The Source of Our Hope

If we have only hoped in Christ in this life, we are of all men most pitiable (1 Corinthians 15:19).

The Greeks told the story of Pandora, the first woman on earth. She was given a box (really, a jar) and told not to open it. But she became curious, and opened the box. Immediately came forth all sorts of evil that quickly spread all over the world. She quickly closed the box, leaving only one thing left in it: hope.

While the story of Pandora and her box is mythical, there are good reasons why it is told: there are plenty of evils in this life, and they provide all sorts of misery. People get sick. People get hurt. Things fall apart or decay. People die. These things are all distressing and sad, and to what do we look to ease the pain? Hope.

But is that hope a good thing? In the myth of Pandora’s box, it may or may not be. Maybe hope is seen as something that helps people; but one could also interpret hope in that story as another evil imposed upon men by the gods. If there is nothing better than this life, with a dreadful underworld awaiting us, hope is cruel. It gives the pretense of better days without ever being able to truly deliver.

So it is with all hope in this life. If this life is all there is, there is no good reason for hope: evil persists in the world and will continue to persist no matter what. People do bad things to one another. We can try to improve our lot, but we are still all going to die. There are good reasons why Ecclesiastes seems depressing: it looks at things only in terms of life “under the sun.” And if it is true that there is nothing beyond this life, then the most pitiable people are Christians, because they expended their entire lives in this most foolish hope that something better awaited them. They experienced all sorts of deprivations and sufferings, and all for nothing!

The sad reality is that any and all hope based in this world will fail. If there is nothing beyond this life, there really is no good reason for hope at all. How depressing! How intolerable!

Yet, as Paul goes on to declare, Christ has been raised from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:20). We have reason to hope, but this is not a hope based in the way this world currently works. Our hope must be rooted in Jesus Christ and His Kingdom which represents the expectation of a new and better world, one in which righteousness dwells (cf. 2 Peter 3:11-13). We might presently be subject to death and decay, but the day is coming when we will overcome such in the resurrection (Romans 8:18-25). That is hope indeed!

Many view this hope in escapist terms, assuming that the hope of the resurrection does not really change anything about life now. Such could not be further from the truth; our lives in Christ and the lives we are to live as conformed in His image are grounded in the hope of the resurrection (Romans 8:28, 2 Corinthians 5:14-21). We can live our lives in this world the way God would have us live them precisely because we have hope for better days; if we somehow think we are just sitting around and waiting to get our ticket punched, we will find ourselves terribly disappointed on that final day (Matthew 7:21-23)!

This is why Jesus’ resurrection is so utterly critical: without it, there is no reason for hope. Without the resurrection, life is that meaningless trudge through pain and misery envisioned by the Greeks. Without the resurrection, we are lost in our sin without hope.

Little wonder, then, that Paul constantly emphasizes how we must be rooted in Christ and live for Christ (Romans 8:29, Colossians 2:6-7). He is the source of hope; through His resurrection, we have confidence that life is not meaningless and life is worth living. The reality of pain and misery is still there, but it need not define us or lead us to despair. We can overcome through Jesus in the resurrection. The resurrection changes everything. Let us praise God for Jesus and the resurrection and be sustained by our hope for the better world to come!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Source of Our Hope

Time and God

But forget not this one thing, beloved, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day (2 Peter 3:8).

To say that we live in a fast-paced world might be one of the greatest understatements of the age. Technological advances allow us to get things done more quickly and efficiently than ever; communication can happen instantaneously. We now expect things to be done already; we have very little patience to wait for anything that we feel takes too long. A package may take a week to ship; a website might require a few additional seconds to load; we chafe and chomp at the bit, wanting to have it or to see it already.

Meanwhile, Jesus died, was raised in power, and ascended on high almost two thousand years ago. For two thousand years we have been waiting for His return and for the consummation of all things (cf. Romans 8:17-24, 2 Peter 3:1-14). And to think that even within a hundred years of Jesus’ death people were scoffing, wondering when He would return (2 Peter 3:4)!

Peter wants to encourage Christians regarding this dilemma: why is God taking so long to accomplish His purposes? But before he can provide an answer, he must first establish the proper perspective on all of these matters.

Peter declares that one day is as a thousand years to God, and a thousand years as one day (2 Peter 3:8). It has been tempting for people to emphasize one half of this verse over the other half, suggesting that one “Biblical day” is really a thousand year period; from the second century until today people attempt to hypothesize how much longer we will be around on the earth based on this suggestion. But Peter’s statement is not that one day is a thousand years, or, for that matter, that a thousand years is one day. Peter uses a simile: to God, a thousand years is like a day; a day is like a thousand years.

Such a statement, on its surface, seems ridiculous. It is ridiculous only when one seeks to literalize the statements or try to use the statements to make some declaration about the nature of time in the Bible. Peter is not providing a cipher with which one can unlock the numerological mysteries of the Bible; instead, he uses a simile to communicate how God transcends time. A day, a thousand years; it does not matter with God. God is above time, eternal in nature, from everlasting to everlasting (Romans 16:26, Psalm 41:13).

Therefore, even though we are bound by the constraints of time, spending our few decades up to perhaps a century on the earth, we should not impose such constraints upon God. Sure, to humans, two thousand years seems like a long time; yet, on the divine scale, one could compare it to two days. Then again, humans believe that two days is a short period of time; yet, on the divine scale, one can compare it to two thousand years! God cannot be so easily compressed and fit into the boxes that dictate our existence!

Peter says this in order for us to take comfort and be encouraged. The fact that two thousand years have transpired between the momentous events of the first century and the present day does not mean that God has neglected or abandoned us. It does not mean that God is slow as humans would consider slowness. Time is meaningless to Him; He has His purposes, He is carrying them out, and when His purpose has been fully accomplished to His satisfaction, the end will come and we will understand better.

God promised Abraham that his descendants would inherit the land of Canaan; 500 or so years later, they obtained it (Genesis 17:1-14, Joshua). God promised Israel through Moses that He would raise up a prophet like Moses for the people; 1,450 years later, Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled the promise (Deuteronomy 18:15-19). When God cursed mankind, He provided the promise of the One who would bruise the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15); it took no less than 4,500 years before Jesus’ death and resurrection allowed anyone to be freed from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:1-4). God will do what God does according to His purposes, and He is not limited to our time-frame or our scale of time. Let us therefore be patient and maintain our trust in God and His purposes for us in Jesus Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Time and God

Itching Ears

For the time will come when they will not endure the sound doctrine; but, having itching ears, will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside unto fables (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

As Paul encourages Timothy to continue on with the work of an evangelist (cf. 2 Timothy 4:1-2, 5), he presents a rather bleak picture for the future. Believers, influenced by their worldly, carnal desires, will no longer endure proper, healthy instruction in the message of Jesus; instead, they will have “itching ears,” seeking to hear what they want to hear, turning away from the truth, and toward fables, or myths (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

This warning is consistent with the message of the previous chapter: Paul spent much time in 2 Timothy 3:1-17 describing how many would conduct themselves in immoral ways despite professing belief in God. Such a distressing picture!

While the picture is distressing, it should not be surprising. We should not imagine that these difficulties are relegated only to these “last days” during which Paul is writing and in which we continue to live or the “time to come” after Paul’s writing. The people of God before Paul found it difficult to endure sound teaching, and often wandered off into myths. While Moses was on Mount Sinai, receiving the Law from God, the Israelites made a golden calf and served it (cf. Exodus 32:1-35). After the Israelites entered the land of Canaan they soon began serving the gods of the neighbors (cf. Judges 2:11-23). They also imagined that they could serve YHWH by bowing down before an image, a myth of their own making, and certainly not what God intended in Exodus 20:4; it would be the cause of ruin and exile for both Israel and Judah (2 Kings 17:7-23). Jesus attests to the fact that the ancestors of the Israelites mistreated the true prophets but honored the false ones (Luke 6:22, 26). Jesus Himself endured persecution by the hands of people who wandered off into myths, those waiting for the Messiah of their own imagination while crucifying the Messiah God sent them (cf. Matthew 23:29-36, Acts 7:51-53). This was not a new problem.

But why? All people have a built-in desire to hear the things that make them feel better. Likewise, all people have built-in defense mechanisms against anything that makes them uncomfortable or exposes difficulties in their thoughts and actions. Hence Paul’s description of “itching ears”: these people have decided to hear only what satisfies their lust. They are looking for relief in ways inconsistent with God’s purposes and at times when they may need exhortation. At such times, it is easier to believe the myth than it is to accept the truth.

The city of Jerusalem presents a great illustration of this principle. In the days before the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians, prophets like Jeremiah declared YHWH’s judgment on Judah for its transgressions at the hands of the Babylonians. Other prophets like Hananiah declared that YHWH would break the yoke of Babylon and would maintain the sanctity of His Temple (cf. Jeremiah 28:1-17). In the days of Jesus, many Jewish people expected YHWH to preserve the Temple and Jerusalem and to destroy the infidel Roman power. Yet Jesus pronounced condemnation upon the Temple and Jerusalem because of their rejection of their Lord (cf. Matthew 24:1-36, Luke 19:41-44). And, lo and behold, most of the people followed after the views of Hananiah and the standard Jewish expectation regarding the Messiah. Few were those who trusted in the word of God as delivered through Jeremiah and Jesus. And when the events took place as the true prophets spoke, being right proved to be cold comfort to those who trusted in God’s word.

Therefore, to what, in particular, is Paul referring in 2 Timothy 4:3-4? The very question will get us into trouble! We can make all sorts of applications of what Paul has said, and that proves the challenge that exists.

2 Timothy 4:3-4 is often quoted and then directly applied to whatever issue exists at a given time. For some it will be modern cultural issues; for others, doctrinal disputations. Those applications are most often apt: we can find plenty of examples of people going astray from the true teachings of God and follow after myths that are more culturally acceptable.

The challenge comes, however, when we ossify the passage and believe it refers only to a given set of issues. The slope is very slippery: warnings are issued about deviations regarding a particular set of issues. There then is preaching and teaching on that set of issues. People who reject the truth on that set of issues are said to be the ones regarding whom Paul warns Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:3-4. And yet, ironically, people can then become guilty of the very thing which they are trying to avoid. They can easily start heaping up for themselves teachers talking only about that set of issues to the exclusion of all else, and that placates their itching ears. Meanwhile, they have neglected other challenging topics, may even resent hearing messages regarding those challenging topics, and lo and behold: they have now wandered off into myths!

Paul’s warning must be taken very seriously in a circumspect way. We must be constantly vigilant to hold firm to healthy, true teachings of God, and not to wander off into myths. We must never develop those itching ears but must seek after God’s healing message of truth. There are always going to be teachings that are difficult, controversial, and contrary to cultural norms. Yet there will also always be teachings that will challenge people’s assumptions and “sacred cows” in uncomfortable and unpleasant ways. Such is why Paul warned Timothy to be ready in season and out of season to exhort, reprove, and rebuke (2 Timothy 4:1-2). The medicine of truth might hurt, but it will always work out for the best. Let us not wander off into any myths, but instead seek after the truth of God in Christ Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Itching Ears

Enemies in the House

For the son dishonoreth the father, the daughter riseth up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies are the men of his own house (Micah 7:6).

We have the proverb in our society, “blood is thicker than water.” It speaks to the importance that most people place upon their family: for many people, no matter what the challenge might be, they will do all they can to support and assist their family members. Throughout time, in most cultures, the family has been the basic social unit.

That is what makes Micah’s declarations in Micah 7:1-6 so disturbing. He describes a society completely in disarray with no real hope for continuation. All the upright are gone; it seems that everyone is out to hunt one another (Micah 7:2). Princes and judges conspire to perpetuate oppression and evil; everyone is deeply in sin (Micah 7:3-4). Social cohesion has been lost: people cannot trust each other, not even a husband his wife (Micah 7:5). And what is the ultimate expression of this decrepit society? Sons dishonor fathers. Daughters rise up against their mothers, as well as daughters-in-law against their mother-in-law. A man’s enemies are not necessarily outside the gate or in town; they are underneath his roof (Micah 7:6)! What better image could Micah have provided to explain the depravity of Israel in his day?

The end was not long in coming for the Kingdom of Israel; within a generation or two of Micah’s declaration, Israel was no more. The Kingdom of Judah would continue for another 135 years but would meet a similar fate. God’s sentence was just.

Micah’s words, however, were not just appropriate for Israel in his own day. 750 years or so later, Jesus of Nazareth would speak of that generation of Israelites that remained in the land in similar terms. But this time He says that He is the agent of this event– He will be the reason why there would be such severe disturbance within the family unit (Matthew 10:35-36, Luke 12:51-53)!

Wait a second– if Jesus is good and holy, how can it be that He will be the cause of discord and strife? This is why it is good to understand the text He is quoting from Micah. Micah portrays a society in disarray, not drawing near to God, but remaining separate from Him. The society in Micah’s day persecuted the godly and upright in their midst. Everyone joined together in doing evil; they had little use for the good. As it was in Micah’s day, so Jesus is indicating that it is the same in His own day. The people of Jesus’ day could not tolerate the truly godly and the upright any better than the people of Micah’s day. The people of Israel in both Micah’s and Jesus’ day were bent on seeking their own will, to advance their cause as they wanted it advanced, and sought to justify it religiously.

Therefore, it is the very introduction of godliness and uprightness in the life of the first century believer that often would lead to friction within families. There are many testimonies of this from early Christians in the first few centuries after Christ: children bringing charges against their parents, and vice versa, for being Christians; pagan husbands doing all they could to hinder their wives from serving the Lord; and, as well attested in the New Testament, unbelieving Jews bringing fellow Jews who did believe in Jesus before the Jewish or Gentile authorities for punishment.

Have things changed a whole lot over the past two thousand years? For some whose family members are mostly believers, such a picture seems so dark and bleak. But for those who have many family members who do not believe, what Jesus presents is all too real. Today, as before, people want to seek their own will and advance their own causes and justify them religiously. Today, as before, if a family member begins to follow the Lord Jesus, and that light begins to expose the darkness in other family members, conflict will likely ensue. It may come from obvious examples of worldly people; sadly, it often comes from people who profess Jesus but do not act like it. To serve Jesus demands radical changes and a new emphasis in one’s identity; such “extremism” disturbs others.

There are many things in Micah’s portrayal of Israel in his own day in Micah 7:1-6 that resonate in our day as well. Seeking one’s own interest at the expense of others to the point of betraying one’s own family members is not new and not always rare. In a world that would rather justify ungodliness than godliness, and bent ways more than upright ways, anyone who seeks to follow the godly and upright path will be challenging everyone else around them, especially family members. It will be a bitter pill for many to swallow. But we have the encouragement of the message of the prophet and Jesus that this is to be expected. Yes, we might live in an ungodly world. But regardless of what others do, may we be able to say with Micah:

But as for me, I will look unto the LORD; I will wait for the God of my salvation: my God will hear me (Micah 7:7).

Ethan R. Longhenry

Enemies in the House

The Judgment No One Wants to Hear

“Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry, and ye did not give me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me not in; naked, and ye clothed me not; sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.’
Then shall they also answer, saying, ‘Lord, when saw we thee hungry, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?’
Then shall he answer them, saying, ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not unto one of these least, ye did it not unto me.’
And these shall go away into eternal punishment: but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:41-46).

For modern readers this passage might come as a bit of a shock. People are not accustomed to a presentation of Jesus in which He consigns people to eternal punishment; they expect Him, as an embodiment of love, to find some way to let most people or perhaps even everyone into eternal life. Yet that is not the case, and Jesus provides reason for it. This is the judgment that no one wants to hear, but sadly, many will hear it (Matthew 7:13-14).

Jesus has already warned about the fate of the wicked servant who abuses others and lives for him or herself (Matthew 24:48-51), the foolish virgins who were not ready for the Bridegroom’s arrival (Matthew 25:1-13), and the “one talent servant,” the one who did not advance the cause of His Master (Matthew 25:14-30). And yet now, in this presentation of the judgment scene, a different aspect of the situation emerges.

Everything said in Matthew 25:41-46 contrasts with what was said in Matthew 25:34-40. There were those who fed Jesus when hungry, clothed Him when naked, and so on; these people did not do so. The first group wanted to know when they did such things; this group wants to know when they saw Jesus and did not do such things. Ultimately, they either did them, or did not do them, for Jesus when they did or did not do them for “one of these least” (Matthew 25:31-46).

As before, so now: the big picture of this judgment scene involves whether or not we helped people in their time of need. The negative portrayal of Matthew 25:41-46 illuminates and highlights the positive portrayal of Matthew 25:34-40.

We should first note that the people who hear this judgment are cursed and to be cast into the fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). Notice that Jesus does not say that the fire was prepared for them– it was prepared for the spiritual powers of darkness, and there was no need for those hearing this sentence to join them in that fire. And yet they are going there because of the decisions they made in life (cf. Romans 1:18-32). They went down the path of the devil and his angels; they thus reap the same consequences as the devil and his angels!

A very surprising detail about this judgment scene is found in Matthew 25:44: those hearing this sentence ask when it was that they saw Jesus hungry, thirsty, sick, in prison, etc., and did not help Him. It seems to be presented as an honest question– we get the impression that at least some of these people, had they known that it was Jesus who was hungry, thirsty, sick, etc., that they would have provided what was necessary. This is doubtless not true for many of those who will be condemned on the final day, but it will be true for many who will be!

This is consistent with Jesus’ description of “sinners” in Matthew 5:46-47 and Luke 6:32-34. It is not as if Jesus thinks that sinners have no natural affections at all. No, He declares– even sinners love those who love them. Sinners do good to those who do good to them. Sinners will lend to sinners. Sinners greet and are friendly toward those who are friendly to them.

Therefore, there will be on that final day people who were benevolent toward some other people who will yet be condemned. Sure, those people did good things to those who were just like them, who liked them and appreciated them, and who gave back to them. These things are assumed to be true of almost everyone. Jesus raises the bar higher for those who seek eternal life.

These people are condemned in this presentation because they did not help the least of those amongst them– the outcasts, the dispossessed, the widow, the orphan, the homeless, those with a radically different view of things, those whom society or culture or (sadly enough) religious authorities taught them to despise. They, like the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), just walked on by. They may not have actively contributed to the destitution of the least among them, but they certainly did not do anything to make it any better. And for that they are condemned.

We imagine that many “heathens,” unbelievers, and others will be in this crowd, and they most likely will be (cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). But what might be shocking is just how many “religious” people will comprise this crowd. Sure, they might have seemed pious enough. They probably did all they could to avoid certain sins, and might even have done some charitable work. Yet, like the Pharisees and scribes, they harbored a sense of superiority; in their pursuit of holiness, they forgot about love, mercy, justice, and faithfulness (Matthew 7:20-23, 23:23-24). They were more than ready to help their coreligionists and their middle- to upper-class neighbors; the cry of the truly needy amongst them, however, went unheeded. They heard the cries of those with whom Jesus associated, and did nothing.

Yes, there is more that will go into the sentence of condemnation than just one’s lack of charity– sin, disobedience, rebellion, lack of knowledge of God, and so forth (Romans 2:5-10, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Galatians 5:19-21, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). And yet, just as true charity exemplifies that one has been truly conformed to the image of Jesus the Son in thought, attitude, and deed (Matthew 25:34-40, Romans 8:29), the lack of true charity demonstrates a parallel lack of conformity to the image of Jesus the Son. As long as anyone does not show true charity toward the outcast and dispossessed, there remains conformity to the world and not to Christ.

No one wants to hear the judgment of Matthew 25:41, but it will be the eternal condemnation of far too many souls. It will come to all those who reject the reality that the image of God can be found in even the least among us, and for those who prove willing to harden their hearts toward their fellow man and carry on as they always have. It is a sentence for people in self-absorbed lives, content with avoiding the big sins without proper concern for practicing righteousness (cf. James 4:17). And it will be distressing declaration to many religious people who worried so much about so many religious things that they forgot about their fellow man, or who were too enamored with the view of religiosity to be bothered to get their hands dirty in the difficult and challenging work of true religiosity. Ultimately, it is a sentence representing the great humbling of many people who were too high on themselves and too dismissive of others. Dear friend, do not let this be the sentence you hear. Change your ways, follow after Jesus of Nazareth, humble yourself, and prove willing to serve the least among you, conforming to the image of Christ in holiness, faithfulness, love, and mercy, and obtain eternal life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Judgment No One Wants to Hear

The Judgment Everyone Wants to Hear

“Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry, and ye gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me.’
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when saw we thee hungry, and fed thee? or athirst, and gave thee drink? And when saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? And when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?’
And the King shall answer and say unto them, ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me'” (Matthew 25:34-40).

The disciples wanted to know what would be the signs demonstrating the end of the age (cf. Matthew 24:3), and Jesus has finally come to the point of obliging them. He has already declared that no one will know when it will be, and thus they are to be ready at all times– prepared, productive in the Kingdom (Matthew 24:36-25:30). Of course, it really is not that cut and dry in the text– Jesus uses the rich imagery of the days of Noah, a contrast between faithful and wicked servants, the foolish and wise virgins, and servants settling accounts with their master. All of these things are signs pointing to the climactic moment of the judgment day.

Jesus the King is on His throne and the nations are before Him, separated out (Matthew 25:31-33). Those on His right will hear the judgment everyone wants to hear– they are blessed of His Father, and they are to inherit the Kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world (Matthew 25:34).

All of the readiness and preparations have paid off. Such people were, no doubt, active in God’s Kingdom, using their gifts to multiply the Lord’s investment. They are the same as those wise and faithful servants who have conducted themselves properly in their Master’s house while He has been away. Yet, in this picture of the Judgment scene, those are not the reasons why they are the blessed of the Father.

Instead, they are the blessed ones of God because they have fed the King when He was hungry, gave Him drink when thirsty, took Him in though a stranger, clothed Him when naked, visited Him when sick, and came to Him while He was in prison (Matthew 25:35-36)!

This proves to be astonishing news even to the blessed– they do not remember doing any such thing for the Lord (Matthew 25:37-39), and He does not disagree. He says that inasmuch as they had done those things to the least of “these my brethren,” they did it for Jesus their King (Matthew 25:40).

A detail question that invariably gets asked involves the identity of “the least of these my brethren.” That it involves fellow believers in God is without a doubt; God demands that believers take care of one another’s needs (Galatians 6:10, 1 John 3:16-18). But does it really stop there? The New Testament demonstrates that believers are to have concern for the needs of all men, not just believers (Galatians 2:20, 6:10); we do well to remember how the lawyer attempted to justify himself by wanting to know who his “neighbor” was, and found himself self-condemned by the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-36). It is the same Jesus telling this story; our concern should be with all our fellow human beings.

Nevertheless, we ought not allow the details of the story to overshadow the greater message. When it is all said and done, according to the presentation of the judgment day in this passage, it comes down to how we helped those who are in need.

Does this mean that everything else is unimportant? Jesus makes no such declaration. He has already emphasized the need for readiness, preparation, and faithful living in previous parables and discussions. Paul demonstrates the need for obedience in order to hear the good news on the judgment day in Romans 2:5-10; he speaks on other occasions regarding those sins which, without repentance, keep people from inheriting the Kingdom in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and Galatians 5:19-21. Jesus is in no way attempting to say that we can be faithless in all other contexts but faithful in charity and somehow be justified on the final day.

Instead, Jesus’ declaration of why those who are blessed of the Father are those who have served others in need is entirely consistent with His previous messages about fruit bearing (e.g. Matthew 7:16-20). What people do is a reflection of their motivations, intentions, and purposes– essentially, what is in their heart (cf. Mark 7:20-23). If the heart and mind are right, the fruit will be right. If the fruit is not there, or the fruit is bad, then there is a heart and mind problem.

Ultimately, that is why Jesus’ declaration about the basis of judgment involves how one treats others. There is a type of religion, exemplified by the scribes and Pharisees, that so entirely emphasizes personal purity and doctrinal dogmas to the detriment of love, compassion, and mercy. They may have an intellectual understanding of many of the true principles of God and His will, but that understanding has not reformed their character– certain aspects of the mind might be right, but there remains a major heart problem. Likewise, there are many who view religion as a means of gain, be it for money, fame, prominence, or a little bit of each, like the false teachers of whom Paul speaks in 1 Timothy 6:3-10 and in other passages. Again we have a major heart problem, and where there is rivalry, covetousness, and a quest for fame, there is not true charity.

True charity, nevertheless, flows from an understanding of the nature of God, His love for mankind, and His character as reflected in Jesus His Son. The love spoken of in 1 Corinthians 13:1-8 finds one of its most sublime expressions in the type of charity that Jesus describes in Matthew 25:35-40. One is inclined to visit the incarcerated and ill, feed the hungry, and so on, despite the fact that the incarcerated, the ill, the hungry, and such like are often hard to love, when one has truly developed the heart and mind of Christ.

Matthew 25:34 represents the judgment everyone wants to hear. But it will only be heard by those who demonstrate love, compassion, and mercy, as expressed in Matthew 25:35-40. And those demonstrations of love, compassion, and mercy come because of the reformation of the heart and mind according to Christ and not according to the world, demanding understanding of and obedience to the truth of God in Christ Jesus. Believers must be prepared for the final day, busy in the Lord’s Kingdom, and God will know them by their fruit– have believers been motivated by God’s love and compassion to show love and compassion to the least of those among them? If we want to hear the best news at the Judgment, we must reflect the heart and mind of Christ in our actions. Let us do so and be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Judgment Everyone Wants to Hear

The Dragnet

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind: which, when it was filled, they drew up on the beach; and they sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but the bad they cast away. So shall it be in the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the righteous, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:47-50).

As Jesus is preaching and teaching in Galilee near the Sea of Galilee, it is all but expected that He would use some kind of image from the fishing industry in His parables. And as Matthew finishes the presentation of a good number of Jesus’ parables in Matthew 13, we have a fishing parable to show us the significant consequences that will come on the basis of what we will do or not do with Jesus and His Kingdom.

We find that parallelism among the parables is maintained in Matthew 13. The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23) stands at the fore of the parables, perhaps understood as the parable of parables. We then find the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13:24-30, 37-43), which is parallel to the Parable of the Dragnet we are considering (Matthew 13:47-50). The Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31-32) and the Parable of the Leaven (Matthew 13:33) are paired together and are parallel, as are the Parables of the Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:44-46).

The dragnet is a time-honored fishing technique, one that would be well known to Peter, Andrew, James, and John (cf. Luke 5:1-11). A large net is lowered into the water and pulled along, catching within it anything that gets in its way. When full– or whenever desired– the net is pulled back up into the boat and its contents emptied out. Ideally, one would have made a good catch of fish that could fetch a nice income from the marketplace. Regardless, many things will get caught in the net that are not desired– smaller fish, perhaps some other creatures, and the like, and those are best cast back into the water or as refuse.

So we have the Parable of the Dragnet: the fish are people, the net is the Kingdom and its upcoming day of Judgment, and the fishermen are the angels. Those who are worthy shall be kept; all others shall be reckoned as refuse, cast into the hell described as the “furnace of fire,” where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:47-50). As it was with wheat and weeds, so now it is with fish: some will be preserved, and others will be burned with fire.

Therefore, we see that the basic message of the Parable of the Dragnet is the same as the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. Yet there are some differences in detail and explanation, and then there is the question of placement.

There is a qualitative difference between wheat and weeds: they are different types of plants. Fish, however, are fish; we are not given the impression that the “good fish” are one species of fish, and the “bad fish” are another species, but that the fish might very well be of the same species but of different quality. In the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, the “tares” are to be harvested first; the Parable of the Dragnet vividly describes the separating of the good fish from the bad fish. The tares are to be burned; the bad fish are “cast away.”

We should not press these distinctions in detail too far; we must remember that these are images designed to help us understand the spiritual reality behind the image, and not to get too enamored with the images themselves. Nevertheless, Jesus is not simply repeating Himself with the Parable of the Dragnet.

The fact that the fish are not really described has significance. It is not as if people are inherently divided into different classes, with one group of people who begin well, remain well, and end well, and another group of people who begin as refuse, remain as refuse, and end as refuse. Just as the fish are fish, so people are people. There is no distinction made between people based upon their birth, class, ethnicity, gender, or any other similar measure (Galatians 3:28). Put another way, God does not show partiality toward some and not others (Romans 2:11). No one is irrevocably destined to be a “weed” or a “bad fish.” Instead, in this parable, the distinction is based on the value of each fish, which in the spiritual reality can be understood as the character of each person. Is our character bad, evil, and natural, or does our character have Jesus and His Kingdom impressed upon it (cf. Romans 8:1-11)? The Judgment is not based in who we are; it is based on what we have become and what we have done (Romans 2:5-11)!

The day of Judgment will come at once for everyone– it will not be that the wicked go before the righteous, or vice versa (Matthew 25:1-46). The sorting does not happen in this life; it will happen on the day of resurrection when Jesus is glorified in His Kingdom (1 Corinthians 15).

There is also some significance to the idea of the wicked as refuse– as something thrown away as no good. On the spiritual level, there is no distinction between the “tares” and the “bad fish”: Matthew 13:42 and 13:50 are precisely the same. Nevertheless, in the parables themselves, the tares were destined for fire (Matthew 13:30). The bad fish are to be thrown away (Matthew 13:48). This “casting away,” what is done to garbage, evokes the Valley of Hinnom as a place where garbage was collected and burnt, and the “inspiration” behind Gehenna as hell (Matthew 5:22, 29-30, 10:28, 18:9, 23:15, 33). Just as people would take garbage to the Valley of Hinnom to be burned, since it had no use, those who have not served God and who remained evil and in rebellion will be taken to hell– Gehenna– for burning, since they were no good and provided no profit.

In that “furnace of fire” there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, images of great suffering and torment otherwise associated with the “outer darkness” (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30). Thus we see all kinds of images of hell brought together: the fiery furnace, the place for refuse, a place of suffering, separated far from God and the righteous with Him.

Yet one question remains: if the other parallel parables came right next to each other, why does the separation exist between the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares and the Parable of the Dragnet?

Perhaps this was just the order Jesus used, and there was not much thought put into it. Such, however, is highly unlikely; Jesus is very deliberate with His words and how He presents His message of the Kingdom.

Perhaps the Parable of the Dragnet is designed to be some sort of conclusion; its ultimate message, however, is quite consistent with the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, even ending on the same note (Matthew 13:42, 50).

Yet if we look in more detail at the presentation, we see a type of order. The Parable of the Wheat and Tares is presented (Matthew 13:24-30), but its explanation comes only after the Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven (Matthew 13:31-43). We then see the Parables of the Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:44-46), and then we have the Parable of the Dragnet (Matthew 13:47-50).

What could this mean? It seems as if there is a deliberate “sandwiching” of the parable sets, with the Parable of the Wheat and Tares and the Parable of the Dragnet providing the overall structure. Perhaps we are to understand these parables as representing some kind of structure within the Kingdom: the righteous and the wicked will remain together until the end of time. The Kingdom will start small and grow large; the Kingdom is worth more than anything else, and therefore costs more than anything else. Not everyone will appreciate the growth of the Kingdom. Not everyone will appreciate its value, and even more will not want to pay the cost. Yet, in the end, God is going to separate people based on whether they participated in Jesus’ Kingdom as His servants.

Let us not miss the force of this parable and the way that the parables are laid out in Matthew 13. The message of the Kingdom goes out to all sorts of people, many of whom hear, many of whom fall away. We must understand that the Kingdom starts with humble beginnings, and that just as the Kingdom is of supreme value, so there is great cost involved in obtaining the Kingdom. We must persevere and obey, for we know that the day is coming when God will judge everyone, and those who serve Christ in His Kingdom will be redeemed and honored, while those who did not serve Him will be bound up, cast off as refuse, and burned in eternal suffering. There can be no sitting on the fence; let us make our decision and follow after our Lord!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Dragnet

Morality Turned Upside Down

Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20)

Does it ever seem like the idea of morality has become a joke? It seems like one’s social and economic stature determines what is moral. With enough clout and money, it seems, one could get away with anything– even murder at times! The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and no one seems to care. As the wealthy consolidate power thanks to their resources, the situation seems all but hopeless. Either you are rich, and the land is your oyster, or you are poor, and you serve the rich in many ways. If you are poor, the slightest infraction might be your doom; if you have enough resources, you can get your way out of anything.

Does that sound familiar? Many might think that such is true today. It was also quite true of the days of Isaiah. Those with wealth could live with impunity. They could squeeze out the small farmer, bribe any judicial figures, and feast away with the king and others (cf. Isaiah 5:18-24). The poor man was forced to bear all of this. If he had to be sold into debt slavery, so be it; such meant little to the wealthy landowner. They had the luxury of choosing which laws to favor and which laws to neglect. They could call light darkness and darkness light, and mock the expectations of God for equity in dealing with all people.

Isaiah would not stand for this. He proclaimed the message of God’s disfavor with the actions of the rich and influential. He predicted their doom at the hands of first Assyria and then Babylon. They would receive their comeuppance– eventually. Woe, indeed, to them.

While the challenges of today are not as based on income as they were in days past, there is still the sense that the rich and powerful can get away with pretty much everything. If a “regular Joe” steals something, he has a quick trial and goes to prison in a pretty bad environment. If the wealthy extort or embezzle, which is theft, and happen to get caught, and happen to go to trial, and happen to get sentenced, and actually have to serve time, it tends to be in a far more cushy environment– if it ever ended in imprisonment. Different standards abound to this day!

Challenges with morality are not limited to the upper class; everyone has their sins (Romans 3:23). These days, however, the idea of “sin” is on the out. Many believe that “sin” is an artificial construct, an invention of authorities attempting to keep the people down. Things that God has declared to be sinful are re-named to seem less harmful. Arguments are made to appeal to the heart-strings in a misguided attempt to show compassion to that which is, in reality, sinful. And those who dare declare what God has said are labeled “intolerant,” “bigoted,” “narrow-minded,” or “old-fashioned.”

There is little doubt that the Israelites of Isaiah’s day could have done similar things. Idolatry was just “a different theological choice.” Bribes were just “ways to get things done.” Isaiah, no doubt, was considered intolerant, narrow-minded, perhaps even fundamentalistic, a dangerous religious zealot, for declaring the will of the Lord.

Our time is not as “enlightened” as its participants would imagine. As long as there have been people in sin there have been people who have been trying to find ways to justify their sins and demonize anyone who would challenge their justifications. There have always been people who want to bend the rules to their own favor and find any way possible in which to do so. Many will do what they want to do no matter what anyone tells them. The human capacity for self-justification is almost unimaginable in its depth.

Yet, as in Isaiah’s proclamation, so with today. Comeuppance will come, eventually, to such people. Justice may be served in their own lifetimes; it will surely be served on the final day (Acts 17:30-31). God’s patience and longsuffering toward people, hoping for their repentance (2 Peter 3:9), will not last forever, and many will learn the true cost of calling evil good and good evil; of declaring bitter sweet and sweet bitter; of loving the darkness and hating the light.

Believers in God often feel distressed by all of this, and it is understandable. It is much harder to strive to live as God would have us live when it is reviled as being the opposite of what it truly is– the way of life, light, and peace (John 8:12, Romans 8:6). Yet believers should take comfort in knowing that this has been the way people have been acting for centuries; it is not a purely modern phenomenon. It will continue until the Lord returns. It is not fair, it is difficult, and sometimes we get penalized for it. But we know who will ultimately reward the righteous and condemn the wicked (1 Peter 4:12-19). Let us stand for what is just, right, true, and holy, no matter what it is called or how others may abuse us, and receive the ultimate reward in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Morality Turned Upside Down

The Firstfruits

But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; then they that are Christ’s, at his coming (1 Corinthians 15:23).

Despair turned to excitement on that first day of the week so long ago when Jesus arose from the dead (John 20:1-31, etc.). In the midst of all the excitement, however, there was one theological conundrum that needed to be addressed.

The idea of resurrection was not foreign to the Jews; the Pharisees believed in the resurrection (Acts 23:8), and no doubt many other Jews did also. But “the resurrection” in which they believed was the resurrection on the last day. That is what Daniel 12:2 seemed to indicate. It certainly was the expectation of Martha when Lazarus died (cf. John 11:24).

But someone rising from the dead in the resurrection before the end? This was not something you would automatically take away from a reading of the Old Testament, nor was it something immediately obvious to Pharisees and others. Perhaps this was part of the challenge the disciples faced in not understanding Jesus’ predictions of the event (Mark 9:30-32, etc.). How could it be that One could rise from the dead before everyone was raised from the dead?

The Holy Spirit, through Paul, would make this understandable. Jesus was the firstfruits of the resurrection!

The idea of the firstfruits comes from passages like Deuteronomy 18:4:

The first-fruits of thy grain, of thy new wine, and of thine oil, and the first of the fleece of thy sheep, shalt thou give him.

The firstfruits were the first part of a harvest– the first wheat or barley harvested, the first wine processed, the first of the fleece shorn, and so on and so forth. The Israelites were to devote the firstfruits to God (Exodus 23:19), and God gave them to the Levites for sustenance (Deuteronomy 18:4). After the firstfruits had been offered, the rest of the harvest belonged to the people for their own consumption and use.

The firstfruits image, therefore, helps us understand the relationship between Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection on the final day. Jesus is the firstfruits– the first to rise from the dead, never to die again (1 Corinthians 15:20). He had been given as an offering to God to atone for the people (2 Corinthians 5:21, Hebrews 9:1-15). He paves the way for the resurrection to come, the resurrection of which we all take part (John 5:28-29, 1 Corinthians 15:12-57)!

There is something obvious about the firstfruits that is important for the resurrection. The firstfruits are not different in kind or type from the harvest that comes later. The firstfruits of wheat are wheat just as the “second fruits” or “third fruits” would be; the same goes for barley, wine, fleece, and the like. So it is with the resurrection: we should not believe that our resurrection will be something different from Christ’s resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:23). The difference involves time, not type or kind. As Jesus died in the flesh but remained alive in the spirit (1 Peter 3:18), and was then raised bodily from the dead, the tomb being empty, and His flesh being transformed for immortality (Luke 24:1-49), so it goes with those who serve Him. All who have died, and those who will be dead before His coming, remain alive in the spirit, but will then be raised bodily and transformed for immortality (1 Corinthians 15:35-57, Philippians 1:21-23, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)!

In reality, the resurrection is a challenging concept, for one of the few “guarantees” in the physical realm is that once one dies, one is always dead. We do not see people rising from the dead, never to die again.

Yet that is precisely the hope by which the Christian must live (cf. Romans 8:20-25). And we have confidence in that hope because of Jesus the firstfruits. We do not have to wonder whether God can or will raise the dead, for we know He raised Jesus from the dead. If He is able to raise Jesus from the dead, He is able to raise us from the dead also, and He has promised to do so (Romans 8:11)!

The last enemy, indeed, is death (1 Corinthians 15:26). Through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and lordship, believers now can have confidence in their spiritual regeneration in this life (Romans 6:1-23, 8:1-9). The believer is able to be a new creature in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), yet we are all still cursed with physical death.

But death will be abolished. The day will dawn when we all will have the victory over not just sin but also death through Jesus Christ our Lord, and on that day the rest of the harvest will be brought in to the praise and glory of God in Christ (1 Corinthians 15:53-57, 1 Peter 1:6-7). We can have complete confidence in this because Jesus gained the victory over sin on the cross and over death in the resurrection, and He is the firstfruits! Let us all serve God so that we may attain to the resurrection of life (cf. Philippians 3:11-13)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Firstfruits

The End of the Beginning

And the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them (Genesis 2:1).

When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, “It is finished”: and he bowed his head, and gave up his spirit (John 19:30).

We humans seem to be hard-wired for stories. We like stories with beginnings and endings. We often feel cheated or in despair when we engross ourselves in a story that may not have much of a beginning and provides little, if any, resolution in the end.

As readers or hearers we try to be expecting the “beginning of the end” of a story. But what about the end of the beginning?

The end of the beginning is the moment of great hope in a story. In some way, the reader or listener is now introduced to the main characters and/or theme. Possibilities here abound; soon enough, the story will be fixed into a given channel toward its ultimate end.

We have that pause at the “end of the beginning” of the creation. In six days God created all that exists– He provided the beginning for everything (cf. Genesis 1:1-31). The sixth day was the culmination of creation– the creatures of the land and the man and woman in God’s image (Genesis 1:24-31). The possibilities abounded. God rested on the seventh day (Genesis 2:1-3), and soon enough the story of His creation would unfold.

And then, in a darker semblance, we have the “end of the beginning” with the death of Jesus the Son of God. Jesus had been active in His earthly ministry, healing the sick, casting out demons, and proclaiming the message of the upcoming Kingdom (cf. Matthew 4:23-24). He did this for approximately three years. Over a six day period Jesus was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, teaching about the Kingdom while the hopes and dreams of Israel burst forth (cf. Matthew 21-27). The culmination of His time in Jerusalem and His entire ministry came again on the sixth day– scourging, a crown of thorns, derision and mockery, and ultimately death on a cross (Matthew 27:1-50, etc.). And then, on the seventh day, God the Son rested (Luke 23:56).

While there is some controversy over the day of Jesus’ death, the evidence from Luke 23:54-56 and John 19:31 provide strong indications that Jesus did indeed die on what has often been called “Good Friday.” In the Jewish calendar, Friday (really Thursday sunset to Friday sunset) is the sixth day of the week. God created the heavens and earth in six days, with the creation of humans on the sixth day, and rested on the seventh (cf. Genesis 1:1-2:3); Jesus completed His task of fulfilling the Law and the prophets and reconciling God and man on the sixth day (John 19:1-30). In each case, we have the end of the beginning.

Since God rested on the seventh day, so Israel was commanded to rest on the seventh day (cf. Exodus 20:10-11). It should not be surprising to us that the full day of Jesus’ rest in the tomb would be on such a Sabbath.

But then the sun would rise on a new week, the first day of the week. In Genesis this meant the real beginning of God’s Lordship over His newly-formed creation; He would not again be active in the work of creation, but He would rule over what is His and seek its best interest.

God’s reign over the creation continued as it were week after week, year after year, millennium after millennium, until that fateful Passover week in 30 CE. When the sun arose on the first day of the week after Jesus’ death, the end of the beginning had its full consummation: Jesus had been raised from the dead in power by God, now to rule over the heavens and earth as Lord (Matthew 28:1-18).

While it may have seemed as if nothing had changed in the way that the world operates, in reality, everything had just changed. In many respects, it was the “eighth” day of the week: a breaking out from the old paradigm and the beginning of a new creation (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17). The Kingdom and Reign of God was coming to earth through those who would follow Jesus Christ. As the Resurrected Lord, He represents the firstfruits, the basis of the hope and expectation we all share in Him for resurrection and rebirth (cf. Romans 8:17-25, 1 Corinthians 15:1-58). Jesus’ followers would no longer rest on the seventh day, for the work of God in advancing the Kingdom and bringing in the new creation is not satisfied until we obtain the resurrection (Hebrews 4:1-11). Our greatest loyalty is to the new creation, not the old, and thus Christians came together– and should still come together– on the first day of the week, commemorating the end of the new beginning: remembering the death of the Lord on the day when He arose (Matthew 28:1-10, Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

God has told us the beginning of the story of creation, and He has forecast for us the picture of the end (cf. Matthew 25:1-46, Revelation 21:1-22:6). Those who are willing and obedient will obtain the ultimate reconciliation with God (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Revelation 21:1-22:6). In doing so, according to God’s most profound story, believers will find themselves back at the end of the original beginning thanks to the end of the new beginning– man living in full association with God as in the Garden (cf. Genesis 2:4-24, Revelation 21:1-22:6), all thanks to the reconciliation that was made possible through Jesus’ death on the cross (Romans 5:5-11) and the new life that is found in the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20-57).

We have heard the story of the beginning, both old and new; the beginning has ended, the end may be upon us soon. Our lives, physical and spiritual, are sustained by the beginning of the stories and the end of those beginnings. Let us participate in God’s story so that we may obtain life in the end, be reconciled to God, and enjoy eternal life in the Son!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The End of the Beginning