Exegetical Theology: What’s ἀγάπη got to do with it? Part 3
John is called the apostle of love for a reason. In his five New Testament books, he uses ἀγαπάω 71 times and φιλέω 13 times. Although John prefers ἀγαπάω, he does not consistently use it to indicate a loftier form of love (see John 3:19, 12:43, and 1 John 2:15).
Moreover, in his Gospel, John tends to use ἀγαπάω and φιλέω interchangeably (compare John 3:35 & 5:20, 13:23 & 20:2, 11:3 & 11:5, and 16:26 & 17:23). This is further evidence from the New Testament that ἀγαπάω does not denote an intrinsically loftier kind of love than φιλέω.
But what about John 21:15-17? This is the only place in the New Testament where these two words are used in close proximity. Here, Peter’s threefold denial is paralleled by a threefold questioning. Twice Jesus asks him, ἀγαπᾷς με, and twice Peter replies, φιλῶ σε. Jesus’ final question is φιλεῖς με, and Peter’s final response is φιλῶ σε. Is John’s use of ἀγαπάω and φιλέω significant in this context?
It is attractive to think that twice Jesus asks if Peter truly loves him, and Peter responds with a lesser love because his denial proved that was all he had to give.1 However, there is evidence from the passage that John may not have intended such a distinction.2
First of all, this is not a context where narrow distinctions are made by word choice. John uses two words for “to know” (οἶδα and γινώσκω), two words for “to tend” (βόσκω and ποιμαίνω), and two words for “sheep” (πρόβατον and ἀρνίον).
Also, notice that there is nothing in Peter’s responses that indicates he is aware of a distinction. He answers ναί (“yes”) to the question ἀγαπᾷς με, and affirms it with σὺ οἶδας ὅτι φιλῶ σε. Finally, John enumerates the questions with δεύτερον and τὸ τρίτον. It is not the verbs that bother Peter, but the threefold asking that parallels his three denials. For these reasons, it is likely that John does not intend a distinction between ἀγαπάω and φιλέω here.
The purpose of these three articles is not to deny the uniqueness of God’s love. To do so would contradict what God clearly tells us about it. ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ is indeed a purposeful, sacrificial love that seeks the best interests of its unworthy object. It is expressed in the sentences and paragraphs that make up the Bible, and it is from there that ἀγάπη acquires this meaning. God is love, and we know what love is because Jesus Christ laid down his life for us (1 John 3:16).
1. The NIV84 made this distinction, but it was removed in the NIV11.
2. For this section I am indebted to Prof. Kenneth Cherney and the Gospel of John course he taught at Martin Luther College in the Spring of 2004.
Rev. Noah Headrick serves as professor-in-waiting at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary.
Systematic Theology: Distinguishing Law and Gospel: Is It Really Enough?
We live in a very different world from Walther’s 19th Century Missouri, and more different still from the 16th Century Germany of the Reformation. Day-to-day life is increasingly secular, and church life is sequestered into a corner of people’s lives, if it’s present at all. General knowledge of biblical narratives, let alone biblical doctrine, is at a lower point than any of us have seen in our lifetimes. We strive to practice the proper distinction of law and gospel, but reaching people with these two words of God grows increasingly challenging when God’s whole Word is such a foreign concept in the first place. We hold Walther’s theses and Luther’s teaching on law and gospel in such high regard, but is it enough for the America of 2022?
You know full well that the answer is a resounding “Yes! Law and gospel are God’s Word for us, and God’s Word is sufficient.” Thank God that we are on the same page in that regard! As my circuit recently studied Walther’s Law and Gospel together, we frequently made the observation that he was “ahead of his time” or noted just how well his writing holds up today. The question is not whether law and gospel are enough, but rather how to present these timeless, sufficient, universally necessary truths today.
Let’s recognize the wisdom of Ecclesiastes which is timeless by definition: there is nothing new under the sun. We may use terms like “unprecedented” or “novel” to describe the theological landscape today, but our lack of lived experience in these circumstances doesn’t mean they are unique. The Athenians built their altar to “An Unknown God,” and people today build many altars to many gods they don’t know, either. How can you use God’s law to convict modern idol worship…and then use God’s gospel to introduce the real God who saves?
When we see the timelessness of the world’s problems, it helps us see the timelessness of the world’s greatest need for the Savior. It is a wonderful goal to make our preaching relevant and practical to the modern day, but it would be a grave mistake to sacrifice our focus on law and gospel at the altar of relevance or practicality. On the contrary, there is no one better positioned to deliver relevant, practical messages from God to his people than the faithful proclaimer of law and gospel.
In a 2017 Concordia Journal article entitled “Beyond Law and Gospel? Reflections on Speaking the Word in a (Post)Modern World,” Mark Seifrid writes “We desperately need pastors and not mere preachers” (40). A pastor is a shepherd. A pastor has real relationships with his people. A pastor is a knower of souls. When a pastor is concerned with the lives of his people, whether it’s 1530 or 1885 or 2022, he will be able to provide the most relevant and practical message possible. That message happens to be law and gospel, properly distinguished and carefully applied.
This article is essentially a summary of the Seifrid article mentioned above, “Beyond Law and Gospel? Reflections on Speaking the Word in a (Post)Modern World” from Concordia Journal Spring 2017. The full article is more than worth tracking down. Additionally, Walther’s seventeenth and eighteenth theses speak in particular to the timeless nature of our preaching.
Rev. Jared Natsis serves at Rock of Ages in Nashville, TN. This series of articles was submitted as a final project for Grow in Grace’s online Summer Quarter class “The Proper Distinction of Law and Gospel” with WLS President Earle Treptow.
Historical Theology: The Decree that Lives in Infamy
President Franklin D. Roosevelt called December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy.” It truly is a date we still remember for the great sacrifice made by so many service members of our armed forces that day. However, there is another date that lives in infamy, the birth of our Savior Jesus!
In December churches across the world read the familiar words of Luke 2:1-20. Many have heard these words so often, they can recite them by heart! We hear about the census decreed by Caesar Augustus, causing Mary and Joseph to travel. “So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child” (Luke 2:4-5, NIV).
What’s interesting about that decree is that many scholars object to the reliability of Luke’s statement that Mary and Joseph had to travel back to Bethlehem. The Roman census simply would have required them to register in their town of residence, Nazareth.
It was generally understood that Roman law instructed property owners to register for taxation in the district where they owned land. In the first century Rome, Jews were under the occupation of the Roman government. Any property they possessed would have been linked to their patriarchal ancestry.
A papyrus was discovered that dated to A.D. 104. It’s found in Harold Hoehner’s book Chronological Aspects of Christ’s Life. There he states. “A papyrus dated to A.D. 104, records an Egyptian prefect who ordered Egyptians to return to their ancestral homes so that a census could be taken… the Romans would certainly have allowed them (the Jews) the custom of laying claim to their family estate for taxation.”1
That doesn’t necessarily dismiss the objection some people have about Luke’s account, but it does show us from the historical record that ordering people to their ancestral homeland was nothing unusual. No matter what, we have Luke’s inspired account and that is the final say on any objections.
Surely Mary and Joseph would have understood the Scriptures, and Mary her role in all this. They would have known the prophecy of Micah 5:2. It must have been truly amazing from their perspective to see the final pieces of the Messianic puzzle falling into place, put there by the hand of Caesar himself.
What a comfort to know as we proclaim the Christmas gospel, it was investigated by a diligent historian, and inspired by the God who wants all to know that a Savior has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord.
1. Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1977), 15.
Pastor Jeremy Belter serves at Living Stone Lutheran, a mission church in Arvada, CO.
Practical Theology: Sermon Length Unleashed
Last month, I briefly commented on fruitful and faithful sermon length. We named the WELS minimum length, the WELS maximum length, and the WELS average preaching length. In today’s article, I want to unshackle WELS sermon length from what I perceive to be its current bondage.
Perhaps, I’ll ask the question instead of claiming actually to be in the know. Is the current WELS sermon length falsely imprisoned? It may be. What I mean is this: the WELS preacher essentially works backward in discerning his sermon length, giving to his sermon whatever time is left over. Enter in the cold hard math of Sunday morning. The WELS pastor knows that church starts at 10:30 am. He also knows that the communion liturgy takes a bit longer. He knows that people want to be done with worship in an hour. That leaves a solid 17 minutes for the sermon on that particular Sunday. The WELS pastor comforts himself with this sermon-taken-into-custody-length by assuring himself that people can’t pay attention past 17 minutes anyway.
It’s time to set the sermon free. I’m not saying that you should toss half the liturgy so that you can get people home in an hour. By no means! I’m saying that very few of your members likely have anything better to do on Sunday. Steal the time from their Sunday afternoon if need be. God knows, and you do too, that when you come to them with power and the conviction of the Spirit not a single one of your members or visitors will complain that you made them miss the first minutes of the game because of the sermon you gave. They knew that you had no other choice. You had to give the sermon that way. You were a man possessed – by the Spirit and his Word.
Here is what I’m suggesting: instead of letting everything else determine your sermon length, let four basic considerations set your sermon length free: (1) historical practice, (2) theological convictions, (3) homiletical energy, and (4) pastoral concerns.
First, consider Lutheran historical practice regarding sermon length. Sermon length experienced renewal during the Reformation.1 You’ve read Luther’s sermons. Do I have to say more? Second, we WELS pastors are convinced that in the Word, we have Spirit and we have life.2 The act of preaching is a delivery system for God’s own saving gospel. Lutherans know that better than everyone else. Let that be reflected in your sermon length. Third, we sense as homileticians that we’ve got a sermon when it finally explodes onto the page.3 Let that spiritual explosion run its full course whether it’s 22 minutes or 25 minutes. Fourth, our hearers need longer sermons because of their biblical illiteracy.4
It’s time to jailbreak the sermon. The question normally should not be: how much time is left over for my sermon? Instead, the question becomes, for all of the above reasons, and more: how can I unleash this Word into the hearts and lives of my hearers this week? From there, take whatever time you need. More next month on determining sermon length.
1. I was reminded of this historical practice again at a Reformation Lecture by Dr. Wade Johnston. “Luther and Antinomianism” Ascension Lutheran Church, Harrisburg, PA. October 28, 2023.
2. John 6:63
3. The New Homiletic wrote powerfully and persuasively about the sermon as something that grows organically. Compare Broadus’ On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons with Grady’s Design for Preaching. Grady rejects building blocks or bricks as an apt metaphor for putting together a sermon. Homiletics is not construction. Instead, Grady suggests letting the germinal idea give life and form to the sermon. Thus, his chosen metaphor for a sermon is a growing tree. The ideal sermon “…should show nothing but its own unfolding parts: Branches that thrust out by force of its inner life” (p. 45).
4. This is Dr. Rich Gurgel’s overriding concern when he writes, “As someone committed to the liturgical heritage of the Lutheran church, I am not arguing for dramatically increasing sermon length so that the average sermon goes beyond twenty-five minutes. But as this project is implemented, I do intend to encourage our pastors to recognize that biblical illiteracy demands that they think more deeply about how to meet the challenge of short attention spans. Instead of chopping chunks out of our sermons, I believe we are wiser to find ways to capture better the beauty and variety of Scripture. The goal is to hold our hearers as long as necessary to communicate the heart of the text. This calls for hard work and artistry in the design of our sermons. Most of all, this calls for praying to God for the feet of a deer that can walk nimbly on these challenging heights (Ps 18:33).” Rich Gurgel, “The Unending Pursuit of Growth in Gospel Preaching: A Comprehensive Plan for Continuing Education in Preaching for Pastors of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod” (Doctor of Ministry Major Applied Project, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2010, accessed October 13, 2023, http://essays.wisluthsem.org:8080/bitstream/handle/123456789/4272/GurgelPreaching%20-1.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y, p. 209.
Rev. Timothy Bourman serves Sure Foundation Lutheran Church, Woodside, Queens, NY.