Our apologies to the readers of Daily Reflections for the late posting of this week's meditations.
Sunday, 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 the person responsible for tempting the Israelites into lust and apostasy in their encounter with the Midianites. For this sin he is killed in Israel’s war with Midian (cf. Numbers 31:8; Joshua 13:22).
Peter’s negative comments on Balaam in the present text are similar to those found in rabbinical sources and in the Jewish philosopher Philo. Balaam’s 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 new Christians, 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.
Monday, 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 lies in 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, says Peter, are being disregarded by those who scoff at the doctrine of the Lord’s 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 Naturalist 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.
Tuesday, August 10
2 Peter 3:10-18: Since only God knows the length of the eleventh hour, the Lord’s return will confound all human calculations of its timing. The simile of the thief who comes during the night, for instance, must not be taken literally, because it is never nighttime everywhere at the same time, and the Bible contains no hint that the Lord will return to the earth by following the sequence of its appointed time zones!
This comparison with the thief’s nocturnal entrance was doubtless common among the early Christians (Matthew 24:43; Luke 12:39; 1 Thessalonians 5:2; Revelation 3:3; 16:5). It will all happen with a “rush,” this onomatopoeia corresponding to the Greek verb rhoizedon in verse 10. Watchfulness, therefore, and a holy life are the proper responses to our true situation in this world (verse 11; Matthew 24:42-51; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11).
Both heaven and earth will be renewed (verse 13; Isaiah 65:17; 66:22; Revelation 21:1; cf. Romans 8:19-22). The expression “without spot and without blame” in verse 14 (aspiloi kai amometoi) contains the negative forms of the adjectives describing the false teachers in 2: 13 (spiloi kai momoi).
Peter’s reference to Paul indicates his familiarity with more than one Pauline epistle and probably suggests that Paul’s letters were already being gathered into collections and copied. Peter likewise testifies to the difficulties attendant on the understanding of Paul’s message. Christian history bears a similar witness, alas, in the modern divisions that have arisen among Christians over their differing interpretations of Paul. Paul himself was aware, even then, that some Christians were distorting his thought (Romans 3:8).
Wednesday, August 11
The Second Book of Kings: Originally the two Books of Kings formed single work that covered the lengthy period from the death of David in 961 to the downfall of Jerusalem in 587. In the Septuagint, the ancient Greek version used by the Apostles and adopted as the official text by the earliest Christians, these are known as the Books of the Kingdoms, a name which really does give a better indication of their contents. Their chronological narrative is structured on the geopolitical events of the Middle East from the 10 to the 6th centuries B.C.
Now just as the story in 1 Kings is set chiefly against the background of the relationship of the northern kingdom, Israel or Samaria, with its more northern neighbors, Phoenicia and Syria, so 2 Kings is dominated by events related the new political powers at the other end of the Fertile Crescent, the Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian empires.
Even though it still looks massive from a distance, it is useful to remember that the period of Assyria was hardly more than an interlude in ancient history. After centuries of decline (coinciding with an Egyptian decline, both of them thus permitting David to construct a little empire of his own in the early 10th century), Assyria started to mend with the reign of Tiglath-Pileaser III (745-727).
Immediately it began to make its muscle be felt down along the southwestern curve of the Fertile Crescent. It brought the independence of Syria to an end in 732, thus finishing the dominance of Damascus in that part of the world. (Recall the importance of Damascus all through our reading of 1 Kings.) Then, in 721 it destroyed the Kingdom of Israel and took the 10 northern tribes eastward into captivity. All of this had just been prophesied by Amos and Hoseah. In the last decade of that 8th century B. C. Assyria nearly destroyed Judah as well, creating the great crisis narrated in 2 Kings 19, Isaiah 36-37 and 2 Chronicles 32.
Each of those accounts, however, is immediately followed by the curious story of a delegation sent to King Hezechiah from the little kingdom of Babylon, and each bibli cal account of that event mentions that the prophet Isaiah, just as the 8th century was ending, foresaw that event's significance in Judah's coming history. Babylon did not look like much at the time, but Isaiah, along with prophetic insight, was gifted with prophetic foresight and already knew what was to come. This little Babylon would emerge as the Neo-Babylonian Empire with the downfall of Assyria's capital, Nineveh, in 612. Then Babylon would in turn destroy Jerusalem in 587, taking the Jews into the Babylonian Captivity. Such is the terminus ad quem of 2 Kings.
Thursday, August 12
Acts 24:22—25:12: Felix hardly knows what to make of all this. Here are all these warring groups among the Jews — Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Herodians. And now this new group they call the Nazarenes. Who can make sense of it all? Who would want to adjudicate all these religious disputes?
Feeling that he needs more concrete evidence about this Paul, Felix postpones a decision until Lysias should arrive at Caesarea to give testimony in the matter (24:22), and Paul meanwhile may continue to receive visitors freely while in custody.
At least this is what Felix says. Since we hear nothing about Lysias ever coming to Caesarea, however, we begin to suspect that a certain amount of foot-dragging has commenced. In fact, learning about this collection of money that Paul and his companion had recently brought to the Holy Land, Felix is hoping for a bribe (24:26), a detail in Luke’s story that fits in very well with what we learn about Felix from other writers of the period. That money was taken up for the poor. It will not be used to bribe a Roman official. Hence, two years pass (57-59/60), and Paul is still in prison.
During this time Paul writes the epistles to the Ephesians, the Colossians, and Philemon. He also receives many visitors, including Aristarchus, Tychicus, Mark, Jesus Justus, Demas, and Epaphras (Colossians 4:7-14). Luke the physician, who was in Jerusalem at the time of Paul’s arrest, comes to Caesarea to look after his favorite client (cf. Colossians 4:14; Philemon 24; Acts 27:2).
At the end of the two years, Felix is succeeded by Portius Festus, who inherits Paul as a bit of unfinished business. This new procurator, a conscientious man chiefly remembered for his efforts to stamp out the terrorism prevalent in the Middle East during that time (cf. Josephus, Jewish War 2.14.1 [271-272]; Antiquities 2.8.9-10 [182,185]), must deal with Paul as the first chore of his two years in office (59-61/62). He does so in less than a fortnight. The authorities in Jerusalem, of course, want Paul to be tried there, all along planning that Paul would never reach the city for his trial. The times are treacherous.
Friday, August 13
Acts 25:13-27: The substance of Paul’s defense (apologoumenou) in this section is that he has violated no law, whether of the Jewish religion or of the Roman Empire (25:8). His accusers, moreover, have not met their burden of proof (25:7).
Festus, however, unwilling to offend the Jewish leadership so early in his administration, proposes a compromise: a trial at Jerusalem, over which the governor himself would preside (25:9). Paul will have none of this compromise. He already stands before an imperial court as a Roman citizen; why should he forego that privilege in order to expose himself to a Jewish lynch mob? Therefore, he appeals his case to Rome.
It is worth noting, in verse 11, Paul’s explicit recognition of the state’s proper authority to use the death penalty, the “right of the sword” (jus gladii), on certain classes of criminals. This position is identical to the one earlier espoused by Paul in Romans 13:1-4. Accordingly, the Christian Church, even when discouraging recourse to capital punishment in practice (in the Byzantine Empire, for instance), has always recognized, as a matter of clear principle, the state’s God-given, biblically affirmed authority to put certain criminals to death.
The response of Festus, taken with counsel, accedes to Paul’s legal appeal to a higher court (25:12). After this decision there follows another scene, Paul’s somewhat unofficial hearing before King Agrippa II and his sister/mistress Berenice. The purpose of this hearing is to help Festus identify the charges for which Paul will be sent to Rome for trial. Thus, Paul, having been tried before a synagogue and a governor, will now appear before a king (cf. Luke 21:12).
Saturday, August 14
Acts 26:1-32: There is a sense in which the present speech of Paul is the high point of Luke’s account of his ministry. Containing the third narrative of Paul’s conversion, it will represent a fulfillment of a prophecy contained in the first narrative (9:15), namely, he will now appear before a king.
Paul’s apologetics (apologeito in verse 1, apoplogeisthai in verse 2) in this speech is consonant with his legal defense hitherto, but he becomes more explicit about his faith and his conversion. Legally Paul has nothing to lose, for his appeal to a higher court at Rome has already been granted. He will use the present circumstances as an opportunity, rather, to bear witness to the Gospel, which he treats as the fulfillment of the hope he had always cherished as a loyal Pharisee (verse 5; cf. 24:5; 28:22). That is to say, the hope of the resurrection (verse 8). At this point Paul begins to move from apologetics to evangelism. He is using the Pharisees’ belief in a resurrection as a step toward bringing them to the Resurrection of Christ.
Paul recounts his own history, not omitting his earlier persecutions of Christians, and then goes on to describe his conversion. This is the third and most elaborate account of that event in the Acts of the Apostles, and it is the only version of the story to contain the detail about Paul’s “kicking against the goad,” a metaphor for resistance to divine grace. This detail insinuates that Paul had already been feeling the pangs of conscience for his grievous mistreatment of Christians.
This verse suggests, then, that Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus represented a sort of climax to a spiritual struggle already being waged in his own soul. In this experience Paul was “grabbed” by Christ (Philippians 3:12), and a radical destiny was laid upon him (1 Corinthians 9:15-18). Like Ezechiel (2:1-2), he is told to stand on his feet (verse 16).
Indeed, this account of Paul’s calling should be compared with the stories of the callings of several of the Old Testament prophets, chiefly Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. What Paul is called to preach is the fulfillment of all that the prophets wrote. Thus, various prophetic themes appear in this account of his call. For example, there is the metaphor of the opening of the eyes from darkness to light (cf. Isaiah 42:7,16). Paul clearly regards his ministry as a completion of the work of Moses and the prophets (verse 22).
When Paul mentions the resurrection, however, Festus believes that he has gone too far. Paul’s excessive study of literature (polla grammata) — that is to say, the Bible — has caused his mind to snap, Festus asserts, so that he can no longer distinguish between reality and fantasy.
In this response of Festus we discern the reaction of the pagan world to this most Christian of doctrines — the resurrection. Greco-Roman culture, with its chronic disrespect for the material world (as evidence, for example, in the pagan custom of cremating dead bodies), would have scanty respect for the doctrine of the resurrection, which takes so seriously the holiness inherent in the human body sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Sad to say, the situation is not so different today.
Faced by a pagan unfamiliar with belief in the resurrection, Paul turns to Agrippa for a more sympathetic hearing. However, when Paul, answering what seems to be something of a jest on the king’s part, invites him to become a Christian, the king becomes uncomfortable, and the hearing is abruptly ended. Festus, now confident that he can send Paul to Rome with precise instructions to the legal system there, hands him over to guards for the journey.