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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).

Eleventh Sunday after Trinity: 1 Corinthians 15:1-10

The epistle reading for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity begins one of the most elegant passages of Holy Scripture, because Paul demonstrates that God will certainly raise us from the dead.  Some in the congregation claimed that there was no resurrection, much like the Sadducees (Matthew 22:23; Acts 23:8) or Greeks (Acts 17:32).  Paul goes on to show that if there is no resurrection, then Christ Himself has not been raised from the dead.  If Christ has not been raised, then there is no Christian hope whatsoever.  Jesus Himself proves beyond all doubt that God will raise us up on the Last Day.

This short reading from the beginning of the chapter serves as the preface to this argument.  It is the Gospel which Paul preached to them.  Interestingly, this Gospel appears here as a thing, so to speak.  It is something preached, which means that it can be handed on.  It is something received, which means that it goes from one person to another.  It is something to stand on, which means that it exists as an external hope.  It is something which saves, and who can save themselves even in a worldly sense?  To hold on to this Gospel is to hold on to the Word.  To reject the resurrection is to eviscerate the very Gospel.  Such a denial literally destroys everything in the process.

Paul points to some of the things which he passed on to the Corinthians.  Statements like this occur in other places of Scripture, such as the response for firstfruits in Deuteronomy 26:5-11.  Likewise, telling future generations what the Lord has done in the past carries forward the hope of Israel (Deuteronomy 6:20-25; Psalm 78:4-8).  This is also why Paul emphasizes that these things happened “in accordance with the Scriptures.”  God is faithful in His promises.  As He has done in generations past, so will He do in generations to come.  Past faithfulness proves future promises.

Through Christ would have been vindicated even without appearing to anyone, He appeared to them “by many proofs” following His resurrection in order to strengthen them (Acts 1:3).  Paul does not list all of them here, and the fact that the appearance to the five hundred at once shows up nowhere else in Scripture shows that even the Gospels do not record all of them.  Paul alludes to them for the same reason that the Gospel writers only allude to a few:  they serve a rhetorical point.  Here, after appearing to so many, Jesus also appears to Paul last of all.  He is one “untimely born,” or perhaps stronger, “miscarried,” because prior to his dramatic conversion he persecuted the Church.  Instead of coming to the fullness of time, being born as the others had into the faith, Paul violently rejected Christ, only to be converted through pure grace.  It is likewise only by grace that Paul proclaimed that message, and only in grace can Paul claim to have worked harder than anyone.

Yet whether the Gospel came through those worthy to be called apostles, the ones timely born, or through those unworthy like Paul, it came by grace all the same.  The message of the Gospel does not depend on the messenger, though this does not negate the need for holiness.  Paul boasts in the grace of God, not in his sin, which he recognizes as making him a spiritual miscarriage.  Despite that, the faith remains the same.  Christ has been raised from the dead so that we too will be raised from the dead.  Christ died for our sins so that our sins would not hold us in the grave.  Grace abounds so that God is glorified in all things.

Witnessing to Christ


Jesus says that the fields are ripe for the harvest. How should we work in his harvest fields as good laborers? Join us as we discuss some difficulties in evangelism and how to overcome them in order to extend God’s reign.

Hosts: Rev. Willie Grills and Rev. Zelwyn Heide
Guest: Rev. Adam Koontz
Episode: 11

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Epiphany: Ephesians 3:1-12

Ephesus, like so many of the newly formed congregations in the days of the apostles, struggled with the question of how the Gentiles and Jews, now both Christians, related to one another.  Peter himself received a vision before going to Cornelius that confirmed to him the will of God.  Seeing the Holy Spirit descend on the Gentiles, how could those  who heard his report say anything else other than “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18)?  But though God had clearly revealed his will, old rivalries still remained.

Paul addresses this question by pointing to the Gospel of Christ.  The Lord “predestined us for adoption to Himself as sons through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:5).  Being sons, He also chose us from the foundation of the world to be holy in His sight, not divided according to the fruits of sin, but as one in Christ.  He poured out the Holy Spirit as a “guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (Ephesians 1:14), so that we await the fullness of our redemption.  However, we are no longer divided in the way of the world, but alive and united in Christ.  “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).  Predestination, therefore, is as much about being chosen to believe as it is being chosen to be holy in His sight.

Paul points to his ministry as a proof of all of this.  He is a steward of God’s grace to the Gentiles, that through Christ all who believe have access to the Father.  Jew and Gentile are no longer two, but one in Christ, so that the new man is neither Jew nor Gentile, but Christian.  Yet Paul did not know this “mystery of Christ” except through revelation, much like Peter.  This mystery “was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Ephesians 3:5), a clear testimony that the Lord moves progressively throughout the history of salvation, to His glory.  “For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matthew 13:17).

His ministry, therefore, is not a matter of right, but of grace.  Only through the “working of His power” could Paul, or any man whom the Lord chooses to be a minister, proclaim this great mystery.  “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart” (2 Corinthians 4:1).  Paul regarded himself as the “very least of all the saints” since he had once persecuted the Church (1 Corinthians 15:9), yet the ministry of the Lord is not a matter of right, but of grace.  No man deserves to proclaim the Gospel.  Paul’s sin does not make him uniquely qualified or anything similar, as if greater sins made for greater preachers.  Paul’s sin magnifies his own inadequacy to make the grace of God all the clearer.

All of this “was according to the eternal purpose that He has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ephesians 3:11).  God chose Paul from before the foundation of the world, not only to believe and to be holy in His sight, but also to be one who “turns many to righteousness” (Daniel 12:3).  If faith is through God’s mercy, and the ministry is a matter of mercy, then, as Paul says, those who fulfill this ministry do so according to the will of God (2 Timothy 4:5).  Pastors therefore may be encouraged, knowing the Lord’s will for their lives.

That God places men into the ministry through His own will is not an opportunity for laziness.  The call to preach the Word in season and out of season is not a call to pride.  Such proud and lazy men are “enemies of the cross of Christ,” who “do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites” (Philippians 3:18-19; Romans 16:18).  It also follows that occupying the office of the ministry is no proof that it is the Lord’s will.  “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do” (Matthew 23:2-3).  “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep” (2 Peter 2:1-3).  False prophets and false teachers, though they have all the outward appearance of the office of the ministry, are waterless clouds, swept along by winds (Jude 12-13).  You shall know them by their fruits!

But for the one whom the Lord has chosen and placed into the ministry by grace, Paul calls for him to struggle mightily for the sake of God.  The ministry is not a matter of words, but of power, the transformative power of the Holy Spirit which raises from death to life and sin to holiness.  “Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:14-15).

First Sunday after Christmas: Galatians 4:1-7

Sneaking in behind Paul, certain men troubled the churches of Galatia by asserting that one had to abide by the observances of the old covenant in order to be a Christian. Most noteworthy was the argument that one had to be circumcised, to which Paul alludes in Galatians 5. Such men were persuasive, at least according to human standards, and attacked Paul’s message for being seemingly weak and foolish by comparison (1 Corinthians 2:1-5; Galatians 4:12-16). Had not the Lord Himself commanded circumcision? Why would we not want to obey the Word of the Lord?

However, as Paul argues, they wanted to be “under the law,” so that they would be considered righteous according to the Law. But seeking after a law that would lead to righteousness, they did not attain it, “because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works” (Romans 9:31-32). Christ becomes a stumbling stone for them, because they have fundamentally misunderstood why God gave the Law to them in the first place.

Paul’s dichotomy between law and faith must not be distorted. “Law” as Paul uses it here cannot mean the Law in general, for that would run against passages like Psalm 1:1-2, Psalm 19:7, or even Deuteronomy 30:11. Paul contrasts the “law”—being perfected by the flesh, desiring to be righteous according to works—with “faith”—being perfected by the Spirit, being righteous through Christ. The Law in general, the will of God, is not at variance with faith (Romans 3:31). It is the distortion of the Law, made into something apart from Christ, that Paul condemns in the strongest terms throughout his letters.

But these Judaizers have misunderstood the purpose of the ceremonies attached to the Law. They insisted on the observance of circumcision, because they regarded it as identical with the substance of the Law. Why, then, would it pass away, if God’s will does not change? But “these are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:17; Hebrews 10:1-4). Circumcision was a part of the guardianship of Sinai, not the means of righteousness. The ceremonies attached to the Law pointed toward the coming righteousness by faith, and therefore, properly understood, are expressions of the Gospel. Once Christ came, their purpose came to an end, and the school of Moses was no longer in session (Galatians 3:24). Paul’s opponents, distorting their purpose and mistaking their substance, regarded them as part and parcel of righteousness, which not incidentally left no room for Christ.

In the reading for the First Sunday after Christmas, Paul is therefore using the imagery of an inheritance. The Lord had made a promise of an inheritance to Abraham, something that could not be annulled by Moses 430 years later (Galatians 3:15-18). Moses had not meant to annul it, of course, but regarding the shadow as the light, as the Judaizers had done, makes one forget about the earlier promise. According to that promise made to Abraham, to which the ceremonies of Moses pointed, “in Christ Jesus, you are all sons of God, through faith” (Galatians 3:26).

Therefore, Israel is likened to a child, the heir of the promised inheritance. Moses served as the guardian of this child, teaching him through the ceremonies attached to the Law, until the time appointed by the Father. In other words, the Church has matured into adulthood with the coming of Christ. Such an image of Israel maturing from infancy into adulthood finds parallels in other passages, especially Ezekiel 16, where the Lord compares her to an exposed child on whom He took pity. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1). This not only shows that God frequently treats a people as one man (or in this case, woman, His bride), but it also shows that there is a progression in God’s revelation and God’s manner of interacting with His people. The ceremonies of the Old Testament belonged to the childhood of the Church, but now with the coming of Christ, she has reached maturity and has put away childish ways (1 Corinthians 13:11).

This is not to disparage the ceremonies of the old covenant! The pedagogy of childhood is not useless by any means. Through such discipline, the son becomes a man. But the one who seeks to remain in childhood, so to speak, is not praiseworthy, but missing the point of his guardianship. The Judaizers sought to hold on to the discipline of infancy, mistaking it for the substance of manhood. Circumcision pointed to the coming promise, the maturity of faith in Christ, and with the coming of Christ, the guardianship came to an end.

But what of those who were not under the guardianship, the Gentiles? What of those who did not have Moses in their infancy, so to speak? We too had a childhood as a people, enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. The child under guardianship is akin to a slave, in that he must serve the will of another, despite being the master of the estate. But God sent Christ into the world as one of us, “born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). The Gentiles have been made to be sons, even though our guardianship was not under Moses, through Christ by faith. The adopted son and the natural son are not two, but one (Ephesians 2:11-22), and therefore both are heirs through faith in Christ.

Therefore, as Paul continues to say in the remainder of Galatians, there is no need for the adopted son to become as a child again, even though his guardianship was not under Moses. Such a reversion would be tantamount to crucifying the Lord of Glory all over again. Requiring the Gentile adopted son to be circumcised makes the ceremony itself into righteousness, and thus makes righteousness a matter of the flesh. Only by becoming a Jew could a Gentile be saved in such a way. However, as Paul says: “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. His praise is not from man but from God” (Romans 2:28-29).