Protection

You are my hiding place; you protect me from distress. You surround me with shouts of joy from those celebrating deliverance (Psalm 32:7).

Who can protect us?

Protection is a quite salient matter in a world full of dangers. Many want to speak of “the universe” as if it has some kind of specific will for us or will grant us certain things if we intend or behave in certain ways; yet scientifically it is beyond doubt that the universe is actively trying to kill us. Bacteria and viruses continually beset us. And we have all sorts of dangers in between: weather conditions and natural disasters, let alone what fellow human beings might do to us. It’s dangerous out there!

Some might want to think they live in greater danger today than those who came before us, but upon any level of investigation it would be difficult to sustain that kind of argument. If anything, our ancestors lived in greater dangers: various illnesses, wild animals and hostile weather conditions, natural disasters, and fewer ways to ameliorate the danger. Yet such kinds of comparisons ultimately prove futile: in truth, people have always been in danger; people will never run out of things regarding which they can be afraid and which they believe is dangerous; and therefore people have always looked to find some kind of protector.

As we have become ever more secular and skeptical of authority, many have come to suggest themselves as their own protector, or the protector of others. There is a whole American culture dedicated to the proposition of maintaining and upholding the honor and integrity of the family and friends through protection by any means necessary. It has deep roots in Americana; one easily identifiable source would be a particular Scots Irish frontier libertarian culture and mentality that elevated one’s ability to provide for oneself and one’s family without interference from authorities and protected with vigilance. Such types of perspectives easily meld protection within provision so that when many read, for example, that one who does not provide for one’s family is worse than an unbeliever (as in 1 Timothy 5:8), they understand it to mean not just to provide material and emotional resources but also protection, with violence if need be. We are now at the point when many profess the name of the Lord Jesus and will maintain weapons for violence on their person to be ready, at a moment’s notice, to harm or take the lives of others in the name of protecting those they love. Such is even done within the assembly of the Lord’s people, and is often commended as reasonable and sensible!

We understand the impulse; the desire to protect one’s own life and the lives of those we love and to whom we are dedicated is very strong. But is this the explicit will of the Lord Jesus? And who can really protect us?

The Lord Jesus spoke a word about protection through violence in Matthew 26:52: those who take hold of the sword will die by the sword. It was a message powerfully imprinted upon His disciples: Jesus had said as much to Peter when Peter had taken out a sword in an attempt to protect Jesus, and we never hear of Peter or any other Apostle using or encouraging the use of violence to protect themselves afterward. Such a posture only makes sense in light of what Jesus was about to do: He willingly gave Himself to suffer and die even though He had not done anything wrong. Peter himself would reflect upon this and declare that Jesus entrusted Himself to the God who judges justly and did not retaliate when harmed (1 Peter 2:22-23). Peter understood what Jesus had done as marching orders for those who would follow Him: they should go about doing good for others, even if they suffered for doing so, while entrusting themselves to a faithful Creator (1 Peter 4:19). What would motivate anyone to do such a thing? The testimony of deep, abiding love of God displayed in Jesus for those who sinned and were alienated from God (cf. Romans 5:6-11). As God has loved us even though we have sinned and fallen short of His glory, so we are called to love others in the same way. We are to love those who would hurt us and pray for those who would persecute us (Luke 6:35). Jesus loves the criminal as much as He loves you, me, small children, and everyone else. Jesus wants them all to be saved: even the person who wants to hurt you (1 Timothy 2:4).

So who can protect us? In the days of old few men proved as mighty in battle as David son of Jesse. Yet after he confessed his sins before YHWH because they laid upon him grievously and commended this for others, he confessed YHWH was his hiding place, and that YHWH would protect him from trouble (Psalm 32:1-7). David was surrounded by those shouting for joy because God delivered them (Psalm 32:7).

Throughout the Psalms, in fact, David and other writers reckon YHWH as their refuge, strong rock, strong tower, and place of hiding and protection. They praise YHWH for deliverance. They also warn Israel against trusting in military might for their protection (cf. Psalms 20:7, 146:3). The prophets would utter a similar warning, exemplified in Isaiah 7:1-17: if God’s people trust in military maneuvering and foreign policy and not in their God, they will be humiliated, fail, and incur judgment. They were better off trusting in YHWH as their King and Protector, and YHWH would provide deliverance for them. They did not trust; they sought protection in chariots and foreign policy; and they were overrun and destroyed by chariots and foreign policy.

The faithful and wise people of God have always understood that God, and God alone, can truly protect them. How God has protected His people has manifested itself differently at different times and in different circumstances, and sometimes through very strange means. It is not as if there is no place for violence; God has established civil government to establish justice in the land and to punish evil; God’s people are to let them take vengeance and wield the sword (Romans 13:1-7). The rulers of old were held to that standard as well (cf. Isaiah 1:10-17). God helped Israel fight its battles time and again (cf. Exodus 15:1-19). Isaiah envisioned judgment on Aram and Israel to deliver Judah by the hands of the bloodthirsty Assyrians (Isaiah 7:1-17). The same kind of Roman soldiers and guards who helped to execute Jesus protected Paul from death at the hand of the Jewish people almost thirty years later (cf. Acts 21:32-26:32). God will hold all such authorities responsible for how they used and abused their authority; God does not hold responsible those who live, or those who suffer, under it.

It is not difficult to imagine circumstances in which it did not look like God protected His people. Plenty of God’s people have died at the hands of raging persecutors. Many others have died at the hands of violent men. Many have suffered exploitation in a thousand different ways. Untold thousands have died of disease or because of natural disasters. That’s a lot of suffering.

But what have we come to expect, and to what end? It is futile to imagine that we can truly protect ourselves or anyone else from every danger. We are not as powerful, and often not in control, as much as we would like to think we are. If protecting others through intimidation or force were as important to faithful Christian witness as many would imagine, why has God not spoken about it? Why did Jesus or the Apostles not model it, and just as importantly, why did Jesus denounce it when one of His disciples actually tried it? When we must speak frequently when God has not spoken it should give us great pause regarding what we are saying. Perhaps we have imported something that was never there in the first place. Perhaps we are not listening to what is being said.

It is a particularly modern delusion to think we are in control and can control our environment. Those who came before us lived by time and chance (Ecclesiastes 9:11); and if we would hear it, so do we. If we will be protected from dangers, it is because God is protecting us. If for whatever reason in God’s economy, be it the freewill decisions of others, the work of the powers and principalities, or perhaps even just unfortunate circumstance, we are called upon to suffer and die, it is not as if God has proven unfaithful. We brought nothing into this world; we cannot take anything out of it (1 Timothy 6:7). We are weak and frail; our strength should have always been entrusted in the Lord and His might (Ephesians 6:10-13). If we would truly want to see our families, friends, and loved ones protected, we do best to entrust them into the hands of God our Protector. If a mighty warrior like David thus trusted in God, perhaps we should also.

In the end, we will all be held accountable for what we have done in the body when we stand before the Lord Jesus (Acts 17:30-31, Romans 2:5-11). We do best to stand there having entrusted ourselves to our faithful Creator, even through tremendous suffering, humiliation, and degradation, than to stand before a faithful Creator with the weight of the pain, distress, and perhaps even the blood of human beings on our souls and our hands. We should stand before Jesus having followed His ways of humiliation and suffering so we might be exalted through the unimaginably fantastic glory of God, praising God as the Protector and Deliverer of our souls unto eternal life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Protection

Faith Without Works

If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,” but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is it? (James 2:15-16)

James 2:14-26: the very citation of the passage immediately brings to mind its premise: “faith without works is dead.”

For generations James 2:14-26 has been held as the counterweight to Paul’s affirmations of justification by faith apart from works in Romans 3:10-4:23 and Galatians 3:1-27. Martin Luther famously wanted to consider James not truly inspired because of what he had to say about faith and works; indeed, the only time in which the Bible speaks of “faith only” explicitly is in James 2:24, in which James set forth how one is justified by works and not by faith alone! Thus most Christians, upon hearing or considering James 2:14-26, are tempted to understand the passage purely in doctrinal terms as part of the dispute which has gone on for half a millennium about faith and works: either to brandish the passage as the answer to Protestant excess in their doctrine of faith only, or to attempt to find some way to narrowly contextualize or frame the passage to somehow “fit” into a scheme in which “faith only” can be preserved.

James quite possibly is throwing some shade, perhaps not directly at Paul himself, but certainly toward those who would take Paul to an extreme Paul did not maintain. Let none be deceived: James powerfully affirmed the importance of works in faith, a premise which Paul would not and did not deny (e.g. Romans 1:5, 6:14-23, etc.). We can make good sense of the two emphases each inspired author conveyed: by emphasizing how salvation is by faith apart from works of the Law, Paul established our unworthiness and inability to earn our salvation (Romans 3:10-4:23, Galatians 3:1-27); by emphasizing that faith is displayed in works, James expressed the necessary consequences of saving faith, demonstration of trust through effort (James 2:14-26). Paul did not deny the importance of the obedience of faith; James would not suggest people can deserve, earn, or merit their salvation.

Nevertheless, James was not intending to write to Christians so they would have a better understanding of a doctrinal proposition. If we consider James 2:1-17 as a whole, the true picture of what James sought to convey becomes apparent.

James saw Christians displaying prejudice and partiality, and wanted to warn them about the consequences of that behavior: specifically, rich guests were treated with great hospitality while poor guests were treated with contempt (James 2:1-3). James condemned such behavior as making distinctions and becoming judges with evil motives (James 2:4). He wondered how Christians could do such things when God had chosen in Christ the poor of the world to become rich in faith and the Kingdom itself; they had thus dishonored the poor, while honoring the very people who oppressed them, dragged them into court, and blasphemed (James 2:5-7).

Instead James would have them fulfill the royal law of loving their neighbor as themselves (James 2:8; cf. Leviticus 19:18). If they show prejudice, the law would condemn them as transgressors. It would not matter that they had done all kinds of righteousness or had avoided other sins, for those who obey the law in all points but one has become guilty of the whole (James 2:9-11). Thus Christians should speak and act as if they will be judged by a law giving freedom, and having shown mercy, for judgment is merciless for those who have displayed no mercy (James 2:12-13). James then rhetorically asked what good it would be if a person claimed to have faith but did not have works, and if that faith could save them (James 2:14). He then gave an example: if a Christian is poorly clothed and lacks food, and if one of his or her fellow Christians saw them like this and told them to go, be warm and eat well, but did not provide anything so they could get warm and eat well, what good would it be (James 2:15-16)? Thus, James declared, faith without works is dead (James 2:17).

Thus, in context, James is warning Christians that if they say they are helping the poor among them without actually helping the poor among them, their faith is without works, and their faith is dead! Such is consistent with his concerns in James 1:22-25, 27; John would speak in similar ways in 1 John 3:16-18. It is not for the Christian to judge the shabbiness or worthiness of people, but to help, demonstrating the faith they profess in the works they are doing. To act otherwise is to show partiality and to be condemned as transgressors, or to confess by one’s deeds (or lack thereof) that one’s faith is truly dead.

It is right and appropriate for us to draw the application from James 2:14-26 that faith without works is dead, and in doctrinal conversations and disputes to hold up the passage to correct excess in the way many have sought to understand the Apostle Paul. Yet we must always remember that such a perspective on James 2:14-26 is an application, and not the one immediately expected in its context. Whether we focus on James 2:1-17 in particular, or the entire passage from James 1:22-2:26, we should see the connections inherent in James’ theme, and to recognize his great concern that Christians would put their faith in action by providing what proved necessary for all people, but especially those of the household of faith. May we all demonstrate our faith by our works and do so by loving our neighbors as ourselves, proving to be neighbors to poor and rich alike, and by providing what is necessary for those in need, and obtain the resurrection of life in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Faith Without Works

Love Grown Cold

“Then many will be led into sin, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will appear and deceive many, and because lawlessness will increase so much, the love of many will grow cold” (Matthew 24:10-12).

It was a difficult and dark time. The rulers wallowed in their decadence while many of the common people suffered. People did not trust their government and looked for some kind of champion. Plenty rushed in with all sorts of delusions and plots. People did not know who to believe or trust. Everyone seemed to be in it for themselves and their ideas and would do, and did, almost anything to obtain and maintain power. In this way the people were led down the path which led to devastation and death.

Such was the plight of Judea in the 60s, just as Jesus had predicted.

While in Jerusalem, Jesus’ disciples showed Jesus the various and magnificent buildings which comprised the Herodian Temple (Matthew 24:1); Jesus told them that it would be completely devastated and torn down (Matthew 24:2). When the disciples asked how such things could take place, Jesus began to warn them about what they would see: many would claim to be the Messiah; there would be wars and rumors of wars; disasters would take place; yet all such things were not the end, and they should not be misled (Matthew 24:3-8). The disciples would be handed over to persecution and death and would be hated among all the nations because of Jesus (Matthew 24:9).

The disciples would then see signs of distress within their communities. They would see people led into sin, betraying and hating one another; false prophets would tell them what they would want to hear and thus deceive many; lawlessness would increase, and love would grow cold (Matthew 24:10-12).

The devastation of the Herodian Temple complex in Jerusalem, which is the primary subject of Matthew 24:1-36, took place during the First Jewish War of 68-70. We can consider Josephus’ The Jewish War and see how everything Jesus warned about played out during that time. Josephus would have us understand how the Jewish people suffered far more from one another than anything the Romans did to them: even as they resisted the Roman siege the people of Jerusalem were divided into warring factions; some destroyed the food stock; every group would use violence against the others. Extremists were normalized overnight and given control over the fate of the nation. The people starved; stories of people eating their own children are recorded. All the Romans had to do was to wait for the Jewish people to exhaust themselves before providing the final stroke.

Jesus could predict such things not only because He was God and a prophet, but also because Israel in His own day was already primed for such distress (cf. Luke 23:28-31). They had not wanted to consider how they were as delusional as their fathers were in the days of Babylon; they remained convinced that armed uprising would liberate them from the Romans, and chose an insurrectionist over the Author of Life (Acts 3:13-14). When times got tougher, the situation spiraled out of control, and God’s judgment against Israel was completed.

While the Jewish people were God’s elect, they were still humans, and the tendencies they expressed in their collapse can be seen in other societies. There are disturbing and unfortunate trends we can perceive while times are good, and we may raise an eyebrow, but then move on to focus on what we think are greater things. Yet when times become difficult those trends get magnified. All of a sudden people who seemed righteous and holy, and many who perhaps truly were righteous and holy, are led into sin. We are shocked to find out that someone we thought highly of and trusted in his or her judgment has turned into someone we can barely recognize. People of goodwill, friends, and even families are torn apart in hostility.

How could all of this have happened? Events, trials, and difficulty expose people and their deep-seated ideas and fears. There are times when people no longer know who they should trust, and so they simultaneously trust no one and yet everyone. They presume to be in the know and well-informed, yet in truth have been deceived and deluded according to their own desires and lusts. We kid ourselves if we imagine the days of false prophets is past and gone; they proliferate now more than ever, given ever greater platforms to reach larger audiences through the media and the Internet.

This process does not take place overnight; upon reflection we can see how people could have possibly gone down these dark roads to lead to such a distressing conclusion. And what is found on that road but coldness of heart as lawlessness increases? The sinful are emboldened; the righteous in their discretion become quiet (cf. Amos 5:13). Profligacy and flagrant perversion multiplies. You cannot trust anyone anymore. So you either join in or stay quiet.

Watching this play out is like watching a train wreck: it is awful, it causes a lot of damage and death, and there is not a whole lot we as individuals can do about it. Watching the judgment on a group of people play itself out is never a fun or pleasant thing (cf. Amos 5:18-20). It may not be the end of the world, but it certainly involves the end of a world. Yes, according to God’s will, that world did need to come to an end, however things work out for those involved later. A generation will arise and will wonder how it could ever be that people could have possibly believed such delusions, or acted in such immoral ways while thinking God would somehow justify them. And yet within such a generation there is at least the seed of the next catalyst for delusion and immorality.

What, then, ought the faithful people of God do when they endure such disaster in their lives? After explaining what the disciples would see, Jesus reminded them that those who endure to the end will be the ones who are saved (Matthew 24:13). The Gospel of the Kingdom would be preached throughout the world as a testimony to the nations (Matthew 24:14; cf. Colossians 1:6).

The end came for Second Temple Judaism; the end has also come for many nations and civilizations ever since. We can look back and see how foolish it would have been for the disciples, or other Jewish Christians of the time, to have cast away their confidence in Jesus and their eternal salvation to follow a delusional crackpot in their midst who promised them victory over the Romans or over another sect of their fellow Jewish people. We can look back and wonder why Christians of the early fifth century felt compelled to uphold the vestiges of the broken remnants of the Roman Empire, the very Empire that had worked so diligently in times past to persecute them. We do not even need to look back: we can ask today why a Christian as part of another nation-state would even think to follow the twists and turns of untrustworthy and immoral people and to fall prey to ungodliness in a desperate attempt to uphold their cultural status quo.

Yet as we can see the speck in the eyes of these prospective/real Christians of the past and present, can we see the log in our own eyes? Can we see how we may be too invested in our own society, whether in its present reality or in what we imagine it used to be, and give our power over to people participating in flagrant immorality and pushing delusional theories and ideologies, all in the quest to maintain or obtain power against the perceived malignant Other? Are we willing to consider how those to whom we listen might be, in truth, false prophets, leading us astray from what is good and right and holy in the Kingdom of God in Christ? Has the love of Christians gone cold because they have become more identified with their political tribe or ideology than their commitment to God in Christ? Have we chosen the ways of the world in its corruption and decay and given ourselves over to our fears of what our perceived enemies might do to us, or will we continue to surrender ourselves to the love of God in Christ which would cast out all such fears? What will our children, or an even later generation, have to say regarding what was exposed about is in our distress?

In all of this we must remember that Jesus was speaking to His disciples about Israel, the people of God, and to allow ourselves to fully absorb the scandal that was how the people of God in His generation went so terribly wrong. That we can see this very thing play out among the people of God in our own generation is distressing and lamentable, but should not surprise us. We must endure to the end to be saved: to continue to hold firm to the Lord Jesus Christ, to not heed the siren song of the partisans and tribalists who would lead us astray so they can obtain power, wealth, and standing, and to refuse to grow cold in our love because of lawlessness, pursuing holiness and righteousness in a love that fears no thing in this creation. It is hard to watch as those whom we loved and trusted fall away in their delusions; in all things we must remain firm in our faith in Jesus and His Kingdom, and never stop embodying His Gospel in word and deed before our fellow people of God and those out in the world. May we glorify God in Christ and obtain the resurrection of life in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Love Grown Cold

Judging Before the Time

Wherefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and make manifest the counsels of the hearts; and then shall each man have his praise from God (1 Corinthians 4:5).

The Corinthian Christians were getting ahead of themselves and going well beyond what was written. Its fruit was manifest and ugly, and it did not please or honor the Lord.

Party factionalism threatened to tear the church in Corinth apart, and all about preacher preference! Some favored Paul; others, Apollos; others, Cephas; still others insisted on Christ (1 Corinthians 1:12). The Corinthians were used to philosophical schools and philosophical cults of personality; it would not be difficult to imagine they saw Paul, Apollos, Cephas, and others in terms of Plato, Aristotle, or Zeno, and thus had to be reminded how in Christ God overthrew the wisdom of the world (1 Corinthians 1:18-32). Each preacher would have come with his manner and style of preaching; Paul made a defense for being rhetorically poor, and sought to show the Corinthian Christians how all the preachers worked toward the same goal of building up in Christ (1 Corinthians 2:1-3:23). The Corinthian Christians were judging Paul based on his appearance, rhetorical skill (or lack thereof), and other features; he reminded them his judge was God who entrusted him with the Gospel (1 Corinthians 4:1-4).

Such judgmentalism seemed to come naturally to the Corinthian Christians, and for Paul, that was part of the problem. They had judged before the time; they were making determinations which could only be made known by the Lord when He returned (1 Corinthians 4:5). They should have instead learned from Apollos and Paul not to go beyond what is written, to not be puffed up against one another, and to not rely on fleshy judgmentalism (1 Corinthians 4:6ff). The Corinthian Christians were in the wrong not because their judgments were inaccurate; they were in the wrong because they were making much of their judgment in the first place. They arrogated for themselves a posture to which they had no right and regarding which they proved more ignorant than accurate. They almost split the church and caused great ruin in doing so.

Judgment before the time remains a challenge for the people of God. Far too many have received the impression somehow from somewhere that it is given to them to render judgment in any given situation. They have found some justification for judgment from the situation described in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, and Jesus’ exhortation to judge righteous judgment in John 7:24. Rendering judgment in any given circumstance and situation is axiomatic and taken for granted: do we not have to discern? Don’t we have to render some kind of judgment about right and wrong?

Yet the same Apostle who told the Corinthians to judge those within in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 had just upbraided them for their judgment before the time in 1 Corinthians 1:10-4:21. The same Jesus who told the Jews to judge righteous judgment warned them also how they would be judged by the same standard by which they judged in Matthew 7:1-2, and wished for them to take the beam out of their eye before they could help their brothers with the specks in theirs in Matthew 7:3-5.

It is one thing for us to discern what is right and wrong, to do and affirm the right and to avoid the wrong (Romans 12:8-9, Hebrews 5:12-14); it is another to presume to understand the complexities of a situation in which we remain mostly ignorant and act as a judge of the law rather than a doer of it (cf. James 4:11-12). It is one thing for us to hear from two or more witnesses and mournfully withdraw association from those who claim to follow the Lord Jesus but walk disorderly in practice or doctrine (Romans 16:16-17, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13); it is quite another to presume to sit in the Lord’s judgment seat and pronounce the judgment on the servant of another (Romans 14:10-12).

Christians do well to recognize why Jesus, Paul, and James say what they do in Matthew 7:1-5, Romans 14:10-12, 1 Corinthians 4:5, and James 4:11-12 just as they do for John 7:24 and 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. Some things we must discern to maintain our lives in the faith; everything else is not for us to presume to judge.

This is not an excuse for Christians to bury their heads in the sand. Luke 13:1-5 is illustrative. Many times this passage is used to condemn a focus on “current events,” but note well how Jesus proved quite aware of the “headlines” of the day, bringing in the story of those upon whom a tower fell in Siloam alongside those whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices. Jesus’ concern was less about the news and more with what the Israelites were doing with the news: using it to justify their current biases and not to consider themselves. Unless you repent, you will likewise perish.

As Christians we will be continually confronted with circumstances regarding which we are not equipped to render judgment at all, and certainly not before the time. We will hear of stories of people being killed in unjust ways. We will hear stories of people who have been oppressed and abused emotionally, mentally, physically, and sexually. We will hear of wars and rumors of wars.

In these matters we have every right to form an opinion. In forming that opinion we do well to consider different perspectives, always keeping Proverbs 18:17 in mind. We may express our opinion and our reasons for holding that opinion. Hopefully we are open to new evidence and reconsideration of our opinion if circumstances demand it.

Yet in all such things we must remember our views are opinions. Unless we are the judge in a given case, or called upon by the civil government to stand as part of the jury for a given trial, our determination of right or wrong, guilt or innocence, is meaningless in the grand scheme of things. We will never learn all the facts. Stories will get interpreted in light of prevailing narratives and operating assumptions, and people’s conclusions will often tell you about where they stand in terms of those narratives and assumptions. Every one of us will likely be in for a surprise or two when we stand before the Lord Jesus and all that has been hidden will be made known.

Thus it is not for Christians to presume to be the judges of the mentalities and behaviors of others. We are not called upon to make a final determination regarding what we hear in the news or from the narratives of the lives of others. It is not for us to look at the misfortunes of others to buttress a sense of self-righteousness, for unless we repent, we will likewise perish. We must recognize that whatever we hear is not the whole story; people are never as bad as they are at their worst, and are not as good as they are at their best. Mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13); if we are merciless in how we judge others, we should not expect to receive mercy from others, and perhaps not even from God Himself!

Our judgment often clouds the impulses we ought to cultivate as Christians: love, grace, mercy, and compassion. We should not need a court decision in order to feel empathy and compassion for those who have suffered tragedy and pain. We should not “wait for the facts to come in” before we express heartache and pain with those who mourn. We should not be naïve, yet we should also not become hardened. If we have no reason to doubt what a person tells us, then we should acknowledge what they have said and seek to empathize with them in whatever they are enduring. We should not quickly demonize the other; yet we also should not justify or give any kind of pass to excuse wrongdoing, oppression, or injustice because of our empathy, compassion, or willingness to give the benefit of the doubt.

Very few things prove straightforward in this life. We must watch our tendency to make much of our judgments, but recognize they are really opinions and ought to hold them lightly in humility. We will never know all the facts; all will only be revealed when the Lord comes. We do better to find ways to show the love of God in Christ and stand firm for His truth, righteousness, and justice, and obtain life when Jesus returns!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Judging Before the Time

The Unveiling

“Yea and a sword shall pierce through thine own soul; that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:35).

Apocalypses reveal.

One of the better trends present within modern scholarship regarding the Bible and Christianity is the recovery of the emphasis on the “apocalyptic” nature of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. “Apocalyptic” scenes unfurled as His birth was announced; the Holy Spirit spoke through Stephen, Anna, and others regarding the “apocalyptic” dimensions of the Kingdom Jesus would inaugurate (e.g. Luke 1:1-2:38). Jesus Himself would serve as an “apocalyptic” prophet, warning about the day of the Son of Man which would soon come (Luke 21:5-28). “Apocalyptic” scenes heralded Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and proclamation of the Kingdom of God in Christ (Luke 23:26-24:53, Acts 1:1-12, 2:1-41).

The major difficulty with “apocalyptic” involves our understanding of what “apocalypses” represent. People imagine an apocalypse as the end of the world, often according to some Hollywood treatment of the idea, with a generous number of explosions, cosmic drama, global violence, and the like. “Apocalypses” in Scripture do imagine times of distress, difficulty, and suffering with the ultimate vindication of God and His purposes, yet are not imagined to be as dramatic as modern man would expect.

We must remember that the Greek term apokalupsis means “an unveiling, a revelation.” Thus the book of Revelation is often called the Apocalypse of John, since God unveiled the things John saw in Revelation to him (cf. Revelation 1:1). God has very much unveiled His cosmic and ultimate purposes for His creation through Jesus His Son and His Kingdom (Ephesians 3:1-12). Yet the life and death of Jesus, and the establishment of His Kingdom, would itself expose and reveal much about people.

This latter form of an “apocalypse” is what Simeon has in mind as he holds the baby Jesus in Luke 2:25-35. The Holy Spirit had told Simeon how he would see the Christ of God before he would die; the Spirit directed him to Joseph and Mary as they brought Jesus into the Temple (Luke 2:25-27). Simeon first blessed God, content to depart from this world in peace since he had seen the salvation God had prepared in the presence of all nations, a Light of revelation (Greek apokalupsin) to the nations, and the glory of God’s people Israel (Luke 2:28-32). Simeon then had a more sober message for Mary: her Child would be the cause of the rise and fall of many in Israel, a sign spoken against; the thoughts of many hearts would be revealed (Greek apokaluphthosin), and a sword would pierce her own soul (Luke 2:34-35).

To this end Jesus’ life and proclamation would be an “apocalypse” for Israel, a catalyst to make known the hearts of men. Throughout His life and ministry Jesus lifted up the poor, the downtrodden, the meek, and those in distress, and continually challenged the religious authorities and establishment. That establishment would conspire against Him (Luke 22:1-2). Their craven desire for power and standing would be made evident. Their fears of irrelevance and devastation were exposed. All Israel was exposed for their embrace of the politics of insurrection and the way which would lead to death in choosing Barabbas over Jesus (Luke 23:18-24).

Ever since the proclamation of the good news of Jesus of Nazareth has proven to be an “apocalypse” for those who would hear it: a catalyst to expose what people really think and feel. Those who hear it and accept it must be fully transformed by the experience, conforming to the cross-shaped path of suffering and humiliation endured by Jesus (Romans 12:1-2, 1 Peter 2:18-25, 3:14-18, 4:12-19). Those who deny it, reject it, or try to suppress it expose their embrace of various idols, ways of this world, and/or love and affection for the things of this life. The Word of God indeed discerns the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4:12-13).

Likewise, various trials and moments of distress in life become “apocalypses” for people, both individually and collectively: beyond the trial, difficulty, and distress inherent in such experiences, much is exposed, revealed, and unveiled about who people really are and how they really think and feel about things in the process. Such forms of exposure need not be negative: the positive character traits and strengths of people can often shine in the midst of pain and suffering. We are all familiar with stories of people going the extra mile for others in a time of difficulty and distress. We hopefully have all seen people who have maintained their character and integrity in the face of distress and death.

Unfortunately many other such “apocalypses” reveal ugliness in us and in other people. We get more easily flustered and frustrated than we might have thought. We might become pettier and lash out at others. As anxiety and fear levels escalate, many fall prey to wild eyed theories peddling fear and suspicion; others make it painfully clear who they have thought represents “us” versus “them”; what truly is important to people is made evident. Those from whom you might have “expected better” prove less mature in response to distress than you might have hoped. People stop being “nice” and start getting “real,” and the result is often less than pretty.

Character is not only exposed in what we do when we think no one else is watching; it is also exposed in times of great distress and trial as anxiety and fear escalates. We drop the pretenses and the highly cultivated external avatar of ourselves; we see our character and our disposition as a person seeing his or her “natural man” in the mirror (cf. James 1:22-25). A lot of character traits or unprofitable behaviors we had thought we had overcome flare up again. The whole mess can prove rather unpleasant!

Personal or collective crises shake up the status quo and expose the compromises, faults, and weaknesses in our foundation and character. The experience can be tragic and its results lamentable, yet it does not have to be this way. It all depends on what we do with what we learn about ourselves and others in the wake of an “apocalypse.” Many seek to get back to “normal” and act as if nothing really happened, or nothing was really exposed. Not much is gained or learned. What has been exposed is lost on such people who have preferred to maintain and uphold the lie. The final “apocalypse” will likely not go well for such people.

But we can also learn from what we have seen and experienced, repent, and lament. We can prepare ourselves for a future “apocalypse” in humility and self-examination and prove less likely to respond in immature and/or ugly ways. We can recognize the ugliness of what we have seen about ourselves and turn from it to accept the discipline of God in Christ and seek to be more like Him. Such is only possible when we allow the sword of the Spirit to do its work in us (cf. Hebrews 4:12-13)!

Thus apocalypses truly reveal, and what we have learned from the exposure we should not easily dispose. The question is whether the revelation of an apocalypse will reinforce our delusions in living a lie or will lead us to lamentation and repentance in becoming more conformed to the Crucified One. May we submit to the Lord Jesus and His purposes, transforming our ways of thinking and acting, lest our hearts are exposed unto condemnation in the final Apocalypse!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Unveiling

Mystery

Whereby, when ye read, ye can perceive my understanding in the mystery of Christ; which in other generations was not made known unto the sons of men, as it hath now been revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; to wit, that the Gentiles are fellow-heirs, and fellow-members of the body, and fellow-partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Ephesians 3:4-6).

A lot of people enjoy a good mystery.

When most people today think of a “mystery,” they tend to think of some sort of problem or conundrum to solve. Books and television programs in the “mystery” genre involve complex stories which some enterprising detective or group of people must sort out in order to find the truth; Sherlock Holmes is the paragon of this kind of “mystery.” For years one of the most popular shows on television was Unsolved Mysteries, featuring stories about everything from ghosts to fraud, murder to lost treasures, and all with the conceit that maybe you, the viewer, had the piece of evidence needed to solve the mystery.

We can understand, therefore, why many people come to the Bible, read about the “mystery of Christ,” and conclude that it, too, is a problem or conundrum for us to solve, and seek to go about trying to figure out how to make sense of it all using reason, deductive logic, and exploration. In the Bible, however, a “mystery” is something of a very different nature.

In his letter to the Ephesians Paul has been setting forth the overwhelming and humbling blessings and power which God has displayed toward us through Jesus in the Spirit (Ephesians 1:1-2:22). He had previously declared that God had made known the mystery of His will to Christians (Ephesians 1:9), and he decided it was important to take a moment to explain this mystery in more detail (Ephesians 3:1-3). In Ephesians 3:4-6 Paul came out with it: the mystery of Christ is that Gentiles are fellow-heirs, fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers in the promise of Jesus in the Gospel. This is a mystery which was not made known to people in previous generations, but now has been revealed to the apostles and prophets in the Spirit.

The substance of the mystery may seem dull and obvious to us; such is the case only because we have learned to take it for granted. It was not at all obvious, dull, or evident to anyone in the first century. Welcoming Gentiles as joint participants in Jesus while still Gentile caused great controversy among many of the Jewish Christians, and many Jewish Christians refused to accept it as true, and strove diligently to convince Gentile Christians to submit to circumcision and the Law of Moses (cf. Acts 15:1-29, Galatians 1:6-5:16).

For that matter, it was not even immediately apparent or obvious to the apostles and prophets of Christianity in the first century that the message of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and imminent return should be proclaimed among the nations as it was in Israel. It required an angel visiting Cornelius, a vision from the Lord Jesus to Simon Peter, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius and his associates to convince Peter and the Jewish Christians with him that God intended for the Gentiles to receive the repentance that leads to life, and that only after the Gospel had been proclaimed to the Israelites for a time (Acts 10:1-11:18). The deliberations of the council in Jerusalem required Peter’s witness regarding these previous events, the report of Paul and Barnabas regarding the powerful signs and miracles God wrought in Christ among the Gentiles of Asia Minor, and the interpretation of the prophetic message by James the Lord’s brother to secure the agreement among all that indeed, the Gentiles were to be accepted and welcomed as Gentiles, and they did not have to submit to the customs of the Law of Moses to enter God’s covenant in Christ (Acts 15:1-29).

Paul’s whole point in Ephesians 3:4-6 is how nobody figured out the Gospel on their own. We have yet to find any evidence within Second Temple Judaism of the expectation of a Messiah to arise in Israel, growing up in Galilee, serving and doing good, dying on a cross, being raised on the third day, and ascending to receive an eternal dominion from God to fulfill all of what God had promised, let alone that the message of said Messiah would also be proclaimed among the Gentiles to allow Jewish and Gentile people to become reconciled into one body in God in the Christ (cf. Ephesians 2:1-22). Not only did no one think it would happen this way, no one would have wanted it to happen this way. This was not the deliverance for which Israel sought; this was not the way of redemption which those among the nations imagined.

The impoverishment of the modern mind is evident in the claim of many scholars that Christianity is the innovation of the earliest followers of Jesus, as if somehow the despondent disciples of Jesus suddenly came up with this whole narrative about resurrection, ascension, and proclamation to all the nations on their own. Such is a fabulous tale, without any kind of warrant from anything that came before, and indeed requires more faith to believe than to accept the story as written!

The “mystery” of the New Testament and the “mysteries” of books and television shows all do share a common origin: they are things that are veiled. Yet the means of unveiling could hardly be more different. In the world, mysteries are unveiled through human discovery, reason, logic, and exploration; in Christ, mysteries are unveiled when God reveals their substance to His servants.

As Christians we have much for which to be thankful regarding the mystery of Christ. Most of us today come from the nations, and not Israel according to the flesh, and our ability to have access to God and stand before Him is entirely dependent on not only what God has done in Jesus but also in the revelation that God’s work in Christ was equally effective for us among the nations if we would put our trust in Him (Ephesians 2:11-3:13).

Yet this mystery of God in Christ is instructive for us, and it is a lesson we must learn and proclaim today: we humans will never figure out God’s mysteries on our own without Him making them known through His apostles and prophets. This message was set forth and proclaimed in the first century; it has been revealed once for all (1 Corinthians 13:8-10, Jude 1:3). Whatever is difficult to understand will remain difficult to understand until the Lord’s return. Whatever has been left without a lot of detail will remain without a lot of detail. Whatever questions were left unanswered will remain unanswered. As humans we can learn about what God has made known through the apostles and prophets; we can use reason and logic, paired with humility, faith, and prayer for strength, to come to a better understanding of what God has made known through the apostles and prophets regarding the Gospel. We can even learn more about the historical and cultural contexts of the Scriptures so as to provide more depth and color to why God spoke as He did, but that never means that we could add to what God has already made known.

Ever since the Lord arose from the dead there have been many who have claimed to have obtained special knowledge, either through esoteric interpretations of Biblical texts, cunning schemes involving human innovation and worldly wisdom, or the belief in some kind of conspiracy which has hindered people from knowing the truth. All such people treat the mystery of God in Christ as a problem or conundrum to be solved, when in fact the mystery of God in Christ is something God has made known through His apostles and prophets. If God wanted something to be made known, He would have clearly made it known through His apostles and prophets. If there is something which God has not made known through His apostles and prophets, it is something which is not for us to know. Perhaps it is beyond our capacity of knowledge; perhaps it serves no good purpose.

God’s power is made evident in His work of liberating everyone from the forces of sin and death through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and imminent return; this is not a story people would make up on their own, but something God has made known through His apostles and prophets. God’s mysteries are not for us to solve; it is for us to trust in God’s goodness, power, and love so that we can humbly learn and accept what He has made known, and let be all that remains the secret things of God. God has made provision for all people to become one in Jesus through the Spirit; may we participate in God’s work in Christ and take hold of that which is truly life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Mystery

Persecution or Obedience

“Remember the word that I said unto you, ‘A servant is not greater than his lord.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also” (John 15:20).

Whenever you see a passage of Scripture providing great comfort and encouragement, look out; someone is going through trial, suffering, or persecution, or will be doing so shortly. And so it is for Jesus and His disciples.

Most of the last “half” of John’s Gospel is dedicated to Jesus’ final discourse with the eleven disciples: the discourse covers John 13:31-17:26, with the last supper before it (John 13:1-30) and His betrayal, trial, death, and resurrection covered over the last four chapters (John 18:1-21:25). This discourse has no real parallel in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke; its prominent place and detail exist for a reason. These are the final words Jesus will speak to His disciples before His death and resurrection. This is His final chance to speak a word of encouragement and exhortation to them, and He took full advantage of the opportunity.

Jesus explained the reason for His departure and assured and comforted the disciples with the promise of the Comforter and the ability to ask of God (John 13:31-15:17). This comfort and assurance would prove necessary, for within a matter of hours the disciples would see Jesus led away in betrayal; He would be humiliated in a show trial; He would endure derision, scourging, and crucifixion, the most agonizing form of execution imaginable (John 18:1-19:30). The disciples would be scattered and left to sort out just what happened.

Such is what would happen to their Lord; and, as Jesus had told them, a servant is not greater than his lord (John 15:20; cf. John 13:16). Such was not intended to be a news flash; the disciples were perfectly aware that servants are not greater than their lord. Jesus did not speak of hierarchies; He spoke of associations and connections. The disciples of Jesus should not expect to receive better treatment than Jesus. And they would see how their people and the world would treat Jesus, and that would give plenty of room for concern and fear at a time when Jesus would no longer be with them.

And so Jesus gave them warning in advance. Those who would persecute Jesus would persecute His disciples as well (John 15:20), and it would come to pass. The disciples would be hauled before the same Sanhedrin which condemned Jesus (Acts 5:17-42); many would suffer humiliation, violence, and ultimately death from Jewish and Gentile authorities alike (e.g. Acts 7:54-60, 12:1-5). This was not exactly the fate they would have thought they signed up for when beginning to follow Jesus as the Christ; they were more likely expecting prime seats and power in Jesus’ new government. Yet Jesus was not the Christ they, or the Israelites, were really expecting; nevertheless, He was the Christ sent from God, and the Messiah Israel, and the whole world, truly needed.

The Apostles would be first in line to proclaim what God had accomplished in Jesus, and those who did or would have listened to Jesus would listen to them (John 15:20). After Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, His Kingdom movement numbered around 120 (cf. Acts 1:15); at this point, no one would consider this mission to be much of a success. Yet, within days, 120 would become over 3,000; within a few years, tens of thousands of Israelites had come to believe the Gospel of Jesus proclaimed by the Apostles and submitted to the doctrines taught by the Apostles (cf. Acts 2:41-9:31). The Gospel would then be proclaimed, and believed upon, by people of the nations around the Roman world, ultimately overcoming the mighty Roman Empire. The preaching of the Apostles set off a movement which would turn the world upside down, but a servant is not greater than his lord. All of it was only made possible because Jesus is Lord and Christ (Matthew 28:18-20).

Christians today did not follow Jesus as He lived in Galilee and Judea, yet we have put our confidence and our hope in Jesus as our Lord (Acts 2:36). If Jesus is our Lord, and we are His servants, then we also are not greater than our Lord. Powerful forces conspired to marginalize Jesus, and failing that, humiliated and killed Him. If they did so to Jesus, they will do the same to us. Through tribulation Christians enter the Kingdom of God (Acts 14:22); if we are truly godly in Christ Jesus, we will encounter persecution (2 Timothy 3:12). We must always be prepared to endure persecution for confessing the name of Jesus and embodying His life and truth. We must also be prepared to embody Jesus in that persecution: not in immaturity wondering how it could be, lash out in anger or fear, or put our hope and confidence in some kind of strongman to wrestle back some cultural supremacy, but to absorb the humiliation, suffering, and pain without responding in kind, entrusting ourselves to a faithful Creator and doing good, just as our Lord did (1 Peter 2:18-25, 4:19). We can only hope to be glorified like Jesus if we have suffered like Jesus; the way to Zion is through Calvary, and we have no reason to believe God will build us a bypass around Calvary to get to Zion.

While we must always be prepared to endure persecution, we cannot treat everyone with whom we come into contact as if they are going to be a persecutor. Not everything called persecution is actually persecution; not all disagreement and resistance is automatically persecution. Some will persecute; others will hear. How can those who would hear listen if we have assumed they would be persecutors and treated them accordingly? Jesus knew what the persecutors would do to Him, and yet He still preached and served among the Israelites, seeking to save whoever would come to Him (cf. Luke 19:10). Those who would follow Him must embody the same attitude: persecutors may come. Yet others would hear, if only someone would tell them.

Jesus worked not only to assure and comfort His disciples in His final discourse, but also to prepare them for their commission as Apostles. We are not the Apostles, but we have been commissioned to bear witness to the testimony of the Apostles regarding Jesus (2 Timothy 2:2). Those who would persecute Jesus and the Apostles will most likely persecute us, and we must be prepared for that. Yet those who would keep Jesus’ word, and the word of the Apostles, will most likely hear us and keep the word of God which is proclaimed to them. May we seek to embody faithfulness to Jesus whether before those who would persecute us or those who would obey Jesus, bear witness to Jesus, and obtain the victory in Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Persecution or Obedience

Unity of the Spirit

Giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).

God accomplished amazing and stupendous things in order to create and cultivate the Church of His Son Jesus Christ. What will we do with it?

In Ephesians 2:11-3:13 Paul had highly stressed the place of the church in God’s divine economy. In the composition of the church is found the testimony of the manifold witness of God according to the eternal plan purposed in Jesus (Ephesians 3:10-11). The church is the temple of God and His household (Ephesians 2:19-22). And so, after Paul established the importance of walking worthily of the calling in Jesus (Ephesians 4:1), he then emphasized the importance of working together as the church to build it up (Ephesians 4:3-16). If we would work together as the church to build it up, we must give diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).

“Giving diligence” is the Greek spoudazontes, meaning to make haste, exert oneself, give diligence (Thayer’s Lexicon). A more verbal form of the same word is found in 2 Timothy 2:15 in the exhortation to be diligent to present ourselves as approved to God, workmen without needing to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. Many have made much of the King James Version’s use of “study” to translate spoudason in 2 Timothy 2:15, although in the 17th century it meant something more like “give diligence” than the modern “bookish” meaning of study. Thus Christians are as much to “study” to keep the unity of the Spirit as they are to “study” to present themselves as approved by handling the word of truth rightly. The same Apostle makes both exhortations; there is no basis on which to consider one as greater or superior to the other. There is no justification to be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit at the expense of the word of truth: unity in the Spirit is grounded in the truth of what God has accomplished in Jesus, and there can be no unity when the truth of the faith is compromised (Romans 16:18-19, 1 Timothy 4:1, 6:3-10). And yet there is also no justification to be diligent to be unashamed workmen who rightly handle the word of truth at the expense of unity in the Spirit: the “word of truth” in Ephesians 2:11-3:13 declares God’s work in reconciling to Himself and to each other all who would trust in Jesus, and Paul will go on to declare the “word of truth” of the inherent unity of the body and the faith in Ephesians 4:4-6, and so any undermining of Christian unity in the Spirit is undermining the word of truth itself!

Christians are to give diligence to “keep” the unity of the Spirit. “To keep” is the Greek terein, meaning to attend to carefully, guard, keep, preserve (Thayer’s Lexicon). Christians are not the architects of unity in the faith; it is not for us to establish it, impose it, or somehow create it. On our own we hated and were hated in turn, living in the lusts of our flesh as children of wrath (Ephesians 2:2, Titus 3:3). It required Jesus’ death on the cross to kill the hostility and to provide the redemption and reconciliation we did not deserve nor could do anything to earn or merit (Romans 5:6-11, Ephesians 2:11-15). When we believe in Jesus, confess that faith in Him, repent of our sins, and are immersed in water in Jesus’ name, we are in a spiritual sense immersed into the one Spirit into the one body (1 Corinthians 12:13). God has established the unity of Christians in Jesus; God has made us all one man in Jesus through His Spirit (cf. Romans 12:3-8); we therefore cannot create or fabricate that unity. Instead, we must guard diligently the unity we already have. Tribalistic divisions, factions, and wars testify to the enduring power of hostility and hatred to this day; as Christians we are always tempted to compromise with the world, to take up the banner or the flag of various causes, peoples, and nations, and conduct ourselves in such a way as to endanger the unity of the Spirit. Our zeal is far too often misdirected, focused on the chastisement of the people of God, often majoring on the minors, rather than a critique of self and an outward push into the world to proclaim the Gospel of the Christ. Unity in the Spirit is not a default state or what we find natural; only through diligent effort will we keep the unity of the Spirit.

The unity of the Spirit is to be kept in the bond of peace. “Bond” is the Greek sundesmo, that which binds together, like a ligament in the human body (as used in Colossians 2:19), or a bundle (Thayer’s Lexicon). As ligaments connect muscles in the human body, so peace is what connects Christians in the unity of the Spirit. That peace is not the mere absence of hostility, but the elimination thereof: Jesus killed the hostility between God and man and man with man on the cross (Ephesians 2:11-18). True unity can only be nourished and sustain where there is true peace. As long as there is hostility and enmity there will be tension and hostility. If we would be diligent to maintain the unity of the Spirit, we must maintain the bond of peace. If we would maintain the bond of peace, we must strive for that which makes for peace.

How do we strive to make for peace? Paul has already listed the characteristics which lead to such peace in Ephesians 4:2: maintaining humility and meekness, manifesting patience, showing tolerance for one another in love. A similar “recipe” is found in Philippians 2:1-4. When we speak of unity we all too often speak of doctrinal uniformity; while agreement on doctrine is crucial to joint participation in the faith, evident from 1 Corinthians 1:11, doctrinal agreement is not sufficient to establish unity in and of itself. We must agree on the truth of God in Christ, but then we must act like it. We must demonstrate humility, recognizing that all of us are redeemed sinners, prone to mistakes, of equal standing and value before God, and to adjust our opinions and ideas about ourselves and others accordingly. We must be meek, maintaining the strength of conviction and faith, but keeping it under control, exercising it judiciously and with love so as to build up. We must be patient with one another: “long suffering” is the literal meaning of Greek makrothumia, and that is precisely what patience demands. Brethren can be insufferable at times; such is true of you and me as well. We are all different people with different backgrounds and ideas: we can consider that difference as a source of conflict, strife, and difficulty, and try to eliminate it, or we can learn to appreciate the differences which exist among us, focusing on how God is glorified when different people come together as one in faith in Jesus, and thus show tolerance for each other despite each other’s quirks, flaws, and challenges.

We have come to understand the power which exists in the unity of a family. It should be no different for the household of God! God has broken down the walls of hostility in Christ so we can all share in the same faith and obtain the same salvation; should we not now strive to keep and guard this precious unity in the Spirit which was obtained at such terrible cost, and embody God’s purposes for His creation before all those who would resist them? May we keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace to the glory of God in Christ, and share in relational unity for eternity!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Unity of the Spirit

Who Is My Neighbor?

But he, desiring to justify himself, said unto Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29)

The Washington Post published an article entitled “Judgment Days” by Stephanie McCrummen on July 21, 2018. In it Ms. McCrummen interviewed many members of First Baptist Church in Luverne, Alabama, regarding their support of Donald Trump and their convictions as those who profess the Lord Jesus Christ. Within one of these interviews, ostensibly without provocation, one such member, Sheila Butler affirmed her confidence in America as a Christian nation and declared that “love thy neighbor as thyself,” quoted by Jesus as part of the foundation of the law and prophets in Matthew 22:39-40, meant “love thy American neighbor.” The “least of these my brethren” of Matthew 25:31-46 are Americans, according to Sheila Butler (“God, Trump, and the meaning of morality”; accessed 07/25/2018).

We might wonder what Jesus would say to Sheila Butler about her beliefs about His words. In this situation we need not wonder; Jesus Himself encountered an Israelite who felt the same way about Israel.

This Israelite shared a lot in common with Sheila Butler. He believed fervently in the God of Israel; he was proud to be part of his nation and ethnicity, and thought it was special to God. He asked Jesus the right question, one Sheila Butler may have asked before as well: what shall I do to inherit eternal life (Luke 10:25)? When Jesus asked this Israelite what he thought of the answer based on the Law, his response was of great value, one with which Sheila Butler would no doubt agree: you shall love YHWH your God with all your heart, soul, and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:26; cf. Leviticus 19:18, Deuteronomy 6:5). Jesus also agreed with the answer, and told him to do so and he would live (Luke 10:26).

But the conversation did not end there. This Israelite, a lawyer by trade, wanted to justify himself, to demonstrate how he was in the right in his present circumstance with his present attitudes. And so he asked Jesus: who is my neighbor (Luke 10:29)?

The Israelite assumed and acted as if his neighbor were his fellow Israelite. One could make an argument for this based in the Law and its treatment of Israelites versus the nations; it would certainly be taken as the standard practice of the day, since Israelites wanted as little involvement as possible with “Gentiles,” people of the nations; “Gentiles” was seen a pejorative term, equivalent to sinner and unclean (cf. Matthew 18:17, Acts 10:28). The Israelite would have had little reason to envision his neighbors in a universal sense; everything in his upbringing and culture privileged his fellow Israelites. This is likely true of Sheila Butler as well.

Jesus immediately perceived the two issues behind the question, and spoke to the real issues in a parable (Luke 10:30-36). Jesus spoke of an unfortunate Israelite who fell among robbers and left for dead. Exemplary members of his people, a priest and a Levite, perceive his condition, but not wanting to become unclean they passed him by.

Then someone came by who was not one of his people: a Samaritan. For Israelites, Samaritans were half-breeds, people who claimed a relationship with YHWH as their God of covenant who actually derived from the nations the Assyrians introduced into the land of Israel: when they were not active opponents of the Israelites of Judah, they remained a perpetual reminder of the exile and humiliation of Israel (cf. 2 Kings 17:24-41). John put it mildly when he said Jews have no dealings with Samaritans (John 4:9).

The Samaritan would have known all of this; he would have also perceived the injured man to be an Israelite. And yet the Samaritan was moved with compassion toward the injured Israelite, bound up his wounds, poured oil on them, and brought him to lodging, giving the money he had and pledging a bit more if necessary.

And then, Jesus’ question: among the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan, who proved to be the neighbor to the Israelite who fell among the robbers (Luke 10:36)?

There was no escape. The Israelite lawyer, no doubt, did not like the answer, but it was the only answer which could be given. He could not bring himself to say “the Samaritan”; instead, he says, “the one who showed him mercy” (Luke 10:37). Jesus told him to go and do likewise (Luke 10:37).

The Israelite’s rationalizing question suffered from two flaws: not only was it an attempt to be restrictive of a broader command of God, it betrayed a person more interested in drawing lines than fulfilling the command. Jesus chose the characters of His story deliberately: priests and Levites were to minister to the Israelites and should have known the Law and its expectations, and yet they did nothing, more concerned about their personal cleanliness than the welfare of a fellow member of the people of God, prioritizing the cleanliness code over displaying love and mercy. Today we speak highly of “good Samaritans”; to Israel, there was no good Samaritan, and to see a half-breed prove more righteous than priests and Levites would stick in the Israelite craw.

The modern version of the story tells itself. A good Christian family, broken down on the side of the road, is assaulted by a motorcycle gang and left for dead. A deacon of a local Evangelical church drives by, sees them, but has to get his family to church on time; a pastor and his family drives by as well and likewise keeps going. An undocumented El Salvadoran immigrant drives by and sees the family in a terrible condition. He has compassion on the family, stops, and gives aid and assistance.

We also do well to notice how Jesus framed the indicting question: who proved to be neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers? He did not ask who his neighbor was; by common agreement, the priest and Levite were both neighbors by virtue of being fellow Israelites in close geographic proximity. Jesus is not interested in that. He is interested instead in who proves to be the neighbor: who loved his fellow man as himself?

It was the Samaritan. In our modern update, it is the undocumented El Salvadoran immigrant. It is not about what we profess. It is about how we act and what we demonstrate by our behaviors.

It would be easy to heap up scorn on Sheila Butler; such would be misguided. Her greatest fault is in speaking explicitly what is most often maintained implicitly, with coded language and an attempted bifurcation between certain political ideologies and spiritual realities. In terms of these issues at least Sheila Butler maintains a civic religion, an explicitly American faith, presuming America as a Christian nation with Americans as a privileged and chosen people. We could chastise Sheila Butler for this, but we do better to recognize that Sheila Butler believes these things because she was taught these things: perhaps not always explicitly, but certainly implicitly. People are far better at teasing out the implications of the things that are taught than we would like to admit. She, after all, did not come up with all of this out of nowhere.

Christianity was never meant to be a civic religion; Jesus is Lord of lords and King of kings, reigning over a transcendent Kingdom over all nation-states, and the exclusive property of none of them (Colossians 1:13, Philippians 3:20-21, Revelation 19:15-16). God loves undocumented people as much as American citizens. We are to prove to be neighbors to anyone and everyone: we must give precedence to fellow Christians, yet must do good to all (Galatians 6:10).

Yet we are all liable to the same error of the Israelite lawyer and Sheila Butler: taking a commandment of God and adding qualifiers to it which He did not establish and did not imagine. YHWH said for Israelites to love their neighbors as themselves, and it did have implication for the foreigner and sojourner in their midst; the Israelite lawyer had no justification to limit the command to fellow Israelites. In teaching this Israelite lawyer Jesus made it plain to His people they must prove to be neighbors to anyone and everyone (Luke 10:30-37); Sheila Butler, and those who taught her, have no justification to limit “neighbor” to their fellow Americans.

Jesus pronounced many commands people prove more than willing and able to circumscribe in ways which did not enter His mind or imagination. These are difficult commands, explicitly countercultural: turn the other cheek. Leave vengeance to God. Do good to everyone. Love everyone. Give without expecting to receive in return. Suffer without responding in kind (cf. Matthew 5:20-58, Luke 6:27-42; cf. Romans 12:17-21, 1 Peter 2:18-25).

Our culture and upbringing will give us reason to think it extreme to believe Jesus meant such things without qualification. Plenty of preachers and teachers will prove all too willing to provide those qualifications and to make fine distinctions, all of which are designed to justify themselves. People like to hear it; they like to have their consciences thus assuaged.

It is just as wrong to add to the Word of God as it is to take away from it. It is not for us to qualify or limit the commandments God has given in Jesus; it is given for us to accomplish them. May we all prove to be neighbors to our fellow man of any and all nationalities, and seek to embody all of the commands of the Lord Jesus, however counter-cultural and counter-intuitive, so that we may glorify Him and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Who Is My Neighbor?

Laodicea

“I counsel thee to buy of me gold refined by fire, that thou mayest become rich; and white garments, that thou mayest clothe thyself, and that the shame of thy nakedness be not made manifest; and eyesalve to anoint thine eyes, that thou mayest see” (Revelation 3:18).

The Christians in Laodicea thought they had everything. In fact, they had nothing.

God had given Jesus a vision to give to John on Patmos; it began with messages directed to the seven churches of Asia, of which Laodicea was the seventh (Revelation 1:1-3:13). Jesus had at least something good to say about the previous six churches; He has nothing good to say about Laodicea.

Laodicea was a prominent city of Asia in the Lycus River valley. Many of the things which made the city famous are spoken of in some way by Jesus: the water which came into town from hot springs outside of the city would be lukewarm by the time it arrived. The city was known for its garment manufacturing, a great medical school and a local powder used as an eyesalve, and for its great wealth, placed on important trade routes. When the city was leveled by earthquake in the 60s it did not obtain Imperial assistance to rebuild; it used its own resources. A lot of people would have considered Laodicea a great place to live; no doubt many would be tempted to hold the church and its members in high esteem. They believed in Jesus; they partook of the wealth of which the city had become famous.

And yet that wealth had blinded, paralyzed, and deformed the Christians of Laodicea spiritually. Jesus indicted them as lukewarm, being neither cold nor hot (Revelation 3:15-16): they provided neither warmth in cold nor refreshment in heat, but wavered in the middle, leading to instant revulsion. How did they manifest lukewarmness? They said to themselves they were rich and thus had need of nothing. Jesus told them they, in truth, were wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked (Revelation 3:17). Jesus brought home the message in a most devastating way: the Christians who had a lot of gold needed to buy from Jesus gold refined by fire; Christians who enjoyed a thriving garment industry needed white garments from Jesus with which to clothe themselves; Christians who had easy access to the best eyesalve of the day needed Jesus’ eyesalve so they could see (Revelation 3:18). Jesus said such things because of His love for them: He reproves and chastens those whom He loves, and so the Laodiceans ought to prove zealous and repent (Revelation 3:19).

What had gone so wrong for the Christians in Laodicea? How could they have reached the point where Jesus could say nothing positive about them? How could they have been so deceived and deluded? By the moment Jesus wrote to them, the Laodicean Christians had become as “thorny” soil, deceived by their wealth (Matthew 13:22/Mark 4:19/Luke 8:14).

Riches and wealth prove alluring for all sorts of understandable but ultimately unprofitable reasons. With wealth we are able to provide for ourselves and others, yes, but we also start putting our confidence in looking toward the future in that wealth. We feel self-sufficient and in charge if we have wealth. Other people start treating us as more valuable and honorable because of that wealth. Soon we might find ourselves seeking to preserve and grow our wealth for the sake of maintaining it. Some people are able to grow wealth without actively harming or oppressing others; far too often, however, wealth is gained by one at the expense of others. With wealth comes decadence in its many forms: often no appetite is left for seeking justice, advocating for those less fortunate, or zeal for a cause, lest these pursuits somehow jeopardize our wealth and standing. We want to please all people; we want to avoid suffering at any cost. With wealth we become fat and happy.

On a spiritual level wealth proves a disaster. God is the Source of all blessings and gifts; without what God has given, there could be no wealth (James 1:17). One’s wealth all too easily displaces God from the center of one’s life; the wealthy tend to serve Mammon more than God (Matthew 6:24). Maintaining wealth works against all of the demands of believers in Christ Jesus toward dependence on God, humility in disposition, zeal in righteousness and justice, and willingness to suffer affliction so as to grow in faith (cf. Ephesians 4:1-5:21, Colossians 3:1-17). Furthermore, even if there are spiritual warning signs to be seen, the great discomfort which would be caused by recognizing the dangers leads to strong resistance to think of them as problematic. In this way the Laodicean Christians presumed themselves rich and sufficient but proved spiritually wretched, poor, and blind.

Thus Jesus counseled them to suffer, buying gold from Him as refined by fire (cf. 1 Peter 1:6-7); they were to again turn to Him in repentance for cleansing, receiving white garments to cover their nakedness and shame; they were to prove willing to open their eyes to see their true condition before God in Christ, anointed with eyesalve so as to see (Revelation 3:18). Only through suffering would they learn true humility and faith; only by repenting could they find a way to trust in God in Jesus; all these things could only take place if they proved willing to see their true condition. And so it continues to be with the wealthy.

Jesus’ message to the church in Laodicea should be heard as a clarion call to repentance for Christians today. In the Western world all of us, even if poor by modern standards, maintain far more wealth than was present in the ancient Roman world, and enjoy far greater security, comfort, and health than even the wealthiest Romans. The church in the modern era has all too often fallen into decadence, like Laodicea, presuming itself wealthy and in need of nothing, but truly wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. The state of the church in the Western world speaks for itself.

And so Christians today do well to turn to the Lord Jesus and buy from Him that gold refined by fire, proving willing to suffer for the Cause. In the New Testament the Christians who suffered more in life and in persecution tended to be more spiritually mature than those who did not suffer. The way of Christ offers no bypass around suffering: if we wish to reach Zion, we must go through Calvary. Christians must repent of their trust in material wealth, entitlement programs, or their own ingenuity, but repent and seek clothing from Jesus. We are exposed in nakedness to all sorts of dangers even if we have nice clothing and comfortable homes; only Jesus can cover our nakedness and shame. Christians must prove willing to see their plight and not turn aside from its ugliness. How many will enter perdition because they were deceived by the riches of this world? May we prove willing to suffer for the Lord Jesus, repent of our confidence in riches, and gain the victory in faith!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Laodicea