Posts

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).

Sixth Sunday after Trinity: Romans 6:3-11

Righteousness does not come from works.  Israel according to the flesh is not therefore saved because of the flesh.  If righteousness came through works, then salvation would be our wages, something we have earned, rather than by grace.  Abraham, as Paul says earlier in Romans 4, was saved through faith.  This man who had done far more and glorious good works than we have was not saved as a result.  He too was weighed in the scales and found wanting in terms of righteousness according to works.  It was faith that made him righteous in God’s sight.

But righteousness is not a point in time.  “What shall we say then?  Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?  By no means” (Romans 6:1-2)!  Looking at righteousness in this way is to place trust in something other than God, even if it something come from God.  “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord'” (Jeremiah 7:4).  The temple profits nothing if the Law is forgotten.  To treat righteousness in this way is to commit the same error that Paul rejects earlier in Romans.  “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical, but a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Romans 2:28-29).

The same is true also for Baptism.  Baptism sets us apart to God, just as Paul says here in Romans 6.  To be baptized is to be baptized into Jesus, and to be baptized into Jesus is to die just as He has died.  Baptism unites us with Christ and therefore brings faith, life, and salvation.  But Baptism is not merely a point in time.  To look at baptism like ancient Israel looked at the temple and the land–as proofs of God’s favor regardless of their conduct–is to abuse it.  Baptism and a newness of life walk hand in hand by necessity.  A failure to produce fruit is a sign of a dead tree.

Baptism therefore unites the Christian with Christ in two related, but distinct, ways.  The first is being united with Him in His death to sin and in His life to God.  We have been put to death inwardly, being crucified with Him so that the body of sin might be brought to nothing.  As a result, we have been set free from sin.  Sin has no dominion over Jesus, and therefore sin has no dominion over the one who is in Jesus.  Therefore, we are not slaves to sin.  This is important to emphasize, because weakness is not the same as domination.  The Christian sins out of weakness:  the flesh remains and leads him to do what he does not want to do (Romans 7).  But it is not necessary that he sins.  He is, in fact, capable of resisting the impulse of sin and to avoid it.  Thus, to give into the works of the flesh, especially when one is able to resist in Christ, is to go out of your way to wallow in the mud.  You are not a slave of sin, but a slave of righteousness.  You live in God, and therefore are no longer in darkness or the power of sin.

The other way is being united with Him in death and in life outwardly.  Our bodies will also be put to death physically and outwardly, just as Christ was also laid into the grave.  But as the grave could not hold Him, neither will it hold those who belong to Him.  We will rise bodily on the Last Day, because we have been united with Christ through baptism.  “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on” (Revelation 14:13).

These two ways are closely related.  Holiness is not a matter of this life only.  “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19)!  Christ’s death has no meaning apart from His resurrection, for “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17).  Likewise, our death and resurrection inwardly has no meaning apart from our death and resurrection outwardly.  To be like Christ means to rise with Christ, both inwardly and outwardly.  Being like Him only inwardly means that we have no hope.  Being like Him only outwardly means not being like Him at all.  But through baptism, we have been raised with Him inwardly and outwardly, never to die again.

Walther on Baptism


Pure water is clear and simple. In this episode we talk about how important clarity is for Christians and how simple and powerful Scripture’s teaching is on what baptism is, whom we should baptize, and how baptism should happen.

Books for further reading: Pastoral Theology, and Suelflow’s biography Servant of the Word.

Hosts: Rev. Willie Grills and Rev. Zelwyn Heide
Regular Guest: Rev. Adam Koontz
Episode: 20

Follow us on Twitter: @wordfitly
Send us a message: [email protected]
Subscribe to the podcast: RSS Feed, iTunes, Spotify, or your favorite podcasting app.

Pentecost: Acts 2:1-21

While the Lord’s actions at Pentecost were new, the day of Pentecost was an old observance.  On the day following Passover, the Lord commanded a presentation of the firstfruits of the harvest (Leviticus 23:10-11).  Such a presentation reinforced the recognition of God’s Providence, especially since it happened within the promised land.  Seven weeks later, on the fiftieth day, the Feast of Weeks involved another presentation of new grain to the Lord along with a number of burnt animal offerings (Leviticus 23:15-21; see also Numbers 28:26-31).  Not only was it a day of the firstfruits of the harvest, but Pentecost was also one of the days upon which the men of Israel were to gather together before the Lord (Exodus 34:22-23; 23:14-17).  It was a time of rejoicing and a perpetual remembrance of the great deliverance from Egypt (Deuteronomy 16:10-12).

It was entirely fitting, then, on this harvest festival that the great harvest of the nations would begin.  Jesus Himself told His disciples to “lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest” (John 4:35).  The firstfruits of the nations believed in the Lord on that day, and the great harvest continues until the coming of the end.  It is also the beginning of an abundance unlike anything previously.  The time of seeding and tending came in the days of the Law and of the prophets among the nation of Israel almost exclusively, but the fullness of the harvest goes out into all the world.  Had not Jesus Himself promised that “whoever believes in me will also dot he works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12)?

The disciples, obeying the orders of Christ, waited in Jerusalem between the period of His ascension and Pentecost (Acts 1:4).  Their mighty work about to begin there is not the work of men, as if their impressiveness would carry the Church out into the world.  They were shaped by a period of obedience to the will of God, taught to wait on His will and not their own.

The mighty baptism of the Holy Spirit manifested itself with visible signs:  a mighty wind and flames of fire.  These signs were not necessary for the Apostles, as if their wavering faith needed them.  They were meant to console us, because in the foundation of His Church, the Lord confirmed the gift of the Holy Spirit with an extraordinary miracle.  This is further shown by the unique character of this outpouring of the Spirit.  Jesus, after all, had promised that they would be baptized with the Spirit in Jerusalem (Acts 1:5), but this does not mean that it is a regular gift greater than baptism by water.  After all, Peter himself would connect the giving of the Spirit with Baptism explicitly in His Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:38).  Therefore, this baptism of the Spirit marks the beginning of the harvest, and these marvels were signs that the great day of the Lord had come.

Thus filled with the Holy Spirit, they could not help but speak as the Spirit moved them.  Eldad and Medad, filled with the Spirit, prophesied in the camp (Numbers 11:26-30).  Saul also prophesied under the inspiration of the Spirit, to the wonder of those around him (1 Samuel 10:10-13).  Yet in the Old Testament, this was a relatively rare experience, limited in number of people and times.  Now in the beginning of the last days, what was formerly restricted came to be the possession of all people, as testified by the prophecy of Joel which Peter cites (Acts 2:17-21 from Joel 2:28-32).  “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34).  This explicit connection of knowledge to the last days clarifies that prophecy is not exclusively the act of preaching.  Rather, like Agabus in Acts 11:28, the hidden things of God were coming to light.  No longer would these things be heard in the dark (Luke 12:3).

Regarding the tongues they spoke, it is first worth noting that they were intelligible without an interpreter, making them ordinary human languages rather than heavenly ones in need of explanation.  “How is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language” (Acts 2:8)?  Yet the presence of such a sign is not a proof of the Holy Spirit all by itself.  Prophets had and could deceive others while calling on the name of God (Deuteronomy 18:22).  Satan himself can work great signs (Revelation 13:13-14).  Even Paul’s concern for interpreting tongues shows that a man could lovelessly exercise such a gift (1 Corinthians 14:26-33).  Rather, the solid proof of the presence of the Holy Spirit consisted in Peter’s proclamation of Christ and the corresponding reception of that Word unto faith (Acts 2:41).  Together with the Word, therefore, the languages of the Apostles were a tremendous confirmation of the work of God that day.

Finally, the long list of the nations at Pentecost points in every direction.  Parthia, Media, Elam, and Mesopotamia all lie east of Judea, and the Jews who dwelled there largely spoke Aramaic.  Not only was this the first place to which Israel was scattered in the Exile (2 Kings 17), but by the time of the Persian Empire, they dwelled among virtually all the provinces without a great concern for returning back to the promised land (Esther 3:8, among others).  Setting aside Judea, the areas of Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia fall largely to the north, likely speaking forms of Greek.  It is also largely in this area that Paul would later do most of his work.  Egypt and Lybia fall to the south.  Notably, however, Rome is also part of this picture, coming from the west.  It is a major indicator not only of the goal of the whole book of Acts, ending in Rome, but also of the mission of the Church.  It would go out to the Gentiles, even if Peter does not yet fully grasp this as he will in Acts 10.  Yet in this moment, the words of Christ find their fulfillment:  “And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29).

Fourth Sunday in Advent: John 1:19-28

The Apostle John does not hesitate to identify John as a “man sent from God,” “a witness, to bear witness about the light” (John 1:6-8).  John the Baptist always points away from himself toward the coming Christ, and he is fully aware of the nature of his calling.

The priests and Levites are not on a generic mission from Jerusalem.  They want an answer to a very specific question, even if it seems vague:  “Who are you?”  John’s immediate reply, “I am not the Christ,” and their follow up “What then?  Are you Elijah?” demonstrates that they, with the Pharisees, are wondering whether John is the promised Messiah.  They know that Christ is coming, though they mistake the signs and wonder whether John might be the promised one.  Only with John’s repeated denials do they finally ask him directly about his mission.  That the Pharisees know that Christ is coming, however, only highlights their hardness of heart:  “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11).  They knew and expected Him, yet rejected Him when He appeared.

John denies being Elijah, the fulfillment of Malachi 4:5-6, which is intriguing, since Christ Himself makes this identification (Matthew 11:14).  It may be that John, since he is rejecting the false notions of the Pharisees, speaks against their misunderstandings.  The bystanders at the cross purposely distort Jesus’ words, saying “Behold, he is calling Elijah” (Matthew 27:47; Mark 15:35), which suggests that they are expecting Elijah in the flesh to come in a miraculous way.  Jesus, however, connects John the Baptist to his office, and therefore gives us the correct understanding of Malachi’s prophecy.

John also denies being “the Prophet,” a reference to the prophecy of Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15-22.  Moses says that the Lord “will raise up for you a prophet like me,” a qualification that no other Old Testament prophet met, since Moses knew the Lord “face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10-12).  Jesus says of John that “among those born of women none is greater” (Matthew 11:11; Luke 7:28), which implies that John is a greater prophet than Moses.  However, John’s denial here suggests that “the Prophet” is a reference to Christ as the greatest of all the prophets.  If John stands in the office of Elijah, then Christ is the greater Elisha, who worked more miracles than his predecessor and indeed bore a double portion of the Spirit (2 Kings 2:9).

After rejecting their false notions, John identifies himself as “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” a plain reference to Isaiah 40:3.  There, the voice is told to cry out the good news:  “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2).  It is a preparation to the Lord’s declaration in the following chapters that He is the living God, the Help of Israel.  He will not share his glory with empty idols, but He will act when He sends His servant, “my chosen, in whom my soul delights” (Isaiah 42:1).  John’s call for repentance, therefore, includes this positive affirmation by extension:  Turn away from your sins, your false notions, and your idols, and return to the living God, the Fear of Jacob, the Fortress of Israel!  He will not share His glory with another, but He will act when He sends the one whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.

The messengers of the Pharisees again demonstrate the hardness of their hearts by showing that they understand the purpose of Baptism, at least dimly.  If John is not the Christ, Elijah, or the Prophet, then why is he baptizing, since this practice belongs to them (John 1:25)?  This is also shown by some of the Pharisees and Sadducees who tried to be baptized (Matthew 3:7; Luke 3:7).  They recognize that this practice belongs to the coming of Christ, but they have come for the wrong reasons, not by faith, but as if it were based on works (Romans 9:30-33).

John answers them by pointing again to his office and rebuking them for their unbelief.  His baptism, because it would give way to the Sacrament of Baptism (Acts 18:25; 19:1-7), was preparatory and temporary.  It, like John, pointed ahead to the coming of Christ, and it ceased with John’s office when Christ appeared.  However, John’s rebuke that “among you stands one you do not know” shows that the Pharisees, despite knowing the prophecies and knowing that Christ was near, stumbled over the rock of offense.  They knew that Christ was near, and yet seeing, they did not see.  “Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.  None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:6-8).

Holy Trinity Sunday – John 3:1-15

Chapter 3 of John’s gospel is a discourse between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus, identified as a Pharisee and ruler of the Jews, comes to Jesus by night.  It’s possible that Nicodemus is simply being prudent in coming to Jesus after hours so that he can talk to him without the distraction of the crowds. It is more likely that Nicodemus comes by night for fear of the Jews. Driven to curiosity in Jesus by the signs that he performs, Nicodemus nevertheless does not wish his reputation tarnished by associating with Jesus.  That he comes by night is perhaps important that in John the darkness does not comprehend the light which was coming into the world. (John 1:5, 9).

Jesus’ first statement to Nicodemus seems to be an abrupt change in direction, given the first quasi-confession of Nicodemus in verse 2. Jesus gets right to the point. “Amen, Amen I say to you, unless one is born from above he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3).  Apparently Nicodemus forsook the baptism of John, who was preaching and baptizing at Bethany across the Jordan (John 1:19-28). Common translations render the Greek word anothen as “again” but “from above” is probably more the meaning. Clearly Nicodemus understood it the first way from his question about re-entering his mother’s womb. Jesus indicates here a birth which comes from above, but which is also a second birth, a birth by water and the Spirit (John 3:5).

This language concerning birth in reference to salvation is first introduced by the evangelist in chapter one “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13 ESV).  Spiritual birth is thus unilaterally the work of God, and Jesus ties this work of God to the birth of water and the Spirit – Holy Baptism. In the first chapter of Genesis we hear how the Spirit hovered over the face of the waters at creation, a theme picked up by Paul when he speaks of the baptismal life as the new creation (Gal 6:15). Peter also teaches this baptismal rebirth (1 Pt. 1:3, 23).  Paul teaches Titus that we are saved not by works but by the mercy of God, by the “washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit…” (Titus 3:5).  These verses tie water and the Spirit together as the work of God in and for us. The sacramental gift of Baptism which Christ gave the Church after his resurrection ties the believer to his death and resurrection (Col. 2:12, Matt. 28:19).

Nicodemus’s skepticism about rebirth (John 3:9) merits something of a rhetorical rebuke from Jesus “You are teacher of Israel and you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10).  The whole Old Testament speaks of Jesus and his work (John 5:39) but this teacher of the scripture had not the eyes to see it. The “heavenly things” (John 3:12) which Nicodemus does not understand is nothing less than the identity of Jesus, who is not only the key to the interpretation of the Old Testament scriptures, but the name by which all men must be saved (Acts 4:12).

Jesus hearkens back to the book of Numbers to teach about his mission and work (John 3:14). The serpent lifted up in the wilderness saved those who looked at it in faith (Nu 21:8-9.) So also, those who look on the crucified Jesus in faith, those who receive that birth from above in water and the Holy Spirit are spared from eternal death (John 3:15).

This identity of Jesus and his work on the cross are the key to understanding all that Jesus speaks about here in this dialog with Nicodemus. Everything is encapsulated and interpreted through his death on the cross.  Spirit, water, regeneration, rebirth, new creation, Holy Baptism, and the death of Jesus are intimately tied together. One is not to seek one at the expense of, or in lieu of the others. Where Christians have separated them and downplayed the gift of Holy Baptism they have unwittingly downplayed the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. This intimacy of these concepts is not missed by another Pharisee and teacher of the Law, St. Paul.  He beautifully summarizes this teaching of Jesus to the church at Rome:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4 ESV).