Thursday, December 31, 2009

“Whoever Does Not Transcend Physical Birth Will Descend Into The Abyss Of Hell.”

Luther asserts that Jesus child-sized Nicodemus aged faith.
How old is your faith?

JOHN 3:6

That which is born of the flesh is flesh,

and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

Recently we heard the sermon in which the Lord told Nicodemus that unless a man is born anew of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot come into the kingdom of God. Thereby He indicated that our salvation and blessedness does not depend on good works or the righteousness of the flesh but on our being born anew. This new birth must precede the good works. There is nothing hidden about it; it is to be known as a new birth from water and the Holy Spirit. That is how we must be born anew. It is not sufficient to be born of a woman, which is a birth of flesh and blood. This birth we experienced once. No, Christ says clearly and concisely that the birth referred to here must take place through water and the Holy Spirit. This new birth is Baptism. We are baptized in God’s name, with God’s Word, and with water. Thus our sin is forgiven, and we are saved from eternal death. The Holy Spirit is also bestowed on us; we receive a new nature, different from the one with which we were born. Through Adam we were involved in the realm of the devil, who is our master; death, sin, eternal damnation, and the devil’s kingdom were born into us. But here we are reborn from death to life, from sin to righteousness; here we are transferred from the kingdom of the devil into the kingdom of God. You heard that the new birth is effected through the Holy Spirit and water, and that we are renewed through the power and the efficacy of Baptism. The new birth does not stem from our good works; but once we have been born anew, we begin to do good works, as we heard in the last sermon. Although this doctrine is assailed by the pope and the whole world, it is laid down here; and, I take it, so it will remain, regardless of who may adopt this doctrine. No one will ever strike a compromise between flesh and spirit. And begone with everyone who refuses to accept this doctrine!

That which is born of the flesh is flesh. There is such a wide gulf between these two that it cannot be bridged. Flesh and spirit have nothing at all in common; man is either flesh, or he is spirit. Thus St. John declares: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh” or remains flesh. Of course, he is not referring to the meat slaughtered in the butcher’s stall or offered for sale there; but he is speaking about physical birth, which gives man living flesh and physical life. With reference to this, Christ says that the physical birth remains physical and produces physical life and nothing more, and that in and of himself man is nothing but flesh.

Christ compresses all this into the one word “flesh,” saying: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh,” that is, it has a physical and living life. Whether it be king, prince, or lord—all share the same kind of birth; and the people who have had only this physical birth are nothing but flesh. This implies a condemnation of all that is exalted and precious in the world, call it by whatever name you will: noble or ignoble, powerful, clever, judicious, rich, wise, rational, as well as all learned men. For whatever is born physically is a physical being. And if it does not have another birth, it will never be anything but a physical being which will perish. Truly, this cuts the ground from under our feet; yes, it really condemns us.

It must be noted here that what we refer to as “physical” the Hebrews call “flesh” or “fleshly.”10

Thus this verse passes an appalling sentence on the whole world, a sentence comparable to the one pronounced by St. Paul in the eleventh chapter of Romans, in which he says that “God has consigned all men to disobedience, that He may have mercy on all” (Rom. 11:32). Likewise in Rom. 3:23: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And in Eph. 2:8–9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast.” If we really believed this, it would make us very humble. For is a man’s birth of a woman, which is only a physical process and nothing spiritual, to be his greatest glory before God? After all, what would it amount to even though you were born a lord, or even if you were a king or the Turkish sultan, or possessed the profoundest wisdom and intelligence on earth? My dear man, what would this really amount to? Nothing but flesh. In the eyes of the world all this may loom big and be greatly praised, but before God it means nothing. Why not? Christ answers this question here: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh”; a physical birth brings forth a physical object, and nothing more than a physical object. This is apparent from the bigwigs, whose might, honor, riches, glory, money, and goods all perish in the end.

Here Nicodemus is sharply lectured and taken to task. It will do him no good to have Moses and the entire Law on his side; despite all this he will remain flesh unless he is born anew. Christ wants to say: “Nicodemus, why do you persist in following Moses so long? You will still remain flesh.” So what does the preaching of the Gospel profit the pope and the Turks? They hear and see it all. It is painted for them,11 written for them, sung and spoken for them. And still they refuse to be converted, for they remain the flesh they were when they were born. Nicodemus too. He and his Pharisees have the Law of Moses, the temple, and divine worship; and yet they remain flesh. We do not fare very differently today. To be sure, we hear the Gospel preached, sung, and read; but we do not become more pious or better as a result. For we are flesh and remain flesh. On the other hand: That which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

As we have said, there is no way of reconciling the two: whatever is flesh remains flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spiritual. But what is spiritual birth? It means that I am born again as a new being by Baptism and the Holy Spirit and that I believe in Christ. Then I do not expect riches, power, and glory from Him (as many a person looks exclusively for such things in the world) unless God has given me this before. And when the physical birth ends in death—whether this comes by fire or water, or whether I am interred in the earth—then I hope for and expect an eternal life, eternal joy and bliss. I shall be eternally saved even though I lose this life and lack the money and goods, the riches and power after which the world otherwise runs and races.

Thus we are reborn into a new life which is unlike the way of the world. Your natural mother cannot aid you toward this life with her body, her breasts, and the milk an infant drinks. An infant also has need of pap and cradle, clothes and shoes; it must be reared properly and decently. All these elements of parental support and sustenance are part of physical birth. But when all this has had its day; when you lie in your grave and your good friend, your father, mother, government, and princes cannot accompany you but are powerless to help you; when strength and might forsake you, and you leave behind your popularity, honor, money and goods; when you are buried—then a new birth is required. Then it is necessary to look to another existence, an existence into which I am called by the Gospel and by Baptism, namely, when the Holy Spirit gives birth to me anew for eternal life, rearing, nourishing, and clothing me anew. This calls for other breasts and nipples, a different room and different garments, to nourish me and clothe me—to nourish and clothe me for eternal life and to make me fit for the kingdom of heaven.

Thus the spiritual birth is brought about by the Word of God, Baptism, and faith. Even now, while we sojourn on this earth, we are already in this birth if we believe. I stated earlier that the new birth or the spiritual life cannot be perceived by the five senses. It is invisible. Neither sword nor might, gold nor silver, neither crown, scepter, nor kingdom, can help to acquire this life; it is bestowed through the new birth. And this new life will endure when this physical life ends, when the physical birth vanishes and is reduced to dust. When the physical birth is no longer seen and felt, then the spiritual life will abide, and we shall be quickened and raised from the dead.

This birth is invisible and intangible; it is only believed. We believe that what issues from the spiritual existence is spiritual, and that the chief treasure it dispenses is forgiveness of sin and eternal life. At the same time Christians must still participate in external existence too. While they are on earth, they let father and mother sustain them; they are still being governed, and they themselves govern; they eat, and they drink; they wear clothes and shoes, have house and home, money and goods. But all this they utilize as guests who journey across the countryside until they arrive in the city, which is their real destination. Upon their arrival they do not care any longer for the inns which sheltered them en route. And while they are staying in the inn, they think to themselves: “Today I stay here as a guest, and tomorrow I journey forth again.” Thus a Christian also reflects: “Today I am a guest here on earth. I eat and drink here; I live honestly and decently according to flesh and blood. But tomorrow I set out for eternal life in heaven, where I am a citizen and hold citizenship” (Phil. 3:20). Thus Christians pass through the years of their dependence on father and mother, through their time of eating and drinking, of wearing clothes and shoes; and when they come to their end, they forsake all that is physical and enter into an infinite spiritual life, where they no longer have any use for their physical Fife and existence.

And now Christ says: “You must be one of the two, either a physical man or a spiritual man. Now choose which you want. There is no compromise: either physical or spiritual.” He who chooses to be physical may be intent on good and easy days here on earth, on gorging and carousing, on indulging in all sensual pleasures; for after this life he gets nothing more. He will take along neither money nor goods, neither power nor riches, neither gold nor pearls—everything will remain behind. You may be a Turkish sultan, but this will not save you. But whoever would have eternal life must see to it that salvation is his after the conclusion of this life and that God is his Protector. He must be willing, if necessary, to abandon everything temporal for the sake of the Lord, in whom he is baptized and born anew. He will use all earthly things according to his necessity and pass through this temporal life into an eternal life which he neither sees nor understands nor comprehends but only believes. Whoever does not transcend physical birth will descend into the abyss of hell. Physical birth entails physical things, such as diapers and pap, father and mother; it concerns physical life and no more. But if you want salvation, you need different parents, who will bring you to heaven. This Christ does. By means of Baptism and the Word of God He places you and your Christianity into the lap of our dear mother, the Christian Church. This He accomplished through His suffering and death that by virtue of His death and blood we might live eternally.

JOHN 3:7.

Do not marvel that I said to you, You must be born anew.

This poses a mysterious and odd doctrine for reason, which cannot come to terms with it. Therefore the good and pious Nicodemus probably sat there wrapped in silence, brooding sadly, shaking his head, and acting strangely. Undoubtedly he pondered the matter, but he failed to understand. While he is wrinkling his nose as if to register his displeasure and sits there in silence, Christ continues and says: “My dear Nicodemus, why are you so amazed at this? No matter how long you meditate on this question, you will never comprehend it. Surrender, and bear in mind that you are learning it from Me. After all, there are other matters, surely of lesser importance, which you do not understand either, but which your fine and feeble reason has to accept on faith. So do the same thing here. Believe that a man must become a new creature and must be born anew if he is to be saved, even though you do not understand how this takes place. I shall give you an understandable and clear illustration from nature.”

JOHN 3:8.

The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it,

but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes;

so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

The Lord wishes to say: “It sounded strange to you when I told you that you must be born anew. But listen. I will tell you something important, something known to everybody. You live in the wind every moment of your life; without it you could not exist. You hear the wind, and you feel it rushing against your hand, your nose, and your whole body, particularly when it blows coat and mantle over your head, as it often does. Yes, everything in the world feels the wind—the foliage and the grass, wood and stone, the high towers and the houses, and all the animals in the world. And yet you cannot tell Me from which hole it emerges, even though this were but a few inches behind you. Nor can you tell Me how far it blows and where it stops, even though it blows right in front of your nose. The sense of sight or the eye is the most acute member of the human body; yet it does not see the wind although the wind is very harmful to the eyes. The wind is perceived by only two senses: the ear and the hand, that is, the sense of feeling. Your perception of the wind is confined to feeling it on your hand and hearing its rushing sound with your ears. Of course, the ear does not really hear the wind itself, but only the sound of rushing produced when the wind strikes it. A deaf person does not hear the sound of the wind; he merely feels it on his body.”

Therefore the Lord wishes to say here: “Since the wind is a physical thing which sustains life and without which you cannot live, and since you feel it with your whole body and hear its sound with your ears, tell Me, my dear man, whence it comes and where it goes. Name the mother which gives it birth and the grave in which it is buried. You cannot tell Me. Yet you must believe in the existence of the wind even though you know nothing about it. It begins at the ear and ends at the ear. 12 Even if it is strong enough to overturn houses, I still do not see it; I merely hear its sound. When I do not feel the wind on My body or skin, it does not exist at all so far as I am concerned; then I do not know whether it is far away from Me or whether it is before Me or behind Me or where it is hiding. Even if the wind uproots trees, I nevertheless perceive neither its origin nor its end. I merely hear its sound and feel its blowing against My body; but where it originates and where it stops I do not know. This you cannot deny, My dear Nicodemus. You experience this on your own body. You hear the sound of the wind, but you do not know whence it comes.” Even if everyone on earth were to study this question, no one would be found who could say or prove just what the wind is, whence it comes, and where it gets such strength and power that it breaks strong trees in the forest, topples large houses, and batters and sinks mighty ships. When Aristotle engages in a lengthy discourse on the wind’s origin, asserting that it has its source in the caverns of the mountains or of the earth, where it is confined until it rushes forth when a bit of air strikes it, 13 he comes as close to the mark as do blindfold children who spin a top on the street and think they are spinning it toward the south when they are really spinning it toward the north. It is sheer nonsense, and a philosopher should be ashamed of having such thoughts!

Holy Writ informs us differently about the wind. In Ps. 135:7 we read: “He it is who brings forth the wind from His storehouses.” And neither Aristotle nor anyone else has seen these. The wind is so mysterious that not one step of it can be known. This the philosophers themselves would admit if a confession of ignorance did not offend their pride in their own wisdom. It is very foolish of them to allege that the wind originates in the high mountains. A wise man should not speak that way.

But the Lord Christ declares here that one cannot say about the wind, which constantly surrounds us, whither it goes and whence it comes. It does not blow as we desire or from the direction we wish. It also rushes and roars without your knowledge, strength, will, might, or power, wherever it chooses, everywhere in the world, at one time from morning till evening or sunset, at another from midday until midnight. We only feel its rushing and blowing, and we must simply believe it and acknowledge its existence.

The fact that everyone feels and hears the wind is, of course, only a physical matter subject to our five senses; and yet we do not know just what the wind is, whence it comes, or where it goes. Then why do we not readily give honor to our God and believe His words when He tells us that we are born anew through Baptism and that, although we are still sinners, we enter into eternal life by way of the grave and are saved? Why do we not believe this even though we cannot perceive and comprehend it with our reason and do not feel anything but the water and the sound of the Holy Spirit, that is, His Word? Therefore the Lord later says to Nicodemus: “If you cannot understand earthly things—for example, the origin and the goal of the wind—how, then, can you hope to understand when I talk to you of heavenly things? You must do God the honor of admitting His power to do things that transcend your comprehension.” As if the Lord were to say: “I want you to know that I am going to talk to you about many things which you will not and cannot understand. In particular you will not understand how those who are born anew from water and the Holy Spirit will come into eternal life; this you must simply believe. It is not necessary for you to know the origin of the wind. Even though you do not know what the wind is, whence it comes and where it goes, you are content to hear its sound and feel its breath. And it may be very surprising that such a smart and wise man (indeed, all of us even today!) cannot know the wind, its source, its beginning, and its end, though we inhale it and derive our breath and life from it.” This speech of the Lord is rather harsh, yes, very humiliating. But He wants to say: “If you, Nicodemus, are ignorant of this and must let the wind come whence it wills, why, then, do you not also say in this instance: ‘I shall gladly humble myself and be taught, since I neither know nor can know anything about the wind. I shall do the same thing here. Even though I cannot comprehend the rebirth with my reason, I shall believe it and acknowledge as true that we must be born anew by water and the Holy Spirit.’ ”

Listen, even though you do not understand this. The sound of the wind is also heard in this Word of God: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Furthermore, you also have the wind in the baptismal water; the Holy Spirit is blowing there. You cannot understand how a man can be renewed by water and the Holy Spirit, nor how one who has died can live anew. But believe it, accept it, and content yourself with hearing the sound of the water and with feeling the water and the sound of the Holy Spirit. It matters not that you cannot understand how you are renewed. Just say: “I will believe it. I do not know either whence the wind comes; and still I know that it exists, for I can hear and feel it. Thus I will also believe God when He says that Baptism initiates a new birth, even though I cannot understand how it can renew me, keep and preserve me for eternal life. I will simply hear the Word, accept the water of Baptism, and believe. After all, I have to accept far lesser things without understanding them. The fact that I was born anew this way is just as true as the fact that I hear the wind. Just as I know that I hear and feel the wind but do not know whence it comes, so I shall also believe that I am born anew by water and the Holy Spirit and that the old man in me must die if I wish to enter eternal life.”

In this rebirth neither mother nor midwife is in evidence. It involves neither man nor woman. And yet it takes place, and we are born anew. Thus I also die, I depart this life, and I am placed in a coffin. But where I go and make my abode I do not know. All is invisible and beyond the reach of human reason and understanding. Yet the rushing and the roaring of the wind is present; I see that I am dying and yet am to live. I do not see how that life is to begin and to end; and yet I feel, yes, I experience, that I am to live. Similarly, I also see that I am sprinkled with water in Baptism; but how I was reborn I do not see.

With the help of this physical and clear illustration the Lord taught Nicodemus to believe even where he fails to grasp, for he cannot even understand the sense of hearing. No philosopher or sage has ever been able to say how it happens that the ear can catch the report of a gun discharged two miles away and how this sound travels as fast as any arrow from a crossbow.

Yes, there may indeed be lesser things than the wind that defy our comprehension, that no wise man has ever fathomed. No man on earth has ever been able to explain how the eye can range so far, surveying from a high tower everything within a radius of ten miles or instantly Seeing the sun, which is much larger and more extensive than many worlds may be. This baffles human understanding. Much indeed has been written about this, but no one has ever been able to understand it. 14 No one on earth has been able to explain how the movements of the tongue, assisted by the vocal chords, can produce speech and amplify it so that it can be heard by many people. And no one has ever appeared who could explain laughter or crying or sleep, or how it happens that the bread I eat today or the beverage I drink is transformed into my flesh and blood and excrement tomorrow, how food is changed inside the body, where it is not nearly as hot as it was in the pot. Even though it were to remain in the pot and boil over the fire for many years, still it would not be converted into flesh and blood but would remain flesh. But in the body food and drink become precious flesh and blood in twenty-four hours.

No one has ever been born who could explain the phenomenon of leaves shooting forth in spring with all their might from a tree that was dead in winter, or the growth on a thin stem of a large fruit, beautifully colored, containing a hard kernel inside.

And who can tell me how a stalk can grow from a decayed kernel and then bear kernels? All this pertains to things that we see. We are completely ignorant of all these operations; yet we do not worry but accept them unconcernedly without understanding them. But we do insist on delving into the extraordinary operations of God. There we are busybodies and want to be very smart. We go about asking that abominable “Why?” with which our first parents in Paradise were deceived by the devil and which even today seduces us into all kinds of heresy and misfortune. Here we must learn from our own experience and from the observation of all creatures to believe God and His Word and to give way even when we do not understand. For if such physical things transcend our power of comprehension, why should we be so foolish and stupid as to discourse on the nature of Baptism, on the resurrection from the dead, on how a virgin can be a mother and bear a child, or on how there can be a Trinity in the Godhead? This we want to ascertain by subtle reasoning. Isn’t it a sin and a shame? If we cannot comprehend what we hear and see, as, for example, that I can see you and you can hear me speak, why, then, should we pry into the mysteries of God and try to understand when God ordains something more sublime than the physical? Why, for instance, do we try to explain how I am born anew in Baptism, how three Persons can dwell in one Godhead, or how Christ can be present in bread and wine in Holy Communion? Here faith alone is in order. Truly, we should be crowned with Scotch thistles 15 for our foolishness in succumbing so easily to the devil’s old query: “Why?” We cannot understand the functions of life around us. A mother cannot explain the conception of a child in her body. She cannot explain how she nourishes the child from her heart and how it grows from the drops of her blood, nor how she gets milk in her breasts. Nevertheless she carries the child and brings it into the world. Thus there are many things which we perceive with our five senses and yet do not understand. Should I not do God the honor of saying: “O God, why should I not believe Thee? I cannot even explain how I was created. Therefore I will believe that Thou canst do more than I can see or understand.” And since I do not comprehend all that I see, I shall also refrain from arguing long with Christ and God, and I shall not try to explore the mysteries for which God the Father demands faith. The Lord Christ cites only one such illustration here; but when we survey the whole creation, we behold plenty of them. You cannot explain the growth of a kernel from a stalk, the growth of an apple, a pear, or a cherry from a tree, or how a tree, entirely dry in winter, is green again in spring. And yet we are foolish and stupid with our “Why?” and persist in arguing about matters that one must accept solely on faith. In other matters I am not perturbed if I do not know the answer. For example, questions about how I fall asleep, how I wake up, how I am born, or how I die—all these leave me cold. But where the time and the need for faith arise, there we have to know everything beforehand. In natural matters we cannot know anything, and yet in matters of faith we would like to know everything. We brood over, and pry into, the articles of faith with our “Why?” This is what makes the pope, the Turk, and all the sects pupils of the devil: in the affairs of God they insist on understanding everything and refuse to take anything on faith. They refuse to submit to the things that must be believed without being seen, although they have to do this in physical things, which they can both grasp and feel.

Therefore Christ says: “Dear Nicodemus, do not be amazed. Content yourself in this matter, and just believe in this rebirth. If you cannot grasp it, then simply believe it. You have before you a clear and understandable illustration: the wind. From this you see that there are certain insignificant facts which we cannot understand no matter how we rack our brains. Now I am speaking about far greater things than the sound of the wind. Therefore, simply believe that you must be born again. If you fail to grasp it, do not be surprised; just accept it in faith.”

It is vexing and annoying that the wiser and more intelligent people are, the more they insist on knowing and understanding everything in God’s realm, and the more they delve into it. There is no end to their questions. But in worldly and lesser matters they ask few questions or none at all. In the realm of faith they insist on knowing why; where they should probe into things with all diligence, they are altogether remiss. 16

Luther, M. (1999, c1957). Vol. 22: Luther's works, vol. 22 : Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 1-4 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (22:287). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Christ's Constant Grief Would Have Killed Him If He Had Not Been Crucified

Martin Luther makes this startling statement about Jesus' time of humiliation. His sermon on Christ's zeal for His Father's house tells us why this is true.

JOHN 2:17
His disciples remembered it was written: Zeal for Thy house will consume Me.

The last time we heard that the disciples were watching and listening when Jesus rebuked the Jews for making the temple a house of trade and expelled them forcibly from the temple. It was an unusual spectacle to see Christ weave a whip from cords and lash away at the Jews. It gave the impression that He intended to establish a kingdom of power and might, although it was written of Him, as we recently said, that He would govern by the sword of the Spirit or of His mouth; for He was to found a kingdom of the Word and of the Spirit, not a kingdom of the sword. Consequently, this scene amazed the disciples; it all seemed very strange to them. Hitherto they had seen Christ only in a kind and friendly mood. Therefore it offended them to observe Him making use of His fists. But the evangelist John adds that the disciples were reminded of the statement recorded in Psalm 69, a psalm which treats of Christ throughout: “Zeal for Thy house has consumed Me” (v. 9).

This remark gives evidence that the people in that day were well versed in Holy Scripture, and that its study must have been diligently pursued in the synagogs and schools. It was particularly the Psalter which was read, preached, and explained, and with which the people were familiar. It seems apparent that in all the towns and villages there were priests and Levites who had their parishes, churches, and schools there, called synagogs. In these the people convened to hear and learn the Word of God. And here they regularly heard the writings of the prophets and the psalms expounded. Nevertheless, the temple in Jerusalem retained its eminent and dignified position as the chief church, or the cathedral. The Jews went there three times a year to show their loyalty to the God who had promised to reside there, and in order to give proof of their faith and doctrine. The churches of that day were well governed and regulated. Scripture was expounded there daily, so that even the simple folk acquired a fair understanding of the psalms and the prophets, which they also retained in their memory. Thank God, our churches are well ordered today too. We can still meet there and call upon God, laud and praise Him. The Word of God is having such free course today that even a plain, uneducated person can comprehend Scripture in some measure, as the Jews were able to do in their time. We know, of course, what type of people Christ’s disciples were—not learned men, not high priests, Pharisees, and scribes, but poor beggars and fishermen, lowly folk, Peter, Andrew, and Bartholomew. But still they were able to learn the Psalter; they heard it read, sung, and preached. Simply by listening to Holy Scripture they familiarized themselves with it; and they learned it so well that they remembered the words and pondered them.

Here we can observe the result of faithful and diligent instruction of the people in the Word of God and of their attention to such instruction. An especially fine discipline, diligence, and obedience must have prevailed among these people when they gathered on the Sabbath in their schools or churches to listen attentively to the singing and the reading, the preaching and the praying. It was a scene like that presented in our churches today.

This example of the disciples must stimulate us to hear, believe, and accept God’s Word gladly, to receive absolution, and to make use of the Sacrament. In view of the devoutness of the Jews of that day, it is not at all surprising that the dear disciples remembered this verse from the psalms; they had heard it in their schools in Galilee. But the amazing part was their application of the words to Christ, just as though the statement had originally been made with the expulsion of the money-changers from the temple in mind, and nothing else.
The words “Zeal has consumed Me” sound strange. The disciples, however, understood the Hebrew idiom. This was intelligible to them, for they read the prophets assiduously. And now that they find it impossible to condemn this act of Christ, and ask themselves: “Why did He lash the Jews with the whip and create such a hubbub?” they put the best construction on it and excuse Him. Just as if they wanted to say: “We must admit that by kicking up such a rumpus He is carrying things to extremes. But, after all, what alternative did He have? One who loves God and His house can never condone and tolerate such conduct. He must be activated by that passionate zeal of which this saying speaks.”

Thus they relate these words—which apply generally to all true preachers and teachers who work with the Word of God, direct the people, and are imbued with zeal—to this one act of Christ, since He behaves here as one who loves God and His church. Such a one cannot do otherwise than display such zeal, no matter if someone may be offended by it. Even though pious hearts may think such action immoderate, nevertheless it is written that all Christians, but especially the Messiah, must have this zeal. This prompts the disciples to quote these words of the psalm. It often happens in Scripture—and I suppose that we can copy this, so long as it does not violate an article of faith—that a passage with general significance is given specific, individual, and personal application.24 Take Moses, for instance, who declares: “A man hanged on a tree is cursed by God” (Deut. 21:23). Although these words were not spoken of Christ, St. Paul, in Gal. 3:13, refers them to Him specifically. And although Christ did not die as an accursed criminal, the words are nonetheless applicable; for He wanted to bear the curse obediently for our sakes. And in Is. 53:12 we read: “He was numbered with the transgressors,” although the transgression was not pertinent to His innocent person. No, He was holy and righteous, and He made others righteous. His hanging, to be sure, was identical with that of the robbers to His right and left. And the crosses were also alike. But the persons were not alike. Therefore we must interpret these words from Moses in the light of what really happened and say that Christ became a curse before God and as such was crucified the same as any malefactor. Moses’ words are all-inclusive; he speaks of all who are hanged. For when the Law decrees: “A man hanged on a tree is cursed by God,” it can happen that a pious and God-fearing man is wronged. Should such a person be accursed on the basis of these words? Far from it! During the revolt undoubtedly many an innocent person suffered together with the guilty.25 The curse, like death, embraces the innocent as well as the guilty.

The high priests and the devil, of course, intended to make the people believe that Christ was accursed by God. They argued: “Just wait! If we can have Him crucified, then we have carried the day.” For the language of this passage is plain and clear, declaring that anyone who hangs on a tree is cursed. But not so fast! A person may be dealt with unjustly. The tree on which one hangs does not convict and curse. For example, you may behead someone; but it does not follow automatically from this that justice was done him. It is generally known that many a person suffers injustice.

I may say of the father who has been bereaved of his only beloved son: “He has sacrificed his Isaac to God.” And yet the father is not Abraham; nor is the son Isaac. My words mean that this father had the same experience that dear Abraham had with his son. In this way I generalize and apply to all fathers what, in the Scriptural account, refers only to Abraham. Yes, I may even say of Christ that He was Isaac sacrificed on the cross.

I say that it is common practice—not only in Holy Writ but everywhere else—to apply the specific to the general and, conversely, to proceed from the general to the specific. In doing so one does not violate a single article of the Christian faith. Accordingly, the disciples apply the rule here and commonly refer the verse of the psalm—“Zeal for Thy house has consumed me”—to what Christ did. Their intention is good; they want to excuse Christ’s action.

But now what do the words “Zeal for Thy house” mean? The Jews, who were well versed in the prophets and the psalms, understood their meaning. Furthermore, it was an expression current in their language. But it is foreign to our tongue and, therefore, sounds odd. I translated the word ζηλος with the German word Eifer. If anyone can improve on this, he is welcome to do so. It is the best term I could find. The Latin language, too, lacks a word that will faithfully reproduce the meaning of ζηλος. Some choose the term aemulatio; whether this is correct or not, I shall leave to the grammarians.26 In German, however, ζηλος really designates a friendly and yet vigorous27 envy or anger born of friendship and affection and found among people so loyal to one another that neither wants to see the other suffer grief and misfortune. I have not been able to find a better word for this than Eifer. Strictly speaking, this pertains to the emotion displayed in the relationship between husband and wife, when the one views the other’s too friendly association with a member of the opposite sex with a sense of jealousy. And it is only proper for such jealousy to be alive between them, and for the one not to regard the actions of the other with an air of indifference. They should not carry this to excess, but they should experience a modicum of jealousy. It would betray a disgraceful affection on the part of the wife if, from a motive of love, she connived at her husband’s running after another woman. Nor is the love that obtains between harlots and knaves true love; it is a devilish and carnal affection, and not from God.

Common everyday usage in our language makes it permissible to speak of a commendable jealousy and of an evil jealousy.28 Although not only jealousy but also pride or arrogance is a vice of the devil, still it is correct to say in our tongue: “This is laudable pride, and that is evil pride.” Or: “This is good chastity, and that is bad chastity.” Or: “This is good humility, and that is evil humility.” For instance, I may be possessed of a good and divine pride, commanded by God and demanded of me and all others. This says: “I must not give way to the devil; I will not look at the devil and follow him.” Such an attitude stems from spiritual pride. It was demonstrated by the dear martyrs, who told the tyrants: “I shall not look at you and thus deny my God and Lord.” This is really praiseworthy pride! And if I were to say in a tone of humility, instead of pride: “Dear pope, dear bishops, I shall gladly do what you require,” my humility would be demonic and accursed, if at the same time I claim to be governed by the Word of God. Such humility would be worthless, for you would be showing humility in a situation that calls for pride. But it is a demonstration of a laudable humility when I say with gratitude toward God: “Thy will be done. My dear Lord Christ, do with me as Thou dost please. I shall gladly bear it.”

Such expressions are dictated by the stress of the times and the circumstances in which we live. If I were to say: “I desire to live with no other woman and to love no other woman than my wife,” I would evince an honorable and a divine *unchastity *(ED: "divine unchastity" makes no sense in the context; we aver that it should read, "divine chastity; CLH). But if a man deserted his wife and attached himself to another woman, he would manifest a demonic unchastity. Thus anger is also of two kinds: good and evil. If a prince’s ire is aroused by a scoundrel, if he seizes him by the throat and strangles him, or has him hanged on the gallows, or if he breaks him on the wheel, has him beheaded, or has him executed in some other way—that is actually good and gracious wrath. If, on the other hand, he subdues his wrath and releases every scoundrel, his leniency would not be a virtue. No, it would betray a double disfavor, tyranny, and wrath. For his action would cause the murder, harm, and unhappiness of many people. This also pertains to a father who does not flog his son, or to a teacher who does not punish his pupils in anger when they have done wrong. No greater disfavor could be shown to son or pupil. In the same way it demonstrates a gracious, good, and godly wrath when murderers are punished and thieves are hanged that other people may live in peace.

Thus zeal is an angry love or a jealous love which makes any other man’s unchaste advances toward a wife unbearable to a husband and any unchastity in the husband unbearable to a wife. In such circumstances one may say: “I am not jealous.” But indeed you should be jealous! It is intolerable when my wife commits adultery, or when both husband and wife become whoremongers and adulterers. You must become jealous, for this is proper jealousy and zeal. On the other hand, it is a manifestation of evil and contemptible jealousy if I am pained at heart because another person enjoys greater popularity or good fortune than I do or is richer than I am, even though this causes me no trouble and my only reason for hating him is pure demonic malice. In fact, jealousy is one of the spiritual and demonic sins and vices on earth to which the devil himself is addicted. It is nothing else than sheer malevolence that prompts the devil to begrudge us mortals a moment of life and our salvation. He cannot bear to see us happy.
Just as spiteful jealousy is a despicable vice, so proper zeal is a precious and noble virtue. It is demonstrated when one, from true love, deplores that another commits a wrong and goes astray. Then such a person will say: “Oh, I feel so very, very sorry for him. I begrudge him that. It angers me that he fell into this sin and shame. When I see a beloved person doing evil, I am saddened.” To begrudge and not to begrudge are two different matters; ordinarily, one is good and the other bad. However, here the order is reversed: not to begrudge a person becomes a vile and shameful vice, and to begrudge a person becomes a virtue which inheres in God alone and in the hearts of those especially moved by God. For this deep grief over a good friend’s sin and shame, this begrudging of such sin and shame, still indicates the presence of a divine spark in the human heart.

It may happen—in fact, it often does happen—that husband or wife meets with a sudden mishap. The great love of the other will immediately begin to lament and cry: “Oh, if this had only not befallen you! How heartily sorry I feel for you!” Or a father may be griefstricken by an ill-bred child. He deplores that the child is as he is; he begrudges him his wickedness. A similar situation may arise between friend and friend. Such begrudging or friendly jealousy or loving anger is a merciful, a loving jealousy, which says: “Alas, I do not like to hear or see that anyone else lives to his own hurt and shame.” I cannot regard that as hatred; for it is good, and is motivated by love. Where there is love, there is no room for hatred. This is what Scripture calls ζηλος. I have translated this with the one word Eifer; but my illustrations are intended to convey the word’s true meaning and to clarify the expression for you.

That is the type of zeal Christ the Lord, too, displays in our text. His anger does not arise from hatred; it springs from a friendly love toward God, who had founded this temple to His own honor and for the ministration of His Word, that people might be instructed in church in the ways of salvation and in the worship of God. And now when Christ sees the very opposite; when He beholds open violation of God’s commands, the use of the sacrifices to seduce the people for whose sake29 He Himself came to earth and became incarnate; when He witnesses the heinous corruption of souls and this abomination and desecration of His Father’s house—then He is deeply grieved. He grows indignant and jealous. A saddened zeal comes over Him when He sees His church, His cathedral, desecrated and misused this way. For He loves God; and He is concerned about the preservation of the divine Word, solicitous about the poor people who are thus being robbed of their salvation. He wants to say: “I begrudge the beautiful and fine temple this disgraceful abuse, and I begrudge the people the damnation into which they are being led.”

But what is the meaning of the word “consume”? This word is more closely related to the German idiom; for we, too, are in the habit of using it of a person who consumes himself with grief, who is devoured, as it were, by sorrow. We say of someone who is greatly troubled that “something is eating him.” This eating or consuming, of course, does not imply an eating or consuming as of bread or meat; but it refers to the sad mood which makes one languish, fret one’s heart out, be consumed somewhat as a garment is consumed by moths. This was the experience of Christ, the prophets, and all the apostles. And our hearts, too, should be fairly consumed by a strong and holy zeal, a sorrow, jealousy, and indignation over the lamentable idolatries with which the pope has so woefully deceived and seduced the world. Should it not gnaw at us, consume us, and move us to keep the pure doctrine of Coifs* Word from being falsified further? *(ED: a coif is a cap that fits the head closely. We presume it should read , "God's Word." CLH).

Thus these words of our text are spoken not only of Christ but of every preacher of the divine Word. Observe godly parents who have a disobedient child, and you will soon understand the meaning of the words: “Zeal has consumed me.” They go through life consumed by grief. They pine away and finally die from great sadness and sorrow. And these children become, not plain murderers but patricides and matricides, torturing their parents for some time before they finally die. They strangle their parents. Solomon speaks of this in the Book of Proverbs—we find the same thing in Ec. 3:3 ff.—when he says: “A wise son makes a glad father” (Prov. 10:1), but “a foolish son is a grief to his father and bitterness to her who bore him” (Prov. 17:25). In 1 Tim. 1:9 St. Paul, too, refers to murderers of fathers and mothers. If parents are godly, they suffer keenly from the ungodly conduct of their children. It gnaws at their hearts night and day, until they finally bite the dust on account of it. Thus children murder their parents, not by running a knife through their bodies but by their evil and impious life.

Parents can experience no greater cross or grief than the wickedness of their children. This ages the parents prematurely and finally grieves them to death. It wrings the lament from their lips: “Oh, my son! Oh, my daughter!” And although such a child forces his parents to their grave with his evil and wicked life, they do not develop a demonic hatred for the child; the love for the child in the father’s heart survives all and endures. Of David we read in 2 Sam. 18:5 that he commanded Joab and his host not to harm his undutiful son Absalom. This was dictated by the love in his paternal heart, which still beat for his son even though that same son had expelled him from the kingdom. And when Absalom was stabbed to death, David cried: “O my son Absalom, my son!” (2 Sam. 18:33). I am relating all this to make the words more intelligible to you: “Zeal has consumed me,” words spoken at a time when grief consumes or tears the heart.
But Christ suffered far deeper grief when He hung on the cross, when He took to heart30 the malice and the impenitence of the Jews. This He also experienced when He wept with great zeal over the fate of Jerusalem as He looked upon the city (Luke 19:41), and also as He sweat blood in the garden (Luke 22:44). During His entire earthly sojourn He was consumed with a constant sorrow, which prevented Him from ever being happy. And if He had not been crucified, He would have grieved Himself to death over the utter futility of all His efforts with the Jewish people.

Ask a pious ruling prince or a godly housefather what the word “consume” really means in times when evil reigns and grief eats and gnaws at the heart. I wager that you will get an answer! All the apostles and bishops learned the significance of the word, and they still learn it. It is brought home to them when they see that their faithful care, their labor, and their toil are in vain; some devil’s head31 will come along and cause commotion, destroying more in one day than can be built up in several years. Any pastor who sees that the people are not reformed by the doctrine of the divine Word but become more savage and wild because of the devil’s machinations will also say: “Zeal for Thy house has consumed me.” The godlier a pastor or preacher is, the more keenly will he feel this zeal. And he must feel it.

Now love is happy when a friend fares well and has good fortune. This causes love to rejoice. But if love sees a friend encountering misfortune, it must pine and mourn. This was the Lord’s experience when He witnessed the abuse of His temple, not only of the physical budding of stone but also of the spiritual temple, the people of God, who were being corrupted so shamefully by idolatry. That sight aroused His zeal. We should all have such zeal for the Word of God. We should feel distressed and aggrieved by the abomination of the pope, the Turk, and all the schismatic spirits. If we did, we would understand this verse; we would grasp the significance of the word “consume” without explanation.

And if it is true that the anguish and sorrow of love will kill father and mother, how much more plausible it is that kings and princes, in the realm of civil government, have pined away with grief over their inability to guide and direct their people as they would have liked! In church government this happens even more frequently. When doctrinal discord and dissension occur, and pious Christians and saints are turned away from the truth, then this angry love is so distressed that one’s heart could break.

Thus this zeal is a friendly jealousy experienced in the home, at the courts of kings and princes, and also in the Christian Church; for in all those places a godly affection for another prevails. This is not the jealousy of the harlot but a jealousy and an anger that consumes heart and life. Nowhere do we read that Christ experienced much joy during His earthly sojourn. This was due to the fact that His heart unremittingly harbored this consuming zeal for the temple and the people of God. His was no self-seeking, jealous ire. This is evident from the words in the Gospel (Matt. 23:37): “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered your children together!” Those were not the words of a laughing heart. But also this office of concern, of solicitude and zeal was imposed on Him by His Heavenly Father, and this zeal of His ceased only on the cross.

Luther, M. (1999, c1957). Vol. 22: Luther's works, vol. 22 : Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 1-4 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (22:237). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.
24 Luther uses the terms from logic: ex genere speciem.
25 This seems to be a reference to the Peasants’ War of 1525.
26 In Heb. 10:27 the Vulgate translated πυρὸς ζηλος with ignis aemulatio, while in the present passage ζηλος is rendered with zelus.
27 Here the text contains the conjunction und doch, which, as the Weimar edition suggests, is probably a mistake.
28 The German word here is neid, which had not yet acquired the pejorative connotation it has today.
29 As the text stands, um welcher willen would refer to the word “sacrifices”; we have connected it to the word “people” instead.
30 On the word behertzigen used here, cf. p. 329, note 41.
31 A common term for God’s enemies, especially for the pope; cf. p. 483, note 170.
Luther, M. (1999, c1957). Vol. 22: Luther's works, vol. 22 : Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 1-4 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (22:228). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Monday, November 2, 2009

"This is the way man fares when his reason digresses from the Law and the Gospel."
Luther's comment on John 1:18
"No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who at the Father's side, has made Him known."

Reason apart from faith always ends up either with the certainty of a fool, or the fearful doubt of despair.