A King of Their Own Making

Jesus therefore perceiving that they were about to come and take him by force, to make him king, withdrew again into the mountain himself alone (John 6:15).

It seemed as if everything was working out the way it should.

Jesus had come as the Messiah, the Son of God and God the Son (John 1:1-51). The angels spoke of His kingship from His birth (cf. Luke 1:32-33, 2:11). He was going about doing signs and wonders, healing people, and most recently fed five thousand people with five barley loaves and two fishes (cf. John 2:1-6:13). The people perceived that He was the Prophet who was to come into the world: this is the Messiah (John 6:14)! They wanted to make Him their king!

Jesus knew this, and yet Jesus withdrew from them (John 6:15). At what would seem to be the crowning moment of His ministry, He goes alone to the mountain.

So why would Jesus avoid being made king if He came to be the King of the Jews? The answer, in a sense, comes from Jesus’ response: He withdraws to the mountain by Himself, praying to His Father (Matthew 14:23). He is seeking to do the will of His Father, and takes His cues from God, not man.

This is certainly not the way things normally work in the world. Today we see no end of people who try to obtain fame, glory, and honor through almost any means available. Positive publicity, negative publicity, whatever: as long as there is publicity, things seem to be good. We can only imagine how our modern media environment would have handled Jesus, His story, and His work had He come today as opposed to two thousand years ago. Perhaps there was good reason why the first century was the appropriate time!

Yet Jesus acutely understands the main challenge with the way worldly fame and fortune works: when one becomes famous, one loses control. When one obtains a great fortune, in a sense, one loses control. To obtain power may seem like getting control, but in a real sense, one loses control of one’s image and direction. One’s persona starts being fashioned by those who have made them famous, prosperous, and/or powerful.

Had Jesus submitted to the will of the people, He would have become a king in their own making. The Jews were expecting their Messiah to come and rid them of the Romans and re-establish the Davidic monarchy centered in Jerusalem. There would have been little tolerance for Jesus’ real purpose and what the Father sought for Him to do in that environment and with those expectations. He did not come to be the Messiah of the people’s imagination; He came to be the Messiah of whom God had spoken who would fulfill God’s purposes.

God’s path for Jesus and His Lordship would prove much tougher: He lived humbly, served others, was arrested, suffered greatly, and was executed as a common criminal, raised in power on the third day, ascended to Heaven after another forty days, and His rule would be proclaimed by His twelve followers and those who took up their cross to follow after Jesus because of that proclamation. His Kingdom would become more substantial and real because it was not physically substantial; His rule was more certain because it derived from God in Heaven and not from the whim and dictates of man. By withdrawing from the people, He reconnects with the Father and maintains His integrity and the distinctiveness of His purpose and proclamation.

There is much we can gain from Jesus’ example. We find ourselves constantly tempted and pressured to live our lives according to the way the world works. It is tempting to want to gain prominence so as to serve Jesus on a grander scale. But when we try to do so according to the ways of the world, we lose control of our image and the story which we are trying to tell; it becomes the possession of the media, our society and culture, or other forces, and it gets distorted into the story they want to tell. There are moments when it is best for us to withdraw and commune with God in Christ, maintaining our integrity and distinctiveness of the Gospel message which we seek to proclaim. There is always value and wisdom in seeking to proclaim the message of Christ the way He would want us to proclaim it, and to live the Way of Christ according to the way He would have us live it (cf. 1 John 2:1-6). In all things we ought to be rooted in Jesus and take our direction from Him (Colossians 2:1-10).

The Israelites wanted to make Jesus a king of their own making according to their own desires; Jesus resisted this, choosing the harder but ultimately more satisfying path of being the King according to God’s desire. As His servants, let us always proclaim and magnify Him in His own way, and let us not allow ourselves or others to turn Jesus into a king or other figure of their own making for their own purposes. Jesus is Lord, not us, and let us honor Him properly!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Exercise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan R. Longhenry

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

Ask to Receive

And [Jesus] said unto them, “Which of you shall have a friend, and shall go unto him at midnight, and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine is come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him;’ and he from within shall answer and say, ‘Trouble me not: the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give thee?’
I say unto you, though he will not rise and give him because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will arise and give him as many as he needeth. And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. And of which of you that is a father shall his son ask a loaf, and he give him a stone? or a fish, and he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he give him a scorpion? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” (Luke 11:5-13).

The Lord’s Prayer (cf. Luke 11:1-4) is a wonderful model prayer, and we remain amazed at how much could be said with so few words. Yet we should not think that Jesus’ instruction about prayer ends with the conclusion of the prayer. There is much more to learn about prayer than just that for which we should pray!

Jesus uses a very real world example. If you had a friend come up to you at a most inconvenient hour and request something from you, would you not give him what he needs not inherently out of friendship but just because of the sheer impudence of the act? This is compared to our petitions before God– even if we think that we are taxing or greatly inconveniencing God, we may still ask, and God will be willing to grant what we need.

Jesus tells us that we must ask if we wish to receive, seek in order to find, knock in order to have the door opened. His emphasis is on initiative. God stands ready, willing, and able to bless us beyond our imagination (cf. Ephesians 3:20-21). The only ones who are in the way, really, are us. We often do not receive because we do not really ask– not because we never pray, or that we never make requests to God, but we can become afraid of asking for too much or going beyond what we believe possible. We often do not seek because we find it difficult to have sufficient trust in God. We will seek the short route or path and perhaps find something small; we often feel too daunted to seek on the long, arduous, and difficult path, and thus never really find what we desire. The door will open if we only gain the courage to go up and knock upon it.

What Jesus is categorically not telling us is that whatever we ask from God, no matter how carnal or selfish, we will receive it. This is an utter perversion of the Gospel that should not be named among saints; James makes it clear that people who ask to spend upon their passions will not receive it (James 5:3). Jesus’ referent is that which is spiritual and leads to growth in God’s Kingdom, not a nice new car or a million dollars that you would probably end up using to wander off into sin anyway.

The reason for this confidence is centered in God’s kindness and goodness for us, a kindness and goodness we often question. It is easy to look at God like so many do– a bitter old tyrant of a curmudgeon always looking for a way to condemn us. This is not the way of the Father at all!

Jesus provides us with two startling mental images. If your child asks for a fish, would you give him a serpent? Or if they needed an egg, would you give them a scorpion? Of course not. The very idea is perverse and shameful. And that is precisely the point. Even sinful people (like we all have been and unfortunately too often still are, Titus 3:3, 1 John 1:8) will provide benefits and good things to their children. If sinful people are that way, will not the Heavenly Father, who is infinitely more good, give the Holy Spirit and the blessings that come from His revelation and knowledge, to those who ask?

In Matthew’s rendition of similar lines (Matthew 7:7-11), God is willing to give good things, and there is no contradiction here, for the Holy Spirit is good (cf. Romans 8:1-11).

These statements of Jesus are designed to give us confidence in regards to our petitions before God. We need not be afraid of a thundering tyrant of a god for whom our requests will never be good enough. Instead, we are to approach God, take the initiative, live by faith, and be willing to step out and ask for the big things, seek the challenging path, and have the courage to knock the door so as to receive the blessings. We do not have to fear– God is infinitely more good than we are, and just as we want to do good for our own children, so God stands ready, willing, able, and desirous of giving His children all things (cf. Romans 8:32).

All those spiritual blessings, therefore, are there for the taking– if we only ask. Do we have the faith and confidence to do so?

Ethan R. Longhenry

Futility in Effort

“Vanity of vanities,” saith the Preacher; “vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit hath man of all his labor wherein he laboreth under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3).

There is nothing quite as futile as shoveling snow.

It does not matter how much snow has fallen. It does not matter how elaborately the mounds of snow are piled up. It may snow again, and then you have to shovel all that snow onto all the previous snow. And then, after a few months or days, it is all gone– melted and drained away.

Then again, mowing the lawn feels a lot like shoveling snow. One goes and mows the lawn and it looks nice and fresh. Then, after a week or a month, depending on location and weather factors, the lawn looks just like it did before mowing. And thus it must be mowed again. And the cycle repeats itself.

When you stop and think about it, pretty much everything seems futile. Clothes are washed only to get dirty again and require washing. Dishes are cleaned only to be dirtied again. Meals are cooked and eaten, and those who ate hunger again.

Sports teams play their seasons. Most teams never make it to the playoffs, and the fans are left believing, “maybe next year.” Some teams make it to the playoffs only to lose then. And then there is the championship game. A winner is crowned. The team and fans exult. And then everyone gets ready for the next year and the next season and the next set of playoffs and the next championship.

There seems to be futility even in the area of spiritual matters. A preacher preaches lessons on one Sunday only to have to work to preach new lessons the next Sunday. The Lord’s Supper is taken one week, and then is taken the next week. The same things are done over and over again, only to need to be done over and over again.

It is very easy to take a step back and ask yourself, “what is the point of it all?” After all, everything seems so pointless! “Why bother?,” one may ask!

The reason that everything seems so “worthless” in this perspective is because we have been raised to expect there to be some great overarching purpose and meaning in life that makes every single event seem important. Ever since the Tower of Babel man has attempted to invest his deeds with great earthly significance (cf. Genesis 11:4). We are raised to go out and “make a difference” in society. We are strengthened and encouraged to believe that our participation in various efforts– employment, volunteerism, politics, etc.– will have lasting value.

Yet, ultimately, the Preacher is correct. All is vanity– futility– emptiness. We may like to think a lot of our efforts have lasting worldly significance, but such is not really true. One of these days everything around us will be thoroughly destroyed by fire and the memory of them will entirely fade (cf. 2 Peter 3:9-12)!

Does this mean that all is lost? Should we all despair of life? Hardly! The problem is not in the activities of snow shoveling, lawn mowing, household chores, and the like, but our perspective on them. We must recognize that everything we do should be means to an end, and not the end in and of itself. We have many functions that are just functions of life, and we should learn to be content with the fact that they will come and go.

As Jesus indicates, there is only one place where moth does not eat and rust does not destroy, and that is Heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). The spiritual realm is the only realm of any permanence. That is why all of our effort, ultimately, must be to the glory of God and to the promotion of His purposes (Matthew 5:13-16, 6:33). The functions of life must be done as a means to the end of glorifying God. Shoveling snow, mowing the lawn, and household chores are the means by which we serve our family members and others, and in so doing, we serve God (Ephesians 5:23-6:4). Doing the best work we can for an employer is as serving the Lord (cf. Ephesians 6:5-9). Our assemblies and the actions therein are accomplished for encouragement and edification, and thus promote God’s purposes (1 Corinthians 14:26, Hebrews 10:24-25).

The Preacher indicates that all things done for their own benefit in their own name are vanity. Paul indicates that all things done “in the Lord” are not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). Let us not allow ourselves to be distracted or to invest our energies in things that lead to no profit, but instead to serve God and promote His purposes on earth!

Ethan R. Longhenry

God’s People

But ye are an elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that ye may show forth the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light: who in time past were no people, but now are the people of God: who had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy (1 Peter 2:9-10).

The wall had come tumbling down.

For two thousand years God worked with a specific group of people: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants. The Israelites were uniquely the people of God (cf. Hebrews 11:25). They were given the ability to stand before the One True God, the Creator God, YHWH (Isaiah 43:15). They were very proud of this distinction– probably too proud (cf. John 8:31-58)!

Everyone else, however, was excluded. If you were not an Israelite, you were without Christ, without the state of the people of God, without the covenant with God, without hope, and without God (cf. Ephesians 2:12). It was a distressing place to be.

And then, in Jesus the Christ, everything changed.

When Jesus died on the cross, He killed the hostility between the Jews and the Gentiles by abolishing the law that separated them, thus allowing Him to bring both together in one body (cf. Ephesians 2:11-18). Jesus’ death was not effective only for the sins of the Jews, but for all people (cf. Acts 10:34-35, 11:17-18). The Kingdom of God was not limited to any particular nation or ethnicity (Galatians 3:28)!

Peter eloquently describes exactly what this means for believers today in 1 Peter 2:9-10. He cites many passages from the Old Testament that refer to physical Israel– Israel the “chosen race” (Isaiah 43:20 LXX), Israel the “royal priesthood” and “holy nation” (Exodus 19:6, 23:22 LXX), Israel the “people of God’s own possession” (Deuteronomy 7:6). Peter also cites the passages in Hosea where the prophet had spoken of how God would cast off the Israelites and receive them back again in Hosea 1:9-10, 2:23.

But, as Peter indicated before, these prophets and messages were designed to benefit us (1 Peter 1:12). Whereas physical Israel had been God’s chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation, and a people for His own possession, now these benefits are bestowed upon Christians. Whereas God once placed His Presence in the Temple in Jerusalem with priests and sacrifices, now God places His presence with Christian believers who represent the Temple, the priests, and the sacrifices of the new covenant (1 Peter 2:4-5; cf. Romans 12:1, 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19-20, Ephesians 2:19-21, Hebrews 13:15).

We are the people who were once not a people (Ephesians 2:11-12). We are the people who were once without mercy (cf. Titus 3:3). But now, through Jesus Christ, we are adopted into the family of God and have become His people (cf. Romans 8:15-17). In Jesus Christ we have found mercy (Ephesians 2:4-9). We are now God’s “chosen race,” His “royal priesthood,” His “holy nation,” and His “people for a possession.”

Despite what many may say, this definitively indicates that Israel according to the flesh has no more standing before God than anyone else. The Israel that will be saved is the spiritual Israel, not Israel according to the flesh (Romans 11:1-32). The destruction of Jerusalem and the obliteration of any hope of ever truly observing the Law of Moses that came as a result was God’s definitive judgment on Israel and the end of that covenant (Daniel 9:24-27, Matthew 24:1-36). Those of physical Israel have as much opportunity to become believers in Jesus Christ and His obedient servants as the Gentiles (cf. Ephesians 2:1-18, Galatians 3:28). Therefore, we ought not make distinctions based on nationality, as it is written (2 Corinthians 5:16).

Did we deserve the opportunity to become God’s people? By no means! If physical Israel found itself cast off because of disobedience, we in the spiritual Israel should not expect preferential treatment (Romans 2:5-11, 1 Corinthians 10:1-12). Instead, we should be thankful for the opportunity to become God’s people, and to never take that privilege for granted. We ought to serve God with all of our hearts because of what He has done for us (Romans 12:1-2, Galatians 2:20, Ephesians 2:10). Let us represent God’s people and do His will on the earth, representing Him and His values in all things!

Ethan R. Longhenry