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The painting above is by the Renaissance artists Lucas Cranach the Elder and Lucas Cranach the Younger, father and son. Lucas Cranach the Younger finished the painting in 1555. It is the centre altar painting in Sts Peter and Paul (Lutheran) Church in Weimar, Germany. Read more about it:
I have a variety of posts on Good Friday. The following three concern Martin Luther’s view of the Crucifixion:
The next set of posts present a number of perspectives on the Crucifixion:
Good Friday: in whom can we trust? (John 18:12-27)
Excerpts and a summary follow. Subheads and emphases are mine.
Society at that time
MacArthur cites a theologian, David Thomas, who described the social atmosphere of Jesus’s time as pure evil:
So, as we go through the passage in Matthew that describes the crucifixion, we see just unrelenting evil. David Thomas wrote, “For thousands of years wickedness had been growing. It had wrought deeds of impiety and crime that had rung the ages with agony and often roused the justice of the universe to roll her fiery thunderbolts of retribution through the world. But now it had grown to full maturity. It stands around the cross in such gigantic proportions as had never been seen before. It works an enormity before which the mightiest of its past exploits dwindle into insignificance and pale into dimness. Wickedness crucifies the Lord of life and glory,” end quote.
The Gospels record Jesus speaking of wickedness not only of the religious leaders but that generation as a whole. The disciples also experienced wickedness in their ministries.
Politically, the Jews looked for their Messiah to deliver them from the Romans and to make their land and their people into a mighty kingdom. As my aforementioned post on Barabbas explains, a small group of radical Jews banded together as the Zealots with the objective of throwing off the Roman yoke through violence and theft.
How people saw Jesus
The people directly involved with Jesus’s condemnation, scourging, mocking and death did not know who He was, even when they thought they did.
The crowd yelling for Barabbas to be freed thought that Jesus could not be their Messiah because he was not fighting the Romans.
MacArthur divides these people into four groups:
Let’s call them the ignorant wicked, the knowing wicked, the fickle wicked and the religious wicked. And I want to suggest to you that every person in the world who does not come to faith in Jesus Christ, every Christ‑rejecting person fits into these groups. They are constant. They were there at the cross. They’re around today. And everybody fits somewhere in these four groups.
The soldiers — the ignorant wicked
We saw that the callous soldiers basically were Roman Legionnaires stationed in Caesarea, no doubt, with Pilate. They didn’t really have first‑hand information about Jesus. They were not very well apprised of who He was. They may have had a very limited smattering of information. They basically are ignorant. To them Jesus is another criminal and a somewhat deranged one at that. There seems to be no legitimate criminal act that He has done. He seems to be more a maniac who thinks Himself to be a king but by who any … by any definition they know of a king is not a king at all. They no doubt think Him to be somewhat deficient intellectually and mentally and through all the tortures that they bring upon. Him, He never says a word which probably confirms their suspicion.
Pontius Pilate — the ignorant wicked
He has already stated on several occasions that Jesus is innocent. He has given the findings of the court when he said, “I find no fault in this man.” He really doesn’t want to execute a man he knows to be innocent. His wife has warned him against that and his own conscience has done the same. But he is being blackmailed into a corner by the Jews and he thinks maybe he can satiate their thirst for blood by showing Jesus to be such a foolish, foolish looking person that they will understand Him to be little threat to Rome or to Israel. And so he brings Jesus out and says, “Behold the man.” And the scream the more for His blood and say if you don’t kill Him we’ll report you to Caesar. And trapped for the fear of the loss of his position, he indicates that Jesus is to be crucified. And so it is determined.
The two robbers — the knowing wicked
They knew something of the claims of Jesus. They knew something about it as is evidenced by the future record of what they say. We find that in verse 44. “The lesti, the robbers also who were crucified with Him,” and the Authorized says, “cast the same in His teeth.” Actually, what the text says is “heaped insults at Him.” They heaped the same insults at Him. The same insults they were hearing from the Jewish leaders who were saying, “If You’re the king of Israel, come down. You say You trust in God, let God deliver You. You said You were the Son of God,” so forth. So they knew some of the claims of Jesus.
They were familiar because they were a part of the Jewish society with perhaps the work of Jesus Christ, may have been familiar with His person, may on occasion have heard Him in a crowd. We don’t know that. But obviously they knew something about Him, something more than the Roman legionnaires would have known who had nothing to do with life in that part of the world …
… these crass materialistic bandits, for them life revolves around possessions, materialism, loot. They have not thought about righteousness, truth, justice, honor, godliness. They have no concern for morality. They have no concern for Messiahs and kingdoms; they’re just out for the loot.
However, Luke recorded that one of the thieves did believe at the eleventh hour and that he rebuked the other (Luke 23:39-43):
39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him,[d] saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
The crowd — the fickle wicked
The people who joyously acclaimed Jesus on Palm Sunday were the same who wanted Him to die. They preferred Barabbas.
It was bad enough that they sentenced Jesus to death by shouting for the release of Barabbas (Luke 23:13-25), but, as He agonised on the cross, they walked by to taunt Him (Matthew 27:39-40).
They had a place for Jesus, they wanted His miracles, they wanted His signs and wonders, they listened to His teaching. The crowd was fascinated by Jesus, to some extent. And they knew full well who He claimed to be and they knew there was a demonstration of the veracity of those claims …
Jesus didn’t fulfill their expectation. In fact, when Jesus rode in, they thought He would attack the Romans. He came back into town and attacked the Jews by wiping out the temple buying and selling. And that was not in His favor. They thought He ought to attack Rome, not them. And now how could this be the Messiah? All week long and He’s done nothing. He’s been here all week and now look at Him, He’s hanging on a cross, put there by the Romans. He is a victim. This is not our Messiah …
Because they assumed the Messiah would come in a military triumph over Rome and all the other nations. It all was coming to pieces and they had forgotten their hallelujahs and hosannas and now in their disappointment over Jesus’ failure to give them what they wanted when they wanted it, they had turned against Him and were blaspheming His name. So fickle.
The Jewish leaders — the religious wicked
The wors[t] group is yet to come in verses 41 to 43, the religious wicked. They are illustrated to us by the canting, and that word basically means insincere and hypocritical, the canting leaders, insincere, hypocritical, the lowest level of blasphemers, religious hypocrites who parade their pi[e]ty, who want to appear to represent God and know the truth and be pure and godly and virtuous and represent the Word of God. And the truth of it is they’re filled with hate and vilification toward the very Christ of God Himself.
In verse 41 we meet them. It wasn’t just a fickle crowd, likewise also the chief priests. All those various orders of priests that operated within the temple ministries were mocking Him along with the scribes who were the authorities on the law and the elders who were suppose to be the revered and renowned men of maturity and wisdom in the land. They constitute the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of Israel.
So, all of these leaders who are supposedly the religious elite, who suppose … are supposed to know everything there is to know about the truth of God and the Word of God and the mind of God and the heart of God, who pretend to love God and revere His Word and hold up His name. They come along and what did they say? And notice, please, that the crowd talked to Jesus, the leaders don’t talk to Christ. They hate Him. He is so despised by them they will not talk to Him, they only talk about Him. So they talk to each other about Him.
Verse 42, “He saved others.” And they mean by that His healing ministry, His deliverance from demons. “He did it for others, Himself He cannot save.” They never denied ever in the New Testament the miracles of Jesus, never. It was impossible to do that. There, is never an indication that the religious leaders of Israel denied His miracles. They said they were by Satan done, by Satan accomplished, but they never denied them. They said He does what He does by the power of Beelzebub, but they never denied them.
And now, to see Jesus hanging on the cross unable to come down, will affirm in their minds that indeed He did have power but it was Satan’s power. So when we put Him on the cross, we can be sure He’ll stay there because God is on our side. Look, the fact that He is there shows that His power is not as great as ours. His is Satan’s, ours is God. God’s with us.
They’re mocking His power. If He is the king of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross and we’ll believe Him, if He has such sovereignty and such authority and such power, let us see it now. They put in the word “now,” right now. They were forever and always asking for a sign. The truth of the matter is even if He had come down from the cross, they wouldn’t have believed, their hearts were so evil.
The horror of Jesus’s suffering
MacArthur describes in detail how horrifically Jesus suffered that day for our sins — the sins of the whole world, believers and unbelievers alike.
One thing is made abundantly clear throughout the pages of Holy Scripture and that is that man is wicked, that he is sinful. And given over to his own devices unrestrained will perpetrate crimes beyond imagination. Now the wickedness of man is no more clearly seen, nor does it reach a higher apex than it does in the execution of Jesus Christ. The crucifixion of the Savior is the greatest expression of human evil in history, the epitome of demonstration of the depth and comprehensiveness of the sinfulness of human nature …
Yes, the crucifixion was the greatest act of love on the part of God and that seems to be John’s focus and even more the emphasis of Mark and Luke, but it was also the greatest expression of human evil which seems to be Matthew’s particular interest under the direction of the Spirit as he writes …
… wickedness is not content just to execute Jesus Christ. It must torment Him also in the process. It must taunt Him in the process. It must heap on Him all imaginable evil. It cannot just kill Him, it must slap Him and punch Him and stab Him and spit on Him and defame Him and blaspheme Him and keep that up all the time He is dying. Inconceivable. But such is the cruelty of the human heart when fully exposed.
… according to Isaiah 53:4, He carried our griefs and He carried and bore our sorrows and in addition to that His own sorrow in being alienated and separated from His Father. So He not only suffered more than any man has suffered, but He suffered more than all men together have ever suffered.
During His earthly life, Jesus suffered for us temporally through poverty and self-denial. He also suffered spiritually by temptation from Satan. As if those were not bad enough, He suffered continual rejection by His own people. On the day He was crucified, He also suffered His father’s wrath because of mankind’s wickedness:
God then had to pour out all of heaven’s fury against all of earth’s sin and it all came on Jesus Christ. So He suffered the unmitigated wrath of God.
MacArthur described how the aforementioned soldiers scourged Jesus:
… they’ve tied His wrists to a post, His feet suspended from the ground, His body taut and they have taken leather thongs attached to a piece of wood and in the end of the leather thongs are bits of stone and bone and metal and they have lashed Him until His flesh is ripped off and His internal organs are laid bare and exposed and blood rushes from out of His body.
If you have seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, you saw exactly that. (MacArthur had not written from Gibson’s perspective, because he wrote his sermon in 1985. The film came out in 2004.) I was quite disgusted with every other Christian I know in the offline world, none of whom liked the film because it was too gory and violent: ‘It never would have happened like that!’ NO! It did happen like that — for our sake!
They have then clothed Him again. They brought Him back into Pilate’s hall and they start a little game under the watchful supervision of Pilate. And that little game is to make Jesus to appear as a king. And you’ll notice what happens in verse 28. They stripped Him. They took off His own robe which had been placed over His open wounds and they put on Him a scarlet robe, that’s the heavy outer robe Rome…worn by a Roman soldier. No doubt causing excruciating pain to those open wounds, a mock royal robe. And then they braided a crown of thorns and put it around His head. Put a reed in His right hand representative of a crown and a scepter. They bowed their knees before Him and mocked Him saying, “Hail, king of the Jews.” And as they rose from the ground they spit in His face. Then they took the reed out of His hand in a mocking gesture of snatching away His pitiful sovereignty and smashed Him in the head with His own scepter. In John 19:3 it says they kept on punching Him. He is a fool. He is a clown. He’s a buffoon. He is an object of mockery. This one who claims to be a king, what a farce, what a joke, how ridiculous. And the soldiers with joy and glee trained in the art of killing and maiming people enjoy to the very fullest their leisure expression on Jesus Christ at His expense.
By the way, this is the second time He has been punched and spit on. The Jewish leaders did it back in chapter 26 verses 67 and 68. There they spit on Him because He claimed to be a prophet. Here they spit on Him because He claimed to be a king. Little did they know the King that He was and long will they know it in hell in eternity. Little did they know that indeed He was a King and indeed He will wear a robe and a blood‑spattered robe at that. In Revelation chapter 19 and verse 13 it shows Jesus Christ coming in Second Coming glory out of heaven and He is indeed wearing a robe of royalty and it is a robe spotted with blood but it is not, at that time, His own blood but rather the blood of His enemies. And indeed some day He will wear a royal crown. It will be far different from this crown, not a stephanos, not a crown made of some earthly thing but a diadema, a diadem, a royal regal crown. Yes, Revelation 19:12 says He will wear many crowns for He will not only have His own but He will wear the crown that once belonged to every other sovereign in the world for He alone will be King.
And some day He will wield a scepter and it will be no reed, it will be according to Revelation 19:15, a rod of iron with which He will bring instant judgment on the unbelieving world …
The blows from the reed which was heavy enough to cause a painful blow to the head are added and more bumps and bruises appear. His body is dripping with blood, oozing from His pores. A lack of sleep, the anguish of sin has contorted and twisted His face so that He is hardly recognizable as human, let alone as Jesus of Nazareth. And He is thought to be nothing more than a fool.
The way of the cross
They put back on His own garment. And they lead Him away to crucify Him. As they leave the city in verse 32, they conscript a man by the name of Cyrus … of Simon who is from Cyrene. And this man, as we saw last time, is to carry the cross of Christ. They then, verse 33, come to a place called Golgotha, meaning skull place named for the shape of the hill. They give Him vinegar to drink, actually wine, oinos in the better texts. They give Him wine to drink and mingled with bitter herbs. That’s a general term. Mark tells us the bitter herbs were in fact myrrh. And myrrh would act like a sedative. This was provided by Jerusalem women. There was an association of women who provided this for people who were to be crucified as an expression of the fulfillment of Proverbs 31 where it says that strong drink is for those who face death. These women did it out of kindness. The soldiers appreciated it not because they wanted to show kindness, but because it was easier to crucify a drugged victim. So it accommodated them as well.
He tasted it and wouldn’t drink it because He wanted to go to the cross with all of His senses acute and alert …
I’m so amazed at the fact that the crucifixion itself is passed over with such brevity. In fact, as I told you, in the Greek text it actually says the having crucified Him on[ce] parted His garments. It almost throws away the crucifixion in the original text. And we really don’t have anything given to us about the details of it so we need to kind of fill in just for a moment. The cross would be lying on the ground, the victim would be placed down on the cross and first His feet would be extended, His toes pulled down and then a large nail would be driven through the arch of one foot and then the arch of another foot. And then His hands would be extended allowing His knees to flex a little bit and there would be great nails driven through His wrists just below the bottom part of His hand, the heel of His hand because there is the place where it would hold. In the middle of the hand it wouldn’t hold, it would pull through the fingers.
Once the victim was nailed there, the cross would be picked up and dropped into a hole. And when it hit the bottom of the socket, of course, it would rip and tear the flesh and send the nerve impulses to make explosions in the brain in regard to pain. The victim is now crucified. Slowly He would begin to sag down more and more the weight being placed upon the nails running through His wrists, excruciating fiery pain would shoot up the arms and into the mind. Pressure put on the median nerves would be beyond almost the ability to endure.
The Lord then would try to push to relieve the pain and so He would push with His feet and be pushing on the two wounds in His feet. And the same thing would happen. And hour after hour this wrenching twisting torment of the body back and forth, trying to relieve one and then the other, the hands and the feet, it would become very impossible after a while to do any pushing upward because of the pain and the sagging would put the greatest weight upon the hands.
Dr. Truman, Davis writes, “At this point, another phenomenon occurred as the arms fatigued, great waves of cramps sweep over the muscles nodding them in deep relentless throbbing pain. With these cramps comes the inability to push Himself upward. Hanging by His arms, the pectoral muscles are paralyzed and the inner costal muscles are unable to act. Air can be drawn into the lungs but it can’t be exhaled. Jesus fights to raise Himself to get even one short breath. Finally carbon dioxide builds up in the lungs and in the blood stream and the cramps subside. He would grasps short breaths of air, hours of limitless pain, cycles of twisting joint‑rending cramps, intermittent partial asphyxiation, searing pain as tissue is torn from His lacerated back as He moves up and down the rough timber. A deep crushing pain in the chest as the pericardium slowly fills with scorum (?) and begins to compress the heart. And this leads to death.”
‘King of the Jews’
After Jesus took His last breath, the soldiers had to nail to the cross the reason for His death. Pilate gave that to them:
They set over His head an accusation because it was required that a man who was crucified be crucified for some criminal reason. And there was no legitimate criminal reason to crucify Christ. Pilate, wanting to make his statement of the innocence of Christ and also wanting to affirm his … despising of the Jews, puts over the head of Jesus, “THIS IS JESUS,” the other writers tell us he put, “THIS IS JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS.” And in all three languages of the times so everyone could read it. And the Jews … protested and said, “We don’t want that up there, we want, “He said He is king of the Jews.'” And Pilate said, “What I have written I have written.” And thus in cynical sarcastic words he mocked the Jews by saying to the whole world, “There’s your king, there’s your king, you despicable people, you deserve such a king.”
There is much more to read. This is a compelling sermon, not to be missed.
The same types of people who sentenced, mocked and killed Jesus are around today. Some even attend church.
All of them are convinced of their own self-righteousness. They reject Jesus Christ. They reject the Bible. They do not want to know. Their way is better.
They know more than the Christian humbly praying for more grace, praying for sanctification, praying to be delivered from temptation.
The day will come when we will be at the seat of divine and holy judgement. Where are we now? Where will we be then?
MacArthur concludes with this:
I don’t know where you are today. He longs to embrace you into His arms, to give you the salvation He so freely offered. He stayed on the cross not because He couldn’t come down, He stayed on the cross because He wouldn’t come down. And I believe that the Savior shed tears for those who shed His very blood. Such is the compassion of God and the gift of salvation. Let’s bow in prayer.
Thank You, Father, for the scene that we have viewed today from Your holy Word. Thank You for the friend of sinners who died for the very ones who crucified Him in all generations. Thank You that His arms are open to all who come. O Father, may we be grateful enough, thankful enough not only to receive the Lord Jesus Christ, but to live our lives totally in obedience to Him.
May everyone reading this enjoy a very happy Christmas!
The painting above dates from 1622. It is called Adoration of the Shepherds. Gerard (Gerrit) van Honthorst, a Dutch Golden Age painter, studied in Italy and took his influences from Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro, as you can see from the way the light plays on the Holy Family and the shepherds.
You can find out more in the following post:
Happy Christmas, one and all! (John 1:1-17)
For more on John 1, see:
Christmas Day — John 1:14 (with commentary from Matthew Poole)
Lutherans might appreciate these posts:
These are also helpful:
The_Donald‘s contributors have been discussing our Lord Jesus in some of their posts. This year, a few of them have rediscovered Christianity. In this post (sadly, language alert), someone cited Isaiah 53:1-6:
53 Who has believed what he has heard from us?[a]
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected[b] by men,
a man of sorrows[c] and acquainted with[d] grief;[e]
and as one from whom men hide their faces[f]
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
4 Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
In the midst of our celebrations, may we always remember and be ever grateful for the one sufficient sacrifice our Lord made for us.
Let us pray that more people will come to Christ this year. I was moved by what The_Donald’s posters had to say. Here are five separate comments, the last of which is the Roman Catholic Grace:
Cold Case Christianity. Powerful stuff from a life long atheist and veteran homicide detective. Powerful evidence of Christ. I used to be hardcore atheist and specifically anti-theist. I couldn’t deny the evidence presented. And ultimately – what if someone is wrong about believing in God (for real) – worst case scenario you become a better person. Worst case scenario for atheism is way worse. That was only a small step on an ongoing walk but it spoke to me.
It’s really sad that someone who only desired the best in people would make people angry. He led such a life of self-sacrifice, that I desire my character to be like His.
And if God be for us, who can stand against?
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.
Bless us, o Lord, and these thy gifts for which we are about to receive. And from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, amen.
A new book, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper, has hit the shelves.
The book focusses on Luther’s inner life rather than a history of the Reformation. It might also cast light on little-known details of his life:
Luther — Luder — was born in Eisleben in northern Germany in 1483, and grew up under the shadow of the Counts of Mansfeld’s castles in the small mining town of the same name. In later life he would always insist on his impeccable peasant origins, but his father was a mining inspector and prominent smelting master and it was in a smoky, slagheap-filled town on the edge of the civilised world that the young Martin grew up.
Crane explains Roper’s perspective that a harsh environment affected Luther’s personality accordingly:
the ugly, precarious and divided world … helped shape Luther’s passionate, authoritarian, unforgiving, coarsely physical nature …
Even though Luther remained loyal to his childhood home, there can have been little about it that gave him a very elevated sense of man’s goodness …
It was a natural progression from this environment to the Augustinian religious order, noted then for a particularly austere theology and practice. Incidentally, Luther’s father was firmly opposed to his son entering the monastic life.
Luther was not a man to do things by halves and he made a forensic study of Augustine, Scripture and the corrupt practices of the Church, when, one day:
the idea of justification by faith alone ‘struck him like a thunderbolt’
if man could be saved by faith alone and all good works were intrinsically sinful, then the whole penitential edifice of the medieval church … w[as] all so much rubble.
Luther was a polemicist, passionately forming and forcefully arguing his positions against his fellow Reformers.
Roper also includes some anti-Semitic quotes from Luther. The one in the review is extremely foul and graphic.
Crane does not say if she explains why the first Reformer was anti-Semitic and if that perspective changed.
Speaking personally, Luther’s position against the Jewish people is something that is explored too little; even my own research has not uncovered any decent explanation. I read anecdotally (i.e. reader’s comment) somewhere a few years ago that Luther rather expected the Jews to follow him in railing against the social and political dominance of a corrupt Church. When they did not, he turned against them.
Crane says that Roper does a good job of showing the reader Luther’s contradictions without trying to make sense of them or tie them neatly together:
Not, as Lyndal Roper mildly notes, an easy hero.
Although Crane’s review does not mention this, readers should know that Roper is an Australian academic who was educated at Oxford, taught there and has written several ‘groundbreaking works’ on witchcraft.
She has a deep interest in Germany. Perhaps this is because her husband, Nicholas Stargardt, a Professor of History at Oxford University, is of German-Jewish descent on his father’s side and Australian on his mother’s. His books concern Germany during the 1930s and 1940s.
In 1989, Roper’s book, The Holy Household: Women and Morals in Reformation Augsburg was published. Wikipedia provides this succinct and helpful summary:
Claims that the Reformation significantly worsened the situation of European women. review in History Today
It will be interesting to see what other reviews say. My Lutheran readers are particularly welcome to comment below.
As my post yesterday concerned Jesus’s healing and feeding of the Four Thousand (and more) Gentiles, it seemed apposite to find a post at Steadfast Lutherans about His feeding the Five Thousand (and more).
The Feeding of the Five Thousand is the traditional (pre-Lectionary) Laetare Sunday gospel reading. (Laetare Sunday is today, March 6, 2016.)
Pastor Joseph Abrahamson shared Martin Luther’s reflections on this marvellous creative miracle, excerpts of which follow. Here Luther wrote about John 6:1-15.
May we not be discouraged, as Philip and Andrew were at finding we haven’t enough (emphases mine):
We see that Philip is not deficient in arithmetic. We also can count up very well what we shall need and must have for our household. But as soon as we see that provision is wanting, we become discouraged. This was the case also with Andrew …
The Evangelist [John] did not wish this to be left unnoticed, in order that we may learn by the example of the disciples, that such calculations are entirely useless; if, indeed, we are Christians and have Christ with us.
What of poverty opposing riches?
Nothing in the world hinders faith as much as riches on the one side and poverty on the other. Against these two things which hinder on both sides, Christ speaks here, and teaches the middle state; namely, to be neither too rich nor too poor, but learn to trust God, that he will sustain us, and be content with what God daily gives us.
How is it that we remember this miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes but tend to dismiss the annual growing of grain, fruit, vegetables and other foodstuffs? Is one not as miraculous as the other? Luther reproves us for a lack of faith:
Who clothes the trees, which are bare in the winter, but as soon as the summer begins are loaded with leaves and fruits? Who causes the corn to grow so abundantly? Do not I, (as the Lord means to teach by this miracle, ) who herewith have fed 5000 people with two fishes and five loaves? But here reason says: Yes, as regards the trees and the corn and other things, that occurs every year; therefore it is not extraordinary and miraculous; but this feeding of 5000 people with two fishes and five loaves occurred only once; therefore it is extraordinary and miraculous. Answer: What is the reason that this appears to you extraordinary and miraculous, and that the former case, when out of single grains innumerable ones grow, is not miraculous to you? That is not the fault of God or his works, but it is the fault of your unbelief, that you are so blind and hardened, and can not know God’s wonders.
From this, we can apply our Lord’s generosity, mercy and compassion to our own personal situations:
He gave not as much as there was on hand, but “as much as they would.” Here we must not think that he did this only at that time and does not wish to continue to do so, also, among his Christians. For we see examples of this blessing every day; not only as regards food, but also as regards all other kinds of want, for which he wonderfully and unexpectedly devises ways and means.
Finally, with what is left over, Luther tells us that we must be prudent with what we have whilst sharing with others, otherwise God may withdraw His blessings:
We must diligently preserve God’s blessings and not squander them away, but save them for future needs. But when this is not done, and God’s blessings are so sinfully and shame fully abused. God is driven by such vices to withhold, and where there has been one year of abundant harvests, there will follow two or three years of failure.
By commanding his disciples to gather up the fragments that were left over, the Lord does not wish to be understood that we should be covetous, but that you might be able to serve your neighbor in times of need.
Such an exposition transforms the historic miracle of the Feeding the Five Thousand to a meaningful lesson on God’s merciful daily and annual bounty for Christians throughout the ages. How blessed we are in His grace and compassion.
(Photo credit: Hope Christmas Trees)
Pre-Christian winter foliage
The practice of decorating one’s home with greenery during the winter was widespread in the ancient world near the Mediterranean and the lands that would become Europe.
At winter solstice, Egyptians used to bring green date palm leaves into the home to symbolise life over death.
Romans celebrated the shortest day of the year by honouring Saturnus, the god of agriculture. They decorated their homes with greenery. Those who displayed laurel leaves did so in honour of their emperor.
Much further north, Druids in ancient Britain used evergreen branches in their winter solstice rituals and placed the boughs over their doors to ward off evil spirits. They also regarded holly and mistletoe as symbols of eternal life.
Other ancient peoples in Europe cut down fir trees and planted them in boxes inside their homes during this time.
Once Christianity began to spread, some early theologians told their followers to discontinue the practice of displaying greenery in mid-winter because it was a pagan practice.
In the 2nd century, Tertullian objected equally to displaying laurel leaves in honour of the Roman emperor:
Let them over whom the fires of hell are imminent, affix to their posts, laurels doomed presently to burn: to them the testimonies of darkness and the omens of their penalties are suitable. You are a light of the world, and a tree ever green. If you have renounced temples, make not your own gate a temple.
Later, around 700, the missionary Boniface — later canonised — was spreading the Gospel message in what is now Germany, where the people worshipped Thor. In Geismar, Boniface chopped down the Oak of Thor where human sacrifices were made and worship took place. The stories differ as to what happened next. One says that a fir tree sprung up in its place, causing the missionary to think it was a providential sign that the evergreen should be a Christian symbol. Another version says that Boniface pointed the people to a fir tree which he said symbolised the Holy Trinity because of its triangular shape as well as the love and mercy of God.
During the Middle Ages, Christmas Eve was the feast day of Adam and Eve.
Churches used to feature dramas as part of Christmas worship. The plays tied in biblical themes and linked the Creation story to the Nativity. Churches had as backdrops ‘paradise trees’, which were draped with fruit.
By the end of the Middle Ages, the plays were no longer performed in church but out in the open air. Not surprisingly, these outdoor performances soon turned into rowdy, drunken events.
When the Reformation took root in the 16th century, many places banned the plays from the public square and the trees from churches. People began to put up paradise trees in their homes instead. These displays were called paradises even when they were simple boughs.
People decorated their paradises with round pastry wafers to symbolise the Eucharist. This developed into the tradition of decorating trees with sweet biscuits and the near-universal use of round ornaments.
The use of Christmas trees was controversial from the time of the Reformation through to the mid-19th century.
Legend tells us that Martin Luther had one in his home, although Christianity Today says this has little basis in fact. My Lutheran readers are welcome to tell me more in the comments.
The story has it that, in 1500, Luther was walking through a wood on Christmas Eve. The snow shimmering on the boughs of the fir trees moved him to bring a small evergreen in to his home for his children. He decorated it with candles which he lit in honour of Christ’s birth.
The tradition of Christmas greenery continued and returned to church sanctuaries. In the 17th century, however, some Lutheran ministers made their dislike for it known. Johann von Dannhauer said these displays distracted from Jesus Christ, the true evergreen tree.
Trees displayed in church often had a wooden pyramid of candles standing next to them. The candles represented families or individuals who belonged to the church. Later these pyramids were placed on the tree itself. It sounds like quite a fire hazard, but this gave us the tradition of a tree with lights.
In the early United States, Dutch and German immigrants brought the Christmas tree tradition with them. Hessian troops who had helped to fight in the Revolution also made the festive trees popular.
That said, the Puritans in New England banned all Christmas celebrations and decorations. Schools and commerce ran as usual on December 25.
American displays of trees in churches sometimes courted controversy. In 1851, a minister in Cleveland, Ohio, had to defend placing a tree in his church. He nearly lost his job.
The 19th century
In England, the Georgian kings from the House of Hanover carried on their displays of Christmas trees. German immigrants to England did so, too. However, the public resented the German Monarchy and wanted nothing to do with such traditions.
It was only with the popularity of Queen Victoria that the Christmas tree tradition spread across the country. Her consort Prince Albert, of German descent, set up a grand tree at Windsor Castle for the family in 1841. At this time, presents were hung on the branches where possible.
Elsewhere, members of the European nobility popularised the tradition. In 1808, Countess Wilhelmine of Holsteinborg lit the first Christmas tree in Denmark. Although unaware of the Countess’s experience at that time, Hans Christian Andersen wrote The Fir Tree in 1844. Princess Henrietta of Nassau-Weilburg introduced the Christmas tree to Vienna in 1816. It wasn’t long before all Austrians had one. In France, the Duchesse d’Orléans had a tree in her home in 1840. The Russian royal family also had a Christmas tree.
In the United States, civic leaders were unhappy with the way that Christmas Day turned into revelry. Clement Moore’s 1822 poem, known today as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”, and other similar works helped to change the nature of Christmas to a family-oriented celebration focussed on the home.
In 1851, a farmer in the Catskills (New York) named Mark Carr loaded two ox sledges with evergreen trees and took them to New York City. He sold every one of them.
20th century and later developments
By 1900, one in five American families had a Christmas tree.
By 1920, nearly all American households had one.
A decade later, during the Depression, tree growers were unable to sell fir trees to companies for landscaping. There just wasn’t enough money for that type of thing. Nurserymen decided to convert their businesses into Christmas tree farms. They soon discovered that the public preferred cultivated trees for their symmetrical shape.
Today, Christmas trees are big business. Ordering them online requires purchasing in November to avoid disappointment. For those who prefer artificial ones, aerosol pine sprays give that unforgettable scent of Yuletide cheer.
Whatever we choose to display, it seems that displaying greenery is an atavistic part of winter celebrations and the anticipation of new life. For believers, that new life is the Infant Jesus.
Martin Luther had a profound love of God’s creation.
Praying the Gospel features his marvellous quotes on nature:
Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime.
God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.
For in the true nature of things, if we rightly consider, every green tree is far more glorious than if it were made of gold and silver.
Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.
The dog is the most faithful of animals and would be much esteemed were it not so common. Our Lord God has made His greatest gifts the commonest.
Be thou comforted, little dog. Thou too in Resurrection shall have a little golden tail.
Anyone who has a garden of his own is truly blessed. To be able to admire one’s own plants, tend to them and provide for birds as well as other fauna is a luxury beyond measure.
I’ll look at another post on nature and gardening soon. It is from Dr Gregory Jackson, author of Ichabod, retired Lutheran pastor, current university lecturer, loving husband and doting grandfather.
For now, here is one of his graphics. I cannot help but agree with him and his wife Chris — ‘Mrs Ichabod’ — who asks:
How can anyone glance at a garden and remain an atheist?
He is risen!
Our Lord has overcome death and the tomb.
It is vital that our children understand this. I mention it because some British crèches teach little ones that the Crucifixion is Easter. No, it is not. This post has a true story about a little boy who learned that Jesus died, end of.
An excellent sermon by the Revd P G Mathew of Davis, California, brings the Resurrection story to life and answers a few questions we might have.
John MacArthur rightly tells us that without the Resurrection, there would be no Christianity. He answers general questions regarding the faith, well worth reading.
In the 17th century, an Anglican cleric, the Revd George Herbert wrote two beautiful poems for this feast day, ‘Easter’ and ‘Easter Wings’. The latter is especially striking, as he arranged the verses to look like wings. Have a look!
I would like to wish all my readers and subscribers a very happy Easter. May the joy we experience today fill our hearts and minds the whole year through.
Good Friday is the most sorrowful day in the Church calendar as we recall our Lord’s crucifixion for our sins.
The painting above is by the Renaissance artists Lucas Cranach the Elder and Lucas Cranach the Younger, father and son. Lucas Cranach the Younger finished the painting in 1555. It is the centre altar painting in St Peter and Paul (Lutheran) Church in Weimar, Germany.
This post explains the symbolism and significance of this painting to Good Friday. Please note that the link included no longer works.
Martin Luther tells us how to contemplate Christ’s sufferings:
The following posts also help us to better understand and reflect on what happened on this day:
Good Friday: in whom can we trust? (John 18:12-27)
Over the past several days, I have been delving into Church history with regard to liturgy and Communion frequency.
Those who missed the previous instalments on early Christian liturgy, that of the East, changes during the Dark Ages and Mass during the Middle Ages might find them helpful in understanding the services which emerged during the Reformation.
Today’s post looks at Martin Luther’s early liturgy.
Source material is taken from W.D. Maxwell’s 1937 book A History of Christian Worship: An Outline of Its Development and Form, available to read in full online (H/T: Revd P. Aasman). Page references are given below.
Martin Luther’s principal liturgical achievements were providing a service in the vernacular (local language), developing hymnody, restoring both Bread and Wine for distribution to communicants and bringing our Lord more fully into the hearts and minds of worshippers through Scripture, sermons and communal prayers.
Church services were no longer a spectacle but truly participative worship.
Luther’s work of 1520, Babylonish Captivity, called for services in the vernacular, repudiated transubstantiation whilst affirming a Real Presence and disparaged the Catholic notion of the Mass as a sacrifice (pp 75, 76).
By 1522, priors and other clergy translated the liturgy of the Mass into German with amendments to the Canon according to Lutheran teaching. However, Luther himself took issue with these attempts and published his Formula missae in 1523 (p. 77).
Essentially, the result was a truncated Mass — oddly enough — in Latin. Also of note is Luther’s retention of vestments and ceremonial aspects. Incense, to be used during the Gospel reading, was made optional.
His Deutsche Messe appeared in 1526, after he had used it for a year at Wittenberg.
The main characteristics of the Deutsche Messe were as follows (pp. 77, 79):
– A choice between the Introit or a new German hymn;
– A shortened Kyrie, now threefold instead of ninefold recitation;
– Omission of the Confiteor (confession of clergy to one another) as in his originally revised Mass;
– Two Scripture readings: one from the Epistles and the other from a Gospel;
– Preparation of unconsecrated bread and wine — the only aspect of the Offertory remaining — could be done during the Apostle’s Creed;
– The Words of Institution, to effect the consecration, became part of the Preface to the Prayer of Consecration; the latter part of that prayer — the Canon (the Prayer of Consecration itself) — was omitted;
– The Elevation of the consecrated host was retained;
– The Aaronic Blessing (Numbers 6:24-26) concluded the service:
24 The Lord bless you and keep you;
25 the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
26 the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
My Lutheran readers can give us more of an indication how this liturgy has changed over the centuries.
Luther took Communion very seriously. Whilst he wanted his followers to receive both Bread and the Cup, he also advocated certain preparations on their part (p. 78).
Communicants needed to notify the celebrant that they wished to receive Communion. They also had to demonstrate to the celebrant they understood the Christian faith in light of Lutheran teachings. Luther also encouraged private confession before the Communion service.
As every service was to have Communion, where there were no communicants, no Mass was said.
Cultural differences accepted
Luther understood that his followers in Germany and Scandinavia had different cultural traditions.
To that end, he allowed variations in different regions and countries. The Swedish and Norwegian services have ended up being the most ‘creative’ and this influence spread to American liturgy as well (p. 80).
Regardless of regional differences, the Lutheran service remained identifiably so until recent decades.
The frequency of Holy Communion in Protestant churches has increased in the last quarter of the 20th century.
Many Protestants have deplored the sparsely scheduled Holy Communion service, which, until recently, had been monthly or perhaps twice-monthly.
However, historically, everything is relative. At the time of the Reformation, most Catholics received the Sacrament once a year at Easter.
Therefore, even a Protestant reception once a month would have been 12 times more frequent than a Catholic one in that era.
The words ‘frequency’ and ‘regular’ have made many Protestants over the age of 50 forget the traditions that we grew up with. I have an Episcopalian friend in the United States who says that every Sunday service has long been one of Holy Communion. Yet, we were both longtime members of an urban Episcopal church which had such a service only once a month. The other Sundays featured Morning Prayer. Granted, as that congregation was a large one, the 8 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. services were those of Holy Communion. It seems an appropriate middle way.
Lutherans are receiving Communion much more often, although when I was growing up, my neighbours’ church — along with all the other many Lutheran churches in our town — had such services only once a month. This has been blamed on a shortage of clergy in the 19th century; the infrequency became the norm (see item 7, page 3 of this PDF).
Yet, almost no Protestant church held Communion services more than once a month. To cite another example, Methodists have had varied attitudes towards the Sacrament. As with Lutherans, they, too, historically had fewer ordained clergy and, as such, fewer Communion services. John Wesley advised them to go to the local Anglican church for Communion. Our local Methodist church has monthly Communion; the celebrant is either the pastor, in charge of three other churches in his Circuit, or one of the Anglican priests.
This paper from the Methodist Church in Great Britain describes the history of Communion frequency and what Methodists think of the Sacrament (see page 2 of this PDF, emphases mine):
2 The early Methodists were expected to practise constant and frequent Communion, either at the parish church (although in the first century of Methodism, 1740 to 1840, it was not the custom to celebrate Communion every week in most parish churches) or in their own chapels, receiving Communion either from Church of England clergy or, later, from their own itinerant preachers (ministers). However, in each of the branches of Methodism before the 1932 union, the number of Sunday congregations far exceeded the number of such ministers. This was usually the main reason why the Lord’s Supper continued to be celebrated no more than monthly in the town chapels and usually only quarterly in the villages.
3 Today Methodists vary hugely in their attachment to Holy Communion. For some it is at the very heart of their discipleship, for some it is one treasured means of grace among others and for a small minority of Methodists Communion is not perceived as either desirable or necessary.
Although many today will disagree, there is also a danger in receiving Communion unworthily: not being in the right frame of mind, being unbaptised or living a dissolute life.
In the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, the 1662 Holy Communion liturgy has a very long prayer in which the priest exhorts members of the congregation to determine whether they are worthy to receive the Sacrament. Although no longer read in BCP services, it is based on Articles 28 and 29 of the 39 Articles of Religion:
The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another, but rather it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ. (Article 28)
The Wicked, and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth (as Saint Augustine saith) the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ; yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ: but rather, to their condemnation, do eat and drink the sign or Sacrament of so great a thing. (Article 29)
Decades earlier, Martin Luther wrote:
It is useful and good that arrogant, godless blasphemers be so cut off that they should not join in partaking of the holy sacrament, for one should not ‘throw to the dogs what is holy, nor pearls before swine’ [Matt. 7:6] … It is very good and useful that our possession should not be scattered among the unworthy but kept holy and pure among the humble alone. (“That These Words of Christ, ‘This is My Body,’ etc., Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 37 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1961], pp. 131-32)
Some of the Reformed (Calvinist) churches required ministers to interview their congregants prior to the Holy Communion service. Worthy Huguenots received a méreau — token — to present at church that particular Sunday. Other Reformed churches had the same tradition in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries:
Participation among communion among 18th Reformed protestants was slim as well. Usually, in the days leading up to Communion, prospective communicants had to go through an inquiry with a minister into the state of his soul before being admitted. They called it fencing the table. If the man passed the inquiry, he received a Communion token. Then on Communion Sunday, he presented the token to receive Communion. At a Presyberian museum in Montreat, NC they have a collection of tokens. Someone named Tenney I think wrote a book about them and included photos.
This provides evidence as to why Holy Communion services and reception of the Sacrament were infrequent.
Catholics themselves only began frequently approaching the altar for Eucharist in the early part of the 20th century:
The ‘regular’ and ‘frequent’ ‘celebration’ of Holy Communion has led to another issue of improper reception of the Sacrament: universal Communion, available in most mainstream Protestant denominations — Anglican, Episcopalian, ELCA (Lutheran) and PCUSA (Presbyterian) among them.
A few years ago, I made a case against universal Communion from Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed perspectives. These historically have stemmed from St Paul’s warning to the Corinthians about improper reception of the Sacrament (1 Corinthians 11:27-30):
27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.[g]
Therefore, receiving Holy Communion should be an awesome and fearsome occasion, done with a reverent mind and humble heart.
It is no accident that the faithful have been receiving the Sacrament infrequently until recent decades.
May we be mindful and prayerful when we approach the Lord’s table.