Wrestles With God

And he said, “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed” (Genesis 32:28).

Many stories in Scripture serve as representative concrete examples encapsulating greater truths or development. And so it is with Jacob and the angel.

“Jacob” meant “he cheats”; the name is an apt description for Jacob in his early years. He was quiet, dwelling in tents, not the outdoors type like his older brother Esau (Genesis 25:26-27). He had his mother’s affections, and probably not a little of her personality as well (Genesis 25:28). Esau was willing to give up his birthright for some stew, and was foolish to agree to it, but Jacob was the one who set such an extravagant price (Genesis 25:29-34). When his mother suggests the plot to deceive his father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn, Jacob’s concern is not about ethics or morality but about logistics and challenges (Genesis 27:1-13). He thus cheats his brother out of his birthright and his blessing (Genesis 27:36). Esau, predictably, is not a fan of this turn of events, and conspired to take out his brother Jacob (Genesis 27:41); Rebekah hears of it and makes sure Jacob is sent far away to her brother Laban in Paddan-Aram (Genesis 27:42-28:2). God grants Jacob a vision of the ladder with angels upon it and promises the blessings of the inheritance of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 28:10-19). He promised that if God would keep him and preserve him back to his father’s house, he would build a house for God at Bethel and give a tenth of what he had (Genesis 28:20-22). A cheater who makes demands of God; this is certainly not the story of a mature patriarch!

The cheater is then cheated: he works seven years for Laban’s younger daughter Rachel but is given the older daughter Leah instead; he then must work another seven years for Rachel (Genesis 29:1-30). Jacob had to deal with the contentions among his wives (Genesis 29:31-30:25). Laban continually attempted to cheat Jacob, but the “God of [Jacob’s] father Isaac” preserved him and made him prosper (Genesis 30:26-31:55).

Jacob thus heads toward his father’s land after around twenty years of striving with Laban and others; he sends word to Esau and hears that Esau is coming to meet him with four hundred men with him (Genesis 32:1-6). Jacob has overcome the challenges surrounding Laban but does not know how things will work out with Esau. In the middle of all this an angel of YHWH visits Jacob, and of all things, wrestles with him (Genesis 32:24). Jacob did not give up; neither did the angel. The end came when the angel displaced the hollow of Jacob’s thigh and day had come (Genesis 32:25). Jacob demanded a blessing; his name is changed to Israel, “wrestles with God,” because he strove with men and with God and had prevailed. Only then did Jacob realize he had wrestled with an angel and named the place Peniel (Genesis 32:29-30).

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

Jacob and Esau would then meet and things went well; Jacob return to the land of his father (Genesis 33:1-20); he fulfilled the vow he made to God (Genesis 35:1-7). But it is quite telling, and appropriate, that “Jacob” left the land of his father, never to return; “Israel” is the man who comes back to the land which will bear that name, with a full household who would become the tribes of the land.

Of all the characters we meet in Scripture, Jacob’s is one of the best developed. The Genesis author does so for good reason: Jacob becomes Israel and provides a paradigm for Israel. “Jacob,” as “he cheats,” was in no position to be a patriarch; he had to learn humility, and learned it by receiving plenty of his own medicine. And yet he prevailed. He wrestled with an angel, and yet he prevailed.

There is a little detail that can often be missed but is quite telling within this story of Jacob. Before Jacob becomes Israel by wrestling with the angel, God is never “his” God; YHWH could only be his God if He provided for him (Genesis 28:21). God, to Jacob, was “the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the Fear of Isaac” (Genesis 31:42). But when Jacob/Israel has returned to the land of his father, and he builds an altar near Shechem, he names it El-Elohe-Israel, “God, the God of Israel” (Genesis 33:20). God is not merely the God of his ancestors. God is his God as well.

Such is the lesson of Jacob/Israel. Israel the nation embodied Israel the patriarch constantly throughout its history, striving with God, often falling short of His glory and holiness, and wondering where His promises had gone despite their perceived faithfulness (e.g. Psalms 44, 88-89). We can read the story of many of the men of faith who had to grow into their role, strove with God, and ultimately grew in character, faith, holiness, and in their relationship with Him. Each new Israelite and generation of Israelites had to wrestle with their situation, wrestle with their faith, and in some way wrestle with God so that He would not just be the God of their fathers but their God as well.

And so it is to this day. We are the spiritual descendants of Israel (1 Corinthians 10:1-12, Galatians 3:29, Hebrews 11:1-12:2). Those born to godly parents do well to consider that “Jacob” was born to godly parents as well; “Jacob” as such needed to grow into “Israel” to be the patriarch God intended for him to be, because only “Israel” considered God to be his God. We cannot expect to short-circuit the process, either: we must strive with God and men, wrestle with our faith and our situation, and through the experiences of life, some for good, many perhaps seeming to be to our detriment, we are to come to the recognition that God is not just the God of our fathers but our God as well. May we honor God as our Creator and our God, and serve Him through His Son!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Wrestles With God

Growing in Grace and Knowledge

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and for ever. Amen (2 Peter 3:18).

Peter’s final written words continue to resonate.

The second letter of Peter features the Apostle’s reminders to his fellow Christians regarding the holiness of their conduct, the behavior and condition of false teachers, and encouragement regarding the end of time (the eschaton) and warnings regarding those who distort the Apostolic witness (2 Peter 1:1-3:17). After his departure Peter does not want his fellow Christians to be carried away by the error of the wicked, falling from their steadfastness in Jesus (2 Peter 3:17); the only way to avoid that is to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, to whom glory belongs from now until forever (2 Peter 3:18).

Peter thus expects Christians to grow. He is not speaking merely to Christians who remain young in their faith; quite the contrary! The Christians to whom Peter wrote could recall and remember the words of the Apostles and prophets regarding the last days (2 Peter 3:2); they had a working knowledge of the faith and thus had “been around the block” for awhile. During this life there is no point at which it becomes acceptable for a Christian to stop growing! Whether we have been Christians for one day, one year, or almost a hundred years, we must continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Chrisme Colosseum Rome Italy

Christians must grow in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior (2 Peter 3:18). This knowledge certainly involves the facts about Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, lordship, and return as established in the New Testament. We also do well to buttress our knowledge of the Lord through gaining understanding of the story of the people of God in the Old Testament (2 Timothy 3:15-16). If we do so we are better equipped to recognize how Jesus would have us think, feel, and act in the twenty-first century as His faithful disciples (1 John 2:3-6).

Yet Christians are also to grow in the grace of Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18). Grace, Greek charis, is “unmerited favor,” obtaining things we do not deserve. The preeminent way in which we have received grace is through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for our sin, the means by which we are offered reconciliation with God (Ephesians 1:7, 2:1-10). But how can we “grow” in that grace? We know it cannot be through greater sin (Romans 6:1-23). But how can Christians grow in the gift of God in Christ?

Christians can grow in grace through more effectively manifesting the fruit of that gift and being that gift toward others. God has displayed grace toward us inasmuch as He has given His Son for our reconciliation and restoration. Yet it is not enough for us to obtain the reconciliation but remain as we are; we must manifest the transformation of the follower of Jesus, no longer walking in the ways of the world, but walking in Jesus’ ways, displaying the fruit of the Spirit (Romans 12:1-2, Galatians 5:22-24, 1 John 2:3-6). When we are transformed to not only be saved by Jesus but also to think, feel, and act like Jesus, we are able to serve others as Jesus did and they will give praise and glory to God as Jesus intends (Matthew 5:13-16, 1 Peter 2:11-12). The Body of Christ ought to be recognized as a gift of God to the world; it is incumbent upon its members to act accordingly (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Ephesians 4:11-16)!

“Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ”; Peter’s final words echo through the centuries (2 Peter 3:18). The Christian must recognize that while in the flesh there is always more to learn, more to do, lessons to obtain, and growth to experience. An important part of that growth involves knowledge, but there is always more to learn, and of the making of books there is no end (Ecclesiastes 12:12). We can, and should, study the Scriptures; are we bearing the fruit of that study through the demonstration of the transformed life, manifesting growth in the grace of the Lord Jesus? Are we trusting less in ourselves and more in Him? Do we continue to rely on our own strength or are we entrusting ourselves to God’s strength in Christ (Ephesians 3:14-21)? Are people better able to see Jesus reflected in us on account of our investment in study and trust in God? We must grow in the knowledge of Jesus Christ but also in His grace; let us learn more of Jesus so as to serve Him more effectively, manifesting the fruit of the Spirit, giving others reason to glorify God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Growing in Grace and Knowledge

Alienation

Wherefore remember, that once ye, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called Circumcision, in the flesh, made by hands; that ye were at that time separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world (Ephesians 2:11-12).

To many loneliness and alienation is a fate worse than death. Who really wants to be entirely alone?

As Paul writes to the Ephesians (and if Ephesians is an encyclical letter, which is plausible, to other congregations of Christians as well), after describing the initial condition of all mankind and how God has acted in Christ to provide salvation (Ephesians 2:1-10), he then turns specifically to the Gentile Christians, of whom there were likely many in Ephesus and Asia Minor, and spoke of how God reconciled Gentiles with Jews, the people of God, to make one new body of God’s people in Christ (Ephesians 2:11-18). As with his description of salvation, so with his description of the in-gathering of the Gentiles: he first describes the condition of the Gentiles before they found reconciliation in Christ in Ephesians 2:11-12, and it is not a pretty picture. They were the “uncircumcision,” used in derogatory ways (e.g. 2 Samuel 1:20). They were separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, having no part of the nation of the people of God; they were strangers, or outsiders, not sharing in the covenant of promise given to Abraham and maintained through Isaac and Israel (Genesis 12:1-50:12). Therefore they found themselves with no hope of resurrection or reconciliation and without God, the source of light and life, in the world (Ephesians 2:12). People of the nations (“Gentiles” meaning “nations”) found themselves in quite a distressing and difficult place: they were out there alienated from God, His people, and therefore all that is good and holy.

Almost two thousand years later we all find ourselves, at some point, in this condition; when we live in sin we are separated from God (Isaiah 59:2), have no hope in the resurrection but a fearful expectation of judgment (Romans 2:6-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, Hebrews 10:26-31), and at a fundamental level find ourselves alienated from the people of God (1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 1 Peter 4:3-5). Is that any way to live or seek to maintain existence?

Modern life and culture have only exacerbated man’s condition of alienation. In the past, for better or for worse, people most frequently spent most of their lives within a few miles of where they were born; everyone knew everybody, and quite often, everybody’s business. It was not that long ago when neighbors actually knew one another and looked out for one another; neighborhood children would play with each other and grow up together. People had to interact with each other when traveling and while shopping. These days many extended families are spread across the country or even the world; many move frequently; technology develops ways to function without interaction. If anything our fellow man becomes a matter of irritation: those other cars on the road leading to traffic delays; other shoppers who are in the way or taking too long at the register. Even the Internet with its great promise of connecting people around the world easily leads to alienation when people choose electronic contact over personal contact. We may have new and better toys, yet they have come at the expense of our relationships with one another. Why are we surprised, then, when so many people are depressed, anxious, and feel quite alone and alienated from their fellow man?

Despite the popular myths of society man was not made to be fully independent and alone. Humans were made in the image of God who is Three in One, One in relational unity (Genesis 1:26-27, John 17:20-23). As humans we need connection with God and with fellow human beings in order to live and thrive! Such is why Paul does not stop with the story at Ephesians 2:12 any more than he did in Ephesians 2:3; the great news of Jesus Christ is that all who were once alienated from God and His people can now be reconciled through the blood shed by Jesus, and we can share in the hope of resurrection and life together with God and one another for eternity through Jesus’ resurrection (Ephesians 2:1-18, Revelation 21:1-22:6). Thanks to Jesus we do not have to suffer from alienation any more. Through Him we can be reconciled to God (Romans 5:6-11). Then we can become the people of God and share in that work and community together (Acts 2:42-47, 1 John 1:7)!

Sadly there are times and places when and where Christians feel alienated and alone. Perhaps they work in difficult places. Perhaps their congregation is not fostering a strong sense of community within itself. Perhaps the Christian has not proven willing to open up so as to be part of the larger group, afraid of getting hurt or burned for the first time or yet again. Perhaps the Christian or the members of the church have believed a bit too much in the American myth of complete independence and self-sufficiency. Regardless of the reason, this ought not be, for how can the people of the God who is One in relational unity survive and thrive when living in alienation, isolation, and loneliness?

The church, as Christ’s body, must reflect the will of its Head, the Author and Finisher of its faith and practice (Ephesians 5:25-32, Hebrews 12:2); as Jesus is One with the Father and the Spirit, so He wills for us to be one with one another in His body (John 17:20-23). Such is why He said that His “mother and brothers” are those who do the will of His Father, privileging the spiritual relationship over all others (Matthew 12:46-50). Such is why Paul exhorts Christians to prefer one another in honor, expecting the members of the body of Christ to have the same care for one another (Romans 12:10, 1 Corinthians 12:24-25). Therefore, building strong relationships and community within the local congregation is not an optional work, but crucial for the spiritual health of all involved. It will not always be pretty; relationships never are. It will require a lot of growth and change on the part of many, yet that is exactly what we are to experience while in this life (1 Peter 1:3-9).

A group of people professing Christ but as alienated from one another as they are from the rest of the people with whom they interact in the world does not reflect the will of God in Christ for His body, and the people of the world know that. Why bother being associated with a group of people who have as little to do with one another as the people they already know, especially when that association comes with additional levels of guilt and shame? When the church looks like the world, then the church has failed. But when people of the world see Christians love each other, care for each other, strengthening the relationships with each other, are there for one another in good times and bad, and that Christians are therefore able to draw strength from one another and are built up in their faith, just as God expects in John 13:34-35, Ephesians 4:11-16, they can see how radically different that is from the alienation present in the world, and all of a sudden being part of the people of God becomes a much more attractive proposition! The orphan can find a family; the introvert can find acceptance; the one who feels like they are always failing find support; and all who are part of the group live in the confidence that whatever may come they have the people of God to hold them up and sustain them no matter what!

Deep down we are all very scared of being alone. Christ has redeemed us from that fear; are we willing to trust in Him and make it a reality for ourselves and our fellow people of God?

Ethan R. Longhenry

Alienation

Commands and Appeals

Wherefore, though I have all boldness in Christ to enjoin thee that which is befitting, yet for love’s sake I rather beseech, being such a one as Paul the aged, and now a prisoner also of Christ Jesus (Philemon 1:8-9).

“Speak softly, and carry a big stick.”

Theodore Roosevelt made this “proverb” famous as a way of describing his governing policy. He preferred diplomacy so as to resolve differences but made it clear how he could use force to accomplish his purposes.

In the short letter Paul wrote to Philemon, a letter which raises more questions than it answers, Paul wishes to use the spiritual equivalent of speaking softly while carrying a big stick in order to persuade Philemon regarding the condition of Onesimus. Paul is an Apostle of Jesus Christ, one granted power and authority (cf. Colossians 1:1). All of the province of Asia would have heard of the mighty acts which Paul had accomplished in the name of Jesus in Ephesus (cf. Acts 19:1-20). The authority granted him by the Lord Jesus and his personal commitment to the Lord’s purposes were unquestioned in Colossae (the likely home of Philemon; cf. Colossians 4:12-16, Philemon 1:1-2). Paul would have been entirely in the right to issue a command to Philemon to act as Paul believed he should (Philemon 1:8).

Yet Paul has great respect for Philemon. Paul thanks God for him in his prayers, having heard of his love and faith for Jesus and the Christians (Philemon 1:3-5). Many Christians have been refreshed by him, and he is likely hosting the assemblies of the church in Colossae in his house (Philemon 1:2, 7). By all accounts, Philemon is seeking to please the Lord Jesus and to do His will in all respects.

Therefore, Paul does not think it best to enjoin, or command, what Philemon should do; instead, for love’s sake, he will beseech, or appeal to, Philemon to act as he should (Philemon 1:9). Paul will go on to make his request: to not penalize Onesimus the slave of Philemon in any way on account of his departure and time spent with Paul, but instead to receive his slave as a fellow brother in Christ (Philemon 1:10-17). Paul wishes for whatever would be charged against Onesimus to be charged against him instead (Philemon 1:17-19).

We have so many questions to ask regarding this situation and especially about the aftermath of the letter and what happened among Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus. Even though we will not come to a complete answer to these questions in this life, we can share in the same trust which Paul maintained: since Philemon seeks to live for Christ and glorify Him, and Philemon seems to be aware of the “debt” which he owes Paul (cf. Philemon 1:19), we can have confidence that Philemon did the right thing on the basis of Paul’s appeal. Yet we must ask: if Paul had instead decided to maintain his boldness in Christ and command what was necessary, would we feel as confident that Philemon would have done the right thing? If Paul had not first so commended Philemon for his faith and manner of life, thereby giving us confidence in his faith, would we have any basis upon which to believe that Philemon would be well-disposed to do the right thing?

As Christians, when we consider what is written in the New Testament for our instruction, it is easy to conflate commands and appeals and consider the two as completely synonymous. This is understandable: as servants of God in Christ, we should seek to follow after both what has been commanded in the name of the Lord as well as the appeals made toward thinking, feeling, and acting in holiness and righteousness (Colossians 3:17, 2 Peter 3:11-12, 1 John 2:3-6). If anyone comes away from Scripture thinking that what is commanded is all that is required and therefore anything regarding which an appeal is made is less than required and thus optional is still thinking in worldly, carnal ways, and has not fully imbibed the mind of Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:6-16). Appeals can be made because there are commands and the Lord Jesus behind them!

While we ought to follow after both those things which are commanded and concerning which appeals are made (and, to be fair, many things regarding which appeals are made are also commanded in other places, and vice versa), in terms of communication, there can be a big difference between a command and an appeal. A command is more forceful, and might rub someone the wrong way. To have to make something a command, at times, could imply a lack of trust and confidence in the one being commanded. An appeal, especially when made in a way that appreciates the faith of the one to whom the appeal is made, can often lead to the same desired end more effectively. If the appeal does fail, then the “big stick” can be used.

Another “proverb” of our time which speaks to the same reality is that one can catch more flies with honey than vinegar. We should not compromise the Gospel message or God’s standard in order to make the message more palatable to people. There will be times when people are going to be offended and rubbed the wrong way no matter what we say or do. Yet everyone appreciates being appreciated. Every Christian is sustained in their faith by encouragement (Hebrews 10:24-25). People often do not mind being encouraged toward a higher goal or better service toward God but do not respond as well when they are berated, denounced, or denigrated because they have not done as well as they could. None of us are perfect; all of us fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). Sometimes people do need a wake-up call, but how many times are commands dictated and rebukes blasted when a loving appeal would be more accurate and effective?

There is a time for commands, but there are also times for appeals. We might carry the “big stick” of the Word of God, but that does not mean that we do well to use it constantly to beat up on other people. Instead, let us seek to persuade men through appealing to them by the message of God. Let our presentations of the Gospel really be good news, not bad news. Let us make sure that we are truly encouraging one another, exhorting each other toward greater faithfulness to God in Christ, growing together in the Way!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Commands and Appeals

Discipline

It is for chastening that ye endure; God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father chasteneth not? (Hebrews 12:7).

Discipline; chastisement: we do not like the sound of these words. They may bring back unpleasant memories from childhood. Even the Bible makes it clear that no one really enjoys discipline when it happens (cf. Hebrews 12:11). How many times have we schemed in life in attempts to avoid discipline and/or chastisement? And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we understand the need for and value of discipline.

The word translated as chastening (or, in other versions, discipline) is the Greek paideia, which can refer to the whole training and education of children, and for adults, that which leads to correcting errors, limiting the exercise of passions, and actual chastisement for bad behavior. In 2 Timothy 3:15, Paul describes Scripture as providing “instruction” (paideia) in righteousness; in Ephesians 6:4, he encourages parents to raise their children in the “nurture” (or “discipline”; paideia) and admonition of the Lord.

We do well to keep the breadth of meaning of paideia in mind when we consider discipline, since it is very easy for us to focus on the negative. “Discipline” or “chastisement” tends to be associated only with some kind of penalty or punishment for misbehavior; that automatic association is unfortunate and a distortion. Just providing (or suffering) a penalty or punishment is not discipline: punitive acts alone do not change or alter behaviors. Instead, the aim of any kind of discipline ought to be corrective; any punishment or penalty should be designed with correction of improper behavior in mind.

We normally associate discipline and chastisement, as seen above, with raising children. This remains a most critical aspect to discipline, for children will grow up and have to learn about the boundaries of proper behavior somehow or another. The only question involves the quality of that instruction and from whom it is received: will instruction and discipline be based in the message of the Lord Jesus or not? Will the child ever learn truly proper behavior, or will they just learn to go along with the boundaries society or the law imposes upon them? How much will they be taught by their parents, and how many lessons will they have to learn through their own mistakes?

It is easy to imagine discipline only in terms of growing up from childhood into adulthood, but discipline does not end because we have left home and are now “grown up.” We must maintain discipline within our own lives, whether through learned behavior or by external restraints. We have to live within our means; we have to conduct ourselves within the boundary of certain standards. We will be punished in various ways by not abiding within these boundaries.

If we believe in God, trust in Him, and seek to do His will, we will receive discipline and chastisement from His hand (Hebrews 12:3-11). Such a view seems sharp and harsh; too many already have a view of God as an authoritarian disciplinarian, and passages like this do not seem to help that perspective. People want to envision that God provides all the good things in their lives, but then will blame God for abandoning them when bad things happen. But let us hear out what the Hebrew author is telling us.

The Hebrew author makes it clear that the problem is with our views and expectations, not God Himself. After all, we have all seen overly permissive parents and the royal terrors and spoiled brats coming out of that relationship. Most of us can look back in our own lives and understand the value and benefit received from proper discipline and chastisement that we received from a figure of some authority. We all need to learn boundaries and understand that there are negative consequences for transgressing boundaries; there is not one of us who can live among other people and not learn this lesson. And since, as human beings, we are all fairly hard-headed, we must pay a penalty or suffer a consequence if we will ever really learn to respect certain boundaries. We did not like discipline at the time: we did not enjoy punishments, we did not enjoy homework, we did not enjoy having to put in a lot of work in order to gain some reward or benefit, but through it all we were supposed to learn to respect boundaries, that we are not entitled to receive anything without working for it, that in order to accomplish anything of value we must devote our time and energy to them, and so on and so forth.

This is exactly what the Hebrew author is saying about discipline (Hebrews 12:3-11); he shows how the example of earthly fathers and the discipline they impose upon their children is a (albeit imperfect) type of the reality of our relationship with God. Just because we have reached the age of 18 (or 28, 38, 58, 78…) does not mean that we no longer need discipline; if anything, as we reach mature adulthood, the necessity of discipline is more evident. God provides discipline and chastisement to His children precisely because He loves them and wants them to live well! Without that discipline, God would be a permissive parent– in the words of the Hebrew author, if God did not discipline us, He would be treating us like illegitimate children! If we are illegitimate, we have no share in Him! How tragic that would be!

As in childhood, so in life: we have lessons to learn in every situation. There are wholesome lessons to be learned through hard effort and success; there are wholesome lessons to be learned when things go wrong and/or when we suffer. Sometimes we might experience pain, misery, suffering, or other such difficulties so that we might learn to stay within the proper boundaries of God’s will and to develop peace and righteousness. It is rarely enough to just intellectually grasp such things; we need to experience them if we will learn from them.

Therefore, in times of difficulty, let us not assume that God has abandoned us. We might be experiencing a moment of chastisement. Even if it is not some kind of punishment or penalty for our excess or transgression, we can still learn discipline through the experience, having our faith refined and developing the characteristics of self-control, peace, patience, and faithfulness, which seem to only develop through suffering. Even if it is unpleasant, let us be willing to endure discipline; without it, we cannot be children of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Discipline

The Lord the Spirit

Now the Lord is the Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).

Paul is masterfully demonstrating the superiority of the new covenant to the old to those Corinthians who have begun to harbor doubts about Paul and his message (2 Corinthians 3:1-16). Through the image of the veil and the contrast between the letter of the Law and the ministry of the Spirit, Paul has declared the surpassing glory of God in Christ and the salvation wrought for all mankind.

These concepts are powerfully brought together in 2 Corinthians 3:17-18: the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit is, there is liberty. Believers behold the image of the glory of the Lord without needing a veil and are being transformed into that image from the Lord the Spirit.

Paul’s declaration that the Lord is the Spirit is quite challenging. What does he mean by it? Is he saying that Jesus and the Spirit are the same? And yet there are plenty of passages that differentiate the two (Matthew 3:16-17, John 14:15-17, 15:26-27, 1 Peter 1:2). Should we understand Lord, Greek kurios, in terms of YHWH in the Old Testament, and thus Paul is declaring that the Holy Spirit is YHWH? Scripture does demonstrate that the Holy Spirit is part of YHWH (cf. Leviticus 26:12/Isaiah 52:11/2 Corinthians 6:16-18, 2 Peter 1:21), and it is possible that Paul is still evoking the imagery of Exodus 34:33-35 and thus considers Lord in terms of YHWH. Yet the use of Lord in the near context clearly points to Jesus Christ: turning to the Lord in 2 Corinthians 3:16, and the image of conformity to the image of the Lord is consistent with Romans 8:29. The best sense of the words in context is that Paul is indeed identifying the Lord Jesus and the Spirit together.

While we should not assume that Paul’s identification here means that Jesus is the Spirit and the Spirit is Jesus, it does show the close relationship between Jesus and the Spirit. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are Three Persons in One being; they share in intimate relationship, unified in being, nature, purpose, will, character, and so forth. Whereas Christ and the Spirit are different Persons within the Godhead, and they have their different roles that they fulfill, Paul is making it clear that we should not separate them when it comes to their purpose and the end result. There is no contrast here between Christ and the Spirit; the Lord is the Spirit, and the ministry of the Spirit is designed to glorify God in Christ.

The presence of the Spirit means that there is liberty (2 Corinthians 3:17). It is far too easy in modern America to lift this verse out of context and turn this concept into something it was never meant to be. What does Paul mean when he says that there is liberty where the Spirit of the Lord is?

We get an idea from the final verse of this chapter and this section. Whereas the Israelites received God’s Law through the intermediary Moses, whose face they refused to see unveiled, believers through Christ receive God’s message directly through the revelation of the Spirit. Through the Spirit believers are able without any veil in the way to perceive the glory of the Lord as if looking in a mirror. We see the message of God manifest in Christ; the Corinthians heard it through Paul, and we see it through Scripture. That “beholding” is to lead to transformation into the same image, so that the glory of the Lord that we behold in the mirror may also be the reflected glory of God that we exhibit to the world. This can only be accomplished through the work of the Spirit in revelation and sanctification (2 Corinthians 3:18, 1 Peter 1:2).

The Law of Moses declared right from wrong; the Spirit allows for transformation to the image of God in Christ. The Law of Moses was read and heard with a veil over the heart of the Israelites; the message from the Spirit is to be heard without hindrance, seen, with spiritual eyes, without any hindrance or covering. Through Christ we can understand God’s redemptive plan and purpose for the creation; through the Spirit we learn of Christ and His message. And this is true freedom: freedom to understand without hindrance, freedom from the veil and the letter which kills. But it cannot be freedom as license to do as we please; that is inconsistent with the image provided throughout Scripture of the believer as being the humble servant of Christ seeking above all things to conform to the image of Jesus, who did not live to please Himself, but to serve the best interests of others (cf. Romans 6:17-23, 8:29, 12:1-2, 15:1-3, Philippians 2:1-11, 1 John 2:3-6). We have been set free from the law and sin and death so that we can become transformed creatures, servants of God, glorifying Him in all we do.

Little wonder, then, that Paul would treasure this hope and thus speak boldly (2 Corinthians 3:12). The Spirit made known to him the work of God in Christ, and thus we can learn of it as well. We can come to a better appreciation of the freedom which we have obtained through the Lord and the Spirit so that we can go through the transformative process of becoming like the Son in all things. Let us praise God and give Him the glory for what He has done!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Lord the Spirit

The Limits of Study

And furthermore, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh (Ecclesiastes 12:12).

The words of the Preacher had been recorded and presented; the famous conclusion is nearing, declaring that to fear God and to keep His commandments is the end of the whole matter (Ecclesiastes 12:13). Yet, sandwiched between some words about the Preacher and this conclusion we have this declaration regarding books and study. Whatever does it mean, and what is it doing here?

Contextually, we do well to remember the situation of the day. There is no such thing as a printing press yet; a scroll (which was used then) was first hand written and then hand copied. Every time a scroll would begin to wear out it would have to be copied again. If there was a need for additional copies of a scroll, it would have to be hand copied for each. Any text that was not continually copied was destined for the dustbin of history– save for the few texts we have recovered from archaeological excavations, the reason that we have any text before 1450 is due to the copying of manuscripts generation after generation. There would certainly seem to be no end to this process!

As you can imagine, studying scrolls would be a difficult task, and it would not be any easier when sitting in rooms that might be a bit too warm or too cold, bereft of the “comforts” of a lot of modern pieces of furniture. There were no computers for fast searches or even concordances or anything of that sort. There were no swivel leather chairs. To devote oneself to study was going to involve much physical discomfort– that is the warning this man is providing for his son!

But this message is not just true for any other book of the Bible or regarding study in general; in fact, it is probably more true for, say, the 150 psalms, or one of the major prophets, than for the 12 chapter book of Ecclesiastes. So why is this message here of all places?

The whole book of Ecclesiastes does well at showing that no thing, when taken to the extreme, really provides the answers we seek in life. Pleasures– women, money, houses, plantations, servants, drink, etc.– do not ultimately provide any lasting and enduring satisfaction (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11). Knowledge and wisdom has the same end; death comes for the knowledgeable as well as the ignorant, for the fool just as the wise (Ecclesiastes 2:12-15). Many of the challenging questions about the “fairness” of it all and the prevalence of evil are reckoned as absurd, without sufficient answer to be discovered by man (Ecclesiastes 8:14, 17). When it comes to this life “under the sun,” we cannot point to any one thing and say that it will really provide all the answers, solutions, or purpose for life, no matter how hard we try.

It is quite appropriate, therefore, for Ecclesiastes 12:12 to be appended upon Ecclesiastes, for the messages are consistent. Just as there are limits to the value of pleasures, knowledge, etc., so also there are limits to the value of books and study.

We can only imagine what the author of this declaration would think about the world today. How many millions of books are out there on any number of subjects? Books, magazines, papers, and especially electronic media today run the gamut from highly simplified to highly technical, very general to quite specific, regarding any and every subject under the sun. 200 years ago there were many people who could be termed “Renaissance men,” having a conversant understanding of almost every subject. These days it is almost impossible to plumb the depths of the knowledge and studies regarding one particular topic! How many times have we heard that the sum of all knowledge in this world has doubled? And yet how much more is there left to learn?

This is a very important and serious subject on a spiritual level. We constantly hear how important it is for us to study the Scriptures, and indeed, it is very important to study the Scriptures (Acts 17:11, 2 Timothy 3:15-17). Yet what is the point of studying the Scriptures– merely to increase knowledge of what God has said? We can study and study and will never entirely plumb the depths of God’s message. There is always more to learn; our understanding can always improve. Bible study is a critical part of learning about God in Christ, and even though we will never learn everything, we must still keep learning (2 Peter 3:18).

Yet, as with pleasures and knowledge, so with Bible study– it is not the ultimate purpose of our existence, and it can become weariness to the flesh. Learning of God though Scripture is reckoned to be a part of the life of the disciple, the lessons of which are intended to be taken into life and applied (cf. Hebrews 5:14). We are to study the revealed Word to learn more about the Incarnate Word in order that we might look more like Him (cf. Romans 8:29)!

We have unprecedented access to the revealed Word of God today– different Bible versions, Bible computer programs, and an ever growing body of writing that helps to make sense of the Bible. We ought to be thankful and take full advantage of these resources so as to learn the message of Scripture better. But if we learn about God in Scripture and it just remains an academic and intellectual exercise, and it does not lead to a life that better reflects the image of the Son, then the whole exercise has been entirely futile, absurd, and without profit in eternal terms. Let us remember that Bible study is a good thing– but it is not the ultimate thing. Bible study is designed to lead us to godly living and the practice of the Christian life. Let us study so as to live, and not live merely for study!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Limits of Study

Exercise

And exercise thyself unto godliness: for bodily exercise is profitable for a little; but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life which now is, and of that which is to come (1 Timothy 4:7b-8).

Exercise is not one of those things where there is much middle ground. It is something that you either do or you don’t. If you do it, you either enjoy it or you don’t. If you don’t do it, you probably don’t enjoy it much at all if you ever feel compelled to do it. Exercise is one of those practices in life that also tends to generate a lot of emotion. People get quite passionate about engaging in exercise or in avoiding it.

1 Timothy 4:8 tends to be “ground zero” in religious discussions about exercise. Much is made about how Paul declares that bodily exercise is only profitable for a little, and yet godliness is profitable for all things. And this is quite true, and exactly for the reason Paul provides– the spiritual will endure after the body perishes. All flesh is as grass (Isaiah 40:6, 1 Peter 1:24); if we obsess over our physical appearance and our physique, we are investing too much in what will not endure, and comparatively too little in what will endure.

But let us not distort Paul’s words too far the other way. Paul is not giving license here to gluttony; self-control and sober-mindedness must prevail even in terms of eating and physical exercise (Galatians 5:24, 1 Peter 4:7). Paul does say that there is benefit in physical exercise; yes, it is comparatively lesser than the value of spiritual exercise, but it presents benefits nonetheless. Both Paul and Timothy were far more active than most Americans today; we should not imagine that they would approve of Christians having neither concern nor repentance regarding the care and maintenance of their physical bodies. Just as we should not obsess over the physical condition of the body, so we also should not entirely neglect the physical condition of the body. We are not to be Gnostics; we are to understand that the body has temporal value as the “Temple of the Holy Spirit,” and it is hard for us to “glorify God in our bodies” when we show little concern for our physical health and well-being (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

This entire dispute misses the point of what Paul is really trying to accomplish in 1 Timothy 4:7-8: he is attempting to help Timothy, and us by extension, to understand how to grow and develop spiritually in terms of physical exercise. The metaphor is quite appropriate.

In order to function effectively, a human being must exercise his or her body. If we do not use our muscles, they atrophy and quit working entirely. When we maintain good discipline and work our muscles through exercise, be it through actions in daily life and/or through time we devote to conditioning, we actually tear up our muscles in the process. But when the body works to heal those muscles, they end up growing bigger and stronger. As long as we keep conditioning those muscles, they will maintain their size and/or grow. If we stop exercising at any time, we will experience loss of muscle and will be less strong and dextrous. Exercise must be a continual event– it cannot be done once or only for a short period of time and be successful. Recent studies seem to show, in fact, that the worst thing we could do to our bodies is to exercise in spurts, being active in exercising for a few weeks or months, quitting for a while, and then taking it up again. In such situations it seems that no exercise would be less damaging to the body!

As it is with the physical body, so it is with our spiritual lives. If we are going to live spiritually, we must exercise spiritually. If we do not devote ourselves to spiritual matters– learning more about God’s Word and will, indeed, but also practicing the spiritual disciplines, including prayer, evangelism, service, etc.– we spiritually atrophy and die (Romans 12:1-2, 1 Thessalonians 5:17, 2 Peter 3:18, etc.). When we seek to develop spiritually, we are going to be hurt and injured at times, having to learn from failures, perhaps experiencing persecution, but it is through those experiences that we experience spiritual growth (James 1:2-4, 1 Peter 1:3-7). We must continue to devote ourselves to the spiritual disciplines lest we lose what we have obtained and grow weak (2 John 1:8). We must devote ourselves ot the spiritual disciplines continually, understanding that we will not automatically spring up to be spiritually full-grown with only minimal effort (Hebrews 5:11-6:4). While we might experience spiritual growth in spurts, we should not spiritually exercise in spurts– we must maintain a pace if we want to make it to the goal (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).

Physical exercise does have profit; it is good to maintain a body in decent condition, able to meet the challenges of each day, practicing discipline in what is consumed and in effort expended so that the work of God is as unhindered as possible from physical ailment. Spiritual exercise has greater value because it will endure longer than bodily exercise. Nevertheless, notice how Paul indicates that there is always benefit in exercise and the maintenance of the self-discipline that it demands. Let us maintain that kind of self-discipline in terms of both body and soul, working towards self-control and growth in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Exercise

Leaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

Leaven

The Good Soil

“…and others fell upon the good ground, and yielded fruit, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty…and he that was sown upon the good ground, this is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; who verily beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” (Matthew 13:8, 23).

Finally, after speaking about the unbelievers, those who were not firmly grounded, and those who allow the cares of the world to choke out the faith, Jesus comes to the good soil in the Parable of the Sower.

Soil is good by virtue of the climactic conditions in which it exists along with the nutrients present within it. So it is with people and the message of the Gospel– the good soil are those people who have good and honest hearts, who hear the Word, understand it, believe it, and consequently bear fruit with patience (Matthew 13:23, Mark 4:20, Luke 8:15). All of these conditions must exist for the soil to be good.

The condition of the heart is critical. As we saw with the “road soil,” an unreceptive heart will not accept the message of the Gospel. A person must have a good and honest heart for the Gospel to do them any good. They must be willing to question themselves and the way they have conducted themselves. They must be willing to accept that they were wrong and acted wrongly and must change. They must be willing to accept truth as truth and to not justify error or rationalize their improper conduct in any way. In short, they must be willing to humble themselves so as to learn from Christ (Matthew 20:25-28).

The Gospel is preached, and those who are of the “good soil” hear it, understand it, and believe it (cf. Romans 10:9-17). Yet such was also the case for the “rocky soil” and the “thorny soil.” But the “good soil” has greater depth than the “rocky soil” and lacks the weeds of the “thorny soil.” Because conditions are more optimal, the seed bears fruit in the “good soil.” So it is that believers are to be known by their fruit– by how their faith operates in their lives (cf. James 2:14-20, 1 John 3:16-18). Most everyone wants to be the “good soil,” just like everyone is a good person, a good driver, and feels pretty well. Yet, as we have seen, this is not the case with everyone or even of most. Most will prove to be the road soil, the rocky soil, or the thorny soil. “Good soil” is not something we declare ourselves to be by our words; instead, we are manifest as good soil (or, for that matter, less than ideal soil) by how what we profess changes our lives, our attitudes, our thoughts, and our deeds (Matthew 5:13-16, Romans 6:1-11, 8:29, Galatians 5:17-24). And, as Luke adds, this requires patience (cf. Luke 8:15). As fruit and grain take time to grow and ripen, spiritual transformation demands time and effort (cf. Romans 12:2); patience with others is also manifest as fruit of spiritual maturity (Galatians 5:22-24). Growth may take time, but it must be something for which we consistently seek and toward which we endeavor.

Jesus ends His discussion of the “good soil” with what may seem to be a puzzling addendum– the harvest is not necessarily the same with every patch of the good soil. Some bear thirtyfold, others sixtyfold, and some even a hundredfold (Matthew 13:8, Mark 14:8)! Was not “good” soil really “good” soil?

We go back to the source of Jesus’ story: farming. Farmers know that one can grow the same crop in different soils and get different yields based upon the soil quality and conditions. “Good soil” in one place may yield, say, 200 bushels an acre, while “good soil” somewhere else might yield 300 bushels an acre. They are both good, but based upon conditions, one may get more from some than others.

So it is spiritually. The “good soil” is that which is open and receptive to the Gospel, working to bear fruit for God. Yet God has not made us all the same. We are different, and different people not only have different abilities but also different levels of ability. In our egalitarian society it might not be politically correct to say as much, yet it is affirmed by the Gospel (Romans 12:3-8). Consider the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30: three people are entrusted with different amounts of money. The five talent man who made five more talents is rewarded equally as the two talent man who made two more talents. It is not important for us to try to compete with one another and try to boast about how many gifts or talents we may have; instead, we must ascertain what God has given us so that we can serve Him and one another in accordance and in proportion to what we have received (1 Peter 4:10-11, etc.). One bearing a hundredfold and one bearing thirtyfold are both “good soil,” and one is not inherently better than the other. “Good soil” that could bear a hundredfold but gets a big head or does not work up to his potential is worse off than “good soil” actually bearing thirtyfold. Likewise, “good soil” that bears sixtyfold does better than “good soil” that could bear thirtyfold but does nothing because they are not equipped to bear a hundredfold. The emphasis is on the fruit borne, not a spirit of competition.

Few people who understand the Parable of the Sower would define themselves as road soil, rocky soil, or thorny soil. We all aspire to be the “good soil.” That is a good and noble aspiration, but it is meaningless if we do not prove to be the “good soil” by our works. Let us strive, then, to have that open and honest heart, seeking after and trusting in God our Creator and Savior, and devoting our lives to bearing fruit for His cause, be it thirtyfold, sixtyfold, or a hundredfold. Does the Lord know that we are His by our works? Let us serve Him and prove to be good soil!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Good Soil