Friday, November 16

Luke 18:18-23: This account, which Luke shares with the other Synoptics (Matthew 19:16-22; Mark 10:17-22), is often referenced as the story of “the rich young man.” In fact, however, only Matthew says that the fellow was “young” (neaniskosMatthew 19:22). Bearing in mind that references to youth are always relative (I now find myself using that reference to men in their thirties, for instance), it would be pointless to think of this as an inconsistency among the Evangelists.

The emphasis is different in Mark and Luke, however; indeed, these two quote the fellow to the effect that he had kept all the commandments “since youth” (ek neotetos), which may suggest that the man in question thought of himself as somewhat older. Luke, moreover, specifies that the man had been around long enough to become a “leader” (archon–verse 18).

This testimony among the witnesses is perhaps significant in one respect—namely, whatever his age, the wealthy person was certainly immature in mind. Otherwise, how explain his inability to assess the value of “eternal life” (zoe aionia–verse 17) in comparison with his current wealth? It was surely a sign of immaturity that he counted his present possessions (verse 23) more valuable than a “treasure in heaven” (verse 22).

More alarming to the average reader, perhaps, is the story’s message that a man can observe all the commandments (verse 21) and still come up short (eti hen soi leipei–verse 22) with respect to eternal life. One recalls, in this respect, the parable of the rich man in 16:19-31. In that case too, the rich man lost eternal life by living solely for the sake of this life. In both instances, as well, an insouciance about the higher value of heaven was accompanied by a lack of concern for the poor.

What, after all, did the man really lose? Or, to put the question in another way, what alone constitutes what is desirable—what alone is good? The present story contains the answer to this question as well: “No one is good but God alone” (verse 19 RSV). This is what the “leader” has lost—God, the sole source of eternal happiness. No wonder that his sorrow sets in immediately.

Saturday, November 17

Luke 18:24-30: In all the Synoptic Gospels the story of the wealthy man, who declines the summons of Jesus, introduces a dominical discourse on the spiritual danger of wealth and the reward attending those that relinquish all things for the sake of Christ.

Although some manuscripts and versions (including the Latin) say that this discourse came in response to the sadness of the departing man (“Jesus saw that he was sorrowful”—verse 24), the older, more reliable texts (Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, et al) omit this detail. Nonetheless, all the textual witnesses testify that this discourse was given on this specific occasion (“Seeing him, Jesus said . . .”–idon de avton ho Iesus eipen).

The two passages are also linked by a concern for “eternal life” (verses 18,30). In context this eternal life is identified with the Kingdom of God (verses 24,25,29; cf. 16:17).

The rich man’s loss came from an inability to give up his wealth and trust solely in God, the only Good (verse 19). That is to say, it was a failure in faith. Wealth, after all, means more than finances. It means human achievement as a whole, including intellectual, cultural, and even moral achievement (“All this I have done from my youth”). The rich man found himself unable to make this step, the step of faith in God, the only step by which a man “enters” (verses 17,24,25) into the Kingdom and “receives” (verse 30). This is not a human achievement. Only God, the one Good, makes it possible (verse 27). Salvation—being ‘saved”—is beyond the ability of man. Thus, the Lord’s summons to self-abnegation is an invitation to faith.

Peter, often quick to point out the differences between himself and others, contrasts the response of the Apostles to that of the rich man. He wants to know, how is this going to pay off for us? (verse 28) Jesus, in response, lists the special blessings of the Kingdom, both for the Apostles and for those who imitate their example (verse 29).

We note that only Luke (contrast Matthew 19:29; Mark 10:29) mentions the leaving of a wife. Unless we are to suppose this means the careless abandonment of domestic responsibilities, the inclusion of a wife is a reference to consecrated celibacy, celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom, and thus has the Christians Church always understood it.

Sunday, November 18

Luke 18:31-34: The foregoing discourse on wealth and self-abnegation described the latter as following Jesus (verse 28). The present section, which is the Lord’s third prediction of His sufferings and death, expounds on the true meaning of this following.

Unlike Luke’s two earlier prophecies of the Passion (9:22,44), and unlike Matthew (20:17-19) and Mark (10:32-34) in the present instance, this announcement of the Lord’s sufferings and death is portrayed as the fulfillment of the prophetic Scriptures: “all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished” (verse 31). Luke thus prepares the reader, prior to the Passion narrative itself, for the theme of the Lord’s post-Resurrection appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus: “‘Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?’ And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (24:25). This is Luke’s way of enclosing the Passion story together within the theme of biblical prophecy.

This theme of Scriptural fulfillment serves both an apologetic and a theological interest. First, it answers the objections of the Jews, for whom the Cross was a “stumbling block” (1 Corinthians 1:23), and, second, it binds together the entire biblical narrative as a single history of salvation.

Luke finishes the present story with an observation about the Apostles which is missing in Matthew and Mark: “But they understood none of these things; this saying was hidden from them, and they did not know the things which were spoken” (verse 34). This observation too will be taken up in the Lord’s words to the disciples on the road to Emmaus: “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!” (24:25) This detail is added by Luke to indicate that even the faithful friends of Jesus wee slow and reluctant to perceive the necessity of the Cross. This is why they resisted the message of the Scriptures.

By way of contrast, Luke later introduces the Ethiopian eunuch. This latter, struggling understand biblical prophecy (Acts 8:30-34), responds with alacrity when Philip elucidates such texts by recourse to the story of the Passion (8:35-37).

Monday, November 19

The Epistle of Jude: The Baptist exegete Ray Summers speculates that Jude would have but scant competition for the title “Least Known and Most Neglected Book in the New Testament.”

Written by Jude, who describes himself as “the brother of James,” who in his turn was known as “the brother of the Lord,” this epistle represents a very primitive Christian perspective. (None of these men were Jesus’ actual brothers, of course; in both Hebrew and Aramaic, neither of which language even has a word for “cousin,” the word “brother” normally covers a very wide range of blood relationships, and the Christian Tradition, including all the major Protestant Reformers of the 16th century, is very clear and emphatic about the perpetual virginity of the Mother of Jesus.)

The tone and thrust of Jude is quite different from Paul, Luke, John, and most writers in the New Testament. Many major themes of the Christian faith are not mentioned at all, which is not particularly surprising in a book so short. June does, however, resemble 2 Peter.

In fact, except for the opening verses and the closing doxology, the content of Jude is nearly identical with 2 Peter, especially its second chapter. Jude is particularly concerned with warnings against false teachers, whom he describes with most unflattering terms: “grumblers, malcontents, pursuers of their own passions, loudmouthed braggarts, flatterers in order to gain personal advantage.” Such warnings are always useful in any age of the Church.

Tuesday, November 20

Revelation 1:1-8: From the start this most interesting book describes itself as a written prophecy (verse 3; cf. 19:10; 22:7,10,18,19).

In the early Church prophetic utterance played a major role in the determination of practical matters, such as the proper direction to be taken by missionaries (Acts 16:6-7) and the choice of men to be ordained (1 Timothy 4:14). Indeed, the prophets in the New Testament are mentioned with the apostles (1 Corinthians 12:27-29; 14:1-5; Ephesians 2:20), and we even know the names of some of them (Acts 11:27-30; 15:32). The present book contains seven references to these prophets (10:7; 11:8; 16:6; 18:2024; 22:6,9).

As a written prophecy, this book was intended to be read aloud to the congregation at worship (verse 3). In Holy Scripture, prophecy is conceived in terms of insight more than foresight (and, truth to tell, some of the biblical prophets foretold very little), but insight does often lead to foresight, so the present book also contains predictions. Such predictions were clearly intended to refer to matters soon to occur (verse 1), and John, it must be stressed, was writing for his own time. Consequently, a correct understanding of what John wrote must be based on the understanding of his first hearers and readers, the very people he had in mind when he wrote this book.

Therefore, any modern interpretation of Revelation that bypasses or ignores the understanding of John’s earliest audience runs the risk of becoming pure fantasy. A good rule of thumb for the interpretation of this book, then, is the simple question, "Is such and such an understanding of this or that verse of Revelation one that would have been in the mind of those who first read it?" This rule of thumb will eliminate those interpretations of Revelation that find in it all sorts of purely contemporary interests, such as the current State of Israel, the fall of the Soviet Union, the invention of helicopters, and so on. (Yes, I have read authors who found all of these things in the Book of Revelation, and much more.)

The book itself was addressed to seven particular churches found in Asia Minor (verse 4). It contains visions, that is, "all things that he saw" (verse 2), an expression found fifty-four times in this book. Nonetheless, Revelation begins like an epistle, "grace to you and peace" (verse 4), exactly like the epistles of Paul.

Wednesday, November 21

Revelation 1:9-20: John’s vision comes "on the Lord’s Day" (verse 10), Sunday (1 Corinthians 16:2), the very day when the seven churches of Asia Minor were celebrating the Lord’s Supper, "the breaking of the Bread." This service of worship normally began on the night when the Sabbath came to a close and Sunday began; it lasted through the night and ended on Sunday morning (Acts 20:7,11).

John describes himself as being "in the Spirit," a technical term referring to prophetic inspiration (Numbers 11:25; 2 Samuel 23:2; Ezekiel 2:2; 3:24; Matthew 22:43). Like Ezekiel, John "fell as one dead" (verse 17), a description of the biblical phenomenon known as being "slain in the Spirit." Such was John’s response to this inaugural vision (comparable to the inaugural visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel) of Christ in glory, standing in the midst of the Menorah (verse 12), clothed as the High Priest (verse 13; Exodus 28:4; 39:29; Sirach 50:5-12). The versatile "right hand" of the Lord can simultaneously hold the Pleiades (verse 16) and still be laid gently on the downfallen John (verse 17).

In this vision Christ is otherwise frightening, with His white hair (verse 14; Daniel 7:9), the sword of the Word issuing from His mouth (verse 16; cf. 2:12,16; 19:15; Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12), His feet like refined brass (verse 15; Ezekiel 1:7). Here He is twice called "the First and the Last" (verses 11,17), an expression that will also appear in 2:8 and 22:13. Drawn from the Book of Isaiah (41:44; 44:6), this expression corresponds to "Alpha and Omega" (verses 8,11), the first and final letters of the Greek alphabet. Christ is, then, the beginning and end of language, the defining content of all intelligible meaning. He is, in short, the Word. He died and rose again and lives forever (verse 18; Romans 6:9). Hence, He holds the keys of death and the underworld (verse 18; cf. 9:1; 20:1).

Thursday, November 22

Revelation 2:1-7: Among the early Christian churches, that of Ephesus was particularly renowned for the strictness of its doctrinal purity. This was a book-burning congregation (Acts 19:19), which brooked no heresy. The apostle Paul, who had labored at Ephesus for three years, stressed the importance of doctrinal orthodoxy to all who ministered and taught there (Acts 20:29-31; 1 Timothy 1:3-7,18-20; 4:1-3; 5:17; 6:3-5,20; 2 Timothy 1:13-15; 2:14-18; 3:13; 4:2-5). In contrast to all of Paul’s other epistles, he mentioned no heresies in his Epistle to the Ephesians. Well into the second century, we know the reputation of the church at Ephesus for its doctrinal purity (cf. Ignatius of Antioch, To the Ephesians 6,2; 9.1; Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 1.26.3).

Here in Revelation 2 the church at Ephesus is commended for dealing with certain heretics called the Nicolaitans (verse 6), who apparently taught sexual immorality (2:14-15). The church was also obliged to deal with false apostles (verse 2), concerning whom the apostle Paul had earlier given warning to the elders of Ephesus (Acts 20:29; cf. 2 Corinthians 11:13-15; Didache 11).

The problem at Ephesus, then, was not a lack of orthodoxy, but a lack of charity; they had forgotten their first agape (verse 4). At one time they had known fervent love (Acts 20:36-38), but now it had grown cold. John’s words to them here stand forever as a warning to those whose zeal for doctrinal purity obscures in their minds the need for true charity. Even though the Ephesian Christians are here commended for their "works," labor," and "patience" (verse 2; cf. exactly these three words in 1 Thessalonians 1:3), they have somehow fallen away from their "first works" (verse 5), as they have from their "first love."

The paradisiacal imagery of verse 7 comes from Genesis, of course, and will appear again in the final chapter of Revelation. The first of these seven letters to the Asian churches, then, makes it clear that the most serious dangers facing those churches did not come from external threat and persecution, but from spiritual problems within.

Friday, November 23

Revelation 2:8-11: Smyrna, the modern Turkish city of Izmir, was a seaport rivaling and then surpassing Ephesus. The Book of Revelation is our earliest historical witness to the presence of a Christian church at Smyrna, but it does not indicate when or by whom the place was evangelized.

A second century bishop of that church, the martyr Polycarp, one of the most revered men in early Christian history, personally knew the apostle John at one end of his ministry, and, at the other end, was the friend of Irenaeus of Lyons in Gaul, who lived to the dawn of the third century. Polycarp thus became the very embodiment of primitive Christian tradition, and because of him Smyrna’s status among the early churches rivaled that of Ephesus.

At Smyrna there seems to have been considerable conflict between the Christians and the local Jews, who are here referred to as "a synagogue of Satan," not even worthy to be called real Jews (verse 9). Even in the mid-second century the Jews of Smyrna took steps to prevent the Christians from recovering the body of the martyred Polycarp (The Martyrdom of Polycarp 18.1).

The four verses here under consideration indicate that, unlike the situations in Ephesus, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, and Laodicea, in Smyrna the problems faced by the church came largely from without. Thus, unlike the Ephesians (2:5), the believers at Smyrna were not told to repent. John did warn the congregation, however, that they would soon be severely tested (verse 10). How many Christians perished in that testing? It is very difficult to say, but we do know that Polycarp, who was martyred in A.D. 155, was the twelfth name on the list of martyrs at Smyrna (The Martyrdom of Polycarp 19.1).

Those martyrs, in any case, were promised the "crown of life," an athletic image indicating their victory in Christ (Philippians 3:14; 2 Timothy 2:5; James 1:12; 1 Peter 5:4). The "second death" in verse 11 refers to eternal damnation (cf. 20:6.14.15; 21:8).