Aram | The Voice 13.05: January 29, 2023

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The land sits at the nexus of the ancient Near East; its primary city is believed to be the oldest continually inhabited in the world. Its population found itself frequently overrun by waves of newcomers, however “civilized” or “barbaric.” Finding itself in the center of everything may have had some benefit, but it also meant the people and the land rarely had opportunities to maintain their own hegemony, save during the days of the early Iron Age described in the pages of Scripture. Thus was the lot of Aram, or Syria.

According to Genesis 10:22, Aram is among the sons of Shem, the son of Noah; the Eblaites, Akkadians, and Babylonians of the third and second millennia BCE all refer to “Aramean” people living along the inner fringes of the “Fertile Crescent.” Genesis 25:20 explicitly identify Abraham’s relatives Bethuel, Rebekah, and Laban as Arameans living in Paddan-Aram, and by extension Esau, Jacob, Leah and Rachel were Aramean as well; thus Israel later confessed their father was a “wandering Aramean” (Deuteronomy 26:5).

The land described by the people of Israel as “Aram” bordered Israel on the northeastern coast of the Sea of Galilee, and extended north and northeast, centered on the city of Damascus. It is believed this area had been one of the first areas in which humans developed consistent agricultural practices in the Neolithic period; the cultural remains of many people have been discovered in the land. As with the land of Canaan, so with the land which would become Aram: it was overrun by the Amorites around 2400 BCE, and they would remain the predominant force and people in the land until after the collapse of the Bronze Age empires and nations around 1100 BCE. The Arameans bring about the ultimate downfall of the Amorites and the land centered around Damascus would be known as “Aram,” and all according to the will of YHWH (Amos 9:7). Aramean people were active in areas beyond Aram specifically: as David consolidates centralized authority in Israel and builds an empire, he would defeat the Arameans under their king Hadadezer of Zobah and would again have to confront Aramean forces which had been summoned by the Ammonites for assistance (cf. 2 Samuel 8:3-7, 10:1-19). Other historical records indicate the proliferation of a number of small Aramean states to the northwest, north, and northeast of Aram, infringing on the territory formerly held by the Hittite, Hurrian, and Assyrian empires.

The Arameans would serve David and Solomon, but Rezon of Zobah would gain control over Damascus in the days of Solomon, and after Solomon’s death the Aramean state centered in Damascus was able to free itself and would never suffer Israelite domination again (cf. 1 Kings 11:23-25). From around 930 until 732 BCE, the Kingdom of Aram would generally remain politically and militarily stronger than either Israel or Judah, and often interfered in their internal disputes. Asa of Judah sent gold to induce Ben Hadad of Aram into a friendly agreement against Israel, leading to an Aramean invasion of Israel under Baasha and relief for Judah on its northern border (ca. 875; 1 Kings 15:18-21); Rezin of Aram allied with Pekah of Israel to overrun Judah and Jerusalem, depose Ahaz, and install a puppet king in what we call the “Syro-Ephraimitic War” of 734-732 (cf. Isaiah 7:1-18). At other times the Arameans entered into open warfare against the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah: Ahab defeated Ben Hadad (II) in battle around 855 but was killed in a later battle with Aram in 852 (1 Kings 20:1-43, 22:1-40), and Hazael, who killed Ben Hadad (II) after Elisha prophesied he would become king, enjoyed the greatest successes of the Arameans against the Israelites, defeating Jehoram and Ahaziah, subduing a good portion of Israel, extracting large financial concessions from Jerusalem, and conquering Philistia (ca. 842-796; 2 Kings 8:8-15, 9:14-15, 10:32, 12:17-18, 13:3, 22). We now believe Hazael commemorated these victories in what we now call the Tel Dan stelae, which famously provides attestation for the “House of David.”

Yet such conflict was only pressed when no other significant threat loomed on the horizon. When confronted by a more serious threat, like a re-invigorated Assyria under Shalmaneser III, the Arameans, Israelites, and others allied together, and from Assyrian records seem to have fought Shalmaneser I to a draw at Qarqar in 853. Hazael’s son Ben Hadad (III) would not be able to hold onto his father’s gains, and his son Rezin was confronted again with the threat of Assyrian domination; such was why he and Pekah allied against Ahaz and instigated the “Syro-Ephraimitic War” as discussed above.

In most historical narratives, the Aramean state is able to exist and thrive in the wake of the collapse of the Bronze Age empires and states and in the face of persistent weakness in Assyria. Yet the doom of Aram had been foretold (Amos 1:3-5, Isaiah 7:1-18), and even though Ahaz king of Judah subjected himself to Tiglath-pileser III of Assyria as a vassal in order to secure an alliance against Aram and Israel, he did not have to bother (2 Kings 16:8, Isaiah 7:1-18). Tiglath-pileser III was a ruler with vigor, ideas, and a ruthlessness not previously seen in the ancient Near East, and thoroughly overran Aram and Israel, leaving only a rump Israelite state centered on Samaria, and entirely eliminating the Kingdom of Aram as a going concern (2 Kings 16:9). He annexed their lands as provinces of Assyria and exiled the Arameans of Damascus to “Kir,” the place from which, according to Amos, YHWH had originally brought them out (Amos 9:7).

The Arameans seemed to serve the pantheons of both Mesopotamia and Canaan, with special honor given to Hadad the storm-god, which Israel would sometime serve to their own hurt (cf. Judges 10:6). Yet the most significant contribution of the Arameans would be their language, Aramaic: the Neo-Assyrian Empire would adopt Aramaic as its language of diplomacy since its script was easier to write and more decipherable to others than Akkadian cuneiform. The various people of the ancient Near East would begin using Aramaic as the lingua franca of the region; portions of the Hebrew Bible were written in Aramaic (Jeremiah 10:11, Daniel 2:4b-7:28, Ezra 4:8-6:18, 7:12-26). By the time of Jesus most Israelites spoke Aramaic and reserved Hebrew for the reading of Scripture and certain religious writings; everything in the New Testament recorded as being said “in Hebrew” is really in Aramaic (e.g. Matthew 27:46, Mark 5:41). By the 2nd century CE Aramaic developed into what we now call Classical Syriac; the Old and New Testaments were preserved in Syriac in what is known as the Peshitta, yet from translations of the Hebrew and Greek. Thus, while Syriac is indeed the descendant of Imperial Aramaic, the language Jesus would have spoken, such does not mean one gains special access or greater closeness to the original words of Jesus by consulting the Syriac Peshitta.

What the Arameans of Damascus experienced would become the fate of almost all the small Aramean, Hittite, and Hurrian states in eastern Turkey and the Levant: all would come under Assyrian dominion, annexation, and exile, including the Kingdom of Israel (cf. 2 Kings 17:1-6, 18:33-35). While the Neo-Assyrian Empire would suffer its astonishing fall and collapse by 609 BCE (cf. Nahum 1:1-3:19), the Assyrian domination of Aram has been preserved ever since. When the Greeks emerged from their “Dark Age” and made contact again with the land of the Arameans and related areas, they would call all the lands from the northern Levant to modern-day northern Iraq “Syria” or “Assyria,” and thus the land centered on Damascus has been known as Syria ever since. It is hard to deny the cold reality which the Greeks expressed with such a term: no doubt many descendants of Arameans lived in various parts of “Syria,” but the population distribution had been significantly manipulated by the Assyrians. The land of Syria would pass through the hands of the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans, and would undergo the same process of “Hellenization” as the rest of the Mediterranean world; the Gospel would sound forth throughout Syria and led to the conversion of most of its population by 300 CE; the sound of Syriac can still be heard in Syriac and Assyrian churches. After the Arab invasions of the seventh century CE the land would become predominantly Muslim as it is to this day.

The Arameans have their place in the story of God and His people; the Israelites descended in significant part from Arameans, shared a similar language, and often fought both with and beside the Arameans. Aram of Damascus faded away, yet its language would be on the tongue of the Son of God, and its people dispersed in Syria and Assyria would eventually hear the Gospel and many would turn to the God of Israel through the Lord Jesus Christ. May we all find salvation through God in Christ and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Life in Relationships | The Voice 13.04: January 22, 2023

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Life in Relationships

Why are we here? What is life all about?

If we were to ask these questions to many people in the world today, they might well answer in terms of their individual lives and self-fulfillment. Life is about making the best of what you have to become “your best you.” Whatever helps a person as an individual grow and thrive is praiseworthy; anything that would hinder a person from being or accomplishing what they want is abominable.

This view is particularly common in the Western world, and especially in America. Americans have always loved the idea of the “Lone Ranger,” elevating in esteem the “self-made man,” the person who “picked himself up by his own bootstraps” and was able to find success in life. Americans prize freedom and independence: the idea that they do not need anyone or anything, but can do it on their own.

But what have we gained from this attitude? Modern Americans are more free and independent than ever before, but also more alienated, isolated, and depressed. Life in America today is rife with anxiety: who among us feels comfortable in life, about how much they have, how they look, their jobs, their relationships, etc.? Most of us feel inadequate and scared. We are afraid that those who like us only do so because of what we do for them and that too many of our relationships are transactional. All that freedom and independence we have sought comes at a price; it was certainly not free!

Even in modern American society, most people are not psychopathic. They do not want to spend their lives entirely on their own, without human contact and interaction. Sure, most everyone would like to have Ebenezer Scrooge’s money; but who wants to be Ebenezer Scrooge?

In the end, the America has lied to us. Life is not about unfettered freedom and independence, to go and be whatever we want and beholden to none. In truth, life is about relationships. The quality of our lives is directly connected to the quality of the relationships we maintain.

Christians should not be surprised at this, for the fundamental truths of the nature of God and man attests to the power of relationships. As Christians, we believe that God has made humans in His image (Genesis 1:26-27). We are tempted to view this “likeness” in terms of appearance or character: we do have spirits as God is spirit (John 4:24), and we are able to create, reason, communicate, and manifest other forms of intelligence, yet the truth expressed here proves more profound than this.

The Apostle Paul declared that all humanity can perceive in the creation that there is a God: we can see His divine power and nature in the things that have been made (Romans 1:19-20). We assuredly see God’s great power in the way the creation works: the majesty of the sea and the mountains, the power of storms and earthquakes, the magnitude of the universe. But where can we perceive God’s divine nature?

We cannot perceive God’s nature until we understand something about God’s nature. Christians confess that God is one (Deuteronomy 6:4-6, 1 Corinthians 8:6), but also that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God (John 1:1, 2 Peter 1:20). The Bible nowhere speaks of God as one person; instead, we are to understand that God is One in Three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. So how is God one? God is One in essence, nature, will, and purpose, indeed, but God’s unity is more profound than these.

We see something regarding the unity of God in Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20-23: He prays that believers should be one as the Father and the Son are One, the Father in the Son and the Son in the Father and they in believers, so all may be perfectly one. The ancients had a term for such unity: perichoresis, meaning mutual interpenetration without loss of distinctive identity. Music involves perichoresis: when we hear a band play, we are hearing the vibrations made by each instrument, and while we can try to pick out the sounds of each instrument, we hear them as a unified musical piece. The marriage relationship provides another example of perichoresis, as displayed by Jesus in Matthew 19:4-6: a man and a woman become one flesh, and are therefore no longer two, but one; and yet they still remain a husband and a wife, distinct people.

Thus God is One in perichoretic relational unity: so unified that we do not speak of God as They, but as Him. Such is how God is love (1 John 4:8): God is neither insufficient in and of Himself, requiring something to love, nor is the ultimate Narcissist, loving himself, but the Father loves the Son who loves the Spirit who loves the Father. God created the universe in love to share in life and love, and especially so with mankind made in the image of God, the image of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Acts 17:28-29).

Therefore, where do we find God’s divine nature in the creation? In us, for we are made in the image of the God who is relationally one, to share in relational unity with God and with one another! Truly “it is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). It has been scientifically demonstrated that babies and small children who are not held much and do not bond with anyone fail to thrive, even if their nutritional needs are met. There are reasons why we feel much better in life when we are secure in our relationships with our God, His people, family, romantic partners, and friends, and feel much worse when some or all of these relationships are insecure and unstable.

What do you really want out of life? Do you really just want money, and live like Ebenezer Scrooge? Highly unlikely! Do you want fame? Fame, by its nature, requires others to esteem you as famous. Do you want to satisfy sexual desire? Sexual desire almost invariably reaches out for a deep, profound, and intimate connection with another person. But are any of these things what you really want? Probably not. We all want to be loved; we all want to belong; we all want to be accepted for who we are, and we want people in our lives who will be there for us and with us no matter what will happen. Right now God loves you, wants you to belong with His people, will accept you, and will not abandon you (Romans 8:31-39). We are not made to be alone; we are made to share in relationships with God and with one another. May we find fulfillment in life by growing in relationship with God and one another, and share in eternal life together in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Wealthy and the Stillborn | The Voice 13.03: January 15, 2023

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The Wealthy and the Stillborn

Here is another misfortune that I have seen on earth, and it weighs heavily on people: God gives a man riches, property, and wealth so that he lacks nothing that his heart desires, yet God does not enable him to enjoy the fruit of his labor – instead, someone else enjoys it! This is fruitless and a grave misfortune. Even if a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years – even if he lives a long, long time, but cannot enjoy his prosperity – even if he were to live forever – I would say, “A stillborn child is better off than he is!”
Though the stillborn child came into the world for no reason and departed into darkness, though its name is shrouded in darkness, though it never saw the light of day nor knew anything, yet it has more rest than that man – if he should live a thousand years twice, yet does not enjoy his prosperity. For both of them die! (Ecclesiastes 6:1-6)

You really, truly cannot take it with you.

Throughout Ecclesiastes 1:1-5:20 the Preacher has meditated upon the hevel of life under the sun: all is vain, futile – truly absurd. He compares most human endeavors toward meaning as “chasing after wind”: people pursue pleasure, wealth, wisdom, or other things looking for ultimate purpose and satisfaction and will be disappointed and frustrated by all of them.

The Preacher has attempted to truly hammer this point home in terms of wealth. In Ecclesiastes 5:8-20 he critiqued the impulse to obtain and maintain great wealth: with wealth comes anxiety, the wealthy easily become miserly, all which has been gained can be just as easily lost, and then what? Truly, the Preacher thought, it is best to enjoy what one has and to enjoy one’s labor, for this is God’s gift.

The Preacher continues the theme in Ecclesiastes 6:1-6. He had spoken previously of a man who gained great wealth but lost it all through bad business ventures; he then considers a man who was finally able to obtain everything he might want but is not granted time or opportunity to enjoy them (Ecclesiastes 6:1-2). Instead, someone else is left to enjoy them, a “stranger” according to the Hebrew, yet such a person is not explicitly identified; it might involve someone who is not strongly connected to the man, like an oppressor or an enemy, but could also be a descendant or perhaps a spouse. The person who enjoys the fruit of the man’s labor is not the man who put forth the labor to obtain it.

To the Preacher this represents a terrible tragedy, even a travesty, and he describes it in shockingly hyperbolic fashion. Even if such a man fathered a hundred children and lived a hundred years, or even could live forever, but could not prove able to enjoy the fruit of his labor, the Preacher would consider a stillborn child more fortunate than he (Ecclesiastes 6:3). The Preacher reckoned the stillborn child as born in vanity and darkness, never seeing the light and knowing nothing; yet such a child has more rest than the man who never enjoyed the fruit of his labor, even if the latter lived two thousand years, for both have died (Ecclesiastes 6:4-6).

As Christians we always do well to remember how Israel according to the flesh maintained a much more concrete and physical covenant with God through the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and governed by the Law given to Moses. Witness regarding the afterlife was dim in these days; blessings and curses were understood in far more physical and concrete terms. Consider Leviticus 26:3-43: if the Israelites obeyed God according to the Law, God would provide them the blessings of the early and late rains, successful crops, abundant cattle, generations of descendants, and victory over enemies; if they Israelites proved disobedient to the Law, they would be subjected to the curses of famine, drought, pestilence, and violence.

According to this view we can somewhat better understand the Preacher’s attitude regarding the stillborn child: by never enjoying any of the blessings of life, they did not receive any of the blessings of the covenant. As Christians we have hope for children such as these to inherit the Kingdom and obtain the resurrection of life (cf. Matthew 19:13-14); we also mourn and lament with all who have experienced the birth of a stillborn child.

A contextual understanding can help us see just how incensed the Preacher has become at the prospect of not enjoying the fruit of one’s labor. For a man to have a hundred children and to live a hundred years, let alone even longer, would generally be understood as powerful signs of God’s favor and blessing. Thus, considering such a person to be worse off in the end than a stillborn child, and all over the inability to enjoy the fruit of one’s labor, is all the more shocking!

We might be puzzled at the depth of the Preacher’s frustration at this scenario; we may know some people who have many children, lived long lives, and invested what little they had in their families and others and thus never really enjoyed the fruit of their labor themselves. In fact, many such people seem to have more satisfied and fulfilling lives than those who do get to enjoy the fruit of their labor! Yet we must remember what the Preacher has declared in Ecclesiastes 5:18-20: after people are stripped of their pretensions, all which is left is for people to be able to enjoy their labor and the fruit thereof. The ability to enjoy one’s labor and its fruit allows people to be distracted from the ultimate futility and meaninglessness of life under the sun.

If such enjoyment of one’s labor and the fruit thereof is what God has really given to a person, to have accumulated some fruit of labor without enjoying it would seem very cursed indeed. This is especially true if the person found little joy in their labor and endured it all with the hope of enjoying the fruit of it one day, only to perish when the day arrived. For such a person, it was all for ultimately nothing. In fact, it leads to its own form of moral travesty, in which all the labor was done in futility for someone else who put in little to no effort to enjoy it all!

In the end the Preacher is incensed at death, for death is the reason the stillborn had nothing to enjoy and the ultimate futility of the man who had labored to obtain fruit but could never really enjoy it. Trusting in wealth, imagining wealth would be the solution to all of one’s problems, and/or getting blinded by wealth are all futile and foolish because of death. We all die, whether rich or poor. People have tried to take their wealth with them after death; museums around the world are filled with the grave goods people have deposited with the dead for millennia. In truth all such items just sat in the dust until taken by someone else, either to be melted down to facilitate their survival or to be encased in glass to be shown off to others. We brought nothing into this world; we cannot take anything out of it.

Jesus made it clear we could not have two masters; we must choose whether we will serve God or money (Matthew 6:24). Money might seem to be great in the short-term, but the Preacher’s wisdom is important for us: it corrupts, corrodes, and misdirects us terribly. We cannot take any of it with us; we may think our material wealth might assist our descendants, but it may be the cause of their doom as easily as it might provide them comfort. Instead, in all things, we do best to serve God, find enjoyment in our labor, glorify God in all we do, and obtain the resurrection of life in Jesus.

Ethan R. Longhenry

Our Assurance | The Voice 13.02: January 08, 2023

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Our Assurance | 1 John 3:19-24

Hereby shall we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our heart before him: because if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things. Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, we have boldness toward God; and whatsoever we ask we receive of him, because we keep his commandments and do the things that are pleasing in his sight. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, even as he gave us commandment. And he that keepeth his commandments abideth in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he gave us (1 John 3:19-24).

John has been speaking of many themes in his first letter: God is light, and we should follow His commands (1 John 1:1-2:6), concerns about false teachers (1 John 2:15-29), and a contrast between the righteous and the wicked (1 John 3:1-16). John has also spoken of the “new old” commandment, the need to love one another (cf. 1 John 2:7-14). In 1 John 3:16-18, John shows that we know love through Jesus’ sacrifice, and how we ought to “down our lives” for the brethren. Christians who have the world’s goods ought to show compassion to their less fortunate brethren and are to love in deed and truth, not by word or tongue.

1 John 3:19-24 continues in this line of thought. John wants the Christians to understand that they can have assurance in their faith and their standing before God, and if they love in deed and truth, they can have that assurance (1 John 3:19).

John then speaks in 1 John 3:20-21 regarding the “condemnation of the heart” and our confidence before God. Many believe that this “condemnation of the heart” involves remorse and past guilt, and is a demonstration that God is greater than that past remorse and guilt. Nevertheless, John indicates that if our heart does not condemn us, we can have confidence before God (1 John 3:21); therefore, it is more likely that John is speaking of present matters. Even if we ignore the pangs of conscience and sin, or can sin without offending the conscience, God is greater than our heart, and He will not miss what we have done! The goal, therefore, is to have a heart that does not condemn us: a conscience properly trained according to God’s will, and living according to His will.

That is the basis of our confidence before God: not that we can earn favor from Him, but that we stand before Him in faith in His Son and are striving to do His will. John presupposes that the Christians to whom he writes are actively following God’s commandments and seek to please Him, and proclaims on that basis that “whatever we ask we receive from Him” (1 John 3:22). John also informs us regarding that commandment: to believe in Jesus His Son and to love one another (1 John 3:23), akin to what he has already established (1 John 2:8-10, 3:10-11, 16), and will continue to say (1 John 4:7-21). John makes clear that those who keep God’s commandments abide in God, and God in him, and we can have assurance of God’s presence in us through the Spirit whom He has given us (1 John 3:24; cf. 1 John 2:2-6, 27).

We have already had opportunity to see that John’s absolute statements can easily be misconstrued, and this is a danger here also. Many may read that “whatever we ask from Him we receive” and then believe that they can ask God for a million dollars, or a specific healing, or a new car, or some other such thing, and that they must receive it. We would do well to remember James’ exhortation in James 2-3: if we make petition to “spend on our passions,” we ask wrongly! By saying that “whatever we ask we receive,” John indicates that all things we seek that provide spiritual benefit and are consistent with God’s purposes will be given (cf. Matthew 7:7, James 1:5-8).

John’s reassurance to the Christians is based in God’s power, certainly, but also in their obedience. Christians must believe in Jesus the Son of God and to love one another. Those who keep such commandments remain in God, and God provides of His Spirit. This is consistent with Romans 8:3-11, where Paul provides a strong contrast between those who walk according to the flesh versus those who walk according to the Spirit (Romans 8:3-8), and then indicates that the Spirit that raised Christ from the dead must also be in us (Romans 8:9-11). There is no reason for us to be left in doubt: let us keep God’s commandments and abide in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Epistemology | The Voice 13.01: January 01, 2023

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In the Western world our great technological advancements have ushered in what many have called the “Information Age.” Before the prevalence of writing it proved a struggle to preserve information over time; after writing and before the printing press, the struggle involved dissemination of knowledge; from the printing press until our own time, the struggle centered on obtaining and maintaining access to information. Yet now all of us have access to information beyond our ancestors’ wildest dreams on our smartphones. Yet such access to information has led to its own crisis: we have access to all sorts of information, but struggle discerning what information might prove true versus what information may intend to deceive and delude. Such a crisis naturally leads us to wonder how we can know anything might be true; thus we do well to consider epistemology.

Epistemology is the study of knowledge, specifically, how we can know anything and how to well discern what is true. While conversations regarding epistemology have been informed by scientific understandings of the brain, epistemology remains more of a philosophical inquiry. We may have never even known what the word “epistemology” even was, but all of us have been influenced by various epistemological understandings in how we think we understand how we have learned things and how we ascertained whether they were true or not. As Christians who wish to confess Jesus as the Truth and knowledge of Him as essential for a good life and salvation (John 14:6, Acts 4:12), and also trained to be skeptical regarding how philosophies can lead us astray (Colossians 2:8), we do well to consider how we can know things and how they are true.

What is knowledge? Knowledge centers on awareness or understanding of something. We generally think of knowledge as the acquisition of facts; such is known as propositional knowledge, since any fact can also be understood as a proposition. Yet not everything is reduced to propositions of fact; we may also come to know things in our environment, which is known as acquaintance knowledge. We also think of the cultivation of abilities as a type of knowledge, called procedural knowledge. All things which humans might claim to know will generally align with one of these three general categories.

But how can people know anything by acquaintance, procedure, or proposition? All human knowledge will be discerned through two primary means: we have our five senses, sight, smell, hearing, touching, and tasting, and we have our brains and its ability to reason. A focus on what can be understood based on our senses is known as empiricism; the focus on what we can understood through reason is known as rationalism. Knowledge we can gain apart from experience is also known as a priori (Latin “from the earlier”); knowledge we ascertain through our senses and experience is known as a posteriori (Latin “from the afterward”). In the early modern period, many noted philosophers emphasized what could be known from experience, like Bacon, Hume, and Locke; others emphasized what could be known by reason, like Liebnitz, Spinoza, and famously Descartes and his cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”). Immanuel Kant would usher in the modern period of epistemology with his understanding of transcendental idealism, insisting on the beginning of understanding with sensory experience but then developed by reason.

The main challenge in epistemology, however, centers on the intersection between belief and truth. Pontius Pilate might have asked Jesus sardonically regarding “what is truth” (cf. John 18:38), but truth is generally recognized as that which is consistent with what is real and accurate. Belief, in epistemological terms, is the confidence a person has regarding the truth of the acquaintance, procedure, and/or proposition he or she maintains. One’s confidence in one’s belief should depend on how well one is able to give evidence for the truth of the acquaintance, procedure, or proposition through demonstration or rational argument using logical analysis.

We can immediately recognize a significant challenge: just because a person has confidence in the truth of a given acquaintance, procedure, or proposition, such does not mean it is true. A person may have perceived wrongly or remembered wrongly; a person also might not have sufficient background or understanding to fully understand what took place, the skill, or the proposition. While a person at times may be entirely misdirected and inaccurate in their beliefs, far more often their misperception or misunderstanding is more on a spectrum. Nevertheless, just because a person has confidence in their knowledge does not automatically mean said knowledge is truth.

One of the major arguments of our age takes this challenge a step further: can humans really have sufficient confidence in any of their beliefs so as to consider them truly representative of reality? The rationalist, modernist enterprise of the Enlightenment maintained great confidence in humankind’s abilities to reason and to come to an understanding of reality. The postmodernist response, consistent with the skepticism prevalent in ancient times, takes a more pessimistic view: while few postmodernists would deny the existence of absolute truth, most despair of human ability to ascertain it. Modernism imagined people could come to an “objective” understanding of various aspects of their environment, able to look at it from a neutral position; postmodernism suggests there is no complete escape from “subjectivism,” since we can never entirely escape ourselves.

One significant problem which has truly challenged epistemological inquiry is known as the regress problem, or Agrippa’s Trilemma. It is a conundrum known very well to parents of small children: for any and every attempt to demonstrate the knowledge of a given thing, one could ask in response how we can have confidence in the a priori or a posteriori presumption built in. Arguments for such will generally prove circular, requiring part of the argument being made to be true for the argument to be true; dogmatic, in which assumptions must be taken for granted; or regressive, in which every argument requires proof, and then that argument requires proof, ad infinitum. People generally resolve the challenge to their own satisfaction by affirming the existence of certain self-evident or given prior assumptions, known as foundationalism, or suggest things ought to be judged by how well they make sense in our environment, known as coherentism, or a bit of both.

Considering epistemology to any great length will likely make our heads spin. We should recognize, however, how the challenges of inaccuracy in understanding, subjectivity, and Agrippa’s Trilemma cannot find any entirely satisfactory resolution through the exercise of human experience, logic, insight, or reason alone. On their own, humans can never be entirely sure they have accurately apprehended truth, if there is even such a thing as truth, and nothing they might believe is true can find ultimate, absolute proof.

For the Christian these limitations to epistemological inquiry should make sense. Yes, Christians confess the God of Israel as the Creator God of heaven and earth, and His Son Jesus the Christ as the Truth, the Treasury of all truth and knowledge (Colossians 1:12-2:8). God has made humanity in His image and has communicated to and through humanity in what He has made and through His Spirit by means of the prophets, Jesus, and the apostles (Genesis 1:26-27, Hebrews 1:1); thus humans have the capacity for knowledge and can apprehend, to some degree, that which is in accord with Truth. Yet according to that same story humanity is created, not the Creator, and has been subjected to corruption and decay in sin and death (Romans 5:12-21, 8:15-23, 9:19-20). Even when humans are at their most ideal we still will never be able to fully understand and apprehend God’s thoughts and ways (Isaiah 55:9-10); in the corruption of the mind, faculties of reason, and senses, we often fall prey to deceptions and conceit (cf. Ephesians 2:1-3, Titus 3:3). And so indeed: on our own, we cannot have complete confidence in anything we believe is true; we cannot claim a fully objective posture; without some prior assumptions we can never maintain any confidence anything is real.

As Christians we should make the same confession as Paul: let God be true and every man a liar (Romans 3:4). God made all things according to His purposes (Genesis 1:1-2:3); they have real existence. Jesus is the Truth (John 14:6); all that which is true is in accordance with Him, and He is the foundation of all which is true. God has communicated through His servants the prophets (Hebrews 1:3): we can have confidence in the messages which those prophets have given to Israel and to all people in the Spirit in the Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16-17, 2 Peter 1:20-21). God also has demonstrated His power and might in the things which He made (Romans 1:19-20): we can make inquiry into the creation and maintain some confidence in our apprehension of what God has made and in its affairs.

Thus, God is truth, God has communicated truth, and there is truth all around us. We can come to an understanding of that truth; however, even at best, our understanding will be limited by the finite nature we maintain as God’s creation. We must never allow ourselves to be so self-deceived as to think everything we believe is true is actually true; we have all fallen short of God’s glory and in our understanding of things (Romans 3:23). We do well to use our faculties of reason and sense to come to an understanding of what God has made known in Christ through the Spirit and in His creation, but never have ground to boast in knowing anything absolutely ourselves. Our beliefs regarding what is true might well come close to what is absolutely, actually true; our confidence should never be in our ability to perceive as much as it is in God in Christ through the Spirit Himself. Or, as Paul put it much more concisely, we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).

God in Christ through the Spirit is the Absolute Truth. As humans made in God’s image, we can maintain beliefs regarding the creation and in what God has made known in Christ through the Spirit. We do well to confess God in Christ through the Spirit as the Absolute Truth, and to trust in Him, but in humility always remember we are the creation and a corrupted one at that. We will never understand anything to its fullest possible extent; not everything we believe will prove accurate. May we come to trust in God in Christ through the Spirit, not in ourselves, and obtain the resurrection of life in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Christian and Boundaries | The Voice 12.52: December 25, 2022

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The Christian and Boundaries

In modern Western society we hear a lot today about establishing “personal boundaries.” Many books have been written on the subject from a psychological and secular perspective. The importance of establishing and maintaining personal boundaries in relationships has become a given in modern secular society; such is not surprising in light of the exaltation of the individual self above and beyond everyone, and everything, else. But what would God in Christ have to say regarding such things?

“Personal boundaries” can be appropriately discussed in terms of each of its two dimensions: understanding where one’s responsibility ends and the responsibilities of others begin, and establishing, maintaining, or eliminating relational distance between oneself and others.

While we might not immediately think of “personal boundaries” in terms of our personal responsibilities, such is the major thrust of the Boundaries series of books written by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend. What they describe in terms of personal boundaries can be perceived in Scripture in terms of accountability and judgment.

From a very young age we have a tendency to conflate our reactions to people’s behaviors toward us with those behaviors: “She made me do it” or “You made me mad.” As we grow older, we can develop a tendency to blur distinctions between ourselves and others in unhealthy ways, presuming we have more responsibility for the behaviors and decisions of others than we really do. Such can lead us to experience great anxiety and also come across as domineering and bossy toward others.

Maintaining appropriate personal boundaries proves extremely important for us in terms of establishing domains of responsibility. As the Apostle Paul made clear, each one of us will stand before the judgment seat of Christ (Romans 14:10-12). We will be held accountable for how we managed the gifts God has given to us (Matthew 25:14-31). We will not be judged for the freewill decisions made by other people. We will not be judged for what other people have thought, felt, or done.

Such is why every Christian does well to recognize the limits, or boundaries, of their control and responsibility. Each of us has control over, and thus is accountable and responsible for, how we think, feel, and act. We are responsible for how we conduct ourselves before other people; we should give thought regarding how we communicate to one another and toward everyone so we might be most charitably understood (cf. Ephesians 4:29, Colossians 4:6, 1 Peter 3:15-16). When we are placed in a position of authority or influence, we will be held accountable and responsible for how we leveraged that authority and influence and whether we used it to benefit ourselves or to encourage others. Nevertheless, each person will be held accountable for the decisions they made; none should want to resort to trying to excuse themselves by saying “I was just following orders” before the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus may take matters of physical coercion into account, but we should not be surprised to find out we will be held responsible for many things which we imagined others “made” us to do.

Thus we do best to understand our personal boundaries: we are responsible for our thoughts, feelings, and actions. We are not responsible for how others speak, feel, and act toward us, but we are responsible for how we conduct ourselves and engage with them. We are responsible for how we leverage our authority and influence. As Christians we do well to recognize these boundaries as appropriate limitations, always remembering we are to live and act according to love, and love does not compel or coerce and is not self-serving (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:1-8). In love we empower others to think, feel, and act as they do before God, and do not presume to think, feel, and/or act for them. We can save ourselves a lot of relational distress and pain, let alone personal anxiety, when we maintain healthy personal boundaries in terms of personal accountability and responsibility, not taking responsibility for the actions of others, and not attempting to excuse ourselves by blaming others for our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

But what about the main way in which “personal boundaries” are discussed today: the establishment, maintenance, and/or elimination of relational distance with others?

God in Christ has borne some witness about maintaining some level of relational distance at times. Jesus knew better than to entrust Himself to people, since He knew what was in mankind (John 2:24). He counseled His disciples to not give what was holy to dogs, and if they were not welcomed and accepted in a town, they were to knock the dust off their feet as a testimony against them (Matthew 7:6, 10:13-15).

And yet God’s entire purpose in Christ is reconciliation, a tearing down of all that which alienates people from God and from one another. Jesus prayed for Christians to be one with one another as they are to be one with the Father and the Son and as the Father and the Son are one (John 17:20-23). Paul spoke of Jesus as having torn down the wall which separated Jewish and Gentile people and made them into one body through His death and resurrection (Ephesians 2:1-3:12). Such unity must be maintained with diligent effort in love, humility, peace, and toleration, and demand the manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:17-24, Ephesians 4:1-3, Philippians 2:1-5). Likewise, alienation, division, and hostility are all the works of the Evil One and the powers and principalities over this present darkness, generally manifesting the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:17-24, Ephesians 2:1-4, Titus 3:3). Furthermore, the Apostle Peter strongly encouraged the Christians of Asia Minor to persevere in doing good for others even when they suffered for it (1 Peter 2:18-25, 3:7-18, 4:12-19).

How, then, should Christians navigate the establishment of relational distance? We do well to explore all things through a modified version of the “Golden Rule,” pairing John 13:31-35 with Matthew 7:12: we should treat others the way we would want Jesus to treat us.

Most of us would want Jesus to remain relationally open toward us even, and perhaps especially, when we are least worthy or desirous of such a relationship. Jesus loves us and calls us toward faith and repentance, but in love does not compel or coerce us (1 Timothy 2:4), and thus we should treat others. If we are to err on our end, at least, we should err toward openness and a desire to reduce or eliminate relational distance with others.

We are called to use discretion and wisdom from God in Christ to apply these concepts in specific situations. Relationships, by their very nature, involve at least two if not more parties; we cannot force or coerce the establishment of relational unity with anyone and do so in love. Instead, we can ourselves demonstrate openness toward others. Others might well cause us to suffer; we should not respond in kind but find ways to bless and encourage. Perhaps others push us away or reject us; we should respect their decision, not imposing ourselves upon them, but can still seek the best for them as we have opportunity and remain open to them. If some of our relationships are plagued and tainted with division, hostility, and strife, may it be only because of the hostility and aggression maintained by others and not by us; may we seek, or at least be open, to reconciliation in all such circumstances, demonstrating we are manifesting the fruit of the Spirit and not making concessions to the works of the flesh. Persistent abuse, exploitation, and manipulation justifies establishing a level of distance, as unrepentant sin is to lead to the establishment of distance between the unrepentant and his or her fellow Christians (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:1-13); nevertheless, we should still seek their good and hope and pray for their repentance and the ability to repair and reconcile the relationship.

While maintaining healthy personal boundaries in terms of personal responsibility can be seen as good sense, maintaining a radical openness toward other people will always be countercultural and counterintuitive. It only makes sense when we understand we must love others as God in Christ has loved us; just as our hope is sustained by Jesus’ openness to us despite all we have thought, felt, and done, thus we are to be open toward others in Christ. It requires the empowerment of God in Christ to succeed, for only in God in Christ through the Spirit can people find such full reconciliation to God and to one another (Ephesians 2:1-4:3). May we entrust ourselves to God in Christ through the Spirit and obtain reconciliation in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Wealth and Joy | The Voice 12.51: December 18, 2022

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Wealth and Joy

Here is a misfortune on earth that I have seen: Wealth hoarded by its owner to his own misery. Then that wealth was lost through bad luck; although he fathered a son, he has nothing left to give him. Just as he came forth from his mother’s womb, naked will he return as he came, and he will take nothing in his hand that he may carry away from his toil. This is another misfortune: Just as he came, so will he go. What did he gain from toiling for the wind? Surely, he ate in darkness every day of his life, and he suffered greatly with sickness and anger.
I have seen personally what is the only beneficial and appropriate course of action for people: to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in all their hard work on earth during the few days of their life which God has given them, for this is their reward. To every man whom God has given wealth, and possessions, he has also given him the ability to eat from them, to receive his reward and to find enjoyment in his toil; these things are the gift of God. For he does not think much about the fleeting days of his life because God keeps him preoccupied with the joy he derives from his activity (Ecclesiastes 5:13-20).

Humans persistently tell themselves more money or resources will solve their problems despite all evidence to the contrary. The Preacher lamented it and reinforced the kind of joy people can expect to receive in this life.

Throughout Ecclesiastes 1:1-5:7 the Preacher has meditated upon the hevel of life under the sun: all is vain, futile – truly absurd. He compares most human endeavors toward meaning as “chasing after wind”: people pursue pleasure, wealth, wisdom, or other things looking for ultimate purpose and satisfaction and will be disappointed and frustrated by all of them. In Ecclesiastes 5:8-20 the Preacher returned to the subjects which tend to consume human activity, life, and thus aspiration: labor, wealth, and joy. The Preacher understood how oppression is perpetuated by those in authority gaining some benefit from it and set forth how wealth does not lead to an elimination of anxiety and expenses, but oftentimes, a heightening of them (Ecclesiastes 5:8-12).

The Preacher persisted in his explorations of the underbelly of wealth and riches by considering stories often told, and generally with great bitterness and lamentation. Think of a man who hoards wealth to his own harm (Ecclesiastes 5:13). Perhaps the now classical example of such a person is the “pre-conversion” Ebenezer Scrooge of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: fantastically wealthy but a miserly hoarder of wealth, cruel and heartless toward other people, a cause of great suffering to others and one who would not be missed when he perished. While the Preacher would no doubt find a character like Ebenezer Scrooge lamentable, he would ask us to take another step, and imagine a person like Ebenezer Scrooge, with all kinds of money, finally willing to commit his wealth to some kind of business venture which failed and led to the loss of everything (Ecclesiastes 5:14; NET “bad luck” associated with a “bad business deal,” with some kind of misfortune coming to the endeavor). The Preacher observed how such a man came out of his mother’s womb naked with nothing, and he would die with nothing, and not be able to take anything with him (Ecclesiastes 5:15). The Preacher would have us “sit” in such a man’s situation for a moment: imagine hoarding wealth, the sort of which can only be obtained without regard to the plight of one’s neighbors and community, often with a single-minded devotion which alienates such a person from their friends and family, and then losing it all when the business investment and venture failed through some kind of misfortune (Ecclesiastes 5:16-17). He might well have thought he was investing to make more to provide security for his child or children, but now he has nothing to give to them; he has worked hard to no end in bitterness and anger and ultimately for no good purpose.

The truly bitter part of the Preacher’s observations in Ecclesiastes 5:13-17 involves its unrelenting persistence in humanity. People persist in devoting their lives to the accumulation of wealth to their own hurt and certainly do not become better people in the process. Jesus would warn about those who were consumed with greed and their ultimate fate in Luke 12:13-21; He made it plain no one can serve both God and money in Matthew 6:25, yet people persist in trying to accommodate both. Furthermore, people persist in starry-eyed optimism regarding various business schemes and investments by which they might obtain greater wealth. A select few might obtain great wealth in the process, yet a good number will find themselves in a worse financial position afterward than they were at the beginning. We speak of the maxim how no one, on their deathbed, wishes they had spent more time working in the office; Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” proves an evergreen lament of those who have prioritized career over family. And to what end?

The Preacher’s declaration in Ecclesiastes 5:15 proves true well beyond the person striving for wealth, and humans have virulently resisted it for thousands of years. Around the world various cultures have buried the dead with all sorts of symbols of wealth and power; we know such things since such objects have been plundered from ancient times until now. None of us came into the world with anything; none of us can take anything with us. We want to hold onto things tightly, presuming we “own” them as our “property,” or we strongly value them as cherished items (or people!); but we will never be able to take any of them with us. We do not even maintain the amount of power or control over them as we might want to think; anything we use is destined either to perish in its using or become the possession of another, and no relationship under the sun will persist after we perish in death. The Preacher’s insights ought to remind us of the futility of “ownership”; in truth we are but stewards of God’s blessings which He has bestowed upon us, and He will hold us to account regarding how we have encouraged, leveraged, and/or managed those gifts and blessings (cf. Matthew 25:15-30).

Since we cannot take any of it with us, the hoarding of wealth is futile. Either it, or us, will be here one minute and gone the next. Human labor and search for meaning under the sun is futility and chasing after wind. These observations are body blows for people who have derived meaning and purpose in life from such things; we might wonder what might be good or enjoyable about life at all. Yet, as a result of all he has witnessed, and particularly the matters described in Ecclesiastes 5:8-15, the Preacher commends finding joy in eating, drinking, and in one’s labor, for such is the reward God has given for people in their lives under the sun (Ecclesiastes 5:18). If a human has received some measure of wealth and possessions from God and is able to eat and drink from them, and if he or she enjoys their work, such a person has received all of this from God as a gift; by focusing on the joy they obtain from their labor and relationships he or she will have fewer opportunities to dwell upon their short and ultimately futile time under the sun (Ecclesiastes 5:19-20).

We might be tempted to reduce the Preacher’s observations to a hedonistic Epicureanism, as if since nothing really matters let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. While Epicureanism and its conclusions derived from similar observations regarding the general futility of life under the sun, Epicurus and the Preacher come from very different perspectives about God and the greater order of the cosmos (or lack thereof). The Preacher also is not encouraging everyone to “work to live,” or to store up wealth in a big barn and then live off of it in a placid retirement; far from it. Instead, the Preacher here reinforces his ultimate purposes in his discourse: we humans tend toward investing meaning in the pretenses we establish about our labors and look for happiness on a level never guaranteed, and which does not satisfy even if obtained. It is the silver lining of Adam’s curse in Genesis 3:17-19: mankind can only eat bread on the basis of his effort and the sweat of his brow, but mankind can eat from the fruit of labor. Labor might be futile under the sun, but such does not mean we cannot find enjoyment in our labor. For good reason we encourage young people to explore career paths in fields they enjoy; we intuitively understand the Preacher’s wisdom, for it is a lot better to do what you love and enjoy your labor than to spend countless hours in miserable drudgery wishing you were doing anything else. And when you do things you enjoy, and survive on it, you will be well distracted from the ultimate futility we experience in life. And the same goes for the cultivation of meaningful relationships.

We may not like what the Preacher has observed, but we know he is not wrong. What is more miserable about our lives in futility than to spend it all in agony, anger, bitterness, and despair? Life under the sun may be futile; we cannot take anything on this earth with us. Yet we can enjoy life: we can enjoy what we do, we can enjoy the fruit of our labor, we can enjoy sharing our blessings with others, and we can focus on the good gifts which God has blessed us, and in so doing be effectively distracted from the futility and suffering of life. Our hope can never rest in anything under the sun, but instead in what God has accomplished in Jesus and the hope of resurrection in Him. May we give thanks for God’s blessings, prove effective stewards of them, and obtain the resurrection of life in Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Demonstrating Love | The Voice 12.50: December 11, 2022

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Demonstrating Love | 1 John 3:17-18

But whoso hath the world’s goods, and beholdeth his brother in need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how doth the love of God abide in him? My Little children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth. (1 John 3:17-18).

John has been spending much time in his letter encouraging fellow Christians. He has encouraged them to walk in the light, since God is the light, abiding in His commandments (1 John 1:1-2:6). John has spoken of the “new old commandment,” to love one another, to not love the world, and to not be troubled by the “antichrists,” those denying that Jesus is the Christ (1 John 2:7-29).

In 1 John 3:1-16, John has been contrasting the righteous with the wicked. The righteous set their hope on God, are pure, do not sin, and love one another; the wicked engage in sin, lawlessness, and hatred (1 John 3:1-16). 1 John 3:16 is quite parallel to John 3:16: Jesus’ death is the demonstration of love, and we should be willing to “lay down our lives” for the brethren.

While John is famous for his abstractions and general discussions, he turns and becomes much more specific in 1 John 3:17-18: how does the love of God abide in someone who has the “world’s goods,” who sees his brother in need, and closes off compassion for him?

John does not want Christians to walk away from his letter thinking of love in only generic, abstract ways. Love is not just some feeling, emotion, or impulse; love must be translated into action! As Jesus indicates in Matthew 7:16-20, people are known by their fruit.

John’s very specific application involves the relationship between Christians of unequal class or wealth. One such brother has the “world’s goods,” and with those goods comes responsibility, as Paul shows in 1 Timothy 6:17-19: they are not to trust in the uncertain riches of the world, but be full of good works, using their physical wealth to store up treasures in Heaven. One easy way to do that would be to assist his fellow Christian in need. After all, this is one of the standards of the judgment as portrayed in Matthew 25:31-46!

Yet, for whatever reason, some Christians with the “world’s goods” have closed off their compassion for their fellow man. John’s word choice here is deliberate, for the primary motivation we have to help others in need ought to be compassion. In the parable of the good Samaritan, the Samaritan is moved by compassion on the man, and that is why he provides the necessary assistance (cf. Luke 10:25-37). We ought to follow the “Golden Rule:” since we would want to be helped if we were the poor brother, we ought to provide that assistance (cf. Luke 6:31)!

The answer to John’s rhetorical question is evident: if a brother has the world’s goods, but closes off compassion to his brother in need, the love of God does not abide in him, no matter his protestations. It is not enough to just say or believe that we love one another: we must communicate that love in deed and truth!

And thus we have the message of 1 John 3:18: John wants his “little children” to love not in word or “tongue” but in deed and truth. John also uses the designation “little children” in 1 John 2:18 and 1 John 5:23. He perhaps uses this very tender designation to gently remind his audience of his authority and his love for them and their need to heed what he is about to say.

The message is quite important. It is akin to James 1:22-25, the exhortation to be doers of the word and not hearers only. A lot of people are willing to profess Jesus Christ and to say that they believe in His truth, but few are the ones who are willing to really act upon it (cf. Matthew 7:13-14, 21-23). It is easier to profess to love God and to love one another than it is to demonstrate that love through deed and sincerity. As John has just indicated, God has already demonstrated His love for us by accomplishing the means of our salvation through the blood of Christ (1 John 3:16): if God was willing to make such a great demonstration of His love for us, we ought to be willing to help one another in need and to demonstrate the love we say we have for one another. Let us do so, and fulfill God’s purpose for our lives!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Power Dynamics | The Voice 12.49: December 04, 2022

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Power Dynamics and the People of God

We may not actively think about power dynamics and how they play out throughout our affiliations and relationships. In fact, many forces at work would rather you never think about them.

According to the witness of Scripture, God has established authorities and powers in His creation (Romans 13:1-2). In a very real sense, every created being has a level of authority and power: they have been given free will and will be held accountable for the decisions they have made (Romans 14:10-12, 1 Corinthians 6:3). Some humans have been given authority in various domains and will be held accountable for how they exercised authority over those domains: households, institutions, governments, etc. (1 Peter 2:11-17, etc.). Likewise, God created spiritual beings and gave them authority over various peoples, institutions, and the like (Psalm 82:1-6, Ephesians 6:12). Thus, all our affiliations and relationships are overseen, to some degree or another, by authorities invested with power, both material and spiritual. As those seeking to serve God in Christ we do well to consider how power and power dynamics among God’s people should be leveraged to God’s glory.

When we think of power among the people of God, we would immediately first think of the Lord Jesus Christ as the head and thus authority and power over the church, with elders shepherding local flocks over which the Holy Spirit has given them oversight (Acts 20:28, Colossians 1:18, 1 Peter 5:1-4). All should look to the Lord Jesus as their head and authority; whenever there are elders overseeing a local congregation, they will be seen as having at least some level of authority and power, and must live accordingly.

Functionally and practically, however, power and power dynamics among God’s people goes well beyond the Lord Jesus Christ and elders. Their power is often deemed “hard” power, while other forms of power, involving influence, persuasion, etc., is considered as “soft” power. Preachers may not have much “hard” power but their “soft” power within a local congregation tends to be considerable. Preacher’s wives, deacons, deacon’s wives, or elder’s wives may also leverage significant “soft” power; the same might be true of any member who has a strong reputation, charisma, or both. In congregations without elderships, the preacher’s “soft” power tends to accumulate, and there are likely a few men (and even perhaps some women) who leverage “soft” power.

Christians and local congregations can also be significantly influenced by the “soft” power given to external actors and factors. Sources of Bible class material and the previous influencers over the preacher and others bring influences to bear. Christians have tended to lionize certain preachers or positions, and their influence can spread far and wide. In their liberty Christians have established many institutions and organizations, from benevolent organizations to schools and colleges and various foundations or publications, and many Christians are influenced by these organizations and work diligently to maintain them. The “inputs” Christians receive during the times they are not present in the assembly, be it from secular or “spiritual” media, whether books, magazines, television, streaming shows, or engagement on social media, can find their way into the assemblies of Christians and in the ways they look at one another and the world.

We might be able to think of other sources of “soft” power which influence Christians and local churches, yet so far all of them save the Lord Jesus have been people or that which people have made. While we may not know much about how the powers and principalities work, we must always be aware of their existence and their likely influence over us (Ephesians 6:12). The wording of Revelation 1:20-3:22 suggests Jesus wrote in the Spirit to the angel of each of the seven churches, giving credence to the strong possibility each local congregation has an angel, a spiritual power, overseeing it. If nothing else, Revelation 2:1-3:22 powerfully demonstrates how Jesus is not an absentminded landlord but very aware of the activities and dynamics of each local congregation of His people.

Thus, whether we consciously consider it or not, power and power dynamics remain at work as we relate to one another as fellow Christians and in local congregations of God’s people. The only question is whether we will submit to the pattern and embodiment of the Lord Jesus Christ in how we leverage power and power dynamics or whether we will capitulate to the powers and principalities of the world in how power is used.

The Apostle Paul has left us without any doubt: Jesus has triumphed over the powers and principalities (Colossians 2:15). They have been brought low by His cross and resurrection, and now maintain only the power people give over to them in their anxieties and fears.

Nevertheless, as the people of God, we should never underestimate the temptation we have to give our power over to those powers and principalities and to cause inestimable grief and pain in the process.

Abuse of power and disregard of power dynamics is not new among God’s people, and it is not limited to a select few. Those who have come forward with stories of sexual abuse or assault, or mistreatment and prejudice on account of their ethnicity, gender, race, or other factors, have often been silenced, suppressed, or portrayed as the real source of the problem and the sin. Horror stories exist regarding the kinds of doctrines and practices which preachers have attempted to impose on their fellow Christians; many can rightfully cast aspersion on the conduct of many elders in terms of the things they imposed on their flocks. At the same time, elders and preachers can tell you many stories of abusive and manipulative behaviors which they have suffered from Christians and from one another. Christians should be the best of people, yet they also remain capable of being the worst of people.

Unfortunately, the people of God have thus proven as worldly, if not even more worldly, than those in the world when it comes to exalting the demonic wisdom of the world in how power is leveraged and how power dynamics play out. Such abuse takes place because Christians have, however wittingly or unwittingly, given themselves over to anxieties and fears: anxiety about standing among God’s people and within society; fear of humiliation, shame, and loss of income for people or cherished institutions; misplaced zeal in binding where God did not bind, or loosing where God had not loosed; and so on. A whole lot gets justified in the name of “such is just the way things are.”

The Lord Jesus was very much aware of “the way things are”; that is the way which led to His humiliation and execution. In Matthew 20:25-28 Jesus directly addressed such matters of power and power dynamics with His disciples. He spoke of “the way things are”: the Gentiles lord their power over others and are deemed “benefactors.” He then explicitly contradicted this “way” for His people: it should not be so among you! Instead, Christians should embody the way of Jesus: seeking to serve and not to be served. The Apostles who heard this message would be utterly transformed by what they would see, hear, and experience in Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension, and the outpouring of His Spirit; they were given significant spiritual power but leveraged it not for their own benefit, not out of their own anxieties and fears, but to serve the Lord Jesus and His people, and exhorted their fellow Jesus people to do the same (1 Corinthians 11:1-2, 2 Corinthians 10:8-12:19, Philippians 2:5-11, 2 Timothy 2:2, 1 Peter 2:11-3:9, 4:10-11).

Thus, we should recognize all power and influence we have, whether “hard” power or “soft” power, is a gift from God, a resource which we should steward, and to use to serve the Lord Jesus Christ and one another. It is not enough for the end of our exercise of power to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ and encourage one another; the means by which we exercise that power must do so as well. It was once generally recognized how “the ends justify the means” was Machiavellian and diabolical; not so much anymore. We cannot imagine we can use the abusive, degrading, heavy-handed, manipulative ways of the powers and principalities over this present darkness to accomplish the Kingdom work of the Lord Jesus Christ. While God is able to use the work of the principalities and powers to accomplish His purposes, God’s people should never imagine they can empower and endorse someone else to do the evil, ungodly work and think it will not change themselves or its consequences will not redound to their harm.

Instead, we must follow Jesus’ ways of love, compassion, humility, and service toward one another and to all as we exercise and leverage the power and influence God has given us. We must give one another the benefit of the doubt, but we also must pursue truth and accountability for transgressions, proving always more loyal to the Lord Jesus Christ and to His Kingdom than to any individual person or institution. Christians should not shy away from accountability for behaviors while proclaiming and seeking all to find forgiveness, love, mercy, and grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Each believer must consider him or herself and the power they leverage, whether “hard” or “soft,” and keep any power imbalance in mind when seeking to encourage and cultivate relationships with fellow believers.

Humans are like a vapor: here one moment, gone the next (James 4:14). Nations are like flowers and grass: glorious at one moment, withered soon after, and then burned (Isaiah 40:6-8, 1 Peter 1:23-25). Human institutions are like the nations, and will not endure. Even local churches have come and gone. And yet Jesus is Lord yesterday, today, and tomorrow; the Word of God endures forever (Hebrews 13:8, 1 Peter 1:25). God is able to uphold and support His own; He has called upon us not to protect His work, nor to draw boundaries around it, but to serve His Son and the people of His Son as His Son has lived and served us (Matthew 20:25-28, John 13:31-35, 1 Peter 4:10-11). May we leverage all authority, power, and influence God has given us in love, compassion, and humility, as stewards who will need to give an account, not out of our own anxieties and fears but seeking the best interest of those under our care and stewardship, and thus glorify God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Christian and the Self | The Voice 12.48: November 27, 2022

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The Voice

The Christian and the Self

We cannot escape the modern obsession with ourselves.

Modern Western society seems to be all about the self. People are raised to believe they can be and do whatever they desire, and they should diligently pursue what provides them with personal meaning and satisfaction. Marketers encourage people to consume products and services in order to enjoy themselves and to become and pursue their best self. Self-help resources are ubiquitous. Politicians win the most favor, and get to advance the policies, which they privilege the pursuit of individual freedom and fulfillment over anything else.

Western society has become this way thanks to the overwhelming victory of philosophical liberalism. Liberal philosophy, which can be seen across the spectrum of American politics, privileges the freedom, reason, and rights of the self above almost everything else. As a result, any commitments which might hinder or obstruct people from fully developing, expressing, or finding themselves are looked upon with hostility, skepticism, and suspicion. No wonder communal bonds, obligations, and ties have steadily corroded over the past couple of centuries!

We might be tempted to think liberal philosophy is entirely antithetical to Christian faith and practice. Christians should find many of the tendencies resulting from liberal philosophy, especially the uncritical acceptance of liberal philosophy as “the way things are,” quite troubling. Philosophical liberalism is certainly not “the way things are” in the witness of Scripture (Colossians 2:8-9). Nevertheless, we must recognize how liberal philosophy was only made possible because of the influence of Christian principles on Western society: the valuation of each individual as maintaining dignity, integrity, and standing before God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and the fundamental equality of all human beings in God in Christ (Romans 3:23, 14:10-12, Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11). Yet do these Christian principles demand philosophical liberalism? How much emphasis and weight should Christians place on the self?

The overall portrayal of the Christian life, and thus the primary framework through which Christians should understand the self, is embodied in Jesus: specifically, self-emptying in humility to serve, even to the point of death, so God would exalt according to His purposes (Philippians 2:5-11). Jesus established how He came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28); any who would come after Him would have to likewise take up his or her cross, the object of humiliation, shame, and suffering (Matthew 16:24). Jesus set forth a paradox for us: the one who would save his or her life must lose it, but the one who loses his or her life for Jesus’ sake will find it (Matthew 16:25). As a disciple of Christ Paul declared he no longer lived, but Christ in him, for he had been crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20).

As Christians we also do well to keep Jesus’ perspective in mind, especially in such an individualist age. Jesus prayed for Christians to be one with one another and with God in Christ as the Father and the Son are one (John 17:20-23); the ancients well explained such kind of unity as perichoresis, “mutual interpenetration without loss of distinctive identity.” Jesus powerfully and vividly portrayed a picture of such unity before John in Revelation 21:1-22:6: the people of God in the presence of God for all eternity, no longer suffering, glorified with beauty beyond comprehension. Such perichoretic unity is the ultimate goal of the believer with Christ as it is for fellow Christians with one another as well as husbands and wives in marriage (Matthew 19:4-6, Ephesians 5:22-33). In Christ God is saving a people for Himself, a people who have worked diligently to serve one another and consider the interests of one another above themselves (Ephesians 2:1-3:12, Philippians 2:1-12). Jesus expected people to be known as His disciples by their love for one another if they loved one another as He had loved them (John 13:31-35). God is love (1 John 4:8); God has demonstrated His love for us in Jesus (1 John 4:9-19); thus we are to love one another as He has loved us (1 John 4:7, 20-23). Love does not seek its own (1 Corinthians 13:1-8); if we would live to glorify God in Christ, we cannot pursue our individual freedom, meaning, purpose, rights, and/or satisfaction as our ultimate good. We must orient our lives around loving and serving one another, maintaining confidence in God’s love and service for us in Christ, entrusting ourselves to God and His people.

While the dignity and integrity of the individual and the fundamental equality of all people before God in Christ remain confessed and upheld by Christians, we can see how these principles by no means necessitates the full embrace of philosophical liberalism. We can see how philosophical liberalism and the maximal freedom of the self easily runs contrary to the spirit and ethos of self-emptying and joint participation in God in Christ.

But we should also not overstate the case. In order for a person to be able to empty themselves, he or she must have a “self” to “empty.” Both Jesus and the Apostles assume a level of self-care and self-concern: Jesus’ “Golden Rule” would have His disciples treat others the way they would want to be treated (Matthew 7:12), and Paul’s exhortation about husbands and wives in terms of Christ and the church demands no one hating his (or her) own body, but instead nourishing and cherishing it (Ephesians 5:29-30). Likewise, Paul did not rule out a level of self-interest in Philippians 2:4, encouraging Christians to be not only concerned about their own interests, but also the interests of others. In the Parable of the Talents Jesus spoke of servants given different numbers of talents; both Paul and Peter speak of Christians as having different abilities, all of which should be used to serve one another and build up the body of Christ (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28, 1 Peter 4:10-11); in order to use one’s abilities and gifts, one must first have enough self-awareness to know what one can do and how one has thus been gifted by God.

How, then, should Christians relate to the self? Christians do well to recognize “they” are “themselves”; there is no objective or disembodied “self.” God made human beings in His image with a base natural impulse toward self-concern and self-preservation; while such impulses can be abused, corrupted, and distorted, they maintain their purpose, and we do well to make sure we appropriately cherish and nourish the bodies which God has given us. Each person has value to God, and God has given each person dignity and integrity before Him, for each one will stand before Jesus in judgment (Romans 14:10-12). God calls every person to come to faith in Jesus; each person is called upon to cultivate and develop their personal faith in God in Christ, and to nurture their personal relationships with God and God’s people (John 17:20-23, Ephesians 2:1-3:12). Every believer in Christ which God adds to the church has his or her place in the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-28). Yet all such concern for the individual is not an end unto itself; God has not called individuals to remain entirely disconnected autonomous beings, but welcomes and trains all those who come to Him to become one with Him and one another as He manifests perichoretic relational unity within Himself (John 17:20-23). We cherish and nourish ourselves but also cherish and nourish one another, as Jesus nourishes and cherishes His Body, the church (Ephesians 5:22-33). We treat others the way we want them to treat us; we serve others as we wish to be served; we use our gifts and talents to serve one another as we encourage others to use their gifts and talents to serve as well.

While much of the Christian life is focused on others, Christians must remember how in matters of judgment we are to keep to ourselves. Jesus is Lord; each of us will stand before Him in judgment, and before Him we individually will stand or fall; as Paul asks, who are we to judge the servant of another (Romans 14:10-12)? If there are two or three witnesses to a believer participating in sin or promoting false teachings, and such a believer refuses to repent, then other believers have a responsibility to separate themselves from such a person until they might repent (Romans 16:17-18, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13); note well how this is not an individual judgment, but a collective determination based on evidence from witnesses, and the ultimate decision regarding the eternal fate of such a person belongs to Jesus, not to us. Christians therefore do well to cease acting as judges but strive to be doers of what God has made known in Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:12-13, James 4:10-12).

Thus Christians do well to recognize the value of the self but not place significant emphasis upon it. Christians in Western society must strive to prioritize, maintain, and uphold the importance of self-emptying love and service in a time and place which desires to instead glorify the self. While Christians generally see how philosophical liberalism has influenced social and political liberalism and progressivism, they must also see how philosophical liberalism has influenced social and political conservatism and libertarianism and the ethos of the American middle class, and respond accordingly. Christians cannot just be concerned about themselves or their near friends and relations and glorify God; Christians cannot strive for self-sufficiency or demand a level of personal responsibility which they themselves could never manifest, for none of us are sufficient unto ourselves, and all of us remain in need of God and the people of God for strength and sustenance. We must consider ourselves part of something greater than ourselves, the Body of Christ, the Reign of God in Christ, and must strive to empty ourselves so we might be able to more fully embody Jesus to one another and to all. But we each will stand before the judgment seat of God in Christ; each of us will stand or fall before Jesus. May we have a self to which we can die, die to such a self, and live for God in Christ to glorify Him and share in the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry