Mystery

Whereby, when ye read, ye can perceive my understanding in the mystery of Christ; which in other generations was not made known unto the sons of men, as it hath now been revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; to wit, that the Gentiles are fellow-heirs, and fellow-members of the body, and fellow-partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Ephesians 3:4-6).

A lot of people enjoy a good mystery.

When most people today think of a “mystery,” they tend to think of some sort of problem or conundrum to solve. Books and television programs in the “mystery” genre involve complex stories which some enterprising detective or group of people must sort out in order to find the truth; Sherlock Holmes is the paragon of this kind of “mystery.” For years one of the most popular shows on television was Unsolved Mysteries, featuring stories about everything from ghosts to fraud, murder to lost treasures, and all with the conceit that maybe you, the viewer, had the piece of evidence needed to solve the mystery.

We can understand, therefore, why many people come to the Bible, read about the “mystery of Christ,” and conclude that it, too, is a problem or conundrum for us to solve, and seek to go about trying to figure out how to make sense of it all using reason, deductive logic, and exploration. In the Bible, however, a “mystery” is something of a very different nature.

In his letter to the Ephesians Paul has been setting forth the overwhelming and humbling blessings and power which God has displayed toward us through Jesus in the Spirit (Ephesians 1:1-2:22). He had previously declared that God had made known the mystery of His will to Christians (Ephesians 1:9), and he decided it was important to take a moment to explain this mystery in more detail (Ephesians 3:1-3). In Ephesians 3:4-6 Paul came out with it: the mystery of Christ is that Gentiles are fellow-heirs, fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers in the promise of Jesus in the Gospel. This is a mystery which was not made known to people in previous generations, but now has been revealed to the apostles and prophets in the Spirit.

The substance of the mystery may seem dull and obvious to us; such is the case only because we have learned to take it for granted. It was not at all obvious, dull, or evident to anyone in the first century. Welcoming Gentiles as joint participants in Jesus while still Gentile caused great controversy among many of the Jewish Christians, and many Jewish Christians refused to accept it as true, and strove diligently to convince Gentile Christians to submit to circumcision and the Law of Moses (cf. Acts 15:1-29, Galatians 1:6-5:16).

For that matter, it was not even immediately apparent or obvious to the apostles and prophets of Christianity in the first century that the message of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and imminent return should be proclaimed among the nations as it was in Israel. It required an angel visiting Cornelius, a vision from the Lord Jesus to Simon Peter, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius and his associates to convince Peter and the Jewish Christians with him that God intended for the Gentiles to receive the repentance that leads to life, and that only after the Gospel had been proclaimed to the Israelites for a time (Acts 10:1-11:18). The deliberations of the council in Jerusalem required Peter’s witness regarding these previous events, the report of Paul and Barnabas regarding the powerful signs and miracles God wrought in Christ among the Gentiles of Asia Minor, and the interpretation of the prophetic message by James the Lord’s brother to secure the agreement among all that indeed, the Gentiles were to be accepted and welcomed as Gentiles, and they did not have to submit to the customs of the Law of Moses to enter God’s covenant in Christ (Acts 15:1-29).

Paul’s whole point in Ephesians 3:4-6 is how nobody figured out the Gospel on their own. We have yet to find any evidence within Second Temple Judaism of the expectation of a Messiah to arise in Israel, growing up in Galilee, serving and doing good, dying on a cross, being raised on the third day, and ascending to receive an eternal dominion from God to fulfill all of what God had promised, let alone that the message of said Messiah would also be proclaimed among the Gentiles to allow Jewish and Gentile people to become reconciled into one body in God in the Christ (cf. Ephesians 2:1-22). Not only did no one think it would happen this way, no one would have wanted it to happen this way. This was not the deliverance for which Israel sought; this was not the way of redemption which those among the nations imagined.

The impoverishment of the modern mind is evident in the claim of many scholars that Christianity is the innovation of the earliest followers of Jesus, as if somehow the despondent disciples of Jesus suddenly came up with this whole narrative about resurrection, ascension, and proclamation to all the nations on their own. Such is a fabulous tale, without any kind of warrant from anything that came before, and indeed requires more faith to believe than to accept the story as written!

The “mystery” of the New Testament and the “mysteries” of books and television shows all do share a common origin: they are things that are veiled. Yet the means of unveiling could hardly be more different. In the world, mysteries are unveiled through human discovery, reason, logic, and exploration; in Christ, mysteries are unveiled when God reveals their substance to His servants.

As Christians we have much for which to be thankful regarding the mystery of Christ. Most of us today come from the nations, and not Israel according to the flesh, and our ability to have access to God and stand before Him is entirely dependent on not only what God has done in Jesus but also in the revelation that God’s work in Christ was equally effective for us among the nations if we would put our trust in Him (Ephesians 2:11-3:13).

Yet this mystery of God in Christ is instructive for us, and it is a lesson we must learn and proclaim today: we humans will never figure out God’s mysteries on our own without Him making them known through His apostles and prophets. This message was set forth and proclaimed in the first century; it has been revealed once for all (1 Corinthians 13:8-10, Jude 1:3). Whatever is difficult to understand will remain difficult to understand until the Lord’s return. Whatever has been left without a lot of detail will remain without a lot of detail. Whatever questions were left unanswered will remain unanswered. As humans we can learn about what God has made known through the apostles and prophets; we can use reason and logic, paired with humility, faith, and prayer for strength, to come to a better understanding of what God has made known through the apostles and prophets regarding the Gospel. We can even learn more about the historical and cultural contexts of the Scriptures so as to provide more depth and color to why God spoke as He did, but that never means that we could add to what God has already made known.

Ever since the Lord arose from the dead there have been many who have claimed to have obtained special knowledge, either through esoteric interpretations of Biblical texts, cunning schemes involving human innovation and worldly wisdom, or the belief in some kind of conspiracy which has hindered people from knowing the truth. All such people treat the mystery of God in Christ as a problem or conundrum to be solved, when in fact the mystery of God in Christ is something God has made known through His apostles and prophets. If God wanted something to be made known, He would have clearly made it known through His apostles and prophets. If there is something which God has not made known through His apostles and prophets, it is something which is not for us to know. Perhaps it is beyond our capacity of knowledge; perhaps it serves no good purpose.

God’s power is made evident in His work of liberating everyone from the forces of sin and death through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and imminent return; this is not a story people would make up on their own, but something God has made known through His apostles and prophets. God’s mysteries are not for us to solve; it is for us to trust in God’s goodness, power, and love so that we can humbly learn and accept what He has made known, and let be all that remains the secret things of God. God has made provision for all people to become one in Jesus through the Spirit; may we participate in God’s work in Christ and take hold of that which is truly life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Alienation

Wherefore remember, that once ye, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called Circumcision, in the flesh, made by hands; that ye were at that time separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world (Ephesians 2:11-12).

To many loneliness and alienation is a fate worse than death. Who really wants to be entirely alone?

As Paul writes to the Ephesians (and if Ephesians is an encyclical letter, which is plausible, to other congregations of Christians as well), after describing the initial condition of all mankind and how God has acted in Christ to provide salvation (Ephesians 2:1-10), he then turns specifically to the Gentile Christians, of whom there were likely many in Ephesus and Asia Minor, and spoke of how God reconciled Gentiles with Jews, the people of God, to make one new body of God’s people in Christ (Ephesians 2:11-18). As with his description of salvation, so with his description of the in-gathering of the Gentiles: he first describes the condition of the Gentiles before they found reconciliation in Christ in Ephesians 2:11-12, and it is not a pretty picture. They were the “uncircumcision,” used in derogatory ways (e.g. 2 Samuel 1:20). They were separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, having no part of the nation of the people of God; they were strangers, or outsiders, not sharing in the covenant of promise given to Abraham and maintained through Isaac and Israel (Genesis 12:1-50:12). Therefore they found themselves with no hope of resurrection or reconciliation and without God, the source of light and life, in the world (Ephesians 2:12). People of the nations (“Gentiles” meaning “nations”) found themselves in quite a distressing and difficult place: they were out there alienated from God, His people, and therefore all that is good and holy.

Almost two thousand years later we all find ourselves, at some point, in this condition; when we live in sin we are separated from God (Isaiah 59:2), have no hope in the resurrection but a fearful expectation of judgment (Romans 2:6-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, Hebrews 10:26-31), and at a fundamental level find ourselves alienated from the people of God (1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 1 Peter 4:3-5). Is that any way to live or seek to maintain existence?

Modern life and culture have only exacerbated man’s condition of alienation. In the past, for better or for worse, people most frequently spent most of their lives within a few miles of where they were born; everyone knew everybody, and quite often, everybody’s business. It was not that long ago when neighbors actually knew one another and looked out for one another; neighborhood children would play with each other and grow up together. People had to interact with each other when traveling and while shopping. These days many extended families are spread across the country or even the world; many move frequently; technology develops ways to function without interaction. If anything our fellow man becomes a matter of irritation: those other cars on the road leading to traffic delays; other shoppers who are in the way or taking too long at the register. Even the Internet with its great promise of connecting people around the world easily leads to alienation when people choose electronic contact over personal contact. We may have new and better toys, yet they have come at the expense of our relationships with one another. Why are we surprised, then, when so many people are depressed, anxious, and feel quite alone and alienated from their fellow man?

Despite the popular myths of society man was not made to be fully independent and alone. Humans were made in the image of God who is Three in One, One in relational unity (Genesis 1:26-27, John 17:20-23). As humans we need connection with God and with fellow human beings in order to live and thrive! Such is why Paul does not stop with the story at Ephesians 2:12 any more than he did in Ephesians 2:3; the great news of Jesus Christ is that all who were once alienated from God and His people can now be reconciled through the blood shed by Jesus, and we can share in the hope of resurrection and life together with God and one another for eternity through Jesus’ resurrection (Ephesians 2:1-18, Revelation 21:1-22:6). Thanks to Jesus we do not have to suffer from alienation any more. Through Him we can be reconciled to God (Romans 5:6-11). Then we can become the people of God and share in that work and community together (Acts 2:42-47, 1 John 1:7)!

Sadly there are times and places when and where Christians feel alienated and alone. Perhaps they work in difficult places. Perhaps their congregation is not fostering a strong sense of community within itself. Perhaps the Christian has not proven willing to open up so as to be part of the larger group, afraid of getting hurt or burned for the first time or yet again. Perhaps the Christian or the members of the church have believed a bit too much in the American myth of complete independence and self-sufficiency. Regardless of the reason, this ought not be, for how can the people of the God who is One in relational unity survive and thrive when living in alienation, isolation, and loneliness?

The church, as Christ’s body, must reflect the will of its Head, the Author and Finisher of its faith and practice (Ephesians 5:25-32, Hebrews 12:2); as Jesus is One with the Father and the Spirit, so He wills for us to be one with one another in His body (John 17:20-23). Such is why He said that His “mother and brothers” are those who do the will of His Father, privileging the spiritual relationship over all others (Matthew 12:46-50). Such is why Paul exhorts Christians to prefer one another in honor, expecting the members of the body of Christ to have the same care for one another (Romans 12:10, 1 Corinthians 12:24-25). Therefore, building strong relationships and community within the local congregation is not an optional work, but crucial for the spiritual health of all involved. It will not always be pretty; relationships never are. It will require a lot of growth and change on the part of many, yet that is exactly what we are to experience while in this life (1 Peter 1:3-9).

A group of people professing Christ but as alienated from one another as they are from the rest of the people with whom they interact in the world does not reflect the will of God in Christ for His body, and the people of the world know that. Why bother being associated with a group of people who have as little to do with one another as the people they already know, especially when that association comes with additional levels of guilt and shame? When the church looks like the world, then the church has failed. But when people of the world see Christians love each other, care for each other, strengthening the relationships with each other, are there for one another in good times and bad, and that Christians are therefore able to draw strength from one another and are built up in their faith, just as God expects in John 13:34-35, Ephesians 4:11-16, they can see how radically different that is from the alienation present in the world, and all of a sudden being part of the people of God becomes a much more attractive proposition! The orphan can find a family; the introvert can find acceptance; the one who feels like they are always failing find support; and all who are part of the group live in the confidence that whatever may come they have the people of God to hold them up and sustain them no matter what!

Deep down we are all very scared of being alone. Christ has redeemed us from that fear; are we willing to trust in Him and make it a reality for ourselves and our fellow people of God?

Ethan R. Longhenry

Christ Jesus Our Mediator

For there is one God, one mediator also between God and men, himself man, Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all; the testimony to be borne in its own times (1 Timothy 2:5-6).

When two sides cannot come to an agreement face to face, it is time for the mediator to be brought in. The mediator will act as a bridge, perhaps as a go-between the two parties, or perhaps as a third-party perspective so as to find some means by which both sides can come to an agreement. The goal of the mediator is some sort of agreement, be it reconciliation, restoration, or restitution, leaving both parties satisfied with the result.

Thus Paul, having spoken of God’s desire for all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth, describes the man Christ Jesus as the mediator between the One True God and mankind (1 Timothy 2:5). Paul exhorts Timothy regarding the importance of prayer for all men, especially those in authority, so that Christians might live a tranquil and quiet life in godliness (1 Timothy 2:1-2, 8). Petitions are to be made to God, and we can have sufficient standing before God so as to pray to Him on account of our Mediator, Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:3-7).

Jesus Christ is the mesites, literally the “go-between,” the Mediator between God and man. Paul speaks explicitly regarding how it came to pass that Jesus is our Mediator: He gave Himself as a ransom for all (1 Timothy 2:6). As Paul has made very clear in other letters, we humans find ourselves separated from God on account of our sin, and no matter how diligently we try, we cannot bridge that gap, because we all have transgressed the law and therefore cannot be justified by it (Romans 2:1-3:22, James 2:9-10). Jesus lived a perfect life and was therefore able to offer Himself as the ransom so as to pay the price of redemption for all of us so that we could be reconciled back to God (Matthew 20:25-28, Romans 5:6-11, 1 Peter 2:18-25). Therefore Jesus is the unique go-between from God to man, since through His sacrifice we can be reconciled back to God and no longer at enmity toward Him (Romans 8:1-10).

Yet Paul also notes another means by which Jesus is the Mediator between God and man: He is the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5). By saying Christ Jesus is an anthropos, a human, Paul is not attempting to deny His divinity; in Colossians 2:9 he proclaims that in Jesus the fulness of divinity dwells in bodily form. He is not contradicting the witness of John who speaks of Jesus as the Word made flesh, fully human, fully God (John 1:1-18, 1 John 4:3-4). Indeed, if anything, Paul affirms Jesus’ divinity and humanity in 1 Timothy 2:5: He can be Mediator between God and man because He partakes of the nature of each.

It is also important for us to note the tense Paul uses. He does not speak of Jesus as “having been” man; he tells Timothy that Christ Jesus presently “is” man, ca. 63-64 CE, no less than thirty years after His resurrection and ascension. For that matter, in Colossians 2:9, written only a few years earlier, Paul affirmed that the fulness of deity presently dwells in Jesus in bodily form. It is clear from the Gospel accounts and from Paul’s description of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:20-58 that Jesus’ body was transformed for immortality in the resurrection, yet Paul makes it equally clear that He is still recognizably human in the resurrection body. He remains the Mediator, sharing in the nature of both God and man; He can continue to identify with us in our weaknesses since He experienced temptation but overcame and learned obedience through what He suffered (Hebrews 4:15, 5:8-9). Yet, as God, He was active in the creation and continues to uphold the universe by the word of His power (John 1:1-4, Colossians 1:14-18).

After all, Jesus became our Mediator since He ransomed us through His death and resurrection (1 Timothy 2:6); since God is eternal and immortal and cannot die, it is not as if Jesus’ divine nature perished on the cross, and since His divine nature did not perish, it likewise could not be raised from the dead. As the Son of Man, fully human, Jesus endured suffering and death and obtained victory in the resurrection; therefore, to serve as Mediator on that basis, He would have to remain human, albeit transformed for immortality (1 Corinthians 15:50-57). He reigns as Lord as the “Son of Man,” the Human One, given a kingdom by the Ancient of Days (Daniel 7:13-14, Luke 22:67-69, Acts 7:56, Revelation 1:12-18).

There is indeed one God, and one Mediator between God and humans, Jesus Christ the human. It is difficult for us to make sense of how this is possible; then again, it is hard for us to make sense of how God is One in Three, and there are plenty of other divine mysteries, and attempts to smooth out difficulties and make rational sense of them has often led people into all sorts of heresy. We should be thankful that Jesus took on flesh and dwelt among us, giving His life as a ransom for many, overcoming sin and death through His sacrifice and in His resurrection, giving us hope for our own victory over sin and death in the resurrection, and confident that our Lord can always sympathize with us since He has shared in the trials and difficulties of humanity. Let us praise God the Father for His Son and our Mediator the Lord Jesus Christ, and serve Him unto His glory and honor!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Called Out of Egypt

When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt (Hosea 11:1).

Israel had been quite unfaithful to God, serving other gods and acting immorally. Through Hosea God has been appealing to Israel to repent and change their ways lest judgment break out against them. Many illustrations have been used, including Hosea embodying God’s experience through his own faithless wife Gomer (Hosea 1:1-3:5). God has made His legal case against Israel (Hosea 4:1-19). He would heal them and redeem them, yet they would not be healed or redeemed (Hosea 6:1-3, 7:1, 13-16). He has chastised Israel for playing the whore (Hosea 2:1-23, 9:1-4). And now, beginning in Hosea 11:1, God uses a tender description for Israel, that of His son.

Sons were to give glory and honor to their parents; if they did, they would live long in the land God gave them (Exodus 20:12). Yet Israel, as God’s son, did not give Him appropriate honor, instead sacrificing to the Baals and to other gods (Hosea 11:2). God lifted Israel up, sustained him, but he rebelled against his Father (Hosea 11:3-4). Therefore, for a time, God will reject His son Israel, handing him over to Assyrian captivity, and to the sword (Hosea 11:5-6). Yet God takes no pleasure in this judgment; He has too much compassion on His son Israel to turn him into another Sodom or Gomorrah, Admah or Zeboiim (Hosea 11:8; cf. Genesis 14:1-3, 19:1-29). Even though He will judge them, He will have compassion on them, and will restore them to Him (Hosea 11:9-11).

This is one of the few times in the Old Testament in which God identifies Himself in terms of a Father, and Israel as a son. The Israelites would understand this description: they expected honor from their children by virtue of having given them life and sustaining them in their youth. God desires the same honor out of Israel, since He called Israel out of Egypt and rescued them with a strong hand when they were dependent and had no other to protect them (cf. Exodus 1:1-15:21). Likewise, God’s tender care for Israel was like that of a father for his son, never wanting to have to chastise, judge, or condemn, and ever looking for the opportunity to forgive, show compassion, grace, and mercy (Hosea 11:8-9). And God’s appeal to His people Israel is frequently rooted in His original saving act, redeeming them from bondage in Egypt, the basis upon which Israel was to know that YHWH is God of Israel and God of all (Exodus 20:1-2).

Unfortunately, Hosea’s words fell upon deaf ears. Israel refused to repent and turn back to YHWH their God; within a generation of Hosea’s prophecy, the condemnation spoken of in Hosea 11:5-6 had come to pass, the Kingdom of Israel ceased to exist as a political entity, and the people of Israel began to suffer exile in Assyria (2 Kings 17:1-24). Within another 140 years, Judah would experience the same fate at the hands of Babylon (2 Kings 25:1-21). Yet God did have compassion upon His people Israel; in 539 BCE, Cyrus king of Persia overthrew the Babylonian Empire and encouraged the Jewish people to return to Judah and to restore Jerusalem and the Temple (Ezra 1:1-4). Israel was back in its land, but Israel did not truly feel free. They suffered under imperial authority: the Persians, then the Ptolemies and Seleucid Macedonians, and then the Romans. Israel continued to experience bondage, yet now in their own land!

This situation was acutely felt during the days of the Romans. The Romans had established Herod, a half-Idumean, or Edomite, as a client king to handle Israel (cf. Matthew 2:1). He was well-known for his building projects and his largesse, but all of that was only possible because of the harsh taxation he imposed upon Israel. He was always concerned about threats to his rule; three of his sons, Alexander, Aristobulus, and Antipater, were all killed for conspiracy, true or alleged; one of his final acts involved a slaughter of babies in Bethlehem in an attempt to extirpate Israel’s Messiah (Matthew 2:1-8, 16-18). Herod certainly seemed to be as cruel to Israel as Pharaoh was. And while Herod had tried to eliminate the Messiah, the Father of the Messiah had looked out for Him, and told His mother and step-father to flee to Egypt to deliver Him from Herod (Matthew 2:13-14). After Herod’s death, God called the step-father and mother of the Messiah back since the danger, for a time, had passed; they went to Nazareth of Galilee, ruled by a different descendant of Herod, Herod Antipas (Matthew 2:19-23, Luke 3:1). This would not be the last run-in between a scion of Herod and the Messiah of God; yet it provided the means by which the prophecy had been fulfilled:

And he arose and took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt; and was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt did I call my son” (Matthew 2:14-15).

Matthew’s reference to Hosea 11:1 might seem puzzling to some readers; as we have seen above, in context, Hosea is speaking about Israel as God’s son, lamenting how Israel has not been faithful as a son. Hosea speaks of Israel’s exodus from Egypt out of bondage and slavery; Jesus, the Messiah, went to Egypt for protection against a Pharaoh-like ruler, and was returning to Israel. Is Matthew just proof-texting, desperate to find any and all linkages between the Old Testament and Jesus?

The difficulty is only on the surface, for the association between Jesus the Messiah and Israel runs deep. In Hosea’s imagery, Israel is God’s son, expected to be faithful and to serve the Father in all respects, yet proves disobedient, either through outright rebellion or through heartless obedience (e.g. Luke 15:11-32). God brought Israel out of Egypt to be His special possession, yet they just wanted to be like all the other nations (e.g. 1 Samuel 8:1-18). Jesus is the ultimate Son of the Father, fully obedient, glorifying and honoring the Father in all He does (Matthew 26:39, John 5:19-20). And while it may seem like the identification of Jesus’ sojourn in Egypt with Hosea 11:1 might be a stretch, it serves an important aspect in Jesus’ story as the embodiment of Israel: as Israel started in Canaan, sojourned in Egypt, was tempted in the wilderness, entered the land, was exiled, yet was restored, so Jesus begins in the land, sojourns in Egypt, was tempted in the wilderness, ministered in the land, died, and was raised again in power, able to now be the fulfillment of all of God’s plans and intentions for Israel (Luke 24:41-50, Acts 1:1-8, 3:18-26)!

As Jesus is God’s Son, the true Israel of God can surround Him in His Kingdom, and receive the promised inheritance and restoration (Acts 3:18-26, Hebrews 7:12-9:27). Israel would not find deliverance from their bondage through military power, through rebellion against Rome, or through any political or “secular” means; they tried it in 68-70 CE and saw their city and Temple destroyed again just as in the days of their forefathers (fulfilling Matthew 24:1-36). Yet God’s compassion remained for His people: those who would follow His Son could receive adoption as sons and daughters of God, co-heirs of eternal life and glory in the resurrection of life (Romans 8:11-25).

God loved His son; that is why He first called Israel out of Egyptian bondage, and then He called Jesus out from Egypt to return to the land of Israel in order to call all people out of the bondage to sin and death (Romans 8:1-10). Let us find deliverance and rescue through Jesus of Nazareth and obtain the promises and inheritance which come through restoration to God!

ELDV

Lifted Up For Us

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life (John 3:14-15).

Jesus has been saying many difficult things to Nicodemus. This time Nicodemus probably understood the referent, but the application? How can these things be?

If we are to understand Jesus’ application, we must first understand Jesus’ referent. Jesus speaks of Moses lifting up a serpent in the wilderness, and such is the situation in Numbers 21:4-9. As usual, the Israelites are not acting graciously toward God, and so God punishes them yet again, this time with serpents. Many begin to suffer and die and cry out to God. To deliver them from the serpents, God commands Moses to create a likeness of the serpents; the people must look up at the image of the serpent to be healed. Deliverance from death thus comes by God’s power to those who look upon the image of the serpent.

Jesus indicates in John 3:14 that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so also the “Son of Man” must be lifted up. What Nicodemus may not have understood at the time is made clear to us: as Moses lifted up the serpent, Jesus will be lifted up on the cross.

Jesus knows full well the fate that will befall Him; He begins to describe the fate awaiting Him in Jerusalem at the Passover to the disciples in Matthew 16:21, and as He institutes the Lord’s Supper in Matthew 26:26-28, He describes the cup as the “blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many unto remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28). As the “Lamb of God” who “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), Jesus teaches Nicodemus the sober truth about His own fate.

The parallel goes beyond the simple act of being “lifted up”. Not only is Jesus lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent, but just as the Israelites were delivered from the power of the bite of the serpents, so in Christ all can find deliverance from the power of sin and death. Jesus had no need to die for His own sin or for any infraction that He committed, for in Him there was no sin, neither was there any deceit in His mouth (cf. Isaiah 53:9, 1 Peter 2:20-22, Hebrews 4:15, 7:27). He was lifted up for our transgressions, so that we could have the remission of sin in His blood, and have restored association with God (Isaiah 53:5, Matthew 26:28, 1 John 1:1-7).

The parallels do not end there. As the Israelites had to look up at the serpent in order to receive healing, so believers in Christ must look upon Jesus on the cross as well. It was predicted in Zechariah 12:10 that the people would look upon the Messiah and mourn for Him. This prophecy is directly fulfilled by the Roman soldiers who pierce the side of Jesus with a spear to verify His death (John 19:37), yet we must also internalize the prophecy for ourselves. We ourselves have pierced God by our sin, for He went to the Cross on our behalf for our transgression (Isaiah 53:5, Romans 5:6-8). We must look upon Christ on the Cross, the One whom we have pierced, and we should mourn for our sin and its terrible consequences. If we look upon Him in obedient faith, we gain our deliverance. Just as the Israelites looked to the image of the serpent to be healed of their wounds, so we must look to Jesus on the cross if we desire to be healed of our iniquities.

Jesus is not only “lifted up” on the cross. If it were so, His death would be meaningless, and we would still be lost in our sins (1 Corinthians 15:12-18). On the third day, however, the first day of the week, Jesus was again “lifted up” in the resurrection (John 20:1-29)!

Jesus is no less aware of His coming resurrection as He was of His upcoming death on the cross (Matthew 16:21, 26:29). In John 2:13-22, as Jesus cleanses the Temple in Jerusalem, He says, “destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). While everyone thought He spoke of the Temple, Jesus’ disciples would later remember the event and understand how He spoke of the “Temple of His body” (John 2:21), and understood Him to be speaking of His resurrection. No doubt Nicodemus also, reflecting upon his dialogue with Jesus as recorded in John 3:1-21 after everything had taken place, would also recognize how Jesus spoke of His death and His resurrection in John 3:14.

Nevertheless, how does Jesus being lifted up in the resurrection have anything to do with Moses lifting up the serpent? The connection may not be immediately apparent, but we can understand it if we look at the events in Numbers 21:4-9 as the type of the reality seen in the resurrection. God plagues the sinful Israelites with serpents; to deliver them from death, God commands Moses to make an image of the serpent. In this event, looking upon the image of the thing that kills brings life.

The serpent also represents a much deeper level of mortality. The serpent beguiled Eve into eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:1-6), incurring sin and death for mankind. God did not leave man without promise: one would come to bruise the head of the serpent, Satan (Genesis 3:15, Revelation 12:9). Through sin, Satan has successfully bruised the heel of all men and women, and we all are under the sentence of sin and death because of it (Romans 3:5-23). Jesus was the One who was able to bruise Satan’s head by conquering both sin and death, dying on the cross for the remission of sin and being raised to life again on the third day (Romans 5:12-18, 1 Corinthians 15:21-22). Jesus gained the victory, and we are able to be victors in Him (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).

Moses’ lifting the serpent in the wilderness represents the type: the Israelites were bitten by snakes; by looking upon the image of a snake, they were healed, thus defeating the snakes. This points us to the resurrection of Jesus and our own victory: we have been bitten by sin, and by looking to Jesus who was lifted up in the resurrection, we have the victory over death, beginning in our baptism and ending in our resurrection on the final day (Romans 6:3-7, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58, 1 Peter 1:3-9). Let us look upon Jesus, pierced for our iniquities, and receive forgiveness of sin and the hope of the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus and Women

And it came to pass soon afterwards, that he went about through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good tidings of the kingdom of God, and with him the twelve, and certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary that was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna the wife of Chuzas Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who ministered unto them of their substance (Luke 8:1-3).

There is another report out alleging Jesus was married. This time it comes from a small papyrus fragment written in a Coptic (Egyptian) dialect around 400 CE, saying, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …'”. No doubt many will try to make much of this evidence, perhaps trotting out Dan Brown’s The da Vinci Code and its speculations about Jesus marrying Mary Magdalene, having children, and ending up in France, and such things, and create quite a stir.

There could have been people who lived centuries after Jesus who believed He was married. There may be some hints of such beliefs in Gnostic literature written by people who infused beliefs about Jesus into Hellenistic (Greek) philosophy. Then again, many Gnostics were ascetic, rejected marriage, and, for that matter, did not believe Jesus was truly human but only seemingly so (cf. 2 John 1:7-10). Interestingly, until this particular fragment, there was no explicit, concrete ancient evidence confirming that anyone believed that Jesus was married.

There would be no real scandal if Jesus were married; He could easily have still kept the Law and fulfilled all the prophecies made regarding Him if He were married (cf. Matthew 5:17-18). Marriage was expected among the Pharisees and Sadducees; it was more optional among the Essenes. Yet it is good to remember that the ancient evidence is profoundly one-sided on the question: no New Testament author suggests Jesus was married, no early Christians suggest He was married, and even if this papyrus scrap is legitimate and means what it says, it was written over three hundred years after Jesus’ death and no one will suggest that the original composition was anywhere near the first century. The historical evidence is firm: Jesus was unmarried.

But it is good to consider why there is so much fascination with this subject. Why do so many speculate about whether Jesus was married or not? What is it about Jesus and His relationship with women that draws such interest?

We learn from Luke 8:1-3 that many women followed Jesus. In a time and day when most women stayed in the home and would rarely, if ever, go far from the house without their husbands, it was the privilege of only a few to be able to go and travel with one like Jesus. At least some of these women were of some means since they provided financial support for Jesus and His ministry. Perhaps some of the women were widows; some seem to be married and their husbands still alive. Perhaps there was understanding between those husbands and their wives; perhaps the fact they followed Jesus seemed scandalous.

This asexual magnetism between Jesus and the women who followed Him is likely the main source of fascination. Throughout the generations there have been stories about charismatic, persuasive men who, in the name of philosophy, power, or religion obtained a large following, perhaps of both men and women, and took advantage of the situation toward lascivious ends. But Jesus is not about this at all. Jesus loves women, not in order to use them, exploit them, take advantage of them, or even just to enjoy them, but to save and redeem them (Matthew 20:28, 1 John 3:16).

Humans, in their carnal mindset and sin, find this difficult to understand. Such demonstrates the marked difference between Jesus and most people: it was not about Him at all. He loved people no matter their condition, no matter how previously sinful, no matter how attractive, no matter how prosperous, capable, or intelligent. Therefore, many women believed in Him and followed Him to the end: some of the women watch while He is crucified, and some of the women come upon the empty tomb first on the day of His resurrection (e.g. John 19:25, 20:1-18). In society they might not have much standing (cf. Luke 18:1-8); in Jesus they have equal inheritance in eternal life (Galatians 3:28).

The New Testament makes it clear that marriage is not sinful but honorable among all (Hebrews 13:4), yet if Christians can remain single and focus on glorifying God, they should do so (1 Corinthians 7:6-9). All evidence points to Jesus our Lord as remaining single and celibate. Many reasons can be offered, and many likely have some legitimacy, yet in the end, Jesus serves all women and provides the opportunity for all women (and men) to be saved through His life and death, and to have hope for eternity through His resurrection (Matthew 20:28, Romans 5:6-11, 1 Corinthians 15:1-58). Many women loved Jesus, not for carnal reasons, but because they found in Him a loving Teacher and Savior in whose eyes they were more than just a body or something to be used. In Jesus all men and women have equal dignity and opportunity to share in His Kingdom and eternal life!

We should not be surprised when our sex-obsessed society turns their gaze to Jesus and wonders why He lived as He did. Men and women followed after Him because of His great power and instruction, recognizing that He is the Holy One of God and has the words of eternal life. He truly loved both men and women, not in any carnal way, but fully, seeking no benefit for Himself but always devoted to the needs of others, dying to ransom and redeem sinful people. Let us praise God for Jesus, and seek to love everyone, both men and women, as He has loved us!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Just Deserts

For the day of the LORD is near upon all the nations: as thou hast done, it shall be done unto thee; thy dealing shall return upon thine own head (Obadiah 1:15).

Perhaps you’ve heard it said, “they’re getting their just deserts.”

“Deserts” here sounds like “desserts,” and many people insist that it is supposed to be “desserts,” but it is “deserts,” not referring to a parched wilderness, but an older definition otherwise not used: “that which is deserved.”

There has been little love from Edom for Israel from Moses until the exile. It happened according to Isaac’s blessings of Jacob and Esau (cf. Genesis 27:1-45): the Israelites many times ruled over the Edomites, but the Edomites would take advantage of any opportunity to cause difficulties for Israel. Yet the most recent actions prove to be the most reprehensible: when the Babylonians attacked Israel, Edom their brother did nothing to help, but were encouraged at the humiliation of Israel (cf. Psalm 137:7, Obadiah 1:11). When Israel was carried into exile by Babylon, Edom took the opportunity to expand westward into the land of Judah (cf. Ezekiel 35:15). In every respect they rejoiced at the downfall of Israel.

On account of these circumstances, Obadiah receives a vision warning Edom, in effect, that it is about to get its just deserts (cf. Obadiah 1:1-21). As they have rejoiced at Israel’s downfall, so Israel will be given reason to rejoice at their downfall. As they encroached upon Israel’s territory, so Israel will encroach upon their territory; in fact, according to historical records, the (Israelite) Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus conquered the Edomites and forced them all to convert to Judaism (ca. 110 BCE; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 13.9.1). They received their “just deserts.”

Yet Obadiah does not restrict this to Edom: on the day of the LORD, all nations will get their “just deserts.” The Arameans fell to the Assyrians. The Philistines were exiled by the Babylonians, never to return. The Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and the Macedonians ruled and oppressed only to find themselves being ruled and oppressed by nations over which they had exercised authority. None of them remain; as they had done to others, so it was done to them.

This pattern has continued throughout time; God is still likely doing to nations as they have done to others. But what is true on a “national” level remains true on a “personal” level as well. Jesus encourages believers that “as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise” (Luke 6:31). As the “Golden Rule,” it is a wonderful encouragement for us to consider. Yet there is a powerful reason behind this encouragement: God is going to give each person their “just deserts” on the day of the LORD, the day of judgment (cf. Romans 2:4-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). As we have done to others, so will it be done to us. If we treated others as we want to be treated, and showed love, mercy, and compassion to others, we will receive love, mercy, and compassion. But if we have treated others callously and shamefully, exploiting them for our (perceived) benefit, will we not receive callous and shameful treatment as God’s punishment in return?

There are times when people are in distress and experiencing humiliation. There are times when people are prosperous and proud. As with the nations, so with people: all will get their “just deserts.” As Jesus said, those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted (cf. Matthew 23:12). We do well to learn from these examples in the past. Let us maintain humility, whether prosperous or poor, successful or humiliated, and let us always seek to do good for others so that our “just deserts” is the resurrection of life and eternity with God, not the resurrection of condemnation and eternity separated from Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Sacrifice

For Christ entered not into a holy place made with hands, like in pattern to the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear before the face of God for us: nor yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place year by year with blood not his own; else must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once at the end of the ages hath he been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself (Hebrews 9:24-26).

For people today, perhaps one of the strangest and most foreign aspects of the Old Testament is the sacrificial system. Much of Leviticus is devoted to descriptions of various animal sacrifices: what to offer, when to offer it, why to offer it, how it should be offered, and so on and so forth. Many can become quite indignant about the whole matter: why do the poor animals have to suffer? What did they do so as to deserve such a fate?

Then again, the concept of sacrificing animals before a deity is not just found in Israel; it seems that almost all ancient societies engaged in animal sacrifices before their gods. Some, like the Babylonians, did so believing the gods would be fed through the process; if they stopped making sacrificial offerings, their gods would starve! Others believed that whereas their gods had their own food, the smell of the sacrifices would lead the gods to be kindly disposed toward those offering them.

What is the point of all of these sacrifices? We might not clearly understand the idea of animal sacrifices, but we understand what “sacrifice” is. Sacrifice entails giving up something: a suffering of loss. We talk about sacrificing some time or money for a particular person or cause; we frequently hear about those who died in war as having sacrificed everything for their country.

The idea of sacrifice as suffering loss explains animal (and grain) sacrifices in the Old Testament: it represents some level of suffering loss for God. Many such sacrifices were memorial: the first of the grain harvests and the firstborn animals would be sacrificed as a way of thanking God for the blessings of life. Yet when it comes to sin offerings, the sacrifice is not to thank God but as a request for atonement and cleansing from sin (cf. Leviticus 17:11).

This sacrifice for sin was designed for the instruction of Israel: it was costly, requiring the suffering of loss of an important piece of their property (their animal), and provided a means by which Israel could understand the mechanism of atonement. The animal’s life was given so that the one offering the animal could receive atonement, or cleansing, from their sin. This is made evident in the yearly day of atonement for Israel as described in Leviticus 16:1-34.

The Hebrew author spends much time describing the limitations of the Israelite system, especially in regards to the sacrificial system. The priests who took the offerings and presented them before God were themselves imperfect; the blood of animals could not really take away sin; animals had to be continually offered (Hebrews 7:11-28, 9:1-22, 10:1-4). But then the Hebrew author explains how Jesus of Nazareth was the ideal Priest and King: He did not offer the blood of animals but His own blood; His unique sacrifice only needed to be accomplished once in order to be efficacious for all; He was perfect and sinless in life (Hebrews 7:26-28, 9:23-27). Jesus, therefore, is the ultimate sacrifice.

Jesus suffered great loss on our behalf: all the agony He experienced through His arrest, trial, scourging, and crucifixion were not on account of His own sin or any wrong He had done (cf. 1 Peter 2:21-25). He willingly suffered the loss of His life for those whom He loved (1 John 3:16). God the Father was willing to allow such an offering because of His great love for us (John 3:16, Romans 5:6-11).

Animal sacrifices, therefore, pointed to the challenges of mankind which God addressed powerfully through His Son Jesus. Animal sacrifices are no longer necessary because of what Jesus accomplished; in fact, to think to offer animals again would be rather insulting, in a sense trivializing what God has accomplished for us through the sacrifice of Jesus His Son. But just because we do not offer animal sacrifices does not mean that we should no longer sacrifice; quite the contrary! Since God has suffered so much loss for us, we should be motivated to become living sacrifices for Him (Romans 12:1). As Jesus was crucified as a sin offering to atone for our sin, so we should reckon ourselves as crucified with Christ, no longer living for ourselves, but having Christ live in and through us (Galatians 2:20). It can no longer be enough to just suffer the loss of an animal, some other prized object, money, or any other thing; we must freely give of ourselves, mind, body, and soul, for Him and His purposes (Colossians 3:17).

Jesus was the sacrifice to atone for our iniquity and to overcome our deficiencies. We did not deserve it and never will; we should be thankful and be willing to suffer the loss of all things for the Lord. Let us praise and glorify God because He has provided the necessary sacrifice for our sin, and subject ourselves and our will to His!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Redemption

[Boaz] said, “Who are you?”
And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer” (Ruth 3:9).

The story of Ruth and Naomi is poignant for many reasons: the faith of a foreigner, the devotion of a daughter-in-law, God’s lovingkindness toward those who serve Him despite finding themselves in difficult circumstances, and so on. Yet one of the more mysterious aspects of the story is this matter of redemption: Ruth appeals to Boaz as a redeemer, and Boaz will successfully redeem Naomi’s property and Ruth as well. This is not some interesting yet ultimately irrelevant story, for within it we find a type of which Jesus of Nazareth will be the reality.

One of the most important matters for the ancient Israelites involved maintaining proper tribal and clan control of property in perpetuity through legitimate offspring. This was the concern of the tribe of Manasseh regarding the daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 36:1-12; furthermore, even though looking upon one’s brother’s wife is generally an abomination (Leviticus 18:16, 20:21), Deuteronomy 25:5-6 compels a man to take his brother’s wife to have children to inherit the property of the brother if the brother has died.

Naomi and Ruth find themselves in a most difficult predicament. The men of the family–Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, Mahlon (Ruth’s husband, Ruth 4:10) and Chilion her sons–have died in Moab (Ruth 1:3-5). While it is true that women could inherit their father’s property in the absence of male offspring (cf. Numbers 27:7-11), neither applies to Naomi or Ruth, since they are wives and not blood relatives, and, for that matter, Ruth remains a foreigner (Ruth 1:4). Elimelech’s land near Bethlehem cannot be properly claimed by them.

But Boaz is a “near kinsman,” and thus a “redeemer” according to Ruth 2:20. This means he is a male relative of Elimelech and therefore can redeem both Elimelech’s land and Ruth to provide offspring to perpetuate Elimelech’s and Mahlon’s lineage. There is a nearer relative who has the first right of redemption (Ruth 3:12-13). The legal proceedings before the elders in the gate in Ruth 4:1-10 involve this nearer relative (left unnamed) and Boaz. The nearer relative was interested in redeeming the land but not Ruth, lest he impair his own inheritance (Ruth 4:4-6). Therefore, Boaz was legally granted the opportunity to redeem Elimelech’s land as well as Ruth, solemnly declaring before the elders in the gate that he had “bought” the land of Elimelech’s family and had “bought” Ruth as his wife to raise up children to keep the lineage going (Ruth 4:9-10). Through Boaz and Ruth a son is born to Naomi, Obed (Ruth 4:17); we know Obed’s grandson quite well, for he is David who will be king of Israel (Ruth 4:22). Such is why Boaz and Ruth are mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1:5.

This story helps us understand the idea of redemption and the redeemer in Scripture. Redemption involves some sort of purchase; through some process of transaction, one generally gives up something in order to obtain something else. We might redeem a certificate for its monetary value, or redeem a product with money. So it is that even though no money is transacted, Boaz must nevertheless “buy” the land of Elimelech and to “buy” Ruth in marriage, that is, to redeem them according to proper Israelite protocol, in order to protect the family’s property rights and preserve the name of the family through offspring.

As a redeemer, Boaz is a type of Christ: he comes upon two people in distress who have no legal recourse or standing, and through his compassion and lovingkindness accomplishes their deliverance in ways they would not be able to do for themselves on account of his position of privilege. So it is with Jesus: He has found us in difficult circumstances, alienated from God, unable to be reconciled back to Him by our own power on account of our sin (cf. Romans 3:20, Ephesians 2:1-3). Jesus, through His privileged position of being both God and man, the Son of God and God the Son, and on account of His lovingkindness and compassion, paid for us to be reconciled back to God through His death on the cross (Romans 5:6-11, 1 Corinthians 6:20, Galatians 3:13, 2 Peter 2:1). Through Jesus we can be reckoned as children of God; through Jesus we can receive a portion of the most important “property” or inheritance of all, eternal life (Romans 8:15-17).

It is easy for us today to automatically associate “buying” people with slavery, considering people as “property” to be used. While it remains true that we are to see ourselves as slaves of God in Christ (cf. Romans 6:16-23, 1 Corinthians 7:22), such does not mean that “purchase” should be always and automatically associated with “slavery.” We do well to remember the ever-present theme of redemption in the Bible, in terms of God’s redemption of Israel from Egypt, Ruth’s redemption by Boaz, and other similar examples, understanding how redemption is an act of grace and mercy, a gift from those in more fortunate circumstances to those in less fortunate ones. As Boaz redeemed Ruth out of his graciousness, compassion, and desire to do what was right, so God has shown us extravagant grace and mercy by allowing for our redemption through the death of His Son Jesus. Let us praise God for redemption in Jesus, and let us seek to honor and glorify His name!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Maintaining Good Works

Faithful is the saying, and concerning these things I desire that thou affirm confidently, to the end that they who have believed God may be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men (Titus 3:8).

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of discipleship is maintaining good works. Yes, in many ways, there is a bit of a learning curve in Christianity; when we come to faith in Jesus, we have much to learn and gain from instruction and exhortation regarding how we should live. At that time we are also motivated by early enthusiasm for our faith. But what happens after we have been seeking to follow Jesus for awhile? How will we continue to be motivated toward good works?

Paul is aware of the challenge, and his solution might seem odd to some: further exhortation and reminder of what has transpired in the past (Titus 3:3-7).

It is easy for us to consider preaching and teaching only in terms of instruction; we have been conditioned by our society to associate a lack of proper conduct with a lack of knowledge. If we do not do what we are supposed to do, it is as if we have not been properly instructed. Nevertheless, most of the time we do know what we are to do; any Christian who has read a bit of Scripture and heard it preached frequently should have a decent understanding of what God expects from them. Much of the exhortation in Scripture is provided for Christians as a reminder of things they should already know (cf. 2 Peter 1:12-13). Doing righteousness and avoiding immorality is not “new news” to Christians; the greater danger is a weakening of zeal and developing complacency in one’s spiritual life (cf. Revelation 2:1-10).

Therefore, it is not strange or even surprising for Paul to insist on continual encouragement and exhortation, not to necessarily provide new information, but to constantly reinforce what has already been taught so as to keep such things at the forefront of the Christian’s mind, giving him or her greater strength to resist the deceitfulness of sin (cf. Hebrews 3:12-14). But what is the message the will truly motivate Christians to maintain good works?

Much of Paul’s letter to Titus is toward these ends. Jesus gave Himself up for Christians to redeem them from sin and to purify a people to Himself (Titus 2:11-14). Christians are to be subject to authorities, not speaking evil but being gentle and meek (Titus 3:1-2). But why?

Paul explains more fully in Titus 3:3-7 what he said simply in Titus 2:11-14: Christians were once in a terrible state. The list is unpleasant: foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hated (Titus 3:3). Salvation came through the kindness and mercy of God, not our own works; we were cleansed by the washing of regeneration (baptism) and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, not our own futile efforts (Titus 3:4-5). This allowed us to become heirs of the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:6-7). Paul intends to motivate Christians to good works through this message.

How will such a message motivate? There are three aspects to the message: our sinfulness and inability to save ourselves, God’s love, mercy, and kindness reflected through Jesus in providing the means for our redemption, and our ability to hold to hope of eternity through Jesus. These three put together can encourage the believer to good works!

How can the reminder of our sinfulness and inability to save ourselves motivate us to good works? By itself, it could not; it would lead to despair and paralysis on account of guilt. Without this reminder, however, it is easy to get puffed up and overconfident in our “holiness.” We are easily tempted to develop an “us” versus “them” attitude against those outside of the faith; it is tempting to feel as if “we” are better than “they.” This is why Paul says that we “also” were foolish, led astray by passion, etc.; on our own, we are no better off or superior in any way to those still lost in the world of sin. We were lost too at some point; we were terribly sinful as well. We could not save ourselves; this reality should keep us humble!

Thankfully, God provided the means by which we could be rescued from ourselves. We did not deserve it, nor could we; God has freely displayed love, kindness, mercy, and grace through Jesus and the redemption and reconciliation obtained through His life and death. This is an important piece of the story, but by no means the only one: without a recognition of our sin, we cannot appreciate the redemption we have obtained; without hope for the future, there would not be as much motivation to move forward. Nevertheless, atonement and reconciliation through Jesus is the centerpiece of the Gospel and of this message of encouragement: we could not save ourselves, and no deed can save us, but God has provided the means by which we can obtain cleansing through Jesus’ blood in baptism and the renewal of the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel makes it plain that Jesus’ death without Jesus’ resurrection would have been without power or sufficiency for anything (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). It is through Jesus’ resurrection that we maintain the hope for eternal life in our own resurrection. God wants us to be rescued and preserved now but with a view toward the resurrection of life for eternity (1 Peter 1:3-9)!

It is lamentable how the various truths in Titus 3:3-7 have been distorted and used against each other since Paul speaks with such harmony. We were lost in sin and could not save ourselves; God provided the means of atonement and reconciliation through Jesus; through this believers have hope for eternal life; these truths motivate believers to maintain good works. This pattern does not show contradiction or inconsistency, but balance. If we will honor God in our lives, it is because we maintain humility, understanding that we are no better than anyone else and cannot save ourselves; it is because we remain thankful, always keeping Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins in mind; it is because we can look forward with confidence in the resurrection, which itself infuses the present life with purpose and meaning. When we remain humble, thankful, and forward-looking, we will devote ourselves to the good works for which our Creator made us (Ephesians 2:10).

As humans, we are weak, and constantly in need of exhortation and encouragement. We do well to always keep all aspects of the big picture in mind: our former state, the means by which we obtained our present state, our future hope, and all of those to motivate us toward obedience now. Let us seek to perpetually honor and glorify Christ through our lives!

Ethan R. Longhenry