Tell Us Plainly!

The Jews therefore came round about him, and said unto him, “How long dost thou hold us in suspense? If thou art the Christ, tell us plainly” (John 10:24).

The questions and the suspense had finally boiled over; a confrontation proved necessary. The Israelites wanted clarity. Is Jesus of Nazareth really claiming to be the Messiah? They wanted to hear Him tell them so plainly.

Jesus was yet again in Jerusalem, this time for Hanukkah or the Feast of Dedication, and He was walking in the Temple (John 10:22-23). The Jewish people of Jerusalem had heard Jesus teach them before and had heard of the many miracles which He wrought (John 5:1-10:21). Questions constantly surrounded Jesus and His teachings: is He the Christ? Do the rulers know this? Would the Christ do more miracles than Jesus had done? Is He mad? Yet what about His teachings (cf. John 7:26-27, 31, 10:19-21)? How Jesus was going about doing things led to more questions than answers, and the Jewish people could wait no longer. When they found Him at the Temple in Jerusalem, they confronted Him and asked Him pointedly: are you the Messiah, the Christ, the One God promised to send to redeem Israel? Yes or no? They wanted a plain answer. Was that too much to ask?

Jesus does not just say “yes” or “no”; He points out that He has given them plenty of reason to believe because of the works He has done (John 10:25). He then castigates those Israelites because they are not of His flock since they do not believe; the Jews pick up stones to stone Him because He made Himself out to be God (John 10:26-33). This seems to be a theme in John’s Gospel: some Jews who believe or who directly ask Jesus about who He is become those who pick up stones to stone Him for what they perceive to be blasphemy (cf. John 8:31-59).

Yet this interaction between Jesus and these Jewish people brings up a good question, one asked frequently about Jesus and the way He conducts Himself in the Gospels: why would Jesus not tell them plainly? Is He trying to hide something? If He is the Messiah, the Christ, would He not want all the people to know it and proclaim it upon the rooftops? Why does Jesus seem to be at least somewhat evasive or ambivalent about declaring His Messiahship clearly?

Such questions are understandable coming from us humans; we see things the way we see them and it is often hard for us to consider the matter from another perspective. But Jesus answers as He does and conducts Himself as He does for very good reasons that are sometimes easy to miss. In John 2:24-25 it is said that Jesus did not trust Himself to humans because He knew what humans were about. This is especially true with the question the Jewish people had: “are you the Christ?”

Jesus knew well what they meant by “the Christ”; they had particular expectations about what the Messiah would be and do. Based on their understanding of the prophets they looked forward to a Davidic descendant who would ride into Jerusalem in triumph, raise an army, defeat the pagan Roman forces, and inaugurate a renewed Davidic kingdom centered in Jerusalem. From this perspective we can understand the bafflement of the Jewish people when it came to Jesus; He was not about re-establishing a physical Davidic kingdom as in days past. The Romans were not even His real enemy! But we can also understand why Jesus could not have just simply said, “Yes, I am the Messiah,” for then the people would hail Him as king and attempt to force Him to become the Messiah of their desires and understanding. Yet God’s plan was not the plan of Israel; they had not put the message of the prophets together properly.

Jesus’ response is quite instructive. Jesus points His Jewish questioners back to the things He had done and how they bear witness to Jesus’ Messiahship (John 10:25). If they recognized that the true signs of the Messiah had been done by Jesus, they would have recognized Jesus as the Messiah, and would have adjusted their expectations and understanding of the Messiah’s mission and purpose accordingly. This is the direction in which Simon Peter and the Apostles head in John 6:67-69: they may not have full understanding of what is going on, but they have come to believe that Jesus is the Holy One of God who has the words of eternal life. Jesus’ message to the Jewish people may sound harsh but rings true: they are not of His flock, for they have not proven willing to set aside their expectations so as to be able to see what God is doing through Jesus, and as long as they cannot get past the expectation for all things to be done as they imagine they should, they will never be able to understand Jesus’ true identity and purpose (John 10:26-39).

To this day people frequently make similar demands of God or His people. They expect for God or His people to answer their questions simply and plainly and really are demanding for God and His work to conform to their perspective and expectations. For good reason it is rarely possible to give such questions easy “yes” or “no” answers; the very question itself or the way the question is phrased often belies a improper view or expectation of things. To this day people suffer from the same problem as those Jewish people did so long ago: they see things the way they see them, they have their expectations, and prove rather unwilling to question those assumptions and expectations. Yet whomever we are or whatever we believe we must recognize that God’s ways and thoughts are higher than our ways and thoughts, and therefore we must yield our expectations, perspective, and understanding to His (Isaiah 55:8-9). There are likely many things going on beyond our comprehension, either ever or at least for the time being, and so we are left with the same conundrum as the Jewish people experienced during Jesus’ ministry. Do we put our trust in Jesus of Nazareth on the basis of His works and teachings and in so doing radically revise our expectations of how God is working in the world, or do we continue to find reasons to doubt Jesus’ Messiahship because who He is and what He is doing does not make sense with everything we have ever heard?

At some point we all reach the point of divergence in the path, and we must choose whether we will trust in God or trust in our perception of things, or, as the Apostle Paul put it, whether we will walk by faith or by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). We can come to God and demand that He answer our questions plainly, but we should not expect that answer to be simple or the one we would like to hear. Instead we do better to entrust ourselves to God, confident that even though we may not be able to make sense of everything, He can and does. Let us trust in God in Christ and not ourselves!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Rehoboam’s Folly

But [Rehoboam] forsook the counsel of the old men which they had given him, and took counsel with the young men that were grown up with him, that stood before him (1 Kings 12:8).

The hearer or reader of the narrative in 1 Kings knows what is about to happen; in 1 Kings 11:26-40 Ahijah’s prophetic declaration to Jeroboam that he will rule over ten of Israel’s tribes is recorded. How the division would come about is what is left to make known, and its story is found in 1 Kings 12:1-19.

All Israel meets with Rehoboam at Shechem to install and affirm him as king, and there Jeroboam spoke to him on behalf of all Israel asking for relief from the heavy yoke of Solomon upon the land (1 Kings 12:1-3). Rehoboam asked for three days to get counsel; he began with the older men who had served his father, and they told him to be the people’s servant and speak good words to them and they would serve him as they had Solomon (1 Kings 12:4-7). Yet Rehoboam did not listen to their counsel; he turned to his peers, those young men who grew up with him, and they suggest that he ought to magnify himself over the people, declaring that his little finger is thicker than his father’s “loins,” most likely a crude sexual reference, a way of trying to proclaim that he is much more of a man than his father was, and that whereas Solomon disciplined with whips, he would discipline with scorpions (1 Kings 12:9-11). Rehoboam speaks as the young men suggest, and Israel predictably rebels, and the United Monarchy is dissolved into the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah (1 Kings 12:12-19).

Rehoboam commits the ultimate folly of politics: he told people he was going to add to their burdens and demand more from them and did so in a most immature and off-putting way. No one leaves this narrative wondering why Israel would have wanted to not submit to Rehoboam’s yoke! How could Rehoboam have been so foolish?

The Kings author gives us the answer in 1 Kings 12:8: he forsook the counsel of the old men and took up the counsel of the young men who had grown up with him and surrounded him. We can certainly see that such is what took place, but we are easily left baffled as to why Rehoboam would have ever thought this was a good idea, and, for that matter, how wise Solomon, the author of Proverbs, could have allowed such a foolish son to follow him!

Yet the reasons for the folly are distressingly easy to see. Rehoboam took counsel from his peers; they had grown up together and had shared experiences. They likely saw the world in similar ways. They had lived in the palace complex in times of great prosperity and unity. The reader may know division is on the horizon, but it does not seem to have crossed Rehoboam’s mind. Rehoboam does not know what he doesn’t know, and because of that is led down the foolish path. Sure, there are men around who know some things that Rehoboam does not know, cannot know, and perhaps cannot even envision: the old men who gave counsel to his father Solomon. They knew how to massage the crowd; they may not have actually expected Rehoboam to be any more lenient than his father, but they knew better than to have him go out and say stupid things.

According to 1 Kings 14:21 Rehoboam is forty-one years old at this point in his life. He will reign for seventeen years; his son Abijah reigns for three; his grandson Asa then rules for forty-one (1 Kings 14:21, 15:1-2, 9-10). This tight time-frame between Rehoboam and Asa most likely means that Rehoboam is even already a father by the time he ascends to the throne of Judah. He is no teenager or even twenty-something; by every measure he should know better, both he and his associates. Yet they have lived in the palace and have almost no connection with the people over whom Rehoboam reigns. All they know is luxury and being served. Rehoboam lived for 40 years in the shadow of his highly successful father, and therefore Rehoboam’s desire to try to “one-up” his father is quite understandable. Yet it all comes crashing down. Rehoboam is not remembered for virtue or greatness; he’s remembered for his folly and for the dissolution of the United Monarchy.

Rehoboam’s folly is a cautionary tale for all of us. His story is normally used as a morality tale for young people to understand why they need to recognize the wisdom of those who have gone on before them, and for good reason. Young people do not know what they don’t know; it is understandable but is quite dangerous. Young people have a tendency to believe that things are “different” in their time, that somehow older people just can’t understand. It may be true that some experiences or technologies are different, but life is distressingly consistent (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:9). The wise young man will be willing to hear out older perspectives and consider their value even if they do not fully understand. Foolish is the young person who looks only or even primarily to his or her peers for counsel, guidance, and direction in life; how are they qualified to provide such counsel? Not a few young people have gone down the path of Rehoboam’s folly to tragic ends!

Yet it was not just that Rehoboam listened to his peers; he also listened only to those who would agree with him, wanted to flatter him, and who shared his general worldview and perspective. It is always easiest to get counsel from those who share your presuppositions, assumptions, and worldview; everyone likes hearing from yes-men. Yet Rehoboam’s father Solomon wisely declared that “in the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14). It is hard to see one’s own blind sides, and if a group of people share blind sides, they cannot help each other see them. It requires a person with a different background and different experiences to point those things out. Yet that is an unpleasant task and not something people like to hear. It is always easier to be like Rehoboam, hear what you want to hear, associate with those like you who have similar experiences as you, and live in that bubble. Yet, at some point, as with Rehoboam, reality will intrude, and you will be exposed for the fool you have been by staying within the echo chamber.

One of the tragic ironies of Scripture is how the one to whom the Proverbs are ostensibly written, Solomon’s son Rehoboam, proves to be one of the biggest fools in Scripture’s pages. Let us not share in Rehoboam’s folly; let us recognize the wisdom of those who have more experience than we do in life, those who have different experiences in life, and above all entrust ourselves and our ways to God in Christ who is the Source of all wisdom (Proverbs 8:22-32), and thus be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Overthrowing Conventional Wisdom

A good name is better than precious oil; and the day of death, than the day of one’s birth (Ecclesiastes 7:1).

The Preacher has always been notable for his “different” views about life. He likes to overturn “conventional wisdom” to force his audience into thinking more deeply about the mysteries of life.

We see this tendency illustrated in Ecclesiastes 7:1 regarding life and death. We tend to favor the day of birth over the day of death, appreciating the hope and possibility of new life. The Preacher is not denying the value of new life; he instead focuses on the “merits” of the day of death. Death means the end of the futility, the vanity/absurdity of life; there will be no more physical pain, suffering, or any of the other miseries described as “under the sun.” Furthermore, for those who have lived well, and who have a good name, the day of death seals their reputation. Most people would easily accept the idea that one’s reputation is of more value than luxury goods; how many would accept the idea that the day of death is better than the day of birth?

All of chapter 7, as well as much of the rest of the book of Ecclesiastes, maintains a similar theme. Jesus Himself spoke in terms completely contrary to received wisdom (cf. Matthew 5:3-12, Luke 6:20-26). There are many times when it is good to overthrow conventional wisdom: it often is based in presuppositions and perspectives that are limited and distorted.

Such is certainly true in the twenty-first century. Our society has developed a lot of assumptions, perspectives, and ideas that many recently have described, among other things, as “first world problems.”

When we hear about a child being diagnosed with a fatal condition or is dying, we are understandably distressed and sad. Nevertheless, the truly surprising thing is not that some children get ill and/or die, as many seem to think, but that so many more children are alive and healthy.

A lot of us, to some degree or another, have challenges with weight gain. The amazing thing is not that we so easily gain weight, but that most all of us have the resources allowing us to consume far more calories than any of us need on account of the amount of food produced annually. Many people in the world to this very day may be starving, and yet we have a superabundance of food.

Many people read the Bible these days and are horrified at the pictures of violence in the Old Testament and are disturbed at the prospect of hell for the disobedient and the unbelievers in the New Testament (e.g. 1 Samuel 15:1-9, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10). Yet the fact that people today can read those stories and be horrified is what is really astounding: for most people in the past, and sadly even for many to this very day, those pictures of violence were and are normal. The fact that so many take offense at the concept of divine justice or retribution says as much about those taking offense as it does about the concept itself: if one has never been oppressed, wronged, or persecuted in a meaningful and substantive way, it is pretty easy to think of divine justice as some form of injustice. Yet, for the majority of human history, the vast majority of people have understood, to some degree, what it meant to be wronged, mistreated, and/or oppressed, and the idea that God would make all wrongs right one day allowed life to maintain some form of meaning.

For that matter, our society seems to take as gospel truth the premise that we are developing and “progressing” as a culture, and often will point to some of these differences between our lives and the lives of our ancestors as signs of the “evolution” of our sensibilities. While it is true that life is different than it was in previous generations, and many aspects of life today are better than in times past, there are many problems we experience today that were not as prevalent in days past: social isolation, recognition of the value of others, honoring of commitments, and so on and so forth. Things are not inherently better or worse (Ecclesiastes 1:9, 7:10); they are just different.

These and many other forms of “conventional wisdom” must be overturned if we will keep a healthy perspective about life: many of the things we find problematic are not really “problems” in the grand scheme of things, and we must come to grips with the fact that on the whole, our lives are fairly charmed in comparison with the experience of most of humanity in its existence. It is good to be thankful for our blessings; it is quite another to become as spoiled brats on account of our blessings. Let us praise and honor God, mindful of how reality really works, understanding that many times we must not go along with what passes for conventional wisdom!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Second Commandment

“Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them” (Exodus 20:4-5a).

YHWH has delivered His people from slavery and bondage (Exodus 6-14), and has already provided the first command– Israel was to have no other gods before/beside YHWH (Exodus 20:3).

The second command is like it– Israel shall not make a “graven image” or a “likeness of any thing” so as not to bow down to it or serve it (Exodus 20:4-5a).

In the ancient Near Eastern context, of which Israel was a part, this command makes sense and is entirely necessary. Pretty much every culture believed in various gods– and every god had his or her representation. Dagon had his statue (1 Samuel 5:2-4); the Asherah was a wooden pillar (Judges 6:25-26). While some people might have actually believed that the statue was their god, most understood it as a representation of what their god really was.

YHWH, as the One True God, the Creator God, is utterly distinct. His very name– “Yahweh”– does not come with some meaning about power or lordship. Instead, it means “the Existent One.” YHWH does not need to have some “power name.” He exists; that is sufficient. And, as Paul will later explain, since God exists, and in Him all people live and dwell and have their being, God cannot really be represented by any image of any creature or anything of the sort (Acts 17:28-29).

Therefore, as Isaiah will later make very clear, if you can fashion a “god,” it ceases to have any real power (cf. Isaiah 44:9-20). If you can imagine it, build it, or even bow down to it, it’s not really God– it’s an idol of some form or another.

This idea was quite strange to people in the days of Israel. In order to serve God in truth they would have to act differently from every other nation in the world. The pressure of being distinct in this way proved too much– before Israel even makes it to Canaan, they serve Baal of Peor (Numbers 25:1-3). The story of the next five hundred years of Israel often features Israel’s service to other gods, bowing down to statues (cf. 2 Kings 17:7-23). This, in part, led to the exile of Israel and Judah.

Nevertheless, we must notice two things: first, that YHWH already commanded Israel to not have any other gods beside Him, and second, that He does not explicitly mention any other gods in the second commandment. This is due to a much more insidious form of idolatry that also overwhelmed Israel.

It would have been one thing if Israel made statues of other gods and bowed down to them– still wrong, indeed, still a violation of the first commandment– but Israel dared to make images and to call those images YHWH, attempting to represent the incomparable and transcendent Creator of the universe with a statue of a golden calf.

It first took place while Moses was on Mount Sinai (Exodus 32:1-4); it would happen again in the days of Jeroboam son of Nebat king of Israel (1 Kings 12:26-33). And it is precisely this thing which concerns God in the second commandment.

The image of the golden calf became too pervasive, especially in the Kingdom of Israel. Even though Jehu removed the idolatrous service of Baal, he left the golden calves as they stood (cf. 2 Kings 10:26-31). This idolatry is one of the reasons given by God as to why He exiled Israel (2 Kings 17:22-23).

Throughout time many have wondered why people who knew better than to serve other gods still bowed down to the golden calf. The answer is probably a bit more simple than we would like to imagine– once the image is in one’s head, it is very difficult to remove it. Jeroboam makes the golden calves and tells Israel that these are the gods that delivered them from Egypt (1 Kings 12:28). Therefore, when the people hear all the stories about YHWH and His saving acts, they start thinking of the golden calf. The mental association is there throughout time. Even if a prophet stands up in the name of YHWH to speak, when he speaks of YHWH, of what will the people think but that golden calf? And if any declaration is made about destroying the calf, the people will think that you are destroying YHWH, and such is intolerable!

In reality, it would have been stranger had Israel given up the calves and began going to Jerusalem to the Temple to bow down before YHWH there. Images have more power over us than we would like to admit.

And therein is the key to understanding the challenge of the second commandment for us today. While it is true that we are not likely to make an actual, physical image of something and bow down to it, such does not make us immune from making mental images to which we bow down metaphorically.

It is true that we have to have some mental conception about something about God. We obtain that from His Word– God as love, God as holy, God as represented fully in Jesus of Nazareth (1 John 4:8, Leviticus 19:2, Colossians 2:9). But we get ourselves into the same trouble Israel did when we start making up our own definitions of the way God “must be.”

We can imagine that God “must be” a certain way– loving like a grandparent, someone who would never allow us to suffer pain, someone who privileges us and/or our nation, or a thousand other things– but there is no reason at all why God “must be” that way. God only “must be” what He is, and we only understand as much as He has revealed about Himself in that regard. Whenever we limit God by our declarations of how we “must be” we act no differently than Israel did– we have just set up our own “golden calf,” our own view of God to worship.

Therefore, when we think of God, we must seek to understand His nature as best we can from His revelation of Himself in Scripture, and know for certain that God is no thing– no thing we can make, imagine, or devise. Let us understand that God is the Existent One, and serve Him today!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Willful Blindness

“Therefore speak I to them in parables; because seeing they see not, and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And unto them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, which saith,
‘By hearing ye shall hear, and shall in no wise understand; And seeing ye shall see, and shall in no wise perceive: For this people’s heart is waxed gross, And their ears are dull of hearing, And their eyes they have closed; Lest haply they should perceive with their eyes, And hear with their ears, And understand with their heart, And should turn again, And I should heal them'” (Matthew 13:13-16).

Jesus’ teaching style is not exactly what one might expect out of the Messiah, the Son of God. As the Word, active in the creation, He through whom all things subsist, He understands the greatest mysteries of the universe (John 1:1-3, Hebrews 1:3). He has come to proclaim the coming of the eternal Kingdom of God (Matthew 4:23). One might expect some kind of lofty discourse or some compelling argument. Instead, Jesus talks about farmers, crops, merchants, merchandise, women’s work, and similar things.

While it may seem strange to us, Jesus knows precisely what He is doing. While He speaks of farming, house work, matters of trade, and the like, He is really not addressing those matters. He’s providing marching orders in code: suffer loss of everything for the Kingdom. Not all will hear; not all who hear will endure. Do not be surprised when some doing the Devil’s work are in the midst of the saints. God is more interested in humble repentance than sanctimonious professions of righteousness.

So why does Jesus seem to “beat around the bush” and provide these messages in a figure? Yes, it was predicted that He would do so (Matthew 13:35; cf. Psalm 78:2). But there was even a reason why it was predicted that it would be so, and it involves the sad history of the Jews.

Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah (Matthew 13:13-15; cf. Isaiah 6:9-10). God comissions Isaiah to proclaim the message of deliverance and healing to the people. Yet the preaching of that message will not lead to repentance; God knows that it will only serve to further harden their hearts. In the Hebrew in Isaiah 6:9-10, it is the message being delivered that “makes fat” their hearts, “makes heavy” their eyes, and “makes shut” their ears. And, indeed, the people close off their senses. They do not listen to Isaiah’s message of nonintervention in international affairs and repentance regarding injustice, oppression, immorality, and idolatry at home. And Isaiah– and the people– live to see the wrath of God manifest in the Assyrian juggernaut, devastating Aram and Israel while leaving Jerusalem alone unscathed in Judah (Isaiah 1-10). It was not a pretty picture.

Seven hundred years later things had not changed too much for the better. While the Jews may not have been committing the particular sins of their ancestors, their eyes seemed no more inclined to see God’s work, nor were their ears much more inclined to hear God’s message. Jesus quotes the Isaianic prophecy directly at the Jews of His day (Matthew 13:14-15/Mark 4:10-12/Luke 8:10); Paul will later do so to the Jews at Rome (Acts 28:24-30).

In the Greek now, the prediction involves the condition of the heart. Obviously the Jews can “see” and “hear” what Jesus says and does. But they do not draw the appropriate conclusions. They should understand who Jesus is and the value of the message He proclaims, but it would be foreign to them no matter how it would be presented.

Some think that Jesus’ methodology might be unfair. How can He know whether or not His message would be understood before proclaiming it? Is that not unfair to the Jews?

We must remember that many of the Jews not only have no interest in the type of Kingdom of which Jesus proclaims but are even actively working to destroy Him. Anything He says can and will be used against Him, no matter how much the message is misunderstood or misconstrued. An excellent example comes from John 2:19, where Jesus says, “destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews imagined that He was talking about the edifice in Jerusalem (John 2:20), although He really was referring to His body (John 2:21). Years later, at Jesus’ trial, what is the evidence for the charge against Him? “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another made without hands'” (Mark 14:58). Their testimony in this did not even agree (Mark 14:59), and for good reason: Jesus never said it. He never said He would destroy the “Temple made with hands.” The memory of the event was entirely confused– and the source of the confusion was not Jesus. The confusion came from the worldview and perspective of the Jews hearing Him and their expectations and what they wanted to hear versus what He actually said!

And this is why Jesus speaks in parables. Even if they had an inkling of what He was really talking about– possibly quite doubtful, for even His disciples, who were more sympathetic to Him, needed them all explained (Mark 4:34)– what could they do with it? What kind of case can be made against someone who talks about crops, bread, pearls, fish, and the like? It was the perfect vehicle for Jesus’ messages: innocuous and innocent on the surface, deeply subversive and powerful in application underneath.

It was all necessary because the Jews wanted their Messiah according to their image and following their ideas of who the Messiah would be. As the Israelites of Isaiah’s day had little use for the declarations of the prophet, so many of the Jews of Jesus’ day had little use for a Messiah of a spiritual Kingdom who left Rome’s control of Jerusalem intact. They did not want to hear because it did not meet their expectations.

This challenge is not limited to the Jews, and it is not limited to the ancient world. Far too often people to this day refuse to listen to God in Christ because the message is unwanted, it does not fit their view of the world and how it operates, and it poses unwelcome challenges. Believers can easily fall into this trap themselves, preferring a particular view or perspective on Jesus that is heavily distorted, and dispense the true message of Jesus Christ with trite sayings and misguided arguments. There is no lack of willful blindness and deafness in our world today!

It is better, then, for us to be disciples in the same mold as the disciples present when Jesus spoke these words. Everyone comes to Jesus with their own ideas and expectations; those who will be found to be true servants of God are the ones who are willing to radically change those views and expectations based on what Christ the Lord says (1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Galatians 2:20, Colossians 2:1-9). Let us not reject His words; let us not create a God or a Christ in our own image, with our perspective to serve, but instead allow our image to be conformed to the true and Risen Christ (Romans 8:29)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Hearing the Voice of God

And the child Samuel ministered unto the LORD before Eli. And the word of the LORD was precious in those days; there was no frequent vision. And it came to pass at that time, when Eli was laid down in his place (now his eyes had begun to wax dim, so that he could not see), and the lamp of God was not yet gone out, and Samuel was laid down to sleep, in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was; that the LORD called Samuel;
and he said, “Here am I.”
And he ran unto Eli, and said, “Here am I; for thou calledst me.”
And he said, “I called not; lie down again.”
And he went and lay down.
And the LORD called yet again, “Samuel.”
And Samuel arose and went to Eli, and said, “Here am I; for thou calledst me.”
And he answered, “I called not, my son; lie down again.”
Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, neither was the word of the LORD yet revealed unto him. And the LORD called Samuel again the third time.
And he arose and went to Eli, and said, “Here am I; for thou calledst me.”
And Eli perceived that the LORD had called the child.
Therefore Eli said unto Samuel, “Go, lie down: and it shall be, if he call thee, that thou shalt say, ‘Speak, O LORD; for thy servant heareth.'”
So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
And the LORD came, and stood, and called as at other times, “Samuel, Samuel.”
Then Samuel said, “Speak; for thy servant heareth” (1 Samuel 3:1-10).

The days of Eli and Samuel were difficult days for Israel. Whereas in times past there were some prophets or prophetesses who heard the voice of the LORD and provided Israel with His guidance, such was now rare. That changes here in 1 Samuel 3 when God begins to speak with Samuel, the prophet who will now guide Israel for many years.

The example here of Samuel’s call is very instructive for us in the early twenty-first century. We live in a world where many people deny that there even is a God who would speak to humans, let alone to believe that He has definitively spoken in ways that we should all be able to “hear.” It is common for us to hear today that people who lived so long ago were in the “darkness” of “ignorance” and “superstition,” with the implicit belief that we are so much more superior today because of all of our discoveries and insights. Indeed– the word of the LORD seems quite rare these days.

Yet is Samuel so completely superstitious and ignorant as a young boy? Consider what happens– he hears his name called three times, and three times he goes and asks Eli what he wants. He assumes what we would all likely assume if we heard someone call our name– some other human near us is trying to get our attention. Samuel does not seem to even begin to connect the voice he is hearing with God.

For that matter, Eli, who is in God’s service as priest (cf. 1 Samuel 1:9), does not automatically connect the voice with God, either. It takes Eli being awoken three times by Samuel for him to even begin to wonder if perhaps it was the voice of God calling Samuel.

Yet, when Eli has that recognition– when he perceives that God is calling the child– everything seems to change. Yet, in reality, nothing has changed but Eli’s and Samuel’s perceptions.

God is a consistent God. Just as He does not compel or coerce anyone into believing in Him or serving Him, so He does not compel or coerce anyone into hearing Him. If we want to hear God’s voice, we must be open to the possibility of hearing His voice, else we will just interpret the voice of God according to our existing presuppositions and worldview, just as Eli and Samuel did.

This is true in terms of the creation. We can see the hand of God in the creation and hear His voice speaking through it, but only if we seek to understand in that way. If we are not open to seeing God’s hand or hearing His voice in the creation, we will just interpret the creation in terms of our own darkened presuppositions and worldview (cf. Romans 1:18-25).

This is quite powerfully true in terms of the Scriptures themselves, the revealed Word of God, and the message they contain about Jesus of Nazareth, the Incarnate Word of God. Consider Samuel again– God calls him, and he thinks he hears the voice of Eli. God’s message often comes through a human vehicle– His voice sounds like that of a human, and He has used His chosen people to communicate His message throughout time (cf. Hebrews 1:1-2). It is easy for people to act as Samuel did at the beginning– believing the voice of God in Scripture to just be the voice of some human beings, perhaps interesting, but not convicting. But if we are open to hearing God’s voice through Scripture, the message becomes quite powerful, very convicting, and life-changing. When we are willing to hear the voice of God in Scripture, we have found all we need in order to live the lives God intends for us to lead (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17). We learn about Jesus the Incarnate Word after whom we are to pattern our own lives (John 1:1-18, 1 John 2:6).

At that moment, everything seems to change. And yet, in reality, nothing has changed but our perspectives.

The word of the LORD is precious in these days. Far too many seem deaf to His call. And yet He continues to call out through the message of Scripture for all men to repent and to follow His Son (Matthew 28:18-20, 1 Timothy 2:4). Let us perceive the voice of God and follow after Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Giving Thanks

In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus to you-ward (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

We are soon approaching the time when our country observes Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was intended to be a time to reflect and give thanks for all the wonderful blessings we share. Unfortunately, in the eyes of many, it has just turned into an opportunity to eat one or more over-sized meals.

Bible believers recognize that God has never set aside one day for us to give thanks– He intends for believers to be people constantly marked by thankfulness. As Paul indicates, God’s will for us in Christ is to give thanks in everything (1 Thessalonians 5:18)!

Giving thanks is a humbling experience, for it teaches us how indebted we are to God. If it were not for God’s blessings toward us, we would not have the heavens or the earth (Genesis 1:1-2:4), the opportunity to have association with God through Christ (Romans 5:1-11), the love and comfort of our spiritual family (1 Corinthians 12:12-28), or the hope of eternity beyond this life (John 3:16). If it were not for God, we would not exist (Acts 17:28); without Christ, we would be hopeless, lost entirely in sin, and waiting for condemnation (Romans 6:23, Ephesians 2:11-12)!

Therefore, when we give thanks, it is hard to be proud or to believe that we are “self-made” people. When we give thanks, we learn again how we are weak and God is strong and how we need to trust Him and lean on Him, and not trust in ourselves (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:9, 12:9-10)!

Giving thanks should also be an encouraging and uplifting experience that should assist us in keeping a proper perspective. It is easy to get discouraged and distressed in our lives, and it is easy to fall into the trap of letting our discouragement distort our perspective in life. But when we give thanks, we are forced to no longer focus on what is going wrong and what we do not have but instead to focus on all the things that God has done for us in this creation and through Christ (cf. Ephesians 1:3). When we consider the great cost of our salvation which God freely paid, it is much easier to trust that God will also be faithful and helpful in the comparatively minor challenges we experience in life (cf. Romans 8:32). When we consider all that God has promised and accomplished, and see what God is doing, we can look with hopeful eyes toward that which God has promised for our future (cf. Romans 8:18). When we stop and realize all of these wonderful things that God has done, is doing, and will do, the “light momentary affliction” we are experiencing will be put into its proper perspective (2 Corinthians 4:17)! When we truly recognize how God loves us, how can we but rejoice in the Lord always (cf. Philippians 4:4)?

It is good and right for us to give thanks during this holiday season– and after this holiday season, and at every opportunity. It is good for us to give thanks lest we begin to take God’s current blessings for granted and succumb to the travails and distress of life. Let us always give thanks for the wonderful blessings of God and strive toward the goal of eternal life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The House of Mourning

It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart (Ecclesiastes 7:2).

The Bible exposes the vast gulf between the perspectives of human beings and God. Humans tend to focus on the short-term and that which seems beneficial in the short-term: pleasure is always preferable over pain, and that which is easy and comfortable is valued over what may be more difficult and painful. Humans also tend to forget that their perspective and views are limited and, to at least a small extent, self-delusional. God, as author of our present reality, takes the longer view, fully understanding the limitations of mankind. We always do well to learn more from Him.

This gulf is evident in the ways people look at feasting versus mourning. If you asked most people which was better, to go to the house of feasting or the house of mourning, the answer would be the former. Feasting is fun– it provides all kinds of short-term benefits, can allow one to at least temporarily forget the future, and to enjoy the good life for at least a little while.

The house of mourning, however, is much more painful and difficult. In the house of mourning, we must confront our own mortality. In the house of mourning, we come face to face with human limitation and weakness: we are not as strong as we would like to think we are, and there is not one person among us for whom it would be impossible to be dead in a matter of moments (cf. James 4:14). In the house of mourning, we have to come to grips with the pain of separation and losing those whom we know and/or love. In the house of mourning, all of our pretensions are stripped away from us. We can feel like Adam in the Garden, trying to hide his shame/nakedness from God (Genesis 3:8-10).

The house of mourning, therefore, is extremely uncomfortable. It is little wonder why many people avoid the house of mourning at all costs– it can really put a damper on the “good life”!

If we stop and think about it, however, we can see the wisdom in the words of the Preacher. Even though man has attempted to fend off his weakness and mortality for generations, man remains weak and mortal. And this creation, which God declared to be “very good,” (Genesis 1:31), has been corrupted by man’s sin (Romans 8:20-22). Therefore, this world is fundamentally in “dis-ease,” for things are not exactly right with the world. This world is not an easy and comfortable place.

Therefore, it is good for us to become uncomfortable with our present existence. It is not a bad thing for us when we are confronted with our own weakness and mortality. It is good to be reminded that we are as a vapor and will not last. The pain of separation, while difficult. reminds us that this world should not be our home (cf. Philippians 3:20-21, Hebrews 11:14-16).

Man in his arrogance and self-delusion attempted to build the Tower of Babel (cf. Genesis 11:1-4); Jesus, the God-man, in His humility and love died on a cross so that man could be reconciled with his God (Romans 5:1-11). Man, in his arrogance and self-delusion, thinks he is the greatest power in the universe and serves the works of his hands. God, in His love and mercy, created all things and has allowed us to participate with Him in His eternal plan in Jesus Christ (cf. Ephesians 3:11). But we cannot participate in that plan while constantly living in the house of feasting– we must come to grips with the house of mourning and our own weaknesses and limitations. When we can learn the humility that comes from the awareness of our fragility and complete dependence on God, then we can become most effective servants of God for His Kingdom.

There is a time for the house of feasting and a time for the house of mourning, but indeed, it is better to go to the house of mourning. Let us come to terms with our own weakness and mortality, serve the Living God, and obtain eternal life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Kingdom Perspective on Difficulties

And [Jesus] lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said, “Blessed are ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh…But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you, ye that are full now! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you, ye that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep” (Luke 6:20-21, 24-25).

There are many difficult sayings that Jesus spoke. We either just move on to more easily understood passages or read them and we scratch our heads and try to figure them out. Nevertheless, there can be great value in understanding the more difficult sayings of Jesus, especially in difficult days.

Jesus’ pronouncements of blessings and woes in Luke 6:20-26 involve some of those difficult sayings. It is quite tempting to make them parallel with the beatitudes of Matthew 5 and move on. While the underlying message of both is similar, the contexts are different and the meaning is different. We have to come to terms with what Jesus is saying in Luke 6!

On the surface, it seems quite difficult and contradictory. What real virtue is there in being poor, hungry, or mourning? Is it really sinful to be rich, full, or to be laughing? This passage seems to be extremely disturbing!

Yet Jesus Himself provides the clue to understanding what He is saying. Notice the reasoning behind His statements: the poor are blessed because the Kingdom is theirs. The hungry and weeping are blessed because they will be filled and will laugh. Woes come to the rich because they have received their consolation. Those who are full and who laugh will have woe because they will be hungry and will mourn and weep.

We ought not infer from these verses that there is any inherent virtue in poverty, hunger, or mourning, nor that it is bad to be rich, full, or to laugh. Jesus ate and drank, after all (Matthew 11:19). Instead, Jesus is attempting to turn the world of His hearers upside down– He wants them to see value in what is normally considered undesirable, and the detractions in what is usually considered desirable.

As human beings, we naturally prefer wealth, satisfaction, and laughter. They are fun and enjoyable. We would rather not be poor, hungry, or mourning. Those are no fun.

Yet look at it the way Jesus would have us look at it. If we have wealth, what is left for us? If we are currently full, what is going to come next? If we are laughing, what will come next? We are either going to remain at that plateau or we are going to be faced with that which we do not want: hunger and mourning.

But what happens when we are poor, or hungry, or weeping? Sure, the present does not seem too great, but there is nowhere to go but up. We will have the opportunity to have the Kingdom, or to be full, or to laugh again.

Therefore, according to the Kingdom perspective, we need to remember that if or when we receive wealth, we have our consolation. When we are full, we are just going to get hungry again. When we are laughing, all we have to look forward to are days of woe.

But when we are poor, we can be comforted to know that the Kingdom is ours. When we are hungry, we can have faith that we will be filled. When we mourn, despite the tears, we can look forward to days of laughter.

This is a great message for difficult times, especially difficult times like today. There is great economic uncertainty. Thousands have lost their jobs. The present does not seem too hopeful. Yet if we are poor, hungry, or weeping today, we can cherish the blessing of knowing that there will be days of satisfaction and laughter to follow.

Whether rich or poor, full or hungry, laughing or weeping, let us trust in God and put His Kingdom first (Matthew 6:33)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus, Sinners, and Pharisees

And one of the Pharisees desired him that he would eat with him. And he entered into the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to meat. And behold, a woman who was in the city, a sinner; and when she knew that he was sitting at meat in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster cruse of ointment, and standing behind at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee that had bidden him saw it, he spake within himself, saying,
“This man, if he were a prophet, would have perceived who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him, that she is a sinner.”
And Jesus answering said unto him, “Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee.”
And he saith, “Teacher, say on.”
“A certain lender had two debtors: the one owed five hundred shillings, and the other fifty. When they had not wherewith to pay, he forgave them both. Which of them therefore will love him most?”
Simon answered and said, “He, I suppose, to whom he forgave the most.”
And he said unto him, “Thou hast rightly judged.”
And turning to the woman, he said unto Simon, “Seest thou this woman? I entered into thy house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath wetted my feet with her tears, and wiped them with her hair. Thou gavest me no kiss: but she, since the time I came in, hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but she hath anointed my feet with ointment. Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little” (Luke 7:36-47).

One of the difficulties with humanity involves perception. It is easy for people to look at a given person or circumstance through one particular set of lenses and to make confining judgments.

This story clearly illustrates this difficulty. Simon the Pharisee is not an evil man or an evil-willed man. We have no reason to doubt his sincerity and his passion for the Law of Moses. Nevertheless, he looks at both the woman and at Jesus through certain lenses, and does not consider any other alternatives.

The woman, according to Simon, is a sinner. To Simon, this makes her unclean, spiritually if not physically. On account of this “sin” condition of hers, she ought not even be present before himself and Jesus, at least in the eyes of Simon. It does not matter how she feels about her sin– she remains a sinner.

Likewise, if Jesus really was who He said He was, He would know these things. Simon is willing to doubt that Jesus is a prophet because He is not holding to Simon’s expectation of holiness: “surely” a prophet would withhold himself from such a sinner. He would have nothing to do with her!

It is easy to see how such narrow-mindedness leads to hardened hearts: Simon would not be alone in this. He has his own set of expectations based on his judgments. He may question other things, but those judgments are not as questioned.

Thankfully, Jesus breaks out from all such narrow-mindedness and myopia. Did Jesus know what type of woman this was? Most assuredly He did! But the woman was not some unrepentant sinner– she came and demonstrated her repentance by her actions. Jesus’ parable illustrates the reality of God’s Kingdom against the speculations of Simon: those who are forgiven more are more thankful. She loved more, therefore, her sins were forgiven!

It was a shocking statement in first century Judea indeed, but it was true– prostitutes and sinners would enter God’s Kingdom before the Law-loving Pharisees (cf. Matthew 21:31). At the close of this scene, the “sinner” woman, and not Simon the Pharisee, is forgiven, and reconciled to God.

We would do well to learn from this story and to maintain Jesus’ attitude. It may very well be that the “terrible sinners” enter the Kingdom before the “good, moral people.” The Kingdom might be full of people with whom we would not automatically choose associate. Let us not attempt to confine the work of God based upon our perspective. We might find ourselves in the wrong position before the Lord! Let us repent of our sin and mourn for it, and love the Lord Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry