Prophets, Signs, and Obedience

The prophets of old were mouthpieces of the Lord. Besides their words, their lives were also caught up in that calling, even when the Lord commanded them to do some unusual things. What would compel a man to marry a prostitute, to walk about naked for 3 years, to wear stocks around his own neck, and to eat bread baked over dung? What do any of these things have to do with the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ? And do these rather odd examples apply to the life of the Church? Join us for all this and more on this week’s episode.

Hosts: Rev. Willie Grills and Rev. Zelwyn Heide
Regular Guest: Rev. David Appold
Episode: 36

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First Sunday after Christmas: Luke 2:33-40

Leviticus 12 outlines the ritual of purification, which differs between a male and a female child, as well as making provisions for poverty. Immediately following the birth is a period of ritual impurity, identical in length to her regular menstrual impurity (Leviticus 15:19). Since childbirth is therefore connected to a general emission of blood, the purpose of such purification is to “keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst” (Leviticus 15:31). A woman could not approach the holy things of God “nor come into the sanctuary” (Leviticus 12:4). The Lord’s blessing of fruitfulness in the original creation (Genesis 1:28) as well as the promised blessings of fruitfulness (as in Deuteronomy 28:11) show that childbirth itself was not sinful. Rather, the shedding of blood involved in bearing a child made her ritually impure, as Leviticus 12:7 implies: “then she shall be clean from the flow of her blood.”

In the case of a male child, her normal period of uncleanness, seven days, preceded the circumcision on the eighth day. She would then persist thirty-three days until she could present her offering. (The doubling of this period for a female child is outside the scope of this study, though it is worth noting that such distinctions between male and female exist elsewhere in Scripture.) Once the period of her cleansing ended, she presented a lamb and a bird as a sin offering in order to make atonement. The Law also mercifully allows for the substitution of two birds in the case of poverty, which was the case for Mary when she presented Jesus at the temple. Given the seven day period, if the eighth day is part of the thirty-three, this event occurs forty days after the birth of Christ.

Because Jesus was Mary’s firstborn son, Luke also includes a note regarding the unique character of such a child. During the original Passover, the Lord struck down the firstborn of Egypt (Exodus 12:29-30). In so doing, He redeemed the firstborn of Israel, giving Egypt as their ransom (Isaiah 43:3; Numbers 3:13; 8:17). Therefore, from that point forward, the firstborn was uniquely consecrated to the Lord (Exodus 13:2, 12, 15). However, because of the sin of Israel with the golden calf and the faithfulness of Levi on that day (Exodus 32:26), the Levites were substituted for the firstborn in general (Numbers 3:40-51). It may be, therefore, that Luke means to identify Jesus not only as the firstborn of Israel in this way, but also as the Levite par excellance, being our great High Priest.

During the purification of Mary, Simeon sees the Lord’s Christ and blesses the Lord with a unique song of thanksgiving. Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55 finds some parallels with the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, and Zechariah’s song in Luke 1:68-79, emphasizing the Lord’s faithfulness and redemption, finds many parallels in the Old Testament (such as Exodus 15). However, since Simeon saw with his own eyes the promised consolation of Israel, his song has no real parallel. Here was the promised salvation! Here was the light of revelation to the Gentiles! Here was the glory of Israel! How many eyes longed to see what he saw, yet did not see it (Matthew 13:17)!

But Simeon also recognizes that this Christ will also be a stumbling block to Israel. Since Israel according to the flesh sought a righteousness based on works (Romans 9:32), the coming of Christ would reveal their distortion of the Law for what it was. Simeon therefore not only anticipates the continual struggle between hard hearted Israel and Christ, but also that they would crucify the Lord of Glory, even to the point of denying the plain reality of the resurrection with the least ridiculous lie they could get away with (Matthew 28:13).

Anna here seems to appear as a second witness to Christ, suggesting the twofold testimony required for establishing a claim (though usually stated negatively as a charge for a crime, such as Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15). Her descent from Asher is unique, since Asher never usually features prominently in the Old Testament. The second son of Zilpah, Asher means something like “happy” (Genesis 30:13). Jacob and Moses both bless Asher with richness and favor (Genesis 49:20; Deuteronomy 33:24). However, Asher failed to fulfill the conquest of Canaan (Judges 1:31-32), leading them to be grouped into the Northern Kingdom with Ephraim and exposing them to all kinds of idolatry and apostasy. However, in the days of Hezekiah, some of the tribe of Asher “humbled themselves and came to Jerusalem” (2 Chronicles 30:11), because there were still some who held to the Lord. Thus, happy indeed this faithful daughter of Asher who saw the redemption of Jerusalem!

Finally, Luke’s purpose in relating this event is to emphasize that Christ fulfilled the Law of the Lord, even when He had to rely on His mother and Joseph to do so! For “when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee” (Luke 2:39). After this event, Jesus would begin to fulfill the Law Himself, but Mary feared the Lord and kept the Law regarding her purification. It was, of course, Christ’s own righteousness at work, even in the purification of Mary, for the uncircumcised child was guilty of breaking the covenant (Genesis 17:14). Infancy was not a valid defense in this case, even if it happened because of the negligence, willful or otherwise, of someone else. However, Christ, in the hands of Mary and Joseph, kept the Law even from birth, so as to be the perfect substitute.

Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity: Deuteronomy 10:12-21

Moses stands on the border of the Promised Land and reminds the sons of Israel who are about to enter of the covenant of the Lord.  Deuteronomy, therefore, is a series of addresses and is composed mainly of a long exposition on the Ten Commandments.

Moses first begins by recounting the history of Israel (Deuteronomy 1-3), starting just before Israel failed to obey the Lord when they approached this land the first time until the time of this speech.  In this first introductory speech, Moses then admonishes Israel to obey the Law and avoid idolatry (Deuteronomy 4).  Moses then begins the long speech which makes up most of the book (Deuteronomy 5:1-26:19).  After this, Moses has a few shorter speeches, including the blessings and curses (Deuteronomy 27-28), the renewal again at Moab (Deuteronomy 29-30), and his last words and the end of his life (Deuteronomy 31-34). Our lectionary reading for the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity falls within the largest of these divisions.

It will be helpful to break down this larger section into its smaller parts, because the internal logic clarifies how to interpret Deuteronomy 10:12-21.  He begins by restating the Ten Commandments, recalling the initial reverent fear Israel had when they heard the voice of God on the mountain (Deuteronomy 5). Moses then condenses the Ten Commandments into the one Great Commandment:  “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).  When Israel fears the Lord, she will tell the coming generations of what God has done, and she will not seek after other gods.  But it is not because of her faithfulness that God chose her out of all of the nations.  Far from it!  She is His holy possession because He chose her for Himself and provided for her even through the long days of wandering (Deuteronomy 7-8).  Indeed, Israel has only proven time and time again her own faithlessness and stubbornness, especially with the golden calf (Deuteronomy 9-10:11).  Therefore, Israel is called to be faithful to the God who has done so many mighty things for her. She is a holy people, because the Lord has brought her out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm (Deuteronomy 10:12-11:32). Moses then begins a major exposition on the Ten Commandments, beginning with chapter 12, as a way of demonstrating what it means to fear and love God.

This lengthy discussion on the structure of Deuteronomy helps to avoid erroneous conclusions. Moses is not expounding the Law to a people who have never known the Lord. He is speaking to God’s holy Church, His chosen people.  Deuteronomy, despite its Greek name which means “second Law,” is the voice of a husband talking to His wife.  Israel has no room for boasting, to be sure.  The golden calf, Meribah, refusing to enter the land the first time—all of these show that she has no righteousness of her own.  But the Lord chose her and brought her out of Egypt (Deuteronomy 32:10-14; Hosea 13:4-5; 1 Kings 8:51).

The Lord therefore commands Israel to fear Him, to love Him, and to obey the Law.  Sinners cannot keep the Law, of course.  However, by faith, believers seek to keep the Law, albeit imperfectly (Psalm 1:1-2; Psalm 19; Romans 7:22). Therefore, when the Lord speaks the Law to His Church, it is for her good, building her up and showing her His holy will.  “What then shall we say? That the law is sin?  By no means” (Romans 7:7)!

Further, the reason for striving to keep the Law is not an admonition to “do better,” but a statement of what God has done. “Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the Lord set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day” (Deuteronomy 10:14-15).  Or as Moses says earlier in Leviticus 19:2:  “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  God will not have us be holy by telling us to become holy.  We are not able to do that.  Rather, God will have us be holy because of what He has done for us.

Nor is this a call to fall into complacency or to think that holiness is ours even if we revel in being unholy. The man who does not try to keep the Law more and more, or in other words, who has no desire to do so, is no Christian.  “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn” (Deuteronomy 10:16).  Holiness is not a matter of external observance.  “For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision” (Romans 2:25; see also Amos 5:21-24; Isaiah 58:5-6; Psalm 50:12-15).  Holiness is a matter of the heart, and if the heart has no desire to please God and to increase in holiness, it is dead.

“Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise. He is your God, who has done for you these great and terrifying things that your eyes have seen” (Deuteronomy 10:19-21). The great miracles which the Lord did for Israel confirmed that He is faithful and true.  The Holy Spirit recorded them for our benefit in the Holy Scriptures.  But “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).  Though we have not seen these miracles, yet we have the mighty hand of God in His Son Jesus Christ who came to save us and in His mighty Holy Spirit, who comes even now. The Lord referred Israel to the miracles they had seen; the Lord refers us to Christ and to the Comforter.