Jesus’ Brothers

For even his brethren did not believe on him (John 7:5).

For many of us, the one refuge we can count on in life is family. Even if everyone else is against us and berates us, we like to think that our family members will still accept us and believe in us.

Yet, on the other hand, our family tends to know us all too well. They watched us grow up and many have rather “incriminating” stories about our pasts. Sometimes family members refuse to see any growth or change in us; in their eyes we are still quite young, quite inexperienced, or quite mischievous, even if we have grown up and have learned our lessons.

Jesus had no ordinary beginning, and while we are not given much information about His early years, we have little doubt that they were not very ordinary, either. Contrary to certain religious traditions, it does not seem as if the household comprised only of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. We are told that He has brothers and sisters– James, Joseph (or Joses), Simon, and Judas (cf. Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3).

We do not know much about them. It seems as if they are not terribly much younger than Jesus, since they are old enough to have formed beliefs, and they are known in the community of Nazareth. We can imagine, however, what it might have been like to be the younger brothers of Jesus– the One who always seemed a bit different, One with whom they grew up, but now the One who is making rather grandiose claims about Himself and is engaging in work that is well beyond your average Galilean carpenter!

While there is much we do not know, there is one thing that the Gospels make certain– His brothers do not believe in His claims regarding Himself. In Mark 3:21, Mark informs us that “they who were of” Jesus went to Capernaum to seize Jesus because, in their estimation, He was out of His mind. In John 7:3-5, His brothers are all but taunting Him, challenging Him to go up to Jerusalem and prove to be who He claims to be, for they did not believe in Him. Jesus’ responds in ways likely not much less acerbic, declaring that it is not yet His time, and that while the world cannot hate them, it does hate Him (John 7:6-8). Sibling rivalry indeed!

At first, this might seem incredible to us, and it may lead to some doubt. Jesus suffered temptation, and yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15); wouldn’t His brothers have noticed this in His first thirty-four or so years? Did they not understand how their mother had conceived Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit, and did they not hear about all of the signs that accompanied His birth (Matthew 1-2, Luke 1-2)? How could they not believe in Him?

Yet, when we think about it, we can make some sense of it. There is a reason why it is said that familiarity breeds contempt. With the exception of Jesus at the Temple when He was 12, we do not get the impression that Jesus was active in ministration until His baptism and temptation (cf. Matthew 3-4). If you know Jesus as your older brother who lives in Nazareth of Galilee and who works as a carpenter, perhaps even working together with you in that trade, and then all of a sudden He claims to be the Son of God, abandons the trade for at least a portion of the year, gathers twelve fishermen, zealous, tax collectors, and others around Him, and starts proclaiming this message of the impending Kingdom of God, we can see why they would think Him a little crazy. This is Jesus, from the backwaters of Galilee, the carpenter. Who does He think He is? Why is He doing things that very likely will get Him into trouble, and by extension, His mother and brothers? We can see why Jesus spoke as He did in Matthew 13:57/Mark 6:4: “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household”!

So Jesus’ brothers did not believe in Him. That was probably not a good testimony for Him, but we get no indication that He compelled or coerced them into believing. They had as much of a chance to share with Him in the work of God as everyone else did (cf. Matthew 12:49-50).

Jesus’ brothers were good Jews, however, and they would have been in Jerusalem for the Passover in that fateful year when their elder Brother would be crucified. And then we learn something extraordinary.

[The eleven] with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers (Acts 1:14).

Wait a second! Here Jesus’ brothers are listed as in prayer with their mother, the other women, and the eleven disciples. Something clearly happened. But what?

The Gospels do not provide direct testimony, but later on, Paul mentions that when Jesus was raised from the dead, He appeared to over five hundred brethren, and then to James (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-7). James here is the same James who is listed as Jesus’ brother in Matthew 13:55!

How all of this happened is not detailed precisely. It is entirely possible that Jesus’ brothers came around at some point during His ministry, but there’s no evidence of such. They would have seen Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, and we know that at least James, and likely the rest of His brothers, saw Jesus in the resurrection.

And that is the power of the resurrection– unbelievers are often made believers! James will become a prominent elder in the Jerusalem church and the author of the letter bearing his name; according to Josephus, he is martyred at the hands of the Jews (Acts 15:13, 21:18; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20.9). Judas, otherwise known as Jude, is responsible for the letter bearing his name. Both of them refer to themselves as servants of the Lord Jesus Christ (James 1:1, Jude 1:1). Can you imagine? Those who once did not even believe in the claims of their older Brother, who thought Him crazy, now call Him Lord and are willing to be known as slaves of their elder Brother!

Jesus is Lord, and the proof is in the resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection was the difference that changed recalcitrant brothers into willing servants. Has Jesus’ resurrection changed your life? Let us trust Him as Lord and do His will!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Willful Blindness

“Therefore speak I to them in parables; because seeing they see not, and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And unto them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, which saith,
‘By hearing ye shall hear, and shall in no wise understand; And seeing ye shall see, and shall in no wise perceive: For this people’s heart is waxed gross, And their ears are dull of hearing, And their eyes they have closed; Lest haply they should perceive with their eyes, And hear with their ears, And understand with their heart, And should turn again, And I should heal them'” (Matthew 13:13-16).

Jesus’ teaching style is not exactly what one might expect out of the Messiah, the Son of God. As the Word, active in the creation, He through whom all things subsist, He understands the greatest mysteries of the universe (John 1:1-3, Hebrews 1:3). He has come to proclaim the coming of the eternal Kingdom of God (Matthew 4:23). One might expect some kind of lofty discourse or some compelling argument. Instead, Jesus talks about farmers, crops, merchants, merchandise, women’s work, and similar things.

While it may seem strange to us, Jesus knows precisely what He is doing. While He speaks of farming, house work, matters of trade, and the like, He is really not addressing those matters. He’s providing marching orders in code: suffer loss of everything for the Kingdom. Not all will hear; not all who hear will endure. Do not be surprised when some doing the Devil’s work are in the midst of the saints. God is more interested in humble repentance than sanctimonious professions of righteousness.

So why does Jesus seem to “beat around the bush” and provide these messages in a figure? Yes, it was predicted that He would do so (Matthew 13:35; cf. Psalm 78:2). But there was even a reason why it was predicted that it would be so, and it involves the sad history of the Jews.

Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah (Matthew 13:13-15; cf. Isaiah 6:9-10). God comissions Isaiah to proclaim the message of deliverance and healing to the people. Yet the preaching of that message will not lead to repentance; God knows that it will only serve to further harden their hearts. In the Hebrew in Isaiah 6:9-10, it is the message being delivered that “makes fat” their hearts, “makes heavy” their eyes, and “makes shut” their ears. And, indeed, the people close off their senses. They do not listen to Isaiah’s message of nonintervention in international affairs and repentance regarding injustice, oppression, immorality, and idolatry at home. And Isaiah– and the people– live to see the wrath of God manifest in the Assyrian juggernaut, devastating Aram and Israel while leaving Jerusalem alone unscathed in Judah (Isaiah 1-10). It was not a pretty picture.

Seven hundred years later things had not changed too much for the better. While the Jews may not have been committing the particular sins of their ancestors, their eyes seemed no more inclined to see God’s work, nor were their ears much more inclined to hear God’s message. Jesus quotes the Isaianic prophecy directly at the Jews of His day (Matthew 13:14-15/Mark 4:10-12/Luke 8:10); Paul will later do so to the Jews at Rome (Acts 28:24-30).

In the Greek now, the prediction involves the condition of the heart. Obviously the Jews can “see” and “hear” what Jesus says and does. But they do not draw the appropriate conclusions. They should understand who Jesus is and the value of the message He proclaims, but it would be foreign to them no matter how it would be presented.

Some think that Jesus’ methodology might be unfair. How can He know whether or not His message would be understood before proclaiming it? Is that not unfair to the Jews?

We must remember that many of the Jews not only have no interest in the type of Kingdom of which Jesus proclaims but are even actively working to destroy Him. Anything He says can and will be used against Him, no matter how much the message is misunderstood or misconstrued. An excellent example comes from John 2:19, where Jesus says, “destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews imagined that He was talking about the edifice in Jerusalem (John 2:20), although He really was referring to His body (John 2:21). Years later, at Jesus’ trial, what is the evidence for the charge against Him? “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another made without hands'” (Mark 14:58). Their testimony in this did not even agree (Mark 14:59), and for good reason: Jesus never said it. He never said He would destroy the “Temple made with hands.” The memory of the event was entirely confused– and the source of the confusion was not Jesus. The confusion came from the worldview and perspective of the Jews hearing Him and their expectations and what they wanted to hear versus what He actually said!

And this is why Jesus speaks in parables. Even if they had an inkling of what He was really talking about– possibly quite doubtful, for even His disciples, who were more sympathetic to Him, needed them all explained (Mark 4:34)– what could they do with it? What kind of case can be made against someone who talks about crops, bread, pearls, fish, and the like? It was the perfect vehicle for Jesus’ messages: innocuous and innocent on the surface, deeply subversive and powerful in application underneath.

It was all necessary because the Jews wanted their Messiah according to their image and following their ideas of who the Messiah would be. As the Israelites of Isaiah’s day had little use for the declarations of the prophet, so many of the Jews of Jesus’ day had little use for a Messiah of a spiritual Kingdom who left Rome’s control of Jerusalem intact. They did not want to hear because it did not meet their expectations.

This challenge is not limited to the Jews, and it is not limited to the ancient world. Far too often people to this day refuse to listen to God in Christ because the message is unwanted, it does not fit their view of the world and how it operates, and it poses unwelcome challenges. Believers can easily fall into this trap themselves, preferring a particular view or perspective on Jesus that is heavily distorted, and dispense the true message of Jesus Christ with trite sayings and misguided arguments. There is no lack of willful blindness and deafness in our world today!

It is better, then, for us to be disciples in the same mold as the disciples present when Jesus spoke these words. Everyone comes to Jesus with their own ideas and expectations; those who will be found to be true servants of God are the ones who are willing to radically change those views and expectations based on what Christ the Lord says (1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Galatians 2:20, Colossians 2:1-9). Let us not reject His words; let us not create a God or a Christ in our own image, with our perspective to serve, but instead allow our image to be conformed to the true and Risen Christ (Romans 8:29)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Temptation of Bread

Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he afterward hungered.
And the tempter came and said unto him, “If thou art the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”
But he answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God'” (Matthew 4:1-4).

Thus begins what seems to be a rather strange incident in the life of Jesus, recorded both by Matthew and Luke (Luke 4:1-4), and mentioned quickly by Mark (Mark 1:12-13). After His baptism by John, right at the beginning of His ministry, Jesus is compelled to go out into the wilderness and to withstand the temptations of the Devil.

Most of us spend our times attempting to avoid temptation; such seems to be the reasonable thing to do, considering our predilection for falling into temptations and sinning (James 1:13-15). Nevertheless, the ultimate glory is for those who endure despite temptation (James 1:12)– and Jesus, the Son of Man and the Son of God, must prove Himself to be able to withstand temptation (cf. Hebrews 4:15).

Why the temptation had to take place in the way it does is never revealed. Perhaps Jesus must first take on Satan face to face before He can truly minister to the people. Maybe Jesus is fully experiencing the travails of humanity so that He can understand the difficulties of His people. Or perhaps He is fulfilling the example of Elijah, enduring the wilderness and temptation without sin (cf. 1 Kings 19). All we know for certain is that He goes out into the wilderness– a desert landscape– for forty days and nights.

Forty days and nights represent a complete period of time. Such is the duration of the rains during the Flood (Genesis 7:17). In a close parallel, such is also the duration of the time that Elijah spent journeying on in the wilderness toward Horeb (1 Kings 19:8). Spending forty days and nights in the wilderness– a remote and quiet place– would be challenging enough; to do so while fasting is unbelievably challenging for a person. All one can do in such a circumstance is think. The feelings of hunger and thirst would become more and more acute. It would be easy to see hallucinations in such a condition. One can easily imagine food or water to satisfy the earnest desire of the flesh to persevere and continue!

It is only after this time that the tempter– the Devil, Satan– comes to Jesus. His first temptation for Jesus involves that which is most acutely felt by Him in His humanity– hunger. Satan challenges Jesus to make bread from stones. After all, if He is truly the Son of God, He certainly has the power to sate His own hunger, does He not? What kind of Son of God is He if He cannot even provide food?

Could Jesus have made bread from stones? He Who turned water to wine (John 2:1-11) and Who fed over five thousand with only five loaves and two fishes (Matthew 14:15-21) could most certainly and easily make bread from the stones. But that was not the heart of the matter.

It is easy to be a little confused by this “temptation” from Satan. Jesus eats bread on many occasions (cf. Matthew 26:20-26, etc.). There is no sin in taking one’s daily bread and being sated (Matthew 6:11). So what’s the temptation?

We learn why it is a temptation from Jesus’ answer. Jesus responds by quoting what is written in Deuteronomy 8:3: man does not live by bread alone but by every word from the mouth of God. It is right that we emphasize how Jesus uses the Word of God to combat the temptations of the Evil One, but the substance of this Word is extremely important.

How was Jesus sustained over the forty days and nights? For that matter, how is Jesus sustained throughout His work? As He says in John 4:32, 34, He has food that we do not understand. He is sustained by doing the work of God, and this is only possible because God the Father is the One sustaining Him.

An unaided human could not have lived in the wilderness forty days and forty nights without food and water. Even if Jesus brought water with Him, chances of unaided survival would still be low, considering the temperature extremes and the lack of vitamins. Therefore, to survive in such conditions required something beyond food and water– the strength of God. God, after all, provided the Israelites providentially throughout their wanderings in the Wilderness, as Deuteronomy 8:2-3 attests. Elijah is sustained for forty days and nights on his journey because of the food and drink God gave him (1 Kings 19:5-8). Jesus is currently surviving through the sustenance He derives from God His Father.

This is why Satan’s temptation is so strong. Satan is tempting Jesus to rely on the flesh and satisfy its impulses. We can only imagine how strong a pull his words had on the fleshly impulses of Jesus. And yet Jesus remains strong in the face of that temptation, remembering the connection that is truly important. Food is not truly life. The words that come from the mouth of God are truly life.

No disciple is above his teacher (cf. Matthew 10:24), and so it is with us and Jesus. We do not have to go out into the wilderness and fast for forty days and nights in order to experience the same temptations, for Satan tempts us in similar ways all the time. He appeals to and flatters our fleshly impulses, attempting to provoke us into satisfying our lusts despite our inclinations to serve God (cf. Romans 7:15-25). There may be times when the actual impulse satisfied is not sinful, as with eating food, but when we do so by betraying our confidence in God, it has become sin to us!

Choosing the physical over the spiritual– the lusts of the flesh over the direction of the spirit– has been one of Satan’s most pervasive and successful temptations of humans since the Garden. By our own strength we will always ultimately fail; yet in Christ we can succeed, as He succeeded in the wilderness (cf. Ephesians 6:10-18). We can only succeed, however, when we have crucified the flesh with its passions and have determined to always look toward God our true Sustainer and not the temporal pleasures of the world (Galatians 5:17-24). Let us stand firm against temptation; let us be sustained by every word that comes from the mouth of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

For or Against Jesus

And John answered and said, “Master, we saw one casting out demons in thy name; and we forbade him, because he followeth not with us.”
But Jesus said unto him, “Forbid him not: for he that is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:49-50).

“He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth” (Luke 11:23).

The Bible is full of mysteries and has a few conundrums, and here is one right from the mouth of Jesus. It also has great relevance for today since there are plenty of people who, in reality or in effect, just quote these two verses against one another. If you are not for Jesus, are you, by necessity, against Him? Or if you are not against Jesus, are you really for Him? How could anyone be for and against Jesus at the same time?

While the two statements may seem contradictory, they are not. They are in different contexts talking about different situations, and there is much to be gained from considering them.

Mark (Mark 9:38-40) and Luke (Luke 9:49-50) record the interaction between John and Jesus regarding the one who cast out demons in Jesus’ name but who did not walk with the disciples. We do not know precisely why John brings this up– perhaps he is internally questioning the decision, or perhaps he is attempting to get some kind of commendation for his activity. Nevertheless, John receives a rebuke. This gentleman, whoever he is, should not be censured for his conduct. Mark reveals a bit more of Jesus’ reasoning than does Luke: “for there is no man who shall do a mighty work in my name, and be able quickly to speak evil of me” (Mark 9:39). This is why Jesus says that “he that is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). They have some level of recognition that there is power in Jesus’ name, and they cannot be as quickly to speak evil of Jesus or those who follow Him if they have that recognition. Yet it should bear noticing that such a person, while perhaps being “for us,” still is not included in “us.”

Matthew (Matthew 12:22-30) and Luke (Luke 11:14-23) record Jesus’ interaction with the crowd and the Pharisees. Jesus casts out a demon, and the Pharisees, always more interested in justifying themselves than perceiving the truth of God in Jesus, declare that He casts out demons by the power of Beelzebub prince of the demons. Jesus first devastates that claim– Satan would not cast out Satan, and the Pharisees would have to condemn their own sons– and then goes on to show the real problem. The Pharisees are blaspheming against the Spirit, declaring the work of God to be the work of Satan (Matthew 12:31-32). In such a condition there is little hope of repentance. It is to these Pharisees that Jesus declares that whoever is not with Him is against Him, and that whoever does not gather with Him scatters (Matthew 12:30). Such people have no belief in Jesus and are entirely hostile to Him and to His purposes. They are not “for” or “with” Him in any sense of those terms.

Jesus is not confused and He is not trying to be confusing. He is indicating that there are at least three groups of people out there– Him and His disciples, those who have some recognition of Jesus and His authority, and those who are entirely against Jesus and His disciples.

The ones who are against Jesus are those who do not recognize Him and who act in ways that are contrary to His will. They are like the Pharisees who rejected Jesus and were more than willing to ascribe His works to Satan in order to justify themselves. Such, without repentance, will scatter, and will be condemned on the final day (cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9).

There are some who recognize that there is something about Jesus, however, and who are more sympathetic to Him and His purposes. Since they are not actively opposing the work of God in Christ, they show a level of approval, and are in that sense “for” Jesus.

Yet, ultimately, it is not enough to just not be against Jesus. If we wish to be saved, and to have eternal life, we must follow Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:1, 1 John 2:3-6). We must seek to do His will in all things (Colossians 3:17). We must renounce all that is “us” and put on Christ (Galatians 2:20, 3:27). Let us not be found to be against Christ, or even that we were simply not against Him; instead, let us be found to be one of His followers, and obtain the promises!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Servant Power

But Jesus called them unto him, and said, “Ye know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Not so shall it be among you: but whosoever would become great among you shall be your minister; and whosoever would be first among you shall be your servant: even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).

It was the same old argument with a new and bold twist.

Jesus’ disciples had been jockeying amongst themselves for a long time for power and prestige. They had argued about it before (Mark 9:34/Luke 9:46) and would argue about it again (Luke 22:24). But none of them had ever been so bold as to actually bring the matter up before Jesus Himself.

Yet this time James and John get Salome their mother to ask Jesus for the left and right hand positions in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 20:20-21, Mark 10:35-37). Jesus wonders whether they would be able to drink His cup of bitterness or to experience His baptism of suffering, and on the basis of their confident faith (in what they likely do not understand), declares that they will do so (Matthew 20:22-23, Mark 10:38-39). Yet, in the end, it is not for Jesus to give; it is for those to whom it has been prepared (Matthew 20:23, Mark 10:40).

The other ten are indignant with James and John (cf. Matthew 20:24, Mark 10:41). We should not imagine that their indignation was for spiritual or pious reasons. It perhaps was motivated by envy– they had asked for what they had all wanted, and the others did not have the confidence to do so! Or, perhaps, their indignation was based in feelings of shame– something that had been discussed in “secret” for so long the brothers had now made wide open. Ultimately, however, James and John actually asked for the thing they all really wanted– prominence in the Kingdom.

This is one of those moments where it is evident that the disciples and Jesus have entirely different understandings about the nature of the Kingdom Jesus has been proclaiming. Since the matter had clearly come to a head, and was now causing friction among the disciples, Jesus is compelled to address this misunderstanding in some small way.

The disciples seem to be imagining a Kingdom of the Jewish expectation– the Branch of David back on the throne in Jerusalem, triumphantly defeating Israel’s foes. Since the disciples believed in Jesus more steadfastly it was natural to expect that they would have the positions of prominence normally far beyond the reach of Galilean fishermen. Jesus, they imagined, was their ticket to greatness– the opportunity to get on the “ground floor” of the greatest Kingdom the world would ever know. In short, they expected Jesus to use the standard way the world works in order to surpass all who came before Him.

Yet Jesus’ response devastates such a view. Granted, many of the disciples’ expectations will come true, but not through the means they imagined. Jesus did not come to earth to just surpass the world at its own game. He came to earth to overthrow the world and its standards, and this is prominently featured in His response to His disciples (Matthew 20:25-28).

The disciples were all too familiar with Gentile power. They saw how the Roman Empire flexed its might. They saw the system of patronage and client that re-inforced class divisions. It was a system where might was right and humility was worthless. Courage, strength, and the ability to display power were what really mattered. The more masterful of a game player you were, the higher you could advance.

Jesus makes it abundantly clear that such is not the way the Kingdom of God works. Instead, He says, to be great in the Kingdom you must be a servant to others. If you want to be first in the Kingdom, you must be a slave to the rest. And Jesus sets Himself forth as the example: the One who deserved service did not receive it but instead served others (cf. Romans 15:3, Philippians 2:5-11).

It has been almost two thousand years since Jesus uttered these words, but they are no less earth-shaking. The “Gentile world” still operates pretty much like it did in the Roman world. There is a mad dash to power and those who play the game the best win. It is quite tempting for people to do the same thing in Jesus’ Kingdom, but it is good to remember what Jesus says. No matter how much the world values such attributes, they have no place in the Kingdom. Advancement in the Kingdom can only happen through weakness, suffering, humility, and service. Ironically, advancement can only take place when one has renounced such a view of existence– humility can only develop when pride is removed, and where there is no pride, there is no self-seeking, no impulse to self-advancement in a worldly sense. If one sets off on the road to greater humility and service, one can only find the destination through renouncing self and clinging to Jesus (Galatians 2:20).

The day would come when the disciples understood what Jesus meant. They had to go through the trials of experience and suffering. James would lose his life for Jesus’ cause (Acts 12:1-2); John would suffer with the other Apostles at times and would eventually find himself exiled for the Name in Patmos (cf. Acts 5:40-41, Revelation 1:9). Peter and the others would endure similar trials, and they all did so willingly, calling themselves the slaves of Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:1, etc.). They knew that the Kingdom, while in the world, was not of the world, but of Jesus Christ their Lord (cf. 1 John 2:15-17). Thus their place of authority was reserved for them because they went through the trials, experiences, and travails that taught them the way of Jesus: the way of service (cf. Revelation 4:4).

There remains the way of the world and the way of Jesus. We all, at some point in our lives, look at things as the disciples did, and seek out that glory, fame, and power in some form or another. But are we willing to follow the way of Jesus, the way of humility and service, bitterness and suffering, in order to receive the true commendation and exaltation (cf. Philippians 2:5-11)? We cannot imagine that we will receive it through worldly means and by looking at power as the world understands it. Instead, we must develop servant power, and give up everything for Jesus so that He can be manifest in us (Romans 8:29, Galatians 2:20). Let us be humble so that we may be exalted on that great and glorious day!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Mary and Her Ointment

But there were some that had indignation among themselves, saying, “To what purpose hath this waste of the ointment been made? For this ointment might have been sold for above three hundred shillings, and given to the poor.”
And they murmured against her.
But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why trouble ye her? She hath wrought a good work on me. For ye have the poor always with you, and whensoever ye will ye can do them good: but me ye have not always. She hath done what she could; she hath anointed my body beforehand for the burying” (Mark 14:4-8).

Mary sought to honor her Lord. He had, after all, just raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-45, 12:1-3). She felt it was appropriate to bring out this very expensive ointment– the “spikenard”– worth more than three hundred denarii, or over six thousand dollars in buying power today. This is a staggering sum even today!

This “waste” was acutely felt by some of the disciples. Granted, Judas’ motivations about his indignation are suspect, as John 12:4-6 indicates, but we have no reason to believe that the indignation of some of the other disciples was likewise suspect. They had been used to a life of relative poverty while following Jesus, and this entire episode seemed entirely out of place for Jesus considering His mission, purpose, and method (cf. Matthew 8:20, 20:25-28).

The sentiment of some of the disciples had some basis in nobility– after all, even today, $6,000 would go a long way in helping people who have nothing. The impulse to take such a “luxury” and use the proceeds to help the poor is not a bad thing, and Jesus does not censure that impulse. What matters is the timing.

Thus He tells His disciples that they will always have the opportunity to help the poor, but they will not always be able to enjoy His physical presence. The idea that the “poor are always with you” is not license to neglect the poor or to give up any endeavor that attempts to provide benefits for the poor. Instead, Jesus is justifying this particular “extravagant waste,” pointing out that the poor will remain, but He will not always be with them.

Mary is most likely unaware of the significance of what she is doing. What she does in honor as a good work is really a preparation for burial. Since He will die just before the Sabbath– a high Sabbath at that– there will not be proper time for anointing the body (cf. Mark 15:42-46). Three women will bring ointment with which to anoint the body of Jesus on the first day of the week, but by then He will be raised from the dead (Mark 16:1). Thus, the only anointment of His body for death came here, in the house of Simon the leper, by the hand of Mary.

This is a poignant story, and Jesus’ testimony about how the story of Mary and the anointing will be proclaimed wherever the Gospel is proclaimed demonstrates His great confidence in the plan of God that is unfolding (cf. Ephesians 3:10-11). And so it is; almost two thousand years later and halfway across the world we now consider her story and the good work that she did for Jesus.

It is very easy for anyone to get so thoroughly invested in a cause that they begin to neglect themselves and their own souls. Yes, we are called to serve and not be served, just as Jesus did (Matthew 20:25-28). But even Jesus accepted this anointing. He not only allowed Mary to do her good work, He blessed it and its memory. It is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35), but if no one receives, no one can give!

This is not license for selfishness, but a good reminder for us to accept the good works of others on our behalf, and seek to be the examples we should be. Let us serve God wholeheartedly, doing good works and accepting good works, and reflect our Savior!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Watch and Pray

“But of that day or that hour knoweth no one, not even the angels in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father. Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is. It is as when a man, sojourning in another country, having left his house, and given authority to his servants, to each one his work, commanded also the porter to watch. Watch therefore: for ye know not when the lord of the house cometh, whether at even, or at midnight, or at cockcrowing, or in the morning; lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch” (Mark 13:32-37).

Humans have a preoccupation with the prospect of the end of the world– or, if nothing else, the end of their particular world.  People who would not otherwise consider religious messages eagerly watch shows speculating on the end of the world based upon all kinds of different “predictions” and the like.  There always seems to be some cause or another for such speculation.  Not long ago it was the turn of the millennium.  Presently many are focused on the end of 2012.  After that there will most assuredly be some other time.

This type of speculation is not foreign to Christianity, and it is certainly not foreign to interpretations of the so-called “Olivet Discourse,” presented in Matthew 24-25, Mark 13, and Luke 21.  All kinds of postulates are made about exactly when the world will end and how based, at least in part, on Jesus’ words in this discussion.

If there is ever a time when it is good for us to be good Bible students, it is certainly when so much speculation is at hand.  Mark’s version makes the context very clear: Jesus has declared that all the stones of the Temple will be toppled (Mark 13:2).  Some of His disciples utter the same questions that haunt people to this very day–  “when shall these things be, and what shall be the sign when these things are all about to be accomplished?” (Mark 13:4).

In context, “these things” represent the Temple and its destruction.  And here we have the ultimate irony of this whole discussion: Jesus’ answer to the questions is not really what the disciples wanted to know.  And it goes a long way to show us that the questions that people most often ask today cannot be answered to their satisfaction!

Jesus goes on to say that there will be false Christs deceiving the people, wars and rumors of wars, nations and kingdoms rising up against one another, earthquakes, and famines (Mark 13:6-8).  Our immediate impulse is to look into the history books and find the precise events concerning which Jesus speaks, and, no doubt, we can find such things.  And that, of course, is Jesus’ point– at what point in human history have there not been false teachers, wars and rumors of wars, nations and kingdoms rising up against each other, earthquakes, and famines?  They are always happening somewhere!

Later Jesus will provide some specific conditions that will be met, and to “get out of Dodge” when the Roman army comes to town (cf. Mark 13:9-23), and predicts the establishment of the Kingdom and the end of the covenant between God and Israel (Mark 13:24-31).

But when?  We have the classic statement: only the Father knows (Mark 13:32).  Much has been made of this statement in terms of Christology, but that is quite separate from the point.  Jesus tells the disciples, point blank, that they will not know exactly when these things will take place (Mark 13:33).  There is no watering down of this idea, no concept that at the last minute a revelation will be given to them.  They simply will not know.

Attempting to ascertain the precise set of conditions and circumstances that will lead to Jesus’ return, therefore, is utterly futile.  If the disciples were not going to know precisely when Jerusalem would be destroyed, why should we believe that anyone is going to know precisely when Jesus will return?

It may seem unbelievable to many, but Jesus’ main point in the “Olivet Discourse” is not to lay out a road map to the apocalypse.  As Peter will say, all things will continue as “normal” until the moment comes (cf. 2 Peter 3:2-12).  True, Jesus does give His disciples some things concerning which they need to be considering and for which they must prepare.  And that, in the end, is the real message.

In declaring that no one will know precisely when these things will take place, He exhorts the disciples to take heed, watch, and pray (Mark 13:33).  He presents the image of the master leaving the house and instructing the doorkeeper to remain awake, since the master’s return may be at any time (Mark 13:34-36).  And Jesus’ universal message, to first century disciples awaiting the judgment on Jerusalem to twenty-first disciples anxious for His return, is to “stay awake” (Mark 13:37)!

This is the thread that runs throughout the whole discourse (Mark 13:5, 9, 13, 23, 33-37).  In the extended version that Matthew provides, the theme is just as evident (Matthew 24:36-25:30).  This is, in fact, the theme that runs throughout all of New Testament eschatology (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:1-10, 1 Peter 4:7-11, 2 Peter 3:11-12, Revelation 2-3, 22:7, 11-12).

As long as God shows patience toward mankind there will be people who will speculate regarding the times and conditions of the Lord’s return.  Do not be deceived into believing any of them.  The “Olivet Discourse” does pave the way, but not in the expected sense.  It is not for us to know when the Lord will return, but the Lord has made many things evident.  He will return.  There will be judgment.  It will happen in God’s good time.  It is not for us to doubt these things or to speculate regarding them.  Instead, we need to be ready.  We must stay awake.  We must live our lives serving God, ready if the Lord returns tomorrow or after another two thousand years.  We must always be ready for the challenges that come with our walk with God, and to stand firm and endure despite them.  Let us avoid the frenzy of folly, and always be on guard for the Lord’s return!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Rendering to Caesar and God

And they send unto him certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians, that they might catch him in talk.
And when they were come, they say unto him, “Teacher, we know that thou art true, and carest not for any one; for thou regardest not the person of men, but of a truth teachest the way of God: Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? Shall we give, or shall we not give?”
But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, “Why make ye trial of me? Bring me a denarius, that I may see it.”
And they brought it.
And he saith unto them, “Whose is this image and superscription?”
And they said unto him, “Caesar’s.”
And Jesus said unto them, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”
And they marvelled greatly at him (Mark 12:13-17).

It was not every day that you saw the Pharisees and the Herodians coming together to visit someone. It is a downright strange event when the Pharisees and Herodians are being sent by the chief priests, scribes, and elders (cf. Mark 11:27)! Yet this was the power of Jesus– all the various sects of the Jews may disagree with each other, but they agree that Jesus is a threat!

In fact, Jesus was becoming intolerable. He had cleansed the Temple, striking at the heart of the power of the chief priests (Mark 11:15-18). He would not reveal the source of His authority (Mark 11:27-33), and incited the people with His parable of the Vineyard (Mark 12:1-11). They needed to dispose of Jesus– and yet they feared the crowds (Mark 12:12). They had to do something to get Jesus in trouble.

And so they hatched the perfect plan– the question that would lead to His demise. The tax question was ideal. If Jesus said that the Jews should pay the tax, then the Pharisees were right there to proclaim to the people how Jesus was a compromiser and an appeaser of the hated oppressor. If Jesus declared that the Jews did not need to pay taxes, the Herodians were there to hear it and to inform Pilate and the Roman authorities that Jesus was stirring up sedition. It was the perfect plan– or so it seemed.

Yet Jesus’ answer entirely flummoxes them. He does not align with one of the two “main” positions. Instead, He advocates a transcendental, middle-of-the-road approach.

Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. For years this has been the foundational principle of the Christian attitude toward government. Though many may seek a political message in what Jesus is saying, in reality, Jesus remains above that particular fray. Jesus’ quarrel, after all, is not with Caesar (cf. Ephesians 6:12). Earthly government has its reason for existence and such should be respected. Taxes should be paid; authorities deserve the honor due them (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:11-17).

Yet Jesus’ real point is much deeper than this. It has less to do with Caesar and much more to do with God.

The denarius that Jesus held in His hand belonged to Caesar because upon it was struck the image and inscription of Caesar. But where do we find the image and inscription of God? Jesus knew that it was written:

And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…”
And God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them (Genesis 1:26a, 27).

We humans have been made in God’s own image, after His likeness. Yes, we must render to Caesar his money– but to God we must give ourselves (cf. Romans 12:1)! All of our energy and existence must be expended toward the advancement of God’s righteousness and Kingdom (cf. Matthew 6:33).

To the earthly authorities we owe proper respect and taxes so that they may accomplish their necessary functions. Yet we do not owe ourselves to Caesar or his purposes. Instead, we owe ourselves to God, and it is right for us to render to God what is His. Let us serve God fully, truly reflecting His image!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Fig Tree Religion

And on the morrow, when they were come out from Bethany, [Jesus] hungered. And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find anything thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for it was not the season of figs.
And he answered and said unto it, “No man eat fruit from thee henceforward for ever.”
And his disciples heard it (Mark 11:12-14).

The long-awaited time had come. Jesus of Nazareth, believed by many to be the Messiah, the Christ of God, had entered Jerusalem in triumph (cf. Mark 11:1-11). He will soon strike at the heart of the religious power structure in Jerusalem by cleansing the Temple of its moneychangers and merchants (Mark 11:15-19). And what do we find in the middle of these great events? Jesus’ rebuke of a fig tree.

It seems rather anticlimactic. Why does Mark interrupt the grand story of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem by telling us about this fig tree?

It may help to understand a bit about the situation. Even in Jerusalem, late March or early April is a bit early for figs to be ready. Most of the trees would not even have their leaves yet. But this fig tree did have its leaves– and when a fig tree has its leaves, it is indicating that it has its fruit hidden underneath. This particular fig tree, however, was false– perhaps it was a different subspecies, or perhaps it was a young tree– for it exposed leaves but had no fruit within it. Highly disappointed, Jesus curses the tree because it made a presentation without its substance.

That may be the clue to understanding the importance of this interaction. Mark very well may have us to understand that there is more to this story than just a fig tree.

The fig tree may represent the Jews and the Judaism of the day. Fig trees are good, and figs are good. Fruitless fig trees that have no leaves are understandable, but what cannot be tolerated is the fig tree that has leaves but no fruit. Thus it is with Israel in Jesus’ day, especially the religious authorities, the chief priests, the elders, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. It was a good thing to be a Jew and to be a part of the covenant with God. It would be understandable if a Jew were learning his faith or recognized in humility how much further he had to go. But to have the outward appearance of religion without its substance– its fruit– was intolerable. And that was precisely what Jesus saw in the Judaism of His day!

Soon after these events He would excoriate the Pharisees for being whitewashed tombs– pretty on the exterior, but full of dead men’s bones inside (cf. Matthew 23:27). They worry about keeping dishes clean, but inwardly are defiled (Matthew 23:25-26). On the exterior their religiosity is beyond a doubt; inwardly they remain unconverted and sinful. There is little hope for such people; they are, like the fig tree, cursed, never to provide fruit for mankind again.

We would do well to learn the lesson of the fig tree and avoid “fig tree religion.” We know from experience and statistics that the vast majority of the people around us in America believe in God and in His Son Jesus Christ. Most people would claim to be Christians. A lot of those people attempt to maintain the exterior of goodness and piety– they seek to look like the “good people” of society, and yet inwardly they may remain unconverted and sinful. Such a faith cannot save (Matthew 7:21-23)!

It is one thing to be as a fig tree without fruit and without leaves– had this fig tree been as such, Jesus would have likely just passed it by. Therefore, it is one thing for people in our society to be sinners and recognize that they are sinners. Such is actually the first step in coming to a real knowledge of the truth (Ephesians 2:1-10, Titus 3:3-8). Jesus, after all, came to save sinners (cf. Matthew 9:11-13).

The real danger comes from providing the pretense of righteousness and/or religiosity without any substantive fruit. These are the “righteous” of Matthew 9:11-13, those who certainly think they are healthy and sound and profitable but really are not. They are self-deceived, and self-deception is the hardest kind of deception to overcome (Galatians 6:3, James 1:22-25, 1 John 1:8). As long as they remain in that condition, nothing can be done for them or with them (cf. Revelation 3:14-22)!

But what of ourselves? Who are we? Are we fig trees without leaves and without fruit? Then let us grow in knowledge and faith to maturity, showing fruit for the Lord (Hebrews 5:14, 2 Peter 3:18). Do we have leaves and fruit, believing in God and obeying Him? Well and good; let us abound all the more (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:1, 9). Or are we the fig tree with leaves but no fruit, having the pretense of religion but not the substantive fruit thereof? We must always be on guard against this danger, considering ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5, Galatians 6:4). If we find ourselves in this condition, we must immediately repent, and work to show the fruit that is in keeping with that repentance (1 John 2:3-6)!

Therefore we can see that the story of the fig tree is quite appropriate in its context. Jesus is about to encounter the superficial piety of the Judaism entrenched in Jerusalem, and it will be cursed. Let us not fall into the same trap, and let us both show leaves and bear fruit for God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus and the Little Children

And they were bringing unto him little children, that he should touch them: and the disciples rebuked them.
But when Jesus saw it, he was moved with indignation, and said unto them, “Suffer the little children to come unto me; forbid them not: for to such belongeth the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall in no wise enter therein.”
And he took them in his arms, and blessed them, laying his hands upon them (Mark 10:13-16).

One of the aspects of Jesus that is most commonly known involves His concern for children. For generations people have drawn or painted various representations of Jesus with little children. For us today it only seems natural that Jesus would show such concern for little children.

Yet, as the response of the disciples indicates, His concern was not considered natural automatically in the first century. It is easy for us today to look back on the disciples and think them to be hard-hearted or perhaps even inconsiderate or uncaring for children. But that is unfair. It is not as if the disciples do not like little children– the disciples want to make sure that the Lord is not inconvenienced or bothered so that, at least in their estimation, He can continue to focus on the adults who really need Him, His power, and His message. The children, after all, will probably not remember Jesus too well, and certainly not as well as the adults would and should. Jesus and the disciples were at work in “grownup” matters, and therefore why should the Lord be hindered by a bunch of little children?

Jesus responds to them sharply. Yes, He has great concern for the “lost sheep” of Israel (cf. Matthew 10:6), and focuses much of His energy on pointing them toward God’s Kingdom. Nevertheless, the little children are very important!

Our society has become very child-focused and child-oriented in the past century; it is easy for us to work diligently to make sure that we do not overlook children. Jesus’ care for the children should surely demonstrate to us that care for children is extremely important in the sight of God. Jesus’ care for the children underscores a more fundamental point: God cares for all the “little people” of the world, both in terms of age and social standing. Whereas many may overlook small children, the dispossessed, the widow, and the like, God cares for all of them and desires for us to care for them also (cf. James 1:27). Everyone is important to God!

Jesus’ concern is not just for the little children; He also takes advantage of the opportunity to teach the adults a very important lesson. Jesus was well aware that the disciples had been disputing among themselves who would be the greatest in the Kingdom (cf. Mark 9:33-37), and even in that instance pointed out how God receives children and those who receive children. In Mark 10, a more fundamental point is made: those who enter God’s Kingdom enter it like a child. The Kingdom belongs to children!

One can only imagine the response of the disciples. They had good reason to be ashamed– the very ones whom they were willing to overlook were the ones most precious before God. They were trying to forbid those to whom the Kingdom belonged so that Jesus could more freely proclaim that Kingdom among others!

Jesus’ point is quite humbling, and such is the intent. The illustration puts to lie the belief that children are born inherently sinful– how can the Kingdom of God belong to unregenerate brats? If the way we enter the Kingdom is by becoming as children, and if children are inherently sinful, did Jesus bear the cross in vain? By no means; children are pure and innocent before their Maker, and only as they grow up do they learn to sin (cf. Romans 5:5-18).

So what is it about little children that makes them ideal citizens of God’s Kingdom? It is their unfailing trust in their parents. They look up to their parents and think the world of their parents, no matter how worthy or unworthy that belief may be. They naturally depend on their parents to take care of their needs in life and trust that their parents have their best interest at heart and seek the best for them.

And so it ought to be with believers and their heavenly Father. Those who are part of God’s Kingdom have unfailing trust in God the Father (cf. Hebrews 11:6). They look up to and think the world of their heavenly Father, and He is worthy of that honor (cf. Psalm 150). They learn to depend on their heavenly Father to take care of their needs in life and know that He has their best interest at heart, seeking what is good for them, since He was willing to give up His Son for their salvation (cf. Matthew 6:21-34, Romans 8:31-39).

It is easy for little children to have that trust in their earthly parents and their heavenly Father; they do not really know any better. Such trust is a profound challenge for “grownups,” however, because they have lost that innocence and are always tempted to trust in themselves and what they can perceive. It is always easier to walk by sight than by faith, but citizens of the Kingdom are willing to trust in God no matter how terrible things may seem (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:7)!

Jesus loves the little children. Let us praise God that He is concerned for the lowly and easily overlooked, and let us develop that childlike trust in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry