The Preacher’s Proverbs | The Voice 13.12: March 19, 2023

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The Preacher’s Proverbs | Ecclesiastes 7:1-10

A good reputation is better than precious perfume; likewise, the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth. It is better to go to a funeral than a feast. For death is the destiny of every person, and the living should take this to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, because sober reflection is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of merrymaking.
It is better for a person to receive a rebuke from those who are wise than to listen to the song of fools. For like the crackling of quick-burning thorns under a cooking pot, so is the laughter of the fool. This kind of folly also is useless. Surely oppression can turn a wise person into a fool; likewise, a bribe corrupts the heart.
The end of a matter is better than its beginning; likewise, patience is better than pride. Do not let yourself be quickly provoked, for anger resides in the lap of fools. Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these days?” for it is not wise to ask that (Ecclesiastes 7:1-10).

Solomon remains widely known for his proverbs. As the Preacher he could not resist providing a few in his exhortation.

Throughout Ecclesiastes 1:1-6:12 the Preacher meditates 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. To rage against such truths is itself futile and striving after wind. God understands better than we do.

Likewise, throughout Ecclesiastes 1:1-6:12 the Preacher has maintained rhetorical coherence, addressing a variety of topics, but very much so in terms of a discourse. One could perhaps argue the Preacher continues to meditate on the theme of wisdom by providing wise aphoristic insights in Ecclesiastes 7:1-10; yet Ecclesiastes 7:11-29 proves far more coherent and consistent with what we have seen before in a way quite unlike Ecclesiastes 7:1-10.

We thus do best to understand Ecclesiastes 7:1-10 as at least three “proverbial” meditations by the Preacher. The Preacher, associated with Solomon, is legendary for his compilation and composition of proverbs (cf. Ecclesiastes 12:9); we should not be surprised to find at least part of the Preacher’s message to feature them. Proverbs can be set forth in a contextual frame or “rapid fire” without any contextual demand; we might reason the Preacher waxes proverbial in light of his observations about man’s inability to make sense of his plight in Ecclesiastes 6:10-12, but with a series of proverbs we have no obligation to expect contextual flow.

The Preacher began these “proverbial” meditations with a reconsideration of “happiness” and “sadness.” The Preacher confesses the great importance of a good reputation, which he deems more valuable than perfume, which was expensive indeed (Ecclesiastes 7:1). This observation leads the Preacher to also consider the day of a person’s death better than the day of his or her birth (Ecclesiastes 7:1), a comparison which would not come naturally to many of us. His latter observation becomes his focus: the Preacher considers it better to go to a funeral than a feast, since death comes for everyone, and people do well to remember it (Ecclesiastes 7:2). Likewise, sorrow is better than laughter, since reflection on life is good for the heart (Ecclesiastes 7:3). Thus the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning while the heart of the fool is in the house of merrymaking (Ecclesiastes 7:4).

Few would deny the truth of the Preacher’s observation about the value of a good reputation, especially among those who have endured the terrible fortune of watching their reputation be unjustly besmirched. Despite what many may try to tell you, money cannot really buy a good reputation, and they prove hard to restore once lost. Yet our entire culture actively resists and rails against the Preacher’s observations about death. Death was an ever-present pervasive reality in the ancient world; thanks to our scientific understanding and technologies, we have found ways of trying to make death seem more remote. In the process, however, people do everything they can to avoid and resist even the thought of death and fling themselves into an Epicurean posture of trying to live their best lives and pretend death will not happen. We do not know what to do with those who are actively dying or grieving the loss of loved ones. To modern Western man it is patently absurd to suggest the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth. Yet the Preacher was wise, and was not wrong. Our culture’s death avoidance posture betrays how many are fools in the house of merrymaking, and we as the people of God do better to reflect the wisdom of sitting in the house of mourning. One way they can do so is to take seriously and make good on the Preacher’s advice in Ecclesiastes 7:1-4.

The Preacher considers further comparisons between the wise and the foolish in Ecclesiastes 7:5-7. As the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning while the heart of the fool is in the house of merrymaking, so it is better to suffer the rebuke of a wise man than to listen to the song of fools (Ecclesiastes 7:4-5). The laughter of fools is ephemeral, like the crackling of thorns quickly burning under the cooking pot, and proves useless (Ecclesiastes 7:6). ‘osheq can make a wise man foolish, or drive the wise man crazy; some versions understand ‘osheq as “extortion,” but better evidence exists for a rendering of “oppression”; in a similar way, a bribe corrupts a person (Ecclesiastes 7:7).

The Preacher’s meditations on the wise and the foolish will sound familiar to anyone who has spent time considering the book of Proverbs. We confess their truth while generally presuming we are among the “wise.” Yet Ecclesiastes 7:7 is an important reminder for us: “the wise person” and “the foolish person” are not fixed and static; the very same person, at times, might think, feel, or act “wisely” or “foolishly,” and certain circumstances can lead a person who has generally been known as “wise” to become foolish. No one wants to think of him or herself as the fool or as thinking, feeling, and acting foolishly; this kind of self-deception is precisely what we would expect out of the foolish, while the wise humbly confess their propensity toward folly.

The Preacher is able to bring the previous two themes together somewhat in his third series of proverbial observations (Ecclesiastes 7:8-10). The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and thus patience is better than pride (Ecclesiastes 7:8). In counseling patience, the Preacher encourages those who hear him to not be easily provoked since anger dwells in the lap of fools (Ecclesiastes 7:9). And the Preacher counsels against asking why the days of old were better than present times, since it is not from wisdom that anyone would ask this (Ecclesiastes 7:10). Such hearkens back to some of the Preacher’s original observations about how there is nothing new under the sun and how the story of humanity is more cyclical than progressive (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:1-11).

We can understand and appreciate each of these three observations on their face. We may have energy and interest at the beginning of something, but at its end we can see its ultimate end, and in the same way indeed it is better to have patience and endure over time than to maintain pride in exuberance. We have learned how many parts of the brain shut down when a person is provoked to anger, and pain, folly, and suffering will follow unless the person gets ahold of themselves and allows better executive function to prevail.

Yet it is also not hard to see how Ecclesiastes 7:8-9 reach their climax in Ecclesiastes 7:10. Nostalgia is quite the drug! Humans tend to maintain a gauzy view of the past, easily remembering what they thought was good, and glossing over the less than pleasant parts of those days. Little such gauziness is reserved for the present moment and its acute pains and distress. But the “good old days” really were not; and even if one can reasonably argue conditions of the past were in many respects better for a given group of people than is true in the present, such will not be true for everyone. Whether we want to recognize it or not, the past is not better or worse than the present; it is just different.

We can think of few better situations which exemplify the Preacher’s concern and wisdom than Israel in the Wilderness. YHWH had delivered them from the house of slavery with a powerful hand; yet they did not remember the oppression or cruelty, but they did remember the food they ate since it was more varied than the food they had in the Wilderness, and their folly extended to the point of seriously suggesting returning to Egypt when the spies brought back their report of the challenges of conquering Canaan (cf. Numbers 14:1-4). Imagine that scene for a moment: what would the Egyptian border garrison think of all those Israelites returning to submit again to the bondage of slavery? What foolish delusion! And all because they waxed nostalgic about what they left behind in Egypt without appropriate consideration of all they had suffered in Egypt.

And so it goes to this day. We resist contemplation of death and want to pretend we will not have to endure it. We never want to think it possible we could be the fool, and thus we prove to be the fool. And we think it was better in the “good old days,” forgetting the suffering and oppression but remembering fondly what we think we have lost. Thus we do well to meditate upon the Preacher’s proverbs, pursue the wisdom he provided, and seek to glorify God in Christ through the Spirit in all things!

Ethan R. Longhenry

God and the World | The Voice 13.11: March 12, 2023

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God and the World | 1 John 4:4-6

Ye are of God, my little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world. They are of the world: therefore speak they as of the world, and the world heareth them. We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he who is not of God heareth us not. By this we know the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error (1 John 4:4-6).

John has focused on many concerns that he has for his fellow Christians in 1 John: their need to do what is right and avoid the wrong (1 John 1:1-2:6, 3:1-10), to love one another (1 John 2:7-11, 3:11-24), and their need to avoid those who teach false doctrines: in particular, the growing number of Gnostic teachers (1 John 2:12-29).

John has returned to this last concern in 1 John 4:1-6. In verses 1-3 he taught the Christians to test the spirits to see whether they are from God or not. Since the Gnostic teachers are John’s primary concern, he assures the Christians that those who teach that Jesus is God in the flesh are of God, while those who do not are of the antichrist and thus the Devil.

John continues in this same line of thought and uses the same contrast in 1 John 4:3-6. He speaks tenderly to “his little children,” more of a statement of endearment than patronage, as he does frequently in 1 John (cf. 1 John 2:1, 12, 13, 18, 28; 3:7, 18; 5:21). He assures the Christians that they are “of God” and have already overcome the false teachers and the powers of darkness behind them, for “greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

The theme of conquering and overcoming the spiritual powers of darkness is found constantly in John’s writings. Jesus declares that He has overcome the world in John 16:33. When Jesus speaks to the seven churches of Asia in Revelation 2-3, He provides a promise to those who “overcome” in each of His seven messages. Christians overcome the dragon Satan through the blood of the Lamb Jesus and the word of their testimony (Revelation 12:11).

This is a very comforting message to Christians who feel overwhelmed by the opposition they receive on account of the spiritual powers of darkness (cf. Ephesians 6:12). Revelation 13 and 17 describe in a vision the power of Satan over the earth as manifest within the Roman Empire and the persecution which the saints endured. If the Christians focused only on their earthly condition they would have had plenty of reason for discouragement, despair, and distress. Yet, according to the spiritual and heavenly perspective as seen in Revelation 12, 14-16, and 18:1-22:6, it is evident that victory belongs to God and His Lamb, and believers can overcome through them. Therefore, even when it appears that the forces of evil have the upper hand, God is greater than the dark power, and Christians have their victory in Him.

John then provides a clear contrast in 1 John 4:5-6: Christians who are “of God” and the Gnostic teachers who are of “the world.” Since the Gnostics are of “the world,” they speak as the people of the world do, and the people of the world listen to them (v. 5). Christians are of God, and while people of the world may not understand their message, God hears them (v. 6ab). This allows believers to “test the spirits” and see what is the spirit of truth versus what is the spirit of error (v. 6c).

John is speaking of “the world” in the same way as he did in 1 John 2:15-17. He is not speaking of rocks and trees and birds but the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life: sin and those who remain enslaved to it. Paul speaks of the worldly versus the spiritual perspective in 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:16 and indicates that the worldly mind cannot understand the spiritual truths of God. He goes on to say in Romans 8:1-11 that the worldly mentality cannot please God, remains hostile to Him, and leads to death.

So it is with false teaching of any stripe. We must not absolutize what John says and believe that as long as someone affirms that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh, whatever else they teach is acceptable. Far from it! Nevertheless, all false teachings are grounded in worldly belief systems and acceptance among those who are worldly. False teachers are consistently described as promoting the lusts of the flesh (1 Timothy 6:3-5, 2 Peter 2:12-19, Jude 1:4). Since false teachings do not come from God, they come from the world, and they satisfy the world’s desires and the way that the world does things.

But it is not to be that way with those of us who believe in God. Our words must affirm what God has taught even when it goes against society’s views (Romans 12:1-2). Let us teach what God has taught and be of the spirit of truth, and let us not be seduced by the spirit of error!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Proof | The Voice 13.10: March 05, 2023

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“Prove it!”

Thus we heard when trying to explain how we arrived at an answer in geometry. We probably also saw it written on an insufficiently unsubstantiated part of our English or history paper. It seemed to be the foundation of science classes. And to this day we will hear it as the reflexive response whenever someone hears a claim or idea which does not conform to the way they currently understand the world.

Yet do we ever wonder why so many hold proof in such high esteem? How has proof come about, and does it even really work the way we might hope it would?

“Proof” has always been humanity’s goal in alleviating one of its greatest anxieties: we seek to know things, but how can we have any confidence in that which we think we know? From humanity’s beginning we have been trying to sort out how we can discern truth from error, accurate perception from inaccurate perception, and to grow accurate knowledge based on conclusions from accurately perceived truths. Much of the framework which the Western world uses to adjudicate such matters derives from the Greek philosophers of old who sought to explore knowledge and systematize it, particularly from Aristotle’s expositions on logic and categorizations, desperately seeking to hold off the destabilizing effects of the sophists, cynics, and skeptics regarding what can truly be known.

Aristotle’s framework would be adapted and refined until the nineteenth century to lead to the scientific method which we all learned in school: to observe natural phenomena, to develop a hypothesis about how a given phenomenon might work, to test the hypothesis via experimentation, to collect and analyze the data, interpret the data, and see if the hypothesis holds or whether there is a new line of investigation to continue; then all the results should be published, subjected to peer review, and when continually reproduced, the hypothesis becomes a theory and is to be recognized as proven.

There is much to commend about the scientific method and its framework in terms of exploring many aspects of the creation and to try to make sense of it. Nevertheless, the scientific method cannot sustain the claims, expectations, and hopes modern Westerners have imposed upon it. Somehow and at some point, a lot of people today have convinced themselves the scientific method is the only way we can have any assurance or confidence in what we know, and they assume a lot of what they think is true can be thus proven. And whenever they hear a claim they find suspect, they expect it to be proven according to the scientific method.

Such exposes the scientism that has powerfully affected modern Western consciousness. Ever since the Enlightenment elevated reason and scientific inquiry to the level of divinity, Westerners have put a lot of their faith in scientific endeavors to explain all things. We can understand how and why Westerners would want to understand scientific exploration in terms of the scientific method; yet they have gone well beyond and we see scientific sounding explanations given for plenty of aspects in the metaphysical domains. Society has lost faith in the cleric, the politician, the lawyer, and the philosopher, and puts all its faith in the doctor and the scientist, amazed and enraptured with all the things we have learned and all the technologies we have developed over the past two hundred and fifty years. How science tries to explain itself, and how science tries to explain everything else, becomes normative. And thus the way science is supposed to work becomes the default posture about everything.

Is this right and good? Should scientism and its concept of proof derived from the scientific method truly and well be our default posture toward how we understand what we think we know?

The scientific method cannot bear the burden modern Westerners have placed upon it, for what the modern Westerner desires is beyond what any human endeavor can provide: certainty. Even when science is at its best and scientists rigorously apply the scientific method to their inquiries and maintain a robust system of peer review, human frailty, limitation, and weakness remain. The development of the hypothesis remains an integral part of the scientific method: while we can consider many times and situations in which humans have developed excellent hypotheses, the development of the hypothesis will always involve a lot of assumption on the part of the scientist developing it and will always be constrained by the horizon of imagination which the scientist maintains. Many of the most powerful scientific advances of the past hundred years have involved domains in which the fundamental assumptions maintained by the scientific community as a whole were challenged and found lacking (for example, plate tectonics and quantum mechanics). Even though the current scientific consensus has adapted itself appropriately on the basis of such discoveries, we cannot escape the question of how many other assumptions are maintained by the scientific consensus that will be demonstrated by future generations to be fallacious. We often think of our ancestors living through darkened days marked by superstition and fallacious beliefs; but what will future generations think of our own? Thus, at its best, the scientific method can only indicate a given theory is supported by reproducible evidence and makes the best sense of all data as we currently understand it. The scientific method can never provide absolute proof.

These limitations and difficulties exist even when science is at its best; and as with any human endeavor, science is not always at its best. A fundamental component of the scientific method is the reproducibility of the evidence generated by an experiment; the realm of psychology today is being rocked by a reproducibility crisis in which many of the “gold standard” studies which have defined the operating assumptions of the field cannot be replicated and thus their conclusions have been rendered suspect. Much damage was done to the world’s initial response to the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the COVID-19 infection it caused because of misguided definitions of “airborne” versus “droplet” transmission rooted in an error, generated years before and mindlessly repeated even though it was never rigorously tested, and when tested, was found woefully lacking. For these we can appeal to “objective” evidence; beyond this, scientists are human and liable to the prejudices of their time. For many years scientists were actively invested in attempting to advance “race science,” and plenty of bogus and pseudo-scientific claims were advanced and promoted as a result. Emphasis on eugenics has led to untold suffering and death over the past one hundred and fifty years. Thus our society’s uncritical confidence in scientists to be able to best and fully explain all things proves rather delusional.

The scientific method works well with phenomena that can be observed and experimented upon in a laboratory setting. Yet very few things can be subjected to such a setting. It cannot be used to prove anything about the past or about anything which exists outside of what can be confined in a laboratory. Ironically, not one of us can prove we exist based upon the scientific method as we have explained it.

And such is why “proof” is a terrible standard of adjudicating what is true or false: we cannot prove much of anything according to the scientific method thus explained and understood. Even when we appropriately modify the methodology to conform to various domains like the social sciences, history, and the like, we still will not be able to “prove” very much; the best we can hope for is to explore what can be known about a given person, situation, or thing, and make the most reasonable argument which best explains all the evidence we have.

But what about proof as understood in legal terms? When many shift away from proof according to the scientific method, they then affirm the importance of proving beyond a reasonable doubt, as in criminal cases. Yet is such not as aspirational as everything else we have described? Plenty of people who have committed crimes have been found not guilty because the case against them was not demonstrated to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt; and plenty of innocent people have been found guilty, since it remains possible to convince a jury of a person’s guilt even when they have none. Furthermore, this standard is very important in criminal cases because a person’s freedom and the welfare of a society is at stake; is this kind of standard something truly sustainable in many other domains? Perhaps we do better to frame things in terms of the standard maintained in civil cases: to look at all the evidence and to demonstrate whether the case made is more likely to be true than false, or vice versa. Thus, as with the scientific method, so with the legal method: the best we can hope to do is to explore the evidence and make the most reasonable argument to best explain all the evidence we have.

As we have seen, it is not as if the scientific method or the burden of proof in legal contexts are the problem; the problem is in our desire to extend these methods beyond their domains to try to give us greater certainty about the things we think we know than we have any right to expect. We do well to really think about all the things we think we know and how many of them we have really examined or tested to any significant degree, or if we could ever really test them in a way which might lead to a satisfactory conclusion. In truth, most of what we believe we have accepted as true from sources we have trusted: our sense perception, our parents, our teachers, our society, etc. If we were asked to prove most of those ideas and beliefs, we would find ourselves at a loss. Furthermore, we should note well our predilection to want to have proven anything which does not align with our current perspective and our willingness to subject anything which does align with our current perspective to far less scrutiny.

And so it goes with our views on God and religion. We cannot “prove” God exists; as the Creator of heaven and earth, God cannot be subjected to anything in His closed system, and the entire endeavor of natural theology as understood by its original promoters is thus futile and an unfortunate misdirection. It was foolish to ever imagine we could “prove” God’s existence through what we can discover by the scientific method, and has led to the shipwreck of faith in many in the past 150 years. But we can give evidence of the power and nature of God manifest in His creation and especially in humankind as made in and for relational unity (Genesis 1:27-28, John 17:20-23, Romans 1:18-20, 1 John 4:8). We can maintain confidence in the prophetic word, both in terms of how the prophets spoke the words of God to the people of their time and place, faithfully recorded the story of how God worked with His people, and communicated regarding the salvation which would be revealed by God in Christ (1 Peter 1:10-12, 2 Peter 1:16-21). We can explain how the witness of what God has done in Jesus met the appropriate standard of historical evidence for the time and still makes better sense of all the available evidence than any other theory (cf. Acts 10:34-43, 1 John 1:1-4); as a result, we have every reason to maintain confidence Jesus is Lord, and we do well to heed what He has made known through His chosen witnesses as recorded in the New Testament. We can argue how the story of what God has done in Christ makes the best sense of all the evidence we have about the nature of the creation and humanity compared to other religious perspectives and philosophical theories, and thus commend Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life for everyone (cf. John 14:6). This may not be “proof,” but it is the best we can ever ask for as human beings, and thus we do well to maintain confidence God has worked in and through Jesus, and to trust in Him to obtain what is truly life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Gender Dysphoria | The Voice 13.09: February 26, 2023

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Gender Dysphoria

In the Western world we are witnessing significant polarization and consternation regarding people who identify as transgender and who claim they experience, or have experienced, gender dysphoria. Transgenderism and gender dysphoria have become major topics of conversation in our present “culture war” and often get associated and mixed in together with matters regarding same sex attraction and relationships and gender non-conformity. We also find ourselves at a moment in which how one understands gender and gender roles has become quite unsettled, and many find the greater disassociation between sex and gender quite troublesome. How should Christians approach matters relating to gender dysphoria?

We do well to first try to understand what gender dysphoria might be as well as be willing to understand how it might relate to, but also differ from, other issues regarding gender and sexuality. Gender dysphoria, previously described as gender identity disorder, is understood as distress which arises from a perceived disconnect or mismatch between the gender a person expresses physically and the gender which frames the way they think, feel, act, and view themselves. Many people who believe they experience gender dysphoria identify as transgender.

Conversations about gender dysphoria and transgenderism often get caught up in and scrambled with conversations about gender non-conformity and same-sex attraction and sexual behavior. The association might be understandable: many people who identify as transgender recognize a level of gender non-conformity in their lives, and we would even expect them to have sexual desire for those who maintain similar physical genital presentation if indeed they otherwise experience and identify as the other gender. Yet they are all not the same: many who experience gender dysphoria reinforce a gender binary which gender non-conformity would attempt to queer, and the proliferation of different pronouns is not due to transgender people experiencing gender dysphoria. There might be some issues involving same sex attraction or sexual behavior, but not necessarily so, and such is a matter downstream from gender dysphoria.

Many consider the situation of human gender to be fairly cut and dried: God made human beings male and female, and they define males as those who present physically with a penis, and a female as those who present physically with a vulva. In their view, sex and gender are inextricably associated, and thus any suggestion a person might experience dissociation between one’s physical presentation and one’s gender mentality and viewpoint suffer from delusions or have been induced to making corrupt choices by a debased culture, and all in rebellion against God and His created order. Many who hold to such beliefs also make much of particular constructs of what masculinity and femininity should look like.

As Christians we always do best to look to what God has made known in Christ through the Spirit and in the pages of Scripture. While one might think the Bible would have a clearly manifest answer to such things, one might be surprised: what makes a man a man and a woman a woman is not explicitly defined in the pages of Scripture.

Many might scoff at this suggestion, but we encourage every Christian to be a good Berean and search the Scriptures to see what things are so. There is no doubt Israelites and many others recognized the common and “normal” way of things: those who are men generally are those who identify as men and present male genitalia (thus circumcision for male children and the Hebrew idiom of “one who urinates against the wall” for a man; e.g. Genesis 17:10, 1 Samuel 25:22), and women generally are those who identify as women and present female genitalia.

But we must be careful lest we take descriptions of what was understood in general and turn them into exclusive standards. Israelites were aware of the existence of people who, for various reasons, did not maintain a “normal” gender identity. Deuteronomy 23:1 forbade men with crushed or severed genitals from entering the assembly of YHWH; Isaiah extended hope for such eunuchs to have a heritage and monument within YHWH’s temple in Isaiah 56:3-4. When discussing matters of marriage with His disciples, Jesus spoke of those made eunuchs by men, those who were eunuchs at birth, and those who became as eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 19:12).

Throughout history human beings have recognized the existence of people whose gender presentation differed from the norm. “Hermaphrodite” or “androgynous” were the terms used to describe people who might have been born with both male and female genitals but also those whose gender presentation proved ambiguous. Today we generally speak of such people as intersex, and there is a wide variety of ways in which intersex characteristics can be expressed. In fact, many biology teachers and professors have moved away from having students exploring their own chromosomes in the laboratory because of how many were discovering they manifested some intersex chromosomes (e.g. XXY) even if they beforehand did not present with any kind of gender dysphoria! In the Dominican Republic a community of people exist in which many are called güevedoce: at birth they present as women, but around the age of puberty at 12, they develop male genitalia. Scientists are working to understand the genetic and hormonal reasons for this transition; in their culture güevedoces are considered a third sex even though they recognize only two gender roles. This phenomenon is not limited to this community in the Dominican Republic. Various groups among the Indigenous North Americans recognized the existence of the “two spirit,” people who reflected a third sex.

Thus we return to the question: what makes a man a man and what makes a woman a woman? We have seen the Scriptures do not explicitly answer this question, and any assumption the answer would be obvious and assumed remains just an assumption.

In Romans 1:18-20 Paul spoke of how God has made known aspects of Himself and His divine power in the things which He has made. Through scientific exploration humanity has been able to better understand how we have been wonderfully and gloriously made by our Creator. Despite the often contentious relationship between Christians and science, Christians often rely on what has been understood through scientific exploration when it comes to many aspects of the faith. For instance, you will not find anywhere written in Scripture how human life begins at conception or implantation. For most of human history people did not well understand the biological mechanics of conception and embryonic and fetal development, which itself led to all kinds of contentions and disputes about when a person became a living being. Today Christians do not think twice when they affirm, believe, and argue how human life begins at conception or implantation; they have combined a more robust scientific understanding with a high valuation of the value and power of life from the witness of Scripture.

What if we do something similar for gender and sexuality? For most of human history people have not well understood the biological mechanics by which men become men and women become women. From the same type of scientific investigation which has led us to understand how human life begins at conception or implantation we learn all human embryos begin as female. At around six or seven weeks of gestation, embryos with a Y chromosome will induce changes which will lead to the development of the testes; at around nine weeks, such embryos begin producing testosterone which leads to the development of both the male genital presentation and male sex characteristics in the brain. Embryos with two X chromosomes will remain female. Throughout the human development cycle significant changes take place when males produce surges of testosterone and females produce estrogen.

Thus, just as we understand human life begins at conception or implantation from our investigations how God has made us, we also see how human gender and sexuality are encoded by chromosomes and hormones. And such might well be why the Scriptures have not explicitly defined what makes a man a man and a woman a woman: our physical presentation is a result of chromosomes and hormones, and not the other way around.

Christians often insist on the picture of humanity at the beginning: God made human beings, and He made them male and female (Genesis 1:26-28). Such is well and good, but it is not the end of the story. The first man and woman sinned, and because of their sin death and corruption entered the creation (Genesis 3:1-27, Romans 5:12-21, 8:18-23). Thus we all have been made in God’s image, but we also suffer the effects of the corruptions and decay inherent in the creation since the Fall. Christians generally do well at understanding how this explains how it is possible for babies and innocent people to suffer even though they have done nothing wrong; we have all inherited the consequences of the transgressions of their ancestors, and it has been written into the very code by which we have been made. Christians are doing better these days at understanding neurodivergence in similar terms: we thus do not intend to understand neurodivergent or disabled people as “deviant” or insufficiently human but to understand how each and every one of us has been created with a collection of “gifts” built into our genetic code, and while many of those “gifts” we consider “good,” some of those “gifts” present challenges.

In this way we can make sense of how some people might well and truly experience gender dysphoria according to a Christian anthropology. The majority of people will still conform to what we have understood as “normal” development: their chromosomes and hormones will manifest the same gender in mind and body. But on account of the corruption of the creation we can understand how it might be possible for a person’s chromosomes or hormones to express one gender physically but another gender in brain development. We are all witnesses of the power of testosterone and estrogen in human development; would there not be serious consequences if a person who physically presents as a woman is bathed in a lot of testosterone, or a person who presents physically as a man is bathed in a lot of estrogen?

As Christians we must grapple with a challenging question: on what basis do we have the right to expect anyone who might experience gender dysphoria to privilege and identify themselves primarily in terms of the gender which they physically present? Can we really sustain a strict absolute definition of a man as a person with male genitalia and a woman as a person with female genitalia when the male and female genitalia develop on the basis of chromosomes and hormones which also affect the brain, and rarely might affect the brain differently than what is physically presented? And how comfortable can we remain with such a strict absolute definition when, in the whole witness of Scripture, God never seemed to feel the need to thus explicitly define men and women?

What a person may decide to do on the basis of having gender dysphoria is another conversation which would be good to have; yet such a conversation is downstream from whether Christians should recognize the existence of gender dysphoria and how they should treat people who identify as experiencing gender dysphoria. We have attempted to better understand matters of sex and gender in terms of what Scripture has explicitly revealed and what we understand regarding how God has made us according to our present scientific understanding. In so doing we hopefully can recognize the difficulties involved in stridently suggesting absolute strict definitions of men as those who physically present male genitalia and women as those who physically present female genitalia, and in humility recognize this may not be true of every person in every situation. We then do well to recognize people who experience gender dysphoria as human beings made in God’s image who might well be experiencing a real phenomenon which cannot be written off as a delusion or a culturally induced choice, worthy of love, acceptance, and belonging among the people of God, able to be saved by God in Christ through the Spirit. May we in all things seek to glorify God in Christ, ever cognizant of our human limitations and frailty, and seek to display love, grace, humility, and patience toward all!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Works Consulted

Güevedoce. (accessed 2023-02-09)

“Sex Begins in the Womb”. (accessed 2023-02-09)

Contending With Futility | The Voice 13.08: February 19, 2023

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Contending With Futility | Ecclesiastes 6:7-12

All of man’s labor is for nothing more than to fill his stomach – yet his appetite is never satisfied!
So what advantage does a wise man have over a fool? And what advantage does a pauper gain by knowing how to survive? It is better to be content with what the eyes can see than for one’s heart always to crave more. This continual longing is futile – like chasing the wind.
Whatever has happened was foreordained, and what happens to a person was also foreknown. It is useless for him to argue with God about his fate because God is more powerful than he is.
The more one argues with words, the less he accomplishes. How does that benefit him? For no one knows what is best for a person during his life – during the few days of his fleeting life – for they pass away like a shadow. Nor can anyone tell him what the future will hold for him on earth (Ecclesiastes 6:7-12).

We think we want to know why: why does God allow so much evil and suffering on the earth? Why must we endure so much difficulty and pain? Yet to what end do we ask?

Throughout Ecclesiastes 1:1-6:12 the Preacher meditates 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 5:8-6:6 the Preacher strongly focused on the futility of wealth. Wealth causes anxiety; those who have it grow to fear and become hostile toward their fellow human beings. What can be gained with great effort can be lost quickly; The Preacher attempted to truly hammer this point home in terms of wealth. The Preacher showed extreme frustration with the plight of a person who worked hard but proved unable to enjoy the fruit of his labor. 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 summed up a lot of his previous exposition in Ecclesiastes 6:7: people work in order to have something to eat and satisfy their hunger. And yet, he observed, their appetite is never satisfied! Perhaps he is meditating on the futility of eating: we eat food only for it to get processed and excreted and need to eat food again to survive. Yet Ecclesiastes 6:8-9 strongly suggest he had fare more in mind than food. He asks what might be the benefit of the wise over the fool, or the poor man’s benefit in knowing how to survive without a lot of resources; the answer featured contentment with what one has rather than focusing on what one might desire to have. All such craving for more is chasing after the wind.

The Preacher has again exposed the “deep things” underneath the surface of human thought and behavior: why do we accrue wealth anyway? We want more out of anxiety and apprehension about the future: if we accrue more now we feel more assured we will have something in the future if circumstances get worse. Yet it rarely stops there. The impulse to desire things because we can enjoy them and/or use them as security for the future has no “natural” limit. Even if we get more and more, we can, and often do, still want more and more. We can even deceive ourselves into thinking we do not have enough, especially if we compare ourselves with those who might have more material wealth than we do. And these days we must also keep in mind how consumption fuels capitalism; marketers have gained insights into human psychology and know quite well how to bombard us with messages emphasizing what we lack, instilling in us a desire to obtain whatever they are selling us.

The Apostle Paul addresses such matters in 1 Timothy 6:6-12 and to the same end: contentment with godliness is great gain, and those who yearn to become wealthy often stumble into situations that lead them to ruin and distress. The Preacher has shown how success in such an endeavor is likely even worse, leading to anxiety, fear, hostility, and ultimately callous disregard for the welfare of others (Ecclesiastes 5:8-6:9).

In this way we do well to move away from the scarcity mindset, which leads to constant anxiety and insecurity, and move toward an abundance mindset. As opposed to focusing on what we do not have, we do better to appreciate what we do have. We understand, at least in the abstract, how a life spent wanting what one does not have is far less pleasant and good than a life spent appreciating what one has. We do well to put it into practice. After all, what does it tell us when many people who maintain a decent quality of life feel more anxious, stressed, and unsatisfied with life than those who live in poverty? A life focused on what one does not have is futility and a cause for lamentation.

The Preacher then steps back to explore the theme of contending with futility. The New English Translation (NET) of Ecclesiastes 6:10 captures well the meaning of the Preacher, but none should thus conclude the Preacher is an adherent of five-point Calvinism: as in Ecclesiastes 1:1-11, the Preacher confesses how people have already experienced whatever besets people in the present, and it is known what people are and the kinds of behavior they manifest. Thus people fall into predictable patterns of behavior; we can thus predict what a person might do. Can man really contend with the God who made Him and is the Creator of all things? The Preacher wisely recognizes the futility of arguing about our plight: what benefit is gained from adding even more words (Ecclesiastes 6:11)? It would not be unreasonable to conclude the Preacher is throwing some shade on Job, or, if nothing else, the kind of impulse which led Job to speak as he did. What the NET conveys as statements in Ecclesiastes 6:12 are rhetorical questions expecting a “no” answer: does any human know what is best for them in their fleeting life which passes like a shadow? Can any person tell another what will happen on earth in the future?

The Preacher thus addressed a “live wire” in the lives of many; we might now accuse him of meddling. Humans have always wondered why things happen to them as they do and earnestly want to know what will happen in the future. This human impulse is all the more acute in a post-Enlightenment age in which knowledge has been reckoned as power. People want to know why various things take place because they nourish a vain hope: if we can only know why something is happening, we might be able to gain some kind of mastery over the situation and manipulate the results to work for our benefit. We want to know the future because it is the great unknown, and the unknown is dangerous and threatening.

The Preacher throws cold water on this entire enterprise, and, as usual, gets right to the heart of the matter. God is Sovereign. God knows the end of the matter from the beginning; God transcends the space-time continuum and is omniscient. God has the power. To try to figure out why things are the way they are, especially in terms of pain, suffering, disaster, and even in terms of theodicy, is ultimately contending with futility. We will not be able to know or understand why things are what they are. Even as we have advanced human knowledge and gained insight through our scientific exploration and technology, all such advancements have engendered even more questions than humanity had before. Of the attempt to understand more about how things work there will be no end.

Job is an instructive example. Job indeed argued with many words about the nature of his suffering. And when YHWH answered him Job received no real satisfaction; it was made abundantly clear to Job very quickly how he was meddling in matters far beyond his wisdom or understanding, and YHWH not so gently reminded him of his place as the creation so he would no longer seek to arrogate a position nearer to the Creator (cf. Job 38:1-42:6). The Apostle Paul provided a similar conclusion to a line of argument wondering who can resist God’s will, asking who humans as the creation are to talk back to their Creator (cf. Romans 9:19-22).

Thus the Scriptures abundantly witness to this challenge and the only “answer” humans are given. People generally have one of two reactions: they either maintain their position and denounce God as engaging in a power play, railing against Him, or they take the lesson seriously in humility and trust in God. We do best to find ourselves in the latter category, for the Preacher is yet again not wrong. Even if we could receive answers to our questions, would those answers really satisfy our yearning? If we really could see exactly what would happen to us, how would it really help us? It probably will not be as great as we would imagine; the Greeks spoke of Cassandra, a woman cursed with the ability to prophesy truth about the future but condemned to never be taken seriously, and such would be the fate of anyone who could see the future. As humans we remain finite creatures; it has been our constant temptation to “become like God,” and our endeavors to that end have rarely ended well for us.

Thus we do best to accept the lot we have in life. We will not be able to understand everything or get all the answers we might desire. What good will it be for us to rail against God because of such things? We should instead trust in God as our Creator and in God as displaying covenant loyalty to His people, accomplishing His eternal purposes in Christ to lead to relational unity between God and His people. In such is life; in perennial skepticism there is nothing but vanity and futility. Let us trust in God in Christ and obtain life in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Testing the Spirits | The Voice 13.07: February 12, 2023

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Testing the Spirits | 1 John 4:1-3

Beloved, believe not every spirit, but prove the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not Jesus is not of God: and this is the spirit of the antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it cometh; and now it is in the world already (1 John 4:1-3).

John has manifested many concerns for his fellow Christians in 1 John. He wants to make sure that believers recognize that they are to walk in the light, and not the darkness, to not sin, and to follow the Savior and practice righteousness (1 John 1:1-2:6, 3:1-10). He fervently exhorts Christians to love one another, that “new old commandment,” for without that love, none can be saved (1 John 2:7-11, 3:11-24). Another primary concern for John has been the prevalence of false teachers, especially those of the Gnostic variety, and the need for believers to resist their error and to stand firm for the truth (1 John 2:12-29). He returns to this last concern in 1 John 4:1-3.

John begins this section with the exhortation to “prove” or “test” the “spirits” to see whether “they are of God” (1 John 4:1). “Spirits” here most likely have reference to spiritual powers of influence that are either inspired by God or Satan (cf. 1 Timothy 4:1, Hebrews 1:14, Revelation 1:4). These “spirits” are believed to be the “inspiration” or influence upon people and the things that they are teaching. The idea of this examination, therefore, is to ascertain whether the source of the teachings comes from God or from Satan, and the standard for that test involves that which God has already clearly revealed: in the days of John, such would involve the Scriptures that existed and the work of the Spirit in those days (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:10); today, our standard for such examinations is the Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16-17). John’s exhortation is as valuable now as it was when it was first penned, for the forces of darkness have not ceased promoting false doctrines. Plenty of people claim to hear from all sorts of spirits. The only trustworthy standard that cannot fail us is that which God has already revealed, and we must put all things to the test by that standard.

John then identifies his primary concern: does the teacher believe and confess that Jesus Christ came in the flesh? If he confesses that, he is of God; if he denies it, he is of the antichrist (1 John 4:2-3). John earlier spoke of the “antichrists,” those who departed from the faith, in 1 John 2:14-23. They are the ones who deny that Jesus is the Christ. Here John seems to envision “the antichrist” as a demonic or evil spirit who is influencing the Gnostic heretics: a far cry from the “antichrist” envisioned by modern dispensational premillennialists. The “antichrist” here might be Satan himself.

It is unwise for us here, as we have seen in previous passages (cf. 1 John 3:1-9, etc.), to make what John is saying absolute. There have been plenty of people throughout time who have confessed that Jesus is the Christ and that He came in the flesh and yet have espoused false teachings (cf. Acts 15:1-29, Galatians). Instead, we must recognize that John is speaking clearly and forcefully about the Gnostics and their teachings. The Gnostics retained plenty of Hellenistic philosophical influences and therefore could not come to grips with the idea that God would manifest Himself in the flesh, die, and be raised again in that flesh, as the Gospel message confessed (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1-58). Therefore, they denied that Jesus came in the flesh, and that the man Jesus was the Christ. Instead, they taught that the god Christ came and only appeared, or seemed, to be flesh, but really was not of the flesh. This view is called docetism, from the Greek word dokeo, “to seem.” In this view, the Christ was never really a man, and He did not die on the cross; Simon of Cyrene, or someone else, was the one who died. If Christ did not really die, there was no real need for a resurrection. That was fine for the Gnostics, since they despised the flesh anyway, and had no desire for the resurrection of the body.

Such teachings made a mockery of the entire Christian message and emptied it of its power. Those who proclaimed “Christ and Him crucified” stressed His life, death, and resurrection, indicating that if Jesus was not really the Christ, did not really die, and was not really bodily raised from the dead, Christians have hoped in vain, they are still in their sins, and are of all people most to be pitied (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:12-19).

Since the entire Christian message depends on the belief that Jesus is the Christ in the flesh, the only way that one could truly be a believer in God and Christ was to confess this. Any who do not confess this must be rejected: this much John makes clear, and we can sympathize with his concern. Let us not be of the spirit of the antichrist, but of the Holy Spirit, believe that Jesus is the Christ who came in the flesh, put every spirit to the test of what God has made known in Christ and in Scripture, and serve Him today!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Subversive Gospel | The Voice 13.06: February 05, 2023

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The Subversive Gospel

The Good News of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and imminent return has turned the world upside down. Many of the kingdoms of this world can no longer merely ignore or seek to suppress its message and those who live according to Him; now they must try to find ways of rationalizing their behavior in light of the Gospel.

The Western world has experienced such rationalizations and compromises of the Gospel for the past 1700 years. Ever since Constantine raised the banner of the cross at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge on 28 October 312, many of the governments of the nations were content to cultivate a form of Christianity amenable to them to domesticate and placate their citizens or subjects, and plenty of those who professed Jesus were willing to compromise aspects of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and imminent return to earn the government’s favor and to become the presumptive religion of the realm.

This “Constantinian compromise” marked the Western world from then until now; it inaugurated the world of “Christendom” and the pursuit of “Christian kingdoms” and “Christian nations.” Even in nations notionally established as representative republics or democracies maintain many citizens who remain ideologically wedded to a form of Constantinian Christendom, presuming or desiring a “Christian nation.” And yet the very premise maintains a “poison pill,” for the good news of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and imminent return remains subversive to all pretensions of the powers, principalities, governments, nation-states, just as it was before Constantine.

We can see the forces at work that attempt to accommodate the Gospel to reinforce an oppressive, unjust status quo or to establish an oppressive or unjust institution. We can also see how faithfulness to Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and imminent return subverts such injustice and oppression with gender relations, slavery, and violence.

The political, economic, and social power of the Roman Empire in the first century CE depended on patriarchy and slavery, and the entire enterprise was obtained and maintained with violence. Jesus, the Apostles, and all of the early Christians lived under this regime, and most of them were among the heavily oppressed. To this end the Apostles bore witness to all people, rich and poor, male and female, free and enslaved, citizen and subject, to heed the message of what God had done in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and lordship, and prepare for His return. They exhorted everyone to submit to the Lord Jesus and to His ways.

Many people in the modern world find the apostolic exhortations to women, children, and slaves highly problematic. Paul and Peter exhort wives to submit to their husbands and children to obey their parents in the Lord (Ephesians 5:23-6:1, 1 Peter 3:1-6). Slaves are exhorted to serve their masters faithfully and well, working as unto the Lord; Peter fully expected such slaves to be mistreated despite doing good, and encouraged them to bear it like Jesus bore His suffering (Ephesians 6:5-9, 1 Peter 2:18-25).

Ever since, many have viewed these apostolic messages as tacit or even explicit acceptance of patriarchy and slavery; Western history is littered with attempts to justify the superiority of men to women and of certain types of people over other people, thus giving rationalization for the former in their enslavement and exploitation of the latter.

Yet attempts to excuse or justify patriarchy or slavery based on these exhortations pervert the Gospel, for they have missed the subversive aspects of what God has done and proclaimed in Jesus. Paul and Peter did not merely exhort wives, children, and slaves; they also provided exhortations to husbands, fathers, and masters (often the same person!). Paul did expect wives to submit to their husbands as to the Lord (Ephesians 5:22), yet Paul expected husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church, in a self-sacrificial way, and to nourish and cherish her as his own body, and considered this the means by which the husband would submit to the wife in reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21, 23-33). Peter well understood the power dynamics at play: he spoke of wives as the “weaker vessel” and thus expected husbands to dwell with them understanding as much and to show them honor as joint-heirs of the grace of life, having no less standing, value, dignity, or integrity before God than them (1 Peter 3:7). Children were called upon to obey their parents, but parents were called upon to not exasperate their children and to embody Jesus toward them faithfully (Ephesians 6:1-4); one can well argue such is how parents submit to their children in reverence toward Christ (Ephesians 5:21). Paul did not exhort slaves to be obedient to their masters, working as unto the Lord, in order to prop up such an exploitative, oppressive system; instead, Paul completely obliterated the justifications and rationalizations for the system by declaring the slave the Lord’s freedman, and the free man as the Lord’s slave (1 Corinthians 7:22). How can anyone say Paul supported slavery when he told Christians that none should become the slave of another (1 Corinthians 7:23)? Paul encouraged slaves who had an opportunity to gain their freedom to do so (1 Corinthians 7:21); he would leverage every rhetorical tool at his disposal to persuade Philemon to not only forgive and accept his runaway slave Onesimus, but to return him to Paul for the service of ministry (Philemon 1:1-25). Paul exhorted all Christian masters to treat their slaves well and to remember they had a Master in heaven (Ephesians 5:6-9); it would remain wise to understand how such would be how the master would subject himself to his slaves in reverence toward Christ (Ephesians 5:21).

The only way the Roman system could be sustained was with violence: violence toward slaves who did not comply or who revolted, violence toward those who would challenge and question Caesar’s power. The pax Romana came at the end of a sword; Jesus’ cross was one of many the Romans raised in restive parts of their empire to remind everyone who was boss. Western rulers have been enamored with the Roman empire and the power of the Caesars ever since, and many have attempted to establish a new “Roman Empire” as a new Caesar (or Kaiser, or Czar) with the prospect of violence throughout Europe or in other parts of the world.

But the Roman system of patriarchy, slavery, and violence would not be overcome with patriarchy, slavery, and violence; patriarchy, slavery, and violence have just begotten themselves. Instead, Jesus of Nazareth subverted the Roman system by suffering the violence without responding in kind, overcoming the powers and principalities over this present darkness (Colossians 2:15). In the Kingdom of Jesus the lowly would be lifted up and the arrogant would be brought low (Matthew 23:12, etc.). Faithful followers of Jesus would take up their crosses and follow the example of His life: they could not seek to be great or first as the Romans did, but instead would become the servant and slave of one another, and thus embody Jesus the Son of Man who did not come to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28).

The Apostles proclaimed and embodied the message of Jesus. In Christ there would not be male or female, slave or free, barbarian or civilized, Jewish or Gentile, for in His death Jesus had made them all to be one body in Him (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11). Such fundamental equality is rooted in the humility demanded of all believers, the confession how all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, all worthy of condemnation, all fully dependent on the grace and mercy of God displayed in Jesus the Christ (Ephesians 2:1-3:12, Titus 3:3-8). Christians thus receive love, grace, and mercy when they proved least worthy of any of it; thus they should treat others with love, grace, and mercy, even when such people would prove unworthy of it (Luke 6:27-36, Romans 5:6-11).

From the beginning the Gospel of Jesus has been proclaimed in unequal, patriarchal, oppressive, exploitative, and violent societies, and people have become faithful Christians in these societies. Yet none of them will be able to receive the commendation of the Lord Jesus if they justified and perpetuated inequality, patriarchy, oppression, slavery, and violence. Jesus called them to humbly love, care for, and submit to one another in reverence to Him (1 John 4:7-23). Patriarchy is rooted in the presumption men are superior to women; in Christ women are joint heirs of the grace of life with men, one with men, and men are called upon to submit to women in reverence to Jesus. The Gospel thus subverts patriarchy. Slavery has always been justified by degrading and dehumanizing the slave; in Christ the slave is to be reckoned as the Lord’s freedman, and every free person must submit to the Lord Jesus and consider themselves to be His slaves, just as Paul, Peter, James, and Jude did (Romans 1:1, James 1:1, 2 Peter 1:1, Jude 1:1). A Christian master is to love and care for his slaves and share table fellowship with Christians who are slaves; such teachings and practices subvert the systems upholding a slave society. In the modern world we could consider the same in terms of blue- and white-collar workers and the exploitative and oppressive systems of our own time.

The Roman Empire suffered all sorts of miseries and difficulties, and continually turned to state violence against the Christians which it believed undermined their existence. Early Christians did not retaliate with violence but bore witness to their faith. Despite the terrible slander and suffering Christians experienced, their numbers continued to increase throughout the Roman Empire on account of the witness they bore to the Kingdom of Jesus. Christianity reached the point at which Constantine could decide to co-opt it not by assimilating or accommodating themselves to the ways of the Roman Empire, but by subverting the pretenses, justifications, rationales, and animating force of the Roman Empire. We deeply lament how many have followed after Constantinian Christendom by compromising the Gospel witness to get ahold of power; such people have caused great grief to Jesus’ Kingdom by becoming the very kind of oppressors God subverted in Jesus. We do better to hold fast to what God has done in Christ and allow the Gospel message to subvert in us the ways of this world; we do best when we humbly love and serve one another out of reverence for Christ. When we do so, we give no quarter to the exploitative and oppressive power dynamics of this world. May we live as Christ so we might obtain the resurrection in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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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The Voice

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 Voice

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