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Monthly Archives: January 2022

Should You be Terrified of God Today?

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“Get yourself ready! Stand up and say to them whatever I command you. Do not be terrified by them, or I will terrify you before them.”

–Jeremiah 1:17

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In the Gospel for today, we just heard Jesus say:  

“I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.”

Luke goes on to add: “…and he kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea.”

The point here? God has purposes to accomplish, and His Messenger is a critical part of His accomplishing those purposes. This message must get out and take root!

So also today in our Old Testament text from Jeremiah… where we not only read about how God has made Jeremiah – unlike Jerusalem! – a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze wall[i], but He also goes on to say, again:

“Get yourself ready! Stand up and say to them whatever I command you. Do not be terrified by them, or I will terrify you before them[ii]

What is going on here?

The commentator Thomspon says of this “If Jeremiah draws back in fear and flees from his mission, he will encounter not merely men as adversaries, but God himself.”

Speaking of this a bit more, I think the Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible sums up the matter best:

“The prophet’s penalty for giving into fear in the face of communal enmity and persecution… is divine terrorization and destruction – that is, the prophet defeated by his national enemies.” (550)[iii]

Why should God threaten his prophet this way? Why do this to a faithful guy like Jeremiah? Who else, after all, does God have standing up for His Word?

I mean sure, like Moses Jeremiah had tried to get out of it, saying he didn’t know how to speak and was too young (Jer. 1:6). And later on, in chapter 20, he’d even go so far as to say You deceived me, LORD, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me…” (20:7)

But isn’t this understandable given the stress he was under?

I mean, yes, it is true that God also offered words of encouragement and promise. In chapter 15 we read:

20 I will make you a wall to this people,
    a fortified wall of bronze;
they will fight against you
    but will not overcome you,
for I am with you
    to rescue and save you,”
declares the Lord.
21 “I will save you from the hands of the wicked
    and deliver you from the grasp of the cruel.”[iv]

But overall… who could blame Jeremiah when it seems that the Lord is talking about terrifying him? Isn’t that wicked and cruel itself?  

Maybe you too still have doubts… over whether or not the Lord Himself is really good…

I mean, look at poor Jeremiah and the stress he was under! In chapter 17, verse 17, he even cries out:

“Do not be a terror to me; you are my refuge in the day of disaster….”

Maybe that, however, is the point. Such terror of God and His wrath is meant to drive us to God; it is good that we be further driven to God.

And if it is appropriate for God’s prophets, is it also appropriate for us?

Well, we should note that this is a specific word shared with Jeremiah, the prophet – and in the Old Testament as well. Nevertheless, do we see any similar warnings made more generally to God’s people, and since the coming of Christ? …..

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We do.

Take perhaps the most well-known verse speaking about the fear of God, in Matthew 10:28:

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (see also Luke 12:5)[v]

Can this possibly be related to love? Well, in our day, we do hear some people speak about “tough love” (maybe there is a little wisdom still today!)

But how, really, can such words be connected to love?

Well, we are told that God desires all to be saved from sin, death, and the devil… and that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of true knowledge.

And this is just not a one-time thing: all of us need to continually fear the Lord.  

Christians do continue to need God’s law. Even though our primary identity is a new creation in Jesus Christ, we are nevertheless saints and sinners until we die…[vi]

For that, again, is why we still die. The book of Romans tells us that God is angry with sin, and the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23).

Still, should every Christian have fear of God all the time? Terror all the time? (while simultaneously being joyful, or something like that?)

Well, let’s explore “fear” and “terror” a bit: perhaps there is an important difference between those terms?

There is, and thoughts like these were confirmed for me after reading Martin Luther’s commentary on Psalm 90…

It is an extended reflection on how the knowledge of death should re-orient our hearts and minds. Much of the commentary even talks about how Christians fear and even resent God’s wrath… but there are also parts that show how with Jesus Christ we can also gladly embrace godly discipline and punishment…

You see, the terror of the Lord is primarily the beginning of wisdom for the unbeliever, or natural man.

As Luther put it elsewhere, there are those who simply fear God only because of the threatened punishment. “These,” Luther tells us, “only seem to do good…” They are not even Christians yet, but are only at the very beginning….

This is perhaps why Jeremiah had to relay this message to many in his day: “Consider… and realize how evil and bitter it is for you when you forsake the Lord your God and have no awe of me…” (2:19)

At the same time, terror is also important for each one of us insofar as we are sinners – even as God ultimately desires that we be driven not by a “servile fear” but rather be compelled by fear in the sense of respect, reverence, etc. – and this, of course, is a part of love.

In sum then, we should be distraught, mortified and saddened that we continue to need God’s threats – meant to terrify us – instead of basically just needing His patient and gentle discipline and guidance.[vii]

If you think about it the situation as it currently stands – with the reality of death, the fruit of sin, breathing down our neck! – should be more than enough to deter us in our wandering…

(again, death reminds us of what our sin and each sin, in fact, deserves).

So what should we think when Jesus says, “fear the One…who can destroy the body and soul in hell…”?

I submit that the ideal scenario, the one that God would have  characterize us more and more, is that this would be our go-to-thought of last resort… (at least insofar as we need to recall this warning in light of our own situations…).

In other words, it would be best if it, desiring to entertain this or that particular sin less and less, it were not necessary for us to think about this statement!

Again, it is then in fact a certain kind of good word – but one that we’d rather not have to remind ourselves of!

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Luther sums up things well, making this very wise comment. Some people “fear God for the sake of God alone; they do the best they can and very conscientiously avoid evil.”

Only love!

Only trust!

Only that filial fear, that is reverence and respect…

Here, the new creation, what Paul also calls our new man, is truly getting the upper hand in us!

“Others,” he says though, “fear God for the sake of God, and, at the same time, for the sake of the threatened punishment; their works are less good and perfect.”[viii]

In a way, this describes all of us insofar as we remain sinners… but Luther is also saying that this characterizes many persons as a whole, being spiritually immature as they are.

Again though, Luther also knew that such a thought needed to apply to those who we might characterize as spiritually mature as well… for as long as each one of us lives, we will continue to need the law in its full force to fight and put down and kill the old man within us.[ix]

Maybe a good believing guy like Jeremiah thought that he – as a forgiven child of God who also had just been called as a prophet no less! – was doing alright, maturing as God’s faith-filled servant…

Maybe he thought that God’s perfect love was driving out the terror that the old man in him needed!

And yet, God comes to him directly – and warns him with very hard words: “[do this]…or I will terrify you.”

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More on this in a minute, but why, you might ask, is this happening? What is the reason for God acting this way?

Well, in Jeremiah’s day, we know that God’s mission was to announce the judgement of idolatrous Israel as a whole… even as He also promised to show mercy, to preserve a remnant…

Even so, God desires the death of none of the wicked ones, the prophet Ezekiel told us (Ezekiel 18, 33). This desire that all would be saved is made even more clear in the New Testament. In sum, in midst of the chaos, destruction, evil, and death God means for us to live!

But again, how did we get here in the first place? Why do we need to be “saved” at all? Why must we even be terrified of God?!

We should know that to be driven to God and to cry out to Him for my own sake – that I might spiritually survive – is something that would have been unthinkable in a very good world before the fall…

After all, life was meant to be more — so much more! I’ll quote from myself, from a sermon from a couple years back:

In the beginning, God provided for everything that our first parents needed. They were told that they could eat from any tree in the Garden, and this would have also included the mysterious Tree of Life…

This was Paradise! Set to live forever with God in the very good creation that He had made, they lacked nothing. Without suffering, pain, and thorns, they really did “have it all”.

No true enjoyment or satisfaction would have been denied them, for all their desires were in line with all that God had made.

Everything was fit to purpose, “in the groove,” and it would have been, to say the least, a glorious time of feasting, fellowship, naming and playing with the animals, dancing, singing and shouting, loving and baby-making, all in sheer innocence, pure pleasure, and great joy.

When we hear the Apostle Paul say of heaven that “no eye has seen and no ear has heard what God has prepared for those who love Him,” it is no stretch to say that we should also think something similar about Eden as well!

In Eden, surviving—either in the presence of our neighbors or in the presence of God—would have never been a reason to depend on God! To look to Him for help! To grasp Him and cling to Him! To absolutely depend!

We would not have needed, having already being given in full the True Hope known in His love and peace, to call upon Him for salvation…

Nevertheless, we are in the shadow of Genesis 3, where we ruined everything… And so, now:

“…we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places…”

And so now in this environment, the fear of the Lord, that is…

  • the recognition that we cannot survive His wrath…
  • the realization that death is ours’ and our loved ones’ ultimate desert
  • the knowledge that death may be the last enemy to be destroyed but it’s also our wage…
  • knowing that we only truly live when we begin to hate our lives…

…is the beginning of knowledge…

The world, as one man puts it “struggles with life for the sake of life…”

Christians, on the other hand, cry out to Him for our life and the lives of those we love – that we may survive and immortally BE – and BE GLORIFIED – with Him.

This calling out to Him for this then…

  • though it is not sum and substance of the Christian life
  • though it would have not been “good” were it not for the fall
  • though it was never intended from the beginning

…is, of course, no sin, but the very will of God.

The chaotic and disintegrating world is under the curse, and He is our only hope for everything being restored and set right…

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Again, right now, we are not completely restored and set right.

…even we who are redeemed and made new creatures in Him.

In a way, all of this reminds me in of a true story I’m familiar with.

Let me tell it to you.

Names, places, and circumstances have been changed though…

Once upon a time, there was a man named Widget Workman. Mr. Workman had worked his whole life for a large organization that produced Very Useful Things and Mr. Workman was certainly sold on the company’s important mission.

And Widget truly enjoyed his work, where he was able to solve all manner of problems with the gifts he possessed. He would deeply concentrate on what was required to make the Very Useful Things work better and more efficiently.   

Again, Widget loved his job, and also enjoyed taking his turn answering questions from live customers on the phone when it was his responsibility to do so. In addition, he deeply appreciated his co-workers, and felt very supported by his supervisor as well, Big Bossman.

Big Bossman also loved doing what he did, running a large organization that produced Very Useful Things. He was highly skilled himself, and determined to make everything work right according to his specifications, which had proved to be a very successful strategy in pleasing many a customer, improving their lives…

Big Bossman also liked Mr. Widget Workman very much, but noticed a problem. Widget would often become so deeply immersed in his work, focusing on specific problems that needed solving. This was good, but on the other hand he would frequently be late for his shifts to answer questions from customers. He would also sometimes do the same with meetings with fellow workers. On occasion, his co-workers would even have to call him and remind him of his appointments.

Widget, being a conscientious sort, would feel guilty about his failures and re-double his efforts. He attempted to create certain strategies to help him, sticky notes, strings around fingers, writing on his hand, and other reminders as well.

Nevertheless he would continue to fail, maybe even after experiencing success over several weeks and even months. This prompted Big Bossman to give him a verbal warning, and, later, even a written warning that emphasized the seriousness of the issue.

Still, Widget continued to fail. He thought he really did want to change, but it seemed, could not.  

So what was Bossman to do? He knew that Widget did not want to fail in his efforts and felt bad when he did. He not only appreciated Widget’s work, but he also cared deeply about solving his problem as well. And – he cared how his problem affected the rest of His workers.  

Bossman doubled down. He called Widget into his office, and put matters like this:

“I have tried many times to let you know that we appreciate all the good work that you are doing and we want you to continue doing it. As you know, however, we also have some serious problems. Because of these problems, the work of the whole organization and its mission suffers and your co-workers are being demoralized. You need to get to the root issue. However you do that, I am giving you a final warning. Absolutely no lateness for appointments will be tolerated. If it happens again, I am going to need to let you go. We will operate this way for the rest of this quarter, and then re-evaluate.”

With the threat of loss of employment and livelihood – the only one he’d ever known – before him, Mr. Workman found a way.

The old dog could learn new tricks. With his first job now essentially being to keep his job, finally new strategies and habits were formed that enabled him to focus more carefully on not missing his appointments – even as he continued to succeed in his other assignments as well.

A few months later he had not failed in his task and the threat hanging over his head was removed. Widget then actually thanked Big Bossman for helping him to make things work, saying:

“Thank you sir. Nothing focuses the mind like living in perpetual fear that you are going to mess things up when you absolutely cannot afford to… I’ve never prayed so hard in my life. And it helped that I truly believed you wanted me to get through this gauntlet.

He also commented that, for the sake of his work, he would continue to act as if the threat remained!

We all are much like Mr. Workman. Our Lord is very much like Big Bossman.

He has His purposes, and He has called us to these.

He desires those purposes to be accomplished, and our hearty cooperation in the same.

Is that hearty cooperation always there with God’s purposes – particularly when we are being taught or disciplined?

We know it is not, and this too shows our sin and evil.[x] Nevertheless, in our heart of hearts, Christians know their Lord loves them in Christ and that His commands and purposes are good…

And so even though their works are imperfect and impure, the Formula of Concord, the 1580 document that all confessional Lutheran pastors subscribe to, puts it this way:  

Christians are not under the Law, but under grace, because by faith in Christ the persons are freed from the curse and condemnation of the Law; and because their good works, although they are still imperfect and impure, are acceptable to God through Christ; moreover, because so far as they have been born anew according to the inner man, they do what is pleasing to God, not by coercion of the Law, but by the renewing of the Holy Ghost, voluntarily and spontaneously from their hearts; however, they maintain nevertheless a constant struggle against the old Adam.

So when someone asks you if God is really satisfied with the way you live, you can reply:  

“Yes, because I am in Jesus Christ, who paid for my sins on the cross after walking in and fulfilling the law on my behalf. And He empowers me now to begin to do the same, having true peace with Him…”

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God has died for us that we might have true peace with Him, abundant life, and eternal salvation.

And He desires all persons in the world to have this new life!

And of course, He doesn’t desire His people to get in the way of this at all!

Again, we are saints and we are sinners at the same time and so we always, until Jesus comes back, need His law and gospel at the same time.[xi]

Here, I am reminded of another interesting thing:

The former Pope, Pope Benedict, exhorted modern Westerners to act as if God were real – even if they didn’t believe in Him – this, of course, would include fear of the Lord.

On the one hand, this is a bit messed up because we don’t have the “luxury” of acting as if God were real when He clearly is. On the other hand, the statement is at least right in recognizing that God wants us to not only be convicted by the law that we might always find grace, but to do the law as well.

Just like how at the end of Ecclesiastes 12:13 we read. “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.”

Sinful man rejects this, and hence rejected Jeremiah. And the violent opposition Jeremiah would encounter “foreshadows the violent opposition” that Jesus encountered as well (Lutheran Study Bible).

Nevertheless, Jesus lived out the command from Ecclesiastes perfectly. Without terror, He perfectly feared, loved, and trusted God on our behalf. As Hebrew five puts it:

“…in the days of His flesh, when [Jesus] had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death”, he “was heard because of His godly fear”…

The author of Hebrews goes on to say, speaking about Jesus according to His human nature: “….though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered…” (NKJV).

And let us also point out this important fact:

Even though there is suffering here, there is a final victory. Jeremiah ultimately prevailed over his enemies. He did not back down, his prophecies went on to be verified, and he’s with the Lord now…

In like fashion, Jesus Christ was not defeated but accomplished the mission laid before Him. He too was victorious, with God’s resurrection being not only a sign of His vindication by God…

…but a victory that we all share in and will completely share in when our own bodies are made new on the Last Day and we know the new heavens and new earth….   

Because we are in Him, when that battle between the old and new man commences – and when Satan tempts us to believe that God is not just disciplining us to transform and refine us, but punishing us with a desire to be done with us – maybe even to throw us away in Hell forever! – we can and must tell him to get lost.

Joined with Jesus Christ, in perfect peace – knowing that all our sins, even now, have been forgiven – we too, with Him, can rightly revere, respect, fear, our God…

Nevertheless, again, we too like Jeremiah, are going to keep on needing the terror of the Lord.

Don’t think you can do without it, without His warnings and even threats.  

At the same time, do not live in terror! Know that Jesus Christ has indeed perfectly feared, loved, and trusted in the Lord on your behalf.

And that with Him and His forgiveness, life and salvation – that he continually offers you and gives you even now – you have nothing to eternally fear.

With this message ringing in our ears and finding its way into our hearts what Luther reminds us about can make sense in the midst of all trials: “When… a son is chastened by his father he does not look upon the rod as a symbol of disinheritance…” (110, LW 13).

This is most certainly true.

Jeremiah knew this, and we can too.[xii]

We need to say it again and again: in the Son of God, in Jesus Christ alone, there is peace, joy, and love!

And because of Him, His work, and what He brings even now and will bring at His return, we are all, step by step, are coming to know the meaning of perfect love, so that we might all one day experience – forever experience! – that love that always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (I Cor. 13:7).

For in Him all the promises of God are a “yes,” including, especially, “I will never leave you nor forsake you”.

Amen!


[i] “Today I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall to stand against the whole land—against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests and the people of the land. 19 They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord.”

[ii] Some give the impression here that God is just encouraging* the more timid Jeremiah, like he did Ezekiel when He said:

“And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions… I will make your forehead like the hardest stone, harder than flint. Do not be afraid of them or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious people.” (Ezek. 2:6a, 3:9).

But what is being said here seems markedly different!

Thompson, 156 is much more honest about everything when he speaks of “torrid experiences ahead…” “These needed to be faced as resolutely as a man preparing for battle faced possible dangers, or with the determination of one who faced a task which involved physical exertion. Long flowing dress which would hinder freedom of movement needed to be tied up around one’s waist…”

This certainly was a perilous occupation, as 2 Kings 21:16 makes clear::

“Moreover, Manasseh also shed so much innocent blood that he filled Jerusalem from end to end—besides the sin that he had caused Judah to commit, so that they did evil in the eyes of the LORD.”

Thompson also says:

“…in order that God might conquer the last hesitations of Jeremiah after the calm advice of v. 17a, he added in v. 17b the brief and almost harsh warning. If Jeremiah draws back in fear and flees from his mission, he will encounter not merely men as adversaries, but God himself (cf. 12:5, 6; 20:9). If Jeremiah was afraid before men and lacked trust in his divine commissioner, he would be defenseless. A man who fears man has also God to fear” (JA Thompson, 157).

Also good:

“Jerusalem, that impregnable fortress that has stood for so many centuries, would have an army encamped at its gates and would succumb (v 15); Jeremiah, who was to be as a fortified city, would survive all attacks, though there were to be occasions in his future life when that survival seemed severely in doubt.” (Craigies, 17)

[iii] More on verse 17 from the free older commentaries in Bible Hub:

[Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary

17. gird … loins—resolutely prepare for thy appointed task. Metaphor from the flowing robes worn in the East, which have to be girt up with a girdle, so as not to incommode one, when undertaking any active work (Job 38:3; Lu 12:35; 1Pe 1:13).

dismayed … confound—the same Hebrew word; literally, “to break.” Be not dismayed at their faces (before them), lest I make thee dismayed before their faces (before them), that is, “lest I should permit thee to be overcome by them” (compare Jer 49:37*).

* I will shatter Elam before their foes,

    before those who want to kill them;

I will bring disaster on them,

    even my fierce anger,”

declares the Lord.

“I will pursue them with the sword

    until I have made an end of them.]

!!!!!!:

[Matthew Poole’s Commentary

Gird up thy loins: by this expression God quickens and hastens him upon his work, not to stand hesitating, but to be doing; prepare thyself: for it is a speech taken from the custom of the countries where they did wear long garments; and therefore they did gird them up about them, that they might not hinder them in any work that required expedition. See the phrase and practice Exodus 12:11 2 Kings 4:29, and in many other texts. It implies two things:

1. Speed and despatch.

2. Courage and resolution, Job 38.

Arise; another expression to the same purpose, to speed him about his work; the like Jeremiah 13.

Command thee, Heb. shall command thee. Be not dismayed at their faces; discover no fear, and conceal no message. See Jeremiah 1:8.

Confound thee, Heb. break thee in pieces; either lest thou prove confused and shattered in thy notions, and unable to deliver thy message, lest I leave thee and forsake thee; or lest I terrify thee worse than they are able to do, even to ruin thee. See Matthew 10:28.

Before them: it seems to be spoken by way of aggravation; God would shame him, or destroy him, even in their sight, to become their reproach. Or, Think not to escape any more than Urijah, Jeremiah 26:23.]

[Geneva Study Bible

Thou therefore gird up thy loins, and arise, and speak to them all that I command thee: be not dismayed at their faces, lest I {q} confound thee before them.

(q) Which declares that God’s vengeance is prepared against them who do not execute their duty faithfully, either for fear of man, or for any other reason, 1Co 9:16.]

9:16: “For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!”

[Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

17–19. Words of encouragement

17Thou therefore gird up thy loins] obviously metaphorical. Prepare for energetic action or strenuous conflict. The lower part of the flowing Eastern robe was gathered up in preparation for (i) a journey (Exodus 12:112 Kings 4:292 Kings 9:1), (ii) a race (1 Kings 18:46), (iii) a conflict (Job 38:3Job 40:7).

be not dismayed, etc.] be not dismayed (lit. broken down, shattered) before them, lest I dismay thee before them. Be not a coward, lest I leave thee to the consequences of thy cowardice. Quail not, lest I let thee quail. Cp. Jeremiah 17:17.]

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Pulpit commentary: “Be not dismayed. A want of confidence on Jeremiah’s part will issue in his utter discomfiture by his enemies. “Dismay” in Hebrew has a twofold reference, subjective (“dismay”) and objective (“ruin,” “discomfiture”). Both references can be illustrated from this verse. (Comp. the command and – ver. 18 – premise to Jeremiah with the command and promise to Ezekiel – 3:8, 9.) Jeremiah 1:17”

[iv] Interestingly, in our Psalm today the Psalmist also says to God:

Deliver me, my God, from the hand of the wicked,
    from the grasp of those who are evil and cruel.”

[v] Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges on this passage:

“Fear him, which after he hath killed] Many commentators have understood this expression of the Devil, and one of the Fathers goes so far as to say that it is the only passage in the Bible in which we cannot be certain whether God or Satan is intended. There can, however, be no doubt that the reference is to God. If “fear” ever meant ‘be on your guard against,’ the other view might be tenable, but there is no instance of such a meaning, and we are bidden to defy and resist the Devil, but never to fear him; nor are we ever told that he has any power to cast into Gehenna.”

[vi] The Formula of Concord, with Romans 7 in mind, states the following: 

“Therefore, in this life, because of these desires of the flesh, the faithful, elect, reborn children of God need not only the law’s daily instruction and admonition, its warning and threatening but often they also need its punishments, so they may be incited by them and follow God’s Spirit, as it is written, ‘It is good for me that I was humbled, so that I might learn your statues.’”

[vii] I think this is an important point to make vs. Lutherans who balk at the notion of progress in sanctification or simply urging progress in sanctification.

[viii] Corollary:

The first use of the law is really only for the Old Adam. The third use is really only for the concrete Christian who is in part a New Man. But the second use is for the Christian as a person of two natures: the Old Adam and New Man.

Speaking more in terms of the creation and less about man’s internal state, the third use, insofar as we are talking about the 10 commandments, is really exactly the same as the first use except without the coercive elements of the latter…

[ix] Luther on Psalm 90:11: “In this verse Moses deplores the blindness and the stupidity and the insensitivity of people who do not understand their own intolerable misery even though they feel it. They are like slaves accustomed to beatings from their masters. God’s chastening does not reform them in the slightest degree. But we all, so Moses tells us, are like that. We are victims of an incredible stupor of the heart and therefore, fail to understand our misery even though we fell it” (LW, 125).

[x] Is OK that I complete an action or participate in a necessary action without perfect intention and motivation? No. Does that mean that if I can’t complete the action without perfect intention and motivation that I should not complete it? Of course not. Jesus commends the man who grumbles about the job even as he goes on to do it and condemns the man who says he’ll do it but fails.

[xi] Werner Elert said that “According to the Law, the fear of punishment and hope of reward are legitimate reasons for keeping it. If, in this, he means that the fear of punishment is something our New Man rejoices in because he wants to be rid of Old Adam who prevents us from running in the way of the commandments – and that our hope of reward is primarily our desire to spend eternity with our Heavenly Father and Brother, Jesus Christ – I think that this could make sense. An acknowledgement of the Christian’s two simultaneously warring natures here, however, is necessary in order to hold this perspective. We also recall that in the Formula of Concord it talks about how obedience born of fear of punishment or hope of reward is not satisfactory because it does not fear, love, and trust God for His own sake.

We can say this though: According to the Gospel though, we are sons and not slaves. We know our Master is not hard, and that He delights to show us grace and mercy, giving us “rewards” we do not deserve. Therefore fear of punishment and hope of reward are not “legitimate” in this context….

[xii] If Jeremiah lived in abject terror throughout his life, what would be attractive about that?

If he has no sense of peace or joy or confidence about him, who would listen?

If he seemed to simply live by the law, where he was constantly in terror of God’s hammer falling, because he had not followed this or that commandment, who would listen?

God knows this. He is no legalist.

 
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Posted by on January 30, 2022 in Uncategorized

 

Learning to Be God’s Body for God’s Glory

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“God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.”

– I Cor. 12:24b-25

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“May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
    be pleasing in your sight,
    Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.”

When I was younger, I was particularly interested in questions surrounding the issue of creation vs. evolution.

To this day, I think that’s why I found the discipline of biology so fascinating and ended up getting a bachelor’s degree in it…

One of the things that you notice pretty quickly if you look at this debate is that throughout history many of those pushing the issue of human evolution have tried to show that the human eye certainly could have evolved… and also that it really is not that impressively designed (or “designed”) after all…

And to say the least, here they have failed miserably. Few of the members of our body, after all, are as impressive as the eye.

Other evolutionists, however, have endeavored to go after a target that looks a bit weaker: the appendix, for example.

For many years and among many still today, in large part because of the speculations of Charles Darwin, the appendix has been called a “vestigial organ.” This means that it is a “vestige” – something that served a purpose at one point in man’s evolutionary past but now serves no function…

As one writer put it:

“For many years, the primary function of the appendix seemed to be to give surgeons a little something extra to do whenever they visited a patient’s abdomen. After all, it could get infected later and was thought to be useless, so why not get rid of it?”

Never mind that, as one article puts it “Pathologists certainly had ample opportunity to study normal appendices, and they found [that] they contained lymphatic tissue suggesting [the appendix] was designed to do a job.”

Now, while there is undoubtedly still much knowledge to be discovered, the most recent research – even research by those who make clear their evolutionary assumptions – suggests that the appendix provides a “safe house” where “beneficial bacteria can hide when dangerous germs temporarily [out-compete them and] take over the gut.”

This, however, is just one example about how a belief in a wrong idea like evolution has been detrimental, has at the very least slowed down good research and medical science…

Another example has to do with the issue of “junk DNA”. For decades 98% of non-protein-coding DNA was referred to as “junk DNA” – again, vestigial and hence useless leftovers from man’s evolutionary history.

And yet now, results from some more recent studies estimate that at least 80% of the human genome shows some activities. It turns out that the “junk” DNA “regulates genes, switching them on and off as necessary to produce the proteins that compose the body.” More recently, other scientists “discovered that so-called ‘junk DNA’ portions are involved in sex determination.”

So, a vestigial appendix?

“Junk DNA”?

Scientists?

This is just embarrassing.

And so I am not embarrassed to quote creation-scientist Georgia Purdom, who smartly observes:

“So much for ‘junk’ DNA!”… “Unfortunately, for many years the evolutionary assumption that noncoding DNA was nonfunctional ‘junk’—and hence not worth studying—actually inhibited our understanding of the human genome.”

The article containing this quote goes on: “Far from being a relatively simple, linear string of information, human DNA is proving to be a three-dimensional, multilayer program of such breathtaking complexity that scientists expect to spend at least the rest of the century unraveling it.”[i]

At least we are learning here now, but how foolish man can be!

+++

While the overwhelming glory and power of God is the primary reason the Psalmist asks “What is man that you are mindful of him?”…

…I do wonder if similar thoughts about man’s foolishness and lowliness may have contributed to him asking that rhetorical question…

And I also observe that it sometimes seems that throughout history mankind has often made a similar statement about each other: “What is [that] man that you are mindful of him?”

Or, what is that particular group of men that you are mindful of them?!

The history of man is replete with examples of this or that group of people, for example, believing they are by nature superior, or innately superior, to others.

Much of this has not been helped by modern notions of race – perhaps created primarily to justify poor treatment of others… Here men and women are more or less divided up into different biological groups with corresponding labels…

Never mind that Google will direct you to seemingly reputable websites that will insist that there are four races. Or five. Or six. Or ten. The Encyclopedia Britannica even reads: “Experts have suggested a range of different races varying from 3 to more than 60…”

Well, at least we know there are two sexes (yes, we do!)!

So, I find this talk about race confusing and unhelpful. Why not speak more in terms of ethnicity, taking into account both one’s genetics (or better, parentage) and one’s culture, a massive influence, as well?

Again, as I know I have mentioned before, in biblical times the ancient Greek word we translate “race”, “συγγενής,” meant essentially the same thing as the ancient Greek word “ethnos,” from where we get our word “ethnic” today.  

This issue is truly a cause of tension in our world today, but really… this is not even the biggest one! To better understand one of the even more important issues it perhaps helps to look at the nation of India. Here a caste system based not on race but on “class” persists to this day, where men and women are not only arranged into social hierarchies, but some people are actually thought to exist outside of that social hierarchy altogether! (these are the Dhalits, or the “untouchables”).[ii]

The Indian Christian Vishal Mangalwadi helps us understand a bit more the kinds of beliefs and attitudes that predominate in India today…. In his book about how the Bible helped shape and form the Western world, Mangalwadi reflects on he and his wife’s efforts to preserve the life a small Indian girl whose family was trying to kill her due to her poor health. He ties history, ideas, and real life right now together, writing:

“[In the Western world the Bible shaped the view of man’s value.] The Renaissance writers quoted classical writers (more Romans than Greeks) to garnish their treatises on man. But they could not and did not derive their high view of man from the Greco-Roman worldview. It was the Bible’s vision of what man was created to be, and saved to become, that became the commonsense view in the West…

It was this biblical view that inspired [my wife] Ruth to try to save Sheela [from her parents]. Our neighbors did not understand [Ruth’s] compassionate impulse because three thousand years of Hinduism, twenty-six hundred years of Buddhism, a thousand years of Islam, and a century of secularism had collectively failed to give them a convincing basis for recognizing and affirming the unique value of a human being.” (pp. 70-72, The Book that Made Your World)*

The Bible truly has changed not only individuals but whole peoples.

If you truly believe that it is self-evident that “all men are created equal” in some significant sense and believe all peoples’ just complaints before God might make moral demands on you also (meaning that they have these certain rights before God), you, in the singular, might just be a Christian. And I’d insist that you, plural, might just be a Christian nation!  

While we certainly believe that there is such a thing as property for families and even borders for nations (!) we certainly would not believe that Americans are naturally superior and others naturally inferior… and that this should be a major part of our lens of how we see the world…

On the one hand:

How easy it is for us to not only notice these things and sigh a humble prayer of thanksgiving, but also to nurture and unhealthy kind of pride here, to pat ourselves on the back regarding our achievements, thanking God that we are not like other men…

Again, how foolish!

For ultimately, what do we have that we have not received?

+++

And before we move forward, trying to nurture some kind of healthy self-regard, we should really take our own pulse and look in the mirror, individually…

Each one of us, after all, will also either question the significance of others or find ourselves envious of others, or both… Others far from home and others close to home.

We too can be o so very foolish, can’t we?  

This is natural, in a way. As in “natural in a fallen world”! We all, after all, have a concern about status. And, going hand in hand with this, especially as we get older, the issue of money, for example, looms large.

All of us, after all, would like to see our children and grandchildren be successful and to make some good money, right?  

Oh, we know money isn’t everything. We’ll insist that general morality, character, virtue, and worldly wisdom certainly help a person to succeed in the world and help people be well-regarded, after all!

Not even most atheists will say that this kind of general morality and worldly wisdom can’t really help a person succeed in the world!

That said… when we think of success…. how quickly our minds go to something else!

Money, right?

I mean, money – some kind of liquid currency – sure can help us to be successful, right?

After all, if you come into money – and you are not like the idiot who wins the lottery and blows his winnings on whatever he feels like – you can also start to produce what we call “wealth” as well!

You can purchase possessions and you can gain other perks and powers (like education, investments, connections, increased social mobility…)….

And if you have these things, your status will increase (perhaps particularly with this or that group you are interested in being with…)!

And if you have status, you have a sense of where you stand in the pecking order, and the influence that affords you…

And… if you know where you stand in the pecking order and can effectively wield that position for influence…. Then you will have the appreciation and admiration and even attraction of others in your immediate circles… and maybe beyond (maybe even catching the eye of that really special someone!)

And… if you have the admiration and attraction of those certain others – who might even become our close partners in our success! – all of life’s common pleasures and comforts sought by men and women of every age, and not just shallow short-term ones but the sensible and respectable long-term pleasures as well….  are within your grasp….

You can retire, disengage from society, and relax!

Or you can choose to further engage society and seek to exercise some control over its direction!

Earthly comfort! Earthly rest! Or, for the more ambitious, some real earthly glory and honor!

Don’t call all of this the vice of covetousness or greed… call it good and right and proper ambition!

What harm is there in all this? Yes, we’ve heard about what people say they regret on their death beds. Certainly we want real love and friendship in our lives too – and not just some earthly “trophies” – but why not also all of this as well?…

+++

Now, no doubt many of these thoughts appear to accurately, nay truly, describe at least a lot of the world, and perhaps we would be quite remiss to ignore them, to ignore how the world typically seems to work….

At the same time, what does Paul say right away in his letter to the Corinthians congregation from where we get out text for this morning?

“For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

“Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.’” (I Corinthians 1).

Ah.

What does this mean when we think about it along with our earthly ambitions and goals? And how might this fit with being as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove? Perhaps what Paul says later in I Corinthians can really give us a clue:

“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God. Do not become a stumbling block, whether to Jews or Greeks or the church of God—as I also try to please everyone in all I do. For I am not seeking my own good, but the good of many, that they may be saved….”

So, what do we see in our texts for this morning in Paul’s teaching about the body of Christ?

A repudiation of the world’s insistence that certain things and persons in the world are little, of little or no value… don’t matter…

As Martin Fraanzman puts it, Paul in I Corinthians, sharing Jesus’ concern for the “little ones,” is “protecting the less brilliantly endowed members of the church against the disregard and contempt of the Corinthian admiration society.”

So we see a real concern for others, and not just some others, but all the members what Paul calls the body of Christ, and particularly the “little people”.

Let’s explore this a bit more. Paul goes on talk about parts of the body that we deem weak. Or the parts that we treat with more honor because they are less honorable. Or that are not presentable and so we cover. Let’s look at these, starting with the last one and working our way up.

Now, it is really true that we should cover some parts of our physical bodies because we live in a fallen world!

Sensibly, not all of us would agree with the colleague I worked with at camp who declared: “To be naked is to be free”…. We are not in the Garden of Eden any more after all, and so while Adam and Eve were indeed not in need of clothing, we, as those who are sinners and who still daily face off vs. the power of sin, are. And so we give special attention to and cover those “private parts”.

Paul also says that we give special attention to, or honor, some body parts that we feel “the need to adorn or dress up…” (Carleton Toppe). The commentator Gregory Lockwood points out that “We don’t cover the hands and feet, but the arms, the chest, and the legs were normally covered by the tunic and cloak…” (Lockwood, 259, 2010)…

Finally, let’s look at the first thing Paul mentions when he speaks about “…those parts of the body that seem to be weaker” and how they are actually indispensable.

What Paul is saying here is that we do indeed make false estimates; appearances can be deceiving![iii] A useless appendix, we might think! Junk DNA! What good are these things? Can’t we do just as well without them?

No.

In one sense, no part of the body is weak… because it does exactly what God designed it to do. It is strong in what it was created to do!

No, they are not physically strong, mentally strong, impressive, etc… Therefore yes, weak, “from a certain point of view…”  The liver, for example, is not as strong or attractive as other parts… like the eye. And while it does not manage, direct, and control like the brain, it nevertheless still does an indispensable, a vital, function…

I especially like how the 5th century church father Jerome speaks about how the eyes, hands, and feet do not “scorn the belly as if it were idle and unemployed…” (124, ACCS)![iv]

So, like He does in the body of Christ, our God puts the parts of the human body where He does, and makes them “an indispensable part of the whole organism” (Franzmann).

As Lockwood puts it, “The body is like a choir or an orchestra, where each singer or musician has an assigned and vital role in producing a pleasing result” (Lockwood, 259, 2010).

And what about all the times this doesn’t seem to work and no one seems to be thinking this way?

Well, note also what our text says about how God Himself is the One who “giv[es] greater honor to the parts that lacked [honor].

Even if your fellow believers fail you, realize that “those who accrue the most praise in this world might find the ones they looked down upon receiving greater commendation from God.” (Lockwood, 259, 2010).

God gives more honor, greater honor, to the parts deemed inferior, and Christians should follow the Lord’s lead in doing just this. Consider, for example, Rom. 12:10: Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.” (Lockwood, 260, 2010)

So let there be no sense of superiority or haughtiness here regarding any man or women!

Likewise, let there be no jealousy, discouragement, or grumbling here!

Do not feel superior or inferior, but rather be thankful that God has so arranged things!

And may we learn to think of ourselves as one body, “rejoic[ing] with those who rejoice” and “weep[ing] with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15)…

+++

Again, God does not only give special or unique honor to parts of the body of Christ that lacked honor, singling them out.

God goes even further, and in a way that we might not fully understand, and even find perplexing… He gives them not just special or unique honor but greater honor…

Greater honor… For those who have labored and even toiled in God’s vineyard, this is coming!

The good and right judgement from God… hearty recognition from God – sadly perhaps surprising many of us and catching us off guard! – for their labors… their labors that in the world rarely if ever result in things like an increase of status and promotion….

And, interestingly, God does this, Paul goes on to say, specifically so that there “should be no division in the body” and also that all the parts of Christ’s body should have equal concern for each other…”

Somehow, God’s treating the parts of the body that we think are less honorable with greater honor – not only in the next life but in this life as well – is meant to make this happen and will indeed make this happen to some degree, even if we do not see this happening now or are not sure just how it happens….

Again, God means for us to learn to think of ourselves as one body, “rejoic[ing] with those who rejoice” and “weep[ing] with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15), for example.  

When one’s finger hurts, we don’t say I have a pain in my finger, but my finger hurts (Plato). When someone complements our smile, not just the mouth but our whole self basks in the complement… (Lockwood, 260, 2010).

Let it increasingly be so with us as well!

I think that this is exactly the kind of belief which led great Old Testament leaders like Ezra and Nehemiah, in our Old Testament reading for this morning, to gather all of God’s people – fresh from their return from their captivity in Babylon – together for the most important thing they could: for the hearing of God’s word leading to the people’s worship of God… We need this too.

I also think that this is exactly the kind of belief which led Jesus Christ to challenge the Jews in the Synagogue in our Gospel reading today, eventually making them so angry they wanted to throw Him off a cliff! It seems they did not like hearing that God showed unique – or maybe even greater honor – to the hometown boy (a prophet being without honor in his hometown!) – or to believers in Him who were outside of the Jewish nation, where God at one point in history decided to show preference to a woman from Sidon and a man from Syria… performing miracles of love for them and not the Jews…

God often confuses us in His ways!

We, being people who are inevitably in the world, in the fallen world, will no doubt often catch ourselves thinking like people of this world – in terms of notions of inferiority and superiority, in terms of “scientific” categories that are anything but yet that we find convenient for our purposes, and in terms of what accrues the most honor and status according to worldly wisdom.

The world is full of its own pride and confident evaluations of this or that, and ultimately seeks after its own glory – even if on occasion it shows some reason and sense, in, for example, moments when gladness and thankfulness is experienced…

All that said, again, I Corinthians is full of the admonitions to be otherwise. To not be directed by the world and its loves and cares… To be captive to God’s purposes and the different kind of glory He has in store for us instead….

And so, as a result, like I’ve mentioned, Christians, insofar as they are Christians, have moved the world in a direction that encourages and supports the honoring of God, the glorification of God. And with this comes the sharing of the love of God in Jesus Christ for each individual person!

We certainly can begin to see this kind of thing in God’s church, even if we often see it only simply, humbly, even weakly…

And Lord, may it always happen among us more and more!

[Continued prayer:] For you are the head of the body, of your body, and you look to bring us together and keep us together in Holy Baptism and through bread and wine…

Simple, humble bread and wine… under which are hid your very own body and blood for our forgiveness, life, and salvation! This you did for the crazy and chaotic Corinthian congregation, bringing them together in spite of their lack of love, maturity, and many sins….

And this you do for us as well.

Bringing different nations, different groups, different generations, different classes together at the communion rail, forgiving us individually, renewing us individually, and uniting us all together as one through your own precious body and blood!

Thank you Lord. And,

Amen


[i] https://answersingenesis.org/genetics/days-junk-dna-over/

https://answersingenesis.org/genetics/junk-dna/junk-science/

https://answersingenesis.org/search/?q=appendix

[ii] The Encyclopedia Britannica says of this: “The Hindu sociocultural system was traditionally divided into castes that were exclusive, hereditary, and endogamous. They were also ranked and unequal and thus appeared to have many of the characteristics of “race.” But the complex caste system was not based primarily on skin colour, as castes included people of all physical variations. Nor was it based on a “scientific” ideology of superiority or inferiority, although late 19th-century pseudoscientific analyses attempted to explain the system’s longevity (see below). Although some early 20th-century European scholars tried to divide the Indian and other Asian peoples into races, their efforts were hindered not only by the complexity of physical variations in India, parts of Southeast Asia, and Melanesia but by the developing fields of science.”

[iii] [Seem] Weaker- [dokeo] – to have an opinion ; to seem…

[1380 dokéō – properly, suppose (what “seems to be”), forming an opinion (a personal judgment, estimate).

1380 /dokéō (“suppose”) directly reflects the personal perspective (values) of the person making the subjective judgment call, i.e. showing what they esteem (or not) as an individual.]

[iv] By God’s design, some will be more active in leading and guiding that coordination, moving and shaping, and some parts will be more passive this or that regard in receiving guidance. As coordination for harmony goes forward, some kind of “sub-ordination” of all the “coordinates” must take place. And if all the parts of the body that were relatively more “receptive” or passive did not exist, than where would the parts of the body that controlled or managed be?

That Paul is not concerned about any “problems of hierarchy” can be seen in that he tells the Corinthians to desire the greater spiritual gifts and also that even here in this passage he “ranks” things in a certain way:

27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues[b]? Do all interpret? 31 Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.”

 
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Posted by on January 23, 2022 in Uncategorized

 

Refined by God’s Fire and Flood as the Empire Strikes Back

Through Fire and Water Praise Comes Forth – John The Baptist Artworks

+++

“….he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them…” – Luke 3:17b-18

+++[i]

Earlier in chapter 3 of Luke, before our text for today, we read the following about John the Baptist:

“…He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
    every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
    the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’”[
a]

This really is a most colorful scene. Can you imagine it?

Crowds of people, including a good number of religious leaders, are taking a day-trip into the wilderness to hear John preach… and many of these – for him to help them reform and renovate their lives – will be baptized by him…

Let’s pick things up:

“What should we do then?” the crowd asks [John]…

And John then seems to give out simple suggestions, suggestions which feature acts of generosity: “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

And to the tax collectors who were coming out to be baptized, he gets specific: “Don’t collect any more than you are required to…” To the soldiers who come he doesn’t tell them to become pacifists, but does say “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

So what did John the Baptist say to these men and women before they asked what they should do in the first place?  How was John interacting with all those folks who took valuable time out of their day to come into the desert to hear him?

Oh, he was just saying things like this, and evidently not just to the religious leaders!:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire….

“I baptize you with[b] water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire…”

Modern dispensers of good advice might suggest that this is no way for John to effectively build a following or fan-base, but that, of course, wasn’t his goal… He was preparing the way for the Messiah, God’s goal for all men…

We read, after all, right here in chapter 3, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness” and so that kind of settles things, doesn’t it?

John’s word, John’s work, is prophetic.

One pastor whose sermons I regularly read put this exceptionally well, echoing the 16th century Reformer Martin Luther:

“…the proper office of John the Baptist is the same as the function of God’s Law. It is to humble the entire world. It is to level and beat down the track and pathway. The intent and purpose of John the Baptist and the Law are to crush every single roadblock, to destroy every obstruction – to proclaim that everyone is a lost, damned, poor, miserable, pitiable person. John the Baptist, as well as God’s holy Law, are to proclaim that there is “no life, work, or rank however holy, beautiful, and good it may appear [which] is [not] damnable unless Christ our God” makes it good…” (Matt Richards) 

So John the Baptist means to do just this, making all acknowledge their error, and turning them from their lives of sin and evil to embrace all that the Lord has to offer…

Pardon! (forgiveness!) And the power of His Spirit! A whole new heart, a whole new way of life in Him!

A new way of being created by faith in the life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God!

This involves, of course, perpetually leaving the old behind. Not living in the old way… John’s audience understood that quite well, and hence their inquiries…

How much do we understand this?

That faith in Christ lives in repentance?!

+++

Let’s look at something that John the Baptist said closely again. He said this:

He will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire…”

And right after this, he goes on to say the following: “And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them…

Here is a good question: what is the good news, otherwise known as the Gospel, specifically?

So it seems like here the Gospel is being inexplicably connected not only with God’s forgiveness and mercy – which we are used to – but also to a word that judges as well…

Perhaps looking more closely at the book of Luke specifically might help us here….

Again, “Gospel” in Greek is connected with verbs like εὐαγγελίζω, which literally means to bring or announce good news….

We might perhaps think right away about what the angel of the Lord told the shepherds on that first Christmas!:

“But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Good news that will cause great joy for all the people, and not just the Jews either![ii]

So, what exactly was so good about this news, more specifically?

Well, no doubt this great deliverance – described also by John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah as “a hornof salvation for us in the house of his servant David” – entailed what men like Martin Luther was to emphasize in the 16h century Reformation of the church (when it desperately needed to be emphasized): the forgiveness of sins. For as Zechariah also said, God’s people were to be given “the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God…”

Amen!

Just like the angels also announced to the shepherds, right?: Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2:14, NKJV)

And not only was God sending His Messiah to bring forgiveness, joy, and peace to mankind, rescuing us from “the hand of our enemies,” that is particularly sin, death, and the devil.

Zechariah also speaks about how God will “guide our feet into the path of peace” and enable us to “serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”

“Serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days!”[iii]

You see, the Lord has come to His people in holiness and righteousness. That they too might be holy and righteous as well![iv] So bring on this holiness and righteousness – which yes, we know is going to cause conflict as well![v]

Thy Kingdom come!

This is precisely why, in Luke 1, when the Angel Gabriel speaks to Zechariah about his coming son, John the Baptist, he shares the following which he calls “good news” or “Gospel” (1:19) as well:

“And [your Son John the Baptist] will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

This too, this “holiness and righteousness” that keeps coming, is “good news”[vi]

Do you see how this is good news?

Because the holiness of God, the fire of God, is not meant to judge you and leave you as damnable chaff – even as this will certainly be the end result for many…

Rather, the holiness of God, the fire of God, is meant to convert and refine… to turn us to holiness and righteousness…[vii]

To do this to you in the Holy Spirit’s baptism of fire in Christ![viii]

+++

So in one sense, we can say that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is all about serving in holiness and righteousness before him all our days, turning the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous…

This kind of good news is for all of us! And not just the low, but the high as well!

In our text for today for instance, we see how John the Baptist is being persecuted for confronting someone, someone with power and authority, about the evils and injustices he had done

And all of this reminds me of something that I heard earlier this week – from a man who was talking about all the conversations about power and authority happening today. He said:  

“Power and authority have been all the talk in the news media and in academic circles as of late.

Doubtless, you have heard about being “woke”, about becoming aware of systemic social injustices and inequalities, about that which is called critical theory, and along with it, identity politics. About coming to a realization of the apparent unjust political structures of the world which must be, so it is thought, identified and then compensated for in some way.

Cultural Marxism, also a buzzword for the day. Again, a theory, a set of ideas, about who really has power, who really has authority in society.

We’re going to find out…”

Does this have anything to with what John the Baptist is doing here? If not, how is it different?

First, a similarity. As is often the case with today’s “social justice warriors” John also is not looking to bring Herod to a point of “intellectual submission” through reasoned argumentation and the like. John is no doubt certain that he is right in his moral evaluation, but he doesn’t think Herod needs or even deserves any explanation or argumentation for why this is the case. Herod should just know better!

So how is this different? In a couple major ways.

First, note that even as God is certainly concerned about the abuse and oppression of the poor and the weak, the one sin of a political ruler that we hear about here on the part of Herod is his divorce of his own wife and re-marriage of his half-brother’s wife who was also his niece, Herodias. That is the action Herod had taken that had indeed greatly disturbed and even repulsed much of Judea – and not because of breathless news coverage by the way! – and that John confronted (Josephus, per Lenski, p. 207)…

Second, John is not engaging in these actions in order to undermine Herod’s power and make him weak so that he can eventually be replaced or so that he will submit to John’s political program.[ix] He is doing it because he is holding Herod, like everyone else, to God’s standard, His unchanging and consistent standard! He does this so that Herod can fulfill his vocation – as a provincial ruler – in accordance with God’s will. In other words, John is not trying to usurp authority for himself or others…

Finally, I’d add that we don’t really know the context of how this confrontation happened. Did John mention this in an off-hand fashion publicly? Did he preach a message with Herod and his adultery somehow at the heart of it? Did he simply confront him privately, again, and again?[x] We actually don’t know. The point however, is that John, according to his conscience, believed he had to confront Herod with the truth[xi]… with God’s law… and he did what he had to do…. 

Evidently no concerns or worries about properly dividing or separating church and state here…

No concerns about striving for worldly influence and power on John’s part either…

And, again, no concerns about using reasoned arguments to drive others into “intellectual submission” – or perhaps, as we are seeing more and more these days, using any kind of rhetorical flourishes that work, even if they are ultimately hypocritical, en route to gaining another’s emotional submission!

No. None of that kind of stuff. God’s law is simply for all… high and low.

It is about John fulfilling his prophetic mission, and, in fact, as the commentator Victor Prange puts it: “[John the Baptist’s] imprisonment for speaking the [Word of God – which is not well received by the sinful world –] is an ominous introduction to the ministry of Jesus, and foreshadows the cross on which he will die…”[xii]

Baptized saints, do you understand that with the coming of Christmas, the world’s powers and authorities were, to say the least, encroached upon – and most all of them, it seems, are not going to take this lying down…

This is why Herod commissioned the killing of all the infants of Bethlehem… trying to kill the Top Power and Authority while still in his cradle….

All of this, really, still points to our challenge today….

Nothing has changed:

God’s people look to serve in holiness and righteousness before him all our days, and turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous…

And going along with this, we recognize that even as the world’s powers and authorities will rage against the holiness and righteousness God brings, power and authority are nevertheless very good gifts from God…

…even if those among men and women often abuse it, which means, at one level, that they simply do not uphold the law, the will, of God.

This sermon is beginning to sound a little political, isn’t it?  Or at least that this Gospel that we are hearing about in the book of Luke might have some political implications?  

Indeed! Fathers and mothers – the most basic level of human government – should wisely govern with the Word of God!

And beyond, building from this core:

Teachers should wisely govern with the Word of God…

Employers should wisely govern with the Word of God…

Political rulers and officials should wisely govern with the Word of God.

Interestingly, the British writer J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of the Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings – and certainly no contemporary “social justice warrior”! – might listen to this and respond a bit negatively…

I heard this past week that he once said:

“My political opinions lean more and more to anarchy. The most improper job of any man, even saints, is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity….”

I get this. I mean, I have six boys and so I am one of those people who might find myself quite readily telling you what you should do…

..and I know how even those who really love me respond…

I’ve got to watch myself.

At the same time, I also, somehow, need to find a way to do what God calls me to do in my various vocations or roles…

We are all to speak the Word of God to one another in every aspect of our daily lives…[xiii] including in the life we “do together” when it comes to the political, that is, power and authority arrangements…

All must repent.

In America even? Even our rulers? Yes.

This is hard. This is personal. This is challenging…[xiv]

The hard choices we have before us have to do with knowing when it is our place and role to speak… and to bring a hard word into this or that situation.

Lord have mercy on us! How then should we live?

+++

Our society is in shambles.

The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Broken families.

Confusion among the young about love, and with it gender, sex, and marriage.

Social justice warring, fueled by cultural Marxism or critical theory… identity politics.

Even national borders being seen as evil things! With loving one’s nation even considered bad! As our ruling elites drone on about being “citizens of the world”…

Do these kinds of things arise, do these kinds of things happen, precisely because of a lack of courage on the part of the church when it comes to confronting the world with God’s law?

Is that why things decay?

Is that why things come to pass as they do?

I believe so.

Herod knew what he was doing was wrong. Even today, when the sinful world does wrong, it does not do wrong unknowingly. It suppresses the truth to various degrees, and at some level knows that what it does is wrong.

And for the church specifically – not loving God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind – do we lack the virtue to know in our bones that:

…we must pass His Word on, vigorously teaching it to the young…

…that we need to share both His hard and good words with one another…

…that we are the salt and light so that the things that we love and the things that God has given us can be preserved, maintained…

…and not only this but also that some of them might be prepared for their final transformation and refinement?[xv]

Indeed. Our lack of virtue is why things come to pass as they do… At least in part.

I also know that we are all sinners, that people, particularly politicians, might use religion for their own purposes and not God’s, and that there is an element in all of us, in some of us more than others, where we would like to not be God’s leaf on the river, so to speakbeing taken where he would take us[xvi] – but where we would be those strive to control, control, control of the situations around us regardless of the costs!

…so that we can shape them to our own whims and what we would like….

Not necessarily in line with what God would like….

Nevertheless, again, control, like power and authority, is not an evil thing.

Good governance, in fact, will maintain control of one’s household for good.

O Lord!

O Lord have mercy!

We know the end must come eventually because of man’s sin and evil, but how fast and hard and painfully does it really need to come upon your people?!

+++

Again, what is going on here in our Gospel text for today?

What does burning up chaff with unquenchable fire have to do with good news?

I hope by this point you have a good idea about the answer.

Again, the holiness of God, the fire of God, comes first and foremost not to damn but to convert and refine… And only Jesus, ultimately, will be the perfect Creator of individual and corporate righteousness, only Jesus will be the perfect Justice-Maker… 

To do this to us in the Holy Spirit’s baptism of fire!

What is going on here overall is this:

The God of the Bible is good, good to all, first those He has made His own, and beyond as well.[xvii]

This is the God who is invested in us…[xviii]

It is like the great medieval hymn “Oh love how deep, how broad, how high….”  by Thomas a Kempis:

3 For us baptized, for us he bore
his holy fast and hungered sore;
for us temptation sharp he knew,
for us the tempter overthrew.

4 For us he prayed, for us he taught;
for us his daily works he wrought,
by words and signs and actions thus
still seeking not himself but us.

5 For us, by wicked men betrayed,
for us, in crown of thorns arrayed,
he bore the shameful cross and death;
for us he gave his dying breath.

6 For us he rose from death again,
for us he went on high to reign;
for us he sent his Spirit here
to guide, to strengthen, and to cheer.

All of this, for us. All of us – near and far, high and low. Because He loves us. Because He fully identifies with us, fallen man who needs to be re-created in Him…

Our final answer, really, is to be found at the end of our Gospel and Epistle today.

The real meaning of baptism – not just the baptism that John came preaching, but the baptism that incorporates the completed work of Jesus Christ on earth… is the key…

When we as evil men and women are confronted by God… we are submerged by the flood and die, buried with water….

And then, in resurrection, in rising from the water, a whole new way of life comes forward!

A whole new way of being!

Because of everything that He has done for us.

In our Gospel, we read:

21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

These words are for us who identify with Jesus Christ.

Those of us who long to be free from the sin that continues to cling to us.

Those who are not ashamed to be those who cling to Him…

Who look to Him, sometimes even feeling great, great desperation… perhaps crying out: “I am yours Lord… save me, save us…”

These words are for all those who want to be with Him, not just to be seen but to be a part of all the goodness that He both is and offers… to become more and more a part of that goodness He spreads and would spread…

The words are for all of those who want to be found in Him, to say not so much I was baptized, but I am baptized, I am among those who have been baptized into Jesus’ death…

To us, our Lord indeed says not only to Jesus, but to us:

“You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased….”

Amen

Image: https://jtbarts.com/gallery/through-fire-and-water-praise-comes-forth-isaiah-43-1-2-3/

Notes:


[i] Excised (was going to be first part of the sermon):

Baptized saints, with the coming of Christmas, the world’s powers and authorities were, to say the least, encroached upon – and most all of them, it seems, are not going to take this lying down…

Not long ago I heard someone talk quite powerfully about what happened in the city of Bethlehem when the baby Jesus, the long promised-Messiah of the Jews – the King of the Jews – was born… 

One of the world’s rulers – the one who was currently known as the King of the Jews! – realized his “riches, [his] position[], [his] place[] within society, or, in other words, [his] power and authority…” was under threat.

And so what did he do? He hatched and dispatched a plan to kill the threat.

To kill a baby. The baby Jesus. In his efforts, he killed many babies…

This man went on to say more, speaking very eloquently… demonstrating for all to see just how wrong the powers and authorities of our world can go

He said this:

“…History is replete with man’s quest for power, for authority, for control. Holy Scripture itself hints at the machinations of the Babylonian and Assyrian empires with their assassinations and their overthrows. And what is the history of Israel itself but one king after another assuming power, assuming authority, and then wielding it as he chooses? A vision of the prophet Daniel explaining the dream of Nebuchadnezzar was one of power and authority. As it looked forward to the rise and fall of Alexander the Great… then the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire too eventually fell just like Alexander the Great did… And then various kingdoms in Europe and the Far East.

Rise and fall. Rise and fall. Rise and fall. Quest after quest after quest after quest for what?

Power. Authority. It seems like almost every major nation in Europe for example, has had its turn on that pile. If you know your history: Italy, Spain, France, England, Germany… all taking turns, all wielding power and authority over the rest. In the 4,000 years of Chinese history there have been no less than 83 dynasties with five hundred and fifty-nine emperors. 559. Ghengis Kahn could also be mentioned here. The rise of Japan and so on and so forth. Power. Authority. That is what man wants, and as history shows, man is willing to do what it takes to get it and keep it and almost always it involves blood, it involves death, it involves destruction….”

These are some hard truths. They show just how wrong, just how evil, the rulers and authorities of this world can be… And yet, we might recall Jesus’ exhortation to His own disciples not to be this way, to be in the world but not of it…:

“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in authority over them call themselves benefactors. But you shall not be like them. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who leads like the one who serves….” (Luke 22:25-26)

So far Jesus and His crew. Back to the world and its “best”.

Looking more closely at the actions of the powerful in the world, we see it is not just murder and mayhem that these men get involved in.

There is much more: greed leading to all kinds of clever thievery, pride leading to all kinds of blindness, and lust leading to all kinds of sexual sin.

And that last one, in particular, is at the heart of our text today, and we’ll get back to it in a moment.

First of all, however, let’s look a little bit more at what happens right before our Gospel text for today….

[ii] In Luke 4, while Jesus is riding a wave of popularity as he preaches in Jewish synagogues, He hits a bit of a roadblock in his hometown when he reads the following from Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

…after reading this, Jesus then rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the attendant, sits down, and insists as all the eyes in the synagogue are fastened on him “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

…and things go downhill from there, as the hometown crowd eventually is upset enough to try to throw Him off a cliff for insinuating that God’s mercy – God’s “good news” that is – certainly extended not just to the Jews but to all those who were far off and saw their need for Him!

Where is the judgment for the Gentiles we want?!

Scandalous stuff this Jesus guy is teaching!

[iii] And this, of course, is meant to go hand-in-hand with the kind of hope that John the Baptist is bringing, as well as Mary’s jarring words to her cousin Elizabeth (we call this the Magnificat) about God bringing down rules from their thrones and sending the rich away empty while the hungry are filled with good things… 

Angel to Mary about Jesus: “[Y]ou will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end…”

[iv] And this “holiness and righteousness” being lived out, being enacted throughout history, is precisely why when the old man Simeon sees Jesus in the Temple, when his parents bring him there to be circumcised, he essentially says, “Lord my eyes have now seen your salvation, and I can die in peace now…”

[v] Simeon basically tells Mary that the baby in her arms is going to bring a sword even to her own heart as he divides Israel… the thoughts of many hearts being revealed!…. there is no fear here, but peace and joy.

[vi] And Lutherans – even though we again have a reputation for focusing on the forgiveness and mercy of God – have never denied that this is the case. In the 1580 Book of Concord, which all Confessional Lutheran pastors subscribe to, we read:

“…sometimes [the term Gospel] is employed so that there is understood by it the entire doctrine of Christ, our Lord, which He proclaimed in His ministry upon earth, and commanded to be proclaimed in the New Testament, and hence comprised in it the explanation of the Law and the proclamation of the favor and grace of God… And in this sense… the description of the word Gospel… is correct, when it is said that the Gospel is a preaching of repentance and the remission of sins. For John, Christ, and the apostles began their preaching with repentance and explained and urged not only the gracious promise of the forgiveness of sins, but also the Law of God.Unedited quote:

“…sometimes [the term Gospel] is employed so that there is understood by it the entire doctrine of Christ, our Lord, which He proclaimed in His ministry upon earth, and commanded to be proclaimed in the New Testament, and hence comprised in it the explanation of the Law and the proclamation of the favor and grace of God, His heavenly Father, as it is written, Mark 1:1: The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And shortly afterwards the chief heads are stated: Repentance and forgiveness of sins. Thus, when Christ after His resurrection commanded the apostles to preach the Gospel in all the world, Mark 16:15, He compressed the sum of this doctrine into a few words, when He said, Luke 24:46,47: Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day; and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations. So Paul, too, calls his entire doctrine the Gospel, Acts 20:21; but he embraces the sum of this doctrine under the two heads: Repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.

5 And in this sense the generalis definitio, that is, the description of the word Gospel, when employed in a wide sense and without the proper distinction between the Law and the Gospel is correct, when it is said that the Gospel is a preaching of repentance and the remission of sins. For John, Christ, and the apostles began their preaching with repentance and explained and urged not only the gracious promise of the forgiveness of sins, but also the Law of God.”

[vii] See, e.g., Is. 4:4, Ezek. 36:24-27, Is. 30:27. Chad Bird, https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=3118202221788823&aggr_v_ids%5B0%5D=3118202221788823&notif_id=1641304979735383&notif_t=watch_follower_video&ref=notif

[viii] God’s final chaff-revealing-punishment falls outside of Christ, as He takes that hit… those inside the Son of God, however, are not damned but refined…

[ix] When it comes to Marxism and neo-Marxism, they aim at the heart of authority, the natural law, the will of God (and here, it starts with the first government, the family) because, I think, the world simply hates the law of God and being told there is, in fact, a boss of sorts, especially one who might not fully endorse their own ideas of when and how it is appropriate to challenge governing authorities… (just thinking that we call the last evil person at the level of a video game a “boss”….)

[x] See Mark 6:18 (and Matthew 14:4): “For John had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’”

[xi] We don’t even need to talk about being right about politics or morality per se. Just the desire to be right about anything is at issue in every age and especially ours today. This desire, while it may indeed be ugly as sin infects, is nevertheless not a bad thing, correct?

Paul, after all, does talk about exposing deeds of darkness and Jesus does also say that every lie will be revealed. Again, everything in this life that is hidden will be brought to light.

How does that figure into our calculus about how we daily interact with others? We are right to insist that Jesus talked about making disciples, not “changing the culture”. Still, He did speak of making, that is teaching or indoctrinating disciples, and of *all nations* at that! (Is that important too?)

And just intellectually speaking, how would we ever know if what some see as a desire for “intellectual submission” – which they associate with violence when “rational argumentation” is involved (Edward Said?) — is in fact really *more* a strong desire to know truth and live by it and hold others accountable to it, more or less artfully, as the cases might be?

[xii] Of John the Baptist, one Roman Catholic writer points out:

“St. John the Baptist…. stands as somewhat of an oddity among Christian martyrs in that he preceded Christ in death. He also didn’t die as a direct result of his faith in Christ, nor was he asked to deny Christ. Yet he is reckoned as a Christian martyr by the Church. Why should this be?

St. John the Baptist died not because he refused to deny Christ but because he refused to deny the truth, and ultimately this boils down to the same thing. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6). Anyone who proclaims truth proclaims Christ. Anyone who denies the truth denies Christ.”

[xiii] Jesus’ words in Luke 8:17-19 are profound in their implications for life and governance: “For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open. 18 Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they think they have will be taken from them.”

[xiv] This is deeply uncomfortable isn’t it? This makes us think about things like Jesus telling us the parable about building the tower or deciding to fight in a war… because that is exactly what this should make us think about. Not necessarily that we will need to physically fight but that political fighting – done either with contempt or civility present – is a necessary part of life even as power and authority are not the only thing that life is about, as if they were to overshadow the truth of God’s law, the standards that He has for all persons!

[xv] I’ve wrestled with these questions about preserving certain things, particularly things like nations, and I must ask rhetorically ask the question, it seems, again and again: “Is it simply wrong for a dominant culture—even a culture that many find highly attractive on a number of levels—to attempt to maintain and sustain itself through time? Can this necessarily be the case?” (see page 251 in this published paper: https://www.lsfm.global/uploads/files/LMM%2011-19__Rinne.pdf)

Does Jesus necessarily think that this is the case? That trying to keep your culture, your nation, your heritage, is always wrong?

“Rise and fall, rise and fall, rise and fall” indeed, but are the nations worth trying to preserve in any sense? And have some, in fact, not been better overall than others – even as all nations must ultimately confess their sins and bow before God, confessing His Christ? Is such speech simply always proud and sinful and to be avoided?

[xvi] From Dr. Douglass Frank.

[xvii] Not in some kind of abstract way. In very concrete ways, in various concrete ways that have been displayed throughout history…

And He is interested and invested in not only His own beloved people Israel – but He also, being the strongest and the best of them all – can afford to be interested and invested in all persons in the world!

Even as in our text from Isaiah today, He makes clear His preferences, insisting for example that Israel’s enemies will be sold as a ransom for their sakes (see Is. 43:4).  

But this should assure us even more that He is good!

For He loves those He makes His own most strongly!

And He urges us to do the same… (Gal. 6:10, I Tim. 5:8) while also caring so very deeply about all persons in the world!

[xviii] Excised: “I take it you, like me, want to be invested in Him to, so listen carefully to this. When John the Baptist quotes Isaiah saying:

The crooked roads shall become straight,
    the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’”[
a]

Know that, first, this is talking about Jesus’ work. It is all about His coming and His mission – His perfect life and salvation, lived for us.”

 
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Posted by on January 10, 2022 in Uncategorized