Friday, January 22
Matthew 8:1-4: Today and tomorrow we have the first two of the Ten Miracles that Matthew, following his standard pattern of comparing Moses and Jesus, sets in parallel to the Ten Plagues visited on Egypt. In the first of these, the curing of the leper, the Lord invokes the authority of Moses (8:4), and in the second (verses 5-13) he extends the blessing of the Chosen People to the faith of the Gentiles (8:11).
Hebrews 11:8-16: Among the numerous and varied characters of the Old Testament, Abraham is perhaps the one most mentioned as a model for the Christian life. This prominence is prominent in the Epistle to the Romans, where Abraham, described as “the father of us all” (4:16) is presented as the outstanding example of the life of faith (chapter 4 passim). For St. Paul, Abraham’s faith was manifest in his adherence to God’s promises against all contrary evidence: “contrary to hope, in hope he believed, so that he became the father of many nations” (4:18).
The Epistle to the Hebrews, though not neglecting that aspect of the Abraham story (11:11-12), emphasizes two other aspects of Abraham’s faith: his wandering and the summons he received to offer Isaac in sacrifice.
The former theme is considered in the present verses: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country.” This aspect of Abraham’s faith is consistent with the theme of pilgrimage in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come’ (13:14). Indeed, with respect to all the Old Testament saints, we are told, “they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (11:13).
This was preeminently the situation of Abraham, who obeyed the Lord’s command, “Get out of your country, / From your family / And from your father’s house, / To a land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). In other words, Abraham will see that land only if obeys the command of the Lord. “I will show you” is in the future tense.
In addition to Hebrews, St. Stephen also emphasized this aspect of Abraham’s faith: “The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said to him, ‘Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you’” (Acts 7:3).
This feature of Abraham’s faith—his obedient wandering to pursue the future—corresponded very much to the experience of the early Christians. They, too, had no clear idea where they were going—at least in respect to their future in this world. Like Abraham, they were content to follow God’s leadership, wherever He would guide them. From a human perspective, they were just as vulnerable as any pilgrims in this world. This was especially the case, one suspects, as the social ties between the Church and the Jews began to be severed. What did the future hold? Those early Christians really had no idea, so Abraham became their model, “dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.”
Abraham trusted the Lord, placing his life and destiny in the hands of the God who will not lie or deceive. He did not try to work out his life for himself. He made no endeavor to base his future on his own theories. He trusted in God in the face of insuperable obstacles. He gave up every pursuit or goal not compatible with trust in God.
Such trust renders a person pleasing to God. Such faith is the only thing that justifies a man in God’s sight. Faith is not some benign component that enables a man to live a humanly “normal life.” On the contrary, faith compels a man to live a life that those without faith will say is foolish.
When he left Ur, it was a great city—one of the greatest in history. This great commercial center on the Persian Gulf was the place where writing had been invented. Abraham’s departure from there represented the move that every man of faith must make. Faith means giving up and moving on. It is the very opposite of an established and secure life. It always means “living in tents with Isaac and Jacob.”
Our author has nothing but good to say about Sarah (verses 11-12), stressing the importance of her faith: “By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised.”
We should be glad that Hebrews makes this point, because if we had only the Old Testament by which to reflect on the matter, we might doubt that Sarah had much faith. After all, she laughed when she heard God’s promise of a child.
Really, what else could she do? The whole idea was so preposterous. I suspect that most of us, in such circumstances, might giggle a bit. The Lord, however, was very serious on the matter, so He inquired of Abraham, “"Why did Sarah laugh, saying, 'Shall I surely bear a child, since I am old?' Is anything too hard for the Lord?”
Sarah herself was rather embarrassed by the whole episode, and not a little frightened, so much so that she denied having laughed. The Lord, however, who knows all things, even a giggle behind a tent flap, answered her, “"No, but you did laugh!"
For all that, there is nothing in the Sacred Text to suggest that the laughter of Sarah was a moral failing. She was reprimanded, not for laughing, but for denying that she had laughed.
We suspect that Sarah’s laughter was in some measure a sign of her humility. It probably indicated that she did not take herself too seriously. Perhaps it is the case that Sarah should have laughed more often than she did. If she had laughed at herself at earlier periods in her life, perhaps she would not have been so hard on Hagar and Ishmael. Perhaps she would have been less critical of Abraham himself.
Indeed, the faith of Sarah illustrates something truly essential to the very nature of faith—it accomplishes what is humanly impossible. Sarah did not assess the normal prospects of bearing a child at age 90. On the contrary, “she judged Him faithful who had promised.” That is to say, she trusted the fidelity of God to do what He has promised to do.
The childbearing of Hagar was a physical thing, wrote St. Paul to the Galatians. It was “according to the flesh.” Sarah’s, on the other hand, was “according to promise.” Faith is always “according to promise.” It is beyond all human guarantees, because it is rooted in God’s fidelity to His word. He is a God that keeps His promises. Thus Paul concludes his argument in Galatians, “Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise.” Like Sarah, we live in the expectation that God, in fidelity to His word, will always keep His promises.
A characteristic of all the godly Old Testament figures is that they “died in faith” (verses 13-16). In the argument advanced in this chapter, dying in faith has a particular and contextual meaning: those ancients died without having seen the fulfillment of God’s promises. Thus, Abraham and Sarah died without laying eyes on the numerous offspring promised to them, “as the stars of the sky in multitude—innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore” (verse 12). Joseph died in Egypt; his bones would not be carried to the Holy Land until generations later. Moses, who died in Moab, did not cross over the Jordan. To the very end of his life, he was a stranger in a strange land.
All of us must die in faith, of course, in the sense that each of us commits his personal destiny to a loving Father and merciful Savior. This is the faith in which we trust to take our places amid “the spirits of just men made perfect” (12:23). It is the faith that carries us over from history to eternity.
Here in Hebrews, however, dying in faith means somethi
ng more: It signifies taking leave of an ongoing story. Each of us appears in the middle of the same lengthy saga; we are active for a chapter or two, as it were—just long enough to figure out what the story is about—and then we take our leave, when the narrative is not yet over. During the course of our lives we learn to appreciate the earlier chapters of the book in a vision called faith. More than that, we learn to cherish our contemporaries in the account, with a sentiment and resolve called charity. All along, however, we know that a future lies ahead in the story, and we regard that future with an attitude called hope.
Then, after just a few years—seventy if we are fortunate, eighty if we are strong—just when we feel we have attained some sense of the story’s meaning and plot, it is time for us to depart from the scene. We are obliged to resign our place in the narrative. It will go on without us, and, on the whole, this world will not miss us for very long.
Dying in faith, in this understanding of death, means leaving everything in God’s hands, trusting the rest of history to Him, the Lord who fulfills His promises. All of us are like Abraham in this respect, who went out not knowing where he went (verse 8). All of us resemble Moses, “strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (verse 13).
When Hebrews speaks of another “homeland” to which we are summoned, a “better and heavenly country,” another city which is prepared for us—such language does not imply a contempt for the earth on which we spend our pilgrimage. It signifies, rather, the closing chapters of the long story, the record book in which each of our lives is being inscribed.
Saturday, January 23
Matthew 8:5-13: Matthew 7:29 introduced the theme of the Lord’s “authority” (exsousia), which appears here again in 8:9. It will reappear presently in the matter of the forgiveness of sins (9:6), where we will learn that this authority is shared with the Church (9:8).
All of these Ten Miracles illustrate this authority of Christ: over sickness and paralysis, over the demons, and over the forces of nature. Just as the Lord teaches with authority (7:29), we also find Him also healing with authority; unlike the prophets and rabbis, Jesus heals by command, not by intercessory prayer.
Hebrews 11:17-22: Readers of Genesis 22—from Sirach to Kierkegaard—have pondered long what thoughts may have intruded themselves into the struggling mind of Abraham when the Lord required him to offer his son Isaac in sacrifice.
Perhaps the most insuperable problem was one of logic: How did Abraham reconcile in his thought the imminent loss of his son with the Lord’s earlier promise that this same son would be the father of many people? Just how could he resolve the contradiction between God’s promise, which he completely believed, and God’s command, which he was completely resolved to obey?
In fact, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, in the earliest Christian commentary on this story, explicitly cited God’s earlier promise—“in Isaac your seed shall be called”—in the context of the command that Isaac was to be sacrificed (Hebrews 11:18). How was it possible to reconcile God’s promise with God’s command? Abraham had three days to think about it.
The author of Hebrews reflected that Abraham, in order to resolve that contradiction, must have introduced into his reasoning process one further consideration—to wit, God’s power: “He reasoned that God . . . was able”—logisamenos hoti . . . dynatos ho Theos.
The wording of this argument is quite precise. In speaking of God, the author of Hebrews uses the adjective dynatos instead of the verb dynatei (“is able” instead of “could”). In spite of several standard English translations, there is no explicit object (“him”) in this clause. The author thereby indicated he was thinking of more than the saving of Isaac; he had in mind an abiding quality of God—His power.
Abraham had already experienced God’s power in the conception of Isaac, when he and Sarah, for all practical purposes, were as good as dead: “And not being weak in faith, he did not consider his own body, already dead (since he was about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah’s womb” (Romans 4:19).
In other words, Abraham reasoned that God’s power had already overcome the forces of death in the very circumstances of Isaac’s conception. And if God had overcome death once, He was always able. Thus, with regard to Isaac, says Hebrews, Abraham “considered that God is able [dynatos] to raise from the dead.”
When the Sadducees challenged Jesus about the resurrection from the dead, He likewise appealed to the power of God. “Are you not therefore mistaken,” He asked, “because you do not know the Scriptures nor the power [dynamis] of God?” (Mark 12:24) And it is passing curious that Jesus spoke of both Abraham and Isaac in that context of the resurrection: “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” By way of explaining the reference, Jesus concluded, “He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living” (12:26-27).
For the author of Hebrews, the mind of ancient Abraham raced ahead in prophecy to the doctrine of the resurrection—it was an experienced inference from what he already knew of God. From the very temptation he endured, Abraham arrived at a new understanding of God—namely, that He is powerful to raise the dead to life. This was a true prophetic revelation granted to the struggling mind of His servant.
St. Augustine was much impressed by this story. “The pious father,” he wrote, “faithfully clinging to this promise—because it had to be fulfilled by the one whom God commanded him to kill—did not doubt that this son, whom he had had no hope of being given to him, could be restored to him after his immolation [sibi reddi poterat immolatus].”
For the author of Hebrews, the restoration of Isaac was enacted “in parable” (en parabole—Hebrews 11:19). St. Augustine, translating “parable” as similitudo, correctly understood it to refer to the Resurrection of Christ, when God’s Son was restored to Him after His immolation on the Cross. There was a “likeness”—similitude—between God and Abraham, revealed in the mystery of the Resurrection (The City of God 16.32).
Why did God test Abraham? In order to reveal an essential aspect of Himself: His power over death. Abraham arrived at this truth through the furnace of his mind, as he struggled to reconcile God’s promise with His command. God’s power over death was not an abstract truth of theology, available to abstract thought; it was learned on the pounding pulse of an ancient Mesopotamian, as he assumed a personal likeness to the very God who put him to the trial.
The story of the blessings of Isaac’s two sons, one of the more dramatic stories in the Bible, is covered in a single verse (verse 20).
To Rebekah it had been revealed, “Two nations are in your womb, / And two peoples shall be separated from your body. / One shall be stronger than the other, / And the older shall serve the younger” (25:23). Rebekah knew which son was which, so she knew which son would do the serving, and which would be served. There is no indication that anyone but Rebekah had received that revelation of God’s plan, so we should not be surprised that Isaac is unaware of it.
Thus, Isaac’s physical blindness becomes a symbol of man’s inability to see what is going on, according to God’s plan. Isaac’s favoring of Esau over Jacob already puts him outside of God’s will; that is to say, his preference between his sons is not that of God. Being outside of God’s will, therefore, he is easily deceived. Acting outside of God’s will is a sure step toward deception. On at least two levels in this account, therefore, Isaac is acting blindly.
s the unwitting agent of God’s purposes, which were quite distinct from his own. Thus, this is one of the Bible’s great stories of those who accomplish God’s will in ignorance and even contrary to their own intentions. It is not a story about fate, but it does have some literary similarities to Greek stories about fate, such as the story of blind Teiresias, in the Antigone of Sophocles.
Still, according to Hebrew, Isaac blessed his sons in faith. This affirmation seems particularly pointed, as an illustration of the very definition of faith: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Acting in blindness, Isaac made what he regarded as a mistake. According to the inspired author, however, Isaac’s action was not a mistake.
The scene of Jacob blessing the two sons of Joseph (verse 21) should remind the reader of Isaac blessing his two sons in the previous generation. In each case, the younger son receives the superior blessing by a deliberate act of Jacob. The irony is striking. What Isaac had done by mistake, however, Jacob will do on purpose (vv. 12–15).
A Christian reader will take note of Jacob’s crossing of his hands in the act of blessing. It is noteworthy that at least one Christian reader of this text referred to this action as an act of “faith” (Hebrews 11:21, the only example of faith that this epistle ascribes to Jacob).
In the blessing itself (vv. 15–16), Jacob reaches back two generations in order to reach forward two generations: “God, before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, / The God who has fed me all my life long to this day, / The Angel who has redeemed me from all evil,? / Bless the lads; / Let my name be named upon them, /? And the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; / And let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.”
Joseph, though he governs Egypt, is unable to govern his old father (vv. 17–20). Jacob, let it be said, knew a thing or two about blessings: “I know, my son, I know.” Jacob has been reversing everything since the day he was born, right after tripping up his older brother as the latter emerged from the womb (25:22–23). Right to the end of his life he continues to take the side of the younger man. It is a trait of his personality.
It is curious that, with so many examples of faith to choose from in the history of Joseph, the author of Hebrews should content himself with this one instance. Hebrews 11:22 seems to tell the whole story of Joseph’s bones from a specifically Christian perspective: death and the Exodus. It was in the very act of dying, teleuton, that Joseph spoke of the Exodus. To the author of Hebrews, Joseph offered the ideal model of how a Christian should die—clinging in hope to the promise of the Exodus.
Sunday, January 24
Hebrews 11:23-29: Arguably one of the most puzzling verses in Holy Scripture is that which tells why Moses’ mother did not drown him at birth. For the purpose of introducing this subject as a matter of inquiry, but without recommending the accuracy of the translation, I quote the relevant verse in the New King James Version: “And when she saw he was a beautiful child, she hid him three months” (Exodus 2:2).
This verse is puzzling in two ways. First, taken as a plain assertion—“he was beautiful, so she hid him”—the verse just won’t do. Are we to imagine that all the other little Hebrew boys were ugly? Since the beauty in Moses’ case is given as the reason for his parents’ refusal to obey Pharaoh’s command, we suspect that a deeper, subtler significance is intended.
Second, ancient interpreters, though differing among themselves somewhat about details, agree that its meaning is more mysterious than at first appears.
We may begin with the New Testament witnesses, Stephen and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. In their reading of this verse, both these early Christians maintained the adjective asteios, which the Septuagint used to describe Moses. Although this word is most often translated as “well formed” or “beautiful,” each of these sources recognized that the appearance of the newborn Moses was of a quality different from merely human beauty.
Thus, after the adjective asteios, Stephen added the qualifying expression to Theo, “to God,” which effectively changes the sense of the verse to “well pleasing to God” (Acts 7:20). Moreover, Stephen was describing Moses himself and his relationship to the Lord, not his mother’s assessment of the child. In fact, Stephen does not even mention Moses’ mother.
In the Epistle to the Hebrews, where the appearance of the newborn Moses is given as the reason why his parents “were not afraid of the king’s command,” the entire context is that of faith: “By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden three months by his parents, because they saw that he was a beautiful child” (11:23). Here the point is very subtle indeed. When the parents looked upon little Moses, they were able to discern “by faith” some aspect of the child’s appearance that was not otherwise obvious. We recall that this section of Hebrews began by defining faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (11:1). In Hebrews 11, faith invariably has to do with an adherence to the unseen future. The infant Moses, then, gave evidence of something hoped for but not yet seen, and faith granted his parents a special discernment in his regard.
These early Christian interpretations of Exodus 2:2 are not unlike those found among ancient Jewish readers of the text. For example, Philo wrote that the newborn Moses “had a beauty more than human” (de Vita Moysi 1.9), and Josephus apparently agreed (Antiquities 2.9.6 §224). Rashi, in his commentary on Exodus, went even further, speculating that the house was filled with light at Moses’ birth. Indeed, he wrote, when Pharaoh’s daughter opened the little basket floating on the Nile, she beheld the Shekinah, the luminous cloud of the divine glory.
All of these readings, differing among themselves in detail, are in accord in their search for a deeper, subtler meaning in the Bible’s description of the newborn Moses. They all agree that his beautiful appearance was revelatory of God’s purpose.
Most of the authors I have cited (Rashi the exception) based their interpretations of Exodus 2:2 on the Septuagint. I suggest that we look more closely at the underlying Hebrew text, which asserts of Moses’ mother, wattere’ ’oto ki tov hu’, literally, “and she saw that he was good.”
The most obvious parallels to this passage, I submit, are the several places where the Book of Genesis says of Creation, “And God saw that it was good,” wayyar’ ’Elohim ki tov (Genesis 1:10,12,18,21,25,31). It is remarkable that both passages employ the identical predicate (ra’ah) and exactly the same objective clause (ki tov). That is to say, each of these books begins with the selfsame assertion, ra’ah ki tov—“. . . saw that . . . was good.”
Moreover, this verbal correspondence between Genesis and Exodus is certainly deliberate on the author’s part. Thus, God’s salvific deed in Exodus is here set in intentional parallel with his creative work in Genesis. This harmony pertains to the deeper, subtler significance of the text.
Monday, January 25
Hebrews 11:30-40: In this text the faith of Rahab is contrasted with the unbelief of those other citizens of Jericho, who for seven days beheld the Ark of the Covenant circling their city and listened to the blast of the warning trumpets. They thus had ample opportunity to repent before it was too late, remarked St. John Chrysostom, more than twice as long as the citizens of Nineveh! (On Repentance 7.4.14)
Nonetheless, in the wider context of the Epistle to the Hebrews, it may be the case that the saving faith of Rahab is being contrasted with the unbelief of the Israelites themselves, those who failed to reach the Promised Land. Of those inexcusable unbelievers the author asks, “Now with whom was He angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief” (3:17–19).
Following this line of interpretation, Chrysostom writes: “She accepted the spies and the One whom Israel denied in the desert; Rahab preached this One in the brothel.” And again: “What Israel heard—he who was surrounded by so many miracles and who was tutored by so many laws— he completely denied, whereas Rahab, who lived in a brothel, gives them instruction. For she says to the spies, ‘We learned all that your God did to the Egyptians’” (op. cit. 7.5.16).
The faith of Rahab was not an idle or lazy faith, says the Epistle of St. James: “Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (2:25–26).
Both of these perspectives were preserved by St. Clement of Rome, who said, “Rahab the harlot was saved because of her faith and hospitality” (Clement 12.1).
Perhaps because she was the first “Gentile convert” incorporated into God’s people, Rahab has always had a special place in Christian affection and esteem. Chrysostom imagines God saying of Rahab: “Yes, I had inside their city, to teach them repentance, that wonderful Rahab, whom I saved through repentance. She was taken from the same dough, but she was not of the same mind, for she neither shared in their sin nor resembled them in their unbelief” (op. cit. 7.4.14).
Chrysostom goes on: “Rahab is a prefiguration of the Church, which was at one time mixed up in the prostitution of the demons and which now accepts the spies of Christ, not those sent by Joshua the son of Nun, but the apostles who were sent by Jesus the true Saviour. . . . The Jews received these things but did not guard them; the Church heard these things and preserved them. So Rahab, the prefiguration of the Church, is worthy of all praise” (op. cit. 7.5.16).
And because she was the first to be delivered when Israel entered the Promised Land, there is surely a great propriety in Dante’s speculation that the soul of “tranquil Rahab” was the first to be assumed from Hades by Christ our Lord when He descended there in the hour of His victorious death (pria ch’altr’alma del triunfo di Cristo fu assunta—Paradiso 9.115–120).
The summary of the “great cloud of witnesses” (verses 32-40) may be described as centered on the author’s reference to what he calls “a better resurrection.” In the context, the comparative adjective, “better,” distinguishes this resurrection from the dead from earlier biblical stories in which, as he says, “women received their dead raised to life again.” Those earlier stories include those accounts in which Elijah and Elisha raised to life the deceased sons of the widow of Zarephath and the Shunammite woman.
These true resurrections from the dead may be compared with Jesus’ resurrections of Lazarus, the son of the widow of Nain, and the daughter of Jairus. These were true resurrections, genuine victories of life over death, and Holy Scripture uses the same word—anastasis—to describe them.
For all that, however, those resurrections were not complete, because those who were raised were still obliged to face death once again. When our author speaks, therefore, of a “better resurrection,” he has in mind that definitive victory over death, which was Israel’s most precious hope. “Others were tortured,” he tells us, “not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection.”
There are three points to be made about this better resurrection:
First, it represents the final and completed stage of Old Testament hope. The author of Hebrews refers here to those late Old Testament martyrs, who confessed the resurrection from the dead even as they were being tortured to death. “Others were tortured,” he tells us, “not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection.”
Such were the seven brothers and their mother, whose passing is recorded in the 2nd Book of Maccabees. One of those brothers used his last breath to declare to his tormentor, “You, most wicked man, destroy us from this present life: but the King of the world will raise us up, who die for his laws, in the resurrection of eternal life.” One by one, these seven brothers endured torment and went to their deaths in the same hope of the resurrection from the dead. Finally, their mother, having witnessed her first six sons slain in this way, exhorted her youngest: “So you will not fear this tormentor, but being made a worthy partner with your brothers, receive death, that in that mercy I may receive you again with your brethren” (7:9, 29).
It was this hope of the final resurrection that sustained the people of the Old Covenant in their hour of peril, during the persecution by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. It was of those Israelites that the author of Hebrews wrote: “And these all, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.” This “something better” is what our author calls a “better resurrection.”
Second, this “better resurrection,” the final and highest hope of the Old Covenant, is the major and defining thesis of the New. St. Paul made this claim before the Sanhedrin itself: “I worship the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the Law and in the Prophets. I have hope in God, which they themselves also accept, that there will be a resurrection” (Acts 24:14-15). Paul finished his defense by declaring, “Concerning the resurrection of the dead I am being judged by you this day.”
The Resurrection is the core substance of the "good news." It is not just one of the things that Christians believe, but the heart and kernel of the evangelion. For this reason the earliest, shortest version of the Creed asserted simply, "Jesus is Lord," an assertion explained in the first apostolic sermon: "This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. . . . Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucifie
d, both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:32,36). Peter preached this message to the Jews, because it addressed a specifically Jewish hope. “Let the whole house of Israel know,” he said. What God accomplished in the resurrection of Jesus was the fulfillment of a specifically Jewish hope.
The Apostle Paul, in his sermon at the synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia, proclaimed the same Gospel of the Resurrection: "And we declare to you glad tidings (evangelion)–that promise which was made to the fathers. God has fulfilled this for us their children, in that He has raised up Jesus" (Acts 13:31-32). Paul proclaimed this message in a synagogue, where he spoke of a “promise which was made to the fathers.” This promise made to the saints of the Old Testament, he announced, “God has fulfilled this for us their children, in that He has raised up Jesus.”
Third, the better resurrection—the raising of Jesus—accomplished what the Old Testament Law could not: man’s justification. In fact, the first time the noun "justification" appears in the New Testament, Paul proclaims that Jesus "was raised for our justification" (Romans 4:25). He had earlier written, "For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!" (1 Corinthians 15:17) No Resurrection, no justification.
It is through Jesus' resurrection, then, that we are begotten as children of God. St. Peter wrote, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (1 Peter 1:3).
"If you confess with your mouth," wrote Paul, "that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:9). These two salvific assertions are identical in meaning. " God has raised Him " is just another way of saying, "Jesus is Lord." His lordship and His resurrection are synonymous, forming the fundamental thesis of the faith, through the confession of which we come to salvation. Christ’s resurrection from the dead fulfills the Old Testament’s hope for a better resurrection.
Tuesday, January 26
Hebrews 12:1-11: Even in advance of the darkness of the Passion, the celebration of Palm Sunday gives Christians a vision of the glory that will follow the Cross. They are not expected to step into the dark corridor without knowing where that corridor will lead.
Jesus Himself knew exactly where He was going when He began Holy Week and the Way of the Cross. Indeed, it was his vision that strengthened Him to walk that path. He, “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame.” He did not suffer the Cross for the sake of the Cross, but because of that final joy.
Christians, likewise, are not called to endure for the sake of endurance, but for the sake of glory. In this, they are to be modeled on Jesus: “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus.” Several translations (Phillips, NIV, NEB, NAB) render this last expression as “our eyes fixed on Jesus,” which perhaps better catches the sense of aphorontes. We are, in fact, dealing with a fixation.
In the Christian life, very much depends of where we look, where we direct our attention. Recall Peter’s attempt to walk on water: “And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid” (Matthew 14:29-30).
This fixation is a function of concentration: “Consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.” The opening verb here (the only place in the New Testament) is the imperative form of analogizomai, which refers to critical, discursive thought—the labor of the mind.
In fact, one sees in this verb the same root found in the English “analogy.” This is all the more curious inasmuch as our author proceeds immediately to provide an analogy: “It is for discipline that you endure. God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not discipline?”
These reflections touch the very purpose of the Epistle to the Hebrews: to encourage Christians who had become despondent because of the difficulties attendant on the life of faith. The author endeavors to fix their attention on those considerations that provide strength for the struggle. His model, in this respect, is Jesus Himself, who “endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Wednesday, January 27
Esau is introduced in Hebrews, I believe, because he represents the danger that the author most fears—namely, apostasy, or the abandonment of the inheritance of the saints. Esau was a man who forsook his inheritance and, as Hebrews insists, was unable to get it back: “For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance [metanoia], though he sought it diligently with tears.”
This inability of Esau to repent follows the thought of our author in chapter 6, where he says that for those Christians who apostatize “it is impossible . . . to renew them again to repentance [metanoia].” These are the only two chapters in which Hebrews uses the word metanoia, in both cases to insist on the difficulty of repenting after apostasy.
In fact, Esau’s inability to repent is one of the more notable features about the man. Esau had no real sense of the relative worth of things. He could not repent, because he did not truly grasp the value of what he had abandoned. Because he had cheaply sold something material, he assumed that he could just as cheaply purchase something spiritual. Embracing the principle that man lives by bread alone, he nonetheless fancied that a higher benediction was still available to him, pretty much at the same price. Having lost his birthright for a bowl of soup, he planned to gain his blessing with a plate of venison.
Esau is described as bebelos, translated traditionally as “profane” (KJV) or “irreligious”(RSV). He never developed the habit of reflecting on the moral nature of what he was doing. Esau, as we see in the instance of the bowl of soup, thought only of the present moment. Obeying the impulse of the moment, he neglected both the past and the future.
Hence, Esau was slow to learn that the future is very much tied to the past. Some blessings—and among them the very best—are inseparable from birthrights, so that the reckless squandering of the one renders unlikely the acquisition of the other. Those, therefore, who contemn the past, have little chance for a future. Esau stepped outside of salvation history, and he had only himself to blame.
In verses 18-24 the author of Hebrews outlines a contrast between two mountains: Sinai and Zion—the mountain of the Law and the mountain of the Temple, or the covenant with Moses and the covenant with David.
A similar contrast between these two mountains—Sinai and Zion—was made by St. Paul, much to the same effect: “For these are two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar—for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children—but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all” (Galatians 4:24-26).
In both texts—Galatians and Hebrews—there is a contrast between the bondage of the Law and the boldness of the Christian. With respect to this contrast, St. Paul writes, “you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:7). In both cases, we observe, Mount Zion is called the heavenly Jerusalem: According to Galatians, “the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.” According to Hebrews, “you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.”
One suspects that this contrast between Mount Sinai and Mount Zion may have been a rhetorical trope in early Christian preaching. This suggestion would explain why we find it in both Galatians and Hebrews, in spite of the great differences between these two works. This contrast is used in both places and adapted to the theme of each work.
Here in Hebrews, the two mountains are contrasted with respect to what we may call “comfort”: Mount Sinai provokes fear and trembling, whereas Mount Zion inspires boldness, or parresia. In Hebrews, this word describes the spirit in which believers have access to God.
Thus, we read earlier of Christ as “as a Son over His own house, whose house we are if we hold fast the parresia and the rejoicing of a firm hope” (3:6). Or again, “Let us therefore come with parresia to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4:16). There is an irony in this verse: We might imagine that the way to obtain mercy is not to demonstrate too much boldness. On the contrary, says Hebrews, boldness is the path to mercy!
Mount Sinai inspired a sense of awe and fear, even to the point of cringing. The author of Hebrews will have no cringing Christians. They are to approach God’s presence in a bold and confident spirit. He wrote earlier, “Therefore, brethren, having parresia to enter the Holy of Holies by the blood of Jesus . . . let us draw near with a true heart in the full certainty of faith” (10:19,22). In this text we observe that Christian boldness comes from Christian “certainty”—plerophoria.
Indeed, for the author of Hebrew, this Christian boldness is a thing to be protected. We must labor not to lose it: “Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward” (10:35).
This boldness of Christians pertains especially to worship, as we see in the present text. Indeed, this consideration points to a major difference between Mount Sinai and Mount Zion: the former was remembered as the place where the Torah was given—where the “law was laid down”—whereas Mount Zion was the place of Israel’s worship.
In the present text, therefore, the author of Hebrews describes the components of Christian worship: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel” (verses 22-24).
This is a description of Christian prayer. It is an account of what takes place when a believer comes to God with confidence in the blood of Christ: Heaven and earth are joined, we are in the presence of the angels and the perfected righteous figures of history, and we have this approach by reason of the eloquent blood of Jesus. It is not the old covenant mediated through Moses, but the new covenant mediated by Jesus. In this final contrast, the author of Hebrews repeats what he has made the major theme of this entire work.
Thursday, January 28
Hebrews 12:25-29: In the biblical story of the first murder, it was to God that the blood of Abel cried out from the ground (Genesis 4:10). The blood of Jesus, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews, differs in three ways from the blood of Abel:
First, the “voice” of Jesus’ blood is addressed, not only to God, but also to the rest of us. Hence, our author says, “See that you do not refuse Him who speaks.”
In respect to listening to this voice, he repeats a warning from earlier in his work, where he quoted the Psalmist: “Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts” (3:7). Apropos of this exhortation, our author warns us, “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” (2:2-3). Indeed, the third and fourth chapters of this book are a kind of commentary on Psalm 95 (Greek and Latin 94), which speaks of God’s Word as addressed “today” (3:7,13,15; 4:7).
The warning in Hebrews 3 and 4 recalled what happened to those Israelites in the desert, who were not attentive to God’s voice: “Now with whom was He angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey?” (3:17-18) The author of Hebrews reasons that if such a fate befell those who ignored God’s voice in the Old Testament, something worse must happen to us: “Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience” (4:11). The same warning is found in the present chapter (verse 25).
In both passages of Hebrews there prevails the conviction that God speaks now, today. His is a living and dynamic Word: “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (4:12-13).
Second, whereas the blood of Abel cried out from the earth, the blood of Jesus speaks from heaven: “For if they did not escape who refused Him who spoke on earth, much more shall we not escape if we turn away from Him who speaks from heaven”.
This contrast is consistent with a major theme in Hebrews: The sacrifice of Christ is completed in heaven itself. The sanctuary on earth is but a copy of the true tabernacle in heaven: “Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us” (9:24). Our author wr
ote earlier, “Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (9:11-12).
Everything on earth will pass away, as the tabernacle of Moses passed away, but the things of heaven are permanent: “Now this, ‘Yet once more,’ indicates the removal of those things that are being shaken, as of things that are made, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we serve God acceptably” (verses 27-28).
Third, the blood of Christ, speaking to us from heaven, “speaks better [kreitton] than that of Abel” (verse 24). The blood of Abel, we recall, cried out for vengeance, but the blood of Christ speaks “better.” This word, —kreitton, invokes the entire message of the Epistle to the Hebrews, where everything represented by Jesus is described as “better.”
Indeed, this word appears more in the Epistle to the Hebrews than in the rest of the New Testament put together. Thus, Jesus became “so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they” (1:4). In fact, He brought in “a better hope, through which we draw near to God” (7:19). For this reason, “He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises” (8:6). This fact is based on the premise that the things of heaven had to be consecrated “with better sacrifices” than the tabernacle of Moses (9:23). And by reason of what Christ has done for us, we “have a better and an enduring possession” (10:34). This possession includes what our author calls “a better resurrection” (11:35).
Friday, January 29
Hebrews 13:1-9: Because “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever,” a certain stability should be expected in the lives and conduct of Christians. For example, they should “not be carried away with various and strange teachings [didachai].” That is to say, they must avoid ideas alien (xsenai) to the doctrines handed down from the Apostles. The example given here concerns dietary restrictions based on the kosher rules in the Torah: “foods which have not profited those who have been preoccupied with them.” We recognize this admonition as reflecting the concern of St. Paul.
For the rest, the outline given here for Christian conduct is basic. There is, for starts, the primacy of fraternal love: “Let brotherly love abide”—he philadelphia meneto. This expression suggests that such love should be a constant habit of mind and a sustained pattern of response. Fraternal love, in other words, is the Christian’s “default” preference, the programmatic disposition of his mind and sentiments.
This fraternal love is expressed in hospitality (philoxsenia), described here as the entertainment of strangers. Besides its obvious sense of receiving others into our homes, it also suggests a certain open-mindedness to those who are different from ourselves, the ones designated as xsenisantes. Perhaps we may think of it as a willingness not to impose on others our own cultural and sympathetic preferences. This would mean that Christians, while avoiding “strange doctrines,” should not be necessarily avoid “strange people.”
Our author appeals to the Old Testament examples of those who “unwittingly entertained angels.” The obvious cases are those of Abraham and Tobit, who showed hospitality to angels.
A similar kindness must be shown to prisoners, “as if chained with them”—hos syndedemenoi. This surely refers, in the first place, to those Christians who suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake, but it will include also a compassion and concern for anyone incarcerated (Matthew 25:36). Indeed, it seems especially within our prison population that we may find the largest assortment of “strangers.” It is arguable that there is no more hopeless class of people on the face of the earth.
After speaking of charity toward one another, toward strangers, and toward prisoners, our author speaks of the marriage bond. He does this without elaboration, contenting himself with a simple and stern warning: “Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge.” No discussion, no alternate viewpoint. Just, don’t.
After lust, our author reminds us of the danger of covetousness, the antidote to which is a constant trust in God to take care of our needs. He cites the simple message of Deuteronomy and the Psalter: “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” and “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear what man can do to me.”
As symbols of the stability characteristic of the Christian life, our author reminds his readers of their “leaders,” those who went before them and from whom they have received the inherited faith. This modeled faith is to be their guide, as they avoid novel and strange teachings.