Unity of the Spirit

Giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).

God accomplished amazing and stupendous things in order to create and cultivate the Church of His Son Jesus Christ. What will we do with it?

In Ephesians 2:11-3:13 Paul had highly stressed the place of the church in God’s divine economy. In the composition of the church is found the testimony of the manifold witness of God according to the eternal plan purposed in Jesus (Ephesians 3:10-11). The church is the temple of God and His household (Ephesians 2:19-22). And so, after Paul established the importance of walking worthily of the calling in Jesus (Ephesians 4:1), he then emphasized the importance of working together as the church to build it up (Ephesians 4:3-16). If we would work together as the church to build it up, we must give diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).

“Giving diligence” is the Greek spoudazontes, meaning to make haste, exert oneself, give diligence (Thayer’s Lexicon). A more verbal form of the same word is found in 2 Timothy 2:15 in the exhortation to be diligent to present ourselves as approved to God, workmen without needing to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. Many have made much of the King James Version’s use of “study” to translate spoudason in 2 Timothy 2:15, although in the 17th century it meant something more like “give diligence” than the modern “bookish” meaning of study. Thus Christians are as much to “study” to keep the unity of the Spirit as they are to “study” to present themselves as approved by handling the word of truth rightly. The same Apostle makes both exhortations; there is no basis on which to consider one as greater or superior to the other. There is no justification to be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit at the expense of the word of truth: unity in the Spirit is grounded in the truth of what God has accomplished in Jesus, and there can be no unity when the truth of the faith is compromised (Romans 16:18-19, 1 Timothy 4:1, 6:3-10). And yet there is also no justification to be diligent to be unashamed workmen who rightly handle the word of truth at the expense of unity in the Spirit: the “word of truth” in Ephesians 2:11-3:13 declares God’s work in reconciling to Himself and to each other all who would trust in Jesus, and Paul will go on to declare the “word of truth” of the inherent unity of the body and the faith in Ephesians 4:4-6, and so any undermining of Christian unity in the Spirit is undermining the word of truth itself!

Christians are to give diligence to “keep” the unity of the Spirit. “To keep” is the Greek terein, meaning to attend to carefully, guard, keep, preserve (Thayer’s Lexicon). Christians are not the architects of unity in the faith; it is not for us to establish it, impose it, or somehow create it. On our own we hated and were hated in turn, living in the lusts of our flesh as children of wrath (Ephesians 2:2, Titus 3:3). It required Jesus’ death on the cross to kill the hostility and to provide the redemption and reconciliation we did not deserve nor could do anything to earn or merit (Romans 5:6-11, Ephesians 2:11-15). When we believe in Jesus, confess that faith in Him, repent of our sins, and are immersed in water in Jesus’ name, we are in a spiritual sense immersed into the one Spirit into the one body (1 Corinthians 12:13). God has established the unity of Christians in Jesus; God has made us all one man in Jesus through His Spirit (cf. Romans 12:3-8); we therefore cannot create or fabricate that unity. Instead, we must guard diligently the unity we already have. Tribalistic divisions, factions, and wars testify to the enduring power of hostility and hatred to this day; as Christians we are always tempted to compromise with the world, to take up the banner or the flag of various causes, peoples, and nations, and conduct ourselves in such a way as to endanger the unity of the Spirit. Our zeal is far too often misdirected, focused on the chastisement of the people of God, often majoring on the minors, rather than a critique of self and an outward push into the world to proclaim the Gospel of the Christ. Unity in the Spirit is not a default state or what we find natural; only through diligent effort will we keep the unity of the Spirit.

The unity of the Spirit is to be kept in the bond of peace. “Bond” is the Greek sundesmo, that which binds together, like a ligament in the human body (as used in Colossians 2:19), or a bundle (Thayer’s Lexicon). As ligaments connect muscles in the human body, so peace is what connects Christians in the unity of the Spirit. That peace is not the mere absence of hostility, but the elimination thereof: Jesus killed the hostility between God and man and man with man on the cross (Ephesians 2:11-18). True unity can only be nourished and sustain where there is true peace. As long as there is hostility and enmity there will be tension and hostility. If we would be diligent to maintain the unity of the Spirit, we must maintain the bond of peace. If we would maintain the bond of peace, we must strive for that which makes for peace.

How do we strive to make for peace? Paul has already listed the characteristics which lead to such peace in Ephesians 4:2: maintaining humility and meekness, manifesting patience, showing tolerance for one another in love. A similar “recipe” is found in Philippians 2:1-4. When we speak of unity we all too often speak of doctrinal uniformity; while agreement on doctrine is crucial to joint participation in the faith, evident from 1 Corinthians 1:11, doctrinal agreement is not sufficient to establish unity in and of itself. We must agree on the truth of God in Christ, but then we must act like it. We must demonstrate humility, recognizing that all of us are redeemed sinners, prone to mistakes, of equal standing and value before God, and to adjust our opinions and ideas about ourselves and others accordingly. We must be meek, maintaining the strength of conviction and faith, but keeping it under control, exercising it judiciously and with love so as to build up. We must be patient with one another: “long suffering” is the literal meaning of Greek makrothumia, and that is precisely what patience demands. Brethren can be insufferable at times; such is true of you and me as well. We are all different people with different backgrounds and ideas: we can consider that difference as a source of conflict, strife, and difficulty, and try to eliminate it, or we can learn to appreciate the differences which exist among us, focusing on how God is glorified when different people come together as one in faith in Jesus, and thus show tolerance for each other despite each other’s quirks, flaws, and challenges.

We have come to understand the power which exists in the unity of a family. It should be no different for the household of God! God has broken down the walls of hostility in Christ so we can all share in the same faith and obtain the same salvation; should we not now strive to keep and guard this precious unity in the Spirit which was obtained at such terrible cost, and embody God’s purposes for His creation before all those who would resist them? May we keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace to the glory of God in Christ, and share in relational unity for eternity!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Numbering Our Days

The days of our years are threescore years and ten / or even by reason of strength fourscore years
Yet is their pride but labor and sorrow / for it is soon gone, and we fly away.
Who knoweth the power of thine anger / and thy wrath according to the fear that is due unto thee?
So teach us to number our days / that we may get us a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:10-12).

Moses is trying to do a lot more than just to provide us with a baseline about the average lifespan.

Psalm 90 is the only psalm attributed to Moses; it is a tefillah, a prayer or perhaps prayer-hymn, and the Psalter has placed it at the beginning of the fourth book of psalms (Psalms 90-106). Moses praises God as the dwelling place of His people throughout all generations (Psalm 90:1). He speaks of God’s eternal nature, existing before the mountains and the world, everlasting to everlasting (Psalm 90:2). God who created man also sees his end, returning to dust, for to God a thousand years is as a day when it is past or a watch in the night, a time passed in sleep by most and thus barely perceptible (a four hour period; Psalm 90:3-4, cf. 2 Peter 3:8). In comparison humans are like sleep or grass in the field, alive one morning, cut down by evening (Psalm 90:5-6). The people of God are consumed in God’s anger, for their iniquities are set before them and they pass their days under the wrath of the hand of God (Psalm 90:7-9).

Moses then speaks of the “average” human life of seventy to eighty years (Psalm 90:10). The figures are appropriate; life expectancy these days is on average 67 for the world and closer to 80 for industrialized nations. Yes, average life expectancy was much worse during Moses’ days on account of illness, child mortality, and other factors. Medical technology has allowed modern man to increase the average life expectancy but not nearly as much if one focuses primarily on those who have already reached a level of maturity, that is, those who could hear and understand what Moses is saying in Psalm 90. All things being equal and without significant famine, plague, or war, even in Moses’ day 70 to 80 was the average upper limit to a lifespan, and has perhaps increased by a decade or so since.

The Death of Moses (crop)

Moses did not intend to provide some interesting factoid when he speaks of a lifespan of seventy or eighty years; he says their pride is labor and sorrow, it ends soon, and we fly away (Psalm 90:10). Seventy to eighty years is our lifetime, and it may seem like a lot to us; Moses just said that to God a thousand years, 12 or so times an average lifespan, is but four hours or a day (Psalm 90:4). Moses asks who can know the power of God’s anger according to the reverence due Him (Psalm 90:11). Moses gives voice to God’s people to ask God to teach us to number our days so we can obtain wisdom (Psalm 90:12); such is the real goal of this exploration of life and time.

Yet Moses speaks for God’s people in distress and would like for YHWH to return to His people and to show mercy to them, showing them covenant loyalty so they can rejoice and be glad as many days as they have been afflicted (Psalm 90:13-15). God is asked to have His work appear to His servants, His glory on their children, the favor of the Lord upon His people, establishing the work of their hands (Psalm 90:16-17). Thus ends Moses’ prayer.

We could imagine many circumstances in which Moses is speaking from experience. He led the Israelites out of Egypt after they had suffered deep distress for at least eighty years if not longer (Exodus 12:40, Deuteronomy 34:7). The people of God suffered His wrath on account of their faithless for forty years as they died in the Wilderness (Numbers 14:26-39). Yet Moses also knew that the Israelites would sin again and suffer great distress (Deuteronomy 31:27-32:44), and perhaps is giving them voice through his prayer in Psalm 90.

Israel desperately needed to keep Moses’ prayer in mind during difficult days. The Psalter is aware of this and likely places this psalm in its position as Psalm 90, the introduction to Book IV of the Psalms, but also after the maskilim of Heman and Ethan the Ezrahites (Psalms 88-89), which maintain confidence in YHWH as God of Israel, full of covenant loyalty, but who would really like to know where that covenant loyalty has gone in light of distress and exile. Of all the “lament” psalms they do not end on a note of faith; the questions are left open. In many ways Moses is left to “answer” Heman and Ethan: yes, our days may be full of woe and suffering; we may make it to 70 or 80 but those years are full of pain; but God is eternal, to Him a thousand years is like a night of sleep, and so we must number our days and be wise. God shows covenant loyalty and is faithful to His promises, but sometimes those promises take years to unfold, many more years than the average human life. From Abraham to the Conquest is about 590 years; from David to Jesus is about 950 years; from the hope of the end of exile to the establishment of Jesus’ eternal Kingdom was no less than 570 years. God was not slow as many count slowness; He was patient, and worked according to His purposes.

We also do well to keep Moses’ prayer in mind, not least because Peter quotes Psalm 90:4 in 2 Peter 3:8. It has been almost two thousand years since Jesus ascended to heaven (Acts 1:1-11); that may be 25 times the average lifespan of a human, but it is only as a half a night or two days to God. When we experience great trial and distress, living our seventy or eighty years in labor and sorrow, we may be tempted to wonder where the promise of God’s goodness or covenant loyalty has gone. We must remember that God has promised to give eternity of joy and rest, far more and longer than the days of our sorrow and pain (Romans 8:17-18, 2 Corinthians 4:17). We do well to ask for God to teach us to number our days and get wisdom, to always remember that God’s time-frame is not our time-frame, and it is for us to trust that all things will work together for good for the true people of God (Romans 8:28). May we serve God in Christ and obtain the blessing!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Longsuffering of the Lord

The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some count slackness; but is longsuffering to you-ward, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).

If after thirty years people were already asking, “where is the promise of His coming?” (2 Peter 3:4), how much more so after 1,980 years?

These days you might still hear the phrase, “slower than the second coming,” to describe someone or something that is not moving very quickly. That type of phrase says much about people’s attitudes toward the Lord’s return: it’s taking a very long time. It seems slow! To many it has become almost a joke. Many believers have come to experience “apocalyptic fervor burnout” on account of the continual drumming up of the expectation of the Lord’s imminent return only for time to continue on yet again. Some have come to discount the eventual return of Jesus completely; some suggest it happened in a “spiritual” way in the past, while others think of it as a relic of an earlier, more eschatologically-minded age. Even among those who do look forward to the day of the Lord’s return, it seems remote, something not highly likely to happen within our lifetimes. The Lord’s return, therefore, becomes a very abstract and almost academic matter.

The Apostles expected this kind of mockery and fatigue. Paul warns the Thessalonians about staying awake, ever ready and vigilant for His coming, as it will be like a thief in the night (1 Thessalonians 5:1-10). Peter, in 2 Peter 3:1-14, also speaks directly regarding the expectation of the Lord’s return, especially in light of those who mock and deride the suggestion that the Lord would return. He wishes to remind such people about the great Flood of Genesis 6:9-8:22: it came with plenty of warning and yet happened suddenly (2 Peter 3:5-7).

Yet Peter’s very potent argument involves a challenge to our expectations: why do we think that the second coming is “slow” to happen? Why do we consider the 1,980 and counting years as a reason to doubt God’s faithfulness? Peter quotes Psalm 90:4 in 2 Peter 3:8 to underscore the challenge: to God a thousand years is as one day, and one day as a thousand years. God transcends the space-time continuum; time does not matter to God. A thousand years, which is a long time to humans, is likened to a very short time in God’s estimation (one day). And one day, which we consider a short amount of time, can yet be understood as a long time, a thousand years, in God’s sight. 1,980 years? Simultaneously like less than two days or as much as 723 million years. Time, therefore, is irrelevant when discussing God and what He is doing. Nevertheless, why is it that the Lord has yet to return?

In 2 Peter 3:9, Peter makes it clear that it is not a matter of time. God is not slow; the return of Jesus is not “delayed”; the Lord’s return should not be used by us as a marker for someone or something’s lack of speed. Instead, He is patient, “longsuffering” toward us, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

Peter will go on to warn everyone that just as the Flood came upon people quickly, so Jesus will come like a thief in the night, and that is a good warning to heed: when the Lord returns, it will be very fast, and there will not be time for any more second chances (2 Peter 3:10). In light of all this, believers should live holy lives, waiting earnestly for the day of God, ever prepared and vigilant whether He comes or not (2 Peter 3:11-14). And then he encourages believers to consider the longsuffering of the Lord as salvation (2 Peter 3:15).

It is for our benefit, then, that the Lord has yet to return. We can certainly personalize this truth: if you are a believer in Christ, and have submitted to the Lord through belief, confession, repentance, and baptism, and walk with the Lord as His follower, when did you come to that faith and obtain your salvation? Now ask yourself: what would my fate have been if the Lord had returned the day before? God facilitated your salvation through His patience; why now would you impose on that patience? Perhaps today is the “day before” or the “day of” the obtaining of salvation for another, and that person has as much a right and access to God’s patience as you.

The Lord, therefore, has been longsuffering toward the world for 1,980 years. It is good for us to consider the longsuffering of Jesus toward us: how many times have we grieved Him because of our sins, weaknesses, and immaturity? What if the Lord were not as patient and longsuffering toward us as He is? What would our fate be? And, God forbid, what if the Lord was as patient with us as we are with our fellow human beings? If God were only as patient as we are, the world would have ended a very long time ago!

Peter well defines the longsuffering of the Lord as salvation: if the Lord were not patient with the creation, we might never have enjoyed the opportunity to live, or, in a darker light, perhaps would live in sin and be condemned before we might have turned in repentance back to the Living God. God’s longsuffering has allowed for our rescue, and how many times do we continue to depend on the longsuffering of God as we seek to grow in maturity? As it is with us, so it is with others. The world continues because the Lord is showing longsuffering toward them as well. As God has been patient with us, and that patience allows for our salvation, so we do well to be patient with others, both within and without the household of faith. We needed some time and wherewithal to recognize our challenges and to come to the Lord for healing; so do others. We have needed our time to grow in the faith and come to understand many of its precepts in greater clarity and understanding; so do others. We may have gotten further on the path of Jesus than others, but just as we needed to cross that terrain, so do they, and we do well to seek to truly build them up and strengthen them through that process just as we were, or at least should have been, built up and strengthened at that stage ourselves.

God is faithful to His promises. Jesus will return. Until then, let us not think of Jesus as slow or delayed; let us recognize that God is patient and longsuffering toward us, and be thankful that we have been able to obtain salvation through that patience of God. Let us account the longsuffering of God as salvation and praise and glorify Him in Christ in all things!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Mark of True Discipleship

“A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; even as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:34-35).

What is supposed to define a disciple, or follower, of Christ?

For the better part of 1,750 years, one could be forgiven for thinking the answer involved finding and adhering to the right doctrines regarding Jesus. For most of its history Christianity has seemed to focus on determining the nature of God and Christ, how salvation is accomplished, the relationship between the believer and the church, the church and the state, and a whole host of other matters. Upon these matters most of the written records focus; comparatively precious little is said regarding the practice of the faith. Perhaps the practice of the faith was more strongly emphasized in other contexts; perhaps it went unsaid because there was little disagreement regarding it.

The Bible does insist on a good understanding of God in Christ and the substantive message of the faith and the need to stand firm within it (2 Timothy 2:15, Jude 1:3, 2 John 1:7-11). Yet it is worth noting what Jesus Himself emphasizes as the true mark of His followers. He does not say that all men will know we are His disciples by the doctrines we teach, the truths we uphold, or the persuasive arguments we make. The mark of true disciples of Jesus is their love for one another (John 13:35).

The statement seems so simple, so obvious, and yet it is quite compelling and extraordinarily challenging. It is not as if this is the first time that the disciples have been told to love one another; the Law exhorted them to love their neighbors as themselves (Leviticus 19:18), and all Israelites would agree that fellow Israelites were their neighbors (cf. Luke 10:25-29). That aspect of the command is “old,” but Jesus adds a twist which makes it “new”: they are to love one another as He loved them (John 13:34; cf. 1 John 2:7-8). God is love (1 John 4:8); Jesus, God in the flesh, is the embodiment of love (John 1:1, 14, Hebrews 1:3, 1 John 3:16). We can therefore understand the love Christians are to have for one another by understanding the way Jesus conducted Himself among His disciples.

Jesus called His twelve disciples, not because of who they were at the time, but on account of their willingness to follow and because of what Jesus knew they could be (Matthew 10:1-4). He spent a lot of time teaching them; many of Jesus’ teachings were directed to the disciples, even if others were present (e.g. Matthew 5:1-7:28), and would provide further explanation to them in other contexts as well (Mark 4:33-34). Nevertheless, the disciples proved slow to truly perceive and understand what Jesus was saying; He remained patient with them (cf. John 13:36-38, 14:5-8, etc.).

But Jesus went beyond instructing them in word; He also showed them in deed the things He was saying (1 John 3:18). He showed His love for them by serving them, finding no task too humiliating or “beneath” Him (John 13:1-11). He took care of their material needs many times (e.g. Matthew 17:24-27). He prayed to the Father for them (John 17:1-19). In the moment of His greatest need they forsook Him and even denied Him; He loved them anyway, died for them anyway, and welcomed them back joyfully in His resurrection (John 18:1-20:23, 1 John 3:16). Jesus embodied the definition of love toward His disciples: He was patient and kind with them, did not envy or boast, was not arrogant or rude, did not insist on His own way, was not irritable or resentful, did not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoiced with them in the truth, bore their deficiencies and iniquities, continued to believe in them, hoped in them, and endured with them. His love for them never ended (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a).

As we can see, coming to an understanding of the truth of God in Christ Jesus and His Kingdom is part of showing love to one another, but does not and cannot fully embody what it means to love one another. Yes, we are to learn about Jesus, but that learning is not supposed to be merely an intellectual exercise or an end unto itself; we are to learn about Him so that we can be more like Him (Romans 8:29, 1 John 2:6). Doctrine is important: we feel and act based upon what we believe, therefore, we must have the right beliefs if we are going to feel and act as we should. Yet, as Jesus makes abundantly clear, mere intellectual understanding was never the goal; knowledge of God in Christ is designed to inexorably lead to reflecting the characteristics of God in Christ.

Jesus’ phrasing might seem odd to us: how is it that all men will know we are disciples of Jesus by our love for one another? Would they not understand how we are disciples of Jesus by our love for them? It is not as if Christians are to not love those outside the faith (cf. Luke 6:27-36, Galatians 6:10), but Jesus’ emphasis on love toward one another is well-placed and quite poignant. We like to think that people are persuaded to follow Jesus through well-constructed and persuasive arguments. Some are convinced through such apologetics, but God knows us better than we know ourselves, and recognizes that very few people are ever convinced about anything on account of rational argumentation. In the end, God is not interested in just setting up an alternative mental construct through which to see the world; Christianity was never designed to just be the correct philosophy of the world.

The true mark defining a group of disciples is their love for one another. How do they treat each other? If Christians love one another like Jesus has loved them, they will remind each other of the truths of God in Jesus (cf. 2 Timothy 4:1-5). But they will also show great concern for one another, making sure that each other’s material needs are met (Galatians 6:10, 1 John 3:17-18). They are patient and kind with one another; if they sin against each other, they forgive each other and bear with one another (Colossians 3:12-14). True followers of Jesus understand that they have all sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God, and feel comfortable enough with one another to open up and confess their sins, faults, and failures, entrusting themselves to one another, even though they will at times hurt each other and betray each other (James 5:16). They love each other anyway. They share with each other anyway. They build each other up anyway.

Where else in the world can such love be found in true community? People in the world crave that kind of love, acceptance, welcome, and openness. People want to be loved; people want others to be patient with them; people want to be treated kindly and considerately; people want to share life together. People want a greater purpose in life and to share in that mission with others, and so it all is supposed to be in Jesus. If Christ’s followers show love to one another as we have described it, others will want to share in that experience, and they will themselves be inspired to follow Jesus (cf. Matthew 5:13-16)!

But what happens when people claim to follow Jesus but do not manifest that love? The history of “Christianity” is full of examples of such failures, and they have given the faith a bad name and have given reason for the nations to blaspheme. Emphasis on right doctrine alone led to wars, death, misery, and pain for untold thousands; to this day, how many people associate Christianity with the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the people on the street spewing forth messages of condemnation? The world is full of different groups of people who only see each other’s failings, show little patience with one another’s faults, constantly nitpick and judge each other with a view of denigrating them, and feel important or special because of their knowledge or means by which they identify themselves. There’s nothing special or attractive about such groups, and if some such groups try to wear the name of Christ, it’s little wonder why they struggle to grow or be effective in any meaningful way.

Followers of Jesus show love to one another in a number of different ways, and they are all important, but only insofar as they point back to Jesus, glorify Him, and are done with a view to reflecting Jesus to one another and our fellow man. Jesus knows what He is doing; He has good reason to make love for one another the clear identifier of His true followers. Any group of people professing to follow Jesus which does not share in love toward each other has not truly understood Jesus. Any group which professes to follow Jesus and to have the love they should have but do not adhere to the truth of God in Jesus Christ has not really understood all that the love of Jesus requires. But it is just as true that anyone who thinks they have understood the true knowledge of God in Christ but does not show true love to His fellow Christians has not really understood the true knowledge of God in Christ and certainly has not perceived the end to which we are to learn of Christ. Instead, let us follow after Jesus the way He intends. Let us come to a better knowledge of Jesus, understanding how He lived and loved, so that we can love each other as Jesus intends!

Ethan R. Longhenry

In God’s Good Time

And when he had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land for an inheritance, for about four hundred and fifty years: and after these things he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet (Acts 13:19-20).

As Paul begins his exhortation to the Jews and allies in the synagogue of Antioch of Pisidia, he relates some of Israel’s history, emphasizing God’s direction of the people through His leadership and the agents whom He chose, culminating with David and the promise of the Messiah through his lineage (cf. Acts 13:17-23). Having discussed the exodus from Egypt, the wanderings in the wilderness, and the conquest of Canaan, and just before he begins discussing the judges to Samuel, Paul mentions how these events lasted “around four hundred and fifty years” (Acts 13:19 or Acts 13:20, depending on the translation). For that matter, he speaks of the time in the wilderness as forty years (Acts 13:18) and speaks of Saul’s reign for forty years (Acts 13:21). Why does Paul provide these details?

In the Bible, forty years has powerful symbolism: it signifies completeness and fullness. The four hundred and fifty year period is a bit more controversial. Some manuscripts seem to suggest the four hundred and fifty years describes the period between the conquest and Samuel, as the KJV rendering of Acts 13:20 would suggest: “And after that he gave unto them judges about the space of four hundred and fifty years, until Samuel the prophet.” Yet this causes great difficulty, since 1 Kings 6:1 suggests there are 480 years between the Exodus and Solomon’s fourth regnal year; this, and the historical record, do not easily allow for a four hundred and fifty year period for the Judges. There is better evidence for the reading found in the ASV and also in the ESV for Acts 13:20: “All this took about 450 years. And after that he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet”. Four hundred and fifty years for the Exodus through the conquest makes a bit more sense: around four hundred years for the sojourn in Egypt (cf. Genesis 15:13, upward to 430 in Exodus 12:40-41), forty years in the wilderness (Numbers 32:13, Acts 13:18), and thus no more than ten or so years for the conquest described in Joshua 1:1-12:24. Thus it took between 441 and 490 years; “around four hundred and fifty” makes the point well.

But this still does not get to the heart of the matter: why all the numbers? What is Paul trying to communicate?

It is not as if these numbers are new to the Jewish people who have gathered at the synagogue; in fact, if they were new, they would have been detrimental to Paul’s purposes. If the numbers were not familiar to them, they would likely begin mentally questioning the legitimacy of those numbers and therefore get distracted from Paul’s message and what he is really trying to communicate. The Israelites know their story and they know how long it took for the events described to take place. And that is precisely Paul’s point.

When Paul begins his message by speaking about “our fathers” (Acts 13:17), he is not just talking about the Israelites in Egypt, but the Patriarchs who came beforehand. The one to whom all Israelites looked was Abraham and the promises God made to him: he would become the father of many nations, whose offspring would be numerous and inherit the land of Canaan (Genesis 17:4-8). God reiterated these promises to Isaac (Genesis 26:3-5) and Jacob (Genesis 35:10-13) in turn. It would take about four hundred and fifty years, but God would fulfill these promises. Abraham had become the father of the Edomites, Israelites, and many of the tribes of the Arabs; Israel had grown numerous; God was the God of Israel, and had given the land of Canaan to them as an inheritance. It had just been done in God’s good time.

Paul reminds his audience of God’s faithfulness to His promises over time in order for them to accept how God has again proven faithful to His promises over time: of David’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as He had promised (Acts 13:23)! It had taken about a thousand years from the original promise to David (a time-frame which Paul leaves unstated), and actually around four hundred and fifty years from the end of the prophetic period (Malachi 4:5-6). God fulfilled His promise: the throne of David was given to his Offspring forever; the rule of the Messiah had begun; Israel’s hope was satisfied in Jesus. It had just been done in God’s good time.

Forty years; four hundred and fifty years; a thousand years: these are large chunks of time in the eyes of mankind. These days we barely have the patience to wait a few seconds for our technological devices to work! We expect things to be done already; the prospect of having to wait for anything is unpleasant and even provides reason for doubt. We expect God and everyone else to do things according to our time-frame and time scale.

But God has never acted on man’s time scale; time is immaterial to Him (cf. 2 Peter 3:8). He acts in His good time. Things take place within or according to His will, even if we do not understand why or how (cf. Isaiah 55:8-9).

It is good and right for us to seek to align our will to God’s; we do well when we seek to discover what God is doing around us and begin participating in that work (Romans 8:29, Ephesians 3:20-21). But we need to be careful about our interpretation of our actions and our perception of God’s providence and will. We are liable to make snap and hasty judgments; when things do not pan out as we imagine they should, we too easily want to give up or declare that it is all to no avail.

Such is only true according to our time scale. How many times have we been humbled and astounded to see God’s powerful action accomplished in His good time? Sometimes it takes years for fruit to start appearing. Sometimes it takes decades for people to come to an understanding of the truth. Often times we find ourselves under God’s discipline when we thought we were entering His joy, or perhaps vice versa. The list goes on and on.

In all of these things, short-sighted reflection proves less faithful and rather faithless compared to the long-term impact. Such is why we do well to always remember how God works in His good time, and that often takes far longer than we can ever imagine. God is faithful; He makes good on His promises, even if it takes longer than we would like. Let us entrust ourselves to God and seek to glorify Him in His good time!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Nationalism

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.
And he prayed unto the LORD, and said, “I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I hasted to flee unto Tarshish; for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness, and repentest thee of the evil. Therefore now, O LORD, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:1-3).

Many parts of Jonah’s story are well-known: he ran from the presence of God, trying to sail far away; he was caught in a large, fierce storm; he was swallowed by a big fish of some sort, saving his life; he eventually goes to Nineveh as commanded, and the people there repent of their sins (Jonah 1:1-3:10). It sometimes seems as if the biggest controversy in the story of Jonah involves what type of sea creature swallowed him and the credibility of such a story.

To focus on the large fish, however, is to miss the point of the story. Why is Jonah fleeing from the LORD in the first place? What is the problem with the command to go to Nineveh and to cry against it (Jonah 1:2)?

It would be easy to imagine that Jonah was fearful for his safety; perhaps, if we felt charitable toward him, we might imagine that he did not want to see so many people suffer the consequences of their sin. Yet Jonah does not seem to be afraid of the Ninevites, nor is he distressed at the possibility of so many being destroyed. Sadly, alas, the real reason is far more disturbing: Jonah flees because he does not want to see God relent of the disaster He intends for Nineveh.

Few statements in Scripture are as ironic as Jonah’s complaint before YHWH: “I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness, and repentest thee of the evil” (Jonah 4:2). Most people, when considering these attributes of God, are quite thankful; where would any of us be if God were not gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness? Is Jonah ungrateful?

It is not as if Jonah does not appreciate God’s graciousness, mercy, slowness to anger, and lovingkindness when it is directed toward himself and his fellow Israelites. He does not, however, want to see those same qualities exhibited toward the Ninevites.

Nineveh was the great city of the Assyrians, and their capital during many periods of their history. All evidence points to its mammoth size and thus level of importance: a city requiring a three days’ journey to go through is quite a city indeed (Jonah 3:3). Such a place was only possible on account of the empire the Assyrians were building, and they were quite brutal about it. Few nations have proven more bloodthirsty or barbarous than the Assyrians. No one really liked them. Everyone feared them. Eventually, when their empire did come to an end, no one was very sorry to see it go.

The Israelites had all sorts of justifiable reasons for hating the Assyrians. The Assyrians were a perennial enemy, threatening Israel’s stability for most of its existence. The Assyrians would eventually overrun the Kingdom of Israel, absorbing it into their empire, exiling most of its residence, and re-populating the land with foreigners (cf. 2 Kings 17:1-41). The Assyrians would spread their campaign of terror to Judah as well; Jerusalem barely escapes thanks to God’s deliverance (2 Kings 18:13-19:36, Isaiah 1:1-9). One could make a strong argument that Assyria was the most devastating enemy Israel ever faced.

As a prophet in the final moment of sunshine in the history of the Kingdom of Israel (2 Kings 14:25), it is highly likely that Jonah knew the impending doom for his people; even if God had not specifically revealed to him who would be the agent of Israel’s demise, it would not be difficult to deduce who it would be. Thus, YHWH is asking Jonah to go and preach a message of repentance to Israel’s greatest enemy, the strongest threat to the homeland, and the ultimate agent of God’s wrath against Israel.

Jonah’s anger, while still worthy of censure, is nevertheless now understandable. It is of the greatest strategic benefit for Israel and its welfare if God destroys Nineveh and its people; as the greatest existential threat to Israel, God’s covenant people, it should almost be expected for God to destroy them. But Jonah has an inkling of what will happen; he cannot endure the paradoxes. A prophet of Israel who was likely mostly ignored at home is heard and heeded by uncircumcised pagans; God relents of the decision to bring disaster upon Nineveh, but will ultimately not relent of the decision to bring disaster upon Israel; God saves the very people who will bring great destruction upon His people within three generations. As a good Israelite, fully aware of YHWH’s deliverance of Israel His people, confident in YHWH’s sovereignty, likely proud of his status as a member of God’s covenant people, this seems too much to stomach.

Jonah is made to look rather narrow-minded and prejudiced in Jonah 4:1-11, and that is precisely the point of the whole story of Jonah. Throughout the story, God is faithful, even though Jonah most of the time is not. Without God’s love, gentleness, and kindness, Jonah would have been destroyed; he repented, and God rescued him, but he could not stand the idea of God doing the same to the Ninevites. Yet God is consistent throughout, for He is Sovereign, Lord of all nations, not just Israel.

We should not beat up too much on Jonah, for Jonah in many ways represents his entire nation. Everything said of Jonah is true of Israel: God consistently proved faithful to Israel even though Israel most of the time is not. Without God’s love, gentleness, and kindness, Israel would have never left Egypt, and would have been given over to destruction long before. When Israel repented, God rescued His nation, but Israel could not stand the idea of God providing such favor to the heathen pagans.

Jonah’s story is told to warn all of us of the narrow-mindedness and prejudice that often accompanies fervent nationalism. It is very easy for us to look at everything through the lens of the welfare of the particular nation-state under which we live; it is easy to want what is best for our country and our ideology, and the idea that other nation-states, countries, and/or people with other ideas could be blessed by God can seem intolerable. “We” appreciate the blessings and favor of God; but when “they” would receive those same blessings and favor, we might be tempted to be as Jonah, and be angry about it.

Nevertheless, God is not merely the God of one nation; He is the Sovereign Lord of all peoples, countries, nationalities, and cultures. He wants to show lovingkindness, grace, patience, and mercy to everyone, not just a select few (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9). Let us be thankful that God has displayed love, mercy, and kindness toward us, and let us not begrudge others when He displays the same to them as well!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Where is the God of Justice?

Ye have wearied the LORD with your words.
Yet ye say, “Wherein have we wearied him?”
In that ye say, “Every one that doeth evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and he delighteth in them;” or, “where is the God of justice?” (Malachi 2:17).

The evils and inequalities of life can pose a quandary for people who believe strongly that there is a God and that He loves and cares for His creation. When oppression takes place and injustice seems to rule the day, it is easy to start wondering where the God of justice went! Probably not a few people have turned to Deism in order to make some sense, at least in their own minds, of how it could be that God could create the universe and then allow such things to happen– instead of trusting that God will right the wrong, it is easier to believe that God is an absentee landlord.

Undoubtedly Israel in the days of Malachi wondered whether God was an absentee landlord. It would be quite easy to interpret their statements in Malachi 2:17 as rebellion but they are most likely the result of frustration and despair. They say such things not because they do not believe in God but precisely because they do believe in God and do believe in the promises God made to their forefathers.

What they do not understand is how God can be the God of justice and lovingkindness and allow what was happening to continue. These Jews had their faults and failings– but they were not as guilty as their fathers. They had not established idols of all the gods of the nations around them as their fathers had done. And yet while their fathers lived in a free and independent Israel with their own king, they remain under the hand of the Persian authorities and Persian taxes. How was that just? How was that fair? How could God allow them to remain under the hand of a foreign authority when they were acting more faithfully than their fathers who were free? Where was God in all of this, anyway?

The Jews also perceive how the ways of the wicked, at least for the time being, were prosperous. They had read in the Law and the Prophets how blessings come to those who obey God and curses to those who act wickedly (e.g. Leviticus 26:1-46, Jeremiah 7:1-15). The Psalms and Proverbs are full of such statements (e.g. Psalm 1:6, Psalm 37:17, Psalm 75:10, Proverbs 3:33, Proverbs 10:6). Yet, in the eyes of the Jews, those who were righteous were not gaining favor, but the wicked were increasing and prosperous. In bitterness they declare that God must now be siding with the wicked– how else could they be so successful?

The Jews, however, are not right in this, no matter how justified they might have felt in their despair and criticism. They are wearying God with these words and these ideas. Malachi goes on to promise the day of God’s coming, a day of refining and purification, and it will be painful (Malachi 3:1-6). The message is evident: God is paying attention. God sees what is going on. God remains the God of justice. God does not take pleasure in the sinfulness of the wicked. Yet God is patient, and shall accomplish His will in His good time.

We would do well to learn the same lesson. It is easy to get impatient and impetuous and wonder where the God of justice has gone. One could easily despair and wonder if God is in fact prospering the wicked. But such would be wearisome and unprofitable– God is still here, and God has no pleasure in the sinfulness of the wicked (1 Peter 3:12). God also takes no pleasure in any injustice, especially injustice perpetrated against His elect (cf. Luke 18:1-8). Nevertheless, God’s ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). He is patient when we would be impatient (cf. 2 Peter 3:9). His concept of time is far different from our own (2 Peter 3:8). When God acts, it will be done mightily, and we will be ashamed of ourselves if we wearied God with these types of words– we will see His justice vindicated, and righteousness fully established (cf. 2 Peter 3:10-13). The righteous will be refined as silver (1 Peter 1:6-9); the wicked will perish (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9).

Let us not fear or be distressed. The God of justice has not abandoned His creation. He is paying attention. He will render to each one according to His works. Let us therefore serve Him while we still can, fully confident in His presence and justice, and be prepared for the ultimate Day of the Lord!

Ethan R. Longhenry