February 5 – February 12, 2021

Friday, February 5

Matthew 10.34-42: The New Testament provides a number of stories in which entire households accepted the Gospel, which then became the basis of a whole new way of family life. These verses of Matthew, however, affirm that such is not always the case. The Gospel proclamation can divide as well as unite, and family unity has sometimes been destroyed by the Gospel’s acceptance by some family members and its rejection by others. This is a matter of history experience. Consequently there is the principle announced in verse 37 about the priorities of love. This “he who” sentence becomes the first of a series of ten such sentences that close out the chapter on the more positive note of those who actually accept the Gospel. In this series of short sayings we particularly observe the emphasis on the first-person pronoun, “Me” or “My,” with reference to Jesus. It appears seven times.

The “little ones” in verses 40-42 are to be identified, not only as little children, but also as other Christians, those “babies” to whom the Father reveals his Son (11:25), and who welcome Christ into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (21:16). It will be the thesis of the last part of Chapter 25 that the charity shown to these “least of My brethren” is actually shown to Christ. Here in Chapter 10 the context of this reference suggests that the “little ones” (mikroi) are especially to be identified as those who proclaim the Gospel.

Hebrews 13.1-17: Because “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever,” a certain stability should be expected in the lives and conduct of Christians. For example, they should “not be carried away with various and strange teachings [didachai].” That is to say, they must avoid ideas alien (xsenai) to the doctrines handed down from the Apostles. The example given here concerns dietary restrictions based on the kosher rules in the Torah: “foods which have not profited those who have been preoccupied with them.” We recognize this admonition as reflecting the concern of St. Paul.

For the rest, the outline given here for Christian conduct is basic. There is, for starts, the primacy of fraternal love: “Let brotherly love abide”—he philadelphia meneto. This expression suggests that such love should be a constant habit of mind and a sustained pattern of response. Fraternal love, in other words, is the Christian’s “default” preference, the programmatic disposition of his mind and sentiments.

This fraternal love is expressed in hospitality (philoxsenia), described here as the entertainment of strangers. Besides its obvious sense of receiving others into our homes, it also suggests a certain open-mindedness to those who are different from ourselves, the ones designated as xsenisantes. Perhaps we may think of it as a willingness not to impose on others our own cultural and sympathetic preferences. This would mean that Christians, while avoiding “strange doctrines,” should not be necessarily avoid “strange people.”

Our author appeals to the Old Testament examples of those who “unwittingly entertained angels.” The obvious cases are those of Abraham and Tobit, who showed hospitality to angels.

Saturday, February 6

Hebrews 13.18-25: The closing verses of Hebrews contain two parts: First, there is a blessing, which invokes Jesus as the Great Shepherd (verses 20-21). This blessing closes the body of the work, which is here called a “word of exhortation.” Second, there is a very brief “cover letter,” or postscript, which follows the book itself (verses 22-25). We may examine these separately.

First, it may be the case that the work’s closing benediction already existed as a standard form of blessing. The reason for this supposition is that the benediction 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).

Sunday, February 7

Genesis 38: Although this last section of Genesis centers on Joseph, the text does not lose sight of the bigger picture, the bigger picture here understood as the entire biblical message. In that bigger picture, Judah plays a more important role than Joseph. Ultimately the descendents of Joseph, the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, pertain to the Ten Lost Tribes, whereas the tribe of Judah will provide the royal house of David and the Messiah (49:8-10; Matthew 2:6; Revelation 5:5). It is ultimately Judah will give the “Jews” their name.

Between Genesis 37 and 45, some twenty years elapse, and a significant number of those years are required by the events in Genesis 38. Hence, this chapter allows the reader to put Joseph out of his mind for a while. It is something of an interlude, permitting Joseph to become settled in Egypt. It is a “here and there” style of narrative, inserted to fill in a gap and convey the impression of the passage of time until the thread of the larger narrative is taken up again. (Other biblical examples of this technique must include the narrative between Mark 6: 7 and 30, contrasted with that of Luke 9:2 and 10).

The interest of this chapter, however, is less in Judah as a person than in Judah as the father of his tribe. In the larger picture this is a story about Judah’s descendants. Since it is the story of his lineage, it must start by getting him married (verses 1-5). This family too has its problems (verses 6-11). Once again there is a deception by means of disguise, an unfortunate characteristic which, as we have seen, tends to run in the family (verses 12-19).

We note that the Bible is not hard on Tamar here; she is simply trying to get what she has coming to her — namely, children. Judah, thinking he has managed to avoid Tamar all those years, now discovers an easy way to get rid of her for good (verses 24-26), but the young lady turns the tables on him. There is nothing Judah can do but acknowledge his paternity and get on with life.

This story is, in addition, one of the Bible’s great accounts of an underdog getting back at an oppressor. In this respect, Tamar’s story runs parallel with those of Esther and Judith. The irony of it continues into the New Testament, where Tamar enters the genealogy of the Savior (Matthew 1:5).

Monday, February 8

Matthew 12.1-8: These two narratives, both of which concern the observance of the Sabbath, appropriately follow the previous sayings about “rest” and the “yoke.” Matthew’s version of the first of these stories is longer than Mark’s, augmented by the reference to the priests who serve in the Temple on the Sabbath. The Lord’s reasoning here is as follows: If the servants of the Temple may work on the Sabbath, how much more the servants of the One who is greater than the Temple. The argument here is similar to that in 5:17-48; namely, Jesus’ superiority to the Mosaic Law.

Romans 1.18-32: For Paul, 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).

Tuesday, February 9

Genesis 40: The climax of the Joseph story will be his revelation of himself to his brothers. Everything in the story is arranged to set up that event. Thus, Joseph must go to jail. If he does not go to jail, he will not meet the king’s cupbearer. If he does not meet the king’s cupbearer, he will not come to the attention of Pharaoh. If he is not brought to the attention of Pharaoh, he will not encounter his brothers. And so on. The narrative is thus very carefully pieced together.

Meanwhile, Joseph is in jail. Indeed, he is pretty much running the place after a while (39:23), when two other prisoners are brought in (verses 1-4). Already introduced to the reader as a man of dreams in Genesis 37, Joseph now appears as an interpreter of dreams (verses 4-8).

A royal cupbearer was a great deal more than a table servant. He was, rather, a high official of the court, normally ranking right after the royal family itself. Such men were obliged to be very careful, for they served very autocratic masters and were perpetually in danger of offending them (cf. Nehemiah 1:11—2:6). Somehow or other, this cupbearer had managed to offend Pharaoh. Thrown in jail, he had done a lot of brooding, and this brooding led to a dream about his fate (verses 9-11). Joseph’s interpretation of the dream, however, is rather encouraging (verses 12-13). In this instance, to “lift up the head” means to exalt, to restore to honor. Even as Joseph gives the cupbearer his interpretation of the dream, he senses that this gentleman may someday provide his own way out of prison (verses 14-15).

Encouraged by Joseph’s interpretation of the cupbearer’s dream, the royal baker decides to tell his own dream (verses 16-17). The images in each dream are related to the professions of the dreamers, pressed grapes and cup for the first man, baskets of bakery goods for the second. In each case, the number “three” is important. This second dream, nonetheless, introduces a disturbing note: Birds come and peck at the baked goods. This is an alien element, a common symbol of frustration in dreams.

Joseph sees right away that this is not a good sign (verses 18-19). There is a rather grim play on words here. “Lifting up the head” no longer means restoration and exaltation. It now assumes a disturbing literal sense; the baker’s head will be “lifted up” when he is impaled on a tall stake, perhaps. The meaning of the metaphor could also be that the man will be hanged, crucified, or beheaded. All three forms of punishment were known, and the metaphor could cover any of the three. We observe that the baker neglects to thank Joseph for his interpretation!

The important point is that Joseph’s interpretations of the two dreams are prophetic (verses 20-23). The next chapter will tell us, however, that the cupbearer will not remember Joseph for another two years.

Wednesday, February 10

Romans 2.17-29: Paul continues talking to the imaginary “man” that he earlier addressed (verses 1,3). This man calls himself a Jew (verse 17). This man, whom he had earlier reprimanded for judging others, Paul now taunts with a series of claims that were commonly made by the Jews: knowledge of the true God and His will, confidence in the Law, a superior moral insight, and the consequent right to provide guidance to the rest of the world (verses 18-20).

Paul does not deny the validity of any of these claims, but they do raise in his mind a series of concomitant questions that he now puts to the Jew (verses 21-23). The latter’s behavior, after all, leaves a lot to be desired. Indeed, the bad conduct of the Jew, as Isaiah had long ago remarked, has brought reproach of the God of the Jews (verse 24; Isaiah 52:5 in LXX). Their defining sign, circumcision, has been rendered morally meaningless by their insouciance to the rest of the Torah (verse 25).

Now, asks Paul, how is the circumcised Jew who disobeys the Law of Moses morally superior to the uncircumcised Gentile who observes the Natural Law written in his heart (verses 26-27)?

Throughout this diatribe the Apostle is continuing the very argument that the Old Testament prophets had directed to the Chosen People ever since Amos and Isaiah eight hundred years before—namely, that a strict adherence to the prescribed rituals is no adequate substitute for the moral renewal of the heart and a blameless life pleasing to God. Far from rejecting the Old Testament here, Paul is appealing to one of its clearest themes (Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Micah 6:6-8; Jeremiah 4:4; 9:24-25; Ezekiel 44:9).

The true circumcision is internal. This is the “secret” (krypton) that the Lord sees (verse 16). It is the heart that must be circumcised (verses 29-30; Acts 7:51). The true moral renewal of man, then, is not the fruit of a greater and more intense moral effort. It comes from the presence of the Holy Spirit in the circumcised heart.

In his contrast of two circumcisions, Paul invokes the distinction between letter and Spirit that he had used a year earlier to describe the difference between the Old Testament dispensation and the Christian Gospel (2 Corinthians 3:6). The circumcision or pruning of the human heart places that heart under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, whose grace causes the human being to become a child of God (8:15; Galatians 4:6). The Gospel, then, is not simply a source of new moral information; it is the internal principle of a new mode of life.

Paul’s distinction between a Jew in the flesh and a Jew in the Spirit puts us in mind of Jesus’ insistence, in the Sermon on the Mount, that a believer’s existence is defined, not by his external observance of a religious code, but by his internal relationship to the heavenly Father (Matthew 6:1,4,6,8,14,18). Indeed, the same expression “secret” (krypton) is used in both places (verses 16,29; Matthew 6:4,6).

In spite of the historical advantage that God has given the Jew over the Gentile (verses 9-10; 1:16), they are both called by the Gospel to the same repentance.

Thursday, February 11

Genesis 42: The predicted famine also hits the land of Canaan, at which point the Joseph story is tied back to its earlier period (verses 1-5). We learn right away that Jacob, having lost Joseph, has become excessively protective of his youngest son Benjamin. This detail is inserted early in the narrative sequence, because it will become an important component in the development of the story.

These next few chapters will be sustained by a tension between Egypt and Canaan, between Joseph and Jacob, with Joseph trying to get Benjamin down into Egypt, while Jacob endeavors to keep him in Canaan.

When the other brothers come into Egypt (verses 6-7), Joseph starts his game, which begins by some fun at their expense. As we have seen, this kind of thing runs in the family. Abraham had deceived Pharaoh by claiming to be Sarah’s brother. Isaac had deceived Abimelech by pretending to be Rebecca’s brother. Jacob deceived Isaac by pretending to be Esau. Leah pretended to be Rachel, thereby deceiving Jacob. The Bible obviously revels in this sort of thing. Indeed, our eternal salvation itself will involve a massive act of deception, in which the Wisdom of God deceives Satan (1 Corinthians 2:6-8).

Without knowing who he is, the brothers prostrate themselves before Joseph (verses 8-17), who recognizes in their act the fulfillment of dreams he had shared with them two decades earlier.

Even while deceiving his brothers, Joseph manages to catch up on the news back home. He learns that Jacob and Benjamin are still alive. He plays his big card when they mention Benjamin; on the pretense of checking out their story, he insists that Benjamin be brought down to Egypt. He then throws them all into jail for three days to think about it.

What Joseph is trying to learn is whether or not his brothers have really changed. Are they still the same villains who tried to get rid of him years before, or have they altered in their minds and hearts. He puts the pressure on them. He must find out. He finally shows them a bit of mercy (verses 18-26).

In these encounters of Joseph with his brothers, there are two things to bear in mind:

First, Joseph understands everything they are saying among themselves, but the brothers, imagining that they are dealing with an Egyptian, do not know this. From their conversations with them, Joseph ascertains that they are still trying to deal with their ancient sin.

Joseph is joking with them and apparently having some fun at it. At the same time, however, he is hard hit by his own feelings as he sees what is happening to his brothers. Overcome with emotion, he must retire from the scene in order to weep.

Second, unlike his brothers, Joseph is aware how long the famine will last! He knows, therefore, that they will be back eventually. In order to guarantee it, he seizes Simeon, the second oldest. Joseph has just learned that the oldest, Reuben, had tried to save him at the time of his abduction; Reuben is spared.

Friday, February 12

Psalms 106 (Greek & Latin 105): This psalm uses historical narrative as the structure of a sustained confession of sins and ongoing motive for repentance. The praise of God in this psalm, then, springs from the consideration of God’s fidelity to His people notwithstanding their own infidelities to Him: “Praise the Lord, for He is gracious, for His mercy endures forever!”

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

This poetic narrative, which summarizes much of the Books of Exodus and Numbers, deals with the period of the Desert Wandering as a source of negative moral example: “Don’t let this happen to you.” Such is the approach to that period through much of biblical literature, from Deuteronomy 33 to
1 Corinthians 10.

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

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

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

The gravity of this temptation, of course, arises from its resting on a solid truth. God is faithful to His promises; He will never abandon those who place their confidence in Him. The danger here is not that of excessive trust in God’s fidelity, but of insufficient vigilance against man’s infidelity. Just as the Galatians were warned against forsaking the Gospel of pure grace, they were also instructed that “God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Galatians 6:7).

Even the believers at Philippi, though manifesting no discernible disposition to false confidence, were admonished to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12).

And even as the Ephesians were reminded of being sealed and rendered secure “with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance” (Eph. 1:13, 14), they were earnestly exhorted not to “grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed” (4:30).