Tag Archive for: faith

A seed planted in Chapter 1 grows up and bears fruit in Chapter 4.  Early on in the Epistle, the Holy Spirit reveals to the saints in Asia Minor that although they have been grieved by various trials, these only serve to refine their faith, with the result that they rejoice and praise God (1 Peter 1:6-7).  Our Lord suffered in this world because he was not of this world.  Those who follow him will likewise face opposition from wordlings (John 15:18-20).  Rather than paranoia, defeatism, or defensiveness, this should rather rouse the Christian.  Indeed, we are to “arm” ourselves with Christ’s mindset (1 Peter 4:1).  

The world engages in “sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry,” (1 Peter 4:3) and when Christians abstain, they are maligned.  However, the end of all things is near, and the Christian should leave these vile things in the past (1 Peter 4:3; 1 Peter 4:7).  Rather than indulgence, the Christian is called to sobriety, prayer, and Christian love (1 Peter 4:7-8).  We should live for the will of God, instead of for sinful pleasures (1 Peter 4:2).  This may translate into suffering, but our Lord does call us to take up the cross and follow him (Matthew 16:24).  We are to consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ (Romans 6:9-14).  

The Christians in Asia Minor may have more persecution ahead of them (1 Peter 4:12).  Yet, those who suffer for Christ share in his glory (1 Peter 4:13).  Indeed, this is a sign that the Holy Spirit is with the believer (1 Peter 4:14).  If this seems difficult, or unpleasant, or unfair, then Peter asks his audience which seems better: to suffer for Christ, or to suffer the just judgement of our sin?  There is no choice.  Who are we to answer back to God? (Romans 9:20; Job 38:1-8).  

Rather than accusing God, rather than judging God, rather than condemning God, the proper Christian response is to fear God (Ecclesiastes 12:13; Romans 11:33-36).  Though the faithful may suffer on account of Christ, this is far better than the alternative.  And God is faithful.  His will is best; he works all things for our good (Romans 8:28).  The Old Testament accounts of Joseph, as well as the Three Young Men in the Fiery Furnace and Daniel and the Lion’s Den, illustrate this. 

Christ himself submitted to the father’s will, even when that meant shame, torture, and crucifixion.  But this, the greatest suffering anyone has ever undergone, has accomplished our salvation.   God is faithful, even in the midst of suffering (1 Peter 4:19). Thus, when Christ returns on the Last Day, all suffering will cease and we will be “glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13).

His interaction with a Canaanite woman takes Jesus to the north and west of Israel’s ancient boundaries. The region of Tyre and Sidon was never within the promised land, even at Israel’s Solomonic height. King Hiram of Tyre was a friend of Solomon’s and contributed cedars of Lebanon and laborers for the building of the temple. From that it may be inferred that he was a God-fearing Gentile, but nothing is said of how wide-spread his devotion to the Lord ever became in Tyre or Sidon.

The fact that the woman is called a “Canaanite” further emphasizes her foreign status. The Canaanites in their various ways worshiped idols and polluted the land to such a degree that the conquest of Israel was both due to the promise God gave to Abraham and also as a punishment for the sins of the Canaanites. The conversation, if we want to call it that, between Jesus and the woman further brings out the reality that she is a woman of unclean lips who dwells among a people of unclean lips. In this way it will be seen that she is the flip side of the immediately prior teaching of Christ about what truly defiles a man, namely what it is that makes a person clean.

There are many references in the Gospels about word getting around about who Jesus was and what he did. The obvious conclusion, then, is that the woman had heard about him and therefore was coming to him. In this she is not unlike like Rahab who had heard of God’s power at the Red Sea and was given faith. In faith, Rahab hid the two spies, and in faith, the Canaanite woman comes to Jesus for help her daughter’s great need.

Jesus’ silence toward the Canaanite woman furthers the dissonance. The universally comforting promises of Christ to “come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest” do not come with a similar promise about the timing of that rest. “Draw near to God, and at the proper time he will lift you up.” Experience bears out the fact that Jesus, like His Father, can be simultaneously imminent and distant. He is present and hears her pleas, but “answers her not a word.”

The tension between universal and particular is furthered as Jesus discusses boundaries. Still silent to the woman, Jesus speaks to the disciples and tells them he was not sent except for the lost sheep of Israel. Their request had been that he dismiss her, possibly meaning to grant her request so that she subsequently leaves them alone. His response indicates that they must have inferred that he help, or else why the statement about only being sent for Israel?

The more pressing question is whether he means it or not? The woman calling him son of David may factor in here. David’s son brings to view the later prophecies of the Christ which oftentimes have a primary focus on Israel’s restoration from exile. “Behold, the days are coming declares the Lord when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely …. In his days Judah shall be saved and Israel will dwell securely” (Jeremiah 23:5-6). “And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will feed them: he shall feed them and be their prince” (Ezekiel 34:23). Taken in isolation, references such as these may lead one to conclude that the Christ is the hope of Israel only. But this is an overly narrow view of the messiah as some of the key prophecies, especially in Genesis 3:15 and Genesis 12:3, speak of his mission for all of Adam’s descendants and all nations being blessed in him.

Why then does Jesus speak of an Israel-centric mission? Is such a thought wrong? Is he speaking tongue-in-cheek? Attempts to discern sarcasm in the Scriptures are usually a sign of grasping at straws, so it is better to assume he meant what he said and find the rationale in Scripture itself.

St. Paul says that he magnifies his ministry to the Gentiles in order somehow to make his fellow Jews jealous and thus save some. In this, he is only imitating his Lord who magnifies his ministry to Israel in order somehow to make this Gentile woman jealous and thus save her. The magnification of the messiah’s Israel-centered ministry does not exclude Gentiles, but actually draws them to Him. He becomes a light to the nations. As even the most Israel-centric prophecies foresaw: “Then the nations will know that I am the Lord who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forevermore” (Ezekiel 37:28).

The context of our reading further emphasizes this point. Jesus’ journey to Tyre and Sidon comes on the heels of a controversy with the Jewish leaders about what makes a man unclean. The Pharisees were upset that Jesus did not observe the traditions of the fathers related to ritual washings. Their thinking was that he and his disciples were therefore unclean to eat. Jesus clearly refutes the error of their thinking to show that it is not what is outside a man that defiles him, but rather what comes from the heart.

What has this to do with the Canaanite woman? In many ways she is the opposite of the Pharisees. She is not only a Gentile, but a descendant of Israel’s ancient enemies. If anyone would have been ritually unclean, it would be her. And yet, from the fullness of her heart her mouth speaks. She approaches the Lord with unwashed hands, and in all likelihood with no knowledge of the traditions of the elders. In that sense, it would not be “right” to give her the bread of the children. Humanly speaking, she is like a dog, an animal that is canonically understood to be synonymous with uncleanliness.

But by faith in the Lord Jesus, she is worthy and well-prepared to receive his blessing. Not only does she receive the crumbs that fall from the children’s table, but the affirmation of the Lord: “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you believe.” The Pharisees earned the rebuke of the Lord as he quoted Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.” By way of contrast, in the Canaanite woman, Isaiah’s other prophesy of the Gentiles also comes to pass: “I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.”

Has the Spirit come by the works of the Law or by hearing with faith? Begun by the Spirit, are you now perfected by the works of the flesh? The antithesis here is not “the Law is bad or makes me feel bad” versus “the Gospel is good.” Paul himself rejects such a notion elsewhere (Romans 7:7 ff.). The works of the law which Paul rejects is a focus on one’s own performance of the Law, which, not incidentally, excludes God from the picture. To begin in the Spirit and end in the flesh is to begin with God and end in the self, something which even Abraham did not do.

Justification comes by faith, and Paul reminds the Galatians that God Himself preached the Gospel to Abraham, long before Sinai. “In you shall all the nations be blessed” (Galatians 3:8; Genesis 12:3). Even in the particular blessing of Abraham, the Lord has a greater purpose in mind. Israel, through Abraham, will be the means of blessing the whole earth. Israel is the vehicle of a greater blessing, and the peculiar holiness of Israel serves as a witness to that end.

This is what Israel failed to understand. Israel is called to be holy so that all the nations would come to know the Lord (Isaiah 2:1-5, 1 Kings 4:20-24, Psalm 72:8-11, among others). Yet Israel had perverted her witness to the world into something else entirely. Faith was no longer needed, because they regarded their own separation from the world as their righteousness. Without faith, such separation could only produce hypocrisy and wickedness. “To the wicked God says: ‘What right have you to recite my statutes or take my covenant on your lips’” (Psalm 50:16; also Jeremiah 7:4, Amos 8:4-6, etc.)?

But the righteous shall live by faith. These words of Habakkuk show that the promise made to Abraham has not been set aside. Mamre has not given way to Sinai. Faith is not perfected by the flesh. The promise made to Abraham finds its end in Jesus, through Whom the blessing of Abraham comes also to the whole earth. The Gospel preached to Abraham does not end in Israel, as if the uniqueness of Israel was the whole point. The Gospel goes out to all by faith.

Paul uses a couple of examples to drive his point home here. No one changes human covenants after they have been ratified. If no one tampers with human ones, how much less ought we to tamper with divine ones, especially the one ratified in Genesis 15? More than this, Paul points to the text of Genesis 12 directly, noting that the offspring of Abraham is singular, which can only mean Christ. Were this single word plural, the argument of his opponents might have some weight. Then the inheritance of the physical land, the peculiarity of Israel, might very well be the whole point. But it is not plural, but singular. The scope of the promise made to Abraham is worldwide. The promised inheritance depends on faith and faith alone.

But the Law given at Sinai was put in place because of “transgressions” and also as a “guardian.” Israel broke the covenant when she broke faith with the Lord, setting up the golden calf. The Lord departed from the camp, separating Himself from Israel (Exodus 32-33). Following the intercession of Moses, the Lord remakes the covenant with Israel, but now the veil of Moses covers his face. The transgression of Israel required that veil, because the external letter brought with it the curse (2 Corinthians 3:4-11; Deuteronomy 28-29). But in Jesus Christ, the veil is taken away, because He is the promised offspring. Moses, the intermediary, served to put this into place, but now the promise by faith puts an end to all intermediaries.  Delighting in the Law of the Lord (Psalm 1), the Christian inherits the promise of Abraham through the inward working of the Spirit.

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)!

John the Baptist began his work of proclaiming the coming of Christ shortly before he baptized Jesus in the Jordan River.  Matthew relates that Herod imprisoned John shortly after this Baptism (Matthew 4:12) over the matter of Herodias (Matthew 14:3).  That a prophet should suffer for bringing an unpopular message to a ruler is nothing new.  Micaiah had done the same hundreds of years beforehand (1 Kings 22).  That a prophet should suffer at the hands of a vindictive woman is also nothing new.  Elijah and the prophets whom Obadiah saved suffered the same fate (1 Kings 18).  That a prophet should die for his message is also nothing new.  From Abel to Zechariah, many of the prophets perished for the sake of the Word (Luke 11:49-51; Matthew 23:34-35).

Much ado is frequently made about whether John sent his disciples to Jesus to ask this question for their sakes or for his own.  Whether John had personal doubts or whether he sought to quell his disciples’ doubts is, frankly, a minor question.  Jesus’ point in His answer is the same either way.  “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  Jesus answers with a general reference to passages like Isaiah 35.  In the day of the judgment upon the nations who had oppressed Israel (Isaiah 34), then the Lord will bring back the captives (Isaiah 35).  Jesus applies this prophecy to Himself, thereby demonstrating that He is the promised one, the servant of the Lord who suffers on our behalf.

The signs themselves also demonstrate the purpose of the Lord’s miracles.  He is not attempting to work wonders for the sake of making men marvel.  Satan himself can work such “miracles” (Revelation 13:13-14; also the magicians working by his power in Exodus 7-8).  Rather, miracles bear witness about His identity.  As John says regarding the miracle at Cana, “This, the first of His signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested His glory.  And His disciples believed in Him” (John 2:11).  Miracles build up faith and confirm Jesus’ divine identity.  The apostles also worked miracles, such as Peter’s shadow healing the sick (Acts 5:12-16), and the prophets, especially Elijah and Elisha performed many signs (1 Kings 17:17-24, for example).  But in those cases, the miracles also built up faith and demonstrated, not that the apostles and prophets were divine, but that the One who sent them was trustworthy and true.  “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”

Offense at Christ working miracles can be understood somewhat generically, which is offense at Christ’s mercy toward those whom we regard as not deserving mercy.  But Christ, judging by similar statements throughout the Gospels, seems to mean something rather more pointed than this.  Jesus is a rock of offense and a stone of stumbling specifically for Israel.  “And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (Isaiah 8:14).  Paul cites this very verse in Romans 9:33, as proof that Israel, despite the promises to their forefathers, have been rejected because of unbelief, and the Gentiles, despite having no such promises, have been accepted because of faith.  Therefore, the offense is seeing the promises fulfilled and seeing that righteousness is truly by faith and not by works, something that His own people had failed to grasp (John 1:11-13).  The signs of healing, bearing witness that Christ has come, only emphasize this, because Jesus continually says to those He heals, “Your faith has saved you” (Luke 7:50).

After John’s disciples leave with His message, Jesus begins to speak to the crowds regarding John.  His first two questions seem to be essentially rhetorical.  The crowd did not go out seeking a reed shaking in the wind, nor a richly dressed man.  John is not one to be blown about, nor soft and effeminate.  But John is a prophet, or as Jesus says, more than a prophet.  Referring to the majestic prophecy of Malachi, Jesus identifies John as the messenger who prepares the way before the coming of the Lord.  Who can endure the day of the coming of the Lord?  “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord” (Malachi 3:1-4).  Because John is Elijah who is to come (Matthew 11:14), he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers (Malachi 4:5-6).  John prepares the way for the coming of God’s mercy upon His people, a mercy shown in His Son.  John’s call to repentance, therefore, is not empty or merely rhetorical.  The one who refuses will find God’s wrath stored up for him on the day of wrath (Colossians 3:5-6; Matthew 3:7-10).  But the one who repents will be spared as a man spares his son (Malachi 3:17).

Jesus thus identifies Himself as the coming Christ by testifying that John is the messenger of God.  But His reason for doing so is not a generic “Here I am!”  Those who should have received Him did not need generic identifiers.  They knew that He had come, and yet they suppressed that knowledge in unrighteousness.  They maligned John and slandered the Son of Man, “yet wisdom is justified by her deeds” (Matthew 11:19).  Therefore, it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon and Sodom, whose wickedness was done in ignorance, than for those who reject the One whom they recognized (Matthew 11:20-24).  Jesus identifies John as Elijah who is to come, and Himself as the One who is to come, not merely to make this truth clear, but to highlight the guilt of those who sin knowing the Law.

Part 5 of this series.

Having described fasting, Biblical piety moves from “secret” to “private.” The terms are fluid, of course. The easiest way to keep them apart is how many people are involved: is it done alone or is it done with or for a small number of other people? But whereas practices like prayer and fasting belong the most to what is done in secret, alms belong almost exclusively to private Biblical piety.

Alms may be defined as doing what is in accordance with the will of God for the benefit of others. It is not refraining from an evil action, but doing good in obedience to the Lord. Alms are not only the external act. It is possible to “do good” while disobeying the Law. In such a case, whatever is done without faith is sin (Romans 14:23). Such an act may follow the letter of the Law, but not the Spirit.

The primary motivation for doing alms is holiness, or conformity to the will of God. “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)? “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). Loving your neighbor as yourself flows out of a love for God and not the other way around. Alms do not make us righteous in the sight of God, but alms are also not concerned only with the neighbor. The righteous man walks the way of the righteous because of his conformity to the will of God. In giving alms, God is glorified (Matthew 5:16). They are not an afterthought or an unconscious process.

Alms are a part of Biblical piety for a number of reasons. First, faith brings forth fruit without exception. As James says: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). Again, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that” (James 2:15-16)? Such alms are not the foundation of righteousness, which is the mistake of legalism, but the expression of it, and one in whom there are no fruits of faith does not have faith. The prophets condemn Israel over and over again for this very lack of fruit, even though they laid claim to the promises of God (Amos 5:21-24, for example).

Second, the righteous desire to do what is pleasing to God. “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2). “More to be desired are [the Lord’s commandments] than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward” (Psalm 19:10-11). It must be noted that God converts the whole man, including his will, so that he actually wants to keep the Law and love his neighbor as himself. This is done in great weakness while still in the flesh, of course, but to revel in sin or to refuse to give alms out of a fear of “works-righteousness” is a sign of being in the flesh.

Alms take many forms. Outwardly, they are primarily concerned with the physical needs of the body. “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you” (Proverbs 25:21-22). However, they are not exclusively so, but may also be related to money and similar things. The condemnation of usury, for example, shows the intent behind alms clearly. A poor brother is not an opportunity for gain. “Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you” (Leviticus 25:36). A moneylender gives with the intent of making something out of the deal; giving alms (in this case, lending money) may in fact “hurt,” but it aims at building up the neighbor instead of the self. As Paul says, “For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, ‘Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack’” (2 Corinthians 8:13-15).

However, outward alms are meaningless without inward fruits. Jesus upbraids the Pharisees for lacking the fruits of the Spirit: “But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you” (Luke 11:41). The external portion of alms ultimately comes to an end, but the eternal treasures which accompany the earthly things never perish. “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:33-34). “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23). “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:15-16).

Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:2-4).

One final note about alms-giving. There is a real temptation to give alms to those who are distant and imagine that the whole of the law has been fulfilled. The priest and the Levite who passed by the wounded man doubtlessly gave alms in accordance with the Law (Luke 10:29-37). Giving alms to another country is easy and can easily puff up. Giving alms to the poor man on the street corner is much harder. But the Lord calls us to take care of those closest to us first. “Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory and stretch themselves out on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall, who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp and like David invent for themselves instruments of music, who drink wine in bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph” (Amos 6:4-6)! “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).

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).

Like Jacob a couple of weeks ago, the Old Testament reading for the Fifth Sunday in Lent is reaching a high point. Abraham is commanded to sacrifice his promised and beloved son Isaac. Within the wider context of Genesis, this chapter comes toward the end of the section which deals primarily with Abraham. The “generations of Terah” began in Genesis 11:27 and will end in a few chapters in Genesis 25:12. Chapter 23 deals with the death of Sarah before beginning to focus on Isaac in Genesis 24. This is plainly the last major event in the life of Abraham.

The passage begins by noting that God is testing Abraham. The Scriptures clearly forbid man testing God, as seen clearly in Deuteronomy 6:16. However, God frequently tests men, such as in Exodus 15:25, Deuteronomy 8:2, Psalm 26:2, and 2 Chronicles 32:31. Such passages also clarify that God intends to prove the faithfulness of those who He tests. All people, like Adam, are by nature covenant-breakers (Hosea 6:7). Like a vassal who has broken faith in the past, it is reasonable to ask whether he will prove true in the future. This, then, is why it is forbidden to test God: it at least asks whether God will be faithful in His promises, something which the Scriptures teach over and over again. Even when God asks Ahab to test Him in Isaiah 7:10-12, He seeks to show in this extraordinary instance that He is steadfast and true to His Word. But such testing should not alarm us. God does not seek to crush with such testing, but rather to chastise and discipline those whom He loves (Hebrews 12:6).

The Lord commands Abraham to take Isaac to Mount Moriah to the north. Abraham had been dwelling in or near Gerar as of Genesis 20:1 and making a treaty with Abimelech in Beersheba in Genesis 21, both of which are toward the southern end of the land of Israel in the Negeb. Moriah is in what would later be Jerusalem. The Lord appeared to David on Moriah in 1 Chronicles 21:18-22:1 when David sought to avert the plague brought on by his census. Solomon therefore builds the temple on Moriah (2 Chronicles 3:1). The second temple, built over the ruins of the first, thus was also on Moriah, which means that Jesus would spend much of His time teaching in the same place where Abraham was commanded to sacrifice Isaac.

Abraham notes to his young men that he and Isaac will go and “bow down” and return, a gesture of worship. Hebrews 11:17-19 strengthens this point, since Abraham did all of this “by faith,” recognizing that God can also raise the dead. Faith shows itself by its works, which is the point of James 2:21. Being justified by works is tantamount to saying that a good tree produces good fruit (Matthew 7:15-20). Abraham also demonstrates this through naming the place Jehovah-Jireh, that is, “The Lord will see” in the sense of “will see to it, or will provide” (Genesis 22:8 and 22:14). Even though he had not yet seen the lamb for the sacrifice, Abraham knew by faith that the Lord would see to it.  Even if he had to follow through with the sacrifice, the Lord would raise Isaac from the dead and see to His promises.

Much could be made of the ram caught in the thicket being sacrificed “instead of” or “in place of” Isaac. After the Lord stops Abraham’s hand, He sees to it that a substitute for Isaac is found. This notion of substitution continues throughout all of Scripture, first in the animal sacrifices of Leviticus 1 and following, and finally in the great substitution of Christ on the cross for our sins. Because of this, allegory is unnecessary.  God substitutes His own Son for those who hated Him in order that He might have mercy on them and deliver them from the coming wrath (John 3:16; Romans 5:8; 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).

Finally, the Lord renews His promise to Abraham and includes a beautiful oath: “By Myself I have sworn.” This phrase occurs in four places in the Old Testament: here in Genesis 22:16, Isaiah 45:23, Jeremiah 22:5, and 49:13. Here and in Isaiah, the phrase is used to strengthen a promise: it is the Lord who shall save and no other. However, in Jeremiah, the Lord uses it to seal a judgment: Judah shall become desolate and Bozrah shall become a waste. Thus, it is a highly intense modifier, a solemn promise that what the Lord has said will without doubt come to pass (Numbers 23:19). “For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us” (Hebrews 6:16-18).

Date: January 15, 1931?

Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.John 3:8

IN the year 1789 the crew of the English government ship The Bounty mutinied, and those of the mutineers who escaped capture sought to evade punishment by settling on a rocky island in the South Seas. For ten years drunkenness, debauchery, and murder reigned in this settlement of fugitives, until, after an orgy of bloody quarrels, disease, and native uprisings, one single white man, Alexander Smith, remained alive on the island. Among the articles salvaged from the ship which they had stolen and then destroyed was a copy of the Bible. When that lone survivor, cut off from the rest of the world and surrounded by native and half-breed women and children, read that revelation of God and all the damning savagery of his past life loomed up before him with its appalling consequences, he found the Christ of forgiveness and love; he was converted to that Christ, and from that time on the reign of crime and lust was ended. And Pitcairn Island (for this is the name of that tiny, yet remarkable speck in the Southern Ocean), the island that had been a veritable hell on earth, by one of the most spectacular changes in history became a model community, which has attracted the attention and excited the admiration of all travelers who have visited it.

Now that particular Bible which was responsible for this startling change is preserved in the New York City Library. But the Bible that can bring to you who do not yet know Christ the same change and the same happiness is the Bible that may repose unopened and unread in your home, the Bible that you may neglect and belittle and ignore, the Bible that down through the ages has made men Christians. The change that shook Alexander Smith is the change that must revolutionize the heart and soul of every one who comes to Christ today. For this is the plain teaching of that word of Scripture which I present to you this evening, “Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.”


Now, who spoke these words, “Ye must be born again”? Remember that this is no personal or private opinion, no theory of mine, no hypothesis of the Church; it is rather the everlasting Word of our Lord that will outlive heaven and earth—Christ preaching into our very hearts tonight. And as Moses was commanded when God spoke to him, “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground,” so I ask you to listen with reverence and awe as the Majesty of Love tells us tonight, “Ye must be born again.”

To whom were these words of our Lord spoken? If we have a mental picture of some reprobate or outcast whom Christ has lifted up out of the gutter, then let us immediately disabuse our minds of that error. For he who on that memorable night was privileged to see His Savior face to face and to learn from His own divine lips this foundation truth of life and eternity was notably preeminent in the religious and political circles of the Jewish capital—Nicodemus, a master, a leader, a pillar in Israel. But what Christ says to Nicodemus He repeats to every one of us, “Except a man” (that is, any man, every man) “be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” There is no exemption; the universal, unavoidable decree of God is this: “Ye MUST be born again.”

Let us not pass lightly over this unescapable “must.” I find that throughout His entire ministry our Lord, as far as His utterances have been recorded in the four gospels, used this word “must,” when giving His instructions to men, in only one other place, in a passage which stresses the spiritual nature of true religion. The importance of this is often overlooked; for it implies that in the temporal and perishable things of life Christ makes no conditions and does not concern Himself about the artificial distinctions which men are prone to prize so highly. He does not ask whether a man is an intellectual giant or a mental dwarf, but He does say, “Ye must be born again.” He does not inquire whether he is an American or a Canadian, whether he is a citizen or an alien, whether he is in the social register or on the police blotter, whether he is a Republican or a Democrat, whether he is white or black; but there is one common condition which completely levels all humanity, this injunction, “Ye must be born again.”

But what is the real meaning and intent of these words? Nicodemus entirely misunderstood His divine Instructor, because he asks, “How can a man be born when he is old?” And the mistake of this master in Israel, this despiritualizing of religion, this dragging down the truths of the soul to the level of things touchable and tangible, is one of the saddest, yet one of the most constant and prevalent, of all delusions. Jesus offers the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well the living water, and eagerly she begs, “Sir, give me this water that I thirst not.” He tells the Jews at Capernaum of the “true Bread from heaven,” and yearning for a return of the manna days, they beseech Him, “Lord, evermore give us of this Bread.” Nicodemus hears of a rebirth, and his literal, material mind objects, “How can these things be?”

Today people similarly forget that Christianity is spiritual, that it deals with the soul, that the worship of God, by the Savior’s own emphasized declaration, is only correct and effective when it is “in spirit and in truth,” but most assuredly not correct when it takes Christianity out of the heart or insists upon a slavishly literal interpretation of spiritual truths. So when people today think that they have been converted, “born again,” when they refrain from using profanity or sign a pledge to stop drinking, or put honesty and efficiency maxims in their offices; when they believe that mere outward membership in the Church, checks for the Church’s work, occasional attendance at church services, automatically involve conversions and Christianity, they have fallen hopelessly short of the first and fundamental requirement of Christian faith. Why, a heathen can use good language and be temperate; a man who denies the very existence of God and ridicules Christ can have a certain form of outward, civic morality.

No, the new birth is deeper than all this, for it is the new life of true faith in our hearts; it is the inner change that takes place when sin-laden human beings, even as you and I, “by nature the children of wrath,” as the Scriptures call all of us, become children of God. It is that wonderful spiritual process whereby, as soon as we believe in Jesus Christ as the divinely ordained Redeemer of sinful mankind in its totality, we come into a new spiritual existence, as new, twice-born creatures. “That which is born of the flesh,” our Lord assures us, “is flesh”; that is, man of himself and by himself not only lacks every bit of initiative and power to rise up above the carnal state of his existence, with its strife, hatred, impurities, envy, dishonesty, its base thoughts and motives, but he is also void of all hope in life and in death. Yet as soon as a man meets Jesus, as soon as his heart has been opened to this Friend of sinners, as soon as he finds in the Cross forgiveness and a release from the forces that have dragged him down, he is turned around, converted, his sins are removed. He who was spiritually dead becomes spiritually alive; the blindness of his soul is gone; the fog of unbelief that beclouded the Light of the world is dissipated; God becomes his Father, and he becomes God’s son; in short, he is born again.

Do I hear some one tonight asking in hopeful anticipation, How does this stupendous change take place? How can I be born again? I need not stop in answering to emphasize that you and I ourselves, with all the resources of human ingenuity: education, law, surgery, psychology, and similar methods, cannot convert ourselves. “Can a leopard change his spots?” is the unanswered question of Scripture which makes men look to God as the Source of every spiritual power and to plead with assurance, “Turn Thou me, and I shall be turned.”

Now, those who expect some tremendous outward change and convulsion may be destined to the same experience with which the prophet Elijah met when God came in a still, small voice, after a whirlwind and an earthquake and a fire had passed without revealing Him. For Christ says, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” This rebirth, then, is the miracle-working power of the Spirit of God in Baptism and in the Word of God. Remember, that Spirit operates in your heart and in mine through every passage of Scripture that you read and hear, through every word of God that addresses itself to you, even as these words of truth go out to you tonight. Every time you hear of Christ, every time you read of Christ, indeed, every time you see Christ represented in His grace and truth and love and understand what Christ means to you, you have God’s invitation, God’s means of rebirth and conversion.

Think of slaughtering Saul on the Damascus road, reborn and renamed Paul the Apostle. By what process? The Word of God came to him from heaven. Think of the jailer at Philippi, converted to the worship of the same Christ whom the two captive apostles served. Again, we ask, By what process? Simply by the Gospel of Jesus which those two prisoners preached to him. Think of the Ethiopian court official whom Philip brought to Christ. By what process? we repeat. By the working of “the Spirit and the water,” the Gospel promises of Isaiah, interpreted to him by Philip, and the regenerative washing of Baptism. Think of Martin Luther torturing himself in the depth of agonizing despair, but converted to that happy, radiant, confident Christianity that characterized his remarkable life. By what process? By searching the Scriptures, through which the Spirit gave him this surpassing truth, “The just shall live by faith.” Think of Lord Littleton and Sir Gilbert West, two cultured and scholarly gentlemen, who, believing that the Bible was out of date, set about to show, among other things, that the Biblical account of the conversion and rebirth of St. Paul could not be true, but who emerged from their painstaking and minute investigation only to vindicate the Bible and to be converted themselves. Once more we ask, By what process? And again we answer, By the Spirit of God.


Now, if the Spirit of God can overcome such predisposed hatred, if He can enlighten ignorance, if He can defeat despair, surely He can come to all of you tonight and give you this happy and wonder-working assurance that, if you will but believe the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and humbly and penitently, yet confidently and triumphantly acknowledge that Christ died for your sins, you, whoever you are and wherever you may he, are twice­born persons, children of God. No conditions, no requirements, no limitations, no qualifications, simply this pure and priceless promise of a new birth that passes all power to understand and to explain!

And just because we cannot fathom the depth of God’s divine working in our hearts, Jesus says, “Marvel not.” He tells us not to rationalize, but simply to realize, this wondrous love. What a rebuke this “marvel not” affords to our proof-seeking, skeptical age when we are challenged, “Explain it, and we will accept it”! But “explain a blade of grass,” we respond. “Tell us how a little seed that is sown into the black earth slumbers in the ground and decays and then in its season brings forth its stalks of grass. Explain the human body with its marvelous cells or even one of the intricate subdivisions of the cells.” For, if we believe and accept only those things which we can understand and explain, what is there in life that we can truly believe and accept? A distinguished American scientist, who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize for his revolutionary discovery in electricity, states very candidly, “I cannot explain why I am alive rather than dead. Physiologists can tell me a great deal about the mechanical and chemical processes of my body, but they cannot say why I am alive. But would it not be utterly absurd for me to deny that I am alive?” These words of Dr. Millikan simply reecho the classic argument of our Lord, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth.” And yet there is no one who denies that the wind exists simply because he and no one else can explain its nature and movements. And so when a radio friend in Los Angeles writes us, “It has been years since I have been inside of a church of any kind, but since I heard your radio program, I am coming back to the blessed fold. I shall have to make my confession complete. Every Saturday afternoon when I finished my work, I went on a drunk. But a week ago tonight the Word went right home. I found salvation in my own home in front of my own radio. That was the deciding point in my life,”—when our mail brings us letters of this kind, showing the divine blessings that have rested on this radio crusade for Christ, we cannot analyze the change with the help of test tubes and crucibles and microscopes and X-rays, but we know that it is there because Christ tells us it is, because we can feel it and see its demonstration in the new life. “He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself.”

Are you converted? If you have never known what it means to have the blessed assurance of a Savior for time and for eternity; if you have never felt the happiness of having your conscience cleared with God; if you have never experienced the joy of faith in Christ, then the same Lord who tonight has told you, “Ye must be born again,” calls out to you now, “Come to Me! Believe in Me! Trust in Me!” May God grant that you heed this invitation of grace to the newness of a Christ-conscious, Christ-centered life! Amen.

Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.