Sunday, August 3
The Epistle of Jude: This brief epistle was written to meet a certain peril to the Christian faith brought on by immoral and heretical teachers (verse 4). Their teaching and behavior fell under the heading "antinomiam," meaning "against the law." That is, they manifested a moral attitude that took to an illegitimate extreme the sound principle that Christians are justified by grace, not by the works of the law. Their extreme application of that principle led to a lack of adherence to any moral law. Thus, those extremists became progressively bolder in the libertine pursuit of their own appetites and passions, all the while proclaiming the liberty of Christian justification. It has proved impossible to identify exactly the congregation to whom Jude wrote this epistle, nor is it any easier to fix the date of the epistle with precision. The reference to the apostles in the past tense (verse 17) makes it difficult to fix the date earlier than the 60s, but it does not require us to fix it any later. Jude testifies, at so early a date, a determined doctrinal standard, "the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (verse 3). The word "delivered" indicates the authority of the Tradition (as in 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 1 Corinthians 11:23; 15:13). Jude goes to some lengths to describe the punishment awaiting those who pervert that Tradition. He likens them to those who apostatized during the desert wandering (verse 5; 1 Corinthians 10:1-11; Hebrews 3:7Ń4:11), to the fallen angels (verse 5; Genesis 6:1-11), and to the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah (verse 7; 2 Peter 2:4-6). While all three examples indicate sexual sins, the last example indicates homosexual vice, for which these heretics are seeking the approval of other Christians. The participation of such people in the LordŐs Supper is, for Jude, particularly offensive (verse 12). He exhorts his readers to remember, nonetheless, that all these evils have been prophesied, both in ancient times (verses 14-16) and more recently by the apostles (verses 17-19). The faith to be preserved is Trinitarian (verses 20-21).
Monday, August 4
Psalm 79 (Greek and Latin 78): After the four horsemen had appeared, all carried on mounts distinctive in color, and the earth had been ravaged with their fourfold affliction, the Lamb of God reached forth to break the fifth seal of the great scroll. St. John tells us what he saw when that seal was opened: "I beheld under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony (martyria) which they held" (Revelation 6:9). These are the souls of the martyrs, which means "witness-bearers," and they are said here to be "under the altar" because their blood, poured out as in sacrifice, lies uncovered at the base of the altar. In the Bible, that is to say, the "soul is in the blood" (Leviticus 17:11,14; Deuteronomy 12:23). Their holy blood, unjustly shed, cries out to God "with a loud voice: ÔHow long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?Ő" (Revelation 6:10). In a holy impatience that the truth of God should be vindicated, "How long?" is a cry and a question often enough heard from the lips of the psalmist and the prophets (Isaiah 6:11; Zechariah 1:12; Habakkuk 1:2; Daniel 8:13; 12:6), so it is not surprising that we should hear it too from those whose own lives were with violence cut short because of their witness to God.
"How long?" is not a petition for personal vengeance, of course, for the desire of personal vengeance is offensive to God and therefore forbidden to His servants. It is a prayer, rather, that GodŐs own justice be validated by decisive fact and that a very important article of the Creed be vindicated with utterly determined finality: "He will come again in glory to judge."
GodŐs answer to this prayer of the martyrs, nonetheless, is that He has much bigger plans in mind and does, in fact, intend somewhat to take His time in the matter, so they are exhorted to "rest a little while longer, until their fellow-servants and brethren, who were to be killed as they were, should be fulfilled" (Apocalypse 6:11). In other words, there are more martyrdoms to come.
This "How long?" prayer of holy Church also finds expression in the psalm suggested for today: "Help us, O God our Savior; for the sake of the glory of Your name, O Lord, deliver us, and forgive us our sins for the sake of Your name, lest the nations say: ÔWhere is their God?Ő Let the vengeance of the blood of Your servants, which was poured out, be known among the nations in our sight. Let the groaning of the prisoners come before You. With Your enormous arm take charge of the children of those who are slain. To our neighbors render sevenfold in their bosoms the contempt with which they have contemned You, O Lord."
The Bible gives us no reason to believe that a prayer for the vindication of GodŐs judgment should be a particularly gentle prayer, for the judgment of God really is a judgment. It is not ambiguous or hazy. That is to say, it really does make decisions; it says, clearly and very emphatically, "this but not that." GodŐs judgment really does know the difference between sheep and goats. There is no danger that God will mistake Abel for Cain.
Therefore, as our psalm surveys the ravages and wastes of our sinful history, with GodŐs house laid in ruins and the holy city "reduced to a fruit market," with the corpses of GodŐs servants given as food to the fowl of the air and the beasts of the field, and "their blood poured out like water round about Jerusalem," we join our voices with the martyrs who cry aloud "How long?" to the Lord holy and true.
Tuesday, August 5
2 Peter 1:1-11: The reasons often adduced for questioning the Petrine authorship of this epistle are not convincing. There is, for instance, the argument that this epistle, because it seems to rely on the Epistle of Jude, cannot have been written early enough for Peter to write it (that is, prior to PeterŐs death in the Neronic persecution after the summer of 64). This argument, however, presupposes a late date for the Epistle of Jude, whereas there is nothing in that latter work that demands a late date for it. Jude could well have been written rather early in New Testament history (cf. our introduction to Jude). Likewise, there is an argument that says that the great difference in style between 1 Peter and 2 Peter demands that there have been two separate authors for these two works. This stylistic difference, however, is easily explained in another way, if one bears in mind that 1 Peter was written through the pen of a secretary (Silvanus), who may very well have been translating from Aramaic to Greek even as Peter dictated the letter (cf. 1 Peter 5:12); if one remembers that Paul himself seems to have used Silvanus as a secretary sometimes (the two letters to the Thessalonians), this would likewise account for the similarity in style between 1 Peter and the letters of Paul. In short, there is no adequate reason for denying the Petrine authorship of 2 Peter. If, as seems likely (though not absolutely positive) the letter referred to in 2 Peter 3:1 is 1 Peter, then 2 Peter was obviously written later than the other. Indeed, it seems to have been written near the end of the apostleŐs life (cf. 1:14). Moreover, the reference to 1 Peter in 2 Peter 3:1 suggests that the latter epistle was written for the same recipients; namely, the Christians of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (cf. 1 Peter 1:1). A reasonable estimate for the date of this epistle is sometime immediately prior to the fire in Rome during the summer of 64, because the epistle makes no reference to the Neronic persecution that followed that fire. In the present reading Peter speaks of Jesus as "Savior," a term more often used in the New Testament to refer to God the Father. Nonetheless, in these three chapters Peter uses the expression five times in reference to Jesus (1:1,11; 2:20; 3:2,18). In each case, except in 1:1, the use of "Savior" is joined with "Lord." This is very rare in early Christian literature. Christians today are so accustomed to speaking of Jesus as "Lord and Savior" that they do not realize that, were it not for 2 Peter, this expression would probably never have become so standard a part of Christian vocabulary. Verse 4 is the only place in the New Testament that describes Christians as "partakers of the divine nature" (theias koinonoi physeos), a very bold description of divine grace. However, an identical theology of grace is expressed elsewhere in the New Testament with a different vocabulary (e.g., 1 John 1:3; 3:2,9; John 15:4; 17:22-23; Romans 8:14-17, and so on). One also observes that this sharing in the divine nature is manifest as a particular "knowledge" (epignosis and gnosis) of God in Christ (verses 3,5,6,8). This knowledge of God, which is the substance of our call (klesis), must be made "secure" (bebaia ř verse 9) by the cultivation of virtue (verses 5-8) and the avoidance of sin (verse 9). Verse 11 identifies eternal life as "the kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ," an idea rare in early Christian literature (cf. Ephesians 5:5), which more often refers to the "kingdom of God." The expression here in 2 Peter forms the biblical basis for that line of the Nicene Creed that says of Jesus, "of whose kingdom there shall be no end."
Wednesday, August 6
2 Peter 1:12-21: After they have been initially catechized, it is imperative that believers be repeatedly instructed in the foundations of the faith, considering its various aspects in their mutually interpretive connections (what is called the "analogy of faith" in Romans 12:6), and more profoundly reflecting on its implications in their lives (traditionally called the moral sense or tropology). In the Holy Scriptures this ongoing endeavor of the Christian experience is known as "reminding," in the sense of a renewal of mind. It is also known as "remembering," in the sense of "putting the members back together again," seeing the diverse parts of the faith afresh, in relationship to the whole. This repeated pedagogical exercise of "calling to mind" is not an optional extra in the Christian life. (The only recognized "graduation ceremony" from Sunday School in the Christian Church is called the Rite of Burial.) It is, rather, an essential exercise of loving God with the whole mind, and the Bible often speaks of such remembrance (cf. 2 Peter 3:1-2; John 2:22; 12:16; Jude 3,5,17; 1 Corinthians 11:2,24). The present text represents such an exercise (verses 12,13,15), in order to bring PeterŐs readers more consciously into what he calls "the present truth," or, if you will, the truth as presence. By way of pursuing this living remembrance, Peter narrates for them a story they must have heard many times, the account of the LordŐs Transfiguration (also told in Mark 9, Matthew 17, and Luke 9), and he does this to serve, as it were, as a final testimony to them before his death (literally exodus in verse 15). Peter himself, that is to say, conscious that he will be outlived by one or more generations of Christians, writes this text as a legacy. This perspective is quite different from the earlier epistles preserved in the New Testament (PaulŐs, for instance), all of them composed, not with a direct view to the future generations of the Church, but in order to address concrete questions of the hour. In this respect, the Second Epistle of Peter more closely resembles the four canonical gospels, which also bear the mark of "legacy."
Thursday, August 7
2 Peter 2:1-11: Like the apostle Paul taking leave of the Asian churches for the last time (Acts 20:29-30), part of PeterŐs final legacy here consists in a warning against false teachers who will arise from within the congregation after his departure. These will carry on the deceptive work of the false prophets, begun in Old Testament times and frequently spoken of in Holy Writ (for example, Deuteronomy 13, Jeremiah 28). Peter proceeds to provide biblical illustrations of this road to perdition. He cites, first of all, the fallen angels, those original tempters of our race (verse 4; Jude 6), and then goes on to speak of the destruction of sinners in the Deluge and the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah. Just as God spared Noah in the former instance, He spared Lot in the latter. PeterŐs picture of Noah as a "preacher of righteousness" is paralleled in his contemporary, Josephus (Antiquities 1.3.1), and in Clement of RomeŐs letter to the Corinthians a generation later (7.6). Likewise, PeterŐs very positive attitude toward Lot, which contrasts somewhat with the less flattering image in Genesis 19, reflects the picture of Lot in Wisdom 10:6 ("When the ungodly perished, [Wisdom] delivered the righteous man, who fled from the fire which fell down on the five cities") and will likewise appear again in Clement of Rome (11.1). The false teachers, by way of contrast, are said to introduce "heresies of damnation" (haireseis apoleias Ń verse 1), driven by fleshly lust (verses 2,10,13,14, 18) and rebellion (verses 1,10). Peter appreciates the moral "underground" of heresy. It is not simply false and unsound teaching, but a teaching prompted by lust and sustained by rebellion. If a person "loses the faith," he has usually lost something else first, such as chastity, or patience, or sobriety. Heresy, that is to say, is normally a cover for some deeper vice. This is one of the reasons that the Bible takes such a dim view of false teachers.
Friday, August 8
2 Peter 2:12-22: Of the two Old Testament accounts given of Balaam (Numbers 22-24 [cf. Joshua 24:9-10; Micah 6:5; Deuteronomy 23:3-6] and Numbers 31), only the second portrays him in a bad light, as responsible for tempting the Israelites into lust and apostasy in their encounter with the Midianites. For this sin he is killed in IsraelŐs war with Midian (cf. Numbers 31:8; Joshua 13:22). PeterŐs negative comments on Balaam in the present text are similar to those found in rabbinical sources and in the Jewish philosopher Philo. His foul counsel to the Midianites, whereby young Israelite men were brought to their spiritual peril, was taken by early Christian writers as symbolic of the deceptions of false teachers. One finds this perspective, not only here in Peter, but also in Jude 11 and Revelation 2:14. Balaam is the very image of the deceitful teacher, and hardly any other group is criticized more often or more severely in Holy Scripture than the false teacher. One finds this condemnation in Peter, Jude, James, Paul, and John. In the present chapter the false teachers are singled out for deceiving the newly converted (verses 2,14,20-22), an especially vulnerable group of believers, who are not yet mature in solid doctrine. These latter, in the very fervor of their conversion, are often seduced by unreliable teachers who prey on their inexperience. In the mouths of false teachers, little distinction is made between liberty and libertinism (verse 19; 1 Peter 2:16; Romans 6:16; John 8:34), and they use the enthusiasm of the newcomer to change conversion to subversion.
Saturday, August 9
2 Peter 3:1-9: Peter begins this chapter with an oblique reference to his earlier epistle. In verse 2, read "your apostles" instead of "us apostles." The singular significance of this verse is its juxtaposition of the New Testament apostles with the Old Testament prophets, which was an important step in recognizing the apostolic writings as inspired Holy Scripture. In 3:16, indeed, Peter does give such recognition to the letters of the apostle Paul. Both groups of men, Peter says, are being disregarded by those who scoff at the doctrine of the LordŐs return (verse 4). Since so many of the earliest Christians were of the opinion that the Lord would return during their own lifetime, His not doing so became for some an excuse for unbelief. It was only an excuse, however, not a justification, and Peter judged such unbelief to be prompted, not by what are called "sincere intellectual difficulties," but by the lustful desires of those who wanted an excuse for unbelief (verse 3). Later in the century, Clement of Rome would address that same problem when he wrote to the Corinthians (23.3). That heresy, which asserted that the "integrity" of the natural order precluded its being invaded from without by divine influences, rather curiously resembled the modern ideology of Naturalism, with which contemporary apologists must contend. Such a misinterpretation of the world, Peter wrote, is willful (verse 5); it is deliberately chosen, not on the basis of evidence, but in order to loose those who hold it from accounting to a final judgment by God. That misinterpretation was also based, Peter went on to say, on a misunderstanding of what is meant by "last times." This designation "last" is qualitative, not quantitative. It is not concerned with "how much," but "of what sort." The "last times" are not quantified; their limit is not known to us, and that limit is irrelevant to their quality. The last times are always the last times, no matter how long they last. Since the first coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are always within the eleventh hour, and this designation means only that it is the hour before the twelfth; it can last as long as God wants it to.