C-Grade Religion

For I desire goodness, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt-offerings (Hosea 6:6).

In school we always had that one class: it featured a subject in which we had little interest, which we perhaps did not understand well, and/or we just did not get into for some reason or another. In that class we would do just enough work to get a passing grade; we would be content with a C as long as we could get out of that course or subject and never have to worry about it again.

This same attitude unfortunately proves pervasive in the world. In so many realms of life people seem more than content to do the least amount possible, to just scrape by, to do just enough to maintain competency or effectiveness but no more. We can consider such things as reflecting C-grade effort: people doing what they do in order to satisfy a requirement, to fulfill a demand, or placate a superior so they can go and do whatever they really want or at least get others off their back.

A C-grade mentality seems to define most of human religion throughout time. It was certainly manifest in Israel. YHWH, through the prophet Hosea, spoke of how He wished to heal His people Israel (Hosea 5:13-6:3). Israel’s and Judah’s love for YHWH was ephemeral, enduring for a moment and then fading away (Hosea 6:4). YHWH wanted goodness, not sacrifice; knowledge of God more than burnt offerings (Hosea 6:6).

The sacrificial cult in Israel proved a magnet for C-grade religion. Israel understood it needed to offer the sacrifices YHWH expected and to observe the festivals He set forth, and they did so. They were then satisfied: they had done their duty. They performed the bare minimum. YHWH should be content; He should leave them alone to do their thing; He should be there for them when they needed Him.

C-grade religion remains extremely popular to this day. People recognize their need for some religion in life, and so they seek opportunities to satisfy the bare minimum necessary to maintain standing before God. The assembly and its acts prove a magnet for C-grade religion. Not a few believe that as long as they assemble on Sunday morning and perform the five acts, all is well. They have done their duty. They performed the bare minimum. God should be content; He should leave them alone to do their thing; He should be there for them when they need Him.

Hosea displayed the fundamental problem with C-grade religion in Hosea 6:6: it treats YHWH like the pagan gods and thereby fundamentally rejects His true nature and purpose. Israel in Hosea’s day was thoroughly paganized; on account of this YHWH was about to bring the Assyrians upon them in judgment (Hosea 4:1-7:16). They believed YHWH was the God of Israel; they also believed that other gods were the gods of the nations, Baal deserved service, and so forth (cf. Hosea 1:2-3:5). People in the ancient Near Eastern and Classical worlds were not expected to love their gods or pattern their lives after them. The gods were supernatural beings who could be benevolent or malevolent; they were to be placated, satisfied, or appealed to, not emulated or necessarily loved. Pagans were content to offer sacrifices to their gods to placate them so they would be left alone to live their lives; if they experienced some distress they expected to be able to provide an extra sacrifice and appeal to cajole the relevant god into helping them. To love any god, or to expect any of the gods to love you, would be a bridge too far.

Yet YHWH expected to have a far different relationship with Israel. YHWH loved Israel and had entered into an exclusive covenant with her (cf. Hosea 1:1-3:5). YHWH set forth instruction to lead Israel in the right way; Israel was to know her God and manifest His character. Such is why YHWH would rather have had mercy and knowledge of Him over sacrifices and burnt offerings: if Israelites really knew who YHWH was, and acted like Him, they would demonstrate the strength of their covenant relationship. To believe that requisite sacrifices were enough to placate YHWH demonstrated a complete lack of real understanding about YHWH and His desires for Israel; Israel acted as if she wanted to go her own way and have YHWH leave her alone (cf. Hosea 6:7-7:16). YHWH would allow Israel to do so; once YHWH left Israel alone, she could not withstand her enemies, and was overcome.

C-grade religion remains fundamentally pagan in nature. C-grade religion presumes that God is to be placated and satisfied by doing certain things, and so a person should do the bare minimum so God will leave him or her alone to do their thing. C-grade religion really is worldliness masquerading as piety: a person recognizes they have spiritual problems, some kind of spiritual wound, and may sincerely want to do something about it, but they are not willing to fully repent and be conformed to the standards of holiness and righteousness. They want to do just enough to get by and no more. They do not really want to leave the world and its desires; they want to find a way to remain as they are but not feel spiritual guilt or pain.

C-grade religion is a fool’s errand, ignorant of the nature of God and His purposes accomplished in Jesus. God does not desire our assembling and service to be placated; God wants us to know Him and be like Him. God sent His Son, the express image of His character, so we could know who He is and what He is like (John 1:1, 14, 18, 14:6). God loves us and desires for us to love Him (John 3:16, 1 John 4:7-21): we have been separated from God by our sin, corrupted in nature, and God wants us to be reconciled to Him so we can learn to be like Him and thus be one with God as God is one within Himself (John 17:20-23, Romans 5:6-21).

If we have truly come to know God as made known in Jesus, we will have no tolerance for C-grade religion. The God Who Is cannot be merely placated and satisfied so as to give people space to go their own way; the God Who Is manifests unity in relationship and desires to have humans made in His image reconciled back to Him in relationship. To know God in Christ is to recognize the imperative of being holy as God is holy, to love God and others as God has loved us (1 Peter 1:13-22). To know God in Christ is to die to self, to be crucified with Christ, so we can turn away from the futile ways of the world and find life indeed in Jesus (Galatians 2:20, Philippians 3:7-14).

Pagans practiced C-grade religion and were condemned (Romans 1:18-32). Israelites practiced C-grade religion, proved to be as pagans, and suffered the fate of pagans (Hosea 6:6ff). C-grade religion remains pagan to this day; it may be tempting, but its end is death. If we wish to find salvation and wholeness we will have to die to self and live to God; we will have to turn aside from the world and our vain imagination and conform to the image of Christ. We will have to know who God is as manifest in Christ and embody His character. Let us find eternal life in Jesus and conform to His image so we may share in relational unity with God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The God of the Old and New Testaments

Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass (1 Samuel 15:3).

Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10).

How could God command the death of children and animals just because they were not Israelites? How can God be a “God of love” in the New Testament but command so much death and bloodshed in the Old? The Bible seems like it has two different gods– the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament!

These questions and declarations represent a major stumbling-block for many people. They involve very difficult issues. If we are honest with ourselves, we will confess that there have been times when we have been bothered by these matters even if our confidence in God was not terribly shaken by it. There does seem to be quite the disconnect– in the days of Israel, God told Israel to devote many Canaanites and Amalekites, among others, under the ban, meaning that everything– all people and property– was to be devoted to destruction (e.g. 1 Samuel 15). 1000 to 1500 years later, we read that this same God sends His Son to die on a cross for all men to make the greatest display of love (1 John 4:7-21). At one point, He is ordering execution for humanity; the next, His Son is dying for humanity. How can this be?

It does us no good to pretend that we can come up with a completely satisfying answer; there is none. This is a difficulty. While there are things we must keep in mind, and we can find a way through which to look at these events demonstrating how God is at least consistent, many of the Old Testament stories will remain offensive to modern sensibilities. They remain quite uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, we must remember that there is a very big difference between the old and new covenants, and that there are reasons why the first century of this era, and not before, was the “acceptable time” for salvation to come (cf. 2 Corinthians 6:2). The ancient world, especially the ancient Near East, was not a peaceful place. In societal terms, you killed or you were killed; you overran or you were overrun. Today, we read stories of devoting everything and everyone to destruction and we are horrified. Then, they would hear such stories and understand that they simply reflected reality. If you lost the war and the enemy took your land, and you were an adult male, you would likely be executed quickly. If you had a wife, odds are that she would be first raped, then enslaved. If it was your unfortunate lot to have a virgin daughter approaching the age of marriageability, she would become the wife of one of your enemies whether she liked the idea or not. Any young sons you might have would either become slaves or would be executed (cf. Deuteronomy 20:10-14). This was not something unique to Israel; this was consistent throughout the world of the day.

And there was a logic to it. This was a day and time of vengeance and retribution (cf. Judges 13-16). Adult men who had lost the war and had been humiliated might submit outwardly but would remain rebellious inwardly, looking for any opportunity to obtain vengeance for his loss and humiliation. The same is true with young boys. Yes, they are innocent at the moment of death, but what would happen when they grew up? If they maintained a sense of identity based on their ancestry, they would seek vengeance. As for women, Numbers 25:1-6 graphically displays their seductive and idolatrous influence upon men. While this might not have been a concern for other nations in the ancient Near East, it was of preeminent concern in Israel (cf. Exodus 20:1-6). The Canaanites needed to be entirely obliterated because otherwise they would lead Israel into sin through idolatry (cf. Deuteronomy 20:10-18). Notice that Israel ultimately did not devote all of the Canaanites to destruction, and the Israelites ultimately fell prey to the idolatry of Canaan (cf. Judges 1-2; 2 Kings 17:7-23, 2 Chronicles 36:15-21).

The other reason often given is the great sinfulness of the Canaanites: the men and women directly participated in the sin, thus “deserving” the death, and the children were killed to spare their souls from the destruction to which they were headed by following after their parents (cf. Genesis 15:16). Such logic might be appealing as a reason, but there is little consistency in it– by the same logic, God should have devoted everyone on earth under the same ban, even Israel, and all children should be executed to spare them the stain of sin that is inevitably coming (cf. Romans 3:23).

So even if this all represents reality on the ground during the days of Israel, how can we make sense of it in terms of the new covenant? How come God seems to do quite the 180 when it comes to humanity in general?

It depends on the way in which one looks at the situation. If one is looking in terms of those people who died because they were devoted under the ban, sure, it looks pretty bad. But through the lens of Israel– the people of God– how does it look?

God promises to be the God of Israel, and Israel would be His people (Exodus 6:7). Therefore, God has great care and concern for Israel His people and wants to do for them what is in their best interest to keep them secure. The Canaanites represent a significant spiritual threat, tempting the people away from service toward God in order to serve idols. But Amalek was devoted under the ban more because they dared to attack Israel at its weakest, right after they left Egypt, and God promised then to be at war with Amalek for what they had done (cf. Exodus 17:8-16). In short, God commanded Israel to devote some people under the ban in order to protect and cherish Israel His people. That is the logic presented in the Old Testament.

And if we look at the situation through that prism– God commanding a violent and thorough attack on all which is opposed to His people and the destruction of all that is opposed to His people– we find that such remains the case in the New Testament. Under the new covenant, anyone can be part of the Israel of God if they submit to the Lordship of God the Son (cf. Romans 2:25-29, Galatians 6:15-16). What is the enemy that provides a spiritual threat to the people of God today, the enemy tempting people away from serving God and toward serving idols? What is the enemy that threatens the eternal welfare of every person? Satan, sin, and death (Romans 5:12-18, 1 Peter 5:8)! And what has God done regarding Satan, sin, and death? Through Jesus Christ He gained the victory over all of them, and on the last day, Satan, sin, and death will be devoted to destruction (Romans 8:1-8, 1 Corinthians 15:23-28, Revelation 20:10-15)! The conditions and situations are more parallel and consistent than we would perhaps like to admit!

The God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament. God the Son, in fact, can be seen as acting in both (1 Corinthians 10:1-6, Jude 1:5)! In both the Old and New Testaments, God has loved and displayed great mercy toward His people, desiring that they would follow Him while opposing all enemies that would lead them astray. Under both covenants God devoted under the ban all those enemies who threatened the welfare and prosperity of His people. The way that God worked in the Old Testament may offend modern sensibilities, but modern people desperately need the love of God and salvation in Him, and modern people should be as resolutely opposed to Satan, sin, and death as Israel was to be resolutely opposed to Canaan and Amalek. Even though it remains a difficulty, let us appreciate that the essential nature of God does not change, and be thankful that we all can share in His love and be delivered through Him from our enemies!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The New Old Treasure

“Have ye understood all these things?”
[The disciples] say unto [Jesus], “Yea.”
And he said unto them, “Therefore every scribe who hath been made a disciple to the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is a householder, who bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old (Matthew 13:51-52).

This episode of teaching was over. Now was the time to receive the feedback, something with which we are familiar. Jesus had spoken many parables, and most likely had explained them (cf. Matthew 13:1-50, Mark 4:34). Did the disciples understand them? And do the disciples understand their importance?

They answer affirmatively. One might wonder if the answer is sincere– do they really think they understand the parables, or are they questioning inside and do not want to bring those questions to the surface? Since Jesus does not seem to question their response, and since Mark 4:34 gives us the impression that He explained the parables, we are justified in taking the disciples’ answer at face value. It will be made evident that they do not yet really understand what the Kingdom is all about, and how the Kingdom of God in Christ is far different from their expectations, but they probably do get the basic message of the parables.

Jesus then provides this cryptic parable of sorts as a conclusion to the matter. Those who are “scribes made disciples to the Kingdom,” or “scribes trained for the Kingdom,” are compared to a homeowner who brings new and old things out of his treasure.

The force of this statement is in its imagery: the master of a house bringing out old and new, not just one or the other. The reference to “scribes” makes Jesus’ referent clear– He speaks of the Scriptures. Jesus, after all, came to fulfill the old (Matthew 5:17-18), and in so doing, inaugurate the new (Hebrews 9:15). And while there is a definitive break in covenant– as Deuteronomy 4:2 says, one cannot amend a covenant, and those who are part of the new covenant are not bound to the old according to Hebrews 7-9– it is not as if there is complete discontinuity between the two. Jesus’ words resonate with the Old Testament– One Creator God Who is just but merciful, ruling over His Kingdom. Jesus Himself, in many ways, represents the ultimate goal of that which had been written. But Jesus is not just repeating the way things always had been; the Sermon on the Mount made that clear enough (Matthew 5-7). These teachings in the parables are the same– they continue with many of the themes of the old yet point to a new reality.

The direction and force of the parable, therefore, are clear enough, but who is the referent? We are told that “every scribe made a disciple to/trained for the Kingdom of Heaven” are those who are like this master of the house. Yet who are they?

That “they” are somehow followers of Jesus is evident; “they” are “made disciples” or “trained” in the direction of the Kingdom. Whether or not they become disciples because of their training– they know the old message, and then saw Jesus and how He conformed to the old and points in a new direction– is possible, as in the scribe whom Jesus commends in Mark 12:28-34. It is also quite possible that they are disciples of Christ trained for a scribal role who do such things.

This would not be of such note had Jesus just referred to them as “disciples,” as He so often does. He instead speaks of “scribes,” something He otherwise does for followers of His only in Matthew 23:34. There are plenty of references to scribes in the New Testament, but normally it speaks of the professional class of Jews who were responsible for knowing the Old Testament Scriptures, for transcribing and copying those Scriptures, and to provide instruction to the rest of the people who otherwise would not have access to said Law. Their great affection for the Law led them to be hostile toward Jesus and His claims; they, with the Pharisees, are condemned as hypocrites throughout Matthew 23, and they are part of the group conspiring against Him (Mark 14:1).

In context, the “scribes” are either all of the disciples or at least some of the disciples. They are the ones whom He is training– of whom He makes disciples– for the Kingdom. They will be given roles of teaching, instructing people in the ways of Christ (Matthew 18:18, Acts 2:42). Perhaps this is a way Matthew is referring to himself– he is a disciple, he will be one of those Apostles, and here he is writing a Gospel, a scribe writing out the story, connecting the old and the new.

The application, however, is relevant for all of those who teach in the Kingdom, and in many ways for everyone who participates in God’s Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is not new; it has its roots in God’s revelation of Himself in the creation, to the Patriarchs, and to Israel. Nevertheless, the Kingdom of God is not exactly like what has come before. It functions quite differently than the nation of Israel did.

Thus Jesus emphasizes the power and importance of the parables. Notice that this statement of Jesus is the conclusion to the matter of these parables. The disciples understand the parables; they are told, therefore, that scribes made disciples/trained in the Kingdom will bring out the old and the new. To know and understand the parables is to be trained in the Kingdom. One might say truly that there is more to the Kingdom than what can be divined in the parables; but one certainly cannot understand the Kingdom if one does not understand the parables concerning it which Jesus spoke!

The Kingdom has old and new elements as illustrated in the parables. We do well to be made disciples and trained in the Kingdom, being the scribes of God’s intention and desire, properly instructing and encouraging others in the truths of the Kingdom and the faith. Let us serve the Lord and understand His will!

Ethan R. Longhenry

No King in Israel

In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes (Judges 17:6).

Some people think that humans would do best under no government whatsoever: every man would be responsible for himself and his own decisions.  The Bible reveals how foolish such an idea really is.

Man is quite sinful, and his sin too often gets the better of him.  In the time of the Judges, while Israel technically was subject to God, in reality, they decided for themselves what they were and were not going to do.

Did this lead them to follow the Law of Moses?  Far from it!  They served the Baals and the Asherah.  They stole, made idols and called them YHWH, raped, slaughtered, turned blind eyes to kidnapping, and suffered greatly with internal conflict.

It is as Solomon and Jeremiah have established:

There is a way which seemeth right unto a man; But the end thereof are the ways of death (Proverbs 14:12).

O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps (Jeremiah 10:23).

Government must exist to punish evil and praise good (Romans 13:1-6).  It is within the Gospel message, however, that we learn that we cannot direct our own steps as we ought.  We learn how we must instead trust in God, lean on Him for understanding and follow His paths (cf. Proverbs 3:5-7), and find the right path for our feet.

We may not have an earthly king, but we do have a Heavenly One, and we must do what is right in His eyes (1 John 2:1-6).  Let us strive to do so today!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The (Imperfect) Men of Faith

Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen. For therein the elders had witness borne to them (Hebrews 11:1-2).

Hebrews 11 enshrines the men of faith from the old covenant.  Yet consider these men:

Noah (Hebrews 11:7): got drunk, exposed himself in a tent (Genesis 9:20-21).

Abraham (Hebrews 11:8-10, 17-19): deceived rulers, took an additional wife without God’s consent (Genesis 12:10-20, 16, 20).

Sarah (Hebrews 11:11-12): laughed at God’s promise, lied about it (Genesis 18:9-15).

Jacob (Hebrews 11:21): cheated his brother, deceived his own father (Genesis 25, 27).

Moses (Hebrews 11:23-30): attempted to reject God’s call, at times did not give God the glory (Exodus 3-4, Numbers 20:1-13).

Rahab (Hebrews 11:31): lied to cover for spies (Joshua 2:3-6).

Gideon (Hebrews 11:32): made an ephod, caused family to go astray (Judges 8:24-27).

Samson (Hebrews 11:32): visited a prostitute (Judges 16:1-3).

David (Hebrews 11:32): committed adultery with a faithful servant’s wife, schemed to have that servant killed (2 Samuel 11).

These are the men whom God commends for their faith?  How can this be?

We must recognize that God is not commending these men and women for being perfect, because no one is perfect save Jesus Christ (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8).  God is not commending them for their sins and character faults.

They receive commendation for their faith– their trust in God at difficult moments, their willingness to do what God tells them to do even if they did not entirely understand or if the situation looked hopeless.

Being a man or woman of God does not mean that we are perfect.  It means that we place our trust in God and strive to follow His will in all things, even if we do not understand or if our situation looks hopeless.  Yes, it also means that we must confess our sins and repent of them (1 John 1:9), but let us not be deceived into thinking that God can only use perfect people.  The “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) is full of imperfect people who trusted in a perfect and holy God.  Let us strive to be as them, and run the race set before us!

And without faith it is impossible to be well-pleasing unto him; for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that seek after him (Hebrews 11:6).

Ethan R. Longhenry

Samson and Revenge

And Samson called unto the LORD, and said, “O Lord GOD, remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes” (Judges 16:28).

The Judges author presents the story of Samson as a cycle of vengeance.  The father of the Timnite shames Samson, and in revenge, he has the grain of Philistia burned.  In revenge, they kill the Timnite and her father, and seek to do to Samson what Samson did to them.  Samson then kills more Philistines (Judges 15).  The Philistines, through Delilah, figure out how to capture Samson, and blind him in vengeance for what he did to them.  And here, at the end of his life, Samson asks God to give him strength to get revenge on Philistia for his eye.

What is the result? The death of thousands, but no real change.  Philistia is still in control, and Israel is still humbled before them.  Samson’s vengeance is not enough to save Israel.

Samson’s life provides a vivid demonstration of the fruitlessness of the cycle of vengeance.  Its desire is never satisfied; there is always some new affront that requires restitution.  This is not God’s way in His Kingdom.

Avenge not yourselves, beloved, but give place unto the wrath of God: for it is written,
“‘Vengeance belongeth unto me; I will recompense,’ saith the Lord.”
“But if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him to drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:19-21).

Only by loving our enemies can we win them over or to at least demonstrate that we are God’s children (Matthew 5:43-45, Luke 6:27-36).  Let us leave judgment in God’s hands, and love all men!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Gideon’s Tests

And it came to pass the same night, that the LORD said unto him, “Arise, get thee down into the camp; for I have delivered it into thy hand. But if thou fear to go down, go thou with Purah thy servant down to the camp: and thou shalt hear what they say; and afterward shall thy hands be strengthened to go down into the camp” (Judges 7:9-11a).

If we consider the story of Gideon as described in Judges 6-8, we are struck by Gideon’s constant testing of God.  What is he trying to accomplish?

Is he timid?  He was willing to tear down the Baal and Asherah of his father’s people, and went within earshot of the enemy camp at God’s instruction.  He certainly is bold when he wants to be!

So what does Gideon seek?  The answer is not specifically revealed, but it seems to be that he seeks reassurance of God’s presence.  Gideon has enough faith to trust in God; he just wants to make sure that God is still with him in his endeavors.

What about us?  Do we seek God’s reassurance that He is with us in our endeavors? Do we want to make sure that what we are striving to do is, in fact, what God desires us to do?

We are to be people who walk by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).  Let us find reassurance in the Author and Finisher of our faith, Jesus Christ, and in the confidence of His Word (cf. Hebrews 12:2)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Gideon’s Perspective

And Gideon said unto him, “Oh, my lord, if the LORD is with us, why then is all this befallen us? and where are all his wondrous works which our fathers told us of, saying, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the LORD hath cast us off, and delivered us into the hand of Midian” (Judges 6:13).

Gideon (and Israel) experienced difficult times: Midian and the people of the East were strong, and Israel was greatly humiliated and oppressed.  Where was God in all of this?  If God is as great as the fathers made Him out to be, where is He?

What Gideon did not consider was Israel’s great sin in serving the Baals (Judges 6:10, 25-26).  He did not consider that God handed Israel into Midian’s hands because they transgressed His covenant (Judges 6:1).  He did not consider that Israel remained stubborn and did not heed God’s voice (Judges 6:10).

The situation was quite different than it seemed through Gideon’s eyes.

There are many times in our own lives when things do not seem to make a lot of sense.  We see pain and suffering and difficulty.  We read the stories about how God delivered people in the past, and yet there is no delivery for us.  Many want to know where God is in all of this.

Yet just as God was there in Gideon’s day, God is here today (Matthew 28:20, Hebrews 13:8).  We may be experiencing God’s chastening for our sins.  We may be experiencing trial so that our faith can be properly tested.  God may have something entirely different in store for us.  In the end, it may even turn out for our own good.

Wisdom teaches us to remember that our perspective is limited, and we often neglect to remember that there are many other factors involved that we may not understand.  We can let our doubts, questions, and difficulties separate us from God, or we can let them teach us to trust Him more.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” saith the LORD. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

Ethan R. Longhenry