Bring It to Jesus

But Jesus said unto them, “They have no need to go away; give ye them to eat” (Matthew 14:16).

Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand is one of His best documented and compelling miracles. The event is attested in all four Gospels (Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:10-17, John 6:1-15). It becomes the springboard for Jesus to speak of Himself as the bread of life which proceeded from the mouth of God (John 6:16-71); it demonstrated, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the power of God present in Jesus, providing food out of nothing, just as God had sent manna to Israel in the wilderness (cf. Exodus 16:1-36).

Yet it is worth exploring how Jesus set up the situation. Jesus had withdrawn to the mountains; the crowds had followed Him, and He healed many (Matthew 14:13-14). They had come out in faith to Him and were not disappointed. As it became late the disciples, as seemed to be the custom, encouraged Jesus to dismiss the crowds to the neighboring villages to find food (Matthew 14:15). But this day would not take place according to usual custom; nevertheless, Jesus told the disciples to give the people something to eat.

The reaction of the disciples is telling. In Matthew 14:17, they saw that they have but five loaves and two fishes; in Mark 6:37, they asked if they themselves should go into town and buy two hundred denarii (1 denarius was the average day’s wage for a laborer) of bread; Luke combined these themes in Luke 9:13. We can share their astonishment. Five loaves and two fishes could not feed so many people; they would need a lot of money to buy a lot of bread to satisfy such a group!

We know the rest of the story: Jesus has them bring the five loaves and two fish to Him; He blesses and breaks the bread; the people eat and are satisfied; twelve baskets of bread remnants, no doubt more than the original mass of bread, was taken up afterward (cf. Matthew 14:18-21, etc.).

Jesus has accomplished a powerful miracle; we often speak of how all would have seen the “original” five loaves and two fish, and then would have seen the greater amount taken up in the end; it is a very public, and manifest, miracle. For many this narrative has great apologetic potential.

Yet, as Matthew tells the story, Jesus tells the disciples to feed the people (Matthew 14:16). He does this knowing quite well how they have but five loaves and two fish. He does this knowing they are not able to do this by their own strength or through their own efforts.

And yet He tells them to do it anyway.

As we have seen, the disciples react as you or I would react. First they assess the situation: they have five loaves and two fish. They would need to buy 200 denarii of bread to feed the multitude. They should get going if they are going to buy that much food.

But no, Jesus says. Feed them with what you have.

How can they do that? They must first give the loaves and fishes to Jesus. Jesus could then bless what they had and distribute it so that everyone’s needs were satisfied.

Matthew (as well as Mark and Luke) could have told the story in the way John does, speaking of it as a collaborative effort (John 6:5-9). But they did not; perhaps they had a reason to do so. Maybe they have a lesson they want to teach us.

What happened in this story? Jesus asked the disciples to do something which was impossible for them to do. They assessed the situation, recognized what would need to be done, and saw that it was beyond their present resources. They had to give Jesus the resources they had, and then and only then could Jesus make sufficient the resources they had given Him.

What would happen throughout the rest of the Gospel story as told in Acts? Jesus told the disciples to go and bear witness around the world (Acts 1:8). They assessed the situation, recognized what needed to be done, and saw that it was beyond their present resources. They gave themselves over to Jesus, and then and only then did Jesus make sufficient the resources they had given Him, and the Gospel message spread powerfully throughout the known world (cf. Colossians 1:6).

This proves to be the pattern for all followers of Jesus, for what is impossible with man is possible with God (Matthew 19:26). Jesus has called on all of us to do impossible things: be perfect as the Father is perfect; take up our cross and follow after Him; suffer loss for the Kingdom’s sake; refuse all the works of the flesh and manifest the fruit of the Spirit; proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation (Matthew 5:43-48, 16:24, 28:18-20, Mark 16:15, Galatians 5:17-24). We hear Jesus’ commands; we assess our situation; we recognize what needs to be done; we see it goes beyond our present resources.

At this stage we might despair; we might try to fight through using our own strength; yet in all these ways we are doomed to fail. It is only when we offer up to Jesus the few resources we have that He can take them and make them sufficient in us to accomplish His purposes (2 Corinthians 3:5-6, 9:8, 12:9-10, Philippians 2:12-13). We can then look back and see how the power of God worked through us to accomplish His good pleasure.

In this way the means by which Jesus fed the five thousand is instructive. He fed them through the work of His disciples even though He was right there the whole time; this was not by necessity but by means of instruction. The day would come when Jesus would no longer be physically present with the disciples, and yet the pattern would remain the same. That pattern remains to this day. We must bring to Jesus what God has given us so that He can make it sufficient to accomplish God’s purposes. We will not succeed through our own strength alone; may we learn to depend on the strength of God in Christ, fulfill His purposes, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Good News

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1).

It comes in all forms; because of it things may never seem to be the same again. Many times we vividly remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when we heard it.

“The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.”

“The President has been shot.”

“The World Trade Center has collapsed.”

It transforms life even without national or international implications.

“Will you marry me?”

“It’s a boy/it’s a girl.”

“This disease is terminal.”

Such is the power of the news.

911-Panel

News is just information; that is true. But we all recognize that the content of the news can change everything. Hopes and dreams can be encouraged or dashed. Expectations are fulfilled or denied. We may find ourselves facing a new and different reality, perhaps better, perhaps worse than what we thought before. In many ways we understand our lives in terms of how various pieces of news has shaped us at various points in time.

Such is perhaps why the greatest events which ever have taken place in this creation are called, simply, the Good News. We are more familiar with the term Gospel, which itself derives from an Old English term meaning exactly what the Greek euangelion does, “good news” (Mark 1:1). Thus, whenever we see “Gospel” in the Bible, we should think of it as “good news.” Evangelists are to be seen as those proclaiming the Good News.

What exactly is the Good News? As we see in Mark 1:1, the Good News is of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The Apostle Paul affirms that the Good News by which the Corinthian Christians were saved if they hold fast to it featured the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1-11). Both Jesus and Matthew testify that the Good News features the Kingdom of Heaven, over which Jesus has been established as Lord and King and over which He reigns (Matthew 4:17, 23; Colossians 1:13). Jesus commanded the Apostles and those who came after them to go and preach the Good News to the whole creation (Mark 16:15), and so we do.

Thus the Good News is that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Son of God: He is the Word made flesh, having humbled Himself to serve mankind and to show them the way and character of God; He died on a cross for the forgiveness of sin and God raised Him from the dead on the third day; He ascended to the Father and has received the Kingdom over which He now reigns as Lord until He returns (Matthew 28:18-20, John 1:1-18, 14:5-10, Acts 1:1-10, 2:36, 17:30-31). This is the news regarding which Christians must bear witness to the whole creation.

No news has the transformative capability as the Good News of Jesus Christ, for it is God’s power to save (Romans 1:16, Hebrews 4:12). As with all news, it is not the news or the message itself, but the contents and the reality which allows for the message to truly be news. Jesus really did live, die, and rise again; He really does reign as Lord right now. These truths demand a response: will you serve the Lord Jesus or will you reject Him? Acceptance demands obedience, renunciation of all worldly things, suffering, and perhaps even death but leads to peace toward God and hope in the resurrection (Romans 6:15-22, Philippians 3:6-12). Rejection of Jesus as Lord may not seem like as big of a deal on earth but leads to hostility toward God and sure expectation of the experience of His wrath (Romans 8:5-8, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10). The New Testament is replete with examples of people whose lives would never be the same once they heard the Good News of Jesus Christ; the 1,900 years since have seen many other people whose lives were completely changed when they heard that Jesus is Lord and Christ.

The Good News may be over 1,900 years old, but it remains as relevant today as ever. Your life is never the same once you have heard it. Will you heed the Good News of Jesus Christ and serve Him? Danger and destruction awaits those who refuse Him! Serve Jesus as Lord while the opportunity remains, and take hold of the promise of eternal life in the resurrection!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Confession

But [Jesus] held his peace, and answered nothing. Again the high priest asked him, and saith unto him, “Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”
And Jesus said, “I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:61-62).

It was one of the only things He said, but it was all they needed.

It was really a show trial; the final decision had already been reached, and it was only a matter of formality when it came to how to get there. The Jewish religious authorities had conspired to have Jesus arrested and fully intended to hand Him over to the Roman authorities for execution (cf. Mark 14:1-2). The trial was not going well; the testimony of the witnesses were not only false but did not even agree (Mark 14:55-59). Jesus had not answered His accusers, and the time came when the High Priest again asked Him whether He was the Christ, the Son of the Blessed (Mark 14:60-61). Jesus then gave His confession, and it was all they needed: He said He was, and that they would see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven (Mark 14:62). All of a sudden they had everything they needed; the High Priest rent his clothes, indicating mourning and shame on account of the “blasphemy” just heard, and they all summarily condemned Jesus to death for what He had said (Mark 14:63-64). The next morning He was delivered over to Pilate; He was dead that evening (Mark 15:1-39).

Jesus was right, of course. On the third day God raised Him with power; forty days later Jesus ascended to the Father, exalted and given all authority, and as long as the religious authorities remained authorities they had to reckon with the sect of the Nazarene (cf. Mark 16:1-8, Acts 1:1-5:42). The religious authorities thought they were doing God’s will, and they were, but just not as they had thought or had expected (cf. Acts 2:23-24, 3:13-17); in attempting to eliminate Jesus’ threat to their existence, they unwittingly accomplished the very mechanism by which God would redeem mankind, rescue many from Israel, and ultimately to seal the condemnation of all they treasured in Jerusalem (Matthew 24:1-36, Romans 5:6-11).

Thus we understand that Jesus made His confession knowing quite well that it would be the basis of the charge of blasphemy and for His execution. And yet He says everything He says in that confession for good reason: it has been, in fact, one of the primary means by which He has attempted to make clear who He is and what He is doing throughout His ministry.

Jesus’ confession is saturated with prophetic references. And of all the various prophecies regarding the Christ, He focuses on Daniel’s vision in Daniel 7:13-14 in terms of Psalm 110:1: the “one like a son of man” receiving dominion, glory, and a kingdom from the Ancient of Days, thus sitting at the right hand of God, the right hand of power. Thus here, toward the end of His life, we are given the key to understanding what He has been saying throughout His life: His self-description as “Son of Man.”

Jesus also provides the key to understand what will happen: He will reign over His Kingdom (Colossians 1:13). His Kingdom will not be like any other in history: it has no capital, no defined physical boundaries, no army with physical weapons. It certainly was not about re-establishing the Davidic monarchy in Jerusalem and overthrowing the Romans as the Jews had fervently hoped! Instead, it is as Daniel saw in Daniel 7:27: the Kingdom of the Son of Man is an everlasting Kingdom, and all dominions will serve and obey Him.

So it is that Jesus confesses before Pilate the good confession that His kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36-37). Christ’s Kingdom is spiritual, able to encompass people of all nations (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11). It has one ruler perpetually: Jesus of Nazareth, raised from the dead, ruling from heaven (Matthew 28:18, Hebrews 13:8). Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess His name, thus saying what He declared before the religious authorities whether they affirmed it in life or not (Philippians 2:9-11).

Throughout His life Jesus proclaimed the coming Kingdom of God (Matthew 4:17). He is its Ruler; we are His subjects. As Peter preached on the day of Pentecost, God has made Him both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36); it is incumbent upon us to heed His word and do what He says (1 John 2:3-6). Will we affirm Jesus’ confession in our own lives, recognizing that He is the Christ, and sits at the right hand of Power, and then act like it? Or will our confession come too late and with great bitterness?

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus’ Cup and Baptism

And [James and John] said unto him, “Grant unto us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and one on thy left hand, in thy glory.”
But Jesus said unto them, “Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink the cup that I drink? Or to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
And they said unto him, “We are able.”
And Jesus said unto them, “The cup that I drink ye shall drink; and with the baptism that I am baptized withal shall ye be baptized: but to sit on my right hand or on my left hand is not mine to give; but it is for them for whom it hath been prepared” (Mark 10:37-40).

The tension finally boiled over.

For some time the disciples jockeyed amongst themselves for standing before Jesus. They argued regarding who was the greatest among them (cf. Mark 9:34). James and John take the dispute one step further, boldly asking Jesus to sit at His right and left hand in His Kingdom (Mark 10:37).

This request may seem strange to us, but in the minds of the disciples it made perfect sense. Jesus had said that He was going up to Jerusalem and His Kingdom would be established; they naturally understood that to mean that this would be the final showdown between Jesus and all the authorities arrayed against Him, He would prove triumphant, and would begin reigning. If He reigned, then they would be His deputies, and it was far better, in their imagination, to be second and third in command than eleventh or twelfth.

Jesus was going up to Jerusalem to establish His Kingdom; the next few days would see the final showdown between Jesus and the authorities arrayed against Him. It just was not going to take place as the disciples expected.

Jesus knows this; He tells James and John how they really do not know that for which they have asked (Mark 10:38). He asks if they can drink the cup He drinks, or be baptized with the baptism with which He was baptized.

James and John believe they are able (Mark 10:39). We can only wonder what it is they believe they will be able to do. Do they think of His cup as a cup of rulership? Do they understand His “baptism” in terms of some physical baptism, a ritual cleansing to prepare for kingship and rule, or some such thing?

Jesus affirms how they will drink the cup He drinks, and they will be baptized with the baptism in which He was baptized. But the “power” they seek, in the way they wish to obtain it, cannot be His to give, but is dictated by the Father (Mark 10:39-40). But before they can obtain any sort of standing in the Kingdom of God, their minds and understanding will have to go through some radical alterations.

This story clearly illustrates the different mentalities and expectations between Jesus and His disciples. The disciples expect power, glory, victory over their physical enemies. Jesus knows the path involves suffering, humiliation, degradation, and then, and only then, victory and the establishment of the Kingdom (Mark 10:32-34).

We understand the cup which Jesus would drink and the baptism with which He was baptized. The cup is a cup of suffering and pain which Jesus will drink to its dregs (cf. Mark 14:35-36). The baptism of Jesus here is full immersion in humiliation, degradation, pain, and suffering on an unimaginable scale through His betrayal, trial, scourging, and execution (Mark 14:43-15:37). Jesus drank the cup to its dregs to rescue humanity from the out-poured cup of the unmixed wrath of God (cf. Romans 2:4-11, 5:9, Revelation 14:10, 16:19). Jesus experienced an immersion in evil and suffering so as to overcome and gain the victory over sin and death, granting us the opportunity to be immersed in water for the remission of sin in His name so as to experience a spiritual death and resurrection out of sin and darkness and into righteousness and the light (Romans 6:1-3, 8:1-4, 1 Corinthians 15:54-57). Yes, He went to Jerusalem to establish His Kingdom. Yes, He endured the final showdown with the forces arrayed against Him. Yes, He gained the victory and His Kingdom was established with power. But He had to experience all sorts of suffering, evil, and death in order to do so. Without His cup and His baptism, there would have been no salvation or Kingdom.

But Jesus tells James and John that they, too, will drink the cup He drinks and will be baptized with His baptism. Every follower of Jesus must expect to experience suffering, humiliation, and degradation on account of the Lord (cf. Acts 14:22, 2 Timothy 3:12). Many will die for Jesus’ sake, as James did (cf. Acts 12:2, 1 John 3:16). There is a cup and a baptism of suffering and pain which we must endure if we wish to gain the victory through Jesus (Romans 8:17-18).

Yes, there is the cup in the Lord’s Supper, the representation of the blood of the Lord Jesus, shed for the remission of sin (Mark 14:23-25). Yes, there is the immersion in water in the name of the Lord Jesus for the remission of sin (Mark 16:16). Yet part of our understanding of the significance of that cup and that baptism involves the recognition that when we drink that cup and are baptized into that baptism, we affirm that we will drink the cup of Jesus and will experience the baptism with which He was baptized. We are signing up for humiliation, degradation, suffering, pain, and perhaps even death, for the name of the Lord Jesus. We do not do so because we are sick or sadistic but because the only way we can obtain the victory over sin and death is to, like Jesus, endure the trials of sin and death, that cup and that baptism, and overcome through Jesus. James and John were called upon to do so; Peter called upon the Christians of Asia Minor to do so (1 Peter 1:3-9); in the Revelation, John sees how the Christians of His time and in the future will do so (Revelation 12:7-17). It is our turn as well.

James and John had no idea for what they signed themselves up when they said they could drink the cup Jesus would drink, and be baptized with the baptism with which He was baptized. Perhaps if they did understand what it meant they would not have been so eager to do so! Today, we have the full story, and can know exactly what it is we are affirming we will do. Are we willing to drink the cup Jesus drank and to be baptized with the baptism with which He was baptized, endure the suffering, misery, humiliation, and trial, so that we can obtain the victory over sin and death and glory beyond comparison with Him? Let us see the shared spiritual cup of suffering and pain in the physical cup we drink on the Lord’s day, and a willingness to endure a spiritual immersion in suffering in the physical immersion in the name of Jesus for the remission of sin, endure, and be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Calm in the Storm

And on that day, when even was come, he saith unto them, “Let us go over unto the other side.”
And leaving the multitude, they take him with them, even as he was, in the boat. And other boats were with him. And there ariseth a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the boat, insomuch that the boat was now filling. And he himself was in the stern, asleep on the cushion:
and they awake him, and say unto him, “Teacher, carest thou not that we perish?”
And he awoke, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, “Peace, be still.”
And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.
And he said unto them, “Why are ye fearful? Have ye not yet faith?”
And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:35-41).

The storm is perhaps one of the most powerful yet ephemeral forces in God’s creation. In whatever its manifestation–thunderstorm, tornado/cyclone, sea squall, hurricane/typhoon, tsunami, blizzard–we experience the raw power of nature, see most aspects of civilization grind to a halt, and sometimes experience great loss. And then, after a few minutes, hours, or days, it will be gone. The devastation and ruin remain, eerily illuminated by a bright shining sun and what seems to be the hope and promise of a new day.

A storm, by its very nature, is tempestuous; for thousands of years they have struck fear into the hearts of men. Facing the elements in the midst of a storm is the type of thing of which nightmares are made! In the midst of the tempest, stillness, calm, and peace seem far away.

While going about to the various cities and villages in Galilee, Jesus decides to travel across the Sea of Galilee with His disciples (Mark 4:35-41). The Sea of Galilee is only about 13 miles long and 8 miles wide, hardly something you would think would cause anyone much distress. But we must remember that in the ancient world most boats tried to stay very close to land and did not venture out into any open sea; their boats were much more at the mercy of the elements than many ships today. And even if the Sea of Galilee does not seem spectacularly large, you do not want to be in the middle of it when a storm comes through. Wind, rain, and sea do not mix well.

Jesus and the disciples were on a boat, and other boats were with them; it seems as if there was no expectation of any storm. Nevertheless, a storm arose, and it was a powerful one: the boat was covered by the waves and was taking on water. They would capsize if nothing were done; the odds of them surviving in the storm-tossed waves were slim. Upbraid the disciples for declaring that they were about to die all you want; if you were in that boat at that moment, odds are you would be saying the same thing!

In the midst of it all, Jesus is sleeping! He might have been quite tired; perhaps there is some allusion to Jonah and his sleeping in the midst of a storm (cf. Jonah 1:5). Jesus has no reason to be afraid, and He knows it. The storm does not bother Him. He sleeps, therefore, waiting for His disciples to finally show their faith. After all, it is not as if the storm just happens to come upon Jesus unawares. He knew the storm was coming before He ever got into the boat. He wanted to cross over anyway even with the knowledge of what was about to occur!

The disciples thought they were perishing, and looking at things from a human, physical, earthly perspective, they were. In nature storms tend to persist until they are over; they do not quit halfway through, save for the eye of a hurricane. The situation seemed extremely dire. They no doubt did all they could until the moment when they could do no more. Then they turned to Jesus!

How gentle or sharp Jesus’ rebuke is toward the disciples is challenging to discern on the basis of the text itself, but it is a rebuke nonetheless. He wants to know why they are afraid; do they not yet have faith (Mark 4:40)? Or, as Matthew renders it, “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?” (Matthew 8:26). The question is evidently rhetorical, for they were afraid because they were of little faith.

Their response reinforces Jesus’ claim: they are astounded. “Who is this that even the wind and sea obey Him?” (Mark 4:41). It is not as if the disciples are completely unacquainted with Jesus; they have been following Jesus, listening to Him preach and teach, seeing Him work all sorts of miracles, healing all manner of illnesses, and generally going about doing the things the Messiah would do. Sure, they believed in Jesus. But their faith was little. They did not fully trust Jesus as One having all authority over the creation which He helped make.

The disciples went wrong because they first tried to do everything they could without Jesus’ help. They called upon Jesus only when nothing else could be done. Imagine how much effort and distress could have been eliminated had they turned to Jesus as soon as the storm began to swell!

We still experience all kinds of storms in life. It is certainly good to call upon God in prayer when in the midst of a thunderstorm, hurricane, or something of the sort, but we certainly should not lose faith if our petitions for the immediate end of the storm do not come to pass. Yet it is in the more metaphorical “storms” of life where the lesson of Jesus and His disciples really hits home.

These “storms” come in many forms. Perhaps we or someone we love contracts a terrible illness or receives a dire prognosis; we may find ourselves persecuted because of our stand for the Lord; we may have lost our jobs; perhaps someone we love has recently died. Maybe we have more bills than we have funds; perhaps we are caught up in some addiction or strongly tempted by pleasures. Whatever this “storm” might be and however it may have started, it really represents a test of sorts, a catalyst to demonstrate just what kind of faith we have.

We will be tempted to act just like the disciples did. When we are confronted with the “storm,” we will find it easier to hunker down and start doing everything we can in order to withstand and endure it. Perhaps we will be able to endure it for a long time; perhaps we might even weather one or two “storms” through our own strength (or so we think). But the “storm” or the time in the “storm” will come when it is clear that there is nothing else we can do. If we then turn to God and expect Him to now deliver us from our “storm,” what kind of faith have we shown? It is a little faith; it does not truly trust in God and His mighty power, but our own. Maybe God will rescue us despite ourselves. Even if He does not, it does not mean God has failed or is somehow deficient. The deficiency is our own.

We should instead use such an opportunity to demonstrate and increase our faith (cf. James 1:1-4, 1 Peter 1:3-9). From the beginning of the “storm” until the end we should petition God through Jesus our Lord and entrust ourselves to Him and His power. This does not mean that we sit idly by and do nothing, but it also does not mean that we frantically try every avenue without consideration of and petition to the Lord. Perhaps God will rebuke that storm and peace will prevail; perhaps you will still need to weather the storm, but through God in Christ you can have the internal peace, calm, and stillness to persevere.

If we truly believe in God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ, we will glorify Him for having the power over the creation and power over every situation no matter how dire it may seem, and we will entrust ourselves to Him and His goodness. The “storms” of life, just like the storms we see in nature, are ephemeral; they will pass away. Sunlight will again shine down on us. Will we be exposed as having little faith or as being full of faith? Will we maintain composure and true peace and stillness despite the storm? It all depends on whether we believe in Jesus in pretense alone or whether we truly trust in Him as Lord and Savior. Let us exhibit faith even in the “storms” of life, persevere in hope, and glorify God in all circumstances!

Ethan R. Longhenry

I Believe! Help My Unbelief!

“And oft-times it hath cast him both into the fire and into the waters, to destroy him: but if thou canst do anything, have compassion on us, and help us.”
And Jesus said unto him, “If thou canst! All things are possible to him that believeth.”
Straightway the father of the child cried out, and said, “I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:22-24).

Desperation can be a powerful driver.

The child suffered terribly from a “dumb spirit” according to Mark 9:17-22. Because of it the child would foam at the mouth, grind his teeth, and become rigid, and that would count for a good day. At other times the demon sought to compel the child to kill himself by casting himself into a fire or into the sea!

This had been going on for some time; the father had seen his son experience this “from childhood.” Perhaps the child was now a teenager or in his twenties; the text does not tell us.

We can only imagine how the father felt when he saw his son experience such suffering and misery. He was powerless to stop it; it must have caused great anguish of soul. It would not be at all surprising if the father had gone to great lengths to find someone, anyone, anything that could somehow alleviate his son’s difficulties. And yet, in all those years, nothing.

He hears that Jesus is nearby, and takes his son. Jesus had been up on the mountain; His disciples attempted to cast out the demons but proved unable (Mark 9:2-18). Yet another disappointment.

Jesus comes upon the scene upon coming down from the mountain. The father makes his plea before Him: if you can do something, please have compassion and help.

Jesus’ answer focuses on the father’s conditional statement: “if you can.” He declares all things are possible for one who believes.

And the father’s answer resounds throughout time: I believe! Help my unbelief!

On the surface, the statement seems contradictory; if he believes, unbelief should not be a problem. If he maintains “unbelief,” how can it be that he believes? If belief were only a matter of mental assent to a proposition, the statement would be contradictory: you either accept the idea that Jesus can help or you do not.

Yet faith has always been more than a matter of mentally agreeing to the truth of a proposition. Faith demands trust and confidence, and the statement makes complete sense when we understand belief as trust.

The way the man phrases his request speaks volumes. “If you can.” He has his doubts, less because of Jesus, and more because of his frequent disappointments. His son has been grievously stricken for years; it is hard to maintain hope or confidence for recovery with every passing seizure and every failed attempt at a cure.

Notice that Jesus corrects but does not upbraid the man. This is not the same situation as when the disciples request more faith (cf. Luke 17:5-6), during which time the disciples doubted how they could accomplish what Jesus was saying. In this situation Jesus finds a man who has, to a large degree, lost faith in the ability of his son to be healed. Jesus wants him to hold onto that faith; that trust is what will help to effect the cure.

The man has some trust in Jesus; he cries out, “I believe!”. But he knows exactly what Jesus is saying; he understands how his trust and confidence must be stronger. That is why he cries out, “Help my unbelief!”.

The man was justified in placing his faith in Jesus; it required much power, and the young man for a moment seemed all but dead, but the demon was cast out, and the young man was made whole (Mark 9:25-29).

This man’s example provides a great testimony for the rest of us. We all experience various forms of challenges in our lives. We might personally suffer or witness the sufferings of loved ones. We may have deficiencies, unfortunate habits, dark secrets, or other spiritual maladies which cause great despair. We may seek healing and redemption from all sorts of places and come up short. With every setback and every failed cure it is easier and easier to lose hope and faith in a cure.

It is easy to describe Jesus as the cure-all. Yes, Jesus provides the promise that all things are possible for the one who believes (Mark 9:23), but we should not try to apply this in simplistic ways. Good people who trust in Jesus still have difficulties, challenges, and forms of suffering.

Yet it remains true that we can fall into the same trap as the man and put conditionals on what God is able to do. God is always able. There are many points in our lives when we can cry out, like this man, “I believe! Help my unbelief!”. It is easy to trust in God when we feel great, things are well, and our difficulties are safely hidden away. The true mark of faith is whether we still trust in God when we are not doing well, when situations seem dire, and when our difficulties and deficiencies are exposed for all to see. Wavering trust is understandable but not ideal. We do well to remember Jesus’ encouragement and to be willing to confess the deficiencies in our trust in God.

God has promised to give all things to those who those who serve His Son, the Risen Lord, and we have confidence in this promise because He has already given us of His Son (Romans 8:32). Will we place our hope and confidence in that promise despite all the challenges we experience, all the frustrations we encounter, and all the disappointments we endure? Or will we begin to put a conditional where God has made an absolute? Let us trust in God, and be willing to confess to God the deficiencies in our trust so that we may learn to trust Him more!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Good Soil

“…and others fell upon the good ground, and yielded fruit, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty…and he that was sown upon the good ground, this is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; who verily beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” (Matthew 13:8, 23).

Finally, after speaking about the unbelievers, those who were not firmly grounded, and those who allow the cares of the world to choke out the faith, Jesus comes to the good soil in the Parable of the Sower.

Soil is good by virtue of the climactic conditions in which it exists along with the nutrients present within it. So it is with people and the message of the Gospel– the good soil are those people who have good and honest hearts, who hear the Word, understand it, believe it, and consequently bear fruit with patience (Matthew 13:23, Mark 4:20, Luke 8:15). All of these conditions must exist for the soil to be good.

The condition of the heart is critical. As we saw with the “road soil,” an unreceptive heart will not accept the message of the Gospel. A person must have a good and honest heart for the Gospel to do them any good. They must be willing to question themselves and the way they have conducted themselves. They must be willing to accept that they were wrong and acted wrongly and must change. They must be willing to accept truth as truth and to not justify error or rationalize their improper conduct in any way. In short, they must be willing to humble themselves so as to learn from Christ (Matthew 20:25-28).

The Gospel is preached, and those who are of the “good soil” hear it, understand it, and believe it (cf. Romans 10:9-17). Yet such was also the case for the “rocky soil” and the “thorny soil.” But the “good soil” has greater depth than the “rocky soil” and lacks the weeds of the “thorny soil.” Because conditions are more optimal, the seed bears fruit in the “good soil.” So it is that believers are to be known by their fruit– by how their faith operates in their lives (cf. James 2:14-20, 1 John 3:16-18). Most everyone wants to be the “good soil,” just like everyone is a good person, a good driver, and feels pretty well. Yet, as we have seen, this is not the case with everyone or even of most. Most will prove to be the road soil, the rocky soil, or the thorny soil. “Good soil” is not something we declare ourselves to be by our words; instead, we are manifest as good soil (or, for that matter, less than ideal soil) by how what we profess changes our lives, our attitudes, our thoughts, and our deeds (Matthew 5:13-16, Romans 6:1-11, 8:29, Galatians 5:17-24). And, as Luke adds, this requires patience (cf. Luke 8:15). As fruit and grain take time to grow and ripen, spiritual transformation demands time and effort (cf. Romans 12:2); patience with others is also manifest as fruit of spiritual maturity (Galatians 5:22-24). Growth may take time, but it must be something for which we consistently seek and toward which we endeavor.

Jesus ends His discussion of the “good soil” with what may seem to be a puzzling addendum– the harvest is not necessarily the same with every patch of the good soil. Some bear thirtyfold, others sixtyfold, and some even a hundredfold (Matthew 13:8, Mark 14:8)! Was not “good” soil really “good” soil?

We go back to the source of Jesus’ story: farming. Farmers know that one can grow the same crop in different soils and get different yields based upon the soil quality and conditions. “Good soil” in one place may yield, say, 200 bushels an acre, while “good soil” somewhere else might yield 300 bushels an acre. They are both good, but based upon conditions, one may get more from some than others.

So it is spiritually. The “good soil” is that which is open and receptive to the Gospel, working to bear fruit for God. Yet God has not made us all the same. We are different, and different people not only have different abilities but also different levels of ability. In our egalitarian society it might not be politically correct to say as much, yet it is affirmed by the Gospel (Romans 12:3-8). Consider the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30: three people are entrusted with different amounts of money. The five talent man who made five more talents is rewarded equally as the two talent man who made two more talents. It is not important for us to try to compete with one another and try to boast about how many gifts or talents we may have; instead, we must ascertain what God has given us so that we can serve Him and one another in accordance and in proportion to what we have received (1 Peter 4:10-11, etc.). One bearing a hundredfold and one bearing thirtyfold are both “good soil,” and one is not inherently better than the other. “Good soil” that could bear a hundredfold but gets a big head or does not work up to his potential is worse off than “good soil” actually bearing thirtyfold. Likewise, “good soil” that bears sixtyfold does better than “good soil” that could bear thirtyfold but does nothing because they are not equipped to bear a hundredfold. The emphasis is on the fruit borne, not a spirit of competition.

Few people who understand the Parable of the Sower would define themselves as road soil, rocky soil, or thorny soil. We all aspire to be the “good soil.” That is a good and noble aspiration, but it is meaningless if we do not prove to be the “good soil” by our works. Let us strive, then, to have that open and honest heart, seeking after and trusting in God our Creator and Savior, and devoting our lives to bearing fruit for His cause, be it thirtyfold, sixtyfold, or a hundredfold. Does the Lord know that we are His by our works? Let us serve Him and prove to be good soil!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Thorny Soil

“And others fell upon the thorns; and the thorns grew up and choked them…And he that was sown among the thorns, this is he that heareth the word; and the care of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful” (Matthew 13:7, 22).

“I’m too busy.”

If there were a universally agreed upon anthem for our modern world, this would surely be it. It seems that everyone is always too busy. There is always too much to do and not enough time in which to do it. How many times have we made or heard pleas for there to be more than 24 hours in a day, or for time to stop for a moment so we can get “caught up”?

Part of our difficulty involves the unprecedented number of people and things that compete for our time. Employers are demanding more hours and work out of employees. Depending on our phase of life, our parents, children, and/or spouses place demands on our time. There is the ever-present computer with Facebook, Twitter, blogs, e-mail, games, and a thousand other ways of spending time. Not to be outdone, television and movies and other forms of entertainment also beckon. Beyond all of these are sports activities, book reading, indoor and outdoor maintenance, and all sorts of other activities. Little wonder, then, that we never have any time!

Many of the purveyors of entertainment and other forms of distraction are quite aware of how busy we are, and so they work diligently to gain our attention. Forms of entertainment become more sophisticated and designed to draw you in and keep you watching or playing. News programs and politicians often use various scare tactics to attract your attention and support for their cause. All of these tactics are very seductive and very hard to resist!

While the quantity of distractions and forms of entertainment today might be unprecedented, the root problem is not. As Jesus presents the parable of the sower, He describes the third type of soil as the “thorny soil.” The thorny soil is full of thorn-bushes and other weeds. In such ground, the sower’s seed cannot take root and grow, for it is out-muscled by the weeds.

Notice that the problem here is not the soil quality in and of itself, as it was with the “road” soil and the “rocky” soil. The soil is not the problem– the competitors for that particular patch of soil are the problem! If the competitors– the thorns– were removed, the seed would grow and multiply.

Jesus goes on to say that the thorny soil represents those people who hear the Word of God and believe it, but the cares of this world, the desire for riches, and various lusts and pleasures choke out the Word, and it becomes unfruitful (Matthew 13:22, Mark 4:19, Luke 8:14).

We see this often when we present the Word of God to others. As statistics show, the majority of Americans believe in God, Jesus, and even His resurrection. Therefore, they know that God exists. They know that Jesus exists and that He is Lord. Many such people know that they should probably be assembling with Christians somewhere and should be serving the Lord more faithfully.

And then there is the “but.” They know they should follow God, but there is not enough time. They should assemble with Christians, but they have to work, or Sunday morning is their only time to rest and relax or spend time with family, or it is the time for a given sporting event or other form of entertainment. They know that they should devote themselves to God, but there is always something in the way– money, entertainment, sports, even family and friends.

Jesus’ image of the thorns is very apt, for it gets to the heart of the problem. As said previously, the problem is not with the soil but with the competition for the soil. The difference, then, between “thorny” soil and “good” soil is not the soil itself but the cultivation thereof. The invasion of the “thorns” is an ever-present danger, and great care must be taken to cultivate the ground to clear away the thorns so as to allow the seed to grow and multiply.

This speaks to the need for priorities. No one can assume that time will automatically be made for God and spiritual things. As with all things, we must make time. Left on our own we will succumb to the temptation to play around more on the Internet, watch another TV show, or do a thousand other things. We must decide to make God the priority– to make His Kingdom and His righteousness the most important thing in our life (Matthew 6:33).

We must hasten to add that not all of these “thorns” are inherently evil. In fact, there are many “good” things with which we can fill our time– our family, our friends, employment, helping others, etc.– but even these “good” things can distract us from the ultimate good– God and His Kingdom. We must first serve Christ– and then reflect Christ to our family, at work, and in other realms of life (Ephesians 5:22-6:9). God must be first and foremost.

There have always been and will always be a lot of people who know that God exists and and that they need to do better at following after Him but remain distracted by money, cares of the world, and various pleasures. They have just as much potential for good in promoting God’s purposes as those who are the “good” soil if only they would clear out the weeds and focus on the Word of God. The thorns, however, are an ever-present danger. If we are not careful, even if we begin as good soil, we can allow the thorns to move in, becoming distracted with worldly cares and concerns, and prove to be unfruitful in the end.

Too many people, upon looking back at their lives, realize just how much time was wasted on what ultimately proved to be vain and futile. Some are fortunate enough to have come to repentance before the end, and simply lament all the time that they could have done great things for God but were too busy with themselves and the cares of this world. Sadly, for too many, this realization will come too late, with bitter tears and lamentation, as they hear of their doom (Matthew 7:21-23). It is never too late to clear out the thorns and to cultivate the good seed– let us all remove the distractions of the world and make God and His righteousness the ultimate priority in our lives!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Rocky Soil

“And others fell upon the rocky places, where they had not much earth: and straightway they sprang up, because they had no deepness of earth: and when the sun was risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away…And he that was sown upon the rocky places, this is he that heareth the word, and straightway with joy receiveth it; yet hath he not root in himself, but endureth for a while; and when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, straightway he stumbleth” (Matthew 13:5-6, 20-21).

One of the most savage ironies in life is that we learn the most about our character and ourselves when we least expect it. Rare is the person who learns character lessons from winning, success, and prosperity. Just as fire is necessary to remove dross from pure metal, so distress, tribulation, and difficulty are necessary to refine the faith of the believer (cf. 1 Peter 1:3-9).

We have the maxim today that “whatever does not kill you makes you stronger.” But what happens to the one who does not survive their difficulties and challenges? Jesus provides an illustration of such people in the parable of the sower with the rocky soil.

The story is consistent in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8. The sower casts seed on rocky soil. The seed takes root and grows initially, but the roots do not sink down very deeply. Therefore, when the sun rises, or the moisture runs out, the plant withers and dies.

So it is with many people. Many hear the Word of God, and they receive it eagerly. They believe that Jesus is the Christ. They assemble with fellow Christians. By all appearances, they are growing well as disciples. They may be involved with all kinds of spiritual efforts. And yet, all of a sudden, they are gone.

Why? The reasons are many. Some burn out– they acted more on impulse, and perhaps their personalities are the sort wherein they do not keep any practice or commitment up for any significant amount of time. Others find themselves in some spiritually discouraging situation among Christians who do not act as God would have them act. Many more experience some external difficulty– a family member dies suddenly, they or someone they love endure some kind of evil, or their faith is challenged by some unbeliever in person or on some television show. As a result, many such people entirely abandon belief in God. Others will say that they still believe in Jesus, but not the church, or will declare that they are spiritual but not religious, or some other rationalization.

All such circumstances boil down to the same problem: a shallow faith. Faith is the “roots” that people grow as they learn of God. In the physical realm, roots have amazing power as they grow. Over time roots can often find ways to grow, even in inhospitable places. But when the roots dry out, there is not much hope left. So it is with our faith. If our faith has not grown sufficiently, or was not sufficiently founded in Jesus, when some difficulty comes, it is easy to lose whatever faith we had. If the roots of faith did not grow deeply before boredom set in, then we will move on to some new thing in life. If the roots of faith did not grow past the actions of others, then we are likely to abandon Jesus when some of His followers fail us. If our roots of faith did not grow to the point of trusting God’s goodness in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, then we can easily imagine that God is not there when bad things happen and life seems to go wrong, or when we are posed with challenges in life for which there are no easy answers.

The illustration of the rocky soil is designed to be both a declaration of reality and a warning. It declares the reality that many will believe in a shallow way. When such people fall away, it will be discouraging and unfortunate, but it should not shake our faith or cause undue distress. Our Lord knew that many people would follow Him only as long as it was comfortable– in the sports world, those described as “fair weather fans.” And that is the warning– we must not be the rocky soil. We must be prepared for challenges to our faith. There will be times when Christianity will seem boring and/or our zeal for Christ will languish. There will be times when fellow Christians do not act like they should, and it will discourage us. There will be times when evil will confront us head on, and it will lead to questions about the presence and goodness of God. And there will be times when the hope that is in us will be challenged by those who do not accept it. We cannot change that reality– but we can prepare for it. We can decide how we will respond to it. We can understand that such trials are blessings in that they help us to grow in faith (James 1:2-3). They may not be pleasant, but they are necessary for our growth. We can never prove to be the good soil until someone or something tests the depth of the roots of faith we have set down in our lives.

Life is not a bed of roses, and becoming a servant of Jesus does not then somehow make it so. In fact, serving Jesus means to humbly accept challenge, sacrifice, and difficulty (Matthew 16:24, 20:25-28, Romans 12:2, Galatians 2:20). When difficulty comes, will you grow or perish? We pray that you will grow and prove to be good soil, and not rocky soil, and to please the Creator of us all!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Road Soil

And he spake to them many things in parables, saying, “Behold, the sower went forth to sow; and as he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the birds came and devoured them…Hear then ye the parable of the sower. When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the evil one, and snatcheth away that which hath been sown in his heart. This is he that was sown by the way side” (Matthew 13:3-4, 18-19).

The Parable of the Sower is perhaps the parable par excellence— it introduces Jesus’ parables in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8. It has all of the elements of a parable– a realistic setting, familiar to the hearers, an understandable event, and all of it with a spiritual meaning. It is profound in its simplicity.

We are informed that the seed is the Word of God, the word of the Kingdom (Matthew 13:18, Luke 8:11). The sower is the one who proclaims the message. While some have errantly taught that the sower is to seek out and find just the “good soil,” Jesus never suggests that this is the case. The sower goes out and sows the seed– how the “seed” is received is dependent on the hearer and the type of “soil” he or she proves to be.

This is evident from the first type of soil– the “road soil.” In the physical realm, no sower worth his salt would knowingly and intentionally cast precious seed upon roads. While most roads in the ancient world were not paved, they would be very hard surfaces, packed down by the constant movement of people, animals, carts, and the like. Seeds could not penetrate such a hard surface; therefore, it would be most likely blown off the road by wind or rain or, as Jesus presents, eaten by birds (Matthew 13:4).

So it goes with those who hear the Word of God but do not understand it (Matthew 13:18) and/or of whom Satan takes away that word, lest they should be saved (Mark 4:15, Luke 8:12). Their hearts are as the road soil– too hard for the word of Christ to penetrate and grow.

Some might protest here. How is it “fair” if Satan is the one who comes and takes away the word from such people? We must remember that just as God does not coerce or compel anyone, neither can Satan force anyone to do anything. He is the tempter, and he does tempt (cf. 1 Peter 5:8), but if people are unwilling, he can do nothing (James 4:7). Therefore, the reason that Satan can take the Word from their hearts is that they have no problem with him doing so– they themselves have rejected the Word of God and the message of Christ and His Kingdom. Thus Jesus categorizes all those who do not believe in Him and in His Father.

It is interesting to note that disbelief in God must always be rationalized in a way that disbelief in other concepts does not. People must justify to themselves and to those around them why they do not believe in God. In reality, their arguments tend to be rather weak, and end up boiling down to certain principles. For some, it is embracing something that God has deemed sinful. For others, it is reconciling the existence of a good Creator God with the pervasive evil in our world. Many have been puffed up with pride and have no desire to subject themselves to a Higher Power. And, for a tragically high number of people, it comes down to nothing more than a lack of consideration and reflection– they have not cared enough about their spiritual lives to consider whether there is a God or not and whether He should be obeyed.

People in these conditions remain hardened toward God. They have always existed, exist now, and will always exist. Jesus expected it, and through this parable tells us to expect it, also. Many such people will not show much concern; others, however, will be rather antagonistic toward the faith and those who practice and promote it. This is why all those who desire to serve the Lord will experience persecution (Acts 14:22, 2 Timothy 3:12). Furthermore, when believers attempt to promote the Gospel with such people, they feel the pain concerning which they were afraid– rejection and hostility.

This is not a reason to quit “sowing the seed” or to get distressed. Believers must remember that it is not their job to judge the soil– it is given to them to sow and water the seed, and God will give whatever increase will come (1 Corinthians 3:5-8). There will be “road soil” out there, but there will also be “good soil.” How tragic it would be if potential “good soil” goes without seed because sowers were distressed because of all the seed cast upon the “road”!

From beginning to end there have been people who have rejected God (Romans 1:18-32). Thankfully, some such people have awakened before it was too late and changed their ways. Nevertheless, many will not, and we should not be overly distressed at their rejection of the Word; we must still promote that Word among all men. Let us spread the Word of God throughout the world as God has commanded!

Ethan R. Longhenry