Friday, July 30
Acts 23:11-22: During the night after his hearing before the Sanhedrin, Paul was visited by the Lord in a dream, in which he was encouraged by the explicit assurance that he would be going to Rome. Consequently, in spite of outward appearances, Paul knew that his life was not in danger for the moment (23:11).
Such encouragement was exactly what he needed, for a new trouble arose on the next day. More than forty men, conspiring to murder him, vowed not to eat or drink until the deed was done (23:12-13). It is instructive to note that the plotters involved the Sadducees, the priestly party, in their conspiracy (23:14-15), but not the Pharisees. It was this latter group, we recall, that expressed sympathy for Paul’s message.
A plot involving so many people is hard to keep secret, and Paul, not confined by maximum security, was able to learn of it and, using the services of a nephew, to take steps against it (23:16-17). We are probably correct in suspecting that Luke’s source for this account was the boy himself. About nine o’clock that very night, Paul was moved out of the city under armed guard. Indeed, the large retinue included nearly half of the forces garrisoned at the Fortress Antonia. We are not told whether or not the frustrated plotters actually persevered in their vow of starvation!
Psalm 73 (Greek and Latin 72): While many of the psalms are congregational hymns manifestly composed for public worship, this psalm is one of those showing signs of a more private origin, taking its rise in the intimate reflections of the pondering heart. Psalm 73 is concerned with much the same moral problem as Job and Habakkuk—“If God is just and on the side of justice, and if also God is almighty, why do wickedness and injustice seem to prevail?”
Already in this, its most elementary moral presupposition—its basic sentiment of hope, expecting goodness and justice to prevail over evil and injustice—Psalm 73 stands radically at odds with much of our present popular philosophy. Indeed, one of the more characteristic features of the modern world is its growing inability to presume that the moral order, including the social order, is rooted in the metaphysical order, described by Colin Gunton as “the order of being as a whole.” Relatively few people in today’s culture seem any longer able to presuppose that they live in a moral universe where the differences between right and wrong, justice and injustice, are fixed in the composition of reality.
Like the ancient Sophists, those ethical relativists who perceived no essential relationship between objective reality and ethical norm, and thus no necessary association between nature and culture, many thinkers today, not viewing the universe in fixed moral terms, would find no reason for surprise at the apparent prevalence of evil.
For modern man, after all, as for those ancient foes of Socrates, justice is only what a given culture determines justice to be. Justice is configured only as a society decides to configure it. Thus, there is no way for injustice to prevail, for if a society approves or prefers a certain kind of behavior, then the latter conduct automatically becomes just.
Strictly speaking, then, since for modern man correct behavior consists solely in the acquiescence to purely cultural norms, there can really be no such thing as an unjust society. That is to say, whatever prevails in a society is necessarily just, because society is the sole and ultimate arbiter of justice. In contemporary sociology and other behavioral disciplines this presumption rises to the level of an axiomatic first principle, quite beyond academic controversy.
Moreover, in a world whose only presumed rule is the survival of the fittest, why would anyone anticipate that justice and goodness would prevail? In short, a major conversion of mind would be required of modern man even to appreciate the moral problem posed in this psalm, much less to deal with that problem philosophically or, yet less, to make it the inquiry of prayer—such as we find in this psalm.
Saturday, July 31
Mark 11:12-19: The coming Messiah was expected to purge the Temple. Earlier suggestions of this idea include Isaiah 56:7, which is quoted by the Gospels as a prophecy fulfilled on this occasion: “Even them I will bring to My holy mountain, / And make them joyful in My house of prayer. / Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices /Will be accepted on My altar; / For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.” In this text the Temple is “purged” in the sense of being rebuilt after its destruction by the defiling Babylonians. Our Lord also indicates His fulfillment of prophecy on this occasion by justifying His action with a reference to Jeremiah 7:11: “‘Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of thieves in your eyes? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,’ says the Lord.”
Perhaps even more to the purpose, however, were the words of Malachi, referring to the Messiah’s coming to the Temple in order to purge it: “‘Behold, I send My messenger, / And he will prepare the way before Me. / And the Lord, whom you seek, / Will suddenly come to His temple, / Even the Messenger of the covenant, / In whom you delight. / Behold, He is coming,’ / Says the Lord of hosts. /‘But who can endure the day of His coming? / And who can stand when He appears? / For He is like a refiner’s fire / And like launderers’ soap. / He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver; / He will purify the sons of Levi, / And purge them as gold and silver, / That they may offer to the Lord / An offering in righteousness. / Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem / Will be pleasant to the Lord, / As in the days of old, / As in former years” (Malachi 3:1-4). The context of this purging foreseen by Malachi was the sad state of Israel’s worship, to which he was witness (1:6-10,12-14).
The Temple’s expected “purging” by the Messiah had mainly to do with cleansing ritual and moral defilements, much as Judas Maccabaeus had cleansed the Lord’s house after its defilement by Antiochus Epiphanes IV. This purging was completed with the Temple’s rededication on December 14, 164 B. C. (1 Maccabees 4:52).
As described in the New Testament, however, the “defilement” does not appear to have been so severe. It apparently consisted of the noise and distractions occasioned by the buying and selling of sacrificial animals necessary for the Temple’s ritual sacrifice. John describes the scene in greater detail: “And He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers doing business. When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers’ money and overturned the tables” (John 2:14-15).
To grasp this context we should bear in mind that the greater part of the people in the Temple during the major feasts (and all the Evangelists place this incident near Passover) came from great distances. Naturally they brought no sacrificial animals with them, reasonably expecting that local vendors on the scene would meet their needs. These vendors brought the necessary herds and kept them in the immediate vicinity of the Temple. Indeed, without their mercantile provision, the ritual sacrifices of the Temple would have been rendered impossible, and the activity associated with this arrangement was considered part of the normal business of the Temple, rather much as the sale of Bibles, prayer books, icons, and rosaries in the shops near St. Peter’s in Rome. The action of Jesus, then, was not directed against ritual and moral pollutions but against the normal business of the Temple.
Hence, what the Lord did in this respect was more symbolic than practical. There is no evidence that this action of Jesus amounted to more than a slight disturbance to the daily activity of the Temple, nor does Jesus seem to have persisted in it. He intended, rather, to enact a prophecy, muc
h in line with sundry similar actions by the Old Testament prophets. Those who were witnesses to the event discerned this significance, recognizing it as a “Messianic sign.” This recognition explains the menacing reaction of the Lord’s enemies (Mark 11:18; Luke 19:47).
Acts 23:23-35: A letter about Paul was sent to Antonius Felix, the well-known and often cruel procurator of Judea from A.D.52 to 59/60 (cf. Suetonius, Life of Claudius 28; Tacitus, Histories 5.9; Josephus, Antiquities 20.7.1 [137-138]; 20.8.9 ; Jewish War 2.12.8 ). Claudius Lysias, in his letter to Felix, painted himself in the most favorable light. The whole matter, he explained, was an obscure Jewish problem, and the Jews were to blame. Lysias, for his part, had done no more than rescue a Roman citizen from Jewish violence! The stress of the message was on Paul’s innocence (23:29), a point that Luke will continue to make as the story progresses (cf. 25:18,25; 26:31; 28:18).
When the retinue and its prisoner reached Antipatris, in largely Gentile territory, the large bulk of the force, no longer needed, returned to Jerusalem. The exact location of Antipatris is disputed, but it may have been the site of the modern Kulat Ras el’Ain, about twenty-five miles from Caesarea.
Sunday, August 1
Acts 24:1-9: Paul now makes his defense before an official representative of the Roman government. To be his prosecutor, the Sanhedrin put forward a trained orator, Tertullus, who begins his argument by attempting to ingratiate Felix. It is shameless. When he credits Felix’s administration with the blessings of peace (24:2), for instance, the statement is true only in the sense that Felix had rather ruthlessly suppressed rebel uprisings and acts of terrorism (cf. Josephus, Jewish War 2.13.2 ). Tertullus diplomatically passes over those activities of Felix which effectively fomented rebellion and terrorism, those displays of his administration’s rapacity and harshness that would in due course lead to the Jewish rebellion against Rome.
Tertullus, aware of the attitude of Felix toward anything smacking of sedition, endeavors to portray Paul as a sort of revolutionary. The allegedly seditious party represented by Paul and here called the Nazarenes, is described as a “heresy” (24:5; cf. 24:14; 26:5; 28:22). This is hardly the first occasion on which Paul is portrayed as a troublemaker (cf. 16:20; 17:6).
Second Kings 4: The prophetic ministry of Elisha begins where that of Elijah left off. Namely, with the miraculous parting of the waters (2:14), this repetition of the miracle putting one in mind, of course, of both Moses and Joshua.
Next, in grudging response to the persistent requests made by “the sons of the prophets,” Elisha authorizes a search for Elijah’s body. Knowing what had happened to Elijah, Elisha is hardly surprised at their failure to find it (2:15–17), and the attentive reader will remember that, among the last recorded facts about Moses, it was said that “no one knows his grave to this day” (Deuteronomy 34:6).
Such is the context in which Elisha begins his ministry as a worker of miracles. These latter immediately come in a fairly rapid sequence reminiscent of the ten plagues of Moses. And, like those Mosaic plagues, these recorded miracles of Elisha are also ten in number: the purification of the spring at Jericho (2:19–21), the efficacious cursing of his foes (2:23–25), the wondrous flow of water (3:16–20), the miraculous production of oil (4:1–7), the raising of the dead boy (4:18–37), the purging of the pot of stew (4:38–41), the multiplication of food
(4:42–44), the cleansing of Naaman’s leprosy and its transferal to Gehazi
(5:1–27), the floating ax head (6:1–7), and the blinding and enlightenment of the Syrian soldiers (6:8–23).
As both prophet and miracle-worker, Elisha stands in Holy Scripture as a very special foreshadowing of Christ. In truth, except for Moses, no other Old Testament figure so completely combines both of those characteristics of our Lord as does this ninth-century prophet, who was also a healer of leprosy, provider of food and water, and raiser of the dead. It is particularly proper, then, that Elisha appears as an illustration in Jesus’ first recorded public words, the sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth. In that sermon, the Lord recalls, “many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 4:27). More on this tomorrow!
Monday, August 2
Mark 11:27-33: As we have seen, Jesus, upon entering Jerusalem, immediately began to behave as though the place belonged to Him. Right after His triumphal entry into the city with the acclamations of the crowd, He proceeded to purge the Temple and then curse the fig tree. All of this was an exercise of “authority” (exsousia).
His enemies, who have already shown themselves nervous about these events, now approach Him in the Temple to challenge this “authority” implicitly claimed in what has happened. The reader already knows, of course, the source of Jesus’ authority, so the Gospel writers do not tell this story in order to inform the reader on this point. The story is told to show, rather, the Lord’s complete control of the situation, especially His deft discomfiting of these hypocritical enemies.
The purpose of the hostile question makes it what is sometimes called “a lawyer’s question,” indicating a question asked for the purpose of making the respondent say too much, a question asked in order to find something recriminating to be used later in a courtroom.
Knowing this, of course, Jesus is not disposed to answer the question. He responds, rather, with a question of His own, along with a pledge to answer the first question if His opponents will answer the second (verse 24). This recourse to the counter-question is common in rabbinic style, and Jesus seems often to have used it.
The priests and elders immediately perceive their dilemma. They are unwilling to express themselves honestly about the baptism of John, which is a symbol of John’s entire ministry. They are being asked, with respect to John, exactly the question they had posed with respect to Jesus. They had never been obliged to deal with that problem before, because Herod had taken care of it for them. Now they are put on the spot.
Caught thus on the horns of a dilemma, they plead ignorance, and the Lord responds by declining to answer the question they had put to Him. They are thus effectively foiled in the presence of those gathered to hear Jesus in the Temple.
There is an important matter of theology contained in this story. All through the Gospel Jesus has presented men with a choice, a decision, a yes-or-no, but His enemies have everywhere resorted to evasion and hostility. They have never inquired with sincerity, and the time for them has now run out. There is no more place of discourse, and certainly no more place for lawyers’ questions. These men are not seekers of the truth; their hearts are hard. They have already ascribed to Satan those generous, benevolent deeds by which Jesus showered His blessings on the blind, the lame, the suffering. Never have they responded positively to so many manifestations of the power of God in the ministry of Jesus. They have made no effort to humble their minds to understanding.
And now they meet complete silence on the part of Jesus: “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” Why bother? They will not hear Him. They do not genuinely want to know. He will not answer them. They have never bothered truly to attend to Him. Now He will trouble them no more. This is a picture of the final retribution. There comes a point in the career of the unrepentant sinner when God says, “Forget about it. I have said enough. You will not hear from Me again,” and there ensues the vast silence of the God who is weary of speaking to deaf ears and hard hearts.
Acts 24:10-21: The opening sentence of Paul’s rebuttal is an exercise in irony that may, without exaggeration, be paraphrased as follows: “Well, there you have it, your Honor, you already know what these Jews are like, so you surely are not impressed by these trumped up accusations.”
In the course of Paul’s argument we learn that only twelve days have elapsed since his arrival in Jerusalem, a sum attained simply by the addition of seven (21:27) and five (24:1).
Explaining that he has come to Jerusalem solely as a pilgrim (“to worship” in 21:11) and to bring aid for the poor (21:17), Paul makes three points by way of “defense” (apologoumai in 21:10): First, no witnesses have testified to the charges brought against him (24:12-13,19). Second, he is, and has always lived as, a loyal, religious Jew. This is a scoring point, which Paul emphasizes by mentioning the Law and prophets (24:14). Because the Sadducees do not accept the prophetic books of the Bible as canonical, Paul is appealing once again to the judgment of the Pharisees. Third, Paul shares in the hope of the resurrection of the dead, a standard doctrine taught by the Pharisees (24:15,21) and which he himself had proclaimed before the Sanhedrin. As in his earlier appearance before that body, Paul is endeavoring to draw attention to an internal doctrinal split among his accusers.
Tuesday, August 3
Mark 12:1-12: In all three of the Synoptic Gospels the parable of the wicked vine growers is found in a series of controversy stories involving Jesus and His enemies just a few days before His arrest (Matthew 21:33-44; Luke 20:9-18).
Moreover, each of these accounts ends with the evangelist's comment that this parable provided the provocation determining the resolve of the Lord's enemies to kill Him (Matthew 21:46; 26:3-4; Mark 12:12; 14:1-2; Luke 20:19; 22:1-2).
It was obvious to those enemies, after all, that in this parable Jesus was giving His own interpretation of the entire history of the Chosen People. He was claiming that the vine growers—the Jewish leaders—had repeatedly rejected God's messengers—the prophets—and now were about to culminate that dolorous history in a resolve to murder God's very Son.
After speaking of Himself as the "Son" in this parable, Jesus went on to call Himself the "stone" of Psalms 117 (118):22. In this transition of titles we detect, resonating through the Greek text, a nuance of the Semitic original. Jesus was employing, in fact, a play on words, the Hebrew word for "son" being ben, and the word for "stone" being eben. The immediate tension of that very dramatic moment, then, is preserved in this subtlety just below the surface of the canonical text.
God's choice of the rejected "stone" to become the chief stone of the building is important to the Lord's own interpretation of His parable, because it refers to the final vindication following His murder at the hands of the vine growers. It is a prophecy, that is to say, of His coming Resurrection, and in Mark's account it corresponds to the Lord's unvarying prediction of His Resurrection after each prediction of His Passion (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34). The Resurrection motif of Psalm 118 (117) is recognized by the Church's traditional liturgical use thereof at normal Sunday Matins and in various services of Pascha.
Jesus identified Himself as the Son and, as Son, the "heir" of the vineyard. Indeed, within the Gospels this parable is the only place where the word "heir" (kleronomos) is to be found. Jesus is the heir of the vineyard precisely because He is the Son. Indeed, i
n the parable this is the very reason He is killed. His murder represents the attempt of the vine growers to usurp the lordship of the vineyard.
This association of sonship and inheritance, affirmed by the Apostle Paul (cf. Romans 8:17; Galatians 4:7), is one of the striking points of contact between this Gospel parable and the Epistle to the Hebrews. The latter work begins, "God, who at sundry times and in divers manners, spake in times past to the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son [hyios], whom he hath appointed heir [kleronomos] of all things"(1:1-2 KJV, emphasis added).
Furthermore, the historical perspective of the prologue of Hebrews is identical to that of the parable of the vine growers. In both cases the sending of the Son comes as the climax of a lengthy series of diverse missions dispatched to the vineyard. The former sending of the "prophets" in Hebrews corresponds to the repeated efforts of the Lord of the vineyard to gain the attention of the vine growers, who rejected the messengers, "beating some and killing some" (Mark 12:5).
In both places there is an emphasis on how often God made those overtures. The first three words in Hebrews, polymeros kai polytropos, are better rendered with some attention to the repeated prefix poly-, which indicates "many." The "at many times and in many ways" of the English Standard Version accomplishes this. The sense of repetition is also found in the Gospel parable. Several servants are sent, indeed "many" (pollous—Mark 12:5), even "more than the first" (pleionas ton proton—Matthew 21:36).
In this historical sequence, the Son comes "last" (eschatos). Mark's version (12:6) reads, "Last of all He sent His beloved Son" (hyion agapeton . . . apesteilen auton eschaton). Hebrews, likewise, says that God "has in these last days (ep' eschatou ton hemeron touton) spoken to us by a Son [en hyio]." Thus, the sending of the Son, both in the Gospel parable and in Hebrews, is God's eschatological act (cf. also Galatians 4:4), bringing Old Testament history to a dramatic climax in the Son's redemptive Death and Resurrection.
Wednesday, August 4
Mark 9:2-13: In Mark's account (9:2-10) one of the most notable features of the Transfiguration is the curious way the evangelist speaks of the arrival of Moses and Elijah. Whereas Matthew and Luke say simply, "Moses and Elijah appeared" on the scene, Mark lays a special stress on Elijah. He writes, "Elijah appeared to them with Moses." Not only does Mark mention Elijah before Moses, but the verb he uses, "appeared" (ophthe), is singular, not plural. His is an account of the arrival of Elijah, Moses playing a rather secondary role.
Why is Elijah so prominent in Mark's story of the Transfiguration? This emphasis can hardly be insignificant. To throw light on the question, I suggest three steps:
First, let us observe that Mark's version of the Transfiguration is followed immediately by a question about the return of Elijah. Speaking of the three apostles that had just witnessed the scene, Mark writes, "And they asked Him, saying, 'Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?'"
As it stands in Mark, this question strikes one as curious, a bit odd in context. Why, right between the Transfiguration and the healing of the little boy at the bottom of the mountain, do the apostles suddenly become inquisitive about the return of Elijah? It is rather strange.
Second, if their question is rendered odd by its context, perhaps we should look more closely at that context. What I propose to do here is remove the Transfiguration from Mark’s story and have a look at the context without it.
If this procedure seems unusual, let me explain. I don’t intend to alter or rearrange the biblical passage. On the contrary, I simply want to understand how the Transfiguration story is set within its context in Mark. This is why I propose to examine that context without the Transfiguration. This is something in the order of picturing a ring apart from its gem, which is a perfectly reasonable thing for a jeweler to do.
Now, if we remove the story of the Transfiguration from Mark's sequence for a moment, we will notice something very peculiar and interesting. Without the Transfiguration, here is the way chapter nine of Mark begins:
"And He said to them, 'Amen, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power.' And they asked Him, saying, ‘Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’ Then He answered and told them, ‘Indeed, Elijah is coming first and restores all things. And how is it written concerning the Son of Man, that He must suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I say to you that Elijah has also come, and they did to him whatever they wished, as it is written of him.’"
We immediately notice that this narrative sequence flows more logically (if this is the word I want) than the actual story in Mark. The apostles' question about the return of Elijah no longer seems odd or abrupt. It appears, rather, as a natural and expected response. The Lord predicts, "there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power," and the disciples answer, “Well, all right, but isn’t Elijah supposed to come first?” That is to say, the narrative sequence makes perfect sense without the Transfiguration.
Third, if the sequence is completely logical without the Transfiguration, then what does the Transfiguration add to the story? This question brings me to the substance of my conjecture, namely, in Mark's account the Transfiguration seems to have been inserted (whether by Mark or by an earlier source on which he relies—this question is not important to our purpose—into an earlier narrative sequence, because it does, in fact, directly address the question of the return of Elijah. Indeed, this is exactly what Mark says with respect to the Transfiguration: "Elijah appeared"!
We see, then, how the Transfiguration story functions in the sequence of Mark’s narrative. Its position serves to answer a question about Elijah’s return. He came back at the Transfiguration! In the theology of Mark, Elijah's arrival at the Transfiguration of our Lord places that event into the context of a specific prophecy abut Elijah: "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord" (Malachi 4:5).
As the story flows in Mark, moreover, this appearance of Elijah at the Transfiguration scene not only fulfills the prophecy of Malachi; it also identifies this prophet’s "day of the Lord" with the Resurrection. We see this very clearly in Mark's sequence, where the question about Elijah expresses the apostles’ puzzlement about the Resurrection. Mark writes, "Now as they came down from the mountain, He commanded them that they should tell no one the things they had seen, till the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept this word to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant. And they asked Him, saying, ’Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’"
Thursday, August 5
Matthew 17:1-13: Although Matthew's account of the Lord's Transfiguration seems at first to differ only slightly from that of Mark, closer inspection of its details, especially considered in the light of Matthew as a whole, shows a very different presentation of the event.
I want to open this inspection with what may first appear to be an unimportant difference—namely, in Matthew's narrative Simon Peter does not address Jesus as "Rabbi" (as in Mark), but as "Lord"—Kyrie (17:4). Let me suggest two ways in which this change is significant.
First, it conforms to a pattern found all through Matthew, who avoids the title "Rabbi" with respect to Jesus. While Jesus was surely called "Rabbi" ("teacher’) during His earthly time with the apostles, and although we do find Him addressed this way in Mark and John (never in Luke), Matthew is more circumspect in his use of this title. Indeed, in Matthew the only person to address Jesus with the Semitic title, "Rabbi," is Judas Iscariot, and then only in the context of the Passion (26:25,49). Matthew's consistent usage here is probably related to Jesus' injunction not to use the title "Rabbi" among Christians (23:8). Thus, when Jesus is addressed at "teacher" in Matthew, it is always through the Greek word didaskalos (8:19; 12:18; 19:16,24,36). This is likewise the title by which Jesus refers to Himself (26:18). Here in the Transfiguration scene Matthew avoids the term "teacher" altogether.
This brings me to a second consideration: In this scene Jesus is vastly more than a teacher. He is the "Lord," ho Kyrios, the name signifying the Church's fully articulated faith in the risen Christ. As Kyrios, Jesus is the object of worship, and Matthew describes the Transfiguration as a scene of worship, which is why Jesus is addressed in His full, post-Resurrection title (Acts 2:36; Philippians 2:11).
This theological intent is the key to understanding other features in Matthew’s portrayal of the Transfiguration, for example, the posture of the apostles. Only in Matthew's account do we read, "And when the disciples heard [the voice from the cloud], they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid." (17:6). This is an important detail, because throughout Matthew this full prostration is the proper Christian response to the revelation of God's Son.
Indeed, this is a distinguishing characteristic of Matthew's Gospel, where the life of Jesus begins and ends with believers prostrate before Him (2:11; 28:17). Only in Matthew is prostration in the presence of Jesus described with respect to the leper (8:2), Jairus (9:18), the apostles in the boat (14:33), the Canaanite woman (15:25), the wife of Zebedee (20:20), and the myrrh-bearing women at the empty tomb (28:9).
Here in the Transfiguration, as the Church's affirmation of the divinity of Jesus, such prostration fittingly responds to the voice that proclaims, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (17:6). When the apostles respond to this proclamation by falling down in reverence, the whole Church prostrates with them. In Matthew these are not Jews on their faces before Jesus; they are Christians, who recognize the truth proclaimed by the voice from the cloud.
This intent also explains Matthew's omission of Mark's comment that Peter "did not know what to say" (Mark 9:6). His omission here is consistent with Matthew's sustained emphasis on "understanding" as a component of the Christian life. For this reason Matthew rather habitually leaves out Mark's references to a lack of understanding on the part of the apostles (for instance, Mark 6:52; 9:10,32).
This preoccupation also explains why Matthew leaves out Jesus' questions found in Mark (4:13): "Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?" The parable in question is, of course, the parable of the sown seed, and it is significant that Matthew alone refers to "understanding" in connection with that parable: "When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart" (13:19; contrast with Mark 4:15).
Corresponding to this, at the end of the parable, Matthew writes, "But he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty" (13:23; contrast with Mark 4:20). Finally, after the long series of parables, Matthew writes, "Jesus said to them, 'Have you understood all these things?' They said to Him, Yes, Lord’'" (13:51; no parallel in Mark). True discipleship, that is to say, includes the component of understanding.
It is no surprise, then, that in his portrayal of the transfigured Christ, Matthew will include no suggestion that the apostles failed to understand the meaning of the event. They are, after all, Christians who are prostrate in worship, in response to the Father’s voice.
Finally, Matthew alone mentions the gentle detail that "Jesus came and touched them and said, 'Arise, and do not be afraid'" (17:7). Here we are presented with another component of the Christians' relationship to the transfigured Son of God—intimacy. The disciples are not only prostrate in fear; they are reassured in faith. This combination of transcendence and communion pertains to Matthew's understanding of the Transfiguration, in which he portrays the response of the Church to God's glorious revelation of His Son.
Friday, August 6
Second Peter 1:12-21: In addition to the three Synoptic Gospels, the event of our Lord’s Transfiguration is also described in the Second Epistle of Peter (1:13-21). This latter tells the story with less detail but certainly with no less interest.
St. Peter’s second epistle was written shortly before his martyrdom, traditionally dated during the persecution that followed Nero’s fire at Rome in the summer of A.D. 64. After the blame for that fire was shifted onto the Christians of the city, the imperial police rounded up the Christians, along with their obvious leader, Peter, the chief of the apostles. He evidently wrote this letter while waiting to die.
Hence, Peter’s mind was much taken up with his impending execution. He wrote, “Yes, I think it is right, as long as I am in this tent, to stir you up by reminding you, knowing that shortly I must put off my tent, just as our Lord Jesus Christ showed me. Moreover I will be careful to ensure that you always have a reminder of these things after my exodus.”
Two words in this account seem especially pertinent to our theme. First, Peter refers to his impending death as his exodus. This is the very word Luke uses to speak of the conversation of Jesus with Moses and Elijah: “And behold, two men talked with Him, who were Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of His exodus which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (9:30-31). These are the only two occasions in the New Testament where exodus is used with reference to death.
Second, Peter speaks of his death in terms of putting off his “tent.” Perhaps the associations attached to this metaphor provided the occasion for him immediately to speak of the Transfiguration; we recall from all three Synoptic Gospels that Peter had spoken enigmatically of “tents” on that occasion.
In any case, the Apostle immediately goes on to describe that event: “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For He received from God the Father honor and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’ And we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.”
There are several particulars to note about Peter’s description of the Transfiguration. First, the lack of detail is clearly to be explained by the Apostle’s presumption that the event was already well known to his readers. He was not obliged to elaborate on the details, beyond reminding his readers that he had been a witness to the event.
Second, his quality as a witness to the vision of glory and the Father’s voice established Peter’s authority to refute the “cunningly devised
fables” that are the object of his concern throughout much of this epistle (2:1-22; 3:3,17).
Third, the Lord’s Transfiguration confirmed the hopes of the ancient prophets, who desired to see what the apostles saw. Thus Peter goes on to write, “And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (1:19). The fulfillment of biblical prophecy in Christ is a preoccupation of St. Peter (1 Peter 1:10; 2 Peter 3:2).
Fourth, the “cunningly devised fables,” concerning which Peter is so alarmed, have to do chiefly with the misinterpretation of prophecy. Thus, in this context of the Transfiguration he goes on to insist “that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2:20-21).
That is to say, for Peter the Transfiguration was weighted with an exegetical significance, a feature also found in Luke’s account of it. The glory of the Transfiguration casts a confirming radiance on biblical prophecy. The true meaning of the latter comes to light in the Transfiguration, where the apostles “have the prophetic word confirmed.” All other exegesis consists in “cunningly devised fables.” The glory of the transfigured Christ is the light of the Scriptures themselves, to which Christians “do well to attend.” This is their source of illumination “until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” The Bible’s ultimate fulfillment comes in history’s final revelation of the transfigured Lord, “the bright morning star” (Revelation 22:16; cf. 2:28).