Four Branches January – 2020

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Exegetical Theology: Three Passion Predictions from Zechariah: The One They Have Pierced

In this series of articles, we are looking at the Old Testament context of Passion Predictions from Zechariah. At the crucifixion, the Roman soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear (John 19:34). This fulfilled the Scripture, “They will look on the one they have pierced” (John 19:37).

John quotes from Zechariah 12:10. In his quotation, John omits a pronoun. Zechariah 12:10 reads: “They will look on me (אֵלַי), the one they have pierced.” The nearest antecedent of “me” is “I will pour out,” which certainly refers to the LORD (Zechariah 12:10). This seems to indicate that the one they have pierced is the LORD. This fits with Peter’s statement: “You killed the author of life” (Acts 3:15).

The following context in Zechariah emphasizes the people’s mourning over the one they have pierced. “And they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son” (Zechariah 12:10). Andrew Hill points out that the comparison to mourning for “an only child” points to the greatness of their mourning and sorrow. The next four verses (12:11-14) go on to further describe the mourning of the people. Because the beginning of 12:10 speaks of the LORD pouring out “a spirit of grace and supplication,” the mourning of the people seems to indicate a repentant sorrow over sin. The fact that they are mourning “for him” (12:10) shows that they are repentant for their part in the death of the one who was pierced. One is reminded of the people’s reaction to Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost. Peter confronted them with what they had done (Acts 2:23). They were “cut to the heart” when Peter told them that they had crucified the Messiah (Acts 2:37). Peter then pointed them to the gospel. 

Zechariah 13:1 gives a gospel promise. “On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity” (Zechariah 13:1). This fountain was opened because the one who was pierced is the one who paid for sin.

The context of this Old Testament prophecy emphasizes the repentance which the Spirit works in the hearts of his people (See 12:10a). God gives forgiveness to his repentant people through faith in the one who was pierced. 

For further reading:

Andreas Köstenberger, “John,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Edited by G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007. Pages 504-506. 

Thomas Edward McComiskey, “Zechariah,” in The Minor Prophets: A Commentary on Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. Vol. 3. Edited by Thomas E. McComiskey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998). Pages 1213-1218.

D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John. Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991. Pages 627-628.

Rev. Daniel Waldschmidt serves at St. John’s in Burlington, WI.

Systematic Theology: Are We the Image of God? – Part 2

Is There a Remnant of the Image of God Left in Us Today?

Last month we concluded from Scripture that no human being after Adam and Eve has been created in the image of God.  That image possessed by the first man and his wife was lost through the Fall into sin.  As sinful human beings born from sinful human beings, the holiness that comprises the “image of God” is inherently missing.  But is there a remnant of the image of God still left in us today?

There are two passages of God’s Word that need to be considered.  The first is Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.”  The other is James 3:9, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.”

There has been considerable debate over the centuries – even in our own historic circles – about what the “image” and “likeness” of God refer to in the pair of verses above.  (cf. F. Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, Vol. 1 p.515-526).  One theory is that the “image of God” has a narrow meaning and broad meaning.  The narrow meaning is what we typically teach in catechism class: Adam and Eve’s “wills naturally conformed to the will of God.  They were perfect and holy” (Luther’s Small Catechism, p.134).  The broad meaning is that human beings are still rational, logical creatures with souls despite the fact that we are no longer holy.  According to this understanding, there remains a “trace” or a “shell” of God’s image in us (cf. D. Deutschlander, Grace Abounds, p. 187).

The other explanation is that the image of God retains its base meaning, while the words “man” in Genesis 9:6 and “men” in James 3:9 refer to mankind in general as they were originally meant to be.  The human race had initially been created in God’s image – and the Lord still considers us the crown of his creation even though that image has been lost.  Because of that, we are to refrain from murder and we are to avoid cursing anyone.  Although individually we are not created in God’s image, that was God’s blueprint for the human race and we should treat all others accordingly.

I prefer the latter explanation.  Implying that there is even a remnant of the image of God still in every human being today can be abused.  In fact, many evangelical sources claim that the “image of God” in us defines the “worth” of a human being.  But this concept could easily upend the clear truth of original-inherited sin and possibly lead to the idea that instead of our human nature being completely corrupt, there is a spark of goodness in us that just needs to be drawn out.

With that being said, the “image of God” is not unrecoverable.  It is actually being restored in all Christians right now through faith.  But more on that next month.

If you are interested in a deep dive into the historical Lutheran understanding of the image of God, an extended presentation by an LCMS pastor on this topic can be found here. (Thanks to Pastor Justin Cloute for uncovering it). 

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

Historical Theology: Constitutional Guidance

In all practice in the church, we recognize Holy Scripture as the norma normans that guides and rules all we do. One benefit of the church’s history, however, is in the guidance it can give us in our practice. We can glean many benefits – and avoid many pitfalls – in seeing how our forerunners in the faith dealt with issues of their own day. Even when times have altered specific circumstances in major ways, often underlying principles remain the same. 

Consider, for example, the few pages Walther devotes to the issue of church constitutions in his Pastoral Theology. While the circumstances surrounding administrating a church have no doubt changed in a myriad of ways in the more than a century since Walther lived, the guidance he gives could have been written yesterday (guidance, by the way, largely based on advice Martin Luther had given several centuries before Walther).

Walther encourages pastors and congregations to keep their constitutions brief. There’s no need, he says, to produce a complicated set of rules for congregations to follow. According to Walther, allowing practice to guide procedure yields far better results than forcing practice to conform to rules. In my work on our district’s constitution committee, we often encourage congregations to leave detailed policies for a policy manual or handbook that the congregation can change as it sees fit. The constitution, meanwhile, can remain a document that contains only the most important, foundational articles that will not often (or ever) need revision. 

Walther also encourages the pastors of his day to be slow and deliberate in introducing constitutions in their congregations. He further suggests that pastors work with one another as they formulate such documents, as an example of iron sharpening iron. Walther’s wisdom can remind us to exercise care as we introduce constitutional forms new or different from the model our synod currently employs. It can also teach us the good in going to brothers in the ministry not only for their wisdom but to ensure we are walking together, even if our specific practices might differ. At the very least, they can remind us of the necessity of submitting constitutions to the constitution committees who are responsible for overseeing and approving these documents in their respective districts.

Finally, Walther encourages pastors to learn both from the constitutional models that have stood the test of time as well as (in his case) the new American church constitutions. A particular concern for Walther was that constitutions would function well for new American congregations that were independent of the state (unlike the state church in Germany). Walther’s advice can remind us that our congregations don’t exist in a vacuum either.  We can learn and grow in how our congregations function, even as we benefit from the tried and true models of the past. In a day that many congregations are interested in new models of governance, we can profit from both perspectives.

Rev. Jacob Behnken serves at Good Shepherd in Midland, MI.

Practical Theology: Dear Pastor, Keep Communicating Clearly

Back in 1912, tragedy struck in the Atlantic. The RMS Titanic hit an iceberg and sank three hours later. Thankfully, about 700 people were rescued and pulled to safety on the decks of the RMS Carpathia

But many wondered how many more lives might have been saved had the SS Californian also come to help. The Carpathia was about 60 miles away when the Titanic called for help. The Californian was only about 6-10 miles away. 

Why didn’t the Californian come to help? Being a quiet night, the radio operator turned off his radio long before the Titanic signaled distress. When the Californian’s crew saw flares rising on the horizon, they had no knowledge of the Titanic’s turmoil and assumed passengers were having a party. 

Clear communication is vitally important! Continue to put careful thought into sermons, Bible studies, counseling sessions, and daily communication with the people you serve. It is vitally important that we clearly and carefully handle the word of truth. Souls are at stake!

But God’s people would also ask us to carefully consider all the communication in our congregation. Each week, month, and quarter, we have news, events, and updates to share. Some of the respondents surveyed for these articles highlighted the importance of clear communication in these matters too. 

Dear pastor, your members want you to know:

  • “The congregation needs to remain informed of the challenges, decisions, and struggles they muddle through (with the help of God) on a regular basis.”
  • “(There needs to be) better communication between both the pastor and members.”
  • “With a large group of people trying to work together toward one goal, communication is “a” if not “the” key piece…keeping the congregation informed as to what is going on helps to keep “sunshine” on the processes and does help elicit responses and opinions of the congregation that otherwise may not be heard.”
  • “The trick (of communication) is to balance between too much and too little information. If there is a frequent deluge of information, it can become “white noise” and people tune it out. We found that monthly finance reports were being ignored, but quarterly reports were better received.”
  • “Be sure to LISTEN to members’ ideas and perspectives, discuss them, and when appropriate, implement them.”

Take time to listen this month by asking a few different members about your church’s communication. Are messages of events, challenges, decisions, etc. being conveyed and received clearly? Does your congregation need to increase or perhaps decrease the frequency or modality of those messages? These are fruitful discussions to have so that pastor and people communicate clearly, and the body of Christ continues to be built up in love as each part does its work.

Rev. Joel Russow serves Faith in Tallahassee, FL.