Friday, August 10
2 Peter 3:10-18: Since only God knows the length of the eleventh hour, the Lord’s return will confound all human calculations of its timing. The simile of the thief in the night, for instance, must not be taken literally, because it is never nighttime everywhere at the same time, and the Bible contains no hint that the Lord will return to the earth by following the sequence of its appointed time zones!
This comparison with the thief’s nocturnal entrance was doubtless common among the early Christians (Matthew 24:43; Luke 12:39; 1 Thessalonians 5:2; Revelation 3:3; 16:5). It will all happen with a “rush,” this onomatopoeia corresponding to the Greek verb rhoizedon in verse 10. Watchfulness, therefore, and a holy life are the proper responses to our true situation in this world (verse 11; Matthew 24:42-51; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11). Both heaven and earth will be renewed (verse 13; Isaiah 65:17; 66:22; Revelation 21:1; cf. Romans 8:19-22).
The expression “without spot and without blame” in verse 14 (aspiloi kai amometoi) contains the negative forms of the adjectives describing the false teachers in 2: 13 (spiloi kai momoi). Peter’s reference to Paul indicates his familiarity with more than one Pauline epistle and probably suggests that Paul’s letters were already being gathered into collections and copied. Peter likewise testifies to the difficulties attendant on the understanding of Paul’s message. Christian history bears a similar witness, alas, in the modern divisions that have arisen among Christians over their differing interpretations of Paul. Paul himself was aware, even then, that some Christians were distorting his thought (Romans 3:8).
Satruday, August 11
Mark 14:32-42: Quoting select Bible verses to prove a point of theology is usually, at best, a risky business, because what the Bible may say on a given subject is, as often as not, difficult to reduce to a single proposition. Let me cite the example of petitionary prayer in order to illustrate this risk and also to initiate a reflection on the subject of such prayer.
Times out of mind I have been told by sincere Christians that the promise given by Jesus—the promise of His Father’s granting us whatsoever we ask in His name (John 16:23-24)—is absolute and “allows of no exceptions.” Some folks, citing this text, go on to remark that even the addition of “if it is Thy will” bespeaks a want of sufficient faith, inasmuch as it suggests that the person making the prayer is failing in confidence that his prayer will be answered. That is to say, a prayer containing an “if,” because it is ipso facto hypothetical, expresses an inadequate faith. What the believer should do, I have been told, is simply “name it and claim it.”
What the Bible has to say about petitionary prayer, however, is contained in many biblical verses, all of them worthy of careful regard. For example, should we say that the Apostle Paul, when he prayed three times that the Lord would remove from him the thorn in his flesh, the angel of Satan sent to buffet him (2 Corinthians 12:8), was wanting in faith because this severe affliction was not taken away?
If this was the case—if the Apostle to the Gentiles really was so deficient in personal faith—it is no wonder that he was obliged to leave Trophimus sick at Miletus (2 Timothy 4:20). Poor ailing Trophimus, languishing there on his sickbed; he should have been prayed over by a person with a sounder, fuller, more unfailing faith, not that slacker Paul, a man apparently deficient in the art of naming it and claiming it.
The truth of the subject, however, is quite different. The addition, “if it is thy will,” is neither a limitation imposed on our confidence nor a restriction laid on our prayer. It expresses, rather, a constitutive feature of true prayer and an essential component of faith. The real purpose of prayer, after all, is not to inform God what we want, but to hand ourselves over more completely, in faith, to what God wants. The purpose of prayer, after all, even the prayer of petition, is living communion with God. The man who tells God, then, “Thy will be done,” does not thereby show himself a weaker believer but a stronger one.
After all, was Jesus, “the author and perfecter of our faith,” weak in faith when He added the “Thy will be done” to the petition “Take this cup from Me”? Did He not, rather, give us in this form of His petition the very essence of true prayer?
“If it is Thy will,” then, is not a limit on our trust, but an expansion of it. It does not denote a restriction of our confidence but an elevation of it. It is an elevation, because such a prayer—“Thy will be done”—we grow in personal trust in the One who has deigned, in His love, to become our Father. Indeed, when Jesus makes this prayer in the Garden, the evangelists are careful to note exactly how He addressed God—namely, as “Father.” Indeed, they even preserve the more intimate Semitic form, “Abba.”
The “will of God” in which we place the trust of our petition is not a blind, arbitrary, or predetermined will. It is, rather, the will of a Father whose sole motive (if this word be allowed) in hearing our prayer is to provide loving direction and protection to His children. “According to Thy will” is spoken to a Father who loves us because in Christ we have become His children.
All of this theology was contained in Jesus’ prayer in the Garden, by which His own human will was united with the will of God. Jesus, in praying that for the doing of God’s will, modeled for us the petition contained in the prayer that He gave us in the Sermon on the Mount. This prayer, which significantly begins with “Our Father,” goes on to plead that His will may be done.
Sunday, August 12
Mark 14:43-52: Only in the Gospel according to Mark do we find the brief but colorful account of the young man who was apparently “spying” on the Lord’s arrest in Gethsemane: “Now a certain young man followed Him, having a linen cloth thrown around his naked body. And the young men laid hold of him, and he left the linen cloth and fled from them naked” (14:51–52). There seems more than ordinary merit in the attractive view that that young man was the author of this Gospel, John Mark himself. Who else?
Not much older than a boy, John Mark was the son of a woman named Mary, in whose home the earliest Christians in Jerusalem met for their common worship (Acts 12:12). Also a relative of the Apostle Barnabas (Colossians 4:10), Mark was included in the missionary team of his kinsman and St. Paul (Acts 12:25; 13:5).
After their mission to Cyprus, where Barnabas and Mark may have been among relatives (cf. Acts 4:36), the young man evidently became discouraged and probably homesick, so he left the party and returned to his mother (13:13). His departure, understandably, did not sit well with St. Paul, to whom Mark must have seemed something of a wimp and a mommy’s boy, hardly suitable for the rough work of the ministry.
Later, when Barnabas wanted to take his youthful kinsman along on the next missionary journey, Paul objected. Indeed, the altercation between Paul and Barnabas became so heated that they decided to split up the mission into two teams, leaving Barnabas free to take John Mark with him back to Cyprus (15:37–41).
St. Paul’s disapproval of Mark did not last long, though it is possible that the latter’s reputation became damaged in the Pauline churches. This would explain why Paul, even several years later, thought it necessary to tell the Colossians to welcome Mark (Colossians 4:10), who was apparently with him at the time (Philemon 24). It is instructive that St. Paul very favorably mentioned Mark within the very last lines that we have from his pen: “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is
useful to me for ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11).
This verse would also explain how Mark got to Rome, for he most certainly got to Rome. We find him there with St. Peter shortly afterwards (1 Peter 5:13). John Mark stayed on at Rome several years more as an assistant to St. Peter, following whose death he went to Alexandria in Egypt, becoming the first bishop of that city.
When he arrived at Alexandria, Mark was carrying a copy of a small work that he had written while he was still back in Rome. It was the Gospel that bears his name (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.16.1). Early historical testimony to Mark’s writing is remarkably uniform.
Monday, August 13
Psalm 89, which we pray today, is composed of three parts. The first has to do with God’s activity in the creation of the heavens and the earth, the second with His covenant and promise with respect to the house of David, and the third with certain crises of history that threaten that covenant and put its promise at peril. All three themes are organically connected.
To see how these three realities are joined within the Christian mystery, we may begin with a text from St. Clement of Alexandria around the year 200. He wrote that “the ancient and catholic Church stands alone in essence and idea and principle and preeminence, gathering together, by the will of the one God, through the one Lord, into the unity of the one faith, built upon the appropriate covenants, or rather the one covenant given at different times, all those who are already enlisted in it, whom He foreordained, having known from the foundation of the world that they would be righteous” (Stromateis 7.17.107).
In sum, all of God’s dealings with this world are of whole cloth, including the grace of creation. All the historical covenants are expressions of the one covenant. From the beginning of time there has been only one God, one Lord, one faith.
The mystery of Christ was already present, then, when the voice of God called out into the aboriginal darkness of non-being, “Let there be light.” Christ is no afterthought in the divine plan; God has no relations with this world except in Christ. Even when the Father’s voice imposed form over the chaos of nonexistence, it was the form contained in His Word, who is His Son. God’s covenant with creation was the initial exercise in applied Christology.
The first part of our psalm, taking up the theme of this divine imposition of form over chaos, emphasizes the structural constancy of the universe, but already this cosmic theme is introduced in a setting best described as messianic. That is to say, already anticipating the psalm’s second part, the permanence of the Davidic throne is related to the unvarying dependability of the heavenly bodies, for both things are given shape by God’s holy word and sworn resolve: “For You declared: ‘Mercy shall be built up forever.’ Your truth is prepared in the heavens: ‘A covenant have I formed with my chosen ones; to David my servant I swore an oath: Forever will I provide for your seed; I shall establish your throne unto all generations.’ The heavens will confess Your wonders, O Lord, and Your truth in the church of Your saints.”
Now, as Christians, we know that God’s solemn promise to David, with respect to the everlasting stability of his throne, is fulfilled in the kingship of Christ, for the Son of David now sits forever enthroned at God’s right hand, executing both prophecy and promise. Only in Christ do we find the key to the mystery of this psalm: “Once I swore by My holiness, nor would I ever lie to David. His seed shall abide forever, and his throne as the sun in My sight, and like the moon forever established, a faithful witness in heaven.”
The theological bond, then, joining the creation to David, is Christ: “God . . . has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds. . . . But to the Son He says: ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.’ . . . And: ‘You, Lord, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, / And the heavens are the work of Your hands’” (Heb. 1:1, 2, 8, 10). The regal, messianic covenant of sonship is related to the fixed structure of the very world, because both realities are rooted in Christ. As font and inner form, He is their common warrant.
In fact, nonetheless, both things, God’s creation and His covenant, appear ever under threat throughout history, which theme brings us to the third part of our psalm. In this section we pray repeatedly for God’s vindication of the messianic covenant, which man in his rebellion endeavors ever to overthrow. Indeed, in our own times this struggle seems to have intensified and entered a new phase. After deism, rejecting God’s messianic covenant with us in Christ, strove to content us solely with the rational structure of creation, it was only a short time before creation itself came under siege. Now we live in a world where even the clearest manifestations of intelligent order are routinely dismissed as chaos, so grievously has the human spirit lost its use of reason.
Tuesday, August 14
Joshua 14: This chapter begins the section in which the land of Canaan is divided by allotment, in accord with the command that Joshua received in the previous chapter (13:1,7).
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 loyal, 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 multitude 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 century earlier. Caleb stands forever in the Bible as the model of such perseverance as leads to a great reward.
Wednesday, August 15
Luke 1:26-38: In the Gospel according to St. Luke and its companion work, The Acts of the Apostles, there are clear indications of the author’s sustained and explicit preoccupation with the Holy Spirit. This characteristic of Luke becomes obvious if one simply counts the number of his references to the theme. While Matthew mentions the Holy Spirit twelve times and Mark only six, there are no fewer than seventeen such references in Luke’s Gospel and fifty-seven in Acts.
Some of the evidence for Luke’s preoccupation is subtle and likely to be detected only by close inspection, comparing him to the other evangelists. For example, whereas Matthew’s version of a certain teaching of the Lord on prayer reads, “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him” (7:11), in Luke’s rendering of that verse the Lord’s closing comment says: “How much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him” (11:13). Similarly, if we examine a prayer of our Lord as recorded
in both Matthew 11:25–27 and Luke 10:21–24 (“I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth . . .”), we observe that only Luke begins by saying that “Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit” (“Holy” being the better textual reading here, included in the two earliest codices of the New Testament).
Not all the evidence is so subtle, however, nor will most readers fail to observe that both of Luke’s books begin and end with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:15, 35; 24:49; Acts 1:4, 5, 8; 2:4ff; 28:25). Likewise, Luke especially speaks of individuals designated, or acting, or speaking under the influence of the Holy Spirit. These include Simeon (Luke 2:25–27), Philip (Acts 8:29, 39), Peter (10:19; 11:12), Paul (20:22–23; 21:4), Agabus (11:29; 21:11), the presbyters at Ephesus (20:28), the Apostles
generally (Acts 5:32; 13:2, 4; 15:28; 16:6–7), and especially Jesus Himself (Luke 4:1, 14, 18; Acts 10:38).
“Filled with the Holy Spirit,” moreover, is a favorite expression of Luke, which he uses to describe Zacharias (Luke 1:67), Peter (Acts 4:8), Paul (9:17; 13:9, 52), Barnabas (11:24), and even the entire congregation at Jerusalem (Acts 4:31). This expression is especially prominent with respect to Stephen, who is several times described this way (Acts 6:3, 5, 10; 7:55).
Luke’s earliest and arguably most significant use of this expression refers to John the Baptist, of whom Gabriel tells Zacharias: “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15). This striking prophecy is fulfilled only twenty-six verses later, when the unborn infant’s response to this filling with the Holy Spirit is to jump for joy inside his mother’s body. Indeed, the mother herself is filled with the Holy Spirit: “And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting
of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41). Furthermore, Elizabeth will credit this outpouring of the Holy Spirit to the sound of Mary’s voice: “For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy” (1:44).
And what does the Holy Spirit prompt Elizabeth to say to Mary? “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (1:42). This is the way that one addresses the Mother of God, if one is filled with the Holy Spirit. This point is emphatic.
The word “blessed” in Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary is not the makarios, or “happy,” of the Beatitudes (though this is used in the same context in Luke 1:45, 48). It is, rather, eulogemene, the participle of the verb “to bless.” This particular “blessed” is of the same root as the “blessed” (eulogetos) in Zacharias’s “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel,” a detail surely significant inasmuch as Zacharias himself is also described in that passage as “filled with the Holy Spirit” when he said it (1:67–68).
Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary was bound to become part of the faith and piety of God’s Church, inasmuch as it is explicitly said to have been given by the Holy Spirit. Like “Abba, Father” (Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:15) and “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3), “Blessed are you among women” is a pronouncement prompted by the Holy Spirit. “Blessed are you among women” pertains to the Spirit-given substance of the Christian faith. Like Elizabeth who “cried out with a loud voice,” Christians
render this identical greeting to the one whom they know as “the mother of my Lord” (1:42–43).
Thursday, August 16
Psalm 105: It is common to think of the Greeks as the first people to arrive at the notion of “history,” understood as the ability to perceive and narrate a single, coherent texture of many diverse events united by patterns of cause and effect. Thus, in the very first work to be called Historiai, in the fifth century before Christ, Herodotus was able to unite into a single interpretive picture the diverse accounts of several peoples and empires on three continents, over several centuries, as they came to bear on the Persian invasion of Asia Minor and Greece. Herodotus, therefore, is commonly called the world’s first historian.
In fact, however, since at least the reign of Solomon five centuries earlier, Israel had already demonstrated an analogous ability to trace coherent, interpretive patterns uniting historical events over an even longer period of time. These discerned patterns, further elaborated by later inspired authors, eventually became the panoramic vision of biblical history.
In Greek history, as in the formal Greek science that was beginning about the same time, the perspective was what we may call secular, in the sense that the empirical data were arranged into intelligible patterns requiring no transcendent or divine explanation. Much as the modern social sciences attempt to adopt the methodology of the physical sciences, so ancient Greek historiography tended to follow certain perspectives and procedures developed for Greek physical science. In this way both Greek history and Greek science represented a break with traditional mythology, which had endeavored to interpret observable phenomena by recourse to religious explanation.
In Israel’s historiography, on the other hand, all was theology. The unifying theme was God’s governance of events through various interventions, whether by perceived phenomena (miracles, apparitions, direct speech) or by that subtle, secret influence of divine activity that we have come to call God’s providence. It was to this latter that St. Paul referred when he wrote: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).
One small biblical exercise in the narrative tracing of such a pattern is Psalm 105, the first of three consecutive psalms structured on detailed historical narrative. While their varying constructions show no original relationship joining them, the first two are arranged in the Psalter in such a way as to suggest an overlapping sequence. Thus, Psalm 105 begins with Abraham and ends with the Sinai covenant, while Psalm 105 begins with the Exodus and ends with the period after the Conquest.
Even the most casual reader will also note the similarities of Psalm 105 with Psalm 78 with respect to historical outline. These differ from one another considerably in inspiration, however. That earlier psalm especially emphasizes the repeated infidelities of the people, whereas Psalm 105 concentrates entirely on praising God for His providential directing of Israel’s history.
Following the primitive schema preserved in Deuteronomy 26:1–9, the narrative of Psalm 105 breaks into three parts: the Patriarchs, the sojourn in Egypt, and the Exodus, all of them joined by the themes of God’s fidelity to His covenant promises and His active providence in fulfilling them.
While the whole psalm deals with God’s providence on behalf of all the people, the second section, dealing with the sojourn in Egypt, also includes what we may think of as “individual” providence. What the Bible portrays as God’s care for the history of the whole people of Israel is shown also to be at work in the life and destiny of a single man. It is the awesome story of Joseph and God’s care for him through many trials. Sold by his brothers into Egypt, falsely accused and unjustly imprisoned, forsaken for twenty years, the faith of Joseph was still able to say, at the end: “God sent me before you to preserve life. . . . God sent me before you. . . . But as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 45:5, 7; 50:20). Joseph’s faith in God’s providence, even as he was proved by steel and fire, is preserved also in this psalm: “[God] sent a man before them, Joseph, sold into slavery. They humbled his feet with fetters; his soul was shackled in iron. Until his word came to pass, the word of the Lord seared through him.”
Friday, August 17
Acts 28:1-16: 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 regarded 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.
Paul’s healing of Publius’s father, however, certainly is miraculous and 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.