Sexagesima: Luke 8:4-15

“Take heed then how you hear.” (Luke 8:18)  The kingdom of God is a kingdom of preaching and hearing. The one requires the other. Aptly then, the parable we will hear on Sexagesima is known under two names: “the sower” and “the four soils.”

Jesus, of course, didn’t name his parables; he simply preached them. And of all his parables, only this one is explained in each of the synoptic Gospels. This ought to be a clue to us as to its prominence and importance. “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” (Mark 4:13)

The focus in Christ’s explanation is on hearing. Score one for “the four soils.” Christ himself pays almost no heed to the sower. Sure, he’s mentioned. He’s there. But the explanation is focused on the soil which receives the seed, that is, the hearing of the Word. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Luke 8:8)

Not all hearing though is the same. Experience will testify to this. The same word can be read and preached to an entire group. But the results differ from hearer to hearer. The parable is largely an explanation of the differing ways that the Word of God will be heard, and by it, the kingdom of God either opposed or received.

The various ways to hear are not permanent. So a particular hearer can and will move between various ways of hearing. This is important so that the hearer who is cut to the heart by Christ’s description of rocky or thorny ground does not lose hope. But also, those who are good hearers ought not presume that they may trifle with grace and take it for granted that they will continue. Good and fruitful hearing of God’s Word continues to hold fast to the Word as long as God gives life.

The Teacher of the Kingdom identifies four ways to hear. The seed that falls on the pathway are those who hear but fail to hear all at the same time. How can this be? Because attendance does not guarantee attentiveness. The devil is hard at work to take away the Word. There is no virtue in the birds coming to eat the seeds, as if we might read into this that the birds will transport those seeds in their bodies and expel them somewhere else. This should be foolish on its face, and I only mention it as an example of an over eagerness to put a silver lining on what is clearly a dark cloud. Identifying the tactics of the enemy are necessary to avoid them. The devil doesn’t take away the word out of nowhere, as if he could reach up his invisible hand and somehow snatch the sound waves out of thin air. His taking away of the word is more subtle and sinister. It happens whenever he entices hearers to discard the Word. Some perhaps will sit in the pew and deliberately oppose the preacher. They will listen but only to nitpick, to mock, and to ridicule. Others will sit there like blocks of wood and let the words of Scripture and the preacher pass in one ear and out the other, all the while with the mind elsewhere. But the devil will also work on a larger scale to take away even the possibility of hearing the Word. Governments, who ought to hear the Word themselves and submit to it, will rise up and persecute the preachers of God’s Word and drive them out of the land, rendering a deafening silence in their wake, as the example of Jerusalem in the days of the apostles bears witness.

The seed that falls in the rocky ground are those who hear in what we might call a superficial way. They are tickled by something in the message. Maybe it satisfies some religious feeling for them, an emotional high. Maybe they like to learn bits and pieces of trivia. Whatever the case, the hearing of the Word is for them a surface level matter. There is no conviction about what is heard. There is no retention or attempt to incorporate the Word into the mind and heart. They are those who, when asked what the sermon was about will say, “I don’t know, but it made me feel good.” Or even, “It’s all very interesting. We will hear you again about this.” (Acts 17:32) Hearing without assimilating is of no use. When the time of testing comes, as we can be assured it will, such a plant will be quickly scorched.

The seed that falls among thorns are those who hear a little better, though still not properly. They have too many other things to listen to side-by-side with the Word of God. When the cares of wealth and the pleasures of this passing age are on par with the hearing of God’s Word they choke out the intended product. Yes there is a plant. Roots have even been established. Doctrine is known and can be articulated. But finally, it hasn’t made any actual difference. Head knowledge has not become faith working in love. How easy it is for so many of us to be satisfied here. Week after week we listen, we attend, we even mentally assent to what we have heard. But when it comes right down to it, there’s so many cares and distractions that the implementation of the Word, whether it be a matter of repentance or action, is put on the back burner. We’ll get around to it some other time when things settle down.

Lastly the seed falls on good soil. These are those who hear with an honest and good heart and bear fruit with patience. No short cuts can be taken. Honesty entails that the hearer makes no attempts to hide what is uncovered about himself. Neither does he feel the need to go beyond what the Word reveals about God. The good heart is the heart that does what it was created to do. It stands as the organ of the body from which springs forth both thought and action. Repentance, trust, and action all issue from the heart that holds to the implanted Word. “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” (1 Timothy 1:5)

The hearing of the Word which grows to understanding and gives rise to trust and obedience is the harvest that the sower is at work to create. Yes, the Word does the work, but it does so by grabbing hold of those who hear, and once grabbed, the hearers of God’s Word actually do it. They are not content with a little but become hungry for more. What they hear in the Word they know how to do. (Luke 8:21) “No one after lighting a lamp covers it with a jar or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light.” (Luke 8:16) The harvest produced by the kingdom defies the logic of pure mathematics, which would say that 1 in 4 is a failure. While the sowing of the sower is not met with unmitigated success, nevertheless, “he comes home with shouts of joy, bearing his sheaves with him.” (Psalm 126:6)

Septuagesima: Matthew 20:1-16

Grace is not grace if it is in any way earned or deserved (Romans 11:5-6). This is exactly what the Jews failed to understand. God chose Israel purely by grace out of all the nations of the earth (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). God preserved faithless Israel purely by grace for the sake of His holy name and the promises which He had made (Ezekiel 20; 2 Kings 8:19, etc.). Yet Israel responded either with hypocrisy (Jeremiah 7:1-4) or pride (Luke 18:9-14). Even the rich young man, whose question about eternal life in Matthew 19 forms the context for this parable, placed his trust in his keeping of the commandments.

Yet I think it would be equally problematic to see in this parable a kind of divine equality, as if God’s free grace meant that heavenly rewards are all the same. This would make Jesus’ answer to Peter in Matthew 19:28-30 difficult to comprehend. Jesus does not rebuke Peter for his question. Those who have left everything will receive a great reward in the world to come. The key in understanding grace is in Matthew 20:15: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” It is God’s freedom of action that makes grace to be grace. Anything else is an attempt to bind Him and make it an issues of wages.

The parable opens with a master seeking workers for his vineyard. The Lord refers to Israel on several occasions as His vineyard (Isaiah 5; Jeremiah 12:10; Ezekiel 19:10; Psalm 80:8-11). Like the master of this house, the Lord calls us out of the world and into that vineyard. Idleness is the way of the world. The Lord set Adam to labor in the garden before the fall into sin (Genesis 2:15). If anyone will not work, let him not eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10). The Lord calls us to holy labor and sets our hands to the task.

The different hours that the master calls workers only accentuates the difference between the first called and the last. When the evening has come, all are given the same amount: a denarius, or a normal day’s wages. The amount is instructive for us. If the master in desperation for laborers promised some extraordinary amount, we might draw the conclusion that the reward for our labors is the key. “When you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:10). Yet the reward that is set before us, the crown of righteousness (2 Timothy 4:8), is sufficient for us. It is not worthless even if we might regard it as petty according to our standards, because grace is not grace if it is a matter of wages.

This, then, highlights the earlier point. God is free to do what He pleases with what belongs to Him. “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15). Grace is not a birthright, a matter of the flesh. God owes no one anything, because we are all lawbreakers. The master of the vineyard would be perfectly just if he hired no one. Those who labored twelve hours didn’t deserve more for their labor, because they didn’t deserve to be in the vineyard in the first place. May our eye not be evil because God is good! Righteousness comes by faith, not by works, and the Lord’s steadfast love endures forever, because He chose us when we were yet His enemies.

The reward of righteousness, then, is also purely a matter of grace. The right hand and the left hand of Christ, indeed places of great honor, belong to those for whom the Father prepares them (Matthew 20:23). To judge the twelve tribes of Israel on twelve thrones is indeed a tremendous honor (Matthew 19:28). Yet they are not a matter of right. The last will be first and the first last, because God gives to each of us according to His pleasure, not according to our desires or imaginations. If we are in the vineyard, let us rejoice for that reason alone, for it is already a sign of God’s undeserved love for us. The crosses which God makes for us will be different from Christian to Christian, because He is working out His own purposes in us.

Transfiguration: Matthew 17:1-9

Jesus began to tell His disciples that He must suffer and die at the hands of men. Christ must walk the way of self-denial, and to be in Christ is to be like Christ, taking up the cross after Him (Matthew 16:24). But now, as Christ begins the way toward Golgotha, He takes Peter and James and John with Him up on a mountain, as He did frequently to pray (Matthew 14:23, for example). Three would be a satisfactory number of witnesses to testify afterwards (Deuteronomy 17:6).

Yet while He is on the mountain, Jesus is transfigured, or transformed, before them. Used of Christ, it refers to His appearance. In His incarnation, He had emptied Himself, taking on the form of a servant (Philippians 2:7-8). Christians also reflect this complete change, though in a spiritual sense, since we are called to be transformed in our minds (Romans 12:2) and transformed into the same image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18). As Jesus now shows Himself to be God to His disciples, so are we called to become like Him. Thus, the Transfiguration is not merely a light show, but a glimpse of the glory that is to come.

The imagery of shining like the sun is a sign of Christ’s deity. John’s vision of the ascended Christ in Revelation 1 includes the same detail. Ezekiel’s vision of God describes the one seated on the throne as having the appearance of fire (Ezekiel 1:26-28). God is, after all, light (1 John 1:5), dwelling in unapproachable light (1 Timothy 6:16), and clothed with light (Psalm 104:2). Daniel describes God the Father as being dressed in clothing white as snow (Daniel 7:9). Everything about Christ’s appearance in this moment points to His divine nature, now uncovered before the eyes of His three witnesses.

Moses’ face shone with the borrowed glory of God, whom he knew face to face (Exodus 34:29-35). To be in the gracious presence of God is to be transformed. Yet as Moses brought the ministry of death, which could be concealed with a piece of fabric, Christ brings the greater ministry of righteousness, far exceeding it in glory (2 Corinthians 3). Even the clothes on Christ’s body are transformed with Him, shining brightly with the glory of God.

Moses and Elijah appear with Christ, talking with Him. Moses knew the Lord face to face, and his body was not found after his death (Deuteronomy 34). Elijah was taken up into heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:1-14). Jesus also frequently referred to “Moses and the Prophets” as a poetic way of speaking about the Old Testament (such as in Luke 16:29). These two chief prophets, then, point toward Christ now as they had in their writings. Here is the One that the prophets of old longed to see, but did not see (Matthew 13:17). Yet now we, with the three disciples, see Him in all His majesty. The fullness of God’s revelation has come in His Son.

Peter, out of a mixture of fear and piety, proposes that three tents be set up in this place. As the tabernacle of old had covered the glory of God, so now it was only fitting that the divine glory receive a new dwelling place. His desire to give the Lord a fitting place for His glory is a noble one. As David says: “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in His temple” (Psalm 27:4). Likewise the Sons of Korah: “how lovely is Your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts” (Psalm 84:1)!

Peter misunderstands the purpose of this transfiguration, just as he had misunderstood the purpose of Christ’s suffering about a week earlier. However, the Lord leaves no room for further misunderstandings. As Peter is speaking, a cloud descends upon the scene. Clouds like this are a sign of God’s presence among His people. God descended upon Sinai in a cloud (Exodus 19:9). He went before His people in a cloud by day (Exodus 13:17-22). The cloud of His glory filled the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-35). He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind (Psalm 104:3). Now, just as He once spoke to His people in the wilderness in a pillar of cloud (Psalm 99:7), the great voice of the Father speaks again: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Obey him” (Matthew 17:5).

The usage of Psalm 2 here points toward two things. First, as Peter would later recall in 2 Peter 1:17, God the Father honors and glorifies Christ in this moment. Psalm 2 is, after all, about the coronation of the king. The Lord’s anointed King reigns on Zion, and the kings of the earth should tremble before Him who holds all authority in heaven and earth.

However, the time of Christ’s full glorification has not yet come. Only after His resurrection would He be vindicated by the Spirit (1 Timothy 3:16). Yet He is God’s chosen, sent into the world to redeem it. The Father testifies the truth about Christ, just as He testified using the same words at His Baptism (Matthew 3:13-17). Just as Christ then went into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan through much suffering, so also Christ now descends from the mountain to enter a greater wilderness, forsaken by men and the Father on the cross. The ministry of Jesus is thus bracketed by suffering, being tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. This transfiguration, therefore, is not a sidetrack in the Gospel. God repeats Himself to show His determination (Genesis 41:32).

Fourth Sunday in Advent: John 1:19-28

The Pharisee priests and Levites sent from Jerusalem come to John in order to determine whether he is the promised Christ. Their mission is not simply an inquiry about a strange figure, because John answers their question “Who are you?” with a clear denial of all their expected answers. John is not the Christ, the coming Son of David (Matthew 22:42). John is not Elijah (Malachi 4:5). John is not the prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15). The Pharisees think that he is one of these, at least according to their own fancies, but John denies all of it.

John denying and Christ affirming that he is Elijah are not at odds. It is evident that the Pharisees hold mistaken notions about the coming Christ. Christ already stood among them, as John will go on to say, but they do not recognize Him. Their imagined Elijah and John standing before them do not fit together, but that is the fault of their wrong ideas. John is, after all, not literally Elijah reborn, since Elijah appears with Christ at the transfiguration (Matthew 17:3). John comes in the spirit of Elijah, carrying out the work of preparing for the greater Elisha (2 Kings 2:15). The Pharisees wanted the literal Elijah, which John properly says that he is not.

John confesses that he is none of the things which the Pharisees seek. Confession, in every sense, is agreement with the truth. John confesses that he is not the Christ, because in truth only Jesus is the Christ. If we confess that we are sinners (1 John 1:9), we are agreeing with what God has to say about our condition. We do frequently use the word confession in a wider sense to mean whatever we say about God, so that it is possible to have a false confession. Yet confessing a lie is no confession at all. One may speak a lie in ignorance, in which case like Apollos we should be corrected and taught the way of truth (Acts 18:24-28). But to speak a lie knowing full well that it is a lie is no confession, but to speak like Satan, the father of lies (John 8:44).

John does affirm that he fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah 40:3. He is the voice crying in the wilderness. John points toward Christ, because John prepares the way for Christ. As Isaiah goes on to say in 40:10, the Lord God comes with might. John cries out in order to tell Zion, “Behold your God!” This confession shows that he understands the purpose of his mission from God. John is, as we read last week in Matthew 11, a prophet and more than a prophet, because he is the messenger of God.

The Pharisees, intriguingly, perceive that Baptism is tied up with the time of the Christ. When they ask John why he is baptizing if he is none of the things they thought he would be, they recognize that his activity heralds the coming of the Kingdom. Nor is this unique, since they also recognize many prophecies to refer to the coming of the Christ, such as His birth in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:5) and that He would be David’s Son (Matthew 22:42). Their hardness of heart, however, prevents them from seeing Christ literally among them, even though all of the signs are there. They literally see Jesus and all the signs and proofs that He is the Christ, yet they do not see (Matthew 13:13-15).

Finally, there are at least two villages named Bethany in the New Testament. The main Bethany lay near Jerusalem (John 11:18) on the Mount of Olives (Mark 11:1), and it was the home of Lazarus and his sisters (John 11) and Simon the leper (Mark 14). This Bethany, sometimes called Bethabara as in the King James Version, lay on the river itself, no less than 15 miles from Jerusalem. However, its exact location is disputed. Some regard it as further north on the river, since John also baptized at Aenon near Salim (John 3:23). If this is the case, Bethany might be the name of a region rather than a village, since Jesus is described as going to the region where John baptized in John 10:40. Another possibility is that Bethany is further south near the river across from Jericho. The Romans, beginning at least from the reign of the emperor Anastasius I (reigned 491-518), identified this site as Bethany, even building a church in the area (which the Romans had done for major sites since the reign of Constantine two hundred years earlier). If this is the location of Bethany, it has the added advantage of potentially being the site where Israel crossed the Jordan under Joshua (Joshua 3) and where Elijah and Elisha crossed before Elijah’s translation (2 Kings 2). However, we must not choose the latter simply for sentimental reasons, but neither can we discount the possibility. If Jesus was baptized near where Israel crossed the Jordan, it only further points to His work as being Israel called out of Egypt (Hosea 11:1).

Third Sunday in Advent: Matthew 11:2-10

John lay bound in prison, put there by Herod Antipas over the matter of Herodias (Luke 3:19-20; Mark 6:17-20; the same Herod who examined Jesus in Luke 23:6-12). Like Micaiah of old, his bold word against the king landed him there (2 Chronicles 18:23-27). But, much to his comfort and ours, the work of the kingdom did not falter or waver, even with the forerunner of God in prison. God uses us for a season to build His Church, but when our hour is past, He will raise up still more faithful workers.

Yet John sends two of his disciples to ask Jesus an important question: “Are you the coming one, or should we look for another?” Whatever his motive for asking this question, whether for his own sake or for the sake of his disciples, it is good for a Christian to seek that assurance. Nor is it faithless to do so. Many of the Psalms cry out in the midst of distress, asking why God seems so far off in trouble (Psalm 22 is one such example). But these psalms also call out to God knowing that He will answer. It only becomes faithless when we think that God can no longer help. Christ gives that assurance to John or his disciples, because “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3).

Jesus directs them toward His own works as evidence of His identity. His miracles are proof that the promised deliverance of the Lord has come. Just as the return from exile surpassed the Exodus in glory (Jeremiah 23:7-8), so will the coming of the Lord in the flesh surpass the return. On the day when the eyes of the blind are opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped, the ransomed of the Lord shall return to Zion with singing (Isaiah 35). Jesus is the Coming One, and His works prove it beyond all doubt (John 10:38).

Scandal arises, however, when God puts to shame the wisdom of the world. Christ crucified is a scandal to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23), since it means boasting in the Lord rather than in the self. John’s question should not be understood as being scandalized, because scandal means rejection of the Lord’s message. The Jews were scandalized and therefore rejected the Lord (John 1:11). John’s question is not asked in jest.

As the disciples of John leave, Jesus points an important question to the crowd: who is John? The answer to that question is meant for their benefit, since John would not hear it, lest he might be puffed up with pride. The Lord knows His own and praises His own, but not in flattery (Job 1:8).

The crowd, however, has misunderstood the purpose of John’s ministry. Some simply wanted to spectate, to watch the show. In this mindset, they came up with wrong ideas about John. Jesus therefore gives two examples of this error and refutes them. John is not like a reed swaying in the wind. Reeds, like arundo domax which is common in that part of the world and grows up to 33 feet tall, seem firm but sway and shake in the wind. John never waffled in his confession of Christ (John 1). John is not a man dressed in soft clothing, used to luxury and hedonism. Rather, his very dress of camel hair and his diet of locusts and wild honey show that he sought a heavenly homeland (Hebrews 11:13-16).

John is, on the other hand, a prophet, indeed more than a prophet. If the prophets pointed toward the coming of Christ while still far off, John prepares the way for the Lord coming suddenly. He is the one who walks right before Christ, not one who longed to see the day of Christ. Jesus quotes the words of Malachi 3:1 as proof of this, and in so doing reaffirms the whole purpose of John’s ministry: to point to Jesus. When the messenger prepares the way, the Lord suddenly comes to His temple and purifies the sons of Levi that they may bring offerings in righteousness as in former days. Yet His coming will also bring judgment against all law-breakers. John is Christ’s herald, and the messenger of the kingdom of God.

As a final note, I find it interesting that Jesus points to John as the fulfillment of Malachi 3:1. Peter similarly points to Judas as the fulfillment of passages like Psalm 69:25 and Psalm 109:8 in Acts 1:20. While it is all connected with Jesus and His passion, prophecy may in fact point to other people. Thus, while it is true to say that the Bible is all about Jesus, one must clarify what is meant by that statement. Even when a passage points to the apostles (Psalm 19:4 in Romans 10:18; Isaiah 49:6 in Acts 13:47), to John, to Judas, or to anyone else, they still center on and point toward the long promised Christ, who is the living Word of God.

Second Sunday in Advent: Luke 21:25-36

Jesus, with the Temple in view, speaks about the coming of the end. Those who marveled at the building regarded it as enduring and noble. They had evidently forgotten that this was no less than the third sanctuary of the Lord. The Lord rejected Shiloh, the tent of the tabernacle, and cast down the temple of Solomon (Jeremiah 7:12-15). Even the foundation of this temple met with grief, since it was the sin of the fathers which had caused the Lord to cast the first one down (Ezra 3:10-13). Putting trust in the building itself missed the point entirely. This temple also would be pulled down, so that one stone would not be left upon another.

The pericope for the Second Sunday in Advent opens in the middle of this prophecy. The world will be in turmoil and confusion on the great and terrible day of the Lord. These signs will be the breaking of the fixed order of the world at the coming of the Son of Man. The nations will be in emotional distress because they will be perplexed, seeing no way out of what is coming upon the world. They will be gripped in the indecision of fear, because of the roaring of the sea and the waves and the breaking of the world. Everything is breaking forth from its appointed boundaries and casting all into confusion. It was God who set the boundaries of the sea (Genesis 1:9-10), commanding its proud waves to stop at His command (Job 38:8-11). The Lord shut its waves in, no matter how much it rages (Jeremiah 5:22), so that it would no more cover the earth (Psalm 104:8-9). But now the old order is passing. The sea threatens to overwhelm all again, because heaven and earth are passing away.

Fear is the only possible response for the godless. They will faint away as though dead, just as the soldiers did at the tomb of Christ (Matthew 28:4) or John did at the vision of Christ (Revelation 1:17). A sense of dread will overtake them, even before the Son of Man appears, because the heavens will rot away and the skies will roll up like a scroll (Isaiah 34:4). They will try to hide, but in vain, because the great day of the wrath of the Lamb has come (Revelation 6:12-17). All the heavens, which seemed so firm and immovable, will be shaken, and nothing will be left upon anything else.

In that hour, they will see Christ, the Son of Man, returning in power and majesty. As the Son of Man, Jesus has dominion over all heaven and earth (Daniel 7:13-14). He will come on the clouds, because they are under His feet. Just as the sky is depicted under the feet of God (Exodus 24:10), so also is the earth His footstool (Isaiah 66:1). Jesus is exalted above all, and all will see Him in the fullness of His glory.

But, Jesus says, lift up your head. Lift your eyes to the hills. The Lord comes as Your Helper (Psalm 121:1-2). Though the believer is in the pit, they can look up to find their deliverance in the coming of the Lord. This is why the return of Christ is a joy for the faithful, even though it is a terror for the ungodly. The Lord sets us free from the waterless pit (Zechariah 9:11-12). In the hour that Jesus judges the living and the dead, He will give justice to His elect speedily (Luke 18:7). All the workers of lawlessness will depart, because all will be set right forever. The violent rhetoric of every imprecatory psalm looks toward this glorious hour, when God will remember every injustice done against His people and bring the due reward of the wicked on their heads. We will rejoice in that hour, because the Lord has not forgotten His people.

Jesus then uses a parable to explain His meaning further. A fig tree bears fruit once or twice a year. The first appearing of its fruit comes in late spring and early summer. When this early fruit appears, it is a sign that the heat of the summer is coming near. Likewise, the signs in sky and sea are a herald of the coming end, not the end itself. The coming winter wind will come and shake the stars from the sky like the late figs from the tree (Revelation 6:13). Thus, these early fruits are the signs of the coming wars and persecutions which Jesus said will come before the end (Luke 21:10-11).

This generation, Jesus says, will not pass away before all these things take place. Generation here does not have to refer to a single group of people in the way we typically use it today. It can also have a broader application, as it does in some of the Psalms and elsewhere (Psalm 14:5; 24:6, for example). Jesus may also be referring to the signs which herald the end, which that specific generation certainly saw before the judgment on Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

However, the key point here is that, even though heaven and earth will pass away and be found no more, the Word of the Lord will never pass away. It is the one enduring and everlasting reality, because it is the Word of the living and eternal Lord. Earth and heaven will perish, but God will remain (Psalm 102:26). The heavens will vanish, and the earth will wear out like a garment, but the salvation of our God will be forever (Isaiah 51:6). Do not put your trust in anything of this world, because they belong to God, and God will destroy them with fire (2 Peter 3:7). But put your trust in the Lord, who is our stronghold in trouble. He will never let the righteous fall (Psalm 55:22).

But watch for that day! If we become bogged down in the anxieties and cares of this world, giving into the works of the flesh, that day will catch us like a thief (1 Thessalonians 5:1-4). Drunkenness and anxiety are the works of those who fear the future, who seek refuge in the things of this world. But that day will come like a trap upon all who are alive. Stay awake! Ask the Father in holy prayer to be counted worthy (or to have strength) to escape. Only through asking, that is, only through prayer will we be found worthy, because prayer relies on God alone. We will stand before the Son of Man on that day because we rely on Him for all things. It will be a fearful day to see the fixed order of the world broken before our eyes, but it will be the last violent pangs of a world reborn through Jesus.

First Sunday in Advent: Matthew 21:1-9

The choice of Matthew 21:1-9 for the First Sunday in Advent emphasizes the royal coming of Christ. As such, it is a choice driven by the demands of the season more than the text itself. Jesus entering Jerusalem figures prominently in the upcoming passion. The Son of David, humble and lowly, comes into His own. By extension, this can also be applied to His present reign, though it is important to remember that Christ sends His Holy Spirit among us now (John 16:7).

Christ began His final journey toward Jerusalem beginning at the Jordan (Matthew 19:1). Jericho lay a short distance to the east (Matthew 20:29), and a road going uphill in a southeasterly fashion went toward Jerusalem. Perhaps not incidentally, this eastward movement away from the Jordan River by way of Jericho happens often in the Scriptures (Two examples are Joshua 3, where Israel enters the Promised Land; and 2 Kings 2, where Elijah is translated opposite Jericho and then Elisha returns.). Even in His movement, the Lord fulfills the Scriptures.

Bethphage, literally “house of unripe figs,” appears to be a small village on or near the Mount of Olives. Christ would have been following the road heading southward into Jerusalem, suggesting that Bethphage lay somewhere nearby to the north or northeast. Jesus exercises His omnipotence by telling two of His disciples how and where to find a donkey in front of them.

Matthew clearly demonstrates how Jesus fulfills prophecy through this by citing Zechariah 9:9. In its original context, Zechariah prophesies against the nations which oppressed Israel. Tyre and Sidon, Philistia, Damascus—all will suffer the judgment when the King of Zion comes. His reign will be one of peace and “his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zechariah 9:10). Such a prophecy connects Him closely to Solomon. Solomon was a king of peace, since the Lord gave him rest on every side during the length of his reign (1 Kings 5:3-4). Solomon also ruled over Israel at its greatest extent (1 Kings 4:21), though not the fullest promised (Exodus 23:31; the second half of Joshua). Solomon’s apostasy showed that the Lord’s purposes had not yet come to their end, but now Jesus, riding as the Son of David, comes into the City of David to claim the throne.

Everything about this scene, however, shows how far the house of David had fallen. Christ is not a king who was rich like Solomon, but poor and lowly. A donkey, found in a common village, is His mount. As Isaiah prophesied about Immanuel, the boy born of a Virgin would eat curds and honey (much like the poor diet of John the Baptist), and not the sumptuous feasts of His royal predecessors (Isaiah 7:15).

The crowd which gathers about Him on the road north of Jerusalem, however, seems to look past His lowly state. Just as people laid their garments on the ground at the proclamation of Jehu as king, whom the Lord raised up to chastise the house of Ahab (2 Kings 9:13), so they also laid their garments before Christ, who would go on to chastise the money-changers in the temple (Matthew 21:12). Then with the words of Psalm 118 in their mouths, they cried out before Him.

“Hosanna” is a Hebrew word, meaning “save us.” (This makes it, as a side note, related to the name Jesus, which in Hebrew is more like Joshua, “the Lord saves.”) Its usage here as “Hosanna to” suggests it had become a liturgical word much like “amen.” However, the crowd addresses this cry to the “Son of David” here rather than to the “Lord” as in Psalm 118:25. The substitution is not an accident. The Son of David, as Christ so frequently points out to His opponents, is the rejected stone which becomes the cornerstone (Psalm 118:22; Matthew 22:41-45).

With that being said, however, I wonder whether the crowd fully recognized the import of what it was saying. Not only would they bay for His blood not a few days later, but they also tell the bewildered people in Jerusalem itself that Jesus is a prophet (Matthew 21:11). The King of King has come to His own, and His own knew Him not (John 1:11).

Thanksgiving Day: 1 Timothy 2:1-4

After initial greetings to Timothy, warnings against false teachers, a summary of the Gospel, and admonitions to remain faithful, Paul writes “first of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people…” (1 Tim. 2:1).  These directions are not for Timothy alone, but for the congregations and ministers under his care (1 Tim. 3:14; 1 Tim. 4:13).  Paul desires these sorts of prayers “in every place” (1 Tim. 2:8).

“Supplications” and “prayer” are paired together throughout the New Testament (Eph. 6:18; Phil 4:6; 1 Tim. 5:5; Heb. 5:7).  They are the most general terms for addressing God.  In Ephesians 6:18 and Philippians 4:6, prayer and supplication are tied to the idea that we ought not to be anxious.  Our Heavenly Father promises to hear our prayers and give us what we need (Matt. 7:7-11).  Worry accomplishes nothing (Matt. 6:25-34).

“Intercessions” are prayers to God on behalf of others.  Our Lord Jesus intercedes for us before the Father (Rom. 8:37; Heb. 7:25).  As priests, all Christians are to follow Christ in praying for “all men” with all manner of prayers (1 Peter 2:5-9).

It is only proper that in addition to requesting things from God, we also return thanks to him for his blessings.

These various prayers are to be made for “kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceable and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (1 Tim. 2:2).  The ruler is “God’s servant for your good” who “carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Rom. 13:4).  Our God is a God of law and order.  He puts food on our table through a variety of means, not the least of which is through the rule of law and a well ordered society.  Rulers—even bad rulers, even rulers we might not like—do the Lord’s work and bring us great blessings.

Secular power, the use of force, and worldly laws are servants to peace. But peace is not an end in itself.  A peaceful and quiet life is not to be squandered on indulgence.  Rather, the pilgrimage of the Christian this side of heaven is to be “godly and dignified in every way.” (1 Tim. 2:3).  The freedom of the Christian is not the illusory “freedom” of the anarchist or the libertine.  Rather, the Christian is liberated from the dead-end of selfish indulgence in order to pursue that which is pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise (Phil. 4:8).  We who believe in God are to “devote ourselves to good works” which are “profitable for people.” (Titus 3:8).

Peace and good order on this earth serve yet an even greater purpose—and eternal purpose.  Through worldly rulers, God maintain peace so that we may lead a quiet life—so that we can hear the Gospel.  “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim 2:3).  Just as women are to “learn quietly with all submissiveness” (1 Tim. 2:11) so the church, the Bride of Christ, humbly submits to Jesus, listening to his teaching at his feet.

On Thanksgiving Day, we remember God’s blessings, which are too many to count.  Let us strive to be content with—and even more, thankful for—our allotment in life, for “godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.  But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” (1 Tim. 6:6-7).  We should continue in various types of prayer to Our Father in Heaven.  Most especially, we should remember our Mediator, “who gave himself as a ransom for all” (I Tim. 2:6), and let our gratitude overflow in thanksgiving for God’s grace.

Twentieth Sunday after Trinity: Ephesians 5:15-21

Ephesians 5 flows quite naturally out of Paul’s previous discussion of unity.  Just as there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:5-6), so also are we unified in Christ.  If we are in Christ, our head, then we are no longer “children,” or rather “infants,” prone to being led astray or deceived (Ephesians 4:14).  Therefore, our former way of life is put off in Christ.  We have learned Christ, and therefore we are walking in the way of the Spirit, no longer corrupted.

Yet our mature manhood means that we remain “imitators of God, as beloved children” (Ephesians 5:1).  We are not young children needing discipline, but grown sons honoring our Father in heaven.  Our childish things have been put away, because our understanding has grown accordingly (1 Corinthians 13:11-12).  Being conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29) is growth and movement.  What was once tolerated because of our youth has passed away as we become more and more like Him.

Therefore, we can no longer walk in those things which belong to the darkness.  After all, the immoral and the impure have no part in the kingdom of God.  Paul is not exaggerating, as if his intention were to frighten us.  “What accord has Christ with Belial?  Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever” (2 Corinthians 6:15)?  Ignorance is a cause for mercy only as long as it is genuine.  But we are no longer ignorant, because we have grown up “in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).  Therefore, to walk childishly while knowing better in the ways of darkness is willful disobedience.  The spiritual man-child has no place in the kingdom of God.

Paul’s examples of spiritual maturity are also rather specific.  Sins such as sexual immorality, depraved in themselves, should not “even be named among you, as is proper among saints” (Ephesians 5:3).  Rather, they must be “exposed” or “rebuked” (Ephesians 5:11).  To name them is to participate in them, however indirectly.  As Jeremiah laments, “The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven” (Jeremiah 7:18).  All of these activities, harmless and even good in themselves, participate in idolatry when directed toward that end, and none can claim innocence as a result.

Thus, Paul sets up a contrast in the pericope.  We should be wise, not unwise; diligent, not lazy; understanding, not foolish; filled with the Spirit, not filled with wine; singing psalms, hymns, and songs, not uttering the works of darkness.  Wisdom flows forth from fearing the Lord.  We redeem the time given to us by not frittering it away in useless and unprofitable things.  Understanding the will of the Lord comes from our holiness and being conformed to Him.  We are intoxicated with the Spirit, so to speak, by seeking to do His will in all things.  Finally, because we will be judged by our words (Matthew 12:36), how much more ought we to fill our words with the words of God, singing His praises and calling on His name?  Such things must not be dismissed as legalistic or moralizing.  After all, we are called out of darkness and into light.  We are no longer dead, but alive in God.  We are no longer infants, but rather sons of God.  We are a new creation and being renewed day by day, so that our desires are no longer darkened, but enlightened and seeking after the will of God.

St. Michael and All Angels: Revelation 12:7-12

Revelation 12 focuses on Satan and his war against the Church. Satan previously was able to enter God’s courts, albeit briefly, as he wandered to and fro on the earth (Job 1). The Accuser—since Satan is a title like Christ and not a proper name—opposes the saints, even though his accusations are frequently false (Zechariah 3:1-5; Jude 9; John 8:44). Even if he speaks about the past, he does not speak the truth, because the saints, covered with the Lord’s righteousness, can no longer be justly accused of them. They are gone, never to be brought up again (Psalm 103:12). Satan’s accusations, then, are a direct assault on God, which is why he is rebuked for speaking against the saints.

Satan’s foolishness knows no bounds, however, because he sought to destroy the male child of Revelation 12:5. This action prompted a reaction from heaven. The war of Revelation 12:7 is against the dragon, and the dragon is in a defensive posture. His judgment has come, because the fullness of his sin flowed forth from his attempted murder of the boy. God is not deaf to the plight of His Church on earth, and all the powers of heaven wage war in her defense.

The identity of Michael is a disputed question. Some think that this refers to Christ Himself. Michael, whose name means “Who is like God?”, is described in Jude 9 as an archangel. This is sometimes rejected on the grounds that Jude is part of the antilegomena (a weak argument, in my opinion, since Revelation itself belongs to that category). Further, the corresponding passage in Zechariah 3 states that the Lord Himself rebukes Satan, a statement attributed to Michael in Jude. The two are not mutually exclusive. The Lord is often described as speaking through agents, just as we often use similar language to say things like “The king waged war on the kingdom.” Even if the king’s generals and soldiers actually carried out the war, that hardly means that the king had no part in it.

Regardless of who Michael is—and I tend to think that it is the archangel—it does not change the meaning of the passage. The outcome of this war against the devil is his utter defeat and subsequent banishment from heaven. Nor do I think that we need to figure out the timing of this war. The general message is clear: even as the devil wages war on earth against the Church, he is already defeated and his final defeat is certain. He is fighting a losing battle, and God Himself fights for His Church. Whatever he might throw at us, Satan’s doom is certain, and he cannot win.

I think it’s worthwhile to mention that the word “dragon” carries a lot of cultural baggage with it. The image of a four-legged, winged, fire-breathing lizard is a much later concept. “Dragon” or perhaps “drake” in Greek describes a large snake. It is used in conjunction with the more general term “serpent” in Revelation 12:9. He is not an ordinary snake, to be sure, since he is described as having “seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems” (Revelation 12:3). But we must be careful so that we do not impose our cultural images upon the Bible. Yet this imagery recalls Genesis 3, where the snake tempts Eve into eating the forbidden fruit. As Satan sought our destruction from the very beginning, he remains a “roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

However, Satan is defeated by “the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (Revelation 12:11). The death and resurrection of Jesus silenced the devil who had previously tried to tempt Him to sin. Christ’s resurrection proves that the devil is a liar, because it is undeniable proof of His righteousness. Yet Satan is also defeated by the witness of the saints, because the reign of Christ is not yet complete (Hebrews 2:8; 1 Corinthians 15:25). Bearing witness about the hope within us is an assault on the powers of darkness (2 Corinthians 10:4). This is Christ’s work within us, engaging us as soldiers in His victorious campaign to put all things under His feet.

Therefore, Satan should not make us abnormally afraid, as if he had the power to do as he pleases. “Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Peter 5:9). The shield of faith extinguishes his flaming darts (Ephesians 6:16). He should not be underestimated, of course. His anger is fierce and he is unwavering in his rage. But he stood no chance against heaven. If God Himself is for us, who can be against us (Romans 8:31)? Those who are with us are more than those who are with him (2 Kings 6:16).