Politics of Late Second Temple Judaism | The Voice 10.4: January 26, 2020

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The Politics of Late Second Temple Judaism

To grant unto us that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies / Should serve him without fear, In holiness and righteousness before him all our days (Luke 1:74-75).

Zechariah prophesied a message of hope for his people Israel centering on what God was going to accomplish through his son John and the Christ who would follow afterward. They looked forward to rescue from their enemies so they could serve God in holiness and righteousness.

For many in Israel at this time the enemy was clear and apparent: the Romans and their client-king, Herod (Matthew 2:3). The Roman general Pompey was welcomed into Jerusalem in the midst of a feud among some of the final Hasmonean rulers 60 years earlier; he marched into the Holy of Holies itself and desecrated it. On the whole, the land of Israel was not the most valuable piece of property for the Romans; their neighborhood proved more essential. Rome could no longer sustain itself without Egyptian wheat; control of the Mediterranean Sea was essential to keep the wheat flowing, and that required control of the entire seaboard. The Romans were not going anywhere. At the same time, the Romans proved more than happy to maintain their authority over various lands through client-kings, and Herod fit the bill. He may have been an Idumean (Edomite), and thus seen as a half-breed by the Jewish people; but he was loyal to the Romans, provided appropriate taxes, and generally kept a restive part of the world quiet. The Israelites suffered his taxes and imperiousness, and resented their overlords bitterly. For many, the solution was evident; they would soon rise up to do what their ancestors had done.

The Romans were only the most recent pagan power with aspirations for great worldly power to claim control over the land of Israel. The Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians had ruled over Israel in some way or another for centuries; after Alexander the Great destroyed the Persian Empire, Israel was ruled over by the Macedonians, first the Ptolemies and then the Seleucids. Throughout this time Israel was at best tolerated with suspicion and at worst subject to terrible persecution (2 Kings 17:1-41, 25:1-30, Daniel 1:1-6:28, Esther 1:1-10:3). Nothing had prepared Israel, however, for what Antiochus IV Epiphanes would do in 167 BCE: he defiled the Temple in Jerusalem and banned the practice of the Law of Moses (cf. Daniel 7:1-11:45).

Some among Israel went along with Antiochus; others celebrated what Antiochus was doing. But many others in Israel resisted, led by the house of Hashmon and its leader Judah called the Maccabee. Over the course of the next few years the Maccabees would win impressive victories over Seleucid armies. Dynastic instability and general weakness within the Seleucid rule meant the Maccabees would de facto rule over Israel for many years. They would be known as the Hasmoneans; later generations of their rulers had all but became what the Israelites had thrown off. They had saved Israel from an existential threat, but none among them were the prophet or the Christ which the prophets had foretold.

Hasmonean rule was still within living memory when the Spirit spoke through Zechariah; we can therefore understand why so many in Israel believed they could rise up and defeat the Romans, since their ancestors had done something similar against the Seleucids. The Zealots all maintained this hope fervently and deeply; it also burned brightly in the breast of many of the Pharisees. Many would profess to be the Christ who would destroy the Roman threat, from Judas the Galilean to Simon bar-Kokhba, and many were willing to follow them to the end (cf. Acts 5:34-38).

Many clung firmly to the hope of a Messiah who would come to eliminate the Roman threat; others may have had no love for the Romans, but found the perceived hypocrisies and immoralities of fellow Israelites to be worse, like the Essenes. Others did not mind keeping their heads down and wished to focus on cultivating holiness and righteousness before God; this would eventually become the posture of many of the Pharisees/rabbis after the cataclysms of 70 and 135.

Yet not all Israel found the status quo insufferable. Some were willing to tie their fate to the Herods; such Herodians did well for themselves for awhile (cf. Matthew 22:16). Many Israelites freely accommodated themselves and their beliefs with the Greco-Roman world.

And then there were the Sadducees. The Sadducees were more religiously conservative than generally recognized, but focused their devotion primarily on the Temple and its services (Matthew 22:23-32). As long as the Temple stood, the power base of the Sadducees remained. They would do whatever they could to preserve and maintain the Temple as the center of Israelite life.

The Romans had little interest in adjudicating matters within Israel; the Israelite body of judgment, the Sanhedrin, made up primarily of Pharisees and Sadducees, were able to decide most matters (Matthew 26:57-68, John 18:31-32, Acts 23:6). The focus of the Jewish world was Judah and Jerusalem; Jewish people lived in the diaspora and even throughout the historic land of Israel, particularly in Galilee, but pride of place was given to Jerusalem, with prejudice expressed toward those from elsewhere (cf. John 7:52).

Jesus became flesh and dwelt among humanity as a Jewish man in this world of foment and tumult. In His time there was no firm distinction between secular and sacred, the “political” from the “spiritual.” Jesus’ Gospel of the Kingdom did not neatly align with any particular partisan political view in late Second Temple Judaism; nevertheless, His message did speak to the condition of Israel. Jesus re-centered Torah and Temple around Himself (cf. John 2:13-22); He embodied the story of Israel to bring it to its fulfillment in victory over the forces of evil and resurrection from the dead, and would be vindicated when the Day of YHWH came yet again for Jerusalem in 70 as it had in 586 (Matthew 21:33-46, 24:1-36).

Jesus as the Christ completely disrupted the politics of Israel in late Second Temple Judaism if they were only able to perceive it. Salvation from the Romans would not look like what Israel would desire. The Christ Israel wanted looked more like Barabbas than he did Jesus (Luke 23:18-19); the day would come when Israel did choose “Saviors” more like Barabbas, and were completely devastated (Luke 23:28-31). Those who put their hope in armed insurgency would be destroyed; those who put their hope in the Temple in Jerusalem would wail, lament, and be frustrated. Essenes, Herodians, Sadducees, and Zealots would cease as a going concern; the Pharisees, chastened by circumstances but still resistant to Jesus as the Christ, developed into the rabbis and the more quietist piety of Rabbinic late antiquity.

All Zechariah prophesied would come to pass in Jesus, yet not as Israel expected. Israel would not continue to serve God as before without Roman rule or interference. Yet those who would trust in Jesus and participate in His Kingdom would be freed from enslavement from the forces of evil and could strive unto righteousness and holiness through the Spirit in Him (Romans 8:1-39). May we trust in the work God has accomplished in the Kingdom of Jesus, and find eternal life in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Strife | The Voice 10.3: January 19, 2020

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Works of the Flesh: Strife

In order to encourage the Christians of Galatia Paul presented the contrast between the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit, exhorting them to inculcate the fruit of the Spirit while avoiding the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:17-24). Paul defines the works of the flesh as the following in Galatians 5:19-21:

Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like; of which I forewarn you, even as I did forewarn you, that they who practise such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

Paul began the works of the flesh with many of the challenges of all mankind, but those which were particularly acute for pagan Greeks: sexually deviant behavior, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, and sorcery. He then began discussing a lengthy list of sins in relationships with enmities, describing a disposition which often leads to difficulties in relationships. Paul then identified another behavior which causes fracturing in relationships: strife.

The word translated as “strife” is the Greek word eris, defined by Thayer as “contention, strife, wrangling.” The Greeks reckoned Eris as a goddess; in myth her most famous escapade was the golden apple to be given to the fairest of the goddesses: the contention surrounding the prize would lead to enmity among the goddesses and all the devastation of the Trojan War.

In the New Testament Paul often associates eris, strife, with jealousy or envy (Romans 13:13, 1 Corinthians 3:3, Philippians 1:15, 1 Timothy 6:3-4); where jealousy and envy exist, opportunities to manifest strife will follow. Eris can also be defined as “contentions,” as took place in the church in Corinth according to 1 Corinthians 1:11. The term may also be found referring to the strife of the Gentiles in their depravity (Romans 1:29), concerning the Corinthians again in 2 Corinthians 12:20, and referring to the result of discussion of various Jewish traditions in Titus 3:9. We may see from these passages and those quoted above that “strife” is a characteristic that is of a carnal, or earthly, mind, not of soberness, and a mark of one who teaches falsely or preaches Christ from impure motives.

In English “strife” is defined by Webster as:

1. Exertion or contention for superiority; contest of emulation, either by intellectual or physical efforts.
2. Contention in anger or enmity; contest; struggle for victory; quarrel or war.
3. Opposition; contrariety; contrast.

From both the English and Greek definitions we perceive a strong association between strife, enmity, contentiousness, even anger: Paul is not attempting to list out precisely disassociated attitudes or behaviors, but a constellation of terms centering on recognizably sinful attitudes and behaviors. Many of the terms are very synonymous and related to one another: strife rarely exists without some kind of catalyst like enmity, jealousy, envy, or anger; strife and contentions prove essentially similar in practice. For our purposes we will consider strife primarily as a contest of disputation by intellectual or physical means in order to display superiority.

Strife is very much a work of the flesh as “the ways of the world.” The world is saturated with people who engender strife as a means of getting ahead in the workplace, in society/culture, and/or in politics. The world celebrates contests designed to display superiority: sporting events like the Olympics or professional sport teams compete in order to demonstrate which country, city, or group of people is the best in the world. Such displays of competition are more healthy than war or violence, and need not engender strife, and yet we can think of numerous occasions on which people have taken such things “too seriously” and have harmed other people on account of sports affiliations. In the world humans are always looking for opportunities to display or demonstrate how they and their group are superior to other groups; it helps to justify why they have benefited (or should benefit) and others have failed (or should fail).

Yet this is not how we have learned Christ; indeed, Jesus explicitly repudiated this attitude in Matthew 20:25-28. The rulers of the Gentiles lord their power over the vanquished; thus it has been, and in the world, thus it will ever be. But it must not be so among the people of God: those who would be the “greatest” must be those who serve. Such is why Jesus Himself washed the feet of His disciples: He served them in lowliness and humility, even as their Lord and Master, so they would understand they ought to serve one another as well (John 13:1-11).

Yet even “serving” can too easily be made into a contest; Christianity has been plagued with the “holier than thou” attitude for as long as it has existed. Diotrephes loved preeminence, and it led him to cast out anyone he perceived to be a threat to his power: he was jealous, and his behavior was manifest as strife (3 John 1:9-10). People can find any reason at all to baptize and sanctify their quest to display their superiority through contest: “standing firm for the truth,” “fighting error,” “being the watchman,” “challenging tradition,” and many other postures can all too easily become ways to attempt to demonstrate how “we” have become better than “they.”

For good reason, therefore, Paul identified the worldliness, or carnality, of the strife engendered in Corinth (1 Corinthians 3:3, 2 Corinthians 3:1, 2 Corinthians 11:1-33. Factions attempted to display how they were “right” and the others were “wrong”; “superapostles” came in and attempted to suggest they were more holy and closer to Jesus than Paul. It was not really about the message of Jesus at that point; it was about being “in the right” and thus in a superior posture than the others.

While we must always strive to live as workmen without shame, rightly handling the Word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15), our goal ought not be to display how right we are and thus in a superior posture over others. Such a disposition is really conceited and arrogant, and really a mark for a false teacher, as Paul explained above in 1 Timothy 6:3-4. Our standing before God in Christ is not based on being right but on the basis of our trust in Jesus and what God accomplished through Him (Ephesians 2:1-10). No one will be saved because they were right and had a superior understanding; salvation comes for those who humbly trusted in Christ, not in themselves, and sought to understand ever more what God accomplished in Jesus to glorify Him (Ephesians 1:1-3:21). Members of the Lord’s church would be well-served to discern when it is no longer about exhorting one another in the truth but to display why “we” are better than “they,” and avoid such a catalyst for strife.

Until the Lord returns there will be some among the Lord’s people who engender strife on account of their insecurities and need to be seen as “better than” others. Such people will not cease until they have learned to repent and accept our equality in the sight of God or they have destroyed relationships and churches through their constant strife and contentions. Many congregations of the Lord’s people have been captured by people who enjoy contentiousness and strife; they create toxic environments which attract those who are like minded and repel Christians seeking to maintain humility and love. We must expect strife in the world, but it ought not to be so among us. Strife is always carnal; Jesus did not die to justify “sanctified strife,” but on the cross killed the hostility that would engender strife (Ephesians 2:16-18). The Lord’s purposes are thus never honored by strife; we should avoid it at all costs, put the impulses toward strife to death, and serve and love one another in humility before God in Christ, doing all things not to preen in “holy superiority,” but that God would be glorified in us in all things!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Stephen Before the Sanhedrin | The Voice 10.2: January 12, 2020

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Apologies in Acts: Stephen Before the Sanhedrin

In the world, those who cannot defeat you with argumentation will generally attempt to defeat you through violence. Jewish opponents of the Way pursued this path with Stephen. They got what they wanted, but not the way they wanted it.

The Gospel was flourishing in Jerusalem despite official resistance from the Sanhedrin, a group of Jewish leaders. Many among the Jewish people believed in the Lord Jesus, both among those who primarily spoke Aramaic (“Hebraic” Jews) and those who primarily spoke Greek (“Hellenistic” Jews). When concerns were raised regarding the treatment of the widows among the Jewish people who spoke Greek, the Apostles encouraged the Christians to select seven men among the Hellenists to assist in serving the widows (Acts 6:1-4). Stephen was mentioned and selected first and foremost, uniquely identified among the seven as a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:5-7). Stephen not only served in this capacity, but also performed great signs and wonders among the people, being full of grace and power in the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:8). Jewish people from the diaspora in modern day Egypt, Libya, and Turkey from the Freedmen’s Synagogue in Jerusalem disputed with him regarding the Christ, yet could not resist the wisdom and the Holy Spirit by which he spoke (Acts 6:9-10). And so they conspired to have witnesses testify before the Sanhedrin how Stephen blasphemed against Moses and the Law, declaring how Jesus would destroy Jerusalem and change the customs of Moses (Acts 6:11-14). Stephen stood before the Sanhedrin; all saw his face shine like an angel (Acts 6:15). He then set forth his defense before the Sanhedrin (Act 7:2-53).

Stephen’s defense featured a rehearsal of Israelite history; such was a prominent means by which the psalmist and the prophets would attempt to exemplify lessons for Israel, and one which the Apostle Paul would later use to proclaim the Gospel to the Jewish people of Antioch of Pisidia (e.g. 1 Samuel 1:1-2 Kings 25:30, Psalms 105:1-45, 106:1-48, Ezekiel 20:1-44, Acts 13:15-42). Stephen was expecting general agreement from his audience regarding the historical details he mentioned; the experiences of Israel in the past were not in question. Stephen did not seek to emphasize new flourishes or to challenge received orthodoxy regarding specific details; instead, he drew from Israel’s own history to exemplify the patterns and trends which explained Israel’s behavior toward their Christ.

Stephen began with the story of Abraham’s call and sojourn, emphasizing God’s prediction of the Egyptian sojourn and deliverance (Acts 7:2-8; cf. Genesis 11:27-22:19). Stephen quickly moved on to Joseph, sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, yet who provided deliverance for his people in Egypt (Acts 7:9-16; cf. Genesis 37:1-50:26). Stephen then related the story of the Exodus, emphasizing Moses’ story, particularly how after the Israelites had rejected Moses, God sent him back to Israel as precisely that which they had rejected: their ruler and deliverer (Acts 7:17-35; cf. Exodus 1:1-Numbers 36:13). The same Moses promised God would raise up a prophet like him (Acts 7:36-38; cf. Deuteronomy 18:15-19); yet the Israelites proved unwilling to obey Moses, and desired to return back to Egypt and serve the host of heaven and not YHWH (Acts 7:39-43; cf. Exodus 32:1-35, Numbers 13:1-17:13, Amos 5:25-26). Stephen then spoke of the Tabernacle which Israel made according to the plans given them, possessing it until the days of David and Solomon, the latter of which would build a house for God, and yet the prophet made it clear the Most High did not live in a house made with hands (Acts 7:44-50; cf. Exodus 25:1-1 Kings 9:9, Isaiah 66:1-2).

Stephen brought his rehearsal of Israelite history home for his audience, indicting them as stubborn, of uncircumcised hearts and ears, resisting the Holy Spirit as their fathers had done (Acts 7:51). Their fathers had persecuted every prophet; the prophets had testified of the Righteous One who was to come, whom the audience betrayed and murdered (Acts 7:52). They received the law from angels, but did not obey it (Acts 7:53).

Stephen did strive to defend himself and his teaching in his defense, even if it can be challenging to perceive. Stephen did not deny the charge of declaring that Jesus would destroy the Temple; instead, he pointed out that God did not live in temples made with hands. Stephen pointed out how all Israel did not fully obey the law and customs Moses had given to them; thus, why is he being held liable?

Nevertheless, Stephen’s main purpose was not to defend himself; instead, he spoke boldly so as to cause a bystander to wonder whether it was really Stephen putting the Sanhedrin on trial rather than the other way around. Stephen had set forth an unflattering picture of Israelite history: a group of rebellious people who resisted God’s purposes for them at every turn, rejecting the rulers and statutes He would give them, only to discern too late how God had exalted what they held in low esteem, and rejected what they had valued. Members of the Sanhedrin prided themselves on proving more faithful to God than their ancestors (e.g. Matthew 23:29-30); Stephen destroyed this pretension, and indicted them as even worse than their ancestors, for they had betrayed and murdered the One whom the prophets had spoken (cf. Matthew 23:31-32). Thus, yes, Jesus would destroy the temple, and good riddance; yes, the customs of Moses would have to be altered, for the Israelites never fully observed them anyway, and they kept resisting the Holy Spirit and the work of God manifest among them.

The members of the Sanhedrin would not countenance such blasphemy in their sight. They clenched their teeth at him in anger (Acts 7:54). Stephen then saw a vision of Jesus as the Son of Man at the right hand of God, evoking the Danielic “one like a son of man” in Daniel 7:13-14 (Acts 7:55-56). Enraged ever more at such presumption, the members of the Sanhedrin rushed at Stephen and stoned him until he died (Acts 7:58, 60). Stephen did not respond with self-defense or malice; instead, he prayed for the Lord Jesus to not hold this sin against them and to receive his spirit (Acts 7:59-60).

Luke very deliberately intended for us to see Stephen as the embodiment of what Jesus expected for His followers to endure from the Jewish authorities, and as the prototypical marturos, witness/martyr. Jesus stood before the Sanhedrin; He promised the Son of Man would be seated at the right hand of God; they condemned Him to death; in His death He asked the Father to forgive them (Luke 22:66-71, 23:34). Likewise, Stephen stood before the Sanhedrin; he saw the Son of Man at the right hand of God; they condemned him to death; in his death he asked Jesus to forgive them (Acts 6:15, 7:55-60). Stephen followed the Way of Jesus, and obtained the promise in Jesus.

Stephen was not cowed in shame by the Sanhedrin; he was not willing to play the power games which led to his trial. He turned the tables on them and bore witness to their rebelliousness and transgressions. He paid the ultimate cost, yet was not defeated. In his death he displayed the compassionate love of Jesus; his example has inspired generations to stand firm for the Lord Jesus. On account of the persecution stirred up in the wake of Stephen’s trial and death the Gospel of Jesus spread far beyond Jerusalem, throughout all Judea, Samaria, Galilee, and eventually among diaspora Jewish communities throughout the Levant (Acts 8:1-3, 11:19). Diaspora Jews of the Freedmen’s Synagogue hauled Stephen up before the Sanhedrin to suppress the Gospel of Jesus; as a result of their actions, it spread beyond the walls of Jerusalem into the very lands from which they hailed. May we take strength from Stephen and his example, finding salvation through suffering in the name of Jesus, confident in the Gospel and its truth!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Christian and Evil | The Voice 10.1: January 05, 2020

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The Christian and Evil

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart” (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago).

We have a very complex relationship with evil, to put it mildly.

We recognize that evil exists and do all we can to avoid or escape the evils we are willing to admit and to see. And yet we find ourselves easily ensnared and overthrown by the evils we cherish in our fears and insecurity.

We are repulsed, disgusted, and horrified by the effects of evil upon people and the environment. Meanwhile, Western entertainment is saturated with displays of evil behavior. Many people seek out this entertainment precisely on account of the horror and the violence. Movies without such things rarely make as much money as many that do. News stations know stories featuring blood, gore, and fearmongering elevate ratings; stories featuring humanitarianism and charity do not.

Most of humanity recognizes the existence of evil as a major problem and look for some kind of solution. Plenty of rulers have gained prominence by identifying other people as evil, and have promised to rid the world of such evil. After all the purges are done and the foe is vanquished, however, evil endures and remains. It has even thrived.

As Christians we will not escape evil in this life; we do well to expect to endure it and seek to do so in mature ways which glorify God in Christ.

Christians must dispense with the pretense that evil is a problem we can solve, fix, or eliminate through our diligent efforts. The potential of evil was stitched into the fabric of the creation: God made the tree of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:17); for the choice to love to mean anything, a choice to turn away from love proved necessary. The Bible confesses that evil is not good and will not have the victory, but it does not pretend that evil is some kind of optional problem we can fix. For that matter, the Bible does not speak of some kind of disembodied, abstract thing called “evil”: evil is seen as the choice to turn away from God, His goodness, and His ways, a choice made by many spiritual and physical beings (e.g. Romans 1:18-32, 2 Peter 2:4). We do well, therefore, to recognize that “evil” is not some “thing” out there, but rather an inclination within all sentient beings.

The challenge and difficulty of evil is far greater than we care to admit. The creation has been corrupted by sin, decay, and death (Romans 8:17-23). We far too easily and often perceive the evil, sin, and ugliness in others, but fail to see evil, sinful, and ugly thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in ourselves. We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23); we all continually struggle with impulses toward evil (1 John 1:8-10). If God were to seek to eliminate all the evil in the creation, all humanity would be gone!

On our own we cannot stand before the face of the forces of evil. According to Paul, we really are not wrestling with fellow human beings: our contest and struggle is with powers and principalities, the rulers over this present darkness, the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12). We have good reason to believe that Satan is at the head of these powers and principalities (Ephesians 2:2). Such is why Paul told Christians to be strong in the Lord’s might (Ephesians 6:10); we cannot stand in our own strength!

If the potential of evil has always existed, we have all done evil things, and evil is not some kind of amorphous thing “out there” but rather a tendency that exists within each and every one of us, fueled by powers and principalities well beyond our strength, what are we as Christians to do?

The Lord Jesus provides Christians with the way forward so as to overcome evil. Jesus triumphed over the powers and principalities by enduring and suffering all the violence, degradation and humiliation they could inflict upon Him (Colossians 2:14-15). When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He entrusted Himself to God who judges justly, and sought the good for those who did Him harm (1 Peter 2:18-25).

If we would overcome evil in ourselves and in the world, we must go and do likewise. We must put to death what is worldly in our lives, and look to Jesus for strength and wisdom to persevere in righteousness (Colossians 3:1-17). We must pick up our cross and follow Jesus, even if it costs us our goods and even our lives (Matthew 16:24-25). Where there is hatred, we must display love; where there is despair, we must cultivate hope; where we find depravity, we must point to redemption in Jesus (Matthew 5:20-48, Romans 1:16, 5:6-11).

The powers and principalities of this present darkness promote fear. Fear is a natural response when we are faced with suffering from the evil behaviors of others. We are sorely tempted to do unto others so they cannot do it unto us, to believe might makes right and that the winners write the history, and to portray the other as the evil threat requiring elimination. Yet this is precisely how we are seduced by these powers and principalities to give our power over to them; such is how they can endure even though Jesus has defeated them (Colossians 2:15). As Christians, we must see the works of these powers and principalities for the worldly, demonic, and unspiritual forms of “wisdom” they are (James 3:14-16). We do well to seek after the ways of God instead, for God’s wisdom leads to redemption, peace, and hope (James 3:13, 17-18): it seeks redemption, the hope of life, not death in elimination. No one is so depraved or sinful as to be beyond the call of salvation: God would have everyone come to the knowledge of truth and repentance (1 Timothy 1:12-17, 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9). Any “Gospel” which would dehumanize or demonize any human being or group of humans is not the Good News of Jesus Christ; it is the perversion of the spiritual forces of evil which we should not accept. Any “Gospel” which does not promote the willingness to suffer and endure without responding in kind is not the Good News of Jesus Christ; it is a perversion of the spiritual forces of evil which we should not accept. The testimony of the Good News of Jesus Christ features self-denial, self-sacrifice, and love toward all; anything less will be found lacking before our Lord and Savior on the final day.

We will never defeat the forces of evil; it is enough for us to stand firm in our faith and resist them (Ephesians 6:10-18). Jesus has gained the victory over them through His death and resurrection; in our faith we have begun to share in that victory, in our sufferings we testify to that victory, and when our bodies are given life again we will fully share in that victory (1 Corinthians 15:53-58). Thanks be to God for His suffering to overcome the forces of evil and to redeem us from all evil; may God deliver us from the Evil One, and save us in Jesus Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Dan’el, Aqhat, and the Rephaim | The Voice 9.52: December 29, 2019

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Dan’el, Aqhat, and the Rephaim

From at least the 13th until the 7th centuries BCE, the Israelites lived in the land formerly held by the Canaanites in the midst of many other ancient Near Eastern nations in the Levant. Ammonites, Canaanites, Edomites, Moabites, and Phoenicians had lived nearby for generations: all these groups maintained their own mythological stories about gods and heroes from of old. The Israelites would encounter these people and their stories, for better and for worse.

In Ezekiel 14:14, 20, the prophet Ezekiel makes reference to Noah, Job, and according to the qere (“spoken”; that is, what the Masoretes thought the better reading should be) of the Hebrew Masoretic Text, the Septuagint, and other versions, Daniel. For over two thousand years this reading proved relatively uncontroversial, even if a little odd: Daniel was a younger contemporary of Ezekiel, but the stories of his righteousness might well have been known to the Israelites in exile.

But then, in 1928, a Syrian farmer came upon a tomb while farming at Cape Fennel/Ras Shamra. Archaeologists uncovered remains of a city there named Ugarit which had been populated from very ancient times until its destruction around 1200 BCE. Even though Ugarit lay well north of the area in which Canaanites were thought to live, cuneiform tablets discovered at the site were written in a Canaanite dialect, and the stories they told were of Canaanite deities, places, ideas, and practices parallel to many references found in the Old Testament. Among these cuneiform tablets were found two particular Canaanite stories relevant for our purposes: the Tale of Aqhat (or “Belonging to Aqhat”) and the Rephaim.

The tablets containing the Tale of Aqhat and the Rephaim date between 1350 and 1215 BCE; we even know the scribe who copied them (Ilimilku) and the king under whom he served [Niqmaddu, most likely either Niqmaddu II (1350-1315) or Niqmaddu III (1225-1215)]. These stories were no doubt composed much earlier, and endured well after the collapse of the Bronze Age. They are written as poetry, with stanzas manifesting parallelism, akin to the parallelism found often in the Psalms, Proverbs, and the prophets, with frequent repetition. Unfortunately the tablets have suffered the depredations of time and are highly fragmentary at many places. Nevertheless, we can still gain much from them.

The main character of the Tale of Aqhat is Dan’el (or Danel), a famous and powerful Canaanite king. Dan’el has great renown and a stable kingdom, yet has no male heir. He participated in an incubation rite in a temple to Baal (the Canaanite storm god) to gain favor so as to obtain a son. Baal interceded with El (the head god of the Canaanites), and Dan’el has a son named Aqhat. Afterwards Dan’el received a visit from Kothar-wa-Hasis (the Canaanite blacksmith god) who bestowed upon Dan’el a special set of bow and arrows; Dan’el gave them to Aqhat. Eventually Anat (Canaanite goddess of the hunt) learned of and greatly desired Aqhat’s bow and arrows, and offered him first gold and silver, and then even immortality, for them; Aqhat refused all of her offers, declaring that death comes for all humans, and insulting Anat’s hunting prowess. Anat, furious, desired vengeance, which El allowed her to obtain; her servant Yatpan killed Aqhat for her. Dan’el and his daughter Pugat soon learned of Aqhat’s death, and mourned and lamented deeply, demanding the land receive no benefit from Baal for seven years. Dan’el obtained the remains of Aqhat from the belly of a vulture and buried them; he cursed the towns closest to where Aqhat died. After the seven years of mourning, Dan’el empowered Pugat to take vengeance on Yatpan, which she most likely did (the tablet has broken off by this point).

Dan’el is reckoned as the man of Rapau, likely meaning the first among the Rapauma, Canaanite for the Rephaim, and the hero of Harnam. From the Rephaim, it would seem that the Rapauma/Rephaim were deified dead Canaanite heroes: they are called “divine ones,” and considered as “the Rephaim of Baal,” the “warriors of Baal,” or the “warriors of Anat.” In the Rephaim Dan’el invited the Rapauma/Rephaim to a late summer feast. The tablet is badly broken, and so it is hard to ascertain much else beyond this; the text ends with Baal having come to the feast and is about to say or do something.

Dan’el, therefore, represented a great hero of the Canaanites. We do well to note that the ketiv (“written,” i.e. the text the way the Masoretes found it) in the Hebrew Masoretic Text in Ezekiel 14:14, 20, and 28:3 would read “Dan’el.” When Ezekiel calls the king of Tyre “wiser than Dan’el/Daniel” in Ezekiel 28:3, therefore, it would make far more sense to understand Ezekiel as referring to the Canaanite hero Dan’el than the Israelite Daniel who would be entirely unknown to the king of Tyre. Thus it would also make more sense for Ezekiel to refer to Dan’el in Ezekiel 14:14, 20 as well: thus Ezekiel would be appealing to three well-known non-Israelite righteous men, Noah, Job, and Dan’el. Even though the Tale of Aqhat and the Rephaim do not explicitly speak of Dan’el as wise or righteous, his name did mean “El judges,” and he was known to make judgments in the city gate; there is likely far more to Dan’el than what we know about him from the Tale of Aqhat and the Rephaim, and the evidence from Ezekiel can help us better understand this ancient Canaanite character.

The Old Testament also spoke of the rephaim as mighty ones among the dead: they exist and can tremble below in Job 26:5, and the king of Babylon would come among them in Sheol in Isaiah 14:9. Og of Bashan was reckoned as the last of the giant rephaim in Deuteronomy 3:11; such “giants” were also known to have lived in Canaan in days of old according to Genesis 15:20 and Joshua 17:15.

We are familiar with YHWH’s constant concern for the Israelites compromising their faith, serving the gods of the nations around them and participating in their ritual practices, and for good reason; the Israelites did these very things. Yet even the prophet Ezekiel, who thoroughly denounced Israel’s idolatry and assimilation into the ways of the ancient Near Eastern world in Ezekiel 4:1-24:24, still made reference to righteous characters recognized among the Canaanites as well as the Israelites. The Israelites also spoke of great champions among the dead as rephaim. The Psalmist or the prophets would give YHWH the glory for many of the things the Canaanites thought their gods had done for them; throughout the Old Testament YHWH is spoken of as El or Elohim, “God,” demonstrating that He is the God of gods. Israel was to be distinct from the Canaanites, yet lived in the midst of Canaanites; discoveries of ancient stories help us understand the connections and ways in which the prophets appropriated the imagery of the peoples around them to glorify YHWH and advance His purposes. May we all serve God in Christ and obtain life in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Works Consulted

Coogan, Michael and Smith, Mark. Stories from Ancient Canaan, 2nd edition. Louisville, Kentucky:
Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.

Babel vs. Pentecost | The Voice 9.51: December 22, 2019

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Babel vs. Pentecost

And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4).

“And how hear we, every man in our own language wherein we were born…we hear them speaking in our tongues the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:8, 11b).

God created humans with an expectation that they should strive and work (Genesis 2:15). After humans sinned such striving and effort was cursed with futility (Genesis 3:17-19, Ecclesiastes 2:17-26, Romans 8:20-22). Through Jesus’ death and resurrection we are able to overcome sin and death, and our striving and effort can have eternal meaning and value (Romans 8:1-15, 1 Corinthians 15:58). Yet to what end do we strive and toil? In Scripture two possible purposes are set forth, illustrated by Babel and Pentecost.

At Babel humanity spoke one language and was gathered together as one people (Genesis 11:1). They proved willing to collaborate on a major undertaking, a large tower; they successfully planned and began executing that project (Genesis 11:2-3). And yet their sinfulness proved evident, for their construction project was not for God’s glory, but for their own (Genesis 11:4): they built the tower to make a name for themselves, to resist God’s purposes for them, and to seek to find meaning and value in life on their own terms. On account of this God confused human language so people could not understand each other, for the earth cannot sustain the scale of self-glorifying projects concocted by human imagination (Genesis 11:6-9).

At Pentecost the people of God throughout the known world had gathered together in Jerusalem to honor YHWH their Creator God (Acts 2:5). Jesus’ disciples, who had followed Jesus and learned from Him, remained together as they had been commanded (Acts 1:4-8); God poured out upon them the Holy Spirit as He had promised through Joel and Jesus (Acts 2:1-4, 16-21). The gathered Jewish people were amazed, for they heard the Apostles speak to them in their native languages about the mighty works which God accomplished in Jesus (Acts 2:6-11). At Pentecost and in Christ God undid what He had done at Babel, for God empowered Christ’s disciples to proclaim His mighty works and give Him all the glory.

To this day God calls mankind to find redemption from sin and victory over death through His Son Jesus Christ (Romans 1:16, 1 Corinthians 15:53-57). Human labor is only not in vain when accomplished in Christ to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 15:58). We remain tempted to strive and work as our ancestors did at Babel, to make a name for ourselves and to attempt to find meaning and purpose on our own terms outside of what God has established for us (Genesis 11:1-9).

As servants of the Lord Jesus we do well to see the world and its striving for what it is: various projects that will all have the same end as Babel. In every discipline and field, from sports to science, from relationships to politics, those who remain in the world strive as they do in order to make a name for themselves. They want life to have meaning but look for it in the wrong places. It will all be for naught; they will all perish, they will be forgotten, and their striving and effort will be as the grass and flower of the field (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 11, Isaiah 40:6-8).

As servants of the Lord Jesus our striving and effort need not be in vain if it is done to God’s glory and not our own. The most mundane tasks in life can still glorify God and have an eternal legacy (Matthew 6:19-21). And yet we are still tempted to strive and labor as the world does, to make a name for ourselves even though we profess to want to glorify God. If we do so we have received our reward and will find little stored up in heaven. May we root ourselves in Christ Jesus and do all things to the glory of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Enmities | The Voice 9.50: December 15, 2019

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Works of the Flesh: Enmities

The Apostle Paul desired for the Galatian Christians to glorify God in all they did. To this end he set forth for them the kinds of behaviors which incur condemnation and the character attributes which come from the Spirit (Galatians 5:17-24). He spoke of the “works of the flesh” which lead to condemnation in Galatians 5:19-21:

Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like; of which I forewarn you, even as I did forewarn you, that they who practise such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

Paul began the list with works of the flesh pervasive in the ancient Greco-Roman world: sexually deviant behavior, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, and sorcery. These were enmeshed in the pagan cultures from which the Gentile Christians had converted, and remained continual temptations for them and even for those who had believed in Christ from Israel.

Paul then turned to works of the flesh which profoundly affect relationships, beginning with “enmities.” The word translated “enmities” in our Bibles is echthra in the original Greek, defined by Thayer’s as “enmity, a cause of enmity.” Webster’s defines enmity as:

The quality of being an enemy; the opposite of friendship; ill will; hatred; unfriendly dispositions; malevolence. It expresses more than aversion and less than malice, and differs from displeasure in denoting a fixed or rooted hatred, whereas displeasure is more transient.

In the New Testament “enmity” described relationships marked by some level of hostility. In Luke 23:12 we are told that Pilate and Herod had been at enmity before “reconciling” through a shared condemnation of Jesus. Paul would describe the mind of the flesh as in enmity against God, not subject to God’s law, nor could it be (Romans 8:6-7); James spoke more succinctly: friendship with the world is enmity toward God (James 4:4). Paul also perceived enmity between God and man through the law of commandments which had condemned mankind; Jesus killed the enmity, or hostility, by dying on the cross (Ephesians 2:13-16).

All of the other “works of the flesh” can be fully avoided, at least in prospect; no matter what we feel, say, or do, however, we will experience enmity. To live according to God’s purposes in Jesus will lead to enmity with the world and its ways; likewise, to live according to the ways of the world is to live in enmity with God (James 4:4, 1 John 2:15-17). Jesus promised us that we would have tribulation in the world, even though we have peace toward God in Him (John 16:33). The enmity of the world might reach such a depth that a Christian’s enemies may even be members of his own household (Matthew 10:34-36)!

If we cannot avoid or escape enmity, how can Paul consider “enmities” as a work of the flesh in Galatians 5:20? We obtain a clue from Romans 12:17-18:

Render to no man evil for evil. Take thought for things honorable in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as in you lieth, be at peace with all men.

God has abundantly warned us in Christ how seeking His purposes will lead to enmity in the world; nevertheless, the source of the enmity must be from the world, and not the Christian. Christians should never nurture hostility, ill will, or hatred toward any human being. Christians are called to treat each other with tender affection and love (Romans 12:10); it is in displaying love toward one another that we display that we belong to the Lord Jesus (John 13:34-35), and we cannot say we love God unless we love one another (1 John 4:7-21). Furthermore, it is not enough to just love one another: we must love our neighbor as ourselves, and prove to be neighbors to all with whom we might interact (Matthew 22:35-40, Luke 10:25-37); we must not forget to show love and care for strangers and those not like us (Hebrews 13:2). A Christian who loves each and every person will never have feelings of enmity toward any one.

We live in a time and age often characterized by pettiness and nastiness. “Cancel culture” has become prevalent; Internet flame wars prove pervasive. The media heavily invests in polarization and sensationalism; people rarely disagree charitably anymore, but tend to view their opponents as having the most base of motives and representing a threat to society and all that is right, good, and decent. Enmity abounds in political, social, and cultural discourse, and it proves very difficult to resist.

Sadly, the Lord’s people have not proven immune from enmities. Disagreements regarding doctrinal matters which could be handled with charity in a spirit of brotherhood have often become personal, ugly, and have set Christians against one another. In such circumstances, no matter how “right” either side might be doctrinally, their attitudes often turn “wrong,” and God’s purposes of relational unity are thwarted (John 17:20-23, Romans 14:10-18). Unfortunately it does not even require a doctrinal disagreement: Christians can often rub each other the wrong way, or disagree about methods, cultural attitudes, or some trivial matter, and end up displaying hostility toward one another. Few things prove sadder than seeing a congregation of the Lord’s people riven by factions all due to personality conflicts and similar hostilities.

As Christians we must strive to love everyone and be at peace inasmuch as we are able; there is thus no room for enmity in the heart of the Christian. In Jesus Christians have been reconciled to God, not only for their own salvation, but also to jointly participate with fellow Christians as the Lord’s Body (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Ephesians 2:1-22); God’s whole purpose in Christ is redemption and reconciliation, to kill the hostility and enmity which exists among people in the world (Ephesians 2:11-18, 3:9-12). We cannot glorify God if we resurrect the enmity He has sought to kill in Jesus!

Yes, those who would live godly in Christ Jesus will endure enmity and hostility in the world. Yes, we are liable to obtain enemies and opponents by living faithfully in Jesus and standing firm in His purposes; these enemies will certainly come from the world, many will profess Christ, and some even may come from among the Lord’s people. Yet whatever enmity may exist must not come from ill will or hatred in our hearts; we must be peaceable and loving toward all, desiring for all to know the truth, repent, and find salvation in Jesus (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9). Enmity is the way of the Evil One, alienating people from God and one another in mutual hostility. Redemption and reconciliation are the ways of our God who has paid the ultimate price so that we might find peace in Him. May we turn away from enmities, seek the good in Christ for all with whom we come into contact, and obtain the resurrection of life in Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Peter Before the Sanhedrin | The Voice 9.49: December 08, 2019

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Apologies in Acts: Peter Before the Sanhedrin

Challenges and persecution arose almost as soon as the Gospel began to sound forth in Jerusalem. Those who had condemned Jesus to death were not too keen on having an insurrectionist message of His resurrection causing trouble. How would the Apostles respond?

Luke included many examples of the preaching of the Gospel in the book of Acts: Peter on the day of Pentecost, in the Temple, and before Cornelius, and Paul in Antioch of Pisidia and on Areopagus (Acts 2:14-31, 3:12-26, 10:34-43, 13:15-51, 17:22-31). Yet Luke also recorded many instances of “apologies” in the book of Acts: not an “apology” in the common sense of the term today in English, as if the Apostles were expressing remorse and regret about anything, but according to the Greek apologia, generally translated as “defense” (cf. Acts 24:10, 25:8, 16). Such apologies were given in the context of some kind of examination or trial before Jewish and Roman authorities. The Apostles would manage to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus, particularly His resurrection, in their apologies; yet as a defense for the hope that was in them and their conduct, we do well to examine the apologies in Acts in their own right. The genre proved popular; many early Christians would write apologies for the faith in the first three hundred years of the faith.

The first apologies in Acts were given soon after the Gospel began to be proclaimed in Jerusalem. Peter and John had gone up to the Temple to pray and had healed a man well-known in the Temple precinct as one born lame (Acts 3:1-10). Based upon this miracle Peter proclaimed Jesus risen from the dead and the fulfillment of the hope of Israel before the multitude (Acts 3:11-26). The captain of the guard and the Sadducees, having heard of the tumult, came and had Peter and John arrested because they were vexed by them proclaiming the resurrection of the dead (Acts 4:1-3). The Sanhedrin gathered the next morning, and inquired of Peter and John by what authority they had acted and preached (Acts 4:5-7).

Peter then set forth his apology, or defense, for John and himself (Acts 4:8-12). He appealed to his audience and established the facts of what had been done: they are being examined for doing a good deed for a disabled man (Acts 4:8-9). Peter then confessed the man was made whole in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom they, both the Sanhedrin and all the people of Israel, had crucified, and God had raised Him from the dead (Acts 4:9-10). Peter then spoke of Jesus as the fulfillment of Psalm 118:22-23, the stone rejected by men but made the cornerstone (Acts 4:11; cf. Mark 12:10-12, 1 Peter 2:6-8). Peter concluded with a powerful declaration: salvation cannot be found in anyone else or in any other name under heaven (Acts 4:12).

Peter stunned the Sanhedrin: they perceived his and John’s boldness and how they were common men (“unearned and ignorant,” not trained rabbis), marveled, and perceived they had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13). They could say nothing against them, since the healed man stood in their midst, and it was evident a great miracle had taken place (Acts 4:14-16). They decided to threaten Peter and John, charging them not to speak or teach in Jesus’ name (Acts 4:17). Peter answered for them to judge whether they should hearken to them rather than God, for they could not stop speaking of what they had seen and heard (Acts 4:19-20).

Peter and John were let go (Acts 4:21). The Apostles continued preaching and teaching, and would again raise the jealousy and ire of the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:12-17). This time all the Apostles were arrested (Acts 5:18); an angel opened the doors of the prison and exhorted them to speak in the temple the words of this Life (Acts 5:19-20). The Sanhedrin again summoned the Apostles, and the high priest spoke to them regarding how they were charged not to teach in the name of Jesus, and yet not only did they keep teaching, but they were also bringing Jesus’ blood upon the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:27-28).

Peter again spoke an apology (Acts 5:29-32). He began with a more succinct and direct statement than seen in Acts 4:19: they must obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29). Peter did not shrink back: he declared that God raised Jesus up, the very Jesus they had killed by hanging Him from a tree (Acts 5:31; cf. Deuteronomy 21:22-23). God exalted Jesus to be a Prince and Savior, giving repentance and remission of sins to Israel; the Apostles were witnesses of these things, as was the Holy Spirit, given by God to those who obey Him (Acts 5:31-32).

The Sanhedrin was enraged at Peter’s teaching; only by Gamaliel’s wise speech were they allayed (Acts 5:33-39). The Apostles were beaten, were charged again to not speak in Jesus’ name, and were released (Acts 5:40-41).

Peter’s apologies before the Sanhedrin maintained great consistency with Peter’s preaching in Acts 2:14-36, 3:12-26: the Apostles as witnesses, Jesus as killed by the Jewish people and the authorities but raised from the dead, exalted by God, made Lord and King, the fulfillment of prophecy, and the only source of salvation. Yet before the Sanhedrin these teachings take on greater sharpness and force: the Pharisees denied the possibility of the resurrection of the dead, the whole Sanhedrin was most directly responsible for Jesus’ death, and the Sanhedrin claimed to be an authority over the Jewish people (Mark 12:18, 14:53-65). Peter did not shrink away from these uncomfortable truths, nor did he attempt to sugarcoat it or make it seem more palatable to them. He spoke boldly, powerfully, but concisely and uprightly.

We also do well to consider the behavior of Peter and the other Apostles after each instance of harassment and persecution by the Sanhedrin. After Peter and John returned the first time they prayed to God, understanding how the Sanhedrin was working with the Roman authorities in a conspiracy against Jesus and God’s work in Him, and prayed for boldness to proclaim the Gospel (Acts 4:23-31). After they were all beaten by the Sanhedrin the next time, they rejoiced they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the Name of Jesus (Acts 5:41). The Apostles did not rage against the injustice; they did not respond immaturely, as if surprised at persecution or imagining they should not have to endure suffering. They recognized that following Jesus would lead to the same kind of sufferings Jesus endured, and recognized that in suffering thus they were sharing fellowship with the Christ (Matthew 16:26-29).

Peter did well in making his defense for what he believed and did (cf. 1 Peter 3:15-16). He spoke with respect yet with conviction. The Sanhedrin heard the Gospel of Jesus’ resurrection; they were forced to grapple with their complicity in His death. They had done all they felt they had the ability to do against the Apostles, yet their threatening and warning were toothless. The Apostles continued to teach and preach Jesus as the Risen Lord and did many mighty works in His name. The nations indeed rage against God and His Anointed One; God reigns supreme, and He is glorified in those willing to suffer harassment, humiliation, and trials while steadfastly bearing witness to what God has done in Jesus. May we make a defense for our faith before all who inquire, and absorb shame and humiliation in Jesus so as to obtain exaltation in the resurrection!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Hard Sell Evangelism | The Voice 9.48: December 01, 2019

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Hard Sell Evangelism

For good reason people prove skeptical about salespeople in general. We know they get paid to sell us things, and many of them will make a lot of promises, apply a lot of pressure, and engage in all kinds of manipulative practices to get us to sign on the dotted line. Who among us enjoys such a “hard sell”?

“Hard sell” tactics are prevalent in sales because they work for their purposes. “Hard sell” tactics involve a lot of pressure, emotional manipulation, and a willingness to say whatever needs to be said in order to close the sale. The goal is to display how customer “needs” the item being sold by means of emotional and/or aggressive appeals, and then to seal the deal with while the customer still feels the emotional “high.” “Hard sell” tactics represent a high risk, high reward situation: a lot of people are repelled by them, but if just enough are persuaded, a lot of money can be made. “Hard sell” tactics are most often used on large-ticket or “impulse” pleasurable items; the rewards need to justify the risks, and you do not want to have to see the customer again for some time. “Hard sell” tactics are especially ineffective for the sale of any long-term product, like insurance; it is hard to build a relationship while using “hard sell” techniques.

The proclamation of the Gospel and the world of sales share many features in common. Sales involves the attempt to persuade a person they need a product and to obtain that product; evangelism involves the attempt to persuade people of their need of salvation in Christ, and thus how to be saved (2 Corinthians 5:11). To this end many believe that “hard sell” tactics and techniques ought to be employed in the proclamation of the Gospel. To such an end the Gospel is proclaimed with aggressive emotional appeals, and the prayers, music, and ambiance in the assembly are all designed to facilitate the emotional experience. In smaller conversations the preacher will use heavy-handed techniques and aggressive appeals to incite a response. They seek to stir up the passions of those who hear so as to get them to “get saved” while the hearer maintains the emotional “high.”

“Hard sell” evangelism tactics or techniques are not intrinsically sinful; many have come to faith in the Lord Jesus through aggressive exhortation or emotional revivalism. Whenever Christ is preached, we rejoice (Philippians 1:15-18). Most of the people who evangelize with “hard sell” evangelism are sincere in their belief and well-intentioned in their goal to promote Jesus as Lord. For that matter, there is a time and a place for an aggressive posture in encouraging people to believe in Jesus as Lord; emotions remain part of the human experience and we can appeal to them as we proclaim Jesus crucified and risen. Nevertheless, many features of “hard sell” evangelism often work against the purposes of God in Christ and can inhibit the spread of the Gospel and the effectiveness of growth in discipleship.

We must remember that marketing and sales in the world of business is part of the world, subject to the ways of the world, and can often prove unspiritual and demonic (cf. Ephesians 6:12, James 3:13-18). Thus, just because it “works” in marketing and selling worldly products should not automatically mean we should try it out in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Apostles proclaimed the Gospel of Christ boldly; they understood that the message might well offend many (e.g. Acts 4:23-31). Yet they did not proclaim Jesus in a belligerent or overly aggressive way. Every time the Gospel is preached in Acts the message was invited in some way or another; it was not forced or imposed on anyone. God is love, embodied in Jesus (1 John 4:7-21); love does not seek its own, is not rude or impatient, but kind (1 Corinthians 13:4-8). The way we proclaim the Gospel ought to conform to the Christ who is proclaimed; thus, we ought to speak the truth in love, and according to the principles of love (Ephesians 4:15). To that end an aggressive posture at the beginning may not be advisable; patience and kindness go a long way to opening up a person to be willing to hear more. Far too many times we might imagine that the Gospel must be aggressively pushed for it to really be a Gospel presentation, and such is simply not the case. It may require some imagination, but we can think of ways to speak of Jesus without the hearer feeling as if Jesus is being shoved down his or her throat. Our speech ought always be seasoned as with salt, to give grace to those who hear (Colossians 4:6).

For good reason Paul declared that he did not preach the Gospel with excellence in speech or wisdom, but determined to know nothing around the Corinthians except Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 2:1-2). The power of the Gospel is not in the rhetorical crafting of the presentation, but in the real substance of its message (Romans 1:16-17). To this end a reliance on emotional appeal and manipulation can backfire and easily become counterproductive. The goal of all preaching is to proclaim the Lord Jesus Christ and edify, or build up, the faith of those who hear (1 Corinthians 14:26, 2 Timothy 4:2-4); such “edification” is no mere feeling but substantive growth in faith. In an earthly construction project, when the dust settles, the building should be substantively larger after the work of edification than it was beforehand, and so it must also be in spiritual edification. The Gospel can be powerfully preached with both substance in message and emotional appeal, and the emotional appeal can help reinforce the message. But when the focus is on the emotional appeal, and the drive is to “get people saved” in an ecstatic or frenzied state, hearers become conditioned to seek the emotional “high” regardless of the presence of anything substantive. They may say they feel “edified,” but it is just a feeling: when the dust settles, their faith is about the same as before. When the times of trial and distress come on, or the cares of the world multiply, such hearers are likely to fall away (cf. Matthew 13:1-8). Furthermore, those who “get saved” in an emotional high often keep chasing the emotional high, and may not even find much value in the substantive message of the Gospel. Such a person will never obtain spiritual growth in discipleship if all they crave is the emotional high and the feeling of rapture in the moment.

It is one thing for a person to walk away feeling as if far too aggressively pushed to buy an item, or to sit at home with a large purchase which has left them with a bit of remorse and a bit of a bad taste in their mouths; it is quite another for a person to be repelled from the Gospel not because of its substance but because of the aggressive, manipulative means by which it was promoted, or to sit as an entertained participant seeking an emotional high and calling it edifying faith. To this end “hard sell” tactics and techniques may not be the best introduction to the Gospel; our goal is not to push people into making a decision they will regret, but to tell them the good news of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and imminent return, and encourage them to find life in Him. We want to see the person to whom we preach the Gospel very often in the assemblies of the saints; our posture ought to be meek, humble, gentle, kind, loving, patient, and above all, welcoming, focusing on Christ crucified above all things. May we proclaim the Gospel of Christ in ways which glorify God, and obtain life in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Babel and Power | The Voice 9.47: November 24, 2019

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Babel and Power

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” (John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton).

Humans dedicate quite a lot of their resources to the acquisition, accumulation, or maintenance of power, far more than they might imagine. Nations wage war against one another to gain renown, resources, and to humiliate or gut their opponents. Leaders within countries use various means to attempt to perpetuate their power through elections, coercion, or manipulation of the people. Corporations participate in economic contests with one another, and even with persons, governments, and other institutions, in order to gain market share and a favorable environment for their products. Even in interpersonal relationships people jockey for social standing: how many terrible things are done by children to children in middle and high school in order to “look cool” or to find acceptance in a given social group? Power dynamics remain at play among the Lord’s people: within congregations in terms of who maintains formal and informal power, and what happens when such people are crossed; in the “brotherhood” in general, who is heard and persuasive and who will prove willing to align with whom. No matter where we turn we tend to find some kind of power dynamic and power games at play.

People are less likely to notice the strength of their power when they maintain it than they are to notice when they are not in power, are losing their power, or are suffering oppression on account of others exercising power over them. If we are used to getting our way, or receiving a level of deference or respect from other people, we are tempted to think that such is normal and how everyone else experiences the world. We easily get miffed when we feel we are disrespected. We can think that the reason other people go through difficulties we do not experience must be on account of some fault of their own: they proved too lazy, or did not work hard enough, and thus they do not have. We can be blissfully unaware of how power works for us but not for others, but only until the tables get turned and power works against us. Then we can see more clearly the unfortunate side of power dynamics in our fallen world.

Power is not inherently wrong or evil; God has all authority, and gives to all some measure of authority and power in life (Romans 13:1). The challenge of power is what we make of it: how do we view the power we have, and to what end do we exercise it?

God made man and gave him dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:26-27). God intended for mankind to view power, like life itself and all things in the creation, as a gift from God, a stewardship held in trust. Man was to keep and tend the Garden God had made (Genesis 2:15): man does best when man maintains what God has made and sustained in Himself. God Himself came to earth with power and authority and in humility served others and was not served Himself (John 1:1, 18; Matthew 20:25-28). All those who maintain authority are to serve and seek the best interest of those under their charge (e.g. Ephesians 5:21-6:9, 1 Peter 5:1-5). God will call all into account for the power they have exercised (Romans 14:10-12). Power, when used rightly, can facilitate thriving and flourishing in life.

We have all seen, unfortunately, what happens when power is not used rightly. In many respects the Tower of Babel represents human power at its worst (Genesis 11:1-9). All humanity had gathered on the plain of Shinar, and there they recognized the great power they held since they all spoke the same language and could collaborate on anything they might imagine: in this condition nothing could hinder them, as God Himself said (Genesis 11:1-3, 6). What did they do with all of their power? They intended to build a tower into the heavens to make a name for themselves lest they be scattered over all the earth (Genesis 11:4). They did not use their power to serve, to love, or to lead to human flourishing; they used it to make a monument for themselves, a grandiose and otherwise useless display of self-promotion and self-aggrandizement. God was not glorified.

Babel, in Hebrew, is the same word that Greek would translate as “Babylon.” From Babylon would come the army that would destroy Jerusalem and its Temple and exile its people in 586 BCE (cf. 2 Kings 25:1-30). “Babylon” would become code, or a cipher, to represent Rome (1 Peter 5:13, Revelation 13:1-18:24). “Babylon” thus became a metaphor for the human power which arrogates itself against God: boastful, haughty, arrogant, self-serving, self-aggrandizing, making an idol of itself, throwing its weight around, inducing others to participate in its immorality, and persecuting the people of God. Babel/Babylon thus represents what happens when power goes bad.

In our fallen world power is all too often used for corrupt ends; it always looks something like what happened at Babel/Babylon. People exercise their power to benefit themselves to the harm of others. Domination is the name of the game: crush your enemies, exploit the environment, engender fear and wonder in your people. There is very little room for justice or righteousness in such manifestations of power, and those who uphold justice and righteousness are often persecuted or oppressed for doing so.

The corrupt abuse of power may be the way the world works, but it must not be so among the people of God. As Christians we must recognize that authority and power are given as responsibilities and a stewardship, not as a license to dominate and oppress. As Christians we must seek to glorify God through our exercise of power, not build monuments for ourselves. We must never allow ourselves to think that we have gained our position by our own strength or standing, lest we become as arrogant as those in the world and abuse what God has given us as they do. Instead we must always remain humble, recognizing that the greatest among us are the servants, and to use whatever authority we have to love and serve others, cultivate justice and righteousness, so we can harvest love, prosperity, and flourishing for everyone. We will either be part of the Bride of Christ or the whore Babylon; may the people of God come out of Babylon, and glorify God in all they do!

Ethan R. Longhenry