Understanding Covenant VI | The Voice 9.20: May 19, 2019

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Understanding Covenant, VI: Continuity in Covenant

The God of heaven has chosen to interact with mankind within the framework of covenants, agreements with mutual benefits and responsibilities. In days of old God established covenants with the creation in the days of Noah, with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with Israel, and with David; in these days God has established a covenant with all mankind through His Son, Jesus of Nazareth.

Different covenants manifest distinctive characteristics, and thus, as Christians, we do well to recognize and honor covenant distinctions, especially between the new covenant in Christ and the old under the Law of Moses. Sadly many have departed from the faith delivered once for all in Christ because they incorporated aspects of the Law of Moses which were never bound upon Christians; the dangers of “Judaizing” have remained among the people of God ever since.

While we must respect the distinctiveness of the covenants God has established with people, we must also be on guard lest we overstate the level of discontinuity among the covenants; God is one, God does not change, and therefore the covenants God has established with mankind also maintain many forms of continuity throughout (Deuteronomy 6:4-6, Malachi 3:6, Ephesians 4:4-6, Hebrews 13:8). Within a century of the death of the Apostles many were led astray by Marcion and those like him: Gentiles who cast aspersions on the revelation of God to Israel and who sought to “de-Judaize” Christianity, suppressed the Old Testament, and carved up the New Testament to put a more palatable God on display. The dangers of Marcionism and anti-Semitism have remained among the people of God ever since.

The evidence of continuity in covenant is on display throughout the New Testament. At no point did Jesus or the Apostles abandon the God of Israel; they did not declare that God’s covenant to Israel was a mistake or a dead end. Instead, Jesus and the Apostles understood and proclaimed Jesus as the embodiment of God’s work in Israel brought to its fulfillment so God’s promises to Abraham would finally be satisfied.

In His life, death, resurrection, ascension, and promise of imminent return, Jesus demonstrated Himself to be the Servant whom God had promised to Israel (cf. Isaiah 42:1-53:12, Acts 3:13). Students of Isaiah, ancient and modern, have sought to understand who the servant represented, for at times it seemed to be Israel as a nation, and at other times an individual Israelite, perhaps the prophet himself (cf. Acts 8:34). Jesus proved to be the individual Israelite who represented the whole: as Israel was born in humble circumstances, sojourned in Egypt, wandered in the wilderness, entered the land, suffered exile, and was somewhat restored in a return, so Jesus was born in humble circumstances, sojourned in Egypt, was tempted in the wilderness, ministered in the land, suffered death, and was restored in His resurrection (cf. Matthew 2:14-15, 4:1-25, 1 Corinthians 15:1-7). Jesus continually framed all He did as the fulfillment of what God had promised Israel through the prophets (cf. Luke 4:16-21); such was no mere proof-texting, but a powerful display of God fulfilling His purposes for Israel in Jesus. Israel was liberated from bondage in Egypt to become the people of God, the means by which God would bestow blessings to the world; yet Israel did not hearken to God, and instead became like the nations of the world (cf. Romans 2:1-29). Jesus came in the flesh and did what Israel could not: He lived in the world but was not of the world, bore sin on the cross so as to defeat its power, and provided for the people of God a new Passover, liberation from the forces of sin and death (Romans 8:1-4, 1 Corinthians 5:7). Jesus, as the Word of God made flesh, embodied the Torah and the Temple, and through His life, death, and resurrection Jesus fulfilled the Torah, and brought heaven and earth together in His glorified, transformed resurrection body which ascended into the heavens (cf. John 1:1-18, 2:13-22, Hebrews 4:15).

In all of this God never abandoned Israel according to the flesh: God instead had proven faithful to His promises to Israel, and provided liberation from the forces of sin and death and full restoration from the exile of alienation on account of sin in Jesus. Those in Israel who had trusted in Jesus throughout had no need to “convert”; Paul himself would speak of his moment of transformation less as conversion and more as the recognition that God had fulfilled His promises (Acts 26:4-8). The welcoming of Gentiles among the people of God was always described in terms of incorporating Gentiles into the faith as Gentiles, as made fellow-citizens and fellow-heirs of the promise of God in Christ: all such language presumed the continued standing of Israelites who put their trust in Jesus among the people of God (cf. Romans 9:1-11:36, Ephesians 2:11-22). Paul would stress in Romans 9:1-11:36 that God’s promises were not revoked; it was not as if Israelites ceased being children of Abraham according to the flesh. Furthermore, the importance of being a child of Abraham was never denigrated: Paul argued that in Christ Gentiles could also become (spiritual) children of Abraham through faith (Romans 4:1-23, Galatians 3:1-27). In Christ God brought the Gentiles into the covenant people; they could now share in the blessing of Abraham.

For that matter, the people and name of Israel were not cast off. Paul repeatedly insisted that Christians should learn from what God had done among Israel, and welcomed Gentile Christians to look at Israel according to the flesh as their fathers in the faith (Romans 15:4, 1 Corinthians 10:1-12). The Scriptures, not just including, but especially the Old Testament, were profitable (2 Timothy 3:14-17). Peter and Paul would speak of Christians, even Gentile Christians, as the Israel of God, and associated the covenant terminology of Israel with Christians (Galatians 6:16, 1 Peter 1:1-2, 2:3-9).

It is right, good, and necessary to draw appropriate distinctions in the covenants between God and mankind, but never to the point of creating discontinuity where God maintained continuity. God did not seek to abolish Israel or His promises to Israel: He fulfilled those promises in Jesus, and welcomed both Israelites and Gentiles to jointly participate in the Kingdom of Christ (Ephesians 2:1-22). Much of what was expected under the Law would remain normative for Christians in the new covenant (e.g. Romans 13:8-13). Christians who would arrogantly consider themselves as superior to Israel would be wiser to own Israel according to the flesh as part of their heritage as the people of God and be willing to see how they could stray according to similar patterns of disobedience (cf. Romans 11:1-36, 1 Corinthians 10:1-12). If we refuse to recognize Jesus of Nazareth as a first century Israelite of the Second Temple Period, sent to save the lost sheep of Israel, we can never understand Him properly at all. May we seek to uphold the continuity among the covenants of the people of God while respecting the points of distinction, navigating between the Scylla of the “Judaizers” and the Charybdis of Marcionism, and glorify God for fulfilling all of His promises in Jesus and making us all one man through His Spirit in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Justice in the Morning | The Voice 9.19: May 12, 2019

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Justice in the Morning

The Day of YHWH became all the more imminent during the days of Josiah king of Judah: the appointed time of judgment for Judah and the surrounding nations drew near. YHWH spoke through Zephaniah to warn Judah against its tendency toward idolatry, oppression, and casual indifference toward its God (Zephaniah 1:1-2:2); he also pronounced judgment on all the surrounding nations with condemnation of Assyria as his crescendo (Zephaniah 2:3-15). The Day of YHWH’s sacrifice and anger drew near; more warnings proved necessary. Nevertheless, after the judgment, justice would arise in the morning, and restoration and hope would return to the people of God (Zephaniah 3:1-20).

Zephaniah lamented over and denounced Jerusalem as a rebellious, polluted, oppressive city (Zephaniah 3:1; cf. Zephaniah 3:1-8). First, and most fundamentally, the inhabitants of Jerusalem did not obey the voice of YHWH, did not accept His correction, and did not trust in or draw near to Him (Zephaniah 3:2). They therefore functioned like every other small kingdom of the ancient Near Eastern world. Their rulers devoured the living of their people like a lion or a wolf; their prophets participated in treachery, profaned what is holy, and did violence to God’s instruction (Zephaniah 3:3-4). In contrast, YHWH who dwelt in Jerusalem’s midst is righteous and does not commit iniquity; He brings His justice to light every morning and does not fail, while the unjust revel in shameful deeds (Zephaniah 3:5). YHWH warned Jerusalem: He cuts off nations and destroys cities, leaving them with no inhabitants; all He had asked Israel was to revere Him and receive correction, yet they would not, and corrupted themselves (Zephaniah 3:6-7). The day would now soon come, the day on which YHWH would devour the earth with the fire of His jealousy, pouring out His wrath upon the nations and kingdoms of the world (Zephaniah 3:8).

The Day of YHWH would be terrible and catastrophic, but it would not be the end of the covenant or of God’s covenant loyalty. YHWH promised a restoration for the remnant of the humble and lowly in Israel (Zephaniah 3:9-13): the speech of the people would be made pure so as to call on YHWH and serve Him together, and all His people would return with offerings, even those beyond the rivers of Cush (modern day Sudan; Zephaniah 3:9-10). The people would no longer be put to shame by their rebellion, for God will have removed all who were proud and arrogant, and the haughty would no longer dwell on His mountain (Zephaniah 3:11). Those who remained would be humble and lowly, seeking refuge in YHWH, no longer doing injustice or speaking deceit, and would rest securely (Zephaniah 3:12-13).

Zephaniah continued to speak of God’s restoration of Israel, projecting into the future a time in which Israel and Judah would again rejoice in YHWH (Zephaniah 3:14; cf. Zephaniah 3:15-20). On that day YHWH would demonstrate His forgiveness of Israel, clearing away judgment by taking away their enemies and dwelling in their midst, and they would have no reason to be afraid (Zephaniah 3:15). On that day Israel would be strengthened to apply themselves to labor, for YHWH their God would dwell in their midst, and YHWH is a mighty God who would rejoice over His people in song, and give serenity to them in His love (Zephaniah 3:16-17). YHWH would gather the faithful remnant, those who yearned for the spiritual assemblies of the people of God, and who acutely felt the reproach of the burden Israel bore (Zephaniah 3:18). YHWH would handle those who afflicted Israel, save the lame, gather those driven away, and would make them a praise and a name, overcoming the shame they experienced throughout the earth: they would be gathered in and made a name and praise among the nations of the earth when He would bring them back from captivity (Zephaniah 3:19-20).

In this way YHWH spoke to Judah through Zephaniah. Zephaniah represented the substance of the prophetic message YHWH sent to Israel and Judah in summary: the Day of YHWH was coming against Israel and/or Judah, since they had abandoned their God and had become as the rest of the ancient Near Eastern nation-states, serving all sorts of gods, oppressing the poor and marginalized, and participating in immorality and decadence; the Day of YHWH was coming against the nations, for they had slandered and abused the people of God; after the judgment YHWH would heal His people by restoring them to their place and rejoicing in them again (Zephaniah 1:1-3:20).

The end of the message is as important as its beginning, but its purpose in its context must always be honored. YHWH was righteously indignant against Judah and the nations, and His Day of sacrifice and anger would be satisfied; but that would not be Israel’s end. YHWH would still prove loyal to His covenant and would manifest steadfast love to Israel. There would be healing and restoration. Israel would have reason to hope in YHWH, but not yet: judgment would have to come first, for the people would not return to YHWH. Israel would have to learn their lesson the hard way. It would require the complete devastation of the foundation of everything in which they believed and accepted for them to recognize the enormity of their separation from their God and what life was like when YHWH removed His presence for them and gave them over to the fate of all the nations of the world. Then, and only then, would some humble themselves and accept YHWH’s chastening, and YHWH would rejoice in them and restore them to their place.

YHWH always has a message of hope and joy for those who are downtrodden, the meek and humble of the earth, and those who have undergone His chastening and trials. The situation of the people of God is never hopeless, no matter how dire. But when the people of God live in decadence, as alienated from their God, taking comfort in such hope as if it will not involve the suffering and tribulation of the Day of YHWH is folly. Those who live according to the world but profess the God of Israel have no share in this hope of restoration and comfort; it comes only for those who look to YHWH and trust in Him!

All Zephaniah prophesied would come to pass. The Assyrians would fall to the Chaldeans; the Chaldeans would overrun Judah and Philistia; over time all the nations of the Levant would come under judgment. YHWH would again restore His people, in part in a return from the exile, but in its fullness through the work of the embodiment of Israel, Jesus of Nazareth, and in the Kingdom established in His life, death, resurrection, and ascension, the fulfillment of all the hopes of restoration and reign of God nurtured and nourished by the prophets. This hope would extend not only to those in Israel according to the flesh: in Jesus God would cleanse the nations, and all from any nation who would submit to God in faith could receive adoption as sons, participate as fellow citizens among the holy ones, inherit the promise of faith in Abraham, and be reckoned among the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16, Ephesians 2:11-22). God’s justice comes in the morning: Israel suffered judgment and the remnant of the people of God find restoration in YHWH. May we share in the restoration of the remnant of God’s people, have YHWH’s justice shine on us, and obtain the resurrection of life in Jesus the Lord and Christ of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Myth of Redemptive Violence | The Voice 9.18: May 05, 2019

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From Marduk to the Avengers: The Myth of Redemptive Violence

Alas! The universe is in grave danger. A malevolent galactic force is on the move, and all life is endangered. Forces for good are in distress. At the time of decision, a hero arises and vanquishes the malevolent force. Celebration ensues.

Does this description sound like the most recent blockbuster movie in the theaters? It might sound like one of a host of stories in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or the next chapter of the Star Wars franchise. And yet it equally describes Enuma elish, the Babylonian creation narrative likely composed almost four thousand years ago!

Even though we live in an “enlightened” age, we remain entranced and fascinated with fantastic stories and narratives. People obsess over the details of the epic legends crafted by authors and screenwriters and invest a lot of mental and emotional energy in those narratives. Almost all of these narratives, from Star Wars to the Avengers, and Harry Potter to Game of Thrones, rely on archetypal and foundational patterns of mythology to develop their plots and their characters.

Few such archetypes and foundational myths prove as pervasive as that of redemptive violence. Think of almost any story, ancient, medieval, or modern which involves a contest between competing forces of “good” and “evil,” and in some way that story will most likely validate the importance, power, and need for the forces of “good” to overcome the forces of “evil” through violence. In all of these stories we tend to find ourselves “rooting” for the “good guys.” Whenever the “bad guys” prove successful with the exercise of power and violence, we cringe and despair. If the story ended with the “bad guys” vanquishing the “good guys,” we are convinced the story cannot really be over. Something has to change so that the “good guys” come out on top in the end, and vanquish the “bad guys.” Only then is “order” restored to the story.

Such is the power of the myth of redemptive violence: almost every human society and culture is founded upon it. In order to maintain order, the forces of “good” must prevail over the forces of “evil,” and the means by which they do so is violence. This violence, considered evil if the “bad guys” use it, is justified because it redeems: it allows for that which is good and right to overcome that which would threaten what is good and right.

The myth of redemptive violence “works” because everyone is convinced it is the way the world works. It is just how things go: in order to meet the danger of violence against you, you must use violence. The myth of redemptive violence works to justify violence and suffering in the name of overcoming evil. It is written into the foundational myths and stories of people all over the world.

The myth of redemptive violence even has currency in the Bible. YHWH is extolled as a “man of war” who has valiantly triumphed over His foes in Moses’ song in Exodus 15:1-18; many of the military exploits of Israel under Joshua, the Judges, and the Kings are commended as divinely approved and their success reckoned as a display of divine favor.

It is only in Jesus of Nazareth that the myth of redemptive violence is exposed for what it is. The Romans had come to pacify the Mediterranean world with strong armies, bringing “peace through security”; Israelites were ready to rise up in armed revolt against this Roman pagan oppression, and were confident YHWH would give them success as He had given their ancestors success over the Seleucids. Jesus of Nazareth enters Israel at this place and time and proclaimed the good news of liberation from the forces of sin and death in the reign of God He would inaugurate through His death, resurrection, and ascension. Jesus made it plain that the Romans were not the real enemy: Satan and the powers and principalities over this present darkness were the real enemy, for they were the ones empowering the Romans and all such forces through the threat of violence and death (Matthew 4:1-11, Ephesians 6:10-18, Colossians 2:15, Revelation 13:1-18). These forces conspired to have Jesus killed; Jesus did not resist violently, but submitted to death on the cross, absorbing the hostility, evil, suffering, and shame without responding in kind, and in so doing overcame the power of evil and death through the resurrection on the third day (Philippians 2:5-11, 1 Peter 2:18-25). His followers would then proclaim this good news to the whole world, understanding that nothing could ever be the same. They did not take up arms to resist the forces which oppressed them; instead, they suffered gladly, knowing it honored the name of Jesus and meant they were resisted by the same forces which resisted Jesus (e.g. Acts 5:40-42). Throughout the rest of the New Testament violence was not the answer: it was the problem, and the victory to be won over the powers and principalities came through confidence in God in Christ and suffering for the sake of His Name, even unto death (e.g. Revelation 12:11).

Nothing would ever be the same. Those who followed Jesus continued to proclaim this Gospel for centuries; for three hundred years they did not take up arms, they did not riot or revolt, but often suffered ridicule, violence, and even death. They did not fail; in fact, they succeeded wildly beyond any rational expectation, and thoroughly transformed the Roman Empire.

Ever since, far too many Christians, enamored with worldly power, have again been seduced by the myth of redemptive violence. Many who professed Jesus not only justified, but also participated in, the wars and conflicts of nation-states. To this day many who would profess the name of Jesus continue to buy into the myth of redemptive violence as the way the world works: driven by the fear of harm and deprivation of themselves or their loved ones, they just “know” that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

The witness of the Scriptures remains constant. While the myth of redemptive violence is animated by the confidence that the “good guys” should prevail over the “bad guys”, the Scriptures testify that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God: none is truly “good” (Romans 3:1-23). Where the myth of redemptive violence sees no other alternative other than to meet force with force, the Scriptures testify that Jesus met force with love, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, self-control, and proved willing to suffer and die rather than to meet force with force, and in this way gained the victory over the forces of sin and death (1 Peter 2:18-25). The myth of redemptive violence exists to justify the use of force against others to protect property and life; the Scriptures testify that all lives matter, it is better to suffer harm than to inflict harm, and the way of Jesus is contrary to the ways of violence (Matthew 5:38-48, Romans 12:14-21). Yes, the Scriptures bear witness that God continues to give authority to rulers and earthly authorities, and they are authorized to execute justice, which might well require violence (Romans 13:1-7); violence does remain the way of the world. Yet, in Christ, we see that violence is part of the corruption of the world, the ultimate tool of the powers and principalities of darkness which would enslave us, and thus must be overcome if we would find life indeed in the resurrection (Colossians 1:15-23).

We may enjoy those stories of the good guys defeating the bad guys, but we must remember they are stories, and they exist to perpetuate the myth of redemptive violence. Violence only begets more violence; then only Satan and his forces win. Jesus has died and is risen in order to overcome the powers and principalities which enslave us and has exposed the myth of redemptive violence for what it is. Only when we meet force with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control will we be able to overcome evil; may we follow the path of Jesus, not the paths of the world, and in Jesus find eternal life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Enlightenment Paradigm | The Voice 9.17: April 28, 2019

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The Enlightenment Paradigm

Every society and culture, by necessity, maintains a set of ideas about the way the world and humans operate. These operating assumptions are often spoken of as “worldviews,” and they tend to shape and form how people look at themselves and their relationship to the world around them. Worldviews do not remain static; they often can shift and adapt to new discoveries or the development of new ideas.

The modern Western world remains saturated by the assumptions and perspectives of modernist rationalism as developed during the Enlightenment (ca. 1650-1800). It would be impossible to fully condense all of the various aspects of the Enlightenment into one theme; nevertheless, the entire project was animated by high confidence in the ability of humans to use reason to come to a better understanding of reality through dedication to the advancement of knowledge in research and study. Such is the pretense of calling the movement the “Enlightenment”: a belief that knowledge and reason “illuminated” what had been shrouded by ignorance and superstition. In this way we have inherited the Enlightenment paradigm: the deeply held assumption that the main problem with humanity is ignorance, which often leads to superstition. The solution, according to the Enlightenment paradigm, is to abolish ignorance and superstition with knowledge. If people have the right knowledge, so this theory goes, they will then adapt and modify their behaviors and do the right thing.

We can see this paradigm at work in many aspects of life. Why do our political opponents disagree with us? We often believe it is because they have been deceived and remain in ignorance, for if they truly understood the situation like we do, they would agree with us. How do we expect people to better themselves? They are able to better their station through education. How do we handle potential dangers, like the use of recreational drugs? We launch programs to educate young people about the dangers of recreational drugs so they can learn to avoid them. One of the flashpoints of the modern “culture war” involves to what extent, and how, young people are to be educated regarding sexual behaviors.

The Enlightenment paradigm has also affected the thinking and assumptions of many of the people of God. Christians do well to insist on “book, chapter, and verse” for what we preach, teach, and practice, but it has become very easy for Christians to frame issues and challenges in terms of a lack of information or instruction. What happens if many Christians fall prey to a certain sin or temptation? It is assumed that there was insufficient teaching against it. Why do many churches not have elders? Many believe that insufficient instruction on the nature and importance of elders is the primary fault. What is our default reaction whenever we see a Christian falling deeply into some sin or falling away from the Lord? “They ought to know better.” Even our general approach seems influenced by the Enlightenment paradigm: we see our mission primarily as providing instruction. We thus maintain the implicit assumption that if people are given the right information, their ignorance will be dispelled, and they will naturally start thinking, feeling, and doing the right things.

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the Enlightenment paradigm is its success. The way we live today is profoundly shaped by the scientific and technological advancements which have proceeded from the Enlightenment. In many respects ignorance and superstition were causing great difficulties and hindrances to human flourishing; wherever education has been emphasized, a higher quality of life has followed. In many respects there is no return from the Enlightenment; we cannot recapture the spirit of the “pre-critical” age which came before it.

For that matter, the Enlightenment paradigm is not entirely wrong. Knowledge is absolutely necessary to affect change, and ignorance has often led to superstition and unhealthy behaviors. Paul preached that God would overlook the times of ignorance but now calls on everyone to repent (Acts 17:30); God would have all people come to a knowledge of the truth of the Gospel of Christ and be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). As Christians we are to proclaim the good news of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and imminent return, and that proclamation has the power to transform lives (Romans 1:16, 2 Timothy 4:1-4). Sometimes people do fall into sin, or do not sufficiently practice what is right, because it was not emphasized in teaching; as Christians we must continually exhort in instruction regarding righteousness and sin (cf. Titus 2:1-15).

We can see how the witness of Scripture confirms the necessity of the knowledge of what God has accomplished in Jesus and how it should transform our lives in Christ; nevertheless, Scripture equally testifies to the insufficiency of knowledge on its own. Humanity fell because Adam and Eve ate from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: knowledge puffs up, while love builds up (Genesis 3:1-23, 1 Corinthians 8:1). The Apostle Paul went so far as to say that knowledge is precisely the means by which sin sometimes ensnares us: when we learn that we are not to do a thing, we are then tempted to do that thing in rebellion (Romans 7:5-25). Our minds, feelings, and actions have been corrupted by sin (Romans 5:12-21, 8:18-23); knowledge can be used for evil as much as for good. We absolutely can “know better” when we sin, and yet do it anyway!

We can see the limitations of the Enlightenment paradigm in both the world and among the people of God. Plenty of people have knowledge about healthier forms of living, yet for a wide range of reasons persist in unhealthy and destructive behaviors. Many recreational drug addicts went through drug prevention programs, and ultimately fell into drug addiction anyway; a few perhaps were made aware of the possibility of drug use precisely through those programs! Many young people commit to sexual abstinence and “know better” about sexual immorality and yet commit sexual immorality anyway. As Christians we know what thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are sinful, and yet often fall into them anyway (1 John 1:8, 2:1). Many a preacher has made a point to teach the distinctive nature of the people of God, the importance of elders and their role, and have diligently sought to fulfill Titus 2:1-15, and yet see Christians renounce their distinctiveness, fall into sinful patterns of behavior, and either fall short of the standards of the eldership or have little desire to aspire to or maintain such a role.

The Apostle Paul has warned us about being seduced by the philosophies of man and no longer holding firm to the Lord Jesus in Colossians 2:8-9, and such a warning is prescient in regards to the Enlightenment paradigm. The Enlightenment paradigm is insufficient to explain human behavior; its commendable understanding of the importance of knowledge is overcome by its absolute insistence on knowledge as the solution with ignorance as the problem. In Christ we recognize that the problem of humanity is sin and enslavement to the powers and principalities over this present darkness (Romans 7:5-25, Ephesians 6:12); the solution is the victory God has accomplished through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and imminent return, and trusting not only in Jesus as Lord, but proving willing to follow in His footsteps of love, humility, and suffering (Matthew 16:24-27, Romans 8:17-18, Ephesians 3:1-13, Colossians 2:15, 1 John 2:3-6). May we seek to be the community of the people who seek to embody Jesus the Messiah, find victory over sin and its forces in Him, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Understanding Covenant, V | The Voice 9.16: April 21, 2019

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Understanding Covenant, V: Covenant Distinctions

God, according to His purposes and good pleasure, has consistently associated with humans through the framework of covenant. Covenants represent agreements with mutual benefits and obligations. In days of old God established covenants with the world in the days of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Israel, and David; most of these covenants find their fulfillment in Jesus, and pointed to a new covenant in His blood. God has always proven faithful to His covenant promises; we have every reason to trust in His covenant loyalty.

We can find many points of continuity among the various covenants God has made with mankind; we should not find this surprising, since God does not change and remains the same (Malachi 3:6, Hebrews 13:8). At the same time all these covenants are not exactly the same; many points of discontinuity can be perceived. Each covenant maintains its own integrity as a distinct covenant, no matter how similar it may be to another covenant. Distinctions between covenants represent a serious matter of concern especially as it relates to the relationship between the covenant which God made with Israel as mediated by the Law of Moses and the new covenant God has established with all mankind in Christ Jesus.

Difficulties began as soon as the Gospel went forth to the Gentiles. Some Jewish Christians insisted that the only way people of the nations could be saved is if they submitted to circumcision and the Law of Moses: they would need to become Israelites to be saved (cf. Acts 15:1-5). The Holy Spirit made known through the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem how this was not so: God had accepted the people of the nations without expecting them to attempt to become part of the covenant between God and Israel, and this was according to what God had prophesied in the prophets (Acts 15:6-31).

Some Jewish Christians resisted this decision and went among churches with Gentile populations and insisted they needed to be circumcised and submit to the Law of Moses to be saved (e.g. Galatians 1:6-9, 4:8-20). The Apostle Paul strongly condemned these Jewish Christians as false teachers and worked to refute their arguments in the letters to the Galatians and Romans. Paul demonstrated that all had sinned and required redemption; no one could be justified by works of the Law, for none had kept the Law perfectly (Romans 1:18-3:23). Jesus took on the curse of the Law to provide redemption from the Law; all who share in the faith of Abraham can obtain the promises God made to Abraham, since Abraham himself received the promise before he submitted to circumcision (Romans 4:1-25, Galatians 3:1-18). The Law was added because of sin, and all it could do on its own is condemn sin and commend righteousness; it itself could not save, and such is why everyone, Jewish or Gentile, required redemption in Jesus (Romans 7:5-25, Galatians 3:19-29). For Christians of the nations to submit to the Law of Moses was to go back on what God accomplished in Jesus; Paul spoke of it as falling from grace, the attempt to finish by works of the Law what God provided in the Spirit in Christ through faith (Galatians 5:1-15).

Paul would continue according to a similar theme in Ephesians and Colossians. Paul described the division between Jewish people and Gentiles as due to the “law of commandments contained in ordinances,” and declared that Jesus killed the hostility between Jewish people and Gentiles by breaking down this wall through His death on the cross, and as a result reconciled Jewish and Gentile people into one man in Himself (Ephesians 2:11-18). Christians were no longer to be judged on the basis of Jewish observances, considered a shadow of the things to come, and not the substance in Christ, since He took away the bond written in ordinances against us, nailing it to the cross (Colossians 2:13-17).

Yet it would be the Hebrews author who would most clearly demonstrate the distinctions between the old and new covenants in his attempt to demonstrate the superiority of the new (Hebrews 6:3-10:39). The covenant between God and Israel included no one else; those of the nations were by necessity excluded (cf. Ephesians 2:10-12), and the covenant could not be added to or have anything taken from it (Deuteronomy 4:2). The Law of Moses had made provision for a priesthood of Aaron and the Levites and animal sacrifices; Jesus is the high priest in the order of Melchizedek, fulfilling the promise of Psalm 110:1-7, and so, by necessity, there must be a change of the law (Hebrews 6:3-7:28). The Hebrews author quotes Jeremiah 31:33-34 to demonstrate how God had promised a new covenant, and the Hebrews author located that new covenant in Jesus, whose sacrifice spoke a better word and proved efficacious where animal sacrifices fell short (Hebrews 8:1-10:39).

The New Testament, therefore, abundantly testifies to the distinctions between the covenants God made with Israel and the covenant God has made with all mankind in Jesus. Israelites were either allowed or commanded to do things which are now explicitly condemned in Christ, like divorcing a spouse for any reason, or slaughtering one’s enemies (e.g. Matthew 5:38-48, 19:1-9, 1 Peter 4:1-19). Likewise, Israelites were banned from doing things which are now authorized in Christ, like eating certain kinds of foods or reconciling with a spouse who had married in the meantime (e.g. Romans 14:14-15, 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, 1 Timothy 4:1-4).

Christians must do all things in the name of the Lord Jesus (Colossians 3:17): He is Lord, and we must serve Him in all things. We learn many things from how God interacted with His people in olden days and ought to take comfort from what has been written for our learning (Romans 15:3, 1 Corinthians 10:1-12, 2 Timothy 3:15-17). We must banish the specter of Marcion from the people of God. Nevertheless, whatever we do, in word or deed, must find authority in what God has made known in Jesus through His Apostles and their associates in the New Testament. Plenty of aspects of the Law of Moses and the covenant between God and Israel help build the foundation of what God has done in Christ, and are often used to support the exhortations of what Christians ought to do in Jesus (e.g. Romans 13:8-14). And yet any practice within the covenants before Jesus which are frowned upon in the new covenant in Christ ought not be performed; likewise, practices from the days of Israel and before which find no commendation in Jesus ought to be set aside.

If the covenant between God and Israel proved sufficient to accomplish all of God’s purposes, there would have been no need for a new covenant. The covenant God has established in Christ is sufficient for all of our faith and practice; we must be wary of establishing authority for anything based on the Old Testament alone, lest we be found to have fallen from the grace God has given us in Christ on the final day. God has fulfilled His purposes for Israel in Jesus; may we become part of God’s people in Jesus and obtain the resurrection of life in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Day of YHWH’s Anger | The Voice 9:15: April 14, 2019

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The Day of YHWH’s Anger

The word of YHWH came to Zephaniah son of Cushi in the days of Josiah king of Judah. He had warned Judah regarding the imminent Day of YHWH coming against them, a day of distress and bitterness, in one of the most explicit and powerful descriptions of the Day of YHWH found among the prophets (Zephaniah 1:1-18).

Zephaniah would extend a glimpse of hope, however: this nation that had no shame ought to gather together before this Day of YHWH drew near, ostensibly to confess, lament, and repent, and to find that shame they would need before YHWH if they would be spared (Zephaniah 2:1-2). Perhaps the moment of repentance in the days of Josiah gave Judah a reprieve (cf. 2 Kings 22:3-23:25); nevertheless, the burning anger of YHWH remained against Judah, they would soon return or remain saturated in their shame, and the Day of YHWH came for them within that generation (2 Kings 23:26-27, 25:1-26).

Zephaniah appealed to the “humble of the land,” the faithful poor among the Israelites to seek humility and justice, for perhaps they would be hidden on the day of YHWH’s anger (Zephaniah 2:3). The scale of the disaster would now be made apparent: Judah would not suffer the distress and bitterness alone; YHWH’s anger also burned against the nations around them, and they also would suffer judgment, as made clear in the nation judgments of Zephaniah 2:4-15.

Zephaniah first turned to the Philistines, Judah’s neighbor to the southwest who had encroached upon their ancestral land and oppressed the Israelites in times past (Zephaniah 2:4-7; cf. Judges 13:1ff, 1 Samuel). Four of the five cities of the Philistines were marked out for desolation: Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Ekron. Woe is pronounced against the nation of the Cherethites (or Cretans) and the Canaanites who inhabit Philistia, for the land will be left without inhabitant. The land on the coast will be pastureland, sparsely populated by shepherds in small houses; Judah would again possess the sea coast after their God visited them and restored them from their captivity. The Philistines would indeed be swept away by the Babylonians; although much of it would be repopulated by Phoenicians, it would remain an administrative unit along with Judah and be considered part of Judea by the days of the Romans.

YHWH had heard the words of the Moabites and Ammonites against the Israelites, their reviling and reproach, and how they had extended their borders into formerly Israelite land (Zephaniah 2:8). Their pride would be brought low, and they would be made as Sodom and Gomorrah, a perpetual desolation, and the remnant of YHWH’s people would inherit their land, and all because of their arrogance against Israel (Zephaniah 2:9-10). The pride of Moab is a continual theme among the prophets, no doubt because of their great original transgression in the days of Balak and Balaam, and their continual attempts to grow and expand at the expense of Israel (cf. Numbers 22:1-24:25, Isaiah 15:1-16:14). Moab and Ammon would cease to be independent nations and became part of the province Beyond the River; Ammonites would continue to resist and oppose the Judahites and cause them great difficulty (Nehemiah 2:19).

Instead YHWH would prove a source of fear or reverence for them, the Moabites and Ammonites, but also to other nations (Zephaniah 2:11). YHWH would famish all the gods of the earth, and this would lead the people of the earth to turn back to Him and bow before Him (Zephaniah 2:11). To us this may seem strange, foolish, and ludicrous, yet it is a powerful polemic in the ancient Near Eastern world. The preserved myths of the ancient Near Eastern world, especially Enuma elish, recorded the belief that humans were made to serve the gods by providing food for them. If it were indeed true that the gods of the nations were dependent on their people to provide them food offerings, what would happen to those gods if the people were dispossessed and no longer made such offerings? The gods would starve and die, and all who would be left to serve is the Holy One of Israel.

Zephaniah then added an indictment of the Cushites, or Ethiopians: they also would be slain by the sword of YHWH. Cush is the land south of Egypt in modern day Sudan and Ethiopia; Isaiah also prophesied against them in Isaiah 18:1-7.

Zephaniah’s nation oracles concluded with the condemnation of the great power of Josiah’s day, the Assyrians (Zephaniah 2:13-15). YHWH would stretch His hand out against them and turn Nineveh into a desolate wilderness. All kinds of wild animals would inhabit the city, indicating complete devastation and depopulation. Such would happen to the city which presently arrogated for itself the claim of being like no other and dwelt carelessly. And so it would be: Nineveh was a most impressive city at the beginning of Josiah’s reign, in the final days of the glory of Ashurbanipal, the undisputed king reigning over an impressive empire; before Josiah’s death Nineveh would be completely destroyed, and Assyria ceased to be a going concern. It may have been unbelievable in 640 BCE: by 610, it was reality.

Zephaniah’s nation oracles provide an excellent representation of the type: they are proclaimed in terms of YHWH’s judgment on nations because of their immoral and unjust treatment of the people of God. The prophets could not be accused of myopically focusing on Israel and its problems to the neglect of the injustice of the nations; nevertheless, Israel and Judah had no right to boast, for the day of YHWH’s anger was decreed as much for them as it was everyone else unless they repented.

Unfortunately, they did not repent. Zephaniah’s prophecies thus would come to pass. Israel, and its surrounding nations, suffered the day of YHWH’s anger. We do well to learn from Israel’s example and become as the humble of the land, do the just commands of God, seek righteousness and humility in Christ, and be preserved from the wrath of God on the day of resurrection!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Bad News Requiring Good News | The Voice 9.14: April 07, 2019

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Bad News Requiring Good News

The “Gospel” is designed to be “good news”; that’s what the word means. In the modern world, however, how the Gospel is “good news” can be confusing to many. Suffering and death leading to some nebulous future hope: it certainly does not sound like good news, and definitely does not seem as good as what the apostles of science and technology are offering.

The past 250 years have been marked by great changes in technology which have, in turn, greatly enhanced the quality of life for people who live in the Western world. It was not too long ago when children were fortunate to survive to age five and adults past fifty; these days we expect children to grow up and enjoy long, productive lives, and think of fifty-year-olds as still young. Not many years ago the needs of basic survival occupied the majority of people’s time; today we consider them as irritants taking up time we could spend doing other things. Plagues like syphilis, tuberculosis, smallpox, and bubonic plague wreaked havoc on our ancestors; we tend to fall prey to difficulties caused by our behavior, diet and environment with heart disease, car accidents, and certain forms of cancer.

These changes have impacted our way of thinking as much as how we live; it is almost as if we have become the victim of our own successes. From the life of Christ until 1750 it could be said that people took for granted the challenges of evil and sin and found the offer of salvation and hope through Jesus to be difficult to believe; since 1750 salvation and hope have been taken for granted and the challenges of evil and sin are now more difficult to accept. This helps to explain why the Gospel seems irrelevant to so many in Western society: they are not able to see the Gospel as good news because they have yet to perceive the bad news which required the good news!

The astounding thing about the past 250 years is just how effective people have been at marginalizing the problems of sin and evil. We enjoy a standard of living beyond the wildest dreams of most people throughout time. Yet our standard of living is a double-edged sword, since life in the modern Western world is so comfortable that people no longer seem to know how to handle adversity! People are raised to expect a comfortable lifestyle with their basic needs met, the opportunity to raise a family, and to enjoy life. Yet if anything goes wrong, or even if it all goes right, they do not know how to handle the difficulties and/or emptiness. People learn too late how the “American dream” cannot be the ultimate dream, and are ill-equipped to endure the challenges and trials of evil and sin in life.

We must remember the bad news of sin and death if we will not fall victim to our own success! As Paul explains in Romans 5:12-18 and 8:18-25, when Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden in Genesis 3:1-23, sin and death entered the world, and with it corruption and decay. This means, as the Preacher laments, that all will die, nothing on earth will last, and existence understood only in terms of this life “under the sun” is emptiness, futile, vain, and absurd (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:1-26). Even though we may have marginalized evil and sin, evil and sin still manifest themselves. Humans commit atrocities against other humans in different parts of the globe. Babies and small children are sometimes abused by sinful adults; others will get sick and die of disease or on account of some natural disaster. Civilization and law and order break down in the face of natural disasters or by the hands of terrorists. Even if we find a measure of success and prosperity in life it will not last and it will not satisfy. No matter how good we may think we are, we all know that we have thought and done bad things (Romans 3:23); thus, the line between good and evil goes through the heart of each and every one of us. In the end, we will all die, and we cannot take any thing with us (1 Timothy 6:6-8).

We do well to remember that we are incredibly blessed and that our standard of living is almost as ideal as it can be “under the sun.” Most people today, let alone in the past, have toiled and suffered in far more dire conditions; their lives are more “normal” than ours. Nevertheless, even with our quality of life, life is not ideal or perfect. Bad days will come. We will suffer physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, whether on account of our own evil or because others have done evil against us (Titus 3:3). We may be spared from many evils, but we will never be spared from all evil, since we ourselves have participated in it.

When we recognize this bad news, we can see how the Gospel of Christ is indeed good news. Jesus has gained the victory over both sin and death through His death and resurrection (Romans 8:1-2, 1 Corinthians 15:54-57). We will not be spared evil but can overcome it through suffering it with Christ (Romans 8:17-18, Revelation 12:11). This is certainly good news, but it can only be good news because it overcomes the bad news of our reality. Let us come to terms with the bad so that we can obtain the promise and hope which comes from trusting in the good news of Jesus Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Gospel of Peter | The Voice 9.13: March 31, 2019

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The Gospel of Peter

The Apostles grounded all of their teachings and direction in what God accomplished through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Some who came after the Apostles sought to faithfully maintain all they proclaimed. Others would introduce other gospels to justify alternative ideas and doctrines. One such example of a later, apocryphal gospel is the Gospel of Peter.

The Gospel of Peter claimed to have been written by Peter (Gospel of Peter 60), yet early Christians recognized it as pseudepigraphal and written at a later time. Modern scholars do not disagree (Serapion and Eusebius, reported in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History 3.3.12, 6.12). Some scholars claim the Gospel of Peter represents an early stream of Jesus tradition, perhaps from the first century; most, however, perceive the strong influence of the canonical Gospels on the Gospel of Peter, and consider it derivative in nature. Theodoret identified the use of a “Gospel of Peter” among the “Nazareans,” or Ebionites (a sect of Jewish Christians; Heretical Fables 3.2); Origen made a similar association (On Matthew, 10.17). Eusebius reported that Serapion was convinced the author of the Gospel of Peter was docetic (Ecclesiastical History 6.12); the Gospel of Peter spoke of Jesus being “taken up” (19), but also made much of burying His body (3-5, 23-24). While many noted scholars agree with Serapion’s claim of docetic influence, what has been preserved is not sufficient to identify the original author or audience with any degree of confidence.

The Gospel of Peter was sufficiently popular by 190 to lead Serapion of Antioch to write a treatise to the church in Rhossus condemning it as heretical (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.12); this condemnation would be repeated by others until the early medieval era. The Gospel of Peter was eventually lost save for a few quotations and references in patristic literature. The Gospel of Peter was the first noncanonical gospel to be re-discovered in the modern era: a manuscript was discovered, neatly buried with a monk of the 8th or 9th century, near Akhmim in Egypt, containing a portion of the Gospel of Peter relating to Jesus’ passion, burial, resurrection, and ascension.

A translation of the discovered portion of the Gospel of Peter can be found online here. What remains began in the middle of Jesus’ trial, this time primarily before Herod, who is the one who ordered Jesus’ crucifixion (Gospel of Peter 1-2). Joseph of Arimathea was then seen as asking for Jesus’ body from Pilate even before the crucifixion (Gospel of Peter 3-4). The people are then shown as mocking Jesus, acting as if they have power over the Son of God; Jesus was then crucified (Gospel of Peter 5-14). The darkness in the midst of the crucifixion was then described in detail (Gospel of Peter 15-18). In the Gospel of Peter, Jesus cried out that His power had forsaken Him, and was then “taken up” (19). The signs surrounding Jesus’ death were further explicated, with the Jewish people seen as rejoicing, and Jesus’ body is brought to Joseph’s tomb, called the “Garden of Joseph” (Gospel of Peter 20-24). Some Jewish people were then portrayed as lamenting their sin and expecting the end of Jerusalem (Gospel of Peter 25); the narrative quickly shifted to Peter and his companions, distressed and in hiding, sought for doing wrong and desiring to burn the Temple (Gospel of Peter 26-27).

The request for soldiers to be stationed at Jesus’ tomb was then described, and the centurion of the guard is identified as “Petronius” (Gospel of Peter 28-34). The soldiers stationed at the last night watch were said to have seen the heavens opened with two radiant men coming down to the tomb; the stone in front of the tomb rolled away by itself, and the young men entered, and came out with another male and a cross following them; a voice was heard from the heavens asking if proclamation was made to those who had fallen asleep, and the cross responded in the affirmative (Gospel of Peter 35-43). The soldiers went to Pilate, told them what happened, and confessed Jesus as God’s Son; Pilate responded that he was clean of the blood of the Son of God; they all agreed to say nothing about what they had seen, choosing to owe the greatest sin before God than to be stoned by the Jewish people (Gospel of Peter 46-48).

The Gospel of Peter then described Mary Magdalene’s visitation to the tomb at the “dawn of the Lord’s day,” explaining that she had not been able to complete the appropriate rites because of the anger of the Jewish people; the narrative consistently followed the canonical Gospels’ accounts except that the “young man” at the tomb claimed Jesus was not only risen but also had returned to the place from which He had been sent (Gospel of Peter 50-57). The surviving portion ended with Peter claiming that all the Apostles returned to their homes in sorrow, and spoke of himself, Andrew, and Levi as fishing (Gospel of Peter 58-60).

We can ascertain many post-apostolic developments attested in the Gospel of Peter. We can perceive the shift toward blaming Herod and the Jewish people more fully for the death of Jesus, and the beginning of the attempts to exonerate Pilate. The story of a cross following Jesus out of the tomb and even speaking is novel and otherwise unattested. The voice (ostensibly of God) asking if proclamation was made to those who had fallen asleep is very much influenced by 1 Peter 3:18-19 and is leading to the “harrowing of hell” speculation which would become popular soon after. The consolidation of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension is notable: it would be consistent with docetism, but on its own it is difficult to make much of it. Terminology like “the Lord’s day” betrays the later perspective of the author. If Origen has considered the same Gospel of Peter in its fullest form, it also promoted the perpetual virginity of Mary, claiming Jesus’ brothers were Joseph’s from a previous marriage (Origen, On Matthew, 10.7); another idea which was gaining currency in the second century (cf. the Protoevangelium of James).

The Gospel of Peter, therefore, is an apocryphal gospel. We can understand why it was not seriously considered to be part of the canon. While what has been preserved is not nearly as heretical and digressive as the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Truth, or similar Gnostic gospels, we can still perceive how the doctrinal developments of the second century were being “read into” the story of Jesus. False teachings, after all, are much more easily accepted when told as if part of the gospel narrative. We do well to hold firm to the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension as revealed in the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and trust in the Lord as manifest in them so as to be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Works Consulted

“The Gospel of Peter, accessed 03/26/2019

“The Gospel of Peter, translated by Raymond Brown”, accessed 03/26/2019

The Ever-Present Danger of “Soft” Preaching | The Voice 9.12: March 24, 2019

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The Ever-Present Danger of “Soft” Preaching

I charge thee in the sight of God, and of Christ Jesus, who shall judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be urgent in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure the sound doctrine; but, having itching ears, will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside unto fables (2 Timothy 4:1-4)

One of the common jeremiads often heard proclaimed in pulpits warns against the dangers of “soft” preaching. “Soft” preaching is then associated with these teachers who tell those with “itching ears” what they want to hear and thus depart from the faith. Sometimes such “soft” preaching is defined as “all positive” preaching; many times it is negatively defined as preaching without discussing “hard” issues. Those “hard” issues tend to be defined in terms of matters of doctrinal distinctiveness: emphasis on the proper plan of salvation, proper functioning in the assemblies, and/or proper church organization and functioning. These days, “soft” preaching is extended to included unwillingness to preach against abortion, homosexuality, or other hot-button cultural and social issues.

These concerns are legitimate. One road to large churches and equally large church treasuries is paved with soothing self-help messages masquerading as preaching. Moralistic therapeutic deism, the belief in a god who is out there with some standards easily relaxed, who wants people to be happy and to have high self-esteem, and who will save all good people, is quite prevalent in our age, and is promoted vigorously with a “Christian” veneer. Meanwhile, the people of God remain tempted to dispense with that which makes them distinctive so as to be like everyone else. Israel wanted a king like the other nations (1 Samuel 8:1-22), and served other gods like the other nations (2 Kings 17:7-23). Some early Christians minimized the resurrection and promoted doctrines more consistent with Hellenistic philosophy than the apostolic Gospel (1 Timothy 6:20-21, 2 Timothy 2:17-19, 2 John 1:7-11). How many in “Christendom” today have fully or partially embraced modern cultural norms regarding science, gender, and sexuality? Proclamation regarding God’s plan of salvation, the proper way to edify and encourage in the assembly, and the authorized organization and work of the local congregation according to the New Testament is not appreciated in some places. We do well to show concern about these trends and to continue to preach the Gospel in its fullness.

Nevertheless, we also do well to consider whether it is advisable or wise to define “soft” and “hard” preaching so strictly and with such a limited application. Neither “soft preaching” nor “hard preaching” are Biblical terms. When Paul wrote to Timothy, the immediate dangers were for Jewish Christians to “turn aside” to listen to a gospel emphasizing Judaism and its cultural traditions (reflected in what would become the “Ebionite” sect) and for Gentile Christians to “turn aside” to listen to a gospel conforming to Hellenistic philosophies and an anti-Semitic bias (reflected in Marcionism, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the various Gnostic sects). These “gospels” would accommodate the listeners’ existing biases and grew into the heresies which were opposed so virulently during the first four hundred years of Christianity.

While early Christians were so fixed on opposing these heresies, changes were introduced in church organization (a bishop over the elders in a local congregation with Ignatius), and the very arguments used to defend the faith and to oppose heretics would become the basis of false doctrines: the appeal to Christians’ old covenant heritage in Israel in order to gain legitimacy led to Judaizing tendencies in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy; appealing to unbroken lines of authority figures in the church in Rome to show that “orthodox” Christianity predated the “heresies” and thus was more legitimate would eventually be used to justify Roman Catholic claims to legitimacy despite the fact that what the church in Rome taught in the first century is vastly different from what the Roman Catholic church taught in 600 CE, 1000 CE, 1500 CE, and today.

These early Christians were very concerned about the promotion of heresy and zealously defended their faith in Christ. Yet while they stood firm on many aspects of the faith and vigorously defended them, they let other aspects of the faith slide. Unforeseen consequences involving incremental changes in church organization and the inferences drawn from arguments defending the faith would eventually overwhelm the good which had been done in the defense of the faith.

Hopefully this example can show us the dangers of single-minded focus on particular issues to the detriment of others and putting too much faith in our arguments versus the explicit message of the New Testament. Strict definitions of what comprises “soft” and “hard” preaching can contribute to this focus and thus its inherent danger: if “hard” preaching involves proclaiming the distinctive aspects of our faith, and we constantly emphasize those distinctive aspects in our preaching and teaching, and everyone is affirmed in those distinctive matters, we can be lulled into complacency, convinced that we are “holding firm” to the faith. Meanwhile, other, less addressed, issues may creep into the church and lead to ungodliness. If the preacher dares to preach on these new challenges, he might find the audience has developed hardened hearts on the issue. Or perhaps Christians make bad or unintended inferences from arguments to defend the truth or use those arguments in unintended ways and begin promoting distorted doctrines. In such circumstances, “hard” preaching has become “soft” preaching, what was once derided as “soft” preaching proves necessary as “hard” preaching, and false doctrine has sprouted from previous attempts to advance the truth.

Paul wisely did not specifically mention which lusts people would want satisfied, which myths they would accept, and what precisely these teachers would teach: specific identification would lead to apathy and complacency in terms of other issues! There are all sorts of ways in which people develop itching ears and seek teachers to satisfy their desires. Yes, it is true that some people seek teachers to talk only about positive matters and focus only on how to be good people, and want little to do with doctrine and the distinctive truths of New Testament Christianity. Yet those very issues could themselves become “soft” preaching for a group who has itching ears to feel content that they adhere to the true doctrines of New Testament Christianity but want little to do with those parts of the Gospel that demand changes in their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

“Soft” preaching as preaching designed to make everybody feel better about themselves as they are without any demand for repentance has no place among the people of God (cf. Matthew 4:17, Luke 6:26, 1 Timothy 6:3-10). The preaching of the Gospel of Christ is always designed to convict the hearer of their condition before God and should always exhort toward faith, repentance, and godliness; it should always be “hard” in the sense of challenging and faithful to the standard of God’s holiness (Matthew 4:17, Acts 2:37-38, 2 Timothy 4:1-4, Hebrews 4:12, 1 Peter 1:13-16). We should be wary of fixed definitions beyond these which focus upon certain aspects of the Gospel over others, for the danger always exists that the issues deemed “hard” preaching today prove to be “soft” matters tomorrow, and matters we take for granted today are considered as “hard” preaching tomorrow. Instead, we do better to proclaim the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). The whole counsel of God includes the distinctive doctrines of New Testament Christianity yet constantly reinforces the life, death, resurrection, and lordship of Jesus of Nazareth as the centerpiece of the faith and the basis of its standard of the righteous and holy life (1 Corinthians 15:1-58, John 2:1-6, Jude 1:3). Doctrine and practice are to complement each other, not stand in contrast. The whole counsel of God involves positive encouragement of commendable thoughts, feelings, and actions as well as exhortation away from ungodly and unholy thoughts, feelings, and actions (Galatians 5:17-24). The whole counsel of God demands believers to speak truth to society today without romanticizing an illusory past (cf. Ecclesiastes 7:10). The whole counsel of God demands the recognition of the distinction between what God actually said and the arguments we use to defend that truth, and to never allow the latter to be used or misused to contradict the former.

We humans like to quantify things, and the more objective the quantification, the better. On account of this Christians have always been tempted to quantify “soft” vs. “hard” preaching, or “sound” vs. “unsound” doctrines, on the basis of certain, easily quantifiable beliefs, doctrines, or practices. As Christians, we should certainly affirm sound doctrine and encourage preaching and teaching on the distinctive doctrines of New Testament Christianity. Yet we must always be wary about limited definitions of “soft”/”hard” preaching or “sound” doctrine. Focus on certain doctrines to the neglect of others is not healthy, or sound, at all; what constitutes “soft” preaching for “itching ears” in one context may prove to be “hard” preaching in others, and what constitutes “hard” preaching to some may actually be “soft” preaching for “itching ears.” After all, whoever actually, consciously believes they are departing from the truth and holding firm to myths because of their itching ears? Paul does not suggest that this problem only exists “out there”; his very concern is that it will become true of those “among us, right here”! Let us continually check our ears to see whether they itch to hear certain things over others or whether they are always ready to listen to the truth of God in Christ Jesus no matter how much that truth may ask of us, and seek to proclaim the whole counsel of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Understanding Covenant, IV | The Voice 9.11: March 17, 2019

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Understanding Covenant, IV: The New Testament Covenant

From days of old God has interacted with His people through the medium of covenants, agreements with mutual benefits and obligations. God made such covenants with Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, all Israel, and David. Yet all of these covenants were looking forward to the One who was to come and inaugurate a new covenant in His blood, Jesus of Nazareth.

As previously discussed, the Greek word for covenant is diatheke. It originally referred only to a testament or will; the translators of the Hebrew Bible essentially added a new definition to diatheke by using it to translate the Hebrew berit. The vast majority of the time diatheke is used it conveys the primary definition of berit, covenant, as in Hebrews 9:15:

And for this cause [Jesus] is the mediator of a new covenant, that a death having taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first covenant, they that have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.

God has thus established a new covenant in Jesus of Nazareth. This covenant proves revolutionary, for within it God shows no partiality: anyone can come to faith in Jesus and enjoy the benefits and shoulder the obligations of the covenant, not just the physical descendants of Abraham (Acts 10:34-35, Romans 4:1-25, 9:1-11:36). Thus the new covenant God has made in Jesus is with all mankind, and mediated by Jesus Himself, who is both fully man and fully God (1 Timothy 2:3-7). Within this covenant God has promised to reconcile to Himself those who would put their trust in Jesus: they receive forgiveness of sin, standing before God, fellowship with God and with His people, and all so that they can become more like God as made known in Jesus so as to share in eternal life with Him in the resurrection (John 17:20-23, Romans 5:1-11, 1 Corinthians 15:1-58, 1 John 1:1-4). In the new covenant humans are exhorted to become one with God and one with one another as God is One within Himself, to participate together in the work of God, turning aside from sin and becoming more like Jesus through repentance in love, humility, holiness, and righteousness (John 13:35, 17:20-23, Romans 8:29, Titus 2:11-14). The sign of the new covenant is baptism, immersion in water in Jesus’ name for the forgiveness of sins, the means by which one dies to sin, puts on Christ, and walks as a new, cleansed creature (Matthew 28:18-20, Romans 6:3-7, Galatians 3:27, Colossians 2:11-15, 1 Peter 3:21).

We can therefore see many parallels between the new covenant in Christ and the covenants which came before. Nevertheless, the new covenant in Jesus maintains its distinctiveness, and is superior, to what came before. All previous covenants looked forward to what God would accomplish in Jesus, and most find their fulfillment in Jesus and His Kingdom, as was predicted long before His birth (Jeremiah 31:31-34, Deuteronomy 18:15-19, Isaiah 2:1-4, Hosea 2:23; compare Hebrews 8:8-13, 1 Peter 2:10). The new covenant saw the inauguration of the reign of God in the Kingdom of Christ: a spiritual kingdom, one which transcends all nations, and not exclusively limited to one or a few (John 18:36, Ephesians 6:10-18). All are welcomed into the Kingdom of God in Christ, for in Christ all have equal standing before Him, no matter their gender, race, culture, or ethnicity (1 Timothy 2:4, Galatians 3:28). No covenant will replace what God has done in Jesus; it will endure forever (1 Corinthians 15:20-58). Until the He returns to judge the living and the dead, and death is finally defeated on the day of resurrection, Jesus continues to reign as Lord and Christ; God continues His eternal purpose He has purposed in Him in the church, the representation of God’s Kingdom on earth; all mankind is called to participate in God’s Kingdom in Christ if they would obtain eternal life in the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20-28, Ephesians 3:10-21, Hebrews 13:8).

Thus the covenant between God and all mankind in Jesus Christ is the ultimate covenant, one for which we ought to praise God and give Him all glory and honor. As noted, Greek diatheke also has a meaning which goes beyond “covenant” to refer to testament or will. It seems to be used as such in Hebrews 9:16-18:

For where a testament is, there must of necessity be the death of him that made it. For a testament is of force where there hath been death: for it doth never avail while he that made it liveth. Wherefore even the first covenant hath not been dedicated without blood.

We understand the nature of a testament (or will): it represents the contractually authorized decree of the testator establishing the right of inheritance of his estate. As long as the person who made the will or testament lives, the promise might be alive, but the contractual obligations within it cannot be carried out. It is only when the testator dies that his or her heirs can inherit the testator’s estate. Such is why the attitude of the “prodigal” son is so shocking in Luke 15:11-13: he was essentially declaring that his father was dead to him!

All of us, like the “prodigal” son, have squandered our inheritance from God in the riotous living in the sin in which we participated, and found ourselves alienated from God (Ephesians 2:1-3). In Christ God has granted the ability to be adopted as sons, to become joint-heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with Him (Romans 8:12-18). In Christ God would provide us with every spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1:3); yet all of this required His death for it to be inaugurated in force. For this reason we celebrate the inauguration of the new covenant every Lord’s day in His Supper, a joint participation in Jesus’ body, grounding our life in Christ in His cross, celebrating the hope of life in His resurrection, and doing so together to reflect His body in the church (1 Corinthians 10:16-17, 11:17-34). Without Christ we are alienated from God and one another and have no hope in the world; in Christ we have a restored relationship with God and one another as His people and the hope of the resurrection of life. May we participate in the new covenant between God and all mankind in Jesus, and obtain its benefits and blessings!

Ethan R. Longhenry