Burying the Dead

And [Jesus] said unto another, “Follow me.”
But he said, “Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.”
But He said unto him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but go thou and publish abroad the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:59-60).

We can gain an understanding of the critical importance of the Kingdom and its proclamation to Jesus by seeing how He calls people for His purposes.

One of the commands Jesus gives frequently is to be willing to give up family relations for the sake of the Kingdom (cf. Matthew 10:34-39, Luke 14:25-26). Here this principle is on display.

Jesus calls a man to follow Him. According to the account in Matthew, he is already a disciple– not one of the Twelve, but someone else with an interest in Jesus (Matthew 8:21-22). Perhaps he has only recently begun to listen to Jesus; perhaps Jesus knows what is in his heart and is bringing the matter to the surface.

Regardless, the man has a challenge. He needs to bury his father. Perhaps his father has already actually died; it is as likely, if not more so, that he is still alive but near death.

This is not an unbecoming request. Children are to honor their parents (Exodus 20:12, Ephesians 6:1-3). To provide for fathers at the end of life was honorable: this was the comfort God gave Jacob, that Joseph would “put his hands on your eyes” (Genesis 46:3-4), and Joseph makes elaborate preparation to bury his father (Genesis 50:1-14).

Jesus understands this. We do not get the impression that He wishes to cause the elderly gentleman any disrespect or disservice. But the task of burial should be done by another– He says to “let the dead bury the dead” (Luke 9:60).

We understand that He is not speaking literally– no zombies here. Let the (spiritually) dead bury the (physically) dead is the import of the message. Yes, burial preparations must be made– but not by this man. He has been called to something greater and more urgent! There are plenty of other people around who are worldly-minded and able to handle that responsibility.

The proclamation of the message of the Gospel cannot wait. The twelve disciples watching this will learn this message well; as the Apostles, they would not allow the matter of serving tables get in the way of their devotion to God in prayer and His word (Acts 6:1-2). Someone can be found to take care of the burial process. The important thing for this disciple is to proclaim God’s message!

It is easy for us to see various commands of Jesus and initially find a way to blunt its force. This is especially true of the commands about renouncing family relations, ourselves, and our stuff for the Kingdom’s sake. We see what Jesus says about loving God more than family (e.g. Matthew 10:37), and we remind ourselves that we are to honor and respect family. It is true that we are to honor and respect family, as far as that goes. But we must be exceedingly careful lest we be guilty of forsaking God’s word to bury the dead when the dead should be left to bury the dead!

All good things are not created equal. There is not enough time, money, or resources in the world to fulfill every good thing. We must prioritize. There are the “greater goods” in life along with the “lesser goods”. We must do the best we can to keep these in perspective.

Jesus has made it abundantly clear what is the greatest good– the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33, 10:34-37, 13:44-46, 16:24-28). Therefore, every other “good” must be subordinated to this greater good. It will not matter how many good things you have done in life– if you have sacrificed the greater good, the Kingdom, in order to accomplish all of those lesser goods, it leads to condemnation (Matthew 7:21-23)!

This is the lesson that this disciple must learn in a stunning way. To go and bury his father is to sacrifice the greater good for the sake of the lesser good. Therefore, he must allow the dead to bury the dead, and to go himself to accomplish the greater good of proclaiming the message of God’s Kingdom.

So it is with us. If Jesus appeared to you and charged you to follow Him, what would you say? Would you ask Him to suffer you to “bury your father”– provide for parents, spouse, children, finish up some undone business, or the like? If so, what do you imagine He would say? “Let the dead bury the dead.” Let worldly concerns be handled by those whose only hope is in the world. Meanwhile, we must go and do the greater good, proclaiming the message of God’s Kingdom!

Let us be clear: taking care of one’s own is part of one’s responsibility to God (1 Timothy 5:8). But far too often we allow the “lesser goods” of this life (and, far too often, that which is not good at all!) to crowd out the greatest good. We will find time for everything but the advancement of God’s purposes. This should not be. Let the dead bury the dead– but let us proclaim God’s message before it is too late!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Burying the Dead

Living by our Faith

Behold, his soul is puffed up, it is not upright in him; but the righteous shall live by his faith (Habakkuk 2:4).

Habakkuk has been complaining to God about the sinfulness of Judah. God tells him about the terrible enemy that He is raising up against them, the Babylonians, and the fate that awaits Judah. It is not a pretty picture; one wonders how anyone could survive or be saved in such circumstances!

God then makes a contrast between two sorts of people. There are those whose souls are puffed up inside of them. They have all sorts of confidence about their standing before God and their own “righteousness,” but their confidence is entirely unfounded. Their souls are not upright within them.

And then there are those who will live– those who are truly righteous. They are righteous because they live by their faith.

When Paul makes his grand theological treatise in his letter to the Romans, Habakkuk 2:4b is the centerpiece of his argument regarding justification by faith. The righteous shall live by faith. In the Roman letter Paul effectively demonstrates how no man or woman could ever be justified in the sight of God by their merits or their works since all have sinned (Romans 1:18-3:20). He demonstrates how Abraham received the promise through faith, and therefore those who inherit the promises are those who are children of Abraham by faith, sharing in the same trust in the One True God (Romans 4:1-25, 9:6-13). Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4b again in the Galatian letter to demonstrate that no one has ever been justified before God on the basis of the Law of Moses (Galatians 3:11). Moses, David, and the prophets themselves lived by faith. Throughout time, therefore, those who belong to God and please Him are those who live by faith. It was not a matter of ethnic identity, as the Jews vainly believed; it was that trust in God, that confidence in His existence and His rewarding of those who seek after Him (Hebrews 11:6).

The righteous, indeed, will live by faith. Nevertheless, there is a minor detail present in the original Hebrew of Habakkuk’s words that was not carried over by Paul that remains important. Yes, the righteous live by faith. But “faith” is not just anyone’s faith. The righteous one lives by his faith.

We all know of people who are able to make it through life on account of the efforts of others. We often call this “riding on coattails.” Many children in this world will never have to worry about money or work; their parents are so unbelievably wealthy that they will never have to work. Many people rise to prominence less because of their own talents and abilities and more because of the fame of their parents or other such relatives.

There are some people who try to do this in their faith lives. They may have a parent or grandparent who was mighty in faith in God’s Kingdom, and they try to “ride their coattails.” They may start in life accepting what they have been taught. Sure, they believe in God; they have their own faith; just ask them. In reality, too many try to get by with their father’s faith or their grandfather’s faith. They have not yet made the faith their own.

Jacob is a great example of this. Few had his pedigree– the son of Isaac, the grandson of Abraham. He certainly did not deserve to be the son of promise, but that was God’s choice for him (Genesis 25:23). When Jacob was fleeing to Paddan-Aram, God appeared to him in a dream and promised that He would be with him and that he would inherit the promises (Genesis 28:12-15). Jacob was astonished; he understood that God was present (Genesis 28:16-17). He certainly believed in the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac. But notice his vow– if God will fulfill His promises, then He will be my God (Genesis 28:20-22). Jacob had faith in the God of his father– but he did not yet have his own faith.

In reality, while some people might get the luxury of “riding the coattails” of their parents, grandparents, or whomever else in their physical lives, no one can truly ride the coattails of anyone else spiritually. It will not work. The faith of your father, mother, child, spouse, preacher, elder, or anyone else cannot sustain you. It cannot stand up for you. Sure, it may remain for awhile, when it remains unchallenged and undisturbed. But then the day of adversity comes.

Maybe the adversity comes from a television show, a friend, or an educator who challenges the validity of faith in the God of the Bible and in Christianity. Maybe the adversity comes in the challenges of life– a harrowing illness, failure in various endeavors, unemployment, betrayal by others. No matter who we are, no matter how much money we have or do not have, regardless of our status in life, days of adversity will come that will cause us to question who we are and how we are to be sustained. And it is in those days that faith grows or dies (James 1:2-4, 1 Peter 1:6-7).

So it was with Jacob. He made it to Paddan-Aram and began working for his deceitful uncle Laban. He faced terrible adversity and there was no human that was there to advocate for him. He clearly perceived how it was the “God of his father” who sustained him, protected him, and blessed him throughout those twenty years (Genesis 29-31; cf. Genesis 31:5-9). As Jacob was returning home, having been delivered by God from Laban his uncle and petitioning for deliverance from Esau his brother, Jacob literally wrestles with God (in the form of an angel; Genesis 32:24-31). He is given the name Israel at that time. And after meeting with his brother Esau, Jacob/Israel moves to the area around Shechem. He builds an altar there, and names it El-Elohe-Israel: God, the God of Israel (Genesis 33:20). Jacob now had his own faith.

The Scriptures make it clear that we cannot ride the coattails of our spiritual ancestors. Time would fail us if we talked about how for every Gideon there was an Abimelech, for every Hezekiah a Manasseh, and for every Josiah a Jehoiakim. Sadly, the children of some of the most righteous people in the Bible end up being some of the most wicked. The faith of their parents could not save them.

Instead, we must be like Jacob. We must make the faith of those who came before us our own faith. We must believe in God and His truth because we have made our investigations and our inquiries and we have been satisfied (Acts 17:11-12). We must be able to make our own defense of our own hope that should be in us (1 Peter 3:15). We must have our own belief, deeply rooted within our own being, so that when we are shaken by trial, we have the resources of faith within us to continue to turn to God for sustenance.

The spiritual world around us is littered with the corpses of those who never developed their own faith, and their profession of acceptance of the faith of their ancestors failed them when the difficult times arose. Let us not be like them, but develop our own faith, and live by it!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Living by our Faith

The Vanity of Knowledge and Wisdom

I communed with mine own heart, saying, “Lo, I have gotten me great wisdom above all that were before me in Jerusalem; yea, my heart hath had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.”
And I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also was a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow (Ecclesiastes 1:16-18).

We have a love-hate relationship with the Preacher and his message. We really cannot deny its substantive truth, but that does not mean that we have to like it. The idea that our lives “under the sun,” on the whole, is absurd, is deeply troubling to us. Yet the facts are in: all who live die, no matter how virtuous or sinful; you can accumulate much or little and you still cannot take it with you; despite our lofty rhetoric, generations still come and go, and most end up forgotten. And, perhaps most frustratingly for modern man, the pursuit of pleasures never end in true satisfaction.

Yet, in the face of all of this, many still want to redeem the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. Yes, people understand that satisfying desires for food, sex, money, fame, and the like ultimately do not satisfy, but there is the expectation that there will be some satisfaction in wisdom and knowledge. Knowledge is deemed power; thus, the idea is, the more knowledge, the more power. Wisdom is understood also as a benefit to people, and if it is good for us, then more of it should make things better!

But the Preacher has some bad news for us. The pursuit of wisdom and knowledge does not fare any better than the pursuit of other pleasures. Too much knowledge, or too much wisdom, can cause as many problems as too little.

There is a reason for the saying that ignorance is bliss. If we suggest it as an absolute truth we are foolish, for there are some things we ought to know and with which we must come to grips– God’s will, our ultimate fates in the flesh, the skills of our profession, and so on and so forth. Nevertheless, there are plenty of times when we feel cursed because of some knowledge we have gained or some wisdom we have understood. We feel that we would have been better off without that knowledge or wisdom. In those circumstances, ignorance is bliss.

Knowledge, for its part, often complicates. More fortunate and blessed are those who trust, say, in the divine operation and sustenance of the universe than those who end up rejecting the existence of God because of the challenges and doubts raised in investigating the nature of that operation. While it is true that challenges and doubts sometimes occur because of ignorance, they far too often are the result of digging too deeply into certain subjects concerning which we humans will never truly understand (Ecclesiastes 8:16-17). Not a few heresies and false teachings have been launched on account of people professing “advanced knowledge” of things they really do not understand (cf. 1 Timothy 6:20-21), or on account of conundrums that come up because of deep investigation of an easily comprehensible statement. Forests are too often missed not just because of trees but because of bark patterns on particular trees!

We honor and praise wisdom, and we are right to do so, since folly should never be in style. But wisdom also has its dark side, and the Preacher understands this all too well. In his wisdom he plumbs the depth of the human experience and feels compelled to come to grips with its ultimate futility. We can experience his grief as he recognizes that the wise and the fool have the same end (Ecclesiastes 2:12-16), or that the fruit of his efforts will enrich another (Ecclesiastes 2:4-11). He desires what we desire– the ultimate justification of the wise and virtuous life– and yet is pained by the absurdity of life, where the wicked often prosper to the detriment of the righteous and all meet the same fate (Ecclesiastes 8:14). How much of what we call “wisdom” does not really taste sweet but bitter!

This is quite distressing to us, and yet it remains a good warning. The pursuit of knowledge and wisdom is to be considered as the pursuit of personal gain and satisfaction. It is not wrong to seek knowledge, wisdom, gain, and satisfaction, and they can provide much good. To believe, however, that any such thing represents the Ultimate Ideal in life is utterly misguided. We internally know, even if we do not always act appropriately on the basis of this knowledge, that money and pleasure is not everything in life or the ultimate goal in life. We must learn the same lesson about knowledge and wisdom. Instead, the Ultimate Ideal and goal in life is God and godliness, and we do well to revere Him and serve Him (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). Just as we direct our pursuits of material resource and satisfaction in life toward His purposes and for His advantage, so must we direct our pursuits of knowledge and wisdom. And, just as we know that gain and satisfaction are not God, so too must we know that knowledge and wisdom are not God. There is an end to what we can know and understand, and we must trust in His understanding and His goodness (Deuteronomy 29:29).

To have knowledge and wisdom from God is good. To believe that knowledge and wisdom are the ultimate ideals and end is folly. Let us keep wisdom and knowledge in perspective and trust in and serve God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Vanity of Knowledge and Wisdom

Servant Power

But Jesus called them unto him, and said, “Ye know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Not so shall it be among you: but whosoever would become great among you shall be your minister; and whosoever would be first among you shall be your servant: even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).

It was the same old argument with a new and bold twist.

Jesus’ disciples had been jockeying amongst themselves for a long time for power and prestige. They had argued about it before (Mark 9:34/Luke 9:46) and would argue about it again (Luke 22:24). But none of them had ever been so bold as to actually bring the matter up before Jesus Himself.

Yet this time James and John get Salome their mother to ask Jesus for the left and right hand positions in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 20:20-21, Mark 10:35-37). Jesus wonders whether they would be able to drink His cup of bitterness or to experience His baptism of suffering, and on the basis of their confident faith (in what they likely do not understand), declares that they will do so (Matthew 20:22-23, Mark 10:38-39). Yet, in the end, it is not for Jesus to give; it is for those to whom it has been prepared (Matthew 20:23, Mark 10:40).

The other ten are indignant with James and John (cf. Matthew 20:24, Mark 10:41). We should not imagine that their indignation was for spiritual or pious reasons. It perhaps was motivated by envy– they had asked for what they had all wanted, and the others did not have the confidence to do so! Or, perhaps, their indignation was based in feelings of shame– something that had been discussed in “secret” for so long the brothers had now made wide open. Ultimately, however, James and John actually asked for the thing they all really wanted– prominence in the Kingdom.

This is one of those moments where it is evident that the disciples and Jesus have entirely different understandings about the nature of the Kingdom Jesus has been proclaiming. Since the matter had clearly come to a head, and was now causing friction among the disciples, Jesus is compelled to address this misunderstanding in some small way.

The disciples seem to be imagining a Kingdom of the Jewish expectation– the Branch of David back on the throne in Jerusalem, triumphantly defeating Israel’s foes. Since the disciples believed in Jesus more steadfastly it was natural to expect that they would have the positions of prominence normally far beyond the reach of Galilean fishermen. Jesus, they imagined, was their ticket to greatness– the opportunity to get on the “ground floor” of the greatest Kingdom the world would ever know. In short, they expected Jesus to use the standard way the world works in order to surpass all who came before Him.

Yet Jesus’ response devastates such a view. Granted, many of the disciples’ expectations will come true, but not through the means they imagined. Jesus did not come to earth to just surpass the world at its own game. He came to earth to overthrow the world and its standards, and this is prominently featured in His response to His disciples (Matthew 20:25-28).

The disciples were all too familiar with Gentile power. They saw how the Roman Empire flexed its might. They saw the system of patronage and client that re-inforced class divisions. It was a system where might was right and humility was worthless. Courage, strength, and the ability to display power were what really mattered. The more masterful of a game player you were, the higher you could advance.

Jesus makes it abundantly clear that such is not the way the Kingdom of God works. Instead, He says, to be great in the Kingdom you must be a servant to others. If you want to be first in the Kingdom, you must be a slave to the rest. And Jesus sets Himself forth as the example: the One who deserved service did not receive it but instead served others (cf. Romans 15:3, Philippians 2:5-11).

It has been almost two thousand years since Jesus uttered these words, but they are no less earth-shaking. The “Gentile world” still operates pretty much like it did in the Roman world. There is a mad dash to power and those who play the game the best win. It is quite tempting for people to do the same thing in Jesus’ Kingdom, but it is good to remember what Jesus says. No matter how much the world values such attributes, they have no place in the Kingdom. Advancement in the Kingdom can only happen through weakness, suffering, humility, and service. Ironically, advancement can only take place when one has renounced such a view of existence– humility can only develop when pride is removed, and where there is no pride, there is no self-seeking, no impulse to self-advancement in a worldly sense. If one sets off on the road to greater humility and service, one can only find the destination through renouncing self and clinging to Jesus (Galatians 2:20).

The day would come when the disciples understood what Jesus meant. They had to go through the trials of experience and suffering. James would lose his life for Jesus’ cause (Acts 12:1-2); John would suffer with the other Apostles at times and would eventually find himself exiled for the Name in Patmos (cf. Acts 5:40-41, Revelation 1:9). Peter and the others would endure similar trials, and they all did so willingly, calling themselves the slaves of Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:1, etc.). They knew that the Kingdom, while in the world, was not of the world, but of Jesus Christ their Lord (cf. 1 John 2:15-17). Thus their place of authority was reserved for them because they went through the trials, experiences, and travails that taught them the way of Jesus: the way of service (cf. Revelation 4:4).

There remains the way of the world and the way of Jesus. We all, at some point in our lives, look at things as the disciples did, and seek out that glory, fame, and power in some form or another. But are we willing to follow the way of Jesus, the way of humility and service, bitterness and suffering, in order to receive the true commendation and exaltation (cf. Philippians 2:5-11)? We cannot imagine that we will receive it through worldly means and by looking at power as the world understands it. Instead, we must develop servant power, and give up everything for Jesus so that He can be manifest in us (Romans 8:29, Galatians 2:20). Let us be humble so that we may be exalted on that great and glorious day!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Servant Power

Walking on the Water

And Peter answered him and said, “Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee upon the waters.”
And he said, “Come.”
And Peter went down from the boat, and walked upon the waters to come to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me.”
And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and took hold of him, and saith unto him, “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” (Matthew 14:28-31).

The five thousand men had just been fed. The disciples were out on the water while Jesus prayed on the mountain. A contrary wind was impeding the boat’s progress; they were still in the middle of the Sea of Galilee in the early morning hours before the dawn. And then the disciples saw a most astounding thing!

A figure is walking across the water, and they quite understandably believe that it is a ghost (cf. Matthew 14:26). Jesus assures them that it is He. Here is One who can feed five thousand with five loaves and two fishes, and He can also walk on water to boot!

Peter then has one of his famous moments as a disciple. It is difficult to read his motivations here. Is he still not quite sure that the figure before him is Jesus, and therefore is indicating a lack of trust in the Voice he hears? And yet he asks Jesus to invite him out onto the water, a request that surely takes some level of faith? If nothing else we see that impetuous Peter has confidence in the powers of Jesus– at least initially.

Jesus tells him to come, and Peter walks on the water. We can only imagine the rush that Peter must have felt as he was doing something that mere mortals had never done. As long as he moved in full confidence of Jesus, all was well.

But then “reality” sank in. Peter sees the wind and experiences a loss of confidence. When the very thing that sustained him collapsed, so did he. He begins to sink and Jesus must rescue him, asking Peter to probe in his heart why his faith wavered.

Recently I have been working with my eldest daughter in trying to help her learn how to ride her bicycle without training wheels. She must learn how to balance herself properly. When she looks forward and keeps focused, she balances. But when she looks down for a moment, the confidence fades, and she lists to one side or the other.

Our faith, therefore, is a lot like bicycle riding. When we look forward, confidently trusting in Jesus and seeking His will, we are able to accomplish things that the conscious mind can barely imagine. But when the eye of our faith strays from the Lord and looks at the “reality” of the world, and our confidence wavers, we find ourselves stumbling, falling over or sinking.

In reality, the circumstances have not changed. The wind was there when Peter was walking on the water. When my daughter is balancing the bicycle the ground is still there. The challenge in such circumstances is being willing to overcome our doubts and our fears through our faith– to triumphantly and confidently trust in and depend on God in Christ no matter how dire the circumstances may seem or how hard it may seem if “reality” begins to set in.

The difference between little faith and great faith does not regard blindness to reality. Instead, the difference between little faith and great faith involves what we do when challenges come. If challenges to our faith come, and we allow those challenges to overcome our faith, then our faith was too little. But if challenges come and we persist in our faith despite those challenges, then our faith proves to be strong.

There are always times of stumbling. Even though my daughter does not want to think about it, the reality is that she will fall plenty of times before she learns how to ride the bike well. This story is not the last time Peter will hear regarding the smallness of his faith. And yet it is through those moments of stumbling that Peter develops the great faith of his apostleship, proving willing to suffer and even die for the Name of Christ (cf. Acts 5:41).

The life of faith is not guaranteed to be easy. Believers will be challenged. Many times they will stumble, and their faith will prove insufficient for the day. Nevertheless, we must continue to persevere and grow in the faith (cf. 2 Peter 3:18). Let us develop strong faith, trusting in the Lord no matter how challenging “reality” might be!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Walking on the Water

Walking as He Walked

He that saith he abideth in [Jesus] ought himself also to walk even as he walked (1 John 2:6).

Why did Jesus live?

It would be entirely understandable if people got the impression that Jesus lived only to die for our sins. A lot of emphasis in preaching and teaching falls squarely on the death of Jesus for sin and comparatively less on how Jesus lived and the lessons of His life.

This is not to say that Jesus did not die for our sins, or that His death was not part of His life. According to Ephesians 3:11 and John 1:29, Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of sins was understood from eternity and from the beginning of His work on earth. Romans 5:5-11 eloquently expresses the nature of Jesus’ death and its great value for those who would believe in Him. Furthermore, there must be an emphasis on the death of Jesus for sin in the preaching of the Gospel, since it is a significant part of what must be believed, and a good reminder of what was required for us to be redeemed from sin (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Titus 3:3-8).

On the other hand, to believe that the only reason for Jesus to come to earth was to die would be a gross exaggeration and a distortion of what the Scriptures teach. If all Jesus had to do was to die, why did He preach and teach the people for three years? Why not just go quickly to Jerusalem and get it all over with?

Many may point to the fact that Jesus needed to first fulfill the prophecies made regarding Him, and that is certainly true (cf. Luke 24:44-47). Jesus Himself said that all things required fulfillment (Matthew 5:17-18). But are the only reasons why Jesus lived the fulfillment of prophecy and to die?

The Scriptures indicate that Jesus is the Word made flesh– if you see Jesus, it is as if you are seeing the Father (John 1:18, 14:6-11). Jesus came to communicate in word and deed the nature and essence of God. This was not designed to be a mere intellectual exercise or a model attempt!

When we read Scriptures like the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5-7, the various parables in Matthew 13 or Luke 14-16, or the instructions to the disciples in John 13-17, among other passages, it becomes quickly apparent that Jesus in life is interested in making disciples who will follow Him, live by His principles as He did, and to proclaim His message and advance His Kingdom for His purposes and to His glory.

Under both covenants the command is given to be holy as God is holy (cf. Leviticus 11:17, 1 Peter 1:16). We are to love others as God has loved us, and this is expressed most powerfully through Jesus Christ (1 John 4:7-21). When we stop and think about it for a moment, all of the commands, principles, and exhortations of the new covenant– either regarding clinging to the good or abhorring the evil (cf. Romans 12:9)– are grounded and based upon the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

This is why John is able to express the truth simply: if we will abide in Jesus, we must walk as He walked. We must be imitators of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). Granted, there are some aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching that apply to first century Judaism and are not directly relevant for the new covenant, yet this does not change the reality that the foundation of the ethics, principles, and statutes of the New Testament is Jesus and what He accomplished in life.

Did Jesus live to fulfill prophecy and to die for the sins of mankind? Certainly– but His life means so much more. He lived to show us how to live. He became flesh and showed the way through His words and His deeds. He shows us that it is possible to be human and yet be holy and godly, both in what we are doing and in what we avoid.

But how can we walk as Jesus walked if we do not know how He walked? If we believe that we are Christians, then we must claim that we are disciples of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:18-20); how can we be disciples, or learners/followers, of Someone whom we barely know and under whose feet we are not sitting in order to learn? While all Scripture is profitable for spiritual growth (2 Timothy 3:16), the four Gospels should always hold a special place in our hearts, devotions, and study, for they are where we find the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth, our Redeemer, Lord, Master, Teacher, and Friend. Let us walk as Jesus walked, growing in His grace and knowledge (1 John 2:6, 2 Peter 3:18)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Walking as He Walked

Endurance

Therefore let us also, seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us (Hebrews 12:1).

Sporting events featuring displays of endurance are rarely as glitzy as their faster counterparts. It is much harder to keep the audience’s attention for a 26 mile race than it is for a 100 meter dash. Preparation and training for the two types of events are also entirely different. One cannot use the same strategy to win a marathon as he or she would in order to win a 100 meter dash.

Our life of faith is comparable to the endurance walk or run– a long hike or a marathon (cf. 1 John 2:6, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Hebrews 12:1-2). Those who burst out of the gate with an unsustainable pace tend to burn out (cf. Matthew 13:20-21). We are supposed to understand Christianity as the long haul– there will be ups and downs, moments of happiness and distress, peaks and valleys in faith and strength. That is why we must hike the path or run the race with endurance!

The key to any long-term hike or run is setting the appropriate pace. If one goes too fast, one will lose energy, and will not be able to finish. If one goes too slow, it is easy to get bogged down, and victory will be out of reach. God calls upon Christians to set their pace– not to attempt to grow or progress so quickly so as to lead to burnout, but not so slowly so as to lead to atrophy and complacency (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27).

While we are on the path, nothing is as important as the need to just keep going. Dory, in Finding Nemo, kept telling herself to “just keep swimming,” and that sustained her.

In previous days I did a lot of hiking, including 20 mile hikes. Yet few hikes were as memorable as one particular 10 mile hike. I and a few others had hiked ahead of the main group but lost the trail after a few miles. We stopped and waited for the rest of the group to catch up. When we did continue hiking I began to experience terrible cramping and pain. The rest of the hike was miserable, and I was not sure that I was going to be able to complete the hike!

It was by no means the longest hike I ever attempted. Had we just pressed on I probably would have been fine. It was the stopping and then trying to continue that caused the duress!

So it is in Christianity. It is imperative that we never stop growing– never stop pressing on to the goal (cf. Philippians 3:13-14). As in anything that requires endurance, very short periods of rest may be in order. But if we rest for too long, we will find continuing to be that much harder, much harder than it would have been had we continued progressing without fail.

We must run the race, or follow the path, with endurance. As long as we are in the flesh there is further to go. Paul was still striving, despite being an Apostle and a Christian for thirty years (Philippians 3:13). We must never believe that we have reached the summit of the faith. Growth is often painful. Growth often costs us. Growth may lead us to have different troubles than we had at the beginning. But God makes it clear that if we are not growing we are dying (cf. Revelation 2-3). Let us press upward toward the goal with endurance!

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and for ever. Amen (2 Peter 3:18).

Ethan R. Longhenry

Endurance

Fig Tree Religion

And on the morrow, when they were come out from Bethany, [Jesus] hungered. And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find anything thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for it was not the season of figs.
And he answered and said unto it, “No man eat fruit from thee henceforward for ever.”
And his disciples heard it (Mark 11:12-14).

The long-awaited time had come. Jesus of Nazareth, believed by many to be the Messiah, the Christ of God, had entered Jerusalem in triumph (cf. Mark 11:1-11). He will soon strike at the heart of the religious power structure in Jerusalem by cleansing the Temple of its moneychangers and merchants (Mark 11:15-19). And what do we find in the middle of these great events? Jesus’ rebuke of a fig tree.

It seems rather anticlimactic. Why does Mark interrupt the grand story of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem by telling us about this fig tree?

It may help to understand a bit about the situation. Even in Jerusalem, late March or early April is a bit early for figs to be ready. Most of the trees would not even have their leaves yet. But this fig tree did have its leaves– and when a fig tree has its leaves, it is indicating that it has its fruit hidden underneath. This particular fig tree, however, was false– perhaps it was a different subspecies, or perhaps it was a young tree– for it exposed leaves but had no fruit within it. Highly disappointed, Jesus curses the tree because it made a presentation without its substance.

That may be the clue to understanding the importance of this interaction. Mark very well may have us to understand that there is more to this story than just a fig tree.

The fig tree may represent the Jews and the Judaism of the day. Fig trees are good, and figs are good. Fruitless fig trees that have no leaves are understandable, but what cannot be tolerated is the fig tree that has leaves but no fruit. Thus it is with Israel in Jesus’ day, especially the religious authorities, the chief priests, the elders, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. It was a good thing to be a Jew and to be a part of the covenant with God. It would be understandable if a Jew were learning his faith or recognized in humility how much further he had to go. But to have the outward appearance of religion without its substance– its fruit– was intolerable. And that was precisely what Jesus saw in the Judaism of His day!

Soon after these events He would excoriate the Pharisees for being whitewashed tombs– pretty on the exterior, but full of dead men’s bones inside (cf. Matthew 23:27). They worry about keeping dishes clean, but inwardly are defiled (Matthew 23:25-26). On the exterior their religiosity is beyond a doubt; inwardly they remain unconverted and sinful. There is little hope for such people; they are, like the fig tree, cursed, never to provide fruit for mankind again.

We would do well to learn the lesson of the fig tree and avoid “fig tree religion.” We know from experience and statistics that the vast majority of the people around us in America believe in God and in His Son Jesus Christ. Most people would claim to be Christians. A lot of those people attempt to maintain the exterior of goodness and piety– they seek to look like the “good people” of society, and yet inwardly they may remain unconverted and sinful. Such a faith cannot save (Matthew 7:21-23)!

It is one thing to be as a fig tree without fruit and without leaves– had this fig tree been as such, Jesus would have likely just passed it by. Therefore, it is one thing for people in our society to be sinners and recognize that they are sinners. Such is actually the first step in coming to a real knowledge of the truth (Ephesians 2:1-10, Titus 3:3-8). Jesus, after all, came to save sinners (cf. Matthew 9:11-13).

The real danger comes from providing the pretense of righteousness and/or religiosity without any substantive fruit. These are the “righteous” of Matthew 9:11-13, those who certainly think they are healthy and sound and profitable but really are not. They are self-deceived, and self-deception is the hardest kind of deception to overcome (Galatians 6:3, James 1:22-25, 1 John 1:8). As long as they remain in that condition, nothing can be done for them or with them (cf. Revelation 3:14-22)!

But what of ourselves? Who are we? Are we fig trees without leaves and without fruit? Then let us grow in knowledge and faith to maturity, showing fruit for the Lord (Hebrews 5:14, 2 Peter 3:18). Do we have leaves and fruit, believing in God and obeying Him? Well and good; let us abound all the more (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:1, 9). Or are we the fig tree with leaves but no fruit, having the pretense of religion but not the substantive fruit thereof? We must always be on guard against this danger, considering ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5, Galatians 6:4). If we find ourselves in this condition, we must immediately repent, and work to show the fruit that is in keeping with that repentance (1 John 2:3-6)!

Therefore we can see that the story of the fig tree is quite appropriate in its context. Jesus is about to encounter the superficial piety of the Judaism entrenched in Jerusalem, and it will be cursed. Let us not fall into the same trap, and let us both show leaves and bear fruit for God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Fig Tree Religion

The Mustard Seed (2)

And the apostles said unto the Lord, “Increase our faith.”
And the Lord said, “If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye would say unto this sycamine tree, ‘Be thou rooted up, and be thou planted in the sea;’ and it would obey you” (Luke 17:5-6).

The natural world provided Jesus with plenty of examples to help explain spiritual truths. He found great value in the illustration of the mustard seed and its growth pattern. Mustard seeds start out very small– about four millimeters in diameter– but they grow into a shrub-like plant, far larger than similar herbs. We have seen how Jesus described the growth of His Kingdom in terms of the mustard seed (cf. Mark 4:30-32). Let us now see how Jesus uses the mustard seed to describe our faith in Luke 17:6.

Jesus, in Luke 17:3-4, tells His disciples that they are to forgive their brother who sins against them every time. This was no easier for the apostles to swallow than it is for us. They felt that their faith was insufficient to accomplish that type of obligation; therefore, they asked Jesus to increase their faith (Luke 17:5). Jesus’ illustration of the mustard seed is His response to this request.

We can certainly sympathize with the desire of the apostles. How nice it would be to have faith granted to us! How much simpler our task would be if God automatically provided us with the level of trust and devotion to Him necessary to accomplish His great work in His Kingdom! Alas, despite the views of many in the religious world, this is not the case. God does not dispense faith like a vending machine dispenses a candy bar. Faith is the expected response when we recognize who God is and how worthy He is of our trust (Romans 1:17, 5:1-2, Hebrews 11:1-40). Yes, it is easier for some to have faith than others; different people have different proportions of faith (cf. Romans 12:3, 6). But faith is not automatic, and as Jesus is indicating, it is not something that can just be granted.

It is easy to focus on the smallness of the mustard seed and therefore perhaps get the indication that Jesus could be talking about having a small measure of faith. That is quite unlikely. When Jesus describes the apostles as needing to have “faith like a grain of mustard seed,” He is speaking about how that faith starts– not how it continues or ends.

Our faith in God starts small. When we first come to God, we recognize that we are sinful and in need of redemption (cf. Romans 5:1-11), and trust that God will deliver us. But, at the beginning, that’s about it– we still trust in ourselves and rely on our own strengths to get through the difficulties of life.

If our faith stayed as the “grain of mustard seed,” it would not be worth much of anything. “Stillborn” faith cannot save (Matthew 7:21-23, James 2:14-26). Instead, just as a grain of mustard seed must take root and then grow to its expected size, so our faith must take root in our lives and then grow to overtake us completely!

Jesus has made this clear in plenty of images, including the parable of the sower (Luke 8:5-15) and the parable of the minas (Luke 19:12-27). We are commanded to grow in our faith (Hebrews 5:12-6:4, 2 Peter 3:18). Our faith may start small, but through growth, be it learning more of God’s Word (2 Timothy 2:15), trials and tests (1 Peter 1:6-9), and through other experiences, it can grow until we can say, with Paul, that we have been crucified with Christ, and that it is no longer ourselves who live, but Christ in us (Galatians 2:20).

When our faith is in God and not in ourselves, God is able to accomplish great things through our service (1 Corinthians 3:4-8). We know that no tree can be uprooted physically and then planted in the sea, and so does Jesus. But Jesus also knows that what is impossible with men is possible with God (Luke 18:27).

Jesus makes it evident that faith is not something that you can just obtain in some miraculous or providential manner. Faith must first be a decision and then a growth process. The Apostles themselves experienced this: they recognized, based on what they could perceive, that Jesus was the promised Christ (cf. Luke 9:20), and they followed Him throughout His ministry. He then granted them the baptism of the Spirit and they began doing great things for God’s Kingdom as recorded in the book of Acts. They could not have just been granted faith. They had to walk with Jesus. They had to feel the shame of abandoning Him during His darkest hour (cf. Mark 14:27-50). They had to learn to trust God even though none of it made sense anymore after Jesus was killed, and then they had to experience the joy and exultation at His resurrection.

So it is with us. We can only become vessels of God’s power through us when we learn to let go of our ideas, our expectations, and ourselves, and allow our trust in God to overtake our lives. Let us learn from the mustard seed and allow faith to spring to life within us!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Mustard Seed (2)

Maturity

But solid food is for fullgrown men, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern good and evil (Hebrews 5:14).

Physical development, for the vast majority of people, is a given. Most children, as long as they are continually nourished, will experience physical maturation. Those are trying times for themselves, their parents, and everyone else who has contact with them! Nevertheless, the maturation process is essential if life will continue. Ideally, the child will be mentally and emotionally maturing while he or she is physically maturing. This is the process by which small children become responsible adults.

Spiritual maturity has the same imperative but is not a “given.” In fact, the Hebrew author is chastising the Hebrew Christians for not maturing spiritually as they should have– even though they should be teachers by now, they still need someone to teach them the basic truths of the faith (Hebrews 5:12-6:4)! It is entirely possible for a believer to live 20, 30, 50, or even 60 years without spiritually maturing.

But this is not what the Lord wants! We are commanded in 2 Peter 3:18 to grow in our knowledge of Jesus Christ. The servant who did nothing to advance his Master’s purposes in Matthew 25:14-30 was cast into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth– who wants to experience that fate?

Therefore, it is important for us to grow and mature spiritually. Unlike physical maturity, we must make the determination to mature and to grow in our faith. On the other hand, this means that a believer can mature more rapidly, and reflect a spiritual maturity “greater” than his spiritual “age” as reckoned by human time!

Spiritual maturity is a challenge. It requires us to know God’s Word (2 Timothy 2:15, 3:16-17). How can we grow if we do not know how to grow? How can we learn to do the will of our Lord if we remain ignorant of His will? The growing and maturing believer in Christ will truly be His disciple, sitting at his Master’s feet, learning what he or she should do (cf. Luke 10:38-42).

Maturity requires much more than just “book learning.” Christianity is not a mere intellectual exercise– it is designed to be a lived belief. We demonstrate that we are of Jesus Christ by walking as He walked (1 John 2:6). As the Hebrew author demonstrates, we train our senses to discern good and evil “by reason of use.” It is one thing to know that Jesus teaches us to love our enemy, to turn the other cheek, to do good to all men, and so on (cf. Matthew 5, Luke 6); it is quite another to practice such things and to be enriched through our experience. Just as “hands on” work experience has practical value and provides lessons unable to be fully gleaned through “book learning,” so practicing Christianity has value and provides deeper understanding of what can be gained from studying the Scriptures.

Let none be deceived, however: spiritual maturity has its cost, just as physical maturity does. We grow in faith when our faith is tested– when we are called upon to defend our beliefs in front of a hostile audience (1 Peter 3:15), when we must decide whether we will succumb to temptation or escape (1 Corinthians 10:13), when we experience persecution or suffering (James 1:2-3, 1 Peter 1:6-8), and other such challenges. Sadly, many times we will fail (1 John 1:8); we must then get up, confess our wrongs, learn from them, and allow those experiences to help us grow (1 John 1:9). Furthermore, just as we obtain greater responsibilities as we mature physically, so more is expected of us as we grow spiritually (cf. Matthew 25:14-30, Romans 15:1). As we grow, we can see just how much more growth and maturity is required– there is never a point in this life when we can feel as if we have matured enough or grown up enough, for we can always abound more and more in the work of the Lord (cf. Philippians 3:13-14, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-9).

Growing and maturing in the faith is a challenge, indeed, but failure to grow and mature might very well lead to eternal torment. Growth and maturity come at great cost, but so did our salvation (Philippians 2:5-11)! Let us seek to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, constantly striving to be more conformed to His image!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Maturity