Blessed Are the Righteous

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the wicked / nor standeth in the way of sinners / nor sitteth in the seat of scoffers:
But his delight is in the law of YHWH / and on his law doth he meditate day and night.
And he shall be like a tree planted by the streams of water / that bringeth forth its fruit in its season / whose leaf also doth not wither / and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.
The wicked are not so:
But are like the chaff / which the wind driveth away.
Therefore the wicked shall not stand in the judgment / nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
For YHWH knoweth the way of the righteous / but the way of the wicked shall perish (Psalm 1:1-6).

You certainly cannot judge the book of Psalms by its cover.

The book of Psalms features so many wonderful songs and prayers praising YHWH and extolling His greatness while also giving voice to the pain, suffering, distress, and questions of the people of God. Yet the book begins with a psalm which would not be out of place in the book of Proverbs.

Psalm 1:1-6 is without a doubt a wisdom psalm, well crafted with sharp and vivid imagery. The Psalmist pronounces blessings on the righteous: he does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers (Psalm 1:1). Notice how the Psalmist intensifies the imagery: walking / standing / sitting would denote ever greater comfort and association, and wicked / sinners / scoffers features a progression from bad to worse! Instead the righteous delights in the law (Hebrew torah) of YHWH, and meditates upon it day and night (Psalm 1:2). He has taken the way of YHWH, not the way of sinners.

The Psalmist then describes the righteous in terms of a tree planted by a river (Psalm 1:3). In a semi-arid or arid climate like Israel, riverbanks are one of the few places where water will be found in dry times. Thus a tree planted by the river will produce fruit, will not wither, but will prosper, and so it will be with the righteous (Psalm 1:3).

Tree by River Dee - geograph.org.uk - 792040

The poetic flow of the psalm is sharply interrupted in Psalm 1:4, and for good reason: whereas the righteous prosper, it will not be so with the wicked! The Psalmist compares the wicked to chaff, the cases or straw of grains which provide no nutrition and are left to blow in the wind as worthless (Psalm 1:4).

The Psalmist assures us that the wicked will not stand in the judgment or in the “congregation of the righteous” (Psalm 1:5). YHWH knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish (Psalm 1:6). Thus Psalm 1 is a pure exhortation to wisdom, representing “proverbial orthodoxy” to the full: blessings and prosperity come to the righteous, but the wicked will perish.

Psalms 1 and 2 have no superscription; throughout time they have been understood as the “introduction” to the Psalms. This means that Psalm 1:1-6 was deliberately placed here as the beginning of the Psalter. Why should we expect the Psalms to begin with such a message, especially since the message of many of the psalms would challenge this “proverbial orthodoxy”?

Perhaps that is the very reason God directed the Psalter to begin the collection with Psalm 1. The world of the Psalms is full of sacrifices, kings, glory to YHWH, but also pain, suffering, doubt, and questions. The Psalmist grapples with the prosperity of the wicked and the struggles of the righteous. The Psalmist tries to make sense of a world in which the people of God suffer under the rule of pagan overseers. And yet Psalm 1:1-6 remains.

Psalm 1:1-6 reminds the reader, singer, or prayer of the Psalms of the two ways, the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked, and of their ends. It always goes best with the righteous: if not in this life, then in the next one. The Psalms in many ways must begin with a full exhortation to righteousness so as to remind Israel that sacrifice alone has never been and is not sufficient to please God. Likewise, Psalm 1:1-6 in many ways serves as an anchor for the whole Psalter: no matter how bad it gets, no matter how terrible it looks, it goes better for the righteous than it will for the wicked. In a world where Israel might be tempted to see too much grey God wants to remind them of the black and white.

We do well to recognize the value of Psalm 1:1-6. If we take it absolutely and expect the righteous to always prosper in this life and the wicked to always perish in this life we will be disappointed; as with all wisdom literature we must understand that many times the author is telling us the way things ought to be and will be when the Lord returns. On the other hand we can easily get discouraged when we see the complications in life, the seeming prosperity of the wicked, and the trials which accompany standing for righteousness. Psalm 1 reminds us of the way things should be, the way things stand before God, and that in the end the righteous will be the ones who are planted by the river and will prosper. The wicked will not endure!

Blessings still attend to those who seek to follow God’s instruction; they will prosper before God. We do well stand firm in God in Christ, as a tree planted by the water, and not be moved!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Pharisees and Scribes

Then spake Jesus to the multitudes and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses seat: all things therefore whatsoever they bid you, these do and observe: but do not ye after their works; for they say, and do not. Yea, they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:1-4).

The Evangelists consistently speak of mutual antagonism between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. From their presentation alone one might imagine that Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees are miles apart in their understanding of God and Judaism. And yet, of all the various sects of Second Temple Judaism, Jesus has the most in common with the Pharisees. The Sadducees accepted only the Torah as legitimate ground of authority and denied the existence of angels, the soul, and the resurrection (Matthew 22:23, Acts 23:8). The Herodians, by virtue of supporting Herod and his government, would have no love for a rival King of the Jews (Matthew 22:16). One might think that Jesus and the Essenes would have much in common; while they shared an apocalyptic worldview and some “ascetic” practices, the Essenes rejected the present Temple and its authorities as illegitimate and looked forward to the day when the Sons of Light would restore the Temple and its proper service and who withdrew from life in the greater Jewish community. Jesus did not look forward to establishment of a restored Temple in Jerusalem, nor did He withdraw from life among the people of God (Matthew 24:1-36). Meanwhile, Jesus and the Pharisees agreed about the inspiration and authority of the prophets and the writings, angels, the soul, the resurrection, and the hope of Israel in the Messiah. This leaves us with a major challenge: if Jesus and the Pharisees share so many similarities in outlook, why are the Pharisees and the scribes singled out for such strong condemnation by the Evangelists? If Jesus and the Pharisees agree on so much, why are the Pharisees portrayed in such consistently negative ways in the Gospels?

Few places express Jesus’ difficulties with the scribes and Pharisees with as much rhetorical force and denunciation as in the series of woes Jesus sets forth in Matthew 23:1-35. Jesus begins His litany of invective against the scribes and Pharisees by denouncing a form of their hypocrisy in Matthew 23:1-4.

Brooklyn Museum - Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees (Malheur à vous, scribes et pharisiens) - James Tissot

Jesus begins with the recognition that the scribes and Pharisees maintain a pride of place in Second Temple Judaism: they “sit on Moses’ seat” (Matthew 23:2). No actual chair is envisioned; Jesus gives recognition to their claims of serving as the interpreters of the Law of Moses on behalf of the people. For this reason Jesus tells the people to do what the scribes and Pharisees bid them to do (Matthew 23:3a). Some interpreters of this passage suggest that Jesus is being sarcastic and does not actually expect His audience to live according to what the Pharisees teach; such an interpretation is possible but not necessarily warranted. We do well to remember that even though Jewish people put great emphasis on literacy and would have maintained higher literacy rates than seen among the Gentiles, plenty of Jewish people could still not read or write, and even then, scrolls of the Law, Prophets, and Writings were copied by hand on expensive papyrus and parchment and would have been reserved for use in the synagogues and those like the scribes and Pharisees who were trained in the Law (Luke 4:17-20). Previously Ezra and his associates had read the Law and gave an understanding of its meaning (Nehemiah 8:1-8); many Jewish people in the first century looked to the scribes and Pharisees for the same reason, and for the time being, Jesus recognizes their role.

In Matthew 23:1-4 the problem is less with the specific interpretations and explanations given by the scribes and Pharisees and much more their unwillingness to do them (Matthew 23:3b-4)! They say the things faithful Jewish people should do, but they themselves do not do them. They expect Jewish people to adhere to all sorts of laws according to what is written and the traditions of the fathers, denounce as sinners those unwilling to bear them (John 9:16, 24), but provide no assistance to others, show no mercy, and themselves frequently (and flagrantly) violate them. In short, it may be good to do what they say, but do not do as they do.

To say one thing but do another is the essence of hypocrisy. The scribes and Pharisees were respected for their knowledge; no doubt many “average” Israelites looked up to them as holy people because of it. Yet, in practice, they were not very holy. They were just as guilty of violating the Law as other Israelites (Acts 13:39, Romans 3:13-21). Yet such totality begs the question: were not all the Israelites, save the Lord Jesus, hypocrites to some degree? Why are the scribes and Pharisees being singled out for this condemnation?

It is one thing to try and fall short; it is quite another to not even try. It is one thing to teach a given path, try to live it, and stumble at times; we humans are imperfect. It is quite another to act as if one is all holy and righteous, presume to be holier and more righteous than others, and yet substantively are little better than those whom they denounce. Such were the scribes and Pharisees: they acted as if knowing and teaching the Law brought forth its own special kind of holiness. Jesus makes it clear that it does not.

We do well to remember that the scribes and Pharisees were part of the people of God, and of all the people of God at the time, were considered to be the most holy and righteous. Their denunciation by all the Evangelists is, in its own way, a warning for believers: do not be like the Pharisees. The way of Jesus and the way of the Pharisees are quite divergent, yet throughout time Christians, however well-meaning, have fallen prey to the ways of the Pharisees!

The Apostle Paul declares that knowledge puffs up while love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1); it is very easy to obtain knowledge of God and His ways and thus presume one’s holiness based upon one’s superior knowledge. That is the way of the Pharisee and the Gnostic; it is not the way of Jesus or those who truly follow Him (1 Timothy 6:20-21)! We are not made holy by our knowledge; we are not better than others simply because we have come to a better understanding of the will of God than they have. Such is why the first and foremost aspect of the Gospel is our own sinfulness and our inability to solve our sin problem through our own efforts (Ephesians 2:1-3, Titus 3:3). We are entirely dependent upon God in Christ for the hope of salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9); our obedient response in faith, while necessary, does not earn us or merit our salvation!

Every Christian, to some degree or another, is a hypocrite; we proclaim the way of God in Christ but fall short at times (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8). But we must walk the walk of Christ; we must do the commandments (1 John 2:3-6). In seeking to do them we will learn humility, faith, and obedience. We would never imagine to lay heavy burdens on others and let ourselves go free; quite the contrary (Galatians 6:2)!

In Matthew 23:1-4 Jesus begins to set forth the contrast between the condemned ways of the scribes and Pharisees and the righteous way of God in Christ. The way of the Pharisees is always tempting for the people of God; we must resist it, remaining humble and dependent upon God in Christ, seeking to do the will of the Lord in all respects, bearing one another’s burdens and not attempting to make them heavier! Let us serve the Lord Jesus in humble faith!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Oaths

“Again, ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, ‘Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths’:
But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by the heaven, for it is the throne of God; nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, for thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your speech be, ‘Yea, yea; Nay, nay’: and whatsoever is more than these is of the evil one (Matthew 5:33-37).

When in the middle of disputes it is easy to miss the forest for the trees, focusing only on the details of the issue at hand. Jesus resolutely maintained focus on the forest!

Jesus declares Matthew 5:33-37 in the midst of what is popularly called the “Sermon on the Mount”; it is also the fourth of six declarations whereby Jesus contrasts what the disciples and Israel had heard from what “I say unto you,” and in all six Jesus is contrasting the standard of righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees with that of God’s full purpose in His Kingdom (Matthew 5:17-48). Previous declarations involved murder, adultery, and divorce; in each circumstance Jesus also condemns giving expression to the desires that lead to those sins and returns to God’s purposes for marriage from the beginning (Matthew 5:21-32).

In Matthew 5:33-37 Jesus turns to the matter of oaths and vows. What Israel “had heard” as cited in Matthew 5:33 does not come from one specific passage but represents the substantive message of Leviticus 19:12, Numbers 30:2-16, and Deuteronomy 5:11, 23:23: God commanded for Israel to not swear falsely but to pay what they vow.

In days of old many in Israel took this commandment very seriously. Even though the covenant made between Israel and the Gibeonites was made under false pretenses, Israel decided to honor that covenant because they had sworn to the Gibeonites by the name of YHWH (Joshua 9:1-27). Jephthah made a foolish and rash vow, yet the text makes it abundantly clear that he did exactly what he vowed, even though it meant sacrificing his daughter as a burnt offering (Judges 11:30-39). While we might question why such vows should be honored, the Israelites did not. The vows should not have been made; they were rash and foolish; but once made they were obligated to follow through. The Law provided only a narrow provision for a vow to be repealed, and it only involved a vow of a woman in certain circumstances (Numbers 30:1-16).

Yet things had changed by Jesus’ day. We can see from Matthew 23:16-22 that the Pharisees had worked out an elaborate system on account of which some were obligated to keep their vows but not others: those who swore on the Temple or the altar were not obliged, but those who swore on the gold of the Temple or the offering on the altar were obliged. Jesus devastates that logic, asking which is greater, the gold or the Temple that sanctifies the gold, the altar or the One who sanctifies the altar, and making it quite clear that even in the first century, regardless of whether you swore on the Temple, its gold, the altar, its offering, or heaven in reality swears in the name of the One who accepts the gift on the altar, who dwells in the Temple, and who sits on the throne in Heaven. God was not confused nor was He amused: if Israelites swore on anything they were still obligated to pay their vows!

Nevertheless, in Matthew 5:34-37 Jesus goes even further. Throughout He never denies that if you swear you are obligated to pay your vow; He does not say otherwise here, and in Matthew 23:16-22 He makes His feelings about paying vows actually made quite well known. In Matthew 5:34-37 Jesus goes a large step further: do not swear at all!

Humans have a propensity toward swearing; yes, we could include the “cursing” kind as well, but we speak specifically of the impulse to make a vow. When we are doubted or challenged we impulsively swear to be telling the truth; not a few in our midst greatly desire for us to vow, or commit, to various projects. Humans show almost equal propensity to break vows as much as to make them; how many times will people swear to be telling the truth precisely when they are trying to pass off a lie? How many have given their word but do not follow through? Such is why God commanded Israel to not take His name in vain, concerned less about cursing and far more about swearing the truth in the name of YHWH flippantly (Exodus 20:7). Such is why God put such strong emphasis on Israelites paying whatever they vowed (Numbers 30:1-16). And this is why so many first century Israelites were trying to find an “escape route” out of their vows!

What good does swearing do, anyway? Is something we say or promise more valid if we swear by heaven? As Jesus says, it is God’s throne, His seat of power, not ours (Matthew 5:34; cf. Isaiah 66:1). What if we swear by the earth? It is not ours; it is the footstool of God’s feet (Matthew 5:34; cf. Isaiah 66:1). Jerusalem? The city of the great King (Matthew 5:34; cf. Psalm 48:2). Well, what about on our own heads? Jesus reminds us that we cannot make one hair white or black (and the premise is not contradicted by current hair coloring products; we are still not nearly in as much control of our existence as we would like to imagine but subject to all sorts of forces, Matthew 5:36). Swearing by our own righteousness would prove counter-productive (Romans 3:20, 23). Thus, in the end, we humans really do not have any basis upon which to swear; there is no external force that grounds our words as true.

Instead, as Jesus suggests, we ought to say yes and no; our integrity should be inherent in our words (Matthew 5:37). If we are trustworthy, our yes or our no should be sufficient. As Jesus says, anything beyond “yes” and “no” is of the Evil One, since it comes from a place of doubt, fear, mistrust, and sin (Matthew 5:37). For good measure James repeats the same command in James 5:12.

Whenever Jesus’ command to not swear is discussed many questions multiply about being sworn in as a witness in a trial, making contract commitments in general, and things of that nature. Is the prohibition absolute? The text does not say. Being sworn in as a witness in a trial is a way to observe the civil laws, a commendable thing in Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:11-15, and not the issue regarding which Jesus is discussing. Jesus’ concern is about our propensity to want to invoke other people, places, or authorities to somehow invest our words with greater veracity or authority. Yet, in reality, all we have is our “yes” and “no.” Our words are no more or less true if we swear on God’s name, heaven and earth, the grave of our mother, or anything else. Furthermore, when we make vows, we obligate ourselves to fulfill them, and is that a wise course of action? We do better to live with such integrity that those around us know that our yes or no can be trusted. Living with such integrity is how we may exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees and thus enter the Kingdom of God! Let us be true to our word, avoid swearing and vowing whenever possible, allow our yes to be yes and no, no, and speak and live in integrity before God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Vine

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; so neither can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for apart from me ye can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).

Jesus had spoken of a Kingdom in many figures: a field, fishing, a pearl of great price, a Master entrusting His servants with a stewardship. As He was about to leave His disciples He used a new old illustration: not a full vineyard, but a vine (John 15:1-8).

In John 13:31-16:33 speaks to the eleven disciples; Judas Iscariot has gone off to betray Him, and after the prayer of John 17 Jesus will be betrayed, tried, and crucified in John 18:1-19:37. Whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke move fairly quickly from the Last Supper to the Garden of Gethsemane in Matthew 26:30-36, Mark 14:26-32, and Luke 22:23-39, John spends what would later be delineated into over three chapters on the extended discourse between these events. Throughout Jesus is preparing His disciples so that they might be able to endure and stand through the ups and downs of His death, resurrection, and ascension (John 14:1, 16:1). Jesus, after all, understands perfectly what is about to take place. His disciples have no idea; they will be left to grapple with His death without Him being present physically, and thus Jesus does well to leave them with words of encouragement and exhortation.

Right in the middle of this discourse Jesus introduces the illustration of the vine: He is the vine, His Father the vinedresser, and His disciples the branches (John 15:1, 4). He had previously “updated” Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard of Isaiah 5:1-7 in Matthew 21:33-44 and in parallel accounts, yet the vineyard there is Israel. Jesus compared the Kingdom to a householder hiring workers to work in his vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16; even there the vineyard is incidental, setting up the lesson about receiving what is promised and that the last shall be first and the first last. Here in John 15:1-8 Jesus focuses on a single vine is able to explain through it the relationship between the Son, the Father, and disciples.

The disciples would have understood the basics of grape vines and their maintenance. Grape vines do have roots but one sees the vine and its branches. The branches maintain their health through their connection to the vine from which it can draw water and other nutrients originating in the roots and the soil. A healthy branch bears fruit: grape clusters. The sign of an unhealthy branch is a lack of fruit, and the solution is to prune the vine to get rid of all the dead branches. And so it is in the illustration of the vine: disciples draw strength and sustenance through Jesus the Vine; when connected to Jesus the Vine they can bear fruit; apart from Jesus the Vine they can do nothing; if they do not bear fruit the Father the Vinedresser will prune them and throw them into the fire (John 15:1-8).

Jesus’ main point in the illustration is to emphasize the disciples’ need to bear fruit and to understand how they will be able to bear fruit: through abiding in Him (John 15:3-4, 8). We do well to heed both messages.

This is not the first illustration Jesus has used to emphasize the need for Christians to be obedient and to manifest the fruit of righteousness; Matthew 5:13-16 and 25:14-30 come to mind, among others. It is unfortunate that many in the religious world have settled for cheap grace, the belief that God will save no matter what, and have ignored Jesus’ many warnings about the fate of the unproductive in His midst. Their fate is never left in ambiguity: Jesus denies He ever knew them (Matthew 7:21-23); they are cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 25:14-30), and here in John 15:6 unproductive branches are gathered and burned, reminiscent of the Gehenna of fire (e.g. Matthew 5:29-30). Thus we must bear fruit for the Lord: we must manifest the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-24), do good (Galatians 6:10), proclaim Jesus crucified and risen (Matthew 28:18-20), and remain faithful unto death (Matthew 10:22). Such obedience and faithfulness is not “optional”!

Yet it can be very easy to so emphasize obedience and righteousness that we forget Who is empowering the endeavor. As branches we are to bear fruit for the Lord, but we can do so only when connected and sustained by the Vine, the Lord Jesus. Jesus is very blunt about this in John 15:5: apart from Him we can do nothing. Apart from Jesus we proved disobedient, sinful, children of wrath, living in licentiousness and lusts, hated by others and hating in turn (Ephesians 2:1-3, Titus 3:3). In Christ we were rescued from our hopeless condition and reconciled to the Father (Romans 5:6-11). But we must not imagine that once we are “in Christ” we are then left out “on our own” to do His work. Instead we work and are profitable because we remain in Him and are sustained in Him (Ephesians 2:4-10, Titus 3:4-8). Through the sustenance and strength from our Vine God can work through us beyond all we can ask or think (Ephesians 3:14-21). Let none be deceived: as branches bear fruit but not without the nourishment which comes through the vine, so believers obey and seek righteousness but can only do so through the strength that God supplies. On our own we can do nothing; we can imagine that we can do great things, and try to build great towers of Babel, maybe even adorn such towers with religious and spiritual sentiments, but they cannot succeed and will someday be exposed for what they really are. Every plant not planted by the Father will be rooted up (Matthew 15:13); so it shall be with every religious institution and personal belief system not grounded and empowered by God and the Lord Jesus (cf. Matthew 7:24-27).

Thus asking God to bless or prosper our work is really vain; we do better to ask God to direct us to His work and for Him to bless, strengthen, and sustain it. We are but the branches, responsible for taking the nourishment given by the vine and producing fruit; let us therefore glorify God through the Lord Jesus Christ, serving Him through the strength that He supplies!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Worthy of the Gospel

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ: that, whether I come and see you or be absent, I may hear of your state, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one soul striving for the faith of the gospel (Philippians 1:27).

In our sound-bite saturated world full of sloganeering and the expectation of reducing any worthwhile message to 140 characters or less, you could explain what it means to follow the Lord Jesus in worse ways than “living worthily of the Gospel.”

Paul is imprisoned in Rome somewhere around 59-61 CE (Philippians 1:12-13, 4:22); he writes to the church in Philippi which he had helped begin around a decade earlier (ca. 49-50 CE; Acts 16:11-40). The Philippian church was a source of support and strength for Paul; they provided for his needs many times, he has little need to rebuke them, and generally spends the time in his letter to them encouraging them to persevere and abound in what they are already doing (Philippians 1:3-11, 4:14-20). Having given thanks for their faith and association in the Gospel, speaking of his current situation, and considering his future (Philippians 1:1-26), he provides an important and definitive exhortation in Philippians 1:27: to live as worthy of the Gospel of Christ, to stand firm in one spirit, striving together for the faith of the Gospel with one mind.

Paul uses very specific language in this verse. To “live” is in Greek politeuesthe, literally, to be a citizen or behave as a citizen would, thus, to live in accordance with the polity; therefore, to “live worthily of the Gospel” is really to conduct oneself according to the constitution of the Kingdom of God, following Jesus’ commands, pursuing the Kingdom life God intends under the reign of His Son (1 John 2:3-6). This term would resonate for the Philippians who lived in a Roman colony; they would have seen quite clearly what was expected of Roman citizenry, but here are encouraged to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God. “Striving together” for the faith of the Gospel is the Greek sunathlountes, literally, wrestling, competing, contending at the same time alongside/with another; he uses the same term to describe how Euodia, Syntyche, Clement, and others “labored with” him in Philippians 4:3. This “striving with” evokes teammates working together to win at a sport; so with the “conflict” or “contest” in Philippians 1:30, the same term used in Hebrews 12:1, but also as in fighting the good fight of faith in 1 Timothy 6:12, 2 Timothy 4:7, perhaps showing that a military understanding of comrades fighting together would not be entirely inappropriate for this passage.

Thus Paul exhorts the Christians of Philippi to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God in Christ, in a way worthy of the Gospel. A life worthy of the Gospel is, by definition, worthy of the good news proclaimed regarding Jesus of Nazareth, His birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and the hope of His return (Matthew 1:1-25, Acts 2:14-36, Acts 17:30-31, 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, etc.). A life worthy of the Gospel is consistent with the life of Jesus, manifesting the fruit of the Spirit, having turned aside from the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:17-24, 1 Peter 2:18-25). As the Lord Jesus came not to be served but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many, who humbled Himself by taking on the form of a servant, and proved willing to suffer for the sake of others and to overcome evil (Matthew 20:25-28, Philippians 2:5-11, 1 Peter 2:18-25), so it must be with those who would live according to His life and reign in His Kingdom. The good citizen of the Kingdom of God in Christ will not conduct him or herself as citizens of the Rome would; they are about love, patience, humility, service, consideration of the needs of others, holiness, righteousness, and joint participation in Christ with the fellow people of God; so much of this will be utterly foreign to citizens of Rome or otherwise of this world who lived and continue to live for more selfish and carnal purposes!

It remains important to stress that Paul did not intend for the Christians of Philippi to live lives worthy of the Gospel individually and independently in a bubble. To live as citizens of the Kingdom of God in Christ in such a way so as to be worthy of the Gospel demands perseverance in one spirit, in one soul striving together for the faith of that Gospel (Philippians 1:27). The Philippians must strive together in light of the trials they have and will no doubt be soon experiencing: they have adversaries, they are or are about to suffer on Christ’s behalf, and are involved in same conflict as Paul himself (Philippians 1:28-30). If Acts 16:16-24 are any indication, the Philippian Christians would be accused of practicing and encouraging the practice of customs not lawful for Romans, and experience imprisonment, beatings, and perhaps even martyrdom. Divided they would fall; only if they remained united would they stand firm and strive together through this trial. It is likely not a coincidence that two of the churches born in the midst of persecution, Philippi and Thessalonica, proved notable for their maturity and strength in Christ, while churches which experienced more prosperity and less external harassment, like Corinth and Laodicea, proved more carnal and immature. The faith will either be fully rejected or become quite precious if your life is endangered by it; solidarity and community with your fellow people of God proves necessary when forsaken by worldly family members, friends, co-workers, and the like.

Despite fear-mongering to the contrary, no such significant danger of persecution is on the horizon for twenty-first century Christians in the Western world. There are some parts of the world where Christians do experience this type of persecution, and we do well to pray for them and to seek to encourage them as we have opportunity (1 Peter 5:9-10). Yet our need to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God in Christ, worthy of the good news of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and promise of return, persevering in one spirit, striving together with one soul for the faith of the Gospel is no less acute. Our world today is full of people who claim certain moral standards without living by them; plenty of people live independently in alienation, quite lonely, yearning for connection, but resolutely going to trudge along in their own path. This has never been the way of the God who is One in relational unity, holy and righteous, loving, gracious, and merciful; if we live as hypocrites with a country club or entertainment venue attitude toward the church and thus the fellow people of God, we prove to be citizens of this world, not worthy of the Gospel of Christ and not reflecting the values of His Kingdom. “Lone rangers” cannot remain so in Christ! No; the only way we will make it through is together, standing firm together, striving together, encouraging and edifying one another. Yes, this demands a high level of doctrinal agreement, but doctrinal agreement alone is not true unity. As Paul continues in Philippians 2:1-4, true unity demands considering the needs of one another as greater than our own, seeking out one another’s needs, demanding love, humility, and service. This unity does not come easily or automatically; it demands great effort and constant vigilance. It will lead to hurt, suffering, pain, and agony; consider, after all, all that Jesus endured from the people of God. Yet it remains the only way forward if we really want to participate as citizens in the Kingdom of God in Christ; it is the only way to live worthily of the good news of Jesus who lived, died, and was raised again to reconcile all things back to God (2 Corinthians 5:18).

As God is One in relational unity, so we will only truly find life in God when we strive to be like Him, conformed to the image of Christ, participating as a citizen of the heavenly Kingdom, living worthily of Christ, one with one another and one with God (John 17:20-23, Romans 8:29, Philippians 1:27). To share in the resurrection of life and to jointly participate in eternal life with the fellow people of God in His presence is, after all, the hope of the Christian in Christ; if we do not share in even a glimpse of that life now, how can we share it in the life to come? We do well, therefore, to seek to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God in Christ, living like Jesus, standing firm and striving together with the people of God, becoming ever closer to God and one another just as God intended, and be prepared to participate in the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Doing Righteousness

Whosoever is begotten of God doeth no sin, because his seed abideth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is begotten of God. In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother (1 John 3:9-10).

Righteousness and sin are always at odds. You cannot hold to one and court the other; you cannot be fully devoted to one while having affection for the other. John wants his fellow Christians to be very clear on this.

The context of 1 John 3:1-10 is the same as that of 1 John 2:18-29: John is greatly concerned about the “antichrists” who would lead Christians astray. John sets out boundary markers to both assure Christians of their standing before God while making sharp and stark distinctions between them and their opponents. The impetus in 1 John 2:18-27 involved doctrines and teachings: Christians could have assurance in their standing before God by holding firm to the message they heard from the beginning and remaining strong in the instruction provided through the Spirit. Those who confessed the truth of God in Christ as revealed to the Apostles by the Spirit from the beginning remained in God in Christ; those who denied Jesus as the Incarnate Christ, the Son of God, were antichrists (1 John 2:18-24).

John does begin a slight shift in 1 John 2:29 that informs 1 John 3:1-10: doctrine is one means by which one can have either assurance or warning, but the practice of righteousness is another such marker. John fleshes this out in 1 John 3:1-10, particularly in 1 John 3:4-10. Those who sin do lawlessness, and Jesus became flesh in order to take away such sin, and in Him there was no sin (1 John 3:4-5). The contrast is set: those who are in Christ and begotten of God do not sin but do righteousness, and those who do not know God in Christ but are of the devil persist in sin and do not love their brethren (1 John 3:4-10).

John speaks in very black and white terms; unsurprisingly, many have taken his messages out of context, interpreting them in the most absolute terms, and have caused confusion, disharmony, and inserted contradiction into Scripture by so doing. One who has read all of 1 John until this point can see the tension and challenge inherent in John’s strong language: did John not say in 1 John 1:8 that those who say they (presently) have no sin deceive themselves, and the truth is not in them? Did he not speak of the need for confession of sin in 1 John 1:9? What of 1 John 2:1, where “if we sin” we have an advocate before the Father in Jesus Christ the righteous? How can John in one verse allow for the possibility of Christians sinning, or declaring that Christians presently struggle with sin, and yet a few verses later say that true Christians will not sin at all?

We can make sense of what John says first by considering those against whom he speaks and then by considering what he might mean by his language. Those whom John characterizes as “antichrists” are at least docetists if not incipient Gnostics. Docetists believed that Jesus was not actually human but only seemed to be human (from Greek dokeo, “to seem”). In their view, God would never humiliate Himself to the point of taking on flesh; to accept such a view would deny the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:12-20), and such is why John denounces this view with such force in 1 John 2:18-3:10. Perhaps their docetism was part of incipient Gnosticism, a view which would become popular in later centuries. The Gnostics were docetic and believed they had special, secret knowledge of the “story within the story” in the Bible. In either case, many times adherents of such views would either start out in Christianity and depart from it or would visit Christian assemblies, perhaps attempt to join with the Christians, and seem to be one of the Christians, but only in order to get a chance to speak privately with individual Christians in an attempt to lead them astray from the faith (cf. 1 John 2:19, 26). Such is why John emphasizes the need to hold to the message Christians heard from the beginning (1 John 2:24), but it also is why John must emphasize righteousness (1 John 2:29-3:10). Throughout the New Testament, one consistent condemnation of false teachers involves their attempt to satisfy desires of the flesh through the proclamation and substance of their messages (Philippians 3:18-19, 1 Timothy 6:3-6, Titus 1:10-14, 2 Peter 2:1-20, Jude 1:3-16). Whereas Jesus in His life and death practiced and exhorted toward righteousness, and the Apostles sought to proclaim and practice righteousness, these antichrists would use their proclamations and practice to practice greed, sexual immorality, and a host of other sins, and justified themselves on account of the fact that the flesh was irrelevant, to be destroyed in death, and the spiritual realm was all that was important. Little wonder then why John emphasized the resurrection of life as the foundation of hope that leads to purity and holiness in 1 John 3:2-3: when you understand that God is about redemption and reconciliation, you will seek to be pure and holy even in the flesh so as to be like Him. In terms of the language used, some modern versions do well to flesh out what John means by “doeth sin”: “making a practice of sinning.” The difference is not between people who never sin versus sin a little or a lot; the contrast is between those who continually or repeatedly sin versus those who do not have such a practice. In so doing we can reconcile 1 John 3:9-10 with 1 John 1:8-9, 2:1: Christians are not to continue in unrepentant sin and must not make sin a habit, but when they stumble in their walk with Christ, they can confess that stumble and be forgiven so as to continue to pursue righteousness in Christ.

Even though we must resist making John’s language absolute, we still must come to grips with the force of his words in terms of our lives as Christians. John is sharply and starkly re-stating Jesus’ principle regarding false teachers in Matthew 7:15-20: by their fruits you shall know them. If doctrines lead to righteousness, they likely are true (although even in this case we must be hesitant to speak in absolute terms, for many people do a lot of righteous things yet believe very different things about the nature of God in Christ). But if the people who promote a teaching persist in sin, or the doctrines themselves justify persistence in sin, then they are clearly false and of the Evil One. It is easy to always project this concern onto others; after all, we believe we teach the truth and are in the right, yet who would ever honestly claim to be a false teacher? We must first consider ourselves: do people know we are Christians by how we speak and act? Are we producing the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-24)? We may intend to practice righteousness, and that intention may be well and good, but a big difference remains between intending to do righteousness yet persisting in sin and actually doing righteousness and thus avoiding sin. We might attempt to take solace in the idea that we have the true teachings, but John’s words should expose that assurance as a lie: it has never been enough to just know the truth, but it must be practiced. To not practice the truth you know is sin (James 4:17); you have no excuse. We know we are children of God when we do the things we know are true!

Many good-hearted, sincere, and conscientious Christians read 1 John 3:9-10 and are pricked in heart, concerned they may not be good enough to be the children of God. Such people most likely have the least to fear; a heart so tender to God’s message remains open to all He says and seeks to accomplish them. We must remember that John writes these things to assure Christians that they remain in Christ when they hold to the Gospel as proclaimed from the beginning and practice righteousness, not to upset their faith. Yet we must be doing righteousness; just knowing it is never enough. Let us demonstrate that we are born of God by practicing righteousness, assured that we will be known by God, Jesus, and those around us by the fruit expressed in our words and deeds!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Exceeding the Righteousness of the Pharisees

Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:19-20).

Yet another sacred cow slaughtered.

To “slaughter the sacred cow” is an American idiom, most likely a reference to Hindu culture in India in which cows are venerated and to slaughter a cow was therefore a desecrating action, a violation of propriety and custom. Therefore, “to slaughter a sacred cow” is to challenge a matter generally considered as sacred, especially those things normally held as self-evident or in some other way immune from questioning or challenging.

Everyone has their own versions of the “sacred cow”: everyone holds certain concepts to be true, and if anyone dare question or challenge those concepts, it is considered as improper, a desecration, a violation of social norms or customs. And so it was among the Israelites in the first century CE: many of their traditions and customs were held as sacred and were not up for being challenged. The Israelites are the people of YHWH, descendants of Abraham, and YHWH will protect them. YHWH will protect His Temple in Jerusalem. YHWH provides blessings to those who are righteous and punishes those who are unrighteous. The Pharisees and scribes are holy people, skilled in the Law, and righteous.

Throughout what is popularly called the “Sermon on the Mount”, Jesus teaches His disciples and the multitudes who have come out to hear Him, and many of those teachings challenge some of these propositions. In the “Beatitudes” Jesus pronounces blessings on those who are normally considered cursed (Matthew 5:3-12). Now Jesus not so subtly challenges the position of the Pharisees and scribes in the sight of the people (Matthew 5:17-20).

Jesus presents this challenge on the basis of adherence to the Law itself. He declares that He did not come to destroy the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them; not one detail will be changed in them until all is fulfilled (Matthew 5:17-18). Since the Law stands, the Law is to be followed; therefore, Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:19 follows: anyone who breaks the least of the commandments and teaches others to do so shall be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven, but the one who does and teaches them shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. If we isolated this verse from its context, particularly what will follow, we might get the idea that one’s standing in God’s Kingdom is based upon how effectively one performs the Law of Moses and how they teach it to others. Exactitude seems to be greatly praised here.

We should resist drawing such conclusions. Paul will make it very clear that no one is justified before God by works of the Law, since all have transgressed and have fallen short (Romans 3:20, 23). Jesus will later associate “greatness” in the Kingdom with humility and service, and, in so doing, will show that worldly concepts of “greatness” themselves fall short in terms of His Kingdom (Matthew 20:25-28).

Instead, Jesus is continuing to lay the groundwork for His powerful statement in Matthew 5:20. He is speaking about present reality, and His audience will agree with Him to this point: if the Law is still in force, then yes, whoever does and teaches the commandments of God will be considered great in the rule of God. If one breaks the least of the commandments, and teaches others to do so as well, they are least in the reign of God, and if this is the fate of the one who breaks one of the least of the commandments and teaches others to do the same, what will be the fate of those who break more weighty commandments?

So what is Jesus talking about? His conclusion is found in Matthew 5:20: He says to them that unless their righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, they will not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.

We can only imagine what the Israelites thought of this statement. If they were convinced that the Pharisees and scribes were the righteous people in their communities, then Jesus’ statement is quite shocking. If your righteousness does not exceed the righteousness of those whom you think are righteous, then what possible hope do you have of reaching the Kingdom of Heaven? Not much at all!

At this point some perhaps would write Jesus off as crazy, ridiculous, or excessively demanding. And perhaps Jesus us being excessively demanding in order to make His point: if one’s standard of righteousness is based on following the Law of Moses, seeking justification by works of the Law, as it seems many of the Pharisees and scribes imagined, then yes, it would require even greater righteousness than theirs in order to obtain the Kingdom, since the scribes and Pharisees do not fully measure up to the standard of the Law. Yet, then again, neither did anyone else but Jesus (Hebrews 4:15, 5:7-8); this is why it is only Jesus who can fulfill the Law and accomplish all things within it. No one will able to be saved by the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees; yet through Jesus’ righteousness the opportunity for salvation will be granted to all men (cf. Philippians 3:8-11).

Yet Jesus is concerned about not just one’s own deeds and standing before God, but one’s teaching as well. Matthew 5:19-20 does not stand on its own; it concludes and provides the rhetorical punch for Matthew 5:17-18 while introducing the theme which will carry through Matthew 5:21-48. Throughout Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus will highlight common understanding and practice of the Law and contrast it with God’s full expectations and intentions. Jesus will make it clear that God is interested in far more than just exterior conduct and nominal fidelity to the letter of the law; He is just as concerned about one’s thoughts and feelings and expects obedience to flow from faithfulness, love, and trust.

This is why the “righteousness” of the Pharisees and scribes is lacking: it proves to be superficial, obsessed with details to the neglect of the weightier provisions of the law, not properly discerning God’s focus and priorities, as will be made clear in Matthew 23:1-36. The “righteousness” of the Pharisees and scribes is shallow, hypocritical, and does not please God. If anyone maintains that form of “righteousness,” they will not enter the rule of God. In order to obtain the rule of God, one’s righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and scribes: it must be based in the mind and heart and flow through deeds, motivated by faith, love, and trust in God in Christ (Romans 5:6-11, 6:1-23).

Sometimes the sacred cow must be slaughtered in order to shake people out of their present habits and mentalities and force them to reconsider. So it is with Jesus in Matthew 5:19-20: whoever defines “righteousness” in terms of the conduct and teachings of the Pharisees and scribes is not going to make it. “Righteousness” is not about the obsession over a particular set of details to the neglect of the weightier concerns of the Law. “Righteousness” is not about saying one thing and doing another. “Righteousness” is not about finding ways of making yourself seem great and holy while looking down upon others and treating them presumptuously.

Instead, true righteousness is seen in Jesus. True righteousness is rooted not in oneself but in God and the pursuit of seeking His will and good pleasure. True righteousness involves proper priority, respecting the least as well as the great, both in terms of commandments and people. True righteousness cannot be hypocritical or two-faced; it flows from the mind and heart through the hands and feet. True righteousness seeks the best interest of others above oneself.

Salvation is not found in the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees; therefore, we should not follow their example. Salvation does come through Jesus, and we do well to follow after Him and pursue righteousness as He decreed through His example, seeking the will of God to do His good pleasure, concerned with the interest of others before our own, trusting not in ourselves but in God at all times. Let us exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes and so enter into the Kingdom of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Light of the World

“Ye are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a lamp, and put it under the bushel, but on the stand; and it shineth unto all that are in the house. Even so let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).

Light and darkness represent a familiar contrast in Scripture. God is the light, representing all which is good, holy, true, and righteous (John 1:1-5, 1 John 1:5). Darkness, as the absence of light, is the absence of what is good, holy, true, and righteous, and therefore represents evil, sin, unholiness, ungodliness, and unrighteousness (1 Thessalonians 5:1-10, 1 John 1:5-10). This imagery is often extended to people on the basis of their identification and conduct: those who seek after God and His righteousness and holiness are considered part of the light, while those who do not seek God but seek their own interests are considered in darkness (Ephesians 5:7-14, 1 John 1:5-10). Light and darkness also have their representative works (cf. Ephesians 5:9, 11). The early Christians exhort one another to walk in the light, participate in the light, and turn away from the darkness and avoid it (Ephesians 5:3-11, 1 John 1:5-10). Jesus understands this imagery and uses it for full effect in Matthew 5:14-16, but toward a slightly different end.

As with salt in Matthew 5:13, so with light in Matthew 5:14: Jesus declares, without a hint of doubt or qualification, that the disciples are the light of the world. Jesus is not providing blanket approval for anything and everything the disciples will think, feel, or act; He is not attempting to deny the temptation for the disciples to act in darkness, and in a parallel declaration in Luke 11:33-36, will warn about the dangers of the eye and the body being full of darkness. Jesus is in no way seeking to contradict the way the imagery of light and darkness has been used throughout the Scriptures. In Matthew 5:14-16 Jesus takes for granted how His disciples will seek to walk in the light and pursue God and His righteousness. Therefore, they are the light of the world.

But what does that mean? Jesus follows up with another declaration: a city set on a hill cannot be hidden (Matthew 5:14). Most cities in the ancient world were built on a hill or accessible mountain for defensive purposes: if an enemy attacked, the defenders of the city would maintain the higher ground and maintain a slight advantage. A city set in the heights has the advantage of seeing the surrounding territory for some distance, but this also means that people in the surrounding territory can always see the city as well. One cannot camouflage a city on a hill!

Jesus then returns to the imagery of light with an example in the negative: no one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel (Matthew 5:15). “Bushel” is the Greek modios, a dry unit of measure of grain, often translated as “basket” under the assumption that Jesus uses the term to describe that into which a bushel of grain is placed. The point, made in Mark 4:21-23 as well, is clear enough: if it is sufficiently dark to need to light a lamp, it makes no sense to put the lamp under a bushel and hide or cover the light. Instead, the lamp is placed on a stand to illuminate the whole house (Matthew 5:15).

This entire series of illustrations leads up to Jesus’ explanatory conclusion in Matthew 5:16: as the light of the world, the disciples should let their light shine before others so they can see the good works done and thus give glory to God the Father.

Jesus therefore uses the images of light and a city on a hill to describe the “public” nature inherent in following Jesus. If we are in the light as Jesus is the light, our thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and actions will be conformed to Jesus and reflect righteousness and holiness. As light shines in darkness, so our faith must be evident to all men.

Holiness and righteousness cannot be hidden, covered up, or kept private: a holy and righteous life, by its very nature, will be clear and evident to everyone who interacts with it. Followers of Jesus who reflect His light are the light of the world, a city set on a hill: they cannot be hidden or camouflaged. And that is the point: just like a lamp lit and hidden is next to useless, so is a Christian who seeks to hide his Christianity.

Jesus’ exhortations are quite appropriate for us today. While superficial profession of Christianity remains popular in our culture, firm adherence in following Jesus and His truth are not. We are often tempted to downplay our faith and the role it plays in our lives. Religion makes a lot of people very uncomfortable; our secular society puts a lot of pressure on Christians to “play nice” and not seek to offend or trouble anyone by proclaiming the life, death, and resurrection of Christ in word and deed. Nevertheless, we must obey God, not men (cf. Acts 5:29), and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus ought to so completely transform us that we cannot help but talk about it and live transformed lives because of it. That faith cannot be hidden any more than a city on a hill or light in the darkness.

It has always been a challenge to be the light in a world full of darkness (cf. John 1:5); this is not just a modern phenomenon. Christians are always under immense pressure to compromise their faith and “turn on the dimmer switch,” so to speak, regarding their light. Nevertheless, when we truly shine as the light of God in Christ, people will see our good works, and they will have reason to give glory to God the Father. Even in these dark days many people appreciate the blessings which come from Christians reflecting Jesus. People still appreciate knowing that others love them and care for them. People still appreciate it when others do good things for them. Even if people disagree with Christianity, there remains respect for people who maintain convictions, as long as they live by them.

And such is the warning within Jesus’ exhortation. Yes, His disciples are to be the light of the world, a city set on a hill. But that means there can be no hiding. Just as the people around us are given reason to give God glory when we reflect Christ toward them, they are also given reason to blaspheme when we fail to reflect Christ and act little differently from anyone else despite professing to follow Jesus. If the light of the world acts like the darkness, what hope remains for the world?

Christianity has never been nor can it become merely a private affair. Christianity cannot hide in the shadows; such places are for all those forces opposed to Christianity! Our faith, if it is truly alive and reflecting Jesus, will not just change our lives, but has the capacity to draw all around us toward Jesus as well. Neither Christians nor the church were ever called to “circle the wagons” and retreat into some private, “safe” Christian sphere, withdrawn from the world. You might be able to hide in a desert cave or a rural commune, but Jesus never described believers like that. His people are the light of the world, a city set on a hill. Christianity is supposed to be practiced in the sight of others, for the benefit of others even if it sometimes poses challenges or causes difficulties in our lives.

The Christian life is like living in a glass house, open to the eyes of everyone. There is a lot of pressure in that to conform to the world and to compromise the standards of Jesus; there is also a lot of pressure to try to cover up the windows and retreat into private spirituality. Yet, to this day, people put lamps on stands to give light throughout a room or a house, and so it must be with us and our faith. It will be uncomfortable at times, and it will involve a lot of pressure, but we are called to practice our Christianity everywhere and before everyone. We are called to reflect Jesus in the public sphere. Let us so live to give reason for others to glorify God in Christ, and shine as lights in the world!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Imitation

Beloved, imitate not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: he that doeth evil hath not seen God (3 John 1:11).

Much has been said in a such a short letter: John has spoken to Gaius regarding the support of those who proclaim the Gospel (3 John 1:5-8), warning him about Diotrephes (3 John 1:9-10), and will commend Demetrius as well (3 John 1:12). The core moral instruction and encouragement John has for Gaius is clearly and concisely presented in 3 John 1:11: do not imitate evil, but imitate good; those doing good are of God, while those who do evil have not seen God.

The exhortation is to not imitate evil, but imitate good. Such a declaration assumes there already exists a standard defining good and evil, and the only question left to decide is whether our thoughts, feelings, and actions will be done in imitation of that which is good or if it will imitate evil. We might like to think that there is some form of “originality” in the thoughts and feelings we have or in the actions we do, but we are all just imitators in the end. We go along whatever path we feel like going along; we find it well-worn at every point. Perhaps this is why God thought it best to send Jesus His Son in the flesh to embody that which is good in thought, feeling, and action (John 1:18, Acts 10:38, Hebrews 1:3, 1 John 2:6). We now know whom we are to imitate; we are to conform to the image of the Son (Romans 8:29).

Meanwhile the world does well at promoting evil through imitations of what seems to be good. Very few people are so bold as to imitate evil for evil’s sake; most people imitate evil by imitating things they think will lead to the good or happiness but are, in reality, fraudulent. We are constantly tempted to take God’s good things and make gods of them, to give the honor due the Creator to the creation (cf. Romans 1:18-32). People pursue imitation love, imitation peace, imitation joy, and all sorts of other imitations, all of which do not lead to righteousness and holiness but more often immorality and evil.

We do well to note how little vagary exists in this exhortation. One either imitates good or imitates evil; one manifests whether they know God or whether they have not seen Him. A similar delineation, spelled out in greater detail, is found with the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:19-24. Sometimes we would like to think that there might be some “gray areas” when it comes to good or evil, and yet the Scriptures remain stubbornly black and white about the matter. There is what is good, right, and holy, marked by humility, love, and compassion, full of grace and mercy, exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit: this is the good which we are to imitate, and in so doing recognize that we are of the God who is all of these attributes. There is also that which is evil, sinful, and base, marked by fraudulence, deceit, lust, and worldliness: this is the evil we are to avoid, for no one who has seen God or truly knows of God would continue in such things which are entirely contrary to His nature and purpose. And never shall the twain meet!

There is good, therefore, and there is evil; the two are opposed to each other like the poles of a magnet. If we are to imitate the good, every process of life should be good: our thoughts should be good (2 Corinthians 10:5, Philippians 4:8), our feelings, attitudes, and disposition should be good (Galatians 5:22-24, Colossians 3:12-15), so that our deeds can be good as well (Matthew 7:15-20). This demands that we pay as much attention to the process as we do to the final product. It might be tempting to seek to promote or defend God’s purposes using the Devil’s tactics or playbook, but it cannot work that way; it is impossible to promote good with evil. We must defend and promote God’s purposes in God’s way, with love, humility, grace, and mercy (1 Peter 3:15). Contentiousness, sectarianism, anger, and all such things cannot produce the righteousness of God (cf. Galatians 5:19-21, James 1:20)!

This sharp contrast should remain with us as a good reminder and form of encouragement. It is not always easy to imitate good; there are a lot of forces marshaled against us (cf. Ephesians 6:12, 1 Peter 5:8), everything from lust to temptation to fear to pain to inertia. But if we have encountered the living God through Jesus His Son, how can we do anything else? He thought that which is good, maintained a good attitude and disposition, felt compassion on others, and went about doing good, and we ought to imitate Him. Let us imitate what is good, demonstrating that we know God, in the process as much as in the final product, in our thoughts, feelings, and attitudes as much as in our deeds, and so glorify and honor God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Salt of the Earth

“Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men” (Matthew 5:13).

Everyone knows sodium chloride when they taste it.

As far as we can tell, salt was the first flavor additive people used; it also served as the means by which many foods were preserved. Salt plays a critical function for all living creatures: it regulates the water content of the body, and the sodium ion is the means by which electrical signals communicate through the nervous system. It is not found naturally in many foods; it must be added to the diet, and our tongues appreciate the flavor. It is therefore unsurprising to see how important and valuable salt has been for humanity throughout its existence; before modern processing methods, when edible salt was more challenging to find and use, it was highly prized. One word we use to describe someone’s wages, “salary,” comes from the Latin salarium, referring to the money paid to the Roman soldiers so they could purchase salt.

Salt was therefore known as an important preservative and seasoning in the ancient world, considered quite precious and valuable, and prized for its distinctiveness. But not all salt is made equal: one has to have almost pure sodium chloride for what we call “table salt,” and most naturally occurring salt deposits contain other elements as well. To this day the majority of the salt mined and processed is not for human or animal consumption but for industrial processes and for de-icing streets and sidewalks in colder climates.

Jesus understands these things, and He also knows that His audience understands these things. Having declared “the Beatitudes” in His “Sermon on the Mount” (cf. Matthew 5:1-12), He begins a series of metaphors describing how the disciples should conduct themselves among others and to what effect (Matthew 5:13-16). The first image used involves salt and its distinctiveness (Matthew 5:13): Jesus declares that His disciples are the “salt of the earth,” and then wonders what will happen if the salt loses its taste. At that point, its essential properties no longer able to be restored, its only value is to be thrown underfoot in order to be trodden upon by men.

Jesus begins with this declarative statement: “ye are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). There is no doubt or question about it. While Jesus might have the preservative function of salt in mind, suggesting that just as salt preserves food, His disciples are the reason the world is preserved, His expansion on the theme shows how He has the distinctive taste of salt in mind. The disciples are the “salt of the earth” in terms of being that distinctive flavor which is immediately recognizable when perceived. The distinctive flavor of salt is both unique in itself and uniquely satisfying to the palate. Its particular value is in its distinctiveness and difference, and that value exists on account of its purity.

While the disciples are declared to be the “salt of the earth” without any expression of doubt, Jesus goes on to ask what will happen if the salt loses its flavor. Can the saltiness be restored? He declares how it is now useless for food and preserving life and can only be used on the ground, just as we do today in order to keep the roads and sidewalks ice-free. Jesus therefore opens up the possibility that the “salt” may not maintain its “flavor” and will thus be rendered almost useless. What we call “table salt” loses its distinctiveness when it is no longer almost pure sodium chloride and other elements are introduced; when it is impure, it cannot be used for food preparation, and is only good for industrial or street use.

Thus we have the key to understanding Jesus’ imagery. Jesus’ disciples are called, justified, and sanctified, cleansed and made pure through faith (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:11, Ephesians 5:25-27, Titus 3:4-6). Jesus’ disciples are therefore distinctive, bearing the name of the Lord, seeking to serve Him in all they think, feel, say, and do, representing the new creation order even in the midst of the old (cf. Romans 8:29, 2 Corinthians 5:16-19, Colossians 3:17). Such purity, holiness, humility, love, and service is distinctive: it is immediately recognizable when perceived, utterly unique, and ultimately most satisfying both for the one engaged in the practice and those who see and are blessed by it. Such holy and righteous thinking, feeling, and action will draw people toward Jesus the Source of all life, holiness, and righteousness, to the praise of God the Father (cf. Matthew 5:16). When Jesus’ disciples conform to the image of Jesus and present the image of Jesus to their fellow man, their distinctiveness is evident and most satisfying. Perhaps not everyone will agree with Christianity and the Christian lifestyle, but when it is faithfully practiced, it at least garners respect.

But what happens if people profess to believe in Jesus but do not advance in righteousness, holiness, humility, love, and service? Such a “disciple” looks no different from anyone else in the world; there is nothing distinctive about their thinking, feelings, and actions. When there is nothing distinctive about them, of what value do they serve for the Lord’s purposes? Not much: these are the people who bring reproach upon the name of Jesus, besmirching His good name with their worldliness, giving cause for unbelievers to blaspheme. Such people are the “salt” which has lost its flavor; they are thus “thrown out,” to be “trampled upon” like the rest of the world. Impure salt cannot nourish, sustain, strengthen, or provide a distinct flavor; such is only possible with pure salt.

Jesus’ words, therefore, provide assurance and a warning. We cannot be distinctive in holiness or righteousness by ourselves and by our own standing; we must humbly submit in trusting faith before God the Father through Jesus the Son to receive the cleansing that comes through Jesus’ sacrifice in order to begin walking down the path of holiness and righteousness. When we turn to God and begin serving the Lord Jesus we become the “salt of the earth.” But we can only remain beneficial if we remain distinctive, and we can only remain distinctive by maintaining purity. We must seek after pure Christianity through humble service to God, seeking to align our will to His in every way. If we do not maintain that purity, but turn and follow after the lusts of the world, the assumptions and ideologies of the world, or other vain worldly pursuits, then there remains nothing distinctive about us. If there is nothing distinctive about us, we end up suffering the same fate as all of the salt that has always remained impure!

Pursuing justice, righteousness, and holiness is not optional; it is the means by which we maintain our distinctiveness in a world saturated with impurity and vice. Let us remain the distinctive salt of the world, seeking after purity, praising the name of the Lord and being the reason for others to praise the Lord as well!

Ethan R. Longhenry