Kingdom Refugees

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the elect who are sojourners of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (1 Peter 1:1).

Peter wrote to the Christians in many Roman provinces of what we today call Asia Minor, or Turkey. He speaks of them as “elect who are sojourners” (ASV) or “elect exiles” (ESV) of the “Dispersion” (1 Peter 1:1). It would be easy to assume that he wrote specifically to Jewish Christians who considered themselves part of the Diaspora, the Jewish community outside of the land of Israel based on this terminology; it is similar to James 1:1, and of all the nations only Israel would see itself in exile as dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. And yet Peter considered his audience as having been redeemed “from [their] vain manner of life handed down from [their] fathers” (1 Peter 1:17); they were a people who had once not been a people, but were made the people of God (1 Peter 2:10). While the latter prophecy was given specifically to Israel (Hosea 1:1-3:5), and Peter himself considered the Law a burden he nor his people Israel could bear (Acts 15:10), no Israelite would presume that his ancestors had lived in a vain matter, or speak of their people as not the people of God; instead, Peter has Christians converted out of the Gentile world in view (cf. Ephesians 2:11-18, etc.).

Peter appropriated Israelite imagery to describe Christians throughout 1 Peter. Christians are the temple and its priests (1 Peter 2:3-5); titles and concepts associated with Israel are now appropriated for Christians in 1 Peter 2:9-10. Peter used the term “Gentiles” with all of its negative connotations of hostile pagans (1 Peter 2:12, 4:3), even though according to ethnic heritage many of the Christians to whom he wrote would be reckoned as Gentiles. Thus Peter envisioned Christians as the people of God, speaking of them in terms of Israel, and spoke of their opponents among the nations in terms of the Gentiles.

And uniquely among all the letters of the New Testament Peter also appropriated the imagery of sojourn and exile experienced by Israel and applied it to the present circumstance of Christians in the world. Peter addressed the Christians as exiles/sojourners (1 Peter 1:1); exhorted them to reverence before God during their sojourn (1 Peter 1:17-21); encouraged them as sojourners and exiles to conduct themselves appropriately before the Gentiles (1 Peter 2:11-12); and spoke of his current location as “Babylon” (1 Peter 5:13). In this way exile and sojourn proves to be a running theme in 1 Peter: as Israel was exiled by Babylon and had to learn to live as exiles and sojourners, so Christians are to see themselves as exiles/sojourners under “Babylon,” or Rome, and live accordingly.

“Sojourners” and “exiles” are terms often used interchangeably and yet maintain important distinctions and nuances. A sojourner is a person who voluntarily leaves his homeland to go and live somewhere else; Abraham is the model sojourner, following God’s call to leave Ur and Haran and live in Canaan, in which he never owned any property beyond a gravesite (cf. Hebrews 11:9-10). An exile is a person who less than voluntarily leaves his homeland to live somewhere else; Israel in the days of Babylon is the model of exile, a people forced to go somewhere else (Psalm 137:1-9). A sojourner often has good reasons for leaving the homeland and has little desire to return; they are tempted to assimilate into their new land and culture. The exile tends to want nothing more than to return to his homeland; they are tempted to have nothing at all to do with their new land and culture and idolize their country of origin.

Christians are to be as both sojourners and exiles in different ways. Christians are as sojourners inasmuch as they should have no desire to return from the “land” of sin and darkness from which they have been redeemed (Romans 6:21, Ephesians 2:1-18). Christians are exiles inasmuch as they should not feel too comfortable in the land, culture, and nation-state in which they reside, always maintaining primary loyalty to their “real home,” the Kingdom of God in Christ (cf. Philippians 3:20-21). Christians must resist the temptation to assimilate to the land in which they live (Romans 12:2); likewise, Christians must resist the temptation to be so focused on separation from the world so as to be no earthly good, not showing the love God would have us show to those around us (Matthew 22:34-40, Galatians 2:10, 6:10).

Peter did well to speak of the life of the Christian in terms of exile and sojourn. We today rarely speak in those terms; instead, our preferred concept is that of the refugee. A refugee feels compelled to flee their homeland because of strife, war, famine, plague, or other ravages; they seek asylum in another land. Some refugees want nothing more than to forget the past and assimilate into a new land; other refugees desperately cling to their identity from their former land. Christians are to have fled to God for refuge in order to lay hold of the hope of resurrection (Hebrews 6:18); their primary citizenship, and thus loyalty, is to the Kingdom of God, even though they are also to obey earthly authorities (Philippians 3:20-21, 1 Peter 2:11-18). There is no land in which they are to feel fully comfortable; it is not for Christians to plant their flag anywhere and declare it their own in the name of God in Christ. The refugee always remains in a precarious situation, the quality of their life dependent on the goodwill and hospitability of their land of refuge; Christians are always likewise in a precarious situation under any nation-state. Christians cannot get too settled; they cannot too closely align with or be identified with earthly power, lest they prove no longer refugees for God’s Kingdom. As refugees we can identify with those who are marginalized, neglected, oppressed, or in danger; we know that God has special concern for such people (Matthew 25:31-46, James 1:27). As refugees we must be skeptical of the nation-states of man even as we prove obedient to rulers, understanding that the principalities and powers of this present darkness empower the nation-states (Matthew 4:8-9, Ephesians 6:12, 1 Peter 2:11-18). Christians must know their comfort must not come from their environment but from their God (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).

We find it difficult to understand ourselves as refugees because we have not physically gone anywhere; we live in a strange tension, remaining the same demographically as before, and often even within the same nation-state, and yet so fully transformed spiritually so as to be a different person than before. Such was true as well for the Christians to whom Peter wrote. It helps us understand and cope with the fractured relationships and hostility we encounter from those whom we knew beforehand who see our new conduct in Christ and prove hostile to it (cf. 1 Peter 4:1-6). But it also helps us develop a mindset and posture that glorifies God in Christ as distinct from that of the nation-state and culture around us. We may maintain friendship and association with people in the world, and yet they remain as “Gentiles.” We may appreciate the privileges of living under a given nation-state, and yet we remain as refugees within it. If we lose our distinctiveness, we prove unprofitable (Matthew 5:13).

Christians are exiles and sojourners on the earth: refugees for the Kingdom of God in Christ. We must flee the world and its ways so as to find refuge for our souls in God and hope for the resurrection and a world of righteousness in Jesus. May we live in the world as refugees of the Kingdom and glorify God in Christ in all things!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Understanding the Times


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And of the children of Issachar, men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do, the heads of them were two hundred; and all their brethren were at their commandment (1 Chronicles 12:32).

Understanding the times and knowing the right thing to do and when to do it are always excellent characteristics to maintain.

Even though the Chronicler overall glosses over the uneasy transition of power from Saul to David as seen in 2 Samuel 1:1-5:5 (1 Chronicles 10:1-11:3), vestiges of the days before David’s reign (and even life!) were secured are present in the Chronicler’s listing of those who came to support David (1 Chronicles 11:10-12:40). Some of these supporters came to David even while he had fled from Saul into the wilderness. The Chronicler tells their story to make it clear that at least some from each tribe of Israel saw that David was favored by YHWH and would become their next king. Those of Issachar are singled out for special commendation: the Chronicler said they had understanding of the times to know what Israel ought to do (1 Chronicles 12:32). These two hundred and their family members under their commandment recognized that God was with David and his house, and not with the house of Saul, and proved loyal before it was obvious to everyone.

As we read the text today we can understand the commendation and praise the men of Issachar for their foresight. Yet we do well to recognize that we have the benefit of hindsight. At the time Ishbaal son of Saul was crowned king in place of his father, maintaining what was understood as proper dynastic succession (2 Samuel 2:8-10). For the men of Issachar to support the upstart David meant that they bucked tradition to a large extent. The behavior was risky; what if Ishbaal and his hero Abner prevailed over David and the sons of Zeruiah? What would the rest of the tribe of Issachar think? And yet these men took stock of the situation, saw that YHWH had been with David and continued to make David prosper, and perhaps saw that Ishbaal was weakening while David grew stronger. They understood the times. They knew what to do.

We can see this principle at work in other times in the history of God’s people. Those who would have listened to Jeremiah the prophet understood the times and would have known what Israel was to do; the majority thought it better to revolt against Nebuchadnezzar and paid the penalty. When Haman plotted to kill the Jews, Mordecai understood the times and knew what Israel, and his niece Esther, ought to do. When Antiochus IV Epiphanes banned adherence to the Law of Moses and defiled the Temple, the Maccabeans understood the times and knew what to do. The twelve Apostles and the Jewish people who obeyed the Gospel in the first century understood the times and knew what Israel ought to do. These decisions were not popular among everyone; they came at great personal risk; failure would have been disastrous. Yet in faith all these did what they were supposed to do.

We can think of so many times, and on so many issues, where many people of God understood the times, stood up, and boldly proclaimed what the people of God ought to do. Meanwhile, we also see many of their contemporaries who were more than content to follow after “Ishbaal,” to maintain convention or to hold on to some tradition or ideal past its expiration. In the twenty-first century we need men and women who have understanding of the times, who know what the people of God ought to do, to rise up and do so. When our descendants read of our exploits, will they see in us an understanding of God’s purposes for our lives and that we sought to manifest it despite opposition and risk? Will we prove willing to make difficult stands, to choose to follow the ways of God even when others mock them, deride them, and seek to shame those who stand up for them? Let us stand firm for the Gospel of Christ, manifest its message in our lives, and proclaim it to others!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Stubbornness in Heart

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

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

Moses Pleading with Israel (crop)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Pharisees and Scribes

Then spake Jesus to the multitudes and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses seat: all things therefore whatsoever they bid you, these do and observe: but do not ye after their works; for they say, and do not. Yea, they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:1-4).

The Evangelists consistently speak of mutual antagonism between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. From their presentation alone one might imagine that Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees are miles apart in their understanding of God and Judaism. And yet, of all the various sects of Second Temple Judaism, Jesus has the most in common with the Pharisees. The Sadducees accepted only the Torah as legitimate ground of authority and denied the existence of angels, the soul, and the resurrection (Matthew 22:23, Acts 23:8). The Herodians, by virtue of supporting Herod and his government, would have no love for a rival King of the Jews (Matthew 22:16). One might think that Jesus and the Essenes would have much in common; while they shared an apocalyptic worldview and some “ascetic” practices, the Essenes rejected the present Temple and its authorities as illegitimate and looked forward to the day when the Sons of Light would restore the Temple and its proper service and who withdrew from life in the greater Jewish community. Jesus did not look forward to establishment of a restored Temple in Jerusalem, nor did He withdraw from life among the people of God (Matthew 24:1-36). Meanwhile, Jesus and the Pharisees agreed about the inspiration and authority of the prophets and the writings, angels, the soul, the resurrection, and the hope of Israel in the Messiah. This leaves us with a major challenge: if Jesus and the Pharisees share so many similarities in outlook, why are the Pharisees and the scribes singled out for such strong condemnation by the Evangelists? If Jesus and the Pharisees agree on so much, why are the Pharisees portrayed in such consistently negative ways in the Gospels?

Few places express Jesus’ difficulties with the scribes and Pharisees with as much rhetorical force and denunciation as in the series of woes Jesus sets forth in Matthew 23:1-35. Jesus begins His litany of invective against the scribes and Pharisees by denouncing a form of their hypocrisy in Matthew 23:1-4.

Brooklyn Museum - Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees (Malheur à vous, scribes et pharisiens) - James Tissot

Jesus begins with the recognition that the scribes and Pharisees maintain a pride of place in Second Temple Judaism: they “sit on Moses’ seat” (Matthew 23:2). No actual chair is envisioned; Jesus gives recognition to their claims of serving as the interpreters of the Law of Moses on behalf of the people. For this reason Jesus tells the people to do what the scribes and Pharisees bid them to do (Matthew 23:3a). Some interpreters of this passage suggest that Jesus is being sarcastic and does not actually expect His audience to live according to what the Pharisees teach; such an interpretation is possible but not necessarily warranted. We do well to remember that even though Jewish people put great emphasis on literacy and would have maintained higher literacy rates than seen among the Gentiles, plenty of Jewish people could still not read or write, and even then, scrolls of the Law, Prophets, and Writings were copied by hand on expensive papyrus and parchment and would have been reserved for use in the synagogues and those like the scribes and Pharisees who were trained in the Law (Luke 4:17-20). Previously Ezra and his associates had read the Law and gave an understanding of its meaning (Nehemiah 8:1-8); many Jewish people in the first century looked to the scribes and Pharisees for the same reason, and for the time being, Jesus recognizes their role.

In Matthew 23:1-4 the problem is less with the specific interpretations and explanations given by the scribes and Pharisees and much more their unwillingness to do them (Matthew 23:3b-4)! They say the things faithful Jewish people should do, but they themselves do not do them. They expect Jewish people to adhere to all sorts of laws according to what is written and the traditions of the fathers, denounce as sinners those unwilling to bear them (John 9:16, 24), but provide no assistance to others, show no mercy, and themselves frequently (and flagrantly) violate them. In short, it may be good to do what they say, but do not do as they do.

To say one thing but do another is the essence of hypocrisy. The scribes and Pharisees were respected for their knowledge; no doubt many “average” Israelites looked up to them as holy people because of it. Yet, in practice, they were not very holy. They were just as guilty of violating the Law as other Israelites (Acts 13:39, Romans 3:13-21). Yet such totality begs the question: were not all the Israelites, save the Lord Jesus, hypocrites to some degree? Why are the scribes and Pharisees being singled out for this condemnation?

It is one thing to try and fall short; it is quite another to not even try. It is one thing to teach a given path, try to live it, and stumble at times; we humans are imperfect. It is quite another to act as if one is all holy and righteous, presume to be holier and more righteous than others, and yet substantively are little better than those whom they denounce. Such were the scribes and Pharisees: they acted as if knowing and teaching the Law brought forth its own special kind of holiness. Jesus makes it clear that it does not.

We do well to remember that the scribes and Pharisees were part of the people of God, and of all the people of God at the time, were considered to be the most holy and righteous. Their denunciation by all the Evangelists is, in its own way, a warning for believers: do not be like the Pharisees. The way of Jesus and the way of the Pharisees are quite divergent, yet throughout time Christians, however well-meaning, have fallen prey to the ways of the Pharisees!

The Apostle Paul declares that knowledge puffs up while love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1); it is very easy to obtain knowledge of God and His ways and thus presume one’s holiness based upon one’s superior knowledge. That is the way of the Pharisee and the Gnostic; it is not the way of Jesus or those who truly follow Him (1 Timothy 6:20-21)! We are not made holy by our knowledge; we are not better than others simply because we have come to a better understanding of the will of God than they have. Such is why the first and foremost aspect of the Gospel is our own sinfulness and our inability to solve our sin problem through our own efforts (Ephesians 2:1-3, Titus 3:3). We are entirely dependent upon God in Christ for the hope of salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9); our obedient response in faith, while necessary, does not earn us or merit our salvation!

Every Christian, to some degree or another, is a hypocrite; we proclaim the way of God in Christ but fall short at times (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8). But we must walk the walk of Christ; we must do the commandments (1 John 2:3-6). In seeking to do them we will learn humility, faith, and obedience. We would never imagine to lay heavy burdens on others and let ourselves go free; quite the contrary (Galatians 6:2)!

In Matthew 23:1-4 Jesus begins to set forth the contrast between the condemned ways of the scribes and Pharisees and the righteous way of God in Christ. The way of the Pharisees is always tempting for the people of God; we must resist it, remaining humble and dependent upon God in Christ, seeking to do the will of the Lord in all respects, bearing one another’s burdens and not attempting to make them heavier! Let us serve the Lord Jesus in humble faith!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Vine

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; so neither can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for apart from me ye can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).

Jesus had spoken of a Kingdom in many figures: a field, fishing, a pearl of great price, a Master entrusting His servants with a stewardship. As He was about to leave His disciples He used a new old illustration: not a full vineyard, but a vine (John 15:1-8).

In John 13:31-16:33 speaks to the eleven disciples; Judas Iscariot has gone off to betray Him, and after the prayer of John 17 Jesus will be betrayed, tried, and crucified in John 18:1-19:37. Whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke move fairly quickly from the Last Supper to the Garden of Gethsemane in Matthew 26:30-36, Mark 14:26-32, and Luke 22:23-39, John spends what would later be delineated into over three chapters on the extended discourse between these events. Throughout Jesus is preparing His disciples so that they might be able to endure and stand through the ups and downs of His death, resurrection, and ascension (John 14:1, 16:1). Jesus, after all, understands perfectly what is about to take place. His disciples have no idea; they will be left to grapple with His death without Him being present physically, and thus Jesus does well to leave them with words of encouragement and exhortation.

Right in the middle of this discourse Jesus introduces the illustration of the vine: He is the vine, His Father the vinedresser, and His disciples the branches (John 15:1, 4). He had previously “updated” Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard of Isaiah 5:1-7 in Matthew 21:33-44 and in parallel accounts, yet the vineyard there is Israel. Jesus compared the Kingdom to a householder hiring workers to work in his vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16; even there the vineyard is incidental, setting up the lesson about receiving what is promised and that the last shall be first and the first last. Here in John 15:1-8 Jesus focuses on a single vine is able to explain through it the relationship between the Son, the Father, and disciples.

The disciples would have understood the basics of grape vines and their maintenance. Grape vines do have roots but one sees the vine and its branches. The branches maintain their health through their connection to the vine from which it can draw water and other nutrients originating in the roots and the soil. A healthy branch bears fruit: grape clusters. The sign of an unhealthy branch is a lack of fruit, and the solution is to prune the vine to get rid of all the dead branches. And so it is in the illustration of the vine: disciples draw strength and sustenance through Jesus the Vine; when connected to Jesus the Vine they can bear fruit; apart from Jesus the Vine they can do nothing; if they do not bear fruit the Father the Vinedresser will prune them and throw them into the fire (John 15:1-8).

Jesus’ main point in the illustration is to emphasize the disciples’ need to bear fruit and to understand how they will be able to bear fruit: through abiding in Him (John 15:3-4, 8). We do well to heed both messages.

This is not the first illustration Jesus has used to emphasize the need for Christians to be obedient and to manifest the fruit of righteousness; Matthew 5:13-16 and 25:14-30 come to mind, among others. It is unfortunate that many in the religious world have settled for cheap grace, the belief that God will save no matter what, and have ignored Jesus’ many warnings about the fate of the unproductive in His midst. Their fate is never left in ambiguity: Jesus denies He ever knew them (Matthew 7:21-23); they are cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 25:14-30), and here in John 15:6 unproductive branches are gathered and burned, reminiscent of the Gehenna of fire (e.g. Matthew 5:29-30). Thus we must bear fruit for the Lord: we must manifest the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-24), do good (Galatians 6:10), proclaim Jesus crucified and risen (Matthew 28:18-20), and remain faithful unto death (Matthew 10:22). Such obedience and faithfulness is not “optional”!

Yet it can be very easy to so emphasize obedience and righteousness that we forget Who is empowering the endeavor. As branches we are to bear fruit for the Lord, but we can do so only when connected and sustained by the Vine, the Lord Jesus. Jesus is very blunt about this in John 15:5: apart from Him we can do nothing. Apart from Jesus we proved disobedient, sinful, children of wrath, living in licentiousness and lusts, hated by others and hating in turn (Ephesians 2:1-3, Titus 3:3). In Christ we were rescued from our hopeless condition and reconciled to the Father (Romans 5:6-11). But we must not imagine that once we are “in Christ” we are then left out “on our own” to do His work. Instead we work and are profitable because we remain in Him and are sustained in Him (Ephesians 2:4-10, Titus 3:4-8). Through the sustenance and strength from our Vine God can work through us beyond all we can ask or think (Ephesians 3:14-21). Let none be deceived: as branches bear fruit but not without the nourishment which comes through the vine, so believers obey and seek righteousness but can only do so through the strength that God supplies. On our own we can do nothing; we can imagine that we can do great things, and try to build great towers of Babel, maybe even adorn such towers with religious and spiritual sentiments, but they cannot succeed and will someday be exposed for what they really are. Every plant not planted by the Father will be rooted up (Matthew 15:13); so it shall be with every religious institution and personal belief system not grounded and empowered by God and the Lord Jesus (cf. Matthew 7:24-27).

Thus asking God to bless or prosper our work is really vain; we do better to ask God to direct us to His work and for Him to bless, strengthen, and sustain it. We are but the branches, responsible for taking the nourishment given by the vine and producing fruit; let us therefore glorify God through the Lord Jesus Christ, serving Him through the strength that He supplies!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Basis of Torah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Surrender

Know ye not, that to whom ye present yourselves as servants unto obedience, his servants ye are whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness? But thanks be to God, that, whereas ye were servants of sin, ye became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching whereunto ye were delivered; and being made free from sin, ye became servants of righteousness (Romans 6:16-18).

“Slave” is not exactly the type of job to which many people would aspire.

The ancient world was supported and made possible by slaves. Slaves worked fields, quarried mines, educated children, cleaned clothes and dishes, prepared food, and an innumerable host of other tasks. Their hard work allowed their masters to enjoy the leisure time they expended in noble and less than noble pursuits: philosophy, politics, scientific exploration, symposia, debauchery, etc. While the Roman system of slavery was not nearly as brutal as that of the American South from the 1600s until the 1800s, the life of the slave was still not very pleasant. They were property, supposed to be invisible, always serving at the behest of their master. Some would gain their freedom; many others would not.

Slaves had no social clout and little standing; people did not voluntarily sign up to become slaves. We can only imagine how astonishing and controversial the message of Jesus of Nazareth and His Kingdom would have sounded to ancient ears when He affirmed the value of serving others and being as a slave (Matthew 20:25-28). It would have seemed quite strange to many to hear many of the great Apostles call themselves the slaves of Jesus (e.g. Paul in Romans 1:1, Peter in 2 Peter 1:1). Who would voluntarily decide to consider themselves a slave to anyone?

As Paul is attempting to explain how Christians are not under law but under grace he speaks of how Christians are “servants” (Greek douloi, properly “slaves”) to whomever they obey (Romans 6:16-18). In such a view everyone is a slave; true freedom is illusory. The only question involves precisely whom one will serve. Paul frames the experience of coming to the understanding of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, repentance, and the conversion process in general as making the choice to no longer serve sin unto death and condemnation but to serve righteousness in obedience according to the standard of teaching to which Christians have been committed, that is, the Gospel of Christ. Paul does not deny that a free will choice was involved; believers choose to serve righteousness and not sin. Nevertheless the choice was rather circumscribed: continue to serve sin in whatever guise you want to call it, be it idols, self, lusts, etc., or serve God in Christ. With such a perspective we better understand why it would be that early Christians called themselves slaves of Jesus; far better to be a slave of Jesus than to be a slave to the ways of the world!

It is also interesting to note how the Romans obtained their slaves. Some slaves were born into slavery. Others entered slavery on account of debt. Yet the Romans obtained a large number of their slaves from their conquests in war. The people who did not die but who surrendered to the Roman forces would become the next generation of Roman slaves.

“Surrender” is a term we do not find explicitly in Scripture; nevertheless, the concept is of great importance. To surrender is to give up; it is generally understood either to give up oneself in war when one can no longer stand their ground and fight or in terms of having to give up possessions to another for some reason. In terms of the Christian faith surrender is the necessary means by which one puts oneself in subjection to or to submit to the proper authorities; one must “give up” one’s right of self-determination in some way so as to follow the orders of the one in authority. In Scripture everyone is to be subject to God and the government which is given its authority by God (Romans 13:1). Christians are to be subject to one another (Ephesians 5:21). Wives are to submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ (Ephesians 5:22-24). Children ought to submit to their parents in the Lord (Ephesians 6:1-3). Members of the local church ought to submit to the eldership when present (Hebrews 13:17). In all of these situations and relationships real submission or subjection cannot take place until the person proves willing to surrender to the will of the proper authority.

Surrendering is one of the most difficult things any of us can do; whether we want to admit it or not, we like to maintain the (often little) power we think we have. Throughout time people have not thought highly of those who surrender; in some cultures it was considered so shameful that soldiers would rather commit suicide rather than to return to their people after having surrendered. We like thinking of ourselves as being in control and doing well; especially in America “giving up” seems to be the worst possible thing one could do.

Yet let us consider surrender in light of Romans 6:16-18. Just as we are all slaves to something, whether we admit it or not, we also surrender to something. We always “give up” or “give into” something. It may be the ways of the world as communicated in society, culture, family, education, etc. It may be one’s overvalued view of self. It may just be a constant giving into one’s desires. Yet in all those ways a person is surrendering, giving into the forces at work around them. The only other way is to surrender one’s will to God so as to serve Him in Christ!

We are to consider ourselves as slaves of God in Christ, seeking to be obedient from the heart to the Gospel (Romans 6:16-18). In order to be those slaves of God we must surrender our will to Him. It may seem scary and an admission of weakness; such is why we must always remember that God is faithful and worthy of our trust and that His power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 5:7, 12:9). We should also recognize that not surrendering is not an option: if we do not surrender to God and His ways in Christ, then we are surrendering to the forces of darkness in whatever guise they have taken, be it ourselves, our culture, our education, our lusts, etc. Let us therefore prove willing to surrender our minds, hearts, bodies, souls, and will to God in Christ, trust in Him, obey Him, and advance His purposes to His honor and glory!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Abide as Called

Let each man abide in that calling wherein he was called…Brethren, let each man, wherein he was called, therein abide with God (1 Corinthians 7:20, 24).

If you have much experience in a church, you have seen this situation play out and have likely experienced it yourself. When young men and women reach a marriageable age, they start being asked how the search for that “special someone” is going. If a particular young man takes an interest in a young woman, and vice versa, they will be asked when they will get married. Not long after marriage they will be asked when they will have a child. Soon after having the first child they will be asked if and when there will be a second. Soon afer the second they will be asked whether they will have any more. If they go to three and especially to four they will be asked whether they have figured out how that works and/or if they are possibly done yet. Their children are then put through the same sequence, and so on and so forth.

We can certainly understand why this trend takes place: there is an inherent expectation that young men and women will get married and raise children. The future leadership of the church depends on at least some of them doing this (cf. 1 Timothy 3:1-12)! Yet, while people who engage in this practice likely have good intentions, we must be careful about the implicit message it brings: your value in the church is based on whether you are married and/or the production of children. A man or woman who does not end up marrying, for whatever reason, is made to feel less valuable and important as those who did marry. Couples who are childless for whatever reason feel ostracized or perhaps even judged and condemned for their lack of children.

This is not the attitude of Paul in the New Testament. In the midst of a discussion regarding celibacy, marriage, and slavery in 1 Corinthians 7:1-39, he twice exhorts people to remain in the same calling as when they were called (1 Corinthians 7:20, 24). If one was called in Christ as a slave, he can continue to serve God while a slave, but if he can be freed, he should take that opportunity (1 Corinthians 7:20-23). Was one circumcised when called? He should remain circumcised. Was one uncircumcised when called? He should remain uncircumcised (1 Corinthians 7:18-19). Is one married when called? Stay married. Is one not yet married when called? Do not feel as if you have to get married (1 Corinthians 7:27).

We do need to be careful with Paul’s exhortation here in 1 Corinthians 7:1-39. These exhortations should never be taken absolutely: Paul provides plenty of caveats throughout. As noted, if a Christian slave can obtain his freedom, he should. Timothy was uncircumcised when called but Paul circumcised him on account of their mission among the Jews (cf. Acts 16:3). Paul also makes it clear that there is no sin if a man and woman get married (1 Corinthians 7:9, 28). Furthermore, he writes that they are presently in some time of distress, a tumultuous time where all that seems stable is uprooted (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:26, 29-30). We must keep these matters in mind when we consider what Paul has to say.

These concerns do not negate Paul’s main point: God can use us as we are and where we are. Those who are married with children can glorify God in their relationships. Yet so too can those who are single or married without children. The widows can as well. Those who are free and those who are less than free can also find ways of serving and glorifying God in their condition.

It is easy to develop a mentality in which we are always looking elsewhere to find satisfaction. We may constantly worry whether we are fulfilling God’s will for us in our lives. Those who are single and/or without children are often made to feel as if they are not fulfilling God’s purposes in their lives. And yet here Paul says that we are to abide in the calling in which we were called. We can find ways of doing God’s will wherever we find ourselves and in whatever situation we are placed.

Paul does not condemn traveling to find a better job or to find a better spiritual situation, nor is he condemning looking for a spouse and having children. He is making it very clear, though, that our primary focus in whatever situation we find ourselves is to glorify God. Many may be single and never marry, instead focusing their efforts on the Lord; they should be praised and not criticized. Many may serve the Lord through marriage and children; they also are to be praised and lifted up. Some will never move far from where they were born; others may travel far away. In all things we must seek to glorify and honor the Lord and encourage their fellow Christians not necessarily to seek to change their condition in life as much as encouraging them to serve God in the calling in which they have been called.

Too often we seem to focus on the future of young people in terms of marriage and children when we would do better to focus on how they can presently serve and glorify the Lord in their current condition and calling. Many will, no doubt, marry and have children, but they have not fallen short of God’s purposes if they do not. We do well to remember Paul’s exhortation to abide in our calling and always look to serve God in the present in our circumstances, and let the future take care of itself!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Exceeding the Righteousness of the Pharisees

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

Yet another sacred cow slaughtered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Maintaining Good Works

Faithful is the saying, and concerning these things I desire that thou affirm confidently, to the end that they who have believed God may be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men (Titus 3:8).

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of discipleship is maintaining good works. Yes, in many ways, there is a bit of a learning curve in Christianity; when we come to faith in Jesus, we have much to learn and gain from instruction and exhortation regarding how we should live. At that time we are also motivated by early enthusiasm for our faith. But what happens after we have been seeking to follow Jesus for awhile? How will we continue to be motivated toward good works?

Paul is aware of the challenge, and his solution might seem odd to some: further exhortation and reminder of what has transpired in the past (Titus 3:3-7).

It is easy for us to consider preaching and teaching only in terms of instruction; we have been conditioned by our society to associate a lack of proper conduct with a lack of knowledge. If we do not do what we are supposed to do, it is as if we have not been properly instructed. Nevertheless, most of the time we do know what we are to do; any Christian who has read a bit of Scripture and heard it preached frequently should have a decent understanding of what God expects from them. Much of the exhortation in Scripture is provided for Christians as a reminder of things they should already know (cf. 2 Peter 1:12-13). Doing righteousness and avoiding immorality is not “new news” to Christians; the greater danger is a weakening of zeal and developing complacency in one’s spiritual life (cf. Revelation 2:1-10).

Therefore, it is not strange or even surprising for Paul to insist on continual encouragement and exhortation, not to necessarily provide new information, but to constantly reinforce what has already been taught so as to keep such things at the forefront of the Christian’s mind, giving him or her greater strength to resist the deceitfulness of sin (cf. Hebrews 3:12-14). But what is the message the will truly motivate Christians to maintain good works?

Much of Paul’s letter to Titus is toward these ends. Jesus gave Himself up for Christians to redeem them from sin and to purify a people to Himself (Titus 2:11-14). Christians are to be subject to authorities, not speaking evil but being gentle and meek (Titus 3:1-2). But why?

Paul explains more fully in Titus 3:3-7 what he said simply in Titus 2:11-14: Christians were once in a terrible state. The list is unpleasant: foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hated (Titus 3:3). Salvation came through the kindness and mercy of God, not our own works; we were cleansed by the washing of regeneration (baptism) and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, not our own futile efforts (Titus 3:4-5). This allowed us to become heirs of the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:6-7). Paul intends to motivate Christians to good works through this message.

How will such a message motivate? There are three aspects to the message: our sinfulness and inability to save ourselves, God’s love, mercy, and kindness reflected through Jesus in providing the means for our redemption, and our ability to hold to hope of eternity through Jesus. These three put together can encourage the believer to good works!

How can the reminder of our sinfulness and inability to save ourselves motivate us to good works? By itself, it could not; it would lead to despair and paralysis on account of guilt. Without this reminder, however, it is easy to get puffed up and overconfident in our “holiness.” We are easily tempted to develop an “us” versus “them” attitude against those outside of the faith; it is tempting to feel as if “we” are better than “they.” This is why Paul says that we “also” were foolish, led astray by passion, etc.; on our own, we are no better off or superior in any way to those still lost in the world of sin. We were lost too at some point; we were terribly sinful as well. We could not save ourselves; this reality should keep us humble!

Thankfully, God provided the means by which we could be rescued from ourselves. We did not deserve it, nor could we; God has freely displayed love, kindness, mercy, and grace through Jesus and the redemption and reconciliation obtained through His life and death. This is an important piece of the story, but by no means the only one: without a recognition of our sin, we cannot appreciate the redemption we have obtained; without hope for the future, there would not be as much motivation to move forward. Nevertheless, atonement and reconciliation through Jesus is the centerpiece of the Gospel and of this message of encouragement: we could not save ourselves, and no deed can save us, but God has provided the means by which we can obtain cleansing through Jesus’ blood in baptism and the renewal of the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel makes it plain that Jesus’ death without Jesus’ resurrection would have been without power or sufficiency for anything (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). It is through Jesus’ resurrection that we maintain the hope for eternal life in our own resurrection. God wants us to be rescued and preserved now but with a view toward the resurrection of life for eternity (1 Peter 1:3-9)!

It is lamentable how the various truths in Titus 3:3-7 have been distorted and used against each other since Paul speaks with such harmony. We were lost in sin and could not save ourselves; God provided the means of atonement and reconciliation through Jesus; through this believers have hope for eternal life; these truths motivate believers to maintain good works. This pattern does not show contradiction or inconsistency, but balance. If we will honor God in our lives, it is because we maintain humility, understanding that we are no better than anyone else and cannot save ourselves; it is because we remain thankful, always keeping Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins in mind; it is because we can look forward with confidence in the resurrection, which itself infuses the present life with purpose and meaning. When we remain humble, thankful, and forward-looking, we will devote ourselves to the good works for which our Creator made us (Ephesians 2:10).

As humans, we are weak, and constantly in need of exhortation and encouragement. We do well to always keep all aspects of the big picture in mind: our former state, the means by which we obtained our present state, our future hope, and all of those to motivate us toward obedience now. Let us seek to perpetually honor and glorify Christ through our lives!

Ethan R. Longhenry