To Will and to Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

To Will and to Work

Suffering for the Name

And to [Gamaliel] [the Sanhedrin] agreed: and when they had called the apostles unto them, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. They therefore departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the Name (Acts 5:40-41).

The pattern was repeating itself yet again.

As it happened during Jesus’ life, so it was happening after His death and resurrection: the proclamation of salvation and life in His name went forth, people heard it gladly, and it earned the jealousy and ire of the Jewish religious authorities. Jesus was delivered into their hands, and they had Him executed (Luke 22:47-23:49). Peter and John had previously been arrested for preaching and teaching in the Temple (Acts 4:1-22); now, on account of the continued popularity of the message of Jesus, all the Apostles are imprisoned (Acts 5:17-19). An angel sets them free and they go preach to the people in the Temple (Acts 5:20-25), but the Apostles do eventually stand before the council– the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:26-39). Wise Gamaliel dissuaded the Sanhedrin from killing them, but that did not stop the Sanhedrin from having the Apostles beaten (Acts 5:40). The call made for them to stop preaching Jesus was in vain; they would soon again be proclaiming the message that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ of Israel (Acts 5:42).

How would we have felt had we been standing there with the Apostles? Ancient beatings were not pleasant– perhaps up to thirty-nine lashings on the back (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:24). Today such behavior would be considered “cruel and unusual punishment”; in ancient times, it was probably understood as cruel, but it was all too usual. The thought today makes us cringe. But what would we have done had we been compelled to experience such abuse?

It would be easy to be angry; we might want some form of retribution. The carnal aspect of us would want to see them beaten in a similar way. It would be tempting to take solace in the idea that they would experience such in the hereafter, if not sooner.

It would also be easy to just deal with the pain and be quiet. Sure, we might not want to break out in anger, but we would not necessarily be cheerful about it either. We would probably want to go home, nurse the wounds, perhaps complain and whine about the pain and the humiliation a little bit, and then move on with our lives.

But how many of us would react as the Apostles reacted– rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor because of the Name of Christ (Acts 5:41)?

Dishonor is not something most of us want to experience. If we have to suffer, then we will suffer, but we will hardly glory in it. The last thing most of us would do is think about suffering in terms of being “worthy” to suffer– if anything, we would equate “worthiness” with a lack of suffering!

Yet the attitude of the Apostles is precisely why their message was turning the world upside down. They had understood not just what Jesus’ death and resurrection meant for the world; they also understood what life should be like because of how Jesus lived. They experienced Jesus’ humiliation, in a way, having had their feet washed by Him (John 13:1-17). They saw through His life and death how the greatest among them was their Servant, since Jesus had come not to be served but to serve and to be the ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28). To be humiliated and to be degraded was to be like Jesus; to suffer unjustly was to follow in the path of Christ (cf. 1 Peter 2:18-25). Even though the Apostles would agree that the beating was unpleasant, they would point to Jesus’ own scourging so that they– as well as us– could be healed from our transgressions (cf. Mark 15:15, 1 Peter 2:24). Suffering with Christ was the means by which they would be glorified with Christ (Romans 8:17); therefore, to be counted worthy to suffer for the Name means that they are counted worthy to obtain glory in salvation.

This is completely foreign to the world; nevertheless, in light of Jesus and the life He lived, it makes some sense. In Christ we can glory in degradation and humiliation; in Christ we can rejoice that we are counted worthy to suffer for His name.

We will suffer; this much is assured (Acts 14:22, 2 Timothy 3:12). How far we have grown in Christ and matured in our faith will be evidenced in our reaction to that suffering. Will we get angry, harbor resentment, and demand retribution, as people of the world would? Will we instead decide to turn inward, nurse the wound, and act as Stoics regarding the whole situation? Or will we rejoice in that we have been counted worthy of suffering for the Name of Jesus, assuming that our suffering is for that cause, and glorify God that we are joining with Christ in humiliation and suffering? Let us grow and mature in our faith and rejoice in God no matter what circumstances may befall us!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Suffering for the Name

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

Keeping Up Appearances

“But all their works they do to be seen of men: for they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the chief place at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and the salutations in the marketplaces, and to be called of men, ‘Rabbi'” (Matthew 23:5-7).

It is one of the most natural desires of mankind: to be valued and appreciated. Most would rather people have a favorable opinion of them than an unfavorable one. Few are those who revel in being unloved, unappreciated, and completely rejected by others!

This impulse is natural for a reason– we were never meant to be alone. Just as God maintains relational unity– One God in Three Persons, one in will, purpose, essence, substance, and mind– we, having been made in His image, seek after relational unity with God and with others (cf. John 17:20-23, Genesis 1:26-27, Acts 17:27). It is nearly impossible to develop healthy relationships when we show complete disinterest in the ways others look at us. Not a few social customs emerged as ways of living so as to be acceptable to one’s fellow man.

Yet, as with all impulses, the desire to be valued and appreciated can be tragically misdirected. This is Jesus’ concern with the Pharisees as expressed in Matthew 23:5-7. They certainly wanted to be valued and appreciated– and made it their goal and obsession. They received what they wanted. But it did not please God.

It was likely that there were a few Pharisees who were sincere in their approach– they really wanted to serve God through their phylacteries, garments, and wanted to be humble. Sadly, such were hardly the majority. We can be confident that the reason that these charges burned was because they rang true in the hearing of the people. Sure, the Pharisees acted religiously. But far too many did so in order to keep up appearances and to gain favor with the people. We can safely reason that if the Pharisees were offered a chance to receive salvation and eternal benefits but would be despised by their fellow Jews on earth, or to be condemned yet receive the glory and accolades of their fellow Jews on earth, most would take the latter route– because most did, according to Matthew 23, Acts 7, and the testimonies throughout Acts. Jesus’ summons to humility and suffering were too much for them to endure.

When confronted with such a passage, it is quite easy to point fingers at the Pharisees. It is also extremely easy to find opponents, religious or otherwise, and point fingers at them. Yet we must remember that Jesus is speaking to fellow members of God’s covenant people to wake them up and exhort them to repentance. As painful as it might be, it is always best to first point the finger at ourselves before we try to point it at others (cf. Matthew 7:1-4)!

How many works do we do in order to be seen of men? It is less an issue of the types of things that we do and more of an issue of the motivations behind what we do. It was not inherently wrong to have broad phylacteries or long bordered garments. For that matter it is not inherently wrong to be honored by one’s fellow man. It is all about why we do what we do– are we doing it to please others? Are we doing it because we are afraid of what others will think about us if we do not?

There are some obvious applications of this. Not a few give themselves titles or “earn” titles and insist on their use. Jesus condemns this attitude (Matthew 23:8-12). It is one thing to be given the seat of honor; it is quite another to constantly seek it out and love it and cherish it. The world does not lack people who have too high of an estimation of themselves, and who are quite sure that others should also. The world is full of monuments of ambition and glory-seeking; some are physical, some are not; some are magnificent in their glory, and far too many others are tragic in their failure. These all will pass away (1 Peter 1:24-26). These glory-seekers may get their reward on earth, but they are headed for quite the disappointment on the final day!

Nevertheless, this conversation can get personal and painful very quickly. It is one thing to talk about glory-seeking actions like we have; it is quite another to start talking about the appearances we keep up among one another. While no one lives an entirely transparent life, most of us could use a little more transparency and authenticity in the way we present ourselves. We feel like we must “keep it all together” on the outside even though things may be falling apart inside. Yet how willing are we to find some fellow Christians with whom we can discuss our difficulties and confess our sins (James 5:16)? What stops us from “going forward” regarding our difficulties? How many soldiers of Christ have fallen, having rarely or never cried out for help for fear of rejection, finding it easier to say nothing and to keep up the appearance of righteousness?

In Jesus we have the example of the authentic life. He served others, always mindful of His connection with the Father (cf. Matthew 20:28). He humbled Himself greatly (Philippians 2:5-8). He received honor at times but was not acting in order to receive the honor. Yet He also honestly grappled with the sufferings He experienced; He did not hide away from them or act like they were not there, but poured out His anguish before God and His disciples (Matthew 26:37-39). There was nothing to hide.

While propriety does demand that some things ought to remain private among people, we cannot delude ourselves into thinking that anything is hidden before God. We must live transparently before Him and authentically toward others, as Jesus did. We must not live seeking self-glory and honor; we may get it, but we do so at the expense of our relationship with God. We must never do anything just to be seen by our fellow man. That certainly includes any number of public religious acts and “rituals,” but let us not fool ourselves– it includes the very manner of our lives as well. We want to be accepted and appreciated, and yet, in Christ, God is willing to accept and appreciate us more deeply than we can ever imagine, but only if we allow ourselves to be satisfied in Him and Him alone (Romans 8:1-39). Let us not be as the Pharisees; let us be willing to endure the shame and dishonor of humility and discipleship, and serve God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Keeping Up Appearances

Mistakes

Then Saul said, “I have sinned. Return, my son David, for I will no more do you harm, because my life was precious in your eyes this day. Behold, I have acted foolishly, and have made a great mistake” (1 Samuel 26:21).

The quality of a person’s character is not nearly as visible in moments of success and exaltation as it is during moments of error, fault, and humiliation. If our efforts succeed, or if we are proven right about our view on some person, event, or other matter, we feel at least somewhat good about ourselves. But what will we do if we fail? What happens if events do not take place as we had thought, or if everything we thought about someone or something proves to be wrong? What then?

King Saul faced such a situation in 1 Samuel 26. He was convinced that David intended to kill him and his children so as to take over the throne over Israel. Therefore, he hotly pursued David in an attempt to kill him. David is given an opportunity to kill Saul, yet does not do so, and publicly demonstrates this fact, showing that he had no intention of killing Saul (1 Samuel 26:4-20). Saul had been proven wrong. Faced with these circumstances, Saul was willing to humble himself publicly and declare his error. He admitted that he had sinned, acted foolishly, and had made a great mistake (1 Samuel 26:21). A good argument could be made that Saul was only putting on a show, and internally still wanted David, his rival, dead. We are not in Saul’s head; we cannot know for certain. Nevertheless, we can see that Saul was willing to at least profess that he had erred and was wrong.

Recently a gentleman made a prediction that the “rapture” would come on a certain day. He declared that the Bible guaranteed his prediction. And yet that day came and went. But did he admit that he was wrong? No; he would go on to declare that the day was “an invisible judgment day” involving a “spiritual judgment,” and expects the end of the world to come in a few months.

The assertion, no doubt, is quite ridiculous. It is quite evident that what was predicted did not happen. As opposed to just coming clean and admitting his error, however, he instead took the easy way out, attempting to dodge the force of the disappointment and the public humiliation and degradation he brought upon himself because of his previous proclamations.

Such disappointing behavior is not new or specific to that gentleman. If we are honest with ourselves, we can reflect upon many times in our own lives when we have been proven wrong but refused to admit it, or things have happened that do not fit into the way we see people or events and therefore have tried to dismiss it. The temptation is very strong to indulge in our own private fantasy land in which we are pretty much always right and very rarely wrong.

Yes, there are times when things may not be exactly as they seem– we might actually have a point, or our views, on the whole, are accurate. Yet the majority of the time we are being tempted to let our pride get in the way, since we always want to be right, and we never want to swallow the bitter pill of our own errors, insufficiencies, and weaknesses.

This is when we ought to remember the example of Saul: when confronted with evidence that shows us that we are wrong, it is always better to admit the error, confess the mistake, apologize, and move on. The bitterness of the humiliation during that painful moment is real, but to pile on error after error in order to justify the original error only extends that humiliation and directs us away from reality toward our idolatrous fantasy land. We must remember that the Lord resists the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6-10, 1 Peter 5:5b-6).

It is always easier to duck and run from responsibility. Anyone can make a denial. It demands integrity in character to be willing to take up the courage to admit when we are wrong, to apologize, and to be willing to correct our views and actions accordingly. Yes, it hurts. Yes, it seems scary. Yes, it might mean that we have to entirely change the way we look at people and/or things. But is it not ultimately better to come to grips with reality than to believe the delusion and be condemned for it (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12, 2 Timothy 4:3-4)? Let us be willing to to admit our mistakes and our error when it is exposed, as Saul did, and remain humble, so that the Lord may exalt us in due time!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Mistakes

Exercise

And exercise thyself unto godliness: for bodily exercise is profitable for a little; but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life which now is, and of that which is to come (1 Timothy 4:7b-8).

Exercise is not one of those things where there is much middle ground. It is something that you either do or you don’t. If you do it, you either enjoy it or you don’t. If you don’t do it, you probably don’t enjoy it much at all if you ever feel compelled to do it. Exercise is one of those practices in life that also tends to generate a lot of emotion. People get quite passionate about engaging in exercise or in avoiding it.

1 Timothy 4:8 tends to be “ground zero” in religious discussions about exercise. Much is made about how Paul declares that bodily exercise is only profitable for a little, and yet godliness is profitable for all things. And this is quite true, and exactly for the reason Paul provides– the spiritual will endure after the body perishes. All flesh is as grass (Isaiah 40:6, 1 Peter 1:24); if we obsess over our physical appearance and our physique, we are investing too much in what will not endure, and comparatively too little in what will endure.

But let us not distort Paul’s words too far the other way. Paul is not giving license here to gluttony; self-control and sober-mindedness must prevail even in terms of eating and physical exercise (Galatians 5:24, 1 Peter 4:7). Paul does say that there is benefit in physical exercise; yes, it is comparatively lesser than the value of spiritual exercise, but it presents benefits nonetheless. Both Paul and Timothy were far more active than most Americans today; we should not imagine that they would approve of Christians having neither concern nor repentance regarding the care and maintenance of their physical bodies. Just as we should not obsess over the physical condition of the body, so we also should not entirely neglect the physical condition of the body. We are not to be Gnostics; we are to understand that the body has temporal value as the “Temple of the Holy Spirit,” and it is hard for us to “glorify God in our bodies” when we show little concern for our physical health and well-being (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

This entire dispute misses the point of what Paul is really trying to accomplish in 1 Timothy 4:7-8: he is attempting to help Timothy, and us by extension, to understand how to grow and develop spiritually in terms of physical exercise. The metaphor is quite appropriate.

In order to function effectively, a human being must exercise his or her body. If we do not use our muscles, they atrophy and quit working entirely. When we maintain good discipline and work our muscles through exercise, be it through actions in daily life and/or through time we devote to conditioning, we actually tear up our muscles in the process. But when the body works to heal those muscles, they end up growing bigger and stronger. As long as we keep conditioning those muscles, they will maintain their size and/or grow. If we stop exercising at any time, we will experience loss of muscle and will be less strong and dextrous. Exercise must be a continual event– it cannot be done once or only for a short period of time and be successful. Recent studies seem to show, in fact, that the worst thing we could do to our bodies is to exercise in spurts, being active in exercising for a few weeks or months, quitting for a while, and then taking it up again. In such situations it seems that no exercise would be less damaging to the body!

As it is with the physical body, so it is with our spiritual lives. If we are going to live spiritually, we must exercise spiritually. If we do not devote ourselves to spiritual matters– learning more about God’s Word and will, indeed, but also practicing the spiritual disciplines, including prayer, evangelism, service, etc.– we spiritually atrophy and die (Romans 12:1-2, 1 Thessalonians 5:17, 2 Peter 3:18, etc.). When we seek to develop spiritually, we are going to be hurt and injured at times, having to learn from failures, perhaps experiencing persecution, but it is through those experiences that we experience spiritual growth (James 1:2-4, 1 Peter 1:3-7). We must continue to devote ourselves to the spiritual disciplines lest we lose what we have obtained and grow weak (2 John 1:8). We must devote ourselves ot the spiritual disciplines continually, understanding that we will not automatically spring up to be spiritually full-grown with only minimal effort (Hebrews 5:11-6:4). While we might experience spiritual growth in spurts, we should not spiritually exercise in spurts– we must maintain a pace if we want to make it to the goal (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).

Physical exercise does have profit; it is good to maintain a body in decent condition, able to meet the challenges of each day, practicing discipline in what is consumed and in effort expended so that the work of God is as unhindered as possible from physical ailment. Spiritual exercise has greater value because it will endure longer than bodily exercise. Nevertheless, notice how Paul indicates that there is always benefit in exercise and the maintenance of the self-discipline that it demands. Let us maintain that kind of self-discipline in terms of both body and soul, working towards self-control and growth in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Exercise

Blessed Are the Mourners

“Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).

Humans understand that physical death, pain, and suffering are the curses we must all at times endure. But that does not mean that we like it. And it certainly does not mean that we enjoy it when we endure it or have to watch loved ones endure it.

There are many reasons that we mourn. We mourn when a loved one dies. We mourn, in a sense, when beloved things, situations, or circumstances are ended. Children grow up. We get older. We might have to move away. We deal with our own emotional and physical hurts and sufferings. We have to watch spouses, family members, friends, and others endure emotional and physical hurts and sufferings. We may understand it is all a part of life, but it is not pleasant. They’re not events to which we look forward. We “feel” for all those who mourn.

That is why it is natural to think that it is quite a stretch to say that those who mourn are “blessed,” or fortunate or happy. Most people under those circumstances would not consider themselves very fortunate. Those who look upon them would not consider them fortunate. Therefore, it would not be surprising at all if a few heads turned when Jesus uttered this line, and if a few people seemed a bit incredulous at such a declaration!

Jesus understands that the statement is controversial and completely ridiculous in terms of conventional wisdom. But that is partly why He said it–He wants people to think about their conditions in life, and to see things in a different light.

In what perspective, however, are those who mourn fortunate? Jesus provides a bit of an answer here in Matthew 5:4–those who mourn shall be comforted. When He makes a similar declaration in Luke 6:21, 25, He indicates that those who weep will one day laugh, and those who now laugh will one day weep and mourn.

One could attempt to figure out what Jesus means by saying that they shall be comforted, whether He has human or divine comfort in mind, when that would come about, and under what circumstances. But Jesus does not provide detail; perhaps the details would get in the way of the point. The point is not that there is some inherent merit in mourning but is really a matter of perspective.

When one is mourning, one is plumbing the depths of human pain and suffering. In a very real sense, when one is mourning, the only way to go is “up”–to return, at some point, to life. And, as the Preacher noted in Ecclesiastes 7:2-4, there is wisdom, experience, and growth that takes place when one walks through the vale of mourning, suffering, and pain. We learn just how fleeting life can be. We perceive how the pleasures of this world are fleeting and are nothing on which to depend. We have to come face to face with the brutal realities of evil, pain, suffering, and death, and we walk away the wiser for it. Comfort will come, be it through time, friends, God, or a combination of those and other factors. Those who mourn are fortunate not because they are mourning, but because for them things can only get better. It is when we emphasize laughing and the positive that we get into some trouble, for if we are enjoying opportunities of mirth, where else is there to go but downward? When we mourn, we can hope for and look forward to better days. But when we experience better days, to what have we to look forward? At best, a continuation of good days. But even then, we live with the fear and apprehension of what we know is most likely going to happen–darker days are ahead.

We should not imagine that Jesus is really saying that we should look forward to opportunities to mourn, or that we should really enjoy those opportunities in life we are given to mourn. Instead, we are to understand that mourning is a part of life, one that can lead to growth and a renewed appreciation for the gifts of God, life, love, friendship, and the like that we all too easily take for granted. When we mourn, things can only get better; when we laugh, things can only get worse. Let us be prepared for the vicissitudes of life; if we are currently mourning, let us take comfort in the hope of a brighter tomorrow, and let us all appreciate the bountiful gifts of grace and mercy that God has given us through Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Blessed Are the Mourners

I Am in Their Midst

“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).

For generations this verse has been a great comfort to many believers, for it provides confirmation that as they come together, the Lord is in their midst. Sadly, the verse sometimes gets abused and misused, especially when it is taken out of its context and turned into a proof-text. Nevertheless, in context, Jesus’ statement is a poignant reminder about what much of Christianity is all about and the challenge we face in obtaining godliness.

It is not as if God is not present if there are not at least two believers together, for in God we live, move, and have our being, as Paul affirms in Acts 17:27-28. While this message certainly applies to the assembly of believers, and even small groups of believers, we should not assume that somehow the Lord is only in our midst when together. Yes, the church as a whole is the Temple of the Holy Spirit, with Christ as its Head (1 Corinthians 3:9, 16-17, Ephesians 5:22-32); yet this remains true when the church is dispersed and its individual members strive to serve the Lord in their lives as much as when they come together to encourage one another (1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Hebrews 10:24-25).

In order to appreciate Jesus’ emphasis we must turn to the context of this verse. In Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus has made a powerful case for Christians to be reconciled to one another when transgression has separated them. He then confirms the authority that He is granting to the Apostles as a group in Matthew 18:18– what they bind and loose on earth will have been bound and loosed in Heaven. And then, in Matthew 18:19, Jesus declares that when believers pray in accord and agreement, God grants their request.

The substance of these verses is not as disparate as it might seem. All of the issues surround one of the greatest issues in Christianity– the imperative of unity among believers.

This unity certainly includes doctrinal unity but goes far beyond it. In order to be one and to work together, believers must be on the same page about what God has taught and what God wants them to do (1 Corinthians 1:10). Yet, as anyone who has ever worked closely with others in a relationship knows well, just because there is agreement on what is true and what must be done does not necessitate that there will be unity. Unity is something for which believers must work. Unity demands reconciliation when transgressions take place (Matthew 18:15-17). Unity demands agreement on what is true and right so as to put the right into effect (Matthew 18:18).

And, ultimately, God wants to bless Christians in unity, for when Christians are truly unified– in spirit and work as much as belief– they reflect and honor the relational unity present within God. The Scriptures reveal that God is one (Deuteronomy 6:4), yet that there are three Persons in the Godhead– God the Father (John 8:17-18), God the Son (John 1:1, 14), and God the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). God is in three Persons, but God is one, because God is one in essence, nature, substance, will, and purpose. The unity of God is relational unity, and the Lord Jesus wants this relational unity for His followers, as He says in John 17:20-23:

“Neither for these only do I pray, but for them also that believe on me through their word; that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us: that the world may believe that thou didst send me. And the glory which thou hast given me I have given unto them; that they may be one, even as we are one; I in them, and thou in me, that they may be perfected into one; that the world may know that thou didst send me, and lovedst them, even as thou lovedst me.”

God wants believers to be relationally unified, not only with each other, but also with Him. This is why God is so willing to grant the petitions of believers who seek the same advancement of His purposes (Matthew 18:19; yet cf. James 4:3). And this, in a profound way, is how Jesus is in the midst of two or three gathered in His name.

We should not imagine that Jesus is “in the midst of” two or three gathered together in His name in pretense only, smoldering with hostility toward one another. To be gathered together in His name demands that we are truly gathered together– that we confess Him as Lord, seek to do what He says to do, and to do so as one people, one body. The Lord is in our midst as our Head when we come together and work together as His one Body (Ephesians 4:4-6). In short, when we as believers work together as one, we also are one with God, as Jesus intended from the beginning.

Jesus is in our midst when we come together in His name and we act like it– even though we might come from different backgrounds, ethnicities, classes, etc., we ought to come together as one people in the Lord, being one as He and the Father and the Spirit are one, relationally unified with each other and therefore with God also. This takes a lot of effort– humility and reconciliation are demanded, and the spirit of Philippians 2:1-4 must prevail among us. Let us therefore seek to be one as God is one, in belief, doctrine, will, purpose, and thus practice, be one with God, and honor the Lord Jesus Christ in our midst!

Ethan R. Longhenry

I Am in Their Midst

Leaven

Another parable spake [Jesus] unto them; “The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till it was all leavened (Matthew 13:33).

When we seek to think about pleasant things, or to find ways of describing people or things positively, fungi rarely make the list of possible comparisons. They are normally something we do not often consider (like yeast, or perhaps mushrooms) or rather unpleasant things (like mold and fungal infections).

Yeast, or leaven, is known for its expansive properties– it multiplies very quickly. A small amount of yeast, in the right conditions, will quickly expand and fill the space it is provided. This has been the secret to bread making for generations– if you want a lump of dough to rise, it must have the right amount of yeast in it. As it bakes, the yeast multiplies and expands, and the entire lump rises. The yeast is also partly responsible for that addictive smell of baking bread!

The image of leaven as an agent that starts small but expands mightily is used a few times in Scripture. Sometimes it is used negatively– Jesus describes the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees as leaven (Matthew 16:6-12), and Paul warns that false teachings and sinful practices “leaven the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6, Galatians 5:9).

But the image need not always be negative, for Jesus uses the image in a positive way in Matthew 13:33. Having described the Kingdom of Heaven as a mustard plant, with a small seed that grows to become a tree in which birds can nest (Matthew 13:31-32), Jesus continues down the same theme by describing the Kingdom as the leaven that a woman hid in three measures of flour that leavens the whole lump.

The general message of both parables are the same: the growth of the Kingdom will be exponential despite its humble origins. Just as a very little amount of yeast filled three measures of flour, so the Kingdom that begins with the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit will expand from 12 to 3000+ to thousands upon thousands all over the earth (Acts 1:8, 2:41, etc.). The proclamation and advancement of the Kingdom is a wonderful story, clearly demonstrating the power and wisdom of God that is greater than anything man can imagine (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-25). If we wanted to get the most important message of life across, sending twelve fairly unreliable and uneducated witnesses would probably not make our list of possible options. Nevertheless, we see how effectively it was done by the power of God!

Nevertheless, there is a bit of distinction between the two parables. A mustard plant, by virtue of necessity, grows out in the open– while there are roots growing underneath the soil, without sun and water, the plant will not prosper. Yeast, however, works entirely behind the scenes. From the outside you can see the effect of the growth of the yeast– the rising lump of dough– but you cannot see how it is working internally.

So it is with the Kingdom. There are times when the growth of the Kingdom happens in a public and spectacular way, like on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. Nevertheless, both in the first century and now, much of the advancement of the Kingdom happens more behind the scenes.

This growth comes about on the basis of many opportunities. It happens when believers go about doing good and living holy and upright lives (Romans 12:9, Galatians 2:10, 6:10). It happens as believers have conversations with friends, associates, relatives, and others about God’s truth in Jesus Christ (Romans 1:16, Colossians 4:5-6, 1 Peter 3:15). It happens as believers trust in and pray to God, as His Word is studied, as believers strengthen and build one another up, and in many other kinds of opportunities (cf. Ephesians 3:20-21, 1 Thessalonians 5:17-18, 2 Timothy 2:15, Hebrews 10:24-25).

We may not always see how this growth happens, but the results will be evident. God is magnified and praised while more and more come to the knowledge of the truth. This is how God expects the Kingdom to grow!

As we seek to serve our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and advance His Kingdom, let us remember the humble leaven. No matter what public proclamation is made, let us remember that much of the way that God’s purposes are advanced are done behind the scenes, imperceptible to most. Let us trust in God and participate in His work of advancing His purposes on earth!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Leaven

Casting Down to Build Up

For this cause I write these things while absent, that I may not when present deal sharply, according to the authority which the Lord gave me for building up, and not for casting down (2 Corinthians 13:10).

We all know of people who are very good at tearing others down. They exist in every facet of life. We see politicians who are convinced that their opponent is wrong but does not necessarily have a lot to say about what is right; likewise there are voters who are definitely against one particular candidate even if they are not really “for” any of them. In families there always seems to be a relative or two who can say nothing good about anything and is full of complains and criticisms. What workplace would be complete without the employee who is constantly grumbling about what is wrong and why things are not getting better? And, sadly, even among Christians, there are many who focus entirely on the negatives. They are very quick to point out the flaws in other Christians, in local churches, and in the church as a whole. They are always confident in the demise of Christianity, a local church, and so on and so forth.

Oftentimes such people are really masking their own insecurities. By focusing on everyone else’s problems they can conveniently forget about their own. Anyone who would challenge their critical attitudes are maligned as not being sufficiently concerned enough about various dangers, or are slandered as being “soft” on “the truth.”

Yet, in reality, such people are not as spiritual or as mature as they would like to think. They are filled with the spirit of judgment and condemnation, which ends up always being hypocritical, and it often sets at nought fellow people for whom Christ died. There is a reason why the Scriptures consistently witness against such attitudes (Matthew 7:1-4, Romans 14:7-12, James 4:11-12)!

Nevertheless, there are times when there does need to be concerns about various challenges– doctrinal error (1 Timothy 4:1-4, etc.), Christians and churches not seeking to reflect the Lord Jesus accurately (cf. Romans 8:28, Revelation 3, etc.). Yet, in such things, perspective is critical.

Paul has plenty of reason to criticize the Corinthians– and he certainly does criticize them. They are being persuaded by false teachers to discredit Paul and his testimony (2 Corinthians 11:1-33). There is great concern that many of the Christians are acting in ungodly ways without repentance (2 Corinthians 12:20-21).

Paul does not go soft on the Corinthians. He rebukes those in sin and warns them that they will not be spared (2 Corinthians 13:1-3). He will not sit by idly while Satan devours the church in Corinth. He clearly sees the problems in Corinth. But notice that his resolve does not stop there!

Paul does not use his authority to tear down and walk away– he uses his authority to tear down so that he can build up again (2 Corinthians 13:10). That is what Christ intends for him to do. Anyone can criticize. Anyone can point out problems. But God’s work, ultimately, is edification and encouragement– building up and strengthening (1 Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 4:11-16, Hebrews 10:25).

Even though the processes may seem to begin in the same way, there is a world of difference between casting down for the sake of casting down and casting down for the sake of building up again. There is much more investment and concern when we are seeking to build up, a greater resolve for things to work out well, and greater concern about precisely how things are cast down. The ultimate end is in view, not just the short-term.

We need to seriously consider ourselves in our faith as to whether we are one of “those people” who are good at tearing down but not at building up (2 Corinthians 13:5). How well has that gone? How many people have you pushed away or hurt, regardless of your intentions? Were you really seeking the best interest of your neighbor, or were you just trying to put on the sanctimonious pious face (cf. Philippians 2:3)?

If anyone ever had the right and the ideal circumstance in which to tear down just to demolish sin, it would have been Paul with the Corinthians. Nevertheless, even with that flawed group of people, Paul’s intention was to build them up. Yes, he had to cast down sinfulness, false doctrines, unholy thoughts and attitudes, and other difficulties. But the goal was not just to tear down and leave a gaping hole– his purpose was to have the opportunity to then rebuild in a more holy and suitable way.

Our goal must be the same. Whenever we have to cast sin down, we must do so only after considering ourselves and our own challenges (Matthew 7:1-4, Galatians 6:1-3), after much prayer and deliberation, and making sure that it is being done for the ultimate benefit of those whom we are challenging, and not of ourselves in rivalry or empty conceit (Matthew 18:15-20, Galatians 6:1, Philippians 2:1-4). We must then make sure that we strengthen and build up such a one in their faith. Pointing out problems is easy; seeking to understand challenges so as to improve and to make things better is quite another. If we are ready to critique, we must be ready to repair and rebuild.

The world, this country, the workplace, the family, and the church will sadly never lack people who tear down. Tearing down just for the sake of demolition has never been, is not, nor ever will be God’s way or God’s intention for us. Let us have the same spirit as Paul and cast down for the purpose of building up, seeking the best interest of our neighbor to ultimately strengthen him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Casting Down to Build Up