This is an unusual Sunday. This year Epiphany falls on a Sunday, and so the Gospel text for this Sunday is the text from Matthew 2[:1-12]. I could write for a long time regarding the structure of the Gospel according to Matthew, but that would be a bit distracting from the text.
The text itself is a bit distracting when it brings up the subject of ‘magi’. I think that the ESV has a good translation when the writer brings up the word. Right before it, the text says, ‘behold’; in other words, ‘pay attention’, ‘something important is happening here’, ‘something very different is happening here’.
It took me a while to get used to the possible definition of ‘magi’ as ‘magician’. It is not too hard phonetically—just one more syllable is added. But it constitutes a different subsection in the dictionary. Here is the definition of magi as it is used in this gospel account: ‘a wise man and priest, who was expert in astrology, interpretation of dreams and various other occult arts [BDAG, p. 608].’
In that definition, the word ‘occult’ may be the hardest word to accept. At first it seemed a bit difficult for me to see someone who is an expert in the occult arts coming to Jesus and worshiping him. But people change, and some people have changed in some very significant ways.
Looking at the occurrences of the Greek word ‘worship’ within this gospel account are also a good reminder of the wide range of people that ended up coming to Jesus and worshiping him. After the magi, the next one is a leper (8:2). Then there is a ruler of the synagogue (9:18), and then his disciples worship him—finally (14:33)! Then a Canaanite woman worships him (15:25), and then the mother of the sons of Zebedee does the same (20:20). Then, after Jesus’ resurrection, the women first worship him (28:9), and then his disciples (28:17). It seems like these occurrences were deliberately laid out in pairs.
It is certainly good to see a wide variety of people in the text worshiping Jesus. That happens every Sunday; it is just that we do not realize it.
The Gospel text for this Sunday [Luke 2:22-40] contains an important bridge, that of the scriptures to that of the church’s liturgy. It contains the so-called ‘Song of Simeon’. It was revealed to Simeon that he was looking at the One promised from almost the very beginning, the One who would crush the serpent’s head, the Messiah—the One anointed to be the ultimate prophet, priest, and king. And Simeon basically says, ‘Now I can die.’
There are a lot of bible passages that could be in the church’s liturgy. In a traditional congregation, there are a lot of bible passages that ARE in the church’s liturgy. While some bible passages are better than others, it is usually a good foundation upon which to build. And, in some of the more modern hymnals, the different parts of the church’s liturgy have the bible references nearby.
The most helpful passages give the biggest perspectives. That is why I felt comfortable giving, for the last four Sundays, sermons based on the Small Catechism of Dr. Luther, a summary of the entire scriptures. The biggest perspectives deal with the biggest issues—and three big ones are sin, death, and the devil. That is why the liturgy ultimately focuses on our salvation in Christ.
Are some people ready to die? When people answer that question negatively, they usually have a smaller perspective. There is always a to-do list; there is always more that could be done by us. More important is what HAS BEEN DONE FOR US.
In the first few verses of the Gospel according to Luke, the writer describes his account as being ‘orderly’ [Luke 1:3]. The typical definition is ‘pertaining to being in sequence in time, space, or logic [BDAG, p. 490].’ I would think that, with the typical synoptic problem answers, most would want the writer to give an orderly TIME sequence. A logical—in terms of ‘theological’—approach would be more much helpful.
I think that the four gospel accounts are much more theological than we give them credit. And that is some incredibly good news.
This year the fourth Sunday in Advent happens to be quite close to Christmas. I think that, more important than that fact, is that the Gospel text for this Sunday [Luke 1:39-45] happens to be quite close to the beginning of this Gospel account. We are never going to get any closer, so I think it is important to talk about it.
The importance of the beginning of a book has become less important recently. With the invention of the outline, the focus of the structure of a book has moved away from the text to a group of words which are separate from the text. When a person is studying an outline, he or she is no longer studying the text.
All four gospel accounts have important beginnings which should be studied thoroughly. The beginnings of other books of the bible should also be studied thoroughly. The beginning of an account not only may help to understand the structure of the account, but it may also point to what is important; those two things are actually connected to each other!
The structure gives the big picture; it gives the reader the reason why the author is writing this work. That reason has unfortunately been somewhat lost when it comes to the gospel accounts. The predominating thought in our century is that there is very little information about Jesus from other sources, so this particular source is meant to give some more information.
The structure of the first four verses of the Gospel according to Luke has a well-known connection, not to the beginning of the book of Acts, the place where one would expect a connection (since both works are by the same writer), but to the so-called Apostolic Decree that is found in Acts 15.
The issue at the Jerusalem Council is one of salvation. How is a person saved? Some people were saying that doing a certain commandment was necessary (Acts 15:5). Peter responds with the wonderful statement that ‘we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus…(15:11).’
Some people are happy when they have more information, but these days, many people seemed to be overwhelmed with more information. True joy comes with salvation. And I hope that message is clear throughout this entire church year.
The Gospel text for this Sunday [Luke 7:18-28] is a helpful text to get an idea of this gospel account’s connection to Acts. In verse 19, the text relates that John the Baptist sends two of his disciples, not to Jesus, but to ‘the Lord’.
The first time the writer uses the word Lord to describe Jesus is just slightly earlier. In verse 13 of the same chapter, Jesus is called the Lord when he has compassion for a widow. It is hard not to see a connection to Jesus’ resurrection in this description, especially since Jesus is often called the Lord after that important event.
John the Baptist sent the disciples to ask Jesus this question: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’ The early Christians may have easily asked this question of Jesus. They may have been tempted to look to something else to ‘save’.
There is almost a constant temptation to look for another place for help, a place other than the words of the Lord. This is the struggle that you see in the book of Acts. Eventually the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ is described as ‘unhindered(see Acts 27:48)’, but it takes a long time and a lot of work.
The struggle to look for something more than just words is also the struggle that you see in churches today. In Luke 6:46, the question is asked, ‘Why do you call me “Lord, Lord,” and not do what I tell you?’ That question applies to today.
The progression Jesus gives later in the text is wonderful (verse 22): the blind receiving sight, the lame walking, the lepers being cleansed, the deaf hearing, the dead being raised, and the final thing is that the poor have the good news preached to them. In the Gospel according to Matthew, the middle of the list is the important thing. In the Gospel according to Luke, the end of the list is the important item. And Jesus is putting this good news as something that is extremely important.
This good news continues to be important today.
And the series on the Small Catechism of Dr. Martin Luther continues this Sunday with a look at the Lord’s Prayer. The words of that prayer are also important.
Here is an interesting quote: ‘The ruler is divine by nature. His power extends to men, to animals, to the earth and to the sea. Nature belongs to him; wind and waves are subject to him. He works miracles and heals men. He is the saviour of the world who also redeems individuals from their difficulties (TDNT, volume 2, page 724).’
It sounds like the writer is describing God; it sounds particularly like he is describing Jesus. But this is a description of the Roman emperor. Now that is a scary thought. (And the thing even more scary is that, with the electronic games these days, people can imitate this kind of power.)
When a new emperor would go to the throne, that would be considered a new era and a time of peace to the world, and, strangely enough, that would be called a gospel, good news (TDNT, p. 725).
There are some striking similarities between the gods of this world and the one true God. They each have their own good news, and some of them are currently using the same word.
Who had it first? The word for a good news message started way back in the Old Testament, and its first appearance is in the book of Samuel, right before the time of David. That is way before the Roman Empire, but not before sin.
In the Gospel according to Luke, the word gospel—but only in its verb form (to ‘evangelize’)—appears many times in that account (which is described in many manuscripts as ‘according to Luke’—to avoid using that misused term). To look at all those occurrences and their contexts, see Luke 1:19, 2:10, 3:18, 4:18, 7:22, 8:1, 9:6, 16:16, and 20:1. There are also fifteen occurrences of this word form in Acts, but the first occurrence of the word in noun form in the WHOLE of Luke-Acts is in Acts 15:7.
The Gospel text for this Sunday may contain the first twenty verses of the chapter and not just the first fourteen [Luke 3:1-14]. And in verse 18 of that section, the verb form of the word appears: ‘So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.’
Some people have looked at that verse and what John the Baptist had said previously to some of the people: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance (3:7f).’ Some people have thought, and rightly so, that John’s message does not sound like good news. But it was a new era. It was still an important message.
Any important message from an important person is a good one; it is also a helpful one.
The message of the Law is a good example. It is helpful to give up on trying to be good. Dr. Martin Luther found that to be true. The message of the Gospel is an even better example. It is extremely helpful to know what God has done for us—instead of what we can do for him.
This week at church is the second part of our four-week series on the Small Catechism of Dr. Martin Luther. We will be looking at the Creed, and the good news comes to us in three different themes.
The Gospel text for this Sunday, the first Sunday in Advent, is the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem [from the perspective of the Gospel according to Luke], and I certainly appreciate that focus at the beginning of the church year. Christmas has not yet happened, and we have not yet looked at Jesus’ birth, but he is already close to dying on the cross. The thing to remember is that this is not a chronological study. This is a salvation story.
The gospel accounts do not simply give us more information regarding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that we find to be so important in the Epistles. Their structure follows the structure of the four living creatures that are part of God’s throne. We are within a reality of worship.
I would like to be clear in saying that the use of the word ‘story’ above does NOT mean that these events were manufactured and had no basis in reality. Jesus did miracles, and miracles go against reality, and God can do that if he wants.
The reality of this world is also that we live in a sinful condition.
This week at church starts a four-week series on the Small Catechism of Dr. Martin Luther. This week we will be looking at the Ten Commandments. It is a good thing to go over on a regular basis.
The following is at the end of Luther’s suggestion for beginning the day—with the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer—‘Then go to your work joyfully, singing a hymn, like that of the Ten Commandments, or whatever your devotion may suggest.’
That is not a bad idea. And on this Sunday, while I am working, I will be singing that hymn.
The Gospel text for this Sunday [Mark 13:24-37], as with last Sunday, deals with the end times. And this Sunday is usually called the Last Sunday of the Church year. And this is also the last Sunday to hear from the Gospel according to Mark, at least for a little while.
When will the Last Day be? I should make this clear that no one knows except God the Father. Not even the Son knows. And when the sun darkens as predicted, I am imagining it being already too late to make a change. The end is coming, sometime, and when that is belongs to God. In other words, it is not important.
What we do know about God and the end IS important. And the things that have to do with that are wonderful things. The end is, in its proper context, a wonderful thing, just like getting to the end of a race. In this case, you do not know when the end will come, but when you get there, it will certainly be wonderful.
A lot of things happen in this world that are not good news. A lot of bad things happen within this world full of sin. That is normal. And just the simple fact that people in this world like to measure things can also add to the frustration; many things that are measurable are not good news.
A lot of bad things were happening to the early Christians in Rome. They were probably measuring their difficulties to the difficulties of the followers of Jesus when he was roaming around Israel. This gospel account, the Gospel according to Mark, helped to regain their perspective.
It was a short gospel account. The Christians undergoing persecution were in a difficult situation and did not have the time to sit through the minor details of Jesus’ life. This gospel account had a certain, comforting focus. They were given the life that Jesus lived for them; he was their sacrifice. Things are going to be good in the end—whenever that is.
Those persecuted Christians had the words of the Gospel account. They had Jesus' words to trust. And he was certainly trustworthy.
Even though this gospel account is short, the gospel message contained within it gives gifts that are immeasurable and endless. That certainly makes it good news.
The Gospel text for this Sunday [Mark 13:1-13] has Jesus sitting opposite the temple. That is certainly a significant location.
The temple is a significant place, where God and man come together. But the extent of its significance was brought out by a chapter I read recently in the book, Christian Origins and the Establishment of the Early Jesus Movement (Brill, 2018). I know that seems like a long title with a big topic, but the title of the chapter gets more to the heart of the issue: “’No Stone Left upon Another’: Considering Mark’s Temple Motif in Narrative and History”. The author of this chapter is Adam Winn.
In other words, the temple is a significant topic in Mark, although it is not mentioned at all in its first ten chapters. Winn shows that the importance of the temple goes back to the beginning of Mark eleven, when Jesus enters Jerusalem. Little differences that are within this gospel account from early on show that the temple is indeed an important place.
I had not thought of the poor widow who puts the two mites into the treasury as an example of the religious leaders devouring the houses of the widows [See Mark 12:40]. That is certainly turning a positive thing into a negative one. There are other fine examples of the problems that were going on in that place.
More importantly is that God was also in charge of the destruction of that place. Given what happened, especially when the Roman army won the war over the Jews in 70 A.D. and the temple was destroyed (and the way this was portrayed), one might think that the Romans were to blame or, even worse, their Roman gods!
After all the evidence is pulled together, Winn concludes: ‘[Mark] assures them that the destruction of [the] Jerusalem temple was not evidence of Rome’s power over the God of Israel, but that it was instead of the God of Israel judging a corrupt and defunct institution, one God had already replaced [p. 310].’
Given that this gospel account was written by a Jew (John Mark) in a very Gentile place (Rome), I would think that it would be easy to focus too much on the cultures involved. Too often people focus on a man when a much better focus is on God. But what kind of God?
This is another example of how the connections between the four gospel accounts and the four living creatures could be beneficial. In Mark, Jesus is as a lion—a powerful symbol of God’s authority—and he is in charge of his own territory. He stakes out the situation on the first day, when he comes into his area. And he attacks on the second day—although other accounts have him attacking on the first day—it probably was both! He continues to stake out his territory, makes his enemies suitably mad at him, and then sits opposite the temple for a while (dismissing its importance), to help his followers regain their perspective, while his enemies regroup and attack. Jesus lets them, and then he essentially takes on the even bigger enemies of sin, death, and the devil. And, thankfully, he wins.
There is a great point to be made regarding a ‘great crowd’ in the Gospel according to Mark. The Gospel text for this Sunday begins with Mark 12:38, and the previous sentence [the last verse of the text from last Sunday—if the 24th Sunday after Pentecost was celebrated] is as follows in the ESV: ‘And the great throng [i.e., crowd] heard him gladly.’
The first point to be made is that the ‘the’ should definitely be there. It is the more difficult reading, especially since the crowd, no matter what size, was not mentioned before this. The only setting given in these verses is that Jesus is teaching in the temple (12:35). I think the use of the term ‘great crowd’ is very deliberate by the writer.
The phrase is first used at 5:21 and 24 when a great crowd around Jesus is important, and a miracle happens, and Jesus starts asking who was just healed. Then the phrase appears again at 6:34 and 8:1 when Jesus feeds the great crowds in the thousands by starting off with very little food. At 9:14, a great crowd is again important, and Jesus does a miracle so that it is not seen by that great crowd. The next time a ‘great crowd’ is mentioned, it is mentioned in this part of chapter twelve.
I can also visualize great crowds following Jesus during the book of Acts, eventually in many places of the Roman Empire. But things are not as simple as that. That is essentially TOO happy of an ending. A great crowd can have some great problems as well.
The text notes that a great crowd heard him GLADLY. That last word is used very rarely in the New Testament. The only other time it exists in the four gospel accounts is in this same gospel account with a description of Herod, that [6;20], although Herod was at a loss [or, in its ancient context, ‘without resources’; see BDAG, p. 119], yet he heard John the Baptist gladly.
I do not think it is so difficult to make a connection between Herod and this ‘great crowd’. Herod heard John the Baptist gladly, but he was about to come upon some great difficulties. And it will be the same for that great crowd who follows Jesus.
That great crowd does not show up at Jesus’ crucifixion, and that great crowd certainly does not show up at his resurrection. Generally speaking, great crowds do not show up too often in churches these days.
Some people are at a loss. Many people are losing their resources. Great crowds can have great problems. Even one person can have great problems! Yet, despite the difficulties, we continue to hear Jesus gladly. That is enough.
The word ‘blessed’ is a big word. It is so big that many times it is even pronounced as having two syllables! The Gospel text for this Sunday [Matthew 5:1-12], the Sunday when we observe All Saints Day, has Jesus saying that word many times. It is also the first word he says. And the text says that he even opens his mouth right before he says it, which brings even more emphasis to this extremely important word.
What is the meaning of the word in this situation? It is best to first look at the Old Testament situation, and this is especially true for words which occur within the Gospel according to Matthew.
It is not a coincidence that this word is also the first word of the Psalms; it is the first word in Psalm 1. The word is also most common in the Psalms and means ‘to consider fortunate’ or ‘to call happy’. Some translations (mostly paraphrases) even use the word ‘happy’ in their rendering of the Matthew text.
I thought it was interesting that, in other ancient languages, essentially the same word means ‘to march’ or ‘to look after’. It can also mean ‘footmark’ or ‘track’, as well as ‘to follow the track’ or ‘offspring’. In the Hebrew it means to ‘stride’ or ‘lead’ [HALOT, vol. 1, p. 97]. Now how could meanings like that be related to being happy?
There is also a very close word in the Hebrew which usually means ‘which’ or ‘that’. It is a connecting word, and it makes sense that the meaning leads the reader or listener in a slightly new direction.
The basic idea with all those meanings is that there are words which are to lead the reader or listener. Words lead, and people are to follow. That kind of thing has been happening since the beginning of time. In the creation account God leads, and things follow.
In one dictionary, as the author tries to give a good definition of the word, he states, ‘The desire for happiness is different from the blessing in that it demands that the believer do certain things… [TDOT, vol. 1, p. 446].’ Then a long list of things for the believer to do is given. And that is what we see a lot of time happening in the Old Testament. And some people today still follow that ‘rule’.
There is a hint of that farther along in the Sermon on the Mount, since Jesus also says, ‘You, therefore should be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ But he does not wish for us to end up focusing on that focus and on what WE do.
Jesus continues on, and he goes in a deliberately different direction. And the author of the dictionary does as well. Thankfully, and by quoting someone else, the article ends with this statement: ‘Blessing is praise of the grace of God which creates salvation for the man who is chosen [TDOT, vol. 1, p. 448].’
The best source of blessing or happiness does not come from within. It comes as a gift, along with all the other things that come to us. And it is the Lord Jesus Christ who leads us down a most wonderful way.