Friday, November 9
1 Thessalonians 3:1-13: The two verbs "strengthen" and "encourage" (sterixsai, parakalesai) (verse 2) and used fairly often in the New Testament to describe what Christians are supposed to do for one another. Indeed, in the pastoral work of the early Christians, these are practically technical expressions for matters of duty. In addition to being used separately, they sometimes appear together in the writings of the two great missionaries who traveled together, Paul and Luke (Romans 1:11; 2 Thessalonians 2:17; Acts 14:22; 15:32).
Probably we should not try to find a distinction between the two verbs, as they are employed in such contexts. Their union is more likely a hendiadys, a way of saying something twice (as in "will and testament"). Strength and encouragement are the same thing, and it is very necessary to Christians (Luke 22:32; Revelation 3:2).
In the present text Paul relates this "strengthening" to faith (as also in Romans 1:11), because he is aware that our faith is always weak. To gain some idea how little faith we have, it is useful to recall that faith the size of a mustard seed could move a mountain. In any case, it is imperative to strengthen the faith of others by our own faith. John Calvin remarked on this verse: "The fellowship that ought to exist among the saints and the members of Christ surely extends to this point, that the faith of the one proves the consolation of the other."
According to Paul’s thought here, the Christian who encourages and strengthens other Christians is God’s "fellow laborer," because he is doing God’s work This also implies, of course, that the Christian who discourages or weakens the faith of other Christians is really working against God.
We may list any number of ways by which we Christians encourage and strengthen one another: a kindly disposition, magnanimity, generosity, genuine and sympathetic interest in the lives of others, good example, a willingness to listen to others when they tell us their troubles. Likewise, there are all sorts of ways to discourage and weaken the faith of others: bad example, excessive criticism and pickiness, unwarranted challenging of the good will and intention of others, being mean minded and selfish.
Saturday, November 10
1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Paul prays that the Thessalonians will abound more and more (verses 1-2). This idea of growth is frequent in Paul, for whom the Christian condition of justification is less a "state" than the dynamic possibility of growth in the Holy Spirit. The word "more" (mallon) appears seven times in Romans, eight times in 1 Corinthians, twice in 2 Corinthians, five times in Philippians, once each in Galatians, Ephesians, 1 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and twice in the tiny letter to Philemon.
This frequency of a simple adverb suggests something of how Paul experienced the life in Christ. It had no limits, neither in knowledge nor in love. He does not, therefore, attempt to "define" a disciple of Christ, because to "define" means to "determine the limits of." Belonging to Christ is limitless, because Christ Himself is limitless.
For this reason St. John Chrysostom comments on this verse, comparing the soul to fertile soil: "For as the earth ought to bear not only what is so upon it, so too the soul ought not to stop at those things that have been inculcated, but to go beyond them."
The image of the seed sown on the earth is a famous one, of course. The Lord’s parable of the sower is only one of its uses.
Sunday, November 11
1 Thessalonians 4:9-18: The early Christian parishes had a strong sense of identity based on a negative attitude towards the society in which they lived. They realized that what Jesus meant was radically opposed to what the world stood for, and the call to holiness, an essential feature of the life in Christ, required from them a radical break with their pagan past. Often enough this also meant, in practice, a break with their pagan friends (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
Thus, the local Christians congregations served as communities of support, because believers could find with one another a very real solidarity in those convictions that separated them from other people. We find in early Christian literature ample evidence these Christians felt a great gulf between "them" and "us." The New Testament and other primitive Christian literature leave no doubt that the specifics of Christian existence were founded on a position of contrast with, and opposition to, the "world."
Indeed, today’s reading uses a technical expression to designate non-Christians, hoi exso, "those outside" (verse 12). This was evidently a common term among the early believers (1 Corinthians 5:12-13; Colossians 4:5; Mark 4:11; cf. also Titus 2:7-8; 1 Timothy 3:7).
Christians at that period were enormously aware of their minority status among non-Christians, and they were careful how they impressed those non-Christians (1 Peter 2:12; 1 Corinthians 10:32-33; Matthew 5:16).
The picture that emerges of the Christian parishes during that early period is one of communities of sobriety, hard work, and a closely knit bond of fraternal love (philadelphia). In today’s reading Paul stresses minding one’s own business, doing one’s own job becomingly and unobtrusively. There was no question of evangelizing one’s neighbor’s by aggressive approach or slick advertising. In the words of Tertullian, Non magna loquimur, sed vivimus—"We don’t talk big, but we live."
Monday, November 12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11: In this passage Pual deal with, among other subjects, the theme of vigilance. This was not a theme peculiar to Paul, but part of he common catechetical inheritance of the Church, going back to Jesus Himself (Mark 13:33-37). Being common, it is found in other New Testament writers as well (1 Peter 5:8; Revelation 3:2-3). When Paul speaks on this subject, therefore, he is saying something that Christians generally expected him to say (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:13; Colossians 3:2).
The life in Christ includes a vigilant, heightened consciousness, a stimulated awareness, a certain kind of mindfulness, clear and sharp thinking, intelligent questioning. This vigilance will have some trouble with the general sense of stupor common in contemporary culture, where pipe-in music prevent a person from hearing his own thoughts, and great efforts are made in the advertising world to prevent us from seeing the complications of things. Every single project, from the offering of new deodorant on the market to the construction of anew bridge or road, involves an underlying philosophy and a set of metaphysical presuppositions. The alert mind will search out these things, for the simple reason that his adversary, the devil, goes about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.
Tuesday, November 13
Psalm 78: Just as the early Christians saw the Passover and other events associated with the Exodus of the Old Testament as types and foreshadowings of the salvation brought by Jesus (cf. 1 Cor. 5:7; John 19: 36, etc.), so they interpreted the forty years of the Israelites’ wandering in the desert as representing their own pilgrimage to the true Promised Land. Thus, the passage through the Red Sea became a symbol of Baptism, the miraculous manna was a foreshadowing of the Eucharist, and so forth. In particular did they regard the various temptations experienced by the Israelites in the desert as typical of the sorts of temptations to be faced by Christians. This deep Christian persuasion of the true significance of the desert pilgrimage serves to make the Books of Exodus and Numbers necessary and very useful reading for serious Christians.
In the New Testament there are two fairly lengthy passages illustrating this approach to the Israelites’ desert pilgrimage. One is found in 1 Corinthians 10:1–13. In this text the Apostle Paul begins by indicating the sacramental meanings of certain components in the Exodus story: “All our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink” (vv. 1–4). The Apostle’s chief interest, however, is moral; by way of warning to the Corinthians he points to the sins and failures of the Israelites in the desert: “Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted. And do not become idolaters as were some of them. . . Nor let us commit sexual immorality, as some of them did, . . . nor let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, . . . nor complain, as some of them also complained” (vv. 6–10). For Saint Paul the entire story of the Israelites in the desert is a great moral lesson for Christians: “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (v. 11).
The second New Testament text illustrating this theme is even longer, filling chapters 3 and 4 of Hebrews. The author of this book was much struck by the fact that almost none of those who had departed from Egypt actually arrived in the Promised Land. And why? Because of unbelief, disobedience, and rebellion in the desert: “For who, having heard, rebelled? Indeed, was it not all who came out of Egypt, led by Moses? Now with whom was He angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness?” (3:16, 17). Here, as in 1 Corinthians, the story of the desert pilgrimage is remembered as a moral warning for those in Christ.
One of the longer psalms, Psalm 78 is largely devoted to the same theme, which provides its proper interpretation. This psalm, which is a kind of poetic summary of the Books of Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and even some of Joshua, Judges, and 1 Samuel, concentrates on the Chosen People’s constant infidelity and rebellion, but especially during the desert pilgrimage: “But they sinned even more against Him by rebelling against the Most High in the wilderness. . . . How often they provoked Him in the wilderness, and grieved Him in the desert! Yes, again and again they tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel. They did not remember His power: The day when He redeemed them from the enemy.”
Quite a number of hours are required to read the whole story of the people’s infidelity in the desert as it is recorded through several books of the Bible. Psalm 78, however, has long served as a sort of meditative compendium of the whole account. Its accent falls on exactly those same moral warnings that we saw in 1 Corinthians and Hebrews—the people’s failure to take heed to what they had already beheld of God’s deliverance and His sustained care for them. They had seen the plagues that He visited on the Egyptians, they had traversed the sea dryshod, they had been led by the pillar of cloud and fire, they had slaked their thirst with the water from the rock, they had eaten their fill of the miraculous bread, they had trembled at the base of Mount Sinai, beholding the divine manifestation. In short, they had already been the beneficiaries of God’s revelation, salvation, and countless blessings.
Still, “their heart was not steadfast with Him, nor were they faithful in His covenant.” And just who is being described here? Following the lead of the New Testament, we know it is not only the Israelites of old, but also ourselves, “upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” The story in this psalm is our own story. So we carefully ponder it and take warning.
Wednesday, November 14
The new king, moreover, inherited a mess. His kingdom was impoverished by his father’s irresponsibility, and much of the Holy Land lay in ruins from local wars and a recent invasion from afar. Seven years earlier, in 722, the Assyrians had destroyed the Kingdom of Israel, to Judah’s north, and then deported the great masses of its people to regions over in the far end of the Fertile Crescent.
Furthermore, Hezekiah well knew that his own father had been the culprit responsible for earlier inviting the Assyrians to interfere in the politics of Holy Land (2 Chronicles 28:16-21). The problem was part of his father’s own legacy, then, and the new king himself was obliged to pay annual tribute to Assyria, further impoverishing his realm.
Over the next two decades, however, Hezekiah undertook measures toward resisting that ever-looming menace from the east. First, he endeavored to re-unite the remnant of Israelites in the north with his own throne in Jerusalem, thus enlarging his realm by restoring the borders of David’s ancient kingdom. In this effort he was somewhat successful (30:1-11).
Second, Hezekiah strengthened Jerusalem’s defenses by cutting an underground conduit through solid rock, so that water could be brought secretly into the city from the Gihon Spring. This remarkable feat of technology, unearthed by modern archeology, is not only recorded twice in the Bible (2 Kings 20:20; 2 Chronicles 32:30) but also in the contemporary Siloam Inscription. In this effort Hezekiah was very successful.
Prior to either of these efforts, however, Hezekiah initiated a religious reform, convinced that the nation’s recent apostasy under his father Ahaz was the root of Judah’s unfortunate plight. Thus, he began his reign by purifying the Temple, lately defiled by pagan worship (2 Chronicles 29:3-19), in order to restore the edifice to the proper service of God (29:20-36).
Unlike the unbelieving Ahaz, who treated a spiritual dilemma as merely a political problem, to be addressed by political means, Hezekiah was determined to regard the spiritual dilemma for exactly what it was. Indeed, Hezekiah’s programmatic reform maintained the proper priority indicated by our Lord’s mandate that we "seek first the Kingdom of Heaven." Nothing else in Judah’s national life, Hezekiah believed, would be correctly ordered if anything but the interests of God were put in first place. What was first must emphatically be put there, not second or somewhere else down the line.
This priority of God’s Kingdom, for Hezekiah, involved more than the cleansing of the Temple and the restoration of its worship. It also meant the renewal of spiritual wisdom, which explains the new king’s interest in preserving Israel’s ancient wisdom literature (Proverbs 25:1). Such a pursuit of wisdom also had to do with the priority of the Kingdom of Heaven.
To Hezekiah, however, the "first-ness" of God’s Kingdom was not a mere point of sequence but a matter of principle. The quest of the Kingdom was first, not only in the sense that it preceded everything else, but also in the sense that it laid the basis for everything else.
The foundation of an edifice, after all, is put down prior to the rest of the edifice, not simply because that is the usual and accepted order. It is the usual and accepted order because it is the only conceivable order. Indeed, the foundation of something belongs, in this sense, to a different order, because the rest of the thing is impossible without that foundation. It is the basis that supports the whole enterprise.
And this is what is meant by the priority of a principle. Such priority is more than mere succession—of getting things in the correct order. What is first pertains to another order—the order of principle. This is so plain a fact that it should not even have to be said. Yet, Jesus did say it, recognizing that some folks tend not to notice the obvious.
Just as that man is thought insane who imagines that he can first build a house and then lay its foundation, so is he insane to pretends to arrange a well-ordered life and then later start on the foundation of it. Seeking God’s Kingdom is the real foundation of the well-ordered life, and the Lord warns against building on any other.
Thursday, November 15
2 Chronicles 34: When Josiah was born in 648 BC, the geopolitical prospects of the Kingdom of Judah did not appear too bad, for the Assyrian Empire, which had long oppressed the area, was on the verge of the decline that would bring it down before the century’s end.
From a religious perspective, nonetheless, the situation in Judah
was bad indeed. Manasseh (687–642 BC), the very wicked king who
was Josiah’s grandfather, had established Canaanite and Assyrian wor-
ship in Jerusalem itself, resorting even to the sacrifice of one of his sons,
an act for which he was roundly denounced (2 Kings 21:1–15). From
an apocryphal work called The Ascension of Isaiah (5:1–14), we know that the atrocities of this depraved king included his causing the Prophet Isaiah to be sawn in half (cf. Hebrews 11:37). Besides the melancholy biblical account of his reign, Manasseh is mentioned several times in Assyrian records, always as a subject king of the Assyrian Empire.
Josiah was six years old when his grandfather died in 642, to be
succeeded by the boy’s unpopular father, Amon (2 Kings 21:19–26;
2 Chronicles 33:21–25). When the latter was assassinated two years
later, little Josiah acceded to the throne at age eight.
We know almost nothing of his early regency period, but Josiah soon became his own man. In 632, near his sixteenth birthday, he experienced a religious conversion, pointing him in a new direction. Four years later, on assuming the full powers of the throne, Josiah began a large-scale reform of the religious life of Judah, an ambitious project now rendered possible by the growing disarray of the Assyrian Empire (2 Chronicles 34:1–17). It was also in that very year that the Lord sent Jerusalem one of the greatest prophets, a young man named Jeremiah. From a religious point of view, then, things were starting to look better.
Nonetheless, the best was yet to come. Among the features of Josiah’s reform was a thorough purging of the Jerusalem temple to rid it of all vestiges of idolatry. In 622, during the course of this work, the renovators discovered a very ancient manuscript, which historians identify as either the whole or central section of the Book of Deuteronomy. It had been lost for many years. After 622, therefore, Josiah had in hand a very specific text on which to base his continuing reform of Judah’s religious life. Point by point, he and his reformers began to implement the prescriptions of Deuteronomy (2 Chronicles 34:8–33), including the restoration of the Passover (35:1–19). For this reason, historians customarily refer to Josiah’s efforts as the Deuteronomic Reform.
Because several generations of “Deuteronomists” would continue to make that book the basis of Judah’s religious life, the ferment and effects of Josiah’s reform were to outlive the king himself. In the following century, those Deuteronomic scholars would serve as the backbone of Judah’s survival, and even flourishing, during the Babylonian Captivity. During that time of exile, it was under the impulse of Deuteronomic theology that they would edit and unify much of the historical material contained in the Bible.
The royal sponsorship of the Deuteronomic Reform came to an end, however, in the year 609. It happened in this way: As the Prophet Nahum had foretold, the Assyrian capital of Nineveh fell to the Babylonians in 612, but a good part of the defeated army survived. Moving north to Haran, at the top of the Fertile Crescent, this remnant continued to hold out for three years, waiting desperately for help expected from Egypt. In 609 Egypt’s new Pharaoh, Neco II, to whom it was obvious that his country’s advantage lay in stopping the rise of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, determined to go to the aid of those Assyrians. With some Greek mercenaries, Neco moved up into Palestine, planning to join the Assyrians at Carchemish on the Euphrates. King Josiah of Judah, however, had ideas of his own. Knowing firsthand the evils of Assyria, he decided to throw in his lot with the Babylonians, so he led the army of Judah to meet Neco’s forces at the Megiddo pass. In the ensuing battle, the great Josiah was killed at age thirty-nine (2 Kings 23; 2 Chronicles 35).
For Judah his passing was an unmitigated tragedy. The strong, devout Josiah was followed on the throne by a series of quislings, who governed an ever-diminishing nation until Jerusalem’s destruction in 587 BC.