April 17 – April 24

Friday, April 17

John 3:1-21: Much of Johannine theology is elaborated in conversations between Jesus and certain individuals. Most of the time, these individuals can easily be understood as the historical “source” of the conversation in question. Thus far, it appears that John has relied on the personal memories of Andrew, Philip, Nathanael, and the Mother of Jesus. The material in the first part of the present chapter surely came to him through the memory of Nicodemus. Other conversations will follow, such as those with the Samaritan woman at the well, the lame man at Bethesda, Mary and Martha of Bethany, and so forth.

In this conversation of Jesus with Nicodemus, it is nearly impossible to determine exactly which words pertained to that original conversation and which words represent the Evangelist’s extended meditation on that conversation. That is to say, John himself appears to be meditating on the words of Jesus. At a certain point in this dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, the dialogue becomes a monologue of the Evangelist himself. We will meet the identical phenomenon when we come to the words of Jesus’ prayer in John 17.

The Pharisee Nicodemus, “a ruler of the Jews” and “a teacher of Israel,” appears only three times in the New Testament. Each time Nicodemus is found only in the Fourth Gospel, it is always in the context of the Lord’s redemptive death.

In the present text, Jesus makes his earliest explicit reference to His coming crucifixion: And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, thus must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” John next speaks of Nicodemus as the sole member of the Sanhedrin to raise his voice against the plot to take Jesus’ life (7:45–52). We do not hear of Nicodemus again until immediately after the death of Jesus, who was, at last, “lifted up” on Golgotha. In this third instance, Nicodemus appears as the companion of Joseph of Arimathea, assisting him in the Lord’s burial: “And Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds. Then they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in strips of linen with the spices, as the custom of the Jews is to bury” (19:39–40). In short, whenever Nicodemus appears in this gospel, the context pertains to the Lord’s suffering and death.

This first conversation, however, does not begin on that theme. It begins with Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night, apparently with a view to knowing Jesus better. He begins by complimenting Him: “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”

This question implies that Jesus has been working a notable number of “signs,” though John has so far mentioned only the miracle at the wedding in Cana. That is to say, this reference is not dictated by John’s narrative, but by the actual historical situation in which Nicodemus speaks to Jesus.

Exodus 5: “Thus says the Lord” (cf. also Exodus 32:27) places Moses squarely in the prophetic tradition. This is, in fact, the Bible’s first great encounter of a prophet with a king, an encounter that will be repeated with the likes of Nathan and David, Elijah and Ahab, Isaiah and Ahaz, Amos and Jeroboam II, Jeremiah and Zedekiah, Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar, John the Baptist and Antipas, Paul and Agrippa. It is instructive to remember that, on the sole occasion when Abraham was called a prophet, it was in connection with a local ruler in the Negev; cf. Genesis 20:7.

The source of Pharaoh’s problem is that he does not “know the Lord” (verse 2). Before much longer, nonetheless, he will have ample opportunity to make the Lord’s acquaintance; cf. Exodus 8:22; 9:29. Moses’ encounter with such a man may be compared to David’s confrontation with Goliath, who also did not “know the Lord”; cf. 1 Samuel 17:45-47.

Pharaoh reacts “that same day,” taking the initiative away from Moses and Aaron, thereby making them look inept in the eyes of the Israelites (verses 4-9). “Thus says the Lord” now becomes “thus says Pharaoh” (verses 10-14). Here there is a series of complaints: the overseers to the foremen, the foremen to Pharaoh, Pharaoh to the foremen, the foremen to Moses, Moses to God. Pharaoh’s tactic is to divide the people that he wants to oppress. He does not discredit Moses directly; he acts, rather, in such a way that the people themselves will turn on Moses.

Saturday, April 18

John 3:22-36: The position of this section of John may have been determined by the earlier reference to Baptism in 3:5. The evangelist now returns to John the Baptist for the last time.

The reference to Jesus baptizing does not mean that He did so with His own hands. From 4:2 we will learn that Jesus’ apostles normally performed this rite. It is not easy to determine the exact nature of this baptism, and it is difficult to affirm that it was the Christian sacrament of Baptism of which John the Baptist had spoken earlier (1:33), because the Holy Spirit will not be conferred on the Church until much later in this Gospel. However, there is no need to be apodictic on the nature of the baptism here in John 3; we may leave the question as unclear as the evangelist leaves it.

The place named in verse 23 is not identified with certainty, though we presume John’s earliest readers recognized it. The name means “springs,” which suggests that it was not a site on the banks of the Jordan. Some archeologists identify it with a site in Samaria. If true, of course, it indicates that John the Baptist had some following among the Samaritans.

In verse 24 the evangelist presumes his readers’ familiarity with the story of the death of John the Baptist (cf. Mark 6:17-29).

Verse 25 indicates the context of the words of John the Baptist. It is clear that controversies about Jewish cleansing rituals were not uncommon (cf. Mark 7:1-5).

The disciples of John the Baptist were understandably disturbed that the prestige of their leader was being eclipsed by the growing notoriety of Jesus. In answering them, John the Baptist again affirmed his own preparatory and subordinate role with respect to Jesus. He knew the ministry and task given him from heaven and dared not attempt to transcend the limits of his vocation (verse 27). Jesus, as the Messiah (verse 28), was the bride’s groom, whereas John was only His best man (verse 29).

Exodus 6: Here commences God’s response to Moses’ complaint in chapter 5, and the major message is one of reassurance. God recalls his covenant with the patriarchs, to whom He was also obliged to give reassurance from time to time. God’s covenant with them has now been perfected by the revelation of God’s mysterious Name (cf. Ezekiel 20:5-7). Everything that Moses is to tell the people is summed up in the revelation of the Divine Name.

In verses 14-27 we find another genealogy, of which there were so many in Genesis, and many more of which will be found in the rest of Holy Scripture. Although modern readers may be disposed to skip such passages as uninteresting, they were certainly important to the biblical writers, not least because they helped give structure to the continuity of the narrative. In this case the genealogy serves to relate the founding of Israel’s priestly family, the established priesthood being one of Israel’s principal defining institutions. In biblical thought, salvation is not a purely individual thing; it is intimately linked, rather, to certain prescriptive institutions and authoritative ministries, and priesthood, as one of these, involves a proper succession. Proper succession is also a requirement of Christian ordination, a point that was argued strongly before the end of the first century; cf. Clement of Rome, Epistle to the Corinthians 40-44.

Sunday, April 19

John 4:2-10: The Evangelist John surely knew the name of this woman, just as he knew the names of the paralytic at the pool and the man born blind; he narrates all of these one-on-one encounters with details that he could only have obtained from the individuals themselves. So John most certainly knew their names. His omission of these names gives each of these stories a kind of “every Christian” flavor, in that the reader readily identifies with these characters.

In John’s own context, today’s story establishes a contrast between two receptions of Jesus—that of the Jews and that of the Samaritans—and the Samaritans come out looking much better!

The three-days walk through Samaria was the shortest way of making the trip between Jerusalem and Galilee. Luke records that Jesus took that route, but in that instance the Samaritans did not receive him favorably (Luke 9:51-53). We should observe that only John, among the evangelists, tells of a ministry of Jesus to the Samaritans.

The well is identified with the town Sychar, known today as Askar. (The well is still there and well known; it lies between Gell el-Balatah and Askar.) Jesus sat down beside the well (pege), though one papyrus manuscript says that He sat “on the ground” (ge).

Exodus 7: Moses will be the wonderworker, and Aaron the speaker. (As a matter of irony, however, we will find Moses doing almost all the talking, while Aaron extends the wonderworking rod.) Deed and word go together in the Bible, as in any fine drama. Speaking and doing are the two components of God’s revelation. Indeed, these two things sum up the whole activity of Jesus and the Apostles (cf. Mark 6:30; 1 Thessalonians 1:5).

What is described in verses 8-13 is not one of the plagues, but it is the beginning of a prolonged test of wills and skills. Pharaoh is not much impressed with Moses, since his own people demonstrate comparable skills. After his initial retaliation, however, Pharaoh will never again be in a position to retaliate. Moses and Aaron will keep him on the defensive, with his hands full of trouble. The most he can hope for from any encounter is to break even, and gradually this, too. will be taken from him.

The first plague is most serious, because the Nile has always been the foundation of the entire Egyptian agricultural and mercantile economy. Pharaoh’s response is very humorous. After all, the last thing Pharaoh needs right now is another display of water-to-blood skills in Egypt!

Monday, April 19

John 4:11-26: In understanding the words of Jesus, this woman is even slower than Nicodemus (verses 15-18). The Lord’s figurative language becomes a kind of stumbling block, rather like the Lord’s speaking in parables in Mark 4 and Matthew 13. In fact, however, it is difficult to imagine how Jesus could speak more clearly than He does to this Samaritan woman.

The woman’s problem is a moral one: She is living in sin. People living in sin can hardly be able to understand the spiritual truths that the Lord enunciates here. The Lord, therefore, turns the conversation in a different direction: “Go, call your husband, and come here.” In her response and the Lord’s answer to this response, the woman is confronted with her deeds. These deeds have been brought to the light; the woman does not try to hide them. She thus takes a step on the right path.

Embarrassed, however, she does try to change the subject. Not eager to talk about her moral failings, she introduces a theoretical question—even a liturgical question! “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. Our fathers adored on this mountain, and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where it is necessary to adore.”

We observe that Jesus does not press the point about the woman’s moral state. He has said all that needed to be said, and He will permit His comment about the “five husbands” work its way into the woman’s conscience.

Since she knows that Jesus can read her heart, she calls Him a prophet. Reading hearts pertains to the gift of prophecy, as we see in 1 Corinthians 14:23-25: “Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an uninformed person comes in, he is convinced by all, he is convicted by all. And thus the secrets of his heart are revealed; and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you.”

Exodus 8: There are several obvious connections among the various plagues. Here, for instance, there is a great multitude of frogs, because their natural habitat, the water, has become contaminated.

Even though this second plague is not as harmful as the first, we will see Pharaoh begin to weaken. Obviously this second plague has gotten his attention. For all that, it may be thought of a “nuisance plague,” perhaps putting one in mind of Elijah’s mocking of the prophets of Baal prior to doing them the real damage (1 Kings 18:20-40).

Once again Pharaoh’s magicians, still a bit “unclear on the concept,” demonstrate that the bringing forth of frogs is also within their power—as though Egypt was suffering a shortage of available frogs!

Pharaoh’s reaction is new; he is starting to recognize that Moses is not a nobody. Pharaoh is going to test if Moses is really a spokesman for God. As will be very much the case later in the Exodus narrative, Moses is presented as a man given to intercessory prayer. Here he tells Pharaoh to “pick the time,” and, remembering that the previous plague lasted a week, he wisely picks the next day! In this plague (verses 9-10), as in the previous one, mention is made of the outrageous stench afflicting the nation. The third and fourth plagues are clearly related to the death of all the frogs, which are the natural predators of insects.

Although Pharaoh will once again harden his heart, we at last see in him some disposition to negotiate. He starts to make some concessions that Moses will reject as inadequate. Since the Israelites and the other Semites were accustomed to sacrifice certain animals unacceptable to the Hamites, including Egyptians, however, Moses insists that the people be allowed to leave Egypt to perform these sacrifices. Moses still has a “hidden agenda,” of course, as does Pharaoh. There is no reason that either man should trust the other.

Tuesday, April 21

Exodus 9: The matter of the livestock had been introduced in connection with the previous plague, as well as the Lord’s protection of the Israelites from all the plagues. This latter is particularly important. God is already beginning to separate Israel from Egypt, and this separate treatment will continue till its culmination on the night of Pascha.

As the Hebrew word ’aba‘bu‘oth (verses 8-12) appears nowhere else in the Bible, the exact nature of these sores is obscure. The Greek word in the Septuagint text, helkos, means any sort of wound, abscess, or ulcer. We observe that at last the magicians retire, no longer able even to put in an appearance in Pharaoh’s court.

Exodus 9:16 is quoted as part of St. Paul’s famous treatment of the dialectic of salvation history; cf. Romans 9:17. It is one of the greatest misfortunes of theological history that some later commentators, abstracting this passage from its context and inserting it into philosophical speculations about divine predestination and foreknowledge, reached certain conclusions unwarranted by the Scriptures—at odds with the traditional teaching of the Church, and unknown to the earlier, classical commentators on Romans (such as St. John Chrysostom). It is important to insist that the argument in Romans 9 is not about individual salvation; it is about the historical relations of Israel to the Church. There is nothing in this passage to infer that Pharaoh (or Esau) was predestined to be damned.

Since verse 6 said that all the cattle of the Egyptians had perished anyway, some question may arise with regard to the cattle mentioned in verse 19. Obviously the inspired biblical writer is not interested in problems like this, a fact perhaps suggesting that we shouldn’t be, either.

While some of the other plagues, such as insect infestations, visit Egypt occasionally even in normal times, a hailstorm in northeast Africa is a truly rare thing (verse 23). Accompanied by a frightening display of lightning and thunder, this one proves too much for Pharaoh, and for the first time he admits his sin. Alas, his repentance does not outlast the plague that inspired it.

Verses 31-32 are our only indication with respect to the time of the plagues, suggesting the month of January, before the appearance of the winter wheat.

Wednesday, April 22

Psalms 38 (Greek/Latin 37): With its heavy emphasis on sin and suffering, this psalm is one of the rougher parts of the Psalter, and its thematic conjunction of sin and suffering is also the manifest key to its meaning.

Suffering and death enter the world with sin. To humanity’s first sinners the Lord said: “I will greatly multiply your sorrow,” and “Cursed is the ground for your sake” (Gen. 3:16, 17). So close is the Bible’s joining of suffering to sin that some biblical characters (such as Job’s friends and the questioning disciples in John 9:2) entertained the erroneous notion that each instance of suffering was brought about by certain specific sins.

Like Psalm 6, the present psalm commences with a prayer for deliverance from divine anger: “O Lord, do not rebuke me in Your wrath, nor chasten me in Your hot displeasure.” Already the poet feels overwhelming pain which he describes, whether literally or by way of metaphor, in the most physical terms: “Your arrows [thunder bolts?] pierce me deeply, and Your hand presses me down.” What he suffers comes from sin and the response of the divine wrath, from which he begs to be delivered: “There is no soundness in my flesh, because of Your anger, nor any health in my bones because of my sin.” The equation: sin = the wrath of God.

Whether physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual—or all of them together—what we suffer in this life are the incursions of death, and death is simply sin becoming incarnate and dwelling among us, for “through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12).

The proper response to sin and suffering? Confession of sins and the sustained cultivation of repentance, for “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Thus we pray in this psalm: “For I am ready to fall, and my sorrow is continually (tamid) before me. For I will declare my iniquity; I will be in anguish over my sin.”

Notwithstanding a widespread misunderstanding that says otherwise, repentance (metanoia) is not something done once, and all finished; according to one of the last petitions of the litany, it is something to be perfected (ektelesai) until the end of our lives. This sorrow for sin, says our psalm, is continual, ongoing (tamid). Every suffering we are given in this life is a renewed call to repentance. Every pain is, as it were, the accusing finger of Nathan: “You are the man” (2 Sam. 12:7).

Exodus 10: To an agricultural economy, few things are more frightening than a visitation of locusts, which can reduce all plant life, over many square miles, to absolute ground level in a matter of hours (cf. the first chapter of Joel).

In three respects this is the most effective of the plagues to date: (1) Pharaoh’s servants, who had begun in support of him, and had come to see themselves bested (8:15), and had then retired from the combat (9:11), now come out to make a common plea with Moses against Pharaoh; (2) Pharaoh, for the first time, offers to release the Israelite men even before the plague starts; (3) Pharaoh himself asks for forgiveness. Even though the king’s heart is still hardened, the inspired author takes note of the progress.

In Egypt the sun god, Re, held a special prominence, so this plague of darkness is freighted with special theological significance; the Lord is in earnest doing battle with the gods of Egypt. The three days of darkness here should be seen as a type of the three hours of darkness that covered the earth on that afternoon when the new Moses did battle with the most ancient of the pharaohs of our slavery, himself the Prince of Darkness (Mark 15:33). There on Calvary, as here, the plague of darkness immediately precedes the death of the Firstborn Son.

Thursday, April 23

John 5:1-15: The name of the pool was Bethzatha, or Bethsaida, or Bethesda. The pool may have had each of these names at one time or another. Even to this day, one can visit the pool (which, alas, is now completely stagnant and fetid) and see five sides originally covered by porticoes. It is a trapezoid transected into two parts; these are the “five” sides. The pool is near the lovely church of St. Anne.

It is also near the site of the ancient Sheep Gate, on the northern side of the city. John’s text has been expanded by an addition to verse 3 and the insertion of verse 4. Missing in the better textual witnesses, these later additions were intended to explain the conversation in verse 7.

Exodus 11: Commenting on this “borrowing” from the Egyptians by Israel, the Fathers of the Church display two preoccupations: (1) Lest anyone think that this action on Israel’s part was to be copied as a moral example, some of the Fathers took care to point out that the Israelites were, in fact, slaves and, as such, entitled to just remuneration for their coerced labor; (2) The silver and gold that the Israelites took from the Egyptians was understood allegorically, as representing the philosophical and cultural riches of Egypt. Thus, they used this example to justify the Christian use of classical pagan philosophy, law, and cultural ideals.

This allegorical interpretation is not farfetched; indeed, it is rooted in historical fact. Israel did, indeed, take from Egypt a massive inheritance of philosophy, law, literature, and other cultural wealth. Their own Semitic culture had become enormously enriched by their extensive sojourn in northeast Africa, surrounded by one of the oldest and richest civilizations the world has ever seen. Alas, however, so many of these trinkets, of which the text speaks, would eventually be used in the construction of the golden calf, a fact indicating the dangers inherent in any “borrowing” from the world.

In some sense, Moses and Aaron will now be “out of the picture.” This final and decisive plague will involve no activity on their part. This work will be accomplished without human mediation of any kind; the Lord will use only the angelic ministry. The chapter ends by saying that Moses and Aaron had done all they could do to prevent what was about to befall Egypt.

Doubtless this is what accounts for the anger of Moses as he leaves Pharaoh’s presence for the last time. Sign after sign had been ignored by an inveterately stubborn man seemingly intent on his country’s destruction, and the inspired biblical author stands amazed at such hardness of heart. (Compare St. John’s bewildered comments on the later hardness of heart that could not be softened by the many “signs” done by Jesus; cf. John 12:37-41.)

Friday, April 24

Exodus 12: There are four features especially to be noted about this important text that interrupts the narrative sequence in order to place the whole into a more theological and liturgical context:

First, the paschal lamb is an example of “substitutionary” sacrifice; like the ram that replaced Isaac on Mount Moriah in Genesis 22:13, the paschal lamb’s life is given in place of the lives of Israel’s first-born sons.

Second, there is nothing in the text to suggest that this sacrifice is “expiatory.” That is, unlike certain other biblical sacrifices, such as those associated with Yom Kippur, the sacrifice of the paschal lamb is not made in reparation for sins. Moreover, the Old Testament provides not a single example of an animal being sacrificed in place of a human being whose sin was serious enough to merit death.

Third, the blood of this paschal lamb is sprinkled at certain points of the houses of those who are “redeemed.” This sprinkling is explicitly said to be a “sign” of covenant protection, parallel to the rainbow in the covenant with Noah in Genesis 9:12-17 and circumcision in the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17:19-27.

Fourth, because this paschal lamb was a type or symbol of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:7), it was fitting that the meal celebrating the new covenant in His blood should be inaugurated in the setting of the paschal seder (cf. Luke 22:15-20).

The “this day” of verse 14 is the fifteenth day of the month Nisan, but it includes the night of Pascha. Pascha itself was to be the first liturgical day of an entire “week of sabbaths,” that is, seven days of rest and festival continuing the celebration, during which Israel could eat unleavened bread as on Pascha itself. More regulations relative to this weeklong feast are to be found in 13:3-10. In the New Testament the two terms, Pascha and the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, are used almost interchangeably.

After the lengthy and detailed instructions that prepare for it, the tenth plague is narrated very succinctly, to great dramatic effect. The Exodus itself follows at once. In the writings of the New Testament, the event especially served as a prefiguration and type of redemption, including all of the events narrated of that great week, both His death for our sins and His rising again for our justification.

So important was the liturgical observance of Pascha to the life of the early Christians that one of the major and most heated controversies of the second century Church concerned the proper dating of the feast. In spite of a venerable tradition held in Ephesus and the other churches of Asia Minor, it was finally determined that Pascha would always be celebrated on a Sunday, a rule that has been maintained by all Christians since the fourth century.

In verses 43-50 we find more regulations relative to the preparation of the Seder of Pascha. As was noted above, there was no disagreement among the early Christians with respect to the deeper meaning of the paschal lamb. Indeed, verse 46 here, about not breaking the bones of the paschal lamb while preparing it, was seen by St. John as a prophecy of the body of Jesus on the cross, in that the soldiers did not break His legs (cf. John 19:36).