Friday, December 18
Revelation 21:15-27: All of history is symbolized in two women, who are two cities. We have already considered the scarlet woman who is Babylon/ Rome. The other woman is the Bride, the New Jerusalem, whose proper place is heaven, but who also flees to the desert, where she does battle with Satan (Chapter 12). Now that battle is over, however, and she appears here in her glory. That other city was seated, as we saw, on seven hills, but this New Jerusalem also sits on a very high mountain, which everyone understood to be symbolized in Mount Zion (cf. Ezekiel 40:1-2). John’s vision of the gates on the city is reminiscent of Ezekiel 48.
John’s vision here, especially verses 19-21, is also related to Ezekiel 28:12-15, where we find joined the themes of the mountain and the precious stones, for this city is also the Garden of Eden, where those stones first grew (cf. Genesis 2:10-12).
The symbolic number here is twelve, which we already considered in Chapter 12, where it was the number of the stars around the head of the heavenly woman. The identification of twelve stars with twelve stones is obvious in our own custom of birthstones to represent zodiacal signs. The symbol is not only astrological, however, but also historical, because it is the number of the patriarchs and apostles. Here, in fact, the twelve gates bear the names of the twelve tribes, who are the seed of the twelve patriarchs, while the twelve foundation stones of the city are identified as the twelve apostles.
We recall that the one hundred and forty-four thousand—the number of the righteous—partly involves squaring of the number twelve. In the present chapter John stresses that the plane geometry of the holy city is square, as in Ezekiel 45 and 48. John goes beyond Ezekiel, however, in viewing the New Jerusalem as a cube, as in the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:20).
Saturday, December 19
Revelation 22:1–21: The biblical story begins and ends in paradise. Thus, in John’s vision of the river of paradise we remember the four-branched river of paradise in Genesis 2. Both here and in Ezekiel 47:1-12 there are monthly fruits growing on the banks of the river, twelve in number, obviously. Just as Adam’s curse drove the whole human race out of paradise, so the leaves of the paradisiacal tree of life are for the healing of all the nations.
Heaven, portrayed here as vision and worship with the angels (verses 8-9), is for all those whose foreheads are sealed with the mark of the living God. This sealing, of course, stands in contrast to the mark of beast. (It is curious to note that, outside of the Book of Revelation [7:2-3; 9:3-4; 13:16-18; 14:1.9; 17:5; 20:4], the word “forehead” does not appear in the New Testament.) The literary background of John’s sealing is apparently Ezekiel 9:1-4.
The urgency of John’s message is indicated by the command that he not seal it up for future generations. The Lord’s coming, in fact, will be soon, and it is imperative for John’s readers to “get out” the message. John’s visions are not sealed, concealed, esoteric codes to be deciphered by future generations. John clearly expects his own contemporaries to understand what he is writing. These things “must shortly take place” (verse 6); it will all happen “soon” (1:1,3). John is warning his contemporaries that a special moment of judgment and grace is upon them and that they had better prepare themselves for it, because it is later than they think.
This final chapter of Revelation resembles in several particulars the first chapter of the book, one of which is that in both places Jesus speaks to John directly. In both chapters He is called the Alpha and the Omega (verse 12; 1:8). As in that first chapter, likewise, the references to Jesus’ swift return (verse 7, for instance) do not pertain solely to His coming at the end of time; He is saying, rather, that in the hour of their trial those who belong to Jesus will find that He is there waiting for them. The blessing in verse 7, therefore, resembles the blessing in 1:3.
In this book a great deal has been said about the worship in the heavenly sanctuary. Now we learn that Christians already share in the worship that the angels give to God (verses 8-9).
Verse 11 indicates a definite cut-off point in history, which is the final coming of Christ. Verse 12, which quotes Isaiah 40:10, promises the reward, which is access to the Holy City, eternal beatitude—the fullness of communion with God. In preparation for that reward, verses 14-16 are something of an altar call, an appeal for repentance, based on all that this book has said.
In referring to those “outside” the City, John is relying on an ancient Eucharistic discipline of the Church, called “excommunication,” which literally excluded the person from receiving Holy Communion (cf. Didache 9.5; Justin Martyr, First Apology 66.1). One of the major problems of the Christian Church, in any age, is that of distinguishing itself from the world, and the Christian Church, like any institution in history, finds its identity threatened if it does not maintain “lines” that separate it from the world. In early Christian literature, beginning with the New Testament, we find the Church insistent on making those lines sharp and clear. This preoccupation is what accounts for the rather pronounced “them and us” mentality that we find in the New Testament. It is an emphasis essential to maintain if the Church is to preserve her own identity down through history.
Sunday, December 20
Titus 1:1-16: This very solemn introduction (verses 1-4) rivals those of the longer epistles, which were addressed to whole congregations. In this respect the Epistle to Titus may be contrasted to the other epistles addressed only to individuals (Timothy, Philemon).
God’s promise was made at the dawn of history (verse 2), but now it is manifest in the preaching of the Gospel (verse 3). All of history was guided by that original promise, so the Gospel embraces all of history in its scope and interest.
Paul’s directions for the choice and ordination of ministers (verses 5-9) correspond to those that he had given to Timothy a year or so earlier (1 Timothy 3:1-7). Such a minister is called both an “elder” (presbyteros —verse 5) and an “overseer” (episkopos —verse 6). In these two Greek words we discern the etymological roots of the English words “priest” and “bishop.” Only in the very early second century, it would seem (our first extant witness, Ignatius of Antioch, wrote in 107), did the two terms come to signify two distinct offices. (This reasonable hypothesis argues only that there was a development in terminology, not a development in the ministry itself.)
It is imperative to observe that the authority of these men comes from their choice and ordination by Titus (and Timothy and so on), who in turn were authorized by Paul. The New Testament knows of no legitimate ordained ministry except by an historical continuity traceable to those eleven men who received the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20).
That is to say, Christian ordination is an historical institution, literally “handed down,” conferred by the laying on of hands by those authorized to do so; the notion of a “succession” is essential to this ministry.
Paul is strict with respect to the moral and domestic lives of these ministers (verses 6-8), whose service he describes chiefly in terms of teaching (verse 9). In this respect they are contrasted with Jewish heretics (verses 10). The latter, he suggests, Titus was likely to meet because of the large Jewish community on Crete (Josephus, Antiquities 17.12.1-2, §323-331; The Jewish War 2.7.1, §103; Ad Gaium 282). The ideas of these Jewish teachers, Pau
l explains, can likely expect a better hearing among the Cretans! (verse 12) According to Clement of Alexandria, the poet quoted here by Paul was Epimenides (Stromateis 1.14; cf. Tatian, Oratio 27), a writer from the sixth century before Christ.
These Christian ministers must not be like those who profess God with their lips but not in their lives (verses 15-16).
Monday, December 21
Titus 2:1-15: In the previous chapter Paul had spoken about being “sound in the faith” (hygiainosin en tei pistei-—1:13). Such “soundness” is the mark that he further inculcates in the present chapter, exhorting Titus to “speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine” (hygiainousei didaskalioi-—verse 1), so that mature men may be “sound in faith” (hygiainantes tei pistei-—verse 2) and of “sound speech” (logon hygie-—verse 8). This “soundness” (in the Greek root of which, hygi, we recognize our English words “hygiene” and “hygienic”) is a noted theme also in the letters to Timothy (cf. 1 Timothy 6:3; 2 Timothy 1:13; 4:3). Christian teaching, that is to say, should carry the marks of intellectual, moral, and emotional health. It will not recommend itself if it encourages thoughts, sentiments, and behavior that are manifestly unhealthy.
In verse 2 we observe the triad of faith, love, and patience. This conjunction, common to the letters to Timothy (cf. 1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 3:10), is also found earlier in Paul (cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:3-4).
In verse 5, as elsewhere in Paul (1 Corinthians 14:35; Ephesians 5:22; Colossians 3:18; 1 Timothy 2:11-14), wives are exhorted to be subordinated (hypotassomenas, from the verb tasso, “to set in order,” “to arrange”) to their husbands. With respect to this exhortation, the Baptist exegete E. Glenn Hinson observes: “The initiative is to be with the wife. . . . Paul did not tell husbands to subdue their wives.” Even with this sage caveat, nonetheless, it is obvious that Paul’s exhortation runs directly counter to the contemporary egalitarian impulse.
Like Timothy (1 Timothy 4:12), Titus is expected to set a good example (verse 7). We recall that Paul rather often referred to his own good example. Pastors and missionaries surely teach more by example than they do in any other way.
The “great God” in verse 13 is identical with the “Savior Jesus Christ,” because in the Greek text a single article covers both words, God and Savior, and the rest of the sentence speaks only of Christ. It is He whose appearance we await (cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:7; 1 Timothy 6:14-15; 2 Timothy 4:1).
Tuesday, December 22
Titus 3:1-15: As always, Paul is solicitous for the good reputation of Christians, knowing that the fortunes of the Church’s evangelism and ministry in this world depend, in no small measure, on that reputation. Thus, in the previous chapter he urged that the conduct of Christian women be such as not to hurt God’s cause (2:5).
Now, following that same solicitude in the present chapter, he urges Christians “to be subject [hypotassesthe, the same verb as in 2:5] to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, . . . showing humility to all men” (verses 1-2; cf. verse 8). Few things, surely, would more seriously impede the cause of the Gospel than the impression that Christians are contentious, rebellious, disobedient, and unpatriotic (cf. also Romans 13:1-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-2; 1 Peter 2:13).
The doctrine of baptismal regeneration in verse 6 (cf. also Romans 6:4; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15; Ephesians 5:26; Colossians 2:11-13), and the expression “renewing of the Holy Spirit,” used in conjunction with this reference to Baptism, seem to refer to the post-baptismal laying on of hands (cf. Acts 8:14-17; 19:5-6; Hebrews 6:2).
It is possible that the phrases in verses 4-7 were taken from a hymn or other liturgical prayer that Titus would recognize. This would explain Paul’s affirmation, in verse 8, that “this is a faithful saying” (cf. also 1 Timothy 1:15; 3:1; 4:9; 2 Timothy 2:11).
The unrepentant “divisive man” in verse 10 is literally the “heretical man”—haeretikos anthropos; the adjective appears only here in the New Testament. Paul’s counsel that such a one be avoided after, at most, two admonitions was understood rather strictly by the early Christians (cf. Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 1.16.3; Tertullian, De Praescriptione 16).
There were several cities named Nicopoplis, “city of victory,” in the ancient world. It is likely that the city mentioned by Paul (verse 12) was the one in Epirus, south of Dalmatia, founded by Octavian in 31 B.C. to celebrate his victory over the forces of Anthony and Cleopatra at Actium.
Wednesday, December 23
Hebrews 1:1-9: This association of sonship and inheritance, affirmed by the Apostle Paul (cf. Romans 8:17; Galatians 4:7), is one of the striking points of contact between the gospel parable of the vine growers and the Epistle to the Hebrews. The latter work begins, "God, who at sundry times and in divers manners, spake in times past to the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son [hyios], whom he hath appointed heir [kleronomos] of all things"(1:1-2 KJV, emphasis added).
The historical perspective of the prologue of Hebrews is identical to that of the parable of the vine growers, which is found in each of the three Synoptic Gospels. In both cases the sending of the Son comes as the climax of a lengthy series of diverse missions dispatched to the vineyard. The former sending of the "prophets" in Hebrews corresponds to the repeated efforts of the Lord of the vineyard to gain the attention of the vine growers, who rejected the messengers, "beating some and killing some" (Mark 12:5).
In both places there is an emphasis on how often God made those overtures. The first three words in Hebrews, polymeros kai polytropos, are better rendered with some attention to the repeated prefix poly-, which indicates "many." The "at many times and in many ways" of the English Standard Version accomplishes this. The sense of repetition is also found in the Gospel parable. Several servants are sent, indeed "many" (pollous—Mark 12:5), even "more than the first" (pleionas ton proton—Matthew 21:36).
In this historical sequence, the Son comes "last" (eschatos). Mark's version (12:6) reads, "Last of all He sent His beloved Son" (hyion agapeton . . . apesteilen auton eschaton). Hebrews, likewise, says that God "has in these last days (ep' eschatou ton hemeron touton) spoken to us by a Son [en hyio]." Thus, the sending of the Son, both in the Gospel parable and in Hebrews, is God's eschatological act (cf. also Galatians 4:4), bringing Old Testament history to a dramatic climax in the Son's redemptive Death and Resurrection.
This historical approach to Christology is important. Even before speaking of the eternity of God’s Son (“the brightness of His glory, and the express image of His person”), the author first relates that Son to the message conveyed “in time past unto the fathers by the prophets.” The Son of God proclaimed in this work is also a human being. More specifically, in fact, He is a Jew. This Son not only became man; He also became a Jew. His experience as a human being—all those things identified as “the days of his flesh” (5:7)—was specifically Jewish. God’s Son assumed our humanity in a particular race and took on the history of that race. He came t
o the earth and learned the ways of men by becoming part of Jewish history.
Thursday, December 24
Hebrews 1:10—2:3: This work was composed for a specific group of Christians, about whom the writer was very concerned. He knew things about them that made him fearful they might actually defect from the Christian faith and lose their souls. This is the reason we find in this work a level of pastoral anxiety almost unparalleled in the New Testament. Several times this work explicitly warns of the danger of apostasy.
Several times the author speaks of hell fire, a subject about which St. Paul is completely silent. In the entire collection of his epistles—from Romans to Philemon—Paul not once mentions the fires of hell, not even to the Galatians and Corinthians.
The author’s deep concern on the subject of the loss of saving faith is introduced in the verses under consideration here. I suggest our consideration should include three points:
First, the good news can become bad news. That is to say, the saving faith of the Gospel can be lost. In fact, in the New Testament we find instances where is was lost.
A perfectly clear example was a teacher named Hymenaeus, of whom St. Paul wrote that he “suffered shipwreck” concerning the faith (1 Timothy 1:19). Hymenaeus not only lost the faith himself, but he became the cause of other Christians losing the faith: “But shun profane, idle babblings,” Paul wrote to Timothy, “for they will increase to more ungodliness. And their message will spread like cancer. Hymenaeus and Philetus are of this sort, who have strayed concerning the truth” (2 Timothy 2:16-18).
Even if the New Testament did not indicate such examples, we would already know the possibility of losing the faith. We have seen Christians lose their faith. Some Christians have confessed to losing their faith. As for ourselves, if we are the least bit honest about it, know that we can lose our faith. This conviction is not a theory we have about faith. It is a simple matter of experience. This conviction is the reason we do not become sensitive or defensive on the matter. We know saving faith can be lost.
This is the reason the author of Hebrews wrote, “If the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?”
Second, then, faith can be lost by being neglected. We observe in this text that the author is writing to a second generation of Christians—those for whom the Christian faith was an inherited religion, those who were baptized as children and were never part of pagan culture of the day. these are the Christians at risk, because from infancy they have taken the faith for granted, and too often they have not paid attention to it. These are the Christians to whom he says, “We must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard.”
This is a warning to pay attention, to “give heed.” Christians can listen day by day, week by week, to the most astounding truths and yet never get around to what these things actually mean. They are still children when they stop coming to formal Christian instruction. That is to say, their faith is still the semi-formed faith of children. They are not prepared to live as adult Christians in a world hostile to the faith.
Notice that the word “gospel” does not appear a single time in the course of these 13 chapters of Hebrews. We can hardly imagine St Paul writing even a single page without using that word at least once.
I suspect that the word “gospel” does not appear in this work, because for the intended congregation it was no longer “good news.” If the good news is neglected, it tends to become bad news. The gospel is not gospel for those who ignore or neglect it. If the gospel is not thought about, if it is not the object of serious reflection—if it is treated casually and with nonchalance—it is no longer gospel.
Third, what are the signs that someone is losing the faith. The verb used in this text is pararreo. In the King James Bible it reads, “we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip.” A better translation for this verb is “drift.” This is how it is correctly translated in the NKJ, RSV, NEB, JB, NIV, NAB, ASV, and Philips. In the NT, the verb appears only here.
To “drift” is a nautical metaphor, meaning to go with the current. The author of Hebrews is not thinking about a sudden and dramatic crash. The danger was, rather, that these believers would simply drift away, borne out by the tide. A drift can be very gradual, almost unnoticeable, but over a period of time the one who drifts can go a very great distance.
This is one of the reasons we have Lent—to check on ourselves and see if we are drifting. In the realm of the spirit, drifting is always dangerous. There is no record that anyone ever drifted into heaven. Drift always goes the other way.
Left to themselves, human beings will not hold to a steady course—not on purpose, not because they are malicious, but simply because of the tidal waves of human life. How do we get back on course? Our author says, by paying closer attention to the things we have heard.
Friday, December 25
Christmas: All seven of the Church’s Ecumenical Councils have been concerned with a single question: “Who is Jesus?” Indeed, according to the Gospels Jesus Himself posed this question several times in various forms: "But who do you say that I am?" (Mark 8:29) "What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He?" (Matthew 22:42)
The reason this question is important has to do with certain claims of Jesus, which indicate that the answer touches on the nature of God. When Jesus declares, for instance, that He and the Father are one (John 10:30), when He affirms that He is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except through Him (14:6), when He claims that those who see Him see the Father (14:9)—in all such assertions Jesus of Nazareth forces Himself on the conscience of every human being who has ever lived.
The radical nature of these claims implies that their validity concerns the very being of God and, hence, the meaning of human existence. If these assertions are true, then there really is no God except the God revealed as the Father of this Palestinian carpenter.
This is extremely important, because it implies that all other religions—even if they are monotheistic—are intrinsically idolatrous. Apart from Jesus Christ, there is no access to the true God. The others are but thieves and robbers (10:8). Every competing religion is idol worship. What, after all, is idolatry but the worship of a false divinity? If the true God is known only in Jesus, then only Jesus can save mankind from bondage to false gods. Truly, if Jesus of Nazareth is who He says He is, then He is history’s only safeguard against idolatry. It is either Jesus or the idols. There is no other choice.
Strictly speaking, human history has had only one 'saint." At least that is what I infer from the Church's statement on the subject. When we chant the Great Doxology at the end of Matins, we declare to Christ our Lord, "Thou alone are holy" (Sy ei monos Hagios—Tu solus sanctus).
More needs to be said on this subject: When we speak of Christ, among all human beings, as "alone holy," the expression is not one of simple degree. It is not a quantitative assertion, declaring that Christ, being holier than the rest of us, is said to be the "only saint." He is not only holier than the rest of us. He is holy in a sense very different from the rest of us. His is not a derived holiness. It is the very holiness of God, "for in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily" (Colossians 2:9).
If Christ alone is holy, it is also His glory that fills the earth. "The whole earth is full of His glory," chant the Seraphim. Holiness is God's glory hidden and unseen. Glory is God's holiness openly revealed. Hence, it is the holiness of Christ that causes the glory of God to shine forth from His face (John 1:14; 2 Corinthians 4:4,6; 2 Peter 1:17-19). It is His face that conceals and reveals the mystery.
Taking seriously the claims of Jesus, the New Testament four times speaks of Him as our “Mediator,” our Mesites. Thus, the Apostle Paul calls Him the “one Mediator between God and men, the Man Jesus Christ” (1 Timothy 2:5), while the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, refers to Jesus as “the Mediator of the new covenant” (9:15; 12:24), the “Mediator of a better covenant” (8:6). Jesus is God’s Son who assumed our humanity and became thereby the one Mediator between God and Man. This is to say that in the person of Jesus both God’s nature and man’s are fixed forever in a unity that prompts us to speak of the God-Man. He joins both forms of existence in His own person.
Jesus’ mediation means that He is both God rendered visible and Man rendered acceptable. For our salvation, the Church insists, He must be both. Were He only a man, His death on the cross would be unavailing. Were He only God, His resurrection from the dead would have no significance. If we are truly redeemed, He must be both.
In the Incarnation God’s Son became our brother. He affirmed this truth when He said to Mary Magdalene, "Go and tell My brethren” (John 20:17). "I will declare Your name to My brethren," says He to the Father in Hebrews 2:12.
Most of all, however, Jesus claims brotherhood with all mankind in the context of history's final judgment, where we learn, "inasmuch as you did it to the least of My brethren, you did it to Me" (Matthew 25:40). Jesus' proclaimed solidarity of brotherhood with the whole human race means that the proper destiny of that race is a true community. It is not an assembly of self-made individuals, but the communion of the younger brothers and sisters of Jesus, who will be judged, at the end of history, on the basis of how they have treated one another.