The Sword

And behold, one of them that were with Jesus stretched out his hand, and drew his sword, and smote the servant of the high priest, and struck off his ear.
Then saith Jesus unto him, “Put up again thy sword into its place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matthew 26:51-52).

The great confrontation had finally come.

The disciples had eagerly awaited the moment when they knew Jesus would inaugurate His Kingdom. They had been promised it would happen in Jerusalem; they had arrived in triumph; and now, finally, Jesus was confronted with the power of the religious authorities and the Romans. Now, they were no doubt certain, Jesus would rise up and defeat the Roman menace.

Peter was ready. He had promised Jesus he would not be offended by Jesus and would even die for Him (Matthew 26:33, 35); at his side was a sword, one of the two swords which Jesus had commended for them not long before (Luke 22:35-38).

And then all of a sudden it was not going according to the plan they had imagined. Judas had betrayed Jesus; the men with him laid hands on Jesus (Matthew 26:50). The disciples wondered: should they attack (Luke 22:49)? But then Peter then did what Peter was good at doing: he acted. Peter unsheathed the sword and cut off the ear of Malchus, the servant of the high priest; he did so perhaps to protect Jesus, or to begin the battle (Matthew 26:51, Mark 14:47, Luke 22:50, John 18:10).

Yet Jesus would have none of it. He had a cup He had to drink; the Scriptures had to be fulfilled (Matthew 26:54, Luke 22:51, John 18:11). Jesus reasoned with Peter: could He not call upon God who would send twelve legions of angels (Matthew 26:53)? Peter well knew the story of Israel: one angel struck down an Assyrian army of 185,000 men (1 Kings 19:35); a Roman legion included around 6,000 men, so how much more could an army of 72,000 angels wreak upon the earth? Jesus then healed the servant of the high priest, and was led away to trial, suffering, and execution (Luke 22:51).

But in Matthew’s Gospel, before Jesus speaks of legions of angels and the need to fulfill Scripture, Jesus stopped Peter with a powerful premise: he ought to put his sword away, for all who take the sword shall perish with the sword (Matthew 26:52). This is not just about this night and this moment. This is about the way of the world and the way of Jesus.

The sword is the way of the world. Ever since the fall of man, people have sought to gain advantage over others through coercive and violent force. Jesus and Peter understood the way of the sword very well: they lived under Roman oppression. Jesus was not wrong to point out that power gained with the sword must be maintained by the sword: He was about to experience the full force of the power of the sword at the hands of the religious authorities and the Romans (Matthew 26:55-27:50). The Romans had overcome the Macedonians; the Macedonians had overcome the Babylonians, who had overcome the Assyrians. A day would come when the Romans would finally be overcome themselves. Peter nursed the hope of many Israelites that God would grant them victory over the Romans, but it would involve that same sword, and would just as easily be lost by that sword. Within forty years of Jesus’ death the Israelites would take up the sword in a vain attempt to gain freedom from the pagan oppressor by it; they would die at the hands of Roman swords. Jesus’ warning became prophecy.

Matthew, throughout his Gospel, contrasts the way of the world, the way of the sword, with the way of Christ. The Pharisees and the Jewish establishment understood the Law in carnal terms; the way of the Kingdom of God in Christ demanded greater righteousness (Matthew 5:1-7:27). The Roman rulers lorded their authority over others; it would not be so among those serving in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 20:25-28). The Israelites would choose the Messiah of their own desire, Jesus Barabbas, an insurrectionist, over the Messiah whom God had sent them: Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 27:17-23). Jesus’ way involved humility, service, suffering, even death (Matthew 16:24-25, 20:25-28). Jesus’ Kingdom would not be inaugurated by His servants wielding the swords against others, as so many other kingdoms had begun; Jesus’ Kingdom would be inaugurated because the sword came for Jesus Himself.

Jesus’ words to Peter ring out to faithful believers in Christ to this day. God has empowered earthly governments to render justice and wield the sword (Romans 13:1-7); they will also all go the way of all kingdoms on the earth. For the most part the people of God attempt to live by peaceful means and seek to advance God’s purposes in ways which glorify Him. But what happens when danger comes upon the people of God? What then?

Peter learned the lesson well. We have no record of Peter ever wielding the sword against another person again, even though his life was endangered on many occasions (cf. Acts 12:1-19). When threatened by the Sanhedrin, he and his fellow Apostles prayed to God for power to continue to boldly proclaim the Gospel (Acts 4:24-30). A few years before the Romans did unto him what they had done unto Jesus, Peter wrote to Christians of Asia Minor, exhorting them to suffer persecution and general evil for having done good, not to revile or repay evil for evil, but bless, because Jesus provided them an example, suffering unjustly but entrusting Himself to God who judges justly (1 Peter 2:18-25, 3:9-16, 4:1-19).

Peter and the Christians of Asia Minor found themselves in far more dangerous circumstances than most of us could even imagine. But they did not resort to violence; Peter vividly remembered what the Lord had told him, and he lived and taught accordingly. One can go far in conversation with words and acts of love and hospitality, but once one turns to the sword and violence, the affair will be decided by violence. In this way those who take the sword shall perish by it. It is not for us to trust in the ways of this world, but to follow the way of God in Christ in His Kingdom, the way of humility, service, and suffering, even, if need be, unto death (1 John 3:16, Revelation 12:11). May we, as Peter, leave the violent coercive force of the world in its sheath, and put our trust in God in Christ and follow Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Body of Christ

Now ye are the body of Christ, and severally members thereof (1 Corinthians 12:27).

Christians not only represent the Lord Jesus Christ; they are to understand themselves as His body.

The Christians in Corinth were able to exercise spiritual gifts; it was evident they handled these gifts with great immaturity, using them to show off and to presume a greater level of spirituality than that of others. Paul attempted to explain to them another way: the way of love, the exercise of spiritual gifts to encourage and build up the whole as opposed to the elevation of the individual (1 Corinthians 12:1-14:40). As part of that exhortation Paul sought to focus the Corinthians on their participation in and as the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31. Paul goes well beyond suggesting the metaphor; he elaborates on the connections and applications at length. A body has many individual parts but remains a coherent whole; so with the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-14). The individual parts of the body have different, unique, and important functions, and each is necessary to the well-being of the whole; so it is with the body of Christ, in which God has put every part according to His pleasure (1 Corinthians 12:15-18). Different parts of the body need each other to work most effectively; so it is with the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:19-21). In fact, many of the most necessary functions of the body are the most hidden and “modest,” and given greater honor on account of their “humility,” and so the body of Christ is to maintain care and concern for its members, with each suffering and rejoicing along with those who suffer and rejoice, so that no division may exist in the body (1 Corinthians 12:22-25). In short, the human body is sustained because its constituent parts perform their individual roles while supporting the roles of others in an organic unity; it could be said that the parts have care for each other, recognizing the importance of all for proper function, and so it must be in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:26).

Paul manifestly used a metaphor to describe the church as a body; we are not physically interconnected with each other. But we should not deprecate what Paul says as “mere metaphor,” as if its metaphorical nature denies its substantive reality: Paul expected the Christians in Corinth to work together as a body, to care for each other as a body, and to give each member the respect and honor in valuation as critical parts functioning to build themselves up as a body. This is not a one-off message, either; Paul elaborated in similar ways in Romans 12:3-8 and Ephesians 4:11-16. In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 Paul spoke of the Lord’s Supper as communion, a joint participation in the body and blood of Christ, because we who consume the one bread and cup are the one body of and in Christ. It is possible to literalize Paul’s metaphor to the extreme in damaging ways, but it is hard to overstate the importance and the power of the image: Christians are the body of Christ. They do well to act like it.

Our age is a hyper-individualist one. Everyone seems to glorify and advance the standing of the individual. Western philosophy has led us to the point in which man is the measure of all things, and his or her individual judgment is elevated above all else. Over the past few hundred years we have seen a consistent pattern of advancing the interests of individuals along with a corresponding denigration and thus weakening of communal bonds and norms. “Middle class values,” especially as expressed in America, exalt the individual’s ability to rise above their station and to carve out a more prosperous life for him or herself and the “nuclear family,” yet without concern for the effects of such elevation on a local community, the larger community, or the environment. Political partisans argue about where individual rights, control, and power are to be exercised, but underneath never truly question the assumption. Likewise, for some reason or another everyone decries and laments the loss of community and shared values, yet none prove willing to question or challenge the cult of the individual to a sufficient extent to stem the tide. Some seek to hold on to both at the same time, and yet time and again we see that such is impossible. One can seek the interests of each individual, or one can seek the best interests of a community as a whole; the two at some juncture will always be at odds.

We are thus stuck in a similar predicament to that of the Corinthian Christians: the glorification and advancement of the individual comes at the cost of the betterment of the whole. The Corinthian Christians could use the spiritual gifts God gave them to exalt themselves and advance their selfish purposes, or they could use them humbly to serve one another and build up the body; they could not do both. This challenge was originally laid at the disciples’ feet by Jesus in Matthew 20:25-28: the world is always about glorification and advancement of one’s individual or small tribal interests to the expense of all others, but in the Kingdom of God in Christ this cannot be so. Those who would be in God’s Kingdom in Jesus must seek to serve and better others, as Christ Himself did. They must put the interest of others before their own (Philippians 2:1-4). One cannot seek the welfare of the body of Christ while seeking to exalt and glorify oneself.

Christians therefore must be careful regarding the elevation and exaltation of the individual. It is true that far too often communities have gone aside to the doctrines and spirits of demons, turning into cults or religious institutions which suppressed and did not advance the truth. As individuals we must come to God in Christ for salvation; we have our individual roles and functions in life that are independent of the work of the corporate collective of the people of God (Acts 2:38-41, 1 Timothy 5:16). But we must not miss the overriding emphasis of the New Testament: salvation is only in the body of Christ; God works through His people, but has always worked through His people for the sake of the whole. We may come to Jesus to be saved as individuals, but we cannot find salvation independent of His body; instead, we are to become one with each other as we become one with God in Christ (John 17:20-23)!

As long as the individual is elevated the community will suffer. As long as the individual insists on his own way, he or she is still of the world, and not acting according to Christ. We are members of the body of Christ; we have our individual efforts, but all our efforts are to be unto the benefit and advancement of the purposes of the whole. We must care for each other and value each other. Such is easier said than done; such is often quite messy and complicated in practice. People are hard to love. But that’s what God in Christ is all about: loving people and bringing relational unity where there has been alienation. May we seek to build up the body of Christ above all else, and sublimate our interests to that of the whole so as to glorify God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Freedom

As free, and not using your freedom for a cloak of wickedness, but as bondservants of God (1 Peter 2:16).

If you know nothing else about Americans you know just how much they love freedom. As Lee Greenwood so famously put it, “I’m proud to be an American / where at least I know I’m free.” Liberty and freedom still prove extremely popular; they remain an important part of the American creed, a point of agreement across the various divides in the country, even if disagreement remains about how said freedom ought to be exercised.

American freedom is of a particular type: freedom from tyranny, and thus freedom to live as one wants. The caricature of the American declaring, “I’m an American, I’m free, so I am gonna do what I want” is not terribly far off the mark. Freedom in America is thus perceived as license, the ability to go and do whatever is desired; any attempt to curb or restrain such desires is seen as tyrannical, despotic, and contrary to the American ethos. Little wonder, then, how freedom has become libertinism among far too many.

Americans also maintain a fondness for Christianity, or at least a version of Christianity which is quite amenable to American philosophies and the American dream. Freedom is offered in Christianity (John 8:32, 1 Peter 2:16); Americans like freedom; therefore, they imagine that the freedom in Christianity must be the same type of freedom they believe they have as Americans. And so freedom in Christ is perceived to be license as well.

The Apostle Peter, however, has a very different conception of what freedom means, and above all things, what the Christian is to do with his or her freedom. He wrote to Christians of modern-day Turkey who lived under the power of the Roman Empire in the days of Nero (1 Peter 1:1). The Christians there were enduring suffering, most likely from some sort of persecution (1 Peter 1:6-9, 2:11-12, 4:19). He encouraged Christians to respect human authorities for the Lord’s sake and to abstain from the lusts of the world (1 Peter 2:11-15). He then expected the Christians to live as free people, not to cover up wickedness, but to live as douloi (often translated as “bondservants” or “servants,” but really “slaves”) of God (1 Peter 2:16).

What Peter meant by “live as free” involves something which we tend to take for granted today: to live as one not enslaved. Many in Peter’s audience were slaves (cf. 1 Peter 2:18), yet even they, in Christ, were to live as if free. Freedom meant freedom from oppression and bondage: freedom from sin and the Evil One (Romans 8:1-8). Even if physically enslaved they remained spiritually free.

But what did such freedom involve? Peter exhorted Christians to not use their freedom as a “cloak of wickedness” (1 Peter 2:16). Such is the dark underbelly of the clarion call to “freedom”: freedom to what end? Many who imagine their freedom to be license use that freedom to participate in hedonism and self-aggrandizement, and often to the detriment of their fellow man. The very reason many covet freedom is so they can do things they know they ought not! Almost invariably freedom is abused not long after it is obtained; most of us can give stories of what happened when we were entrusted with greater freedom, and those stories are rarely pretty.

Instead, Peter encouraged Christians to use their freedoms to serve God (1 Peter 2:16). The Apostle Paul had invited Christians to understand reality in terms of serving God in righteousness or serving the forces of sin and evil in wickedness (Romans 6:16-23). Thus we do have choice, but a very limited one: are we going to serve the right or the wrong? The Christian’s freedom is not to be used as license to do whatever he or she wishes but an opportunity purchased by the blood of the Lord and under His sovereignty in the Kingdom to serve God and His purposes. In this way Christians put to silence the ignorance of the foolish (1 Peter 2:15): doing well in serving the Lord.

We therefore do well to transform the way we view freedom. Yes, we have freedom; it is a precious and valuable freedom, purchased by our Lord at great cost to Himself. In that freedom is a bit of power over ourselves inasmuch as we have the choice to serve good or evil. Such freedom maintains personal volition since it must be a constant choice regarding whom we will serve. Nevertheless, this freedom is not as far-ranging as many would want to imagine; if we exercise our freedom to live as we choose or please, we are not living according to wisdom but folly, and will invariably serve sin and not the Lord (Proverbs 3:5-7, Romans 6:14-23). God has given us freedom in Christ out of the bondage of sin and death so that we might choose to serve the Lord Jesus and submit to His will and purposes in all things (Romans 8:1-8).

We must dismiss any notion of freedom as “license to do whatever I want.” We lived our lives in the flesh according to our desires, and what did we gain at that time but shame and condemnation (Romans 6:20-22)? In Christ we are set free from bondage to sin and death so we can be empowered to live as God would have us to live, but only if we live as free people, using our freedom to submit to the will of God in Christ. May we take Peter’s lesson to heart and serve God in Christ, becoming ever more conformed to His image!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Placed in God’s Garden

And YHWH God planted a garden eastward, in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed (Genesis 2:8).

When we think of the Garden of Eden, we tend to do so in terms of paradise lost: man sinned and was forced out (Genesis 3:1-22). Yet we can gain lessons about man’s relationship toward God based on what God sought to accomplish in Eden.

Genesis 2:4-25 provides greater detail regarding the creation of man and woman as mentioned in Genesis 1:26-30. Much is made of Genesis 2:4-25 as a “competing” account of creation; the Genesis author has no such idea in mind, but presents to further explain man’s creation. We make much of God making man from the dust of the ground and breathing into him the breath of life (Hebrew neshama, Greek psyche; Genesis 2:7), and for good reason: such explains how man is both earthly and divine, energized dust. Thus man returns to the dust from which he came (Genesis 3:19); the breath of life in him is a gift and is not to be treated flippantly. Yet what does God then do with the man? YHWH planted a garden, made every tree with fruit good to eat grow there, and He put the man into that garden where he was to work it and keep it (Genesis 2:8-15). God does not just drop the man anywhere in the creation. He places the man in His garden.

“Eden” seems to connote delight and pleasure, as can be seen in the related Hebrew word found in Genesis 18:12, 2 Samuel 1:24, Psalm 36:8, and Jeremiah 51:34; not for nothing does the Greek translator of the Septuagint translate “garden” with paradeison, “paradise,” in Genesis 2:8. The Greek term itself derives from a Persian word describing a “walled enclosure”; a “royal park” is really in view, a well-planned, well-maintained garden, not terribly unlike the gardens of palaces, manors, and estates still visible in Europe, even if reflecting different tastes. Thus Eden was never really “raw nature”; it was a divinely created and organized garden estate, featuring aesthetically pleasing plants, plants good for food, and most likely embodying divine creativity and organization throughout.

A garden, by its very nature, is artificial; if left untended it will become overgrown and lose the properties which distinguish a garden from a forest or other form of natural environment. Man, therefore, was to work and keep God’s garden. Man is made to work; the ultimate futility of the endeavor is the curse of the fall, not the desire for the endeavor itself (Genesis 3:17-18; cf. Ecclesiastes 1:2-11). But man is not made to work in a vacuum: he is made to work and keep God’s garden. Man does not make the garden; man does not innovate in the garden; man is placed in God’s garden to keep it, to enjoy it, and to relish the sublime beauty and truth established in how God has composed that garden.

Since the fall man has been removed from that garden and has lost his innocence; from Eden man will end up at Babel, using his creative energies to make monuments to his own greatness (Genesis 11:1-8). Not much has changed since. Man was made to explore God’s garden and world in wonderment; we have perverted that impulse into a desire to become the masters of the universe. When we “discover” something, we presume some sort of ownership or control over it. In the grand scheme of things such claims seem petty, as a child’s game. It reminds us of the claims of certain Europeans having “discovered” America and other places; the Native Americans of the time were unaware that their lands needed “discovering,” and were quite aware of its existence for millennia without any Europeans around. Likewise, when humans learn about things, they are not really new; they have always existed, testifying to God’s majesty and power (Romans 1:19-21). We could learn about such things and give glory to God; instead, we tend to try to take them back to the Babels which we have built and use them to magnify ourselves. The results are less than aesthetically pleasing.

And yet, ever since the fall, God has called humanity back into restored relationship with Him. We now have opportunity to return to God and seek His purposes through His Son Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1-11). In Jesus we have the hope to return to paradise, to recover what was lost in the fall (Luke 23:43, 2 Corinthians 12:4, Revelation 2:7, 22:1-6). We yearn for full restoration and to bask in the glory of God’s presence without hindrance for eternity (Romans 8:18-25, Revelation 21:1-27). We want to go back to the Garden.

While we do await that full restoration, we are also told that we are a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). God “undoes” the curse of Babel on the day of Pentecost when the assembled Jewish people hear in their own languages the mighty works of God (Acts 2:11). In our lives as Christians we are again invited to participate in the work of glorifying God in His Kingdom, to do His work for His purposes (1 Corinthians 15:58, 2 Corinthians 9:8, Philippians 2:13, Colossians 1:10). Thus, in a real way, Christians are invited to “keep God’s garden” by working in His vineyard, the Kingdom (Matthew 21:33-44).

In many ways God invites us into His garden to enjoy its delights and to work and maintain it. The whole creation is, in a real sense, God’s garden. Through science and technology we learn much about God’s creation; we should not presume to be able to master and manipulate it fully to our own ends, to bring it back into our philosophical boxes to serve our ends, but should glorify God in wonderment for what He has made and how (cf. Psalm 8:1-9). God has given us of His Word (Hebrews 1:1-3, 2 Timothy 3:15-17). We ought to spend time in that Word, diligently applying ourselves to learn it and to accomplish its purposes in our lives (2 Timothy 2:15). Yet, just as Adam could never truly innovate in or master Eden, so we should never presume that we can discover something new through our investigation or mining of the Word, or imagine that we can take God’s Word to our Babel of philosophical ideologies and structures and in that way improve on it or understand it better than all who have come before us (cf. Colossians 2:8). We will never master the Word; we submit to God through the message of the Word and find ourselves mastered by it (Hebrews 4:12). The Word is to be one of God’s gardens of delight for us, a place in which we may find constant surprise which is to lead to confidence in God, adoration of His beauty, and praising and glorifying His name. God has given us important people and relationships in our lives; man was not made to be alone, for God Himself is not alone, but one in relational unity (Genesis 2:18, John 17:21-23). Those people in our lives are not there to be mastered or manipulated; instead, we are to enjoy their presence, seek to encourage them and help build them up, and glorify God for their presence. Every time we are tempted to make a Babel of something which God has made we do well to instead frame it as part of God’s garden, something on which we cannot improve, but something which we can cherish, enjoy, and learn about, all to the glory of God.

God has made us; in Him we live and move and have our being; we are made to seek Him (Acts 17:26-28). It is not for us to master, manipulate, and presume that we can make better than what God has already made. Instead, since the beginning, it has been for us to enjoy with wonderment God’s garden, to work in God’s creation and maintain things, and to give God all the glory. May we seek alignment with God’s purposes, renounce our impulse for mastery and control, submit to the Lord Jesus, and work in His Kingdom to His glory for all eternity!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Love of the Brethren

Let love of the brethren continue (Hebrews 13:1).

It is always easy to pick on “the brethren” and their problems. For as long as there have been Christians, there have been ways in which Christians have fallen short (Romans 3:23). The letters of the New Testament from Romans through Jude are all written, to some extent or another, on account of the problems of Christians, either rebuking Christians for failures or warning Christians about the dangers that come from false teaching and sin. To this day it does not take long to make a long list of problems we have experienced with “the brethren,” on an individual or “institutional” level. We Christians can always find all sorts of reasons why what “we” think, say, and do sometimes causes problems; “we” can always find difficulties with how “we” operate.

Such critiques clearly have their time and place, as can be seen in the New Testament. Yet we do well to recognize that “the brethren” were never meant to just be a punching bag. Just as the letters of the New Testament from Romans through Jude were written to some extent to deal with the problems of Christians, those same letters were also written to some extent to praise and build up those Christians in what they were doing correctly. While there will always be problems and things “we” are not doing right, we do well to recognize that there is plenty that “we” are doing that is right, and, in fact, reflects the joy, peace, and love which can be found in God in Christ.

The Hebrew author has been quite critical of the Jewish Christians to whom he writes. He is concerned about their spiritual maturity (Hebrews 5:12-6:4); the main argument of the letter presupposes a concern that some would seek to return to the old covenant and no longer persevere in Christ (Hebrews 4:1-9:27). He rebukes them for their inability to recognize God’s discipline and its benefit (Hebrews 12:3-11) as well as their frailness (Hebrews 12:12-16). Yet even here the Hebrew author does not deny the love the Christians have for one another, only insisting that it continue (Hebrews 13:1). He also commends them for their steadfastness in the former days (Hebrews 10:32-36).

The love of the brethren does continue. When Christians find themselves in great need, other Christians are there to assist financially, emotionally, and spiritually. Christians are active in serving other Christians and those in the world around them, be it through volunteering, adoption, hospitality, mentoring, or in other similar ways (Galatians 6:10). Christians remain generous in giving to those in need as well as for the support of those who preach the Gospel in the United States and around the world (1 Corinthians 9:14). Christians young and old yearn to see the Gospel message taken to more people in more places and are willing to support that endeavor any way they can. And Christians still do show hospitality to one another, sharing meals together, opening their homes to each other, and enjoying the conversations and time spent together (1 Peter 4:9).

Are there exceptions to these? Of course. Is everything well? No. But we must remember that we are not alone, that there are other Christians around the world who seek to proclaim the Lord Jesus in their lives (1 Peter 5:9). Christians do seek to apply the life of Jesus to their own lives and appreciate all encouragement, exhortation, and even rebukes given toward that end (2 Timothy 4:1-4). Christians still prove interested in spiritual matters, even among the younger generations. It is imperative that we continue to cultivate these good trends.

There are problems and will always be problems. We cannot avoid those problems nor should we pretend they do not exist. We must call out sin and false teaching (1 Timothy 4:1-4, 2 Timothy 4:1-6); we must warn against conformity to the world (1 John 2:15-17). But it is not all bad and all bleak, and if we maintain such a perspective, we might just make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, we must exhort and rebuke regarding failures, sin, and error, but we must also encourage and appreciate the good, the love, and the faithfulness, and seek to nurture it further. When we do exhort and rebuke, let us do so in love because we want to see our fellow Christians reflecting Christ more accurately so that we no longer have to make such exhortations and rebukes. In all things, let us all continue to love one another and appreciate all endeavors which lead to the glorification of God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Abide as Called

Let each man abide in that calling wherein he was called…Brethren, let each man, wherein he was called, therein abide with God (1 Corinthians 7:20, 24).

If you have much experience in a church, you have seen this situation play out and have likely experienced it yourself. When young men and women reach a marriageable age, they start being asked how the search for that “special someone” is going. If a particular young man takes an interest in a young woman, and vice versa, they will be asked when they will get married. Not long after marriage they will be asked when they will have a child. Soon after having the first child they will be asked if and when there will be a second. Soon afer the second they will be asked whether they will have any more. If they go to three and especially to four they will be asked whether they have figured out how that works and/or if they are possibly done yet. Their children are then put through the same sequence, and so on and so forth.

We can certainly understand why this trend takes place: there is an inherent expectation that young men and women will get married and raise children. The future leadership of the church depends on at least some of them doing this (cf. 1 Timothy 3:1-12)! Yet, while people who engage in this practice likely have good intentions, we must be careful about the implicit message it brings: your value in the church is based on whether you are married and/or the production of children. A man or woman who does not end up marrying, for whatever reason, is made to feel less valuable and important as those who did marry. Couples who are childless for whatever reason feel ostracized or perhaps even judged and condemned for their lack of children.

This is not the attitude of Paul in the New Testament. In the midst of a discussion regarding celibacy, marriage, and slavery in 1 Corinthians 7:1-39, he twice exhorts people to remain in the same calling as when they were called (1 Corinthians 7:20, 24). If one was called in Christ as a slave, he can continue to serve God while a slave, but if he can be freed, he should take that opportunity (1 Corinthians 7:20-23). Was one circumcised when called? He should remain circumcised. Was one uncircumcised when called? He should remain uncircumcised (1 Corinthians 7:18-19). Is one married when called? Stay married. Is one not yet married when called? Do not feel as if you have to get married (1 Corinthians 7:27).

We do need to be careful with Paul’s exhortation here in 1 Corinthians 7:1-39. These exhortations should never be taken absolutely: Paul provides plenty of caveats throughout. As noted, if a Christian slave can obtain his freedom, he should. Timothy was uncircumcised when called but Paul circumcised him on account of their mission among the Jews (cf. Acts 16:3). Paul also makes it clear that there is no sin if a man and woman get married (1 Corinthians 7:9, 28). Furthermore, he writes that they are presently in some time of distress, a tumultuous time where all that seems stable is uprooted (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:26, 29-30). We must keep these matters in mind when we consider what Paul has to say.

These concerns do not negate Paul’s main point: God can use us as we are and where we are. Those who are married with children can glorify God in their relationships. Yet so too can those who are single or married without children. The widows can as well. Those who are free and those who are less than free can also find ways of serving and glorifying God in their condition.

It is easy to develop a mentality in which we are always looking elsewhere to find satisfaction. We may constantly worry whether we are fulfilling God’s will for us in our lives. Those who are single and/or without children are often made to feel as if they are not fulfilling God’s purposes in their lives. And yet here Paul says that we are to abide in the calling in which we were called. We can find ways of doing God’s will wherever we find ourselves and in whatever situation we are placed.

Paul does not condemn traveling to find a better job or to find a better spiritual situation, nor is he condemning looking for a spouse and having children. He is making it very clear, though, that our primary focus in whatever situation we find ourselves is to glorify God. Many may be single and never marry, instead focusing their efforts on the Lord; they should be praised and not criticized. Many may serve the Lord through marriage and children; they also are to be praised and lifted up. Some will never move far from where they were born; others may travel far away. In all things we must seek to glorify and honor the Lord and encourage their fellow Christians not necessarily to seek to change their condition in life as much as encouraging them to serve God in the calling in which they have been called.

Too often we seem to focus on the future of young people in terms of marriage and children when we would do better to focus on how they can presently serve and glorify the Lord in their current condition and calling. Many will, no doubt, marry and have children, but they have not fallen short of God’s purposes if they do not. We do well to remember Paul’s exhortation to abide in our calling and always look to serve God in the present in our circumstances, and let the future take care of itself!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Commands and Appeals

Wherefore, though I have all boldness in Christ to enjoin thee that which is befitting, yet for love’s sake I rather beseech, being such a one as Paul the aged, and now a prisoner also of Christ Jesus (Philemon 1:8-9).

“Speak softly, and carry a big stick.”

Theodore Roosevelt made this “proverb” famous as a way of describing his governing policy. He preferred diplomacy so as to resolve differences but made it clear how he could use force to accomplish his purposes.

In the short letter Paul wrote to Philemon, a letter which raises more questions than it answers, Paul wishes to use the spiritual equivalent of speaking softly while carrying a big stick in order to persuade Philemon regarding the condition of Onesimus. Paul is an Apostle of Jesus Christ, one granted power and authority (cf. Colossians 1:1). All of the province of Asia would have heard of the mighty acts which Paul had accomplished in the name of Jesus in Ephesus (cf. Acts 19:1-20). The authority granted him by the Lord Jesus and his personal commitment to the Lord’s purposes were unquestioned in Colossae (the likely home of Philemon; cf. Colossians 4:12-16, Philemon 1:1-2). Paul would have been entirely in the right to issue a command to Philemon to act as Paul believed he should (Philemon 1:8).

Yet Paul has great respect for Philemon. Paul thanks God for him in his prayers, having heard of his love and faith for Jesus and the Christians (Philemon 1:3-5). Many Christians have been refreshed by him, and he is likely hosting the assemblies of the church in Colossae in his house (Philemon 1:2, 7). By all accounts, Philemon is seeking to please the Lord Jesus and to do His will in all respects.

Therefore, Paul does not think it best to enjoin, or command, what Philemon should do; instead, for love’s sake, he will beseech, or appeal to, Philemon to act as he should (Philemon 1:9). Paul will go on to make his request: to not penalize Onesimus the slave of Philemon in any way on account of his departure and time spent with Paul, but instead to receive his slave as a fellow brother in Christ (Philemon 1:10-17). Paul wishes for whatever would be charged against Onesimus to be charged against him instead (Philemon 1:17-19).

We have so many questions to ask regarding this situation and especially about the aftermath of the letter and what happened among Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus. Even though we will not come to a complete answer to these questions in this life, we can share in the same trust which Paul maintained: since Philemon seeks to live for Christ and glorify Him, and Philemon seems to be aware of the “debt” which he owes Paul (cf. Philemon 1:19), we can have confidence that Philemon did the right thing on the basis of Paul’s appeal. Yet we must ask: if Paul had instead decided to maintain his boldness in Christ and command what was necessary, would we feel as confident that Philemon would have done the right thing? If Paul had not first so commended Philemon for his faith and manner of life, thereby giving us confidence in his faith, would we have any basis upon which to believe that Philemon would be well-disposed to do the right thing?

As Christians, when we consider what is written in the New Testament for our instruction, it is easy to conflate commands and appeals and consider the two as completely synonymous. This is understandable: as servants of God in Christ, we should seek to follow after both what has been commanded in the name of the Lord as well as the appeals made toward thinking, feeling, and acting in holiness and righteousness (Colossians 3:17, 2 Peter 3:11-12, 1 John 2:3-6). If anyone comes away from Scripture thinking that what is commanded is all that is required and therefore anything regarding which an appeal is made is less than required and thus optional is still thinking in worldly, carnal ways, and has not fully imbibed the mind of Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:6-16). Appeals can be made because there are commands and the Lord Jesus behind them!

While we ought to follow after both those things which are commanded and concerning which appeals are made (and, to be fair, many things regarding which appeals are made are also commanded in other places, and vice versa), in terms of communication, there can be a big difference between a command and an appeal. A command is more forceful, and might rub someone the wrong way. To have to make something a command, at times, could imply a lack of trust and confidence in the one being commanded. An appeal, especially when made in a way that appreciates the faith of the one to whom the appeal is made, can often lead to the same desired end more effectively. If the appeal does fail, then the “big stick” can be used.

Another “proverb” of our time which speaks to the same reality is that one can catch more flies with honey than vinegar. We should not compromise the Gospel message or God’s standard in order to make the message more palatable to people. There will be times when people are going to be offended and rubbed the wrong way no matter what we say or do. Yet everyone appreciates being appreciated. Every Christian is sustained in their faith by encouragement (Hebrews 10:24-25). People often do not mind being encouraged toward a higher goal or better service toward God but do not respond as well when they are berated, denounced, or denigrated because they have not done as well as they could. None of us are perfect; all of us fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). Sometimes people do need a wake-up call, but how many times are commands dictated and rebukes blasted when a loving appeal would be more accurate and effective?

There is a time for commands, but there are also times for appeals. We might carry the “big stick” of the Word of God, but that does not mean that we do well to use it constantly to beat up on other people. Instead, let us seek to persuade men through appealing to them by the message of God. Let our presentations of the Gospel really be good news, not bad news. Let us make sure that we are truly encouraging one another, exhorting each other toward greater faithfulness to God in Christ, growing together in the Way!

Ethan R. Longhenry

To Will and to Work

So then, my beloved, even as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who worketh in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).

There are certain passages of Scripture that seem to juxtapose contradictory principles. In many ways, such passages are the most illuminating for us: they indicate how we put things together.

Paul’s statements in Philippians 2:12-13 certainly fit the bill. He first tells the believers to work out their own salvation; he then tells them that it is God who works in them to will and to work. Little wonder, then, that these verses are used in the battleground regarding God’s work and man’s work.

Many seek to emphasize the first statement: believers are to obey, and this involves working out their own salvation with fear and trembling. They then conclude that it is up to man to follow God’s will, to work out their salvation themselves. Yes, God works in Philippians 2:13, but it is easy for such people to minimize the second statement while emphasizing the first statement.

Others seek to emphasize the second statement: sure, Paul talks about believers working and obeying, but see the conclusion? They work out their salvation with fear and trembling because it is really God who is working in them. They then conclude that God is the only actor involved. Yes, humans should probably follow God, but it is easy for such people to minimize the first statement while emphasizing the second statement.

Believers are to obey, working out their own salvation, but it is God who works in them to will and to work. As we can see, such a statement easily causes fits. Everyone tries to explain it within their system. But Paul is not necessarily working in any such system. He is not confused; he is not suffering from some kind of split personality issue. He knows very well what he is saying. We do well to step back patiently and try to make sense of both statements in harmony, not in opposition.

These verses flow from what Paul has said throughout the chapter. He begins with the exhortation to love, peace, humility, and joint participation among believers (Philippians 2:1-4). The believers are to have the mind of Christ Jesus, who greatly humbled Himself and God glorified Him and highly exalted Him (Philippians 2:5-11). It is because of these things that believers are to obey Jesus, working out their own salvation (Philippians 2:12). This is because it is God working in them to will and to work (Philippians 2:13).

The challenge with this passage is really not with God, Paul, or the passage itself. The challenge is with us. Paul sees no contradiction between believers working and God working. Paul does not think that believers obeying the risen Christ in any way violates God’s sovereignty, nor does it somehow cheapen His grace– it is entirely possible only through God’s grace. Likewise, Paul does not envision God’s working in the believer as compromising the believer’s free moral agency.

How does this work? The order presented in this passage is important. The believer must obey, seeking to “work out” his or her salvation. This obedience is based in trust and rooted in God’s grace, for the believer understands that their standing only exists because of what God has done through Christ (Romans 5:6-11, Ephesians 2:1-10). But what does this obedience look like? How does one “work out” one’s salvation? By unaided moral striving? That did not work before we believed; it will not work now. To obey is to submit to the Lordship of Christ– we are to submit before God. Whatever power we can muster we use to direct our will toward God’s will (cf. Matthew 7:21-23); we must beg God in prayer to give us the strength, power, and grace to be aligned with His will (cf. Ephesians 3:20-21, Philippians 4:13). We must submit as servants for the Lord, no longer seeking our paths, but seeking to live for Him in Him (Galatians 2:20).

Therefore, to obey and to “work out” that salvation, the believer must submit completely and without reservation to God (cf. Romans 12:1). Then God will work in the believer to will and work for His good pleasure. God is not then violating the believer’s free will; instead, He actually accomplishes the will of the believer in a way that the believer could never do through his own unaided effort. All of us fall short; when we directed our own lives, it did not go very well (Romans 3:23, Titus 3:3-8). God is able and willing to provide the strength for us to endure (Ephesians 6:10-18), but we have to want that strength and pray for that strength. It will not be forced upon us. That is not how love works.

Are believers to work? Yes. Is God at work? Yes. We should be seeking to align our will with God’s will, and to allow God to use us as He sees fit for His purposes. Does that mean that we become passive agents? No; God works in mysterious ways, and we are going to have to expend effort if we are going to advance His purposes for His pleasure. Consider all the men of faith in Scripture and all the energies they expended in faith; yet would any of us deny that God worked in them and through them for His good pleasure? So it must be with us.

Let us not be fooled into going to extremes and causing contradiction where none exists. Let us not seek to vaunt our own responsibilities nor seek to abdicate them; instead, let us learn humility and to submit to God and His direction, through His prompting in Scripture and throughout our lives, praying that He may work in us to will and work for His good pleasure for His glory for all time!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Service Despite Distress

And [Jesus] came forth, and saw a great multitude, and he had compassion on them, and healed their sick (Matthew 14:14).

If there were a time when it would have been perfectly understandable that Jesus would not have wanted anyone around, this would be it.

Opposition to His teachings was mounting (Matthew 12:1-45). At least some of His earthly family members thought that He was delusional and felt compelled to try to intervene (Matthew 12:46-50). He had returned to His hometown of Nazareth and was rejected by those with whom He had significant contact in His life (Matthew 13:53-58). And then word came that John the Baptist, the Elijah who prepared the way for the Lord, His cousin in the flesh, a kindred servant of God, one who understood rejection and the weariness involved in speaking truth to power, had been executed by Herod (Matthew 14:1-12).

It is little wonder, then, that Jesus takes out some time alone to pray (Matthew 14:13). We can only imagine the distress He might be feeling– the pain of rejection, grief over the death of His compatriot and cousin, and perhaps many other difficulties. Nevertheless, while He withdraws to pray, the people follow after Him to seek Him (Matthew 14:13). Even at a time like this there is little peace and little quiet. What would Jesus do?

We can imagine perhaps what we would do. We might lash out, taking out our distress on the people. If we had more control we might politely inform them of our difficulties and attempt to get some space.

Yet Jesus did no such thing. He sees the multitude, and while He might still be experiencing His distress, He also perceives the distress of those who have gathered to Him. He might be feeling pained, but He also knows that many of the people before Him have been experiencing great pain and distress for many years. He has compassion on them and heals those who are sick.

Jesus would later teach that the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and this is a great example (Matthew 20:28). He was sent for a purpose, and the best way to endure the challenges and distress that came along with that purpose was to persevere. What He was experiencing was not really peculiar to Him; many people throughout time have experienced similar forms of rejection, grief, and pain. He looked to His Father for strength, received it, and continued to do the Father’s work.

The whole reason why Jesus mentioned that He came not to be served but to serve was to instruct His disciples that they were going to have to serve to fulfill God’s purposes in the Kingdom (Matthew 20:25-28). To that end, therefore, Jesus’ example is a path for us all (1 John 2:6).

There will be times in our lives when we are going to be in great distress. We may have all sorts of bad news come at us in rapid succession. We may be rejected by some people and alienated from others. We might experience challenges relating to family, friends, and other people with whom we have frequent interaction. We may get news of the untimely end of someone whom we love deeply. There will be times of pain, distress, grief, and suffering.

What shall we do? It would be easy to withdraw and speak sharply to anyone who would disturb our quiet, but what does that really accomplish? We could attempt to politely decline opportunities to work with others, but what is the end of such things?

Jesus provides the way. Our pain and distress is real, and it must be handled as if it is real. As opposed to lashing out against others, or just letting it tear us up internally, we are to take it before God in prayer (1 Peter 5:7). We are not able to endure it on our own, but God has the strength to endure it and sustain us through it. Other people can provide sympathy; God can comfort you and give you peace (Colossians 3:15).

Then we must realize that others in our lives are also in pain and distress, and we do best to help serve them as Christ has served us. It is in service that we have the opportunity to lose ourselves so as to help others; our troubles and trials can be relegated to the back burner when we support others throughout theirs!

God has a purpose for us, and He guaranteed that we would experience times of distress (Acts 14:22, Ephesians 3:10-11). We can shut down and turn inward to our own hurt or we can reach out to God and then serve others, as Jesus did. Let us choose the path of Christ and serve despite distress!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Principle of Work

Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labor, working with his hands the thing that is good, that he may have whereof to give to him that hath need (Ephesians 4:28).

In the midst of various exhortations regarding the righteous life– proper speaking, not being angry, a lack of bitterness and filled with tenderheartedness– Paul has an exhortation to those who formerly lived by stealing.

Stealing has been a challenge in society for as long as society has existed. There is the obvious forms of stealing– taking things from others without proper payment– but there are many other forms. Asserting that work was done that was not done at all or not done properly, personal use of resources that were not designed to be used personally, and dishonest “labor.” Stealing is not limited to the poorer classes; “white collar” stealing may be more complicated and subtle but no less damaging, as we have soberly learned in recent years. All kinds of justifications are given for stealing, everything from stealing to feed children to stealing to inflict vengeance on a corrupt company or system.

Nevertheless, stealing is not acceptable in any form. Those who steal, Paul says, should steal no more.

Instead, such a one is to labor. He is to work with his hands in some good way. Dutiful employment is expected out of believers. In so doing they will have what they need in order to survive. Manual labor is certainly valuable and good, but it would be distorting Paul’s purpose in the passage to mandate that all believers must engage in manual labor. Nevertheless, the work that believers do should provide a beneficial service for those who pay for it. It should go without saying that services that lead people into sin or jobs that provide no benefit or meaningful service to humanity are inconsistent with Christ’s purposes and for the Christian life.

Yet God does not expect the ex-thief here to support only himself. He is to work diligently, not just to have something for himself, but also something for others who are in need.

Perhaps Paul has some kind of penance in mind for the ex-thief here: since he took from others, depriving people of what was theirs, it is right and appropriate for him to now be a blessing to others, in some sense “giving back” to society.

Nevertheless, there is value in understanding what Paul says here as a general principle of work for all believers. What is true for the worker who is a former thief stands true for workers with no such background. Believers, after all, are to do what they can to assist those in need (Galatians 2:10, 6:10)! Therefore, just as it is true that believers are to work, believers must also consider their wages as not just destined for themselves and their own benefit but also find ways to give part to those in need.

This principle is opposed to our society’s values, particularly as they were expressed in the years before the “Great Recession.” We were encouraged to spend our money on all kinds of things. When our incomes were not enough to cover everything we were spending, we were encouraged to use credit and to continue to spend. Marketers and others who profited on sales attempted to persuade us that we deserved the things we were buying and that it was what we should be doing.

What has been the end of all these things? We still have all kinds of things, but may have lost the house in which we stored them. Everywhere we look we see people in economic difficulty and distress– perhaps even in our own mirror! We have learned the hard way that we should not over-extend ourselves on credit and other such things.

But our trouble is still there: now much of our “excess” income is going to cover the indebtedness of the past. People’s needs are still dire, but far too many are stuck in the same paradigm. They have been told that their paycheck is their money, and they find ways to spend all of it.

It should be well known that God tests us. He wants to see how suitable we are as stewards– are we able to handle the responsibilities that come with His blessings (cf. Matthew 25:14-31)? Do we really believe that everything we have comes from Him (James 1:17)? If it is His, what right do we have to claim over it? Perhaps God blesses us with resources beyond our needs to see what we will do with it– whether we will spend it all on our own desires, or whether we will share the blessing with others who are not so fortunate.

If that is the case, how well are we doing in that test? Do we consider our paycheck “all ours,” or have we decided to follow God’s principle of work, that we do our jobs to earn our living not just for our own benefit but also to provide benefits for others? When we have “a little extra,” do we then turn to find some way of spending it on ourselves, or do we also consider how we could help some others in need?

Jesus, Paul, and the other Apostles lived their lives to provide benefits for others. The path of Christ is the path of service (Romans 12:1). Let us find ways of being benefits to others with the resources with which God has blessed us!

Ethan R. Longhenry