November 17 – 24, 2023

Friday, November 17

Luke 22:39-46: We now come to the Agony in the Garden, our (apparently) earliest description of which is found in Hebrews 5:7. This brief description in Hebrews is important, because it indicates that the prayer of Jesus, made “with vehement cries,” was loud enough to be heard by at least some of the Apostles. It is their immediate testimony to the event that lies behind the descriptions in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Luke is the only Evangelist to observe that Jesus was accustomed to spend the night in that place (cf. also 21:37), a custom that explains how Judas knew where to find Him that night.

Luke’s version of the Agony is simplified. He does not, like Matthew and Mark, indicate that the agony lasted a long time. He includes no threefold reprimand to the Apostles, nor does he describe them as fleeing at the time of the Lord’s arrest, nor does he single out three of them as special witnesses to the event.

Indeed, Luke does not even say it happened in a garden. He describes Jesus’ prayer as being made, rather, on a hill, “the Mount of Olives.” In fact, the Garden of Gethsemani is found on the west side of the Mount of Olives, but it is significant that Luke mentions the hill, not the garden. In fact, Luke normally pictures Jesus as praying on hills (cf. 6:12; 9:28).?? Even though verses 43-44 are missing from some of our oldest and best manuscripts of Luke (including Papyrus Bodmer XIV), they were certainly original and should be preserved. It is fairly easy to explain how they might have been left out of copies of the original text, whereas it is virtually impossible to explain how they might later have been added.

In truth, these Lukan features appear so soon after his Gospel’s composition that it seems downright rash to claim they were not part of the “original” text.
For instance, about halfway through the second century, Justin Martyr wrote: “According to the Memoirs [apomnemonevmata—Justin’s common expression for the Gospels], which I say were composed by the Apostles and their followers, His sweat fell down like drops of blood while He was praying” (Dialogue With Trypho 103.8).
This citation, as old as any extant manuscript of Luke, shows that Justin was familiar with the disputed verses. Shortly after Justin, moreover, Irenaeus of Lyons also wrote of the bloody sweat (Adversus Haereses 3.22.2), as did Hippolytus of Rome, who mentioned, as well, the angel who strengthened Jesus (Fragments on Psalms 1 [2.7]). Later, Epiphanius of Cyprus (Ancoratus 31:4-5) and others followed suit.
For these reasons, and because this passage has long been received in the Church as integral to the Lukan text, my comments on these verses will presume Luke’s authorship of them. Let us consider more closely, then, the Lord’s bloody sweat and the angel who strengthened Him.
Saturday, November 18

Revelation 3.7-22: In the letter to the Philadelphian Christians, there appears not a single word of criticism. On the contrary, they are twice praised for their perseverance (verses 8,10). The problem at Philadelphia is external, involving conflict with the local Jews (verse 9), the sort of problem we saw at Smyrna.

“The key of David” (verse 7) alludes to Isaiah 22:22, where Eliakim is described as having exclusive power of the keys. A minister with this power was the man who decided who would and who would not be admitted to the royal presence. In describing Jesus in this way, John asserts that if anyone wants to go to God, he must go through Jesus. This emphasis on the unique mediation and finality of Christ is common throughout the New Testament.

The Christian congregation at Philadelphia is evidently small and of limited resources, but we get the impression that it is about to make significant missionary gains (“open door” — see Acts 14:27; 1 Corinthians 16:9; 2 Corinthians 2:12; Colossians 4:3). Also, there will soon be a trial (verse 10), and those who overcome in that trial will receive the name of God and the name of New Jerusalem (verse 12), the holy city that comes down from heaven (21:2; Galatians 2:9).

St. Paul contrasts the new Jerusalem with the now Jerusalem (he nun Hierousalem), which is simply a city in Palestine (Galatians 4:24-25). By the time that John writes, this latter city, the earthly Jerusalem, has already been destroyed by the Romans.

John’s tone changes dramatically in the letter to the Laodiceans. He is unable to find a single item for which to praise that church. To John’s thinking, the church at Laodicea is a lackluster group of slackers living in an affluent, self-satisfied society. Although this church was evangelized by Paul’s companion Epaphras (Colossians 4:12-13), it has lost its fervor and is now mediocre (verse 16).

The secular city of Laodicea was famous for three things: (1) its large banking interests, (2) its textile industry, and (3) a special eye-salve that the great physician Galen called “Phrygian powder.” John alludes to all three things in verse 18, where the church at Laodicea is told to come to God for (1) gold refined in the fire, (2) clothing to cover its nakedness, and (3) a special anointing of its spiritual eyes. The Laodiceans must admit, in short, that they are “poor, blind, and naked” (verse 17).

There are three points of Christology to note in this letter to Laodicea: (1) Christ in the past; the relationship of Christ to creation (verse 14; cf. Colossians 1:15-18; Hebrews 1:1-3; John 1:3); (2) Christ in the present, exhorting and inviting His Church, communing with those who open to Him (verses 19-20; cf. 19:9; Luke 22:28-30); (3) Christ in the future, rewarding those who vanquish in His name (verse 21; cf. Matthew 19:28). The image of the divine throne appears over forty times in the Book of Revelation. The present mention of it prepares for John’s vision in the following chapter.

Sunday, November 19

2 Chronicles 27: In 2 Kings (15:32-38) scant attention is paid to the reign of Jotham. We know that he was coregent with his father, Uzziah, from roughly 750 to Uzziah’s death in 742; he then reigned on his own from 742 to 735. The sixteen years of his reign include both of these periods. This chronological complexity would explain why Josephus (Antiquities 9.112; 9.12.1) leaves out all time references for Jotham.

Both biblical historians attest of Jotham that “he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord,” each also confesses the king’s inability to exercise much influence over an unfaithful nation. We gain some sense of this national infidelity from the Books of Isaiah and Micah.

The Chronicler goes into some detail about Jotham’s building projects and his conquest of the Ammonites.

Jotham is at least praised for not pursuing his father’s example of usurping rights over the Temple. Also unlike his father, Jotham “ordered his ways before the Lord his God.” This is an expression that we do not often find describing the biblical kings.

It is possible that the biblical authors were puzzled by the reign of Jotham, particularly his inability to get the citizens of Judah to follow his lead. He is not faulted, but the biblical historians do not tell much about him. Jotham did not enjoy the longevity and success that the Book of Proverbs promises to a wise and virtuous man.

Jotham thus becomes a sort of tragic figure, even though the Bible does not stop to reflect on the nature and dynamics of the tragedy, as it does in the case of Job and Qoheleth. Jotham is treated, rather, the way Abner is treated—as a just man who did not, in fact, receive all that a just man can be expected to receive. In these two historical books, Second Kings and Second Chronicles, the Bible does not pause to reflect on this, no more than it does in the case of Abner or, even earlier, righteous Abel.

This chapter on Jotham is, in fact, the shortest chapter written by the Chronicler, and he limits himself to his precise task—to chronicle, to record the story. He advances no thesis with respect to the story. He does suggest, in even the faintest way, how we should view the problem of theodicy implicitly posed by the story. He not only does not answer the question contained in this story. He does not even mention that the story has a question. On all this he remains silent.

We readers, however, taking into consideration the whole of the inspired literature, do acknowledge the question posed by the story of Jotham. We ourselves expect God to treat righteous Jotham as a righteous man should be treated. Jotham’s reign, then, becomes a sort of foreshadowing of the Cross, where the world supremely righteous Man is not treated as we believe a righteous man should be treated.

Monday, November 20

Luke 23:1-12: Alone among the four Evangelists, Luke tells the story of Jesus’ judicial appearance before Herod Antipas on the day of the Crucifixion (verses 6-12). This is the same Herod whom Luke mentions closer to the beginning of his Gospel, at the inauguration of the ministry of John the Baptist (3:1). Thus, in Luke’s literary construction, these two references to Herod Antipas serve to frame Jesus’ public ministry, which, as that evangelist was careful to note, extended “all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John to that day when He was taken up from us” (Acts 1:21-22).

Luke also tells how the animosity of Herod Antipas toward Jesus (cf. Luke 13:31) was later directed against Jesus’ disciples (cf. Acts 12:1, 11). Indeed, Luke regarded the collusion of Antipas and Pontius Pilate, which was sealed at Jesus’ trial (Luke 23:12), as the fulfillment of David’s prophecy (Psalm 2:1ø2) of the gathering of the world’s leaders “against the LORD and against His Christ” (Acts 4:25-27). ??It is significant that Luke, when he tells us of Jesus’ appearance before Antipas on Good Friday, does more than state the bare event. He goes into some detail about how “Herod, with his men of war, treated Him with contempt and mocked Him, arrayed Him in a gorgeous robe, and sent Him back to Pilate” (23:11). This description implies that Luke had access to an eyewitness account of the event, an event at which, as far as we know, no Christian disciple was present. The historian rightly inquires how Luke knew all this.

Moreover, in addition to these external items of the narrative, Luke even addresses the motive and internal dispositions of Antipas, saying that “he was exceedingly glad; for he had desired for a long time to see Him, because he had heard many things about Him, and he hoped to see some miracle done by Him” (23:8). Once again the historian properly wonders how Luke was privy to these sentiments. What was his source for this material, a source apparently not available to the other evangelists?

Luke himself provides a hint toward answering this historical question when he mentions a certain Chuza, described as a “steward” of Herod Antipas. The underlying Greek noun here is epitropos, the same word that refers to the vineyard foreman in Matthew 20:8, but in the Lukan context it more likely points to a high political office, such as a chief of staff.

It does not tax belief to imagine that such a person would be present at Jesus’ arraignment before Herod Antipas. Indeed, this would be exactly the sort of person we would expect to be present on that occasion, when Herod was in Jerusalem to observe the Passover. Furthermore, Chuza is also the sort of person we would expect to be familiar with Herod’s own thoughts, sentiments, and motives with respect to Jesus. ??And how did Chuza’s information come to Luke? Most certainly through Chuza’s wife, Joanna, whom Luke includes among the Galilean women who traveled with Jesus and the Apostles, providing for Him “from their substance” (Luke 8:3).

Tuesday, November 21

Revelation 6.1-17: The opening of the first four seals brings forth four horses, variously colored in a way reminiscent of Zechariah 1:8-11; 6:1-7, though in Revelation the attention is directed more to the riders than to the horses.

The first, the mounted archer on the white horse, symbolizes invasion and war. The mounted archers contemporary with John were the Parthian warriors to the eastern border of the Roman Empire (verses 1-2), on the far side of the Euphrates (cf. 9:14; 16:12).

The second rider, which is like unto it, rides a red horse symbolic of bloodshed and fire. Whereas the first horseman carried a bow, the second carries a sword (verse 4). War invariably leads to famine and starvation, symbolized in the third horse, a black one, whose rider carries a scales to measure the scant remaining food (verses 5-6).

Green, the color of the fourth horse, is the color of white human flesh at the beginnings of decay. The rider of this horse, therefore, is named Death, which perhaps is a metaphor for plague (verse 8), as in the common expression “Black Death” to mean bubonic plague. With war, famine, and disease, the populace is dying too fast to be buried; their rotting corpses are left for the beasts of the field. For this combination of evils, compare our text to Luke 21:9-11.

These afflictions were visited on the world that John knew. In A.D. 62 the Roman legions were defeated by the Parthians to the east (cf. Tacitus, Annals 15.13-17), and there were shortages of food, such as those recorded in The Acts of the Apostles and in Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars (“Domitian” 7). In addition, there were earthquakes, such as those in Asia Minor itself in A.D. 60 (cf. Tacitus, Annals 14.27), volcanic eruptions, such as Vesuvius (cf. Pliny, Letters 6.16), civil war in Rome following the suicide of Nero in 68, and the war in Judea that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. All these events, John is telling us, were the subjects of the Sacred Scroll opened by the Lamb. That is to say, they are all the fulfillment of prophecies in the final times.

Besides the evils that afflict the people of the world, John knows of a special harm visited on Christians. After his description of the four horsemen, therefore, he speaks of the bloody persecution endured by believers (verses 9-11). Their blood (in the biblical idiom, their “souls,” because the soul is in the blood, according to Leviticus 17:11) has run down the side of the altar of sacrifice and pools at its base. They are martyrs, which is the Greek word for “witnesses.” Like the blood of Abel, their blood cries out to God, “How long?” (Compare Isaiah 6:11; Zechariah 1:12; Habakkuk 1:2; Daniel 8:13; 12:6)

The vengeance for which they pray is not a personal vindictiveness (for Christians always forgive their enemies and wish them no harm; this is an absolute rule, allowing no exceptions), but a petition for the fulfilling of God’s righteous historical purposes.

They must wait, however, until the full measure of the martyrs is complete (compare Hebrews 11:40). Their white robes signify their participation in eternal life (cf. 7:13-17). The opening of the sixth seal declares those things that precede the end of the world and the final vindication of the saints.

First come the perturbations of the earth (verses 12-14), and then the effects on human beings (verses 15-17). The sequence of these afflictions follows the order of creation in Genesis 1; namely, (1) earth, (2) sun, (3) moon, (4) stars, (5) firmament, (6) land, (7) man. What John sees, then, is a kind of de-creation, a reversal of what God established, the collapse of the universe.

In the opening of the fifth, sixth, and seventh seals, we also detect the same four colors that accompanied the first four seals: thus, fifth seal, white robes; sixth seal, red moon and black sun; seventh seal, green grass.

Wednesday, November 22

2 Chronicles 30: Because of the special circumstances indicated in the Sacred Text (verse 3), King Hezekiah and his advisors determined to observe the Passover that year one month late (verse 2). This delay could be justified by an extension of a rule given in the Book of Numbers (9:6-12), according to which those who happened to be unclean at the time of Passover could observe it a month later.

This postponement also gave Hezekiah the opportunity to invite the Israelites who formed the remnant of the Northern Kingdom, which had been destroyed by the Assyrians just six or seven years earlier. Because of this gracious overture to the “separated brethren,” those Israelites from whom Judah had been estranged for two whole centuries, there has arisen in modern times the custom of referring to Hezekiah as something of an “ecumenist.” Given the context of its cause, that description appears just.

Hezekiah’s ecumenical effort was only partly successful, but it is instructive to observe the historical significance of that success. His overture to the north was rejected by the major northern tribe, Ephraim (verse 10), but not by everybody. “However,” the Bible says, “some men of Asher, of Manasseh, and of Zebulun humbled themselves and came to Jerusalem” (verse 11 ESV). That is to say, for the first time in two hundred years, pilgrims came to Jerusalem from Galilee.

It was Hezekiah, therefore, who was responsible for the spiritual and theological reunion of Galilee with Judah, after so prolonged a separation. These Galileans had just experienced the real meaning of schism. They still had in their mouths the bitter taste of separation from their own roots. Given a month’s notice, they hastened to Jerusalem for the Passover, where Hezekiah and the men of Judah welcomed them to reunion. Hezekiah thus provides the ecumenical example to be followed.

In his endeavor to re-unite “all Israel,” Hezekiah appears in Chronicles as a kind of new David, for this was exactly what David is credited with doing (1 Chronicles 11:1,4; 15:28). 1 Chronicles 11—12 contains a list of the warriors that joined David from all of Israel’s tribes. It is this reunion of the tribes under the Davidic covenant that Hezekiah has in mind to restore.

The importance of these Galileans to Hezekiah’s reign is indicated by the fact that one of Hezekiah’s later wives was from Galilee (2 Kings 23:36), as was his daughter-in-law (2 Kings 21:19).

This religious unity of Judah and the Galilean tribes was to endure over the centuries, once Galilee was again joined to the Davidic throne. From that point on, pilgrims would came, at the appointed times, to offer their devotion at Solomon’s Temple. We know some things about these Galilean pilgrims. Of one of these Galileans it was said, “His parents went every year to Jerusalem at the Feast of the Passover. And when He was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast” (Luke 2:41-42). Of this same Galilean, some years later, it is recorded, “He remained in Galilee. But when His brothers had gone up, then He also went up to the feast, not openly, but as it were in secret” (John 7:9-10).

Thursday, November 23

Thanksgiving Day: Thanksgiving Day, from the beginning, has been a harvest feast. Its historical roots bind us to our forbearers, just as its theme binds us to nature. Thanksgiving celebrates man’s gratitude for the bounty of God’s fundamental covenant with human beings, according to which

“While the earth remains,
Seedtime and harvest,
Cold and heat,
Winter and summer,
And day and night
Shall not cease.”

This was the covenant with Noah, that primeval compact of God with “every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”

This ancient arrangement of grace, described in Genesis 9:16 as berith ’olam, “a covenant forever,” has never been abrogated, nor can it be, for it rests solely on the infallible promise of a gracious God.

Using the specific technical expressions “give” (natan) and “establish” (haqim), Genesis describes this covenant as both gratuitous and permanent (cf. 9:9, 11, 12, 17).

Symbolized in that heavenly “sign” (’oth) of the rainbow, it is God’s covenant with creation itself: “While the earth remains, / Seedtime and harvest, / Cold and heat, / Winter and summer, / And day and night / Shall not cease” (Gen. 8:22). As such, it is a universal covenant, for Noah is the father of us all.

God’s covenant with Noah, moreover, is universal in two ways—in space and in time.

First, space, and all that it contains. The covenant with Noah is the Lord’s guarantee that His disposition toward His creation will forever stay gracious, that His grace will be hierarchically expressed in the very structure of the natural universe, linking higher and lower natures in a wise and eternal order, and placing all of it under the governance of a provident God.

In particular, the human being, who stands near the top of this covenanted hierarchy of natures, remains forever the special object of God’s salvific attention, and the contract with Noah found its fulfillment in the Incarnation, the Redemption, and the preaching of the Gospel. The very movement of the sun across the sky was regarded by St. Paul as symbolizing the advance of the apostolic proclamation (cf. Rom. 10:18). God’s everlasting mercy is written in the heavens.

Second, time. As we have remarked, Genesis 9 lays particular stress on the permanence of God’s covenant with Noah. It is the contract that binds each generation to both the generations gone before and those yet to appear.

History itself thus becomes hierarchical, as each new generation, learning its language (and therefore the structured patterns of thought and evaluation) from the one preceding it, submits in faith to the accumulated wisdom of ages past, and then, it is hoped, enhances and further refines that wisdom for the children still to come.

The covenant with Noah is, thus, our sacred partnership with history—what Edmund Burke calls “the contract of eternal society,” extending down through the centuries, joining the living with those who have already passed on, with those yet unborn, but most of all with the God who wills all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

This permanent and universal covenant with Noah is the foundation for what the Romans called “piety,” the cultivated, deep, heartfelt respect for our stewardship of tradition, for the ancestral associations whence derives our identity, and for the gracious God above who sanctions the order of the world and invests it with the majesty of His wisdom.

In the celebration of Thanksgiving Day, we are, thus, bound together, not only with fellow Christians, but with all men everywhere and at all times, who depend on the gracious bounty of the Father “ who makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).

Friday, November 24

2 Chronicles 32: Sennacherib sent to Jerusalem a delegation charged to discourage those besieged within the city walls. Comparing this account of the activity of this delegation with the other extant versions of the story (2 Kings 18—19, Isaiah 36—37, Josephus, Antiquities 10.1.1-5), the reader observes the Chronicler’s lack of interest in the many details recorded in those other sources. For example, unlike 2 Kings, he does not provide the date of the invasion, nor does he provide the names of those in Sennacherib’s delegation. In addition, he does not, unlike 2 Kings, tell the great number of the Assyrians who perished (verse 21).

For the Chronicler the great offense of the Assyrians, which he elaborates through verses 16-19, consisted in their equating Israel’s God with all the other gods that they boast of having defeated.

Although the prophet Isaiah was arguable the major religious figure of the day, this is the only place where he is named in the Books of Chronicles (verse 20).

In the event, of course, Jerusalem did not fall to the Assyrians. There were two reasons that seem to have been complementary. First, an angel of the Lord intervened, evidently in the form of a plague that destroyed the bulk of the Assyrian forces (verse 21), and then Sennacherib received word that he was needed back at the capital (2 Kings 19:7). That first explanation is corroborated somewhat by the observation of Herodotus that a plague of mice overran the Assyrian camp. Mice are common bearers of disease and infection.

In any event, the faith and fame of King Hezekiah was extolled in the outcome (verse 23).

The one verse devoted to Hezekiah’s sickness and recovery (verse 24) might be a disappointment to students of the Bible except for the many interesting details filled in by 2 Kings 20:1-11; Isaiah 38:1-8,21-22; and Josephus, Antiquities 10.2.1.

It appears to me that the Chronicler presumes the reader’s prior acquaintance with the details of this story, but he passes over them in order to say more about the king’s state of soul, his lack of gratitude, his pride, but then also his punishment and his humble repentance. This description of Hezekiah’s spiritual trial is found only in Chronicles.

Whereas in Chronicles the description of Hezekiah’s great wealth stands outside of an historical context (verses 27-29), in 2 Kings (20:13) it is placed in the context of the visit of the Babylonians delegation. The Chronicler, in his account of this latter event, shows more interest in Hezekiah’s spiritual state. The diplomatic visit itself is treated without physical details. Indeed, the Chronicler seems to suppose that his readers already know this story; he writes, completely en passant, “and so in the matter of the envoys of the princes of Babylon (verse 21—RSV).

In short, throughout this section the Chronicler manifests more interest in Hezekiah’s state of soul than in his political and military accomplishments. In this respect he receives from the Chronicler pretty much the same attention as David.