Four Branches – August 2021

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Exegetical theology: Preaching on Numbers 12:1-15

Logos Bible Study Software lists the “best” commentaries on every book of the Bible. I don’t know their algorithm, but two of their top three commentaries on the book of Numbers, that of Wenham and Milgrom, were the most highly recommended by Prof. Nass in the Hebrew Institute this summer, suggesting their judgment is sound.

On September 26th, our current lectionary lists Numbers 12:1-15, the account of Miriam and Aaron opposing Moses, as an OT reading. Here are a few exegetical nuggets from the aforementioned commentaries, intended to help you use that pericope as your sermon text or simply as a sermon illustration on Sept. 26th, and to encourage you to consult the Logos list when you’re looking for a new commentary.

While we may detect a mere sibling rivalry at work, Wenham points out that criticism by the high priest and leading prophetess, right on the heels of two widespread rebellions, made this a significant challenge to Moses (124-125).

Milgrom notes that Miriam’s name is placed ahead of Aaron’s at the outset, departing from the usual order. This suggests that Miriam is the leader of the two and explains why only she is afflicted with leprosy (93).

In v. 2, the Hebrew phrase הֲרַק אַךְ uses two words meaning “only” and emphasizes the real complaint against Moses, his unique status (Milgrom, 94). Both Milgrom and Wenham note how the Hebrew phrase דִבֵּר + ב in v. 2, usually translated “speak through” here more likely means “speaks with” in an intimate way, as it must mean in v. 8. We have seen the LORD speak through both Aaron and Miriam previously in the Pentateuch.  Their complaint is not focused on that issue, but on the uniquely intimate manner of Moses’ communication with the LORD.

V. 3 states that Moses was the most “humble” (עָנָו) man. The term עָנָו indicates humility when facing affliction. This situation illustrates the term well: When Moses is attacked, he patiently turns to the Lord for vindication rather than defend himself (Wenham, 126).

The LORD vindicates Moses, affirming that Moses does in fact enjoy a uniquely clear and direct form of communication with him (vv. 6-8). The LORD’s statement ends with a wordplay: The LORD speaks intimately with Moses (דִבֵּר + ב), but Miriam and Aaron have spoken against Moses (דִבֵּר + ב).

Wenham notes how spectacularly the humble Moses is vindicated (126). After the Lord departs, Aaron can only appeal to Moses, whom he now addresses “O My Lord”. בִּי אֲדֹנִי, clearly recognizing Moses’ superiority (Milgrom, 97).

Wenham notes many ways Moses serves as a type of Christ. Jesus was the prophet like Moses. He was the most humble man who did not answer his accusers but appealed to God and was dramatically vindicated. But unlike Moses, who saw God’s form indistinctly, Jesus was the very dwelling of God with man (128).

Jacob Milgrom, Numbers, The JPS Torah Commentary. JPS, 1990.

Gordon Wenham, Numbers: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. InterVarsity Press, 1981.

Rev. Aaron West serves at St. Matthew, Spokane, Washington.

Systematic Theology: Preaching Election

 “Why do Lutheran preachers always end on the negative?” my Reformed friend asked. He was specifically referring to many of the LC-MS pastors he had heard over the years. In his observation, Lutheran sermons usually ended in a way something like this: “You have been chosen before the creation of the world to be saved! But… be careful that you don’t fall! Amen.”

Whether that’s an accurate assessment or not, if my friend’s experiences of Lutheran preaching characterize my Sunday proclamation, then shame on me. I understand the value of both law and gospel, of course. I realize that I should use the law with someone who is overconfident in their own abilities while applying the gospel to a hurting and insecure heart. But when I am wrapping up my sermons to those (in general) whom I consider part of the elect, I better end on God’s promises!

They are elected, after all. They have been chosen by God from eternity to be with him for eternity. He has successfully brought them to faith through the means of grace and gives them a guarantee that he will bring all of his elect to heaven. I should send them home with that message! I should let those powerful promises of God ring in their ears all week long until they come back again.

Martin Luther in his lectures on Genesis made sure that his students never doubted their election:

“For God did not come down from heaven to make you uncertain about predestination, to teach you to despise the sacraments, absolution, and the rest of the divine ordinances. Indeed, He instituted them to make you completely certain and to remove the disease of doubt from your heart, in order that you might not only believe with the heart but also see with your physical eyes and touch with your hands. Why, then, do you reject these and complain that you do not know whether you have been predestined? You have the Gospel; you have been baptized; you have absolution; you are a Christian.” [LW, Vol. 5:45-46][1]

Although election is not a universal doctrine meant for all, it is meant for your people who have confessed their faith in their Savior. Do you preach to them like they have been predestined to salvation? Do you refer to them as “the elect” on a regular basis? Do you reassure them of God’s eternal will set in stone long ago? Do you end each of your sermons on the “high note” of God’s grace?

For a couple examples on how our Lutheran forefathers dealt with this subject from the pulpit, it might be worthwhile to read “Selected Sermons: And an Essay on Election” by C.F.W Walther and “A Christian Sermon on God’s Foreknowledge or Election to Salvation” by Martin Chemnitz.

Rev. Matthew Frey serves at Living Word, Montrose, CO.

[1] If you’re interested in more of Luther’s thoughts on the surety of election, take a look at his full commentary on Genesis 26:9.

Historical Theology: A Brief Instruction of What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels[1]

Martin Luther left a considerable body of written works. If one includes the more or less accurate transcript of some lectures, they amount to hundreds of titles. He was first and foremost a theologian, but also a preacher and a writer, who could express difficult subjects in a simple language. We tend to think of his longer major works: the Manifestoes of 1520, the Bondage of the Will, and the Catechisms. But in addition, he wrote many shorter works of great value although they are lesser known. Numbered among that group is A Brief Instruction of What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels.

Luther arrived at the Wartburg on May 4, 1521, without his library, but that did not prevent him from beginning several projects. He busied himself by starting a series of sermons based on the epistles and gospel of the church year. In a November 19, 1521, letter he dedicated these sermons to Albert, count of Mansfeld. At that time, he had only written twelve sermons from Christmas Day through the Festival of the Epiphany. The dedicatory letter, however, also included A Brief Instruction of What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels.

He points out, “It is common practice to number the gospels and to name them by books and say that there are four gospels.”[1] He zeroes in on a danger which was prevalent, “There is, besides the still worse practice of regarding the gospels and epistles as law books in which is supposed to be taught what we are to do and in which the works of Christ are pictured to us as nothing but examples.”[2] Due to these views, “neither the gospels nor the epistles may be read in a profitable or Christian manner, and [people] remain as pagan as ever.”[3]

Luther then gets to heart of the matter, “One should thus realize that there is only one gospel, but that it is described by many apostles.”[4]  Every single epistle, as well as the Acts of the Apostles, are gospel, even though they do not record all the works and words of Christ. In its various forms the gospel is about Christ, the Son of God who became man, suffered, died, and was raised. He is Lord over all things. He is an example, but only after he has first been received as a gift of God to us through faith. That gift is given through the proclamation of the gospel, which “is nothing else than Christ coming to us, or we being brought to him.”[5]

The tragedy of the times, Luther believes, is that gospel preaching has almost vanished. Ignorance of the gospel was filling the church. Yet, Scripture was there to serve as its own interpreter. If you abandon Scripture, he warns, God will abandon us to the lies of men. Luther prayed for a return to the gospel which would make all other expositions unneeded.

Given the similarities between Luther’s day and our own, the Brief Instruction continues to benefit the reader.

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

[1] LW 35: 117-124

[2] LW 35: 117

[3] LW 35: 117

[4] LW 35: 117

[5] LW 35: 121

Practical Theology: “First Day at Public School”

This week, a huge change is happening in my family. It’s perhaps the biggest change we’ve faced, even after moving 10 times in our 13 years of marriage: Our kids are going to a public school. There isn’t a single WELS school in the state of Oklahoma. So, it’s public school for us.

Deliberating a call to Oklahoma this past spring enabled me to hear people’s honest thoughts about public schools. A number of people—especially WELS called workers—told my wife and me that it would be negligence as parents to move to a place without a Lutheran school. Some went so far as to say that moving away from Lutheran education would call into question our love for our children. Those words continue to weigh heavily on our hearts. We pray our decision doesn’t lead our children away from Jesus.

Many people combined those strong statements with warnings about the dangers of public education: humanism, evolution, gender issues, critical race theory, anti-Christian agendas…. My wife and I are concerned about all those things—and many more.

On the other hand, as I deliberated the call to Oklahoma, I heard WELS members say, “Pastor, I teach in a public school. Why do you think we’re all bad?” As I thought about it, numerous WELS members in every congregation I have served have worked in public education. I wonder what they think when we speak so negatively of public schools.

The most humbling moment was when I expressed my concerns to the church council as I deliberated the call. In a Zoom meeting, I talked at length about the hardship it would be to not have our kids in a Lutheran school. There was an awkward pause, and then one councilman said, “Pastor, all of us have our kids in public schools too. Actually, all of us went to public schools ourselves. If you came here, you would be just like us.” It was hard to argue with his point. Many faithful WELS members—and pastors!—in many parts of the country don’t have access to Lutheran education. What about them?

I’ve prayed way more this summer than I usually do. I’ve ordered Christ-Light LES materials to teach my kids at home. I’m looking critically at our small church’s ministry with the knowledge that our kids won’t have Christian teachings reinforced in any way at their schools. I’m looking for opportunities to make connections in the public school community. Could this be a good thing? I don’t know. We’re scared.

What I do know is that I need Jesus’ promise: “This is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day” (John 6:39). I need the daily reminder that my children’s salvation—and my salvation too!—isn’t assured because of the school they go to or the friends they hang out with. It depends on Jesus Christ and his Word.

I’ll pray for your kids as they head off to school. Please pray for mine. When you talk about public schools, remember that you’re talking about some of your own members. You’re talking about some of your brother pastors. You’re talking about me and my family, just trying to serve Jesus at a church without enough members for a Lutheran School. May Jesus in his grace never lose any of us.

Pastor Nathan Nass serves at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Tulsa, OK.