Four Branches – October 2021

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Exegetical Theology:  Historical Gaps – What is the allusion?

Because the holy writers had background knowledge and life experiences in common with their first audiences, they could make quick references to these things without spelling everything out. We don’t have that same knowledge and experience, which can sometimes cause us to miss these references. Fortunately, studying contemporaneous literature can sometimes bridge that gap and help us catch these allusions and the points being made by them.

An example of such a time where other ancient literature can clue us into an allusion—and a larger theological point—is seen in Hebrews 9:28 (Epistle for End Time 2C): So also Christ, after being offered once to bear the sin of many, will appear a second time without sin to those who are waiting for him, resulting in salvation.

There’s a picture behind our waiting and Christ’s reappearing here but having never personally experienced the aspect of Jewish life alluded to, we might initially miss it. Within this larger comparison between Jesus and the Old Testament priests found in Hebrews 9, the picture the holy writer likely has in mind is the Israelite people waiting each Day of Atonement for their high priest to reemerge from the Holy of Holies. From Leviticus we are well familiar with the mechanics of how the Day of Atonement operated, but the Old Testament doesn’t depict that day from the perspective of the people watching it. Does that mean we have nothing to go on for what it was like for those people other than speculative imagination? Not really, because in an apocryphal writing known as Ecclesiasticus or Sirach (50:5ff) we have a description of the joy at seeing the high priest Simeon the Just reappear from within the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement: How glorious he was amid the people at his exit from the house of the curtain! Sirach then continues with eleven similes for how wonderful seeing the high priest was just then. He further depicts the exalted fashion in which the high priest then completed that day’s offerings and blessings, which was met by great celebration and reverence from the people. The reappearance of the high priest from the Holy of Holies was clearly a big deal to those who were watching and waiting.

This historical description found in Sirach helps us understand the likely allusion made here in Hebrews 9:28. This likely allusion adds depth to the point the holy writer is making. This Last Judgment Sunday, consider Christ’s second coming according to his office as priest. The Jesus we eagerly wait for is our high priest, and when he comes back to our sight, that means he has left our sins forever behind him, fully atoned for. His return from the heavenly sanctuary signals the success of all his sacrificial and priestly work before God on our behalf. It results in salvation.

Blessings, brothers, as you direct Israel’s eyes to the skies in eager anticipation of the reappearing of our Great High Priest.

Rev. Aaron Jensen serves as pastor at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Monticello, MN.


Systematic Theology:  The Theology of the Cross and Civil Affairs: A Blessed Union

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Romans 13:1-2).  That is the classic sedes for the doctrine of civil affairs.  But what are Christians to do when government abuses the power God has given to it?  Is revolt ever justified?[1]  Is resistance the correct course of action?[2]  Last month we considered the worth in connecting our view of civil affairs with our understanding of the theology of the cross.

Such a suggestion is nothing new.  In fact, such a connection was modeled in the life of that King who could have revolted against the illegal and unjust actions of his government with legions of angels, but did not.  Instead, this “Founder and perfector of our faith…for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).  We benefit from the blessings of Jesus viewing obedience to civil government in light of the cross—blessings of forgiveness, life, and salvation.

Strikingly, the one disciple who took up arms to defend the Savior from illegal arrest and unjust judgment did not call Christians to follow his own example.  Rather, as Peter wrote to believers about submission to those in authority, he called on Christians to consider the example Christ left in his suffering and to follow in his steps even saying, “Fear God, honor the king” (1 Peter 2:13-25).

Peter’s words were not those of a cowed old man who had no stomach to stand up for himself.  No, they were the words of one who had learned to fear the Lord and take his words seriously: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).  Jesus promises blessings to his saints in every age when they find themselves under the cross—even when civil government is the one that imposes the cross.

Believers throughout history have learned the truth of Jesus’ promise.  The Holy Spirit had the writer of Hebrews remind his readers of how they “Joyfully accepted the plundering of [their] property, since [they] knew that [they] had a better possession and an abiding one” (Hebrews 10:34).  We hear the echo of this truth in Augustine’s observation: “This is what the martyrs did [overcoming the persecution of Rome].  They vanquished the wicked at the very moment when the latter appeared to be victorious.”[3]  Christians can be confident of a blessed victory when persecuted by government in this life because they know the power of the cross.  More on that next month.

[1] For an example of a modern Lutheran who argues in favor of the American Revolution see: Microsoft Word – Webber Paul Final Draft An Examination of the Validity of the American Revolution.doc (angelfire.com)

[2] For an example of Lutherans in the years after the Reformation who argued in favor of a doctrine of resistance see the Magdeburg Confession (copies can be purchased at: The Magdeburg Confession: 13th of April 1550 AD: Pastors of Magdeburg, Colvin PhD, Matthew, Grant, George, Trewhella, Matthew: 9781470087531: Amazon.com: Books).  This and the example in the previous footnote are not offered as endorsements of these positions, but merely to recognize that other positions exist on these topics.

[3] Sermon 32, 4.  A reading of Eusebius’ Church History, especially his sections on the persecutions of the church reveals a mindset in the early church that found a blessedness in suffering for the faith—not unlike what we see in Acts 5:41.

Rev. Joshua Becker serves as pastor at Christ Lutheran in Saginaw, MI.


Historical Theology:  Catechumenate Part 2

When unbelievers wish to repent we bring them into the church to hear the word, but we do not have communion with them until they have received the seal of baptism.  (Apostolic Constitutions 2:39 – ca. 380)

In any study of the formation of Christians in the ancient Church, it is immediately clear that everything to do with entrance into the Christian community is driven by preparation for Holy Baptism and life as the baptized.

A catechumenate was the standard entry point, but no small commitment.  Especially before the Edict of Milan to consider oneself a Christian meant you were a candidate for death on account of it.   “Any catechumens who suffered martyrdom before their baptism were considered baptized by their own blood. That such a statement exists in this document soberly recollects what people risked for their faith in Christ.”[1]

Entrance to the catechumenate most often included initiating rites that set one apart.  For example, St. Augustine describes enrollees being signed with the cross.[2]  The instruction to follow would teach that life with Christ is the way of the cross. It was a period of hearing the call to discipleship and understanding what that would mean for their relationship to the world, to the Lord, to the community of believers, to themselves.  (I’ve heard a preacher call the catechumenate, “dating before we kiss”, which plays nicely with the ancient catechumenate because the goal was full initiation into the Church where they would receive the kiss of peace, an intimate sign of fellowship.)

As catechumens were exhorted to change sinful behavior, sponsors watched them and reported on their behavior, but these same sponsors also encouraged the enrolled and taught them to pray.  The catechumens joined in the liturgy of the Word, especially after the Edict of Milan, and were recognized and prayed for before being dismissed at the closing of the doors for the Holy Communion.  St Ambrose called them athletes in training; an apprenticeship in which they learned from the disciples of Jesus in their community.

Enrollment in the catechumenate did not necessarily mean one would be baptized. But once a candidate sought baptism and enrolled for it, things became even more intense.  The Apostolic Constitutions (ca. 380 – Antioch) records anointings and the laying on of hands, then forty days of being taught the gospels by clergy or laity, prayers, exorcisms, fasting, anointing and finally, examination.  Perhaps in the last week before baptism, the candidates received the Creed and the next week returned to recite it.  The following week the Lord’s Prayer.  Clement of Alexandria first used the term catechesis (a biblical word) to describe this form of instruction and baptismal preparation.  The word means to ‘echo back’; as they were given the Creed, or a lesson in the Gospels, the catechumens would echo it back to their instructor.

Many have found the ancient catechumenate of the Mediterranean world relevant and a rich story to inform forming Christians in the twenty first century church.  More on that next month.

[1] Turner, Paul. The Hallelujah Highway: A History of the Catechumenate. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2000. Page 32

[2] Augustine, “On the Catechising of the Uninstructed,” https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1303.htm, 26:50

Rev. Tyler Peil serves as pastor at Prince of Peace in Salt Lake City, UT.


Practical Theology:  The Pastor’s Heart Post-COVID

“Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” (2 Corinthians 11:28).

What Paul says here reminds me of what brother pastors voice as they talk about the post-COVID church.  What do you do when you haven’t seen members in months or over a year?  How should you respond when someone has made it clear in-person church attendance is no longer for them?  What do you do when attacked by your members for how you handled or are handling COVID?  Is your heart hurting because of these things?

What we do know is that church has changed.  Weak church attendance before COVID has been much weaker overall.  When attenders came back, volunteers generally did not.  Anger over issues still lingers.  So what do we do?

  • Do what you can do.  I still think it is good for us to follow up with those we haven’t seen.  Make the visits and the phone calls.  Assign a team to follow up and engage your leaders in this work.  A loving reminder can go a long way.
  • Preach the Word.  Do not shy away from God’s directives on the matters that are currently going on.  I very much appreciated our Synod’s emphasis entitled, “God’s People Gather.”  Very clearly, we were made for community.  Very clearly our God wants us to gather saying, “Let us not neglect meeting together, as some have the habit of doing.” (Hebrews 10:25)

But what I believe about the brothers is that in general, though not perfectly, we are doing that.  But the heartburn remains, and the concerns are still there.  What then?

Here are a few words of encouragement for hearts that may be heavy.

  • Give the Lord your heart and trust him for the results.  How much the Parable of the Sower means to us sowing the seed of his Word.  He warned us that though our hearts might want to sow in 100% good field, other soil exists.  Thorns may choke out the fruit, and shallow soil may make a plant easy to uproot.  We should not be surprised when what God pictured would happen is indeed happening.
  • Don’t take it personally.  This is difficult.  We all wrestle with insecurities over what we could be doing better.  We know when we’ve put our foot in our mouths and have been an obstacle for the Gospel.  We have enough guilt and shame that the devil can whisper or even shout, “It’s because of you that they are not coming back.  Because of you, your church isn’t growing.  And it would be your fault if the church closes.”  And while the devil is a master of half-truths, these are still lies.

The church wasn’t built on us.  It’s built on Jesus.  This would be taking way too much credit for our activity.  You can be a very faithful pastor who doesn’t have a growing church.  You can be a very faithful pastor who isn’t liked very much.  You can be very faithful pastor who closes a church when it is time.

  • Grieve it with the Lord.  Church may not be what it used to be, and it may never be the same.  The relationships you once had may have been lost.  Certain dreams you had for God’s kingdom may not materialize.  It’s not wrong to grieve these things.  But bring them to the Lord when you are in devotion and prayer.  Ask him to carry the weight of it, and to grant you peace.

To the heavy-hearted, he is with you.  He is still working.  He has always been the strength of His Church, and loves his church (including us) more than we possibly know.

Rev. Dustin Blumer serves as pastor at Amazing Love Lutheran in Joliet, IL.

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