Four Branches – July 2020

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Exegetical Theology: Rebuilding After Exile II: Putting Home Improvement in Its Place

Perhaps the COVID regulations that deemed Home Depot but not public worship to be “essential” have encouraged us towards the idolatry of home improvement. Whether or not they did, we know all too well the way we and our congregants idolize our own dwellings, often at the expense of or the neglect of God’s house. We can take an admonishment from Haggai, who rebukes such attitudes among the returned Judeans. The Judeans had been forced to stop rebuilding the temple for over a decade due to legal trouble. It seems their legal troubles gradually became more of an excuse than a reason. They found it convenient to put the time and capital they could have used for God’s house into their own houses.

Haggai 1:4 gives this indictment:

הַעֵת לָכֶם אַתֶּם

“Is [it] time for you, yourselves…” The phrase לָכֶם אַתֶּם “for you, you” is redundant, emphasizing that the Judeans had become self-centered.

לָשֶׁבֶת בְּבָתֵּיכֶם סְפוּנִים

“…To live in your houses [that are] paneled…” The word סְפוּנִים, paneled, is a Qal passive participle of a verb meaning, “cover”. When used architecturally it refers to either laying the roof or paneling walls. In the four other architectural uses in the Bible it refers to luxurious buildings: Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:9) and palace (1 Kings 7:3), which seem to have had cedar roofs, Solomon’s throne room, which was paneled in cedar from floor to ceiling (1 Kings 7:7), and an imagined stereotypical dream house (Jeremiah 22:14).

Each of those passages mentions the premium building material of their day: imported cedar. Although cedar is not mentioned here, we know from Ezra 3:7 that the Judeans were able to order cedar from Lebanon when they finally did resume construction on the temple. It seems likely that some of the Judeans had already established this supply line to complete their home improvement projects in the years of halted temple construction.

Whether we take סְפוּנִים as meaning “paneled” or “nicely roofed,” the implication is that the Judeans were building luxury homes, at least by the standards of their day.[1] This is a problem when contrasted with their treatment of God’s house:

וְהַבַּיִת הַזֶּה חָרֽב

“…And this house is a ruin.” The temple had been torn down. No doubt some debris remained. The Judeans had briefly worked on it but abandoned it. We can imagine what a mess it must have been at the time, and they were reminded every time they approached the altar. Yet they procrastinated rebuilding using the excuse, “It’s not time yet” (Haggai 1:2), meanwhile building for themselves the kind of luxurious dwellings the temple should have been. God deserves our best, but we frequently keep the best for ourselves and overlook the things of God. Of course, we have excuses, but God in love rebukes them and corrects us.

I found the entry for ספן in VanGemeren, New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, to be very helpful, and it is reflected in the above. It is affordable on Logos.

[1] It’s worth noting, before we get judgmental, our houses are all much nicer than theirs were.

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

Systematic Theology: How to Respond to Premillenialists

If there are ten millennialists in a room, they will have at least a dozen different opinions about the millennium. The joke is intended to be humorous, but the truth behind it is quite sad. Instead of assuring believers that Christ is in control, millennial interpretations of Revelation 20 and other passages have caused more than a few divisions within the Christian church and much confusion for individual Christians.

At the most basic level, premillennialists believe that Jesus will return before the thousand-year reign begins, but under that broad umbrella exist a number of divergent views. Classic, or historic, premillennialists are looking for Jesus to come back and establish a physical kingdom on earth. Pretribulational premillennialists—better known as dispensationalists—don’t dispute this fact, but they add another secret return of Christ, when Jesus will take believers out of this world, called the rapture. There is no consensus about the timing of the so-called rapture of believers either, whether Jesus will come for them before, during, or after a time of great tribulation.

Despite all these differences and more, there is one point on which all premillennialists can agree: amillennialism has it all wrong. One of their most pointed criticisms of amillennialists is that we fail to take the Bible literally.

This is unfamiliar territory for confessional Lutherans. We believe that the Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God. We are aware of the dangers of allegorizing or spiritualizing the sacred text. We are so accustomed to holding the high ground because of our high view of Scripture that it can be a struggle to formulate a response when we are accused of doing the very things we denounce.

So what is the best way to respond? Pastor Kim Riddlebarger offers a number of helpful suggestions in A Case for Amillennialism.[1]

  • It does no good to demonize the people who disagree with you. “Sadly, when it comes to eschatology, a great deal of ad hominem argumentation goes on…we should always strive to conduct the debate with charity and respect” (13).
  • Hermeneutics is huge. In other words, our approach to the Bible as a whole will determine how we interpret individual passages. “Everyone has presuppositions which color how they read the Scriptures” (33).
  • It is important to distinguish between a literal and literalistic reading of the text. “A literal reading—a reading that gets at the plain sense of the text—will allow the New Testament to interpret the Old. It is amillennarians…who interpret prophecy literally in that they follow the literal sense of how the writers of the New Testament interpret Old Testament prophecy” (40).

For further study, I encourage you to add A Case for Amillennialism to your pastoral library. It is available on for under $20.

[1] Riddlebarger is pastor at Christ United Reformed Church in Anaheim, CA and the co-host of The White Horse Inn radio broadcast.

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

Historical Theology: Martin Luther’s Treatise on Good Works

In February 1520, Martin Luther began to prepare a “sermon” on good works. In late March, he wrote to his friend George Spalatin, “It will not be a sermon but rather a small book, and if my writing progresses as well as it  has, this book will be the best work I have published so far.” The Treatise on Good Works was published at the end of May 1520 and provided a clear introduction to Luther’s reforming work and theology.

His goal was to commend to all Christians a new, down-to-earth piety. It was “new” because it presented a fundamentally different meaning of good works. It would change the way Christians practiced their faith. In medieval theology, good works referred to acts of religious devotion and charity that made up for sins committed by believers. They were considered meritorious for salvation. By the sixteenth century, good works were a required part of Christian life, if Christians desired eternal life.

Luther had already stated that salvation comes by faith alone and not by works. Many were confused when they heard this. Some suggested that his position implied believers were totally free from the need to do any good works, leading to immorality and lawlessness. Luther tries to clarify his position in this treatise.

Luther viewed praying, fasting, worship, and almsgiving as appropriate works for believers. His list of unnecessary works included things such as buying indulgences, praying to saints, pilgrimages to shrines, private masses, clerical celibacy, monastic vows, and venerating relics. In the Treatise, he is carefully to differentiate “right kind of good works” from “wrong kind of good works.” The right kind are those which nurture faith and obeying the Ten Commandments out of faith. He shows how faith leads to obedience—not as a human work but as a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Luther argues that the Ten Commandments define all good works for the Christian life. The first commandment is fulfilled through faith, which is the chief good work that leads to all others. He then goes on to define the good work that comes out of faith—the second by praise of God; the third by worship (hearing preaching and corporate prayer); the fourth by obedience to those placed over a person and kindness to those placed under; the fifth by gentleness; the sixth by purity and chastity; the seventh by generosity; the eight by telling the truth.  In the ninth and tenth, he simply states they speak against sinful lusts of the flesh and coveting temporal goods. Some commandments receive extensive explanations, while the last two commandments receive one paragraph.

His quoting of Scripture sometimes strikes one as strange. Since there was no standard German translation yet (his German New Testament was not published until 1522), Luther’s Bible passages come from his knowledge of the Vulgate which he then translates or paraphrases into German.

The Treatise is dedicated to Duke John, the younger brother of Elector Frederick the Wise. In 1525, John became the Elector of Saxony upon his brother’s death. Elector John wholeheartedly supported Luther and his reform efforts, as well as the reform of the University of Wittenberg, and the reorganization of the parishes in Saxony. In retrospect, this dedication was most appropriate.

The Treatise on Good Works can be found in the American Edition of Luther’s Works, volume 44, pages 17-114. It can be found in a number of places on the internet including

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

Practical Theology: Trusting or Testing

“Why don’t we just trust in God?” I’ve heard Christians ask that question lately. Why are people wearing masks? Why are we talking about or even taking precautions at church? “Why don’t we trust in God?” A WELS member berated me on Facebook for being a liberal, “PC” pastor because we—like many of you—suspended our church services for a time during the pandemic. “Why don’t we just trust in God?”

On the one hand, I love that sentiment. The Bible says that God’s people do not trust in horses or princes. We know that our lives do not depend on protective gear or social distancing. Our lives depend on Jesus Christ! At a time of doubt and uncertainty, may the Holy Spirit give us a bold trust in Jesus our Savior!

But let me ask you something: Are you trusting God or testing God? There is a difference. You know who else said, “Why don’t you just trust in God”? The devil himself! Remember when Satan tempted Jesus in the desert? For one of his temptations, Satan took Jesus to the highest point of the temple and told him to jump off. He even quoted the Bible, “For it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone’” (Matthew 4:6).

That sounds like a good argument, doesn’t it? “God’s with you. God’s angels surround you. What are you afraid of, Jesus? Don’t you trust in God? Jump! God will save you!” Should Jesus have jumped? Remember what he said? “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Matthew 4:7). For Jesus to jump off that temple was not trusting God, it was testing God. It would have been sinful.

Trusting God does not mean throwing caution to the wind. Trusting God does not mean ignoring the wise advice of other people. Trusting God does not mean insisting on doing what we want to do regardless of what the results might be for us and others. Trusting God doesn’t mean being foolish—like jumping off a building!—and expecting God to save us. That’s not trusting God. That’s trusting us and testing God.

Mary and Joseph trusted in God—and fled for their lives to Egypt (Matthew 2). Newly converted Saul trusted in God—and escaped Damascus in a basket (Acts 9:25). You trust in God—and wear a seatbelt and wash your hands. Yes, God’s angels are around us all the time. Miraculous rescues still happen. But God often keeps us alive through little, everyday blessings. We trust in God. We do not want to test him.

God’s blessings as you lead your people through these challenging times. Some of our people need constant reminders to trust in God. Others, however, may need to be reminded not to put God to the test. May God give us wisdom to help our people discern how to trust in God without testing him.

Rev. Nathan Nass serves at St. Paul/San Pablo Lutheran Church in Green Bay, WI. You can check out his blog at