This 7-part series originally ran under the German title “Einige biblische Culturbilder” in Der Lutheraner from August 2 to October 25, 1904. The author is Georg Stoeckhardt, who served as a professor at Concordia Seminary – St. Louis for several decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is commonly regarded as the greatest exegete in the history of the Missouri Synod. I offer this translation in the hope it will be edifying and thought-provoking to the 21st century Lutheran reader also. – R.L.L.
Biblical Pictures of Culture, Part 7 of 7
The last of the Biblical Pictures of Culture, which we put before our readers, should not be a picture of darkness, but a picture of light. Fallen men have pulled the culture into the service of sin and godlessness. Still, God has retained a seed in this degenerate generation, a holy seed. And God’s people on earth have from the beginning also put the things of this earth – culture, art, science – into God’s service.
Israel, the people which God chose for himself before all peoples, was from the beginning a cultured people. Moses, the first great leader of the people, was raised as a son of the Pharaoh’s daughter in all the wisdom of the Egyptians (Acts 7:21-22). This ended up being very useful to him, especially as he received the Law from God and proclaimed it to Israel. Then he wrote all the words of this Law and the history of the people and his fathers into a book. The children of Israel were in the time of their slavery acquainted with the old culture of Egypt, and became well-versed in it. And what they learned in Egypt, that they used and sanctified in the correct way, especially as they established their worship on Sinai according to God’s direction. The center point of the old Israelite worship was the tabernacle. It was a structure made of acacia wood, covered with gold. Above this structure was spread out a costly carpet, woven together out of blue purple, dark-red purple, and bright red crimson. Into the multi-colored material was woven white byssus. Then figures of cherubim were impressed. Three covers made from skins covered and protected the decorative carpet from the outside. Just as the outer curtain of the tabernacle was prepared, so was the inner part, out of the same costly materials. So also was the garment of the high priest, on which one could see 24 precious shining jewels. Scripture describes the furnishings of the tabernacle in precise detail, the Ark of the Covenant with the golden mercy seat and the two golden cherubim. It describes the showbread table, the golden lampstand with its branches and cups, and the altar of incense with its golden bowls and basins, which contained the fragrant incense. It was all very fine artistic work, and the Scripture speaks well of the names of the artists, which completed this work (See Exodus 25). And these holy works of art served holy purposes. The tabernacle was the place where God came together with his people, where God revealed himself to his people. All pieces of holy art have their meaning. They were pictures of the kingdom of God, foreshadowing the things of the New Testament (Hebrews 9). Later the temple in Jerusalem replaced the tabernacle. Solomon’s temple was a first-class monument and work of art. The building was erected out of stone blocks, and the stone building was overlapped by cedar beams. Inside it was adorned with cedar. Figures of cherubim, palms, and flowers were carved into the cedar walls, and the woodwork together with the carvings were covered with gold foil. Phoenician laborers had also offered their services. The temple furnishings were similar to the furnishings of the tabernacle, only that they included the latest style in decoration. Instead of the washbasin in the front court stood the great sea of cast metal, supported by twelve bronze oxen. A notable adornment of the front court were the two great bronze pillars called Jachin and Boaz (See 1 Kings 6). The devout people observed the beautiful worship of the Lord in this holy place. Here the Psalms of David were sung by Levitical choirs, supported by the accompaniment of string instruments. Trumpet sound and horn comprised the other part of the holy music. It was the place which was so beloved to the godly in Israel. It was the place where the honor of God lived.
The old covenant, the Old Testament worship had much to do with earthly material. But now the shadow has given way since Christ, the body, has appeared. Now in the new covenant the true worshipers worship the Father, the Father of Jesus Christ, in spirit and truth. For us Christians the Word of God, the Gospel of Christ, is the holy thing above all holy things. And the preaching of the Gospel is now the foremost worship. Now earthly currency and goods, earthly labor and commerce – they still have worth and significance for the kingdom of God. In the 60th chapter the Prophet Isaiah prophesies concerning the New Testament Church, concerning the conversion of the heathen to Christ. Here we read in verses 6-9: “A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD. All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you; the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you; they shall come up with acceptance on my altar, and I will beautify my beautiful house. Who are these that fly like a cloud, and like doves to their windows? For the coastlands shall hope for me, the ships of Tarshish first, to bring your children from afar, their silver and gold with them, for the name of the LORD your God, and for the Holy One of Israel, because he has made you beautiful” (Isaiah 60:6-9 ESV). Here the prophet describes in Old Testament pictures and expressions the entrance of the heathen into the New Testament Zion. He sees in the Spirit bands coming from the East, especially from the kingdom of Arabia. They make their offering on the altar of the Lord. That is, they honor and worship Christ the Lord, about whom the prophecy speaks. He sees ships from the West, which bring the children of Zion. And these heathen who convert to the Lord, they bring their gold and silver in order to adorn the house of the Lord. This means the New Testament house of God. Yes, in the new covenant silver, gold, and costly sacrifices are still required, in order that service of the Word be established and maintained, in order that preachers of the Word be sent to the strangers who still sit in shadows and the darkness of death. In the final part of the prophecy concerning Tyre, chapter 23, it is prophesied that the forgotten whore should once again come to mind, that God would visit Tyre again in grace. And concerning the rest of Tyre we read in verse 18: “But your merchandise and whore’s wages will be holy to the Lord.” Yes, the rest of the heathen, who have turned to the Lord, sanctify to the Lord and to his service also the reward of their work, the profit of their trade. Labor, business, trade, and transportation in the hands of Christians yields profit for the kingdom of Christ on earth.
Over the cross, on which Christ hung, one could read the inscription: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” And this inscription, which contained a short summary of the Gospel, “was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin” (John 19:20). That was God’s doing. It was from the beginning of the world God’s counsel and will, that the Gospel of Christ, the Savior of the world, be proclaimed in the three renowned languages of the world. The Old Testament Scripture, which witnessed of the coming Christ, is in the Hebrew language. The New Testament Scripture, which witnesses of Jesus the crucified and resurrected, was authored in the Greek language. And the Latin language is the old language of the church, in which orthodox teachers of the church have confessed and defended the Christian doctrine for centuries. And in order that the doctrine of Scripture be preserved pure and undefiled, preachers of the Word must continually work from the source and demonstrate from the original writings, what is written and nothing else. Therefore the language arts, the study of the old classical languages, belongs to the preparation for the study of theology, for the pastoral office. The Gospel is so beloved to us, we must hold tight to the languages. Luther often made this specific warning. And here we add the following. It is God’s will that the salvific Gospel be brought near to men in various ways. This includes not only the oral sermon, but also through script – and print. For only printed writings and books, not manuscripts, can be disseminated in mass among the people. It is well-known and recognized how much print and the distribution of Bibles and other salutary books have contributed to the spread of Christendom and the pure doctrine of God’s Word. The invention of this art, book printing, was an epoch-making occurrence not only in the history of culture, but also in the history of the Christian church. Yes, writing, printing, print distribution, the book trade – these belong to the service of the Word. They are most important for the continued well-being and flourishing of the church.
The heathen from Sheba, of whom the prophet speaks, bring to the Lord gold and incense. The Wise Men from the East gifted the Son of Mary not only gold, but also incense and myrrh (Matthew 2:11). When Mary, the sister of Lazarus, anointed Jesus’ feet with costly nard worth 300 groschen, it was well-pleasing to the Lord (John 12). Christ gladly accepts such services, which go over and above what is required. What Christians can do to beautify their worship and their houses of worship, this serves Christ’s honor and is necessary for devotion and edification. Church art also has its place in the church of Christ. Holy poetry, the church hymn with its musical tones which touch the heart and disposition, it is a special way of proclaiming the Gospel. Good biblical illustrations show especially children and the simple the biblical history. Pictures of Christ, crosses, crucifixes, these all call out to Christians, “Hold fast to Jesus Christ in your mind!”
In the last chapters of the Acts of the Apostles it is reported how Paul was taken captive. He and Caesar’s guard which monitored him entered an Alexandrian ship, in order to set sail for Rome, for he had appealed to Caesar. We are given a good picture of this ship with its inner and outer furnishing. The voyage is also well-described, in spite of the shipwreck which happened on the way to Rome. It was an important turning-point in the history of the ancient Christian church. The great apostle to the heathen, after he had finished his assignment in the East, then also went to the West to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. Since then, how many merchant ships with their goods have also carried messengers of peace on board, messengers who brought foreign peoples the best, most costly good ever, the Gospel of their salvation! The modern means of transportation, steamboats, steamcars, are also necessary instruments for the Gospel. Christian preachers and missionaries now can easily and quickly travel from place to place and proclaim the name of Christ where he was not known. The postal service, which spans the entire world, brings thousands of Christian writings and periodicals into the homes of the rich and poor. To put it succinctly, the lively trade, hurry, and movement on the world market also helps to this end, that God’s Word has free course and bears fruit.
Just as the entire preservation of the world and world history must be, so must be the development of the culture. It must serve a higher goal, according to God’s will, as it sits in God’s hands. It must serve the building up and expansion of the kingdom of God. When this goal is reached, when the Gospel has completed its course on earth, when the entire Christendom has been gathered, then the end of the world is at hand. Then the world and all its beauty will pass away. But we Christian await a new heaven and a new earth, in which righteousness lives, which is filled with the honor and glory of God (2 Peter 3:13). The prophecy of Ezekiel contains in the last chapters a great portrait of a temple, which carries in all its parts and measures the stamp of completion. The holy seer John sees in the final chapters of his Revelation the new Jerusalem with its golden streets, with its pearl gates, and foundations made of jewels. Both visions point us to the future world, from which we here below do not yet have a clear impression, which the Scripture must paint for us with colors and pictures which are relatable to us. Everything which is great and beautiful, which we see here on earth, in the kingdom of creation, in the realm of human art and culture, it is all a weak likeness of the unsurpassable glory which God has prepared there for his children.