Friday, February 16

Matthew 12:22-30: The Lord’s work of driving out of demons is once again (cf. 9:32-34) the object of controversy, as His enemies allege that this power comes from Jesus’ collusion with the dark forces themselves. Among the Synoptic accounts of this controversy (cf. Mark 3:2030; Luke 11:14-23) only Matthew records a healing from blindness in the context. This liberation of a man from satanic darkness is contrasted by the example of those who remain steadfast in their own blindness of heart. Having made up their minds to destroy Jesus, they become ever more inveterate in their sins. Hence, this story leads immediately to the theme of the unforgiven sin, the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

Romans 5:12-21: Having earlier treated of Abraham and David in regard to justification, Paul now turns to a consideration of Adam, whose sin introduced death into the world. Our mortality is the Fall that we sinners inherit from Adam. If, apart from Christ, sins reigns, “sin reigns in death” (verse 21). By reason of Adam’s Fall, man without Christ is under the reign of death and corruption, because “the reign of death operates only in the corruption of the flesh” (Tertullian, On the Resurrection 47).

In the death and resurrection of Christ, on the other hand, are unleashed the energies of life and incorruption. This is the foundation of Paul’s antithetical comparison of Christ and Adam.

Paul goes to Genesis 3 to explain what he calls “the reign of death” (verses 14,17). In the Bible death is not natural, nor is it merely biological, and certainly it is not neutral. Apart from Christ, death represents man’s final separation from God (verse 21; 6:21,23; 8:2,6,38). The corruption of death is sin incarnate and rendered visible. When this “last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:56) has finally been vanquished, then may we most correctly speak of “salvation.” This is why the vocabulary of salvation normally appears in Romans in the future tense.

Because of men’s inheritance of Adam’s Fall, “all sinned.” (Paul is not considering infants here, but this consideration makes no difference to the principle. What has been handed on in Adam’s Fall is not, in the first instance, a sense of personal guilt, but the reign of death. “Sin reigns in death” [verse 21]. Infants, alas, are also the heirs of death, and therefore of Adam’s Fall.)

In what sense did Adam’s sin make all men sinners? By the transmission of death as the human inheritance. “Sin reigns in death” (verse 21). In the Bible, death apart from Christ is man’s final and definitive separation from God, which is the essence of sin. Men are conceived and born as sinners because death reigns in their very being. Death is the essence of Adam’s legacy to the human race. It is from the reign of death that Christ came to set us free. Our salvation will be complete when our bodies themselves have been set free from the tyranny of death.

Saturday, February 17

Matthew 12: 31-37: Strictly speaking there is no “unforgivable” sin, because God’s mercy stands ready to forgive any sin of which repent. The whole business of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is that it is, by definition, the sin of which men do not repent. It is total and inveterate blindness of heart, in which men can no longer discern the difference between light and darkness. Such appears to be the sin of which the Lord’s enemies are guilty in these texts where we find them plotting His death.

It is sometimes the case that those disposed to anxiety are spiritually tortured by the fear that they many have committed the unforgiveable sin. However, one may usually presume, from a pastoral perspective, that those Christians who fear they may have committed such a sin are the ones least likely to have done so. Indeed, their very fear is strong evidence that they have not done so, inasmuch as this particular sin denotes great hardness of heart. They who have committed it are those who no longer even think about repentance and feel no need for it.

Romans 6:1-14: At their baptism in the faith of Christ, Christians are plunged under the water in sacramental imitation of Jesus’ burial, and their emergence from that water symbolizes in mystery Christ’s rising from the tomb. Baptism, therefore, is regarded by Paul as the normative and essential foundation for the life in Christ (verses 4-5,8; Colossians 2:15; Ephesians 2:5-6; 1 Peter 4:1).

It is instructive to observe that Paul expects all Christians to know this, even those who have never met him or heard him preach (verse 3). He presumes this doctrine to pertain to the common deposit of the Christian faith that he himself received from the inherited apostolic teaching. Indeed, such explicit teaching about the significance of baptism was part of the pre-baptismal catechesis, in which new believers learned the meaning of what they were about to do (cf. Hebrews 6:1-2; Acts 19:1-5).

But faith and baptism form only the beginning. The life in Christ involves also a concerted effort and striving in order to bring the believer’s conduct into conformity with the mystery symbolized and effected in baptism-which is to say, death unto sin, life unto God. The new life in Christ aims at the reconfiguration of the human being (verse 4; 2 Corinthians 5:17).

The basis on the believer’s rejection of sin is not a law external to him; it is an inner identification with the Lord who has conquered sin and death, “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). The final goal is our own bodily resurrection from the dead at the end of time. As we considered earlier, this will be the fullness of salvation (verse 5).

Sunday, February 18

Matthew 4:1-11: For many centuries, the story of Jesus’ 40-days has served as the reading of the Western Church for the First Sunday of Lent (Anglo-Saxon term for “spring”), the season during which new believers are prepared for Baptism.

From earliest times, some such preparation was considered important. Even the Apostle Paul prayed and fasted for three days prior to being baptized (Acts 9:9,11,18). In The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (Didache), a work from Syria before A.D. 100, there is the prescription that says: “Prior to Baptism, both he who is baptizing and he who is being baptized should fast, along with any others who can. And be sure that the one who is to be baptized fasts for one or two days beforehand” (7.4). One notes in this context that this fasting is a community effort, involving more than the personal devotion of the one being baptized.

That communal aspect of the pre-baptismal fasting is even clearer in a text some half-century or so later. Writing a defense of the Christians to the Emperor Antoninus Pius, the Christian apologist Justin described how newcomers to the faith went about getting themselves baptized: “As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their past sins, while we pray and fast with them. Then they are brought by us to where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated” (First Apology 61). Written in Rome, this text also shows that the pre-baptismal fast was not a practice limited to Syria.

Indeed, within the next half-century we find that discipline referred to in North Africa. In chapter 20 of his treatise On Baptism, the Christian apologist Tertullian remarks: “They who are about to be baptized ought to pray with repeated prayers, fasts, and bending of the knee, and vigils all the night through, along with the confession of all their prior sins.” Tertullian does not explicitly say that the fasting period should last 40 days, but he does link it to the 40-day fast of Jesus recorded in the Gospels.

Gradually the Christians did settle on a period of 40 days, and the custom was so firmly in place by year 325 that the Council of Nicaea, the same council that definitively fixed the canon of the New Testament, also determined that the 40 days preceding Easter should be a special time of prayer and fasting in preparation for the baptisms to be done on that day. Such were the origins of the season of Lent, which Christians from the fourth century onwards were very convinced were rooted in the time and teaching of the apostles themselves.

The fasting observed during this season is not, needless to say, total. Over the centuries it especially came to mean simply a tougher, more disciplined diet, excluding more “substantial” foods like meat, eggs, and dairy products. Such fasting is accompanied by other practices of restraint, to encourage concentration on the things of God and the health of the soul. For example, many Christians foreswear watching television during this season. These disciplines are normally part of a stricter seasonal regimen, of which the most important components are spending more time in worship and devoting more attention to the study of Holy Scripture.

Since almsgiving is supposed to be a normal part of Lent as well, many Christians give as alms the money saved from the restricted Lenten diet. In this way, all three traditional ascetical practices (prayer, fasting, almsgiving – cf. Matthew 6) receive special attention during Lent.

Monday, February 19

Matthew 12:38-42: Both examples given here, the Ninevites and the queen from southern Arabia, are Gentiles, those of whom Matthew has just been speaking in 12:18-21. The figures of Jonah and Solomon should also be understood here as representing the prophetic and sapiential traditions of Holy Scripture.

Jesus is the “greater than Jonah,” whose earlier ministry foreshadowed the Lord’s death and Resurrection and also the conversion of the Gentiles. The Lord’s appeal to Jonah in this text speaks also of Jonah as a type or symbol of the Resurrection. The men of Nineveh, who repented and believed, are contrasted with the unrepentant Jewish leaders who refuse to believe in the Resurrection (cf. 28:13-15). Matthew will return to the sign of Jonah in 16:2. Jesus is also the “greater than Solomon,” who was founder of Israel’s wisdom literature and the builder of the Temple.

The Queen of the South, that Gentile woman who came seeking Solomon’s wisdom, likewise foreshadowed the calling of the Gentiles. She was related to Solomon as the Ninevites were related to Jonah—as Gentiles who met the God of Israel through His manifestation in the personal lives of particular Israelites.

It is a point of consolation to observe that in neither case—whether Solomon or Jonah—were these Israelites free from personal faults!

Romans 7:1-6: Already in this epistle Paul has touched on the function of the Law with respect to the reign of sin and death. In the present chapter, he treats this theme in a more ample fashion. How is it, he wonders, that something so godly as the Law, given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, should actually serve the interests of sin and death?

When Paul had reflected on the historical function of the Law a few years earlier, his attitude had been more positive (Galatians 3:22-23): “we were kept under guard by the Law.” Now, however, it has become clear here in Romans that Paul’s views of the Law have shifted and deepened (3:20,31; 4:15; 5:13,20). They have shifted in the direction of a dialectic and deepened in the perception of a mystery.

The real problem, Paul will argue here in Romans, was not with the Law in itself; the problem was in man, whose bondage to sin and death rendered him incapable of observing the Law. The Law, remaining external to man, did not alter him within. Grace, he will argue later in this epistle, alters man from within.

To illustrate the Christian’s freedom from the Law, Paul resorts to an analogy prompted by his considerations of death in the previous chapter. He compares the Law to the regulation of marriage, which provides for the dissolution of marriage at the death of one of the partners. Now, as has already been shown, Christians died to sin in their baptism. Since they are dead, therefore, the Law can make no further claim over them (cf., also, 6:9,14).

Tuesday, February 20

Matthew 12:43-50: If we compare this story of Jesus’ relatives to the account in Mark 3:31-35, several features are found to be particular to Matthew: (1) Matthew omits the view of Jesus’ relatives that He had lost His mind (Mark 3:21); (2) Only Matthew uses the word “disciples” here; this is a text, then, about the “disciplizing” which He will command in the Great Commission; (3) Instead of “God” here, Matthew speaks of “my Father in heaven.” In short, Matthew portrays our relationship to Jesus as a new set of family relationships, under the Fatherhood of God; these new relationships transcend those relationships established by blood. In due course, however, we do find the fleshly relatives of Jesus within the body of the believers (cf. Acts 1:14).

Romans 7:7-12: Paul adopts the first-person singular to speak on behalf of the human race, which has experienced the transitions of its moral history. The “I” in these verses, then, is the whole human race coming to grips with sin, death, and the Law. (On Paul’s use of the “I” to designate men or believers in general, cf. 14:21; 1 Corinthians 8:13; 13:1-3,11-12; 14:6-19.)

The Law in these verses is the Mosaic Law, but the latter is understood in such a way as to include those adumbrations of the Law known earlier than, and apart from, Moses (cf. Sirach 17:4-11; 44:20). Indeed, even Adam knew certain components of the Law (cf. Theophilus of Antioch, Ad Autolycum 2.24; Ambrose of Milan, De Paradiso 4).

Paul’s argument is easily summarized. Man is made a moral agent only when he is faced with a moral responsibility. If there are no commandments that might be disobeyed, sin is lifeless (verse 8). A commandment, however, revives sin, as it were (verse 9), thus putting man into the realm of death (verse 10; 5:13). That is to say, by means of this very good commandment (verse 12), sin brings man to death (verse 11).

Psalms 47 (Greek & Latin 46): The Ascension of Christ into glory is the object of biblical prophecy, especially in several places in the Book of Psalms. One of the more notable places is a psalm appointed for this day: “God has ascended with jubilation, the Lord with the sound of the trumpet. Oh sing to our God, sing! Sing to our King, sing!” This is an invitation to us on earth, a summons to join our voices in jubilation with the angels on high. The Ascension of Christ is the event where heaven and earth are joined forever.

David’s taking of the ark of the covenant into the Holy City may be seen as a figure and type of the Lord’s entry into the heavenly Jerusalem, and that long-distant day was likewise marked with the rapture of happiness at God’s approach: “Then David danced before the Lord with all his might; and David was wearing a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting and with the sound of the trumpet” (2 Sam. 6:14, 15).

Our psalm calls for similar marks of celebration at the coming of Christ into the Holy City on high: “Oh, clap your hands, all you peoples! Shout to God with the voice of triumph! For the Lord most high is awesome; He is the great King over all the earth.”

What the Old Testament prophesied in narrative and psalm came finally to pass when God “raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come” (Eph. 1:20, 21).

This psalm of the Ascension, therefore, sends forth its invitation to all the peoples of the earth. By reason of His glorification, all of history and all of culture belong to Christ. All nations are summoned before His throne, to share His exaltation: “God reigns over the nations; God sits on His holy throne. The princes of the peoples are gathered together with the God of Abraham. For all the strong ones of the earth belong to God; they are greatly exalted.”

Wednesday, February 21

Matthew 13:1-9: Matthew 13:1-9: As we now come to the third and central of the five great discourses in Matthew, Jesus once again sits down as teacher (Compare 5:1). Taking up a standard mystic number in Holy Scripture, this discourse will be composed of seven parables: the sown seed, the wheat and tares, the mustard seed, the leaven, the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price, and the fishing net. Four of these, as we will have occasion to note, are found only in Matthew. Even in wording this first parable is nearly identical with Mark 4:1-9.

In this chapter, a sharp distinction is made between those that understand the parable—the ‘insiders”–and those that don’t—the “outsiders” (verse 11). Thus, when the chapter opens, Jesus is speaking to large crowds (verse 2), but afterwards He speaks only to an inner circle and privately (verse 36). This move indicates a change in the focus of the Lord’s ministry and preaching. This change is not surprising, in light of the bitter controversies that have been mounting in Matthew’s narrative.

Jesus begins this sermon by sitting down (verse 1)—the posture of the teacher—just as when He began the Sermon on the Mount (5:1; cf. 24:3). A close reading of this text discloses a striking parallel with Revelation 7:9-12, where a great multitude stands before God seated on the throne beside the sea (4:6).

This first parable, in which most of the sown seed is lost, summarizes Jesus’ own experience, as narrated in the previous chapter. So little of the Gospel, it seems, has fallen on fertile ground. As directed to the Church, this parable urges a sense of modesty about “success” in fruitful preaching. A great deal of the sown Word will simply be wasted.

Romans 7:13-25: Although the “I” in these verses represents the human experience generally considered, it would be wrong to assume that Paul is not speaking from personal experience. Very wrong. Paul knew on his own pulses what it was to offend God. He had offended God grievously. He had experienced the dilemma described in these verses. He was well aware what it meant to be a great sinner, even while meticulously observing the smallest parts of the Mosaic Law (Philippians 3:6; Galatians 1:13-14).

Indeed, it was Paul’s own strict adherence to the Law that had led him to the most serious sin of his life, the only personal sin on which he ever comments — the persecution of Christians. In Paul’s conversion he was made aware, in a way that he would never forget, that his endeavor to achieve righteousness by the observance of the Law had led him into his worst sin: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?”

It was in that experience of his conversion that he discerned “another law in my members, working against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (verse 23).

That is to say, it was his very zeal for the Law of God that had occasioned his worst sin against heaven. He had not been doing what he had intended to do (verse 15). Sin had taken over his life. He had been acting as a slave of sin. Thus, in his conversion Paul learned the experience common to all the children of Adam—the radical inability to find justification before God without the reconciling grace of Christ.

Thursday, February 22

Matthew 13:10-17: If the workings of divine grace are difficult to comprehend, even more difficult to grasp is man’s willful refusal of that grace. Because a choice is both an effect and a cause, there is a tautology in human choice, and like all tautologies it can only be expressed by what seems a circular argument. That is to say, we choose because we choose. This is what is meant by “free” choice.

Mysteriously, then, the refusal to believe is also the punishment for the refusal to believe. These verses are also a sort of explanation of the following section, particularly verses 19 and 23, which contrast the “understanding” and “non-understanding” of God’s Word.

The disciples of Jesus are distinguished, in this respect, from the others who hear the parables. The “to you” is contrasted with the “to them” (verse 11). The “whoever has” is distinguished from the “whoever has not” (verse 12). There is an antithesis between those that see (verse 16) and those that do not see (verse 13).

Matthew thus introduces the historico-theological themes of grace and rejection. To those who have, more will be given, while from those who have nothing, even that will be taken away (verse 12). Matthew will return to this irony in the Parable of the Talents (25:29). The judgment aspect of this antithesis will be illustrated in the suicide of Judas (273-10).

Romans 8:1-11: This section, which climaxes with the promise of God’s victory over death and corruption at the final raising of our bodies (verse 11), introduces a more extensive meditation on the Holy Spirit. The Spirit, hitherto referred to only five times in the previous seven chapters, will be named twenty-nine times in the present chapter, easily the highest concentration in all of Paul’s writings, and even in the whole New Testament.

The grace of justification, “this grace in which we stand” (5:2), comes from the Holy Spirit who abides in us. Unlike the Law, by which we can never be justified, the Holy Spirit is internal to us (verse 2). The indwelling Holy Spirit is the reason of our final salvation, which is the resurrection of our bodies.

If, however, we go back to “live according to the flesh” (verse 5), this flesh which is still destined to die (verse 10), we place ourselves once again under the reign of death.

Those who do so “cannot please God” (verse 8). And pleasing God is the summation of man’s moral duty (1 Corinthians 7:32; 2 Corinthians 5:9; 1 Thessalonians 2:15; 4:1). The grace of justification, therefore, places on the believer a most stern obligation to bring his mind and his conduct under “the things of the Spirit” (verse 5). Only thus will he be truly free of sin, death, and the Law (verse 4).

Man’s real problem was not the Law, but man’s indwelling sin (7:22-23). Inasmuch as it remained external to man, the Law was unable to take away sin (verse 3). Man could not be justified by something that remained external to being. The new, internal principle of his righteousness is the Holy Spirit, who dwells within him (verses 9-11; Jude 9). The requirement of the Law, that is to say, is “fulfilled in us”(verse 4) by the indwelling Holy Spirit.

Friday, February 23

Matthew 13:16-23: The first group in this parable, symbolized in the seed sown by the wayside (verse 19), fails in the matter of the “heart” (a detail missing in Mark 4:15). These do not love God with their whole heart, a condition that renders them vulnerable to attack from the Evil One. Their hearts, which have grown dull, have no understanding (verses 14-15).

The second group, symbolized in the rocky ground, is shallow, so the Word cannot take root (verse 20). These will fall away at the first sign of trouble (verse 21). Matthew had already witnessed such trials in his own lifetime (10:18,21-23). Those who thus falter have failed to love God with their whole soul.

The third group, symbolized by the sowing among the thorns, permits the care for wealth and worldly concern to strangle the life from the Gospel (verse 22). They have failed to love God with all their might.

The fourth group, symbolized in the good ground that receives the seed, has the grace of “understanding,” because of which they bring forth fruit (verse 23). They have fruitful lives. They are later symbolized in the two productive servants in the Parable of the Talents (25:16-17).

Romans 8:12-17: Mortality was the essence of Adam’s legacy to us, the very embodiment of his sin. Salvation is not complete, therefore, until the resurrection of our bodies. Several years earlier Paul had argued that thesis in 1 Corinthians 15. He returns to it several times, as we have seen, in Romans, and he deals with it again in the present passage. The final object of the Christian hope, for Paul, is not even the soul’s departure to be with God in heaven. It is, rather, “the redemption of our body” (verse 23), this very body laid low by death, but from which the Holy Spirit refuses to depart (verse 11).

It is by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of adoption, or sonship (huiothesia—Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5), that we are made the children of God (verses 14-17). It is for this reason that the Lord’s Prayer, the “Our Father,” is supremely the prayer of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, we can only pray it in the Holy Spirit. It is only the Holy Spirit who gives us to say, “Abba, Father,” just as it is only the Holy Spirit who gives us to say, “Jesus is Lord.” Only in the Holy Spirit do we know the identity of the Father and the Son.

The Holy Spirit both makes us the children of God and alters our consciousness so that we know ourselves to be the children of God (verse 16). The Holy Spirit, then, is the new, internal principle by which we are untied to the Father and the Son in knowledge and in love.