The Spies’ Report

And Caleb stilled the people before Moses, and said, “Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.”
But the men that went up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.”
And they brought up an evil report of the land which they had spied out unto the children of Israel, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature. And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight” (Numbers 13:30-33).

The mission had been completed. But what did it mean?

Moses commissioned twelve spies, one from each tribe of Israel, to go and search out Canaan and ascertain the nature of the land and its inhabitants (Numbers 13:1-20). They went up and saw the land and its inhabitants; they brought back a cluster of grapes, some pomegranates, and figs (Numbers 13:21-26). They even brought back a united assessment of the land: it was a great land, “flowing with milk and honey,” but the people who live there were strong, in great and fortified cities, and the descendants of Anak (the Nephilim, Numbers 13:33) lived there, as well as Amalekites, Jebusites, Amorites, Hittites, and Canaanites (Numbers 13:27-29).

Altdorfer Joshua and Caleb

Caleb, the spy from the tribe of Judah, then encouraged Israel to go and possess the land (Numbers 13:30). But ten of the other spies threw cold water on that suggestion, emphasizing the strength of the adversaries, considering themselves as grasshoppers in comparison (Numbers 13:31-33).

Israel went the way of the ten spies; they went so far as to express the desire to return to Egypt and slavery (Numbers 14:1-4). Caleb, along with Joshua, the spy from Ephraim, begged Israel to reconsider, affirming the goodness of the land and that YHWH would give it to them, confident that if YHWH was with them it would not matter how strong their foes might seem (Numbers 14:5-9). But it was too late; Israelites sought to stone Joshua and Caleb (Numbers 14:10).

Consider Israel’s perspective. The reality “on the ground” is never in doubt: the ten spies recognize that the land is of excellent quality with great produce; Caleb and Joshua recognize that the inhabitants of the land are numerous, strong, and living in well-fortified cities. The Israelites have just left slavery in Egypt; they did not have the resources and strength among themselves to overcome their enemies’ advantages. They, as with the ten spies, assess the situation as it looks on the ground; their response is entirely natural according to such a perspective. If it is their strength versus their opponents’ strength, they will die in battle. Such seems quite realistic.

And then there was the faith motivating Caleb and Joshua. If all Israel could rely on was its own resources and strength then Caleb and Joshua would agree that any invasion was a fool’s errand. But Caleb and Joshua remembered that YHWH had just redeemed them from Egyptian slavery, from the very Egypt which dominated Canaan and boasted the strongest empire of the day. If YHWH could rescue Israel from Egypt, then YHWH could dispossess the strong Canaanite nations from before Israel (Numbers 14:9). No, Israel would not obtain Canaan because of their own abilities. They could only obtain it if they trusted in YHWH.

But Israel was not trusting in YHWH. They were rebelling against Him! He promised that He would bring them into the land; they wanted to go back to Egypt, to abort YHWH’s mission halfway through (Exodus 3:7-9, Numbers 14:1-4). To return to Egypt would be to forsake YHWH and everything which He had done for Israel. They even wished that they had died in Egypt or the wilderness; such is how little they trusted in YHWH or thought of the efficacy of His power in this situation.

To this day there is a place for assessment of the situation “on the ground.” In general there is consensus about the situation of the faith “on the ground.” Its influence, however strong it may have been in the past, seems to be waning. Church membership and participation is declining. More and more people identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Strong secular and spiritual forces attempt to subvert the faith and marginalize those who proclaim it. Following Jesus seems to be a quaint relic of the past, a historical legacy many feel is better to discard. Likewise, there is general agreement that by our own resources and strength it will prove nearly impossible to turn the tide on these trends. We can see the “post-Christian” secular future across the pond in Europe where it has been going on for longer than here. “Realistically” we have reason for lamentation and mourning. “Sober assessments” recognize the seeming futility of our endeavors. “On the ground,” it would seem that we should make sure to ask the last person to leave to turn off the lights.

Yet such assessments, however “realistic” or “sober” they seem to be, do not take into account the existence of God and all He has done for us. They do not take into account that “realistically” Christianity should never have existed, and even if it had been started, by all “realistic” scenarios would have died out a long time ago. Jesus has won the victory; Jesus has overcome the world (John 16:31-33). The forces of darkness in this world are arrayed against us and they are strong (Ephesians 6:12); nevertheless, He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).

Many Christians have fallen into the trap of cynicism and pessimism dressed up as being “honest” or “realistic” about the manifold problems facing Christianity and the church. We do well to remember that the spies and Israel were the people of God, and they were being quite “realistic” and “honest” about the situations they were facing. Yet God punished that generation for rebelling against Him; they ironically got their wish, for they all but Caleb and Joshua would die in the wilderness and would not inherit the land (Numbers 14:10-35). The ten spies died by plague (Numbers 14:36-37). It would be the next generation who would trust in YHWH and obtain the promised land, and Caleb and Joshua would lead them to victory (Joshua 1:1-24:33). We must remember this because what the Israelites thought was “honesty” and “realism” betrayed a lack of faith and rebelliousness (1 Corinthians 10:1-12)! YHWH had already proven Himself by delivering them from Egyptian slavery and providing for them to that moment. Likewise God has proven Himself to us through the life, death, resurrection, and lordship of Jesus His Son (Romans 1:4, Romans 5:6-11, 8:17-25). He is able to do more than we can ask or think (Ephesians 3:20-21). The only reason we have ever had the opportunity to hear the Gospel ourselves is on account of His great power working through His servants; if it were only ever based on the resources and strength of the faithful the message would not get very far!

The world gives many reasons for cynicism, despair, doubt, and pessimism. It always has; it always will. Christians are called to put their trust in God, recognizing that the victory comes through Jesus even in difficult circumstances, and that the ways of the world are folly to God (1 Corinthians 1:19-25, 1 Peter 1:3-9). The decision is up to us. Are we going to give in to the realistic assessment and be driven to cynicism and despair as the ten spies and Israel, proving to have more faith in our perception and the ways of the world than in our Creator and Redeemer, and be found in rebellion? Or will we prove willing to put our trust in God in Christ, aware of the long odds and impossibility of our mission in worldly terms, but ever mindful of God’s strength and faithfulness, and to put our hope in God and His strength, as Caleb and Joshua did? May we maintain faith and hope and not give in to cynicism and despair, and obtain the victory in Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Foundation of Knowledge

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; but the foolish despise wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:7).

The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens (Proverbs 3:19).

There was a time in the past when, on the whole, a defense for the idea that a Higher Power/a greater Intelligence/a supernatural Creative Being was behind the creation of the heavens and earth and their constitution was not necessary. There would not be much disagreement about the premise even though the particular nature of such a Being was disputed.

But such a defense is necessary today. It has become quite popular and stylish in many circles to entirely reject the notion of a Higher Power. Development of new scientific models and theories have been greatly over-extended and pressed into the cause of denying the supernatural. More than ever before, some humans think that they can explain away the way things are in an entirely “natural” way.

But can they really? Sure, they can create a model where, in theory, the spark of life began and developed through mutation and natural selection. In such a view human beings chance upon things called consciousness and reason. They start pondering questions of existence and the nature of things. In such a view, sadly for humanity, there is really nothing to ponder. There is no real “reason” for reason, no greater consciousness. Their mental development is an interesting evolutionary accident that has no meaning whatsoever, because meaning really does not exist.

Does that make any sense? Not really. Furthermore, it leaves very important and fundamental questions unanswered. Too many who protest the realm of the supernatural still use the grounding and foundations that come with belief in a Higher, Intelligent Power.

Think about it for a moment. If there is no God who created all things by wisdom, how can there be anything abstract? Some philosophers today are trying to come up with a system of ethics without a religious/supernatural foundation, but they will inevitably fail in so doing, because if there is no greater structure in existence– no meaning or Source of meaning– who is to say what is right or wrong? What are “right” and “wrong” anyway if there is no sense of justice in the cosmos, for there is no conscious Power out there? How can we expect anything to be invested with any meaning if there is no greater Consciousness to uphold the idea of meaning, or idea at all? Why should we invest science and reason with trust and confidence if, in reality, there is no greater Power or form of organization out there? If there is no Source of reason, how can anything really be “reasonable”?

Our society’s spiral into relativism suddenly becomes quite explainable. If there is no God there is no Power out there to define anything. In such a circumstance, anything goes. This is true anarchy and true chaos, for there is no Power to order anything. “Right” and “wrong” are whatever you want to define as “right” and “wrong.” What is “reasonable” is what people decide to agree upon is “reasonable.” Might– however expressed– makes right. Despair, depression, and frustration are not far behind. We were not made to live in a meaningless world where anything goes.

This is all folly. We can know for certain that there is a greater Power than ourselves, the God who is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe (Genesis 1:1-2:3, Hebrews 1:3). There is “right” and “wrong” because He has established His holy standard of justice in the cosmos (Isaiah 30:18, 42:4). He is the God who made man in His image (Genesis 1:26-27)– spirit (John 4:24) and consciousness, therefore, come from Him. He has created the universe in such a way so as to be understood by His creation (Romans 1:19-20); this is not a mark of the lack of a God, but in fact the hallmark of God, for if there were no God, why would we expect anything in the universe to be comprehensible at all?

These were things confessed by those of old who sought greater knowledge of the way the physical universe works. It has been forgotten by too many today, not because it has been falsified, but because of the rebelliousness of the heart and the arrogance of the mind of man. Those who are truly wise understand that the reverence of God– confession of the Higher Power and submission to Him– is the beginning of knowledge, and that everything makes sense because God made it so as to make sense.

Let us not be deceived by man’s foolishness. There is a Creator God who has revealed Himself through Jesus His Son and we do well to learn of Him and seek His will (John 1:18, Galatians 2:20). Let us be firm in our confidence in the existence of God and conduct ourselves appropriately!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Is it Vain to Serve God?

“Your words have been stout against me,” saith the LORD.
Yet ye say, “What have we spoken against thee?”
Ye have said, “It is vain to serve God; and what profit is it that we have kept his charge, and that we have walked mournfully before the LORD of hosts?” (Malachi 3:13-14).

People tend to prefer and value instant gratification. Sure, there are some things for which people are willing to wait for a little time, but on the whole, we want results, and we want them now. We do not want to wait in line, we do not want to wait to buy things later, and we certainly do not like being held in suspension.

If humans cannot stand waiting, then it stands to reason that humans have an even harder time tolerating seemingly constant failure. In the minds of many, insanity is defined as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” In many facets of life, that statement is reasonable and accurate.

But what happens when it comes to waiting on God?

Human beings want things right now. They want change to have happened already. Yet God operates in His good time, for He is not bound to time like we are (cf. 2 Peter 3:8). We want everything right now, but God is patiently transforming those who seek to be His obedient servants (cf. Romans 8:29, 12:1-2). It does not happen overnight– but it does happen!

But how do we feel when we look out in the world and think that nothing is going right? What happens when it seems like things are worse for us because we try to serve God? How should we then respond?

We can see how the post-exilic Jews responded to this situation. By all accounts they were less sinful than their fathers, and yet while their fathers lived in a free and independent Judah, they remained under the hand of the Persians. It seemed to them that the wicked and arrogant prospered while the righteous were distressed and humbled (cf. Malachi 2:17, 3:15). Their response was natural: why bother serving God? In their eyes, it was vanity to serve God– they were no better off for it!

This response is as entirely understandable as it is misguided. It is the result of the myopic tunnel vision that we humans often experience– we focus on all of our challenges and difficulties and the oppression and the injustice in the world and declare God unjust, or believe that since we prayed fervently for some noble cause and yet still have failed that God has abandoned us, while all around us the blessings of God in life, both physical and spiritual, abounds (cf. Genesis 1:1-2:4, John 3:16, Ephesians 1:3). If we understand that God is the Author and Sustainer of Life, how could we even begin to think that it is vain to serve Him?

It is important for us to remember that our work in the Lord is never in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). It may not lead to the immediate results we desire, either in terms of our own growth and development or the encouragement of other souls, but its long-term impact may be vast indeed. Even if it has little impact on ourselves or others, it works within God’s greater plan and His great will (Ephesians 1:3-11), and that is glorious. As Jesus indicates in Luke 18:1-8, there is great value in persistence in prayer, and we should not assume that our prayers fail because we do not immediately see changes.

We may find that things seem to go worse for us once we have turned to righteousness and seek the will of God. But we must remember in such circumstances that it is only a reversal on the surface. Consider the image we see in Revelation– if you just read Revelation 13, for instance, you would have good reason to despair if you were one of the members of the seven churches of Asia. The world of Revelation 13 was the “real world” in which you would have inhabited. Nevertheless, the picture is given in Revelation 12, 14-19, of what else is going on, and that perspective changes everything: Satan’s hold on the powers of earth is his desperate last stand, and it too will fail in the end. No matter how bleak it might have seemed on the earth, God was still ruling in heaven.

And so it is with us today. It is easy to get lost in the surface matters and the temporary setbacks, get frustrated and discouraged, and wonder if there is any value in serving God. Yet let us remember that God is still ruler in heaven, that He is accomplishing many great things, and that our work in the Lord is never in vain. Let us be patient and faithful servants of God, knowing that He does all things well (cf. Mark 7:37)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Power of Contentment

Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therein to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know also how to abound: in everything and in all things have I learned the secret both to be filled and to be hungry, both to abound and to be in want. I can do all things in him that strengtheneth me (Philippians 4:11-13).

It has been made beyond clear that we are entering difficult times. Economies are struggling. Jobs are being lost. People are losing their homes. Uncertainty abounds. Fear is not far behind.

Yet it is at this time that the power of contentment is made evident. Learning to appreciate what you have and not to constantly seek after what you do not have, while not easy, is the only path to true peace and stability while sojourning on the earth.

You may lose your job, but you will still have other forms of support. You may lose your house, but you will still have a family. You may lose your health, but you will keep relationships. And even if you were to experience the greatest of cataclysms and lose your job, house, family, other forms of support, and health, you still have your soul and the love of God our Father through the Son Jesus Christ (Romans 8:35-39).

As it is written,

But godliness with contentment is great gain: for we brought nothing into the world, for neither can we carry anything out; but having food and covering we shall be therewith content (1 Timothy 6:6-8).

Contrary to what marketers tell you, you do not “need” a flat-screen television, you do not “need” a cell phone, you do not “need” your own house, two cars, and this, that, and the other. You need God and His strength, and when you seek His way, He will take care of the basic human necessities– food and covering (cf. Matthew 6:33).

When we have the attitude that God, daily bread, and shelter are all we really need, we can be better prepared to appreciate other blessings which God bestows upon us– and better prepared to persevere if they get taken away.

Learning contentment is not easy, but it is the only “recession-proof” attitude. Contentment provides inner peace that transcends the highs of economic prosperity and the lows of economic depression, and stabilizes the faith of those who would believe in God. More importantly, it preserves the soul from overconsumption and the service of the idol of covetousness!

Let us decide to seek contentment in whatever circumstance in which we find ourselves!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Hope

For in hope were we saved: but hope that is seen is not hope: for who hopeth for that which he seeth? But if we hope for that which we see not, then do we with patience wait for it (Romans 8:24-25).

Hope, in the world, is the antidote to despair.  The word only begins to surface when things no longer go well.  When economic times get rough, people hope that conditions will improve.  When someone becomes ill, people hope that they recover.  Yet, in “normal,” positive day-to-day life, hope does not seem as necessary.

The Christian, however, is to live in hope (Romans 15;13, 1 Corinthians 13:13).  There is not a time in which we are not to await the return of our Lord, the redemption of our bodies, and the opportunity to spend eternity with the Lord (Ephesians 1:18, Colossians 1:5).  It is at that point, as Paul says, that we shall no longer hope, for our hope will have been realized.

But that day has not yet come.  We must never be so comfortable in our lives here that we lose sight of our greater hope.  We cannot allow confidence in the riches of this world to lead us to neglect our hope for riches in Heaven.  We cannot be so satisfied with life here that we no longer hope for a better life in eternity.  If earthly blessings sap our hope for heavenly ones, we of all people are most impoverished.

Many people live almost entirely in hope because they do not have the multitude of blessings that we have.  While we may feel sorry for them now, in the long run perhaps we are to be more pitied, if we lose our heavenly hope in the satisfaction of the present.

As long as we live in a sin-sick and tragic world, let us cling to our hope in Jesus Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry