The making of a true Biblical exegete

erasmuscomputerMany pastors nowadays use computer programs to help them study God’s Word. These programs, while often pricey (not all are), can be very useful. You can compile an excellent library in a very portable format in a hurry with one of these. I use one myself (Logos, for those who are interested.)

But these programs have drawbacks, too.

Logos — or Accordance or whatever you use — can give you meanings of words (or a start at understanding meanings, more accurately — meaning has a large contextual component), it can tell you how many times a word appears, and all sorts of trivia about it that may or may not be useful.

But it can’t make you an exegete.

The computer program can’t apply your heart, brain, and guts to a text, and let that text apply itself to you however and as much as the Holy Spirits wills. Only a man of God can do that. Logos does not have the fear of the Lord — we do. It does not have the capacity for reverence that removes its shoes before the burning bush, or kneels before the manger, or stands at the foot of the cross.

But we do.

So use that reverence, that fear of the Lord. Bow before His holy Word and then open it — and let it work His will in you. That’s how you make an exegete.


A different sort of Veteran’s Day

Today, Nov 11, is Veteran’s Day in the United States, where we remember all those who have served in our armed forces. Today the Christian Church commemorates St. Martin of Tours, who started a career as a Roman soldier before deciding that he might serve the Lord better as an evangelist and bishop (today we’d say pastor).

It’s an interesting coincidence that on the day where the nation thanks our soldiers, the Church also thanks her Lord for the service of a former soldier. In his service as a bishop, Martin displayed many of the virtues commonly seen in the military — energy, endurance, courage, a clear-sighted practicality, abundant loyalty and unswerving obedience to his “superiors” in the faith (for want of a better term — perhaps it would be better to say “fathers” in the faith). Several times he chose to follow Hilary, the bishop who was his teacher and pastor, into exile. Martin also displayed the compassion that comes from true strength, and the truest strength is faith in Christ. The story is told that during his days as a soldier, as he rode along, Martin saw a half-naked, shivering beggar by the side of the road. Martin immediately stopped, cut his cloak in two with his sword, and gave half to the freezing unfortunate. How many of us would hack our coats in half to give to a homeless person? Yet that’s exactly the sort of thing that Martin of Tours became known for.

All this reminds us, too, that proclaiming the Gospel is not for wimps. It takes a certain amount of dedication, fortitude, courage — in short, the grit that comes from a living trust in the Savior — to face down the challenges of life and the rage of the old enemy, Satan. It takes discipline to push your flesh down and not give in, and a certain amount of daring to not care what the world will say or what it will do to you for preaching Christ. “Endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ,” St. Paul advised Timothy, and that’s good advice for us all. Being a Christian is rarely easy or fun (the devil, the world, and your flesh see to that), but the victory that Christ gives in the end is worth it.

Lord God of hosts, Your servant Martin the soldier embodied the spirit of sacrifice. He became a bishop in Your Church to defend the catholic faith. Give us grace to follow in his  steps so that when our Lord returns we may be [found] clothed with the baptismal garment of righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

— from “A Year with the Church Fathers,” p.354

The one fact you won’t hear about the Oregon college shooter


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In the modern age, the first thing any reporter does when a story breaks is hop on the Internet and start searching for anything connected to a name. That’s what happened last week after Christopher Harper-Mercer carried six guns from his collection into Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, and opened fire on college students in a writing class, their professor, and anyone else in his path.

What did those reporters find? Several social media accounts turned up. A review of a purchase of Nazi-related memorabilia. A number of posts made anonymously or semi-anonymously in different places. A profile on a dating website — and a blog that mused about mass shootings. That was also where he sometimes posted pornographic posts.

Of all the coverage I’ve read or watched about the tragedy in Roseburg, I’ve seen only one or two mentions of this fact — that he was a user of pornography. Why would this not be mentioned? Perhaps it doesn’t seem germane to the issue. Perhaps it doesn’t fit the neat narrative arc that we’ve come to expect from mass shootings (which in itself might be a problem — as well as the fact that this sort of thing keeps happening.) Perhaps it just doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere at all. But I think that one fact, mentioned here and there amid the reams of coverage for this event, holds the key.

What’s the Connection?

What’s the connection between pornography use and mass murder?

Both involve viewing other people as objects.

Pornography breaks the 6th Commandment because its entire goal is to incite lust in the human heart. For the pornography user, the people in the media he (or she) consumes become no longer people, but mere objects used to gratify his (or her) lust. This can progress to the point where any real love or affection withers and dies, real relationships become increasingly difficult and distant, and the pornography user ends up alone and numb. Sadly, millions today know all too well what’s that’s like.

That same process of objectification of other people — treating them as objects to be used and then discarded, instead of human beings requiring empathy, respect, love, and care — is exactly what’s required for mass murder. How else can someone walk into a college classroom, or a kindergarten, or a mall, and open fire randomly on anyone in their path? It almost seems inconceivable to do that to another human being, or crowd of people. The only way someone can manage it is if they no longer view their victims as human beings.

Former FBI profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole says much the same thing in this video clip from CBS News. The process she describes is chilling. It reflects what James says in his epistle:

But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death. (1:14-15)

Harper-Mercer is not the only example of the intersection of pornography use and murder. Osama bin Laden was apparently addicted to pornography. The US Navy SEALS found large amounts of it on hard drives they took from bin Laden’s compound for intelligence purposes. It only fits that someone who spent a good chunk of his days consuming pornography would feel no compunction at ordering the death of hundreds, if not thousands, of people — and would gladly have killed more if he could have.

Here’s another example: Remember Ted Bundy? In his final interview, given with Dr. James Dobson not long before he was executed, Bundy names pornography use as one of the main factors that sent him down his murderous path.

Now please note carefully what I am and am not saying. I am not saying that using pornography will turn you into a serial killer or a mass murderer. If that were true, our society would be in far worse trouble than it is, which is a disconcerting thought in and of itself. What I am saying is that pornography use always has a cost, and it’s higher than the user thinks at the time. Violence and sexual immorality flow out of the same dark fountain, the polluted wellspring of the sinful human heart. They have the same source and are often closer than we in modern-day America often are willing to admit. Jesus’ words are proven sadly true yet again:

For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. — St. Matt. 15:19

Pornography is nothing to dabble with. It destroys relationships, marriages, careers, and it can destroy souls too. Untold pain and suffering results from this supposedly ‘victimless’ crime. The only cure is found in Jesus Christ, who bestows His blessings of grace, forgiveness, freedom from guilt, joy, and peace to those who turn from their sin and turn to Him, relying on Him alone. Otherwise the results are too horrific to contemplate.

My Healer, My Health


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Lord Jesus, how wonderfully comforting it is to me that You are the healer of my illnesses! Whenever I recover from sickness, it is Your doing. You have all power to heal and to cure, for me as much as for those people You helped long ago — and Your love does not fall short of Your power. You care for me at all times, well or sick, awake or asleep, with You or away from You. As long as my sickness lasts, then, I will trust that You care for me. I know that one day, You will heal all my sicknesses when You raise me from the dead. Thank you, Lord Jesus. Amen.

When the even was come, they brought unto him many that were possessed with devils: and he cast out the spirits with his word, and healed all that were sick: That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses.

— St. Matthew 8:16-17

Homily for the 100th Anniversary of St. Matthew Lutheran Church, Appleton, WI — In Appreciation of Called Workers


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Last weekend I was privileged to preach for the 100th anniversary of the congregation I grew up in, St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Appleton, WI. They have been having anniversary services all year long, one a month, and I got to be the penultimate guest preacher. (Rev. Mark Schroeder, our synod’s president, is up in November, so I reckon I’m in good company.) A lot has changed at St. Matthew since I went there, but a lot is still the same. God’s people still gather around His Word and His sacraments, and where that is, there the Body of Christ is living and active. The focus of the service I preached for was giving thanks for called workers. I was honored to be asked and to get to serve God’s people. (My sermon starts about 28:00 or so.)

Just One? (a Homily for the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist)


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Whenever the topic of a person’s life work comes up, or the good that each of us hopes to accomplish before we leave this world, inevitably someone says, “Oh, if only I can help one person — just reach one person! If only I tell one person about Jesus and that person is saved, or my sufferings and my sacrifices can benefit just one person, then my life will have been worthwhile! Then everything I’ve gone through will not be in vain!”

Being the contrarian that I am, whenever I heard those sorts of statements, my first thought immediately is: “What if you don’t help one person?”

What then?

What if you go through your entire lifetime, and not one single other person ever benefits from your experiences, your kindness, your compassion, your witness or testimony? It’s unlikely, but given how often I’ve heard people say similar things to the above, it bears asking: What if nobody at all listens or believes what you say? Will it have been a waste then?

Today the Christian Church commemorates the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist. By all appearances, his life was worthlessly given. He was the foremost of the prophets, occupying a unique place in salvation history: summing up the Old Testament prophets, while inaugurating the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which the apostles were soon to take out into the world. He was the Forerunnner. Jesus said that there was no one born of women that was greater than John the Baptist — and this is how he dies?

He didn’t die making a great heroic stand. He didn’t die in the arena, torn by the lions, or run through by the sword of a frustrated, angry pagan soldier. He didn’t give his life saving anyone from a burning building, or jumping on a grenade to save his buddies in battle.

John the Baptist was beheaded because he rebuked the wrong, powerful, person, and he incurred the anger of wicked, conniving people. You can read about it in St. Mark 6:14-29. Herod the king had married his brother’s wife — stolen her, in fact. John had rebuked him, and Salome, the brother’s wife (now Herod’s wife) in question, plus her mother, wanted revenge. So when Salome danced for Herod’s birthday party, and he being in an expansive move, he promised her anything, up to half his kingdom. Bad idea. She asked for John the Baptist’s head, and Herod, though he enjoyed listening to John and was afraid to do anything against him, was afraid of looking like a fool in front of the high rollers and power brokers — so he had John beheaded in prison. As one professor I heard years ago put it, John the Baptist died because of a bimbo. Put that together with a weak and scared ruler, and John looks like he was in the wrong place at the wrong time — and his head ends up on a platter.

Someone might well say, “Why did you speak up, John? It wasn’t your business! It didn’t bother or hurt you at all that Herod married his brother’s wife! Why provoke powerful people and make them not like you? Just let it go — it’s not your problem anyway.” That’s the voice of fear. That cowardice manages to silence Christians all over the world every day, because at the least hint of trouble — even before anything actually happens! — we’re running up the white flag in our minds. What if someone gets mad at me! — what if I lose my job! — what if I lose my friends! — what if my family member won’t speak to me! — what if, what if, what if! And we are intimidated and shamed into silence by our ungodly fear and cowardice.

John the Baptist spoke up because he didn’t care what happened to himself. All he cared about was God’s Word. His death was one that had no honor in the eyes of the world, but it was an honorable death and a good death in the eyes of God, for he died rebuking sin and speaking God’s truth. That reckless consistency of conviction, that fearless confession, unheeding of what may happen to one’s own life or livelihood, is part and parcel of bearing the cross. Without sin being rebuked, how will anyone know or care that they are wrong? How will they be moved to search anxiously for a solution, for a Savior, if they don’t know they’ve done wrong, or they’re accustomed to silencing or placating their conscience? How will they find peace and salvation, if they don’t encounter the Word from us that gives life?

More importantly — how will a sinner be saved if God’s Word is never brought to bear on his or her heart? Maybe the person we’re rebuking or correcting will hear and take it to heart; maybe they won’t. But whatever happens after we confess and proclaim God’s Word is His business, not ours. He doesn’t ask us for results. He asks us to be faithful. Let me repeat that again, loud and clear, so you can hear it over our “leadership”-saturated, overly pragmatic, manager culture: God doesn’t ask us for results. He asks us to be faithful. Once you grasp the difference, John the Baptist’s death becomes more glorious, a death full of honor. We could all use a dose of John the Baptist’s don’t-give-a-hoot, unfailingly upfront confession of God’s Word. Speak God’s Word the way John the Baptist did — with a bracing, straightedge moxie, but also never without love for the other person. Regardless of the consequences. Never backing down from God’s truth. It scares the enemies of the gospel and it encourages the fainthearted, and it glorifies the Lord, to whom be all power, glory, honor, and strength, for ever and ever. Amen.

Preached at the nursing home in Morgan, MN, for the feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, 2014.

 But when Herod heard thereof, he said, It is John, whom I beheaded: he is risen from the dead.

17 For Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John, and bound him in prison for Herodias’ sake, his brother Philip’s wife: for he had married her.

18 For John had said unto Herod, It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife.

19 Therefore Herodias had a quarrel against him, and would have killed him; but she could not:

20 For Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy, and observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly.

21 And when a convenient day was come, that Herod on his birthday made a supper to his lords, high captains, and chief estates of Galilee;

22 And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee.

23 And he sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom.

24 And she went forth, and said unto her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist.

25 And she came in straightway with haste unto the king, and asked, saying, I will that thou give me by and by in a charger the head of John the Baptist.

26 And the king was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath’s sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her.

27 And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought: and he went and beheaded him in the prison,

28 And brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel: and the damsel gave it to her mother.

29 And when his disciples heard of it, they came and took up his corpse, and laid it in a tomb.

— St. Mark 6:16-29

An answer, any answer


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It may seem paradoxical to the reason of the flesh to pray for an answer to prayer, to pray, “God, please give me an answer, any answer” — but pious Christian hearts understand that request very well. Sometimes all that is needed is an answer, any answer, from the Lord — for then we know that He hears us, which is the most wonderful comfort and consolation, and we are content, knowing that whatever He sends will be good.


Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.

— Jesus (in St. Mark 11:24)

Loud chaff and powerful Word


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How long shall this be in the heart of the prophets that prophesy lies? yea, they are prophets of the deceit of their own heart… The prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that hath my word, let him speak my word faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat? saith the Lord.

— Jeremiah 23:26,28

Here, the Lord through Jeremiah reminds us that we aren’t meant to shut up or silence the unbelieving world. Don’t think that it’s your job to silence everyone who’s wrong. It won’t work anyway. There are too many who reject His Word, and they shout, scream, and yammer too loudly for us to drown them out on their own. “Let him tell his dream,” the Lord says.

But you — since you have His Word, you proclaim it as hard as you can, as often as you can, as far and wide as you can. Broadcast it, make it known, declare it at the top of your voice, with all the life and energy He gives you — as if souls depend on that Word. Because they do. You, child of God, have been given the precious, nourishing Word that lives and gives life. Proclaim it with every ounce of strength in your body, to your last breath.

Special thanks to my brothers in the Summer Hebrew Institute, among whom I was given this insight.


A few thoughts on the Rich Man & Poor Lazarus (St. Luke 16:19-31)


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Lazarus is known by name to the Lord, for he was called to faith by the Lord (cf. Isa 43:1). The Lord knew him and cared for him, even when those around him didn’t. The rich man’s situation in eternity, by contrast, is the reverse of his life on earth: on earth everyone knew who he was, but in eternity in hell, he is unknown — “Depart from Me, I never knew you,” the Lord will say to those on His left on the Last Day. The rich man’s name was not written in the book of life, and consequently he is namelessly condemned for his refusal to believe the word of Moses and the prophets.

What our fathers have taught us


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Or, “my other white shirt is a dress shirt with short sleeves.”

My father is an electrical engineer. He’s quite competent at his job — been doing it for a long time. I can recall conversations I had with him, when I was in high school and younger, where we’d get talking and he would start explaining things about electricity and his job to me. I didn’t get all of it. In fact, I can recall at least a few times where it went clean over my head. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t appreciate what he was trying to tell me, or that I wasn’t glad he took the time to sit and talk with me; it’s just that I wasn’t ready at that time to absorb all of it, or even some of it. Dad, if you’re reading this, thank you for wanting to tell me. A lot of it makes more sense now. Sometimes just sitting and talking can be good, even if a person doesn’t get everything out of it he could.

The reason I thought of this was an occasion where I did the same thing the other day, with one of my own offspring. We were all hanging out on my day off; I was cleaning the kitchen, the girls were coloring or looking at books, the baby was sleeping, Christi was doing something — we were all just kind of around and quiet. I’d put on Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, which is a great album, and I stopped to ask Adah if she liked it. She said yeah, and then said she’d heard him mention snow. I said, “Yes, the singer did; in fact, Justin Vernon, that’s his name, he moved into a log cabin in northern Wisconsin and spent all winter by himself, writing songs, and this is what he came up with. Pretty neat, huh?” Then I left off my happy tirade to draw breath, and realized Adah had gone back to her coloring about a minute and a half ago. It was then that I realized I had done it, too: I’d dumped a bucket of facts over her head when all that was really needed was a cup of conversation. My topic was music, but the outcome was the same. It made me shake my head at myself, and maybe feel a little embarrassment. (Some refer to that urge to over-explain as ‘mansplaining’…you can see how they’d coin such a word.)

Such moments are not without their redeeming value, however. They teach us that knowledge has value, even knowledge we don’t need right this second, even knowledge we don’t grasp at the time. Such moments teach us that even if we fall short of assimilating what we’re told today, in the future we might need that information, and at that time we’ll remember and be helped — because someone took the time to tell us something that happened to be beyond our grasp back then.

Thomas saith unto Him, Lord, we know not whither Thou goest; and how can we know the way?

— St. John 14:5

Apply this to Christian doctrine, and you re-discover a comforting truth. Every year, at least a few times during catechism instruction, I’m tempted to yank my hair out in despair and dejection, just at the sheer amount of doctrine our children need to know, even to grasp the most elementary basics. I’m not talking seminary-level instruction here — it’s the Small Catechism, folks. Seems pretty simple, right? Wrong. There’s always so much to teach, so much to learn, even out of the Small Catechism, and so little time, and I often tell my students that. At such times I am consoled that even if they don’t understand now, they may one day. The Spirit will keep the Son’s promise by calling to mind everything He said to us in the days of His flesh on earth (John 14:26). He would teach and instruct Jesus’ followers, and through that ongoing teaching they would be guided by God in their daily lives. Even if they don’t get it all right now, even if their attention is less than rapt some days, they are still hearing the Word which is powerful. That Word can and does routinely work miracles, so much so that we scarcely notice sometimes. Understanding, logical comprehension, is not required in all parts — but faith is. A living and active trust in Christ as your own Savior, the Lamb of God given for you, teaches far more than any voluminous set of facts ever could. Even if your children don’t grasp everything right now, don’t worry — they have time to grow. They will find out the value of what they have been taught, if they do not stray from it.

I’m glad my father explained things to me I still don’t understand. It shows love, and a care that estimates that one day such things may be useful. Never worry about stretching someone, giving them more than you think they can handle on occasion — give them a chance, and they just may surprise and shock you. Even if they don’t understand it all right away.

Give ear, O my people, to my law: incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old: Which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us.We will not hide them from their children, shewing to the generation to come the praises of the Lord, and His strength, and His wonderful works that He hath done.For He established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which He commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children:That the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born; who should arise and declare them to their children:That they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep His commandments…

— Psalm 78:1-7