Jesus With Us

“Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20).

The good news according to Matthew ends with truly great news.

Matthew has set forth Jesus’ resurrection from the dead: the women have come to find the tomb empty, for an angel had rolled the stone away, sat upon it, proclaimed the good news of the resurrection to them, and declared how He went before them to Galilee (Matthew 28:1-8). Jesus then appeared the women and instructed them to tell the rest of the disciples to go to Galilee to see Him there (Matthew 28:9-10). The disciples went to Galilee and saw the Lord Jesus; many believed, but some doubted (Matthew 28:16-17). In His final words in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus gives the “Great Commission”: all authority has been given to Him in heaven and on earth, and so they are to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them (Matthew 28:18-20a). The Great Commission ends with a promise: Jesus is with them always, unto the end of the αιωνος, “age” or “forever,” and thus “world” (Matthew 28:20b).

We can imagine how the disciples would have found this promise very comforting. And yet, within forty days, Jesus would ascend to heaven (Acts 1:1-11); He will only again walk the earth on the day of judgment (Matthew 25:31-46, Acts 1:11). So if Jesus no longer walked with them, or, for that matter, with us, how could He say that He would be “with” us until the end of the world?

Throughout the book of Acts the Apostles seem to interact frequently in some way with the Lord Jesus. Peter declares that Jesus is the one who, on the basis of the Father’s promise, poured out the Holy Spirit on them (Acts 2:33); Peter affirms that faith in Jesus provided the power which healed the lame man in the Temple (Acts 3:16). The Lord Jesus would give Peter a vision and speak with him in it (Acts 10:9-17). Stephen saw Jesus as the Son of Man standing at God’s right hand (Acts 7:55-56). Paul saw the Lord Jesus in the resurrection and heard Him speak (Acts 9:1-8, 22:6-10, 26:12-18), as would Ananias, whom the Lord called to minister to Paul (Acts 9:10-16). Paul would receive further messages from the Lord Jesus, both direct and spoken as well as through circumstance and hindrance (Acts 16:6-9, 18:9-10, 23:11). We do well to remember how Luke begins the book of Acts, speaking of the previous Gospel as “all that Jesus began to do and teach,” implying that the whole book of Acts continues Jesus’ work (Acts 1:1): Jesus is with the Apostles throughout, strengthening them, empowering them, reassuring them. He may not have been present in the way He had been during His ministry, but He was still there, reigning as Lord, sustaining His people to do His work.

Is Jesus still there since the days of the Apostles? Some have suggested that Jesus’ promise extended only to the destruction of Jerusalem, and such “ended the age.” Such is inconsistent with the promises of Jesus and His Apostles and the reality of the faith ever since. It is true that Jesus made Himself known to the Apostles in ways which He no longer does so; they saw Him in life, fully experienced Him, and bore personal eyewitness testimony to His resurrection, and no one since the first century can do so (1 John 1:1-4). There is nothing further to be made known about the good news of Jesus Christ than has already been made known through the Apostles and their associates. And yet Jesus’ promises remain. The universe continues to exist through Him and for Him and is upheld and sustained by Him (Colossians 1:15-17, Hebrews 1:3). Jesus still reigns as Lord (Hebrews 13:8). Where two or three of His people are gathered, He is in their midst (Matthew 18:20). In Revelation 4:1-5:14 John is able to see what goes on in heaven beyond the veil: God is on the throne, and the Lamb with Him, and they reign in glory and honor. We may not be able to see past that veil, yet such makes it no less true and no less real. Furthermore, if we are in Christ, we have His Spirit, the Spirit of God (Romans 8:9-11); by means of the Spirit He maintains His presence in and among His people individually and collectively (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19-20, 2 Corinthians 5:5, Ephesians 1:13-14). Jesus, therefore, remains with us.

The end of the Gospel of Matthew is as its beginning. When narrating Jesus’ birth Matthew directs our minds to the prophecy of Isaiah, that the child born of the virgin would be Immanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:22-25; Isaiah 7:14); Matthew ends the Gospel with Jesus’ own promise that He will remain Immanuel, God with us (Matthew 28:20).

Thus it cannot be said that Jesus merely was Immanuel, human and in the midst of mankind for a short time, only to depart and abandon humanity. Jesus is Immanuel; He still is “God with us.” Is He with us in the exact same form and way He was with the disciples in Galilee and Judea? Not at all; instead, He is with us in more profound and compelling ways, ruling heaven and earth from the right hand of the throne of God, actively sustaining the creation, and strengthening His people through the Spirit. And so we can have the great confidence, as John declares, that He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4); we have hope that as Jesus now is we will be in the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20-58).

We will experience difficult times and wonder if God has abandoned us. At those times we do well to remember Jesus’ final promise in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus is Immanuel; He is with us until we will be with Him in eternity in the resurrection. We may not see Him with our eyes of flesh but we can discern Him through eyes of faith and spirit. We can know that He is there, for in God we live and move and have our being, and Jesus sustains our life (Acts 17:27-28, Hebrews 1:3). It may seem that the forces of darkness are prevailing, but we know that the Lord Jesus truly reigns and will gain the victory over them, having already sealed those who are His (Ephesians 6:12, 1 John 4:4, Revelation 12:1-20:10). May we entrust ourselves to the Lord Jesus and make disciples of all nations as He commanded us, reliant on His strength!

Ethan R. Longhenry

God, Our Refuge and Strength

[For the Chief Musician. A Psalm of the sons of Korah; set to Alamoth. A Song.] God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1).

What do we expect from God?

If we are honest with ourselves, we recognize that we have expectations regarding who God is and what He will do for us. Sure, we should recognize that we do not “deserve” anything from God; our existence and all that we have is already a gift of His which we could never deserve and which we could never repay. We also should recognize that God has gone above and beyond by giving of His Son so that we could receive the forgiveness of our sins which we could never do on our own (cf. Romans 3:20-28, 5:6-11). Nevertheless, just as children have expectations from their parents even though, by all rights, their parents do not “owe” them anything, so we, as the children of God, have expectations of God (cf. Romans 8:16-17). Those expectations say much about our understanding of who God is and who we are and what we ultimately seek in life.

The sons of Korah lived in difficult times and shared in the distress of Israel in the days of the exile. They questioned God on many occasions, but always in faith (cf. Psalm 44:1-26). Throughout Psalm 46:1-11 they demonstrate how they view God and what they can expect from Him.

God is present, and God is their refuge and strength (Psalm 46:1, 5, 7, 10-11). Since God is with them, they will not fear, even though they may experience great distress and difficulty (Psalm 46:2-3). God is present in the midst of His holy place, and it will not be disturbed (Psalm 46:4-5). The nations might rage; there might be war on the earth; but God will overcome it all and through His voice can melt the earth (Psalm 46:6-9). They could know that He, YHWH, is God, and thus they could be still, for He will be exalted among the nations and on the earth (Psalm 46:10). YHWH was with them and served as their refuge (Psalm 46:11).

For generations many have taken comfort in the message of Psalm 46:1-11, and we can certainly understand why: it eloquently expresses God’s sovereignty over the earth and His presence among His people. The message remains quite compelling in terms of our expectations of God.

Many expect God to act like a magician, to wave a mighty wand and make everything better. Others expect God to work as the ultimate 911 service: to come and save the day in times of distress. Some expect God to provide them with a comfortable existence. Still others seek after safety and look to God to preserve their present way of life.

These are not the types of expectations we see set forth in Psalm 46:1-11, and for good reason: these are not realistic expectations. They are rather self-serving, perhaps even to the detriment of others, and entirely confuses the reality of who God is and our standing before Him. He is mighty and holy; we are weak and sinful. He is the Creator; we are the creation. It is for Him to get glory for His name; it is for us to trust in and acknowledge Him.

We do well to make our expectations of God align with what He provides, for He is willing to give us something that is more powerful and valuable than our feeble expectations: His presence. YHWH of Hosts desires to be “with us” (cf. Psalm 46:7). In His presence we can obtain His strength which can allow us to overcome any difficulty in our lives (cf. Ephesians 3:14-21). We can take refuge in His presence, but we must never confuse refuge in His presence with refuge in the world. We have every reason to trust in God and have confidence in whatever we place in His hands (cf. Matthew 6:19-33). But this does not mean that we will find safety on earth: quite the contrary! The nations still rage; turbulence sweeps over the land; disaster and calamity are very real threats. We may have to suffer through them. This does not mean that God is unfaithful, for even in the midst of such trial we can entrust ourselves to Him and draw strength and comfort from His presence.

YHWH, Lord of Hosts, is the Creator, and is a mighty God, but He is not a magician, nor is He the ultimate “Get out of problems free” card. To become a follower of God in Christ does not mean that all of your problems go away and you can rest and relax in a good, long, prosperous, safe existence. If anything, to become a follower of God in Christ is to sign up for humiliation, degradation, persecution, and a host of other challenges (cf. Matthew 10:16-42). Let none be deceived: Christians will experience and suffer the same challenges as everyone else, and perhaps even more so. Christians get sick and die. Christians suffer the loss of children, spouses, parents, friends, and others. Christians get robbed and suffer violence. Christians suffer the effects of disasters, both natural and artificial. Christians are subject to the same forces of decay and corruption as the rest of the creation (cf. Romans 8:18-25).

Yet the difference is that God is with those who call upon His name and follow His Son Jesus (cf. Matthew 28:20). God is their strength and refuge. God will ultimately obtain the victory over death and these forces of corruption and decay in the resurrection and Christians will obtain glory which cannot be expressed in words (Romans 8:17-25, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58). Therefore, Christians can find nourishment and strength in the hope of their faith (cf. 1 Peter 1:3-9).

Will God live up to our expectations? It all depends on what we expect from God. We do well to consider the Scriptures, particularly Psalm 46:1-11, and consider whether our expectations conform to His truth or not. God may not fix all of our problems the way we want them to be fixed, but He will be present with us as we go through our challenges and can strengthen us to overcome them. We may not find the safety and security we seek in the world but we can always find God to be trustworthy and a refuge in the day of distress. We may not get everything we have ever wanted, but if we maintain our trust in God in Christ, we may find that what He gives us in His presence and strength far exceeds anything for which we could ever hope. Let us find strength and sustenance in God’s presence and find our refuge in God in Christ for all eternity!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Existing in God

“And [God] made of one every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed seasons, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek God, if haply they might feel after him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us: ‘for in him we live, and move, and have our being’; as certain even of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring'” (Acts 17:26-28).

Paul has quite the challenge before him: to explain to pagans obsessed with philosophy the nature of the God of Israel, the One True God, and Jesus His Son. In order to have any level of success, Paul must persuade his audience to look at God differently than they had in the past. There were not a multiplicity of gods who were represented by statues, needing the service of men (cf. Acts 17:22-25). In a brilliant and yet ironic move, Paul speaks regarding the nature of the One True God by quoting a Greek, most likely Epimenides of Crete: in God “we live and move and have our being.” As Aratus said in the Phainomena, “we are His offspring.” God, therefore, is not an image in the likeness of man or animal. God is something quite different. God is the Creator of the earth and all that is in it, and, in truth, God is not far from any of us (Acts 17:26-27).

This is a lesson that needs to be proclaimed again today, for even though people may not think of the pagan deities when they think about “God” anymore, people’s view of God and the way God really is remains different.

Think for a moment about how you consider God. The thinking of the past two hundred years have led many people to think of God as distant and remote. In such a view, perhaps God did create everything– but ever since He has stayed away. Many religious people– many who believe in Jesus– will grant that God actively and personally worked throughout the early part of human history, even within the first century of our era. But ever since God has kept His distance, in a sense. The image of God in the parable of the talents has been taken quite literally– God has gone on a far journey, and we are on our own until He decides to return, and then comes the judgment (cf. Matthew 25:14-30).

This image of God reigns supreme in societal thinking. God, especially the God revealed in the Bible, is portrayed as an old man “up there,” distant and remote. If He does have anything to do with His creation, it involves condemnation and chastisement for wickedness. To not a few, Gary Larson’s portrayal of God sitting at His computer, ready to hit the “smite” button and kill a young man with a falling piano, is not too far off the mark.

Paul would not recognize such a God– neither would any Israelite or Christian of the first century. That might be some pagan view of God, but it is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is not the God who sent Jesus His Son into the world.

The One True God is not distant and remote. Yes, we must seek after Him, but, as Paul says, He is not far from us. We exist in Him. We live and move in Him. We cannot understand this in a concretely physical sense, but it also cannot be seen as true in some remote spiritual context. It is true in a very near spiritual context. When Jesus says, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” in Matthew 18:20, He is talking about a spiritual presence, but a presence that is “present” nonetheless!

The Israelites did not waver in their belief that God was with them; all they had to do was look toward the Tabernacle or the Temple and see the cloud of the Presence and understand that God was there (cf. Exodus 40:34). This same imagery is used to describe the people of God today– Christians (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19-20). If believers, individually and corporately, are the Temple, then God’s presence must be with them, as the Scriptures indeed attest. The same is established in Romans 8:9-11. The message of the New Testament is unambiguous: if we are God’s people, then God is with us. This does not mean that a remote and distant spiritual figure far away in the heavens has accepted us. It means that the Creator of the universe is actively working with us and seeking to benefit us in ways we cannot imagine (cf. Romans 8:31-33, Ephesians 3:20-21). When the New Testament declares that Jesus is Lord, this is not to mean that we have a distant and remote ruler. It means that no matter how terrible it may seem on the surface, Jesus is really in control, and blessings will come to those who obey Him (cf. Revelation 12-19)!

There is much that is mysterious about the nature of God and His Presence. We know that God does not abrogate man’s will, and we understand that speaking of God’s presence in “literal,” “concrete,” or “physical” ways are misguided. Nevertheless, we should not allow the humanistic thinking over the past few hundred years to re-define the nature of God for us. Instead, we must understand who God is on the basis of what He has revealed. He is not far from us. He is not the distant and remote figure that our society has made Him out to be. Instead, in Him we live and move and have our being. If we are His people, His Presence is with us. Let us be thankful that our God is not remote, but is very much near, and praise His name!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Presence vs. Participation

And one said unto him, “Lord, are they few that are saved?”
And he said unto them, “Strive to enter in by the narrow door: for many, I say unto you, shall seek to enter in, and shall not be able. When once the master of the house is risen up, and hath shut to the door, and ye begin to stand without, and to knock at the door, saying,
‘Lord, open to us;’
and he shall answer and say to you, ‘I know you not whence ye are;’
then shall ye begin to say, ‘We did eat and drink in thy presence, and thou didst teach in our streets;’
and he shall say, ‘I tell you, I know not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity'” (Luke 13:23-27).

Every generation seems to have its great events and personalities, and people cling tightly to the memory of being present for them and with them. People today still talk about where they were and what they were doing when they heard that John F. Kennedy was shot, or the Challenger space shuttle went down, or when they heard about the 9/11 attacks. Many people remember fondly how they directly participated in great events of their day: a presidential inauguration, or a music celebration, or some other iconic event. Others remember fondly when they had the opportunity to hear a given speaker of some reputation.

Imagine, then, what it must have been like to live in first century Israel and to see and hear Jesus of Nazareth! Consider what it must have been like if Jesus came into your village. You saw the sick healed, demons cast out, and the blind given the ability to see (Matthew 9:35). You heard His wonderful teachings and felt a sense of pride and great expectation. You have been able to see the Son of God Himself!

Then, as with all men, your earthly life ends and you stand before the same Jesus on the day of judgment. You feel hopeful– after all, you were there! You saw Him work His power! Maybe He even recognizes you!

But then the message you hear is quite distressing– “Sorry. I never knew you, for you did that which was evil.” After it is too late, you have learned the lesson: it was not enough just to be present. In order to obtain the blessings of Jesus and His Kingdom, you had to be an active participant!

Granted, none of us have seen Jesus in the flesh or were present when He spoke as He did in Luke 13:23-27. Yet we can still hear about Jesus and the things which He accomplished. We can decide to spend our time with people who seek God and His righteousness first (cf. Matthew 6:33). We may also hear various messages about Jesus from various parts of our society and get the impression that as long as we mentally recognize that Jesus is Lord, everything will be just fine. We may feel that as Americans we are God’s new chosen people and that we will certainly enter Heaven– after all, we are Americans, there are a lot of great people in America, and surely God loves Americans enough to save them.

Holiness and righteousness are not like the cold or the flu– they cannot be “caught” by mere presence or exposure. One cannot become holy or righteous simply by being around holy and righteous people, or by just hearing the message of holiness and righteousness (cf. James 1:22-25). We cannot simply be present– we must decide to participate!

The Kingdom is not for “professors,” those who profess belief in Jesus and little more, but it is for those who do the will of the Father (cf. Matthew 7:21-23). We may feel a special attachment to Jesus or to Christianity because we have been present for its message or have experienced it in some way, but that, on its own, does not mean that we get closer to God. Instead, we must seek to enter by the narrow door– the path laid out by Jesus (cf. Matthew 7:13-14, 1 John 2:1-6). We must participate by becoming God’s humble obedient servants, seeking His will and not our own (Romans 6, Galatians 2:20). Let us strive to not just be present but also to participate in God’s Kingdom!

Ethan R. Longhenry