First Sermon on the Passion

by Johannes Brenz
translated by Aaron Voss

In this set of three sermons from 1564, Johannes Brenz expounds upon a harmony of the passion history. Each of the translations was completed by different individuals who are all at various locations and stages of their training for the full-time Gospel ministry. The first sermon was translated by Aaron Voss, currently a senior at Martin Luther College, the second by Jacob Haag, currently studying in Leipzig, Germany at the seminary of our sister-synod, the Evangelisch-Lutherische FreiKirche (ELFK), and the third by Tim Rosenow, a first-year student at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in Mequon. Skills cultivated in the confessional languages prove valuable to pastoral students at every point of their education and remain a blessing into their ministry. May these words of Brenz be as valuable to their readers this Lenten season as they have been to their translators.

The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, the only Savior of the human race, as explained in three sermons by Johannes Brenz

Who once suffered the mockery of a horrible death
On the cross, having been made a victim for us by the Father.

And if he had not been born from a heavenly origin
Who wants to renew the human race,

Since the whole world in blind darkness
Has been hidden, it was inclined for eternal destruction.

Frankfurt, 1564

In order to explain the passion of Jesus Christ, we first of all need to consider who Jesus Christ is, or what is his person. And then for what causes he undertook his suffering and death. Indeed, we are never able to rightly recognize the magnitude of the benefits of Christ’s suffering and his death, unless we recognize who Christ is and what kind of person he brought to his passion and death.

Therefore, when we look at the person of Christ, we find that he is a man, subject to the weaknesses of man and suffered hunger, thirst, cold, heat, captivity, cross, and death, just as other men do. There is, however, a very great distinction between this man and other men. Namely, other men, in addition to these weaknesses, are also subject to sin, and although they may, in external life, be most distinguished (like the patriarchs and prophets), nevertheless they are naturally sons of wrath and have been conceived and born in sin. Jesus Christ, however, is a completely holy man, who never committed any sin, nor was there any deceit in his mouth, having been conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin.

In addition, some humans indeed have certain merits, whether spiritual or of the body. Others, in fact, are patriarchs; others, priests; others, kings; others, princes. This Jesus Christ, however, has the highest and brightest rank of all. For he is the Messiah, that is, the Christ, who from the beginning had been promised from heaven and on account of whom all other merits of other men have arisen on earth. For on account of Christ, God established the patriarchs, priests, prophets, and kings. The priesthood and kingdom—not only of Israel, but also of other peoples—have been divinely established and arranged chiefly on account of Christ.

In this respect other men are only men: certainly they have been created in the likeness of God, and some of them have been adopted as sons of God. However, they are not naturally gods. But this Jesus Christ is not only man, but he is also the natural son of God. And to such a degree that he is by very nature God.

But why did he bring from afar this other “person” to his own suffering and death than that which other men—holy though they be—bring to theirs? For a number of times holy people have been cruelly killed by the wicked, and they were innocent before men, as were Abel, Isaiah, Peter, Paul, and the martyrs. These men certainly brought to their own suffering and death an innocent person, even in the eyes of men, but they did not bring forth an altogether pure and holy one. Indeed, no one living is righteous before you. And they have brought forth a person who was only human. Jesus Christ, however, brought to his death by far the most holy person of all, and a man who was not only man but also the true and eternal God. Therefore, when Christ endured suffering and death we ought to think that true God endured suffering and death. We must not think that his divinity suffered and died, for his divine nature is not subject to these weaknesses. But because in Christ God and man are joined together into one person, on that account, when the man suffered, it is said that God suffered. For just as in glowing iron two natures come together—one, fire; the other, iron—it is openly seen that iron in its nature does not burn. But because it is set on fire, it is therefore said that it burns. Thus in Christ two natures come together—the one, human; the other, divine. Therefore there is no doubt that divinity in and of itself does not suffer death, but because in Christ divinity came together with a humanity that is able to suffer, therefore in Christ it is rightly said that even God himself suffered. This concludes our discussion about the person which Jesus brought to his suffering and death.

Now let us hear for what reasons he undertook suffering and death. Indeed, the reasons must have been great and heavy on account of which so remarkable a person, namely the holiest man, the almighty and eternal God, underwent such great sorrows and such a horrible and shameful kind of death. For since he is true God and all-powerful, he would have been able to cast off all his enemies by one command of his will, but he preferred to undergo it than to cast it off. Therefore, what are the reasons for this plan?

One of them is that because Christ is the Son of God, he wanted to obey the will of his heavenly Father. Indeed, the Father wanted his Son to pour out his blood and to suffer death, and this will of God stands out clearly in Holy Scripture. God the Father revealed his will from the beginning of the world, through sacrifices, through promises and prophecies, and through the patriarchs and prophets. Hence it is so often said in the account of the passion, “Just as it was written,” “As the Scriptures say,” “In order that Scripture might be fulfilled,” etc.

Indeed, when God set up the sacrifices of bulls and male goats, he signified that his Son would pour out his own blood. Nor do I doubt that the patriarchs interpreted the sacrifices for their children in this way, namely, that they foreshadowed the future coming of the man of God who would atone for the wrath of God with his own blood. And it is evident that this ordinary story from the patriarchs has been proclaimed among the people, who—because they did not understand the faithful thought of the patriarchs—often offered human sacrifices and slaughtered people to appease the wrath of God, but such an act was done with the highest wickedness and cruelty. Indeed, God did not accept blood from any man to appease his wrath except for that of his Son, Jesus Christ.

God signified that his Son, Christ, must undergo suffering and death by the prophecies of the prophets, David in Psalms 22, 40, 41, 69, and others, Isaiah in chapter 53, Zechariah in chapter 12, “They will look upon the one they have pierced,” by which is meant that Jesus Christ, since he understood the will of God from Scripture, undertook suffering and death in order to obey the will of God.

Another reason that Christ underwent suffering and death on account of sin—not his sin, but on account of the sin of mankind—was to atone for sin before God. Indeed, Christ embraced mankind with so much love that he made its sins his very own, not by sinning, but by atonement (Psalms 40, 51, 69). Likewise, Isaiah 53: “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows. . . . He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities.” John says, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” And Christ says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” What more? All of Scripture teaches that the sins of mankind were placed on Christ so that he himself might atone for it before God with his own blood. This is the main reason of all, and it is to be most carefully observed in the individual details of the passion.

The third reason is: Christ suffered cross and death not so that we might not suffer, but so that we might continually follow his example and obey the will of God in time of adversity, and so that we might recognize that we are protected in cross and death, just as Christ also was protected. Cross and death did no harm to Christ, but rather, he was exalted through them into the highest majesty. As it is said, “He became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place.” So also in this way cross and death will be the way of salvation for those who are in Christ. Whereby Christ suffered cross and death so that he might become an example, as Peter says (1 Peter 2:21).

With that being the case, let us now come to touching upon the story of Christ’s suffering. We will not say anything now about the plot of the chief priests and about the anointing which happened at Bethany. The same with Judas’s agreement with the chief priests. We have talked about these things in past days.

We will take up the manual washing of feet. On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread the Passover was prepared. After Jesus had come with his disciples and reclined at the table, knowing that the Father had put everything into his hands, he rose from the meal and started to wash the feet of the disciples. He contended with Peter and he explained what he wanted for Peter in the washing. First Peter listened. “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” By this Christ did not mean an external washing. For many have a part with Christ who are nevertheless not washed by him outwardly. But he means the washing which happens through his blood, through faith. The testimony is clear that no one can obtain salvation except through the blood of Christ. Turks, Jews, and hypocrites do not want to be washed in the blood of Christ. Therefore they will have no part with Christ. But we are washed in the blood of Christ if we believe that he himself poured out his blood for us.

Then Peter hears, “A person who has had a bath need only to wash his feet.” By saying this Christ teaches what is to be done by him who has obtained the forgiveness of sins through the blood of Christ. He is completely clean and has the forgiveness of all sins, yet he always needs to wash his feet, that is, to rule over sin, to fight with sin, to purge the Old Man, and to crucify the flesh with its passions and desires.

But let us hear the explanation of Christ about the washing. He says, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master.” Therefore Christ teaches this example to the Apostles that they ought not to try to grasp, by virtue of their Apostleship and Christianity, external lordship in this world. Instead, they should become servants. For there exist many promises about the kingdom of Christ, and thus the prophets seem to prophesy about him just as if his kingdom were worldly. It was also the common belief, not only of the Jews but also of the Apostles, that Christ would undertake and govern a worldly kingdom in which all the Apostles would be leaders and all believers would be rich and glorious people. But Christ often admonished and taught his disciples to regard themselves in an entirely different way. But at last, when he was about to depart from this world, he wanted to impress this upon them, even with the ceremony, or example, of washing feet. This is a humble and servile duty. Therefore he teaches them in this example that because of their Apostleship and ministry and Christianity they ought to act as slaves and servants and not strive for external power. And, indeed, he is allowed to receive in a pious manner external power either through heredity or election or purchase, according to legitimate contracts of this age. But he does not want to seize power through his Apostleship or Christianity. This command and example the Apostles later followed. For Peter and the other Apostles preached only the Gospel in Jerusalem on Pentecost. They did not take possession of the power of the city. They did not stir up sedition, but they washed feet. They placed themselves under the feet of both the faithful and the wicked. They served the pious with their preaching. They endured the persecutions of the wicked. Thus all pious private citizens have the need to wash feet. They ought not to crush the heads of others but to wash their feet. He crushes another’s head who endures no injury from him, who plots against his fortunes, who exacts everything by the letter of the law. However, he washes feet who performs his duty and restores to each one what is his and serves his neighbor out of the love of God.

Next we will speak about the Lord’s Supper.

However, while they were eating, Jesus was troubled in spirit and said, “I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me.” He meant Judas and his betrayal. Jesus was troubled, first because it is the greatest sorrow for the father of a household if his sons fall short and plan a public crime. The disciples were just like children to Jesus. Among them Jesus sees a traitor who was about to be a great offense. The enemies will say, “See what kind of fraternity they are! See what kind of man he is! His own disciples accept money and betray him!” Secondly Jesus was also troubled by Judas’s destruction. Finally he was troubled on account of the brutality of his traitor and enemies. For men are accustomed to being so disturbed that they would think their innards moved if they should see their mortal enemy hovering right before their eyes.

How then did Jesus endure in this great disturbance of spirit? Men who are subject to sin usually add sin to sin in such great disturbances because they are stirred to a hatred of their enemy and start to think about taking revenge. They do not speak reasonably with an enemy but they look at him with the eyes of a basilisk.2 Christ, however, endured these disturbances without any sin. He blessed the traitor. He kindly warned him and although he was able to destroy him with one command, nevertheless he did not want to avenge himself, but he obeyed his divine calling, he endured the traitor, he taught him, he warned him about the seriousness of sin and condemnation. “The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed, but woe to that man who betrays him. And he also gave a morsel to him for the sake of respect, yet signifying that he knows he is a traitor. In short, he lets go of no kindness toward Judas. But nothing works. The deeds and expense are hopeless. Here you have the perfect righteousness of Christ and the fullness of this instruction. Love and do good to your enemies. Christ gives this righteousness to us in this way, so that we continually follow it and demonstrate our obedience.

After the departure of Judas, Christ has a long and most beautiful sermon in which he adds a public prayer at the end.

In the sermon he mentions not only the suffering which was going to come upon him but also what great persecutions await the Apostles. But at the same time he sees life through death. Through the day of preparation he sees Easter, his ascension into heaven, and Pentecost. He openly prophesies about his kingdom about to be made known among the multitude throughout the whole world by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. And by this fact he consoles not only himself but also his Apostles so that they might have confidence in all their adversities. These were wonderful and most beautiful thoughts that although Christ had the day of preparation set right before his eyes—that is, his cross and death—he nevertheless foresaw his resurrection and glorification through them. Such great thoughts he did not have only for himself but for the universal Church and for each member of the Church. As he says, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” And, “You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy.”

In the prayer, however, he entrusts his disciples and the universal Church to God his Father. He said, “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name—the name you gave me—so that they may be one as we are one.” And a little later he said, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message.”

Let us not think that this prayer passed away with one sound of his voice. Rather, it still speaks into the ears of God. Don’t think that it is empty and invalid. Rather, the universal Church still stands and is kept safe by the power of this prayer. For it was impossible that so obedient a Son was not heard by his Father, who had said, “This is my Son, whom I love. With him I am well-pleased. Therefore we ought to work hard at becoming partakers of this intercession. If indeed we are his partakers then we will be partakers of all prayers which are made by the pious in the Church. Similarly we will be partakers of all the inheritance of heaven. However, we are then partakers when we believe in Christ and continually follow the calling of the Gospel.

After a hymn was sung, Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. He said to them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me.” Why? Why did he mention this beforehand? Why did he not protect his disciples so they would not fall? This prediction has its own reasons.

One reason is that he mentioned it to expose the magnitude of his sorrow, grief, and suffering. Indeed, the desertion and the denial of the disciples was one part of Christ’s most painful sorrows. Christ laments about this pain almost a thousand years before he came to this hour through David in Psalm 69: “For I endure shame for your sake, and shame covers my face. I am a stranger to my brothers, an alien to my mother’s sons.” But he laments about this pain so that we see how much the atonement of our sins depends on him. He had to try all the bad broth.

The second reason is that he mentioned it because he is his disciples’ preacher and teacher. Therefore, he ought to remind them about their own danger, if they might perhaps be aware of it.

The third reason is that he mentioned it so that they might realize afterwards the truth of the Gospel of Christ and recognize that this Christ is true since what was written about Christ happened to him.

But why does he not protect his disciples so that they do not fail? He himself adds a reason when he said, “It is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” The thought of this prophecy is that I am able to protect you so that you do not fall, but I must obey my divine calling. God wants to strike me, the shepherd, and he wants from me to scatter my sheep. I must bear this. I must endure this, even though is a most heavy pain. Nevertheless, it is good. I will gather you again. I will rise again and I will gather you in Galilee. You will see again that Christ foresaw the resurrection through the cross and death. And surely this was done on our behalf so that in Christ we might look forward through affliction to salvation and through death to life.

Let us see how the disciples conducted themselves at this. They ought to have recognized the truth of the words of God and their own weakness, but they accused Christ of being a liar. All of them, especially Peter, said that they would not abandon Christ. “Even if all fall away, I will not.” But again he hears, “Before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.” But Peter insisted emphatically, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And so he judged that he spoke truthfully but Christ lied. Observe the gentleness of Christ and compare his character. Indeed, tensions and separations easily rise among people while one defends truth and the other defends falsehood. For in such fights men are accustomed to come not only to insults but sometimes to fists, but Christ patiently bore the contradiction, and when he saw Peter raise up a contention he himself was silent and kept his thoughts to himself until it was his time. He let him have a while until his time. This example is to be carefully observed because we should yield to quarrelsome people even if we surely know that we are upholding the truth. However, we should yield not by denying the truth but by simply acknowledging it and then by being silent so that we do not give way to a greater commotion. We must still allow the contentious to have the last word.

Jesus came to the estate of Gethsemane, where there was a garden, and he entered with his disciples. Judas was familiar with the place. Jesus said to the disciples, “Stay here.” He took Peter, James, and John with him. He began to tremble, to grieve, and to be deeply distracted, saying, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” Thus far we have seen in Christ the most beautiful and, in some way, pleasing thoughts in sight of his cross and death. For although he remembers death, he also remembers his life and resurrection and kingdom. These are heavenly thoughts.

But now the most serious and most dreadful thoughts arise in Christ. Indeed, he does not now think beyond life and resurrection and the majesty of his kingdom. All these appear hidden from his eyes. But he thinks only of the cross and death. And he thinks this not like soldiers or robbers who say, “So what if I should capture a prize? Still it is only a cap of flesh.” Christ thinks about death in neither a pagan nor a philosophical way. Indeed, to this point, healthy pagans who are firm in body think that death is the end of the hardships of this world and it happens in a moment, and that afterwards either there is no longer any sorrow or there is delight in a life with the heroes in the Elysian Field. These are the musings of idle people, but Christ thinks of death as hell. That is, according to the fact that death was truly made through sin. For because of sin the death of the body was made a door to hell and to everlasting damnation. And sin does not allow you to look through death to heaven or happiness but it allows you only to see and feel the flames of hell.

Christ had taken up the guilt of all sinners on himself. For this reason he is not affected differently than if he had himself portrayed every sin, and he saw that death was threatening him because of sin. In such observance nothing appears besides the flames of hell and eternal destruction. For if death is looked at next to sin, it has the appearance of a snake. At whomever it has looked, it thus corrupts so that he burns in the flames of hell. In this condition no man is able to stand on his own power, but suddenly one man dies, and another man props him up.

Let us, therefore, see how Christ conducted himself in such great sorrows. Other men withdraw from God. They vomit out blasphemies against God. They curse the day of their birth, just like Job and others did. But for Christ, who did not commit a sin, the more he hurries to God, the more horrifying the appearance of death becomes. For he first encourages his disciples to pray. Then he himself departs and prostrates himself in prayer, by which he flees to God. But let us listen to his prayer: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.” What?! Isn’t this prayer against the will of God because he wants to avoid the cross and death. Not at all. It is not wicked in and of itself to flee and tremble at the cross and death, because God commands us to pray so that we may be free from evil and not led into temptation. Rather, it is only unjust to avoid the cross against God’s will. Therefore observe the supplication of Christ. He prays that cross and death might pass over him. This in and of itself is natural and is permitted by God. But it is not permitted so that it may be done contrary to God. Therefore, Christ adds, “Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

But see what happened? Christ prays the same prayer three times and yet he seems to be so very inaudible that his sorrow greatly increases so that even drops of blood flow down. He hastens back to his disciples. He admonishes them so that they may also pray. He reproves their idleness. “The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” Therefore it is strengthened through prayer. Make note of his recommendation for insistence and perseverance in prayer. An angel is sent, but he strengthens him more for bearing the cross than for taking it away. Therefore what does Christ do? Although the cross is not removed, nevertheless he himself remains obedient. He stands firm and does not flee. He awaits his enemies so that he may be captured. This is the most perfect obedience, with which God is certainly so pleased that he not only thinks Christ righteous and presently the eternal kingdom is open to him, but on account of him he will judge all who believe in him to be righteous. Therefore let us learn obedience from Christ so that as one with him we may share in his glory and majesty in the kingdom of heaven.

  1. These lines are drawn from various poems by Jacob Micyllus. 

  2. A mythological reptile which is so venomous that it can kill someone simply by looking at them.