Four Branches – August 2020

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Exegetical Theology: Rebuilding After Exile III: Pointing to Jesus

The prophet Zechariah preached the good news of the coming Messiah to motivate the returned exiles to continue rebuilding the temple. The LORD led him to combine themes from previous prophets and add new pieces to the jigsaw puzzle of Messianic prophesy. Among these, Zechariah 3:8-9 is a compelling description of Christ’s office and work.

Zechariah 3 opens with a vision of Satan accusing Joshua the high priest before the LORD. Joshua is covered in clothing that is צֹאִי, often translated “filthy”, but this term is more specifically bodily excretions, usually human, that connote ritual defilement (Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains #7364). The LORD removes Joshua’s filthy clothes, declaring that his guilt (עָוֹן) has been removed, and then dresses him in purified priestly attire (vv. 4-5). The LORD tells him that if he walks in his ways and keeps his laws, he will exercise authority in the rebuilt temple and even enjoy direct access to God (v.7), which is, as the Concordia Self-Study Commentary notes, “a strong expression of the fullness of God’s forgiveness, that a human being should have direct access to God.”

But this forgiveness speaks as much of the future “Joshua,” Jesus Christ, as to Zechariah’s contemporary. In v. 8, the LORD tells Joshua that he the other priests are only “symbolic,” אַנְשֵׁי מוֹפֵת, literally “men of a sign,” pointing to something greater and yet to come. The LORD continues “Behold, I am about to bring My Servant, the Branch (צֶמַח).” We recognize the coming servant as a major theme in Isaiah (e.g. Isa 42:1, “Behold, my servant”), while the “Branch” is a theme in Isaiah and Jeremiah that even HALOT recognizes here as “referring to an individual person, a descendant of David and of the king in the Messianic era of salvation” (see צֶמַח). These two themes are now explicitly combined.

When the LORD cleanses Joshua’s filth and removes his guilt in this vision, it symbolizes what Jesus would accomplish and proclaims the complete nature of the atonement. The Lord says in v. 9 “I will remove the guilt (as in v. 4, עָוֹן) of this land in one day.” This royal Branch will accomplish the priestly action of guilt-removal in a much grander and complete way than the Levitical system could achieve. The combination of royal and priestly roles in the Messiah occurs again in Zechariah 6:9-15, when a royal crown is placed on the high priest Joshua’s head, he is called “the Branch,” and the LORD proclaims he will sit on a throne and rule (6:12-13).

Daniel Waldschmidt wrote three exegetical briefs on passages in Zechariah (The Four Branches Review, December 2019 through February 2020). You could add this passage and create an Advent or Lenten series on Zechariah. The Bible Project’s “Zechariah” video would help you teach this passage and the Concordia Self-Study Commentary, available on Logos, finds the clear gospel amid the confusing images.

Rev. Aaron West serves at St. Matthew Lutheran in Spokane, WA.

Systematic Theology: What We Can Learn from Postmillennialists

Amillennialists and postmillennialists agree that Jesus will return to judge the world after the millennium, while espousing different views about the starting point, length, and character of the millennial age. Postmillennialists believe in the power of the gospel to change lives and bring about positive change in the world. They also anticipate an unparalleled time of peace and prosperity for the church, a time when the world will gradually become more Christianized before Jesus returns on the Last Day. For that reason, they are often described as optimists.

To support their position, postmillennialists point to the Lord’s command to “make disciples of all nations,” arguing that Jesus would not have given his church the Great Commission if he didn’t intend for his disciples to fulfill it. They interpret the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast, both recorded in Matthew 13, as predictions that the kingdom of God will grow in influence until it permeates and ultimately transforms society. They also cite statistics that give evidence of the global growth of Christianity.

Postmillennialists present what they believe to be a strong case for an advancing golden age in which the world keeps improving and the church keeps growing, but their proof passages don’t tell the whole story, and they struggle to answer the following questions. Is it possible for a person to watch the evening news and honestly conclude that things are getting better? How are we to understand Paul’s warning that there will be “terrible times in the last days” and that “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:1,12)? Why should Christians be concerned about the Lord’s command to be ready for his unexpected return (Matthew 24:44) if the realization of the millennial kingdom appears to be far from immanent?

We could cite other passages that poke holes in the postmillennial balloon, but instead of identifying more reasons to oppose postmillennialists the title of this article suggests that we can learn from them. The overall outlook of postmillennialism is positive. Would people use the same word to describe us, or after observing the way we speak and act would they be more likely to say the opposite? Christian triumphalism is dangerous, but so is an unwarranted pessimism, an attitude Professor August Zich warns against in Defeatism in the Church: Its Nature, Danger and Cure.[1]

In his essay, Zich calls Christian leaders to repentance for the times when we let our doubts and fears paralyze us, but he also reminds us that God’s promises give us every reason to be optimistic regardless of our outward circumstances. The millennium is not a work in progress. It is a present reality. The millennium is not a disputed doctrine that causes Christians to fight about a thousand-year reign of peace. It assures us that our Savior is victorious, that our God is ruling with the saints in heaven, and that he is guiding and directing all things for our eternal good.

[1] Professor Zich delivered this essay at the 1933 synod convention as the church and the nation struggled during the Great Depression. It can be accessed online via the Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary essay file. It can also be found by clicking on the title of the essay in this article.

Rev. Steven Pagels serves as a professor of dogmatics and homiletics at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in Mequon, WI.

Historical Theology: Martin Luther’s A Treatise on the New Testament, that is, the Holy Mass

When Martin Luther published The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods (1519), he still spoke about the presence of Christ’s body and blood in terms of Roman Catholic transubstantiation. In June 1520, he only touched on this sacrament while writing An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility. However, by September, while writing The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, he was rejecting transubstantiation.

The Treatise on the New Testament, that is, the Holy Mass was published in July 1520 at Wittenberg, written sometime between An Open Letter and The Babylonian Captivity.  Here Luther states his position clearly and simply, but in terms far removed from transubstantiation.

In all his promises, moreover, in addition to the word, God has usually given a sign, for the greater assurance and strengthening of our faith . . .

This is what Christ has done in this testament. He has affixed to the words a powerful and most precious seal and sign: his own true flesh and blood under the bread and wine.[1]

This treatise is significant because it is Luther’s first publication in which he clearly attacks the Roman mass as a bloodless repetition of the Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

This is all easily understood, if one only considers what the mass really is, namely, a testament and a sacrament. It is God’s word or promise, together with a sacred sign, the bread and the wine under which Christ’s flesh and blood are truly present.[2]

While Luther rejects the Roman theory of an unbloody sacrifice, he does not deny that there is a sacrifice involved.

From these words we learn that we do not offer Christ as a sacrifice, but that Christ offers us. And in this way it is permissible, yes, profitable, to call a mass a sacrifice, not on its own account, but because we offer ourselves as a sacrifice along with Christ. That is, we lay ourselves on Christ by a firm faith in his testament and do not otherwise appear before God with our prayer, praise, and sacrifice except through Christ and his mediation. . . Christ takes up our cause, presents us and our prayer and praise, and also offers himself for us in heaven. If the mass were so understood and for this reason called a sacrifice, it would be well.[3]

Luther also points to the priesthood of all believers, when he concludes that each person by his/her faith offers Christ to God.

All such, then, wherever they may be, are true priests. . . For faith must do everything. Faith alone is the true priestly office. It permits no one else to take its place. Therefore all Christian men are priests, all women priestesses. . .[4]

Although Luther’s tone is remarkably calm and his purpose constructive, this treatise touched off a violent reaction. The German humanist Johann Cochlaeus (1479-1552) spearheaded Roman opposition with his 1521 rebuttal in which he grouped Luther with heretics, Hussites, and radicals.

Luther’s Treatise on the New Testament can be found in Luther’s Works, volume 35, pages 79-111.

[1] LW 35, 86.

[2] LW 35, 94.

[3] LW 35, 99.

[4] LW 35, 101.

Rev. James Korthals is Professor Emeritus of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in Mequon, WI.

Practical Theology: Pastoring in a Divisive Election Year

It’s clear that the political climate of the United States is polarized in all sorts of ways. As the election nears, one wonders if that polarization will become even worse. People – including some of our members – invest effort and money to try to get one candidate or another elected, and often the emotional investment is immense! “Pastor, I’m worried that if (insert a candidate’s name here) isn’t elected, that it will be terrible!”

How valuable it is for us to be reminded, “The one enthroned in heaven laughs.” (Psalm 2:4) God knows exactly how it will all work out, and how it will be a blessing for his Church.

Brothers, what an opportunity we have to redirect people’s thoughts to our Savior Jesus! Praise God the Christian Church is based on Jesus Christ and his Word, not a political party or any individual country. Even the gates of hell itself—let alone a presidential election—cannot overcome the Church of Christ (Matthew 16:18), because the Word of our God endures forever (Isaiah 40:8). At a time when people are looking for a savior, desperate for hope, and longing for a better future, let’s lift high the cross of Jesus! We have a Savior from sin, death, hell, fear, anxiety, worry, and everything that is evil.  He’s the Savior we trust in and the Savior we get to share.

Here are some suggestions for pastoring our people in a divisive election year. 1) Carefully distinguish between what God says in his Word and personal opinion. If it’s God’s Word, preach it! If it’s opinion, be careful how – or even if you share it. 2) Plan a Bible study on government. HERE is an option from NPH. Read Daniel Deutschlander’s book, Civil Government: God’s Other Kingdom.  3) Look for opportunities to highlight God’s control over his world and his desire to save people in Jesus. 4) Send your congregation a prayer and devotion a few days before the election to remind them of God’s rule in the world for the good of his Church, no matter if we like the election results or not.

The bottom line is this: our ministry and our life is all about sharing the gospel of Christ and God’s kingdom. That’s why Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come” (Matthew 6:10). Jesus tells us that his “kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Paul reminds us that “our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there” (Philippians 3:20). We fight with “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). We already know who is really “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:6)—Jesus! What a wonderful reminder for us, helping to drive anxiety out of our hearts! You and I are honored to be representatives of that King of Kings. May God bless your pastoring of his flock, as he works through you and me to build the eternal kingdom of God, the only kingdom which will never fall.”

Rev. Jeremy Belter serves as a Home Missionary in Arvada, CO, for Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran..