Sunday, January 18
Psalm 148: It was the universal custom of the ancient Christian Church, both East and West, to pray the last three of the psalms as a unit on Sunday mornings. In the West those psalms traditionally followed the daily appointed psalmody and Old Testament canticle, all of these components joined with a single antiphon. In the East, where these three psalms are chanted with a separate antiphon ("Let everything that breathes praise the Lord"), they come immediately prior to the Great Doxology ("Glory to God in the highest"). In both instances Psalms 148-150 formed a sort of climax to the morning psalmody, which is exactly how they function in the Psalter itself.
Psalm 148 is a summons directed to all of creation to praise God, its constantly repeated exhortation being allelu, "praise ye." In structure and imagery Psalm 148 has great affinities to the Greek form of the hymn of the three young men in the fiery furnace in Daniel 3:52-90, and in the Western liturgical tradition this latter is very often, and always on Sundays, the Old Testament canticle immediately preceding this psalm itself.
Psalm 148, in calling on all creation to praise the Lord, also follows much the same sequence as the fiery furnace song in Daniel: heaven, sun, moon, stars, angels, waters above the heavens, followed by the various elements and formations on the earth, etc. A similar sequence is found in other biblical poetry, such as Job 28 and Sirach 43. The general format for this sequence is derived, of course, from the created order in the opening chapter of Genesis. Indeed, the doctrine of creation is precisely the reason given for the praise: "Let them praise the name of the Lord, for He spoke, and they came to be; He gave command, and they were created. He established them forever and ever. He decreed His precept, and it will not pass away." One may pray this psalm, then, as Genesis 1 adapted to the form of praise.
But we are not simply Jews, and this praise must be properly Christian; that is to say, it must be prayer firmly anchored in the "fullness of time," the full Christian faith, most particularly faith in the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Except for His Resurrection, after all, the whole created world is "subjected to futility," held in "bondage to corruption" (Romans 8:20f; cf. Luke 4:6). It is only in Christ that the created order is put right and set on the path to transfiguration. When, in this psalm, we summon the whole created order to praise God, we are eliciting a Spirit-given impulse that lies already at the heart of the world, "for the earnest expectation of creation eagerly awaits the revelation of the sons of God" (Romans 8:19).
Such a consideration makes Psalm 148 especially appropriate for Sunday, which is at once the first day of creation and the "eighth day" of the new creation inaugurated by the Resurrection of our Lord. Truly the "Lord" being praised in each verse of this psalm is the risen Jesus, whose victory over death constitutes the final vindication of the created order itself. In short, all Christian consideration of the created world will instinctively regard it through the properly defining lens of the Resurrection.
If the whole world of spirit and matter is called upon to join in a common praise of God, this praise is concentrated in the Church, which is explicitly spoken of in the psalmŐs final lines: "This is the song for all His saints, the children of Israel, the people who draw near to Him."
In the Church creation itself finds its destiny and proper form through the Resurrection of Christ: "For by Him were all things created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible . . . All things were created through Him and for Him . . . and in Him all things subsist. And He is the head of the body, the Church . . . . " (Colossians 1:16-18).
Consequently, the more ample measure of this psalm is perhaps the "sign" of the Child-bearing Woman who appears in the heavens, for it is Her forces that engage that old serpentine foe of the whole created world (Apocalypse 12). Should the moon, then, be admonished to acclaim the Lord? Doubtless so, for on the moon She abides who bears the Messiah. And should the sun be summoned to an outburst of blessing? Without question, for with the luster of the sun is that Lady invested. And the stars, will they be included in the heavenly song? Surely so, for the stars form the crown that garlands Her brow. Prefigured and modeled on the very Mother of Jesus, She is that new Eve who appears in history as the last and the finest of all that God has made. It is Her voice, finally, that fills all creation with the praise of God.
Monday, January 19
Romans 1:1-10: PaulŐs eloquent introduction (verses 1-7) is easily the longest, most elaborate, and most detailed in all his writings. This feature reflects the fact that Romans, unlike PaulŐs earlier letters to Thessaloniki, Galatia, Philippi, and Corinth, was not composed for the purpose of addressing questions and problems of the congregation to which it was sent. Although Paul evidently had several friends in Rome (as we see in the greetings sent to many individuals in chapter 16), this epistle does not show him familiar with the specific situation of the church in that city nor intent on dealing with particular problems there. The Epistle to the Romans is, rather, a sort of theological treatise on a theme that had been thrust toward the center of PaulŐs interest and concern during the previous six or so years, ever since the Galatian crisis during the early fifties. PaulŐs concentration on this theme in no way indicates that the Church at Rome was subject to the same or a similar crisis.
PaulŐs name is the only one that appears as an author of this epistle, even though he actually dictated it to Tertius (16:22). We may contrast this feature with his earlier inclusion of Timothy, Silvanus, and Sosthenes as joint "authors" (1 Corinthians 1:1; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Philippians 1:1, 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1) and his later inclusion of Timothy in the letter to the Colossians (1:1).
In Romans it is clear that Paul thinks of his evangelization of the eastern Mediterranean basin as completed. The churches founded in that region he had now handed over to the care of the pastors whom he had appointed, and he now trusted them to transmit the Gospel to the following generations. (Except for those churches destroyed by Muslim invasions, this has been the case, in fact. The Gospel still lives vibrantly in the Pauline congregations of the Near and Middle East.) Paul is now ready to turn his attention to the western end of the Mediterranean basin, especially Italy and Spain, and this epistle, born to its destination by the trusted deaconess Phoebe (16:1), would serve to introduce Paul to those churches, while he himself completed one last task that he had appointed for himself in the eastŃnamely, the transmission to Jerusalem of the collection of alms that had been made among the Pauline churches.
In this epistleŐs initial greeting we observe its emphasis on Christology, its avowal of the historical Jesus, "born of the seed of David according to the flesh," and the Christ of faith, "declared [horisthentos, not "predestined" or prooristhentos] to be Son of God with power." These are two descriptions of the same Jesus Christ, of course, with the recognition that His resurrection from the dead (verse 4) is the historical fact that manifests and demonstrates His true identity (cf. Acts 2:34-36; 1 Corinthians 15:45; Philippians 3:10).
PaulŐs reference to "the obedience to the faith" (verse 5) is more literally "the obedience of faith" (hyupakoe pisteos), an appositional genitive indicating that faith is active, not simply passive; it is commitment and not just reception (cf. 10:17; 16:26). It is not a mere assent of the intellect but a dedication of the heart.
Tuesday, January 20
Romans 1:11-17: For some time now, Paul has wanted to come to Rome (verses 10-13), where the local Christian congregation was already famous among Christians elsewhere (verse 8). The church at Rome seems first to have been established by Roman Jews who had been present at the original Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2:10; cf. Tacitus, Annals 15.44). Indeed, this early date for the founding of the church at Rome is supported by the funerary inscription of a Christian woman, Pomponia Graecina, in the early forties.
Although these early founders had been expelled from Rome in the general expulsion of the Jews in A.D. 49 (Acts 18:1; Suetonius, "Claudius" 25), it is reasonable to suppose that some of them returned there after the death of Claudius in the year 54. As to the composition of the church at Rome when Paul wrote this epistle four years later, we can say little that is certain. Nonetheless, on the presumption that Gentile Christians at Rome were not affected by the expulsion in 49, we may guess that there were more Gentile Christians than Jewish at Rome when Paul wrote this epistle in very early 58.
It is not clear who was pastoring Rome at this time. The absence of any greetings to Simon Peter in this epistle is utterly unintelligible if the latter had already arrived in that city. Indeed, our earliest direct evidence for PeterŐs presence in Rome does not come until the early sixties (1 Peter 5:13). Especially puzzling is this epistleŐs lack of any reference to Linus (2 Timothy 4:21), identified by Irenaeus of Lyons (Adversus Haereses 3.3.3) as the first bishop of Rome.
Paul is very conscious that his own faith is shared by the believers at Rome (verse 12), even though he had not evangelized there. This consciousness is an important key to the interpretation of this epistle, because it implies that the doctrines presumed in this work pertained to the general deposit of faith common to all the early preachers of the Gospel. This shared deposit of faith forms the context within which Paul addresses the major preoccupation of this epistle, as well as the evangelism (evangelisthasthai) that he hopes to accomplish there (verse 15).
This last reference brings Paul to the subject of the Gospel (evangelion) in verse 16. The Gospel means both "salvation" (soteria) and "righteousness" (dikaiosyne), a pairing that is common in Holy Scripture (cf. Psalms 98 :2; Isaiah 45:21; 51:5-8; 56:1; 61:10-11). The Good News is not a simple message, even less a religious philosophy; it is "the power of God" (dynamis Theou). It is GodŐs power working through His word, giving godly shape to history (1 Corinthians 2:4; 4:20).
In the Epistle to the Romans, the "salvation" effected by GodŐs power in the Gospel most often refers to a future reality (5:9-10; 8:24; 10:8,13; 11:11,26; 13:11) rather than an accomplished fact. That is to say, in this epistle salvation something to which Christians look forward rather than something they already have. PaulŐs perspective on this point will shift somewhat over the next two years (cf. Ephesians 2:8).
The Gospel reveals GodŐs reconciliation of man to Himself (verse 17), without which reconciliation man is the object of the divine wrath (verses 18 and following). The righteousness of God (3:5,21,22,25,26; 10:3) is the divine quality and act by which He renders men righteous. This is what the Gospel reveals.
The expression "from faith to faith" seems to mean "through faith and for the sake of faith." That is to say, salvation pertains to faith, from beginning to end. This is how the justified man lives.
Wednesday, January 21
Romans 1:18-32: In order to assess the "power" (dynamis) of the Gospel, Paul now describes the human state without the Gospel. Neither Judaism nor classical paganism, whatever their other accomplishments, have been able to attain or preserve moral integrity. If the Jew, enlightened by GodŐs Law, could not do this (as Paul will argue in chapter 2), much less could the Greek or Roman.
Paul begins with these pagans, providing a stunning description of the depravity of his age. This description is colored by PaulŐs perception as a Jew (indeed, we note his interjection of a standard Jewish doxology in verse 25), because his comments coincide with the assessment that Jews of his time would render with respect to paganism. In these lines we virtually hear the voice of the Maccabees. Paul, like most Jews of his time, regarded the pagan world as "abandoned," "handed over," "forsaken" by God (verses 24,26,28).
The moral depravity of the age was a revelation (apokalyptetai) of the divine wrath against idolatry (verse 18; Isaiah 30:27-33). Following the argument in Wisdom 13:1-9, Paul insists that something of God is known in the works of Creation (verses 19-20). This something is not only knowable, it is "known" (to gnoston), so that man is inexcusable in not recognizing it.
Paul is not talking here about a person knowledge of God, which requires faith (cf. Hebrews 11:3,5-6; 1 Corinthians 1:21), but a factual knowledge of GodŐs existence and certain of His predicates (verse 20; Acts 14:15-17). Such factual knowledge about God is ineluctable except to those who have completely blinded their hearts (verse 21; Ephesians 4:17). These refuse to acknowledge what they cannot help knowing. Therefore, they decline to praise God or to thank Him, turning instead to false gods to whom, they know, they will never have to render an account (verse 23; Psalms 106 :20; Deuteronomy 4:16-18).
This idolatrous darkening of the heart begins with the entertainment of deceptive thoughts (verse 21), but it soon finds expression in manŐs very body. It leads directly to sexual immorality (verse 24; Wisdom 14:22-27). That is to say, the mendacity and illusions of the human mind produce a mendacity and illusion in the human flesh, and this corporeal mendacity, this fleshly illusion is the very essence of homosexuality. Those unable to recognize the intelligent design of nature can hardly be expected to honor the most elementary markings of the human body (verses 26-28). Thus, homosexual behavior, which is "against nature" (para physin, contra naturamŃverse 26), is the social and cultural progeny of an engendering idolatry. Other sexual sins, such as fornication, at least show deference to the structure of nature. The homosexual vice, however, by refusing to do so, is particularly vile.
Besides sexual turpitude, idolatry leads to all sorts of ther sins (verses 29-31). Paul is not speculating here. Having traveled through the cities of the Greco-Roman world, having heard the confessions of his converts (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11), he is immediately familiar with these sins.
We should remember here that Paul is speaking of society, not every individual within it. He is not saying that every single pagan in the world is morally depraved. He is saying, rather, that pagan society is morally depraved. Nor, when he speaks of the sins of homosexuals, does he mean that in each case that personŐs sins are the result of his own personal idolatry. Paul is saying, rather, that the homosexual vice, as a social phenomenon, is the symptom of a deeper sin, idolatry. Consequently, it is precarious to use PaulŐs arguments here as applying directly to individuals; he is describing the state of pagan society without the Gospel.
In addition, the divine condemnation is deserved, not only by those who do these terrible things, but by those who approve of them, those non-judgmental types who embrace the I-will-not-impose-my-morality-on-others theory. GodŐs judgment falls, then, not only on the malefactors themselves, but on the society that condones, excuses, permits, or approves such malefaction.
Thursday, January 22
Romans 2:1-16: Having described the moral failings of paganism, Paul now turns to the Jews. Woe to them if they pass judgment (verse 1), because they too have failed to measure up. Jew and Greek stand before God on level ground, in fact (verses 9-10). The JewŐs possession of the Torah, in which God reveals His moral will, is no guarantee that the Jew is superior to the Greek (verses 12-16).
Here Paul twice addresses the Jew as "man," anthropos (verses 1,3), indicating that he too is of the common clay, an heir of Adam, that first and fallen anthropos. Jewish blood is no guarantee of moral superiority over other men (cf. Matthew 3:8; John 8:39; Galatians 2:15). The Jew too is called to repentance, metanoia (verse 4; Wisdom 11:23), because his own heart is just as "impenitent" (verse 5).
In this epistle, the theme of which is justification through faith, Paul insists early that the Lord "will render to each man according to his deeds" (literally "works," ergaŃverse 6; Psalms 62 :13; Proverbs 24:12), and goes on to speak of "the patience of good work" (verse 7). Even this early in the epistle Paul closes the door to any anomian interpretation of it.
Those who do good works are said to be seeking (zetousin) "glory and honor and incorruptibility" (verse 7). This incorruptibility, aphtharsia, is to be contrasted with the corruption of death, introduced into the world by sin (5:12). The translation of the word as "immortality" (as in the KJV) is misleading, because immortality suggests something immaterial and essentially spiritual (as when we speak of "the immortality of the soul"). Aphtharsia, in contrast, refers in this context to the spiritual transformation of matter, of which the formal and defining example is the resurrected body of Christ. "Incorruptibility" is a property of the risen flesh of the Christian (1 Corinthians 15:42,50,53,54). Introduced into human experience by the resurrection of Christ, it reverses the power of death. The resurrection of the body is the final act in manŐs salvation and the great object of his hope. (This is also the reason why, as we have seen, sentences about "salvation" normally appear in this epistle in the future tense.)
To those who are seeking salvation Paul contrasts those who are only seeking themselves, searching for some kind of self-fulfillment (eritheia) outside of GodŐs will (verse 8).
In verse 10 Paul returns to the importance of good works (literally "working the good"Ńergazomenos to agathon). Salvation through faith is not for the lazy. Grace is free, but it is not cheap.
In chapter one Paul had spoken about the revelation of GodŐs existence through nature. Now he writes of the revelation of GodŐs moral law through nature (verses 14-15). His juxtaposition of Natural Law with the Mosaic Law does not mean that every particular of the latter can be discerned in the former; he means simply that the Natural Law can be known by manŐs conscience and that those who have only the Natural Law will be judged according to that law, just as the Jew will be judged according to the Mosaic Law.
With respect to this revelation of GodŐs moral will through nature, the third-century Christian apologist Origen wrote: "There is nothing amazing about it if the same God has implanted in the souls of all men the same truths which He taught through the Prophets and the Savior. He did this in order that every man might be without excuse at the divine judgment, having the requirement of the law written in his heart" (Against Celsus 1.4).
Friday, January 23
Romans 2:17-29: Paul continues talking to the imaginary "man" that he earlier addressed (verses 1,3). This man calls himself a Jew (verse 17). This man, whom he had earlier reprimanded for judging others, Paul now taunts with a series of claims that were commonly made by the Jews: knowledge of the true God and His will, confidence in the Law, a superior moral insight, and the consequent right to provide guidance to the rest of the world (verses 18-20).
Paul does not deny the validity of any of these claims, but they do raise in his mind a series of concomitant questions that he now puts to the Jew (verses 21-23). The latterŐs behavior, after all, leaves a lot to be desired. Indeed, the bad conduct of the Jew has brought reproach of the God of the Jews (verse 24; Isaiah 52:5 in LXX). Their defining sign, circumcision, has been rendered morally meaningless by their insouciance to the rest of the Torah (verse 25).
Now, asks Paul, how is the circumcised Jew who disobeys the Law of Moses morally superior to the uncircumcised Gentile who observes the Natural Law written in his heart (verses 26-27)?
Throughout this diatribe the Apostle is continuing the very argument that the Old Testament prophets had directed to the Chosen People ever since Amos and Isaiah eight hundred years beforeŃnamely, that a strict adherence to the prescribed rituals is no adequate substitute for the moral renewal of the heart and a blameless life pleasing to God. Far from rejecting the Old Testament here, Paul is appealing to one of its clearest themes (Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Micah 6:6-8; Jeremiah 4:4; 9:24-25; Ezekiel 44:9).
The true circumcision is internal. This is the "secret" that the Lord sees (verse 16). It is the heart that must be circumcised (verses 29-30; Acts 7:51). The true moral renewal of man, then, is not the fruit of a greater and more intense moral effort. It comes from the presence of the Holy Spirit in the circumcised heart.
In his contrast of two circumcisions, Paul invokes the distinction between letter and Spirit that he had used a year earlier to describe the difference between the Old Testament dispensation and the Christian Gospel (2 Corinthians 3:6). The circumcision or pruning of the human heart places that heart under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who makes the human being to be a child of God (8:15; Galatians 4:6). The Gospel, then, is not simply a source of new moral information; it is the internal principle of a new mode of life.
PaulŐs distinction between a Jew in the flesh and a Jew in the Spirit puts us in mind of JesusŐ insistence, in the Sermon on the Mount, that a believerŐs existence is defined, not by his external observance of a religious code, but by his internal relationship to the heavenly Father (Matthew 6:1,4,6,8,14,18). Indeed, the same expression "secret" (krypton) is used in both places (verses 16,29; Matthew 6:4,6).
In spite of the historical advantage that God has given the Jew over the Gentile (verses 9-10; 1:16), they are both called by the Gospel to the same repentance.
Saturday, January 24
Romans 3:1-8: To say (as Paul has been saying) that both the Gentile and the Jew are called to repentance is not to deny the historical advantage of the Jews, because "to them were committed the oracles of God" (verse 2). Later in this same epistle (11:11-23) Paul will argue at greater length that God still has His eye on the Jews; they will still have their important role to play in the outcome of history. The JewsŐ current displacement from their native root (which is Christ, not the Land of Palestine) is only temporary, "until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in" (11:25).
Meanwhile, in fact, only "some" of them have failed (verse 3), only "some of the branches have been broken off" (11:17). In these assertions Paul seems to have in mind not only his contemporary situation but all of Jewish history. That is to say, the Old Testament itself testifies that there have always been both faithful and unfaithful Jews. Those very "oracles of God" that were committed to the Jews bear witness to the failure of some Jews to take GodŐs word seriously. No matter, because God Himself is faithful, even to an unfaithful people (verses 3-4).
This divine fidelity also is recorded in the "oracles of God." This expression, ta logia tou Theou (Psalms 107 :11; Numbers 24:4,16), includes the whole corpus of Sacred Scripture, not simply the prophetic utterances (Hebrews 5:12; 1 Peter 4:11). The whole Old Testament testifies to GodŐs fidelity in the face of manŐs infidelity (3:26; Exodus 34:6; Numbers 23:19; Isaiah 55:11; Hosea 3:26).
PaulŐs quotation from Psalm 51 (50):6 in verse 4 is based on the Septuagint, not the Hebrew text, and its entire context, which is one of repentance, is worth considering here. David himself, to whom this psalm is attributed, had been unfaithful to God, but his own unfaithfulness did not eliminate the faithfulness of God. Indeed, with an oath God swore that He would never be false to David (Psalms 89 :35). This divine "oracle" bears witness to the very point that Paul is making.
On the other hand, when God manifests His wrath (orge, a word that appears in Romans twelve time, more often than in any other book of the New Testament), He can hardly be called evil for doing so (verse 5). In other words, GodŐs use of manŐs sin as an occasion of manifesting the divine mercy cannot be thrown back at God as an excuse for continuing to sin.
Some have already accused Paul of saying just that, he admits (verse 8), and this admission is a striking piece of information. . It proves that PaulŐs earlier statements about justification by grace through faith (especially in Galatians, perhaps) were already being misinterpreted to mean that those justified through faith were set free from moral obligations and godly duties. Paul had said not such thing, of course, but clearly that claim was being made by those who invoked his authority in the matter.
It was arguably to refute such notions (which are, after all, still with us) that James insisted that "a man is justified by works, not by faith only," and that "faith without works is dead" (James 1:22,26).
Peter likewise, even as he referred to PaulŐs epistles as "Scriptures," remarked that in those epistles "are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction" (2 Peter 3:16).
Paul himself would surely have agreed with that assessment. He had earlier written of the inadequacy of "faith alone," remarking that "though I have all faith, so that I could move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing" (1 Corinthians 13:2).