Sunday, December 26
The Gospel According to Saint Matthew: As we shall be reading this version of the Gospel over the next several months, this seems an appropriate occasion to provide an introduction and outline to it.
This Gospel, which shows some signs of an Aramaic original, or at least of reflecting a more Semitic background generally, seems to come from a Jewish-Christian church in Syria. Probably to be dated between 70 and 85 A.D., it reflects the definitive separation between Christians and official Judaism that took place about that time.
In general there is more attention given to the explicit teaching of Jesus in Matthew than in Mark, but the narratives of Jesus’ miracles are told in less detail and with less dramatic color. Jesus appears very much the authoritative, divine Lawgiver in this Gospel. A symbolic detail may illustrate this point. Whereas in Luke’s gospel Jesus regularly goes to the mountain to face God in prayer, Jesus on the mountain in Matthew normally faces mankind as Teacher. At the very end of the story, Jesus is standing on a mountain giving the Great Commission, which itself once again refers to “all things whatsoever I have commanded you.”
Matthew is structured chiefly by five large discourses that commentators are probably right to see as related to the “five books” (pentateuch) of Moses. In addition, there are the teachings of John the Baptist near the beginning and the Great Commission at the end. Here is an outline of the Gospel of Matthew:
A Chapters 1Ý4. Narrative section: The Messiah and “true” Moses. The stories surrounding Jesus’ birth are very reminiscent of both the Moses story (the killing of the little boys) and the sojourn of the Chosen People in Egypt. In this section there is also the preaching of John the Baptist and an account of his baptizing. This will parallel the reference to baptism at the very end of the Gospel. Thus Matthew speaks of baptism at both the beginning and the close of the Gospel.
B Chapters 5Ý7. The Sermon on the Mount, beginning with the Beatitudes. This is the first of the five lengthy discourses of Jesus found in Matthew. These five discourses, corresponding to the Five Books of the Law, establish another parallel between Jesus and Moses. In this Sermon the Lord speaks in direct commands, not parabolic stories. It contains the first installment of “all things whatsoever I have commanded you,” to which Jesus will refer at the end when, once again, he speaks to the disciples on a mountain, giving them the Great Commission. Here we have the authority of Jesus in word.
C Chapters 8Ý9. Account of ten miracles by Jesus, which parallel the ten signs that Moses worked in Egypt. Here we have the authority of Jesus in deed. In these chapters we note the growing animosity of the Jesus’ enemies; like Pharaoh faced with the ten wonders of Moses, they ever more harden their hearts. We also observe that Jesus begins to associate His disciples with His own authority, an association that leads us to their commissioning in 10:1.
D Chapter 10. The second of Jesus’ five great discourses, containing His instructions to the Apostles about mission. As in the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord speaks directly in commands, not figurative stories. This sermon, however, has in mind an audience much more restricted than did the Sermon on the Mount.
E Chapters 11Ý12. A narrative description of Jesus’ rejection by the Jews. In Matthew’s narrative structure, this rejection by His listeners will bring about the Lord’s recourse to parables in the next section, where there will be a clear distinction between those who hear the Lord’s without understanding, and those who do understand what they hear. In Matthew there is thus a heightened emphasis on the negative aspect of parables Ý that is to say, their function as challenge to those who are hard of heart (cf. 13:10-15,34-35). The parables themselves will illustrate the conflict by introducing the note of final judgment.
F Chapter 13. The third of Jesus’ five great discourses, the parables of the Kingdom. This is the physical and logical center of the whole Gospel. These parables serve, not only to illustrate the Lord’s teaching, but to draw a line of judgment between believer and unbeliever.
E+ Chapters 14Ý17. Narrative of Jesus’ reception by the believers. This section parallels his earlier rejection by the Jews narrated in chapters 11Ý12 and illustrates the principle of “understanding” in Chapter 13.
D+ Chapter 18. The fourth of Jesus’ five great discourses, the rules for life within the Church. This account parallels the rules for mission given in chapter 10.
C+ Chapters 19Ý22. A lengthy narrative once again stressing the authority of Jesus (and thus paralleling chapters 8Ý10), and containing a final invitation to belief.
B+ Chapters 23Ý25. This last of Jesus’ five great discourses, which takes place on the Temple mount, focuses on the final things: the Second Coming, judgment, heaven, and hell.
A+ Chapters 26Ý28. Narrative section on the events of Holy Week and the Resurrection. At the end it contains the brief discourse known as the Great Commission, with its reference to baptism. At the end Matthew does not even mention the Ascension, stressing rather that Jesus is with us “all days, even to the end of the world.” This accent parallels the name of Jesus near the beginning of the Gospel—Emmanuel, which means “God with us.”
Monday, December 27
Titus 1:1-16: This very solemn introduction (verses 1-4) rivals those of the longer epistles, which were addressed to whole congregations. In this respect the Epistle to Titus may be contrasted to the other epistles addressed only to individuals (Timothy, Philemon).
God’s promise was made at the dawn of history (verse 2), but now it is manifest in the preaching of the Gospel (verse 3). All of history was guided by that original promise, so the Gospel embraces all of history in its scope and interest.
Paul’s directions for the choice and ordination of ministers (verses 5-9) correspond to those that he had given to Timothy a year or so earlier (1 Timothy 3:1-7). Such a minister is called both an “elder” (presbyteros —verse 5) and an “overseer” (episkopos —verse 6). In these two Greek words we discern the etymological roots of the English words “priest” and “bishop.” Only in the very early second century, it would seem (for our first extant witness, Ignatius of Antioch, wrote in 107), did the two terms come to signify two distinct offices. (This reasonable hypothesis argues only that there was a development in terminology, not a development in the ministry itself.)
It is imperative to observe that the authority of these men comes from their choice and ordination by Titus (and Timothy and so on), who in turn were authorized by Paul. The New Testament knows of no legitimate ordained ministry except by an historical continuity traceable to those eleven men who received the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20).
That is to say, Christian ordination is an historical institution, literally “handed down,” conferred by the laying on of hands by those authorized to do so; the notion of a “succession” is essential to this ministry.
Paul is strict with respect to the moral and domestic lives of these ministers (verses 6-8), whose service he describes chiefly in terms of teaching (verse 9). In this respect they are contrasted with Jewish heretics (verses 10). The latter, he suggests, Titus was likely to meet because of the large Jewish community on Crete (Josephus, Antiquities 17.12.1-2, §323-331; The Jewish War 2.7.1, §103; Ad Gaium 282). The ideas of these Jewish teachers, Paul explains, can likely expect a better hearing among the Cretans! (verse 12) According to Clement of Alexandria, the poet quoted here by Paul was Epimenides (Stromateis 1.14; cf. Tatian, Oratio 27), a writer from the sixth century before Christ.
These Christian ministers must not be like those who profess God with their lips but not in their lives (verses 15-16).
Tuesday, December 29
Titus 2:1-15: In the previous chapter Paul had spoken about being “sound in the faith” (hygiainosin en tei pistei—1:13). Such “soundness” is the mark that he further inculcates in the present chapter, exhorting Titus to “speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine” (hygiainousei didaskalioi—verse 1), so that mature men may be “sound in faith” (hygiainantes tei pistei—verse 2) and of “sound speech” (logon hygie—verse 8). This “soundness” (in the Greek root of which, hygi, we recognize our English words “hygiene” and “hygienic”) is a noted theme also in the letters to Timothy (cf. 1 Timothy 6:3; 2 Timothy 1:13; 4:3). Christian teaching, that is to say, should carry the marks of intellectual, moral, and emotional health. It will not recommend itself if it encourages thoughts, sentiments, and behavior that are manifestly unhealthy.
In verse 2 we observe the triad of faith, love, and patience. This conjunction, common to the letters to Timothy (cf. 1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 3:10), is also found earlier in Paul (cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:3-4).
In verse 5, as elsewhere in Paul (1 Corinthians 14:35; Ephesians 5:22; Colossians 3:18; 1 Timothy 2:11-14), wives are exhorted to be subordinated (hypotassomenas, from the verb tasso, “to set in order”) to their husbands. With respect to this exhortation, the Baptist exegete E. Glenn Hinson observes: “The initiative is to be with the wife. . . . Paul did not tell husbands to subdue their wives.” It is obvious, nonetheless, that Paul’s exhortation runs directly counter to the contemporary egalitarian impulse.
Like Timothy (1 Timothy 4:12), Titus is to set a good example (verse 7). We recall that Paul rather often referred to his own good example. Pastors and missionaries surely teach more by example than they do in any other way.
The “great God” in verse 13 is identical with the “Savior Jesus Christ,” because in the Greek text a single article covers both words, God and Savior, and the rest of the sentence speaks only of Christ. It is He whose appearance we await (cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:7; 1 Timothy 6:14-15; 2 Timothy 4:1).
Christ’s self-giving (verse 14) is a typical Pauline reference to the Lord’s Passion and blood atonement (Galatians 1:4; 2:20; Ephesians 5:2,25; 1 Timothy 2:6).
Wednesday, December 29
Titus 3:1-15: As always, Paul is solicitous for the good reputation of Christians, knowing that the fortunes of the Church’s evangelism and ministry in this world depend, in no small measure, on that reputation. Thus, in the previous chapter he urged that the conduct of Christian women be such as not to hurt God’s cause (2:5).
Now, following that same solicitude in the present chapter, he urges Christians “to be subject [hypotassesthe, the same verb as in 2:5] to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, . . . showing humility to all men” (verses 1-2; cf. verse 8). Few things, surely, would more seriously impede the cause of the Gospel than the impression that Christians are contentious, rebellious, disobedient, and unpatriotic (cf. also Romans 13:1-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-2; 1 Peter 2:13).
The doctrine of baptismal regeneration in verse 6 (cf. also Romans 6:4; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15; Ephesians 5:26; Colossians 2:11-13), and the expression “renewing of the Holy Spirit,” used in conjunction with this reference to Baptism, seems to refer to the post-baptismal laying on of hands (cf. Acts 8:14-17; 19:5-6; Hebrews 6:2).
It is possible that the phrases in verses 4-7 were taken from a hymn or other liturgical prayer that Titus would recognize. This would explain Paul’s affirmation, in verse 8, that “this is a faithful saying” (cf. also 1 Timothy 1:15; 3:1; 4:9; 2 Timothy 2:11).
The unrepentant “divisive man” in verse 10 is literally the “heretical man”—haeretikos anthropos; the adjective appears only here in the New Testament. Paul’s counsel that such a one be avoided after, at most, two admonitions was understood rather strictly by the early Christians (cf. Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 1.16.3; Tertullian, De Praescriptione 16).
There were several cities named Nicopoplis, “city of victory,” in the ancient world. It is likely that the city mentioned by Paul (verse 12) was the one in Epirus, south of Dalmatia, founded by Octavian in 31 B.C. to celebrate his victory over the forces of Anthony and Cleopatra at Actium.
Verse 13 names the two men who carried this epistle to Titus.
Thursday, December 30
The Epistle to the Hebrews: It has been remarked that there are three things to be noted about the Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Hebrews: first, that it is not an epistle; second, that it was not written by the Apostle Paul; and third, that it was not addressed to the Hebrews. We may assess these points in order.
First, there is really nothing about this work to indicate that it is an epistle. It calls itself a logos parakleseos, "a word of exhortation" (13:22), which was a standard synagogue term for a sermon (as in Acts 13:15). The closing verses of Hebrews, vv. 22-25, do seem to form a sort of cover letter for what is in reality a written sermon. Obviously the opening of Hebrews differs greatly from all the New Testament epistles.
On the other hand, it seems unhelpful to push this distinction overmuch. Beginning with his earliest epistle (1 Thessalonians 5:27), Paul expected his words to be read to the assembled Christians (see Colossians 4:16), and in fact we Christians have been doing exactly that for nearly 2000 years now. There is only a slight difference between a sermon and a letter of this kind, and the distinction is not particularly useful in understanding the message of the book.
Second, who wrote Hebrews? Now this is a harder case. The reasons for thinking that the Apostle Paul did not write this work have to do with grammar, style and even theological language and perspective. In these respects Hebrews does differ enormously from both Paul's epistles and his sermons in the Book of Acts. In fact, the historical evidence for Paul's authorship of this book is not strong, and doubt on the point has been voiced since the second century. Other names were early suggested, such Barnabas and Clement of Rome, but none of them proved entirely convincing in the Tradition. It was Martin Luther, in the 16th century, who first suggested Apollos (Acts 18:24 etc.; 1 Corinthians 1:12 etc.; Titus 3:13) as the author, and quite a number of modern readers have found his suggestion very attractive. For a correct, understanding of the work, it is safe, sound and sufficient to hold that it certainly comes from someone in Paul's missionary circle and represents the theology of that large circle.
Third, was it written to the Hebrews? It has long been observed that the work's original readers, who seem to have been in danger of defection from the faith, were thoroughly familiar with, and perhaps excessively enamored of, the ritual of the Old Testament. The author is forever contrasting the superiority of Jesus with the weakness of the ancient Hebraic institutions. Hence, it is reasoned, the original readers must have been Jews.
This is a rather thin line of argument. The contrast between the superiority of Jesus and the relative deficiencies of the Old Testament institutions is a pretty common theme in all of the New Testament, and the presence of this theme in Hebrews doesn't tell us anything in particular about the recipients of the work. It suffices to note that the author of Hebrews really did expect his readers to be thoroughly familiar with the Old Testament, but the Apostle Paul entertained an identical expectation of his Corinthians and Galatians.
Such technical questions must not be allowed to distract from our reading of this important work. The dominating theme of this book is the person and redemptive work of Jesus our High Priest. Because the authorship of Hebrews has always been in doubt, there was, humanly speaking, a good chance that the book would not end up as an integral part of the New Testament.
Again humanly speaking, if there had been no Epistle to the Hebrews, it is difficult to imagine what the doctrinal history of the Christian Church would have been. During the great Christological controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries, when the essential identity of Jesus Christ was being challenged at its very root, and when it required every effort of the Christian Church to defend the Orthodox Faith against the invasions of heresy, hardly any part of Holy Scripture was quoted more often and decisively than the second chapter of the Hebrews. No other part of the New Testament provided such clear and authoritative teaching on the central place of the Incarnation in the work of Christian salvation. It was to the Epistle to the Hebrews, and especially its second chapter, that the Councils and Fathers of the Church repeatedly returned to establish the proper, God-given answer to the question: "What think ye of the Christ?”
Friday, December 11
Hebrews 4:1-16: In his use of the Book of Psalms in this chapter, it is clear that the author of Hebrews believed that the meaning of that text was contemporary to himself and his readers. The cited text was of more than historical interest. The dominant word indicating this persuasion is “today” (semeron), which appears twice in verse 7. The voice of God, he says, must be heard today. He expounds this principle in verses 12-13, speaking of God’s word as living and efficacious, sharper than a sword. It penetrates and divides man’s inner being, judging the reflections and thoughts of his mind.
There is no stronger affirmation of the truth that God lays bear our being by the light of His word searching our souls. When the Bible is read, whether proclaimed loudly in the worship of the Church or pondered quietly in the intimacy of our homes, God speaks. His prophetic word of judgment sears into our being laying bare the secrets of our consciences. It is a “word of judgment”—logos kritikos (verse 12). It does not lie there inert on the page open before our eyes. We search the Scriptures so that the Scriptures may search us, cutting into our being to expose what we are within. This is what makes the Bible different from all other books. Only here does God speak prophetically, in the sense of placing our whole being radically under judgment.
Thus, we do not call the Bible into question. The Bible calls us into question. We imagine that we are alive, and the Bible is inert. On the contrary, the Bible is more alive than we are. It is vibrant and efficacious, because it is the word of God. We open its pages in order to share its life. We do not, then, truly open the Bible unless we open our hearts and invite God’s word to penetrate our minds. We come to the Bible, seeking its judgment, because only in being judged by God’s all holy word may we share in the redeeming life that is offered there. Such are the kinds of thoughts that should fill our minds on this final day of the year, and as we prepare to start our reading of the Bible again tomorrow.
Saturday, January 1
Genesis 1: Most of us have read through the Bible one time, I suspect, in which case we have already read the Book of Revelation. Let us suppose, then, that we may be coming to the Book of Genesis after> reading the Book of Revelation. If this is the case, we enjoy a considerable advantage, because of the theological and literary affinities between the opening chapters of Genesis and the final chapters of Revelation.
From the perspective of literary history, it is true that Genesis was perhaps not the first book of the Bible to be written, and it is likely that Revelation was not the last book of the Bible to be written. Nonetheless, because the Holy Spirit is ultimately the Author of both books, and inasmuch as the Holy Spirit planned the entire corpus of Holy Scripture (which means that even the Bible’s “table of contents” is divinely inspired!), it should not surprise us that the final pages of the Bible close with reflections on matters that were originally introduced in the opening pages of the Bible. For example, when Revelation, says that “there be no more curse” (22:3), this is a reference to that primeval curse brought on our race near the Bible’s very beginning.
In the biblical narrative of the creation, it is noteworthy that the original day of creation is not designated “the first” day. It is called, rather, “one day” (yom ’ehad). Although this difference of expression in Genesis 1:5 has proved too subtle for virtually all biblical translations into modern languages, its significance caused it to be maintained in the ancient versions, such as the Septuagint (hemera mia) and the Vulgate (dies unus). In addition, that difference of expression (“one day” instead of “first day”) was the object of explicit discussion in nearly all ancient commentaries on Genesis 1:5, whether Jewish (e.g., Philo and Rashi) or Christian (e.g., Basil and Augustine). Alas, the difference seems excessively subtle to modern minds that come to the first chapter of Genesis as though it were a text of astrophysics.
In those ancient and classical commentaries on this biblical text, moreover, we find the common assertion that the words “one day” served to elevate that day of Creation to something more than part of a sequence. There is a profound reason why the original day of creation is appropriately called “one,” whereas the second day is not appropriately called “two,” nor the third day “three,” and so forth. The original day is “one” in a manner analogous to the number itself. “One” is not simply the numeral that precedes two; it is, rather, the number out of which that second number comes. There is a formal disparity between one and the other numbers. One (to hen) is the font determining the identity of two and the subsequent numbers. “One” is not just “first” as part of a sequence; it is what we call a principle, an arche.
On “day one,” then, God creates light, which He thereby separates from darkness. It is out of this light, which is the product of God’s first creating word that all the rest of Creation comes. All things that God makes are filled with His light. God’s light shines at the heart of the world.