Four Branches – April 2024

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Exegetical theology: The “Sacrifice” of Isaac, Part 2: A Dress Rehearsal for Calvary

God taught his people throughout the ages how he would rescue us from sin. Abraham’s “sacrifice” of Isaac in Genesis 22 is just such an example where a father and son carried out a dress rehearsal on Mount Moriah for the main event that would take place years later on Mount Calvary.

God told him to sacrifice (הַעֲלֵ֤הוּ) his own son as a whole burnt offering (עֹלָ֔ה) dedicated to God. God would show Abraham the exact location for this sacrifice in the region of Moriah, some 50 miles from where he had been living in Beersheba. 

God command him: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isacc” (אֶת־בִּנְךָ֙ אֶת־יְחִֽידְךָ֤ אֲשֶׁר־אָהַ֨בְתָּ֙ אֶת־יִצְחָ֔ק)—specific terms for Abraham’s son of the promise.

While Isaac carried the wood, he inquired about not having an animal to sacrifice. Abraham assured him that God would see to it and provide the lamb (אֱלֹהִ֞ים יִרְאֶה־לֹּ֥ו הַשֶּׂ֛ה).

Father Abraham carried the knife in his hand, bound Isaac, and lifted the knife to slay his own son before the angel of the Lord stopped him.

In the end, the one sentenced to die got to go free because the ram caught in the thicket was sacrificed instead. Think of the intense relief both Abraham and Isaac would have felt as the ram was killed and burned instead of Isaac!

Years later, the temple was built in the region of Mount Moriah (2 Chronicles 3:1). Through the Old Testament ceremonial laws, God showed his people that a bloody sacrifice would be required to have any access to God. But it ultimately wouldn’t be by the blood of rams or bulls. The world would be set free from sin by the substitutionary sacrifice of God’s own Son. 

Consider similar terms to describe the great Son of the promise: God’s Son (John 19:7), his one and only Son (John 3:16), whom he loves (Matthew 3:17), Jesus (“the Lord saves;” cf. Matthew 1:21). Though he inquired of his Father if there might be another way, this Son was bound and then carried the wooden cross in the region of Moriah to Calvary. From the cross he shouted to the Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The Father didn’t withhold the knife of judgment as the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6). We, who were sentenced to die, go free as the innocent Lamb of God was slain in our place. And what relief we experience to know that it was Jesus on the altar of the cross in our place!

Not every detail in Genesis 22 needs to line up exactly to Jesus’ passion, suffering, and death. But this event clearly foreshadows the great, final, substitutionary sacrifice by which we can live forever. The angel of the Lord stopped the dress rehearsal with Abraham and Isaac because he would come back for the real thing 2,000 years later.

On the mountain of the Lord, it was provided!

Kurtis Wetzel is a pastor at Cross of Christ in Boise and Nampa, Idaho.

Systematic Theology: The Sanctity of Life and the Image of God 

“Human life is precious because humans are made in the image of God.” Many Christian pro-life advocates make statements like this. While we thank our Lord that they defend the lives of the unborn, we rightly might have some reservations about the way they speak about the image of God, specifically about humankind’s retention of the image of God after the fall. Some have contended that, since the image of God is retained in humans after the fall, there is some moral good in humans and therefore they can in some way contribute to their salvation. Such a contention militates against the chief teaching of the Scriptures, justification by faith alone. So how do we speak biblically and carefully about the image of God?

The Scriptures are clear that Adam and Eve were created in God’s image in the beginning (Genesis 1:26,27). It is also clear that the image of God was lost in the fall into sin (Genesis 5:3) but begins to be restored in a person when he comes to faith in Christ (Colossians 3:9,10; Ephesians 4:24). The image of God is completely restored when the Lord takes his child home to heaven. This understanding reflects what the dogmaticians call the “narrow” or “proper” definition of the image of God.  Francis Pieper summarizes that narrow view like this: “The image of God in man consisted in much more than in his possession of intellect and will, in his personality; it consisted in the right disposition of his intellect and will, in his knowledge of God and the will to do only God’s will.”[1] Lyle Lange defined it in this way: “The image of God consisted in the right use and disposition of Adam and Eve’s intellect, so they had a perfect knowledge of God as their loving Creator. They also had a perfect knowledge of God’s will. Thus, they were holy. They were also righteous, capable of carrying out God’s will perfectly. They were totally upright and uncorrupted in their entire being.”[2]

It is worth noting that some orthodox Lutheran dogmaticians, such as Johann Baier, Abraham Calov, and Johannes Quenstedt, have spoken about some retention of the image of God in fallen man.   However, when they did so, they were defining the image of God in the broad sense.  By this they meant that humans are different from animals in that they have been gifted with intellect and will and are rational beings.  In this way they have a certain similarity to God.  Such Lutheran theologians did not deny the loss of righteousness and holiness in humans after the fall into sin.  Therefore, it is not that these Lutheran theologians were wrong when they defined the image of God in the broader sense; there is some value in this definition.  Nevertheless, the narrow view is preferable because it more clearly mirrors the way the Scriptures speak about the image of God.[3]

What, then, do we make of passages like this?

Genesis 9:6 Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.

James 3:9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 

These passages could be interpreted to mean that humans have, at least in some way, retained the image of God after the fall. If that were the case, the broader understanding of the image of God would need to be employed in these verses.

However, the majority of Lutheran dogmaticians take a different view, following the approach of Luther. Commenting on Genesis 9:6, Luther wrote, “This is the outstanding reason why He does not want a human being killed on the strength of individual discretion: man is the noblest creature, not created like the rest of the animals but according to God’s image. Even though man has lost this image through sin….his condition is nevertheless such that it can be restored through the Word and the Holy Spirit. God wants us to show respect for this image in one another; He does not want us to shed blood in a tyrannical manner.” [4] (emphasis mine)

Here we observe Luther clearly describing the image of God in the narrow sense. We also see Luther describing human life as a time of grace, a time when a person can come to faith in Christ and begin to be restored in the image of God. This is the same reason why James brings the image of God into his prohibition of cursing in James 3:9. God did not give his name to us so that we could curse people to hell but rather that we might share with people God’s saving name, so that they might believe and be renewed in the image of God.

Why is every human life precious, including the lives of the unborn? It is proper to bring into this discussion the image of God. However, rather than insisting that life should be preserved because humans are made in the image of God, we would do better to state that human life is precious because God wants to use a person’s time of life as a time to renew him in the image of God through the work of the gospel. May God bless your efforts to that end!

Rev. Shane Krause serves at St. Paul’s Lutheran in Onalaska, WI.

[1] Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics Vol. I, pp.516-517

[2] Lyle Lange, God So Loved the World: A Study of Christian Doctrine, p.189.

[3] For more on this point, see Pieper’s Dogmatics, pp.518-520.

[4] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. II (American Edition), p.141.

Historical Theology: Early Lutheran Martyrs, Part 2 

December 10 of this year will mark the 500th anniversary of the martyrdom of Hendrik van Zutphen (also spelled Heinrich von Zütphen, born c. 1488). His seems to have been the most gruesome of the early Lutheran martyrdoms, with one of his friends reporting to Martin Luther that “he perished in a manner suggesting that he was not beloved by God.”

After fleeing the city of Antwerp in October 1522, in order to escape arrest and imprisonment, Hendrik intended to return to Wittenberg. Instead, he was called as a preacher in Bremen after giving a sermon there. Over the next two years, he helped to introduce the Reformation in Bremen.

In November 1524, Hendrik was asked to preach the gospel in Meldorf in the republic of Dithmarschen. He accepted, intending to return to Bremen after a few months. Warmly welcomed in Meldorf, he preached six sermons there during the week of Advent 2. He preached there in spite of a preaching prohibition drawn up by some representatives of Dithmarschen under the influence of local Dominicans.

After midnight, early on Saturday, December 10, under the influence of the Dominicans, Franciscans, and Hamburg beer, a mob armed with torches, rapiers, maces, halberds, and pikes forced themselves into the pastor’s house where Hendrik was staying. They dragged Hendrik out of his bed, wearing only his nightshirt, and then dragged him, allegedly tied to the tail of a horse, first to Hemmingstedt, then to Heide, eight and a half miles from Meldorf. There he was thrown into a priest’s cellar until morning, when they dragged him to a fire for execution.

A former magistrate was bribed to pronounce Hendrik’s verdict—he was to be burned at the stake for having blasphemed God and his mother. Hendrik denied the charges and prayed that the Lord would forgive his persecutors, but they mocked and spit on him. A Christian woman offered a large sum of money if the mob would leave him alone until he was convicted legally. However, she was given a blow to the head and was forced to withdraw.

Reports say that the fire went out twice and that Hendrik was beaten with halberds and pikes for two hours while they tried to get the fire going. Then they tied him very tightly to a long ladder in order to throw him in the middle of the fire, but the halberd used to position the ladder slipped and pierced Hendrik in the middle. As a result, they simply threw the ladder into the fire with Hendrik on it, but it fell off to one side. Someone then approached and struck him on the chest with his mace until he died. Then they roasted his corpse over the coals. The next day they cut off the corpse’s head, hands, and feet, burned them in a new fire, and buried the trunk.

Luther later reported many in that region were sorry that such a murder was committed among them and were turning eagerly to the gospel. This might appear small compensation for such a gruesome martyrdom, but the Lord’s thoughts and ways are higher than ours. Hendrik’s martyrdom not only proved Jesus’ word (Matt. 24:9–13), but it also reminds us that Christ conceals his truth beneath the cross, and we look for vindication and salvation not here, but on Judgment Day and in the life to come. 

For Further Reading:

Jacob Probst’s Report of Hendrik van Zutphen’s Martyrdom

Martin Luther, The Burning of Brother Henry (1525), in Luther’s Works 32:261–86

Zütphen Monument in Heide, erected in 1830 and restored in 1858 (death date is incorrect)

Rev. Nathaniel Biebert serves at Trinity in Winner, SD.

Practical Theology: I Love Meetings

I love meetings. Let me clarify. I am sure I have never heard anything like that uttered in a circuit meeting or pastor’s conference. Personally, I also have a general distaste for church business meetings. I am sure we all could share a story or two of a shouting match in a council meeting or a meeting where the color of the tile for the bathroom was debated for two hours. Then there is the ever-popular question from your spouse when you return home from a three-hour council meeting, “What did you do at a meeting for three hours?” And you say, “I have no idea.”[1]

However, I do love meetings, not business meetings, but simply meeting with my leaders and ministry coordinators for spiritual and personal growth. I love meeting informally with brothers in Christ to grow from their insights and encourage them in their lives.

Over the last several months, we have been restructuring and establishing our yearly calendar since we had been informal with what we were doing. We wanted to make sure we were intentional about meeting together for spiritual and personal growth but not talk church business at all during that meeting. We also need to have regular business meetings to be good stewards of the ministry we have. So here is our plan going forward. 

First, we will hold our church business meeting on a Monday evening, instead of Sunday after worship. It will be done either on Zoom or in-person depending on work schedules. We will do ZERO spiritual growth in this meeting. That’s right, no obligatory opening devotion trying to get everyone focused on kingdom work just so we can “get onto the real business for tonight.”  

Second, we are then going to meet at least once a quarter on the third Saturday of the month for coffee, conversation, and spiritual growth. It is my hope this goes well, and we will meet monthly in the future! Our plan is either to meet at a local coffee shop or a different leader’s home. Our tentative plan for the morning will look like this.  

  • Coffee and conversation.  We will spend 15, 20, 25 minutes just talking about our life, families, joys, struggles, sports, etc. We will probably do some team-building exercises at times, but we will keep this organic for now. 
  • Bible study. For one whole hour, we are going to dig into God’s Word. We will have more structured Bible studies at times with questions. Other times, we’ll read through a book between our meetings and discuss that. One of my favorite Bible studies of all time was a Men’s Bible Breakfast I attended during my vicar year. 6-10 guys would gather early on a Tuesday morning, have breakfast, and just talk through, discuss, and uncover insights from a book of the Bible. Sometimes we would talk about two verses, sometimes six. There were no question sheets, just God’s people chewing on and discussing His Word, while a church elder facilitated the study. That will be a pretty popular option for us to try.
  • Take a break! 
  • Vision Building (Half an hour). We will react to something we have read or watched. Examples we will use might include Six Critical Questions or Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. Another option might be Sticky Teams by Larry Osborne. We will also work through different options from WELS Congregational Services. 

It is my prayer this is beneficial to our leaders, our relationships, the health of our leadership team, my faith and relationship with my leaders, and the ministry of our congregation. Check in with me after a year to see how it went! I know for other brothers in the ministry who have implemented plans like this it has been a blessing.

Rev. Jeremy Belter serves at Living Stone, a mission church in Arvada, CO.

[1] We implemented a one and half hour time limit and more often than not even less time than that for our council meetings, in keeping with Geno Wickman’s advice in his book Traction.