April 17 – April 24, 2020

Friday, April 17

1 Peter 1:13-25: This section is an invitation to hope (verses 13,21). Christian hope is sustained by a twofold consideration. First, it is inspired by the final goal of the life in Christ (verses 13-17), and second, by the initial grace of the life in Christ (verses 18-21).

With respect to the first, hope is directed to the final “revelation of Jesus Christ,” his “being made visible” (apokalypsis—verses 7,13; 4:13). Relying “completely” (teleios) on this hope, believers refuse to conform to the deeds of their past, aware of their responsibility to be holy, even as God is holy (verses 14-16; Leviticus 19:2; 18:1-5,30; Clement of Rome, To the Corinthians 29.1—30.1).

In the New Testament the expression “be not conformed” (me syschematizesthe, in which we observe the English word “schema”) is found only here (verse 14) and in Romans 12:2—“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (We observe in passing that both of these works are associated with the church at Rome.) No less than the Chosen People of old, Christians are called to be a holy people in the midst of an unholy world. The latter is characterized by “ignorance” and “passions” (verse 14). We may compare this passage with 1 Thessalonians 4:5—“not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God.”

Christians are reminded that God’s judgment discerns the difference between His “holy ones” (“saints”) and the world (verse 17). In view of this divine discernment, Christians are to be ever mindful of the coming judgment (Romans 14:10-11; 1 Corinthians 3:12-15; 4:4; 2 Corinthians 5:10-11). Christian hope is not without this appropriate “fear” (en phobo—verse 17; cf. 2:18; 3:2,16; Acts 9:31).

Ezekiel 7: If the Bible likens good to a seed that grows, develops, and matures, the same is likewise true of evil. Like the enemy that Jesus described as sowing tares among the wheat, Ezekiel says that Israel is about to behold the blossoming and fruit of many years of evil sowing.

The scene of the coming judgment portrayed in this chapter is marked by the same cataclysmic finality that characterizes Jesus’ own predictions of the fall of Jerusalem. The “land” of Israel cursed in this chapter is to be understood in a geographical, not just a political, sense. That is, the very earth is cursed, as the ground is cursed in Genesis 3. Drawn from the earth, man pollutes that source by his accumulated sins. God’s patience is immense, but, as it relates to times and seasons, it is not infinite. The end has come, says Ezekiel. When God is “fed up,” there is nothing in this earth that can prevail against His judgment.

Saturday, April 18

Matthew 28:16-20: I have long believed that the Missionary Mandate received by the Apostles in the closing verses of that Gospel is the best key to understanding it as a whole. That is to say, after reading Matthew all the way to its memorable ending, it is most instructive to take that ending as an interpretive guide and go back through the Gospel again, considering everything else in the light of it.

An easy way to do this, I suggest, is to reflect on Matthew’s Missionary Mandate with respect to structure, theme, and imagery.

First, in regard to structure, we observe that Matthew employs a method called inclusion, by which he begins and ends his work with a common element. Thus, the Jesus who is first declared in Matthew to be “God with us” (1:23) declares in the Gospel’s last verse, “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the world” (28:20 KJV).

Similarly, Matthew treats of baptism at both the beginning and the end of Jesus’ ministry. Following an inherited apostolic format that describes that ministry as “beginning from the baptism of John to the day when [the Lord Jesus] was taken up from us” (Acts 1:22), Matthew portrays the revelation of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit when Jesus is baptized by John (Matthew 3:16-17). Then, at the end of the Gospel, Jesus Himself speaks of baptism “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (28:19). Thus, the Trinitarian structure of baptism provides Matthew with the two end posts of his narrative frame.

Second, in regard to theme, Matthew finishes his work with the conversion of the world: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.” This call to the nations (ethne) summarizes a motif found often in Matthew (cf. 6:12; 12:18,21; 21:43; 24:14; 25:32). Even at Jesus’ birth the Magi, personifying those nations, came to adore Him (proskyneo—2:2,8,11). At the end, while His disciples are on the mountain adoring Him (proskyneo—28:17), Jesus sends them out to make disciples of those very nations.

Third, with respect to imagery, we observe that the Missionary Mandate is given on “the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them” (28:16). In Matthew the mountain is preeminently the place of authoritative revelation (15:29-30; 17:1-5; 24:3). Indeed, Jesus’ first major sermon in Matthew is delivered on a mountain (5:1; 8:1).

On an even earlier mountain Jesus is portrayed as rejecting Satan’s offer to give Him “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (4:8). Those same kingdoms appear at last on Matthew’s final mountain, where the Lord sends out His Apostles with the mandate to “make disciples of all the nations” (28:19). On Matthew’s first mountain Satan offered Jesus universal power. On his last mountain, Jesus commissions the Apostles to a universal evangelism founded in His own authority as the Son of Man prophesied by Daniel: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.”

Furthermore, this mountain, from which the nations (ethne) are to be evangelized, is found in Galilee (28:16; cf. 28:7), the very region that Matthew earlier identified as “Galilee of the nations” (ton ethnon—4:16). It was in that “Galilee of the nations” that Jesus began His own ministry (4:12), an early promise of the apostolic commission to extend discipleship to all the world.

Sunday, April 19

1 Peter 2:1-12: Peter places the pursuit of holiness in its full context, which is life in the Church. Christian holiness is essentially incorporation into Christ, which is the being of the Church. Life in Christ is a social life.

For this reason the Christian’s initial effort is to purify all his social communications (verse 1). Peter’s list of communicative vices contains several that pertain to insincerity, and, by way of countering this. Peter introduces the “genuine” milk appropriate to newborn children (verse 2). Indeed, Peter’s participle artigenneta means “just now born,” and their nourishment is associated with the new birth (1:3,23).

By means of this spiritual milk of Christian teaching, we “grow unto salvation” (avxsehete eis soterian). Salvation has to do with growth (cf. Mark 4:8,20; 2 Corinthians 10:15; Ephesians 4:15; Colossians 1:10). Few texts in the New Testament are more emphatic that salvation is the term of a growth, not a once-and-for-all event that is behind us. Salvation still lies before us (1:5,7,9). Drinking milk, therefore, is more than an obligation; it is a need.

Believers, having tasted this milk, know by experience that the “Lord is gracious” (verse 3; Psalms 34 [33]:9; Hebrews 6:5). In Greek this expression, chrestos ho Kyrios, differs in only one letter from “Christ is the Lord”—Christos ho Kyrios. The psalm cited here (Psalms 34, but 33 in the Greek and Latin texts used by the Church) has long been a favorite at the time of receiving Holy Communion (cf. Apostolic Constitutions 8.13.16; Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis 5.20; Jerome, Letters 71.6), nor is the imagination overly taxed to think that this may already have been the case at the time of St. Peter.

Ezekiel 9: The marking of the foreheads of the Remnant is a sort of renewal of the marking of the houses of the Chosen People in Egypt on Passover night.

Those thus marked will be spared on the day of wrath, for the simple reason that they “sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in Jerusalem.” Sometimes the just man is left so powerless in this world that all he can do, in the face of overwhelming evil, is “sigh and groan.” The temple offers no sanctuary from the punishment; those in the temple are the first to fall, because they have defiled God’s house. The divine judgment begins, then, not with the world, but with the household of God.

The seven heavenly figures — the scribe and the six executioners — are angelic figures representing God’s just will in what is about to transpire in Jerusalem. Revelation 7 is a very good text to read along with this chapter, which is surely in part its literary inspiration.

Monday, April 20

1 Peter 2:13-25: When we have turned to Christ and received His grace, being incorporated into His Church through the Sacraments, we still find ourselves living in the world. More specifically, we still find ourselves someplace in the structures of society, our obligations to that society not a whit diminished. Indeed, it may occur to us to inquire just how our responsibilities in society may be altered by our new status as Christian believers.
That is to say. How am I, now that I am a Christian, to live as a husband? Or as a wife? Does being a Christian lay some special obligations on me as a son or daughter, perhaps obligations of which I was not aware before? What are my duties, as a Christian, with respect to my being a buyer or seller, an employer or employee? Suppose, indeed, I am a slave. How, as a Christian slave, am I to be different than I was before? In fact, suppose I own slaves. What are my duties to them, whether they are Christian or not? All such concerns about one’s station in life fall under the heading that Martin Luther called Haustafel, “household code.”

Since Christians from the very beginning have struggled to understand how the Gospel affects their duties in whatever state they find themselves, it is not surprising, therefore, that early Christian pastors addressed such concerns at length. This is true of the Apostle Paul (Colossians 3:18—4:1; Ephesians 5:22—6:9; 1 Timothy 2:8-15; 6:1-2; Titus 2:1-10), Ignatius of Antioch (Polycarp 4.1—6.3), Polycarp of Smyrna (Philadelphians 4.2—6.3), and Clement of Rome (Corinthians 270-275,286-291). It also appears in standard pre-baptismal catechesis of the period (Didache 4.9-11; Pseudo-Barnabas 19.5-7).

This is the social setting for Peter’s treatment of the same theme in the section that we come to now. Even while we are sojourners in this world, he says (2:11), we are still citizens that have obligations to society and the government, including the emperor [Nero!] (verses 13-17). Some of us are servants, with obligations to our masters (verses 18-25). Some are wives, with duties to our homes and husbands (3:1-6), and others are husbands, responsible for the wellbeing of our wives (3:7).

Ezekiel 10: The wooden statues of the Cherubim, with their wings spread over the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies, were but symbols of the angels of the Presence, the heavenly Cherubim who serve to support the Throne of God.

Now Ezekiel sees these heavenly spirits themselves, and they are identical with the Four Living Creatures that he had beheld in his inaugural vision in Chapter 1, where they bore, as here, the Cloud of the divine Presence. They will appear again, of course, in Revelation 4.

The burning coals from within their whirling wheels, full of the divine holiness, are destructive of those whose brows have not been marked by the angelic scribe, who also appears again in this chapter.

Besides destroying the wicked, this divine fire purifies God’s loyal servants (cf. Isaiah 6:6f). As the chapter closes, the action moves to the east gate of the temple, facing the Mount of Olives. It is at this gate that Ezekiel will receive the two oracles in Chapter 11.

Tuesday, April 21

John 3:1-21: It is dark when Nicodemus comes to Jesus—he comes in out of the darkness: “This man came to Jesus by night.” He is not afraid of the light. He is one of those described in this text: “But he who does the truth comes to the light.” John thus continues a major theme: “the light shines in the darkness” (1:5).

He addresses Jesus with the title of teaching authority: “Rabbi,” the same title by which the disciples already addressed Jesus in 1:38. Clearly, Nicodemus has already made some positive judgment about Jesus. He may be one of those described in the previous chapter: “many trusted in His name, seeing His signs that He did.” (2:23).

And how does Jesus respond to the compliment of Nicodemus? He completely changes the subject and poses a challenge: “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, unless someone is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’”

This kind of response is typical of Jesus: He does not permit man’s religious concerns and questions set the agenda of His revelation to man. He is the Teacher, the didaskalos sent by God. The rest of us are simply pupils. Jesus does not confine His answers to the narrow limits of our poor questions.

Jesus speaks of being born anothen, a deliberately ambivalent expression, which means both “anew” and “from on high.” This birth has already been mentioned in John: “But to as many as received Him He gave the authority to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”

This birth, then, is twofold: It is new, and it is from on high. The subsequent question of Nicodemus touches only the first aspect—the newness of the birth, “rebirth”: ““How can a man be born when he is old? Is he able to enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

Ezekiel 11: The first oracle in this chapter addresses a slogan going around Jerusalem at the time, descriptive of the city’s coming destruction. The slaying of Jerusalem’s citizens, says the oracle, will ultimately be the fault of its leaders, not of the Babylonian besiegers. The latter are but instruments in the divine judgment.

The leaders back at Jerusalem planned big things for themselves, and their big plans are addressed in the second oracle. When Ezekiel and his other companions, including the cream of Jerusalem society and its most competent citizens, were taken hostage to Babylon in 597, some of those Israelites who remained in the Holy Land began to feel pretty good about their own prospects, now that the better rivals were gone. With respect to their brethren who had been carried away, they reflected: “Well, too bad for them, but that leaves more for us.”

The burden of this second oracle is to reassure those captives in Babylon that the Lord had not forgotten them and that He was determined to restore them. Indeed, it was on them that His coming blessings would fall, for their restoration is the substance of the great prophecy here about newness of heart, which becomes so important a theme in the New Testament (See especially Hebrews 8.)

As this chapter ends, the Cloud of the divine glory moves east onto the top of the Mount of Olives, and Ezekiel is restored to Babylon, where he narrates his visions and oracles to his companions in exile.

Wednesday, April 22

1 Peter 3:13-22: To be baptized into Christ is to be associated with His sufferings. As Christ was victorious over death by His Resurrection, so will be those who belong to Him. Baptism, because it unites believers with the Resurrection of Christ, is a pledge and promise of their own victory over death.

In verses 18-22 Peter speaks of Christ’s descent into hell, which took on so pronounced an emphasis in Christian faith and worship that it became an article in the Nicene Creed. Peter says that Christ “went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

The relationship of Christian Baptism to the Flood and Noah’s Ark, found here explicitly for the first time, became a common trope in Christian biblical exegesis:

“Righteous Noah, along with the other mortals at the Deluge, that is, with his own wife, with his three sons, and with their three wives, all of them being eight in number, were a symbol of the eighth day, whereon Christ appeared when He rose from thee dead, first in power forever. For Christ, being the firstborn of every creature, became again the head of another race regenerated by Himself through water, and faith, and wood, containing the mystery of Cross, even as Noah was saved by wood when he rode upon the waters with his family” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho 138).

“Just as the waters of the Deluge, by which the old iniquity was purged—after the baptism of the world, so to speak—a dove became the herald announcing to thee earth the softening of the heavenly wrath, when she had been sent away out of the Ark, and had returned carrying the olive branch, a sign that even among the pagans signifies peace, so by the selfsame law of the heavenly dispensation, there flies to the earth—that is to say, our flesh—as it emerges from the font, having put away its old sins, the dove of the Holy Spirit, bringing us the peace of God, sent forth from heaven, where is the Church, typified by the Ark” (Tertullian, On Baptism 8).

Ezekiel 12: Once again Ezekiel is charged to act out an elaborate pantomime as a message for his fellow Israelites in exile. Whereas the previous such actions, in Chapters 4-5, had to do with the destruction of Jerusalem and the sufferings of her citizens, the present instance is concerned with the experience of the coming new exile of those who still remained back home.

When his fellow exiles ask him, “What are you doing?” (12:9), Ezekiel responds with a stirring oracle by way of explanation: To those Jewish exiles already in Babylon who are imagining that they may soon be returning to the land of Judah, Ezekiel is stressing the point, “You think this is exile? You haven’t seen anything yet!”

He emphasizes in particular the suffering destined for Zedekiah, the King of Judah. Ezekiel’s walking with covered face (“that you may not see the land”) is an eerie prophecy of the day when the Babylonians would gouge out the eyes of Zedekiah, so that the execution of his sons would be the last thing he saw in this world before going into exile (2 Kings 25:4-7; Jeremiah 39:4-7; 52:7-11).

In verse 17 the prophet begins yet another pantomime, this one much simpler, and in verses 21-28 Ezekiel is charged to challenge two more cynical slogans popular at the time. These slogans, concerned with apparently unfulfilled prophecies, will lead into his condemnation of false prophets in the next chapter.

Thursday, April 23

John 4:1-14: The Evangelist John surely knew that woman’s name, just as he knew the names of the paralytic at the pool and the man born blind, because he narrates all of these one-on-one encounters with details that he could only have obtained from the individuals themselves. So John most certainly knew their names. His omission of those names in the stories, then, has literary significance, and we are probably right to suppose that we are dealing here with anonymity for the sake of reader identification. That is to say, each of us, as we ponder the text prayer-fully, becomes that paralytic, that blind man, and that woman at the well, encountering the Lord in the power of His Scriptures.

As an “every Christian” account, the story of the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well serves to illustrate certain distinct stages in the path of conversion.

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

We observe that this woman takes Jesus very literally when he speaks of “living water,”, very much as Nicodemus took the Lord’s words about being born again. She starts to imagine that Jesus has too high a view of Himself. We may observe that this is the second time Jesus has been compared to Jacob. Recall 1:51—“I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Ezekiel 13: This chapter contains an oracle against false prophets (13:2-16) and an oracle against false prophetesses (verses 17-23). The major problem with all such folk is that they “prophesy out of their own minds” and “follow their own spirit” and “divined a lie.” Thus, grave spiritual harm befalls those who listen to their fantasies and follow their counsels.

Even though a wall is just about to fall, says Ezekiel, they daub it with whitewash to make it look new and secure. Well, the whole thing is about to come down, he warns, in spite of the false hopes raised by false prophets.

In his oracle against the false prophetesses, Ezekiel speaks of wristbands and headbands (if these are, indeed, the things these rare Hebrew words mean), evidently the paraphernalia of their rituals and incantations. We should probably think of these women as fortune-tellers, the sort of charlatans that are still among us. The prophet’s point here is that this sort of thing is not harmless; foolish individuals, who probably need sound counsel for important decisions, really do pay heed to such imposters, rather often to the harm of their souls. God will thwart the designs of these deceivers, says Ezekiel, by showing their predictions to be false.

Friday, April 24

1 Peter 4:12-19: Two observations may be made in regard to Peter’s use of the term “Christian” here.

First, Peter himself had been active in the founding of the Church at Antioch, where this term was first used (Acts 11:26; Galatians 2:11). It was from Antiochian usage that he adopted the term.

Second, it is significant that this name “Christian,” first used by non-Christians to describe the new group at Antioch, tended to be used in the context of persecution, as is clearly the case here in 1 Peter (verses 14-16). This context is identical to that of the only other place where we find the word “Christian,” the trial of Paul before Agrippa (where it is also heard from the lips of a non-Christian: “Then Agrippa said to Paul, ‘You almost persuade me to become a Christian’” (Acts 26:28).

It is useful for Christians to bear in mind, when they call themselves by this name, that original context of enmity and even persecution. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that the name was first used by those who actually hated Christians. Consequently, it should not surprise us if even today the word is used as an epithet of contempt, as is fairly often the case in the secular media and some political discourse.

At the same time, the impending judgment of God, says Peter, begins “at the house of God” (verse 17). This fact is important, because there abides the temptation for Christians to imagine that they will somehow be exempted (either by a rapture or in some other way) from God’s final judgment on history. This is emphatically not the case. The Book of Revelation, which so vividly describes the final judgment of the world, begins with His judgment of the churches (chapters 2-3).

Ezekiel 14: In verses 1-11, the elders who came to consult Ezekiel got more than they anticipated, because the prophet was given insight into the deeper idolatry of their hearts. These men were apparently looking for some prediction about the future, only to be told that God’s prophetic word is not truly available for the unrepentant.

That is to say, the prophet’s task is not to satisfy human curiosity about future events, but to call sinners to the due consideration of their souls. To borrow a concise expression from Saint Augustine, the prophet’s task is often that of prescribing, not predicting: praecipientis videlicet, non praedicentis modoThe City of God15.7).

Thus, instead of responding to their query about the future, Ezekiel summons these men to look inside themselves, at the idolatry in their hearts, before it is too late.

The second oracle in this chapter (verses 12-23) insists that the whole society, if it is unfaithful to God, will be punished as a whole. The Lord will not spare any society simply for the sake of a few just men in it, even if these latter include the likes of Noah, Daniel, and Job. While the just individuals themselves will be respected, this will have no affect on the lot of the whole, because God is fair and will render to each man according to his deserts.

Before God’s throne of judgment, therefore, it will not matter “who you know.” This thesis, which will be repeated throughout the Book of Ezekiel, is identical to that in the Book of Jeremiah (for instance, 15:1-4), and is a great deal tougher than we find, for instance, in Genesis 18, where it appears that the presence of five just men would have spared the destruction of Sodom.