Sunday, June 29
Leviticus 15: This chapter, which deals with various forms of sexual uncleanness, takes the subject of sex very seriously.
There is widely spread, these days, the notion that sexual sins are pretty much like other sins, certainly no worse than other kinds. In particular, there tends to prevail the view that bodily sins are of less consequence than "spiritual" sins, inasmuch as man soul transcends his body.
It must be said, nonetheless, that this notion is difficult to sustain from Holy Scripture. Indeed, the notion itself betokens a rather low view of sex. This may be contrasted with the view maintained in the Bible, namely, that a special guilt pertains to sexual sins. This moral assessment is based, moreover, on the very high and even sacred view of sex that is recommended in the Bible.
More specifically, sexual sins, precisely because they involve the body (which, in the case of the Christian, is the temple of the Holy Spirit), have a special character of defilement. On this point the Apostle Paul could hardly have written more clearly: "Flee sexual immorality (porneia). Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality (porneia) sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore, glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are GodÕs" (1 Corinthians 6:18-20).
It is clear from this text that mere disapproval of sexual sins is inadequate. One must flee (pheugete) from such. That is to say, believers are to put some distance between themselves and porneia. Such distance encourages a certain number of hedges, safeguards, and even taboos surrounding sexual activity (custody of the eyes, modesty of clothing, and so on). This sense of a hedge, as it were, is suggested in the ancient prescriptions in the present chapter of Leviticus. Even though the precepts contained here no longer assert theological or legal claims over the Christian conscience, they remind the Christian conscience of the high regard in which Holy Scripture holds the subject of sex.
Monday, June 30
Acts 5:33-42: Brought to trial by the Sadducees, the apostles are now defended by a Pharisee, who rises to express a word of caution. This rabbinical teacher of the young Saul of Tarsus (cf. 22:3), though his counsel carries the day with the Sanhedrin on this occasion, was evidently not able to dissuade his most famous pupil from persecuting the Christians (cf. 22:4; 26:5,9-11). Gamaliel refers to two recent events to show that popular movements, once they lose their charismatic leader, tend to dissipate on their own. So, he reasons, if this new Christian movement is not of God, it will collapse without any help from the Sanhedrin. If, on the other hand, it is of God, then the SanhedrinÕs efforts would be wasted anyway. In LukeÕs view, of course, Gamaliel has just enunciated the principle on which the Book of Acts is based Ñ namely, this new Christian movement is most certainly of God. The apostles, whose very lives had been in danger just a few minutes before (verse 33), are released with a beating (verse 40). They rejoice at this beating and go right back to preaching in the temple and elsewhere.
Tuesday, July 1
Acts 6:1-15: In this very significant chapter, the word "disciples" appears for the first time in this book. Also, for the first time in Christian history, the ordered ministry of the Church has become tripartite: apostles, elders (presbyteroi, whence "priests"), and "assistants" (diakonoi, whence "deacons"). Likewise in this chapter the city of Antioch, so important to this book and to the rest of Christian history, is mentioned for the first time. In the initial five chapters of this book Luke has stressed the unity and communion of the first Christians, their unselfish devotion to one anotherÕs well being. In the present chapter, however, we discover the first indications of conflict, which has arisen between two culturally different groups of Jewish Christians, those who speak Greek and those who speak Aramaic, the first European and the second Semitic. This early conflict, which immediately leads to a decisive and death-dealing encounter between the Church and the Sanhedrin, foreshadows worse tensions to come, eventually expressed in the historical rupture between the Church and Judaism. This chapter also introduces the chief spokesman for the Greek-speaking ("Hellenist") Jewish Christians, Stephen. He is one of the seven men, all with Greek names, chosen for their administrative skills, in order to deal with certain practical problems in the Church related to the distribution of material resources to the widows dependent on the congregation. The "tables" in this chapter should better be translated as desks or accounting tables, for these seven men are ecclesiastical administrators, assisting the apostles. (This will be the defining function of "deacons" for many centuries to come.) Nonetheless, as we see in the ministries of Stephen and Philip, this work will also include considerable evangelism, and the Church immediately realizes a greater growth, including converts from the Jewish priesthood (Sadducees!). Then more trouble starts, once again from the Sanhedrin. Abandoning the sound counsel of Gamaliel, the Sanhedrin responds to charges brought against Stephen by certain international groups of Jews living in Jerusalem.
Wednesday, July 2
Acts 7:1-10: Here begins StephenÕs long discourse, which is chiefly an historical survey constructed to show that, throughout its history, Israel has ever been disposed to idolatry and rebellion. Its recent killing of the Messiah, Stephen argues, is of a piece with all of IsraelÕs earlier sins. He begins to recount these, stage by stage, starting with the call of Abraham in ancient Mesopotamia. His point in starting in Mesopotamia is to show that GodÕs Word is not limited to the Holy Land nor tied to the temple or any Jewish institution. To demonstrate this, Stephen speaks of the endless wandering characteristic of the patriarchal period. Even the covenant itself, he notes, was prior to Israel, whose son Isaac was not yet conceived until afterwards. (This characteristic of the covenant with Abraham, particularly its priority to the Mosaic Law, will be an important aspect of the treatment of Abraham in Galatians, Romans, and Hebrews.) In StephenÕs discussion of Joseph (verse 9), he begins to introduce the theme of jealousy and rebellion, taking the attitude of JosephÕs sinful brothers as a foreshadowing of IsraelÕs rejection of Jesus. Their cruel treatment of Joseph makes him a type or figure of the coming Messiah, who, albeit innocent and unoffending, would also be condemned, sold, arrested, and put in prison. Then, Stephen goes on, a pagan Pharaoh would receive favorably the very one that the sons of Israel had rejected, accepting him as their "leader." Again those events formed a foreshadowing of JesusÕ rejection by the Israelites and His turning to the Gentiles. Here Stephen is addressing one of the most important messages of the Acts of the Apostles.
Thursday, July 3
Acts 7:11-22: StephenÕs point in verse 11 is that the Israelites, not able to feed themselves, were dependent on a pagan people. Thus Jacob, father of all Israelites, died outside of the Holy Land, along with all the tribal patriarchs. Though they were buried in the Holy Land, the site of their graves was purchased from yet another Gentile (verse 16). Meanwhile, it was in a Gentile land that the Israelites experienced their phenomenal growth. Even Moses was raised in a Gentile home and received a Gentile education (verse 22). He too was repudiated by the other Israelites, who have never, Stephen contends, shown themselves satisfied with the leaders that God sends them.
Friday, July 4
Acts 7:23-34: MosesÕ first encounter with the other Israelites was not very promising, Stephen argues; they did want him for a "leader" (verse 27) nor a savior (verse 28). As a result, yet once again, GodÕs designated leader of the Israelites was obliged to flee to yet another Gentile region, the land of Midian. Like Abraham (7:6), Moses must become a "wanderer" or "pilgrim" (paroikosÑ7:29). Indeed, the very first land in the Bible to be called a "holy land" is found, not in Palestine, but in the Gentile territory of MosesÕ wandering (verse 33)! It always seems to be the same pattern, says Stephen, because the Israelites are a rebellious people, recalcitrant to GodÕs provision. Thus, Moses will be treated by the no better than Joseph.
Saturday, July 5
Acts 7:35-43: Since the Israelites rejected Moses as "leader and deliverer" (verse 35), in spite of his miracles (verse 36), how could we expect them to treat differently the latter day "prophet" that God would "raise up" (verse 37)? Here, of course, Stephen is citing the same text (Deuteronomy 18:15) earlier cited by Peter in Acts 3:22-23. In this fairly lengthy treatment of Moses, Stephen is answering the accusation that he had blasphemed against Moses (cf. 6:11). He is saying, in effect: "Look, you stiff-necked people. I am not the one who insults Moses; you people have never stopped insulting him, right from the inception of his ministry. Even then you were already idolaters (verses 39-43).
Sunday, June 22
Acts 4:1-12: We now come to the first arrest of Christians and their first trial before the Sanhedrin. There was surely reason for concern of the part of the Sanhedrin, because the number of Christian converts, as a result of PeterÕs brief sermon, had grown dramatically (verse 4). There will ensue a mounting local persecution, leading to the dispersal of the believers at the beginning of Chapter 8. The Sadducees, direct successors of those "sons of Zadok" that we read about in Ezechiel, are the first to be offended (verses 2,3,5,6; cf. also 5:17). Unlike the Pharisees, they did not believe in a doctrine resurrection, so when the apostles are brought to trial, the Sadducees were careful not to mention why they had been arrested! The whole affair having begun, as we saw, in late afternoon, it is now too late for court business, so the apostles are thrown in jail for the night (verse3). The chief leaders of the Sadducees, the priests Annas and Caiphas, had been the instigators of the trial of Jesus, and now two of His apostles will appear before the same group. As on Pentecost day, Peter is "full of the Holy Spirit" (verse 8), and his brief testimony, which includes the exegesis of a Psalm verse (cf. Luke 20:17 as well), summarizes his Pentecost sermon. It was also a Psalm verse, by the way, to which Peter would return several years later (cf. 1 Peter 2:7).
Monday, June 23
Acts 4:13-22: What a difference in Peter! How little he resembles the weakling who, when he was previously at the house of Caiphas, had quailed before the questioning gaze of a serving maid and thrice denied his Lord. Peter is now speaking with "boldness" (parresia Ñ cf. 2:29; 4:29,31; 9:27-28; 13:46; 28:31). Strengthening the testimony of Peter and John is the presence of the man healed of his lameness. Verse 14 observes that he is "standing" with them. Just standing, not jumping all over the place as he was doing in the previous chapter; by this time he perhaps a bit tired. The Sanhedrin is tired too, caught in a quandary about what to do with the two offenders. There being no prosecutable statute against the healing of the lame, and an agitated crowd now having gathered outside, the Sanhedrin must somehow save face. The two apostles are finally released with a warning, which they promptly announce their intention to ignore. Thus ends the first legal trial of Christians. Things will steadily get tougher.
Tuesday, June 24
Leviticus 10: Starting with Aaron, we detect a streak of foolishness and irresponsibility in IsraelÕs priestly family, a trait exemplified in the present chapter. In the midst of all of these regulations respecting sacrifice (Chapters 1-7), priestly ordination (Chapters 8-9), and ritual purity (Chapters 11-15), comes this story, evidently inserted to drive home the point that God takes all of this material very, VERY seriously.
The chapter begins, then, with the account of the sin of Nadab and Abihu (verses 1-7). Their sin appears to have been that of taking flame from outside the sanctuary in order to light their incense, instead of taking the sacred fire from the altar (cf. 16:12). That is to say, in the worship of God they had used "profane fire" (cf. Numbers 3:4; 26:61), thus polluting the holiness of the Tabernacle. It is no wonder that this story is followed by some more laws specifically directed to priests (verses 8-15).
Throughout the BibleÕs numerous prescriptions relative to the divine worship, special care was taken to model all of IsraelÕs worship on the heavenly types, which Moses beheld in mystic vision when he was on the holy mountain. Biblical worship is not supposed to reflect or borrow from the standards of the world, certainly not the techniques and rhythms of secular entertainment. Biblical worship is to be modeled, rather, on the eternal worship that takes place around the throne of God in heaven. When unbelievers and newcomers first enter a Christian place of worship, they should not necessarily "feel at home" or be put at their ease. They should experience the worship as something alien to what they know from their experience of the world. A church that tries to be "seeker sensitive" in its worship is simply repeating the sin of Nadab and Abihu; it is borrowing "profane fire," whether in music, art, or atmosphere. Modeling ourselves on biblical standards, it is imperative to reflect that the real "seeker" in worship is not man. ManÕs seeking of God, left to itself, after all, invariably ends in idolatry. The real Seeker in worship is God Ñ "the Father seeks such to worship Him" (John 4:23).
Wednesday, June 25
Acts 4:32-37: Here we have another summary, similar to the one in 2:42-47, both of them speaking of the mutual generosity of Christians with respect to material possessions. The example of Barnabas (elsewhere with a hand in congregational finances Ñ cf. Acts 11:30) at the end of this chapter is placed to form a contrast with the selfishness of Ananias and Sapphira in Chapter 5. That communal sharing was especially important at Jerusalem, where the Church, partly composed of dispossessed Galileans who had come there specifically for Gospel ministry, was particularly impoverished (cf. Acts 6:1; 11:29; Galatians 2:10, Romans 15:3). In adopting this policy of mutual sharing, the Church was endeavoring to conform to an ideal of ancient Israel, which had been instructed: "There shall be no poor among you" (Deuteronomy 15:4), and it should remain the norm of Christians for all times. We know that it was the standard for the Church at Rome (cf. Justin Martyr, First Apology 14 & 67), in north Africa (cf. Cyprian of Carthage, On Almsgiving 25), and elsewhere (cf. The Letter to Diognetus 5).
Thursday, June 26
Acts 5:1-11: The sin of Ananias and Sapphira, though doubtless motivated by selfishness, was characterized by a level of malice well beyond that motive. Their sin had to do with the "heart," a word that appears in both verses 3 & 4. Their lie was directed at the Holy Spirit (verses 3 & 9). The verb nosphizein, "to hold back," is found in only two places in Holy Scripture, here and in Joshua 7:1, a circumstance that should prompt us to read this account in Acts against the background of AchanÕs and punishment (cf Joshua 22:20; First Chronicles 2:7). What happened to this couple inspired a "great fear" (phobos megas) in the congregation and elsewhere (verses 5 & 11), as well it should, for they had "insulted the Spirit of grace" (Hebrews 10:29). Sins directly against the Holy Spirit are a particularly grievous kind of offense, against which we are warned in the sternest of terms (cf. Mark 3:29).
Friday, June 27
Acts 5:12-21: This section returns us to the porch of Solomon. Encouraged by the healing of the lame man in Chapter 3, a great number of sick and infirm are gathered here, hoping even that PeterÕs very shadow may fall upon them (verse 15). This justified hope (verse 16), reminiscent of such scenes as Matthew 14:36, and to be replicated in the case of the apostle Paul (Acts 19:12), indicates the material, incarnational aspects of Christian salvation. This "apostolic success" infuriates, once again, the Sadducees (verse 17), who have the apostles arrested. (The "sect" or "party" of this verse, referring to the Sadducees, is hairesis in Greek, the source of our word "heresy.") In jail the apostles are strengthened by angelic ministry (verse 19), much like their Lord in His sufferings (Luke 22:43). Luke portrays these early Christians as being on rather familiar terms with angels (Acts 8:26; 12:7-10). Meanwhile, unaware that the apostles have been freed from jail by the angels, the Sanhedrin summons them to a new trial. It is a scene of great irony.
Saturday, June 28
Acts 5:22-32: Because of all the miraculous healings, the apostles have grown rather popular with the crowds, so the temple magistrates, when they come into the temple to arrest them again, must do so very carefully, lest the animosity of the people be aroused against the authorities (verse 26). The Sanhedrin realizes itself to be in some danger (verse 28). Peter again acts as the apostolic spokesman, giving a three-verse defense of the Christian faith. Rejecting one more the SanhedrinÕs prohibition against their preaching, Peter summarizes yet a second time his sermon of Pentecost, stressing the guilt of the Christ-killers and the power of God in raising Him from the dead. In verse 31 we particularly note the word "Savior," used now by the Church for the first time with reference to Jesus.