Bring It to Jesus

But Jesus said unto them, “They have no need to go away; give ye them to eat” (Matthew 14:16).

Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand is one of His best documented and compelling miracles. The event is attested in all four Gospels (Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:10-17, John 6:1-15). It becomes the springboard for Jesus to speak of Himself as the bread of life which proceeded from the mouth of God (John 6:16-71); it demonstrated, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the power of God present in Jesus, providing food out of nothing, just as God had sent manna to Israel in the wilderness (cf. Exodus 16:1-36).

Yet it is worth exploring how Jesus set up the situation. Jesus had withdrawn to the mountains; the crowds had followed Him, and He healed many (Matthew 14:13-14). They had come out in faith to Him and were not disappointed. As it became late the disciples, as seemed to be the custom, encouraged Jesus to dismiss the crowds to the neighboring villages to find food (Matthew 14:15). But this day would not take place according to usual custom; nevertheless, Jesus told the disciples to give the people something to eat.

The reaction of the disciples is telling. In Matthew 14:17, they saw that they have but five loaves and two fishes; in Mark 6:37, they asked if they themselves should go into town and buy two hundred denarii (1 denarius was the average day’s wage for a laborer) of bread; Luke combined these themes in Luke 9:13. We can share their astonishment. Five loaves and two fishes could not feed so many people; they would need a lot of money to buy a lot of bread to satisfy such a group!

We know the rest of the story: Jesus has them bring the five loaves and two fish to Him; He blesses and breaks the bread; the people eat and are satisfied; twelve baskets of bread remnants, no doubt more than the original mass of bread, was taken up afterward (cf. Matthew 14:18-21, etc.).

Jesus has accomplished a powerful miracle; we often speak of how all would have seen the “original” five loaves and two fish, and then would have seen the greater amount taken up in the end; it is a very public, and manifest, miracle. For many this narrative has great apologetic potential.

Yet, as Matthew tells the story, Jesus tells the disciples to feed the people (Matthew 14:16). He does this knowing quite well how they have but five loaves and two fish. He does this knowing they are not able to do this by their own strength or through their own efforts.

And yet He tells them to do it anyway.

As we have seen, the disciples react as you or I would react. First they assess the situation: they have five loaves and two fish. They would need to buy 200 denarii of bread to feed the multitude. They should get going if they are going to buy that much food.

But no, Jesus says. Feed them with what you have.

How can they do that? They must first give the loaves and fishes to Jesus. Jesus could then bless what they had and distribute it so that everyone’s needs were satisfied.

Matthew (as well as Mark and Luke) could have told the story in the way John does, speaking of it as a collaborative effort (John 6:5-9). But they did not; perhaps they had a reason to do so. Maybe they have a lesson they want to teach us.

What happened in this story? Jesus asked the disciples to do something which was impossible for them to do. They assessed the situation, recognized what would need to be done, and saw that it was beyond their present resources. They had to give Jesus the resources they had, and then and only then could Jesus make sufficient the resources they had given Him.

What would happen throughout the rest of the Gospel story as told in Acts? Jesus told the disciples to go and bear witness around the world (Acts 1:8). They assessed the situation, recognized what needed to be done, and saw that it was beyond their present resources. They gave themselves over to Jesus, and then and only then did Jesus make sufficient the resources they had given Him, and the Gospel message spread powerfully throughout the known world (cf. Colossians 1:6).

This proves to be the pattern for all followers of Jesus, for what is impossible with man is possible with God (Matthew 19:26). Jesus has called on all of us to do impossible things: be perfect as the Father is perfect; take up our cross and follow after Him; suffer loss for the Kingdom’s sake; refuse all the works of the flesh and manifest the fruit of the Spirit; proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation (Matthew 5:43-48, 16:24, 28:18-20, Mark 16:15, Galatians 5:17-24). We hear Jesus’ commands; we assess our situation; we recognize what needs to be done; we see it goes beyond our present resources.

At this stage we might despair; we might try to fight through using our own strength; yet in all these ways we are doomed to fail. It is only when we offer up to Jesus the few resources we have that He can take them and make them sufficient in us to accomplish His purposes (2 Corinthians 3:5-6, 9:8, 12:9-10, Philippians 2:12-13). We can then look back and see how the power of God worked through us to accomplish His good pleasure.

In this way the means by which Jesus fed the five thousand is instructive. He fed them through the work of His disciples even though He was right there the whole time; this was not by necessity but by means of instruction. The day would come when Jesus would no longer be physically present with the disciples, and yet the pattern would remain the same. That pattern remains to this day. We must bring to Jesus what God has given us so that He can make it sufficient to accomplish God’s purposes. We will not succeed through our own strength alone; may we learn to depend on the strength of God in Christ, fulfill His purposes, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Not in Vain

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not vain in the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Jesus’ resurrection is the ultimate game-changer.

Some among the Corinthian Christians declared that the dead were not raised (1 Corinthians 15:12). Paul writes strenuously in 1 Corinthians 15:1-57 to affirm the historical reality of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the centrality of the bodily resurrection of Jesus to the legitimacy of Christianity, and the nature of the bodily resurrection of believers rooted in Jesus as the first-fruits of the resurrection. He speaks of the day of resurrection to come when all the dead will rise and the corruptible will put on incorruptibility and the mortal will put on immortality (1 Corinthians 15:42-54). This, Paul declares, will be the ultimate victory over sin and death; this is the moment we have all been waiting for and for which we continue to wait (1 Corinthians 15:55-57).

But what does Jesus’ resurrection and the hope of our future resurrection mean for us now? In 1 Corinthians 15:58 Paul derives some present applications from the resurrection: be steadfast, immovable, and abound in the Lord’s work.

Why steadfastness and immovability? The Corinthian Christians had every reason to ground themselves in Jesus and His truth on account of His life, death, and resurrection, and they would face constant temptations from the world around them to compromise some of that truth. Paul says what he does to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16 for good reason: in the eyes of the world the belief that Jesus has been made King because He was executed by the Romans as an insurrectionist but God brought Him back to life, transformed Him for immortality, and He now rules over everything from Heaven sounds nuts. The world remains convicted of what is generally a truth: once you’re dead, you’re dead. The notion that someone could be brought back to life from the dead never to die again (Romans 6:1-11), in worldly logic, is positively ridiculous. Those Corinthians who denied the resurrection were just maintaining the worldview they had obtained from their ancestors. Many Jews believed in resurrection but could not conceive of God coming in the flesh and dying. Yet, as Paul said, Christ crucified and raised grounds our confidence for living (1 Corinthians 1:18, 15:20-28). To deny those central truths would mean departure from Christ and from the hope of life in the resurrection in Him (2 John 1:6-9); so Paul exhorts the Corinthian Christians, and by extension all Christians throughout time, to remain steadfast and immovable, ever affirming Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and lordship no matter how insane such a view is to the world!

Paul also declares that the Corinthian Christians, and by extension all Christians, are to abound in the work of the Lord on account of His resurrection and the hope of our own, and that we can maintain confidence that our labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). In this way Paul shows how the resurrection has changed everything. King Solomon, a millennium before the Incarnation of his Descendant Jesus, proclaimed that everything “under the sun” was vain (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12:8). Everything was vain, a breath or vapor, because of the universality of death: you lived only to die and everything you ever did or were would be forgotten (Ecclesiastes 1:4-11). All the labor you worked would perish or its benefit given to a descendant who would squander it (Ecclesiastes 2:18-26). It is good to be wise, but the wise man dies just as the fool (Ecclesiastes 2:15-16). The oppressor and oppressed both die (Ecclesiastes 4:1). Solomon as the Preacher saw the futility of life subject to decay and corruption because the positive joy of it all was as ephemeral as the activities that spawned it.

To this day the Preacher is right about all things “under the sun” in their own terms: if we trust in this world only we will be frustrated and forgotten. Yet, as Paul makes clear, the resurrection changes everything. Hope in the resurrection gives meaning where the Preacher could only see vanity. “Under the sun” all things might be forgotten, but they are not forgotten by God; labor under the sun may seem futile, but on the day of resurrection, when all are raised and stand before God, all will be judged and will obtain what is coming to them on the basis of what they have done in the body (2 Corinthians 5:10). All things may seem futile when seen only in terms of this life but maintain some meaning when seen in light of the life to come in the resurrection: the oppressor will have to pay for what they have done to the oppressed, the wicked will obtain their comeuppance, the righteous will see their reward, and what was formerly a breath or vapor will remain forevermore (1 Corinthians 15:1-57, Revelation 21:1-22:6).

Ever since Babel humans have been making monuments to their own greatness in their fear of death (Genesis 11:1-9); those remain futile endeavors, as vanity and striving after wind, lasting only for a moment before being forgotten, and the world moves on (Ecclesiastes 1:2-12:8). Yet all the labor expended in the name of God in Christ endures, for such efforts will not prove futile, a breath or a vapor, since our God is a God of resurrection. Our bodies may presently be subject to corruption, decay, and death; the day is coming when this corruptible will put on incorruption, and this mortal will put on immortality, death will be fully defeated, and righteousness shall reign (1 Corinthians 15:1-58, 2 Peter 3:10-13, Revelation 21:1-22:6). Yet how can we know? God is presently building that new creation through the resurrection of Jesus and those who have put their trust in Him as their Lord, living in the “now” despite the “not yet” of resurrection and salvation (2 Corinthians 4:1-5:21, 1 Peter 1:3-9). In Christ we become a new creation, having obtained reconciliation with God, and our efforts expended for His Kingdom will remain eternally with that Kingdom (Matthew 6:19-21, 2 Corinthians 5:17-20). Let us therefore, as with the Corinthian Christians before us, remain steadfast and immovable in our confidence and conviction in Jesus’ Incarnation, life, death, bodily resurrection, ascension, lordship, and the expectation of the day of judgment and resurrection to come, and always abound in the work of the Lord, knowing that through Him and His resurrection all will not be in vain!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Imitation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Work

And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it (Genesis 2:15).

In the midst of our lives of toil, one of the great fantasies providing comfort to many is the prospect of never having to work again. People dream about the never-ending vacation; many people count down the days to retirement.

But is a lack of having to work really so wonderful? Sure, for a few days, perhaps even weeks, doing nothing might be great. Yet, after awhile, people get antsy; they want to do something. Sadly, too many find out how their lives were sustained by their work or the stress levels accompanying that work; how many die of heart attacks within a couple of years after retirement?

It is interesting to see how people who really do not have to work still find ways to occupy their time and engage in various tasks and effort. Rich people rarely just sit around; they go out and do things. Many retired people end up being more busy and active in retirement than they ever were while working. Many who are disabled and unable to work find it a hard pill to swallow. No matter what, it seems that humans feel compelled to work, some way, some how.

This tendency should not surprise us, for man was made to work. When God created the world and created man, He took Adam and put him in the Garden of Eden to tend and keep it (Genesis 2:15). We do not know how much effort this would take, but it is important to note. Man was not created for leisure, nor was he created for hard bondage; the first man was created to tend God’s garden.

This work was not a curse; the curse would not come until sin entered the picture in Genesis 3. The curse took work as a beautiful thing and made it an onerous burden (Genesis 3:17-18). God’s curse upon man explains why so much of his work is expended just to survive with no lasting merit. The curse cannot entirely rob work of its dignity.

Work and effort provides many benefits for mankind. Our identities are wrapped up in our careers, our families, the organizations in which we participate, and other such things; all of them require work to some degree or another. We can find great enjoyment and comfort through creating things, making things, helping others, and such like, either through careers or in our personal time. There is a satisfaction in finishing a project or putting in good effort that can never come through slacking off or from a lack of achievement.

But we must be careful to not make an idol of work. Humans prove easily enamored with their own creative abilities and the things which they create; how many have turned away from serving the God of Heaven and have instead put their trust into the efforts and abilities of man? Many others make work the most important thing in their lives, sacrificing their own identities, their families, and perhaps even their happiness on the altar of work; no wonder such people are called “workaholics”! One of the greatest dangers man faces is believing that God will only be satisfied with us if we have worked hard enough or expended enough effort to please Him: while we are to work for God and strive to obey Him, we can never be saved by how well we have worked (Romans 3:20). We can only be saved through our trust in the Lord Jesus; our relationship with God is never something we can earn (Romans 4:1-12).

It is good for us to work and to keep our various efforts in their proper perspective. We are made to work and we will expend effort doing something in life, but will our efforts have any lasting significance? If we expend all of our energy toward the pursuits of this life alone, we will likely find that it will all perish when the present universe does (1 John 2:15-17). Instead, we must seek to promote the message of Jesus and serve God and our fellow man as He did; only by investing in people, encouraging them in the faith of Jesus, will our efforts ever find lasting benefit (Matthew 6:19-20). Let us work to advance the Kingdom of God and glorify Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

To Will and to Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

“But many shall be last that are first; and first that are last.
For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that was a householder, who went out early in the morning to hire laborers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the laborers for a shilling a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing in the marketplace idle; and to them he said, ‘Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you.’
And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise.
And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing; and he saith unto them, ‘Why stand ye here all the day idle?’
They say unto him, ‘Because no man hath hired us.’
He saith unto them, ‘Go ye also into the vineyard.’
And when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, ‘Call the laborers, and pay them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first.’
And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a shilling. And when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received every man a shilling.
And when they received it, they murmured against the householder, saying, ‘These last have spent but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’
But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a shilling? Take up that which is thine, and go thy way; it is my will to give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Or is thine eye evil, because I am good?’
So the last shall be first, and the first last” (Matthew 19:30-20:16).

When it comes to work and compensation, people tend to get very, very sensitive. Most people have some subjective standard in their minds regarding what types of effort are worth how much in compensation. For most people it is intolerable to think that some people are paid much to do quite little, and others are paid quite little to do much. Ultimately, for many, fairness and consistency is the key– if I work hard and do more than you do at the same job, I should get paid more, and you less. If we get paid the same, conventional wisdom says, I am being punished for doing more and you are rewarded for doing less. In such a circumstance I am better off doing less and making the same. Perhaps such logic is part of the reason why communism has not worked out so well in practice.

It is quite easy to translate such thoughts and feelings to the spiritual realm. Many would like to think that there are levels of reward in eternity. Those who did more should be more greatly rewarded, right? And those who did less should receive less, right? Surely those who did more should receive greater prominence, and those who did less should receive lesser prominence!

And yet Jesus overthrows this line of logic, just as He does with so many other expectations that humans have based upon how the world works. He presents a parable regarding workers in a vineyard, and the parable itself has a statement as its “bookends”– the last shall be first, and the first last (Matthew 19:30, 20:16). This connects the parable with what came before– the distress of the rich young ruler, the declaration that what is impossible with man is possible with God, and that those who follow Jesus and sacrifice for doing so will receive a hundredfold in the “regeneration” or “new creation” (Greek palingenesia) and will inherit eternal life (Matthew 19:16-29). The rich may be humbled and the poor exalted, indeed, but Jesus wants one thing to be entirely clear: the Kingdom presents a very level playing field.

He communicates this through the parable. The sense of the story is easy enough to understand. In what was a very common circumstance in Jesus’ day, an owner of a vineyard hires men as day laborers to work the vineyard. He begins going around 6 in the morning and hires workers for a denarius— the average day’s wage for a laborer (Matthew 20:1-2). The money is not extravagant but is also not measly. Later in the day– at 9am, 12pm, and 3pm– the owner does the same, but does not specify the wage, but says he will give “what is right” (Matthew 20:3-5). He even goes out at the eleventh hour– 5pm, one hour before work tended to be finished for the day– and finds men idle, and hires them as well (Matthew 20:6-7). When the day was done and the wages were to be paid, the steward is instructed to begin with those who came at 5pm, and they received a denarius even though they worked but an hour (Matthew 20:9). Ostensibly those who began work from 9am through 3pm also received a denarius each.

And then we get the original workers– those who began working for the denarius. They have the same mentality we all have, and they start trusting in a vain hope. “Well,” they say, “he gave them a denarius. We have worked far longer than they have. We should be getting more!” But they also receive a denarius (Matthew 20:10). They do what any one of us would likely do– they began grumbling. This is patently unfair. “We” deserve more because they got what we got even though we worked more and/or harder. And so the workers grumble (Matthew 20:11-12).

Now comes the paradigm shift. We hear from the owner of the vineyard. He declares that he has done them no wrong, and in truth, he has not– he promised a denarius, they received a denarius (Matthew 20:13). The owner is in charge of the money and dictating how he will pay his workers, and if he wants to be generous toward those who worked less, who can tell him that he is wrong for doing so (Matthew 20:14-15)? The owner concludes, literally, by asking them if their eyes are evil because the owner is good– in effect, asking if they begrudge his generosity or are envious of it (Matthew 20:15)?

Many have extrapolated fancy ways of interpreting the parable. Some overlay Biblical history upon it, understanding the different laborers as successive periods of covenants between God and man, with the Gentiles coming in at the eleventh hour. Others look at it exclusively in terms of Jews and Gentiles. While such concepts are interesting, and it is true that the Gentiles are lately brought into the fold in which the Jews have been for generations (cf. Ephesians 2:1-18), such expositions are far from the heart and soul of this parable. We need not extrapolate periods of time or types of people to make sense of this parable– we just need to think about people!

The owner of the vineyard is God. The vineyard is the Kingdom. The marketplace represents the world, and those in it waiting for work are those seeking the truth. Those entering the vineyard are those who obey Him. Some begin serving the Lord from a young age, working many years in the Kingdom, and God has promised them the hundredfold inheritance and eternal life (cf. Matthew 19:29). Others enter at various stages of life– in their 20s or 30s, or more toward middle age– and such are those entering the vineyard from 9am through 3pm. Some might come to the faith as older people or with very little time left on earth to serve God; such would be those coming at 5pm.

Ultimately, they all receive the same as what is promised to the first group. They all get the same reward– the denarius. It is not out of disrespect to the “original” workers but a reflection of the magnanimity and generosity of God the Master. This logic is offensive to the world but ought to be a source of joy to those in the Kingdom. It is not designed to be a damper on spirituality and spiritual growth– it should not lead anyone to assume that they can just squeak into the resurrection without diligently seeking to serve God. Quite the contrary (Matthew 7:21-23, 10:22, 19:16-26). Instead, this message is hope for the world. It does not matter whether you enter His vineyard at 9am or 5pm– the important thing is that you enter His vineyard, and once you are in it, to work diligently to serve the Master! Salvation can be had at any age– because salvation, ultimately, is more about what God has done for us and establishing that association with Him, and not about what we “deserve” based upon what we have done (Ephesians 2:1-18)!

In the resurrection all saints should be sated with glory beyond understanding and eternal life (Matthew 19:29, Romans 8:17-18). Those who worked for a long time and those who worked for a short time will both receive it. Let us praise God for the opportunity for salvation and eternal life and let us all be active in His vineyard!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Principle of Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Sanctifying God

And the LORD said unto Moses and Aaron, “Because ye believed not in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them” (Numbers 20:12).

It was another waterless place in the desert (Numbers 20:1). The refrain had grown to be quite typical.

“Would that we had died! Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us by thirst?”

Numbers 20:3-6 sounds a lot like Exodus 16:3 and Exodus 17:1-2. The people grumble because their memories are quite short. Moses entreats God, and God provides the necessary food or drink.

Yet things are much different in Numbers 20. This time Moses and Aaron bear the brunt of God’s hot displeasure. It is this instance at Meribah that leads to the curse of Moses and Aaron. They will not enter the Promised Land.

But why did this curse come about? Why does God so strongly censure these two men who have experienced such indignity for so long at the hands of God’s people?

God told them quite specifically to speak to the rock, and the rock would bring forth water (Numbers 20:8). But Moses did not speak to the rock. He struck the rock– twice (Numbers 20:11).

Is this the cause of God’s hot displeasure? It’s entirely possible. But it would seem a bit odd. After all, this is the same Moses who killed an Egyptian (Exodus 2:12) and was quite recalcitrant about following God’s will (Exodus 3-4). Furthermore, at Rephidim, God told him to strike the rock (Exodus 17:6), so there was a sort of precedent for the action. Aaron, for his part, was complicit in the Golden Calf incident, even lying about the calf’s origin (Exodus 32:1-4, 22-24). These things seem a bit more serious than striking vs. speaking.

But Moses and Aaron did more than just strike the rock. They spoke.

And Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said unto them, “Hear now, ye rebels; shall we bring you forth water out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10).

Notice the way that Moses words this question: shall we bring water out of this rock?

We?

What powers do Moses or Aaron have to bring water out of the rock?

We cannot know for certain whether Moses’ use of the first person plural pronoun was a thoughtless remark or whether he was intentionally trying to present the idea that he and Aaron were in some way responsible for the water about to come from the rock. But we do know that God took great offense at the idea. The water was not coming from Moses or Aaron at all. It was coming from the hand of God.

The statement, however consciously uttered, demonstrates that Moses is identifying himself quite strongly on the side of the Almighty, and even presuming to have a hand in things that the Almighty is doing. For that he receives most deserved censure. Such a statement betrays a belief in the efforts of Moses, not trust in God. Moses and Aaron did not demonstrate to the people their own dependence on God. They did not sanctify the name of God among the people in this matter. And, lest there be any later confusion, Moses and Aaron would not make it to the Promised Land– there is a distinction between the LORD God and Moses/Aaron.

This is a good example for us (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:1-12). It is right and proper for believers in Christ to strive to be holy as God is holy and to seek to conform themselves to the image of the Son (1 Peter 1:16, Romans 8:29). Nevertheless, there is always a difference between God working through us and our working. There is only room for three within the Trinity– the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit– and none of us are any of these Three. It is not about us, our promotion of ourselves, or our work. In the end, it is all about God and His glory being proclaimed, and that, in part, through us (cf. 1 Peter 1:6-9, 4:11).

Therefore, we are never saved purely by our own effort– that is impossible (cf. Romans 1-3). We, ourselves, do not convert anyone– we are servants who proclaim the message, and God gives the increase (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:5-8). We are not the ones sustaining or nourishing the church, Christ’s body– we have the pleasure of being part of that body and being sustained by our Lord (cf. Ephesians 5:22-33).

The great sin of Moses and Aaron was that they got so caught up on being on the Lord’s side that they confused their own part with the Lord’s part. It is good and right for us to seek to be on the Lord’s side. But let us always remember who we are, and, just as importantly, who we aren’t, and do not presume that God working through us is our work that we can claim for ourselves. Let us always serve God, remembering to sanctify Him and not ourselves!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Labor

For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, If any will not work, neither let him eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10).

Even though we may not always enjoy it, we recognize the value of labor and effort.  It seems that people rarely can get away without expending effort or labor. Most of us have to labor in order to make a wage to survive.  Yet even those who no longer have to labor still tend to engage in various forms of effort, for charitable purposes or toward hobbies or some such thing.  While people can spend a short amount of time doing very little, for most, that gets old and boring after awhile!

This is understandable, for human beings are designed to work.  Even before the Fall, God created man in order to work to tend the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15).  After the Fall, perpetual effort for food was part of the curse given to men (Genesis 3:17-19).  Ever since, people have recognized the necessity of labor in order to provide for the necessities of the family (2 Thessalonians 3:10, 1 Timothy 5:8).  Those who are lazy or unwilling to work earn the scorn of people in all sorts of societies (2 Thessalonians 3:7-14, Proverbs 19:15)!

Labor, therefore, has value.  Yet ever since the Tower of Babel, mankind has been attempting to make name for himself and not be scattered through his projects of labor (Genesis 11:1-4).  Man attempts to find personal meaning from their labor, and seek to believe that their labor has lasting, perpetual value.  Yet the Preacher tells us that, on our own, our labor will not last, we will not be remembered, and everything will continue as it was (Ecclesiastes 1:7-11, 3:9-10, 4:4-8).  This is not to say that labor has no value, but we should not presume that everything we do, on its own, has lasting value.  The Preacher also encourages people to find (temporary) value in their labor, and to do with all their might what their hands find to do (Ecclesiastes 3:13, 22).

If we seek to find permanent value in our labor, it must come through God in Christ.  God’s efforts and God’s purposes are the only things that last forever (Ecclesiastes 3:14-15).  When our labor is done for God’s purposes and for His Kingdom, even the seemingly trivial daily tasks can take on eternal significance (Matthew 6:33, Ephesians 3:10-11, 5:23-6:9).  Labor that is done for Christ’s purposes is never in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58)!

It is important that we labor according to God’s purposes, providing for our families, being full of works deemed good by God, and in so doing storing up treasure in Heaven (Matthew 6:19-20).  Let us work for the Master!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Work and Effort

For what hath a man of all his labor, and of the striving of his heart, wherein he laboreth under the sun? For all his days are but sorrows, and his travail is grief; yea, even in the night his heart taketh no rest. This also is vanity. There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy good in his labor. This also I saw, that it is from the hand of God (Ecclesiastes 2:22-24).

For better or worse, man was made to work (Genesis 2:15). The world is full of the evidence of the “business” of mankind, and the work cycle will continue until the Lord returns.

It is within the heart of man to work. Not working– and not wanting to work– is an aberration (1 Timothy 5:8, 2 Thessalonians 3:10). Work provides people with a level of purpose and meaning along with the paycheck to pay for life’s necessities.

Unfortunately, too many labor under many false pretenses about human effort. From a young age we are told that we can make something of ourselves and that we should find work that empowers us or helps us find meaning. We should try to find some job with lasting value. Every employer tries to find some way to make the effort of their employees fit these bills.

The difficulty is, as the Preacher indicates, that human effort is ultimately vain. Things that people make break or perish. Accumulated wealth goes to children or others. You can work at a job for years, retire, and eventually be forgotten. In the end, it will all burn up (2 Peter 3:9-10).

Meanwhile, how many find themselves at 25 or 35 in the job of their dreams as a young child? Not many. Instead, cold, hard reality has set in, and how many suffer great distress and discouragement because of broken promises or failed dreams?

This is why the Preacher’s message, while disconcerting, needs to be heard. We are not promised that our work will be ultimately meaningful. Instead, we must find value in our work. We must find some way to enjoy what we do. We spend far too much of our time and effort in our short lives at work to do otherwise!

We must also realize that work is the means to an end, and is not the end all and be all of existence. Serving God serves that purpose (Galatians 2:20, Ephesians 2:1-10, Titus 3:3-8). We must find enjoyment in work and enjoyment in the rest of life. Does this mean that we might have to change jobs? Perhaps. But most times it has less to do with the job and more to do with our perspective on the job. Let us lay aside our pretensions about our effort, find value in our effort, and do all things to the glory of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry