August 18 – August 25, 2023

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 hypovo-lemic shock, or heart failure, or exsanguination, or total physical exhaustion brought on by tetanic contractions throughout his entire body—or any combi-nation 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 per-spective, 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 Epis-tle 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 Tes-tament 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).

Saturday, August 19

Mark 16.1-8: If these verses formed the final section of the Gospel as it came from Mark’s pen, it would mean that this evangelist included no appearances of the risen Christ. Perhaps this was the case: Mark ended his sto-ry simply with an empty tomb and an angelic direction for the Apostles to gath-er in Galilee.

There is no compelling reason to think otherwise. When Mark wrote this work, there were no established rules about what a written gospel should con-tain, and if this work did, in fact, end with Mark 16.8, it is a perfectly coherent story.

And, in fact, this is exactly how the Gospel of Mark ends in our two oldest Greek copies (the Sinaiticus and the Vaticanus), as well as the most ancient codex of the original Latin version (the Bobiensis), a Syrian manuscript from Mount Sinai, the two oldest Georgian manuscripts, and about a hundred Armenian manu-scripts. Even in the fourth century, this is how the Gospel of Mark ended in all the Greek copies known to Eusebius and Jerome. In short, the manuscript evi-dence argues strongly that this shorter version of Mark was its original form.

If that was the case, nonetheless, later copyists—influenced by the other three gospels—felt that something was missing. As early as the second century, more material was added to include apparitions of the risen Jesus.

Another scenario was also possible, however: it may have been the case that Mark did write a longer account that included more post=Resurrection material that was subsequently lost. All of this is speculation, nonetheless.

In due course, the shorter version of Mark was expanded into the form we have received it and continue to read it.

Acts 26.24-32: When Paul mentions the resurrection, Festus believes that he has gone too far. Paul’s excessive study of literature (polla grammata) — that is to say, the Bible — has caused his mind to snap, Festus asserts, so that he can no longer distinguish between reality and fantasy. In this response of Festus we discern the reaction of the pagan world to this most Christian of doctrines — the resurrection. Greco-Roman culture, with its chronic disrespect for the material world (as evidenced, for example, in the pagan custom of cre-mating dead bodies), would have scanty respect for the doctrine of the resur-rection, which takes so seriously the holiness inherent in the human body sanc-tified by the Holy Spirit. The situation is not so different today.

Faced by a pagan unfamiliar with belief in the resurrection, Paul turns to Agrip-pa for a more sympathetic hearing. However, when Paul, answering what seems to be something of a jest on the king’s part, invites him to become a Christian, the king becomes uncomfortable, and the hearing is abruptly ended.

Sunday, August 20

Mark 16:9-20: Because these final verses of the canonical text of Mark are found neither in the more reliable manuscripts (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus) nor in other ancient versions (Armenian, Georgian, etc.), it is reasonably conjectured that we have received them from a hand later than Mark himself. It would ap-pear that they were added by a copyist who felt that Mark 16:8 was too abrupt an ending, so he added these post-Resurrection appearances in order to make the ending of Mark more closely resemble the endings of the other gospels.

In fact, the components of this material is largely drawn from those sources: The story of Mary Magdalene (verses 9-11) is drawn from John and Luke; the account of the two journeying disciples (verses 12-13) is taken from Luke; the Great Commission (verses 14-18) is adapted from Matthew, Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles; and the Lord’s Ascension comes from Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.

These considerations, however, have to do solely with literary history, not the-ology. They impugn neither the divine inspiration nor the canonical authority of Mark 16:9-20, inasmuch as the Church has received this text as Holy Scripture.

Joshua 14: This chapter begins the section in which the land of Canaan is divid-ed by allotment, in accordance with the command that Joshua received in the previous chapter (13:1,7).

We already know from Numbers 36:16-29 that Eleazar, Aaron’s son and heir in the priesthood (Numbers 3:32; Deuteronomy 10:6), is to assist Joshua in this allotment.

Prior to this allotment, however, the reader is again reminded that territory has already been set aside, east of the Jordan, for two and a half of these tribes (verse 3). The writer likewise mentions once again that special provision is to be made for the tribe of Levi (verse 4).

In addition, before any allotment to the remaining tribes can be made, provision must be made for Caleb, the other of the only two spies who had remained loy-al, decades earlier, when Moses had dispatched them for an initial inventory of the Promised Land (Numbers 13—14; Deuteronomy 1:35-36). Caleb officially belonged to the tribe of Judah (Numbers 13:6; 34:19), and his inheritance will fall within that tribe.

Forty-five years have elapsed since Caleb, a mere lad of forty at the time, had received Moses’ promise that he would inherit property in the land of Canaan (verses 6-10). Except for Joshua, he was the only surviving adult of the multi-tude that had marched out of Egypt, so it was entirely fitting he should be the first to inherit real estate in the land that he had inspected nearly half a centu-ry earlier. Caleb stands forever in the Bible as the model of such perseverance as leads to a great reward.

Monday, August 21

Luke 3.1-20: Postponing his infancy/childhood stories until Advent, we now commence Luke’s Gospel at chapter 3, where he records the testimony of John the Baptist,

Prior to the composition of any of our gospels, the original structure of the “Christian message” designated the ministry of John the Baptist as the proper place to start — “beginning from the baptism of John, arxsamenos apo tou baptismatos Ioannou ” (Acts 1.22).

John the Baptist, whom Luke identifies as a blood relative of Jesus, served as his precursor, not only by proclaiming the Messiah’s coming, but also by teach-ing a strict moral code that prepared men’s hearts to receive him. In today’s reading John elaborates this moral code in response to a series of spiritual in-quiries, “What shall we do?’ That is to say, John preached not only repentance but also a righteous manner of life in order to bring forth “fruits worthy of re-pentance.”

Acts 27:13-26: When a light wind begins to blow westward, the ship’s crew de-cides it is just what is needed to take the ship those forty miles west to Phoenix. They weigh anchor and continue the journey, hugging the south coast of Crete. Not long after commencing this maneuver, however, the ship is hit by a “ty-phoon wind” (anemos typhonikos), a nor’easter blowing down from over Crete and sending the ship out to sea in a southwesterly direction. There is nothing to do but let her ride the storm.

Presently, some twenty-seven miles due south of Phoenix, the very port they had hoped to reach before the storm came, the ship runs under the lee of the island of Cauda (modern Gozzo). The reference to the ship’s dinghy in verse 16 indicates the old custom of towing such craft in order to save deck space. They now take the dinghy on board, lest it become lost at sea. A momentary relief from the storm, as the ship sits under the lee of Cauda, enables the sailors to undergird the ship’s hull with cables, to make the vessel’s planking tighter against the waves. To impede the ship’s wild movement in the storm, the kedge anchor is dropped, because the ship has been drifting south so fast that the crew fears running onto the reef shoals of the African coast at Syrtis (west of Cyrene; cf. Pliny, Natural History 5.4.27). To make the ship ride higher in the water and reduce the chances of her being swamped, the crew jettisons some of the cargo (verse 18), and on the next day they do the same with the ship’s rigging (verse 19).

The situation is clearly desperate. With no way to see the stars, navigation has become impossible, and soon they have no idea where they are or in which di-rection they are headed. With no sunlight, even the most basic sense of direc-tion will be lost. (Indeed, as we shall presently find the ship in the Adriatic Sea, quite a bit further north, it is clear that a radical wind change takes place dur-ing all this darkness and confusion.) Finally, Paul speaks up again. Though he foretells the loss of the ship, he reassures the crew and passengers of their survival. The reason for this certainty, he says, is his own destiny to arrive at Rome. Once again we touch here the theme of Rome as the goal of this entire story. It is a matter of destiny — dei — “it must be” (verses 24,26; cf. 19:21; 23:11).

Tuesday, August 22

Luke 3.21-38: Luke is the only evangelist to mention that Jesus was praying at the time of his baptism. Indeed, this is Luke’s first reference to the prayer of Jesus. That is to say, the Lord’s prayer on that occasion is something to which Luke deliberately intends to direct our attention.

The words conveyed by the “voice from heaven” provide us with both the sum and the setting of everything the Father has to say to His Son. The Father’s “command,” His entole, is embraced in the double affirmation, “You are My beloved Son; in you I am well pleased.” These words express, not only the identity of Jesus, but also the salvific will of the Father with respect to His Son’s destiny.

When the Father addresses him as “beloved Son” and declares Himself “well pleased,” Jesus is not hearing something new, as it were, a reality hitherto un-suspected. On the contrary, these expressions resonate deeply in his mind and consciousness, taking narrative shape through certain biblical references with which he was familiar from his years of youthful study in the synagogue. Much earlier in Jesus’ life, according to Luke, Jesus confessed his responsibility to his Father: “Did you not know that I must be about the things of my Father?” (Luke 2:49)

In the Father’s message to Jesus at the time of the baptism, two biblical refer-ences, in particular, seem obvious: The first is the divine command Abraham received with respect to his son, Isaac:

Take now your son, your only one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you (Genesis 22:2).

That biblical story, the memory of which was evoked by the “voice from heav-en,” summoned Jesus to take on Isaac’s sacrificial burden. Even before begin-ning the other tasks of his ministry, Jesus is made aware of the Father’s will with respect to his destiny; He is the true beloved Son.

The reference to Isaac and Abraham in this scene is even more apparent if we consider the Greek (Septuagint) version of Genesis 22:2, where the Hebrew word for “only” (yahid) is changed to “beloved” (agapetos): “Take your beloved son, whom you love . . .” This is the identical adjective in the Father’s address to His Son in the baptismal scene.

The second biblical reference evoked by the voice from heaven came from the Book of Isaiah and introduced God’s mysterious Suffering Servant: “Behold! My Servant whom I uphold; / My soul delights in My chosen one. / I have put My Spirit upon him” (42:1). We observe that the vocation of the beloved Servant, the chosen one in whom God’s “soul delights,” is indicated by the descent of the Spirit, exactly as in Luke’s account of the Baptism.

Although I have translated this Isaian prophecy as it appears in the traditional Hebrew text, the early Christians were familiar with another version of it, a Greek translation closer to the Aramaic words Jesus heard at his baptism. Mat-thew quotes the passage thus: “Behold! My Servant whom I have chosen, My beloved (agapetos) in whom My soul is well pleased! / I will put My Spirit upon him” (Matthew 12:18).

Thus, in the Holy Spirit’s descent on Jesus and in the Father’s voice addressing him as “Son,” the scene of the baptism recalls both Isaac and the beloved Suf-fering Servant; as we shall see, these two images came to determine Jesus’ un-derstanding of the Father’s will for him.

In the evocation of these two Old Testament texts—in the Father’s communi-cation to Jesus while he prays—the beloved Son and the true Isaac are identi-fied as one and the same with the Suffering Servant. According to Luke, Jesus learned this identification in his prayerful communion with the Father.

In Luke’s scene of Jesus’ baptism we are presented with the theandric con-science of Christ, praying to his Father and being addressed by his Father. He experiences the call and command of his Father in a personal encounter. Jesus is changed by this encounter. He is different by reason of what he experienced in his baptism. A revelation has taken place in this meeting with his Father. The Holy Spirit come upon him and drives him into the wilderness for another en-counter, his scheduled meeting with Satan.

Wednesday, August 23

Luke 4.1-13: Jesus meets the first temptation—“If You are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread”—by declaring, “Man shall not live by bread alone.” This verse is lifted from the middle of Deuteronomy 8:1-6, which refers to ancient Israel’s murmuring at the loss of their (alleged) better diet in Egypt (Exodus 16; Numbers 11).

Jesus answers the second temptation—the promise of world domination in ex-change for fealty to Satan—by affirming, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.” This verse appears within Deuteronomy 6:10-15, in reference to Israel’s repeated disposition to seek advantage by worshipping alien gods (12:30-31; Exodus 23:23-33).

Jesus responds to the third temptation—“Throw yourself down from here”—by proclaiming, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” This text, Deuteronomy 6:16, refers to Israel’s constant disposition to tempt the Lord in the desert (cf. Exodus 17:1-7).

In all His temptations in the wilderness, then, the faithful response of Jesus is placed in direct contrast to Israel’s infidelity during those forty sinful years of wandering.

It is a feature of Luke’s account, and a point of contrast with that of Matthew, that Jesus’ final temptation takes place at the Temple in Jerusalem. This fits a pattern in Luke’s gospel, which both begins and ends at that place.

Acts 27.39—28.6: Arriving on Malta, perhaps in mid-November, Paul and his companions must winter there until sailing again becomes possible in the spring, three months later (28:11). The apostle’s run-in with the snake, though regard-ed by the Maltese as miraculous, need not be interpreted that way. The Greek word here translated as “viper” (echidna) normally refers to non-poisonous snakes and is different from the word used in Mark 16:18.

Psalm 122 (Greek & Latin 121): This is a psalm about Jerusalem, obviously, but what Jerusalem? Surely not any city we may find on a map. And certainly not that rebellious city, “not willing” to repent, that killed the prophets and stoned those who were sent to her (Matt. 23:37). Most emphatically not that city “where also our Lord was crucified” (Rev. 11:8). Nor, indeed, that city where the eagles gathered together, as around a carcass, nor one stone thereof was left upon another (Matt. 24:2, 28).

Jerusalem in Psalm 122 is, rather, the city on high of which it was written, “the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all” (Gal. 4:26). It is the city concerning which it is said to us: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22). It is the city whose name is emblazoned on our brows, “the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God” (Rev. 3:12).

But if this Jerusalem is, firstly, the Church in heaven, it is also the Church on earth, and these two are the one reality that our psalm calls “the abode of shared communion.” Moreover, just as all things are defined by relation to the purposes for which they exist, the Church on earth receives her very identity from the Church in heaven. She exists on earth only with a view to heaven; heaven alone holds the key to her being, for God already “raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6). Our psalm captures both these aspects of Jerusalem. She is the goal of those tribes ascending unto the house of the Lord and, even now, the courts where our feet are standing.

Thursday, August 24

Luke 4.14-30: When it comes time to read the Holy Scriptures in the synagogue service, there is a solemn ritual of carrying the scrolls from the Holy Ark, the Aron Kodesh, where they are kept. This Aron Kodesh is an or-namental cabinet that normally stands on the wall closest to Jerusalem; in common practice today this is the east wall of the synagogue. There are spe-cial chants to accompany the carrying of the Sacred Scrolls to the place where they are read to God’s People.

Now this was the rite that immediately preceded Jesus’ reading of Isaiah in the synagogue that morning in today’s story from Luke.

Acts 28.7-16: Paul’s healing of Publius’s father leads to further healings on the island. When the time comes to depart, they once again sail an Alexandrian grain ship, which has wintered at Malta. Luke includes the detail that its prow is adorned with carved statues of Castor and Pollux, astral gods revered by the sailors who call upon them in times of storm. They sail to Syracuse, on the east coast of Sicily, where they remain three days while the crew unloads old cargo and takes on new. They then cross over to a port on the Calabrian coast, Rhegium (modern Reggio), on the very toe of the Italian boot. Taking advantage of a southerly wind, they then sail up to Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli) on the Bay of Naples, where they find a congregation of Christians.

Some of these Christians immediately rush north to Rome, 125 miles away, to inform the Christians in the capital that Paul is on the way. The apostle and his company, meanwhile, spend a whole week at Puteoli, before continuing their journey overland. Eighty miles later they come to Appian Forum, and ten miles further, to Three Taverns; in both places they are met by Christians who had been forewarned of Paul’s coming by the Christians from Puteoli. They are all glad to see him, of course. They may be thinking of the letter that he wrote them three years earlier from Corinth.

Because he told them he was coming to see them (Romans 15:24), the Chris-tians at Rome had had high hopes for his arrival. That was three years earlier, however, and those hopes had been lowered considerably by the rumor that Paul was languishing in prison in Caesarea (Acts 24:22).

Because the events at Caesarea the previous autumn, culminating in Paul’s ap-peal to a higher court at Rome, had transpired so late in the year–precariously close to the winter, when sea travel and communication were no longer under-taken–apparently no one in Rome had learned of those distant events. We do know that the Jews in Rome knew nothing about them (28:21), so they gain their first information on the matter three days after Paul’s arrival in the city.

Friday, August 25

Acts 28.17-31: Paul invites local Jewish leaders to meet at his lodging, where he is under house arrest (28:16-17). It is significant to Luke’s literary and theo-logical purpose to record Paul’s last rejection by the Jews — the last of so many that he has recounted — in that very city which was the capital of the Gentile world, the city towards which the dynamism of this narrative has been directed. Paul is at last in the capital of the Roman Empire, the city so closely tied to his and Peter’s destinies. It is precisely here that Paul declares to the unbelieving Jews that “this salvation has been sent to the Gentiles” (28:18).

Psalms 132 (Greek & Latin 131): As Israel’s mounting pilgrims neared the top of Mount Zion and beheld the glory of the temple in greater detail, they some-times spoke thus to one another: “See what manner of stones and what build-ings!” (Mark 13:1). They doubtless also reflected, some of them, on how that temple came to be on Mount Zion, and such reflections perhaps go far to ex-plain why Psalm 132 is found toward the end of these “psalms of ascent.” This psalm is concerned, after all, with David’s role in the construction of Jerusa-lem’s temple.

As the pilgrims remembered King David in the context of the temple, they prayed that the Lord would do so too: “O Lord, remember David and all his self-abasement—how he swore unto the Lord, and vowed an oath to the God of Ja-cob.” And exactly what were the terms of David’s oath? “The shelter of my house I shall not enter, nor mount to lie upon my bed; neither close my eyes to sleep, nor let my eyelids drop in slumber, nor give repose unto my brow—till I should find the Lord a place, a shelter for the God of Jacob.”

There are several details in these lines most striking and worthy of comment. First, there is a pronounced delay in the pace. The verses move very slowly and deliberately, as though David were quite tired. Each movement is detailed: en-tering the house, climbing the steps to go to bed, closing the eyelids and resting the eyes, letting the head sink into the pillow. It is the entire process of relaxing and falling asleep. But the irony, of course, is that David is not going to do any of these things! He looks longingly, as it were, at a coveted chance to rest, but he forswears indulging it, until he accomplish this great task of building the Lord a temple.

Second, the reason prompting David to make this vow is that the Lord Himself does not yet have a dwelling comparable to David’s own. (The same word, skenoma, translated here as “shelter,” is used to speak of both David’s house and the Lord’s.) Although the narrative descriptions of David’s resolve (cf. 2 Sam. 7:1–13; 1 Chr. 22:7; Acts 7:46) do not speak specifically of an oath in this respect, we know that David was disturbed by the circumstance that his own dwelling was so much superior to the Lord’s desert tabernacle (2 Sam. 7:2). This sentiment of deep piety in David’s soul is what our psalm calls his praütes, meekness or self-abasement.

Third, we are well advised not to interpret literally every detail of our psalm’s description of David’s oath. Otherwise we might conclude that David never again went to bed, since he did not, in fact, build the temple. Nonetheless, there is good reason to believe that David sometimes went to bed toward the end of his life (cf. 1 Kin. 1:1–4)!

In ascribing this large role to David in the construction of Solomon’s temple, Psalm 131 is in harmony with the perspective in 1 Chr. 28 and 29, where David is described as making the necessary preparations for the building and confer-ring on Solomon the mandate to build it. The affinities between Psalm 131 and the theology of the Chronicler are further indicated by the latter’s recording Solomon quoting a verse from this psalm: “Arise, O Lord God, to Your resting place, / You and the ark of Your strength” (2 Chr. 6:41).