July 28 – August 4, 2023

Friday, July 28

Mark 12.1-12: The parable of the vine-growers—listed prominently in Jesus’ teaching during the last week of his earthly life—provides a sharp, defining outline of how he came to understand, not only his ministry to his contemporaries, but also his larger significance in the history of Israel. It illustrates how Jesus thought about his mission and destiny. No other of his parables, arguably, contains such an obviously “autobiographical” perspective.

When Jesus addressed this parable to the men who plotted to kill him, those Jewish scholars of the Bible could hardly fail to recognize, in these initial details, the story’s resemblance to a lyrical poem of the prophet Isaiah eight centuries before. Perhaps some of them knew Isaiah’s poem by heart:

A song of my beloved regarding his vineyard: My beloved has a vineyard / On a very fruitful hill. / He dug it up and cleared away its stones, / And planted it with the choicest vine. / He built a tower in its midst, / And also made a winepress in it (Isaiah 5:1-2).

As to the meaning of the “vineyard,” the explanatory note in Isaiah left no doubt: “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, / And the men of Judah are His pleasant plant” (Isaiah 5:7). The “vineyard” has the same meaning in Jesus’ parable.

Jesus’ parable narrates the history of Israel in terms of God’s expectations: “Now when vintage-time drew near, he sent his servants to the vinedressers, that they might receive its fruit.” This feature of the vineyard, too, Jesus took from Isaiah, who declared that God “expected it to bring forth grapes (Isaiah 5:2).

The parable arrives at its culminating point, which is the mission of the Son: “Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son. Probably they will respect him when they see him.’”

The son in the parable is described as “my beloved,” agapetos mou, the same expression the Father used to address Jesus at both his baptism and his Transfiguration.

This identical expression—agapetos mou—is found, likewise, in the Septuagint (Greek) version of Isaiah’s poem—“My beloved has a vineyard.”

Here agapetos mou translates Isaiah’s Hebrew expression dódi, “my beloved.” Jesus’ parable, then, identifies the son as the “my beloved” in Isaiah’s poem. It is to him that the vineyard truly belongs, because he is the heir. He is the son with regard to God, and the heir with regard to Israel’s history.

The vine-growers cannot plead ignorance for their crime, because they recognize the son, and their very recognition of him fuels their malice:

But when the vinedressers saw him, they reasoned among themselves, saying, “This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, that the inheritance may be ours.”

This, then, is Jesus’ interpretation of both his mission and his coming death: He is the “heir” of the ancient ministry of the prophets. He sees that his own murder will be the culminating crime in Israel’s continued rejection of God and His messengers.

The parable’s identification of Jesus as Son and Heir—the fulfillment of prophetic history—passed into Christian theology very early, as we see in the Epistle to the Hebrews:

God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by a Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things.

By that time, Jesus was aware of the finality of the hour; something truly new and revolutionary was soon to happen—to wit, Jerusalem would be destroyed, and the care of the vineyard would pass to a new stewardship: “Therefore what will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those vinedressers and give the vineyard to others.”

Much of Jesus’ preaching, during the final week of his life, was taken up with the impending destruction of Jerusalem and the other signs that would inaugurate the final stages of world history.

We are the “others” introduced at the end of this parable.

Saturday, July 29

Acts 21.37—22.11: To apprehend Paul and put a stop to the riot, the soldiers had descended a long flight of stairs that leads up to the entrance of the Fortress Antonia. Now practically carrying their prisoner, they ascend those stairs, which will effectively give Paul an elevation from which to address the crowd. Perhaps the commander of the fortress had received a bulletin to be on the lookout for a famous Jewish revolutionary from Egypt (described in considerable detail by Josephus, incidentally). In any case, he mistakes his new prisoner for that individual and is surprised when Paul speaks to him in Greek. Thus taken by surprise, he grants Paul’s request to address the mob.

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

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

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

Sunday, July 39

Mark 12.18-27: In this section Mark adds the Sadducees to the growing list of conspirators, which includes the chief priests, the elders, the Herodians, and the Pharisees.

As for the Sadducees, they did not believe in a doctrine of the resurrection. It was the Pharisees’ adherence to such a doctrine that rendered the latter party closer and more receptive to the Gospel (cf. Acts 23:6-9). The Sadducees’ disbelief in a resurrection came in part from their rejection of all the Hebrew scriptures except the Pentateuch. The explicit doctrine of the Resurrection, which commences in the prophetic writings, was thus lost on them.

After Jerusalem’s destruction at the hand of the Romans in A.D. 70, the prestige of the Sadducees disappeared completely. Because they were a priestly party, their services were no longer required after the loss of the temple.

We may also remark that the “case” posed by the Sadducees actually is recorded in the story of Sarah contained in Tobit 3:8; 6:14. She really did outlive seven husbands!

It is further instructive to observe that the theme of the Resurrection is introduced by the Lord’s own enemies, by way of denying it. It is the doctrine of the Resurrection that Jesus will prove within just a few days, to the consternation of these enemies.

Jesus’ reading of Exodus 3 is arguably most striking. He finds, buried and concealed in the story of the Burning Bush, plain evidence of the doctrine of the Resurrection. In doing this, He demonstrates that the true meaning of Holy Scripture is not always on the surface. Would we otherwise have guessed that the doctrine of the Resurrection was proclaimed from the Burning Bush? This style of reading of Holy Scripture, which uncovers deeper meaning concealed in the Sacred Text and in the event narrated there, is the “teaching” (didache) of Jesus, and it has always flourished in the theology of the Christian Church.

Acts 22.12-21: The ecstatic experience of Paul, which occurs in the context of prayer (22:17), takes place in the temple. This latter detail seems most significant within the general framework of Luke’s symbolic topography. His Gospel narrative both begins and ends in the temple (Luke 1:9; 24:53), and now it is in the temple, the very center of the Jewish faith and hope, that God commissions the Apostle to the Gentiles (Romans 11:13) to take the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 22:21; 9:15). This mention of the Gentiles, the goyim, to the crowd of already angry Jews is what brings Paul’s brief speech to a swift conclusion.

Monday, July 31

Hosea 8: Following the death of Solomon, the Northern Kingdom—called here both Israel and, from its largest tribe, Ephraim—was founded as an act of rebellion against Solomon’s successor, Rehoboam. In the mind of the biblical author, however, it was an act of rebellion against God.

From the beginning of that rebellion, its true motive had always been financial: The ten northern tribes had far more resources and advantages than the royal tribe of Judah in the south: their land was more fertile, and, because of their geographical proximity to Phoenicia, they were better situated with respect to the international markets. Consequently, the northern tribes were reluctant to be ruled any longer by a tribe unable to pull its own economic weight. They separated from Judah for financial reasons, which in their estimate were more important than adherence to the covenanted kingship at Jerusalem.

Beginning with Jeroboam, says the Lord, “they set up kings, but not by Me; they made princes, but I did not acknowledge them.” Going further, they set up shrines at Bethel and Dan to rival the Temple at Jerusalem. These shrines quickly became idolatrous. Their financial and political idolatry finally found expression in cultic idolatry.

Now, Hosea warns them, having sown the wind of temporary advantage, they will reap the whirlwind of history which is the lot of all those acting outside the will of God.

And now, says Hosea, they are about to pay for that infidelity. Their love of money was only the first of the idolatrous preferences that have, at last, brought them to the disaster soon to visit them. Hosea sees the signs of that impending doom in the geopolitics of his day, particularly the rivalries among Assyria, Phoenicia, and Egypt. Poor little Israel will be trampled when these elephantine nations begin to march. Like his contemporary, Amos, Hosea foresees the tragedy of 722, barely a generation in the future. The Northern Kingdom will be no more, its tribes dispersed by exile throughout the Fertile Crescent.

Tuesday, August 1

Mark 12.35-44: Since the Lord’s enemies, completely foiled by His answers, dared not ask Him any more questions (verse 34), Jesus turns the tables by putting to them a question of His own. Indeed, this question, which touches His true identity, evokes the theological problem at the heart of this whole chapter: Just who is Jesus? Jesus has been picking at that point in several of His confrontation with these enemies: the matter of his “authority” (11:27,33), His sonship with respect to God (12:6,10), and His oblique claim to divine honor (12:17).

Since the Messianic hope in Israel expected that the coming Messiah would be of the lineage of King David, how comes it that David referred to the Messiah as his “Lord”? The answer to this question, as Mark well knew, was obvious to his Christian readers, who understood the word “Lord” in its full confessional significance (cf. Acts 2:29-34; 13:23-39; Hebrews 1:5-13). To the enemies of Jesus, however, His question was provocative beyond measure, because they sensed what the Questioner was driving at without overtly claiming to be the Messiah.

Our Lord’s citation from this Psalm, in a context dealing with His own identity, laid the foundation for the Christological praying of the Psalms. Within the NT there are more references or allusions to this verse than to any other OT passage. In these few words of the Psalter, “The Lord said to my Lord,” Christians learned that Jesus is not only David’s descendant but also his preexisting Lord. He is the Son, not only of David, but of God.

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

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

Wednesday, August 2

Mark 13:1-13: Here begins the Olivet Discourse, the longest uninterrupted dominical discourse in Mark after the Parables of the Kingdom in Chapter 4. This discourse, which is private in the sense that it was not preached to the crowds (verses 1-2), forms a bridge between the controversy stories of chapters 11–12 and the subsequent Passion narrative of chapters 14—15. Thus, it is framed in the drama of the Lord’s last days.

Consequently, the Lord’s teaching on the fall of Jerusalem and the coming destruction of the Temple is conveyed in the immediate context of His own suffering and death. Jesus intimately joins these two things together.

It is useful to recall that, if the traditional dating of Mark (A.D.65-66) is correct, Jerusalem had not yet fallen when these words were written down for the Church at Rome.

This chapter contains more than a prediction, however. It is especially an exhortation to the Church, an instruction on how believers are to behave in the terrible trials to come. Mark evidently regards the sufferings of the Church following the Neronic persecution (A.D. 64-68) as a preamble to the end of the ancient life of Israel. This is why there are so many verses in this section that point most readily to the end of the world. What Mark and his Christians were witnessing was certainly the end of the world as they knew it. The Olivet Discourse begins, then, with the foreseen destruction of Jerusalem (verse 2).

Acts 22.30—23.11: Luke does not tell us if Claudius Lysias interrogated Paul further, but it is reasonable to think that he did. He would not have learned from Paul, however, any solid information that would clarify the legal situation. The fortress commander thus finds himself in a dilemma. He has arrested a prisoner on the basis of no identifiable offense. This is all quite embarrassing. How would he ever explain this serious irregularity to the authorities at Caesarea when official inquiries were made? If, on the other hand, Claudius Lysias were simply to release Paul, he may be setting free a criminal, possibly a revolutionary and subversive. Caught in this conflict, Lysias determines to consult the Sanhedrin, Judaism’s highest governing spiritual authority.

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

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

Thursday, August 3

Mark 13:14-27: In going to the remembered past in order to prophesy about the near future, Jesus followed a pattern of historical interpretation common to the Old Testament prophets.

Thus, to describe the desolation to be visited on Jerusalem, Jesus alludes to an event in the fairly recent past, when the Seleucid king, Antiochus Epiphanes IV, violated the sanctity of the Temple in 168 B.C. by erecting there an altar to Zeus (1 Maccabees 1:54-64).

The prophet Daniel had referred to that desecration as the “abomination of desolation” (Daniel 9:27; 11:31; 12:11; also 1 Maccabees 1:54). The Temple itself was stripped of its adornments; other pagan altars were erected, and unclean animals were sacrificed upon them (Josephus, Antiquities 12.5.4). This had been a time of great persecution of the righteous Jews by the unrighteous, not only by pagans but by fellow Jews. All of this, and worse, says Jesus, will fall on the Holy City very shortly. This prophecy was directed to the Jewish Civil War against the Romans, which would climax in the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 (cf. Josephus, The Jewish Wars 5.10).

Jesus also alluded to that Maccabean persecution when He warned, “And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath” (verse 20). During the Maccabean persecution, many Jews were slaughtered on the Sabbath, a day on which they were reluctant to fight back (1 Maccabees 2:29-41). In addition, a flight on the Sabbath day, if one kept the Sabbath day strictly, would not go very far. It would hardly be a flight at all.

The gathering of the “eagles,” birds of prey that will come to devour the slain, bears an ironic reference to the battle standards of the Roman Legions, dominated by the figure of an eagle.

Acts 23.12-22: During the night after his hearing before the Sanhedrin, Paul was visited by the Lord in a dream, in which he was encouraged by the explicit assurance that he would be going to Rome. Consequently, in spite of outward appearances, Paul knew that his life was not in danger for the moment (23:11).

Such encouragement was exactly what he needed, for a new trouble arose on the next day. More than forty men, conspiring to murder him, vowed not to eat or drink until the deed was done (23:12-13). It is instructive to note that the plotters involved the Sadducees, the priestly party, in their conspiracy (23:14-15), but not the Pharisees. It was this latter group, we recall, that expressed sympathy for Paul’s message.

A plot involving so many people is hard to keep secret, and Paul, not confined by maximum security, was able to learn of it and, using the services of a nephew, to take steps against it (23:16-17). We are probably correct in suspecting that Luke’s source for this account was the boy himself. About nine o’clock that very night, Paul was moved out of the city under armed guard, Indeed, the large retinue included nearly half of the forces garrisoned at the Fortress Antonia. We are not told whether or not the frustrated plotters actually persevered in their vow of starvation!

Friday, August 4

Mark 13:28-37: There have always been Christians persuaded that they can discern, from a close reading of biblical prophecy, the various stages of world history and even the specific events attendant on the end of history. In the present reading, however, Jesus warns against such speculation, saying that no one knows of that day and hour except the Father (verse 32).

These prophecies of the last times, whether in the present chapter of Mark or elsewhere in Holy Scripture, are too general to disclose such particulars of time. They serve, rather, as warnings for all times, exhortations of vigilance to the Church in every age. They instruct us less about God’s schedule than about our responsibilities.

In this final section of Mark 13, Jesus takes up the question with which the chapter began: When will these things happen and what will be the signs thereof? That question, we recall, was raised by the Apostles in response to the Lord’s prediction of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. All through this chapter the Lord has described, in dramatic imagery, the complex events that will culminate in that catastrophe. He could truly assert, therefore, “I have told you all things beforehand” (verse 23). Jesus has clearly prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem within a generation, destruction so complete that it could foreshadow the end of the world itself.

And what are Christians to do in the face of these impending disasters? They are to remain vigilant, to watch and to pray and to trust in God.

Acts 23.23-35: A letter about Paul was sent to Antonius Felix, the well known and often cruel procurator of Judea from A.D.52 to 59/60 (cf. Suetonius, Life of Claudius 28; Tacitus, Histories 5.9; Josephus, Antiquities 20.7.1 [137-138]; 20.8.9 [182]; Jewish War 2.12.8 [247]). Claudius Lysias, in his letter to Felix, painted himself in the most favorable light. The whole matter, he explained as an obscure Jewish problem, and the Jews were to blame. Lysias, for his part, had done no more than rescue a Roman citizen from Jewish violence! The stress of the message was on Paul’s innocence (23:29), a point that Luke will continue to make as the story progresses (cf. 25:18,25; 26:31; 28:18).

When the retinue and its prisoner reached Antipatris, in largely Gentile territory, the large bulk of the force, no longer needed, returned to Jerusalem. The exact location of Antipatris is disputed, but it may have been the site of the modern Kulat Ras el’Ain, about twenty-five miles from Caesarea.