God’s Word via J.S. Bach

In today’s sermon I mentioned two composers who wrote music and words on the basis of their faith, just as David did three thousand years ago. Now, I see that [an example][cb] of Bach’s poetry and music was posted today at [Cyberbrethren][cb], which is the blog of Paul McCain, the publisher at Concordia Publishing house. You can go there and listen to it, while you read along in translation.

[cb]: http://cyberbrethren.com/2010/05/23/the-feast-of-pentecost-bach-cantata-bwv-172

A Brief Response to Christian Zionism

An Evangelical, millenialist pastor named John Hagee has written [an article][jdf] for the *Jewish Daily Forward*. In it, Hagee presents some reasons why Christian zionists support the present-day nation of Israel. He writes,

[jdf]: http://www.forward.com/articles/127965/

> On May 23, pastors, ministers and priests at more than 1,500 churches in all 50 states and over 50 foreign countries will dedicate their Sunday services to teaching the importance of Christian support for Israel.

Some of our members, or our neighbors, may wonder if we will join with those churches, or whether we should. The answer to that stems from the theology of Christian zionism. Zion is the name for the hill where the Jebusites had established the city of Jerusalem, and which King David later captured and made his capital. It became symbolic of the entire city, and ultimately, for the nation of Israel. *Zionism* is quite different, though the word is related. It describes a movement in which people attach special historic and theological importance to the existence of an earthly nation of Jews. It goes further than respect for the Jewish people as the nation from which our Savior, the Messiah, was born. It goes further even than recognizing a spiritual significance to ancient Israel that is connected to our present-day faith in Jesus.

In the words of John Hagee: “As is the case for many Jews, our support for Israel starts with God’s promises in the Hebrew Bible, but it does not end there.” By the Hebrew Bible, Hagee means the Old Testament scriptures. I suppose that the promises he references are the ones that describe a future kingdom of peace, ruled by the Messiah, when all enemies will be vanquished. Orthodox Christianity considers those promises to be fulfilled spiritually by Jesus right now, though their fulfillment will be revealed to all on the Last Day, which will be the First Day of our bodily eternal life in paradise. Millenialists, however, look for an outward earthly kingdom in which the Messiah will subjugate all outward enemies and reign as a sovereign potentate. This is not a new teaching; many Jews have made the same error for thousands of years. Hagee and others have, knowingly or not, imported such ideas into their Christian worldview. They support this notion with forced explanations of Bible passages under the guise of a “literal” interpretation. Unfortunately, those explanations usually do not allow the text of the Bible to stand on its own.

Hagee continues:

> Christian Zionists recognize that we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the Jewish people. As I have stressed to my Christian audiences for years: If you take away the Jewish contribution to Christianity, there would be no Christianity.

I beg to differ. It was not the Jewish people who provided the doctrine of holy scripture. That came from God Himself, *in spite of* those to whom He spoke. The Jewish people, as such, have their beginning in Babylon, after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the first Temple in 586 B.C. They are called “Jewish” because the kingdom Nebuchadnezzar destroyed was Judah, named for one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Today’s Jewish traditions and worship are indeed very old, dating back to that 6th century before Christ. Yet we should not imagine that Jewish worship is the same as the worship of Israel. Jewish worship centers in synagogues, which became the organizational model for early Christian congregations. It was a tradition designed to preserve the precious doctrine among the generations of Jews, despite the absence of the most important element of Israelite worship: the Temple in Jerusalem, and before it, the Tabernacle.

Today’s Judaism is quite different from Israelite worship, say, during the reign of King Josiah, or during the period of the Judges. Judaism’s roots are found in Israelite worship and doctrine, but the two are different. More importantly, a major focus of both ancient Israelite worship and ancient Judaism has been lost in present-day Judaism. That focus is echoed today only among the “messianic Jews” (those who recognize that Jesus is the Messiah) and Christians. It is the redemptive, justifying atonement of the Messiah, who through His own suffering and death, would provide forgiveness and remission of sins for all Israelites and for Gentiles, to be received through faith alone. The significance of this is only understood when we know the deep depravity and guilt of original sin, which cannot be erased or mitigated by the efforts of mortal man. This is all taught throughout the Bible, in both Old and New Testaments, but it is lost to modern-day Judaism.

Hagee writes, “From the patriarchs to the prophets, from Jesus and his family to the men who wrote down the Bible, Jewish people have provided us with the fundamentals of our faith.” The patriarchs were not Jews, nor even Israelites. Jesus and the apostles were indeed Jews, of the kind disowned today by their unbelieving Jewish families. They all believed and taught that Jesus is the Messiah. For this, most of them were killed. I don’t hold that fact against modern day Jews, but mention it only because Hagee would have us thank present-day Jews for their contribution to our Christian faith. History shows this to be senseless.

Speaking for Christian Zionists, Hagee also writes something with which I heartily agree: “Israel is not the cause of militant Islam’s hatred of America, but an ally in the fight against militant Islam.” Islamofascists use Israel as a convenient excuse and a favorite punching bag, but their real target is personal freedom and the Christian worldview behind it.

Hagee writes that the focus of Christian zionists on May 23rd will include “God’s promise in Genesis 12:3 that He will bless those who bless Israel.” If you look up that verse, you will see that it does not mention Israel by name. It says “you,” meaning Abraham and the nation that would come from him. The promise in Genesis 12 does include Israel, but not in the way Christian zionists would have us believe. Israel was the beginning of the “great nation” descended from Abraham. The purpose of this nation was not to bless those who bless it, but that through it, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” That is fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah, who has provided salvation not only for Israelites, but for every nation. Other blessings of God upon the Israelites were fulfilled between the Exodus from Egypt and the Ascension of Jesus into heaven. After that, many believed in Jesus as the Messiah, and finally, the time of Temple worship came to a permanent end when the second Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D.

If we want to be a genuine blessing to the present-day Jews, we will hand them a copy of the Letter to the Hebrews and repeat what the apostle Paul wrote in Galatians 3:7-9 (NKJV), “Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, ‘In you all the nations shall be blessed.’ So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham.” The faith Paul mentions is faith in the true Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

That brings me to the false identification of present-day Israel with ancient Israel. There are only two similarities between them: their citizens are primarily descendants of the patriarch Jacob, and they roughly occupy the same physical territory. In all other respects, they are different. The ancient nation of Israel does still exist, but it is hidden in this world. Its members include all those who belong to the Messiah, Jesus, by faith. Some are in heaven already, including such Israelites as Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Rahab, Ruth, David, Hezekiah, Elijah, Daniel, Esther, Ezra, John the Baptizer, the apostle Nathaniel, the pastor Titus, the evangelist Luke, the confessor Athanasius, and the reformer Luther. Others still live on the earth. The root of Israel is described in the Old Testament, but the wild branch of the Gentiles has been grafted in by faith (Romans 11:17), while many original branches have broken away because of unbelief. Yet unbelieving Jews may yet believe, and some are converted all the time (v. 23).

The true Israel is the Church. It is not a democracy, like the modern-day nation of Israel, but remains a monarchy. Our king is the Messiah, Jesus, who has fulfilled the prophecies of His victory and will return to end this world of sorrow and bring us into His everlasting kingdom of glory. Christians are Israelites, citizens of this world while also citizens of heaven. We live in the time of fulfillment, in the “millennium” that so many are awaiting. We pray weekly that God will open the hearts of Jewish people to believe in their Messiah. We would have them blessed with all that God promised to their forefathers, but as long as they reject their true God and Messiah, we shall not call them the true “Israel.”

Using the Ten Commandments

In our catechism we talk about the three ways that *God* uses His moral Law by using three metaphors or comparisons. Most importantly, He uses His Law as a mirror, which shows us our sinfulness and need for a savior. Also of great importance, He uses His law as a curb upon the evil in the whole world, since it is written upon the hearts of everyone to a limited degree. Finally, God guides Christians with His Law in the ways we are to live as His redeemed children. This is necessary because Christians still have the sinful flesh as long as we live, which obscures and confuses our knowledge of God’s will.

Strictly speaking, the Ten Commandments as found in the Bible were given to the children of Israel, and not to us. However, Jesus confirmed that they describe the way God would have us live, with the exception that the Third Commandment no longer requires a specific day of the week as the Sabbath. Seventh-day Adventists object to this, wishing to retain the meaning of the Third Commandment as it applied to the Israelites. They fail to understand that this aspect of the Third Commandment is not part of God’s universal will for all people (moral law), but His instructions for the worship life of the Jews (ceremonial law), and as such it is fulfilled for us all by Jesus Christ and superceded by faith in Him (Colossians 2:16-17). That does not make it wrong to observe the Sabbath on Saturdays, but it *is* wrong to insist that every Christian do so.

So in the distinction between the ceremonial and moral law, we can see a difference between God’s will for the behavior of Israelites and for Gentiles. Still, a similar difference also exists in connection with the Ten Commandments. Since Jesus has fulfilled all of them in our place, our righteousness before God is found entirely in Him. Since He gave His life to suffering and death in payment for our disobedience, the Ten Commandments have no more power to condemn those who trust in the Gospel. So Jesus has not only separated us from the ceremonial law, but also from the moral law, though in a different way. It means that Christians can understand and use the Ten Commandments without fear of punishment or condemnation. In Jesus, we no longer have any guilt. He has freed us to live without the intolerable burden of God’s conditional favor: “*If* you obey My commandments, I will consider you to be righteous.” Now, we are already righteous, entirely through the obedience of Jesus.

With the freedom we have from the Law, we now have a different relationship to the Ten Commandments. They become more precious, because they describe the will of a *gracious and loving* God. We can approach them with a confidence that as long as we remain in our baptismal grace, they cannot condemn us. So when God says, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” we can see more clearly, and more readily admit those times when our personal behavior has not met His righteous expectations.

In Jesus Christ, we can say, “Yes, I have taken God’s name in vain today. I have cursed another in my heart and used His name to decieve another person. Moreover, I have relied upon my own strength in time of trouble, failing to call upon His name, and I have thanklessly taken the credit for my deliverance from trouble. For these things I need God’s forgiveness.” Such an admission is what we call repentance. It’s possible for Christians only because we know that Jesus *has* obtained forgiveness for us, and God is ready to pronounce that forgiveness upon us at any time we need it.

Sometimes, we may feel the terror of God’s condemnation upon our guilt, but repentance is not necessarily like that. Often, the terror of our guilt is still far away because we still know that Jesus is our savior from sin and death, and the accusations of the devil cannot penetrate our faith in that fact. It may seem unnecessary, in that case, to acknowledge our faults and repent of them, but repentance is always necessary. Faith in Jesus exists only inasmuch as we trust that He is our savior from sin — from the guilt of *our own* sins. That’s the essence of the Gospel. So in order to have faith in Jesus, to *be* a Christian, we need to repent. In order to repent, we must have some guilt to acknowledge. God builds our faith with the Gospel, which can only be received through repentance, which in turn can only exist where there is guilt. Understanding this, we can be confident that Jesus has delivered us from God’s wrath, while simultaneously and freely repenting of our many sins that should have incurred that wrath.

When we fail to acknowledge our sins before God, claiming or thinking that we have actually kept one or more of God’s commandments, then we have not rightly understood the demands of His Law in relation to our thoughts, words, and deeds. In that case, we become self-righteous, and that excludes faith. We become unbelievers again, and are in peril of eternal punishment if we should die during that time. An important duty of a pastor is to remind his congregants of their sins, and even to confront those who may have become impenitent with the real danger of God’s punishment in hell. Naturally, we don’t enjoy hearing such a message, but only through that message can we recall our utter need for a Savior.

Beside the spiritual application of the Ten Commandments, Christians also find that they describe a blessed life on earth. Though we can’t keep any of the Commandments as perfectly as they demand, many people (even unbelievers) can live righteous lives outwardly to some degree. Those who do become a blessing to other people, and are themselves blessed in many ways. Those blessings do not equate to “the easy life,” because Christians always live under the shadow of Jesus’ cross, bearing crosses of their own. However, it becomes clear that those who disregard God’s commandments create much more trouble and suffering for themselves and others. So the Ten Commandments, as a summary of the way God would have people live, describe an excellent foundation for a civil society. One does not have to be a Christian or a Jew to see this, or to benefit from it, because God has hidden an echo of His Law in the heart of every human being.

To help you continue to grow in faith, I recommend that you read [the Large Catechism on the Ten Commandments][lc], where Dr. Luther explains in detail what each commandment means. You might read about only one commandment each day, and meditate upon Jesus’ fulfillment of that commandment for you, and the ways in which your life continues to make His work necessary for your salvation. You might also wish to think about the way each commandment might be a blessing upon civil society on earth when its members endeavor to live outwardly moral lives, according to God’s will.

[lc]: http://bocl.org/?LC+I