August 30 – September 6

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.

Saturday, August 31

Luke 1:1-4: When God’s Son assumed the form of flesh and entered history, a kind of logic called for His life to assume, as well, the form of letters—grammata—and, eventually, to enter the realm of historiography. The four Gospels were literary extensions, as it were, of the Incarnation.

That inference was not drawn at once, and we are able to trace certain steps in the canonizing process. Oral transmission came first. The story of Jesus, before it was recorded on parchment, was told by word of mouth, as we see in the sermons in the Acts of the Apostles (e.g., 10:36–37; 13:23–25).

Among the Evangelists, it is in Luke that we first meet a real historian, in the full sense of someone who explicitly and consciously thought of himself as “doing” history. In the first prologue affixed to his double work, Luke described his enterprise in exactly this way, saying, “it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account” (Luke 1:3).

Aware that he was about to do something different, Luke spoke of the earlier efforts of those who had “taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us.” Of this group, which certainly included Mark, Luke was not critical, because they too had relied on “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and
ministers of the word” (1:1–2).

Luke was aware he was embarking on a venture new to Christian literature, and I believe a close, critical study of his work will show what he had in mind to do.

Acts 24:10-21: The opening sentence of Paul’s rebuttal is an exercise in irony that may, without exaggeration, be paraphrased as follows: “Well, there you have it, your Honor, you already know what these Jews are like, so you surely are not impressed by these trumped up accusations.”

In the course of Paul’s argument we learn that only twelve days have elapsed since his arrival in Jerusalem, a sum attained simply by the compound of seven (21:27) and five (24:1).

Explaining that he has come to Jerusalem solely as a pilgrim (“to worship” in 21:11) and to bring aid for the poor (21:17), Paul makes three points by way of “defense” (apologoumai in 21:10): First, no witnesses have testified to the charges brought against him (24:12-13,19). Second, he is, and has always lived as, a loyal, religious Jew. This is a scoring point, which Paul emphasizes by mentioning the Law and prophets (24:14). Because the Sadducees do not accept the prophetic books of the Bible as canonical, Paul is appealing once again to the judgment of the Pharisees. Third, Paul shares in the hope of the resurrection of the dead, a standard doctrine taught by the Pharisees (24:15,21) and which he himself had proclaimed before the Sanhedrin. As in his earlier appearance before that body, Paul is endeavoring to draw attention to an internal doctrinal split among his accusers.

Sunday, September 1

Luke 3:21-2: Luke’s account account of Jesus’ baptism is contained in a single, condensed, and tightly constructed sentence, six details of which seem especially worthy of attention:

First, John the Baptist is not mentioned in the scene at all; Luke, having already spoken of John’s arrest (Luke 3:20), leaves him out of the baptismal story completely.

Second, the baptism itself is not Luke’s central concern. Indeed, it has already happened and is mentioned only in a subordinate expression: “having been baptized.” Luke’s focus is directed, not to the baptism, but to Jesus’ experience of the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Third, Jesus’ baptism is not isolated from that of the other people: “. . . when all the people were baptized . . .” The evangelist’s stress on this point indicates Jesus’ solidarity with the rest of humanity.

This emphasis is important to Luke’s theology of the Incarnation. In the immediate context, Jesus’ organic solidarity with the human race is addressed by Luke’s inclusion—immediately after the baptism—of the Savior’s genealogy, in which his ancestry is traced all the way back to Adam (Luke 3:23-38). In other words, the mention of “the people,” in this baptismal scene, pertains to Luke’s larger interest in the humanity of Jesus: He is at one with the whole human race, descended from the fallen Adam.

Fourth, only Luke speaks of the Savior at prayer in the baptismal story: “. . . Jesus—having been baptized—was praying . . .” This is the first of many times Luke describes Jesus communing with God as other human beings commune with God—namely, by prayer.

Fifth, Luke emphasizes the visible way the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus: “. . . the Holy Spirit, in bodily form [somatiko eidei] like a dove, came down upon him . . .”

Although Luke has already made the activity of the Holy Spirit thematic in his version of the Gospel, a particular theological note attends the Spirit’s appearance here in the baptismal scene—namely, the baptism is portrayed as Jesus’ public anointing by the Holy Spirit. Jesus will soon speak of this “anointing,” when, in the first words of his public ministry—and quoting the Book of Isaiah—he announces, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, / Because He has anointed me” (4:16; Isaiah 61:1).

The Spirit’s baptismal anointing of Jesus is theologically decisive for Luke. It is, in fact, the chronological starting point of the apostolic message (cf. Acts 1:21-22). In respect to Jesus’ baptismal anointing, moreover, Luke will later quote St. Peter’s assertion that the Gospel itself “began from Galilee after the baptism which John preached: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” (Acts 10:37-38 emphasis added).

Sixth, in Luke’s version of the baptism—as in Mark’s—the voice of the Father addresses Jesus directly. It does so twice: “You are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased.” We take note of the vigorously repeated I/you structure.

The proclamation of Jesus’ sonship hardly comes as “news” to Luke’s readers, of course, who recall the announcement of Gabriel to Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).

Monday, September 2

Acts 25:1-12: The substance of Paul’s defense (apologoumenou) in this section is that he has violated no law, whether of the Jewish religion or of the Roman Empire (25:8). His accusers, moreover, have not met their burden of proof (25:7). Festus, however, unwilling to offend the Jewish leadership so early in his administration, proposes a compromise: a trial at Jerusalem, over which the governor himself would preside (25:9).

Paul will have none of this compromise. He already stands before an imperial court as a Roman citizen; why should he forego that privilege in order to expose himself to a Jewish lynch mob? Therefore, he appeals his case to Rome. It is worth noting, in verse 11, Paul’s explicit recognition of the state’s proper authority to use the death penalty, the “right of the sword” (jus gladii), on certain classes of criminals. This position is identical to the one earlier espoused by Paul in Romans 13:1-4.

Accordingly, the Christian Church, even when discouraging recourse to capital punishment in practice (in the Byzantine Empire, for instance), has always recognized, as a matter of clear principle, the state’s God-given, biblically affirmed authority to put certain criminals to death.

The response of Festus, taken with counsel, accedes to Paul’s legal appeal to a higher court (25:12).

Psalms 15 (Greek & Latin 14): This psalm man puts to God that most essential and burdened of questions: “Lord, who will abide in Your tabernacle, or who shall rest on Your holy mountain?” A first feature of this query is A first feature to be noted about this repeated query is the implied supposition that there really does exist some kind of moral program to be followed. That is to say, this is an ethical inquiry by which man seeks to identify the nature of the dark, haunting, and native imperative that stalks his soul. Man cannot help but sense that, in order to abide in God’s tabernacle and to rest on His holy mountain, there truly is something that he must “do.”

Another feature of this query is its implication of an ascent. God’s tabernacle is to be found on His holy mountain, and mountains must be mounted. If the goal described is one of abiding and resting, the process thereto is called climbing: “Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord?” The same haunting sense that prompts the inquiry also informs man that he is supposed to scale to that pinnacle, and he requests directions thereto: “Which way is up?”

Tuesday, September 3

Joshua 22: After wandering in the Sinai and Negev deserts for most of a generation, the people of Israel had now arrived at a place called Shittim, just east of the Jordan River and only about ten miles from Jericho. Then came a new crisis.

It was a moral crisis, involving some Israelite men of slack discipline with certain Moabite women of relaxed virtue. Fornication was the problem, that term understood both literally and in the figurative sense of their falling prey to the idolatrous worship of the Moabite god, Baal of Peor (Numbers 25:1-3).

The seduction of these Israelites, moreover, was not a mere boy-meets-girl happenstance. It resulted, rather, from a deliberate machination on the part of the Moabites, plotting to weaken the military resolve and moral will of the Israelites. Indeed, there is reason to believe that the scheme had been concocted in the mind of the religious philosopher Balaam, who was at that time in the service of the Moabite king (cf. Revelation 2:14).

Seeing it happen, the young priest Phineas discerned the peril of the hour, for an earlier experience had taught him the hazards of moral compromise. If he was sure of anything at all, Phineas was certain that God’s punishment of sin was invariably decisive and might very well be swift.

Phineas had been hardly more than a child when he saw the divine retribution visited on two of his priestly uncles, Nadab and Abihu, for a single offense in the service of God. Nor had those been insignificant men who were thus punished. On the contrary, Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron and his heirs in the priesthood, were men of stature and respect among the people. They had accompanied Moses, their very uncle, as he began his climb of Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:1), and had partly shared in his vision of the divine glory (24:9-10). Nonetheless, Nadab and Abihu had been instantly struck dead, devoured by a fire from the divine presence for just one moral lapse (Leviticus 10:1-3). The memory of that swift retribution had seared itself into the memory of young Phineas. He knew by experience that Israel’s Lord was a morally serious God, not some feather of a deity to be brushed away at one’s convenience.

At the time of the Moabite crisis, then, the reaction of Phineas was utterly decisive and equally swift. Responding to the Lord’s decree to punish the offenders (Numbers 25:4-6), he resolutely took the matter in hand and thus put an end to the divine wrath already plaguing the people (25:7-15). For his part in averting the evil, Phineas came to enjoy great respect in Israel. Not long afterwards, for instance, he was the priest chosen to accompany the army advancing against the Midianites (Numbers 31:6). After the Conquest, Phineas inherited land among the Ephraemites (cf. Joshua 24:33) and continued to be consulted by Israel, especially in times of crisis (cf. Judges 20:28). He would be remembered throughout the rest of biblical history, furthermore, as the very model of zeal in God’s service (cf. Psalms 105 [106]:30; 1 Chronicles 9:20; Sirach 45:23).

If we knew only of Phineas’s decisive action at the time of the Moabite trouble, it might be easy to think of him solely as an energetic, resolute, executive sort of man, but this would be an incomplete perspective. Phineas was also a thoughtful person, able to consider a delicate question in its fully nuanced complexities.

This latter trait of his character was revealed in the crisis later created by the construction of an altar to the east of the Jordan River by the Israelites who lived in that region (Joshua 22:10). Regarded as a rival altar outside of the strict confines of the Holy Land, this construction proved so provocative to the rest of Israel that there arose the real danger of civil war (22:12). Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and the decision was made to establish an eleven-member committee of inquiry to investigate the matter. Phineas was the head of that committee (22:13-14).

Probing into the construction of that altar, Phineas’s committee concluded that it was not intended to be used as such, but would serve merely as a monument to remind all the Israelites of their solidarity in the worship of their one God. Civil war was thus averted, and Phineas, once so swift unto bloodshed, was thus in large measure responsible for preventing it (22:21-34).

Wednesday, September 4

Acts 26:1-11: There is a sense in which the present speech of Paul is the high point of Luke’s account of his ministry. Containing the third narrative of Paul’s conversion, it will represent a fulfillment of a prophecy contained in the first narrative (9:15), namely, he will now appear before a king. Paul’s apologetics (apologeito in verse 1, apoplogeisthai in verse 2) in this speech is consonant with his legal defense hitherto, but he becomes more explicit about his faith and his conversion.

Legally Paul has nothing to lose, for his appeal to a higher court at Rome has already been granted. He will use the present circumstances as an opportunity, rather, to bear witness to the Gospel, which he treats as the fulfillment of the hope he had always cherished as a loyal Pharisee (verse 5; cf. 24:5; 28:22). That is to say, the hope of the resurrection (verse 8). At this point Paul begins to move from apologetics to evangelism. Paul continues recounting his own history, not omitting his earlier persecutions of Christians.

Psalms 38 (Greek & Latin 37): Although this may not be the happiest of psalms, it is exceedingly salubrious to the spirit. If its message can be summed up in one line, that line may well be David’s response to Nathan: “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Sin is the great solvent of our relationships both to God and to one another. As is clear in the accounts of the first sins (Gen. 3:11–13; 4:12), sin means isolation and alienation. Sin separates us, not only from God, but also from one another. Our psalm speaks of this isolation: “My loved ones and my friends stand aloof from my plague. And my relatives stand afar off.”

We are not talking about morbidity here. Contrition and sorrow in this psalm are accompanied by repeated sentiments of longing: “I groan because of the turmoil of my heart. Lord, all my desire is before You; and my sighing is not hidden from You. My heart pants, my strength fails me. . . . For in You, O Lord, I hope; You will hear, O Lord my God.”

Notwithstanding a widespread heresy 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. 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).

Thursday, September 5

Acts 26:12-32: Here we have the third and most elaborate account of Paul’s conversion and the only version that includes the detail about Paul’s “kicking against the goad,” a metaphor for resistance to divine grace. This item insinuates that Paul had already been feeling the pangs of conscience for his grievous mistreatment of Christians. It suggests, then, that Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus represented a sort of climax to a spiritual struggle already being waged in his own soul.

In this experience Paul was “grabbed” by Christ (Philippians 3:12), and a radical destiny was laid upon him (1 Corinthians 9:15-18). Like Ezekiel (2:1-2), he is told to stand on his feet (verse 16). Indeed, this account of Paul’s calling should be compared with the stories of the callings of several of the Old Testament prophets, chiefly Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. What Paul is called to preach is the fulfillment of all that the prophets wrote. Thus, various prophetic themes appear in this account of his call. For example, the metaphor of the opening of the eyes from darkness to light (cf. Isaiah 42:7,16). Paul clearly regards his ministry as a completion of the work of Moses and the prophets (verse 22).

When Paul mentions the resurrection, however, Festus believes that he has gone too far. Paul’s excessive study of literature (polla grammata) — that is to say, the Bible — has caused his mind to snap, Festus asserts, so that he can no longer distinguish between reality and fantasy. In this response of Festus we discern the reaction of the pagan world to this most Christian of doctrines — the resurrection. Greco-Roman culture, with its chronic disrespect for the material world (as evidenced, for example, in the pagan custom of cremating dead bodies), would have scanty respect for the doctrine of the resurrection, which takes so seriously the holiness inherent in the human body sanctified by the Holy Spirit. The situation is not so different today.

Faced by a pagan unfamiliar with belief in the resurrection, Paul turns to Agrippa for a more sympathetic hearing. However, when Paul, answering what seems to be something of a jest on the king’s part, invites him to become a Christian, the king becomes uncomfortable, and the hearing is abruptly ended.

Psalms 37 (Greek & Latin 36): This psalm has close ties to the Bible’s Wisdom tradition. If it were not part of the Psalter, we would expect to find it in Proverbs or one of the other Wisdom books. It appears to be a kind of discourse given by a parent to a child, or a wise man to a disciple. It is full of sound and godly counsel: “Fret not thyself because of evildoers . . . Trust in the Lord and do good . . . Cease from anger and forsake wrath . . . Wait on the Lord and keep His way,” and so forth. Such admonitions, along with the psalm’s allied warnings and promises, are stock material of the Wisdom literature.

Friday, September 6

Acts 27:1-12: Festus, now confident that he can send Paul to Rome with precise instructions to the legal system there, hands him over to guards for the journey. This trip to Rome, which will fill the two final chapters of the book, is the point to which the literary tension of the Acts of the Apostles has been building. This is the journey that matches the Aeneid of Vergil, for Rome is the goal of both books. Paul’s going to Rome is a matter of his destiny (cf. 19:21). Accordingly, Luke’s inclusion of so many nautical details obliges the reader to slow down and savor the significance of the event.

In this final voyage Paul will be accompanied by Aristarchus and Luke (verses 2-3), who had helped him bring the alms to Jerusalem over two years earlier (20:4,6), and who have been with him at Caesarea since that time (Colossians 4:10,14; Philemon 24).

They board a ship whose homeport is Adramyttium, just south of Troas, or Troy, from where Aeneas had set sail for Rome. Luke’s inclusion of this detail is thus significant. Leaving Phoenicia, they cruise along the east and north sides of Cyprus, against strong head winds (verse 4), and then go north to Asia Minor. The ship is obviously returning to its home port. At the city of Myra, on the south coast of Asia Minor, they change to an Alexandrian ship bound for Italy. It was perhaps a grain cargo ship, so many of which brought wheat to Rome at a fraction of the cost of transporting grain overland to Rome from elsewhere in Italy. Still fighting contrary winds, they make their way to Salmone on the northeastern tip of Crete, a port well known to ancient navigators (cf. Strabo, Geography 10.3.20; Pliny, Natural History 4.58.71).

The “Fair Havens” they reach on the south coast of Crete is still known by that name in Greek, Kali Limenes. In verse 9 Luke informs us that the Feast of the Atonement, or Yom Kippur, had already passed. If, as we are justified in suspecting, this was the year 59, then the Day of Atonement was October 5. That is to say, they were approaching the winter season when sailing on the Mediterranean was considered unsafe (November 11 to February 8 [Pliny] or March 10 [Josephus]). Phoenix, where they hope to winter, lies some forty miles further west on the south side of Crete (verse 12).

Judges 1: The Book of Judges begins with the word “and,” indicating that it forms a kind of continuation of the Book of Joshua.

The character known as Adoni Bezek (verses 4-7) had ruled over seventy other kings. This number, when referring to nations, symbolizes international power. Thus, we find seventy nations named in the Bible’s first list of the nations (Genesis 10), and it was for this reason that Jesus, empowering His apostles for universal ministry to the whole world, numbered them at seventy (Luke 10). Hence, the defeat of Adoni Bezek, the ruler over seventy nations, is of a kind of international significance.

Judah, in defeating Adoni Bezek, symbolically frees these seventy nations, a fact of great theological significance. The oppressor of these nations is slain at Jerusalem (verse 8), where God will, in due course, defeat by the power of the Cross those demonic forces of which Adoni Bezek is both an instrument and a symbol.