This Sunday is quite special. Each year, on the 29th of September, the festival of Saint Michael and All Angels is celebrated by the Church. It is a festival that has significant connections to Christ and his work, and so, when that day occurs on a Sunday, it takes over the readings and the other ‘details’.
The Gospel text makes the point that some angels see the face of God (Matthew 18:10). That particular characteristic makes those angels quite special. Both the Old Testament and the Epistle texts mention Michael, an archangel. His name means, ‘Who is like God’. In both texts, he plays a major role. Some people see him as Jesus.
The Epistle text is from the book of Revelation [12:7-12]. It speaks of a great war in heaven, ‘Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon (verse 7).’ The dragon—the devil, Satan—was defeated. In the words of the text, ‘he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him (verse 9).’
We usually do not have such a focus on the devil. Usually the scriptures focus on Jesus! Martin Luther noticed this and has some helpful words of advice regarding this particular enemy.
"When, I say, [Satan] comes to you and accuses you not only of failing to do anything good but of transgressing against the Law of God, then you must say: ‘You are troubling me with the memory of past sins; in addition, you have told me that I have not done anything good. This does not concern me. For if I either trusted in my performance of good works or lost my trust because I failed to perform them, in either case Christ would be of no avail to me. Therefore whether you base your objection to me on my sins or on my good works, I do not care; for I put both of them out of sight and depend only on the freedom for which Christ has set me free (American Edition, Volume 27, page 11; this quotation is also found in The Lutheran Study Bible)."
The devil is real. And the solution Luther proposes is also very real. You might say that it is ‘down to earth’.
The concrete reality of that goodness may also be found in the Lord’s Prayer. I brought that up recently, that the middle word (usually translated as ‘daily’) is significant, but it is a word that we truly do not know what it means; it has no previous history. Since it is in the prayer, and since it is in that important middle spot, it significantly changes our perspective of the rest of that prayer. The rest of the prayer brings up negative things—this is unusual since a Hebrew structure has the negative part at the beginning—but since there is also the combination of God the Father’s significant involvement and, therefore, his gracious presence, the negative things that are brought up are not really that bad.
When trespasses are forgiven, that is a ‘sign’ (to use Luther’s word) of our Father’s gracious, giving presence. God must present, doing a miracle, since only God can truly forgive. (See what Martin Luther says in his Large Catechism for more detail.)
I have also mentioned recently that the Roman Catholic Church has changed the wording about the petition for the Father not leading us into temptation. Martin Luther gets the Small Catechism right when he says that God tempts no one. The main point is similar to what is above, that if the Father is leading, that type of action is significant, and that also shows his gracious presence.
The final petition is to deliver us from evil. Luther saw this petition as a summary. And the gracious presence of the Father is certainly confessed with the action of deliverance, and this is essentially salvation.
That gracious reality is dependent upon a gracious God. And in the Book of Revelation, that gracious God is often seen on his throne. That is also where Jesus, the Lamb, is. And his four living creatures, his main angels, are around that throne.
That brings up another interesting aspect of Revelation, the placement of the four living creatures when they are first mentioned. In Revelation 4:6, the ESV translation reads like this: ‘And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures…..’ The NIV translation, surprisingly, is much more literal: ‘In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures… (this is also close to the NASB translation).’
People obviously have discussed this phrase for a long time, and therefore, some translations try to interpret the meaning of the text. How can the four living creatures be in the center of and around the throne at the same time?
How about the following answer: In the Old Testament, sometimes an angel acted like God and did a miracle, either a supernatural act or a supernatural prediction. And sometimes the people who saw that angel said that they saw God. What made them say that, we obviously do not know—and we cannot interview them now. And also sometimes, the Second Person of the Trinity acted like an angel, a messenger. He certainly was a messenger in the New Testament. Jesus, the messenger, delivered salvation to his people. What a great gift.
For the last few weeks, I have been focusing on either the Epistle or the Old Testament text. Now the Epistle text will continue with 1 Timothy. But a sentence from the Old Testament text for this Sunday may catch your attention. It is from the Old Testament ‘minor’ prophet who is the most frequently used of those twelve prophets in the three-year series, the prophet Amos.
This is the last verse of the text from Amos 8: ‘The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: “Surely I will never forget any of their deeds (verse 7).”’ Now what did he just say? What about those verses that say that LORD will NOT remember sins? Jeremiah 31:34 is a good example of this: “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
The context is almost always important. In fact, the book of Jeremiah is not chronologically ordered, but all the ‘good news’ parts are close to the center of the work. That is the main reason that the book of Jeremiah is treated so highly in the Gospel according to Matthew; basically, that same ‘Hebrew’ structure is followed.
With the prophet Amos, you basically have to wait for the very end of the book to get to the good news. But it is a significant amount of good news and definitely worth the wait. Near the very end of the book is even a verse that has an appearance in Acts 15, when the early Christian leaders are trying to figure what the gospel is. Should it involve some laws, such as circumcision? Or should it be an entirely free gift? In the words of the apostle Peter, ‘we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus…(Acts 15:11).’ In other words, the gospel is TRULY good news. Amos 9:11-12 is quoted, but with some slight differences. The one thing that is clear in both places is that the LORD is interested in saving ALL people.
So, what would make the LORD never forget some things? It is important to note that the sin of pride is involved—the ‘pride of Jacob’. Pride is like being thankful to yourself and not to God. And pride often does go before a fall.
Something similar could be said about the word ‘never’—basically ‘forever’—in the Amos text. I hope I am not getting too technical, but this word can be connected to five basic meanings: gleam, distinguish, conquer, be permanent, and supervise—this is basically the word that comes up at the beginning of over fifty Psalms when it talks about the ‘director of music’ or ‘choirmaster’ (Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, volume 5, page 530). There are essentially two themes that come together with this word: the temple and permanence.
How would you feel if you lived near the place where God had his temple? If God was living forever, you might start to think that his temple would be around forever. I can see how pride would be a significant problem with the people of Israel. I can also see why Jesus talked about his temple being destroyed.
Jesus was destroyed and rebuilt in three days for us and for our salvation. This keeps our perspective regarding those important words like ‘forever’. There is a much better gleam to that temple.
Last week I looked at the Epistle text, and this week I would like to do the same thing. The Epistle text for this week is 1 Timothy 1:12-17, with the option of adding verses 5-11.
There are two things to note when dealing with such an epistle. The first is that this letter was meant for more people than just Timothy. The fact that we are reading it today is a good indication of that. (And with the blessing at the very end of each epistle, with the use of the word ‘you’, that word ‘you’ is in the plural in the most reliable manuscripts.) The second thing to note is that the letter is about more than just being a pastor. This epistle is the first of what some call ‘The Pastoral Epistles’—and they usually mean 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. (This title, ‘The Pastoral Epistles’, is actually relatively new and only about three hundred years old.) They may have been written TO AND ABOUT one person, but they were actually written FOR AND ABOUT many.
A better term for this group of writings, although certainly not a positive one, might be ‘The Problem Epistles’. There are significant problems described in each of these letters. Each letter tries to deal with the issue at hand and move toward a solution that would be helpful within such a sinful world. Often the leaders are involved when there is a significant problem to tackle, and so that is the reason for the letters being addressed to Timothy and Titus. The nice thing about this title, with this broader description, the Epistle to Philemon could also be included, since one of the main problems was that Onesimus, the Christian and runaway slave, really should go back to Philemon, his ‘master’ (and fellow Christian).
This epistle text of 1 Timothy 1 happens to be in the Hebrew literary style of being negative, then having a significant turning point, and then being positive. I usually do not do this, but I would like to lay out the entire text below, emphasizing all the negative words (the words like ‘no’ or ‘not’—since sometimes these words are not so clear within the translation), and then to point out that there is the turning point which is near that special word of—surprise, surprise—the ‘gospel’. And, then, there are positive points after that. Hopefully this layout is helpful for you. I will even add verses 3 and 4, since that only adds a small amount, and that starts us at the actual beginning of the main part of the letter.
As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons NOT to teach any different doctrine, NOR to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than stewardship from God that is by faith. The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, WITHOUT understanding either what they are saying OR the things about which they make confident assertions.
Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is NOT laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the glorious GOSPEL of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.
I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen (The Lutheran Study Bible, pages 2068-9).
Last week I also gave the example of a ‘gospel’ midpoint being important, and this week, there is not only that same midpoint, but a negative emphasis on one side of that section.
Another good example of this the Lord’s Prayer. The nice thing about the Lord’s Prayer is that the first and the last words of that prayer may also be connected to the structure (I also pointed this out last week).
The first word in that prayer, in the original language of the New Testament, in the Gospel according to Matthew, is the word ‘Father’. That is certainly a significant word for God. And the last word is ‘evil’. Now the middle word is a word that, honestly, we are not sure what it means. From the evidence we have, it looks like Jesus made it up. It is a description of the bread for which we are asking. (Usually we say it is ‘daily’.)
What kind of bread do you want? What kind of bread do you NEED? Perhaps it is better to let God, our Father in heaven, decide those issues. And, after the mention of that special bread, there are negative things mentioned, things like people trespassing (sinning!) and needing forgiveness, being led into temptation (the Roman Catholic Church is trying to get away from this translation), and being delivered from evil.
The author of this prayer knew what it was like in this world. He knew what it was like to eat bread. He also knew the trespasses, the temptation, and the evil. And he turned things completely around for us on the cross. Now that is the gospel.
For the last few weeks I have been writing about either the Old Testament or the Epistle text, the latter of which happened to be from the Epistle to the Hebrews. In both of those places, the Hebrew literary style is usually somewhat easy to spot.
The literary style of an epistle or letter is not so easy. (The Epistle to the Hebrews was easy because it was called a ‘word of exhortation’, and this same type of speech is in Acts 13.) With a letter or epistle, there is the introduction at the beginning; and then there is the conclusion at the end. In some ways, those are the most memorable things.
What is in the middle can often be forgotten or easily passed over. And that is what makes one aspect of the Hebrew literary style so helpful. Often there is something in the middle as a marker, to attract the reader’s attention. And, usually, something at the beginning is an indicator of what you might be getting in the middle.
Adam’s first recorded words focus on his wife, Eve (although this was not yet her name), and they are a good example of a Hebrew structure. In Genesis 2:23, in the original language, Adam is quoted as saying thirteen words, and the first and the last are exactly the same (‘this’), and the middle word contains that same word (‘to this’). In the most extreme literary fashion, his words go this way:
This the-now bone from-my-bones and-flesh from-my-flesh
She-shall-be-called woman for from-man she-was-taken this.
Often the structure is not that obvious. And, since something important is in the middle, it is sometimes passed over quite quickly. I did want to highlight something in the Epistle text for this Sunday that I thought was interesting.
This week, the Epistle text is almost the entire letter of Paul to Philemon [1-21]. And within the entire text, a whole 25 verses, near the middle, in verse 13, we have the only time the word ‘gospel’ is used within that letter.
Paul writes: ‘I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel….’ What is also interesting is that the phrase at the end, ‘imprisonment for the gospel’ is literally ‘imprisonment (or ‘bondage’) OF the gospel’. That phrase is in stark contrast to the language of freedom that Paul connects to the gospel in his first four epistles.
At the very beginning of the Epistle to Philemon, Paul describes himself as a ‘prisoner of Christ Jesus’. He brings up that word ‘prisoner’ a few times. Is he focusing on the negative? Not when that word is connected to Christ and his gospel!
We are so used to the word 'gospel' that its appearance can be easily passed over. But think of its virtual absence in the Old Testament. And then you have the first four books of the New Testament called a 'gospel'. And then you have the word's extremely frequent appearance in the Pauline Epistles. It is a word you do not want to pass by too quickly.