Four Branches December 2017

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Exegetical Theology: The LORD is My Banner

The Israelites’ battle against the Amalekites at Rephidim was memorable – not only for the victory, but also for Lord’s obvious hand in it! With Moses on the hill and the staff of God in his outstretched hands, the battle was secure.[1] Under this divine military standard, the victory was won. To mark the occasion, Moses built an altar and gave it the fitting name: יְהוָה נִסִּי ‬: The Lord is my Banner!

While the use of נֵס is not uncommon in the Old Testament (it occurs 21 times), the title “Jehovah Nissi” is unique to Exodus 17.  Much more than a hanging decoration, the word conveys a standard or display frequently used in the military context. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament states that the word “generally means a rallying point or standard which drew people together for some common action or for the communication of important information…There, a signal pole…could be raised as a point focus or object of hope.”[2] For the Israelites, the Lord indeed was their banner and it was clear hope, power, protection and victory were all found in God.

This description also holds true when we see נֵס appear as the Israelites engage in spiritual battle in Numbers 21. In this familiar account, not only did the Lord send venomous snakes among his people because of their spiritual rebellion, he also instructed Moses to fashion a snake and put it on a pole ( נֵס ‬) so that anyone afflicted by a snake bite might look and live.[3] Once again, the Lord provided a banner, a rallying point, where his people could turn to see where the battle between life and death is won. And Jesus makes reference to this account when speaking of his saving work: Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.[4] Ultimately, the greatest significance of the Lord as our Banner is seen in Christ himself as he is hoisted up on the cross – the rallying point for sinners eager to witness the culmination of their Savior’s victorious act.

The wide variety of names for God in Scripture offers an abundance of theological truths and insight.  “Jehovah Nissi” is no exception.  Israel was ill-equipped for battle. And yet they had the Lord as their Banner! That truth continues as God’s children rally around Christ and his work. Under the banner of the Lord, the most important victory of salvation is secure. With confidence the Christian looks to the cross and cries out: The Lord is my Banner!


N.B. A study on the various names of God in Scripture can be beneficial for personal or congregational study. Many books have been written on the topic. Despite the reformed tendencies of the author, here is one resource (more devotional than exegetical) that might help in putting something together.

[1] Exodus 17:8-13

[2] TWOT, Vol. II, p. 583

[3] Numbers 21:5-6, 8

[4] John 3:14-15

Rev. David Bivens serves Christ the Lord Lutheran Church and Sienna Lutheran Academy in Sienna Plantation, TX, and as chairman of the BWM’s Administrative Committee for African Missions.

Systematic Theology: The Witness of Nature

“If Glacier Park is one-tenth as beautiful as heaven, I can’t wait to get there.” Those words were written in a letter from my aunt to my grandma just weeks before my aunt died in a car accident near Glacier.

David says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1). Nature sends a strong message to all people. It doesn’t mumble; it declares and proclaims the works of God. The Apostle Paul ratchets it up another notch when he says that God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – can be clearly seen from what has been made (Romans 1:20). Not only is God there, he broadcasts his eternal power and a divine nature in what he has made. Nature is such a powerful testimony to God’s existence that people are without excuse. In fact, to say that there is no God is to show that you are a fool (Psalm 14:1).

While we have become accustomed to speaking about the “masks of God” as he works through the different callings that he gives people in their vocations, Luther saw creation itself as a “mask of God.” In The Foolishness of God, Becker explains, “Just as God hides himself in the means of grace, so he hides his invisible attributes in the whole world of nature…If men could see correctly and clearly, they would see God in all of his creatures.”[1] Amazingly, Luther, who is well known for his warnings about the limits of human reason and knowledge apart from Scripture, often expressed appreciation in the many ways that God has revealed himself in nature.

While we know that nature alone cannot lead a person to saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and his forgiveness, it remains a tremendous gift. Not only does it testify to God’s existence to unbelievers, it continually testifies to those who have faith. To those who know that the God who created all things is the God who has saved us through the death of his Son, creation is a continual affirmation of God’s love and care. Look at the birds of the air. Consider the lilies of the field. Marvel at the contrasts of color in a sunset, the everchanging color palette on the mountains, the expanse of the plains, or the beauty of the clouds in the sky. Then remember, God made all this for you.  And don’t hesitate to proclaim it to your people.

For further reading check out The Foolishness of God pages 13-67. Consider taking a walk/hike/bike in God’s creation. Next time we will look at how nature is often made an idol.

[1] Siegbert Becker, The Foolishness of God: The Place of Reason in the Theology of Martin Luther. (Milwaukee, WI: NPH, 1982), 20.

Questions for further consideration:

Agree/Disagree: The natural knowledge of God speaks more loudly in some places than others.

Agree/Disagree: The natural knowledge of God prepares a person to receive the message of Scripture.

The natural knowledge of God can be seen in both creation and creatures. Can it also be seen in the things that God’s creatures create (art)? If so, how? What are the limitations to this?

The means of grace strengthen a believer’s faith. In what way might nature do the same?

Rev. Justin Cloute serves Living Savior Lutheran Church in Missoula, MT.

Historical Theology: A Lutheran Look at Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (Part 1: A Victim of History)

The list of names that the Lord used to shape or alter the course of history is short. The list of names that are victims of history’s course is legion.

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s name seems to be permanently engraved on the second list. He was born into a nominally Jewish home in an age of ascendant anti-Semitism in Germany. He was baptized Lutheran by a Reformed pastor in an age of mixed confessions. Rationalism had so rotted the mind of the Lutheran church in the early 1800s, that Schleiermacher was considered a prince of the pulpit in Berlin, Mendelssohn’s childhood home. Mendelssohn’s entire lifespan (1809-1847) stands within the period that many consider the low ebb of Lutheran history.

Nor did history deal kindly with Mendelssohn after his death. Born during a period of musical transition, his works were always just a little too classical and cerebral in an age of romanticism and emotional excess. Mendelssohn’s love for the music of the church was at odds with the rest of the A-list composers of the Romantic Age who wrote precious little for the church. Even his mother commented on his love for composing music based upon Lutheran chorales: “They are stillborn children. Felix now composes only the type of pieces that nobody may see and that can barely be performed” (Taylor, 67). Socially, composer Richard Wagner (Adolf Hitler’s favorite) would completely pan Mendelssohn’s music as “incapable of bringing forth that deep effect upon our hearts and souls which we expect from art.” Why? Because Mendelssohn was born a Jew. (A later racially-charged critic would refer to him as “that gnat Mendelssohn.”) Politically, his music received a warm welcome by Queen Victoria across the English Channel. A generation later, his music would be scorned by the English elite as religious “kitsch” while the sun was setting on both Victoria’s empire and her ideals. Worse was still to come back in Mendelssohn’s adopted city of Leipzig, where his statue was torn down under the cover of darkness by the Nazi regime and sold for scrap metal.[1]

Mendelssohn remains an enigmatic figure today. In our post-WWII age, modern authors now tend to down-play his Christianity and overplay his Jewish roots. (There is, for instance, no evidence that Mendelssohn ever attended a synagogue service.) Born just before the confessional reawakening in the Old World, he was never quite “reborn” in confessional Lutheran circles in the New World. Paradoxically, in an age of rising secularism, his church compositions are enjoying a resurgence of popularity.

Mendelssohn and his music are unfortunate victims of history – smashed between the competing movements of German Rationalism and Romanticism. His reputation was further tarnished by political and social forces soon after his death. His legacy is misunderstood and underappreciated in the present. Over the next few months, these small articles seek to reintroduce Mendelssohn to our ministerium.

We will be blessed to make Mendelssohn’s acquaintance. Why? Because the music of this A-list, Lutheran composer can serve as a welcome companion as we minister in another unfortunate age – squished between modernism and post-modernism, secularism and spirituality, liberalism and intolerance.

[1] The mayor of Leipzig, Carl Goerdeler, resigned in protest. He would later be implicated and executed for his part in the so-called Stauffenberg plot on Hitler’s life. A pious Lutheran, Goerdeler’s personal motto was omnia restaurare in Christo (Restoring everything in Christ).


  • For a lay-man’s insight into Mendelssohn’s faith (as well as the other great composers), check out a copy of The Spiritual Lives of Great Composers by Patrick Kavanaugh (Sparrow Press, 1992).
  • For a great devotional activity between Christmas and Lent, get to know Mendelssohn’s two great oratorios, Paulus and Elijah. Their names aptly describe their contents: The lives of St. Paul and the prophet Elijah. Paulus is only in German so Google the libretto and a translation. Elijah has a popular edition in English.

  • For Paulus, I suggest Phillip Herreweghe’s recording on the Harmonia Mundi label. It is available on Spotify and Apple Music. Youtube has other recordings available.
  • For Elijah, Paul McCreesh and the Gabrielli Consort’s recording of the English edition is a must-listen. Again, it is available on Spotify or Apple Music. It can also be found on Youtube.

Rev. Aaron Christie serves Trinity Lutheran Church in Waukesha, WI, and is chairman of the Hymnody Committee for the WELS hymnal project.

Practical Theology: Church Records – Are You Kidding Me?

It’s important enough to take up space here? Oh, please.

How about addressing something that is interesting as well as important? Besides, if it was a good enough system for the Apostle Paul, It’s good enough for me. Remember how Paul wrote about his church record keeping system? I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) (1 Cor 1:14 NIV 84)

Paul’s record of pastoral acts seems to be what he could remember – even though he didn’t seem to be able to remember much of it. Not the baptisms, anyway. Do you ever think: I can remember my pastoral acts – well most of them, or at least some of them. Maybe I’ll just keep records like the Apostle Paul. After all, you might think: I’m the pastor. I’ve got important work to do; people to visit, sermons to write, classes to teach – you know, real “means of grace” ministry to accomplish.

Means of Grace ministry like baptisms? Like serving the Lord’s Supper to shut-ins? Like conducting a Christian funeral? Like marrying people? Like instructing catechumens? Like caring for the spiritual needs of members I haven’t seen for months (or years)? That’s real ministry. That’s also church records.

If your service at St Elsewhere is relatively new, what a blessing to conduct that funeral and (on the basis of decent church records) know that the sister in Christ you are committing to the ground in the certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life was baptized and confirmed as an adult, a year after her marriage; regularly received the Lord’s Supper even though she had not been in the church building for the three years prior to your arrival; was recently preceded in death by her husband of 42 years and even buried the son who was premature and died just days after his baptism 39 years ago. What a wealth of means of grace ministry you know and can preach about – because someone before you kept good church records.

How are your church records? Will the called servant of the word who follows you, be able to piece together the blessings God brought through your means of grace ministry? From those records will he know whom to comfort and how to comfort and even whom to confront? It’s not just your means of grace ministry, it’s the means of grace ministry of those who follow you, too.

It’s caring for souls that makes good church records important.

Rev. John Seifert serves Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Midland, MI, and as president of the Michigan District.