Friday, September 18
Judges 21: The governing motif of this chapter is rebirth for the tribe of Benjamin.
It begins with a problem. The other Israelites have taken a vow not to let their daughters marry Benjaminites. This is the problem. No one had instructed them to make that vow, and now the vow has created a serious difficulty. They had taken the vow before they offered the sacrifice of reconciliation. They had acted with a split mind, doing things that were mutually opposed. This is an example of a rash vow, of the sort that Jephthe made. Such vows often enough create bigger problems than those they were supposed to solve. Anyway, this is the problem governing the present chapter, and the Israelites themselves caused it.
The story is full of irony, of course. For example, it ends at the shrine city of Shiloh, one of the ancient words for “peace.” The scene, however, is anything but peaceful.
How do we explain all this contradiction and activity at cross-purposes? The chapter’s final verse does the best it can for an explanation. Namely, everybody was following his own inclination and preference. “Everybody do what you want,” though a slogan not without popular appeal in our own times, is a formula for chaos, and what we have here toward the end of Judges is a chaotic situation.
Still, the Book of Judges finishes with an act of deliverance and a new birth. Benjamin is spared. It does not disappear from history, as did Simeon and Reuben. From the tribe of Benjamin, in fact, would come, in due course, the Apostle Paul. This final chapter, then, is about God’s fidelity even in the midst of irony and chaos.
Luke 7:1-10: Among those sections that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, independent of Mark, have in common, almost all are directly didactic. That is to say, those sections almost invariably consist of the explicit teachings of Jesus, with no attention to events in Jesus’ life. Those shared sections contain, for instance, the sort of material we find in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5—7) and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (6:20–49).
When, on the other hand, Matthew and Luke do tell a common story about Jesus’ life, Mark almost invariably has that story too. The clear exception to this pattern is Matthew’s and Luke’s narrative of the centurion who sought healing for his cherished servant (Matthew 8:5–13; Luke 7:1–10).
As an account of a person beseeching the Lord on behalf of someone else, this shared narrative resembles other stories in the Gospels, such as Jairus and the Syro-Phoenician woman praying for their daughters (Mark 5:23; 7:24–30), another man and a centurion pleading for their sons (9:17; John 4:46–53), Martha and Mary of Bethany interceding for their brother (11:3). These are all accounts of petitionary prayer on behalf of loved ones.
Such stories surely had a great influence on the patterns of Christian intercessory prayer. We note, for instance, that the petitions in these accounts are addressed to Jesus. Although in Jesus’ specific teaching about prayer, the normal emphasis was on prayer addressed to the heavenly Father (Luke 11:2) in Jesus’ name (John 15:16), the emphasis is different in these particular Gospel stories. One of their singular values is that they unambiguously answer a practical question that might arise among Christians, namely, “If one of your loved ones gets sick, is there some special Trinitarian protocol to follow, or is it all right just to take the problem right to Jesus?”
However, the idea of taking one’s problems “right to Jesus” is surely not to be understood in the sense of forgoing the mediating prayer of others. It is not as though the unique mediation of Jesus our Lord (1 Timothy 2:5) excludes certain saints from mediating on behalf of other saints, and these various Gospel stories are the proof of it. In fact, it is the entire point and the whole business of the foregoing stories to validate such mediation. This is called intercessory prayer.
To see how this works out, let us return to the story of the centurion pleading on behalf of his servant. If we compare the differing accounts of this event in Matthew and Luke, we first observe that Matthew’s
is the shorter and simpler version. In this account the centurion simply goes to Jesus, requesting that the Lord speak the commanding word so that the servant will be healed. It takes only six verses.
In Luke, however, the story requires ten verses and is considerably more complicated. First, the centurion himself does not approach Jesus directly. He sends some friends who will speak for him. Now this is interesting, because it introduces another level of mediation. The friends are interceding for the centurion, who is in turn interceding for his servant. We have here the beginnings of a prayer chain, as it were.
Then, when Jesus starts moving towards the centurion’s home, the latter dispatches another group of friends, who will speak the famous words that characterize this story: “I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof” (7:6). It is surely significant that the centurion does not speak these words, deeply personal as they are, to Jesus directly. Others say them to Jesus on the centurion’s behalf. In Luke’s version of the story, in fact, there is no face-to-face encounter of the centurion with Jesus at all. The centurion’s faith is conveyed by those he chooses to intercede for him.
Finally, in Luke’s version of the story, there is a striking parallel, surely deliberate, between this centurion and Cornelius in chapter 10 of the Acts of the Apostles. Both of these centurions send others to speak on their behalf, and in each case the one solicited—Jesus in the first and Simon Peter in the second—goes immediately to respond to the need. At this point the two stories form a contrast. In the first instance the centurion, wanting to spare Jesus the uncleanness of entering a Gentile house, solicits His aid from a distance. In the case of Peter and Cornelius, however, the barrier between Jew and Gentile has now been removed forever, and Peter comes to his home.
Saturday, September 19
2 Corinthians 1:1-11: This epistle is addressed not only to Corinth, but also to the Christians of the whole Roman province of Achaia, of which Corinth was the capital (cf. 9:2). In this detail we see already the beginnings of the ecclesiastical structure later known as “diocesan,” in which Christians in rural areas, smaller towns, and villages were associated with and brought under the pastoral supervision of a larger, usually more centralized church in a given region.
Paul calls himself an apostle, but it is noteworthy that he does not extend this title to Timothy. Paul normally, as here, restricts the title to those men who had been directly and immediately called by Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:8). However, the application of the title “apostle” is not uniform throughout the writings of the New Testament.
Timothy, already well known to the Corinthians (verse 19; 1 Corinthians 4:17), is named as co-author. This identification of Timothy with himself in the authorship of this epistle corresponds quite closely to our own custom of naming others as co-authors of our own letters. Thus, for instance, Lois may write, “Love from Lois and Frank,” or even “Frank and Lois,” at the end of a letter that Frank himself may not even know about. It was Paul’s way of saying, “Timothy is here with me,” but it also enhances the dignity and authority of Timothy in the eyes of the Corinthians.
Right away Paul introduces the theme of the divine strengthening that accompanies the trials of the saints. This subject, sustained and thematic throughout the epistle, appears ten times in verses 3-7.
The afflictions that Paul suffered in Asia (verse 8) seem to be connected to the riot of the Ephesians, recorded in Acts 19:23-34 (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:9-10). It was during that difficult period that Paul learned the strength of Christ, which is stronger than death (verses 9-10; Romans 4:17).
Sunday, September 20
2 Corinthians 1:12—2:2: The lesson learned from his experience in Asia heightened Paul’s sense of the difference between divine grace and worldly wisdom (verse 12), a difference about which he had earlier written to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1:20; 2:5). By means of the present epistle Paul’s readers will be taught this lesson also (verses 13-14). It is important that they be so, because they endure the same trials as Paul (verse 7). The sufferings endured are, in fact, “the sufferings of Christ” (verse 5).
Paul begins to correct a misunderstanding. He had disappointed some of the Corinthians by failing to visit them at a time when he was expected. Indeed, he had announced plans for such a visit (1 Corinthians 16:5). In fact, he changed his plans more than once. Recently he had planned to stop for visits twice at Corinth, once going to Macedonia and once coming back (verses 15-16). Even these plans had been changed, to the chagrin of some of the folks at Corinth, who thought the Apostle a bit fickle and irresolute (verse 17).
St. Paul defends himself, insisting that these changes of travel plans did not indicate a deeper spiritual problem. In his proclamation of the Gospel to the Corinthians he was not fickle or irresolute (verse 18). His readers, therefore, should not interpret his recent behavior as a sign of irresolution.
Paul uses this occasion to teach a lesson. Steadfastness of purpose, he says, is what characterizes the word that God speaks to us in Christ. It is an enduring affirmation, indicated by the perfect tense of the verb (gegonen–verse 19). That word is the same as when Paul and his companions had first preached it among the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15:11), because God’s promises are not subject to changes of plans (verse 20). They are always “Amen,” the same word that Christians speak back to God at the close of their prayers in Jesus’ name.
In fact, God has even now sealed these promises in the hearts of the Corinthians at the time of their baptism (verses 21-22). This sealing is already a down payment or “earnest money” (arrabon) of their eternal inheritance (cf. 5:5; Romans 8:23).
Paul then returns to his disputed travel plans, saying that it was for the good of the Corinthians themselves that he had failed to show up when they expected him (verse 23; compare 13:2). Things were not yet right at Corinth.
Monday, September 21
2 Corinthians 2:3-17: Paul saw no value in returning yet again to Corinth while feeling distressed at the situation there. Such a visit, he felt, would only have made things worse (verses 1-2). He sent them a letter instead, the “letter of tears” which seems not to have survived (verse 3). Paul’s decision not to go to Corinth had at least not added further grief to those with whom he ought to share a common joy, and his letter had manifested his love and concern for the Corinthians (verse 4).
These references to their shared distress point to some troublemaker whom Paul had encountered in Corinth on a previous visit (verse 5). The Apostle here presumes his readers’ familiarity with the case, the particulars of which are, of course, unknown to us. Paul is confident that the Corinthians have adequately dealt with the problem (verse 6), inspired by his “letter of tears” and a recent visit by Titus (cf. 7:6-7).
Indeed, Paul has now become concerned for the offender, with whom the congregation had dealt somewhat severely (verses 7-8). In any case, the Corinthians have properly met the trial posed by the troublemaker (verse 9), and now it is time to move on (verses 10-1).
Paul proceeds to tell of his recent missionary trip to Troas (on the western coast of Asia, the region of ancient Troy), thus taking up the narrative broken off at the beginning of this chapter. He had hoped to meet Titus at Troas, to learn from Titus what had transpired in Corinth. Paul’s disappointment at failing to find Titus at Troas caused him, reluctantly, to abandon his ministry there and to sail over to Macedonia (verses 12-13). We readers find Paul’s distress understandable. Until he shou
ld meet Titus and learn what had transpired at Corinth, Paul would be distracted, uncertain how the congregation reacted to his “letter of tears.”
But why did Paul go over to Macedonia? This is not difficult to discover. If we think of him languishing at Troas for some days, perhaps even weeks, it would have been natural for him to sail over to Macedonia, from which, after all, Titus was expected. We should bear in mind that the currents and wind patterns between Troas and Macedonia made an eastward voyage longer and more difficult than a westward voyage. Because the Black Sea is normally colder than the Mediterranean Basin (on the average of ten degrees), the faster evaporation in the latter causes a strong southwest current to run through the Dardanelles, seriously influencing the speed of travel between Asia and Macedonia. A trip from Troas required only two days (Acts 16:11), whereas the reverse might take more than twice that long (20:6).
Paul proceeds to bless God for this fortunate outcome (verse 14), typical of the divine solicitude for man’s salvation. That is to say, in the recent difficulties at Corinth, the Lord had displayed the power of the Gospel itself (verses 15-17). For both Paul and the Corinthians the Gospel had become a matter of empirical evidence and concrete experience. God had “triumphed over” them (thriambevonti hemas–verse 14). This note touches the epistle’s major theme: God’s power made perfect in man’s weakness. Paul will speak incessantly of this “manifestation” (phaneroein–verse 14; 3:3; 4:10,11; 5:10,11 (bis); 7:12; 11:6).
Tuesday, September 22
2 Corinthians 3:1-18: The chapter begins with two rhetorical questions, the anticipated answer to both being “no.” Paul speaks of commendatory letters, to which there are other references in the New Testament (Romans 16:-12; 1 Corinthians 16:10-11; Philemon passim; Acts 15:22-31; 18:27). Paul asserts here that his relationship to the Corinthians renders such letters superfluous (verses 1-3).
Paul has “confidence before God” (pepoithesis pros ton Theon–verse 4, an expression that has no linguistic equivalent elsewhere in the Bible). He has this confidence “through Christ,” not from any self-sufficiency (verse 5). The infinitive logisasthai is better translated “to claim” than “to speak”: “We are not sufficient to claim anything” (compare 2:17). Paul’s competence comes from the God who commissioned his ministry (verse 6).
The Apostle introduces here his contrast of letter and Spirit (cf. Romans 2:27-29), which he will elaborate through the rest of this chapter.
What is perhaps most surprising in the first six verses of this chapter is Paul’s confidence in the Corinthian church, where he sees the activity of the Holy Spirit as the fulfillment of the prophetic promises in Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The Corinthians themselves are a testimony to the power and fruitfulness of his own ministry.
Paul them proceeds to contrast the Gospel ministry–the ministry of the Spirit–with the ministry of the Mosaic Law, a theme that runs through the rest of this chapter. Because “the letter kills” (verse 6), he calls the Mosaic ministry “a ministry of death” (verse 7). For someone that spent all his previous life in the study of the Torah, this is a very strong assertion.
The Apostle also introduces now the expression “glory,” which as a noun or a verb (“glorify”) appears thirteen times in the remainder of this chapter. Even the ministry of the Law, he says, was possessed of glory. How much more the ministry of the Spirit? (verses 8-9. Compare the same form of argument in Romans 8:32).
Paul felt the “boldness” (parresia) displayed in what he had just written with respect to the Mosaic Law (verse 12). After all, he had jut referred to the dispensation of the Torah–the ministry of Moses himself–as “the ministry of death” (verse 7) and “the ministry of condemnation” (verse 9). This was certainly bold speech for a rabbi who had spent his whole life in the study of the Torah!
Nor do these words of Paul convey the entire truth. Indeed, Paul was still working his way through this subject when he wrote 2 Corinthians. A year or so later he would give a more developed, nuanced treatment of this matter in his dialectical argument in Romans 9—11.
This boldness in speech Paul contrasts with the approach of Moses, who veiled his face so that the Israelites could not behold the fading glory of his countenance (verse 13; Exodus 34:30-35). In this context, in which the word “veil” (kálymma) appears four times (verses 13-16), the “unveiled face” serves as a metaphor for boldness.
The expression eis to telos (verse 13) should not be understood as expressing purpose (“in order that”) but as expressing effect (“with the result that”). Otherwise Paul would be accusing Moses of deceiving the people.
The fault, however, was not of Moses but of the Israelites (verse 14). Here Paul has in mind less the Israelites of Moses’ time than the Israelites of his own day, those from whose synagogues, all over the Mediterranean basin, he and his companions had been expelled. These were the Israelites to whom the true face of Moses remained veiled. Satan, “the god of this world” (4:4), continued to harden their thoughts (noemata–verse 14). This veil has become, in Paul’s argument, an internal covering of the mind, which prevents the correct understanding of “the Old Testament.” This is the only place in the Bible, we may note, that uses this last expression.
The “abolishing” (katargeitai) of which Paul speaks here refers to the veil, not the Old Testament. This is clear in verse 16, where Paul refers to the removal of the veil from the heart (verse 15). No part of God’s Word is ever abolished or “out of date” (Matthew 5:17; Romans 3:31).
The Septuagint text of Exodus 34:34 throws light on this removal of the veil. It speaks of Moses taking the veil from his face when he “went in before the Lord to speak to Him.” It was in turning to the Lord that Moses’ veil was removed. Thus, says St. Paul, as soon as a man turns to the Lord, the veil is removed (verse 16). This interpretation is important as it indicates Paul understood Jesus to be “the Lord” to whom Moses went in to speak. The Lordship of Jesus is, in fact, at the base of all Paul’s reflections here (cf. 4:5).
To speak of Christ, however, is concretely to speak of the Holy Spirit. We do not get the One without the Other (verse 17). They are necessarily, or at least practically, concomitant. It is as though a foreign diplomat were to say, “Washington is the United States,” or as if an epicure should remark, “Baltimore is crab cakes,” meaning that the one implies the other. With Christ comes the Holy Spirit; when a man turns to Christ, he receives the Holy Spirit. (Indeed, even this affirmation is oversimplified, because a man cannot even turn to Christ except through the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit.)
Contrasted with the veiled Israelites are the unveiled Christians, beholding and being transformed by the glory of the Lord (verse 18). Like Moses in God’s presence, their faces are uncovered, because there is freedom in the new covenant (verse 17). To Christians, then, it is given to share in the doxological transformation accorded to Moses, as they are transformed progressively into the image of Christ.
Wednesday, September 23
2 Corinthians 4:1-18: Paul’s comments are partly biographical, of course; he is implicitly remembering his own experience of conversion to Christ and the glory on the road to Damascus, the experience that led to his radical reassessment of
the Torah. This is why he shifts to the “apostolic we” (4:1). It is this “we” that proclaims the Lordship of Jesus (4:5). The apostolic preaching is the means by which others contemplate the revelation of God’s glory on the face of Christ (4:6).
Paul then returns to the dominant theme of this epistle—power made perfect in infirmity (verse 7). The clay jars means “in our body” (verse 10), “in our mortal flesh” (verse 11), “in us” (verse 12). Human beings, according to Genesis, are framed from the clay of the earth. Nonetheless, Paul’s references here do not indicate a spirit/material contrast. The whole human person suffers the pangs of mortality, the soul as well as the body. Of himself, and considered entirely within his own resources, man is like the clay jars in which Gideon’s army carried the victorious flame. The contrast here in Paul is between human weakness and divine power, not between the body and the soul.
For Paul the apostolic experience was like a sustained sense of being put to death, but not quite (verses 8-12). This sense of mortality, repeated in so many circumstances of Paul’s life and travels, is seen through the interpretive lens of the “dying” (nekrosis) of Jesus (verse 10). The death and resurrection of Jesus form the paradigm of power made perfect in weakness (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:25-31).
Paul’s preaching is based on that faith (verse 13). He understands what happens in his life through his deep communion with Christ (1:5; 13:4; Galatians 6:17; Philippians 3:10-11). This is the source of his “boldness.”
Verse 16 is the only place in the New Testament where the expression “day by day” occurs. All that Paul has been writing, particularly his comments about going from glory to glory, is a matter of daily Christian experience.
The Christian’s “outer man” means the vessel of clay, man in his daily encounter with his mortality. The “inner man” means his communion with Christ.
With respect to the contrasting images of lightness and gravity in verse 17, it is instructive to remember that the Hebrew noun for “glory,” kavod, is derived from the Hebrew verbal root kavad, meaning “to be heavy.” The great weight of gold perhaps explains this derivation. “Glory” in Holy Scripture is a very substantial and enduring thing, compared with which our afflictions seem light and are certainly transitory.
Thursday, September 24
2 Corinthians 5:1-11: At the beginning of this chapter Paul outlines a theme he will treat in more detail in Romans 8—the longing that the Holy Spirit prompts in the hearts of Christians with respect to the final glorification of their bodies (verse 5). Indeed, he speaks of this longing as a “groaning” (verses 2,4; Romans 8:23). It is death, not the body itself, that will be swallowed up in life. This longing is appropriate, because we are, even as we are weighed down by our mortality, the temples of the Holy Spirit, the guarantee and down payment of our final salvation.
Even our present union with Christ, moreover, does not eliminate the fact that in our mortal condition we are still separated from the Lord (verse 6). This is simply the difference between faith and sight (verse 7; 1 Corinthians 13:12).
This is a bold way to live. Twice Paul uses the verb “dare” (tharreo–verses 6,8), which takes up the “boldness” of the previous chapter. It is a courage given by the Holy Spirit, because few men would willingly part with their bodies to attain a better goal (Philippians 1:21-24). What is more important than either state, however, is to be pleasing to the Lord (verse 9), whether living or dying. This is what will count at the tribunal at which the value of our lives will be assessed (verse 10; Romans 2:16-26).
Meanwhile believers live by the first-fruits of immortality that abide in their mortal flesh—namely, the Holy Spirit, by whose indwelling power their bodies will in the end be covered over in glory.
Standing even under the divine judgment, Paul endeavors to convince others of this truth (verse 11).
Friday, September 25
2 Corinthians 5:15-21: As in 3:1, Paul again fears lest his comments be understood as a self-promotion, which would be most unseemly (verse 12). He wants the Corinthians to know his heart, nonetheless, and not emulate those who judge by appearances. The Apostle is implicitly admitting here that he has not always “looked good.” Some of his experiences have been ecstatic (verse 13; 12:1-7), a point on which, it would appear, certain opponents have been critical of him. No matter, says Paul, such experiences have been God-ward. When, however, he speaks rationally, it is man-ward. Paul made the same distinction thee previous year (1 Corinthians 14:2,28). It is not clear in the present text whether has Paul has been criticized for his ecstatic experiences or for his apparent lack of them. Either sense will fit the context.
Verse 14 means, “the love of God grabs us” (or “grips” us—-synechei). This is the love manifest in his dying for us (Galatians 2:20). “All have died” in the sense that those who are gripped by the love of Christ will no longer live for themselves but for Him who purchased them with His blood (verse 15; Romans 5:10).
What we have in Christ is a new existence, no longer “according to the flesh.” Before his conversion Paul had known Christ “according to the flesh”—that is, not according to faith. All that, however, is now gone. Paul will not know anyone except in the faith of Christ (verse 16). The love of Christ gives the believer a new way of knowing people. Being “in Christ” is a new mode of existence (verse 17; Galatians 6:16). Paul’s vocabulary here seems borrowed from the second part of the Book of Isaiah (for example, 43:18-19; 48:5; 65:17; 66:22), which he will cite presently in 6:2 (Isaiah 49:8).
The Christian ministry is essentially a ministry of reconciliation, in which the reconciliation effected on the Cross is applied and brought to bear on the lives and hearts of human beings (verses 18-19; Galatians 1:12-16). Paul makes such an application now (verse 20).
The expression that Christ was made “sin [hamartia] for us” is open to more than one meaning (verse 21). It may mean that Christ, though not a sinner, assumed the condition of a sinner in order to represent all sinners. It may also mean that Christ became a “sin offering” (which is the meaning of hamartia as it appears in the Greek text of Leviticus 4). In either case the meaning is soteriological. By Christ’s becoming “sin,” we become “the righteousness of God.”