Every Spiritual Blessing in Christ

The Vine

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ (Ephesians 1:3).

The Apostle Paul felt compelled on many occasions to set forth various doctrinal truths about God in Christ to his fellow Christians to warn against false teaching. The time had come to provide a full, coherent picture of his understanding into the mystery of the Gospel; we find such a portrayal in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

While Paul’s letter to the Ephesians features the same doctrinal positions seen in other letters, it seems very impersonal. Ephesians does not contain the same kind of personal details about Paul or the Christians to whom he wrote as can be found in all of his other correspondence; “in Ephesus” in Ephesians 1:1 is not found in all copies of the manuscripts. For these reasons Ephesians is often considered an “encyclical” letter, intended to be distributed among many local churches. Regardless, it is hard to assume much about the condition of the church in Ephesus on the basis of what is written in Ephesians.

After his standard greeting (Ephesians 1:1-2), Paul began his letter with a broad, sweeping, and majestic sentence glorifying God for all the spiritual blessings with which He blessed us in Jesus (Ephesians 1:3-14). Ephesians 1:3-14 is the longest sentence in the New Testament: while English translations generally wisely break it down into many sentences for clarity, we must remember they all represent the spiritual blessings with which God has blessed the Ephesian Christians, and by extension all Christians, in Christ (Ephesians 1:3).

God has chosen Christians in Jesus before the foundation of the world to be holy before Him; God predestined Christians to adoption to the praise of His grace freely bestowed on us in Christ (Ephesians 1:4-6). Paul had no desire to deny human freedom or volition; Augustinian Calvinist notions of God predetermining who would be saved and condemned arbitrarily must be imposed on the text. Paul instead sought to encourage Christians: their standing in Christ is no accident. Jesus’ death, resurrection, and inauguration of His Kingdom were not a hastily concocted “plan B” when everything else failed. Instead, from before the beginning, God had determined to create the universe, redeem mankind through His Son, and provide a way of holiness in Him. Paul would also speak of adoption as sons of God in Romans 8:11-15; a man or woman submits to adoption in order to gain the inheritance of the father, and in this way Christians gain standing in order to inherit the eternal promises God has made in Jesus.

God secured redemption for Christians in Jesus according to the riches of His grace; God’s grace abounds for Christians, who have learned of the mystery of God’s will now manifest in Jesus and His Kingdom (Ephesians 1:7-10). Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins represents the ultimate gift God has given mankind (cf. 1 John 4:7-11); God continues to bestow gifts of grace upon His people in Jesus and yearns for Christians to consider His presence and life as the greatest gift of all (cf. Revelation 21:1-22:6). We think of “mystery” as something unknown, a problem to be solved; in the New Testament it is an “unveiling,” something manifest only through the revelation of God. Later in Ephesians Paul would elaborate more upon the mystery (cf. Ephesians 3:1-11); here he centered the story on God’s good purpose in Jesus whom He made the sum of all things.

Whereas Christians inherit the blessings of life and salvation in Christ, God obtains Christians as His heritage, having predetermined them as His praise in His glory, and who has given them the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of their inheritance until the final day of redemption (Ephesians 1:11-14). Paul began to make a contrast between “we who had hoped in Christ” and “you” his Ephesian audience, perhaps as between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. We would again be remiss to impose Augustinian Calvinist views on the text; in Ephesians 3:1-11 Paul will explain how God manifested His wisdom and eternal purpose by bringing Jews and Gentiles into one body in Christ in the church. Paul instead stepped back to appreciate the beauty of what God has accomplished in Jesus. God is praised in the redemption of Jewish Christians in Christ who had hoped in the coming Messiah and proved willing to recognize him in Jesus; God is praised in the redemption of Gentile Christians who are welcomed in Jesus. The Holy Spirit was given to Christians both as a seal of their redemption and as a down payment on their salvation; throughout Ephesians Paul will speak of how God worked through His Spirit to build up and strengthen Christians.

Having set forth the spiritual blessings with which God has blessed Christians in Jesus, Paul gave thanks and prayed for the Ephesian Christians in another lengthy sentence (Ephesians 1:15-23). Paul gave thanks for the Ephesian Christians, having heard of their faith in Jesus and love for their fellow Christians whom he calls “saints” (Ephesians 1:15-16). Christians do well to be encouraged by Paul’s example: we should never take the faith of others for granted, but ought to thank God for them.

Paul prayed for God to give the Ephesian Christians a spirit of wisdom and revelation of knowledge to enlighten their hearts to know the hope of God’s calling in Jesus, the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and the great power of God working on behalf of Christians (Ephesians 1:17-19). Paul did not pray for God to give the Ephesian Christians head knowledge; he already recognized their faith in Christ, and expected them to have intellectual recognition of the truth of these things. Instead Paul prayed for God to give them heart knowledge, confidence in the hope of salvation in the resurrection, the majesty of the glorification of the Kingdom by God on the final day, and the great power which God presently would work for, in, and through them. It has been said that the greatest distance in the universe is between the head and the heart; we Christians intellectually recognize the truths of God in Christ, but have they been imprinted on our hearts so that we trust deeply and are strengthened to overcome any trial by keeping our faith fixed on the glory awaiting us?

God’s power is manifest in Jesus, raised from the dead, ascended to the right hand of God, ruling over everything, made head over all things to the church, the body of Christ, the fullness of Him who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:20-23). God has great power and He has given it over to Jesus. Jesus’ authority over heaven and earth is the foundation of the Gospel call to obedience to His purposes and empowers the Christian’s resistance against the idolatrous claims of the forces of darkness and the nation-states empowered by them (cf. Daniel 7:13-14, Matthew 28:18, Ephesians 6:12, Revelation 13:1-15:4). Yet all of this power has been given to Jesus for the sake of His body, the church, the people who assemble to praise and glorify His name and encourage each other (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, 14:26, Ephesians 4:11-16). How many great and powerful things could God do through us if we would only trust extravagantly in Him and pray for Him to accomplish His glorious and majestic purposes in us?

Adoption, redemption, an inheritance, the Holy Spirit, access to God, participation in God’s work in Christ: all these blessings, and many more, Christians receive through Jesus Christ. May God give all of us in Jesus Christ a spirit of knowledge and wisdom to enlighten our hearts so we may know the hope of His calling, the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Q&A: Christianity

Q: On what basis can we believe that Christianity is true and therefore other religions are not?

A: The truth of Christianity is predicated on the validity of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. As Paul established, if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then Christianity is false, its hope barren, and we are lost in our sins (1 Corinthians 15:12-20). Among religions Christianity is distinctive for its insistence of the historical legitimacy of Jesus and His involvement in the “real world”; as Paul testified before Agrippa, the things surrounding Jesus of Nazareth and His Kingdom did not take place in a corner (Acts 26:26); Peter could depend on the common knowledge regarding Jesus and His actions among his fellow Israelites (Acts 2:22, 10:36-37). If the Apostles’ witness of the Risen Jesus is true, then He is the Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and we would be foolish to try to find hope in any other avenue (John 14:6, Acts 2:36).

We also may have confidence in Christianity as making the most sense of the world in which we live. We can recognize joy, majesty, and beauty, and yet also see misery, pain, suffering, and horror. The story of God in Christ, creating a good universe which was corrupted by sin and death, making man in His image, seeking after relational unity with God and each other, alienated by sin, and finding reconciliation and hope in Jesus’ death and resurrection, looking forward to life in the resurrection when sin and death are fully vanquished explains all these things well (Genesis 1:26-31, Romans 5:6-21, 8:17-25). Judaism and Islam tell a similar story but have no means to assess why some ought to be redeemed and others not beyond the capriciousness of God; Eastern religions tend to take the existence of evil for granted and find no hope to overcome it, yearning for spiritual bliss or enlightenment. Modern secularism cannot account for beauty, truth, or the search for meaning and order. Thus we have strong reasons for confidence in the truths made known to us by God in Christ.

How would you answer the question? Please let us know in the comments below. Thanks!

Do you have questions about the Bible or Christianity? We’d love to discuss them!

Hell

The Vine

“Hell” is now more of a curse word to most people than a fearful potential future reality. A robust number of people still believe that there is a hell; they seem equally confident that they will not go there. We generally do not like to think or talk about hell; we are quite concerned about and skeptical of those people who do. Hell has become more of a stumbling block to Christians than any point of concern: so many wonder how a loving God could send anyone to hell, and what the Bible says about hell is generally an embarrassment to many. And yet, of all people, Jesus of Nazareth spoke more about hell than anyone else in the pages of Scripture. If Jesus discussed hell, then those of us who would seek to follow after Him do well to explore what He had to say about it.

Most instances of “hell” in the New Testament translate the Greek term Gehenna (so Matthew 5:22, 29, 30, 10:28, 18:9, 23:15, 33, Mark 9:43, 45, 47, Luke 12:5, James 3:5-6). “Gehenna” itself translates Hebrew for the “Valley of the Sons of Hinnom,” a valley outside of Jerusalem (Joshua 15:8). Unfaithful kings of Judah built altars to Molech and offered their children as sacrifices to that god there (2 Chronicles 28:3, 2 Chronicles 33:6, Jeremiah 7:31-32; 19:6; 32:35). Later Jewish people considered the place cursed; they deposited and burned their trash there. The sight and stench must have been particularly awful; the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom therefore provided an extremely powerful and visceral image to describe a place of suffering and torment. Just as one would go to great lengths to avoid falling into the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom, so Jesus encouraged those who heard Him to do whatever it took to avoid being cast into Gehenna, or hell.

At other times Jesus spoke of “the outer darkness,” often noting how it is a place of “weeping” and “gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:10-12, 22:1-13, 25:14-30). In each of these passages Jesus indicated that disobedient members among the people of God would be cast there. The imagery fits the audience: “outer darkness” would be a place well beyond any light; God is the light, and in Him is no darkness (John 1:4, 1 John 1:5); therefore, the “outer darkness” involves complete and thorough separation from God. How awful it would be for those who presumed to be near to God to learn they are to be cast as far from Him as possible! This darkness is not a “neutral” place; it is a place of trauma, vividly illustrated by “weeping” and “gnashing of teeth.”

In a similar vein Jesus envisioned a day when those who performed iniquity would be cast into a furnace of fire, in which would be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:36-43). Jesus showed John a vision of the day of judgment in this way: all those whose names were not found in the book of life were cast into the lake of fire along with Satan and his minions (Revelation 20:10-15). The lake of fire also features brimstone, as a place of constant torment; the second death, final separation from God and all that is light and life.

All of these images point to a similar place; it is a place where fire is not quenched, where people suffer and gnash their teeth, a place of darkness, separated from God. Each of these images tells us something about the nature of hell; above all things, it should dissuade us from taking any chances lest we get sent there!

The Scriptures also testify regarding who will be cast into hell: those who do not know God and who do not obey the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). They are those who have committed sin and iniquity and did not repent (Matthew 13:36-43, Romans 2:8-9, Revelation 21:8). Believers cannot become complacent, confident their belief alone will rescue them; not a few warnings about hell are directed specifically to believers who do not actually do what the Father says (Matthew 7:21-23), and who prove to be unproductive servants (Matthew 25:14-30). God will judge impartially (Romans 2:5-11).

While Jesus spoke many times regarding hell, and has provided richly evocative imagery, much has been left unrevealed. Much of what people today imagine regarding hell derives more from later flights of imagination and Dante’s Inferno than anything recorded in Scripture. Hell is not controlled by Satan and a host of demons; as seen in Revelation 20:10, Satan and his demons themselves are cast into hell in God’s judgment. We are not told exactly how those who are in hell experience their suffering and torment. Dante vividly described how he imagined the tortures of hell were meted out; a contrasting view would be C.S. Lewis’ portrayal of people ever resisting the good inherent in God as seen in The Great Divorce. Therefore, what most people reject about hell are matters of belief not found in Scripture. We do well to remember how we imagine hell is just that, our imagination, and the reality might be quite different from what we might expect. Yet, above all things, we hope and pray that none of us find out what hell is like!

While the concept of hell may seem unpleasant to Westerners, a spiritual world without at least the potential for the existence of hell would be much worse. People might declare how they cannot believe a loving God could send anyone to hell. Would they really want to serve a God who had no hell to which to send people like Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, or other heinous sinners? How could God be serious about justice if there is no actual penalty to be paid for transgression? The existence of hell is a reminder of God’s justice, a witness to the importance of doing the right and forsaking the wrong, and confidence for all who suffer oppression and degradation that God will call their oppressors into account and justice will be satisfied. In truth the argument is a matter of degree: most people can not only imagine but even expect God to cast the “truly wicked” into hell; they just imagine that God will not send people like them to hell. Such people too quickly absolve themselves of their evil and iniquity, having been deceived into doing so (Hebrews 3:13); we all deserve condemnation, for we have all transgressed the will of God, but thanks be to God that a way of rescue from condemnation has been offered through Jesus Christ (Romans 3:20-28, 6:15-23).

Furthermore, how can God be “loving” while forcing those who wanted little to nothing to do with Him as manifest in their thoughts, words, and deeds to spend eternity with Him (1 Corinthians 13:4-8, Revelation 21:1-22:6)? C.S. Lewis rightly noted that there will be two types of people on the day of Judgment: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “thy will be done.” God will not compel or coerce; if people wish to live in ways contrary to God’s purposes, then they will spend eternity with the consequences.

Hell is a most unpleasant place; we should not wish it upon our worst enemy. God does not want anyone to go to hell but for all to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9); those who would follow God do well to maintain the same posture toward their fellow man. Jesus’ warnings about hell were not designed to extend further condemnation for those already aware of their sinfulness; instead, Jesus condemned the very religious people who were the quickest to condemn others (e.g. Matthew 23:33)! Nevertheless, we ought not trifle with the concept of hell. We should want to avoid hell and exhort all with whom we come into contact to avoid it as well. Those who suffer torment would want those whom they love to avoid that torment above all things (cf. Luke 16:27-28)! May we seek to serve God in Christ, see to ourselves, and encourage all to live so as to avoid the hell of fire!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus’ Resurrection

The Vine

It seemed that everything had gone wrong. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, everything changed forever. Jesus of Nazareth, whom many believed was the Christ of God, was crucified. Then, when the disciples were in despair, attempting to figure out what went wrong, they hear that Jesus of Nazareth was alive again, resurrected from the dead (cf. Luke 24:19-24). The tomb was empty. Nothing would ever be the same again.

The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the centerpiece of the Christian religion. While Jesus’ birth, life, and death are significant in and of themselves, without Jesus’ resurrection, they are all ultimately meaningless, and we would still be lost in our sins (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:14-19). The Christ crucified and resurrected was the theme of the message of the Apostles, and the resurrection was the basis of the future hope of transformation (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:20-58).

We read about Jesus’ resurrection in Matthew 28:1-20, Mark 16:1-20, Luke 24:1-53, John 20:1-21:23, and 1 Corinthians 15:1-58. After Jesus died, His soul went to Paradise (cf. Luke 23:43), and His body was sealed in Joseph of Arimathea’s rock-cut tomb after it was wrapped in linen and covered with seventy-five pounds of spices and aloes. On the third day, the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and some of the women came to finish the anointing of the body of Jesus, and found the large rock in front of the tomb rolled away. Two angels were there, informed the women of what has taken place, and told them to go and make it known to the disciples. Peter and John ran to the tomb, saw it empty with the linen cloths carefully folded to the side. They believed; they just did not know what happened! Mary, meanwhile, spoke to someone whom she believes is the gardener, wanting to know where the body of Jesus was taken. He responded to her; He was no gardener, but Jesus Himself, resurrected from the dead!

The idea of resurrection in the New Testament is not merely life after death; instead, it involves “life after life after death.” Mary and the disciples found the tomb empty and Jesus in a bodily form (cf. Luke 24:39). Nevertheless, Jesus’ body is not the same as it was before since He can now transcend space and time restraints; it has been transformed somehow. The resurrection therefore involves the re-animation or re-creation of the physical body, the return of the soul to it, and the transformation of that body into something “trans-physical” or something of the sort.

Jesus will later appear to Simon Peter, two disciples walking to Emmaus, ten of the disciples, all eleven disciples, James His brother, and 500 brethren at one time over the period of forty days after His death. He instructed them regarding Himself and the mission for the Kingdom that they would soon begin. After that forty day period, Jesus ascended to the Father in Heaven (Acts 1:1-11). At that point Jesus, as the “one like a Son of Man,” received an everlasting dominion from the Ancient of Days (Daniel 7:13-14); Stephen, in a vision, saw the “Son of Man” standing at the right hand of God when he saw Jesus while being stoned (Acts 7:55-56); Saul of Tarsus saw the Lord on the road to Damascus, and based on it considered himself an eyewitness of the resurrection (Acts 9:3-6, 1 Corinthians 9:1, 15:4-9). In the 60s CE, long after Jesus’ ascension, Paul spoke of Jesus as still presently human (Greek anthropos, 1 Timothy 2:5). The Lord Jesus therefore remains fully God and fully man, having died never to die again (Romans 6:8-11): He remains in the resurrection body, and thus remains the Son of Man and Son of God, and will return thus one day (Matthew 25:31, Acts 1:11).

The Bible’s claims regarding the resurrection of Jesus are startling, and yet they represent the foundation of the belief that Jesus really is Lord and Christ (cf. Acts 2:36). Since Christianity stands or falls on the legitimacy of the resurrection, many throughout time have attempted to discredit it by positing alternative explanations. Those explanations, however, never account for all of the evidence. Both the “swoon theory” and the “wrong tomb theory” require more faith to believe than the Bible’s claims. The “hallucination theory” cannot explain why people would claim to see Jesus only during a forty day period. The “stolen body theory” is inconsistent with the transformation of the disciples and the testimony of their lives. The “spiritual theory” cannot make sense of the claim of the empty tomb. In the end, the only story that makes sense of the empty tomb, the eyewitness accounts, and the transformation of the disciples is that Jesus of Nazareth was really raised from the dead by the power of God!

Jesus’ resurrection changes everything. By virtue of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Apostles proclaim that God made Him Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). Jesus conquers death through the resurrection, giving us hope that we also can conquer death (1 Corinthians 15:54-57). With sin and death defeated through Jesus, we have no reason to fear anyone or anything! Jesus’ resurrection proves beyond doubt that there will be a day of reckoning for all mankind (Acts 17:30-31). The resurrection shows that Jesus is the first fruit: as He was raised from the dead, so we now can look forward to the day when we also will rise from the dead (Romans 8:18-25, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58). In the resurrection, a new creation is able to burst forth into the old: even though we may still suffer on account of sin and death, we can spiritually die and be raised again through baptism and be new creatures in Jesus’ spiritual Kingdom (Romans 6:3-7, 2 Corinthians 5:17). Ultimately we cherish the hope of our own resurrection based on Jesus’ resurrection: on that day we will be like Him, and will abide with Him forever (1 Corinthians 15:20-58, 1 John 3:2).

Jesus, in His resurrection, demonstrates that death is not the end. Hope is able to spring anew. Jesus is Risen! Let us praise God, and obtain the victory through Jesus Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Life in the Resurrection

The Vine

Throughout time humans have wanted to understand more about their meaning and purpose in life. Such questions are extremely important and cannot be separated from questions regarding identity, origin, and destination. We must understand something about who we are before we can understand why we are here; it is very difficult to have any grounding in who we are if we do not understand from where we have come and to where we expect to go. Christians understand, based on God’s revelation in Scripture, that all people are made in God’s image to share in relationship with God and each other to God’s glory (Genesis 1:26-27, John 17:20-23, Romans 1:19-20). What do the Apostles envision as our ultimate destination? What do they have to say about life after the judgment day?

The New Testament does not reveal as much as might be expected about life after the judgment: most discussions of the afterlife focus on the Judgment and the day of resurrection. Nevertheless we are given a few glimpses into what that future life may involve.

In John 5:28-29 Jesus spoke of a day in which all will come out of the tombs: those who have done good will experience the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil will experience the resurrection of judgment (or condemnation). While Jesus focused on the day of judgment and resurrection we do well to note how He envisions life afterward in terms of resurrection: the redeemed experience a resurrection of life, while the condemned experience a resurrection of judgment. Thus we may know that eternal life is life in the resurrection, life after life after death. Paul explains the nature of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:20-48 and 2 Corinthians 5:1-10: the return of the soul to the body and the transformation of the “psychical” body into the incorruptible, immortal “pneumatical” body. In this way we gain the victory over death.

In both Romans 8:17-18 and 2 Corinthians 4:17 Paul looked forward to the glorification of Christians by God. God’s glory was manifest in His presence; in a former covenant Moses’ face shone because he was in the presence of the glory of God, and so how much more amazing and awesome will it be for us to receive the fullness of God’s glory (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:7-11)?

Paul continued to look forward to unfulfilled expectations in Romans 8:18-25. He spoke of the creation yearning to be set free from its bondage to corruption, just as the sons of God yearn for the adoption as sons, the “redemption of the body.” While Christians remain part of the creation, Paul makes a distinction between “the creation” and “we ourselves” in Romans 8:23; in Romans 8:24-25, Paul made evident that the hope of which he speaks is not yet present reality, and yet Paul assured Christians that they presently had eternal life spiritually and presently were adopted as sons of God in Christ in Romans 6:3-11, 8:9-17. This hope of redemption cannot be spiritual life eternally; the “redemption of the body” is therefore best understood as a reference to the resurrection to come (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:20-58). Paul therefore extended hope that the creation itself in some way would obtain redemption when Christians receive the glory of God.

Peter’s future expectation in 2 Peter 3:7-13 is often held in tension with Paul’s in Romans 8:18-25. Peter envisioned a judgment of the present creation in fire leading to the dissolution of matter (2 Peter 3:7-10, 12). And yet Peter declared that Christians await a “new heavens” and a “new earth” in which righteousness dwells based on the promises of God (cf. Isaiah 65:17-25, 66:15-24, Revelation 21:1-22:6). The sum of God’s Word is truth (Psalm 119:160); while it may be that we do well to understand Romans 8:18-25 in terms of 2 Peter 3:7-13, we must at least remain open to the possibility that we are to understand 2 Peter 3:7-13, to some degree or another, in terms of Romans 8:18-25. Peter never suggested that the purification by fire means the end of the created order for eternity; on what basis should we believe that God will ultimately fully give up on and abandon His creation?

The most complete picture of life in the resurrection, even if given in a figure, can be found in Revelation 21:1-22:6. After Satan is cast into the lake of fire and the day of judgment has transpired (cf. Revelation 20:7-15), John saw a new heavens and a new earth, for the former had passed away (Revelation 21:1). In this picture of the new heavens and the new earth he saw the heavenly city, new Jerusalem prepared as a bride, coming down out of heaven (Revelation 21:2). John heard a voice declaring that the dwelling place (tabernacle) of God is with man; they will be His people, and He will be their God; there would be no more crying, pain, or distress (Revelation 21:3-4). John was then granted a more detailed vision of the bride, the wife of the Lamb, the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven (Revelation 21:9-10). John saw it given the glory of God, described in terms of bejeweled walls and foundations and golden streets (Revelation 21:11-21). He saw no temple in it, nor source of light, for God and the Lamb are in its midst, and His glory gives it light (Revelation 21:22-23). John was then shown the river of the water of life with the tree of life on either side of it (Revelation 22:1-2). In that place the servants of God worship Him and dwell with Him face to face (Revelation 22:3-6).

The visions granted to John are symbolic and metaphorical and yet cohere well with the picture seen in the rest of the New Testament. We are given no indication God is giving up on His creation: according to Paul, sin and death have led to the corruption and decay of the creation, and once those are fully defeated, the creation can be redeemed from its curse (Romans 5:12-21, 8:17-25). Even if the present creation is purified as through fire, refined and then made anew, the goal is never elimination and separation from the creation. The people of God, seen in glory in terms of a bejeweled city, come down from heaven; God dwells with man, not the other way around (Revelation 21:1-10, 22-23). The end is as the beginning: humans dwell in face-to-face communion with God, in the presence of the tree of life and the river of the water of life (Genesis 2:4-24, Revelation 22:1-5). Those who have done good and have obtained the resurrection of life will experience eternity in the resurrection body, transformed for imperishability, incorruption, and immortality, and will receive the full glory of God, to worship Him and bask in His presence forever in the new heavens and the new earth.

Humans are made in God’s image; God desires to maintain relationship with mankind. We see this manifest in the picture of the end: the redeemed are made perfect, given immortality and imperishability in the resurrection body, and are portrayed as remaining in the presence of God for eternity. We are looking for that new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. We look forward to maintaining face-to-face communion with God, to know as we are known. In the end we return to the beginning. We do well to live accordingly, seeking to glorify God in our lives, ever more conforming to the image of the Son, and thus obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Q&A: The Covering

Q: Why would a woman wear an artificial head covering in the assemblies of Christians?

A: The practice is based in Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16:

Now I praise you that ye remember me in all things, and hold fast the traditions, even as I delivered them to you. But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoreth his head. But every woman praying or prophesying with her head unveiled dishonoreth her head; for it is one and the same thing as if she were shaven. For if a woman is not veiled, let her also be shorn: but if it is a shame to a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be veiled. For a man indeed ought not to have his head veiled, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man: for neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man: for this cause ought the woman to have a sign of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, neither is the woman without the man, nor the man without the woman, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, so is the man also by the woman; but all things are of God. Judge ye in yourselves: is it seemly that a woman pray unto God unveiled? Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a dishonor to him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering. But if any man seemeth to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.

We do well to explore this passage in terms of Paul’s argument structure. Paul began by commending the Corinthian Christians for holding fast to the apostolic traditions as he delivered them (1 Corinthians 11:2). He established the divine hierarchy: the head of Christ is God, the head of man is Christ, the head of woman is man (or possibly wife is husband; 1 Corinthians 11:3). He then introduced the explicit instruction: when praying or prophesying men are to maintain uncovered heads, while women ought to have their heads covered (Greek akatakalupto; 1 Corinthians 11:4-5). The woman who prays or prophesies without her head covered dishonors her head, as if she were shaven; if she would not cover, she should cut off her hair; but since it remains shameful for her to have short hair, let her be covered (1 Corinthians 11:5-6; cf. 1 Corinthians 11:15). Having set forth the expected practice, he began defending the practice with his primary argument rooted in the creation: a man is not to be covered because he is the glory of God, yet woman is the glory of man, since woman was created from man and woman was created for man, not man for the woman (1 Corinthians 11:7-9; cf. Genesis 2:18-25). Paul gave the angels as the reason why women needed a covering, as a sign of authority, on her head (1 Corinthians 11:10): perhaps lest the angels lust after the “daughters of men” again as in the antediluvian days (Genesis 6:1-4), or to see that the people of God understand their relative standing and give angels no reason to rebel. Lest he be accused of not properly honoring woman’s station in life Paul then reassured the Corinthians that men and women are not without each other in the Lord and that all men are born of women, but all are from God (1 Corinthians 11:11-12). He then asked a rhetorical question, asking the Corinthian Christians to judge for themselves whether it is appropriate for women to pray or prophesy with head uncovered (1 Corinthians 11:13). Paul continued with his secondary argument from physis, nature or reality: “nature” teaches that it is shameful for men to have long hair, but long hair is the glory of women, for it is given to her for a covering (Greek peribolaiou; 1 Corinthians 11:14-15). Paul concluded his discussion of the matter by declaring that if any would be contentious, they have no such custom, neither do the churches of God (1 Corinthians 11:16).

Unfortunately, ever since, the passage and the practice have proven very contentious. Some details do seem a bit obscure: why does Paul never explicitly identify a covering? Why not just have women be shorn? Why does his reasoning involve the angels? Why would he make any argument, even if secondary, based on “nature” or “reality,” especially since among many cultures it is not shameful for men to have long hair? Why is the covering mentioned only in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and nowhere else? These questions are understandable, valid, and impossible to answer without additional revelation from God.

As Christians we do well to believe that God has equipped the man of God for every good work through what He has revealed in Scripture (2 Timothy 3:15-17); our goal is to make the best sense of what God has made known and ground ourselves in what we can explicitly demonstrate is true and faithful from its pages. There are practices which are right and cannot be wrong based on convictions about what Scripture says is true. In all matters of faith each must be fully convinced in his or her own mind; what is not of faith is of sin, but we must be careful lest we are condemned in what we approve (Romans 14:5, 21-23). In terms of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, we hazard that we do best to fulfill the passage as written, that such is right and cannot be wrong if a woman covers her head when praying and a man maintain an uncovered head.

Other conclusions have been offered. Some believe that Paul overthrows all of 1 Corinthians 11:4-15 by what he says in 1 Corinthians 11:16, believing that the “custom” is the covering itself. There is no other passage in Scripture which exists and then is entirely overthrown by its conclusion; why make the argument as is if it is ultimately meaningless? We do better to understand that contentiousness is not the custom of Paul or the churches of God: it is one of the works of the flesh in Galatians 5:19-21, and thus such an interpretation is consistent with the rest of what God has made known in Scripture. Others believe that the long hair in 1 Corinthians 11:15 is the covering. As noted above, the Greek words for “uncovered” and “covered” in 1 Corinthians 11:4-13 are not the same as the term used in 1 Corinthians 11:16; the former truly mean cover (or veil)/uncovered (or unveiled), while the latter carries a connotation of something thrown around a person, a mantle; the verbal form of the term is used to describe Solomon “arrayed” in clothing in Matthew 6:29. 1 Corinthians 11:15 is best understood to explain that a woman’s long hair is given to her as a mantle, especially since women tended to wear only the tunic without the toga/cloak that the man would generally also wear. If long hair were the covering, it seems odd to restrict the covering to two practices (praying or prophesying); Paul’s determination that a woman who does not wear a covering is as if shorn is also very odd; and would it demand that a man who would be uncovered must shave his head bald to be so?

Some wonder if “men” and “women” are better translated “husbands” and “wives.” This is not a new dispute; Tertullian, ca. 200 CE, wrote about it in his treatise On the Veiling of Virgins. Christians in his day are making the same argument; he does well in asking if it means that unmarried men should be covered, among other objections. If nothing else, Tertullian’s treatise demonstrates that whereas there were disagreements in belief as to whether all women or just wives were to be covered, all agreed that what Paul declared to the Corinthian Christians 150 years earlier still demanded respect and satisfaction among Christians in North Africa and elsewhere.

Many more accept the text as written yet believe that it was a cultural custom or only based in the exercise of spiritual gifts. We do well to note that Paul does not say “praying and prophesying,” but “praying or prophesying” (Greek he, not kai; 1 Corinthians 11:4-5). We no longer prophesy, but we still do pray (1 Corinthians 13:8-10, 1 Thessalonians 5:16); Christian women may not lead prayer in mixed groups or the assembly, but they still participate in the collective prayer (1 Corinthians 14:14-17, 33-35, 1 Timothy 2:9-15). As to cultural custom, such a position has been frequently advanced but not historically substantiated. It is one thing to claim it was a cultural practice, but where is the evidence that it is uniquely cultural for all women to be covered in prayer while men are not in Corinth in the first century? For that matter, if it were merely cultural, why do Tertullian and other early Christians continue to insist on its practice 150 years later? Why did it remain a practice among Christians for a very long time, likely even influencing current Jewish and Muslim practice? And, above all things, why does Paul ground his argument in the order of creation if it is merely a cultural phenomenon, the same ground on which he will argue about gender roles in the church in every other situation (1 Corinthians 11:2-16, 14:33-35, 1 Timothy 2:9-15)? Those who would be in opposition regarding women in leadership in the congregation are not unjust in pointing out the inconsistency to claim the cultural argument in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 while denying it in terms of 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 and 1 Timothy 2:9-15.

In the end, let everyone be fully convinced in their own minds; each will stand before God on the judgment day in terms of their decision about the proper interpretation and application of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Nevertheless, the above is offered to demonstrate that a woman is not sin by wearing an artificial covering while praying, and does so in order to take seriously and fulfill Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

Ethan R. Longhenry

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Q&A: Suffering Evil Despite Doing Good

Q: Sometimes I get mad at God or wonder if He is even there when bad things happen to me or those I love even though I have done good things. How can God allow bad things to happen when I have done the good and right thing?

A: A lot of people find themselves asking this question at some point in their lives. Either they or someone they love experience terrible evil despite having done good. How could God allow such things to happen?

Christians in modern-day Turkey experienced this same difficulty in the first century. They sought to follow Jesus in their environment; they had sought to do good even to those who stood against them; they then began to suffer even greater difficulty because they had done good things. They seemed to despair; the Apostle Peter wrote to them to encourage them. They would experience trials, but God is faithful and reserved for them a glorious inheritance (1 Peter 1:3-9). It is a blessed thing to suffer for doing good, for that is exactly what Jesus experienced (1 Peter 2:18-25). As Christians, we should expect trials and suffering, and should seek to faithfully endure (1 Peter 4:12-19).

How could Peter respond in this way? Is he not taking the question seriously?

The question, as stated, does not really have an answer. No one really knows why bad things happen to people who have done well. We can argue that none of us are really good, and so none of us really deserves to have good things to happen to us, and we should just be thankful that we do not always get what we deserve (cf. Romans 3:1-23, 6:23). We can “know” that people sin because they are free moral agents, and sin has consequences, not only for those who practice them, but also for other unfortunate people who happened to be involved or at the wrong place at the wrong time (Romans 3:23). God reserves the right to intervene at times, but is under no compulsion to intervene so that people do not experience the consequences of sin; likewise, God does not intervene so that sinners do not experience the “consequences” of people engaging in free moral actions of blessing and benefit to others that are not deserved. Yet do these “answers” really satisfy? No, not really.

We do get wisdom from the Preacher in Ecclesiastes 8:14:

There is a vanity which is done upon the earth, that there are righteous men unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked; again, there are wicked men to whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous: I said that this also is vanity.

The Preacher says that such questions are “vanity,” or futile. There can be no practical argument against this response; why, after all, do we want to know why such things happen? We want to know because we vainly imagine that if we know we can somehow change the result or manipulate the situation to our betterment. We cannot really know; even if reasons were granted in various circumstances, would it change the situation? Not at all.

Evil exists in the creation; people both suffer it and perpetuate it. The reasons behind this reality are not explained in Scripture; for that matter, no other endeavor of human exploration or understanding has found any better answer.

Should this mean that we lose faith in God? We first do well to think about our expectations. After all, if there is no God, from where would you or I or anyone else get any expectation that “good” or “bad” should happen to anyone? What is “good” or “bad”? If there is no God, is not everything simply based on the laws of physics? An action has an equal and opposite reaction; there would be no meaning behind it at all, and whatever happens just takes place. There would be no ground to expect any “good” or “bad.” Some people can take solace in this answer; most humans find it intolerable, and for good reason. We are “meaning-full” creatures; we seek meaning in everything, and that is because we are made in the image of God who created all things for His good purpose (Genesis 1:1-2:3).

It is not as if we are the first people to grapple with these difficult questions. They lie at the heart of Job’s contention with God. What did Job have to learn? The ways of the creation are too great for his understanding; it is for him to trust in God and His goodness and covenant loyalty toward His people (Job 42:1-6). And thus we return to Peter’s recommendations to the Christians in modern-day Turkey. Yes, bad things will sometimes happen to us, not only despite doing good, but sometimes precisely because we have done good. As Christians it is not for us to question why such things are so; we need to trust in God that in Jesus He is overcoming evil, sin, and death, and that through suffering evil without responding in kind we also can overcome and gain the resurrection, in which righteousness dwells, and no more pain and suffering (2 Peter 3:13, Revelation 21:1-22:6)!

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Q&A: Resurrection in Ancient Near Eastern Myths

Q: I have heard some people claim that the story of Jesus’ resurrection is based on ancient Near Eastern myths about resurrection. Is there any truth to these claims?

A: Resurrection, or at least rejuvenation, is a major theme in ancient cultures. There is a reason why the remembrance of Jesus’ resurrection in spring became associated with “Easter”: Bede claimed the term derived from a Saxon goddess Eostre, likely a goddess of dawn and thus rebirth (Bede, The Reckoning of Time).

The vernal equinox was often associated with rebirth and rejuvenation since the increased sunlight would lead to increased warmth and the sprouting of plants; other areas would have similar festivals and observances when plants would sprout after the appropriate rainy or flood season. Agricultural life depended on plants “dying” and “rising again.”

And so it is that many cultures had some myth or story of death and rebirth. The famous Egyptian version is the myth of Osiris: Osiris, an Egyptian king, is married to Isis. His jealous brother Set conspires against him and kills him. By some machination Isis brings Osiris back to life just long enough to procreate with him. Isis begets a son, Horus, who bests Set and takes his rightful place on the throne. All these characters were god-men and became part of the Egyptian pantheon; the story has many variations but is generally as set above.

It is worth emphasizing that Osiris is not fully resurrected: he is brought back to life just long enough to reproduce. He then becomes god of the underworld. The Egyptians saw the contest among Osiris, Set, and Horus as playing out continually in the land: Osiris was the Pharaoh in death, and the living Pharaoh was Horus, always seeking to preserve order and stability against Set and the forces of anarchy and chaos. The Egyptian story thus seeks to explain things as they are; death is not defeated, but part of life.

Osiris-tomb-of-Nefertari

The Mesopotamian version is the story of Inanna/Ishtar and Dumuzi/Tammuz, the observance of which in Israel is condemned by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 8:13-15). Ishtar was the goddess of fertility/love, and Tammuz the god of food and vegetation. In the various stories told about them, the same motif appears: to explain the presence of crops and fertility part of the year but not all year, there is a story of someone escaping from the underworld but having to pay the price, and that price is that another spends time in the underworld. Thus Tammuz “dies” every year, and is mourned, but is expected to come back.

This same theme is present in the annual contest between Baal (storm god) and Mot (death) in Canaanite mythology; the same is true with Demeter and Persephone among the Greeks. All of these stories seek to explain either the annual agricultural cycle or the life cycle of humanity in general.

Jesus’ resurrection is an altogether different feature, and has been thus noted from the beginning. Jesus dies and is raised from the dead, but never to die again (Romans 6:1-11). The Apostles did not preach the continuation of the life-cycle as it had always existed; they proclaimed that Jesus overcame sin and death in His death and resurrection, and in so doing pave the way to overcome that cycle (1 Corinthians 15:20-58). They pointed to Jesus as one still living, fully God, fully human, reigning as Lord over all, the one like a son of man given an eternal dominion (Daniel 7:13-14, Acts 7:55-56, 1 Timothy 2:5, Revelation 1:12-20).

Jesus’ resurrection is the guarantee of an afterlife, of the coming judgment, of a hope that the creation, currently enslaved to the bondage of decay and corruption, would one day be set free as in the beginning (Acts 17:30-31, Romans 8:18-25). What was claimed of Jesus is categorically different from all the rejuvenation legends and myths that came before or which have come since, for all others died again and perpetuated the life cycle. Jesus, and only Jesus, is claimed to have overcome the life cycle, being raised bodily, transformed, and never to die again, and who extends that same hope to all who will follow Him (1 Corinthians 15:20-58). May we put our trust in Jesus and our hope in the resurrection!

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Dreams and Visions

The Vine

Humans have been enchanted by dreams and visions for millennia. We want to believe that our dreams may unlock hidden meanings and mysteries in life; cultures throughout time have featured many attempts to interpret what dreams might mean. Science has proven rather dismissive of dreams and visions, attempting to understand them in terms of our brains processing data while we are unconscious. How should Christians understand dreams and visions?

As in all matters of spirituality we do well to first explore the purpose of dreams and visions as seen in the pages of Scripture. In both Old and New Testaments God has communicated to certain people in dreams and visions.

The Scriptures record many instances in which God communicated to people in dreams. In some circumstances God directly spoke to people in dreams, most often about a specific situation the person was facing at the time. God warned Abimelech about taking Sarah as a wife in a dream (Genesis 20:3-7), and likewise warned Laban against harming Jacob in any way (Genesis 31:24). When Solomon was in Gibeon God appeared to him in a dream and asked what he wanted; the wisdom for which Solomon asked in a dream was given to him in reality (1 Kings 3:5-28). The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream three times: the first to give him confidence so as to marry Mary, the second to warn him to get away to Egypt to avoid Herod, and the third to warn him away from living under Archelaus (Matthew 1:20, 2:13, 19-22).

God also sent dreams to his servants and to rulers which required interpretation but spoke of things that would come to pass. Joseph and Daniel were both justly famous for having been given dreams and the ability to interpret dreams. Joseph’s dreams about his family were able to be understood without difficulty in interpretation (Genesis 37:5-11). He was able to interpret the dreams of others, and they all involved what would take place in the immediate future: the cupbearer’s restoration, the baker’s execution, impending abundance and then famine in Egypt (Genesis 40:1-41:37). Daniel was able to see and interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s dream through the revelation of the God of heaven, and it spoke of the kingdoms to come (Daniel 2:1-46); God would give Daniel dreams and visions of beasts with a similar interpretation (Daniel 7:1-8:27).

William Blake Ezekiel's Vision ca 1803-5 Boston Museum

Visions are often closely related to dreams; God would send both, and while many visions were in dreams, other visions took place while a person was conscious or semi-conscious (Numbers 12:6, Daniel 1:17, 2:28). God granted visions to many people for different reasons; nevertheless, they all were corroborated by events which would take place or by other forms of revelation. God provided assurance of His covenant with Abram in a vision (Genesis 15:1ff). In the days of Eli and Samuel there was no frequent vision; nevertheless, God gave a vision to Samuel in which He summoned him thrice and prophesied doom for the house of Eli (1 Samuel 3:1-15). Isaiah and Ezekiel saw visions of God in heaven (Isaiah 1:1, 6:1-13, Ezekiel 1:1-28); most of Ezekiel’s prophecies featured some sort of vision. In the New Testament the Transfiguration of Jesus before Peter, James, and John is called a vision (Matthew 17:1-9). Peter is given a vision of unclean animals; the Lord Jesus told him to kill and eat; after Peter protested, Jesus told him that what God has cleansed he is not to call common (Acts 10:9-17). Peter was initially perplexed about the vision’s meaning, but through revelation from an angel and the Holy Spirit he discerned that God was calling him to preach the Gospel to Cornelius and other Gentiles; the vision was the first in a series of revelations which made it clear that God had cleansed the Gentiles and granted them the repentance that leads to life (Acts 10:17-11:18, 15:7-11). The Bible ends with a grand vision, the Revelation of God given to John, setting forth the impending struggles of believers and the victory of God in Christ through images simultaneously fantastic and yet consistent with what the people of God beforehand had experienced (Revelation 1:1-22:21).

Just because something was a vision did not necessarily make it unreal. There is great continuity between the heavenly scenes seen by Isaiah, Ezekiel, and John; Paul speaks of having been taken up into Paradise, the third heaven, in which he saw things unable to be described in human language (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). Elisha’s servant’s eyes were opened and he saw horses chariots of fire (2 Kings 6:15-17); the servant may be seeing a vision, but the vision proves more real than what we imagine reality to be.

Therefore it is evident that God did communicate with people through dreams and visions in Biblical times. That communication, however, was not always for the best, nor was every claimed dream and vision really from God. In 1 Kings 22:19-23 Micaiah son of Imlah described a heavenly vision he saw in which God revealed how He would entice Ahab to meet his doom: a lying spirit from God would enter the prophets to deceive him. The prophets warn the people about those who have claimed to receive dreams and visions from God but do so falsely (Jeremiah 23:32, 27:9, 29:8, Lamentations 2:14, Ezekiel 13:9, Zechariah 10:2). Paul warns Christians about giving heed to those who trust in visions and give devotion to angels but do not hold fast to the Head who sustains His Body, the Lord Jesus (Colossians 2:18-19).

As Christians we do well to be careful about claims regarding dreams and visions. We have every confidence from Scripture that whatever messages God would communicate in dreams and visions would be consistent with what He has revealed through other means and would work to encourage and sustain Christians in Christ; yet on what basis should we expect Him to continue to communicate in such ways? He has made known His will for mankind in Christ and has communicated through the witness of the Apostles all things we need in order to accomplish His purposes (Acts 1:8, 2 Timothy 3:15-17). We do well to heed the wisdom of the Preacher:

For in the multitude of dreams there are vanities, and in many words: but fear thou God (Ecclesiastes 5:7).

May we all honor and revere God and seek to accomplish His purposes in Jesus Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Q&A: Campus Preachers

Q: I see some “preachers” on campus who spend their time yelling at people and accusing them of sin. Why do they do that? Is that the way we should be telling people about Jesus?

A: We have spoken somewhat of such persons in Fanatics.

Most people who are motivated to go out and condemn people in their sins have developed a theology that conflates the prophetic witness of the Old Testament to Israel with a belief in the United States of America as God’s chosen nation. Such people believe that all Americans should be Christians because God has chosen America; therefore, they are not to be evangelized as if they knew nothing about Jesus but instead as apostatizing and backsliding chosen people.

There is no basis upon which to assert that God has chosen the United States of America in any special way. There is no reason to believe that the United States of America is the new Israel or has been granted a special election. Instead, in the USA, there are righteous people and there are sinners, just as there are in every nation. Those in the world, as sinners, are to hear the good news of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, lordship, and return, just as in the book of Acts (cf. Acts 2:14-36, Acts 17:22-31, etc.). They are sinners, separated from God; we should not speak to them or presume that they have understanding of God, but exhort them as the Apostles before us did (cf. ibid., Ephesians 2:1-18).

Therefore such is not the way to tell people about Jesus; it is the way to repel people and keep them far away from Jesus and salvation, and thus is truly lamentable. God does not want unbelievers to be condemned and roast for their sins; such is why He sent His Son to die for them, and wishes for them to be saved (John 3:16-17, 1 Timothy 2:4). We do well to love such people and point them to Jesus for salvation and hope!

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