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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).

Hardening of the Conscience


This one’s packed, as we discuss conscience and hardness of heart. What is the human conscience? How does it work? And what does it have to do with hardening? What about Biblical examples like Pharaoh and King Saul? How does hardening of conscience work out in our day and age? We’re only just scratching the surface of some major topics this week on WFS.

Hosts: Rev. Willie Grills and Rev. Zelwyn Heide
Regular Guest: Rev. David Appold
Episode: 41

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Trinity Sunday: Romans 11:33-36

The epistle reading for Trinity Sunday begins with the conclusion. Romans 11:33-36 forms the concluding thought of the section beginning in Romans 9. Liturgically speaking, the emphasis is on the nature and attributes of God, which come into focus on Trinity Sunday. However, understanding Paul’s point here means first having a clearer picture of the context.

Why did some out of Israel believe while many continued to reject the Gospel? Paul addresses this very question throughout Romans 9-11. They had the promises and were sons of Israel according to the flesh. If anyone on earth should have believed, it was them, yet they rejected Christ. Had the promise failed? Was the Word of God null and void? Of course not! “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Romans 9:6). Being one of the sons of Israel is a matter of faith, not flesh.

Yet if it is a matter of faith, then God, and not man, makes one a part of the great congregation. “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion. So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:15-16). It is God’s action, not ours, that creates faith. It is God’s action, not ours, that sustains faith. God freely elects, freely chooses, those who belong to Him. Salvation is of the Lord from beginning to end, apart from any human considerations.

However, the Gentiles, who did not have the promise, have come to believe in the promise. “What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works” (Romans 9:30-32). The Gentiles have been grafted into the living tree.

Israel has been hardened because of sin. Their hardening means that the Gospel goes out to the Gentiles (Romans 11:25). Israel stumbles in sin so that the Gentiles would be brought in. Paul himself rebuked the Jews for the hardness of heart, saying “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46; see also Acts 18:6). Through God’s perfect Providence, the evil of Israel’s sin turns into a great good for the Gentiles, because now they hear the preaching of the Gospel.

Yet the mercy shown to the Gentiles is meant to call Israel back from their hardening. “They too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy” (Acts 11:31). Israel according to the flesh becomes jealous when strangers occupy their promised inheritance. Because of their jealousy, they will turn from their wickedness and seek after the promise according to faith, called from death back to life.

Paul’s conclusion, the reading for Trinity, therefore emphasizes the glory and the mystery of God’s providence in the world. God controls all things, and this perfect control also means that He uses what are dark and mysterious paths to us to accomplish His goals. What men mean for evil, God intends for good, bringing about the salvation of His elect without fail. Even though Israel stumbles from their own sin, God intends it to be salvation for the Gentiles. Even though the Gentiles walked in darkness from their own sin, God intends it to be salvation for the Jews. “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To be Him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36)!

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).

Twelfth Sunday after Trinity: Isaiah 29:17-24

Distress and judgment shall come upon Jerusalem!  Isaiah says very clearly that foreign armies will surround the city and bring it down to the ground.  “And you will be brought low; from the earth you shall speak, and from the dust your speech will be bowed down” (Isaiah 29:4).  Yet this judgment will be swift and intense.  Isaiah compares the coming of these armies to “fine dust” and “passing chaff” (Isaiah 29:5).  They “shall be like a dream, a vision of the night” (Isaiah 29:7).  The fire of the Lord descending upon Jerusalem shall come quickly and pass by so quickly that there will be no time to prepare.

However, a yet greater judgment than this is poured out upon Israel.  The Lord is hardening their hearts because of their sins.  They will be blind, drunk without drinking wine, and asleep (Isaiah 29:9-10).  This is the Lord’s judgment upon a sinful and rebellious people, lest they turn and see and be healed (Isaiah 6:10).  Paul cites this verse in Romans 11:8 as evidence that the Lord will bring about a great wonder through this hardening.  Israel will stumble so that the nations may be brought in.  Everything will be turned right-side up.  Even the “spirit of deep sleep” in Isaiah 29:10 points to this, because it is the same sleep God poured out on Adam (Genesis 2:21), on Abraham (Genesis 15:12), and on Saul and his army (1 Samuel 26:12).  It is a sleep which marks a great turning point in the history of God’s salvation.

But Israel cannot see this for what it is.  They are like men attempting to read a sealed book or illiterate men who cannot read it at all (Isaiah 29:11-12).  Jesus cites Isaiah 29:13 against the Pharisees in Matthew 15:8-9, because the hardness of the hearts leads them, as it did their fathers, to honor God only in words and not with their heart.  Therefore, the Lord will “again do wonderful things with this people” (Isaiah 29:14) who He once delivered from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm (Deuteronomy 4:34).  He will turn things upside down in His almighty power.  As Paul says when he cites Isaiah 29:14 in 1 Corinthians 1:19, “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men,” a reversal which finds its fullest expression in Christ crucified, the stumbling block of the Jews.

Yet this is a stumbling block because the clay desires to say that it is not made by the potter or that the potter lacks understanding (Isaiah 29:16).  Why should God upset everything in this way?  Why should Jerusalem, the city of God’s favor (1 Kings 11:36), be cast down?  “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God” (Romans 9:20)?  God will do as He pleases for His own purposes, hardening Israel to bring in the fullness of the Gentiles.  “How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways” (Romans 11:33)!

Therefore, the lectionary reading for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity describes this reversal which is meant to make Israel jealous (Deuteronomy 32:19-22).  Lebanon, noted for its forests throughout Scripture (Judges 9:15; 1 Kings 4:33; 5:6; 7:2; etc.), will be reduced to a field, perhaps an orchard.  But the fruitful field will be regarded as a mighty forest.  Those who are deaf shall hear.  Those who are blind shall see.  The ruthless will come to nothing.  Those who watch to do evil will be cut off.  “Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, ‘I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.’ But of Israel he says, ‘All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people’” (Romans 10:20-21).

Jacob will then see his children in his midst, the children of the promise, because “it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7).  His jealousy for the Lord will lead to a real change of heart.  Those who have gone astray will understand and those who murmur against God will accept His instruction (Isaiah 29:24).  No longer will stumble over the cornerstone Christ, but they will believe in Him and be grafted in again to their own natural tree.  The sons of Levi will be purified, and they will offer up a sacrifice in righteousness (Malachi 3:3), living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God (Romans 12:1).