The German Bible in America: An Exploration of the Religious and Cultural Legacy of the First European-Language Bible Printed in America by Don Yoder, ed. Patrick J. Donmoyer (Kutztown, PA: Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, 2016)

Few would guess that the first Bible printed in the thirteen colonies was John Eliot’s 1663 Indian Bible produced for the Christian Indians and for missionaries among other Algonquin tribes. Fewer still would guess that the first Bible in a European tongue printed in the colonies was not printed in English. Not until Robert Aitken’s 1782 printing in Philadelphia, after the colonies had broken away from the mother country and its restriction of Bible printing to Oxford and Cambridge, would an English Bible be printed here. Instead, the first European-language Bible and so much of the colonies’ and early America’s religious literature were printed in German. Christopher Sauer Sr.’s 1743 edition of the Luther Bible was printed in Germantown (then just outside Philadelphia and now a part of it) as he stated at the project’s outset in his 1741 Bekanntmachung, “We have also taken notice that people from Germany arrive here in the greatest poverty, and are still coming, who have not even a Bible, and are not able to get one.”

Don Yoder, the late folklorist of Pennsylvania Dutch culture and religion, produced this volume on the Bibles of German America from colonial times down to the nineteenth century and left some of it unfinished at his death. What Yoder did not have opportunity to cover, Patrick Donmoyer of Kutztown University’s Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center has fleshed out. The subject of German Bibles in America deserves far more attention than it has hitherto received, especially from so many American Lutherans whose heritage this is. The Luther Bible was the vastly predominant German translation of the Scriptures even for non-Lutheran Germans. Its competitors like the Swiss Froschauer Bible beloved of the Swiss Anabaptists did not seriously rival the Luther Bible for ubiquity.

Several elements will be of interest to our readers from this visually wonderful volume featuring so many beautiful editions, illustrations, and textual examples from two hundred years of printing. The material form and all the things in a Bible that are not strictly speaking the biblical text affect how we read Scripture, the connections we make, the mental images that impress themselves upon us, and much else about profitably understanding what we read.

  • German Bibles never lacked the Apocrypha.

In colonial and early republican America there are several beautiful examples of printed Bibles like the three editions of the Sauer family or the 1813 Somerset Bible of Frederick Goeb, a Lutheran minister who printed the first Bible west of the Appalachian Mountains in Somerset County, PA. One is unsurprised to find the Apocrypha printed in those texts. Yet even the barebones copies sent to Muhlenberg from the Canstein Bible Society in Halle for distribution to poor Germans contained the Apocrypha. The first edition of the German Bible without the Apocrypha that Yoder discusses was printed by the American Bible Society in 1849, an Anglo-American institution that did not print the Apocrypha in its own English editions.

  • German Bibles were copiously illustrated.

Relatively cheap copies could possess handmade fraktur drawings for bookplates or decoration. Weightier quarto or folio editions were always accompanied by engravings and later drawings, stereotypes, and lithographs. Scripture was always illustrated in great detail. This book is full of ravishing illustrations from the 1704 Merian Bible printed at Frankfurt-am-Main of Jesus’ baptism or unicorns standing next to Adam and Eve and from the 1726 Berleburg Bible brought to colonial Pennsylvania by radical Pietists with elaborate allegorical drawings of the Scriptures as the open door to the vision of the Lamb and of eternal life. This tradition was carried down to what Yoder calls the “Victorian family Bible,” the grandfather of contemporary study Bibles with scholarly articles and lithographs drawn from English Bibles.

  • German Bibles contained much besides the biblical text and illustrations of it.

Almost all copies had what is now called the “one-year” or “historic” lectionary, which one can find even today in all German Bibles printed by and for the Amish, who do not utilize the lectionary system. Such is the power of this tradition of including the readings for each Sunday and festival day that the above-mentioned ABS 1849 German edition sans Apocrypha did contain the standard lectionary readings. From 1805’s Jungmann Bible printed at Reading, PA a family register was included in nearly every Bible as well, and family charts and lists of family events metastasized throughout the nineteenth century as Bibles became repositories of all significant life information. Yoder mentions two court cases in which men established their own ages with reference to what was written in their fathers’ Bibles.

  • Widespread possession and regular use of the Bible were highly valued.

Many of the Amerikabriefe, letters written from the New World back to the German-speaking lands, mention the writer’s desire for a copy of the Scriptures. Lutheran and Reformed ministers in colonial Pennsylvania requested over and again that their overseers in the Old World would provide them with sufficient copies of the Scriptures to sell to the well-off and to distribute freely to the poor. Sauer’s own printing in 1743 sought subscribers so that some of the money raised from subscriptions could cover the cost of printing Bibles to be given away for free. The Bible was the basic text of the Lutheran and Reformed parochial schools that were everywhere in early German America.

And once the Scriptures were in a person’s hands, they were read. Pastor Brunnholtz of Philadelphia reported in 1752 that in his congregation “very many of them keep their hand-Bibles at hand during the sermon and Kinderlehre, and consult them eagerly so that I myself have often been cheered up when I see that through this they have been kept in attention thereby, also with the advantage, that they can repeat the sermon at home and can better remember the cite passages of the truths that are expounded.” Whether read in connection with the sermon or during the family meal, the Scriptures were for early German Americans in the words of Gottlob Jungmann’s Vorrede, “a Word of Atonement – yes, so that it may in the end prove itself the only means by which fallen human creatures may find access again to their GOD, to their Creator, yes, to their Redeemer.”

 

The song of Isaiah 12 actually forms the last part of a long subsection beginning in Isaiah 7.  Isaiah is sent to Ahaz in the face of an impending invasion from Syria and Israel to tell him that they will come to nothing.  Ahaz, however, does not believe, even when the Lord invites him to do what is normally forbidden by testing the Lord (Isaiah 7:12).  God gives the sign of Immanuel both as a promise of future deliverance in Christ (Matthew 1:23) but also to show faithless Ahaz that He will still do what He said by bringing the invasion to nothing (Isaiah 7:16).  However, the Lord declares that Assyria will come to sweep faithless Judah away (Isaiah 7:17-20).

Though Assyria will wipe away Judah, yet God will also bring Assyria into judgment, a promise which He emphasizes beginning in Isaiah 10.  Even though God will send His people away into exile, He will also bring them back (Isaiah 10:20-23).  The righteous Branch, that is, Christ will come forth “from the stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1), the seemingly dead remains of the tree of the house of David.  Jesus will be “a signal for the peoples” and “in that day the Lord will extend His hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that remains of His people” (Isaiah 11:10-11).  Just as the Lord would bring back His people from exile, so He would also gather together His people from all the ends of the earth.

This, then, is the greater context for Isaiah 12.  “In that day,” that is, in the day when the Lord gathers His people in the second time, “I will give thanks to You” (Isaiah 12:1).  This is closely related to last week’s reading in Lamentations 3, where Jeremiah declared his hope in the Lord even in the face of the Lord’s wrath.  God will turn away from His fierce anger which lasts but a moment and bring His favor which has no end (Psalm 30:5; Job 13:15).

Isaiah 12:2 is unusual in that the Lord’s name is repeated twice in a row, first in a shortened form and then in its usual fuller form.  The NKJV renders it the most literally:  “For Yah, the LORD, is my strength and song.”  This form also occurs in Isaiah 26:4.  Perhaps this doubling is used for emphasis, especially since both references speak of the Lord as “strength.”

The imagery of “water from the wells of salvation” finds important parallels in passages like John 4 where Jesus speaks of living waters to the woman of Samaria; John 7:37-19 where He speaks of the Holy Spirit as “rivers of living water”; Ezekiel 47:1-12, where the prophet sees the river which flows forth from the temple; and Revelation 22:1-5, which speaks of the river of life in New Jerusalem.  On that day, when the believer draws water, he will call upon the name of the Lord and praise Him for what He has done (Acts 2:21; Romans 10:13; 1 Chronicles 16:8; Psalm 9:11; 105:1).

Two other words are noteworthy in this text.  The first is “gloriously” in Isaiah 12:5.  This word has the most basic meaning of “rising,” and it is used in this sense in Isaiah 9:17 where it describes smoke rising into the sky and in Psalm 89:8 where it describes the raging of the sea.  Both a column of smoke and a raging sea bring to mind a sense of awe, a rising that brings with it a sense of power.  It can also describe the rising of pride, that is to say, presumption and arrogance, as it is used in Psalm 17:10.  But the word is most often used to describe the exaltedness and the “rising” of God:  Psalm 93:1; 110:6; and Isaiah 26:10.  If the sea and smoke are exalted, how much more so the Lord!

The other is “cry aloud” or “shout” in Isaiah 12:6.  It is used in several other places, like Isaiah 10:30; 24:14; 54:1; Jeremiah 31:7; and Esther 8:15.  But its most colorful usage and the one which shows its most basic meaning occurs in Jeremiah 5:8 and 50:11, where it describes the cry of stallions.  While the translation “to neigh” doesn’t make much sense in relation to men, it is an extremely intense shouting, much like a stallion crying aloud.  Perhaps it is related to the loud whinnying of a horse who sees a long lost companion returning.

“You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:5). While these words found in the Ten Commandments are familiar enough, what does it mean for God to be a jealous God? Jealousy, at least in English usage, tends to be a generally negative word. It is a word which tends to be associated with possessiveness, but in a negative, controlling sense.

In Hebrew (and to a lesser extent in English), jealousy is not primarily negative. It is a broader word used in a wide variety of contexts, and certainly some of them are sinful. In those contexts, the word translated here in Exodus as jealous is also translated as envy or envious. Where coveting is frequently a desire to have something which properly belongs to someone else, envy is often the desire that another person would not have something which they have. Rachel envies the fertility of Leah (Genesis 30:1). Joseph’s brothers envy his favor and his dreams (Genesis 37:11). The Scriptures frequently warn the godly to not be envious of the seeming prosperity of the wicked, because it is empty and fleeting (Psalm 37:1; 73:3; Proverbs 3:31; 23:17; 24:1; 24:19; et al). Sinful jealousy is also corrosive and tends toward even more sin (Job 5:2; Proverbs 6:34; 14:30; 27:4; Ecclesiastes 4:4; 9:6). It can even seem to be good, even godly, but be directed toward evil ends, like Saul slaying the Gibeonites in his false zeal (2 Samuel 21:2).

But jealousy is not necessarily evil. In Numbers 5, the Lord gives to Moses a ceremony designed to test whether a wife has been unfaithful. Her husband, in a “spirit of jealousy,” turns to the Lord to know whether she is adulterous. However, here the jealousy is legitimate: adultery is interacting with another man or woman in a way which is only appropriate to marriage. In Numbers 5, the jealousy may still be misplaced, and it provides for a way to prove innocence. But the motive is right: she has been set apart for him in marriage, and vice versa. It differs from a sinful possessiveness, because the latter is interested only in the self rather than in the other.

This, then, is how the two concepts are related in a single word in Hebrew. Sinful jealousy is a burning desire to have what belongs to another or to deprive them of it, although there is no legitimate claim on the thing in question. It is a perceived right to it rather than an actual one. Godly jealousy, on the other hand, is a burning desire for a legitimate claim. A husband is right to be jealous for his wife, because she belongs to him, and vice versa.

Therefore, the word jealousy is most often used of the Lord. God calls Himself a jealous God often in the context of forbidding idolatry (Exodus 20:5; 34:14; Deuteronomy 4:24; 5:9; 6:15). Because idolatry is taking what properly belongs to God—worship–and applying it to something else, God is right to be jealous. Israel provokes God to jealousy through their sin. He is their Husband; why are they acting like a faithless wife (Deuteronomy 29:20; 32:16, 21; 1 Kings 14:22; Ezekiel 8:3; 16:38, 42; Psalm 78:58)?

Yet even here, the Lord is not jealous only in a negative sense, so to speak. Israel may be adulterous and provoke Him to jealousy, because she is His wife and belongs to no other. But Israel is also His. She may stray, but she belongs to Him. It is not because of her faithfulness, because that is clearly lacking. The Lord is her Husband because of His great mercy, and He will not suffer her to be mistreated. He will bring vengeance on her enemies (Isaiah 26:11; Ezekiel 5:13; 36:5-6; Nahum 1:2). He will have mercy on her and restore her, even after punishing her for her sins (1 Kings 19:31; Isaiah 9:6; 37:32; Ezekiel 39:25; Joel 2:18; Zechariah 1:14; 8:2).

Thus, God is a jealous God, because He has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light. God is a jealous God, because He has brought us out by a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm. God is a jealous God, because we are His through Christ. “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine’” (Isaiah 43:1). “And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord” (Hosea 2:19-20).

The book of Lamentations does not clearly identify its author.  It is concerned with the fall of Jerusalem, which occurred in 586 B.C.  Therefore, it had to have been written at least after that point.  But the vivid grief over the city it expresses suggests that Jerusalem had recently fallen when it was written.  Thus, the author probably witnessed the destruction firsthand.  The most likely and the traditional author of Lamentations is Jeremiah, who fits those parameters.  2 Chronicles 35:25 also notes that Jeremiah composed a “lament for Josiah,” which were “written in the Laments.”  Because Jeremiah also composed several such “jeremiads” or lamentations in the book of Jeremiah, it is thus very likely that this was another such composition (Jeremiah 12:1-4 is one example).

Lamentations is a structurally magnificent series of poems.  The book itself is broken into five chapters, and note that each has 22 verses, except for chapter 3 which has 66.  This is not an accident.  The first four chapters are all acrostic, which means that each line begins with a letter of the alphabet in sequence.  Since there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, this explains why there are 22 verses.  Chapter 5 is not acrostic, though it retains the same number of verses.  Chapter 3 intensifies the pattern, so that the acrostic pattern is a group of three verses instead of a single verse.

This is also worth noting because of another Hebrew thought pattern which tends to place the emphasis toward the middle rather than at the end.  If this is the case here, that would make this reading for the Fourth Sunday of Easter the main point of the whole book, since it falls to nearly the numerical middle according to the versification.  This would go far to explain what is otherwise a tone of seeming despair in the face of the destruction of Jerusalem.

While there is not time here to consider the whole book, it is enough to note the beginning of this chapter to bring out the contrast.  Jeremiah says “I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of His wrath; He has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me He turns His hand again and again the whole day long” (Lamentations 3:1-3).  It is the Lord who is against him, which makes his lament much like that of Job (such as Job 6:4, though there are many examples throughout that book).  The Lord has brought this disaster against His faithless people.  “He is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding; He turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces; He has made me desolate; He bent his bow and set me as a target for His arrow” (Lamentation 3:10-12).

This, then, sets the reading for this Sunday focused on comfort into proper perspective.  Lamentations 3:22-33 is not a generic kind of trusting in the Lord, a sort of platitude about how it will “all be right.”  This is a hope which trusts in God’s mercy even in the face of God’s wrath.  It is a hope which knows that “the Lord will not cast off forever” (Lamentations 3:31) those to whom He has brought grief.  It is a hope which clings to the promises of God even while it seems that everything has gone wrong.  Even though everything is taken away which had been given, yet the Lord remains faithful and true.  “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in Him’” (Lamentations 3:22-24).

Holiness means to be “set apart.” If something is chosen out of a group and set apart from the rest, it has become “holy” in a basic sense. It is no longer common, but rather unique to a certain degree. Whatever characteristics it may share with the original group, it now has a clear and distinguishing feature in being set apart.

In a pagan sense, holiness only applies to objects and places. A particular area is set apart for religious purposes. A particular object becomes the “property” of the “god.” It is taken out of common usage and set aside for a particular religious usage. But this sort of mentality focuses on the “boundaries,” so to speak. This exact area or this exact thing is now sacred. It is a locational holiness, a clear dividing line that makes it possible to know what is sacred property and what is common property, as if God had moved into and possessed an apartment.

It should be noted that this object-holiness and place-holiness also occurs in the Bible. Moses is commanded to remove his sandals “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). But the place is not holy because it has been set apart for God for whenever He decides to show up, like a pagan temple, but rather it is holy because the holy God is there. Objects also may be holy in a Biblical sense, as seen throughout Exodus and Leviticus. But the object is not holy because it is “God’s property,” but because it has been set aside according to a command from the Lord. Though a full exploration would take this article too far afield at the moment (and it is worth returning to at another time), it is enough to say that it is God who makes holy and not man who makes things holy for God.

This is probably the easiest to see with a sort of holiness that applies only to the Bible: personal holiness. The Lord says: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). “You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Leviticus 20:26). And to quote Paul, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). To be holy as Christians means to be set apart from the world, to be taken out of darkness and into His marvellous light. As Paul emphasizes in Romans, such personal holiness expresses itself in obedience, in the good works which flow forth from faith. We are not holy in the sense of “do not touch!” We are holy because we are conformed to Him who is holy.

This admittedly long preface sets up the main question: what does it mean for God to be holy? God’s holiness cannot mean that He is set apart for God. It is man who is set apart for God. Nor does God’s holiness mean that He conforms to the will of God, so to speak. The Lord gives the Law, and the Law-Giver is not the same as the one who is set under the Law (Christ, of course, placed Himself under the Law, but He had to condescend to do so).

Rather, God’s holiness consists in that He is the utterly set apart, unique, and almighty Lord of heaven and earth. His holiness has no equal and no parallel. “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” (Numbers 23:19). “I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath” (Hosea 11:9). “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed” (Malachi 3:6).

These last quotations show a tendency about how we think of God’s holiness. God is holy; we are not. God is righteous; we are not. This is certainly true, but it is not exclusively how the Word presents the holiness of God. Isaiah 6 gives perhaps one of the most instructive passages here. The Lord appears to Isaiah in the temple attended by the seraphim (who only appear here in the Bible). Isaiah sees little more than the feet of the Lord, the very bottom hem of His garment, and yet this is enough to fill the whole temple with His glory. His reaction is quite natural: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5). Isaiah recognizes that his uncleanness, his sin, has made him unfit for being in the presence of God, and therefore he fears that he will be destroyed, as is only natural. The all-holy God cannot abide the presence of sin.

Yet it is the seraphim themselves who should be noted here. These fearful creatures, whose name means “the burning ones,” defy Isaiah’s exact description. At best they have a head and feet or legs and six wings and hands, though not much else is said about them. I personally think that it is their voice which causes the thresholds to shake (though one could also reasonably say it is the Lord’s voice). The seraphim alone are enough to inspire awe and holy terror. Yet with their wings they hide their faces and their feet, and with their awe-inspiring voices they cry “Holy, Holy, Holy, the Lord of Armies! The whole earth is full of His glory!” These angels, who are not spoiled with sin and can indeed stand in His presence, still must veil their eyes before the awesome holiness of the Lord.

To put it simply, God is not holy only because we are sinners who cannot stand before Him. God is holy because He is the One Who Is. He was holy before sin entered the world. He is holy even in the midst of sinners now. He will be holy even after sin comes to an end. The Lord is holy in a wholly unique way, and even in eternity, God will remain utterly set apart.

Jerusalem had just fallen.  Yet the Lord commands Ezekiel to still rebuke those who had contributed to its downfall.  It was a pride which misapplied what God had actually said and turned His grace into a false security.  The people left for a time in the land said things like “Abraham was only one man, yet he got possession of the land; but we are many; the land is surely given us to possess” (Ezekiel 33:24).  But how can one be a son of Abraham and yet not do the works which he did (John 8:39)?

Among those who led Israel astray were the false shepherds, the teachers of Israel.  They had been neglecting their calling, and they were feeding themselves (Ezekiel 34:2 ff.).  It is tempting to identify this sin of the shepherds with openly false teachings, which practically repeat the ancient question of Satan, “Did God actually say” (Genesis 3:1).  But while this is certainly included, false prophets are often far more alluring because they are far more subtle.  They take what God has indeed said and misapply it.  “Hear this, you heads of the house of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel, who detest justice and make crooked all that is straight, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with iniquity. Its heads give judgment for a bribe; its priests teach for a price; its prophets practice divination for money; yet they lean on the Lord and say, ‘Is not the Lord in the midst of us? No disaster shall come upon us’” (Micah 3:9-11).  “Precisely because they have misled my people, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace, and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear it with whitewash” (Ezekiel 13:10).  And perhaps the most to the point:  “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’” (Jeremiah 7:4).  The false shepherds distorted the promises and the grace of the Lord and turned them into a false security.  Surely they, the very sons of Abraham, would not be taken away from the inheritance!  (Consider also Jeremiah 5:12; 14:13-16; 23:17.)

The Lord therefore promises that He will do what the shepherds had not done.  He would seek His sheep even though the shepherds had neglected to do this.  The false shepherds had fed themselves; God would feed His people.  Everything that the shepherds did not do, described in Ezekiel 34:4, God would do, as He says in Ezekiel 34:16.  The Lord is the Good Shepherd, and this passage clearly finds parallels in other well-known and beloved places like Psalm 23 and John 10.

The Lord mentions that He will do all of these things which He promised “on a day of clouds and thick darkness” (Ezekiel 34:12).  This phrase occurs in several other passages.  In Deuteronomy 4:11, it is used to describe the glory of the Lord as it appeared on Mount Sinai.  Joel 2:2 and Zephaniah 1:15 both use the phrase to describe the Day of the Lord.  Job 38:9 does not use the phrase exactly, but uses both nouns in parallel to describe the sea.  Perhaps the most helpful, however, is Psalm 97:2, where the expression is used to directly describe the glory and majesty of the Lord.  Taken together, therefore, the phrase seems to describe the glory which the Lord shows forth when He acts just as He has said.  On the day when the Lord gathers His sheep like a shepherd, His glory will be clearly seen, because He will glorify His name (John 12:28).  The Lord makes this clearer in Ezekiel 36:22 and following, when He says that “it is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name.”

As a final note, it is worth noting that using “shepherd” to describe the teachers of Israel happens in the days of the prophets.  Scripture first uses “shepherd” to describe someone who shepherds people of King David (2 Samuel 5:2; 2 Samuel 7:7; 1 Chronicles 11:2; 17:6; Psalm 78:70-71).  To call Jesus the Good Shepherd thus seems to recall also that He is the Son of David.  Of course, the New Testament also, together with passages like Ezekiel 34, calls ministers “shepherds” (which is identical with the Latin word “pastor”) in 1 Peter 5 and in passing in Ephesians 4:11.  But to call those whom Christ has sent to speak on His behalf shepherds or pastors is always in a derivative sense, for there is only one Shepherd (John 10:16).

Following the account of his call in chapters 1-3, Ezekiel preaches against Israel in chapters 4 through 24. Like many of the other prophets, Ezekiel condemns Israel for her sins and proclaims that the judgment is coming swiftly. Ezekiel’s ministry begins close to the end of the kingdom and continues into the exile. However, he turns his attention against the enemies of Israel in chapters 25 through 32, which is good news for Israel. God has not forgotten His people, even as He punishes them for their sins. Ezekiel then returns to Israel, bringing both more words of reproof as well as words of comfort. The reading for the Second Sunday of Easter falls into the latter.

By the time of this passage, Jerusalem has been captured and the kingdom has come to an end. The exiles have begun to despair: “Our bones have dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off” (Ezekiel 37:11). Everything seems to be lost, and all of God’s promises seem to have failed. They are in a foreign land because of their sins, and they are wondering when, or even if, it will end.

Ezekiel 37:1 demonstrates that the valley of dry bones is a vision given to the prophet. Ezekiel says that the “hand of the Lord” was upon him, a key phrase for such visions throughout the book (Ezekiel 3:14, 22; 8:1; 40:1). He is also brought “in the Spirit” into the valley (Revelation 4:2; 17:3). While the Holy Spirit can physically move someone from place to place (such as Philip in Acts 8:39-40), the passage is presented in the language of a prophetic vision. Ezekiel is commanded to go into “the valley” in 3:22, which suggests a physical location, but it is not specified, and he sees a vision both times. If they are the same valley, he does not record the presence of the bones the first time.

Ezekiel 37:2 emphasizes just how many bones there are in this valley, since the prophet is led among them, and it also emphasizes that there is no earthly hope for them. Dry bones have been out in the open for a long time. But the Lord asks him, “Son of Adam, can these bones live” (Ezekiel 37:3)? A rhetorical question, as the Lord already knows what He wants to do (John 6:6; Rev 7:13-14; John 21:15-17). However, Ezekiel recognizes that he should not impose his own thoughts here, but rather answers “Lord God, You know” (compare 2 Peter 1:20).

The Lord commands him to “prophesy” or to speak as he commanded to speak. Ezekiel, in fact, has no choice but to speak in this way, suggesting that for him in particular “the hand of the Lord” is something like a prophetic fit (Ezekiel 3:26-27). It is true that the Lord had loosed his mouth when Jerusalem fell (Ezekiel 33:22), but he still speaks as he is commanded here. It is certainly appropriate to connect this to verses about the Lord being with the mouth of the preacher (such as Jeremiah 15:19 or Luke 10:16), as Ezekiel helps to clarify just how important it is to “guard the deposit entrusted to you” (1 Timothy 6:20-21). But the prophet does so involuntarily or at least does so through most of his ministry.

Nevertheless, it is in the proclamation of the Word of the Lord that all of the things the Lord promises happens to the bones. The bones are commanded to “hear,” which only emphasizes that the Word alone will do what the Lord promises to do (Romans 10:17; Luke 11:28; John 6:63; Psalm 119:25, 117; John 11:43-44). The coming of the Spirit points also to the first creation of man, since the Lord breathed into Adam the “breath of life” (Genesis 2:7). The Lord alone gives physical life, and the Lord alone gives spiritual life (Deuteronomy 32:39; 1 Samuel 2:6; Job 5:18: Hosea 6:1).

Finally, the Lord does nothing without a purpose (Isaiah 55:10-11). He sends this vision to Ezekiel to comfort Israel in the midst of their distress. The beautiful ending of this passage regarding the opening of the graves seems to serve two purposes. First, Israel will be raised from the grave of exile, so to speak, and set back in their own land. Because the major prophets have said this again and again to Israel, even in the face of the coming disaster, “I will bring you into the land” (Ezekiel 37:12, 14) must also carry with it this immediate promise. However, the language is too plain to say that it must only refer to the return from exile. Rather, as Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26; see also 1 Corinthians 15; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Revelation 20:13; et al).

Because of sin, grace has a way of inviting abuse. Paul fights against this misunderstanding extensively in his letter to the Romans. Sin prompts the equally sinful idea that once God’s favor has been gained through Christ, sin no longer has the same consequence as before. “Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:15)? Not at all!

To demonstrate his point, Paul uses the analogy of slavery, one which he fully recognizes has its shortcomings (Romans 6:19). However, no other image can suffice in explaining the all-encompassing nature of God’s grace in the life of a Christian, even if it is imperfect and should not be taken to extremes.

Paul asks: “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness” (Romans 6:16)? A Christian, therefore, always has a master, either sin or God. There is no neutrality, nor does being set free from sin imply a master-less existence. This does not mean that we will win favor with our new Master with such obedience. Paul makes it abundantly clear that no man will be justified by what he does in God’s sight (note especially Romans 3:28 among others). But it does mean that a transfer of ownership has occurred, using Paul’s imagery. “But having been set free from sin, you have been enslaved to righteousness” (Romans 6:18).

This leads to an important theological question: what is the nature of the Christian life? To put it another way, what is sanctification? In Romans 6:19, Paul uses the word hagiasmos. This Greek word comes from hagios, which means “holy.” Adding “mos” to the end changes the adjective holy into a noun. But how should it be translated? “Holiness” typically means a state, that is, a static way of being. But sanctification comes from the Latin sanctus, which also means “holy,” and ficio, which means “to make.” Sanctification strictly speaking means “to make holy,” which implies a process or a movement. Which one of these does Paul have in mind here?

After admitting the imperfection of the metaphor in Romans 6:19, Paul then sets up an important parallel. You were once slaves to uncleanness, while you walked in your former sins. Further, you were enslaved to lawlessness. But note especially the wording here. The word often translated as “to” has a directional force. The Greek reads most literally as “lawlessness to lawlessness,” but that direction in the word “to” implies increase, which is why many translations render it as “lawlessness leading to more lawlessness.” But Paul sets it in parallel to the rest of the sentence and states that we should present all our members as “slaves to righteousness to hagiasmon.” He uses the same wording as before, which implies the same kind of movement, or in other words, “slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.” This is reemphasized in Romans 6:22, because the end or the goal of hagiasmos is everlasting life.

There is, of course, a great tendency to misunderstand Paul here. Paul is not saying that sanctification means that we become more acceptable in God’s sight. He explicitly states that what we do does not make God favorable toward us. Paul is also not saying that perfection is possible in this life. In the following chapter, he says “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). Sin remains close at hand through this earthly life. Nor is Paul saying that this happens on our own, as if sanctification was something that man does all on his own. As he says at the very end of chapter 6, “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

But we are being made holy in Christ, formed into Christ. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29). “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). “Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14). Many other such examples could be multiplied. But the point is clear: because Christians have a new Master in God, they are no longer subject to the old master of sin, and the Christian life is therefore a war.

However, this does not mean that translating hagiasmos as “holiness” is illegitimate. Holiness in the Biblical sense has to do with being “set apart” (such as in 2 Timothy 2:21). It is God who sets us apart (Galatians 1:15), and it is God who calls us in holiness (1 Thessalonians 4:7). Holiness does not happen because we make it happen apart from God. Rather, “as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).

The date and the outline of Revelation

Gösswein says with the great certainty that is his accustomed tone that Revelation was written in John’s old age during the reign of Domitian somewhere between AD 95 and 97. Though he cannot say precisely what year it was written, he avers that the persecution John suffered was the systematic persecution in Domitian’s time, not some sporadic, localized difficulty. Gösswein’s reasons for dating the book are threefold:

  1. The book is not early because Paul is gone. There is no indication of his presence among the churches of Asia Minor in the letters that occupy the first couple chapters of Revelation. For Gösswein that arguable textual fact slides right into the assertion that “all of the apostles had gone home except for John.” I do not think that follows necessarily from the absence of Paul in Asia Minor, but since this series is about Gösswein’s hermeneutics and not my own, it is by the by.
  2. The book is not early because early church tradition (no particular text is cited by Gösswein) says unanimously that Domitian banned John to the island of Patmos, whereon John received the Revelation. This happened near the end of Domitian’s reign, which is where Gösswein gets his AD 95-97 since Domitian died on 18 September 96.
  3. The book is not early because the churches have lost their first love. Gösswein’s rhetoric is impressive and densely Scriptural on this point. John’s words are meant to recall, to reassemble, and to firm up the failing churches descending into every kind of vice and heresy.

Of the three points, 1) and 3) are rather difficult to prove. 1) is an argument from silence, whereas John may have ignored Paul or Paul could have been entirely elsewhere (Spain or Rome, for example). 3) has the advantage of referencing the loss of first love John attributes to the Ephesian church (Rev. 2:4) but may create a unity of affect or concern where none exists. Not every church is soundly rebuked. Some are worse than others in their moral condition or delusions. And if one holds 1 Corinthians to be among Paul’s earliest or his earliest letter, there is no obstacle to believing that the church has been beset by all manner of problems from its inception. 2) is Gösswein’s strongest case for his dating of Revelation, but he spends comparatively very little time on it, despite its historical pedigree, which he does not mention.

The book itself he divides into seven parts, and to conclude our introductory material, here is a translation of his outline:

The first [section] (ch. 1:9-3) presents to us Christ as the Governor of the church, who walks among seven golden lights, and shows us how he governs seven congregations with his words.

The second (ch. 4-8:1) reveals him as the King who has the future in his hands and who also so rules the world that all sorrow must serve his church for the best.

In the third (ch. 8:2-11) Christ appears as High Priest in his holy church, who will not let the church’s borders be overwhelmed, though seven trumpets call awake entire armies of erring spirits.

The fourth paints Christ’s battle with the dragon, the world power hostile to God and the antichrist, in general outline down to the destruction of the enemies (ch. 12-14).

The fifth section (ch. 15-19) shows God’s judgments upon the enemies unto the satisfaction the wrathful righteousness at last finds and the song of triumph to which the elect give voice.

The sixth section (ch. 20) reveals how Christ has the dragon on a chain, until he throws him into the eternal murk, so that that dragon cannot any longer hinder the building up of the church, as Christ has permitted [hitherto].

The seventh section gives a physical pictures of the fulfillment of the kingdom of God. With it the entire Holy Scripture concludes, whose beginning speaks of creation and fall and whose ending speaks of rebirth (Mt. 19:28).

 

Pastors are to be servants of the Lord Jesus and servants of the church. But the servants of Christ and His Church are not to be servile, as Aaron was at Sinai, bending to the idolatrous whims of the Israelites. They aren’t to be servants who tell those whom they serve what their itching ears desire to hear (2 Timothy 4:3).  Why not?  Because, “God gave us not a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of self-control.” (2 Timothy 1:7)

Power is the first term mentioned in Paul’s triadic description of the Spirit of the ministry.  Why is power needed for ministry? Due to the nature of the task. “By the Holy Spirit, guard the deposit that has been entrusted to you.” (2 Timothy 1:14) Guarding the deposit, that is, guarding the church of Christ Jesus, is an impossible task, humanly speaking. Paul explicitly warns Timothy of the difficulty that he will face (1 Timothy 4:1-3; 6:3-5; 2 Timothy 3:1-9). The power of God must be given to those whom He drafts into this service of guardianship. Just so, the servants of Christ Jesus, and His church, are empowered.

Cowards, by definition, neither guard nor protect. Cowards flee in the face of danger, like the hired-hand at the sight of the oncoming wolf. They won’t fight the good fight in the Lord and the strength of His might against the forces arrayed against them. They find the rules of the athletic competition too difficult, and so bow out before they win the crown. The planting, watering, and caring for God’s field becomes too heavy a burden for them so they never reach the harvest. The servants of Christ Jesus and His Church must be, and are, empowered for their ministry.

Now, this power of the Holy Spirit must not be misunderstood. The power of the Church’s ministers is not the power of a tyrant or of a bully. It isn’t the power that the kings of the Gentiles exercise for their own benefit and to the detriment of the people (1 Samuel 8:10-17; Luke 22:25). Neither is it the miraculous or magical sort of power that Simon Magnus thought he could purchase from the apostles, which would then bring him fame and fortune.

Rather, it is the power that Paul himself exercised in his ministry. This power is contrasted with the fancy rhetoric of Paul’s opponents in Corinth (1 Corinthians 4:19-20). It is a power that is manifest not in word, but in deed. Not that it is wordless power, but rather, “we have renounced disgraceful and underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:2-3)

The Spirit of power enables the minister to rely upon the open statement of the truth of God’s Word. Once again we can turn to Paul’s own ministry among the Corinthians and see how he used this power. The power of the Lord Jesus is to be used by delivering the sexually immoral man to the devil for the destruction of his flesh (unregenerate mind). How exactly this takes place is left unmentioned, but if we take Paul’s conduct in other matters as a guide, it must have been by the open statement of the truth, the pronouncement of judgment and the congregation’s subsequent removal of association with the man. The power of the ministry is the power to exercise discipline, to exercise the binding key.

The power of the open statement of God’s Word is used for more than discipline. This open statement of the truth is able to destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God. If you want to see Paul destroying arguments and lofty opinions then you can read how he addressed the Athenians and their lofty opinions. Or, for his powerful preaching to the Jews you can turn to Acts 13. In either case, the Spirit of power is manifest in preaching, and through this preaching the church is gathered (Acts 13:40; Acts 17:34). What is impossible with men is possible with God. This Spirit-filled preaching is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16). Paul’s charge to Timothy to, “preach the word;” (2 Timothy 4:2) is then an exhortation to put the Spirit of power to use.

Finally, the Spirit of power enables the minister to continue through trials and tribulations. Paul had learned, through the lesson of the thorn in the flesh, that God’s power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). He had learned it throughout his apostolic sufferings which forced him to trust that, “He who raised Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus.” (2 Corinthians 4:14) And he can see that the same road lies ahead for Timothy and for all who follow after him. The Spirit of power makes the ministers of Christ and His church able to suffer for the sake of the Gospel, and find in their sufferings and weaknesses that God’s power is made perfect.