A Den of Robbers

Behold, ye trust in lying words, that cannot profit. Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods that ye have not known, and come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered;’ that ye may do all these abominations? Is this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,” saith the LORD (Jeremiah 7:8-11).

The people of Judah were about to learn the disastrous consequences of their misplaced confidence.

For generations the people of Israel had served all sorts of gods. Yes, the prophets persistently warned them against serving the gods of the nations, and to avoid their practices abhorrent to YHWH, yet they were still in the land of Israel, a Davidic king was on the throne, and in their minds, YHWH would most assuredly glorify His name against the nations. After all, in the days of Hezekiah, did YHWH not deliver Jerusalem from the hand of the king of Assyria? If YHWH protected His city, His house, and His people from the Assyrians, He would surely do the same from the Babylonians. The people of Judah looked to the existence of the Temple as their refuge and protection from danger; such was their confidence in YHWH.

The people of Judah had good reason to trust in YHWH, but they really did not trust in YHWH, for they did not pursue after Him alone. Even when they did not introduce abominations into the Temple itself, they still practiced abominations, but then expected to find refuge and forgiveness in the Temple of YHWH. Thus God sent Jeremiah to warn the people regarding the folly of their position: just because YHWH delivered Jerusalem in the days of Hezekiah does not mean that He will do the same again. The people of Judah treat the Temple as thieves treat their den: they may not commit terrible sins there, but they seek refuge there from the sins they commit elsewhere, and perhaps even seek to enjoy comfort from the fruit of their iniquity there. When the place where YHWH and His name are to be glorified becomes a place where the people of God seek YHWH’s protection despite not trusting in Him alone, that place becomes a stumbling block. Within a generation the city of YHWH was cast down, His house destroyed, and His people led away to Babylon. It pained YHWH to see it, yet Israel gave Him no recourse: they abused God’s concern for them and treated it as license to continue as they always had been.

The Jews of the first century CE would learn the same lesson. As Jeremiah warned the people of Judah regarding the imminent demise of the first Temple, so Jesus warned the Jews regarding the imminent demise of the second: as He entered Jerusalem in triumph, He ritually cleansed the Temple, and in so doing declared that the people had made YHWH’s house of prayer into a den of robbers (Matthew 21:12-16, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-46). No doubt Jesus has some concern regarding how the money-changers exploited the people and how such profiteering in the Temple did make it an actual den of robbers. Yet Jesus’ allusion to Jeremiah’s words would not have been lost on the Temple authorities, the Sadducees and chief priests, who perceived Jesus’ threat to the entire Temple establishment and thus their center of power, and they proved pivotal in engineering the conspiracy which led to Jesus’ death (cf. Luke 19:47-48). Nevertheless, Jesus’ witness was appropriate: many of the Jews had seen how their ancestors had overthrown the rule of the pagan Seleucids and were convinced that they could do the same against the Romans. Their confidence remained in the Temple and how YHWH would not allow the pagan Romans to overthrow that Temple. Yet in the process they rejected Jesus their Messiah and followed after those who taught lies, and within a generation of Jesus’ death Jerusalem was again destroyed and the Temple razed to the ground, never to be built again.

The logic used by the people of Israel is always tempting: YHWH is our God, YHWH is forgiving, YHWH will get glory over His enemies, so YHWH will protect His people no matter what. It is true that YHWH is God, that YHWH loves His people, and always proves faithful (cf. Romans 8:1-39), but YHWH is also holy, righteous, just, and does not provide cover for persistent sin (Hebrews 10:26-31, 1 Peter 1:16-17)! God’s judgment begins with His own household (1 Peter 4:17-19), and we do well to learn that lesson.

There is no longer a physical Temple, but God’s presence remains among His people, individually and collectively, through the presence of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:14-16, 6:19-20, 1 Peter 2:3-5). How shall we treat the place where God maintains His presence? God expects the body and the church to be holy places, used in sanctification for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Ephesians 4:11-16, 5:23-33). Yet we are tempted to turn them into dens of robbers, a place where we seek refuge from the consequences of our sinful behavior without any real intent to reform or change. We must not be deceived, for God sees all. If we treat the body or the church as a den of robbers, God knows it, even if we deceive other Christians or, God forbid, other Christians participate in the same forms of darkness with us. Retribution may not be immediate, but retribution will come, and it will be swift and severe.

The Israelites persistently trusted more in God’s willingness to overlook their faults so as to uphold His name and His glory than to actually repent and reform themselves, and for it they twice watched all they held holy and sacred defamed, defiled, and destroyed. We do well to learn from them and turn aside from such folly. Let us not consider our bodies or the church as a den of robbers, seeking refuge from the consequences of sinful behavior without needing repentance, but instead turn and be holy as God is holy to His glory and honor forevermore!

Ethan R. Longhenry

A Den of Robbers

Christus Victor

Having despoiled the principalities and the powers, [Christ] made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it (Colossians 2:15).

Why did Jesus have to die such a horrendous death?

This question goes beyond a simple matter of, “for the forgiveness of sin” (Matthew 26:28); one can imagine many scenarios in which Jesus still dies for the remission of sin but not in such a terribly grotesque and gruesome way. Why humiliation before the Jewish religious authorities and the Roman governor? Why scourging? Why crucifixion?

The primary way that early Christians made sense of the grotesque and horrendous nature of Jesus’ death was through the concept of Christus Victor, Christ the Victor. This view focuses on the idea that Jesus gains the victory over sin, death, and any and all other principalities through His death and resurrection. This is first seen in Acts 4:24-31 in which the Apostles understand the persecution they receive from the Sanhedrin in terms of Psalm 2:1-2, the opposition of the kings of the nations to God and His Anointed, and making direct application of this as prophecy of Jesus before Herod and Pilate. Paul will go on to explain how Jesus conquered sin and death through His death and resurrection (Romans 8:1-2, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58). John frequently associates “victory,” “overcoming,” and “conquering” with suffering from evils steadfastly and without sin (John 16:33, 1 John 5:4, Revelation 5:5, 12:11). Yet perhaps the clearest statement of Christ the Victor is found in Colossians 2:15 in which Paul declares that Jesus triumphed over the principalities and powers, having despoiled or conquered them.

Who are these principalities and powers? To some extent one can see the existing power structures on earth in them, as Jesus stands before the Jewish religious authorities, then Pilate and Herod, during His trial and period of suffering (Luke 22:47-23:25). Yet Paul will declare that our wrestling is not with flesh and blood in Ephesians 6:12, and in Revelation John “pulls the curtain back,” so to speak, and shows us the real power source for world empires and false religion: Satan the dragon (Revelation 13:1-4, 11-14). While the Jewish religious authorities, Herod, and Pilate act as free moral agents as they indict and execute Jesus of Nazareth, they are influenced and partly motivated by these evil, dark, satanic and demonic powers behind the scenes.

Throughout His ministry Jesus made clear that His opponent was not really Rome nor was His goal the liberation of Israel from Roman oppression: He always understood the Adversary, Satan, as His true opponent, and He did as He did in order to liberate people from the power of darkness and lead them into the Kingdom and rule of God (Matthew 4:1-10, 17, 23, 26:28, Acts 10:38, Colossians 1:13). Early Christians understood that Jesus obtained this victory not with a large army or with great force but by suffering humiliation, degradation, and violence, dying on the cross, and being raised by God in the resurrection with power (Romans 5:6-11, 8:1-2, 1 Corinthians 15:20-57, Revelation 5:1-10). To us this is a strange way of gaining a victory, but the challenge of evil and the forces behind evil are not your average challenge. Evil and the forces of darkness thrive through the forms of violence, devastation, and death that are normally wrought in order to defeat a foe. In this contest, in order to win the victory, Jesus had to endure all that the evil forces could throw at Him. He did: He stood firm and remained steadfast despite unimaginable pain, misery, and suffering of emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual natures. The Evil One and his horde did all they could to Jesus: their human agents conspired against Him, humiliated Him, had Him mistreated and ultimately killed. But He did not give into evil; He did not turn to the forces of darkness; He endured the suffering (Hebrews 5:7-8). That is how He overcame sin, and God granted Him victory over death by raising Him on the third day, never to die again (Romans 6:8-11).

The way Jesus died remains shocking, horrifying, and gruesome to this day. Yet it had to happen as it did, not because Jesus deserved it, but because through His death Jesus was overcoming and triumphing over the powers and principalities of darkness. They did all they could to Him, but He endured. When God raised Him from the dead, Jesus thus entirely despoiled the forces of evil. They could harm Him no more, and He now had full reign over them, and to this day they shudder at the name of Jesus (James 2:19).

Through His victory we can gain victory over sin and death and all the forces of evil arrayed against us (Ephesians 6:10-18, Revelation 12:11). We can endure suffering and thus obtain the crown of victory (Romans 8:17-18, 1 Peter 1:3-9, Revelation 7:9-17). The forces of evil are strong but not as strong as Jesus (1 John 4:4)! Through His gruesome death and powerful resurrection Jesus has gained the victory and now rules as Lord. Let us serve Him always and glorify and honor God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Christus Victor

The Wrath of Satan

Therefore rejoice, O heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe for the earth and for the sea: because the devil is gone down unto you, having great wrath, knowing that he hath but a short time” (Revelation 12:12).

Even in the best of times people are compelled to stare evil in the face and come to grips with its reality. It is never pretty.

Humans have been enduring evil from almost the beginning, ever since Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden (Genesis 3:1-23). The plague of evil and the Evil One who advanced evil purposes were well-known and decried for generations. The Enlightenment project in western Europe and North America sought to eliminate evil through scientific, philosophical, and technological progress as well as education and the removal of ignorance. The most astonishing matter about this project is how successful it has been: sure, evil still happens in the Western world, but it does not seem as all-pervasive as in past generations. We presume that children, once born, will grow to adulthood; we presume that life will be decent and tolerable. Disasters tend to be the exception rather than the rule.

While evil may be reduced at times, it can never be eliminated, and the Western world has been attempting to come to grips with the pernicious evil of the past hundred years: World War I, Stalinism, World War II, genocides around the world, and now terrorism. Bad things still happen to people. Oppression is rampant in many places around the world. If this is the best we can do in order to eliminate evil in the world, our situation is pretty sad indeed!

Experiencing evil makes us feel weak, helpless, unsafe, and leads to fear. People want to know why evil exists. People want to know how a loving God can allow evil to happen.

We ask questions like that in order to get answers, since we like answers, since answers give us a feeling of satisfaction and a measure of control. That is why there are so few answers when it comes to evil. We are not in control, nor should we operate under the delusion that we really are in control. We do well to recognize that evil forces do exist and they promote evil on the earth (Ephesians 6:12).

Yet this leads to a valid question: how can these evil powers be in control if God is really in control? If the world is full of such evil, does that not mean that evil has actually triumphed, and there is no hope? This question may come especially for those who seek to follow Jesus in righteousness and yet continually experience the distress and pain that comes from various evils. When it seems that human and demonic forces have conspired against you, how can you keep persevering in faith?

In Revelation 12:1-17, the contest between the forces of evil under Satan and the forces of good under God in Christ are elaborately described. Satan, also known as the Devil, is described as the dragon, a terrifying monster which only God could overcome (cf. Isaiah 51:9), attempting to consume the Child of the woman who represents the people of God (Revelation 12:1-4). The Child is born and ascends to His throne; the Child represents Christ (Revelation 12:5; cf. Psalm 2:1-12). There is then a scene of war in heaven, and Michael and his angels overcome Satan and his angels, and they are cast down to earth (Revelation 12:7-9).

Satan, in Hebrew, means accuser, and the angel proclaims the defeat of Satan as the accuser since Christ has died for the forgiveness of sins, thus undercutting any accusation against the brethren (Revelation 12:10). Salvation, the power, and the Kingdom now belong to Christ who rules as Lord (cf. Matthew 28:18). The salvation of believers is then spoken of as having overcome Satan, and it is accomplished through the blood of the Lamb, the word of their testimony, and that they did not love their lives even to death (Revelation 12:11). On account of this victory heaven has every reason to rejoice (Revelation 12:12)!

The earth and the sea, however, have no such reason for rejoicing; instead, they are warned that they will now suffer the wrath of Satan (Revelation 12:12). Just as a defeated child (or adult, or even nation!) attempts to take out their anger and rage at their defeat on someone smaller or weaker than they, so Satan takes out his wrath at his defeat on the earth and those who dwell in it. Yet, as the angel declares, it cannot last: he has but a short time. The victory which Jesus has won in heaven will be brought to the earth in glory. Yet, until then, the earth and those who are on it will feel the full wrath of Satan.

Jesus intends for this message to encourage us. Yes, evil exists. Yes, we will experience evil. It will cause pain, suffering, and misery. It may even lead to our earthly demise. But evil has not won and it cannot win unless we allow it to win. The evil we experience is not some force impossible to overcome but in fact the last gasp of an angry Satan who has lost hold of those who trust in the blood of the Lamb and maintain the word of their testimony. Jesus the Lord has obtained the victory over sin and death; what can Satan really do in comparison to what Jesus has accomplished for us?

The wrath of Satan is horrendous, tragic, and difficult to endure. Yet the wrath of Satan will pale in comparison to the wrath of God which will be poured out on those who follow after Satan and his designs (Romans 1:18-32, Revelation 15:1-16:21). We should not fear the Evil One but revere and honor God who has overcome the Evil One. We should not question God because evil exists but praise Him for gaining the victory over evil, sin, and death through His Son Jesus and what He suffered. Let us overcome evil through the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony, and maintain the hope of eternal life with God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Wrath of Satan

Lifted Up For Us

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life (John 3:14-15).

Jesus has been saying many difficult things to Nicodemus. This time Nicodemus probably understood the referent, but the application? How can these things be?

If we are to understand Jesus’ application, we must first understand Jesus’ referent. Jesus speaks of Moses lifting up a serpent in the wilderness, and such is the situation in Numbers 21:4-9. As usual, the Israelites are not acting graciously toward God, and so God punishes them yet again, this time with serpents. Many begin to suffer and die and cry out to God. To deliver them from the serpents, God commands Moses to create a likeness of the serpents; the people must look up at the image of the serpent to be healed. Deliverance from death thus comes by God’s power to those who look upon the image of the serpent.

Jesus indicates in John 3:14 that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so also the “Son of Man” must be lifted up. What Nicodemus may not have understood at the time is made clear to us: as Moses lifted up the serpent, Jesus will be lifted up on the cross.

Jesus knows full well the fate that will befall Him; He begins to describe the fate awaiting Him in Jerusalem at the Passover to the disciples in Matthew 16:21, and as He institutes the Lord’s Supper in Matthew 26:26-28, He describes the cup as the “blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many unto remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28). As the “Lamb of God” who “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), Jesus teaches Nicodemus the sober truth about His own fate.

The parallel goes beyond the simple act of being “lifted up”. Not only is Jesus lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent, but just as the Israelites were delivered from the power of the bite of the serpents, so in Christ all can find deliverance from the power of sin and death. Jesus had no need to die for His own sin or for any infraction that He committed, for in Him there was no sin, neither was there any deceit in His mouth (cf. Isaiah 53:9, 1 Peter 2:20-22, Hebrews 4:15, 7:27). He was lifted up for our transgressions, so that we could have the remission of sin in His blood, and have restored association with God (Isaiah 53:5, Matthew 26:28, 1 John 1:1-7).

The parallels do not end there. As the Israelites had to look up at the serpent in order to receive healing, so believers in Christ must look upon Jesus on the cross as well. It was predicted in Zechariah 12:10 that the people would look upon the Messiah and mourn for Him. This prophecy is directly fulfilled by the Roman soldiers who pierce the side of Jesus with a spear to verify His death (John 19:37), yet we must also internalize the prophecy for ourselves. We ourselves have pierced God by our sin, for He went to the Cross on our behalf for our transgression (Isaiah 53:5, Romans 5:6-8). We must look upon Christ on the Cross, the One whom we have pierced, and we should mourn for our sin and its terrible consequences. If we look upon Him in obedient faith, we gain our deliverance. Just as the Israelites looked to the image of the serpent to be healed of their wounds, so we must look to Jesus on the cross if we desire to be healed of our iniquities.

Jesus is not only “lifted up” on the cross. If it were so, His death would be meaningless, and we would still be lost in our sins (1 Corinthians 15:12-18). On the third day, however, the first day of the week, Jesus was again “lifted up” in the resurrection (John 20:1-29)!

Jesus is no less aware of His coming resurrection as He was of His upcoming death on the cross (Matthew 16:21, 26:29). In John 2:13-22, as Jesus cleanses the Temple in Jerusalem, He says, “destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). While everyone thought He spoke of the Temple, Jesus’ disciples would later remember the event and understand how He spoke of the “Temple of His body” (John 2:21), and understood Him to be speaking of His resurrection. No doubt Nicodemus also, reflecting upon his dialogue with Jesus as recorded in John 3:1-21 after everything had taken place, would also recognize how Jesus spoke of His death and His resurrection in John 3:14.

Nevertheless, how does Jesus being lifted up in the resurrection have anything to do with Moses lifting up the serpent? The connection may not be immediately apparent, but we can understand it if we look at the events in Numbers 21:4-9 as the type of the reality seen in the resurrection. God plagues the sinful Israelites with serpents; to deliver them from death, God commands Moses to make an image of the serpent. In this event, looking upon the image of the thing that kills brings life.

The serpent also represents a much deeper level of mortality. The serpent beguiled Eve into eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:1-6), incurring sin and death for mankind. God did not leave man without promise: one would come to bruise the head of the serpent, Satan (Genesis 3:15, Revelation 12:9). Through sin, Satan has successfully bruised the heel of all men and women, and we all are under the sentence of sin and death because of it (Romans 3:5-23). Jesus was the One who was able to bruise Satan’s head by conquering both sin and death, dying on the cross for the remission of sin and being raised to life again on the third day (Romans 5:12-18, 1 Corinthians 15:21-22). Jesus gained the victory, and we are able to be victors in Him (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).

Moses’ lifting the serpent in the wilderness represents the type: the Israelites were bitten by snakes; by looking upon the image of a snake, they were healed, thus defeating the snakes. This points us to the resurrection of Jesus and our own victory: we have been bitten by sin, and by looking to Jesus who was lifted up in the resurrection, we have the victory over death, beginning in our baptism and ending in our resurrection on the final day (Romans 6:3-7, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58, 1 Peter 1:3-9). Let us look upon Jesus, pierced for our iniquities, and receive forgiveness of sin and the hope of the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Lifted Up For Us

David’s Sinfulness

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me (Psalm 51:5).

Few verses have engendered more controversy than Psalm 51:5. People argue about its meaning. Translations of the Bible are frequently judged by how they render the verse in English.

Psalm 51:5 is “ground zero” for discussions regarding “original sin” and “total depravity.” When taken out of context, the text certainly seems to lend credence to the suggestion that everyone is sinful from birth. Such a suggestion, however, does not sit well with many other passages in Scripture. In order to make sense of the verse in light of these other passages, many seek to blunt its force, suggesting it does not really mean what it seems to mean. The controversy has raged for 1500 years; it will likely continue until the Lord returns.

Such controversy is lamentable and certainly was not David’s intent when writing Psalm 51. If we wish to come to a good understanding of the verse, we do well to consider what David is writing and why he does so.

The psalm’s inscription points the way. We are told in 1 Samuel 13:14 that David is a man after God’s own heart, and most of the time he exemplifies trust in God. Yet in 2 Samuel 11:1-27 we learn of David’s heinous sins with Bathsheba the wife of Uriah the Hittite: he lusts for her, lays with her, attempts to set up a situation by which Uriah will think the child is his, and, failing that, conspires to have Uriah die in battle. When it is accomplished, he takes Bathsheba as wife. He may have been able to deceive his fellow Israelites, but he could not deceive God. God sends Nathan the prophet to David to expose his sins of lust, adultery, deceit, and murder, and David confesses his sin (2 Samuel 12:1-14). Nathan then pronounces God’s judgment: David will not die, but the child of the union will; David will experience trials, tribulation, and upheaval within his family. Most of the rest of 2 Samuel describes how these difficulties came about (2 Samuel 12:15-23, 13:1-20:26).

According to the inscription of Psalm 51, often made part of Psalm 51:1, David wrote Psalm 51 immediately after Nathan made evident his sin to him. The message of the psalm perfectly fits this context: it represents a penitent heart begging for God’s mercy and forgiveness. David has been forced to come face-to-face with his sin and the enormity of the wrong which he has done, and through the psalm he expresses not just the intellectual and rational understanding of the problem but the raw emotions and pain as well. Throughout Psalm 51 David does not merely recognize his sin: he experiences a range of emotions on account of his sin and turns to God wholeheartedly.

It is worth noting how we humans tend to get rather hyperbolic at emotionally charged moments in our lives. We tend to think and talk in extremes if we are quite happy or sad, suffering or relieved, relaxed or frustrated. We talk in terms of “always,” “never,” “forever,” and the like, even though we know intellectually that such language is extreme.

So it is with David in Psalm 51. When confronted with his sin and its terrible consequences, David feels extreme anguish and pain, a pain so real that we can feel it through the psalm. At such a time, when he considers himself, it would be quite easy to get a bit hyperbolic and go to extremes. He saw his sin for what it was, and because of it, he felt as if he was brought forth in iniquity. He felt as if he was even conceived in sin!

Feelings do not necessarily correspond with reality; just because David felt that he was sinful from birth and conceived in iniquity does not make it true in fact. With more sober thinking Ezekiel makes it clear that parents and children do not suffer for the sins of others but for their own sin alone (Ezekiel 18:1-24). Jesus will consider small children as representative of those in the Kingdom of God and will go so far as to declare that the Kingdom belongs to them (Matthew 18:1-4, 19:14, Mark 9:33-37). Such declarations are not consistent with the idea that children actually inherit sin and are in danger of hellfire the moment they leave the womb (or perhaps even earlier!). We must remember that David is writing poetry and expressing the great anguish and pain he is experiencing on account of his sin. He expresses that anguish with hyperbole, and it remains inspired by the Holy Spirit to give voice to others who will come afterward who will feel and experience similar anguish. But the statement is not true in fact, any more than we should believe that God was asleep because the sons of Korah demanded He wake up from sleep in Psalm 44:23. These are figures of speech expressing powerful emotion, and while the emotion is quite real, its expression should not be taken in such a way as to contradict what is known about God and His truth as revealed in the Scriptures. We do well to remember that the sum of God’s word is truth (Psalm 119:160).

Nevertheless, while the statement that David was brought forth in iniquity and conceived in sin is hyperbole and not true in fact, we do not do well if we try to minimize or lessen the emotional expression behind the statement. David said what he did because he was confronted with the magnitude, horror, and terror of his sin and its consequences. He felt it so acutely and thoroughly that he felt as if he was sinful from the very beginning. That is a very real experience of the depth of the problem of sin; have we ever gone through a period of time like David did? Just because we did not actively sin as children does not mean that we have escaped from the snares of sin; we stand as guilty before God of sin as David did. When confronted with his sin, David experienced great and terrible anguish, felt the problem of sin to the extreme, and in so doing turned back to God in full repentance. What would have happened if David attempted to blunt the force of his sin problem, seeking to rationalize or justify what he had done? What if he did not fully experience the anguish of feeling separated from God and in danger of losing the most precious relationship he had? Would he have expressed true contrition? Would he have remained a man after God’s own heart?

David was not, in reality, brought forth in iniquity, or conceived in sin. But he had sinned, and he felt as if he had been. He remained a man after God’s own heart, recognizing the difficulties and misery of sin not just intellectually but emotionally and viscerally as well. In so doing he gives us a voice when we are confronted with our sin and its serious consequences. Have we ever felt anything like what David felt? Are we willing to come to grips with the true depth of our sin problem and its terrible consequences, and endure that pain not just intellectually but emotionally as well, so that we can fully turn to God with a penitent and repentant heart and receive forgiveness? Let us, like David, be people after God’s own heart, recognize our sin problem, repent of it, and find salvation in God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

David’s Sinfulness

Sacrifice

For Christ entered not into a holy place made with hands, like in pattern to the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear before the face of God for us: nor yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place year by year with blood not his own; else must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once at the end of the ages hath he been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself (Hebrews 9:24-26).

For people today, perhaps one of the strangest and most foreign aspects of the Old Testament is the sacrificial system. Much of Leviticus is devoted to descriptions of various animal sacrifices: what to offer, when to offer it, why to offer it, how it should be offered, and so on and so forth. Many can become quite indignant about the whole matter: why do the poor animals have to suffer? What did they do so as to deserve such a fate?

Then again, the concept of sacrificing animals before a deity is not just found in Israel; it seems that almost all ancient societies engaged in animal sacrifices before their gods. Some, like the Babylonians, did so believing the gods would be fed through the process; if they stopped making sacrificial offerings, their gods would starve! Others believed that whereas their gods had their own food, the smell of the sacrifices would lead the gods to be kindly disposed toward those offering them.

What is the point of all of these sacrifices? We might not clearly understand the idea of animal sacrifices, but we understand what “sacrifice” is. Sacrifice entails giving up something: a suffering of loss. We talk about sacrificing some time or money for a particular person or cause; we frequently hear about those who died in war as having sacrificed everything for their country.

The idea of sacrifice as suffering loss explains animal (and grain) sacrifices in the Old Testament: it represents some level of suffering loss for God. Many such sacrifices were memorial: the first of the grain harvests and the firstborn animals would be sacrificed as a way of thanking God for the blessings of life. Yet when it comes to sin offerings, the sacrifice is not to thank God but as a request for atonement and cleansing from sin (cf. Leviticus 17:11).

This sacrifice for sin was designed for the instruction of Israel: it was costly, requiring the suffering of loss of an important piece of their property (their animal), and provided a means by which Israel could understand the mechanism of atonement. The animal’s life was given so that the one offering the animal could receive atonement, or cleansing, from their sin. This is made evident in the yearly day of atonement for Israel as described in Leviticus 16:1-34.

The Hebrew author spends much time describing the limitations of the Israelite system, especially in regards to the sacrificial system. The priests who took the offerings and presented them before God were themselves imperfect; the blood of animals could not really take away sin; animals had to be continually offered (Hebrews 7:11-28, 9:1-22, 10:1-4). But then the Hebrew author explains how Jesus of Nazareth was the ideal Priest and King: He did not offer the blood of animals but His own blood; His unique sacrifice only needed to be accomplished once in order to be efficacious for all; He was perfect and sinless in life (Hebrews 7:26-28, 9:23-27). Jesus, therefore, is the ultimate sacrifice.

Jesus suffered great loss on our behalf: all the agony He experienced through His arrest, trial, scourging, and crucifixion were not on account of His own sin or any wrong He had done (cf. 1 Peter 2:21-25). He willingly suffered the loss of His life for those whom He loved (1 John 3:16). God the Father was willing to allow such an offering because of His great love for us (John 3:16, Romans 5:6-11).

Animal sacrifices, therefore, pointed to the challenges of mankind which God addressed powerfully through His Son Jesus. Animal sacrifices are no longer necessary because of what Jesus accomplished; in fact, to think to offer animals again would be rather insulting, in a sense trivializing what God has accomplished for us through the sacrifice of Jesus His Son. But just because we do not offer animal sacrifices does not mean that we should no longer sacrifice; quite the contrary! Since God has suffered so much loss for us, we should be motivated to become living sacrifices for Him (Romans 12:1). As Jesus was crucified as a sin offering to atone for our sin, so we should reckon ourselves as crucified with Christ, no longer living for ourselves, but having Christ live in and through us (Galatians 2:20). It can no longer be enough to just suffer the loss of an animal, some other prized object, money, or any other thing; we must freely give of ourselves, mind, body, and soul, for Him and His purposes (Colossians 3:17).

Jesus was the sacrifice to atone for our iniquity and to overcome our deficiencies. We did not deserve it and never will; we should be thankful and be willing to suffer the loss of all things for the Lord. Let us praise and glorify God because He has provided the necessary sacrifice for our sin, and subject ourselves and our will to His!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Sacrifice

Persecuted for Righteousness’ Sake

“Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets that were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12).

It might seem that Jesus has left the strangest for last.

Most of Jesus’ “beatitudes” have been counter-intuitive or inconsistent with the norm. When we think of who is blessed, happy, or fortunate, the poor, those in mourning, the meek, those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers do not necessarily come to mind (cf. Matthew 5:3-9). We tend to associate happiness with more material prosperity and more favorable circumstances than those. Jesus is aware of this, and such is likely a major driver of why He begins His “Sermon on the Mount” this way. He is attempting to overthrow expectations, helping people to see things in a different and fresh way, and finding the “silver lining” and the true righteousness that can be found in many unpopular positions.

But to consider those who are being persecuted for righteousness’ sake as being happy, fortunate, or blessed is extremely counter-intuitive and entirely inconsistent with the norm. To expect anyone to rejoice and be glad when they are reproached and persecuted unjustly seems extremely loony to a lot of people. It also seems entirely unjust, unfair, and difficult to swallow!

We must first consider the oddity that is persecution for doing what is right. We all have a built-in “fairness meter” governing our lives. When we do good things, we expect to receive good things in return; likewise, when we know we have done bad things, we expect bad things in return. If we face persecution and reproach, we are first likely to wonder if we have done something wrong. If we have done wrong and suffer for it, that seems about right (cf. 1 Peter 2:20). But if we are doing good, and we are standing up for love, mercy, and compassion, living righteously and a benefit to others, and yet we are reviled, persecuted, or reproached for it, we feel doubly wronged: not only are we experiencing the unpleasantness of the persecution, but it is in return for being nice!

This would become a challenge for the Christians of Asia Minor which Peter addresses throughout his first letter, particularly in 1 Peter 2:18-25; in that passage one can clearly hear the echoes of Jesus in the “Sermon on the Mount.” Jesus understands the challenge this particular principle poses for people; of all the “beatitudes,” this is the one whose message is essentially repeated twice, one time in the abstract (“blessed are they that…,” Matthew 5:10), and then again with direct application (“blessed are ye when…,” Matthew 5:11). In fact, it is the only “personalized beatitude,” directly including Jesus’ audience.

Jesus knows how persecution and reproach will come on account of living righteously for His sake, but why? He appeals to the example of the prophets that came beforehand (Matthew 5:12): in Luke 6:22-23, 26, we have the full contrast between the “blessing” of being persecuted for righteousness’ sake as the prophets experienced, and the woe befalling those of whom all speak well as the false prophets experienced.

We do well to consider the prophets. The prophets stood for God’s truth and accomplished amazing things for the people through the power of God. Elijah and Elisha both raised the dead and brought deliverance in various forms to the people of Israel (cf. 1 Kings 16:1-2 Kings 8:6). Prophets like Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel brought the message of God to Israel, exhorting the people to repent while time remained. They did not sin against the people: they did not extort people out of what was theirs, they were not persuaded by a bribe, they did not pervert justice for or against the disadvantaged or the privileged, or any such thing. Nevertheless, very few people paid them any heed. Those in Israel who were extorting from the people, accepting bribes, perverting justice toward the advantaged, and so on worked diligently to undermine these prophets and caused them great harm. Many were mistreated. Some were even killed (cf. Matthew 21:35-36). Yet, in the end, the prophets proved faithful to God, and received their reward (cf. Hebrews 11:32-38).

Such experiences were not pleasant; there are many times in Jeremiah’s writings where we can discern the prophet’s agony and emotional turmoil about the message with which he was sent, its implications, and the reactions of the people. And yet he fully trusted in God despite the actions of the people!

Why did the prophets come to such grief? The message God gave them would be fine and dandy as long as they kept it to themselves and lived their own lives by it. Yet it became a threat the minute it was proclaimed to others: it threatened the existing power systems, it threatened people’s worldviews, underlying assumptions, and much of what they clung to for comfort. It exposed the darkness and evil in their lives. God’s message was uncomfortable, and it was always easier to dismiss, harm, or kill the messenger than it was to endure what was proclaimed, take it to heart, and change.

Therefore, even though it seems counter-intuitive, we can understand how one would be persecuted, reviled, and spoken evil of for being righteous in Jesus’ name. It would be one thing if Christianity is something we keep to ourselves and only seek to apply it to our own lives. But when that life is seen by others, and proclaimed to others, it becomes a threat to existing power structures, worldviews, underlying assumptions, things which people find comfortable, and it exposes the evil and darkness in people. It remains easier to dismiss, injure, or kill the messenger than it is to heed the message, take it to heart, and change.

So how can we find joy in such events? We must be very careful about this; far too many take this principle and distort it toward ungodliness, seeking to proclaim Jesus’ message in adversarial and hostile ways, and using the inevitable “persecution” and reviling that comes as a response as the automatic justification for the behavior. We can experience persecution as easily by sanctimonious, harsh, angry, and inflammatory words and deeds as by truly living righteously, and we are deluded by the Evil One whenever we think that we are experiencing the latter despite having done the former. As in all things, Jesus is to be our example (cf. 1 Peter 2:21-25). He made a firm stand against the religious authorities but taught the regular people with compassion. He went about doing good and was condemned, beaten, and crucified for doing so. And, in the end, the joy was His, since He accomplished God’s purposes and is now the Author and Perfecter of the faith of those who come to Him (cf. Hebrews 12:1-2).

As the Hebrew author said, Jesus despised the shame (Hebrews 12:2), and He could only do that by finding the joy that could come from being persecuted and reviled. If we are humbly living before God, respectfully living and speaking God’s truth, live in righteousness and justice, and receive evil for it, we need not be ashamed. We must despise that shame, and we can only do that by recognizing how fortunate we are to be able to follow in the footsteps of the prophets, Jesus, and the Apostles.

It is no fun to experience persecution, but the reward for suffering despite speaking and living righteously and justly is great. Let us continue to place our trust in God no matter how we appear before men, despise the shame, and glorify God our Savior!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Persecuted for Righteousness’ Sake

Not to the Right or to the Left

“Only be strong and very courageous, to observe to do according to all the law, which Moses my servant commanded thee: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest have good success whithersoever thou goest” (Joshua 1:7).

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Such a line will not deviate toward any other direction. But such is really true only in ideal terms; in our reality, there is no such thing as a completely straight line. It is possible to make a line seem very straight indeed, but we cannot make a perfectly straight line. This nicely illustrates the human predicament.

God has provided a standard for living; in the old covenant, it was the Law of Moses. Ideally, Israel would hold firm to the Law, observing everything in it, not deviating at all, or, as God encouraged Joshua, and in turn Joshua the people, “to not turn from it to the right hand or to the left” (Joshua 1:7, 23:6). In the new covenant in Christ, we are to love and know God and keep His commandments, walking as Jesus walked (1 John 2:1-6). This remains the ideal.

And yet none of us can live up to that standard perfectly. Peter and Paul declared as much in regards to Israel and the Law (Acts 13:38-39, 15:10, Romans 3:20). John understands that Christians do not live up to the ideal either (1 John 1:8-2:6). If we cannot perfectly go straight, why would God provide such exhortation to Israel and to Christians today?

The ideal is not worthless or irrelevant simply because no one save Jesus has ever lived up to it perfectly. God has always understood our deficiencies as humans; such is why He established the sacrificial system in the Old Testament, and continues to grant grace and mercy through Jesus in the New Testament (cf. Leviticus, Romans 5:6-11, 8:1-39). And yet we must not become complacent or content by acknowledging our imperfection; it is easy for us to think that since we cannot live up to the ideal perfectly, we should not try! Therefore, we do well to confess that the ideal is ideal: we should be following what God says perfectly. We should walk in God’s ways without any deviation; we should go “straight” and should not go “to the right hand or to the left.” When we do deviate from God’s command, we ought to admit as much, change our minds and ways, and return to the good path (1 John 1:9). In all things we must place our trust in God and His ideal way for mankind (Hebrews 11:6)!

The image of going “straight” and not turning “to the right hand or to the left” also underscores the necessity of balance. While it remains true that many people have deviated from God’s path and purposes on account of rebellion and a desire to sin, many others have deviated from God’s path because they overemphasized certain aspects of God’s truth to the detriment of other aspects.

This proves quite easy to do; we humans easily go to extremes. We rightly see a problem with one side; it is tempting to run far to the other side in response. We see certain groups associated with certain practices; it is tempting to want to go to the other extreme so that no one would confuse “us” with “them.”

This is why it is important for us to remember that God wants us to not deviate to the right hand or to the left; truth is rarely, if ever, found in the extremes. Furthermore, there remain many aspects of the faith that are held in a sort of tension: God’s sovereignty and grace with human freedom, for instance, or the imperative to holiness with the imperative to love, mercy, and grace. The Scriptures are filled with examples of people who have gone to one extreme or another: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the “Judaizers,” the Gnostics, and so on.

God is far greater than ourselves, and His truth remains sublime (Isaiah 55:8-9, Romans 11:33-36). God has set forth His standard for the creation and all mankind; it is up to us to confess its value and make it our goal in life. Whenever we deviate from that standard, either by stumbling into some sin, or by overemphasizing certain aspects of truth to the detriment of other aspects of it, we must change our ways and seek to re-align our will to God’s. God’s ways and God’s truth remain ideally straight, firm, and balanced; we, in our sin and corruption, have turned to the right or to the left. Let us turn away from all deviations and seek to glorify God in spirit and truth in all we think, say, do, and teach!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Not to the Right or to the Left

The Peacemakers

“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).

In our sin-sick world, conflict seems to be ever-present. Some nations fight against other nations; plenty more maintain strained, tense, and tenuous relationships with each other. People of different clans, tribes, ethnicities, and other such groups of people nurse disagreements and conflicts with other, similar groups. Within extended families there always seem to be some relatives who cannot stand each other and who perpetually fight or remain at odds with each other. Even within immediate families, husbands, wives, and children have plenty over which to fight and maintain tensions and hostilities. For that matter, there is internal conflict between the spirit and the flesh (Galatians 5:17)!

The reality of conflict is sad enough; the promotion and fostering of conflict is even worse. And yet the sad reality is evident: conflict, tension, and difficulty generates interest, money, and power. If you can make a television show where different people are constantly in conflict with each other, you will have an easier time getting a strong viewership than if everyone in the story is at peace with one another. Politicians tend to get more people to vote for them if they can demonize the opposing candidate as “the other,” focusing on the differences and the negatives rather than the similarities and positives. The stronger the rivalry between different teams, groups of people, and the like, the stronger the passions, and thus the greater the interest. In the world, in almost every arena of life, “dividers” receive interest, power, money, and fame; “uniters” may receive lip service for their work, but will never generate the same interest, power, money, or fame as the “dividers.”

And so Jesus, as He continues to pronounce as blessed, fortunate, or happy those who are not normally recognized as such (or, for that matter, recognized at all), declares peacemakers blessed, for such shall be called “sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).

When considering these Beatitudes, as they are often called, it is easy to gloss over the “rewards” which the fortunate ones will receive. They all seem to be some variant of the saved, members of the Kingdom, or those who will obtain the promises God has provided. Yet the “reward” of being called the “sons of God” has great significance: “sons of God,” in the Old Testament, refers most often to spiritual beings in God’s presence (cf. Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7). Jesus will later reckon those who obtain the resurrection of life as “sons of God” (Luke 20:36); it is for their revelation that the creation eagerly waits in Romans 8:19. “Sons of God” is a description indicating close association with both God the Father and Jesus the Son; to be called a “son of God” would be a great honor indeed.

So why do the peacemakers receive such a blessing? We can understand why through Galatians 3:26, in which Paul declares that all believers who seek to obey Christ are sons of God, through faith, in Jesus Christ. How is it possible that we could be sons of God by trusting in Jesus and through what Jesus accomplished? As Paul makes evident in Ephesians 2:11-18, Jesus allowed all of us to be reconciled both to God and to one another by becoming the ultimate Peacemaker: He killed the hostility between the Jews and the Gentiles by bearing the cross and in so doing eliminating the Law and its trappings that served to divide the Jews from the Gentiles, and brought both together in Him in one body.

Those who make peace, therefore, are as Jesus, seeking to kill hostility and reconcile man back together with God and with one another. One can see Jesus’ entire purpose and mission in terms of this reconciliation (cf. Romans 5:6-11): since God is Three in One and One in Three, maintaining relational unity, anything that serves to divide man from God and one another is accursed, but that which reconciles and restores man in relationship with his God and with one another glorifies God (cf. Isaiah 59:1-2, John 17:20-23, Galatians 5:17-24). Therefore, those who work to make peace between opposing parties reflects God and His will within Himself, for mankind, and with mankind. The great honor of being known as “sons of God” makes perfect sense: to make peace among people is to share in close association with the work of God.

This does not mean that peacemaking is easy; all of us have a tendency toward division, hostility, and tension toward others, and when we see different groups feuding with each other for whatever reason, we have a natural tendency to want to stay out of it and get far away. We also must make sure that we do not confuse peacemaking with meddling or being a busybody. We must also recognize the multitude of forces in the world that work against peace: many such forces unabashedly maintain the face of evil and hostility, perhaps even in almost demonic terms (cf. Ephesians 6:12), but plenty of conflict, tension, and division masquerade with “holy” and “pious” facades. The truth of God must never be compromised (Galatians 1:6-9); yet a significant aspect of God’s truth is His desire to reconcile all men to Himself and to one another (John 17:20-23, Romans 5:6-11), and the promotion and maintenance of strife, divisions, and sects are always inconsistent with God’s revealed truth, remaining works of the flesh (cf. Galatians 5:19-21).

Peacemaking has always been a hard thing to do and a tough path to take; there are always plenty of forces that work against it. But the path of peacemaking is the path of Christ; to reconcile mankind with God and with one another is the essence of God’s purpose in Christ. Let us work to promote and advance peace, ever thankful for Jesus’ peacemaking that allows us to be sons of God, reconciled back with the Father!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Peacemakers

Strength in Hope of Deliverance

Strengthen ye the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees. Say to them that are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God; he will come and save you” (Isaiah 35:3-4).

After judgment and loss, despair easily sets in. One can only imagine how the Israelites would feel.

Their city would be utterly destroyed; their king would be blinded, his children executed. The Temple of YHWH would be burned by pagan Babylonians. They would be taken into exile to Babylon, dwelling among pagans vaunting themselves against the God of Heaven. The days would seem bleak; discouragement would be the rule, not the exception. In such an environment, it is easier to give up hope; it is easier to give into the propaganda all around you.

God understands these things, and that is why the message of the prophets was not only doom and gloom. He pointed forward to a day of deliverance; He would avenge Himself on those who acted against God’s people, and He will rescue His people.

It would somewhat come to pass for Israel. The Babylonian Empire was not long for the earth; soon after, the Persians would take over. The Jews would return to their land and would rebuild another Temple. Yet they remained acutely aware of the deficiency of the day: they still did not have the promised King. Their deliverance, and God’s vengeance upon His enemies, was not yet complete.

Notice how Isaiah promises that God will come and save them (Isaiah 35:4). This promise is not truly fulfilled when Israel returns to its land; it finds its fulfillment in the life of the Immanuel, God with us: Jesus of Nazareth.

Israel was looking forward to obtaining vengeance on the Romans and rescue from their pagan rule. Yet God has promised a more profound and deeper form of rescue. God is looking to defeat the enemy that lurks behind Babylon, Rome, and any imperial, oppressive power. He will go after the true enemy, our Adversary, Satan, and the sin and death which enslaves all of us (Romans 5:12-18, 6:23). In His life Jesus showed us the nature of God and righteous living (John 1:18, Hebrews 1:3); through His death, sin was overcome and true forgiveness could be obtained through His blood (cf. Matthew 26:28, Acts 2:38, Romans 5:6-11). In His resurrection He gained the victory over death, extending the hope of victory over death to all men (1 Corinthians 15:54-58).

God most certainly came to obtain vengeance over His enemies, sin and death; God has made recompense, and God came to save. This message of hope, therefore, is as applicable now as it was then.

It is easy to be consumed by despair. Sin and death seem to lurk everywhere; it is easy to imagine that God is far from us at times. It is easy to give in and to believe the propaganda of sin surrounding us. This is why we do well to be strong, not fear, strengthening the weak hands, confirming the feeble knees (cf. Hebrews 12:12). We may experience times of trial or discipline; we must endure. God has not forsaken us. The victory has been obtained; it is only left to be fully realized. We have every reason for hope and joy in our new life through God who came to save us. Let us be strengthened by God’s work and promises, stand firm against the wiles of sin, fear not, and obtain the victory through Jesus Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Strength in Hope of Deliverance