1. Let not your hearts be troubled.
Here you see, in the first place, how heartily and faithfully the Lord looks after His dear disciples, how concerned He is about them lest they remain disconsolate in this very night when, as He had often foretold, suffering and the cross were to separate Him from them, when He was to leave them behind amid great peril, fear, and terror. Up to this time they had always felt secure, assured, and unafraid because of Christ’s personal presence. They had been eyewitnesses when He proved Himself mightily before the people with sermons and signs. As a result, they all had to respect Him. Even the chief priests and the elders had cause to worry that the whole nation might rise in revolt against them if they laid hands on Him.
Therefore the apostles went their way free of care and fear, though they were poor and insignificant people, assuming rather that the others had reason to be afraid of them. They reasoned: “So long as this Man lives, we have no cause for worry; for He can easily protect and save us.” It was this belief that made St. Peter such a courageous and intrepid man that he volunteered and ventured to go into death with Christ, though all the other disciples denied Him (Mark 14:29). He even began to suit his action to his words; for when the Jews wanted to seize Christ, Peter at once went to His defense by wielding a sword. The large armed mob that had come to them did not intimidate him. In brief, so long as the disciples had Christ with them, they had no reason to worry about anything and would no doubt have remained safe from everybody.
But as Christ now apprises them of His impending departure, He shows them and foretells that from now on they will fare far differently, that their hearts will be assailed by fear and trembling. And thus it happened that when Christ was gone after being executed so disgracefully, pitifully, and wickedly, their courage forsook them. In fear they shut themselves up and hid; they did not venture into the open. For this was too great and too terrible a humiliation. This same Christ, who previously had frightened and terrified all the councilors and priests in Jerusalem, had now become so feeble and so deserted as to fall into the hands of His enemies, who treated Him most terribly and most shamefully put Him to death. This is no longer the Christ who raised the dead, chased the buyers and the sellers out of the temple, and performed miracles that startled everybody. Now He is as weak and despised as the most wretched and miserable man on earth. Everybody treads Him underfoot, and the lowliest spit on Him. This was a far cry from the former glorious figure. His beloved disciples, who were still weak in their faith and until now had not experienced such blows, had to fear and tremble. “Oh, what will become of us now? He was our Comfort and our Stay. Now He is gone, and we no longer have anyone to protect or help us. Our enemies are now strong and mighty, but we are weak and forsaken by all the world.”
As a good and faithful Lord, Christ anticipates such anxiety and fear. He comforts His disciples and urges them not to despair but to stand firm. He begins by telling them what they will and must encounter, so that when it happens they may recall that He had told them in advance and had admonished them not to worry. First of all, He says: “Let not your hearts be troubled.” It is as if He were saying: “My dear disciples, I know very well what your lot will be after I depart from you and leave you alone. Sheer terror and fear will overwhelm you. The spectacle of My fate will fill you with trepidation. Your hearts will melt within you, and you will scarcely know where to turn. I am telling you this before it happens, to keep you from growing fainthearted. Be bold, and prepare for the struggle that lies ahead. When this time comes, then think of My admonition, lest you soon lose heart and despair.”
Thus Christ, as One well aware of the situation they were to face, wants to fortify and preserve them. Though they would experience terror and anxiety, they could nonetheless sustain themselves and all the more easily endure the trials. For much depends on the preparation of the heart. Though misfortune and terror come stalking along, these are more easily faced when one knows of a refuge or has someone who will speak or recall a consoling word. Christ gives them this sermon beforehand, both to inform them of future terrors and to comfort them, so that they may later recall His words and thus sustain themselves. To be sure, this comfort did not help at the moment, nor was it effective until the appearance of the Holy Spirit. No, when Christ was gone, all was lost; they had no heart or courage, and not one of them could stand his ground against a frail maid.2 In that hour all Christ’s words and works fell by the wayside, and this comfort was entirely forgotten.
Thus Christ admonished and consoled His beloved disciples here as men who sorely needed consolation. But these words were recorded, not for their sakes, but for ours that we might also learn to apply this comfort to both present and future need. Every Christian, when baptized and dedicated to Christ, may and must accept and expect encounters with terror and anxiety, which will make his heart afraid and dejected, whether these feelings arise from one or from many enemies and adversaries. For a Christian has an exceedingly large number of enemies if he wants to remain loyal to his Lord. The world and the devil daily lie in wait to deprive him of life and limb. Furthermore, his own flesh, reason, and conscience plague him constantly. As a result, his heart trembles with fear.
But these weighty reasons for fear and trepidation go unheeded as long as they are not present. Thus the Jews were not at all afraid and concerned when Christ wept over them and foretold that the city of Jerusalem would be so thoroughly destroyed that not one stone would remain on the other (Luke 19:44). Thus we, too, suppose that as long as we are not sorely pressed, as long as the devil does not plague us and sin does not gnaw at us, there is no danger. Secure and cheerful, we do not believe that we shall require consolation. But then we should know and consider that terror will surely follow, either from the world—in the form of animosity and persecution—or from the devil himself, who shoots his cruel poisoned darts and spears of dejection, despair, or blasphemy into your heart.
Therefore if you want to be a Christian like the apostles and all the saints, arm yourself, and be assured that the hour will come when your heart will be terrified and despondent. This has been said to all Christians, that they may learn to accustom themselves quickly and put their affairs in order. If they are secure now, they must realize that matters will soon change. This should be their attitude: “May it last as long as it pleases God! Today happy and cheerful; tomorrow sad. Today alive; tomorrow dead. Today good fortune and security; tomorrow every kind of distress. And do not keep snoring away as though no trouble were coming.” The world is so mad and stupid, so blind and impenitent, that it think: “If there is a little good fortune now and all is well, things will go on like this forever.” It is so engrossed in its good fortune that it cannot imagine that misfortune will ever strike. It lives as though the devil and every kind of grief no longer existed. But later, when anxiety and trouble suddenly befall the world, then it is immediately laid low, and heart and courage are gone; then it is found completely despondent and despairing, as though comfort and hope would never return. In brief, as long as peace reigns, the world supposes that times will never change and does not ponder how it would adapt itself to any such change. No, it assumes that conditions will always remain the same. Moreover, when the weather changes, when sickness follows after days of health, war and misfortune after peace, famine after times of plenty, then there is no end to its lamentations, to its fear and despair. But that is not the Christian way. The Christian should always think: “If peace and tranquillity reign today, it will be different tomorrow. The devil can soon shoot a dart into my heart, or some other affliction can befall me. Therefore I must see to it that when sorrows appear, I am prepared to weather the storm and draw comfort from God’s Word.”
Christ knows that if we want to remain His own and adhere to Baptism, the Sacrament, and the Gospel, the devil will inevitably be our enemy, incessantly pressing us with all his might and contending for our body and soul. And even if God wards him off and prevents him from killing you in one day, he will nevertheless craftily and cunningly persist in trying at least to rob you of your courage and security, to fill you with disquietude and sadness, and subsequently to bring you into other dangers and distress. And since we must inevitably run the devil’s gantlet and be tortured and tormented by him, Christ here wants to exhort and console us, that we may be reconciled to our lot and not be too alarmed or let the devil subdue us so easily and make us lose courage and despair.
Therefore this consolation must also address itself to us. We must impress it on our hearts, use it, and strengthen ourselves with it when we feel grief and anxiety. At such times we must hear Christ speaking these words to us: “What are you doing? You surely will not be scared to death and quail because of this! Be of good cheer, and take heart. Even if the devil, the world, or your own conscience plague and frighten you, and even if you do not feel My presence, do you not recall that I foretold this long ago and left this comfort with you to strengthen and to preserve you?” Thus, you see, we should learn to accustom ourselves to apply this consolation of our Lord Christ by daily practice amid all our temptations, lest these words be related and recorded for us in vain.
From these and similar words and admonitions of Christ we should also learn to know the Lord Christ aright, to develop a more cordial and comforting confidence in Him, and to pay more regard to His Word than to anything else which may confront our eyes, ears, and other senses. For if I am a Christian and hold to Him, I always know that He is talking to me. And here and elsewhere I learn that all His words are intended to comfort me; yes, that all He says, does, and thinks is nothing but friendly and consoling words and work. Therefore it is undoubtedly true that mourning and a faint and fearful heart do not come from Christ. For He is not one to intimidate hearts and make them sad and despondent. He came, labored, and ascended into heaven to banish sadness and fear from the heart and to bestow, instead, a cheerful heart, conscience, and mind. To this end He promises to send His disciples and the Christians the Holy Spirit, whom He calls the Comforter. Through Him Christ wants to fortify and keep His disciples after His physical departure from them.
Happy is he who can learn this and really take to heart Christ’s statement and testimony that it grieves Him sorely when He sees a Christian’s heart sad or frightened. Such a person is well off, and his battle is more than half won. For if I can advance to the point where I recognize the enemy who wants to intimidate and sadden me, and if I know the source of such thoughts and notions, I am already treading on solid ground and have gained a firm footing. This enables me to defend myself and to say: “This is not my Lord Christ; it is His enemy, the devil.” He indeed deceives pious hearts by disguising himself as an angel of light, as St. Paul declares (2 Cor. 11:14); he displays himself as, and pretends to be, Christ Himself. But this is the label which identifies him: he invariably leaves his stench behind him, that is, a faint, fearful, and disquieted conscience. This is manifest in all the false teachers and schismatic spirits, who share in the nature of their master, the devil. They are unable to comfort and gladden a single timid conscience. They only confuse the heart and fill it with sadness and melancholy. They go about like gloomy or senseless people and regard it as highly spiritual to garb themselves in a gray coat,3 to hang the head, to appear with a long face, and to sham sadness. That is nothing but the devil’s buffoonery and delusion. He delights in making hearts afraid, cowardly, and dejected. They want to demonstrate their spirituality with a sour face, one that makes really comforting thoughts and cheerful words impossible. To be sure, a Christian does experience much external suffering and many trials; but he can still have a cheerful, happy heart and mind toward God and look to Him for the greatest good. Therefore let us learn this lesson well: No matter what misfortune befalls us—pestilence, war, famine, poverty, persecution, melancholy thoughts which deject us and make the heart pound and flounder—we must know and conclude that this does not come from Christ. We must be on our guard against the devil, who can pose and masquerade in the form and in the name of Christ.
You say: “Well, does not Christ Himself often frighten and threaten us in the Gospel? For example, when He says (Matt. 4:17): ‘Repent!’ Or in Luke 13:5: ‘I tell you, unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’ ” Why, these are Christ’s own words, and a faint and saddened conscience must constantly worry lest they pertain to it. It must declare: “Say what you will, Christ Himself makes this statement. Who can ignore it?”
I reply: This is why I said that we must become skilled artists and learn to distinguish well between Christ’s rebukes and His threats, and know where to apply His words. For there are two classes of people on earth. Some are wicked and unruly; they pay God’s Word no heed and live as they see fit—smug, unabashed, and without fear. These must feel struck when He threatens: “Those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and who were killed, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:4–5). The curse is aimed at the people to whom it is addressed and at no others, namely, at the obdurate, proud, and insolent characters who care nothing for Christ and His Word. These constitute a large multitude today, the great majority in all walks of life in the world. They go their way, let Christ preach to them as He pleases, and do what they want to do. Here one must unhesitatingly chide and threaten, and read texts such as the one containing Christ’s pronouncement on the Day of Judgment: “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the eternal fire” (Matt. 25:41).
The other small group addressed here by Christ strives to lead a pious, Christian life, has Baptism and Christ’s Word, conducts itself to the best of its ability in such a way that it does not despise the Gospel, and, unlike the group just mentioned, abstains from greed, robbery, theft, lies, deceit, and wantonness. These are the ones whom the devil besets as an enemy does, with all sorts of distress and misfortune, to frighten, sadden, and discourage them. Thus both groups are in trouble. Those who are fainthearted and timid to begin with the devil intimidates without any reason. This is what he did to the apostles after the Lords death, when he drove them to seek cover and made them afraid to appear in the open. But the others, the insolent and smug whom he should frighten and torment, he lets go their way; he flatters them and strengthens them in their wickedness. Thus the devil always plays a role directly opposed to that of Christ.
Therefore it is necessary to differentiate among people and to judge them as they are. Take, for example, a man who loves the Gospel and longs to believe and to live properly. He must learn to resist the devil, who frightens and saddens him, and to say: “You lie, you wicked devil, even though you appear in the guise of Christ my Lord and employ His words. I am baptized in His name, and I believe the Gospel. By the grace of God I am not one of the wicked and profligate who trample the Gospel underfoot and deliberately live contrary to it; but I act and I suffer in accord with it as well as I can. Would to God I could do more! Therefore such menacing and terrifying statements do not pertain to me. I must not and will not listen to them now. I win cling to the words Christ addresses to the poor, wretched little group which suffers persecution, misfortune, distress, and anxiety.”
Now if one could learn to differentiate, then each side would be fairly treated. Christ would comfort those whom the devil wants to frighten and dishearten, and, on the other hand, He would intimidate those whom the devil makes smug and presumptuous. After all, these two must always contend against each other. What the devil ruins and destroys, Christ must build up and restore; and what the devil establishes, Christ destroys, as we read in 1 John 3:8: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”
Now since we are aware of this, we must prepare ourselves, lest we become smug and careless. When the devil wheedles and indulges us, that is, when he gives us peace and good days, we must be afraid. On the other hand, we must not be terror-stricken or grieved, but undaunted and cheerful when he scratches and pricks and plagues us with every kind of misfortune of which he is capable. When he attempts to frighten us in the name of Christ, we must always say: “I will not listen now to any terrifying and threatening words; for I know that this is not according to the will and intention of Christ my Lord, who bids me and all believers in Him be of good cheer. Therefore even though Christ Himself does speak threatening and frightening words here and there, I am not to apply these words to myself. For they pertain only to the smug, impenitent, hardened, and wicked scorners of His Word and His grace. Therefore since I am a Christian and a disciple of my Savior, do not try to harass me with these verses. For even though they are Christ’s words, you are not quoting them at the right time and at the proper place; nor are you applying them to the person to whom they refer. You are not using the words as Christ does; but they are being perverted by that lying spirit, the devil, who diverts both the threatening and the comforting words from the group to which they apply, just as he perverts all God’s Words and transforms truth into a lie.”
It is indeed a real Christian art to distinguish in the heat of battle between the suggestions of Christ and those of the devil. Only one who is experienced will realize the difficulty. For, as I have said, the devil can so clothe and adorn himself with Christ’s name and works, and can pose and act in such a way, that one could swear a thousand oaths that it is truly Christ Himself, although in reality it is the archenemy and the true Archantichrist.4 Therefore if you are a Christian, you must learn to conclude from this that anyone who wants to terrify and dishearten you is surely the devil’s messenger. For whenever Christ frightens someone away from unbelief and a sinful life into penitence and conversion, it is of short duration. Thus He frightened Paul before his conversion, and thus St. Paul, in the name of Christ, frightened the Corinthians and the Galatians.5 For it is not Christ’s purpose to keep you sad; no, in a short time He frees you from sadness and comforts you. The devil does not do this. He does not let a single proud and impenitent person despair; or when such a person finally does lapse into terror and fear, as happens in the end to all such, then he deserts him. Even then he does not put an end to his terrorizing but oppresses and distresses him so severely that he must despair eternally unless he is restored by Christ.
This, you see, is what Christ wants to inculcate here when He says: “Let not your hearts be troubled”; as if He said: “I am about to die and vanish from your sight; I leave you behind in the world, where you will not see or hear Me. All that you will see, hear, and feel will be distress and misfortune of many kinds, to frighten and perplex you on every hand. But do not let this make your hearts distraught and cowardly. Balance these words of Mine, bidding you be of good cheer and courage against all this. It will not be I who frightens and grieves you. No, when such sufferings afflict you, conclude immediately that this is the devil’s phantasy and delusion. The voice by which you are to recognize Me, as sheep recognize their true shepherd, is the voice that says: ‘Be unafraid and undaunted.’ These are My words and thoughts. If you hear anything else, you are not hearing My voice, even though it is presented to you in My name and form. Do not believe or follow it.”
That is what we must proclaim and impress before Christians, who, by reason of tender hearts and consciences, are easily frightened, since they know and feel their frailty and unworthiness. But we must let the other, vulgar multitude, which knows of no terrors and anxiety and is not moved by threats, go its way. For they will certainly get their due when their hour approaches and they are suddenly overcome, with no one to comfort them. The devil deals with his servants thus: Now he permits them to enjoy themselves, but later he rewards them with eternal sorrow, terror, and fear; yes, they will be forced to drain the cup of hell to the dregs. Christians, on the other hand, endure little and brief distress now. Therefore let anyone who would be a Christian inscribe and keep these words in his heart. Knowing what awaits the Christian, Christ anticipates it here and exhorts him not to abandon his faith and his confidence, no matter if terror and distress befall him on this account. Christ spoke these words beforehand and left them to us that you may know and remember what He demands of you, namely, that you be unafraid and look to Him for help, to come and rescue you. This now follows.
Luther, M. (1999, c1961). Vol. 24: Luther's works, vol. 24 : Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 14-16 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (24:9). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.