Sinai and Jerusalem

They then that received his word were baptized: and there were added unto them in that day about three thousand souls (Acts 2:41).

Beginnings set the tone for how everything following will proceed. Not for nothing is it said that you only have one chance to make a first impression.

The beginning of the proclamation of the full Gospel of Jesus Christ by the Apostles, the beginning of the church, the manifestation of Jesus’ Kingdom on earth, is set forth in Acts 2:1-48. The Apostles are baptized with the Holy Spirit and begin to speak in the assorted languages spoken by the diaspora of Jews who have gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13). Peter proclaims what it is the Jewish people are seeing: the Holy Spirit has fallen on them as a fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32, for Jesus of Nazareth, whom they had seen work miracles and had crucified, was raised from the dead by God, and of this David prophesied in the Psalms and Peter and the Apostles had personally eyewitnessed (Acts 2:14-36). About three thousand Jewish people believed, repented, and were baptized in the name of the Lord, and began devoting themselves together to the Apostles’ doctrine, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer, spending time together in the Temple and from house to house, providing for each other as any had need, having favor with the people, full of joy and purpose, and many others were being added to their number (Acts 2:37-48). An auspicious beginning indeed!

St. Peter Preaching 00

But why on Pentecost? Pentecost was the festival of firstfruits of the wheat harvest, established by YHWH as fifty days after the Passover (the Feast of Weeks or Shauvot; Exodus 34:22, Deuteronomy 16:9-11). A festival for firstfruits was by its very nature a celebration; the people would have been subsisting on whatever had remained from previous harvests, and the prospect of new and bountiful food would make them glad. The Feast of Weeks also manifests their confidence in God, for if they gave the firstfruits to Him, they were trusting in Him to give plenty in the rest of the harvest. The Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the Feast of Weeks were all in their own way a reminder of being slaves in Egypt delivered from bondage by YHWH (Deuteronomy 16:12). As one of the three festivals in which all men were to appear before YHWH in the Temple, the Feast of Weeks/Pentecost represented a convenient opportunity to proclaim the good news of Jesus of Nazareth to all Israel (cf. Deuteronomy 16:16-17).

Yet Pentecost, in Jewish memory, was not only the Feast of Weeks, an agricultural celebration; according to the oral tradition of Israel it is also the anniversary of the day on which YHWH spoke the Ten Commandments before Israel on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:1-21).

Thus Pentecost hearkens back to another beginning, the beginning of the covenant between God and Israel as mediated by the Law of Moses. This covenant was established on Mount Sinai; the people were terrified at the thunders, lightning, fire, and the voice of God, and having heard the Ten Commandments, begged for Moses to receive the Law and stand between them and God (Exodus 20:1-21). YHWH then gave Moses the Law and the provisions for the Tabernacle over a forty day period, culminating in receiving the two tables of testimony in stone written by the finger of God (Exodus 20:21-31:18). Meanwhile, the people feared that Moses had met his demise, and persuaded Aaron to make gods for them, and he made a golden calf which they served and before whom they made merry (Exodus 32:1-6). YHWH burned in anger against Israel and sought to strike them down and make of Moses a great nation; Moses talked YHWH down by reminding Him of the promises He had made to their forefathers (Exodus 32:7-14). Moses descended to the base of Mount Sinai, broke the tablets of the testimony, destroyed the golden calf, grinding it into powder, and made Israel to drink it (Exodus 32:15-25). Moses called on those who were on YHWH’s side, and his fellow Levites came to him; he commanded them to strike down their companions and neighbors, and about three thousand of the people fell (Exodus 32:26-28). Moses testified how Israel had committed great sin, and YHWH struck the people further, because of the golden calf they had made (Exodus 32:29-35). YHWH would then command Moses to lead the people away from Mount Sinai (Exodus 33:1); what was supposed to be a sanctified place had been defiled, and what was to be a holy people needed forgiveness. From then on the Levites would be called upon to stand between YHWH and the people, and the Law would be reckoned as a burden that none of the Israelites could properly bear (Exodus 19:6, Numbers 3:12, Acts 15:10). This was a less than auspicious beginning!

In this way Pentecost marks the beginning of two covenants, one in Sinai and the other in Jerusalem. On Sinai great terror came upon the people as they heard the voice of God; they sinned against God there, and about three thousand of them died. In Jerusalem great amazement came upon the people as they heard in their native languages the mighty works of God; they learned about redemption there, and about three thousand of them received salvation and the hope of eternal life. The Law from Sinai would remind them of their faults, failures, and sin; to various degrees Israel sought to live up to what God had decreed, but frequently failed and/or turned aside to other gods. The gift of the Spirit in Jerusalem would provide release from sin, deliverance from bondage, and hope for eternity in the resurrection with the Lord Jesus Christ.

Later on Paul would make a similar contrast in 2 Corinthians 3:6-18: the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life; the old is a ministration of death and condemnation, the new is a ministration of the Spirit and of righteousness. Pentecost provides a great illustration of this principle. When the Law was given, the people turned aside and about three thousand were killed; when the Spirit is given, the people repented and about three thousand found eternal life. The Law set forth right and wrong and in so doing gave life to sin and thus death (Romans 7:5-13); the Spirit set forth deliverance from sin and death through Jesus and the resurrection, and in so doing gives life (Romans 8:1-3).

We do well to praise God that we have not come to a mountain of fear and condemnation, as was Sinai, but to Jerusalem, Mount Zion, wherein life can be found through the Spirit and the message of the good news of Jesus of Nazareth (cf. Hebrews 12:18-24). May we ever live in repentance and hope in the Spirit, serving the Lord Jesus and proclaiming His good news to all nations!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Stubbornness in Heart

“Lest there should be among you man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart turneth away this day from the LORD our God, to go to serve the gods of those nations; lest there should be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood; and it come to pass, when he heareth the words of this curse, that he bless himself in his heart, saying,
‘I shall have peace, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart,’
to destroy the moist with the dry. The LORD will not pardon him, but then the anger of the LORD and his jealousy will smoke against that man, and all the curse that is written in this book shall lie upon him, and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven. And the LORD will set him apart unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that is written in this book of the law (Deuteronomy 29:18-21).

Deep down most of us want our cake and to eat it as well. We can’t.

Moses Pleading with Israel (crop)

Moses has established the “words of the covenant” between YHWH and Israel, renewed in the land of Moab (Deuteronomy 29:1). Moses grounds obedience to the Law in terms of the recognition of what YHWH has done for Israel: they saw how YHWH devastated Egypt, rescued them from bondage, etc., but they did not fully perceive what it all meant until the present (Deuteronomy 29:2-4). YHWH has sustained Israel in the wilderness so that they would know He is their God; He gave them victory over Sihon and Og (Deuteronomy 29:5-8). YHWH’s saving and victorious hand is the reason why Israel should keep the covenant so they can prosper (Deuteronomy 29:9). All Israel stands before YHWH that day to enter into that covenant: not just those physically alive and present, but in a real and binding way, those who are not yet alive but will be born or otherwise grafted into that covenant for generations (Deuteronomy 29:10-17). Moses brings up the universality of the moment for good reason: he wants to make sure that no one thinks they have an “out” or an escape, as he explains in Deuteronomy 29:18-21, either in the present or in the future to come (cf. Deuteronomy 29:22-28).

What kind of “out” would people think to have? Moses imagines a person who is standing there at that moment, having seen all YHWH had done for Israel and yet allows his heart to be turned away from Him to serve the gods of the nations (Deuteronomy 29:18). Such a one is imagined to say, in the stubbornness of his heart, that he will have peace (Deuteronomy 29:19). He thinks he will have peace, but Moses says such a one will “destroy the moist with the dry”; a proverbial expression, likely indicating that destruction or difficulty will come to the good as well as the bad in such a circumstance (Deuteronomy 29:19). Moses wants it to be perfectly clear that such attitudes are right out: this person is actually a source of gall and wormwood, toxic to the health of the nation, and upon whom the anger of YHWH will be fully expressed, experiencing the full weight of the curses of the covenant (Deuteronomy 29:18, 20-21). The person may not even be physically present at the moment; even if it is a child of a later generation, the same suffering will take place, and Israel will be as Sodom and Gomorrah, a by-word and parable for the nations (Deuteronomy 29:22-28). Moses wants one thing to be plain: YHWH is not messing around. Do not think that you can present a false front of adherence to YHWH while nursing idolatry and wickedness in the heart. The stubbornness of your heart will be exposed for what it is and it will not go well with you!

Unfortunately all Moses warned about would come to pass: many Israelites pursued the stubbornness of their hearts, served other gods, and it led to exile for Israel and Judah (cf. 2 Kings 17:7-23). The stubbornness of Israel’s heart was evident in the way they treated the prophets YHWH sent to them. They did not listen; they refused to hear; they paid the penalty.

We can all see these things and nod in assent. It is easy to see how they did not hear because they were stubborn in their hearts. But do you really think that they would have really said in their hearts that they would have peace though they walk in the stubbornness of their heart (Deuteronomy 29:19)? Were they really that self-aware?

While there are always exceptions to the rule, in general, most of the Israelites who believed they would have peace despite maintaining rebellion against YHWH through serving idols would not have considered themselves as being stubborn in heart. Moses is “putting words in their mouths” to explain the situation. In reality they are being stubborn in heart, yet they are most likely deceived, thinking that they know better, understand better, or expect that things will be alright because YHWH will surely not abandon His people, etc. (e.g. Jeremiah 7:1-15). They were being stubborn, but they didn’t think that way about themselves!

Walking in the stubbornness of the heart is the perennial danger of the people of God. We easily imagine that “God will understand,” “God surely will not abandon us,” or perhaps even worse, “God will be pleased with this,” despite the fact that what we are doing is contrary to His revealed will and purposes in Jesus Christ. The danger is real; we are easily tempted, when hearing what God has condemned, to try to carve out some exceptions, to make it seem less dangerous, or to otherwise justify our current perspective or behavior. We are tempted to conform to the habits and views of those around us just as Israel was (Romans 12:2); for them it was serving a pantheon of gods and engaging in customs contrary to the Law, while for us it involves the cultural relativism, elevation of empiricism and materialism, and drunkenness through consumerism rampant in our culture. It’s tempting to want to straddle the fence, to act as if we can serve God fully while adhering to these cultural concepts in the stubbornness of our hearts.

God is gracious; we are all dependent on His grace and mercy (Ephesians 2:1-10). But what if God “will not understand”? What if confidence that “God surely will not abandon us” is misplaced? What if we have actually called evil good, and good evil? How will it go for us on the day of the Lord Jesus? Let us learn from the example of Israel, and let us not bless ourselves in our hearts when we should mourn, and seek to perceive the deceptive stubbornness in our hearts so as to root it out and subject ourselves to God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Structure in the Creation

For the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David.
The heavens declare the glory of God / and the firmament showeth his handiwork.
Day unto day uttereth speech / and night unto night showeth knowledge.
There is no speech nor language / their voice is not heard.
Their line is gone out through all the earth / and their words to the end of the world.
In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun / which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber / and rejoiceth as a strong man to run his course.
His going forth is from the end of the heavens / and his circuit unto the ends of it / and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.
The law of YHWH is perfect, restoring the soul / the testimony of YHWH is sure, making wise the simple.
The precepts of YHWH are right, rejoicing the heart / the commandment of YHWH is pure, enlightening the eyes.
The fear of YHWH is clean, enduring for ever / the ordinances of YHWH are true, and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold / sweeter also than honey and the droppings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is thy servant warned / in keeping them there is great reward.
Who can discern his errors? / Clear thou me from hidden faults.
Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins / let them not have dominion over me: Then shall I be upright, And I shall be clear from great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart / be acceptable in thy sight, O YHWH, my rock, and my redeemer (Psalm 19:1-14).

“I take [Psalm 19] to be the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world ” (C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 63).

Psalm 19 is justly famous as an ode to YHWH the Creator and how He has made the universe. Psalm 19:1 is famous in its own right as is Psalm 19:7-10, the latter of which is frequently sung as a hymn. It has thus been fashionable to consider Psalm 19 in its various parts; many in fact suggest Psalm 19 is a compilation of two or three separate psalms all put together. Is it really just two or three Psalms put together? What is David attempting to communicate in Psalm 19 as presently arranged?

The three main sections of Psalm 19 are Psalm 19:1-6, Psalm 19:7-11, and Psalm 19:12-14. Psalm 19:1-6 describes how, as Psalm 19:1 says, the heavens declare God’s glory and handiwork. The whole system betrays an intelligent Artificer behind the scenes (Psalm 19:2). God has set all things in their place and has made the course for the sun; the sun is spoken of in terms of a bridegroom leaving the chamber, or rejoicing as a man finishing his task, shining over all the earth with nothing hidden from it (Psalm 19:3-6).

Psalm 19:7-11 commend YHWH’s instruction. David speaks of YHWH’s law, testimonies, precepts, commandments, fear, and ordinances, terms reminiscent of the Torah (Psalm 19:7-9; cf. Deuteronomy 4:45, Psalm 119:4). YHWH’s instruction is perfect, sure, right, pure, clean, and true; they restore the soul, make wise the simple, rejoice the heart, enlighten the eyes, endure forever, and are altogether righteous. The poetry is succinct; the lines are sharp. YHWH’s instruction is more desirable than gold or honey, warning the servant, providing great reward (Psalm 19:10-11).

Psalm 19:12-14 feature David’s response. He rhetorically asks who could discern God’s errors? No mortal can, of course; he therefore wishes to be cleansed of hidden faults and to be kept back from presumptuous sins (Psalm 19:12-13a). He will then be able to stand upright and be clear of transgression, and he prays that his words and meditation are acceptable in the sight of YHWH his Rock and Redeemer, the source of his strength, refuge, and vindication (Psalm 19:13b-14).

It is easy to see why people might think that two or three psalms have been put together here: what does the sun have to do with the Law? What do they have to do with hidden faults? Yet we do well to consider why David and/or the Psalter has prepared Psalm 19 as a whole. Is there anything that might bind Psalm 19 together?

The theme of all of Psalm 19 is found in Psalm 19:1: God’s glory is seen in His handiwork. Of all the things David could have featured when speaking of the heavens he focuses on the sun and how things are in their proper courses (Psalm 19:1-6). The sun, and particularly the way in which the sun is described, expresses not only God’s majestic structure in the heavens but their benevolent function as well. The sun gives light and life, joyful as the man who has just experienced his first copulation or who is about to finish a race (Psalm 19:5). As the heavens and the sun do not speak themselves but show the speech of YHWH and His benevolent structure in the heavens, so the words of YHWH in the Law, in His Torah, provide benevolent structure for the conduct and behavior of His people (Psalm 19:7-11). Keeping YHWH’s Torah provides great reward (Psalm 19:11); what if David actually meant what he said and believed that just as the sun allows for life to exist and flourish so YHWH’s Torah restores the soul, rejoices the heart, and enlightens the eyes? And what would be the appropriate response to seeing YHWH’s benevolent structure in His creation, both in the heavens and in the Torah? Humility and faithfulness: asking for forgiveness from hidden faults and presumptuous sins, trusting in YHWH’s benevolence and beneficence, maintaining YHWH as refuge, strength, and source of deliverance (Psalm 19:12-14).

Thus Psalm 19 can be well understood in its unity: all we are and have are thanks to YHWH’s benevolent structure He established in the creation. He made the heavens so that the earth could be inhabited; He established His Torah, His Law, so that people could live and thrive; in response we do well to give thanks, ask to be kept from thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought, and to trust in YHWH as our Rock and Redeemer. May we allow Psalm 19 to give voice to us to proclaim the greatness of God’s handiwork in the heavens and in His instruction, to ask to be kept from presumption, and trust in our redemption secured by His Son the Lord Jesus Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Basis of Torah

YHWH is my portion / I have said that I would observe thy words.
I entreated thy favor with my whole heart / be merciful unto me according to thy word.
I thought on my ways / and turned my feet unto thy testimonies.
I made haste, and delayed not / to observe thy commandments.
The cords of the wicked have wrapped me round / but I have not forgotten thy law.
At midnight I will rise to give thanks unto thee / because of thy righteous ordinances.
I am a companion of all them that fear thee / and of them that observe thy precepts.
The earth, O YHWH, is full of thy lovingkindness / teach me thy statutes (Psalm 119:57-64 ח).

God’s instruction has great value, but only because God gave it and God stands behind it.

Psalm 119 is the great paean to torah and faithful observance thereof. Torah is the Hebrew word most frequently translated as “law” throughout the Old Testament; a fuller definition would be “instruction” since the Torah involved a lot more than just “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” but included explanations and illustrations. Psalm 119 is full of praise for YHWH’s Torah, expressed with meticulous order and care. Psalm 119 is an acrostic psalm in octets, with each verse in each octet beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Toward the middle of Psalm 119 we have the ḥet section, Psalm 119:57-64, with each verse beginning with the Hebrew letter ḥet (ח).

Each octet of Psalm 119 maintains a type of theme regarding torah; ḥet in many ways summarizes the primary themes not only of Psalm 119 but the Psalter in general. YHWH is the portion of the Psalmist; thus the Psalmist has promised to keep the words which He has established (Psalm 119:57). The Psalmist knows he cannot live by his own righteousness or according to his own standard, and so he implores YHWH to obtain His favor and mercy (Psalm 119:58). The Psalmist considers the way he lives his life and on its basis recognizes his need to follow the ways or testimonies of God, to not delay in observing God’s commandments (Psalm 119:59-60). The Psalmist experiences adversity but does not forget the law (Psalm 119:61). Even in the darkness the Psalmist will give thanks to YHWH because of His righteous ordinances; the Psalmist maintains communion with all who fear YHWH and keep His precepts (Psalm 119:62-63). The Psalmist perceives that the earth is full of YHWH’s ḥeṣed, a term often translated “lovingkindness” or “mercy,” yet with the connotation of “covenant faithfulness” or thus “loyalty” (as you can tell, an essentially untranslatable term!), and thus asks YHWH to teach him His statutes (Psalm 119:64).

The Psalmist has laid it all out well in Psalm 119:57-64: he praises YHWH for His torah consisting of the Word of YHWH, His testimonies, commandments, law, ordinances, precepts, and statutes (cf. Deuteronomy 4:40, 45, 5:10). The Psalmist confesses how the earth is full of YHWH’s ḥeṣed; in other psalms such a declaration is a confession of how YHWH created the heavens and the earth and thus could fill it with His ḥeṣed (Psalms 33:5-9, 104:24-31). The ḥeṣed of YHWH, especially as it is granted to Israel, is a major theme throughout the Psalter, and part of the bedrock of trust in YHWH expressed throughout the Psalms (e.g. Psalms 23:6, 25:10, 85:7, 86:5, 89:1, etc.). Thus we have the theme of Psalm 119:57-64: YHWH has maintained His ḥeṣed, lovingkindness/covenant loyalty to Israel, manifest in His creation and in giving His torah, or instruction, to Israel. On account of this the Psalmist praises YHWH, promises to observe all the laws, ordinances, testimonies, and statutes of YHWH, and desires to be further taught in YHWH’s torah. Yet the Psalmist can only obtain these blessings through God’s favor and mercy, all because YHWH is his portion.

Likewise this understanding of how YHWH’s torah relates to His covenant loyalty, favor, and mercy, and how it is YHWH Himself who is the Psalmist’s portion, helps us to keep the rest of the Psalmist’s praise of torah in all its forms in proper context. It would be easy to reduce the praise of the law in Psalm 119 to mere law keeping for the sake of keeping and observing it, and many have gone down this path. Yet the Psalter does not commend keeping torah just for the sake of keeping torah as if it is a checklist to be marked off and then one can move on. There is great value in observing YHWH’s precepts and statutes, but their value is not in and of themselves; their value is in the fact that they are the expression of the will of YHWH, the Creator God of Israel who has continually displayed covenant faithfulness to His people and in fact to all the earth. The torah is not the Psalmist’s portion; YHWH Himself is. It is because YHWH is, has made all things, expresses covenant loyalty to His people and to His creation, and provides favor and mercy to His people, that the Psalmist upholds and affirms the great value of torah.

Torah was uttered by YHWH for the sake of His people; Torah was not God. Israel was supposed to follow torah because God had spoken it as His Word, the same Word which generated the creation, all life, and allows existence to continue (Psalm 33:5-9, Colossians 1:17, Hebrews 1:1-3). To disconnect torah from YHWH by attempting to observe torah to its own end would not only be impossible but also worthless: as the Apostle Paul will later note, none save Jesus have kept the Law perfectly, and no one can be made righteous before God on the basis of works of the Law (Romans 3:1-20). One continues to need God’s covenant faithfulness, favor, and mercy, and for such things you have to turn to YHWH Himself. YHWH was Israel’s portion, and thus Israel should follow torah.

We serve God in Christ under a new covenant enacted with better promises (Hebrews 7:1-9:27), yet the premise of Psalm 119:57-64 remains quite important. Not for nothing does the New Testament speak of the Word of YHWH as God and embodied in Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:1-18). The Word of God has great power to save (Romans 1:16, Hebrews 4:12), yet that power is not on the page or in ink but in God who both sent the Word to the earth as Jesus and testified to that Word through the Spirit who proclaimed the message of this Life (John 1:1-18, 3:16, Acts 2:1-12, 5:20). In understandable attempts to defend the importance of the Scriptures many well-intentioned Christians will speak so as to suggest that the Scriptures are themselves God, and we must be on our guard about such a presentation, for just as torah was not Israel’s God, so the New Testament is not the Christian’s God. Instead the New Testament makes known to us what is true about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and how God has wrought salvation and forgiveness of sins through Jesus of Nazareth and gave Him all authority in heaven and on earth (Romans 5:6-11, Philippians 2:5-11). Jesus is Lord; such is why the New Testament has great value for us. Jesus is risen from the dead; such is how the Word of God gives us hope for eternal life (Romans 8:18-25, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58).

As with Israel, so with us. God must be our portion; if we have any hope to stand before Him it is because He has been faithful to His covenant, displaying to us lovingkindness, favor/grace, and mercy, and we cannot find such things from a book, but only from a Person. We can have all confidence in God and the message He has revealed to us because He is the Creator and the creation is full of His lovingkindness/covenant loyalty. Therefore we observe God’s commandments, not as an end unto themselves, but as the embodiment of our trust in and loyalty to the God who loved us and saved us in Christ (Ephesians 2:1-10, 1 John 2:1-6). Let us be sure that God in Christ is our portion, that we seek His favor and mercy, and seek to observe His commandments because He is God, our Creator and Sustainer and loyal to His people!

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

Exceeding the Righteousness of the Pharisees

Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:19-20).

Yet another sacred cow slaughtered.

To “slaughter the sacred cow” is an American idiom, most likely a reference to Hindu culture in India in which cows are venerated and to slaughter a cow was therefore a desecrating action, a violation of propriety and custom. Therefore, “to slaughter a sacred cow” is to challenge a matter generally considered as sacred, especially those things normally held as self-evident or in some other way immune from questioning or challenging.

Everyone has their own versions of the “sacred cow”: everyone holds certain concepts to be true, and if anyone dare question or challenge those concepts, it is considered as improper, a desecration, a violation of social norms or customs. And so it was among the Israelites in the first century CE: many of their traditions and customs were held as sacred and were not up for being challenged. The Israelites are the people of YHWH, descendants of Abraham, and YHWH will protect them. YHWH will protect His Temple in Jerusalem. YHWH provides blessings to those who are righteous and punishes those who are unrighteous. The Pharisees and scribes are holy people, skilled in the Law, and righteous.

Throughout what is popularly called the “Sermon on the Mount”, Jesus teaches His disciples and the multitudes who have come out to hear Him, and many of those teachings challenge some of these propositions. In the “Beatitudes” Jesus pronounces blessings on those who are normally considered cursed (Matthew 5:3-12). Now Jesus not so subtly challenges the position of the Pharisees and scribes in the sight of the people (Matthew 5:17-20).

Jesus presents this challenge on the basis of adherence to the Law itself. He declares that He did not come to destroy the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them; not one detail will be changed in them until all is fulfilled (Matthew 5:17-18). Since the Law stands, the Law is to be followed; therefore, Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:19 follows: anyone who breaks the least of the commandments and teaches others to do so shall be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven, but the one who does and teaches them shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. If we isolated this verse from its context, particularly what will follow, we might get the idea that one’s standing in God’s Kingdom is based upon how effectively one performs the Law of Moses and how they teach it to others. Exactitude seems to be greatly praised here.

We should resist drawing such conclusions. Paul will make it very clear that no one is justified before God by works of the Law, since all have transgressed and have fallen short (Romans 3:20, 23). Jesus will later associate “greatness” in the Kingdom with humility and service, and, in so doing, will show that worldly concepts of “greatness” themselves fall short in terms of His Kingdom (Matthew 20:25-28).

Instead, Jesus is continuing to lay the groundwork for His powerful statement in Matthew 5:20. He is speaking about present reality, and His audience will agree with Him to this point: if the Law is still in force, then yes, whoever does and teaches the commandments of God will be considered great in the rule of God. If one breaks the least of the commandments, and teaches others to do so as well, they are least in the reign of God, and if this is the fate of the one who breaks one of the least of the commandments and teaches others to do the same, what will be the fate of those who break more weighty commandments?

So what is Jesus talking about? His conclusion is found in Matthew 5:20: He says to them that unless their righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, they will not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.

We can only imagine what the Israelites thought of this statement. If they were convinced that the Pharisees and scribes were the righteous people in their communities, then Jesus’ statement is quite shocking. If your righteousness does not exceed the righteousness of those whom you think are righteous, then what possible hope do you have of reaching the Kingdom of Heaven? Not much at all!

At this point some perhaps would write Jesus off as crazy, ridiculous, or excessively demanding. And perhaps Jesus us being excessively demanding in order to make His point: if one’s standard of righteousness is based on following the Law of Moses, seeking justification by works of the Law, as it seems many of the Pharisees and scribes imagined, then yes, it would require even greater righteousness than theirs in order to obtain the Kingdom, since the scribes and Pharisees do not fully measure up to the standard of the Law. Yet, then again, neither did anyone else but Jesus (Hebrews 4:15, 5:7-8); this is why it is only Jesus who can fulfill the Law and accomplish all things within it. No one will able to be saved by the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees; yet through Jesus’ righteousness the opportunity for salvation will be granted to all men (cf. Philippians 3:8-11).

Yet Jesus is concerned about not just one’s own deeds and standing before God, but one’s teaching as well. Matthew 5:19-20 does not stand on its own; it concludes and provides the rhetorical punch for Matthew 5:17-18 while introducing the theme which will carry through Matthew 5:21-48. Throughout Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus will highlight common understanding and practice of the Law and contrast it with God’s full expectations and intentions. Jesus will make it clear that God is interested in far more than just exterior conduct and nominal fidelity to the letter of the law; He is just as concerned about one’s thoughts and feelings and expects obedience to flow from faithfulness, love, and trust.

This is why the “righteousness” of the Pharisees and scribes is lacking: it proves to be superficial, obsessed with details to the neglect of the weightier provisions of the law, not properly discerning God’s focus and priorities, as will be made clear in Matthew 23:1-36. The “righteousness” of the Pharisees and scribes is shallow, hypocritical, and does not please God. If anyone maintains that form of “righteousness,” they will not enter the rule of God. In order to obtain the rule of God, one’s righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and scribes: it must be based in the mind and heart and flow through deeds, motivated by faith, love, and trust in God in Christ (Romans 5:6-11, 6:1-23).

Sometimes the sacred cow must be slaughtered in order to shake people out of their present habits and mentalities and force them to reconsider. So it is with Jesus in Matthew 5:19-20: whoever defines “righteousness” in terms of the conduct and teachings of the Pharisees and scribes is not going to make it. “Righteousness” is not about the obsession over a particular set of details to the neglect of the weightier concerns of the Law. “Righteousness” is not about saying one thing and doing another. “Righteousness” is not about finding ways of making yourself seem great and holy while looking down upon others and treating them presumptuously.

Instead, true righteousness is seen in Jesus. True righteousness is rooted not in oneself but in God and the pursuit of seeking His will and good pleasure. True righteousness involves proper priority, respecting the least as well as the great, both in terms of commandments and people. True righteousness cannot be hypocritical or two-faced; it flows from the mind and heart through the hands and feet. True righteousness seeks the best interest of others above oneself.

Salvation is not found in the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees; therefore, we should not follow their example. Salvation does come through Jesus, and we do well to follow after Him and pursue righteousness as He decreed through His example, seeking the will of God to do His good pleasure, concerned with the interest of others before our own, trusting not in ourselves but in God at all times. Let us exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes and so enter into the Kingdom of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Ezra the Scribe

This Ezra went up from Babylon: and he was a ready scribe in the law of Moses, which the LORD, the God of Israel, had given; and the king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the LORD his God upon him (Ezra 7:6).

Ezra proves to be a pivotal person in the history of Israel.

Ezra is a priest descended from Aaron through Zadok (cf. Ezra 7:1-5), but that is not touted as his claim to fame. Instead, it is his role as a “scribe skilled in the Law of Moses” which is prominently featured in his career (Ezra 7:6). He devoted his life to studying the Law of the LORD so that he could teach it to his fellow Israelites (Ezra 7:10); it was for this purpose that Artaxerxes king of Persia sent him to Jerusalem (cf. Ezra 7:11-28). The community of returned exiles recognizes this authority granted to Ezra and proves willing to change their behavior on account of his teachings and pleadings (cf. Ezra 9:1-10:44). The Israelites are listening to and heeding the message of the Law of Moses as read and taught by Ezra the scribe (cf. also Nehemiah 8:1-8). What is astounding is that such is the first recorded instance of such behavior since the days of Joshua; Ezra is the first person described in the Old Testament as a “scribe skilled in the Law of Moses.” How can that be?

Does this mean that there were no scribes skilled in the Law of Moses before Ezra? This is unlikely; there probably were some such scribes in Israel before the exile. For whatever reason they did not gain sufficient prominence to be noted in the text. They also were likely in the minority; even though God commanded the Levites to continually read the Law before the kings of the land (Deuteronomy 17:18-20) and before all the people at the Feast of Booths every seven years (Deuteronomy 31:10-13), the prophets condemned the priests for their negligence in teaching the people (e.g. Hosea 4:4-10). If priests were reading the Law, it certainly was not being reflected in the behavior of the kings or the people!

Perhaps because the Law was not being read as it should, or perhaps for other reasons, the prophets feature prominently in the days between Joshua and Ezra. God speaks directly to the kings and to the people through the prophets; the prophets were held in somewhat high esteem even though the people often did not heed their messages. God spoke through the prophets throughout the days of the kings, through the exile, and even after some of the people returned to the land. But even then there is a difference: certain questions are put aside until a priest should arrive with Urim and Thummim (cf. Ezra 2:63). The prophets Haggai and Zechariah exhort the people to finish the (second) Temple in 520 BCE; Malachi prophesies to the people at some point afterward. Otherwise we have no other recorded messages from any prophets at this time; by the second century BCE there is admission that there are no prophets in the land.

Ezra stands at this major juncture in Israelite history. The hand of the LORD is upon him in his diligence in studying the Law of Moses to teach the people. He is often reckoned to be the author of 1 and 2 Chronicles and Ezra; if he himself did not write them, someone very much like him or associated with him did. As such, he is one of the final “prophets” of the Old Testament period, yet one whose authority is vested in his understanding and explanation of the Law of Moses. From this point on the prophets fade; in their place come the lawyers and the scribes. Such figures feature prominently in the Gospels; Jesus chides and condemns them for their hypocrisy, their arrogance, and their inconsistencies, but never denigrates the profession itself or considers it unnecessary or unworthy (cf. Matthew 23:1-35). In fact, Jesus and the Apostles validate the role of the text and its interpreters; they are filled with the Holy Spirit, can prophesy, and yet their arguments and discussions throughout are based on texts and the proper interpretation of those texts. Consider any of the messages of the prophets by the “word of the LORD” compared to, say, Peter’s preaching in Acts 2:14-36, or even Paul in Acts 17:16-32. Texts and their interpretation feature much more prominently than they did during the days of the kings.

Ezra’s example should provide us with encouragement today. We also live during a time when there is no prophet in the land (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:8-10). We have not been granted new revelation since the end of the first century, and we have no reason to expect any new revelation until the Lord returns (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Jude 1:3). Yet, as with Israel in the fifth century BCE, so with us today: it is not as if God has left us without guidance or a way forward. We have the revelations regarding God and His purposes for mankind in the Bible; we can set our hearts to seek to know the will of God as revealed through Jesus Christ and His Apostles (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15, 3:16-17). We do not need a prophet to tell us the will of God for us today; we have that will already revealed in the Scriptures. It has been sufficient, is sufficient, and will continue to be sufficient to equip God’s people to conform to the image of Jesus to the glory and honor of God the Father until Jesus returns in triumph. It is for us to learn from the Good Book and seek to live what it says.

It is good to learn the message of the Bible, to seek to properly interpret it, and then put it into practice in life. Let us, like Ezra, set our hearts to understand the will of God, always seeking His wisdom and guidance, so that the hand of God may be upon us for good and that we may live so as to give glory to His name!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Hung Upon a Tree

“And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree; his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt surely bury him the same day; for he that is hanged is accursed of God; that thou defile not thy land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23).

It was just one more law explained in a series of other laws. At the time it was given, it perhaps did not merit much more thought or consideration than the laws given before it or after it; it might have seemed tame, in fact, compared to the law of stoning a rebellious youth in Deuteronomy 21:18-22. And yet this law would have profound consequences for Israel and all humanity.

The law given by Moses in Deuteronomy 21:22-23 is an example of case law, a frequent feature in this part of Deuteronomy. The law is straightforward enough: if a person has committed a capital crime, and the manner of punishment is hanging on a tree, the body should be taken down and buried the same day. Likewise, if a criminal were executed in some other way, and then his body was hung upon a tree as a public spectacle (cf. Numbers 25:4), the body should not be left up all night. The body should be taken down and buried because anyone who is hanged is accursed of God, and to allow a cursed person’s body to hang around for a few days would defile the land.

The law is understandable and the people would most likely have accepted it without difficulty; most of them, as far as we can tell, were not planning to commit capital crimes. Yes, other methods of execution had their place: stoning (cf. Deuteronomy 13:10), burning (cf. Leviticus 21:9), and stabbing (Exodus 32:27); nevertheless, various forms of suspension (hanging and the like) seemed to be the most common way of executing criminals, particularly in those cases where the Law did not specify stoning or burning. Even in those cases where other forms of execution were used, it served the interest of the executioners to hang the body up on a tree so that all would know what happened to the person and that they would share the same fate if they committed capital crimes. We can understand how such criminals, however executed, were seen as cursed: to be executed for a capital crime means that one must have done something truly terrible so as to deserve such a fate. To leave the body of such a one around would cause contamination!

Years later the Romans took over the land of Israel. The Romans had great confidence in crucifixion as a means of executing insurrectionists and other particularly nasty criminals. It was a horrendous and public way to die; it sent a very strong message to the rest of the inhabitants of the land: obey or suffer the same fate!

Around the year 30 of our era, a Man was brought before the Roman governor Pilate, and accused by the Jewish authorities of insurrection against Rome. At first Pilate did not want to see Him executed; nevertheless, he was more concerned about his own welfare than anything else, and when the crowd looked like it was about to riot, Pilate agreed to the sentence. The Man was crucified with two others outside of the city walls of Jerusalem. Since the time was of the Preparation for the upcoming Sabbath during the feast of Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, in consideration of Deuteronomy 21:22-23, the Jews asked the Romans to have the legs of the criminals broken, so their bodies might be taken away and buried (cf. John 19:31). The legs of two of the men were broken, but the first Man was already dead. His body was taken down and buried before sunset (cf. John 19:32-42).

These three, as well as every other Jewish person crucified, were reckoned as cursed because they hung upon the “tree” of the crucifix. In normal circumstances the reputation of such people were forever tarnished; everyone would know that they were now accursed because they hung on a tree. It was shameful; it was terrible. Even if one were really innocent, one would become accursed because of hanging on that tree!

Yet, within a few weeks of this event, some who believed in this one Man stood up before the Jewish religious authorities and declared how they had hung Him on a tree (Acts 5:30). They did not do so in shame or in defeat; instead, they did it in power and victory! They did so because this one Man was no ordinary person; He was Jesus of Nazareth, whom God had raised up as a means by which Israel (and later, all nations) would receive repentance and remission of sins (Acts 5:30-31). How could this be?

These people who believed in Jesus had earlier established that Jesus suffered death on the cross to fulfill the words of the Law and the prophets (cf. Acts 3:18). On the third day God raised Him up in power and He now rules as Lord (Acts 2:23-24, 36). A lot of people, when confronted with a story such as the one told regarding Jesus, would be tempted to minimize the humiliation, suffering, and shame, or at least not boldly proclaim it. Yet these early Christians did not just say that Jesus was crucified; they spoke about His death on the cross in the very language of Deuteronomy 21:22-23, well expressed in Acts 10:39:

“And we are witnesses of all things which he did both in the country of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom also they slew, hanging him on a tree.”

It would seem as if the early Christians, to an extent, gloried in how Jesus died on the tree, and therefore was accursed!

Another early Christian, Paul, would explain why Jesus’ method of execution, the cross, was so critical for the work which He came to do.

In Galatians 3:10 Paul quotes Deuteronomy 27:26 and declares that all who are of the law are under a curse: they have subscribed to do the law but have actually not kept the law. Therefore, according to the law, they are accursed of God. Then, in Galatians 3:13-14, Paul explains how Jesus Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us as it is written in Deuteronomy 21:21-22!

This is why early Christians talked about Jesus’ death in the way they did: Jesus was not accursed because of anything He did. He took on Himself the curse with which all who have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God are accursed; He who had no sin and did no wrong God made to be sin on our behalf so that we could be forgiven of our sins (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus, in “his own self[,] bare our sins in his body upon the tree” (1 Peter 2:24)!

It might have been just a small detail in one case law among others, but that detail was there for a reason. Jesus became accursed so that accursed humans could be set free from sin and death. Jesus endured capital punishment to redeem and restore sinful humanity. Let us praise God for His wonderful grace and mercy, and let us die to sin and live to righteousness through Him by whose wounds we are healed!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Fulfillment

“Think not that I came to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18).

There is much more riding on this declaration by Jesus in Matthew 5:17-18 than perhaps meets the eye.

One can learn a lot about the way people understand the Bible and the relationship between the Old and New Testaments by their understanding of the emphasis of these verses. Many focus on the notion that not one bit of the law will pass away until heaven and earth pass away, and therefore suggest the Law is a binding force until this very day. Jesus said, after all, that He did not come to destroy the Law.

Yet such a view intentionally leaves out Jesus’ contrast: He did not just say that the Law would not pass away until heaven and earth pass away: He said that not one detail of the Law would pass away until all things are accomplished. While He did say that He was not coming to destroy the Law, He did say He came to fulfill it. This provides an entirely different emphasis, focusing on fulfillment and accomplishment, leading into a new covenant (cf. Hebrews 7:1-9:27).

It is easy to pit each emphasis against each other; nevertheless, each emphasis has legitimacy in its proper place. Jesus’ declaration involves both a commentary on the present as well as a key by which we can understand His entire life and ministry.

Jesus emphasizes the fixed nature of the Law for good reason. Deuteronomy 4:2 declares that Israel is not to add or diminish at all from the word which God commanded them. In context, Matthew 5:17-18 begin a new section of what is popularly known as the “Sermon on the Mount”; He has previously presented the beatitudes, finding blessings in the most difficult of situations (Matthew 5:3-12), and established the role and work of the disciple in the world (Matthew 5:13-16). Jesus’ thought in Matthew 5:17-18 continues at least through Matthew 5:19-20 and provides a framework for understanding Matthew 5:21-48. Jesus is both defending Himself against upcoming criticism about the relationship between His work and common perceptions regarding the Law while posing a devastating critique of the supposed “lawful” conduct of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:17-20). Jesus confirms His purpose: He is not coming to destroy the Law or what God has been doing. He affirms powerfully that until everything is accomplished, not one jot or tittle of the Law will change: “until heaven and earth pass away” is a confirmation of the strength of that declaration. Jesus is not imagining that the heavens and the earth will pass away, nor is He suggesting at this point that it will do so anytime soon. Instead, He is affirming that the Law represents God’s Word for Israel. God is the Creator; the heavens and earth can only pass away by His will and word. That Law, at the time of Jesus’ dictate, is as fixed as the heavens and the earth. The conclusion of this reality is found in Matthew 5:19: the one who adds to or diminishes from this Law, in teaching or practice, is the least; the one that does them and teaches them is greatest. Therefore, Jesus affirms the Law; He has not come to destroy it.

Well and good; Jesus did not come to destroy the Law. Yet Jesus does not stop there; He establishes why He has come. He has come to fulfill (Matthew 5:17). Yes, until heaven and earth pass away, not one jot or tittle shall pass from the law, but that is so only until all things are accomplished. Jesus speaks to a major interpretive issue for every disciple: the Bible establishes that the Law could not added to or taken away from, but the beliefs and practices of early Christians were not exact copies of what the Law established. There are significant changes between what we see in the life of Jesus in the Gospels and the message and exhortations of early Christianity after His death and resurrection. Many passages make it clear that Jesus’ death and resurrection meant an end to the Law as a barrier between Jew and Gentile, asserting that the Law was a physical shadow of the spiritual reality which exists in Jesus (Ephesians 2:11-18, Colossians 2:14-17). The whole purpose of the author of the letter to the Hebrews is to demonstrate the existence of a new covenant between God and man through Jesus, its differentiation from the covenant which existed before, and its superiority to the covenant between God and Israel legislated by the Law of Moses. Therefore, it is quite evident that the early Christians perceived the fulfillment of all things regarding the Law through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, something He himself proclaims in Luke 24:25, 44-47 and John 19:30.

It is therefore easy to place emphasis on the distinctions and differences between the old covenant between God and Israel and the new covenant between God and all mankind in Jesus, but we must take care. Jesus did not say He came to abolish or remove; He said that He came to fulfill. Yes, as He says Himself, Jesus fulfills all of the specific prophecies regarding the Messiah as found in the Old Testament (Luke 24:25-27, 44-48). Yet Jesus does not just fulfill specific prophecies; He fulfills God’s intentions for Israel by embodying, within Himself, the story of Israel. As Israel was born in Canaan but was exiled to Egypt, so Jesus was born in Bethlehem and spent time in exile in Egypt (Matthew 2:1-15). As Israel was rescued from Egypt through water and endured temptation in the Wilderness, so Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River and was tempted in the Wilderness (Matthew 3:13-4:11). Israel lived and worked in its land, as did Jesus (Matthew 4:12-25, etc.). As Israel experienced exile from its land, so Jesus experienced death and time in the tomb (Matthew 27:45-66). As Israel returned to the land, so Jesus was raised from the dead (Matthew 28:1-17). Where Israel had been unfaithful, Jesus had proven faithful. Jesus is able to embody everything God intended for His people Israel!

But Jesus’ experience does not end at His resurrection; He ascends to the Father and rules over His Kingdom and will do so until the final day (Matthew 28:18-20, Philippians 2:5-11). All of this was predicted in the prophets: God would restore the fortunes of Israel, and through Israel, be a blessing to other nations and see the ingathering of nations to the God of Jacob. This goal for Israel is found through Jesus; little wonder, then, that Paul finds a way to express his faith and trust in Jesus in terms of the story of Israel and God’s promises to Israel (cf. Acts 26:1-23). Israel’s story does not end with their exile in their own land as they endured it for 500 years: Israel’s story finds its fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth, and the Israel of God will continue on in His Kingdom, making primary the shared faith in God as demonstrated by all of God’s people from Abraham until this very day.

This is why it is good to keep both emphases of Jesus in mind: there is both continuity and discontinuity on the basis of His life, death, and resurrection. The Law has been established, and will remain firm until it has been fulfilled. Through its fulfillment all men will be freed from its yoke; yet, at the same time, its fulfillment represents the manifestation, and thus the continuation, of the promises God made to Israel, now embodied in the Kingdom of Jesus. Let us thank God for the fulfillment of the hope of Israel in Jesus, and let us take our place in the Israel of God by putting our trust in Jesus and participating in His Kingdom!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Not to the Right or to the Left

“Only be strong and very courageous, to observe to do according to all the law, which Moses my servant commanded thee: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest have good success whithersoever thou goest” (Joshua 1:7).

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Such a line will not deviate toward any other direction. But such is really true only in ideal terms; in our reality, there is no such thing as a completely straight line. It is possible to make a line seem very straight indeed, but we cannot make a perfectly straight line. This nicely illustrates the human predicament.

God has provided a standard for living; in the old covenant, it was the Law of Moses. Ideally, Israel would hold firm to the Law, observing everything in it, not deviating at all, or, as God encouraged Joshua, and in turn Joshua the people, “to not turn from it to the right hand or to the left” (Joshua 1:7, 23:6). In the new covenant in Christ, we are to love and know God and keep His commandments, walking as Jesus walked (1 John 2:1-6). This remains the ideal.

And yet none of us can live up to that standard perfectly. Peter and Paul declared as much in regards to Israel and the Law (Acts 13:38-39, 15:10, Romans 3:20). John understands that Christians do not live up to the ideal either (1 John 1:8-2:6). If we cannot perfectly go straight, why would God provide such exhortation to Israel and to Christians today?

The ideal is not worthless or irrelevant simply because no one save Jesus has ever lived up to it perfectly. God has always understood our deficiencies as humans; such is why He established the sacrificial system in the Old Testament, and continues to grant grace and mercy through Jesus in the New Testament (cf. Leviticus, Romans 5:6-11, 8:1-39). And yet we must not become complacent or content by acknowledging our imperfection; it is easy for us to think that since we cannot live up to the ideal perfectly, we should not try! Therefore, we do well to confess that the ideal is ideal: we should be following what God says perfectly. We should walk in God’s ways without any deviation; we should go “straight” and should not go “to the right hand or to the left.” When we do deviate from God’s command, we ought to admit as much, change our minds and ways, and return to the good path (1 John 1:9). In all things we must place our trust in God and His ideal way for mankind (Hebrews 11:6)!

The image of going “straight” and not turning “to the right hand or to the left” also underscores the necessity of balance. While it remains true that many people have deviated from God’s path and purposes on account of rebellion and a desire to sin, many others have deviated from God’s path because they overemphasized certain aspects of God’s truth to the detriment of other aspects.

This proves quite easy to do; we humans easily go to extremes. We rightly see a problem with one side; it is tempting to run far to the other side in response. We see certain groups associated with certain practices; it is tempting to want to go to the other extreme so that no one would confuse “us” with “them.”

This is why it is important for us to remember that God wants us to not deviate to the right hand or to the left; truth is rarely, if ever, found in the extremes. Furthermore, there remain many aspects of the faith that are held in a sort of tension: God’s sovereignty and grace with human freedom, for instance, or the imperative to holiness with the imperative to love, mercy, and grace. The Scriptures are filled with examples of people who have gone to one extreme or another: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the “Judaizers,” the Gnostics, and so on.

God is far greater than ourselves, and His truth remains sublime (Isaiah 55:8-9, Romans 11:33-36). God has set forth His standard for the creation and all mankind; it is up to us to confess its value and make it our goal in life. Whenever we deviate from that standard, either by stumbling into some sin, or by overemphasizing certain aspects of truth to the detriment of other aspects of it, we must change our ways and seek to re-align our will to God’s. God’s ways and God’s truth remain ideally straight, firm, and balanced; we, in our sin and corruption, have turned to the right or to the left. Let us turn away from all deviations and seek to glorify God in spirit and truth in all we think, say, do, and teach!

Ethan R. Longhenry