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 lif
e, 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).
Saturday, April 24
John 4:1-10: Why did Jesus sit down weary by Jacob’s well? He was waiting for someone special whom He had in mind to meet that day. He was seeking me. The Samaritan woman at the well is each of us.
The Evangelist John surely knew that woman’s name, just as he knew the names of the paralytic at the pool and the man born blind, because he narrates all of these one-on-one encounters with details that he could only have obtained from the individuals themselves. So John most certainly knew their names. His omission of those names in the stories, then, has literary significance, and we are probably right to suppose anonymity for the sake of reader identification. That is to say, each of us, as we ponder the text prayer-fully, becomes that paralytic, that blind man, and that woman at the well, encountering the Lord in the power of His Scriptures.
As an “every Christian” account, the story of the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well serves to illustrate certain distinct stages in the path of conversion.
In John’s own context, this story establishes a contrast between two receptions of Jesus—that of the Jews and that of the Samaritans—and the Samaritans come out looking much better!
The three-days walk through Samaria was the shortest way of making the trip between Jerusalem and Galilee. Luke records that Jesus took that route, but in that instance the Samaritans did not receive Him favorably (Luke 9:51-53). We should observe that only John, among the evangelists, tells of a ministry of Jesus to the Samaritans.
The well is identified with the town Sychar, known today as Askar. (The well is still there and well known; it lies between Gell el-Balatah and Askar.) Jesus sat down beside the well (pege), though one papyrus manuscript says that He sat “on the ground” (ge).
What Jesus did next was nearly unthinkable in the social context of that time. A Jew, He spoke to a Samaritan. A man, He spoke in private to a woman who was not His relative. A Jew would normally never have drunk from the defiled water pot of a Samaritan. In the context envisioned by John, this whole story has the ring of improbability, not to say shock and scandal.
He asks her for a drink, and she is appropriately shocked. In response, Jesus speaks of living water—hydor zon. This was a common metaphor in the Hebrew Bible, signifying Wisdom, divine grace poured out in the last days, the Holy Spirit, and so forth. Thus:
Jeremiah 2:13—“ For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, And hewn themselves cisterns—broken cisterns that can hold no water.”
Zechariah 14:8—“ And in that day it shall be that living waters shall flow from Jerusalem, half of them toward the eastern sea and half of them toward the western sea.”
Proverbs 13:14—“ The law of the wise is a fountain of life, to turn one away from the snares of death.”
Sunday, April 25
John 4:11-26: In verses 11-12, we observe that this woman takes Jesus very literally, very much as Nicodemus took the Lord’s words about being reborn. She starts to imagine that Jesus has too high a view of Himself. We may observe that this is the second time Jesus has been compared to Jacob. Recall 1:51—“I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
In verses 13-14, the Christian reader will recognize the New Life in Baptism, in which the living fountain of water enters into the very being of the believer. As in the dialogue with Nicodemus, the Christian reader understands what Jesus is saying, even though the Lord’s interlocutor does not.
In understanding the words of Jesus, this woman is even slower than Nicodemus (verses 15-18). The Lord’s figurative language becomes a kind of stumbling block, rather like the Lord’s speaking in parables in Mark 4 and Matthew 13. In fact, however, it is difficult to imagine how Jesus could speak more clearly than He does to this Samaritan woman.
The woman’s problem is a moral one: She is living in sin. People living in sin can hardly be able to understand the spiritual truths that the Lord enunciates here. The Lord, therefore, turns the conversation in a different direction: “Go, call your husband, and come here.” In her response and the Lord’s answer to this response, the woman is confronted with her deeds. These deeds have been brought to the light; the woman does not try to hid e them. She thus takes a step on the right path.
Embarrassed, however, she does try to change the subject. Not eager to talk about her moral failings, she introduces a theoretical question—even a liturgical question! “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. Our fathers adored on this mountain, and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where it is necessary to adore.”
We observe that Jesus does not press the point about the woman’s moral state. He has said all that needed to be said, and He will permit His comment about the “five husbands” work its way into the woman’s conscience. (Which it does — cf. verse 39.)
Since she knows that Jesus can read her heart, she calls Him a prophet. Reading hearts pertains to the gift of prophecy, as we see in 1 Corinthians 14:23-25: “Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an uninformed person comes in, he is convinced by all, he is convicted by all. And thus the secrets of his heart are revealed; and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you.”
With regard to the woman’s question, we may first note that this conversation takes place at the very foot of Mount Gerazim, a place where the Patriarchs themselves offered sacrifice (Genesis 12:7; 33:20). Barred by Ezra from participation in the official worship in the Jerusalem Temple, the Samaritans continued to worship (adore) in their northern shrines, chiefly that on Mount Gerazim. This subject pertaine
d to the ongoing religious controversy between the Samaritans and the Jews.
Jesus answers that the question itself will soon be moot, because “the hour is coming, and now is, when the true adorers will adore the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father seeks such adorers of Him. God is spirit, and it is necessary that those who worship Him worship in spirit and truth.”
When the Bible speaks of God as “spirit,” this is less a description of His nature (that is, non-physical) than of His life-giving activity. The “spiritual” is that which has breath—gives life. This, we recall, points to the difference between John’s baptism and that of Jesus: in the baptism of Jesus, the Spirit is conferred.
When the Lord says, “the true adorers will adore the Father in spirit and truth,” He is contrasting this new worship with the provisory and temporary worship associated with the temples in Jerusalem and on Mount Gerazim. The “true” in John’s Gospel is not contrasted with the “false,” but with the provisory and inadequate: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came to be through Jesus Christ” (1:17).
At the same time, however, Jesus refuses to admit that the Jews and Samaritans are somehow equal on this matter: “You adore what you do not know; we adore what we know, because salvation is of the Jews.”
There is a rich ambivalence in this assertion that “salvation is of the Jews.” Its most obvious meaning, of course, is that the Savior comes from the Jewish people and is the heir of the promises made to the Jews. Beyond that meaning, however, there is another, which is full of irony: Salvation comes from the death of Christ, and it was the Jews who brought about the death of Christ. It was from that historical trauma that salvation came to the world!
The woman speaks of the coming of the Messiah. In fact, the Jews and Samaritans did not have an identical belief on this subject. For the Samaritans the “one to come” was not the heir to the Davidic throne. He was simply Tã’eb, meaning “He who comes,” or “he who restores.” The Samaritans thought of this person as the fulfillment of the prophecy in Deuteronomy 18:18—“ I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him.” Deuteronomy’s promise, “He shall speak to them all,” is reflected in the woman’s words, ““When He comes, He will tell us everything.”
No matter how inadequate the woman’s understanding of this promise, Jesus lays claim to its fulfillment: “I am, the one who speaks to you.” More literally, perhaps, this expression—“Ego eimi ho lalon soi”—may be translated as, “I who am speaking to you, I am.” This “I am” is from the voice in the Burning Bush and will appear several times in John’s Gospel as an auto-identification of Jesus.
Monday, April 26
John 4:27-42: We observe in this woman’s conversation what might be called a growth in Christology as the story progresses; there is a pronounced evolution in the terms by which the Lord is regarded. Thus, when the woman first meets Jesus, He is called simply “a Jew” (4:9). This is important to the story as a whole, of course, because the Lord Himself will presently declare that “salvation is of the Jews” (4:22). On the woman’s lips, nonetheless, the designation “Jew” indicates two things:
First, it says that Jesus is at first assessed only within a certain class of people. He is not yet a distinguishable person, important on His own account. And second, the word “Jew” indicates the woman’s sense of separation from Jesus, because “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.”
Next, Jesus is addressed as “Sir” (4:11; presumably the Aramaic Mar).
This term of respect is a great step for the woman to make, indicating her change of attitude toward Jesus.
But then, within four verses “Sir” becomes “prophet” (4:19), when the Lord directs the woman’s attention to her own sins. Then Jesus takes the initiative in His own identification.
Nonetheless, she leaves the well with a question in her mind, a question about the identity of Jesus. It is the fundamental question that would in due time be addressed by the Ecumenical Councils: “Who do you say that I am?” Just exactly who is Jesus? Everyone in John’s Gospel seems to be asking questions abut Jesus’ identity: “‘This is the Prophet.’ Others said, ‘This is the Christ’” (7:40, 41).
The high point of Jesus’ identification, in this discussion with the Samaritan woman, is the Ego eimi of verse 36. These are the words from the Burning Bush, and they appear in the context of God’s revelation. John’s expression, “I am, the one who speaks to you,” comes very close to the Lord’s words in Isaiah 52:6 (LXX)—Ego eimi avtos ho lalon: “I am, the very One who speaks.”
In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ auto-identification as “I am” is the culminating point of a discussion that has been centered around the question of who He is. He is both the Messiah and the One who spoke from the Burning Bush.
It is at this point that the Lord’s disciples return, and the woman quickly departs, leaving her water pitcher, rather like the disciples earlier left their nets. Since John explicitly mentions this point, it seems likely that she left the water jar so that Jesus might drink from it.
She runs to tell her fellow citizens what has occurred. “Come,” she invites her friends, “see a Man who told me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” (4:29).
Two points may be noted here.
First, the woman’s tentative question—“Could this be the Christ?”—bears substantially the same message that Philip bore to Nathanael: ““We have found Him of whom Moses wrote in the Law, and also the prophets—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (1:45).
Second, the woman’s identification of Jesus as an anthropos ties this story to the Lord’s Passion. Jesus will be identified later by Pilate as “Man”—“Then Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. And [Pilate] said to them, “Behold the Man!” (19:5).
This is one of the places where John ties the story of the Samaritan well to the Lord’s Passion, as Celano perceived. Another is John 6:14—“Now it was the Preparation Day of the Passover, and about the sixth hour. And he said to the Jews, ‘Behold your King!’ But they cried out, ‘Away, away! Crucify Him!’” In John, both this meeting with the Samaritan woman and the Lord’s crucifixion take place at the same time—midday.
Jesus continues His discussion with the newly arrived disciples: In the meantime His disciples asked Him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” But He said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know.” Therefore the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought Him something to eat?”
The failure of the disciples to understand the statement on food corresponds to the woman’s inability to understand the statement about living water, as well as Nicodemus’s misunderstanding the necessity of being born again. Jesus must be more explicit with them: “My food is that I shall do the will of Him who sent Me, and that I shall complete His work.” This is a summary of Jesus’ whole life and ministry.
In the next verse Jesus cites what was evidently a proverb about the distance between sowing and harvest: “There are still four months and the harvest comes.” In His mouth, however, it becomes a parable about God’s sowing and harvesting. This is His commentary on the message that what the woman is currently doing by way of witnessing to her countrymen. Jesus is telling the disciples to keep alert: They are about to see a harvest. In fact, as John well knew when he wrote of this scene, Samaria was to become an important step in the Gospel’s promulgation throughout the world (Acts 8). Indeed, John himself would be sent to Samaria to confirm the work of Philip’s evangelism.
These words about a prior sowing in the north country probably refer, as well, to the ancient ministry of the prophets up there: Elijah, Elisha, Amos, Hosea. The Christian preachers will reap the fruit of their sowing.
During the time that Jesus stays with the Samaritans, they come to a mature faith in Him, no longer dependent on the testimony of the woman at the well. At the end of the story, the woman’s Samaritan friends add another important Christological title: “We know that this is in truth the Savior of the world” (4:42).
This confession of the Samaritans—“Savior of the world”—forms a summary, as it were, of John’s reflections on the discourse with Nicodemus: 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.” That is to say, the conversion of the Samaritans is an important step in the evangelization of the whole world.
Tuesday, April 27
Ezekiel 22: This chapter contains three oracular prophecies, joined together by a common theme: ritual uncleanness, understood either literally or as a metaphor. Ezekiel, as a priest dedicated entirely to the correct worship of the true God, was particularly sensitive to this matter of cleanness, or purity, in both the sacrifice and the priest.
The first oracle (verses 1-16), directed against Jerusalem, is full of the imagery of blood, any flowing of which rendered a person ritually unclean. Blood is also, however, an image of violence.
The second oracle (verses 17-22) is directed against all unfaithful Israelites, who are described as dross (that is, metallic impurity), which God will clean away in the coming smelting process of His historical judgment. Ezekiel doubts that any true metal will be found once this process is complete.
The third oracle (verses 23-31) is against the Holy Land itself, which suffers uncleanness because of those who live there. These have defiled God’s land with bloodshed and other forms of impurity, rendering the land unholy and no longer fit to contain the Lord’s true worship.
Psalm 45: “The kingdom of heaven,” we are told by a uniquely reliable source, “is like a certain king who arranged a marriage for his son” (Matt. 22:2), that marriage’s consummation being the definitive aim of our destiny, and all of history constituting the courtship that prepares and anticipates the yet undisclosed hour of its fulfillment. Thus, the end of time is announced by the solemn proclamation: “Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!” (Matt. 25:6).
This interpretation of history as the preparation for a royal wedding ceremony is so pervasive and obvious in Holy Scripture that we Christians, taking it so much for granted, may actually overlook it or give it little thought. Indeed, in this modern materialistic world there is a distinct danger that we too may forget that the present life is but the preparation for another, its many and manifold efforts only a provisioning for the greater future, its varied blessings but rehearsals for the greater joy.
The modern materialistic world seems to know nothing of all this, believing in no future outside of its immediate and perceived needs. To counter such forgetfulness of our future, therefore, God’s Holy Writ repeatedly reminds us of that coming wedding day of the King’s Son: “Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready. . . . ‘Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb!’” (Rev. 19:7, 9).
Thus too we are w
arned against the grave danger courted by those who refuse their wedding invitations (Matt. 22:3–10; Luke 14:17–24), as well as the exclusion awaiting those improvident souls presumptuous of entrance without preparation (Matt. 22:11–14; 25:7–12).
Psalm 45 (Greek and Latin 44) is a prophecy that anticipates and most descriptively foretells that future royal wedding. Its lines describe the “bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2): “The royal daughter is all glorious within the palace; her clothing is woven with gold. She shall be brought to the King in robes of many colors; the virgins, her companions who follow her, shall be brought to You. With gladness and rejoicing they shall be brought; they shall enter the King’s palace.”
There is even more description of the King’s Son, however, that Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world: “You are fairer than the sons of men. Grace is poured out upon Your lips. Therefore God has blessed You forever. Gird Your sword upon Your thigh, O Mighty One, with Your glory and Your majesty. And in Your majesty ride victorious because of truth, humility and righteousness.” This Son’s riding forth in victory is similarly described in the Bible’s final book: “Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. . . . And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS” (Revelation 19:11, 12, 16).
We need not guess at the identity of this Bridegroom nor be in doubt of His divine dignity, for the New Testament quotes our psalm when it speaks of the Son’s anointing by His Father: “But to the Son He says: / ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; / A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom. / You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; / Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You / With the oil of gladness more than Your companions’” (Heb. 1:8, 9). This ‘anointed one’ (for such is the meaning of the name Messiah, or Christ) is Jesus, of whom the Apostles preached: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10:38).
Inasmuch as “the form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31), then, a certain measure of detachment is necessary to prepare ourselves for the wedding feast of the King’s Son, a certain using of this world as though not using it, a refusal to take seriously its unwarranted claims on our final loyalty. So our psalm once again warns us: “Listen, O daughter. Consider and incline your ear; forget your own people also, and your father’s house. So the King will greatly desire your beauty. Because He is your Lord, worship Him.”
Wednesday, April 28
John 5:1-16: We come now to the Third Sign in John’s Gospel, the healing of the paralytic. John, having called our attention to the first two Signs, no longer feels the need to do so. He permits the reader to count them for himself.
John does not identify the feast in verse 1 (probably to be read without the definite article). One suspects that this mention of a Jewish feast day is inserted simply to explain why Jesus was in Jerusalem (after being in Galilee in the previous chapter).
The name of the pool was Bethzatha, or Bethdaida, or Bethesda. The pool may have had each of these names at one time or another. Even to this day, one can visit the pool (which, alas, is now completely stagnant and fetid) and see five sides originally covered by porticoes. It is a trapezoid transected into two parts; these are the “five” sides. The pool is near the lovely church of St. Anne.
It is also near the site of the ancient Sheep Gate, on the northern side of the city. John’s text has been expanded by an addition to verse 3 and the insertion of verse 4. Missing in the better textual witnesses, these later additions were intended to explain the conversation in verse 7.
The important point is that “Jesus saw him lying there.” This is a very important word in John’s Gospel:
“Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward Him, and said of him, ‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no deceit!’ Nathanael said to Him, ‘How do You know me?’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you’” (1:47-48).
“Now as [Jesus} passed by, He saw a man who was blind from birth” (9:1).
“Therefore, when Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who came with her weeping, He groaned in the spirit and was troubled” (11:33).
“When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, ‘Woman, behold your son!’” (11:33).
This “seeing” by Jesus is an expression of prevenient grace. It is the first step toward salvation and blessing, and Jesus is the one who makes it. The important thing is to be seen by Jesus.
Jesus heals the man with simply a word of command (verse 8). The observer does not actually witness the healing; he witnesses the results of it.
The mention of the Sabbath (verse 9) prepares for the controversy that ensues. This will also be the case later on, in the instance of the man born blind: “Now it was a Sabbath when Jesus made the clay and opened his eyes” (9:14). These two instances of “Sabbath violation” in John remind us of numerous such instances in the Synoptic Gospels.
There was a specific rabbinical prohibition against carrying a bed on the Sabbath. The man had obeyed Jesus. Presumably, if he had not taken up his pallet and walked, then he would not have been healed. That is to say, the man was obliged to choose between Jesus and the rabbinical understanding of the Torah. This is all the more remarkable, in that the man did not even know who Jesus was (verse 13)).
Before going on to discuss the problem about the Sabbath, it will be instructive to compare two specific instances of healings of paralytics in the gospels: this paralytic at the pool in John, and the healing of the paralytic at Capernaum in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 2:1–12; Matthew 9:1–8; Luke 5:17–26). It also happens that these are the only two occasions of physical healing in which Jesus refers to the sins of the person whom He heals. Thus, He says to the man lowered through the roof, “Your sins are forgiven you” (Mark 2:5), and after restoring the man at the pool of Bethzatha the Lord exhorts him, “Sin no more” (verse 14).
Now it is worthy of remark that we find no references to personal sins in Gospel stories about Jesus cleansing lepers, or restoring sight to the blind, or curing other sorts of ailments. He does not say to Peter’s feverish mother-in-law, for example, “Your sins are forgiven you,” nor does He exhort the man born blind, “Go, and sin no more.” Indeed, in this latter instance the Lord specifically denies that the blind man was blind because of his personal sins (9:3). In short, only in those two instances of paralysis does Jesus refer to the sins of the people He cures, even addressing one of them with the exact words that He spoke to the woman taken in adultery: “Sin no more” (8:11).
One is disposed to wonder if there is some special reason why the restorations of the paralytics are alone distinguished in this way. Though the Gospels do not specifically address the question, one is prompted to inquire if there is not, in this kind of disability, some feature particularly symbolic of sin. Is there perhaps some aspect of paralysis itself that serves as an allegory of sin, something about the affliction that narrates the properties of sin?
This question of allegory is especially urged in the case of the paralytic at the pool, because of the recorded dialogue between this man and Jesus. The Lord’s question, when He asks the paralytic, “Do you want to be made well?” is apparently elic
ited by the fact that the fellow has been lying in that place for thirty-eight years. It is because Jesus knows that “he already had been in that condition a long time” that He makes the inquiry, “Do you want to be made well?” In other words, there is room for doubt about the man’s genuine desire for healing.
Maybe his heart and soul have become as helpless and lethargic as his body. Moreover, his response to our Lord’s question is hardly reassuring.
Instead of answering, like the blind men, “Yes, Lord” (Matthew 9:28), the paralytic immediately begins to make excuses: “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me” (John 5:7). There is his answer.
It is always somebody else’s fault, somebody else’s advantage over him, that he has not been cured. He is not to blame, poor victim; he has been lying there at the pool of Bethesda for nearly four decades, using the same excuse to explain why, in a place where healings took place frequently, he has never been healed. Year after year he just lies there. It gets easier all the time. It becomes a way of life.
This seems to be the point, then, of the question that Jesus puts to the man: “Do you want to be healed?” Perhaps, in his deeper heart, he does not want to be healed, not really, and perhaps that is the sin to which Jesus is referring when He tells him, “See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you” (5:14).
In removing his paralysis, the Lord also gives the man a straight, unambiguous order: “Rise, take up your pallet and walk” (5:8). If this paralytic wants to walk in the way of the Lord, he must begin now. No more excuses. He must not lie around one minute longer, theorizing about the mysterious relationship between divine grace and human effort. This lethargic soul must not worry whether he may be slipping into semi-Pelagianism or whatever. He must get up on his feet, put his pallet away, and get busy walking.
Conversion is grace, but it is also command. Surely wisdom too is
God’s gift, but what is the first step we take to attain wisdom? Obedience to an emphatic command: “Get wisdom! Get understanding!” (Proverbs 4:5). No more lying around, making excuses (usually involving other people who are to blame), no more theorizing abut the nature of wisdom. Just get up and get it!
Thursday, April 29
Ephesians 2:11-22: The great theme of the Epistle to the Ephesians is the reconciliation of all things in Christ. Paul introduced this theme early in the epistle, speaking of “the mystery of [God’s] will . . . that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times that He might gather together in one all things in Christ” (1:9-10).
For Paul this universal reconciliation is not a theory about history. He sees it being visibly worked out already in the actual events of history. The first fruits of this universal reconciliation can already be observed in the founding of the Church, because the Church herself is founded on a specific act of divine reconciliation—namely, the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles in one community. This unexpected and improbable reconciliation, which was already being enacted in Paul’s own lifetime, was the beginning of a more universal, even cosmic reconciliation of all things in Christ.
Therefore, correctly to understand God’s final purpose in history, the key is to grasp this reconciliation of Jew and Gentile in the one body of the Church. We may remark on three aspects of this reconciliation.
First, the source of this reconciliation is the Cross, where the death of God’s Son neutralized the difference between Gentile and Jew. Christ Himself, after all, “is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the Cross, thereby putting to death the enmity.”
This Law, given on Mount Sinai, was what separated Jew and Gentile, but His death on the Cross “abolished” that wall of separation. By reconciling all men equally to God on the Cross, Christ reconciled them to one another. So, says, Paul, “through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father.”
Second, God effected this reconciliation, not by taking away the special place of the Jews in the history of salvation, but by raising the Gentiles to share in the dignity and honor of the Jews. Thus, Paul says to the Gentiles, “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”
In writing these lines of great comfort, Paul is extending an image he had used just a couple of years earlier in his Epistle to the Romans. In that letter he had described the Gentile believers as branches grafted onto the ancient stock of Israel, so that they became participants in the promises and blessings of Israel.
This is an important historical thesis of the Christian faith—namely, that the Church is the legitimate heir and continuation of Hebrew history. Indeed, St. Paul sees this inheritance and continuation as the very mystery of history, “which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets: that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the Gospel” (3:5-6).
To what, then, does the Gospel unite us? To the promises and blessings of Israel. The Jews are still God’s chosen people. The grace given to us Gentiles is that in Christ we share in that same blessing. In Christ we too become children of Abraham and heirs of the promises made to Abraham.
This is the reconciliation that Paul witnessed being enacted in his own lifetime.
Third, this reconciliation is fulfilled in an historical institution, the Church. The Church is not a theory; it is not an abstraction; it is not some nebulous and invisible association. It is a concrete and quantifiable institution made up of human beings. Paul describes this institution as “joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for its building up in love” (4:16).
In the present reading Paul describes the Church as “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”
We recognize the imagery of the parts of the building. We are supposed to be “fitted together,” Paul says. That is to say, the reconciliation effected by Christ must not remain theoretical. It concretely means reconciliation among ourselves, “according to the effective working by which every part does its share.”
This can be hard work, because each of the stones in the building must be shaped, must be deliberately contoured, in order to fit into its appointed place in the building. People should not join the Church of Christ and remain as they were before. To be reconciled, which is the work of Christ, each person in the Church must assume a new shape. This is the work of mallet and chisel, and it may be painful. If we stay with Paul’s earlier metaphor of grafting onto a tree, this too can be painful. Both metaphors involve cutting, but this is how we are reconciled into the body of the Church.
We submit ourselves to this discipline for the love of Christ, who “came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near.” Indeed, says St. Paul, “He Himself is our peace.” He is our theological peace, of course, but He is also our peace of mind and heart. Christ is no abstraction; He is not a religious theory. He is Someone that we love and trust. Loving Him and trusting Him, we find our places in the Church, which is the house of reconciliation and the proper heir of biblical history.
Friday, April 30
Ezekiel 25: Chapters 25 through 32 of Ezekiel contain oracles directed against the other nations with whom the Lord has reason to be displeased, Israel’s neighbors to the east and west (Chapter 25), the north (Chapters 26 to 28), and the south (Chapters 29 to 32). Chapter 25 is critical of the neighbors to the east (Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites) and to the west (Philistines).
Those to the east are criticized in order, proceeding from north to south. Since the oracles refer to the unseemly and unconscionable rejoicing of these nations at Jerusalem’s destruction, they should be dated no earlier than the summer of 586. Otherwise, the oracles in this chapter are not dated.
Oracles of this sort, scathing moral criticisms of Israel’s neighbors, go back to the earliest of Israel’s literary prophets, Amos, in the eighth century before Christ. Ezekiel’s references to the "people of the East," who will punish these offending nations, may refer to the Babylonians, but the reference is perhaps more probably to the marauding Bedouin tribes that frequently attacked from the Arabian Desert.
Psalm 40: The correct “voice” for Psalm 40 (Greek and Latin 39) is not in doubt. We know from Hebrews 10 that these are words springing from the heart of Christ our Lord and have reference to the sacrificial obedience of His Passion and death. This is the reason we pray this psalm on Friday, the day of the Crucifixion.
We may begin, then, by examining that interpretive context in Hebrews, which comes in the section where the author is contrasting the Sacrifice of the Cross with the many cultic oblations prescribed in the Old Testament. These prescriptions of the Mosaic Law, says Hebrews, possessed only “a shadow of the good things to come.” Offered “continually year by year,” they were not able to “make thos
e who approach perfect” (10:1). That is to say, those sacrifices did not really take away sins, and their effectiveness depended entirely on the Sacrifice of the Cross, of which they were only a foreshadowing. Indeed, “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (v. 4).
In support of this thesis, the author of Hebrews quotes our psalm: “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire / . . . In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin / You had no pleasure” (vv. 5, 6). In fact, this theme appears rather often in the Old Testament itself. Isaiah, for example, and other prophets frequently attempted to disillusion those of their countrymen who imagined that the mere offering of cultic worship, with no faith, no obedience, no change of heart, could be acceptable to God.
The author of Hebrews, therefore, is simply drawing the proper theological conclusion when he writes: “And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins” (v. 11). What God seeks, rather, is the perfect obedience of faith, and such an obedience means the total gift of self, not the mere sacrificial slaughter of some beast.
This obedience of Christ our Lord is a matter of considerable importance in the New Testament. He Himself declared that He came, not to seek His own will, but the will of the Father who sent Him (John 5:30). This doing of the Father’s will had particular reference to His Passion, in which “He . . . became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8). This was the obedience manifested in our Lord’s prayer at the very beginning of the Passion: “Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will” (Mark 14:36).
This spirit of obedience to God’s will is likewise the essential atmosphere of Christian prayer. “Your will be done” is the spiritual center and major sentiment of that prayer that the Lord Himself taught us.
Christ’s own obedience to God’s will is also the key to the psalm here under discussion, and Hebrews goes on to quote the pertinent verses, referring them explicitly to the Incarnation and Sacrifice of Jesus the Lord: “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, / But a body You have prepared for Me. / In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin / You had no pleasure. / Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come— / In the volume of the book it is written of Me— / To do Your will, O God’” (vv. 5–7).
The body “prepared” for Christ in the Incarnation became the instrument of His obedience to that “will” of God by which we are redeemed and rendered holy: “By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. . . . For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified” (vv. 10, 14).
The various sacrifices of the Old Testament, which are spoken of from time to time throughout the Book of Psalms, have now found their perfection in the one self-offering of Jesus the Lord. Again the author of Hebrews comments: “Previously saying, ‘Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them’ (which are offered according to the law), then He said, ‘Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God’” (vv. 8, 9).
The “He” of this psalm, then, according to the New Testament, is Christ the Lord. We pray it properly when we pray it as His own words to the Father. The “will” of God to which He was obedient was that “will” to which He referred when in the Garden He prayed: “Not my will, but Yours be done.”
This self-oblation of our Lord’s obedience to God is not simply a feature of this particular psalm; it is the interpretive door through which we pray all of the psalms. The “Your will be done” of the Lord’s Prayer is likewise the summation of the entire Book of Psalms, and what ultimately makes Christian sense of the Psalter.