Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Oaths and Adultery

"‘Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one (Matthew 5: 33-37).
As the wealthy oil tycoon lay on his deathbed, his pastor talked of God’s healing power. "Pastor," he gasped, "if God heals me, I’ll give the church a million dollars." Miraculously, the man revived and within a few short weeks was out of the hospital. One day, several months later, he and the pastor chatted on the sidewalk in front of a hardware store. "You know," said the pastor, "When you were in the hospital dying, you promised to give the church a million dollars if you got well. We haven’t gotten it yet." "Did I say that?" the wealthy man asked. "I guess it just goes to show you how sick I really was."
There are many variations on this theme. Maybe the most commonly know one is the "hangover mantra" chanted into toilet bowls all across this country in the wee hours of the morning by moaning party goers who have had too much to drink. After a night of binge drinking, the nauseated person swears an oath to God, that if He just lets them feel better, they’ll "never have another drink again." People may chuckle to think of such a scene - possibly because it was all-to-often their experience - but God, most assuredly does not. God tells us:
Do not swear falsely by My name and so profane the name of your God. I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:12).
In the 5th Chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus affirms God’s command:
"But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne, or by the earth for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King...Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one (Matthew 5: 34-35, 37).
God takes His Word very seriously. It was by His Word that He created the world. It was through the Word in human flesh - Jesus Christ - that God saved mankind from sin, death and the devil. While there are acceptable ways to call on God to witness the truth of our words, swearing is forbidden when it is done falsely, thoughtlessly, or in sinful, uncertain or unimportant matters. St. Peter swore falsely, and thus committed perjury:
The he [Peter] went out to the gateway, where another girl saw him and said to the people there, "This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth." He denied it again, with an oath: "I don’t know the man!" (Matthew 26: 71-72).
God calls us to keep our word. If we do, we don’t need to "swear" and call God to be our witness. If we keep our word, people will know that our ‘Yes’ means ‘Yes’ and our ‘No’ means ‘No.’
It is also no coincidence that Jesus discusses the concept of keeping one’s word in the same discussion as adultery and divorce. Jesus tells us about adultery:
"You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell" (Matthew 5: 27-29).
Jesus is serious when he tells us to gouge out our eye if it causes us to sin. If we had a cancerous tumor or a diseased organ that was slowly killing us, the surgeon would remove it so that we could be healthy (if it were possible to do). However, by making this shocking statement, Jesus reminds us that it is not our eye that causes us to look lustfully at the opposite sex. On the contrary, it is our sinful heart that causes us to sin.
Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, "Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean’ (Mark 7: 14-16).
Just as Jesus tells us we must gouge out our eye if it is the cause of our sin, so must we remove the real cause of our sinfulness if we are to be righteous and live. We must remove and cast away our heart - our sinful human nature. The problem is, we, as humans, are powerless to rid ourselves of our sinfulness. It is for this reason that Christ came into the world.
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly...But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5: 6,8).
Christ died for all our sins - including our lust and our lies. Those who believe in Him can take comfort in the fact that they are fully and freely forgiven. Through our Baptism, God "removes" our sinful heart, casts it away, and makes us into a new creation. Glory, praise and thanks be to God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Christ Died For Us

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8)

What does it mean to be a sinner? The Webster Comprehensive Dictionary – encyclopedic edition defines sin as, “A lack of conformity to, or a transgression, especially when deliberate, of a law, precept, or principle regarded as having divine authority. 2) The state of condition of having transgressed; wickedness.” This definition tells us two important things: 1) To sin is to be in deliberate violation of divine law, and 2) to be in such a state of non-conformity is to stand in a state of wickedness. Therefore to be a sinner is to be one who deliberately violates Gods law and because of this is reckoned wicked. Such is the state of man.

Because our common ancestors, Adam and Eve, transgressed by deliberately violating God’s command in the Garden of Eden, sin entered God’s perfect creation and the nature of man was changed. Scripture tells us, “…then the eyes of both of them were opened…” (Gen. 3:7a). Our first parents willfully crossed a line over which they could not retreat. They, and we, would pay the price for this wickedness by being separated from the relationship with God for which humans had been created. There was nothing they could do to fix the situation and they knew it.

There was something, however, that God could do, and He assured his unruly children that, in His own good time, He would fix what they had put so wrong. "And I will put enmity between you and the woman,” God told the serpent in the garden, “and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:15).

Adam and Eve many not have understood exactly how God would work out His plan to restore creation to the perfect state it was in before the fall, but they trusted Him and His promise. And, while they may not have understood the details, we can – through the New Testament, which shows us the completion of God’s plan in Jesus Christ. “For God so loved the world,” Scripture tells us, “that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

The really amazing thing though, is that God undertook and completed His plan of salvation before we humans did any “good” thing to earn God’s love. While God was still sorting things out in the Garden of Eden with Adam, Eve and the serpent, He already had a plan. I imagine that Adam and Eve were probably trying to come up with something else to say to God – some explanation or excuse – while he was talking to the serpent. But, before He even talked to them again, God announced His plan, “I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your seed and hers…” God would save mankind, not because of anything we could, would, or even promise to do. He would save us out of His own divine goodness.

According to St. Paul, we were “dead” in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1). Just as a corpse cannot do anything to make itself live again, so we can do nothing to resurrect ourselves spiritually. God had to do that for us all by himself. Scripture says:

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2: 4-7).

How then do we respond to God, who has kept His promise to save us, in Christ Jesus? Surely our response cannot be to act and live the way we did when we were “dead” in our sins. St. Paul tells us in Romans, chapter eight:

Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation – but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God (Romans 8: 12-14).

We need to live according to the Spirit, and by the power of God, cultivate the fruits of the Spirit. St. Paul tells us to test our actions, in Galatians chapter six:

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load (Galatians 6: 4-5).

We need to take care not to gratify the desires of our sinful nature and live according to something that we no longer are, for in Christ, as St. Paul says, we are a new creation. The sinful nature is hungry – we should starve it. In place of the food we would give it, we should feed ourselves, by God’s power, with His Word, His Holy Supper and regular worship and fellowship with other Christians. As a result, God will cultivate in us the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – and by these fruits we will not only be a blessing to others, but God will also use us to show others His saving Grace in Jesus Christ.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Samuel, Eli, and His Sons

Now the young man Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision (1 Samuel 3:1).

1 Samuel chapter three is an important passage of Scripture. In it God demonstrates how he cares for his people despite our weaknesses, how he delivers his word to them, and how he uses both faithful and wicked servants to achieve his purposes. While many choose to focus on Samuel and his dramatic calling by the Lord, I want to focus more on Eli and Eli’s sons in this session. First, however, we should briefly examine Samuel’s background and lay the foundation for chapter three.

Samuel's mother was Hannah and his father was Elkanah. Hannah, like Abraham’s wife Sarah, is barren and childless. Hannah prays to God for a child. Eli who is sitting at the foot of the doorpost in the sanctuary at Shiloh, sees her apparently mumbling and thinks Hannah is drunk, but is soon assured of her motivation and sobriety. Eli was the name of a priest of Shiloh, and one of the last Israelite Judges before the rule of kings in ancient Israel. He blesses her after she promises the child to God. Subsequently Hannah becomes pregnant; her child is Samuel. After he is weaned, she leaves him in Eli's care.

We pick up the story with a young Samuel serving the Lord at the temple where his mother left him, in the care of Eli and his sons. Eli was, at least by this time, worldly and corrupt. His sons were, at the very best, wicked, as evidenced by their contempt for the Lord’s sacrifices[1]. The text here tells us that Samuel was fulfilling priestly duties. However, he was clothed in the linen apron, or ephod, of the Levites[2]. Levites, and possibly other young men who had been consecrated to the Lord, served as servants alongside the priests in the temple. This ephod was less lavish in material and color than the vestments of the priests[3]. This distinction, along with the author’s use of the term “ministering,” would seem to suggest that Samuel took no part in the corruption of Eli’s sons. The term “ministering” is used when describing Samuel’s service in the temple; the term is never used of the priests at Shiloh. This would seem to indicate that Samuel was performing legitimate priestly service in the temple, while the corrupt priests at Shiloh were serving only their own selfish desires (Engelbrecht 2009). The Lord would soon address this situation, as he had promised Eli earlier.

And the Lord called again, “Samuel!” and Samuel arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him (1 Samuel 3:7).

The text says that Samuel, “...did not yet know the Lord.” How could he be serving the Lord in His temple and not know him? Well, the text also makes a similar statement regarding the wicked sons of Eli[4]. They were priests in the Lord’s temple and they also did not know him. What makes Samuel different from them? They both performed the same service to the Lord, yet Eli’s sons were wicked and the portrayal of Samuel is neutral, if not leaning toward the positive.

I think the difference is that Samuel had not been taught anything regarding God’s Word (and, after reading about the character of the priests of Shiloh, one could see the reason for that) where Eli’s sons had been, and they consciously rejected what they had been taught. When they were rebuked for their behavior, they ignored the rebuke. These men were different from someone who had not been instructed. They knew what God commanded of them, and they rejected God’s command. They, to paraphrase St. Paul, conformed themselves to this world rather than presenting themselves as living sacrifices. They where therefore not transformed by the renewal of their minds. They could not discern what the will of God was[5].

You see, God tells us over and over again in his word that he does not grant us salvation on the basis of how we act, what we do, or our station in life. His gift of salvation is just that – a gift. The salvation of man is based only on the promise of God. God would rescue fallen man, not because of any merit or worthiness in us, but by his own grace. These men served only themselves and continued to do so after their father’s rebuke; they disrespected God, his temple, his sacrifices and, consequently, his promise of salvation. Eli and his sons were rejecting Christ, the same as one who turns up his nose at the preaching of the Gospel today. Eli and his sons were priests in the Lord’s temple, but their outward acts of piety were not enough to blot out their sin. Their “good” work of serving the Lord as priests could not obscure their inner wickedness from before God’s all-seeing eyes.

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.[6] Faith is a gift of God[7], kindled in the hearts of men by the working of the Holy Spirit[8], through his means, which is God’s word.[9]

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 – and Samuel – 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.[10] 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.[11]

An important lesson that we learn for Eli and his sons is that God will punish our sinfulness if we do not submit to his call to repentance. God announced this to Eli[12] and, later to Samuel:

Then the Lord said to Samuel, “Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel at which the two ears of everyone who hears it will tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. And I declare to him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever” (1 Samuel 3:11-14).

When a woman once told her pastor that she would not give her children religious instruction until they had attained the years of discretion, the pastor replied, “Madam, if you do not teach them, the devil will,” (Burgess 1988). God calls us to restrain those under our authority from evil; His judgment of Eli is our example. And, while the judgment against Eli is also a threat to us when we fail to restrain those under our authority who do evil, we must also hear the assurance God gives us that human weakness will not thwart God’s will to bring the Good News of salvation to His creation (Engelbrecht 2009).

God wants all people to be saved.[13] Many people, however, reject the word and thereby resist they Holy Spirit who attempts to work in them.[14] 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.[15] 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. [16] The Holy Spirit, however, continues to work in men as long as the word is present with them.

This is how God worked in Pharaoh through Moses.[17] “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”[18] (McCain, et al. 2005).

And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the Lord. And the Lord appeared again at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord (1 Samuel 3:19-21).

And so God established Samuel as his prophet. God made known his will to his people by the revelation of his word to Samuel, who was thus the first exponent of the permanent prophetic order (Kretzmann 1921). Samuel, just like all of the prophets to come, would prefigure the ultimate prophet, Jesus Christ. Samuel was raised up to bring God’s word to His people after a season of spiritual drought, just as God had done in the past and would do again in the future. Through Samuel God rescued his people from the bondage of Eli and his wicked sons. Through Christ, God’s people are rescued from the bondage of sin, death, and the devil.

End Notes

[1] 1 Samuel 2:12, 17
[2] 1 Samuel 2:18
[3] Exodus 28:6-14
[4] Ibid. 1
[5] Romans 12:1-2
[6] Matthew 13:34-35; Ephesians 1: 4-6
[7] Ephesians 2: 8-9
[8] 1 Corinthians 6:11; 12:3
[9] Romans 1:16; 10:17; 2 Thessalonians 2:14
[10] 1 Peter 1: 10-12
[11] Hebrews 11
[12] 1 Samuel 2:27-36
[13] 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;
[14] Matthew 22: 1-10; 23:37; Luke 14: 16-24; Acts 7:51
[15] Psalm 51:5; Romans 3: 9-18
[16] Romans 6:23
[17] 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
[18] FC SD XI 85


Burgess, David F. Encyclopedia of Sermon Illustrations. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1988.

Engelbrecht, Edward A, ed. The Lutheran Study Bible. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2009.

Kretzmann, Paul E. Popular Commentary of the Bible. Vol. I. IV vols. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1921.

McCain, Paul T, Robert C Baker, Gene E Veith, and Edward A Engelbrecht, . Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. A Reader's Edition of the Book of Concord. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Water Into Wine

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine” (John 2: 1-3).

“My time has not yet come” (John 2:4).

Jesus was very aware of his time line. Jesus had a specific mission to complete on earth, he knew it, and he said so. Jesus was sent to be the sacrificial lamb to atone for the sin of mankind. He is the fulfillment of God’s promise of a redeemer to Adam and Eve, the Messiah foretold by the prophets. Jesus himself claims this:

“He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’” (Luke 4: 16-21).

Luke goes on to say that the people marveled. I’m sure that they did. Basically what Jesus did here was take this verse of Isaiah which tells of the coming Messiah’s ministry of preaching and healing, and applied it to himself.

“He then began to teach them [the disciples] that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed after three days and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31).

This moment, however, at this wedding celebration in Cana, his time had not yet come. Jesus’ time of fulfillment would come soon enough on the cross.

“His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you’” (John 2:5).

You sort of get this image of Mary in this passage that she is some sort of state mom, pushing her reluctant child to perform so that he becomes famous and she can reap the benefits of that fame. Knowing, however, the Bible’s description of Mary’s character, such cannot be the case. Rather, the Old Testament figure of Joseph is called to mind by what Mary says. Joseph was a foreshadowing of the Messiah and we are reminded of this in Genesis:

“When all Egypt began to feel the famine the people cried out to Pharaoh for food. Then Pharaoh told all the Egyptians, ‘Go to Joseph and do what he tells you,’” (Genesis 41:55).

The details are different, but this story and the story of the famine in Egypt in the book of Genesis are parallels, in a broad sense. The wedding guests are, like the Egyptians, experiencing a kind of famine - a “wine famine”. When Jesus miraculously provides for the wedding guests, as God provided for the Egyptians through Joseph, we get a hint of who Jesus really is - Messiah, God in human flesh.

“…six stone water jars…” (John 2: 6-7).

We are not talking about an insignificant amount of water here. Western culture has a hard time taking off it’s shoes when it comes over to visit for coffee. Ceremonial foot-washing is simply a concept we Westerners do not generally grasp. Sandals being the footwear of the day, travelers making their way through the desert on foot tended to get dirty quickly. An end-of-journey foot wash was not only a sign of hospitality and respect, but almost certainly an necessity at the end of any trip made in the ancient Middle East. One can only imagine the amount of water needed for the wedding’s host to fulfill his cultural foot washing obligations. John says, “six stone water jars.” Bible commentator Paul E. Kretzmann elaborates:

“The water-pots held two or three firkins apiece, for upon this occasion there was a great deal of water needed; each measure being the equivalent of nine gallons, the combined capacity of the water pots may well have been 120 gallons,” (Kretzmann vol. 1, 417).
When the servants did what Jesus told them, this meant that they filled six large stone vessels to the brim with approximately 120 gallons of water which they had to draw from a well by hand. There was no question to the servants that the liquid contained therein was water. I often wonder what the attitude of the servant was who was sent to draw the water from the jars for the steward to taste. Was he reluctant? Did he hesitate for fear that the dipper once retrieved from the jar would bear only the water they had they had so recently filled the jar with? John doesn’t say. We can assume, however, that the miracle had significant impact on them, since John tells us, “He [the master] did not realize where it [the wine] had come from, thought the servants who had drawn the water knew,” (John 2:9).

The significance of the miracle was not lost on the disciples either, as John indicates that this was the moment when the disciples, “put their faith in him [Jesus].” Indeed, throughout Holy Scripture, this seems to be the purpose of miracles - to inspire faith and reveal the Glory of God. The miracle at the wedding feast at Cana not only did this for the disciples but it does the same also for us. It is a comforting fact indeed that Jesus concerns himself with, “not only the great and pressing needs of men…but also the small embarrassments of life. Our trust in his kindness and love should be unlimited,” (Kretzmann vol. 1, 417).

Works Cited

Kretzmann, Paul E. Popular Commentary of the Bible, The New Testament Vol. 1. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House. 1921

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Advance of the Gospel

St. Paul in Prison (Rembrant)

I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear (Philippians 1:12-14).

It can be difficult to get people to take an interest in spiritual things. People have busy, hectic lives. We have full schedules and plenty of troubles to keep us occupied every day of the week. The last thing people want to do is set aside time to hear about how imperfect they are. It can take a great deal of convincing to induce a person to give up an hour of their lives to sit in a stuffy meeting room with a weak cup of coffee and stale cookies, listening to the sage teacher go on and on about some esoteric Biblical aphorism. A pastor certainly can’t expect anyone to crack open their Bibles at home between Sundays. What with work, and ferrying the children to this or that practice, going out with friends to unwind, and catching the latest episode of their favorite television show, there just isn’t enough time to dig into God’s Word the way it should be done. Don’t worry though, when they get a few minutes toward the end of the week they might flip through that devotional booklet they picked up at church last month a little. Besides, with all the stress people are under these days, it is too difficult to even get anything out of church, Bible study, or private devotion. We just have too much on our minds, and suffer from constant stress and tension.

Of course, suffering is relative, when you think about it. Take, for instance, the story of Somchi who lives in Laos. Somchi and her mother were the only Christians in their village. When Somchi’s mother died Somchi had no place to live and no means of support. She moved into the home of her sister and brother-in-law and, in exchange for working in their fields, they allowed Somchi to stay. Somchi’s in-laws, however, became upset with her for taking the time to walk the several miles to attend a house church in a nearby village each Sunday. Because she would not give up worshipping Jesus together with her fellow Christians, Somchi’s own family turned her out, and villagers burned her Bible.

The Romans imprisoned St. Paul for preaching the Gospel of Christ, and things around the world have not changed much since those times. Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, the leader of a growing house church in Iran, was sentenced to be executed by a regional Iranian court in 2010. The court ruled that Pastor Nadarkhani was guilty of apostasy and deserved to be hanged. Pastor Nadarkhani, the court alleges, was a Muslim at birth. Under Sharia Law, the Islamic religious law under which much of the Muslim world – including Iran – is governed, it is a capital offense for someone to convert from Islam to another religion. Pastor Nadarkhani is not only considered an apostate for his alleged conversion, but also for encouraging other Muslims to convert to Christianity. Pastor Nadarkhani was arrested in October 2009 and has been imprisoned for his refusal to deny his Christian faith ever since. When ordered by the court to repent and return to “the religion of [your] ancestors,” Pastor Nadarkhani was quoted as saying, “Repent means to return. What should I return to? The blasphemy that I had before my faith in Christ? I can not.” By all accounts Pastor Nadarkhani remains in prison pending his appeal to Iran’s Supreme Court.

In the United States we rarely see martyrdom; in other parts of the world, however, the murdering of Christians is almost commonplace. On August 26, 2011 in Jolo, Philippines, a Muslim gunman walked into the home of Pastor Mario Acidre at approximately 8:00 PM and shot him four times in the abdomen. Pastor Acidre was a lay preacher for a Christian and Missionary Alliance Church in Jolo. Jolo is located in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Christians in this region are a minority and live in constant fear of attack. Other Christian pastors who knew Pastor Acidre voiced their concerns that many of the local Muslims were angry with him for holding his Bible study and preaching the Gospel.

Many of us believers here in the United States need a wake-up call so that we can begin to reprioritize our lives. Praise the Lord for the many blessings he has given us as citizens of the United States of America. It is a wonderful thing to be free to practice your Christian faith in a safe environment, without having to be afraid that the government, or that your own neighbors, are going to try and kill you because of what you believe. There, however, is the issue; we must practice our faith, not leave it sit in the back of the proverbial closet like a disused tennis racquet. If we allow the pleasures and cares of our every day temporal lives to overshadow our life with Christ, we make all of those blessings into a curse that blinds us to the real, eternal gift God has given us in His Son – the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life.

While we can’t be bothered to spend an hour in church on Sunday worshipping with our brothers and sisters in Christ, Christians in Laos are walking miles to have the opportunity to attend church and are being driven from their homes for doing so. While many of us would not dream of inviting a non-believing friend to church or Bible study, or dare to open our mouths in public to defend our Christian faith from ridicule and denouncement for fear of humiliation, Christians in places like The Philippines and Iran are being imprisoned and murdered for doing so. The question is why? Why would these people risk all that they have, including their lives, for Christ?

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1-2).

Perhaps part of the reason that these people would “risk it all” to hold on to their faith is that their faith is all that they have. America is the land of plenty. The streets are paved with gold, as the story was told by those coming here to make a better life. We here in the United States have a lot more to occupy us, and that is good news for Satan. The more worldly things we have around us to make us feel good, to numb and hide the pain of our disease of sin, the less we feel we need to rely on God. If we neglect our faith in this manner long enough, he will do as St. Paul describes in the first chapter of Romans, and grant us our wish to be left on our own[1]. Those persecuted Christians across the globe are forced to rely on their faith because they have nothing else. They understand, though, something we may be in the process of forgetting; God’s grace is sufficient[2]. Now, that is not to say American Christians should become hermits and monks, living ascetic lives in the deserts and mountains so as to stay away from temptation. We should not, however, be conformed to this world. If we feed our new spiritual nature rather than our sinful human nature, the Holy Spirit will transform us more and more every day in the manner that St. Paul describes.

So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God (Romans 8:12-14).

Jesus Christ justifies sinners, and nothing in this world is more important than that. Jesus told us that we should not be afraid of the one who could kill the body, but of the one who could destroy both body and soul in hell[3]. God the Father has given the Holy Spirit to dwell in all believers in Christ. He frees us from the bondage of sin and death. When we are preoccupied with satisfying our own selfish desires, we run the risk of becoming angry with God and rebelling against him. Because of Christ’s atoning death and resurrection, however, our fallen nature no longer has any claim on us. Christ has purchased and won us, not with gold or silver, but by his holy, precious blood, and his innocent suffering and death. We don’t have to throw out our television sets, but we do need to understand that we need the faith and forgiveness that Christ offers to us by his cross; we get those things that we need through His Word and by His Sacraments. We hear the Word and receive the Sacraments when we come together in the fellowship of our local congregations. God has given us a gift in Christ that no man can take away, and this is what persecuted Christians around the world understand. What human beings can do to a believer physically is nothing compared to what God can do. Fear of God, not of other human beings, is the beginning of wisdom[4].

In good Lutheran fashion I ask, “What does this mean?” First, we who live in peace and safety should remember our brothers and sisters in Christ who do not. We should pray for them and seek to give them aid and comfort in any way that we are able. We should also understand that their persecution, like St. Paul’s, is for Christ. We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose[5]. What is happening to them, though intended for evil, will work out for good, because their chains will advance the Gospel, just as St. Paul’s chains did. We should therefore become more confident and bold to speak the Word without fear.

End Notes

[1] Romans 1:18-32

[2] 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

[3] Matthew 10:28

[4] Proverbs 9:10

[5] Romans 8:28


Engelbrecht, Edward A, ed. The Lutheran Study Bible. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2009.
Fox News. September 29, 2011. http://www.foxnews.com/world/2011/09/28/iranian-pastor-faces-execution-for-refusing-to-recant-christian-faith/print# (accessed January 10, 2012).
Lane, Gary. "Families of Prisoners." The Voice of the Martyrs, December 2011: 4.
Open Doors. September 22, 2011. http://www.opendoorsusa.org/pray/prayer-updates/2011/September/Two-Philippine-Christian-Leaders-Shot-Dead (accessed January 10, 2012).
P., Dory. "Assisting Families of Martyrs." The Voice of the Martyrs, December 2011: 10.
White, Tom. "You Shared in My Distress - Phil. 4:14." The Voice of the Martyrs, December 2011: 2-3.

To learn more about The Voice of the Martyrs or Open Doors, Please visit their websites, and continue to pray for persecuted Christians around the world.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Can Infants Believe? Thoughts on Infant Baptism

Presentation of the infant Jesus at the Temple.

We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may have new life (Romans 6:4).

Some who teach that there is no merit in baptism other than being a symbolic act use this parable to illustrate their point:
A certain man thought that by being immersed he could find salvation. A friend of his had quite a time explaining to him that it was not so. But this man insisted that, as water could purify the body, so water consecrated by a minister or priest would purify the soul. Finally, to demonstrate that baptism did not mean regeneration, the friend decided upon an object lesson.

“Here,” he said. “I take an ink bottle, cork it tight, put a string round the neck, and drag it through the river. How long will it take to clean out the inside?” The answer was obvious, “You will never in the world clean it out that way.” We must understand once and for all that no outward act will ever cleanse us within. Repentance is an act that takes place within us, while baptism is an outward act that demonstrates to the world what has already happened in our hearts. Thus, neither John the Baptist nor anyone else in the New Testament speaks of “repentance of baptism” but of “baptism of repentance.” Baptism depends upon and is caused by repentance and not vice versa. It does not make sense for the unrepentant to be baptized.
Continuing with this line of reasoning, baptism is merely a symbolic act. It cannot save an adult, let alone an infant, who cannot profess its faith. However, Holy Scripture paints a different picture for us. While infant baptism is not expressly mentioned in Scripture, it is supported by several passages in the New Testament. Further, as for the idea that children and infants cannot have faith in Christ until they reach an “age of accountability”, Scripture shows us that this is clearly untrue, and that infants are capable of receiving God’s blessings:

For he [John the Baptist] will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother's womb…When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice and said, 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy'" (Luke 1: 14, 41-44).

There are several reports in scripture where people bring their children to Christ to have him touch and bless them. One such passage is in the Gospel of St. Mark:

People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them (Mark 10: 13-16).

Our Lord clearly indicates that children have a part in the kingdom of God. St. Luke also gives us some insight into this event as well in his Gospel, by identifying the age group of some of the children that were brought to Jesus. St. Luke writes:

People were also bringing babies to Jesus to have him touch them (Luke 18:15).

Again, children clearly have a part in God’s kingdom. Not only that, being born in the flesh, children have a sinful human nature, and need the forgiveness that Christ offers in baptism. Scripture tells us that all people are sinful from the time of their birth. “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus,” St. Paul tells us in Romans 3: 23-24. Christ distributes this grace to us in the sacrament of baptism. The psalmist also tells us:

Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me (Psalm 51:5).

Those that would argue that children are not sinners but are righteous and innocent, and that as long as they have not achieved the use of reason they will be saved in this innocence without baptism, not only reject the idea of original sin, but also teach contrary to the Word of God.

On the contrary, there is a long tradition in the church of baptizing children, derived from Scripture, dating back to apostolic times. Infant Baptism was common practice in the early church. Scripture lends support to this when it reports that the Apostles baptized entire families – some of which, at least, would normally include children. One example is the conversion of Lydia in Acts:
When she [Lydia] and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us (Acts 16:15).

Again in Acts we are told:

At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized (Acts 16:33).

When entire families, and all indeed who belonged to them were baptized, it is probable that if there were a number of children in these families, the Apostles did not exclude them. Not only that, the Apostles could refer Jesus’ command to “let the little children come to me,” to the rite of circumcision from the Old Testament. This rite of initiation was performed on infants eight days old. It would be odd to refer to Baptism as the “circumcision of Christ” if Baptism of infants was to be forbidden while circumcision was given almost exclusively to infants.

In Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in Baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead (Colossians 2:11-12).

Baptism is a counterpart of sorts to Old Testament circumcision. Circumcision was a sign of God’s covenant, establishing his people[1]. After having been circumcised, no Hebrew male could live a day without being reminded of God’s promise to send a savior. It was a physical sign connected to a spiritual reality by the promise of God. A baby did not choose to be circumcised; it was administered on the eighth day after birth. In Christ, God’s promise to bless all people through Abraham has been fulfilled[2]. The new covenant has now been established with a new circumcision, one made without hands – baptism.

In the story of the ink bottle, one must suppose that the ink bottle that is stopped tightly with a cork represents man, and the ink contained within represents the stain of sin. The story is correct that no amount of water could wash the ink out as long as the stopper remained in place. However, the author overlooks two important things: First, the ink bottle cannot remove its own stopper. Some outside force must do that. Man is powerless to come to God of his own decision[3]. On the contrary, we are all called by the Gospel, and God creates faith in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. He distributes the gift of salvation to us that Christ won on the cross through baptism – in effect, removing the “stopper” of our sinful human nature and washing away the ink stain of our original sin.

Second, the water of baptism is not simply water, but, in the words of Martin Luther, “the word of God in and with the water,” that does these things. Without God’s word, Luther says, the water is plain water and no baptism. However, with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a life giving water, rich in grace and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit:

He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying (Titus 3: 5-8).

Thanks be to God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, for baptism, which works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.

End Notes

[1] Genesis 17:9

[2] Genesis 12:3

[3] 1 Corinthians 2:14; Romans 8:7; Ephesians 2:8-9