November 23 – November 30, 2018

Friday, November 23

Psalms 102 (Greek & Latin 101): This psalm is structured on a contrast, pursued through two sequences. The first half of the first sequence is all “I”—I am miserable, I am sad, my heart withers away like the grass in the heat, I lie awake at night, I feel like a mournful bird, I mingle my drink with tears, my days flee like the shadows of an evening, and so forth. Life being rough, a goodly number of our days are passed with such sentiments, so it is usually not difficult to pray this part of the psalm.

The second half of the first sequence arrives with the expression, “but You, O Lord,” which is just as emphatic in the Hebrew (we’attah Adonai) and the Greek (sy de Kyrie). “You” is contrasted with “I.” God is not like me; God is almighty and does what He wants and does not die. God is enthroned forever, and His name endures from generation to generation. God will arise and deliver His people.

The second and shorter contrasting sequence repeats the first. Once again, as at the beginning, there is the sense of our human frailty, our shortened days, our strength broken at midcourse. To this is contrasted the eternity of God; His years endure unto all generations. Thus, both sequences in this psalm form contrasts between the permanence of God and the transience of everything created.

The God addressed in this psalm is Christ our Lord, a point made clear in Hebrews 1, which quotes it as a prayer to Christ. The author had just quoted Psalm 45 (44) about the permanence of Christ’s throne (“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever . . .”), a verse strikingly similar to a verse in the present (“But You, O Lord, are enthroned forever . . .”). Quoting the other psalm seems to lead naturally to quoting this one, and the author of Hebrews proceeds to do so, still addressing it to Christ: “You, Lord, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, / And the heavens are the work of Your hands. / They will perish, but You remain; / And they will all grow old like a garment; / Like a cloak You will fold them up, / And they will be changed. / But You are the same, / And Your years will not fail” (Heb. 1:10–12).

In this psalm, then, as we pray it through New Testament eyes, the God who made the heavens is Christ our Lord. This idea is thematic in the first chapter of Hebrews, which begins by affirming that “God . . . has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds” (vv. 1, 2). To the impermanence of the heavens, then, is contrasted the permanence, and therefore complete dependability, of Christ: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). Heaven and earth will pass away, but His words will never pass away.

Saturday, November 24

Luke 18:1-14: These parables are among the specifically Lukan passages dealing with prayer. Luke is the only evangelist, for example, to picture Jesus at prayer during his baptism (3:21), at the transfiguration (9:28f.), in preparation for the calling of the Twelve (6:12), and just prior to the giving of the Lord’s Prayer (11:1). Luke’s Gospel begins (1:10) and ends (24:53) with prayer.

Moreover, into her regular and standard formulations of worship the Church has, virtually from the beginning, incorporated certain specific prayers found only in Luke: the Magnificat (1:47–55), the Benedictus (1:68–79), the Gloria in Excelsis (2:14), and the Nunc Dimittis (2:29–32). In addition to Luke’s Gospel, his Acts of the Apostles speaks of prayer in 14 of its 28 chapters. Prayer is obviously a major preoccupation of Luke.

Within his Gospel, moreover, chapters 11 and 18 are concerned with prayer in a more concentrated way. Chapter 11 begins, once again, with Jesus at prayer, a scene that prompts the disciples to request that he teach them also the proper way to pray. Thus is introduced Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, which is promptly followed by two further dominical teachings on the subject. The first (11:5–8), specific to Luke, is the parable of the importunate seeker who comes and bothers his friend at midnight. The man’s request is granted because of his continued asking, seeking and knocking. This emphasis on repetition introduces the next dominical teaching on prayer (11:9–13), the famous “ask, seek, knock” sequence, found likewise in Matthew 7:7–11.

The teaching on prayer in Luke 18 pointedly resembles that in chapter 11, especially its accent on indefatigability and persistence. Beginning with the exhortation that Christians are to “pray always” (18:1), this chapter gives three examples or models of persevering prayer: the two uniquely Lukan parables of the Widow and the Judge (vv.2–8), and the Pharisee and the Publican (vv. 9–14), and also the story of the blind man of Jericho (vv. 38f).

Each of these stories is a case of sustained, relentless and repeated petition. The characters in each of these accounts pray without ceasing by making the same request over and over again. In the teaching of Luke 18, then, as in chapter 11, constant, uninterrupted prayer means ceaselessly repeated prayer. This emphasis on repetition in prayer is somewhat clearer in the original, which uses the Greek imperfect tense, denoting repeated action, in each instance (vv. 3, 13, 39).

Sunday, November 25

Luke 18:15-23: Jesus’ blessing of the children introduces the story of the man who wants to be a disciple. It is ironic that only Matthew describes this man as “young.” The emphasis is different in Mark and Luke; indeed, these two Evangelists quote the fellow to the effect that he had kept all the commandments “since youth” (ek neotetos), which may suggest that the man in question thought of himself as somewhat older. Luke, moreover, specifies that the man had been around long enough to have become a “leader” (archon–verse 18).

This difference among the witnesses is perhaps significant in one respect—namely, whatever his age, the wealthy person was certainly immature in mind. Otherwise, how explain his inability to assess the value of “eternal life” (zoe aionios–verse 17) in comparison with his current wealth? It was surely a sign of immaturity that he counted his present possessions (verse 23) more valuable than a “treasure in heaven” (verse 22).

More alarming to the average reader, perhaps, is the story’s message that a man can observe all the commandments (verse 21) and still come up short (eti hen soi leipei–verse 22) with respect to eternal life. One recalls, in this respect, the parable of the rich man in 16:19-31. In that case too, the rich man lost eternal life by living solely for the sake of this life. In both instances, as well, an insouciance about the higher value of heaven was accompanied by a lack of concern for the poor.

What, after all, did the man really lose? Or, to put the question in another way, what alone constitutes what is desirable—what alone is good? The present story contains the answer to this question as well: “No one is good but God alone” (verse 19 RSV). This is what the “leader” has lost—God, the sole source of eternal happiness. No wonder that his sorrow sets in immediately.

Revelation 2:18-29: The Church at Thyatira was tolerating in its midst the activities of a pseudo-charismatic woman whom John likened to the ancient Queen Jezebel of Israel, that fine Phoenician feminist responsible for so many of the ills condemned by the prophet Elijah in the ninth century B.C. (verse 20). The moral offenses of the woman at Thyatira, which included the advocacy of sexual sins and the eating of food sacrificed to demons, seem similar to those of the Nicolaitans, but in the present case John took care to single out an individual rather than to talk about a group. Against her he prophesied a dire judgment (verses 22-23). This woman seems also to have been a sort of mistress of the occult, here called “the depths of Satan” (verse 24). But John does not condemn solely that woman; he speaks very critically, in addition, of the church that tolerated her activities (verse 20).

Monday, November 26

Psalms 106 (Greek & Latin 105): The praise of God in this psalm springs from the consideration of God’s fidelity to His people notwithstanding their own infidelities to Him: “Praise the Lord, for He is gracious, for His mercy endures forever!”

The examples of the people’s continued sin are drawn from the accounts of the Exodus and the Desert Wandering, a period of such egregious unfaithfulness that only a few of that entire generation were finally permitted to enter the Promised Land. The examples are detailed: the constant murmuring against the Lord both in Egypt and in the desert, the rebellion of Dathan and Abiron, the cult of the golden calf, the succumbing to temptation from the Moabites and other moral compromises with the surrounding nations, child-sacrifice to Moloch, and so forth. In all of these things God nonetheless proved His patience and fidelity to the people of His covenant: “Who will tell the mighty deeds of the Lord, or make all His praises heard?”

The value of this perspective is that it tends to discourage a false confidence that may otherwise deceive the believer. Never has there been missing from the experience of faith the sort of temptation that says: “Relax! God has saved you. You are home free. Once saved, always saved. Don’t worry about a thing. Above all, no effort.”

This temptation was recognized by certain discerning men in the Bible itself. Thus, the Prophet Jeremiah saw it working insidiously in the hearts and minds of his contemporaries near the end of the seventh century bc. They reasoned among themselves that God, because of His undying promise to David, would never permit the city of Jerusalem, to say nothing of His temple, to fall to their enemies. After all, had not the Lord, speaking through Isaiah a century earlier, promised King Hezekiah that such a thing was unthinkable? And had not the Lord, at that time, destroyed the Assyrian army as it besieged the Holy City? Even so, reasoned Jeremiah’s fellow citizens, there was no call now to fear the armies of Babylon. Thus, fully confident of divine deliverance, they permitted themselves every manner of vice and moral failing. After all, once saved, always saved. Much of the message of Jeremiah was devoted to demolishing that line of thought.

The identical sort of temptation seems likewise to have afflicted the first readers of Hebrews, whose author also took the period of the Desert Wandering as exemplifying their moral dilemma. Repeatedly, then, he cautioned those early Christians of the genuine danger of stark apostasy facing those who placed an unwarranted, quasi-magical confidence in their inevitable security. This entire book is devoted to warning believers that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31).

Tuesday, November 27

Luke 18:35-43: Jesus comes to Jericho for the last time. Only Luke tells of two incidents that took place during this visit: the healing of the blind beggar and the encounter with Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree.

Jesus is walking along the road, the hodos, beside which sits the blind man begging. At this point Jesus is headed south and is about 17 miles from Jerusalem. The event narrated here took place a few days before the raising of Lazarus and Palm Sunday.

This road, then, is the way of the Cross. Jesus is headed for Calvary, and He is very aware of this. Indeed, in the verses that immediately precede this story in Luke, Jesus had for the third time predicted the terrible things that would happen to Him before the end of the following week: “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished. For He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon. They will scourge Him and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again”(18:31-34). Clearly, His Passion was much on the Lord’s mind when He meets this blind beggar.

As Jesus walked south, He crossed at right angles the path that Joshua had followed when the Israelites entered the Holy Land at Jericho. This crossing bears a rich symbolic message, for it really does make of Jericho a cross-roads, a place where the earth is marked with the sign of the Cross.

Luke specifically says, with respect to this journey, that Jesus was “drawing near” to Jericho. I suggest that this “drawing near” should be read as symbolic, because both Matthew and Mark say that the encounter with the blind man took place as Jesus was leaving Jericho.

Luke describes this journey of Jesus. He is said to be “drawing near” and “passing by.” This is, in fact, what Jesus of Nazareth does; He draws near and passes by. It is the movement of divine grace, which takes place in time. Like time, grace is not static; it comes and moves on. Grace is not static, because time is not static. When Jesus draws nigh and is about to pass by, He must be stopped! The moment must be seized, and that seizure best happens right away.

How, then, does our blind beggar react? He recognizes the moment—the fleeting moment—of visitation and opportunity. Jesus of Nazareth is passing by, and He must be stopped, or He will quickly be gone. So the blind beggar takes hold of the moment. He grabs it with all his force. He shouts out for mercy, and he shouts out repeatedly. He forces Jesus to stop passing by.

Luke says this explicitly: statheis ho Iesous–“Jesus, standing still.” He had been passing by, but He is no longer passing by. Time suddenly stands still, as the blind man brings his Lord to a stop.

Wednesday, November 28

Revelation 3:14-22: When he wrote to the church at Philadelphia, John had no criticisms to make about that congregation. Writing to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pegamos, Thyatira, and Sardis, John paid some compliments and made some criticisms. Writing to the Christians at Laodicea, however, John has nothing at all encouraging to say! He is unable to find a single item for which to praise that church. To John’s thinking, the church at Laodicea is a lackluster group of slackers living in an affluent, self-satisfied society. Although this church was evangelized by Paul’s companion Epaphras (Colossians 4:12-13), it has lost its fervor and is now mediocre (verse 16).

The secular city of Laodicea was famous for three things: (1) its large banking interests, (2) its textile industry, and (3) a special eye-salve that the great physician Galen called “Phrygian powder.” John alludes to all three things in verse 18, where the church at Laodicea is told to come to God for (1) gold refined in the fire, (2) clothing to cover its nakedness, and (3) a special anointing of its spiritual eyes. The Laodiceans must admit, in short, that they are “poor, blind, and naked” (verse 17).

There are three points of Christology to note in this letter to Laodicea: (1) Christ in the past; the relationship of Christ to creation (verse 14; cf. Colossians 1:15-18; Hebrews 1:1-3; John 1:3); (2) Christ in the present, exhorting and inviting His Church, communing with those who open to Him (verses 19-20; cf. 19:9; Luke 22:28-30); (3) Christ in the future, rewarding those who vanquish in His name (verse 21; cf. Matthew 19:28). The image of the divine throne appears over forty times in the Book of Revelation. The present mention of it prepares for John’s vision in the following chapter.

Psalms 128 (Greek & Latin 127): A man did not normally make this pilgrimage to Jerusalem alone, but in the company of his family (cf. Luke 2:41). Indeed, this customary pilgrimage was a significant way of giving a godly identity to a man’s family. It was itself an exercise of “edification,” this word taken in its etymological sense of building or constructing an “edifice.” An important purpose of the pilgrimage was that of “building the house,” the latter term understood as “home” or “household.” Like everything else a family does together, the regular pilgrimage was an exercise in house-building. In fact, this is a psalm about the proper maintenance of the household and, by extension, the city. Any simple reading of, say, Proverbs will show that these preoccupations very much constitute a wisdom theme.

Now the message of this psalm is that all human effort directed toward such wise pursuits must be founded on a firm trust in God’s grace and assistance. Thus, our psalm begins: “Unless the Lord should build the house (Hebrew bayit, Greek oikos), in vain have the builders toiled. Unless the Lord should guard the city, in vain did the guardian keep watch.”

Thursday, November 29

Luke 19:11-27: This parable, partly matched in Matthew 25:14-27, is more complex than its counterpart and more allegorical. It contains not only the theme of divine stewardship but also that of obtaining a kingdom.

The central figure in this parable in Luke is a man who makes a distant trip to procure a royal title. In its theological sense the story symbolizes the departure of Christ to heaven, whence He will someday return with this kingly title to assess the stewardship of His servants on earth. That is to say, “He will come again in glory to judge.”

Among the other allegorical elements in the account we note the future king’s rejection by his own people, along with his eventual rejection and punishment of them.

Many readers of this parable have observed that its details are strangely parallel to things that actually transpired in the career of Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great. At the death of the latter in 4 B.C., Archelaus journeyed to Rome to plead for the title and authority of his father from Caesar Augustus. A delegation of Jews also went to Rome for the purpose of making the opposite request (Josephus, Antiquities 17.11.1. §299-302).

It is difficult to assess the value of these interesting parallels. One is at least justified in pointing out, nonetheless, that whereas in the Lukan parable the man’s enemies fail to prevent his obtaining the kingdom, in the case of Archelaus the enemies were somewhat more successful. In this latter case Rome declined to give Archelaus the title of king. He was given authority as “tetrarch” (“one-quarter-king”) over Judea and Samaria (cf. Matthew 2:22), from which position he was deposed ten years later.

Revelation 4:1-11: In Chapters 2 and 3 John has warned the Christians of the seven churches of Asia that judgment is imminent. He has endeavored to strengthen them for an impending outbreak of chaos and disorder.

In the present chapter, John turns their vision on high, to the throne of God, which is the source of all order. Like Amos, Isaiah, Micah, and other prophets, John slips into an ecstatic trance, a rapture in which he is seized by the Holy Spirit. He hears a voice, and a mysterious door opens (verse 1). He is introduced to the heavenly worship before God’s throne (verse 2), over which is the rainbow of the covenant (verse 3; Genesis 9:12-17). The dominant color is green, the symbol of spring and hope.

As in the temple of Solomon (1 Kings 7:23), which was modeled, after all, on the heavenly throne room, there is “a sea of glass, like crystal” (verse 6), symbolizing the chaos over which the Holy Spirit brooded in Creation. Other details remind us of Isaiah 6 (which is also read today) and Ezekiel 1. This should not surprise us, because in all of Holy Scripture we are dealing with the same God and the same heaven. The hymn, with which the chapter closes, concentrates on Creation. Recall that this vision takes place on Sunday (1:10), the first day of Creation.

Friday, November 30

Psalms 140 (Greek & Latin 139): With some exceptions, the psalms are generally not to be recited very fast. Indeed, the structure of some of them shows that considerable care has been taken to slow the pace down. There is a pronounced disposition to say many things twice or more, for instance, so that the mind is not permitted to race on to the next idea right away.

The present may serve to illustrate this extensive characteristic. The Psalmist could have written, very simply, “Lord, Your knowledge of me is total.” This brief statement would have said, in essence, what the first strophe of this psalm does say: “Lord, You have searched me and known me. You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thoughts from afar. You encompass my paths and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. A word is not yet on my tongue, but You know it already.”

Here, instead of one verb to describe God’s knowledge of the heart, the author uses six. He wants to dwell on the thought; he is not anxious to leave it. He wants the conviction to sink deeply into his soul that God knows him through and through, so he comes at the idea from a variety of angles and aspects—search and know, sitting down and rising up and lying down, paths and ways, thoughts and words.

The psalm continues in the same vein: “You have beset me behind and before and laid Your hand upon me.” He is not content to say that this idea is transcendent; he must say it twice: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain to it.”

Because God’s knowledge of us is complete, it is impossible to escape His gaze. Once again, the poet uses several lines to meditate on this fact, moving in several directions, as it were: “If I ascend to heaven [up!], You are there. If I make my bed in the netherworld [down!], behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning [east!] and dwell at the uttermost parts of the sea [west!], even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand hold me.”

Here we are, ten verses into the psalm, and so far there is only a single idea. The poet is still not finished with it, however. He now switches from space imagery to symbolisms of light: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will cover me,’ even the night will be a light around me. Yea, the darkness hides me not from You, but the night shines as the day; to You the darkness and the night are both alike.” Once again, he has repeated the same motif several times. God’s knowledge of our hearts is not an idea that he is disposed to let go of.