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Repentance

Repent, for the kingdom of God is near!  What does repentance look like?  What keeps us from repentance?  How do we bear fruit in keeping with repentance?  Join us as we discuss a doctrine so important that Jesus Himself began His preaching ministry with the call to repent.

Hosts: Rev. Willie Grills and Rev. Zelwyn Heide

Episode: 69

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Jonah the Prophet


In many people’s minds, the story of Jonah is about a man being swallowed by a whale, but this is only a part of the story. When and where did Jonah prophesy? Why do some people say the book is an allegory? What does it mean that the Lord relents of the disaster he was going to send on Nineveh? How does Jonah’s preaching inform our own? Join us as we discuss these and other questions about Jonah in our latest podcast.

Hosts: Rev. Willie Grills and Rev. Zelwyn Heide
Regular Guest: Rev. David Appold
Episode: 23

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Follow us on Twitter: @wordfitly
Send us a message: [email protected]
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The Discipline of the Lord (Psalm 6)

The ancient Christians classed Psalm 6 as the first of the seven penitential psalms, for good reason.  In it, the psalmist calls upon God to turn away from His burning anger and to look upon him with favor.  Whatever may be causing such distress in the psalm itself is somewhat beside the point.  Physical sickness, the attack of enemies, fear of the final judgment, fear in the midst of disaster, all of them in the end boil down to the same basic cry:  “Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger!”

Psalm 6 opens with a clear petition:  “Lord, do not rebuke me in Your anger, and do not chastise me in Your wrath.  Favor me, Lord, for I am frail.  Heal me, Lord, for my bones are terrified.  And my soul is exceedingly terrified.  But you, Lord, how long?”  It is most likely that the psalmist is being assaulted by enemies, judging by the end of the psalm.  But this is a cry of a soul suffering under God’s wrath, not merely suffering at the hands of men.  It is the Lord who rebukes and chastises David.  The terror in his bones emphasizes the depth of this fear:  it is not merely a formality or psychological, but a deep and abiding fear of the wrath of God.  How long is this going to go on, Lord?  It seems like God is distant and turned away from him in anger.

Note, however, that David does not ask God to stop rebuking or chastising him.  Rather, “do not rebuke me in Your anger,” that is, in wrath visited upon sin.  The Lord rebukes His elect, but for a different reason.  “It is for discipline that you have to endure.  God is treating you as sons.  For what son is there whom his father does not discipline” (Hebrews 12:7)?  Through such discipline, the Lord teaches.  “I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and lack of bread in all your places, yet you did not return to me, declares the Lord” (Amos 4:6).  Therefore, we should not flee away from suffering as if it was repulsive and necessarily bad, and this includes the experience of God’s discipline.  A God who only gives us positive experiences, or negative ones that quickly give way to positive ones, is not the God of Scripture.  Through the experience of God’s discipline, the Lord teaches us to rely upon Him above all things.

“Return, Lord, rescue my soul.  Save me on account of your steadfast love.”  David has no recourse before the Lord except His steadfast love.  If God were to turn away from His elect, His honor and glory would perish.  But the Lord is steadfast, even in the midst of intense trial.  He turns away His face from His sons to show them that He will not forsake them.  “For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime.  Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

“For in death there is not remembrance of You.  In Sheol, who will praise you?”  This cannot mean that the dead are insensible or nonexistent, for the souls cried out from under the altar, just as the blood of Abel cried out from the ground (Genesis 4:10; Revelation 6:9-11).  Rather, “remembrance” may also be translated as “mention.”  Remembering the Lord is not simply recollection, but calling to mind before the whole congregation what the Lord has done.  God does not, after all, simply think about Noah when He remembered him and those with him in the ark, but sent the winds to push away the waters of the flood!  If remembrance implies action, then those who are dead are no longer able to do what only the living can do:  praise God by recounting His glorious deeds out loud.

“I am weary with my sighing.  I cause my bed to swim the whole night.  With my tears I flood my couch.  My eye has become dark with grief.  It grows old from all my attackers.”  David emphasizes the intensity of his contrition.  Not only do his tears flow without ceasing in grief over his sin, but he also “grows old” under the strain.  I think this should be understood in the same way we use expressions like “this will give me gray hairs.”  David’s contrition and the desire to see God’s face again is more than he wants to bear.  It drives him back to the Lord and causes him to call upon Him without ceasing.

But at this point, there is a remarkable shift.  Something has occurred.  “Go away from me, all you doers of wickedness, for the Lord has heard the voice of my weeping.  The Lord hears my pleading.  The Lord accepts my prayer.”  His enemies can no longer trouble him, because he knows that the Lord has heard his cries.  It may be that his weeping has turned to trust, recalling the steadfast love of the Lord.  It may also be that he has heard the voice of another, just as Hannah heard the voice of Eli, causing her to rejoice that she had been heard (1 Samuel 1:15-18).  Whether internal or external, the psalmist leaves behind his weeping and knows that the Lord remains with him, even in the midst of distress.

“Ashamed and exceedingly terrified are all my enemies.  They will turn back and be put to shame quickly.”  It is rather remarkable here that everything has turned around.  The Lord has turned from facing away from David to facing toward him.  His enemies turn away from facing him and now face away in terror.  David’s terror has passed, and his enemies are terrified before the Lord.  While the reversal did not happen in an instant or the course of a few minutes, the Lord turns everything around.  Even the last sentence shows this with wordplay that cannot be translated into English.  The words for “turn back” and “be put to shame” share the same basic letters in Hebrew, but the order flips around here.  Even the words themselves emphasize this great reversal!

Christians should therefore pray this psalm in the midst of all their troubles.  “For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:31-33).  Though we suffer justly for our sin, the fire of God’s discipline purifies rather than consumes, and through it we will offer up sacrifices of prayer and praise in righteousness (Malachi 3:3).

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).

Fourth Sunday after Trinity: Genesis 50:15-21

The reading for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity comes from near the very end of Genesis as well as the end of the “generations of Jacob” which began in Genesis 37:2.  Joseph’s brothers continue to feel guilty about how they treated him.  When Joseph revealed himself to his brothers earlier, he emphasized that “God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:5).  However, after they had settled in Egypt and Israel died, their guilt returns, imagining that Joseph had been biding his time out of respect for his father.  They even attempt to frame their plea as if Jacob had commanded it, which does not appear to be the case.

Their fear, however, is faithless.  Joseph had already forgiven them when he revealed himself to them, but they have forgotten.  It is not groundless, to be sure, considering their horrific conduct toward their own brother, but to return to such fear of punishment after hearing a word of forgiveness is to treat that word as false.  As John says, “Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son” (1 John 5:10).  “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah” (Deuteronomy 6:16).  In a similar way, Joseph’s brothers are treating him like a liar, which moves him to tears.

Joseph, nevertheless, reaffirms the word of forgiveness, because the sinful soul is often tempted with memories of past sins.  “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared” (Psalm 130:3-4).  “A bruised reed He will not break, and a faintly burning wick He will not quench; He will faithfully bring forth justice” (Isaiah 42:3).  A Christian troubled by doubts should be pointed to Christ, rather than to himself, and he will see that Jesus is indeed faithful.  Joseph’s brothers have forgotten and have returned to their fear, but they are pointed again to that mercy.

Because Joseph reiterates the same word of comfort from before, he also re-emphasizes the Providence of the Lord.  Paul’s affirmation “that for those who love God all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28) demonstrates that God is not limited.  The temptation is to regard Providence as using primarily those things which we regard as “good” or perhaps focusing on God’s direct actions in history.  Evil, in that sense, tends to be treated as a problem to be dealt with or acted against.  The Lord, to be absolutely sure, is not the author of sin.  But God is not limited in His options.  God will accomplish what He chooses to do without fail, even if He wills to use an evil as the means to that end.  Adam fell because of his own sin and became a lawbreaker, but the Lord uses the Fall toward His purpose of sending Christ into the flesh.  “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things” (Isaiah 45:7).

In Joseph’s case, the Lord uses the evil which his brothers intended against him as the means for providing for many people.  History does not just happen and the Lord somehow reacts to it.  God is the Lord of history, and all things fall under His Providence.  The reason why this can be so difficult for us is that we only have a small part of the picture and imperfect knowledge.  We are caught up in the moment and cannot see how everything is working together.  Very often, this becomes clearer in hindsight, though not always, because only God knows all things.

But this should not cause us to fear.  Joseph comforts his brothers by pointing to the Providence of God.  Yes, their action was very evil, but they recognize it as the sin that it is (1 John 1:8-9).  However, despite their wickedness, God uses it for a far greater good.  Not as an afterthought, not as a reaction, but as the means through which many lives were spared in the famine which it pleased the Lord to send.  If the Triune Lord could use even that evil as a means for good, will He not much more give you the good which He promises to give?  “So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones” (Genesis 50:21).

Who Can But Prophesy?

Unbelievers are not the only ones prone to sinful security.  Sin certainly hardens the heart of the unbeliever into believing that there is always more time (Luke 2:16-21).  But abused mercy has a way of hardening the heart in a way that unbelief cannot.  The one who sins believing that he has God’s favor is in a more dangerous position than the one who does not believe (Luke 12:47-48).

“Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you, O sons of Israel, against all the clans that I brought up out of the land of Egypt, saying:  ‘You only have I known out of all the clans of the earth’” (Amos 3:1-2).  The Lord directed this prophecy, which came through the shepherd Amos, against the idolatrous northern kingdom of Israel in the days of the second Jeroboam.  For hundreds of years Israel had walked in the footsteps of the first Jeroboam, who had led Israel into sin (1 Kings 12:25-33).  But they did not imagine themselves to be apostate or idolatrous.  After all, they still offered burnt offerings to the Lord and peace offerings, didn’t they (Amos 5:21-22)?  Didn’t they at least observe the Sabbath, even if they had things to do after the requirement was over (Amos 8:4-6)?  Idolatry is always papered over, serving the Lord in one’s own mind in ways that he has not commanded, or claiming to fear God and yet going after other gods (Zechariah 1:4-6; 1 Kings 18:21; 2 Kings 17:39-41).

This is why it is so easy for sin to blind the one who has received mercy and turn again toward sin as a result.  “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’” (Matthew 3:9).  “A Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Romans 2:29).  “Rend your hearts and not your garments” (Joel 2:13).  The prophets fought against this hardness, for the people had convinced themselves that the Lord would not bring disaster upon His people.  He has made all of these wonderful promises to our fathers!  Why would He now bring judgment?

But the judgment of God rests heavier upon those who have known His mercy and yet rejected it.  This is why He reminds them of His former mercy in bringing them up out of Egypt.  They have known His grace and His love for them and for their fathers.  The Lord did not choose them because they were unique in any way, but because He loved them (Deuteronomy 7:7-8).  Yet they should not lull themselves to sleep because God is long-suffering.  The patience of God does not mean He is unaware or does not care.

“Do two walk together unless they have agreed to meet?”  No.  “Does a lion roar in the forest when he has no prey?”  No.  “Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid?”  No.  “Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?”  No!  These things do not just happen, as if the forces of nature were mindless and independent, the way we so often view them.  Disasters are a call to repentance.  Amos makes this abundantly clear later:  the Lord sends famine, drought, blight, locusts, pestilence, and war as a call to forsake evil and turn toward him, “yet you did not return to me” (Amos 4:6-11).

It is true that in Jesus Christ, Christians know the mercy of the Father.  Jesus is our forgiveness and our life.  In Him, the work of our salvation is finished.  But will we look to our Baptism and say that I may do as I please, because I have been baptized into Christ?  Will we receive the Lord’s Supper while holding a grudge in our hearts?  “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound” (Romans 6:1)?  Will we imagine that only the Jews were prone to carnal security?  “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion” (Amos 6:1)!

But disasters are not a blind call to repentance.  It is all too easy to see “acts of God” and attribute them to natural forces.  The Lord has not, however, left us with only a mute witness in the world.  “For the Lord does nothing without revealing His secret to his servants the prophets.  The lion has roared; who will not fear?  The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy” (Amos 3:7-8)?  In His holy Word, the Lord calls us to repentance.  In the Scriptures, we have more than ample warning.

And through His servants, the prophets and also the apostles, the Lord has declared this Word to us.  Through the living voice of those whom He has called to proclaim His message, the Lord declares this Word.  Who can but prophesy?  The living Word proclaimed by the Holy Spirit is a fire in the bones, incapable of being restrained (Jeremiah 20:9).  We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard (Acts 4:20).  “For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16)!  The watchman of the house of Israel cannot but speak what he has heard, lest he endanger his own soul also (Ezekiel 3:17-18).