Babel and Human Potential

And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do: and now nothing will be withholden from them, which they purpose to do. Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” (Genesis 11:6-7).

It is perhaps the earliest backhanded compliment ever given.

God is quite aware of human potential; He made man in His image (Genesis 1:26-27). When humans come together and work together, there is very little which they are not able to accomplish. So much of what has been accomplished over the past few hundred years testifies to this; we live in a very different world than people in the 1700s did. To a large degree we have tamed our environment, with large cities, highly developed infrastructure, and many technological innovations which have improved the quality of life immeasurably. We marvel at bridges, dams, skyscrapers, and other astounding feats of engineering. Humans, therefore, have a great amount of potential!

We think this potential is great; we do not see any problem at all with it. Yet, according to what we see in Genesis 11:6-8, God decides that this potential is problematic, and confuses the language of humans so that they will scatter and disperse.

This does not seem right. Why would God want humans to be separated and divided? Does God not want humanity to be unified? Is it not a good thing that there is no end to what humans can accomplish when they work together?

The circumstances during which God makes this declaration explain the difficulties. Humans, still unified in language, came together on the plain of Shinar in order to build a tower and a city to make a name for themselves and so that they would not be scattered across the face of the earth (Genesis 11:1-4). This was contrary to God’s intentions (cf. Genesis 9:1), and speaks volumes regarding humans, their intentions, and the ways they use their potential.

We do not think the exercise of human potential is a bad thing at all; in reality, it does not have to be. But humans have been corrupted by sin, and therefore we should not be surprised to see that human potential is often expended in misdirected ways. So it is with the Tower of Babel on the plain of Shinar: man uses his potential to seek to glorify himself and to make a monument to his endeavors and abilities. It is not about God and His glory; it does not seem as if those in Babel gave any consideration to God and what He intended.

One could make a good case that the earth cannot sustain humans living at their full potential. What do people end up doing when they come together and purpose to work together? They transform their environment. People continue to consume with abandon. Little thought is given about what resources will be left for future generations; people end up being too preoccupied with advancing their own purposes and causes in their own generation to think of that. The only checks on such activity come from illnesses and war.

And so God confuses human language, the one thing which seems to keep people together and working together, and from this point people separate from one another. Humans, apparently, must be saved from themselves. From this point on much human potential and energy would be directed against one another, finding new and innovative ways to destroy one another, to get advantages over others, and to find ways of reinforcing “us” and “our” superiority against “them”. Buildings, cities, monuments, civilizations, and the like are built and destroyed. We really have not “developed” much past our ancestors at Babel: we still yearn to be together and to make a name for ourselves. Humans, whenever they get together, plan and purpose for their own ends and glory. And their efforts, no matter how successful they might have seemed for a time, always end up frustrated. Every building, city, monument, and civilization decays and collapses. Everyone dies.

If the Bible ended here in Genesis 11, the story would be quite bleak indeed. Humans were made in God’s image but sinned and found themselves separated from God (Genesis 1:1-3:24). Humans drifted further and further from God’s intentions, suffering terribly, and now is not only separated from God but also is now separated from his fellow man (Genesis 11:1-9). Man finds himself without God, without redemption, without a covenant or identity from God, and therefore without hope. Such is life “under the sun,” and it is not a pretty picture at all. Little wonder people continue to embrace the futile goal of Babel and continue to believe the lie!

But the Bible does not end here. The genealogy immediately following the story of the Tower of Babel brings us to Abram (cf. Genesis 11:10-32), and God will call Abram to Himself and through him begin a series of promises and covenants leading to the means by which He would deliver mankind from his terrible plight.

This story reaches its climax in Abraham’s descendant Jesus of Nazareth and the Gospel proclaimed in His name as found in Acts 2:1-36. And of all the ways by which God would communicate the importance of this message, which does God choose, as exemplified in Acts 2:1-36? Of all the means by which God could communicate how He was bringing all people into the covenant through Jesus, which does God choose in Acts 10:44-48? Speaking in tongues: foreign languages!

The symbolism is potent: Jesus and His Kingdom are the anti-Babel. All that which was established on account of Babel is undone through Jesus and His Kingdom. On account of the Tower of Babel, man’s language was confused so that he could not come together by a common purpose and grew alienated from one another. Through Christ all people of every language, ethnicity, race, and any other mark of identity become one body (Ephesians 2:11-17, Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11).

There is another very important detail about the Apostles and Cornelius and his men as they spoke in tongues: Luke says that they spoke the “mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11) and “magnified God” (Acts 10:46). Our unity can only exist insofar as we are unified with God (cf. John 17:20-23, 1 John 1:5-7); yet we are only brought together so that we can join with one voice to praise the name of God and tell of His wonderful deeds. We are brought together into one Kingdom in Jesus not to advance our own purposes but the purposes of God who purchased us in Christ (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Galatians 2:20). In Christ alone can we find true unity and true purpose so that it is no longer our will, but His, that will be done.

Human potential is not the problem; sin is. Human potential, misdirected because of sin, causes all sorts of problems, seeking only to magnify man’s name. The fact that God felt compelled to separate us from ourselves speaks volumes about our intentions and purposes in the flesh! Human potential, misdirected by sin, causes great damage and pain. It is only when human potential is harnessed and directed toward the glorification of God and the advancement of His purposes that it can be a beautiful sight in the eyes of God and lead to the general betterment of all things. Let us seek unity with God in Christ and thus with one another so that we can expend all of our energies and resources to God’s glory and praise!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Light of the World

“Ye are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a lamp, and put it under the bushel, but on the stand; and it shineth unto all that are in the house. Even so let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).

Light and darkness represent a familiar contrast in Scripture. God is the light, representing all which is good, holy, true, and righteous (John 1:1-5, 1 John 1:5). Darkness, as the absence of light, is the absence of what is good, holy, true, and righteous, and therefore represents evil, sin, unholiness, ungodliness, and unrighteousness (1 Thessalonians 5:1-10, 1 John 1:5-10). This imagery is often extended to people on the basis of their identification and conduct: those who seek after God and His righteousness and holiness are considered part of the light, while those who do not seek God but seek their own interests are considered in darkness (Ephesians 5:7-14, 1 John 1:5-10). Light and darkness also have their representative works (cf. Ephesians 5:9, 11). The early Christians exhort one another to walk in the light, participate in the light, and turn away from the darkness and avoid it (Ephesians 5:3-11, 1 John 1:5-10). Jesus understands this imagery and uses it for full effect in Matthew 5:14-16, but toward a slightly different end.

As with salt in Matthew 5:13, so with light in Matthew 5:14: Jesus declares, without a hint of doubt or qualification, that the disciples are the light of the world. Jesus is not providing blanket approval for anything and everything the disciples will think, feel, or act; He is not attempting to deny the temptation for the disciples to act in darkness, and in a parallel declaration in Luke 11:33-36, will warn about the dangers of the eye and the body being full of darkness. Jesus is in no way seeking to contradict the way the imagery of light and darkness has been used throughout the Scriptures. In Matthew 5:14-16 Jesus takes for granted how His disciples will seek to walk in the light and pursue God and His righteousness. Therefore, they are the light of the world.

But what does that mean? Jesus follows up with another declaration: a city set on a hill cannot be hidden (Matthew 5:14). Most cities in the ancient world were built on a hill or accessible mountain for defensive purposes: if an enemy attacked, the defenders of the city would maintain the higher ground and maintain a slight advantage. A city set in the heights has the advantage of seeing the surrounding territory for some distance, but this also means that people in the surrounding territory can always see the city as well. One cannot camouflage a city on a hill!

Jesus then returns to the imagery of light with an example in the negative: no one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel (Matthew 5:15). “Bushel” is the Greek modios, a dry unit of measure of grain, often translated as “basket” under the assumption that Jesus uses the term to describe that into which a bushel of grain is placed. The point, made in Mark 4:21-23 as well, is clear enough: if it is sufficiently dark to need to light a lamp, it makes no sense to put the lamp under a bushel and hide or cover the light. Instead, the lamp is placed on a stand to illuminate the whole house (Matthew 5:15).

This entire series of illustrations leads up to Jesus’ explanatory conclusion in Matthew 5:16: as the light of the world, the disciples should let their light shine before others so they can see the good works done and thus give glory to God the Father.

Jesus therefore uses the images of light and a city on a hill to describe the “public” nature inherent in following Jesus. If we are in the light as Jesus is the light, our thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and actions will be conformed to Jesus and reflect righteousness and holiness. As light shines in darkness, so our faith must be evident to all men.

Holiness and righteousness cannot be hidden, covered up, or kept private: a holy and righteous life, by its very nature, will be clear and evident to everyone who interacts with it. Followers of Jesus who reflect His light are the light of the world, a city set on a hill: they cannot be hidden or camouflaged. And that is the point: just like a lamp lit and hidden is next to useless, so is a Christian who seeks to hide his Christianity.

Jesus’ exhortations are quite appropriate for us today. While superficial profession of Christianity remains popular in our culture, firm adherence in following Jesus and His truth are not. We are often tempted to downplay our faith and the role it plays in our lives. Religion makes a lot of people very uncomfortable; our secular society puts a lot of pressure on Christians to “play nice” and not seek to offend or trouble anyone by proclaiming the life, death, and resurrection of Christ in word and deed. Nevertheless, we must obey God, not men (cf. Acts 5:29), and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus ought to so completely transform us that we cannot help but talk about it and live transformed lives because of it. That faith cannot be hidden any more than a city on a hill or light in the darkness.

It has always been a challenge to be the light in a world full of darkness (cf. John 1:5); this is not just a modern phenomenon. Christians are always under immense pressure to compromise their faith and “turn on the dimmer switch,” so to speak, regarding their light. Nevertheless, when we truly shine as the light of God in Christ, people will see our good works, and they will have reason to give glory to God the Father. Even in these dark days many people appreciate the blessings which come from Christians reflecting Jesus. People still appreciate knowing that others love them and care for them. People still appreciate it when others do good things for them. Even if people disagree with Christianity, there remains respect for people who maintain convictions, as long as they live by them.

And such is the warning within Jesus’ exhortation. Yes, His disciples are to be the light of the world, a city set on a hill. But that means there can be no hiding. Just as the people around us are given reason to give God glory when we reflect Christ toward them, they are also given reason to blaspheme when we fail to reflect Christ and act little differently from anyone else despite professing to follow Jesus. If the light of the world acts like the darkness, what hope remains for the world?

Christianity has never been nor can it become merely a private affair. Christianity cannot hide in the shadows; such places are for all those forces opposed to Christianity! Our faith, if it is truly alive and reflecting Jesus, will not just change our lives, but has the capacity to draw all around us toward Jesus as well. Neither Christians nor the church were ever called to “circle the wagons” and retreat into some private, “safe” Christian sphere, withdrawn from the world. You might be able to hide in a desert cave or a rural commune, but Jesus never described believers like that. His people are the light of the world, a city set on a hill. Christianity is supposed to be practiced in the sight of others, for the benefit of others even if it sometimes poses challenges or causes difficulties in our lives.

The Christian life is like living in a glass house, open to the eyes of everyone. There is a lot of pressure in that to conform to the world and to compromise the standards of Jesus; there is also a lot of pressure to try to cover up the windows and retreat into private spirituality. Yet, to this day, people put lamps on stands to give light throughout a room or a house, and so it must be with us and our faith. It will be uncomfortable at times, and it will involve a lot of pressure, but we are called to practice our Christianity everywhere and before everyone. We are called to reflect Jesus in the public sphere. Let us so live to give reason for others to glorify God in Christ, and shine as lights in the world!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Babel as Babylon

Therefore was the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth (Genesis 11:9).

Throughout the Bible, which city or empire is used as an image to describe human power arrogating itself against God and God’s people?

You could make a strong case for Egypt. The Egyptians enslaved the Israelites during the Exodus (Exodus 1:1-15:21). Pharaoh Neko II killed Josiah and considered Judah part of his empire; the final kings of Judah foolishly relied on Egyptian promises of assistance when they revolted against Babylon, and found themselves alone against the might of Babylon (2 Kings 23:28-25:21).

You could also make a strong case for Assyria. The Assyrians were universally feared and hated in the ancient Near East on account of their cruelty. They destroyed the kingdom of Israel and would exile most of its inhabitants; they invaded Judah, destroying all of the walled cities save Jerusalem, leaving Judah in a pitiful state (2 Kings 17:1-19:31, Isaiah 1:1-9).

You could make a case as well for Persia, the Seleucids, and the Romans, all of whom controlled the land of Israel. The Seleucids presented a great existential threat to the existence of Israel; the Romans defiled the Temple and would later destroy it and Jerusalem, making sure that no Jewish Temple would be built there again.

God did declare judgment on all of these nations and cities, but they are not used as images of human power arrogating itself against God and His people. In fact, God extends the promise of reconciliation and blessings upon Egypt and Assyria along with Israel in Isaiah 19:23-25! There is only one city-state empire for whom there is never any redemption in Scripture, only condemnation, and that is Babylon.

Babylon becomes the image of the human power arrogating itself against God and His empire. Isaiah, within his burden regarding Babylon, discusses the “day-star, the son of the morning,” who cut down the nations but was humbled in death (Isaiah 14:12-22; cf. Isaiah 13:1-14:22). Jeremiah, who lived to see when the Babylonians executed judgment against Judah and Jerusalem, thoroughly denounces Babylon and condemns them to their ultimate fate in Jeremiah 50:1-51:64. In the New Testament, the image is most likely attached to Rome, the current city-state empire arrogating against God and His people, rendering judgment on Judea and Jerusalem (cf. 1 Peter 5:13, Revelation 17:1-18:24).

But why Babylon? The Neo-Babylonian Empire under the Chaldeans did not last long, and was not nearly as brutal as the Assyrian menace. The fact that the Babylonians were the ones to destroy Jerusalem and the Temple of YHWH is likely partly behind the choice. Yet perhaps another part of the answer goes far back in time to the beginnings of Babylon.

We are introduced to an individual named Nimrod in Genesis 10:8-12. He is considered a mighty hunter before YHWH, and he is responsible for building cities and ruling over them, particularly the area of the land of Shinar and places northwest. The list of cities are all in Mesopotamia, mostly found in modern-day Iraq, and made up ancient Sumer, Akkad, Assyria, and Babylon: Babel, Erech, Akkad, Calneh, Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah, Resin. He is the first person who has a “kingdom,” and thus is the first “king” described in Scripture. And if he is responsible for building and ruling over Babel, then he very well might have something to do with the Tower of Babel as described in Genesis 11:1-9.

The Tower of Babel is the representation of human effort directed toward his own self-glorification and honor, his quest for unity by his own works and effort independent from and often hostile to the purposes of God (cf. Genesis 11:1-9). God frustrated the effort by confusing the languages of humanity, and from Babel all humanity separated and went their own way (Genesis 11:7-9). From Babel all men spread forth; ever since, man has been trying to use power to control everyone else. The ideals of Babel remain their ideals, and they will seek to achieve a name for themselves and unity by the sword and their own ingenuity. It all started at Babel.

In Hebrew, Babel means “confusion”; hence, Babel’s name is a reminder of the confusion that exists among different groups of people. Our modern Bibles, though, ironically provide a bit of confusion when it comes to the name of Babel. Our Bibles distinguish between “Babel” and “Babylon,” the latter being the Greek word for the city in Mesopotamia. In Hebrew, they are both “Babel.” Babel is Babylon, and Babylon is Babel.

Therefore, Babylon is where man exhibits the desire to glorify himself by his own works and to maintain unity by such an end. All people scatter, confused, from Babylon. It seems likely that Nimrod began his empire-building from Babel/Babylon, and kingship and power exerted over others therefore began at Babylon. Thus, when Babylon will rise as a mighty world power, defeating the Assyrians and the Egyptians, conquering Judah and Jerusalem, destroying the Temple and exiling the Israelites, she is simply re-establishing what she was from the beginning, and to which every empire between and since has aspired. Humans keep wanting to make a name for themselves and to do so together under the pretense of unity, and seek to impose their values and ways as the means of accomplishing that unity through sheer power. Babylon’s power is an extension of the aspiration inherent in the Tower of Babel; it therefore must arrogate itself against God and His people who seek not their own glory, not the advancement of human purposes, but of God and His purposes.

Perhaps many Israelites remembered the story of the Tower of Babylon as they were brought into exile into Babylon; perhaps it gave some of them strength to maintain their faith in God, fully confident that this power arrogating itself against God would fail. The Neo-Babylonian Empire did fall, but the Persian one ruled in its place. Then came the Greeks and the Romans; in the east, then came the Muslims, Turks, Mongols, and Ottomans, and in the west, the German tribes, the “Holy Roman Empire,” the Spanish Empire, the French, the British, Napoleon, Hitler, and Communism, among others. Today there is the United States, China, and other powerful nations. We can seem to find shadows of Babylon in each of them; the human world power arrogating itself against God, His people, and His purposes seems ever-present.

True victory has never come through a world power and never will. The true victory must somehow transcend these human aspirations so as to return to God’s intentions for humanity. The true victory represents the Anti-Babel, and we find Jesus and His Kingdom standing as the Anti-Babel. It is Jesus’ Kingdom which Daniel sees as the rock which smashes world empires to pieces (cf. Daniel 2:31-45). World empires, or “Babylon,” are out for more land; Jesus’ Kingdom has no need for land, for it is not of this world (John 18:36). “Babylon” seeks to unify different nations through force, violence, coercion, or economic interest; Jesus’ Kingdom unifies through the killing of hostility among people, emphasizing their shared purpose in Christ (Ephesians 2:11-18). “Babylon” uses great works to glorify humanity and to exert its own power, draining the resources of other nations to vaunt itself; Jesus’ Kingdom provides benefits for others, seeking not to glorify itself but the God who established it (Matthew 20:25-28, Galatians 2:10, 2:20-21, 6:10). “Babylon” is arrogant and arrogates itself against others; Jesus’ Kingdom is modeled on Jesus who humbled Himself, serving others, and in so doing receiving exaltation and glory (Philippians 2:5-11). “Babylon” keeps changing, with different empires rising and falling; Jesus’ Kingdom has endured for two thousand years and remains strong.

As long as man continues to exist on earth there will be some “Babylon” of a power, arrogating itself against God and His purposes, aspiring to the same goals frustrated on the plain of Shinar so long ago. The endeavor will never really succeed; the power of empire always has its limits, and it uses the wrong means to accomplish the wrong ends. No one finds salvation in “Babylon”; people must flee from “Babylon” to “Zion,” or to God and His purposes reflected in Jesus, to obtain salvation (cf. Jeremiah 51:6, Hebrews 12:22-24). Every “Babylon” and group of people who use the methods of “Babylon” will fail and perish (1 John 2:15-17); only Jesus’ Kingdom will endure for eternity (Daniel 2:44). Let us flee from “Babylon,” not putting our trust in worldly power and its trappings, and let us entrust ourselves to God in Christ, and obtain eternal life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Overthrowing Conventional Wisdom

A good name is better than precious oil; and the day of death, than the day of one’s birth (Ecclesiastes 7:1).

The Preacher has always been notable for his “different” views about life. He likes to overturn “conventional wisdom” to force his audience into thinking more deeply about the mysteries of life.

We see this tendency illustrated in Ecclesiastes 7:1 regarding life and death. We tend to favor the day of birth over the day of death, appreciating the hope and possibility of new life. The Preacher is not denying the value of new life; he instead focuses on the “merits” of the day of death. Death means the end of the futility, the vanity/absurdity of life; there will be no more physical pain, suffering, or any of the other miseries described as “under the sun.” Furthermore, for those who have lived well, and who have a good name, the day of death seals their reputation. Most people would easily accept the idea that one’s reputation is of more value than luxury goods; how many would accept the idea that the day of death is better than the day of birth?

All of chapter 7, as well as much of the rest of the book of Ecclesiastes, maintains a similar theme. Jesus Himself spoke in terms completely contrary to received wisdom (cf. Matthew 5:3-12, Luke 6:20-26). There are many times when it is good to overthrow conventional wisdom: it often is based in presuppositions and perspectives that are limited and distorted.

Such is certainly true in the twenty-first century. Our society has developed a lot of assumptions, perspectives, and ideas that many recently have described, among other things, as “first world problems.”

When we hear about a child being diagnosed with a fatal condition or is dying, we are understandably distressed and sad. Nevertheless, the truly surprising thing is not that some children get ill and/or die, as many seem to think, but that so many more children are alive and healthy.

A lot of us, to some degree or another, have challenges with weight gain. The amazing thing is not that we so easily gain weight, but that most all of us have the resources allowing us to consume far more calories than any of us need on account of the amount of food produced annually. Many people in the world to this very day may be starving, and yet we have a superabundance of food.

Many people read the Bible these days and are horrified at the pictures of violence in the Old Testament and are disturbed at the prospect of hell for the disobedient and the unbelievers in the New Testament (e.g. 1 Samuel 15:1-9, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10). Yet the fact that people today can read those stories and be horrified is what is really astounding: for most people in the past, and sadly even for many to this very day, those pictures of violence were and are normal. The fact that so many take offense at the concept of divine justice or retribution says as much about those taking offense as it does about the concept itself: if one has never been oppressed, wronged, or persecuted in a meaningful and substantive way, it is pretty easy to think of divine justice as some form of injustice. Yet, for the majority of human history, the vast majority of people have understood, to some degree, what it meant to be wronged, mistreated, and/or oppressed, and the idea that God would make all wrongs right one day allowed life to maintain some form of meaning.

For that matter, our society seems to take as gospel truth the premise that we are developing and “progressing” as a culture, and often will point to some of these differences between our lives and the lives of our ancestors as signs of the “evolution” of our sensibilities. While it is true that life is different than it was in previous generations, and many aspects of life today are better than in times past, there are many problems we experience today that were not as prevalent in days past: social isolation, recognition of the value of others, honoring of commitments, and so on and so forth. Things are not inherently better or worse (Ecclesiastes 1:9, 7:10); they are just different.

These and many other forms of “conventional wisdom” must be overturned if we will keep a healthy perspective about life: many of the things we find problematic are not really “problems” in the grand scheme of things, and we must come to grips with the fact that on the whole, our lives are fairly charmed in comparison with the experience of most of humanity in its existence. It is good to be thankful for our blessings; it is quite another to become as spoiled brats on account of our blessings. Let us praise and honor God, mindful of how reality really works, understanding that many times we must not go along with what passes for conventional wisdom!

Ethan R. Longhenry

A King of Their Own Making

Jesus therefore perceiving that they were about to come and take him by force, to make him king, withdrew again into the mountain himself alone (John 6:15).

It seemed as if everything was working out the way it should.

Jesus had come as the Messiah, the Son of God and God the Son (John 1:1-51). The angels spoke of His kingship from His birth (cf. Luke 1:32-33, 2:11). He was going about doing signs and wonders, healing people, and most recently fed five thousand people with five barley loaves and two fishes (cf. John 2:1-6:13). The people perceived that He was the Prophet who was to come into the world: this is the Messiah (John 6:14)! They wanted to make Him their king!

Jesus knew this, and yet Jesus withdrew from them (John 6:15). At what would seem to be the crowning moment of His ministry, He goes alone to the mountain.

So why would Jesus avoid being made king if He came to be the King of the Jews? The answer, in a sense, comes from Jesus’ response: He withdraws to the mountain by Himself, praying to His Father (Matthew 14:23). He is seeking to do the will of His Father, and takes His cues from God, not man.

This is certainly not the way things normally work in the world. Today we see no end of people who try to obtain fame, glory, and honor through almost any means available. Positive publicity, negative publicity, whatever: as long as there is publicity, things seem to be good. We can only imagine how our modern media environment would have handled Jesus, His story, and His work had He come today as opposed to two thousand years ago. Perhaps there was good reason why the first century was the appropriate time!

Yet Jesus acutely understands the main challenge with the way worldly fame and fortune works: when one becomes famous, one loses control. When one obtains a great fortune, in a sense, one loses control. To obtain power may seem like getting control, but in a real sense, one loses control of one’s image and direction. One’s persona starts being fashioned by those who have made them famous, prosperous, and/or powerful.

Had Jesus submitted to the will of the people, He would have become a king in their own making. The Jews were expecting their Messiah to come and rid them of the Romans and re-establish the Davidic monarchy centered in Jerusalem. There would have been little tolerance for Jesus’ real purpose and what the Father sought for Him to do in that environment and with those expectations. He did not come to be the Messiah of the people’s imagination; He came to be the Messiah of whom God had spoken who would fulfill God’s purposes.

God’s path for Jesus and His Lordship would prove much tougher: He lived humbly, served others, was arrested, suffered greatly, and was executed as a common criminal, raised in power on the third day, ascended to Heaven after another forty days, and His rule would be proclaimed by His twelve followers and those who took up their cross to follow after Jesus because of that proclamation. His Kingdom would become more substantial and real because it was not physically substantial; His rule was more certain because it derived from God in Heaven and not from the whim and dictates of man. By withdrawing from the people, He reconnects with the Father and maintains His integrity and the distinctiveness of His purpose and proclamation.

There is much we can gain from Jesus’ example. We find ourselves constantly tempted and pressured to live our lives according to the way the world works. It is tempting to want to gain prominence so as to serve Jesus on a grander scale. But when we try to do so according to the ways of the world, we lose control of our image and the story which we are trying to tell; it becomes the possession of the media, our society and culture, or other forces, and it gets distorted into the story they want to tell. There are moments when it is best for us to withdraw and commune with God in Christ, maintaining our integrity and distinctiveness of the Gospel message which we seek to proclaim. There is always value and wisdom in seeking to proclaim the message of Christ the way He would want us to proclaim it, and to live the Way of Christ according to the way He would have us live it (cf. 1 John 2:1-6). In all things we ought to be rooted in Jesus and take our direction from Him (Colossians 2:1-10).

The Israelites wanted to make Jesus a king of their own making according to their own desires; Jesus resisted this, choosing the harder but ultimately more satisfying path of being the King according to God’s desire. As His servants, let us always proclaim and magnify Him in His own way, and let us not allow ourselves or others to turn Jesus into a king or other figure of their own making for their own purposes. Jesus is Lord, not us, and let us honor Him properly!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Abiding in the Teaching of Christ

Whosoever goeth onward and abideth not in the teaching of Christ, hath not God: he that abideth in the teaching, the same hath both the Father and the Son (2 John 1:9).

Whereas the essential human condition and challenges remain consistent throughout time, many things have changed over the past two thousand years. Empires have come and gone; the Gospel message has spread throughout the world; people who believe in Jesus today often come from very different places and cultures than that of first century Jewish Palestine. Different people with different societal and cultural norms have looked at Jesus for the past two thousand years, and unsurprisingly, we now have all sorts of different views about who Jesus really is and for what Jesus stood.

Yet this is not a new challenge. Within a hundred years of Jesus’ death, many of the Greco-Roman world, profoundly influenced by Greek philosophy, also looked into the claims and life of Jesus of Nazareth. They found Him compelling, but there were certain things that the Christians were saying about Jesus unacceptable to them. The Christians claimed that Jesus was the Son of God and God the Son (Acts 8:37, John 1:1); well and good, but they also claimed that He was God the Son in the flesh (Colossians 2:9, 2 John 1:7). Surely God would never humiliate Himself to the point of becoming flesh. No; it was not truly flesh; He only seemed to be flesh, these Greeks would say.

These Greeks influenced by Jesus but still holding onto many Greek philosophical principles were forming the various groups called the Gnostics; many of the “gospels” that are promoted with great fanfare today, like the “Gospel of Thomas” and the “Gospel of Judas,” were written by these Gnostics. They viewed Jesus as a most superior teacher of philosophy, a divine being who only seemed to be human, advocating (depending on the group) either complete asceticism or license to satisfy the desires of the flesh in the name of superior understanding and a complete division between the flesh and the spirit, among other things. Sure, there were a couple of similarities between the picture of Jesus promoted by the Gnostics with the picture of Jesus promoted by the Apostles and the early Christians, yet the differences remained stark.

What did all of this mean? A lot of people today think that different views of Jesus can be maintained acceptably before God, but such was unthinkable in the first century. John perceives the threat Gnosticism poses to the work and identity of Jesus of Nazareth: the power of the Incarnation is denied, the ability of Jesus to identify with humans and their suffering is rejected (cf. Hebrews 4:15, 5:7-8), and the Biblical presentation of man as body and soul combined is being thoroughly undermined (cf. Genesis 1:26-27, 2:5-9). The differences between the Apostolic presentation of Jesus of Nazareth and the Gnostic presentation are real, and critical aspects of the faith are rejected by even tolerating the Gnostic view. John will have none of it: those who do not abide in the teaching, or doctrine, of Christ, do not have God; those who abide in that teaching have the Father and the Son, since the Son is the exact imprint of the nature of the Father (John 10:30, Hebrews 1:3). Those who have left the teaching of Christ engage in evil works, and they are not even to be greeted (2 John 1:10-11).

These are very sharp words, and to many modern ears, it sounds intolerant. His words are designed to be intolerant to a significant degree, mostly because of his desire to maintain the integrity of the teachings regarding Jesus. It is one thing to believe the principles of Greek philosophy; it is quite another to attempt to re-imagine Jesus as a Greek philosopher and in the process distort His message and His identity. None of us were given the right to make a Jesus of our own image according to our own desire; therefore, it is right to defend the teaching of the Christ who actually lived, died, and was raised (1 Peter 3:15).

To understand the true nature of the Christ is always a challenge. We are all creatures of our time and age; we are programmed by our environment, family, friends, culture, and society to think in certain ways and to accept certain propositions as true. None of us can completely transcend those ways of thinking; in various ways, we will all see Jesus somehow in ways more like us than like a first century Palestinian Jew. Since Jesus is for all men, this is acceptable up to a point; Jesus is compelling precisely because He speaks regarding the human condition in general, and not merely to first century Jewish concerns (e.g. Matthew 5-7). That is likely why John emphasizes the need to abide in the teachings of Christ: we did not walk with Him and talk with Him, but we all can learn the things He taught and the things taught regarding who He was and is and ever will be (cf. 2 Timothy 2:2).

The challenge is for us as much as it was for those in the first century: we must abide in the teachings of Jesus. Some of the things Jesus said and did are easily acceptable; those should be a given. Yet in every society and in every age there are aspects to Jesus’ existence, nature, life, death, resurrection, and instruction which stand completely against the commonly accepted wisdom of the day. It is hard to fight against cultural norms; little wonder, then, how so many have not abode in the teachings of Christ, but have instead invented a Jesus better suited to their own desires and more consistent with their own expectations. That tendency has not changed; nevertheless, we must stand against it. We must accept all of the teachings from Jesus and regarding Jesus in Scripture, no matter how consistent they are with what we already believe or how popular they are with our fellow man. Let us strive to abide in the doctrine of Christ and not deviate from Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Calling Jesus “Lord”

“And why call ye me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46).

Americans have an ambivalent relationship with authority figures. Many Americans take the principle of a government “for the people, by the people” to the point of having little respect for the government and its power. Police officers and others who are entrusted with keeping the peace and maintaining law and order are often vilified for doing their jobs. Some people think that since they as taxpayers pay the salaries of such people, they should get a pass. Beyond this, as time has gone on, belief in the authority of parents, authority of educators, and the authority of almost everyone else has diminished.

The consequences of this ambivalent relationship are evident. Resistance to authority is often praised. Judgment on many issues is left to the individual, and we find less and less agreement on what is right and good for the people and the state. Without any coherent moral anchor, whatever sells and whatever tickles the fancy wins the day. The toxic effects on our society and culture are legion.

Nevertheless, we should not deceive ourselves by considering this to be a new problem. When Jesus walked the earth, the Roman Empire flexed its might upon the people, but they certainly were not well-respected in Judea. The religious authorities perhaps garnered more respect, but they remained disconnected from the people. And then there was Jesus, proclaiming in His life and words the message of God. In Luke 6:27-45, He teaches His disciples and others who listen to Him to love everyone, including their enemies; to show mercy, forgiving sins and debts, even if there is no repentance or repayment; to not judge hypocritical judgment in order to profess superiority to others. For a people who prided themselves on their superiority to Gentiles, loving their fellow Jews but despising everyone else, this was a challenging message indeed. It would be very tempting to dismiss the message, or attempt to take the edge off of it, as many have tried to do ever since.

Jesus knows this, and so He challenges His disciples. Simon Peter has already declared once that Jesus is Lord (Luke 5:8); Luke’s audience already knows that Jesus has been declared Lord by the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:31-33, 2:10-11), and the primary declaration of the Apostles and the early church is how Jesus is the true kurios, Lord, not Caesar (cf. Acts 2:36). Since He is demonstrating His Lordship, and evidently many already call Him Lord, how can they call Him Lord but not do what He says?

The question is rhetorical, of course, but we know the answer. One cannot call Jesus Lord and not do the things He says to do; the deeds cancel out the declaration. If Jesus is Lord, we must do what He says, including (or perhaps especially!) those things which we find quite challenging, counter-intuitive, and counter-cultural. If our thoughts, feelings, and actions are not consistent with the thoughts, feelings, and actions of Jesus, then we are really serving someone or something else as lord.

It is not surprising, given our cultural environment, how despite a vast majority of Americans professing Jesus as the Crucified and Risen Lord, far fewer are diligently seeking to put His way to work in their thoughts, feelings, and actions. Too many may call Jesus Lord, but their actions betray their service to another lord that has no real legitimacy. Be not deceived: even if we may feel ambivalence to the idea of authority figures exerting real control in our lives, they certainly exist. Even if we rarely see the hand of earthly authority in our lives, our spiritual lives are enmeshed in the struggle between the powers of darkness and the power of Light (Ephesians 6:10-18). Everyone serves some form of power: the only question is whether we are serving Jesus as Lord or whether our lord is a false idol leading to perdition (Romans 6:16-23). If we think we are following our own way, remaining independently minded, we deceive ourselves, for our “own, independent” way of thinking is really dependent on society, culture, upbringing, and such like. Too many are falling for this devilish deception!

We must declare that Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9-10). Yet that declaration is meaningless if we are not acting like it. We know that many will be condemned on the final day despite their profession that Jesus is Lord, and even despite the commission of many spiritual deeds, and all because they did not do the will of the Father (Matthew 7:21-23). As we go through our lives, let us keep Jesus’ question in mind. Why do we call Him Lord if we do not do what He says? Let us establish Jesus as the Lord of our lives, and submit our thoughts, feelings, and actions to Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Not to Direct His Steps

O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps (Jeremiah 10:23).

Some of the more “amusing” things that small children do involves the plans they devise. As they are trying to sort out things like logic, cause and effect, argument, and such like, they find themselves in all sorts of trouble for doing things they thought would work but failed miserably. This is especially true for boys; it seems that one of the parent’s most important tasks in raising young men is to keep them from killing or maiming themselves.

The problem with humanity is our presumption of getting beyond this stage in life. We get to a point when we think we have most things somewhat figured out, and we have a way forward. And yet time and time again, in various ways for various reasons, we find ourselves in all sorts of trouble.

Jeremiah saw such trouble coming for Judah. The people put their trust in metallic images of their own manufacture; the leaders of Judah were involved in high-stakes political maneuvering. They all thought they had things sorted out and were acting in their own best interest. But Jeremiah knew the word that had come from YHWH, and it was all for naught. The idols would be quickly proven worthless; the political maneuvering would end with the Babylonian army at Jerusalem’s gates and Judah’s supposed “allies” far away or conquered. The men of Judah did not consult YHWH for direction; they did not turn to him and away from their idolatry. They would soon learn how foolish that decision had been.

In such a condition Jeremiah had good reason to utter the words of Jeremiah 10:23. The way of man is not in himself. It is not in man who walks to direct his steps. When humans get to thinking that they can figure it out, things start going very badly.

Paul describes the degeneracy well in Romans 1:18-32. When people start thinking they know better, they rebel from the way of God. God allows this rebellion and gives them over to the consequences of this rebellion. Humans then invent their own gods based on what they can perceive in the universe. They then give themselves over to commit immorality and give full vent to their animalistic impulses. Meanwhile, virtue is cast aside.

It never takes too long to see this degeneracy in action. We most assuredly see it in our own day with a generation which does not speak a coherent language of morality and which is content with individualistic moralism. The god of this age seems to be the self: what I think, what I want, what is best for “#1.” It certainly seems that many people today actively snub their nose at any concept that it is not within them to direct their own steps.

But how well is this turning out for everyone? Are we all better off because we believe we are the pilots of our own lives? Hardly. Pain, misery, and suffering abound, and a lot of it is a direct consequence of our choices and behavior. People today seem content to lose their humanity in order to keep consuming and producing, thinking they are in control of it all.

The details might be different, but the story has been the same throughout time. People in Jeremiah’s day thought they knew better. People in Jesus’ and Paul’s day thought the same. Many of our ancestors did as well.

We do well to learn this fundamental lesson: no, we are not good at directing our own steps. No, it is not within a man to figure out how he should go. We are not much better off than when we were children and did things that seem quite stupid on reflection but somehow made sense to us then. When we try to figure it all out, things get distorted, because despite our pretensions, we do not know everything. We do not know much of anything when it comes down to it. The way we live, what we choose to do, and what we choose not to do exemplify that!

Once we learn that lesson we can turn to God and follow His steps. We can learn from Jesus, the exact imprint of the divine nature, and walk as He walked (Hebrews 1:3, 1 John 2:6). When we go in the way our Creator intended us to go, we will find ourselves truly human again, since we have returned to intended purpose of humanity. We will not go after the distortions, perversions, and degeneracy that comes with believing ourselves more important and better informed than we truly are.

It takes a lot of humility to learn from God; there is always that impulse within us seeking to go its own way. But how well has that ever gone for us? Let us learn our lesson, not trusting in ourselves, but instead placing our trust in God through Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Itching Ears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Justice and Righteousness

But let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream (Amos 5:24).

The day of the LORD was coming. He had endured enough from the hands of the Israelites. Their oppressions, their faithlessness, their immorality– it had become too much. Amos explains the only way that Israel can set things right again: they are to let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream (Amos 5:24).

The image was familiar to the Israelites. When the rains came after a dry spell, existing rivers would expand mightily. What had previously been bone dry wadis, or creek beds, would quickly fill with torrents of water. The water would come down from on top of the hills and mountains; it would often break through anything that stood in its way. So justice and righteousness were to be in Israel: in a land parched of them, all of a sudden, from the nobles and élites of Israelite society downward, justice and righteousness should be established. Nothing should get in its way, and it should overpower anything that would try!

Unfortunately, as the history shows, the Israelites did not heed Amos’ message. They persisted in injustice and unrighteousness, and another type of torrent– the judgment of God as executed by the Assyrians– washed their nation away (cf. 2 Kings 17:1-23). The Kingdom of Judah to the south fared little better. And, throughout time, there has been justifiable reason to return to Amos’ words in denunciation of the injustice and unrighteousness of nations. Within our own nation, Martin Luther King Jr. had reason to quote the verse in relation to the existing systems within the United States. Tragically there will always be times when this verse will be only too applicable to all nations in various ways.

Justice and righteousness are terms often paired in the Old Testament (Job 8:3, 29:14, Psalm 37:6, 72:2, 106:3, etc.). In the New Testament, we see more translations of “righteousness” than justice, but that does not mean that the concept of justice has been excised; the Greek word frequently translated as righteousness, dikaiosune, means both righteousness and justice. There are many times in the New Testament when both senses of the word are present (e.g. Romans 3:26). We would do well to mentally remember that “righteousness” in the New Testament also carries with it the idea of “justice”!

Justice and righteousness are terms thrown around quite easily, but what do they really mean? We have the sense that justice involves every action receiving its proper consequence: evil doing should lead to punishment, and right doing should lead to reward. We also have a basic understanding of righteousness as right living. Yet our understanding of these terms gets distorted by our culture and the way we would like for things to be. It is easy to want justice to mean that others get the proper punishment for their evil actions while we receive mercy, failing to understand that we judge others by their performance while we judge ourselves by our intentions (cf. Matthew 7:1-4). Righteousness is often reduced to not doing bad things to other people, and expecting everyone else to not do bad things to us. The scope and scale of justice and righteousness is also easy to distort. Many demand to see justice and righteousness exist on the grand scale– nations, institutions, and corporations– but prove less willing to see justice and righteousness carried out on a personal level. And there are plenty of others who believe that the domains of justice and righteousness primarily involve the individual and less so for government, institutions, and corporations.

We do well to turn to Scripture for an understanding of what is involved with justice and righteousness. And Job is a wonderful example of justice and righteousness in action.

Job has suffered much and, admittedly, he has been presuming more than he ought to presume. But in Job 29:14-25, he declares how he conducted himself in righteousness and justice, and in Job 31:1-39, he sets forth his integrity as he has lived according to justice and righteousness. In these passages we see much that we would understand as just and right conduct: avoiding sexual immorality, lying, deceit, covetousness, idolatry, and other such sins. But what may surprise us is just how much justice and righteousness seemed to require of Job: he fed the hungry, provided shelter to the homeless, encouraged the despondent, actively resisted the oppression done to others, honored the cause of his servants, provided for the widow and orphan, properly used the land, and even that he resisted taking pleasure in the downfall of an adversary!

There is much, much more to justice and righteousness, then, than just trying to be a good person and not grievously sinning against others. To seek to do justice and righteousness also demands that we provide for those in need and actively resist injustice and unrighteousness. Justice and righteousness ought to pervade all of society, from rulers to nobles or the élite down to the common man.

When justice and righteousness flow down as a mighty stream, people are respected and provided for, society is healthy, and real prosperity can be known. But where there is injustice and unrighteousness there is misery, pain, sickness, antagonism, rivalry, and all sorts of other forms of suffering. Ultimately, justice and righteousness cannot be merely private pursuits, and it should impact our work regarding the conditions of others.

Those who truly seek justice and righteousness are always rare in the land; most are out for some form of pseudo-justice and pseudo-righteousness that benefits them without necessarily benefiting others. Let us instead seek to work diligently toward justice and righteousness in our own lives and conduct and on behalf of all of those who find themselves oppressed and downtrodden. May it be said of all of us that we sought for justice to roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream!

Ethan R. Longhenry