Holy Scripture for the Advent Preacher: Part 1

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Lutheran theology begins not with God in His terrifying majesty but with God in the flesh, God crucified for sinners. Advent is about this trajectory.

The Christian faith is not about our movement toward God but rather His coming to us. When Adam and Eve fell into sin, hiding themselves in shame, God did not wait for them to return to Him. He sought them out. Luther’s theology is characterized as a “theology from below” in that it does not begin with us and our striving to seek God in His majesty. In Luther’s language that would be a “theology from above.” Instead, God condescends to us.[1] Clothed in flesh and blood, He comes as the baby of Bethlehem and the man of Calvary as our Brother and Savior. Luther puts it like this in his 1539 lectures on Genesis 19: “Let us go to the child lying in the lap of His mother Mary and to the sacrificial victim suspended on the cross, and there we shall look into His heart” (LW 3:276-277).[2]

So, Lutheran theology begins not with God in His terrifying majesty but with God in the flesh, God crucified for sinners. Advent is about this trajectory. This can be seen historically from the Gospel reading for the First Sunday in Advent. It is the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (Matthew 21:1-9). Jesus is the King who comes to save His people. In his examination of Luther’s Advent sermons, Ulrich Asendorf rightly concludes, “Thus the gospel of Advent is the basic reality of faith. If Christ does not come riding on a donkey, then He still comes more purely, because He comes in the Word.”[3]

God’s condescension to humanity, the Creator becomes a creature to redeem those whom He had created now fallen into sin and made captive to death. The Lord, who is Immanuel, comes to reconcile sinners to His Father by the blood of the cross. Advent is the proclamation of this coming in view of its telos: Lift up your heads for your redemption draws nears (see Luke 21:28). This is the word of promise which permeates Advent, and we are called to hear and believe it. Hence, we begin with the Holy Scriptures.

The Lord who comes is the Word made flesh. He wraps Himself in the swaddling clothes of Holy Scripture to paraphrase Luther.[4] It is the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures which infallibly testify to Him. We know of no other Jesus than the One proclaimed by the Spirit’s inspiration of the prophets and apostles. Advent tutors us in reading the Scriptures coherently in light of the purpose for which they were given by the Triune God. Romans 15:4-13 (the Epistle for Advent II in the one-year lectionary and for Advent III in Year A of the three-year lectionary) identifies the saving purpose of the Bible in verse 4, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”[5] Obviously here Paul is speaking of the Old Testament, for now by extension it applies to the New Testament as well. However, in light of Advent, it is instructive to follow how Paul shows us how to read the Old Testament now that Christ has come.[6] Already in the preamble to Romans, Paul lays out his apostleship in light of the Old Testament: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the Gospel of God which He promised beforehand through the prophets in the Holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by His resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring out the obedience of faith for the sake of His name among all nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:1-6, the Epistle for Advent I in the Three-Year Lectionary, Series A).[7]

The Old Testament is the “Prophetic Word” (II Peter 1:19), the Word of promise which sustained Israel as she awaited the coming of the Messiah. In the mystery of God’s plan, He would come for the Jew but also for the Gentiles that they too, “...might glorify God for His mercy” (Romans 15:9). In a sampling of verses from the Psalms and Isaiah, the Apostle extols the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who extends salvation to the nations: “For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy” (Romans 15:8-9). The Spirit who spoke by the prophets inhabits the scriptural words to deliver saving knowledge of Christ to us now.[8] The Scriptures are received in the full confidence of Hebrews 1:1-2, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son whom He appointed the heir of all things, through whom He created the world.” [9]

The Spirit who spoke by the prophets inhabits the scriptural words to deliver saving knowledge of Christ to us now.

All this is to say that the Old Testament itself bears witness to Jesus as both Christ and Lord and it cannot be understood apart from Him. Jesus demonstrates this after His resurrection in Luke 24 as He speaks to His fellow-travelers on the road to Emmaus: “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into His glory? And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:26-27).[10] Again, on the same day but this time with His disciples, the risen Lord expands this message: “Then He said to them, ‘These are My words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things’” (Luke 24:44-47). Jesus interprets His own passion and resurrection as fulfillment of the totality of the Old Testament and now declares the disciples as witnesses of these things who are to preach it from Jerusalem out to all nations. The pattern of this apostolic proclamation is seen in Peter’s sermons in Acts 2:14-36 and 3:11-26, Stephen’s confession in Acts 7:2-53, and Paul’s sermon in Acts 13:16-41. Jesus’ death and exaltation are in accord with the script of the Old Testament. Christ is not being “read into” the Old Testament. Rather, it is from the Old Testament He is proclaimed.[11] This was done in the apostolic preaching in Acts. It is described by Paul in I Corinthians 15:3-4, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”

The words of Hebrews 1 echo the prologue of John’s Gospel. The Evangelist testifies: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1-3). The Word of which John speaks is the eternal Logos, the second person of the Trinity. It is in and through the Word, the eternally begotten Son of the Father that creation was spoken out of nothingness into existence. It was through this Word that the prophets were given speech to proclaim the One who would enter human history as the Word made flesh. The Word made flesh is heard by the apostles, touched with their hands, and seen with their eyes (I John 1:1-3).

The Word made flesh cannot finally be separated from the Holy Scriptures.[12] John reports in John 2:22, in his narrative of Jesus’ discourse regarding the destruction and restoration of the temple and how He was speaking of not of the structure of stone and wood in Jerusalem but of His own body, that after His resurrection, “His disciples remembered that He had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the Word Jesus had spoken.” Scripture and Jesus’ spoken words are put on the same level. As Armin Wenz observes, “The Son of God is not only the true exegete of the Father (John 1:18), but as the Messiah He is also the only true exegete of the Scriptures of the Old Testament (Luke 24:27, 45; John 5:39). Christ is at the same time the goal and end of the Mosaic Law and the fulfillment of the prophetic promises.”[13]

The Word made flesh cannot finally be separated from the Holy Scriptures.

To the Jews who search the Scriptures, Jesus says, “You search the Scriptures because you think that it them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about Me” (John 4:39). Failing to believe Jesus is the One sent from the Father, their unbelief in the words of Moses who they champion is revealed. The Scriptures which cannot be broken (John 10:35) condemn their lack of faith in the Messiah proclaimed by Moses and the prophets.

The words of the Scriptures are the source of life with God. Now Jesus says, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63). Thus, Peter confesses, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that You are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68). To believe in Him is to believe the Scriptures and so receive the life which they testify, possess, and bestow. To continue in Jesus’ Word is to abide in Him and through His Spirit to know the liberating truth that His Father is our Father (see John 8:31-32). Apart from His Word there is only enslavement to the father of lies. Jesus’ words sanctify His own being in the truth, for His word is truth (John 17:17).

Nearing the culmination of John’s Gospel, the Evangelist says, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:30-31). These verses demonstrate, once again, not only the purpose of the Fourth Gospel, but of the Scriptures overall, that we might believe Jesus is the Son of God and through this faith have life in His name. The Scriptures are no dead letter, they carry the very power of the One who inspired them and to whom they testify. It is in and through them that the Spirit promised by the Son, and proceeding from the Father and the Son together, brings to our remembrance all Jesus said and did for us (see John 14:25-26; 16:12-15).

[1] “For the heart of the Gospel is the condescension of God in Jesus Christ”-Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics, Vol. I trans William Lazareth (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 573.

[2] For more on Luther’s approach, see Lowell C. Green, “Martin Luther’s on Coming to God from ‘Below” in its Implications for the Church Today” in A Reader in Pastoral Theology, ed. John T. Pless (Fort Wayne: Concordia Theological Seminary Press, 2001), 42-45; also Dennis Ngien, “Divine Hiddenness: The Word of God in Created Forms” in Luther’s Theology of the Cross: Christ in Luther’s Sermons on John (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2018), 36-53.

[3] Ulrich Asendorf, “Luther’s Sermons on Advent as a Summary of His Theology” in A Lively Legacy: Essays in Honor of Robert Preus, edited by Kurt Marquart et al (Lake Mills, Iowa: Graphic Publishing Company, 1985), 9.

[4] In his “Preface to the Old Testament” (1523/1545), Luther says: “Therefore dismiss your own opinion and feelings, and think of Scriptures as the loftiest and noblest of holy things, as the riches of mines which can never be sufficiently explored, in order that you may find that divine wisdom which God lays before you in such simple guise as to quench all pride. Here you will find the swaddling clothes and the manger in which Christ lies, and to which the angel points the shepherds [Luke 2:12]. Simple and lowly are these swaddling clothes, but dear is the treasure, Christ, who lies in them” (LW 35:236).

[5] In his 1522 “Short Instruction: What Should be Sought and Expected in the Gospels,” Luther comments on this text in relation to our searching the Scriptures: “That is what Saint Paul meant when he said at the beginning of his greeting to the Romans that the Gospel was promised by God through the prophets in the Holy Scriptures (Romans 1[:1-2]). For that reason, the evangelists and apostles always show us in the Scripture and tell us: ‘Thus it was written’ or ‘This happened so that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled’” (LW 75:10-11). Also see FC-SD IX: 92, “For as the Apostle testifies, ‘Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope’ [Rom. 15:4]. However, any interpretation of Scripture that weakens or removes our hope and encouragement is certainly contrary to the will and intent of the Holy Spirit” (FC-SD XI: 92, K-W, 655).

[6] Here note Martin Franzmann: “The Old Testament Scriptures are therefore indispensable to the life of the Church; through ‘prophetic writings’ the mystery of Christ is made known to all nations, to bring about the obedience of faith (16:26), and Paul’s use of the Old Testament in this letter illustrates how the ancient Word of God sustains and nurtures faith. Paul appropriates Israel’s Bible for the new Israel of the last days; all that was written in former days was written for us ‘upon whom the end of the ages has come’ (I Corinthians 10:11). All Scripture, therefore, serves to instruct through faith in Christ Jesus’ (2 Timothy 3:15). Through Christ Jesus the Old Testament, this dark and perplexing book, comes clear and illuminous for the eyes of faith; through Him the veil which screens its deepest and true meaning from the eyes of hardened Israel is removed (2 Corinthians 3:15-16). Then the Old Testament speaks encouragement and inspires steadfastness; it gives us hope.” - Concordia Commentary: Romans (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1968), 257.

[7] Jonathan Grothe observes: “The Good News from God about His Son which is promised beforehand in the OT is given concrete expression in [Romans] 1:3-4” –The Justification of the Ungodly: An Interpretation of Romans, Vol. I (privately published by the author, 2005), 25. The work of the Messiah promised by the prophets is now proclaimed as fulfilled by the Apostle. For an extensive exegetical treatment of Romans 1:1-6, see Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 4-16.

[8] Ernst Käsemann: “Expressed here is Paul’s message of justification by faith, which coincides with the revelation of the righteousness of God in the rule of Christ. The OT foreshadowed this message. The recipients of the epistle must recognize this agreement with Scripture.” Commentary on Romans, 387.

[9] Also, note Melanchthon, in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, as he explains the original promise given to Adam which echoes throughout the Old Testament and is now proclaimed in its fulfillment by the apostles: “This promise is constantly repeated throughout the entire Scripture: First it is given to Adam, later illuminated by the prophets, and finally proclaimed and offered by Christ among the Jews, and spread throughout the entire world by all the apostles” (AP XII: 53, K-W, 195).

[10] In 1522, with his “Short Instruction: What Should be Sought and Expected in the Gospels,” Luther drives home the point that it is only through Christ that we come into the Scriptures: “Therefore, Luther also says Christ opened the understanding of the apostles so that they understood Scripture (Luke 24[;27]). Christ says He is the door through whom people must enter; and whoever enters through Him, to him the porter opens so that he may find pasture and salvation (reference John 10 [:9]). Finally, it is true that the Gospel itself is the pointer and instructor in the Scriptures” (LW 75:11 - italics mine). This last sentence demonstrates Luther’s Christocentric approach to hermeneutics. It is only from the message of Christ’s Gospel that we rightly understand the Scriptures while, at the same time, it is from the Scriptures that we know the Gospel.

[11] To say Christ is preached from the Old Testament is to say the whole of the Old Testament, “...bears witness to Jesus as the Christ who suffers, dies, and is raised from the dead.” Jesus’ words in Luke 24 (that, “Everything written about Me in the Law of Moses, the prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled”) cannot be reduced to a singular narrative of covenant or divine presence, to give but two examples. Here the warning of Mark Seifrid is to the point: “To the extent that such a narrative becomes the framework we necessarily go behind the text, to this preconstructed framework, in order to understand the text. The preaching of Christ from the Old Testament may then begin to look like the clever trick of the interpreter, who pulls Christ out of the text as a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat.” - “Story-Lines of Scripture and Footsteps in the Sea,Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, (Fall 2007), 95.

[12] Here see Hermann Sasse: “Holy Scripture is the written Word of God and as such is indissolubly bound up with the Word of God Incarnate and the oral Word of God. Its proper and essential content is the Eternal Word of God which was made man in Jesus Christ (John 1:1, 14; I John 1:1ff; Revelation 19:3; Hebrews 1:1ff; John 5:35; 20:20; Luke 24:27; Acts 10:43; 2 Timothy 3:15ff). This content it has in common with the oral Word of God which precedes the written word as the oral preaching of the prophets and the apostles (2 Timothy 4:2). Although the Word of God is not identical with Scriptures, Holy Scripture is without limitation Word of God, and nothing can be proclaimed as Word of God which is not taught in Scripture.” - “Suggestions for Theses on Holy Scripture,” in Letters to Lutheran Pastors, Vol. III (1957-1969), edited by Matthew C. Harrison (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2015), 538. Also see Robert Preus: “He [Jesus] is the personal Word who is with God and alone reveals God to us (John 1:18). God, therefore, directs us to hear Him (Matthew 17:5). We hear Him when we hear His apostles, whose word is His Word (John 17:14). He has sent them into the world to continue His prophetic office (John 20:21). Their word is the continuation of His Word (John 17:8, 18; I Corinthians 1:10), their witnessing is the witnessing of the Spirit Himself (John 15:26, 27; 16:13; 14:26).” - “The Power of God’s Word,” in Doctrine is Life: Essays on Scripture, edited by Klemet Preus (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), 101. Again Preus: “The written and spoken Word draws its power from its content, Christ.” - “The Power of God’s Word,” 113.

[13] Armin Wenz, “Justification and Holy Scripture: Sola fide et sola Scriptura” Logia, (Epiphany 2005), 6. Further on, Wenz unpacks this statement noting, “This external Word given in the Old Testament must be understood and preached in light of Christ. Every approach to the Bible–both the Old and the New Testament-which emancipates itself from the Christological approach would be nothing less than a relapse into a humanist, rationalist, or works righteous approach. Scripture would then be no longer the record of the Gospel promise, but rather a book supplying the theory for man’s efforts to improve himself and the world” (6).