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.
This Sunday is a very special one. This is a Sunday when the events of RELATIVELY recent event have made a significant, eternal difference for many Christians. (It happened about 500 years ago—but compare that to 2000!) On Reformation Sunday, some churches celebrate that, on October 31st, 1517, Dr. Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on the church door in Wittenberg. He did that to start a debate which focused on some of the teachings of the Church at that time.
This event marks the start of the gospel once again becoming central in the teaching of the Christian Church. Even if a Christian does not want to celebrate this day, one should be thankful for that gospel, which, unfortunately, can easily be covered up by people.
One of the options for the Gospel text for this Sunday is John 8:31-36. Within that text, Jesus and the Jews (who recently believed in him—a significant event) talk about being enslaved and being free. Those are some significant words, not only since the Civil War, but for all time. Those two words have a significant impact on people’s lives. How those words are defined and located is a critical step to Christianity. The best starting point for discussing Christian doctrine is by asking the question, ‘How bad are we?’
In Dr. Luther’s most significant document of 1518, The Heidelberg Disputation, he tackles the issue of whether one can become truly free by his or her own effort. This is a critical issue. And it is especially relevant in our day when the thoughts, feelings or emotions a person has within him or her have a great value.
I am quoting his sixteenth thesis and the entire explanation which follows. Hopefully it is helpful in knowing where Luther and Lutheran congregations are ‘coming from’.
‘The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin, so that he becomes doubly guilty.’
From what has been said earlier, the following is clear: When a person is doing what is in him, he sins and seeks what is his in everything. But if he should think that through sin he would become worthy of or prepared for grace, he would add haughty arrogance to his sin and not believe that sin is sin and evil is evil, which is an exceedingly great sin. Therefore, Jeremiah 2:13 describes it: ‘My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns, that give no water,’ that is, through sin they are far from me, and yet they presume to do good by themselves.
Now you ask, ‘What then should we do? Should we go our way with indifference because we can do nothing but sin?’ I answer: By no means. But, when you have heard this, fall to your knees and pray for grace and place your hope in Christ—in whom is our salvation, life, and resurrection. For this reason, we are taught—for this reason, the law makes us confess the sin so that, having recognized our sin, we seek and receive grace. Therefore, God gives grace to the humble [I Peter 5:5], and whoever humbles himself will be exalted [Matthew 23:12]. The law humbles; grace exalts. The law works fear and wrath; the grace, hope and mercy. For through the law comes knowledge of sin [Romans 3:20], through knowledge of sin, however, comes humility, and through humility, grace is obtained. Therefore, an action which is a strange work of God finally results in his own work: that he makes a person a sinner, so that he may make him righteous [rendered from the St. Louis edition, vol. 18, pages 48f.].
For a person to ‘do what is within’ seems like a very natural thing. And it is a very popular focus these days. But it ultimately leads to a very depressing ending. Thankfully, there is some good news. And next Sunday we will be celebrating All Saints Day!
The Gospel text for this Sunday [Mark 10:23-31] is a continuation of the story of Jesus with the rich young man, although that young man is no longer in the text. The idea of being rich most certainly is. And that word, ‘rich’, has significant connotations and implications.
That is why the disciples are amazed when Jesus said, ‘How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God (verse 23b)!’ The disciples were connecting wealth with the blessing of God. Unfortunately, some present-day disciples are doing that very same thing.
The following words are being connected by some: riches, blessing, power, greatness, and glory. And it may be that the last word of that list is a ‘red flag’ to those who are familiar with the writings of Martin Luther.
This week’s blog is being written in the year 2018, and it is exactly 500 years after the writing of the Heidelberg Disputation of Dr. Martin Luther. (I include the title ‘Dr.’ with his name because that designation gave him the task of teaching the Church.) In that work he makes the point that glory is not always a good thing.
Perhaps one of Luther’s most famous theses is number 21, and it has to do with glory: ‘A theology of glory calls the evil good and the good evil, but a theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.’ It may take a while to get your mind around what Luther is saying. (That is especially true if you consider the word ‘glory’ to be a good thing!) But Luther wants, ultimately, to put the central focus of Christian doctrine and life on Jesus and the cross.
Luther could have written a lot about this thesis (he often DOES write a lot). But he has covered the same point in other places. Since he has not written too much in this case, I am including the whole of his explanation of this thesis. Hopefully a combination of this and the gospel text may become your food for thought, whatever your income level.
This is clear: When a man does not know Christ, he does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore, he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to foolishness, and, in general, good to evil. These are the people whom the apostle calls ‘enemies of the cross of Christ [Philippians 3:18]’, especially because they hate the cross and suffering, but they love works and the glory of works. Therefore, they call the good of the cross evil, and they call the evil of a work good. But man cannot find God apart from the cross and suffering, as has already been said. Therefore, the friends of the cross say that the cross is good and works are evil, for through the cross, works are destroyed and the old Adam, who is especially built up by works, is crucified. For it is impossible for a person not to be puffed up by his good works unless he has first been humbled and brought to nothing by suffering and evil, until he knows that he is nothing and that his works and not his, but God’s (translated from the St. Louis Edition, vol. 18, p. 50).
Jesus, in the gospel text, is connecting the things that he is saying to his cross. His followers are trying to disconnect them—and sometimes this writer does that very same thing. Thankfully, Jesus is headed to the cross to pay for those sins as well.
The Gospel text for this Sunday [Mark 10:17-22] mentions the number ‘one’, but in a somewhat hidden way.
A rich young man comes to Jesus and asks him what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus’ response to the rich young man is this: ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.’ Literally the last sentence can be read in this way: ‘No one is good, except one—God.’
The number one is obviously an important number. Last week the text had to do with marriage (and divorce), and Jesus brought up that extremely important, but also extremely old text, that marriage is a union of a man and a woman. They become one flesh. They look like two, they may often feel like two, but God says that they are one. That one is an important number to remember.
Having looked at that text a little more closely, I recently learned [from BDAG, page 292] that ‘numerous sepulchral inscriptions celebrate the virtue of a surviving spouse by noting that he or she was married only once, thereby suggesting the virtue of extraordinary fidelity.’ That one has been considered important as well.
It has been noted by some scholars that the first part of the Gospel according to Mark is for Jewish Christians, and they would be very familiar with the following bible passage: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord, our God, the Lord is one (Deuteronomy 6:4).’ Yes, one is a very important number.
When Jesus tells the rich young man that no one is good except God alone, is Jesus saying that he is not God? Hardly! It just takes a while for a person’s mind to get used to the idea of the Trinity—that there are three Persons but one God.
Jesus also asks the young man a question, a why question [‘Why do you call me good?’], usually some of the most difficult questions to answer. And it is also probably one of the best questions for a discussion to continue, and those discussion can continue, even at much later times, after people have had a chance to think for a while.
The text for this Sunday is one of those texts where you do not have a complete ending. After Jesus asks the rich young man to sell everything that he has, the text says that he was ‘disheartened’ and went away ‘sorrowful’. While the translation may be a bit brief, it has been suggested that the first word describes a more external response, while the second, an internal.
This description of the internal response may indicate that this rich young man eventually did come and follow Jesus (and later described this event so that it could be written down). The early church did have a lot of followers, and it also did have a significant amount of income to support the needs of those first Christians.
The number one has always been an important number. Jesus focuses his attention on little ones. He focuses his attention on particular people.
In this gospel account, the enemies of Jesus are many, and the disciples of Jesus are lacking in many ways. Jesus is alone as he goes to the cross and takes care of every one.
Maybe it shows an OCD to say this, but I think that the Gospel text for this Sunday [Mark 10:2-16] should include the first verse of the chapter. There is a helpful perspective within that verse.
That first verse goes this way: ‘And he [Jesus] left there and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and crowds gathered to him again. And again, as was his custom, he taught them.’
The location is so important here. Jesus is getting extremely close to Jerusalem. One of the last major geographical things he will do, before going ‘up’ to Jerusalem, will be to cross the Jordan river.
What would you talk about if you knew you were that close to your death? Jesus chooses to talk about some small things.
When the subject of divorce is brought up, Jesus brings up a small passage of scripture that basically goes back to the beginning of time. And, a little later, he also talks about little children. And he says that we should be like them.
The Jordan river was a big, important river. And Jerusalem is still a big city—in comparison to the other cities in the area of course. But Jesus wants us to focus on the little things.
In our lives today, it is the big things that usually get the most attention. We are going to see more and more people wanting to make a big ‘splash’ in society, so that they will be getting their several seconds of fame. And the media does a great job of making sure this happens.
The next time a crowd is mentioned, and this time it is a ‘considerable’ or ‘worthy’ crowd, Jesus is near Jericho. And he is heading to Jerusalem for his ‘grand entrance’.
Jesus heals a blind man who not only recognizes who Jesus is as the ‘Son of David’, but the man also ends up following him.
Again, it is the small things that are important to Jesus. And that helps, the next time you are feeling somewhat ‘small’.
Considerable crowds continue to gather at churches literally throughout the world. And, hopefully, they are content to focus on some of the small things that Jesus pointed out while he was walking around this earth … his little ones, his teachings, his words, his sacraments.
The Gospel text for this Sunday [Mark 9:38-50] has two verses at the end that are unique to this gospel account: ‘For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltines, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another (ESV).’
What is Jesus talking about?
Well … he is talking about salt, fire, and peace. Just previously he was talking about the unquenchable fire of hell (see verses 47-8). But he seems to be transitioning to a different type of fire, since EVERYONE is going to be salted with this fire.
Your bible may have a footnote that says, ‘Some manuscripts add and every sacrifice will be salted with salt. Is Jesus also talking about sacrifice? The list seems to be getting longer.
Metzger’s Textual Commentary (p. 87) provides the following helpful comment: ‘At a very early period a scribe, having found in Lv 2.13 a clue to the meaning of Jesus’ enigmatic statement, wrote the Old Testament passage in the margin of his copy of Mark.’
By the way, Leviticus 2:13 reads this way: ‘You shall season all your grain offerings with salt. You shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be missing from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.’
We usually do not think of salt as being connected to the covenant. So, you may want to add that to the list as well.
The last two words which were added to the list, sacrifice and covenant, are huge within the Old Testament and should, therefore, also be huge within the New. And they are—since the focus is on Jesus and what he did.
Jesus does not talk about salt a lot; he does not talk about fire a lot; he does not even talk about peace a lot. But in this part of the Gospel according to Mark, he is talking about his sacrifice—although he does not use that term.
Each gospel account makes its transition to Jesus’ journey to the cross in different ways. The way Jesus has been described, he has been slowly separating himself from his disciples. They cannot keep the covenant. They cannot make an acceptable sacrifice to God. Jesus can. Jesus will.
With all the persecution going on in the early history of the Church, those Christians may have felt as though they were being sacrificed. In times of great stress, there is dissention and difficulty. Sinful people can focus too much on the problems or too much on themselves.
These words of Jesus are about God keeping his covenantal promise, that the seed of Eve would have his heel bruised—but would crush Satan’s head (see Genesis 3). God words do what they say. They are not so much a powerful thing; they are more of a loving thing. Jesus took care of all the important stuff.
We are at peace with one another when we look to those words. Those words connect us to both God and others. And that is a nice place to be—despite the troubles that will trouble us for just a little while longer.
This is the Sunday of the 150th anniversary celebration at St. John Lutheran Church in Drake, Missouri, and there are specific texts to be read on the Sunday of the anniversary of a congregation.
Having recently read the history of the congregation—and, also, having quite recently written up a brief history of that congregation—I have come to appreciate very much when people get along well with each other.
That happens to be the way that things are going in both congregations I am currently serving, and I am very appreciative of that. But there are times in the past 150 years when that has NOT happened. And there are congregations in that current situation today.
So, it is almost encouraging that arguments are described within the first three gospel accounts in similar, yet slightly different ways. If things are important in the life of Jesus, they are mentioned at least three times.
The regular Gospel text for this Sunday [Mark 9:30-37] describes an argument that the disciples were having amongst themselves. In fact, the text for the previous Sunday had a description of another argument; that time it was between the disciples and the scribes (9:14).
The disciples were arguing as to who was the greatest. I thought it would be interesting to lay out how each of these very similar gospel accounts gives a different perspective to this topic.
In the Gospel according to Matthew, there is, to my knowledge, no mention of the disciples arguing as to which of them was the greatest. But it is certainly interesting that, at the beginning of the fourth sermon (or discourse), the question is asked of Jesus by his disciples, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:1)?’ That was essentially the issue being argued in the Gospel according to Mark.
It is in the fourth book of the Old Testament, the book of Numbers, that the children of Israel must deal with themselves and others, after they leave Mount Sinai, and so, in this fourth sermon, this topic of how to deal with others is laid out as well. God’s children WILL have some disagreements.
But instead of focusing on the arguments, one option is to go to Jesus. You can ask him to clarify, to teach regarding the issue.
In the Gospel according to Mark, there is basically the opposite reaction. The disciples, unfortunately, were arguing amongst themselves as to who was the greatest. And, when they got into the house with Jesus, they were silent (9:33f).
That is often the reality of how things go. You may think that silence is infrequent in our day and age, but when there are no worthy, biblically based solutions presented to a problem, that is essentially silence.
Some important arguments are not getting resolved. That is unfortunate. The key, again, is to listen to Jesus; we are to remain silent. He wants the important issues discussed, and his words are a good starting point.
In the Gospel according to Luke (9:46ff), the same event is described, but it is described in a slightly different way. The word that is attached to the argument is the same word that one would use for entering a house. The use of the word here is appropriate because Jesus is entering an important part of the gospel account, that of his heading to Jerusalem, to accomplish what he was sent to do.
This account helps to remind us that arguments start for a purpose, sometimes for a very important purpose. If Jesus is about to leave, because he would be ‘delivered into the hands of men (9:44),’ then it IS an important issue as to who would be the greatest—the leader—after Jesus leaves.
Hopefully this has been a helpful perspective regarding both arguments and Jesus.
The Gospel text for this Sunday [Mark 9:14-29] deals with Jesus and another unclean spirit. Last Sunday an optional part of the text was the healing of the Gentile woman’s daughter; she also had an ‘unclean spirit’. There is talk of demons later in this gospel account, but the ‘unclean spirit’ will not be mentioned again.
It is important to note that this is a difficult spirit to cast out, even though the title of ‘unclean spirit’ does not seem too troublesome (and the father is even more positive by only calling it a ‘spirit that makes him mute’). The disciples previously had some success in casting out demons (see Matthew 6:13), but not this one.
The disciples even ask Jesus why they could not cast it out. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus says it is because they had little faith (Matthew 17:20). In the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus says that these only come out by prayer (Mark 9:29). I think that both are interesting responses; and both are interconnected.
There are a lot of interesting responses at the end of many sections in this gospel account; and they are usually interconnected as well. The most famous is probably the very end of the account, where the women leave the tomb and do not say anything to anyone. But we are to connect that ending with the endings of the other accounts; it is in those accounts that this important story cannot help but spread. [And if the Gospel according to Mark is to be the last of the four accounts, then it was to have its longer ending—Mark 16:9-20.]
Christians can feel as though they HAVE TO pray. They can also feel as though they GET TO pray. At the heart of that is faith in a gracious God.
Those Christians can also feel as though God can ‘move mountains’ (see Matthew 17:20)—but not to ‘show off’ of course. If the mountains of the earth need moving to show God’s love, he will certainly move them (see Matthew 27:51).
Are there different levels of unclean spirits? At least there were at the time when Jesus was on earth. They may have all learned their lessons shortly after that, that there is no need to leave unless the Son of God is involved—and invoked.
Were the disciples disappointed that they had not thought of praying? The text does not say. Either way, the disciples continue to fade into the background—along with the unclean spirits. And Jesus continues to come to the foreground. And he brings his Spirit (see Mark 13:11).
The Gospel text for this Sunday [Mark 7:31-37] has a ‘wonderful’ word that a person could talk (or write) about for a long time. It is wonderful because it supports the point that sometimes a word in one language does not easily translate into another language.
It is the word that is translated ‘sighed’ in our text (verse 34). In the New Testament it only appears five other times (2 Corinthians 5:2 and 4, Hebrews 13:17, Romans 8:23, and James 5:9). In the first four places, the word is translated as ‘groan’. In the passage from James, it is translated as ‘grumble’.
It is certainly difficult to see Jesus groaning or, especially, grumbling. The definition in the dictionary [BDAG, page 942] is long—and hopefully helpful: ‘to express oneself involuntarily in the face of an undesirable circumstance.’ And the passage in James is connected to the following, significantly shorter definition: ‘to express discontent’.
It is also difficult to describe Jesus as ‘expressing discontent’. That is probably why, in some ancient manuscripts, another similar word was substituted, and the word simply means to ‘sigh deeply’. It is used in Mark 8:12. Jesus’ enemies were looking for a sign from Jesus, and, after he sighs deeply, he tells them that no sign will be given them.
There could also be a connection to the somewhat well-known other option of Mark 1:41. After the leper comes to Jesus and says, ‘If you will, you can make me clean’, in some manuscripts, Jesus’ response is to get angry! The context of the chapter is very helpful there; in the previous verses, Jesus was very much showing his willingness to heal and to help, and for someone NOT to get that is significant!
The dictionary has the following note regarding this passage in Mark 7: ‘In connection with a healing, probably as an expression of power ready to act.’ I think another emphasis is possible. Perhaps it would be best to think of this situation in Mark 7 as a reaction to an ‘undesirable circumstance’.
The perspective of the Gospel according to Mark is very similar to a battle. Who, in their right mind, would like a battle? Something extremely important must be at stake. Jesus is in the midst of a big one for all mankind.
The four gospel accounts do not simply compare to four reporters who were sent to a big fire, and they came up with three similar accounts (Matthew-Luke) and one significantly different account (John). They were like four reporters who were sent to a fire and were specifically told to focus on four different, important things. And Mark was told to picture the event as a battle. And his ‘living creature’ is the lion.
If you are interested, the word was used somewhat recently in Maccabees a couple of times (1 Maccabees 1:26 and 4 Maccabees 9:21). Both have a fighting context.
Jesus keeps fighting, all the way to the cross.
You might say that the Gospel text for this Sunday [Mark 7:14-23] gets to the heart of the matter.
How is your heart? Current culture is falling into two equally dangerous traps. The more obvious trap is to say that the heart is a good thing. The subtler one is that the answer to that question depends on what that heart has been fed.
That is the old nature vs. nurture alternative. It is okay to have that discussion when people understand that human nature is inherently ‘sinful and unclean’. But when there is a positive view of human nature (‘There’s a little bit of good inside of everybody’), then some serious problems can occur—and some serious misunderstandings of both good and evil.
Some of this nation’s founding fathers had a more optimistic view of human nature than the Lutherans typically had. And the theology of the Pilgrims may be traced back to John Calvin (1509-1564), who was not as strong as Martin Luther regarding the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper—and therefore would not have needed as strong a Savior.
A new edition of Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation just came out, and some people do not like it because it is so long. If we were inherently good, it would not need to be very long at all! There are a HUGE number of evil alternatives.
One alternative that does not seem so bad, at least initially, is to look inward. How is your heart?
Some people hear that question and think about how they are currently feeling. I would advise against that strategy. I would suggest hearing what God’s word has to say about what is inside us.
Jesus, in the text for today, says that ‘…evil things come from within…(Mark 7:23).’ All too often we do not want to admit that. But Jesus says what is true. I would suggest clinging to his words. That is what God’s messenger will advise the women after Jesus’ resurrection (Mark 16:7b).
How is your heart? I just visited someone today who quite recently had major bypass surgery. Thankfully, we did not talk too much about the condition of the heart. At the heart of a more important matter is Jesus and his reconciliation.
In Mark 7, Jesus is already headed for the cross. And he is about to leave the people around him and us (perhaps just for a little while) in the dust….