For or Against Jesus

And John answered and said, “Master, we saw one casting out demons in thy name; and we forbade him, because he followeth not with us.”
But Jesus said unto him, “Forbid him not: for he that is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:49-50).

“He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth” (Luke 11:23).

The Bible is full of mysteries and has a few conundrums, and here is one right from the mouth of Jesus. It also has great relevance for today since there are plenty of people who, in reality or in effect, just quote these two verses against one another. If you are not for Jesus, are you, by necessity, against Him? Or if you are not against Jesus, are you really for Him? How could anyone be for and against Jesus at the same time?

While the two statements may seem contradictory, they are not. They are in different contexts talking about different situations, and there is much to be gained from considering them.

Mark (Mark 9:38-40) and Luke (Luke 9:49-50) record the interaction between John and Jesus regarding the one who cast out demons in Jesus’ name but who did not walk with the disciples. We do not know precisely why John brings this up– perhaps he is internally questioning the decision, or perhaps he is attempting to get some kind of commendation for his activity. Nevertheless, John receives a rebuke. This gentleman, whoever he is, should not be censured for his conduct. Mark reveals a bit more of Jesus’ reasoning than does Luke: “for there is no man who shall do a mighty work in my name, and be able quickly to speak evil of me” (Mark 9:39). This is why Jesus says that “he that is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). They have some level of recognition that there is power in Jesus’ name, and they cannot be as quickly to speak evil of Jesus or those who follow Him if they have that recognition. Yet it should bear noticing that such a person, while perhaps being “for us,” still is not included in “us.”

Matthew (Matthew 12:22-30) and Luke (Luke 11:14-23) record Jesus’ interaction with the crowd and the Pharisees. Jesus casts out a demon, and the Pharisees, always more interested in justifying themselves than perceiving the truth of God in Jesus, declare that He casts out demons by the power of Beelzebub prince of the demons. Jesus first devastates that claim– Satan would not cast out Satan, and the Pharisees would have to condemn their own sons– and then goes on to show the real problem. The Pharisees are blaspheming against the Spirit, declaring the work of God to be the work of Satan (Matthew 12:31-32). In such a condition there is little hope of repentance. It is to these Pharisees that Jesus declares that whoever is not with Him is against Him, and that whoever does not gather with Him scatters (Matthew 12:30). Such people have no belief in Jesus and are entirely hostile to Him and to His purposes. They are not “for” or “with” Him in any sense of those terms.

Jesus is not confused and He is not trying to be confusing. He is indicating that there are at least three groups of people out there– Him and His disciples, those who have some recognition of Jesus and His authority, and those who are entirely against Jesus and His disciples.

The ones who are against Jesus are those who do not recognize Him and who act in ways that are contrary to His will. They are like the Pharisees who rejected Jesus and were more than willing to ascribe His works to Satan in order to justify themselves. Such, without repentance, will scatter, and will be condemned on the final day (cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9).

There are some who recognize that there is something about Jesus, however, and who are more sympathetic to Him and His purposes. Since they are not actively opposing the work of God in Christ, they show a level of approval, and are in that sense “for” Jesus.

Yet, ultimately, it is not enough to just not be against Jesus. If we wish to be saved, and to have eternal life, we must follow Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:1, 1 John 2:3-6). We must seek to do His will in all things (Colossians 3:17). We must renounce all that is “us” and put on Christ (Galatians 2:20, 3:27). Let us not be found to be against Christ, or even that we were simply not against Him; instead, let us be found to be one of His followers, and obtain the promises!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Rendering to Caesar and God

And they send unto him certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians, that they might catch him in talk.
And when they were come, they say unto him, “Teacher, we know that thou art true, and carest not for any one; for thou regardest not the person of men, but of a truth teachest the way of God: Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? Shall we give, or shall we not give?”
But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, “Why make ye trial of me? Bring me a denarius, that I may see it.”
And they brought it.
And he saith unto them, “Whose is this image and superscription?”
And they said unto him, “Caesar’s.”
And Jesus said unto them, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”
And they marvelled greatly at him (Mark 12:13-17).

It was not every day that you saw the Pharisees and the Herodians coming together to visit someone. It is a downright strange event when the Pharisees and Herodians are being sent by the chief priests, scribes, and elders (cf. Mark 11:27)! Yet this was the power of Jesus– all the various sects of the Jews may disagree with each other, but they agree that Jesus is a threat!

In fact, Jesus was becoming intolerable. He had cleansed the Temple, striking at the heart of the power of the chief priests (Mark 11:15-18). He would not reveal the source of His authority (Mark 11:27-33), and incited the people with His parable of the Vineyard (Mark 12:1-11). They needed to dispose of Jesus– and yet they feared the crowds (Mark 12:12). They had to do something to get Jesus in trouble.

And so they hatched the perfect plan– the question that would lead to His demise. The tax question was ideal. If Jesus said that the Jews should pay the tax, then the Pharisees were right there to proclaim to the people how Jesus was a compromiser and an appeaser of the hated oppressor. If Jesus declared that the Jews did not need to pay taxes, the Herodians were there to hear it and to inform Pilate and the Roman authorities that Jesus was stirring up sedition. It was the perfect plan– or so it seemed.

Yet Jesus’ answer entirely flummoxes them. He does not align with one of the two “main” positions. Instead, He advocates a transcendental, middle-of-the-road approach.

Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. For years this has been the foundational principle of the Christian attitude toward government. Though many may seek a political message in what Jesus is saying, in reality, Jesus remains above that particular fray. Jesus’ quarrel, after all, is not with Caesar (cf. Ephesians 6:12). Earthly government has its reason for existence and such should be respected. Taxes should be paid; authorities deserve the honor due them (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:11-17).

Yet Jesus’ real point is much deeper than this. It has less to do with Caesar and much more to do with God.

The denarius that Jesus held in His hand belonged to Caesar because upon it was struck the image and inscription of Caesar. But where do we find the image and inscription of God? Jesus knew that it was written:

And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…”
And God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them (Genesis 1:26a, 27).

We humans have been made in God’s own image, after His likeness. Yes, we must render to Caesar his money– but to God we must give ourselves (cf. Romans 12:1)! All of our energy and existence must be expended toward the advancement of God’s righteousness and Kingdom (cf. Matthew 6:33).

To the earthly authorities we owe proper respect and taxes so that they may accomplish their necessary functions. Yet we do not owe ourselves to Caesar or his purposes. Instead, we owe ourselves to God, and it is right for us to render to God what is His. Let us serve God fully, truly reflecting His image!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Fig Tree Religion

And on the morrow, when they were come out from Bethany, [Jesus] hungered. And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find anything thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for it was not the season of figs.
And he answered and said unto it, “No man eat fruit from thee henceforward for ever.”
And his disciples heard it (Mark 11:12-14).

The long-awaited time had come. Jesus of Nazareth, believed by many to be the Messiah, the Christ of God, had entered Jerusalem in triumph (cf. Mark 11:1-11). He will soon strike at the heart of the religious power structure in Jerusalem by cleansing the Temple of its moneychangers and merchants (Mark 11:15-19). And what do we find in the middle of these great events? Jesus’ rebuke of a fig tree.

It seems rather anticlimactic. Why does Mark interrupt the grand story of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem by telling us about this fig tree?

It may help to understand a bit about the situation. Even in Jerusalem, late March or early April is a bit early for figs to be ready. Most of the trees would not even have their leaves yet. But this fig tree did have its leaves– and when a fig tree has its leaves, it is indicating that it has its fruit hidden underneath. This particular fig tree, however, was false– perhaps it was a different subspecies, or perhaps it was a young tree– for it exposed leaves but had no fruit within it. Highly disappointed, Jesus curses the tree because it made a presentation without its substance.

That may be the clue to understanding the importance of this interaction. Mark very well may have us to understand that there is more to this story than just a fig tree.

The fig tree may represent the Jews and the Judaism of the day. Fig trees are good, and figs are good. Fruitless fig trees that have no leaves are understandable, but what cannot be tolerated is the fig tree that has leaves but no fruit. Thus it is with Israel in Jesus’ day, especially the religious authorities, the chief priests, the elders, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. It was a good thing to be a Jew and to be a part of the covenant with God. It would be understandable if a Jew were learning his faith or recognized in humility how much further he had to go. But to have the outward appearance of religion without its substance– its fruit– was intolerable. And that was precisely what Jesus saw in the Judaism of His day!

Soon after these events He would excoriate the Pharisees for being whitewashed tombs– pretty on the exterior, but full of dead men’s bones inside (cf. Matthew 23:27). They worry about keeping dishes clean, but inwardly are defiled (Matthew 23:25-26). On the exterior their religiosity is beyond a doubt; inwardly they remain unconverted and sinful. There is little hope for such people; they are, like the fig tree, cursed, never to provide fruit for mankind again.

We would do well to learn the lesson of the fig tree and avoid “fig tree religion.” We know from experience and statistics that the vast majority of the people around us in America believe in God and in His Son Jesus Christ. Most people would claim to be Christians. A lot of those people attempt to maintain the exterior of goodness and piety– they seek to look like the “good people” of society, and yet inwardly they may remain unconverted and sinful. Such a faith cannot save (Matthew 7:21-23)!

It is one thing to be as a fig tree without fruit and without leaves– had this fig tree been as such, Jesus would have likely just passed it by. Therefore, it is one thing for people in our society to be sinners and recognize that they are sinners. Such is actually the first step in coming to a real knowledge of the truth (Ephesians 2:1-10, Titus 3:3-8). Jesus, after all, came to save sinners (cf. Matthew 9:11-13).

The real danger comes from providing the pretense of righteousness and/or religiosity without any substantive fruit. These are the “righteous” of Matthew 9:11-13, those who certainly think they are healthy and sound and profitable but really are not. They are self-deceived, and self-deception is the hardest kind of deception to overcome (Galatians 6:3, James 1:22-25, 1 John 1:8). As long as they remain in that condition, nothing can be done for them or with them (cf. Revelation 3:14-22)!

But what of ourselves? Who are we? Are we fig trees without leaves and without fruit? Then let us grow in knowledge and faith to maturity, showing fruit for the Lord (Hebrews 5:14, 2 Peter 3:18). Do we have leaves and fruit, believing in God and obeying Him? Well and good; let us abound all the more (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:1, 9). Or are we the fig tree with leaves but no fruit, having the pretense of religion but not the substantive fruit thereof? We must always be on guard against this danger, considering ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5, Galatians 6:4). If we find ourselves in this condition, we must immediately repent, and work to show the fruit that is in keeping with that repentance (1 John 2:3-6)!

Therefore we can see that the story of the fig tree is quite appropriate in its context. Jesus is about to encounter the superficial piety of the Judaism entrenched in Jerusalem, and it will be cursed. Let us not fall into the same trap, and let us both show leaves and bear fruit for God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Pharisees and Tradition

And he said unto them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honoreth me with their lips, But their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, Teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men. Ye leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.'”
And he said unto them, “Full well do ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your tradition” (Mark 7:6-9).

This is one of Jesus’ well-known interactions with the Pharisees. It seems, in fact, to be one of the most defining moments for each.

The Pharisees do not come because they want to learn from Jesus– they want to trap Him and find something with which to condemn Him before the people. They think that they have found what they need– His disciples, with His approval, do not eat with washed hands (cf. Mark 7:1-5). This violated the traditions of the elders!

The tradition, most likely, began innocently enough. The Jews were familiar with the book of Leviticus and the various regulations regarding cleanliness. Ritual defilement could occur from contact with anyone from a woman in her menstrual cycle to an unclean animal or a dead body. With so many potential contagions around it was best to always thoroughly wash before every meal so that any defilements would be washed away before eating.

But then the good idea became a mandate, and if you did not wash, accusations would fly.

Jesus would have none of this. The issue was not really the washing of hands before eating– that was the surface matter. The real problems involved the attitudes of the Pharisees and the emphasis on the physical in terms of defilement.

Jesus would go on to show that what people really need to worry about are the things that come out of a man– evil and sinful thoughts turned into attitudes and actions (cf. Mark 7:14-23). Foods and their influences are passed out of the system– not so with sin!

But Jesus’ real concern is with the enshrining of tradition. Traditions, however innocently they may begin, take on lives of their own, and begin to re-direct the mind away from what God deems important to what men deem important. How else can the Pharisees be explained? How else can a group of people become so misdirected and misguided as to believe that God would not have children provide for their parents (cf. Mark 7:10-13), or that God would find it sinful to heal on the Sabbath (cf. Mark 3:3-6, John 9:15-16)? That can only be when their minds have been so thoroughly turned away from God because of what they deem important!

It is fashionable to demonize and condemn the Pharisees, and this tendency is understandable. Nevertheless, it is good for us to consider the Pharisee in all of us.

It should be established that Pharisaism is not limited to a particular part of an ideological spectrum. Exclusive focus on smaller commands to the neglect of greater commands is no more or less justified than exclusive focus on greater commands to the neglect of smaller ones (Matthew 23:23). The inner Pharisee may try to bind where God has not bound; he may just as easily loose where God has not loosed. Sadly, those who condemn the Pharisee in others are often blind to the Pharisee in themselves (cf. Matthew 7:1-5).

We would do well to stop for a moment and consider what the Pharisees are thinking. The Pharisees are trying to follow the Law exactly. They come up to times when there may be commandments at variance with each other– to do good for people versus keeping the Sabbath, dedicating things to God versus taking care of parents. God did make the commands regarding cleanliness and avoiding ritual defilement.

But the Pharisees did go terribly wrong. They focused on the externals to the neglect of the internal. They chose easily measurable rules over love and compassion. They missed the fact that God desired them to do all things well with the right attitude in mind, not one to the exclusion of the other, as is manifest in the life of Jesus Christ!

There are times when we come up against some of the same challenges, and we would do well to remember what Jesus told the Pharisees. Binding traditions and rules hinders us from finding God’s guidelines according to God’s attitude. And when we see the Pharisee in others, we should first make sure that we have expelled the Pharisee in ourselves. Let us not bind tradition, whether adding to or taking away from God’s Word, and seek to do God’s will and reflecting His truth!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Man and the Sabbath

And [Jesus] said unto them, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: so that the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28).

Perhaps one of the greatest points of contention between Jesus and the Pharisees and other religious authorities involved the Sabbath. In the Law of Moses, God commanded the Israelites to sanctify the seventh day as a day of rest– the Sabbath day (Exodus 20:8-11). Israelites, their servants, their animals, and sojourners in their midst were to do no labor on that day.

For many years the people profaned the Sabbath and considered it to be just another day of the week (cf. Nehemiah 13:15-22, Amos 8:5). For the most part after the exile, however, the Jews religiously observed the Sabbath day. They would go no more than three-quarters of a mile to go to a synagogue to read from the Law and pray (any further than three-quarters of a mile would be considered “work”).

It would not take long before all kinds of traditions grew up around the Sabbath. The intentions of the traditions were good: they would be a “hedge” around the Sabbath to completely make sure that no one violated it. One could not do anything that remotely looked like it involved labor or effort. Even spitting on the ground was forbidden– the spittle would likely disturb the earth, thus “plowing” it, thus representing an expenditure of effort!

As is evident, the traditions, despite the intentions behind them, became utterly burdensome. One could easily live in fear on the Sabbath day, worried that in some way, somehow, he has violated the Sabbath. By building up that hedge around the Sabbath, the religious authorities drained the life out of the command!

Jesus did not come to break the Law (cf. Matthew 5:17-18, Luke 16:17). Therefore, Jesus does not intend to break the Sabbath, and as far as we can tell from what has been revealed, He never really breaks the Sabbath. He does, however, break the traditions of the Pharisees and other religious authorities regarding the Sabbath, and for that He was condemned by them as a sinner (cf. John 9:16). In the eyes of the Pharisees and the other religious authorities, Jesus did not keep the Sabbath– He healed on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6), and He even allowed His disciples to pluck heads of grain and to eat them on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-26)!

The latter example was quite difficult for the Pharisees: after all, plucking grain heads and crushing them with your hand to get the grain out is certainly “work.” In response, Jesus reminds the Pharisees of how David and his men are the bread of the Presence even though they were not priests (Mark 2:25-26; cf. 1 Samuel 21:1-7). In so doing, Jesus demonstrates that necessity can, in times of distress, lead to a little “wiggle room” in the Law. That “wiggle room” is not there on account of a disobedient or rebellious spirit but on the basis of what Jesus indicates in verse 27: the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). The Son of Man, that is, Jesus, is Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28). The disciples, therefore, are not doing wrong. The Pharisees and their traditions may be offended, but God is not!

This circumstance is quite instructive for us as believers in God today. The parallel to the Jewish Sabbath in the new covenant would be the assemblies of the saints (although it must be stressed that the assemblies of Christians are never explicitly identified with the Sabbath and that the Bible gives us no impression that Sunday is the “new Sabbath”). As God commanded Israel to observe the Sabbath, so God commands Christians to assemble with one another (Hebrews 10:25). God has specified the types of activities that take place in those assemblies: the Lord’s Supper (Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26), a collection for the work of the church (1 Corinthians 16:1-3, 2 Corinthians 8-9), praying (1 Corinthians 14:14-17), singing (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16), Bible study (Acts 2:42), and preaching (Acts 20:7, 2 Timothy 4:1-2).

These things are well and good, but it is also very easy for traditions to be created around these commands. If man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man, then man was not made for the assembly, but the assembly for man. The assembly is designed to lead to the encouragement and edification of the believers (1 Corinthians 14:23, Hebrews 10:24). Yes, this encouragement and edification must be accomplished according to what is written in the Scriptures (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17), but it also means that we must take care so that we do not drain the life out of the assembly like the Pharisees and religious authorities drained the life out of the Sabbath. God established these things for men for their benefit!

The line between truth and tradition is easily blurred. We must never defend tradition as if it is truth. We must never be as casual with truth as we can be with tradition. In the end, we must keep a proper perspective on these matters. Let us assemble with fellow believers to encourage and edify them, and not allow traditions regarding those assemblies to drain the life out of them!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Weightier Matters

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye tithe mint and anise and cummin, and have left undone the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy, and faith: but these ye ought to have done, and not to have left the other undone” (Matthew 23:23).

Human beings have a tendency to maintain a narrow focus on various matters in life. It is easy for people to allow a select few criteria be their guide in the world: they decide to see everything through a certain set of lenses.

The Pharisees and scribes were not much different. The New Testament reveals that they were quite focused on preserving the Law of Moses and the traditions developed around that Law down to the last detail. Their hyper-vigilance about the Law led them to overemphasize the more “minor” actions while neglecting the more “significant” ones. By focusing on the “minor” actions and accomplishing them perfectly, they felt a sense of pride and accomplishment that led to a false sense of security and satisfaction, as if being vigilant in doing nothing on the Sabbath, washing of hands, and tithing down to the level of spices would be sufficient to obtain God’s commendation!

Jesus condemns this myopia. Even if they are more quantifiable and “objective,” performing these minor acts of obedience are not sufficient to obtain God’s commendation. Believers must not neglect the “weightier” matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith.

The scribes and Pharisees were certainly guilty of that. The Pharisees especially considered themselves morally superior to their fellow men, as the Pharisee’s prayer in Luke 18:11-12 and the attitudes of the Pharisees in John 9 make evident. They deemed themselves “righteous” and everyone else to be “sinners,” despite the fact that they had sinned also and were certainly not maintaining God’s sense of faith, justice, or mercy. Their condemnation was just.

Nevertheless, this passage also exposes a major fault line within the thought of many religious people. Many take the idea of the “weightier matters of the law” and run with it, coming to the conclusion that since we are under “grace,” we need to get the “big things” right, and can allow the “little things” to slide. Others protest the very idea of “weightier matters,” stressing the need to do all things as God has charged us.

The truth, as usual, is somewhere more in the middle. Jesus tells us that there are some matters that are “weightier” than others. This means that some attitudes/actions have more significance than others. In the examples given, this is rather evident: justice, faith, and mercy are of greater significance than tithing spices. “Tithing spices” is of benefit to God and His Temple, while accomplishing justice, mercy, and faith is of benefit to God, His Temple, and all men. Furthermore, faith, justice, and mercy deal with every aspect of a person: his mind, his attitude, and his actions. One cannot easily have faith or show justice and mercy while internally despising God or his fellow man. While tithing should flow from a heart full of faith, one could tithe without the proper attitudes.

Therefore, there are some matters of greater significance than others. But that does not mean that we can just let matters of less significance slide and be pleasing to God. Notice that Jesus does not condemn the scribes or Pharisees for tithing the spices– in fact, He says that they should have done so! The problem was not that the scribes and Pharisees were tithing spices– the problem was that they were tithing spices while neglecting faith, justice, and mercy. It would be a gross perversion of this text to insinuate that if they had engaged in the “weightier matters” of the Law but had not tithed the spices that Jesus would have justified them. There is no basis for such a claim!

This should not be an “either/or” proposition, but a “both/and” one. The scribes and Pharisees should have accomplished both the “weightier matters of the law” and the tithing of spices. If we are serving God as we ought to serve Him, the latter flows from the former: because we are dedicated to love, humility, faith, and service, the “weightier matters” of the new covenant (cf. Romans 1:16-17, Romans 6:16-21, Romans 13:8-11, Ephesians 2:1-10, Philippians 2:1-11, Hebrews 11:1, 6, 1 Peter 1:22, 1 Peter 5:6-7), we will make sure to accomplish God’s will both in simple, quantifiable, and objective matters along with more substantive and difficult matters. We will assemble to encourage one another (1 Corinthians 14:23, Hebrews 10:25), give as we have prospered, both to the church and to those in need (1 Corinthians 16:1-3, 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15, Galatians 2:10, 6:10), and other such things, while also loving our neighbor as ourselves and seeking his welfare (Romans 13:8-10, Philippians 2:1-4), and offering ourselves to God’s purposes as living and holy sacrifices (Romans 12:1), and the like.

Jesus’ message to the scribes and Pharisees represents a necessary warning against spiritual myopia, focusing on accomplishing certain elements of God’s purpose to the neglect of others. We cannot be justified in taking care of matters of detail and less significance while neglecting the weightier matters of God’s purposes; likewise, we cannot be justified in thinking that if we accomplish the weightier matters of God’s will that we can slide on the matters of less significance. If God has commanded it, there is value in accomplishing it! Let us seek to accomplish the whole will of God, and not neglect any aspect of it!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Mercy, not Sacrifice

“But if ye had known what this meaneth, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ ye would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7).

The Pharisees have come out again and have attempted to condemn Jesus and His disciples for violating their strictures regarding the Sabbath. Jesus stands against them because they have entirely missed the purpose of the Sabbath on account of their legalistic perspective.

He charges them with not understanding Samuel’s utterance to Saul in 1 Samuel 15:22, a message also seen in Hosea 6:6, Isaiah 1:11-20, and Jeremiah 6:19-20. This message strikes at the heart of what it means to be a true servant of God versus just going through the motions.

In all of those Old Testament contexts, the people of God were providing the sacrifices which God commanded for them to provide in the Law (cf. Leviticus). Yet God would not accept them. It was not a matter of the technical requirements, as if the sacrifices were themselves offered improperly. God rejected them because the sacrifices were not consistent with the rest of their lives. Sure, they would sacrifice to God, but they were not obeying God otherwise! Saul had brought all kinds of animals to sacrifice for God when God told him to devote Amalek to the ban. The Israelites in the days of Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah brought their requisite offerings yet were also serving idols, committing oppressions and violence in the land, and not following the LORD as commanded.

These Pharisees were doing the same thing. They went to great lengths to understand the Book yet did not actually practice much of what was in it. They devised a series of all kinds of guidelines to keep people from violating the Law– a veritable “fence around the Torah”– and in the process missed its most essential commands (cf. Matthew 23:23-24). Even though they did not commit the exact same sins as their forebears, they fell under the same condemnation!

These are strong warnings for us today. It is good to know what the Bible teaches and to do all one can in order to avoid sin (cf. 2 Peter 3:18, Romans 12:9). On the other hand, Christianity is more than just an intellectual exercise, and its core message discourages any attempt at self-righteousness or sanctimony (James 1:22-25, Luke 18:9-14).

We cannot pride ourselves in having all the details of certain elements of our service to God entirely figured out and then miss the whole of the message. If we assemble with the saints and do all things according to God’s purposes, well and good (Hebrews 10:24-25). But we are to show love, mercy, and compassion to all men at all times, and to serve God as fervently outside of the assembly as we do among the saints (Romans 12:1-2, Galatians 5:22-24). Even if we have great knowledge of the Book, we have no reason to be high on ourselves: we remain profitless servants doing only what is our duty when we learn God’s will and apply it (Luke 17:7-10). In the end, no matter how “righteous” we are, no matter how “mature” in the faith, we must remain humble servants of our Lord, encouraging all men to come to the knowledge of the truth in love, confessing that we are not the judges but our Lord will judge everyone on the last day (Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 7:1-5, James 4:12, Ephesians 2:1-10, 4:11-16).

Let none be deceived: if you assemble with the saints but do not otherwise accomplish God’s will, God will reject your “sacrifice.” If you strive diligently to obey God in the areas of life in which it is convenient, but refuse to repent in the more challenging aspects of the faith, God will reject your “sacrifice.” If you understand God’s Word well and seek to apply it in your life yet you look down on your fellow man and consider yourself better than they, God will reject your “sacrifice.” It is only when we remember our place and completely give ourselves over to the Lord Jesus Christ that our sacrifices will be pleasing to God (Romans 12:1, Hebrews 13:15)! Let us both show mercy and provide sacrifice, and be pleasing to our Lord!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Forecasts

And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and trying him asked him to show them a sign from heaven.
But Jesus answered and said unto them, “When it is evening, ye say, ‘It will be fair weather: for the heaven is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be foul weather to-day: for the heaven is red and lowering.’ Ye know how to discern the face of the heaven; but ye cannot discern the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of Jonah.”
And he left them, and departed (Matthew 16:1-4).

We easily can get obsessed with forecasts. We turn on the television to obtain weather forecasts to see what the weather will be like. If we are interested in business matters, we may read the paper or listen to news about stock market forecasts. There are political forecasts, sporting event forecasts, and a host of other predictions for other situations in life.

While these forecasts are not always entirely accurate, we use them to try to get a sense of what will take place during the day. We like having some idea of what is coming at us. We do not want to be caught off guard, and it is always good to have that “edge” in any situation.

We put our time and at least some of our trust into forecasts involving worldly matters. But do we consider the spiritual forecast?

During the days of Jesus, many sought to see signs done by Him. Yet the signs were everywhere. Jesus was the right person at the right place at the right time doing the right things (cf. Matthew 11:4-6). The signs were everywhere– they refused to accept them or see them! Furthermore, no “sign” would have been sufficient for such persons, for they did not want to understand. They would understand and trust the signs that humans could understand relative to the weather, but refused to trust the signs that pointed to Jesus as the Christ.

People have sought signs to this day, and the reality remains the same. The creation attests to the hand of God (Romans 1:18-20), and the message of Scripture provides complete confidence in the revelation of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God (John 20:30-31). If we are willing to trust in various forecasts of men, we ought to be able to trust the forecast of God as revealed in Scripture!

If we believe in God and trust in His Word, do we take stock of our spiritual forecast? Granted, we may not get a specific message about precisely what will take place on any given day, but we are guaranteed that we will suffer difficulties because of our belief in God (Acts 14:22, Romans 8:17), have opportunities that we ought to use for God’s glory (Ephesians 5:16), and constantly suffer the barrage of temptations for sin (1 Peter 5:8). We also have the “forecasted” return of our Lord which could happen at any time, and for which we must always be prepared (1 Thessalonians 5:1-10)!

If the weatherman predicts rain, we grab the jacket or the umbrella. If the economic forecaster sees a downturn in a stock, we may feel compelled to sell. When God forecasts difficulties and temptations to sin, do we likewise prepare ourselves so that we may stand firm and do what is right when the situation comes about? Or, despite trusting in the forecasts of men, do we not discern the signs of our times? Let us take advantage of God’s forecasts, resolve to advance His Kingdom and His purposes, and go out and do so!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Older Brother

“Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called to him one of the servants, and inquired what these things might be.
And he said unto him, ‘Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.’
But he was angry, and would not go in: and his father came out, and entreated him.
But he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years do I serve thee, and I never transgressed a commandment of thine; and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: but when this thy son came, who hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou killedst for him the fatted calf.’
And he said unto him, ‘Son, thou art ever with me, and all that is mine is thine. But it was meet to make merry and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found’ (Luke 15:25-32).

The “Parable of the Prodigal Son,” which we have discussed previously, is one of Jesus’ most well-known and beloved parables. Yet, in context, a good argument can be made that the parable is less about the prodigal son and more about another character: the older brother.

The older brother stands in contrast with the prodigal. He did not take his share of the inheritance and live riotously. He has been faithful and dependable throughout. In contrast to his brother, he has followed the will of his father.

But this does not mean that he has an excellent character. When his brother returns, his heart is not filled with joy. He, instead, is resentful. He cannot believe the largess of his father toward his brother. He feels deprived, and it stings him a bit.

This parable is one of three which Jesus spoke against the Pharisees and scribes who murmured against Him regarding His eating with sinners (Luke 15:1-2). Jesus is first and foremost attempting to show these opponents how God feels about “sinners” in these three parables; yet, here at the end of the third parable, we have a figure that represents these Pharisees and scribes in the older brother. Sure, they may have not done the things that the sinners have done. But that does not make them right!

The older brother is focused on himself despite his service to his father. He cannot stand his father’s reaction to his brother because it injures his cause. He can only think about how he has been “deprived” despite the “honor” shown to his terribly sinful brother. There is no mercy or compassion in his heart.

The older brother– and the Pharisees and scribes he represents– are to serve as warnings for those who believe and strive to be faithful servants of Jesus Christ. It is easy to develop the “older brother syndrome” when one works hard in the Lord’s vineyard and hears of the repentance of a sinner. We might have been working quite diligently toward serving God while such a one has been living a dissolute life, and now we hear that we both will share the same reward? It is easy to wonder: where is the honor for us?

Such thinking is not of God; it comes from the self. According to God, there is joy whenever anyone turns from their sin. God’s love and compassion can come to all of us, and we should be showing that love and compassion to others. In the end, it is not about us; it is about God our Father. If He rejoices when a prodigal returns, we should also. If He would show mercy toward terrible sinners, who are we to judge or condemn?

The Pharisees and scribes found themselves far from the Kingdom because of their lack of love and compassion toward their fellow man. Let us not be like them or share their fate!

Ethan R. Longhenry

God’s Trash Pit

“Ye serpents, ye offspring of vipers, how shall ye escape the judgment of hell?” (Matthew 23:33).

Imagine, if you will, a trash dump. It is full of all kinds of garbage, including dead animals and human bodies, all of which in various levels of decomposition. Then imagine that this trash dump is on fire.

Is this a place that will be high on your vacation itinerary? Does this sound like a place where you want to be?

Such was the Valley of Hinnom in the first century CE. The Valley of Hinnom lay immediately to the south of Jerusalem; it represents part of the border between Benjamin and Judah (Joshua 15:8). In the days of the kings, the Israelites would burn their children alive there at the Valley of Hinnom to the god Molech (2 Kings 23:10, 2 Chronicles 28:3). Even though Josiah defiled the place, it maintained its reputation as polluted land. What better place, then, for Jews to place their garbage and burn it? And thus it was. Every Israelite knew exactly what the Valley of Hinnom was like. No one really wanted to go there or be there!

Jesus recognizes these things, and twelve times in the New Testament, He calls hell by the Greek word gehenna: the Valley of Hinnom. Such would be the destination of the Pharisees if they would not change their ways, as seen above in Matthew 23:33; their disciples would go there too (Matthew 23:15). In Matthew 5:29-30, among other places, Jesus establishes that it is better to lose an eye or a hand than to have the whole body cast into Gehenna. In Matthew 5:22, those who revile their brother will experience Gehenna. We are to fear God because, unlike mankind, He is able to cast both body and soul into Gehenna (Matthew 10:28).

While talking about hell may not be popular or politically correct these days, Jesus speaks about it more than anyone else in the Scriptures, and the Valley of Hinnom represents one of His consistent descriptions of the place. He uses that description not because He relishes the thought of burning souls like trash, but because He does not want anyone to go there! Who wants to be part of a trash pit that is perpetually burning? Who would sign up for such a thing? Who would want their loved ones to go there? Who would even wish that upon their worst enemy?

And that is precisely the point: hell is not a fun place. It is not a place anyone should want to go or should want anyone else to experience. God certainly does not want anyone to have to go there (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:7-8)!

If this message has thoroughly disgusted you, I pray that you are not offended, but will instead use that disgust to provide greater motivation to serve the Lord Jesus and encourage everyone you know and love (and, for that matter, those you don’t like) to serve the Lord Jesus also, lest anyone end up in that terrible trash pit!

Ethan R. Longhenry