Rev. Karl A. Weber, DMin, pastor, St. John Lutheran Church, Ottertail, Minnesota, and St. Paul Lutheran Church, Richville, Minnesota
As a refreshing glass of water quenches thirst on a hot summer day, Gospel Handles by Francis Rossow waters the spirit with the good news of Christ. Presented within its pages is a wealth of Gospel insight to comfort yearning hearts and bruised reeds (Is 42:3).
Rossow appreciates the rich treasure the Marcionites could not, dismissing the Old Testament as they did in the misplaced belief that it does not contain Christ. Rather, as a faithful disciple of Martin Luther, Rossow equips us to declare Christ from throughout the Old Testament, in this case by the device he has dubbed “Gospel handles.”
Preachers may struggle, knowing that Old Testament texts are less obvious in Gospel content than are New Testament pericopes (7). So, apart from Old Testament texts specifically referenced in the New Testament, preachers may tend to shy away from preaching the Old Testament. Or, when they do, it may be in a less than fulfilling manner. Direction, aid, and encouragement for proclaiming those challenging Old Testament texts come from this new Rossow book.
The goal of Gospel Handles is to cultivate the art of taking words that contain no Gospel and seeking similar language elsewhere in Scripture that does contain Gospel (9). Naturally, this is eased by adopting one Bible version and sticking with it, as Luther instructs (SC 244). Rossow is at home with the sublime beauty of the King James Version, but he is adept at drawing from other translations when helpful. Rossow acknowledges in fact that other translations suggest other and new Gospel handles (11).
In addition to aiding sermon preparation for busy pastors, Rossow’s book readily lends itself to devotional reading much as one uses Treasury of Daily Prayer or the Small Catechism. Certainly God’s Word contains data and facts that are beneficial for the baptized. But God’s Word is so much more, in that it is also nutrition for the soul. Unto Ezekiel it was said, “ ‘Son of man, eat whatever you find here. Eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.’ So I opened my mouth, and he gave me this scroll to eat” (Ezek 3:1–2). Focused on Christ Jesus and what he has done for us, Gospel Handles presents a feast of sumptuous fare to nourish us.
Thematically, the book breaks the Old Testament into its major classifications: Pentateuch, History, Poetry, Major Prophets, and Minor Prophets. The book concludes with four sample sermons Rossow preached at various times at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.
Rossow, of course, emphasizes seeking first all Gospel actually to be discovered in the text, but handles, he says, sometimes allow proclaiming Gospel that would otherwise require rather adventurous claims about the original intent of a passage. He says he prefers “not to get involved in exegetical debate. The Gospel handle approach allows one to get at the Gospel without the danger of making any possible false claim” (45, see also 51).
After each select Old Testament text is the section “Gospel in the Text.” Using Ex 13:1–3, 11–15 as example, Rossow states that every Egyptian firstborn male—human and animal—was destroyed by God’s destroying angel. By means of the ceremonial laws, Yahweh instructed Israel to sacrifice each firstborn male animal, which paralleled the sacrifice of the Egyptian firstborn (39). The Gospel is found in its typology, says Rossow. God has rescued us from the unholy axis of sin, death, and the devil through the sacrifice of his Son upon the cross for the forgiveness of our sins (39).
Following the “Gospel in the Text” section, there is the key section, “Bonus Gospel via Gospel Handle.” Addressing Is 42:1–9, Rossow states that use of the word “reed” is a metaphor for “a poor miserable sinner.” The salutary use of sticking with a certain translation is seen as Rossow directs us to similar words with Gospel meaning found elsewhere in Scripture. Reflect when soldiers beat our Lord about his head with the “reed” (Mt 27:30). As Jesus endured this punishment and much more, he bore the sins of the world upon himself, making atonement for our transgressions. As our Lord received his beating from a reed, it “enabled him to realize his wish in the Isaiah text of not breaking a bruised reed” (125)—miserable sinners such as ourselves! And then when he was on the cross, soldiers used a reed to hoist a crude anesthetic to Jesus’ lips—which he refused.
The four sermons reprinted from chapel services at Concordia Seminary are delightful gems giving comfort to the heart. In one based on Gen 32:22–30, we peer into the hidden mystery of prayer with a reference to Blaise Pascal, who once said that “when it comes to prayer God confers upon us humans the dignity of causality” (219). Mysteries such as these and more are reverently explored as the Potter (Jer 18:5–6) remains upon his throne amongst the cherubim.
After twenty-three years of preaching, I can certainly say that I wish I would have had this book earlier. I have been thoroughly edified by reading and reviewing it. This resource will benefit me as I seek to serve my parishioners. I heartily endorse it for pastors in their high calling of serving Christ’s flock in Word and Sacrament . . . and commend it as well to laypeople who desire to understand and appreciate the scarlet thread of redemption that runs through both testaments.