The Veil

Having therefore such a hope, we use great boldness of speech, and are not as Moses, who put a veil upon his face, that the children of Israel should not look stedfastly on the end of that which was passing away: but their minds were hardened: for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remaineth, it not being revealed to them that it is done away in Christ. But unto this day, whensoever Moses is read, a veil lieth upon their heart. But whensoever it shall turn to the Lord, the veil is taken away (2 Corinthians 3:12-16).

It is no secret that humans sometimes have difficulty in understanding abstract concepts. Whenever a concept can be described through some concrete mechanism, we understand the point better. Paul understands this principle, and as he is seeking to describe the vast superiority of the new covenant that God has made with mankind through Jesus over the previous covenant between God and Israel, he uses a story and an image to reinforce his point: Moses and the veil.

The story comes from Exodus 34:29-34. Moses has come down from Mount Sinai after having spent forty days and nights receiving the Law from God. Unbeknownst to him, his face shone since he had been speaking face-to-face with the manifestation of the glory of God on the mountain. When the people of Israel saw Moses with his shining face, they were afraid to come near him. After Moses assuaged the fears of the elders and people of Israel, as a precaution, he would put on a veil whenever he spoke with the Israelites. It was only when he went into the Tent of Meeting to speak again face-to-face with the glory of God that he would take off the veil.

Paul artfully and skillfully takes this story and uses it as a vehicle to communicate the message regarding the two covenants. The old covenant had glory; Paul does not deny this (2 Corinthians 3:7, 13). But could the people of Israel endure this glory? Clearly not– Moses had to put a veil on his face lest they saw the reflection of that glory! Paul indicates that there is a greater meaning to Moses veiling himself: it was not just that the Israelites were too afraid to see Moses’ face as it shone, but also that they could not see the substantive reality of the covenant itself and its end (2 Corinthians 3:13-14).

This expansion is not without merit; the fear of the Israelites at directly hearing God’s voice was the reason Moses had to go up onto the mountain in the first place (cf. Exodus 20:18-21). The Israelites could not handle hearing the voice of God directly or seeing His glory directly; hence Moses went up onto the mountain, veiled his face, and when the Tabernacle and the Temple would be establish, they would feature veils that would hide the Most Holy Place from the rest.

Therefore, as Paul explains, the veil is really over the Israelites (2 Corinthians 3:14-15). They read and hear the Law of Moses, the Psalms, and the Prophets, and yet they do not perceive their fulfillment in Jesus. As long as that veil exists– as long as the Israelites hold fast to the way they have always understood the text, as long as they remain afraid of seeing the substantive reality behind the shadows and separate themselves from the voice of God– they will not understand that the glory of the old is swallowed up in the new.

Paul and his associates are not like Moses. They do not need to be veiled before the people in order to communicate the message of God. The message of the new covenant which they are promoting allows the believer to stand directly before God, hear His voice through Jesus, and see the glory of God as manifest in Him, and that glory is exceedingly great (cf. John 1:1, 14-18, 2 Corinthians 3:7-16). Those Israelites who turn to the Lord have the veil taken away, just as the veil between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place was ripped in two at the moment of Jesus’ death (cf. Matthew 27:51).

This is a powerful message. No more veils. No more separations between God and man. In the new covenant man can come to a direct knowledge of the truth as manifest in Jesus, not the shadow, not the type, unveiled (cf. John 14:6).

This is why Paul can use boldness of speech (2 Corinthians 3:12). He lives in hope in the great glory of the new covenant, glory revealed already in Jesus and the hope of the ultimate glorification of the believer in the resurrection on the final day, pictured in such fantastic terms as the bejeweled, golden heavenly Jerusalem in Revelation 21:1-22:6. Fear has been cast out; we can stand before God through Christ, and powerfully proclaim the message of salvation in His name. Let us praise God for our new covenant, for the removal of the veil, and let us speak boldly on account of our hope!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Veil

The Letter and the Spirit

Not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory (2 Corinthians 3:6b-9).

One of the marvels of Paul’s writings is the way he is able to powerfully construct his arguments, and those skills are on display as he writes to the Corinthians. 2 Corinthians seems to indicate that the Corinthians are being influenced by a group of Jewish believers who are attempting to discredit Paul. Having declared that the Corinthians themselves are living “letters of Christ,” sufficient testimony in and of themselves of the work that Paul does in the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:1-3), and that Paul would not dream of imagining that he is sufficient of himself, but that his sufficiency is in God through Christ (2 Corinthians 3:4-6b), he then moves on to show the insufficiencies and challenges of the basis of the arguments of the “Judaizers.” It is something he will do as well in the Roman and Galatian letters; it is a hallmark of Paul’s theology and writings. In 2 Corinthians 3:6c-11, he makes this argument with contrasting images: the letter (of stone) and the (ministry of the) Spirit.

He has been leading up to this argument in what he has written before. He has already spoken of the Corinthians as a letter written not with ink or on tablets of stone but with the Spirit on their hearts (2 Corinthians 3:3). The argument is also introduced on the basis of Paul having been made competent by God to be a minister of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:6a). Everything that follows is an explanation of this idea. What does Paul mean that the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life?

The contrast Paul has in mind is between the two covenants: the covenant between God and Israel as indicated in the Law of Moses, and the covenant between God and all mankind through Jesus Christ. The covenant between God and Israel is described as the “ministry of death, carved in letters of stone,” a “ministry of condemnation” (2 Corinthians 3:7, 9). Paul makes reference to Moses’ face which shone with the reflected glory of being in the presence of the glory of God (2 Corinthians 3:7; cf. Exodus 34:29-34). He compares that reflected glory with the full glory of God as made evident in the ministry of the Spirit, deemed the “ministry of righteousness,” indicating how much more superior the new is to the old (2 Corinthians 3:7-11). The glory of the new covenant in the Spirit is so superior, in fact, that the glory of the old covenant is now no glory at all, for it is brought to an end, whereas the new is permanent (2 Corinthians 3:7-11).

This is strong language indeed! How can Paul speak of God’s revelation to Israel as death and condemnation? Is this not impious?

Whereas the language is stronger, the substantive message is not much different than what can be found in Romans 7:1-25 and really throughout Romans 1-8. The Law of Moses is the ministry of death and condemnation not because the law itself had some flaw or was wrong; the Law is the ministry of death and condemnation because it declares what is right and wrong and fixes rewards and penalties. If one were to follow the Law perfectly, doing the right and avoiding the wrong, the Law would not condemn. Yet, as Paul has made evident in Romans 3:23, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; therefore, the Law can only declare them to be transgressors. Thus, no one can be justified by works of the law (Romans 3:20). No one– no Jewish person, no Gentile, no one then, no one now– can make the Law their confidence and put their trust in it to be justified. Instead, then as now, we must place our confidence in God who can forgive our transgressions (cf. Galatians 3:11).

The Law, therefore, by declaring right from wrong, exposes our sinfulness. But it, by itself, cannot save or rescue from that sinfulness. Hence, it is a ministry of death and condemnation. It did have its reflected glory, but as a reflection is never as excellent as the reality, neither can the reflected glory be seen as superior or even equal to the actual glory of God in Christ revealed through the Spirit!

The new covenant is described in terms of the ministry of the Spirit. The Spirit is said to give life and to be righteousness (2 Corinthians 3:6, 9). But what does this mean?

Much violence has been done to this passage by people who have taken it out of its context and have distorted it to serve their own ends. It is imagined that the contrast in the passage is between what is written down in Scripture with the promptings of the Spirit, and therefore this passage is cited to justify why sometimes we can ignore the “details” of Scripture in the name of following the Spirit. Thus, any time that a person takes issue with what Scripture has said at one point or another, he or she thinks that on the basis of 2 Corinthians 3 they can subvert that message by claiming the promptings of the Spirit, “for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

Paul is not making that kind of contrast, and people who make such an argument are missing part of the delicious irony of the passage. Paul is communicating a message about how the “letter kills” but the “Spirit gives life” by writing it down on papyrus with ink and sending it to believers. Paul is not contrasting what is written from what comes from the Spirit; he would argue that the Spirit has directed what has been written (2 Timothy 3:16-17)!

Paul is contrasting covenants, not the Bible and the Spirit. The new covenant in Christ is superior and of greater glory because the prominent feature of the covenant is not a cold law code that just calls out balls and strikes (right behavior and wrong behavior). Instead, the new covenant features the work of the promised Immanuel, God with us in Christ Jesus, our following after Him and our quest to be conformed to His image (cf. 1 John 2:3-6, Romans 8:29). The Spirit has declared this message through the Apostles; we have the recording of that message in the New Testament. The Spirit places emphasis on manifesting the qualities of the fruit that bears His name and has His role in the sanctification of the believer (Galatians 5:17-24, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, 1 Peter 1:2). However the Spirit may work with the believer, we can be sure that He is not going to contradict Himself; He is not going to abandon the message He directed the Apostles and their associates to declare and write (1 John 4:1-6)!

The new covenant provides the hope of eternal life through Jesus Christ; the old covenant declared sin. Thus, the ministry of the Spirit in the proclamation of the new covenant provides life; the ministry of the Law of Moses declared death. The letters written on the stone tablets were cold and unfeeling; the Spirit provides the message of eternal life through Jesus and our trust in Him to be the Lord and Shepherd of our souls. Thus Paul speaks rightly, declaring that the letter of the old Law kills, but the Spirit in the revelation of the new covenant gives life. Let us praise God for the hope of life through Jesus, seeking to be conformed to His image, thankful for the revelation of the Spirit and His work with mankind!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Letter and the Spirit

Christ Our Sufficiency

And such confidence have we through Christ to God-ward: not that we are sufficient of ourselves, to account anything as from ourselves; but our sufficiency is from God; who also made us sufficient as ministers of a new covenant (2 Corinthians 3:4-6a).

Few things are as dangerous as when the instrument begins to vaunt itself over its designer and operator.

We see this happen sometimes in the movies. The Terminator series and the Matrix series all presuppose such a situation: humans make computers/robots, computers/robots get too smart, computers/robots try to take over. We have this feeling, deep down, that if our creation to take us over, it would be a very bad thing. We perceive that something is out of place in that condition.

The Apostle Paul understood this danger in his own life as it related to God his Creator and Christ his Savior, and it was a good thing. His ministry featured signs and wonders; many converted to the Lord on at least two continents based on his preaching and teaching. As he writes for at least the second time to the Corinthians, he has spoken of them as a living “letter of Christ,” through Paul’s ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:1-3). In that sense, the Corinthians themselves are commendation for Paul, and in that work he has great confidence (2 Corinthians 4:4).

What would happen if Paul rooted this confidence in what he could perceive in the physical realm? What if Paul thought that it was by his own strength, cunning, and persuasive ability that the Corinthians were converted to Jesus? It would be very tempting; it would satisfy the natural conceit that dwells within us all. He could feel quite important, vaunting in his position. In short, his pride could quickly undo all the work that had been done!

And that is why Paul hastens to declare that whereas the conversion of the Corinthians is his confidence in Christ toward God, it was not from his own strength or power; indeed, he declares that he has no sufficiency in himself (2 Corinthians 3:4-5). His sufficiency is from God; God is the one who made him sufficient to minister in this new covenant through Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:5-6). Paul recognizes that he is the instrument; God is the power and provides what is sufficient to accomplish His purpose (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:7).

Paul’s declarations have become controversial since he established them. Some have taken his words to mean that the believer is able to do nothing at all, becoming entirely passive agents of God. Others, in seeking to avoid this extreme, go the other way, and over-emphasize the free will of mankind and come dangerously close to declaring their own sufficiency, albeit in a limited frame. What, then, are we to understand from what Paul has declared here?

We can all confess as true that everything we have and are come from God; we did not create the universe, we did not give ourselves life, and we did not make this creation for our use (cf. Genesis 1:1-2:3, Acts 17:24-29). Beyond that, since we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, there was nothing we could do in order to save ourselves; God did what we could not do in reconciling us back to Him through Jesus His Son (Romans 3:20-23, 5:6-11, 8:1-3). Therefore, every spiritual blessing comes from God through Christ, and we do not deserve them (Ephesians 1:3).

And yet God expects people to serve Him in Christ, to seek after His will (Romans 6:16-23, Philippians 2:12, 2 Peter 1:3-11). This cannot be forced, for that is not the way of love (John 3:16, 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, 1 John 4:8). People must turn from sin and submit themselves to God, seeking His paths, walking as Jesus walked (Galatians 2:20, James 4:7, 1 John 2:6).

But is there any sufficiency in us to accomplish this through our own strength? We still fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23); we still are beset by sin (Hebrews 12:1-2, 1 John 1:8); left to our own devices, we still wander off onto the wrong path (Jeremiah 10:23). Therefore, it is good to agree with Paul: as he understood that he did not have any sufficiency in himself, but only received sufficiency through Christ, we are not sufficient in and of ourselves for anything, but must find our sufficiency through Christ.

That is why the concept of the believer as servant is so consistently maintained throughout Scripture (Luke 17:7-10, Romans 6:16-23, etc.). The slave does all things at the behest of his Master. Another image that indicates as much is that of the instrument (Acts 9:15, Romans 6:13): the tool may accomplish a given work, but only because it has been directed by the One wielding the tool.

So we ought to understand ourselves. Do we work and labor for the Lord? Absolutely. But do we labor by our own sufficiency? Our “sufficiency” always proves insufficient in every respect. Instead, Christ must be our sufficiency. We must do all things according to His direction (Colossians 3:17); we must be strengthened with the strength that comes through Him (Ephesians 3:16-17, Philippians 4:13). Our thoughts, feelings, and actions– our entire being– must be laid at His feet for use to advance His purposes (Galatians 2:20, 2 Corinthians 4:7, 10:5, Philippians 4:8). We may have confidence in Christ toward God for what is accomplished for His purposes through us, but it is no reason for us to glory in ourselves– all praise, honor, and glory are to go to God in Christ, because He is our sufficiency! Let us serve the Lord and use our energies toward His purposes; let us be His instruments to be directed according to His good purpose!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Christ Our Sufficiency

Living Letters

Are we beginning again to commend ourselves? Or need we, as do some, epistles of commendation to you or from you? Ye are our epistle, written in our hearts, known and read of all men; being made manifest that ye are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in tables that are hearts of flesh (2 Corinthians 3:1-3).

Somehow, things had gotten worse in Corinth.

A cursory reading of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians exposes enough problems: flagrant sexual immorality in their midst, Christians taking other Christians to court, abuse of spiritual gifts, denial of the resurrection of the dead. Nevertheless, the Corinthian Christians still had some respect for Paul and gave him some credence.

Yet by the time of the writing of Paul’s second letter, Paul’s credibility is at stake. We get the impression from comments throughout the letter, but especially in chapters 10 through 12, that certain ones have come to Corinth from among the Jews, perceived to be some type of “super-apostles,” who are undermining the Corinthian Christians’ view of Paul. They challenge his credentials, his manner of speaking, his authority, and thus his message. The Corinthian Christians have clearly been influenced by these people. They begin questioning whether Paul really is who he says he is. They would like to see some sort of commendation for Paul to vouch for his standing.

Paul is thus in quite the predicament. How should he go about justifying who he is and the work he does when the Corinthians should already know better?

Ultimately, Paul decides to highlight the work that has been done among the Corinthians themselves as a demonstration of his commendation (2 Corinthians 3:1-3). What need does Paul have for a letter written by ink on papyrus, one that theoretically could be forged or compromised in some other way? He has a far greater letter of commendation: the Corinthian Christians themselves.

While the Corinthian correspondence highlights the flaws of the Corinthians, it is still good to bear in mind just how far those Corinthians have come. The congregation seems to be made up mostly of Gentiles, people from the Greek world who lived in a city famous for its immorality. Yes, some of them still struggled with the rampant sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 6:12-20); some struggled with balancing the understanding that an idol is nothing with the weaker consciences of other Christians (1 Corinthians 8:1-13); others had difficulties with the doctrine of resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-58). But the amazing thing is that they had been delivered from all such immorality and more through Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 6:11), having turned from dead idols to serve the living God. If you could get Gentiles in Corinth to seek to try to change their ways and to follow God, you could probably get Gentiles anywhere to try to do so!

And so Paul does have reason to feel that the Corinthians themselves represent a letter of commendation. They are a letter of Christ, not of Paul, as he strenuously emphasizes; Paul is the servant, the minister, whose sufficiency is only from God (2 Corinthians 3:4-6). The Corinthians testify to the power of Christ to transform people, even if there are many kinks that still need working out. This letter is not written on papyrus with ink, nor, for that matter, by chisel on stone, but instead by the Spirit of the living God on hearts of flesh (2 Corinthians 3:2-3). Paul and his associates carry this “letter” in their hearts, using their example in their exhortations to others, so that all may know and understand how powerfully God has worked among the Corinthians. With such a testimony and such a “letter,” what good would papyrus and ink, or stone and chisel, really be?

Yes, Paul writes as he does to persuade the Corinthians, and it has strong potential to persuade, since it speaks highly of them, and if nothing else, people always like being spoken of in such glowing terms. Yes, there is also probably a tinge of irony here, since Paul (or Paul’s amanuensis) is writing these words with ink on papyrus. But the point remains powerful: the greatest testimony to the Lord cannot be written down on paper with ink or on tablets with a chisel. The greatest letters of Christ are living letters.

It is the same way today. It is right and appropriate to appreciate Scripture and to use Scripture as the means of coming to a better understanding of who God is and what God would have us to do (2 Timothy 3:16-17). There is great power in the message of God (Hebrews 4:12). Nevertheless, the message loses its force quickly when its contents do not lead to transformation of the mind, heart, and deeds of the believer. One can know the Scriptures intimately, but if one is not actively seeking to conform to the image of Christ, all that knowledge goes for nothing (Matthew 7:21-23, Romans 8:29, James 1:22-25).

There is unparalleled power in the message brought to life; this is why the revelation of the new covenant is centered in the embodiment of the divine in Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:1, 14, 18, Colossians 2:9, Hebrews 1:3). The New Testament Scriptures seek to communicate in words who Jesus was, what Jesus taught, what Jesus did, the message of Jesus as it was communicated by His disciples, and the practical ways in which that message is to be lived and communicated. The message always points to its Source– God in Christ– and exhorts everyone to entrust themselves to that Source (Romans 1:16-17). The message lays forth all the equipment the believer will need in order to entrust himself to Christ and to follow after Him (2 Timothy 3:16-17). But that is not enough. The believer must then seek to put it to practice, to become that living letter of Christ of which Paul speaks.

A lot of people know that there are many good teachings in the Bible. Most people do not have a high tolerance for people who push the message of the Bible without living that message. Yet it is amazing to see how people respond when they see the message not just preached by a believer, but also lived by him or her (Matthew 5:13-16, Romans 10:14-17). There is no greater commendation of God’s message in the Gospel than to see it being lived by believers submitting themselves in all things to God’s will. It is not enough, therefore, to just tell people about Jesus; we must also show Jesus to people. It is not enough to just point to the letter and the ink; we must embody the message that has been recorded for us by letter and ink.

One of the saddest objections to the Bible is when people believe it to be irrelevant to modern life because of its antiquity. The Bible might be 2,000+ years old, but the message of God is supposed to be always alive through the believer who seeks to embody that message in his or her life. It may be that the last letter of an Apostle was written over 1,900 years ago; yet there should be living letters of Christ circulating around the world today, still proclaiming God’s redemptive work in word and deed, in the form of believers seeking to obey the Christ. Let us be those living letters to a sinful world and commend the faith in our words and deeds!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Living Letters

The Weapons of our Warfare

For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh (for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but mighty before God to the casting down of strongholds), casting down imaginations, and every high thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God, and bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).

The military metaphor is used occasionally in Scripture to describe the conflict in which we find ourselves. It is dangerous to read too deeply into the military metaphor; notice how often Paul emphasizes that our enemies are not flesh and blood and our weapons are not physical (2 Corinthians 10:3-4, Ephesians 6:12). He is making clear what far too many since have confused: there is a conflict, yes, but swords and guns are not going to solve it. Guns and swords are only going to make things worse!

Nevertheless, we are all engaged in a conflict. In Ephesians 6:10-18 Paul speaks of that conflict in terms of the soldier’s full armament. Here, in 2 Corinthians 10:3-5, he briefly describes the weaponry we are to use in this conflict in order to advance the purposes of God in Christ.

There are two aspects to these “weapons”: engagement with the world around us, and engagement within ourselves. They are both used for the “casting down of strongholds” and the weapons are “mighty before God” (2 Corinthians 10:4). We are to imagine the large, walled cities of the ancient world; the weapons we are to use will tear down those walls. Defenses will be compromised!

Paul begins with the engagement with the world around us. Paul says that it is our task to “cast down imaginations, and every high thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God” in the ASV; the ESV renders it, “we destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

This might seem strange to us at first. Some might wonder where there is room for the practice of Christianity. Others may want to know where morality and discussions about moral behavior fit in. But if we stop and think about it for a moment, what Paul says makes perfect sense.

Everyone has a view of the world and how it works. This view is constantly modified by new information; the older we get, the more fossilized it becomes. We have to have some type of worldview/perspective in order to make sense of all the different aspects of existence. It is this worldview that informs our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

As long as a person can remain convinced that the way they see the world is the way it really is, or makes the best sense of the way it really is, it will remain incredibly difficult to change their minds about much of anything. Witness the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Jews in general throughout the New Testament. For that matter, see what it took for Saul of Tarsus to change his mind (cf. Acts 9:1-19)! As long as the person can make sense out of things, they will keep thinking as they always have, and thus keep acting as they always have.

Therefore, as long as the “imaginations” of man stay in place, and as long as people exalt their opinions about the way things work, we cannot get very far with people. People are not blank slates; if they are going to learn of God, they are going to have to “unlearn” some things first. Since everyone already has some type of edifice that they have built in order to understand the world, that edifice will have to first be exposed as faulty before people are going to be willing to concede that they need to change the way they think, feel, and act!

And that is why Paul speaks of casting down imaginations and every opinion exalted over the knowledge of God. Our weapon must be the tool of persuasion, presenting all the evidence that does not fit well into the edifice people have already created yet exhibits the soundness of the revelation of God. These are very deep issues and go to the core of who we think we are as human beings; since they are deep, dealing with the surface issues are not going to get us very far. Unfortunately, most people need to be convinced that the way they see the world is broken before they believe it broken. That is why our “firepower” must be directed to this end– getting people to understand that the way they see things is flawed in order to present to them the better model in Christ.

The other aspect to these “weapons” involves more engagement within ourselves. As Paul says, we must be “bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). How can we work to knock down these strongholds of the world if they maintain a foothold within our own minds? How can we refute an argument if we continue to maintain it within ourselves?

The knowledge of God is firmly rooted in Christ; as Paul says in Colossians 2:1-10, it should be our goal and aim to understand all things through Christ. Worldly philosophies deceive; we can discern what is right from wrong in them when they are subjected before Christ. “Common sense” and the groupthink of culture are seductive ideas; we can only discern what is truly sensible when we subject those ideas to Christ. Idolatry is man’s perennial problem, from the beginning until now (cf. Romans 1:18-32); the only way to eliminate idolatry is to make sure all things are subject to Christ.

There is a prevalent myth about that says that we can all be objectively rational at times and seek to understand things in a disinterested way. This is sheer folly; no matter how hard we try, we are products of our culture, society, upbringing, and time. The best that any of us can do is to be sensitive to those ways in which we are predisposed to understand matters because of our culture, society, upbringing, and time. The only way to do so thoroughly is to subject everything to Christ. What would Christ find commendatory about the spirit of the age? Commend it. What would Christ critique regarding the spirit of the age? Critique it.

The stakes are quite high. As long as the bloated and blustering edifices of worldly thought and philosophy are left unchallenged, people will continue to follow after vanity and justify themselves by the lie. We must challenge these edifices with the knowledge of God, understanding that present ideas must be deconstructed before a godly life can be built instead.

In so doing, we must remember that the worst horror of all is when believers become complicit with those bloated and blustering edifices by just going along with what they have been taught by society, culture, upbringing, and the like, not subjecting these thoughts to Christ, understanding what is commendatory from what is to be challenged. We can look into our past and find many instances when believers did not subject certain societal attitudes to Christ; now, as then, it was always about difficult matters, some of which may not have been automatically evident to the people involved. The Evil One is good at seducing believers into following after many forms of conventional wisdom that are contrary to God’s purposes. Let us resist the temptation. Let us subject every thought, every attitude, everything we might assume is accurate or is according to “common sense,” and subject it to Christ. Then let us praise what is to be commended, and work diligently to tear down through critique all that is to be challenged. In so doing, we will be tearing down those worldly strongholds, casting down everything exalted beyond the knowledge of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Weapons of our Warfare

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

Jesus, Our Sin Offering

Speak unto Aaron and to his sons, saying, “This is the law of the sin-offering: in the place where the burnt-offering is killed shall the sin-offering be killed before Jehovah: it is most holy. The priest that offereth it for sin shall eat it: in a holy place shall it be eaten, in the court of the tent of meeting. Whatsoever shall touch the flesh thereof shall be holy; and when there is sprinkled of the blood thereof upon any garment, thou shalt wash that whereon it was sprinkled in a holy place. But the earthen vessel wherein it is boiled shall be broken; and if it be boiled in a brazen vessel, it shall be scoured, and rinsed in water. Every male among the priests shall eat thereof: it is most holy” (Leviticus 6:25-29).

Him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in him (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Perhaps one of the concepts found in Scripture that is most “foreign” to people today involves the sacrificial system. Most people are familiar with the fact that the Bible talks about killing lots of animals “for sin.” It seems quite strange to many people, and rather barbaric to others. Nevertheless, there is a point to it all, and, as perhaps is expected, the path leads us to Jesus.

In some cultures, sacrificing animals was considered the way that the gods would be fed. For others, it was to provide a soothing aroma to the gods so as to gain or maintain their favor. While it is true that some sacrifices were made as peace offerings to God (cf. Leviticus 3:1-17), and the aroma was to be pleasing (e.g. Leviticus 3:16), it is not as if God needs sacrifices in order to survive (Psalm 50:7-14). Sacrifices for sin are based in an entirely different system than these.

Sacrifices for sin go back to the problem of sin. Sin separates man from his God (Isaiah 59:1-2); for man to have some relationship with God, the problem of sin must be addressed. During the old covenant, the means of addressing this was animal sacrifice– the sin offering.

But why does the animal need to die? As God explains in Leviticus 17:11, it is a matter of life atoning for life. Since life is in the blood, blood is shed on the altar, and that blood, by virtue of the life in it, can atone, or cover, for the sin and guilt of the one atoning. Since the penalty of sin is death (cf. Genesis 3:17-19, Romans 6:23), something has to die in order for sin to be covered. If it is not the sinner, then it must be a substitute for the sinner– and thus we have the animal that gets sacrificed. Its innocent blood/life can pay the penalty for the guilty life, and God was willing to provide cleansing on the basis of an animal offered up in faith.

In the New Testament, we are told that the blood of animals could not really take away sin (Hebrews 10:4)– the animal sacrifices were the shadow, or type, of which Jesus of Nazareth was the reality, or fulfillment. He was without sin and willingly gave Himself up for sin so that we could be reconciled back to God (Romans 5:6-11, Hebrews 4:14-16, 7:14-28, 9:1-26). Jesus’ blood/life, then, can truly atone, or cover, for the guilty life, for the one who offers up himself in faith through repentance, baptism, and discipleship (Acts 2:38, Romans 6:3-7, 12:1-2, Galatians 2:20).

Well and good; hopefully we can understand the reason for the sacrificial system, even if it seems a bit strange or foreign to us. Nevertheless, it is the prism through which we must understand Jesus’ sacrifice for our sin.

Yet a challenge remains. If sin separates us from God, and Jesus, who knew no sin, was made to be sin for us, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, does this mean that Jesus was separated from God?

Some have advanced such a position based on that correlation and Jesus’ words in Matthew 27:46. Nevertheless, beyond the fact that as God in the flesh, the Son cannot really be separated from the Father (John 1:1, 14, Colossians 2:9), what we learn about sin offerings in Leviticus 6:25-29 provides good evidence against such a view.

The sin offering, by virtue of being for sin, is not automatically defiling. Quite the contrary– the sin offering was most holy! In the old covenant, particularly in Leviticus, holiness was understood in very physical terms– holiness (and, for that matter, defilement) could be transmitted. In such a view, contact with the sin offering did not lead one to be defiled here, but in fact makes them holy (Leviticus 6:27). The sin offering must be treated as holy, eaten in a holy place, and accorded the respect given to that which is holy!

The parallels with Jesus and His sin offering are evident. Those who come into contact with Jesus do not become unholy or defiled; instead, they can receive cleansing through Him and become holy– just as Paul indicates in 2 Corinthians 5:21. Through Jesus we become righteous and holy before God (Ephesians 1:4). We are to treat Jesus and His death in every way as holy, and revere Him as holy because of what He has accomplished as our sin offering (1 Peter 2:21-25, 3:15)!

Since “sin” and the idea of real spiritual and environmental consequences for “sin” have become rather “foreign” concepts in our society, we should not be surprised that a system designed to cover and atone for sin should likewise be considered “foreign.” Nevertheless, the Bible has taught us about the problem of sin, and has laid out the solution for sin in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was the sin offering to cover for the sins of mankind; in so doing, He did not become defiled but most holy, able to communicate holiness to all who came to Him, experienced Him, and were transformed by Him. Let us be made holy through Jesus of Nazareth and His sin offering, and be reconciled with God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus, Our Sin Offering

Casting Down to Build Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Casting Down to Build Up

Walking By Faith

For we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).

We walk by faith, not by sight. This verse is justly famous, used plentifully in sermons and articles and in conversation. The statement gets right to the heart of the distinction between the life of the believer and the life of someone in the world.

Yet, in context, it is an aside explanation. Paul has been talking about the resurrection and the desire believers have to be fully clothed and in the presence of God (2 Corinthians 4:16-5:4). We are to be of good courage despite being absent in the Lord while home in the body, even though we are willing to be absent from the body and at home with the Lord (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:6-8). We walk by faith because we are absent from the Lord.

We recognize that Paul is not trying to say that we literally walk by faith and not by sight. Christians should watch where they are going just as much as everyone else, and need their maps and GPS to know where they are going like others do. Paul’s concern is based in one’s perception of life and where they place their trust. Do they trust in God, that is, to walk by faith, or do they trust in appearances, that is, to walk by sight (Greek eidos, better understood in terms of appearance or form; cf. Luke 9:29, 1 Thessalonians 5:22). Where is our trust really founded?

It is good for us to consider the depth of the power of this verse and the idea behind it. It seems almost customary in our reason-worshiping society to minimize faith and maximize what can be “proven.” We try to make the case that believing in God is eminently reasonable. We try to make the “leap of faith” to be as small as we can.

That may have some value when presenting the message of the Gospel to the world. It is true that believing in God and His work as revealed in Jesus the Christ and in Scripture can be defended by reasonable and rational argumentation (cf. 1 Peter 3:15), but tension remains between reason and faith. In the end, we cannot “prove” God’s existence, the resurrection of Jesus, or any such thing according to standards of empirical science. Even the attempt would be sorely misguided! We walk by faith, and there should be no shame in that.

It does not really take a lot of faith to believe in something that goes along with your way of thinking. It really does not even take a lot of faith to believe in God when things are going well and you believe that you are blessed. It is in the midst of trial and difficulty, be it through physical, mental, or emotional distress, or persecution, or some other such thing, that we demonstrate where we have placed our trust.

It may be true that by all appearances there is no God, there is nothing but suffering and misery, and life is pointless. It is in those times that we must remember that we are to walk by faith, not by appearance.

It may be true that by all appearances the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. It is in those times that we must remember that we are to walk by faith, not by appearances.

It is entirely true that by all appearances Christians are old-fashioned, believing in a God and miracles and all kinds of things by faith without much physical evidence at all. And that is right, for we do not walk according to appearances, but by faith.

We must trust that if we love God and do the right thing, all things will work out for good (Romans 8:28).

We must trust that if we suffer for doing good, we are blessed, for we are following in the Master’s footsteps (1 Peter 2:19-25).

We must trust that the God who was willing to suffer the loss of His Son is willing to give us all things (Romans 8:32).

It is easy to say that we walk by faith, but it is something entirely different to actually walk by faith. It is always easier to trust in appearances– to place our trust in our own skills, our own ideas, our own attitudes, our own perspectives. We know that Jeremiah says that it is not within us to direct our own steps (Jeremiah 10:23), and yet what do we do in good times and bad? Do we truly depend on God and trust in His ways or do we first try to accomplish whatever we seek to accomplish by our own strengths and only then turn to God when all else fails? Do we seek to persuade men based on men’s standards or do we proclaim only Christ and Him crucified (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:2)?

Appearance always gives reason for doubt, apprehension, fear, misgivings, and excuses. Faith trusts, emboldens, and, ultimately, liberates. Where will we place our trust? Let us truly walk by faith and serve the Risen Lord!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Walking By Faith

Our Waiting Glory

And there came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls, who were laden with the seven last plagues; and he spake with me, saying, “Come hither, I will show thee the bride, the wife of the Lamb” (Revelation 21:9).

Most people, even if they do not know much about the Bible, have a definite picture in mind of what Heaven is like. Many people think of pearly gates and a city of gold. This view is reinforced by all kinds of spiritual songs that are sung. “We will walk on streets of purest gold,” according to Ira Stanphill’s “Mansions Over the Hilltop.” A lot of people think about Heaven and look forward to being in a large and magnificent city.

These images come from Revelation 21 where John describes the “new Jerusalem.” The city is described as a roughly 1,380 mile cube (Revelation 21:16) with a golden street, a jasper wall having foundations of precious stones (Revelation 21:17-20), and the glory of God shining brightly (Revelation 21:11). There is no night there and no Temple; the Father and the Son dwell there all the time (Revelation 21:22-25). It sounds like a great place to go!

Yet a major aspect of the image– and part of its encouraging message– is lost when we think that the “new Jerusalem” is a city to which God’s people go. The “new Jerusalem” is also “the Bride, the wife of the Lamb,” as we see above, and that Bride is the Church (Ephesians 5:22-32).

And what is the Church? The Church is nothing more than its constituents: people (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, 1 Peter 2:4-6)! Therefore, no one is going to be going to the city described– the redeemed of God will be the city!

No one is going to be walking the golden streets– those who conquer through the Lamb are the golden streets (cf. Revelation 21:7). The large city and the shining wall all represent the glory which God will bestow upon those who trusted in Him!

We ought to recognize that the picture of the “new Jerusalem” represents the best attempt that can be made of describing the indescribable, as is made evident from Romans 8:18 and 2 Corinthians 4:17:

For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us-ward.

For our light affliction, which is for the moment, worketh for us more and more exceedingly an eternal weight of glory.

How can anyone describe that “eternal weight of glory”? Human language fails. To a small, persecuted, and mostly poor group of believers, the most fantastic image that can be imagined is a large city full of great wealth. For those conversant in the Old Testament, a city of gold with the glory of kings coming into it evokes the days of Solomon and the glory days of Israel (cf. 1 Kings 3-10).

Therefore, when we consider the new Jerusalem of Revelation 21, we ought not think of it as a place to which we are going as much as the glory which God eagerly awaits to bestow upon all those who conquer through the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony (cf. Revelation 12:11). It is fantastic, wonderful, exhilarating, breathtaking, and beyond our wildest dreams.

This is, indeed, the call for the perseverance of the saints, and the invitation of Jesus, the Lamb of God. Do not go outside the city or remain outside the city in filth and defilement– obey God in Jesus Christ, be cleansed and purified in the blood of the Lamb, and let us not grow weary in pressing upward to be that city!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Our Waiting Glory