Laodicea

“I counsel thee to buy of me gold refined by fire, that thou mayest become rich; and white garments, that thou mayest clothe thyself, and that the shame of thy nakedness be not made manifest; and eyesalve to anoint thine eyes, that thou mayest see” (Revelation 3:18).

The Christians in Laodicea thought they had everything. In fact, they had nothing.

God had given Jesus a vision to give to John on Patmos; it began with messages directed to the seven churches of Asia, of which Laodicea was the seventh (Revelation 1:1-3:13). Jesus had at least something good to say about the previous six churches; He has nothing good to say about Laodicea.

Laodicea was a prominent city of Asia in the Lycus River valley. Many of the things which made the city famous are spoken of in some way by Jesus: the water which came into town from hot springs outside of the city would be lukewarm by the time it arrived. The city was known for its garment manufacturing, a great medical school and a local powder used as an eyesalve, and for its great wealth, placed on important trade routes. When the city was leveled by earthquake in the 60s it did not obtain Imperial assistance to rebuild; it used its own resources. A lot of people would have considered Laodicea a great place to live; no doubt many would be tempted to hold the church and its members in high esteem. They believed in Jesus; they partook of the wealth of which the city had become famous.

And yet that wealth had blinded, paralyzed, and deformed the Christians of Laodicea spiritually. Jesus indicted them as lukewarm, being neither cold nor hot (Revelation 3:15-16): they provided neither warmth in cold nor refreshment in heat, but wavered in the middle, leading to instant revulsion. How did they manifest lukewarmness? They said to themselves they were rich and thus had need of nothing. Jesus told them they, in truth, were wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked (Revelation 3:17). Jesus brought home the message in a most devastating way: the Christians who had a lot of gold needed to buy from Jesus gold refined by fire; Christians who enjoyed a thriving garment industry needed white garments from Jesus with which to clothe themselves; Christians who had easy access to the best eyesalve of the day needed Jesus’ eyesalve so they could see (Revelation 3:18). Jesus said such things because of His love for them: He reproves and chastens those whom He loves, and so the Laodiceans ought to prove zealous and repent (Revelation 3:19).

What had gone so wrong for the Christians in Laodicea? How could they have reached the point where Jesus could say nothing positive about them? How could they have been so deceived and deluded? By the moment Jesus wrote to them, the Laodicean Christians had become as “thorny” soil, deceived by their wealth (Matthew 13:22/Mark 4:19/Luke 8:14).

Riches and wealth prove alluring for all sorts of understandable but ultimately unprofitable reasons. With wealth we are able to provide for ourselves and others, yes, but we also start putting our confidence in looking toward the future in that wealth. We feel self-sufficient and in charge if we have wealth. Other people start treating us as more valuable and honorable because of that wealth. Soon we might find ourselves seeking to preserve and grow our wealth for the sake of maintaining it. Some people are able to grow wealth without actively harming or oppressing others; far too often, however, wealth is gained by one at the expense of others. With wealth comes decadence in its many forms: often no appetite is left for seeking justice, advocating for those less fortunate, or zeal for a cause, lest these pursuits somehow jeopardize our wealth and standing. We want to please all people; we want to avoid suffering at any cost. With wealth we become fat and happy.

On a spiritual level wealth proves a disaster. God is the Source of all blessings and gifts; without what God has given, there could be no wealth (James 1:17). One’s wealth all too easily displaces God from the center of one’s life; the wealthy tend to serve Mammon more than God (Matthew 6:24). Maintaining wealth works against all of the demands of believers in Christ Jesus toward dependence on God, humility in disposition, zeal in righteousness and justice, and willingness to suffer affliction so as to grow in faith (cf. Ephesians 4:1-5:21, Colossians 3:1-17). Furthermore, even if there are spiritual warning signs to be seen, the great discomfort which would be caused by recognizing the dangers leads to strong resistance to think of them as problematic. In this way the Laodicean Christians presumed themselves rich and sufficient but proved spiritually wretched, poor, and blind.

Thus Jesus counseled them to suffer, buying gold from Him as refined by fire (cf. 1 Peter 1:6-7); they were to again turn to Him in repentance for cleansing, receiving white garments to cover their nakedness and shame; they were to prove willing to open their eyes to see their true condition before God in Christ, anointed with eyesalve so as to see (Revelation 3:18). Only through suffering would they learn true humility and faith; only by repenting could they find a way to trust in God in Jesus; all these things could only take place if they proved willing to see their true condition. And so it continues to be with the wealthy.

Jesus’ message to the church in Laodicea should be heard as a clarion call to repentance for Christians today. In the Western world all of us, even if poor by modern standards, maintain far more wealth than was present in the ancient Roman world, and enjoy far greater security, comfort, and health than even the wealthiest Romans. The church in the modern era has all too often fallen into decadence, like Laodicea, presuming itself wealthy and in need of nothing, but truly wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. The state of the church in the Western world speaks for itself.

And so Christians today do well to turn to the Lord Jesus and buy from Him that gold refined by fire, proving willing to suffer for the Cause. In the New Testament the Christians who suffered more in life and in persecution tended to be more spiritually mature than those who did not suffer. The way of Christ offers no bypass around suffering: if we wish to reach Zion, we must go through Calvary. Christians must repent of their trust in material wealth, entitlement programs, or their own ingenuity, but repent and seek clothing from Jesus. We are exposed in nakedness to all sorts of dangers even if we have nice clothing and comfortable homes; only Jesus can cover our nakedness and shame. Christians must prove willing to see their plight and not turn aside from its ugliness. How many will enter perdition because they were deceived by the riches of this world? May we prove willing to suffer for the Lord Jesus, repent of our confidence in riches, and gain the victory in faith!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Judgment at the House of God

For the time is come for judgment to begin at the house of God: and if it begin first at us, what shall be the end of them that obey not the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17)

A good rule of any communication is to “know your audience.” They are, after all, the ones to whom you are speaking. They are the ones to whom the message should be directed.

Those who speak in the pages of Scripture knew their audience. The prophets spoke the Word of YHWH to the Israelites of their generation, warning them about their sins and transgressions and the impending judgment to come on account of them and yet providing hope for restoration in the future. Jesus spoke to the Israelites of the first century about the impending Kingdom of God. The Apostles wrote to first century Christians about their conditions and situations and what God wanted them to do.

Peter continues in this tradition in 1 Peter 4:12-19. He is encouraging the Christians who live in what we today call Turkey regarding the persecution and suffering they are experiencing or about to experience. They should not find it at all strange that they will suffer for the Name; they should in fact glory in it (1 Peter 4:12-16). He then emphasizes that judgment is coming, but it begins at the house of God (1 Peter 4:17). Such judgment then extends to those outside the house of God, and their condemnation is understood in Peter’s rhetorical questions (1 Peter 4:17-18; cf. Proverbs 11:31). God will judge and condemn those who persecute and cause suffering for the people of God; the people of God are to entrust themselves to their faithful Creator while continuing to do good (1 Peter 4:19).

Albrecht Dürer The Last Judgment circa 1510

We can see, therefore, that God is very much interested in speaking to the condition and situation of the specific audience to which He speaks. That audience is primarily His people from beginning to end. Those who are not His people are not listening to Him; He can do nothing for them while they remain in that condition (Romans 8:1-9). In Scripture God makes it very clear that those who do not know Him and do not obey the Gospel of His Son will be condemned (Romans 1:18-32, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-9, Revelation 20:11-15). They need to hear the Gospel, repent of their sin, and serve the Lord (Acts 17:22-31).

So it will be that the evil, indifferent, slothful, and uncaring will get their just deserts on the final day. Yet our concern must, first and foremost, be with us as the people of God. God is speaking to us through the message of His Word: judgment begins here (1 Peter 4:17)!

As we have seen it has always been so. The people of God may want to continually point to the gross sinfulness and immorality all around them and act as if such justifies their comparatively less sinful behavior. God has never provided any such refuge; He recognizes that the wicked live in wickedness, expects it, and has given them over to their lusts (Romans 1:18-32). He expects better from His people! Many take too much comfort in passages like John 3:18, Romans 8:31-39, and similar passages, interpreting them absolutely and teaching that their salvation is fully secure no matter what. Nevermind passages like Hebrews 10:26-31, 2 Peter 2:20-22; the story of God’s involvement with Israel should disabuse everyone of the notion that being made the elect of God automatically grants salvation! God does not want to condemn us or anyone else (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9); nevertheless, He has never, and will never, justify or commend any who persist in thoughts, feelings, and behaviors contrary to His will and character.

Judgment begins at the house of God, the church (1 Timothy 3:15, 1 Peter 4:17). Too many look into the pages of Scripture to find how everyone else is condemned or judged; if we would be God’s people we must be humble and chastened enough to recognize that the exhortations and warnings found in the pages of Scripture are indeed primarily directed toward us. God will handle the condemnation of those outside (1 Corinthians 5:13). If we would claim to be the people of God we must allow God to point the finger of exhortation and rebuke found in Scripture at ourselves before we dare attempt to ascertain how it may be directed at others (Matthew 7:1-4). Judgment begins at the house of God; are we ready?

Ethan R. Longhenry

Victorious Over the Beast

And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire; and them that come off victorious from the beast, and from his image, and from the number of his name, standing by the sea of glass, having harps of God (Revelation 15:2).

This is not exactly what most people would call a “victory.”

Victory involves conquering or winning. A victorious sports team generally has more points than the defeated sports team and has thus won. A victorious army maintains the field and the defeated army has been beaten back or routed. In hand-to-hand combat, the one who lives is victorious; the one who is killed has been defeated.

As part of the vision Jesus gives to him, John has seen a powerful beast, representing the world power arrogating itself against God and seeking to be honored as divine, referring in his own day to the Roman Empire (Revelation 13:1-6). John is also told that this beast was allowed to make war on the saints and conquer them (Revelation 13:7). We naturally understand here how it could be said that the beast gained the victory over the people of God: the beast remains alive while the people of God are not.

Later John will see another vision of heaven: as the angels prepare to pour out the seven bowls of plagues, John sees near a sea of glass mingled with fire “them that come off victorious from the beast and from his image” (Revelation 15:1-2). How can this be? How can those who were defeated now be considered victorious?

It is not as if the saints conquered the beast between Revelation 13:7 and Revelation 15:2: the judgment of God in Christ is being brought upon the beast, but that is not the doing of the people of God. No: those who gained the victory over the beast and his image are the very ones whom the beast defeated, and they gained that victory based on that defeat!

Granted, there are times when a defeated people will attempt to spin their defeat into some sort of victory or to save face in some way, but according to all human and worldly logic this statement is patently ludicrous. Victorious in defeat? Victorious over the victor? This seems to make no sense!

Even though it makes no sense in worldly terms, it is the sustaining hope for the people of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-31). Neither Jesus nor John are attempting to sugarcoat the reality here: Christians are being killed. They are giving up their lives as witnesses to Jesus of Nazareth as the Lord Christ, and by all human standards it seems as if the beast has gained the victory over them.

Yet in so doing the beast has done all he can do to them: he can kill them but he can do no more. This is quite similar to what the same power had done earlier to Jesus of Nazareth Himself!

The religious authorities found Jesus of Nazareth to be quite irritating and a major challenge to their power (cf. John 11:46-53). Therefore, they conspired and plotted to do the thing they did with irritants and those who threatened their position: they had Him killed. They proved successful at killing Him; they went home to rest on that Sabbath quite convinced of their victory no doubt (cf. John 19:1-42). They had done all they could do to Him.

But that was not the end of the story: on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead (John 20:1-21:25). Tyranny and death no longer had any power over Him; they could not hurt Him any longer (Romans 6:8-11). Jesus commissioned His twelve disciples as witnesses to His resurrection with power (Acts 1:1-11). By killing Jesus, the Jewish religious authorities did not end His threat to their power; they confirmed it. The message of this “sect of the Nazarene” spread throughout Israel and well beyond its borders. Fifty years later, the religious authorities’ power was destroyed along with their Temple and their city, and Christianity remained, stronger than ever (cf. Matthew 24:1-36).

Jesus’ resurrection changed everything: He defeated death. In defeating death He defanged the greatest power of the tyrant, the threat of death. Sure, a tyrant could still physically kill people, but he could never stop the saints from receiving rest from God while they await the resurrection or the resurrection itself. In fact, by killing Christians, a tyrant merely hastens their joy and glory, for they go to be in the presence of the Lord (Philippians 1:21-24).

So yes, the beast gains victory over the people of God inasmuch as they are killed, but in the grand scheme of things, it is the people of God who have obtained the victory. They stood firm and did not give into the beast or to compromise with him; they continued to exalt Jesus as Lord at the cost of their physical lives. Yet in giving up those lives they have gained an eternal witness and thus stand in the presence of God and Christ as seen in Revelation 15:2. They will obtain the resurrection for eternity; the beast will suffer judgment and be condemned.

Perhaps this seems to be a strange form of a “sustaining hope.” It certainly does not sound pleasant, especially in the short term! Yet it remains a sustaining hope because it helps us to be assured of the ultimate victory for believers in Christ. Very often in the short term it seems as if the powers of evil are ascendant and have the advantage; the hardest thing to do many times is to simply remain faithful. But we should expect this: John has seen it coming. The beast is allowed to gain his victory over the people of God. Yet, as with the Jewish religious authorities, so with the beast: the Roman Empire is no more but Christianity remains ascendant. Plenty of other empires have arisen and persecuted the people of God; they are all relics of a bygone age, but Christianity remains. So it will be in the present generation.

The people of God will obtain the victory through the Lamb of God. The Lamb’s victory certainly does not seem like a victory in the short-term, but in the end, we will see that the result was never really in doubt and too many fell for a short-term delusion. The pleasures of this world, the hostility of the present age, persecution of the faith: these can only last as long as this physical life endures. Yet we know in Christ that is not the end; we await the resurrection of life! Let us find in Jesus crucified and raised our ultimate and sustaining hope and prove willing to suffer with Him so as to be raised in glory like Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Expectation of Trial

Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial among you, which cometh upon you to prove you, as though a strange thing happened unto you: but insomuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings, rejoice; that at the revelation of his glory also ye may rejoice with exceeding joy (1 Peter 4:12-13).

It would seem that amazement at suffering for the Name is not only a modern phenomenon.

The first century Christians in modern-day Turkey were experiencing some level of persecution. They were going through trial (1 Peter 1:6-7): they should expect their neighbors to revile them as evildoers (1 Peter 2:12), not understanding why they no longer participate in the same idolatry and immorality as before (1 Peter 4:3-5). The Christians will do good to others and receive harm in return (1 Peter 2:18-20).

Peter tells them these thing so they are prepared for what they are experiencing or will experience. He wants them to know that these difficulties are to be expected. They should not consider it strange that they are suffering for the cause of Jesus (1 Peter 4:12-13). It is par for the course.

We can imagine why people would think suffering for Jesus is strange. Jesus calls upon people to be good to one another and help those in need: how could anyone not like someone who is good and does good to others? Perhaps we expect others to tolerate different religious beliefs, and in such a view, even if people disagree with Christianity, they should at least respect those who seek to practice it. In such a view, suffering because of one’s religion would be strange. These days some feel it is strange to suffer as a Christian because people have paid at least lip service to Christianity and Christian conceptions of the world, ethics, and morality for generations and therefore those views should still be considered as normative.

In an ideal world it would be strange to suffer for following after Jesus. Then again, in an ideal world, we would not have needed Jesus in the first place! We live in a world corrupted by sin (Romans 5:12-18, 8:18-23). Some people consider evil as good, and good as evil (cf. Isaiah 5:20). Yes, people will be more than happy to take advantage of someone who will do good for them, but when they see the contrast between their lives and the life of the righteous, they are faced with a decision: change and be like the righteous, attempt to get the righteous to sin and be like them, or to reject, condemn, and perhaps even kill the righteous so as to feel better about themselves and their condition. A few change to be like the righteous; the majority tempt the righteous or seek to cause them harm. There will always be a level of tolerance in terms of certain subjects, but the exclusive claims of Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, and the standard which He upholds can never be truly or fully tolerated by those who do not seek to adhere to that standard (cf. John 14:6, 15:18-19). In modern America any pretense of being a “Christian nation” has worn away; secular culture now maintains a worldview quite alien and hostile to that of Christianity. Disagreement and conflict are the inevitable result.

Yet it has always been that way. The Apostles did not mince words or attempt to sugarcoat this reality: Paul declared that it is through tribulation that we enter the Kingdom of God (Acts 14:22). He also said that we must suffer with Jesus if we want to inherit glory with Him (Romans 8:17). He declared that all those who live godly in Christ Jesus will experience persecution (2 Timothy 3:12). And Peter says that we must not think it strange to suffer trial, but that we should rejoice as a partaker of Christ’s sufferings (1 Peter 4:12-13). They certainly did not expect Christianity to be a walk in the park or a ticket to easy street; far from it! They wanted Christians to be fully prepared for the onslaught of the Devil which would come, be it through persecution at the hands of others, unfortunate circumstances, illness, and other trials. If anything, Christians should think it strange if they are not experiencing trials or such difficulties: it may well mean that the Devil has no reason to cause them harm because they are his (cf. Luke 6:26)!

Sufferings, trials, temptations, persecutions, and all sorts of troubles come along with the territory in Christianity. We should not be surprised when they come upon us. We could whine, complain, get frustrated, demand answers, and such like, but ultimately such reactions prove unprofitable. If our outlook regarding trial is negative we may not endure. It does seem strange to rejoice in suffering, as Peter suggests; it seems rather sadistic to do so. Peter is not suggesting that we should find pleasure in going through trials, difficulties, and tribulations, but to find joy in the result of those trials, a tested, tried, and purified faith, one that will lead to honor and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ who already suffered so much for us all (1 Peter 1:3-9, 4:12-13). We find joy in suffering for the Name since He suffered great hostility for the joy set before Him (Hebrews 12:1-2). We can only share in His inheritance when we have shared in His sufferings (Romans 6:1-7, 8:17-18).

In a creation subject to futility and decay, suffering and trial are the norm, not the exception. Our preparation and/or response to such trial makes all the difference. When we experience difficulty, especially from our fellow man who persecutes us for our faith, will we want to fight, argue, complain, and be bitter about it? Or will we rejoice inasmuch as we share in he suffering of Christ, and maintain the hope that we will therefore share in His inheritance and glory? Let us maintain that hope firm to the end, come what may, and find a way to glorify God in whatever circumstances we find ourselves!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Rage of the Nations

Why do the nations rage, and the peoples meditate a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together against the LORD and against his anointed (Psalm 2:1-2).

It is a pressing question in almost every generation: why are the powers that be opposed to the purposes of God?

The Psalmist envisions the day of conflict between YHWH and His Anointed One with the rulers of the nations (Psalm 2:1-12). The land of Israel was a tempting target for all sorts of nations: the neighboring Ammonites, Arameans, Canaanites, Edomites, Moabites, Phoenicians, and the Philistines would certainly enjoy more territory and tribute from Israel, while the greater nations of Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, and others understood its value as the main land connection between Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Old Testament is full of discussions of wars between the Israelites and their neighbors both near and far, and how God would often give the king of Israel and/or the king of Judah victory over their enemies.

All of these conflicts and battles are only the shadow of which the reality would be realized in Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of God. Herod the Great conspired against Him at His birth (Matthew 2:1-18). His death brought together Pontius Pilate, Roman procurator of Judea, and Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, who had formerly been at odds with each other (Luke 23:1-12). The cry for His crucifixion came from Jewish men and women who were willing to cry out that their only king was Caesar (John 19:15). The Roman power would fulfill their request (Luke 23:13-49). They all might have thought that such would be the end of Jesus of Nazareth and His mission, but they were quite wrong. God raised Jesus from the dead, and triumphed over the authorities, not just in the flesh on earth, but also the spiritual powers of darkness (Colossians 2:15).

Even though Jesus obtained the victory, His followers continued to understand the conflicts caused by their witness to Jesus in terms of Psalm 2:1-12. After Peter and John were cast into prison and castigated by the Sanhedrin, they and the other Apostles prayed the very words of Psalm 2:1-2 before God, connected it with Jesus before Herod and Pilate, and asked for continued boldness to advance Jesus’ purposes in Jerusalem (Acts 4:24-30). John sees a vision of Jesus being born and then taken to heaven where He rules with a rod of iron (Revelation 12:1-6; cf. Psalm 2:9). John then sees the contest between the people of God and the beast, the world power arrogating against God as empowered by the dragon, the Evil One, and the ultimate victory of the people of God over the forces of evil through Jesus (Revelation 12:7-14:20). When it is all said and done, God is praised, for while the nations raged, His wrath came, and the judgment came: the saints are rewarded, and the destroyers are destroyed (Revelation 11:18).

Opposition to the Kingdom of God is to be expected; the claim that Jesus is Lord, by its very nature, demands that those who would like to presume the highest authority for themselves are not. The kings of Babylon and the Caesars of Rome may have passed on, but nations still seek to be seen as all-powerful and deserving of all loyalty, and they chafe at the idea that people’s loyalty should fully and always be with the Lord Jesus (Matthew 10:34-39). Time would fail us if we were to tell of all the persecutions experienced by the people of God when they dared to stand up for Jesus as Lord against kings and nations who sought glory and honor for themselves. It continues to this day!

The kings of the earth plot against the purposes of God; the nations often rage against Him and His purposes. Their ultimate failure is guaranteed; the Lord Jesus has won the victory (Revelation 1:8, 17-18). Therefore, we should not be afraid of the nations. Sure, they may persecute us, perhaps even to death, but they can never extend the hope of resurrection and eternal life as Jesus has. Let us trust in Jesus as Lord and proclaim His Lordship boldly come what may!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Persecuted for Righteousness’ Sake

“Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets that were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12).

It might seem that Jesus has left the strangest for last.

Most of Jesus’ “beatitudes” have been counter-intuitive or inconsistent with the norm. When we think of who is blessed, happy, or fortunate, the poor, those in mourning, the meek, those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers do not necessarily come to mind (cf. Matthew 5:3-9). We tend to associate happiness with more material prosperity and more favorable circumstances than those. Jesus is aware of this, and such is likely a major driver of why He begins His “Sermon on the Mount” this way. He is attempting to overthrow expectations, helping people to see things in a different and fresh way, and finding the “silver lining” and the true righteousness that can be found in many unpopular positions.

But to consider those who are being persecuted for righteousness’ sake as being happy, fortunate, or blessed is extremely counter-intuitive and entirely inconsistent with the norm. To expect anyone to rejoice and be glad when they are reproached and persecuted unjustly seems extremely loony to a lot of people. It also seems entirely unjust, unfair, and difficult to swallow!

We must first consider the oddity that is persecution for doing what is right. We all have a built-in “fairness meter” governing our lives. When we do good things, we expect to receive good things in return; likewise, when we know we have done bad things, we expect bad things in return. If we face persecution and reproach, we are first likely to wonder if we have done something wrong. If we have done wrong and suffer for it, that seems about right (cf. 1 Peter 2:20). But if we are doing good, and we are standing up for love, mercy, and compassion, living righteously and a benefit to others, and yet we are reviled, persecuted, or reproached for it, we feel doubly wronged: not only are we experiencing the unpleasantness of the persecution, but it is in return for being nice!

This would become a challenge for the Christians of Asia Minor which Peter addresses throughout his first letter, particularly in 1 Peter 2:18-25; in that passage one can clearly hear the echoes of Jesus in the “Sermon on the Mount.” Jesus understands the challenge this particular principle poses for people; of all the “beatitudes,” this is the one whose message is essentially repeated twice, one time in the abstract (“blessed are they that…,” Matthew 5:10), and then again with direct application (“blessed are ye when…,” Matthew 5:11). In fact, it is the only “personalized beatitude,” directly including Jesus’ audience.

Jesus knows how persecution and reproach will come on account of living righteously for His sake, but why? He appeals to the example of the prophets that came beforehand (Matthew 5:12): in Luke 6:22-23, 26, we have the full contrast between the “blessing” of being persecuted for righteousness’ sake as the prophets experienced, and the woe befalling those of whom all speak well as the false prophets experienced.

We do well to consider the prophets. The prophets stood for God’s truth and accomplished amazing things for the people through the power of God. Elijah and Elisha both raised the dead and brought deliverance in various forms to the people of Israel (cf. 1 Kings 16:1-2 Kings 8:6). Prophets like Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel brought the message of God to Israel, exhorting the people to repent while time remained. They did not sin against the people: they did not extort people out of what was theirs, they were not persuaded by a bribe, they did not pervert justice for or against the disadvantaged or the privileged, or any such thing. Nevertheless, very few people paid them any heed. Those in Israel who were extorting from the people, accepting bribes, perverting justice toward the advantaged, and so on worked diligently to undermine these prophets and caused them great harm. Many were mistreated. Some were even killed (cf. Matthew 21:35-36). Yet, in the end, the prophets proved faithful to God, and received their reward (cf. Hebrews 11:32-38).

Such experiences were not pleasant; there are many times in Jeremiah’s writings where we can discern the prophet’s agony and emotional turmoil about the message with which he was sent, its implications, and the reactions of the people. And yet he fully trusted in God despite the actions of the people!

Why did the prophets come to such grief? The message God gave them would be fine and dandy as long as they kept it to themselves and lived their own lives by it. Yet it became a threat the minute it was proclaimed to others: it threatened the existing power systems, it threatened people’s worldviews, underlying assumptions, and much of what they clung to for comfort. It exposed the darkness and evil in their lives. God’s message was uncomfortable, and it was always easier to dismiss, harm, or kill the messenger than it was to endure what was proclaimed, take it to heart, and change.

Therefore, even though it seems counter-intuitive, we can understand how one would be persecuted, reviled, and spoken evil of for being righteous in Jesus’ name. It would be one thing if Christianity is something we keep to ourselves and only seek to apply it to our own lives. But when that life is seen by others, and proclaimed to others, it becomes a threat to existing power structures, worldviews, underlying assumptions, things which people find comfortable, and it exposes the evil and darkness in people. It remains easier to dismiss, injure, or kill the messenger than it is to heed the message, take it to heart, and change.

So how can we find joy in such events? We must be very careful about this; far too many take this principle and distort it toward ungodliness, seeking to proclaim Jesus’ message in adversarial and hostile ways, and using the inevitable “persecution” and reviling that comes as a response as the automatic justification for the behavior. We can experience persecution as easily by sanctimonious, harsh, angry, and inflammatory words and deeds as by truly living righteously, and we are deluded by the Evil One whenever we think that we are experiencing the latter despite having done the former. As in all things, Jesus is to be our example (cf. 1 Peter 2:21-25). He made a firm stand against the religious authorities but taught the regular people with compassion. He went about doing good and was condemned, beaten, and crucified for doing so. And, in the end, the joy was His, since He accomplished God’s purposes and is now the Author and Perfecter of the faith of those who come to Him (cf. Hebrews 12:1-2).

As the Hebrew author said, Jesus despised the shame (Hebrews 12:2), and He could only do that by finding the joy that could come from being persecuted and reviled. If we are humbly living before God, respectfully living and speaking God’s truth, live in righteousness and justice, and receive evil for it, we need not be ashamed. We must despise that shame, and we can only do that by recognizing how fortunate we are to be able to follow in the footsteps of the prophets, Jesus, and the Apostles.

It is no fun to experience persecution, but the reward for suffering despite speaking and living righteously and justly is great. Let us continue to place our trust in God no matter how we appear before men, despise the shame, and glorify God our Savior!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Suffering for the Name

And to [Gamaliel] [the Sanhedrin] agreed: and when they had called the apostles unto them, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. They therefore departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the Name (Acts 5:40-41).

The pattern was repeating itself yet again.

As it happened during Jesus’ life, so it was happening after His death and resurrection: the proclamation of salvation and life in His name went forth, people heard it gladly, and it earned the jealousy and ire of the Jewish religious authorities. Jesus was delivered into their hands, and they had Him executed (Luke 22:47-23:49). Peter and John had previously been arrested for preaching and teaching in the Temple (Acts 4:1-22); now, on account of the continued popularity of the message of Jesus, all the Apostles are imprisoned (Acts 5:17-19). An angel sets them free and they go preach to the people in the Temple (Acts 5:20-25), but the Apostles do eventually stand before the council– the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:26-39). Wise Gamaliel dissuaded the Sanhedrin from killing them, but that did not stop the Sanhedrin from having the Apostles beaten (Acts 5:40). The call made for them to stop preaching Jesus was in vain; they would soon again be proclaiming the message that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ of Israel (Acts 5:42).

How would we have felt had we been standing there with the Apostles? Ancient beatings were not pleasant– perhaps up to thirty-nine lashings on the back (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:24). Today such behavior would be considered “cruel and unusual punishment”; in ancient times, it was probably understood as cruel, but it was all too usual. The thought today makes us cringe. But what would we have done had we been compelled to experience such abuse?

It would be easy to be angry; we might want some form of retribution. The carnal aspect of us would want to see them beaten in a similar way. It would be tempting to take solace in the idea that they would experience such in the hereafter, if not sooner.

It would also be easy to just deal with the pain and be quiet. Sure, we might not want to break out in anger, but we would not necessarily be cheerful about it either. We would probably want to go home, nurse the wounds, perhaps complain and whine about the pain and the humiliation a little bit, and then move on with our lives.

But how many of us would react as the Apostles reacted– rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor because of the Name of Christ (Acts 5:41)?

Dishonor is not something most of us want to experience. If we have to suffer, then we will suffer, but we will hardly glory in it. The last thing most of us would do is think about suffering in terms of being “worthy” to suffer– if anything, we would equate “worthiness” with a lack of suffering!

Yet the attitude of the Apostles is precisely why their message was turning the world upside down. They had understood not just what Jesus’ death and resurrection meant for the world; they also understood what life should be like because of how Jesus lived. They experienced Jesus’ humiliation, in a way, having had their feet washed by Him (John 13:1-17). They saw through His life and death how the greatest among them was their Servant, since Jesus had come not to be served but to serve and to be the ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28). To be humiliated and to be degraded was to be like Jesus; to suffer unjustly was to follow in the path of Christ (cf. 1 Peter 2:18-25). Even though the Apostles would agree that the beating was unpleasant, they would point to Jesus’ own scourging so that they– as well as us– could be healed from our transgressions (cf. Mark 15:15, 1 Peter 2:24). Suffering with Christ was the means by which they would be glorified with Christ (Romans 8:17); therefore, to be counted worthy to suffer for the Name means that they are counted worthy to obtain glory in salvation.

This is completely foreign to the world; nevertheless, in light of Jesus and the life He lived, it makes some sense. In Christ we can glory in degradation and humiliation; in Christ we can rejoice that we are counted worthy to suffer for His name.

We will suffer; this much is assured (Acts 14:22, 2 Timothy 3:12). How far we have grown in Christ and matured in our faith will be evidenced in our reaction to that suffering. Will we get angry, harbor resentment, and demand retribution, as people of the world would? Will we instead decide to turn inward, nurse the wound, and act as Stoics regarding the whole situation? Or will we rejoice in that we have been counted worthy of suffering for the Name of Jesus, assuming that our suffering is for that cause, and glorify God that we are joining with Christ in humiliation and suffering? Let us grow and mature in our faith and rejoice in God no matter what circumstances may befall us!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Morality Turned Upside Down

Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20)

Does it ever seem like the idea of morality has become a joke? It seems like one’s social and economic stature determines what is moral. With enough clout and money, it seems, one could get away with anything– even murder at times! The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and no one seems to care. As the wealthy consolidate power thanks to their resources, the situation seems all but hopeless. Either you are rich, and the land is your oyster, or you are poor, and you serve the rich in many ways. If you are poor, the slightest infraction might be your doom; if you have enough resources, you can get your way out of anything.

Does that sound familiar? Many might think that such is true today. It was also quite true of the days of Isaiah. Those with wealth could live with impunity. They could squeeze out the small farmer, bribe any judicial figures, and feast away with the king and others (cf. Isaiah 5:18-24). The poor man was forced to bear all of this. If he had to be sold into debt slavery, so be it; such meant little to the wealthy landowner. They had the luxury of choosing which laws to favor and which laws to neglect. They could call light darkness and darkness light, and mock the expectations of God for equity in dealing with all people.

Isaiah would not stand for this. He proclaimed the message of God’s disfavor with the actions of the rich and influential. He predicted their doom at the hands of first Assyria and then Babylon. They would receive their comeuppance– eventually. Woe, indeed, to them.

While the challenges of today are not as based on income as they were in days past, there is still the sense that the rich and powerful can get away with pretty much everything. If a “regular Joe” steals something, he has a quick trial and goes to prison in a pretty bad environment. If the wealthy extort or embezzle, which is theft, and happen to get caught, and happen to go to trial, and happen to get sentenced, and actually have to serve time, it tends to be in a far more cushy environment– if it ever ended in imprisonment. Different standards abound to this day!

Challenges with morality are not limited to the upper class; everyone has their sins (Romans 3:23). These days, however, the idea of “sin” is on the out. Many believe that “sin” is an artificial construct, an invention of authorities attempting to keep the people down. Things that God has declared to be sinful are re-named to seem less harmful. Arguments are made to appeal to the heart-strings in a misguided attempt to show compassion to that which is, in reality, sinful. And those who dare declare what God has said are labeled “intolerant,” “bigoted,” “narrow-minded,” or “old-fashioned.”

There is little doubt that the Israelites of Isaiah’s day could have done similar things. Idolatry was just “a different theological choice.” Bribes were just “ways to get things done.” Isaiah, no doubt, was considered intolerant, narrow-minded, perhaps even fundamentalistic, a dangerous religious zealot, for declaring the will of the Lord.

Our time is not as “enlightened” as its participants would imagine. As long as there have been people in sin there have been people who have been trying to find ways to justify their sins and demonize anyone who would challenge their justifications. There have always been people who want to bend the rules to their own favor and find any way possible in which to do so. Many will do what they want to do no matter what anyone tells them. The human capacity for self-justification is almost unimaginable in its depth.

Yet, as in Isaiah’s proclamation, so with today. Comeuppance will come, eventually, to such people. Justice may be served in their own lifetimes; it will surely be served on the final day (Acts 17:30-31). God’s patience and longsuffering toward people, hoping for their repentance (2 Peter 3:9), will not last forever, and many will learn the true cost of calling evil good and good evil; of declaring bitter sweet and sweet bitter; of loving the darkness and hating the light.

Believers in God often feel distressed by all of this, and it is understandable. It is much harder to strive to live as God would have us live when it is reviled as being the opposite of what it truly is– the way of life, light, and peace (John 8:12, Romans 8:6). Yet believers should take comfort in knowing that this has been the way people have been acting for centuries; it is not a purely modern phenomenon. It will continue until the Lord returns. It is not fair, it is difficult, and sometimes we get penalized for it. But we know who will ultimately reward the righteous and condemn the wicked (1 Peter 4:12-19). Let us stand for what is just, right, true, and holy, no matter what it is called or how others may abuse us, and receive the ultimate reward in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Not Ashamed of the Gospel

For I am not ashamed of the gospel: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek (Romans 1:16).

Paul’s bold declaration in Romans 1:16 has been popular among Christians for generations. His message is a rallying cry for faith and the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Its message also represents a significant challenge: Paul was not ashamed of the Gospel, but what about us?

V&A - Raphael, St Paul Preaching in Athens (1515)

Few are those who would directly admit that they are ashamed of the Gospel. We know that we should not directly contradict an Apostle! Our attitudes and actions, however, may tell a different story.

Our confidence and strength in the Gospel message is not tested among Christians in the assembly but out in the world. When we are in a group of people and spiritual matters are brought up, do we take the opportunity to speak of the truth or do we remain quiet? If we are around people who do not believe and are hostile to the truth, and they want to know if we are Christians and what we believe, do we boldly confess Jesus or do we make excuses? In our relationships with people of the world, do we ever find opportunities to talk about their spiritual condition, or are we too afraid that we are going to offend or cause discomfort?

Paul can declare that he is not ashamed of the Gospel because he attests to all the antagonism and violence he suffered on account of its message:

Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as one beside himself) I more; in labors more abundantly, in prisons more abundantly, in stripes above measure, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day have I been in the deep; in journeyings often, in perils of rivers, in perils of robbers, in perils from my countrymen, in perils from the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in labor and travail, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Besides those things that are without, there is that which presseth upon me daily, anxiety for all the churches (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).

He stood in the midst of hostile unbelievers and proclaimed the Gospel anyway. He endured beatings and imprisonments because of the message of the Gospel, and he proclaimed the Gospel anyway. Odds are that none of us will experience the kind of persecution that Paul endured; will that lead us to boldness in proclaiming the Gospel or will we become complacent?

Do we really believe that the Gospel is God’s power of salvation to everyone? If we make excuses and justify our fears and do not proclaim the message, we prove that we are ashamed of the message of Jesus Christ.

Consider: what if, during the night, you discover the cure for cancer? You know possess the knowledge that can lead to the end of suffering and death for millions of people around the world! What would you do with that knowledge? Would you keep it to yourself and not be a bother, or would you go out and proclaim it everywhere?

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that you kept it to yourself. What kind of person does such a thing? What would people think of you if they knew that you had, in your possession, the knowledge that would lead to the relief of thousands of people, and yet you did nothing with it? At best, you would be considered heartless and cruel. At worst, you are no better than a murderer!

While it is unlikely that you will discover the cure for cancer, if you are a Christian, you have in your possession the knowledge of how to overcome the most potent illness that has caused the most pain and misery in human history: the problem of sin (Romans 3:23, 6:23). You have the message of the Gospel, the message that can lead to the relief of billions of souls from the pain and slavery of sin and death (cf. Romans 1:16, 8:1-2). What kind of person are you if you keep that message to yourself?

Proclaiming the Gospel message involves personal risk. It will no doubt be uncomfortable at times. It may lead to rejection, insults, or mockery. In some cases, it could lead to physical punishment or even death. Nevertheless, the Gospel message remains the most important message that can be proclaimed, and God seeks people who are not ashamed of that message to send it out to every creature (cf. Mark 16:15-16). While the dangers are great, the rewards are far greater (cf. Romans 8:17-18). Let us boldly affirm and proclaim the Gospel of Christ, and lead those with whom we come into contact to the God who can deliver them!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Soils

“Hear then ye the parable of the sower. When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the evil one, and snatcheth away that which hath been sown in his heart. This is he that was sown by the way side. And he that was sown upon the rocky places, this is he that heareth the word, and straightway with joy receiveth it; yet hath he not root in himself, but endureth for a while; and when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, straightway he stumbleth. And he that was sown among the thorns, this is he that heareth the word; and the care of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful. And he that was sown upon the good ground, this is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; who verily beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” (Matthew 13:18-23).

The Parable of the Sower is one of Jesus’ most famous parables. Its meaning resonates for us today.

The sower is the preacher of the Gospel of Christ– the message of His life, death, resurrection, and Kingdom (cf. Romans 1:16, 1 Corinthians 15:3-5). The seed is that message. The focus of the parable, however, is on the different types of soils.

The “road soil” is quite hard, and the Word finds no room to take ground within it. Such are the unbelievers who choose to stay that way. They do not understand– or do not want to understand– Jesus’ message of humility, service, and turning from sin. The Evil One keeps them in his grip (cf. John 8:44-47).

So go the unbelievers. The next three types of soil feature believers and their fruit.

The “rocky soil” are those who hear the Word, believe and obey it, and start well. The Word is not deeply founded, however, and whenever difficulty arises– persecution for the Name, economic distress, physical suffering, or some other calamity– they turn away from their faith. It may take days, months, or even years for this difficulty to come, but when it does, the shallowness of that believer’s faith is made evident. Their faith is tested– and it fails.

The “thorny soil” also hear the Word and believe it and obey it. They recognize that Jesus is the Christ and know that they should devote themselves to spiritual things. But they have busy lives. They may be devoting themselves to some idol– money, fame, recreation, or some other pleasure. They may be so devoted to the needs of their physical family, friends, and the like that they do not make the time for spiritual matters. Since the Kingdom is not made a priority, their faith weakens and dies. Misplaced and misguided priorities lead to the end of their faith.

The “good soil” are those who hear the Word, believe it, obey it, and make spiritual things their first priority. Difficulties and temptations come, and their faith is tried, but they persevere and grow (James 1:2-4, 1 Peter 1:3-9). They have plenty of obligations in the world, but they realize that their obedience to Christ is first and foremost and can be accomplished within their other obligations (cf. Ephesians 5:22-6:9). According to their gifts and service, they produce fruit: some thirtyfold, others sixtyfold, some one hundredfold. As humble servants, they praise God for all that He accomplishes, and participate joyfully in their specific role (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:12-28). Those producing a hundredfold do not look down upon the those with sixtyfold or thirtyfold, and the latter are not jealous of the former.

Let the one who has ears hear. We can see these responses to the Word in action in our own lives and the lives of those around us. We may seem to be “good” soil but turn out to be “rocky” soil. The thorns of the world are always around us. On the other hand, possibly “rocky” soil may turn and become “good” soil. In the end, let us be the good soil, producing for the Lord, with God giving the increase (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:5-7)!

Ethan R. Longhenry