Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Birth of Jesus - God With Us

The Nativity - Lucas Cranach the Elder
"In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them" (Luke 2:1-7).
These first several verses from the second chapter of Luke's gospel are my favorite of the Christmas season. These verses always wound up being my part in the Christmas Eve Sunday School program. It's a good thing, too, that I always seemed to get more or less the same verses every year. I wasn't then, nor am I now, one who could memorize things easily. I was always quite nervous right up through the time all of us Sunday school kids were marched up to the front of the church. I didn't like speaking in public, and it was all I could do to not flub my part. 
In fact, I never really liked the Children's Program when I was a child with a part to memorize. I remember spending what felt like endless hours in the sanctuary going over, and over, and over again just exactly where to stand and how to hold the microphone when we were lined up in front of the church. It was excruciatingly boring to sit in the pews waiting for our turn to line up, and nearly impossible to pay attention to anything that happened in the front after our group had finished speaking and sat back down. And, to cap it all off, when we had finished running through the entire program, we'd have to line up in the fellowship hall to march in again for another go-around. Not my idea of a good way to spend three hours, and I always enjoyed church-stuff.
When I look back on those times, being many years removed from them, I was a little surprised to see that two of my absolute most favorite things about Christmas come as a part of the Christmas Eve Children's Program (at least at Immanuel - Hodgkins): singing Silent Night in German by candle light, and hearing the first seven verses of Luke chapter two.
I didn't even realize that I still had them memorized until I started teaching at a Lutheran school and had to prepare a Christmas program myself. Then, as I looked deeper into those words which my childhood pastor and Sunday school teachers had inscribed into my brain, I became profoundly thankful that The Lord had allowed me to grow up in the way in which He did. By requiring us to memorize those gospel verses our Sunday school teachers were giving us the gift that we celebrate on Christmas - the gift of Immanuel, "God, with us".
Faith comes through hearing, and hearing comes through the word of Christ we are told in Holy Scripture. By having us children memorize the words of the gospel, our teachers put those faith-creating words into us. The author of Hebrews tells us that, in these last days, God has spoken to us by his Son. It is through Jesus, his Son - the Word made flesh - that God deals with mankind. He does not wish to deal with us in any other way than through his word and sacraments, which are God's word and promise coupled with a physical element of water, bread, or wine.
By the means of those words of the gospel the Holy Spirit worked faith in our hearts according to his good and gracious will. I am particularly thankful for the words of Scripture I was taught to memorize. Through the years since Sunday School God has continued to teach me and grow my faith through them.
The words recorded by Luke in the beginning of chapter two of his gospel may seem like the standard introductory passage. In television specials about the life of Jesus it usually takes up no more than a few moments of the opening credits to visually portray what Luke has written. His words, however, express something more important than just the desperate attempt to find shelter for Mary in the crowded village of Bethlehem.
Luke's words, "In those days," tell us that the events he relates have taken place in the midst of human history. They do not happen in his imagination, once upon a time, as though this is merely some fairy tale. The story of Jesus is a story that can be pinpointed in time. It happened "in those days", when Caesar Augustus issued his decree. Furthermore, the events of the gospel did not take place in some mythical kingdom far, far away. They happened in a real location to which one can point on a map, and even visit, if one was so inclined. Quirinius was (or was about to become) the governor of Syria. Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem, the city of David. It was there, at that definite time and place that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
This is in contrast to other so-called mystery religions that flourished in the Middle East in the first and second centuries, and to the heretical off-shoots of Christianity that so intrigue people today, forming the basis of such popular entertainment as "The DaVinci Code". These religions were clearly built on fantastic stories written in the manner of the pagan myths of antiquity and meant to be taken as allegory.
For example, Mithra, god of the Roman Mithraic mysteries, is depicted as being born from a rock. He is shown as emerging from a rock, already in his youth, with a dagger in one hand and a torch in the other. He is nude, is wearing a Phrygian cap and is holding his legs together. An example from heretical Christianity is a resurrection account of Jesus from the non-canonical gospel of St. Peter which features a gigantic talking cross.
Jesus' birth account recorded in Holy Scripture, by contrast, is set against the backdrop of real people and places. There is, of course, debate as to exactly when Luke meant. But it is clear that he was being as precise as he possibly could be in establishing the foundation for his gospel account. While there might be some confusion as to which Quirinius Luke is referring, or which governing office he held, or which census (provincial or empire-wide) is meant, archeology has clarified and upheld Luke's Gospel consistently, and there is no reason to think it will do otherwise in the future. Luke's stated purpose for writing was to compile an orderly account of those things which he followed closely, namely the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Though many today would like to count Christianity simply as the mystery religion that won out in popularity and influence in the Roman Empire, it is clear to those who read its scriptures and study its history that Christianity is not merely a Mithra-clone. At the birth of Jesus we witness the God who created the universe clothing himself in human flesh and stepping into human history with the specific goal of being the sacrifice to atone for the sin of mankind in order to reconcile man to God.
In fact, that is what Jesus' name means. Jesus comes from the Jewish name "Yeshua", which is translated, "The Lord [YHWH] saves." Matthew records that, when the angel of The Lord appeared to Joseph to explain just who Mary was carrying in her womb and what he was to be named, this was in fulfilment of what the prophet Isaiah had written, "Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel." Immanuel means, "God, with us." To put it another way, the LORD God [YHWH] who saves, is with us.

Mankind needed a savior because he, and all creation along with him, was infected with the disease of sin. Since Adam and Eve's first sin, when they disobeyed God's command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, sin entered creation. All people born since then are born suffering from this disease of sin. We are all born without true fear or trust in God. We are all born with the inclination toward sin, to commit actual sinful acts, and away from God. There is nothing we can do to rescue ourselves from this dreadful condition, or reconcile ourselves to God. The disease is terminal. This is why the Lord himself had to save us. This salvation he effected by taking on human flesh, being born under the law, living a sinless life, going to the cross to suffer and die as punishment for mankind's sinfulness, and rising from the dead three days later as the conqueror of sin, death and Satan.
After his death and resurrection, before ascending into heaven to be seated at God the Father's right hand, Jesus promised that he would be with us to the very end of the age. He is our brother, as the Lutheran Confessions declare, "and we are flesh of his flesh and bone of His bone. He has instituted His holy Supper for the certain assurance and confirmation of this, so that He will be with us, and dwell, work, and be effective in us also according to that nature from which He has flesh and blood" (FC SD VIII 79).

Jesus came to dwell among us and be the sacrifice to atone for the guilt of our sin on that first Christmas about which Luke writes. He came to us at a specific time, in a specific place. He is no fairy story, but the central focus of all of human history. He comes to us and remains with us in his holy word, preached and read, and in his holy sacraments, properly administered. What good news for fallen, sinful humanity. May it bring great joy to all who hear it. For unto us is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Great Disappointment - Trusting in Man

William Miller (1782-1849)
“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.” The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life (Revelation 22: 16-17).

After 14 years of studying the Bible, William Miller (1782-1849), a U.S. revivalist who predicted the second coming and earned a large but temporary following, became convinced that Christ would return in 1843. When Miller announced April 3 as the day, some disciples went to mountaintops, hoping for a head start to heaven. Others were in graveyards, planning to ascend in reunion with their departed loved ones. Philadelphia society ladies clustered together outside town to avoid entering God's kingdom amid the common herd.

When April 4 dawned as usual the Millerites, as they came to be known, were disillusioned, but they took heart. Their leader had predicted a range of dates for Christ's return. They still had until March 21, 1844. The devout continued to make ready, but again they were disappointed. A third date – October 22, 1844 – was set, but it also passed. It is estimated that the Millerites numbered nearly 50,000. Miller recorded his personal disappointment in his memoirs: "Were I to live my life over again, with the same evidence that I then had, to be honest with God and man, I should have to do as I have done I confess my error, and acknowledge my disappointment." (Memoirs of William Miller, Sylvester Bliss, p. 256).

William Miller came to his strange conclusions about the end of time from his study of Old Testament prophecy, particularly the book of Daniel. The eighth chapter of Daniel records this prophecy:

…Then I heard a holy one speaking, and another holy one said to him, “How long will it take for the vision to be fulfilled – the vision concerning the daily sacrifice, the rebellion that causes desolation, and the surrender of the sanctuary and of the host that will be trampled underfoot?” He said to me, “It will take 2,300 evenings and mornings; then the sanctuary will be reconsecrated.”

Even more well known are these words from Daniel, chapter nine:

“Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and build Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. After sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. He will confirm a covenant with many for one ‘seven.’ In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on a wing of the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.” (Daniel 9: 25-27).

The Mayan Calendar

From these passages, as well as others, many Christians have attempted to work out a formula for predicting the end times, just as secular doomsday prophets have attempted to do from they Mayan calendar and the predictions of Nostradamus. All have fallen short of the mark. These Biblical prophecies, according to most Christian theologians, give us a picture of God’s direction of world events. These “sevens” may not necessarily be meant to be computed arithmetically. They may, however, in apocalyptic language, show the full attainment of God’s goal in history – the universal redemption of mankind.

According to Evangelical Lutheranism, the division of the 70 “weeks” into the unequal segments of seven, sixty-two, and one gave the assurance that man’s redemption would take place in a historical setting. The first “seven” weeks were God’s pledge to restore Jerusalem. The next 62 weeks confirmed that the rebuilt Jerusalem would be Israel’s religious center when the Messianic Age was to begin. The last week would bring the consummation of all things decreed and predicted: 1) The death of “the Anointed One, the ruler” to atone for sin; 2) the ratification of a covenant – one without sacrifices and offerings for sin; 3) the destruction of rebuilt Jerusalem, no longer a holy city, but filled with abominations. However confusing these words of prophecy may be to us, we can be certain of one thing: God would (and did) carry out his plan for man’s salvation. Whether or not we understand the details is, quite frankly, irrelevant.

We know from Holy Scripture that Christ will return visibly and with great glory on the Last Day.

“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen Him go into heaven.”...Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of Him. So shall it be! Amen (Acts 1:11; Revelation 1:7).

He will return to judge the world, not to set up an earthly government.

When the Son of Man comes in His glory, with all the angels with Him, He will sit on His throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats…Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (Matthew 25: 31-32; John 18:36).

Christ will return on a specific day known by God the Father alone.

You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect Him…No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son but only the Father…He has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the man He has appointed (Matthew 24:44; Mark 13:32; Acts 17:31).

Finally, before Christ returns, there will be increasing turmoil and distress for the church and the world.

Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places…The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons (Matthew 24:7; 1 Timothy 4:1).

Christ's failure to appear in 1844 has come to be known as the Great Disappointment. However, it wasn’t really Christ’s “failure” to appear that caused the disappointment. Instead, it was the people’s trust in one man’s logic and reason – rather than faith in Christ to keep his promise – that was the source of their disappointment. Any time we rely on man rather than God, we will be disappointed, no matter what the circumstance. St. Peter realized this, and described this concept in his first epistle:

As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame” (1 Peter 2: 4-6).

If you trust in St. Peter, you will be put to shame. If you trust in Martin Luther, you will be put to shame. If you trust in William Miller, or the ancient Mayans, or anyone else who claims to have some hidden or special knowledge revealed to no one else, Scripture tells us that you will be put to shame. A person can have one of two attitudes toward the “Cornerstone” – you can trust in him or reject him. If you reject him, you will stumble and fall:

Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone,” and “A stone that causes ment to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the message – which is also what they were destined for (1 Peter 2: 7-8).

Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ, the foundation stone upon which our life of faith is built. Even though we may not fully understand now the omniscient thinking and working of God, we can rejoice that Christ – with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death – has redeemed us fully. For what purpose? To quote Dr. Martin Luther, “…that I may be his own and live under him in his kingdom and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as he is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Mountain of the Lord

Christ the King
In the last days the mountain of the LORD's temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and peoples will stream to it. Many nations will come and say "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths." The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken. All the nations may walk in the name of their gods; we will walk in the name of the LORD our God for ever and ever (Micah 4: 1-5).
According to many theologians, the phrase "last days" can refer to the future in general terms. However, the term "last days" is usually used, or at least understood, in one of two ways: 1) The end of time at Christ's Second Coming or, 2) The Messianic Era as a whole. These two ideas are unified in the pages of Scripture. Evangelical Lutheranism, in contrast with American "main-line" Protestantism, sees the last days as beginning with Jesus' first coming; these last days will be consummated at his Second Coming. The Apostles certainly viewed themselves and believers to come after them as living in the Last Days, as evidenced by their calls to remain watchful for Christ's return. St. Peter writes in his first epistle, "The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray" (1 Peter 4:7). In his second epistle, St. Peter explains even further.
First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, "Where is this 'coming' he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation." ...Therefore dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position (2 Peter 3: 3-4, 17).
St. Peter understood that the times in which he was living, after Christ's First Coming, were different in nature from the time before Christ came to earth. The previous times (Old Testament times) were preparatory - looking forward to the coming of the King who would sit on David's throne forever. Now, in these "last days" as St. Peter calls them, it is only a matter of time until Christ returns and brings complete fulfillment to what the prophets foretold. He also knew that false teachers would come - they had already shown themselves while the Apostles were still alive - and that Christians must, in the words of the negro spiritual, "keep their lamps trimmed and burning" lest they be caught unawares. While Micah is most assuredly pointing toward the promised ruler's first coming (5: 2-3), he is also describing the entire Messianic Age - the Last Days.
Micah, in his prophecy, goes on to describe what will take place in the Messianic Age. He writes, "In the last days the mountain of the Lord's Temple will be established as chief among the mountains;" (v1). In other passages of Scripture, like Psalm 2:6 and 2 Chronicles 33:15, where God's Holy Hill or Mountain is mentioned, it is a reference to the site of the temple in Jerusalem. The temple was the earthly counterpart for God's heavenly throne room. Since the mountain is representative of God's throne in heaven, this passage tells us that during the last days (Messianic Age) God's power and authority will be, as it always has been, the ultimate power and authority and will be recognized as such. St. Paul understands this as well, and quotes Isaiah to make the point in his epistle to the Romans:
By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear (Isaiah 45:23).
Micah also says that peoples, or nations, will "stream" to the mountain of the LORD. In Psalm 86, David makes a similar statement when he writes, "All the nations you have made will come and worship before you, O Lord; they will bring glory to your name" (Ps. 86:9). In Jesus, these passages have been and are being fulfilled. Christ, by his life, death and resurrection, established the mountain of the Lord's Temple as chief among the mountains. All those people who believe - the nations God has made by faith - turn to Jesus, the Messiah. In Old Testament times, believers had faith in the promise of the Messiah. New Testament believers trust in the same Messiah - we, however, know his name. As Jesus himself said:
But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself (John 12:32).
St. Peter also explains:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9).
What can we who are living in the "last days" take away from the words of Micah? In one word, hope. We know that God has created faith in our hearts through our baptism and that he sustains that faith and causes it to grow through Word and Sacrament. We can know that we will walk in the name of the LORD our God forever, and that, even now as we believe in Christ Jesus, no one can snatch us out of his hand. Speaking to the unbelieving Jews at the Feast of Dedication, Jesus said this:
...I did tell you, but you do not believe. The miracles I do in my Father's name speak for me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand (John 10: 25-28).
One of the first adventurers on the mighty oceans who sailed to South America went around a cape on a stormy sea. His ship threatened to go to pieces; so he called the place the Cape of Storms. But Vasco da Gama, who came later, changed the name to the Cape of Good Hope, for the saw ahead of him the jewels and treasures of India. You can call this a life of storms if you wish. But if you can see the glorious redemption of eternity ahead of you, you can call it what it is in Christ - a life of good hope.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13).
Our hope comes from God - it is His gift by his Spirit, given to us through his means of Word and Sacrament. Any hope we may conjure up by our own efforts is merely illusory. We should not, however, live our lives the way the world would have us - focused on worldly things and preoccupied with how to please our human nature. Since we have peace with God as a result of being justified through faith in Christ we, by the Spirit's power, focus our attention and energy on how to please our spiritual nature. That is what we do this Advent season - we focus on Jesus Christ and prepare for his coming. We heed St. Peter's words and seek to, "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever!"

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Eternal Election

Martin Luther
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience - among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved - and raised us up and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2: 1-7).
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen (Romans 1:18-25)
No, I am not writing about Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Thanks be to God, that election is not eternal, and Americans will decide on November 6 who will be the President of the United States for the next four years. This idea of Eternal Election is an important Biblical doctrine that should comfort Christians during difficult times and trials. Our salvation in Christ is so sure and certain that our relationship with God was known by Him before the foundation of the world (McCain, Baker, Veith, & Engelbrecht 2005). Unfortunately, trying to make sense of Eternal Election can sometimes be as frustrating and confusing as the Presidential election. I would like to examine Eternal Election, particularly in light of the two passages of Scripture presented above, as this has recently become the topic of conversation between me and one of my dearest friends.
John Calvin
Although there was no controversey among early Lutherans regarding what is commonly referred to as "God's Eternal Foreknowledge and Election", the doctrine was addressed in the Book of Concord in response to the ideas formulated and advanced by John Calvin and his followers. Calvin developed a doctrine known as double predestination. Briefly stated, this doctrine teaches four main points: 1) Christ died, not for all people, but only for the elect; 2) God created most people for eternal condemnation and is unwilling that they be converted and saved; 3) The elect and regenerate cannot lose faith and the Holy Spirit and be condemned, even though they commit great sins and crimes of every kind; 4) Those who are not elect must be condemned, and cannot attain salvation, even though they are baptized a thousand times, daily go to the Lord's Supper, and also live as holy and blameless as ever possible (McCain, Baker, Veith, & Engelbrecht, 2005).
This question of eternal election and predestination is one of the most difficult for us to resolve. And, by that I mean it is a question we will be unable to resolve. Simply put, the Bible teaches that 1) God desires all people to be saved and, 2) salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ, which is entirely and completely a gift from God, independent of any work we could ever do. In fact, because of concupiscence, our natural inclination since the Fall is to turn away from God, as you know. Not only does salvation come to us as God’s gift, it MUST be God’s work if it is to happen, because we are inclined toward sin and away from God. To the rational human mind these things are irreconcilable. If we work these things out by pure human reasoning, we must necessarily come to the place where Calvin went, and say that God chooses some to be saved, and some others to be condemned. That isn’t a place where I wish to go, as Scripture expressly says otherwise. The conclusion to which I have come after years of wrestling with this idea, is that we should merely state what God teaches in his word regarding these things, and leave it at that. So, let’s have at it…
God resolved before the foundation of the world that those whom he would save, he would save by his grace, through faith in Jesus Christ.[1] Faith is a gift of God[2], kindled in the hearts of men by the working of the Holy Spirit[3], through his means, which is God’s word.[4]
This includes all people of all times – New Testament believers in Christ who heard the Gospel and believed, and also Old Testament saints, such as Abraham, as well. The Old Testament faithful, who believed that God would send a redeemer, had faith in God’s promise just as New Testament believers, but from a different perspective.[5] Old Testament saints trusted God’s promise to send a Messiah, whose name they did not know, after hearing God’s word. They were looking forward to the fulfillment of the promise. New Testament saints had/have faith in God’s promised Messiah, whose name they know to be Jesus of Nazareth. They are looking back toward that same fulfillment.[6]
God wants all people to be saved.[7] Many people, however, reject the word and thereby resist they Holy Spirit who attempts to work in them.[8] God will harden those who persist in their resistance of the Holy Spirit’s work through the word.
Just as an ungrateful birthday boy may turn up his nose at a gift he does not appreciate or understand, man is able to reject God's gift of a Savior. The natural state of mankind since the fall is to turn away from God.[9] The Pharisees, who loved their position in life and praise from men more than God, rejected the gift. They hardened their hearts to God's Holy Spirit, as St. Stephen tells them. They, along with all those who do the same, will receive their wages for their labor. [10] The Holy Spirit, however, continues to work in men as long as the word is present with them. St. Peter calls us believers a chosen people[11]. This, I believe, means that we who have heard the Gospel and believe it are elect. That may sound like a simple cop-out, but it is what the Bible says. The Holy Spirit calls us all through the Gospel, which St. Paul says is the power of salvation to everyone who believes[12]. St. Paul writes in Ephesians chapter one:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For He chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love He predestined us to be adopted as His sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with His pleasure and will – to the praise of His glorious grace, which He has freely given us in the One He loves (Eph. 1:3-6).
The key words there are “in Him” and “through Jesus Christ”. The elect are elect, not because God picked his favorites and wrote them down on a “saved” list, and decided to damn all the rest. He chose his elect “in Him” – those who believe/did believe/would believe in Christ would constitute the elect.
This is how God worked in Pharaoh through Moses.[13] The Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration uses this example:
“God did harden Pharaoh’s heart. In other words, Pharaoh always sinned again and again and became more hardened the more he was warned. That was a punishment of his earlier sin and horrible tyranny that in many and various ways he acted inhumanly toward the children of Israel against his heart’s accusations. God caused his Word to be preached and His will to be proclaimed to Pharaoh. Nevertheless, Pharaoh willfully stood up immediately against all rebukes and warnings. Therefore, God withdrew His hand from him, Pharaoh’s heart became hardened and stubborn, and God executed His judgment on him” (McCain, Baker, Veith, & Engelbrecht, 2005).[14]

God, standing outside of linear time, knows all things before they happen (foreknowledge).[15] Therefore, he has known since before the beginning of time who would, after being called by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, believe in Christ.[16]
That is not to say that God only called certain individuals because of his foreknowledge.[17] He, being God, and therefore not being bound by time and space as we humans are, simply knows all things before they happen.
In this way, believers in Christ, the promised Messiah are – and have always been – elect from all eternity.[18] This is true in both the broad and narrow sense. Broad, because God elected that all believers would be saved in Christ Jesus from eternity; Narrow, in that God, as a result of his foreknowledge, knows each individual who has been or will be a believer in Christ. Therefore, each individual believer has also been elect from eternity. The key is that the Elect are elect in Christ. That is, the reason the elect are the Elect is because they are elect in Christ.
From the human perspective, people can come to faith, and they can fall from grace. From God’s perspective outside of time, since he had determined the method by which he would redeem mankind, and since he knows the outcome of all things, to God all things have been determined since before the beginning of time.
As for what St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians “Dead” does most certainly, I believe, mean dead, but in terms of our spiritual state before we are “given the paddles”, so to speak, and are shocked to life by the Almighty Paramedic. Luther used the analogy of a corpse. A corpse can do nothing to resurrect itself and come back to life, and we, likewise, have zero power to effect in ourselves a spiritual resurrection (Luther, 1991). The Lutheran Confessions, in the Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration explain this Scriptural teaching by saying, “The Scriptures teach that a sinful person is not only weak and sick, but also finished and entirely dead” (FC SD II 10). To summarize it all, we are truly dead in our transgressions, which is to say that we stand outside of God’s forgiveness and salvation because of sin, and there’s nothing we can do to change that situation, just like that corpse is powerless to change – or even be aware of – its situation (Engelbrecht, et al., 2009). That is why St. Paul also writes:
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching (Romans 10:14)?
Paul’s questions are designed to teach that by God’s design, faith is created only through the Word proclaimed (Engelbrecht, et al., 2009). The process used by the Holy Spirit to effect that change is not explained, and is, frankly, none of our business.
The fact that we are, spiritually speaking, a smelly rotting corpse, describes the unregenerate state we are in before God converts us. This is the very thing St. Paul is describing in Romans chapter 1. Because of this, our spiritual state, we act as St. Paul describes. In our unregenerate state, left to our own devices, we are unrighteous and therefore turn away from and suppress the truth. Always. We can’t help it. The remedy to this is faith, which comes through hearing, and hearing comes through the word of Christ[19]. The forgiveness of sins is secured for us by Christ’s work on the cross, but it cannot come to us any other way than through the Word[20]. I don’t know how the Holy Spirit uses this tool of the Word to create faith in people who believe, I just know that that’s the tool he uses. The Lutheran reformers liked to point out that the Holy Spirit works, “when and where he will.” That is why it is important for all people to hear the Gospel – the Word.
Go back to the analogy of the birthday boy and his present for a moment. His natural inclination is to not accept the present. If the Giver just set the present in front of him, he would cross his arms and turn away from it all day long. This in spite of the fact that he sees the birthday cake and decorations and, therefore, knows it is his birthday, and that he should bow to social convention and accept the gift. The Giver, therefore, must order him to take the present and open it. “You take that present right this instant,” the Giver might say. “Now, open it. Open it and use it; it’s for your own good.” So, the little punk takes the gift and opens it, but it certainly isn’t of his own free will that he does so. He did not cooperate in receiving the gift. If he did a “verb” at all, the one we would have to conjugate would be “to submit”. And, after opening the gift, his whole attitude is changed. That might seem like a cooperation of sorts, or a good work, but I don’t think that it is.
And, if we want to carry the scenario even farther, let’s say he opens the gift, takes one look at it and heaves it on the floor. This would be analogous, I think, to those described in Romans 1 who, having seen what God has shown them, rejected His gift anyway. That would certainly be in keeping with the birthday boy’s nature. The Giver will offer the gift again and again through repeated exhortations to accept it but, at a certain point – we don’t know when – he will give the birthday boy over to his nature if he continues to be a jerk and will take the gift away. This is pure conjecture, though, and perhaps this whole exercise is a cheap word game. I haven’t decided for certain yet. The analogy is obviously flawed, but I think it goes a long way to make my point. Unfortunately, in this sinful, fallen world, we are forced to use verbs – action words! – to describe this process throughout which we are passive, if we intend to discuss it in human language.
These are wonderfully mind-bending things to think about and discuss. I would be remiss, however, if I did not point out that the whole of our entire discussion, after all is said and done, must be focused through the lens of (at least) three passages of Scripture:
But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?...Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!...Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it (Romans 9:20-21; 11:33; Luke 18:17).
The God whose Christ died only for the elect and not for all people is not the God who has made himself known to us in Holy Scripture. Neither is the God who created most people for eternal condemnation, and is unwilling that those people be converted and saved as Calvinism teaches. Calvin, in order to get to the place where the above statement is truth, had to ignore Scripture and rely on his own rational mind for guidance in working these things out to their logical conclusions. If we do that, we will embark upon a pathway that leads to another destination at which I have no desire to arrive. In the end, we must necessarily wind up back where we began – God’s Word. This is not a thing we are going to understand while still on this earth. We must agree with Luther (of course!) when he says, “Even as I now believe in Christ my Savior, I also know that I have been chosen to eternal life out of pure grace in Christ without any merit of my own and that no one can pluck me out of His hand (Luther, 1991).” There again, as before, the key phrase is “in Christ”. It is always “in Christ” that we find our answer.
Works Cited
Engelbrecht, E. A., Deterding, P. E., Ehlke, R. C., Joersz, J. C., Love, M. W., Mueller, S. P., et al. (Eds.). (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis, Missouri, USA: Concordia Publishing House.
Luther, M. (1991). Kleine Katechismus, English. (C. P. House, Trans.) Saint Louis, Missouri, USA: Concordia Publishing House.
McCain, P. T., Baker, R. C., Veith, G. E., & Engelbrecht, E. A. (Eds.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. (W. H. Dau, & G. F. Bente, Trans.) St. Louis, MO, USA: Concordia Publishing House.

End Notes

[1] Matthew 13:34-35; Ephesians 1: 4-6
[2] Ephesians 2: 8-9
[3] 1 Corinthians 6:11; 12:3
[4] Romans 1:16; 10:17; 2 Thessalonians 2:14
[5] 1 Peter 1: 10-12
[6] Hebrews 11
[7] Ezekiel 33:11; Matthew 11:28 Luke 24:47; John 1:29; 3:16; 6:40; 6:51; Romans 10:12; 11:32; 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9 1 John 2:2;
[8] Matthew 22: 1-10; 23:37; Luke 14: 16-24; Acts 7:51
[9] Psalm 51:5; Romans 3: 9-18
[10] Romans 6:23
[11] 1 Peter 2:9
[12] Romans 1:16; 2 Thess. 2:14
[13] Exodus 4:21; 7:3; 7: 13-14; 7:22; 8:15; 8:19; 8:32; 9:7; 9:12; 9: 34-35; 10:1; 10:20; 10:27; 11:10; 14:4; 14:8; 14:17
[14] Paul T. McCain, Robert C. Baker, gene E. Veith, Edward A. Engelbrecht eds., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House), 2005.
[15] Psalm 139:16; Isaiah 37:28; Matthew 10:29
[16] Romans 3:22
[17] i.e., that God knew that certain people would not resist the Holy Spirit, so he called them, and left the other people without hope of redemption.
[18] 2 Timothy 2:10
[19] Romans 10:17
[20] LC V 3

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

To Eat, or Not To Eat, That is the Question

Emperor Marcus Aurelius sacraficing at the
Temple of Jupiter in Rome
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand (Romans 14:1-4).

The words of Paul to the Romans, and elsewhere to the Corinthians, addressing their concerns over “meat sacrificed to idols” may seem, to modern ears, archaic. In our modern western society we do not have to deal with issues such as the public funding and worship of gods as did the early Christian subjects of the Roman Empire. The Corinthians, though, were facing a difficult spiritual situation. As Christians, they were in the minority in a culture which revolved around the pagan temple. Lenski, in his commentary, briefly explains the dilemma:

The pagan temple rituals, many state occasions, festivals of various kinds of societies, the lives of families and of individuals, all involved sacrifices to the gods and the participation of larger or smaller circles in the feasts connected with these rituals. The desire to participate in such feasts as well as the obligations of family connections or of friendship raised the question as to how far a Christian might go in this regard (Lenski, 1957).

In the worship of the pagan gods a part of the animal would be burned on the pagan altar. The rest of the animal would be prepared for the feast that followed (Lenski, 1957). Any of the sacrifice that was not either burned on the altar or eaten at the subsequent feast would have been taken home and eaten there. Lenski explains that some of the leftover meat sacrificed to the pagan gods would necessarily end up in the market butcher shops, and would be sold along with the ordinary meat.

The Corinthians had, evidently, debated how they should handle the situation in which they found themselves. Was it permissible to eat meat that had been sacrificed to a pagan god? Could a person eat in an idol’s temple or in the home of a pagan friend? Questions such as these were almost certainly asked of Paul by the Corinthians, and he devotes a significant portion of his epistle to their response.

Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist (1 Corinthians 8:4-6).

So, the short answer from Paul is yes, you can eat meat sacrificed to idols. Paul briefly explains why. He reminds us that an idol is nothing – it is merely a carving made by man. He points out that all foods have been declared to be clean by our Lord. He gives thanks to God for what he receives. He declares, nevertheless, that he would rather never eat meat again, if his eating of meat causes one of his fellow brothers to stumble and harms their faith[1]. It doesn't matter what is permissible for Paul. It matters what builds up the body of Christ - the Church - because, as Paul explains, his entire existence is concerned with winning souls for Christ by proclaiming the Gospel.

Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol's temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died.  Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble (1 Corinthians 8:8-13).

The things you do, like eating meat sacrificed to idols, may not be bad. Indeed, Paul says this elsewhere. All foods have been declared clean[2]. If you don't have an issue of conscience eating such things, you are free to eat them. If, however, one of your Christian brothers sees you in the corner idol-meat butcher shop and he, not having as mature an understanding of these ideas as you, is offended by your actions, or encouraged to participate in contradiction to his conscience, Paul tells the Corinthians that they should abstain. The reason: Christ died for that brother of yours who is offended, however unjustified that offense may be.

For Paul at once explains in regard to what point the knowledge of some is insufficient: “due to the custom hitherto”, when they [the “weak” Christians] were still Gentiles and attended idol feasts. They cannot, now that they are Christians, rid themselves of the old feeling regarding the idol that is honored by such a feast…The old custom or habit of thinking regarding the idol still has its effect, not, indeed, as though they still think that the idol is a real being, but that they eat “as an idol offering”…They still feel that eating such meat in some way connects a person with the idol, unreal though that idol is to whom that meat has been sacrificed. That is their weak point (Lenski, 1957).

If your actions have the potential to harm his faith and cause him to fall away (put a "stumbling block" in front of him, as Paul says), you should not do the thing that causes offense, even if you may have the Christian liberty to do so. Lenski comments:

Not our knowledge but our love for the weak must govern our action a [stumbling block] is something that lies in a path, against which an unwary foot may strike and cause a person to stumble or to fall; metaphorically, anything that may cause a person to sin and to suffer injury to his soul, (Lenski, 1957).

If these relatively insignificant issues of personal conduct get in the way of Paul's Christian witness and example because Paul is stubborn about exercising his Christian liberty, he explains, his Gospel witness is ineffective to outsiders, and the faith of those less spiritually mature brothers could be jeopardized. Paul writes in his epistle to the Romans:

Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble,” (Romans 14:20-21).

How do these questions, and Paul’s response to them, apply to those of us who comprise the church today? The last time I looked, there were no enormous marble statues of Jupiter in the town square. There don’t seem to be many pagan temples conducting animal sacrifices in my neighborhood, and I couldn’t tell you the last time I was invited to eat meat at a pagan feast. So, can we just let this one go, and chalk this section of the Scripture up as the vestigial remnant of an ancient culture, with no application for us today? Hardly. What applies to Paul, the Corinthians, and the Romans also applies to us. We might not be dealing with the whole" meat sacrificed to idols" issue, but that doesn't mean there aren't issues that come up by which we offend each other. 

One that leaps to mind immediately is consumption of alcohol. Different Christian denominations have differing views regarding alcohol. I went to college in the south and, even though I spent many summers of my youth visiting relatives in Mississippi, moving to western Kentucky and actually living under the so-called “Bible Belt” was a different experience. For one thing, no one knew what a Lutheran was. Those who were familiar with the Lutheran church had a vague sense that we were sort of like Roman Catholics. That meant crucifixes, strange “costumes” (vestments), and confusing and elaborate religious rituals to them. The predominant religious culture where I lived was that of the Southern Baptists. I don't want to get into a comparative religions lecture here. Suffice it to say that there are theological differences between Lutherans and Baptists, chief among them being how we view the sacraments. There are also sociological differences, and the one that I experienced most prominently had to do with alcohol.

The county in which the university I attended was located was "dry". That is to say, it was illegal to purchase, possess, or consume alcoholic beverages. Being a Lutheran of German heritage, this was quite perplexing to me. Beer was a part of our history and heritage. Real wine was (and is) used in the sacrament of the altar in our churches. Now I was being confronted by fellow brothers and sisters in Christ with the idea that drinking alcohol was sinful and evil. Alcohol was so bad that it was outlawed because it was perceived to be damaging to the very fabric of society. The fact that it was outlawed in the county did not, however, stop some people from purchasing, possessing, and consuming it.

The Bible, of course, does not say that alcohol is sinful or evil. To the contrary, one could even say that the Bible, in at least one place, advocates the drinking of alcohol. Every booze hound in the world is familiar with the Biblical passage where Paul tells Timothy to drink a little wine to cure his stomach ailments. This passage is often misused by alcoholics to try and nullify the calls of their concerned family and friends to stop drinking. Scripture does warn, strongly and repeatedly, against the abuse, misuse, or excessive use of alcohol.

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” (Galatians 5:13-14).

So, just like eating meat sacrificed to an idol, it is permissible to drink alcohol. If, however, my drinking offends my brother who does not yet have this understanding and causes a division, or encourages him to imbibe against the warnings of his conscience, I should follow Paul’s example and abstain from drinking. These issues should be explained to those who do not understand them, to be sure. In the meantime, however, we should not do anything that might hinder or damage their faith. This goes for idol meat, alcohol, or whatever has the potential to cause a division in the church. Conversely, those who abstain should not, as Paul writes, judge those who do not. Paul tells us not to quarrel over opinions. We shouldn’t engage in behaviors that would cause other believers to stumble in their faith (Engelbrecht, et al., 2009). When those outside the church see those of us who are members of Christ’s body “biting and devouring” each other through ugly and sinful quarreling, we cease to be an effective witness to them[3]. The Christian liberty we have in Christ is not just freedom from the Law without a purpose. To the contrary, God has given us this liberty to serve others in love.


Works Cited

Engelbrecht, E. A., Deterding, P. E., Ehlke, R. C., Joersz, J. C., Love, M. W., Mueller, S. P., et al. (Eds.). (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis, Missouri, USA: Concordia Publishing House.

Lenski, R. C. (1957). The Interpretation of I and II Corinthians. Columbus, Ohio: Wartburg Press.


End Notes

[1] 1 Corinthians 8:13
[2] Romans 14:14
[3] Galatians 5:15