Relational Unity

“I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).

It is perhaps one of the most sublime and mysterious concepts– the idea of the Triune God. The arguments regarding how it was possible for God to be One in Three Persons consumed much of Christianity for the first three hundred years after the death of the Apostles– and again in the past two hundred. If there is one doctrine that people have difficulty understanding, it is this one indeed!

The challenge is evident. From Deuteronomy 6:4 on, YHWH uniquely identified Himself as God– not just any god, not one of many gods, but the One God. YHWH our God YHWH one is the literal concept behind Deuteronomy 6:4b. The idea of the unity of God is essential to Judaism, Islam, and indeed also to Christianity.

But then we have Jesus making these divine declarations. John speaks of Him as the Word, not just with God, but being God (John 1:1). Jesus will declare Himself the I AM in John 8:58. He declares His unity with the Father in John 10:30 and fully in John 17:20-23. Both Paul and the Hebrew author declare that Jesus represents the fullness of the Godhead in bodily form, the exact imprint of the divine nature (Colossians 2:9, Hebrews 1:3). Peter will also include the Holy Spirit in such a framework (1 Peter 1:2, 2:21). Beyond all this, both Paul and Jude strongly intimate that when the Old Testament speaks of YHWH acting regarding His people in the wilderness, that Christ the Son is involved (1 Corinthians 10:1-9, Jude 1:5). So how can God be One yet Three?

All kinds of answers have been suggested. Some answers try to argue that Jesus really was not God like the Father was God. Other answers try to argue that God really is one person, and just manifests Himself in three modes or forms. Yet when we look at the textual evidence, these answers do not work. All three Persons are present at Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:15-17). Jesus declares that there are two witnesses, Himself and the Father (John 8:17-18). There are too many Scriptures confessing Jesus’ full deity and His unique Personhood.

The problem with these answers is that they assume that when God is One, that unity must be in personhood. But neither Deuteronomy 6:4 nor any other passage so limits the understanding of God’s unity. Instead, we can suggest as a feasible answer that the unity of God is not based in personhood but in other factors– they are unified in substance, essence, and will. In short, God is One in relational unity.

God Himself testifies to this within His creation (cf. Romans 1:19-20). Humans are given a glimpse of this idea of relational unity in marriage. From the beginning God has intended for a man and woman to come together and become one (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:4-6). Paul will later attribute the same unity as existing between Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:31-32). How are people one in marriage? They are of the same substance and essence, for one. And the marriage that lives up to God’s ideal is one where each mutually submits to one another, respecting their roles, but becoming as one in terms of purpose, intention, direction, and whatnot (cf. Ephesians 5:21-33). The goal is to see that while they do remain two people, for all intents and purposes, they are one. They are tied together by their reciprocal, mutual love.

So it would be within the Godhead. We must never emphasize the distinctiveness of the Persons of the Godhead to the neglect of their unity. Think about it for a moment– the Three Persons of the Godhead are so unified in will, intention, and purpose, that we can speak of God entirely in terms of a unity. We speak of God Himself doing, acting, working, even though it is really the Three in One, and that is possible only because of the intense relational unity amongst the Three. This is how God is love (1 John 4:8)– for God to be love as one person would make God the ultimate narcissist. Instead, God maintains sacrificial love within Himself amongst the Three, and the blessing bestowed upon us is that He wants us to join in that love.

And that is why understanding God as the Triune, Three in One and One in Three, is so essential. It is not merely some abstract, academic concept that is irrelevant to life. Quite the contrary– God’s nature informs God’s work and purpose for mankind. And John 17:20-23 describes this perfectly.

As the Father is in the Son (and in the Spirit), and the Son is in the Father (and in the Spirit), so Jesus prays for all believers to be one with the Father and the Son as the Father and the Son are one, and likewise to be one with one another (John 17:20-23). Our existence, redemption, and hope of ultimate glory, therefore, are inextricably bound up in God’s own relational unity amongst the Three.

Why did God create all things and make us in His image? Love’s greatest joy is to share in love, and so the Godhead wished to share the love within Himself with all of us (cf. 1 John 4:8).

Why did God prove so willing to redeem us even though we did not deserve it? It is love’s essence to suffer loss for the advantage of the beloved; as the Son does for the Father, so the Father, Son, and Spirit do for all of us (Hebrews 5:7-8, Romans 5:6-11).

What is God’s ultimate goal? To extend the association, love, and relational unity that exists within Himself with His creation, and to maintain that unity for all eternity in glory (cf. Romans 8:17-24, Revelation 21-22).

We are called to seek after God and that relational unity with Him as it exists within Himself (Acts 17:26-27, John 17:20-23). In so doing, we must develop that unity with one another if we are really going to reflect the image of the Son (Romans 8:29, 1 John 1:4-7). The path is clear: as the Father and Son are one, so must we be one with each other, and that requires not just some level of mutual understanding of truth but also willingness to suffer loss for one another, humbling ourselves so as to seek each others’ advantage, just as the Son did for the Father and for us (Philippians 2:1-8).

God is love; God manifests love within Himself; that love overflows toward the creation; we have the opportunity to share in the blessing of a relationship with God so that we can become conformed to the image of the Son so as to return to the blessed state of full, unbroken association with God. How wonderful! How praiseworthy! Let us always praise and thank God for our opportunity to maintain association with Him and to enjoy that association for all eternity!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Relational Unity

Persuading Men

Knowing therefore the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are made manifest unto God; and I hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences (2 Corinthians 5:11).

It’s the plot of many a movie: an unsuspecting person happens upon or discovers some information that might radically change the way things work. Despite all sorts of opposition, the person now has one goal to accomplish– to get this information out, to get people to be aware of it, and to do what is necessary to succeed. Such is a popular theme because we would like to imagine ourselves in that position– perhaps the fate of the whole world rests upon our shoulders, and we just need to get past the bad guys so that we can save the world.

In truth, we do not need to make up such a scenario in our lives, because if we believe that Jesus is the Christ and that His message is true, we are already living in this plot!

Paul understands as much and makes it evident in 2 Corinthians 5:9-11. Paul had been going on his way, persecuting Christians, until he was presented with a radically new way of looking at things on the road to Damascus (cf. Acts 9): this Jesus whom He was persecuting was actually Lord. Not only was this Jesus Lord of Israel, but He was Lord of all– and the pagan Gentiles needed to learn of Him (Acts 26:15-18). God was announcing to everyone everywhere that He had appointed a day of judgment, that man’s ignorance would no longer be an excuse, and the confirmation of this was in the resurrection of His Son Jesus (Acts 17:30-31, 2 Corinthians 5:10). This message had to go out, and Paul was God’s chosen agent to promote it.

Paul first had to understand “the fear of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:11). The One True God, Creator of heaven and earth, is awesome in power and majesty, far superior to all flesh (cf. Isaiah 55:8-9). Therefore, what He says goes. If He has declared that a day of judgment is coming, and everyone will receive back for what they have done in the flesh, then we humans need to get busy and do what is good (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:10). This reverential attitude toward God is not to lead to paralyzing fear; instead, it is designed to be a catalyst toward humility, repentance, and obedience (cf. 1 Peter 1:16-18). All believers, including Paul and ourselves, are to revere the Lord and thus seek to do what He has called upon us to do, even if it seems unpleasant, leads to persecution, and is the cause for great suffering. He suffered for us; it is right for us to suffer for Him (Romans 8:17). We must be doing the good in order to hear the judgment we want to hear (2 Corinthians 5:10).

On the basis of this knowledge of the reverence due to God, Paul works to “persuade men” (2 Corinthians 5:11). Let us first note the strong connection between understanding the honor due to God and the effort to promote His message– because we know the fear of the Lord, we are to work to persuade men. What we know should be explained and promoted among all. How can we say that we truly follow God, truly appreciate what God has done for us, and properly respect God if we do not feel the burden upon us to take that message out to others so that they also can have a restored association with God?

The mechanism is also quite important. Paul does not say that “knowing the fear of the Lord, we introduce legislation into the Senate.” He does not say, “knowing the fear of the Lord, we call for a holy crusade against the infidel.” Likewise, he does not declare, “knowing the fear of the Lord, we browbeat people with the message, screaming at them on street corners.” No– if we know the fear of the Lord, we are to persuade men!

The connection to the fear of the Lord remains important– how did the Lord reveal Himself to us? Did the Lord work to compel and coerce people through political/legislative means? Did the Lord call for forced conversions with threat of the blade of the sword? Did the Lord stand on the street corner and browbeat people? The only people whom Jesus could be said to have browbeaten were the Pharisees and scribes, the “religious good people” of the day (cf. Matthew 23)! By no means; Jesus lived, preached, died, and was raised in order to call and invite (cf. Matthew 11:28-30). God has never compelled or coerced people into believing in Him and obeying Him; that is why to this day we do not see God providing that overwhelmingly obvious supernatural event to “prove” His existence to the unbelievers. That would be using a display of sheer force to do what God expects to be done through softer forms of persuasion, in the power of the message already delivered, its portrayal of reality, the description of man’s problem, God’s desire for association with His creation, and what He has done to reconcile people to Himself.

Look at how seriously Paul takes this burden– he, a Jew, has traveled to the Greek world, and has been preaching a message involving “foreign divinities” to pagans who look at the world through a quite different perspective than he does (cf. Acts 17:16-31). Does Paul just write them off as irredeemable heathens? No. Does he try to coerce or manipulate them into believing in Jesus? No. He just works to persuade them– he finds points of agreement, and on the basis of those points of agreement and the glimpses of truth declared by certain Greek poets themselves, works to explain the points of disagreement and how the creation and the basic impulses of man all point to a Creator God who created mankind to seek Him. No tricks, no gimmicks; he just tries to know those with whom he is speaking so as to get them to give the message of Jesus some honest consideration.

In so doing, he is made manifest to God, as well as to the consciences of those who hear him (2 Corinthians 5:11). He is trying to preach and to live the message, and that provides a powerful testimony. The power of such witness is great– it shows that Christianity is not a ruse, not some pyramid scheme, but a radically new way of looking at the world and life.

We find ourselves living in circumstances quite like Paul’s in many ways. A lot of people around us have perspectives that are quite different from our own; it seems impossible to bridge the gap. Many people, based on some well-meaning yet misguided ideologies, think that political legislation or some other means of coercion is the way to guide people back toward the Lord. Not a few are inclined to write off a lot of people today as pagans, heathens, irredeemable.

These are not the ways of the Lord. Let us never forget the power of Romans 1:16: the Gospel is God’s power for salvation, and we are foolish to think that salvation can come through laws or any form of coercion. We are to spread the Gospel message like Paul did, by working to persuade men (and women). The message cannot be forced; we must work diligently to earn the right to tell people about the message, gaining an audience, and then try to understand something about what those people believe. We need to ascertain points of agreement with our fellow man, and based on that, with glimpses of truth that are found in recognized voices in culture, point to the truths of God in Christ as revealed through Scripture. Meanwhile, we must be putting that message to practice in our own lives, for even if we can find the most effective ways to preach to others, if our lives tell a different story, our witness will be hypocritical and in vain.

It is hard work, and while we must never minimize God’s role in all of this, we must remember that Paul said that “we” are to persuade men; “we” are called to go out and to make disciples (2 Corinthians 5:11, Matthew 28:19). We can only do it through the strength that God supplies in Christ, but we are to go out and do it. Let us understand the fear of the Lord, working to persuade men, preaching and living the message of our Lord, warning all men of the judgment to come, and find eternal life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Persuading Men

The Bereans

And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Beroea: who when they were come thither went into the synagogue of the Jews. Now these were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of the mind, examining the Scriptures daily, whether these things were so. Many of them therefore believed; also of the Greek women of honorable estate, and of men, not a few (Acts 17:10-12).

The Bereans have received a lot of “press” on the basis of the six verses that mention them in Acts 17:10-15. A few cities have been named after the town; not a few religious groups use “Berean” as the descriptor for various congregations.

They have earned their favorable views for a good reason– as Luke says, they were “more noble” than the Jews of Thessalonica, because they “received the word with all readiness of the mind, examining the Scriptures daily, whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). On account of this attitude, many believed in the Gospel message; even some of the Greek women– many of wealth– and men came to the knowledge of the truth and were saved (Acts 17:12). On account of their example, a “Berean” is one who has a love for what is true, willing to investigate Scripture to determine what is truly accurate according to their message. A “Berean” is one not to be swayed by public opinion or received tradition if they are found at variance with truth. There is a nobility of mind among “Bereans” that is most exemplary and worthy of emulation.

The exemplary nature of the example of the Bereans is both a warning and a sober reminder for us. In the ideal world, the Bereans would not be notable– they would just be doing what everyone automatically should be doing. Everyone should be willing to question their presuppositions and their received understanding of things in light of truth. Everyone should be willing to give the Gospel message a fair hearing. When the Gospel message is given a fair hearing, uncolored by prejudice against the message or the messenger, its truth is hard to escape and easy to obey, as the Bereans demonstrate. The problem is, of course, that we do not live in an ideal world. Luke takes the time to tell us of the example of the Bereans because Paul’s reception there was utterly unlike the reception he received in most synagogues. Yes, it is true that some of the Jews in any given synagogue would come to the understanding of the truth and be saved, but more often than not, the Jews would become fierce opponents of Paul and his message (cf. Acts 13, 14, 17, 20, etc.). The Bereans were not automatically wedded to their traditions– they were willing to hear the word Paul preached, to investigate the Scriptures to see if the message he presented was consistent with what had been revealed, and were willing to change their ways because of that message. That is why Luke tells us– it is a wonderful abnormality, but an abnormality nevertheless. Most of the Jews and Greeks did not prove to be as noble minded as the Bereans.

The same is true today, and it is a sword that cuts two ways. We should not be surprised when we proclaim the Gospel and most people to whom we speak do not share the Bereans’ mindset. The power of cultural skepticism and suspicion of inherited authority still runs deep in American culture, and despite the fact that true Christianity has been rarely lived and properly applied, there is a general feeling that Christianity has been tried and found wanting. Many others will provide lip service to the message of Christianity, but when it comes to the nitty gritty of applying the lessons of Christ to life, prove far less enthusiastic about the whole matter. There is a great lack of the Berean mindset in our culture; very few prove willing and able to give the message a fair hearing, to be willing to question every assumption and every form of skepticism, and to be willing to change their ways when convicted that their views and ways are at variance with the truth. In fact, the very idea that there is something out there that can be called “the truth” is a hotly contested subject in our day!

Yet this is not just true of those who are “out there” in the world. Do you think that the Jews of Thessalonica would have agreed with Luke’s analysis? Of course not! They would have protested strongly. They would have attempted to justify their opposition to Paul and the Gospel which he taught in terms of holding firm to the truths taught by Moses and handed down by their elders ever since. They most likely believed themselves to be noble and holding firm to what is true.

This is not to challenge or dispute Luke’s analysis, for Luke has spoken truly. It is to remind us that, if asked, most everyone would declare that they have the Bereans’ mindset. Everyone thinks they are being noble, objective, and striving to hold firm to truth. But merely declaring oneself to be akin to the Bereans– or to describe one’s congregation as Berean– does not automatically make it so. Even among religious people, the true Berean mindset is depressingly rare. There are still plenty who are wedded to inherited tradition, cultural norms, or some form of experiential lesson that are at variance with truth. A spirit of questioning and investigation is rarely appreciated and, sadly, too often squelched or thrust out.

Truth has no fear of investigation; the Gospel message has always welcomed its detractors to try to show its error, and those detractors have failed for two millennia. Those who are noble minded will maintain the Scriptures as the anchor of truth and will compare any other message to it. Whatever is true according to Scripture they will embrace and promote; whatever is inconsistent with that message will be rejected. The time is well nigh for us all to have the mindset of the Bereans, not in pretense or name, but in deed and truth. Let us be noble as the Bereans, searching the Scriptures to see what is so, and follow after Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Bereans

The Call

But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many of this man, how much evil he did to thy saints at Jerusalem: and here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call upon thy name” (Acts 9:13-14).

If anyone had the right to do a double-take after hearing from the Lord Jesus, it was Ananias in this circumstance.

Saul of Tarsus had distinguished himself in his opposition to Christianity. He approved of Stephen’s stoning (Acts 7:58-8:1). Saul was “ravaging” the church, imprisoning many, and now headed to Damascus with authority to imprison Christians and bring them back down to Jerusalem (Acts 8:3, 9:1-2).

Ananias has heard about all of this. He has heard about what Saul has done in Jerusalem. He is quite aware of Saul’s journey and his intentions.

And now the Lord Jesus tells him to go to Straight Street and find Saul since the latter has been told that a man named Ananias will help him receive his sight again (Acts 9:10-12).

Can the Lord be serious? Here is the greatest enemy of Christianity! A Christian being sent right into the jaws of danger! Would not Ananias be crazy for going to visit Saul?

Yet Ananias trusts the Lord. Whatever his personal apprehensions, fears, and concerns, he does what the Lord commands him, speaks with Saul, baptizes him, and represents the first Christian to encourage Paul the Apostle in his life’s work (Acts 9:15-19, 22:12-16).

But what would have happened had Ananias said no to the Lord? What if Ananias refused to believe that a guy like Saul could change? What if Ananias did not take courage and expose himself to some risk for the cause of Christ by going to Straight Street? What if every Christian in Damascus and Jerusalem felt the same way?

It is true that Saul received a benefit that most people do not receive. It is also sadly true that many opponents of the faith do not change in their opposition. Nevertheless, God desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). He expects believers to take His message out into the world, cast the seed of the Word of God on all soils, letting the Word work on the hearer rather than judging whether such a one will respond to the message (cf. Matthew 13:3-8, 18-23, 28:18-20, 1 Corinthians 3:5-7).

There are times when the people whom we think will obey the Gospel will not; there are times when opponents of the faith repent and convert. No conversion can happen, however, if believers have already written people off because of their past antagonism toward the faith or because “those types of people” are perceived to “not be interested” in Christianity.

Just as it was not Ananias’ job to judge whether Saul ought to hear the message of Christ or not, and it was not Ananias’ job to judge whether the Lord should show him mercy or not, so it is with us and those with whom we come into contact. It is not for us to automatically judge anyone worthy or unworthy of the Gospel. It is for us to promote the message of Christ and let people decide for themselves. We might just find that we will be doing more double-takes as we see the types of people who prove willing to become obedient to the Lord’s message. Who knows whether we will be able to encourage the next great promoter of the Christian faith? We can only be sure that we will not if we never take the message out. Let us therefore promote the Gospel among everyone!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Call

Remember Jesus Christ

Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, of the seed of David, according to my gospel (2 Timothy 2:8).

How often has the call gone out to “remember” something or someone?

In American history, “Remember the Alamo!” was the cry of the American soldiers during the war with Mexico that led to the liberation of Texas. In more recent times, many people have exhorted us to remember 9/11 and the tragic events that took place on that day.

These exhortations to “remember” exist not because there is much of a concern that the events will be entirely forgotten– history books are filled with pages chronicling such things– as much as it is an exhortation to keep the person or event in mind. “Remember the Alamo” means to remember the sacrifice of those who died there and to maintain their cause. Such are exhortations to persevere in conduct on account of the person or event of the past.

This is no less true in Christianity, and this is why Paul exhorts Timothy to “remember Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 2:8). We should not imagine that Paul was worried that Timothy would somehow forget that Jesus existed or forgot about who He was. Paul is reminding Timothy to keep Jesus in mind, since who He is, what He has done, and what He represents gives meaning to the entire creation!

Jesus is the “Christ,” of the seed of David (2 Timothy 2:8). Whereas many today might think “Christ” was Jesus’ last name, it really is a title– the Christ (or Messiah, from the Hebrew) is the Anointed One, the expected King of the Jews, the Branch of Jesse and David (cf. Psalm 2, 110, Isaiah 7, 9, 11, etc.). Paul is reminding Timothy that Jesus is the fulfillment of the expectations of Israel and the rightful King over all (Matthew 5:17-18, 28:18-20).

Furthermore, Jesus is risen from the dead (2 Timothy 2:8). He abolished death through His resurrection, providing life, immortality, and light to all those who serve Him faithfully (2 Timothy 1:9). Jesus’ resurrection is a reminder that the current world has been corrupted by sin and death but that believers can have confidence in the ultimate victory over such difficulties in the resurrection (Romans 8:18-25, 1 Corinthians 15). These truths are all part of the Gospel Paul preached, the means by which God will save those who follow Him (2 Timothy 2:8, Romans 1:16).

What is good for Timothy, in this case, is good for us. While we may not forget what Jesus has accomplished, it is easy for it to not always come to our minds. It should not be this way. As we go through our lives, enduring times of difficulty, enjoying times of prosperity, and everything in between, we must remember what our lives are to be all about. We must remember what ought to be motivating us to serve God and the light of our ultimate hope in this often dark and distressing world.

When people do not keep their goal in mind, they easily wander off the path toward that goal. When soldiers do not remember why they are fighting, it is easy for them to lose heart. The same is true for Christians who do not keep Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord, constantly before them in their minds. If we remember who Jesus is, what He has done, and our hope in Him, it will be easy to endure and persevere all trial. We will be better motivated to “fight the good fight of faith” if we remember our Lord and Savior (cf. Ephesians 6:10-18, 2 Timothy 2:3-4).

Jesus the Crucified and Risen Christ is Lord of all and the Source of life, peace, and hope. Let us keep Him constantly in mind so that we can endure the trials of life and be able to stand on the last day!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Remember Jesus Christ

Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

And seeing the multitudes, [Jesus] went up into the mountain: and when he had sat down, his disciples came unto him: and he opened his mouth and taught them, saying,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:1-3).

Jesus’ ministry had begun, and His renown had spread far and wide. Matthew had been speaking in generalities about Jesus’ preaching the “Gospel of the Kingdom” and how He healed the sick and cast out demons (Matthew 4:23-24). Multitudes began to follow Him (Matthew 4:25), and Jesus felt it was time to systematically proclaim His message to them. He climbs up a mountain, most likely to provide for better acoustics, and begins teaching His disciples and the multitudes as well (Matthew 5:1-2). So begins what we popularly call the “Sermon on the Mount.”

The “Sermon on the Mount” begin with what are popularly called the “Beatitudes,” or blessings, since verses 3 through 11 begin with the Greek word makarios, meaning “blessed” or “happy.”

Yet this is not your average list of blessings. This is how Jesus begins this particular example of preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom, and that good news was quite different than anything the Jews had heard before.

The first group of people who are “blessed,” or happy or fortunate, are the “poor in spirit.” Jesus says that they are fortunate because the Kingdom of Heaven is “theirs” (Matthew 5:3).

There is some disagreement about Jesus’ emphasis in Matthew 5:3, whether poor in spirit is a categorical way of speaking about the poor in general or whether the emphasis is on the poverty in spirit and not poverty in general.

If the emphasis is on the poor in spirit, Jesus is addressing the value of humility and the realization that, on their own, people do not have a lot of spiritual strength on which to draw. Jesus will frequently paint a dire picture of man’s natural condition: full of daily anxieties (Matthew 6:25-34), without proper spiritual direction (Matthew 9:36), heavily burdened (Matthew 11:28-30), and in great debt (Matthew 18:23-35). While that is distressing enough, the difficulties are compounded when people deceive themselves into thinking that despite such challenges they are really spiritually healthy and strong, like the Pharisees and other religious authorities (cf. Matthew 9:10-13). They will not be blessed, but those who understand their true sinful condition– that they are sick– are more likely to turn to the Physician and be made well (Matthew 9:10-13). Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who understand that they are poor in spirit and are in need of healing and strength from God in Christ, and until people come to that realization, there is not much that Jesus can do for them (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:5, Philippians 4:15)!

While all of that is true, Jesus may use the phrase poor in spirit to refer to the “pious poor,” those who remain devoted to God despite not having many material blessings. In what is called the “Sermon on the Plain” in Luke 6:20-49, a message very similar to the “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus there says that “the poor” are blessed without adding “in spirit” (Luke 6:20). We can find many examples in both testaments of such people– the widow of Mark 12:41-44, and the Psalms are often written with the poor in mind (cf. Psalm 34:6, 40:17, 69:29).

In the first century, this would be a startling statement indeed! For generations, conventional wisdom associated blessedness with wealth and prosperity. This was a message reinforced in the Proverbs– wealth came to those who worked hard and lived righteously, while poverty was an indication of idleness or wickedness or both (e.g. Proverbs 10:4, 15). Granted, the author of Proverbs says that the rich should not despise the poor but should take care of them (e.g. Proverb 14:21, 31), but the prophets indicate that oppression of the poor was commonplace in Israel (Isaiah 3:14, 10:1-2, Jeremiah 2:34, Ezekiel 22:29, etc.).

Conventional wisdom reduced everything into a deceptively simple paradigm: if you were rich and prosperous, you were blessed, and since God is the Giver of all good things, you are blessed before God. If you are poor, you are clearly deficient in blessings, and since God is not providing those blessings to you, it must be on account of your sin. It might be that some people are poor by no fault of their own, but even then, they are to be objects of pity; no one would ever consider people in such a condition fortunate or blessed. Jesus turns this conventional wisdom upside down.

According to the Gospel of the Kingdom, the poor are the ones who are blessed, while the rich are the ones who ought to mourn (Luke 6:24, James 5:1-6). While this reversal seems bizarre to people in the world, now as then, it makes perfect sense in terms of the Gospel of the Kingdom, where what is humble is exalted, and what has been exalted is humbled (cf. Matthew 23:12, etc.).

But how can poverty really be a fortunate state? Most of the time, those who are poor would desperately love to escape from poverty! What could be so romantic about poverty?

It is not as if Jesus is glorifying poverty in and of itself; after all, one can be poor, embittered against God and man, and be exceedingly sinful. The poor do not get an automatic pass into the resurrection of the just.

Yet poverty is a great teacher– it strips man of many of his delusions. When one is poor and dependent on the goodwill of others for continued existence, one cannot be deceived into thinking oneself truly independent, truly without any kind of accountability, or self-sufficient in any way. It is very hard to maintain pride in the face of poverty; it is a very humiliating experience to have to beg or to constantly be reminded of how one is deprived of the world’s goods (cf. James 1:9). Poverty easily strips man of his pretension and pride– and that is the first step toward realizing how one is really dependent on God His Creator and why he must serve Him!

Such is why Jesus can say that the poor in spirit are blessed, for the Kingdom belongs to them– they are of the right disposition to hear, accept, and obey the Gospel of the Kingdom. They will comprise the bulk of the first century church (cf. James 2:1-9)!

We do well to remember this lesson. Most of us enjoy relative prosperity. Many of us are not rich according to American standards, but according to the standard of the entire world, and especially according to the standard of the first century, we are all quite wealthy!

We must not allow our relative wealth, prosperity, and ease keep us from the Kingdom of God. We must not, as so many do, believe that we are fine and spiritually healthy because things are going well for us. We must understand that we are pathetically weak on our own and utterly dependent on the mercy of God not only for our survival but also for our prosperity. We must humble ourselves before God so that He will exalt us at the proper time, lest we exalt ourselves now and be humbled by Him (cf. 1 Peter 5:5-6)!

Fortunate are those who learn humility and who remain dependent on God. Let us pursue such blessedness and serve the Risen Lord!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

The New Old Treasure

“Have ye understood all these things?”
[The disciples] say unto [Jesus], “Yea.”
And he said unto them, “Therefore every scribe who hath been made a disciple to the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is a householder, who bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old (Matthew 13:51-52).

This episode of teaching was over. Now was the time to receive the feedback, something with which we are familiar. Jesus had spoken many parables, and most likely had explained them (cf. Matthew 13:1-50, Mark 4:34). Did the disciples understand them? And do the disciples understand their importance?

They answer affirmatively. One might wonder if the answer is sincere– do they really think they understand the parables, or are they questioning inside and do not want to bring those questions to the surface? Since Jesus does not seem to question their response, and since Mark 4:34 gives us the impression that He explained the parables, we are justified in taking the disciples’ answer at face value. It will be made evident that they do not yet really understand what the Kingdom is all about, and how the Kingdom of God in Christ is far different from their expectations, but they probably do get the basic message of the parables.

Jesus then provides this cryptic parable of sorts as a conclusion to the matter. Those who are “scribes made disciples to the Kingdom,” or “scribes trained for the Kingdom,” are compared to a homeowner who brings new and old things out of his treasure.

The force of this statement is in its imagery: the master of a house bringing out old and new, not just one or the other. The reference to “scribes” makes Jesus’ referent clear– He speaks of the Scriptures. Jesus, after all, came to fulfill the old (Matthew 5:17-18), and in so doing, inaugurate the new (Hebrews 9:15). And while there is a definitive break in covenant– as Deuteronomy 4:2 says, one cannot amend a covenant, and those who are part of the new covenant are not bound to the old according to Hebrews 7-9– it is not as if there is complete discontinuity between the two. Jesus’ words resonate with the Old Testament– One Creator God Who is just but merciful, ruling over His Kingdom. Jesus Himself, in many ways, represents the ultimate goal of that which had been written. But Jesus is not just repeating the way things always had been; the Sermon on the Mount made that clear enough (Matthew 5-7). These teachings in the parables are the same– they continue with many of the themes of the old yet point to a new reality.

The direction and force of the parable, therefore, are clear enough, but who is the referent? We are told that “every scribe made a disciple to/trained for the Kingdom of Heaven” are those who are like this master of the house. Yet who are they?

That “they” are somehow followers of Jesus is evident; “they” are “made disciples” or “trained” in the direction of the Kingdom. Whether or not they become disciples because of their training– they know the old message, and then saw Jesus and how He conformed to the old and points in a new direction– is possible, as in the scribe whom Jesus commends in Mark 12:28-34. It is also quite possible that they are disciples of Christ trained for a scribal role who do such things.

This would not be of such note had Jesus just referred to them as “disciples,” as He so often does. He instead speaks of “scribes,” something He otherwise does for followers of His only in Matthew 23:34. There are plenty of references to scribes in the New Testament, but normally it speaks of the professional class of Jews who were responsible for knowing the Old Testament Scriptures, for transcribing and copying those Scriptures, and to provide instruction to the rest of the people who otherwise would not have access to said Law. Their great affection for the Law led them to be hostile toward Jesus and His claims; they, with the Pharisees, are condemned as hypocrites throughout Matthew 23, and they are part of the group conspiring against Him (Mark 14:1).

In context, the “scribes” are either all of the disciples or at least some of the disciples. They are the ones whom He is training– of whom He makes disciples– for the Kingdom. They will be given roles of teaching, instructing people in the ways of Christ (Matthew 18:18, Acts 2:42). Perhaps this is a way Matthew is referring to himself– he is a disciple, he will be one of those Apostles, and here he is writing a Gospel, a scribe writing out the story, connecting the old and the new.

The application, however, is relevant for all of those who teach in the Kingdom, and in many ways for everyone who participates in God’s Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is not new; it has its roots in God’s revelation of Himself in the creation, to the Patriarchs, and to Israel. Nevertheless, the Kingdom of God is not exactly like what has come before. It functions quite differently than the nation of Israel did.

Thus Jesus emphasizes the power and importance of the parables. Notice that this statement of Jesus is the conclusion to the matter of these parables. The disciples understand the parables; they are told, therefore, that scribes made disciples/trained in the Kingdom will bring out the old and the new. To know and understand the parables is to be trained in the Kingdom. One might say truly that there is more to the Kingdom than what can be divined in the parables; but one certainly cannot understand the Kingdom if one does not understand the parables concerning it which Jesus spoke!

The Kingdom has old and new elements as illustrated in the parables. We do well to be made disciples and trained in the Kingdom, being the scribes of God’s intention and desire, properly instructing and encouraging others in the truths of the Kingdom and the faith. Let us serve the Lord and understand His will!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The New Old Treasure

Leaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Leaven

The Road Soil

And he spake to them many things in parables, saying, “Behold, the sower went forth to sow; and as he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the birds came and devoured them…Hear then ye the parable of the sower. When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the evil one, and snatcheth away that which hath been sown in his heart. This is he that was sown by the way side” (Matthew 13:3-4, 18-19).

The Parable of the Sower is perhaps the parable par excellence— it introduces Jesus’ parables in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8. It has all of the elements of a parable– a realistic setting, familiar to the hearers, an understandable event, and all of it with a spiritual meaning. It is profound in its simplicity.

We are informed that the seed is the Word of God, the word of the Kingdom (Matthew 13:18, Luke 8:11). The sower is the one who proclaims the message. While some have errantly taught that the sower is to seek out and find just the “good soil,” Jesus never suggests that this is the case. The sower goes out and sows the seed– how the “seed” is received is dependent on the hearer and the type of “soil” he or she proves to be.

This is evident from the first type of soil– the “road soil.” In the physical realm, no sower worth his salt would knowingly and intentionally cast precious seed upon roads. While most roads in the ancient world were not paved, they would be very hard surfaces, packed down by the constant movement of people, animals, carts, and the like. Seeds could not penetrate such a hard surface; therefore, it would be most likely blown off the road by wind or rain or, as Jesus presents, eaten by birds (Matthew 13:4).

So it goes with those who hear the Word of God but do not understand it (Matthew 13:18) and/or of whom Satan takes away that word, lest they should be saved (Mark 4:15, Luke 8:12). Their hearts are as the road soil– too hard for the word of Christ to penetrate and grow.

Some might protest here. How is it “fair” if Satan is the one who comes and takes away the word from such people? We must remember that just as God does not coerce or compel anyone, neither can Satan force anyone to do anything. He is the tempter, and he does tempt (cf. 1 Peter 5:8), but if people are unwilling, he can do nothing (James 4:7). Therefore, the reason that Satan can take the Word from their hearts is that they have no problem with him doing so– they themselves have rejected the Word of God and the message of Christ and His Kingdom. Thus Jesus categorizes all those who do not believe in Him and in His Father.

It is interesting to note that disbelief in God must always be rationalized in a way that disbelief in other concepts does not. People must justify to themselves and to those around them why they do not believe in God. In reality, their arguments tend to be rather weak, and end up boiling down to certain principles. For some, it is embracing something that God has deemed sinful. For others, it is reconciling the existence of a good Creator God with the pervasive evil in our world. Many have been puffed up with pride and have no desire to subject themselves to a Higher Power. And, for a tragically high number of people, it comes down to nothing more than a lack of consideration and reflection– they have not cared enough about their spiritual lives to consider whether there is a God or not and whether He should be obeyed.

People in these conditions remain hardened toward God. They have always existed, exist now, and will always exist. Jesus expected it, and through this parable tells us to expect it, also. Many such people will not show much concern; others, however, will be rather antagonistic toward the faith and those who practice and promote it. This is why all those who desire to serve the Lord will experience persecution (Acts 14:22, 2 Timothy 3:12). Furthermore, when believers attempt to promote the Gospel with such people, they feel the pain concerning which they were afraid– rejection and hostility.

This is not a reason to quit “sowing the seed” or to get distressed. Believers must remember that it is not their job to judge the soil– it is given to them to sow and water the seed, and God will give whatever increase will come (1 Corinthians 3:5-8). There will be “road soil” out there, but there will also be “good soil.” How tragic it would be if potential “good soil” goes without seed because sowers were distressed because of all the seed cast upon the “road”!

From beginning to end there have been people who have rejected God (Romans 1:18-32). Thankfully, some such people have awakened before it was too late and changed their ways. Nevertheless, many will not, and we should not be overly distressed at their rejection of the Word; we must still promote that Word among all men. Let us spread the Word of God throughout the world as God has commanded!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Road Soil

Healed by His Wounds

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).

Ever since Isaiah 53 was composed it has been a compelling passage. It had special meaning for its author and then for his original audience. It would be the passage which the eunuch was reading and considering in Acts 8:31-34. All sorts of interpretations have been made ever since.

It is likely that, at least in part, Isaiah has a suffering figure in mind in the latter days of the Babylonian exile. God is redeeming Israel again and will again bring her back to the land He promised them– but a particular suffering one will not make it.

Nevertheless, it is a stretch to argue that Isaiah really and completely has himself or some individual of the 6th century BCE in mind. Atonement requires an unblemished offering (e.g. Leviticus 1:3), and neither Isaiah nor someone two hundred years later were unblemished. Sure, they may have suffered because of sin, but they had their own sins against them, too. They could not really accomplish atonement by themselves.

Yet there was a Man concerning whom it was attested that He was tempted but did not sin (Hebrews 4:15). A Man who learned obedience through suffering, who was able to accomplish the atonement of which the Temple system and the previous servant were but a type (cf. Hebrews 7:23-28, 9:1-15, 10:1-14). This Man was Jesus of Nazareth, of whom Peter testifies:

Who his own self bare our sins in his body upon the tree, that we, having died unto sins, might live unto righteousness; by whose stripes ye were healed (1 Peter 2:24).

Peter explicitly identifies Jesus of Nazareth with the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53. It was by the stripes upon Jesus– His scourging– that we are healed (Isaiah 53:5, 1 Peter 2:24; cf. Matthew 27:26).

When we think about it for a moment, we can perceive that Isaiah 53:5 really sets up a series of absurd statements. He was wounded for our transgressions? The chastisement of our peace was upon Him? We receive healing through His wounding? This does not really make any human sense whatsoever. Wounds injure and cause pain– they do not heal. Peace and chastisement are poles apart. If someone else gets abused because of our misdeeds, we otherwise would call that injustice and oppression, since if anyone deserves abuse for misdeeds, it is those who commit those misdeeds!

Yet this absurdity is precisely the point, for it gets us to the ultimate absurdity: in order to demonstrate God’s love, Jesus had to suffer great pain (Romans 5:6-11).

This concept poses a challenge to some people. What kind of God is this who shows His love by causing someone to suffer? It sounds disconcerting, to say the least!

In other contexts, however, this same impulse is extremely praiseworthy. How many stories have we read, or movies have we seen, that feature some character willing to suffer in order to protect or defend a loved one? Do we not consider it praiseworthy when someone is willing to give up a kidney or bone marrow or some other part of their body to another so that the latter can continue to live? Another compelling story in the Scriptures is found in Genesis 44: Judah, who had previously proved willing to sell Joseph into slavery, is now willing to stand as surety for Benjamin his brother, to suffer the penalty of the latter for the sake of their father.

If we can appreciate all of these examples as expressions of human love for one another, how much more should we appreciate God’s ultimate demonstration of love as expressed through Jesus of Nazareth? God did not want us to have to pay the true penalty for sin– eternal separation from Him and torment (cf. Romans 6:23, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). There is nothing that we humans could ever do in order to redeem ourselves or pay for our sins since we have all sinned, and no law could ever make us righteous once we have broken it (cf. Romans 3:9-20). If redemption were to be accomplished, it would have to be done by God Himself.

Therefore, the Word, the Son of God and God the Son, was willing to humble Himself, taking on the form of Jesus of Nazareth, to learn obedience through His suffering, to pay the penalty for us. He endured the beatings and crucifixion so that we did not have to endure eternal torture for our sin. He suffered chastisement in order to fulfill the demands of the law to set it aside, to kill hostility between people, and make peace between God and man and man with one another (cf. Ephesians 2:11-18). His wounds allow us to be cleansed from sin and to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3-7).

The powerful and compelling message of Isaiah 53:5 is only matched by its fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth. We can only imagine the terrible suffering that He endured on that final day so long ago. Yet we can– and must– at times bring it to mind. We must consider how the whip abused His back, how the thorns pressed deeply into His scalp, and how the nails tore through His wrists and ankles. And, all the while, we must remember that it was accomplished for us. It was by every one of those wounds that we are healed.

A humbling expression of love– and such is its intent. Let us reflect on Christ’s suffering and live for Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Healed by His Wounds