Saturday, March 30, 2019

Jesus Handed Over to Pontius Pilate

Then the whole multitude of them arose and led Him to Pilate. And they began to accuse Him, saying, “We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, saying that He Himself is Christ, a King.” Then Pilate asked Him, saying, “Are You the King of the Jews?” He answered him and said, “It is as you say.” So Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowd, “I find no fault in this Man.” But they were the more fierce, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee to this place.” When Pilate heard of Galilee, he asked if the Man were a Galilean. And as soon as he knew that He belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent Him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time. Now when Herod saw Jesus, he was exceedingly glad; for he had desired for a long time to see Him, because he had heard many things about Him, and he hoped to see some miracle done by Him. Then he questioned Him with many words, but He answered him nothing. And the chief priests and scribes stood and vehemently accused Him. Then Herod, with his men of war, treated Him with contempt and mocked Him, arrayed Him in a gorgeous robe, and sent Him back to Pilate. That very day Pilate and Herod became friends with each other, for previously they had been at enmity with each other. Then Pilate, when he had called together the chief priests, the rulers, and the people, said to them, “You have brought this Man to me, as one who misleads the people. And indeed, having examined Him in your presence, I have found no fault in this Man concerning those things of which you accuse Him; no, neither did Herod, for I sent you back to him; and indeed nothing deserving of death has been done by Him. I will therefore chastise Him and release Him” (for it was necessary for him to release one to them at the feast). And they all cried out at once, saying, “Away with this Man, and release to us Barabbas”— who had been thrown into prison for a certain rebellion made in the city, and for murder. Pilate, therefore, wishing to release Jesus, again called out to them. But they shouted, saying, “Crucify Him, crucify Him!” Then he said to them the third time, “Why, what evil has He done? I have found no reason for death in Him. I will therefore chastise Him and let Him go.” But they were insistent, demanding with loud voices that He be crucified. And the voices of these men and of the chief priests prevailed. So Pilate gave sentence that it should be as they requested. And he released to them the one they requested, who for rebellion and murder had been thrown into prison; but he delivered Jesus to their will (Luke 23:1-25).

Pontius Pilate knew that what he was doing to Jesus was wrong. He was in a tight spot politically, and he was looking for a way to get out of it. He wanted a solution that would be acceptable to the Jewish leaders who brought Jesus to him, that wouldn’t cause social unrest, and that wouldn’t jeopardize his relationship with the Roman imperial government. He knew that the Jews wanted to get rid of Jesus, but he also understood that, according to Roman law, Jesus had committed no crime. He apparently had some sense of justice. That’s why he tried as hard as he did to get Jesus off the hook. He clearly didn’t believe that Jesus, the annoying Jewish rabbi who claimed to be king, was a serious seditious threat like the other Jewish rebel groups, such as the Zealots. This is why, after Jesus answers Pilate’s direct question, “Are you the king of the Jews,” with a seditious admission, “It is as you say,” Pilate still tells the Jews, “I find no fault in this Man.”[1]

Pilate tries to deal justly with Jesus while still placating the Jews even after Jesus’ treacherous admission. He grabs on to any life line he can find. When he hears Jesus is from Galilee, he tries to pass Jesus off to Herod. Herod and his men question, mock, and beat Jesus but also pass no guilty verdict on Him. Pilate is stuck with Jesus. He continues to rightly proclaim that Jesus is innocent. He hopes to quell the situation by making Jesus the annual olive branch from Rome to Jerusalem; the good-will gesture was that Pilate would release a Jewish prisoner once a year at the feast. Why not release Jesus? Pilate would even beat Jesus a little, just to show Him who was boss and to appease the desire of the Jews to see Jesus suffer, before he let Jesus go. They would have none of it. So, push having come to shove, Pilate’s pragmatism and instinct for self-preservation won out over his sense of justice. Jesus would be crucified.

The people cried out for Pilate to give them a murderer, Barabbas, and to crucify their Messiah. The guilty would go free, and the innocent would die in his place. But this is what Jesus came to do in the first place. He came into human flesh, the sinless Son of God, to die on the cross. He told His disciples this bluntly several times: Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished. For He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon. They will scourge Him and kill Him. And on the third day he will rise again.[2]

But Jesus’ sacrifice is no mere morality play. It is not simply an example for men to follow, to show us how to be loving and self-sacrificial. His death is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. All of mankind, including us, are sinners. We are Barabbas, guilty of the crimes of which we are accused and sentenced to eternal death. We are murderers. We are adulterers. We are liars and slanderers. We are covetous thieves. We are idolaters. We are ungodly. Because of our sin we are as responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion as the Jews who handed Him over to Pilate, and even Pilate who gave the order that Jesus should die:

But God demonstrated His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.[3]

His death paid the penalty for our sin, and we are justified by His resurrection. His death and resurrection set us free from our prison; we did not deserve such treatment any more than Barabbas did. Jesus did it because He loves us. His favor is undeserved. There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.[4]

Whence come these sorrows, whence this mortal anguish?
It is my sins for which, Thou Lord, must languish,
Yea, all the wrath, the woe, Thou dost inherit,
This I do merit.[5]

I’ll think upon Thy mercy without ceasing,
That earth’s vain joys to me no more be pleasing;
To do Thy will shall be my sole endeavor
Henceforth forever.[6]

[1] Luke 23:4
[2] Luke 18:31-33
[3] Romans 5:8
[4] Romans 8:1
[5] Heermann, Johann. "O Dearest Jesus, What Law Hast Thou Broken." In The Lutheran Hymnal. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1941. Stz. 3.
[6] Heermann, Johann. "O Dearest Jesus, What Law Hast Thou Broken." In The Lutheran Hymnal. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1941. Stz. 12.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Jesus Blesses Little Children

Then they also brought infants to Him that He might touch them; but when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to Him and said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.” (Luke 18:15-17)

How does a little child receive the kingdom of God? Do they go out and look for it? Do they listen to preachers and investigate their claims? Do they study The Case for Christ and then make a rational decision to invite Jesus into their heart, based on the reasonableness of the evidence presented? No. They do none of these things. They receive the faith by having it given to them through the means of God’s Word. They are passive in their conversion. This shouldn’t really surprise us. They are passive in their conversion, just like everyone else who is converted.

This is the same way all men are converted by God, by means of His Word. That’s kind of the point Jesus is making to His disciples. The infants, as St. Luke describes the children being brought to Jesus, are in the same situation as the rest of mankind. Their age is irrelevant. They are part of the group who needs the forgiveness of sins obtained through Jesus’ death and resurrection – the world. That means everyone. There are no exceptions.[1]

The problem is, we don’t like to think of babies as sinful. Babies are cute. How could something so cute be sinful and subject to God’s judgment? How is that fair? They haven’t done anything, good or bad; they pretty much just lay there. What sin have they committed? Infants are, like we adults are, corrupted by the sin of Adam. They are born dead in trespasses and sins.[2] Their sinful minds are hostile to God.[3] Their minds do not submit to God’s law, nor can they do so: But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.[4] Incidentally, as far as actual sinning goes, infants don’t have to be taught to be selfish. They are the definition of what the theologians called incurvatus in se - curved inward on oneself.

We were all born with a mind hostile to God, and with a heart inclined to evil, and this inclination to do evil is sin.[5] Consequently, left on our own to make a decision using our reason, whether or not to put our trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins, we would all choose “not Jesus” every time. The part of mankind, infant and adult, that is needed to make a decision to believe in Jesus, the will, is the very thing that is broken. Our “chooser” doesn’t work. That is what it means to be dead in trespasses and sins.

But probably the most obvious evidence that infants are subject to sin, is the fact that they die. St. Paul says that the wages of sin is death.[6] That means that because we are corrupted by sin, we die, just like Adam in the Garden of Eden. If they were not corrupted by sin, they would not be subject to death.

So, since they are dead in sin, they need to be made alive in Christ, just like every other human being. And, since they cannot go to Christ, just like an unregenerate adult cannot go to Christ, He comes to them in His Word. He comes to them in His Word, attached to a physical element, water. Some way which we do not understand, by this washing of water and the word instituted by Christ,[7] the Holy Spirit comes to them and works faith in them. Incidentally, that’s how He brings you and me to the faith as well. He comes to us. He removes our old “chooser” that doesn’t work right and gives us a new one. He does it by water and the Word. Once we are made alive in Christ, He sustains us through that same Word, by proclaiming it to us, and feeding us with it – His real body and blood, for the forgiveness of our sins. Christ, who died to pay for the sins of the world and rose again from the dead on the third day, died and rose for you. He gives us these things He promises through His word preached, read, administered through the washing of Holy Baptism, and eaten and drunk in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.

Should we be surprised that God doesn’t do things the way we think He should? Christ tells us, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”[8] Praise be to Christ that they are.

[1] Romans 3:9-20
[2] Ephesians 2:1, 5
[3] Romans 8:5-7
[4] 1 Corinthians 2:14
[5] Genesis 6:5; 8:21
[6] Romans 6:23
[7] Ephesians 5:26; Matthew 28:16-20
[8] Luke 18:27

Saturday, March 23, 2019

The Parable of the Persistent Widow

Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart, saying: “There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God nor regard man. Now there was a widow in that city; and she came to him, saying, ‘Get justice for me from my adversary.’ And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, ‘Though I do not fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.’ ” Then the Lord said, “Hear what the unjust judge said. And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:1-8)

Jesus speaks this parable to His disciples after teaching them about the coming of the Kingdom of God, recorded in the previous chapter.[1] In that teaching, Jesus compares the time before the Last Judgment to the time of Noah before the flood. His return will be like lightning that flashes out of one part under heaven and shines to the other part under heaven. It will be no secret; it will happen quickly, and without warning. He warns His disciples to beware of those false teachers who would lead them astray to follow false Christs: The kingdom of God does not come with observation. One gets the impression from the disciples’ response, “Where, Lord,” that they were, perhaps, spooked by what Jesus said to them.

Jesus spoke the parable of the persistent widow to the disciples to show them that men always ought to pray and not lose heart. To make His point, Jesus compares the petitioning of God by His Elect to a woman seeking justice from a corrupt judge. The judge doesn’t do right by the widow because it is the right thing to do under the law, or because he is compassionate and feels sorry for her; he grants her petition because of her persistence. She brings her petition before the judge constantly and, because he doesn’t want to be annoyed by her “continual coming”, he grants it.

At first, we might think the lesson here is that if we are persistent and tenacious enough in our prayer to God, He will eventually relent and give us whatever we ask of Him, lest by our continual coming we weary Him. This is not the lesson. God is not like the corrupt judge of the parable. I should be greatly disturbed if our God was the type of god who would give us whatever we pray for, regardless of what He has previously said in His word, simply because we prayed persistently enough. That might work with beleaguered parents dealing with cleaver and persistent children scheming to get their way, but it isn’t how God operates with mankind. St. Paul was surely persistent in his prayers to God to remove his thorn in the flesh. God, far from relenting because of St. Paul’s persistent and fervent prayer, told him, “My grace is sufficient for you. For My strength is made perfect in weakness.”[2]

No, the lesson here is similar to the lesson Jesus teaches in His Sermon on the Mount:

Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask Him![3]

Or, to His parable of the persistent friend:

And He said to them, “Which of you shall have a friend, and go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has come to me on his journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within and say, ‘Do not trouble me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give to you’? I say to you, though he will not rise and give to him because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will rise and give him as many as he needs.[4]

Jesus uses the illustration of the corrupt to magnify the goodness and love of God. Even the sinful Pharisees know how to answer the petition of the people they love, their sons and daughters, in a way that benefits them. Don’t you suppose the God who created the universe by speaking it into existence, who describes Himself as love[5] knows how to do that better than they do?

Justice for the widow in the parable was anything but certain. It depended on her persistence in bringing her petition before the corrupt judge. It depended on how effectively she could annoy him. God’s justice, which will be revealed in the form of Christ’s judgment of the living and the dead on the Last Day, is assured. Still, He encourages us to pray persistently, along with all those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held, who cry out with a loud voice, saying,

“How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”[6]

St. Peter tells us that it won’t be long; God isn’t being slow, even if that’s what it looks like to us. Christ hasn’t forgotten about us. He isn’t waiting for all the geopolitical puzzle pieces to fall into their proper places before He sets His return to earth in motion. He could return any time. That’s why He tells us to wait expectantly, like the servant who works diligently while his master is away on a journey, and is found so doing when his master returns.[7] That’s why he compares Christians waiting for His return with bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom with lamps trimmed and burning.[8] No, His delay means salvation for men:

But the heavens and the earth which are now preserved by the same word, are reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men. But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.[9]

So we, Jesus’ disciples, always ought to pray and not lose heart. Even though we pray with our sainted brothers and sisters in heaven, “How long, O Lord?”, we know that God is faithful and will keep His promises to us. Christ died for our sins, and rose for our justification; He gave us a pledge to assure us of the forgiveness He won for us on the cross in the Lord’s Supper. And, not only to assure us, but to actually deliver it to us. In that meal Christ gives us His body and blood to eat and to drink with the bread and wine for the forgiveness of our sins. It is His New Testament in His blood. It is a living proclamation and distribution of His saving death and all its blessings.[10] Just as He saved eight souls through water by shutting them in the ark in the days of Noah, so Christ brings us into the ark of His Church, through the waters of Holy Baptism,[11] and saves us from the flood of fire that is to come upon the earth when He returns. All the time He waits to return in judgment is time for men to hear His Word, repent of their sins, receive His gifts, and be saved.

Just because He has waited this long, however, does not mean He will continue to wait forever. We know that,

“…the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”[12]

Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth? The tone of Jesus’ question is ominous. After all, out of the entirety of mankind, only Noah and his family were saved from the flood. The flood, which serves as a type and shadow of the Last Judgement, suggests things will be similar when Christ returns. Yet we, heeding Christ’s words, remain persistent in our prayers, trusting that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church,[13] just as He has promised.

[1] Luke 17:20-37
[2] 2 Corinthians 12:7-9
[3] Matthew 7:9-11
[4] Luke 11:5-13
[5] Genesis 1:1-29 - 2:1; 1 John 4:8
[6] Revelation 6:9-10
[7] Mark 13:33-37
[8] Matthew 25:1-13
[9] 2 Peter 3:7-9
[10] Luther, Martin. Luther's Small Catechism, with Explanation. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005. p. 236, question 294. See also 1 Cor. 11:26.
[11] 1 Peter 3:18-22
[12] 2 Peter 3:10-13
[13] Matthew 16:15-20

Friday, March 22, 2019

Jesus Warns of Offenses

Then He said to the disciples, “It is impossible that no offenses should come, but woe to him through whom they do come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones. Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him” (Luke 17:1-4).

Because we are fallen, sinful creatures living in a fallen and sinful creation, Jesus tells us that sin is inevitable. There is no escaping it while we are in the world. Scripture shows us that unregenerate, unbelieving man is, by his nature, sinful and unclean; we are, by nature, objects of God’s wrath who do not, and cannot accept the spiritual things of God, because we are spiritually blind and dead in our sins. The believing Christian as well, who has been washed clean of their sin by the waters of Holy Baptism, though joined to Christ in His death and resurrection, must still contend with sin in their own flesh. St. Paul describes this struggle in his letter to the Romans:

For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do…For I delight in the Law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and brining me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.[1]

Jesus warns unbeliever and believer alike to take heed.

But we are to deal with sin differently than the unbelieving world, which looks for payback for wrongs done to it. Jesus says we are to rebuke sin, and we are to forgive it: If your brother sins against you, rebuke him (Law); if he repents, forgive him (Gospel). This would be difficult enough to do when the sins against us were relatively small, but Jesus makes no distinction between big and little sins. He also doesn’t put a limit on the number of times we are to forgive the penitent sinner. “Seven times a day” isn’t meant to be a forgiveness limit, but rather an illustration that we are to constantly forgive those who repent. That is, after all, how God deals with us. That is why Jesus teaches us to say, “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” when we pray. God the Father deals with us and our sins this way, in Jesus. We constantly sin against God; yet, for the sake of Christ, the one who gave His life as our ransom on the cross while we were still His enemies, forgives us. He forgives us every time we repent. We don’t deserve such treatment, neither could we earn it. Likewise, our brother who sins against us does not deserve such treatment from us, nor can he earn it. Yet, we are compelled by the love of Christ, to allow His forgiveness to overflow from us to our brother. Freely have we received God’s gifts in Christ, freely shall we give.

The response of the Apostles is one of astonishment: Increase our faith, they plead. Indeed. It is impossible for us by the strength of our own will, to forgive offenses against us the way God forgives our sins, in Christ. Our sinful nature cries out for justice to be done to the transgressors, all the while ignoring the uncomfortable fact that, by this standard of justice, our transgressions also deserve to be punished. Our new nature, rather than crying out for God’s justice, pleads for His mercy, because it knows that it cannot stand before God without the covering of Christ. The Psalmist writes,

If you, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared.[2]

We certainly must, along with the Apostles, pray for the increase of our faith, for our faith is tinier than a mustard seed. The prayer of the father with the demon-possessed son should constantly be on our lips: Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.

Isaiah, speaking about the Servant of the LORD, Jesus the Messiah, says this: A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench.[3] Bruised reeds and smoking flax that we are, Christ calls us to repentance. Christ died for the sins of the world according to the Scriptures. He was buried and rose again for our justification on the third day. It is through the preaching of this Gospel, this Good News, that He strengthens the bruised reeds, and fans the smoking flax into flame: So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.[4] This is why we Christians are not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, even though the unbelieving world would ridicule and persecute us because of it. It is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes.[5] Christ answers our prayer for increased faith every time we gather with our brothers and sisters in Christ to hear His Word proclaimed, and to eat His body and drink His blood, as He instructs us to do. Through this means Christ gives us the gifts He won for us on the cross, forgiveness of sins and eternal life, and He strengthens and preserves us in the one true faith.

[1] Romans 7:15, 22-23
[2] Psalm 130:3-4
[3] Isaiah 42:3
[4] Romans 10:7
[5] Romans 1:16

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Leaving All to Follow Christ

“If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26).

Despite what it may look like, Jesus is not telling His disciples to hate their families; to understand Jesus’ words this way would be to read them out of context, and to misrepresent what Jesus is trying to teach. It would be odd and inconsistent for Jesus to say here that, in order to be His disciple one must forsake house and home, wife and child, land and animals, and even body and life. This is what the Pharisees did, or at least what they appeared to do; Jesus rebukes them for it. They forsook their families, denying care to their own parents in order to devote the money they would’ve otherwise spent for that purpose as a gift to God. How pious! That type of denial and sacrifice seems to be what Jesus is calling for here, but it is not. He rebukes the Pharisees for “making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down.”[1] The Word of God says that we are to honor father and mother. The Pharisees were not doing so; they were breaking God’s command by not caring for their parents, even though they took the money they would have used to care for them and diverted it for “holy” purposes. It isn’t a good work to give a monetary gift to God, if in doing so we break His command. Rather, we should give the gift, and at the same time fear and love God, so that we may not despise nor anger our parents and masters, but give them honor, serve, obey, and hold them in love and esteem.

The reformers dealt with the same type of issue. People viewed those who took monastic vows as a kind of “first class” Christian. Those monks were much better than the average layman. They were doing an especially good work; they were forsaking the world and devoting themselves to serving God. In his Smalcald Articles, Luther answers this mindset bluntly:

He who makes a vow to live as a monk believes that he will enter upon a way of life holier than ordinary Christians lead. He wants to earn heaven by his own works, not only for himself, but also for others. This is to deny Christ.[2]

So, what does Jesus mean when He says we cannot be His disciple unless we hate our father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, and our own life? We know He wants us to care for our parents; we know He doesn’t want us to make up our own traditions to follow, which make us look holier than the average Christian for the purpose of earning our way into the Kingdom of Heaven by our own inadequate works. So what does He want?

Jesus wants us to know what is ultimately important. He wants us to know that what is ultimately important is not this body and life, our goods, fame, child, or wife. He wants us to know that, though these things all be gone, our victory has been won; the kingdom ours remaineth. The Kingdom of God, into which we entered by the blood of Christ is ours – now. We who are connected to Christ, to His death and resurrection in our baptism, have what He promises us, and it is the most important thing ever: the forgiveness of our sins, and eternal life, resurrected from our grave in our own perfected body, with Christ forever, in the new and restored creation, where we will be forever free from sin, death, and the power of the devil.

Jesus wants us to understand what is ultimately important. Our families, our possessions, our lives…these are all good gifts from God. But,

“He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of me.”[3]

By telling us to hate our father and mother, Jesus is pointing us back to His Law, given to Moses:

“If your brother, the son of your mother, your son or your daughter, the wife of your bosom, or your friend who is as your own soul, secretly entices you, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which you have not known, neither you nor your fathers, of the gods of the people which are all around you, near to you or far off from you, from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth, you shall not consent to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him or conceal him; but you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people.”[4]

God and His Word is the most important thing. God’s Word is the means by which He converts us, forgives us, and makes us alive in Christ, who is the Word incarnate. Here God tells the people that He is more important to them than the bonds of friendship or family, so much so that even if our family members try to lead us astray from the faith, we should choose Christ over them. Thankfully, since we no longer live in the theocratic nation of Old Testament Israel, like Moses and the Israelites, we are no longer bound by the civil law of that country, and we are therefore not obligated to put our heretic relatives to death. The obligation of the moral law, however, does remain binding: You shall have no other gods. What does this mean? We should fear, and love, and trust in God above all things. This is what Jesus means when, explaining that He has not come to bring peace, but a sword, says,

“For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’”[5]

This is why He tells us not to fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul – our enemies in this world, who hate the Gospel and seek to tear down Christ’s Church. Instead, Jesus says we should fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell – God. The unbelieving world may be able to persecute us. They may be able to mistreat us, and steal our property, and even murder us. Christ says, so be it. Those things, good as they may be, are not ultimately important. If you think they are and are not willing to let them go, you have already received your reward. In Christ, the kingdom ours remaineth. They can’t take away from us what God the Father has promised us in Christ, that which is of ultimate importance – the forgiveness of sins, and our life everlasting. Because He lives, we shall live.

[1] Mark 7:11
[2] SA III XIV 2
[3] Matthew 10:37
[4] Deuteronomy 13:6-9
[5] Matthew 10:35-36

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Invisible Fasting

“Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly (Matthew 6:16-18).

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent; this is the 40 day period preceding Easter. It is a season of fasting and penitential reflection.[1] Just as we Christians have been instructed to prepare ourselves to receive our Risen Lord in the bread and wine of Holy Communion by self-examination and confession,[2] so on the macro-scale, does Christ’s Church prepare to receive Him on Easter in a similar way. The Church has recognized the benefit of such preparation since ancient times. Though the length of the season varied initially, the fast of Lent was, early on, set at 40 days. The analogy with the 40 day temptation of Our Lord in the wilderness, following His baptism by John, is evident.[3] Ash Wednesday has marked the beginning of the Lenten fast since at least the late 5th century.[4]

American Christianity, however, seems to have discarded the fast of Lent; it was lost to Rome when they affirmed the corrupt medieval version of fasting in the 16th century, in response to the Reformation. If fasting shows up in American Evangelicalism at all, it generally manifests as a tool by which the individual Christian, or group of Christians, hope to manipulate the Lord into doing something they want. We see this in events like the National Day of Prayer, the United Day of Fasting and Prayer, and the National Day of Mourning. This is different than, by prayer and supplication, bringing everything to God, and trusting in Him no matter what might come our way. It is the idea that, if we pray hard enough, sincerely enough, boldly enough, or with a great multitude of people, we can convince God to give us what we are praying for. That is not praying according to God’s will. It is a symptom of American Evangelicalism’s corruption by the prosperity gospel. American Evangelicalism lost such things as Lent when they lost the lectionary and stopped worshipping according to the rhythms of the church year, whenever that was. Mainline liberal Protestants may have preserved the liturgical forms such as the lectionary and liturgical worship, but they threw out their belief in Christ, the very thing to which the fast was intended to direct them, in exchange for the deception of Higher Criticism and cultural relevance. To be certain, in the theological desert of American Evangelicalism, liturgical worshipers with black smudges of ash on their foreheads appear as a peculiar minority. The Lenten fast is seen as an attempt by men to earn God’s favor by their own good work.

So, should Christians fast? Should they put ashes on their heads and “give up things for Lent”? Jesus and His disciples didn’t fast; John the Baptist’s disciples questioned Jesus about this: Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?[5] Earlier in His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus condemns the hypocritical public prayers of the Pharisees, which they perform as a way of showing how pious they are; [6] He condemns public charity done for the same reason.[7] Jesus is consistent when it comes to fasting. Fasting done publicly to show what a good person you are is to be condemned: Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites…[8]

Jesus said, however, when you fast; He did not say, “Do not fast.” In fact, it isn’t quite accurate to say that Jesus and His disciples didn’t fast. Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness: Then [after His baptism] Jesus was led up by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil. And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry.[9] It is true that Jesus did not command His disciples to fast, but there are instances when they did so. One such instance was when Barnabas and Saul were called by the Holy Spirit: Now in the church that was at Antioch there were certain prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, “Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away.[10] Another time was after Barnabas and Saul preached in Derbe: And when they had preached the gospel to that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.” So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.[11]

Fasting is not a way for people to earn God’s favor, or to “work off” or “make up for” sin. This is what Roman Catholicism teaches.[12] No, through faith in Christ we have a new and clean heart, and God does account us entirely righteous for the sake of Christ, our Mediator.[13] Fasting and prayer are also not tools by which we can manipulate God and get Him to do what we want. God hears our prayers for the sake of Christ, and answers them in His own way, and in His own time.

Fasting can be good for us, just like physical exercises can be good for us.[14] Fasting can move our focus from ourselves and our sinful desires, and help us develop self-control. The time we spend denying the desires of the flesh, that is, our Old Man, we can use to pray, and to study God’s Word, and to cultivate the fruits of the Spirit, things in which our New Man delights.[15]

It has always been the practice of Confessional Lutheranism to get rid of the traditions which are harmful, but to retain those which are helpful. The imposition of ashes and the Lenten fast fall into the second category. Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return. We hear God’s Word calling us to repentance. We see the literal stain of ashes on our heads, which by itself is an outward mark of repentance throughout the Bible, reminding us that we are stained by sin. When the pastor puts those ashes on our heads, however, he draws them in the sign of the cross. This isn’t meant to be some mystical, magical symbol to ward off evil; by it we are to call to mind our baptism. The guilt of our sin has been paid for by Christ’s blood, shed on the cross. We can cling to His promise that, by His death and resurrection, Christ has set us free from sin, death, and the devil. We have a High Priest over the house of God. Our hearts have been sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies have been washed with the pure waters of baptism, which binds us to Christ, His death, and His resurrection.[16] In our baptism, that stain of sin has been washed away.

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him.[17]

Go, get your ashes. Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return. Know that the stain of your sin corrupts your very nature, and that you are unable to make it better. Repent, and believe the Gospel. Remember your baptism. Remember that Jesus has washed away the stain of your sin. Remember that we were fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, sodomites, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers, extortioners, and perhaps many other things;

But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of God.[18]

[1] Lueker, Erwin Louis., ed. Lutheran Cyclopedia: A Concise In-Home Reference for the Christian Family. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1984. See p. 179
[2] 1 Corinthians 11:27-34
[3] Lueker, Erwin Louis., ed. Lutheran Cyclopedia: A Concise In-Home Reference for the Christian Family. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publ. House, 1984. See p. 179
[4] Ibid., p. 179, 292
[5] Matthew 9:14
[6] Matthew 6:5
[7] Matthew 6:1-4
[8] Matthew 6:16
[9] Matthew 4:1-2
[10] Acts 13:1-3
[11] Acts 14:21-23
[12] Fasting is a form of penance, and penance is a way of making satisfaction for sins. Catechism of the Catholic Church. New Hope, KY: Urbi Et Orbi Communications, 1994. See p. 360, paragraph 1434.
[13] McCain, Paul Timothy., ed. Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions: A Readers Edition of the Book of Concord. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005. SA III, 1
[14] 1 Timothy 4:8
[15] Galatians 5:22; Romans 7:21-25
[16] Hebrews 10:19-25
[17] 1 Peter 3:18-22
[18] 1 Corinthians 6:9-11