Friday, April 16
1 Corinthians 16:13-24: These are the closing lines of First Corinthians. In addition to personal greetings, Paul makes one last mention of some Christian basics.
The first of these is faith, of which Paul says simply, “Stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong.” I draw you attention to the fact that all three of these imperative verbs are in the plural: Stand fast, be brave (literally “be manly”—andrízesthe), be strong.
Obviously the plural is required, inasmuch as Paul is addressing all of the Corinthians. Nonetheless, the use of the plural also indicates that he has in mind a joint effort. These are the things that a commander says to soldiers who are about to be attacked: stand fast, be brave, be strong. The survival of all of them depends on the combined efforts of each of them.
Yet, those combined efforts are more than a mere accumulation. It is not as though the faith of ten believers is ten times as strong as the faith of one believer. It is more likely the case that the faith of ten believers is closer to a hundred times as strong as one believer.
The reason for this is simple: Believers not only believe for themselves, they also support the faith of one another. For this reason, a community of faith has vastly more than the accumulated faith of individual believers. The spiritual chemistry of each believer affects the spiritual chemistry of those around him.
The major sin of those Corinthians was their failure to support the faith of one another. Each of them was acting without regard for the others. It is a plain fact that Christians cannot live that way and very long remain Christians, because the Christian faith is a corporate concern.
It is a “corporate” concern according to the etymological sense of the Latin root corpus, which means “body.” We observe that it was in First Corinthians that the Apostle Paul first introduced the image of the Christian congregation as a “body”: “for as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.”
It is this corporate nature of the Christian faith that requires that we stand fast, be brave, and be strong. In the matter of the faith, each of us depends on all of us.
The second “basic” in this text is love, which we would expect from the corporate nature of faith: “Let all that you do be done with love”—pánta hymón en agápe ginéstho. Such is Paul’s summary of chapter 13 of this epistle, the famous list of the qualities of agape, the godly love God has for us, and we have for Him, and we have for one another in Him.
In this final chapter of First Corinthians, Paul especially mentions the affective quality of this love: “The churches of Asia greet you. Aquila and Priscilla greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house. All the brethren greet you. Greet one another with a holy kiss.”
Christian love is more than affection, of course, but affection—the shared joy of friendship—is one of the ways in which it is expressed, and there are numerous indications of this in the Bible. For example, one thinks of that scene in the upper room of a house in a house at Joppa: “And all the widows stood by [Peter] weeping, showing the tunics and garments which Dorcas had made while she was with them.”
The sorrow of these grieving women—who are all identified as having lost their husbands—is then turned into joy, as we see in the closing line of this scene: “Then [Peter] gave her his hand and lifted her up; and when he had called the saints and widows, he presented her alive.” Luke is careful to mention, not only that the woman was restored to life, but also that she was returned to the arms of those who loved her.
The third “basic” in this text is hope. This hope is expressed in a short Aramaic prayer that was common in the ancient Church: Marana tha. Mar is the Aramaic word for “Lord.” The ending ana is first person plural possessive, “our Lord.” Tha is the singular imperative, “come.” It is a very short prayer for the Lord’s return and the end of the world. It is the summation of Christian hope.
For Christian believers the end of the world is not “doomsday.” It is the return of Christ, the Lord Jesus who went away promising to come back.
At the end of the first chapter of the earliest extant work of Christian literature, the Apostle Paul summarized the Christian life. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the coming wrath.”
This ancient liturgical prayer quoted by Paul, Marana tha, is the voice of hope. This hope, on which our lives are established, is the source of the strong faith in which Paul tells us to stand. Hope is the bright horizon that gives luster to our love for one another.
These, then, are the basics, the three things of which 1 Corinthians 13 declares that the “abide” no matter the order in which we name them.
Saturday, April 17
Ezekiel 12: Once again Ezekiel is charged to act out an elaborate pantomime as a message for his fellow Israelites in exile. Whereas the previous such actions, in Chapters 4-5, had to do with the destruction of Jerusalem and the sufferings of her citizens, the present instance is concerned with the experience of the coming new exile of those who still remained back home.
When his fellow exiles ask him, “What are you doing? (12:9), Ezekiel responds with a stirring oracle by way of explanation: To those Jewish exiles already in Babylon who are imagining that they may soon be returning to the land of Judah, Ezekiel is stressing the point, “You think this is exile? You haven’t seen anything yet!”
He emphasizes in particular the suffering destined for Zedekiah, the King of Judah. Ezekiel’s walking with covered face (“that you may not see the land”) is an eerie prophecy of the day when the Babylonians would gouge out the eyes of Zedekiah, so that the execution of his sons would be the last thing he saw in this world before going into exile (2 Kings 25:4-7; Jeremiah 39:4-7; 52:7-11).
In verse 17 the prophet begins yet another pantomime, this one much simpler, and in verses 21-28 Ezekiel is charged to challenge two more cynical slogans popular at the time. These slogans, concerned with apparently unfulfilled prophecies, will lead into his condemnation of false prophets in the next chapter.
Matthew 24:1-14: There are few parts of the Gospels so problematic as the discourse of Jesus contained in this chapter. The corresponding text in Mark 13, which is clearly the major source for Matthew 24, is the longest private instruction of our Lord recorded in Mark.
In all three Synoptics this eschatological discourse is the link between the public teaching of Jesus, culminating in His repeated conflicts with the Jewish authorities, and the account of His Passion. Indeed, it was Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the Temple (verses 1-2) that provided the accusations brought forth at His trial before the Sanhedrin (26:16), and it was the subject of the jeers that His enemies hurled at Him as He hung on the cross. Moreover, the position occupied by our Lord’s prophecy here indicates the relationship between the death of Jesus and the downfall of Jerusalem. We observe that in both Mark and Matthew this prophecy follows immediately on Jesus’ lament over the holy city.
With respect to Matthew 24 as a whole (as well as Mark 13 and Luke 21), this discourse forms a sort of last testimony of Jesus, in which the Church is provided with a final injunction and moral exhortation. In this respect it is similar to the farewell discourses of Jacob (Genesis 49), Moses
(Deuteronomy 33), Joshua (Joshua 23), and Samuel (1 Samuel 12). That is to say, the present chapter serves the purpose of instructing the Christian Church how to live during the period (literally “eon” in Greek) that will last until the Lord’s second coming.
This conduct will be especially marked by vigilance, so that believers may not be “deceived” (verse 4). They will suffer persecution, Jesus foretells, and He goes on to make two points with respect to this persecution. First, they must not lose heart, and second, it does not mean that the end is near. They must persevere to the end (verse 14).
The original remarks of the Apostles, which prompted this prophecy, were inspired by Herod’s fairly recent renovation of the Temple (cf. John 2:20). According to Flavius Josephus (Antiquities, 15.11.3), “the Temple was constructed of hard, white stones, each of which was about 25 cubits in length, 8 in height, and 12 in depth.” That is to say, the walls of this mountain of marble, towering 450 feet above the Kidron Valley, were 12 cubits, roughly 15 feet, thick! The various buildings of the Temple complex were colonnaded and elaborately adorned. Its surface area covered about one-sixth of the old city. The Roman historian Tacitus described it as “a temple of immense wealth.” (Histories 5.8). It was because of the Temple that Josephus remarked, “he that has not seen Jerusalem in her splendor has never in his life seen a desirable city. He who has not seen the Temple has never in his life seen a glorious edifice.”
This splendid building, said Jesus, would be utterly destroyed (verse 2). In making this prophecy our Lord steps into the path earlier trodden by Jeremiah (7:14; 9:11), who also suffered for making the same prediction.
When the disciples approached Jesus with their question, He was looking across the Kidron Valley from the Mount of Olives (verse 3), an especially appropriate place to discuss the “last things” (cf. Zechariah 14:4). The question posed by the disciples seems to combine the Temple’s destruction with the end of the world. Only Matthew speaks of “the end of the world” here. This expression will, in due course, be the last words in his Gospel (28:20).
Mark specifies that the question was answered to the first four Apostles that had been called.
Sunday, April 18
John 3:1-21: As we have begun to see, much of Johannine theology is elaborated in conversations between Jesus and certain individuals. Most of the time, these individuals can easily be understood as the historical “source” of the conversation in question. Thus far, it appears that John has relied on the personal memories of Andrew, Philip, Nathanael, and the Mother of Jesus. The material in the first part of the present chapter surely came to him through the memory of Nicodemus. Other conversations will follow, such as those with the Samaritan woman at the well, the lame man at Bethesda, Mary and Martha of Bethany, and so forth.
In this conversation of Jesus with Nicodemus, it is nearly impossible to determine exactly which words pertained to that original conversation and which words represent the Evangelist’s extended meditation on that conversation. That is to say, John himself appears to be meditating on the words of Jesus. At a certain point in this dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, the dialogue becomes a monologue of the Evangelist himself. We will meet the identical phenomenon when we come to the words of Jesus’ prayer in John 17.
The Pharisee Nicodemus, “a ruler of the Jews” and “a teacher of Israel,” appears only three times in the New Testament. Each time Nicodemus is found only in the Fourth Gospel, it is always in the context of the Lord’s redemptive death.
First, there is the present text, in which Jesus makes His earliest explicit reference to His coming crucifixion: And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, thus must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” John next speaks of Nicodemus as the sole member of the Sanhedrin to raise his voice against the plot to take Jesus’ life (7:45–52). We do not hear of Nicodemus again until immediately after the death of Jesus, who was, at last, “lifted up” on Golgotha. In this third instance, Nicodemus appears as the companion of Joseph of Arimathea, assisting him in the Lord’s burial: “And Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds. Then they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in strips of linen with the spices, as the custom of the Jews is to bury” (19:39–40). In short, whenever Nicodemus appears in this gospel, the context pertains to the Lord’s suffering and death.
This first conversation, however, does not begin on that theme. It begins with Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night, apparently with a view to knowing Jesus better. He begins by complimenting Him: “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”
This question implies that Jesus has been working a notable number of “signs,” though John has so far mentioned only the miracle at the wedding in Cana. That is to say, this reference is not dictated by John’s narrative, but by the actual historical situation in which Nicodemus speaks to Jesus.
Nicodemus, because he is apparently privy to conversations with members of the Sanhedrin (7:45-53), is usually understood to be a member of Israel’s governing religious body, the Sanhedrin. His sympathetic approach to Jesus indicates that there was at least some favor felt toward Jesus within the body that eventually condemned Him (12:42).
It is dark when he comes to Jesus—he comes in out of the darkness: “This man came to Jesus by night.” He is not afraid of the light. He is one of those described in this text: “But he who does the truth comes to the light.” John thus continues a major theme: “the light shines in the darkness” (1:5).
He addresses Jesus with the title of teaching authority: “Rabbi,” the same title by which the disciples already addressed Jesus in 1:38. Clearly, Nicodemus has already made some positive judgment about Jesus. He may be one of those described in the previous chapter: “many trusted in His name, seeing His signs that He did.” (2:23).
And how does Jesus respond to the compliment of Nicodemus? He completely changes the subject and poses a challenge: “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, unless someone is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’”
This kind of response is typical of Jesus: He does not permit man’s religious concerns and questions set the agenda of His revelation to man. He is the Teacher, the didaskalos sent by God. The rest of us are simply pupils. Jesus does not confine His answers to the narrow limits of our poor questions.
Jesus speaks of being born anothen, a deliberately ambivalent expression, which means both “anew” and “from on high.” This birth has already been mentioned in John: “But to as many as received Him He gave the authority to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”
This birth, then, is twofold: It is new, and it is from on high. The subsequent question of Nicodemus touches only the first aspect—the newness of the birth, “rebirth”: ““How can a man be born when he is old? Is he able to enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
While not denying that this birth is a rebirth, Jesus responds by emphasizing that the birth is “from on high”: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. What is bor
n of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
In this response, Jesus gives a full sacramental sense to the thesis of rebirth. In the preaching of John the Baptist, there was a contrast between baptism with water and baptism with the Holy Spirit: “I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit”(Mark 1:8; cf. Matthew 3:11). This contrast is also found in the Fourth Gospel with respect to Baptism: “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes in the Holy Spirit’” (1:32-33).
In the present text, however, both aspects of the rebirth are spoken of—both the water and the Spirit. John clearly has in mind here the mystery of Christian baptism. In this Christian mystery, there is no distinction between baptism in water and baptism in the Holy Spirit. There is only “one Baptism” (cf. Ephesians 4:5).
This double aspect of renewal was already spoken of in prophecy: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you” (Ezekiel 36:25-27).
It is the Spirit that is stressed in Jesus’ words, however, because it is the gift of the Holy Spirit that distinguishes Christian baptism from that of John. Jesus goes on: “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’”
The distinction now is not between water and the Spirit, but between flesh and the Spirit. The flesh is that which dies, whereas the Spirit gives life: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and life” (6:63).
Verse 8 is, once again, deliberately ambivalent: “The Spirit breathes where He wills, and you hear His voice, but cannot tell where He comes from and where He goes. Thus is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” This translation gives the plenior sense of the verse—its full theological sense. This verse can also read, however, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the wind.” That is to say, the word translated as “Spirit” also means “wind,” and the word translated as “voice” also means “sound.” In both Hebrew and Aramaic, the word for both “spirit” and “wind” is ruah. and in both languages the word for “sound” and “voice” is Qol.
What, then, is the meaning of this enigmatic verse? Jesus seems to be suggesting that an incomprehensible mystery is involved in man’s rebirth. It can be recognized, but it cannot be understood. It cannot be explained. Both its origin and its goal elude man’s scrutiny. Only Jesus Himself can legitimately speak of it: “We speak what We know and testify what We have seen.’ Nicodemus is stymied by these considerations: “How can these things be?”
Jesus responds by saying that Nicodemus, as a teacher in Israel, should already recognize here the teaching of the Prophets. If he had paid attention to the writings of the Prophets, he would already be familiar with this teaching about rebirth in the Spirit.
In the mind of John, Jesus here speaks for the Christian Church, whereas Nicodemus is the spokesman for Judaism, which has failed to understand its own Scriptures. This is the reason Jesus uses the expressions “we” and “our”: “We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness.” This is one of the many places where John tells the story in a way that reflects the situation of the early Church with respect to Judaism. As we shall see in the story of the blind man in chapter 9, John is very concerned about the relationship of the Church to Judaism.
This is also the reason why the “you” of this same verse is likewise plural—“ you do not receive Our witness.” This accusation is not directed to Nicodemus personally, but to Nicodemus as a representative of unbelieving Judaism.
Nicodemus, then, is two things: from the perspective of history, He is already a Christian believer, but in symbolism He is still a spokesman for Judaism. In the first aspect, he is a sincere seeker. In the second, his understanding is radically defective.
This defective Judaism is in the course of rejecting the testimony of Jesus: “He came to what belonged to Him, and those who belonged to Him did not receive Him” (1:11). “I have come in My Father’s name, and you do not receive Me” (5:43). “But although He had done so many signs before them, they did not believe in Him” (12:37).
Who, then, is actually speaking here? One has the impression that the words of Jesus are gradually becoming the words of the Evangelist. Indeed, Nicodemus himself starts to disappear, and the teaching becomes detached from the visit of Nicodemus. Already in verses 11-12, this is beginning to happen. By verse 13, the transition is nearly complete, and the rest of the story becomes an internal meditation of St. John.
Up till now, says Jesus, He has been speaking of things relatively easy to understand. They represent the transition of the Prophets to the Gospel. A devout Jew, particularly “the teacher of Israel,” should be able to follow the Lord’s argument, because ideas such as “rebirth” and the “Spirit” are contained in the revelation already given to Israel. If Nicodemus is unable to grasp these things, how will he ever be able to enter the revelation of truly “heavenly” things?
It is of these heavenly things that John begins explicitly to meditate in verse 13: “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven—the Son of Man.”
Here the subject shifts to consider the salvific work of the Son of Man. Jesus makes His earliest explicit reference to His coming crucifixion: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, thus must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should have eternal life.”
The image of the serpent comes, of course, from Numbers 21:4-9, but it is being read through Wisdom 16:5-7: “For when the fierce rage of beasts came upon these, they were destroyed with the bitings of crooked serpents. But thy wrath endured not for ever, but they were troubled for a short time for their correction, having a sign of salvation to put them in remembrance of the commandment of thy law. For he that turned to it, was not healed by that which he saw, but by thee the Savior of all.”
The expression “be lifted up,” used by our Lord in His discourse with Nicodemus, is repeated halfway through John’s Gospel, again with reference to the crucifixion: “‘And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.’ This He said, signifying by what death He would die” (12:32–33). In addition to being a reference to the crucifixion, the expression “lifted up” also alludes to a prophecy of God’s Suffering Servant: “Behold, My Servant will prosper; He shall be lifted up and glorified exceedingly” (Isaiah 52:13, LXX). As this text makes clear, the Lord’s lifting up refers not only to His crucifixion but also to His exaltation in glory.
In this respect it is useful to compare the Lord’s words to Nicodemus, as recorded in John, to the predictions He makes about His coming sufferings, as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. It is noteworthy that what Jesus proclaims to His closest disciples in the Synoptics, He proclaims to the Pharisee Nicodemus in John. We may take Mark 8:31 as an example: “And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
In the Markan text, as in John, the defining verb is “must” (dei), which refers to God’s determined plan of redemption. In each text also, Jesus calls Himself “the Son of Man.” Thus, in Mark 8:31, “the Son of Man must suffer many things . . . and be killed, and after three days rise again,” while in John 3:14, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” If these verses are to be regarded as theological equivalents (which seems reasonable), Mark’s inclusion of the Resurrection among the things that must happen suggests that John’s “lifted up” includes the Lord’s glorification as well as His crucifixion.
Verses 14-15 indicate that Jesus, as the object of salvific faith, is Jesus crucified. It is to that image of Jesus on the cross that believers direct their attention. This was the point of Paul’s lament to the Galatians: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed [proegraphe] as crucified?” (Galatians 3:1). The verb Paul uses here, prographo is understood in the sense of a public placard or notice. This metaphor is his description of how Jesus was presented in the evangelization of the Galatians: Jesus was portrayed “before [their] eyes”—kat’ ophthalmous. This expression has nearly the sense of our American idiom, “in your face.” That is to say, Paul’s proclamation of Jesus on the cross had the effect of an immediate visual image.
The centrality of the Cross in the Christian Gospel is what prompts St. Paul to call it “the Word of the Cross.”: “For the Word of the Cross [ho Logos gar ho tou Stavrou] is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). The centrality of the Cross in the Christian “vision” is shared by Paul and John.
In a passage that touches the deepest level of the Christian revelation—the very heart of the Gospel—John goes on to stress that this is a vision of God’s love for the world: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life’ (verse 16). It is arguable that John stresses love more than any other NT author. For him, the Incarnation was especially the revelation of God’s love. He says this in the cover letter that he wrote to introduce the present Gospel: “In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him” (1 John 4:9).
In this verse we find the same relationship of God’s gift of His Son as the revelation of His love, along with the thesis that the reception of this Son is conveyance of eternal life to the believer. In the Incarnation, God reveals His identity—who He is—“ Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him” (1 John 4:15-16).
This revealed love of God is not a general beneficence, a sort of nebulous benignity. It has specific reference to Jesus Himself. Somewhat later in this same third chapter of John’s Gospel, we will read: “The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand. He who believes in the Son has everlasting life” (3:35-36). That is to say, the true love of God is between the Father and the Son; it is the eternal inner life of God. In the gift of His Son, this eternal love, which is the life of God, is shared with human beings. By this revelation, they are initiated into the inner life of God. This truth is expressed in what are among the densest sentences in the Holy Scripture:
“And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. “Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me. And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:22-26).
The revelation of God’s love is not simply the conveyance of information about God. Received in faith in the crucified Jesus, it brings the believer into the mystery of God’s life by way of participation, by which God assimilates men to Himself. The communion established by this assimilation is called the Church. Human beings are first introduced to this by the vision of Jesus elevated on the Cross.
The alternative to this incorporation is what John calls “perishing”: “that whoever believes in Him should not perish.” This perishing is the fate of those who refuse the gift of God’s revelation in Jesus. God wills NO ONE to perish: “For God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him has not been judged but he who does not believe has already been judged, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (verses 17-18).
God predestined no one to hell; everyone who goes to hell goes there in defiance of God’s salvific will that all men should be saved. Unbelievers bring such perishing on themselves. In the presence of hardness of heart, Christ becomes the occasion, not the cause, of condemnation. That judgment has already started. Just as eternal life commences when the believer first turns to Jesus in faith, so the perishing begins when the unbeliever refuses to turn to Jesus. Both heaven and hell begin on this earth.
For John, the refusal of the light of Christ always implies a willful darkness of heart. It is a matter of human choice: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone who practices vile things hates the light, nor does he come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (verses 19-20).
In fact, John introduced this theme fairly early: “And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not grasp it. . . . It was the true light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world came to be through Him, and the world did not know Him” (1:5,9-10). For John, the original unbelievers were the Jewish authorities, in whom he witnessed this phenomenon of a love for darkness over light. He returns to this theme at the end of the Book of Signs: “But althoug
h He had done so many signs before them, they did not believe in Him” (12:37).
In the present chapter, this refusal of faith has already made an appearance: “We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness” (verse 11). It will come again in the course of the Bread of Life discourse: “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen Me and yet do not believe” (6:35-36).
We observe that John makes this belief or unbelief a matter of man’s choice. He seems not the slightest bit concerned about a possible charge of moralism or Pelagianism: “But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be manifest, that they were done in God” (verse 21). Later in the Gospel he will speak of God’s prevenient grace in drawing men to Himself: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (6:44).
Monday, April 19
1 Peter 2:1-12: Having begun with hope, Peter now places the striving for holiness in its full context, which is life in the Church. Christian holiness is essentially incorporation into Christ, which is the being of the Church. Life in Christ is a social life.
For this reason the Christian’s initial effort is to purify all his social communications (verse 1). Peter’s list of communicative vices contains several that pertain to insincerity, and, by way of countering this. Peter introduces the “genuine” milk appropriate to newborn children (verse 2). Indeed, Peter’s participle artigenneta means “just now born,” and their nourishment is associated with the new birth (1:3,23).
Peter’s metaphor of milk was common among the early Christians and referent to the catechesis associated with Baptism (1 Corinthians 3:1-2; 1 Thessalonians 2:7; Hebrews 5:13; The Odes of Solomon 8.13-16; 9.1-2). Very early (at least by the second century, but perhaps earlier) this image affected even the liturgical customs at Baptism, when the newly baptized were given a cup of milk mixed with honey (Hippolytus, The Apostolic Tradition 23.2; Tertullian, Against Marcion 1.14; The Crown 3.3).
By means of this spiritual milk of Christian teaching, we “grow unto salvation” (avxsehete eis soterian). Salvation has to do with growth (cf. Mark 4:8,20; 2 Corinthians 10:15; Ephesians 4:15; Colossians 1:10). Few texts in the New Testament are more emphatic that salvation is the term of a growth, not a once-and-for-all event that is behind us. Salvation still lies before us (1:5,7,9). Drinking milk, therefore, is more than an obligation; it is a need.
Believers, having tasted this milk, know by experience that the “Lord is gracious” (verse 3; Psalms 34 :9; Hebrews 6:5). In Greek this expression, chrestos ho Kyrios, differs in only one letter from “Christ is the Lord”—Christos ho Kyrios. The psalm cited here (Psalms 34, but 33 in the Greek and Latin texts used by the Church) has long been a favorite at the time of receiving Holy Communion (cf. Apostolic Constitutions 8.13.16; Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis 5.20; Jerome, Lettters 71.6), nor is the imagination overly taxed to think that this may already have been the case at the time of St. Peter.
Peter is describing, then, the experience of the Church, so now he turns his attention to describing the theological structure of the Church (verses 4-10). As though he has the entire Psalm 34 (33) in mind, Peter continues, “having come to whom [the Lord]—pros Hon proserchomenoi” (proselthate pros Avton in the LXX of Psalms 33;6).
Peter’s joining of these Old Testament passages together, for the purpose of exhortation, was probably already a commonplace in Christian doctrine. For example, the juxtaposition of Isaiah 8:14 and 26:16 (in verses 6,8) also appears in Romans 9:32-33. Similarly, Peter’s appeal to Hosea 1—2 (verse 10) is found likewise in Romans 9:25-26. (Once again we remark that Paul’s letter to the Romans and First Peter are both connected with the Church at Rome, a matter to be remembered when we find similarities between them.) We suspect that these applications of the Old Testament to the Christian life were standard and pre-Pauline, probably derived from the earliest Palestinian Christian sources.
Tuesday, April 20
1 Peter 2:13-25: When we have turned to Christ and received His grace, being incorporated into His Church through the Sacraments, we still find ourselves living in the world. More specifically, we still find ourselves someplace in the structures of society, our obligations to that society not whit a diminished. Indeed, it may occur to us to inquire just how our responsibilities in society may be altered by our new status as Christian believers.
That is to say. How am I, now that I am a Christian, to live as a husband? Or as a wife? Does being a Christian lay some special obligations on me as a son or daughter, perhaps obligations of which I was not aware before? What are my duties, as a Christian, with respect to my being a buyer or seller, an employer or employee? Suppose, indeed, I am a slave. How, as a Christian slave, am I to be different than I was before? In fact, suppose I own slaves. What are my duties to them, whether they are Christian or not? All such concerns about one’s station in life fall under the heading that Martin Luther called Haustafel, “household code.”
Since Christians from the very beginning have struggled to understand how the Gospel affects their duties in whatever state they find themselves, it is not surprising, therefore, that early Christian pastors addressed such concerns at length. This is true of the Apostle Paul (Colossians 3:18—4:1; Ephesians 5:22—6:9; 1 Timothy 2:8-15; 6:1-2; Titus 2:1-10), Ignatius of Antioch (Polycarp 4.1—6.3), Polycarp of Smyrna (Philadelphians 4.2—6.3), and Clement of Rome (Corinthians 270-275,286-291). It also appears in standard pre-baptismal catechesis of the period (Didache 4.9-11; Pseudo-Barnabas 19.5-7).
This is the social setting for Peter’s treatment of the same theme in the section that we come to now. Even while we are sojourners in this world, he says (2:11), we are still citizens that have obligations to society and the government, including the emperor [Nero!] (verses 13-17). Some of us are servants, with obligations to our masters (verses 18-25). Some are wives, with duties to our homes and husbands (3:1-6), and others are husbands, responsible for the wellbeing of our wives (3:7).
In the present chapter Peter speaks of Christian citizenship under the authority of the State and of Christian servants under the authority of their masters.
Like Paul in Romans 13, Peter reminds Christians that all legitimate authority in this world comes from God and must not, therefore, be disdained by those who believe they have a higher and more immediate access to God. They are to obey the government “for the Lord’s sake.” That is to say, they will be no less good citizens than non-Christians, but their motivation will be directed to Christ, as the true author of all legitimate authority in this world (verses 13-17).
This exhortation stands even today as a warning to those Christians that seem ever to be going out of their way to pick fights with legitimate governments, always, of course, appealing to the testimony of their conscience. Like Paul, Peter prefers cooperation with the government when possible, not making government’s life more difficult than it already is.
Even bolder is Peter’s exhortation to the servant, under legal obligation to a master (who, in many cases, surely, was not a Christian). These servants he reminds that God’s own Son became a servant for our sake and suffered indignities gladly out of love for God (verses 18-25).
Wednesday, April 21
zekiel 16: This parable is more elaborate than the one in the previous chapter, showing more evidence of allegorical detail. Both parables convey roughly the same message. Each parable is an illustration of failure. A beautiful but egregiously unfaithful wife is as useless as a cut and dried vine.
Several of the various details in this account of the harlot refer to specific periods and events in Israel’s history: the origins of the people, the time of the Covenant, the founding of the united kingdom and the prosperity of the Solomonic era, and the division into two kingdoms.
The oracle’s final part prepares the listeners for Jerusalem’s impending doom, which is to be like the earlier total destructions of Sodom and Samaria. Jerusalem, says the Lord, is more evil than either of these.
At the very end, however—after Jerusalem has fallen—appears a message of hope and renewal. Even the prophets most pessimistic about Jerusalem at this time, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, never cease to trust in God’s ultimate mercy. In particular, God will not hold children responsible for the sins of their parents, a theme to be elaborated in Chapter 18.
1 Peter 3:1-12: In the first few verses Peter finishes his treatment of the Haustafel from the previous chapter.
He begins with the wives, whom he exhorts to be submissive to their husbands. This is to be the case, says Peter, even in those instances where the husband is an unbeliever (verse 1). (This is the situation in which a woman already married becomes a Christian. In no case may a Christian woman actually marry an unbeliever—2 Corinthians 6:15-18.) In this case, as in the case of a Christian living in civil society (2:15), Peter hopes for the good influence of the believer on the unbeliever.
Peter probably intends some of his comments here to pertain to Christian women generally, and not just to wives. This is surely the case respecting chastity and modesty (verse 3-5). His concern in this regard is similar to that of Isaiah (3:16-24), who apparently enjoyed poking fun at the way the women in the eighth century loved to preen themselves.
In spite of Abraham’s frequently unhappy home life, much of it caused by wife’s dramatic mood swings, Peter still holds out for Christian wives the example of Sarah (verse 6). This is not the only time in the New Testament where Sarah is “given a pass” (cf. Hebrews 11:11 compared with Genesis 18:12-15).
Christian husbands are to be good husbands precisely because they are Christians (verse 7). What is owed to the wife is “honor,” and this because she is “weaker.” This does not refer physical weakness generally (and certainly not to any alleged intellectual or moral weakness in women, something that only an inexperienced fool would fancy), but to a certain delicacy and refinement in the female. Peter is quietly presuming that a woman’s constitution, which is far more “complicated” than a man’s, renders her inherently more vulnerable to danger, much like the delicacy of an expensive vase. Indeed, Peter even uses the metaphor of a “vessel.” This is a dining room vessel, not a ship. Certain things of beauty and delicacy in the home are given special honor. Wives are to be treated in a similar way by Christian husbands. They are NEVER to be handled roughly, not even in thought and most certainly not in word. Christian husbands are to be jewelers, not blacksmiths.
The affection, respect, deference, courtesy, compassion, and tenderness necessary to life in the home is to be extended to the larger home of the Church, and thence to the rest of society (verses 8-9). This effort will be expressed in a stern control of one’s tongue (verse 10) and the steady quest to create atmospheres of peace (verse 11). Blessing must cover all things (verse 9). (I refer the reader here to the Book of Ruth, where he is counseled to count the constant blessings that its sundry characters heap on one another. Christians must pass up no opportunity to bless.)
Thursday, April 22
Ezekiel 17: This allegorical riddle is concerned with the geopolitical maneuvering dominant in the royal court at Jerusalem during the period between 597 and 586 B.C.
The first eagle in the riddle is the Emperor Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (604-562); the second is Pharaoh Psammetichus II of Egypt (595-589). Sitting at either end of the Fertile Crescent, both Babylon and Egypt sought to make their military, economic, and political power felt throughout the region, and each of these two great centers had its friends and confederates within the Jerusalem court.
The removed branch in the allegory is King Jehoiakin of Judah, deposed from his throne in 597 and transported to Babylon. The new seed in the allegory is King Zedekiah, who replaced Jehoiakin and served as a vassal of Babylon. Because of the many machinations in his court, Zedekiah’s foreign policy was marked by vacillation and instability. Unable to maintain his covenant with God, he was likewise unable to maintain his vassal covenant with Babylon. The one infidelity led to the other (verses 11-19).
Even though he was thriving under Babylonian suzerainty, the allegory goes on to say, Zedekiah endeavored to forsake his political obligations to the authority at the western end of the Fertile Crescent, and began to cultivate friendship with the eastern end, Egypt. Now he must pay for it. His sin consisted in seeking a purely political solution for a mainly spiritual and moral problem.
This oracle ends, nonetheless, on a note of future hope for the house of David, a hope that the Christian knows is fulfilled in great David’s greater Son.
1 Peter 3:13-22: To be baptized into Christ is to be associated with His sufferings. As Christ was victorious over death by His Resurrection, so will be those who belong to Him. Baptism, because it unites believers with the Resurrection of Christ, is a pledge and promise of their own victory over death.
In verses 18-22 Peter speaks of Christ’s descent into hell, which took on so pronounced an emphasis in Christian faith and worship that it became an article in the Nicene Creed. Peter says that Christ “went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
The relationship of Christian Baptism to the Flood and Noah’s Ark, found here explicitly for the first time, became a common trope in Christian biblical exegesis:
“Righteous Noah, along with the other mortals at the Deluge, that is, with his own wife, with his three sons, and with their three wives, all of them being eight in number, were a symbol of the eighth day, whereon Christ appeared when He rose from thee dead, first in power forever. For Christ, being the firstborn of every creature, became again the head of another race regenerated by Himself through water, and faith, and wood, containing the mystery of Cross, even as Noah was saved by wood when he rode upon the waters with his family” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho 138).
“Just as the waters of the Deluge, by which the old iniquity was purged—after the baptism of the world, so to speak—a dove became the herald announcing to thee earth the softening of the heavenly wrath, when she had been sent away out of the Ark, and had returned carrying the olive branch, a sign that even among the pagans signifies peace, so by the selfsame law of the heavenly dispensation, there flies to the earth—that is to say, our flesh—as it emerges from the font, having put away its old sins, the dove of the Holy Spirit, bringing us the peace of God, sent forth from heaven, where is the Church, typified by the Ark” (Tertullian, On Bapti
Friday, April 23
John 3:22-36: The position of this section of John may have been determined by the earlier reference to Baptism in 3:5. The evangelist now returns to John the Baptist for the last time.
The reference to Jesus baptizing does not mean that He did so with His own hands. From 4:2 we will learn that Jesus’ apostles normally perfomed this rite. It is not easy to determine the exact nature of this baptism, and it is difficult to affirm that it was the Christian sacrament of Baptism of which John the Baptist had spoken earlier (1:33), because the Holy Spirit will not be conferred on the Church until much later in this Gospel. However, there is no need to be apodictic on the nature of the baptism here in John 3; we may leave the question as unclear as the evangelist leaves it.
The place named in verse 23 is not identified with certainty, though we presume John’s earliest readers recognized it. The name means “springs,” which suggests that it was not a site on the banks of the Jordan. Some archeologists identify it with a site in Samaria. If true, of course, it indicates that John the Baptist had some following among the Samaritans.
In verse 24 the evangelist presumes his readers’ familiarity with the story of the death of John the Baptist (cf. Mark 6:17-29).
Verse 25 indicates the context of the words of John the Baptist. It is clear that controversies about Jewish cleansing rituals were not uncommon (cf. Mark 7:1-5).
The disciples of John the Baptist were understandably disturbed that the prestige of their leader was being eclipsed by the growing notoriety of Jesus. In answering them, John the Baptist again affirmed his own preparatory and subordinate role with respect to Jesus. He knew the ministry and task given him from heaven and dared not attempt to transcend the limits of his vocation (verse 27). Jesus, as the Messiah (verse 28(, was the bride’s groom, whereas John was only His best man (verse 29).
We have here the first instance of what is a veritable mystique of the voice of Christ in the Gospel according to John. Here are some representative Johannine texts to demonstrate the richness of ideas associated with Jesus’ voice:
3:29 “He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled.”
5:24 “Amen, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life. 25 Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live. . . . 28 Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice 29 and come forth . . .”
10:2 “But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”
11:43 Now when He had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!”
18:37 “For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”
20:15: Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” She, supposing Him to be the gardener, said to Him, “Sir, if You have carried Him away, tell me where You have laid Him, and I will take Him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to Him, “Rabboni!” (which is to say, Teacher).
In verse 30 we have the final words spoken by John the Baptist in the Fourth Gospel. They not only formed a synopsis of the vocation of John, but they also served the early Christians as an apologetic testimony in their relationship to the disciples of John the Baptist.
When we considered the Lord’s recent discourse with Nicodemus, we reflected that how the conversation gradually became a theological meditation. Nicodemus faded from the scene, and the reader was no longer entirely sure who was speaking. We witness now the same literary phenomenon in this conversation between John the Baptist and his disciples. By the time we reach verse 31, it no longer appears to be a discussion, and it is difficult to say, any longer, that it is John the Baptist who is speaking. Both he and his disciples fade from the scene.
Indeed, in verses 31-36 there is a repetition of certain ideas we earlier saw in the section associated with the discussion with Nicodemus. We may list and examine these:
First, there is the image of “coming from above,” along with a contrast between earthly and heavenly things. Thus, Jesus said earlier, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven—the Son of Man” (3:12-13). In this later meditation we read, “He who comes from above is over all; he who is of the earth is of the earth, and of the earth he speaks. He who comes from heaven is over all” (verse 31). In both places we have the contrast between heavenly things and earthly things, and Jesus is identified as coming “from above” or “from heaven.”
Second, there is the mention of unbelief with regard to the testimony of Jesus. In the earlier meditation, we read, “Amen, amen, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness” (3:11). This idea appears again in the present text: “And what He has seen and heard, that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony” (verse 32). In both places there is the crisis of unbelief.
Third, both sections of John 3 speak of the Holy Spirit. In the discourse we Nicodemus, we read, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. . . . The Spirit breathes where He wills, and you hear His voice, but cannot tell where He comes from and where He goes. Thus is everyone who is born of the Spirit”(3:5,6,8). In the present section, we read: “For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God does not give the Spirit by measure” (verse 12).
John the Baptist had earlier spoken of the Holy Spirit as pertinent to the coming of the Christ: “And John bore witness, saying, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, “Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes in the Holy Spirit”’” (1:32-33).
Fourth, both parts of John 3 speak of God’s love. In the earlier section we read, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” (3:16). In the present section we read, “The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand” (verse 35).
Fifth, in both parts of John 3, Jesus is identified as God’s Son. Thus, in the earlier section we read, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him has not been judged but he who does not believe has already been judged, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (3:16-18). In the present section we read, “The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand. He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the
Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (verses 35-36).
Jesus’ title, “Son of God,” had already appeared, of course, much earlier in John: “we beheld His glory, the glory as of the Only Begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14). Also, “Nobody has, at any time, seen God. The Only Begotten, God, He Who Is, in the bosom of the Father, He explained” (1:18). Also, “And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God” (1:34). Likewise, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (1:49)
Sixth, in both sections of John 3 there is the theme of eternal or everlasting life. Thus, we read earlier, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, thus must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (3:14-16). In the present section we read, “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life” (verse 36).
Seventh, in both sections of John 3 we find the theme of judgment. Thus, we read in the earlier part, “he who does not believe has already been judged, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (3:18-19). And in the present section we read, “he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (3:36).
Finally, both sections of John 3 are invitations to belief in Christ. The first part says, “whoever believes in Him should have eternal life” (3:15). And the second section says, “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life” (verse 36).