Today is Ash Wednesday, 2013 – the inaugural day of the Season in the Church Calendar called Lent. We will be hearing from Dr. Adolph Hoeecke (WELS) on The Reason for Christ's Passion. For the reader who is unfamiliar with the term “Lent,” or who is not sure what it means, the image at left contains a brief explanation of its meaning for Christians (taken from our blog post, Confessional Lutheran Evangelism: Confessing Scripture's Message about Lent). For those who may be under the influence of false witnesses claiming that Lent is somehow borrowed from pre-Christian paganism, Rev. Joseph Abrahamson (ELS) does an excellent job dispatching such lies in his essay, Redeeming Holy Days from Pagan Lies — Ash Wednesday and Lent. For those unfamiliar with the term “Passion” in application to the Season of Lent or to Christ's atoning work on the Cross, read on. Dr. Hoenecke will explain.
A Sermon for Ash Wednesday
The Reason for Christ's Passion
by Dr. Adolf Hoenecke1
- Text: Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour. Father, glorify thy name. Then came there a voice from heaven, saying, I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again. The people therefore, that stood by, and heard it, said that it thundered: others said, An angel spake to him. Jesus answered and said, This voice came not because of me, but for your sakes. (John 12:27-30)
What purpose is this time to serve? Simply the purpose of viewing Jesus’ Passion in the right light, of understanding it, and of learning to understand it better and better: its causes, His manner of bearing it, its nature, its purpose, its results and fruits. For the man who has not come to a knowledge of these most important points does not understand Jesus’ Passion, nor can he rejoice in the comfort which these sufferings are to afford him. Let us, therefore, in this first Passion sermon take the first step toward such a better understanding. Let us, under the guidance of our text, devoutly weigh the reason for Christ’s sufferings. Our theme is:
- Let us use our text to give us the understanding of the reason for Christ’s Passion.
Let us consider what great comfort this knowledge affords us.
Let us use our text to give us the understanding of the reason for Christ’s Passion. “Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this” (John 12:7). In this way the Lord rebuked Judas when Mary had anointed Him. That was during His last visit in Bethany, in the home of Lazarus, which was most dear to Him. A heart overflowing with grateful love impelled Mary to pour the costly spikenard over Jesus’ feet. Only a short time before, the blessed Lord had conferred the inexpressibly great boon on her and her sister, Martha, of calling their brother Lazarus back from the dead. Certainly, this anointing of the Lord was a beautiful act of love. We can imagine the great satisfaction Mary found in being able to pay her Lord this homage. We can conceive, too, how deeply alarmed she was when the beloved Lord made the declaration: “You have kept this against the day of my burying. You have had this costly nard in readiness for a long time. Now the time to use it has come – my burial is near.” And deeply alarmed were the others with her. Far, far from their minds were thoughts of the Lord’s death! But the Lord’s mind? It was filled completely with thoughts of His death, and from this time forward nothing dislodged them.
But though it was a beautiful homage Mary paid her Lord when she anointed Him with precious ointment, the next day brought a still greater homage. It was the Day of Palms, the day on which the Lord entered the city of Jerusalem to the people’s shouts of “Hosannah!” It was also the day that brought the fury of the Pharisees to a boil, as they were forced to admit: “Perceive ye how ye prevail nothing? Behold, the world is gone after him” (John 12:19). It was the day on which certain festival guests, come from far, approached Philip and said: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” It was on this day that the thoughts of death, His own death, filled the mind of the Lord anew, thoughts which He expressed in the words: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:20-24).
And it was a hard death, a death mid great agonies, for which the Lord had to brace Himself. The very thought of it was able to fill the strong soul of Jesus with such sorrow that it brought from His lips the anguished sigh, yea, the anguished sigh of prayer: “Now is my soul troubled.” For these first words of our text are words of prayer.
Now, when we hear our dear Lord proclaiming His thoughts of death only during this period of six days before the Passover, it must be clear to us that they did not, by any means, arise in Him only during these days. True, the Saviour had taken good note of the fact that the resurrection of Lazarus, which He had recently performed, had goaded His enemies into decreeing His death. He had recognized very well that His triumphal entry to the shouts of Hosannah and the jubilation of the multitude had raised the hatred and the fury of the elders among the people to the highest pitch. But it was not these facts, by any chance, that led the Lord to conclude: “Now the end is not far off; I see that my death is near and certain to come.” Not at all! The Lord prayed: “And what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour.” Whenever an hour is spoken of in this way, then such a time is meant as has been determined and ordained by the Father in His eternal counsel, and whatever such an hour brings with it is something predetermined by the Father; whatever such an hour imposes is something imposed by the Father.
Therefore our Lord’s words of prayer, first of all, tell us this about His sufferings: They were ordained by God; they were sufferings that God laid upon the Son in accord with His eternal counsel. All of the sufferings, every one of them, the sufferings in their whole extent and down to their smallest, finest detail – all were ordained by the Father for the Son. None of those things which Jesus suffered just happened, but the whole Passion was the very Passion which the Father had meted out to the Son. Not only the supreme suffering, the being-forsaken-by-God, the torments of hell, made up the measure of Jesus’ sufferings ordained and determined by God the Father.
It was not accidental, by any chance, that they mocked Jesus: “Prophesy unto us! Surely, a great prophet such as you ought to know everything?” (Matt. 26:28, para.) It was not accidental, by any chance, that they laid the purple robe on Him and thus clothed Him in mock pomp, as though He had sought vain pomp. It was not accidental that they pressed the crown of thorns upon His head and put a sceptre in His hand and thus made a mockery of Him, the Lord, for His supposed striving after high position, for His supposed ambition to be a lord over his fellows. All these things were bitter drops which, by sure design, had been made a part of the cup of Jesus’ sufferings. They did not drop into the cup by accident. No, they, too, had been prepared by God and, even as all the others, had been ordained as the measure of Jesus’ sufferings. Christian friends, on this very fact hinges much more of the teaching meant for our comfort than you usually suppose.
But what purpose did our heavenly Father have in mind when He, even from eternity, ordained for His beloved Son the severe sufferings which the Lord was now approaching? The next words of Jesus’ prayer solve that question for us. They are: “But for this cause came I under this hour.” Our Saviour does not at once add an explanation of His “for this cause.” But what thoughts busied His heart becomes evident to us from the petition He uttered, rather, the demand He made upon His heavenly Father at the close of His prayer. This was the request, yea, the demand He made upon His Father in prayer: “Father, glorify thy name.”
Fellow Christians, these words tell us, the children of the heavenly Father, in fact, tell all the world, the reason why God the Father in His eternal counsel meted out to His beloved Son this unspeakable great measure of sufferings, the very prospect of which was enough to make the soul of our dear Lord sorrowful, sorrowful unto death, as we are told in connection with His agonizing prayer in Gethsemane. To glorify Himself – that was the Father’s purpose in this. He wanted to display His glory through this. In this way He wanted to lead men to recognize and understand what a glorious and adorable God He is.
Let us say more: Exactly in this, and in this above all, His glory was to shine forth. Note that our text so teaches. Upon the Son’s prayer: “Father, glorify Thy name,” there resounded a wonderful Amen, a Father’s Amen. “Then,” we read in our text, “came there a voice from heaven, saying, I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.” The praying Son received this answer from the Father in heaven: I have already glorified My name; I have already made My name glorious.
Surely, we know the ineffable, grace-revealing way in which the Father in heaven had already glorified His name up to the time that the beloved Son addressed this prayer to Him. He had done that through this very Son. Had He not caused His Son to become man, and had He not sent Him to men as their Comfort and Refuge, as their Helper and Redeemer? For whom did He do that? For men who in all justice had deserved only the curse and damnation. Moreover, God sent His Son into the world as a Saviour who was all loving-kindness, from whose lips flowed nothing but grace. He had given Him a message to proclaim that was pure comfort. He had given to Him a greeting to sinners that conveyed a heart-warming and heart-winning friendliness, and so we behold the Son lovingly seeking out and wooing sinners. Again, there are the many, many miracles He had granted the Son to perform.
In short, He had sent His Son as a Saviour whom all poor sinners simply had to love. Who, then, will deny that the Father even through the sending of this Son had glorified His name immeasurably? Whoever gazes upon this friendly, gracious Saviour and then realizes: He is the One sent by God as the Comfort, Refuge, and Help of all damnable sinners – surely, he is constrained to say: Glorious, glorious beyond compare is the heavenly Father; glorious is our great God as seen in the love which He accorded a damnable world by the sending of His Son!
But, God says in today’s text, all this is not enough for Me that I have made My name glorious so that I am revealed as “Love.” I will make it still more glorious in My beloved, obedient Son, whose will it is to do My will. It is not enough for me that My love is glorified by having My beloved Son become man, bring a loving message to men, impart tender comfort to them, and help them with great miracles. No! Now My work and counsel will receive its crown as I deliver My dear Son into the greatest sufferings for the sinners’ sake. Verily, I will show how great and supremely glorious My love is by giving my Son to die in the place of all sinners.
What a comforting revelation concerning Jesus’ Passion we have here! By letting His own Son suffer damnation out of compassionate love for damnable sinners, God the Father wanted to give the greatest proof that He is a glorious God. Assuredly, that is a comforting revelation. It can be of great comfort to you.
Let us now consider the great comfort this knowledge of the reason for Jesus’ Passion affords us. This comfort is so great that surely none are to be pitied more than the people who lack this knowledge. And, alas, there are very many of them. Many act like the people in our text. When the voice from heaven came, “I have both glorified it arid will glorify it again,” the people that stood by said: “It thundered.” They heard a sound, but they did not distinguish the words; as a result they remained in complete ignorance in regard to it. And that, sad to say, is the reaction of many to the Word that the heavenly Father speaks regarding the sufferings of Jesus Christ. It remains an empty sound, stopping at the ear; it endows them with no insight. In fact, they do not desire any. They are simply indifferent.
The people of our text were just like that. They saw Jesus standing before them, and they very likely were able to tell from His whole conduct and conversation that something out of the ordinary was taking place; but when they heard the sound, they supposed it was thundering. They were quite satisfied with that conjecture, nor did they investigate whether it might possibly be something else. That is true of the mass of indifferent hearers today. They, indeed, hear the sound of the mystery of Jesus’ sufferings, but they are not at all concerned about penetrating into this mystery.
But all the people in our story were not like that. We are told that the rest said: “An angel spake to him.” These people realized to a certain extent the meaning of the sight Christ presented to their eyes. They saw that He was troubled. They saw that He was praying. They thought, when they heard the voice, that it was an angel who, upon God’s commission, was comforting Jesus, an unfortunate man with a great grief. So these people did form their opinions concerning Jesus, but their opinions were wrong. They, too, lacked the right knowledge.
What was true of them is still true of not a few. They always look at Christ merely as though He were like any other man overtaken by suffering and misfortune, who is, therefore, making a claim on the pity and sympathy of men. When they have permitted such pity and sympathy to be stirred by the sufferings of Jesus, when their hearts are deeply moved by them, then they think that theirs was a Passion meditation which is richly blessed. Since these people have no true knowledge of the reason why the Saviour really entered His sufferings, since they see nothing of the glory of God which is revealed particularly in these sufferings, they also find no comfort. God is not at fault here.
For it is God’s heartfelt desire that all come to a true knowledge of the true reason for Jesus’ sufferings, for the very purpose that they might receive the rich comfort which this knowledge imparts. How earnestly God desires this our Saviour also teaches in our text. He says: “This voice came not because of me, but for your sakes.” Thus the Lord spoke to the people who stood by, to those who were talking only about thunder, and to those who thought only of an angel. For your sakes the Father spoke from heaven, saying that through My suffering He would show and manifest to you what a glorious God He is in His love and compassion. For your sakes, so that the true knowledge of My suffering might dawn on you. For your sakes – with that the Saviour at once also cut away every excuse for those who do not gain a true and comforting knowledge of Jesus’ sufferings.
For your sakes, not for mine – in this we hear again a declaration of the great love God has for a sinful world, a love at which we cannot marvel enough. Consider it as pictured by our text. Here was the Saviour, the beloved Son, in whom the Father found nothing but pleasure. The soul of that Son was sorrowful. The prospect of the dread sufferings which He was approaching weighed down His soul with a mountainous burden of fear and terrors. And now, when He pleaded with the Father, the Father spoke from heaven: “I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.”
One might think that the Son is here speaking chiefly for the sake of His Son, to strengthen Him, to let Him taste His love. But the Son Himself, whose lips spoke nothing but the truth, assures us: Not for my sake, but for your sakes the Father has spoken; not in Fatherly concern for Me, but in Fatherly concern for you and in His good intentions toward you, in order to help you. Tell me, does not the Father’s love for us sinners once again shine forth here in the most comforting way? But since God is so deeply concerned that sinners come to a true knowledge of the cause of His Son’s sufferings, then we may draw the sure conclusion that the comfort of this knowledge must be very great indeed.
That certainly is the case, dear friends in Christ. “Now is my soul troubled,” says the Lord in our text. To us, too, there comes a time when we say: My soul is troubled. This is the time when, not some earthly sorrow or grief, but divine sorrow takes possession of our soul. It is the genuine, deep sorrow and grief which God awakens in our soul. It is the sorrow that cuts deep into our hearts in an entirely different way than the sorrow over temporal misfortune, over earthly losses, the losses of wealth and goods, the losses by death of persons dear to us. It is the sorrow and grief which God works in the heart through His holy Law, the sorrow which always comes over the soul when a man realizes that he is completely guilty before God’s Law; that he has kept none of it; that he is utterly unworthy and damnable; and that he most certainly can expect nothing but the judgment, damnation, eternal rejection. It is the sorrow that causes the sinner to say:
- Ah, whither shall I flee?
What shall my refuge be
When sins I cannot number
My conscience sore encumber?
Though all men aid would lend me,
Still anguish would attend me.
(Tr. a W. H. F.)
But, God now says, the glory that shows itself in My holy Commandments, My Law, is not to be My greatest glory. No, you sinners, you are to see My greatest glory in this that I have Jesus suffer all the punishment for you. It is My will to be glorious in your eyes; it is My will that you praise My glory, but it is to be the glory of My great compassion, the compassion which decreed that Jesus, My beloved Son, suffer in your stead. Thus God, so to speak, gives us two pictures of His glory. The one, in the Law, portrays Him in His inexorable holiness; the other portrays His infinite compassion by the sacrifice of His Son. And it is in this beautiful picture of God, as the One who has compassion on us, that God wants to give us the true and final view of Himself. In this picture He wants us really to see and know Him. At all times we are to cling to this truth: God seeks His highest honor, the most precious praise, and the greatest glory among us as the One who in compassion offered up His Son for us.
What a rich comfort this is! As often as your soul is troubled because of sin, and you behold God as the holy, righteous God with terror in your soul, you are to say: Get thee hence, thou terrifying image of God! It is the dearest wish of my God that I view Him, above all, in this comforting picture as the One who in compassion had Jesus suffer for me. Can sorrow hold its ground here? Oh no, it must take flight. – My soul is troubled. Thus we speak at the thought of death, even as in death itself. Oh, we have to admit that we have deserved death. And God would be giving us our just deserts. Truly, great is the glory and majesty of a God who could make all flesh suffer an agonizing death and eternal perdition because of sin. But now God reveals that His greatest glory is not to be this, that He lets all the world experience well-deserved death, but that He lets His Son taste death for all the world, so that the world might be saved by Him and live. Therefore it is the will of God that there appear before our eyes in death only one picture, the picture that portrays Him as the God who in compassion redeems us from death through Jesus’ death, who leads us into life through Jesus’ death, and who most assuredly has no pleasure in our death, but would have us live.
What a comfort that this picture of God is to accompany us through death! Then a man can die serenely. Who can feel terror, now that God appears in this lovely, winsome light; now that it is His will that no terrifying picture of Himself, but only a friendly one is to hover before our eyes in our last hour? Here fear and anguish must give way. The soul takes its departure with a foretaste of the eternal seeing of God. This is a certainty. Then let us apply all diligence that we may gain a true understanding of Jesus’ Passion and thus have this comforting picture of God ever before our eyes.
- Hoenecke, A. (1957). Glorified in His Passion (W. Franzmann, Trans.) Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House. (Original work published in German, 1910.). pp. 1-14.
Note: Dr. Adolf Hoenecke (1835-1908) is among the most important theologians of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS). He, along with Johannes Bading (d. 1913), led the WELS out of pietistic indifferentism and unionism into strong confessional Lutheranism, was one of the founders of the the old Synodical Conference, and is credited with being the first German Lutheran to author a complete Lutheran Dogmatics in America – Evangelical Lutheran Dogmatics – recently translated into English and available from Northwestern Publishing House. For more information about Dr. Hoenecke, a fairly detailed biography written by Professor August Pieper in 1935, can be found at the following link: The Significance of Dr. Adolf Hoenecke for the Wisconsin Synod and American Lutheranism