Sheep for Slaughter

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or anguish, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Even as it is written,
“For thy sake we are killed all the day long; We were accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”
Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us (Romans 8:35-37).

The quotation looks out of place; it seems to be a discordant note in an otherwise encouraging message.

For generations Christians have taken great comfort in the many promises of God expressed in Romans 8:1-39. Paul assures Christians of their salvation, victory over sin and death, the presence of the Spirit, and their inheritance and hope in Christ (Romans 8:1-30); he concludes with a series of rhetorical questions affirming God’s love for believers and all that He has done for them (Romans 8:31-39). Nevertheless, in the midst of the proclamation of all of this encouragement, Paul quotes Psalm 44:22 in Romans 8:36: we are killed all the day long; we are reckoned as sheep for slaughter. Why would Paul choose to quote something so distressing in the midst of a message of encouragement?

Psalm 44:1-26 is one of the psalms written by the sons of Korah. The sons of Korah begin by affirming their understanding and confidence in the legitimacy of the stories they were told about what YHWH had done for their fathers, no doubt referring to the deliverance from bondage in Egypt and the conquest of the land of Canaan (Psalm 44:1-3). The confidence of the sons of Korah is not just historical: they presently trust in God’s ability and potential willingness to give them victory over their enemies (Psalm 44:4-7). Let none be deceived: the sons of Korah are not lacking in faith, for they have made God their boast and give Him thanks forever (Psalm 44:8).

Yet the reality on the ground is quite different and distressing: they have not obtained deliverance from their enemies. Instead they are a reproach, a byword among nations, a people scoffed at and derided (Psalm 44:9-16). The sons of Korah have not forgotten the sins of their fathers, nor would necessarily deny their own wrongdoing at times, yet feel compelled to powerfully affirm their loyalty to God and covenant faithfulness (Psalm 44:17-21); nevertheless, as they cry in Psalm 44:22, they are killed all the day long for God’s sake, and accounted as sheep for slaughter. They want to know why God seems to be asleep, seemingly unaware of or indifferent to their suffering and shame, pleading for God to rise up, help them, and redeem them for the sake of His lovingkindness (Psalm 44:23-26). Thus ends the psalm; no resolution is given. The sons of Korah cry out to God demanding help and redemption not out of a lack of faith but precisely because they do trust in God, His covenant faithfulness in the past, and expect covenant faithfulness in the present.

So what has Psalm 44 to do with Romans 8? In many ways Paul provides the ultimate answer to and assurance for the hope of the sons of Korah. Redemption for the people of God has been found through the life, death, resurrection, and lordship of Jesus of Nazareth; in Him the people of God are victorious over sin and death, have been made joint heirs of God’s inheritance in Christ, and have been given the hope of redemption from the corruption to which the creation has been made subject (Romans 8:1-25). God has proven faithful to all His covenant promises He made to His people.

Yet we do well to wonder why Paul feels compelled to provide this encouragement for the Christians in Rome. Hints toward a reason can be found in the text itself. In affirming that Christians are joint heirs with Christ in Romans 8:17-18 Paul explicitly and directly associates that glorification with previous suffering with assurance that present suffering is not worthy to be compared with the glory awaiting us. Considering that other encouraging passages, like 1 Peter 1:3-9 and the book of Revelation, are written to those suffering persecution and trial, we can understand exactly what Paul is doing. The Christians in Rome may be presently suffering persecution or trial or perhaps will suffer thus in the near future; nevertheless, trials and difficulties will come.

Paul knows this not only because of his personal acquaintance with persecution and suffering at the hands of both the Jews and the Gentiles but also, and preeminently, on account of Christ, echoed in Psalm 44. In Psalm 44 the sons of Korah attempted to make sense of the disconnect between their great faith in YHWH and the way He expressed covenant faithfulness in past generations with their presently humiliated state; Jesus would go about as God in the flesh, doing good to all, and for it was betrayed, tried, tortured, and executed unjustly, having every right to cry out the substance of Psalm 44 throughout His suffering (1 Peter 2:21-25). Yet on account of that suffering God raised Jesus in triumph on the third day, exalting and glorifying His name above every name (Philippians 2:5-11); because Jesus suffered He was able to accomplish God’s purposes of victory and redemption as described in Romans 8:1-39 and for which the sons of Korah cried out in Psalm 44:26. Paul therefore understands the way forward: if you want to obtain the promises of God, you have to suffer through trials. The way to the heavenly Zion has no detours around the cross or Calvary.

The rhetorical questions of Romans 8:31-39 therefore have a darker side; we may read them as encouraging affirmations, yet Paul writes them in order to clear up doubts. We may experience the hostility of the spiritual forces of darkness, our own doubts and fears, and perhaps even our government or our fellow people; yet if God is for us, will any of these be able to stand (Romans 8:31)? We may feel abandoned, left with a book about things that happened in the past, which we may even affirm as fully true and legitimate, but where is God now and what is He doing for His people? And yet, as Paul asks, if God has really given of His own Son, will He not freely with Him give us all things (Romans 8:32)? We may feel indicted by our own doubts, fears, and sins; if we do not thus indict ourselves, no doubt Satan or even people we know in this world would be happy to do so. And yet who can really lay any charge against God’s elect if God has justified us and His Son is interceding for us (Romans 8:33-34)? There are many times where we may feel quite distant from God and separated from His love, just as the sons of Korah did; such is why Paul asks who can truly separate us from that love (Romans 8:35). Can tribulation, anguish, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, or sword separate us from God’s love? We can be assured the answer is no. Does this mean that we somehow escape the trials of this life? No; that’s not what God has promised.

For God’s sake we may well be killed all the day long; we may be accounted by Satan, the forces of darkness, and even many in this world as sheep for the slaughter. The sons of Korah long ago felt that way quite strongly even though they had remained faithful to God’s covenant and implored God for redemption. Jesus of Nazareth was actually slaughtered. There will be trials and tribulations; of this Paul is quite certain (Romans 8:17-18). In the midst of that darkness we will be tempted to doubt God’s goodness, faithfulness, and/or our hope. Even if we maintained a faith as robust as that of the sons of Korah, we will still find ourselves wondering how it could be that God is faithful and yet our present condition has brought us so low. Yet Paul wishes to encourage us with those rhetorical questions. If God is for us, who can be against us? If God has not spared His own Son, will He not in Him give us all things? Who can separate us from God’s love? As with Christ, so with us: in and through trial we are more than conquerors (Romans 8:37). No external force or trial can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39); only we can if we turn away from Him. The need for encouragement stems from weakness or trial; in those times let us remember that God is faithful to His covenant promises and has provided redemption in Jesus. That means that the path to exaltation first requires humiliation, and suffering must precede glory. Let us maintain our firm trust in God in Christ throughout all trial!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Beyond All We Can Ask or Think

Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus unto all generations for ever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3:20-21).

Whereas the reality of human existence is quite firmly fixed in our world and its restrictions, the imagination of mankind has often soared to incredible heights. It often seems that there is no limit to the human imagination, for better or worse. We imagine stories in which we are the heroes and overcome all sorts of trials; we can imagine worlds in which people live in harmony and peace; we imagine all sorts of kinds of technologies and ways of living quite different from our own. We also can imagine in darker and more sinister ways, as modern movies can attest. Yet no matter how much we imagine we remain limited to our current existence. Since reality seems to never match up to our imagination, we cope in one of two ways. We either attempt to make the world fit our imagination, only to discover all sorts of complications and challenges we did not anticipate and only to find that the endeavor leads to the exact opposite result of our intentions, or we give up on the world, living in our imagination, so to speak. No matter which way we might choose to cope the end remains the same: our dreams and imagination are brought low by the cold, icy hand of reality. Therefore so many give up any hope of the greatest goods and content themselves with lesser goods.

Yet Paul, through his prayer for the Ephesians, invites us to question the strength of the grip of the cold, icy hand of reality, on account of the greatness of the God who made us and sustains us, praying for God, who “is able to do far more abundantly than we can ask or think, according to the power at work within us,” may receive the glory in the church and in Christ forevermore (Ephesians 3:20-21).

That seems like a startling declaration, something easily debunked or disproven. It does not require much to ask for or think about all people hearing the Gospel and coming to the knowledge of the truth (Romans 10:17, 1 Timothy 2:4), being healed of all disease and suffering, and all sorts of other audacious possibilities. We have likely asked for such things in the past in prayer, and it is evident that we have not seen them fulfilled. So how can Paul make such a declaration? Is he manifesting a foolish faith?

We do well to consider a very important word in the prayer: “able.” God is able to do well beyond anything and everything that we ask of Him. Not only is He able to do so, it can be done through the power at work within us, the Spirit according to the message of God in Christ (Romans 1:16, 1 Corinthians 3:14-16, 6:19-20, Ephesians 3:16). Through the power at work in us God can accomplish anything He might purpose. Through us the world could hear the Gospel and come to the knowledge of the truth; through us God can advance any of His prerogatives powerfully. As the Creator, He can do all that can be done, what we can imagine and well beyond that (Deuteronomy 29:29, Isaiah 55:8-9, Romans 11:33-36). Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, we must never doubt God’s ability (cf. Daniel 3:17).

Yet just because God can does not automatically mean God will; ability is not automatically actualization. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego knew that even though God was able to deliver them, it may not come to pass, but that did not change their faith (Daniel 3:18). We can think of all sorts of reasons why God, despite His ability, does not act in certain ways: allowance of the consequences of free will decisions to come to pass for both the one acting and those impacted by the action, refusal to overwhelm the choice and will of an individual, and there are more than likely a host of other reasons, far better than we could ever imagine, that explain why God acts as He does. We do not have control over a lot of these reasons. But there is one possible reason over which we do have some control, and that involves our level of faith.

We must be clear that faith, in and of itself, is no guarantee of obtaining the desired result from prayer. We can pray fervently in all faith and still not obtain what we seek; there likely is far more going on in the situation than we can recognize. Too many people use a “lack of faith” as a blunt object to shift “blame” for unfulfilled promises upon those who have the least reason for “blame” in order to continue to justify their theological edifice. Furthermore, God can still find ways to accomplish His purposes in all power through us, despite us, even if we do not maintain the strongest faith, as can be seen in Gideon in Judges 6:1-8:28. Yet, especially when we consider the “hall of faith” in Hebrews 11:1-40, we do well to ask ourselves: is part of the problem our lack of real, substantive confidence in the power of God to accomplish His purposes, and especially that through us?

There is little doubt that we pray good prayers and say many things which are good, right, and expected. We pray for the evangelization of the world; we pray for people to come to repentance and salvation; we pray for healing; we pray for the betterment of the welfare of those in distress. But when we pray these things do we actually expect them to happen? How often do we pray these things, even honestly and sincerely meaning what we say, yet always with a mental asterisk of doubt? “God, please heal this sick person (although I have little expectation for this person to continue to live, since the prognosis is grim).” “Father, we pray that the people of our community learn about You and be saved (yet we know they won’t, because they’re terrible sinners and they like being in sin, or they’ve been seduced by the false teachings of others, and won’t listen to us).” “Father, we pray that all may have food and shelter (but there is so much poverty, a lack of resources, and rampant corruption and war and all sorts of evil in too many parts of the world).”

Those parenthetical asterisks, things we would never imagine saying but are most assuredly thought of, are completely understandable: they derive from our experiences with the cold, icy hand of reality. They represent the despair that gets mixed into our hope and our confidence in God. Theologically we all recognize and agree that God is able to accomplish everything we have mentioned. Yet on a practical level we often maintain skepticism, doubt, and suspicion. Most of the time these prayers get answered according to our doubts; it seems that the grip of the cold, icy hand of reality remains.

It is not for nothing that James warns us against being double-minded in our petitions (James 1:6-8): if we pray but maintain doubt in prayer we have no right to ever expect those prayers to be fulfilled. They do not truly reflect the boldness of faith which we ought to maintain toward God; we have already cut off the hope of fulfillment by having no expectation of fulfillment. This is not the kind of prayer Paul prayed, and it is not the kind of prayer Paul would expect followers of God in Christ to pray. According to the Gospel, God has already accomplished the most difficult task of liberation from sin and death through the death and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 8:1-4) and wishes to freely give us all things (Romans 8:32). He is prepared to provide us a place of glory beyond compare and which make our imaginations seem tame by comparison (Romans 8:18, 2 Corinthians 4:17). Yet the fantastical is not all about the future; Paul’s prayer is a bold declaration of what is possible right here and right now. God is able to strengthen us with power, root and ground us in love, give us the strength to understand the dimensions of the love of Christ which is beyond knowledge, to fill us with the fulness of God, but only if we ask Him to do so fervently and expect it to actually happen (Ephesians 3:16-19). Does God want people to be condemned? Has He proven powerless in the face of ungodliness, secularism, indifference, etc., so that modern man has no hope in the face of the menaces of our society? The first century was just as daunting if not more so and yet the Gospel thrived! Has the Gospel lost its luster? No, no, a thousand times, no! God remains as able to accomplish powerful things through His message today as He was in the first century; perhaps what is lacking is our confidence in God, that He is not only able but willing to accomplish these great things, and if we would only prove willing to stand before Him in prayer, pray the bold prayer for the powerful advancements of His purposes, and to do so without regard to the cold, icy hand of reality, without that mental parenthesis doubting and denying the efficacy of the prayer, and to actually pray and mean to pray for people to come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved, to be healed through the power of God from afflictions, to be strengthened through trials, or for a thousand other things for which we might pray.

God is able to do well beyond anything we can ask or think, and there are many things for which we can ask or about which we can think! We have to maintain greater confidence in God than we do the cold, icy grip of reality, and believe that God can transform reality, else why do we bother with Christianity? Yet we do well to keep in mind the actual prayer Paul makes, for God to receive the glory in the church and in Christ for all generations (Ephesians 3:21). We cannot imagine God as our hitman or our genie; if we put our confidence in Him and He begins to do powerful things to advance His purposes through us, it will not be on account of our own strength, abilities, or any excellence in our own character, but because of His great power and strength, and inevitably despite our person and character. God will not give His glory to us or to anyone else; He will not stand idly by and allow us to be conceited into thinking that somehow “we” have accomplished what was really the work of God all along. He deserves the glory and the praise. He deserves to receive all glory in Christ, His life, death, resurrection, lordship, and return. In all things the church should give glory to God since without Him there is no life, and without His sustaining power the church will prove powerless in the face of its foes. When we recognize that it is not about “us,” but about God and His glory, we can understand that Paul does not have a foolish faith, and does not promise what cannot be delivered, because the parenthetical asterisks of our experiences with the cold, icy grip of reality do not restrict God and His mighty power! God is able to do more than we can ask or think unto His glory; can we maintain that trust in Him and make petitions accordingly?

Ethan R. Longhenry

Written For Our Learning

For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that through patience and through comfort of the scriptures we might have hope (Romans 15:4).

Why do we have the Scriptures, and what benefits can we gain by them?

These are simple questions, and yet the answers we give to them tell a lot about how we view the Scriptures and their role in our lives. To many people, the Bible is a curious relic of an earlier age, treated as mythology. Yet, for most Christians the Bible is truth, representing the revealed Word of God, providing instruction and exhortation in faith and practice (cf. 2 Timothy 3:15-17). The Bible is described variously as a “road map to eternity,” “life’s how-to manual,” and the source of answers to every question. Many then come to the Scriptures in order to find direction in life, solutions to their problems, and answers to questions. These descriptions of the Bible have some accuracy, but they are not the way that the authors of Scripture describe the purpose and value of Scripture.

As Paul concludes a discussion of how Christians are to treat one another, he quotes the Old Testament in Psalm 69:9 and speaks of how it relates to Jesus (Romans 15:3). He then takes the opportunity to explain why he would quote the psalm and apply it to Jesus, even though he has already quoted the Old Testament often in Romans: that which was written before our time was written for our learning, that through patience and through the comfort of the Scriptures we might have hope (Romans 15:4).

According to Paul, therefore, the Scriptures were written for our learning: we are to be taught and gain instruction from what they say. This instruction has an end goal: through patience and through the comfort of the Scriptures we might have hope. Paul’s understanding of Scripture has much to commend it: he gives a very holistic view of its place in life.

Scripture was written for our learning. The Greek word for “learning” is didaskalia, and it refers to learning, teaching, and instruction. From the Scriptures we can learn about God and His interaction with mankind. We can see God’s standards of holiness and how to live by them.

The reader of Scripture quickly discovers, however, that the Scriptures do not represent any sort of systematic treatise. It does not have a “FAQ” (Frequently Asked Questions) section. There is no systematic presentation of a series of true statements describing God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the church, salvation, etc. There are maps added to the Bible to assist in understanding of the locations of various places, but God did not provide a graphic laying out a road map to life. While the Scriptures provide answers for many or even all of our questions, the way in which those questions are answered are not necessarily the way in which we would choose or prefer. Instead, most of the Scriptures are narratives, telling the stories of God and the people of God from creation until the first century of our own era. In Scripture we meet people and learn about their behavior whether for good or ill. We learn about the situation of early Christians in their various local churches, the problems and questions they face, and the direction given them by the Apostles. It all ends with a vision full of fantastic imagery which seems to confuse more than it encourages.

For many of us, the Scriptures are not written in the way we would write it, and its way of communication seems foreign to those with modern, “Western” sensibilities. The Scriptures were not written in the way we wanted them to be written, but according to how God intended to communicate His purposes to mankind. God’s ways are greater than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9), and the way Scripture communicates is masterful. We are different people: we learn in different ways, process in different ways, conceive of the world in different ways, but Scripture can speak to all of us because it speaks through narrative. We all can learn from stories. Systematic analysis is well and good and has its place, but it is also two-dimensional, cold, and leaves unaddressed far more than it could ever address. God, through Scripture, tells us about people and situations, and speaks of divine truth in terms of descriptive imagery. Despite our differences, we all understand in metaphors and communicate in metaphors. We can live at different times in different cultures but understand light versus darkness, scattering seed, and such things. We can understand character studies and learn from examples of what to do and what not to do. We can find among the personalities of the Bible people with whom we relate on account of personality or circumstance. Our learning is to involve far more than just head knowledge; it is designed to change our hearts, minds, and actions!

The end goal is to live in hope. People will live either in hope or fear: they either have reason to look to the future with hope for something better or fear of something worse. Hope is the better decision, but hope can be difficult at times. Hope demands patience: we have to wait for our hopes to be realized, and that kind of patience must be developed (cf. Romans 8:24-25). Yet the Christian has every right to live in hope because of the comfort he or she derives from the Scriptures.

The Scriptures provide comfort because they provide the justification for hope. In Scripture, above all things, we learn of God’s faithfulness to His promises. All He promised Abraham came to pass; Israel received what God had promised; in Jesus all of the things which God had promised and predicted beforehand came to pass. Therefore, when God makes promises in Christ regarding His care, protection, Jesus’ return, the resurrection, and eternity with Him, we have every reason to trust those promises. You cannot get that kind of comfort from a systematic list of truths, a road map, or a FAQ. That comfort comes from learning about people like us in many ways placing their trust in God and not being disappointed and recognizing that God will see us through this life with its problems, challenges, sufferings, and distress.

The Scriptures are written for our learning. Through patience and the comfort of Scripture we can maintain hope. Let us be thankful to God for the Scriptures, learn from them, apply their messages to our lives, and glorify God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

I Believe! Help My Unbelief!

“And oft-times it hath cast him both into the fire and into the waters, to destroy him: but if thou canst do anything, have compassion on us, and help us.”
And Jesus said unto him, “If thou canst! All things are possible to him that believeth.”
Straightway the father of the child cried out, and said, “I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:22-24).

Desperation can be a powerful driver.

The child suffered terribly from a “dumb spirit” according to Mark 9:17-22. Because of it the child would foam at the mouth, grind his teeth, and become rigid, and that would count for a good day. At other times the demon sought to compel the child to kill himself by casting himself into a fire or into the sea!

This had been going on for some time; the father had seen his son experience this “from childhood.” Perhaps the child was now a teenager or in his twenties; the text does not tell us.

We can only imagine how the father felt when he saw his son experience such suffering and misery. He was powerless to stop it; it must have caused great anguish of soul. It would not be at all surprising if the father had gone to great lengths to find someone, anyone, anything that could somehow alleviate his son’s difficulties. And yet, in all those years, nothing.

He hears that Jesus is nearby, and takes his son. Jesus had been up on the mountain; His disciples attempted to cast out the demons but proved unable (Mark 9:2-18). Yet another disappointment.

Jesus comes upon the scene upon coming down from the mountain. The father makes his plea before Him: if you can do something, please have compassion and help.

Jesus’ answer focuses on the father’s conditional statement: “if you can.” He declares all things are possible for one who believes.

And the father’s answer resounds throughout time: I believe! Help my unbelief!

On the surface, the statement seems contradictory; if he believes, unbelief should not be a problem. If he maintains “unbelief,” how can it be that he believes? If belief were only a matter of mental assent to a proposition, the statement would be contradictory: you either accept the idea that Jesus can help or you do not.

Yet faith has always been more than a matter of mentally agreeing to the truth of a proposition. Faith demands trust and confidence, and the statement makes complete sense when we understand belief as trust.

The way the man phrases his request speaks volumes. “If you can.” He has his doubts, less because of Jesus, and more because of his frequent disappointments. His son has been grievously stricken for years; it is hard to maintain hope or confidence for recovery with every passing seizure and every failed attempt at a cure.

Notice that Jesus corrects but does not upbraid the man. This is not the same situation as when the disciples request more faith (cf. Luke 17:5-6), during which time the disciples doubted how they could accomplish what Jesus was saying. In this situation Jesus finds a man who has, to a large degree, lost faith in the ability of his son to be healed. Jesus wants him to hold onto that faith; that trust is what will help to effect the cure.

The man has some trust in Jesus; he cries out, “I believe!”. But he knows exactly what Jesus is saying; he understands how his trust and confidence must be stronger. That is why he cries out, “Help my unbelief!”.

The man was justified in placing his faith in Jesus; it required much power, and the young man for a moment seemed all but dead, but the demon was cast out, and the young man was made whole (Mark 9:25-29).

This man’s example provides a great testimony for the rest of us. We all experience various forms of challenges in our lives. We might personally suffer or witness the sufferings of loved ones. We may have deficiencies, unfortunate habits, dark secrets, or other spiritual maladies which cause great despair. We may seek healing and redemption from all sorts of places and come up short. With every setback and every failed cure it is easier and easier to lose hope and faith in a cure.

It is easy to describe Jesus as the cure-all. Yes, Jesus provides the promise that all things are possible for the one who believes (Mark 9:23), but we should not try to apply this in simplistic ways. Good people who trust in Jesus still have difficulties, challenges, and forms of suffering.

Yet it remains true that we can fall into the same trap as the man and put conditionals on what God is able to do. God is always able. There are many points in our lives when we can cry out, like this man, “I believe! Help my unbelief!”. It is easy to trust in God when we feel great, things are well, and our difficulties are safely hidden away. The true mark of faith is whether we still trust in God when we are not doing well, when situations seem dire, and when our difficulties and deficiencies are exposed for all to see. Wavering trust is understandable but not ideal. We do well to remember Jesus’ encouragement and to be willing to confess the deficiencies in our trust in God.

God has promised to give all things to those who those who serve His Son, the Risen Lord, and we have confidence in this promise because He has already given us of His Son (Romans 8:32). Will we place our hope and confidence in that promise despite all the challenges we experience, all the frustrations we encounter, and all the disappointments we endure? Or will we begin to put a conditional where God has made an absolute? Let us trust in God, and be willing to confess to God the deficiencies in our trust so that we may learn to trust Him more!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Foundation of the Law

“I am YHWH thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2).

The climactic moment was upon them.

YHWH had delivered His people Israel out of Egypt with a mighty hand. The Egyptians now knew that He is YHWH and they feared His name, and for good reason– they saw the devastation of their country with the plagues and the destruction of their army in the Red Sea (Exodus 7-14). As God had promised Moses, He brought the people to serve Him on Mount Sinai (cf. Exodus 3:12). He was sustaining Israel with manna and water from His hand, and brought them victory in war (Exodus 15-18). Furthermore, Israel had been preparing themselves for three days, cleansing themselves, becoming a consecrated people, trembling before the power of God manifest on Sinai (Exodus 19).

And now God begins to speak. And the first thing He declares to all Israel is something they should already know– that He is YHWH, that He brought them out of Egypt, and had delivered them from slavery! Why would this be the way that God begins the declaration of His law for Israel?

First of all, we must remember that while YHWH is speaking directly to the Israelites standing before Him around 1450 BCE, He is also speaking to every Israelite who would follow for 1500 years. While those Israelites who were the ones actually delivered from slavery would remember it, future generations might not.

The statement is not something over which we should just gloss and move on. God’s declaration of being the One who delivered them from Egypt and bondage is, in fact, the foundation of the Law He is about to establish.

Let us think about this for a moment. Why does YHWH wait until this point to give Israel His Law? By all accounts, it would have been more convenient if YHWH had revealed His Law before the Exodus when it was just Moses upon the mountain (cf. Exodus 3-4). Israel would have known everything that God would expect of them before they even left Egypt. As it stands, God has been working with this people for at least a few months without any operating covenant between them.

Yet if God had given the revelation of His Law directly to Moses before the Exodus, how would that have been accepted by the Israelites? Didn’t they, at some level, have the same question about YHWH as Pharaoh did (cf. Exodus 5:2)? Who is YHWH? Why should we believe in Him or follow what He says? If He is God, why are we in bondage and in terrible distress?

The Exodus and the sojourn in the Wilderness represent YHWH’s demonstration of His power and authority, not just to the nations, but especially to Israel (Exodus 7:1-5, 14:4, 14:30-31, Deuteronomy 8:3). God answers their questions in these actions. Who is YHWH? He is the One who devastated Egypt and delivered Israel from their grip. Why should we believe in Him or follow what He says? Because He has proven Himself to be the One True God, superior to all the “gods” of Egypt, and has delivered us and sustained us by His power alone. YHWH orchestrated all of this so Israel could never declare that it was by her own hand, her own power or strength, that delivered her from Egypt and persevered through the Wilderness. There was to be no doubt, in that generation or in any future generation: YHWH is the powerful God without whom Israel would still be slaves in Egypt.

This is why YHWH’s declaration of Himself as the Deliverer of Israel from Egypt and slavery is the foundation of the Law. It is how He proved His power, love, and compassion upon Israel. Israel can have complete confidence in YHWH’s Law because they can have complete confidence in the power and love of YHWH who delivered them.

Today we Christians live under a new covenant enacted on better promises (cf. Hebrews 8:6). Yet the nature of God has not changed (Malachi 3:6, Hebrews 13:8)! He has acted in similar ways in the inauguration of the new covenant.

While it is true that Jesus provides many of the ethical guidelines for the lives of His disciples while He lived (cf. Matthew 5-7, etc.), He does so as a proclamation of the good news of the Kingdom that is coming (cf. Matthew 4:17, 23). In reality, nothing in the old covenant could be changed until the new was inaugurated (Matthew 5:17-18, Hebrews 9:15-22).

Israel could trust the law of YHWH because He brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. So how can we trust in the law of Christ? Because God, in Christ, brings us out of the land of sin, out of the house of death (Romans 8:1-3). This was attested to us through Jesus’ death and resurrection, the ultimate demonstration of YHWH’s love, mercy, and power (Romans 5:6-11, 1 Corinthians 15:54-58). Whatever questions people might have had about who Jesus was or what He was doing before His death should have been finally and decisively answered in His death and resurrection and the resultant proclamation of the Kingdom of God (Acts 2:1-41, Colossians 1:13).

The foundation of the Law of Moses was YHWH’s deliverance of the Israelites from the hand of Egypt. The foundation of the new covenant between God and man through Jesus the Christ is His death and resurrection. In Jesus’ death and resurrection God defeats sin and death and provides us the means of doing the same (Revelation 12:11). The death and resurrection of Jesus are assurances of His Lordship and of His return to judge the living and the dead (Acts 17:30-31, Philippians 2:5-11). God has definitively acted; we should not doubt, for He has proven His love for us and the basis of our hope of eternal life through the death and resurrection of His Son. Let us serve God to the full!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Ask to Receive

And [Jesus] said unto them, “Which of you shall have a friend, and shall go unto him at midnight, and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine is come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him;’ and he from within shall answer and say, ‘Trouble me not: the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give thee?’
I say unto you, though he will not rise and give him because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will arise and give him as many as he needeth. And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. And of which of you that is a father shall his son ask a loaf, and he give him a stone? or a fish, and he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he give him a scorpion? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” (Luke 11:5-13).

The Lord’s Prayer (cf. Luke 11:1-4) is a wonderful model prayer, and we remain amazed at how much could be said with so few words. Yet we should not think that Jesus’ instruction about prayer ends with the conclusion of the prayer. There is much more to learn about prayer than just that for which we should pray!

Jesus uses a very real world example. If you had a friend come up to you at a most inconvenient hour and request something from you, would you not give him what he needs not inherently out of friendship but just because of the sheer impudence of the act? This is compared to our petitions before God– even if we think that we are taxing or greatly inconveniencing God, we may still ask, and God will be willing to grant what we need.

Jesus tells us that we must ask if we wish to receive, seek in order to find, knock in order to have the door opened. His emphasis is on initiative. God stands ready, willing, and able to bless us beyond our imagination (cf. Ephesians 3:20-21). The only ones who are in the way, really, are us. We often do not receive because we do not really ask– not because we never pray, or that we never make requests to God, but we can become afraid of asking for too much or going beyond what we believe possible. We often do not seek because we find it difficult to have sufficient trust in God. We will seek the short route or path and perhaps find something small; we often feel too daunted to seek on the long, arduous, and difficult path, and thus never really find what we desire. The door will open if we only gain the courage to go up and knock upon it.

What Jesus is categorically not telling us is that whatever we ask from God, no matter how carnal or selfish, we will receive it. This is an utter perversion of the Gospel that should not be named among saints; James makes it clear that people who ask to spend upon their passions will not receive it (James 5:3). Jesus’ referent is that which is spiritual and leads to growth in God’s Kingdom, not a nice new car or a million dollars that you would probably end up using to wander off into sin anyway.

The reason for this confidence is centered in God’s kindness and goodness for us, a kindness and goodness we often question. It is easy to look at God like so many do– a bitter old tyrant of a curmudgeon always looking for a way to condemn us. This is not the way of the Father at all!

Jesus provides us with two startling mental images. If your child asks for a fish, would you give him a serpent? Or if they needed an egg, would you give them a scorpion? Of course not. The very idea is perverse and shameful. And that is precisely the point. Even sinful people (like we all have been and unfortunately too often still are, Titus 3:3, 1 John 1:8) will provide benefits and good things to their children. If sinful people are that way, will not the Heavenly Father, who is infinitely more good, give the Holy Spirit and the blessings that come from His revelation and knowledge, to those who ask?

In Matthew’s rendition of similar lines (Matthew 7:7-11), God is willing to give good things, and there is no contradiction here, for the Holy Spirit is good (cf. Romans 8:1-11).

These statements of Jesus are designed to give us confidence in regards to our petitions before God. We need not be afraid of a thundering tyrant of a god for whom our requests will never be good enough. Instead, we are to approach God, take the initiative, live by faith, and be willing to step out and ask for the big things, seek the challenging path, and have the courage to knock the door so as to receive the blessings. We do not have to fear– God is infinitely more good than we are, and just as we want to do good for our own children, so God stands ready, willing, able, and desirous of giving His children all things (cf. Romans 8:32).

All those spiritual blessings, therefore, are there for the taking– if we only ask. Do we have the faith and confidence to do so?

Ethan R. Longhenry

Send Someone Else!

And [Moses] said, “Oh, Lord, send, I pray thee, by the hand of him whom thou wilt send” (Exodus 4:13).

It is not every day that you come upon a burning bush that is not really burning.

Then again, it is not every day that the LORD commands you to deliver an intransigent nation from the clutches of the most powerful empire of the day, either.

Yet this is the situation in which Moses finds himself, at eighty years old, in the middle of the desert wilderness, almost 3500 years ago, according to Exodus 3:1-4:13.

He has left Egypt as a fugitive, having killed an Egyptian (cf. Exodus 2:11-15).  Now God has asked him to return to Egypt, for God is about to fulfill His promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The Israelites will be redeemed from bondage and be given the land of the sojourning of their forefathers.  And Moses will be their leader.

Moses, however, is not so sure.  He professes humility (Exodus 3:11), wants to have the name of God revealed to him (Exodus 3:13), is confident that the Israelites will not believe him (Exodus 4:1), and declares that he is not eloquent of speech (Exodus 4:10).  Yet with every complaint and concern God more than abundantly provides reassurance for Moses.

And then we get to the heart of the matter in Exodus 4:13– Moses is resisting the call of God.  Moses would rather God send someone else.  For this Moses will gain the anger of God (Exodus 4:14), and Moses finally gets the hint.

This does not seem to be an auspicious beginning.  Nevertheless, as the narrative unfolds in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, we see that Moses grows into the position of leader, and God abundantly provides.  Through God’s power the impossible is achieved.  Through God’s power Moses is able to lead intransigent Israel out of Egypt, through the Wilderness, and to the Jordan River in triumph.

Yet we should be able to sympathize with Moses on Mount Horeb.  The proposition before him sounds extremely daunting.  He does not know the future and how it will all turn out.  Let’s be honest with ourselves: if we were in Moses’ position, would our answer really have been that much different?  Would it not be easy for us to resist God’s call?

We may not be called to lead a nation out of the hands of a powerful empire, but God calls all of us to participate in the greatest work of all time (Ephesians 1:3-11, 3:10-11).  God calls all of us to put our trust and confidence in Him and to do as He directs us– and promises that He is able to do more abundantly than we can ever begin to imagine (Ephesians 3:20-21).  He calls us to holiness and godliness and to make disciples of all the nations (Romans 12:9, 2 Peter 3:11, Matthew 28:18-20)– daunting challenges indeed.

There will always be plenty of reasons that we can imagine for resisting the call, to ask God in some way or another to send someone else.  But if everyone asks God to send “someone else,” who will accomplish God’s purposes?  We must come to terms with the reality that we are the ones who have been entrusted with the Gospel to preach it and live it.  We must rise above the excuses based in a walk by sight and learn to trust that God is able to do what God has promised to do, and that if our work is in the Lord it is not in vain and it will bear fruit (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:58, Isaiah 55:11).

We must stand firm against the cosmic forces of darkness while seeking to exhort all men to faith and repentance.  The tasks are mighty and daunting.  Will we stand up for God or shrink back?  Will we answer the call or will we resist?  Let us learn from Moses’ example that God is faithful and we have no need to resist His call for His purposes.  Let us seek to serve God, trusting in Him, and we will be astounded at what God is able to accomplish!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Walking on the Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Casting Our Anxiety Upon Him

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time; casting all your anxiety upon him, because he careth for you (1 Peter 5:6-7).

Believers recognize that one of the most critical, albeit challenging, aspects of the faith is humility. Jesus encourages believers to be humble servants constantly– indicating that those who humbly serve are the greatest in the Kingdom (Matthew 20:25-28) and constantly making the following comparison:

“And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled; and whosoever shall humble himself shall be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).

The mandate for humility is strongly emphasized throughout the letters of the Apostles. Paul encourages it in Philippians 2:1-11; James provides a message strikingly similar to Peter’s in James 4:10. And we have Peter’s exhortation to humility in 1 Peter 5:6. The message is plain and evident: if we want to be Christ’s disciples, we must humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God.

Yet notice the comment attached to this principle in 1 Peter 5:7. Peter goes on and indicates how believers are to cast their anxieties upon God since He cares for them.

This message also comes from Jesus. Matthew 6:25-34 is Jesus’ grand display of God’s care and concern for His creation and an imperative to not be anxious but to trust in God. Matthew 10:29-31 indicates God’s specific concern for each creature– the lowly sparrow and therefore humans– and that the hairs of our head are numbered (and yes, that is probably an easier task in regards to some rather than others). All of these Scriptures testify how we would do well to cast our cares and anxieties upon God, for He is concerned for our well-being and is far better able to handle the sources of anxiety and concern than we ever could be (cf. Ephesians 3:20-21)!

This is well and good, but Peter here attaches the idea of casting our anxieties upon God as an element of humbling ourselves under His hand. How can this be?

It seems almost innate and natural for humans to worry and to be anxious over anything and everything. It does not take much suggestion to get people to start worrying about almost anything from things like small creatures to the prospect of utter obliteration.

Natural impulses, however, can be controlled or re-directed if desired. We do not have to worry, especially over matters which we have no control. We can cast our anxieties and cares upon God and re-direct our focus and energies toward our service to God.

But our worry and our anxiety represent our sense of control over a situation. When we otherwise feel powerless, being able to worry about a situation or to be anxious regarding it is something we can have and nurture. We feel that as long as we focus on the circumstance we might be able to do something about it– no matter how futile that endeavor might be. As bad as worry and anxiety might be, and as much as we might know that worry and anxiety does not help us, feeling utterly powerless often feels that much worse.

It takes a lot of confidence in God and a recognition of His great power and concern for us to give up that last vestige of power we may feel we have and cast our anxieties upon Him. And that is precisely why Peter attaches the need to cast our anxieties upon God onto the exhortation to humble ourselves under God’s mighty hand. When we give up ourselves, our cares, our anxieties– all of us– we find that God takes care of all such things and much, much more, and as opposed to worry and fear we can be filled with grace and peace (cf. Philippians 4:7).

But we must take that leap of faith and place our confidence in God. Let us seek to humble ourselves under God’s mighty hand and cast our last vestige of control– our worries and anxieties– upon Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Betrayal

For it was not an enemy that reproached me; Then I could have borne it: Neither was it he that hated me that did magnify himself against me; Then I would have hid myself from him:
But it was thou, a man mine equal, My companion, and my familiar friend.
We took sweet counsel together; We walked in the house of God with the throng (Psalm 55:12-14).

The Psalmist is in great distress. He cries out to God, hoping that He will hear (Psalm 55:1-2). His pain is great, and his heart is in anguish (Psalm 55:3-5). He wishes that he could fly away and find rest, for in the city there is contention and strife (Psalm 55:6-11).

Yet his heart is not pained by just any old trouble or difficulty– that could be better tolerated. Instead, the Psalmist is feeling the distress that comes from betrayal.

There is always pain when one is spoken evil of, or has injury committed against him or her, but we come to expect it from enemies. Everyone expects their enemies to cause them problems. After all, an enemy that does not act in hostile ways is not much of an enemy.

Yet the pain caused by betrayal is doubly deepened. Not only is there the distress caused by the injury suffered, but the one causing the injury is a trusted friend! That person might be one with whom we share the faith. We may have poured out our soul to that person. We may have confessed our sins to him or her (cf. James 5:16). And now they have turned against us, perhaps even using that information given in confidence against us. Pain, fear, and disappointment surely follow.

The Psalmist knows these feelings well. He wishes for the destruction of the betrayer (Psalm 55:15). Nevertheless, he focuses his energy toward God, knowing that He is faithful and will save him (Psalm 55:16-19). Even if others are deceptive and cruel, we ought to cast our care upon the LORD, and He will sustain us (Psalm 55:20-22). In the end, God will condemn those who are wicked; it is for us to trust in God (Psalm 55:23).

If we live long enough we will experience the pain of the Psalmist. And that is why this Psalm is in the collection– it gives us a voice to express our deep frustration, disappointment, and pain. And yet it is also a reminder that even though our fellow humans will let us down at times and may even betray us, God is faithful. God will save us. We should always have our hope and trust firmly anchored in God. He is able to sustain us.

Whenever we develop close friendships we expose ourselves to the possibility of betrayal. That should not stop us from developing close friendships, but it should lead us to be circumspect and to be close friends with people of high integrity. Yet even if we are betrayed we should still communicate with our fellow man and strive to encourage him. In all of this we must remember that only God is completely trustworthy, and that is why we must always look to Him first and foremost in our lives. We must always confide in Him. We must confess our sins to Him (1 John 1:9). Even if man may disappoint and betray, God will not. Let us keep our trust firmly in God!

Ethan R. Longhenry