Sheep for Slaughter

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or anguish, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Even as it is written,
“For thy sake we are killed all the day long; We were accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”
Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us (Romans 8:35-37).

The quotation looks out of place; it seems to be a discordant note in an otherwise encouraging message.

For generations Christians have taken great comfort in the many promises of God expressed in Romans 8:1-39. Paul assures Christians of their salvation, victory over sin and death, the presence of the Spirit, and their inheritance and hope in Christ (Romans 8:1-30); he concludes with a series of rhetorical questions affirming God’s love for believers and all that He has done for them (Romans 8:31-39). Nevertheless, in the midst of the proclamation of all of this encouragement, Paul quotes Psalm 44:22 in Romans 8:36: we are killed all the day long; we are reckoned as sheep for slaughter. Why would Paul choose to quote something so distressing in the midst of a message of encouragement?

Psalm 44:1-26 is one of the psalms written by the sons of Korah. The sons of Korah begin by affirming their understanding and confidence in the legitimacy of the stories they were told about what YHWH had done for their fathers, no doubt referring to the deliverance from bondage in Egypt and the conquest of the land of Canaan (Psalm 44:1-3). The confidence of the sons of Korah is not just historical: they presently trust in God’s ability and potential willingness to give them victory over their enemies (Psalm 44:4-7). Let none be deceived: the sons of Korah are not lacking in faith, for they have made God their boast and give Him thanks forever (Psalm 44:8).

Yet the reality on the ground is quite different and distressing: they have not obtained deliverance from their enemies. Instead they are a reproach, a byword among nations, a people scoffed at and derided (Psalm 44:9-16). The sons of Korah have not forgotten the sins of their fathers, nor would necessarily deny their own wrongdoing at times, yet feel compelled to powerfully affirm their loyalty to God and covenant faithfulness (Psalm 44:17-21); nevertheless, as they cry in Psalm 44:22, they are killed all the day long for God’s sake, and accounted as sheep for slaughter. They want to know why God seems to be asleep, seemingly unaware of or indifferent to their suffering and shame, pleading for God to rise up, help them, and redeem them for the sake of His lovingkindness (Psalm 44:23-26). Thus ends the psalm; no resolution is given. The sons of Korah cry out to God demanding help and redemption not out of a lack of faith but precisely because they do trust in God, His covenant faithfulness in the past, and expect covenant faithfulness in the present.

So what has Psalm 44 to do with Romans 8? In many ways Paul provides the ultimate answer to and assurance for the hope of the sons of Korah. Redemption for the people of God has been found through the life, death, resurrection, and lordship of Jesus of Nazareth; in Him the people of God are victorious over sin and death, have been made joint heirs of God’s inheritance in Christ, and have been given the hope of redemption from the corruption to which the creation has been made subject (Romans 8:1-25). God has proven faithful to all His covenant promises He made to His people.

Yet we do well to wonder why Paul feels compelled to provide this encouragement for the Christians in Rome. Hints toward a reason can be found in the text itself. In affirming that Christians are joint heirs with Christ in Romans 8:17-18 Paul explicitly and directly associates that glorification with previous suffering with assurance that present suffering is not worthy to be compared with the glory awaiting us. Considering that other encouraging passages, like 1 Peter 1:3-9 and the book of Revelation, are written to those suffering persecution and trial, we can understand exactly what Paul is doing. The Christians in Rome may be presently suffering persecution or trial or perhaps will suffer thus in the near future; nevertheless, trials and difficulties will come.

Paul knows this not only because of his personal acquaintance with persecution and suffering at the hands of both the Jews and the Gentiles but also, and preeminently, on account of Christ, echoed in Psalm 44. In Psalm 44 the sons of Korah attempted to make sense of the disconnect between their great faith in YHWH and the way He expressed covenant faithfulness in past generations with their presently humiliated state; Jesus would go about as God in the flesh, doing good to all, and for it was betrayed, tried, tortured, and executed unjustly, having every right to cry out the substance of Psalm 44 throughout His suffering (1 Peter 2:21-25). Yet on account of that suffering God raised Jesus in triumph on the third day, exalting and glorifying His name above every name (Philippians 2:5-11); because Jesus suffered He was able to accomplish God’s purposes of victory and redemption as described in Romans 8:1-39 and for which the sons of Korah cried out in Psalm 44:26. Paul therefore understands the way forward: if you want to obtain the promises of God, you have to suffer through trials. The way to the heavenly Zion has no detours around the cross or Calvary.

The rhetorical questions of Romans 8:31-39 therefore have a darker side; we may read them as encouraging affirmations, yet Paul writes them in order to clear up doubts. We may experience the hostility of the spiritual forces of darkness, our own doubts and fears, and perhaps even our government or our fellow people; yet if God is for us, will any of these be able to stand (Romans 8:31)? We may feel abandoned, left with a book about things that happened in the past, which we may even affirm as fully true and legitimate, but where is God now and what is He doing for His people? And yet, as Paul asks, if God has really given of His own Son, will He not freely with Him give us all things (Romans 8:32)? We may feel indicted by our own doubts, fears, and sins; if we do not thus indict ourselves, no doubt Satan or even people we know in this world would be happy to do so. And yet who can really lay any charge against God’s elect if God has justified us and His Son is interceding for us (Romans 8:33-34)? There are many times where we may feel quite distant from God and separated from His love, just as the sons of Korah did; such is why Paul asks who can truly separate us from that love (Romans 8:35). Can tribulation, anguish, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, or sword separate us from God’s love? We can be assured the answer is no. Does this mean that we somehow escape the trials of this life? No; that’s not what God has promised.

For God’s sake we may well be killed all the day long; we may be accounted by Satan, the forces of darkness, and even many in this world as sheep for the slaughter. The sons of Korah long ago felt that way quite strongly even though they had remained faithful to God’s covenant and implored God for redemption. Jesus of Nazareth was actually slaughtered. There will be trials and tribulations; of this Paul is quite certain (Romans 8:17-18). In the midst of that darkness we will be tempted to doubt God’s goodness, faithfulness, and/or our hope. Even if we maintained a faith as robust as that of the sons of Korah, we will still find ourselves wondering how it could be that God is faithful and yet our present condition has brought us so low. Yet Paul wishes to encourage us with those rhetorical questions. If God is for us, who can be against us? If God has not spared His own Son, will He not in Him give us all things? Who can separate us from God’s love? As with Christ, so with us: in and through trial we are more than conquerors (Romans 8:37). No external force or trial can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39); only we can if we turn away from Him. The need for encouragement stems from weakness or trial; in those times let us remember that God is faithful to His covenant promises and has provided redemption in Jesus. That means that the path to exaltation first requires humiliation, and suffering must precede glory. Let us maintain our firm trust in God in Christ throughout all trial!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Surrender

Know ye not, that to whom ye present yourselves as servants unto obedience, his servants ye are whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness? But thanks be to God, that, whereas ye were servants of sin, ye became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching whereunto ye were delivered; and being made free from sin, ye became servants of righteousness (Romans 6:16-18).

“Slave” is not exactly the type of job to which many people would aspire.

The ancient world was supported and made possible by slaves. Slaves worked fields, quarried mines, educated children, cleaned clothes and dishes, prepared food, and an innumerable host of other tasks. Their hard work allowed their masters to enjoy the leisure time they expended in noble and less than noble pursuits: philosophy, politics, scientific exploration, symposia, debauchery, etc. While the Roman system of slavery was not nearly as brutal as that of the American South from the 1600s until the 1800s, the life of the slave was still not very pleasant. They were property, supposed to be invisible, always serving at the behest of their master. Some would gain their freedom; many others would not.

Slaves had no social clout and little standing; people did not voluntarily sign up to become slaves. We can only imagine how astonishing and controversial the message of Jesus of Nazareth and His Kingdom would have sounded to ancient ears when He affirmed the value of serving others and being as a slave (Matthew 20:25-28). It would have seemed quite strange to many to hear many of the great Apostles call themselves the slaves of Jesus (e.g. Paul in Romans 1:1, Peter in 2 Peter 1:1). Who would voluntarily decide to consider themselves a slave to anyone?

As Paul is attempting to explain how Christians are not under law but under grace he speaks of how Christians are “servants” (Greek douloi, properly “slaves”) to whomever they obey (Romans 6:16-18). In such a view everyone is a slave; true freedom is illusory. The only question involves precisely whom one will serve. Paul frames the experience of coming to the understanding of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, repentance, and the conversion process in general as making the choice to no longer serve sin unto death and condemnation but to serve righteousness in obedience according to the standard of teaching to which Christians have been committed, that is, the Gospel of Christ. Paul does not deny that a free will choice was involved; believers choose to serve righteousness and not sin. Nevertheless the choice was rather circumscribed: continue to serve sin in whatever guise you want to call it, be it idols, self, lusts, etc., or serve God in Christ. With such a perspective we better understand why it would be that early Christians called themselves slaves of Jesus; far better to be a slave of Jesus than to be a slave to the ways of the world!

It is also interesting to note how the Romans obtained their slaves. Some slaves were born into slavery. Others entered slavery on account of debt. Yet the Romans obtained a large number of their slaves from their conquests in war. The people who did not die but who surrendered to the Roman forces would become the next generation of Roman slaves.

“Surrender” is a term we do not find explicitly in Scripture; nevertheless, the concept is of great importance. To surrender is to give up; it is generally understood either to give up oneself in war when one can no longer stand their ground and fight or in terms of having to give up possessions to another for some reason. In terms of the Christian faith surrender is the necessary means by which one puts oneself in subjection to or to submit to the proper authorities; one must “give up” one’s right of self-determination in some way so as to follow the orders of the one in authority. In Scripture everyone is to be subject to God and the government which is given its authority by God (Romans 13:1). Christians are to be subject to one another (Ephesians 5:21). Wives are to submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ (Ephesians 5:22-24). Children ought to submit to their parents in the Lord (Ephesians 6:1-3). Members of the local church ought to submit to the eldership when present (Hebrews 13:17). In all of these situations and relationships real submission or subjection cannot take place until the person proves willing to surrender to the will of the proper authority.

Surrendering is one of the most difficult things any of us can do; whether we want to admit it or not, we like to maintain the (often little) power we think we have. Throughout time people have not thought highly of those who surrender; in some cultures it was considered so shameful that soldiers would rather commit suicide rather than to return to their people after having surrendered. We like thinking of ourselves as being in control and doing well; especially in America “giving up” seems to be the worst possible thing one could do.

Yet let us consider surrender in light of Romans 6:16-18. Just as we are all slaves to something, whether we admit it or not, we also surrender to something. We always “give up” or “give into” something. It may be the ways of the world as communicated in society, culture, family, education, etc. It may be one’s overvalued view of self. It may just be a constant giving into one’s desires. Yet in all those ways a person is surrendering, giving into the forces at work around them. The only other way is to surrender one’s will to God so as to serve Him in Christ!

We are to consider ourselves as slaves of God in Christ, seeking to be obedient from the heart to the Gospel (Romans 6:16-18). In order to be those slaves of God we must surrender our will to Him. It may seem scary and an admission of weakness; such is why we must always remember that God is faithful and worthy of our trust and that His power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 5:7, 12:9). We should also recognize that not surrendering is not an option: if we do not surrender to God and His ways in Christ, then we are surrendering to the forces of darkness in whatever guise they have taken, be it ourselves, our culture, our education, our lusts, etc. Let us therefore prove willing to surrender our minds, hearts, bodies, souls, and will to God in Christ, trust in Him, obey Him, and advance His purposes to His honor and glory!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Hung Upon a Tree

“And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree; his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt surely bury him the same day; for he that is hanged is accursed of God; that thou defile not thy land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23).

It was just one more law explained in a series of other laws. At the time it was given, it perhaps did not merit much more thought or consideration than the laws given before it or after it; it might have seemed tame, in fact, compared to the law of stoning a rebellious youth in Deuteronomy 21:18-22. And yet this law would have profound consequences for Israel and all humanity.

The law given by Moses in Deuteronomy 21:22-23 is an example of case law, a frequent feature in this part of Deuteronomy. The law is straightforward enough: if a person has committed a capital crime, and the manner of punishment is hanging on a tree, the body should be taken down and buried the same day. Likewise, if a criminal were executed in some other way, and then his body was hung upon a tree as a public spectacle (cf. Numbers 25:4), the body should not be left up all night. The body should be taken down and buried because anyone who is hanged is accursed of God, and to allow a cursed person’s body to hang around for a few days would defile the land.

The law is understandable and the people would most likely have accepted it without difficulty; most of them, as far as we can tell, were not planning to commit capital crimes. Yes, other methods of execution had their place: stoning (cf. Deuteronomy 13:10), burning (cf. Leviticus 21:9), and stabbing (Exodus 32:27); nevertheless, various forms of suspension (hanging and the like) seemed to be the most common way of executing criminals, particularly in those cases where the Law did not specify stoning or burning. Even in those cases where other forms of execution were used, it served the interest of the executioners to hang the body up on a tree so that all would know what happened to the person and that they would share the same fate if they committed capital crimes. We can understand how such criminals, however executed, were seen as cursed: to be executed for a capital crime means that one must have done something truly terrible so as to deserve such a fate. To leave the body of such a one around would cause contamination!

Years later the Romans took over the land of Israel. The Romans had great confidence in crucifixion as a means of executing insurrectionists and other particularly nasty criminals. It was a horrendous and public way to die; it sent a very strong message to the rest of the inhabitants of the land: obey or suffer the same fate!

Around the year 30 of our era, a Man was brought before the Roman governor Pilate, and accused by the Jewish authorities of insurrection against Rome. At first Pilate did not want to see Him executed; nevertheless, he was more concerned about his own welfare than anything else, and when the crowd looked like it was about to riot, Pilate agreed to the sentence. The Man was crucified with two others outside of the city walls of Jerusalem. Since the time was of the Preparation for the upcoming Sabbath during the feast of Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, in consideration of Deuteronomy 21:22-23, the Jews asked the Romans to have the legs of the criminals broken, so their bodies might be taken away and buried (cf. John 19:31). The legs of two of the men were broken, but the first Man was already dead. His body was taken down and buried before sunset (cf. John 19:32-42).

These three, as well as every other Jewish person crucified, were reckoned as cursed because they hung upon the “tree” of the crucifix. In normal circumstances the reputation of such people were forever tarnished; everyone would know that they were now accursed because they hung on a tree. It was shameful; it was terrible. Even if one were really innocent, one would become accursed because of hanging on that tree!

Yet, within a few weeks of this event, some who believed in this one Man stood up before the Jewish religious authorities and declared how they had hung Him on a tree (Acts 5:30). They did not do so in shame or in defeat; instead, they did it in power and victory! They did so because this one Man was no ordinary person; He was Jesus of Nazareth, whom God had raised up as a means by which Israel (and later, all nations) would receive repentance and remission of sins (Acts 5:30-31). How could this be?

These people who believed in Jesus had earlier established that Jesus suffered death on the cross to fulfill the words of the Law and the prophets (cf. Acts 3:18). On the third day God raised Him up in power and He now rules as Lord (Acts 2:23-24, 36). A lot of people, when confronted with a story such as the one told regarding Jesus, would be tempted to minimize the humiliation, suffering, and shame, or at least not boldly proclaim it. Yet these early Christians did not just say that Jesus was crucified; they spoke about His death on the cross in the very language of Deuteronomy 21:22-23, well expressed in Acts 10:39:

“And we are witnesses of all things which he did both in the country of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom also they slew, hanging him on a tree.”

It would seem as if the early Christians, to an extent, gloried in how Jesus died on the tree, and therefore was accursed!

Another early Christian, Paul, would explain why Jesus’ method of execution, the cross, was so critical for the work which He came to do.

In Galatians 3:10 Paul quotes Deuteronomy 27:26 and declares that all who are of the law are under a curse: they have subscribed to do the law but have actually not kept the law. Therefore, according to the law, they are accursed of God. Then, in Galatians 3:13-14, Paul explains how Jesus Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us as it is written in Deuteronomy 21:21-22!

This is why early Christians talked about Jesus’ death in the way they did: Jesus was not accursed because of anything He did. He took on Himself the curse with which all who have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God are accursed; He who had no sin and did no wrong God made to be sin on our behalf so that we could be forgiven of our sins (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus, in “his own self[,] bare our sins in his body upon the tree” (1 Peter 2:24)!

It might have been just a small detail in one case law among others, but that detail was there for a reason. Jesus became accursed so that accursed humans could be set free from sin and death. Jesus endured capital punishment to redeem and restore sinful humanity. Let us praise God for His wonderful grace and mercy, and let us die to sin and live to righteousness through Him by whose wounds we are healed!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Christian and the Government

Let every soul be in subjection to the higher powers: for there is no power but of God; and the powers that be are ordained of God. Therefore he that resisteth the power, withstandeth the ordinance of God: and they that withstand shall receive to themselves judgment. For rulers are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. And wouldest thou have no fear of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise from the same: for he is a minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is a minister of God, an avenger for wrath to him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be in subjection, not only because of the wrath, but also for conscience’ sake (Romans 13:1-5).

For 1,700 years the controversy has centered on Romans 13.

For all the New Testament teachings regarding Jesus’ spiritual Kingdom, its pages provided precious few declarations regarding earthly nations and their governance. Only in Romans 13:1-7 is earthly government discussed in any substantive and meaningful way. Little wonder, then, that once Christianity gained societal respectability and earthly authorities began professing it, Romans 13:1-7 would feature prominently in justification of and argumentation regarding how governments would act.

To this end the text has been stretched and bended far beyond anything its original author would have intended. In the middle of the seventeenth century, the king of England and loyal political philosophers laid ahold of Paul’s declaration that the earthly government is ordained by God (Romans 13:1-2), and used it to justify the doctrine of the divine right of kings, suggesting that since God ordained the king to be in charge, the commands of the king were as the commands of God. Yet, by the end of that century and into the next, some Enlightenment philosophers laid ahold of Paul’s reasoning behind the existence of the earthly government as the agent of God’s wrath toward those doing evil in Romans 13:3-4, inferred that any ruler terrorizing good conduct and good people and not sufficiently punishing evil has lost their divine mandate, and thus suggested that it was justifiable to overthrow any government which had thus “lost” its divine mandate. Within two centuries the same text could be used to justify both the establishment of a dictatorship as well as its overthrow.

The government and the Christian’s relationship to it is a sensitive topic today. As we can see, the main text describing that relationship has been used to justify all sorts of attitudes toward government for centuries. What shall we do?

We do well to honor one of the most fundamental principles of Biblical interpretation: first understand the text in context. When Paul writes what is found in Romans 13:1-7, he does not have in mind the British monarchy or the American democratic republic per se. Instead, he writes to the Christians living in the capital of the Roman empire in the early days of the Emperor Nero.

When we take a moment to strip away the layers of assumptions and inferences in order to try to get back to Paul’s original premise, we find that Paul’s primary purpose in Romans 13:1-7 is to legitimate the existence of an earthly governmental authority, consistent with what Peter will write in 1 Peter 2:13-17 as well. If we think about it, this concern makes a lot of sense, for one of the principal proclamations of the Gospel is that Jesus is Lord (kurios; cf. Acts 2:36). If Jesus is Lord of all, that means that Caesar is not, and many of the opponents of the Gospel seized upon this (cf. Acts 17:6-7). Meanwhile, the Roman authorities were ambivalent toward or hostile against the faith: the recently dead Claudius had expelled all Jews from Rome, possibly because of the preaching of Jesus as the Christ (cf. Acts 18:2). There were already whispers about the darker side of Nero’s personality and conduct, and that ugliness would only become more evident as time wore on. If Jesus is really Lord, and the government sometimes stands in the way of Jesus’ purposes, why have a government at all? Why obey and submit to these earthly, pagan, ungodly rulers, if Jesus is really Lord?

Paul provides a rebuke to such “Christian anarchism.” Paul declares that God has all power, and therefore earthly governments exist because God has granted them the ability and power to exist (Romans 13:1-2). They have a good reason for existence: government exists to punish evil behavior (Romans 13:3-4). If a Christian is busy doing good, he or she should have little to fear from the governing authorities; therefore, to ask for them to be in subjection to governing authorities is not really asking too much, on account of wrath and conscience (Romans 13:3-5). For the same reason, tax, tribute, and honor should be given to such authorities, since their existence is justified before God (Romans 13:6-7).

While such things are said to the Roman Christians in the context of the Roman empire, it is evident from the way in which Paul speaks that the message is not limited only to such persons. What Paul says is true regarding the Christians of Rome and their relationship to the Roman Empire would be equally true for Christians living under a monarchy, dictatorship, aristocracy, oligarchy, or democracy. Paul says nothing about how the governing authorities obtained their power or how well they adhere to the rules or guidelines which theoretically govern that country. He does not make explicit any of the inferences derived from this passage, either to justify whatever a ruler says or to justify revolution against a government. We do well to wonder why that is.

Paul insists that Christians should be subject to the governing authorities, as does Peter in 1 Peter 2:13-17. Peter will go on to speak about slaves and how they should be subject to their masters, not just the good and gentle ones, but also those who are “froward,” unreasonable or unjust (1 Peter 2:18). Peter goes on to describe the gracious matter of suffering unjustly while doing what is good and right and holy, reminding the Christians of his time how Jesus had done the same for them (1 Peter 2:19-25).

There is quite the lesson to be learned there: in many ways, the Christian’s relationship to the government is like the Christian slave’s relationship to his master. It is for the Christian to submit no matter the type of master, save in that which is against what God has decreed (cf. Acts 5:29). The Christian is never justified in acting according to a rebellious or contrary spirit; the reason for disobedience against any earthly authority is because of obedience toward God. It is not given for the Christian to weigh the fitness of the rulers before deciding to submit to them, contrary to what some have said. It is also not for the rulers to fancy that whatever they say ought to be as if God Himself had said it, contrary to what others have said. God will judge Christians for how well they respected rulers and obeyed them, and the rulers for how well they governed according to the principles of righteousness, as can be seen from Romans 13:1-7.

In Romans 13:1-7 Paul sees a separation between Christians and their government: “you” are the Christians and “he” is the authority in the passage, and we do not see the two meet. How Christians are to relate to a government in which they have the opportunity to voice their beliefs and to shape policy is not explicitly outlined but certainly would not be in opposition to what God has revealed through Paul in terms of how Christians are to relate to any government. Christians are to show proper respect and honor for their rulers and should be subject to them, obeying the laws of the land. Whether the rulers are good and fair or immoral and unjust is irrelevant; Christians are not given the right to treat the rulers differently on the basis of their conduct. There may be times when Christians will find themselves on the wrong side of civil laws because they are obeying God; such does not justify a spirit of rebellion. In all cases of such “civil disobedience” that we find in Scripture, the Christians remained respectful of government and willingly suffered the civil consequences of their behavior. Early Christians never agitated for the overthrow of the government.

Paul could write with such indifference to the fate of any particular government because he understood that Jesus is really Lord, and the only way of salvation was through the message of the Gospel (Romans 1:16). The advancement of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God is all that is really important (Matthew 6:33). Earthly authorities are to be respected and obeyed but they are not our saviors or redeemers. Only Jesus can do that. Let us obey God in all things, including showing proper respect toward and subjection to the earthly authorities!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Intercession of the Holy Spirit

And in like manner the Spirit also helpeth our infirmity: for we know not how to pray as we ought; but the Spirit himself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered; and he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God (Romans 8:26-27).

People have a tendency to romanticize childhood for many reasons. Many people remember childhood as a time of innocence, a time with far fewer cares. Sure, we thought we had problems, challenges, and difficulties as we grew up, but most of us would gladly trade our present understanding and trials for the “difficulties” of childhood!

Childhood is only care-free when parents and other adults foster an environment in which children can be care-free. Plenty of trials, sufferings, challenges, and responsibilities need to be addressed, but the adults most often handle them. Sadly, many children grow up too quickly because of their circumstances: governmental oppression, loss of parents, divorce, illnesses, or other factors may cause children to learn more about the reality of life than they probably should at their age. Children, therefore, are care-free because they do not know much better; they have not yet been exposed to the challenges of life that their parents take care of for them.

There is only one problem with all of this: we “grow up” and start thinking that we now all of a sudden do understand all of the difficulties, challenges, and issues that surround us. We think we have a handle on reality.

As Paul seeks to encourage the Romans, he makes a startling declaration in Romans 8:26: the Spirit helps us in our infirmity, or weakness: we do not know what to pray for as we ought.

But wait a moment: we know what we should pray for, right? We should pray to thank God for all the blessings with which He has blessed us in Jesus (1 Corinthians 14:16-17). We should pray for all men so that we can live in tranquility and for them to come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved (1 Timothy 2:1-4). We should pray for one another for each other’s welfare (James 5:16). We should always be in constant communication with God our Defender (Ephesians 6:18). How, then, can Paul say that we do not know what to pray for as we ought?

All of these things are well and good, and we should pray for them. Yet, as Paul says, we are weak. For one thing, we are often forgetful and take many things for granted; there are many things for which we know we should pray but we forget or overlook them. For that matter, we do not really understand reality as well as we think we do. There is an entire realm beyond our perception but is very real: the spiritual realm, in which the spiritual forces of good and evil constantly conflict (Ephesians 6:10-18, Revelation 4:1-22:6). There is much to the “secret things” of God, far beyond human understanding (Deuteronomy 29:29, Isaiah 55:8-9). We cannot perceive the spiritual realm all around us; therefore, we are very much like children, oblivious to all sorts of things that may endanger us or cause us difficulty.

But just as parents do all they can to take care of their children and often to shield their children from many of the difficulties and hazards of life, so God provides a way to take care of the needs of believers they neglect to mention or concerning which they are completely ignorant: the Holy Spirit intercedes on their behalf with groanings too deep for words (Romans 8:26). The Father knows the mind of the Spirit, for the Spirit intercedes for believers according to the will of God (Romans 8:27).

There are many who question this understanding of the passage, wondering whether Jesus is the only true intercessor for believers, and that the spirit of the believer, not the Holy Spirit, is under discussion. The challenge cannot be sustained. For one thing, we do not see such a complete contrast between a believer, a believer’s “heart,” and a believer’s spirit as such an interpretation would demand. The solution does not get rid of the perceived problem anyway, since Paul says that the “spirit” intercedes for the saints according to the will of God in Romans 8:27, and so there remains an intercessor for saints beyond Jesus. While it is true that Jesus is the only Mediator (1 Timothy 2:5), mediation and intercession, while similar, are not the same thing. A mediator (Greek mesites) is like an arbitrator, standing between two parties; in this case, Jesus stands between God and man, having partaken of the nature of each. An intercessor (Greek noun enteuxis, verb entugchano) speaks on behalf of another without necessarily taking on the nature of each or the case of each. Yes, Jesus does intercede for us before the Father as well (cf. Romans 8:34, Hebrews 7:25), but intercession is never considered something that only He can do. Believers are to intercede for all men (1 Timothy 2:1); the Holy Spirit, as we see in Romans 8:26-27, intercedes for believers before the Father with groans too deep for words.

What an encouraging and comforting message! There are all sorts of pitfalls, problems, and dangers we happen upon in life; how well do we remember to pray regarding them? There are many times when we get so caught up in ourselves and the way we see things in our weakness; how many times have we forgotten to pray to obtain perspective? There are innumerable details that make up our lives; how many of those details do we take up in prayer before the Almighty? How many times do we feel as if we have been neglected by God? What if God has always been there and the Spirit has always been interceding for us, taking very good care of us, and yet we never had an inkling or an idea since it did not involve things we could see or hear?

We must remain diligent in prayer and never allow any excuse or rationalization to keep us away from praying about anything and everything (Luke 18:1-8, 1 Thessalonians 5:17, 1 Peter 5:7). Nevertheless, we will remain weak, and God knows that. The Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Godhead, intercedes for us before the Father for innumerable and untold concerns, issues, and opportunities. Meanwhile the Son intercedes as well before the Father; two of the three Persons of the Godhead intercede before the other Person on our behalf (cf. Romans 8:34)!

God cares for us. God intercedes within Himself on our behalf. He does not abandon us or forsake us. How much humble pie will we be served on the final day if or when God makes it evident to us just how active He had been in our lives, with the Son and the Spirit interceding on our behalf, seeking our welfare in ways we neglected, took for granted, or could never even understand? Those among us who are parents may have an inkling of it when we look back and see how our parents took care of us and how much that involved concerning which we were entirely ignorant! Let us therefore trust God, ever thankful for His care, praying constantly for those things concerning which we understand, sustained by the intercession of the Holy Spirit for all that which we do not!

Ethan R. Longhenry

God in His Creation

Because that which is known of God is manifest in them; for God manifested it unto them. For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse (Romans 1:19-20).

Paul is declaring here in the “negative” what David proclaims in the “positive” in Psalm 19:1: the glory of God and His work is manifest in the heavens and earth which He created. The theological significance of this can hardly be overstated.

In context, Paul is making a very important point. He compares the Gospel and its power for salvation, the faith in God that comes on the basis of its message that leads to righteousness and life, with the wrath of God that will be poured out on the unrighteous and ungodly who attempt to suppress that truth (Romans 1:16-18). As if anticipating a counter-argument– how could the pagans know about God since they were not given the law of God given to Israel or any such thing?– Paul begins to show that there really is no excuse for them, and that they should have known that there is One True Creator God. How? His invisible attributes– specifically, His eternal power and divine nature– can be perceived in that which God has made (Romans 1:19-20). In short, the whole creation testifies to God’s glory and work. The only reason one does not see it is if one does not want to see it, focusing instead on the creation and not the Creator (cf. Romans 1:21-32).

This immediately reveals two important truths. This passage first provides the answer regarding all the people who have ever lived but who did not hear the Gospel message– they still should have known about God through His handiwork, the creation. Paul strongly suggests that ignorance is not going to be acceptable as an excuse on the final day. Furthermore, the reason why this is a sufficient reason is because it shows that God has continually revealed Himself through the creation as well as through the revealed Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16-17) and in the Incarnate Word of God (John 1:1, 14, Colossians 2:9, Hebrews 1:3). Even if we never read a Bible or heard about Jesus, we should see that there is a singular Higher Power responsible for everything we can perceive (and even that which we cannot!).

The more we learn about the universe from science, the greater and more profound our wonder should be. On the macro level, scientists have discovered at least six values in physics that allow the universe to be conducive to life– if any of those six values were changed by a very small amount, the universe could not sustain life. On the micro level scientists keep discovering just how wonderful DNA and the other building blocks of life are and how fine-tuned life really is. Perhaps many such scientists do not believe in God or that He is working; nevertheless, the evidence they uncover reinforce what David and Paul said so long ago, and do not undermine it. When we look around, and see farther out and deeper in, we can also declare as they did– the heavens proclaim the glory and handiwork of God; the hand of God is evident in all that has been made.

Yet, as we dig deeper, we find that Paul’s declaration here is hard to exhaust. God’s divine nature is even revealed within the creation (Romans 1:20). While we are often content to leave such discussions on the level of the physics of the universe, is it not true that God’s divine nature is revealed in other aspects of the creation?

How many metaphors are vehicles for us to understand our relationship with God? God is called our Father, and we are reckoned as His children (Romans 8:12-17, Hebrews 12:4-11). There is an intimate bond that is to be shared between husband and wife according to Genesis 2:24, and Paul will later apply it in a figure to Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:31-32). Humans are born seekers; we always seem to be looking for something or other, constantly investigating and pursuing various matters in our lives. Then there is the whole set of Kingdom metaphors, as evidenced in Jesus’ parables– the Parable of the Sower, the Parable of the Dragnet, and so forth (Matthew 13). We could go on and on.

Is it merely coincidental that all of those physical matters– parent/child relationship, marital relationship, even the relationships among friends, man as seeker, the mechanics of the physical creation– can be used to explain our relationship with God, our fundamental spiritual discontent, and the nature of the Kingdom of God? We should not be so foolish as to presume that these things just happen to coincide– it is more likely that they were designed, in part, for precisely that reason!

In truth, God has left us hints of His divine nature and eternal power throughout the creation. Yes, this is evident in the macro and micro physical aspects of that creation, but it is also evident in the way that creation operates. The bond between parent and child was no doubt designed, at least in part, to provide a hint and a glimpse of the nature of how the relationship between God and man is to be. Should we think that the feeling of wholeness and oneness sought in the sexual relationship between humans “just happens” to exist, or do we do better to understand it as a hint and a shadow of the wholeness and oneness that can only be obtained through spiritual union with God (cf. John 17:20-23, 1 Corinthians 13:12)? The same goes for our desire for relational closeness with friends. We humans seek because we have been made to seek (Acts 17:26-27). Perhaps God always intended there to be something a bit more profound with wheat and soils than just physical sustenance. It all works for a reason!

Sadly, as with the creation itself, so with many of these hints and glimpses– humans have a tendency to enshrine the lesser as their gods and entirely neglect the greater. How many have made the pursuit of sex their god as opposed to understanding how that union is the shadow of which union with God is the reality? How many have made a god out of the search, seeking but never coming to the knowledge of the truth? For too many others, the corruption of the creation on account of sin has blurred the image of God to them. For those whose earthly fathers were not present or present but abusive, the image of God as Father can be quite hard with which to come to terms. The same goes for those whose marital/sexual relationships or relationships with friends is far from even the shadow of the reality God intends for us to see in them.

Nevertheless, God is not at fault for the corruption imposed upon His creation. Even in this corrupted world we should still be able to perceive God through His creation. This is true not just in the realms of physics and the like but also in our relationships and such things. Let us praise God for His creation, never confusing the creation with the Creator, testify of His presence within His creation, and seek after communion with Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Children by Faith

But it is not as though the word of God hath come to nought. For they are not all Israel, that are of Israel: neither, because they are Abraham’s seed, are they all children: but, “In Isaac shall thy seed be called.”
That is, it is not the children of the flesh that are children of God; but the children of the promise are reckoned for a seed (Romans 9:6-8).

People have a passion for family. Pride in children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren is a common denominator among all types of different people– even regardless of the conduct of those descendants. We also can appreciate our genealogy. How many have spent time in archives learning more about their ancestors! For some reason, if we are able to discover long-lost relatives who either participated in momentous historical events or just lived in a particular historical era, those past events and times become more meaningful and personal to us. That they knew nothing of us and that our knowledge of them may be little is irrelevant; they are our ancestors, we are their descendants, and there is power in that relationship.

The Jews very much felt this power. They have Abraham for a father (Luke 3:8). The genealogies of the Old Testament, far from being the “boring parts” of the story that we often gloss over today, were a source of pride, for all Jews could find somewhere in that genealogy some relatives who took part in their national story. Ultimately, they could all trace their ancestry back to Abraham through Isaac and Jacob, and that was the reason for their distinctiveness. Everyone on earth could trace back their history to Noah and Adam, but the Jews were the ones who inherited the promises. They were the ones to whom the One True God revealed Himself; He gave them the Law of God; from them would come the Deliverer of mankind (Romans 9:4-5). They could feel like they were part of God’s purposes for mankind in ways that the other nations just could not understand.

All of this was true, but it was not properly directed. Too many Jews took comfort in their genealogy. They became blind to their sin, convinced that since they were children of Abraham that their place in God’s Kingdom was already reserved (cf. John 8:33). They thought it was their status– their election– that would save them.

Jesus makes it clear that this is not the case– He speaks out candidly about how the Jews were following after their father the Devil, not Abraham (John 8:34-47), and declared how many “sons of the Kingdom” would be cast out into the outer darkness (Matthew 8:11-12). As can be imagined, the Jews did not take too kindly to this.

It is Paul who drives the point home in a way that should have truly shamed Israel into obedience. Paul points out that there were other children of Abraham (Romans 9:7)– they just were not the children of promise. History would be quite different if the Muslims were right and that Ishmael was the child of blessing!

Paul’s point is that the promise was received through faith, and that the children of the promise do not merit that promise by anything they could have done, and does it all through Genesis. By working backward we can start with Jacob. Did he deserve the promise? He was the younger, and by all rights, had no claim on anything. Esau “should have” been the child of promise since he was the eldest, and yet God had foreordained that the elder would serve the younger (Genesis 25:23, Romans 9:10-12). Neither Esau or Jacob had done anything yet, but God made His purpose known in a providential way. Where would the Jews be had God not made such a provision, and Esau became the inheritor of the promise?

What did Isaac do in order to obtain the promise that he would pass along to Jacob? Absolutely nothing. He was just born, and none of us gets to choose the circumstances of our birth. The circumstances of his birth were quite miraculous and amazing (cf. Genesis 21:1-7, Romans 4:13-25). In fact, had Abraham gotten his way, Isaac would have never needed to come into existence or to receive the promise, for Abraham desired for Ishmael to live before God as the child of promise (Genesis 17:17-18). If God had honored Abraham’s wish, where would that have left Israel and the Jews?

We then get back to Abraham himself. What did he do in order to merit the call? As far as we can tell, his family was idolatrous, and Abram would have no reason to know that it was Yahweh who would call him or that Yahweh was the One True God (Genesis 11:27-32, Joshua 24:2). What stature, therefore, did Abram have before God? None whatsoever. If God had not bothered calling Abram out of Ur, what would have been Israel’s fate?

Paul’s entire point here is that God elected Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob according to His will and His purpose, not based on any kind of past or intrinsic merit or the Law or any such thing. Therefore, the Jew has no reason to “boast” in his Judaism, as if his ethnic identity provides him merit or status in God’s sight. God could have just as easily chosen another nation, and Israel would have been entirely out of luck!

Why, then, did God choose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? The choice was based in God’s knowledge of their faith (cf. Romans 8:29-30, James 2:14-26). God knew that Abraham would go to Canaan, to believe in Him, and be willing to even sacrifice Isaac if so commanded (Genesis 12-22). God knew the type of person Esau would turn out to be, and He knew how Jacob would be the man of faith (Genesis 25-35). They received the promises because they trusted in God and obeyed His voice (Genesis 22:15-18, 26:2-5), and God was willing to be known as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob (cf. Matthew 22:32).

Paul makes it clear, therefore, that the true children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are not necessarily those who are genealogically related to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That is not the way the promise works. The promise is inherited by faith, and therefore, all who believe and trust in God through His Son Jesus Christ are reckoned as children of Abraham (Romans 4:11-13, 9:24, 30-32, Galatians 3:29). They have the same “spiritual heritage,” joined not by blood that decays but by a shared obedient faith in God that endures forever.

Thus we can see that God is not unjust by casting off those who were unfaithful in Israel and bringing in those who would obey in faith among the nations. In fact, this is precisely what should have happened, and it represents God’s persistent message throughout time. Believers should learn from Israel’s example. We cannot place our trust in things. We cannot trust in status, ethnicity, parents, children, genealogy, or any such thing. Instead, our trust must be in God Himself, and we must be His obedient servants (Romans 1:16-17, 6:1-23)!

No one deserves salvation because of their ancestry, their status, their identity, or for any such reason– no one ever has or ever will. God’s choices say more about God accomplishing His will than they do about the persons chosen, and all must obey to receive the inheritance. Let us be children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by faith, and represent the Israel of God today!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Chief of Sinners

Faithful is the saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief: howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me as chief might Jesus Christ show forth all his longsuffering, for an ensample of them that should thereafter believe on him unto eternal life (1 Timothy 1:15-16).

Even though we may live in a society that vaunts the self-worth of the individual, attempting to “empower” people to understand how great they are, many people are constantly bedeviled by guilt and shame. They acutely feel that they are terribly sinful people. In their eyes there can be no rehabilitation for them. They have come to the conclusion that nothing can atone for their sins.

If this belief system had any truth or merit, Saul of Tarsus would have certainly been able to accept it. He had approved of the execution of Stephen (Acts 7:58), worked to lay waste to the church (Acts 8:3, 1 Timothy 1:13), and was heading to Damascus to do more damage (Acts 9:1-2). He then sees a great light, and we can only imagine how he must have felt when he heard that the “Lord” is the Jesus whom he has been persecuting (Acts 9:4-6). The guilt! The shame! How terribly wrong and misguided his work! He had believed that he was doing God’s work; instead, he now understands that he has opposed God’s work and even complicit in murder. Little wonder that he declares himself the “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15)!

Did Saul head back for home, despondent and frustrated, assured of his own sinfulness, dejected and despised? Did he declare that his sin was so great that it could not be forgiven? Absolutely not! He was made to understand the will of the Lord– God’s enemy will now be used to champion God’s cause (Acts 9:15-16). The chief of sinners will be put to work in God’s Kingdom to warn others about their sins (cf. 1 Timothy 1:12-16). When he believed in the Lord Jesus Christ and was immersed in water for the remission of his sins, he obtained that mercy and forgiveness that so many today feel that they cannot obtain (cf. Acts 22:14-16)!

Why is it that so many people believe that they cannot be forgiven of their sins? The problem is really threefold.

The first problem is that people have this innate sense that they must diligently work to atone for sin. They understand that they have done wrong and therefore seek to “make it right” somehow. Nevertheless, there is a recognition that all of this moral striving cannot really cover or atone for sin. The shame and guilt that have come as a result of sin are still there. Such people feel as if they cannot be forgiven, and in a sense they are right– they cannot be forgiven through their works. No one can be made righteous through the works of any law, and no one can atone for sin through their efforts (Galatians 3:11, Ephesians 2:8-9).

The second difficulty involves an implicit challenge to the power and sovereignty of God. For a person to believe that they have sinned so terribly that they cannot be forgiven means that they believe that God is somehow unable to forgive them, that Christ’s blood cannot atone for what they have done. Paul shows how this view is a lie, for few are the people today who have sinned as grievously (in human terms) as Saul of Tarsus, and yet Christ’s blood could cover his sin (1 Timothy 1:12-16). God is greater than our sin, and if we desire to be cleansed through Jesus, then we can be clean!

In the end, the challenge has less to do with God in Christ and more to do with the people themselves. We can see that there is no one who has sinned so terribly that they cannot be forgiven– instead, God really does want to save sinners, and therefore He wants people to be forgiven and saved (1 Timothy 1:15, 2:4). The problem is not even with shame and guilt, for such ought to exist when we have sinned (cf. Genesis 3:10, Isaiah 59:1-2). The challenge often is that even if God is willing to forgive people of their sins, they are not willing to forgive themselves. They cannot envision a time when they have released themselves from the burden of sin and death as God is willing to do for them in Jesus Christ (cf. Romans 8:1-11). They maintain a measure of control while holding onto that shame and guilt, whereas God calls us all to release that control and trust in Him (Galatians 2:20, 2 Corinthians 5:7).

We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). There is nothing we ourselves could ever do to atone for that (Ephesians 2:8-9). We all really deserve condemnation because we have sinned (Romans 6:23). These are all accurate statements of reality, no matter how difficult or challenging they are to swallow. There are too many more people who will not concede these realities than there are who are enslaved to them. Nevertheless, as assuredly as we have sinned and are worthy of condemnation, God has provided the means of reconciliation through the blood of His Son Jesus Christ (Romans 5:5-11). We can obtain mercy and pardon through our obedient faith even though we can never deserve it (cf. 1 Timothy 1:12-16, Romans 6:16-23). Nevertheless, we must place our confidence in trust in God. If God is willing to be for us, we should not be against us (cf. Romans 8:31). If God will justify us, we ought not condemn ourselves (Romans 8:33-34). If God wishes to show His abundant love toward us, cleanse us of sin, and provide eternal life for us, why should we stand in the way (cf. Romans 8:35-39)?

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, no matter how sinful they are. Let us proclaim that truth, praise God for that truth, trust in God, and be willing to be cleansed and healed!

Ethan R. Longhenry

A Living Sacrifice

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service (Romans 12:1).

One of the hallmarks of ancient religion, both Israelite and pagan, was animal sacrifice. Jerusalem, Corinth, Rome, and every other city that had a temple of any sort within its walls would see hundreds, if not thousands, of animals brought in to be slaughtered before God or an idol to make propitiation for misdeeds or to make requests.

Therefore, everyone in Rome would understand what sacrifices were, whether they came from Jewish or pagan origins. What Paul is saying would have been abundantly clear.

Romans 12:1 represents, in large part, the sweeping conclusion to the body of theology expressed in Romans 1-11. Since all of us have sinned but have received reconciliation with God through obedient faith in Jesus Christ, and since God has brought both Jew and Gentile into one body, we are all now to become living sacrifices for God!

We are able to do this by God’s mercies. Even though we deserved condemnation (Romans 6:23), God sent His Son to die for the ungodly, allowing our reconciliation (Romans 5:5-11). We do not become living sacrifices in order to earn salvation, for we could never do such a thing. Instead, we become living sacrifices as a response to the mercies God has abundantly provided for us.

But this is certainly not a “do-nothing” scenario. God does not take us despite our will and offer us up on an altar like humans would do with a lamb or ewe. We must submit ourselves as the sacrifice!

We must recognize that becoming a “living sacrifice” is complete. The sacrificed animal does not give only part of its life up on the altar; it gives up everything. In order to secure our salvation Jesus Christ gave everything up for that purpose (Matthew 20:25-28). If we are going to be living sacrifices we must submit to God in all things– our will, our thoughts, our hearts, and our actions– and be willing to suffer the loss of anything and everything, even our own lives (Matthew 10:37-39, Galatians 2:20, 1 John 3:16). As sacrifices we must be holy– set apart and consecrated, reflecting the image of God in our lives (1 Peter 1:16; Galatians 5:17-24, Romans 8:1-11).

There is one major distinction between animal sacrifices and our sacrifice. Once one offers an animal as a sacrifice to God, that animal is dead and done. It cannot be again offered to God in a respectable way. We, however, are to be “living” sacrifices. It is not that we are going to be killed, although circumstances may demand it. Instead Paul wants us to understand that when we offer ourselves as a sacrifice to God it is not merely a one-time thing. It must be continual– we must perpetually place ourselves on that altar and offer ourselves up to God. It will only end when we are no longer living in the flesh (cf. 2 Timothy 4:6-8)!

When we present ourselves to God as a living and holy sacrifice, submitting our will to His, seeking to do the good and shun the evil, we are acceptable to God. This is reckoned as our “spiritual service.” As the priests and Levites officiated and ministered before God in the Tabernacle or Temple and thus served Him, so Christians minister before God when they offer themselves as living sacrifices (cf. Romans 9:4, 1 Peter 2:5-9). This service is “spiritual,” which in Greek literally refers to that which is reasonable. Since God has offered up so many sacrifices for us, it is quite reasonable for us to offer ourselves up for Him (cf. Philippians 2:5-11). Since God’s service has been designed to give us spiritual life, so that reasonable service is spiritual (John 3:16, 5:26, 6:27).

Animal sacrifices are not nearly as prevalent today as they were in the past, and much of that has to do with the teachings of Christianity. We no longer offer up sacrifices for sin because Jesus was that sacrifice on our behalf (Hebrews 10:4-14), and we no longer offer up any other form of animal sacrifices because we must offer ourselves up as a living and holy sacrifice before God. We must suffer the loss of our own will, our own desires, how we would like to think and feel and act, and instead submit to God’s will, God’s desires, and how God would have us think and feel and act. In order to have life in Jesus Christ it must no longer be our will, but God’s will be done. Let us be the living sacrifices we ought to be to the praise and glory of God through Jesus Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

God in Man’s Image

Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God for the likeness of an image of corruptible man, and of birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things (Romans 1:22-23).

Human beings have been searching after the divine for as long as they have existed. There is an undeniable impulse in humanity to seek that which is beyond himself (cf. Ecclesiastes 3:11, Acts 17:27).

Yet as long as that impulse has existed it has also been corrupted. As opposed to discerning the true nature of their Creator God, people have gone ahead and divinized various aspects and elements of His creation (cf. Romans 1:20-32). This is idolatry– perhaps one of the first sins, and certainly one of the most pervasive sins of mankind throughout his generations.

While it is true that many people considered the sun or various creatures to be gods or divine in essence, we find constant representations of at least some of the gods of a given nation to be in the form of men. These forms may be extravagant in some ways, and yet there is always something familiar about them. Human representations of Egyptian gods do not look like Hittites, Greeks, or Babylonians, but like Egyptians. The gods of the Greeks, mostly in human representation, were just like Greeks: they lived near Greece on Mount Olympus, fought each other, committed sexually deviant behavior, were capricious, and so on and so forth. What we see is that as opposed to people recognizing that they have been made in God’s image (cf. Genesis 1:26-27), they fashion gods or a God in their own image!

Yet we live in the twenty-first century. At least in America we do not often come upon people bowing down to the image of a human or an animal. But we should not confuse this with real progress, for the same impulse is still at work among us. It is still very easy to make God in our image as opposed to being conformed to God’s image!

The statistics present a rather stunning picture. The vast majority of Americans believe in a Higher Power. Most believe in the Creator God Who revealed Himself through the message in the Bible, and that Jesus of Nazareth is His Son. Most believe in Heaven, and believe that they are going there. Fewer accept the reality of hell, and even fewer think that they will go there.

If these statistics are to be believed we should be looking across this country and seeing a most religious people, thoroughly devoted to serving God and accomplishing His will. But such is not the way things are here. We live in a society plagued with all manner of ills– rampant sexual immorality, divorce, misery, pain, and distress all around. What has happened?

Yes, indeed, people profess to believe in the God revealed in the Bible. Most are quite sincere in that profession. And yet they really do not believe in the God revealed in the Bible, but instead the God they think should exist based on part of what the Bible teaches.

Who is this “God”? It will depend on the person with whom you speak. For many, He is in no way different from divinities of other religions, in person, in nature, or in teaching– to them, one can believe in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and a host of other beliefs, and reach the same destination. Many also believe in the God of “love” who would never condemn anyone whom we would define as a “good person.” Many think that God has no concern with what you believe as long as you conduct yourself in appropriate ways. The list goes on and on.

These statements are at variance with what the Bible teaches, and many people understand this to a degree. It is not as if Jesus’ statement that He is the only way to the Father is confusing or unclear (cf. John 14:6). Galatians 1:6-9 is pretty clear about what happens to those who teach differently than what was originally taught. Matthew 7:21-23 quite clearly indicates that many people might be religious and yet will not make it to Heaven. We might even suggest these passages to people who believe in God in their own image, and hopefully some of them will understand the difference. But many others will attempt to explain them away or will have no explanation period. But that will not stop them from thinking that they believe in the God of the Bible.

We must recognize that the danger is not just from those around us, for it is just as easy for us to make God in our own image as it is for them to do so. What happens when it becomes evident that something we believe about God, about ourselves, or about our world is at variance with what is revealed by God in His Word? If we persist in our belief, our God is an idol– the God we want, at least in one respect or another, and not the One True God. But if we are willing to change our belief to come into greater conformity with the will of God, then we make it evident that we are serving the true God, being fashioned according to the image of the Son (Romans 8:29), and not ourselves.

Idolatry may not be as physical today as it was in times past but it is no less prevalent. Let us make sure that we are serving the One True God and not the God of our own image or liking!

Ethan R. Longhenry