to maintain their control through tradition and dogma. Jesus is right: they are blind. They refuse to see; they do not want to see; they do not want to be in the awkward place of having to admit that they do not understand what they think they understand and are wrong.

People have not changed much in two thousand years. Plenty of blind men have great insight; plenty of people who physically see are blind to their condition. Most people are aware that they have deficiencies and readily admit to many of them, yet how many recognize that even in their strengths they have weaknesses, or they do not fully understand even that in which they have the most confidence?

We should not walk away from this text without coming to terms with its most powerful message: the “sinner” was physically blind but was willing to gain the insight regarding who Jesus was and what that meant, while the religious authorities, the “righteous ones,” were blinded by their own dogma. They did not challenge Jesus on the basis of some questionable aspect of the Law but on a matter on which they assumed their opinions and interpretations were exactly in line with God’s intentions beyond a shadow of a doubt. They proved unwilling to subject their confidence to any form of critical insight based on the evidence Jesus provided them; thus they were declared blind. Notice the way Jesus puts it: “but now ye say, ‘We see’: your sin remaineth” (John 9:41).

There is much we can learn about God based on His revelation in the Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16-17). We should diligently apply ourselves to that end. Yet, in doing so, we must never become like the Pharisees and assume that once we have come to some level of understanding that we now fully “see.” At this time we see as in a mirror dimly (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12); the ways of God are beyond our understanding (Isaiah 55:8-9). If we learn in wisdom, the more we learn, the more we recognize we really do not know! For every question that can be answered we can discover many more unanswered and unanswerable questions; the greater depths of knowledge which we plumb shows us how incomprehensibly deep that ocean really is. Therefore, even in that which we are to believe with complete conviction as true, there remains depth which we cannot plumb. We never have and never will be able to have perfect understanding; there is always more to learn, and always better ways to see.

On the other hand, we should not be like a blind man leading the blind into a pit (cf. Matthew 15:14)! We are to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18). But our knowledge must be in faith, and whatever is lacking in our knowledge must be filled by faith. The blind man, above all else, learned to trust Jesus; that is what he learned to see. Let us find true spiritual insight in Jesus, never trusting in our own understanding but in what He has revealed, always examining His truth, and in humility recognizing our blindness and limitations in the flesh, and glorify and honor God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Mark of True Discipleship

“A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; even as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:34-35).

What is supposed to define a disciple, or follower, of Christ?

For the better part of 1,750 years, one could be forgiven for thinking the answer involved finding and adhering to the right doctrines regarding Jesus. For most of its history Christianity has seemed to focus on determining the nature of God and Christ, how salvation is accomplished, the relationship between the believer and the church, the church and the state, and a whole host of other matters. Upon these matters most of the written records focus; comparatively precious little is said regarding the practice of the faith. Perhaps the practice of the faith was more strongly emphasized in other contexts; perhaps it went unsaid because there was little disagreement regarding it.

The Bible does insist on a good understanding of God in Christ and the substantive message of the faith and the need to stand firm within it (2 Timothy 2:15, Jude 1:3, 2 John 1:7-11). Yet it is worth noting what Jesus Himself emphasizes as the true mark of His followers. He does not say that all men will know we are His disciples by the doctrines we teach, the truths we uphold, or the persuasive arguments we make. The mark of true disciples of Jesus is their love for one another (John 13:35).

The statement seems so simple, so obvious, and yet it is quite compelling and extraordinarily challenging. It is not as if this is the first time that the disciples have been told to love one another; the Law exhorted them to love their neighbors as themselves (Leviticus 19:18), and all Israelites would agree that fellow Israelites were their neighbors (cf. Luke 10:25-29). That aspect of the command is “old,” but Jesus adds a twist which makes it “new”: they are to love one another as He loved them (John 13:34; cf. 1 John 2:7-8). God is love (1 John 4:8); Jesus, God in the flesh, is the embodiment of love (John 1:1, 14, Hebrews 1:3, 1 John 3:16). We can therefore understand the love Christians are to have for one another by understanding the way Jesus conducted Himself among His disciples.

Jesus called His twelve disciples, not because of who they were at the time, but on account of their willingness to follow and because of what Jesus knew they could be (Matthew 10:1-4). He spent a lot of time teaching them; many of Jesus’ teachings were directed to the disciples, even if others were present (e.g. Matthew 5:1-7:28), and would provide further explanation to them in other contexts as well (Mark 4:33-34). Nevertheless, the disciples proved slow to truly perceive and understand what Jesus was saying; He remained patient with them (cf. John 13:36-38, 14:5-8, etc.).

But Jesus went beyond instructing them in word; He also showed them in deed the things He was saying (1 John 3:18). He showed His love for them by serving them, finding no task too humiliating or “beneath” Him (John 13:1-11). He took care of their material needs many times (e.g. Matthew 17:24-27). He prayed to the Father for them (John 17:1-19). In the moment of His greatest need they forsook Him and even denied Him; He loved them anyway, died for them anyway, and welcomed them back joyfully in His resurrection (John 18:1-20:23, 1 John 3:16). Jesus embodied the definition of love toward His disciples: He was patient and kind with them, did not envy or boast, was not arrogant or rude, did not insist on His own way, was not irritable or resentful, did not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoiced with them in the truth, bore their deficiencies and iniquities, continued to believe in them, hoped in them, and endured with them. His love for them never ended (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a).

As we can see, coming to an understanding of the truth of God in Christ Jesus and His Kingdom is part of showing love to one another, but does not and cannot fully embody what it means to love one another. Yes, we are to learn about Jesus, but that learning is not supposed to be merely an intellectual exercise or an end unto itself; we are to learn about Him so that we can be more like Him (Romans 8:29, 1 John 2:6). Doctrine is important: we feel and act based upon what we believe, therefore, we must have the right beliefs if we are going to feel and act as we should. Yet, as Jesus makes abundantly clear, mere intellectual understanding was never the goal; knowledge of God in Christ is designed to inexorably lead to reflecting the characteristics of God in Christ.

Jesus’ phrasing might seem odd to us: how is it that all men will know we are disciples of Jesus by our love for one another? Would they not understand how we are disciples of Jesus by our love for them? It is not as if Christians are to not love those outside the faith (cf. Luke 6:27-36, Galatians 6:10), but Jesus’ emphasis on love toward one another is well-placed and quite poignant. We like to think that people are persuaded to follow Jesus through well-constructed and persuasive arguments. Some are convinced through such apologetics, but God knows us better than we know ourselves, and recognizes that very few people are ever convinced about anything on account of rational argumentation. In the end, God is not interested in just setting up an alternative mental construct through which to see the world; Christianity was never designed to just be the correct philosophy of the world.

The true mark defining a group of disciples is their love for one another. How do they treat each other? If Christians love one another like Jesus has loved them, they will remind each other of the truths of God in Jesus (cf. 2 Timothy 4:1-5). But they will also show great concern for one another, making sure that each other’s material needs are met (Galatians 6:10, 1 John 3:17-18). They are patient and kind with one another; if they sin against each other, they forgive each other and bear with one another (Colossians 3:12-14). True followers of Jesus understand that they have all sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God, and feel comfortable enough with one another to open up and confess their sins, faults, and failures, entrusting themselves to one another, even though they will at times hurt each other and betray each other (James 5:16). They love each other anyway. They share with each other anyway. They build each other up anyway.

Where else in the world can such love be found in true community? People in the world crave that kind of love, acceptance, welcome, and openness. People want to be loved; people want others to be patient with them; people want to be treated kindly and considerately; people want to share life together. People want a greater purpose in life and to share in that mission with others, and so it all is supposed to be in Jesus. If Christ’s followers show love to one another as we have described it, others will want to share in that experience, and they will themselves be inspired to follow Jesus (cf. Matthew 5:13-16)!

But what happens when people claim to follow Jesus but do not manifest that love? The history of “Christianity” is full of examples of such failures, and they have given the faith a bad name and have given reason for the nations to blaspheme. Emphasis on right doctrine alone led to wars, death, misery, and pain for untold thousands; to this day, how many people associate Christianity with the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the people on the street spewing forth messages of condemnation? The world is full of different groups of people who only see each other’s failings, show little patience with one another’s faults, constantly nitpick and judge each other with a view of denigrating them, and feel important or special because of their knowledge or means by which they identify themselves. There’s nothing special or attractive about such groups, and if some such groups try to wear the name of Christ, it’s little wonder why they struggle to grow or be effective in any meaningful way.

Followers of Jesus show love to one another in a number of different ways, and they are all important, but only insofar as they point back to Jesus, glorify Him, and are done with a view to reflecting Jesus to one another and our fellow man. Jesus knows what He is doing; He has good reason to make love for one another the clear identifier of His true followers. Any group of people professing to follow Jesus which does not share in love toward each other has not truly understood Jesus. Any group which professes to follow Jesus and to have the love they should have but do not adhere to the truth of God in Jesus Christ has not really understood all that the love of Jesus requires. But it is just as true that anyone who thinks they have understood the true knowledge of God in Christ but does not show true love to His fellow Christians has not really understood the true knowledge of God in Christ and certainly has not perceived the end to which we are to learn of Christ. Instead, let us follow after Jesus the way He intends. Let us come to a better knowledge of Jesus, understanding how He lived and loved, so that we can love each other as Jesus intends!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Knew Not the LORD

And also all that generation were gathered unto their fathers: and there arose another generation after them, that knew not the LORD, nor yet the work which he had wrought for Israel (Judges 2:10).

Humans are creatures of habit. We participate in “good” habits and “bad” habits; it is easy to perpetuate “bad” habits, and far harder to stop them, but the opposite tends to be true for “good” habits. What is true about us as individuals can also be seen in terms of larger groups and even on a generational level. Certain practices, for better or worse, get communicated from generation to generation. Other practices can be neglected and forgotten.

When it comes to habits, the beginning of the process is extremely important. Some say that it takes twenty-one days to start or break a habit; after that point, it is easier to keep on going (or not going, whatever the situation might be). Whatever starts well has a better chance of ending well.

The same is true when it came to God’s work amongst the Israelites. The generation of Israelites who came out of Egypt saw God’s powerful hand both defeating their enemies and keeping them alive. The generation afterward saw God’s hand in the conquest of Canaan. A legacy had been established which could be now communicated to successive generations of Israelites: the powerful story of God’s working on behalf of Israel. The story was to be perpetuated for generations so that Israel would always remember how YHWH delivered their fathers out of Egypt and knew that YHWH, not Baal, not any other god, was truly God (e.g. Exodus 12:24-27). It was intended to be a catalyst toward faithfulness for each successive generation.

Yet as soon as the Israelites enter the land, something goes wrong. Perhaps the fathers did not properly instruct their children; perhaps the children, as they grew up, rebelled against the teachings they received. Nevertheless, the next generation grew up without knowing YHWH nor the work which He had done for Israel.

The “good” habit had been broken; the “bad” habits began to perpetuate themselves. The Judges author goes on to describe the faithlessness of Israel, following the customs of the nations around them, turning to the Baals, provoking YHWH to anger (Judges 2:11-14). This will be the paradigm that marks Israelite history for another 800 years, culminating in the exile of Israel and Judah (cf. 2 Kings 17:7-23, 2 Chronicles 36:13-16).

The challenge makes sense: everyone has to get some sort of story about who they are and the world in which they live from somewhere. God provided that story for Israel through His saving acts of deliverance, but for a generation who did not know YHWH and what He did, all was left was the story the Canaanites were telling.

The challenge remains to this day. Everyone has to get some sort of story about who they are and the world in which they live from somewhere. God provides that story for us in Scripture: God as Creator, man’s fall, God’s work to redeem mankind through the Patriarchs, Israel, and ultimately and completely through His Son, Jesus of Nazareth. As God did for Israel in Egypt and the Wilderness, so God has done for all mankind in Jesus: God has acted powerfully to redeem us and rescue us from bondage (cf. Romans 5:6-11, 6:16-23). This is the story that should be told from generation to generation.

Yet rebellion persists. Some never learn of the story; some only receive a portion of the story; others learn it but reject it. Plenty grow up and live, never knowing God, and as a result, believe in whatever story they hear from their society and culture through its various agents.

While we all enjoy the creation which God has made for us, and should be able to perceive His hand within it (cf. Romans 1:19-20), we should not expect to see in our generation any of the powerful acts of deliverance akin to what God wrought for Israel in Egypt and the Wilderness and in Judea in the days of Jesus of Nazareth. This does not minimize the power of those events; it shows us how God acts decisively within human history in order to transform humanity, and it then becomes incumbent on every successive generation to communicate the message of God’s deliverance and to orient others back toward a reconciled relationship with their Creator. It is a never-ending process. Even if we have accepted it in the past and seek to communicate it to others, we must be reminded of it again frequently, lest we forget. And we must take special concern not to see the message confused and distorted by later adaptations and changes meant to make it all more palatable to the audience of the day.

Good habits are hard to start; bad habits are tough to break. Let us promote the Gospel of Christ, develop the “habit” of dependence upon God, lest we incur the same judgment and condemnation as those who did not know YHWH or what He has done!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Destroyed for Lack of Knowledge

My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, that thou shalt be no priest to me: seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I also will forget thy children (Hosea 4:6).

The situation reads like an apocalyptic horror story.

No one trusts anyone else. Everyone is out for their own advantage. Kill or be killed. Rampant theft. Pervasive adultery. Blood in the streets. Even the land itself is in mourning.

While some may think this would refer to parts of America or other parts of the world today, this is the description of Israelite society 750 years before Jesus as provided by the prophet Hosea (Hosea 4:1-3).

Hosea presents a picture of a society unhinged from moral bearings, having cast off all restraint. He presents God’s case against the people, and does so powerfully; God’s impending judgment of the people is just. Nevertheless, we are left to ask: what went so wrong? What led to such disastrous conditions in Israel?

The controversy God has with the people is that there is no truth or goodness in the land (Hosea 4:1); this is directly associated with the real cause of the problem: there is no knowledge of God in the land (Hosea 4:1). As God says through Hosea: my people are destroyed for lack of knowledge (Hosea 4:6)!

How could this be? There were temples to YHWH in Dan and Bethel; if you asked the “Israelite in the street” about religion, he would tell you that YHWH was the God of Israel, and how He delivered His people out of Egypt and gave them the land of Israel. So how could it be that the people did not have sufficient knowledge of God?

The answer would be apparent if you continued to question the average “Israelite on the street.” He would likely tell you that the golden calves in those temples in Dan and Bethel were representations of YHWH, and that Baal, Asherah, and other gods really existed and were the gods of the people around them. The average “Israelite on the street” would prove to be the average person of the ancient Near East with the usual worldview and beliefs of the average person of the ancient Near East; this was not at all what God was looking for in His people (cf. Deuteronomy 13:1-18)!

Israel had some cultural memories of who God is but was not taught directly and/or effectively from the Law about the nature and essence of that God and the conduct He expected from them. The blame for this begins with the priests and Levites who were instructed to teach the people about God and the Law (Deuteronomy 31:9-13). They were perfectly positioned to do so since they were intermediaries, standing between God and the people; nevertheless, from the beginning of the northern Kingdom of Israel, priests came from all sorts of places God had not authorized, and were likely under political pressure to modify what had been declared to suit the purposes of the king (1 Kings 12:31). In a mostly illiterate society, if the Law is not constantly read to the people, they will not be able to know it; thus we have the judgment pronounced by Hosea. The people do not have the true knowledge they should have, and it will lead to their destruction!

But the people themselves are not blameless; even if the priests were not reading the Law, they should have encouraged one another in the knowledge of YHWH as the One True God, the Creator, their Deliverer (cf. Romans 1:18-20); instead, they went out and engaged in the same idolatrous practices as the people around them (cf. Hosea 4:8-14). Ignorance was inexcusable; even if the Levites and the priests were not speaking the true word of YHWH, God provided Israel with prophets like Amos and Hosea who did speak the true word of YHWH. These prophets went unheeded; the people preferred the prophets with nicer messages and who did not condemn them.

The ultimate consequences were severe; within a generation, the northern Kingdom of Israel would fall to Assyria; most of the people would be exiled and absorbed into the population of Mesopotamia. Most of the priests and Levites of the north would not stand before God and minister to Him, and all because they had forgotten about YHWH. Their punishment is just: since they acted and believed little differently from the rest of the peoples of the ancient Near East, they were absorbed into the ancient Near Eastern world and would have little inheritance in the promises of the God of Israel.

We can make many parallels with the modern day. Sure, there are plenty of people who will profess to believe in God and His Son Jesus Christ, and even claim that He was raised from the dead. But if you press the average “man on the street” when it comes to his understanding of God, it becomes clear rather quickly that most are little different from their secular neighbors. Their behaviors and attitudes differ little from everyone else; they look at things in the way most good postmodern 21st century Americans would, not the way Jesus does. And those behavior patterns tell the story: there is little knowledge of God in the land, despite all the bluster and appearance to the contrary. Understanding of who God is and what He expects from mankind is as superficial today as it was 2750 years ago!

Blame can be laid at the feet of many perceived religious authorities; too many proclaim Enlightenment modernism or post-Enlightenment postmodernism, nationalism, or other worldly philosophies in the name of Christ to their own hurt as well as ours (cf. Colossians 2:1-10). Too many preachers proclaim a moralistic therapeutic Deist god, and not the God revealed in the pages of the Bible. We can be assured that God’s judgment upon them will be just and decisive; as many such organizations decline in membership and relevancy, they are experiencing something somewhat similar to Israel, for they are becoming fully what they aspired to in their preaching and ideology. They are being good 21st century Americans, not Christians. How many people have been destroyed because of such things?

But, in the end, ignorance is no excuse, especially today. Most everyone can read; everyone can easily get their hands on God’s message to mankind. Nevertheless, even though people have plenty of reason to believe in God, they go off and engage in the same behavior as the nations around them. They blindly follow after cultural and societal norms to their own destruction.

People whom God wishes were saved are being destroyed for lack of knowledge; there is insufficient knowledge of God in the land. Let us not fall prey to the superficiality of faith in our culture and go down the same dead ends as those who came before us; let us learn of God as revealed in Jesus Christ and follow after Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Weapons of our Warfare

For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh (for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but mighty before God to the casting down of strongholds), casting down imaginations, and every high thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God, and bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).

The military metaphor is used occasionally in Scripture to describe the conflict in which we find ourselves. It is dangerous to read too deeply into the military metaphor; notice how often Paul emphasizes that our enemies are not flesh and blood and our weapons are not physical (2 Corinthians 10:3-4, Ephesians 6:12). He is making clear what far too many since have confused: there is a conflict, yes, but swords and guns are not going to solve it. Guns and swords are only going to make things worse!

Nevertheless, we are all engaged in a conflict. In Ephesians 6:10-18 Paul speaks of that conflict in terms of the soldier’s full armament. Here, in 2 Corinthians 10:3-5, he briefly describes the weaponry we are to use in this conflict in order to advance the purposes of God in Christ.

There are two aspects to these “weapons”: engagement with the world around us, and engagement within ourselves. They are both used for the “casting down of strongholds” and the weapons are “mighty before God” (2 Corinthians 10:4). We are to imagine the large, walled cities of the ancient world; the weapons we are to use will tear down those walls. Defenses will be compromised!

Paul begins with the engagement with the world around us. Paul says that it is our task to “cast down imaginations, and every high thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God” in the ASV; the ESV renders it, “we destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

This might seem strange to us at first. Some might wonder where there is room for the practice of Christianity. Others may want to know where morality and discussions about moral behavior fit in. But if we stop and think about it for a moment, what Paul says makes perfect sense.

Everyone has a view of the world and how it works. This view is constantly modified by new information; the older we get, the more fossilized it becomes. We have to have some type of worldview/perspective in order to make sense of all the different aspects of existence. It is this worldview that informs our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

As long as a person can remain convinced that the way they see the world is the way it really is, or makes the best sense of the way it really is, it will remain incredibly difficult to change their minds about much of anything. Witness the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Jews in general throughout the New Testament. For that matter, see what it took for Saul of Tarsus to change his mind (cf. Acts 9:1-19)! As long as the person can make sense out of things, they will keep thinking as they always have, and thus keep acting as they always have.

Therefore, as long as the “imaginations” of man stay in place, and as long as people exalt their opinions about the way things work, we cannot get very far with people. People are not blank slates; if they are going to learn of God, they are going to have to “unlearn” some things first. Since everyone already has some type of edifice that they have built in order to understand the world, that edifice will have to first be exposed as faulty before people are going to be willing to concede that they need to change the way they think, feel, and act!

And that is why Paul speaks of casting down imaginations and every opinion exalted over the knowledge of God. Our weapon must be the tool of persuasion, presenting all the evidence that does not fit well into the edifice people have already created yet exhibits the soundness of the revelation of God. These are very deep issues and go to the core of who we think we are as human beings; since they are deep, dealing with the surface issues are not going to get us very far. Unfortunately, most people need to be convinced that the way they see the world is broken before they believe it broken. That is why our “firepower” must be directed to this end– getting people to understand that the way they see things is flawed in order to present to them the better model in Christ.

The other aspect to these “weapons” involves more engagement within ourselves. As Paul says, we must be “bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). How can we work to knock down these strongholds of the world if they maintain a foothold within our own minds? How can we refute an argument if we continue to maintain it within ourselves?

The knowledge of God is firmly rooted in Christ; as Paul says in Colossians 2:1-10, it should be our goal and aim to understand all things through Christ. Worldly philosophies deceive; we can discern what is right from wrong in them when they are subjected before Christ. “Common sense” and the groupthink of culture are seductive ideas; we can only discern what is truly sensible when we subject those ideas to Christ. Idolatry is man’s perennial problem, from the beginning until now (cf. Romans 1:18-32); the only way to eliminate idolatry is to make sure all things are subject to Christ.

There is a prevalent myth about that says that we can all be objectively rational at times and seek to understand things in a disinterested way. This is sheer folly; no matter how hard we try, we are products of our culture, society, upbringing, and time. The best that any of us can do is to be sensitive to those ways in which we are predisposed to understand matters because of our culture, society, upbringing, and time. The only way to do so thoroughly is to subject everything to Christ. What would Christ find commendatory about the spirit of the age? Commend it. What would Christ critique regarding the spirit of the age? Critique it.

The stakes are quite high. As long as the bloated and blustering edifices of worldly thought and philosophy are left unchallenged, people will continue to follow after vanity and justify themselves by the lie. We must challenge these edifices with the knowledge of God, understanding that present ideas must be deconstructed before a godly life can be built instead.

In so doing, we must remember that the worst horror of all is when believers become complicit with those bloated and blustering edifices by just going along with what they have been taught by society, culture, upbringing, and the like, not subjecting these thoughts to Christ, understanding what is commendatory from what is to be challenged. We can look into our past and find many instances when believers did not subject certain societal attitudes to Christ; now, as then, it was always about difficult matters, some of which may not have been automatically evident to the people involved. The Evil One is good at seducing believers into following after many forms of conventional wisdom that are contrary to God’s purposes. Let us resist the temptation. Let us subject every thought, every attitude, everything we might assume is accurate or is according to “common sense,” and subject it to Christ. Then let us praise what is to be commended, and work diligently to tear down through critique all that is to be challenged. In so doing, we will be tearing down those worldly strongholds, casting down everything exalted beyond the knowledge of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Vanity of Knowledge and Wisdom

I communed with mine own heart, saying, “Lo, I have gotten me great wisdom above all that were before me in Jerusalem; yea, my heart hath had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.”
And I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also was a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow (Ecclesiastes 1:16-18).

We have a love-hate relationship with the Preacher and his message. We really cannot deny its substantive truth, but that does not mean that we have to like it. The idea that our lives “under the sun,” on the whole, is absurd, is deeply troubling to us. Yet the facts are in: all who live die, no matter how virtuous or sinful; you can accumulate much or little and you still cannot take it with you; despite our lofty rhetoric, generations still come and go, and most end up forgotten. And, perhaps most frustratingly for modern man, the pursuit of pleasures never end in true satisfaction.

Yet, in the face of all of this, many still want to redeem the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. Yes, people understand that satisfying desires for food, sex, money, fame, and the like ultimately do not satisfy, but there is the expectation that there will be some satisfaction in wisdom and knowledge. Knowledge is deemed power; thus, the idea is, the more knowledge, the more power. Wisdom is understood also as a benefit to people, and if it is good for us, then more of it should make things better!

But the Preacher has some bad news for us. The pursuit of wisdom and knowledge does not fare any better than the pursuit of other pleasures. Too much knowledge, or too much wisdom, can cause as many problems as too little.

There is a reason for the saying that ignorance is bliss. If we suggest it as an absolute truth we are foolish, for there are some things we ought to know and with which we must come to grips– God’s will, our ultimate fates in the flesh, the skills of our profession, and so on and so forth. Nevertheless, there are plenty of times when we feel cursed because of some knowledge we have gained or some wisdom we have understood. We feel that we would have been better off without that knowledge or wisdom. In those circumstances, ignorance is bliss.

Knowledge, for its part, often complicates. More fortunate and blessed are those who trust, say, in the divine operation and sustenance of the universe than those who end up rejecting the existence of God because of the challenges and doubts raised in investigating the nature of that operation. While it is true that challenges and doubts sometimes occur because of ignorance, they far too often are the result of digging too deeply into certain subjects concerning which we humans will never truly understand (Ecclesiastes 8:16-17). Not a few heresies and false teachings have been launched on account of people professing “advanced knowledge” of things they really do not understand (cf. 1 Timothy 6:20-21), or on account of conundrums that come up because of deep investigation of an easily comprehensible statement. Forests are too often missed not just because of trees but because of bark patterns on particular trees!

We honor and praise wisdom, and we are right to do so, since folly should never be in style. But wisdom also has its dark side, and the Preacher understands this all too well. In his wisdom he plumbs the depth of the human experience and feels compelled to come to grips with its ultimate futility. We can experience his grief as he recognizes that the wise and the fool have the same end (Ecclesiastes 2:12-16), or that the fruit of his efforts will enrich another (Ecclesiastes 2:4-11). He desires what we desire– the ultimate justification of the wise and virtuous life– and yet is pained by the absurdity of life, where the wicked often prosper to the detriment of the righteous and all meet the same fate (Ecclesiastes 8:14). How much of what we call “wisdom” does not really taste sweet but bitter!

This is quite distressing to us, and yet it remains a good warning. The pursuit of knowledge and wisdom is to be considered as the pursuit of personal gain and satisfaction. It is not wrong to seek knowledge, wisdom, gain, and satisfaction, and they can provide much good. To believe, however, that any such thing represents the Ultimate Ideal in life is utterly misguided. We internally know, even if we do not always act appropriately on the basis of this knowledge, that money and pleasure is not everything in life or the ultimate goal in life. We must learn the same lesson about knowledge and wisdom. Instead, the Ultimate Ideal and goal in life is God and godliness, and we do well to revere Him and serve Him (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). Just as we direct our pursuits of material resource and satisfaction in life toward His purposes and for His advantage, so must we direct our pursuits of knowledge and wisdom. And, just as we know that gain and satisfaction are not God, so too must we know that knowledge and wisdom are not God. There is an end to what we can know and understand, and we must trust in His understanding and His goodness (Deuteronomy 29:29).

To have knowledge and wisdom from God is good. To believe that knowledge and wisdom are the ultimate ideals and end is folly. Let us keep wisdom and knowledge in perspective and trust in and serve God!

Ethan R. Longhenry