Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Luther's Notes on the Gospel: Ascension

Mark 16:14-20
14 Later He appeared to the eleven as they sat at the table; and He rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen Him after He had risen. 15 And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. 16 He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; 18 they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
19 So then, after the Lord had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. 20 And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs. Amen.

Luther's Notes

The Gospel of the Ascension. St. Mark comprises very briefly in this Gospel of the ascension all that Christ said and did after his resurrection until the fortieth day, when he ascended to heaven, which he did not speak and do all at once, or even in an hour. Therefore we must divide and distinguish the two parts, which are here briefly drawn together; namely, that the Lord here reproves the disciples for their unbelief (v. 14) and that he commands them to go and preach, according to the other Evangelists. Verses 15-18.

unbelief and hardness of heart. It was not a small weakness of which Christ charged the disciples, that they were not only unbelieving, but also stubbornly hard hearted, because they believed not what they had heard and others had seen, that the Lord had risen from the dead. Neither is it a small matter, since unbelief is the greatest sin that can be named, and he tells them the reason of their unbelief, when he says: "Their hearts are hardened;" yet he deals kindly and mildly with them.

But let no one imagine that the apostles were altogether unbelievers; for they believed what is written in the law and the prophets, although they were yet deficient in faith. They did not yet believe the resurrection of Christ from the dead. They believe that the resurrection of Christ is nothing else, than that we have a mediator before God who is Christ, and who makes us pious and accept able to God the Father. Without this faith we are children of wrath and can do no good work that would be acceptable to God, nor would God hear our prayers. 1 Cor. 15:14, 17; Rom. 10:9.

Go into all the world, etc. These are words of majesty, which can properly be called a majesty, that he commands these poor beggars to go out and preach this new Gospel, not to a single city or country, but in all the world, principalities and kingdoms, and to open their mouths freely and confidently before all creatures, in order that all who belong to the human race may hear this Gospel.

When this Gospel shall have been preached and heard in all the world, the proclamation will be accomplished, and then will also come the last day.

It is with this proclamation of the Gospel as when one casts a stone into the water, which produces constantly widening circles, till they reach the shore.

Go preach. For the Gospel is not entirely that which is written in books, but it is also an oral preaching, which must be heard.

The old law, and that which the prophets preached, is not proclaimed to all creatures in the whole world, but is preached by the Jews in their synagogues; yet the Gospel shall not be circumscribed, but shall go out irresistibly into all the world. Because he will have none excluded, he indicates that this is a new Gospel, of which the world knows nothing.

He who believes shall be saved. This may rightly be called a Gospel. For here you have in one word heaven opened, and hell closed. Oh, if one could here only learn these two words, Faith and Salvation!

He who believes and is baptized. He purposely spake these words so clearly and plainly to exclude the false views and presumption of the Jews, and of all the world in regard to their own works and deeds, and refers everything to faith and baptism; that is, not to our, but to his own work. Our high learned doctors intended here to master the Holy Ghost and sharpen his tongue, by saying that good works also belong to faith, and that faith is not sufficient for salvation. But we must let this verse stand clear and pure, with out any addition.

Something more. But Christ also says, "He who believes and is baptized will be saved." Here you might say, Now I hear that baptism, also, belongs to it. Yes, certainly it belongs to it; but baptism is not a work, which we perform, but it is God's work. For he that baptizes me stands in the place of God, and does not the work of man. God, who will not and can not lie, gave me the sign, that I shall be certain that he is gracious unto me and will save me. Therefore baptism shall accompany faith, because God wills it, that the faith shall not remain concealed in the heart, but shall break forth, and become known and manifest before the world. Again, no one could be brought to the faith by us, if we did not publicly profess the Gospel and have an external sign, whereby we could know where and who were Christians.

but he who does not believe. Once more Christ says, "but he who does not believe will be condemned." But here you must let the words remain as they stand. For he does not say, he who does not believe and does evil works besides; but plainly thus: If you have all good works and faith is lacking, it is vain. As little as sin can stand before faith, so little can good works stand before unbelief. He who does not believe, can certainly do no good work; but it is all sin. (Rom. 14:23.) "Whatsoever is not of faith is sin."

These signs shall follow. Some argue and interpret the signs spiritually; but they do not bear such interpretation; for thereby the Scripture becomes vacillating and unstable. Some say that although not every one has or can do these signs, yet they are given to the whole congregation, or the whole multitude of Christendom, so that one casts out the devils, another heals the sick, and so on. Therefore they say that such signs are a manifestation of the Spirit, that where these signs are, there is also the Christian Church, and vice versa. But these words do not refer to the congregation, but upon each individual especially, as is indicated in John 14:12. (See Matt. 10:8; Psalm 91:13.) For a Christian has like power with Christ, is in communion with him, and sits with him in the entire life.

But let no one undertake to do these signs, unless there is an absolute necessity. For Christ did not say that they must always continue to do such things, but that they shall have the power to do them. The disciples also did not always exercise them, but only for the attestation of the word of God, and to confirm the same by miracles, as it stands here in the text, verse 20. But as the Gospel is now spread abroad, it is not necessary to show signs, as in the times of the apostles.

He was received up into heaven. It is easily said and understood, that the Lord ascended to heaven and sits at the right hand of God. But it is a dead and meaningless word, unless it is received in the heart. Therefore we must let his ascension and sitting on the right hand of God be an active and powerful thing that is constantly in vogue, and not think that he ascended and sits there, and lets us rule here; but he has ascended, because he can work and rule there much better. When he was on earth, he was too far from us; now he is very near to us. (Ps. 8:5-7; 2:7; 110:1, 5-7;  58:19.) But reason can not grasp how this comes about; one does not hear or see it; therefore one must only believe it.

And they went forth and preached everywhere. Whence do they now receive such courage and power? No king of Persia has given it to them, but only the Lord, who has this day ascended to heaven and sits there, and who commanded them to go and preach to all creatures, and they have succeeded, and thus it still goes on to the end.

The Lord working with them, confirming the word with signs. But such external signs (v. 17, 18) are, indeed, small and almost childish miracles in comparison with the real, great miracles which Christ works in Christendom without cessation by his divine, almighty power; namely, that Christianity is defended and upheld on earth, and that the word of God and, yea, that even Christianity yet remains against the devil and all his angels, and also against so many tyrants and factions ; yea, also against our own flesh and blood, all of which storm against the church of Christ.

Luther's Explanatory Notes on the Gospels, pp. 172-174