Sunday, November 30
John 12:20-26: As the first-called of the Twelve Apostles (John 1:35-42, also read today), Andrew was apparently recognized to enjoy a kind of special access to the Lord. Thus, when the Greek-speaking visitors to Jerusalem approached Philip (besides Andrew, the only other apostle with a Greek name) saying, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus," Philip went first to Andrew so that the two of them might together facilitate that meeting (John 12:21ř22). Evidently Philip felt the need to have the helpful, accessible Andrew by his side at that time.
If a Bible-reader takes the care to notice him, the Apostle Andrew is among the most attractive individuals in all of Holy Scripture. A certain measure of careful attention is necessary to lay hold of this fact, nonetheless, for Andrew does not really "put himself forward."
To appreciate this quiet, self-effacing aspect of Andrew it may be useful to contrast him, in this respect, to his bolder, more emphatic brother, the Apostle Peter. Peter most certainly does draw attention to himself, which may be one of the reasons that he is invariably named first when the original apostles are listed (cf. Mark 3:17ř19; Acts 1:13; etc.). In the memory of the early Church, Peter would have been extremely difficult to overlook. He appears in Holy Scripture very much as an in-your-face apostle, if the term be allowed. It was he, after all, who flung himself into the lake and swam toward the risen Jesus, while the others came rowing to shore in their boats (John 21:7f). On that occasion Peter was at least swimming toward the Lord and not attempting, as he had earlier done, to walk to Him on the surface of the water (Matthew 14:28ř31).
In his brother Andrew we find none of this. Andrew, on the contrary, appears not to draw attention to himself, but serves entirely as a conduit for others to come to the Lord. Even in that scene that prompts the Church to remember him as the first-called, he immediately went to share his blessing with his sibling. It is no wonder that he was known among the first Christians simply as "Andrew, Simon PeterŐs brother" (cf. John 1:38ř42).
Monday, December 1
Revelation 15:1-8: This shortest chapter in the Book of Revelation introduces the imagery of the seven bowls of plagues, which will be poured out in the next chapter. The ocean of blood, with which the previous chapter ended, has now become a kind of Red Sea (verses 1-3), thus inserting the theme of the Exodus. This theme itself, of course, is appropriate to the outpouring of the plagues. Other components of the Exodus theme likewise appear in this chapter: the Song of Moses, the cloud of the divine presence, the tent of testimony, and so forth. The "sea of glass" (verse 2) we have already considered in Chapter 4. Beside this sea stand GodŐs people who have passed over it in the definitive Exodus. They are musicians, harpists to be exact, identical with the one-hundred and forty-four thousand whom with saw with the Lamb in the previous chapter; there was harp music in that scene too. These elect have "overcome," the very thing to which John had called the seven churches in Chapters 2-3. They are now beyond the power of the beast to harm them.
John sees in heaven the tent of testimony from the Book of Exodus, the traveling tent of the divine presence that Moses and the Israelites carried through the desert. This tent, however, is "heavenly," which means that it is the original model, the very pattern that Moses copied (Exodus 25:9,40; Acts 7:44; Hebrews 8:5). Since the tent is a place of worship, we are not surprised that John sees seven angels coming out of it, clothed in priestly vestments (verse 6; cf. Exodus 28:4; 39:29), very much as Jesus was clothed in the inaugural vision (Revelation 1:12-13).
The tent itself is full of the cloud of the divine presence, the very cloud that led the Israelites through the desert of old. When that tent was dedicated in the desert, the divine cloud took up residence within it (Exodus 40:34-38). That cloud later took residence in SolomonŐs temple (1 Kings 8:1-12), where Isaiah beheld it (6:1-4). In prophetic vision, Ezechiel saw that cloud return to the second temple built in 520-516 (Ezechiel 44:4).
The hymn in verses 3-4 should be compared with SolomonŐs prayer at the dedication of the temple, as recorded in 2 Chronicles 6:14-42. Both prayers, to begin with, are offered "at the sea" (verse 2; 2 Chronicles 6:12-13). Both prayers thank God for His mighty works, invoke His righteous judgments, and request the conversion of all the nations. Finally, in response to each prayer, fire comes down from heaven (verses 5-8; 2 Chronicles 7:1-2).
Tuesday, December 2
Psalm 6: This psalm begins with a forceful recognition of the divine wrath. It is the second time that GodŐs wrath is mentioned in the Book of Psalms; Psalm 2, which we prayed yesterday, already spoke of GodŐs anger toward the rebellious. In the present psalm, however, it is the psalmist himself who fears this wrath of God and prays to be delivered from it: "O Lord, do not rebuke me in Your anger, nor chasten me in Your fierce displeasure." Such a prayer suggests that only the grace of God can deliver us from the wrath of God.
The divine wrath is not some sort of irritation; God does not become peeved or annoyed. The wrath of God is infinitely more serious than a temper tantrum. It is a deliberate resolve in response to a specific state of the human soul. In the Epistle to the Romans, the expression appears12 times, the anger of God describes His activity toward the hard of heart, the unrepentant, those sinners who turn their backs and deliberately refuse His grace, and it is surely in this sense that our psalm asks to be delivered from GodŐs wrath. It is important to make such a prayer, because hardness of heart remains a possibility for all of us to the very day we die.
Every deliberate and willful sin is a step in the direction of hardness of heart. Psalm 6, as a penitential psalm, takes sin very seriously. The sin spoken of here is deliberate, willful. It is not just a mistake; it is not something for which we simply apologize. It is, rather, a voluntary affront to GodŐs image in us. The taking away of sin required the shedding of ChristŐs blood on the Cross. This fact itself tells us how serious is this whole business of sin.
Sin has entered deeply into human experience, and it has left human beings in a very weakened state. It is felt in our inner frame, our very bones, as it were. The psalm goes on: "Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am weak; O Lord, Heal me, for my bones are troubled. My soul also is greatly troubled, but You, O Lord . . how long? Return, O Lord, deliver me. Oh, save me, for Your merciesŐ sake."
The psalmist then speaks of death, for by sin death entered into the world. Death is sin rendered visible. What we see death do to the body, sin does to the soul. Death is the externalizing of sin. Death is no friend.
Sin and death, then, form the context of this psalm, and these are the forces of Satan. Sin, death and Satan Ń such are the enemies of which the psalmist speaks: "My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows old because of all my enemies. Depart from me, all you workers of iniquity. . . Let all my enemies be ashamed and greatly troubled."
Wednesday, December 3
Revelation 16:1-9: Three of these four plagues are right out of the arsenal of Moses. Sores on the flesh of the bad guys (verse 2) were MosesŐ sixth plague. As in the account in Exodus, the intent of this plague is that the idolaters should repent, but in neither case does it happen. The second and third plague here (verses 3-4), the changing of water into blood, are identical to MosesŐ first plague, which was regarded, we recall, as a rather easy plague, in the sense that even PharaohŐs magicians could do it (Exodus 7:22).
Here in Revelation, these two plagues are related to the great bloodshed of persecution caused by the enemies of GodŐs people (verse 6; 16:5-7). This crying out of the altar puts one in mind of the earlier scene where the souls (that is, the blood) of the martyrs cried from the altar (6:9-10). In that earlier scene the saints prayed for justice to be done on earth, for the righteousness of God to be vindicated in history. Now, in the present instance, the voice from the altar praises God that such justice has been done, that GodŐs fidelity has been made manifest.
The fourth plague does not appear in Exodus at all; Moses had been able to blot out the sunlight, but not even he was able to make the sun hotter. Even this plague, nonetheless, does not bring the idolaters to repentance (verse 9).
Thursday, December 4
Revelation 16:10-21: Revelation 16:10-21: The final three bowls of plagues stand parallel to two other biblical texts: the plagues of Egypt in the Book of Exodus and the trumpets from earlier in the Book of Revelation.
The darkness of the fifth bowl (verse 10) corresponds to the ninth plague in the Book of Exodus (10:21-29). The sixth bowl, the drying up of the Euphrates, includes the proliferation of frogs, which corresponds to MosesŐ second plague against Pharaoh (Exodus 8:2-6). The hailstones that accompany the seventh bowl (verse 21) are parallel to MosesŐ seventh plague against Egypt (Exodus 9:13-26).
There are also parallels between these three bowls of plagues and the three final trumpets that appeared earlier in Revelation. Thus, the fifth bowl (verse 10), like the fifth trumpet (9:1-2) causes darkness over the whole earth. The sixth trumpet brought forth an invading army from east of the Euphrates (9:12-19); so does the sixth bowl (verse 12). Finally, at both the seventh trumpet and the seventh bowl there are bolts of lightning, peals of thunder, and an earthquake (verse 18; 11:19).
The sixth bowl of plagues here is composite. There is, first of all, a drying up of the Euphrates, so that the Parthian armies can march westward. This puts one in mind of the drying up of the Jordan, so that the Israelites could move west against the Canaanites. Because of the great difference between the two instances, however, this symbolism should be read as an example of theological "inversion" (in the sense used by the American novelist Steinbeck, who often employs biblical symbols in this way), so that the identical image is used for both good and bad meanings. With respect to the drying up of the Euphrates, John knew a precedent in Jeremiah (50:38), who spoke of the drying up of the waters of Babylon, to facilitate its capture by the Persians. Indeed, John will have a great deal to say about the fall of Babylon.
Verse 15 contains a well known saying of Jesus, in which He compares His final return to the coming of a thief in the dead of night. This dominical saying is preserved in the Gospels of Matthew (24:43) and Luke (12:39).
The final battle takes place at Armageddon (verse 16), which literally is "hill of Megiddo." Megiddo sits on the edge of the Plain of Esdralon and was in antiquity the site of two famous battles, in each of which a king was killed. In Judges 5 the Canaanite king Sisera was slain there, and 2 Kings 23 describes the death of Josiah there in 609. In JohnŐs mind, Armageddon symbolizes disaster, catastrophe, and violence.
Friday, December 5
1 Maccabees 1: The reign of Alexander the Great (verses 1-5) lasted from early 334 to June of 323 B.C. His conquests during that time included Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, the entire Fertile Crescent, Persia, Afghanistan, and regions further east to the Beas River in the Punjab. At his death, the rule of this large realm was divided among his generals.
After AlexanderŐs death in 323, the history in this text skips to September of 175, when Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164) succeeded to the throne of the Seleucid kings of Syria, whose capital was at Antioch (verse 10). He had earlier lived in Rome as a hostage, after his father, Antiochus III, was defeated by the Romans at the battle of Magnesia in 190. A more ample treatment of his reign is found in 2 Maccabees 3:1Ń4:6.
Some Jews, anxious to keep up with the times, urged their countrymen to accept the cosmopolitan ways, customs, and values of the Hellenic culture represented in the reign of Antiochus IV (verses 11-15). There is further discussion of this secularizing movement in 2 Maccabees 4:7-50. We observe that it was the Jews who first took the initiative in this paganizing movement, notably the apostate priest Jason.
Verses 29 to 35 (corresponding to 2 Maccabees 5:23-26) describe events in 167 B.C., the year of AntiochusŐs first military campaign against Egypt. Partly to finance this incursion, he endeavored to tax the people of Juda. In effect, he simply robbed and pillaged them, constructing a stronghold on the southern part of the hill bordered by the Tyropoeon and Kidron valleys. This citadel, thus situated, overlooked the Temple (verse 36). Seleucid forces were to occupy this stronghold until driven out by Jewish revolutionaries in the year 141 (as we shall see later, in 13:49-50). Because of this military occupation, Jerusalem became effectively a pagan city for the next twenty-six years (verses 37-40).
These developments were part of a much larger picture. Antiochus IV in order to unify his very diverse kingdom, which included many ethnic groups separated by mountain ranges and a variety of languages and cultures, set out on an ambiguous program of cultural uniformity, which included a religious synthesis of elements from Greece, Phoenicia, and Syria. (Recall that the Romans had already begun to combine the pantheon of Greece with that of Rome, identifying Ares with Mars, Hermes with Mercury, and so forth.)He had no trouble identifying Olympian Zeus (cf. 2 Maccabees 6:2) with the Syrian and Phoenician Baal, but he found IsraelŐs God much less accommodating. The adherents of this latter divinity would have to be eliminated (verses 50,57).
Israel thus found itself forced into conformity with the world views and cultural standards of paganism (verses 41-51), on a scale surpassing their experience of Assyria, Babylon, and Persia in the past. The height of the outrage against IsraelŐs religion came on December 7, 167 (verse 54), when an altar to Zeus was erected in the Temple itself (cf. Daniel 11:31), constructed over the traditional altar to the Lord before the Holy of Holies. Idolatry became rampant (verse 55), and violent efforts were made to destroy IsraelŐs defining religious literature (verses 56-57). Open persecution followed (verses 60-64).
Saturday, December 6
1 Maccabees 2: The sufferings of the Jewish martyrs during this period served as a great inspiration to the early Christians, who likewise endured persecution for the cause of their faith. The desert wanderings described in the present chapter, reminiscent of IsraelŐs time forty years in the desert under Moses, gripped the imagination of the Christians, who said that they "wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormentedŃof whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth" (Hebrews 11:37-38).
Mathathias, introduced at the beginning of the chapter and deceased at the end of it, was a descendent of Asamonaios (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 12.6.1, ¤ 265; War 1.1.3, ¤ 36). From this latterŐs name came the designation "Hasmonean," the title of the heroic family chronicled in the Books of the Maccabees. This was a priestly family, descended from Joarib, or Jehoirib, ancestor of the first of the twenty-four curses of IsraelŐs priests (cf. 1 Chronicles 24:7).
Each of the sons of Mathathias has two names, the second of which is a descriptive adjective ("blessed," "ardent," "named by the Lord," "awakened," and "favored"). The name of the second son, Judas Maccabeus, came to designate both the period and its literature.
The officers of Antiochus eventually came to the city of Mathathias, Modin (verses 15-18), the modern el-Midyah, seven miles east of the biblical Lydda, the modern Lod. By way of response to their invitation , Mathathias began by giving them a piece of his mind (verses 19-24) and then the point of his spear (verse 25). His action was observed to resemble that of the ancient priest Phinehas (verse 26; Numbers 25:6-15). (Why do people still expect priests to be pacifists? It seems hardly a biblical expectation.)
Mathathias and his sons and his friends then fled into the hills east of Modin (verses 27-28; 2 Maccabees 5:27). Others imitated them (verses 29-30), and these in turn were pursued by the Seleucid forces (verses 31-32; 2 Maccabees 6:11). The Jewish fugitives, unwilling to fight on the Sabbath, were slaughtered (verses 33-38), suffocated by fires ignited at the mouths of the caves where they lay concealed (Josephus, Antiquities 12.6.2, ¤ 274-275).
Beholding what had befallen their faithful countrymen, Mathathias and his companions resolved that they, if so obliged by like circumstances, would henceforth do battle on the Sabbath (verses 30-41).
The forces of Mathathias were joined by another group, which now appears for the first time in history, the Hasidim, or "holy ones" (verse 42). This group were to become the forerunners for both the Pharisees (" the separated") and the Essenes ("the pure"). To this day the strictest form of Jewish observance is still called "Hasidic."
Now formed into a large army of six thousand (verse 43; 2 Maccabees 8:1), the forces of Mathathias proceed against those Jews who had cooperated with the heathen (verse 44). Like Hezechiah and Josiah of old, they went about destroying the apparatus of the pagan religion (verse 45), even circumcising such boys as they found (verse 46).
Mathathias, about to die in his old age, delivered a testamental discourse that resembled those of Jacob (Genesis 49) and Moses (Deuteronomy 33), but which also explicitly recalled earlier heroes of faith (verses 49-68). Indeed, it is like a shortened form of the similar chronicle in Hebrews 11, which we noted at the beginning of this chapter.
Mathathias died in the spring of 166 B.C., succeeded by his son Judas Maccabeus.