Friday, July 9

Acts 16:16-24: In the year 49–the very year in which Paul began this journey–the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome (cf. Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars “Claudius” 25; Acts of the Apostles 18:2). It should not surprise us that such a decree would be taken seriously at the Macedonian city of Philippi, where Paul and his company were struggling to found a new church. Philippi was, after all, a “colony” of Rome (16:12), a sort of legal extension of Rome itself.

Founded by Philip II in 358 B.C., it was settled largely by the families of the imperial soldiers who had been bequeathed real estate in the place as a reward for their part in the Battle of Philippi in 42 B.C. These were Romans, whom the Roman penal code prohibited from becoming Jews (cf. Cicero, On the Laws 2.18,19; Dio Cassius, Roman History 67.14). In the present reading Paul is accused (falsely) of trying to win proselytes to Judaism, teaching customs which “we Romans,” the Macedonians insist, could not lawfully accept (16:21).

Indeed, unlike the other cities that Paul had evangelized, Philippi has no synagogue. The few Jews in the city are obliged, as we saw, to worship outside of the city limits, and these seem chiefly to be women (16:13). The matter of Roman citizenship will become rather ironical in this chapter. Whereas Paul is arrested for teaching things unacceptable to Romans, it turns out that he is himself a Roman citizen and will make a sharp point of this fact at the end of the story (16:36-38; cf. Also 22:25-29; 23:37).

This matter of proper citizenship will remain a touchy subject for the church at Philippi. Paul would later remind them that their real citizenship (politeuma) is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). Therefore, they were to “live out citizenship (politevesthe) in the Gospel” (Philippians 1:27). Christians, after all, are “fellow citizens (sympolitai) with the saints” (Ephesians 2:19).

We also observe that the citizens of Philippi do not object to what Paul is doing in their city until his activity begins to affect the economy (16:19; similarly, cf. 19:25-26). Whereas Paul has been preaching the kingdom of heaven, his critics insist on viewing the Gospel solely through the lens of politics and economics. That is to say, the Gospel is perceived to stand in the way of “business as usual.” Their perception is, of course, correct.

Saturday, July 10

Mark 6:45-52: The story of the Lord’s walking on the water is closely tied to the account of the multiplication on the loaves, not only sequentially (in Matthew, Mark, and John), but also (in Mark, at least) thematically. At the end of this story, the evangelist observes: “And they were greatly amazed in themselves beyond measure, and marveled. For they had not understood about the loaves, because their heart was hardened.”

Mark’s reference to the apostles’ hardness of heart, in this place, has no parallel in the other gospels; it represents a concern peculiar to Mark. This evangelist ascribes the wonderment of the apostles—“greatly amazed in themselves beyond measure”—to their failure to understand “about the loaves.” That is to say, they would not have marveled so much about the theophany on the lake if they had understood what had transpired, before their very eyes, in the multiplication of the loaves.

For Mark, this miraculous feeding of the multitude was supremely theophanic: It was the clear manifestation of the identity of Jesus. This thesis explains why, in Mark 8 and Matthew 15, the multiplication of the loaves is repeated: The apostles are given one more opportunity to understand.

Even then, however, the apostles will fail to grasp its significance. After the second multiplication comes the Lord’s frustrated interrogation of the apostles:

“Why do you reason because you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive nor understand? Is your heart hardened? Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments did you take up?”

They said to Him, “Twelve.”

“Also, when I broke the seven for the four thousand, how many large baskets full of fragments did you take up?”

And they said, “Seven.”

So He said to them, “How is it you do not understand?”

For Mark, then, the event of the loaves is entrance point of divine judgment. It manifests the apostles’ hardness of heart and failure to grasp the revelation conveyed in Jesus.

Sunday, July 11

Acts 17:1-9: The mission to Macedonia continues, as Paul’s company arrives at Thessaloniki. It would have required the gift of long-range prophecy for Paul to know, on that day, how important his arrival at Thessaloniki would prove to be in the course of the next 20 centuries.
Paul and the others promptly preached the Gospel and established a local church. Indeed, "promptly" is definitely the word we want here, because after only 3 weeks they were run out of town! (Cf. Acts 17:2) When physical danger obliged them to sneak away during night (17:10), Paul and his company were doubtless very discouraged. They had hardly had time, in less than a month, properly to catechize Jason and the other new converts. These, in fact, were already beginning to suffer persecution for the sake of the Christian faith (17:5-9; 1 Thessalonians 1:6).
As he continued his missionary journey, first to Berea, then to Athens, and then to Corinth, Paul remained concerned about those new Thessalonian Christians. In fact, the fruit of his concern is found in two epistles that he wrote to them during the ensuing eighteen months that he spent at Corinth between early 50 to mid-51 (Acts 18:11).
In these two epistles, Paul mainly answered the questions put to him by the Thessalonians through his envoys Silas (Silvanus) and Timothy. (This is why he included them as co-authors.) Paul endeavored to fill in some important details about Christian life and doctrine, details which his brief stay in the city had caused him to neglect. These two epistles thus served to strengthen the faith and commitment of the Thessalonians.
However difficult and unpromising may have seemed the origins of the church of the Thessalonians, the congregation was there to stay, and the history of that apostolic church is an ongoing tale of glory. All of us, moreover, have been well served by those two epistles, earliest writings to be included in the New Testament. The Thessalonian church founded by Paul in A.D. 49 is very much alive to this very day, roughly nineteen and a half centuries he and his companions were forced to leave the city by night, saddened at being able to spend only three weeks preaching the Gospel in that place.

Monday, July 11

Acts 17:10-21: From Macedonia, Paul’s company moves south to Greece proper; the “hellenization” of the Gospel continues.

It is instructive to reflect that there was no necessity or inevitability in this development. We know that Paul had spent two years in Arabia after his conversion (Galatians 1:17). We also know there were Jews living in Arabia (Acts 2:11). Surely Paul could have planted churches there and composed his epistles in the ancient dialects of that region. We may wonder what shape Christian theology would have assumed, if he had done so.

In fact, it was the Mediterranean world generally—and the Greek language in particular—that gave shape to Christian theology. It is clear that all our canonical Christian literature came from the Mediterranean Basin, including the Western edge of the Fertile Crescent.

True, early traditions speak of various Apostles going east to spread the Good News, even to India. None of those missions, however, produced the canonical literature in which the Gospel was expressed. The theological formulations of the Greek world, rather, became normative in the grammar of Christian thought. When the peoples further to the East received the Gospel into their own languages, it was invariably translated from Greek.

This historical fact can hardly be denied, but quite a few have decried it. Harnack, for instance, called it the “hellenization of the Gospel,” a term by which he meant the Church’s recourse to metaphysical formulations, drawn from Greek philosophy, in order to establish the dogmatic lines of Triadology and Christology. Harnack believed—and was hardly the last to do so—that this process of translation was a distortion of the Good News.

I believe Harnack’s is a case difficult to make. When Paul took the Gospel to Macedonia and then to Greece, it was at the explicit divine guidance, and we reasonably assume the Lord knew what He was doing in the matter.

Thus, the Gospel was proclaimed largely in Greek, a language endowed with grammatical resources, nuances, subtleties, refinements, qualities of precision, and a remarkable capacity for category and abstraction, which the Church would need, in due course, for the correct expression of dogma and the embarrassment of heresy.

Greek, moreover, was not just for the Greeks. It was already shaped as an international language, assimilating features from many cultures.

If—as Holy Scripture obliges us to believe—divine Providence guides the history of the Church, we should regard this phenomenon as a component of that guidance. It was not a historical accident that “the Gospel is given to us all and for all time in the Greek language. It is in this language that we hear the Gospel in all its entirety and fullness” (Georges Florovsky). The Lord’s selection of Greek to transmit His Word to the world was no more fortuitous than His earlier choice of Hebrew.

Indeed, God’s determination to speak in Greek preceded the Gospel itself, because the international quality of that language had already permitted the Old Testament to be studied across the vast expanse from Persia to Italy. Isaiah had already assimilated the tongue of Plato, and suffering Job spoke, even then, in the tones of Sophocles. When Paul crossed over to Macedonia, the Lord of History already had Nicaea and Chalcedon in mind.

Tuesday, July 13

Acts 17:22-34: Standing not very many yards from the spot where Socrates defended his philosophy to the citizens of Athens, the apostle Paul now delivers his own defense of the Gospel to the philosophers. Luke notes two philosophical schools in particular, the Stoics and the Epicureans (verse 18).

These two philosophical schools interpret the world in radically different ways. The Epicureans believe themselves to be living in an entirely meaningless world, a world completely subject to chance, a world of—to use Spengler’s helpful distinction—“incident” but not “destiny.” While the Epicurean world is devoid of either purpose or direction, it does give man a great deal of room for freedom, not only in the sense of his being able, by his choices, to escape the constraints of external forces, but also in the sense of his not being answerable to an eternal moral law backed up by divine sanctions. The Epicurean’s happiness depends on how he uses this vast freedom, and he chooses to do so by living for pleasure. Not the base pleasures of the flesh, but the higher enjoyments of the mind and the refined senses. Epicureanism, then, is the philosophy of cultivated, refined pleasure. The ethics of the Epicurean is thus an ethics of self-discipline and restraint.

The Stoic world, on the other hand, is far from meaningless. Indeed, it is utterly suffused with meaning (logos). Existence, for the Stoic, has so much intrinsic meaning, that man is really quite unable to add to it. So what dimensions of existence are left to man’s freedom? If human existence is already determined by a profound meaning that man does not put there—and to which man is unable to make a personal contribution—how is man to live? The Stoics answer: by inwardly accepting the way things are, by purging the heart and mind from those passions and desires that would cause a person to depart of the meaning at the heart of existence. The world is already under control; man must learn to control himself. The ethics of the Stoic, then, is also an ethics of self-discipline and restraint.

To these two groups Paul preaches a theology of history, in which the deeds of men will be judged, not by themselves in accord with their varying moral theories, but by God who “has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained” (verse 31). In this earliest encounter of the Gospel with pagan philosophy, we observe especially the difficulty experience by the latter in dealing with the material world (the Resurrection!) and the moral structure of history. Paul can barely begin this discussion, so great is the opposition (verses 32-33). His converts in Athens appear to be few, but they include a woman philosopher named Damaris (verse 34).

Wednesday, July 14

Acts 18:1-11: When he arrives in Corinth, coming from Athens, Paul is supremely depressed (1 Corinthians 2:3), perhaps from his relative failure at Athens, and probably also because he has not yet heard back from the delegation from Macedonia. It is now near or at the beginning of the year 50, and Paul will remain in Corinth until the summer of 51.

The congregation that he founds at Corinth will be among the most contentious Christian churches of antiquity. There will be so many problems within that congregation that Paul himself will be obliged to write them at least four epistles, of which two are preserved in the New Testament (or three, if 2 Corinthians is a composite of two epistles). In addition, before the end of the century the church at Corinth will receive yet another letter from Clement, the third Bishop of Rome, reprimanding them yet again for the same sorts of dissension, rebellion, and contentiousness that had so grieved Paul at the earlier period. A modern scholar, K. Stendhal, remarked about the church at Corinth that it “had almost all the problems that churches have had through the ages, except the chief problem of our churches today: it was never boring.” Under the gu
idance of divine providence, of course, those Corinthian troubles have worked unto our own spiritual profit, for without them we would not have some of the most important pages of the New Testament (1 Corinthians 13, for instance).

The city of Corinth joins two major seaways separated only by a half-mile of isthmus, which bears the same name as the city. Thus, the latter has major ports on both sides and was a very bustling commercial center. (In modern times a canal across the isthmus joins those two waterways more directly.) Although Cicero called it “the light of all Greece,” the philosopher Diogenes, who certainly knew the place better (and would eventually die in it), said that he went there only because a wise man should go where the most fools are to be found.

The first people to meet Paul in Corinth, however, were not fools. They were a couple, Aquila and his wife, newly arrived from Rome. The wife’s name is Prisca (1 Corinthians 16:19; Romans 16:3; 2 Timothy 4:19), though Luke always calls her by the affectionate diminutive name, Priscilla (“little Prisca”) (verse 2). It is also curious that Luke twice names the wife before the husband (18:18,26), which may hint which of the two impresses him as the stronger and more striking personality. Like Paul they are leather-workers (skenopoioi), a profession involved in making tents, saddles, and such things.

Meanwhile, Silas and Timothy arrive from Macedonia (verse 5), bringing reports from the congregations at Philippi, Thessaloniki, and Beroea. In response to one of these reports, Paul writes the First Epistle to the Thessalonians early in the year 50, including the names of Silas and Timothy as joint-authors (1 Thessalonians 1:1). Here in Corinth Paul also has his usual troubles with the Jews (verse 6), so he simply takes his teaching next door to the synagogue (verse 7), and he takes the leader of the synagogue with him. This was Crispus (“curly”), who will appear later in 1 Corinthians 1:14-16.

Thursday, July 15

Acts 18:12-23: We know, from an inscription found at Delphi, that L. Junius Gallio Annaeus, older brother to the philosopher Seneca, was the proconsul of Greece (Achaia) from the early summer of A.D. 51 to the early summer of the year 52. Along with Claudius’s expulsion of the Jews from Rome in 49, this inscription is one of our most important controls on the dating of the events narrated in the Acts of the Apostles. It enables us to “fix” the time of Paul’s appearance in the presence of Gallio, the story told in these verses, in May or, more probably, June of the year 51. The judgment place (bema) of Gallio, where Paul appeared, may be visited even now in the excavations at Corinth.

Concerned solely with the preservation of the civic order, Gallio is not impressed by the vague accusations brought against Paul by his Jewish detractors (verses 13-15). They, frustrated by the governor’s insouciance, begin to beat one of their own leaders, who had recently become a Christian (verse 17). This is Sosthenes, who will later serve at Paul’s secretary in the composition of 1 Corinthians (1:1).

Some time after this incident, Paul goes to the nearby coastal city of Cenchrea (home town of the deaconess Phoebe, who several years later will carry the Epistle to the Romans to its intended destination—cf. Romans 16:1).

We may surmise that Silas (Silvanus) was left at Corinth, because at this point he disappears entirely from Luke’s narrative. He certainly left Corinth within the next five years, because he does not appear in the Corinthian epistles, a thing unthinkable if he were still in the city. We do not hear of Silas again until the early 60s, when we find him at Rome (cf. 1 Peter 5:12).

At Cenchrea Paul has his head shaved, part of the ritual in a thirty-days’ period of special fasting and devotion (cf. also 21:26; Numbers 6:1-21; Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War 2.15.1). Paul then boards a ship, along with Aquila and Priscilla, to journey to Ephesus, where after some days he leaves these two companions. He boards another ship that takes him south to the coastal city of Caesarea. There he pays his respects to the local church, the original nucleus of which consists in the family and friends of Cornelius. From there Paul goes overland to Antioch, the church that had commissioned his second missionary journey, which is thus brought to an end. Paul will remain at Antioch for the winter, until the spring of 52. Meanwhile, as we shall see, Aquila and Priscilla will be very busy with the ministry at Ephesus.

Friday, July 16

Matthew 12:38-42: Both biblical examples given here—the Ninevites and the queen from southern Arabia—are from among the Gentiles, those of whom Matthew has just been speaking in 12:18-21: “He will declare justice to the Gentiles. / He will not quarrel nor cry out, / Nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets. / A bruised reed He will not break, / And smoking flax He will not quench, / Till He sends forth justice to victory; / And in His name Gentiles will trust.”

The figures of Jonah and Solomon should also be understood here as representing the prophetic and sapiential traditions of Holy Scripture.

Jesus is the “greater than Jonah,” whose earlier ministry foreshadowed the Lord’s death and Resurrection and also the conversion of the Gentiles. The Lord’s appeal to Jonah in this text speaks also of Jonah as a type or symbol of the Resurrection. The men of Nineveh, who repented and believed, are contrasted with the unrepentant Jewish leaders who refuse to believe in the Resurrection (cf. 28:13-15). Matthew will return to the sign of Jonah in 16:2. Jesus is also the “greater than Solomon,” who was founder of Israel’s wisdom literature and the builder of the Temple.

The Queen of the South, that Gentile woman who came seeking Solomon’s wisdom, likewise foreshadowed the calling of the Gentiles. She was related to Solomon as the Ninevites were related to Jonah—as Gentiles who met the God of Israel through His manifestation in the personal lives of particular Israelites.

First Kings 10: We know the names of five of the queens of Sheba. As all of these lived in the eighth and seventh centuries, however, none of them can be identified with that Queen of Sheba who came to visit Solomon in the mid-tenth century before Christ. A pity, in truth, for some of us would dearly like to know the lady’s name.

Doubtless her appearance in Solomon’s court was related to the latter’s recent entrance into the powerful circles of international commerce. Through his extensive dealings with the Phoenicians, whose ships docked in harbors on all three continents bordering the Mediterranean basin, Solomon’s port at Elath on the Gulf of Aqaba became an important link in a new mercantile chain that now stretched from Ceylon in the southeast to Gibraltar in the northwest. The queen’s arrival at his court, then, was clear evidence that Solomon had become a “player” on the big scene.

The event surely signified more, however. After all, Solomon was still far from being the queen’s equal in the world of international commerce. Indeed, his recently gained status in this respect depended entirely on his hegemony over the land of Edom, which contained the port of Elath, for this was Solomon’s sole connection with the Gulf of Aqaba. If royal visitations, therefore, depended on “rank” among the international powers, we would expect Solomon to be visiting the Queen of Sheba rather than vice versa.

Holy Scripture is clear that this was not the case. We are told that the Queen of Sheba, who could have handled her commercial relationship with Solomon through the usual business channels, was prompted solely by a desire to see for herself whether this new king was as wise and discerning as his reputation proclaimed. Nor was the lady disappointed at what she saw: “I did not believe the words until I came and saw with my own eyes; and indeed the half was not
told me. Your wisdom and prosperity exceed the fame of which I heard” (1 Kings 10:7).

Sheba’s magnificent lady is a figure of Mother Church, standing rapturously in the presence of the wiser Solomon. We make our own her praise and proclamation before the throne of Christ: “Happy are your men and happy are these your servants, who stand continually before you and hear your wisdom! Blessed be the Lord your God, who delighted in you, setting you on the throne of Israel!” (1 Kings 10:8–9).