August 11 – August 18, 2023

Friday, August 11

Mark 14.43-52: Peter was awakened by the Lord’s voice: “Rise, let us be
going. See, My betrayer is at hand” (26:46). And here they were, a band
of armed men already on the scene. Simon leapt up, holding a sword that he had brought to make good his promise of loyalty in the face of danger. He recognized Judas Iscariot, who came forward to Jesus and,
in the customary fashion, kissed the hand of his rabbi. Just what was
this all about? The response of Jesus explained it all: “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?” Simon waited no further.

Malchus saw the sword coming from the right, aimed at his throat, and he ducked quickly to his left to avoid decapitation. Even so, his right ear was partly severed by the tip of the blade (Luke 22:50). Then, Luke tells us, Jesus stepped up, grabbed his dangling ear, and replaced it entirely to his head, as though nothing had ever happened. The rest of that night was a blur, and the whole next day, as he walked around in a daze, going to Pilate’s and elsewhere, but ever reaching up from time to time to feel his ear and trying to make sense of it all.

Some decades later, Malchus, a Christian now for many years and long repentant of his actions on that dreadful night, sat down and described
his part in the event to a physician named Luke, who happened to be writing a new account of the life and teaching of Jesus. Malchus told how the Lord reached out His hand through the enveloping darkness and reattached his dangling ear. “He made it as good as new, really. But, please, leave out my name,” Malchus requested of Luke. He was not aware that another writer would put it in anyway (John 18:10).

This other writer, John, had been present when it happened, and he
may have learned the name of Malchus from a cousin, who encountered
Simon in the courtyard of the high priest somewhat later that
night (18:26).

Acts 24:1-9: Paul now makes his defense before an official representative of the Roman government. To be his prosecutor, the Sanhedrin put forward a trained orator, Tertullus, who begins his argument by attempting to ingratiate Felix. It is shameless. When he credits Felix’s administration with the blessings of peace (24:2), for instance, the statement is true only in the sense that Felix had rather ruthlessly suppressed rebel uprisings and acts of terrorism (cf. Josephus, Jewish War 2.13.2 [252]). Tertullus diplomatically passes over those activities of Felix which effectively fomented rebellion and terrorism, those displays of his administration’s rapacity and harshness that would in due course lead to the Jewish rebellion against Rome.

Tertullus, aware of the attitude of Felix toward anything smacking of sedition, endeavors to portray Paul as a sort of revolutionary. The allegedly seditious party represented by Paul and here called the Nazarenes, is described as a “heresy” (24:5; cf. 24:14; 26:5; 28:22). This is hardly the first occasion on which Paul is portrayed as a trouble-maker (cf. 16:20; 17:6).

Saturday, August 12

Mark 14.53-65: Even before the charges against Jesus are stated, the Sanhedrin is seeking the death penalty. Indeed, Jesus’ enemies made this determination some time ago. The charge they want to sustain, if they can find witnesses for it, is blasphemy, one of their earliest accusations against Jesus (9:3). Jesus knows exactly what they are up to, and they know that he knows it (21:23). The Sanhedrin is specifically accused of suborning perjury.

It is not so easy, however, to find even false witnesses to support the charge of blasphemy. Jesus, it is said, made some remark or other about the destruction of the Temple, but there is inadequate agreement between the two witnesses brought forward to make this point.

By not answering these interrogations, Jesus fulfills the prophecies about the Suffering Servant in Isaiah (52:14-15).

Frustrated by Jesus’ silence, the high priest adjures Jesus directly to declare whether He is God’s Son and Messiah. The high priest is surely prompted by the parable of the vine growers to ask this question.

Jesus apparently answers positively to this question, affirming that He is the Messiah and the Son of God, but He goes on to identify Himself further by reference to another figure in prophetic literature, Daniel’s Son of Man (Daniel 7:13-14). This claim, from Jesus’ own lips, is taken as evidence adequate to sustain the charge of blasphemy, a crime for which capital punishment is prescribed (Leviticus 24:16). This is the sentence Jesus will be given later, toward the morning.

The bystanders and others now repeat the beatings and ridicule (verses 67-68), which began as soon as Jesus was arrested.

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

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

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

Sunday, July 13

Acts 24.22-27: Felix hardly knows what to make of all this. Here are all these warring groups among the Jews — Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Herodians. And now this new group they call the Nazarenes. Who can make sense of it all? Who would want to adjudicate all these religious disputes? Feeling that he needs more concrete evidence about this Paul, Felix postpones a decision until Lysias should arrive at Caesarea to give testimony in the matter (24:22), and Paul, meanwhile, may continue to receive visitors freely while in custody. At least this is what Felix says. Since we hear nothing about Lysias ever coming to Caesarea, however, we begin to suspect that a certain amount of foot-dragging has commenced.

In fact, hearing about this collection of money that Paul and his companion had recently brought to the Holy Land, Felix is hoping for a bribe (24:26), a detail in Luke’s story that fits in very well with what we learn about Felix from other writers of the period. Two years pass (57-59/60), and Paul is still in prison. During this time he writes the epistles to the Ephesians, the Colossians, and Philemon. He receives many visitors, including Aristarchus, Tychicus, Mark, Jesus Justus, Demas, and Epaphras (Colossians 4:7-14). Luke the physician, who was in Jerusalem at the time of Paul’s arrest, comes to Caesarea to look after his favorite client (cf. Colossians 4:14; Philemon 24; Acts 27:2).

Psalms 106 (Greek & Latin 105): Whereas Psalm 105 uses historical narrative as an outline for the praise of God for His deeds of salvation, Psalm 106 uses it 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.

Monday, August 14

Acts 25.1-12: At the end of the two years, Felix is succeeded by Portius Festus, who inherits Paul as a bit of unfinished business. This new procurator, a conscientious man chiefly remembered for his efforts to stamp out the terrorism prevalent in the Middle East during that time (cf. Josephus, Jewish War 2.14.1 [271-272]; Antiquities>/i> 2.8.9-10 [182,185]), must deal with Paul as the first chore of his two years in office (59-61/62). He does so in less than a fortnight. The authorities in Jerusalem, of course, want Paul to be tried there, all along planning that Paul would never reach the city for his trial. The times are treacherous.

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

Paul will have none of this compromise. He already stands before an imperial court as a Roman citizen; why should he forego that privilege in order to expose himself to a Jewish lynch mob? Therefore, he appeals his case to Rome. It is worth noting, in verse 11, Paul’s explicit recognition of the state’s proper authority to use the death penalty, the “right of the sword” (jus gladii), on certain classes of criminals. This position is identical to the one earlier espoused by Paul in Romans 13:1-4. Accordingly, the Christian Church, even when discouraging recourse to capital punishment in practice (in the Byzantine Empire, for instance), has always recognized, as a matter of clear principle, the state’s God-given, biblically affirmed authority to put certain criminals to death.

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

Joshua 8: Although the Lord had delivered Jericho to Israel’s armies in a miraculous fashion, this seems not to have been the case with the city of Ai. The present chapter describes the fall of Ai, rather, in terms of regular military tactics. That is to say, it is sometimes the case that the Lord—to demonstrate the sovereignty of His grace—uses extraordinary and unexpected means to accomplish His purposes. At other times, He acts through means that are more obviously human. The present chapter illustrates such an instance.

Tuesday, August 5

Marian Feast: Today we read the only two conversations between Jesus and his mother recorded in the Bible. The first, narrated by Luke (2:41–52), took place in the Temple, when Jesus was twelve years old—the incident when he was lost in Jerusalem for three days and then was found. The second conversation, reported by John (2:1–11), happened at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee, apparently when Jesus was about thirty years old (cf. Luke 3:23). According to this second story, Mary approached her son—now a mature man—with an implied request on behalf of some embarrassed newly-weds. The two conversations are eighteen years apart.

Luke and John are writing their stories from notably different theological preoccupations. Notwithstanding these literary and interpretive differences, their two accounts share striking points of similarity that should prompt us to compare them:

First, each conversation between Jesus and Mary is recorded by way of direct address; the two interlocutors are both explicitly quoted. Luke and John provide us with at least substantial approximations of the words of Jesus and his mother.

Second, in each encounter between them, Jesus asks Mary a question: “Why did you seek me? Did you not know that I must be about the things of my Father?” and “What does your concern have to do with me?” We should observe that these questions to Mary do not function as inquiries; they are directed, rather, to ending the conversation, not prolonging it.

It is surely significant that his mother, neither time, gives an answer to her son. If Jesus’ question serves to end the conversation, his mother is content to let it end. What Mary does, however, is very different in the two cases, and this difference is, I believe, related to their spiritual growth and mutual understanding.

Third, both stories are told from Mary’s perspective, not that of Jesus. The simplest reason for this is probably the correct one: The two writers both relied on Mary’s own memory of the events.

Fourth, and, I believe, most important, these two narratives share a common feature of psychology more difficult to label. I am hesitant to call it “contention,” because this word often conveys a tone of belligerence or disrespect. However we name it, nonetheless, both stories—in the Temple at Jerusalem and at the wedding party in Cana—portray Jesus and his mother as “not agreed.” They are not in harmony. The two conversations convey, between Mary and her son, an impression of initial opposition. Their questions to one another disclose a rough patch, as it were, a foothold of friction that serves to move the narrative forward.

It is in this fourth point of comparison, however, that we observe an essential difference between the two accounts—the way they end.

In the first case, when Jesus is twelve years old, his question to Mary is literally the last word in the conversation: “Did you not know that I must be about the things of my Father?” Jesus thereby breaks off the dialogue. His question, Luke tells us, leaves Mary and Joseph confused and speechless: “But they did not understand the statement which he spoke to them.”

In the later scene at Cana, however, Mary’s response to her son is dramatically different: here it is she who breaks off the dialogue. At Jesus’ question, Mary turns away and takes resolute charge of the situation, instructing the servants, “ Do whatever he tells you.” It is the impulse of her action that precipitates the “beginning of signs that Jesus did.” Her dramatically different response, revealing the spiritual growth of the eighteen intervening years, shows that Jesus and his mother have most surely changed . . . and so has their relationship.

Wednesday, August 16

Mark 15:1-20: The theological significance of the crown of thorns comes from the evangelists’ understanding of it, not the intent of the mocking soldiers. The Gospel writers knew, as do their readers in all ages, that the crown of Jesus was woven from the elements of Adam’s curse: “Both thorns and thistles [the ground] shall bring forth for you” (Genesis 3:18). Jesus, wearing that crown, bears that curse.

According to John (19:5), Jesus still wears the robe and the thorny crown when he appears before the crowd, and he wears them still as that crowd shouts, “Crucify him!” Although the robe is removed after the mockery (Matthew 27:31), no evangelist says that the crown is taken off. Christian art and hymnography commonly portray the crucified Christ as continuing to wear that crown on the cross, under the sign identifying him as “King of the Jews.”

Acts 25.13-27: After this decision of Festus there follows another scene, Paul’s somewhat unofficial hearing before King Agrippa II and his sister/mistress Berenice. The purpose of this hearing is to help Festus identify the charges for which Paul will be sent to Rome for trial. Thus, Paul, having been tried before a synagogue and a governor, will now appear before a king (cf. Luke 21:12).

Joshua 10: This chapter, in which attention is directed to the southern campaign of Joshua’s invasion, begins with an alliance formed to resist that invasion. This alliance, alarmed at the capitulation of the Gibeonites, recorded in the previous chapter, determines to attack Gibeon itself rather than Joshua’s invading force (verse 4). This procedure made military sense. If the alliance could punish the Gibeonites for their treaty with Joshua, it was reasoned, other Canaanite cities would think twice about following suit. If the attack on Gibeon proved successful, other cities would be disposed, rather, to join the coalition against Joshua.

This alliance of five Canaanite city-states, under the leadership of Jerusalem, had another reason for conquering Gibeon as a way of resisting Joshua’s advance. In fact, this second reason rendered the control of Gibeon imperative to the resistance—namely, Gibeon’s strategic position guarding the route through the Ajalon Valley, a route that would enable Joshua to divide and isolate the southern cities. After Joshua’s defeat of the alliance, his campaign pursued its remnant forces southward through that valley (verses 10-13).

Understanding the political situation throughout Canaan, Joshua resolves to make an example of the five kings involved in the alliance (verses 16-27). His ruthless tactics were extended to the citizens of Makkedah (verse 28), Libnah (verse 30), Lachish (verse 32), and elsewhere (verse 39). We may want to bear in mind that these descriptions are common in the language of battle, where they bear what we may call a “poetic sense.” That is to say, if ALL the citizens of all of these cities really did perish under Joshua’s sword, we readers of Holy Scripture will be hard pressed to explain why they continued to pose problems for Israel in the very near future.

Thursday, August 27

Mark 15.21-32: Although we know on the authority of Plutarch that every criminal condemned to crucifixion by a Roman court was obliged to carry his own cross to the place of execution, those soldiers charged with crucifying Jesus evidently believed that His weakened state would not permit Him to do so. Consequently, they obliged a “certain man . . . passing by” to carry Jesus’ cross to the place of crucifixion.

A descendant of certain Jews who had settled on the north coast of Africa (in modern Libya) about 300 BC, Simon doubtless belonged to
that synagogue in Jerusalem particularly frequented by Cyrenian Jews who had moved back to the Holy Land (Acts 6:9). These were among the Jews responsible for the stoning of Stephen.

Bearing the cross of Jesus was not Simon’s idea. He was “compelled.” We are surely right, however, in thinking that the event proved to be a moment of providential grace for Simon, because he certainly became a Christian. Indeed, about forty years after the event, the Evangelist Mark mentioned him as the father of two Christians well known to the Roman church for whom he was writing: “Then they compelled a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian, the father of Alexander and Rufus, as he was coming out of
the country and passing by, to bear His cross.”

Simon of Cyrene himself lives on in the New Testament, intimately associated with the cross of Jesus. We are told that “they laid laid the cross [on Simon] that he might bear it after Jesus” (opisthen tou Iesou).

This expression corresponds to the Lord’s challenge, “If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” And, “And whoever does not bear his cross and come after me cannot be My disciple.”

Carrying the Cross “after Jesus” is the true mark of discipleship. That is to say, Simon of Cyrene, bearing the cross and following after Jesus on the way to Golgotha, becomes the symbolizing embodiment of Christian discipleship.

Acts 26.1-11: There is a sense in which the present speech of Paul is the high point of Luke’s account of his ministry. Containing the third narrative of Paul’s conversion, it will represent a fulfillment of a prophecy contained in the first narrative (9:15), namely, he will now appear before a king. Paul’s apologetics (apologeito in verse 1, apoplogeisthai in verse 2) in this speech is consonant with his legal defense hitherto, but he becomes more explicit about his faith and his conversion.

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

Friday, August 18

Mark 15.33-47: When we speak, even today, of excruciating pain, we do well to look at the etymology of that adjective: ex cruce, “out of the cross.” It is nearly impossible to exaggerate what the Savior suffered on the cross.

Whether the cause of his death was asphyxiation, or hypercarbia, or hypovolemic shock, or heart failure, or exsanguination, or total physical exhaustion brought on by tetanic contractions throughout his entire body—or any combination of these, or any other plausible suggestion—the astounding fact is that Jesus, at the very end, “cried out again with a loud voice.” From a medical perspective, this is surprising.

Surely, it was the last thing anyone on Calvary could have expected. This “loud voice” demonstrated, nonetheless, the truth of the Savior’s claim: I lay down my life that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again (John 10:17-18).

Jesus did not simply die. He willingly tasted death, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews. He deliberately went through the actual experience of dying. The gospels indicate that Jesus was conscious and self-aware to the end. There was no coma, no disorientation, no mental befuddlement. The gospels testify, in fact, that he declined a narcotic that would have disguised and muted his pain. Jesus knew what he was doing.

Acts 26.12-23: We have here the third and most elaborate account of that event in the Acts of the Apostles and the only version of the story to contain the detail about Paul’s “kicking against the goad,” a metaphor for resistance to divine grace. This detail insinuates that Paul had already been feeling the pangs of conscience for his grievous mistreatment of Christians. This verse suggests, then, that Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus represented a sort of climax to a spiritual struggle already being waged in his own soul.

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