The Christian and Proper Perspective | The Voice 8.07: February 18, 2018

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The Christian and Proper Perspective

It is one of the great conundrums and challenges of “Christendom” today: how can so many sincere people read the same book, ostensibly confess the same Lord, and yet come to such radically different conclusions about all kinds of doctrines and practices? All sorts of answers can be given, and many have merit. One such answer with great explanatory power involves perspective. How much thought is given to perspective, or frame of mind, when the Scriptures are approached? What are we attempting to accomplish with our exploration of Scripture and our claim to follow Jesus in all things?

Perspective can be a pernicious matter. We all have our perspectives based on our fundamental operating assumptions which we have developed through various influences: our parents and families, our education, our culture, etc. Everyone has a perspective, and everyone seems equally convinced their perspective is the best or right perspective. And yet all of our perspectives are flawed to some degree or another, for we are all human, continually fall short of the glory of God, and tend to be spectacularly bad at recognizing our blind spots (cf. Romans 3:23).

Yet we should not be driven to despair: we can grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ despite our flaws (2 Peter 3:18). But to do so effectively requires the Christian to do all he or she can to maintain a proper perspective in all things.

To this end humility regarding perspective always proves essential. God’s ways and thoughts are higher than our ways and thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9); we are finite creatures and can only understand so much. God has made known to us some things regarding Himself and His purposes: they are sufficient to equip us to seek His will, but they do not provide a complete understanding of all things (Deuteronomy 29:29, 2 Timothy 3:15-17, Hebrews 1:1-2). We will always know far less than we can imagine; what we do learn ought to display our lack of understanding all the more. Just because something God has made known does not make sense to us does not make it untrue. We must be careful lest we make a god out of our own minds and our ability to understand, and attempt to force God and His ways to fit into a box of our own creation and imagination. Not a few heresies have arisen because people attempted to make fully human and rational sense out of the mysteries of God.

Let God be found true and every man a liar (cf. Romans 3:4): we must ground everything we believe in what God has made known in Jesus and in Scripture (John 14:6, Hebrews 1:1-3). To this end Paul encourages Christians to say and do all things in the name of the Lord, since we are always subject to His authority (Romans 6:14-23, Colossians 3:17). Yet our obedience must be not merely in pretense but also in truth: it is not enough to simply assert “the Bible says…,” but to demonstrate the truth of the claim in ways consistent with the context and in light of all God has made known in Jesus. We must be careful regarding both tradition and iconoclasm against tradition. A given concept, doctrine, practice, or structure is not made hallowed over time: just because some people claiming to follow Jesus have believed, taught, or practiced something for a few hundred years does not make it true or right. On the other hand, people have been reading the Bible and have attempted to follow Jesus for almost 2,000 years, and the odds that we today could discover a concept, doctrine, or practice which is truly grounded in Christ but missed by everyone over that time is impossibly remote. If we cannot find any precedents for an idea, belief, or practice in “Christendom” over the past two millennia, the difficulty is more likely with our own perspective than that of those who came before us. We do well to explore the heritage of Christianity lest we fall into the same heretical traps as did some who came before us. The voices of the past challenge our perspective: we do well to pray for wisdom to discern where we can find the failings of the perspectives of those who came before us, but also to be confronted with our own biases and presuppositions by them in turn.

God has made known His purposes in Christ; we can know how to be full of good works (2 Timothy 3:14-17). To this end Paul affirms that whatsoever is not of faith is sin (Romans 14:23). Far too many wish to reverse the statement, and approach authority as if whatsoever is not of sin is faith: as long as something is not condemned, it is acceptable. The New Testament upholds no such teaching; it may be the worldly definition of freedom and liberty, but it is not consistent with God’s purposes. Far too many innovations and deviations from God’s purposes were initially justified by the claim that “God never said we cannot or should not.” The Christian does well to approach all things by first asking if it is right, and then to ask if it is profitable (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:23). If both can be answered in the affirmative, strong ground exists to move forward. If they cannot be answered in the affirmative, the Christian must ask him or herself what would motivate the desire to proceed.

Christians must acknowledge the influence of worldly thinking so they may trust in God in Christ to overcome it. Paul exhorted the Colossians to be rooted in Christ, not the philosophies of the world (Colossians 2:6-10). All of the “-isms” of the world may contain some truth and wisdom, but all of them maintain elements contrary to God’s revealed purposes in Christ. Throughout time well-intentioned people have sought to “baptize” various worldly ideologies to fit a Christian mold, from Platonism to modern capitalism and nationalism; time has exposed the folly of all such endeavors, often to the harm of the witness of the faith. We must make Christ the ground and foundation of the way we approach the world, and not try to make Jesus fit what is commendable, or condemned, within the world.

The Christian is not the judge; God is (Romans 14:10-13, James 4:11-12). Nothing is right or wrong because the Christian thinks it is right or wrong; the experience of a Christian or someone whom he or she loves does not change the revealed will of God on any issue. We must own our perspectives as our own and give diligence lest we pervert the purposes of God in Christ because of our own inadequacies, insecurities, projections, or desires. Likewise, nothing is right or wrong merely because it is the opposite of what those with whom we disagree believe or practice. Sin is always crouching at the door, looking for an opportunity to seize us in rebellion against God’s purposes, hardening the heart to go in its own way and not after the ways of God. We do not know better than He; may we humbly submit to His purposes in Christ, and be ever careful with how we understand His purposes in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

2 and 3 John | The Voice 8.06: February 11, 2018

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The Second and Third Letters of John

False teachers went about among the churches, denying the bodily existence of the Lord Jesus; one Christian was filled with pride and an unhealthy view of himself and proved overly ambitious and divisive. John would write to faithful Christians to encourage them to stand firm; the results are the second and third letters of John.

The second and third letters of John are the twenty-third and twenty-fourth books in modern editions of the New Testament; they often categorized among one of the “catholic” or universal letters or epistles. The same author is behind both 2 John and 3 John; he identified himself as “the elder” in each (2 John 1:1, 3 John 1:1). They share commonalities in theme and literary style with 1 John and the Gospel of John; this, along with early Christian testimony, provides sufficient justification for considering the Apostle John to be “the elder” and the author of these letters, although some have posited the existence of a separate “John the Elder.” 2 John is written to “the elect lady and her children” (2 John 1:1); some believed it to be a letter to Mary the mother of Jesus and Jesus’ living brothers and sisters, since John the Apostle was made Mary’s caretaker in John 19:26-27. Yet John concluded the letter with greetings from the “children of your elect sister” (2 John 1:13), and encouraged the “dear lady” to “love one another” (2 John 1:5), straining any credible claim that individual family members are involved. The “elect lady and her children” are most likely referring to a local church, as is the “children of your elect sister”. 3 John is written to Gaius, a Christian who was likely a disciple of John but regarding whom we know nothing beyond what is recorded in the letter; he is most likely not the same Gaius whom Paul knew in Romans 16:23 and 1 Corinthians 1:14. John most likely wrote 2 John and 3 John from Ephesus, John’s center of ministry (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1); it would thus be the “elect sister” of 2 John 1:13. Neither 2 John nor 3 John provide any definitive evidence to establish dating; some suggest it was written in the 60s, but the prevalence and concern regarding docetism and perhaps even proto-Gnosticism is better placed later on, around 80-95. John wrote 2 John and 3 John to encourage Christians and churches to uphold the truth, support those faithfully promoting the truth, and standing firm against docetism and presumptuous Christians.

John began 2 John with an epistolary greeting emphasizing not only his love of the “elect lady,” most likely a local church and her children, the members of that church, in truth, but also the love of all who know the truth, and how the truth abides in us forever (2 John 1:1-3). John happily reported how he found some of its Christians faithfully walking in the truth as the Father commanded us to do (2 John 1:4). John then encouraged the church an old but new commandment to love one another, walking in the commandments as originally received (2 John 1:5-6; cf. 1 John 2:3-8, 3:11, 23-24).

John turned to warn the church regarding the deceivers who had gone out into the world: they do not confess Jesus as having come in the flesh (2 John 1:7; cf. 1 John 4:1-4). Christians must be on guard against them lest they lose their reward, for those who do not maintain the truth about the teaching of Christ do not have God, but those who uphold that teaching have the Father and the Son (2 John 1:8-9). Christians must not even greet or show any form of hospitality to people bringing such teachings, for to do so would participate in their wicked works (2 John 1:10-11). This denial of Jesus’ bodily existence is docetism (from Greek dokeo, “to seem”; they taught Jesus only seemed to be human); by denying Jesus’ bodily existence, they by necessity deny His birth, death, and resurrection, and thus the core of the faith (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:12-20). Some suggest the “teaching of Christ” involves anything involving the truth God has made known in Jesus, but such is a wider interpretation than the context can support; in 2 John 1:8-9 John’s focus is on the teachings regarding Jesus the Christ, His bodily existence as the Son of God.

John had other things to say but wished to do so in person and not with pen and ink (2 John 1:12). John concluded 2 John with greetings from the “children of your elect sister,” most likely the Christians of Ephesus (2 John 1:13).

John wrote 3 John to the “beloved” Gaius, whom John loved in the truth (3 John 1:1). John prayed for Gaius’ health and prosperity, thankful to hear of his stand in the truth from fellow Christians, for John enjoyed no greater joy than to hear of “his children,” likely Christians whom he taught and mentored, as walking in the truth (3 John 1:2-4).

John then encouraged Gaius to provide for those who stood before him as faithful Christians: he may not have known them, but they had testified regarding his love for God and His purposes before the church, and they had gone out to proclaim the Name of Jesus, taking no provision from unbelievers (3 John 1:5-7). John’s letter is most likely a way of attesting to the legitimacy of these men and a not so subtle hint for Gaius to provide them with food, shelter, and provisions for their journey; to help them is to participate in their work (3 John 1:8).

John had written to the church of which Gaius was a member; nevertheless, Diotrephes, whom John said loved to have pre-eminence, influenced the church so as to dismiss whatever John had said (3 John 1:9). John planned on coming there to expose the wickedness of his words and deeds, speaking against John, not receiving visiting Christians, and casts out any Christians who would receive them (3 John 1:10). Christians must not imitate evil but imitate good, for those who do good are from God, but those who o evil have not seen God (3 John 1:11). John commended Demetrius and spoke of his commendation from the others and from the truth (3 John 1:12). John has more to say but intended to come and see Gaius and speak face to face (3 John 1:13-14a). John concluded 3 John by sending greetings to, and asking Gaius to greet, the “friends,” another way of speaking of fellow Christians (although some manuscripts read “brethren”; 3 John 3:14bc; cf. John 15:15).

We can only imagine the encouraging conversations John would have enjoyed with his fellow Christians. Nevertheless we can gain strong encouragement from these short letters which he wrote. May we stand in the truth, do good, keep the commandments of Jesus, and abide in the Father and the Son!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Vulnerability | The Voice 8.05: February 04, 2018

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So much about vulnerability can be understood by the very word we have used to describe it.

Vulnerability is becoming a more prominent theme in American culture today. Dr. Brene Brown, a noted researcher in the field of shame and vulnerability, functionally defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure” (Daring Greatly, p. 34). In a word, vulnerability is openness: the willingness to be open to at least some people and experiences.

Yet “vulnerability” ultimately derives from Latin vulner, a wound; to be vulnerable, therefore, involves the ability to be wounded. And such is generally how we view openness: we view the opportunity to become open to people or experiences with apprehension and concern because we might be wounded in the process. Our thought processes and actions often attempt to insulate us from such wounding.

Such insulation goes by many names: retreating into our shell; putting on our armor; raising up shields; putting on the performance. We fear the openness of vulnerability as weakness and something which can be exploited against us; we find it better to present ourselves as invulnerable. We harden ourselves against other people; we try to position ourselves so that we may be able to help others, but do not want to be in the position where we seek help ourselves.

It was not always this way. We all learned to become invulnerable because of personal experience and cultural expectations. We can all probably remember that one time where we wanted to showcase something we felt was special, only to find ourselves mocked, derided, or teased when we opened up and showed it to the world. We thought we learned a most important lesson in life that day: better to hole up than to expose ourselves. Better to put on the armor, play the part, lest we get shamed or teased. We absorbed the lessons culture would have us learn: show no weakness. Look strong. Keep it together.

And yet we find ourselves alone and isolated. We wonder who we are and why we are here. Our relationships often prove superficial and unsatisfying; even in the midst of a lot of people, we can feel alone. Far too many seek solace in destructive behaviors.

All of these things flow from our posture of invulnerability, for it cuts two ways: if no one can hurt us, no one can really love us, either. If we close ourselves off so that we are not harmed, we also cannot be healed. To put on the armor of invulnerability is to prepare oneself for loneliness and alienation. When we cut ourselves off from people, we cut ourselves off from the life sustaining strength we gain from one another.

Vulnerability, and especially the lack thereof, represents a major challenge for followers of Jesus in the modern Western world. As in all things, we must look toward the example of Jesus, and He has manifested His vulnerability to the world.

By his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2:24c ESV).

We must deeply imbibe the meaning Peter’s quotation of Isaiah 53:5. We often seek to present ourselves as invulnerable precisely because we wish to avoid the shame, the pain, and the suffering which comes from being wounded. And yet Jesus, the Son of God, became flesh, dwelt among mankind, and deeply felt for their pain and anguish (Matthew 9:36). He suffered the depredations and degradations of the cross and absorbed the insults and derision of those who crucified Him (cf. Matthew 27:27-44). He endured the cross and despised its shame (Hebrews 12:2). And He did it all precisely for those people who were mocking Him and killing Him; He did it so all men could be restored in relationship with their God (Romans 5:5-11)!

The openness inherent in vulnerability makes wounding inevitable. Those who would be vulnerable will be wounded by others, however intentionally or otherwise. And yet relationships cannot flourish and thrive without vulnerability.

Jesus pointed the way. After all, we have all sinned against God (Romans 3:23); God would have every justification to turn away from us or lash out against us for our rebelliousness. And yet God, in Christ, absorbed the suffering and loss and proved willing to take on the wound in love, grace, and mercy, so that we might be restored in relationship to Him. When God had every reason to turn away from us, His Son became flesh, dwelt among us, and died for us.

If we would be godly in Christ Jesus, we must prove equally willing to be vulnerable toward others. We will experience wounding. Parents and children know just how to hurt one another; spouses can lash out at each other. Friends sometimes have hot disagreements; churches are full of people who are at different stages in life and who act and project just as much based on their inadequacies and failings as much as their strengths. We will be hurt. We will open up and suffer betrayal in some form or another. We will welcome people into our lives that will leave us soon afterward. We will be tempted to give up and to retreat into our shell: to play the game, put on the act, and keep people at a distance.

If we give up, we will give into the alienation and hostility among people which is a hallmark of the god of this world. The Lord Jesus will give us the strength to follow His example, if only we would trust in Him to do so. We must open up to one another despite the hurt and betrayal, recognizing that we would want people to remain open to us despite our own inadequacies and failures, and ever mindful of how God proved vulnerable on our behalf.

By Jesus’ wounds we are healed; healing can only ever take place when we open up and allow whatever “treatment” or “medicine” need apply. We must open up to God and to His people if we wish to be saved, just as God opened Himself up in Christ to save us. May we recognize the greater way of love in vulnerable openness, and encourage one another in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Bible Translations I | The Voice 8.04: January 28, 2018

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Bible Translations, I: History of Translations

Anyone who would seek to learn more about the purposes of God as made known in the Bible is immediately faced with a major obstacle: which version or translation should be used? We are faced with an alphabet soup of translation abbreviations: KJV, NIV, ESV, NLT, NKJV, NASB, NRSV, etc. What do they all mean? Why do so many translations exist? Which should I be using? Let us explore Bible translations and versions; to do so, we do well to understand the history of the Bible so as to understand why so many translations exist.

From Greek to Latin and Back to Greek Again

The New Testament began in the Mediterranean world, the record of events of Jesus Christ and His followers in the first century. At that time, the majority of the eastern Mediterranean world spoke in Greek; while each area had their own native tongue, Greek was the universal language of that part of the world. Therefore, when the texts of the New Testament were first written, they were in Greek. Our modern translations, in order to be the most accurate they can be, are thus derived from Greek texts.

Latin prevailed over Greek in the western part of the Mediterranean, however. The Bible was translated into Latin at an early stage in Christian history; in the fifth century Jerome worked to standardize the translation and root the Old Testament in the Hebrew original over the Greek translation (the Septuagint). Over time Jerome’s version became the standard and called the Latin Vulgate; it was the Bible in Western Europe for over seven hundred years.

Wars, famine, and religious arguments divided the western part of the Mediterranean from the eastern by the eleventh century. Knowledge of Greek in the West slowly faded into oblivion. However, the invasion of Constantinople (modern Istanbul, former capital of the Byzantine Empire) in the fifteenth century CE forced the Orthodox there to flee west, bringing their knowledge of Greek. This re-emergence of the understanding of Greek brought about renewed interest in the text of the Bible in its original language, and a German named Desiderius Erasmus was a principal scholar in this field. He was able to find six or seven copies of the Bible in Greek, dating from the tenth to thirteenth centuries CE, and from those texts he edited his version of the Bible in Greek, which was later called the Textus Receptus, or TR. It is from this text that the earliest modern translations of the New Testament in English were made.

The Bible in English

The same forces which led to a greater appreciation of Greek also fueled the Reformation. In England previous attempts had been made to translate the Bible into English so that all the people could understand God’s Word in previous centuries; by the middle of the sixteenth century William Tyndale worked diligently to translate the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible into English. Within the next thirty years six other versions would be translated from the original texts into English (Tyndale’s, Coverdale’s Bible, Matthew Bible, Great Bible, Geneva Bible, and the Bishops’ Bible).

As a result of the multiplication of versions in English and its resulting confusion, in the early seventeenth century, King James I of England commissioned Hebrew and Greek scholars in English universities to create a new version based on the older translations, correcting those texts when the need arose. Using these texts along with Erasmus’ Textus Receptus, these scholars created the King James Version (KJV), also called the Authorized Version (AV), in 1611. At first, most continued to prefer the Geneva Bible; over time, the King James Version would find preeminence among English speaking Christians, and would become the Bible in English for almost three hundred years.

Not a few people learned English and how to read and write thanks to the King James Version. Over time, however, the Elizabethan English of the KJV proved more and more antiquated, and today proves difficult for the modern English reader to understand. Thus, in the late 20th century, the KJV was revised to conform to modern English; the result is the New King James Version (NKJV), published since 1982.

New Findings, New Versions

During the nineteenth century Western Europeans, flush with developments and power thanks to the Industrial Revolution, sought to better understand their heritage in the past. The discipline of archaeology developed during this time; conquest and influence provided Westerners with heretofore unprecedented access to the Eastern Mediterranean world. Through archaeological expeditions and exploration of ancient monasteries multiple fragments and manuscripts of the New Testament were found.

Many of these new fragments and manuscripts varied in consistent ways from Erasmus’ Textus Receptus; Wescott and Hort would publish their own edition of the Greek New Testament in the late nineteenth century. A committee of scholars published the Revised Version (RV) in 1881 in England; as its name suggests, it was a revision of the KJV based on the more ancient manuscript evidence provided in Westcott and Hort’s Greek text. Twenty years later the Revised Version was prepared and edited by a committee of American scholars for use in America, and was published as the American Standard Version (ASV) in 1901.

The American Standard Version would become the foundation for most of our modern versions of the Bible in English, as it is based on the oldest witnesses to the New Testament that we have in our possession. In 1952 the Revised Standard Version (RSV) was published, modernizing and making some changes to the ASV; in 1974, as a result of evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls, among other reasons, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) was published. In 1971, the Lockman Foundation adapted the ASV into more modern language, publishing the New American Standard Bible (NASB); further revisions to the NASB came out in 1995, now known as the New American Standard Bible Updated (NASU). In 1998 the English Standard Version (ESV) was developed to set forth the Bible in the ASV tradition in clearer English.

In recent years many have elected to make a shift in approach in translations away from word-for-word translation (“functional equivalence”) to a more thought-for-thought translation (“dynamic equivalence”). The first and greatest of these versions is the New International Version (NIV) of 1967, itself modified in the New International Reader’s Version (NIrV; 1996), and updated in 2011 (NIV 2011). A similar process has led to the Good News Bible (GNT; also “Today’s English Bible”; 1976), the Contemporary English Version (CEV; also “The Bible for Today’s Family”; 1995), the New Living Translation (NLT; marketed also as “The Book”; 1996), the Common English Bible (CEB; 2011) and many others.

Many other translations exist for other reasons: some “literal” translations, some translations still based on the Textus Receptus or the so-called “Majority” Text, and some as translations sponsored for a given denomination (Roman Catholicism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.). In future articles we will explore all these Bible translations and versions in greater detail. May we seek to learn of God in Christ from the Scriptures and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Christian and Unity | The Voice 8.03: January 21, 2018

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The Christian and Unity

What is Christianity all about? Many people consider Christianity to be mostly about Jesus dying for the sins of mankind. Indeed (John 3:16); but why did Jesus have to die for the sins of mankind? To this many would answer in terms of allowing us to go to heaven; perhaps so (John 14:1-3), but why would God want us to be in heaven or any such thing? God wants us to be reconciled in relationship with mankind and among mankind (Romans 5:5-11, Ephesians 2:1-18). Why would God want to reconcile Himself to people, or among people themselves? He Himself is One in relational unity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, perfectly one (Deuteronomy 6:4, John 17:20-23). Since God is one, God desires to be one with humans whom He made in His image (Genesis 1:26-27).

The Lord Jesus Himself made all these powerful truths known in John 17:20-23, and yet there Jesus’ whole purpose is praying before His Father for all who would believe in Him to be one as He is one with the Father. Jesus’ prayer would have Christians maintain unity among themselves as God is one in Himself.

Paul wrote extensively regarding the great things which God has accomplished for us in Christ: every spiritual blessing, election, predestination for adoption as sons, the down payment of the Spirit, His love, grace, and mercy displayed in salvation, reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles through the killing of hostility between them on the cross, the manifestation of God’s purposes in the church, and to what end (Ephesians 1:1-3:21)? That Christians might give diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).

Therefore in Ephesians 4:3 Paul well establishes the importance and imperative of the pursuit of unity among Christians. And yet Christians must remember that their unity is not something they have or even could accomplish through their own efforts: Paul does not tell Christians to work to become unified, but to strive diligently to maintain the unity of the Spirit. If we have been baptized into Christ, we have been baptized into the one Spirit of God into one body (1 Corinthians 12:13); Paul envisioned Christians as built up into one temple filled with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:18-22). Paul would go on to emphasize the “oneness” of all things: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father (Ephesians 4:4-6). We might take this message and use it polemically to decry the fractured state of “Christendom,” insisting on the importance of the unity of the faith; there are times in which it is appropriate to do so, but we must always keep Paul’s original reason for saying as much in mind. As God is one, so God has made believers in Christ one with Him and with each other through Jesus’ death on the cross (Ephesians 2:1-22).

Christians must be “eager” or “work diligently” to keep that unity in the Spirit. Yes, Christians are also called to be eager or to work diligently to present themselves as approved before God, workmen who have no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). Christians must recognize the imperative of each. We cannot imagine we will be able to stand before God as approved if we proved so eager to argue regarding the word of truth that we neglected to maintain the unity of the Spirit; there can be little unity in the Spirit if many heed false teachings and teachers and fall away from the living God (cf. 1 Timothy 4:1, 2 Peter 2:1-22). Unity in the faith does not happen automatically or on its own; it must be cultivated and developed. To accept the same teachings as true doctrine is not unity; to be one, Christians must not only believe the truth of God in Christ, but to work together to build up the body of Christ and the temple of the Spirit.

Christians are to eagerly work to keep the unity of the Spirit “in the bond of peace.” Paul wrote as a “prisoner” in the Lord (Ephesians 4:1); as he is imprisoned by the Roman authorities, Christians are to consider themselves as “imprisoned” by peace. It is a startling yet compelling image: normally we do not associate binding, chaining, or imprisonment with peace but with far less pleasant circumstances. God has made peace between Himself and mankind and among humans thanks to Jesus’ death on the cross (Romans 5:1-11, Ephesians 2:1-18); Christians, therefore, must reckon themselves as constrained by peace. They ought to seek to maintain and pursue peace with each other, not looking for fights, contentiousness, or to exacerbate divisions, all of which are works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21).

How can Christians keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace? Paul had previously established a set of dispositions and behaviors which allow for unity to flourish in any relationship: humility, gentleness/meekness, patience, tolerance/forbearance, and love (Ephesians 4:2). Christians recognize their sinful past and unworthiness to stand before God on their own merits; they see Jesus, the only Man who ever had reason to be arrogant, yet served humbly; therefore, Christians must remain humble and not think too highly of themselves and their opinions (Matthew 20:25-28, Romans 12:3, Ephesians 2:1-10, Philippians 2:5-11). Sharp words and aggression exacerbate problems; gentle words and behaviors ameliorate difficulties (Proverbs 15:1). Other people easily get on nerves and do not seem to learn or change quickly enough; yet would not God have as much right to say the same about us? In any relationship we must learn to accept the thornier parts of people as well as the more pleasant aspects of their disposition, and so it must be among the Lord’s people as well.

If Christians strive to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, manifesting love, humility, gentleness, patience, and tolerance for one another, they are doing well in walking worthily of the calling with which they have been called, for as God is one in relational unity, so God would have us be one in Him in unity (John 17:20-23, Ephesians 4:1). Far too often, unfortunately, Christians prove more like the world than like Jesus, easily instigated to arrogance, contentiousness, intolerance, impetuousness, and all leading to divisiveness and factionalism. We must repent of all such attitudes and behaviors; we must grow in humility, love, patience, gentleness, and tolerance, maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace; we must reflect the relational unity of God among ourselves. May we be one as God is one and establish God’s full purpose for humanity in the church!

Ethan R. Longhenry

1 John | The Voice 8.02: January 14, 2018

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The First Letter of John

John surveyed the scene and saw many concerning trends: Christians were despairing of confidence in their salvation; antichrists went about professing a different Christ, denying the reality of sin, and making faithful Christians seem deficient. He would write to provide encouragement; the result is 1 John.

The first letter of John is the twenty-third book in modern editions of the New Testament; it is often categorized as one of the “catholic” or universal letters or epistles. The author never explicitly identified himself but grounded his exhortation in his personal experience of the Word made flesh, Jesus of Nazareth (1 John 1:1-4); literary connections remain strong among the Gospel of John, the three letters of John, and Revelation, pointing to the same author, John the son of Zebedee, the brother of James, one of the three closest Apostles to Jesus (cf. Matthew 4:18-22, 17:1-13). The letter is written to Christians known to John, whom he calls his “little children” frequently (1 John 2:1, 12, 13, 18, 28, 3:7, 18, 4:4, 5:21); the letter’s substance betrays no hint of when or where it was written. It is generally believed to have been written in Ephesus, John’s center of ministry (cf. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1). Some date the letter to the mid-60s; while this remains possible, the docetism and perhaps proto-Gnosticism against which John wrote is better dated somewhat afterward, ca. 85-95. John wrote his first letter to all Christians over whom he had some influence to encourage them in their faith and to resist those in their midst who denied the actual humanity of Jesus and the existence and challenge of sin.

John began his letter with a profound prologue setting forth his purpose: he has experienced much concerning the Word of life, his association is with God in Christ, and he wrote so that those who read would be in association with him as well (1 John 1:1-4). The message John has to give is God is light and in Him is no darkness: those who walk in the light have fellowship with God and each other, but those who are in darkness have no association with God; thus, those who say they have no sin, past or present, deceive themselves, and the truth is not in them, but those who recognize and confess their sins to God are cleansed in Christ (1 John 1:5-10). John would have Christians not sin, but when they sin, Jesus is their Advocate, the propitiation for sin; we know we are in Christ if we do what He commands and walk as He walked (1 John 2:1-6). John emphasized the “new old” command: to love, but love as Jesus loved; all who hate their brethren are not in Christ, but those who truly love are in God (1 John 2:7-11). John provided specific encouragement for Christians at different points of life and stages of growth (1 John 2:13-15).

John exhorted Christians against loving the world and its lusts, for they stand against the purposes of God (1 John 2:15-17). He warned Christians about the antichrists: those who professed Jesus and still remained in their midst but who did not confess Jesus as having come in the flesh; they denied the Lord and promoted lies; they may have been among Christians, but their condemnation was made evident in their departure; Christians must remain in the truth they heard from the beginning to obtain eternal life (1 John 2:18-27). Christians ought to abide in Jesus and no longer persist in sin: Christians have the blessing of being called children of God, having the promise they will be as Christ is, and thus seek to be pure; those who persist in sin persist in lawlessness and are not in Christ, for Christ died to cleanse from sin, not persist in it (1 John 2:29-3:6). Faithful Christians persist in righteousness, turn from sin, and are born of God; anyone who would deny sin or who persist in sin are not in Christ and are of the Devil (1 John 3:7-10).

Christians have heard the message to love one another in Christ: they must not hate their brother, like Cain did, and should not be surprised when the world hates them (1 John 3:11-13). Christians may know they have life if they love the brethren; those who hate their brethren are murderers who have no life in them; Christians know love through Jesus’ sacrifice, and ought to be willing to sacrifice themselves for one another; how can a Christian have material wealth, see a fellow Christian in need, and not help him, but abide in love? Christians must love in truth and practice, not mere word (1 John 3:14-17). The Christian’s heart may condemn him or her, but God is greater than the heart, and if they keep His commandment, they are in Him and He gives as they ask (1 John 3:18-24). Christians must test the spirits to see if they are of God: those of God confess Jesus in the flesh; the world hears those who deny Jesus in the flesh, for it satisfies them; God is greater than the one in the world (1 John 4:1-6). God is love, and those who love one another are in God; how can one love God whom he has not seen if he does not love his fellow man that he has seen? Perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:7-21).

Those who believe Jesus is the Christ are begotten of God; Christians know they love God’s children if they love God and keep His commandments, and thus can overcome the world (1 John 5:1-5). God bore witness in Christ, in the blood, and in the Spirit; God’s witness is faithful, and those who believe in Jesus have the witness in them of eternal life in the Son (1 John 5:6-12). John concluded by reiterating his purpose for writing: for Christians to know they have eternal life, have boldness to ask of God according to His will and receive it (and should pray for one another if they sin a sin not to death, but not if one sins unto death), know those who are in Christ do not persist in sin, but those who persist in sin are in the world controlled by the Evil One, and confess that Jesus has come and given the true knowledge which leads to salvation and life; Christians must guard themselves from idols (1 John 5:13-21).

John’s message of encouragement for the Christians of his day remains powerful today. We do well to confess Jesus: He came in the flesh, truly lived, died, and was raised again in power, and those who trust Him will turn away from sin, do His commandments, and obtain eternal life. May we stand firm in Jesus, confident of His victory, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Work | The Voice 8.1: January 07, 2017

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“We must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work” (John 9:4).

It is perhaps one of the greatest of the divine mysteries: God has summoned us sinful, weak humans to participate in His work and to advance His purposes.

The Bible makes known the great things which God has done in order to save us and to advance His purposes in His creation. He created the universe and all that is in it (Genesis 1:1-2:4); He sent His Son to live, die, and be raised again in power so that we could be delivered from our sins and overcome death (John 3:16, 1 Corinthians 15:1-58, 1 John 4:7-11). The pages of Scripture abundantly attest to God’s love and covenant loyalty powerfully demonstrated by His power.

Meanwhile God has expected people to labor for His purposes. God had a particular type of tent, the Tabernacle, where He intended to manifest His presence to Israel; He even had plans for it, and yet He expected the Israelites to build that Tabernacle themselves, and that according to the pattern He would show them (Exodus 25:9). In Christ God has maintained His power for salvation in the message of the Gospel (Romans 1:16); in Acts there are examples of the great efforts made by the Holy Spirit and angels so that people could hear, believe, and obey the Gospel, and yet it was to be preached by God’s people, not by the Holy Spirit or the angels directly (e.g. Acts 10:1-47).

Jesus explains the importance of work in the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30. He envisions the time between His ascension and before His return in terms of servants given differing amounts of talents, a very large sum of money; they are expected to go and make more money by trading them (Matthew 25:14-18). Jesus’ returned is envisioned in terms of settling accounts with these servants (Matthew 25:19). In this story the one given five talents makes five more talents, and the one who was given two made two more, and they both were welcomed into the joy of their master (Matthew 25:16-17, 20-23). A third servant was given one talent, but he buried it in fear; the master was angry with this servant for his lack of effort, and he is cast out into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 25:18, 24-30).

The message of the parable might be jarring but it is evident: the followers of Jesus are expected to work to advance Jesus’ purposes until He returns. While everyone has equal value in God’s sight, not everyone is equally talented; how many abilities one has is not a basis of boasting but a stewardship of responsibility. Each is to use the abilities (or talents; the word derives from the form of money in the parable and on the basis of the parable) God has given him or her to serve (1 Peter 4:10-11). One with few talents need not despair when seeing another with more talents; one with many talents has no right to slack off because others have fewer talents. Our reward comes from how effectively we have used those talents for God’s purposes. If we bring others to Jesus, well and good; if we “obtain interest” by growing and exercising in our own faith, that is also sufficient (2 Peter 3:18). But any servant of Jesus who does nothing with his talents out of fear or insolence will be cast into the outer darkness, another way of speaking about hell!

Serving the Lord Jesus, therefore, is not to be taken lightly. What Jesus has said in Matthew 25:14-30 may not sit well with some of the doctrinal positions of man but makes complete sense when we understand the true nature of faith. Those who believe in Jesus are not merely to accept the reality of His existence, but to believe that He is Lord and Christ (John 3:16, Acts 2:36). If He is Lord, we are not; we cannot continue to walk in our ways and really believe that Jesus is Lord. To believe that Jesus is Lord demands that we put our trust in Him, and the only way our trust can be manifest is in what we do. So it is that Jesus considers believing in Him the work of God which He would have us to do (John 6:29): faith without works is dead, for faith must be manifest in how we think, feel, and act (James 2:14-26). One who claims to believe that Jesus is the Christ of God, the Lord, but does not get busy in His Kingdom is not really trusting Jesus, not really seeking His purposes, and without repentance will be cast into the outer darkness as an unprofitable servant!

God has done great and mighty things to save us; we do not deserve any of it. Our salvation and standing before God is entirely dependent on the love, grace, and mercy He has extended toward us through His Son Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:1-9, Titus 3:3-7). And yet God has made us and saved us for good works that we might walk in them (Ephesians 2:10); we remind ourselves of the salvation Jesus obtained on our behalf so we may devote ourselves to good works (Titus 3:8). Thus, while we are not saved by our works, we have been saved to work and glorify God in Christ. God does not want to cast any of His children out; He wants us to serve Him as His children and servants of the Lord, and if we do so, we will obtain the same rest as He enjoyed once He created the world (Hebrews 4:1-11). God is Sovereign, omnipotent, sufficient to do all things, and yet in His purposes He has given it to us to work in His Kingdom, entrusted us with the Gospel of His Son, the message of salvation, and expects us to grow in His grace and knowledge through actively serving and obeying Him. May we participate in God’s work so as to participate in His rest to His glory and honor!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Vulgate | The Voice 7.53: December 31, 2017

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The Vulgate

The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and Aramaic and translated into Greek before the days of Jesus; the New Testament was originally written in Greek. And yet it is the Romans, speakers of Latin, who ruled the first century world. The New Testament speaks of Latin only once, as one of the three languages in which Pilate had written the title on Jesus’ cross, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19-20). The Bible may not have been written in Latin, but the definitive translation of the Bible into Latin (called the Vulgate) proves influential in our reception and understanding of the Bible.

The Romans may have ruled the world, but Koine Greek remained the dominant language of the Mediterranean world; for this reason the Bible began to spread around the Roman world in Greek. In the first three centuries after Jesus Christians worked to translate parts of the Bible into Latin. These translations were mostly based on the Greek Old and New Testaments, and the translation work was of uneven quality based on various manuscripts. In 382 “Pope” Damasus I commissioned Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, whom we know as Jerome, to revise the Gospels of these translations held as the common text (Latin vulgata) as used in the church in Rome at the time; Jerome would, over time, revise not only the Gospels but also the Old Testament and the Apocrypha.

Jerome was one of the more learned Biblical scholars and textual critics of his day. Jerome began according to his commission by correcting the Gospels in Latin according to the most ancient texts at his disposal. Jerome aligned the order of the Gospels in Latin to conform to the order in Greek (it had previously been the “Western order,” Matthew, John, Luke, and Mark). After he completed the Gospels he turned his efforts toward the Old Testament. Whereas Christians before him focused on the text of the Old Testament in Greek, particularly in the Septuagint, Jerome believed it better to translate the Old Testament out of its original Hebrew. This decision would embroil Jerome in great conflict with others, including Augustine, who was concerned that Christians might be offended by hearing any variations on what they felt was inspired based on apostolic authority (Augustine, Letter LXXXII).

Jerome spent time in Jerusalem to strengthen his understanding of Hebrew and did much of his translation work in Bethlehem. He was able to secure one of the few copies of the Hexapla, Origen’s critical edition of the Old Testament, featuring six columns containing the Hebrew text, a transliteration of the Hebrew into Greek (with vowel reconstruction), and four translations of the Hebrew text in Greek (Aquila’s translation, Symmachus’ translation, the Septuagint, and Theodotion’s translation). Some have raised questions and doubts regarding Jerome’s competence in Hebrew, but he demonstrated strong familiarity with the language and developed a robustly conservative translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Latin.

Jerome is the one who called the extra works found in the Septuagint but not in the Hebrew Bible apocrypha:

This preface to the Scriptures may serve as a “helmeted” introduction to all the books which we turn from Hebrew into Latin, so that we may be assured that what is not found in our list must be placed amongst the Apocryphal writings. Wisdom, therefore, which generally bears the name of Solomon, and the book of Jesus, the Son of Sirach, and Judith, and Tobias, and the Shepherd are not in the canon. The first book of Maccabees I have found to be Hebrew, the second is Greek, as can be proved from the very style (Jerome, Preface to the Books of Samuel and Kings).

He found value in the apocryphal works and may have considered some of them inspired, but he sought to maintain a distinction between them and the books of the Old and New Testaments. If Jerome translated or revised the rest of the New Testament, it has not been preserved; it seems another translator revised the Vetus Latina edition and did so using older manuscript types.

After Damasus’ death Jerome’s work received no further official commendation; over the next 700 years many recognized the superiority of Jerome’s revisions, and only with Roger Bacon in the 13th century is Jerome’s revision called the vulgata. Ever since the Latin translations before Jerome’s day have been known as the Vetus Latina, or Old Latin, text; the Vetus Latina would remain preserved in many of the liturgical writings in the medieval church.

The Roman Empire was in the midst of collapse in Jerome’s day; knowledge of Greek would be lost to “Western” Christendom soon afterward, and it would be the Latin Vulgate which would be read and heard in churches throughout Western Europe. To Western Christians the Vulgate was “the Bible” until the time of the Reformation; the Roman Catholic Church made the Latin Vulgate its official Bible at the Council of Trent. Soon after a standardized text of the Vulgate was released by the Roman Catholic Church, the Sixto-Clementine (or Clementine) Vulgate; it remained the official text until the release of the Nova Vulgata in the middle of the twentieth century. The modern critical edition of the Vulgate, Biblia Sacra Vulgata, 5th edition, is also known as the Stuttgart Vulgate. Full copies of the Vulgate from the sixth century onwards are preserved along with many partial copies and evidence from early translations.

Despite what many people believe, most English translations of the Bible are not translations out of Latin; most modern versions translate the text from its original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. Nevertheless, the influence of the Latin Vulgate remains, for many “theological” words which we find in the Bible come from the Latin, including creation, justification, sanctification, and, above all, testament. Many doctrines also derive from the ways in which the Bible was translated into Latin: penance comes from translating Greek metanoeo, repentance, as paenitentiae; imptutation comes from translating Greek logizomai, “to reckon or consider,” as imputatio. Even though translation of the Bible into common languages was a major emphasis of the Reformation, all the Reformers were shaped in their theology by the Bible in the Latin Vulgate.

The Latin Vulgate remains an important part of the family of Biblical texts. While our Bibles today are not directly translated from the Vulgate, the wording of the Vulgate and many of its ideas have shaped how we understand the text in English. The Latin Vulgate’s witness maintains its importance in the work of textual criticism, especially in the Old Testament. Jerome’s decisions to appeal to the Old Testament in Hebrew shifted the conversation about textual authority in the Old Testament; his convictions regarding the apocrypha did not win the day but proved influential over a millennium later. May we appreciate the work of Biblical study and translation in days of old, trust in what God has made known in the Scriptures, and be saved in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Works Consulted

Vulgate” (accessed 17/12/2017).

History of the Bible II | The Voice 7.52: December 24, 2017

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History of the Bible, II: Transmission of the Text

God has spoken and made known His will and purposes through His servants the prophets and ultimately through His Son Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1). The prophets, the Apostles, and their associates preserved those messages from God in the pages of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:15-17). The Scriptures are of the greatest importance and value for those who wish to know what God would have them think, feel, and do. Can we have confidence in the validity of the Biblical text as it has been handed down? We do well to explore the history of the Bible. We previously discussed the movement toward canonization of the text, and we can have great confidence that the books which currently comprise the Old and New Testaments are inspired of God and profitable for instruction and exhortation. Let us now consider how those texts have come down to us so many years later.

The printing press, which allowed for mass and exact copying of a text, was only invented around 1450 CE: beforehand all texts were preserved by creating handwritten copies. A scribe or monk might have a copy of a text (generally called a manuscript) and transcribe it; often a scribe or monk would read aloud a text while other scribes or monks would write down what they heard. The use of paper only came to the Western world after the Crusaders in the twelfth century CE. Before then papyrus or vellum (also known as parchment) were used. Papyrus was used in the east more extensively and also earlier; unfortunately, it was not very strong, and the text would wear out quickly. Vellum, as prepared animal skins, lasted longer, but were harder to develop and more expensive. It often proved easier for scribes or monks to scrape off an old parchment and reuse it for another text; today we have many such examples, called palimpsests, and through technological advancements we can discern many of the previous, scraped off texts.

The transmission process proved very exacting and difficult for many years. Despite all of the hardships, the transmission of the Bible proves outstanding in its quality, and God’s providence can be seen within it. The Masoretic scribes responsible for the transmission of the Old Testament in Hebrew used exacting standards to judge how effective a new copy proved at replicating its predecessor; any deviations would mean they would restart the process. On account of this the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible remained consistent from the days of Jesus until now. The Masoretes also recorded many of the variants or changes which they believed the text required; we also have copies of the Hebrew Bible in other languages which record variants most likely derived from the Hebrew texts from which they were copied (called the Vorlage). From all those variants we more often than not can make sense of the text as originally written; certain details that are left unresolved do not significantly impact the way we understand the Old Testament. The New Testament has been preserved in over 4,000 copies of at least portions of the text in Greek dating between 170-1450 CE; for comparison, the “runner-up” is Homer’s Iliad, of which we have about 300 copies dating from the same period. These 4,000+ copies are not limited to one geographic area: they come from all over the European, Mediterranean, and even the Middle Eastern world. The great number of texts spread out over such a great area and time span allow us as modern readers to ascertain any discrepancies and inconsistencies in these copies, and allow us to determine the most accurate reading for all but three words in the whole New Testament. Furthermore, all of the variants are well-attested, and many of the challenges and difficulties have been known and discussed since antiquity.

Most variants follow specific patterns which prove understandable in light of the challenges inherent in manual copying of manuscripts. The copyist’s eye might skip a couple of lines, see an ending very much like the one he had just written, and continue copying from there, and inadvertently leave some of the text out (a process called homoioteleuton; if the beginning of terms looks the same, it is homoioarchton). A copyist might just omit a word or a line (called haplography), or repeat a word or a line for a similar reason (called dittography). Copyists also might see the beginning of a familiar verse and complete it from memory, not necessarily taking into account what the text says. He might be correct; at other times, however, the text may have read a little differently in one passage rather than another, and in this way two different passages are made to sound the same (called harmonization; cf. Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:2-4). At times the copyist might confuse similar looking letters or even words; sometimes the words are so similar in meaning or can work contextually so that we cannot precisely determine which is most likely the original.

Some of the variants involve expansions of the text to enhance piety or descriptions. For instance, if the text said “Jesus,” some might write, “the Lord Jesus” (an expansion of piety). At other times a copyist might notice two different terms used in the same place in a text, and as opposed to choosing one or the other, included both (called conflation).

We can know about these variants and their heritage because of the existence of so many copies of manuscripts in the original languages and in translation. The work of seeking to ascertain the original text on the basis of all the manuscript evidence is called textual criticism. Textual critics assess the manuscript evidence based on likely relationships among the manuscripts, their age and provenance, along with other factors. The fruit of the labor of textual critics can be seen in the information provided in the authoritative editions of the Old and New Testaments, Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS) and Novum Testamentae Graecum, Nestle-Aland 28th edition (NA28). They feature the masora parva and critical apparatus, respectively, listing not only variants but also the manuscript evidence for those variants. In this way anyone who can develop a basic handle on Biblical languages and the principles of textual criticism can evaluate the textual evidence for themselves: these endeavors are not done in a corner, as if a conspiracy, but open for many to see and explore.

The hand of God can truly be seen in the transmission of the Biblical text. Despite 1,500 years or more of manual copying done by uninspired scribes and monks, we remain able to come to an understanding of what God has made known through the prophets, Jesus, and the Apostles. May we put our trust in God in Christ and be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Christian and the Assembly | The Voice 7.51: December 17, 2017

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The Christian and the Assembly

Not forsaking our own assembling together, as the custom of some is, but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as ye see the day drawing nigh (Hebrews 10:25).

From the beginning Christianity has been about far more than the assembly; Christianity is the single-minded dedication to following the path of Jesus of Nazareth, humbly serving and suffering in His name so as to obtain the resurrection of life (Matthew 16:24, Romans 8:17-18, 1 Peter 2:18-25, 1 John 2:3-6). And yet the assembly has always been an important part of Christianity, built into the name chosen by Jesus for the collective of the people who follow Him: what is an assembly (the primary meaning of the Greek word ekklesia) which does not assemble (cf. Matthew 16:18)? What kind of congregation does not congregate?

For almost two thousand years Christians have come together on the first day of the week according to the Lord’s command to share in the communion and memorial of His death in the Lord’s Supper, pray together, sing together, hear the Word of God read, preached, and taught, and give to accomplish the purposes of Jesus through the local congregation (Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, 11:17-34, 14:15-17, 26, 16:1-3, Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16, 1 Timothy 4:13, 2 Timothy 4:2-4). Christians do well to meet together at other occasions, whether as a full assembly or in smaller contexts, and do what they can to encourage one another (Hebrews 10:24). Nevertheless, the assembly of Christians on the first day of the week has always been the anchor of participation together in the life of Christ. In many places and times the people of Jesus have risked life and limb in order to come together, enjoy sweet communion with their fellow Christians, drew strength from one another and their time together in the matters of the faith, and considered it all worthwhile despite the danger.

Plenty of societal forces in the modern Western world conspire against robust participation in the assembly of Christians. Our technological advances and devices have done as much to tear or keep us apart as they have done to bring us together: we find ourselves endlessly distracted by movies, social media, television, and other entertainment outlets. Everything has become specialized; each of us finds a particular niche of specialty, and depend upon others who have developed other niche specialties in other contexts. Children are expected to participate in all kinds of extracurricular activities which consume most of the time spent outside of school, eating, and sleeping. Confidence in and loyalty to institutions have reached historic lows: American individualism has corroded almost every sense of community we have with our fellow human beings. Churches themselves have often not helped. Too many assemblies are professionally designed and equipped spectacles, a thing to watch in entertainment as opposed to something in which one meaningfully participates. Some assemblies have become extended advertisements or rallies for preferred political or social agendas, using the time in the assembly not to truly edify and encourage but to justify current trends or behaviors, to condemn others without introspection, or to use forms of the wisdom of the world in a misbegotten attempt to uphold the principles of God or some subculture. Some seem to spend more time exhorting about the importance of the assembly than working to make it truly encouraging and edifying to those who participate. For these and many other reasons participation in the assembly is in decline in many parts of Christianity in Western culture even as interest in Jesus of Nazareth remains strong. Not a few books and articles have been written to justify “being a Christian but not in a church.”

We must emphasize that Jesus saves people as individuals: all must come to faith in Jesus and seek His will to be saved (Acts 2:36, 40, 16:31, Romans 1:16). Yet God’s purpose has never been to leave individual Christians in that atomized state alone; in Jesus God has reconciled all people together so Christians can be one as God is one (John 17:20-23, Ephesians 2:11-18). The church and its assemblies are not God’s “Plan B,” a cosmic accident, or some kind of add-on to the Gospel story: the church is the means by which God displays His manifold wisdom to the powers and principalities in the heavenly places, the outworking of His eternal purpose in Christ (Ephesians 3:10-11). The church expresses God’s ultimate purpose for mankind: in former days, Israel according to the flesh, when they gathered together, represented the assembly of the people of God (e.g. 1 Kings 8:2); Jesus then reconstitutes the assembly of the people of God around Himself in His death and resurrection, bringing together those of Israel according to the flesh who believe and those of the nations who believe, making them one new man in Him (Ephesians 2:11-22). All of the portrayals of the church in Scripture center on individuals working individually but very much comprehensively together for the benefit of the collective: the church as household, indicating the familial “brother” and “sister” relationship among Christians; the church as temple, suggesting holiness but also joint participation, and of course the church as a body, in which the function of each part works to make the whole function together (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Ephesians 2:18-22, 1 Peter 2:3-9). The final picture of the salvation of the people of God is as the bride of Christ, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven (Revelation 21:1-22:6): it is a picture of God glorifying the church (cf. Ephesians 5:22-33). People in Western culture may imagine themselves as “Christians without churches,” but such a thing is foreign to Jesus Himself, for a Christian not in the church is separated from the body of Christ (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28).

Jesus wants His body to work together to build itself up in love (Ephesians 4:11-16). While edification can and must be done outside of the assembly, the role of the assembly in edification and encouragement looms large in all discussions of the nature of the church. As families spend time together, so the household of God assembles. As bodies involve parts working together in close proximity, dependent on each other’s functions, so Christians come together in the assembly and many accomplish many of their roles in the body of Christ as part of the assembly (cf. Ephesians 4:11-12). From the beginning of Christianity until now the assembly of the local church has proven vital in the continual reinforcement and strengthening of individual Christians in their relationships with God and with one another.

Churches are full of imperfect people; we all are sinners in need of redemption in Jesus (Romans 3:20, 23). In a world saturated with individualism and alienation, the assembly of the saints proves to be a powerful testimony of the work God is accomplishing in Christ to reconcile all people to Himself. The visible unity of the Body of Christ is far more important than the challenges and difficulties that come with interacting with other people: we must be with our people while we have the chance. Let us then pledge to not forsake the assembling of ourselves together and strive to encourage one another in the assembly!

Ethan R. Longhenry