Judgment at the House of God

For the time is come for judgment to begin at the house of God: and if it begin first at us, what shall be the end of them that obey not the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17)

A good rule of any communication is to “know your audience.” They are, after all, the ones to whom you are speaking. They are the ones to whom the message should be directed.

Those who speak in the pages of Scripture knew their audience. The prophets spoke the Word of YHWH to the Israelites of their generation, warning them about their sins and transgressions and the impending judgment to come on account of them and yet providing hope for restoration in the future. Jesus spoke to the Israelites of the first century about the impending Kingdom of God. The Apostles wrote to first century Christians about their conditions and situations and what God wanted them to do.

Peter continues in this tradition in 1 Peter 4:12-19. He is encouraging the Christians who live in what we today call Turkey regarding the persecution and suffering they are experiencing or about to experience. They should not find it at all strange that they will suffer for the Name; they should in fact glory in it (1 Peter 4:12-16). He then emphasizes that judgment is coming, but it begins at the house of God (1 Peter 4:17). Such judgment then extends to those outside the house of God, and their condemnation is understood in Peter’s rhetorical questions (1 Peter 4:17-18; cf. Proverbs 11:31). God will judge and condemn those who persecute and cause suffering for the people of God; the people of God are to entrust themselves to their faithful Creator while continuing to do good (1 Peter 4:19).

Albrecht Dürer The Last Judgment circa 1510

We can see, therefore, that God is very much interested in speaking to the condition and situation of the specific audience to which He speaks. That audience is primarily His people from beginning to end. Those who are not His people are not listening to Him; He can do nothing for them while they remain in that condition (Romans 8:1-9). In Scripture God makes it very clear that those who do not know Him and do not obey the Gospel of His Son will be condemned (Romans 1:18-32, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-9, Revelation 20:11-15). They need to hear the Gospel, repent of their sin, and serve the Lord (Acts 17:22-31).

So it will be that the evil, indifferent, slothful, and uncaring will get their just deserts on the final day. Yet our concern must, first and foremost, be with us as the people of God. God is speaking to us through the message of His Word: judgment begins here (1 Peter 4:17)!

As we have seen it has always been so. The people of God may want to continually point to the gross sinfulness and immorality all around them and act as if such justifies their comparatively less sinful behavior. God has never provided any such refuge; He recognizes that the wicked live in wickedness, expects it, and has given them over to their lusts (Romans 1:18-32). He expects better from His people! Many take too much comfort in passages like John 3:18, Romans 8:31-39, and similar passages, interpreting them absolutely and teaching that their salvation is fully secure no matter what. Nevermind passages like Hebrews 10:26-31, 2 Peter 2:20-22; the story of God’s involvement with Israel should disabuse everyone of the notion that being made the elect of God automatically grants salvation! God does not want to condemn us or anyone else (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9); nevertheless, He has never, and will never, justify or commend any who persist in thoughts, feelings, and behaviors contrary to His will and character.

Judgment begins at the house of God, the church (1 Timothy 3:15, 1 Peter 4:17). Too many look into the pages of Scripture to find how everyone else is condemned or judged; if we would be God’s people we must be humble and chastened enough to recognize that the exhortations and warnings found in the pages of Scripture are indeed primarily directed toward us. God will handle the condemnation of those outside (1 Corinthians 5:13). If we would claim to be the people of God we must allow God to point the finger of exhortation and rebuke found in Scripture at ourselves before we dare attempt to ascertain how it may be directed at others (Matthew 7:1-4). Judgment begins at the house of God; are we ready?

Ethan R. Longhenry

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

Expectation of Trial

Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial among you, which cometh upon you to prove you, as though a strange thing happened unto you: but insomuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings, rejoice; that at the revelation of his glory also ye may rejoice with exceeding joy (1 Peter 4:12-13).

It would seem that amazement at suffering for the Name is not only a modern phenomenon.

The first century Christians in modern-day Turkey were experiencing some level of persecution. They were going through trial (1 Peter 1:6-7): they should expect their neighbors to revile them as evildoers (1 Peter 2:12), not understanding why they no longer participate in the same idolatry and immorality as before (1 Peter 4:3-5). The Christians will do good to others and receive harm in return (1 Peter 2:18-20).

Peter tells them these thing so they are prepared for what they are experiencing or will experience. He wants them to know that these difficulties are to be expected. They should not consider it strange that they are suffering for the cause of Jesus (1 Peter 4:12-13). It is par for the course.

We can imagine why people would think suffering for Jesus is strange. Jesus calls upon people to be good to one another and help those in need: how could anyone not like someone who is good and does good to others? Perhaps we expect others to tolerate different religious beliefs, and in such a view, even if people disagree with Christianity, they should at least respect those who seek to practice it. In such a view, suffering because of one’s religion would be strange. These days some feel it is strange to suffer as a Christian because people have paid at least lip service to Christianity and Christian conceptions of the world, ethics, and morality for generations and therefore those views should still be considered as normative.

In an ideal world it would be strange to suffer for following after Jesus. Then again, in an ideal world, we would not have needed Jesus in the first place! We live in a world corrupted by sin (Romans 5:12-18, 8:18-23). Some people consider evil as good, and good as evil (cf. Isaiah 5:20). Yes, people will be more than happy to take advantage of someone who will do good for them, but when they see the contrast between their lives and the life of the righteous, they are faced with a decision: change and be like the righteous, attempt to get the righteous to sin and be like them, or to reject, condemn, and perhaps even kill the righteous so as to feel better about themselves and their condition. A few change to be like the righteous; the majority tempt the righteous or seek to cause them harm. There will always be a level of tolerance in terms of certain subjects, but the exclusive claims of Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, and the standard which He upholds can never be truly or fully tolerated by those who do not seek to adhere to that standard (cf. John 14:6, 15:18-19). In modern America any pretense of being a “Christian nation” has worn away; secular culture now maintains a worldview quite alien and hostile to that of Christianity. Disagreement and conflict are the inevitable result.

Yet it has always been that way. The Apostles did not mince words or attempt to sugarcoat this reality: Paul declared that it is through tribulation that we enter the Kingdom of God (Acts 14:22). He also said that we must suffer with Jesus if we want to inherit glory with Him (Romans 8:17). He declared that all those who live godly in Christ Jesus will experience persecution (2 Timothy 3:12). And Peter says that we must not think it strange to suffer trial, but that we should rejoice as a partaker of Christ’s sufferings (1 Peter 4:12-13). They certainly did not expect Christianity to be a walk in the park or a ticket to easy street; far from it! They wanted Christians to be fully prepared for the onslaught of the Devil which would come, be it through persecution at the hands of others, unfortunate circumstances, illness, and other trials. If anything, Christians should think it strange if they are not experiencing trials or such difficulties: it may well mean that the Devil has no reason to cause them harm because they are his (cf. Luke 6:26)!

Sufferings, trials, temptations, persecutions, and all sorts of troubles come along with the territory in Christianity. We should not be surprised when they come upon us. We could whine, complain, get frustrated, demand answers, and such like, but ultimately such reactions prove unprofitable. If our outlook regarding trial is negative we may not endure. It does seem strange to rejoice in suffering, as Peter suggests; it seems rather sadistic to do so. Peter is not suggesting that we should find pleasure in going through trials, difficulties, and tribulations, but to find joy in the result of those trials, a tested, tried, and purified faith, one that will lead to honor and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ who already suffered so much for us all (1 Peter 1:3-9, 4:12-13). We find joy in suffering for the Name since He suffered great hostility for the joy set before Him (Hebrews 12:1-2). We can only share in His inheritance when we have shared in His sufferings (Romans 6:1-7, 8:17-18).

In a creation subject to futility and decay, suffering and trial are the norm, not the exception. Our preparation and/or response to such trial makes all the difference. When we experience difficulty, especially from our fellow man who persecutes us for our faith, will we want to fight, argue, complain, and be bitter about it? Or will we rejoice inasmuch as we share in he suffering of Christ, and maintain the hope that we will therefore share in His inheritance and glory? Let us maintain that hope firm to the end, come what may, and find a way to glorify God in whatever circumstances we find ourselves!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Discipline

It is for chastening that ye endure; God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father chasteneth not? (Hebrews 12:7).

Discipline; chastisement: we do not like the sound of these words. They may bring back unpleasant memories from childhood. Even the Bible makes it clear that no one really enjoys discipline when it happens (cf. Hebrews 12:11). How many times have we schemed in life in attempts to avoid discipline and/or chastisement? And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we understand the need for and value of discipline.

The word translated as chastening (or, in other versions, discipline) is the Greek paideia, which can refer to the whole training and education of children, and for adults, that which leads to correcting errors, limiting the exercise of passions, and actual chastisement for bad behavior. In 2 Timothy 3:15, Paul describes Scripture as providing “instruction” (paideia) in righteousness; in Ephesians 6:4, he encourages parents to raise their children in the “nurture” (or “discipline”; paideia) and admonition of the Lord.

We do well to keep the breadth of meaning of paideia in mind when we consider discipline, since it is very easy for us to focus on the negative. “Discipline” or “chastisement” tends to be associated only with some kind of penalty or punishment for misbehavior; that automatic association is unfortunate and a distortion. Just providing (or suffering) a penalty or punishment is not discipline: punitive acts alone do not change or alter behaviors. Instead, the aim of any kind of discipline ought to be corrective; any punishment or penalty should be designed with correction of improper behavior in mind.

We normally associate discipline and chastisement, as seen above, with raising children. This remains a most critical aspect to discipline, for children will grow up and have to learn about the boundaries of proper behavior somehow or another. The only question involves the quality of that instruction and from whom it is received: will instruction and discipline be based in the message of the Lord Jesus or not? Will the child ever learn truly proper behavior, or will they just learn to go along with the boundaries society or the law imposes upon them? How much will they be taught by their parents, and how many lessons will they have to learn through their own mistakes?

It is easy to imagine discipline only in terms of growing up from childhood into adulthood, but discipline does not end because we have left home and are now “grown up.” We must maintain discipline within our own lives, whether through learned behavior or by external restraints. We have to live within our means; we have to conduct ourselves within the boundary of certain standards. We will be punished in various ways by not abiding within these boundaries.

If we believe in God, trust in Him, and seek to do His will, we will receive discipline and chastisement from His hand (Hebrews 12:3-11). Such a view seems sharp and harsh; too many already have a view of God as an authoritarian disciplinarian, and passages like this do not seem to help that perspective. People want to envision that God provides all the good things in their lives, but then will blame God for abandoning them when bad things happen. But let us hear out what the Hebrew author is telling us.

The Hebrew author makes it clear that the problem is with our views and expectations, not God Himself. After all, we have all seen overly permissive parents and the royal terrors and spoiled brats coming out of that relationship. Most of us can look back in our own lives and understand the value and benefit received from proper discipline and chastisement that we received from a figure of some authority. We all need to learn boundaries and understand that there are negative consequences for transgressing boundaries; there is not one of us who can live among other people and not learn this lesson. And since, as human beings, we are all fairly hard-headed, we must pay a penalty or suffer a consequence if we will ever really learn to respect certain boundaries. We did not like discipline at the time: we did not enjoy punishments, we did not enjoy homework, we did not enjoy having to put in a lot of work in order to gain some reward or benefit, but through it all we were supposed to learn to respect boundaries, that we are not entitled to receive anything without working for it, that in order to accomplish anything of value we must devote our time and energy to them, and so on and so forth.

This is exactly what the Hebrew author is saying about discipline (Hebrews 12:3-11); he shows how the example of earthly fathers and the discipline they impose upon their children is a (albeit imperfect) type of the reality of our relationship with God. Just because we have reached the age of 18 (or 28, 38, 58, 78…) does not mean that we no longer need discipline; if anything, as we reach mature adulthood, the necessity of discipline is more evident. God provides discipline and chastisement to His children precisely because He loves them and wants them to live well! Without that discipline, God would be a permissive parent– in the words of the Hebrew author, if God did not discipline us, He would be treating us like illegitimate children! If we are illegitimate, we have no share in Him! How tragic that would be!

As in childhood, so in life: we have lessons to learn in every situation. There are wholesome lessons to be learned through hard effort and success; there are wholesome lessons to be learned when things go wrong and/or when we suffer. Sometimes we might experience pain, misery, suffering, or other such difficulties so that we might learn to stay within the proper boundaries of God’s will and to develop peace and righteousness. It is rarely enough to just intellectually grasp such things; we need to experience them if we will learn from them.

Therefore, in times of difficulty, let us not assume that God has abandoned us. We might be experiencing a moment of chastisement. Even if it is not some kind of punishment or penalty for our excess or transgression, we can still learn discipline through the experience, having our faith refined and developing the characteristics of self-control, peace, patience, and faithfulness, which seem to only develop through suffering. Even if it is unpleasant, let us be willing to endure discipline; without it, we cannot be children of God!

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

The Rocky Soil

“And others fell upon the rocky places, where they had not much earth: and straightway they sprang up, because they had no deepness of earth: and when the sun was risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away…And he that was sown upon the rocky places, this is he that heareth the word, and straightway with joy receiveth it; yet hath he not root in himself, but endureth for a while; and when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, straightway he stumbleth” (Matthew 13:5-6, 20-21).

One of the most savage ironies in life is that we learn the most about our character and ourselves when we least expect it. Rare is the person who learns character lessons from winning, success, and prosperity. Just as fire is necessary to remove dross from pure metal, so distress, tribulation, and difficulty are necessary to refine the faith of the believer (cf. 1 Peter 1:3-9).

We have the maxim today that “whatever does not kill you makes you stronger.” But what happens to the one who does not survive their difficulties and challenges? Jesus provides an illustration of such people in the parable of the sower with the rocky soil.

The story is consistent in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8. The sower casts seed on rocky soil. The seed takes root and grows initially, but the roots do not sink down very deeply. Therefore, when the sun rises, or the moisture runs out, the plant withers and dies.

So it is with many people. Many hear the Word of God, and they receive it eagerly. They believe that Jesus is the Christ. They assemble with fellow Christians. By all appearances, they are growing well as disciples. They may be involved with all kinds of spiritual efforts. And yet, all of a sudden, they are gone.

Why? The reasons are many. Some burn out– they acted more on impulse, and perhaps their personalities are the sort wherein they do not keep any practice or commitment up for any significant amount of time. Others find themselves in some spiritually discouraging situation among Christians who do not act as God would have them act. Many more experience some external difficulty– a family member dies suddenly, they or someone they love endure some kind of evil, or their faith is challenged by some unbeliever in person or on some television show. As a result, many such people entirely abandon belief in God. Others will say that they still believe in Jesus, but not the church, or will declare that they are spiritual but not religious, or some other rationalization.

All such circumstances boil down to the same problem: a shallow faith. Faith is the “roots” that people grow as they learn of God. In the physical realm, roots have amazing power as they grow. Over time roots can often find ways to grow, even in inhospitable places. But when the roots dry out, there is not much hope left. So it is with our faith. If our faith has not grown sufficiently, or was not sufficiently founded in Jesus, when some difficulty comes, it is easy to lose whatever faith we had. If the roots of faith did not grow deeply before boredom set in, then we will move on to some new thing in life. If the roots of faith did not grow past the actions of others, then we are likely to abandon Jesus when some of His followers fail us. If our roots of faith did not grow to the point of trusting God’s goodness in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, then we can easily imagine that God is not there when bad things happen and life seems to go wrong, or when we are posed with challenges in life for which there are no easy answers.

The illustration of the rocky soil is designed to be both a declaration of reality and a warning. It declares the reality that many will believe in a shallow way. When such people fall away, it will be discouraging and unfortunate, but it should not shake our faith or cause undue distress. Our Lord knew that many people would follow Him only as long as it was comfortable– in the sports world, those described as “fair weather fans.” And that is the warning– we must not be the rocky soil. We must be prepared for challenges to our faith. There will be times when Christianity will seem boring and/or our zeal for Christ will languish. There will be times when fellow Christians do not act like they should, and it will discourage us. There will be times when evil will confront us head on, and it will lead to questions about the presence and goodness of God. And there will be times when the hope that is in us will be challenged by those who do not accept it. We cannot change that reality– but we can prepare for it. We can decide how we will respond to it. We can understand that such trials are blessings in that they help us to grow in faith (James 1:2-3). They may not be pleasant, but they are necessary for our growth. We can never prove to be the good soil until someone or something tests the depth of the roots of faith we have set down in our lives.

Life is not a bed of roses, and becoming a servant of Jesus does not then somehow make it so. In fact, serving Jesus means to humbly accept challenge, sacrifice, and difficulty (Matthew 16:24, 20:25-28, Romans 12:2, Galatians 2:20). When difficulty comes, will you grow or perish? We pray that you will grow and prove to be good soil, and not rocky soil, and to please the Creator of us all!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Living by our Faith

Behold, his soul is puffed up, it is not upright in him; but the righteous shall live by his faith (Habakkuk 2:4).

Habakkuk has been complaining to God about the sinfulness of Judah. God tells him about the terrible enemy that He is raising up against them, the Babylonians, and the fate that awaits Judah. It is not a pretty picture; one wonders how anyone could survive or be saved in such circumstances!

God then makes a contrast between two sorts of people. There are those whose souls are puffed up inside of them. They have all sorts of confidence about their standing before God and their own “righteousness,” but their confidence is entirely unfounded. Their souls are not upright within them.

And then there are those who will live– those who are truly righteous. They are righteous because they live by their faith.

When Paul makes his grand theological treatise in his letter to the Romans, Habakkuk 2:4b is the centerpiece of his argument regarding justification by faith. The righteous shall live by faith. In the Roman letter Paul effectively demonstrates how no man or woman could ever be justified in the sight of God by their merits or their works since all have sinned (Romans 1:18-3:20). He demonstrates how Abraham received the promise through faith, and therefore those who inherit the promises are those who are children of Abraham by faith, sharing in the same trust in the One True God (Romans 4:1-25, 9:6-13). Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4b again in the Galatian letter to demonstrate that no one has ever been justified before God on the basis of the Law of Moses (Galatians 3:11). Moses, David, and the prophets themselves lived by faith. Throughout time, therefore, those who belong to God and please Him are those who live by faith. It was not a matter of ethnic identity, as the Jews vainly believed; it was that trust in God, that confidence in His existence and His rewarding of those who seek after Him (Hebrews 11:6).

The righteous, indeed, will live by faith. Nevertheless, there is a minor detail present in the original Hebrew of Habakkuk’s words that was not carried over by Paul that remains important. Yes, the righteous live by faith. But “faith” is not just anyone’s faith. The righteous one lives by his faith.

We all know of people who are able to make it through life on account of the efforts of others. We often call this “riding on coattails.” Many children in this world will never have to worry about money or work; their parents are so unbelievably wealthy that they will never have to work. Many people rise to prominence less because of their own talents and abilities and more because of the fame of their parents or other such relatives.

There are some people who try to do this in their faith lives. They may have a parent or grandparent who was mighty in faith in God’s Kingdom, and they try to “ride their coattails.” They may start in life accepting what they have been taught. Sure, they believe in God; they have their own faith; just ask them. In reality, too many try to get by with their father’s faith or their grandfather’s faith. They have not yet made the faith their own.

Jacob is a great example of this. Few had his pedigree– the son of Isaac, the grandson of Abraham. He certainly did not deserve to be the son of promise, but that was God’s choice for him (Genesis 25:23). When Jacob was fleeing to Paddan-Aram, God appeared to him in a dream and promised that He would be with him and that he would inherit the promises (Genesis 28:12-15). Jacob was astonished; he understood that God was present (Genesis 28:16-17). He certainly believed in the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac. But notice his vow– if God will fulfill His promises, then He will be my God (Genesis 28:20-22). Jacob had faith in the God of his father– but he did not yet have his own faith.

In reality, while some people might get the luxury of “riding the coattails” of their parents, grandparents, or whomever else in their physical lives, no one can truly ride the coattails of anyone else spiritually. It will not work. The faith of your father, mother, child, spouse, preacher, elder, or anyone else cannot sustain you. It cannot stand up for you. Sure, it may remain for awhile, when it remains unchallenged and undisturbed. But then the day of adversity comes.

Maybe the adversity comes from a television show, a friend, or an educator who challenges the validity of faith in the God of the Bible and in Christianity. Maybe the adversity comes in the challenges of life– a harrowing illness, failure in various endeavors, unemployment, betrayal by others. No matter who we are, no matter how much money we have or do not have, regardless of our status in life, days of adversity will come that will cause us to question who we are and how we are to be sustained. And it is in those days that faith grows or dies (James 1:2-4, 1 Peter 1:6-7).

So it was with Jacob. He made it to Paddan-Aram and began working for his deceitful uncle Laban. He faced terrible adversity and there was no human that was there to advocate for him. He clearly perceived how it was the “God of his father” who sustained him, protected him, and blessed him throughout those twenty years (Genesis 29-31; cf. Genesis 31:5-9). As Jacob was returning home, having been delivered by God from Laban his uncle and petitioning for deliverance from Esau his brother, Jacob literally wrestles with God (in the form of an angel; Genesis 32:24-31). He is given the name Israel at that time. And after meeting with his brother Esau, Jacob/Israel moves to the area around Shechem. He builds an altar there, and names it El-Elohe-Israel: God, the God of Israel (Genesis 33:20). Jacob now had his own faith.

The Scriptures make it clear that we cannot ride the coattails of our spiritual ancestors. Time would fail us if we talked about how for every Gideon there was an Abimelech, for every Hezekiah a Manasseh, and for every Josiah a Jehoiakim. Sadly, the children of some of the most righteous people in the Bible end up being some of the most wicked. The faith of their parents could not save them.

Instead, we must be like Jacob. We must make the faith of those who came before us our own faith. We must believe in God and His truth because we have made our investigations and our inquiries and we have been satisfied (Acts 17:11-12). We must be able to make our own defense of our own hope that should be in us (1 Peter 3:15). We must have our own belief, deeply rooted within our own being, so that when we are shaken by trial, we have the resources of faith within us to continue to turn to God for sustenance.

The spiritual world around us is littered with the corpses of those who never developed their own faith, and their profession of acceptance of the faith of their ancestors failed them when the difficult times arose. Let us not be like them, but develop our own faith, and live by it!

Ethan R. Longhenry

A Testing Temptation

Then the devil taketh him into the holy city; and he set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and saith unto him, “If thou art the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, ‘He shall give his angels charge concerning thee:’ and, ‘On their hands they shall bear thee up, Lest haply thou dash thy foot against a stone.'”
Jesus said unto him, Again it is written, “Thou shalt not make trial of the Lord thy God” (Matthew 4:5-7).

Satan was not able to get Jesus to “bite” at the temptation of turning stones into bread and to satisfy His great hunger (Matthew 4:1-4, Luke 4:1-4). Next, according to Matthew’s Gospel (the last temptation in Luke’s, Luke 4:9-12), Satan transports Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple for the next temptation.

The temptation this time is for Jesus to again “prove” that He is who He says He is. Satan challenges Him to throw Himself down, for, if He is the Son of God, then the promise of Psalm 91:11-12 would be true regarding Him. After all, it is thus written in the Scriptures!

We have no reason to doubt that the Scripture is true. If Jesus had decided to take up Satan’s challenge and would have cast Himself down, the angels would have protected Him.

Yet Jesus does not take up Satan’s challenge but reminds him of another Scripture that is written– you shall not put the LORD your God to the test (Deuteronomy 6:16). Jesus has already demonstrated His confidence in the Father and Source of His sustenance (cf. Matthew 4:1-4); He now makes it evident that testing that Source is unseemly. He does not have to perform the action to know or to make demonstration that He is the Son of God. He can be confident in His trust in God without such a trial.

Furthermore, the location also plays a role in this. The Temple was not just a large building; it was also the center of Jewish life. There would have been, no doubt, thousands of Jews present who would have likely seen these events played out. While God’s power would have been displayed, it would all be for show, without any substantive benefit or teaching moment. People would have spoken about Jesus in terms of a freak or some kind of stuntman. Worse would be if some were to get it into their heads that He was the Messiah according to their understanding of the Messiah when He had not yet taught about the true nature of the Kingdom!

It is important to note the role of Scripture in this temptation. Satan quotes Scripture against Jesus, and this goes to show that Scripture can be used for malicious purposes and to distract from the greatest good. Jesus’ response demonstrates powerfully that the Bible is not designed merely to be a proof-text for our desires. Just because God has promised to protect the Messiah does not mean that the Messiah needs to test out that promise!

Thus, while we all can agree that quoting Scripture is good, a bad point is not somehow made good because some Scripture has been forced to fit into it. One statement of Scripture may, at times, need to be understood in terms of another Scripture so that the text remains consistent and God’s true will is properly discerned. And let no one be deceived into thinking that the Evil One does not know Scripture or how to use and abuse it!

There is much to gain from the substance of the temptation. Humans have an innate impulse to believe all things by experimentation or observation. It is much more challenging for humans to trust without testing, as evidenced by Thomas (John 20:24-25). This remains true to this day. Humans are always pushing at the edges of knowledge, endurance, and capability. There tends to be an ethic of “if we can, we should,” without necessarily thinking about the implications of what we are doing.

Therefore, there would be the natural, human impulse in Jesus to cast Himself off, just to see what would happen. Many thrillseekers would love to have the opportunity to jump off of large buildings, experience the rush, and know that they would be caught before they fell!

But Jesus reminds the Devil– and ourselves– that we should not put the Lord to the test. Who are we to test God? We are the clay, after all, and He is the Potter (Romans 9:20-21). He has already provided us with life– this creation and the promise of eternity (Genesis 1:1-2:3, Romans 6:23). He has given of His Son and stands willing to give us all things– if we ask in faith (cf. Romans 8:32, James 1:5-8).

And yet we make a bargain. We will say that we will believe in God if He does x or y. If we are believers, we decide that we will re-commit to God if He answers our prayers in the way we expect Him to answer them. We are willing to step out in faith but only after we have a “sign” or some guaranty of what we are about to accomplish.

This is putting God to the test. Perhaps God will answer us in our folly and ignorance; perhaps He will not. A non-answer does not make Him any less God, or, for that matter, any less good.

Instead, we must have confidence in God like Jesus did. We should trust that the Lord will protect us in whatever circumstance we find ourselves if we are His. Even if we die, our souls are in His hands. Thus, we should be willing to believe no matter what. We should commit to God no matter what. We ought to step out in faith no matter what. God has proven His faithfulness and we have no reason to doubt His promises.

The only reason we have to doubt His promises is that impulse to test and examine, and we must understand that we do not need to test God. Instead, let us trust in His goodness and seek His will!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Lord’s Prayer (2)

And it came to pass, as [Jesus] was praying in a certain place, that when he ceased, one of his disciples said unto him, “Lord, teach us to pray, even as John also taught his disciples.”
And he said unto them, “When ye pray, say, Father, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Give us day by day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins; for we ourselves also forgive every one that is indebted to us. And bring us not into temptation” (Luke 11:1-4).

The Lord’s Prayer has been a mainstay of much of “Christendom” for a long time; it is repeated constantly around the world at least on a weekly basis. It is known for being succinct and yet deep in meaning. It is a wonderful model prayer– a vehicle designed to get us to think more deeply about our petitions to God and how those petitions impact our lives.

As told in Luke the circumstance begins with Jesus praying. The disciples seek to learn how to pray from Him since they see Him in prayer so much (cf. Luke 5:16, etc.). He is the Model for us– He does not merely exhort us to pray (Luke 18:1-8) but lives a life of prayer. This left a deep impression on the disciples (cf. Acts 6:4).

Jesus was not disappointed in their request for guidance; He did not rebuke them for it. It was good to ask the Lord how to pray. He was more than happy to oblige and teach them how to pray.

And then we have the substance of the prayer. The version in Matthew (Matthew 6:9-13) is a bit more expansive (and was expanded upon more over time), but the sentiments are the same as in the Lukan version.

Jesus’ first statement involves the sanctification of God’s name. While God may be our Father through adoption, and we have been granted access to Him, we must always remember that He is holy and utterly greater than ourselves (cf. Romans 8:15, Hebrews 4:16, 1 Peter 1:16, Isaiah 55:8-9). Whether we communicate our reverence for God in words and attitude or just by attitude, it is important that it be communicated.

Jesus’ second directive involves the Kingdom. At the time Jesus speaks the Kingdom had not yet come; it would exist after Pentecost (cf. Colossians 1:13), but the full salvation and the ability to be with God forever has not yet arrived (1 Peter 1:3-9, Revelation 21:1-22:6). Regardless, it is good to promote the advancement of the Kingdom of God in prayer– the strengthening of the church, the proclamation of the Gospel around the world and for the welfare of those seeking to do so, and so on (Ephesians 4:11-16, Romans 1:16, Colossians 4:3).

Daily needs should be a part of prayer. God knows we need them, but that does not mean that we should not ask for them (cf. Matthew 6:23-34). God is not unapproachable or concerned only about the “big picture” so as to have no desire to hear our petitions regarding the daily issues of life. Instead, He wants us to cast our anxieties upon Him (1 Peter 5:7). Life is lived through daily concerns, and it is good for followers of God to obtain His counsel for them.

Since we have the propensity for sin, we have need of forgiveness (cf. 1 John 1:8-9), yet this statement of Jesus is as much a challenge and a warning as it is a petition in prayer. Jesus encourages us to pray for the forgiveness of our sins on the basis of our own forgiveness of those who sin against us– a matter on which He elaborates further in Matthew 6:14-15 and Matthew 18:21-35. It is not and cannot be enough for us to just pray to God for the forgiveness of our sins. If we want to be forgiven we must be forgiving, and we cannot expect forgiveness if we do not grant forgiveness.

Jesus concludes in Luke with a petition to not be led into temptation. On the surface, this seems strange– is it not true that God does not tempt anyone (James 1:13)? We should not imagine that Jesus expects us to make sure in our prayers that we beg God not to personally direct us toward temptation, for God does not do such things. Instead, the petition is a request to be delivered from trial and to escape the temptations of the Evil One. We must acknowledge the spiritual war in which we are engaged, constantly maintaining contact with the Captain of our souls (cf. Ephesians 6:10-18). It is right and good for us to request God’s assistance in terms of our trials and temptations so that we may endure and overcome. We do not win by our own strength; we overcome through the strength that God supplies through Jesus Christ!

God’s holiness, advancement of His Kingdom, daily needs, forgiveness, endurance in trial and temptation– so much is said in so few words. Let us consider the Lord’s Prayer and remain in continual contact with our Lord and God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Walking on the Water

And Peter answered him and said, “Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee upon the waters.”
And he said, “Come.”
And Peter went down from the boat, and walked upon the waters to come to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me.”
And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and took hold of him, and saith unto him, “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” (Matthew 14:28-31).

The five thousand men had just been fed. The disciples were out on the water while Jesus prayed on the mountain. A contrary wind was impeding the boat’s progress; they were still in the middle of the Sea of Galilee in the early morning hours before the dawn. And then the disciples saw a most astounding thing!

A figure is walking across the water, and they quite understandably believe that it is a ghost (cf. Matthew 14:26). Jesus assures them that it is He. Here is One who can feed five thousand with five loaves and two fishes, and He can also walk on water to boot!

Peter then has one of his famous moments as a disciple. It is difficult to read his motivations here. Is he still not quite sure that the figure before him is Jesus, and therefore is indicating a lack of trust in the Voice he hears? And yet he asks Jesus to invite him out onto the water, a request that surely takes some level of faith? If nothing else we see that impetuous Peter has confidence in the powers of Jesus– at least initially.

Jesus tells him to come, and Peter walks on the water. We can only imagine the rush that Peter must have felt as he was doing something that mere mortals had never done. As long as he moved in full confidence of Jesus, all was well.

But then “reality” sank in. Peter sees the wind and experiences a loss of confidence. When the very thing that sustained him collapsed, so did he. He begins to sink and Jesus must rescue him, asking Peter to probe in his heart why his faith wavered.

Recently I have been working with my eldest daughter in trying to help her learn how to ride her bicycle without training wheels. She must learn how to balance herself properly. When she looks forward and keeps focused, she balances. But when she looks down for a moment, the confidence fades, and she lists to one side or the other.

Our faith, therefore, is a lot like bicycle riding. When we look forward, confidently trusting in Jesus and seeking His will, we are able to accomplish things that the conscious mind can barely imagine. But when the eye of our faith strays from the Lord and looks at the “reality” of the world, and our confidence wavers, we find ourselves stumbling, falling over or sinking.

In reality, the circumstances have not changed. The wind was there when Peter was walking on the water. When my daughter is balancing the bicycle the ground is still there. The challenge in such circumstances is being willing to overcome our doubts and our fears through our faith– to triumphantly and confidently trust in and depend on God in Christ no matter how dire the circumstances may seem or how hard it may seem if “reality” begins to set in.

The difference between little faith and great faith does not regard blindness to reality. Instead, the difference between little faith and great faith involves what we do when challenges come. If challenges to our faith come, and we allow those challenges to overcome our faith, then our faith was too little. But if challenges come and we persist in our faith despite those challenges, then our faith proves to be strong.

There are always times of stumbling. Even though my daughter does not want to think about it, the reality is that she will fall plenty of times before she learns how to ride the bike well. This story is not the last time Peter will hear regarding the smallness of his faith. And yet it is through those moments of stumbling that Peter develops the great faith of his apostleship, proving willing to suffer and even die for the Name of Christ (cf. Acts 5:41).

The life of faith is not guaranteed to be easy. Believers will be challenged. Many times they will stumble, and their faith will prove insufficient for the day. Nevertheless, we must continue to persevere and grow in the faith (cf. 2 Peter 3:18). Let us develop strong faith, trusting in the Lord no matter how challenging “reality” might be!

Ethan R. Longhenry