Four Branches – June 2020

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Exegetical Theology: Rebuilding After Exile I: Fearless Yet Concerned for Legality

As we return from the brief coronavirus exile, we can find much fodder for reflection in the history of those believers who rebuilt the temple and resumed worship after their own, long exile. In this installment we will consider the returnees described in Ezra 1-6 and see how they did not give way to fear while patiently navigating governmental restrictions.

When they returned to Judah, they were nearly defenseless in a deserted, demolished land surrounded by hostiles. Their situation produced unusually great fear, something we can relate to especially well now. Ezra 3:3 describes אֵימָה upon the people. This is a less common word for “fear” often translated “terror” or “dread,” which can lead to immobility (Ex 15:16) or panic (Josh 2:9). Yet it did not deter them from rebuilding the altar and resuming sacrifices quickly (Ezra 3:4-6).

Soon after the foundations of the temple were then laid, however, the Judeans were forced to cease building by the cunning of enemy “lobbyists,” as Brug (see below) calls them. This forced cessation was not legally justified but resulted from a twofold strategy of intimidating the Judeans with threats (4:4) and convincing local officials through bribes (4:5). Despite the vital importance of rebuilding the temple, something required for full worship to resume, promised by God through Isaiah (Isaiah 44:28) and legally authorized by Cyrus (Ezra 1:3), the Judeans did not presume to immediately disobey the dishonestly imposed governmental restrictions against building.

God allowed this hiatus to continue for nearly two decades before he inspired Haggai and Zechariah to encourage rebuilding (Ezra 5:1-2). Because they had a clear message from God, they did not hesitate. Yet they did not take this as an excuse to ignore governmental oversight. When the regional governor Tattenai questioned their authority to rebuild, God, whose “eye was watching over” (Ezra 5:5) the Jewish leaders, worked through the legal process to protect his people and get his temple rebuilt.

Their concern for legality is shown in the preservation of the original Aramaic documents sent by the regional governor to Darius (Ezra 5:7-17), and his reply (6:2-12). God’s gracious hand is seen working through history in the interaction of several pagan rulers—Tattenai, Darius, and their staff—who were conscientious enough to carefully investigate the Judeans’ claim. It is also seen in that Cyrus’s original decree was discovered in the government archives in Ecbatana, Persia, far from Babylon where they were thought to be.

This chapter in the history of God’s people will serve well in sermon illustrations, Bible classes, or personal devotions as long as the COVID exile is in recent memory or a second wave seems possible. Brug’s Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther in the People’s Bible series highlights the key points and straightens out the confusing chronology in his typical, succinct style. It’s worth a pastor’s time. Steinman’s Concordia Commentary: Ezra and Nehemiah is the best choice for diving deeper.

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

Systematic Theology: Are You a Pre, Post, or Amillennialist?

That was the first question the Bible college student asked my father (who was serving as a parish pastor at the time) as part of an over-the-phone religious survey. It was a softball. The Lutheran Confessions teach (AC XVII), and Lutheran pastors confess, that when it comes to the return of Christ and the final judgment we are amillennialists through and through.

That is a good answer, but an even better response would be: none of the above. Let me explain. The term “amillennial” literally means “no millennium,” and that definition doesn’t adequately reflect our position. Confessional Lutherans do believe in the millennium because Revelation 20 clearly teaches it. What separates us from both premillennialists and postmillennialists is what we believe about the nature and the timing of this thousand-year reign.

Because Revelation is filled with symbolic imagery, we do not limit the millennium to a literal one thousand years. Nor do we accept the arguments of those who contend that the martyrs’ millennial reign with Christ will begin at an undisclosed date in the future. We believe that the thousand years (10 x 10 x 10) represents a period of completeness. We believe that Jesus is ruling at the right hand of the Father right now. For those reasons, some likeminded Christians have adopted the term “realized millennialism” as a more positive expression of this view.

In the next two installments, we will take a closer look at what premillennialists and postmillennialists teach about the millennium, why we disagree with them and also what we can learn from them. To whet your appetite, review Professor Adolf Hoenecke’s list of five reasons why the Lutheran church “condemns millennialism as anti-Christian Enthusiasm”:

  1. According to Scripture, Christ’s kingdom is spiritual, not worldly. The first of four proof passages cited is John 18:36, where Jesus tells Pontius Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world.”
  2. If there would be a kingdom that could be measured precisely and marked by the visible return of Christ and other external things, a person could use that information to make an exact prediction of the end of the world, or a person could at least determine a point in time before which it could not come, both of which are against Scripture.
  3. Scripture speaks of a single return of Christ. A single verse, 2 Timothy 4:1, is cited as proof.
  4. Scripture knows nothing of a twofold bodily resurrection and nothing of a partial resurrection to the thousand-year kingdom.
  5. When he returns, the Lord will not find his kingdom in the flourishing condition that millennialism requires. According to his own words (the supporting reference here is Luke 18:8), he will find the opposite.

For a more in-depth discussion of these points and millennialism in general, read Hoenecke’s Evangelical Lutheran Dogmatics (Vol. IV, pp 291-303).

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

Historical Theology: Martin Luther’s Fourteen Consolations

In 1519, Elector Frederick the Wise returned to Saxony after attending the election of Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor. At Torgau he became so ill that many doubted he would recover. George Spalatin, the Elector’s court chaplain, asked Martin Luther to write something to comfort Frederick. Since the Elector had protected him, Luther felt an obligation to carry out Spalatin’s request.

Luther intended this devotional writing to be a personal document only for Frederick. Spalatin, however, urged Luther to publish the Fourteen Consolations. Both the original Latin and Spalatin’s German translation were published at Wittenberg in February 1520.

The format of this devotion reflects a medieval legend which was popular in Germany. In 1446, a Franconian shepherd supposedly had a vision of the Christ Child surrounded by fourteen saints. Over time these saints were given names and each one became identified as the protector of a disease. Luther arranged his Fourteen Consolations like the altar screen Lucas Cranach had painted for St. Mary’s church in Torgau. The screen is divided into two panels, one devoted to considering seven evils and the other the seven blessings.

Luther wrote that these Fourteen Consolations “are to replace the fourteen saints whom our superstition has invented and called ‘The Defenders Against All Evils.’ Now this is a spiritual screen and not made of silver. The book is not meant to adorn the walls of churches, but to uplift and strengthen the pious heart” (LW 42, 123). Rather than turning to the fourteen legendary saints for help, Luther believed comfort could only be derived from Christ and his Word. To Luther, Scripture looks at consolation in a twofold manner: blessings and evils.

Luther saw the need to prepare Elector Frederick, as well as all people, for the imminent reality of death and to do so using the doctrine of justification by faith. The first seven consolations deal with the evils threatening all Christians: the evil within, the evil of the future, the evil of the past, the evil of hell, the evil of our enemies (“left hand”), the evil of our friends (“right hand”), and the evil above in the heavens—the sufferings Jesus endured for our sake.

Then Luther offers the seven blessings one may remember when facing death. God has given us the blessing of our body, the blessing of hope as circumstances change for the better (this includes the end of pain at death), the blessing of the past that has sustained us, the blessing of hell (which leads us to give thanks that this is not our fate), the blessing of adversaries (whose desire to harm us only serves to increase our faith), the blessing of friends within the communion of saints, and the eternal blessing of heaven.

Written at time of plagues, Luther’s devotional thoughts continue to provide spiritual food for consideration in our present pandemic.

Fourteen Consolations is available in print, Luther’s Works, volume 42, pages 117-166. It can be found online,

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

Practical Theology: Which Lives Matter?

So which lives matter? I never thought that question could be so complicated. When the “Black Lives Matter” protests erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s death, I said what I’ve always said. I wrote a devotion about God’s love for all people. To me, it seemed simple: “All Lives Matter!” How naïve I am.

The next day, a sportscaster in California was fired for tweeting something terribly offensive. Do you know what he tweeted? “All Lives Matter!” Huh. I was missing something. I’ve since learned that to many people, saying “All Lives Matter” is an offensive way to dismissively disparage people’s concerns about injustice in America. Does what you say really communicate what you think you’re saying?

So which lives matter? How can we guide our people on this sensitive issue? We can start by asking ourselves this: Does God say “All Lives Matter,” or does he say that your specific life matters? The answer, of course, is “Yes!” God does both! Doesn’t the clear biblical truth of objective and subjective justification help us in this delicate matter? Whom did Jesus die for? For all! For me!

At times, the Bible emphasizes that Jesus is the world’s Savior. “For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16). “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ…” (2 Corinthians 5:19). There are times—many times—when you tell people that Jesus died for all. That objective truth drives away doubts. No one is excluded. All lives matter!

But I hope there are also times—many times—when you tell individuals that Jesus died for them. Think of how personally God delivers his gospel message: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…” (Isaiah 40:2). To the paralytic: “Take heart, son, your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9:2). To the tax collector: “I tell you that this man … went home justified” (Luke 18:14). To the sinful woman: “I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much” (Luke 7:47). Aren’t those powerfully personal statements from Jesus? What Jesus did for all, he did for me. That subjective truth drives away doubts too. I need that! Disabled lives matter. Tax collector lives matter. Prostitute lives matter. People needed to hear that!

In the face of abortion, a Christian says, “Unborn lives matter!” If someone responds, “No, all lives matter,” we’d say, “Yes, all lives matter, but that’s not the point that needs to be emphasized right now. Unborn lives matter!” In the face of racial injustice, a Christian says, “Black lives matter!” In the middle of a pandemic, a Christian says, “Elderly lives matter!” To that tormented soul, a Christian says, “Your life matters!” It’s very biblical to comfort hurting hearts with how much their life matters to God.

It takes pastoral wisdom to determine when it’s best to emphasize the universal grace of God and when it’s time to emphasize the personal grace God shows to individuals. So which lives matter? All lives matter. Black lives matter. Your life matters. May God grant us wisdom to clearly share his grace.

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