Unity of the Spirit

Giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).

God accomplished amazing and stupendous things in order to create and cultivate the Church of His Son Jesus Christ. What will we do with it?

In Ephesians 2:11-3:13 Paul had highly stressed the place of the church in God’s divine economy. In the composition of the church is found the testimony of the manifold witness of God according to the eternal plan purposed in Jesus (Ephesians 3:10-11). The church is the temple of God and His household (Ephesians 2:19-22). And so, after Paul established the importance of walking worthily of the calling in Jesus (Ephesians 4:1), he then emphasized the importance of working together as the church to build it up (Ephesians 4:3-16). If we would work together as the church to build it up, we must give diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).

“Giving diligence” is the Greek spoudazontes, meaning to make haste, exert oneself, give diligence (Thayer’s Lexicon). A more verbal form of the same word is found in 2 Timothy 2:15 in the exhortation to be diligent to present ourselves as approved to God, workmen without needing to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. Many have made much of the King James Version’s use of “study” to translate spoudason in 2 Timothy 2:15, although in the 17th century it meant something more like “give diligence” than the modern “bookish” meaning of study. Thus Christians are as much to “study” to keep the unity of the Spirit as they are to “study” to present themselves as approved by handling the word of truth rightly. The same Apostle makes both exhortations; there is no basis on which to consider one as greater or superior to the other. There is no justification to be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit at the expense of the word of truth: unity in the Spirit is grounded in the truth of what God has accomplished in Jesus, and there can be no unity when the truth of the faith is compromised (Romans 16:18-19, 1 Timothy 4:1, 6:3-10). And yet there is also no justification to be diligent to be unashamed workmen who rightly handle the word of truth at the expense of unity in the Spirit: the “word of truth” in Ephesians 2:11-3:13 declares God’s work in reconciling to Himself and to each other all who would trust in Jesus, and Paul will go on to declare the “word of truth” of the inherent unity of the body and the faith in Ephesians 4:4-6, and so any undermining of Christian unity in the Spirit is undermining the word of truth itself!

Christians are to give diligence to “keep” the unity of the Spirit. “To keep” is the Greek terein, meaning to attend to carefully, guard, keep, preserve (Thayer’s Lexicon). Christians are not the architects of unity in the faith; it is not for us to establish it, impose it, or somehow create it. On our own we hated and were hated in turn, living in the lusts of our flesh as children of wrath (Ephesians 2:2, Titus 3:3). It required Jesus’ death on the cross to kill the hostility and to provide the redemption and reconciliation we did not deserve nor could do anything to earn or merit (Romans 5:6-11, Ephesians 2:11-15). When we believe in Jesus, confess that faith in Him, repent of our sins, and are immersed in water in Jesus’ name, we are in a spiritual sense immersed into the one Spirit into the one body (1 Corinthians 12:13). God has established the unity of Christians in Jesus; God has made us all one man in Jesus through His Spirit (cf. Romans 12:3-8); we therefore cannot create or fabricate that unity. Instead, we must guard diligently the unity we already have. Tribalistic divisions, factions, and wars testify to the enduring power of hostility and hatred to this day; as Christians we are always tempted to compromise with the world, to take up the banner or the flag of various causes, peoples, and nations, and conduct ourselves in such a way as to endanger the unity of the Spirit. Our zeal is far too often misdirected, focused on the chastisement of the people of God, often majoring on the minors, rather than a critique of self and an outward push into the world to proclaim the Gospel of the Christ. Unity in the Spirit is not a default state or what we find natural; only through diligent effort will we keep the unity of the Spirit.

The unity of the Spirit is to be kept in the bond of peace. “Bond” is the Greek sundesmo, that which binds together, like a ligament in the human body (as used in Colossians 2:19), or a bundle (Thayer’s Lexicon). As ligaments connect muscles in the human body, so peace is what connects Christians in the unity of the Spirit. That peace is not the mere absence of hostility, but the elimination thereof: Jesus killed the hostility between God and man and man with man on the cross (Ephesians 2:11-18). True unity can only be nourished and sustain where there is true peace. As long as there is hostility and enmity there will be tension and hostility. If we would be diligent to maintain the unity of the Spirit, we must maintain the bond of peace. If we would maintain the bond of peace, we must strive for that which makes for peace.

How do we strive to make for peace? Paul has already listed the characteristics which lead to such peace in Ephesians 4:2: maintaining humility and meekness, manifesting patience, showing tolerance for one another in love. A similar “recipe” is found in Philippians 2:1-4. When we speak of unity we all too often speak of doctrinal uniformity; while agreement on doctrine is crucial to joint participation in the faith, evident from 1 Corinthians 1:11, doctrinal agreement is not sufficient to establish unity in and of itself. We must agree on the truth of God in Christ, but then we must act like it. We must demonstrate humility, recognizing that all of us are redeemed sinners, prone to mistakes, of equal standing and value before God, and to adjust our opinions and ideas about ourselves and others accordingly. We must be meek, maintaining the strength of conviction and faith, but keeping it under control, exercising it judiciously and with love so as to build up. We must be patient with one another: “long suffering” is the literal meaning of Greek makrothumia, and that is precisely what patience demands. Brethren can be insufferable at times; such is true of you and me as well. We are all different people with different backgrounds and ideas: we can consider that difference as a source of conflict, strife, and difficulty, and try to eliminate it, or we can learn to appreciate the differences which exist among us, focusing on how God is glorified when different people come together as one in faith in Jesus, and thus show tolerance for each other despite each other’s quirks, flaws, and challenges.

We have come to understand the power which exists in the unity of a family. It should be no different for the household of God! God has broken down the walls of hostility in Christ so we can all share in the same faith and obtain the same salvation; should we not now strive to keep and guard this precious unity in the Spirit which was obtained at such terrible cost, and embody God’s purposes for His creation before all those who would resist them? May we keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace to the glory of God in Christ, and share in relational unity for eternity!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Left Your First Love

“But I have this against thee, that thou didst leave thy first love. Remember therefore whence thou art fallen, and repent and do the first works; or else I come to thee, and will move thy candlestick out of its place, except thou repent” (Revelation 2:4-5).

Many would have reckoned the church in Ephesus to be sound.

On a Lord’s day while in exile on Patmos John received a vision of the Lord as one like a Son of Man and the Ancient of Days (Revelation 1:9-20). John was commissioned to write what he saw and send it to the seven churches of Asia; before the vision would proceed Jesus, in the Spirit, would communicate specific messages to each of those seven churches (Revelation 2:1-3:22). Ephesus, the main city of Asia, would be the first destination; therefore, Ephesus was addressed first.

Jesus had many good things to say about the church in Ephesus: the Christians there had worked hard. They had maintained patience in general but did not endure evil men; they had put so-called apostles to the test and found them to be false; they hated the works of the Nicolaitans, which Jesus also hated (Revelation 2:2-3, 6). The Christians in Ephesus had manifestly taken Paul’s warning to heart: they were on the lookout for the wolves that would not spare the flock; they stood firm for the truth and resisted all those who taught doctrines contrary to it (cf. Acts 20:29-31). The church in Ephesus was strong for the truth.

But Jesus had something against the church in Ephesus: they left their first love (Revelation 2:4). Jesus summoned them to repentance, to remember where they had fallen, and to do the works they had done before, or else He would come and remove their candlestick/lampstand from its place (Revelation 2:5)!

The Ephesian Christians were battle hardened, but they also proved battle weary. The passion and zeal which had marked their lives when they first heard the Gospel had cooled. They did not abandon the truth; they did not deny the Lord; but the love, the fire, the passion, and the zeal were no longer really there.

And so Jesus called upon them to “backslide,” to change their hearts and minds and to reignite the passion and zeal they once relished. The consequences for not doing so were strong: Jesus would remove their candlestick, their presence before Him.

Jesus went on to write to many other churches regarding situations which most of us would deem far more dire than what transpired in Ephesus: Christians practicing sexual immorality, idolatry, or so wealthy they thought they had need of nothing from the Lord (Revelation 2:8-3:22). And yet, even in the midst of all of those difficulties, it is only the church in Ephesus which is explicitly warned about the removal of their candlestick.

How could that be? It is not as if sexual immorality or idolatry can be justified; God would judge and condemn all who would persist in immorality, and Jesus warned explicitly as much (e.g. Revelation 2:22-23). And yet in those churches some lived faithfully before God; thus, their candlestick would remain. Why would the Ephesians be in such danger? Such is the power, and importance, of love.

God is love (1 John 4:8); His love has motivated His creation of the universe and His disposition toward it. Jesus embodied the love of God for humanity, dying on the cross for our sins (John 3:16, 14:6, 1 John 4:7-11). The foundational command of Christianity is to love one another as God has loved us (John 13:35, 1 John 4:7-21). Thus, it is no hyperbole when Paul said that if he knew all the mysteries and had all knowledge but did not have love, he was nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2).

True sacrificial love is the fuel of any healthy relationship; husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25). The marriage relationship in which love has gone cold is in danger of fraying and being destroyed; the only solution is for each person in the marriage to repent and renew the fires of love. Thus it is within the church: any Christian whose love for the Lord and/or His people has gone cold is in danger of falling away from the Lord and being cut off from His body; the only solution is to repent and renew the fire.

Jesus knew of the faith of the Ephesian Christians; but He could do nothing with them as long as their love remained cold; He could do more with lukewarm Laodicea than He could with loveless Ephesus! We hope and pray they renewed their passion for the Lord’s purposes and remained in good standing in His presence for some time.

While Jesus speaks in the Spirit to seven real and specific churches in Asia, we should not imagine the messages are restricted to those specific seven churches. In many respects the seven churches of Asia are paradigmatic churches; over time many other local congregations will manifest many of the same characteristics.

This is especially true in terms of Ephesus, and it is a danger we do well to consider. It is easy for Christians to make Christianity all about the truth: the acceptance of the truth, adherence to the truth, and chastisement for any variation from the truth. In such an absolutist perspective the only thing that becomes important is where people stand in relation to truth. It is all about obedience to the truth. “Sound churches” hold to a firm doctrinal stance; everyone else is apostate.

Christianity is about Jesus, who is the truth (John 14:6); we must obey the truth of the Gospel (Romans 1:5). We must be on guard against the dangers of false teaching (1 Timothy 4:1). But Christianity, in the end, is about speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:16); the church in Ephesus is our warning sign that a church can make a firm stand for the truth and yet still apostatize because they have abandoned the love of God in Christ.

Truth, therefore, is necessary, but not sufficient in and of itself. It never has been and never will be. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, because He is the embodiment of the God who is love (John 3:16, 14:6, 1 John 4:8). Health in a local congregation can never be defined merely by doctrinal positions; Ephesus would pass that test, but was about to be removed from its place before Jesus! There is more hope for a church with misdirected passion than one who accepts the truth but has no zeal for the Lord’s purposes; it is much easier to channel passion properly than to revive cold hearts.

Thus, even though many would have reckoned the church in Ephesus to be sound, it was on the verge of apostasy. The church in Ephesus had the truth, but they did not have love, and so they were nothing. Faithfulness in the truth only has benefit if it is motivated by deep love and passion for God and His purpose. May we stand firm in the truth of God, zealous for His purposes, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Declaration of the False Prophet

And it came to pass the same year, in the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the fourth year, in the fifth month, that Hananiah the son of Azzur, the prophet, who was of Gibeon, spake unto me in the house of YHWH, in the presence of the priests and of all the people, saying,
“Thus speaketh YHWH of hosts, the God of Israel, saying, I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two full years will I bring again into this place all the vessels of YHWH’s house, that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon took away from this place, and carried to Babylon: and I will bring again to this place Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, with all the captives of Judah, that went to Babylon, saith YHWH; for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon” (Jeremiah 28:1-4).

When reading the history of Israel it can be very easy to wonder why the Israelites would not listen to the prophets. They warned about upcoming dangers, and those dangers came to pass. Why were they so foolish?

While such a response is understandable we have to be very careful. The history of Israel in the Old Testament is true and told the way God wants it to be told. Yet, and for good reason, much of what was said and done in Israel was not preserved, especially the words of the false prophets. One exception to this is found with Hananiah son of Azzur in Jeremiah 28:1-17, and his example is quite instructive for us.

The context is set in Jeremiah 27:1-22: near the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah and son of Josiah YHWH told Jeremiah to make iron yokes to send to the kings of the neighboring nations with the decree that YHWH was giving all those nations, along with Judah, into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon (ca. 596-592 BCE; Jeremiah 27:1-6). All those nations were to serve Nebuchadnezzar and his sons or suffer destruction; they should not listen to all the prophets, soothsayers, diviners, or anyone else who would presume to say that they will not have to serve the king of Babylon (Jeremiah 27:7-10). Those who served Nebuchadnezzar would stay in their land (Jeremiah 27:10). Jeremiah brought the same message to Zedekiah king of Judah: serve Nebuchadnezzar, stay in the land, and live, and do not listen to those who prophesy lies and speak falsely (Jeremiah 27:11-15). Jeremiah took the same message to the priests and the people, declaring that all things left in the Temple would also be taken to Babylon, but they would be restored on a later day of YHWH’s visitation (Jeremiah 27:16-22).

Within the same year we hear of Hananiah son of Azzur, called a prophet of Gibeon: he spoke to Jeremiah in the Temple in the presence of all the people (Jeremiah 28:1). His message was exactly what Jeremiah had warned against in Jeremiah 27:11-22: a claim that YHWH has broken the yoke of the king of Babylon, and within two years all those vessels which had been taken out of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar in the days of Jehoiachin would be brought back to Jerusalem (Jeremiah 28:2-3; cf. 2 Kings 24:1-16, Daniel 1:1-2). Jeconiah (another name for Jehoiachin) king of Judah would return along with the other captives (Jeremiah 28:3; cf. Daniel 1:1-2). After Jeremiah challenged Hananiah’s legitimacy Hananiah broke the yoke bar Jeremiah was still wearing; YHWH through Jeremiah sharply condemned Hananiah to death for having spoken rebellion (Jeremiah 28:4-16). Within three months Hananiah was dead (Jeremiah 28:17). Two years later nothing much had changed in the geopolitical situation. Within six years Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed, Zedekiah had been blinded and carted off to exile, and all that YHWH had spoken through Jeremiah had come to pass (Jeremiah 52:1-27). No doubt remained: YHWH spoke through Jeremiah but did not speak through Hananiah.

We can understand why most of the authors of Scripture do not take up space directly quoting false prophets; their messages proved false and it is better for us to hear the true words spoken by the faithful prophets (2 Peter 1:21). But it is good for us to see Hananiah’s words here as representative of what false prophets would say, why they would be motivated to say it, and why people believed them.

Hindsight, it is said, is 20/20; after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile it is easy to commend Jeremiah and condemn Hananiah. But the people of Judah in 592 BCE did not have that advantage. From their point of view Hananiah’s message was preferable not only politically but theologically as well. They believed YHWH was God of Israel; they believed He dwelt in the Temple in Jerusalem. He would not give His glory to another. Had not the mighty Assyrians invaded about a century before and yet YHWH preserved Jerusalem from their grasp (701 BCE; 2 Kings 18:1-19:37)? If YHWH was their God, and He is greater than Marduk and the gods of Babylon, then surely He would preserve Jerusalem yet again. Judah would outlast Babylon as he had Assyria. Yes, the king, Temple furnishings, and the nobility had been exiled, but YHWH would bring them back. That made sense to the people. It was consistent with their expectations. Jeremiah’s message, on the other hand, was precisely not what anyone wanted to hear. Serve a foreign king? Submit to bondage? YHWH would see the rest of the vessels transported in exile to Babylon? The Babylonians would overrun the holy place? Such ideas were deeply offensive to the people of Judah, contrary to everything they believed about themselves, their God, and their land. No wonder they persecuted him and wanted him dead (Jeremiah 26:11-24)!

In the end Jeremiah was vindicated. He would have considered it cold comfort; he was not exactly excited about the prospect of watching the devastation of his people, his land, and the triumph of the pagan enemy. But he understood it was the judgment of YHWH on account of the transgressions and rebellion of the people. Few proved willing to listen to him beforehand; even afterward people questioned his sincerity (Jeremiah 43:1-4). The event was a tragedy all around, the greatest moment of crisis in Israelite history to that day.

Hananiah was not alone. Not a few prophets warn about the influence of false prophets and the suppression of the true message of prophets (Isaiah 29:10, Ezekiel 13:9, Micah 3:5, Zephaniah 3:4). Jesus warned His disciples to be concerned when all men spoke well of them, for thus they did to the false prophets who had come before them (Luke 6:26)! The false prophet’s message sounded better, made more sense, flattered people’s sensibilities, did not demand as much, and instilled complacency among the people. Viewed in that light it is not surprising the people listened to the false prophets. Their message was always easier.

The spirit of prophecy has passed on (1 Corinthians 13:8-10), yet there remain to this day those who speak falsely in the name of God. Their words sound good; they seem to make sense; they flatter people’s political and religious sensibilities; they often instill a sense of complacency. They are just as wrong and just as dangerous as was Hananiah (1 Timothy 4:1-4). Our trust must be in YHWH and in the truth He has revealed in Scripture, and we must test all spirits against that standard (2 Peter 1:20, 1 John 4:1-2). Let us put our trust in God in Christ, test all things, and proclaim His truth, no matter how unpopular!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Heard From the Beginning

As for you, let that abide in you which ye heard from the beginning. If that which ye heard from the beginning abide in you, ye also shall abide in the Son, and in the Father (1 John 2:24).

Even the early Christians of the first century had to contend with false teachers and divergent teachings regarding the faith. Their presence and tactics upset the faith of some. Part of John’s purpose in writing his letter is to assure, comfort, and confirm them in their faith in the Son of God.

John provides some clues as to the nature of these opponents. He calls them “antichrists,” those teaching and working in opposition to Christ (1 John 2:18). They participated in Christian assemblies for some time, seemingly a part of the group, but departed and no longer maintained that association (1 John 2:19). They denied that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; in doing so, they denied the true nature of the Father as well (1 John 2:22-23). They are actively working to lead Christians astray and follow their doctrines (1 John 2:26). They likely do not practice righteousness as defined by God in Christ (1 John 2:29, 3:3-10). Since John uses similar ways of speaking of the opponents in 2 John 1:7-11, they may well be the same or closely related groups; in 2 John the opponents deny that Jesus came in the flesh (2 John 1:7).

These opponents, at the least, are docetists: docetists taught that Jesus was not really flesh and blood human, but only seemed to be human (from Greek dokeo, “to seem”). They perhaps saw Jesus something akin to our idea of a hologram or some spiritual being that seemed to have physicality but did not. These opponents may also have been developing the ideas that would become manifest in many Gnostic groups in the second century and beyond; Gnostics (from Greek gnosis, knowledge) were as internally divided as they were opposed to “orthodox” Christianity, but most Gnostic groups believed they had a superior knowledge to that of Christians and understood the “real” spiritual story behind what is found in the Bible. They often infiltrated Christian assemblies, seeming to go along with everything being said and done while privately attempting to influence individual believers to consider their extra level of knowledge. Gnostic versions of the Jesus story proved to be some of the most dangerous and pernicious heresies to challenge the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ in the first few centuries following the death of the Apostles. Even in its nascent forms John perceives the danger in these teachings: they deny the physicality of Jesus, and therefore undermine the Apostolic proclamation of Jesus’ Incarnation, death, and resurrection, for if Jesus were never truly human, He was never truly born, did not really die, and therefore could not have been raised from the dead. If Docetism and Gnosticism were accurate, the Christian faith was a lie, since Jesus was not raised from the dead, and we all remain in our sins (1 Corinthians 15:12-20)!

John must assure and confirm his beloved fellow Christians in their faith, reminding them of the truth of the Gospel, persuading any who might be falling prey to these false teachers. He reminds them of the anointing they received from God, their knowledge of the truth, their confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, and their persistence in the Lord’s commands and walking as He walked (1 John 2:3-6, 2:20-23, 3:3-10). One can have confidence in faith when one follows after the Spirit and accomplishes righteousness (Matthew 7:15-20, 1 John 2:1-3:10), and this fruit is clearly not evident in the opposition. Yet one of the lynchpins of John’s argument is found in 1 John 2:24: early Christians should abide in what they heard from the beginning, for if they preserve themselves in the message they heard from the beginning, they will abide with the Father and the Son. “From the beginning” is the Word of Life, manifest as the Lord Jesus Christ (John 1:1-5, 14-18, 1 John 1:1-4). The beginning of Christianity is Christ, the Incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth, His life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and promised return, and the original Apostolic proclamation of Jesus as the Christ over the Kingdom of God (Acts 2:14-41, 1 Corinthians 15:1-10, Philippians 2:5-11, 1 Timothy 3:16, Hebrews 7:12-9:28). This was the truth of the Gospel proclaimed from the beginning; these docetic and gnostic ideas came later. John affirms the truth of God was lived and proclaimed before it was perverted and distorted by later false teachers (cf. 2 Peter 3:15-16). John’s beloved fellow Christians should not be troubled or disturbed in their faith because of these Docetists and/or Gnostics; they had come to know and believe in the faith in Christ as originally proclaimed by the Apostles, the true, “orthodox” (from Greek ortho doxos, right belief) faith. They had learned the authentic faith; they had no need to follow after later, poorer imitations.

John’s exhortation has resonated throughout Christianity ever since. Early Christian apologists appealed to the principle of the existence of orthodox teachings before heresy, and sought to demonstrate continuity between the churches of their day and the churches founded by the Apostles (this has, in part, led to the idea of apostolic succession in Roman Catholicism, but the entire argument falls apart if a given church’s teachings today vary greatly from its teachings in the past). John’s exhortation should resonate with Christians today as well.

Over the past 1900 years many more divergent teachings have been introduced in Christianity; many are hopelessly confused about how to truly follow Jesus on account of all of these competing voices. In such a confused religious environment we do well to reclaim John’s message in 1 John 2:24: let us abide in what was heard, and therefore, proclaimed, from the beginning, the original and apostolic Gospel of Christ. This Gospel is still preserved for us in the pages of the New Testament, and can be proclaimed, believed, and acted upon in its original, primitive purity. Such is why the call for restoration of New Testament Christianity ought to remain relevant in the twenty-first century: not because Christians should live in the Mediterranean basin, speak Koine Greek, and wear tunics, but because the original, apostolic, primitive Gospel is the only message which has received God’s seal of approval in Christ (Romans 1:16). It remains the faith delivered once for all to the saints (Jude 1:3). It is the only Gospel by which people can come to the full truth and understanding of Jesus of Nazareth, the Word of Life made flesh, who lived, died, was raised again in power, and now reigns as the Risen Lord in heaven, and who will come again on the final day, and of the Kingdom of that Christ, in which God calls all men to participate in Him to this day. When we abide in the original, pure Gospel of Christ, we abide in the Father and the Son. If we pursue a divergent message which came later, shaped by the philosophies of the world or in reaction to the errors of others, we are left with no confidence, from Scripture, that we would continue to abide in the Father and the Son.

John is absolutely right: the truth comes first; error comes later. Let us prove willing to uphold the pure, primitive, apostolic Gospel of Christ as proclaimed from the beginning, restoring New Testament Christianity in the twenty-first century, and abide in the Father and the Son!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus: The Way, the Truth, and the Life

Thomas saith unto him, “Lord, we know not whither thou goest; how know we the way?”
Jesus saith unto him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life: no one cometh unto the Father, but by me. If ye had known me, ye would have known my Father also: from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him” (John 14:5-7).

Sometimes it is all a matter of emphasis.

John 14:6 is a famous Scripture, and rightly so: in it Jesus neatly encapsulates the essential claim He makes as the Son of God: He is the way, the truth, and the life, and the only way to the Father is through Him. When discussing this Scripture we often emphasize “the”: Jesus is THE way, THE truth, and THE life. This is well and good: since the fulness of Godhead dwells in Jesus bodily, and He is the exact imprint of the divine nature, He truly is the embodiment of God and all God is (John 1:1, 14, 18, Colossians 2:9, Hebrews 1:3). In our day and age the claim seems arrogant but is really the necessary conclusion: if God is life, love, holiness, and truth, and Jesus is God embodied, then He is the way, the truth, and the life, since anything can only be true if it is consistent with Him and His purposes.

But Jesus is not making this statement in a vacuum. He is speaking to His disciples and is trying to encourage them. He encourages them to believe in God and in Him, trusting that He is going away to prepare a place for them and will return to receive them to Himself (John 14:1-3). He assures them that they know the way to where He goes (John 14:4). This sounds strange to the disciples: Thomas speaks up, confessing that they do not know where Jesus is going, and therefore, how can they know the way (John 14:5)? Jesus tells them: I AM the way, and the truth, and the life (John 14:6). He will go on to show them how they have seen the Father through Him since the Father has spoken and worked through Him (John 14:7-11). The Spirit will come to assist them; if they love Jesus, they will do His commandments (John 14:12-19). Therefore, the disciples really do know the way: they have lived with Jesus, they have seen Jesus teach and work, and it is now for them to follow after Jesus and think, act, and feel like Jesus!

So yes, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. But it is also true, as Jesus says, that I am the way, the truth, and the life.

It would be difficult to believe that this I am has no theological undertones. In John 8:58, Jesus declares that before Abraham was born, I am, and the Jews picked up stones to stone Him for blasphemy (John 8:59). I am is the name which God gives to Moses to tell the people of Israel in Exodus 3:13-15; the Divine Name YHWH (likely pronounced Yahweh) is a nominal form of I am and means “The Existent One” or “The One Who Is.” Jesus says that if you have seen Him you have seen the Father; He says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6-7). Jesus is YHWH just as the Father is YHWH! As God, He most certainly is the way, the truth, and the life.

In many ways this declaration is the type of statement on which the entire Christian religion is built. Christianity is based upon the Person of Jesus and the “good news,” the Gospel, of His life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and ultimate return (Acts 2:36, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8). So much of Christianity is tied up within Jesus as a Person: the Gospel is superior to all which came before it because God has now spoken to us through His Son (Hebrews 1:3). Law codes had existed for years; in Jesus we have truth embodied, walking around, teaching, doing, serving (John 1:14, 18). Little wonder, then, that Paul encourages Christians to imitate him as he imitated Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1), and how after saying that we know that we know Jesus if we do His commandments, John says that we know we abide in Jesus if we walk as He walked (1 John 2:3-6).

We do well to remember that Jesus says that He, Jesus, is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). Yes, the Scriptures have been inspired by God, and we do well to know them and to use them to guide our thoughts, feelings, and deeds (cf. 2 Timothy 3:15-17), but we must remember that even the Scriptures confess that they are written so that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing in Him we may have life in His name (John 20:31). The Scriptures are the way by which we learn about Jesus, the Way. The Scriptures tell us the truth about Jesus, the Truth. Through Scripture we are directed to Jesus, the Life. They provide the means to the end and are not the end in and of themselves. One can know the Scriptures from cover to cover, but if that knowledge does not lead to trust and confidence in Jesus the Way, the Truth, and the Life, then it is all in vain, and will not save (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9).

The Bible testifies to the truth that Jesus is Lord, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the only Way to the Father. The Bible is not Lord; Jesus is Lord. As we seek to understand the truth of God in Jesus as revealed in Scripture, and as we affirm our faith in Jesus as the exclusive way to the Father, let us keep in mind that we are serving an actual Person, fully God and fully man, and it is that Person, Jesus, who embodies the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Let us pattern our lives after Jesus, abide in Him, and be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jannes and Jambres

And even as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses, so do these also withstand the truth. Men corrupted in mind, reprobate concerning the faith (2 Timothy 3:8).

As we investigate the Scriptures, there are times when we pass over certain details without much notice. There are times when we see certain details, find them interesting or perplexing, and move on anyway. There are times when we note certain details and are spurred on to learn more about them. And there are details for which we go through all three processes at different times.

The mention of Jannes and Jambres in 2 Timothy 3:8 could be one such detail. Paul talks about them in terms of Moses, so we know that they refer in some way to some story somewhere in Exodus through Deuteronomy. They are in opposition to Moses; Moses had a lot of people opposed to him, so that is not too surprising. We broadly understand the basis of the reference: just as they opposed Moses, so there will be some in the “last days” who will oppose the truth, ungodly people, corrupted in mind, reckoned as reprobate in the faith (2 Timothy 3:1-8). Ultimately, these sinful people will be exposed for who they are, just as Jannes and Jambres were (2 Timothy 3:9).

But if we perhaps dwell a moment on the detail, we might get perplexed a bit. Those names do not sound familiar. If we do some research and investigation, we discover that the only references to Jannes and Jambres is right here in 2 Timothy 3:8! Who are Jannes and Jambres, anyway? Where can we learn about them? Or is Paul just making stuff up?

Among the “pseudepigraphal” texts, religious yet uninspired books generally written just before, during, and after the life of Christ, there are references and stories regarding Jannes and Jambres. We learn about them from references in texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls along with “Jannes and Jambres,” a text of which a few fragments have been preserved. All of these texts and traditions consider Jannes and Jambres to be the two Egyptian magicians who stand in opposition to Moses in Exodus 7:1-8:19.

In Exodus they are considered as unnamed “magicians,” able to turn their staffs into serpents, turn the Nile to blood and to bring frogs upon the land. Nevertheless, they were not able to match the plague of the gnats, nor of any of the later plagues which God brought upon the Egyptians through Moses. They confessed that the plague of the gnats demonstrated “the finger of God” (Exodus 8:19). The magicians would later no longer be able to stand before Pharaoh when the plague of boils came upon them (Exodus 9:11).

These other texts, particularly “Jannes and Jambres,” suggest that the magicians were two brothers, and they stood up in opposition to Moses even though they knew that through Moses came the power of God. The story suggests that Jannes dies soon after because of his opposition, and after their mother died, Jambres, through necromancy, conjured the spirit of his brother who confessed the just nature of his death as a penalty for opposing the power of God and warned his brother to turn from his behavior. The fragmentary nature of the texts we possess means it is difficult to say much more about the story.

What we see in these texts and traditions does seem to reconcile well with Paul’s statements in 2 Timothy 3:8-9. Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses; their folly was made evident to all men.

Does this mean that “Jannes and Jambres” is inspired? No; we have no reason to think that. What we do see is that there is this tradition regarding the names of at least two of the Egyptian magicians who opposed Moses as Jannes and Jambres. As with all sorts of Biblical characters, additional stories were told about them, and more than likely those stories do not bear much relation with anything that really happened to the actual Biblical characters. But they do exist; Paul is not making up stuff.

Jannes and Jambres, therefore, provide an illustration and a warning. There always will be people who oppose the truth, thinking they act in the service of a cause they do not know is lost. They may be able to “work their magic” and deceive for a time, but a moment will come when their foolishness will be evident to all. God will obtain the victory; truth will be victorious, and error will be exposed for what it is. Opposition to God can only go so far.

Jannes and Jambres is a small detail easily overlooked when studying in 2 Timothy. It requires some investigation to understand Paul’s referent and why he makes it, but the effort is worthwhile in the end. As in the days of Moses, so it is in our own day: God’s truth stands firm, opposed to error, and will have the victory. That which is false cannot hide in the shadows forever, and it will be exposed for the fraud it is. Let us be wise and not foolish; let us stand firm in the truth of God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Exclusivity of Christ

Jesus saith unto him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life: no one cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).

The story is told of six blind men who were asked to determine what an elephant looked like by feeling different parts of the elephant’s body. The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe. It is then explained to the six blind men how they were all correct inasmuch as each touched a different part of the elephant. Yet, if each asserted that the elephant was only the part which they touched, they would be inaccurate and incorrect.

This story is often told in order to suggest that truth can be stated and understood in different ways. On a purely human level, this is true: we see as through a mirror dimly, our perspective is often distorted, and especially when it comes to different people experiencing the same event or issue, the truth is generally somewhere in the middle (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12, Proverbs 18:17). Yet, in our pluralistic society, this story of the blind men and the elephant is used to suggest that such is true of all religions and all viewpoints: none of them have a monopoly on the truth, but each emphasizes different aspects of truth. To suggest that one religion maintains the truth is seen as intolerant, exclusivist, and a product of a bygone, arrogant era.

In reality, claims of inclusion and exclusion, “tolerance” and “intolerance,” are as old as mankind. The ancient Greeks and Romans were quite inclusivist and “tolerant” in religion, identifying many of the gods of different nations with their own gods as well as accepting and believing in the gods of the nations which could not be so easily associated with one of their own. Their inclusivism is illustrated by the Athenian altar to the unknown god, providing sacrifice to any and all god(s) not identified lest they feel neglected and cause distress among the people (cf. Acts 17:23). Such “inclusivism” was in fact the norm of the ancient world; anyone who would assert their god or religion as having an exclusive hold on truth would be considered highly suspect.

Perhaps the most prominent such group were the Jews. Their insistence on their God as being the only god and their refusal to conform to the standards of the people around them was always an issue: at best, they were tolerated on the basis of the antiquity of their customs, and at worst, they experienced persecution and suffering, even death, for holding firm to their beliefs.

Jesus of Nazareth came into this world at this time. He lived as a Jew throughout His life, fulfilling the Law (cf. Matthew 5:17-18). He not only affirmed the exclusivity of the God of Israel but even took it one step further: He, Jesus of Nazareth, as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, was the only way to God the Father (John 14:6). His early followers did not seek to compromise this belief or water it down in any way: they affirmed that Jesus was the only way to salvation before religious authorities (Acts 4:12), and declared how Jesus was Lord to all who would listen. Christian exclusivism was not looked upon kindly in the Roman world; even though Christian apologists attempted to “antiquate” their belief system by associating it with Judaism and the Old Testament, many Romans believed Christianity to be a novel and dangerous superstition, suggesting that Christians were atheists since they denied the existence of all gods but their own.

We should not be deceived, therefore, into thinking that the conflict between “exclusivism” and “inclusivism” is new. Yet how can Christians be so confident that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the only way to the Father and to salvation?

This claim is not meant to be understood arrogantly or as sheer presumption, nor does it suggest that all other religions have no element of truth to them. The claim is instead rooted in a proper understanding of Jesus. According to the Bible, Jesus of Nazareth maintained the fulness of the Godhead in bodily form (Colossians 2:9). To have seen Jesus was to have seen the Father: the character of the Father was manifest in Jesus, and Jesus is the exact imprint of the divine nature (John 1:18, 14:9-11, Hebrews 1:3). The Bible upholds Jesus as the ultimate Example for mankind, the One whom all others should emulate and follow (1 Corinthians 11:1, 1 John 2:6). This, by the way, is the one aspect of Jesus which few deny: His goodness, His excellent character, and the quality of His teaching.

If Jesus is the ideal Man, having taught and done all things well, and He represents the exact imprint of the nature of God and set forth the fulness of God, what truth is lacking in Jesus? If religion exists in order to provide us with a better understanding of the divine and its nature, what could surpass the divine taking on flesh and dwelling among us? If God is one, and Jesus is the embodiment of God (Deuteronomy 6:4-6, John 1:1, 14), from what other source could we gain a better understanding of God or what is true?

Humans in their limitations can only see parts of the truth; human religion, therefore, will suffer from the same deficiency. No human religion can express the totality of truth, a reality implicitly confessed by those who seek to be inclusive and pluralistic. Six blind men touching different parts of the elephant will come to different conclusions, but the elephant remains the elephant. Different religions and belief systems fumble and stumble toward the truth, and each may grasp at some aspects of the truth, but the truth remains the truth. If Jesus is God in the flesh, then Jesus is truth. All other belief systems and ideologies must be subjected to Him as the ultimate expression of what is real and what is true (cf. Colossians 2:1-9)!

Those who recognize and value authentic items dispense with any copies or forgeries, and so it is with the truth. Jesus is God in the flesh, the Truth embodied; who or what else can compare to Him? If He is God in the flesh, why would we turn to any other belief system to find truth when the truth is standing before us in Christ? Such is exclusivistic; truth is exclusivist by its very nature. Such is deemed as “intolerant”; so truth must be reckoned against what is not true.

Yes, in life, we are finite, imperfect creatures, and we will only be able to understand a finite amount regarding the truth. Yet the truth remains the truth whether we discern it, believe it, accept it, or not. The Bible claims that Jesus, as God in the flesh, is the embodiment of Truth; we either accept this or reject it. We do well to stand firm in the truth by declaring that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the way to the Father and salvation, even if that claim does not sit well with others. Let us establish Jesus as Lord of our lives and live to glorify and honor Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Mark of True Discipleship

“A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; even as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:34-35).

What is supposed to define a disciple, or follower, of Christ?

For the better part of 1,750 years, one could be forgiven for thinking the answer involved finding and adhering to the right doctrines regarding Jesus. For most of its history Christianity has seemed to focus on determining the nature of God and Christ, how salvation is accomplished, the relationship between the believer and the church, the church and the state, and a whole host of other matters. Upon these matters most of the written records focus; comparatively precious little is said regarding the practice of the faith. Perhaps the practice of the faith was more strongly emphasized in other contexts; perhaps it went unsaid because there was little disagreement regarding it.

The Bible does insist on a good understanding of God in Christ and the substantive message of the faith and the need to stand firm within it (2 Timothy 2:15, Jude 1:3, 2 John 1:7-11). Yet it is worth noting what Jesus Himself emphasizes as the true mark of His followers. He does not say that all men will know we are His disciples by the doctrines we teach, the truths we uphold, or the persuasive arguments we make. The mark of true disciples of Jesus is their love for one another (John 13:35).

The statement seems so simple, so obvious, and yet it is quite compelling and extraordinarily challenging. It is not as if this is the first time that the disciples have been told to love one another; the Law exhorted them to love their neighbors as themselves (Leviticus 19:18), and all Israelites would agree that fellow Israelites were their neighbors (cf. Luke 10:25-29). That aspect of the command is “old,” but Jesus adds a twist which makes it “new”: they are to love one another as He loved them (John 13:34; cf. 1 John 2:7-8). God is love (1 John 4:8); Jesus, God in the flesh, is the embodiment of love (John 1:1, 14, Hebrews 1:3, 1 John 3:16). We can therefore understand the love Christians are to have for one another by understanding the way Jesus conducted Himself among His disciples.

Jesus called His twelve disciples, not because of who they were at the time, but on account of their willingness to follow and because of what Jesus knew they could be (Matthew 10:1-4). He spent a lot of time teaching them; many of Jesus’ teachings were directed to the disciples, even if others were present (e.g. Matthew 5:1-7:28), and would provide further explanation to them in other contexts as well (Mark 4:33-34). Nevertheless, the disciples proved slow to truly perceive and understand what Jesus was saying; He remained patient with them (cf. John 13:36-38, 14:5-8, etc.).

But Jesus went beyond instructing them in word; He also showed them in deed the things He was saying (1 John 3:18). He showed His love for them by serving them, finding no task too humiliating or “beneath” Him (John 13:1-11). He took care of their material needs many times (e.g. Matthew 17:24-27). He prayed to the Father for them (John 17:1-19). In the moment of His greatest need they forsook Him and even denied Him; He loved them anyway, died for them anyway, and welcomed them back joyfully in His resurrection (John 18:1-20:23, 1 John 3:16). Jesus embodied the definition of love toward His disciples: He was patient and kind with them, did not envy or boast, was not arrogant or rude, did not insist on His own way, was not irritable or resentful, did not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoiced with them in the truth, bore their deficiencies and iniquities, continued to believe in them, hoped in them, and endured with them. His love for them never ended (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a).

As we can see, coming to an understanding of the truth of God in Christ Jesus and His Kingdom is part of showing love to one another, but does not and cannot fully embody what it means to love one another. Yes, we are to learn about Jesus, but that learning is not supposed to be merely an intellectual exercise or an end unto itself; we are to learn about Him so that we can be more like Him (Romans 8:29, 1 John 2:6). Doctrine is important: we feel and act based upon what we believe, therefore, we must have the right beliefs if we are going to feel and act as we should. Yet, as Jesus makes abundantly clear, mere intellectual understanding was never the goal; knowledge of God in Christ is designed to inexorably lead to reflecting the characteristics of God in Christ.

Jesus’ phrasing might seem odd to us: how is it that all men will know we are disciples of Jesus by our love for one another? Would they not understand how we are disciples of Jesus by our love for them? It is not as if Christians are to not love those outside the faith (cf. Luke 6:27-36, Galatians 6:10), but Jesus’ emphasis on love toward one another is well-placed and quite poignant. We like to think that people are persuaded to follow Jesus through well-constructed and persuasive arguments. Some are convinced through such apologetics, but God knows us better than we know ourselves, and recognizes that very few people are ever convinced about anything on account of rational argumentation. In the end, God is not interested in just setting up an alternative mental construct through which to see the world; Christianity was never designed to just be the correct philosophy of the world.

The true mark defining a group of disciples is their love for one another. How do they treat each other? If Christians love one another like Jesus has loved them, they will remind each other of the truths of God in Jesus (cf. 2 Timothy 4:1-5). But they will also show great concern for one another, making sure that each other’s material needs are met (Galatians 6:10, 1 John 3:17-18). They are patient and kind with one another; if they sin against each other, they forgive each other and bear with one another (Colossians 3:12-14). True followers of Jesus understand that they have all sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God, and feel comfortable enough with one another to open up and confess their sins, faults, and failures, entrusting themselves to one another, even though they will at times hurt each other and betray each other (James 5:16). They love each other anyway. They share with each other anyway. They build each other up anyway.

Where else in the world can such love be found in true community? People in the world crave that kind of love, acceptance, welcome, and openness. People want to be loved; people want others to be patient with them; people want to be treated kindly and considerately; people want to share life together. People want a greater purpose in life and to share in that mission with others, and so it all is supposed to be in Jesus. If Christ’s followers show love to one another as we have described it, others will want to share in that experience, and they will themselves be inspired to follow Jesus (cf. Matthew 5:13-16)!

But what happens when people claim to follow Jesus but do not manifest that love? The history of “Christianity” is full of examples of such failures, and they have given the faith a bad name and have given reason for the nations to blaspheme. Emphasis on right doctrine alone led to wars, death, misery, and pain for untold thousands; to this day, how many people associate Christianity with the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the people on the street spewing forth messages of condemnation? The world is full of different groups of people who only see each other’s failings, show little patience with one another’s faults, constantly nitpick and judge each other with a view of denigrating them, and feel important or special because of their knowledge or means by which they identify themselves. There’s nothing special or attractive about such groups, and if some such groups try to wear the name of Christ, it’s little wonder why they struggle to grow or be effective in any meaningful way.

Followers of Jesus show love to one another in a number of different ways, and they are all important, but only insofar as they point back to Jesus, glorify Him, and are done with a view to reflecting Jesus to one another and our fellow man. Jesus knows what He is doing; He has good reason to make love for one another the clear identifier of His true followers. Any group of people professing to follow Jesus which does not share in love toward each other has not truly understood Jesus. Any group which professes to follow Jesus and to have the love they should have but do not adhere to the truth of God in Jesus Christ has not really understood all that the love of Jesus requires. But it is just as true that anyone who thinks they have understood the true knowledge of God in Christ but does not show true love to His fellow Christians has not really understood the true knowledge of God in Christ and certainly has not perceived the end to which we are to learn of Christ. Instead, let us follow after Jesus the way He intends. Let us come to a better knowledge of Jesus, understanding how He lived and loved, so that we can love each other as Jesus intends!

Ethan R. Longhenry

A God of Peace, Not Confusion

For God is not a God of confusion, but of peace (1 Corinthians 14:33a).

Satan likes to insert a question mark where God has made a period.

From the beginning, God has sought a peaceful relationship and harmony with His creation (Genesis 1:31, 2:25). Ever since, Satan has attempted to challenge what God has established, spreading confusion among mankind (cf. Genesis 3:1-6).

By all accounts, the Evil One has been quite successful. Even if we just investigate into the various groups claiming to follow Christ we find a dizzying array of differing attitudes, doctrines, and practices. Everything from the nature of God to the nature of the relationship between Christians is disputed in some way or another. In such an environment, many despair of ever coming to the knowledge of the truth. It is easy to get discouraged; it is easy to see why many believe that we will always remain in a state of confusion.

But we do well to remember what Paul told the Corinthians. It appears that the Corinthian assemblies were quite the spectacle: different people prophesying at the same time, others speaking in different languages, often with no one to interpret. An outsider could be forgiven for thinking them all quite mad (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:23)! This was not what God intended with the spiritual gifts He provided through the Holy Spirit at this time; the Corinthians needed reminding that God was not a God of confusion, or instability, tumult, or commotion, but a God of peace. He remains the God of the “still, small voice,” and not of “the wind, earthquake, or fire” (1 Kings 19:11-13).

Even though the gifts all came from God, it was up to His servants the Corinthian Christians to use them properly and toward the right ends (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, 14:26). His good gifts could be misdirected toward a confusing commotion that was not of the truth but of worldliness and immaturity. They could use what God had given them to strengthen and build up or to weaken and tear down.

While we do well to keep these things in mind when it comes to our assemblies today, Paul’s reasoning holds true in every aspect of our lives as Christians. God is not a God of instability, confusion, or commotion, but a God of peace, and that remains true outside of the assembly as much as within it.

God is not the author of the confusion of the modern mind, religious or secular, despite what many might claim. God made known His truth through Jesus and His Apostles (Matthew 18:18, John 8:31-32, 14:6). Part of that truth was the confession that many would sow confusion among Christians, promoting the teaching of demons, leading people astray from the truth (1 Timothy 4:1-3, 2 Timothy 4:3-5). This has never been the Lord’s intent, and it never will be. Nevertheless, He does not compel or coerce. He has given us the revelation of His message through Jesus and the Scriptures; it is up to us as to whether we will abide by His message for good or whether we will misdirect His message for selfish, immature, and improper ends.

God communicated His message so that it could be understood and followed (John 8:31-32, Romans 8:29). It is lamentable to see how effective Satan has been at getting people to question and challenge the revelation of God, vaunting their own methods and idols above the ways of the Most High. But God remains a God of peace, not confusion. His message allows us to be reconciled back to Him in sincerity, truth, and love (Romans 5:6-11). Love rejoices with the truth but cannot do so at unrighteousness (1 Corinthians 13:6), and God is love (1 John 4:8). Therefore, let us entrust ourselves to the God of love and peace, finding rest in Him, and not be tossed to and fro by the challenges, questions, and disputations which come from the author of confusion, Satan and his minions. Let us pattern our lives after the God of peace, not the author of confusion and commotion!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Not to the Right or to the Left

“Only be strong and very courageous, to observe to do according to all the law, which Moses my servant commanded thee: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest have good success whithersoever thou goest” (Joshua 1:7).

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Such a line will not deviate toward any other direction. But such is really true only in ideal terms; in our reality, there is no such thing as a completely straight line. It is possible to make a line seem very straight indeed, but we cannot make a perfectly straight line. This nicely illustrates the human predicament.

God has provided a standard for living; in the old covenant, it was the Law of Moses. Ideally, Israel would hold firm to the Law, observing everything in it, not deviating at all, or, as God encouraged Joshua, and in turn Joshua the people, “to not turn from it to the right hand or to the left” (Joshua 1:7, 23:6). In the new covenant in Christ, we are to love and know God and keep His commandments, walking as Jesus walked (1 John 2:1-6). This remains the ideal.

And yet none of us can live up to that standard perfectly. Peter and Paul declared as much in regards to Israel and the Law (Acts 13:38-39, 15:10, Romans 3:20). John understands that Christians do not live up to the ideal either (1 John 1:8-2:6). If we cannot perfectly go straight, why would God provide such exhortation to Israel and to Christians today?

The ideal is not worthless or irrelevant simply because no one save Jesus has ever lived up to it perfectly. God has always understood our deficiencies as humans; such is why He established the sacrificial system in the Old Testament, and continues to grant grace and mercy through Jesus in the New Testament (cf. Leviticus, Romans 5:6-11, 8:1-39). And yet we must not become complacent or content by acknowledging our imperfection; it is easy for us to think that since we cannot live up to the ideal perfectly, we should not try! Therefore, we do well to confess that the ideal is ideal: we should be following what God says perfectly. We should walk in God’s ways without any deviation; we should go “straight” and should not go “to the right hand or to the left.” When we do deviate from God’s command, we ought to admit as much, change our minds and ways, and return to the good path (1 John 1:9). In all things we must place our trust in God and His ideal way for mankind (Hebrews 11:6)!

The image of going “straight” and not turning “to the right hand or to the left” also underscores the necessity of balance. While it remains true that many people have deviated from God’s path and purposes on account of rebellion and a desire to sin, many others have deviated from God’s path because they overemphasized certain aspects of God’s truth to the detriment of other aspects.

This proves quite easy to do; we humans easily go to extremes. We rightly see a problem with one side; it is tempting to run far to the other side in response. We see certain groups associated with certain practices; it is tempting to want to go to the other extreme so that no one would confuse “us” with “them.”

This is why it is important for us to remember that God wants us to not deviate to the right hand or to the left; truth is rarely, if ever, found in the extremes. Furthermore, there remain many aspects of the faith that are held in a sort of tension: God’s sovereignty and grace with human freedom, for instance, or the imperative to holiness with the imperative to love, mercy, and grace. The Scriptures are filled with examples of people who have gone to one extreme or another: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the “Judaizers,” the Gnostics, and so on.

God is far greater than ourselves, and His truth remains sublime (Isaiah 55:8-9, Romans 11:33-36). God has set forth His standard for the creation and all mankind; it is up to us to confess its value and make it our goal in life. Whenever we deviate from that standard, either by stumbling into some sin, or by overemphasizing certain aspects of truth to the detriment of other aspects of it, we must change our ways and seek to re-align our will to God’s. God’s ways and God’s truth remain ideally straight, firm, and balanced; we, in our sin and corruption, have turned to the right or to the left. Let us turn away from all deviations and seek to glorify God in spirit and truth in all we think, say, do, and teach!

Ethan R. Longhenry