Friday, January 11

Matthew 5:21–26: The first of Matthew’s five contrasts has to do with the Lord’s understanding of the Torah’s prohibition, “Thou shalt do no murder” (verse 21). Here, as in the next examples, Jesus responds, “but I say to you,” a formula indicating that His own understanding of the Law is superior even to that of Moses.

There is an irreducible claim in these sustained assertions—namely, that Jesus, being the very Lawgiver of Mount Sinai, has the authority to speak for the Law’s intention. This claim is based on the standard legal principle: “the meaning of a law is determined by the intention of the lawgiver.” Moses, after all, was only the promulgator of the Torah, not its author. Jesus implicitly makes the latter claim for Himself, which is the reason He is speaking from the mountain (verse 1).

Thus, Jesus understands the prohibition against murder not simply as an injunction against taking someone’s life, but as an interdiction excluding all acts of anger and violence, including speech and even thought (verse 22). This teaching is given in detail and at some length, as Matthew portrays Jesus as the Teacher of the Church. He teaches with authority (7:29).

In the present case—dealing with anger—the teaching of Jesus is consistent with standard Old Testament moral doctrine, especially in the Wisdom literature (Proverbs 6:14, 34; 14:17, 29; 15:1, 18; 16:14, 32; 19:19; 27:4; cf. James 1:19–20).

The context of this prohibition against anger and violence is the Christian Church, a point indicated by the references to the “brother” (verses 22, 23, 24). Indeed, these admonitions are set within the context of the Church’s Eucharistic worship (verse 24). This is clearer, perhaps, in the Didache, a Syrian work roughly contemporary with Matthew: “But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one who is at odds with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned” (Didache 14). In short, love is superior to sacrifice (12:7; Mark 12:33–34).

Reconciliation must be made “quickly” (verse 25), so that the conflict does not grow out of hand. The “imprisonment” in this section refers to the divine judgment, as it does in the parable of the unforgiving servant (18:34–35).

The teaching of these verses implicitly contrasts contention with love. For Jesus and the New Testament, love is the true fulfillment of the Torah (22:40). For this reason, it is important to understand what is meant by love and not to be confused by its counterfeits. This consideration forms the sequence to the next contrast.

Saturday, January 12

Matthew 5:27-32: This second contrast between Gospel righteousness and that of the scribes and Pharisees takes up the subject of adultery, which is treated in four logia, or sayings, of Jesus.

Following the antithesis about murder, this contrast about adultery preserves the sequence of the Decalogue. It contains two parts, each devoted to a particular way in which Gospel righteousness, as it pertains to adultery, “exceeds” the earlier scribal reading of the Torah.

In the first part the prohibition of adultery is extended to include sins of the eyes, mind, and heart (verse 28). The mention of lust of the eyes invites the addition of the dominical logion about the eye becoming the occasion of sin (verse 29). To this latter saying of the Lord is logically attached the warning about the hand’s becoming an occasion of sin (verse 30). Thus, these three sayings of the Lord constitute a powerful admonition about the gravity of sexual sins and the radical nature of the Christian commitment to sexual morality.

The first of these three sayings (“anyone who looks at a woman with lust”) does not much extend the moral understanding of the Old Testament, which also proscribed lustful desires (cf. Deuteronomy 5:21; Job 31:1). Rabbinic teaching likewise followed suit in this respect.

However, the next two logia (verses 29-30), with their hyperbolic commands to gouge out an eye and cut off a hand, add a formal quality to the whole antithesis, a warning against any danger of compromise with respect to sex.

As in the antithesis about murder (verse 22), the threatened retribution is hell fire, here called “Gehenna,” named for the Valley of Hinnom, adjacent to Jerusalem, the valley where garbage was burned (verses 29,30; cf. 3:12; 13:30,42,50; 25:41).

The second half of the present antithesis relates adultery to the practice of divorce (verses 31-32). With respect to this latter, Jesus clearly goes beyond the obvious letter of the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 24:1) by forbidding divorce altogether. Later in the Gospel, Jesus will describe the Old Testament rule on divorce as a concession allowed by Moses (19:8).

Efforts to find in verse 32 an exception to the Lord’s prohibition of divorce are unfounded. The expression “except sexual immorality” (ektos logou porneias) does not refer to violations of the marriage vow. It simply means that the Lord is forbidding the dissolution of a true marriage, not the break-up of an illicit sexual liaison. It may be paraphrased: “Whoever divorces his wife — not his mistress — causes her to commit adultery.”

Sunday, January 13

Matthew 5:33-37: In this third contrast between Gospel righteousness and that of the scribe and Pharisee, the subject is the taking of oaths. Whereas the Mosaic Law prohibits perjury—an imprecation in testimony to a lie (Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11)—Gospel righteousness forbids oaths in testimony to the truth.

The examples given in these verses, particularly that related to one’s own head (verse 36), contain some measure of disguise or subterfuge, to avoid using God’s name explicitly (“heaven,” “earth,” “Jerusalem”—verse 34; cf. 23:16-22). This indirect approach suggests an “unofficial” context for the prohibition. In solemn and more formal settings, after all, such as a courtroom, there would be no such disguising of the references to God.

In fact, this is how the ethical tradition of the Church has interpreted the prohibition of oaths—that is, as pertaining to ordinary conversation, not a more solemn setting in which an oath is reasonable and expected. Thus, we observe the Apostle Paul’s complete lack of scruple in this matter (cf. Romans 1:9; 2 Corinthians 1:23; Philippians 1:8; 1 Thessalonians 2:5). The Church has followed suit, not understanding this prohibition in the same strict sense as the prohibition against divorce.

The point of the prohibition is to avoid frivolous, unnecessary, and irreverent appeals to God, no matter how such appeals may be disguised. Invocations of this sort encroach on the realm of the divine, and the biblical Lord would be treated with the same nonchalance that pagans felt toward the Homeric gods. Oaths of this kind are irreverent to the divine presence, much like the uncovered head of a woman in prayer. Such oaths—frivolous invocations to the divine truth as guarantor of human claims—demean the divine majesty by forcing God to participate in a merely human conversation. Gospel righteousness recognizes the insult implied in such behavior and such an attitude.

The Lord’s prohibition of oaths extends and perfects the Mosaic proscription against taking the Lord’s name “in vain” (that is, on behalf of a false assertion) and strengthens the Old Testament’s care to reverence the holiness of God’s name (Leviticus 19:12). In this sense Jesus’ prohibition goes the root of the divine intention in the Torah, much as His prohibition of divorce and adulterous thoughts more profoundly asserts what the Old Testament says of the sanctity of marriage.

In addition, the Lord’s injunction here forces the believer to assume full responsibility for the “truth content” of what he says (verse 37; cf. James 5:12; 1 Corinthians 1:19). He cannot evade this moral responsibility by a casual invocation of the supernatural. Such invocations, says Jesus, are far from harmless; they come “from the Evil One” (ek tou Ponerou), from whom we pray to be delivered (apo tou Ponerou–6:13).

Finally, let us note that the Lord Himself declined the high priest’s adjuration to swear to His own divinity (26:63, in Matthew only).

Monday, January 14

Matthew 5:38-42: Revenge and resistance form the theme of the fourth contrast between Gospel righteousness and that of the scribes and Pharisees. Some of this material is shared with Luke 6:29-30.

In the Old Testament, strict limits on revenge, based on a kind of qualitative equity (quid pro quo), caused it to assume a form resembling commutative justice (verse 38). This Mosaic arrangement placed on Israelite society a measurable restraint that could be enforced. It could rather easily be assimilated into a system of justice and appropriate retribution.

Gospel righteousness, however, is not satisfied with creating a society governed by commutative justice. It wants to eliminate from the heart all forms of revenge or coercive resistance to an evildoer (verse 39).

A blow on the right cheek, presumably struck by a right-handed man, must be delivered backhand. To hit a man in this way is chiefly a gesture of insult. The one who suffers such a blow may not experience much physical injury, but the loss of personal dignity can be immense. It is this loss of personal dignity and respect that the believer must be prepared to sustain.

Whereas in Luke (6:29) plain robbery is envisaged in the seizure of garments, in Matthew it is set in a forensic context (verse 40). Matthew also places the demand of a mile’s walk into a legal setting—an official compulsion (aggarvsei–verse 42; compare 27:32–eggarevsan. The sense of the verb is “commandeer.”

Our earliest commentary on these words of our Lord understands them as the effort to overcome evil by good: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. . . . Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. . . . Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. Therefore ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:18-21; cf. 1 Corinthians 6:7; 1 Peter 2:20-23; 3:14).

These admonitions of Jesus fulfill and perfect the Mosaic Law by strengthening and extending the restraint taught in that Law, a restraint sought by the divine intent of the Law. The measured concession to vengeance in the Torah was analogous to the concession made to divorce. In both cases the command of Jesus goes to the deeper purpose sought by the Torah. This profound purpose of the Torah had about it a prophetic quality that the Gospel brings to fulfillment.

It is the implied claim of Jesus to discern the divine purpose even better than Moses did.

This antithesis dealing with revenge and violence leads logically to the next, which deals with the love of enemies (verses 43-48).

Tuesday, January 15

Romans 1:1-10: Paul’s eloquent introduction (verses 1-7) is easily the longest, most elaborate, and most detailed among all his epistles. This distinguishing feature reflects the fact that Romans, unlike Paul’s earlier letters to Thessaloniki, Galatia, Philippi, and Corinth, was not composed for the purpose of addressing questions and problems of the congregation to which it was sent. It bears the character, rather, of a theological treatise. In this sense, it lacks the immediately ad hoc quality of Paul’s other writings. The Epistle to the Romans is more theoretical, as it were, more general in its application, less directed to the particular conditions of an individual church. This is one of the qualities that make Romans unique in the Pauline corpus.

Although the Apostle evidently had several friends in Rome (as we see in the greetings sent to many individuals in chapter 16), this epistle does not show him especially familiar with the specific situation of the church in that city nor intent on dealing with particular problems there. Those problems are not his concern in the Epistle to the Romans.

Because it is so unique, it is curious that some Christians regard Romans as a kind of standard for all Paul’s letters, even a sort of canonical norm by which the authenticity of the other epistles (Ephesians, for instance, and the Pastoral Letters) is to be judged. Among some theologians, Romans has become a sort of “canon within the canon,” meaning that the other writings of the New Testament are chiefly assessed by how they are related to the theology in Romans. In practice this often means that the other New Testament writings are interpreted through the lens of Romans, or they are presumed to see things the way they are seen in Romans. In this sense, writings such as Revelation and James are sometimes perceived not to “measure up.”

In fact, however, Romans is arguably the least typical of Paul’s epistles, both in form and in historical context. That is to say, Romans is a formal and developed theological treatise addressed to a church that Paul himself had not founded. For that reason, it lends itself, more than any of the other of Paul’s letters, to structured critical study, somewhat independent of a specific historical context. There is an irony here, inasmuch as Romans is the letter in which Paul devotes the most attention to a theology of history.

Ever since the Galatian crisis during the early fifties, Paul’s interest had become more concentrated on the subject of that controversy, namely, justification through faith, apart from the observance of the Mosaic Law. By the time he composed the Epistle to the Romans during January to March of the year 58, this theme had gradually thrust itself to the center of Paul’s theological interest. Romans is the fruit of that concentration. This does not mean, however, that the Church at Rome was subject to the same or a similar crisis as that which prompted the Epistle to the Galatians. We simply don’t know, because Paul refers to no specific problems at Rome.

Paul’s name is the only one that appears as an author of this epistle, even though he actually dictated the work to Tertius (16:22). We may contrast this feature with Paul’s earlier inclusion of Timothy, Silvanus, and Sosthenes as joint “authors” (1 Corinthians 1:1; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Philippians 1:1, 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1) and his later inclusion of Timothy in the letter to the Colossians (1:1).

In Romans it is clear that Paul thinks of his evangelization of the eastern Mediterranean basin as pretty much completed. The churches founded in that region he had now handed over to the care of the pastors whom he appointed, and he now trusted those men to transmit the Gospel to the following generations.

Paul is now ready to turn his attention to the western end of the Mediterranean basin, especially Italy and Spain. This epistle, borne to its destination by the trusted deaconess Phoebe (16:1), would serve to introduce the Apostle to those churches, while he himself completed one last task that he had appointed for himself in the east—namely, the transmission to Jerusalem of the collection of alms that had been made among the Pauline churches.

In this epistle’s initial greeting we observe its emphasis on Christology, its avowal of the historical Jesus, “born of the seed of David according to the flesh,” and the Christ of faith, “designated [or “declared,” horisthentos, not "predestined" or prooristhentos] to be Son of God with power.” These are two descriptions of the same Jesus Christ, of course, along with the recognition that His resurrection from the dead (verse 4) is the historical fact manifesting and demonstrating His true identity (cf. Acts 2:34-36; 1 Corinthians 15:45; Philippians 3:10).

The expression “the obedience of faith” (hyupakoe pisteos—verse 5) is an appositional genitive (“the obedience which is faith”) indicating that faith is active, not simply passive; it is a commitment and not just a reception (cf. 10:17; 16:26). It is not a bare assent of the intellect but a dedication of the heart.

Wednesday, January 16

Romans 1:11-17: For some time now, Paul has wanted to come to Rome (verses 10-13), where the local Christian congregation was already famous among Christians elsewhere (verse 8). The church at Rome seems to have been established by Roman Jews who had been present at the original Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2:10; cf. Tacitus, Annals 15.44). Indeed, this early date for the founding of the church at Rome is supported by the funerary inscription of a Christian woman, Pomponia Graecina, dated in the early forties, well before the arrival of Peter and Paul in that city.

Although these early Christian founders had been forced from Rome in the general expulsion of the Jews in A.D. 49 (Acts 18:1; Suetonius, “Claudius” 25), it is reasonable to suppose that some of them returned there after the death of Claudius in the year 54. As to the actual composition of the church at Rome when Paul wrote this epistle four years later, we can say little that is certain. Nonetheless, on the presumption that Gentile Christians at Rome were not affected by the expulsion in 49, we may guess that there were more Gentile than Jewish Christians at Rome when Paul wrote this epistle very early in the year 58.

It is not clear who was pastoring Rome at this time, much less who was the chief pastor in that city. The absence of any greetings to Simon Peter in this epistle would be quite unintelligible if it were known that the latter had already arrived in Rome. Indeed, our earliest direct evidence for Peter’s presence in Rome does not seem to come until the early sixties (1 Peter 5:13).

Especially puzzling is this epistle’s lack of any reference to Linus (2 Timothy 4:21), identified by Irenaeus of Lyons (Adversus Haereses 3.3.3) as the first bishop of Rome. (We run into an identical difficulty early in the second century, when Ignatius of Antioch, in whose letters the bishops of the local churches are otherwise named, failed to name the bishop of Rome. This aspect of the early history of the church at Rome remains mysterious.)

Paul is very conscious that the believers at Rome share his own faith (verse 12), even though he had not evangelized there. This consciousness on Paul’s part is an important key to the interpretation of this epistle, because it implies that the doctrines presumed in this work pertained to the general deposit of faith common to all the early preachers of the Gospel. This shared deposit of faith formed the context within which Paul addressed the major preoccupation of this epistle, as well as the evangelism (evangelisthasthai—verse 15) that he hoped to accomplish there.

This last reference brings Paul to the subject of the Gospel (evangelion) in verse 16. The Gospel means both “salvation” (soteria) and “righteousness” (dikaiosyne), a pairing that is common in Holy Scripture (cf. Psalms 98 [97]:2; Isaiah 45:21; 51:5-8; 56:1; 61:10-11). The Good News is not a simple religious message, even less a religious philosophy; it is “the power of God” (dynamis Theou). It is God’s might working through His word, giving godly shape to history (1 Corinthians 2:4; 4:20).

In the Epistle to the Romans, the “salvation” effected by God’s power in the Gospel most often refers to a future reality (5:9-10; 8:24; 10:8,13; 11:11,26; 13:11) more than an already accomplished fact. That is to say, in this epistle salvation is something to which Christians look forward rather than something they have already received. Paul’s perspective on this point will shift somewhat over the next two years (cf. Ephesians 2:8).

The Gospel reveals God’s reconciliation of man to Himself (verse 17), a reconciliation without which man is the object of the divine wrath (verses 18 and following). The righteousness of God (3:5,21,22,25,26; 10:3) is the divine quality and act by which He renders men righteous. This is what the Gospel reveals.

The expression “from faith unto faith” seems to mean “through faith and for the sake of faith.” That is to say, salvation pertains to faith, from beginning to end. This is how the justified man lives.

Thursday, January 17

Romans 1:18-32: In order to assess the “power” (dynamisI) of the Gospel, Paul now describes the human state without the Gospel. Neither Judaism nor classical paganism, the Apostle argues, whatever their other accomplishments, have been able to attain or preserve moral integrity. If the Jew, enlightened by God’s Law, was unable to do this (as Paul will argue in chapter 2), much less could the Greek or Roman.

Paul begins with these pagans, providing a stunning description of the depravity of his age. This description is colored by Paul’s perception as a Jew (indeed, we note his interjection of a standard Jewish doxology in verse 25), because his comments coincide with the assessment that other Jews of antiquity rendered with respect to paganism. In these lines of the epistle, we hear the voice of the Maccabees two and a half centuries earlier. Paul, like most Jews of his time, regarded the pagan world as “abandoned,” “handed over,” “forsaken” by God (verses 24,26,28).

The moral depravity of the age was a revelation (apokalyptetai) of the divine wrath against idolatry (verse 18; Isaiah 30:27-33). Following the argument in the Book of Wisdom (Wisdom of Solomon) 13:1-9, Paul insists that “something” about God is knowable in the works of Creation (verses 19-20). Indeed, this something is not only knowable, it is also “known” (to gnoston), so that man is inexcusable in not recognizing it.

Paul is not talking here about a personal knowledge of God, which requires faith (cf. Hebrews 11:3,5-6; 1 Corinthians 1:21), but a factual knowledge of God’s existence and certain of His predicates (verse 20; Acts 14:15-17). Such factual knowledge about God is ineluctable except to those who have completely blinded their hearts (verse 21; Ephesians 4:17). These latter refuse to acknowledge what they cannot help knowing. Therefore, they decline to praise God or to thank Him, turning instead to false gods (verse 23; Psalms 106 [105]:20; Deuteronomy 4:16-18). These are gods of their own making, to whom, they are aware, they will never have to render an account

This idolatrous darkening of the heart begins with the entertainment of deceptive thoughts (verse 21), but it soon finds expression in man’s very body. It leads directly to sexual immorality (verse 24; Wisdom 14:22-27). That is to say, the mendacity and illusions of the human mind produce a mendacity and illusion in the human flesh, and this corporeal untruthfulness, this fleshly illusion, is the very essence of homosexuality. Those unable to recognize the intelligent design of nature can hardly be expected to honor the most elementary markings of the human body (verses 26-28).

Thus, homosexual behavior, which is “against nature” (para physin, contra naturam—verse 26), is the social and cultural effect of an engendering idolatry. Other sexual sins, such as fornication, at least show deference to the structure of nature. The homosexual vice, however, by refusing to do so, is particularly offensive to the created order. It is the very embodying of a lie.

Besides turpitude of a sexual nature, idolatry leads to all sorts of other sins (verses 29-31). Paul is not speculating here. Having traveled through the cities of the Greco-Roman world, having heard the confessions of his converts (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11), the Apostle is immediately familiar with these sins.

In addition, Paul goes on, the divine condemnation is deserved, not only by those who do these terrible things, but also by those who approve of them, those non-judgmental types who embrace the pale, flaccid I-will-not-impose-my-morality-on-others theory. God’s judgment falls, then, not only on the malefactors themselves, but also on the society that condones, excuses, permits, or approves such malefaction.

We should bear in mind that Paul, in his assessment of the world of his time, is speaking of society as a whole, not every single individual within it. He is not saying that every single pagan in the world is morally depraved. He is saying, rather, that pagan society is morally depraved.

Nor, when he speaks of the sins of homosexuals, does Paul mean that in each case that person’s sins are the result of his own personal sin of idolatry. He is saying, rather, that the homosexual vice, regarded as a social phenomenon, is the symptom of a deeper, truly radical sin, the sin of idolatry. An idolatrous culture is what spawns this disposition to regard the homosexual impulse as normal and homosexual behavior as licit. Consequently, it is precarious to use Paul’s arguments here as applying directly to individuals that may be struggling with temptations to this vice; this struggle does not mean that these individuals are guilty of idolatry. When he treats the homosexual vice as a symptom of idolatry, Paul is describing the manifest state of pagan society without the Gospel, not each individual’s state of soul. Pastoral wisdom dictates that those struggling with this temptation are to be encouraged, not censured.

Friday, January 18

Romans 2:1-16: Having described the moral failings of paganism, Paul now turns to the Jews. Woe to them also if they pass judgment (verse 1), because they too have failed to measure up. Jew and Greek stand before God on level ground, in fact (verses 9-10). The Jew’s possession of the Torah, in which God reveals His moral will, is no guarantee that the Jew is morally and spiritually superior to the Greek (verses 12-16).

Here Paul twice addresses the Jew as “man,” anthropos (verses 1,3), indicating that he too is of the common clay, an heir of Adam, that first and fallen anthropos. Jewish blood provides no assurance of superiority over other men (cf. Matthew 3:8; John 8:39; Galatians 2:15). The Jew too, says Paul, is called to repentance, metanoia (verse 4; Wisdom 11:23), because his own heart is just as “impenitent” (verse 5).

In this epistle, the theme of which is justification through faith, the Apostle insists that the Lord “will render to each man according to his deeds” (literally “works,” erga—verse 6; Psalms 62 [61]:13; Proverbs 24:12), and he goes on to speak of “the patience of good work” (verse 7). Even this early in the epistle, then, Paul closes the door to any antinomian interpretation of it.

Those who do good works are said to be seeking (zetousin) “glory and honor and incorruptibility” (verse 7). This incorruptibility, aphtharsia, is to be contrasted with the corruption of death, introduced into the world by sin (5:12).

The translation of the word aphtharsia as “immortality” (as in the KJV) is misleading, because immortality suggests something immaterial and essentially spiritual (as when we speak of “the immortality of the soul”). Aphtharsia, in contrast, refers in this context to the spiritual transformation of matter itself, of which the formal and defining example is the resurrected body of Christ. “Incorruptibility” is a property of the risen flesh of the Christian (1 Corinthians 15:42,50,53,54). Introduced into human experience by the resurrection of Christ, this aphtharsia reverses the power of death. Indeed, the resurrection of the body is the final act in man’s salvation and the great object of his hope. (This is also the reason why, as we have seen, sentences about “salvation” normally appear in this epistle in the future tense. The fullness of salvation comes in the resurrection of our bodies.)

To those who are seeking salvation Paul contrasts those who are only seeking themselves, searching for some kind of self-fulfillment (eritheia) outside of God’s will (verse 8).

In verse 10 Paul returns to the importance of good works (literally “working the good”—ergazomenos to agathon). Salvation through faith is not for the lazy. Grace is free, but it is not cheap.

In chapter one Paul had spoken about the revelation of God’s existence through nature. Now he writes of the revelation of God’s moral law through nature (verses 14-15). His juxtaposition of Natural Law with the Mosaic Law does not mean that every particular of the latter can be discerned in the former; he means simply that the Natural Law can be known by man’s conscience and that those who have only the Natural Law will be judged according to that law, just as the Jew will be judged according to the Mosaic Law.

With respect to this revelation of God’s moral will through nature, the third-century Christian apologist Origen wrote: “There is nothing amazing about it if the same God has implanted in the souls of all men the same truths which He taught through the Prophets and the Savior. He did this in order that every man might be without excuse at the divine judgment, having the requirement of the law written in his heart” (Against Celsus 1.4).