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Light for our path: Were Joseph and Mary engaged or married when Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy?

Were Joseph and Mary engaged or married when Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy?

James F. Pope

Your question illustrates the need to bridge the culture gap of marriage customs and laws that existed in biblical days. 

A marriage established by commitment 

In our society today, we are familiar with relationships that progress from friendship to dating to engagement to marriage. Because we are used to this sequence of events, we might think that people in biblical times followed the same pattern. That was not the case. 

“Betrothal,” as the term appears in some Bible translations, was not the engagement of our day and age. Betrothal in biblical days was the time when the bride and groom, or their representatives, signed papers to commit themselves to each other and to establish the beginning of their marriage. From that point on, the man and woman were legally married, but they did not have the right to live together as husband and wife or have sexual relations with one another. They lived separately for a time until the wedding celebration took place. Then, the man and woman lived together as husband and wife. Jesus’ parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) illustrates the interval of time between the beginning of a marriage and the wedding celebration. 

When Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant (Matthew 1:18,19), the couple was between the time when they had established their marriage and before any wedding celebration was going to take place. They were legally married. Only death or divorce (Deuteronomy 22:22-29) could break the bond they had established, and divorce was on Joseph’s mind. 

A marriage rooted in love 

Joseph is the forgotten man in the account of Jesus’ birth. In the Bible, Mary receives appropriate attention as the one whom God graciously chose to be the one to give birth to the Son of God (Luke 1:30-33). But what about Joseph?  

We first come across Joseph in the family tree of Jesus’ human ancestry found in Matthew 1:16. We learn that Joseph came from royal lineage, but we know little else about him. We are aware of what Joseph was thinking when he realized Mary was pregnant: “Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:19).  

Mary’s miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit put Joseph in a challenging situation. Without knowing about the Holy Spirit’s work in Mary, Joseph could only conclude that Mary had been unfaithful to him. If Joseph had wanted to press the issue, the results could have been disastrous for Mary and the unborn child in her womb, the Messiah (Deuteronomy 22:23,24). Love for God and love for Mary led Joseph to pursue a different course of action—a divorce that was intended to shelter Mary from public shame. 

God thwarted that plan by directing an angel to inform Joseph in a dream that Mary’s pregnancy was the result of the Holy Spirit’s work. We see Joseph’s love for God in his next waking moments: “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife” (Matthew 1:24). The last words of that verse demonstrate that Joseph and Mary were legally married at this time. 

Joseph was a man who displayed the kind of love that reflected the love of his foster son and Savior: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Joseph and Mary’s marriage was established by commitment and rooted in love. 


Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.


James Pope also answers questions online at wels.net/questions. Submit your questions there or to fic@wels.net.


 

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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 105, Number 12
Issue: December 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Light for our path: Changing the Lord’s Prayer

Where in the Bible do I find that we rise to the east at the resurrection? 

James F. Pope

Addressing your question provides an opportunity to look at cemetery layouts, worship spaces, and the Last Day. 

Rising to a direction 

There is no passage in the Bible that states definitively that the dead will rise to the east, but over the years Christians have used various Bible passages as a reason for burying the dead with an eastward orientation: facing the east. Matthew 24:27 is one of those passages. Jesus said about his appearance on the Last Day: “For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” The thrust of Jesus’ words is that his visible return on the Last Day will be evident to all at once—like a flash of lightning. Other Bible passages with an eastward orientation include Genesis 2:8; Isaiah 63:1; Ezekiel 43:1,2; and, Zechariah 14:4. 

A fascinating and unusual variation is that sometimes pastors were buried facing west. Why the difference? The thinking was that the resurrected pastors would be in a position, literally, to minister to people around them.  

Christians have used the Bible passages cited—and others—for guidance in serving the dead and the living. The thought that the Lord will return visibly from the east led to church floorplans that positioned individuals, standing or sitting, facing eastward when they worshiped. The rising sun that lit up the stained-glass windows before their eyes reminded worshipers of the returning Son.  

Rising to a division 

Rather than emphasizing which direction will be the starting point of the Lord’s return on the Last Day, the Bible points our attention to the division of humanity that will take place on that day. Jesus said, “A time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:28,29).  

At death, when body and soul separate, judgment takes place, and souls go immediately to heaven or hell (Hebrews 9:27). On the Last Day, God will raise the bodies of all people and reunite bodies and souls. There will be a public proclamation of the private judgment that took place at people’s deaths, as well as a judgment of those who are alive on the earth on the Last Day (Matthew 25:31-46). Those with saving faith, evidenced by “doing good,” will “rise to live.” Those without saving faith, shown by “doing evil,” will “rise to be condemned.” The dead will be raised to go, body and soul, in different directions: to heaven or hell. 

A few years ago, I stood in Kensal Green Cemetery in London, England, marveling at a mausoleum. While the crypt had an aged and weathered look about it, the confident claim atop one of the walls was still very much legible: “I shall arise.” That statement applies to everyone who dies. God will raise all the dead on the Last Day. There is no question about that. The only questions are what will happen after that and where will people—body and soul—spend eternity. As Christians, what a blessing to know and believe God’s promise that we “will rise to live.” 


Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.


James Pope also answers questions online at wels.net/questions. Submit your questions there or to fic@wels.net.


 

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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 105, Number 11
Issue: November 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Light for our path: Changing the Lord’s Prayer

Recently my church changed the words of the Lord’s Prayer from trespass to sin. Why was this change made? I believe that only God or a called servant can forgive sin.  

James F. Pope

Christians have long prayed the Lord’s Prayer. Changes to the wording can lead us to think more about the content of what we are praying. Your question does just that. 

Committing sins and trespasses 

On the two occasions when the Bible records the Lord speaking the prayer that is named after him, Jesus used different words to describe the violation of God’s holy will. That variety is not surprising, as the Bible employs different terms as well, such as “sin,” “debt,” “transgression,” and “trespass.”  

In the Lord’s Prayer we find in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus used the word debt (Matthew 6:12). In the Lord’s Prayer we find in Luke’s gospel, Jesus used the words sin and debt (see the footnote for Luke 11:4). There is a Greek word for trespass, but that word does not occur in either account. 

So, how did we come to speak, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”? We can thank the Anglican Church for that. For hundreds of years, the version of the Lord’s Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer focused attention on forgiving “trespasses.” When the time came for German Lutherans in our country to begin utilizing English liturgical materials, they adopted the version of the Lord’s Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. Tradition has led many Lutherans in the United States to continue using that version. 

Whether we use sin or trespass, we are acknowledging that we have acted contrary to God’s holy will and seek his forgiveness. If your congregation recently began using the “contemporary Lord’s Prayer,” which substitutes sins for trespasses, it is not doing anything wrong.  

Forgiving sins and trespasses 

When you and I pray the Lord’s Prayer, we state that we are on the receiving end and the giving end of the forgiveness of sins. We ask God to forgive our sins or trespasses as we forgive those who sin or trespass against us. Declaring the message of forgiveness is not limited to pastors. In the Lord’s Prayer, we speak of “forgiving those who sin against us.” Elsewhere in the Bible, that is what God tells us to do: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13). Forgiveness of sins is our precious gift from God. Forgiving the sins of others is our responsibility from God. 

In the verses after Matthew’s account of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus emphasized the importance of forgiving others: “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14,15). Forgiving other people when they sin against us is not optional; it is necessary. 

For years, Christians have prayed the Lord’s Prayer. From church sanctuaries to kitchens, from hospital rooms to war zones, from deathbeds to wedding services, Christians have rendered the original Greek language of the Lord’s Prayer into their own language. Our Father hears and answers them all. 


Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.


James Pope also answers questions online at wels.net/questions. Submit your questions there or to fic@wels.net.


 

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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 105, Number 10
Issue: October 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Light for our path: Suffering for our ancestors’ sins?

Why do some Christian families tend to suffer so much more than others? In a short time, my best friend has lost several family members to cancer and accidents. Does God make us suffer for our ancestors’ sins? 

James F. Pope

Since Adam and Eve’s fall into sin, suffering has been a common human experience and, as you indicate, more familiar to some than to others. Scripture provides insight into the subject of suffering. 

God whose ways can be mysterious 

There is no question that God’s ways can be mysterious to us (Isaiah 55:9; Romans 11:33,34). While God reveals all-important information about himself in the Bible, he does not explain his every move in our lives. Consequently, his action or inaction can puzzle us. 

Consider Job, for example. In the course of one disastrous day, all his children were killed and his possessions stolen by raiders. Later, sores covered his body. To the casual observer, guided only by human reasoning and no biblical knowledge, Job must have done something wrong.  

Yet, nothing could be further from the truth—biblical truth. God described Job to Satan in a conversation one day: “There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8). The tragedies Job encountered were not divine punishments for his sins. They took place only because a wise and loving God allowed them. Christians today experience suffering for similar reasons. Guided by wisdom and love, God can allow some Christian families to experience more suffering than other families. When he does that, such troubles are not punishments for sin—theirs or their ancestors’. 

A God who treats people individually 

The Bible verse you might have in mind with your question is Exodus 20:5. At Mount Sinai God described himself: “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” If we stop right there in that verse, we can greatly misunderstand God and his ways. However, the verse ends: “. . . to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” That ending helps us come to an accurate understanding of suffering and sin. 

Certainly, those who reject God will face eternal suffering and punishment for their sins (Mark 16:16). What God can do, if he so desires, is to mete out punishment already in the earthly lives of unbelievers. And, if there are successive generations of unbelief in a family, God can intensify those sufferings from one generation to the next, if he so desires. 

How different it is with Christians. Followers of Jesus will not experience punishment for sin in this life or the next (Romans 8:1). That is because Jesus Christ was punished for all the sins of the world and Christians are beneficiaries of that saving work through Spirit-worked faith in him. The sins or unbelief of ancestors will not bring about divine judgments of punishment in the lives of Christians.  

God so loved the world, yes. The human race is the object of God’s forgiving love in Christ. God sends suffering into the lives of believers too, but not as punishment. He disciplines us as the writer to the Hebrews says (Hebrews 12). We cannot always know why God sends suffering to believers, but we should remember that his purpose for believers is always guided by love.  


Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.


James Pope also answers questions online at wels.net/questions. Submit your questions there or to fic@wels.net.


 

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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 105, Number 09
Issue: September 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Light for our path: Second Baptism?

My godson was baptized 20 years ago in an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America church. He has been very involved in his college campus ministry and has decided to be baptized again. What reason would this campus ministry be giving him to be baptized again, and is there spiritual damage they are causing by doing this? He felt that his infant baptism was his parents choosing a faith for him as a child, and this baptism is his choosing the faith he would have. 

James F. Pope

Your godson’s situation illustrates the need to clarify several important points about Baptism.  

Infant baptism 

The Bible provides three compelling reasons for baptizing infants:  

(1) Children are part of “all nations” (Matthew 28:19), the object of the church’s “baptizing” and “teaching.” “Nations” consist of people of all ages, including infants. Consider that it was the practice of the apostles to baptize households.   

(2) Because children are sinful from birth (Psalm 51:5; John 3:5,6), they need the forgiveness of sins. Peter encouraged, “Be baptized . . . for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). The water and Word of God bestows forgiveness and remains valid for children as well as adults.  

(3) We baptize children and infants because Scripture tells us they can believe (Matthew 18:6; Luke 18:15-17; 2 Timothy 3:15). They can believe because God is the one who creates faith in people through the gospel (Hebrews 12:2; Romans 10:17).  

In carrying out infant baptism, your godson’s parents did the right thing. 

Baptism into the holy Christian church 

A second important point about Baptism is the meaning and significance of your godson’s infant baptism. While his baptism took place in a Lutheran church, the result of that action went far beyond denominational lines. Baptism works forgiveness of sins and gives eternal salvation just as God promises. Therefore, it brings people into the holy Christian church. 

This is why there is no need for a rebaptism if a person changes church membership and affiliates with another Christian church: A valid Baptism establishes membership in the church that supersedes membership in any earthly church. The blessing of forgiveness in Baptism stands on God’s promise. 

Baptism as act of God 

Finally, your godson’s desire to be re-baptized to “choose his own faith” reflects another misunderstanding of Baptism. Some churches turn Baptism into a human work. It becomes an act associated with a person’s decision to follow Christ. It then amounts to a person’s confession of faith. 

That is not what the Bible teaches about Baptism. Scripture explains that Baptism is an act of God. In Baptism, people do not do anything for God; God does something for them. The Holy Spirit works through Baptism to change hearts by connecting them to Jesus Christ in saving faith. Scripture teaches that, in Baptism, people are on the receiving end of God’s powerful work and promise.  

So, is there harm in being baptized again? The spiritual harm of another baptism—as in the circumstances you described—is that the person’s actions can amount to a rejection of what the Bible teaches about the power of God in baptism and a denial of God as the creator of saving faith. You will know whether or not those are the thoughts of your godson only by asking him.  

As one of his sponsors, do what you can to remind your godson of what God has already done for him in his infant baptism and continue to remember him in your prayers.


Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.


James Pope also answers questions online at wels.net/questions. Submit your questions there or to fic@wels.net.


 

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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 105, Number 08
Issue: August 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Light for our path: Paying taxes

In Matthew 22:17-21, Jesus instructs us to pay the taxes due the government. When we are informed that our government is using tax dollars for the support of wicked and sinful enterprises such as Planned Parenthood (abortion), how are we to look at paying taxes?

James F. Pope

Christians are rightly troubled when they recognize that roughly $500 million from the federal budget goes to Planned Parenthood each year. The organization is the leading provider of abortions in our country. The answers to your question will lead us to see our duty, limitations, and privileges when it comes to paying taxes.

Our duty

Paying taxes is not optional for Christians. In the section of Scripture you cited, a coalition of Jesus’ enemies tried trapping him with a question about the propriety of paying taxes to Caesar. Many people, even some outside Christianity, are familiar with Jesus’ answer: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21).

Years later, through the apostle Paul, God expanded on that instruction: “This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor” (Romans 13:6,7). Part of our Fourth Commandment responsibilities is that we support God’s representatives in government through the paying of taxes.

Our limitations

Some representatives of God in government (and the church and the home) represent him well, while others do not. The Caesar whose likeness was on the coin presented to Jesus in Matthew chapter 22 was one of those authorities who failed miserably in representing God faithfully. That was also the case with the Caesar who was in power when the apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Christians in Rome. But neither our Lord nor his apostle qualified the directive to pay taxes to the Roman government, even though some of their taxes funded idolatrous worship practices involving state-paid priests. Neither our Lord nor his apostle burdened the consciences of Christian taxpayers by leading them to conclude that they were personally supportive of ungodly activities because their taxes funded those activities. Christians who paid taxes to Caesar could not control how Caesar used their taxes even if there were definitely limitations to how Christians wanted their tax payments used.

Christians in America face similar limitations. Whether it is funding abortion providers, sponsoring questionable research projects, or wasting money on overpriced expenditures, Christians recognize their role and the government’s role: Christians provide the revenue, and the government distributes that revenue through budgetary disbursements and appropriations.

But does that mean that Christians simply pay taxes and have no recourse but to grumble about the ways in which government uses their tax dollars? Not at all. Christians can contact their governmental representatives to express their displeasure when tax revenues fund immoral activities. Christian citizens can vote for candidates who will use tax revenues wisely.

Our privilege

Christians can do even more.

Christians can exercise the privilege they have of speaking to the King of kings in prayer. We can do what God’s apostle instructs: “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2:1,2). It is good that God’s people remember their governmental leaders—at all levels—in prayer.

So, pray that God leads governmental officials to act wisely and to use resources in ways that benefit human life.


Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.


James Pope also answers questions online at wels.net/questions. Submit your questions there or to fic@wels.net.


 

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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 105, Number 07
Issue: July 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Light for our path: Please explain Sheol

Can you please explain Sheol? This came up in a recent Bible study, and I knew nothing about it. How does this differ from our thoughts that a believer dies and goes to heaven?

James F. Pope 

Sheol is the transliteration of a Hebrew word into English. It is a word that can have different meanings based on context. While most Bible translations translate the Hebrew word, some translations simply render the Hebrew as Sheol. So, let’s take a look at a few Bible passages and see how context determines the shading of that word. I’ll include different translations that help explain the meaning.

Sheol—All people

“For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?” (Psalm 6:5 English Standard Version). The book of Psalms features Hebrew poetry, and the hallmark of that genre is parallelism. In some cases, the first half of a verse is restated in similar terms in the second half of a verse. In Psalm 6:5, death and Sheol are synonyms. In Scripture, Sheol often refers to the state or condition of being dead; a person is no longer physically alive on the earth. This meaning of Sheol does not take into account the eternal judgment occurring at death, which places a person’s soul in heaven or hell. Sheol can simply refer to humanity’s common experience of dying: “Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave?” (Psalm 6:5 NIV 2011)

Sheol—Believer

“I will go down to Sheol to my son, mourning” (Genesis 37:35 Christian Standard Bible). With but two exceptions (Enoch and Elijah), all human beings have experienced death. In Genesis chapter 37 we learn that some of Jacob’s sons had convinced him that his favorite son, Joseph, was dead. Heartbroken, Jacob lamented that his grief would be lifelong—lasting until the time when he, like his son, died. Sheol can also refer to the believer’s state or condition of being physically dead and not alive on the earth. “I will continue to mourn until I join my son in the grave” (Genesis 37:35 NIV 2011).

Sheol—Hell

“For a fire is kindled in My anger, and burns to the lowest part of Sheol” (Deuteronomy 32:22 New American Standard Bible). In Deuteronomy chapter 32 Moses spoke to the people of Israel for one of the last times in his life. In his message, he spoke of God’s fiery wrath for those who reject him. It is clear that Sheol can refer to hell, the place of eternal punishment. “For a fire is kindled in My anger, and shall burn to the lowest hell” (Deuteronomy 32:22 New King James Version).

It is context that gives Sheol its various shadings. For the Christian, Sheol can mean only the grave or the condition of being physically dead. Unless the Lord returns visibly to this world during our lifetime, you and I will experience physical death, but that is just the beginning of a never-ending life with God in his presence.

Heaven

Old Testament writers who used the word Sheol also spoke of people enjoying God’s eternal blessings through faith in the promised Messiah. The writers described heaven in different ways: being at God’s right hand (Psalm 16:11), dwelling in the house of the Lord (Psalm 23:6), being with God in glory (Psalm 73:24), having joy (Isaiah 26:19), and enjoying everlasting life (Daniel 12:1-3). Rest assured: When Christians die, their souls go to heaven.


Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.


James Pope also answers questions online at wels.net/questions. Submit your questions there or to fic@wels.net.


 

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Do you have a manuscript, idea, or story from your own life you’d like to share for use in Forward in Christ or on wels.net? Use our online form to share it to our editorial office for consideration.

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Get inspirational stories, spiritual help, and synod news from  Forward in Christ every month. Print and digital subscriptions are available from Northwestern Publishing House.

 

Author: James F. Pope
Volume 105, Number 06
Issue: June 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Light for our path: Changing translation of the Lord’s Prayer

There have been news stories of Pope Francis wanting his church to change the translation of Lead us not into temptation in the Lord’s Prayer to something like “Do not let us fall into temptation.” What does our church body think about this? 

James F. Pope 

There is no need to change the translation of that petition in the Lord’s Prayer. There is a need to understand better what Jesus meant with those words. Your question provides an opportunity for that. 

An accurate translation 

There is no mistranslation involved in the Sixth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer. “Lead us not into temptation” (Matthew 6:13) is an accurate translation of the Greek. The verb can mean “lead,” “bring in,” or “carry in.” As the Address of the prayer indicates, we make that petition of our Father in heaven. The traditional wording of the Lord’s Prayer—asking God not to lead us into temptation—is accurate. 

Most Bible translations render the Greek in similar ways. There are a few exceptions, including: “And do not cause us to be tempted” (Expanded Bible), and, “Keep us from being tempted” (Contemporary English Version). Those translations drift away from a strict literal translation. 

A consistent meaning 

As far as explaining the petition, I certainly cannot improve on Martin Luther’s explanation in his Small Catechism: “God surely tempts no one to sin, but we pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us, so that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us or lead us into false belief, despair, and other great and shameful sins; and though we are tempted by them, we pray that we may overcome and win the victory.” 

Luther offered similar thoughts in his Large Catechism: “This, then is leading us not into temptation, to wit, when he gives us power and strength to resist, the temptation, however, not being taken away or removed. For while we live in the flesh and have the devil about us, no one can escape temptation and allurements; and it cannot be otherwise than that we must endure trials, yea, be engulfed in them; but we pray for this, that we may not fall and be drowned in them.” 

Luther’s thoughts point to James 1:13-15: “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” 

Scripture clearly teaches that God does not tempt anyone to sin. Scripture plainly identifies Satan as “the tempter” (Matthew 4:3). When we use the prayer Jesus taught us, we do what he first told his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation” (Mark 14:38).  

A meaningful petition 

Because you and I wage daily spiritual warfare against evil, we have reason to speak the words of the Sixth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer on a regular basis—not in a mechanical way but in a meaningful way. We do that when we recognize our own frailty and seek God’s strength to withstand the temptations that come our way. We do that when we recognize who is the tempter and who is our Friend.  

The wording of the Sixth Petition is like other parts of Scripture in that we need to let “Scripture interpret Scripture” to know what it means and does not mean


Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.


James Pope also answers questions online at wels.net/questions. Submit your questions there or to fic@wels.net.


 

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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 105, Number 05
Issue: May 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Light for our path: Christian baker sued for not providing a wedding cake for a gay wedding

Recently there was a news story about a Christian baker who was sued because he would not provide a wedding cake for a gay wedding. Didn’t he miss out on an opportunity to show Christian love and speak truth while still providing a service? Aren’t we supposed to love our neighbor? 

James F. Pope

The United States Supreme Court is likely to rule on this case soon. Even without knowing how the outcome of the court’s decision might affect Christians, Scripture can provide guidance for your questions. 

Business transactions 

Christians do want to “[speak] the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) on all occasions. When it comes to marriage, Christians lovingly share the biblical truth that God designed marriage to be the union of one man and one woman (Genesis 2:22-24; Matthew 19:5,6; Romans 7:2). 

What happens to that confession of truth when Christians engage in business transactions with people who define marriage differently? When Christians operate businesses, they interact with and provide services for many different people.  

Christians will want to understand that their transactions with non-Christian churches or individuals are not endorsements of their doctrines or practices. When Christians sell their products to individuals who self-identify with unscriptural practices or ways of living, they are not necessarily approving or sanctioning the actions of their customers. If that were the case, then Christians would need potential customers to fill out an application form so they would not be guilty of doing business with those whose lifestyles or opinions were not Christian.  

But there may come a time when Christians will refuse to be a partner in what is contrary to the will of God or will bring harm to others. A Christian will consider the role of conscience and will want to refrain from sinning against his or her conscience (Romans 14:23). Deciding what to do is not always easy. Christians will wish to choose opportunities to act as disciples of Jesus and to speak the truth in love, but one size does not fit all situations.  

None of my business 

When it comes to your questions, 1 Corinthians 5:12,13 is helpful in providing direction for Christians’ interactions with unbelievers: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside.” Those words come in the context of the apostle Paul’s directing the Christians in Corinth to take action with a church member who was impenitent over an incestuous relationship. The apostle instructed the Corinthians to implement what Jesus said in Matthew chapter 18: “If your brother or sister sins . . .” (vv. 15-18). Church discipline involves those within the church. We have no specific instructions from God on addressing personal sins in the lives of those outside the church. 

Certainly, those words from 1 Corinthians chapter 5 do not mean that we close our eyes and ears to what is going on in the world. What those words mean is that the church does not have the responsibility or divine mandate to discipline people who are not part of the church. 

So, where does this leave us? Yes, we want to love our neighbor, but because there is no manual that spells out in detail how best to live a life of neighborly love, Christians will wrestle with questions like the one you asked. They will seek to arrive at decisions that agree with biblical principles and that do not violate consciences. They will also seek to refrain from judging the motives of fellow Christians who arrive at different decisions. 


Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.


James Pope also answers questions online at wels.net/questions. Submit your questions there or to fic@wels.net.


 

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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 105, Number 04
Issue: April 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Light for our path: Tattoos?

Years ago, Christians considered tattoos to be wrong. Nowadays, it is common to see Christians, even students preparing for the public ministry, with tattoos. Did the Bible change? Did people change? 

James F. Pope

The answers to your questions send us to both the Old and New Testaments. Ultimately, we arrive at a conclusion that puts tattoos in the area of Christian freedom. 

Idolatrous images 

When Christians in the past considered tattoos to be wrong and appealed to Scripture, they pointed to Leviticus 19:28: “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.” The words are very straightforward, but we need to consider them in context. The surrounding verses contain God’s instructions to the people of Israel as they traveled to the promised land of Canaan.  

Heathenism was synonymous with Canaan, and God did not want the Israelites to exchange his truth for the lies of idols. God’s wanted his followers to keep their identity as his people and reject false ideas that could infiltrate the heart. That called for avoiding outward identification with those false religions. Because Canaanite practices included tattoos, God instructed his people to avoid them. As that prohibition is limited to Leviticus, God’s directive involved only the Israelites and targeted the First Commandment, not the Fifth Commandment, which concerns our physical well-being.    

We are to take good care of our bodies. Consider this question and instruction: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies” (1 Corinthians 6:19,20). Can Christians honor God with their bodies by injecting ink into them? This is where Christians may disagree as citizens of God’s kingdom. 

Considerate choices 

Christian freedom is a significant theme in the apostle Paul’s epistles. In Galatians, Paul directs Christians to be careful that others do not rob them of their freedom in Christ (Galatians 5:1). In 1 Corinthians, Paul instructs Christians to think of others when they exercise their freedom in Christ (1 Corinthians 8:9). Going beyond that, Paul revealed how he was willing to give up his Christian freedom if that were in the best interests of others (1 Corinthians 8:13). 

How might these thoughts apply to tattoos and Christians—especially the young people you mentioned in your question? Those serving in the public ministry and those preparing for such service definitely want to think of others. They do not wish to be a distraction in any way to the message of God’s Word. That would suggest they evaluate the long-term meaning and visibility of potential tattoos. No doubt, a Christian symbol on a wrist can spark a spiritual conversation in a way similar to how a dubious marking on a neck might prevent a conversation from taking place.   

So, could I ever give an unqualified approval of a body marking? Absolutely! The Lord used the prophet Isaiah to relay this message to us: “See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (Isaiah 49:16). Imagine your name inscribed on God’s hands. That imagery illustrates how you and I are always in God’s thoughts and on his mind. 

If you ever question that, ponder what this season of Lent is all about.     


Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.


James Pope also answers questions online at wels.net/questions. Submit your questions there or to fic@wels.net.


 

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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 105, Number 03
Issue: March 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Light for our path: Where was he?

After the news of the church shooting in Texas last November, a friend askedA shooting in church? 27 killed? Women and children? It’s God’s house. Where was he? How do you answer a question like this? I didn’t know what to say. 

James F. Pope

When a tragic event like that takes place, people can easily question God’s power and love. Others do more than question God; they blame him. Their words can make it seem like God is even more at fault than the perpetrator. You can respond to your friend’s questions by pointing to God’s power, wisdom, and love. 

Unlimited power 

Could God have prevented that church shooting from taking place? Certainly. God can do anything. When Sarah laughed at the Lord’s promise that she would become a mother in her old age, the Lord said, “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” (Genesis 18:14). Years later, the prophet Jeremiah was on the receiving end of a similar question. “Then the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah: ‘I am the LORD, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?’ ” (Jeremiah 32:26,27). The biblical account of creation reveals God’s unlimited power. With powerful words, God called all things into existence. By his powerful word, the Lord sustains all things (Hebrews 1:3). 

God could have prevented that shooting from taking place. Going back in time, God could have prevented the fall of Adam and Eve—the event to which all sins find their origin. If we back up to eternity, God could have prevented the fall of Satan and the other evil angels. God did not prevent those twin falls from taking place. God does not explain why he allowed those events to take place—nor does he have to. 

Unsearchable wisdom 

Could God have prevented that massacre from taking place? Certainly. But when God allows tragedies and disasters to occur, we need to bow in awe of God’s wisdom. God knows what he is doing, and in the Bible God reminds us how his wisdom far surpasses ours. He assures us: “ ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’ ” (Isaiah 55:8,9).  

The apostle Paul leads us in a doxology of God’s wisdom in the book of Romans: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?’ ” (Romans 11:33,34). You and I cannot pretend to know or understand completely God’s ways. What we are happy to know in faith is the love of God.  

Unparalleled love 

Years ago, I read about a man whose son died fighting in the Vietnam War. This man was angry at God and asked a pastor, “Where was God when my son died?” Among other responses, the pastor said, “The same place he was when his own Son died.” In other words, the death of a loved one does not mean that God has withdrawn his love. The sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, displays a love that is unparalleled in human history (1 John 4:9,10).  

While these thoughts may not answer every question of your friend, perhaps they can address some. 


Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.


James Pope also answers questions online at wels.net/questions. Submit your questions there or to fic@wels.net.


 

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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 105, Number 02
Issue: February 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Light for our path: Satan rendered powerless?

Since Jesus has crushed Satan’s head (Genesis 3:15), doesn’t that mean Satan has been rendered powerless?

James F. Pope

Your question leads us back to the Garden of Eden where God prophesied the defeat of Satan. The answer to your question takes us on a journey to Holy Week and the Last Day.

Crushed by the risen Christ

When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, the Creator did not remain silent. He disclosed sin’s consequences, but then he revealed himself as their Savior-God. What is fascinating is that God promised a Savior to Adam and Eve while addressing Satan. God uttered the words of Genesis 3:15 to Satan, but he delivered them especially for the benefit of Adam and Eve and all their descendants.

God announced that from that moment on there would be animosity between his followers and those who are on the side of Satan. God then declared that one of Eve’s offspring, the promised Messiah, would crush Satan’s head. Keep in mind that Satan is a spirit being, a fallen angel, having no body of flesh and bones. Because Satan does not have a physical head capable of being crushed, God’s promise pointed to a crushing blow to the power of Satan, symbolized by his head. Jesus delivered such a blow when he rose triumphantly from the dead and then descended into hell to demonstrate to Satan who had won the battle between them (1 Peter 3:18-20).

Does this mean that Satan has been rendered powerless? No, but the day is coming when that will be the case.

Banished by the powerful judge

What we can say from Scripture is that Satan is presently a defeated enemy of God.

While he cannot do whatever he wants (Revelation 20:3), he retains the ability to tempt people. His goal is to prevent people from coming to saving faith in Jesus and to rob Christians of their faith. Satan goes about his work with a sense of urgency because “he knows that his time is short” (Revelation 12:12). Only God knows when the Last Day will take place, but Satan is keenly aware that the time is approaching when he will lose all influence. So, until that time, he is on a mission of spiritual destruction.

On the Last Day, all his activity will cease. Jesus Christ, the King of kings and judge of all people (Matthew 25:31-46), will banish Satan and his minions to hell forever (Revelation 20:10). Never again will Satan be able to bother Christians.

As you and I await that glorious day, we recognize that Satan remains a dangerous enemy of ours. Scripture does not portray Satan as a harmless kitten but as a roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8). On our own, we are no match for Satan (Ephesians 6:12), but with God on our side, Satan is outmatched.

While the historic Reformation anniversary has come and gone, the truths that the Reformation restored and emphasized remain. “Scripture alone” is the source and foundation of our faith, and Scripture is our powerful weapon against Satan. “This world’s prince may still Scowl fierce as he will, He can harm us none. He’s judged; the deed is done! One little word can fell him” (Christian Worship 200:3). While we wait for Satan to be rendered completely powerless on the Last Day, we daily use God’s Word to send him reeling in defeat.


Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.


James Pope also answers questions online at wels.net/questions. Submit your questions there or to fic@wels.net.


 

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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 105, Number 01
Issue: January 2018

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Light for our path: Lying about Santa and other mythical figures

“Why do Christian parents lie to their children about Santa Claus and other mythical figures?” 

James F. Pope

fear your question is going to drive people into two camps: some who agree with you and others who do not appreciate your characterization of them. aim to address both groups.  

Fact behind fiction 

Make-believe characters and fictional personages are commonplace in children’s literature. “Once upon a time” often leads to imaginary people like Jack of beanstalk fame, Cinderella, and Little Red Riding Hood. The Christmas season has would-be characters like the Grinch; Frosty the Snowman; Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer; and, of course, Santa Claus. 

While the chubby man in the red suit is fictional, there is some factual basis for “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.” Some three hundred years after Jesus’ birth, a baby by the name of Nicholas was born in present-day Turkey. Nicholas grew to become a monk and then a bishop in the Eastern Church. Stories developed about the red-robed bishop who protected children and gave gifts to the poorest of them. After he died on Dec. 6, A.D. 343, people began honoring Nicholas on the anniversary of his death with gift giving.  

It appears we can credit Dutch immigrants to the United States for bringing traditions of Sint Nikolaas or Sinterklaas with them. Over time in our country, Sinterklaas morphed into Santa Claus, and the day associated with him changed from Dec. 6 to Dec. 24/25.  

So, while the fellow from the North Pole is make-believe, the man from Turkey is real. Children need to learn the difference. So do Christian parents. 

The gift above all gifts 

Where does this leave us with your question? Ideally, Christian parents are teaching their children: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17). Whether it is Christmas, a birthday, or any day gifts are given, Christian parents want to teach their children that God is behind every “good and perfect gift.” Ideally, at Christmas, Christian parents are teaching their children to give thanks to God for his “indescribable gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15)—his gift of a Savior in Bethlehem. 

I think you would agree with me that, with or without Santa Claus in the picture, Christian parents can easily distract their children from the real meaning of Christmas. They can lead their children to think that Christmas is all about presents under a tree instead of God’s gift in a manger. 

Christian parents who teach their children biblical truths and engage in Christmas cultural practices can open themselves up for criticism. I, for one, do not want to judge their motives or characterize them as liars. I do not know how they handle other make-believe characters and fictional personages that fill children’s literature. I do not know what kind of playful interactions they have with their children.   

A suggestion that might retain a cultural practice and remove distractions from the Christmas celebration is to move the traditions associated with St. Nicholas back to his day on the calendar: Dec. 6. If we separated our gift giving from Christmas, there could be less interference with the celebration of God’s “indescribable gift” of grace. 

But that’s unlikely. Instead Christian parents will need to keep pointing their children to the Gift above all gifts in December and throughout the year. 


Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.


James Pope also answers questions online at wels.net/questions. Submit your questions there or to fic@wels.net.


 

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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 104, Number 12
Issue: December 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Light for our path: Levels in heaven

Could you explain the different levels in heaven? I was told that people who do the greatest works on earth will get the upper levels in heaven. I have a hard time with this because it sounds like work righteousness. 

James F. Pope

Your question provides the opportunity to marvel at the gracious love of God Christians enjoy in equal measure and in unique ways. 

Salvation: equally enjoyed 

You are correct in rejecting work righteousness as a way to heaven. If we were to attempt to save ourselves, we would have to be perfect, keeping every part of God’s law every second of our lives. We cannot do that. In addition, our attempts at personal holiness come to a crashing stop when we realize that we begin life with a sinful nature. We cannot be perfect on our own to enjoy salvation. Jesus was perfect for us. His holy life and substitutionary death are the reasons for our salvation. Our works do not contribute in any way to our salvation (Titus 3:5,6). The salvation we enjoy is God’s doing. 

More than that, the salvation you and I enjoy is what all Christians possess. The book of Revelation illustrates that well. In one vision, the apostle John describes Christians who had been killed for their faith being given “a white robe” (6:11). The garment represents the robe of righteousness Jesus won and which people “wear” through faith in him. Each of those martyrs received a white robe. Some did not receive half a robe; others, two robes. All enjoyed salvation equally. Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) also teaches that God’s children equally enjoy his salvation. 

While all Christians enjoy the same gift of salvation, Scripture speaks of God customizing his gracious blessings. That brings us to the main part of your question. 

Degrees of glory: individually blessed 

Rather than speaking of levels of heaven (as the Mormons do), we understand Bible passages like Daniel 12:3; Matthew 25:23,28,29; Luke 19:17,19; 1 Corinthians 3:12-15; 2 Corinthians 9:6; and Revelation 14:13 to address the subject of “degrees of glory.” That expression describes the individual blessings God will graciously bestow on his followers in connection with their faithful earthly lives. We will have to wait to see what that specifically means. 

What it means now is that we do not serve the Lord with the idea of getting something from him in the future. That is the mercenary attitude of which you spoke in your question. Such an attitude can easily plague Christians. 

I once had a number of conversations with a person who was interested in joining the church I served. The person’s profession of faith and our church’s statement of belief matched until she brought up “once saved, always saved.” In spite of citing Bible passages that speak of people falling from faith (for example, Matthew 13:20,21; 1 Timothy 1:19), she regarded apostasy as an impossibility. Hypothetically conceding to her position, I asked what reason she had to attend worship services in church. Her answer made everything clear: “To get more jewels in my crown.” 

Now I got it. Her stated motive for doing God’s will was to get something in return. That is an attitude we need to reject. Any way that God chooses to bless our Spirit-driven lives of love (Philippians 2:13) is grace. Pure grace.   


Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.


James Pope also answers questions online at wels.net/questions. Submit your questions there or to fic@wels.net.


 

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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 104, Number 11
Issue: November 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Light for our path: Martin Luther vs. books

Why was Martin Luther against so many of the books that are in the Roman Catholic Bible and some that remain in ours also? Also, why did the Protestant Bible throw away so many books, ones it had before the Reformation? 

James F. Pope

Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) is one of the great Reformation emphases. The term underscores the truth that Scripture alone is the source and foundation of our faith. Since that is the case, it is important to understand what constitutes “Scripture.” Your questions help sharpen that understanding by addressing some misconceptions. 

Opinions of Martin Luther 

Like other theologians before and after him, Martin Luther had opinions of certain biblical books. His views on the book of James, for example, are well-known. To Luther, the book of James seemed to support the idea that people contributed to their salvation by their good works. However, a careful look at the context of the book of James reveals that the author is reminding Christians that good works flow from saving faith. Still, Luther had concerns about the book of James, as well as the books of Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation. 

So how do we regard these concerns and thoughts of Luther? We recognize them as his opinions. While we thank God for giving Luther many insights into God’s Word, Luther is not the foundation of our faith. Jesus Christ is. Luther’s writings are not the foundation of our faith. The Bible is. Sola Scriptura. We can disagree with Luther when it comes to something like his views on the book of James. There is no disagreeing, however, with Jesus Christ, and he is at the forefront of the answer to your second question. 

A pronouncement by Jesus Christ 

Your second question refers to the Apocrypha—the seven additional books that are in Roman Catholic Bibles. There is a faulty starting point with the question though, thinking that all followers of God have always recognized the apocryphal books as being divinely inspired. That is not the case. The apocryphal books were never included in the Hebrew Bibles of God’s Old Testament people. The Jews listed the Old Testament books in three categories: the law, the prophets, and the writings. The apocryphal books were not included in any of those categories. 

Jesus himself testified to that during his earthly ministry. When the risen Lord appeared to his frightened disciples on Easter Sunday evening, he explained that his suffering, death, and resurrection were all fulfillments of Old Testament prophecy. He told them: “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44). (The psalms are prominent among the “writings.”) Jesus pronounced the Hebrew Bible—without the Apocrypha—to be the authoritative Word of God.  

So, it is really not a case of the Protestant Bible throwing away books it had before the Reformation. When it comes to the Apocrypha, it is a matter of the Roman Catholic Church adding those books to its version of the Bible. And, incidentally, Rome officially did that in 1546, three years after Luther’s death. 

Finally, you might be interested to know that Martin Luther included the Apocrypha in the German Bible he produced. His preface said the Apocrypha was not inspired but was useful for reading. That was another way of indicating “Scripture alone.”  


Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.


James Pope also answers questions online at wels.net/questions. Submit your questions there or to fic@wels.net.


 

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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 104, Number 10
Issue: October 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Light for our path: “Vain repetitions”

When the Bible talks about “vain repetitions,” what does that mean? Several times I have heard people say that the Lutheran liturgy is nothing but vain repetition.

James F. Pope

Your question provides opportunity to distinguish between meaningless prayers and meaningful liturgies. There is a great difference.

MEANINGLESS PRAYERS

“Vain repetitions” is part of the King James Version’s rendering of Matthew 6:7: “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.” Another Bible translation puts it this way: “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words” (NIV).

That instruction comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Prior to speaking the words that we know as the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus addressed two pitfalls for prayer. One is that people might try to impress others with a pretentious, ostentatious prayer life. Jesus explains that prayer is not for show but a sincere conversation with God. “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen” (Matthew 6:6). The other potential problem is that people might think they can impress God with their non-stop conversations with him. That is the reason Jesus instructed his followers not to “keep on babbling like pagans.”

The verb in Matthew 6:7 in Greek has the idea of “repeating the same thing over and over, to babble, to speak without thinking.” We see that kind of mindless praying in the example of the prophets of Baal (1 Kings chapter 18), who cried out to their god incessantly from morning until evening.

Is this the stuff of Lutheran liturgies? Not at all.

MEANINGFUL LITURGIES

There is no question that there is some repetition, from week to week, in historic Lutheran liturgies. Each service contains some common items like a confession of sins and absolution, prayers, hymns, Scripture readings, sermon, and a dialogue between the worship leader and the worshipers. But there are numerous places where the worship service offers variety and freshness. Common elements in historic liturgies provide continuity from week and week, and they help connect us to Christians from past centuries who treasured God’s promises and worshiped him.

While common elements in worship services include repetition of some kind, that commonality does not equate to “vain repetitions.” I think you would agree with me that “speaking without thinking” can take place in any worship service, even those that have no liturgy from week to week. The real concern is not the form of worship, but the heart of the worshiper. Consider how God rebuked his Old Testament people for their empty worship life, even when they were doing outwardly what he had commanded (Isaiah 1:10-15). With their sacrifices and celebrations of divinely-appointed festivals, the people’s outward actions lined up with God’s Word, but their heads and hearts were not involved; they were merely going through the motions of worship.

Similarly, Lutheran worshipers can find their bodies engaged in the actions of worship with little involvement of their heads or hearts. The problem, again, is not the order of service. The problem is the worshiper. Whether the format for public worship is familiar or foreign to us, worship requires our ongoing effort and concentration.

So let’s continue to give God our best in worship—again and again and again.


Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.


James Pope also answers questions online at wels.net/questions. Submit your questions there or to fic@wels.net.


 

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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 104, Number 9
Issue: September 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Light for our path: Should a Christian support the death penalty?

Should a Christian support the death penalty?

James F. Pope

Public opinion polls indicate that, although the numbers are declining, the majority of Americans still support the death penalty. “What about Christians?” you ask. “What are they to think of the government taking the life of a human being?” God’s Word addresses that subject and sheds light on the question.

Protection of life

The protection of human life in the Fifth Commandment (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17) is part of God’s moral law. No one should take the life of another person or their own life. That’s God’s will for all people of all time. Life on this earth is important and worthy of God’s protection because this is the only time of grace people have. The prophet Isaiah urged: “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near” (Isaiah 55:6). When death takes place, so does eternal judgment (Hebrews 9:27). So God desires to protect life because it is a time to learn that Jesus Christ is the Savior from sin.

The ending of life

At the same time, God states that he has the authority to end life. “See now that I, myself am he! There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life” (Deuteronomy 32:39). God can bring life to an end directly, or he can do it through his representatives in government. God has given those authorities “the sword” (Romans 13:4) to punish lawbreakers. That means governments can implement capital punishment for those who take the lives of others. In short, God allows governments the right to exercise the death penalty, but he does not command them to utilize it. If governments do wield “the sword,” they are illustrating what God declared to Noah after the flood: “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed” (Genesis 9:6).

Views of death

So, what are Christians to think of the 31 states in our country where the death penalty is legal? Might Christians be uncomfortable with the death penalty? Might Christians wish that states imprison murderers rather than execute them? Certainly. Christians can have personal preferences and comfort zones when it comes to the freedom God gives governments to punish wrongdoers. There is every reason, though, for Christians to support the death penalty simply because God, in Scripture, allows it.

If Christians have objections to capital punishment, they can voice those concerns to their elected representatives, just as they are able to do with their thoughts on any other legislative matter. But if Christians have preferences that differ from the laws of their state, God still demands that they give respect and honor (Romans 13:7) to his representatives in government.

What Christians can agree on is the importance of the capital punishment that took place outside Jerusalem almost two thousand years ago. Two criminals were executed—not for murder but for robbery. Between them was the Son of God. An earthly government had sentenced them all to death. If the robbers were guilty, justice—severe justice—was being served. On the other hand, Jesus was completely innocent of wrongdoing. Instead divine justice was being served. God transferred the punishment all people deserved because of their sins and placed it on his Son. That death brought life (John 12:24)! For that we praise God.


Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.


James Pope also answers questions online at wels.net/questions. Submit your questions there or to fic@wels.net.


 

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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 104, Number 8
Issue: August 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Light for our path: Making consistent confessions of faith

I am a WELS member and will soon be marrying a man who is studying to become a pastor of another denomination. His church teaches that there is salvation only through faith in Jesus, but beyond that its doctrine can be described as being on “shifting sand.” Is it wrong to convert because I do not fully adhere to the doctrine of my future husband’s denomination?

James F. Pope

My response to you addresses the confessions of faith we make and how important it is that those confessions be consistent.

The confession of the heart and mouth

Faith is a matter of the heart. Faith certainly involves knowledge and the affirmation that such knowledge is true, but faith is primarily trust in God’s promises. Perhaps you have seen that truth illustrated in a picture in which a heart is tilted, leaning against the cross of Christ. Saving faith is known only by God and the Christian involved. God alone can see what is in a person’s heart (1 Samuel 16:7).

When we confess our Christian faith, as we do when we speak the creeds, we tell God what he already knows, but we also tell others what is in our hearts (Romans 10:10). That confession is important.

We all make another significant confession. It’s not one of words, but actions.

The confession by church membership

Think back to the day of your confirmation. At that time, you confessed your faith publicly, you answered questions, and you made solemn promises to God. While the questions might vary from one congregation to another, it is likely you were asked if you believed that the teachings you learned in your course of instruction were correct explanations of biblical doctrines.

You were not alone in being asked such a question. Adults who wish to be confirmed are asked a similar question. That question also is presented to people who wish to join our congregations by way of profession or affirmation of faith. That question is appropriate and necessary for people who are seeking communicant membership. Membership in a congregation sends the signal to others that their faith matches the church’s teachings. Their membership is a tangible way of doing what Jesus said— acknowledging him before others (Matthew 10:32). Others would have every reason to conclude that your faith matched those of the church you joined. If that were not the case, someone could naturally wonder why you affiliated with that church in the first place.

A consistent confession

It can be misleading and confusing when the confession of faith made by your membership in a church is different from what you believe in your heart. In your case, joining the church of your future husband would naturally lead people to think you believe what that church teaches. While that church correctly points to Jesus Christ as Savior, you indicated that its doctrine beyond that is on “shifting sand.” Your membership in that church would be an endorsement of teachings you do not accept.

Many have faced similar decisions. Those situations are not always easy. Take the matter to the Lord in prayer and begin a discussion with your fiancé about your questions. I do not know how you will make a consistent confession. That is a conversation for you and your fiancé. Both of you will want to determine how best to make a confession that is consistent—before your Lord and before others.


Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.


James Pope also answers questions online at wels.net/questions. Submit your questions there or to fic@wels.net.


 

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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 104, Number 7
Issue: July 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Light for our path: Which ten percent should I be giving?

When I give weekly offerings of ten percent, should I be giving ten percent of my gross earned income or ten percent of my net earned income (after taxes)? I truly am not sure.

James F. Pope

Your question affords the opportunity to review the instructions God once gave his people in Old Testament times and to see what guidance God gives his children today in how they can honor him with their wealth (Proverbs 3:9).

Divine direction

Through the ceremonial laws, God regulated the everyday lives of Old Testament Israel with great detail. Among other things, the ceremonial laws addressed the people’s behavior when it came to worship, diet, and hygiene. Laws concerning the tithe, or giving ten percent of income, belonged to the ceremonial laws.

Today people like you and me can easily have a partial understanding of the Old Testament tithe. That is because the Old Testament speaks of more than one tithe. Perhaps the tithe that we recognize most was the one covering crops and cattle (Leviticus 27:30-32). This tithe supported God’s representatives in the church (Numbers 18:21). But there was more divine direction for his Old Testament people. There was a tithe for the benefit of God’s representatives in the government (1 Samuel 8:15). There also appeared to be a triennial tithe for the aid of the needy (Deuteronomy 14:28,29).

With these tithes in mind, Bible scholars and commentators speak of God directing his Old Testament followers to give back to him, in various ways, in the area of 23 percent of their income. This information puts your question of giving back ten percent of your income to God in a different perspective.

Faith-filled freedom

What is, of course, very different for you and me is that God’s directives for tithing are no longer in effect. The tearing of the temple curtain in Jerusalem on Good Friday (Matthew 27:51) served as a powerful visual aid that Jesus abolished all the ceremonial laws—including the commands to give tithes. Christians like you and me are exempt from the ceremonial laws. If people today demand that we follow those laws, such as insisting that we tithe, we need to assert our freedom (Colossians 2:16,17).

What we can certainly do is use the tithe as a pattern for our giving; I personally find that helpful. But remember, there were multiple tithes for God’s Old Testament people.

So, the choice is entirely yours if you wish to give back to God ten percent of your gross or net income. The “should” of your question can safely be eliminated.

Proportionate praise

With the abolishment of the commands to give tithes, God has not left his New Testament followers without any guidance regarding their giving. He provides general direction through his apostle: “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income” (1 Corinthians 16:2). Those words encourage us to plan our offerings with a proportionate view toward our income. Essentially, our guidance for giving is to offer a percentage of our income. We have freedom to choose the percentage.

Recognition that our money belongs to God (Psalm 24:1; Haggai 2:8) and gratitude for our salvation (Romans 12:1) provide good reasons for proportionate giving that is generous and cheerful (2 Corinthians 9:7). God bless such management of his blessings!

 


Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.


James Pope also answers questions online at wels.net/questions. Submit your questions there or to fic@wels.net.


 

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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 104, Number 6
Issue: June 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Light for our path: Does WELS focus too much on Martin Luther?

“Does our church body focus too much on Martin Luther?”

James F. Pope

It is understandable that Martin Luther is receiving a great deal of attention this year, since 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. Then again, there have been questions and accusations in the past that we focus too much on Martin Luther.

As we head toward the second half of this year, when the Reformation anniversary celebration will peak, your question provides a good opportunity to explain how WELS views Martin Luther.

A single foundation

Our church body believes and teaches that the Christian church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20). The Bible alone is the source of our faith. The writings of Martin Luther are not an additional source of faith for Lutherans. We do not believe anything simply because Martin Luther said so. Scripture alone—sola Scriptura—is the foundation of our faith.

A gifted reformer

Instead of viewing Luther as foundational to our faith, we regard him as a reformer of the faith. There were others who preceded him, pre-Reformers who spoke out against the errors of the church and paid for their testimony with their lives. While Luther voiced similar and other concerns as those men, he did not suffer their fate. He did live the last 25 years of his life with death threats hanging over his head, but he enjoyed God’s protecting hand.

With tireless energy and an abundance of God-given gifts, Luther threw himself headlong into preaching, teaching, writing, and reforming. We recognize Luther as a highly gifted man whom God used at a critical time in history to restore the truths of his word. Restore is the key word. Luther did not create doctrines; he rediscovered biblical truths.

A human name

So, what is Martin Luther’s place in our church body? The writer to the Hebrews offers guidance: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (13:7).

Does remembering Luther mean naming our church body after him? That was not Luther’s idea. The name “Lutheran” came from Luther’s opponents. Luther wrote about the use of his name: “I ask that men make no reference to my name and call themselves, not Lutherans but Christians. What is Luther? After all, the doctrine is not mine, nor have I been crucified for anyone. . . . How, then, should I, a poor evil-smelling maggot sack have men give to the children of Christ my worthless name? Not so, dear friends. Let us cast out party names and be called Christians after him whose doctrine we have” (What Luther Says; Vol. II, p. 856).

In spite of Luther’s wishes, the label “Lutheran” remains. In and of itself, that is not objectionable. Denominational names can be helpful in providing a profile of a church body’s theological stance. But because there are different branches of Lutheranism, Lutheran church bodies need to articulate their beliefs and practices so people can see that a shared name does not necessarily mean a shared theology.

Do we focus too much on Martin Luther? No. When we give attention to a person through whom God worked his blessings, we ultimately give attention—and praise—to God. “To the only God our Savior be glory” (Jude 25).

 


Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.


James Pope also answers questions online at wels.net/questions. Submit your questions there or to fic@wels.net.


 

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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 104, Number 5
Issue: May 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Light for our path: Helping those who consider worship boring

What can I do to help my Christian friends who consider worship services boring?

James F. Pope

It is wonderful that you want to help your friends view worship properly. I pray that my response will be beneficial to you, your friends, and all who read it.

Know the enemy

Effective military strategy means that military personnel “know the enemy.” That strategy translates into understanding the enemy’s strengths, weaknesses, weaponry, and tactics. “Knowing the enemy” also is important when it comes to our spiritual warfare as Christians. Satan certainly is the chief enemy of our faith, but unfortunately an ally of his resides in each one of us.

Every person is conceived and born with a sinful nature (Psalm 51:5). That nature is “hostile to God” (Romans 8:7). While Christians possess a new self through the converting work of the Holy Spirit, the sinful nature remains. That sinful nature wants nothing to do with God and his Word. While our new selves echo King David’s joy at the thought of worshiping the Lord in his house (Psalm 122:1), our old selves want nothing to do with any of that.

Meet the King

In our worship services, there are exchanges of spoken word and sung response. But when it comes to Christian worship there’s more to it that just the liturgy. In Christian worship we meet our God as he comes to us through his Word and sacrament. Each time we gather for worship, the almighty and all-merciful God speaks to us through his Word. That audience with the King is worthy of our attendance, attention, reverence, and love. In the Lord’s Supper, our risen Savior comes to us in bread and wine to tell us in the most personal way possible that he has forgiven our sins. Through the gospel in Word and sacrament, God nurtures our faith and fortifies us for more faithful Christian living.

In the King’s court we also communicate with him through our prayers and hymns and praises. We confess our sins to him, we praise him for his forgiving love, and we petition him for blessings in our lives and the lives of others. As Christians, our new selves thrill to meet the King again and again.

Encourage the citizens

So what encouragement can you pass along to your friends, citizens of God’s kingdom, who consider worship boring? Thoughts like these come to mind:

• Pray. Encourage your friends to pray before worship, asking that God bless their time with him and also thwart Satan’s efforts in stealing God’s Word from them (Matthew 13:4,19).

• Prepare. Show your friends the value of preparing for worship by looking at the Scripture readings for the day and discovering their connection.

• Participate. Explain to your friends how helpful it can be to examine the sermon text before worship and then follow along with a Bible as the pastor preaches the sermon. Perhaps your friends would benefit by taking notes.

• Ponder. Encourage your friends to find two or three takeaways from the sermon that they can think about during the week.

• Perceive. Help your friends see the mutual encouragement that takes place when Christians gather together for worship (Hebrews 10:25).

May the day of worship be the highlight of the week for all of us!


Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.


James Pope also answers questions online at wels.net/questions. Submit your questions there or to fic@wels.net.


 

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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 104, Number 4
Issue: April 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Light for our path: Where did Jesus go?

Where did Jesus go when he died? I am having a discussion with a friend who is a Jehovah’s Witness, and his ideas do not sound biblical.

James F. Pope

The gospel writers record seven sayings of Jesus Christ from the cross. Two of those sayings help answer your question. To the repentant thief at his side, Jesus graciously bestowed this promise: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). At death, Jesus directed words in a different direction: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Jesus’ words contain simple, meaningful truth. Sadly, the teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses reject that truth.

The false teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses

Jehovah’s Witnesses deny that people have an immortal soul. They maintain that the soul and body form a person’s entire being and when death takes place a person ceases to exist. They insist that was the case when Jesus died on Good Friday. You can find the following on their website: “Do you know what happened to Jesus’ body? God caused it to disappear. God did not raise Jesus to life in the fleshly body in which he died. He gave Jesus a new spirit body, as the angels in heaven have.”

What about Jesus’ promise to the repentant thief that he would begin enjoying heaven the very day he died? Jehovah’s Witnesses play a grammatical game with their Bible (New World Translation). Their Bible renders Luke 23:43 as, “And he said to him: ‘Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in Paradise.’ ” Notice the comma. Inspired writers of Bible books like the evangelist Luke did not use punctuation devices like commas. We insert them in our translations according to the rules of our grammar. There is no basis whatsoever to place a comma after the word today. Jesus was certainly speaking those words “today” and not “yesterday” or “tomorrow.” The New World Translation places a comma after the word today, because Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in a paradise on earth at some point in the future.

The true teachings of the Bible

Scripture clearly and consistently teaches that a human being has a body and a soul (Genesis 2:7; Ecclesiastes 12:7; Matthew 10:28; Matthew 16:26; Luke 16:19-31; 2 Corinthians 5:6-9; Revelation 6:9; and, Revelation 20:4). That applies also to Jesus Christ since the time he took on human flesh (John 1:14).

Scripture’s teaching is also that a person’s body and soul separate at death (Ecclesiastes 12:7). Not long after Jesus spoke of committing his soul into the hands of his heavenly Father (Luke 23:46), his soul and body were separated.

So “where did Jesus go when he died?” His soul went to heaven, while a pair of faithful followers (John 19:38-42) laid his body in a tomb. While in the tomb, the Lord’s body did not experience any decay (Psalm 16:10; Acts 2:31). “On the third day” he appeared to his disciples with his same, but glorified, body (Luke 24:36-39).

That is what resurrection is all about: the reuniting of body and soul. For Jesus, that happened at exactly the time he had prophesied (Matthew 16:21; 17:23). For the repentant thief and everyone else who undergoes death, that will take place on the Last Day (John 5:28,29).


James Pope also answers questions online at wels.net/questions. Submit your questions there or to fic@wels.net.


Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.


 

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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 104, Number 3
Issue: March 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Light for our path: Should I take Communion?

I was raised and confirmed WELS. Recently I had sex before marriage, and I feel awful. I’m incredibly guilty and do not want to do this again. Should I take Communion? 

James Pope

The type of question you asked could be answered yes or no. Let me explain why my answer to you is yes.

When could the answer be no?

In 1 Corinthians 11:27, the apostle Paul explains that it is possible for people to receive the Lord’s Supper to their harm and not their spiritual good: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.” Imagine that—a person appears to be on the receiving end of God’s forgiveness by partaking of the Lord’s Supper, but instead the individual is actually sinning! How can that be? By partaking of the Lord’s Supper “in an unworthy manner.”

In the case of the Christians in Corinth, their unworthy reception of the Lord’s Supper consisted of abuses that took place in a meal preceding the celebration of the Supper (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:18-22). Unworthy reception of the Lord’s Supper can go beyond those abuses to include a denial of the real presence of the Lord’s body and blood, a denial of one’s sin, or a denial of Jesus Christ as Savior. If you had informed me of your sin and then defended it with the mind-set that “Hey, everyone else is doing that,” I would have advised you to refrain from being a guest at the Lord’s Supper until God changed your heart and you had the right attitude toward sin.

Why is the answer yes?

In your question and statements, I did not sense attitudes that would have resulted in unworthy reception of the Lord’s Supper. Rather than seeing a denial of sin, I recognized a confession of sin. I saw in your words the cry of a child of God: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).

God does not ignore a cry like that. The Bible says: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Through the Sacrament of Holy Communion, God offers and gives you the forgiveness of sins by giving you the very body and blood of your Savior in, with, and under the bread and wine. That forgiveness covers all sins.

You are bothered by your sin. What is important in preparing to receive the Lord’s Supper is our attitude toward sin. With that in mind, let me remind you of a resource that you likely came across in your confirmation instruction. Luther’s Small Catechism has a section titled “Christian Questions.” It consists of a number of questions that Christians can ask themselves prior to receiving Holy Communion. There is also a condensed version of those questions on page 156 in Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal. Asking and answering those questions is a practical way of doing what Scripture says: “Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28). Examining your heart will help you answer ­your question in the future.

Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.

James Pope also answers questions online at wels.net/questions. Submit your questions there or to fic@wels.net.

 


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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 104, Number 02
Issue: February 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
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Light for our path: Respect God’s authorities

These days it seems like people, particularly professional athletes, disrespect the anthem, the American flag, and our military to “protest.” I’m worried this mentality is going to trickle down to our children. What can we tell our children about what God says about respecting government and authority, even when we don’t agree with something that is happening in our country?

James F. Pope

It is no secret that young people have long been susceptible to following trends established by those seen as role models. Let’s see what scriptural principles can address your question and concern.

Respect God’s authorities—then

God’s will for people to respect his author-ities in government is clear. One apostle, Paul, wrote: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (Romans 13:1,2). Another apostle, Peter, urged: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors. . . . honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:13,14,17).

When those apostles wrote, Nero reigned as Roman emperor. He was definitely no friend of Christians; his atrocities against them are well documented. Yet, the directives of “be subject” and “honor” applied even to him—not because his life or actions generated respect, but because he filled a seat of authority God had established. Certainly, if Christians were caught in the crossfire of conflicting commands from God and government, it was important for them to implement the principle of Acts 5:29: “We must obey God rather than human beings!” Otherwise, they were to obey and respect the governing authorities.

Respect God’s authorities—now

So what does this mean for Christian youth in 21st-century America? The Fourth Commandment still applies. God still has representatives in the government. God still looks for Christians to respect his representatives and submit to governing authorities.

What can Christian youth do when they do not agree with what is happening in our country? They can work toward positive change. They can contact people who are in a position to bring about such change. They can be positive examples of impartial love and respect in their daily lives. Can they follow the example of some professional athletes by kneeling during the national anthem? There is no law forbidding that. But one wonders if their actions will generate more support for their cause or ill will.

The use of a national anthem and any customs related to it is certainly an adiaphoron: something God has neither commanded nor forbidden. In that and every area of Christian freedom, God’s people will seek to benefit others. One wonders what the greater benefit might be for kneeling during the national anthem—especially when the song is introduced by the announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, to honor America . . .” When people ignore that announcement, it follows logically that they are dishonoring America.

Kneeling during a song will not change hearts; kneeling in prayer can. So, let’s continue to teach our Christian youth to pray “for all people—for kings and all those in authority” (1 Timothy 2:1,2). When God changes hearts through his Word, then there are blessings—for people personally and for the land in which they live. “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Psalm 33:12).

Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.

 


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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 104, Number 1
Issue: January 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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Light for our path: Worship emphasis on Dec. 24th

Since the early Christian church chose Dec. 25 as the day to celebrate Jesus’ birth, why is there so much emphasis on worship the night before?

James F. Pope

Anecdotal evidence and congregational worship service statistics supply credence to your question, so let’s examine the issues.

A lost date

It does seem unimaginable, but the exact date of Jesus’ birth is unknown. God certainly had a time in mind for Jesus to enter the world he created, and when that time had “fully come” (Galatians 4:4), the Lord was born of the virgin Mary. You and I might think that the date of such an important event would have been written on a scroll like Job’s words (19:23) or chiseled into tablets like the Lord’s words to Habakkuk (2:2). If it was, it did not survive the passing of time. The date of Jesus’ birth escapes our knowledge.

An arbitrary date

So if we do not know the date of the Lord’s birth in Bethlehem, how did the early Christian church arrive at Dec. 25, as you noted? The answer to that question is not entirely clear. Two theories have long been suggested. One states that the early Christian church proposed that late December date to counteract a Roman winter festival that promoted immorality. The other theory imagines that Jesus was conceived and died on the same date: March 25. That would make the day of his birth Dec. 25. Neither theory carries much weight by way of historical evidence and documentation.

Because the date of Jesus’ birth is elusive, it comes as no surprise that the Christian church does not agree on when to celebrate it. The Western church opted for Dec. 25 as the day of Jesus’ birth, while the Eastern half selected Jan. 6.

As Christians in the Western church, we have a church calendar in which Dec. 25 has long been designated as the Nativity of our Lord, the festival that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. So why is there so much emphasis on worship the night before, you ask? Why does Christmas Eve surpass Christmas Day in importance in some people’s minds? I have my own guesses, but that is all that they are. I imagine the sentimentality of an often candlelit evening service is more appealing to people than another morning worship service. Family traditions, including get-togethers, can take place on Christmas Day, leading people to gather for worship on the evening before.

No doubt there are many other factors involved.

A timeless celebration

For me personally, the day the church has designated as the celebration for Jesus’ birth has more significance than the evening before. Yet I recognize the place of Christian freedom in this area of life. God has not spoken in his Word about our worship schedule. We can freely establish liturgical church calendars. Consequently, it is not surprising to find both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day listed alongside the Nativity of our Lord in liturgical church calendars.

Rather than pitting an evening against a day, that dual listing can encourage worshipers to attend both Christmas celebrations. As with other important events in Jesus’ earthly life and ministry, his birth merits more than a single-day celebration.

There is every reason for it to be a timeless celebration.

Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.


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Get inspirational stories, spiritual help, and synod news from  Forward in Christ every month. Print and digital subscriptions are available from Northwestern Publishing House.

 

Author: James F. Pope
Volume 103, Number 12
Issue: December 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2018
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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