Two or Three Witnesses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Veil

Having therefore such a hope, we use great boldness of speech, and are not as Moses, who put a veil upon his face, that the children of Israel should not look stedfastly on the end of that which was passing away: but their minds were hardened: for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remaineth, it not being revealed to them that it is done away in Christ. But unto this day, whensoever Moses is read, a veil lieth upon their heart. But whensoever it shall turn to the Lord, the veil is taken away (2 Corinthians 3:12-16).

It is no secret that humans sometimes have difficulty in understanding abstract concepts. Whenever a concept can be described through some concrete mechanism, we understand the point better. Paul understands this principle, and as he is seeking to describe the vast superiority of the new covenant that God has made with mankind through Jesus over the previous covenant between God and Israel, he uses a story and an image to reinforce his point: Moses and the veil.

The story comes from Exodus 34:29-34. Moses has come down from Mount Sinai after having spent forty days and nights receiving the Law from God. Unbeknownst to him, his face shone since he had been speaking face-to-face with the manifestation of the glory of God on the mountain. When the people of Israel saw Moses with his shining face, they were afraid to come near him. After Moses assuaged the fears of the elders and people of Israel, as a precaution, he would put on a veil whenever he spoke with the Israelites. It was only when he went into the Tent of Meeting to speak again face-to-face with the glory of God that he would take off the veil.

Paul artfully and skillfully takes this story and uses it as a vehicle to communicate the message regarding the two covenants. The old covenant had glory; Paul does not deny this (2 Corinthians 3:7, 13). But could the people of Israel endure this glory? Clearly not– Moses had to put a veil on his face lest they saw the reflection of that glory! Paul indicates that there is a greater meaning to Moses veiling himself: it was not just that the Israelites were too afraid to see Moses’ face as it shone, but also that they could not see the substantive reality of the covenant itself and its end (2 Corinthians 3:13-14).

This expansion is not without merit; the fear of the Israelites at directly hearing God’s voice was the reason Moses had to go up onto the mountain in the first place (cf. Exodus 20:18-21). The Israelites could not handle hearing the voice of God directly or seeing His glory directly; hence Moses went up onto the mountain, veiled his face, and when the Tabernacle and the Temple would be establish, they would feature veils that would hide the Most Holy Place from the rest.

Therefore, as Paul explains, the veil is really over the Israelites (2 Corinthians 3:14-15). They read and hear the Law of Moses, the Psalms, and the Prophets, and yet they do not perceive their fulfillment in Jesus. As long as that veil exists– as long as the Israelites hold fast to the way they have always understood the text, as long as they remain afraid of seeing the substantive reality behind the shadows and separate themselves from the voice of God– they will not understand that the glory of the old is swallowed up in the new.

Paul and his associates are not like Moses. They do not need to be veiled before the people in order to communicate the message of God. The message of the new covenant which they are promoting allows the believer to stand directly before God, hear His voice through Jesus, and see the glory of God as manifest in Him, and that glory is exceedingly great (cf. John 1:1, 14-18, 2 Corinthians 3:7-16). Those Israelites who turn to the Lord have the veil taken away, just as the veil between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place was ripped in two at the moment of Jesus’ death (cf. Matthew 27:51).

This is a powerful message. No more veils. No more separations between God and man. In the new covenant man can come to a direct knowledge of the truth as manifest in Jesus, not the shadow, not the type, unveiled (cf. John 14:6).

This is why Paul can use boldness of speech (2 Corinthians 3:12). He lives in hope in the great glory of the new covenant, glory revealed already in Jesus and the hope of the ultimate glorification of the believer in the resurrection on the final day, pictured in such fantastic terms as the bejeweled, golden heavenly Jerusalem in Revelation 21:1-22:6. Fear has been cast out; we can stand before God through Christ, and powerfully proclaim the message of salvation in His name. Let us praise God for our new covenant, for the removal of the veil, and let us speak boldly on account of our hope!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Letter and the Spirit

Not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory (2 Corinthians 3:6b-9).

One of the marvels of Paul’s writings is the way he is able to powerfully construct his arguments, and those skills are on display as he writes to the Corinthians. 2 Corinthians seems to indicate that the Corinthians are being influenced by a group of Jewish believers who are attempting to discredit Paul. Having declared that the Corinthians themselves are living “letters of Christ,” sufficient testimony in and of themselves of the work that Paul does in the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:1-3), and that Paul would not dream of imagining that he is sufficient of himself, but that his sufficiency is in God through Christ (2 Corinthians 3:4-6b), he then moves on to show the insufficiencies and challenges of the basis of the arguments of the “Judaizers.” It is something he will do as well in the Roman and Galatian letters; it is a hallmark of Paul’s theology and writings. In 2 Corinthians 3:6c-11, he makes this argument with contrasting images: the letter (of stone) and the (ministry of the) Spirit.

He has been leading up to this argument in what he has written before. He has already spoken of the Corinthians as a letter written not with ink or on tablets of stone but with the Spirit on their hearts (2 Corinthians 3:3). The argument is also introduced on the basis of Paul having been made competent by God to be a minister of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:6a). Everything that follows is an explanation of this idea. What does Paul mean that the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life?

The contrast Paul has in mind is between the two covenants: the covenant between God and Israel as indicated in the Law of Moses, and the covenant between God and all mankind through Jesus Christ. The covenant between God and Israel is described as the “ministry of death, carved in letters of stone,” a “ministry of condemnation” (2 Corinthians 3:7, 9). Paul makes reference to Moses’ face which shone with the reflected glory of being in the presence of the glory of God (2 Corinthians 3:7; cf. Exodus 34:29-34). He compares that reflected glory with the full glory of God as made evident in the ministry of the Spirit, deemed the “ministry of righteousness,” indicating how much more superior the new is to the old (2 Corinthians 3:7-11). The glory of the new covenant in the Spirit is so superior, in fact, that the glory of the old covenant is now no glory at all, for it is brought to an end, whereas the new is permanent (2 Corinthians 3:7-11).

This is strong language indeed! How can Paul speak of God’s revelation to Israel as death and condemnation? Is this not impious?

Whereas the language is stronger, the substantive message is not much different than what can be found in Romans 7:1-25 and really throughout Romans 1-8. The Law of Moses is the ministry of death and condemnation not because the law itself had some flaw or was wrong; the Law is the ministry of death and condemnation because it declares what is right and wrong and fixes rewards and penalties. If one were to follow the Law perfectly, doing the right and avoiding the wrong, the Law would not condemn. Yet, as Paul has made evident in Romans 3:23, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; therefore, the Law can only declare them to be transgressors. Thus, no one can be justified by works of the law (Romans 3:20). No one– no Jewish person, no Gentile, no one then, no one now– can make the Law their confidence and put their trust in it to be justified. Instead, then as now, we must place our confidence in God who can forgive our transgressions (cf. Galatians 3:11).

The Law, therefore, by declaring right from wrong, exposes our sinfulness. But it, by itself, cannot save or rescue from that sinfulness. Hence, it is a ministry of death and condemnation. It did have its reflected glory, but as a reflection is never as excellent as the reality, neither can the reflected glory be seen as superior or even equal to the actual glory of God in Christ revealed through the Spirit!

The new covenant is described in terms of the ministry of the Spirit. The Spirit is said to give life and to be righteousness (2 Corinthians 3:6, 9). But what does this mean?

Much violence has been done to this passage by people who have taken it out of its context and have distorted it to serve their own ends. It is imagined that the contrast in the passage is between what is written down in Scripture with the promptings of the Spirit, and therefore this passage is cited to justify why sometimes we can ignore the “details” of Scripture in the name of following the Spirit. Thus, any time that a person takes issue with what Scripture has said at one point or another, he or she thinks that on the basis of 2 Corinthians 3 they can subvert that message by claiming the promptings of the Spirit, “for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

Paul is not making that kind of contrast, and people who make such an argument are missing part of the delicious irony of the passage. Paul is communicating a message about how the “letter kills” but the “Spirit gives life” by writing it down on papyrus with ink and sending it to believers. Paul is not contrasting what is written from what comes from the Spirit; he would argue that the Spirit has directed what has been written (2 Timothy 3:16-17)!

Paul is contrasting covenants, not the Bible and the Spirit. The new covenant in Christ is superior and of greater glory because the prominent feature of the covenant is not a cold law code that just calls out balls and strikes (right behavior and wrong behavior). Instead, the new covenant features the work of the promised Immanuel, God with us in Christ Jesus, our following after Him and our quest to be conformed to His image (cf. 1 John 2:3-6, Romans 8:29). The Spirit has declared this message through the Apostles; we have the recording of that message in the New Testament. The Spirit places emphasis on manifesting the qualities of the fruit that bears His name and has His role in the sanctification of the believer (Galatians 5:17-24, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, 1 Peter 1:2). However the Spirit may work with the believer, we can be sure that He is not going to contradict Himself; He is not going to abandon the message He directed the Apostles and their associates to declare and write (1 John 4:1-6)!

The new covenant provides the hope of eternal life through Jesus Christ; the old covenant declared sin. Thus, the ministry of the Spirit in the proclamation of the new covenant provides life; the ministry of the Law of Moses declared death. The letters written on the stone tablets were cold and unfeeling; the Spirit provides the message of eternal life through Jesus and our trust in Him to be the Lord and Shepherd of our souls. Thus Paul speaks rightly, declaring that the letter of the old Law kills, but the Spirit in the revelation of the new covenant gives life. Let us praise God for the hope of life through Jesus, seeking to be conformed to His image, thankful for the revelation of the Spirit and His work with mankind!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Persuading Men

Knowing therefore the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are made manifest unto God; and I hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences (2 Corinthians 5:11).

It’s the plot of many a movie: an unsuspecting person happens upon or discovers some information that might radically change the way things work. Despite all sorts of opposition, the person now has one goal to accomplish– to get this information out, to get people to be aware of it, and to do what is necessary to succeed. Such is a popular theme because we would like to imagine ourselves in that position– perhaps the fate of the whole world rests upon our shoulders, and we just need to get past the bad guys so that we can save the world.

In truth, we do not need to make up such a scenario in our lives, because if we believe that Jesus is the Christ and that His message is true, we are already living in this plot!

Paul understands as much and makes it evident in 2 Corinthians 5:9-11. Paul had been going on his way, persecuting Christians, until he was presented with a radically new way of looking at things on the road to Damascus (cf. Acts 9): this Jesus whom He was persecuting was actually Lord. Not only was this Jesus Lord of Israel, but He was Lord of all– and the pagan Gentiles needed to learn of Him (Acts 26:15-18). God was announcing to everyone everywhere that He had appointed a day of judgment, that man’s ignorance would no longer be an excuse, and the confirmation of this was in the resurrection of His Son Jesus (Acts 17:30-31, 2 Corinthians 5:10). This message had to go out, and Paul was God’s chosen agent to promote it.

Paul first had to understand “the fear of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:11). The One True God, Creator of heaven and earth, is awesome in power and majesty, far superior to all flesh (cf. Isaiah 55:8-9). Therefore, what He says goes. If He has declared that a day of judgment is coming, and everyone will receive back for what they have done in the flesh, then we humans need to get busy and do what is good (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:10). This reverential attitude toward God is not to lead to paralyzing fear; instead, it is designed to be a catalyst toward humility, repentance, and obedience (cf. 1 Peter 1:16-18). All believers, including Paul and ourselves, are to revere the Lord and thus seek to do what He has called upon us to do, even if it seems unpleasant, leads to persecution, and is the cause for great suffering. He suffered for us; it is right for us to suffer for Him (Romans 8:17). We must be doing the good in order to hear the judgment we want to hear (2 Corinthians 5:10).

On the basis of this knowledge of the reverence due to God, Paul works to “persuade men” (2 Corinthians 5:11). Let us first note the strong connection between understanding the honor due to God and the effort to promote His message– because we know the fear of the Lord, we are to work to persuade men. What we know should be explained and promoted among all. How can we say that we truly follow God, truly appreciate what God has done for us, and properly respect God if we do not feel the burden upon us to take that message out to others so that they also can have a restored association with God?

The mechanism is also quite important. Paul does not say that “knowing the fear of the Lord, we introduce legislation into the Senate.” He does not say, “knowing the fear of the Lord, we call for a holy crusade against the infidel.” Likewise, he does not declare, “knowing the fear of the Lord, we browbeat people with the message, screaming at them on street corners.” No– if we know the fear of the Lord, we are to persuade men!

The connection to the fear of the Lord remains important– how did the Lord reveal Himself to us? Did the Lord work to compel and coerce people through political/legislative means? Did the Lord call for forced conversions with threat of the blade of the sword? Did the Lord stand on the street corner and browbeat people? The only people whom Jesus could be said to have browbeaten were the Pharisees and scribes, the “religious good people” of the day (cf. Matthew 23)! By no means; Jesus lived, preached, died, and was raised in order to call and invite (cf. Matthew 11:28-30). God has never compelled or coerced people into believing in Him and obeying Him; that is why to this day we do not see God providing that overwhelmingly obvious supernatural event to “prove” His existence to the unbelievers. That would be using a display of sheer force to do what God expects to be done through softer forms of persuasion, in the power of the message already delivered, its portrayal of reality, the description of man’s problem, God’s desire for association with His creation, and what He has done to reconcile people to Himself.

Look at how seriously Paul takes this burden– he, a Jew, has traveled to the Greek world, and has been preaching a message involving “foreign divinities” to pagans who look at the world through a quite different perspective than he does (cf. Acts 17:16-31). Does Paul just write them off as irredeemable heathens? No. Does he try to coerce or manipulate them into believing in Jesus? No. He just works to persuade them– he finds points of agreement, and on the basis of those points of agreement and the glimpses of truth declared by certain Greek poets themselves, works to explain the points of disagreement and how the creation and the basic impulses of man all point to a Creator God who created mankind to seek Him. No tricks, no gimmicks; he just tries to know those with whom he is speaking so as to get them to give the message of Jesus some honest consideration.

In so doing, he is made manifest to God, as well as to the consciences of those who hear him (2 Corinthians 5:11). He is trying to preach and to live the message, and that provides a powerful testimony. The power of such witness is great– it shows that Christianity is not a ruse, not some pyramid scheme, but a radically new way of looking at the world and life.

We find ourselves living in circumstances quite like Paul’s in many ways. A lot of people around us have perspectives that are quite different from our own; it seems impossible to bridge the gap. Many people, based on some well-meaning yet misguided ideologies, think that political legislation or some other means of coercion is the way to guide people back toward the Lord. Not a few are inclined to write off a lot of people today as pagans, heathens, irredeemable.

These are not the ways of the Lord. Let us never forget the power of Romans 1:16: the Gospel is God’s power for salvation, and we are foolish to think that salvation can come through laws or any form of coercion. We are to spread the Gospel message like Paul did, by working to persuade men (and women). The message cannot be forced; we must work diligently to earn the right to tell people about the message, gaining an audience, and then try to understand something about what those people believe. We need to ascertain points of agreement with our fellow man, and based on that, with glimpses of truth that are found in recognized voices in culture, point to the truths of God in Christ as revealed through Scripture. Meanwhile, we must be putting that message to practice in our own lives, for even if we can find the most effective ways to preach to others, if our lives tell a different story, our witness will be hypocritical and in vain.

It is hard work, and while we must never minimize God’s role in all of this, we must remember that Paul said that “we” are to persuade men; “we” are called to go out and to make disciples (2 Corinthians 5:11, Matthew 28:19). We can only do it through the strength that God supplies in Christ, but we are to go out and do it. Let us understand the fear of the Lord, working to persuade men, preaching and living the message of our Lord, warning all men of the judgment to come, and find eternal life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The First Commandment

“Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

The great moment is upon Israel. YHWH has delivered Israel from Egypt and slavery with a strong arm and with mighty deeds (Exodus 6-14). He is physically sustaining them in the desert wilderness, seeking to make them His chosen people (Exodus 15-18). He has brought them to His holy mountain, Sinai; they have consecrated themselves; He is speaking, reminding them regarding who He is and what He has done (Exodus 19:1-20:2). God now begins the commandments that Israel must keep to receive the blessing.

When lists are made there is often emphasis placed on that which comes first. Therefore, what is the first commandment that YHWH gives to Israel? What, of all the commands He will give, does He highlight?

That Israel shall have no other gods “against” or “before” His face, if we attempt to render the command more literally. As is often translated, that Israel will have no other gods before/beside Him.

That might seem a little strange to us today. Of all the plagues and difficulties of humanity, YHWH focuses first on other gods? Is YHWH being megalomaniacal or utterly self-possessed, as the Gnostics would later suggest?

We must first understand the mindset of the people who lived in the ancient Near East. Every nation then had its own specific god– a “national god,” if you will. Moab, for example, had Chemosh (Judges 11:24); the Philistines had Dagon (Judges 16:23). If your nation was prosperous and successful, it was evident that your national god was blessing you. If disaster came upon you, then your national god was angry with you. On top of the national gods were the gods of natural forces and things of that sort– El, the head of the Canaanite pantheon, or group of gods; Baal, the storm and fertility god; Astarte his consort; Yam the god of the sea, and so on and so forth. All the nations believed in these gods– even the gods of the foreign nationalities.

Therefore, the temptation was very great for Israel to see YHWH as their national god and believe in all of the other gods of all the people around them. In turn, everyone else would believe that YHWH was the god of Israel, but in no different way than, say, Chemosh was the god of Moab.

What would be the big deal if this happened? If Israel does not understand that YHWH is distinctive and different from all other “gods,” then they will not understand how the law YHWH is giving them is different from the laws of the nations around them. If they accept the religious views of the people around them, they will follow the customs of the people around them. This concern is entirely justified– and this is precisely what will take place in Israel’s history. They will fall into the trap we have described, always understanding that YHWH is the God of Israel, but acting as if He is just one of the divinities of one of the nations of the ancient Near East. Little wonder, then, that they start engaging in the abominations of the world around them!

We must also understand that God’s concern here– idolatry– is one of the most fundamental dangers of life. Paul will later show in Romans 1:18-32 how man’s depravity begins with the rejection of God as the One True God, the Creator, to whom all creation is subject. This rejection takes place when man begins to serve some aspect of the creation rather than the Creator.

A lot of people, when thinking about this idea, think about Egyptian “gods” and their presentation as animals and the like, or people bowing down in fear before the sun, moon, rivers, and being terrified when eclipses and the like take place. All of those are ways that people, throughout time, have taken the creation and turned it into a god or many gods.

But such idolatry does not stop there. The same impulse that led people to make gods out of sun, moon, fire, wind, and water now leads people to make gods out of themselves, money, desire, power, sex, science, their nation, and a whole host of other “gods.” They are all part of the creation that God made as very good (Genesis 1:1-31), but when they are made to be the reason for life, or absolute, they become gods that people serve.

This is why the first– and highlighted– commandment is for Israel to have no other gods before/beside YHWH. This need not mean that YHWH is legitimizing the existence of other “gods”; far from it (cf. Isaiah 44, 1 Corinthians 8). The problem is not that there actually are other gods out there– the problem is that we humans will either serve the One True God or we will invent a god or gods to serve. And then there are the times when we try to do both– to serve YHWH while serving our idols. This cannot be tolerated, not because YHWH is truly megalomaniacal, but because, as Jesus says, when we have more than one god, we will love the one and hate the other, or hold to the one and despise the other (Matthew 6:24). We cannot love YHWH and therefore the Creator and Source of life while we elevate something He made to a position equal or greater to His in our lives.

As Israel was not to have other gods than YHWH, Christians are to guard themselves from idols (1 John 5:21). We must clear all idols from our hearts to serve the One True God. Let us do so and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Foundation of the Law

“I am YHWH thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2).

The climactic moment was upon them.

YHWH had delivered His people Israel out of Egypt with a mighty hand. The Egyptians now knew that He is YHWH and they feared His name, and for good reason– they saw the devastation of their country with the plagues and the destruction of their army in the Red Sea (Exodus 7-14). As God had promised Moses, He brought the people to serve Him on Mount Sinai (cf. Exodus 3:12). He was sustaining Israel with manna and water from His hand, and brought them victory in war (Exodus 15-18). Furthermore, Israel had been preparing themselves for three days, cleansing themselves, becoming a consecrated people, trembling before the power of God manifest on Sinai (Exodus 19).

And now God begins to speak. And the first thing He declares to all Israel is something they should already know– that He is YHWH, that He brought them out of Egypt, and had delivered them from slavery! Why would this be the way that God begins the declaration of His law for Israel?

First of all, we must remember that while YHWH is speaking directly to the Israelites standing before Him around 1450 BCE, He is also speaking to every Israelite who would follow for 1500 years. While those Israelites who were the ones actually delivered from slavery would remember it, future generations might not.

The statement is not something over which we should just gloss and move on. God’s declaration of being the One who delivered them from Egypt and bondage is, in fact, the foundation of the Law He is about to establish.

Let us think about this for a moment. Why does YHWH wait until this point to give Israel His Law? By all accounts, it would have been more convenient if YHWH had revealed His Law before the Exodus when it was just Moses upon the mountain (cf. Exodus 3-4). Israel would have known everything that God would expect of them before they even left Egypt. As it stands, God has been working with this people for at least a few months without any operating covenant between them.

Yet if God had given the revelation of His Law directly to Moses before the Exodus, how would that have been accepted by the Israelites? Didn’t they, at some level, have the same question about YHWH as Pharaoh did (cf. Exodus 5:2)? Who is YHWH? Why should we believe in Him or follow what He says? If He is God, why are we in bondage and in terrible distress?

The Exodus and the sojourn in the Wilderness represent YHWH’s demonstration of His power and authority, not just to the nations, but especially to Israel (Exodus 7:1-5, 14:4, 14:30-31, Deuteronomy 8:3). God answers their questions in these actions. Who is YHWH? He is the One who devastated Egypt and delivered Israel from their grip. Why should we believe in Him or follow what He says? Because He has proven Himself to be the One True God, superior to all the “gods” of Egypt, and has delivered us and sustained us by His power alone. YHWH orchestrated all of this so Israel could never declare that it was by her own hand, her own power or strength, that delivered her from Egypt and persevered through the Wilderness. There was to be no doubt, in that generation or in any future generation: YHWH is the powerful God without whom Israel would still be slaves in Egypt.

This is why YHWH’s declaration of Himself as the Deliverer of Israel from Egypt and slavery is the foundation of the Law. It is how He proved His power, love, and compassion upon Israel. Israel can have complete confidence in YHWH’s Law because they can have complete confidence in the power and love of YHWH who delivered them.

Today we Christians live under a new covenant enacted on better promises (cf. Hebrews 8:6). Yet the nature of God has not changed (Malachi 3:6, Hebrews 13:8)! He has acted in similar ways in the inauguration of the new covenant.

While it is true that Jesus provides many of the ethical guidelines for the lives of His disciples while He lived (cf. Matthew 5-7, etc.), He does so as a proclamation of the good news of the Kingdom that is coming (cf. Matthew 4:17, 23). In reality, nothing in the old covenant could be changed until the new was inaugurated (Matthew 5:17-18, Hebrews 9:15-22).

Israel could trust the law of YHWH because He brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. So how can we trust in the law of Christ? Because God, in Christ, brings us out of the land of sin, out of the house of death (Romans 8:1-3). This was attested to us through Jesus’ death and resurrection, the ultimate demonstration of YHWH’s love, mercy, and power (Romans 5:6-11, 1 Corinthians 15:54-58). Whatever questions people might have had about who Jesus was or what He was doing before His death should have been finally and decisively answered in His death and resurrection and the resultant proclamation of the Kingdom of God (Acts 2:1-41, Colossians 1:13).

The foundation of the Law of Moses was YHWH’s deliverance of the Israelites from the hand of Egypt. The foundation of the new covenant between God and man through Jesus the Christ is His death and resurrection. In Jesus’ death and resurrection God defeats sin and death and provides us the means of doing the same (Revelation 12:11). The death and resurrection of Jesus are assurances of His Lordship and of His return to judge the living and the dead (Acts 17:30-31, Philippians 2:5-11). God has definitively acted; we should not doubt, for He has proven His love for us and the basis of our hope of eternal life through the death and resurrection of His Son. Let us serve God to the full!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Children by Faith

But it is not as though the word of God hath come to nought. For they are not all Israel, that are of Israel: neither, because they are Abraham’s seed, are they all children: but, “In Isaac shall thy seed be called.”
That is, it is not the children of the flesh that are children of God; but the children of the promise are reckoned for a seed (Romans 9:6-8).

People have a passion for family. Pride in children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren is a common denominator among all types of different people– even regardless of the conduct of those descendants. We also can appreciate our genealogy. How many have spent time in archives learning more about their ancestors! For some reason, if we are able to discover long-lost relatives who either participated in momentous historical events or just lived in a particular historical era, those past events and times become more meaningful and personal to us. That they knew nothing of us and that our knowledge of them may be little is irrelevant; they are our ancestors, we are their descendants, and there is power in that relationship.

The Jews very much felt this power. They have Abraham for a father (Luke 3:8). The genealogies of the Old Testament, far from being the “boring parts” of the story that we often gloss over today, were a source of pride, for all Jews could find somewhere in that genealogy some relatives who took part in their national story. Ultimately, they could all trace their ancestry back to Abraham through Isaac and Jacob, and that was the reason for their distinctiveness. Everyone on earth could trace back their history to Noah and Adam, but the Jews were the ones who inherited the promises. They were the ones to whom the One True God revealed Himself; He gave them the Law of God; from them would come the Deliverer of mankind (Romans 9:4-5). They could feel like they were part of God’s purposes for mankind in ways that the other nations just could not understand.

All of this was true, but it was not properly directed. Too many Jews took comfort in their genealogy. They became blind to their sin, convinced that since they were children of Abraham that their place in God’s Kingdom was already reserved (cf. John 8:33). They thought it was their status– their election– that would save them.

Jesus makes it clear that this is not the case– He speaks out candidly about how the Jews were following after their father the Devil, not Abraham (John 8:34-47), and declared how many “sons of the Kingdom” would be cast out into the outer darkness (Matthew 8:11-12). As can be imagined, the Jews did not take too kindly to this.

It is Paul who drives the point home in a way that should have truly shamed Israel into obedience. Paul points out that there were other children of Abraham (Romans 9:7)– they just were not the children of promise. History would be quite different if the Muslims were right and that Ishmael was the child of blessing!

Paul’s point is that the promise was received through faith, and that the children of the promise do not merit that promise by anything they could have done, and does it all through Genesis. By working backward we can start with Jacob. Did he deserve the promise? He was the younger, and by all rights, had no claim on anything. Esau “should have” been the child of promise since he was the eldest, and yet God had foreordained that the elder would serve the younger (Genesis 25:23, Romans 9:10-12). Neither Esau or Jacob had done anything yet, but God made His purpose known in a providential way. Where would the Jews be had God not made such a provision, and Esau became the inheritor of the promise?

What did Isaac do in order to obtain the promise that he would pass along to Jacob? Absolutely nothing. He was just born, and none of us gets to choose the circumstances of our birth. The circumstances of his birth were quite miraculous and amazing (cf. Genesis 21:1-7, Romans 4:13-25). In fact, had Abraham gotten his way, Isaac would have never needed to come into existence or to receive the promise, for Abraham desired for Ishmael to live before God as the child of promise (Genesis 17:17-18). If God had honored Abraham’s wish, where would that have left Israel and the Jews?

We then get back to Abraham himself. What did he do in order to merit the call? As far as we can tell, his family was idolatrous, and Abram would have no reason to know that it was Yahweh who would call him or that Yahweh was the One True God (Genesis 11:27-32, Joshua 24:2). What stature, therefore, did Abram have before God? None whatsoever. If God had not bothered calling Abram out of Ur, what would have been Israel’s fate?

Paul’s entire point here is that God elected Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob according to His will and His purpose, not based on any kind of past or intrinsic merit or the Law or any such thing. Therefore, the Jew has no reason to “boast” in his Judaism, as if his ethnic identity provides him merit or status in God’s sight. God could have just as easily chosen another nation, and Israel would have been entirely out of luck!

Why, then, did God choose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? The choice was based in God’s knowledge of their faith (cf. Romans 8:29-30, James 2:14-26). God knew that Abraham would go to Canaan, to believe in Him, and be willing to even sacrifice Isaac if so commanded (Genesis 12-22). God knew the type of person Esau would turn out to be, and He knew how Jacob would be the man of faith (Genesis 25-35). They received the promises because they trusted in God and obeyed His voice (Genesis 22:15-18, 26:2-5), and God was willing to be known as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob (cf. Matthew 22:32).

Paul makes it clear, therefore, that the true children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are not necessarily those who are genealogically related to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That is not the way the promise works. The promise is inherited by faith, and therefore, all who believe and trust in God through His Son Jesus Christ are reckoned as children of Abraham (Romans 4:11-13, 9:24, 30-32, Galatians 3:29). They have the same “spiritual heritage,” joined not by blood that decays but by a shared obedient faith in God that endures forever.

Thus we can see that God is not unjust by casting off those who were unfaithful in Israel and bringing in those who would obey in faith among the nations. In fact, this is precisely what should have happened, and it represents God’s persistent message throughout time. Believers should learn from Israel’s example. We cannot place our trust in things. We cannot trust in status, ethnicity, parents, children, genealogy, or any such thing. Instead, our trust must be in God Himself, and we must be His obedient servants (Romans 1:16-17, 6:1-23)!

No one deserves salvation because of their ancestry, their status, their identity, or for any such reason– no one ever has or ever will. God’s choices say more about God accomplishing His will than they do about the persons chosen, and all must obey to receive the inheritance. Let us be children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by faith, and represent the Israel of God today!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Wisdom in Avoiding Immorality

My son, keep my words, and lay up my commandments with thee. Keep my commandments and live; and my law as the apple of thine eye. Bind them upon thy fingers; write them upon the tablet of thy heart. Say unto wisdom, “Thou art my sister”; and call understanding thy kinswoman: that they may keep thee from the strange woman, from the foreigner that flattereth with her words (Proverbs 7:1-5).

We understand that Scripture provides great direct instruction and commandment, and for that we should be thankful. We can also learn much from Scripture not just from the words themselves but how the authors have expressed themselves.

A great example of this is the connection in Proverbs between heeding the instructions, commandments, and laws of the parents and avoiding sexual immorality. We see this connection in Proverbs 2:1-19, 5:1-23, 6:20-35, and 7:1-27; Proverbs 9:13-18 provides a complementary image, the way of Woman Folly. This connection and emphasis happens far too often to be merely coincidental. What is God communicating to us through these proverbs?

Perhaps the challenge is in the sin itself– sexual immorality. There are constant warnings in Scripture against participating in it, and it seems to be at the head of every list of sins (cf. Matthew 5:28, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Galatians 5:19-21, Ephesians 5:3-6, etc.). It is a source of constant danger– it is easy for desire to be directed wrongly, and Satan and the world always provide plenty of temptations to do so.

Consider what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:18:

Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body.

This is the same apostle who tells us otherwise to “stand firm” against the fiery darts of the Evil One (Ephesians 6:10-18), but here he tells us to run away. It seems so cowardly to run away, does it not? Why would he provide such instruction?

Perhaps he had in mind the story of Joseph in Genesis 39:7-20. Potiphar’s wife tempted him to commit sexual immorality, and Joseph resisted day after day. But then the day came when she grabbed him by his clothing, and he would either fall into sin or run. He did the righteous thing and ran away, and received the consequence of being cast into prison on the basis of false allegations.

It does believers no good to attempt to minimize the danger and challenge posed by temptations to sexual immorality. It is a sin that people easily justify and rationalize. “Good” people who would never think of sinning against their neighbor may have no problems with many forms of sexual immorality because it “does not hurt anyone.” How many have been guilty of sinning against themselves! How many have fallen for various temptations to sexual immorality, and have reaped nothing but misery and pain! How many wish that they would have known better!

Thus we can see why God wants to emphasize the value of wisdom– the fear of God, the knowledge of His commandment, following His instruction. It is only through clinging to God’s truth and wisdom that we will be able to overcome temptations to sexual immorality. It is only when we have decided to love wisdom and not the “foreign woman” that we will be willing to run away from temptation and not be seduced into it. It is only when we fully understand the consequences of sexual immorality that we understand that it is never worth it and thus should be avoided at any cost.

It is no wonder, then, why the father wants to instruct his son to temper passion and cling to wisdom, and it should be the same instruction we give to our children. We must make it clear that the path of sexual immorality leads only to pain, misery, and perdition. Temptation will be strong, but we must resist and, when necessary, run away.

If we cling to wisdom we will avoid every kind of immorality– sexual immorality and “general” immorality, holding firm to the teachings of the One True God while resisting all the temptations of the world (cf. 1 John 2:15-17). Let us learn from the exhortations of God: let us love wisdom and repudiate all immorality!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Weightier Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Summing Up the Law

And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, trying him: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”
And he said unto him, “‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.’ This is the great and first commandment. And a second like unto it is this, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ On these two commandments the whole law hangeth, and the prophets” (Matthew 22:35-40).

We like short and sweet.  Lengthy explanations and excessive details are considered boring and tedious, even when we recognize that complexity exists.

Succinct explanations help when they keep the “big picture” in mind.  Especially in religious circles, many have missed the proverbial forest for the trees.  Jesus came face to face with many such people in His ministry: the Pharisees were condemned for focusing excessively on details while neglecting the weightier aspects of the Law (Matthew 23:23-24).

Jesus provides the “big picture” of the Law: love the LORD with all of our faculties, and love our neighbors as ourselves.  As summations go, there can be no better; in truth, not a detail is lost.  All of our missteps, difficulties, sins, and shortcomings come from a lack of love for God or neighbor.

Why love?  The virtues of love are exalted in 1 Corinthians 13; we may summarize Paul’s message by saying that love is seeking the best interest of the beloved (cf. Romans 13:10).  Love for God is seeking His will and not our own (Hebrews 11:6).  When we love God, it is no longer we who live, but God in us (cf. Galatians 2:20).  If we live lives of sacrifice, as we are charged to do in Romans 12:1, we easily avoid iniquity.

Loving our neighbor can be challenging; after all, our neighbor often wrongs us, cheats us, or perhaps is entirely indifferent toward us.  Yet the power of the “Golden Rule” of Luke 6:31 haunts us: if we view our neighbor in such stark and dismal terms, how does our neighbor look at us?

How would we want to be treated?  Such dictates how we should treat others.  The parable of the Good Samaritan shows us what it takes to be a good neighbor (Luke 10:25-37): sacrifice and humility, helping without expectation of commendation or reward.  After all, this is what we seek from God, is it not?

It seems so easy to talk about “loving God” and “loving our neighbor,” and yet so difficult to put into practice.  It is far easier to be as the Pharisees, so devoted to the trees of various doctrines and technicalities that we neglect the important things.  If we have not love, we face condemnation.  Let us lay aside our own interests and instead put God’s interests and the best interest of our neighbor ahead of ourselves!

Ethan R. Longhenry