A Culture of Death | The Voice 11.18: May 02, 2021

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The Voice

A Culture of Death

In Revelation 17:1-18:24 John is granted a vision of the whore Babylon. The picture is not pretty: she wears luxuriant clothing and ostentatious jewelry, holding a cup full of abominations from which the nations drink, and sits intoxicated on the blood of the saints and martyrs of Jesus. She has the illusion of life and wealth, yet it is all a show: her wealth is founded upon oppression and violence against others, and she is dead spiritually even as she professes to live.

Thus God in Christ spoke of Rome in the first century. Rome as Babylon proved an apt metaphor when we understand what Babylon represents throughout Scripture: human authority arrogating itself against God and His purposes. Thus, whereas it was God’s purpose for Judah and Jerusalem to experience judgment at the hands of Babylon, the prophets denounced Babylon for its presumption and arrogance against God and man, with its king as the Lucifer brought down into oblivion, and doom foretold for the city (cf. Isaiah 14:3-23, Jeremiah 50:1-51:60). Long before this the fall of man was made complete and final at Babylon: the Tower of Babel, in which man sought to outwit God and His purposes to make a name for himself and create his own kind of community according to his own desires (Genesis 11:1-9).

God is the Source of light and life (John 1:1-5); man’s corruption has brought darkness, sin, and death (Romans 5:12-21). Those who recognize God’s sovereignty and seek His purposes perceive His hand in the creation; many, in their corruption, deny the plain truth before them, and God gives them over to their desires, and they are darkened in their deception (Romans 1:18-32). Therefore, that which is firmly grounded and built on what God has accomplished in the creation and through Jesus can promote a culture of light and life; yet all that which is founded upon rebellion or resistance against what God has accomplished in the creation and through Jesus promotes a culture of darkness and death.

A culture of death has proven pervasive in the world from antiquity until the present time. Wherever we find a “Babylon,” humans arrogating the presumptions and privileges of God for their own advantage and benefit, a culture of death follows. The Apostles saw it in Rome who brought peace at the end of a sword, exploiting the populations of the ancient Mediterranean world to enrich themselves, exposing the darkness within at any point its power or prestige was threatened. Undesirable children were exposed; undesirable people were marginalized. The gods of the people were capricious, divinities to placate more than adore, and whose behavior few thought worthy to emulate. The Pax Romana brought peace and prosperity rarely matched in world history; the privileged few benefited mightily; and yet the vast majority were exploited more than valued, without hope and much integrity in the world.

Modern culture all the more manifests this “Babylonian” tendency. We may still speak many languages, and yet we can now see and speak of a “global community” more realistically today than at any point in human history since Babel. And what unites this global community? The search for exploitation of resources and profit. Many may speak a good word about seeking what is best for people and to facilitate life; in deed people do whatever it takes to make a living, no matter the cost to other people or the environment. Our global culture, therefore, is a culture of death.

The culture of death underlies much of the difficulties, challenges, and matters of disagreement in modern society. The culture of death manifests itself most explicitly in the valuation of life itself, often seen as temporary beneficial in the best of circumstances and a burden otherwise. Far too many people view life through the lens of utilitarianism, or even worse, money, thinking of their own lives, and the lives of others, as only valuable and good when they are put to “profitable use,” or only worth living as long as they have money in the bank. To far too many, life itself is not seen as a good in and of itself; it is only as good as its “quality.” For many a new and growing life in the womb is only worth as much as it is valued by the woman bearing it, to be maintained or dispensed with at her leisure. For others the value of life is in direct relationship with the moral rectitude of a person: “good people” ought to have full privileges and enjoy all the benefits of life, but anyone who proves to be “less than good” are dehumanized in many ways and deprived of standing, liberty, and often life itself, without much care or concern. Woe to those who are poor, not of the majority color or culture, disabled, mentally ill, or who otherwise cannot fully perform or function to the satisfaction of the technocratic/meritocratic elite! Selective abortion to eliminate girls or certain genetic diseases grows more prevalent; taking the lives of those who endure illness gains further acceptance. In the name of abstract ideals people prove all too willing to sacrifice the actual lives of many other people, whether in pursuit of a system like communism or a principle like the freedom to bear arms (and the fetish surrounding guns is itself a testimony to a culture of death!).

In our culture of death hyper-individualism erodes values which might affirm and uphold the value and integrity of life. Everything is now about the individual and caters to his or her preferences. We are conditioned to want more, to use more, to think of ourselves and what benefits us, and to honor those preferences above what might be best for others and the creation as a whole. Human sexuality, with new life as the intended fruit of its consummation, has become purely about personal desire, preference, and control. In our culture, if a pregnancy occurs and it is not a convenient or preferable time for “me,” “I” get to choose my preference. And this assumes an “unintended” pregnancy; not a few people now presume complete and entire control over whether they will procreate and perpetuate life at all, and to what degree, without any regard to the health and sustenance of the community. As a result, in the Western world, we are not even meeting the level of population replacement; and many cheer. For over a century many have been concerned about overpopulation, presuming that procreation and the perpetuation of life (also, normally the life of The Other somewhere else, not those of “us” and “our people”) is itself the problem!

Our culture of death is especially acute in terms of how we treat other people. Other people are those who get in our way; we tend to see them as hindrances and potential threats, for we assume they seek their advantage even if it is to our disadvantage, since we are primed to think in the same way. We tend to not see life as something in which we share together; instead, it’s a “dog-eat-dog” world, in which we are to consume lest we find ourselves consumed, and other people exist to provide services and satisfaction of our needs. Other people are disposable: if they do not provide us any benefit, we often have nothing more to do with them. Those who wish to gain an advantage understand the power of fearmongering and the dehumanization of other people; modern culture has invested far too much energy in making people of other skin colors and cultures to be less than human, less valuable and important than we are, and thus literally disposable. Over the past century millions upon millions of lives have been extinguished or significantly demeaned by others who thought of them as less advanced, more animalistic, and thus not worthy of the dignity of humanity. We keep saying “never again,” and yet it happens again and again, and is happening right now in many parts of the world.

The Roman historian Tacitus quoted Calgacus, who in a speech said of the Romans: “they plunder, they slaughter, and they steal: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace” (Agricola 30). How much more is this true of modern society! At no other point in human history have people so thoroughly manipulated the environment to their own ends, and everywhere we look we see death. Scientists are now speaking of a major extinction event precipitated by human interference in almost every corner of the world. Like Babel we build glistening cities, temples to human ingenuity and control of the environment, and think them to be fantastic paradises, and yet they are devoid of most life. We build structures and do all we can to keep them neat, tidy, and clean: in another word, sterile. We have paved over God’s good creation, turning much of it into a wasteland, and think highly of ourselves in the process for having “developed” it. Never before have people been so disconnected from the natural creation which God has made; likewise, never before have people felt so confident in their ability to control and manipulate the environment. We shall see how sustainable this arrogance will prove; the testimony of history does not give much hope for it. What is sown will be reaped; as in the prophets, the land can tolerate only so much degradation before those who live upon it suffer (cf. Hosea 4:1-3).

Thus, everywhere we look, we see that “Babylonian” impulse to power over everything: other people, the environment, life itself. In its wake is not life but death as is fitting for a culture that does not regard God as the Giver and Sustainer of life and all good things but thinks of no higher power than mankind in its corruption. What was given by God in stewardship is seen as a birthright to exploit and abuse however we may desire. All we build is to make a name for ourselves and to mightily resist any kind of natural limitation we may find imposed upon us. We are separated from the natural world; we are increasingly isolated from each other, with relationships ever more mediated by technology. No wonder we find ourselves ever more despondent and depressed; we are slowly but surely unplugging ourselves from all the sources of life which God has created, sustained, and nourished. Alienation, despair, and death thus inevitably follow.

The picture of whore Babylon which John saw was ugly: a veneer of youth, health, and prosperity masking the stench of the death which sustained it. And so it is with modern culture. It cannot be sustained; it cannot last; a day of judgment must come. As with whore Babylon, so with modern culture: many will lament and mourn over its collapse, for those who lament will have lost economic opportunity, but few if any will work mightily to try to rescue modern culture. Its judgment will be just.

And yet such is the way of the world. The power behind the image of Rome as Babylon is seeing the “Babylonian” tendency behind every “civilization” which attempts to impose its sense of power and order in the world. Rome fell; if the Lord does not yet return, the modern globalist consensus will fall; but something will arise in its place. The world remains under the powers and principalities of this present darkness (Ephesians 6:12), entranced by the myth of redemptive violence, believing that though the power of death and exploitation peace and prosperity can be found.

There is no escape from the culture of death in the corrupted world of sin and death; we must instead be delivered from this body of death by what God has accomplished in the Lord Jesus Christ. We must turn away from the world and its ways and not be deceived into thinking that a culture of life rooted in God will be advanced by a culture of death rooted in that “Babylonian” corrupted impetus to power and exploitation. Victory comes through standing firm in God despite suffering and death while holding firm to the testimony of Jesus who Himself suffered and died and gained the victory (Romans 8:1-5, Revelation 12:11). Legislation backed by the coercive power of the state might alleviate certain difficulties and problems to some extent, but neither legislation nor the coercive power of the state can provide true and eternal life; only God offers this in the Gospel of Christ (Romans 1:16).

As Christians the decision is given to us: will we truly live as God’s chosen, and therefore exiles and sojourners seeking eternal life by living according to the Gospel of Christ in the midst of a culture of death, or will we fall prey to the siren songs of the world and eagerly participate in the ways of Babylon, vainly thinking that we can somehow advance God’s culture of life through the means and methods of the culture of death? May we truly uphold a culture of life in Christ, and eschew the culture of death in all of its forms, and take hold of life indeed!

Ethan R. Longhenry

A Culture of Death | The Voice 11.18: May 02, 2021

A Crisis of Communication and Understanding | The Voice 11.17: April 25, 2021

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The Voice

A Crisis of Communication and Understanding

It is becoming evident that the fundamental language and perspective of Christianity is quite dissonant from the language(s) and perspective(s) of many of those within greater society. Many times we feel as if we are speaking a different language from those among us! Indeed, it seems that if we are going to have something meaningful to communicate to our fellow man we are going to have to re-orient his thinking in some way or another.

This fundamental insight has been lost on “Christendom” at large. On one side of the “spectrum” we have groups who rather explicitly shun or move away from their historic underpinnings, and on the other side, we have groups railing against the effects that this paradigm shift have engendered.

It is not as if this all happened at once; in fact, one can trace the pattern for at least the past few hundred years. It has taken many forms. An evident one involves science: as the seventeenth century moved into the eighteenth, scientists for all kinds of reasons moved away from positions of faith, and over time, as religious influence has waned, science and the scientific endeavor have taken its place in the eyes of many. Whereas many were once content to use Christianity (or some other supernatural system) to guide the way they saw their world we now have plenty of people who use science as the prism through which they understand everything. This is not to say that science has no value, for in its own realm it can serve humanity wonderfully. But while science can provide insights that may help inform philosophy, ethics, theology, and the like, philosophy, ethics, and theology ought to also inform science, as opposed to making science and scientific inquiry the Absolute it was never designed to be.

Much could also be said about the divinization of reason and rational thinking. It seems almost public heresy anymore to question the status of Reason as the Ultimate Guide for all things. Skepticism also has become one of the standards of the modern age, but curiously, few seem willing to doubt their doubts, or question the reasonableness of reason as the standard.

It is evident that the belief in the supernatural was anathema to many in society from the Enlightenment until recently, and even though postmodernism has returned in a sense to the supernatural, it eschews any form of the supernatural most would deem “traditional,” especially New Testament Christianity.

Meanwhile, relativism and “tolerance” and a questioning of any and all standards except the ones we implicitly assume are standard procedure. Something as simple as thesis and antithesis, that A and not-A cannot be both true at the same time, is now questioned. There is no mutually agreed upon standard for much of anything, let alone belief in a personal God who is our Creator and to Whom we are subject. This is all compounded by an astounding ignorance of the Bible both as a cultural standard and as a religious text.

In such a climate it is not surprising that many who still hold to Christianity in some way or another would want to protest. Many want things to be like they were at some hazily defined moment in the past, back when people at least seemed to be more moral. Yet Ecclesiastes 7:10 applies. We have not been called to live in 1840s America or 1910s America or even 1950s America; we are called to live as Christians in early 21st century America.

But what we do have to come to terms with is that we cannot expect to communicate with many of our fellow human beings like we would in previous eras and expect a lot of success.

The Restoration Movement grew exponentially in the middle of 19th century America when entertainment choices were few, hymn singings were a popular way of passing an evening, and people learned how to read by reading the Bible. People accepted that there was right and wrong, even if they were doing wrong. Most people with whom you would speak would already share much of the same ideology as you would, and therefore you had common ground upon which to begin a conversation. In such a climate we can understand why the issues were focused on the specific forms of disagreement with the wider denominational world: issues like church organization and governance, baptism, frequency and nature of the Lord’s Supper, and other assembly matters. Issues of the assembly deserved focus because you could assume that the people with whom you were speaking shared the general outlines of a “Christian” worldview, and “everyone” knew that all good citizens should conduct themselves as good “Christian men” and “Christian women.”

That was then. This is now.

Today we have very little of that foundation left intact. We cannot assume that the people with whom we come into contact believe in God. We cannot even assume that they believe that there is an objective standard delineating right from wrong. There is no certainty that they are even open to the belief that there are forces beyond themselves, and they may never have been challenged to look at the world beyond the lenses of materialism and physical perception.

Yet the statistics show that the vast majority of Americans do believe in God, the Bible, Jesus Christ, and even heaven and hell. Nevertheless, we cannot assume that people really understand much of any of these things. We cannot assume that by believing in God that they believe in God the Creator to whom all the creation is subject (cf. Genesis 1:1-2:4, Romans 9:20-24). They may profess belief in the Bible, but we cannot know how much they really know about its teachings; and, for that matter, how many times they may know its teachings but declare some of them to be wrong or not true for themselves. They may say that they believe that Jesus is the Christ but they certainly may not understand the consequences of such a view: Jesus Christ is God the Son and the Son of God, the Son of David, the only Way to God, and presently Lord of all to whom everyone will subject themselves, willingly or otherwise (Romans 1:1-5, John 14:16, Philippians 2:5-11). In short, even among those who profess Jesus, we cannot be sure whether they have culturally conditioned beliefs or have truly grounded themselves in the perspective of God in Christ (cf. Colossians 2:1-11).

This may sound distressing, but what it is trying to get us to understand is that we do truly live in a “post-Christian” era. The twenty-first century has returned to being like the first two centuries of the faith in many ways. We can complain about it and get distressed about or we can try to figure out what can be done about it. And there is much to do.

I believe that these understandings lead to at least two important insights in regards to evangelism in the 21st century. The first is that our defense of the faith must be buttressed with a good offense. In many of the American resources for Christian apologetics that I have seen the evidence is marshaled in ways not unlike a basketball team attempting to maintain a 15 point lead on their opposition in the last quarter of the game: a mostly defensive posture that attempts to persuade without doing any fundamental damage to the worldview of the person we are trying to persuade. The problem is, of course, that if we get too defensive, we lose without much hope of gain.

An instructive example is Minucius Felix’s Octavius, a treatise written around the end of the second century, relating how Minucius’ friend Octavius converted a mutual friend Caecilius out of paganism. The dialogue begins with Caecilius’ argument against Christianity, full of inaccuracies about Christianity but a relatively robust presentation of the standard pagan argument of the day. When confronted with this argument Octavius does not start by merely clarifying what Caecilius has misunderstood about Christianity but by metaphorically going for the kill. Octavius uses the words of the Greeks themselves to demonstrate the existence of One Creator God, demonstrates the weakness, fallacies, and foibles of the Greek pantheon, demonstrating the ridiculousness of the belief system, and then he sets Caecilius straight about his exaggerations about Christianity. Octavius had to tear down in order to build up.

We cannot mince words or thoughts here: as always, the Christian faith confesses views fundamentally opposed to the ways of the world in our culture and society (1 John 2:13-16). If we believe that we can just go out and teach Jesus without any attempt to challenge the prevailing assumptions of people, we should not be surprised when our evangelism efforts are not very successful, and when they are successful, that the people converted often fail to develop the type of faith the Bible demands.

We must do this with gentleness and respect, for certain (cf. 1 Peter 3:15), remembering that the people with whom we speak are not the enemy (Ephesians 6:12), but it must be done. One cannot have a mind to believe that Jesus is the Christ while still believing that many paths lead to God. One cannot be ready to cling to what is good and to abhor what is evil while believing that good and evil have no absolute basis in reality. One cannot profess belief in God while being wedded to an anti-supernatural view of our universe. Even though this may be offensive to much of what passes for “liberal” Christianity, there are times when we must call a spade a spade and recognize that far too many groups professing Jesus have compromised with the world in matters of truth and righteousness and that we must make a contrary stand not just for the truth of God as revealed through Jesus Christ but in the belief that there is a God, that He is alive and active and powerful, that Jesus of Nazareth truly existed as God in the flesh, truly died, and was truly and actually raised by God in the flesh in power on the third day, that all of these things are historical reality, just as presented by the church in the first century (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, 2 John 1:7-11). If people want to reject these statements as being true, they are certainly able to do so; but they are no longer being true to the Christian worldview and ideology as expressed in Scripture.

In order for the message of the Gospel to be heard properly there must be a recognition of disturbance in life: something is not right. Most people have never had their assumptions questioned or challenged. There is no doubt that many people, when so questioned, will retreat and would rather remain inconsistent than to come to grips with being wrong. But if we present the message of God in such a way that never leads anyone to question the way they have always been conditioned to see the world we should not expect to see much in the way of results. While it may be true that Christianity has never really been tried by most so as to be found lacking, too many people believe that Christianity has gone or should go the way of the dinosaur, Zeus, and animal sacrifices, and no amount of pleading without challenge will change that perception.

Therefore the presentation of the Gospel in the modern world must really be a two-edged sword: first challenging current assumptions, and then presenting a radical alternative. But there must be work done before we even get to that point.

If you noticed from the description of the Octavius, Caecilius the pagan was invited to give the first argument. I do not believe that this was merely coincidental or done out of respect; there is a definite advantage to this. By making the argument first, Caecilius lays his proverbial cards out on the table, and Octavius is then able to discern exactly what Caecilius believes and therefore what is the best way to go forward with his refutation and defense.

I fear that our evangelistic efforts may be hampered because of our forwardness. A large number of our evangelistic methods attempt to get to the point of the Bible study: the opportunity to open the Bible and to see what it says. This, in and of itself, is right and good and quite necessary (2 Timothy 3:16-17, Romans 1:16). But if we engage in such things without really knowing where the people with whom we are studying are coming from our efforts may be in vain.

There is a sense in which we today must engage in “pre-evangelism” in order to get to evangelism. There will always be a select few who are seeking and are willing to give the presenter of the Gospel the benefit of the doubt, and God be praised for such people. Nevertheless, a lot of the people with whom we come into contact are going to be more suspicious and leery. The adage of Dave Barry rests in their heads: people who want to share their religious convictions with you rarely want to hear yours. Even though it may not be intended there can be a patronizing air in a Bible study: we come to you with superior Biblical knowledge and insight, and we expect you to come to terms with it. Some people can handle that; many more cannot. Furthermore, if we engage in such a study without really knowing the person with whom we are having such a study, we are unlikely to know precisely what they believe, why they believe it, and therefore are robbed of the best way of promoting the Gospel. We may be guilty of focusing too heavily on common ground while entirely neglecting critical grounds of disagreement.

If there is one thing that is still true about people, however, it is that people enjoy talking about themselves. Perhaps as opposed to beginning with us or the Bible we should begin with them: who they are, what they have experienced in the past in terms of spirituality or religion, what they believe about God, Jesus, the Bible, salvation, eternity, and so on and so forth.

This has many benefits. First of all it demonstrates that we do care about the people with whom we want to study: we want to get to know them, and they are not just a number. If we gently prod regarding matters of inconsistency in their ideologies (and there will no doubt be matters of inconsistency), it may lead them to already reconsider how they look at the world. Many people may not believe in the truth and believe that they have a good argument against it, yet, when actually expected to make that argument, realize that in reality it is pretty weak. Finally, you know exactly where they stand, and thus are better able to present the Gospel, with both the challenge and the solution, in regards to exactly where the person is. One may have to clear a lot of philosophical ground to get to the point where the Gospel can be considered. Or one may be able to just focus on the distinctives of the church. Most will be somewhere in between.

If we are honest with ourselves, we recognize that we are currently suffering a crisis of communication and understanding. Methods that used to do well at communicating the Gospel are not as successful anymore. We often struggle to have any form of meeting of the minds with many of our fellow humans. But we can take comfort from our brethren in times long past, for if Christians of the first few centuries of this era could turn Greeks and Romans saturated with paganism and immorality and get them to understand the futility of their ideology and the truth that is in Jesus Christ, we can do the same with the secularists and others in the twenty-first century. Let us work to communicate with our fellow man so as to present the Gospel of Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

A Crisis of Communication and Understanding | The Voice 11.17: April 25, 2021

Goodness | The Voice 11.16: April 18, 2021

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The Voice

Fruit of the Spirit: Goodness

The Apostle Paul certainly had plenty of reason for concern about the doctrinal steadfastness of the Galatian Christians (cf. Galatians 1:1-5:16); nevertheless, he would not neglect the opportunity to exhort them regarding the practice of the faith as well. To this end he instructed them to avoid the works of the flesh and to manifest the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:17-24). Paul described the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control; against such there is no law.

The fruit of the Spirit can be fully summed up in love. Joy, peace, and longsuffering/patience prove necessary dispositions if we would properly exhibit love and manifest the work of the Spirit. Such dispositions should become manifest to others in kindness and goodness.

The word here translated as “goodness” is the Greek word agathosune, defined by Thayer’s as “uprightness of heart and life, goodness, kindness.”

Where does goodness reside in mankind? Is it based on some sort of intrinsic character trait? We often hear people described thus as good: “she is a good person.” “They are good people.” If asked how such people are “good,” we might hear about some of the good works they do; if nothing else, we will hear of many of the bad things they avoid. Yet we must hear Jesus’ correction of the rich young ruler in Mark 10:18: only God is good. As for humanity, Paul’s testimony from the Hebrew Scriptures remains true: none are good (Romans 3:10; cf. Psalm 14:1). All humans have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23); we might want to focus on the good things we might do, or the good characteristics we might embody, but we have all violated God’s purposes at some times in some ways and thus would be rightly condemned as transgressors (cf. James 2:9-10). In truth, the line between good and evil runs through each and every one of us: we all remain capable of great good and great evil, and have done both good and evil. For humanity, therefore, goodness cannot be an intrinsic character trait, for none of us are inherently good.

And yet Paul was convinced that the Roman Christians were full of goodness in Romans 15:14; he prayed that God would fulfill every desire of goodness in the Thessalonian Christians in 2 Thessalonians 1:11. Christians may not have intrinsic goodness, for only God is good; and yet Christians were called out of the darkness of sin, despair, and death in order to pursue the good works for which God has made them (Ephesians 2:1-10, 5:8-9, Titus 3:3-8). When Paul considered “goodness” a manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit, he did so in this sense: the desire, consideration, and execution of all that is good.

So what is the good that we ought to desire, consider, and accomplish? It is difficult to improve on the words of the prophet:

He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth YHWH require of thee, but to do justly, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with thy God? (Micah 6:8)

The good is to do justly, love “kindness” (Hebrew hesed, in which covenant loyalty meets steadfast love), and walk humbly with God. Jesus embodied this goodness: Peter is able to summarize Jesus’ life in ministry as going about and doing good for Israel (Acts 10:38). We will only be able to display such goodness if we display appropriate humility in our walk with God. God is love; all we have and are comes from God and not from our own strength alone; on our own we would stand condemned; we only can stand based on God’s love and grace displayed toward us; as God has done good to us, thus we are do good to others (Ephesians 2:1-10, Titus 3:3-8). By necessity such goodness stands at variance with all that is recognized and confessed as evil: we must abhor evil and cease walking in the darkness (Romans 12:9). Yet the demands of justice require us to also expose the works of evil so we can powerfully affirm what is good, right, and just in the sight of God (Ephesians 5:8-12). For good reason Paul would later exhort the Galatian Christians to do good to all people as they had opportunity, and especially to those in the household of faith (Galatians 6:10): we do not really need to have this kind of behavior defined for us. We understand that we should seek the welfare of others, to benefit them in their moment of need and provide whatever proves necessary, be it time, material resources, or emotional, mental, and spiritual investment (Matthew 25:31-46, James 1:27). This concern should prove all the more obvious for fellow Christians, for how can we say we love God and prove thankful for His goodness if we do not seek to do good for His people (John 13:33-35, 1 John 3:16-18, 4:7-21)?

Thus, we may not be intrinsically good, but we ought to be filled with all goodness in Christ through the Spirit. To this end Jesus considered His disciples to be the salt of the earth, the city set on a hill, and the light of the world: they should do good works and give reason for all people to glorify God (Matthew 5:13-16). People should be able to see God’s goodness reflected and embodied in us. Do we seek to walk humbly with God and resist all evil? Do we act justly, relieving the poor and oppressed and upholding righteousness? Do we display steadfast love and covenant loyalty toward others as God has expressed it toward us? May Paul’s prayer in 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12 bless us, and may we do good and glorify God in Christ in so doing!

To which end we also pray always for you, that our God may count you worthy of your calling, and fulfil every desire of goodness and every work of faith, with power; that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and ye in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Ethan R. Longhenry

Goodness | The Voice 11.16: April 18, 2021

To Tarshish! | The Voice 11.15: April 11, 2021

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The Voice

To Tarshish!

The Word of YHWH came to Jonah ben Amittai: go to Nineveh and cry against it; their wickedness had ascended before Him (Jonah 1:1-2).

Among the “minor prophets” Jonah is unique: most of the book is a narrative in the life and work of Jonah; it is not primarily a collection of the prophet’s sayings. We do not know when the story was composed; we only know the relative timeframe of the events thanks to a reference to Jonah ben Amittai in 2 Kings 14:25. In it we discover that Jonah ben Amittai is a prophet of Gath-hepher, on the border of Zebulun (cf. Joshua 19:13); he prophesied of how Jeroboam ben Jehoash would restore the borders of Israel. Thus Jonah lived and prophesied around 780 to 750 BCE: a time of renewal and prosperity in Israel, in which many cherished the hope that Israel had been made great again. Not entirely coincidently, the same period was one of upheaval in Assyria: Adad-nirari III had energetically expanded the power and influence of Assyria, but after his death in 783 BCE his successors fell prey to internal strife and discord, a situation which would remain until 745 BCE.

Jonah, Israel, and the whole ancient Near Eastern world were acquainted with the wickedness of Nineveh and the Assyrians. They already had begun manifesting the imperial ambitions which would soon overtake and overwhelm most of the petty ancient Near Eastern kingdoms. Their pagan idolatry was always before YHWH. Perhaps they had done some other great evil of which we are ignorant but Jonah could well imagine.

And yet, when called to go and preach repentance to Nineveh, Jonah fled. Jonah sought to travel as far away from Nineveh as he possibly could; in the world of the ancient Mediterranean, nowhere was farther away than Tarshish. We believe Tarshish to most likely be the same as the Greek Tartessos, a term used to describe the area around the mouth of the Guadalquivir River in modern day Spain, just past Gibraltar, the “Pillars of Hercules,” and thus on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean (Jonah 1:3). By boarding a boat heading for Tarshish, Jonah clearly was not at all interested in heeding the Word of YHWH.

Yet YHWH would not be so easily escaped. While he sailed west he encountered a storm so mighty it threatened to tear the ship apart (Jonah 1:4). The sailors were terribly frightened: each prayed to his own god and sought to lighten the load of the ship. Meanwhile, Jonah slept below deck (Jonah 1:5)! Jonah was awakened and exhorted to pray to his God (Jonah 1:6). They all then cast lots to determine why this evil had come upon them, and the lot fell upon Jonah; he explained who he was and the God of Israel whom he served, and they were all the more scared, for he had already explained what he was doing (Jonah 1:7-10). They wanted to know what they should do, and Jonah told them to cast him overboard, for it was the only way to save themselves from the storm (Jonah 1:11-12). The sailors worked valiantly to get back to land but could not do so; they then begged YHWH to forgive them for what they were about to do to Jonah, and then they cast him overboard (Jonah 1:13-15). The sea ceased raging; the sailors feared YHWH, offering sacrifice and making vows to Him (Jonah 1:15-16). Meanwhile a great fish swallowed Jonah up; he remained in the belly of that fish three days and nights (Jonah 1:17). Much speculation has attended to this large fish: many have presumed it a whale, which is a mammal and not a fish, but might have been reckoned among the fishes in Israelite taxonomy. Perhaps it was a type of sea creature which has since gone extinct. We cannot know for certain.

Jonah prayed to YHWH while in the belly of the fish; its substance is recorded in Jonah 2:1-9. Jonah cried out to YHWH in his affliction, and YHWH heard him (Jonah 2:1-2). YHWH had cast him into the depth of the seas; nevertheless, Jonah remained confident he would see YHWH’s temple again (Jonah 2:3-4). Jonah considered how he had descended into the depths of the waters and yet YHWH had brought back his life from the pit (Jonah 2:5-6). Jonah’s soul fainted within him, and yet he remembered YHWH; his prayer came into the temple of YHWH (Jonah 2:7). Many served idols in futility and thus forsake God’s mercy; Jonah would pay his vows and offer sacrifice to YHWH with thanksgiving, for salvation is of YHWH (Jonah 2:8-9). After three days and nights YHWH spoke to the fish, which vomited Jonah out onto dry land, ostensibly back in Israel from which Jonah had fled (Jonah 2:10).

Jonah’s story so far has certainly been dramatic. We do well to wonder what motivated him to flee from the presence and call of YHWH; in his good time our narrator will reveal it all to us. Yet we can already tell that Jonah clearly wanted nothing to do with whatever YHWH was planning for Nineveh and the Assyrians, and wanted to get as far away as possible. Thus he would go to Tarshish.

We might think it a bit overdone and overdramatic for Jonah to go and flee to Tarshish; we might chastise him for thinking so narrowly or presumptuously, as if he could somehow truly flee from the presence of YHWH and escape Him. At the time many believed their gods to have power in certain geographic areas; Jonah’s behavior might not have seemed as strange to his fellow people of the ancient Near East as it does to us.

We may not be tempted to rise up and go to the other end of the earth in order to escape God’s message and calling, but we should be careful about how sharply we judge Jonah. Jonah was quite forthright and honest about fleeing from the presence and call of YHWH; how many times have we been tempted to shy away from the presence and call of God in Christ, yet attempt to justify or excuse ourselves in doing so? Perhaps Jesus would demand that we reconcile with people who have wronged us or with whom we maintain significant disagreement; perhaps Jesus would have us provide for people who would actively seek our harm; maybe Jesus would want us to speak up in a way that would expose us to rejection, derision, or harm. In all of these moments, and many others, we might want to get on a boat ourselves and flee to Tarshish.

As it was with Jonah, so it is with us: we can try to go as far as we want in trying to flee from God’s presence and word, whether geographically or relationally, and yet we can never truly escape Him. God will find us where we are; we will be held accountable for what we think, say, feel, and do. We are called to draw near to God, not flee from Him in bewilderment, frustration, or shame (James 4:8). On our own we flail about, drowning in the sea of anxiety, despair, fear, and sin; God has delivered us from the storm, for Jesus His Son endured three days and nights in the grave so we can be reconciled to Him and obtain eternal life (cf. Matthew 12:39-41). May we draw near to God and obtain such life in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

To Tarshish! | The Voice 11.15: April 11, 2021

Man, Minute and Majestic | The Voice 11.14: April 04, 2021

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Man, Minute and Majestic

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers / The moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? / And the son of man, that thou visitest him?
For thou hast made him but little lower than God / and crownest him with glory and honor (Psalm 8:3-5).

Minute and majestic: David has well encapsulated humanity’s contradiction in terms.

David had glorified God as having an excellent name in the earth and His glory in the heavens (Psalm 8:1). God was able to establish a bulwark from the mouths of babies to silence forces opposed to him (Psalm 8:2). David had looked up at the heavens and marveled at what he saw: he recognized how small humans were in the grand scheme of things, and wondered why God was mindful of them (Psalm 8:4). And yet God had made them a little lower than the heavenly powers, crowning them with glory and honor, giving them dominion over the animals of the earth (Psalm 8:5-8). David had good reason indeed to praise the name of the Lord YHWH as excellent (Psalm 8:9).

Humans tend to want to resist recognizing the continual tension in which they live as both very small in the grand scheme of things yet made wonderfully and majestically to be able to exercise dominion in the earth. It seems to be easier to focus on how small we are when we want to rationalize the various ways we exploit and perhaps even oppress the creation over which we have been given oversight. At the same time we also vaunt ourselves in our majesty and devote great time and effort into many mighty works so as to resist the prospect of our smallness and relative insignificance in the working of the cosmos. It is hard for us to reconcile how we can maintain both of these propositions in our minds at the same time since they seem so self-contradictory, and yet both remain persistent outgrowths of our fears and anxieties about our standing in the cosmos and before God.

Yes, we human beings are minute in the grand scheme of things. The universe abounds with untold numbers of galaxies, all filled with innumerable stars and planets rotating around them. We live in a small corner of that universe in one of those galaxies; the great forces by means of which all these things have come to pass can easily crush us. Our time in this life is short; our abilities, at a cosmic level, do not mean much. We are constantly challenged and beset with various difficulties since the universe allows for life but has many forces at work which would easily destroy it.

Even so, man remains majestic, crowned with the glory and honor of having been made in the image of his and her Creator (Genesis 1:26-27). We can explore the universe and many of its mysteries. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, as David would sing in Psalm 139: we are able to accomplish complex tasks and can ponder our own existence and the meaning of it all. We are capable of great good and all that goes by the name “humanitarian”; we are also capable of great evil in devastation, destruction, and death. No other creature in this world could have the pride of place as mankind presently enjoys.

To this end we must anchor ourselves in David’s understanding of how minute and majestic we are. God has made everything this way; we cannot perceive everything, and we do well to continually confess the existence of forces greater than we are and which we cannot control or manipulate, and a God who created us and to whom we ought to give thanks and serve (Isaiah 55:8-9). And yet we do have our areas of ability and strength, and ought to exercise all such power to the glory of God, as a stewardship of the gifts God has given, and for which we will give an account (Romans 13:1, 14:10-12).

For David, human dominion over the animals of the earth is a given, an established fact from the creation of the world (Psalm 8:5-8; cf. Genesis 1:26-31). For the Hebrews author, however, there remains an open question regarding that dominion: he saw how Jesus became the Son of Man, made for a moment a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor in His sufferings and death, and all in order to be exalted to authority and dominion over the created order (Hebrews 2:6-7, 9). And yet the Hebrews author made it plain that not everything has yet been fully subjected to Jesus; he remained confident all would be subjected to Him one day, but it has not taken place fully yet (Hebrews 2:8). Many still resist His salvation; the powers and principalities remain at work in this world (2 Corinthians 4:3-4).

As Christians we take great encouragement from how the Hebrews author saw Jesus embodied as the Son of Man of Psalm 8:3-8: through His suffering and exaltation we can find salvation, a kingdom, and the way we should live. We also ought to grasp the Hebrews author’s tenuous hold on dominion: yes, dominion was granted to humans, but a significant number of forces are beyond our power. In our fear and anxiety will we press down all the more deeply on that over which we do have power, and exploit and oppress to oblivion the creatures and resources of the earth? Or will we learn how to love, tend, and even serve that over which God has given us dominion, as Jesus loves, tends, and serves all of us who live in His Kingdom?

David could look to the heavens and see the work of God’s hand. When most of us look to the heavens, we can no longer see the work of God’s hand as well beyond all of the lights we have built for ourselves for our comfort and in our attempt to make a name for ourselves. Such is a sadly ironic yet fitting embodiment of one of our challenges in the present hour: we are hindered from confessing God’s great glory and our relative smallness by means of the haze from our diligent labors in our creative abilities to exploit, aggrandize, and make much of ourselves and for ourselves. We only want to make ourselves small in order to justify all our big works and minimize the effects those works have on ourselves and others.

We are minute and majestic; we are part of this creation, yet made in the image of the One who created it. We may be small but our impact on our environment can be large. We can discern such things so that we can give glory to God our Creator and live in harmony with His purposes and the creation He has made, or we can distort and warp this reality in tension in our fears and anxieties unto oppression and degradation of our relationships and our environment. May we all confess our minuteness in humility while giving praise to the God who has crowned us with majesty and honor, and seek to glorify Him in how we live and treat one another and all He has given us!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Man, Minute and Majestic | The Voice 11.14: April 04, 2021

Division | The Voice 11.13: March 28, 2021

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But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another (1 Corinthians 12:24b-25).

When we speak of “divisions” in the church, we normally gravitate toward divisions on account of false doctrines, on account of attempting to impose a liberty (or the lack thereof) on others, or on account of pushing a “hobby horse” or some other issue regardless of its substantive importance in the faith. Such division is lamentable, but sometimes sadly necessary; Christians are to mark and have nothing to do with those who advocate for false teachings (Romans 16:17-18). The church in Ephesus was commended for not tolerating false apostles, and the church in Thyatira chastised for tolerating the false prophetess “Jezebel” (Revelation 2:1-7, 18-29). We hate to see people fall away from the truth, and we must gently and meekly correct those in opposition, praying that God may grant them repentance and a knowledge of the truth (2 Timothy 2:24-26).

Yet, in the New Testament, the Apostles are concerned about many other forms of division. We see this manifest in 1 Corinthians 12:24-25: as Paul speaks about division in this passage, division has far less to do with doctrine and much more to do with a lack of openness, love, and mutual honesty/accountability.

This is an important lesson for us. We have become well conditioned to be on the lookout for divisions regarding doctrine, and yet if we act in unloving or discouraging ways toward our fellow members of the Body of Christ, we create divisions. When we withhold ourselves from the brethren, not confessing our sins to one another (James 5:16), not allowing others to bear our burdens (Galatians 6:2), and in various ways composing ourselves in ways aloof from our brethren, we are the authors of division within the body.

In the world such types of division are natural. Humans are a tribal lot; we generally have a small circle of people we trust, and we learn through the experience of hurt and betrayal to know when to close off and avoid accountability in relationships. This natural tendency has been exacerbated in the Western world over the past few generations; we are more withdrawn from our fellow man than ever before. We do not interact with others as we travel; we can go through the day and barely physically interact with anyone. We have technology designed to bring us together but it only does so at arm’s length. By default we live in a sort of division because our culture has enshrined individualism as the greatest good. Meanwhile, we are starving to death emotionally and spiritually, because we are not being nourished by the support system that we all need, for we are made in the image of God who is one in relational unity, and we need strong relationships with others to not only survive but flourish (Genesis 1:26-27, John 17:21-23).

And so, if divisions would be healed and made rare, members of the Body of Christ must have “mutual care” for one another (1 Corinthians 12:25). Yes, we are reconciled to God and one another through what God accomplished in Jesus, and made into one body by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13, Ephesians 2:11-22); yet we are called to be diligent to preserve the unity accomplished in that Spirit in Ephesians 4:3, the very same diligence we are to exercise in handling rightly the Word of truth in 2 Timothy 2:15. We thus must work to preserve the unity of the Spirit, being open with one another, accountable to one another, seeking to both be a source of encouragement and to gain encouragement within the body. But that is only possible when we decide to open up, to express vulnerability, and truly and fully connect and relate to each other as fellow Christians. That demands a willingness to trust even though betrayal is not only possible but highly likely. It requires reorientation, a way of life very different from that in our current society.

We understand the dangers of doctrinal division; how can we jointly participate in Christ if we are not agreed upon what it means to do so (1 Corinthians 1:10)? Yet the dangers of other forms of division are no less acute. If a congregation is divided into factions supporting different persons or methods, or as a legacy because brother Smith said a discouraging word to Sister Jones twenty years ago and real forgiveness was never manifest, how can that local congregation function in a healthy way that glorifies God and truly encourages its members (1 Corinthians 1:11-13, 3:3)? Such a congregation essentially is already two or three churches who happen to come together at the same time and place, and often to their harm, for no matter how well things may seem to go, that division is always the sixty ton elephant in the room. Likewise, if a congregation agrees on what is true but everyone just looks to family members in the church for connection and support, how can that congregation function in a healthy way that truly manifests itself as the spiritual family of God (1 Timothy 3:15)? What would happen if Christians not affiliated with one family or another attempted to join and be part of such a congregation, and how could such a congregation effectively incorporate converts from the community into their association? Or what if a congregation has doctrinal agreement but gives comparatively little concern for the health or strength of the association and community among its members? In such a congregation there is great division, for it is really a host of atomized individuals or family units who agree to meet once or a few times a week but otherwise have noting to do with each other. Such is no longer a church but a country club, and even then, a poorly functioning country club at that. How will such a congregation be able to provide support and encouragement when difficult days come for some of its constituent members or in the life of the congregation itself? How can they provide an environment of true spiritual flourishing when the members of the Body seem to have little connection with each other, however intended or desired?

We would never want to be responsible for dividing the church on account of matters of doctrine, and that is well and good. But if we allow open divisions to fester and do not work to make peace and heal, we perpetuate the division of the Body of Christ. If we because of fear or pride refuse to be open and vulnerable among fellow Christians, and presume that we can keep to ourselves, we divide the Body of Christ. If we prefer physical family or friends to the exclusion of other members of a local congregation, we divide the Body of Christ. If we do not work to incorporate new Christians into the life of the congregation, we cut off new growth and thus divide the Body of Christ.

We do well to be concerned about the dangers of doctrinal division, but we should be just as concerned, if not more so, regarding the condition of divisions which may exist among the members of the Body of Christ. We must give great diligence to encourage all Christians to strive to break down the barriers of pride and fear and be willing to truly live in community, to share in life with one another, to associate and be accountable toward each other. We commit evangelistic malpractice if we put all our efforts into converting members of the local community but do not intentionally work to make sure they are acclimated and assimilated into the community of the members of the Body of Christ. The stronger the connection to the Body of Christ, the better chance of spiritual growth and flourishing; the weaker the connection to the Body of Christ, the more likely such a person atrophies, gets discouraged, falls to temptation, and for all intents and purposes is divided from the rest and ready to be cut off. Not for nothing does Paul continually exhort Christians to give diligence regarding their connections and association with fellow Christians (Romans 12:3-18, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28). We do well to be concerned regarding all potential divisions in the Body of Christ, and strive to make peace and grow together with the saints to the glory of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Division | The Voice 11.13: March 28, 2021

Kindness | The Voice 11.12: March 21, 2021

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Fruit of the Spirit: Kindness

The Apostle Paul well understood that maintaining an understanding of the truth of God in Christ, and upholding that truth, was very important (Galatians 1:1-5:16). And yet such an understanding must inform the Christian’s practice, and the practice of the faith reinforces the truth of what God has done in Christ: thus Paul not just encouraged the Galatian Christians in the truth of God in Christ, but also exhorted them toward faithful conduct in Jesus (Galatians 5:17-24). Paul expected Christians to manifest the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:23-23:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control; against such there is no law.

The fruit of the Spirit is not plural, but singular; each aspect cannot be understood only on its own merits but must be incorporated with the rest. The fruit of the Spirit could be entirely defined by love; joy, peace, and longsuffering/patience all speak to attitudes which allow Christians to glorify God regardless of their circumstances, and can endure.

The fruit of the Spirit ought to represent attitudes and dispositions manifest in behaviors, as can be seen with “kindness.” The word translated in Galatians 5:22 in most versions as kindness (but as “goodness” in the KJV) is the Greek word chrestotes, defined by Thayer’s as “moral goodness, integrity; benignity, kindness.”

Kindness seems hard to describe but easy to perceive; such says much about what it means to be kind. On a fundamental level kindness is an openness to another, seeking to be well-disposed toward them and to provide benefit in some way. We certainly appreciate the kindness of a stranger if they help us in a moment of need, providing resources we might need or something of that sort. But kindness is not equivalent to benevolence: one could certainly give begrudgingly, or out of perceived necessity. A person can be benevolent but harsh; for that matter, a person might be seen as good, yet not really kind. Kindness demands welcoming and warmth and can be communicated as easily as with a smile as anything else.

In the New Testament Christians are told to not expect such kindness and integrity in the world (Romans 3:12). The Apostle Paul set himself and his associates forward to early Christians as a model of kindness as they preached and labored among them (2 Corinthians 6:6). They expected Christians to put on kindness toward one another and to all (Colossians 3:12).

And yet God remains the model of kindness for the Christian. The concept of Hebrew hesed, so fundamental in the Psalms and an essential characteristic of God, is not able to be well translated into either Greek or English, as the place where covenant loyalty and loving kindness meet: upholding commitment with a feeling of warmth. We should certainly understand at least a hint of hesed behind the description of God’s work in Christ as a display of kindness: God’s kindness appeared in Christ and the salvation secured by His sacrifice according to Titus 3:4, and in Ephesians 2:7 Paul expected Christians to be continually bedazzled by God’s display of the riches of His grace in kindness for the rest of eternity.

God loved; God showed grace and mercy; and thus God is kind. We see the kindness of God in the continual refreshment of the creation and our lives. We can discern God’s kindness as He is present with us in our lives, and strengthens and sustains us through our distress and trial: everything we have and are comes from Him, and our continual sustenance in Him is a gift. We can have complete confidence that God cares, and we have every reason to seek to draw near to Him, for He has done everything He can to demonstrate how kindly disposed He remains toward us (Romans 8:31-39, Hebrews 10:19-23).

As Christians we ought to be kind to one another and to others as God has been kind to us. Yet we should never confuse God’s patience and kindness with laxity and indifference. God has been kind to us in order to give us an opportunity to turn and follow His ways: if we faithfully seek His purposes we will endure in His kindness for eternity, but the kindness of God will be exhausted at some point for those who resist His purposes, and leaving a fearful expectation of judgment remaining (Romans 2:2-11, 11:22). We should not presume on God’s kindness!

If longsuffering/patience is the most coveted character trait yet one of the most poorly displayed, then kindness has become one of the most lost and neglected dispositions of our age. As Western society has grown more individualistic people have become more atomized and alienated from one another. Not a few people have become embittered and hardened by their experiences with their fellow human beings, and remain skeptical and aloof. People are guarded and give off the impression they would rather be left alone. Interaction with fellow human beings is made to seem risky; it is easier to not even acknowledge the existence of those around us.

Such an indifferent world is a cruel world, truly dark in its alienation and despair. If Christians manifest the same kind of anxiety and fear as is consistent in the world, and thus do not prove kindly disposed toward other people, the light of the Gospel is severely diminished. Instead Christians must be the light in the darkness, and the light of God in Christ is well expressed in kindness (Matthew 5:13-16). When we prove kindly disposed toward others, and express kindness to them in disposition and behavior, we provide warmth in the cold, and openness where there is normally closure. To be kindly disposed toward people, especially toward people with whom we maintain disagreement on many matters, is now countercultural and often disarming. People have little need to be part of another cold, lifeless group of people; but who would not want to be part of a group of warm, welcoming, kind, and caring people? Thus Christians ought to be for one another and for the world.

The world has enough people who are closed off to one another in alienation and despair. Let us resolve to open ourselves toward other people and manifest kindness to them. May they see in us the fruit of the kindness God has displayed toward those who are in Christ, and may they come to share in that kindness, and all to the glory of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Kindness | The Voice 11.12: March 21, 2021

Quietly Waiting for the Day | The Voice 11.11: March 14, 2021

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Quietly Waiting for the Day

YHWH had spoken; His Day would soon come upon His people and upon the world. Habakkuk would now sing and wait.

Habakkuk had complained to YHWH regarding the injustice pervasive in the land of Israel (Habakkuk 1:1-4); YHWH responded by assuring Habakkuk He had noticed and would be obtaining vengeance through the mighty Chaldean army (Habakkuk 1:5-11). Habakkuk wondered how YHWH could be just in rendering judgment against a comparatively more righteous nation by means of a comparatively more unrighteous nation (Habakkuk 1:12-2:1). YHWH responded, declaring how the arrogant soul would be cast down, but the righteous would live by their faith: as the Chaldeans would render judgment, so they also would be judged and destroyed; YHWH endures (Habakkuk 2:2-20).

What, then, could Habakkuk do? The message had been given; he now waited for the Days of YHWH to come. But he did not wait idly; he made a prayer and sang a psalm before YHWH (Habakkuk 3:1-19). Psalms were often sung prayers; Habakkuk’s is “on” or “according to” shigyonot, one of the terms used of psalms which we do not fully understand, but is most likely referring to a particular genre or style of psalm (Habakkuk 3:1).

Habakkuk had indeed heard the report of YHWH and revered Him; Habakkuk wanted YHWH to revive His work and make it known and to remember His merciful compassion in the midst of displaying wrath (Habakkuk 3:2). Habakkuk imagined God as coming from Teman and Paran, mountains to the southeast of Israel: His glory covered the heavens, the earth was full of His praise, His brightness was light, His power came forth, pestilence went before Him, and lightning came at His feet (Habakkuk 3:3-5). YHWH measured the earth and drove out the nations; mountains were scattered, hills bowed down, for YHWH went forth as He did of old (Habakkuk 3:6). The inhabitants of the desert areas between Israel and Sinai, Cushan and Midian, experienced distress; Habakkuk rhetorically asked if YHWH was angry with the rivers or the sea as He rode upon the chariot of salvation (Habakkuk 3:7-8). YHWH’s bow was exposed; His arrows had a commission (Habakkuk 3:9). Habakkuk spoke of YHWH’s effects on the earth as He judged the nations: the land would flood, the mountains would shake, torrents of rain would flow, the sun and moon would stop; as YHWH would stomp on the earth, the nations are trampled (Habakkuk 3:10-12). YHWH went forth to save His people and the salvation of His Anointed; He would strike the wicked, cutting his chest open, and piercing their soldiers with the spear (Habakkuk 3:13-14). The wicked deigned to scatter God’s people, seeking to plunder the poor; YHWH trampled upon the sea with His horses; Habakkuk was deeply affected by their exultation, and he trembled, waiting quietly for the day of trouble and judgment coming upon those oppressors (Habakkuk 3:14-16).

Habakkuk knew difficult days would come. A time would come when the fig tree would not provide fruit, vines would not grow grapes, olive trees would produce nothing, and the folds and stalls for farm animals would be empty (Habakkuk 3:17). Yet in those days Habakkuk would rejoice in YHWH, the God of his salvation: YHWH was Habakkuk’s strength, and would give him the skill of the deer, allowing him to find refuge in difficult mountain terrain (Habakkuk 3:18-19).

Habakkuk thus well encapsulated his prophetic burden in his prayer-psalm. YHWH is the Creator God of Israel; YHWH has seen, and YHWH would come in judgment, first against His people for their iniquity, and then against the haughty who had prevailed against them. Habakkuk was made despondent on account of the haughtiness of those who would commit injustice against the poor; he yearned for God’s justice to come against the oppressors of the people. He had complete confidence that day would come, and so he waited. In the day of distress and trial he would still trust and rejoice in YHWH who was his salvation and strength. Through YHWH Habakkuk could endure the dark days which would come against Israel: perhaps Habakkuk lived to see the Day of YHWH against Judah in 586; maybe even by great length of life he might have seen the rise of Cyrus and the people of Israel restored to their land in 539. Regardless, he would find his strength and endurance in YHWH, and not in himself or the nations of the world.

Habakkuk did not design this psalm purely for his own use; it concludes with instructions for the chief musician to sing it with stringed instruments, expected in a Temple context (Habakkuk 3:19). Israel would have plenty of opportunity to internalize Habakkuk’s psalm prayer and to allow it to give them a voice before their God. They would see opponent after opponent, oppressor after oppressor; they would return to their own land but would not truly possess it, and they would have reason to pray again and again for YHWH their Creator to return as of old and to mightily judge the nations. The day would come on which God’s Anointed would come and would accomplish salvation for God’s people.

To this day we can internalize Habakkuk’s prayer psalm and allow it to give us a voice before God. We also should expect our Creator God to return in judgment. We will see mighty nations rise and fall. We will hear the mockery and haughtiness of the oppressors of the poor and of God’s people, and it ought to cause us great distress and pain. Yet we must wait patiently on God and wait for the day of their judgment, for the Lord of Armies sees, and will not be idle. We might well see days of great need, in which we find all the sources of food fail, and great distress on the earth; will we yet rejoice in the God of our salvation, and consider Him our strength? Will we be equipped in Him with the readiness of the Gospel of peace, and go out nimbly to proclaim and embody it? May we maintain confidence in the Lord of Armies, looking for and hastening His return in judgment, and obtain the resurrection of life in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Quietly Waiting for the Day | The Voice 11.11: March 14, 2021

Eschatology of the Creation | The Voice 11.10: March 07, 2021

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Eschatology of the Creation

What is going to happen to the creation once the Lord Jesus returns?

For many the answer to the question would seem simple: it will be completely destroyed! The creation is reserved for fire and will entirely burn up; such is what it would say in 2 Peter 3:7-13.

This viewpoint is understandable. It seems to be a natural conclusion to expect the creation to be thoroughly destroyed on the basis of 2 Peter 3:7-13. John also expected the heavens and the earth to pass away, and the sea to be no more, in Revelation 21:1. From these passages it would appear that the creation is destined for complete and thorough destruction and devastation, and will be no more.

Yet the witness of the apostle Paul complicates this story. Paul encouraged the Roman Christians by affirming how they would receive unimaginable glory in our inheritance in Christ provided we suffer with Jesus in Romans 8:17-18. He then spoke of the present situation and what would come in Romans 8:19-23: the creation awaits the revealing of the sons of God, for it was subjected to vanity in hope that it would be delivered from corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. The creation groans for that liberation, and not just the creation, but those who have the first-fruits of the Spirit groan internally, waiting for the adoption of the redemption of the body. This is the hope in which Christians are saved, and it has not yet been seen, for one does not hope for what one can see; thus we wait patiently for it to come to pass (Romans 8:23-24).

Many would suggest Romans 8:17-25 is a difficult passage, more difficult than 2 Peter 3:7-13, and thus believe we must understand Romans 8:17-25 in light of 2 Peter 3:7-13. Some focus on the meaning of “creation,” Greek ktisis, suggesting it does not necessarily refer to the entire creation but a portion thereof, specifically, those redeemed in Jesus.

While there are times when “creation” is used to describe only a portion thereof, there is no ground on which to argue from Paul’s use in Romans 8:17-25 that he has such a limited perspective in mind. The way Paul wrote Romans 8:23 militates against any attempt to limit “the creation” to the righteous in Christ: in Romans 8:22 he spoke of the “whole creation,” and then said in Romans 8:23 how “not only so,” but “ourselves also,” those who are the saved in Christ, groan within themselves, clearly delineating between “the creation” and those in Christ.

While we today might wish that Paul had been clearer in his exposition, Romans 8:17-25 can be understood in light of what Paul has been teaching the Roman Christians. He has already spoken of the introduction of sin and death into the world in Romans 5:12-21; such is the natural explanation for the vanity and corruption to which the creation was enslaved. Paul has testified consistently how Christians presently maintain a saved condition in communion with God in Christ in Romans 6:1-23, 8:1-17; in Romans 8:12-17 he specifically considered Christians as having already been adopted as children of God. For Paul to say that Christians await adoption, the redemption of the body, and that such a hope has not yet materialized demands that Paul speaks of the hope of the resurrection of the body, thus identifying the resurrection as the redemption of the body (Romans 8:23-25).

Whatever we think about the end of the creation must keep the resurrection in mind. Resurrection, by virtue of the very concept and use of the term in Second Temple Judaism, demands the reanimation of what has died. Paul made much in Romans 6:8-11 of how Jesus died to sin once, and now He will die no more in the resurrection, for He lives to God: since we confess that Jesus’ soul and divinity never died, we understand Paul is talking about the physical body of Jesus raised from the dead and transformed for immortality. It remains true that flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom according to 1 Corinthians 15:50, but such does not mean the physical body is eliminated: Paul’s metaphors in 1 Corinthians 15:50-56 all point to enhancement in transformation, not elimination. The physical may not remain exactly as it was, but its origin as part of this creation remains. And if we uphold the resurrection of the body, by necessity, we must see that something of this present creation will continue to endure, redeemed in the adoption of the body. Paul extended this hope not merely to the saints but to the whole creation in Romans 8:17-25, consistent with Jewish witness regarding the value of the creation. Paul made it clear that the creation itself was not the problem: otherwise how could God call it very good in Genesis 1:31? It was the introduction of sin and death into the creation that was the problem according to Romans 5:12-21. In Romans 8:17-25 the problem is that the creation has been subjected to vanity and is in bondage to corruption. The solution to sin and death was redemption in Jesus according to Romans 5:12-21; the hope of the creation is to be released from bondage and vanity and to receive something of that glory to be given to God’s children in Romans 8:20-22.

Thus we can make good sense of Romans 8:17-25 in terms of what God has already accomplished and revealed in Jesus. But what of 2 Peter 3:7-13? Is it not clear how the creation is going to be eliminated by fire?

Peter certainly envisions how the present creation is stored up for fire. But does that fire demand the elimination of the creation? Most versions speak of the works of the earth will be “burned up” (Greek katakaesetai); and yet the best manuscript evidence reads instead that the works of the earth “will not be found” as meaning “will be exposed” (Greek heurethesetai). Furthermore, Peter did not just start talking about a destruction by fire without any context: he spoke of how the heavens and earth existed long ago out of water and by means of water, and how the world existing then perished by the Flood in 2 Peter 3:5-6. He then said the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire in 2 Peter 3:7. We understand that the Flood was quite the cataclysm, but we do not see evidence that the creation was entirely eliminated: quite the contrary, for Noah and his family and the animals in the ark were preserved! If Peter can speak of a “former” creation perishing in the Flood and yet without being eliminated, then contextually we cannot demand that he expects the “present” creation to perish by fire and thus be eliminated.

We can thus find harmony between Romans 8:17-25 and 2 Peter 3:1-13. On the judgment day there will be a purgation of the present creation by fire. This fire purges unto redemption; it need not demand the elimination of the present creation. The creation is not the problem, sin and death are the problem, and God will purge the creation from the effects of sin and death by fire. The creation will then obtain the glory of the children of God and share in redemption.

It might well be that the purgation by fire is so thorough that not much of the original creation is left: we have full assurance that the creation will remain at least in our transformed resurrection bodies. However much remains, when the purgation by fire has been completed, we will then dwell in that “new heavens” and “new earth,” where righteousness will dwell, and we will remain in the presence of God without any veil or hindrance (cf. 2 Peter 3:13, Revelation 21:1-22:6).

God has not given up on His creation; the Scriptures bear witness that God does not intend on giving up on His creation. There is a future for God’s creation in our resurrected bodies and in the “new heavens and the new earth.” May we persevere in faith in Christ and obtain the redemption of our bodies on the day of resurrection!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Eschatology of the Creation | The Voice 11.10: March 07, 2021

Communication and Knowledge | The Voice 11.09: February 28, 2021

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The Voice

Communication and Knowledge

The process of communicating knowledge is a centerpiece of the faith in Christ. Proclamation of the Gospel, after all, demands the communication of saving knowledge of the Risen Lord Jesus who was crucified (Romans 1:16, 10:17). What is going on in the process of attempting to communicate the Gospel?

This is another area in which the Enlightenment paradigm has taken hold. The Enlightenment paradigm involves the assumptions of the Enlightenment: the problem with mankind is ignorance or false knowledge; the solution is to inform, or enlighten, mankind with true knowledge, and then humanity will do what they are supposed to do when they know what they need to know. According to the Gospel, knowledge is necessary, but not sufficient: our problem as humans is that we know quite well what to do but we are tempted to sin and fall prey to temptation (Romans 5:12-21, 7:1-25, James 1:13-15).

Another aspect of the Enlightenment involved the idolization of “objectivity.” The only things which are really true are those that can be maintained through objective analysis. We can see this clearly in the pretense of the media: the stated goal is to attempt to communicate the news as objectively as possible so as to allow the reader to make an appropriate conclusion based upon a sober and reasoned analysis of the information provided. Never mind that no one wants to read an objective news story and everyone has their biases because everyone has an already formed worldview; objectivity remains the goal.

The conceit of objectivity is exemplified in the oft-used illustration of the uncontacted Indigenous person who comes across a Bible and would thus begin to practice Christianity as we believe it ought to be practiced. If such a circumstance were to take place, it would be difficult to imagine how the would start the Catholic church, Lutheran church, or things of that sort; and indeed, they would see in the text and practice things like elders in a local congregation, baptism, etc., but may also give the holy kiss, meet in their huts or wherever they would live, and practice the faith in other ways that may not exactly imitate our practice. It would be consistent with New Testament Christianity, just as we seek to be consistent with New Testament Christianity; nevertheless, this story is impossible, because such an Indigenous person doing such a thing is purely mythological. No one is fully objective. Everyone, from the New Guinea tribesman to the Parisian to someone in the Deep South of America, has a worldview shaped and formed by their experiences and their environment. Every worldview is consistent with the Gospel in some ways; every worldview falls short in some ways. That’s why we must be rooted in Christ and challenge our most deep-seated assumptions with the Gospel (Colossians 2:1-10).

And this is the challenge with how we view Gospel communication. We’d like to think the Gospel Preacher proclaims the Gospel and the Hearer understands exactly what is meant and comes to the exactly proper conclusion and makes the appropriate changes. That’s the ideal, and we all know what happens to the ideal in our creation. In fact, every step of this process is fraught with difficulty.

The Gospel Preacher is exhorted to preach the Word faithfully (2 Timothy 4:1-4), but the Gospel Preacher is a creature of his time, place, and culture. Based on his experiences he will think that certain elements of the message need greater emphasis than others; he may be right in some ways, but he also may not. He may defend tradition as if it were truth, and dispense some truth as if an earlier tradition. No doubt he’ll think he’s proclaiming the whole counsel of God, but if there could be an “objective analysis” of what was preached, some lesser things textually would be magnified in preaching, and some things made much of in the text would not receive as much emphasis. This is not the end of the world; we preach the Gospel in a specific context, which means that we are going to have to spend more time on certain subjects rather than others. But we’ve also all probably seen when it goes wrong.

Then there’s the Hearer. Assuming her sincerity, she has lived for years apart from the Gospel of Christ or influenced by some other understanding of Jesus. Today she has lived in 21st century America and has been influenced by all of its cultural peculiarities. Even if she is very receptive to the Gospel, when she hears its message, there are parts that she isn’t comfortable with and strike her as odd, counter-intuitive, and against everything she’s ever been taught. This is not a bad reaction; it is exactly the reaction that should exist, because there are parts of the Gospel that should make us uncomfortable, should strike us as counter-intuitive, and against everything we’ve ever been taught. A Gospel that is everything she believes, everything she expects, and with which she fully agrees is not a real Gospel at all, but the God of the imagination of man of that particular era. The Gospel is supposed to be a challenge to some degree; at some point, we have to recognize that many of its dictates are difficult, counter-intuitive, and against everything we’ve been taught, but decide to trust God and His ways over our thoughts and ways (so Peter, John 6:68-69). Anyway, our female Hearer, like the rest of us, is not a computer. We don’t just process data; our emotions and souls are involved. Therefore, she’s not just receiving information and processing it like a computer; she is reacting to what she is hearing or reading in her emotions and soul as well. She might feel a deep sympathy or revulsion at what is heard; she may automatically sympathize with what she hears, or feels hostility toward it; the visceral impressions she feels may be impressed as a deep memory which might recur when the subject or information piece is brought up again in the future. This is not bad or wrong because if God wanted to make computers, He would have; instead, He made humans, and our minds and emotions and soul all influence one another. This is how we can, say, abhor what is evil, and cling to what is good (Romans 12:9); we can have such visceral reactions. But in our sin corrupted nature, we can misfire. We can feel deep revulsion to some things that God has said are good or are consistent with holiness; we might still cling to sin or not righteousness. I’ve heard too many stories of people who have gone down the wrong paths doctrinally not because of a well-argued, coherent, rational argument, but because they are reacting to some situation that was not handled properly or a very uncharitable or unloving attitude expressed toward another, and the person felt a deep revulsion based on that experience.

“Coming to a knowledge of the truth and be saved” is not, therefore, just a matter of mental information processing. Our understanding is colored by our emotions; just like we need to align our thinking towards God’s Word, we must align our feelings with it as well. And we need to confess and admit that the proclamation of the Gospel is not just an information transfer, but often a war within the mind, body, and soul, the spiritual conflict of forces of light and darkness, the flesh versus the spirit (Galatians 5:19-24, Ephesians 6:12). We’ve got to conquer our biases, our deeply held impressions, our visceral reactions, for they are part of that thought process. And we need to be aware that others will be going through this experience as well, and shouldn’t expect the transmission of the Gospel to just be about objective pieces of information. Communication never is.

We also do well to consider the means by which the Gospel is communicated. Notice that the New Testament doesn’t say a whole lot about reading or studying; the focus tends to be on hearing and listening. This is appropriate for a time and place when most people were illiterate and scrolls were few and far between. Therefore, if you are an early Christian, odds are you could not read. And even if you could read, odds are you do not have access to all of Scripture, let alone in the various forms as we have it. So what do you do?

In such an environment, the public reading of Scripture becomes all-important; it’s the only way you get access to Scripture. If the reading is not done well, or worse, misread, you may come to believe that God has said something He has not said, or has not said something He did say. Not for nothing does Paul exhort Timothy to give consideration to the public reading of Scripture (1 Timothy 4:13). Granted, in an aural culture, your mind is better able to retain the things you have heard read to you, which is good, because after hearing the reading and the exhortation on Sunday, that’s what you’d have to think about throughout the week until the next Sunday. Hence the Biblical exhortations in Deuteronomy 6:4-12 about having the Law be on your mind, in your conversation, etc.: it’s to be made a part of life. You might think about the reading while plowing the field, and perhaps you’d have a chance to put it into action by helping a neighbor as you walk home. The message heard on Sunday is thus not divorced from life; there is an expectation that it is thought about and acted upon in life.

We’ve seen an incredible shift in 200 years: not only has Scripture become so easily accessible, but literacy is no longer the privilege of a few. Such is not intrinsically problematic; it’s a great blessing to have constant access to Scripture. It seems that “studying your Bible” has become one of the defining religious behaviors of Christians. By listening to lessons you can easily get the impression that we should be there on Sunday, do the acts of worship right, not be a denominationalist, and go study your Bibles. Now, that sentiment is noble: the idea is that by going and studying your Bible, you’ll reflect more on it, and seek to put it into practice in your life. If people were to do that, such would be great, right?

But let’s be honest. Let’s even grant that people are studying their Bibles like they should. Are we honestly seeing the transformation that should be taking place? Are people effectively meditating upon what Scripture says and applying it to their lives? Also, as discussed above, how well is the average individual doing at understanding what he is reading? Who’s there to correct him in his private study if he’s made an inappropriate conclusion or application? Does he even engage Scripture with a view toward applying it to his life, or is he just trying to understand the text for understanding’s sake so he doesn’t sound like an idiot in Bible class and doesn’t gain the ire of the preacher? How has he seen Bible study modeled in the Bible class: is it an attempt to come to an understanding of what God is saying, challenging our thoughts and actions, seeking to apply it to the modern day, or is it just a weekly opportunity to utter the same stock phrases and platitudes and revel in how we have it all right and others do not?

Even beyond that, how is the person “hearing” the voice of God in Scripture in his head? Scripture is never dead words on a page. Remember that Scripture was meant to be read aloud: sure, it’s not Paul or Peter standing up there actually saying the words, but if we close our eyes and listen, we can hear the words of the Apostles speaking to us through the Scripture reader just like they were originally read to the Ephesians or Colossians or Christians of Asia Minor or whomever and wherever. It’s its own form of communion with the saints, the shared experience of hearing the words of God spoken before us. You just can’t get that experience from reading paper or an e-reader.

For that matter, what was preached in your congregation on Sunday? Maybe you remember it. Great! What about last week? The week before that? Last month? How often have the lessons spurred you on to greater meditation on Scripture and applying it?

Let none be deceived: it is not wrong to study Scripture. We encourage the study of Scripture! But how are we going about it, and what do we see in the Bible? In short, how could we blend the benefits of the ancient approach and the modern approach?

To that end, we exhort all Christians to take the public reading of Scripture more seriously. It’s one of the acts of the assembly and should be held in high esteem. Actually read Scripture; be willing to add drama to it, for it is a dramatic text! Make it more than a preface to the lesson; remember that whatever the preacher says, no matter how substantive or well-presented, is uninspired, but the Scripture reading is our chance to actually listen to and meditate upon the inspired message of God. We do well to provide an opportunity to think about a Scripture as related to the lesson and an application of it throughout the week to keep the message fresh and to bring the message into the regular life of those who pay attention. Personal Bible study can be good and profitable but it is not an end unto itself; we need to remember that for the first 1700 years of Christianity most Christians had no ability to engage in personal Bible study and God is not going to condemn them for it. Personal Bible study should lead to the same goal as the public reading of Scripture and the exhortation in preaching: to foster meditation on what God has said to us so that we have it actively in our mind so as to have opportunity to act it out in our daily walk and to do so. All the Bible study in the world, even becoming a “walking Bible,” is of no value unless it is lived, and it is the lived Christian life which should be elevated as the ideal religious behavior for all Christians, just as it is in Scripture (Galatians 5:17-24, Ephesians 4:1-6:18, Colossians 3:1-4:6, Titus 3:3-8, etc.).

Let us give appropriate consideration to the processes of communicating knowledge so as to most effectively promote the apostolic Gospel of Christ in the 21st century!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Communication and Knowledge | The Voice 11.09: February 28, 2021