February 1- February 8

Friday, February 1

Romans 8:12-27: Hitherto we have considered how the Christian’s heart is sustained by his memory of the past, his recollection of what God has already done for him in Christ. Now, however, Paul will speak of the Christian’s encouragement by bearing in mind what God will yet do for him in the future. As we have had several occasions to observe, the vocabulary of salvation (such as "saved") in the Epistle to the Romans tends generally to be in the future tense. Man’s definitive salvation consists in the resurrection of his body, the final victory over the reign of death.

It was in man’s body, after all, that sin "reigned in death." Mortality was the essence of Adam’s legacy to us, the very embodiment of his sin. Salvation is not complete, therefore, until the resurrection of our bodies. Several years earlier Paul had argued that thesis in 1 Corinthians 15. He returns to it several times, as we have seen, in Romans, and he deals with it again in the present passage. The final object of the Christian hope, for Paul, is not even the soul’s departure to be with God in heaven. It is, rather, "the redemption of our body" (verse 23), this very body laid low by death, but from which the Holy Spirit refuses to depart (verse 11).

It is by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of adoption, or sonship (huiothesia—Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5), that we are made the children of God (verses 14-17). It is for this reason that the Lord’s Prayer, the "Our Father," is supremely the prayer of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, we can only pray it in the Holy Spirit. It is only the Holy Spirit who gives us to say, "Abba, Father," just as it is only the Holy Spirit who gives us to say, "Jesus is Lord." Only in the Holy Spirit do we know the identity of the Father and the Son.

The Holy Spirit both makes us the children of God and alters our consciousness so that we know ourselves to be the children of God (verse 16). The Holy Spirit, then, is the new, internal principle by which we are united to the Father and the Son in knowledge and in love.

But there are obstacles to the Holy Spirit in our hearts, and these must be resisted and overcome. The Christian must mortify, "put to death," whatever in himself is inimical and recalcitrant to the Holy Spirit (verse 13). This effort will involve a measure of suffering, which we unite, by intention, with the sufferings of Christ (verses 17-19,25).

This suffering pertains to the very birth pangs of Creation, for Creation too awaits the revelation of God’s glory in the resurrection of our bodies (verses 18-23). Just as the sin of Adam left the mark of death on all of Creation (Genesis 3:17), Christ’s final victory over death is the object of Creation’s hope and longing. Creation itself will be delivered from its "bondage of corruption" (verse 21). This physical corruption, this decay, was not part of God’s original plan. It is the mark of the reign of death, and it will be removed forever when Christ, at the end of time, returns to claim the bodies of the redeemed (1 Corinthians 15:23-28).

This final salvation of all Creation, which Paul speaks of here in Romans 8, will become a major theme–the recapitulation of all things in Christ–in his letters to the Colossians and Ephesians, written during the two years that he will soon spend in prison in Caesarea (Acts 24:27).

Although manuscripts vary on the point, it appears that the words "the adoption" do not properly belong in verse 23 and should be left out. The expression is not found in the earliest papyrus copy of the text, and its insertion here, difficult to explain, seems at odds with the context.

Verse 24 is one of the few places in Romans where "saved" is in the past tense. It is significantly qualified by "in hope."

From his own experience as a man of prayer (2 Corinthians 12:7-10; cf. James 4:3), Paul knew that "we do not know what to pray for as we ought" (verse 26). The reference to the Spirit’s "intercession" is literally hyperentygchanei, a verb which originally meant "to interrupt," "to assume control of." That is to say, the Holy Spirit interrupts, He breaks into our prayer. He takes over and guides our prayer. He becomes the divine "over-voice." We do not hear Him, but God does.

The initial manifestation of this take-over by the Holy Spirit is found in the words "Abba, Father" and "Jesus is Lord," the two dogmatic affirmations that we can make only in the Holy Spirit. God recognizes what the Spirit implores in our prayer (verse 27). The words "Thy will be done," which are at least implicit in all Christian prayer, testify to our conviction that speaking to our Father in heaven invariably puts us in a realm beyond our comprehension. In Christian prayer there is always more going on than we know.

Saturday, February 2

Romans 8:28-39: In this section Paul brings to a close—and to something of a climax—the second part of the Epistle to the Romans (chapters 5-8), on the theme of the Christian existence of those who have been justified in Christ.

In verse 28 there is a textual problem respecting the word "God," because the extant manuscripts vary on the matter. Depending on which manuscripts are followed (and sheer antiquity is not an adequate guide here, because the manuscripts come from various ancient Christian churches, and some textural mistakes seem to have been introduced rather early), the meaning of the passage is either "in everything God works for good with those who love Him," or "God makes everything work together for the good of those who love Him," or "everything works together for the good of those who love God." All of these readings testify to God’s providential control of events in the lives of those who love Him.

That is to say, this verse introduces the theme of Divine Providence, by which God brings mysterious influences to bear on the direction of history. Paul now inaugurates this theme. He will continue it through the rest of this chapter, and then in chapters 9-11 he will apply it directly to the historical situation that the early Christians were facing–namely, the rejection of the larger masses of the Jewish people with respect to the Gospel. Why did that happen? Paul’s response will be: Because God had in mind some greater good that would ensue. God is the Lord of history. He knows everything ahead of time. Knowing everything ahead of time, He quietly and mysteriously arranges and prearranges circumstances in order to bring about the greater good.

Thus, Paul will continue the ancient theme of God’s providential ability to bring good out of evil. This thesis, which will form the substance of his argument in chapters 9-11, is a common one in the Old Testament. It is obvious, for instance, in the stories of Joseph. Paul will appeal to its presence in the stories of Esau and Pharaoh.

God’s knowledge of the future is the basis on which He is able to arrange for those circumstances which will influence the course of events. The English biblical word for this divine activity is "predestination," which in context means "adjusting things ahead of time." In Holy Scripture this category always refers to God’s historical adjustment (the word is chosen with some trepidation, for we have no idea how the Lord does these things), based on the divine foreknowledge. It never means an eternal decree that imposes itself on history. The latter concept, which is quite unbiblical, did not appear until fairly late in Christian history, and it is has been the source of endless theological confusion.

Those who love God (or however else verse 28 is to be interpreted, as we saw above) are the "predestined" (verse 29), "those who are called according to His purpose" (verse 28). These "predestined and called" are not a separate category of Christians. The terms refer to the body of those who constitute the Church, the Christians who have responded to God’s initiatory love and call (1:6; 1 Corinthians 1:12).

This statement of Paul has nothing to do with anyone’s alleged predestination to heaven or hell. It is not a statement of theodicy. Although God certainly knows all things ahead of time, including each person’s eternal destiny, He does not predetermine those actions that lie within the realm of human freedom. Men make their own choices, for which they alone are held responsible.

We do not understand how God influences the activities of history, but we do know that He never acts in such a way as to remove man’s freedom of choice. In the words of John of Damascus, "We should understand that while God knows all things beforehand, He does not predetermine all things. For He knows beforehand those things that are in our power, but He does not predetermine them. For it is not His will that there wickedness should exist, nor does He choose to compel virtue" (De Fide Orthodoxa 2.30).

What, then, does Holy Scripture mean when it asserts that God "predestines"? The verb itself, proorizo, means "to arrange ahead of time. In the biblical context, where this verb appears with "foreknow" (proginosko, “to know ahead of time”), the verb signifies the providential arrangements by which He brings people to the grace of the Gospel. That is to say, predestination embraces the mysterious influences that God brings to bear on history, so that all things work together for the good of those who love God.

This is very clear in the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. God made use of the sins of Joseph’s brothers to predestine—to arrange for–the deliverance of Joseph’s family: “And God sent me before you to preserve a posterity for you in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So now it was not you who sent me here, but God. . . . But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Genesis 45:7-8; 50:20).

Predestination as understood in the Bible (where, in fact, the noun never appears) has no reference to any alleged divine decree whereby some people are consigned to heavenly life and others to everlasting damnation. On the contrary, God wills all men to be saved. Indeed, in the Bible, predestination does not refer to any divine decree at all. It is a description, rather, of God’s providential activity in history, working to bring good out of evil.

Nowhere, therefore, does Holy Scripture hint even faintly at a person’s "predestination to hell." In fact, this repulsive idea does violence to the Bible, in which predestination is always a category of grace, never of punishment. It pertains invariably to the divine call, not the rejection of that call. It is always a description of the divine favor, not disfavor. It certainly does not include God’s arrangements to have someone damned.

In His providential guidance of history, God makes use of man’s sins. He never “prearranges” those sins nor wills those sins; He does not, that is to say, predestine men to sin. Even less does God predestine anyone’s damnation. Damnation was never God’s idea, and the majestic sovereignty of God receives no glory from anyone’s eternal loss.

Moreover, the Bible never speaks of predestination except in relationship to Christ’s relationship to the Church. The foreknowledge and predestination of God is Paul’s way of describing the priority of divine grace in redemption and justification. The initiative is God’s, not ours. We foreknew nothing; we prearranged nothing. God has done it all. He knows and He determines, ahead of time, what form His work in history (including the history of each of us) will take.

Those who truly experience His grace are aware of themselves as known by God (1 Corinthians 8:3; 13:12), loved by God (1 John 4:19), chosen by God. When he speaks of predestination, Paul is describing the experience of life in the Christian Church. That is to say, it is an existential concept. It pertains to spiritual experience.

Consequently, it has no dogmatic content. One cannot say, “I am saved” the same sense he can say, “Jesus is Lord!” The latter is a dogmatic statement representing an absolute truth. The experience of being “predestined,” however, pertains only to the existential order. It cannot be an object of faith.

Christians, then, are "predestined to be conformed (symmorphous) to the image (eikon or icon) of His Son." That is to say, believers are summoned to share in Christ’s own relationship to the Father, so that Christ "might be the firstborn among many brethren." By divine grace–the infinite favor of God–they participate in the Son’s knowledge and love of the Father (Matthew 11:27), who regards them as His children, the younger brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ (John 2:17).

It is because these justified Christians have become, by virtue of their justification, "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4) that they can, in utter truth, look into the face of God and say, "Our Father." They partake, already, of the divine glory (verse 30).

The purpose of these reflections, Paul says, is to bring hope and reassurance into our hearts. God will never back away from His grace and His call. For this reason, there is no force in heaven or on earth or under the earth that can separate us from the love of God in Christ (verses 31-39). God is permanently on our side. He will never betray us.

Moreover, if God has already given us His beloved Son, He will certainly give us everything else we need (verse 32; 1 Corinthians 3:22-23; Philippians 3:21). Paul has heard accusations brought against his Gentile converts, because the latter did not observe the works of the Mosaic Law. Paul will tolerate none of this criticism. These Christians have been justified through the grace of God received in faith, he says. Who dares to bring an accusation against them? (verses 33-34) And Paul’s defiance here includes Satan, that ancient accuser of the brethren.

Even less, then, will believers be accused by Christ Himself, whose blood purchased our redemption from the slavery of sin and death. Here Paul briefly mentions the Lord’s exaltation to the heavenly sanctuary, where He abides as our mediator and intercessor forever (verse 34; Hebrews 7:25; 9:24; 1 John 2:1; Revelation 5).

Likewise, those sufferings that Christians must sustain in the maintenance of their faith (verse 36) will not separate them from the love of Christ. Paul’s tone here is exhortatory as well as declaratory. That is to say, he declares that God will never be unfaithful to us, and he gently exhorts that we be never unfaithful to God.

The situation of the justified Christian may be likened to that of a man in a poker game, who has been dealt the royal flush. He did nothing to gain the royal flush. He did not work for it. It was freely given. He received it on the deal. He holds it in his hand. As long as he holds on to those cards, he cannot possibly lose, for no hand is greater than the royal flush. The one thing he must never do is to discard. All he must do is sit tight and keep a firm grip on those cards. No one, in heaven, on earth, or under the earth, can take them away from him.

Sunday, February 3

Romans 9:1-13: Paul now commences the third part of this epistle, chapters 9-11, in which he applies the principle of the divine predestination to an actual theological problem addressed by the early Church: How can it be that the greater part of the Jewish people, whom over many centuries God had prepared with such persistent care for the coming of His Messiah, failed to recognize the Messiah when He came?

Several sources in the New Testament address this thorny question in some form. In most of these sources the New Testament writers recognized that Israel’s failure–its "falling away"–had itself been prophesied in the Old Testament, chiefly in Isaiah. This approach to the problem is clearest in John (12:37-41), but we find it in other authors as well (Matthew 13:10-15; Mark 4:10-12; Luke 8: 10; Acts 28:23-28).

Paul goes further: Israel’s failure, he says, was not only prophesied but also providential. God, foreknowing Israel’s defection, made use of that defection; He prepared ahead of time to make it serve as the occasion and the impulse for the justification and salvation of the Gentiles. He did this by His mysterious, unfathomable, providential guidance of history. Such is the argument of Romans 9-11.

Although the verb "predestine" does not appear in these chapters (nor is the noun "predestination" to be found anywhere at all in the New Testament), the development of Paul’s thought here surely extends his teaching on the subject from the previous chapter. As we proceed through these next three chapters, therefore, it will be important to bear in mind our earlier reflections on divine predestination in chapter eight.

Otherwise we run the risk of regarding Paul’s historical illustrations, such as Esau and Pharaoh, as examples of eternal loss. This would be not only an unwarranted inference but also a mammoth distortion of Paul’s thought. It may be the case, of course, that both Esau and Pharaoh have been condemned to hell, but there is nothing about this question in Romans 9-11. Esau and Pharaoh serve as examples, rather, of God’s mysterious ability, based on His foreknowledge, to bring good out of evil in the course of history.

Thus, the moral obtuseness of Esau and the hardened heart of Pharaoh are predestined, were foreseen and are arranged ahead of time, to be the occasions of grace for Jacob and Israel, before any of these had been born or had performed any good or evil act (verse 11). Jacob and the Israelites are made vessels of elections, recipients and containers of God’s blessing, while Esau and Pharaoh become "vessels of wrath prepared for destruction" (verse 22). All of this, says Paul, was predestined, was arranged ahead of time, by God in His wisdom and mercy.

Paul begins his argument by establishing the principle that mere physical descent does not make someone an Israelite. (He will use the words "Israel" and "Israelite" in this section, because his major Old Testament prefiguration is Jacob, whose other name is Israel.) Consequently, the Jews can make no special claims on God merely by the fact that they are Abraham’s descendents (verses 6-10).

Even God’s election of Israel was not prompted by any merit on the part of Israel. This is proved by God’s promise and mysterious intervention to bring about the conception and birth of Isaac (verses 8-10). As we have seen, that predestined intervention was a clear illustration of God’s ability to give life to the dead and call into being those things that did not exist (4:17).

Even regarding the descendents of the promised Isaac ("our father"), God distinguished between Jacob and Esau before either was formed or had made any moral choice (verse 11). God’s own choice, prior to either man’s choice, fell on Jacob. He loved Jacob, that is to say, before Jacob ever loved Him (verse 13; 1 John 4:19). God’s historical choice of Jacob/Israel prefigured His predestined election of the Gentile Christians, who had done nothing to merit God’s favor (verse 12). This biblical example, Paul contends, foreshadowed the present situation of the Gentile believers. God had used Esau’s defection, which He foreknew, as the occasion to make Jacob His chosen vessel in the history of salvation. He does the same now for the Gentile believers.

As for Esau himself, he got exactly what he deserved. His own place in biblical history was to be shoved off to the side, a vessel of dishonor (verse 21). Instead of inheriting the Promised Land, which should have been his birthright, he was obliged to become merely a desert chieftain (Malachi 1:2-3). Contemning his own inheritance, he made the choice himself (Hebrews 12:16).

In other words, Esau’s conduct and its results served as an historical foreshadowing of what occurred to the greater part of the Jewish people in Paul’s time. They had shunned their true inheritance, which thus passed to the Gentiles. They became the castaways of salvation history, the Christians’ elder brothers, shoved off to the side. They could not blame God for this. They themselves, like Esau, had made the choice. As Paul will argue in the next section, the responsibility was theirs.

The "hate" of verse 13 is, of course, a standard hyperbole in Holy Scripture (Luke 14:26). God hates nothing that He has made (not even the souls in hell). That understood, the real mystery is not how God could hate Esau. The real mystery is what prompted God to love Jacob. This we do not know. He has mercy on whom He has mercy, and He shows compassion to whom He shows compassion (verse 15). That is God’s business, not ours. We are content to know that God treats no man unjustly. Esau got what he deserved, and Jacob didn’t. Our trust, as Christians, is that God will not treat us as we deserve.

Monday, February 4

Romans 9:14-24: God’s predestinations, His predetermined adjustments to the unfolding of history, are not arbitrary. They are founded on divine foreknowledge. "Predetermination is the work of the divine command based on foreknowledge," wrote John of Damascus in the eighth century (De Fide Orthodoxa 2.30). God’s sovereignty over history, then, is no detriment to man’s ability to make moral choices. That divine sovereignty is chiefly manifest, rather, in God’s ability to bring good results out of man’s bad choices. God’s sovereignty is in no way challenged by man’s decisions.

For this reason, God’s election frees no man from his moral obligations. God’s ability to bring good out of evil does not warrant anyone to do evil. Nor should it lessen any man’s efforts to do good. "Now if men in their choices choose what is best," said John Chrysostom, "much more does God. Moreover, the fact of their being chosen is both a sign of the loving kindness of God and of their own moral goodness. . . . God Himself has rendered us holy, but we must continue to be holy. A holy man is someone who partakes of the faith; a blameless man is someone who leads an irreproachable life" (Homilies on Ephesians 1).

The man whom God rejects, therefore, has no just case against God. God causes no man’s failure. Even though the Scriptures speak of God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (verses 17-18; Exodus 4:21; 7:3; 9:12), this is a metaphor describing God’s providential use of Pharaoh’s hardened heart. Pharaoh himself is the only one responsible for his hard heart (Exodus 7:14,22; 8:5,19,32). Pharaoh’s sin cannot be ascribed to God, as though God had decreed that sin. God foreknew that sin and determined ahead of time—predestined–how to employ that sin to bring about His own deliverance of Israel from Egypt. There is no unrighteousness in God (verse 14).

Like Esau’s, Pharaoh’s role or place in salvation history is negative. It represents a resistance to grace that God employs to show even more grace. The resistance to grace, on the part of Esau and Pharaoh, is providentially subsumed into God’s plan of deliverance, being used as the opposing force (the "push backwards") in a process of historical dialectic, much as when a man steps on a rock, the friction and resistance from it enable him to go forward. This is what Paul sees happening among the greater part of the Jewish people of his own day. Their resistance to God’s mercy has served only to enhance and extend that mercy, for God does nothing except in mercy.

It is fallacious, therefore, to argue that God’s ability to bring good out of evil should oblige Him not to blame those who do evil (verse 19). Paul had earlier refuted that line of argument (6:1,15).

To someone who would argue this way, Paul responds, "So who put you in charge of history?" God takes into His hands the raw material of history, "the same lump" (verse 21), and shapes it as He wills. He forces no one to be evil; He compels no man to be a vessel of wrath and dishonor, but God does have His uses for vessels of wrath and dishonor.

On this image of God as a ceramic potter, cf. Isaiah 14:9; 29:16; 45:9; 64:8; Wisdom 15:7; Sirach 38:39-40; Theophilus of Antioch, Ad Autolycum 2:26. God is fashioning His purpose from the common clay of human history. The prophet Jeremiah, far from regarding this image as an excuse for human failure, employs it as a summons to repentance: "Behold, I am fashioning a disaster and devising a plan against you. Return now every one from his evil ways, and make your ways and your doings good" (18:11).

"Prepared for destruction" (verse 22) means "ready for the dump." Some vessels, after all, are not worth keeping. After they have served their purpose, they are no longer part of the process of salvation history. Such were Esau and Pharaoh, who serve no other purpose in Holy Scripture than as examples of men who resisted God. Doing evil, they thus served their purpose in God’s redemptive interventions of grace, and now they have been tossed out on the ashbin. This lot they brought upon themselves, as is clear in the biblical accounts of them.

The vessels of honor, on the other hand, the "vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory" (verse 23), share in the everlasting exaltation that marks God’s work of deliverance. These are taken from among Jews and Gentiles (verse 24).

Tuesday, February 5

Romans 9:24-33: In chapter eleven Paul will make two initial points about Israel’s defection with respect to Jesus: First, not all the Jews fell away from the faith. A remnant of them believed and became Christians, and these formed the original nucleus of the Christian Church.

A significant part of this original nucleus were the "saints" in Jerusalem, for whom Paul manifested a singular solicitude, as described in the Acts of the Apostles. Indeed, in this very epistle he wrote of the collection that he had organized for the financial relief of the saints at Jerusalem (15:25-27). These were a very important part of the remnant of which he will speak in Romans 11:4-5.

Second, the defection of the greater part of the Jewish people became the occasion of the evangelism and conversion of the Gentiles. We find this pattern everywhere in Luke’s description of Paul’s ministry in the Acts of the Apostles, and it is spelled out as a theorem near the end of that book (28:25-28). Paul will write of this theme in Romans 11:7-11.

Prior to dealing with either of these themes, however, Paul here lays the biblical foundations that support them, showing that both facts had already been prophesied eight hundred years earlier. The prophecy of Israel’s remnant he finds in the Book of Isaiah (verses 27-29), and the prophecy of the calling of the Gentiles in the Book of Hosea (verses 25-26).

Both of these prophets, delivering their oracles in the context of the downfall of Samaria to the Assyrians, faced a situation analogous to that addressed by Paul. That is to say, the crisis in Samaria, culminating in the tragic events of 722 B.C., brought to pass two things: First, the emergence of a faithful remnant, who resisted the apostasy of the Northern Kingdom. Second, a transferal of the heritage of the Northern traditions (Michaiah, Elijah, Elisha, Amos, Hosea) to the South, which then experienced a new spiritual vitality under Hezechiah.

In both of these particulars, that earlier situation, as interpreted by Hosea and Isaiah, found its parallel in Paul’s own time, when a remnant of the Jews remained faithful, and the former glories of the Hebrew people (9:4) would be preserved in the Christian Church.

In verses 30-33 Paul commences the case that he will pursue in chapter ten; namely, that Israel’s falling away was not caused by God but by Israel’s stubborn resolve to be justified by the works of the Law. We recall once more that Paul had experienced Israel’s crisis in his own life and vocation. Pursuing a righteousness according to the Law, Paul had been seduced by the sin that abode in his own heart, even in his own "members." Driven by his zeal for the righteousness of the Law, Paul had hardened his heart against the beckoning Christ. In the dramatic circumstances of his conversion, he was made aware that the sin abiding within him had made use of the Law so that sin became exceedingly sinful (7:13). This was his own experience of the reign of death: "For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me" (7:11). Endeavoring to be justified by the works of the Law, he found himself persecuting the Son of God (Acts 9:5).

Wednesday, February 6

Ash Wednesday: Originally the Lenten fast began on a Monday, as it still does in the East. Later, however, the fasting was discontinued on Sundays, not only to restore physical strength, but also from the feeling that Sunday was simply too festive a day for such rigor. Thus, the Western churches would be fasting six days a week for six weeks, making a total of 36 days. So, in order to bring that number up to the biblical model of 40, the preceding four days were added, thus making Wednesday the first day of the season. Western Christians marked this day with special signs of repentance, one of which was, like the Ninevites of old, to put ashes on top of their heads as a particular sign of turning away from worldliness and renewing their devotion to God.

Thus, the name Ash Wednesday. Many made their sacramental Confession on the day before Ash Wednesday, being “shriven” of their sins. Hence the name Shrove Tuesday. That same Tuesday was observed by others, however, as one last occasion to party before Lent started. Hence, the French name Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday.” Since meat was not eaten during Lent, Shrove Tuesday was the day to say “farewell” (Vale in Latin) to “meat” (Carni in Latin), thus giving us the word “carnival.”

Originally, the word Lent, now associated exclusively with the observance of the liturgical year, was simply the Anglo-Saxon for "spring" and had no directly religious significance. In English usage, however, its reference was gradually limited to mean the season of preparation for Easter that does, in fact, occur in spring.

In many other languages of Western Christianity the word for Lent is some variant of "forty," derived from the Latin quadragesimale. Traditionally this is a period of 40 days of fasting in imitation of the Lord himself, who observed exactly that length of time in fasting prior to the beginning of his earthly ministry. It was also associated with the 40-day fast of Moses on Mount Sinai and of Elijah as he journeyed to that same mountain.

As early as the second century we already find Easter being the preferred time for the baptism of new Christians. The reasons are rather obvious. It is in the Sacrament of Baptism, after all, that Christians are mystically buried and rise with Christ (cf. Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12).

It was important to earlier believers that some period of prayer and fasting, by way of preparation, should precede the ritual of baptism. Even the Apostle Paul prayed and fasted for three days prior to being baptized (Acts 9:9,11,18). In The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (Didache), a work from Syria before A.D. 100, there is the prescription that says: "Prior to Baptism, both he who is baptizing and he who is being baptized should fast, along with any others who can. And be sure that the one who is to be baptized fasts for one or two days beforehand" (7.4). One notes in this context that this fasting is a community effort, involving more than the personal devotion of the one being baptized.

That communal aspect of the pre-baptismal fasting is even clearer in a text some half-century or so later. Writing a defense of the Christians to the Emperor Antoninus Pius, the Christian apologist Justin described how newcomers to the faith went about getting themselves baptized: "As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their past sins, while we pray and fast with them. Then they are brought by us to where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated" (First Apology 61). Written in Rome, this text also shows that the pre-baptismal fast was not a practice limited to Syria.

Indeed, within the next half-century we find that discipline referred to in North Africa. In chapter 20 of his treatise On Baptism, the Christian apologist Tertullian remarks: "They who are about to be baptized ought to pray with repeated prayers, fasts, and bending of the knee, and vigils all the night through, along with the confession of all their prior sins." Tertullian does not explicitly say that the fasting period should last 40 days, but he does link it to the 40-day fast of Jesus recorded in the Gospels.

Gradually the Christians did settle on a period of 40 days, and the custom was so firmly in place by year 325 that the Council of Nicaea, the same council that definitively fixed the canon of the New Testament, also determined that the 40 days preceding Easter should be a special time of prayer and fasting in preparation for the baptisms to be done on that day. Such were the origins of the season of Lent, which Christians from the fourth century onwards were very convinced were rooted in the time and teaching of the apostles themselves.

The fasting observed during this season is not, needless to say, total. Over the centuries it especially came to mean simply a tougher, more disciplined diet, excluding more "substantial" foods like meat, eggs, and dairy products. Such fasting is accompanied by other practices of restraint, to encourage concentration on the things of God and the health of the soul. For example, many Christians foreswear watching television during this season. These disciplines are normally part of a stricter seasonal regimen, of which the most important components are spending more time in worship and devoting more attention to the study of Holy Scripture.

Since almsgiving is supposed to be a normal part of Lent as well, many Christians give as alms the money saved from the restricted Lenten diet. In this way, all three traditional ascetical practices (prayer, fasting, almsgiving – cf. Matthew 6) receive special attention during Lent.

Thursday, February 7

Romans 10:14-21: Israel, says Paul, is without excuse. It was to Israel that the Gospel was first addressed, but they did not believe.

This assessment refers, not only to the preaching of Jesus and the first apostles, but also to Paul’s own experience. As the Acts of the Apostles describes it, Paul’s custom, on first arriving at any new city, was to take the Gospel first to the local synagogue (Acts 13:5,14; 14:1; 17:1-2,10,17; 18:4,19,26; 19:8). In majority of the recorded instances, however, the message was rejected by most of the Jews who heard it.

By and large, Paul discovered, his more receptive audiences tended to be made up of Gentile seekers who had attached themselves, in varying degrees, to the synagogue. These, together with small remnants of Jews in each city, became the first members of the Christian Churches of Cyprus, Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece, and so on.

The proclamation of the Gospel is the ministry of preaching, and this involves the authority of the preacher who is "sent" (verses 14-15; Acts 13:1-4). This "sending" has to do with “apostolicity,” a word derived from the Greek verb, apostello, "to send." The sending forth to preach is the commission of the Church, a commission that the Apostles received from Christ (Matthew 10:5-15; 28:16-20; John 20:21).

The transmission of this authority through the appointed successors of the Apostles is known to Christian history as the "apostolic succession," which means "the succession of those who have been sent." It is the succession itself that transmits that authority, the singular identity of the apostolic ministry from one age to the next. The authoritative proclamation of the Gospel is derived from that historical succession, which is an essential component of the Church. All legitimate mission, therefore, is rooted in a proper succession. The Gospel authority is transmitted through the Spirit-guided handing-on of the being of the Church.

Paul indicates the social and ecclesiastical nature of faith by insisting that "faith comes by hearing" (verse 17). Even Paul himself, to whom Jesus had spoken directly, was obliged to go to the Church in order to submit himself to her authority and be instructed by Her Tradition: "Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do" (Acts 9:6).

What the Church preaches is "the word of Christ" This expression seems to have a twofold meaning: First, it signifies the word received from Jesus through the Tradition preached in the Church (and in due course transmitted into Holy Scripture in the form of Gospels and Epistles).

Second, it means that word of which Christ is the very content. These two meanings appear to be but aspects of one reality.

Small wonder, says Paul, that many of the Jews rejected Christ; they had already rejected Isaiah (verse 16). Indeed, they had already rejected Moses (verse 19; John 5:46).

In verse 18 Paul saying that the Gospel is as cosmic as the cosmos. He sees in God’s revelation in nature a foreshadowing of His revelation in the Gospel, for the universality of God’s witness in the works of Creation is to be matched in the universal character of the Gospel’s proclamation.

The citation from Deuteronomy in verse 19 introduces the motif that will dominate the end of the next chapter: Israel’s providential "jealousy."

Friday, February 8

Romans 11:1-10: Paul has already suggested two considerations that qualify Israel’s rejection of the Gospel. First, the rejection was not complete, because a remnant of Israel remained faithful. Second, Israel’s defection proved to be a blessing for the Gentiles (much as Esau’s defection had proved a blessing for Jacob). The second of these considerations will receive a more ample treatment in the present chapter, as Paul subsumes it into an elaborate dialectic of history.

First, Israel’s falling away is only partial (verses 4-5), and Paul counts himself among the faithful remnant (verse 1; Philippians 3:5; Acts 13:21). Even during the ninth century before Christ, when all Israel seemed to have become devotees of Baal ("I alone am left, and they seek to take my life!" — 1 Kings 19:14), a remnant had been spared (verses 2-4). Even now, then, Paul was no more alone than Elijah had been. God had not abandoned Israel in those days; He would not abandon Israel now, because "the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable" (verse 29).
A sign of that irrevocable call, Paul says, is the Jewish remnant in the Christian Church (verse 5; once again, the "eschatological now"). Not even this remnant, however, is justified by the Law but by grace (verse 6).

The irrevocable nature of God’s election leads to Paul’s second consideration; namely, that the falling away of Israel is only temporary. God has future plans for Israel. For the moment, however, Israel is acting in blindness (verses 7-8), which is the source of Paul’s sadness (9:1-2; 10:1). He observes that Israel’s blindness had been commented on by others before himself, such as Isaiah (verse 8) and David (verses 9-10). That is to say, Israel’s current defection has had no shortage of precedents in the past. If God remained faithful to Israel back then, He surely remains faithful to Israel now and will manifest that fidelity in days to come. The course of history will prove the Jews to be God’s elect and predestined people.

Paul’s comments on the irrevocable nature of God’s fidelity to Israel prompts two further considerations of a theological nature:
First, it is clear that in Paul’s entire treatment of election and predestination, these terms refer to social entities–not individuals. Nowhere in Romans, or elsewhere, does Paul show any concern for individual predestination. It is simply outside his scope of interest, and none of his statements on the subject of predestination and election have any relevance to such a concern. For Holy Scripture, it is always a matter of the "chosen people," not a collection of chosen individuals.

Election and predestination in Paul, therefore, are matters of ecclesiology, not individual salvation. Thus, here in chapter eleven he treats the Jews as God’s chosen people, because "the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable." The context is entirely social and historical, not individual.

Consequently, it would be a mammoth distortion of the text to apply these verses to the spiritual lives of individuals, pretending that God, having called them to justification, is somehow obliged to save them, even if they turn their backs on Him. God is said to remain faithful to Israel, but this does not imply that all Jews will be saved. God remains faithful to the Church, but that does not insure that all Christians will be saved. In short, these texts are not about individual salvation.

Second, "Israel" in these verses is a biological/religious term, not a political designation. Consequently, it would be a colossal distortion of the Sacred Text to suggest that the modern State of Israel is somehow the predestined beneficiary of God’s blessings. The modern State of Israel is simply that, nothing more. Of itself it has no more theological significance than any other political institution in this world. Indeed, the Lord and Judge of History holds the State of Israel to the same standards of morality and justice that He imposes on all nations. As is the case with any other nation, God will bless the State of Israel if it serves Him in its social and political life. God will condemn it if it is unjust or oppressive in its social and political life. But the State of Israel, as such, has not the slightest claim on any other biblical promises or biblical prophecies.