January 31 – February 7, 2019

Friday, January 31

Hebrews 12:18-29: The author of Hebrews outlines a contrast between two mountains: Sinai and Zion—the mountain of the Law and the mountain of the Temple, or the covenant with Moses and the covenant with David.

A similar contrast between these two mountains—Sinai and Zion—was made by St. Paul, much to the same effect: “For these are two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar—for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children—but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all” (Galatians 4:24-26).

In both texts—Galatians and Hebrews—there is a contrast between the bondage of the Law and the boldness of the Christian. With respect to this contrast, St. Paul writes, “you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:7). In both cases, we observe, Mount Zion is called the heavenly Jerusalem: According to Galatians, “the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.” According to Hebrews, “you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.”

One suspects that this contrast between Mount Sinai and Mount Zion may have been a rhetorical trope in early Christian preaching. This suggestion would explain why we find it in both Galatians and Hebrews, in spite of the great differences between these two works. This contrast is used in both places and adapted to the theme of each work.

Here in Hebrews, the two mountains are contrasted with respect to what we may call “comfort”: Mount Sinai provokes fear and trembling, whereas Mount Zion inspires boldness, or parresia. In Hebrews, this word describes the spirit in which believers have access to God.

Thus, we read earlier of Christ as “as a Son over His own house, whose house we are if we hold fast the parresia and the rejoicing of a firm hope” (3:6). Or again, “Let us therefore come with parresia to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4:16). There is an irony in this verse: We might imagine that the way to obtain mercy is not to demonstrate too much boldness. On the contrary, says Hebrews, boldness is the path to mercy!

Mount Sinai inspired a sense of awe and fear, even to the point of cringing. The author of Hebrews will have no cringing Christians. They are to approach God’s presence in a bold and confident spirit. He wrote earlier, “Therefore, brethren, having parresia to enter the Holy of Holies by the blood of Jesus . . . let us draw near with a true heart in the full certainty of faith” (10:19,22). In this text we observe that Christian boldness comes from Christian “certainty”—plerophoria.

Saturday, February 1

Matthew 9:14-17: The terms of the question about fasting point to a feature that distinguished the disciples of Jesus from the followers of John the Baptist. In due course the followers of John the Baptist were absorbed into the Christian Church, a process of which we see evidence in the New Testament itself, notably the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel according to John, and it seems likely that the final stages of this assimilation may have been contemporary with the composition of Matthew.

In His response to the question, Jesus makes it clear that the Christian freedom from fasting was a very temporary arrangement, entirely limited to the time of His earthly ministry, and we know that even prior to the end of the first century the Christian Church had already established Wednesday and Friday each week as fast days. This arrangement would distinguish the Christians from the Pharisaic Jews, who faster on Mondays and Thursdays.

Leviticus 12:1-8: This reading from Leviticus is assigned because of its obvious relevance to tomorrow’s feast.

Among all the purification rules in Leviticus, those contained in this shortest chapter of the book are probably the most offensive to modern sensibilities. It is very difficult for us today to think of childbirth as “defiling.”

If we look a bit more deeply into the subject, however, the meaning of these prescriptions will become clearer. The defilement involved here has to do with the shedding of blood, which is normal in childbirth. It is the impurity of the bloodshed that must be purified.

This point will perhaps be clearer if we remember how we speak of “purifying” the chalice after everyone has received Holy Communion. We use this expression even though what must be “purified” from the Eucharistic chalice is the blood of Christ! That is to say, the word “purification,” used in a ritual context, does not necessarily mean that something is dirty. The woman is no more “defiled” by childbirth than the chalice is defiled by the Blessed Sacrament. In matters of ritual, the word “purify” means something different.

We recall that the last of the Queen Mothers of Judah was subject to the prescriptions contained in this chapter (Luke 2:22-24). The Holy Family being poor, the redemption in this case was effected by two small birds, not by the customary lamb (verse 8; Exodus 13:2,12; Nehemiah 10:36).

Sunday, February 2

Haggai 2:1-9: This oracle, which Haggai delivered on October 5, 520 BC, is appropriate for today’s remembrance of the Messiah’s first visit to the Temple.

The twentieth day of the month Tishri was the fifth day of the week called the Feast of Tabernacles (cf. Leviticus 23:34), In the year 520 the festival was especially significant, because God’s people had begun to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, a replacement for the temple destroyed by the Babylonians sixty-six years earlier.

As they rebuilt it, however, a very disappointing fact was becoming clear to the people — namely, that this new structure, when finally completed, was going to be pretty small, because the people had nowhere near the financial resources available to Solomon when he had constructed the first temple four centuries earlier. Like the men who were building it, this new temple would be poor (verse 3; cf. Ezra 3:12-13).

Nonetheless, said Haggai, this new house of God would be adorned, in due course, with silver and riches from around the world (verses 7-9). A literal translation of verse 7 from the Hebrew (“I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of the nations will come in”) makes perfect sense, meaning that Jews from all over the world, coming to the new temple on pilgrimage, would continue to adorn and expand it until “the glory of the latter house would outshine that of the former.”

However, the ancient Christian Latin translation of this verse (reflected, curiously, in the King James Version), reads, et veniet Desideratus cunctis gentibus, which means, “and He who is desired by the nations will come.” This translation is echoed, of course, in the final verse of the old Veni Emmanuel hymn adapted from the “O Antiphons” of Advent, “O Come, Desire of nations, bind / in one the hearts of all mankind.” That is to say, the new temple of Haggai’s era was the very temple into which Jesus, the One desired by the nations, would enter—today, forty days after Christmas.

Psalm 24: The Lord’s entrance into the Temple, the subject of today’s feast, foreshadows His later entrance into the heavenly tabernacle, the shrine not made-by-hands. The King of Glory comes to the entrance of heaven with the blood of the conflict still fresh upon Him (cf. Is. 63:1–6; Rev. 19:13), and a kind of dialogue takes place as the angels call for the opening of the portcullis at the approach of the returning Warrior: “Lift up your heads, O you gates! And be lifted up, you everlasting doors! And the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.”

Monday, February 3

Luke 2:41-52: Although the story of Jesus lost and found in the Temple is chiefly significant for its Christological import, its narrative structure, as I remarked before, conveys the “action” through the eyes and understanding of Mary. Luke invites us to take this approach in his final comment: “His mother continued to keep all these things in her heart.” Indeed, unless the reader approaches the story through Mary’s perception, he will miss much of its drama.

We observe, first, that the lost-ness in the story is objective: Jesus is not lost in the sense that he does not know where he is, but in the sense that he is missing—his mother did not know where He is. We readers, too, part company with Jesus in this scene: Until his parents find him, we don’t know where he is either. The story’s movement is advanced by what Mary and Joseph do: “When they had finished the days, as they returned, the boy Jesus lingered behind in Jerusalem. And Joseph and his mother did not know; but supposing him to have been in the company, they went a day’s journey, and sought him among relatives and friends. So when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking him.”

The narrative action, taking us readers along with it, first moves north. The storyteller and his readers travel towards Galilee with Mary and Joseph. The evangelist speaks of their worried search, though he does not directly mention their anxiety—indeed, it is made explicit only by Mary herself in the closing dialogue (Luke 2:48)—because the anxiety is implied in the details of the search.

Not finding the boy Jesus after a day’s journey, Mary and Joseph return south to Jerusalem—and we go back with them, of course—to continue their pursuit in the same place they last saw Jesus: “Now so it was that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions.” Jesus, we all discover, is the center of attention: “And all who heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.”

The boy’s parents are bewildered: “So when they saw him,” writes Luke, “they were amazed.” Every parent comprehends their amazement: This was the child they had raised for a dozen years. Yet, he did not accompany them back home after the Passover, as he had done on every prior trip. Mary and Joseph searched for him frantically, but even when they find him, the child displays not the slightest remorse or concern for their anxiety. The mother of Jesus finds this insouciance on the part of her twelve-year old a bit more than she is disposed to accept without complaint: “Son, why have you done this to us? Look, your father and I have sought you anxiously.”

Then, the boy, instead of apologizing and promising it will not happen again, turns the question back on his mother: “Why did you seek me? Did you not know that I must be about the things of my Father?” From any other twelve-year old, this kind of answer would be called “back talk” and treated as impertinent.

I suspect, by-the-by, that Jesus’ answer to Mary was a sort of continuation of his discussion with the rabbis. Recall that Jesus, when his parents discover him in the Temple, has been engaged (for three days, apparently) in discourses with the rabbis; he has been asking them questions and answering theirs. In other words, Jesus has been engaged in a pedagogical and rhetorical method where a favored device is the “counter-question”—the answering of a question by a further and more probing inquiry. We find this style of debate frequently in rabbinic literature and in the gospels.

The boy Jesus, then, so recently exposed to this pedagogical and rhetorical method here in the Temple, spontaneously has recourse to it in order to answer his mother. When she inquires, “Why have you done this?” He responds with a counter-question, “Why did you seek me? Did you not know?”

No, as a matter of fact, Mary did not know, nor did she and Joseph find much reassurance in this brief dialogue with Jesus. Luke tells us, “But they did not understand the statement which he spoke to them” (2:50). Then, the three of them return to Nazareth—in silence, one suspects.

Mary is portrayed as “anxious”—her own word—amazed and confused. Considered from her perspective—as Luke clearly intends—the story is most noticeable as a test of Mary’s faith.

The angel Gabriel had spoken to her nearly thirteen years earlier, when she was perhaps half of her present age. At that time, indeed, she may not have been much older than Jesus was when they found him in the Temple. From that day when the angel visited her, it appears, Mary has understood rather little of what transpired. Like Abraham her father, she followed God’s will in faith but can hardly guess where it was all leading. She walked obediently, day by day, not knowing whither she went.

Luke’s story, which chronicles Jesus’ growth in wisdom, is told here through the person who witnessed that growth, and was obliged, in a very personal way, to explore its meaning. It was certainly from her that Luke learned the facts of the case.

Tuesday, February 4

Hebrews 13:18-25: These verses contain a formulaic benediction that gives finality to the discourse. It introduces two ideas that are not explicit or elaborated in the work itself.

The first of these “new” ideas is that of Jesus as the Shepherd: “that great Shepherd of the sheep.” Whereas the Epistle to the Hebrews is rich in its development of Christological titles—such as Son of God, High Priest, Mediator, Author of the faith, and so on—it does not otherwise speak of Jesus as Shepherd. Nor does our author otherwise describe Christians as sheep. These images, which are introduced, without elaboration, right at the end, remain thematically separate from the core collection of the book’s Christological and ecclesiological motifs. It is reasonable, therefore, to think of these images as simply borrowed from the early Church’s standard forms of closing benediction. As matters of theme, we would associate them especially with the Gospel of St. John.

The second “new” idea is the Resurrection: “the God of peace who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead.” Except for the brief mention of Isaac’s restoration to Abraham in 11:19, Hebrews does not otherwise speak of the Lord’s Resurrection. On the contrary, his Christological and soteriological emphasis is consistently placed on the Lord’s Ascension into heavenly glory. That is to say, the sudden reference to the Resurrection, at the work’s very end, is better explained as coming from a common benediction in use among the early Christians.

What should be said about the expression “blood of the everlasting covenant” in this benediction? Certainly Hebrews earlier speaks of “the blood of the covenant” (10:29), and it is definitely a theme elaborated in the course of this work. These considerations are not strong evidence, however, that the author of Hebrews is also the author of the closing benediction. The expression ‘blood of the covenant” is hardly limited to the Epistle to the Hebrews (cf. Matthew 26:28 and parallels).

This benediction is followed by a brief postscript, in which the author asks that the recipients “Greet all those who rule over you, and all the saints.” These “rulers”—hegoumenoi—are those who govern the Church. They had been referenced earlier in this same chapter: “Obey those who rule over you”—peisthesthe tois hegoumenois hymon.” They are the ones who “watch out for your souls, as those who must give account” (verse 17).

The postscript sends greetings from “those from Italy.” This likely means that the work itself was sent from Italy, and it is commonly likened to other early Roman Christian literature, particularly to the letter that Clement of Rome sent to Corinth toward the end of the first century. If this is the case, it may explain why the Epistle to the Hebrews is not found in the Muratorian Fragment, our first list of the New Testament canon at Rome.

Wednesday, February 5

Romans 1:1-17: Paul’s eloquent introduction (verses 1-7) is easily the longest, most elaborate, and most detailed in all his writings. This feature reflects the fact that Romans, unlike Paul’s earlier letters to Thessaloniki, Galatia, Philippi, and Corinth, was not composed for the purpose of addressing questions and problems of the congregation to which it was sent. Although Paul evidently had several friends in Rome (as we see in the greetings sent to many individuals in chapter 16), this epistle does not show the Apostle familiar with the specific situation of the church in that city nor intent on dealing with particular problems there.

Paul’s name is the only one that appears as an author of this epistle, even though he actually dictated it to Tertius (16:22). We may contrast this feature with Paul’s earlier inclusion of Timothy, Silvanus, and Sosthenes as joint “authors” (1 Corinthians 1:1; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Philippians 1:1, 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1) and his later inclusion of Timothy in the letter to the Colossians (1:1).

In the initial greeting we observe its emphasis on Christology, its avowal of the historical Jesus, “born of the seed of David according to the flesh,” and the Christ of faith, “declared [horisthentos, not “predestined” or prooristhentos] to be Son of God with power.” These are two descriptions of the same Jesus Christ, of course, along with the recognition that His resurrection from the dead (verse 4) is the historical fact manifesting and demonstrating His true identity (cf. Acts 2:34-36; 1 Corinthians 15:45; Philippians 3:10).

Paul’s reference to “the obedience to the faith” (verse 5) is more literally translated as “the obedience of faith” (hyupakoe pisteos), an appositional genitive (“the obedience which is faith”) indicating that faith is active, not simply passive; it is commitment and not just reception (cf. 10:17; 16:26). It is not a mere assent of the intellect but a dedication of the heart.

The Gospel means both “salvation” (soteria) and “righteousness” (dikaiosyne), a pairing that is common in Holy Scripture (cf. Psalms 98 [97]:2; Isaiah 45:21; 51:5-8; 56:1; 61:10-11). The Good News is not a simple message, even less a religious philosophy; it is “the power of God” (dynamis Theou). It is God’s power working through His word, giving godly shape to history (1 Corinthians 2:4; 4:20).

In the Epistle to the Romans, the “salvation” effected by God’s power in the Gospel most often refers to a future reality (5:9-10; 8:24; 10:8,13; 11:11,26; 13:11) rather than an accomplished fact. That is to say, in this epistle salvation something to which Christians look forward rather than something they have already received. Paul’s perspective on this point will shift somewhat over the next two years (cf. Ephesians 2:8).

The Gospel reveals God’s reconciliation of man to Himself (verse 17), a reconciliation without which man is the object of the divine wrath (verses 18 and following). The righteousness of God (3:5,21,22,25,26; 10:3) is the divine quality and act by which He renders men righteous. This is what the Gospel reveals.

The expression “from faith to faith” seems to mean “through faith and for the sake of faith.” That is to say, salvation pertains to faith, from beginning to end. This is how the justified man lives.

Thursday, February 6

Romans 1:18-32: In order to assess the “power” (dynamisI) of the Gospel, Paul now describes the human state without the Gospel. Neither Judaism nor classical paganism, the Apostle argues, whatever their other accomplishments, have been able to attain or preserve moral integrity. If the Jew, enlightened by God’s Law, has been unable to do this (as Paul will argue in chapter 2), much less could the Greek or Roman.

Paul begins with these pagans, providing a stunning description of the depravity of his age. This description is colored by Paul’s perception as a Jew (indeed, we note his interjection of a standard Jewish doxology in verse 25), because his comments coincide with the assessment that other Jews of antiquity rendered with respect to paganism. In these lines of the epistle, we hear the voice of the Maccabees two and a half centuries earlier. Paul, like most Jews of his time, regarded the pagan world as “abandoned,” “handed over,” “forsaken” by God (verses 24,26,28).

The moral depravity of the age was a revelation (apokalyptetai) of the divine wrath against idolatry (verse 18; Isaiah 30:27-33). Following the argument in the Book of Wisdom (Wisdom of Solomon) 13:1-9, Paul insists that “something” about God is knowable in the works of Creation (verses 19-20). Indeed, this something is not only knowable, it is also “known” (to gnostonI), so that man is inexcusable in not recognizing it.

Paul is not talking here about a personal knowledge of God, which requires faith (cf. Hebrews 11:3,5-6; 1 Corinthians 1:21), but a factual knowledge of God’s existence and certain of His predicates (verse 20; Acts 14:15-17). Such factual knowledge about God is ineluctable except to those who have completely blinded their hearts (verse 21; Ephesians 4:17). These latter refuse to acknowledge what they cannot help knowing. Therefore, they decline to praise God or to thank Him, turning instead to false gods (verse 23; Psalms 106 [105]:20; Deuteronomy 4:16-18). These are gods of their own making, to whom, they are aware, they will never have to render an account

This idolatrous darkening of the heart begins with the entertainment of deceptive thoughts (verse 21), but it soon finds expression in man’s very body. It leads directly to sexual immorality (verse 24; Wisdom 14:22-27). That is to say, the mendacity and illusions of the human mind produce a mendacity and illusion in the human flesh, and this corporeal untruthfulness, this fleshly illusion, is the very essence of homosexuality. Those unable to recognize the intelligent design of nature can hardly be expected to honor the most elementary markings of the human body (verses 26-28).

Friday, February 7

Romans 2:1-16: Having described the moral failings of paganism, Paul now turns to the Jews. Woe to them if they pass judgment (verse 1), because they too have failed to measure up. Jew and Greek stand before God on level ground, in fact (verses 9-10). The Jew’s possession of the Torah, in which God reveals His moral will, is no guarantee that the Jew is superior to the Greek (verses 12-16).

Here Paul twice addresses the Jew as “man,” anthropos (verses 1,3), indicating that he too is of the common clay, an heir of Adam, that first and fallen anthropos. Jewish blood is no guarantee of moral superiority over other men (cf. Matthew 3:8; John 8:39; Galatians 2:15). The Jew too, says Paul, is called to repentance, metanoia (verse 4; Wisdom 11:23), because his own heart is just as “impenitent” (verse 5).

In this epistle, the theme of which is justification through faith, the Apostle insists that the Lord “will render to each man according to his deeds” (literally “works,” erga—verse 6; Psalms 62 [61]:13; Proverbs 24:12), and he goes on to speak of “the patience of good work” (verse 7). Even this early in the epistle, then, Paul closes the door to any antinomian interpretation of it.

Those who do good works are said to be seeking (zetousin) “glory and honor and incorruptibility” (verse 7). This incorruptibility, aphtharsia, is to be contrasted with the corruption of death, introduced into the world by sin (5:12).

The translation of the word aphtharsia as “immortality” (as in the KJV) is misleading, because immortality suggests something immaterial and essentially spiritual (as when we speak of “the immortality of the soul”). Aphtharsia, in contrast, refers in this context to the spiritual transformation of matter itself, of which the formal and defining example is the resurrected body of Christ. “Incorruptibility” is a property of the risen flesh of the Christian (1 Corinthians 15:42,50,53,54). Introduced into human experience by the resurrection of Christ, this incorruptibility reverses the power of death. Indeed, the resurrection of the body is the final act in man’s salvation and the great object of his hope. (This is also the reason why, as we have seen, sentences about “salvation” normally appear in this epistle in the future tense. The fullness of salvation comes in the resurrection of our bodies.)

To those who are seeking salvation Paul contrasts those who are only seeking themselves, searching for some kind of self-fulfillment (eritheia) outside of God’s will (verse 8).

In verse 10 Paul returns to the importance of good works (literally “working the good”—ergazomenos to agathon). Salvation through faith is not for the lazy. Grace is free, but it is not cheap.