August 23 – August 30, 2019

Friday, August 23

Acts 21:15-25: Unlike the earlier gathering at Jerusalem in Acts 15, this meeting does not mention the “apostles.” These latter have by now all left Jerusalem and have gone to preach the Gospel in other lands, some of which have preserved memories of earlier apostolic evangelization. There is evidence that the apostle Thomas preached in India, for example, Philip in Phrygia, Matthew in Syria and Ethiopia, and Andrew in Thrace. The apostle Peter had moved westward by this time, but the absence of his name from Paul’s letter to the Romans indicates that he had not yet reached the Empire’s capital, where he would, along with Paul, suffer martyrdom.

Unlike the earlier gathering at Jerusalem in Acts 15, this meeting does not mention the “apostles.” These latter have by now all left Jerusalem and have gone to preach the Gospel in other lands, some of which have preserved memories of earlier apostolic evangelization. There is evidence that the apostle Thomas preached in India, for example, Philip in Phrygia, Matthew in Syria and Ethiopia, and Andrew in Thrace. The apostle Peter had moved westward by this time, but the absence of his name from Paul’s letter to the Romans indicates that he had not yet reached the Empire’s capital, where he would, along with Paul, suffer martyrdom.

Meanwhile, at Jerusalem Paul’s report greatly heartens James and the presbyters (verses 19-20), but they express concern about certain misrepresentations of Paul being circulated among the Jewish Christians. Because of Paul’s frequent encounters with hostile Jews in various cities, he can hardly be surprised by such reports, and James is eager to put them to rest. Paul, desiring to be all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9:19-23; Romans 7:12), acquiesces in James’s suggestion for how to go about neutralizing the rumors current among the “tens of thousands” (myriads — verse 20) of Jewish Christians. This suggestion involves the rather elaborate public fulfillment of a Nazirite vow (verses 23-24; Numbers 6:1-21).

Joshua 11: This is the sort of story that causes many modern people to wince and squirm—so much violence!

Well, this is true, but let me mention why such texts do not bother me. I liken these darker parts of the Hebrew Scriptures to shadows cast on the earth by the earliest appearance of the light. The Latin Psalter says to the Lord, “Thou hast crafted the dawning and the sun”—Tu fabricatus es auroram et solem (Psalm 73:16). We observe the order: Dawn-then-sun. Strictly speaking there could be no dawn unless the sun already existed. The Psalmist’s sequence of dawn-then-sun describes how things appear, not how they exist. The early light comes to us on a curve and then an angle. The daylight is presented to us in stages, the full sun itself being the final stage.

The angularity of the early morning light seems to hurl long lines of darkness on the earth. This is only an impression, nonetheless. What sort of logic would blame the light for the shadows? Who among us does not recognize that the shadows were already there, long before the light appeared? Indeed, it is the gradually emerging light that reveals the dark places. These shadows, they shorten, bit-by-bit, and they will vanish in the fullness of time, when the sun increases to full strength.

I am no more offended, then, by the darker parts of the Bible than by the shades thrown forward by the slanting daylight. To me, the dark recesses of the Book of Joshua resemble the somber drama of the Grand Canyon, as myriad silhouettes take shape down its walls, just before the sunrise.

Saturday, August 24

Mark 14:66-72: It is most significant, surely, that Peter’s triple denial, so embarrassing to the chief of the Twelve Apostles, is narrated in detail in each of the four canonical Gospels, for it is thus made to stand fixed forever in the
memory of Holy Church. If Simon Peter could deny Jesus, any one of us could do so. Simon, after all, had not believed himself capable of such a thing. “Even if all are made to stumble,” he boasted, “yet I will not be” (Mark 14:29). He was so utterly resolved on the matter that, when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus in the garden, Simon had attacked them with violence.

Alas, he was neither the first man nor the last to confuse human excitement with divine strength, nor to mistake the pumping of adrenaline for the infusion of grace. Within a very short time after he swung his sword at the unsuspecting Malchus (cf. John 18:10), we find Peter backing down embarrassed before the pointing finger of a servant girl. The Holy Spirit took particular care that Christians throughout the ages would never forget that falling away remains a real possibility for any of them.

Christians were to learn from this story that, as long as they are alive, repentance and a return to forgiveness are always live options. In this respect, the repentance of Simon Peter is to be contrasted with the despair of Judas.

Acts 21:26-36: On the next day Paul begins daily worship in the temple as the sponsor of the four men under vow, to provide the offering required on such occasions (verse 26). A week later he is recognized in the temple by some of the same Asian Jews with whom he has already had so many painful experiences (verse 27; 18:19; 20:19).

It is important to observe that the objections to Paul at Jerusalem do not come from the Jewish Christians living there, but from the Diaspora Jews, whose presence in Jerusalem is occasioned by the feast of Pentecost (20:6,16), a normal time for pilgrimage to the temple. On the streets of the city they had already recognized Trophimus, a Christian from Asia, who accompanied Paul to Jerusalem for the purpose of transporting the collection of money for the poor (20:4; cf. also 2 Timothy 4:20). The Jews from Ephesus accuse Paul of introducing this Gentile into the temple beyond the Court of the Gentiles.

The gravity of their accusation is indicated in the inscription, written in both Greek and Latin, which separated that court from the Court of Women (Josephus, Jewish War 5.5.2; Antiquities 15.11.5 [417]; cf. also Ephesians 2:14). That inscription, discovered by C. S. Clermont-Ganneau in 1871, says: “No foreigner [non-Jew] is to enter within the balustrade and the embankment that surrounds the sanctuary. If anyone is apprehended in the act, let him know that he must hold himself to blame for the penalty of death that will follow.”

After ejecting Paul from the temple, his accusers close the gates to prevent his seeking refuge therein (verse 30). Because such riots in the temple are by no means rare, particularly during pilgrimages, a Roman guard of a thousand men is stationed in the nearby Fortress Antonia, and news of the disturbance reaches the commander of this unit, Claudius Lysias (23:26), who promptly takes Paul into custody to prevent his being murdered. It was at this very place that an earlier crowd of Jews had insisted to Pilate, “Take Him away!” [Aire touton in Luke 23:18] with respect to Jesus, the same insistence now being made with respect to Paul [Aire auton in Acts 21:36].

August 25

Acts 21:37—22:21: To apprehend Paul and put a stop to the riot, the soldiers had descended a long flight of stairs that leads up to the entrance of the Fortress Antonia. Now practically carrying their prisoner, they ascend those stairs, which will effectively give Paul an elevation from which to address the crowd. Perhaps the commander of the fortress had received a bulletin to be on the lookout for a famous Jewish revolutionary from Egypt (described in considerable detail by Josephus, incidentally). In any case, he mistakes his new prisoner for that individual and is surprised when Paul speaks to him in Greek. Thus taken by surprise, he grants Paul’s request to address the mob.

Speaking to them in Aramaic, Paul is deferential in tone (“Men, brothers and fathers”) and patient in the development of his theme, which consists essentially in another narrative of his conversion. The story is told as a form of personal apologetics (apologia in verse 1). Paul insists, “I am a Jew” (verse 2). He tells of his education in Jerusalem under the tutelage of Rabbi Gamaliel, his adherence to the strictness (akribeia ) of the Torah, his zeal (literally “God’s zealot” — Theou zelotes), which zeal he compares with their own (verse 3; Galatians 1:14; Philippians 3:6). Paul too once opposed the new “way” (hodos), he tells them, as zealously as they are doing today. All this, however, changed dramatically, as he rode to Damascus.

AEssentially identical with the story of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9, the present account does provide some details not mentioned in that earlier version. We now learn, for instance, that Paul’s conversion took place at the noon hour (verse 6), which we know was a prescribed time of prayer for Jews. Thus, we ascertain that Paul’s conversion took place while was stopped along the road, turned facing Jerusalem (cf. 1 Kings 8:48; Daniel 6:10), and reciting the Tefillah, or Eighteen Benedictions. He was suddenly surrounded by an overwhelming light, flung to the ground, and dramatically addressed by name by the accusing Lord.

By noting the specific hour of Paul’s experience, this version of the story relates it to the ecstatic vision of the apostle Peter, who was also praying at noon, in Acts 10. In each case the praying apostle is called by name (10:13; 11:7; 22:7) and answers the “Lord” (Kyrie in 10:14; 11:8; 22:8) in a brief dialogue. Each man is given a command (10:13; 11:7; 22:10). In each case the context is related to the calling of the Gentiles. In the instance of Peter, the experience leads directly to the baptism of Cornelius and his companions (11:9-14). In the present instance, this point is made by describing a second experience of Paul, this one in the temple at Jerusalem after his return to that city three years later (cf. Galatians 1:18). This second experience is called an ecstasy (en ekstasei in 22:17), the same word earlier used to describe Peter’s experience (10:10; 11:5).

The ecstatic experience of Paul, which also occurs in the context of prayer (22:17), takes place in the temple. This latter detail seems most significant within the general framework of Luke’s symbolic topography. His Gospel narrative both begins and ends in the temple (Luke 1:9; 24:53), and now it is in the temple, the very center of the Jewish faith and hope, that God commissions the Apostle to the Gentiles (Romans 11:13) to take the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 22:21; 9:15). This mention of the Gentiles, the goyim, to the crowd of already angry Jews is what brings Paul’s brief speech to a swift conclusion.

Monday, August 26

Mark 15:16-21: The soldiers’ mockery particularly addressed Jesus’ claims to kingship; he was mocked as “King of the Jews.” We should see in this epithet the contempt those Gentiles felt toward Jews generally, a contempt they
were eager to pour out on this particular Jew, whose own people abandoned
him. Pilate expressed this same contempt by the inscription he caused to be affixed over Jesus’ head on the cross. Suffering specifically as a Jew, Jesus became the supreme victim of anti-Semitism.

Jesus’ true claim to the Davidic kingship renders the scene of the mockery supremely ironic. The mocking soldiers do, in fact, bend their knees before the King. Their salutation of him is—as the evangelists and their readers know—theologically correct! Jesus is the same man who just days before, as he entered Jerusalem in triumph, was addressed as David’s son.

In this mockery Jesus is clothed in a scarlet or purple garment—likely a military cloak—to mimic royalty. To adorn his head, the soldiers weave a crown of thorns, which serves as both a form of torture and a point of shame.

The theological significance of this crown of thorns comes from the evangelists’ understanding of it, not the intent of the mocking soldiers. The Gospel writers knew, as do their readers in all ages, that the crown of Jesus was woven from the elements of Adam’s curse: “Both thorns and thistles [the ground] shall bring forth for you” (Genesis 3:18). Jesus, wearing that crown, bears that curse.

Acts 22:22-29: It is clear that Paul’s life is in danger (22:22; 25:24). Since he had been speaking to the crowd in Aramaic, Paul’s message was not understood by the commander of the fortress, so the latter is bewildered and troubled by the crowd’s violent reaction (verse 23). His own reaction is understandable. In due course he will be obliged to render an account of this recent disturbance to the Roman procurator of the region at Caesarea, but up to this point he has no idea just what has transpired.

Since he can make no intelligible sense of the yelling and actions of the crowd (21:34), he orders Paul to be tortured by beatings, in hope of obtaining some solid information on the matter (verse 24). Paul, however, will have none of it. When he was beaten earlier at Philippi by the governmental officials in Acts 16, he had not mentioned his Roman citizenship, the Lex Porcia, until after that event. On the present occasion, however, he speaks up ahead of time, indicating the high status that precludes his being tortured. Indeed, the commander has already gone too far by having Paul handcuffed without legal warrant (verse 29). Thus, the matter of Paul’s Roman citizenship is introduced into the narrative for the second time. In due course it will be that special legal status that permits Paul’s recourse to a court in the capital city. Paul’s Roman citizenship, then, is an important component in the dynamism of the whole account in this book, which narrates the movement of the Gospel from Jerusalem to Rome.

Tuesday, August 27

Mark 15:22-32: in the sustained mockery that Jesus received as he hung on the Cross, Mark sees a form of “blasphemy.” There is an irony in this
indictment of Jesus’ enemies, because—Mark tell us—“blasphemy” was the very charge that they had brought against him (2:7; 14:64).
This understanding of the mockery as “blasphemy” presupposes, of course, the Christian confession of faith, according to which Jesus is the Son of God (Mark 1:1). The title “Son of God” was the barbed point sticking in the craw of his enemies (Mark 14:61).
This fact highlights the significance of the confession made by the presiding centurion at the moment of Jesus’ death: “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:30)).

Acts 22:30—23:10: Luke does not tell us if Claudius Lysias interrogated Paul further, but it is reasonable to think that he did. He would not have learned from Paul, however, any solid information that would clarify the legal situation. The fortress commander thus finds himself in a dilemma. He has arrested a prisoner on the basis of no identifiable offense. This is all quite embarrassing. How would he ever explain this serious irregularity to the authorities at Caesarea when official inquiries were made? If, on the other hand, Claudius Lysias were simply to release Paul, he may be setting free a criminal, possibly a revolutionary and subversive. Caught in this conflict, Lysias determines to consult the Sanhedrin, Judaism’s highest governing spiritual authority.

Thus, Paul must now defend himself before the Sanhedrin, and he does this masterfully. Well aware of the major theological division of that body into Sadducees and Pharisees (verse 6), Paul goes to some lengths to identify himself with the latter party. Why, after all, is he being held as a prisoner? Is it not because of his affirmation of the resurrection from the dead? And is not the coming resurrection from the dead one of the major and characteristic features of Pharisaic belief?

By this insistence, therefore, Paul succeeds in dividing his opponents (verses 7-10), this time not among a rioting mob but within the highest and most dignified religious body in Judaism. Lysias, frustrated that he has no more reliable information than he had before, has Paul locked up again. That night, when the Lord speaks to strengthen His apostle, He sets in parallel Paul’s preaching in Jerusalem with his coming preaching in Rome. Paul’s journey to Rome has been decreed by God (dei, “it is necessary,” in verse 11), no matter what strange human circumstances may serve to bring it about.

Wednesday, August 26

Mark 15:33-41: Mark, followed later by Matthew, records the anguished cry of Jesus, “‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?’”

The Savior’s cry has been variously interpreted. In particular, there has arisen, in recent times, the notion that God the Father actually did forsake his Son hanging on the Cross. Jesus’ abandonment by his Father—his experience of damnation—is sometimes understood, indeed, to be the very price of salvation.

This theory should be examined with some measure of caution, I believe. I suggest that the following points should be considered with respect to this caution.

First, the Christian faith firmly holds—as a doctrine not subject to contradiction—that the true God never abandons those who call upon him in faith.

Second, whatever Jesus’ experience was—as expressed in this cry—it was still an experience. That is to say, it was existential; it pertained to Jesus’ existence, not his being, or essence. In his being, or essence, Jesus remained God’s eternal and beloved Son. Consequently, it was not possible that his cry of dereliction declared, as a fact, that God had abandoned him.

For those—myself included— follow the doctrinal guidance of Ephesus and Chalcedon, it was not possible for God the Father to forsake his Son in any real—factual—sense, because the Father and the Son are of “one being” (homoousios). The godhead is indivisible. God does not abandon his friends and loyal servants, much less his Son.

Therefore, Jesus’ cry conveyed, not an objective, reified condition of his being, but, rather, his human experience of distance from God. The abandonment was psychological, not ontological. It often happens that God’s friends and loyal servants feel abandoned, and they feel it very keenly. And when they do, they often enough have recourse to the Book of Psalms . . . as Jesus does in the
present case.

When the Savior expressed this painful experience in prayer, the opening line of Psalm 22 arose to his lips—in Hebrew, ‘Eli, ‘Eli, lamah ‘azavtani—“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”

He could hardly have prayed this line of the Psalter unless he knew the Father was still “My God.”

In making this prayer his own, Jesus was hardly expressing a sentiment unique to himself. He was, rather, identifying himself with every human being who has ever felt alienated from God, abandoned by God, estranged from God. Jesus became, for us, what the ram in the thorns became for Isaac. That is to say, in making this very human prayer, Jesus expressed oneness with the rest of humanity.

Perhaps this prayer best expresses what we mean when we speak of “the days of His flesh” (Hebrews 5:7). It was in this deep sense of dereliction that we perceive, most truly, that “the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us” (John 1:14).

Thursday, August 29

Although the father of John the Baptist declared that the mission of his son was to give knowledge of salvation to God’s people and to guide our feet into the way of peace, the Holy Scriptures equally testify that a certain “violence” attended his entire ministry. Jesus spoke of this, saying that John’s appearance in this world introduced the days in which “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come” (11:12–14).

Violence was especially evident in his apocalyptic preaching about “the wrath to come,” with axes laid to the roots of trees and the burning of chaff with unquenchable fire. John was possessed of an uncompromising moral sense. H never learned to temper his language when he addressed the enemies of God. He treated them as . . . . , well, enemies.

In the New Testament triangle of the anemic Antipas, the hateful Herodias, and the relentless John, we have a striking parallel to the Old Testament triangle of the anemic Ahab, the hateful Jezebel, and, of course, the unrelenting Elijah. John’s uncompromising moral vision is what finally brought about his martyrdom.

The evangelist Mark inserts the murder of John the Baptist at a point where his literary structure requires him to suggest a passage of time between two events. Thus, right before the story of John, Jesus sends out to evangelizing disciples (6:7-13). To indicate the passage of time during which these disciples were preaching, casting out demons, and anointing the sick, Mark tells the fairly lengthy story of the death of John the Baptist. Immediately after this account, Mark speaks of the return of the disciples from their preaching and healing mission (6:30).

This story of John’s death stands in Mark’s account as a foreshadowing, of sorts, of the trial and death of Jesus. Indeed, in both stories the tragedy comes about through evil forces working on the weakness of certain political figures.

Thus, Herod orders the beheading of John the Baptist, much against his preference, when his hand is forced by the thoroughly corrupt Herodias. And Pilate, also against his preference, orders the crucifixion of Jesus, when his hand is forced by the corrupt Jewish leaders.

In both stories, that is to say, we witness the inability of cowardly political leadership to guarantee the most fundamental political rights: to life and a fair trial. Both stories are indictments of moral weakness; both Herod and Pilate are cowards, unable to resist injustice, even though they bear the responsibility of maintaining justice. Each case—the beheading of John the Baptist and the crucifixion of Jesus—demonstrates the inability of human power to render even the most basic justice.

This lesson was particularly significant for Mark’s original readers: the Christians suffering persecution and death at the hands of the weak political leader Nero, who diverted to them the wrath of the Roman people for the burning of Rome.

This lesson is essential to believers in ever age, who might otherwise be disposed to put their trust in princes and to seek their security from a political order no stronger than the weak men appointed to maintain it.

John the Baptist was a man of character. We observe that he was never shaky about who he was. The lines of his identity were firmly in place; he had what the Greeks called “character”: internal shape.

John was severely tried over the course of his life, but he seems never to have had an identity crisis. He appears in the Gospels as a man of unusual self-confidence—enough self-confidence to call his whole generation to repentance! He was not afraid of the religious authorities in Judaism, and he was not the least intimidated by the political authorities that would eventually take his life.

Friday, August 30

Mark 15:42-47: Because Jesus could not rise from the grave unless He had been buried, an explicit insistence on His burial may be noted in the Church’s
earliest proclamation. Paul himself, who knew its importance from the earlier tradition (1 Corinthians 15:4), included it in his own preaching (Acts 13:29) and writing (Romans 6:4). All the canonical Gospels, moreover, agree that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Sanhedrin.

Joseph himself is variously portrayed by the four inspired writers. Mark (15:43) and Luke (23:51) describe him as someone who “was waiting for the kingdom of God,” an expression which, taken without context, might indicate no more than that Joseph was a devout Jew. (I will argue presently that it does mean more.) Luke adds that Joseph, though a member of the Sanhedrin, had not consented to its plot against Jesus. Matthew (27:57) and John (19:38) are more explicit about Joseph’s faith, both of them calling him a “disciple”—that is, a Christian—though John observes that he was so “secretly, for fear of the Jews.”

In their slightly differing descriptions, the evangelists may have been portraying Joseph of Arimathea at somewhat different stages of his “spiritual pilgrimage,” to use the customary expression. If this is the case, then it appears that the death of Jesus, the very hour of His apparent failure and defeat, was the occasion Joseph chose for getting really serious in his commitment, going public about his Christian discipleship.

This Joseph, precisely because he “waited for the kingdom of God,” had intended to be buried, not in Ramathaim, his native village, but in Jerusalem itself. The grand prophecies of messianic restoration, after all, especially those of Ezekiel and Zechariah, were centered in Jerusalem.

Accordingly, in the holy city, Joseph had purchased for himself a special burial vault that was situated, says John (18:41–42), in a garden not far from where Jesus had died. According to Matthew and Mark, this tomb was carved out of solid rock. Luke and John both mention that it was brand new.

This elaborate burial arrangement suggests that Joseph of Arimathea was a man of some means. Indeed, Matthew (27:57) explicitly records that he was rich. This detail is, furthermore, of theological significance, because God’s Suffering Servant, according to prophecy, was to be buried “with the rich” (Isaiah 53:9).

In all of the Gospels, Joseph’s actions are contrasted with those of
the other members of the Sanhedrin. Whereas they blindfolded, mocked,
and abused Jesus, Joseph treats even his dead body with dignity and
respect. Although executed criminals were often buried in a common
grave, or even left as carrion for wild beasts, Joseph carefully places the
body of Jesus in a special tomb, a place befitting the dignity of the
coming Resurrection.