Tell Us Plainly!

The Jews therefore came round about him, and said unto him, “How long dost thou hold us in suspense? If thou art the Christ, tell us plainly” (John 10:24).

The questions and the suspense had finally boiled over; a confrontation proved necessary. The Israelites wanted clarity. Is Jesus of Nazareth really claiming to be the Messiah? They wanted to hear Him tell them so plainly.

Jesus was yet again in Jerusalem, this time for Hanukkah or the Feast of Dedication, and He was walking in the Temple (John 10:22-23). The Jewish people of Jerusalem had heard Jesus teach them before and had heard of the many miracles which He wrought (John 5:1-10:21). Questions constantly surrounded Jesus and His teachings: is He the Christ? Do the rulers know this? Would the Christ do more miracles than Jesus had done? Is He mad? Yet what about His teachings (cf. John 7:26-27, 31, 10:19-21)? How Jesus was going about doing things led to more questions than answers, and the Jewish people could wait no longer. When they found Him at the Temple in Jerusalem, they confronted Him and asked Him pointedly: are you the Messiah, the Christ, the One God promised to send to redeem Israel? Yes or no? They wanted a plain answer. Was that too much to ask?

Jesus does not just say “yes” or “no”; He points out that He has given them plenty of reason to believe because of the works He has done (John 10:25). He then castigates those Israelites because they are not of His flock since they do not believe; the Jews pick up stones to stone Him because He made Himself out to be God (John 10:26-33). This seems to be a theme in John’s Gospel: some Jews who believe or who directly ask Jesus about who He is become those who pick up stones to stone Him for what they perceive to be blasphemy (cf. John 8:31-59).

Yet this interaction between Jesus and these Jewish people brings up a good question, one asked frequently about Jesus and the way He conducts Himself in the Gospels: why would Jesus not tell them plainly? Is He trying to hide something? If He is the Messiah, the Christ, would He not want all the people to know it and proclaim it upon the rooftops? Why does Jesus seem to be at least somewhat evasive or ambivalent about declaring His Messiahship clearly?

Such questions are understandable coming from us humans; we see things the way we see them and it is often hard for us to consider the matter from another perspective. But Jesus answers as He does and conducts Himself as He does for very good reasons that are sometimes easy to miss. In John 2:24-25 it is said that Jesus did not trust Himself to humans because He knew what humans were about. This is especially true with the question the Jewish people had: “are you the Christ?”

Jesus knew well what they meant by “the Christ”; they had particular expectations about what the Messiah would be and do. Based on their understanding of the prophets they looked forward to a Davidic descendant who would ride into Jerusalem in triumph, raise an army, defeat the pagan Roman forces, and inaugurate a renewed Davidic kingdom centered in Jerusalem. From this perspective we can understand the bafflement of the Jewish people when it came to Jesus; He was not about re-establishing a physical Davidic kingdom as in days past. The Romans were not even His real enemy! But we can also understand why Jesus could not have just simply said, “Yes, I am the Messiah,” for then the people would hail Him as king and attempt to force Him to become the Messiah of their desires and understanding. Yet God’s plan was not the plan of Israel; they had not put the message of the prophets together properly.

Jesus’ response is quite instructive. Jesus points His Jewish questioners back to the things He had done and how they bear witness to Jesus’ Messiahship (John 10:25). If they recognized that the true signs of the Messiah had been done by Jesus, they would have recognized Jesus as the Messiah, and would have adjusted their expectations and understanding of the Messiah’s mission and purpose accordingly. This is the direction in which Simon Peter and the Apostles head in John 6:67-69: they may not have full understanding of what is going on, but they have come to believe that Jesus is the Holy One of God who has the words of eternal life. Jesus’ message to the Jewish people may sound harsh but rings true: they are not of His flock, for they have not proven willing to set aside their expectations so as to be able to see what God is doing through Jesus, and as long as they cannot get past the expectation for all things to be done as they imagine they should, they will never be able to understand Jesus’ true identity and purpose (John 10:26-39).

To this day people frequently make similar demands of God or His people. They expect for God or His people to answer their questions simply and plainly and really are demanding for God and His work to conform to their perspective and expectations. For good reason it is rarely possible to give such questions easy “yes” or “no” answers; the very question itself or the way the question is phrased often belies a improper view or expectation of things. To this day people suffer from the same problem as those Jewish people did so long ago: they see things the way they see them, they have their expectations, and prove rather unwilling to question those assumptions and expectations. Yet whomever we are or whatever we believe we must recognize that God’s ways and thoughts are higher than our ways and thoughts, and therefore we must yield our expectations, perspective, and understanding to His (Isaiah 55:8-9). There are likely many things going on beyond our comprehension, either ever or at least for the time being, and so we are left with the same conundrum as the Jewish people experienced during Jesus’ ministry. Do we put our trust in Jesus of Nazareth on the basis of His works and teachings and in so doing radically revise our expectations of how God is working in the world, or do we continue to find reasons to doubt Jesus’ Messiahship because who He is and what He is doing does not make sense with everything we have ever heard?

At some point we all reach the point of divergence in the path, and we must choose whether we will trust in God or trust in our perception of things, or, as the Apostle Paul put it, whether we will walk by faith or by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). We can come to God and demand that He answer our questions plainly, but we should not expect that answer to be simple or the one we would like to hear. Instead we do better to entrust ourselves to God, confident that even though we may not be able to make sense of everything, He can and does. Let us trust in God in Christ and not ourselves!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Desiring God

Nevertheless I am continually with thee: Thou hast holden my right hand. Thou wilt guide me with thy counsel, And afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides thee (Psalm 73:23-25).

The Psalms begin with a wisdom psalm affirming the way things should be: the righteous prosper while the wicked fade away in transience (Psalm 1). The third book of the Psalms attempts to come to grips with the feeling that this is not always so (Psalm 73).

Asaph does not deny God’s goodness to Israel and those who are pure in heart (Psalm 73:1). Yet he was prone to stumbled for he was envious of the arrogant on account of the prosperity of the wicked (Psalm 73:2-3). These are not the “good people” who “deserve” what they have; they are arrogant, foolish, impious, oppressive, the rich people only fellow rich people tolerate (Psalm 73:4-12). Asaph is left to wonder if his righteousness has gotten him anywhere or anything (Psalm 73:13-14).

Asaph wants to know what we all want to know: why do the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer? He sees it is a wearisome task to consider the question (Psalm 73:16). But while he goes to stand before the presence of YHWH in the Temple he gains a critical insight (Psalm 73:17). To what do the wealthy wicked look when they see the future? Asaph sees their worst case scenario: they lose all their wealth and fall into ruin, and all that in but a moment (Psalm 73:18-19). They are left with nothing; they are exposed as naked and helpless through calamity and disaster.

Asaph feels pricked in heart based on this insight; he recognizes the surpassing value of what he has by being continually with God, who holds His right hand, guiding him with His counsel, ultimately to receive him to glory (Psalm 73:24). Asaph then cries out a notable declaration: whom does Asaph have in Heaven but God? Asaph desires nothing on Earth besides God (Psalm 73:25). His flesh will fail; God will be his strength forever (Psalm 73:26). The wicked will perish, but Asaph knows that YHWH is his refuge and will proclaim His works (Psalm 73:27-28).

There is little pretense in the Psalms; in them life is exposed for all that it is, both what is beautiful as well as what is ugly. The Psalms do not tolerate the pious fictions we like to tell ourselves, knowing that since we should feel in certain ways and not feel in other ways, we will not speak publicly when we fall short, and all pretend that all is well. Asaph makes his admission: he was stumbling in his trust in YHWH because he was envious of the wealth of the wicked. If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that we at times have been guilty of the same envy. Like Asaph, we want to know why; we always seem to want to know why.

Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer? From the ancient Near Eastern world until today the assumption has been that people prosper when righteous and suffer when wicked. The book of Job is all about Job and his friends having to come to grips first with the possibility that a person might suffer illness or indignity but not as a result of sin and then by extension that wicked people prosper despite their evil. Yet no explanation is really given. The Preacher considers questions of this sort as vanity (Ecclesiastes 8:14). These days we tend to point to God’s “common grace,” that God gives rain to the just as well as the unjust (Matthew 5:45), or we just put off the question, as in the song “Farther Along,” presuming that we will understand everything at some point in a future realm.

Yet for Asaph the question does have an answer; it is a real and present one, but it only could be discerned in the presence of God. The whole question presumes that material wealth is true wealth and material lack is true poverty, health is true wealth and illness is true poverty, or favor is true wealth and adversity is true poverty. Asaph sees that reality is not that simple. It is easy to be envious of the wealthy because we want what they have; nevertheless, their wealth can be their own prison. Asaph describes the greatest fear of the wealthy: the deprivation of all they have (Psalm 73:18-19). That fear motivates them to continue to accumulate wealth, to keep God and/or their fellow man at a distance lest they lose their wealth, and in general maintain great fear and apprehension about maintaining or increasing what they already have. After all, they are but a major economic collapse, a war and its deprivation, or an incurable illness away from losing everything! And they are filled with fear and terror. The wicked do not have true wealth; what they have causes them great fear and apprehension. In a strange sense they suffer because of their prosperity.

Asaph, on the other hand, has true wealth: God. Whether Asaph has material wealth or prosperity, God is with him. Whether Asaph maintains good health or is struck with illness, God holds his right hand. Whether he is quite popular among his people or derided and persecuted, God guides him by His counsel. When it is all said and done, and Asaph goes the way of all flesh, God will receive him into glory.

We do well to consider deeply Asaph’s cry. Whom is there in heaven for Asaph but God? No one, of course, and that is the same with us. So Asaph makes a confident declaration, one I dare say we could not make as confidently: there is nothing on earth [he] desire[s] besides [God] (Psalm 73:25).

The reason for our lack of confidence is that we like God’s blessings more than God. We like material prosperity; we like comfort, both physical and spiritual; we like having good people in our lives who care for us and we for them. God, on the other hand, is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24, Hebrews 12:29). Those who would draw near to Him must sanctify Him and His name, and many have suffered and perished for not thus honoring God (e.g. Leviticus 10:1-3). God is the Other, far above mankind; He cannot be manipulated or controlled. God has questions for our certainties. We all see the value of His blessings, but as for God Himself? We feel it is wiser to keep our distance.

Yes, God demands holiness from those who would draw near to Him; many times those closest to Him have suffered the greatest deprivations and trials, both to test their faith as well as to suffer on behalf of the Name and for others (Hebrews 11:1-40, 1 Peter 2:18-25). Nevertheless, Asaph has it right: we must desire God, not what God gives. That which God gives are but an extension of Himself and His love for us; on their own they can often distract people as they clearly did for the wicked. While God has questions for our certainties, He remains the Certainty in the midst of our trials and challenges.

In the end that is why we must desire God and not what God gives: only God can be our refuge, and only God will receive us to glory (Psalm 73:24-25, 28). In times of trial wealth, perhaps even friends, and popularity fail. In life we are given reason to question or challenge the goodness of this creation and the things within it; we sometimes may even question if there will be anything beyond this life, any great reckoning, any ultimate goal. The Lord YHWH is the Creator; Jesus is the Author and Finisher of our faith (Genesis 1:1, Hebrews 12:2). The life of faith is not just about what happens after death; the life of faith is about trusting in and desiring God. If we want God, we will want to be where God is; if we want God, then the resurrection will be glory, because in the resurrection He will make His dwelling place with us (Revelation 21:1-7). God’s blessings cannot compare with God Himself; why do we suffer from such a lack of faith so as to covet the lesser good when God wants us to have the greatest Good of all?

Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer? Actually, both the righteous and the wicked prosper and suffer in various ways to various degrees at different times. Sometimes the prosperity is a cause of suffering; sometimes suffering leads to true treasure. Asaph has learned true wisdom: God is true wealth, because despite all the trials, tribulations, suffering, and righteousness necessary to be in relationship with God, God is the Certainty by which we can continue to live, our Sustainer and Redeemer whether we have much or little, health or illness, fame or infamy. God’s blessings do not compare with God Himself; let us declare, as Asaph did, that there is nothing on earth we desire besides God, and grow in faith accordingly!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Sheep for Slaughter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Bread Taken, Blessed, Broken, and Given

And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it; and he gave to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body” (Matthew 26:26).

At the time only One Person understood the significance of what was taking place.

It was customary to share bread at the Passover meal, the annual remembrance of Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian bondage by YHWH (cf. Exodus 12:1-28, 13:3-16). Yet on this Passover in 30 CE Jesus infused this particular bread with far greater significance. He took it, blessed it, broke it, and gave it for His twelve disciples to eat, declaring that it represented His body (Matthew 26:26).

Unfortunately the bread has become a matter of controversy. Some would later claim that Jesus intended for the bread to actually, physically transform into His body, even though He nowhere says or claims as much. Some went too far the other way and claimed that the memory of Jesus’ body was all that was important and no bread was necessary at all. While Jesus never intended for anyone to believe that the bread actually, substantively becomes His body, the association between the bread and His body exists for good reason!

Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to His disciples. As Jesus had done to the bread as representing His body, thus He experienced in His own body over the following 18 or so hours. Jesus was taken, arrested, and brought before first the Jewish and then Roman authorities (Matthew 26:47-27:25). Before His betrayal Jesus prayed to the Father for His will to be done (Matthew 26:42); in the midst of His sufferings He prayed for the forgiveness of those who were crucifying Him, thus seeking to be a blessing to those who were hurting Him (Luke 23:34). While the Evangelists assure us that none of Jesus’ bones were broken, according to what had been prophesied (John 19:32-37; cf. Exodus 12:46, Psalm 34:20), Jesus was most assuredly broken down in other physical, mental, emotional, and even spiritual ways on account of the betrayal, mockery, scourging, abuse, scorn, and crucifixion which He experienced (Matthew 27:26-49). Yet Jesus suffered and experienced it all to give Himself as the perfect sacrifice to defeat evil, to atone for sin, and to allow the restoration of all mankind back to the Father (Matthew 27:50, Romans 5:6-11).

The bread of the Lord’s Supper therefore most assuredly represents Jesus’ body, not just in metaphor but also in the whole experience of what was done to the bread, being taken, blessed, broken, and given.

Christians assemble on the first day of the week, the day of the Lord Jesus’ resurrection, to observe the Lord’s Supper, and, as Paul reminds us, to proclaim His death until He comes again (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). When we break the bread we jointly participate in Jesus’ body (1 Corinthians 10:17). Therefore, in our own lives, we also ought to reflect what is done to the bread in the body.

In Christ God has taken us out of the world to become a peculiar people for His purposes (1 Peter 2:3-9). While God has blessed Christians with all spiritual blessings in Christ (Ephesians 1:3), He also expects Christians to be sources of blessings for all with whom they come into contact (Matthew 5:13-16). Yet, in order to truly serve God, we must be broken: at first, humbled and brought low by the realization of our sin, its consequences, and what was required to secure our redemption (Ephesians 2:1-18, Titus 3:3-8); at times broken by suffering, persecution, and/or trial, suffering as our Lord did, ceasing from sin, having our faith refined as through fire (Romans 8:17-18, 1 Peter 1:3-9, 2:18-25, 4:1-2). Finally, as the Lord Himself declared, if we would be great in His Kingdom, we will secure it only through giving of ourselves for the purposes of others, serving others, seeking the best interest of others (Matthew 20:25-28, Philippians 2:1-11).

Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to His disciples. Jesus’ body was taken, blessed and a source of blessing, broken, and given for the sin of the world. If we would share in His Kingdom and the life that comes through His name, we as Christians must not only observe the Supper of the Lord but also must share in it, being taken by God, blessed and a source of blessing, broken, and given for the service of God and others. We do well to share in the bread and thus the body of the Lord Jesus, but let us always remember that in order to proclaim Jesus’ death we must share in that death and its suffering if we would also share in His resurrection and life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Surrender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Speaking for Understanding

But now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, unless I speak to you either by way of revelation, or of knowledge, or of prophesying, or of teaching? Even things without life, giving a voice, whether pipe or harp, if they give not a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped? For if the trumpet give an uncertain voice, who shall prepare himself for war? So also ye, unless ye utter by the tongue speech easy to understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye will be speaking into the air (1 Corinthians 14:6-9).

There are times when people practice something so long or in such depth that the basic point and purpose has been forgotten. This seemed to plague the Christians of Corinth in terms of the assembly.

Difficulties abound in 1 Corinthians 12:1-14:40. From the text we can tell that God has poured His Spirit out upon the Corinthians and they are able to exercise spiritual gifts. God gave those gifts with one specific purpose: to build up the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Ephesians 4:11-16). In order to build up the church, the Body of Christ, those gifts would have to be used in love primarily for the benefit and encouragement of others. Yet it seems that the Corinthians were much more excited about the ability to use and manifest spiritual gifts than to exercise them for profitable functions. Christians would speak in tongues, that is, foreign languages, with none to interpret. More than one would do so at the same time. Perhaps some people were trying to prophesy at the same time as well. It seemed like madness!

Thus Paul is attempting to set the Corinthians straight about how the gifts should be exercised in an orderly and profitable manner. Love for one another should inform everything they do, especially the exercise of spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 13:1-13). Yet Paul feels compelled to spend much time in 1 Corinthians 14:1-26 on one primary point: all things must be done for building up. The only way that such building up can take place is when those who hear actually understand what is being said.

Part of this argument is seen in 1 Corinthians 14:6-9. Paul wants to know: if he comes speaking in a tongue (e.g. German, Scythian, or the like), what benefit will they gain (1 Corinthians 14:6)? He would have to come with some specific message from God which they could understand in their own language. He then provides parallels with instruments: how can one know what a pipe or horn is playing if there is no distinction in the notes? If a trumpet is not sounded out boldly, who will get ready for war (the trumpet being a summons for an army; 1 Corinthians 14:7-8)? The point is emphasized in 1 Corinthians 14:9: the Corinthians need to speak in comprehensible language. They must speak so as to be understood or they are just speaking into the air. Speaking into the air is not edifying.

In their zeal for the exercise of spiritual gifts the Corinthians missed out on the core purpose of what they had come together to do: build one another up. God had not given them spiritual gifts merely for the purpose of using them haphazardly. He certainly did not grant them for them to speak so as to not be understood. He gave them so that Christians could encourage and build one another up. Edification demands understanding.

It is lamentable that many who would claim these gifts remain for the church persist in the same distortion of God’s purposes as the Corinthians did. Nevertheless, Paul envisions the day when that which was prophesied “in part” would be subsumed in its completion and thus see the end of prophecy and speaking in tongues, and so it occurred with the demise of the Apostles (1 Corinthians 13:8-10). Nevertheless there is much for us to gain from this passage; edification and understanding remain high priorities for God’s people to this day!

Even though “speaking in tongues” through supernatural means empowered by the Holy Spirit may be a in the past, many are essentially “speaking in tongues” in the assembly. Some speak in the “tongue” of unnecessarily complicated language or over-reliance on Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, seemingly more interested in impressing fellow Christians with their studiousness, Bible knowledge, or fancy speaking than in actually facilitating comprehension and thus edification. Frequently well-meaning Christians also speak in the “tongue” of “Christianese,” using jargon understood only by their fellow Christians. Who else knows what a “gospel meeting” is? How does the “watery grave of baptism” sound to someone who is not well-versed in the language of the church? It might sound to them like a horror film! Granted, there are times when it is best to use very precise words, refer to Hebrew or Greek, or use “church language,” but whenever we do so we must make sure to explain what we mean so there might be understanding.

Edification demands comprehension: this is the theologically compelling aspect to 1 Corinthians 14:1-25. Far too often “edification” is defined as “a warm fuzzy spiritual feeling received when going through some kind of spiritual experience.” That seems to be the very definition the Corinthians are using, and for that Paul chastises them. True edification demands actual comprehension of God’s message; when God’s message in Christ of salvation, redemption, righteousness, and hope is understood, it builds up to strengthen faith not just in the assembly but throughout life. An experience may feel great on Sunday, but what will sustain your faith on Monday? God intends for us to know Jesus His Son so as to believe in Him and do what He says (John 20:31, 1 John 1:1-2:6); thus, to build one another up demands that we instruct and exhort in His truth.

Paul’s presupposition remains profound: since edification demands comprehension, and all things we do in the assembly are to be unto edification (1 Corinthians 14:3-5, 9, 26), it is clear that God intends for His message to be communicated in comprehensible ways, and thus that all men should understand the truth about God in Christ. This truth must never be taken for granted; far too often in human history some have attempted to keep others from having a full knowledge of what God has made known. In the past people would assemble to hear God’s message proclaimed in a foreign tongue, Latin, and none to truly interpret. To this day some demand Scripture to be understood only in the straitjacket of antiquated language, according to a church tradition, or assume that since they are just “regular” people that the message of Scripture cannot be understood by them but only by specially religiously trained or called individuals. 1 Corinthians 14:6-9 proves that none of this ought to be! God has always intended for His message to be understood. He wants it to be communicated so that the people hearing can understand it and put it to work in their own lives. He communicated to people in the language of their time in ways familiar to them. We do well to take this message to heart, seek to communicate the Gospel to one another and those outside of Christ in ways they are able to understand so that all can be built up in Christ. Let us speak so as to be understood to the glory of God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Worthy of the Gospel

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ: that, whether I come and see you or be absent, I may hear of your state, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one soul striving for the faith of the gospel (Philippians 1:27).

In our sound-bite saturated world full of sloganeering and the expectation of reducing any worthwhile message to 140 characters or less, you could explain what it means to follow the Lord Jesus in worse ways than “living worthily of the Gospel.”

Paul is imprisoned in Rome somewhere around 59-61 CE (Philippians 1:12-13, 4:22); he writes to the church in Philippi which he had helped begin around a decade earlier (ca. 49-50 CE; Acts 16:11-40). The Philippian church was a source of support and strength for Paul; they provided for his needs many times, he has little need to rebuke them, and generally spends the time in his letter to them encouraging them to persevere and abound in what they are already doing (Philippians 1:3-11, 4:14-20). Having given thanks for their faith and association in the Gospel, speaking of his current situation, and considering his future (Philippians 1:1-26), he provides an important and definitive exhortation in Philippians 1:27: to live as worthy of the Gospel of Christ, to stand firm in one spirit, striving together for the faith of the Gospel with one mind.

Paul uses very specific language in this verse. To “live” is in Greek politeuesthe, literally, to be a citizen or behave as a citizen would, thus, to live in accordance with the polity; therefore, to “live worthily of the Gospel” is really to conduct oneself according to the constitution of the Kingdom of God, following Jesus’ commands, pursuing the Kingdom life God intends under the reign of His Son (1 John 2:3-6). This term would resonate for the Philippians who lived in a Roman colony; they would have seen quite clearly what was expected of Roman citizenry, but here are encouraged to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God. “Striving together” for the faith of the Gospel is the Greek sunathlountes, literally, wrestling, competing, contending at the same time alongside/with another; he uses the same term to describe how Euodia, Syntyche, Clement, and others “labored with” him in Philippians 4:3. This “striving with” evokes teammates working together to win at a sport; so with the “conflict” or “contest” in Philippians 1:30, the same term used in Hebrews 12:1, but also as in fighting the good fight of faith in 1 Timothy 6:12, 2 Timothy 4:7, perhaps showing that a military understanding of comrades fighting together would not be entirely inappropriate for this passage.

Thus Paul exhorts the Christians of Philippi to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God in Christ, in a way worthy of the Gospel. A life worthy of the Gospel is, by definition, worthy of the good news proclaimed regarding Jesus of Nazareth, His birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and the hope of His return (Matthew 1:1-25, Acts 2:14-36, Acts 17:30-31, 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, etc.). A life worthy of the Gospel is consistent with the life of Jesus, manifesting the fruit of the Spirit, having turned aside from the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:17-24, 1 Peter 2:18-25). As the Lord Jesus came not to be served but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many, who humbled Himself by taking on the form of a servant, and proved willing to suffer for the sake of others and to overcome evil (Matthew 20:25-28, Philippians 2:5-11, 1 Peter 2:18-25), so it must be with those who would live according to His life and reign in His Kingdom. The good citizen of the Kingdom of God in Christ will not conduct him or herself as citizens of the Rome would; they are about love, patience, humility, service, consideration of the needs of others, holiness, righteousness, and joint participation in Christ with the fellow people of God; so much of this will be utterly foreign to citizens of Rome or otherwise of this world who lived and continue to live for more selfish and carnal purposes!

It remains important to stress that Paul did not intend for the Christians of Philippi to live lives worthy of the Gospel individually and independently in a bubble. To live as citizens of the Kingdom of God in Christ in such a way so as to be worthy of the Gospel demands perseverance in one spirit, in one soul striving together for the faith of that Gospel (Philippians 1:27). The Philippians must strive together in light of the trials they have and will no doubt be soon experiencing: they have adversaries, they are or are about to suffer on Christ’s behalf, and are involved in same conflict as Paul himself (Philippians 1:28-30). If Acts 16:16-24 are any indication, the Philippian Christians would be accused of practicing and encouraging the practice of customs not lawful for Romans, and experience imprisonment, beatings, and perhaps even martyrdom. Divided they would fall; only if they remained united would they stand firm and strive together through this trial. It is likely not a coincidence that two of the churches born in the midst of persecution, Philippi and Thessalonica, proved notable for their maturity and strength in Christ, while churches which experienced more prosperity and less external harassment, like Corinth and Laodicea, proved more carnal and immature. The faith will either be fully rejected or become quite precious if your life is endangered by it; solidarity and community with your fellow people of God proves necessary when forsaken by worldly family members, friends, co-workers, and the like.

Despite fear-mongering to the contrary, no such significant danger of persecution is on the horizon for twenty-first century Christians in the Western world. There are some parts of the world where Christians do experience this type of persecution, and we do well to pray for them and to seek to encourage them as we have opportunity (1 Peter 5:9-10). Yet our need to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God in Christ, worthy of the good news of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and promise of return, persevering in one spirit, striving together with one soul for the faith of the Gospel is no less acute. Our world today is full of people who claim certain moral standards without living by them; plenty of people live independently in alienation, quite lonely, yearning for connection, but resolutely going to trudge along in their own path. This has never been the way of the God who is One in relational unity, holy and righteous, loving, gracious, and merciful; if we live as hypocrites with a country club or entertainment venue attitude toward the church and thus the fellow people of God, we prove to be citizens of this world, not worthy of the Gospel of Christ and not reflecting the values of His Kingdom. “Lone rangers” cannot remain so in Christ! No; the only way we will make it through is together, standing firm together, striving together, encouraging and edifying one another. Yes, this demands a high level of doctrinal agreement, but doctrinal agreement alone is not true unity. As Paul continues in Philippians 2:1-4, true unity demands considering the needs of one another as greater than our own, seeking out one another’s needs, demanding love, humility, and service. This unity does not come easily or automatically; it demands great effort and constant vigilance. It will lead to hurt, suffering, pain, and agony; consider, after all, all that Jesus endured from the people of God. Yet it remains the only way forward if we really want to participate as citizens in the Kingdom of God in Christ; it is the only way to live worthily of the good news of Jesus who lived, died, and was raised again to reconcile all things back to God (2 Corinthians 5:18).

As God is One in relational unity, so we will only truly find life in God when we strive to be like Him, conformed to the image of Christ, participating as a citizen of the heavenly Kingdom, living worthily of Christ, one with one another and one with God (John 17:20-23, Romans 8:29, Philippians 1:27). To share in the resurrection of life and to jointly participate in eternal life with the fellow people of God in His presence is, after all, the hope of the Christian in Christ; if we do not share in even a glimpse of that life now, how can we share it in the life to come? We do well, therefore, to seek to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God in Christ, living like Jesus, standing firm and striving together with the people of God, becoming ever closer to God and one another just as God intended, and be prepared to participate in the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Dismemberment

“And if thy right eye causeth thee to stumble, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body be cast into hell. And if thy right hand causeth thee to stumble, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:29-30).

If anyone were not yet stunned and shocked by Jesus’ words they certainly would have been by now.

Jesus makes this startling declaration in Matthew 5:29-30 in the midst of what is popularly called the Sermon on the Mount. Since Matthew 5:21 He has been making a comparison and contrast between what the Israelites “had heard” in the Law of Moses and its bare minimum standard of righteousness and what “I say to you,” expressing God’s higher standard of righteousness, the one beyond that of the scribes and Pharisees (cf. Matthew 5:17-20). He first compared and contrasted the command to not kill with the higher standard of not only not hating but even seeking reconciliation and terms of peace (Matthew 5:20-26). Most recently Jesus began contrasting what the Law said about adultery with the higher standard of not even looking upon a woman with lustful intent (Matthew 5:27-28). Then He starts talking about personal dismemberment: if the right eye or hand causes a person to stumble, they should remove them, for it is better for one part of the body to perish rather than the whole to be cast into the Gehenna of fire (Matthew 5:29-30)!

Jesus’ illustration here in Matthew 5:29-30 has been one of the most abused and distorted of all the things He said and did. Some people have gone to the extreme of actually blinding themselves or chopping off their hands. Others use this passage to mock Christians in their devotion to God, declaring that if they really took Jesus literally and seriously, they should be dismembering themselves! Is Jesus serious here? Should people really dismember themselves in order to avoid hellfire?

Let none be deceived: Jesus is not actually suggesting that His followers should dismember themselves. While there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust, and the unjust will be cast into the lake of fire, actually tearing out the eye or cutting off the hand will not effectively help a believer avoid stumbling and temptation (cf. John 5:28-29, Revelation 20:11-15). Paul puts the challenge well in Colossians 2:20-23: asceticism does not intrinsically help us avoid the indulgences of the flesh. Furthermore, neither our right eye nor our right hand cause us to stumble; they are but servants of the mind, and the stumbling into sin which would occur is on account of the mind and its decisions (James 1:13-15). A blind man or armless man can still stumble into lust.

So if Jesus does not actually intend for anyone to dismember themselves, why does He speak as He does in Matthew 5:29-30? He speaks so as to shock people. He speaks so as to make clear the severity of stumbling and the temptations of sin. Does the right eye, on its own volition, compel us to lust and covet and thus sin? No, but it is easy to give into the temptation to look upon a woman to lust and to do so frequently. Does the right hand, on its own volition, lead us to take what is not ours? No, but once we have seen with our eyes and have lusted in our hearts it is much easier to reach out and grab what is not for us to have.

These are easy sins to have. Lust has become no less of a problem 2,000 years later; modern man has no lack of opportunity to commit adultery in his or her heart. We are becoming too easily sexually desensitized; what once was recognized as sexual deviance is far too often becoming acceptable or even the norm, and many forms of sexual behavior once generally deemed sinful is being accepted and normalized as well. Pornography and romance novels abound as channels of escape. “Hookup culture” provides easier access to opportunities for sexual behavior. To stand firm for sexual purity and holiness requires profound effort from both men and women, husbands and wives; it is always far easier to give into lusts and desires just like everyone else.

Yet sexual sin has always been easy to pursue; such is why Paul must speak of it constantly (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:9-20, Galatians 5:19, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8). And in His own way Jesus is also trying to make this clear in Matthew 5:29-30 by setting forth the severity of the consequences of giving in and following the prevalent sexual currents of society. Lusting might be easy; it might seem fun; yet it condemns the whole body to Gehenna, a vivid illustration of hell based upon the burning trash heap outside the walls of Jerusalem. If it would be better for us to dismember ourselves than to find ourselves cast into Gehenna, then we really need to take these challenges, temptations, and causes of stumbling very seriously!

One thing is for certain: few if any have forgotten Jesus’ exhortation in Matthew 5:29-30. It is a very memorable illustration! We should not miss the point: no, Jesus does not want us to dismember ourselves, but Jesus says what He does as He does for very good reasons, and we should not so downplay a literal application that we diminish the force of the illustration. Sin comes with serious consequences, and lust and other sexual sins are certainly no exception. If it is better to pluck out our eye than to give into looking at a woman with lustful intent, then we should recognize how important it is to make the decision to keep our thoughts pure. If it would be better to chop off our hand than to reach out to take what is not ours, then we should certainly understand how important it is to make the decision to be blameless in our interaction with our fellow men and women. Let us strive to serve the Lord Jesus and avoid Gehenna!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Alienation

Wherefore remember, that once ye, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called Circumcision, in the flesh, made by hands; that ye were at that time separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world (Ephesians 2:11-12).

To many loneliness and alienation is a fate worse than death. Who really wants to be entirely alone?

As Paul writes to the Ephesians (and if Ephesians is an encyclical letter, which is plausible, to other congregations of Christians as well), after describing the initial condition of all mankind and how God has acted in Christ to provide salvation (Ephesians 2:1-10), he then turns specifically to the Gentile Christians, of whom there were likely many in Ephesus and Asia Minor, and spoke of how God reconciled Gentiles with Jews, the people of God, to make one new body of God’s people in Christ (Ephesians 2:11-18). As with his description of salvation, so with his description of the in-gathering of the Gentiles: he first describes the condition of the Gentiles before they found reconciliation in Christ in Ephesians 2:11-12, and it is not a pretty picture. They were the “uncircumcision,” used in derogatory ways (e.g. 2 Samuel 1:20). They were separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, having no part of the nation of the people of God; they were strangers, or outsiders, not sharing in the covenant of promise given to Abraham and maintained through Isaac and Israel (Genesis 12:1-50:12). Therefore they found themselves with no hope of resurrection or reconciliation and without God, the source of light and life, in the world (Ephesians 2:12). People of the nations (“Gentiles” meaning “nations”) found themselves in quite a distressing and difficult place: they were out there alienated from God, His people, and therefore all that is good and holy.

Almost two thousand years later we all find ourselves, at some point, in this condition; when we live in sin we are separated from God (Isaiah 59:2), have no hope in the resurrection but a fearful expectation of judgment (Romans 2:6-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, Hebrews 10:26-31), and at a fundamental level find ourselves alienated from the people of God (1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 1 Peter 4:3-5). Is that any way to live or seek to maintain existence?

Modern life and culture have only exacerbated man’s condition of alienation. In the past, for better or for worse, people most frequently spent most of their lives within a few miles of where they were born; everyone knew everybody, and quite often, everybody’s business. It was not that long ago when neighbors actually knew one another and looked out for one another; neighborhood children would play with each other and grow up together. People had to interact with each other when traveling and while shopping. These days many extended families are spread across the country or even the world; many move frequently; technology develops ways to function without interaction. If anything our fellow man becomes a matter of irritation: those other cars on the road leading to traffic delays; other shoppers who are in the way or taking too long at the register. Even the Internet with its great promise of connecting people around the world easily leads to alienation when people choose electronic contact over personal contact. We may have new and better toys, yet they have come at the expense of our relationships with one another. Why are we surprised, then, when so many people are depressed, anxious, and feel quite alone and alienated from their fellow man?

Despite the popular myths of society man was not made to be fully independent and alone. Humans were made in the image of God who is Three in One, One in relational unity (Genesis 1:26-27, John 17:20-23). As humans we need connection with God and with fellow human beings in order to live and thrive! Such is why Paul does not stop with the story at Ephesians 2:12 any more than he did in Ephesians 2:3; the great news of Jesus Christ is that all who were once alienated from God and His people can now be reconciled through the blood shed by Jesus, and we can share in the hope of resurrection and life together with God and one another for eternity through Jesus’ resurrection (Ephesians 2:1-18, Revelation 21:1-22:6). Thanks to Jesus we do not have to suffer from alienation any more. Through Him we can be reconciled to God (Romans 5:6-11). Then we can become the people of God and share in that work and community together (Acts 2:42-47, 1 John 1:7)!

Sadly there are times and places when and where Christians feel alienated and alone. Perhaps they work in difficult places. Perhaps their congregation is not fostering a strong sense of community within itself. Perhaps the Christian has not proven willing to open up so as to be part of the larger group, afraid of getting hurt or burned for the first time or yet again. Perhaps the Christian or the members of the church have believed a bit too much in the American myth of complete independence and self-sufficiency. Regardless of the reason, this ought not be, for how can the people of the God who is One in relational unity survive and thrive when living in alienation, isolation, and loneliness?

The church, as Christ’s body, must reflect the will of its Head, the Author and Finisher of its faith and practice (Ephesians 5:25-32, Hebrews 12:2); as Jesus is One with the Father and the Spirit, so He wills for us to be one with one another in His body (John 17:20-23). Such is why He said that His “mother and brothers” are those who do the will of His Father, privileging the spiritual relationship over all others (Matthew 12:46-50). Such is why Paul exhorts Christians to prefer one another in honor, expecting the members of the body of Christ to have the same care for one another (Romans 12:10, 1 Corinthians 12:24-25). Therefore, building strong relationships and community within the local congregation is not an optional work, but crucial for the spiritual health of all involved. It will not always be pretty; relationships never are. It will require a lot of growth and change on the part of many, yet that is exactly what we are to experience while in this life (1 Peter 1:3-9).

A group of people professing Christ but as alienated from one another as they are from the rest of the people with whom they interact in the world does not reflect the will of God in Christ for His body, and the people of the world know that. Why bother being associated with a group of people who have as little to do with one another as the people they already know, especially when that association comes with additional levels of guilt and shame? When the church looks like the world, then the church has failed. But when people of the world see Christians love each other, care for each other, strengthening the relationships with each other, are there for one another in good times and bad, and that Christians are therefore able to draw strength from one another and are built up in their faith, just as God expects in John 13:34-35, Ephesians 4:11-16, they can see how radically different that is from the alienation present in the world, and all of a sudden being part of the people of God becomes a much more attractive proposition! The orphan can find a family; the introvert can find acceptance; the one who feels like they are always failing find support; and all who are part of the group live in the confidence that whatever may come they have the people of God to hold them up and sustain them no matter what!

Deep down we are all very scared of being alone. Christ has redeemed us from that fear; are we willing to trust in Him and make it a reality for ourselves and our fellow people of God?

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Will of God: Our Sanctification

For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye abstain from fornication (1 Thessalonians 4:3).

“What is God’s will for me in my life?”

Such a question, or a permutation thereof, is on the minds, hearts, and tongues of many sincere Christians. They, as we all, live in a world full of choices. When confronted with all sorts of options, especially about major life decisions like where to pursue education and of what type, where to live, whom to marry and when, when and of what kind of family they should have, and so on, many become afraid that the decision made is not God’s will and that God actually had a better alternative in mind.

It is good to want to seek the Lord’s will in all that is done (Colossians 3:17). We can find examples in the Old Testament of people who sought YHWH’s counsel about specific situations and received specific answers (e.g. 1 Samuel 9:1-21, 23:1-13). It would be easy to see such examples and therefore feel that God has a specific plan for each one of us in terms of our specific decisions and we therefore must pray very hard and often so as to ascertain that specific will.

Yet we do well to notice a distinct difference in communication between then and now: men like David and the prophets received direct and specific answers. God has specifically communicated to us in His Son through the Word found in Scripture (2 Timothy 3:15-17, Hebrews 1:1-3, Jude 1:3); His communication today is manifest in more subtle ways. If a particular path is absolutely not the Lord’s will, a person will be forbidden it, like Paul going into the hinterland of Anatolia (Acts 16:6-7), or warned off of it, or hindered from it in some way. If a particular life choice is a transgression of God’s will, we can know that in advance because it will be in violation of a command of God as revealed in Scripture (1 John 3:4).

In truth God is not playing games with His people in terms of understanding His will; He is not watching from heaven expecting people to guess which path He has in mind for them and laugh when they choose wrongly. The will of God for us is the same will He had for the Thessalonians: our sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3)!

In context Paul is reminding and exhorting the Christians of Thessalonica to continue to pursue the way of Christ and to do so more and more (1 Thessalonians 4:1, 9). He warns them specifically about the danger of porneia, translated as “fornication” in the ASV, “sexual immorality” or just “immorality” in other translations, and best understood as “sexually deviant behavior.” Porneia literally means “that which involves a porne,” and a porne is a prostitute; in the ancient Greek and Roman world it was commonplace for men to cavort with prostitutes and female companions. Such behavior is entirely contrary to the practice of holiness; in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 Paul explains why theologically, and here in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 he does so in terms of using the body in holy, clean, and honorable ways, and to not wrong a fellow Christian in these ways by committing adultery with them or with their spouses.

This specific exhortation is no less relevant to life in 21st century America: we live in a land saturated with sexual sin and we all do well to give attention to our sanctification, possessing our own vessel in sanctification and honor, and not in lustful passions (1 Thessalonians 4:4-5). Yet the general principle of God’s will as our sanctification also has much to commend it in terms of the life decisions we make.

God has given everyone gifts or talents; some have more than others, some are quite general and some quite specific, yet all have value (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28). God expects believers to use those gifts and talents to advance His purposes to His glory and honor, illustrated in Matthew 25:14-30; Peter exhorts Christians to use their gifts to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace (1 Peter 4:10-11). Therefore, God wills for us to live holy lives, which is the definition of sanctification, and He expects us to use all He gives us to His glory and honor, serving one another.

So will God speak to us in a dream and tell us exactly where we should go, whom we should marry, what we should do in our lives, and so on? By no means; God did not provide that specific level of counsel for most everyone even in Biblical times. Instead, God expects for us to make those decisions unto our sanctification and so as to glorify His name. Should a person live in place X or place Y? It is better to consider where sanctification and God’s glory can best be pursued, and ascertain how to live a sanctified life and glorify God while living in place X or Y. Should a person pick career path X or Y? It is better to ascertain where the person’s skills reside so as to best honor and glorify God in their career, how they can pursue sanctification while working in that career, and how they can reflect God in that career. Should a man marry woman X or woman Y, or should a woman marry man X or man Y? It is better to ascertain which person will pursue sanctification themselves and help their spouse pursue sanctification and whether the person wants to glorify and honor God in their life, marriage, and family. In every such circumstance the questions we should ask are not about whether x or y is God’s will, but how we could best pursue sanctification and glorify God in x or y situation. If we can perceive one situation to allow us to pursue sanctification and God’s glory more effectively than another, our decision has been made easier. If we can perceive that we can pursue sanctification and God’s glory in multiple situations, then we should pray for God’s wisdom and make a decision (James 1:5), always knowing that it is better to focus on how to pursue sanctification and God’s glory in our situation than it is to wonder if our situation is the best decision we could make. In the end, pursuing sanctification and God’s glory is always the best decision.

God’s will is for our sanctification. He wants us to live holy lives glorifying Him in all we do. We are called upon to make decisions in light of those imperatives. We will stand before God on the judgment day for those decisions, but God’s concern will be much more about whether and how we pursued sanctification and His glory in our circumstances than the process by which we found ourselves in those circumstances (Romans 14:12). Let us pursue holiness and God’s glory in all of our decisions, and trust that our decisions go well when sanctification and God’s glory are at their center!

Ethan R. Longhenry