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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.

The Majesty of God (Psalm 8)

Glory, majesty, power, dominion—all words used to describe the Lord and His perfect reign on earth. Yet God’s ways are not our ways, and the wisdom of God is foolishness to men (Isaiah 55:8-9; 1 Corinthians 1:20-25). God’s majesty and glory display themselves in unexpected ways. This reality prompts two important questions for the Christian. How and why does the Master of the whole creation take notice of such seemingly insignificant creatures as we? Why do the words of God and our present reality not seem to match up with each other? David addresses both these questions in Psalm 8.

This short psalm is unique in being entirely a direct address to the Lord. While other psalms certainly address God directly, they also speak directly to other men, whether calling on the congregation to praise the Lord for what He has done, calling on the Lord’s enemies to repent, or for some other reason. Therefore, Psalm 8 has the characteristics of a hymn, down to the repetition of the opening at the end as well as its three-part structure.

The very first word of the psalm proper is the divine name: “O Lord, our Lord,” or perhaps more to the point “O Jehovah, our Lord.” By opening and closing this psalm with God’s revealed name, David centers the answers to his questions in that name. God’s name is more than just a way to distinguish Him from others. God’s name expresses both who He is and what He has done. “Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon His name; make known His deeds among the peoples” (Psalm 105:1)! God’s name has the power to save (Acts 4:12).

This name is “majestic” in “all the earth.” The creation itself bears witness to the works of God. Even Paul’s point that God’s perfect witness in the world leaves all without excuse (Romans 1:20) demonstrates that His majesty is not limited to believers. His specific glory is the redemption of His people, but His general glory also flows forth from His work of creation. The world endures because God reigns over it (Psalm 65:9-13). God’s glory, which can also be rendered “cloak” as in 1 Kings 19:13, envelopes everything, even the mighty heavens.

Yet, in the first section of the psalm, David clarifies that this glory does not express itself in expected ways. Though we might associate glory and power with human strength, God casts down the mighty and exalts the lowly. “Out of the mouth of children and infants you have established strength” (Psalm 8:3). Jesus rebukes the chief priests and the scribes with this verse, since they regarded the praise of children as shameful. Having worldly significance means nothing in the eyes of God (1 Samuel 16:7). The strength of children comes from having the name of God on their lips, even when it is lisped or stammered.

This reversal prompts another important question in the second section and which is the key question of the entire psalm. David is evidently out under the night sky, since he mentions the moon and the stars and omits any mention of the sun. Few sights in this creation as the glory of the night sky have the ability to make men feel so small and insignificant. The numberless stars, the brightness of the moon, the limitless arm of our galaxy—all make us ask an important question: “what is mankind that you remember him, and the son of man that you visit him” (Psalm 8:5)?

It is impossible to interpret this Psalm correctly without noting Paul’s words in Hebrews 2:5-9, where he identifies the son of man with the Son of Man, Jesus Christ. Yet I think it is important to note that while this psalm applies specifically to Christ, it also applies generally to the sons of men (a title also applied to Ezekiel in Ezekiel 2:1, etc). In fact, it is the transition from the general application regarding men in general to the specific application in Christ that answers the questions laid out by the Psalm.

Applied generally, then, the third section of this psalm describes the uniqueness of mankind with respect to the rest of creation. Man’s physical insignificance in the face of all that the Lord has created is offset by the Lord’s care and concern for Him. Because of God and God alone, man is what he is. The dominion given in creation does not belong to Adam because of something within him, but stems from God alone (Genesis 1:28). As the child whispering the name of God is stronger than the wicked man in all his worldly strength, so the importance of man stems from God’s words alone. God’s name from beginning to end makes us who we are, even as human beings.

Yet this is precisely the point where the other question comes into the forefront. Judging by our present reality, we no longer exercise the dominion given to Adam, or at least in an extremely fractured way. “Is the wild ox willing to serve you” (Job 39:9-12)? “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook or press down his tongue with a cord” (Job 41)? Our present reality of sin shows that Psalm 8 is not a song of human triumph. The disparity between its words and our current mourning shows that it must look forward to something else.

This is why Hebrews 2 is so important for interpretation. Christ, the Son of Man, has been made a little lower than the angels. His dominion also awaits its completion, since “we do not yet see everything in subjection to Him” (Hebrews 2:8). But it is in Christ that we see the fulfillment. Jesus is man in the way that man is supposed to be. Adam was created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), but Christ is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15). Adam exercised dominion under God (Genesis 1:28), but Christ has dominion under the Father (1 Corinthians 15:24-27). In God and God alone, man finds the full expression of who he is as God’s creation.

Therefore, Psalm 8 is not a glorification of man, but of God. Though man seems childish and insignificant in comparison with God’s creation, Christ proves to us that God cares for us. The cross, foolish in the eyes of the world, is God’s visitation among men and the proof that we are His chief concern. Even if our lives seem small and unimportant, we bear the name of God. Bearing that name will mean bearing a cross, so that our experience will be one of weakness and seemingly contrary to God’s promises. Yet as God says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

The New Man


On this episode we discuss the third of the four states of man: man in Christ. This condition is common to every Christian as we strive to put off the old man and put on the new. Join us to listen to how Christ manifests the true image of the Father and how we are conformed to His image.

Hosts: Rev. Willie Grills and Rev. Zelwyn Heide
Guest: Rev. David Appold
Episode: 12

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The King of Zion (Psalm 2)

The sovereignty and lordship of God forms the backbone of the entire Psalter.  In the midst of the troubles and uncertainties of life, the Lord reigns as king.  When the righteous seek after God and pray to Him knowing that He will hear, the Lord reigns as king.  No matter the circumstances, the Lord remains firmly in control of all things.  Psalm 2, therefore, may be considered as a second introduction to the whole book, because it powerfully introduces this recurring and important theme.

This Psalm may be divided into four sections with three verses each.  In such a division, the Psalm moves in a clear thought pattern:  (1) the nations conspire against the Lord and His anointed king; (2) the Lord establishes this king nevertheless; (3) this king reigns victorious over his enemies; and (4) the nations should repent and submit to the king.  This pattern also gravitates toward the middle, where the focus is on the coronation.  The Lord establishes the reign of this king, and he reigns triumphant for this reason.

In the first section, therefore, the Psalmist describes the conspiracy of the nations.  They are “restless,” a word used only here in the Old Testament, and the peoples “plot in vain.”  As noted in the study on Psalm 1, this word translated as “plot” means something like “muttering.”  The righteous man in Psalm 1 mutters the Word as he focuses on it.  The wicked here mutter among themselves as they seek to cast off this king from ruling over them.  Yet they are not merely muttering against the Lord’s anointed king, but also against the Lord Himself.  As Moses told the Israelites who complained:  “Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord” (Exodus 16:8).  To grumble against those whom the Lord establishes is to also grumble against the Lord who established them in the first place.

However, the Lord responds to their muttering with laughter.  This is not the laughter of happiness, but the laughter of derision.  The Lord laughs at the wicked who conspire against Him because they imagine that they can actually fight against what the Lord establishes.  In His burning anger, the Lord will make the conspirators flee in a panic.  They will not be able to accomplish what they desire, because what the Lord causes to happen will happen without question.  The Lord sets His king, more literally “pours out,” likely in an act of consecration.  Zion, the holy hill of the temple, also shows that this consecration is not merely a worldly event.  The Lord establishes this king in the very place of His presence, for Zion is holy because the Lord is there.

Out of all of the sections of this Psalm, the third section most clearly reveals the identity of this king.  The Lord says to this king, “You are My son, this day I have fathered you.”  Few other Psalms are quoted as often as this one in the New Testament.  It is cited directly in Acts 13:33, Hebrews 1:5, and 5:5, all in reference to Christ.  The Gospel writers also allude to it at key moments within the earthly ministry of Christ, notably His Baptism (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22) and His Transfiguration (Matthew 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35).  Jesus reigns as king in Zion even in the midst of His enemies, all of whom will finally be placed under His feet.  His judgment against them means the destruction of those who oppose Him, shattering them like a pot.  Every knee will bow at the name of Jesus (Philippians 2:10-11), whether to their shame or to their joy.  Establishing the kingdom of God is as much about extending who belongs to that kingdom as rendering justice on those who do not.

Additionally, the promise of the nations as inheritance and the “ends of the earth” as property show that this is not an ordinary king.  Even apart from the clear testimony of the New Testament, this passage alone shows that a greater than Solomon is here.  Solomon’s kingdom had definite, if expansive, borders (1 Kings 4:21).  He ruled over the earthly kingdom in its greatest extent, but even he could not claim to rule over all the nations.  This is not hyperbole, either.  Christ reigns and will reign over all the nations of the earth, because He is the King of Kings without peer or rival.

The final section of the Psalm exhorts the same nations to submit to the king.  Kings and judges of the earth, the heads of the nations, should gain insight.  “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Proverbs 9:10).  Serving this king means walking in the way of the Lord.  Yet this service and joy comes with fear and trembling, because the fear of the Lord means fearing Him who can cast both body and soul into hell (Matthew 10:28).  Christ will return as judge, and the coming wrath means that the wicked will perish.  But Christ is also our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Those who fear Him as their King fear no man because Jesus is their Savior.

Christians can pray this Psalm confidently as a testimony to the kingship of God.  Even when the enemies of God seek to overwhelm, they are not able to overturn anything which the Lord does.  Further, just as this Psalm centers on the coronation of the king, so also the coronation of Christ, so prominent a theme in the New Testament, comforts us.  His reign as king means not only that He is in control, but also that there will be justice for His people.

Palm Sunday: Philippians 2:5-11

Philippi brought much joy through much sorrow to Paul.  While it seems that Paul passed through this Macedonian city on several occasions, on his first visit, he proclaimed the Gospel to the wealthy Lydia, who was baptized with her whole household (Acts 16:11-15).  Yet this joyful event soon met with trouble, for when Paul exorcised the demon possessing a slave girl, he and Silas suffered at the hands of Gentiles and were thrown into prison (Acts 16:16-24).  Even here, however, in the midst of suffering within the prison, the Lord in His providence brought the jailer to faith.  After he and his household were baptized, Paul and Silas left the city (Acts 16:25-40).

Years later, however, when Paul had been imprisoned, the saints at Philippi, who may have still included those who first believed when Paul was in the city, sent him a gift by the hand of Epaphroditus (Philippians 4:14-20).  Having heard of Paul’s situation, they sought to do what they could to support him, even though they could not free him.  Such a gift, as Paul said, was not as important in terms of the gift itself.  After all, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13), by which Paul means that no matter the circumstances—poor or rich, hungry or sated, and so forth—Christ remains as our goal.  But the “fruit that increases to your credit” is a “fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God,” because the gift is a sign of the living faith that sent it. Paul desired that that gift—the faith which they had—would abound more and more, and this is the primary concern of his letter.

The primary concern for Paul seems to be disunity or at least the potential for disunity within the Philippian church.  Paul, after all, calls for them to “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2).  The letter, however, exudes joy and rejoicing, and there is no clear indication of a clear rebuke as in his other letters.  His exhortation to unity, therefore, seems to be one applicable to the Church in every situation rather than in explicit division.  To be a part of the Church is to have the mind of Christ, and such a mind exhibits itself in Spirit-given unity.

Paul presents Christ as a clear example to the Philippians for imitation.  Christ, who “was in the form of God,” emptied himself and became like one of us when He was born of the Virgin Mary.  He who had far more right than any of us for being exalted above others, since He is God Himself, chose instead to lower Himself for us men and for our salvation.  Because of this, the Father now exalts His name far above all names, because Christ won our salvation.

One thing that I think we need to be careful about, however, is how we understand Christ’s obedience and humbling.  Obedience is not the same thing as being a push-over.  Conformity to the will of God does not mean obliterating our will and filling it with the will of God.  Obedience to God for us means a renewal of the will.  Christ was not an automaton, but the perfectly willing Son of the Father, because they were of one mind.  If we understand Christ’s humility as getting pushed around, then many of His actions, like entering Jerusalem publicly as a king, make no sense.  But when we understand the humility of Christ as part of His willing obedience to the will of the Father, then there is no contradiction.  Christ is the King who desires to take up the cross, because it is the will of God to redeem man through the Lamb of God.

Christians should not interpret being of one mind, therefore, as meaning self-obliteration either.  Rather, conformity to the will of God means that the whole man, including the will, follows after Christ.  The righteous man desires what God desires, because he walks the same way that God is walking.  Therefore, the whole Church also has one mind in Christ Jesus, because she desires what her Lord desires.

Third Sunday in Lent: Ephesians 5:1-9

Paul exhorts the Ephesians to “be imitators of God” and to “walk in love,” because that is fitting for those who are beloved children of the Lord.  Christ first loved us and offered Himself up on our behalf, “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2).  Yet as Christ Himself is a pleasing odor, so also Christians, being in Christ, are called to be a pleasing aroma to God.  This seems to be the guiding thought behind the epistle lesson for today.

Following the flood, Noah offered up some of every clean animal which was with him on the ark, and “when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma,” He inwardly promises never to curse the ground again on account of sin (Genesis 8:21-22).  Yet the odor of sacrifice is not pleasing for its own sake.  “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them” (Amos 5:21-24).  “Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me” (Isaiah 1:11-15).  For the smell to be pleasing to the Lord, the one offering it must be acceptible in His sight, fit for His worship.  Christ alone is without any blemish or spot, the perfect lamb offered up to the Father for the sake of sinful men.  Christians, then, being in Christ, have been made fit for His worship, clean in His sight, through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The burnt offerings of Leviticus 1 waft up a pleasing aroma to the Lord, but the shedding of blood points to the sacrifice of Christ (Hebrews 10).  Such an aroma properly belongs to Christ alone, since through Christ we have been reconciled to God.  The grain offerings of Leviticus 2, on the other hand, also waft up a pleasing aroma to the Lord, but for a different reason.  Grain offerings involve no shedding of blood, and therefore are not meant as forgiveness, but rather as thanksgiving.  Only one who has already been made fit for the worship of God, ceremonially clean, is able to offer such a sacrifice to Him.

Salt formed an important part of such sacrifices.  Leviticus 2:13 states that “you shall season all your grain offerings with salt.  You shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be missing from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.”  Within the context of the New Testament, therefore, salt shows the purpose of grain offerings within the Christian life.  Christ tells us to “have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another” (Mark 9:50).  Paul also exhorts the Colossians to “let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6).  If our speech and conduct is to be salted, then they form our spiritual sacrifice to the Lord, which Pauls says in Romans 12:1 and Peter says in 1 Peter 2:5.

If our speech and conduct are the substance of our spiritual sacrifice to the Lord, then it also follows that such sacrifice, like the sacrifices of old, should be without blemish or spot.  Offering lame or blind or sick animals, for example, is offensive to God (Malachi 1:8).  More specifically with regard to grain offerings, leaven or honey rendered them unfit (Leviticus 2:11).  A little leaven, after all, leavens the whole lump (Galatians 5:9; see also 1 Corinthians 5:6-8).

Participating in sin blemishes the spiritual sacrifice and renders it unfit for God.  Yet Paul emphasizes that even speaking of such things are not fitting for a Christian for the same reason.  Paul rebukes such things, as is fitting, but to season our spiritual sacrifice with leaven is decidedly dangerous.  Leaven, having leavened the whole lump, renders one not only unfit for worship, but outside of the inheritance altogether.  To use a different metaphor, it is far better to resist sin being planted in the first place than to attempt to cut down the plant when it is in full bloom!

It must be remembered, of course, that even within the context of the old sacrificial system, only those who have been made fit for the worship of God were able to come into His presence.  Christ offered Himself up for us and made us to be His own through the shedding of His blood.  The Holy Spirit changes our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.  Only through the working of the Holy Spirit are we able to resist sin at all.  Yet seasoning our sacrifice with yeast rather than salt seems tantamount to tempting the Holy Spirit.  Paul says later in this chapter:  “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.  For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret” (Ephesians 5:11-12).  Speaking of such things in a way that does not rebuke them as darkness is akin to participating in them.  “For what fellowship has light with darkness” (2 Corinthians 6:14-16)?  Christians must resist the temptation of sin even in its earliest stages, because Christ has made us to be His own, even while we were still His enemies.

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).

Second Sunday in Advent: Luke 21:25-36

How beautiful were the stones of the mighty temple!  The work of forty-six years, the product of the rich offerings of so many (Luke 21:1)!  Yet all this, spectacular as it was, would be thrown down.  “The days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Luke 21:6).  Jesus’ words struck a nerve.  When will these things happen?

Jesus, in true prophetic fashion, points to several things at once.  The closest, of course, was the destruction of the temple at the hands of the Romans in 70 A.D., and so thorough was their work that this temple no longer stands.  This judgment fell upon the Jews, who were partially hardened through faithlessness (Romans 11:25) and also for crucifying the Lord of glory (Acts 2:36; 1 Corinthians 2:8).  This hardening can also be seen here in Jesus’ own words, since those who faithfully persevered would be delivered up also to “synagogues” (Luke 21:12), Israel according to the spirit persecuted by Israel according to the flesh.

But this destruction of Jerusalem is a sign of the far greater judgment.  Israel is judged for a time, until the fullness of the Gentiles comes in, at which point her partial hardness will be healed.  But the judgment coming upon the world is like the days of Noah (Luke 17:26-27).  They were hardened for a judgment they could not escape, and only through the mercy of the Lord were Noah and his immediate family delivered.  It is worth noting that, in Genesis, (1) out of all of the sons and daughters of the line of Adam to Noah, only Noah and his family were spared.  So many descendants of the great patriarchs, and yet so few were saved.  When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith in the earth (Luke 18:8)?  (2) God’s mercy is further emphasized by the wickedness of Ham toward his father Noah (Genesis 9:18-29).  There will be no such mercy in the coming judgment, for then wickedness will have no place to run.  God’s patience, shown even to Ham in the flood, will finally come to an end.

The signs Christ gives for the coming of the end are somewhat and intentionally vague, which only emphasizes His primary message of watchfulness.  A call to watch for one specific sign ironically leads to laxity, because then all else is excluded.  But a call to watch for a specific event preceded by a wide range of signs increases vigilance.  The fig tree puts out its leaves as a sign of the approaching heat.  It is one sign among many, and not the only sign.

Even so, the signs to which Christ points are unique enough that they are likely closer to the end rather than a continual series throughout history.  It is true that wars and rumors of wars are continual and signs of the end.  But the “distress of nations in perplexity” here seems to be a distress brought about by the intensity and the unmistakable character of these signs.  The shaking of the heavens, the roaring of the seas, the signs in heaven and earth–all of these things point to the “Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27).  Further, this distress among sinners arises from their being unprepared.  There will be no “last minute conversions” when Christ descends in majesty to judge the living and the dead.  The sight of Christ returning is the final proof that the time of grace is at an end.

Those who are vigilant, not weighed down with drunkenness and debauchery, will find that day to be an everlasting joy.  For while the sight of Christ’s majesty is the first glimpse of the everlasting judgment for the reprobate, Christ Himself will be the herald of the coming joy for the faithful.  They, like the faithless, must stand before the judgment seat, and Christ commands us to pray for the strength to stand before Him on that day (Luke 21:36).  But it is the same strength which bears them up in the midst of persecution.  “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives” (Luke 21:16-19).  Our endurance in the face of persecution is Christ, and our defense before the judgment seat is also Christ.

As a final note, Christ says quite clearly that “this generation will not pass away until all has taken place” (Luke 21:32).  The following verse that “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” serve as a confirmation of this.  But they also, I think, clarify what He means.  Heaven and earth passing away, a clear reference to the end, seem to suggest that it will happen within the bounds of “this generation.”  Generation, therefore, here seems to be broader than how we might typically use it.  In an earlier passage of Luke, Christ says that the queen of Sheba and the men of Ninevah will rise up at the judgment “with this generation” and condemn it for its faithlessness (Luke 11:29-32).  Perhaps, then, as the faithless “generation” died in the wilderness, this faithless generation will also perish in the wilderness.  But as the children of the old generation entered the promised land, so also will the next generation, one man out of two, be healed and enter into the great Sabbath rest.

Second Sunday in Advent: Romans 15:4-13

Paul addresses the divided Roman congregation and exhorts the strong to bear with the weak.  The temptation in conflict is to seek vindication, especially at the expense of the other.  Note, however, that Paul does not say that each is equally right or valid.  “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up” (Romans 15:2).  We bear with the weaker brother with the aim of building him up, so that he will no longer be weak.  Knowing who is in the right is a matter of knowing the mind of Christ through the Holy Spirit, of course, but even being in the right is not a license for arrogance, which was the whole problem.

Christ Himself, the strongest of all because of His sinlessness, bore with our weaknesses, even to the point of taking our guilt upon Himself.  Imitating Christ, therefore, calls for us to welcome the weaker brother with the aim of raising him toward a still more excellent way, just as the Holy Spirit raises us up out of darkness into light.  Arrogance gets this relationship exactly backwards, as if Christ would have nothing to do with us because of our weakness, when in fact we needed Him the most for that very reason.

Paul points here to the Scriptures as a means of building us up.  As he said also to the Corinthians, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11).  The judgments of old, in this case upon those in the wilderness, served as a disciplinary example for them, but we in these last days learn from them.  The unbreakable Scriptures, as the living voice of the Holy Spirit, strengthen us and build us up, making us one people.  In the Lord is unity and harmony, something which the Romans were sorely lacking.  Heeding the voice of God in the Holy Scriptures and learning from them is the way out of this sinful impasse.

Paul continues with a few Biblical citations in order to prove his point in another way.  Christ the Master became a “servant to the circumcised” to show that God was not lying when He made His promises to the patriarchs.  More than this, by going to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 10:6; 15:24), He was “found by those who did not seek me” (Romans 11:20, citing Isaiah 65:1).  The Strong Man bore with the weak, so that the Gentiles too might praise Him for His mercy.

Since this passage falls within the wider section of Paul’s exhortation, beginning in Romans 12, his point is clear.  Bear with one another’s failings as Christ bore with yours.  Build up one another as Christ has built you up.  Love one another as Christ has loved you.  Turn to the Holy Scriptures and learn from the living Spirit, so that “by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13).  There is no room for boasting or arrogance, nor is it love to assert that there is no weakness.  But imitate Christ, so that you will have “all joy and peace in believing.”

Last Sunday of the Church Year: Isaiah 65:17-25

What image comes to mind when thinking of the life to come?  In the language of the New Testament, the new heavens and the new earth are frequently described as a feast or a perfect city.  This imagery can also be found in the Old Testament, such as the vision of the temple in Ezekiel.  However, this language of feasting and bridegrooms and cities tends to color our understanding.

More often in the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit describes the life to come in terms of unimaginable fruitfulness.  The blessings of this life will be magnified beyond our ability to comprehend them in our current state.  Moses clearly set before the eyes of Israel the blessings which came with obedience in Deuteronomy 28.  Fruitfulness in the field, fruitfulness in the pasture, fruitfulness in the home (which translates to the blessing of many children), all of these things come for those who follow after the Lord faithfully.  This should not be perverted into a prosperity gospel, as if the Lord is just waiting to make us rich when we choose.  Israel at no point in her history came close to this kind of obedience to the will of God.  Rather, Moses shows the source of the imagery in Isaiah:  fruitfulness is the language of blessing and perfection in the Old Testament.

Paul refers to the beginning of this section in his discussion of the hardening of Israel in Romans 10. The Lord seeks out a nation which did not seek him, which is to say, the Gentiles (Isaiah 65:1). Israel provokes Him because of the hardness of her heart. Therefore, judgment must come upon Israel. “I will not keep silent, but I will repay” says the Lord (Isaiah 65:6). The partial hardening has come upon Israel so that the Gospel may go forth to bring in the fullness of the nations.  Judgment must come upon those who have rejected the Lord, even though they be His own chosen people. But God has not failed in His promises.

This, then, is Isaiah’s point when discussing the great Day when Christ returns in glory to bring about the new heavens and the new earth.  The judgment upon His people will come to an end. “I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness.  I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people” (Isaiah 65:18-19).  All of the former things, those things which separated Israel, will pass away and be no more.  There shall finally be one flock, one Shepherd.

When Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, the partial shall give way to the fullness. There will be unimaginable fruitfulness in an unending joy. Isaiah 65:20 should be understood in this light.  Isaiah does not mean to say that death will remain in the life to come, but rather this fruitfulness will translate also into life.  Where we suffer the pain of miscarriage and infant mortality, then this evil will be no more.  Where we struggle to live to a hundred years, then it will be thought odd should a man die so young!  But as Revelation 21:4 makes clear, death shall be no more in that day.

They will build and inhabit their houses.  They will plant and enjoy their vineyards.  Those things which others had taken away in this life shall be theirs forever.  The Lord will execute judgment on those who afflicted them (Ezekiel 28:25-26).  His people will have justice and vengeance upon their enemies, and the Lord shall be in their midst.  “Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear” (Isaiah 65:24).

Is this language only poetic?  I do not think so.  On the one hand, it is written for a people who have been exiled and are lamenting the loss of their home.  The Lord had placed them in that land, after all, so the grief is particularly strong.  Also, because the imagery shifts, especially moving forward into the New Testament, it should not be interpreted in a literalistic way.  One would have to assume that death was part of the new heavens and the new earth if that was the case!

On the other hand, Isaiah presents a picture of the life to come in all of its glory.  No longer shall there be a curse.  No longer shall there be division and unfaithfulness among His people.  No longer shall foreigners occupy the land of promise.  The Lord will be among His people in glory and majesty.  Adam worked in the garden before the fall into sin.  Laboring in vain is part of the curse, not laboring in itself.  It may be that we will find a new labor, receiving from the hand of God those tremendous blessings which sin has destroyed in this life.  But whatever the reality will be, it does not change that Christ will reign triumphant over sin and death, rendering judgment on His enemies.